Heard from Paul Holt and Tom Beeke at Laotieshan this evening. Highlights today included at least 5 Greater Spotted Eagles and new birds for the trip – one juvenile Oriental White Stork, Manchurian Bush Warbler, Red-billed Starling, Yellow-throated Bunting and Daurian Jackdaw. The ringing station has received the dreaded phone call asking them not to allow foreigners up to the ridge unless they are accompanied by a member of staff… so viewing options for raptor migration are becoming increasingly limited. Peter heads back to Beijing tonight and I’m meeting him at the airport in a couple of hours. He’s had quite an introduction to birding in China..!
After the disappointment of being kicked off one of the prime raptor migration watchpoints on Tuesday, we took up the invitation from the local reserve officials, introduced to us by the Beijing Birdwatching Society, to visit a ringing station at Laotieshan. Our hosts, Mr Wang (Head of Research) and Mr Zhang (a researcher and ringer) met us near the lighthouse car park at 0630 and drove us to the ringing station where we met with two more staff. At this site (one of 8 ringing stations in the area), they operate four mist nets, three of which are targeted at passerines and one at raptors. It wasn’t long before the resident bird-catcher, Mr Sun, appeared with some birds and we were pleased to see Grey-backed Thrush and Tristram’s Bunting in the hand.
These birds were ringed and released promptly and soon we were discussing the birds of Laotieshan and the various species they had ringed. They gave us each a book that covered the birds of the Laotieshan peninsula and the nearby Snake Island (the island featured in the BBC series, Wild China, where the Pallas’s Pit Vipers have evolved to climb trees to wait for unsuspecting migrant birds). The list makes for very interesting reading, giving the status of each bird at Laotieshan – resident, summer visitor, winter visitor or passage migrant. I’ll post a translation of it on here at some point.
During this discussion Mr Sun disappeared, then reappeared with a Mugimaki Flycatcher.. a nice trick! Unfortunately this bird had lost its tail, either in the net or in the bag, but nevertheless, it was a smart bird.
We asked about access to Snake Island. Officially there was no access unless one had a permit (a familiar story in China!). Mr Wang was due to go out there later that day and stay for a week, part of the rolling wardening duties on the island. Mr Zhang told us that Mr Wang was once bitten on the finger by a Pallas’s Pit Viper and spent the next three months recovering in hospital.. ouch.
Mr Sun appeared again, accompanied by gasps from the audience.. this time he held single Tristram’s and Black-faced Buntings.
The volume of birds being caught here was not high – they said that, on average at this time of year, about 30 birds were caught each day – but the quality and variety was good. We accompanied Mr Zhang on a walk around the nets and discovered over 20 Chestnut-flanked White-eyes together with a single Radde’s Warbler and another Tristram’s Bunting. It took us some time to help retrieve these birds from the nets but they were promptly ringed and released. White-eyes have been a big feature of our time at Laotieshan with thousands passing through… they are full of character and it was interesting to see some in the hand.
A major part of the work of the ringing station is to try to stop illegal bird trapping. This is a traditional activity at Laotieshan that has been ongoing for many years and, therefore, is not easy to eradicate. Every day the staff explore the ridges for illegal nets, cut down any they find and also report any individuals they see to the police. One guy told us that the illegal bird trappers used to catch around 4,000 raptors each year at Laotieshan (!). This has significantly decreased due to the work of the reserve staff but they told us that it is still common to find illegal mist nets. One event that they are proud of ,and that they hope will act as a major deterrent to others, is the fact that, last year, one guy was apprehended with a haul of Oriental Scops Owls and was given a 10-year custodial sentence! I had read about this story in the China Daily last autumn and it seems as if this has acted as a warning to the locals.. Mr Zhang said that the illegal bird catchers were now extremely nervous and, if they saw anyone near their nets, they would run away quickly.. I am not surprised with punishments like that!
Mr Sun returned and his latest bit of magic produced a Red-flanked Bluetail..
Shortly after, Mr Wang drove up in his 4×4 and opened the boot to reveal a Short-eared Owl he had found in an illegal net.. Unfortunately it had a broken wing, so could not be released.. very sad to see the fate of such a beautiful bird. No doubt many more birds or prey and passerines suffer a similar fate every autumn in the hills around this special site.
