Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) must be one of east Asia’s least known birds. Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only very infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.
It was only two years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia. And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia.
Wuerqihan is a wonderful place… it is very popular with bird photographers in winter when, despite the bitter temperatures (as low as -35 degrees Celsius), it’s possible to see very well species such as Great Grey, Hawk, Ural, Tengmalm’s, Eagle and Little Owls plus other photogenic birds such as Hazel Grouse, Black Grouse, Siberian Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Pallas’s Rosefinch and, if you are lucky, Black-billed Capercaillie, . It is less well-known that summer is also pretty special. In addition to the recently-discovered Swinhoe’s Rail, it is a brilliant site to see Pallas’s and Gray’s Grasshopper Warblers, Lanceolated Warbler, Band-bellied Crake, Pale-legged, Two-barred Greenish, Dusky and Radde’s Warblers, Eyebrowed Thrush, Oriental Cuckoo and many more species. It is also just wonderful to spend time in pristine lush wet meadows, mixed deciduous forest and grassland that are all teeming with life.
I had already made two short summer trips to Wuerqihan, in 2016 with Nick Green and in 2017 with Derrick Wilby and I was keen to return. So, with Marie, we set aside a few days to fly to Hailar, rent a car and drive the 2.5 hours east to Wuerqihan.
We were keen just to enjoy the break and some good birding but of course we were also hoping to encounter the Swinhoe’s Rail.
Our first day would coincide with the last day of the visit by British birder, Jon Holmes, for whom I had arranged local guide Zhang Wu and his 4×4 to take him around. And on day two we bumped into another Brit, Dave Woodford, accompanied by Chinese bird guide, Steven An.
The call of Swinhoe’s Rail is reasonably loud and carries for quite a distance… and during our first evening on site, we had no difficulty in hearing the Swinhoe’s Rails from the track, calling from the wet grass. Being poorly prepared (no wellies or torch), we decided to call it a night, do a spot of shopping in the town the following day and return the next evening.
After each picking up a pair of wellies for CNY 40 (about GBP5) we arrived on site, with Steven and Dave, around 6pm, about 2.5 hours before dusk. Already, one bird was calling intermittently and, before long, two or three began calling. We donned our wellies and headed along the edge of the meadow, stopping regularly to listen to the birds as they began calling more frequently as dusk approached. You can hear a bit about our first encounter here:
Suddenly, a dark shape flew up in front of Dave and dropped into the grass about 15m away. It was tiny and dark with obvious white secondaries – Swinhoes’ Rail! Almost immediately it began to call and, having my sound recording gear with me, I was fortunate to capture this seldom heard, and rarely recorded, sound.
We were stunned and stood still, just soaking up the moment. The wonderful rich colours of the meadow at sunset, not a breath of wind and Swinhoe’s Rails calling amongst the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Common Rosefinches, Japanese Quails and Common Cuckoos. Simply mesmerising.
That moment will stay with us for a very long time. And as we made our way back to the vehicles, we were accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong with Common Cuckoos seemingly all around, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers reeling away and Japanese Quails uttering their squelchy call. Magical.
The Chinese name for Swinhoe’s Rail is 花田鸡 (Huātián jī). Literally translated it means “flower frog”, a fantastically descriptive and apt name.
Over the next few days, we enjoyed some pretty special encounters with some wonderful birds including a stunning Great Grey Owl in the evening light.
Pacific Swifts were common in the town, breeding in many of the buildings, particularly the older properties.
And the omnipresent Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler occasionally showed well, belying its reputation as an extreme skulker.
We recorded 98 species during our visit and had a fantastic time. Wuerqihan is a brilliant birding destination and thoroughly recommended in summer or winter. It is probably also extremely good in spring and autumn but, as far as I know, no birders have visited in that season.
Anyone wanting to visit should contact local guide, Zhang Wu, who can arrange pick-up and drop-off from Hailar airport, accommodation and food, and, with his unbreakable 4×4 and local knowledge, he will ensure any visiting birder gets to the right places and has a superb time. Although he speaks no English, it’s possible to communicate the basics using a combination of sign language and the impressive translation APP on his smartphone, and you can guarantee he will work hard to try to connect you with any target species. He can be contacted directly on +86 13614709187 and, for any non-Chinese speakers, I’d be happy to help make arrangements if required.
Big thanks to Marie, Jon, Dave, Steven and Zhang Wu for being great company during the trip. And a big hat-tip to the Amur Bird Project team and Paul Holt for their discoveries in 2016 and 2017 which enabled us to connect with the enigmatic Swinhoe’s Rail.
