This GREAT WHITE PELICAN (白鹈鹕, Pelecanus onocrotalus) was first seen on 5 October and, after going missing for a few days, presumably the same was seen again on 18 October and it now looks settled close to Houbajiazhuang at Miyun Reservoir. It spends most of its time asleep on the mud but, occasionally, makes short flights to the water where it feeds in its distinctive pelican fashion.
The flights provide an opportunity to photograph it and, luckily for us, the pelican spent a few minutes preening before it’s first flight of the day at around 1630 on Wednesday, allowing me to capture this short video.
On Wednesday, around the time of finding the RED-THROATED LOON, a huge flock of BRAMBLINGS dropped in to some trees and shrubs close to our watchpoint before proceeding to the edge of the reservoir to drink…. We estimated over 500 in this single flock – an awesome sight. As in the UK, Bramblings are winter visitors to Beijing and right now they are streaming through.. beautiful birds.
This autumn is set to go down in Beijing birding history as the best ever (so far!). As well as the Holy Trinity of Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Swinhoe’s Rail and Streaked Reed Warbler, there has been a stunning supporting cast.
Yesterday at Miyun Reservoir, there were two more additions to the seemingly never ending list of rarities to be found in Beijing this autumn.
First, regular Beijing visitor, Dutch birder Ben Wielstra, picked up a BLACK-WINGED KITE loitering over the Chao He valley to the north and then, around lunchtime, whilst scanning through a group of distant GREAT CRESTED GREBES in the hope of finding a RED-NECKED GREBE, I spotted a loon. As soon as I had described to the others where it was, it was flushed by a fishing boat and took flight.. We all managed to get onto it and, as it flew, we were hastily discussing whether it was the more likely PACIFIC or BLACK-THROATED or the much rarer RED-THROATED. Despite the distance, Paul Holt was already suspecting it was a RED-THROATED and, fortunately, it flew towards us and landed in a bay much closer, but still some distance away. As soon as it landed it was immediately clear it was a RED-THROATED LOON, a species that with which I am very familiar as a winter visitor offshore from my home village of Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk. Wow! Once again, the Swarovski kit of the ATX95 plus iPhone and adaptor proved its worth in being able to document a distant record that, without doubt, would have been impossible with my traditional set up of a Canon 400mm lens.
There are two previous records of RED-THROATED LOON from Beijing. The first was a dead female picked up “north of the river” in Tongzhou, remarkably on the same date of 22 October, in 1932. The second was a sight record at the same site from 10-12 April 1933. So this is the first record of RED-THROATED LOON in the capital for more than 80 years!
Big thanks to Paul for the intelligence on the records from the 1930s.
On 5 October, during the National Holiday, I visited Miyun Reservoir with Marie. It was a beautiful day but with a rather chilly northerly breeze that meant the jackets didn’t come off until late morning…. On arrival, almost the first thing we saw was a distant, but still very obvious, large white bird sitting on the water. I set up the telescope and could immediately see it was a pelican… fantastic! The obvious question was which species? In Beijing there are records of two pelican species – the DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕, Pelecanus crispus), a barely annual migrant, most likely to be encountered in spring, and the much rarer GREAT WHITE PELICAN (白鹈鹕, Pelecanus onocrotalus), the latter with just two Beijing records. I have very limited experience of both, with just one sighting of Great White and two of Dalmatians, all in spring.
Separating the two is relatively straightforward given good views and, even at great distance, the species can be separated if seen in flight (Great White shows an obvious sharp contrast between the black primaries and secondaries and the white wing coverts).
Frustratingly, given the distance, I decided that it was prudent to leave the Miyun pelican unidentified unless I saw it in flight… so I decided to keep an eye on it as I scanned the other birds on the reservoir. I put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and Paul Holt, who was birding at nearby Huairou Reservoir and was already planning to come to Miyun, replied to say he’d join us in a couple of hours.
