New for Beijing: GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD

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).

I enjoyed a wonderful time on the slopes of the mountain, enjoying prolonged views of breeding ‘GANSU’ RED-FLANKED BLUETAILS (Tarsiger cyanurus albocoeruleus) and the recently discovered breeding population of GREENISH WARBLERS (Phylloscopus trochiloides).

GREENISH WARBLER (Phylloscopus trochiloides), Lingshan, 17 June 2016
GREENISH WARBLER (Phylloscopus trochiloides), Lingshan, 17 June 2016

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.

2016-06-23 Grey-winged Blackbird range
The known range of Grey-winged Blackbird.  Copyright BirdLife International.

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.

 

Long-tailed Rosefinches in Beijing

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.

2014-10-31 Long-tailed Rosefinch fem, Lingshan
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, Beijing, 31 October 2014.  Note the heavy and contrasting streaking and relatively thin wingbars.
2014-11-25 Long-tailed Rosefinch male, Lingshan
Male Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, 25 November 2014.  Note the contrasting head pattern, including the prominent dark stripe running behind the eye, and the brownish wings contrasting with the pink underparts.
2015-11-09 Long-tailed Rosefinch fem, Lingshan
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, Beijing, 9 November 2015. Again, note the relatively thick and contrasting streaking on the underparts.

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.

Long-tailed Rosefinch 35vfvhj3
(young?) Male Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp ussuriensis.  Note the lack of an obvious dark stripe behind the eye, less contrasting head pattern and less contrast on the wings.
Long-tailed Rosefinch 333242
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp ussuriensis. Note the relative lack of contrasting streaking on the underparts, the overall ‘warmer’ look and the thicker, more prominent, wingbars.

And here is a male from Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia.

2014-12-22 Long-tailed Rosefinch male2, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia
Note the thick wingbar, lack of a dark stripe behind the eye and overall ‘frosty’ appearance.

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.

The 1st China International Birding Festival: A Major Success

After a whirlwind 48 hours, and the participation of almost 200 birders from all over China and overseas, the 1st China International Birding Festival has officially closed.  And what a success it was.

The centrepiece was a 24-hour “bird race” during which 49 teams of 4 (age range 10 to 71) competed to record as many species of bird as possible by visiting 5 pre-determined sites in the Laotieshan area.  Each team was allocated a volunteer student from the Dalian University of Foreign Languages, a local State Forestry Fire Prevention officer and provided with a car and driver.  And, after the opening ceremony in which the Vice Mayor of Dalian and other senior government officials participated, the race began at 4pm on Friday.

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The formal opening ceremony of the 1st China International Birding Festival. A grand affair!
IMG_5857
However, some were briefly distracted from the speeches when an ORIENTAL HONEY BUZZARD drifted overhead..
map of birding locations
The map of the birding locations for the 24-hour “bird race”. The birding sites are marked in red, A to E. The accommodation and event sites marked in green, F to H.

With China birding guru, Paul Holt, honourably serving as one of the team of judges, suddenly everyone else was in with a chance of victory!

Our team, including Marie Louise and two fabulous and enthusiastic young birders, Zhao Tianhao and Cheng Xi, decided to spend the first two hours of the race, and the last two hours of daylight, visiting the “Tiger Tail mudflats” where we connected with, among others, Chinese Egret, Osprey, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gull as well as Red-throated Pipit, Lanceolated Warbler and a stunning adult male Yellow-breasted Bunting in the scrub.

The
The “Ibisbill” team (from left to right): Zhao Tianhao, our forestry minder, TT, Marie Louise and Cheng Xi)

After the formal dinner in the evening, we arranged to meet at 0500 (half an our before dawn and the earliest the driver and forestry officer could start) to continue the race..

We first visited the saltpans from where we hoped to be lucky with Streaked Shearwater (possible, with luck, from the sea wall).  We did not see one but we did connect with some shorebirds, including Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Dunlin, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Pacific Golden Plover.  It was shortly after sifting through the waders that we finally saw something ‘streaked’, only it was not ‘shearing’ over the sea but hiding in a small reedbed.  Astonishingly, we connected with a STREAKED REED WARBLER, an almost mythical and now almost certainly extremely rare bird.  See here for some background about this species and the story of this observation.

After the excitement of the Streaked Reed Warbler sighting, we continued to increase our species list as we visited the other sites, including a wooded mountainside and a tidal estuary.  An encounter with two NORTHERN HOUSE MARTINS (scarce in NE China) was a nice bonus during our last hour.

IMG_5875 2
Zhao Tianhao suffered from an allergic reaction to the local scrub and took an emergency soaking to calm the itchiness!

