Amur Falcons are back!

The journey of the AMUR FALCON is one of the most remarkable in the avian world, migrating from the Amur region in NE China and SE Russia across China, India and, eventually, to East Africa.  An incredible journey fuelled by an even more amazing migration – of dragonflies – across the Indian Ocean.

Many of these beautiful falcons pass through Beijing each spring and autumn and a few even breed in the capital.  Whenever I encounter them for the first time each spring, I feel in awe of the almost unbelievable journeys these birds take and I feel reassured that, despite all the pressures on our wildlife, the Amur Falcons are back!

On Saturday, in the company of Paul Holt and David Mansfield, I visited Huairou and Miyun Reservoirs and, at the latter site, we enjoyed a mixed flock of AMUR FALCONS and LESSER KESTRELS giving a magnificent display as they hunted over some freshly ploughed fields…  simply stunning.

AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014
AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014
One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014
One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014
LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014.  Beautiful.
LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014. Beautiful.
Adult male LESSER KESTREL.  Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.
Adult male LESSER KESTREL. Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.

Here is a short video compilation of a few of the Amur Falcons.

 

For a time, in the afternoon, it was very windy… and dark clouds gathered over Miyun.  Just as the weather was its most threatening, in dropped a DALMATIAN PELICAN..!  As it battled against the wind, I was able to capture it on video….

This is the 7th DALMATIAN PELICAN in Beijing this spring and my personal first this year.  Always a delight to see.

We ended the day on 104 species – a pretty good total but missing some usually easy to see birds such as Spotted Dove.  In Beijing in May, it should be possible to see 120-130 species in a day with a bit of effort and luck!

A day that will live long in the memory!

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Miyun Reservoir with Beijing Hikers

Beijing Hikers enjoying the afternoon birding session at Miyun on Saturday.
Beijing Hikers enjoying the afternoon birding session at Miyun on Saturday.

A few weeks ago, the folks at Beijing Hikers asked me if I would be interested in helping to lead a dedicated birding trip.  Of course, being only too pleased to share my knowledge of Beijing’s birds, I accepted and plans were fixed to visit Miyun Reservoir over the weekend of 29-30 March.

The itinerary for the group, consisting of a mixture of ex-pats and Chinese, was to leave central Beijing around noon, arriving at a village on the north side of the reservoir at 3pm ahead of a late afternoon birding session.  This would be followed by an overnight stay at a local guesthouse, a morning birding session at a different site on the reservoir, then lunch and an afternoon birding session in the hills before returning to Beijing.

I decided to travel up early to stake out the sites before meeting the group at the guest house at 3pm.

After the awful air pollution during the week, Saturday dawned as a stunning Spring day – the wind overnight had shifted the worst of the pollution, the sun was shining and the temperature was a very pleasant 15 degrees Celsius when I arrived at the Chao He bridge at 0930.  The bridge over the Chao He is a site for Ibisbill, although it is far from guaranteed.  There was no sign of this special bird but 8 GREY-HEADED LAPWINGS (灰头麦鸡) and 2 LONG-BILLED PLOVERS (长嘴剑鴴) provided some consolation.  A little further along the river I picked up my first GARGANEY (白眉鸭) of the year, several CHINESE SPOT-BILLED DUCKS (斑嘴鴨), GREY-HEADED WOODPECKER (灰头绿啄木鸟) and several leucopsis WHITE WAGTAILS (白鹡鸰).

I pushed on to Yonglecun, my favourite site at Miyun.  As I parked up and walked to the viewing point, I caught sight of two falcons acrobatically feeding on insects.  A scan with my binoculars revealed them to be LESSER KESTRELS (黄爪隼).. a very nice start!  It was here that I found Jan-Erik Nilsen already positioned on site and, shortly after, we enjoyed not two but seven LESSER KESTRELS (黄爪隼) as they fed high above us…  beautiful birds and showing much more blue-grey on the upperwing than their counterparts in Europe.

 

Adult male LESSER KESTREL, Miyun Reservoir, 29 March 2014
Adult male LESSER KESTREL (黄爪隼), Miyun Reservoir, 29 March 2014

 

The mountains around Miyun reservoir provide a stunning backdrop to a day’s birding and, with Spring in the air, it was a delight to be outside experiencing the beginning of migration season.  Jan-Erik decided to move on to check Houbajiazhuang while I headed into the village to meet the group.