Urban birding often springs surprises. Given Beijing’s geographic position, the spectacle of migration is particularly impressive and many unusual species can turn up in the city’s parks and gardens. The Swinhoe’s Rail in the Temple of Heaven Park and Beijing’s first Tree Pipit in the UK Ambassador’s garden are examples of rare and scarce species appearing at unexpected locations.
On Friday evening, news broke of another urban surprise in the shape of a female Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭, Chǒu yā) that had been photographed near Anzhenmen, close to the north 3rd ring road in central Beijing. The photo, by local bird photographer 侯金生 (Hou Jinsheng), circulated fast on Chinese social media and very soon my Saturday plans, to accompany Paul Holt to a forested area in northern Beijing, changed to take in an early stop to look for the Harlequin.
We arrived around 30 minutes before dawn and quickly found the site, a tiny weir along a concrete-sided canal just a stone’s throw from the busy 3rd ring road at Anzhenmen. It seemed an odd place for a largely coastal (at least in winter) duck but there was running water which, together with the weir, provided an artificial micro-habitat not completely unlike the Harlequin’s preferred breeding habitat of fast-flowing streams.
In the darkness, a few Mallards took to the air as local early risers began their morning walks along the canal and a few White-cheeked Starlings and Azure-winged Magpies announced their departure from roosts with raucous calls. Even though the sun was not yet up it was possible to see that the Harlequin was not at the weir. We waited close by, using the time to speculate whether the bird had just arrived and had used this site as a temporary stopover before moving on, or had it been here all winter undetected? Given the location, and lack of observer coverage, the latter was certainly a possibility. We agreed to give it until around 0730 before heading north to the Labagou Forest Park, as we had originally planned.
Within a few minutes we were joined by some local birders, including Huang Hanchen, Zhao Min, Shen Yan, Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao. Their arrival delayed our departure as we caught up to chat about birds and all manner of issues, including the significance of the day – Lantern Festival, officially the last day of Chinese New Year. The Lantern Festival is a family celebration, so most of the Chinese birders had limited time as they needed to visit relatives later in the day, some travelling to other Provinces. Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao were on their way to the train station to visit relatives at Hengshui, and reluctantly had to leave with the bird not having shown itself..
Just a few minutes later, at around 0730, Paul and I were renewing our discussion about when to leave the site. Hanchen and Paul suddenly spotted something floating on the water, emerging from the tunnel and heading towards the weir. They initially thought it was a piece of litter but very quickly realised it was the Harlequin! It had seemingly roosted deep inside the dark tunnel and had emerged to feed around 20 minutes after sunrise. We watched in awe as it swam and fed amongst the weed for several minutes, often at extremely close quarters and seemingly oblivious to its growing fan base. Amused locals stopped to see what the fuss was about and, on seeing the Harlequin, one commented “Oh, that small brown duck has been there for at least 20 days”!
Several times the Harlequin stopped to preen on the edge of the weir and, as the sun rose, it looked splendid in the early morning light.
If it’s true, and we have no reason to suspect it isn’t, the Harlequin’s lengthy stay of “at least 20 days” means that the unfortunate Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao, who had to leave just minutes before the Harlequin’s emergence, will hopefully connect when they return to Beijing next week.
Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China. There are a few records from well-watched Beidaihe in neighbouring Hebei Province, and several in the northeast Provinces of Jilin, Inner Mongolia and Liaoning, so it was on the radar as a potential visitor to Beijing. However, the urban location was a complete surprise. As well as being the first record for Beijing, the Anzhenmen Harlequin is the 482nd species to be reliably recorded in the capital. In a personal milestone for Paul Holt, the Harlequin was his 400th species in the Chinese capital since he first birded there around 28 years ago. Congratulations to Paul!
In Chinese, Harlequin is 丑鸭 (pronounced “chǒu yā”). The second character “鸭” is pronounced “yā”, meaning duck. The first character “丑”, pronounced “chǒu” has several meanings.. one is “clown”, the intended meaning in the case of the Harlequin, but another is “ugly”, hence Harlequin is known as “the ugly duck”! Despite its ugliness, it’s proving to be probably the most-photographed Harlequin in China.
What will be next?
Big thanks to Hou Jinsheng for circulating his original photo of the Harlequin and to Huang Hanchen for passing on the news. Thanks also to Paul Holt for driving on Saturday morning.
