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)
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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??

Great White Pelican!

Well, we talked that up!

After Brian Jones’s post about Wild Duck Lake and his comment that there was always a “Yeyahu surprise” I guess I should not have been shocked that my next visit in prime migration season should produce a Chinese mega in the form of a Great White Pelican!  Even so this record, the significance of which I only realised after returning home, was way beyond my wildest expectations.

Great White Pelican (GWP) is a very rare bird in China.  In fact any Pelican sp (Dalmatian is more frequent) is a rare bird in this part of the world.  Jesper Hornskov, of 20 years experience in China, has only seen one other GWP in Xinjiang over 15 years ago.  And Paul Holt has just informed me that my sighting is the second record for the Beijing area, the first being at Miyun Reservoir in October-November 2009.  Fortunately, given I was not able to secure any images of the Wild Duck Lake bird and the fact it was only present for around 90 minutes, Jesper was also coincidentally in the vicinity and saw it in flight.

This is the story…

With Libby in Shanghai with her visiting sister, I decided to take the opportunity to travel up to Yanqing on Friday evening and stay over to allow a dawn start at WDL.  After enjoying a Friday night in the happening town of Yanqing (or rather being in bed by 9pm), I arrived at Ma Chang at first light (about 0545) and, after checking the ‘desert area’ for Oriental Plovers (no sign) and enjoying the flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks that were wheeling around, I made for the narrow spit to the west (complete with yurts) to check the reservoir.  On arrival here, at about 0705, I immediately saw a large white bird with the naked eye at the far side of the reservoir and thought it must be a late swan.  But it looked big.  I set up the telescope and was shocked to see a pelican sp swimming on the water!  It was resting on the far side of the reservoir among a large flock of some 250+ Black-headed Gulls.  I immediately sent SMSs to Jesper and Brian Jones and Jesper responded to say he was also at WDL but in a different part (!) and asked for directions.  I explained where it was but wasn’t sure whether or not Jesper could see it from his vantage point.  I then watched the bird for about an hour during which time it preened and swam along the far side of the reservoir, looking settled.  At one point a small group of 8 Relict Gulls flew right over it!  On any other day, the Relict Gulls would have been the star of the show…  I knew there had been the odd record of Dalmatian Pelican in the Beijing area, so assumed it must be this species (having seen neither I was not sure of the identification criteria).  But nevertheless, I took some notes on the features I could see.  Although distant, I could see that it was large, bulkier than a swan, and the plumage was a brilliant white with a yellowish bill.  At about 0830 I left the reservoir to do my normal walk to Yeyahu.  Jesper was further north and east of me and I assumed, as I had not seen or heard from him, that he had been able to pick it up.  Then, at 0845, as I was walking east, Jesper sent me a text to say the pelican was in flight over the reservoir.  I picked it up easily in my bins and then watched it through my telescope as it circled, gained height and, after a few minutes, was lost to view in the murk.  I took some notes about the features I could see.  In flight, it looked a brilliant white against the mountains as it soared, with intermittent wingbeats.  On the upperside, there was a clear and sharp contrast between the black wing tips and black secondaries and the brilliant white plumage.  I did not clearly see the underside.  Jesper then sent me a SMS to say the wing pattern fitted Great White.  It was only when I returned home and looked at the literature that I realised, from my notes, that it was definitely a Great White and just how rare it is in northern China.  Unfortunately, at no time did it come close enough for me to obtain a photo.  I am just very pleased that Jesper saw it too!

I am assuming that it was a wild bird but, of course, there is the possibility of it being a free-flying escape from some park.  I’ll try to do some digging about this possibility.

Wild Duck Lake just keeps on producing….

Guest Post 3: Brian Jones – The Magic of Yeyahu NR and Ma Chang (Wild Duck Lake)

The third in the series of guest posts on Birding Beijing is from Brian Jones. Brian was kind enough to take me on my first visit to Wild Duck Lake (covering the areas of Ma Chang and Yeyahu Nature Reserve) soon after I arrived in Beijing and his enthusiasm for the place, as well as the great birds, made it a fantastic introduction to birding in China. That enthusiasm was infectious and I have since made regular visits to what is surely the premier birding site in the Beijing area. Brian visited WDL almost every week over a period of three years and thus has an unrivalled understanding of the birding in all seasons at this site and he has racked up an impressive list of records, including an amazing sighting of a Leopard Cat (with photo!). And so, with that short introduction, it’s over to Brian to tell you more about this wonderful place….