At that time, there were lots of birds moving and it soon became apparent that there was an impressive raptor passage beginning with ‘Eastern’ Buzzards, Amur Falcons, Hobbies and Kestrels all moving…
It was this distraction that allowed the pelican to slip away unnoticed… one minute it was there, the next it was gone and we had not seen it fly…! We desperately scanned the skies thinking that, even if it had left a few minutes before, we must be able to pick up a bird of its size in the sky.. but no, it had gone!
All I had were my grainy photos taken with my iPhone through my telescope at 70x magnification.
As scheduled, Paul arrived a little later and although disappointed at not seeing the pelican himself, he suspected from the original photo that it was probably a Great White.
Even so, it was more in hope than anticipation that I circulated the image to a few respected birders and their responses delighted me – all thought there was enough to identify it as a Great White!
“I don’t see a problem in ID-ing your Miyun birds as Great White:
– general very white colouration, colour of breast – “dent” in upper head, smooth outline of head (no shaggy crest) –> characteristic head profile – colour of pouch – rosy area around eye (poorly visible on photo, but apparently there)”
Axel summed up the ID criteria very well and, when combined with positive responses from Paul Holt and Colm Moore, I am very happy to call this Beijing’s 3rd record of GREAT WHITE PELICAN.
Even without the pelican, it was a brilliant day’s birding in stunning surroundings.. Miyun is spectacular when the air and weather behave themselves… Here is a photo of Paul and me enjoying the birding that day..
Big thanks to Marie for her great company throughout the day and to Axel, Paul and Colm for taking the time to provide me with their much-valued opinions on the identification of this pelican.
I must also thank Swarovski. The ATX95 with iPhone adaptor makes it possible to capture images at such an incredible distance… and this bird would have been in the records as “pelican sp” had it not been for the photo I was able to capture using this impressive kit.
Back in February 2012 I saw my first Water Rail in China… Remarkably it was a Western Water Rail and not the expected Eastern Water Rail (now a separate species – “Brown-cheeked Rail”).
In a sign of just how difficult it is to see Brown-cheeked Rail in Beijing, it was only this Spring that I saw my first, more than 2 years since that Western in the Olympic Forest Park.
So it was a big surprise to see a minimum of 4 Brown-cheeked Rails at Miyun last week. It was reassuring that the first one I saw was noticeably different to Western. It was darker overall, caused by the larger dark centres to the feathers on the upperparts, the face was darker, almost with a mask, the undertail coverts were heavily marked and there was a brownish wash on the breast, all combining to give Brown-cheeked Rail a distinctive appearance.
Here is some video of one of the four present.
And here are some stills of both Brown-cheeked and Western Water Rail for comparison:
Finally, this is a recording of the call of one the Miyun birds… quite different to the usual ‘squeal’ from Western Water Rail that I am used to from home.
Easy, eh? Although Western is a (probably regular) vagrant to eastern China, it’s unlikely that Brown-cheeked will ever make it to the Western Palearctic as its breeding range is restricted to eastern China, far southeast Russia, Japan and the Koreas. The range of the subspecies of Western and Eastern (part of the 2010 paper by Tavares, de Kroon and Baker indicating that they are separate species) can be seen here.
PEREGRINE (Falco peregrinus, 游隼) is not a common bird in Beijing. I have sometimes seen one or two on passage in autumn and spring and occasionally it’s seen in winter. I suspect it breeds in the mountains in small numbers (I have seen juveniles at Wulingshan, just over the border in Hebei, in July).
Most of the birds we see in Beijing look like pretty standard Peregrines, most likely of the subspecies peregrinus or japonensis. However, occasionally, we see one that looks small with rufous underparts, reminiscent of Shaheen Falcon (ssp peregrinator). One such bird was seen on 1 September 2013 at Miyun (photos below).
And on Friday this week, Paul Holt and I saw another that we suspected could be a Shaheen. Although it was very distant, I was able to record some video of this bird.
According to literature, ssp peregrinator breeds in India and across to Vietnam and southern China and is non-migratory. It shouldn’t be anywhere near Beijing. A range map of the various subspecies of Peregrine can be seen here.I’d love to hear views from those familiar with ssp peregrinator as to whether they think this bird is of this subspecies.
