At the Beijing birders meet-up we arranged for a group trip to Nanpu, near Tangshan in Hebei Province. In total, 15 of us – both ex-pats and locals – spent the weekend at this world-class site and it was a superb trip – great fun with lots of birds!
Perhaps the best single bird in terms of rarity was an ORIENTAL STORK that came in off the sea. And amongst the other highlights were impressive numbers of shorebirds with 4,700 SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS and 2,325 DUNLIN, a single RUFF (rare here), five juvenile RED-NECKED PHALAROPES, at least six first-year SAUNDERS’S and up to 80 RELICT GULLS and decent numbers of passerines moving down the coast. High counts included 54 BLACK-NAPED ORIOLES (including a single flock of 23 birds!), 100 DUSKY WARBLERS, 300 SIBERIAN STONECHATS, up to 150 RICHARD’S PIPITS, two BLYTH’S PIPITS, two PECHORA PIPITS and six YELLOW-BROWED BUNTINGS.
It was hot at Nanpu and, fortunately, there is a small village where one can purchase ice creams! I can thoroughly recommend the ‘traditional flavour’ ice lollies.. delicious (even though I am not sure of what exactly they taste!). The locals here make their living from the mudflats, where they harvest the shellfish and shrimps. Here are a few maintaining their nets.
And in the early mornings, our 0500 starts were made (slightly) easier by the delicious bao zi (steamed dumplings) that were on sale for the equivalent of 5p each…
At the coast, where passerine migration was most impressive, we unfortunately encountered more illegal bird trapping activity. From the car, Paul heard a Yellow-breasted Bunting singing and we stopped to investigate. We very quickly saw a line of mist nets in the grass close by. The poacher had set up an elaborate line of nets accompanied by caged songbirds, clearly designed to lure in wild birds. The caged birds included Common Rosefinch, Yellow-breasted and Yellow-browed Buntings – three species that were clearly moving at this time of year.
In the nets we found alive 2 Common Rosefinches plus Yellow-browed, Arctic and Dusky Warblers, which we promptly released. But it was too late for 4 Brown Shrikes which had fallen victim to this cruel practice.
The poacher soon arrived (claiming that the nets were his friend’s and not his – yeah right). We told him firmly that this was illegal and that we would be taking photos and reporting him to the Hebei Forestry Administration. He did not protest and actually helped us to dismantle and destroy the nets, snap the poles, release the caged birds and destroy the cages. On return to Beijing I posted the photos on Sina Weibo (Chinese “Twitter”) asking for help in reporting this illegal activity. Within 10 minutes, users on the microblogging service had translated my report into mandarin and submitted it to the Hebei Forestry Administration… wow! The power of social media. Thanks guys!
Ironically, the next day we were ejected from this area by local security guards from the nearby oil terminal and police who claimed that it was a “nature reserve”. So it’s ok to drill for oil and trap wild birds in a nature reserve but birding is a step too far…! A big thank you to Lei Ming and friends for following up on my behalf with the Hebei Forestry Administration.
September and October are probably my favourite months in Beijing. The excessive heat of the summer diminishes and, given the autumnal breeze, combined with regular rain, the air quality is good, resulting in some fantastic clear days with superb visibility. It’s a reminder that Beijing is a beautiful city and if ever an extra incentive was needed to clean up the capital’s air, being outside on autumnal days and seeing the mountains, with the ever-impressive Great Wall running along the spine of the northern ranges, must be it.
Of course September and October are also superb months for birding with migration in full swing. Taking advantage of Dalian-based Tom Beeke’s presence in the capital for an ice-hockey tournament, Paul Holt and I took Tom for a day’s birding at Miyun Reservoir on Sunday. And what a beautiful day it was. With the temperature a fresh 14 degrees C early on (rising to 32 degrees C later), a stunning clear blue sky and visibility of at least 30-40km, it was a great day to be in the field.
We visited three sites around the reservoir and recorded an impressive 91 species, including two new birds for me in Beijing – LITTLE CURLEW (小杓鹬) and RUSSET SPARROW (山麻雀) – plus 2 SHORT-TOED EAGLES (短趾雕), several PIED HARRIERS (鹊鹞) and, best of all, a PEREGRINE (游隼) of the subspecies peregrinator – a resident of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and southern China. We believe this is the first record of this subspecies in Beijing and the most northerly record in China – unless you know better?
Some images from the day and a full species list (courtesy of Paul Holt) below.