The Magic of Yeyahu Nature Reserve and Its Environs of Ma Chang

The viewing tower at "Eagle Field", Yeyahu Nature Reserve

This is my spiritual birdwatching home and somewhere I would recommend to any birder visiting Beijing.  It is good at all times of the year but perhaps marginally less so during June and July.

Yeyahu NR and neighbouring Ma Chang are, to my mind, the premier birdwatching sites in the Beijing area. Surprisingly the area is grossly under-birded and in the three years that I lived in Beijing having visited the site more than 160 times, apart from regulars like Jesper Hornskov, the highly respected China guide and his parties, I have probably seen no more than 30-40 birders.

The reserve lies approximately 80kms to the NW of Beijing and is reached by the Badaling expressway. The trip, depending on delays caused by trucks breaking down, normally takes about one and a half hours. But this can become over two and a half hours with delays so I got into the habit of busing out on Friday evening and staying overnight in Yanqing. My ever-reliable taxi driver Li Yan would look after me like a surrogate mother and pick me up at all hours.

My regular birdwatching companion Spike Millington and I would normally start at Ma Chang which is an open sandy desert-like area surrounded by crop fields mostly Maize and Peanuts.This is a haven for Cranes (Common, White-naped, Hooded, occasionally Demoiselle and Siberian) as well as the elusive Oriental Plover in the Spring (end of March-beginning of May and very occasionally in the Autumn), Great Bustard and raptors.

Demoiselle Crane, Wild Duck Lake

This is a wonderful location for raptors and it is not unusual to reach double figures of species during a day’s birdwatching. Larks are also plentiful including the much sought-after Mongolian Lark which, in the very cold winter of 2009/10, could be found in flocks of 200 birds. That particular winter also produced an irruption of Pallas’s Sandgrouse – one day I counted over 300 birds – and the extraordinary record of a dark variant Gyr Falcon. It is worthwhile exploring the area surrounding the wind turbines to the west of Ma Chang for Great Bustard, which are normally seen during the Autumn and late winter.

Mongolian Lark, Wild Duck Lake
Great Spotted Eagle ssp fulvescens, Wild Duck Lake
Pallass Sandgrouse, Wild Duck Lake, winter 2009/10

You can walk from Ma Chang to Yeyahu NR either through or round the fence that divides the two areas and it is certainly more worthwhile to do so as you will see far more birds than taxi cabbing from one to the other. Daurian Partridge are present in small numbers as well as Japanese Quail. During Winter and Spring time, the walk produces many Buntings, including the occasional irruption of Pine Buntings (one flock of 300 seen in 2010). I have also recorded the rare Streaked Reed Warbler along the edge of the reservoir.

Yeyahu NR produces a remarkable number of species considering the lack of any forested areas. If you want to find large raptors then head for the area we call Eagle field which lies between the lake and the reservoir to the north. Late morning in the Spring and Autumn will normally produce something special. Short-toed Eagle, which is a scarce bird in north China, is easily found here as well as Greater Spotted Eagles. During the winter White-tailed Eagles are commonly seen but, surprisingly, Golden Eagles are rare at Yeyahu. We have also found Booted and Terry Townshend this year saw an Imperial Eagle. I recorded Himalayan Griffon (2010) at this location. I believe it is the only Beijing record and I am quite sure a Steppe Eagle and Lammergeier will one day put in an appearance. Accipiters and Falcons are plentiful depending on the time of year with Saker Falcons being more common than Peregrines and an occasional Siberian Goshawk amongst the Northern Goshawks, being found. During migration it is not unusual to see migrating flocks of 50+ Amur falcons sometimes with small parties of Lesser Kestrel (best location at the bottom of Ma Chang). I found a flock of over 30 Lesser Kestrels one morning.

