It was only in May last year that I wrote about Miyun Reservoir, describing it as a world-class birding site little known by birders. Sadly, as of last week, it appears the government has decided to prohibit access and birders have been turned away by officials.
Ever since I came to Beijing, visting Miyun Reservoir has always felt a little like trespassing.. There is an old, rusting fence that runs alongside the northern boundary of the reservoir, through which one must traverse in order to view the water. Many panels of the fence are missing, probably the work of local fishermen and goat herders, allowing easy entry to the reservoir and the whole area is criss-crossed with vehicle tracks, testament to the traffic it has seen over the years.
Since terrorism has become a global risk, it’s always felt a little strange to be able to walk, or even drive, to the edge of Beijing’s main source of drinking water. For anyone with evil intentions, it would be relatively easy to cause havoc through contamination. There aren’t many capital cities in the world that would allow such open access.
Birders in Beijing have been spoiled. We have become used to visiting the shores of this vast reservoir and the top quality birding it has to offer. Highlights in the last 3 years have included Beijing’s first Sandhill Crane, Slender-billed Gull, Bar-tailed Godwit, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and the second record of Red-throated Diver, to name a few.. And then, of course, there is the flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS that have graced the northern shores of the reservoir this winter. With regular migrants such as Baer’s Pochard, Baikal Teal, Relict Gull, Great Bustard, White-naped Crane, Saker, Greater Spotted Eagle and Yellow-breasted Bunting, it is undoubtedly a world-class birding site.
Given that decision-making in China is opaque, it is unclear at this time whether the prohibition of access is temporary or permanent. Time will tell. One thing is for sure: a lack of human access to the reservoir, whilst a blow to local birders, is great news for the birds!
As of Sunday 31 January, the small flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS Emberiza jankowskii remains at Miyun Reservoir, faithful to a relatively small area of appropriate habitat. Their presence is providing a unique opportunity to study these little-known birds and the knowledge gained will undoubtedly add to our understanding of this endangered species and what it needs to survive. During my most recent visit, as well as examining diet and habits, I took the opportunity to record some video. Some of the plumages shown had never been photographed, or even described, before these birds arrived in Beijing.
In terms of sexing and ageing I believe there is an adult male and two females (unsure of age) in the first clip, and first-winter females in the second and third clips (the shape of the tail feathers is visible in some of the frames).
“The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting”, said Dr Johannes Kamp from the University of Münster, the lead author of the paper.
Although there is a lack of hard data about the population of Yellow-breasted Bunting, there is much anecdotal evidence of its decline, as outlined in the paper, and there can be no doubt that the contraction in its range and the reduction in numbers recorded at communal wintering sites are very real.
And it was in September 2013 that we found a bird trapper at Nanpu, on the Hebei coast, using a caged Yellow-breasted Bunting as a lure alongside some mist-nets.
So it has been with some surprise and delight that, this autumn, there have been record numbers of Yellow-breasted Buntings seen in Beijing. Definitely something to celebrate!
Here are a few recent counts:
44 on 26 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend). Exactly double the previous Beijing record count!
14 on 29 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Jan-Erik Nilsen)
29 on 30 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend)
15 on 1 September 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Terry Townshend and Jeff Hollobaugh)
Although data are sparse, the records we have from Birdtalker (the Chinese bird record database) show no change in the species’ status in Beijing in last 10 years. The important caveat here is that there has been much more observer coverage of good habitat this year, especially in late August (the peak period for autumn migration of this species).
Whatever the reason, we are very happy to see good numbers of this most beautiful of buntings.
Here is a photo from this autumn in Beijing and two short videos – the first of adult male singing on the breeding grounds (in Mongolia) and the second of autumn birds in Beijing.
Thanks to Paul Holt and Jan-Erik Nilsen for sharing thoughts and sightings of Yellow-breasted Bunting via the Birding Beijing WeChat group which contributed to this article.
There is a world-class birding site, visited by very few birders, just an hour from downtown Beijing.
