For some time I have been wanting to record the dawn chorus at Lingshan, a fantastic wooded mountain on the western boundary of Beijing. In late Spring, when the breeding birds have arrived, the woodland comes alive and it’s a cacophony of birdsong.
On the morning of 31 May I set out to record at a series of elevations and stitch them together to provide a 30-minute compilation. The recording begins with the haunting whistle of a White’s Thrush at 0200am before moving to the dawn chorus proper at 0415am at an elevation of 1100m. From there, the recordings move up the mountain, some of which were recorded during light rain, until the final cut at 1550m. Each location provides a different mix of species and includes some of the signature birds of Beijing’s mountains such as Green-backed Flycatcher, Grey-sided Thrush, Himalayan Cuckoo, Large Hawk Cuckoo and many many more. At some point I will make a list of all the species involved but, in the meantime, I hope you enjoy listening!
Earlier this month, on 17 & 18 October 2020, I was delighted to participate in the Global Birding Weekend, an initiative by Tim Appleton MBE in collaboration with eBird and Swarovski Optik. The aim was a worldwide celebration of birds by encouraging people everywhere to go out locally and record the birds they see, with the hope that the combined total might constitute a world record for the highest number of species recorded in a single weekend. It was the perfect excuse to set up a birding trip with the Chevening Scholars – young Chinese who have been sponsored to study in the UK by the British Embassy, many of whom now hold influential positions in the Chinese government.
In conjunction with the British Embassy, we arranged an itinerary that took us to the mountains of Mentougou District in the west of the municipality, spending Saturday afternoon at the Youzhou Valley, followed by the Sunday morning at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain. I had also been invited to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event, organised by Swarovski Optik, on the Sunday afternoon. To add to the excitement, Swarovski had kindly sent me the new 115mm telescope objective lens for us to try out for the weekend! What a treat…
With the oppressive heat of the summer a distant memory, a nip in the air early mornings and in the evenings, combined with the tress displaying a kaleidoscope of colour, October is a wonderful time to be outside in Beijing. And we were blessed with beautiful weather as we made our way to the first site, the Youzhou Valley.
Almost the first bird we saw was Wallcreeper – a rare bird to see away from the regular winter haunt of Shidu in Fangshan District. This was soon followed by a Golden Eagle and a Siberian Accentor before we added Red-billed Chough, Eurasian Crag Martin, Hill Pigeon, Larg-billed Crow and Grey-headed Woodpecker.
After a long walk through the gorge, taking in the magnificent views and adding a few more species such as Japanese Tit, Little Bunting, Red-billed Blue Magpie and Mandarin, we headed back to the minibus for the drive to Lingshan, our overnight accommodation and focus for the following morning.
The drive up to Lingshan was stunning, with the autumn colours in their full glory.
We arrived at our accommodation just as it was getting dark and, after a wholesome home-cooked meal from our hosts, including locally-harvested herbs, we took advantage of the clear skies and tested the 115mm telescope to look for the planets on show – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. With the extra light gathering capability of the 115mm versus the 95mm, Saturn’s rings were obvious and clear, even at 30x (using the 30-70x zoom eyepiece) to the astonishment and joy of the group!
The following day we were up for sunrise and were rewarded with a spectacular early morning, including brief sightings of three Siberian Roe Deer and a hunting Short-eared Owl, as well as a few migrating passerines – Buff-bellied Pipits, Pine Buntings, and a handful of Eurasian Skylarks.
After a quick breakfast back at the guesthouse, we walked a few of the valleys looking for birds and quickly encountered Beijing Babbler, Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Red-throated Thrush, White-winged Redstarts, Silver-throated and Willow Tits, a single Pallas’s Rosefinch, a superb Eastern Buzzard and a Northern Goshawk.
At around 1030am the group split into two, with one following Chris and Rhys from the embassy hiking up to the peak (2,303m asl) and the other joining me to set up an infrared camera in the woods targeting mammals.