As the early morning migration slowed, Peter and I took the opportunity to hike up the hill to a raptor watchpoint above the ringing station. Mr Zhang showed us the way and, after a steep ascent lasting around 40 minutes, we emerged on the ridge to a spectacular view of the hills. The lighthouse could be seen to the south-west and, to the east, there was a stunning view of a valley and hills stretching north towards Lushun. In a 90-minute count from here we saw a flock of 28 Black-eared Kites, 4 Goshawks, a Peregrine, at least 30 Amur Falcons, 9 Common Buzzards, 2 Hobbies, a single House Martin sp (probably Northern) and a good passage of around 350 Swallows (75 per cent Red-rumped and 25 per cent Barn). On the walk down we encountered a spectacular spider whose web was reminiscent of one of the mist nets! If I was a small bird I’d be wary of this particular spider..
We did a further round of the nets and birded the woods around the station before saying our goodbyes to the crew. They had made us feel very welcome and we are exremely grateful to Mr Wang, Mr Zhang and Mr Sun for their hospitality, including the fantastic lunch of fried fish and rice – delicious!
The visit to the ringing station represented the end of my stay in Laotieshan this autumn. To see in the hand some of the migrant birds we had been seeing over the last few days was a fitting end to my stay at this special place. Mr Wang kindly drove us back to our hotel in Lushun and, after a typically delicious meal at a local restaurant, I picked up my bags, said my goodbyes to Paul and Peter and made my way to the airport for the short flight back to Beijing. It was a real wrench to tear myself away from this globally significant site and, in particular, the company of Paul Holt and Peter Cawley. It was a real privilege for me to spend 10 days birding with these guys. Paul is simply one of the best birders I have ever met – his knowledge of China’s birds and his identification skills are second to none. I know I would have missed many birds – such as the flyover Pechora Pipits and Pine Bunting – if I was on my own. So, a big thanks Paul! I owe you a few beers when you are back in Beijing…
Peter Cawley, a friend from my old local patch at Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk, is staying on for a couple of days and will return to Beijing on Friday. I’ll be taking him to Wild Duck Lake at the weekend and he’ll spend a couple of days doing the tourist sites of Beijing before returning to the UK.
Paul is going to stay on at Laotieshan for a while yet, building yet more knowledge about this important site. I suspect he will see good numbers of the large eagles in the next few weeks – mostly Greater Spotted but hopefully with more Steppe and possibly an Imperial thrown in. During my short time there we think we have recorded some record numbers of birds in the Chinese context. The counts of Ashy Minivets, Amur Falcons and many other birds have been simply outstanding and, in many cases, are much higher than those recorded at the traditional well-watched migration site at Beidaihe. It is clear that Laotieshan is globally significant and the good news is that, due to the proximity of the military and the geographic make-up, it is likely to remain undeveloped. Clearly, access to the best areas is still sensitive but hopefully, in time, this will improve as birding becomes more popular in China and there is a better understanding of the contribution birders can make to the increase in knowledge about China’s birds. Even so, there are still many areas that are accessible now and the birding is simply spectacular. I am sure I will be back!
I’ll post some detailed species accounts and a full report soon, once we have collated all the data. There is so much to put down on paper that it may take a while. In the meantime, if I hear about more significant counts from Paul, I will post them here.
Finally, I’d like to say a massive thank you to Tom Beeke whose reports from Laotieshan last year were the inspiration for our visit. Tom has been birding Liaoning Province, largely on his own, for the last few years and has made a major contribution to the knowledge of the birds to be found in and around Dalian. His book – “The Birds of Dalian” – is an excellent piece of work for which he deserves enormous credit. I am sure it will inspire a new generation of Chinese birdwatchers…
Next stop Wild Duck Lake at the weekend! In the meantime, here are a few more images from the last few days…
Frustration was the word of the day. Anyone who has been birding in China will know that frustration is something that you just have to get used to. Today we were chucked off one of the prime viewing areas for raptor migration simply because we were foreigners. The area is close to a military base and so, understandably, it’s a sensitive site. But the irony is that we can see more Chinese military sites from our hotel room (including submarines, frigates and other naval support vessels) than we can from the raptor viewpoint. Nevertheless, at 1100 today we were told in no uncertain terms that we shouldn’t be there and that we would have to leave…. this was after one of the most impressive early morning raptor sessions of our visit so far with a Greater Spotted Eagle at 0630 (!), Common Buzzards passing at a rate of 250 per hour and a good number of Black-eared Kites, Goshawks and Eurasian Sparrowhawks.
