An Unfortunate Vulture

On Saturday I visited Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, with 吴岚 (Wu Lan).  It’s a long drive – around 100km – but straightforward as it’s all along the G109.  Lingshan was the location of GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter and looking for this species was one of the aims of the visit.  Leaving well before dawn to miss the traffic, it was stunning to see the colours on the mountains change from a dark pink to a bright orange as the sun rose in the southeast..  Beijing’s mountains really are beautiful.

On the way we were fortunate to see a flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS (小太平鸟) by the roadside at Qingshui…

A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui
A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui

On arrival at Lingshan we quickly spotted a few GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) on the sea buckthorn bushes near the peak.  Stunning birds, especially in flight, there were at least 10 present in the area.

The view from the top of Lingshan looking north.
The view from the top of Lingshan looking north east.
A male GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.

As well as the redstarts, there are also good numbers of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀) and DARK-THROATED THRUSHES (mostly RED-THROATED 赤颈鸫).  

2013-12-07 Pallas's Rosefinches
PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES are superb little birds. And Lingshan is probably the best place to see them in Beijing.
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan.  This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED but not 100% sure....
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan. This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED (reddish tail) but not 100% sure…. could be some BLACK-THROATED influence.

We had only been on the mountain a short time when we saw a distressing sight – a CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) that was clearly injured..  It was hobbling uphill dragging its right wing along the ground.

Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..
Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..

The vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires of this nearby communications tower.

The communications tower at Lingshan.  This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.
The communications tower at Lingshan. This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.

Having previously visited the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre, they were the obvious people to call for advice and 张率 (Zhang Shuai), the head of the centre, said “please catch it and bring it in for treatment – if not, it will die tonight with an open wound in these temperatures.”  She ended the call with “Don’t worry – you will be able to out-run it.”

It sounded easy.  We just catch it, put it in the boot of the car and drive the 100km back to Beijing to the rescue centre.

At this point I regretted not carrying a large box in the back of the car and, with no prospect of finding one on top of a remote mountain, we decided that covering the bird with my thick down winter coat would be the best way to capture it and cover it for the journey back to Beijing.

We began the walk up the hill to where the we last saw the bird and, sure enough, we soon found it.  It was laying on its back with its legs kicking in the air.. clearly in some distress.

The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.
The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.

At this point, 吴岚 (Wu Lan) was brilliant.  She ran towards it and covered it with my coat before it had a chance to right itself and scramble away.

cinereous vulture with wu lan
吴岚 (Wu Lan) just after ‘capturing’ the vulture.

Wrapping it in my fleece and covering its head with Wu Lan’s hat, we were able to calm it and, after a couple of minutes, we lifted it (7kg as it turns out) and began to walk to the car.  It was heavy and we both took shifts in carrying it down the hill to the car.

Me carrying the vulture off the hill.
Me carrying the vulture off the hill.  At this point we were hopeful of the bird’s survival.

We wrapped it gently in my coat and placed it in the boot of the car… It was big enough to sit upright in the backseat with a seatbelt on but, with a broken wing, it was clearly best to be in a dark place to minimise the stress.  And so we began the journey back to Beijing, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.  The injury was clearly very bad, with part of the wing bone protruding and lots of blood.

It took around 2.5 hours to reach the raptor centre and, on arrival, the impressive 张率 (Zhang Shuai) was ready – she had already prepared the operating theatre – and the bird was immediately put under anaesthetic to allow a thorough inspection of the wound.

The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The wound was bad.
The wound was bad.  And the bird was injected with fluids to offset the blood loss and dehydration.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) got to work immediately and cleaned up the wound before taking an x-ray to assess the damage.

2013-12-07 Cinereous Vulture broken wing xray
The x-ray revealed the terrible extent of the injury – breaks on both wing-bones with bad splintering.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) looked at us with tears in her eyes.  We knew immediately what she was going to say.  The injuries were too bad to fix and, with a bird this size, a life in captivity would be miserable for a majestic bird that is used to ruling the skies over the mountains of northern China and Mongolia.  It was emotional for us all.  This poor bird had been doing exactly what it was meant to do – patrolling the skies over the mountains looking for food – when it had collided, badly, with an alien, and almost invisible, structure.   There was no option.  This magnificent bird had to be euthanised.

I can’t help thinking that if the support wires had been marked with flags or even painted a contrasting colour instead of the almost unnoticeable silver grey, this bird might have seen them and taken evasive action.  It seemed such an unnecessary, and desperately sad, death.