As time wore on, our ‘guide’ slowly increased the pressure on us to get back to base – any team that was late, even by a minute, would be disqualified.  So, at 1520 we left the last site and headed back for the 20 minute journey to hand in our scoresheet.  In the car we made a final count – 71 species.  Not bad.  At the beginning of the race I had thought that 70 species would be a good score, so we were pretty pleased, even though we had, alarmingly, missed some common birds; we had seen no woodpeckers, no owls, no harriers, no Little Bunting (how did that happen?), no pheasant or quail and ‘Japanese’ was the only Tit species!

After handing in the entries the judges got to work and, following a late evening, the results were ready to be announced at the closing ceremony the following morning.

On arrival, we were ushered to a row of seats close to the front so we knew we had won an award.  We were delighted to receive two – “The Black-faced Spoonbill Award” for the rarest bird seen (the Streaked Reed Warbler was always going to be a shoe-in for that) and also the 3rd place team award (our 71 species was just 3 behind the winners – Tong Menxiu’s “China Wild Tour” team.

The
The “Ibisbills” team receiving the 3rd place award.
The China Wild Tour team receiving their award for 1st place.
The China Wild Tour team receiving their award for 1st place.

In addition, I was humbled and honoured to receive the judges’ “Birding Master” award…

It was a big surprise, and a huge honour, to be presented with the
It was a big surprise, and a huge honour, to be presented with the “Birding Master” award.

It was hugely encouraging to see big numbers of young Chinese birders participating and, during the 24-hour race we met with teams from as far afield as Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian, as well as several teams from host province, Liaoning and the capital, Beijing.  Even better was the gender balance – there were just as many young women as men (it was never like that in the UK when I was a young birder!).

Huge thanks to the organisers, including the China Birdwatching Society, the Dalian local government, the Dalian University of Foreign Languages and all of the other volunteers… And a special thanks to my team mates – Marie Louise, Zhao Tianhao and Cheng Xi.

With participation from the highest levels of the Dalian government, including generous financial support for the event, I sensed a genuine enthusiasm for birding and an appreciation for wild birds, the scale of which I have never before witnessed in China. All around were banners stating “Protect our birds” and “Dalian – honoured to be hosting the 1st China International Birding Festival”.  During the race, many of the 49 teams took the time to explain to interested passers-by what they were doing and to show them wild birds..  And the bird race was covered by national and local TV as well as print media, including the most popular Chinese language newspaper, the People’s Daily.  So the event has helped to raise awareness among the general public, as well as enthusing a new generation of Chinese birders.  I was heartened when one young Chinese student volunteer approached me at the closing ceremony and said “This event has made me want to be a birder”.

Forget all the trophies handed out, the most important winner of all was Birding in China.

The Secret Is Out!

It’s time to reveal a secret.

There is a world-class birding site, visited by very few birders, just an hour from downtown Beijing.

Its name is Miyun Reservoir.

Historically, most birders visiting Beijing have headed to the coast to visit the well-known birding spots of Beidaihe and Kuaile Dao (Happy Island).  This is understandable when one considers the observations made there between 1910-1917 by British Consul John D D La Touche, by Dane Axel Hemmingsen in the 1940s and by Dr Martin Williams, among others, in the mid-1980s.  These pioneers put northern China, and in particular the coastal town of Beidaihe, on the birding map.

And these locations have dominated the northern China birding scene ever since, with international tour companies visiting annually in May to offer their clients “up close and personal” experience of some of East Asia’s specialities, including the sought after ‘Sibes’ that cause so much excitement when they turn up as vagrants in western Europe or North America.

However, it is increasingly clear that the phenomenal migration along the East Asian flyway is not only concentrated on the coast.  It is happening on a broad front and Beijing, China’s bustling capital, is slap bang in the middle of this birding superhighway.

Until recently, coverage of Beijing’s birds can most generously be described as ‘sparse’.  Even now, with a growing young Chinese birding community, it is no more than partial.  And yet, when one considers the diversity of species (more than 460 species have been recorded in the capital), together with the numbers, it is clear that Beijing is up there with the best birding sites in China.  And, within Beijing, there is one location that stands out right now – Miyun Reservoir.  The evidence?  How about this:

– More than 50,000 Little Buntings in one morning on 26 September 2014

– More than 8,000 Horned Larks on 15 October 2014

7 species of goose: Bar-headed, (Taiga and Tundra) Bean, Greater and Lesser White-fronted, Greylag and Swan

7 species of crane recorded in the last two years: Common, Demoiselle, Hooded, Red-crowned, Sandhill, Siberian and White-naped.