However, every cloud has a silver lining and, earlier in the day, we met up with a group from the Beijing Birdwatching Society (including Zhong Jia and Tian Yang) who were visiting Laotieshan for a few days. They told us about another place, open to foreigners, from where the raptors can be viewed and they helpfully arranged for us to meet the head of research at the Laotieshan nature reserve and secure an invitation to the ringing station nearby. So tomorrow we will be taken up to the ringing station and from there we can walk up to the ridge without the threat of military intervention.. The ringing station itself sounds intriguing.. they told us that they had caught a Swinhoe’s Rail a couple of days ago! Wow…
The ringing station is apparently near to the area where locals traditionally put up mist nets to capture migrating birds (mostly for the bird trade). One Chinese contact we met said that they used to catch around 4,000 raptors a year at Laotieshan until improved wardening severely curtailed illegal mist-netting. Even now many nets are put up by locals and it’s a continuing process to try to reduce the number of illegal nets at this time of year…
Zhong Jia and Tian Yang also told us about a new hotel that had recently opened much nearer to Laotieshan than our base in Lushun. The rooms looked good, the prices reasonable and the bonus is that one can watch raptors from the garden…. in a short visit this afternoon we enjoyed views of 6 Grey-faced Buzzards right overhead plus an astonishing movement of Amur Falcons involving around 600 birds in a single flock… wow.
Tomorrow is my last day at Laotieshan. I will have a full day there before making my way to the airport for the short flight back to Beijing. It’s going to be very tough to tear myself away but Peter will be staying until Friday and Paul hopes to stay for several weeks, access permitting. Let’s hope tomorrow is a bumper day!
It’s been an eventful 2 days. Sunday was spent, as usual, at Laotieshan. The fresh wind was from the north-west and, with the temperature around 10 degrees C at dawn, it felt cold (I had 5 layers on at one point!). After the passerine migration slowed at around 7.30am, Paul decided to walk up to the raptor watchpoint and Peter and I took the track below the lighthouse. We began well with at least 2 Red-flanked Bluetails, a Mugimaki Flycatcher and an Asian Stubtail. Then, just as we reached the sheltered gully at the bottom of the track, Paul radioed us to say that there was a juvenile Steppe Eagle coming in low along the ridge.. We hurried up the track to a point from which we could view the ridge and enjoyed spectacular views as it slowly made its way inland, battling against the increasing wind.. Steppe Eagle is a scarce bird in eastern China, so it was a very good record. The odd thing is that this eagle occurred during the quietest raptor passage we have experience so far! Migration works in mysterious ways.
Sunday afternoon we drove up to Jinshitan to meet up with Tom Beeke for a day of wader watching… After a fabulous meal with Tom’s family (he and his wife, Hannah, are amazing hosts!), we had a fantastic day up the coast with 108 species seen including such goodies as Blue Rock Thrush, Great Knot, Baillon’s Crake and Chinese Grey Shrike. Probably the best bird of the day was a stunning and confiding Little Whimbrel which initially flew in front of the car, causing us to stop rather abruptly on the main road outside Pikou. After a brief search, we saw it again in flight and it settled in a narrow patch of rough grass very close to the road. Stunning. After catching up with the waders between Pikou and Zhuanghe (Dunlin, Great Knot, Red Knot, Far Eastern Curlew, Eurasian Curlew, Lesser Sand Plover, Grey Plover, Terek Sandpiper etc) we turned our attention to gulls and it was here that Paul H excelled himself. First he picked out a first winter Glaucous Gull at about a mile range (ok, a slight exaggeration but it was a long way out) and then, within a couple of minutes of that piece of magic, he pulled out a first winter Pallas’s Gull – top class!
I only have two more days left at Laotieshan before flying back to Beijing. Peter will stay an extra couple of days and Paul will be staying for a while longer.. it’s going to be hard to wrench myself away from this world-class migration site but I feel very lucky to have been able to experience over a week of incredible birding, particularly as it has been in the company of such distinguished companions.
