Liaoning Trip Report from May 2012

Paul Holt has just finished his detailed trip report from his visit to Liaoning in May.  Bai Qingquan, Tom Beeke and I were lucky enough to accompany him for parts of his trip that included two firsts for the Province – Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Black-winged Cuckooshrike – plus some impressive counts of waders, including a high count of up to 19 Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Bar-tailed Godwits (10,000), Eastern Curlew (4000), Great Knot (4600), Dunlin (10,400) and Broad-billed Sandpiper (1117).  You can download the full report here:

Liaoning – 2-13 May 2012

Nordmann’s Greenshank

Another highlight from the trip to Dandong was the remarkable total of Nordmann’s Greenshanks (Tringa guttifer) that we observed at a high-tide roost.  Totals of 17, 17 and 16 were recorded on my three visits and, on one of the days, local birder Bai Qingquan recorded at least a further 7 from a different location at the same time, making a minimum count of 24 at this important stopover site.  Nordmann’s Greenshank is officially “endangered” with a population estimate of around 500-1,000 individuals.  It breeds in eastern Siberia along the western and northern coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk and also on Sakhalin Island, wintering in south-east Asia (Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia etc) and is encountered on migration along coastal China from Hong Kong north to Liaoning Province.  It’s population is declining, almost certainly related to habitat destruction primarily on its wintering grounds and stopover sites.

We did not try to get close to these birds for fear of flushing them from their roost but the occasional pass by the local Peregrine and even the odd Black-tailed Gull kept them on their toes and, on several occasions, the flocks took to the air, allowing us to hear the air through their wings as they wheeled around in front of us.. a spectacular sight and sound.  It was interesting that the Nordmann’s seemed to associate with the Grey Plover.

Grey Plovers, Donggang, Dandong, Liaoning Province. The wheeling flocks were a lovely sight.
Nordmann’s Greenshank in flight (with Grey Plover), Donggang, Dandong, Laioning Province. Nordmann’s seem to like Grey Plovers!
Nordmann’s Greenshanks with Grey Plovers.

Having North Korea as a backdrop added human interest to the birding here.

A shellfish picker works the low tide with North Korea just the other side of the Yalu river.
A list of what not to do on the North Korean border. Needless to say, we did as we were told..

And other waders, most in splendid breeding plumage, were a sight to behold.

Two Asian Dowitchers (the small orangey blobs in this awful photo) were a welcome addition to the high tide roost.
“Eastern” Black-tailed Godwits. Beautiful birds.
Our search for Spoon-billed Sandpiper proved fruitless (a little early) but breeding plumaged Red-necked Stints were a joy to watch.

Now, you’ve all heard of the “Magic Woods” at Beidaihe….  well, not to be outdone, Donggang has its own ‘not of this Earth’ site.  Here’s introducing the “Harry Potter Hedge”!

The “Harry Potter Hedge”… every day it would wow us with magical appearances.

Out of thin air it produced a Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Rufous-tailed Robin, Siberian Blue Robin, Siberian Thrush, Eyebrowed Thrush, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Pechora Pipit, Siberian Rubythroat, Oriental Scops Owl and much much more..

Finally, just for fun, here are a couple of photos of wader flocks…  Photo 1 is beginner level.  It has four wader species.. can you identify them?  Photo 2 is a little tougher… it contains 6 species.  A *glittering prize* awaits the first person to list them all correctly.

Photo 1 (Beginners Level). There are 4 wader species in this image. Can you name them?
Photo 2 (Advanced Level). There are 6 species in this photo. Can you name them?

A Surfeit of Sibes

Dandong wasn’t just a wader bonanza (17 Nordmann’s Greenshanks roosting with 2 Asian Dowitchers was really something!) but also a celebration of Siberian migrants.  We encountered Siberian Rubythroats and both Siberian Blue and Rufous-tailed Robins bobbing along the sea wall, Mugimaki, Red-throated, Blue and White and Yellow-rumped Flycatchers feeding on the leeward side of the hedges and Siberian, Grey-backed and Eyebrowed Thrushes skulking in thickets.  Not to mention Eastern Crowned, Arctic (Kamchatka!), Pale-legged, Yellow-browed, Dusky and Radde’s Warblers entertaining us from the boughs and Brown Shrikes seemingly on every perch.  Fantastic stuff.  So, in a tribute to ‘Sibes’, here are a few images.

