Desert Wheatear

This morning I found what I believe is the 2nd Beijing record of Desert Wheatear.  It was the highlight on a special day that included 19 stunning Oriental Plovers, 12 Relict Gulls and a Mongolian Lark.

Early April is a great time in Beijing with migration stepping up a gear as the winter visitors (e.g. cranes, geese etc) begin to move on and birds from further south take their place.  Swan Geese are now moving through in good numbers and I counted 67 first thing.  An over-eager bird photographer in his 4×4 saw I was looking at this group, drove directly to the water’s edge at pace and, not surprisingly, the birds took flight.  The silver lining was that I was able to capture this image of the flock rising against the mountains in the early morning sun..

Swan Geese, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012

A check of the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plover initially drew a blank but, as I was watching a group of Little Ringed Plovers, 9 Oriental Plovers dropped in, closely followed by 2 more, then another 4 and then, amazingly, another 4, totalling 19 birds…  Wow!  The birds were in a variety of plumages with most in full breeding attire.  Oriental Plover is a jewel among waders and its inaccessible breeding and wintering sites make it a difficult bird to see.   I will post some more images and video of the Oriental Plovers separately but here is a portrait of one of the smarter birds in the group.

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012. A wonderful bird.

I watched these birds for about 20 minutes before heading towards the yurts on the edge of the reservoir to the west.  It was on the way that I caught sight of a small bird perching on a stone.  Through the binoculars I could see it was a Wheatear.  Any wheatear is scarce in eastern China, so I knew it was a good record.  I walked around so that I had the sun behind me and slowly edged closer.  It was very confiding and, after grabbing a few images, I was pretty happy that it must be a Desert Wheatear.  I knew one had been seen at the same site in 2010 (the first Beijing record).  But then I began to have doubts.. I had never seen Pied or Isabelline (the other two possibilities)..  and unfortunately I didn’t see the tail pattern well at all.. which I knew would be very instructive.  Shortly after I took the images below, the wheatear was flushed by a Merlin and flew high west until out of view.   On returning home, I checked images on Oriental Bird Club image database and worked out that it could only be a Desert.  Jesper Hornskov kindly confirmed the id.

Desert Wheatear (female), Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012. Thought to be only the 2nd record of this species in Beijing.
Desert Wheatear, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012. The only other Beijing record I am aware of is of a male at the same site in April 2010.

I had only been on site a couple of hours and already I had seen some special birds..  it was one of those mornings that makes you so happy to be alive!

Just a few metres from the Desert Wheatear I stumbled across a Mongolian Lark, a regular but scarce passage migrant.

Mongolian Lark, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012

After enjoying 2 Avocets (my first in Beijing) on the edge of the reservoir, I headed to the ‘island’ to scan the duck.. Here there was a good selection of wildfowl but the highlights were a flock of 10 Relict Gulls in stunning breeding plumage, soon joined by a further 2 birds, and a single Red-billed Starling that flew in from the east, settled briefly on a nearby tree and then headed off west again..  another first for me in Beijing.

It was about this time that the wind began to increase and, within a few minutes, there were some large dust clouds being whipped up, making Ma Chang an uncomfortable place to be…  These winds are quite common at this time of year and, after the very dry winter, the ground is very dusty, making dust storms fairly frequent occurrences in Spring.

Yeyahu didn’t produce any major surprises and it wasn’t long before I headed home having had another great day at Wild Duck Lake.

Grey-headed Lapwings at Yeyahu NR, 5 April 2012.

Full Species List:

Common Pheasant – 3
Swan Goose – 67
Bean Goose – 13
Whooper Swan – 30
Bewick’s Swan – 27
Common Shelduck – 5
Ruddy Shelduck – 38
Gadwall – 10
Falcated Duck – 146
Eurasian Wigeon – 4
Mallard – 290
Spot-billed Duck – 8
Northern Pintail – 21
Garganey – 2
Baikal Teal – 16
Eurasian Teal – 12
Red-crested Pochard – 7
Common Pochard – 1
Ferruginous Duck – 4
Common Goldeneye – 67
Goosander – 44
Little Grebe – 5
Great Crested Grebe – 71
Black Stork – 2
Bittern – 2 (heard booming at 2 different sites)
Grey Heron – 13
Little Egret – 1
Great Cormorant – 75
Kestrel – 1
Merlin – 1
Black-eared Kite – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3
Hen Harrier – 1
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Goshawk – 1
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 4
Common Coot – 38
Common Crane – 6
Black-winged Stilt – 15
Pied Avocet – 2 at Ma Chang; my first record of this species at Wild Duck Lake
Grey-headed Lapwing – 5
Northern Lapwing – 18
Little Ringed Plover – 21
Kentish Plover – 8
Oriental Plover – at least 19 (another flock of 10+ plovers in flight could have been this species)
Mongolian Gull – 31 at Yeyahu, including 3 immatures
Relict Gull – 12
Black-headed Gull – 88
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Eurasian Collared Dove – 3
Common Swift – 1
Fork-tailed Swift – 32
Hoopoe – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 1
Common Magpie – too many
Daurian Jackdaw – 26
Rook – 2
Carrion Crow – 4
Great Tit – 4
Barn Swallow – 11
Red-rumped Swallow – 1
Mongolian Lark – 1; within a few metres of the Desert Wheatear
Asian Short-toed Lark – 28
Eurasian Skylark – 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 8
Red-billed Starling – 1; my first record at Wild Duck Lake; flew in from the east, rested briefly on the island to the north of Ma Chang and then continued West.
White-cheeked Starling – 2
Red-throated Thrush – 1
Red-flanked Bluetail – 2
Daurian Redstart – 2
Desert Wheatear – 1 (fem); very confiding until spooked by a Merlin and then flew high west and lost to view.  Had not returned an hour later when I re-scanned.
Tree Sparrow – lots
White Wagtail – 22
Buff-bellied Pipit – 12
Oriental Greenfinch – 4
Godlewski’s Bunting – 1
Little Bunting – 2
Yellow-throated Bunting – 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 18 (some males now coming into breeding plumage)
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Oriental Plover and Pallas’s Gulls