10 degrees Celsius at dawn, with some cloud cover and light westerly winds. After a slow start, the passerine migration really got going around 0600 and at times there were huge numbers of birds in the sky. The dominant species was the Chestnut-flanked White-eye and their siskin-like calls were a constant background accompaniment to the morning. Other prominent species, typical of recent days, were Ashy Minivet and Olive-backed Pipit but there were also signs of new movements with reasonable numbers of Oriental Turtle Doves and White-cheeked Starling. A Siberian Rubythroat showed briefly in the nearby bushes, which it shared with good numbers of Radde’s and Dusky Warblers plus the occasional Lanceolated Warbler, and a cracking Bull-headed Shrike perched prominently as it scanned for prey in a crop field. At around 0715 we were joined by Tom Beeke and friends who had driven down from Dalian to join us for the day. (It was great to see you Tom! And thanks again for ‘discovering’ Laotieshan as a visible migration hotspot last autumn.. the inspiration for our visit this year).
As the sun began to burn off the cloud and heat up the air, raptors began to move and we enjoyed groups of Black-eared Kites, Amur Falcons, Oriental Honey and Common Buzzards. Singles of Grey-headed Lapwing and Grey-backed Thrush were nice additions to our species list before we made our way up to the ridge. On the way we flushed a Woodcock and two White’s Thrushes from the same gully! When we reached the top, raptors were moving – Eurasian and Japanese Sparrowhawks, Common Buzzards, Black-eared Kites, Kestrel, Hobby, Amur Falcon and Goshawk were all seen in the first couple of hours. A total of 4 Greater Spotted Eagles was a good tally but the real spectacle was over 180 Grey-faced Buzzards, many of which passed in large groups of 10 or more… Magnificent. Grey-faced Buzzards are strange birds. Sometimes they remind me of a harrier or an accipiter and, when they are flapping hard, to me they are reminiscent of Short-eared Owls..! Bizarre, I know.. but if you have seen one, hopefully you know what I mean..
Tomorrow is forecast to be cool with northerly winds but clear and sunny. We suspect, having been here for a week, that the best wind for migrant raptors is south-west, so we don’t expect too much for Sunday but you never know…
Thanks very much to Ken and Spike for the comments on the bush warbler in the last post. We also think it’s most likely a first winter Spotted (David’s) Bush Warbler but we need to check literature on our return to Beijing.
Much colder today with the temperature down to 10 degrees Celsius at 0530. A brisk north-east wind kept it cool all day but, on the plus side, visibility was the best I have seen in China and it was sunny all day.
A hawking Grey Nightjar was a nice welcome as we arrived at the car park at dawn and other highlights included 2 Greater Spotted Eagles (one of which we watched migrate out to see towards Shandong Province – something like 60+ kilometres away), over 20 Grey-faced Buzzards and this…..
We think we know what it is but do you?
There was a significant fall of phylloscopus warblers today, especially Radde’s and Dusky warblers.. but the number of birds moving was definitely down on the last few days. The forecast for Saturday is for moderate westerlies and mostly clear skies with the temperature increasing slightly. It’ll be interesting to see whether the volume of migrating birds increases again… and with Tom Beeke and his crew arriving for the day tomorrow, we’ll have more pairs of eyes watching the skies.. it promises to be a good day whatever we see.
Thursday started wet, warm and still and ended dry, windy and cold! The weather front passed through overnight but unfortunately the rain started a little early (well before midnight), perhaps meaning that not so many migrants were on the move when the rain hit. First thing, as the rain petered out, passerine migration was relatively thin by recent standards and, although there had not been a ‘fall’, there were new birds around.
Highlights included 2 Baikal Teal that came in off the sea and headed strongly east, a late Eastern Crowned Warbler (on Peter’s most-wanted list), a couple of Yellow-browed Buntings, a single Greater Spotted Eagle, 3 Black Storks and, dramatically, a Eurasian Sparrowhawk attacking a White’s Thrush! At one point the Sparrowhawk grabbed the White’s Thrush with one talon, causing a few feathers to fly, but it couldn’t hold on and the thrush temporarily got away. The sparrowhawk came screaming back but both birds disappeared behind some trees before the final drama was played out, so we’ll never know the outcome. I have to say I feared for the thrush.. the sparrowhawk looked as if it was locked on like a guided missile.