Full Species List
Japanese Quail – 6 around Miyun reservoir
Common Pheasant- 5
Mandarin Duck – 3 around Miyun reservoir
Falcated Duck – 4, including an eclipse adult male, at Miyun reservoir. Apparently the earliest autumn records from Beijing. The previous earliest were 25 and 36 birds at Miyun reservoir on the 11 and 12 September 2004 respectively (PH pers. obs.). These dates seem unusually late however and it’s likely that limited observer coverage of Miyun reservoir & WDL in late August is responsible as birds are regularly encountered on the Hebei and Tianjin coasts at that time.
Mallard – 8
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 10
Garganey – 5
Eurasian Teal – 3
Little Grebe – 16
Great Crested Grebe – 54
Black Stork – 3 flew north over the Jingcheng expressway near Miyun town (kilometre post 62) at about 05h45.
Black-crowned Night Heron – 3
Little Heron – 2
Chinese Pond Heron – 11
Eastern Cattle Egret – 4
Grey Heron – 10
Purple Heron – 2 juveniles
Great Egret – 3
Little Egret – 17
Osprey – 1. Probably the earliest autumn date for Beijing.
Crested (Oriental) Honey-buzzard – 1 flew south high over in the Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir.
Black Kite – 2 juveniles
Short-toed Snake Eagle – 2. Both were photographed.
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 4
Pied Harrier – 6, including two adult males, an adult female and three juveniles
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 10
Common Kestrel – 1
Amur Falcon – 81. 66 of these were seen from the Jingcheng expressway between Miyun town & Taishitun. Surprisingly today’s total was one of the highest autumn bird-days totals for the whole of Beijing. The majority of Amur Falcons apparently move through Beijing during a short and intense autumn passage. Most years it’s the second week of September before there’s any significant movement and birds are widely encountered just one week later (by the middle of September) with peak migration apparently occurring in the third week. Note that this is significantly earlier than the peak occurs in coastal Tianjin and at Laotie Shan, southernmost Liaoning where the, significantly larger passage, doesn’t peak until mid-October. Note that significantly larger numbers have been seen in neighbouring Tianjin municipality during autumn passage (with 1350 counted at Beidagang, Dagang on 10 October 2007)
Peregrine Falcon – 2 juveniles near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir on the 1/9/2013. The first bird that we saw was a ‘Shaheen’ Falcon Falco peregrinus peregrinator as it was slightly small and compact, even for a male, had a strong rufous suffusion to its lower underparts and underwing coverts that contrasted well with its whiter breast and cheeks. It was quite dark above with rather little contrast with the paler rump and had an extensive dark hood. In China peregrinator is a bird of the south and can be found, albeit locally, in Sichuan. The most northerly record in China until today had been an adult at Yangxian, Shaanxi on the 1 July 2013 (PH pers. obs.).
Common Moorhen – 5
Eurasian Coot – 8
Black-winged Stilt – 2
Snipe sp. – 3
Little Curlew – 1 was seen several times in flight, and photographed, near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir. Little Curlew is rare in Beijing with perhaps just four or five previous reports – ‘present’ at Wild Duck Lake on the 22/3/2003 (赵欣如老师 黄伟 竹 cyan 以及另外三人 via BirdTalker). This report was accompanied by the statement that ‘needs to be affirmed since the time is too early’. Subsequently one was seen at Huairou Reservoir on 11/5/2004 [JHa in the 2004 CBR] and this sighting was noted as being the first record for the Capital by the bird report editors who apparently discounted the 2003 report above; one at Miyun reservoir on the 18/10/2007 – it flew purposefully south, out and over the reservoir south of the Bulaotun Satellite Tracking Station at 15:25hrs (PH pers. obs.); three at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 4/5/2008 (PH pers. obs.) & one in Yuanmingyuan during the 14-17/8/2012 (see http:/www.birdnet.cn/showtopic-381567.aspx )
Green Sandpiper – 1
Wood Sandpiper – 2
Temminck’s Stint – 1
Black-headed Gull – 160
Mongolian Gull – 3, two adults and a second-calendar year, flew north at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir. Apparently the earliest ever autumn record from Beijing
Gull-billed Tern – 4, two adults and two first-winters. One of only five autumn records from Beijing!
Common Tern – 3 adults. Two were minusensis & the other longipennis.
White-winged Black Tern – 1 juvenile
Oriental Turtle Dove – 11
Eurasian Collared Dove – 50
Spotted Dove – 2
Asian Koel – 1 singing bird was heard near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir on the 1/9/2013. 2013 has been a record year for this species in Beijing – and today’s was the first ever September encounter.
