The arrival of Oriental Pratincoles in Beijing in mid-April is one of spring’s reaffirming moments. The pratincoles’ harsh tern-like calls are often heard before the birds are seen. Most of the birds I see in Beijing are simply stopping off for a break on their migration and most move on to sites further north. However, this year a small colony has taken up residence at Miyun Reservoir and, during my visit on 1st June in perfect conditions, this group provided some superb opportunities to study, photograph and record their behaviour.
This video from my Canon EOS 7D captures some of their characteristic head-bobbing behaviour and calls.
Interestingly, among the group, there was one apparent first summer bird lacking the beautiful underparts of the adults, sporting an all black bill and with white-edged juvenile wing coverts. My understanding is that most first summer birds remain on the wintering grounds, so this may be an unusual sighting. Unfortunately it was always too distant for photographs.
We enjoyed this encounter for some time in the mid- to late-afternoon light before reluctantly tearing ourselves away.
On Tuesday I spent the day at Miyun Reservoir with Paul Holt (fresh back from leading tours to Bhutan and Taiwan). We started at Houbajia Zhuangcun on the eastern side (the best place to view any cranes lingering in the area) and then visited the north-west side near Bulaotun where the water levels are providing some good habitat for waders.
Our first surprise was on the walk down to the reservoir from the village at Houbajia Zhuangcun as every field seemed to be full of pipits. It was immediately obvious that there were many Richard’s Pipits around along with good numbers of Buff-bellied and Red-throated with the occasional Olive-backed flying overhead. No sooner as Paul said he thought there must be a Blyth’s on site, we turned a corner and flushed four largish pipits that called as they took to the air revealing themselves to be Blyth’s! They circled and landed again, allowing us to secure some wonderful views of these scarce pipits on the deck. Seeing them alongside Richard’s Pipits was very instructive and, although I would hesitate to identify a silent Blyth’s unless I had extremely good views, Paul was able to give me some very good insights into how to separate Blyth’s from Richard’s on the ground. The shorter bill, more heavily streaked mantle, shorter tail and, of course, the shape of the dark centres to the tertials if seen well enough, are all features to look for but, for me, the most obvious difference is structural, particularly noticeable in flight. Blyth’s look noticeably shorter-tailed in flight and can even recall a smaller pipit at times. We spent a long time watching these pipits and it probably took us an hour and a half to get to the reservoir, a walk that usually takes about 10 minutes!
I only managed a couple of images of Blyth’s in flight… I won’t apologise for spending most of my time studying them through my telescope rather than stalking them for photographs! Below is a comparison of Blyth’s and Richard’s.
Of course, call is one of the ways to separate these two; you can hear the calls of Blyth’s and Richard’s Pipits on Xeno Canto Asia. The Pipit frenzy also included good numbers of Red-throated and Buff-bellied and I was able to capture these images of these good-looking species.
In the damper fields near to the reservoir we encountered several Eastern Yellow Wagtails, mostly of the subspecies macronyx, and a few stunning Citrine Wagtails, including one with a very dark back (on close inspection it was a very dark grey back with some black speckling), recalling the subspecies calcarata. Possibly an intergrade? A male Bluethroat then appeared and began to sing from an exposed perch in a small reedbed.
As we were enjoying the pipits and wagtails, a corvid flew by us and headed south.. with the naked eye it looked as if it had a pale neck and a quick lift of the binoculars confirmed it was a Collared Crow! This species is now rare in Beijing and yet, after seeing my first only two days before, here I was watching a second! It was Paul’s first sighting in the capital for around 10 years… It is almost certainly a different individual to that seen by Colm Moore and me at the Ming Tombs, so maybe there has been a mini-influx. It reappeared a few minutes later in the company of a pair of Carrion Crows.
When we eventually reached the reservoir, we checked the stubbly area frequented by cranes this winter and counted 5 White-naped Cranes and 4 Common Cranes but there was no sign of the single immature Siberian Crane that had been present from mid-March. After an hour or so watching from here we moved on to the north-western side to check out the wader site near Bulaotun. As we arrived, we were greeted with huge numbers of Little Buntings… they were everywhere: in the fields, in the bushes, on the tracks and, occasionally, if spooked by a raptor or a local farmer, the air would be filled with clouds of Little Buntings.. an awesome sight. Many were singing, providing a wonderful soundtrack as we scanned through the flocks. A single male Yellow-breasted Bunting was with the group and it, too, sang on occasion. We estimated around 700 Little Buntings along one hedgerow but the real number on site was certainly much higher – many were hidden feeding in the crops.
A short recording of the cacophony can be heard here:
Waders on site included over 150 Black-winged Stilts, 80+ Wood Sandpipers, 30+ Common Snipe, a few Marsh Sandpipers, a couple of Spotted Redshank, a single Common Redshank, 10 Common Sandpipers, 6 Black-tailed Godwits and 30 Little Ringed Plovers. 2 Eurasian Spoonbills, 6 Great Egrets and 2 Little Egrets added a splash of white and an Osprey, several Eastern Marsh Harriers, a couple of Common Kestrels and a handful of Amur Falcons provided the raptor interest.
A quick look at another site at Bulaotun rewarded us with a stunning male Pied Harrier, a single Hobby (chasing Little Buntings), 5 Greater Short-toed Larks, 14 Siberian Stonechats and 20 Oriental Pratincoles.