– A raptor list that includes Amur Falcon, Lesser and Common Kestrels, Hobby, Saker, Peregrine, Chinese, Eurasian and Japanese Sparrowhawks, Goshawk, Booted, Golden, Greater Spotted, Eastern Imperial, Short-toed and White-tailed Eagles, Osprey, Grey-faced, ‘Eastern’, Oriental Honey and Rough-legged Buzzards, Cinereous Vulture, Black and Black-winged Kites, Eastern Marsh, Hen and Pied Harriers.

– Red-throated and Black-throated Loon, Baikal and Eurasian Teal, Baer’s and Common Pochards, Falcated, Ferruginous, Spot-billed and Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, Mallard, Pintail and Wigeon, Greater Scaup and White-winged (Stejneger’s) Scoter.

For an inland location, the shorebird list is impressive, too. Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings, Jack, Common and “Swintail” Snipe, Asian Dowitcher, Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits, Eurasian, Far Eastern and Little Curlews, Whimbrel, Common and Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Common, Curlew, Green, Marsh, Pectoral, Sharp-tailed, Terek and Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed, Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Ruff, Dunlin, Grey, Kentish, Little Ringed, Oriental and Pacific Golden Plovers, Greater Sandplover, Turnstone, Red Knot, Grey and Red-necked Phalarope and Oriental Pratincole have all been recorded.

And how about this for a bunting list:  Black-faced, Chestnut, Chestnut-eared, Common Reed, Godlewski’s, Japanese Reed, Lapland, Little, Meadow, Pallas’s Reed, Pine, Rustic, Tristram’s, Yellow-breasted, Yellow-browed and Yellow-throated.

Not to mention the cuckoos, shrikes, gulls, terns, pipits, wagtails etc

The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir.  Photo by Marie.
The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir. Photo by Marie.

 

It is not unusual in spring, especially in May, to record more than 100 species in a day.  This year Paul Holt achieved that in March!  And Jan-Erik Nilsen, a Beijing-based Swedish birder, recorded 123 species last week.

As a general birding location, it is probably THE best in the capital.

It’s so good, we can’t keep it a secret any longer.  There is now a downloadable PDF guide to Miyun Reservoir, including travel directions and a species list.

OK, that’s enough..  It’s mid-May and I have to be somewhere..  no prizes for guessing where!

 

 

 

10,000 Relict Gulls

It was as recently as 1970 that RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) was confirmed as a valid species.  Before that it was thought to be either an eastern race of Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) or a hybrid between Brown-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and Pallas’s Gull (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus)!  Since its rather late acceptance into the global ornithological fold much has been discovered about this beautiful gull.  Breeding sites have been found in China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia and it appears that, although a few spend the winter in Korea, almost the entire world population winters on the northeast China coast, around the Bohai Bay.

And just before their spring migration, gatherings on the coast of birds in stunning breeding plumage, are simply spectacular.

Last week, local Tianjin birder Mo Xunqian (“Nemo”) and friend Zhu Bingrun (“Drew”) counted 10,652 Relict Gulls from 3 sites around Hangu, Tianjin.  This is a world record count and was simply too much to resist.  So, together with Paul Holt and members of Beijing Birdwatching Society, including President Fu Jianping, I headed to the coast to try to catch a glimpse of these awesome birds before they left for the breeding grounds.

With the help of Nemo and local bird photographer and conservationist Mr Wang Jianmin, we arrived on site at the perfect time – just as the tide was beginning to fall.  And we were greeted with a sea of Relict Gulls, the adults resplendent in their hooded breeding plumage and with hormones raging.  Many were engaging in courtship display, throwing back their heads and holding open their wings as they called loudly.  Superb!

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Relict Gulls pairing up ahead of the breeding season, Hangu, Tianjin. Photo by Wang Jianmin.

After a few minutes of simply admiring this breathtaking spectacle, Paul was quick to get to work counting the flock.  His tally was an outstanding 10,405, a record for a single site.  I focused on capturing some video footage and, as the wind began to increase, making the conditions difficult for video, I began to scan the flock, observing their behaviour and enjoying the birds.

It wasn’t long before I found a leg-flagged adult sporting an orange flag on its right tibia and then, incredibly, another with an orange flag engraved with the number “1”.

Relict Gull with orange flag.  Another bird sported a similar flag with the engraving "1".
Relict Gull with orange flag. Another bird sported a similar flag with the engraving “1”.

