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
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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!