When I first arrived in Beijing it took me almost two years to find my first Japanese Reed Bunting (Emberiza yessoensis, 红颈苇鹀). It is a scarce, probably overlooked, winter visitor to the capital and it can be tricky to find in its favoured habitat of weedy scrub, usually close to water. This habitat is also used in winter by the much more common, almost abundant, Pallas’s Reed Bunting (Emberiza pallasi, 苇鹀) and it’s this species that one must be careful to eliminate when looking for Japanese. As is the case with separating many similar species, call is a good indicator. Japanese Reed Bunting utters a thin “tseep”, contrasting with the Pallas’s Reed Bunting’s chirpy sparrow-like call. Japanese Reed Buntings tend to feed on the ground in long grass and are usually skittish. Often the first sight or sound is when one is accidentally disturbed. When flushed, they tend to fly quite a long way before diving into long grass. However, just occasionally, they sit up in the open, which is exactly what these two posers did last week during a walk with Steve Bale along the Wenyu He. Japanese Reed Buntings usually look ‘warmer’ in overall colouration than Pallas’s Reed Bunting. The yellowy look, combined with the black ear coverts, are good indicators of Japanese Reed. With orangey tones on the wing feathers, I think Japanese Reed Bunting is one of the most beautiful, if subtle, of the East Asian buntings and it’s always a delight to see.
Yesterday morning I spent a couple of hours at Shahe Reservoir. No sign of the Baer’s Pochard from 25 March but there was a nice cross-section of wildfowl on site and some light raptor passage. Buff-bellied Pipits are beginning to come through now and, here in Beijing, we see the subspecies japonicus. One smart individual – albeit not so buff-bellied – dropped in as I was scanning the duck on the reservoir and proceeded to jerk its way along the edge of the reservoir, providing a good opportunity to study it closely.
The call of this bird reminded me of Meadow Pipits from back home in the UK.
As I was watching this pipit, a small flock of White Wagtails dropped in, mostly of the ssp leucopsis but including this smart male of the ocularis subspecies.
Along the reedy edges of the reservoir there were a few Pallas’s Reed Buntings. This individual caused me some confusion at first, being much brighter and more rufous than the very pale and frosty Pallas’s I have been used to seeing all winter. I suspected Japanese Reed Bunting. But after looking at images on the Oriental Bird Club image database and consulting with my bunting guru, Tom Beeke, I realised that this is indeed a Pallas’s. Japanese should show a much darker cap and darker ear coverts. Always learning!
Full species list:
On Saturday I accompanied visiting Swedish birder, Anders Magnusson, to Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang/Yeyahu Nature Reserve) for a day’s birding. Thankfully the forecast strong winds were absent as we were dropped off at Ma Chang at 0730 in -12 degrees C. My ‘michelin man’ outfit including ‘man tights’ (and they are very manly, honest), thermal underwear, 4 layers of t-shirts and fleece plus a long, down-filled coat, two pairs of gloves, woolly hat and thermal snow boots meant I was snug as a bug with only my nose really feeling the cold.
A few Common Cranes were a good start, including one that seemed to completely retract its legs when flying (either that or it had no legs at all – unlikely given that it had obviously been able to take off). Soon we were enjoying a ringtail Hen Harrier and over 200 Bean Geese. A scan of the reservoir revealed a small patch of open water near the far bank, on which swam 20-30 more Bean Geese and around 10 Goosander. Asian Short-toed Larks and Lapland Buntings occasionally flew overhead and, as we began the walk towards Yeyahu a Peregrine engaged in a (unsuccessful) hunt for a feral pigeon. Shortly afterwards, an immature White-tailed Eagle appeared from the west and spooked a flock of around 250 Ruddy Shelducks that were standing on the far side of the ice. Nice.
We worked our way across the open area, enjoying 2 Upland Buzzards (one of which flew alongside a Hen Harrier and looked absolutely huge in comparison) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings seemed to be in every shrub. We flushed a few Common Skylarks as they fed on the ground and, as we approached Yeyahu, 2 male Hen Harriers (one adult and one sub-adult) quartered the reeds. Here we also heard and saw briefly the first of two Chinese Hill Warblers. After a welcome coffee stop (which tasted soooo good) we pushed on towards the lake and, in an area of only a few square metres, we flushed 16 Japanese Quail which scattered in different directions (clearly a deliberate strategy to confuse predators). The reedbed held good numbers of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and, after a bit of work, we managed to identify a single ‘tik’-ing Rustic Bunting in amongst them and then, after a bit of persistence, were treated to good but brief views of the second Chinese Hill Warbler after we heard it calling several times. A fly-by Saker was a bonus.
By now it was 11am and, as is usual at this site, suddenly the wind got up, making the temperature feel another 5-10 degrees colder (wind chill was probably around -20 to -25). At the lake, the brief search for Chinese Penduline Tit proved fruitless, probably due to the fresh wind, but we did see one of the eastern races of Common Reed Bunting (with distinctly pale mantle stripes compared with the nominate race). After scrutinising it for a while (ruling out Japanese Reed Bunting) we headed north to the lookout tower, choosing the more sheltered side of the trees. Here we discovered a fresh eagle owl kill – of another owl (probably a Short-eared Owl but comments welcome on the feathers below). There were owl feathers covering an area of a couple of square metres with a huge pellet alongside. The site was within 100 metres of where we saw an Eagle Owl in December, so this is probably evidence of the same bird wintering here.
A bit further along Anders spotted a Siberian Accentor (a new bird for him) and, on close examination, there proved to be 2 birds foraging in the lee of the bank. Nice. Before we entered the open area towards the tower we flushed a Grey-headed Woodpecker which flew a long way and out of sight and stumbled across a small flock of Meadow Buntings which showed very well for a few minutes before disappearing over the bank. The walk to the tower produced another 4 Japanese Quails. A scan of the open area from the tower did not produce the hoped for Great Bustard (one was reported two weeks ago) and, given the cold wind, we did not stay up there very long – just long enough to take a couple of images of the ice fishermen. Clearly they are now more confident about the ice thickness given they are driving their vehicles onto the lake…
The walk back to the entrance to the reserve was uneventful and we were met by our driver who took us to the bus station for the journey back to Beijing. A thoroughly enjoyable day out!