Winter is coming…

It’s that time of year again.  As temperatures plummet and the days shorten, many people might think it’s time to stay indoors with a real fire, put on that favourite woolly jumper and sip a warm cup of (green) tea.  However, for birders, it’s worth putting on the thermal underwear and braving those icy temperatures – winter can be a brilliant time.

Here are five reasons why winter is a good time for birding in Beijing:

  • First, with the leaves down, birds are easier to observe
  • Second, winter is the only time we can see certain species (for example, those that breed to the north of Beijing, including as far north as Mongolia and Russian Siberia, and spend the winter here). These species include: Ruddy Shelduck, Common Crane, White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, Mongolian Lark, the winter thrushes (Naumann’s. Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated), Goldcrest, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Siberian Accentor, Brambling, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Japanese Reed Bunting, Lapland Bunting and Pine Bunting.
  • Third, many mountain dwelling species will move lower into the valleys and even into cities in the winter, making them easier to see. For example: Winter Wren, Beijing Babbler, Plain Laughingthrush and Yellow-throated Bunting.
  • Fourth, depending on the seed crops and weather, especially the extent of snowfall, some species ‘irrupt’ in large numbers to areas where they would normally not occur in significant numbers. Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Japanese and Bohemian Waxwings and Redpolls are examples of species that sometimes ‘irrupt’ into Beijing.
  • Finally, there is always a chance of finding something special. The discovery of wintering Jankowski’s Buntings in winter 2015/2016 by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao was exceptional.  Who knows what else might occur – maybe a Snowy Owl at Lingshan?  Or a Gyrfalcon at Ma Chang?
2016-03-07 Jankowski's Bunting, Miyun5
One of the wintering JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS at Miyun Reservoir in winter 2015/2016.

The best winter sites?

Most good birding sites in the capital (e.g. Yeyahu, Lingshan, Huairou, Miyun and Shahe Reservoirs (if accessible)) are worth visiting all year round.  And, within the city itself, the Botanical Gardens, with its berry-laden shrubs, is often one of the first sites to host groups of Japanese or Bohemian Waxwings during a ‘waxwing year’.  The Olympic Forest Park can host Beijing Babbler in winter and is often a good place to see Brown-cheeked Rails and Great Bittern.  It has also played host to some very scarce winter visitors such as ‘caudatus’ Northern Long-tailed Tit and Chiffchaff.  For me, personally, two of the best winter birding sites are Donglingshan and Shidu.

Donglingshan (东灵山)

2015-11-01 Red-throated Thrush male in flight, Lingshan2
Red-throated Thrush usually winters in good numbers at Lingshan.

The site of Beijing’s highest peak (2,303m), around 110km west of the city along the G109, Donglingshan is a superb winter birding site.  It is the only reliable site in Beijing to see the high-altitude specialist, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, and the scarce Pallas’s Rosefinch.  In most winters, tens of the former spend the winter feeding on the sea buckthorn berries in the many gullies and valleys below the peak and small flocks of the latter can be found foraging under stands of silver birch.  Other reliable species here include Chinese Beautiful and Long-tailed Rosefinches (interestingly, the latter are of the subspecies lepidus from central China and not the more northerly ussuriensis that has occurred in other parts of Beijing), not to mention Siberian and Alpine Accentors, good numbers of thrushes, Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle and, in some years, Asian Rosy Finch.  Rarities at this time of year have included Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Black and Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstarts.

At around 2,000m, a visit to Donglingshan in winter can be bitterly cold, especially if the wind is blowing.  However, if you time your visit on a day with light winds and sunshine, it can be surprisingly pleasant and hugely rewarding.

A downloadable PDF guide for Donglingshan (Lingshan) can be found here.