Common Cuckoo – 3 around Miyun reservoir
Common Kingfisher – 3
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 1 flew over the Jingcheng expressway near kilometre 62
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1
Brown Shrike – 6
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3
Black-naped Oriole – 3
Black Drongo – 218. Apparently a record day-count from the Capital. The only previous three-figure counts that I’m aware of from Beijing have been 200 at Wild Duck Lake on 21/8/2005 (LHT in the 2005 CBR) & 150 at Wild Duck Lake during 26-27/8/2010 (Brian Ivon Jones via BirdTalker)
Azure-winged Magpie – 1
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 1 was heard
Marsh Tit – 2 calling birds were heard near Yongle cun
Japanese Tit – 1 was heard
Chinese Penduline Tit – 1 heard near Yongle cun
Light-vented Bulbul – 22
Sand Martin – 28 flew south
Barn Swallow – 35 around Miyun reservoir. Five of these, including one tytleri, were near Yongle cun with the other 30 in & around Hou Ba Jia Zhuang village.
Red-rumped Swallow – 150
Dusky Warbler – 7
Yellow-browed Warbler – 7
Oriental Reed Warbler – 2
Black-browed Reed Warbler – 2
Thick-billed Warbler – 5
Lanceolated Warbler – 3 separate birds were heard near Yongle cun
Zitting Cisticola – 21
Plain Laughingthrush – 2, a presumed pair, near Yongle cun
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 52
Chinese Hill Babbler – 4, presumably a family party
Common Stonechat – 14
Asian Brown Flycatcher – 2
Taiga Flycatcher – 2
Russet Sparrow – 17 in a mixed flock with Eurasian Tree Sparrows near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir. One of very few double-figure day counts from Beijing and perhaps the first record for Miyun county? The number of Russet Sparrows being reported in Beijing appears to have declined in recent years (from high counts that included 50 at the Jumahe, Fangshan on the 4/12/2004 [QYX in 2004 CBR], 30 at Shidu, Fangshan on 30/12/2007 (蛐蛐儿黑鹳辛夷拙石 via BirdTalker) and 20 at Juili cun, Jiuduhe zhen, Huairou on the 11/9/2010 [dianchi via BirdTalker]). Note that Beijing has been the northern limit of this species’ Chinese breeding range for over a decade – this is despite recent records at Laotie Shan, Liaoning in May 2011 (Townshend and Millington 2011) & May 2013 (Terry Townshend pers. comm to PH) and on the Hebei coast suggest that the species is continuing to slowly expand its range.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – 100
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 50
Grey Wagtail – 2 singles flew south
White Wagtail – 9, including four leucopsis
Richard’s Pipit – 18
Olive-backed Pipit – 1
Red-throated Pipit – 1. Apparently the joint earliest autumn record from Beijing – equalling the sighting of five at Shahe Reservoir, Changping on 1/9/2008 (红嘴蓝鹊, 鹰之舞 via BirdTalker).
Grey-capped Greenfinch – 30
Common Rosefinch – 112. 17 of these were near Yongle cun with the other 95, including a single flock of about 80 birds, were near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang. Apparently a record autumn count for Beijing.
Chinese Grosbeak – 3
Meadow Bunting – 1 was heard near Yongle cun
Yellow-breasted Bunting – 2 near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang
In Beijing we are blessed with a small, but excellent, group of active birders. There is a growing band of locals, including friends Zhu Lei, Lei Ming, Zhang Shen, Chen Liang, Fu Jianping and more… plus some ex-pat birders from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong (should we count Jennifer as an ex-pat?!), South Africa, Sweden and the US.
Although we have been sharing sightings and corresponding on email for some time, many of us had never met, so on Saturday we arranged a meet-up in central Beijing over the traditional birders’ diet of beer and pizza. Guest appearances by Dalian-based Tom Beeke (complete with ice-hockey kit) and Shanghai-based Craig Brelsford added a bit of “Greater China” spice.
It was very cool to put faces to names, catch up with friends old and new, and speculate over the next addition to the Beijing list.
RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) is a relatively poorly known species. Until the early 1970s it was thought to be a race of Mediterranean Gull and some even thought it a hybrid between Mediterranean Gull x Common Gull….