This weekend has been something of a bonanza for me in Beijing.  The weather had been very windy on Friday which cleared away all the smog and set up the weekend to be sunny, clear and (on Sunday at least) warm.  I had planned to visit Wild Duck Lake for the first time in a while and was looking forward to seeing the cranes and anything else that might be about.  In the back of my mind I knew that it was the beginning of the Oriental Plover season in Beijing and so I hoped, with a bit of luck, I might see one.  I did, which was special in itself, but the day, and the weekend, just got better and better.  I will limit this post to Saturday’s events and then follow up with another one about today (Sunday).

I hired a car for the weekend with Avis and set off early saturday morning to be at Wild Duck Lake around dawn.  I went to Ma Chang first as, later in the day, this area is disturbed by horse-riders and motorised buggies, so if an Oriental Plover does happen to drop in, it probably won’t stay there for long.  Along the entrance track I could see a huge flock of cranes, so I stopped to scan them with the telescope.  Soon I picked up a single Hooded Crane in the group but despite searching through over a thousand Common Cranes, there were no other species there..  I had expected a few White-naped, having seen over 250 at Miyun last week, but I didn’t see a single one all day.  This was all the more surprising when I received a SMS from Jan-erik Nilsen (who was at Miyun) to say that he had counted over 900 White-naped Cranes!  Incredible.. That count easily smashes the highest known count in Beijing of 500 and eclipses the count of 256 by Paul Holt and me last week.  There must be something about Miyun that attracts White-napes…

Common Cranes at dawn, Wild Duck Lake, 24 March 2012

 

Common Cranes against the mountains north of Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 24 March 2012

I moved on from the cranes and scanned the ‘desert’ area, the usual favoured place for Oriental Plover, but turned up a blank.  I then walked to the lake edge and scanned the wildfowl.  There were lots of duck, geese and swans but, frustratingly, they were very distant.  Most of the ice had melted but there remained a few patches on the reservoir. Of course, of all the large areas of open water, the birds had chosen the one most difficult to view!  Nevertheless, I counted 217 Swan Geese (a very good count), 224 Whooper Swans, 128 Ruddy Shelduck and good numbers of diving duck, including 83 Common Pochard.

The only real visible migration consisted of some corvids, including only my second record of Rook at Wild Duck Lake, and larks (mostly Skylarks).

I walked back to the car across the desert area just as the budding horsemen and women were starting to gallop around..  suddenly, I spotted what looked like a largish plover..  it had to be!  And yes, it was one – an Oriental Plover!  With patience and care, and despite being disturbed by curious horseriders a couple of times, I was able to get reasonably close to take a few photographs of this special bird.

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 24 March 2012

 

Oriental Plover.. a stunner.
Oriental Plover after being disturbed by a horserider.. It was not seen in the afternoon by some Beijing birders who looked for it.. the disturbance at this site after early morning is too much for most birds to take.

I spent around an hour with the bird, watching it feed and, occasionally, interact with some nearby Lapwings.  The wind was still gusty and, at times, it crouched down to shelter from the dust blowing across Ma Chang.  Some of the horseriders felt the full force!

A dust storm at Ma Chang..

 

It was late morning when I decided to head off to Yeyahu and, instead of walking as I usually do, I took the hire car and drove to the reserve.  Here I walked around the southern perimeter for the first time and, when I reached the far end of the lake, I scanned the group of large gulls that was assembled in the middle of the water.  Large gulls are scarce at Wild Duck Lake for most of the year, so I was interested to see which species were involved.  Mongolian Gull is by far the most common large gull on passage as they migrate from their coastal wintering grounds to their breeding grounds in Mongolia and Russia.  Sure enough, the vast majority were Mongolian Gulls and I counted 85 adults and 2 immatures.  The scan through the flock also revealed two interlopers – stunning breeding-plumaged Pallas’s Gulls!  Wow..  Pallas’s Gull was a bird I was hoping to see when I moved to China and I saw my first at Jinzhou Bay in Dalian last winter..  but that bird was in winter plumage.   These two beauties were something else.. Most of the time they sat on the water about as far away from any viewing point as was possible. But occasionally they would take off, do a circuit of the lake, and then land again..  it was during these flights that it was possible to gain some pretty special views..