Phalaropes are rare in Beijing. So when one flew in from the north and landed on the water just a few hundred metres from our watchpoint at Miyun Reservoir on Friday, Paul and I were pretty excited. Our first instinct was that it would probably be the more regular (but still rare) Red-necked Phalarope. However, as soon as we trained our telescopes onto the newly-arrived, and clearly tired, bird we suspected it was the much rarer GREY PHALAROPE (or RED PHALAROPE, Phalaropus fulicarius, 灰瓣蹼鷸). A closer view was required. So we slowly made our way towards the west from where we would have a closer view.
The best way to distinguish these two similar species in non-breeding plumage is the structure of the bill. On Red-necked it is long, fine and pointed, on Grey more robust and relatively blunt. For juveniles, there is also an important additional difference in moult timings. Juvenile Red-necked Phalaropes tends to retain their darker juvenile plumage into late autumn (well into October). Juvenile Grey Phalaropes moults earlier, often showing the typically grey mantle feathers by late August/September.
As can be seen in the photos and video below, the Miyun bird has quite an advanced moult with few retained juvenile scapulars and mantle feathers. It also showed a beautiful peachy wash to the neck, another good feature of juvenile Grey Phalarope.
Record images taken with iPhone and Swarovski ATX95.
Unfortunately, as we moved towards what would have been an even better viewing position, the bird vanished and despite extensive searching, it wasn’t seen again for the rest of the day. It was present for just one hour (from 1035-1140). After putting out the news, three birders from the city (Jennifer Leung, “Yu Yan” and Zhuang Weimin) came to Miyun to try to see it but unfortunately left without seeing this rare visitor. Despite missing the phalarope, there was plenty on offer to keep them entertained.
The phalarope – representing the second record for Beijing of this species (with fewer than 10 records in all of China!) – was the icing on the cake of a fantastic day at Miyun. The habitat there right now is the best I have ever seen – a relatively low water level offering superb habitat for shorebirds and – due to the very high water levels in the spring – very little maize cultivation near to the shore, meaning that most of the fields around the reservoir are full of wild vegetation – perfect for migrating buntings, pipits, rubythroats and who knows what else!?
Full list of species below. Big thanks to Paul Holt for taking extensive notes.
A reasonable day – until the early evening when there was a heavy thunderstorm. Cool in the early morning – 15˚C when we left Sanlitun in urban Beijing at 05h05 but just 9˚C when we reached Hou Ba Jia Zhuang at 06h20. The day’s peak was probably about 26˚C there. Reasonable long-range visibility – perhaps about 10 kilometres in the very early morning though this gradually reduced during the morning. There was a light northerly breeze in the early morning this switching around to a south-south-west by about 09h30. This wind gradually stiffened during the day. The skies darkened quite suddenly around 16h15 & it wasn’t long before we became aware of an approaching thunderstorm. It started to rain just as we were leaving at 17h00 & continued to do so, on & off & sometimes quite heavily, until we arrived back at about 19h00.
Taiga Bean Goose 8, a family party of tree (two adults & a juvenile) & another family party of five (two adults & three juveniles). An early date for so many.
Tundra Bean Goose 1. It was presumably the bird that’s now been present at this site for three weeks or so.
Greater White-fronted Goose 1 adult. An early date. Previous autumn reports of 1-6 (& once 31) birds span the period 1 October – 8 November while single reports in mid-June, August & September are thought to possibly relate to escapes.
Short-toed Snake Eagle 3. At one stage all three were visible in the air together.
