Northern Inner Mongolia in June

When South African world-lister, Derrick Wilby, invited me to accompany him to Inner Mongolia in search of some skulking grasshopper warblers, I was delighted to accept.

Wuerqihan, in the far north of the province, east of Hailar, is well-known as a special winter birding destination.  With up to 8 species of owl (Eagle, Great Grey, Little, Northern Hawk, Eurasian Pygmy, Tengmalm’s, Ural and Snowy) possible in that season, not to mention special birds such as Siberian Jay, Black-billed Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Hazel Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinch, it’s a must-visit for any China-based birders.

Black-billed Capercaillie is one of the sought-after species at Wuerqihan. Late autumn is the best time. This one from October 2015.

What’s much less well-known is that Wuerqihan is also a brilliant birding destination in summer.  On the edge of the magnificent, and vast, taiga forest, the habitat is a mixture of deciduous forest, wet meadows and damp scrub.  This was only my second visit during this season but already it’s becoming clear that it’s a reliable place to see some of China’s most-wanted species such as GRAY’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, BAND-BELLIED CRAKE and CHINESE BUSH WARBLER as well as providing a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with some breeding birds that are much sought-after vagrants back in the UK, such as PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, LANCEOLATED WARBLER, THICK-BILLED WARBLER, BROWN SHRIKE, SIBERIAN THRUSH, WHITE-THROATED NEEDLETAIL and many more.

Derrick had a list of warblers he wanted to see – Chinese Bush, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Gray’s Grasshopper and Lanceolated – as well as two owls – Great Grey and Ural – plus Japanese Quail and Band-bellied Crake.  I was reasonably confident about all except the crake, which I had heard once last year but not yet seen.

Local guide, Zhang Wu, with his trusty 4wd.

On arrival in Wuerqihan in the afternoon, we met local guide, Zhang Wu, checked into the hotel and immediately headed out east from the town along the old logging road.  We started well with good views of several singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers along the first few kms of the road, singing Japanese Quail in the meadows, watchful Brown Shrikes seemingly atop every bush and Common Rosefinches whistling from their songposts before a superb encounter with a stunning GREAT GREY OWL just a few metres from the road.  As we enjoyed more than 30 minutes with this most magnificent owl, a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler sang from deep in the forest.

As we headed back to town for dinner, a spectacular thunderstorm swept past to the west..

The morning of day two added singing Lanceolated Warbler (see header image by Nick Green), a handful of White-throated Needletails, Azure Tit, singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Thrush, Chestnut and Black-faced Buntings.

We decided to rest in the afternoon and head back out in the evening for a night drive in the hope of finding Ural Owl and, perhaps, Band-bellied Crake.  The evening shift started well when we heard the latter calling briefly at dusk from the edge of a small pool.  However, despite waiting patiently for more than 30 minutes, frustratingly there was no further sign.  We headed into the forest to look for owls and, after only a few minutes, had a sighting of an owl by the side of the track..  it was large and pale.  We turned around and approached slowly.  We could see large orange eyes staring back at us and it was obvious this was an Eagle Owl, not the hoped-for Ural.

Heading east along the main track, we drove slowly with the windows down, listening.  We stopped at several promising-looking areas, turned off the engine and waited for something to penetrate the silence.  A few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers and a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler chuntered away in the darkness.. and then a Chinese Bush Warbler sang from some scrub.  Driving further, we picked out a Band-bellied Crake and, once we had stopped, it was clear that several were singing in the wet scrub alongside the road.  One, two, three..  at least four birds competing for attention.  In the darkness, there was no chance of seeing them, so we took a note of the location and would return in the morning.

By now it was after midnight and our hopes for a Ural Owl were fading.  Zhang Wu turned off the main track onto a rutted, obviously rarely travelled track into the forest.   After around 100m, he stopped.  He had heard something.  Cutting the engine, we listened intently.  And there it was – a deep, low ‘hoot’.  Zhang Wu smiled.  It was a Ural Owl.  Our guide played the call of Ural Owl in answer to the bird. Immediately it responded and flew in to a tree right above us to check us out.

Ural Owl is a scarce resident at Wuerqihan.

We returned to the hotel at around 0130, the adrenaline still rushing after a special encounter.