Pallas's Gull, Yeyahu, Beijing, 24 March 2012
Pallas's Gull, Yeyahu, Beijing, 24 March 2012.. surely the King of Gulls...!

 

It was cool to watch one of the birds as it circled with the Great Wall in the background!

Pallas's Gull with the Great Wall in the background, Yeyahu, Beijing, 24 March 2012

 

The walk down to the reservoir viewing tower was uneventful and did not produce any unusual raptors..  however, Merlin, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine and (Eastern) Buzzard were all appreciated.  I returned to the lake to see the gulls again and I enjoyed these birds for my last half an hour on site before I began the drive back home, elated.

What a day!  Little did I know what I was to find the following day….

 

Wild Duck Lake with Phil and Jesper, 25 November 2011

In between leading tours to see Giant Panda in the wild in China (successful) and Tiger in India (fingers crossed), Sweden-based Phil Benstead dropped in on Beijing.  Phil is a good friend from my time in Copenhagen: we hooked up for a few birding trips in 2009 and 2010, including around Phil’s local patch in Båstad Kommune, Falsterbo in Skåne and the island of Oland.

Phil arrived on Thursday with the Townshend household in something of a crisis.  We were supposed to be cooking a turkey for 9, including two American friends, for Thanksgiving and Libby, who had planned to take the afternoon off work to prepare, was stuck at work…  I was frantically looking on the internet, in between work conference calls to London – to discover precisely how long a 9kg turkey – at that time defrosting in the laundry room – would take to cook….  Phil stepped in magnificently and, after peeling and chopping I don’t know how many potatoes, carrots and green beans, he had certainly earned his supper by the time guests arrived for the 7pm start…  And boy was that turkey good…  (after months of Chinese food, you can’t imagine how good a roast turkey with all the trimmings tasted…!).

After following this blog since I moved to China, Phil wanted to visit my regular patch at Wild Duck Lake and so I had hired a car and we had arranged to leave at 0530 the following morning (tough after a post-midnight dinner party).  We picked up Jesper Hornskov at 0600 and, after some all-too-common traffic issues on the G6 Badaling Expressway (broken down lorries), we arrived at Ma Chang around 0745, around 30 minutes after first light.

The first thing that struck me was that the reservoir was almost completely frozen over.  The weather had turned cold mid-week and it had taken just a couple of cold nights for the water to freeze.  After giving it some time at the spit by the yurts, we checked the island to the north of the ‘desert’ area, lucking in on 2 Daurian Partridges (my first of the winter) on the way, and enjoyed a flock of several hundred Ruddy Shelduck and a rather late Ferruginous Duck.  A couple of inquisitive Chinese Hill Warblers was a bonus.  A very showy Baikal Teal looked a bit lost walking on the ice in a frozen dyke and we enjoyed a couple of Chinese Grey Shrikes hunting over the grassland.  After combing the area for larks – we counted a few Eurasian Skylark and up to 12 Asian Short-toed Larks  plus a bonus Japanese Reed Bunting – we made our way to Yeyahu.  Officially, Yeyahu closed last week but we were able to use the ‘secret entrance’ to gain entry and it was here that we heard (but sadly for Phil didn’t see) a Chinese Penduline Tit,  a few Pallas’s Reed Buntings and a Great Egret.  However, the most exciting sighting of the day was a very uniformly dark medium-sized bittern that flew from the west to east end of the lake.  It was clearly smaller than Eurasian Bittern but larger than Yellow Bittern.  Initially against the light it looked uniformly very dark with longish legs and big feet.  As it flew into better light, it still looked uniformly very dark..  Phil managed to view it through his telescope and saw a pale line below and behind the eye, beginning at the base of the bill…  There were some pale fringes to the wing coverts, indicating a first winter bird.  It dropped in to a reedbed on the far side of the lake and we hurried over to see if we could see it again..  what could it be?  Little Green Heron (Striated) and Black Bittern (a bird that I have never seen) entered our minds..  Jesper didn’t think it looked right for Little Green Heron – the jizz and colour were wrong and the leg length – with clearly protruding legs – wasn’t right for Little Green.  Could it really be a Black Bittern in Beijing in late November??  That would be a very strange record.  Unfortunately, despite spending some time near to where it went down, we did not see it again.

Edit: After looking at many images on the internet, including Oriental Bird Images, Jesper’s view is that it could only have been a Black Bittern.

After seeing a Common Kingfisher literally die in front of our eyes on the ice at the edge of the lake (it was heartbreaking), we walked down to ‘eagle field’ and, on the way, enjoyed my best ever views of Pine Bunting (two birds) and watched a young Upland Buzzard soaring.  Most pleasing were two Great Bustards flying west along the reservoir.

Several decapitated Common Pheasants were a clear sign of a large predator.. possibly Goshawk but more likely an Eagle Owl…  it’s the same area where I saw an Eagle Owl last winter.

