CHIFFCHAFF – new for Beijing (or not)

Beijing doesn’t have a rarities committee and the most recent municipality bird list was published in 2011.  So keeping a handle on the birds recorded in the capital requires a combination of finding birds oneself, building as many links as possible with local birders and monitoring the websites that showcase the work of the burgeoning local community of bird photographers.

It was the latter that revealed the presence of what we initially thought was Beijing’s first CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺).  Early in the new year, friend Li Xiaomai spotted some images of a CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺), taken in the Olympic Forest Park, on the website and alerted local birders.  The photographer was apparently waiting for the appearance of a WINTER WREN (鹪鹩) when a “warbler” popped into view and he, opportunistically, reeled off some photos and posted them on the Beijing section of the website.  Little did he know that he had snapped a major rarity!

With a new smartphone “chat group” recently set up in Beijing to share bird sightings, news of the presence of this CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) spread fast and, the next morning, there was a massive (by Beijing standards) “twitch” for the bird involving 8 birders, both ex-pat and Chinese.

After hearing the bird call once early morning from a dense reedbed, there was no sign for the next few hours in an extensive search of the ‘wetland’ area, in which it was reported to be feeding the previous day.  Reluctantly, I decided to leave as I had lots to do, and I began to make my way out of the park to the metro station with friend, Jennifer Leung.  On the way out, almost at the end of the reedbed area, I spotted a small bird feeding low down on the edge of the reeds.  It looked promising and, quickly lifting my binoculars, I could see that it was the CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺).  Jennifer watched it as I called and messaged the other birders on site, who had by now dispersed over a wide area.  I then settled down to observe and photograph the bird as it fed, very obligingly, along the base of a small reedbed just a couple of metres away.

2014-01-07 tristis Chiffchaff
CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺, Phylloscopus collybita tristis), Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, 7 January 2014.
COMMON CHIFFCHAFF ssp tristis, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, 6 January 2014.  At the time, thought to be the first record for the capital.
CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺, Phylloscopus collybita tristis), Olympic Forest Park. The first documented record for Beijing.
Although slightly blurred, this photo shows the greenish/yellow tinge under the shoulder.

Fortunately, two local birders Zhu Lei and Que Pinjia were on the scene quickly and secured excellent views but, disappointingly, the bird soon disappeared into a dense reedbed before the others arrived.  It was seen briefly later in the afternoon and has been seen on several days since.

As expected for a vagrant CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) in eastern China, the bird was of the ‘tristis‘ subspecies.  The greyish brown plumage, jet-black legs and bill and the high-pitched and slightly down-slurred call were all typical of this race, considered by some to be a full species.

At the time we all thought that this bird was the first CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) to be recorded in Beijing.  It does not appear on the municipality list by Liu Yang from 2011 and there are no reports on the Birdtalker database.  However, it has since come to light that one was seen in February 2008 at Baiwangshan (in the northwest of the city) by respected local birder, Wen Chen.  So the Olympic Forest Park bird is the second record for the capital.

With thanks to Paul Holt, here is a short summary of the status of CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) in China:

“Chiffchaff wasn’t an unexpected addition to the Beijing list as there are at least three reports from coastal Hebei (one on Happy Island on 14 May 2002; one at Lighthouse Point, Beidaihe during 16-19 May 2006 & one in the Lotus Hills, Beidaihe on 10 May 2007).  Despite the timing of the Hebei records (May – when there are lots of birders in the Happy Island-Beidaihe area), winter has always been thought to be the most likely time this species would turn up in Beijing.  

There’s at least one winter record from Yancheng NNR in coastal Jiangsu Province and seven (?) records from Hong Kong (including one recently in “Long Valley”). This form of Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita tristis, winters in India & it’s sometimes split as Siberian Chiffchaff P. tristis.  In China it’s restricted to breeding in the Altai Mountains of northern Xinjiang Province (north-west China) but is a locally common passage migrant through much of at least the western part of that province. Elsewhere it occurs as a fairly common migrant in western Qinghai where Jesper Hornskov (in an unpublished report on the Birds recorded at Golmud, Qinghai Province, China, 1980-1994) recorded 256 bird-days – just one spring record (23 March 1994) but fairly common between 25 September and 21 November, plus a late straggler on the 18 December 1990. Numbers varied year on year with 132 bird-days & a high count of 10 on the 3 November in 1991 compared to just 68 bird-days and a high count of eight on the 3 October in 1993.