Note on diet: according to HBW, the Harlequin’s diet consists of “molluscs (e.g. gastropods such as Littorina sitkana), crustaceans and, in spring and summer, insects and their larvae/pupae (e.g. blackflies Simulium); also other invertebrates (worms) and small fish; very little plant material recorded.” The Beijing bird appeared to be feeding on weed but it’s possible it was sifting this material for tiny molluscs or invertebrates.
Looking out of my apartment window on the first day of 2017, a blanket of toxic smog seems to drain all colour out of life and the perennial question question pops into my head – why do I live in such a polluted, congested place?
Header image: the view from my apartment at 1200 on 1 January 2017
The answer, of course, is the excitement and adventure of living in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation. And when one considers the positives – the stunning biodiversity, the opportunity for discovery, the potential to make a difference and the wonderful people – the negatives are seen in context and they become far more tolerable.
Looking back, 2016 has been an astonishing year with many highlights, thankfully few lowlights, and progress made in some key conservation issues. Together, they give me a genuine sense of optimism for the future.
January began with the unexpected discovery, by two young Beijing birders, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of a small flock of the “Endangered” Jankowski’s Buntings at Miyun Reservoir. This was the first record of Jankowski’s Bunting in Beijing since 1941 and, given the precipitous decline in the population of this poorly known species, a most unexpected find. The fact they were found by young Chinese is testament to the growing community of talented young birders in Beijing. There are now more than 200 members of the Birding Beijing WeChat group, in which sightings and other bird-related issues are discussed and shared. Huge credit must go to world-class birders such as Paul Holt and Per Alström who have been generous in sharing their knowledge of Chinese birds with the group. As well as the expanding WeChat group, there are now more than 400 members of the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society (up from 300 in the last 12 months). So, although starting from a low baseline, the increasing membership, together with the increase in the number of local birdwatching societies, such as in Zigong in Sichuan, and the development of international birding festivals, such as in Lushun, Dalian, shows that there is the beginning of an upsurge in the number of young people interested in birdwatching. That is a positive sign for the future of China’s rich and unique avifauna.
In tandem with the growth in birding is the emergence of a number of organisations dedicated to environmental education across China. Given the relative lack of environment in the Chinese State Curriculum, there is high demand amongst many parents for their children to develop a connection with nature. I’m fortunate to work with one such organisation – EcoAction – set up and run by dynamic Sichuan lady, Luo Peng. With a birding club for Beijing school kids, a pilot ‘environmental curriculum’ in two of Beijing’s State Schools and bespoke sustainable ecotourism trips to nature reserves for families and schools, Peng deserves great credit for her energy and vision in helping to change the way people interact with the environment. I am looking forward to working with her much more in 2017.
After the boon of seeing Jankowski’s Buntings in Beijing, a lowlight in late January was the desperately sad passing of a much-loved mentor and friend, the inspirational Martin Garner. Martin fought a brave and typically dignified and open, battle with cancer. I feel enormously lucky to have met Martin and to have corresponded with him on many birding-related issues. His wisdom, positivity and selfless outlook on life will be missed for years to come and his influence continues to run through everything I do.
Much of the early part of the spring was spent making the arrangements for what has been, for me, the highlight of the year – The Beijing Cuckoo Project. Following the success of the Beijing Swift Project, the results of which proved for the first time that Swifts from Beijing winter in southern Africa, the obvious next step was to replicate the British Trust for Ornithology’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China. We needed to find Chinese partners, secure the necessary permissions, raise funds to pay for the transmitters and satellite services, and make the logistical arrangements for the visit of “Team Cuckoo”. At the end of May, everything was set and the international team arrived in Beijing. Together with the local team, we caught and fitted transmitters to five Common Cuckoos, subsequently named by Beijing schoolchildren and followed via a dedicated webpage and on social media. We could not have wished for a better result. Three of the five are now in Africa, after making incredible journeys of up to 12,500km since being fitted with their transmitters, including crossing the Arabian Sea. As of 1 January, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan are in Tanzania and Skybomb Bolt is in Mozambique.
This Beijing Cuckoo Project has combined groundbreaking science with public engagement. With articles in Xinhua (China’s largest news agency), Beijing Youth Daily, China Daily, Beijing Science and Technology Daily, India Times, African Times and even the front page of the New York Times, these amazing birds have become, undoubtedly, the most famous cuckoos ever! Add the engagement with schools, not only in Beijing but also in other parts of China, and the reach and impact of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams. I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, especially the Chinese partners – the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, China Birdwatching Society and the staff at the tagging locations (Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu) – who have all been brilliant, as well as the BTO’s Andy Clements and Chris Hewson for their vision and sharing of expertise and the sponsors – Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International. Finally, a big thank you to “Team Cuckoo”: Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Geert De Smet, Gie Goris and Rob Jolliffe. You can follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos here. All being well, Flappy, Meng and Skybomb will return to Beijing by the end of May.