Its name is Miyun Reservoir.
Historically, most birders visiting Beijing have headed to the coast to visit the well-known birding spots of Beidaihe and Kuaile Dao (Happy Island). This is understandable when one considers the observations made there between 1910-1917 by British Consul John D D La Touche, by Dane Axel Hemmingsen in the 1940s and by Dr Martin Williams, among others, in the mid-1980s. These pioneers put northern China, and in particular the coastal town of Beidaihe, on the birding map.
And these locations have dominated the northern China birding scene ever since, with international tour companies visiting annually in May to offer their clients “up close and personal” experience of some of East Asia’s specialities, including the sought after ‘Sibes’ that cause so much excitement when they turn up as vagrants in western Europe or North America.
However, it is increasingly clear that the phenomenal migration along the East Asian flyway is not only concentrated on the coast. It is happening on a broad front and Beijing, China’s bustling capital, is slap bang in the middle of this birding superhighway.
Until recently, coverage of Beijing’s birds can most generously be described as ‘sparse’. Even now, with a growing young Chinese birding community, it is no more than partial. And yet, when one considers the diversity of species (more than 460 species have been recorded in the capital), together with the numbers, it is clear that Beijing is up there with the best birding sites in China. And, within Beijing, there is one location that stands out right now – Miyun Reservoir. The evidence? How about this:
– More than 50,000 Little Buntings in one morning on 26 September 2014
– More than 8,000 Horned Larks on 15 October 2014
– 7 species of goose: Bar-headed, (Taiga and Tundra) Bean, Greater and Lesser White-fronted, Greylag and Swan
– 7 species of crane recorded in the last two years: Common, Demoiselle, Hooded, Red-crowned, Sandhill, Siberian and White-naped.
– A raptor list that includes Amur Falcon, Lesser and Common Kestrels, Hobby, Saker, Peregrine, Chinese, Eurasian and Japanese Sparrowhawks, Goshawk, Booted, Golden, Greater Spotted, Eastern Imperial, Short-toed and White-tailed Eagles, Osprey, Grey-faced, ‘Eastern’, Oriental Honey and Rough-legged Buzzards, Cinereous Vulture, Black and Black-winged Kites, Eastern Marsh, Hen and Pied Harriers.
– Red-throated and Black-throated Loon, Baikal and Eurasian Teal, Baer’s and Common Pochards, Falcated, Ferruginous, Spot-billed and Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, Mallard, Pintail and Wigeon, Greater Scaup and White-winged (Stejneger’s) Scoter.
For an inland location, the shorebird list is impressive, too. Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings, Jack, Common and “Swintail” Snipe, Asian Dowitcher, Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits, Eurasian, Far Eastern and Little Curlews, Whimbrel, Common and Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Common, Curlew, Green, Marsh, Pectoral, Sharp-tailed, Terek and Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed, Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Ruff, Dunlin, Grey, Kentish, Little Ringed, Oriental and Pacific Golden Plovers, Greater Sandplover, Turnstone, Red Knot, Grey and Red-necked Phalarope and Oriental Pratincole have all been recorded.
And how about this for a bunting list: Black-faced, Chestnut, Chestnut-eared, Common Reed, Godlewski’s, Japanese Reed, Lapland, Little, Meadow, Pallas’s Reed, Pine, Rustic, Tristram’s, Yellow-breasted, Yellow-browed and Yellow-throated.
Not to mention the cuckoos, shrikes, gulls, terns, pipits, wagtails etc
It is not unusual in spring, especially in May, to record more than 100 species in a day. This year Paul Holt achieved that in March! And Jan-Erik Nilsen, a Beijing-based Swedish birder, recorded 123 species last week.
As a general birding location, it is probably THE best in the capital.
So opens a 1961 poem by British ornithologist, Beryl Patricia Hall.