 

Shidu (十渡)

A spectacular gorge worthy of a visit in its own right, even without any birds, Shidu is an excellent winter birding destination, offering species that can be hard to see in other parts of the capital.  A road runs through the gorge, crossing several bridges and it’s a good tactic to stop close to the bridges to scan the area.  Shidu is perhaps most famous in birding circles for its Black Storks, a handful of which can be seen feeding alongside the river.  However, many more interesting species are possible.  For the last few years, at least one, sometimes two, Wallcreepers have been reliable near bridge 6.  And Long-billed Plover, Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Water Redstart and Cinereous Vulture are all regular in winter.  Even the spectacular Ibisbill, a species that is increasingly difficult to see in the capital, is possible.  And Solitary Snipe, another difficult-to-see species has also been recorded.

2013-11-23 Wallcreeper, Shidu
Shidu is the best place in Beijing to see Wallcreeper.

 

Ten Species To Look Out For This Winter

Beijing has many special birds in the colder months and here are a few to look out for.

1.     Merlin This small, compact, falcon can often be seen hunting flocks of small passerines, including buntings and larks.  Open spaces such as Ma Chang (Yanqing) and the edges of reservoirs are good places to look.

 

2.     Cinereous Vulture  With a wingspan of c3m, this huge bird of prey can be seen in the mountains around Beijing from November to March.  Feeding on carrion, they can often be seen patrolling the ridges of mountainous areas on sunny days, especially when there is a breeze, providing them with lift.

 

3.     Goldcrest This tiny bird is insectivorous and, somehow, it can find enough food in Beijing in winter.  The larger parks, such as the Botanical Gardens and the Olympic Forest Park, are good places to look.  Focus your search on areas with conifers and listen for their high-pitched calls.
4.     Siberian Accentor This beautiful sparrow-sized bird likes scrubby areas with lots of good undergrowth.  They can be shy but with patience and knowledge of their high-pitched call, searching in the right areas should be successful.  The Botanical Gardens and Donglingshan are two good places to look.

 

5.     Naumann’s Thrush  Naumann’s is the most common of the four classic ‘winter thrushes’ in Beijing (the others are Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated).  With its orange-coloured tones, Naumann’s Thrush is a very pretty bird and can often be seen feeding on berries or on the ground in Beijing’s parks.
6.     Japanese Waxwing The beautiful Japanese Waxwing is an annual winter visitor to Beijing in varying numbers.  Sometimes in large flocks, they can strip berries from a bush in minutes.  Listen for their ‘ringing’ calls and look for flocks of birds that have similar silhouettes to starlings.  Can most easily be told from the very similar Bohemian Waxwing by the pinkish, not yellow, tip to the tail.
7.     Winter Wren The charismatic Winter Wren breeds in the mountains around Beijing and, in winter, it moves to lower elevations to escape the harshest winter temperatures.  In winter it can be found in the Botanical Gardens and other large parks, often near water.  The distinctive cocked tail means that it’s unmistakeable.
8.     Brambling The Brambling is a common winter visitor to Beijing.  A sociable bird, it can often be found in flocks feeding on seeds (often beech mast) at the base of trees.  Listen for its upslurred call as flocks wheel around over wooded areas.
9.     Pallas’s Rosefinch A real gem of the Beijing winter, the Pallas’s Rosefinch is one of the most sought after species by foreign birders visiting the capital.  A winter visitor in varying numbers, usually to relatively high elevations, it is most reliably found at Donglingshan in winter.  The ridge above the Botanical Gardens and sites around the Great Wall can also produce this species.  A favourite food is birch mast, so look for stands of silver birch and check the ground around the bases of the trees.
10.  Pallas’s Bunting  A winter visitor in good numbers, the Pallas’s Bunting is one of Beijing’s signature winter birds.  Found in reedbeds and any areas of rank grass and/or scrub, it can be skittish but will sometimes sit on the top of vegetation and utter its sparrow-like call, quite different to that of the similar, but scarcer, Common Reed Bunting and Japanese Reed Bunting.

Of course, the most important thing about going birding is not where you go or what you see but that you enjoy it.  Wishing everyone a wonderful winter’s birding.

 

Title image: Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstart, Lingshan, February 2014.

This article has been translated into Chinese and appeared in the Winter edition of the China Birdwatching Society magazine.