In 2017 we are planning to expand the Beijing Cuckoo Project to become the CHINA Cuckoo Project, which will involve tagging cuckoos in different locations across the country. More on that soon.
As well as being privileged to have been part of such a groundbreaking project, I have been fortunate to be involved with some exciting progress on some of the highest priority conservation issues, working with so many brilliant people, including Vivian Fu and Simba Chan at Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife. The plight of shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is well-known, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper the “poster species” of conservation efforts to try to save what remains of the globally important intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. More than 70% of these vital stopover sites have been destroyed already through land reclamations and much of the remaining area is slated for future reclamation projects. Scientists, including an ever greater number of young Chinese such as Zhu Bingrun, now have the evidence to show that the population declines of many shorebird species, some of which are now classified as “Endangered”, can be attributed in large part to the destruction of the vital stopover sites in the Yellow Sea. After meeting world-leading shorebird expert, Professor Theunis Piersma, in Beijing in May and arranging for him to address Beijing-based birders with a compelling lecture, it’s been a pleasure to support the efforts of international organisations such as BirdLife International, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), led by Spike Millington, IUCN, UNDP and The Paulson Institute as well as local NGOs such as Save Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 山水 (ShanShui) in their interactions with the Chinese government to try to encourage greater protection for, and sustainable management of, the remaining intertidal sites. One of the pillars of the conservation strategy is to nominate the most important sites as a joint World Heritage Site (WHS) involving China and the Koreas (both North and South). This would have the advantage of raising awareness of the importance of these sites to those in the highest levels of government and also requiring greater protection and management of the sites. I am pleased to say that, due to the hard work of these organisations, much progress has been made and the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MoHURD), the ministry responsible for WHS nominations, is now positively taking forward the suggestion and working on the technical papers required to make a submission to the State Council for formal nomination. Special mention should be made of John MacKinnon, whose expertise, network of contacts in China and enthusiasm has made a big difference, to Nicola Crockford of RSPB and Wang Songlin of BirdLife International for their diplomatic work to create the conditions for the WHS issue to come to the fore, to David Melville, who recently delivered a compelling presentation covering a lifetime of shorebird study, to MoHURD at a workshop convened by ShanShui, and to Hank Paulson who, through the publication of the Paulson Institute’s “Blueprint Project” and his personal engagement at a very senior level with Provincial governors, has secured a commitment from the Governor of Hebei Province to protect the sites in his Province highlighted in the Blueprint. These are significant advances that, although far from securing the future of China’s intertidal mudflats, have significantly improved the odds of doing so.
China’s east coast hosts the world’s most impressive bird migration, known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway. That flyway consists of not only shorebirds but also many land birds and it is this concentration of migratory birds every spring and autumn that attracts not only birders but also poachers. This year has seen several horrific media stories about the illegal trapping of birds on an industrial scale, primarily to supply the restaurant trade in southern China where wild birds are considered a delicacy. Illegal trapping is thought to be the primary cause of the precipitous decline in the population of, among others, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially classified as Endangered.
It would be easy to be depressed by such incidents but I believe there are two developments that provide optimism for the future. First, although the legal framework is far from watertight, the authorities are now acting, the incidents are being reported in the media and the culprits are receiving, at least in the largest scale cases, heavy punishments. And second, these cases are being uncovered by volunteers, groups of mostly young people that spend their free time – weekends and days off during weekdays – specifically looking for illegal nets and poachers at migration hotspots. They work with law enforcement to catch the culprits and destroy their tools of the trade. These people are heroes and, although at present it’s still easy for poachers to purchase online mist-nets and other tools used for poaching (there are ongoing efforts to change this), it’s a harder operating environment for them than in the past. Big change doesn’t happen overnight but the combination of greater law enforcement, citizen action and media coverage are all helping to ensure that, with continued effort and strengthening of the legal framework, illegal trapping of migratory birds in China is on borrowed time.
Another conservation issue on which progress has been made is the plight of Baer’s Pochard. The population of this Critically Endangered duck has declined dramatically in the last few decades, the reasons for which are largely unknown. However, after 2016 there is much to be optimistic about. First, there are now dedicated groups studying Baer’s Pochard in China, including population surveys, study of breeding ecology and contributing to an international action plan to save the species. These groups are working with the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, EAAFP and others to build a knowledge base about the species, raise awareness and develop concrete steps to conserve the species at its remaining strongholds. A record count of 293 birds in December at the most important known breeding site in Hebei Province (Paul Holt and Li Qingxin) is a brilliant end to a year that will, hopefully, be a turning point for this species.