Japanese Sparrowhawk 2 separate juveniles flew south
Eurasian Sparrowhawk 11, all juveniles, flew south
Eastern Marsh Harrier 3
Hen Harrier 1 juvenile. Interestingly another ringtail was seen over the Wangjinglou raptor watch point today (per Jennifer Leung – though at least one other Hen Harrier had been seen there a few days previously this autumn). Although there are four reports, all from Wild Duck Lake, involving five birds in August – ‘present’ on 4/8/2009 (韩冬, 天天, 东方云雀, Mogan(音)(美)和他的妈妈 via BirdTalker); one on 14/8/2010 (Brian Ivon Jones via BirdTalker); one on 27/8/2005 [ZLi in 2006 CBR] and two on 27/8/2006 (天台, lidove, Tim via BirdTalker) and 28 reports totalling 55 bird-days in September most of these reports are believed, by the author, to be erroneous. Genuine autumn passage probably doesn’t commence until the end of September and peaks in the second half of October and first week of November. The two highest autumn counts were both in late October 2007 and involved 17 (13 ringtails and four adult males) at a pre-roost gathering at Miyun reservoir in the early evening of the 19/10/2007 (PH pers. obs.) and, just over one week later, 19 that were counted at Wild Duck Lake during 27-28/10/2007 (高校观鸟赛总记录 via BirdTalker).
Pied Harrier 4, three juveniles & an adult male
Black Kite 3, two juveniles & an adult
Eastern Buzzard 1. Totally absent in summer, autumn migration starts in early September. The average first date between 2003-2012 is the 13 September and there are reports of single birds in three of the last ten years during the first week of that month with the earliest being the 3rd September 2005 when one was ‘present’ at Wild Duck Lake [科目, 田竹, 舒晓楠, bmlee, cccp, midway, 王沁一家及福建鸟友青竹瘦. via BirdTalker). There’s typically a marked influx during the second half of that month with a pronounced peak between the 29th September and 14 October (a 16 day period that accounts for 70% of the total autumn bird-days) before declining to the end of October.
Brown-cheeked Rail 1 was heard. Previous early autumn Beijing records include- one at Shahe Reservoir, Changping on 19/9/2004 [LHY in 2004 CBR], four at Zhongguocanaoguanliz, Shunyi on 28/9/2008 (birdslover via BirdTalker) & one at Shahe reservoir on 19/8/2010 (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Eurasian Coot 190
Pied Avocet 1
Grey-headed Lapwing 1
Pacific Golden Plover 23
Grey Plover 2
Common Snipe 15
Black-tailed Godwit 20 juveniles
Spotted Redshank 50. All of those seen well (30+ birds) were juveniles.
Common Greenshank 4 juveniles
Wood Sandpiper 4
Red-necked Stint 1
Temminck’s Stint 5
Curlew Sandpiper 5 juveniles
Ruff 1 juvenile male
GREY PHALAROPE 1 juvenile moulting to first-winter. Video recorded. The previous Beijing record was one that was photographed at Shahe reservoir, Changping on the 12 November 2010 (Guan Xiangyu et al.).
Black-headed Gull 140
Mongolian Gull 4, an adult & three juveniles
Common Tern 1 juvenile
Oriental Turtle Dove 1
Eurasian Collared Dove 2 together
Spotted Dove 2 together
Pacific Swift 1 flew south
Common Kingfisher 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker 2
Common Kestrel 5
Amur Falcon 6
Eurasian Hobby 2
Saker Falcon 2 separate juveniles flew purposefully south. The first at 07h40, the second at 12h47.
Peregrine Falcon 2, including a juvenile peregrinator or ‘Shaheen’
Brown Shrike 1
Chinese Grey Shrike 2
Red-billed Blue Magpie 4
Eurasian Magpie 25
Yellow-bellied Tit 2
Japanese Tit 6
Chinese Penduline Tit 1 was heard
Eurasian Skylark 8. A fairly typical first autumn date.
Light-vented Bulbul 1
Sand Martin 3
Barn Swallow 350, including perhaps as many as 10 saturata
Red-rumped Swallow 400
Dusky Warbler 5
Radde’s Warbler 5
Yellow-browed Warbler 5
Oriental Reed Warbler 1
Black-browed Reed Warbler 10
Baikal (David’s) Bush Warbler 1
Lanceolated Warbler 3, one seen & the other two only heard
Zitting Cisticola 4
Plain Laughingthrush 1 heard
Chinese Hill Babbler 2
white-eye sp. 1 was heard
White-cheeked Starling 1
Common Starling 1. Perhaps the second earliest autumn Beijing record? Jan-Erik Nilsen, saw one at Miyun on the 17 Sept. 2012 and this is the earliest ever autumn record from the Capital just pre-dating one at Wild Duck Lake (WDL) on either 23rd or 24th 2010 (report is unclear on exactly which date) by Brian Jones. These are the only two September reports that I know of for Beijing and they’re not followed until four at WDL on either 3rd or 4 October (2010) but it’s the middle of that month before Common Starling becomes anything like regular. Autumn passage peaks in the second half of October. Two at WDL on the 6 Nov (2011) is the latest autumn report from Beijing (& the only record from that month).