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LAMMERGEIER in Beijing

Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, is probably my favourite birding site in the capital.  It’s one of those sites where, walking around, it feels as if almost anything could turn up.  That feeling is not irrational.  With wintering PRZEWALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART, Beijing’s first LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER, breeding GREENISH WARBLERS, ALSTROM’S WARBLERS, SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHERS, ‘Gansu’ RED-FLANKED BLUETAILS and GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS all discovered in the last few years, expectation is high whatever the season.

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.
PRZEVALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART, Sunday 23 February 2014.  My favourite discovery at Lingshan.

My most recent visit was with Paul Holt on Monday.  On arrival it was cold, breezy and seemingly almost birdless.  Around the derelict buildings, at the highest point of the road, our hopes of Asian Rosy Finch drew a blank.  And there were no birds at all on the scree slopes..  However, almost the first bird we saw was a good one – a sibiricus GREAT GREY SHRIKE.  Scarce in Beijing, Lingshan in winter is certainly the best site for this monochrome predator.  A check of the sheltered side valley a little lower down was more productive, with three species of rosefinch – PALLAS’S, CHINESE BEAUTIFUL and LONG-TAILED.  The highlight here was a count of 7 LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES of the central China lepidus subspecies, a form only discovered in Beijing two winters ago. One male, in particular, showed spectacularly well.

2016-12-12-long-tailed-rosefinch-ssp-lepidus-male-lingshan3
Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp lepidus, Lingshan, 12 December 2016
2016-12-12-long-tailed-rosefinch-ssp-lepidus-male-lingshan2
One of the male Long-tailed Rosefinches ssp lepidus, Lingshan, 12 December 2016
2016-12-12-long-tailed-rosefinch-ssp-lepidus-female-lingshan
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp lepidus, Lingshan, 12 December 2016

We walked the old road which was also relatively quiet with only one WHITE-WINGED REDSTART (a male) and an owl sp (SHORT-EARED or LONG-EARED), flushed by Paul and seen only briefly.

We decided to try an area of scrub further up the mountain and, after a 20-minute walk, we discovered four more lepidus LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES and flushed a EURASIAN WOODCOCK, scarce in Beijing especially in winter.  We headed back to the car, talking about how great it was to see so many rosefinches and feeling happy with the day..

As we started to drive back to the road, a large raptor drifted past the communications tower… right at that moment, the jizz reminded me a little of Black Kite – long tail and lazy flight – but this bird was certainly not that species, it was huge!  Paul immediately shouted an expletive followed by “juvenile Lammergeier”.  Wow.  We jumped out of the car and I grabbed my camera to take a few record shots..  As it drifted behind a hill we bundled back into the car and made our way back to the road to try to see it again.. We rounded the bend just before the road descends on the Hebei side and saw it again, this time at eye-level as it drifted north in the company of several LARGE-BILLED CROWS.  The fact that we initially though the crows were RED-BILLED CHOUGHS gives an indication of its size.  We watched as this magnificent bird of prey banked around and then flew directly over our heads before slowly heading northwest.  What an encounter!

2016-12-12-lammergeier-juv-lingshan
Juvenile Lammergeier, Lingshan, 12 December 2016. With the dark hood and relatively dark underparts, the colouration of juveniles is different to adults. But that tail is unmistakeable!
2016-12-12-lammergeier-juv-lingshan5
The Lingshan Lammergeier showed very well as it drifted from Beijing into neighbouring Hebei Province.
2016-12-12-lammergeier-juv-lingshan3
Juvenile Lammergeier, Lingshan, 12 December 2016

With the nearest known breeding grounds on the Tibetan Plateau, more than 1,200km to the west, LAMMERGEIER is a bird I wasn’t expecting to see in Beijing.  As far as I know there is only one previous record from the capital, from Shidu, Fangshan District, in February 2008 (Wang Qin) so this is Beijing’s second.

Lingshan delivers again!

A PDF site guide to Lingshan, including travel directions and a map of the best sites, can be downloaded here.

