I have just spent three days in Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, in the company of Shanghai-based British birder, Nick Green. It was my third visit to this stunning part of northeastern China and, after two previous trips in winter, it was a delight to see it so green and leafy, without needing to wear six layers in -30 degrees Celsius!
Whilst in winter the main attractions here are undoubtedly the owls (Snowy, Great Grey, Ural, Hawk, Eagle, Boreal and Little) our main target during this visit was to try to see the three breeding locustella warblers – Lanceolated Warbler, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and the sought-after Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. I thought we wouldn’t have too much difficulty in finding all three but I hadn’t expected the numbers we encountered. Pallas’s were seemingly in every inch of suitable habitat and, particularly early morning and evening, were singing constantly, even though it was mid-July. We recorded 53 (surely a considerable under-count) on our first full day. Lanceolated were less common, but still frequent, with 22 recorded and, the following morning, we counted 17 singing Gray’s from the moving car during a 45-minute drive.
Renowned for their skulking habits, locustella warblers are usually tough to see. However, on the breeding grounds, despite most preferring to sing from deep cover, we were fortunate to see several examples of each species singing from exposed perches.
Wu’erqihan in July isn’t only locustella heaven. The supporting cast includes White-throated Needletail, Great Grey, Ural and Eagle Owls, Siberian Rubythroat, Mugimaki Flycatcher, David’s and Chinese Bush Warblers, Pale-legged, Two-barred, Pallas’s, Thick-billed, Radde’s and Dusky Warblers and a host of other ‘sibes’.
Twice in the last few days, inspired by the reports from this site by Shi Jin on Birdforum, I visited the Wenyu River in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. It is a fantastic area of paddies, weedy fields and even a disused golf course. Brian Jones and Spike Millington, both former Beijing residents, used to visit this site regularly and I can see why.
On my first visit, late one evening, I arrived at the paddies just half an hour before dusk and yet I saw 4 new birds for me in Beijing – Chestnut-eared Bunting, White-breasted Waterhen, Yellow-legged Buttonquail and Little Owl.. Not bad. My second visit, early morning on Thursday, was just as rewarding. A singing David’s Bush Warbler was a nice start, soon followed by the White-breasted Waterhen, singing Lanceolated Warbler, several Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, two Schrenck’s Bitterns, Yellow Bittern, Pechora Pipit on the deck and a Black-naped Oriole calling from the willows. Wow. I walked the narrow pathways between the paddies and enjoyed several encounters, albeit brief, with Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Black-browed Reed Warblers and the odd Zitting Cisticola. A couple of Oriental Reed Warblers were much more obliging, singing purposefully from prominent perches in the reeds. It was a cacophony of birdsong.
After reaching the western end of the paddies, I decided to head back and return across the maze of paths. It was along one such narrow weedy path between two paddies that I experienced one of those moments in birding that makes it such an exciting (and sometimes frustrating!) hobby. I knew that Shi Jin had seen a large locustella warbler, possibly Middendorff’s, a day or two before and so I was on the lookout for large locustellas. I had also listened to the songs of the three possible large locustellas – Gray’s, Pleske’s and Middendorff’s – on Xeno Canto Asia just in case. Suddenly, I flushed a bird from the path that zipped into the paddy and down into the vegetation before I even had a chance to lift my binoculars. It was clearly interesting – my sense was that it looked larger than the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers I had been seeing, but still looked like a locustella in shape and structure.. ..it was plain looking, greyish, without much, if any, contrast on the upperparts… Hmmm… could it be one of the large locustellas I had been thinking about? I knew that there was a very good chance that I would never see it again… they are notorious skulkers and it was a large paddy. However, I decided to wait to see whether anything emerged from the area in which it had gone down. To my surprise, just a few seconds later, a bird began to sing and the sound appeared to be coming from the same area… I remembered the songs from Xeno Canto and immediately ruled out Gray’s and Middendorff’s. It reminded me of the Pleske’s song… I put two and two together – large locustella, song like a Pleske’s – and in my mind a big neon sign lit up flashing “Pleske’s Warbler!!”. But could it really be a Pleske’s Warbler? In Beijing?? The bird sang for a few minutes and I quickly took out my handheld video camera to record the song, knowing that I would need that to have any chance of identifying this bird for certain in the absence of a good sight view. I recorded a few seconds of the song and then concentrated on trying to see it. Only once in the next 20-30 mins did I see a bird in that area, an incredibly brief view as a largish bird flitted across a small gap in the vegetation. Again, I got nothing on it other than it was largish and plain looking.. Frustrating to say the least.
