Pallas’s Cat

A few days ago a friend asked me which mammal I most wanted to see in China.  Perhaps predictably, I said “SNOW LEOPARD”.   I followed up quickly with “…but PALLAS’S CAT is a close second.”  The second part of my reply is now obsolete after a stunning encounter near Qinghai Lake on Friday.

To celebrate my birthday, Marie and I have spent the last week in China’s Qinghai Province, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.  We have explored the shores of Qinghai Lake, enjoying the colonies of Pallas’s and Brown-headed Gulls, caught sight of the Tibetan Lark, the rare Przewalski’s Rosefinch and enjoyed encounters with Wolf and Tibetan and Red Foxes.  Along the way we have explored some spectacular mountains and valleys, some of which are rarely visited by anyone except a few local yak and goat herders.

On my birthday we discovered a track that ran from Qinghai lake towards a stunning gorge.  We were able to drive our car for about 1km before parking up and setting out on foot.  The scenery soon took our breath away as we walked further upstream, the cliffs either side of us becoming ever more imposing.

Despite having only two hours to explore the gorge, we saw Lammergeier, Saker, Tibetan Partridge, Salim Ali’s Swift, Asian House Martin, White-browed Tit, Kessler’s Thrush, Alpine Leaf Warbler, Black and Blue-fronted Redstarts, Ground Tits and Rufous-necked Snowfinches.  As we tore ourselves away, we resolved to be back at first light to explore further.

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Further into the gorge the cliffs give way to shrubby hillsides with only a few goats and yak for company.

Heavy rain around dawn the next morning delayed our start and, after the weather improved around 0630, we set off for the journey from our hotel to the beginning of the track.  Just before 7am we drank our coffee, packed some water and snacks to fuel our walk and began our expedition into the gorge, pikas scampering down their burrows as we headed across the stone-covered grassland into the valley.

After about 20 minutes we had passed the first crags, almost like practice attempts at cliff-building compared with the finished product we would encounter further into the gorge.

Suddenly, in the overcast early morning light, movement caught my eye.  I raised my binoculars and was astonished to see not one but two PALLAS’S CATS scampering around some rocks on the nearby hillside.  I said to Marie “Pallas’s Cat!”, as softly as my excitement would allow.  I quickly set up the telescope thinking that they would almost certainly run away fast as soon as they saw us.  Instead, we were treated to incredible prolonged views as these two youngsters practiced their hunting skills, chasing each other, biting each other’s tails and generally having lots of fun.

We had clearly stumbled across their den and we knew it was only a matter of time before mother, presumably out hunting, would return.  To our delight, we settled down around 30-40 metres away with the kittens completely relaxed, playing right in front of us.  We were enthralled.  We couldn’t stop grinning to each other.  I took some video with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 telescope as the kittens continued to perform.  After around 40 minutes, which went in a flash, the kittens suddenly stopped fooling around and both stared intently in the direction of some nearby rocks..  A quick scan in that direction revealed the mother, slowly walking towards the den with a pika in her teeth.  We froze with anticipation.  Then, suddenly, she dropped the pika, turned around and, almost in slow motion, crawled to a nearby hollow before raising her head and looking directly at us.  She had seen us.  And we were obviously too close for her liking..  Not wanting to intrude, we began to retreat and before we had even moved 10m from our position, she returned to pick up the pika and headed towards the den, seemingly completely relaxed.  Fortunately I was able to record the moment when the kittens scampered up to her, one of which grabbed the pika and took it back to the den, before being followed by its sibling and, finally, its mother.  A magical moment.

This 4-minute video is a compilation of the best footage I was able to capture.

We had spoken about the possibility of seeing a Pallas’s Cat on this trip.  However, not in our wildest dreams did we consider an encounter  such as this.

According to wikipedia, Pallas’s Cats are usually solitary.  Both males and females have territories which they scent mark.  They often spend the day in caves, rock crevices, or marmot burrows, and emerge in the late afternoon to begin hunting, although when they have young, they often hunt around the clock.  They are not fast runners, and hunt primarily by ambush or stalking, using low vegetation and rocky terrain for cover. They feed largely on diurnally active prey species such as gerbils, pikas and voles.

We owe huge thanks to Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu for helping to arrange our Qinghai itinerary and for providing site information for many of the special birds to be encountered in this wonderful part of China.

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Birding In The Haze

When a British friend recently asked me what it’s like to live in Beijing, my instinctive reaction was to say “I love it”.  Professionally speaking it is one of the most exciting and interesting places on the planet.  And, of course, the birding is epic.