Siberian Blue Robin (first summer male), Donggang, 12 May 2012
Siberian Blue Robin, Donggang, 12 May 2012. This individual belied the species’ reputation as a skulker and posed beautifully for the camera.
Siberian Rubythroat (male), Donggang, 12 May 2012. Imagine this turning up on your local headland in the UK…
Siberian Rubythroat (female), Donggang, 12 May 2012.
Mugimaki Flycatcher, Donggang, 12 May 2012.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Donggang, 13 May 2012
Siberian Thrush (female), Donggang, 13 May 2012. This supreme skulker flew right by me after being flushed by a lorry along a main road. I rattled off 6 images and only this one was in focus.
Rufous-tailed Robin, Donggang, 11 May 2012. An understated bird but with bags of character.
Brown Shrike, Donggang, 12 May 2012

And turning around 180 degrees revealed an interesting backdrop – the border with North Korea.  This boat flew the flag of the DPRK.

A North Korean (fishing?) boat heading out to sea on the falling tide. Birding along the North Korean border added extra spice to an already spicy birding trip.


Black-winged Cuckooshrike

I am still wading (no pun intended) through my sightings and images from a shorebirding trip to Donggang, Dandong, last weekend with Paul Holt and local birder, Bai Qingquan.  The highlights were many.  One of the surprises was the amount of passerine migrants that we saw along the newly planted trees that lined the sea wall.. every day we saw buntings, pipits, flycatchers, thrushes and robins which made the walk to the wader high tide roost a real treat.  And it was here that we found the bird of the trip – a Kamchatka Warbler (see previous post).  Another, more mature, hedgerow to the north of the wader high tide roost produced another very special bird and the second highlight of the trip – a Black-winged Cuckoo Shrike.  This is the first record of this species in Liaoning Province and possibly the most northerly record in mainland China.

We had just seen a Brown-eared Bulbul making its way south, noisily, along the sea wall and just a few minutes later a similar-sized bird flew north along the landward side of the hedge.  Bai Qingquan picked it up and both he and I saw it briefly as it flashed by.. what was it?  Paul was on the other side of the hedge and missed it.  Both Bai and I had never seen this bird before..  sort of cuckoo-shaped but we had seen some white on the wing.  Luckily it perched up in a tree a 100 metres or so to the north.  Although it was mostly obscured, we could just see its tail which looked cuckoo-like and we speculated that it could be some sort of cuckoo or hawk cuckoo..  but the white in the wing didn’t tally..  We crept forward and then it flew, luckily just a few metres, and this time sat up in full view.  Paul very quickly identified it as a Black-winged Cuckooshrike.  We were able to secure some pretty good views for about 30 minutes as it fed along the hedgerow.  Bai “high-fived” us..  a new Liaoning bird!

Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Donggang, Dandong, 11 May 2012. The first record in Liaoning Province and, possibly, the most northerly record of this species in China.
Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Donggang, Dandong, 11 May 2012. The white panels in the wings were not always as obvious as shown here.

The cuckooshrike clearly liked the area as we saw it again the following day and again on our last morning..  Isn’t migration brilliant!

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler

The outstanding bird, among many highlights of a trip to Donggang, Dandong in Liaoning Province, was a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus).  This bird is one of the newly recognised Arctic Warbler splits.  See here for the paper by Per Alström et al that presents the rationale behind the taxonomic decision.  The conclusion of the paper states that:

“..the species from continental Eurasia and Alaska should be called Phylloscopus borealis (Arctic Warbler), the one from Kamchatka, Sakhalin and Hokkaido Phylloscopus examinandus (Kamchatka Leaf Warbler) and the one from the rest of Japan Phylloscopus xanthodryas (Japanese Leaf Warbler).”

It appears that this is only the 2nd record of examinandus for China, the first being a specimen collected from Fujian Province, referred to in an article in the Journal of The Asiatic Society of Bengal (29: 265) by Swinhoe in 1860.

