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….

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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!