After exploring for a while, we found a good narrow animal trail with fresh deer tracks so we set up the camera with the help of the younger members of the group pretending to be deer to make sure we had placed the camera at the right angle…
We’ll leave the camera there for a couple of months and, on collection, will send any images to the group. After setting up the camera, we headed back to the guesthouse for lunch, meeting up with the others who had big appetites after their exertion!
After lunch the Chevening team left for the three-hour journey back to the city whilst I stayed on to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event.. You can watch a recording of that event here.
The relative quiet of the afternoon also allowed me to put the 115mm through its paces.. As one would expect of Swarovski the image quality was outstanding but I wanted to see how it performed in low light conditions.. I stayed on site until dusk and, although it’s hard to believe, I recorded this video of a Red-throated Thrush after the sun had disappeared behind the mountain. The video has not been altered in any way, except for a little cropping, and I was shocked at the brightness of the image.
Red-throated Thrush recorded with Swarovski ATX 115 plus iPhone 6S and adaptor.
Although I was able to test the 115mm objective lens for only a limited time, I can say with confidence that it sets the standard for birding telescopes. The brightness of the image, especially in low light conditions, is simply incredible and I hope I am allowed a longer experience with it very soon to experiment with some more digiscoping..!
In the days following the trip, we were delighted to see the number of species recorded over the weekend creep up as lists were submitted from around the world. At the time of writing, the total number of species recorded over the weekend was an astonishing 7,243 with 7,098 recorded on the Saturday alone, a new world record for the number of species recorded in a single day. You can see the latest news from the Global Birding Weekend here.
Big congratulations to Tim Appleton on the huge success of the event which, as well as beating world records, also raised tens of thousands of pounds for BirdLife International’s appeal to tackle the illegal bird trade. And big thanks to Swarovski Optik for allowing us the use of the brilliant new 115mm objective lens… the only problem now is going back to the 95mm!
For us in Beijing, inspired by the weekend, we now have a group of new birders, enchanted by the birds and other wildlife that can be found in the capital. Some of the participants have already bought their first binoculars (Swarovski of course!) and field guides, and we are now working on plans for the next trip…
Huge thanks to Chris, Rhys and Beibei from the British Embassy for the flawless arrangements and for their great company. Can’t wait until the next one!
On 11 July, local birders Wei Chunzhi, Ren Lipeng and He Yongzhou visited Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, to try to see some of the special breeding birds that are rarely seen in the city. They were rewarded with sightings not only of their main target species – Slaty-backed Flycatcher – but also a big surprise.
Wei Chunzhi tells the story of their adventure, complete with some beautiful photos of the bird and the scenery, and how the sighting of an odd shrike turned into a first for Beijing.
How a Brown Shrike turned into a Grey-backed Shrike!
“My name is Wei Chunzhi (Tracey), a relatively new birder who loves to go birding in Beijing. On 11 July 2020 I visited Lingshan with two friends, Ren Lipeng and He Yongzhou. We were shocked to find a Grey-backed Shrike, the first record of this species in Beijing! Magical days like this are a lot of fun…
Lingshan, as Beijing’s highest mountain, is cool in summer and, with birding slow in the heat of the city during that season, it’s a good place to visit to see some target birds such as Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Rosy Pipit and many other birds that are rarely seen in the city.
It’s hard work to hike at 2,000m while carrying cameras and binoculars. As we were walking up, I suddenly saw a dark bird sitting on top of a cedar tree about 10-20 metres away. I quickly alerted Ren Lipeng and pointed him at the bird. He couldn’t see it at first and then the bird flew. Fortunately, it didn’t fly far and landed on top of another tree close by. This time, both of my friends saw it and managed to take some photographs. Using my ‘toy camera’ and focusing manually, I could only manage a photo of the branches shaking immediately after the bird flew!
After looking at the photos, He Yongzhou confidently announced “Brown Shrike!” (a fairly common breeder in lowland Beijing and a very common passage migrant). Ren Lipeng said it looked a bit like a Grey-backed Shrike and asked me to look at the photo. I also thought the bird looked grey-backed but then thought it must be the greyish subspecies of Brown Shrike (ssp lucionensis) . There are no other shrikes except Chinese Grey, Bull-headed, Brown and Long-tailed. We didn’t spend any more time on the bird and carried on to look for the Slaty-backed Flycatcher and other birds. The joy of seeing many good species – such as Rosy Pipit and the Slaty-backed Flycatcher – made us forget our doubts about the shrike and we marked it as a Brown Shrike on our eBird checklist.