On a personal level I was extremely lucky, alongside Marie, to experience a ‘once in a lifetime’ encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai and, just a few days later, two Snow Leopards. Certainly two of my most cherished encounters with wildlife.
So, as I glance out of my window again, I realise that a few days of smog are a small price to pay to be part of the birding and conservation community in China. As 2017 begins, I have a spring in my step.
2016 has been another year of surprise and discovery in Beijing. With eight new species recorded, and two further new records coming to light from previous years, the number of species reliably recorded in the capital now stands at 480, cementing Beijing’s position as one of the best major capital cities in the world for birding.
The year started with the brilliant discovery, by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of wintering JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS (Emberiza jankowskii) at Miyun Reservoir. After the initial sighting and photograph of a single bird, subsequent visits revealed that up to 13 were present. This group of buntings was enjoyed by many birders, both Beijing-based and visiting, until mid-March when access to the reservoir was forbidden following a major fire in the area. It is not known for how long they stayed but, on later visits (the last was apparently on the 19 March) at least one of the males was heard in sub-song. Although not a first record of this species in Beijing, given the “Endangered” status of Jankowksi’s Bunting, it was certainly a most unexpected find. It was the third record of this species in the capital, following the collection of two individuals in February and March 1941 (now in the NHM Tring). An article about these birds was published in Birding Asia, the magazine of the Oriental Bird Club.
The next major find was a REDWING (Turdus iliacus), found by a local photographer (一路摄, Yīlù shè) in the Botanical Gardens on 6 April. Often frustratingly elusive, it was last seen on 14 April. The first record of this species in Beijing & indeed anywhere in eastern China.
On 17 April, a COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula) at Ma Chang (Guan Xueyan and Wen Hui) was possibly only the 4th record from the capital.
On 23 April a BESRA (Accipiter virgatus) was photographed at Baiwangshan (Du Songhan et al). Possibly only the second record of this difficult to identify species. Photo below by Sun Zhiguang.
May, usually one of the best months for finding rarities, saw just one new record – a female SLATY BUNTING (Emberiza siemsseni) at the Summer Palace found by Jesper Hornskov – and two second records. First, a GREY-HEADED CANARY-FLYCATCHER (Culicicapa ceylonensis) at Lingshan found by Professor Susanne Åkesson and the international team visiting to assist with the Beijing Swift and Cuckoo Projects. And second, a male NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER (Ficedula narcissina) on the Wenyu River (郝建国, Hǎo jiànguó)
June produced three new records and a second record. First, a PALLAS’S FISH EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) spent several days at Yeyahu NR, where it was photographed by Fang Chun, one of the nature reserve staff on 7th June. Although there is a historical & unconfirmed report of this species in the capital, this was the first to be documented.
Second, on 10 June, a singing BROWNISH-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Cettia fortipes) at Baihuashan, sound-recorded by Jan-Erik Nilsen. The first documented record.
Finally, on 17th June at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, Terry Townshend stumbled across a singing GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Turdus boulboul). A few days later, at least three were heard in the same area, suggesting that there is probably a small breeding population. This species was previously thought to be a largely Himalayan bird, with the nearest breeding grounds in southwest China, and was certainly not on the radar as a potential vagrant in Beijing, let alone a probable breeding bird. Details here.
July and August were unremarkable and it was 29 September when Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu found the next significant bird – a SIBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF (Phylloscopus collybita tristis) at Yeyahu (PH), the second documented record for the capital.
Colm Moore was rewarded for his loyalty to Shahe Reservoir when, on 22 October, he found a SWINHOE’S RAIL. Seen briefly, but well, this was the fourth record for Beijing, with all records coming since 2014, a statistic that must be due to an increase in the number of birders and greater observer awareness rather than a change of its status in the wild (it is officially classified as “Vulnerable” with the population thought to be in decline).
A week later, on 29 October, Jesper Hornskov reported a HOODED CROW (Corvus cornix) close to Beijing Capital International Airport. This is the first record of this species in Beijing and, we think, all of eastern China.
The next day, Beijing’s first POMARINE SKUA (Stercorarius pomarinus), a juvenile, was photographed at the ‘Rubber dam’ near Yanqing and stayed until at least 2 November (Zhang Weimin & Yang Yuhe).
