I have always struggled to separate Little Stint (Calidris minuta) and Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis). One of the reasons is that the former is rarely seen (or at least rarely identified) in Beijing, meaning that the opportunities to study Little Stint are few. But perhaps the main reason is that, without excellent views, they are hard to separate!
Last week I was fortunate to enjoy prolonged views of a group of juvenile stints at Ma Chang, on the shores of Guanting Reservoir, Yanqing County in the northwest of the capital. In the early morning light, everything looked good.. and, as I was scanning the shoreline for migrants, picking up a juvenile Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), a first calendar year Relict Gull (Ichthyaetus relictus), several Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) and 13 Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), a small group of stints flew in and landed just a few metres in front of me. Through binoculars I could see that the group consisted of mostly juvenile Red-necked Stints and one Temminck’s Stint (Calidris temminckii). Scanning carefully I saw two individuals that appeared brighter than the majority of the Red-necked Stints, more contrasting and with apparently slightly longer legs. Having my telescope with me, I lowered it, crouched down and began to look closely at these two brighter birds. I could see obvious ‘tramlines’ down the back, a more contrasting head pattern with a dark central crown and very dark centres to the lower scapulars and coverts. Could these be Little Stints? Shortly after, I took some video using my iPhone attached to my Swarovski ATX telescope, and some still photographs. As I was watching, one of the brighter birds joined a lone Red-necked Stint and, remarkably, the pair stood side by side for several seconds, allowing me to capture some video and still photographs of the two together in the same pose.
It seemed like several minutes that I was able to enjoy these birds at close quarters before a juvenile Peregrine flew along the shoreline, flushing the whole group.
After I returned home and looked at the images on my laptop, I was hopeful but cautious that I may have seen two juvenile Little Stints, potentially the first I have seen in Beijing. However, I was far from sure and wanted a second opinion. I sent a selection of images to Dave Bakewell in Malaysia who is an authority on shorebirds and has written extensively about identifying this tricky pair.
Dave responded very quickly to say that all of the images I had sent were of Little Stint and gave a detailed explanation as to why. These are the features of juvenile Little Stint:
Overall less elongated profile
Dark centres to the lower scapulars and coverts with clearly demarcated fringes;
Well-streaked neck sides;
Dark central crown;
Relatively contrasting ‘tramlines’ on mantle
Long tibia and tarsi;
“Ball-shaped” body and small head
I’ve edited the video clips and compiled the short video below, showing the two side by side. I hope it’s instructive.
Big thanks to Dave Bakewell for sharing his knowledge of this tricky pair. Anyone interested in the identification of stints should see his excellent website and videos on YouTube.
Title image: Red-necked (left) and Little Stint side by side at Ma Chang, 27 August 2019 (Terry Townshend)
Ma Chang, in Yanqing County, northwest Beijing, is my absolute favourite birding site in April. Although not particularly glamourous with a series of wind turbines, small-scale agriculture and lots of litter left by the tourists who visit to ride horses or drive beach buggies, its geography – on the southeastern shore of Guanting Reservoir – makes it a wonderful place for migration. Early in the month there is a good chance of spotting the spectacular ORIENTAL PLOVER on its way from wintering grounds in Australia to breeding grounds in Inner and Outer Mongolia, and it’s a brilliant place to experience good numbers of pipits and wagtails as they make their way north. WHITE WAGTAILS lead the charge and five of the six subspecies recorded in Beijing have been seen here – leucopsis, ocularis, baicalensis, ‘eastern alba‘ and personata. I am sure it is only a matter of time before the sixth subspecies – lugens – is recorded at this site.
Groups of Citrine Wagtails pass through and it’s not uncommon to see flocks of 20+. Water Pipits are gradually eclipsed by Buff-bellied Pipits as the month progresses and several hundred of the latter can be seen in the middle of the month, with Red-throated, Richard’s and Blyth’s joining the fray a little later. The vagrant Meadow Pipit has also been recorded here several times in early April.
Last Monday I spent a few hours at Ma Chang at the end of the day. There were some tourists riding horses, a few buggies being driven around, it was windy and my expectations were not high. Nevertheless, I found a lovely mixed group of White and Citrine Wagtails on the foreshore and was enjoying watching them feed on the flying insects close to the water.