There’s a record from Shandong Province in the new checklist and Common Chiffchaff has apparently also been recorded in Liaoning Province (it was included in Bai Qingquan’s unpublished List of the Birds of Liaoning, Jan. 2012), Henan Province (as it was included in an unpublished List of the Birds of Dongzhai NNR, Luoshan provided by researcher Du Zhiyong on 4 January 2010), Shaanxi Province (one at Yangxian on the 15 Dec 2003 [Phil Heath] was the first, and possibly still the only provincial record), another was photographed at Yandong Lake, Wuhan on 4 December 2009 (Zhang Shuyong in China Bird Watch 71, p32) – the first record for Hubei Province.  There’s a short article on this occurrence in the same issue. The Jiangsu record is of one that was seen at Yancheng NNR by Mark Beaman & a BirdQuest group sometime in the 1990s.”

Autumn Migration Begins in Beijing

After a superb juvenile Little Curlew was seen and photographed at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing last week, and a report of a male Narcissus Flycatcher in the grounds of the Xiyuan Hotel, I was motivated to get out this weekend to check a local park for early migrants.  And so on Sunday, in the excellent company of Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu, I headed for the Olympic Forest Park, one of the best parks in Beijing for birds.  After cycling up to the park, I met Paul and Qingyu at the southern gate at around 0645 and spent the next 7-8 hours birding both the southern and northern sections on a gorgeous sunny (but hot and humid) day.

In total we logged 35 species, not a bad haul in August in central Beijing.

Full species list (courtesy of Paul):

Mallard 22 in Olympic FP on 19/8/2012. 19 of these (86%) were adult males with just one definite female

Yellow Bittern 7, including two juveniles being fed by a parent

Black-crowned Night Heron 6, including at least three juveniles & one adult

Chinese Pond Heron 5, including at least two juveniles and one second calendar year

Grey Heron 1 juvenile

Great Egret 4, at least one of which was an adult.

Little Egret 5

Amur Falcon 1 adult female flew south.  Apparently a record early date for a bird in the process of migrating. Migrants are often difficult to distinguish from breeding birds but the location, well away from known breeding sites, and the bird’s behaviour are both strongly indicative of this bird being a migrant. Note that another bird, suspected at the time to have been an early autumn migrant was seen at Wild Duck Lake on this same date in 2003 (an unattributed record in the 2003 CBR). Note however that WDL is now known to hold breeding birds – and possibly did so back in 2003.

Common Moorhen 3 adults

Green Sandpiper 1 adult.

Common Sandpiper 1 was heard

Spotted Dove 4 singles

Large Hawk-cuckoo 1.  Known predominantly as an uncommon, rather local breeding summer visitor in Beijing it’s always scarce away from breeding sites. What’s more this often unobtrusive species apparently stops singing before the middle of July and there are remarkably few encounters in Beijing after then. Note however that specimens were procured at Liangxiang on 5 September 1961 & Baihua Shan on 23 September 1976 (both Cai 1987) and an exceptionally late bird was reported at Baiwang Shan on 17/10/2009. (aiyuanyang wanggangge via BirdTalker)

cuckoo sp. 1 bird, probably either a Common or Indian Cuckoo, was seen briefly & in flight.

Common Kingfisher 1

[Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker 1 bird, possibly this species, was seen poorly]

Great Spotted Woodpecker 3, including an adult female

Grey-headed Woodpecker 1

Brown Shrike 8, including one presumed family group of five birds

Black-naped Oriole 1.

Black Drongo 5

Azure-winged Magpie 20, including several locally fledged juveniles

Common Magpie 25, including several locally fledged juveniles

Light-vented (Chinese) Bulbul 32, including several locally fledged juveniles

Barn Swallow 40, including several presumably locally fledged juveniles

Red-rumped Swallow 5

Yellow-browed Warbler 2 singles (one seen & the other only heard).  These are apparently the earliest of the very few August reports from Beijing.

Oriental Reed Warbler 11, including several locally fledged juveniles

Vinous-throated Parrotbill 12 together

Crested Myna 3, two adults and a juvenile together

Eurasian Tree Sparrow 50

Yellow Wagtail 2 separate juveniles, one apparently macronyx & the other apparently simillima.

Grey Wagtail 1

[White Wagtail 1 bird, possibly this species, was glimpsed in flight]

Richard’s Pipit 1 was heard flying high to the south.  Richard’s Pipit is one of the first passerine migrants of the autumn in Beijing with birds that are definite migrants i.e. birds away from breeding sites starting to be seen towards the end of the the first week of August (the earliest autumn records involve one near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 6/8/2009 & two singles that flew south there on the 7/8/2010 [both PIH]). However it’s at least towards the end of the third week of August before sightings become anything close to being regular.

Olive-backed Pipit 1 was heard over. There is perhaps only one other August record of this species from Beijing – an exceptionally early bird near the Xin Zhuang bridge over the Chaohe, Miyun on the 7/8/2010 (PIH).

Grey-capped Greenfinch 5, including at least one presumably locally fledged juvenile

Bunting sp. 1 was heard.