The bird was discovered along a relatively new sea wall lined with young trees (a result of recent reclamation work).  Paul Holt and I were checking the shorebirds on the mudflats along a 2-3 km stretch of the coast road (Binhai Lu) alongside the Yalu River, right on the border between China and North Korea.  Every few minutes we would walk upstream and begin to check the next group of birds.  We were enjoying splendid views of Red-necked Stint, Terek Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Far Eastern Curlew, Saunders’ Gulls and many more species – a real spectacle on the falling tide.  As we were walking between watchpoints, we heard an unfamiliar call…  I thought it sounded a little like a flycatcher – a series of rapid low to mid-pitched notes – and thought nothing else of it (we had been seeing several Asian Brown, Yellow-rumped and Red-throated Flycatchers along that stretch of road).  However, Paul knew immediately it was different and might be something interesting.  We scanned the area of trees from where the call came from and soon picked up an ‘Arctic Warbler’..  it called repeatedly for about 20 seconds but no sooner as I had grabbed my video camera to record the call, the bird fell silent and did not call again.  We watched the bird for a few minutes as it flitted from tree to tree.  It appeared quite yellow and buff for a standard Arctic Warbler with a  yellowish wash on the throat and upper breast and a buffy supercilium.  Neither of us had seen an Arctic Warbler like this before.  Luckily, our driver was parked nearby and Paul’s laptop was in the car, on which were the calls of the three ‘Arctic Warbler’ species.  We listened to the calls and immediately knew that the call we had heard was of Phylloscopus examinandus  (Kamchatka Leaf Warbler).  We quickly walked back to where the bird had been and, after a few minutes of searching, we relocated it along a roadside bank, just inland from the original location.  With a bit of patience it showed quite well, even though the light was bad (heavily overcast).  We took some images that captured the features of the bird as we were seeing it in the field.  After about an hour, and with the light fading, we eventually left the site having secured lots of images but, unfortunately, without a sound recording of the call; it didn’t call a single time after that initial burst when we first saw it.

Paul knew it would be a good record and certainly a first record for Liaoning Province.  What we didn’t know was that it would be the first record (that we are aware of) for China since that 19th century specimen referred to by Swinhoe!

Of course, this species has almost certainly been overlooked and birders will only have been looking for these new species since Per Alström’s paper was published in 2010, so I am sure there will be more records to come…  As a bird that breeds in Kamchatka, it must pass through eastern China on migration.  Even so, it’s pretty cool to be involved with a first record for China for over 100 years!  It’s a fantastic tribute to Paul’s birding skill that he picked up the unusual call and nailed the record..

Images below.

Kamchatka Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus), Donggang, Dandong, Liaoning Province, 12 May 2012. Probably the first record for China since a specimen was collected in the 1800s. Note the buffy supercilium and yellow wash on the underparts, both clearly seen in the field.
Kamchatka Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus), Donggang, Dandong, 12 May 2012.  The yellowish wash down the centre of the breast can be see clearly on this image.
Kamchatka Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus), Donggang, Dandong, Liaoning Province, 12 May 2012. Although out of focus, a yellowish wash on the vent can be seen clearly in this image.

The calls and songs of the three species of “Arctic Warbler” can be found here.  It should be noted that, at present, vocalisations are the only way to definitively identify these three species.  However, given the plumage features noted on this bird, it may not be too long before a suite of features allows non-calling/singing birds to be separated in the field.

Now you know what to look for, I hope you find one for yourself…!

International Siberian Crane Festival, Faku County, Liaoning Province

Last week, together with Tom Beeke in Dalian and Tian Yang (Leyton), a Dalian-based birding friend, I received an invitation to participate in the International Siberian Crane Festival in Faku County, near Shenyang in Liaoning Province.  The invitation came from Professor Zhou from Shenyang University who we had both met last autumn whilst watching waders along the Liaoning coast.  Apparently my sighting of 3 Siberian Cranes in Beijing in March (the second record for the capital) qualified me as a Siberian Crane expert….

By juggling work commitments we were both able to participate and we enjoyed one of those special Chinese experiences…

Faku County hosts a network of 16 freshwater lakes which, together, form a very important stopover site for a host of wildfowl and, in particular, the ‘critically endangered’ Siberian Crane.   The world population of this species is thought to be around 3,000 individuals and declining.  About ten days ago, 2,000 were counted at this important site.  The day before our visit on Tuesday, 821 were seen.  Clearly, this is a hugely important site for the Siberian Crane but it is not currently included in the list of priority sites for this species in China (so far, five wetland sites have been identified as critical, including the Poyang Lake Basin, where up to 98% of the world’s population of Siberian Cranes over-winter; the other four sites are national level nature reserves – Zhalong, Xianghai, Keerqin, and Momoge Nature Reserves – that protect important migratory habitat used by the Siberian Crane in northeastern China).