RIP.

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Asian Rosy Finch at Lingshan

After Jan-Erik’s report of a flock of 40+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES at Lingshan on Sunday 10 March, I returned to this fantastic winter site to try my luck.  After the 2.5 hr drive from Beijing, we arrived at the peak at around 0800.  It was a fantastic morning with -7 temperatures and light low cloud causing a beautiful frost.

Lingshan in the early morning frost.
Lingshan in the early morning frost.

The cloud burned off quickly to leave a stunning vista that was reminiscent of a Christmas card.  With almost no wind, it was a super day to be on the mountain.

First stop was the slope where Jan-Erik had seen the finches on Sunday.  We scanned this and each nearby slope carefully but to no avail.  The lack of wind meant that bird calls could be heard at large distances and I was confident that given we couldn’t hear them, the Asian Rosy Finches were not around, at least not in the immediate vicinity.  After trying a few other nearby slopes we decided to have a change of scene and to move on to the site where the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS had been to see if they were still there.  They were.  We counted at least 17 (including 9 females sitting together at one point) and we enjoyed these birds for half an hour or more as they regularly dropped down to the berries.  There were two more further up the road, making at least 19 in total.  A very healthy count.  A stunning male Black-throated Thrush, along with a few Red-throated, were enjoying the same bounty.

Guldenstadt's Redstart (male), Lingshan.  This bird is a first winter male (brownish tips to the primaries).
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male), Lingshan. This bird is a first winter male (brownish tips to the primaries).
Guldenstadt's Redstart (female), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (female), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt's Redstart (male).  Take-off shows the extensive white wing patches (hence the alternative name of "White-winged Redstart").
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male). Take-off shows the extensive white wing patches (hence the alternative name of “White-winged Redstart”).

We returned to the top to the area around the derelict buildings and were gob-smacked to see a CINEREOUS VULTURE perched on a boulder close by the track, much to the annoyance of the resident Large-billed Crows, which it positively dwarfed!  Wow…  What a beast!

Cinereous Vulture, Lingshan.  This bird was constantly harassed by the Large-billed Crows. At one point, one even jumped onto its back!
Cinereous Vulture, Lingshan. This bird was constantly harassed by the Large-billed Crows. At one point, one even jumped onto its back!

Again we scanned the slopes with no luck and decided to stop by one of the ridges to have some noodles for lunch…  I was beginning to feel that it just wouldn’t be our day and that maybe the Asian Rosy Finches had moved on.  However, just as we finished the most delicious pot noodles (they taste so good when you’ve been outside all morning!), I could hear a bird heading our way uttering a finch-like call that I did not recognise..  I got on to it and saw it was accompanied by a second, and watched both through my binoculars, unfortunately in bad light, as they passed us.  From the silhouette I could see they were largish finches with an almost lark-like flight.  Sturdy birds relative to Pallas’s Rosefinch.  I suspected they were ASIAN ROSY FINCHES but wasn’t 100% sure.  Fortunately, I kept my binoculars on them and they turned and headed back towards us, this time heading right overhead.  I grabbed the camera and took a couple of record flight images as they passed.  They headed east and then banked north, eventually being lost to view behind a rocky outcrop.  I looked at the images on the camera and, although they won’t win any prizes, I thought that there was probably enough detail to identify them as Asian Rosy Finches.  This was confirmed when I looked at them on my computer screen…  Result!

Asian Rosy Finch in flight.  The markings on the undertail coverts, forked tail and head colouration all help to confirm the id.
Asian Rosy Finch in flight. The markings on the undertail coverts, forked tail and head colouration all help to confirm the id.
Asian Rosy Finch, Lingshan.  Patience rewarded.
Asian Rosy Finch, Lingshan. Patience rewarded.

An adult Golden Eagle passed at head height shortly afterwards and, a few minutes later, a party of 6 Red-billed Chough.  It was still a stunning day and a real wrench to eventually tear ourselves away from the mountain top.  A couple of Racoon Dogs (apparently recently released) were also hanging around the derelict buildings but there was no sign of any Pallas’s Rosefinches.

This Racoon Dog, apparently deliberately released last weekend, was holed up in a drainage channel.
This Racoon Dog, apparently deliberately released last weekend, was holed up in a drainage channel.