New for Beijing: GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD

The potential for discovery is one of the most exciting elements of birding in Beijing.  Despite being probably the most-birded part of China, new species are recorded regularly.  As one would expect, vagrants make up most of the additions to Beijing’s avifauna.  However it’s an indication of just how little we know about Beijing’s birds that new breeding birds are also being discovered.  Last summer at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, Paul Holt and I discovered GREENISH WARBLERS (Phylloscopus trochiloides) – the first record of this species in Beijing – and a male SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hodgsonii) – the second record for Beijing – both in suitable breeding habitat.  At the time, we speculated about what else could be hiding on the forested slopes of this under-birded site.  Our minds wandered to many outlandish possibilities, including WHITE-BROWED ROSEFINCH, CHESTNUT THRUSH and GREY-HEADED BULLFINCH.  However, as if to tell us we were lacking in ambition, the next secret to be revealed by Lingshan was to be even more outlandish – the discovery of GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS (Turdus boulboul, 灰翅鸫), a primarily Himalayan species!

This is the story..

Last weekend, after a particularly busy May and early June involving very little birding, I decided to escape the Beijing heat for a few days to stay at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, around 100km west of the city centre.  It’s usually at least 10 degrees Celsius cooler here and, of course, the birding is fantastic with a host of breeding phylloscopus warblers, range-restricted species such as GREEN-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula elisae), GREY-SIDED THRUSH (Turdus feae) and some spectacular Sibes such as SIBERIAN BLUE ROBIN (Luscinia cyane), ASIAN STUBTAIL (Urosphena squameiceps) and LONG-TAILED MINIVET (Pericrocotus ethologus).

I enjoyed a wonderful time on the slopes of the mountain, enjoying prolonged views of breeding ‘GANSU’ RED-FLANKED BLUETAILS (Tarsiger cyanurus albocoeruleus) and the recently discovered breeding population of GREENISH WARBLERS (Phylloscopus trochiloides).

GREENISH WARBLER (Phylloscopus trochiloides), Lingshan, 17 June 2016
GREENISH WARBLER (Phylloscopus trochiloides), Lingshan, 17 June 2016

On my final morning I decided to spend the early part of the day birding the slopes below the village by walking down the access road before heading back to Beijing around 0900.  At the furthest point, just as I was about to turn around and walk back up to the car, I heard a thrush singing close by.  The two most likely thrushes at Lingshan at this elevation are GREY-SIDED THRUSH and CHINESE THRUSH.  It definitely wasn’t a Grey-sided and, knowing the variation in Chinese Thrush, I thought it was most likely this species.  Usually, singing birds are very difficult to see but on this occasion, as I looked up the slope, I could see a thrush-sized bird perched on a bare branch on top of the ridge.  Even though it was silhouetted by the rising sun, I set up the telescope to check it out.  What I saw flummoxed me..  it appeared to be a blackish thrush with a clear yellow eye-ring, a yellow bill and a white wing-panel.  The east Asian thrushes flashed through my head but none matched what I was seeing.  Definitely not a Siberian Thrush or a Japanese Thrush…  maybe it was a CHINESE BLACKBIRD with leucism (a condition of partial loss of pigmentation resulting in white patches on the plumage)?  However, I had never before seen a Chinese Blackbird at Lingshan, it was atypical habitat and it didn’t sound like one…  I recorded a short video and committed to following up the sighting when I was home.. By now I was a little late and needed to head back to the car for the journey back to Beijing in time to meet friends for lunch.

The original video clip, horribly backlit.

It wasn’t until the next day that I had the chance to speak to Paul Holt about what I had seen.  He immediately suggested it could be a GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD, a species with which he was very familiar but that I had yet to see.  After checking images of this species online, I was in no doubt that was the bird.

After alerting the Birding Beijing WeChat group, the general reaction from birders was that it was such a bizarre record that it was almost certainly an escape.  One look at the known range of this species suggested why – it is largely a Himalayan bird and the nearest breeding grounds are in far southwest China – in Yunnan, Guangxi and southern Sichuan.

2016-06-23 Grey-winged Blackbird range
The known range of Grey-winged Blackbird.  Copyright BirdLife International.