[Escape: Scaly-breasted Munia 2 in the reed bed just to the north of the ‘Underground Corridor’.]

It is clear that autumn migration is underway.  And whilst passerines are only just beginning to move, shorebird migration is now in full swing.  Next weekend, Paul and I will be heading for the coast to check out a site in the north of the Bohai Bay.  Watch this space!


Little Grebe ssp poggei – future split?

Visiting birders generally don’t pay much attention to the humble Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis).  But the observant birder will notice that the subspecies found here – poggei – has a pale eye and has been mooted as a potential future ‘split’.  Whatever its taxonomic status, the Little Grebe is a charismatic bird and, in the parks of Beijing, can be relatively confiding.  Visiting birders who care about their lists will be wise to take note for ‘insurance’….!

Little Grebe (ssp poggei). A common resident and breeder in the capital. This individual is half of a breeding pair in the Olympic Forest Park.

Water Rail Tragedy

On Saturday morning I decided to check on the Western Water Rail in the Olympic Forest Park.  When I arrived on site, my heart sank.  All of the small areas of reeds that had been left uncut at the beginning of the winter had disappeared, including the section favoured by the Water Rail and its Moorhen companions.  There has clearly been some ‘management work’ over the last few days and, for some reason, these reedbeds – which were also a haven for other species, including Chinese (Light-vented Bulbul) and Black-faced Bunting – were given the chop.  Needless to say, there was no sign of these birds today and, with a brisk northerly blowing, I recorded very few birds at all.  A couple of Red-flanked Bluetails and a male Daurian Redstart were as good as it got.

The reedbed at the Olympic Forest Park in February. The closest clump, on the left, was the favoured haunt of the Western Water Rail.


The reedbed today. Everything has been cut. Consequence: no Water Rail.

Eastern or Western Water Rail?

How are y’all on Water Rail identification?  Great….

I took these images of a Water Rail sp in the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, this afternoon.  The bird has been around since at least December, frequenting a small area of reedbed with two Moorhens.  After two failed attempts to see it, it was third time lucky today.  And it showed spectacularly well.

There is a suggestion – initially raised by Jesper Hornskov – that this could be a Western Water Rail rather than the expected Eastern Water Rail (now recognised as a separate species by most authorities).  The head pattern, flank barring, colour of the underparts and the undertail coverts are all said to be the key features.  From looking at images of Eastern Water Rail on the Oriental Bird Club image database and images of Western on the internet, I am inclined to think that this is possibly a Western.  But I have ZERO experience of Eastern Water Rail, having never seen it in China or anywhere else.  I guess the question that has to be answered is – can a first winter Eastern Water Rail look like this?

If it is a Western, it would be a significant record (it has occured in Hong Kong apparently).

Anyone willing to put their neck on the line?

I’ll post some more info when I have done some more digging.

A nice surprise as I was watching this bird was a flock of 5 Olive-backed Pipits that landed briefly to drink from a small pool of water before heading off north – spring migration has begun!

Water Rail sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing. Note the relatively plain face pattern, restricted barring on the flanks and grey (not grey-brown) underparts. Suggestive of Western Water Rail?
Water Rail sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing.
Water Rail sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing. The undertail is very clean, suggesting Western, but can a first winter Eastern look like this?

Water Pipits

On recent trips to the Olympic Forest Park and Shidu, I encountered wintering Water Pipits, described by my companions as the epitome of LBJs (little brown jobs)!  There are several races of Water Pipit and, in the Beijing area in winter, we see the blakistoni subspecies.  In the field they strike me as rather grey-headed/naped and brown-backed.

Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Shidu, Beijing, 11 February 2012
Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, 7 February 2012
Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing. Same individual as above.




It’s been a strange winter so far.. not so cold and no snow to speak of.  It’s been the same up north in Liaoning Province.  No Waxwings at all (contrasting strongly with last winter’s invasion of both Bohemian and Japanese Waxwings), very few Rosefinches (Long-tailed or Pallas’s) and a few so-called summer visitors have been lingering in the capital.

This week I have made short visits to both the Olympic Forest Park and the Summer Palace to see what was around.

The Summer Palace, Beijing.. not so crowded on a cold February day.

I was surprised to see several Pallas’s Warblers, double figures of Red-flanked Bluetails, three Red-crested Pochard and singles of Black-faced Bunting and Ferruginous Duck (the duck were together on a tiny patch of open water at the summer palace).  All of these birds should really be further south in the middle of winter but all seemed in good shape.

Red-flanked Bluetail, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing. This bird was feeding on berries.
Red-flanked Bluetail, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing
Pallas's Warbler, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing
Ferruginous Duck, Summer Palace, Beijing
This Fudge Duck is on a small patch of open water and, consequently, gives exceptionally good views.
Red-crested Pochard, Summer Palace, Beijing


Some of Beijing's bird photographers taking advantage of the excellent photo-opportunities presented by the Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochards and Smew at the Summer Palace.
This Black-faced Bunting was eking out a living among the reeds at the Olympic Forest Park.