The White Wagtails were dominated by ocularis (“Siberian Wagtail”) with a few leucopsis (“Chinese Wagtail”) and a couple of baicalensis (“Baikal Wagtail”). As I was observing these birds, I heard a faint sound that reminded me of SWINHOE’S RAIL. It was a vocalisation I had first heard at Wuerqihan in Inner Mongolia in June 2018. I immediately dismissed the thought – a singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing would be ridiculous, surely! But as soon as I had re-trained my concentration on the wagtails, I heard it again… and again. The sound was faint, coming towards me from a small inaccessible island of grass and a few small trees, against the wind, and was competing to be heard amongst the din of revolving wind turbines, the wind itself and calling Black-headed Gulls and Black-winged Stilts.
I moved as close to the sound as I could and listened, intently. There it was again, this time a fraction clearer. Fortunately I had my sound recording kit with me and I scrambled to retrieve it from my backpack whilst hoping that the vocalisations would continue.
They did, and I managed to record a few snippets before the source fell silent, coinciding with a low pass by a hunting Eurasian Sparrowhawk.
A few minutes later I heard the sound again, three maybe four times before again it fell silent.
I was fairly sure the sound was of a SWINHOE’S RAIL but given the magnitude of the record, I had to consider the possibility of it being a frog or a cricket.
I was planning to stay overnight close by and hoped that, in the early morning with less wind and much reduced background noise, I may be able to hear the vocalisation more clearly if the bird was still there. At the guest house, I looked at the sonogram of the sound I had recorded and compared it with that from my recordings of Swinhoe’s Rail from Inner Mongolia last June. The sonogram of the sound from Ma Chang looked good on the screen – 6 or 7 notes in each vocalisation at a frequency of 2kHz. Wow.
The following morning I was on site before dawn and it was wonderfully still – perfect conditions to listen and record sounds. Sadly, I never heard it again. Despite the sonogram looking very good for SWINHOE’S RAIL, I was keen on a second opinion. I sent the recording to a few local birders and most thought it sounded good but cautioned about their lack of experience with the species. Then Paul Holt replied, agreeing that it was indeed a SWINHOE’S RAIL. That gave me the confidence to put out the news – thanks Paul!
Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) is one of east Asia’s least known birds. Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake, Jiangxi Province, in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.
It was only three years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia. And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia. I was fortunate to visit Wuerqihan in June 2018 and recorded its song and trill.
Some stunning news has just reached me of a juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER that was photographed at Yeyahu, Beijing, on 31 August by Zhang Minhao, a junior high school student. Big thanks to Huang Hanchen and Guan Xiangyu for the heads-up. Here is the photo:
And here is Zhang Minhao’s personal account:
A Brief Account for the Record of a Juvenile Spoonbill Sandpiper in Beijing by Zhang Minhao, October 16, 2014.
“The Spoon-billed Sandpiper was photographed at Machang, Yeyahu, Yanqing County, Beijing, on August 31, 2014.
At around 09:45am on 31 August 2014 I was observing Red-necked Stints, Long-toed Stints, and Long-billed Plovers near a large area of water on the edge of Guanting Reservoir. This area is known as Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake. In order to avoid missing the distant shorebirds, I checked the areas where the Red-necked Stints were located by looking through my camera, and took pictures of the birds I could see.
When reviewing my photographs I recognised something distinctive, a juvenile Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The time of the photograph was 09:49am.
The single Spoon-billed Sandpiper foraged and preened alone, without mixing with other species. And there were no other Spoon-billed Sandpipers around it. About 3 minutes later 3 Red-necked Stints flew to its vicinity causing the Spoon-billed Sandpiper to fly and it alighted further away on the mudflat. But when I got there the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was not to be seen and it was never seen again.”
(Thanks to Guan Xiangyu for contacting Zhang Minhao about this account and to Huang Hanchen for the translation).
There are several brilliant things about this record. First, it’s a SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, one of the world’s most endangered birds (see here to read about just how few remain and for details of the international effort to try to save this species). Second, it’s of a juvenile, one of very few sightings of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper of this age in the world, giving hope to the conservation effort. Third, it was found in Beijing, one of the world’s major capital cities, more than 150km from the coast. And finally, the finder was a young Chinese birder.
It’s a truly remarkable record. And I hope this sighting by Zhang Minhao inspires other young people in Beijing and beyond to take up birding and to become part of an ever-louder voice to help conserve the amazing biodiversity with which China is blessed.