However, it just didn’t feel right that this bird – singing on a remote mountain 100km to the west of Beijing – was an escape.  A quick check of a list of species recorded in Beijing’s bird markets showed that Grey-winged Blackbird had never been recorded for sale in the capital.  In itself that didn’t prove anything, however it was certainly encouraging…

The most obvious next step was to return to Lingshan to try to establish whether the original bird was alone or part of a small, previously undiscovered, breeding population.

And so, on Wednesday, I teamed up with Paul Holt and headed west.  We arrived at the location of my original sighting, between km 11 and km 12 on the access road, at around 0750.  Immediately we could hear, and see, a Grey-winged Blackbird, presumably the same individual as my original sighting, singing from the same perch, high up to the east of the access road.  After spending a lot of time with this bird, including making sound-recordings and video, the bird stopped singing and so we headed up the mountain to check on the Greenish Warblers that were discovered in a high tract of forest last year.

The following morning, we were out at 0400 to check on the blackbird.  And, as we suspected, there wasn’t just one singing male but two, and then three!  The presence of multiple birds surely reduced, if not eliminated, the chance that these birds were escapes.  Instead, it was most likely we had discovered a small breeding population, more than 1,500 kilometres from the nearest known breeding sites.  Wow!

Grey-winged Blackbird is primarily a Himalayan bird, with the closest known populations in China being in Yunnan, Guangxi and southern Sichuan. The discovery of, most likely breeding, birds at Lingshan represents a significant range expansion.

Thanks to the excellent contributions from Chinese birders on the Birding Beijing WeChat group, especially Lei Jinyu, we now know of several records away from the known range, including 3 records each from Shaanxi and Hubei Provinces, “a few” from Hunan and a single record from Chongqing.  So it is clear the species does occur, at least occasionally, away from southwest China.  It seems likely that the Lingshan birds represent a relict population, survivors of what once might have been a breeding range that extended across China’s mountains from the southwest to the northeast.

Immediately after this discovery, we began to think about what else could be on this magical mountain.  Speculation on the Birding Beijing WeChat group included a suggestion from Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra – “breeding SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER“.  Ben found Beijing’s first record of this species last autumn in the grounds of Tsinghua University.  Incredibly, within 8 hours of his message, Paul found a singing SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER in the same area as the GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS!  The second record for Beijing and, given the date, indicative of possible breeding.  What. A. Day.

Now, the big question is, again: what next for Lingshan?

Big thanks to Paul Holt for his, as always, valuable counsel and for his company on the second visit to Lingshan this week.

Featured Image: Lingshan in June: a magical place.

 

Long-tailed Rosefinches in Beijing

As readers might have noticed, I take every opportunity to rave about the birding in Beijing. One of the reasons is because there is so much opportunity for discovery.  The last few weeks have proved this again.

Until now, Beijing birders had presumed all the LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀), occasionally seen in the capital in winter, are from the population breeding in NE China, Russia and Mongolia (the ussuriensis subspecies).  We don’t see many, and it was only after Paul Holt and I recently visited Wuerqihan, northern Inner Mongolia, where Long-tailed Rosefinches are common, that sharp-eyed (and sharp-eared!) Paul Holt suspected that the birds I had photographed and sound-recorded at Lingshan in October 2014 and November 2015 were of a different subspecies.

2014-10-31 Long-tailed Rosefinch fem, Lingshan
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, Beijing, 31 October 2014.  Note the heavy and contrasting streaking and relatively thin wingbars.
2014-11-25 Long-tailed Rosefinch male, Lingshan
Male Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, 25 November 2014.  Note the contrasting head pattern, including the prominent dark stripe running behind the eye, and the brownish wings contrasting with the pink underparts.
2015-11-09 Long-tailed Rosefinch fem, Lingshan
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, Beijing, 9 November 2015. Again, note the relatively thick and contrasting streaking on the underparts.

To compare, here are a couple of photos of the northeastern ussuriensis subspecies, the only race previously presumed to occurr in Beijing, taken in the Dalian area of NE China, courtesy of Tom Beeke.