When reviewing the Field Guide to the Birds of China by John MacKinnon we looked at the lucionensis subspecies of Brown Shrike and I felt it was not this bird. After getting copies of the photos from Ren Lipeng and He Yongzhou, I sent the photos to Huang Hanchen who also sent them to Guan Xiangyu, both experienced birders. They responded that it was a Grey-backed Shrike, not only a new species for me but also a new record for Beijing. After learning this news, the three of us were very happy!
This is a story of a Brown Shrike ‘turning into’ a Grey-backed Shrike. Birding not only brings us these exciting moments but also takes us into nature where we can relax, feel calm and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. It reminds us of the main theme of the Chinese Lao Zhuang philosophy – the law of nature.”
Big congratulations to Wei Chunzhi, Ren Lipeng and He Yongzhou for their brilliant find and huge thanks for telling their story and for allowing the use of their photographs. Grey-backed Shrike is typically a bird of the Himalayas, including the Tibetan Plateau, breeding at elevations from 2,700-4,500+ metres above sea level (Birds of the World). It has been recorded as far east as Shanxi Province in summer and at Beidaihe/Happy Island on at least two occasions in spring, so it’s not a complete surprise that it has turned up in the mountains of the capital but, nevertheless, it’s a wonderful addition to the list of species recorded in Beijing. What next?!
When birding at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain in far western Mentougou District, it’s not uncommon to see mammal scat. Tolai Hare is common and I’ve also seen Siberian Rose Deer, Hog Badger and evidence of Wild Boar. A few weeks ago I spotted some scat that looked suspiciously like cat scat. Amur Leopard Cats (Prionailurus bengalensis euptilura) are seen occasionally in Beijing (I’ve enjoyed three sightings myself, including one in broad daylight). However, although probably not uncommon in the mountains around Beijing, Amur Leopard Cats are difficult to see due to their primarily nocturnal habits. And, in the context of Lingshan, there are a couple of small villages close by, so there is always the chance of a domestic cat roaming around.
I decided to set up a camera trap on the trail where I had found the scat and leave it there for a month. Yesterday I retrieved it and was delighted, first to find the camera trap was still there, and second to find a total of 11 images of Amur Leopard Cat, the best four of which are below. The lightly spotted coat, thick tail and pale vertical stripes on the face are all good features of this wild cat, currently treated as a subspecies of Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis).
It just goes to show that one doesn’t need to travel to the Tibetan Plateau to see wild cats.. they’re thriving in the capital city of the world’s most populous country!
Wednesday was a shocker of a day in Beijing. In the last two years, the air quality has improved significantly through a combination of government efforts to shut down coal-fired power stations and old heavy industry, in particular steel production, and favourable winds. However, after a few days of gentle southerly winds, bringing pollution from industrial Hebei Province, the air quality was the worst for many months. If there’s one place to be in those circumstances, it’s the mountains; even the relatively modest 2,303m elevation of Beijing’s highest peak at Lingshan is usually above the smog and enjoys blue skies while the majority of the capital suffocates in a blanket of toxic pollution.
It wasn’t the pollution forecast but instead a happy coincidence that I had arranged to visit Lingshan with good friend and fellow Beijinger, Steve Bale. It would be my first visit to this special site since summer and the first visit of the winter invariably evokes memories of the special birds I’ve been lucky to encounter there, not least the male PRZEVALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART from February 2014.
The morning started brightly with the expected blue skies and clean air, enabling us to look towards downtown Beijing cloaked in a horrible grey-brown murk.
As usual, our first stop was ‘Przewalski’s Gully”, the site of that memorable 2014 find. A group of six PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSHES, a single RED-THROATED THRUSH and a pair of BEIJING BABBLERS greeted us we made our way up the gully, shortly followed by three male and two female WHITE-WINGED (GULDENSTADT’S) REDSTARTS and a pair of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.