Siberian Rubythroat 7
Taiga Flycatcher 1
Daurian Redstart 1
Stejneger’s Stonechat 20
Eurasian Tree Sparrow 50
Eastern Yellow Wagtail 50, including 15 macronyx & one taivana
Grey Wagtail 3
White Wagtail 30, including 13 leucopsis & 15 ocularis
Richard’s Pipit 23
Blyth’s Pipit 3
Olive-backed Pipit 60
Red-throated Pipit 8
Brambling 1 was heard. Possibly the earliest ever autumn record from Beijing.. On the Hebei coast the first birds of the autumn are typically encountered in the last week of September but there appears to be just one previous Beijing record from that month, a single bird in Chaoyang Park on 23/9/2010 (Jan-Erik Nilsén). Autumn migration probably peaks in late October/early November.
Chinese Grey Shrike (Lanus sphenocercus) is an occasional breeder but predominantly a passage migrant and winter visitor to Beijing. It’s a beast of a shrike and always a joy to see. Unlike the shrikes I used to see in the UK, Chinese Grey is vocal and its call is often the first giveaway to its presence. In early September the first few of these birds are arriving in the capital at suitable sites such as Miyun Reservoir and Yeyahu.
This one was recorded at Miyun last weekend. Unfortunately for Western Palearctic birders, it’s not a long-distance migrant and therefore an unlikely vagrant to Europe.
SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT (Luscinia calliope) is a migrant through Beijing and mid- to late-September is the peak time. This morning there were three – two adult males and a female – in just one small patch of scrub at Miyun Reservoir. One of the males was uncharacteristically showy and I took the opportunity to film him. Towards the end of the video he is even singing (although the microphone facility on my iPhone isn’t quite up to the standard of the video).
Definitely a species I dreamt of finding on my original home patch of Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk…
Monday and Tuesday were awful in Beijing with rain, wind and relatively chilly temperatures for the time of year. So it was with relief and a sense of expectation that Wednesday dawned clear, sunny and with expansive blue skies…. Any bad weather during the migration season can cause birds to make unscheduled stops and often the first good day after rainy weather can be very productive for birders.
And so, on Wednesday morning, after a ‘birdy’ few minutes on his local patch that included finding an Eye-browed Thrush, Paul Holt knew there had been a ‘fall’ of migrants and immediately abandoned his tiny area of urban scrub for potentially more productive sites.. He was rewarded with an exceptional find – a first for Beijing no less – in the shape of an adult SLENDER-BILLED GULL (细嘴鸥, Chroicocephalus genei) at Miyun Reservoir.
The nearest known breeding grounds of this gull are in Kazakhstan, 3-4,000 kilometres to the west. And so, as one might expect, it’s a rare bird in China, with the possible exception of Xinjiang Province in the far north-west where it appears to be fairly regular since the first record there in 2008. There are a handful of records from Hong Kong and also from well-watched Hebei coast around Beidaihe/Happy Island but elsewhere in China it’s very rare.
After Paul put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group, I decided to make the trip and, along with Jennifer Leung, I was on site by 1600. Fortunately, we saw it immediately. Later in the afternoon it came close enough for me to take some record photos and a short video using my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 set-up.
This gull turned up at exactly the same spot as the recent LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (see previous post).
Given there are so few birders in Beijing and no site is well-watched, who knows what would be seen if this site was covered on a regular basis?! There is so much opportunity for discovery, and some of the sites are stunningly beautiful, which is what makes birding in Beijing so brilliant…!