We made our way back to the car and, with Naumann’s Thrush the last bird of the day, we headed back to Beijing for dinner with Jesper and his wife, Aiqin.

Saturday morning I visited the Botanical Gardens with Phil and Nick (a friend and non-birder), where Phil scored a few new birds – Chinese Grosbeak, Pere David’s Laughingthrush and Chinese Nuthatch – before he had to make his way to the airport to catch his flight to Delhi.

It was a great couple of days and we saw some good birds.  Phil was a big hit with our friends – as illustrated by the number of offers he had for accommodation in Beijing when he returns next year to lead a similar panda trip in October – and we wish him all the best for the forthcoming trip to India for tigers..  we can’t wait to hear how he gets on.
Full species list for Wild Duck Lake below:

 

Ma Chang and Yeyahu NR 0745-1600.

 

Temp -5 at 0745 increasing to +2 or +3 by early afternoon; very light N wind increasing to force 2-3 by midday; visibility 2-3km.
Reservoir almost completely frozen with just a few small patches of open water.  Yeyahu completely frozen.

 

Highlights: 1 juv/first winter BLACK BITTERN; 2 Great Bustards, Upland Buzzard, 2 Daurian Partridges, 550+ Bean Geese, 200+ Common Cranes, Japanese Reed Bunting

 

Full species list:

 

Daurian Partridge – 2 at Ma Chang
Common Pheasant – 25
Bean Goose – at least 870, probably more.  Most in flight along the north edge of the reservoir with some on the ice itself
Whooper Swan – 42 on the ice, swimming on the open patches of water and in flight
Ruddy Shelduck – 550 at least, mostly on the ice and on the northern side of the reservoir
Eurasian Wigeon – 3
Mallard – 850
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 12
Baikal Teal – 4-5 seen, including one drake incredibly well in a frozen dyke; probably many more in the distant tight flocks of duck on the patches of open water
Ferruginous Duck – 1 seen from the island north of Ma Chang, possibly with injured wing
Common Goldeneye – 3 seen from Ma Chang but probably many more
Smew – 5-6 seen but probably many more
Goosander – 40 seen
Great Bittern – 3 seen well, including one walking on the open ice
BLACK BITTERN – one juvenile/first winter seen in flight through binoculars for around 30 seconds over the lake at Yeyahu at around 150-200m range.  Initially seen against the light but gradually into better light, this bird was clearly larger than Yellow Bittern but smaller than Great Bittern and uniformly very dark.  Phil managed to see it through the telescope and saw a pale line starting at the base of the bill running back below and behind the eye; streaking below not seen.  Legs were relatively long with large feet.  Slight pale margins seen on the wing coverts, indicating a first winter.  Little Green Heron ruled out on size, colour and leg length; Cinnamon Bittern ruled out on colour and size.
Grey Heron – 1
Great Egret – 1
Kestrel – 1
Merlin – 1 at Ma Chang
Hen Harrier – 3 (two ‘ringtails’ and one imm male)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 1 (Phil only)
Upland Buzzard – 1
Great Bustard – 2 in flight from ‘eagle field’ heading west
Common Crane – 200+
Large White-headed Gull sp – 1 seen by Phil at Ma Chang
Black-headed Gull – 3 at Yeyahu
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Eurasian Collared Dove – 31
Common Kingfisher – 1.  Seen sitting forlornly on the edge of the ice at the base of some reeds.  After a few minutes, its head dropped onto the ice and, after a brief flapping of its wings, it sat motionless and appeared to die – an early victim of the winter.
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – lots
Rook – 8
Carrion Crow – 6
Large-billed Crow – 1
Great Tit – 4
Marsh Tit – 3
Chinese Penduline Tit  – 1 (heard only)
Asian Short-toed Lark – 13 at Ma Chang
Eurasian Skylark – 6
Chinese Hill Warbler – 4, including 2 on the island north of Ma Chang
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 40+
Naumann’s Thrush – 1 ssp naumanni at Yeyahu
Tree Sparrow – many
Pine Bunting – 4, including 2 showing exceptionally well at Yeyahu
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 30+
Japanese Reed Bunting – 1 at Ma Chang.  Flushed from short grass 2-3 times and seen only in flight.  (Very bad) photo attached.
Japanese Reed Bunting, Ma Chang, 25 November 2011: wildlife photograph of the year?
Chinese Grey Shrike hunting at Ma Chang, 25 November 2011