Then, after thinking for a few seconds, I qualified that statement with a “But” and described Beijing as “schizophrenic”.  On nice days, when the air is clear and the weather good, Beijing is stunningly beautiful, cradled by mountains that run from the southwest to the northeast, providing a spectacular backdrop to what must be one of the most exciting cities in the world.  However, on bad days, the air pollution renders invisible the tops of even the nearest tower blocks and, after just a few minutes outside, your clothes can smell as if you’ve spent an hour or two in the smoking room at Beijing Capital International Airport.

For visitors, Beijing’s air pollution is usually a relatively minor inconvenience that can affect the views when visiting the Great Wall.  It’s very unlikely to have a lasting impact.  For residents, given the serious, albeit unquantified, risks it’s something we really should take seriously.

On waking, my first act is to check the air quality index on my iPhone.  It dictates my mood.  If the pollution is low and classified as “suitable for outdoor activities”, I rejoice and it puts a spring in my step for the whole day.  Conversely, if the pollution level is high, I sigh and just want to snuggle under the duvet..   It’s THAT important to my quality of life.

The air quality in Beijing as I wrote this post.
The air quality in Beijing as I wrote this post.  Anything over 150 is serious.

Most ex-pats, and an increasing number of Chinese, invest in air purifiers for their apartments and wear masks to protect themselves when air quality is poor.  For those of us who like outdoor activities, such as birding or hiking, Beijing’s air can be particularly frustrating.

Often, before I decide when to go birding, I take into account the likely pollution levels, bearing in mind key factors such as wind direction and speed in the preceding days.  Residents know that a northerly or westerly wind generally clears the air, as the airflow originates from relatively pollution-free Mongolia and Siberia, whereas a southwesterly or southerly airflow brings up pollution from some of China’s most polluted towns and cities in neighbouring Hebei Province.

I am fortunate in the sense that, much of the time, I can arrange my work and birding according to the pollution levels and weather.  If it’s smoggy at the weekend, I will work and then take a day off during the week to get my birding fix when the air is better.  Most people are not that lucky.  Even so, there are times – for example when friends are visiting – when I arrange to go birding on specific days, and take a gamble on the air quality.

If we are unlucky, we take a deep breath, don our masks and go birding in the smog.  That’s exactly what Marie and I did yesterday and Marie’s photo of me birding along the Wenyu River is what prompted me to write this post.

Wearing a mask for several hours can be uncomfortable and of course, to eat and drink, one must remove it, at least temporarily.  Perhaps the most obvious effect of the air pollution when birding is the reduced visibility.  When the pollution is bad, even on a supposedly cloudless day, visibility can be reduced to a few hundred metres and, when visiting birding sites like Miyun Reservoir or Yeyahu – vast areas overlooking large areas of water – that can seriously impact the number of birds one is likely to see.  On bad days, it’s best to visit sites where one doesn’t need to look too far into the distance – parks and the local river are ideal candidates.

People often ask me how the pollution affects birds.  It’s a question I can only speculate about; as far as I know there have been no scientific studies examining the effects (if you know of any, please get in touch!).  My sense is that the air pollution may impact the journeys of some migrants – particularly birds of prey? – that rely on sight and landmarks for navigation, causing them to delay their migration if the visibility is low.  However, most of the health impacts of air pollution are related to long-term exposure and I suspect that most birds are not long-lived enough to be affected by these.  I am sure water pollution – also chronic over much of China – is a much bigger threat.

In Marie’s photo, I think I cut a sorry figure on the banks of the (heavily polluted) Wenyu River, close to Beijing’s 5th ring road and airport.  However, it’s a sign of just how good the birding is in Beijing that days like this are accepted and tolerated.  When it’s good, there is nowhere I would rather be…

EDIT: BBC World Service interviewed Terry on 8 December about the smog in Beijing and how it affects residents and birds. You can hear the interview here.

The 1st China International Birding Festival: A Major Success

After a whirlwind 48 hours, and the participation of almost 200 birders from all over China and overseas, the 1st China International Birding Festival has officially closed.  And what a success it was.

The centrepiece was a 24-hour “bird race” during which 49 teams of 4 (age range 10 to 71) competed to record as many species of bird as possible by visiting 5 pre-determined sites in the Laotieshan area.  Each team was allocated a volunteer student from the Dalian University of Foreign Languages, a local State Forestry Fire Prevention officer and provided with a car and driver.  And, after the opening ceremony in which the Vice Mayor of Dalian and other senior government officials participated, the race began at 4pm on Friday.

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The formal opening ceremony of the 1st China International Birding Festival. A grand affair!
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However, some were briefly distracted from the speeches when an ORIENTAL HONEY BUZZARD drifted overhead..
map of birding locations
The map of the birding locations for the 24-hour “bird race”. The birding sites are marked in red, A to E. The accommodation and event sites marked in green, F to H.

With China birding guru, Paul Holt, honourably serving as one of the team of judges, suddenly everyone else was in with a chance of victory!