Comment: Lingshan may well be a regular winter site for Asian Rosy Finch.  A flock of 200+ was reported from there two winters ago (6 March 2010, the report from which also lists 8 GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS) and there have now been 3 sightings this winter – a single on 2 February (per Birdtalker), Jan-Erik’s flock of 40+ on Sunday and our 2 birds this week.  Of course this winter has been an excellent one for northern species, so Asian Rosy Finch may be part of an unusual irruption but they could also be annual given not many birders visit there.  We just don’t know!  That’s one of the beauties of birding in Beijing…

Full Species List:
Whooper Swan – 8 flying west over Zhaitang reservoir
Mandarin – 6 (5 males and a female) along the Yong Ting River (seen from car)
Goosander – 1 female on Zhaitang reservoir
Little Grebe – 1 on the Yong Ting River (seen from car)
Grey Heron – 2 standing on the frozen Zhaitang reservoir
Cinereous Vulture – 1 perched on a boulder by the road near the derelict buildings at the top of Lingshan
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1 at the top of Lingshan
Golden Eagle – 1 adult flew past the top of Lingshan
Hill Pigeon – 9
Spotted Dove – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2 seen from the car along G109 (both checked for Great Grey)
Jay – 2
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 4
Common Magpie – lots
Nutcracker – 1 heard
Red-billed Chough – 7
Daurian Jackdaw – 1 along G109
Large-billed Crow – at least 30 at the top of Lingshan
Waxwing sp – a flock of 30 seen near the 6th West Ring Road
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 2
Songar (Willow) Tit – 2
Silver-throated Tit – 3 at the top of Lingshan
Chinese Hill Babbler – one crossed the G109 in front of the car
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – a flock crossed the G109 in front of the car
Nuthatch sp – 1 calling incessantly at the top of Lingshan
Black-throated Thrush – 2 at least (including a stunning adult male with the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS)
Red-throated Thrush – 14 at least on berries at the top of Lingshan
Naumann’s Thrush – 2 seen from the car along the G109
GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART – at least 19 (at least 17 on berry bushes at the bend just below the summit and 2 on berry bushes opposite the radio mast)
Tree Sparrow – 1 at the top of Lingshan; many seen from the car along the G109
Brambling – 3 at the top of Lingshan with the redstarts
Oriental Greenfinch – 4 at the top of Lingshan
ASIAN ROSY FINCH – 2 flew over the road about 300m beyond the derelict buildings
Godlewski’s Bunting – 20+ along the road near the summit
Meadow Bunting – 6 including at least 3 singing males

Güldenstädt’s Redstart

Guldenstadt's Redstart (male), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male), Lingshan.

Güldenstädt’s Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus), also sometimes known as White-winged Redstart, is the world’s largest redstart.  It breeds at high altitudes from 3,600–5,200 m in alpine meadows and rock-fields, moving to slightly lower altitudes in winter.  Apparently, the northernmost population, in the mountains around Lake Baikal, migrate furthest and sometimes reach northeastern China.

I had heard that this bird occasionally showed up in Beijing in winter.  However, I wasn’t aware of any regular sites and so it wasn’t really on my radar.

However, during the visit to the Mentougou District to see the BROWN ACCENTOR last week, I realised that we were relatively close to Lingshan, a mountain (Beijing’s highest peak) near the border with Hebei Province.  I had heard about this site but never visited.  We decided to take the opportunity to have a quick look and, although we didn’t have much time – only an hour at the top – I was very pleased we did.  The road to the peak was a little treacherous, but passable, and as the landscape opened up as we neared the top it was obvious that the area had potential.  This potential was realised almost immediately when we spotted some redstarts atop some berry bushes by the side of the road.  Although superficially looking similar to the common Daurian Redstart, it would be highly unlikely to find Daurian Redstarts at the top of a mountain in winter…and these birds looked BIG!  We got out of the car to investigate and, as soon as one of the males flew, showing a huge white wing patch, it was clear that this was a different redstart sp – Güldenstädt’s Redstart – a high altitude specialist.  Wow.  There were many birds present and we counted at least 17, a mixture of males and females.  We think this is a record Beijing count.  We enjoyed these birds for a good 30 minutes, and also saw several Black- and Red-throated Thrushes sharing the same shrubs, before reluctantly leaving for the journey back to Beijing.

The males are spectacular in flight, displaying an eye-catching white panel in the wings (hence the alternative name "White-winged Redstart").
The males are spectacular in flight, displaying an eye-catching white panel in the wings (hence the alternative name “White-winged Redstart”).