Long-tailed Rosefinch 35vfvhj3
(young?) Male Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp ussuriensis.  Note the lack of an obvious dark stripe behind the eye, less contrasting head pattern and less contrast on the wings.
Long-tailed Rosefinch 333242
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp ussuriensis. Note the relative lack of contrasting streaking on the underparts, the overall ‘warmer’ look and the thicker, more prominent, wingbars.

And here is a male from Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia.

2014-12-22 Long-tailed Rosefinch male2, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia
Note the thick wingbar, lack of a dark stripe behind the eye and overall ‘frosty’ appearance.

Compare the calls of one of the Lingshan birds with a bird of the ussuriensis race from Russia :

Lingshan bird (lepidus): 

Ussuriensis from Russia (Albert Lastukhin):

After comparing photos and sound-recordings of ussuriensis with those from Beijing, it became clear that the Lingshan birds were NOT of the ssp ussuriensis.  Instead, the Lingshan birds show the characteristics (dark eye-stripe and brown wings on the male, heavy and contrasting streaking on the female) of the ssp lepidus, the race from central China (according to HBW, this subspecies ranges from Eastern Tibet, east to south Shaanxi and southwest Shanxi).

Photos prove that Long-tailed Rosefinches of the lepidus subspecies have now occured at Lingshan in October/November 2014 and again in November 2015, including adult males.  This suggests that Lingshan may be a regular wintering ground for the lepidus subspecies.

This was quite a shock.

We don’t *think* lepidus breeds in Beijing – they are active and noisy during the breeding season and there have been a few spring/summer visits by birders to Lingshan in the last 2 years, during which one would expect these birds to have been detected had they been present.  So, for the moment at least, it looks as if these birds have moved northeast from their breeding grounds, an unexpected winter movement.

We know that at least some of the few winter records of Long-tailed Rosefinch from lowland Beijing are of the northern subspecies ussuriensis. So Beijing has now recorded two ssp of Long-tailed Rosefinch.

It’s another fascinating, and unexpected, discovery from Lingshan!  What next?

Big thanks to Paul Holt for the initial discovery, to Paul Leader for comments and to Tom Beeke for permission to use his photos of Long-tailed Rosefinch from Liaoning Province.

Red-throated x Black-throated Thrush

In Beijing in winter we are blessed with good numbers of East Asian thrushes…  In my experience NAUMANN’S (Turdus naumanni) is the most common, followed by RED-THROATED (Turdus ruficollis) and DUSKY (Turdus eunomus) with BLACK-THROATED (Turdus atrogularis) being the most scarce.  It is not uncommon to encounter intergrades, and birds exhibiting features of both NAUMANN’S and DUSKY are frequently encountered (see images at the end of this post).  It is much less common to find birds showing features of both Red-throated and Black-throated.  However, that is exactly what I found on Sunday at Lingshan.

An apparent adult RED-THROATED x BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, Lingshan, 1 March 2015
An apparent adult RED-THROATED x BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, Lingshan, 1 March 2015.  Note the presence of both black and reddish feathers on the throat/upper breast.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to capture many (any!) good quality photographs but the two I did manage (above) show the unusually-marked throat and upper breast.  A ‘pure’ Red-throated should show reddish orange marks only on the throat and breast with no black.  And Black-throated should show only black or grey markings here, lacking any reddish tones.  This bird clearly shows a mixture, with black dominating the lower part of the throat-patch and red dominating the upper part and the neck surrounds.  I have never seen a bird like this before but it seems reasonable to assume that this is an intergrade between RED-THROATED and BLACK-THROATED.  Although Red x Black-throated Thrushes are rare in Beijing, they are fairly frequent in Central Asia – see here for some information from Kazakhstan.