November was another productive month with the discovery, by photographers, of a small flock of REED PARROTBILLS (Paradoxornis heudei) at Wanping Hu in western Beijing (per Mr. Xu). With breeding populations to the south in Hebei Province and to the east in coastal Hebei/Tianjin, this species was high up on the list of potential discoveries in Beijing but, despite its predictability, the group of at least seven birds proved extremely popular. They came hot on the heels of a widely seen bird in the Olympic Forest Park on the 8 June 2016. That city centre bird was believed, at the time, to have been an escape or deliberate release. But in the advent of the November sightings perhaps not…
On 12th December Beijing’s second LAMMERGEIER (Gypaetus barbatus), a juvenile, was watched by Paul Holt and Terry Townshend at head height as it drifted by the communications tower at Lingshan before slowly heading northwest and into Hebei. It follows the first record from sometime in February 2008 at Shidu.
The following day, Paul Holt found a male SCALY-SIDED MERGANSER (Mergus squamatus) among a group of Common Mergansers at Huairou Reservoir. With only four previous records, this was a stunning find. One could even call it a “Christmas Quacker” (groan).
In addition to the new species found in 2016, two further records of new species came to light. First, a LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus), photographed at Yeyahu on 19 October 2009 (Yan Xiaoqin), was reported by Li Xiaomai on the 6 May 2016 and an ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH (Zoothera citrina) that was photographed in Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven) on the 22 May 2011 by 青花收藏. See here. Thanks to Huang Hanchen for uncovering this superb record.
All in all, a brilliant year for birding in Beijing, illustrating just how much we are still learning about the birds of China’s capital city. My personal favourite? Given their precarious status, the appearance of the flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS at Miyun Reservoir ranks, for me, as the best and most unexpected record of the year. Big congratulations to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for their brilliant find.
Big thanks to Paul Holt & Huang Hanchen for contributing significantly to this summary and to all Beijing-based birders who have reported sightings throughout the year, whatever the status of the species involved. Together, we are slowly but surely gaining a better understanding of the birds of China’s capital city.
Finally, although not in Beijing, it’s worth mentioning the record count of the “Critically Endangered” BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri) from Hengshui Hu, in neighbouring Hebei Province. An astonishing 293 were counted on 9 December by Paul Holt and Li Qingxin. That’s a positive note on which to end a remarkable year.
Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, is probably my favourite birding site in the capital. It’s one of those sites where, walking around, it feels as if almost anything could turn up. That feeling is not irrational. With wintering PRZEWALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART, Beijing’s first LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER, breeding GREENISH WARBLERS, ALSTROM’S WARBLERS, SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHERS, ‘Gansu’ RED-FLANKED BLUETAILS and GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS all discovered in the last few years, expectation is high whatever the season.
My most recent visit was with Paul Holt on Monday. On arrival it was cold, breezy and seemingly almost birdless. Around the derelict buildings, at the highest point of the road, our hopes of Asian Rosy Finch drew a blank. And there were no birds at all on the scree slopes.. However, almost the first bird we saw was a good one – a sibiricus GREAT GREY SHRIKE. Scarce in Beijing, Lingshan in winter is certainly the best site for this monochrome predator. A check of the sheltered side valley a little lower down was more productive, with three species of rosefinch – PALLAS’S, CHINESE BEAUTIFUL and LONG-TAILED. The highlight here was a count of 7 LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES of the central China lepidus subspecies, a form only discovered in Beijing two winters ago. One male, in particular, showed spectacularly well.
We walked the old road which was also relatively quiet with only one WHITE-WINGED REDSTART (a male) and an owl sp (SHORT-EARED or LONG-EARED), flushed by Paul and seen only briefly.
We decided to try an area of scrub further up the mountain and, after a 20-minute walk, we discovered four more lepidus LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES and flushed a EURASIAN WOODCOCK, scarce in Beijing especially in winter. We headed back to the car, talking about how great it was to see so many rosefinches and feeling happy with the day..
As we started to drive back to the road, a large raptor drifted past the communications tower… right at that moment, the jizz reminded me a little of Black Kite – long tail and lazy flight – but this bird was certainly not that species, it was huge! Paul immediately shouted an expletive followed by “juvenile Lammergeier”. Wow. We jumped out of the car and I grabbed my camera to take a few record shots.. As it drifted behind a hill we bundled back into the car and made our way back to the road to try to see it again.. We rounded the bend just before the road descends on the Hebei side and saw it again, this time at eye-level as it drifted north in the company of several LARGE-BILLED CROWS. The fact that we initially though the crows were RED-BILLED CHOUGHS gives an indication of its size. We watched as this magnificent bird of prey banked around and then flew directly over our heads before slowly heading northwest. What an encounter!