After meeting and greeting everyone, and having dropped our bags at the guesthouse, we headed out to Yonglecun for a 3 to 4 hour late afternoon birding session.  With the sun slowly setting, the light was fantastic as we watched flocks of RUDDY SHELDUCK (赤麻鴨) going to roost..  Sightings of JAPANESE QUAIL (鵪鶉), CHINESE HILL BABBLER (山鹛), EASTERN MARSH HARRIER (白腹鹞), GARGANEY (白眉鸭), FALCATED DUCK (罗纹鸭), PALLAS’S REED BUNTING (苇鹀) and displaying GREAT CRESTED GREBES (凤头鸊鷉) provided a lot of interest and then, suddenly, a GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE (乌雕) appeared and, as it dropped down towards a scrubby field, a female EASTERN MARSH HARRIER (白腹鹞) flew up and began to mob it…  and the harrier did not rest until the eagle was finally forced away..  a spectacular interaction..!

GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE and EASTERN MARSH HARRIER, Miyun Reservoir, 29 March 2014.
GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE (乌雕) and EASTERN MARSH HARRIER (白腹鹞), Miyun Reservoir, 29 March 2014.

Bird activity increased as the sun began to set and we enjoyed several flocks of BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭) wheeling around distantly…  a wonderful sight.

BAIKAL TEAL at dusk, Miyun Reservoir, 29 March 2014.
BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭) at dusk, Miyun Reservoir, 29 March 2014.

Then, just as we were about to call it a day, the bird of the trip suddenly came into view, flying low across the reservoir in front of us, stopping briefly to hover, before carrying on south-west..  a PIED KINGFISHER (斑鱼狗)!  Wow….  This was the first time I had seen this species in Beijing; it’s a real Beijing “mega” with only a very few previous records (possibly as few as three).  A real surprise and a brilliant end to a great birding session.

Sunset at Miyun.  Stunning.
Sunset at Miyun. Stunning.
The girls enjoyed the PIED KINGFISHER sighting...  or was it the thought of dinner?
The girls enjoyed the PIED KINGFISHER sighting… or was it the thought of dinner?

Back at the guest house we enjoyed some great local home-cooked food and our hosts even prepared a camp fire for us..

Enjoying the camp fire after dinner...
Enjoying the camp fire after dinner…

The next morning, after a quick breakfast of coffee, bread and boiled eggs, we headed of to another spot on the reservoir for the morning’s birding.  We were hoping to see a laggard crane or two…  late March is usually the best time to see the migrant WHITE-NAPED CRANES (白枕鹤) at Miyun but, with the exceptionally warm weather, spring is early this year and the cranes passed through more than a week ago, stopping only for a day or two before continuing north on their way to the breeding grounds.  Our chances did not look good.

On arrival at Houbajiazhuang we scanned the area and, within just a few minutes, three cranes flew in and dropped onto the marsh.. fortunately they were in view, albeit distant, and with the telescope we were able to see that they were WHITE-NAPED CRANES (白枕鹤)!  Fantastic….  Everyone was able to enjoy this probable family party of cranes and it was a bonus when a further four WHITE-NAPEDs (白枕鹤) flew across in front of us in perfect light.  A group of 5 EURASIAN SPOONBILLS (白琵鹭) then dropped in close by, allowing the group to see both species in the same view.  TUFTED DUCK (凤头潜鸭), COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭), GOLDENEYE (鹊鸭), ASIAN SHORT-TOED LARK ((亚洲) 短趾百灵) and MONGOLIAN GULL (黄脚(银)鸥) were all added to the list of species seen before we decided to head into the hills.

We drove on to the Jixiang Temple, near Bulaotun, stopping en route at the Chao He bridge.  The GREY-HEADED LAPWINGS (灰头麦鸡) and the LONG-BILLED PLOVERS (长嘴剑鴴) were still in situ but, again, there was no sign of the IBISBILL (鹮嘴鹬).