We enjoyed several hours with these birds until, as the tide receded, the birds began to move out onto the mud to feed.  Every few minutes, as more mud became exposed, the whole flock would rise into the air, wheeling around before settling a few metres closer to the retreating sea. It was an awesome sight.  All against the unlikely backdrop of an aircraft carrier, moored to the north…

10,000 RELICT GULLS and an aircraft carrier, Hangu, Tianjin.
10,000 RELICT GULLS and an aircraft carrier, Hangu, Tianjin.
2015-03-25 Relict Gull flock in flight, Tianjin
Relict Gulls, Hangu, Tianjin, 26 March 2015
2015-03-25 Relict Gull flock, Tianjin
Relict Gulls, Hangu, Tianjin, 26 March 2015. Occasionally the flock would take to the air, following the retreating sea.
2015-03-26 Relict Gull flock4, Tianjin
At 10,405 birds, this flock was the largest ever seen at a single site.

As the birds moved away we made our way back to the car, still buzzing from witnessing one of the most impressive birding sights during my time in China.

Mr Wang took us to a local restaurant for lunch where we reflected on the status of Relict Gull.  It was then that a hint of sadness hit us.  As impressive as this spectacle was, the fact that so many are concentrated in one spot is not a good sign.  It’s a symptom of shrinking habitat.  And the concentration into such a small area makes the population extremely vulnerable to shocks.. A serious oil spill, for example, could devastate these birds.

Anyone familiar with east Asia won’t be surprised that the cause of the shrinking habitat is land reclamation.  Mr Wang told us that, so far, around 80% of Tianjin’s tidal mudflats have been reclaimed, with just over 30km of coastal mudflat remaining of an original 140+km.  And then the news got worse; the site where we had just recorded a world record count of this special gull was due to be reclaimed and turned into housing.  My heart sank.

Much has been made of the breathtaking pace of ‘development’ along China’s east coast, in particular in the context of Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  And whilst the disappearance of tidal mudflats will undoubtedly affect many shorebird species, the Relict Gull is perhaps the most vulnerable species of all.  With almost the entire global population dependent on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay, this bird is being squeezed into ever-decreasing pockets of viable habitat.  At the present rate of land reclamation it is questionable for how long the remaining areas of tidal mudflats will be able to sustain the wintering population.  And with human disturbance, unsustainable water use and climate change, there are significant threats to the breeding grounds, too.  The Relict Gull fully deserves its “Vulnerable” status.

Development is clearly necessary for the government to continue to bring millions of Chinese out of poverty.  That includes expanding ports, improving infrastructure and building homes and businesses.  The key question is whether or not this development can be more sensitive to the natural world.  Unfortunately, it is still the case that ecosystems and biodiversity have zero value in our economic model.  That’s not unique to China, it’s a global phenomenon.  To protect sites and species often requires monumental efforts from passionate individuals and groups.  It should be the default.

Mr Wang has been championing the need to protect the remaining tidal mudflats around Tianjin.  He has exhibited his excellent photographs to raise awareness among the local community and, importantly, he has met with local government officials to highlight the global importance of this habitat.  He is committed to doing everything he can to help Relict Gull, a species that is clearly very close to his heart.  With the vast majority of the population breeding in China and wintering along the Bohai Bay, Relict Gull is a Chinese treasure, just like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven or the Terracotta Warriors.   I hope that, one day, it will be given the same protection.

Big thanks to Nemo, Zhu Bingrun, Wang Jianmin, Paul Holt, Wang Qingyu, Fu Jianping and the Beijing Birdwatching Society for ensuring our trip to see Relict Gulls was successful, for the use of photographs and for their fun company in Tianjin.

Birders at Hangu, Tianjin, on a high from seeing 10,000 Relict Gulls!
Birders at Hangu, Tianjin, on a high from seeing 10,000 Relict Gulls!  Mr Wang is fourth from the right.

Red-throated Loon in Beijing – first record since 1933!

This autumn is set to go down in Beijing birding history as the best ever (so far!).  As well as the Holy Trinity of Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Swinhoe’s Rail and Streaked Reed Warbler, there has been a stunning supporting cast.

Yesterday at Miyun Reservoir, there were two more additions to the seemingly never ending list of rarities to be found in Beijing this autumn.

First, regular Beijing visitor, Dutch birder Ben Wielstra, picked up a BLACK-WINGED KITE loitering over the Chao He valley to the north and then, around lunchtime, whilst scanning through a group of distant GREAT CRESTED GREBES in the hope of finding a RED-NECKED GREBE, I spotted a loon.  As soon as I had described to the others where it was, it was flushed by a fishing boat and took flight..  We all managed to get onto it and, as it flew, we were hastily discussing whether it was the more likely PACIFIC or BLACK-THROATED or the much rarer RED-THROATED.  Despite the distance, Paul Holt was already suspecting it was a RED-THROATED and, fortunately, it flew towards us and landed in a bay much closer, but still some distance away.  As soon as it landed it was immediately clear it was a RED-THROATED LOON, a species that with which I am very familiar as a winter visitor offshore from my home village of Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk.  Wow!  Once again, the Swarovski kit of the ATX95 plus iPhone and adaptor proved its worth in being able to document a distant record that, without doubt, would have been impossible with my traditional set up of a Canon 400mm lens.