It was another fantastic day’s birding in the Chinese capital and I am indebted to Paul for his pipit masterclass…!
On Saturday I visited Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang and Yeyahu) with Jesper Hornskov, Hui Ying (James) and his friend ‘Leila’. We enjoyed another fantastic spring day and recorded some excellent species including 31 Oriental Plovers, single Short-toed and Greater Spotted Eagles and some spectacular views of Baikal Teal. But the star of the show for me was a White Wagtail of the subspecies ‘personata‘ which spent some time around the yurts to the west of Ma Chang. As far as I am aware, this is the first record of this subspecies in Beijing and, indeed, anywhere in north-east China. According to Alstrom and Mild (authors of “Pipits and Wagtails”) the ‘personata’ subspecies breeds in Central Asia from the Russian Altay, Kuznetsk Ala Tau and Western Sayan Mountains, southwest through east & south Kazakhstan, the Tian Shan Mountains, west Mongolia, northwest and western Xinjiang, parts of northwest Kashmir, north Pakistan, Afghanistan, northern Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is a rare vagrant to Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Bahrain, N Burma & Hong Kong.
The subspecies of White Wagtail we usually see in Beijing are ‘leucopsis‘ and ‘ocularis‘. Some recent images of males of these subspecies are below for comparison.
As well as the wagtail there were plenty of other birds to enjoy all day: the flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks, the small party of Relict Gulls, the Oriental Plovers (which unfortunately flew off strongly north before we saw them on the ground), the fantastic late afternoon display of Baikal Teal (easily my best ever views), the first Oriental Pratincoles of the year, displaying Eastern Marsh Harriers, the newly arrived Chinese Penduline Tits, the list goes on. Fantastic birding….
A big thanks to Hui Ying, Leila and Jesper for their company – a thoroughly enjoyable day!
Full species list (courtesy of Jesper):
Common PheasantPhasanius colchicus – nine
Swan GooseAnser cygnoides – two
Bewick’s SwanCygnus columbianus – nine
Ruddy ShelduckTadorna ferruginea – 63
Gadwall Anas strepera – 200
Falcated DuckAnas falcate – 70
Eurasian WigeonAnas Penelope – three
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos – 100+
Chinese SpotbillAnas zonorhyncha – 13+
Northern ShovelerAnas clypeata – six
Garganey Anas querquedula – one male
Baikal TealAnas Formosa – 85+ (at most 100)
Common TealAnas crecca – 20
Red-crested PochardNetta rufina – one pair
Common PochardAythya ferina – five
Ferruginous DuckAythya nyroca – two in flight over River at YYH
Tufted DuckAythya fuligula – four
Common GoldeneyeBucephala clangula – three
Smew Mergellus albellus – 11+
Goosander Mergus merganser – six
Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollis – 20+
Great Crested GrebePodiceps cristatus – 38+
Eurasian SpoonbillPlatalea leucorodia – seven (one strictly speaking a Spoonbill sp, heading off W determinedly over the the main body of water, and six migr right by us)
Eurasian BitternBotaurus stellaris – 4+
Grey HeronArdea cinerea – one
Purple HeronArdea purpurea – three
Great EgretArdeaalba – two
Great CormorantPhalacrocorax carbo – three
Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus – three (incl two on ground in newly ploughed ‘field’)
Osprey Pandion haliaetus – one at Machang (& possibly the same again at YYH, carrying a freshly caught fish & mobbed by two 2nd c-y mongolicus)
Black KiteMilvus migrans lineatus – two
Short-toed EagleCircaetus gallicus – one ‘soared up, turned to hover a couple of times, then ->N 15h01
Eastern Marsh HarrierCircus spilonotus – 11+
Eurasian SparrowhawkAccipiter nisus – three
Common BuzzardButeo buteo japonicus – 7+ (incl at least one not migr)
Greater Spotted EagleAquila clanga – one 3rd+ c-y migr at 11h30
***Eagle sp – one ‘coming down’ 17h15 at YYH (probably Greater Spotted, but Eastern Imp ‘not eliminated’)
Common CootFulica atra – 90
Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus – 40+
Northern LapwingVanellus vanellus – 35+
Little Ringed PloverCharadrius dubius – c10
Kentish PloverCharadrius alexandrinus – 35+
Oriental PloverCharadrius veredus – 31 flew off (of their own volition!) before we found them on the ground but decent views in flight as they passed @ overhead after a few turns orientating.
Temminck’s StintCalidris temminckii – three
Oriental PratincoleGlareola maldivarum – four
‘Yellow-legged’ GullLarus (cachinnans) mongolicus – eight (single adult & 3rd c-y, and six 2nd c-y)
Common Black-headed GullLarus ridibundus – 170+
Relict GullLarus relictus – c5 on main body of water ‘disappeared’
Oriental Turtle DoveStreptopelia orientalis – one
Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto – 6+
Common KingfisherAlcedo atthis – six
Hoopoe Upupa epops – one
Great Spotted WoodpeckerDendrocopos major – two
Grey-headed WoodpeckerPicus canus – one
Azure-winged MagpieCyanopica cyanus – ten
Common MagpiePica pica – too many
Carrion CrowCorvus corone – one
Large-billed CrowCorvus macrorhynchos – one
Eastern Great TitParus minor – one
Marsh TitParus palustris – one w/ nest material at YYH
Chinese Penduline TitRemiz (pendulinus) consobrinus – ten