One of the highlights of my recent trip to Liaoning Province was the opportunity to see so many gulls at Jinzhou Bay (we estimated over 4,000). This number must make Jinzhou Bay one of the premier gull-watching sites in northern China (if you know of a comparable site, please let me know!). The channel of running water alongside the landfill tip was a favoured haunt of Common Gulls (Larus canus) and, over the two days I spent at this site, I saw several young birds, presumably of both the subspecies found in this area – kamtschatschensis and heinei. Here are a few images and personal comments. Please let me know if you disagree with my identification or if you have more to add.
The kamtschatschensis bird, in particular, would certainly stand out if it turned up in the Western Europe!
It’s difficult to tell from these images but, in the field, the kamtschatschensis bird appeared to be stockier with a slightly longer bill.
Many birders, being obsessive types, like to keep lists of the birds they have seen. This could be a “life list” (a list of the total number of species seen in one’s life), a “year list”, the total seen in a given year etc. Many people keep national lists, for example a UK or China list. I have to confess that I don’t know how many species I have seen in the UK (I know it’s roughly 400) and I have been lax recently at keeping my China list up to date (somewhere between 500 and 520). However, I can proudly say that I know exactly the number of bird species I have seen in North Korea – 7!
Under the listing ‘rules’ it matters not that I haven’t actually been to North Korea as all have been seen over N Korean airspace from the China side of the border…
I have just returned from a few days in Liaoning Province with Paul Holt, Tom Beeke and Dandong-based birder Bai Qingquan – the perfect opportunity to boost my North Korea list! We visited some sites in Dalian, southern Liaoning, before driving north to visit the area in and around Dandong, including the Yalu River, the waterway marking the border between China and North Korea. In stunning weather, and temperatures approaching -20 at times, we saw some pretty special birds with the constant backdrop of North Korea providing a fascinating distraction.
Birding highlights from the trip north included Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Varied Tit, Hazel Grouse, Cinereous (Black) Vulture, Alpine Accentor, Relict Gull (at Zhuanghe) and Slaty-backed Gull. Another spectacle was the sight of 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay, near Dalian, in the company of over 4,000 gulls, attracted by a landfill tip. Birding takes us to some glamourous places.
I began my visit by meeting up with Paul Holt at Dalian airport and heading to Dalian and Jinzhou Bays. Dalian Bay, on the eastern side of the peninsula, was largely ice-free and produced an adult Glaucous Gull, Vega, Mongolian and Black-tailed Gulls, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Mallard, Falcated and Chinese Spot-billed Duck. After an hour or so we crossed to the west coast to visit Jinzhou Bay. Here the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see and an impressive group of around 4,000 gulls was loafing on the ice. They were attracted by the large landfill site bordering the bay and this food source is clearly the reason why Jinzhou Bay must be one of the best gull-watching sites in northern China.
The vast majority of the gulls were Mongolian, with a sprinkling of Vega (a few hundred), Heuglin’s (up to 100), Common (20-30), Slaty-backed (3-5), Glaucous (2-3), Black-headed (2) and Black-tailed (2). Paul Holt also saw a first winter Pallas’s Gull at this site before I arrived. Searching through the Mongolian Gulls, recalling my sighting of 3 wing-tagged birds in February 2011 at this site, we were able to find a total of 5 wing-tagged birds during our visit (2 of which Paul and I both saw, 3 of which Paul found before I arrived and one after I left). These birds were ringed by Andreas Buchheim and colleagues under a ringing scheme operated in Mongolia and Russia’s Lake Baikal.
The gulls were not the only scavengers attracted to the tip. Each day we were there, a group of locals sifted through the rubbish and collected anything recyclable – bottles, cardboard, paper, metal etc.. It has to be one of the dirtiest jobs – they were black with grime – but despite the working conditions, they were a jolly bunch, laughing and joking with each other and they seemed thoroughly bemused that a couple of foreigners were joining them on the tip looking at gulls…. We showed them eagles through our telescopes and they showed us sacks of scrap paper.. :)
Just north of the landfill, a still unfrozen stream flowed into the bay, attracting some duck – mostly Mallard but also some Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Ruddy and Common Shelduck. In turn, these attracted the attention of birds of prey and we counted 25 White-tailed Eagles in the bay on Sunday morning – an impressive count for anywhere in China. The stream also proved popular with the Common Gulls and we saw both henei and kamtschatschensis subspecies here. I’ll follow up this post with a dedicated gull post soon.
And this Merlin flashed through, surprisingly putting up most of the gulls as it did so..
From the landfill at Dalian, we drove north to meet with Tom Beeke at Jinshitan and set off to Dandong, a city of 2.5 million people on the North Korean border. Here we met up with local birder (possibly the only birder in northern Liaoning!), Bai Qingquan, a great guy who was not only a talented birder but also excellent company and extremely knowledgeable about the sites in this special province.