This Common Kingfisher looked much healthier than the last one I saw at Wild Duck Lake (which expired as we were watching it in late November).

Common Kingfisher exploiting one of the few ice-free areas at the Olympic Forest Park.

Several Smew were accompanying the Ferruginous Duck and the Red-crested Pochard, adding a reassuring feel to the winter.  I managed this image of one in flight.

A 'redhead' Smew, Summer Palace, Beijing

The Appetiser

A walk around the Olympic Forest Park on Tuesday evening revealed that autumn passerine migration is beginning to get going…  First, I flushed a Richard’s Pipit from a path near the ‘underwater corridor’, then a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler flew across the path and dived into deep cover, showing the white tips to the outer tail feathers.  Just before dusk a snipe circled a couple of times before dropping like a stone into the edge of a reedbed.  I grabbed a few very poor images and I suspect it was a Pin-tailed Snipe or Swinhoe’s.  Its flight was subtly slower than Common Snipe, it lacked an obvious white trailing edge to the secondaries and the legs appeared to protrude relatively far beyond the tail.  Images below and opinions welcome.  Swinhoe’s and Pin-tailed Snipe are notoriously difficult to separate so best to go down in the book as a “Swintail”…!

"Swintail" Snipe, Olympic Forest Park
"Swintail" Snipe, Olympic Forest Park

There were also some dragonflies on the wing.  In addition to the usual Sympetrum kunckeli, these presumed Deielia phaon were patrolling the edge of the reedbed.

Deielia phaon (I think), Olympic Forest Park
Deielia phaon (I think), Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

The trickle of passerine migration certainly whets the appetite for what will be, I am sure, another brilliant autumn of migration here in north-eastern China.  I have just booked my flight to Dalian for late September, where we will have a group of birders covering the Laotieshan area for at least a couple of weeks this autumn.  After the fantastic Spring experience, I can’t wait to return to see if the autumn migration matches my expectations.

On the way back from the Olympic Park to the metro station, I enjoyed watching the local Beijingers using the public spaces built for the Olympics.  Great stuff!


In the continuing sultry heat of Beijing in August it’s uncomfortable to spend much time in the field, even during the early morning or evening.  A sun hat and lots of water are essentials.  And so for my latest visit to the Olympic Forest Park, I packed a heavy 2-litre bottle of water with my camera gear and made my way to the Metro for the 40-minute journey to the south gate.  I was hoping to catch up with the breeding Yellow Bitterns and some more dragonflies.

The large reedbeds in the south-west of the park were now very tall and, in contrast to my last visit when the bitterns were constantly flying to and fro with food, it took me over an hour to catch sight of my first – a young bird – that made a short flight across one of the lakes.  My only other sightings were of two other young birds, leading me to suspect that the adults have already left the breeding grounds and are on their way south.

Other birds were few and far between.  The reedbeds that have, for the last couple of months, been full of the chattering of Oriental Reed Warblers, were eerily silent with just the odd sub-song from one or two of these birds and, as with the bitterns, noticeably less feeding activity.

In contrast to the birds, the dragonflies were seemingly more abundant than ever.  One particular species is very common at this site.  I think it is a Sympetrum sp, possibly Sympetrum kunckeli.  Photos of the male and female below.

Adult male Sympetrum kunckeli, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing
Adult male
Immature male (I think)


Immature male (I think!)
Dragonfly hanky panky...

Wet Wet Wet

Apologies to those of you expecting a post about the 80s pop sensation led by Marti Pello (whatever happened to him?).

Anyway, yesterday afternoon, in the midst of some of the worst smog, I mean mist (you don’t get smog in Beijing, cough) since I have been in Beijing, I decided to spend a couple of hours at the Olympic Forest Park…  it was a decision I regretted almost as soon as I arrived on site..  Within about 15 minutes, and just as I had reached the more open area of the park, the skies darkened and the rumble of thunder began to reverberate all around.. The brief highlight, as I rounded the first lake, was this Kingfisher atop a pink lotus flower as it scanned for vulnerable fish below…

Common Kingfisher, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

I rattled off a few images before the heavens opened..  and boy did they open.  Two hours later I was still sheltering under the overhang of a roof of a refreshments kiosk watching the floodwater rush by and Wishing I was Lucky.  As dusk approached there was no sign of any respite, so I made a run for the metro..  Needless to say, by the time I got to the station, I was soaked to the skin…!  At least the rain has cleared away much of the smog.. today is classified as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” rather than yesterday’s “Hazardous” by the US Embassy’s air quality Twitter feed (@BeijingAir)….