Our team, including Marie Louise and two fabulous and enthusiastic young birders, Zhao Tianhao and Cheng Xi, decided to spend the first two hours of the race, and the last two hours of daylight, visiting the “Tiger Tail mudflats” where we connected with, among others, Chinese Egret, Osprey, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gull as well as Red-throated Pipit, Lanceolated Warbler and a stunning adult male Yellow-breasted Bunting in the scrub.

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The “Ibisbill” team (from left to right): Zhao Tianhao, our forestry minder, TT, Marie Louise and Cheng Xi)

After the formal dinner in the evening, we arranged to meet at 0500 (half an our before dawn and the earliest the driver and forestry officer could start) to continue the race..

We first visited the saltpans from where we hoped to be lucky with Streaked Shearwater (possible, with luck, from the sea wall).  We did not see one but we did connect with some shorebirds, including Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Dunlin, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Pacific Golden Plover.  It was shortly after sifting through the waders that we finally saw something ‘streaked’, only it was not ‘shearing’ over the sea but hiding in a small reedbed.  Astonishingly, we connected with a STREAKED REED WARBLER, an almost mythical and now almost certainly extremely rare bird.  See here for some background about this species and the story of this observation.

After the excitement of the Streaked Reed Warbler sighting, we continued to increase our species list as we visited the other sites, including a wooded mountainside and a tidal estuary.  An encounter with two NORTHERN HOUSE MARTINS (scarce in NE China) was a nice bonus during our last hour.

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Zhao Tianhao suffered from an allergic reaction to the local scrub and took an emergency soaking to calm the itchiness!

As time wore on, our ‘guide’ slowly increased the pressure on us to get back to base – any team that was late, even by a minute, would be disqualified.  So, at 1520 we left the last site and headed back for the 20 minute journey to hand in our scoresheet.  In the car we made a final count – 71 species.  Not bad.  At the beginning of the race I had thought that 70 species would be a good score, so we were pretty pleased, even though we had, alarmingly, missed some common birds; we had seen no woodpeckers, no owls, no harriers, no Little Bunting (how did that happen?), no pheasant or quail and ‘Japanese’ was the only Tit species!

After handing in the entries the judges got to work and, following a late evening, the results were ready to be announced at the closing ceremony the following morning.

On arrival, we were ushered to a row of seats close to the front so we knew we had won an award.  We were delighted to receive two – “The Black-faced Spoonbill Award” for the rarest bird seen (the Streaked Reed Warbler was always going to be a shoe-in for that) and also the 3rd place team award (our 71 species was just 3 behind the winners – Tong Menxiu’s “China Wild Tour” team.

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The “Ibisbills” team receiving the 3rd place award.
The China Wild Tour team receiving their award for 1st place.
The China Wild Tour team receiving their award for 1st place.

In addition, I was humbled and honoured to receive the judges’ “Birding Master” award…

It was a big surprise, and a huge honour, to be presented with the
It was a big surprise, and a huge honour, to be presented with the “Birding Master” award.

It was hugely encouraging to see big numbers of young Chinese birders participating and, during the 24-hour race we met with teams from as far afield as Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian, as well as several teams from host province, Liaoning and the capital, Beijing.  Even better was the gender balance – there were just as many young women as men (it was never like that in the UK when I was a young birder!).

Huge thanks to the organisers, including the China Birdwatching Society, the Dalian local government, the Dalian University of Foreign Languages and all of the other volunteers… And a special thanks to my team mates – Marie Louise, Zhao Tianhao and Cheng Xi.

With participation from the highest levels of the Dalian government, including generous financial support for the event, I sensed a genuine enthusiasm for birding and an appreciation for wild birds, the scale of which I have never before witnessed in China. All around were banners stating “Protect our birds” and “Dalian – honoured to be hosting the 1st China International Birding Festival”.  During the race, many of the 49 teams took the time to explain to interested passers-by what they were doing and to show them wild birds..  And the bird race was covered by national and local TV as well as print media, including the most popular Chinese language newspaper, the People’s Daily.  So the event has helped to raise awareness among the general public, as well as enthusing a new generation of Chinese birders.  I was heartened when one young Chinese student volunteer approached me at the closing ceremony and said “This event has made me want to be a birder”.

Forget all the trophies handed out, the most important winner of all was Birding in China.

Stejneger’s Stonechats

I have just returned from a few days with Paul Holt and Marie Louise at the brilliant visible migration watchpoint that is Laotieshan in Liaoning Province.  Learned lots, as we always do when we visit this superb place.  Paul is staying on for a few days and a full report will be available soon but I’ll blog about a few of my highlights over the next few days.  First up is a video compilation of a few of the 15+ STEJNEGER’S STONECHATS that frequented the point on 9 September.  Remarkably different from the stonechats with which I recently re-acquainted myself at Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk….!