Wild Duck Lake, 6 November 2011

Apologies for the lack of updates in recent weeks – work has been rather all-consuming!  To be honest, it’s not been so bad to be indoors  –  a persistent high pressure system, combined with very slack winds, have seen a blanket of smog covering Beijing with poor visibility and, at times, appalling air quality.  The US Embassy ‘twitter feed’ is updated hourly and rates the pollution levels of PM2.5 (a particulate pollutant) and ozone.
This is the US Environment Protection Agency’s definition of PM2.5:
“Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Particles can be suspended in the air for long periods of time. Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot or smoke. Others are so small that individually they can only be detected with an electron microscope.
Many manmade and natural sources emit PM directly or emit other pollutants that react in the atmosphere to form PM. These solid and liquid particles come in a wide range of sizes.
Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as “fine” particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.”
Sounds nice, eh?
There is a scale of descriptors ranging from “Good” to “Hazardous”.  Last week saw several days with the pollution at “hazardous” levels.  I am not exactly sure what “hazardous” means but at these levels, you can taste and smell the pollution when you step outside.  Not pleasant.
Of course, the Chinese media describes the smog as “fog” and on one dark day last week, it was laughable that the media was saying that there were “boundless blue skies over Beijing”…  Of course….
Fortunately, this smoggy period seems to be breaking now and on Sunday I visited Ma Chang/Wild Duck Lake with Libby and a couple of UK friends John and Sarah Gallagher.  They have been keen to accompany me on one of my birding trips for some time and so, with a window of decent weather and visibility, we grabbed the chance before the winter sets in.  We enjoyed a very good day.
The visibility was above average and, when the cloud broke in the afternoon, it turned into a gorgeous late autumn day….
0645-1530, 6 November 2011.
Cloud 8/8 and 5 degrees C at 0640 with very light north-easterly wind.  13 degrees C, cloud 3/8 and light north-easterly at 1500.  Visibility above average all day.
The highlight was my first Great Bustard in China (a flyover), 2 Black Storks, 6 White-naped Cranes, 58 Common CranesUpland Buzzard, 2 Short-eared Owls, 2Common Starlings.
Full species list (52 in total):
Common Pheasant 12
Bean Goose 115
Whooper Swan 1
Gadwall 5
Falcated Duck 4
Eurasian Wigeon 2
Mallard 48
Chinese Spot-billed Duck 10
Northern Pintail 42
Eurasian Teal 25
Tufted Duck 8
Common Goldeneye 2
Smew 10
Goosander 12
Little Grebe 23
Great Crested Grebe 8
Black-necked Grebe 2
Black Stork 2 (high west @ 1455)
Eurasian Bittern 1
Grey Heron 3
Eurasian Kestrel 2
Peregrine 2
Hen Harrier 4 (1 adult male, 1 immature male, and 2 females)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard 1
Upland Buzzard 1
Great Bustard 1 in flight (flew west over Ma Chang @ 0910)
Common Coot 4
White-naped Crane 6
Common Crane 58, including 2 groups arriving from the mountains to the north (9 @1445 and 35 @1440)
Mongolian Gull 2
Black-headed Gull 68
Eurasian Collared Dove 14
Short-eared Owl 2
Common Kingfisher 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker 1
Chinese Grey Shrike 5
Azure-winged Magpie 1
Common Magpie lots
Carrion Crow 11
Great Tit 2
Asian Short-toed Lark 12
Eurasian Skylark 7
Chinese Bulbul 2
Vinous-throated Parrotbill 100+ in a single flock
Common Starling 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow lots
Buff-bellied Pipit 3
Pine Bunting 2
Little Bunting 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting 23

Finally, we enjoyed excellent views of this yellow butterfly, the only butterfly we saw. It was a little sluggish, allowing close photography, in contrast to the many times when I have tried to photograph this species in the spring/summer..  I am not sure what the specific species is but it’s pretty common in the area. EDIT: Thanks to John Furse for identifying the butterfly as a Clouded Yellow.

Yellow butterfly sp, Yeyahu, 6 November 2011
Close up... I love those eyes!

First for Beijing!

On Saturday I made my first visit to Ma Chang/Yeyahu for a few weeks and boy, was it worth it?!  The autumn migration is now in full swing.  The highlight was undoubtedly the juvenile/first winter Little Gull that I found feeding on the reservoir before it gained height and flew strongly east.  Despite being almost annual on the Bohai coast, I believe this is the first record for the Beijing municipality.   Coming a close second was a stunning Short-toed Eagle that drifted right overhead near Yeyahu lake.  Wow.

Record shot of Beijing's first Little Gull at Yeyahu NR, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011

Other good birds include a very early crane sp that was soaring very distantly over the mountains to the north.  I initially assumed this must have been a Common Crane but I noticed dark secondaries and this is more consistent with Demoiselle Crane.  Common Cranes are very scarce at this time of year, in fact I don’t think any have been recorded in September, whereas Demoiselle should be leaving its breeding grounds in Inner Mongolia about now.  It’ll have to go down in the book as a crane sp.  Also seen were 5 Chinese Grey Shrikes, including a very instructive juvenile that superficially looked a little like ssp pallidirostris (Steppe Grey Shrike), a heavily leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, a Ruff (very scarce in Beijing, possibly the 4th record for the municipality) as well as many passerine migrants – Little Buntings, Eurasian Skylarks, Yellow Wagtails, Richard’s Pipits and so on…

Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit with Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011

Full species list in systematic order:

Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica) – my first two of the autumn, flushed between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.
Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasaianus colchicus) – 6
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) – 24
Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha) – 3
Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca) – 1
Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina) – 3 (possibly relating to feral birds from Yeyahu)
Common Pochard (Aythya ferina) – 10 in one flock flying strongly west
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) – at least 75
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) – 6
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) – 4
Chinese Pond Heron (Ardeola bacchus) – 6
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) – 2
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) – 3
Great Egret (Casmerodius albus) – 3 flying south early morning
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) – a flock of 13 feeding together on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang
Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) – 5
Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) – just one, an adult male
Northern Hobby (Falco subbuteo) – at least 6, including 3 juveniles
Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) – one at Ma Chang soaring
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) – one fishing at Ma Chang early morning then flew west
Black-eared Kite (Milvus lineatus) – 10; one on the ground at Ma Chang followed by a group of 7 kettling mid-morning and two other singles.
Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) – one low overhead at Yeyahu mid-afternoon
Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus) – 4 (an adult female and 3 juveniles)
Pied Harrier (Circus melanoleucos) – 2 (both juveniles)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) – 6 (light passage throughout the day)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) – c25 including several family parties
Common Coot (Fulica atra) – 6
Common Crane (Grus grus) – 1 scoped circling distantly over the mountains to the north.
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) – one juvenile at Ma Chang
Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) – 8
Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) – 12 (all juveniles)
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) – 1
Common Snipe (Gallinago megala) – 3
Eastern Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa melanuroides) – 2, including one white bird (heavily leucistic or albino)
Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus) – 6
Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) – 8
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) – 3
Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) – 1, seen well in flight and appeared to go down on the edge of the reservoir between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) – 27
Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) – 1, a juvenile/first winter seen well but briefly over the reservoir at the east end of Ma Chang.  After ‘dip-feeding’ a couple of times, gained height and flew strongly east.
Whiskered Tern (Chilidonias hybrida) – at least 12
Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis) – 4
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) – 3
Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – 1
Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus) – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike (Lanius sphenocercus) – 5 seen, one of which I originally thought could be a ssp of Great Grey (see photos).
Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) – 2
Common Magpie (Pica pica) – many
Crow sp (Corvus sp) – a group of 6 soaring around mid-day were probably Carrion Crows
Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus) – two heard
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) – only 3 seen
Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) – at least 60 ssw early morning and small groups encountered between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) – just 4 seen
Locustella sp – one flushed 3 times appeared quite rusty, probably Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus) – encountered in every group of bushes or trees.  At least 40 seen or heard.
Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis) – one in a hedge at the east end of Ma Chang
Two-barred Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus) – one on the walk to the viewing tower at Yeyahu
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Paradoxornis webbianus) – at least 40 seen and heard
White-cheeked Starling (Sturnus cineraceus) – 22
Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope) – 1, an adult male, seen in shrubs at the east end of Ma Chang
Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus) – at least 25 seen
Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla) – 3
Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) – many
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) – at least 200 ssw early morning, followed by the odd small group thereafter.  c250 in total.
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) – 34 (mostly migrating ssw early morning)
Richard’s Pipit (Anthus richardi) – 26 migrating ssw early morning with an additional 16 encountered during the day
Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni) – c25 migrating ssw early morning with several others seen and heard during the day.  c40 in total
Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla) – many buntings, probably this species, migrating ssw early morning and c30 seen during the day.
Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala) – one seen well
bunting sp – many hundreds of buntings migrating between 0600 and 0730; most probably Little Bunting but some looked slightly larger.

Hog Badger

This weekend I visited Ma Chang and did the usual walk from there to Yeyahu.  I hadn’t walked this route for a while – Ma Chang is very disturbed by recreational activities in summer and the humidity makes a long walk very uncomfortable – so I was very interested to see what birds were around and whether any migration was taking place.  On arrival at 5.30am, the weather was perfect – a lovely fresh 16-17 degrees C with no wind and a little mist.  Already, by 7.30am, the sun was strengthening and gradually burned off the mist to reveal a sunny, clear day.

Migration was in evidence early on with a reasonable passage of Yellow Wagtails plus a couple of Grey Wagtails mixed in.  A few juvenile Yellow Bitterns commuted between the reedbeds and a good number of Little Grebes (the race here in China has pale eyes – a potential split?) were loitering along the edge of the reeds.

An adult female Pied Harrier was a nice sight – these birds pass through in spring and autumn – and it was nice to see it, momentarily, alongside a juvenile Eastern Marsh Harrier, showing the obvious size difference.

The walk to Yeyahu was hot and sticky and, in places, was quite hard work due to the massive growth in vegetation that has occurred over the last few weeks.  Along one trail I noticed some mammal tracks (see photo below).  I suspected these were some sort of badger and, after making some enquiries, it seems that they belong to the Hog Badger, a creature that looks superficially like our European Badger but with a pig’s snout, hence the name.

Hog Badger track, Yeyahu

 

A few months ago, Spike Millington and I discovered a set of burrows not far from where I saw these tracks.  I suspect that they may belong to the Hog Badger, too.  I will try to stakeout this site on a moonlit night sometime soon to see if I can catch a glimpse of these nocturnal mammals.  I might have to take along some irresistable treats to tempt them…

At the Yeyahu reserve, there had clearly been an explosion of butterflies, mostly these small blue butterflies.. they were everywhere and many were congregating in large groups around small puddles.  A real spectacle.