My report of these birds to Beijing birders caused something of a stir and, on Saturday, I returned to the spot with Per Alström and Jennifer Leung and we were joined by Swedish birder, Anders Magnussen, who had driven from Tainjin (!) and three cars full of Beijing birders led by Zhu Lei.

A sociable visit to a cold Lingshan on Saturday to see the Guldenstadt's Redstarts.
A sociable visit to a cold Lingshan on Saturday to see the Guldenstadt’s Redstarts.

This second visit, with more time to explore the area and more pairs of eyes, proved even more productive with an astonishing 28+ redstarts counted (Anders, who arrived before us, estimated at least 40) plus at least 60 PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES, a single BOHEMIAN WAXWING and at least 50 dark-throated thrushes (mostly Red-throated).

Three of the 60+ Pallas's Rosefinches at Lingshan.  These are females or immature males.
Three of the 60+ Pallas’s Rosefinches at Lingshan. These are females or immature males.

We also enjoyed good views of Songar Tit, 3 Cinereous Vultures and an Upland Buzzard.  We dipped on the hoped for ASIAN ROSY FINCH, 200 of which were seen at this location a few winters ago.. but that didn’t detract from a very productive day.  My thanks to Per, Jennifer, Anders, Zhu Lei and friends for their good company!

Jan-Erik Nilsen visits Lingshan

I am delighted to publish another guest post from Jan-Erik Nilsen who has been systematically exploring the mountains around Beijing this summer….  Here is a report of his visit to Lingshan, west of Beijing City.

Trip report from Lingshan mountain, Saturday, July 14th.

Lingshan is located west of the capital and, reaching a height of 2303 m, it is the highest peak in the larger Beijing area.

Driver Mr Lu picked me up at 6.30 and, via Starbucks at Guo Mao for coffee, we went towards the west, first along the 3rd ring road, then along the G109 road. The road follows a river through a valley and gives some nice mountain views, especially the last part before reaching Lingshan. The villages along the road looked comparatively prosperous, every fence and house was recently painted, the bricks in the walls in perfect order. Quite different from along a similar river valley road to Baihua Shan, just some 20 km to the south where I went the weekend before, where the villages looked rather poor. At 10.30 we reached the parking at the end of the road, at an altitude of 1500 m, on the eastern side of Lingshan.

A Claudia’s Leaf Warbler sang in a strange way at the parking, kept me busy until it uttered more familiar calls. A Yellow-streaked Warbler sang, a male Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, and a male Russet Sparrow jumped among the cars and contributed to a good birding start.

Russet Sparrow, Lingshan car park

There are two options to get to the top. A 3-hour hike, or a 20-minute ride by cable car to 1900m followed by only a 1-hour hike. Loudspeakers on the cable car were screaming Chinese heavy metal music – this Chinese band could rather have left this particular music genre to the British and American bands who know how it should be done. The hiking track ran just beside the cable car, so the choice actually became 20 minutes of Chinese heavy metal or 2 hours. A simple choice – cable car of course. The slope is covered by birch trees, except a wide alpine meadow with flowers and butterflies under the cable cars and on both sides of the hiking track. From 1900m to the peak, it is mostly rocky alpine meadows, and a few patches of birch trees. Cattle, horses and yaks keep the grass short and other vegetation low.

The view from the cable car at Lingshan
An alpine meadow at Lingshan

I hiked towards the peak, which had so far been obscured by clouds, but after a while the sun broke through and the peak was revealed. I spent more than an hour up there, and enjoyed spectacular mountain views. New clouds passed all the time, some touched the peak and it became very foggy during shorter intervals, else min. 20 km visibility. It’s cooler in the mountains than in the city, a main reason why this Scandinavian enjoys doing mountain trips during the 35C hot Beijing summer.

Lingshan peak in the clouds

On the way down, a group of yaks had approached the track and a group of 20 Chinese tourists took pictures of them. So did I, and in my search for the perfect angle I happened to come close to the leader bull. So far it had been lazy resting on the ground, with all other yaks feeding around it. The bull stood up and began to walk firmly towards me. I ran away and it stopped after a few meters, but it continued to stare at me. The 20 tourists may have been more scared than I was, but I don’t recommend anyone to assume a 1000 kg yak bull will be a particularly friendly animal, however cosy they may look.