Peter’s shrike-finding abilities, honed after many years of discovering Red-backed Shrikes at Winterton, came into their own today when he found a Tiger Shrike along the track below the lighthouse. Tiger Shrikes are scarce birds in this part of the world, so it was a great find.
It was another brilliant day and it’s a real privilege to be spending so much time in the field with one of the world’s top birders.
I am copying below the list of birds seen on Wednesday, taken from Paul Holt’s master list. Wednesday’s count of Ashy Minivets came in at an astonishing 7,549!
Laotieshan continues to astound. This morning between just 0530 and 0645 we recorded 1,257 Ashy Minivets and 3,000 Red-rumped Swallows.. not to mention good numbers of Olive-backed Pipits, Richard’s Pipits, Black-faced Buntings… astonishing. After the passerine migration began to slow, we took the track below the lighthouse to look for migrants. A Bull-headed Shrike was a nice start and this was soon followed by two Siberian Blue Robins, 5 Radde’s Warblers and at least 4 Spotted (David’s) Bush Warblers. The lowlight here was when Paul almost stepped on what we think was a Pallas’s Pit Viper.. The locals had warned us about snakes but in most areas of China, any that are venomous – especially near human habitation – have largely been wiped out. During my spring visit I saw no snakes at all.. not even the fairly common Rat Snake. Today’s encounter was a sobering moment and, in a sign of the seriousness of the event, Paul has said he may consider swapping his ever-present shorts for long trousers!
The weather is clearly changing. Today was overcast with a light southerly wind. The forecast for tomorrow is for showers, with winds veering to the north-west and, on Friday, the temperature is predicted to drop by 10 degrees Celsius. That could mean Thursday and Friday are big days…. let’s hope so!
Some more images from the trip…
To give the reader a sense of the species we are seeing, I am including below our list of species and counts from 0530-0645 only this morning. Other species seen later today include Asian House Martin, Bean Goose, White-throated Needletail and Streaked Shearwater. I will publish the full species list and counts on my return to Beijing – there is simply too much to summarise!
Grey Heron – 1
Purple Heron – 4
Kestrel – 3
Amur Falcon – 7
Hobby – 2
Peregrine – 2
Oriental Honey Buzzard – 5
Black-eared Kite – 5
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 6
Ashy Minivet – 1,257
Grey Nightjar – One hawking over the car park at 0530
After a couple of visits to Liaoning Province, I have been captivated by the birding promise, including the coastal mudflats between Dalian and Dandong and the migration potential at the southern tip of the peninsula, Laotieshan. Last weekend I nipped across to Dalian, hired a car and went looking for shorebirds. I was determined to make it as far as Dandong, on the North Korean border, a place that very few birders visit. I had heard from Dalian-based Tom Beeke about the huge mudflats at the Donggang, just south of Dandong, so I knew the shorebird watching would be awesome.
Sites on the coast between Dalian and Dondang.
It was great that Tom could join me for a half day and, after picking him up at Jinshitan (and seeing another old friend – see below), we spent the afternoon at the estuary north of Pikou, an excellent wader site between Dalian and Zhuange, on the way to Dandong.
"Sandy" at Jinshitan... a colourful reminder of the world volleyball championships held in Jinshitan a few years ago..
On the falling tide we set up our scopes and settled in for an excellent couple of hours watching the flocks of waders fly from their roosts to the freshly exposed mud to begin feeding. It was quality birding with groups of Great Knot (26), Red Knot (3), Bar-tailed Godwit (161), Red-necked Stint (14), Grey (60), Pacific Golden (3) and Kentish Plovers (122), Grey-tailed Tattler (1), Terek Sandpiper (11), Marsh Sandpiper (25), Broad-billed Sandpiper (6), Greenshank (3), Far Eastern (14) and Eurasian Curlew (4), Whimbrel (5), Dunlin (63), Lesser Sand Plover (1), Saunders’ Gull (2), Caspian Tern (9) and Chinese Egret (10).