On Friday I visited Ma Chang with Global Times journalist Jiang Yuxia (writing an article about birding in Beijing) and Jennifer Leung. After a few days of cold and windy weather, the forecast was for a change in the wind from a cold northerly to a light southerly and for temperatures to soar from the recent chilly highs of 10-12 degrees Celsius to over 20 degrees C.
After a 0500 start we reached Ma Chang at around 0630. It was a stunning morning with good visibility, clear skies and almost no wind, disguising the -2 early morning temperature. Along the entrance track we encountered Jesper Hornskov with a couple of clients. They were watching a party of Bohemian Waxwings feeding on the buds of some large trees – a nice start to the day. At Ma Chang, as expected at this time of year, we soon spotted a group of ORIENTAL PLOVERS and a count revealed over 60 birds present – a fantastic total.
We moved on to the spit and settled in alongside the local fishing folk for a little visible migration.
A few Buff-bellied and Water Pipits, with the odd White Wagtail, flew overhead and a couple of tightly packed flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks wheeled around the remnants of last year’s maize stubble. A Black (eared) Kite lumbered past and two female Eastern Marsh Harriers caused havoc among the flocks of Eurasian Teal.
With not much happening we decided to move on and, after a short stop at a flooded field to admire two stunning BAIKAL TEAL, we headed to the ‘island’ to the north of the desert area to look for duck… Jesper and his clients were already in situ and, although quite distant, it was clear that there were lots of duck present. Two relatively close (but distant to photograph!) Red-breasted Mergansers represented bird species number 299 for me in Beijing… result!
With the duck distant, I knew that moving to the location from where I had seen the Baer’s Pochard last Sunday would again be a good vantage point. We headed to the spot and, sure enough, we were treated to stunning views of a large mixed raft of duck with the sun behind us and no wind… perfect, and very unusual, conditions at Wild Duck Lake.
We quickly found a drake BAER’S and, almost immediately, spotted another drake. There were two!
As on Sunday with the single drake, the two Baer’s were consorting with Ferruginous Duck and both were seen displaying… fabulous! It was from here that we also enjoyed some stunning views of Falcated Duck (including one very unusually marked male which sported a yellow mark on its lower cheek), Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Smew, Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Common Teal, Spot-billed Duck, Coot and Little and Great Crested Grebes. It was a great morning’s birding!
A short time later, a couple of Black Kites appeared and, as our eyes began to be distracted from the duck to the skies, it wasn’t long before I spotted an aquila eagle some distance away… My instinct was that it was probably a Greater Spotted Eagle, the most common aquila eagle at this site at this time of year. However, as it soared, Jesper immediately suspected it was an IMPERIAL EAGLE… and he was right!
It circled distantly and was soon joined by a second, but smaller, eagle.. This second bird had a notably square tail, pale markings on the upperwing coverts and mantle and, as it turned, it was even possible to glimpse the ‘landing lights’… wow.. A BOOTED EAGLE! Two very good eagle records for Beijing in the same scope view!
Both appeared to drift away and were lost from view without allowing me to capture any photographic record. However, fortunately, the Imperial soon re-appeared, this time closer, and I grabbed the camera to capture a few record images before it drifted into the mountains to the north. The bulging secondaries, typical of immature Imperial Eagle, can be seen very well, as well as the pale markings on the under- and upperwing. The ‘jizz’ was slightly different to Greater Spotted, too. A useful lesson for me (I have only ever seen one Eastern Imperial Eagle before).
Unfortunately the BOOTED EAGLE didn’t return but maybe it will linger in the area.. it’s a fabulous Beijing record with only a handful of previous sightings in eastern China. It also represented my 300th species in Beijing [NB Stop Press: Booted Eagle seen at Miyun Reservoir on Saturday by Jan-Erik Nilsen – the same bird?] It’s hard for me to see new birds in the capital now, so to see two new species in one day was pretty special..
The infamous NW Wild Duck Lake wind suddenly got up at around 1130 and Jesper and his clients decided to head off to check Yeyahu NR. We decided to stay and enjoy the Baer’s Pochards a little longer. We gave it another hour or so before calling it a day and heading back to Beijing.. another cracking day at this world class site.
On Sunday I visited Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake. April and May are superb months to visit this special Beijing site. With migration in full swing, it’s fascinating to see the departure of the winter visitors, the arrival of summer visitors and the passage of migrants on their way to breeding grounds further north… Already many of the winter birds have departed – I didn’t see a single crane of any species on Sunday – but many others are just beginning to arrive. Oriental Plovers – a Ma Chang speciality – are coming through in good numbers now and it’s a great time, too, for wildfowl and some of the early raptors.