We started birding along the promenade in Dandong, just a few hundred metres from North Korea which we could see clearly just across the Yalu river. Dandong is an interesting city. It is home to the “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge”, one of the few crossings between the two countries and, immediately next to this is another bridge – the “Short Bridge” – that was partially destroyed by a US bombing raid during the Korean War. The town also hosts a museum dedicated to the “War to Resist US Aggression”… We didn’t have time to visit but next time I am in town, I fancy a look in there!
We tried several sites along the river from Dandong and to the north looking for Scaly-sided Merganser. This rare bird is regular along this stretch of river in spring and autumn, breeding a little further north and wintering in central and southern China. This winter had been unusually mild with no snow and Bai had seen the Mergansers in December, so we thought we’d try our luck. Unfortunately, despite 4 pairs of eyes scanning the river, we drew a blank. Next we visited the Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, catching up with Brown-eared Bulbul, Alpine Accentor and enjoying panoramic views of North Korea.
The next day was spent at Feng Huang Shan, a mountain roughly an hour north-west of Dandong. It was a bitter -18 here but, after driving up almost to the summit, the birding was spectacular. Almost immediately we encountered a Varied Tit, followed by a couple of White-backed Woodpeckers and then at least 3 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, all within a few minutes of getting out of the car… Superb! We wandered up and down the track and, after hearing at least two Hazel Grouse calling, a careful 30-minute stalk was eventually rewarded with views of a male perched on a rock on a hillside.. fantastic.
On the way back south, we stopped at Zhuanghe, a port town between Dandong and Dalian, to look for Relict Gulls, a large flock of which Paul found a few days before. We saw only a handful, probably due to the high tide, but with a little time on our hands we decided to look at the deep-water harbour for sea duck. As we arrived, a ferry was about to leave to some of the outlying islands and, with a bit of negotiation from Qingquan, we were soon on board and sailing through an almost Antarctic-esque ice-filled sea. It was bone-chillingly cold on deck but we were rewarded with over 60 Long-tailed Duck as well as good China species such as Pelagic Cormorant, Slaty-backed Gull and Red-breasted Merganser.
After returning to Zhuanghe around dusk, we headed into town to find Qingquan a taxi back to Dandong and to warm up with some hot food before heading south to Dalian. A thoroughly enjoyable trip…
So, after all that, what are the seven species on my North Korea list? They are, in chronological order, Saunders’ Gull (from Sep 2011), White-tailed Eagle, Mongolian Gull, Kestrel, Goldeneye, Goosander and Mallard. Anyone beat that?
Paul Holt has just completed his detailed trip report for the autumn migration trip to Laotieshan in Liaoning Province, China. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows him (and me!) that Paul is responsible for the incredibly detailed daily counts of the species included in the report.
It was an awesome trip with some stunning counts (including some China records).
We recorded 202 species in total
High counts included 2155 bird-days of Oriental Honey-buzzard with 1035 on our very first day on site, the 24 September;
1150 bird-days of Black Kite with birds being seen almost every day with a peak count of 209 on the 7 October;
1255 Eurasian Sparrowhawks and a peak count of 283 on the 10 October;
248 bird-days of Northern Goshawk with a peak of 64 also on the 10 October;
6944 bird-days of Eastern Buzzard with a peak of 3490 on the 12 October;
7971 bird-days of Amur Falcon with a peak of 1830 on the 10 October;
Over 20,000 bird-days of Ashy Minivet with a peak of 7549 on the 28 September;
456 bird-days of Yellow-bellied Tit with birds being noted on 20 of the 23 days we were in Liaoning and a peak of 160 on the 5 October;
Nearly 60,000 bird-days of Red-rumped Swallow with 10,000 being estimated on the 27 September;
Over 14,000 white-eyes with up to 4500 birds being noted daily while we were in the province;
Over 1600 bird-days of Black-faced Bunting with a peak of 700 on the 8 October.
Local rarities included:
14-bird-days of Black Stork with between 1 and 4 birds on five dates;
A juvenile Steppe Eagle on the 2 October;
2 juvenile Golden Eagles on the 11 October;
An adult male Lesser Kestrel on the 6 October;
70 osculans Eurasian Oystercatchers, a moulting juvenile Pallas’s Gull (only the third for Liaoning) and a first year Glaucous Gull at the Biliu river, Pulandian and a single Little Curlew near Pikou, Pulandian all on the 3 October;
Surprising numbers of both Northern and Asian House Martins;
Two and one Red-billed Starlings on the 7th & 14 October respectively
Several early Alpine Accentors with sightings on three dates after the 11 October.
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.