With the nearest known breeding grounds on the Tibetan Plateau, more than 1,200km to the west, LAMMERGEIER is a bird I wasn’t expecting to see in Beijing. As far as I know there is only one previous record from the capital, from Shidu, Fangshan District, in February 2008 (Wang Qin) so this is Beijing’s second.
Lingshan delivers again!
A PDF site guide to Lingshan, including travel directions and a map of the best sites, can be downloaded here.
The potential for discovery is one of the most exciting elements of birding in Beijing. Despite being probably the most-birded part of China, new species are recorded regularly. As one would expect, vagrants make up most of the additions to Beijing’s avifauna. However it’s an indication of just how little we know about Beijing’s birds that new breeding birds are also being discovered. Last summer at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, Paul Holt and I discovered GREENISH WARBLERS (Phylloscopus trochiloides) – the first record of this species in Beijing – and a male SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hodgsonii) – the second record for Beijing – both in suitable breeding habitat. At the time, we speculated about what else could be hiding on the forested slopes of this under-birded site. Our minds wandered to many outlandish possibilities, including WHITE-BROWED ROSEFINCH, CHESTNUT THRUSH and GREY-HEADED BULLFINCH. However, as if to tell us we were lacking in ambition, the next secret to be revealed by Lingshan was to be even more outlandish – the discovery of GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS (Turdus boulboul, 灰翅鸫), a primarily Himalayan species!
This is the story..
Last weekend, after a particularly busy May and early June involving very little birding, I decided to escape the Beijing heat for a few days to stay at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, around 100km west of the city centre. It’s usually at least 10 degrees Celsius cooler here and, of course, the birding is fantastic with a host of breeding phylloscopus warblers, range-restricted species such as GREEN-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula elisae), GREY-SIDED THRUSH (Turdus feae) and some spectacular Sibes such as SIBERIAN BLUE ROBIN (Luscinia cyane), ASIAN STUBTAIL (Urosphena squameiceps) and LONG-TAILED MINIVET (Pericrocotus ethologus).
On my final morning I decided to spend the early part of the day birding the slopes below the village by walking down the access road before heading back to Beijing around 0900. At the furthest point, just as I was about to turn around and walk back up to the car, I heard a thrush singing close by. The two most likely thrushes at Lingshan at this elevation are GREY-SIDED THRUSH and CHINESE THRUSH. It definitely wasn’t a Grey-sided and, knowing the variation in Chinese Thrush, I thought it was most likely this species. Usually, singing birds are very difficult to see but on this occasion, as I looked up the slope, I could see a thrush-sized bird perched on a bare branch on top of the ridge. Even though it was silhouetted by the rising sun, I set up the telescope to check it out. What I saw flummoxed me.. it appeared to be a blackish thrush with a clear yellow eye-ring, a yellow bill and a white wing-panel. The east Asian thrushes flashed through my head but none matched what I was seeing. Definitely not a Siberian Thrush or a Japanese Thrush… maybe it was a CHINESE BLACKBIRD with leucism (a condition of partial loss of pigmentation resulting in white patches on the plumage)? However, I had never before seen a Chinese Blackbird at Lingshan, it was atypical habitat and it didn’t sound like one… I recorded a short video and committed to following up the sighting when I was home.. By now I was a little late and needed to head back to the car for the journey back to Beijing in time to meet friends for lunch.
The original video clip, horribly backlit.
It wasn’t until the next day that I had the chance to speak to Paul Holt about what I had seen. He immediately suggested it could be a GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD, a species with which he was very familiar but that I had yet to see. After checking images of this species online, I was in no doubt that was the bird.
After alerting the Birding Beijing WeChat group, the general reaction from birders was that it was such a bizarre record that it was almost certainly an escape. One look at the known range of this species suggested why – it is largely a Himalayan bird and the nearest breeding grounds are in far southwest China – in Yunnan, Guangxi and southern Sichuan.
However, it just didn’t feel right that this bird – singing on a remote mountain 100km to the west of Beijing – was an escape. A quick check of a list of species recorded in Beijing’s bird markets showed that Grey-winged Blackbird had never been recorded for sale in the capital. In itself that didn’t prove anything, however it was certainly encouraging…
The most obvious next step was to return to Lingshan to try to establish whether the original bird was alone or part of a small, previously undiscovered, breeding population.