All the Harriers can be found with good numbers of Eastern Marsh (which breed both at Ma Chang and on the lake), Hen, Pied and on four occasions I have seen Pallid Harriers. Relict Gulls in the Spring and occasionally a Pallas’s Gull will show. Bitterns are common, I estimate there maybe as many as 30 breeding pairs of Great Bitterns in the area as well as good numbers of Von Schrenck’s, a rare bird in most areas of China, and the ubiquitous Yellow Bittern. If you walk along the boardwalk at Yeyahu early in the morning in May you will probably find Crakes or Water Rail. The reedbeds also hold breeding Chinese Penduline Tits, one of the very few places where they breed in the Beijing area, perhaps the only location and last year we recorded the first breeding pair of Chinese Grey Shrikes at Yeyahu for the area. Chinese Grey Shrikes, which are uncommon elsewhere, are common at Yeyahu during the winter.

One of my birdwatching friends Richard Carden from Singapore who has visited the site with me on several occasions has a habit of setting me lists of target birds to find. There have only been two glaring misses to the “list”, Great Bustard and Eagle Owl neither of which is normally that hard to locate at the appropriate time of the year. However Yeyahu made up for these deficiencies by producing an extralimital male Desert Wheatear and a Baird’s Sandpiper (yet to be ratified but the id of which we are both quite certain is correct) as well as a female Pallid Harrier. Peter Ericsson, the well-known guide from Bangkok was also present on one of the red-letter days. I would happily take an oath, that there is no such thing as a bad day during a visit to Yeyahu/Ma Chang. You can always count on the “Yeyahu surprise”.

Yeyahu also supports a considerable bio-diversity especially for lepidoptera, diurnal moths, amphibians and flora. Unfortunately to study lepidoptera you need to look down while birdwatching you are looking up so a choice must be made. I was also very lucky one morning to find myself walking down a track undetected behind a Leopard Cat which are rare now and usually strictly nocturnal.

Leopard Cat, Wild Duck Lake

There are of course aspects which are less favourable not least the “cavalry and dune buggies” who are out all year except during winter in the Ma Chang area.These are riders who charge hither and thither, yelling like cowboys, but falling off with great regularity. It is quite common to see riderless horses heading back to the corral followed some minutes later by a limping vacquero. Dune buggies have a nice habit of getting bogged down as do the cars full of photgraphers who spend much of their time chasing Lapwings. This is why it is worthwhile arriving at Ma Chang by 0700hrs before the Oriental Plovers etc. have been disturbed by the “Charge of the Light Brigade”. There used to be a problem with boatloads of shooting parties, mist netters, snare trappers and long-doggers, all illegal activities in China. But many of these activities have been curtailed because we took a very pro-active stance and “destroyed” all that crossed our path. You can never entirely limit poaching in China because there is a lack of understanding and caring amongst the local population but you can keep it under control by making a big fuss whenever you catch somebody setting up nets etc.
Finally I would recommend to any birder that they walk and not drive round the area. It will prove to be so much more rewarding. If you consider that the area has practically no trees and is mostly flat grassland, the 260 odd species that we have recorded in the reserve is, by China’s birdwatching standards, quite remarkable. I have rarely exceeded 60 species in a day at Yeyahu, but the list will always be full of unusual and exciting birds.

Brian Jones is a 66 years-old Art & Financial consultant who worked at Sothebys for ten years. He has spent three years in China, mostly in Beijing but now based in Shenzhen, working as an independent consultant with a Chinese metals information board and industrial re-cycling group as well as a Chinese investment company.  Brian has a great interest in all aspects of the environment, is a keen ornithologist and entomologist and an avid Scuba diver. He is also an ex-falconer, hence his excitement anytime something with a hooked beak flies past!.

Wild Goose Chase

This week, Birding Beijing is brought to you by the letter “M” and the number “2”.

“M” because there was a distinctly Mongolian feel to Saturday’s birding, and “2” because I saw two new birds!

Spike and I visited Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang to Yeyahu) again on Saturday. We were buoyed by last week’s hints of Spring and, on the bus to Yanqing, our conversation revolved around the possibility of seeing early migrants – would there be a first Little Ringed Plover, or even an Oriental Plover? A Mongolian Lark or Great Bustard? Or something rarer like a Pallas’s Sandgrouse? As usual, speculation about just what might be was pretty outrageous..!