Vagrant East Asian thrushes, especially first year birds, still cause some identification problems in Europe (e.g. the 2013 Dusky Thrush at Margate in the UK and the recent putative Red-throated Thrush in Finland).  This is because we don’t know for sure the variability of ‘pure’ birds, complicated by the fact that we know they interbreed.  If we are to improve our knowledge, studies must be made on the breeding grounds, away from areas of potential interbreeding, so that we can better understand natural variation of pure species and pin down the tell-tale signs of intergradation. Although birders in Beijing and East Asia have a lot of experience of these thrushes, because we see these birds on the wintering grounds, in some cases we cannot be certain whether or not we are looking at pure birds or intergrades.. This means we are not best-placed to provide anything other than opinions about what we *think* are signs of intergradation based on seeing hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of these beautiful thrushes.

That said, I think we can all agree that the Lingshan bird is an intergrade.  And what a cracker it was!

Just for interest, here are a couple of apparent DUSKY x NAUMANN’S THRUSHES from Beijing.

2013-12-11 Dusky x Naumann's Thrush intergrade, Peking University
Superficially this bird resembles DUSKY THRUSH but look at those red markings on the breast and flanks… a good indicator of NAUMANN’S influence. Peking University, December 2013

 

2010-11-30 Dusky-Naumann's intergrade
Another bird showing characters of both DUSKY and NAUMANN’S with many reddish marks on the breast and flanks. Botanical Gardens, November 2011.

 

It’s back!

When the male PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTART turned up at Lingshan last winter, it was only the third occurrence in Beijing and the first for 20 years… Given the lack of observer coverage in winter, we speculated whether it might be a more regular visitor than the records suggested… and this speculation gained credibility when a female was found nearby soon after.  The only way we would know the true status of this star bird was to monitor the site over the following winters to see whether they returned…

So far this November I have already made three visits to the site and, despite seeing plenty of the other high-altitude loving redstart – Guldenstadt’s – I have not seen any Przewalski’s.  Was it a late migrant?  Or was the occurrence of the pair last winter really a one-off?  I was beginning to wonder….

Fast forward to late on Thursday evening when I received a message from Breght Vandenberghe, a Belgian birder, to say that he had just visited Lingshan and seen a male PRZEWALSKI’S!  My heart leapt.. and a voice inside my head whispered:

“It’s Back!!!”

Here is a photo from last year as a reminder of just how stunning is this spectacular species.  Big congratulations to Breght for finding the Przewalski’s and huge thanks for passing on the news.

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.
Male PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.

 

 

Return to Lingshan

Lingshan is Beijing’s highest mountain and lies on the border of the Municipality of Beijing and neighbouring Hebei Province.  At a little over 2,300 metres, it is high enough to attract a noticeably different avifauna to that of most sites in the capital and is a great place to connect with some difficult to see species including GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART (Phoenicurus erythrogaster, 红腹红尾鸲) and PALLAS’S (北朱雀), LONG-TAILED (长尾雀) and CHINESE BEAUTIFUL (红眉朱雀) ROSEFINCHES.  ALPINE ACCENTORS (Prunella collaris, 领岩鹨) are regular and, of course, last winter, Lingshan also hosted a pair of the stunningly pretty PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTARTS (Phoenicurus alaschanicus, 贺兰山红尾鸲). So it is with great anticipation that I make my first visits of the winter, never knowing what might be present.  On Thursday I visited with Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra, and his wife Sisi.  Thanks to the anti-pollution measures taken by the Chinese government in advance of hosting the APEC leaders’ summit (essentially shutting down polluting industry, severely restricting private cars and providing cash incentives for residents to take holidays), the weather and air quality were both stunning.  And with hardly a breath of wind, conditions were perfect. Our first stop was at “Przewalski’s Gully”, the buckthorn-filled valley 100m or so below the road’s plateau.  There was no sign of last winter’s star bird but GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) were present in good numbers with at least 8 males at this site plus a similar number of females.  We also connected with LONG-TAILED (长尾雀), PALLAS’S (北朱雀) and CHINESE BEAUTIFUL (红眉朱雀) ROSEFINCHES, a few RED-THROATED THRUSHES (赤颈鸫), some mobile flocks of COMMON REDPOLL (白腰朱顶雀), SIBERIAN ACCENTOR (棕眉山岩鹨) and a supporting cast including WILLOW (ssp songarus, 褐头山雀and SILVER-THROATED (北长尾山雀银喉长尾山雀) TITS, CHINESE HILL BABBLER (山鹛) and PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSH (山噪鹛).