Blue Butterflies, Yeyahu
Blue Butterflies, Yeyahu. There were hundreds, if not thousands, along the tracks at Yeyahu on Sunday.

 

Blue Butterflies, Yeyahu. Watching these insects drinking at close range was fascinating - the proboscis reminded me of an elephant's trunk!

This grasshopper made a brief appearance when it landed near the butterflies..  amazing camouflage.

Grasshopper sp, Yeyahu

Other migrant birds on show here included 5 Black-naped Orioles, 39 Black Drongos (a record count for me), a single Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift and a couple of snipe sp.  I have seen a few snipe recently that are not Common Snipe and I suspected Pin-tailed. However, after a discussion with Paul Holt, it seems that Pin-tailed and the very similar Swinhoe’s are extremely difficult to tell apart and it is not safe to identify them in the field without seeing the individual tail feathers… There is an article in British Birds from a few years ago which I will have to dig out.   Sunday’s birds will have to go down in my book as “Swintail Snipe”..!

 

Full species list (in chronological order of first sighting):

Tree Sparrow and Common Magpie – lots
Great Bittern (1)
Common Snipe (1)
Whiskered Tern (18)
Chinese Pond Heron (12)
Bunting sp (one of the ‘tick’ buntings but not identified) (1)
Little Egret (9)
Amur Falcon (1)
Little Grebe (20)
Night Heron (12)
Common Kingfisher (2)
Asian Short-toed Lark (2)
Zitting Cisticola (34)
White-cheeked Starling (6)
Yellow Bittern (6), all juveniles.
Grey Heron (2)
Northern Lapwing (1)
Coot (8)
Moorhen (16)
Common Sandpiper (3)
‘Swin-tailed’ Snipe (2) – both flushed from dry-ish habitat, ‘dumpy birds’, if anything slightly smaller than Common Snipe, no obvious white trailing edge to secondaries, feet projected beyond tail and wingbeats slightly slower than Common Snipe.  Call was similar but slightly less ‘squelchy’ if that makes sense!
Grey Wagtail (2)
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (24), all migrating south-west
Purple Heron (5)
Wood Sandpiper (3)
Eastern Marsh Harrier (4), 1 adult male, 1 adult female and 2 juveniles
Black-winged Stilt (10)
Great Egret (2)
Brown Shrike (2)
Richard’s Pipit (12)
Hoopoe (1)
Black Drongo (39), my highest count of this species so far
Chinese Grey Shrike (1)
Wryneck (1)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (40+)
Arctic Warbler (2)
Hobby (2)
Pied Harrier (1)
Barn Swallow (18)
Red-rumped Swallow (12)
Black-headed Gull (3)
Common Pheasant (6)
Sand Martin (1)
Chinese Penduline Tit (2) – at least 2, possibly 3 active nests this year at Yeyahu but, if still around, difficult to see.
Oriental Reed Warbler (3)
Black-naped Oriole (5)
Chinese Hill Warbler (2)
Mandarin (4)
Spot-billed Duck (4)
Great Crested Grebe (8)
Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift (1)
Von Schrenck’s Bittern (1 probable): a juvenile seen in flight only, much darker ground colour than the juvenile yellow bitterns with heavy dark streaking on the breast.
Kestrel (1)
Azure-winged Magpie (1)
Great Tit (3)
Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)

Lightning Strikes Twice at Wild Duck Lake!

Ok, I know it sounds as if I am making this up but on Saturday I found another pelican at Wild Duck Lake.  Only this time, it was a DALMATIAN PELICAN.  A stunning end to another fantastic day of birding at this site that included a Short-toed Eagle (rare in northern China), two Greater Spotted Eagles and my largest total of species in one day at this prime location (79).

I had a feeling it might be a good day when I travelled to Yanqing on Friday evening.  The afternoon had been very showery with some thunderstorms, one of which hit Beijing with its full force.  This meant that the pollution mist had been cleared, reminding everyone that Beijing is surrounded on three sides by fantastic mountains, a fact easy to forget given the majority of days are afflicted with at least some level of smog.

On arrival at the site at 0530, it was a chilly 5 degrees C with a moderate NNW wind which felt distinctly wintry again (gloves most definitely required).  However, the visibility was fantastic and I could see, uninterrupted, the mountains stretching into the distance on both the northern and southern sides of the reservoir.

Ma Chang, shortly after dawn
The 'desert' at Ma Chang

I began by checking the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plovers but no sign. Just a few Kentish Plovers and a handful of Greater Short-toed Larks.  The reservoir shore here produced a single female Ruff associating with half a dozen Black-winged Stilts.  And evidence that one Chinese bird photographer had been a little overeager to secure that frame-filling shot…..

This bird photographer, despite having a 4wd, got well and truly stuck!