In the end, the reality was much better than I could have reasonably expected with two new birds for me – a single Mongolian Lark (yess!) and 2 White-naped Cranes that were seen cohorting with the local Common Crane flock – whilst the rarest bird must be the all-too-brief probable Lesser White-fronted Goose that was associating with around 3,000 Bean Geese (mostly of the subspecies serrirostris but with a few middendorffii mixed in).

The supporting cast included c400 Swan Geese, 2 Hooded Cranes, the first Shoveler and Wigeon of the year, a stunning drake Baikal Teal, 9 Kentish Plovers, a single Grey-headed Lapwing, my first 3 White Wagtails (ssp leucopsis) of the year, 20 Mongolian Gulls (18 of which were migrating west), 10 Black-headed Gulls, c300 Smew, 2 Upland Buzzards, 2 ‘ringtail’ Hen Harriers, 2 Siberian Accentors, 4 Chinese Grey Shrikes and 3 White-cheeked Starlings.

The day started at Ma Chang at around 0645 and we were greeted by a big flock of Common Cranes by the side of the track. Amongst them were 2 Hooded Cranes, spotted as they took flight. A good start! Then, just as I had set up my telescope to go through the flocks of wildfowl on the far side of the reservoir, everything took flight. This had to mean one thing – a major raptor. Sure enough, a White-tailed Eagle lumbered low over the reeds and settled on the ice. Looking at the sky revealed the sheer scale of the wildfowl present – the sky was full of birds. Bean Geese were everywhere… The sight and sound of the geese in flight shortly after dawn was something to behold. I tried to capture some of the atmosphere on video and you can view a short clip of the Bean Geese here. We just stood and marvelled at the sight for a couple of minutes and then I thought it would probably be a good idea to go through the flocks to see if there were any other geese mixed in.

I began to check the flying flocks with my telescope and, in the third flock I checked, I saw a significantly smaller ‘white-fronted’ goose in a flock of serrirostris Bean Geese. I watched it for about 10 seconds in flight before the flock landed on the ice. I could see the relatively small size (at the time, I estimated it was 20 per cent smaller than the serrirostris Bean Geese), dark belly markings, the white base to the bill and I could just make out an eye-ring. I called out “I think I have a Lesser White-front!”. After a scan of the flock on the ground I picked it up at about 200-300m distance, and was again struck by the noticeably smaller size, relatively small head and very peaked forehead. Unfortunately many other serrirostris Bean Geese landed in the same area and several birds walked in front of the LWFG and it was lost to view. I couldn’t get Spike onto the bird… very frustrating! After several minutes of waiting to see if it would reveal itself, we decided to walk to another vantage point to try to view the flock from a different angle. This proved fruitless when the flock flew up to join another flock of Bean Geese heading west and was lost to view.

I have seen LWFG in Copenhagen in Spring 2010 (a flock of 50+) and I am confident that the bird was that species, although I would have liked to have studied it for longer to rule out hybrids, taken more notes and, ideally, photographed it.. a little frustrating but hopefully it will hang around and be seen by others.

It was shortly after this sighting that we began the walk towards Yeyahu and it was on the shore of the reservoir that we encountered a large flock of larks feeding out in the open. A Kentish Plover called and we soon picked up two, three, then four of these dainty plovers. I set up the telescope to go through the flock with the main aim of counting the KPs (9 in total) when I suddenly got onto a very striking lark mixed in with the Eurasian Skylarks. Slightly larger than the Skylarks and with a black mark at the top of the breast bordered with a rusty wash on the sides of the upper breast, rusty colouration to the median and lesser coverts and a rusty stripe on the head, this could only be one thing – a Mongolian Lark! This is a bird I had hoped to see around Beijing in winter and I was beginning to think my luck was out. To see one in mid- to late March was a nice surprise! After only about a minute it took flight on its own and, with its very distinctive ‘floppy’ flight, it looped over to a more shrubby area and dropped to the ground. Despite a brief search of the area, it never showed again.

