Finding a first record is a highlight for any birder. Finding a first for your capital city when you are aged 13 and 15 is the stuff dreams are made of. That’s what happened on 27 November 2021 to 霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé, 13 yrs old, known by his social media moniker of “Oriental Stork”) and 高孝延 (Gāo Xiàoyán, 15 yrs old) when these two enthusiastic young birders found a female Blue-fronted Redstart (蓝额红尾鸲 Lán é hóng wěi qú) at Shahe Reservoir, the first record of this species in Beijing.
Below is 霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé’s account of that special day. Excitement and enthusiasm shine through, as does a maturity beyond his years. I hope you enjoy reading his account as much as I did.
Finding a Blue-fronted Redstart in Beijing, by 霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé.
Our trip to Shahe Reservoir was made simple because Xiaogao and I needed to lead a small birding trip for the school nature club. We were completely tired out after shouting at everybody to stop talking and get going for more than half a day, but we still made it to 35 species by the time the club activity ended, including quite a large flock of Bearded Reedling (Panurus biarmicus 文须雀 Wén xū què), a few Chinese Penduline Tits (Remiz consobrinus 中华攀雀 Zhōnghuá pān què) uttering their usual “peeeeeel” call, and a Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris 大麻鳽 Dà má jiān) hiding in reeds, only to take off as the seventh graders came chatting along.
We both wanted to see more species to make up for the day, so we decided to check the east bank of the reservoir. The sun, high up in the sky, had no effect on the chilly weather. The waterfall thundered in the background, and an egret flashed pure white as it went gliding softly over the water’s surface. Daurian Jackdaws (Coloeus dauuricus 达乌里寒鸦 Dá wū lǐ hán yā) soared across the clear blue sky in loose flocks. Silvery bells chimed as a few Silver-throated Bushtits (Aegithalos glaucogularis 银喉长尾山雀 Yín hóu cháng wěi shān què) jumped around in the branches, and a couple of Japanese Tits (Parus minor 大山雀 Dà shānquè) tagged along, glancing curiously down at us. Just before we climbed into the car, Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo 普通鸬鹚 Pǔtōng lú cí) flew in tens, maybe hundreds, over our heads, creating an endless river of feathers and wings. We were delighted as our checklist finally reached 40 species.
Our plan was to follow the Wenyu river and have a little explore. As the car went speeding down the road, I suddenly remembered a place off the road I found last autumn. There were quite a lot of birds, I recalled. So for no particular reason, I suggested we have a peek.
We followed a trail down from the road. The call of Little (Emberiza pusilla 小鹀 Xiǎo wú), Black-faced (Emberiza spodocephala灰头鹀 Huī tóu wú) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings (Emberiza spodocephala 灰头鹀 Huī tóu wú) flickered through the air. Between the trees stood a few patches of shrubs, closely huddling against each other helplessly. It was getting late, the sky cast a beautiful shade of red over the scene. A flock of bushtits leapt noisily in the trees. As we got closer, suddenly I picked out a different sound from the endless chime of bushtits. ”twirrrl”. I tensed instantly. The call reminded me of a wind up sound, similar to the call of a Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla 红喉姬鹟 Hóng hóu jī wēng), but a little different. Maybe it was my ears playing tricks on me, I thought. But then, after a few steps, ”twirrrl” – there it was again! Xiaogao heard it too. It was coming from the bushes!
Something wasn’t right. I thought I had heard the sound before, somewhere, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. We slowed, shared eye contact, then slowly with eyes narrowed and ears peeled, we advanced toward where the sound was coming from. At that moment, time slowed all around us. The noisy hymn of the bushtits seemed to have stopped abruptly. Everything was so quiet. I was getting excited, I could feel my heart racing, thumping against my chest. What could that be？
Another couple of “twirrls”. They echoed through the air. Just then, as we got in front of the patch of thick shrubbery, a flash of red and brown came shooting out from the branches, made a sudden turn in mid-air, as if startled to see us, then dived down into a different bush like a rocket.
The first though that came to me was that this was a Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus 北红尾鸲 Běi hóng wěi qú), but that was almost impossible given to the way it called. We crouched in front of the bush into which our target had dived. ”twirrrl”. Under the thick branches, a Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus 红胁蓝尾鸲 Hóng xié lán wěi qú) was cocking its head up at us. We stared in disblief. A bluetail？How come？But when the sound came again, the bluetail didn’t move its bill…so it wasn’t the bluetail that we heard. Then, a shadow appeared in the shrubs, a few meters away from the bluetail. It flapped its wings, made a dive toward the ground, then hopped up to another branch. So, there it was! That’s when I realised that I had left my camera back in the car, and I would definitely need the camera to get a photo, so I told Xiaogao, who had taken his camera with him, to stay put, try to get a photo, while I teared up the track back to our car where I had left my camera.