The excitement of my visit on Sunday was heightened by the news that a BAER’S POCHARD was found on Friday by local birders Zhu Lei and Zhang Shen (thanks guys!). This bird is classified as “Critically Endangered” and, I understand, a survey of its traditional wintering grounds in China produced fewer than 50 birds this winter. Look out for a forthcoming article in Birding Asia about the dramatic decline of this species.
On arrival I was delighted to see some ORIENTAL PLOVERS on site. I counted 14 and, after watching them briefly, I made my way to the first site for checking duck. Viewing wildfowl is not straightforward at Ma Chang; there are many areas that are not viewable and the precise location of the birds depends on many factors, such as the wind direction and speed and the activity on the lake of the local fishermen. I have two favourite locations – one at the spit by some yurts (also a good place for visible migration) and one on the ‘island’ to the north. On Sunday, both sites were notably empty of duck. I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be my day and that the duck must be hiding somewhere out of sight. Then I saw a small flock of Tufted Duck (not a common bird in Beijing) fly in and go down behind some reeds. I could see that there was a track that ran close by, so I made my way to the general area and found a good place to view the duck.
Unusually, there was no northwesterly wind blowing into my face, so the conditions were good. I soon realised that it wasn’t just the Tufted Duck present. There were some Ferruginous Duck (a species with which BAER’S POCHARD often associates), Shoveler, Common Pochard, Smew, Falcated Duck, Gadwall, Wigeon and Mallard all present. A careful scan revealed no sign of the Baer’s but I knew there were some duck asleep in the reeds, including some Ferruginous Duck and some others that were obscured.. I settled in, hoping that one of the sleeping duck out of sight might be the Baer’s.
After 45 minutes of enjoyable birding, including a nice flock of passing Swan Geese, a small passage of Buff-bellied Pipits and an early male Citrine Wagtail, I began another scan and, sure enough, in amongst the Ferruginous Duck was a stunning drake BAER’S POCHARD.
I watched the BAER’S for the next hour as it proceeded to display. Unfortunately there were no female BAER’S but that didn’t seem to matter.. this lonely male threw its head back, stretched its neck high and bowed to several female Ferruginous Ducks and a slightly startled-looking female Common Pochard… I guess when your situation is as desperate as the Baer’s Pochard, you can’t afford to be fussy!
It was heartening to see this bird but, at the same time, sobering to think that it is likely to make its way north alone and, when it arrives at its favoured lake, there may be no females with which to breed. The situation for this bird is precarious. Encouragingly I have heard of two separate sightings from Liaoning Province in the last few days – one male and one female. Let’s hope it’s a good breeding season for this species.
After an hour or so, I reluctantly pulled myself away to explore the rest of Ma Chang. The Oriental Plover flock had increased to an astonishing 55 birds, with 4-5 adult males sporting gleaming white heads.
Flocks of Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers were mixed in, many of which were displaying and calling frequently.
At one point, as I was watching the flock, all of the birds suddenly took flight. I suspected a raptor and, sure enough, a quick scan with the binoculars revealed a superb male LESSER KESTREL.. wow! A nice way to end a brilliant birding session at Ma Chang.
Full Species List (62 species):
Japanese Quail – 2
Common Pheasant – 12
Swan Goose – 28
Bean Goose – 6
Ruddy Shelduck – 42
Gadwall – 78
Falcated Duck – 225
Eurasian Wigeon – 19
Mallard – 67
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Northern Shoveler – 4
Eurasian Teal – 18
Common Pochard – 12
BAER’S POCHARD – 1 drake displaying to both female Ferruginous Duck and Common Pochard. Employed three ‘displays’ – one involved stretching the neck high, the second throwing the head back and the third leaning the head forward and ‘puffing up’ the back of the neck.
Ferruginous Duck – 17
Tufted Duck – 7
Goldeneye – 5
Smew – 12
Goosander – 4
Little Grebe – 8
Great Crested Grebe – 14
Great Bittern – 1 booming
Grey Heron – 7
Great Cormorant – 1
LESSER KESTREL – 1 male drifted northwest with occasional hovering spells (flushed the Oriental Plovers at one point)
Eurasian Kestrel – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (one adult male and two adult females)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 2
Common Coot – 32
Black-winged Stilt – 16
Northern Lapwing – 63
Little Ringed Plover – 14
Kentish Plover – 33
Oriental Plover – 55 – the number seemed to increase as the day wore on with just 14 present early morning. Some disturbance from bird photographers and horses but they were not unduly perturbed.