Barn Swallows were already moving overhead with the odd group of buntings and pipits.  I decided to check the spit for wildfowl (the scene of the Great White Pelican last week) and, on the short walk, I flushed a Short-eared Owl that immediately took offence to the mobbing by the local magpies, climbed quickly and then flew high south.   Sorry!

On arrival at the spit, my scan of the reservoir revealed very few birds, probably due to the presence of 3 fishing boats.

Fishermen at Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

One tightly-packed group of birds on the far side of the reservoir revealed themselves to be breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebes and I counted 32 in this ‘flotilla’.  A single Daurian Jackdaw, a few Eastern Marsh Harriers, some Buff-bellied Pipits and the occasional ‘boom’ of a Bittern were my further rewards before I decided to head off to try the island (offering views of another part of the reservoir).

Just as I was leaving the spit I could hear the rasping call of terns and I looked up to see two Common Terns (of the dark-billed ssp longipennis) arriving from the south.  Then, I spotted a group of raptors lazily flapping across Ma Chang… 9 Black-eared Kites!

I reached the island at Ma Chang a few minutes later and I began to check for wildfowl.  A group of over 180 Falcated Duck was the highlight with the supporting role going to an Osprey sitting on a far post.  Then I began to notice swifts moving overhead and, before long I had counted the first of what would prove to be a movement of over 350 Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts migrating north-west.  A few Oriental Pratincoles began to drift in and, as with the swifts, they kept coming.  I counted over 85 altogether.

I began the walk to Yeyahu with my heart sinking as I experienced the disturbance that is commonplace here.  First, three local guys were chasing about in a speedboat with shotguns targeting the Common Teal.  Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph but I will report this activity to the police (it is illegal both to own a gun and to shoot wild birds).  And second, the ‘buggies’ were out and about on the ‘desert’.. they often start around 0800 and any plovers or larks are moved off immediately.

The buggies that disturb the 'desert' area from around 0800, especially at weekends, in all seasons with the exception of winter

Almost as soon as I had retraced my steps from the island to Ma Chang, I spotted a raptor hovering over the area between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.  It looked long-winged and it didn’t take long to realise it was a Short-toed Eagle.  Fantastic.  I watched as it hunted and was able to capture a few images before it drifted off east to hunt over Yeyahu.  It is at least the fourth STE I have seen at WDL, having seen three in the autumn.

Short-toed Eagle, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

A few minutes later I spotted another two large raptors in the same area.  With the bins I could see they were large eagles and, through the telescope I could see they were Greater Spotted – a regular but uncommon visitor during migration.  Very nice!  They drifted east and seemed to go down in a small wood to the east of Yeyahu.

Greater Spotted Eagles, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

At this point I was thinking how lucky I was to have experienced an excellent day but, little did I know, the icing on the cake was to come.  As the weather looked increasingly threatening, with showers in the mountains looking as if they were thinking about exploring the valley, I made my way to Yeyahu and, specifically, to ‘eagle field’ where I hoped to see the Greater Spotted and Short-toed Eagles again.  On the way I was entertained by at least 5 Eastern Marsh Harriers displaying over the reedbeds at Yeyahu – a real treat of aerobatic skill.  Then I picked up the Greater Spotted Eagles again – this time closer – and, as with the previous sighting, they gained height and drifted west before gliding back east and settling in the wood.  Just a few minutes later, ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, they were up again and this time they again gained height and worked their way slowly west into the wind and the approaching shower.  At this point they obviously felt the rain and they quickly turned.  One of the eagles drifted high east and I lost it to view.  The second clearly wasn’t allergic to rain and just dropped back into the wood.  At this point I got a drenching.  As I had been concentrating on the eagles, the shower had sneaked up on me and I ran for the cover of a hedgerow.  Thankfully the rain lasted no more than 5-10 minutes and I made my way to the viewing tower at ‘eagle field’ to have my packed lunch.

A heavy rain shower at Yeyahu (a rare occurence in itself!)
The view north from Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

From here I enjoyed another sighting of the Greater Spotted Eagle as well as counting the wildfowl on the eastern part of the reservoir.  There were good numbers of Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Teal as well as a few Great Crested Grebes, Falcated Duck and 4 Smew.

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

At about 1345 I began the walk back to the reserve entrance, where I had arranged to meet my taxi driver, looking over my shoulder every now and then to check for birds of prey.  About half-way to the entrance, during one of my glances, I spotted a large bird circling.. I thought it must be the eagle and set up the telescope.  To my surprise, it was not an eagle but a Pelican!  Unbelievable…   I immediately began to take notes on the plumage.  It was a much duskier bird than the brilliant white plumage of last week’s Great White Pelican and the secondaries were brown, not black.  The underwing was rather dusky without noticeable contrast between the primaries and secondaries.  It had to be a Dalmatian Pelican!  I grabbed the camera and fired off a few record images as it made its way west along the reservoir.  It looked majestic against the mountain backdrop as it slowly flapped its way across to Ma Chang.  Wow.

Dalmatian Pelican arriving at Wild Duck Lake from the east, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican showing underwing pattern, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

I met my driver and caught the bus back to Beijing feeling very elated after an excellent day in the field.  What will this site turn up next??