Long-tailed Rosefinch (female), Lingshan
Long-tailed Rosefinch (female), Lingshan

After maybe half an hour we made our way up to the scree slopes to check for ASIAN ROSY FINCH (粉红腹岭雀).  This species is almost certainly annual here but they are nomadic and very unpredictable, probably rotating their time among the several high peaks in the area.  This time we were lucky.  First, we encountered two HORNED LARKS (角百灵) by the side of the road.  Then, a little further along, a small flock of ALPINE ACCENTORS (领岩鹨) flew in close to us.  As we were enjoying these birds I caught sight of a small woodpecker below us in some stunted birches.  Small woodpeckers are not common on Lingshan, especially up high, so my immediate thought was to check that it was indeed the default GREY-CAPPED PYGMY WOODPECKER (星头啄木鸟) and not the very rare JAPANESE PYGMY WOODPECKER (小星头啄木鸟).  I trained my telescope on this bird and immediately noticed a bright red cap – it was a male LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER (小斑啄木鸟), a very rare bird in the capital with just a handful of records (some of which are by visiting birders in the capital’s parks and almost certainly relate to mis-identified GREY-CAPPED PYGMY WOODPECKERS).  Just as I called out the bird to Ben and Sisi, a flock of finches flew in to join the accentors – ASIAN ROSY FINCHES!  At least 4 were present at first and we were immediately distracted from the woodpecker, allowing it to slip away undetected into the birch forest. I could hardly complain – with birding this good, it would be churlish to be disappointed that I did not capture any image at all of the Lesser Spot. We continued to watch the ROSY FINCHES and, soon after, some CHINESE BEAUTIFUL and PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES joined the group and 3 more ‘brandti‘ HORNED LARKS appeared by the roadside.  Then, some chattering overhead signalled the arrival of a large flock of more ASIAN ROSY FINCHES… we estimated at least 100 birds.  Wow! This flock was extremely mobile and no sooner had they settled they would lift up again and wheel around before alighting a few hundred metres away for a few seconds and then up again they went.. it was as if the ground was too cold for their feet!  They finally settled on a scree slope close by and we enjoyed prolonged views of these beautiful birds… After some time with these special birds we parked up by the derelict buildings and began to check the area along the old road.  This is an area with many buckthorn bushes and, in the previous two winters, has been a good place to see GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS, RED-THROATED THRUSHES and PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES.  It didn’t disappoint.  Here there were at least 10 more male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS with at least 4 females.  A mobile flock of REDPOLLS wheeled around noisily overhead and, about half way along the old road, regularly stopped to drink from a small pool.  As they sat in the birch trees awaiting their turn to drink, we were able to ‘scope some of the birds and, in a sample of around 15 birds, we were able to identify 2 definite ARCTIC REDPOLLS (极北朱顶雀) sporting clean undertail coverts and beautifully unmarked white rumps.  Wow – another Beijing mega-rarity. Again, these birds were highly mobile, and despite spending some time close to the drinking pool, I was not able to capture any images of the ARCTIC REDPOLLS.

Common Redpoll, Lingshan, 6 November 2014
Common Redpoll, Lingshan, 6 November 2014

Further down the old road we encountered more PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES, a calling LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCH and a juvenile GOLDEN EAGLE (金雕) soared overhead.  This was Lingshan at its best.

Pallas's Rosefinch (ad male), Lingshan, 6 November 2014
Pallas’s Rosefinch (ad male), Lingshan, 6 November 2014

After enjoying a cockle-warming coffee we made another circuit of the same sites, checking thoroughly for the only bird missing – PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTART.  Alas, despite our search, we drew a blank.  Maybe we were too early?  Or maybe it’s not an annual visitor here and last winter was exceptional?  Only time will tell…  One thing is for sure – I can’t wait for my next visit to this special site. Big thanks to Ben and Sisi for their company on what turned out to be a memorable day.