As is often the case in rapidly developing China, the site is under threat.  To help raise awareness, Professor Zhou set up an International Siberian Crane Festival and invited the most important local politicians, decision-makers and local people to attend.  The deputy Mayor of Shenyang, the Party Secretary of Faku County and his deputy all participated.  Professor Zhou also invited a panel of experts from Beijing including the China head of Wetlands International and a Deputy Director from the Forestry Ministry.  Tom and I were invited to provide an international perspective.

Our day began at 0500 with a visit to the site to do a spot of birdwatching before the official proceedings began.  Unfortunately, due to a delay in leaving the hotel (too much baijio for some?) we missed the main crane post-roost flight but, luckily (for Tom at least as he had never seen Siberian Crane!), a couple of stragglers remained and we were able to watch them feed, albeit at distance.  We also saw good numbers of Greater White-fronted Geese, some Swan Geese, Bean Geese, Baikal Teal and Grey-headed Lapwing.  After a tour of the main reservoir we were driven to a raised viewing area which was being prepared for the festival.

The festival began at 0930 with a formal opening ceremony at the wetland itself which, despite the weather (strong winds and dust storms) saw a hugely impressive local turnout.  It appeared to be the biggest event to happen in this community for a long time with hundreds of local people present.  The police were there in numbers to coordinate the crowds.

Early morning preparations for the opening ceremony of the International Siberian Crane Festival, Faku County, Liaoning Province
A couple of bemused locals look on
Some of the local women enjoying the opening ceremony..
Local girls added some glamour to proceedings but were struggling to keep smiling in the dust storms...
As the time for the opening ceremony approached, the crowd began to build.
The police took time out from their crowd control duties to check out Professor Zhou's photos on the display boards.
This local farmer insisted on having his photo taken and was proud to welcome foreigners to his village for the International Siberian Crane Festival
The stage is set for the grand opening ceremony...

After the formal opening ceremony, during which Tom and I were asked to stand on the stage (!) while 4 dignitaries spoke, we were driven to the local government offices where we participated in a roundtable workshop with the Party chiefs, local residents and media.  The workshop began with presentations by Wetlands International, the Forestry Ministry and Professor Zhou, all aimed at explaining the significance of this site and the potential for the local area to achieve provincial, national and international recognition (via Ramsar status) and to secure associated financing.  Tom and I were then invited to provide international perspectives and we both spoke about the potential economic value of eco-tourism, the importance of valuing natural capital in economic decision-making, including the ecosystem services provided by wetlands, and the experience of our respective countries in terms of wildlife tourism.  It was heartening to hear the Party Secretary (the top official in Faku County) promise, at the end of the event, to review the County’s development strategy on the basis of what he had heard and he even invited us to be formal advisers to his County (one for the CV!).  After some interviews with the media (including Liaoning TV and Radio, CCTV, Tianjin News and others), we were provided with an official lunch with the obligatory toasts of the local baijio before heading back home.    Tom and I were both very grateful for the warmth of the welcome we received and the memory of this event, and our visit to Faku, will stay with us for a very long time.  A big thank you to Leyton for his interpretation service.

Professor Zhou is to be congratulated: he is clearly working extremely hard to try to protect this area and is making every effort to persuade the local Party chiefs that it is in their long term interest to secure the future of these wetlands and the birds that depend on them.  I would like to wish him every success and, in my new capacity as environmental advisor to Faku County, I stand ready to assist in any way I can!

By the way, did you know that the oldest documented crane that ever lived was a Siberian Crane named “Wolf”, who died at the age of 83?  Amazing!

Leucistic Eagle Owl

Bai Qingquan, a fellow birder from Dandong, has just sent me this photo of a leucistic Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo).  This bird had been terrorising a local farmer in Zhuanghe, Liaoning Province and had apprently taken two lambs and several chickens before the farmer was able to catch it.  It has since been released away from the farm..  An unusual looking bird.

A leucistic Eagle Owl, Zhuanghe, Liaoning Province