I was panting heavily when I got back to the bush, camera at the ready. I was relieved to see Xiaogao crouching on the ground, shutter clicking away. I silently praised that he had gotten an identifiable picture. Xiaogao crept out from the bush, dried leaves in his hair, his poor white pants – our school uniform – were covered with mud. He showed me a blurred picture of a very strange looking redstart. Unlike the common Daurian Redstart, this one had practically no large white patches on its wings, and the body plumage was slightly darker. Xiaogao had no idea about which species. I scowled. Its odd features…I was almost sure that this wasn’t the first time I had seen this species, but I simply couldn’t point my finger on exactly what it was. Whatever the species, we realised this was probably something that was pretty rare. And our task now was to get as much evidence as we could about this bird to help with later identification.
I made a few recordings of its mysterious call and then, for the rest of the day, we crept around the bushes, straining to get some better photos. Believe me, we had a pretty hard time. The bird was really alert, so every time we tried to get close, it fluttered away and disappeared into another set of bushes. Plus, it hid itself really deep in the branches, constantly changing its position, so it was nearly impossible to focus the camera, much less taking a clear photo. Finally, we managed to secure a couple of clear pictures of the bird.
By now, the sun was sinking and the clouds above us reflecting a fiery red glow. We straightened our arms and legs, sore from crouching on the ground, our trousers mud-soaked with grass hanging down. Sweat dripped from our cheeks, despite the cold weather. “twirrrl” – our redstart made another jeer at us from somewhere deep in the branches. We stole another glance at the bushes, then left with half a dozen barely identifiable photographs, and a thousand questions.
On the way back, I kept wondering about this bird. Can it actually be something really rare? Images of people finding rare species kept popping into my head, the eBird rare bird alert, followed by birders from all over the city rushing toward a single spot to catch a glimpse of the bird, a tiny patch of shrubbery surrounded by layers of people. Thousands of possibilities soared around in my mind.
Maybe it’s a Daurian Redstart after all, I thought, after flipping through articles about redstart identification, and listening to lots of recordings on Xeno-canto with no result. After dinner, I had no choice but to put my pictures and the recording, along with Xiaogao’s, on We-chat, asking for help from other birders.
The original sound recording circulated to birders on 27 November 2021 (霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé).
Anything but Daurian, I prayed!
People started giving their opinions, with some saying Daurian, some suggesting Alashan Redstart (Phoenicurus alaschanicus 贺兰山红尾鸲 Hèlánshān hóng wěi qú), a major rarity in Beijing. Some mentioned that the call was similar to Blue-fronted (Phoenicurus frontalis 蓝额红尾鸲 Lán é hóng wěi qú), which had never before appeared in Beijing. Hope planted itself in my mind. I started to get restless, flicking up the screen of my phone every few minutes, checking for the latest news. Meanwhile, more and more people, including Terry Townshend, suggested Blue-fronted Redstart. My heart pounded furiously, excitement twirling in my brain. I have seen the Blue-fronted Redstart fewer than half a dozen times in Yunnan. It’s really hard to imagine it turning up in Beijing. Then, the remark came from Mr.Holt: “perfect Blue-Fronted.” At the same time, Terry returned from Xeno-canto, the sound recording website, and told me the call matched Blue–fronted Redstart!
At first, there was only numbness. I could feel my heart pounding, my eyes glued to the screen. After God knows how long, my heart erupted with joy, and I nearly fainted with excitement. My gosh, a Blue-fronted Redstart, the first sighting of this bird in the whole damn capital. Now, I and Xiaogao are finders of a new record for Beijing!
For half an hour, I was overwhelmed with disbelief and pride. The good thing was, I cooled down shortly after that. After a short discussion with Xiaogao, we reached an agreement that the location of this bird should be kept secret. I don’t know what others would think about our decision, but I do remember what happened to the Robin in Beijing Zoo, and the poor Great Bustards in Tongzhou. I, surely, wouldn’t want anything like that to happen again, especially not to this new record for Beijing.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Thoughts raced around my mind, thoughts about our decision, and about how I could possibly find a bird which is a new record for Beijing. It’s pretty accidental but, at the same time, not exactly random. Unlike some other birdwatchers in Beijing, I and Xiaogao have our own style. I seldom go “twitching”, which means to go and see a rare bird the second after the location is released. Throughout this whole year, I hadn’t visited many hotspots, hadn’t put most of my attention simply on boosting my own life list. Instead, I focused all my might on my own birding patch, trying my best to find birds on my own, first–hand. Sometimes, seeing birds you have seen a million times can seem boring, but if you keep up long enough, there are always surprises. If I hadn’t thought of the place I found last autumn, if I simply had taken a hike through the well-known birding areas, then leave like so many other birders do, this bird would have never been found.
Maybe that’s what the birding community in Beijing needs: fewer trips to hotspots for target species or good photos, fewer people birding simply for their life lists, just a little more attention to the common-looking overgrown fields which aren’t so far away from your house, and maybe new sightings for Beijing will be popping out from everywhere!
霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé, known by the moniker “Oriental Stork” on social media).
Title image: the female Blue-fronted Redstart at Shahe Reservoir found by 霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé) and 高孝延 (Gāo Xiàoyánon) 27 November 2021. The first record of this species for Beijing. (Photo by 高孝延 Gāo Xiàoyán).