At the temple, we were immediately greeted by a small group of YELLOW-BELLIED TITS (黄腹山雀) and we soon caught up with EASTERN GREAT TIT (大山雀), SILVER-THROATED TIT (北长尾山雀/银喉长尾山雀), MARSH TIT (沼泽山雀), WILLOW TIT (褐头山雀), PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSH (山噪鹛), GODLEWSKI’S BUNTING (戈氏岩鹀) and we were fortunate to secure stunning views of CHINESE NUTHATCH (黑头鳾) with a pair excavating a nest hole.  A single EURASIAN JAY (松鸦), several of the spectacular RED-BILLED BLUE MAGPIES (红嘴蓝鹊), a couple of DAURIAN REDSTARTS (北红尾鸲) and small parties of BRAMBLING (燕雀) and ORIENTAL GREENFINCH (金翅 (雀)) added some colour to the morning before we headed off to lunch.

After being reinvigorated by a delicious local meal we decided to have one more short birding session before heading back to Beijing… we found a nice river valley on the west side of the reservoir and added MEADOW (三道眉草鹀) and LITTLE BUNTING (小鹀), RED-BILLED CHOUGH (红嘴山鸦) and HILL PIGEON (岩鸽) to our tally.

At about 4.30pm we called it a day and began the journey back to the city, having clocked up 73 species over the two days.

Before tallying up our total, we had a little fun competition to see who could guess the number of species we saw over the weekend.  These were the guesses (ignoring the organisers!):

Ying – 150

Jean-Pierre – 54

Patricia – 46

Tom – 60

Jean – 56

Sheila – 57

Nick – 53

Sissi – 55

Rich – 59

Fiona – 58

Julian – 52

So the winner is Tom with 60!  Congratulations…  sadly no prize, just huge kudos!  🙂

A big thank you to Jun and Betsy from Beijing Hikers for making all the arrangements and to Julian, Fiona, Rich, Nick, Sissi, Sheila, Jean, Tom, Patricia, Jean-Pierre and Ying for making it such a fun trip…!

 

 

 

Baer’s Pochard at Ma Chang

An adult drake BAER'S POCHARD at Ma Chang.  A welcome sighting of this now Critically Endangered species.
An adult drake BAER’S POCHARD at Ma Chang. A welcome sighting of this now Critically Endangered species.

On Sunday I visited Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake.  April and May are superb months to visit this special Beijing site.  With migration in full swing, it’s fascinating to see the departure of the winter visitors, the arrival of summer visitors and the passage of migrants on their way to breeding grounds further north…  Already many of the winter birds have departed – I didn’t see a single crane of any species on Sunday – but many others are just beginning to arrive. Oriental Plovers – a Ma Chang speciality – are coming through in good numbers now and it’s a great time, too, for wildfowl and some of the early raptors.

The excitement of my visit on Sunday was heightened by the news that a BAER’S POCHARD was found on Friday by local birders Zhu Lei and Zhang Shen (thanks guys!).  This bird is classified as “Critically Endangered” and, I understand, a survey of its traditional wintering grounds in China produced fewer than 50 birds this winter.  Look out for a forthcoming article in Birding Asia about the dramatic decline of this species.

On arrival I was delighted to see some ORIENTAL PLOVERS on site.  I counted 14 and, after watching them briefly, I made my way to the first site for checking duck.  Viewing wildfowl is not straightforward at Ma Chang; there are many areas that are not viewable and the precise location of the birds depends on many factors, such as the wind direction and speed and the activity on the lake of the local fishermen.  I have two favourite locations – one at the spit by some yurts (also a good place for visible migration) and one on the ‘island’ to the north.  On Sunday, both sites were notably empty of duck.  I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be my day and that the duck must be hiding somewhere out of sight.  Then I saw a small flock of Tufted Duck (not a common bird in Beijing) fly in and go down behind some reeds.  I could see that there was a track that ran close by, so I made my way to the general area and found a good place to view the duck.

Unusually, there was no northwesterly wind blowing into my face, so the conditions were good.  I soon realised that it wasn’t just the Tufted Duck present.  There were some Ferruginous Duck (a species with which BAER’S POCHARD often associates), Shoveler, Common Pochard, Smew, Falcated Duck, Gadwall, Wigeon and Mallard all present.  A careful scan revealed no sign of the Baer’s but I knew there were some duck asleep in the reeds, including some Ferruginous Duck and some others that were obscured..  I settled in, hoping that one of the sleeping duck out of sight might be the Baer’s.