Common Snipe – 1
Common Gull – 11
Mongolian Gull – 2 adults flew high west calling
Black-headed Gull – 18
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Collared Dove – 3
Common Kingfisher – 2
Hoopoe – 4
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 10
Corvid sp – 15
Carrion Crow – 3
Bohemian Waxwing – 4 flew south
Asian Short-toed Lark – 5
Eurasian Skylark – 4
White-cheeked Starling – 5
Daurian Redstart – 4
Tree Sparrow – lots
Citrine Wagtail – one male
White Wagtail – 4
Buff-bellied Pipit – 26
Water Pipit – 9
Pallas’s Bunting – 28
On Good Friday, I visited Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang and Yeyahu NR) with visiting Ed Drewitt and Beijing-based student Alice Carfrae. The weather was good, if a little cold, and the birding a superb example of an early Spring day in Beijing. The highlights for me were the 6 stunning Oriental Plovers at Ma Chang early morning and the excellent views of Baikal Teal at Yeyahu NR.
I collected Ed and Alice around 0530 for the drive to Ma Chang. After a clear run we were on site and birding by 0720 and, within just a few minutes, a hopeful scan of the ‘desert area’ at Ma Chang produced 6 beautiful Oriental Plovers. Ma Chang is THE place in Beijing to see this species in early Spring and, for me, these birds are the symbol of the beginning of Spring in the capital. We enjoyed these birds for around 20 minutes, watching them preen and, occasionally, feed in the early morning light. After seeing them this time I think this bird is my personal favourite, among so many other great species to be found here.
We moved on to the spit by the yurts, where the local fisherman have already returned to set their nets for the summer season. This location proved to be a good one for visible migration with White Wagtails (ssp leucopsis) dropping in, a stunning close fly-by from a male Goshawk, a couple of Eastern Marsh Harriers, a steady trickle of Eurasian Skylarks and several flocks of cranes, including a few small groups of White-naped in amongst the more numerous Common.
At the next site we secured views, albeit distantly, of some of the duck present, including Falcated Duck, Common Pochard, Pintail, Ferruginous Duck, Mallard, Spot-billed Duck, Gadwall and Common Teal. A very distant group of swans were probably Whoopers but we couldn’t be sure.
As the day began to warm up from a chilly -4 first thing to about 3-4 degrees C, some raptors began to move, beginning with a few Common (Eastern) Buzzards of the ssp japonicus, a trickle of Goshawks, a couple of Sparrowhawks and a Kestrel. At about 1030 we were discussing the potential for an eagle and, sure enough, a Greater Spotted Eagle duly appeared against the backdrop of the mountains to the north, followed shortly after by another, then another.. superb!
After enjoying the raptor migration for an hour or so we decided to visit Yeyahu NR to check whether it was open (it usually opens at “the end of March” but an exact date is always difficult to pin down!). Fortunately it was open and we were pleased when we saw a large flock of wild duck on the lake. Scanning through them produced some stunning Baikal Teal, viewable in excellent light, together with good numbers of Common Pochard, Falcated Duck, Pintail, Common Teal, single pairs of Red-crested Pochard and Ferruginous Duck and several groups of Smew. Not bad!
After watching a drumming Grey-headed Woodpecker and a confiding male Daurian Redstart we set off back to Beijing having had a typical early Spring day at Wild Duck Lake.
Many thanks to Alice and Ed for their company.
Full Species List (70 in total):
Common Pheasant – 3
Bean Goose – 67
Whooper/Bewick’s Swan – 27
Ruddy Shelduck – 15
Gadwall – 11
Falcated Duck – 82
Eurasian Wigeon – 2
Mallard – 150+
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 18
Northern Pintail – 23
Baikal Teal – 14
Eurasian Teal – 80
Red-crested Pochard – 2
Common Pochard – 64
Ferruginous Duck – 7
Common Goldeneye – 26
Smew – 49
Goosander – 12
Little Grebe – 12
Great Crested Grebe – 18
Great Bittern – at least 1 booming
Grey Heron – 16
Great Cormorant – 17
Eurasian Kestrel – 3
Saker – 1
Black-eared Kite – 13
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (1 ad male, 2 ad fems)
Hen Harrier – 1 imm male
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 2
Northern Goshawk – 7, including a fly-past by a stunning adult male
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 47; good passage between 1030-1300
Greater Spotted Eagle – 3
Common Coot – 9
White-naped Crane – 41
Common Crane – 130
Black-winged Stilt – 12
Grey-headed Lapwing – 2 distant birds in flight
Northern Lapwing – 46
Little Ringed Plover – 8
Kentish Plover – 47
ORIENTAL PLOVER – 6 – superb views early morning; always a star bird!