There are two previous records of RED-THROATED LOON from Beijing.  The first was a dead female picked up “north of the river” in Tongzhou, remarkably on the same date of 22 October, in 1932.  The second was a sight record at the same site from 10-12 April 1933.  So this is the first record of RED-THROATED LOON in the capital for more than 80 years!

Big thanks to Paul for the intelligence on the records from the 1930s.

GREAT WHITE PELICAN at Miyun – the 3rd record for the capital

On 5 October, during the National Holiday, I visited Miyun Reservoir with Marie.  It was a beautiful day but with a rather chilly northerly breeze that meant the jackets didn’t come off until late morning….  On arrival, almost the first thing we saw was a distant, but still very obvious, large white bird sitting on the water.  I set up the telescope and could immediately see it was a pelican… fantastic!  The obvious question was which species?  In Beijing there are records of two pelican species – the DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕, Pelecanus crispus), a barely annual migrant, most likely to be encountered in spring,  and the much rarer GREAT WHITE PELICAN (白鹈鹕, Pelecanus onocrotalus), the latter with just two Beijing records.  I have very limited experience of both, with just one sighting of Great White and two of Dalmatians, all in spring.

Separating the two is relatively straightforward given good views and, even at great distance, the species can be separated if seen in flight (Great White shows an obvious sharp contrast between the black primaries and secondaries and the white wing coverts).

Frustratingly, given the distance, I decided that it was prudent to leave the Miyun pelican unidentified unless I saw it in flight… so I decided to keep an eye on it as I scanned the other birds on the reservoir.  I put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and Paul Holt, who was birding at nearby Huairou Reservoir and was already planning to come to Miyun, replied to say he’d join us in a couple of hours.

At that time, there were lots of birds moving and it soon became apparent that there was an impressive raptor passage beginning with ‘Eastern’ Buzzards, Amur Falcons, Hobbies and Kestrels all moving…

Juvenile COMMON KESTREL.  One of the many raptors to pass through Miyun on 5th October.
Juvenile COMMON KESTREL. One of the many raptors to pass through Miyun on 5th October.

It was this distraction that allowed the pelican to slip away unnoticed… one minute it was there, the next it was gone and we had not seen it fly…!  We desperately scanned the skies thinking that, even if it had left a few minutes before, we must be able to pick up a bird of its size in the sky.. but no, it had gone!

All I had were my grainy photos taken with my iPhone through my telescope at 70x magnification.

Pelican, Miyun Reservoir,  5 October 2014.  Taken on 70x magnification with an iPhone and the Swarovski ATX 95 telescope
Pelican, Miyun Reservoir, 5 October 2014. Taken on 70x magnification with an iPhone and the Swarovski ATX 95 telescope

As scheduled, Paul arrived a little later and although disappointed at not seeing the pelican himself, he suspected from the original photo that it was probably a Great White.

Even so, it was more in hope than anticipation that I circulated the image to a few respected birders and their responses delighted me – all thought there was enough to identify it as a Great White!

Axel Bräunlich, of the excellent Birding Mongolia blog, wrote:

“I don’t see a problem in ID-ing your Miyun birds as Great White:

– general very white colouration, colour of breast
– “dent” in upper head, smooth outline of head (no shaggy crest) –> characteristic head profile
– colour of pouch
– rosy area around eye (poorly visible on photo, but apparently there)”

Axel summed up the ID criteria very well and, when combined with positive responses from Paul Holt and Colm Moore, I am very happy to call this Beijing’s 3rd record of GREAT WHITE PELICAN.

Even without the pelican, it was a brilliant day’s birding in stunning surroundings.. Miyun is spectacular when the air and weather behave themselves…  Here is a photo of Paul and me enjoying the birding that day..

The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir.  Photo by Marie.
The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir. Photo by Marie.

Big thanks to Marie for her great company throughout the day and to Axel, Paul and Colm for taking the time to provide me with their much-valued opinions on the identification of this pelican.

I must also thank Swarovski.  The ATX95 with iPhone adaptor makes it possible to capture images at such an incredible distance… and this bird would have been in the records as “pelican sp” had it not been for the photo I was able to capture using this impressive kit.