I saw some passerines that briefly jumped up to a big rock 200 m up on the mountain, so I went up there to check them. A group of 5 Beautiful Rosefinches. The strange thing was that the group of yaks continued to stare at me when I went up there, and even though there was a group of people much closer to them. It seems I had been labelled of ‘bad standing’ among the yaks on Lingshan.

“What are you lookin’ at?”

The mountain tracks were crowded, lots of tourists, some of them bringing their dogs, some people supplying horse rides for the tourists, a few vendors along the track, and at the peak they regularly fired off firecrackers. Despite that, some nice birds were seen. Rosy Pipits on the way, and a pair of Rosys close to the peak carried food in their bills, proving they are breeding here. A Red-billed Chough called. I counted 8 singing Chinese Leaf Warblers along the way and the total count of Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches was 12. How could you not fall in love with a bird with such a beautiful name?

Rosy Pipit, Lingshan.
Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch (female), Lingshan

Back at the parking again, I found more Russet Sparrows.  The total count became 5, one carrying food in its bill so they must be breeding there, too. It’s too far north, outside their area according to the books, but it’s not the first time Chinese birds have different ideas of their breeding area than what the books teaches. Ref. Spike Millington, he has observations of Russet Sparrow from Baihuashan and Lingshan and Jesper Hornskov in an e-mail says it is fairly common north of Huairou, so it seems it is not very remarkable in the Beijing mountain areas anymore.  McKinnon writes it ‘lives in flocks in upland open forest, woodland or scrub near cultivation, and in the absence of House Sparrow it becomes a bird of towns and villages’. For the Beijing area Tree Sparrows could replace House Sparrow in this statement. Tree Sparrows are normally just about everywhere where there is a house or a human, but I saw none of them up here, giving the space to Russet Sparrows.

On the way home, east of Lingshan, we stopped to take pictures on some dramatic slopes, and saw three Red-billed Choughs.

Let me try a not very scientific assessment of the four mountain areas, all in the larger Beijing area, I have visited in June and July this year; from SW to NE Baihuashan, Lingshan, Haitoushan and Wulingshan. Wulingshan and Haitoushan have deeper, more diverse and lush mountain forests and larger areas of coniferous forests, which will likely provide more species. Wulingshan is the best for birding, but based just on what the forests look like, I think Haitoushan is in the competition, and could deserve more attention. Baihuashan and Lingshan have more birch forests, and they have alpine meadows of a kind not found on the other two – especially Lingshan which has vast alpine meadows.

Wulingshan and Haitoushan have forests in a character of their own. They are more virgin and deep enough to bring a certain mysterious feeling. A kind of feeling difficult to describe but I think many who have wandered into a deep forest in Scandinavia is familiar with it. Even if you are alone, deep into the forest, it feels like someone is watching you. Entities from ancient myths will soon not seem so unlikely anymore. You begin to feel uncomfortable. You get lost. You cannot find the way. When you finally come out of the forest you are far from where you thought you would be. Some people, me not included, are scared of walking alone into such forests.

No one should hesitate to go to Lingshan because of the many tourists or the heavy metal loudspeakers. The alpine meadows are vast and very nice, peaceful areas can be found just a hundred metres off the track. The meadows bring more Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches and Rosy Pipits than elsewhere, they can hardly be missed at Lingshan. The road to get there has some spectacularly nice views, and on the way you can have a look at Cuandixia, a village of over 70 Ming and Qing dynasty courtyard houses. I would certainly have stopped there if I hadn’t run out of time.

And if you go – don’t forget the sun-block!

 

Full species list:

Common Pheasant   Phasianus colchicus     1 heard along the road, E of Lingshan
Rock Pigeon Columba livia ca 10
Black-billed Magpie Pica pica ca 10
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 1 heard + 3 in a group seen along the road, E of Lingshan
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos ca 15
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 5
Yellow-bellied Tit Parus venustulus 2
Yellow-streaked Warbler Phylloscopus armandii 3 singing
Chinese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus yunnanensis (sichuanensis) 8 singing
Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei 1 calling
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler (Blyth’s Leaf Warbler) Phylloscopus claudiae (reguloides) 1 singing
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis 1 singing
Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans 5 (2 m 1 f 2 looked juv)
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea 1
Rosy Pipit Anthus roseatus 4 (1+1+1 pair)
Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch Carpodacus davidianus (pulcherrimus) 12
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides 4