We also checked out a few sites in between Dalian and Pikou and picked up Great and Little Egrets, Mongolian, Vega, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gulls, Temminck’s Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and many Yellow Wagtails.
I then left Tom and made my way up to Zhuanghe. Here I enjoyed a healthy number (18) of Black-faced Spoonbills feeding on the estuary (a successful breeding season?), as well as good numbers of Far Eastern Curlews (57), Kentish Plover (160), Little Ringed Plover (1), Grey Plover (35), Spotted Redshank (6), Wood Sandpiper (2) and a single Blue Rock Thrush.
From here I drove up to Dandong and spent a whole day at the mudflats at Donggang. These mudflats are vast…. I estimated 10,000 birds on the mud but, unfortunately, the tides were not great during my visit.. there wasn’t really a high tide, just a low tide and a lower tide (despite trawling the internet before the visit, I couldn’t find any information about tides in this area). Hence, the waders were widely spread and, despite trudging out onto the mud with my locally bought 12 Yuan (GBP 1.20) pair of plimsoles, I was only able to scan carefully one large group of around 1,500 birds. I was convinced that there was a juvenile Spooner out there somewhere but, if there was, I didn’t find it.
Despite that, there were some impressive counts… over 500 Kentish Plover, 200 Great Knot, 100 Far Eastern Curlew, 30 Eurasian Curlew, 300 Grey Plover, 120 Red-necked Stint, 75 Bar-tailed Godwit, 60 Saunders’ Gulls, 250 Black-headed Gulls, 4 Terek Sandpiper, 600 Dunlin, 3 Broad-billed Sandpiper and 23 Greenshank.
A couple of local fishermen turned up and set up their rods on the ‘jetty’ which led me to think that the tide might be coming in… I asked them about the tide and they said that at 3pm the water would be in as far as the jetty… Great, I thought… it was now 1.30pm so I settled in and waited for the birds to come to me, forced closer by the incoming tide… I waited… and waited… At 3pm the water was still a long way out (at least 500 metres) and seemed to have stopped edging closer. Then a couple of other locals arrived and started laughing with (or at?) the fishermen… they said that the water was not going to come anywhere near the jetty today.. By this time the tide had just about come to a standstill and my heart sank. It was clear that the second group of locals were right and that the ‘high tide’ simply wasn’t very high that day. I made a few final scans before leaving to check the pools inside the sea wall a little further north.
The pools were also productive with 5 Long-toed Stints, Common Snipe, 2 Ruff, 4 Temminck’s Stint and 6 Red-necked Stints along with more Far Eastern Curlew. A nice side show included 2 Grey-faced Buzzards and 4 Pied Harriers in off the sea (defecting from North Korea!).
As dusk approached I made my way back south to spend the night in Zhuanghe. The following morning I birded two areas 10-15kms south of Zhuanghe. Here the high tide had pushed the birds right up to the road and I was able to sit and enjoy a fabulous few hours of birding as the tide turned and groups of birds flew in to feed on the first exposed mud.
Here I enjoyed more Great Knot, Red Knot (2 juveniles), Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank (over 250), Kentish Plover, Whimbrel, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, Lesser Sand Plover and Oystercatcher.
I drove on to the river estuary north of Pikou and settled in for what turned out to be another fantastic spell. On the falling tide, shellfish collectors were digging on the furthest stretch of mud forcing the birds close to me. I enjoyed spectacular views of many of the waders and counted 18 Broad-billed Sandpipers, 53 Red-necked Stints, 38 Oystercatchers, 31 Bar-tailed Godwits, 350+ Dunlin, 200+ Kentish Plovers, 4 Terek Sandpipers, Eurasian, Far Eastern Curlews, Whimbrel, Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Great Knot, Sanderling (my only one of the trip) and a good count of 24 Caspian Terns roosting on the spit.
My final stop was at some salt pans just north of Pikou. Here I encountered 12 Temminck’s Stints, 14 Spotted Redshank, 4 Little Ringed Plovers and 2 Long-toed Stints.
So, no Spooner, Nordmann’s Greenshank or Asian Dowitcher but a thoroughly enjoyable trip, nonetheless.. all the more interesting given the location and the fact that hardly any birders ever visit. I am sure if the area was covered regularly, all sorts would be found – it clearly has bags of potential and would make a fantastic local patch!