And so, on Wednesday, I teamed up with Paul Holt and headed west. We arrived at the location of my original sighting, between km 11 and km 12 on the access road, at around 0750. Immediately we could hear, and see, a Grey-winged Blackbird, presumably the same individual as my original sighting, singing from the same perch, high up to the east of the access road. After spending a lot of time with this bird, including making sound-recordings and video, the bird stopped singing and so we headed up the mountain to check on the Greenish Warblers that were discovered in a high tract of forest last year.
The following morning, we were out at 0400 to check on the blackbird. And, as we suspected, there wasn’t just one singing male but two, and then three! The presence of multiple birds surely reduced, if not eliminated, the chance that these birds were escapes. Instead, it was most likely we had discovered a small breeding population, more than 1,500 kilometres from the nearest known breeding sites. Wow!
Grey-winged Blackbird is primarily a Himalayan bird, with the closest known populations in China being in Yunnan, Guangxi and southern Sichuan. The discovery of, most likely breeding, birds at Lingshan represents a significant range expansion.
Thanks to the excellent contributions from Chinese birders on the Birding Beijing WeChat group, especially Lei Jinyu, we now know of several records away from the known range, including 3 records each from Shaanxi and Hubei Provinces, “a few” from Hunan and a single record from Chongqing. So it is clear the species does occur, at least occasionally, away from southwest China. It seems likely that the Lingshan birds represent a relict population, survivors of what once might have been a breeding range that extended across China’s mountains from the southwest to the northeast.
Immediately after this discovery, we began to think about what else could be on this magical mountain. Speculation on the Birding Beijing WeChat group included a suggestion from Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra – “breeding SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER“. Ben found Beijing’s first record of this species last autumn in the grounds of Tsinghua University. Incredibly, within 8 hours of his message, Paul found a singing SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER in the same area as the GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS! The second record for Beijing and, given the date, indicative of possible breeding. What. A. Day.
Now, the big question is, again: what next for Lingshan?
Big thanks to Paul Holt for his, as always, valuable counsel and for his company on the second visit to Lingshan this week.
Featured Image: Lingshan in June: a magical place.
As readers might have noticed, I take every opportunity to rave about the birding in Beijing. One of the reasons is because there is so much opportunity for discovery. The last few weeks have proved this again.
Until now, Beijing birders had presumed all the LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀), occasionally seen in the capital in winter, are from the population breeding in NE China, Russia and Mongolia (the ussuriensis subspecies). We don’t see many, and it was only after Paul Holt and I recently visited Wuerqihan, northern Inner Mongolia, where Long-tailed Rosefinches are common, that sharp-eyed (and sharp-eared!) Paul Holt suspected that the birds I had photographed and sound-recorded at Lingshan in October 2014 and November 2015 were of a different subspecies.
To compare, here are a couple of photos of the northeastern ussuriensis subspecies, the only race previously presumed to occurr in Beijing, taken in the Dalian area of NE China, courtesy of Tom Beeke.
And here is a male from Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia.
Compare the calls of one of the Lingshan birds with a bird of the ussuriensis race from Russia :
Lingshan bird (lepidus):
Ussuriensis from Russia (Albert Lastukhin):
After comparing photos and sound-recordings of ussuriensis with those from Beijing, it became clear that the Lingshan birds were NOT of the ssp ussuriensis. Instead, the Lingshan birds show the characteristics (dark eye-stripe and brown wings on the male, heavy and contrasting streaking on the female) of the ssp lepidus, the race from central China (according to HBW, this subspecies ranges from Eastern Tibet, east to south Shaanxi and southwest Shanxi).
Photos prove that Long-tailed Rosefinches of the lepidus subspecies have now occured at Lingshan in October/November 2014 and again in November 2015, including adult males. This suggests that Lingshan may be a regular wintering ground for the lepidus subspecies.
This was quite a shock.
We don’t *think* lepidus breeds in Beijing – they are active and noisy during the breeding season and there have been a few spring/summer visits by birders to Lingshan in the last 2 years, during which one would expect these birds to have been detected had they been present. So, for the moment at least, it looks as if these birds have moved northeast from their breeding grounds, an unexpected winter movement.
We know that at least some of the few winter records of Long-tailed Rosefinch from lowland Beijing are of the northern subspecies ussuriensis. So Beijing has now recorded two ssp of Long-tailed Rosefinch.
It’s another fascinating, and unexpected, discovery from Lingshan! What next?
Big thanks to Paul Holt for the initial discovery, to Paul Leader for comments and to Tom Beeke for permission to use his photos of Long-tailed Rosefinch from Liaoning Province.