We walked round to the east side of the reservoir to try to view the flocks of wildfowl that were congregating on the northern shore. Lots of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Swan Geese and masses of duck. Most surprising of all was the sight of 4 cormorant fishermen who paddled out into the middle of the reservoir and released their cormorants to begin fishing. I thought this practice had all but died out so was surprised to see it being used less than 90 minutes from the capital… (and there wasn’t a tourist in sight!).

The onward walk was relatively quiet with just a couple of Upland Buzzards, a few Japanese Quail, 3 Meadow Buntings, 2 Siberian Accentors and lots more Pallas’s Reed Buntings. We were met by our driver at Yeyahu and began the journey home, tired but exhilarated. That first 3 to 4 hours at the reservoir on Saturday morning will stay with me for a long time – fantastic birding.

This site has bags of potential in Spring and I can’t wait to return.

Mixed flock of Bean Geese and Swan Geese, Ma Chang, 19 March 2011
Cormorant fisherman with wildfowl flock in background, Ma Chang, 19 March 2011

Death at the Lake

With Spring in the air, Spike Millington and I decided to pay a visit to Wild Duck Lake to see whether birds were on the move. We caught the first bus from Beijing at 6am and arrived in Yanqing at 0715, after seeing several small flocks of Waxwings totalling about 30 birds, during the journey. Here we met our driver for the onward 20-minute journey to Ma Chang/Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake). On arrival it was beautifully still and we were pleased to see patches of open water on the reservoir on which were congregating good numbers of wildfowl. 150 swans (mostly Whooper with perhaps 50 Bewick’s) were providing a great soundtrack in the still morning air while we scanned through the flocks. We counted 250 Bean Geese, 10 Swan Geese, over 50 Goosander, c200 Smew, a female Red-crested Pochard, 2 Ferruginous Ducks, 8 Pintail, a handful of Common Pochard, 150+ Ruddy Shelduck, 4 Gadwall and good numbers of Falcated Duck, Mallard and Common Teal. Nearby over 170 Common Cranes fed around the edges of the lake and a single Lapwing (the first of the spring) flew overhead. A lone White-tailed Eagle sat watchfully on the ice.

After scanning (more in hope than expectation) the open grassland for Great Bustard, we began the walk from Ma Chang to Yeyahu. The open grassy areas produced 4 Chinese Grey Shrikes, good numbers of Asian Short-toed Larks and Skylarks (some singing), 200-300 Pallas’s Reed Buntings, a single Lapland Bunting, 2 flocks of Daurian Partridges (totalling 11 birds), 4 Japanese Quails and a single Upland Buzzard. Sadly, it was in this area that we also found a dead Eagle Owl. A superficial examination revealed no obvious cause of death and we speculated about the possibility of starvation or, given that we hardly saw any raptors all day (single White-tailed Eagle and Upland Buzzards were the only birds of prey of the day), the possibility of poisoning taking place nearby.. who knows? In any case, it is probably the same Eagle Owl that we saw here in the first part of the winter and that which, in January, was responsible for the killing of a Long-eared Owl whose remains we found next to a huge pellet. Coincidentally, Brian Jones found a dead Eagle Owl in a similar area two winters ago.

The dead Eagle Owl found at Ma Chang/Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake), near Yanqing

The walk along the boardwalk at Yeyahu produced at least 10 Chinese Penduline Tits and more Pallas’s Reed Buntings but it was a little further on where Spike dug out the surprise bird of the day – a superb adult summer male Long-tailed Rosefinch. It was pretty elusive and I only enjoyed brief views before it seemed to just disappear into thin air.. and there was no sign an hour later when we returned for a second look. This is apparently the first record of Long-tailed Rosefinch at this site.

The walk down to the observation towers produced a few Siberian Accentors, 2 Oriental Turtle Doves, 2 Grey-capped Woodpeckers, 2 Grey-headed Woodpeckers and 3 Marsh Tits. A single Daurian Jackdaw by the exit track was an uncommon sight at Yeyahu as we made our way out of the reserve for the journey back to Beijing.

With the weather warming up and the ice cover retreating, the next few weeks could be very good at Wild Duck Lake. Late March is a good time for Oriental Plover and it’s possible that other early migrants such as Mongolian Lark, Great Bustard and even the now rare Baer’s Pochard may pass through. One of us at least will try to visit once a week for the spring period… Watch this space!