Dunlin – 4
Black-headed Gull – 18
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Spotted Dove – 1
Collared Dove – 4
Fork-tailed Swift – 10 flying south (!)
Common Kingfisher – 1
Hoopoe – 5
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 3
Chinese Grey Shrike – at least 1, possibly 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 8
Common Magpie – lots
Carrion Crow – 6
Large-billed Crow – 2
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 1
Barn Swallow – 1
Asian Short-toed Lark – 18
Skylark – 39
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 40+
White-cheeked Starling – 4
Common Starling – 46; a good number
Daurian Redstart – 2 (1 male, 1 female)
Thrush sp – 4 flew across the road on the way to Ma Chang.
Building knowledge about the movements of migratory birds is vital if we are to put in place effective conservation measures. Traditionally, in an attempt to understand better migration, birds have been trapped by ornithologists using mist nets and ‘ringed’ or ‘banded’ with small light-weight metal rings. This means that if they are re-trapped by another ornithologist in another location, re-trapped the following year in the same or a different place, or found dead by a member of the public, information can be gained about the migration routes, wintering and breeding grounds and the importance of specific stopover sites. The recovery rate varies but roughly one in a thousand small birds are recovered in this way. In recent years a number of new methods have been used (e.g. wing tags, combinations of coloured leg rings on shorebirds or neck collars on swans and geese), all designed to allow birders in the field to identify individual birds and thus increase the likelihood of a given bird being ‘tracked’.
Looking for colour rings, wing tags or collars adds a new dimension to birding and it is rewarding to see a marked bird, note the colour and letter/number combination, report it to the relevant authority – see here for East Asia and here for Europe – and then receive the “life history” of the bird you saw.
On 15 November at Wild Duck Lake I encountered a Whooper Swan with a neck collar amongst a flock of over 30 swans. The flock consisted of mostly Whoopers but with a few Mutes mixed in (Mute Swans are rare in Beijing and these were my first in the capital). The flock was distant but, with my telescope, I was able to read the number/letter combination on the collar. It was dark blue with white letters/numbers reading “1T86”. I contacted the ringer directly by email and, a few weeks later, I received the following information about this bird:
“1T86″ was captured and marked on 14 July 2012 at Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake (N48° 9’20.98″, E99°40’16.39”), Arkhangai Province, Mongolia. We did not check its sex, but the weight was 9.95 kg at the time of capture.
I put these coordinates into Google Earth and created the map below showing the distance and direction this bird has travelled. Wild Duck Lake was only a stopover site – the swans had moved on when I visited again in December – so I can only guess where this individual is now – very likely somewhere further south where at least some water bodies remain unfrozen.
Data like this helps ornithologists to understand migratory movements and is invaluable in informing conservation planning. So reporting birds like this makes a genuine difference to our collective knowledge of birds and directly supports those trying to conserve our birds. For me, as a mere birder, it also reinforces a sense of wonder at the journeys our birds undertake each spring and autumn and is a reminder that Wild Duck Lake is a vital stopover site for many migratory birds.
The cold winter (it’s forecast to get down to -26 degrees C in Beijing on Christmas Eve), combined with the above average snowfall, has meant that many birds that are usually scarce winter visitors to the capital, are here in greater numbers. The Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) is a good example. These pretty birds are one of the most widespread of larks, breeding across much of North America, northernmost Europe and Asia and in the mountains of southeast Europe. There is even an isolated population on a plateau in Colombia. In summer the breeding males have tufts of feathers on each side of the head that resemble small ‘horns’ which gives rise to the English name.