After 45 minutes of enjoyable birding, including a nice flock of passing Swan Geese, a small passage of Buff-bellied Pipits and an early male Citrine Wagtail, I began another scan and, sure enough, in amongst the Ferruginous Duck was a stunning drake BAER’S POCHARD.

I watched the BAER’S for the next hour as it proceeded to display. Unfortunately there were no female BAER’S but that didn’t seem to matter..  this lonely male threw its head back, stretched its neck high and bowed to several female Ferruginous Ducks and a slightly startled-looking female Common Pochard… I guess when your situation is as desperate as the Baer’s Pochard, you can’t afford to be fussy!

The drake BAER'S POCHARD (left) with Falcated Duck, Coot, Gadwall and Tufted Duck
The drake BAER’S POCHARD (left) with Falcated Duck, Coot, Gadwall and Tufted Duck

It was heartening to see this bird but, at the same time, sobering to think that it is likely to make its way north alone and, when it arrives at its favoured lake, there may be no females with which to breed.  The situation for this bird is precarious.  Encouragingly I have heard of two separate sightings from Liaoning Province in the last few days – one male and one female.  Let’s hope it’s a good breeding season for this species.

After an hour or so, I reluctantly pulled myself away to explore the rest of Ma Chang.  The Oriental Plover flock had increased to an astonishing 55 birds, with 4-5 adult males sporting gleaming white heads.

Oriental Plover (male), Ma Chang.
Oriental Plover (male), Ma Chang.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang.

Flocks of Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers were mixed in, many of which were displaying and calling frequently.

Little Ringed Plover, Ma Chang
Little Ringed Plover, Ma Chang
Kentish Plover, Ma Chang
Kentish Plover, Ma Chang

At one point, as I was watching the flock, all of the birds suddenly took flight.  I suspected a raptor and, sure enough, a quick scan with the binoculars revealed a superb male LESSER KESTREL..  wow!  A nice way to end a brilliant birding session at Ma Chang.

Lesser Kestrel (male), Ma Chang.
Lesser Kestrel (male), Ma Chang.

Full Species List (62 species):

Japanese Quail – 2
Common Pheasant – 12
Swan Goose – 28
Bean Goose – 6
Ruddy Shelduck – 42
Gadwall – 78
Falcated Duck – 225
Eurasian Wigeon – 19
Mallard – 67
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Northern Shoveler – 4
Eurasian Teal – 18
Common Pochard – 12
BAER’S POCHARD – 1 drake displaying to both female Ferruginous Duck and Common Pochard. Employed three ‘displays’ – one involved stretching the neck high, the second throwing the head back and the third leaning the head forward and ‘puffing up’ the back of the neck.
Ferruginous Duck – 17
Tufted Duck – 7
Goldeneye – 5
Smew – 12
Goosander – 4
Little Grebe – 8
Great Crested Grebe – 14
Great Bittern – 1 booming
Grey Heron – 7
Great Cormorant – 1
LESSER KESTREL – 1 male drifted northwest with occasional hovering spells (flushed the Oriental Plovers at one point)
Eurasian Kestrel – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (one adult male and two adult females)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 2
Common Coot – 32
Black-winged Stilt – 16
Northern Lapwing – 63
Little Ringed Plover – 14
Kentish Plover – 33
Oriental Plover – 55 – the number seemed to increase as the day wore on with just 14 present early morning. Some disturbance from bird photographers and horses but they were not unduly perturbed.
Common Snipe – 1
Common Gull – 11
Mongolian Gull – 2 adults flew high west calling
Black-headed Gull – 18
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Collared Dove – 3
Common Kingfisher – 2
Hoopoe – 4
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 10
Corvid sp – 15
Carrion Crow – 3
Bohemian Waxwing – 4 flew south
Asian Short-toed Lark – 5
Eurasian Skylark – 4
White-cheeked Starling – 5
Daurian Redstart – 4
Tree Sparrow – lots
Citrine Wagtail – one male
White Wagtail – 4
Buff-bellied Pipit – 26
Water Pipit – 9
Pallas’s Bunting – 28
Mammals:

Tolai Hare – 1