A tougher than usual early start the next morning saw us at the site where we had heard Band-bellied Crake during the previous night.  Even in the early morning, the birds were not singing..  suggesting they might be predominantly nocturnal vocalisers.  We carefully walked into the marsh, trying to avoid the deep pools of water in between the grassy tufts.  We heard a short call and froze.  It was a crake.  As we stood motionless, as if to “warm up”, the short note gradually morphed into a full song..  and before long, we could see the grass ‘twitching’ as the crake made its way through the bog.

Band-bellied Crake, Wuerqihan (Derrick Wilby)
Band-bellied Crake, Wuerqihan (Derrick Wilby)

All that was left was to try to secure a decent view of Chinese Bush Warbler.  Thanks to Zhang Wu’s local knowledge, we were able to find a spot with one singing and, with patience, we were able to secure a “jigsaw” of views..  at first the bill, then the tail, then the legs…  then the supercilium..  and piecing them together we were able to get a good impression of this skulker.

We headed back to the hotel in the late morning, packed our things and set off for the airport all too quickly.  It had been a superb 3 days and, in total, we had recorded 102 species.  I can’t wait to go back…  with a bit more time, I think there could be some more special birds waiting to be discovered.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Swinhoe’s Rail is there and, who knows, maybe the enigmatic Streaked Reed Warbler is lurking in the vicinity.

You can download the full species list here.

One thing to bear in mind if visiting in summer; the insects can be a nuisance, especially the horseflies.  Most active in the heat of the day, the worst can be avoided by being out early and late in the day.  This video gives a sense of their menace!

 

Groppers Galore!

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!

2016-07-10 forest and river at wuerqihan
The Dayan River, a constant companion along the track northeast of Wu’erqihan.
2016-07-10 forest at wuerqihan
Typical forest habitat at Wu’erqihan

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.

2016-07-09 Lanceolated Warbler, Wuerqihan
Lanceolated Warbler (Locustella lanceolata), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 9 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.
2016-07-09 Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Wuerqihan
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella certhia), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 9 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.
2016-07-10 Gray's Grasshopper Warbler Nick, Wuerqihan
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella fasciolata), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 10 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.
Gray's Grasshopper Warbler, Wu'erqihan, 9 July 2016
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Wu’erqihan, 9 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.

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’.

2016-07-09 David's Bush Warbler, Wuerqihan
David’s Bush Warbler (Bradypterus davidi), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 9 July 2016. This species is common in the damp forest.
2016-07-09 Azure Tit, Wuerqihan
Azure Tit, a scarce breeder at Wu’erqihan.
2016-07-10 houses at wuerqihan
Typical buildings in Wu’erqihan.. the town has a Russian feel about it, not surprising given the proximity of the Russian border.
2016-07-09 sunset at wuerqihan
Sunset in the boggy grassland, northeast of Wu’erqihan.
2016-07-10 Zhang Wu and Nick Green at Wuerqihan
Nick Green (left) with local guide, Zhang Wu, just after seeing a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler singing from an exposed perch!

A full trip list can be downloaded here: 2016-07 Wu’erqihan with Nick Green, 7-10 July 2016.

 

Aaaarrrggghhhhhh!

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.

Habitat along the Wenyu River in Chaoyang District, Beijing. Perfect for Waterhens and locustellas!

 

Frustrating habitat at the Wenyu River paddies. When a locustella goes down in this lot, the chances of seeing it again are slim..!

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.

Oriental Reed Warbler singing its heart out early morning in the paddyfields at Wenyu River.
Schrenck’s Bittern (female), Wenyu River, Beijing. One of two seen in the paddies.
Pechora Pipit. Seeing one on the ground in Beijing is not easy!

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:

Locustella Warbler

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!

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!

Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

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!

Map of Beijing Olympic Forest Park
Yellow Bittern, Beijing Olympic Forest Park, 2 June 2011
Comical as it made its way across the lillies... would definitely qualify as a Monty Python 'silly walk'
Watching you watching me..
I enjoyed half an hour with this confiding bird today in the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

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

Arctic Warbler (4)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)

Grey Heron (1)

Little Grebe (2)

Radde’s Warbler (2)

Azure-winged Magpie (6)

Spotted Dove (2)

Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)