After birding the gully we headed up to the ‘old road’ and, with the sun behind us, started to walk up the valley. It was fairly quiet with a few RED-THROATED THRUSHES, a handful of GODLEWSKI’S and MEADOW BUNTINGS and a trickle of WHITE-WINGED REDSTARTS.
After reaching the top, I headed back down the valley to collect the car while Steve made his way on foot along the road, passing the formerly derelict, now shiny and renovated, buildings. Collecting Steve as I drove up, we stopped briefly at the ‘saddle’ to check the rocky slopes for ASIAN ROSY FINCHES or ALPINE ACCENTORS (sadly absent) before continuing along the road as it began to descend. With windows open and almost no wind we were listening for birds and almost immediately we heard the familiar call of CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH. Two males were sitting up in some dwarf birches, showing off their stunning pink plumage. A resident breeder, these birds are always a delight to see.
Continuing on we stopped after only a few metres when I thought I heard a PINE BUNTING. We stopped the car at a shallow gully, dotted with silver birch trees.
Steve began to walk up the gully as I checked the top close to the road. As Steve made his way up we saw a few MEADOW BUNTINGS, a GODLEWSKI’S BUNTING and a couple of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS. It was at this point that I heard a harsh ‘tick’ call that I thought could be a redstart. Suddenly, a bird flew past me at head height at such speed that I was unable to lift my binoculars in time.. My first reaction, on seeing the striking orange underparts, was “that was a really bright stonechat”! However, a split second later as it headed down the gully, I could see the dark wings with a white wing-bar and immediately knew it was a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, a species with which I am familiar from the Valley of the Cats on the Tibetan Plateau. Wow!
I could see that the bird dropped and appeared to land in bushes at the bottom the gully, from where Steve had walked in. I shouted to Steve and he quickly joined me at the top of the gully. Steve agreed to head back down the road to the bottom of the gully while I stayed at the top to ensure I could see it if it relocated. I spotted it deep in a bush and, as Steve made his way down, it made two brief forays onto the grassy slope to catch insects, before heading back to the bushes. After a couple of minutes, Steve was at the base of the gully and secured a few record images as it foraged for insects. Relieved that we had some documentation of the record, I headed down with the car and we both viewed from the road as the redstart caught insects and, occasionally, delivered a relatively quiet subsong. After enjoying the bird for around half an hour and securing some photos and video from a safe distance, we decided to move on, feeling elated at such an unexpected find.
Lingshan lies on the boundary of Beijing Municipality and Hebei Province and, whilst the peak is in Beijing, the border snakes erratically and some of the areas to the north and west are in Hebei. On checking the specific location on Google Maps, we found that the White-winged Redstart was in Hebei Province, around 250m outside Beijing, so technically it can’t be counted as a Beijing record, although I suspect it would be possible to view from inside the capital!
White-throated Redstart is, I believe, the 5th species of Phoenicurus redstart to be encountered at Lingshan after Black, Daurian, Przevalski’s and White-winged, and adds to the growing number of Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau species found in the mountains around Beijing. With the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau linked, albeit loosely, to the capital via the severely under-birded Qinling, Luliang and Taihang ranges, it’s entirely possible that more Plateau species occasionally make their way to the mountains around Beijing. What price a Blue-fronted or Hodgson’s Redstart?
Big thanks to Steve Bale for his great company and use of his photos from the trip.
According to HBW, White-throated Redstart (Phoenicurus schisticeps) is a high-altitude breeder (2400-4500m) in Central and Eastern Himalayas East from West Central Nepal, and Central China (East and Southeast Qinghai, South Gansu and Southwest Shaanxi, South to South and Southeast Tibet and North Yunnan). It is mostly sedentary with some elevational movements in winter, down to 1,400m. The Lingshan bird is >1,000km to the east of its normal range and, with only one historical record from a park in coastal Hebei (PH via WeChat), this is possibly only the second record for Eastern China. We’d both be very interested to hear about other extralimital records of this species in eastern China.
Title photo: White-throated Redstart, Lingshan by Steve Bale.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
And here is a male from Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia.
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.
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.
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.