There are two subspecies of Horned Lark on the Beijing list. The most common is the ssp brandti. According to Birds of the Western Palearctic (Vol 5) the distribution of brandti is ‘steppes of lower Volga river and northern Transcaspia, E through plains of Kazakhstan to N Mongolia and W Manchuria; Altai, Tarbagatay, and E Tian Shan’; it is a ‘partial migrant. Flocks regularly occur S of breeding range in winter (e.g. in Turkmeniya, Mongolia, N China)’.
The ssp brandti is striking due to its white face and complete lack of yellow markings.
Prior to Tuesday, all of the HORNED LARKS reported in Beijing this winter were of the ssp brandti. However, on Tuesday morning, Jesper Hornskov and I made a visit to Wild Duck Lake and, to our delight, we not only encountered several brandti HORNED LARKS but also four stunning yellow-faced birds. These are the less common ssp flava which breed much further north (across northern Europe, northern Asia, east to Chukotka). They showed spectacularly well, allowing us to capture some good images. Compare the brandti birds above with the flava below.
With a supporting cast of 10 Mongolian Larks, a handful of Eurasian Skylarks, 30+ Asian Short-toed Larks, over 900 Lapland Buntings, a single White-tailed Eagle, Upland and Rough-legged Buzzards and 2 Hen Harriers, it was a good day to be out, despite the -13 temperatures! Thanks to Jesper for the information from BWP included in this post.
With apologies to my mum, that’s exactly what went through my head as I scanned a group of diving duck at Wild Duck Lake on Wednesday morning and came across a bird with a green-tinged head and pale flanks… It immediately turned away so that I could only see it’s backside and there were agonising seconds of self-doubt before it turned side-on again to show me that it was, without a doubt, most definitely, a drake BAER’S POCHARD…. Wow.
Wednesday morning started off badly. For more than half an hour I was stuck in traffic on the G6 caused by broken down lorries that failed to make the steep ascent over the Badaling Great Wall pass, meaning that I arrived at Ma Chang around 0645, about half an hour after dawn. Already, many bird photographers were driving around in 4x4s searching for something to photograph.. and there were no birds on the ‘desert area’. As usual, I went to the more isolated western end of the track, near a ‘spit’ of land on which several fishermen’s ‘tents’ or yurts are situated in the summer months. I set up my telescope here and began to watch. Visible migration was relatively slow with just Buff-bellied and a few Water Pipits accompanied by some Little Buntings and a few Skylarks. An immature male Hen Harrier and a Saker both came through in the first half an hour (the latter with prey). Initially, there were no duck to be seen but, later on, a large mixed flock flew in, presumably flushed by fishermen. They settled some distance away but were viewable with a telescope from my position. I began to scan through them and there were almost 300 Mallard, 82 Gadwall and 79 Spot-billed Duck dabbling against the far reedbed. A little closer, in a line, was a large group of diving duck. In this flock was a good number of Ferruginous Duck and, as I began to count them, I stumbled across a diving duck with pale flanks and a greenish tinge to the head.. However, just as I got onto it, it turned away. I immediately thought ” ****! That looked like a Baer’s Pochard”… At this point I lost count of the Ferruginous Duck.. I watched the BAER’S POCHARD for a couple of minutes as it fed – with short dives – amongst the Ferruginous Ducks. I then remembered that I was counting Ferruginous Ducks and, being someone who likes to finish what they have started, I began to count them again.. I got to about 12 before I saw the BAER’S POCHARD again.. and after lingering a few seconds, continued with the count.. I was working from left to right and, as I approached the far right of the flock, I saw a drake BAER’S POCHARD. Thinking that it must have been the same one that had simply moved across unseen, I scanned back to the original position and, to my amazement, the original bird was still there! So there were two drake BAER’S..!! Gulp..
The second BAER’S was the last viewable bird in the flock – the rest were behind the reeds. I realised that the angle from which I was observing the birds wasn’t great and that if I moved a little further west along the spit, I would be able to see more of the flock. I moved the car and, sitting on the back seat with the back door open, I was able to use it as a wind break to help minimise wind shake. Again, I went through the flock, this time a little closer and with much less wind shake. I counted 38 Ferruginous Ducks, 18 Common Pochard, 3 Smew and an incredible 4 BAER’S POCHARD (the same two males, the latter of which enjoyed the company of two females). This total is a minimum as there were still more birds in the flock that were not viewable.. I sent SMSs to a few people before settling down and just enjoying observing these birds.. Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph with my 400mm lens. The picture below was taken with my 400mm lens to illustrate just how distant they were.