At this point, I was excited.. I really thought that there was a singing Pleske’s Warbler just a few metres away from me. I sent a SMS to Shi Jin to tell him. A few minutes later, after no sign of the bird, I began to walk back to the metro station as I didn’t want to be too late back in town. And I wanted to download that sound file and check it against Xeno Canto! I then received a reply from Shi Jin to say he was on his way. He only lives 10 minutes away by car, so I headed back to the site to meet him and show him the precise spot. There was no song now and no sign of the bird. We waited a few minutes and after providing sustenance for the local mosquito population and with the day heating up fast, we decided that probably the best chance of seeing/hearing the bird would be to come back in the evening or the next morning. Neither of us could make it that evening but Shi Jin was hoping to try for it the next day. After a brief stop at the Little Owl nest site I discovered a few days before, Shi Jin kindly dropped me at the metro station for the return journey home.
On arriving home, the first thing I did was download the sound file from the video camera and check out Xeno Canto. There is one recording on Xeno Canto of Pleske’s. For comparison, my recording can be heard below:
Hmm… on listening to them both, now I wasn’t so sure.. there were elements of the song that were similar but there were also differences… Doubt began to creep into my mind. Was the singing bird a Pleske’s? And, in any case, could I say that the singing bird was definitely the large locustella I saw? I began to think that maybe the song was a different species. I listened to Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (the other locustella species seen that morning in the same area) on Xeno Canto but the few recordings of this species on the site sounded different).
So, the bottom line is I don’t know. I have a recording that I can’t identify and a brief sighting of a largish locustella that isn’t necessarily the same bird that I recorded singing anyway…! Arrggghhhh….
If anyone can help with the recording, please let me know. I have sent it to Paul Holt (who is currently away) and to Peter Kennerley, so hopefully the mystery will be resolved soon. In my head, I am expecting my song to be identified as a variation of Pallas’s Grashopper Warbler but my heart is hoping that it’s a Pleske’s. Watch this space!
Whatever the outcome of this experience, one of the highlights of the day was meeting Shi Jin, a top birder with a lot of China experience!
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”…!
There were also some dragonflies on the wing. In addition to the usual Sympetrum kunckeli, these presumed Deielia phaonwere patrolling the edge of the reedbed.
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.
First thing this morning I made my first visit to the Olympic Forest Park in Beijing. This relatively new park, as its name suggests, was created for the 2008 Olympic Games and has won awards for its design. I was pleasantly surprised by how ‘bird-friendly’ it is. There is some great habitat, including some large reedbeds, lakes, mature (ish) woodland and open areas, all of which are attracting birds.
Today, I explored the southern section prompted by a visiting birder, Claus Holzapfel, who had seen a Streaked Reed Warbler a few days ago. I didn’t see any of these rare ‘acro‘ warblers but I chalked up an impressive list of species for a central Beijing location (see below).
The highlight for me was an enjoyable encounter with a confiding Yellow Bittern as it hunted in one of the lily-filled lakes. It’s ungainly stance belied the effectiveness with which it stalked small fish and frogs.
Oriental Reed Warblers filled the air with their chattering and there were also a few Black-browed Reed Warblers competing to be heard and a few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers skulking at the base of the reeds. Indian and Eurasian Cuckoos were calling frequently and the song of the Black-naped Oriole was an occasional accompaniement.
In the more mature trees on the eastern side, a singing male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was a nice sight but I failed to find the Green-backed (Elisae’s) Flycatcher that Paul Holt had seen the previous day.
The Olympic Park is situated just north of the 4th ring road, north of the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium and is served by metro stops as well as several bus routes, so it is easy to get to. It opens at 6am and, this morning, there were relatively few people around and it was very easy to find quiet spots – not to be taken for granted in Beijing where most city parks are full of early morning exercisers for the first few hours of daylight. For me, it’s the best birding site I’ve seen so far in Beijing city. I’ll definitely be back!
Species List (in chronological order of first sighting):
Collared Dove (1)
Common Magpie (many)
Tree Sparrow (many)
Grey-capped Woodpecker (3)
Eastern Crowned Warbler (2)
Indian Cuckoo (4)
Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul (7)
Oriental Reed Warbler (at least 30)
Eurasian Cuckoo (5)
Oriental Greenfinch (3)
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (3)
Night Heron (7)
Red-rumped Swallow (4)
Black-browed Reed Warbler (4)
Black Drongo (1)
Common Moorhen (6)
Common Swift (12)
Yellow Bittern (7)
Goldeneye (1) – a drake on the lake near the ‘underwater corridor’
Barn Swallow (3)
Little Egret (1) – flyover
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (1) – singing just north-east of Wali Lake
Marsh Tit (2)
Black-naped Oriole (3)
Dark-sided Flycatcher (1) – northeast of Wali Lake