Thankfully, our appreciation of pipits has matured a little since then and, in Beijing, we have 10 species on the official list: Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Meadow, Olive-backed, Pechora, Red-throated, Richard’s, Rosy, Tree and Water. Rosy and Richard’s are scarce breeders and passage migrants; Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Olive-backed, Pechora and Red-throated are all passage birds; Water Pipit is a winter visitor; and Meadow (three records) and Tree Pipit (one record, photographed in the UK Ambassador’s garden in May 2013!) are vagrants.
In mid-April the passage of pipits is in full swing and, last weekend, I encountered large flocks of Buff-bellied Pipits (ssp japonicus) at Miyun Reservoir. With a few late Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni) mixed in, it was an ideal opportunity to get to grips with this subtle and underrated species.
Here are some photos that show typical japonicusBuff-bellied Pipits in breeding plumage.
And here are a few Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni), the most likely confusion species.
Of course, another good indicator of ID is call. The calls of Water and Buff-bellied Pipits are similar but with practice can be differentiated. To my ears Buff-bellied sounds slightly down-slurred compared with Water Pipit’s slightly up-slurred call note. You can hear the calls of Buff-bellied Pipit here and Water Pipit here. What do YOU think?
Yesterday morning, as the weekend smog had been cleared by a moderate (but cold!) northerly wind, I made a last-minute decision to visit Miyun. On arrival at 0630 on a Monday morning I expected to have the place to myself but around 10 minutes later Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsen arrived and, a couple of hours later, a minibus of Beijing birders joined us, the latter including two exotic visitors, Rui and Yaya from Xinjiang! (lovely to see you guys!).
It was great to see so many birders and, although the Beijing group missed the GREAT WHITE PELICAN, which flew strongly north at 0905 (maybe gone for good after over 3 weeks on site?), there were plenty of birds to see. A flock of over 800 BEAN GEESE, including at least 2 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE and a single SWAN GOOSE, made for a spectacular sight when they were occasionally flushed by a light aircraft… I just love the noise of a flock of geese in flight, one of nature’s most magical sounds.
Up to 3 PEREGRINES and 2 SAKERS roamed the area and we watched one juvenile PEREGRINE harassing an AVOCET, even hovering over the water as the latter made a desperate dive to escape its attention. Soon after we saw the same PEREGRINE carrying prey and, fortunately for us, it settled on the mud in front of us to devour it. A gory scene, fit for forthcoming Halloween!
As the day wore on, a handful of cranes dropped in, including 25 of the beautiful WHITE-NAPED (encouragingly, several parties containing juveniles) and a few COMMON. A ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD passed to the east providing excellent views and a handful of distant MONGOLIAN LARKS flew north…
With the water level so low at Miyun (apparently in preparation for receiving trillions of gallons from the great south-north water diversion project), the birding is currently spectacular with the traditional viewpoint at Houbajiazhuang offering superb views of usually difficult to see birds. With so many great birds being found at this site, it’s extremely hard to tear oneself away to visit other sites… so who knows what we are missing at Wild Duck Lake? After the recent emergence of the 31 August Spoon-billed Sandpiper record at that site, I don’t want to think about it…
The LESSER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE is classified as VULNERABLE by BirdLife International because “it has suffered a rapid population reduction in its key breeding population in Russia, and equivalent declines are predicted to continue. The Fennoscandian population has undergone a severe historical decline, and has not yet recovered.”
Thousands of the eastern population breed in northeast Russia and winter in central China. It is perhaps surprisingly rare in Beijing with fewer than 10? records. It is undoubtedly overlooked amongst large flocks of BEAN GEESE.
This autumn, the very low water level at Miyun Reservoir has uncovered a large flat area of grass and mud that is proving attractive to many species, including geese, cranes and bustards. And, with the close by hillocks at Houbajiazhuang offering a superb vantage point, it is an exceptional year to observe them.
Amongst the early arrivals of Bean Geese, a flock of 40+ LESSER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE have dropped in. They have been present for around a week and, on Wednesday, I was able to secure this video. Superb birds and, side by side with a few GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE, it’s a brilliant opportunity to compare these two similar species.