Owl eats Owl

On Saturday I accompanied visiting Swedish birder, Anders Magnusson, to Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang/Yeyahu Nature Reserve) for a day’s birding. Thankfully the forecast strong winds were absent as we were dropped off at Ma Chang at 0730 in -12 degrees C. My ‘michelin man’ outfit including ‘man tights’ (and they are very manly, honest), thermal underwear, 4 layers of t-shirts and fleece plus a long, down-filled coat, two pairs of gloves, woolly hat and thermal snow boots meant I was snug as a bug with only my nose really feeling the cold.

A few Common Cranes were a good start, including one that seemed to completely retract its legs when flying (either that or it had no legs at all – unlikely given that it had obviously been able to take off). Soon we were enjoying a ringtail Hen Harrier and over 200 Bean Geese. A scan of the reservoir revealed a small patch of open water near the far bank, on which swam 20-30 more Bean Geese and around 10 Goosander. Asian Short-toed Larks and Lapland Buntings occasionally flew overhead and, as we began the walk towards Yeyahu a Peregrine engaged in a (unsuccessful) hunt for a feral pigeon. Shortly afterwards, an immature White-tailed Eagle appeared from the west and spooked a flock of around 250 Ruddy Shelducks that were standing on the far side of the ice. Nice.

We worked our way across the open area, enjoying 2 Upland Buzzards (one of which flew alongside a Hen Harrier and looked absolutely huge in comparison) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings seemed to be in every shrub. We flushed a few Common Skylarks as they fed on the ground and, as we approached Yeyahu, 2 male Hen Harriers (one adult and one sub-adult) quartered the reeds. Here we also heard and saw briefly the first of two Chinese Hill Warblers. After a welcome coffee stop (which tasted soooo good) we pushed on towards the lake and, in an area of only a few square metres, we flushed 16 Japanese Quail which scattered in different directions (clearly a deliberate strategy to confuse predators). The reedbed held good numbers of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and, after a bit of work, we managed to identify a single ‘tik’-ing Rustic Bunting in amongst them and then, after a bit of persistence, were treated to good but brief views of the second Chinese Hill Warbler after we heard it calling several times. A fly-by Saker was a bonus.

By now it was 11am and, as is usual at this site, suddenly the wind got up, making the temperature feel another 5-10 degrees colder (wind chill was probably around -20 to -25). At the lake, the brief search for Chinese Penduline Tit proved fruitless, probably due to the fresh wind, but we did see one of the eastern races of Common Reed Bunting (with distinctly pale mantle stripes compared with the nominate race).  After scrutinising it for a while (ruling out Japanese Reed Bunting) we headed north to the lookout tower, choosing the more sheltered side of the trees. Here we discovered a fresh eagle owl kill – of another owl (probably a Short-eared Owl but comments welcome on the feathers below). There were owl feathers covering an area of a couple of square metres with a huge pellet alongside. The site was within 100 metres of where we saw an Eagle Owl in December, so this is probably evidence of the same bird wintering here.

A bit further along Anders spotted a Siberian Accentor (a new bird for him) and, on close examination, there proved to be 2 birds foraging in the lee of the bank. Nice. Before we entered the open area towards the tower we flushed a Grey-headed Woodpecker which flew a long way and out of sight and stumbled across a small flock of Meadow Buntings which showed very well for a few minutes before disappearing over the bank. The walk to the tower produced another 4 Japanese Quails. A scan of the open area from the tower did not produce the hoped for Great Bustard (one was reported two weeks ago) and, given the cold wind, we did not stay up there very long – just long enough to take a couple of images of the ice fishermen. Clearly they are now more confident about the ice thickness given they are driving their vehicles onto the lake…

The walk back to the entrance to the reserve was uneventful and we were met by our driver who took us to the bus station for the journey back to Beijing. A thoroughly enjoyable day out!

Hen Harrier at Yeyahu, 22 January 2011
The scene of the Eagle Owl kill
Eagle Owl pellet
One of the victim's (primary?) feathers - Short-eared Owl?
Ice fishing at Yeyahu
Ice fishing - a cold and lonely pursuit!