My telescope was on 40-50x during the observation but the light was excellent, with the sun directly behind me.
The BAER’S POCHARD is in a perilous state. It’s status was recently amended to “Critically Endangered” reflecting the dramatic decline of this species. In a worrying sign, the surveys by Chinese ornithologists on some of its traditional wintering grounds yielded no birds in winter 2011/12. This is an extract from an internet posting by Wang Xin, Cao Lei, Lei Jinyu and Tony Fox:
“a special survey by Wuhan Birdwatching Society this winter (2011/12) did not find any Baer’s Pochard at all, even at Liangzi Lake (where the survey had found c. 130 individuals last year). Birdwatchers have also been to the upper part of Wuchang Lake in Anhui this winter where Cao Lei’s group have been finding more than 200 in recent years and found none there as well. In the Baiquan wetlands, in Wuhan, where the species was often found in the past, there are only reports of poisoned swans and geese because the water levels in winter 2011/12 are so low and people can get near to the waterbirds as never before.”
I also understand that a (partial) summer survey of its traditional breeding ground this year resulted in no confirmed sightings at all. Amongst all this gloom, one positive development has been the discovery of two breeding sites, both holding very few pairs, a long way south of the known traditional breeding range. Whether these birds represent a previously undiscovered population or whether breeding at these sites reflects an adaptation strategy to the deterioration of their preferred habitat further north is a question to which I don’t know the answer… Whatever, it is clear that this bird is in serious trouble. I hope to write something more in-depth on the plight of the Baer’s Pochard very soon. Watch this space.
PS. The four-letter word I used was “Gosh”.. 🙂
Full species list below.
Common Pheasant – 8
Bean Goose – 7
Ruddy Shelduck – 4
Gadwall – 82 @ Ma Chang plus 16 @ Yeyahu
Mallard – 280
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 88
Eurasian Teal – 12
Common Pochard – 18 BAER’S POCHARD – 4 (two males, two females)
Ferruginous Duck – 39 (38 @ Ma Chang plus 1 @ Yeyahu) – possibly a record Beijing count.
Common Goldeneye – 6
Smew – 5 (2 @ Ma Chang, 3 @ Yeyahu)
Goosander – 3
Little Grebe – 18
Great Crested Grebe – 6
Black Stork – 2 over Yeyahu
Grey Heron – 1
Great Cormorant – 1
Common Kestrel – 1
Saker – 2
Hen Harrier – 2 (one imm male and one first winter)
Northern Goshawk – 2
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 3
Coot – 76
Common Crane – 15
Northern Lapwing – 1
Snipe sp (Swinhoe’s or Pin-tailed) – 1
Spotted Redshank – 2
Black-headed Gull – 93
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 7
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 431
Carrion Crow – 1
Corvid sp (Rook/Carrion/Long-billed Crow) – 28
Great Tit – 1
Marsh Tit – 2
Skylark – 8
Chinese Hill Babbler – 2
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 7
Yellow-browed Warbler – 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 6
White-cheeked Starling – 4
Red-flanked Bluetail – 1
Daurian Redstart – 1
Tree Sparrow – lots
Buff-bellied Pipit – 44
Water Pipit – 4
Brambling – 14
Oriental Greenfinch – 1
Pine Bunting – 3
Little Bunting – 21
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 8
The Japanese Swamp Warbler, or Marsh Grassbird as it is sometimes known, is only found in east Asia and has a restricted and local distribution. BirdLife classifies it as “Near Threatened”. I saw and heard my first one in a reedy field at Dandong, Liaoning Province, this May and it was the memory of the song that came flooding back this morning when, on arrival at Wild Duck Lake, I could hear a bird singing from the reedbed close to the yurts at the western end of Ma Chang.
I was surprised that it was singing, not just because it is now mid-October (some warblers do sing occasionally on autumn migration) but because it was -2 degrees Celsius!
Nevertheless, it sang for over half an hour, just after sunrise, allowing me to make a recording of its song with my Canon EOS 7D. This bird won’t win any awards for its vocal repertoire, the song being rather repetitive, but it’s a distinctive sound and a joy to hear on a stunningly beautiful, still autumnal dawn at Wild Duck Lake.
Occasionally, it also clambered to the top of a reed, allowing me to capture an image. At the time I thought it must be a good Beijing record. After speaking to a couple of locals, it turns out that it is either the second or third record for the capital. Cool.