It breeds inland at colonies in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and winters almost exclusively on the mudflats of the Bohai Bay in eastern China. It is classified as “Vulnerable” by BirdLife International, partly because of its susceptibility to changes in climate but also because almost the entire population is reliant on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay in winter, a habitat that is rapidly diminishing as land reclamation intensifies – threatening not just Relict Gull but a host of East Asian flyway species, including of course the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
Relict Gull is a bird I am always pleased to see and, occasionally, in late March and early April, these birds can be seen in Beijing – for example at Wild Duck Lake or Miyun Reservoir – as they begin their migration to the breeding grounds. Autumn records in the capital are much scarcer which made Saturday’s sighting of an adult at Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh all the more pleasing. However, it is a trip to the Hebei coast, particularly south of Tangshan at Nanpu, that will enable any birder to get to grips with good numbers of Relict Gull at almost any time of the year… Numbers in winter can be in the 1000s, which makes for quite a spectacle, but even in summer a few immature birds and non-breeders remain. There is still much to learn about this gull, including its distribution – in 2012 Paul Holt discovered a wintering population of over 1,000 near Zuanghe in Liaoning Province (see image below).
Last week, in the company of Per Alstrom and Lei Ming, I visited the coast at Nanpu and we were treated to more than 100, most probably recent arrivals from the breeding grounds, patrolling the mudflats amongst the local shellfish pickers.. They feed on the local crabs, a delicacy that seems to be in plentiful supply! Below are some images of moulting adults, second calendar year and first year birds.
And here is a short video of an adult at Nanpu in August.
Having not been birding much recently, Paul Holt and I visited Miyun Reservoir on Saturday in the hope of finding some inland shorebirds. Due to the exceptionally high water levels (we have ‘enjoyed’ a wetter than usual spring and summer this year) we did not find any muddy fringes attractive to waders. Thus, we hardly saw any (just two Black-winged Stilts, one Wood Sandpiper heard only, and 3 Pintail or Swinhoe’s Snipe). However, the day was not without good birds…
Shortly after our arrival, and in fantastically still conditions, we heard this:
A Yellow-legged Buttonquail singing (if you can call it singing!). This is a very difficult to see species and I have only recorded it once before in Beijing – in late May 2012 when I inadvertently flushed one along the Wenyu River. After one burst of song, it fell silent and we didn’t try to see it by walking through the long grass… As it happened we would see another Yellow-legged Buttonquail later that day on the other side of the reservoir, this time a juvenile… Fortunately I managed a (poor) record image before it disappeared into the maize crops.
However, the undoubted highlight was when Paul heard what he immediately thought was a LESSER COUCAL… we investigated and, sure enough, sitting atop a shrub about 200 metres away was a singing male… wow! The first record for Beijing. It proceeded to sing almost continuously for the next hour or so, roaming across a fairly wide area around the reservoir. Although photos were difficult to secure, I was able to obtain this record image.
Separating Greater and Lesser Coucal is not necessarily straightforward, especially from photographs, so in order to properly document this record it was important to secure a sound recording (song is a good way to distinguish this pair). Using the video facility of our Canon EOS7Ds we made this recording which is of surprisingly good quality!
At one point we could hear the Coucal singing with an Asian Koel calling in the background. Asian Koel, until very recently, was a rare bird in Beijing. It was first recorded in the capital as recently as 1983 and has been occurring with increasing frequency. This year there have been at least 17 sightings!
So, not many shorebirds but the experience of Saturday just goes to show that we should expect the unexpected!
Lesser Coucal status (courtesy of Paul Holt):
This is the first record for Beijing. There are at least five reports of single Lesser Coucals from coastal Hebei – three from Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao (with sightings at the Heng He Reservoir on the 23 May 2000, Radar marsh on the 23 May 2003 and again at the Heng He Reservoir on the 23 June 2007) and at least two reports from Happy Island, Leting (one on 22/5/2001 & the only autumn record – a single on the 30 September 2007). Interestingly Greater Coucal has also been seen twice at Beidaihe – with one during the 6-8/8/1994 with two from the 9-11/8/1994 (Dierschke and Heintzenberg 1994 & Williams 2000
EDIT: It has been brought to my attention (many thanks to “虚弱人类” on Sina Weibo) that a LESSER COUCAL was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, on 27 June 2012. Images can be seen here. Our record at Miyun, therefore, becomes the second record for Beijing.
When Beijing-based Colm Moore sent me an email saying that he had seen a Long-tailed Skua at the capital’s Shahe reservoir on 22 June, I was impressed. Skuas of any species are very scarce in China, especially inland. What I didn’t know at the time was that Colm’s sighting was the first ever documented record of a skua – any skua – in the capital. Wow!
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Over the last 18 months or so, Colm has consistently been finding interesting birds at this reservoir, situated between the 5th and 6th ring roads in northern Beijing, demonstrating the benefits of patch birding. This year alone he has found a feldeggi Black-headed Wagtail (the first record in China away from the far western Province of Xinjiang), Dalmatian Pelican, Beijing’s second record of Bar-tailed Godwit (a group of 7 on the same day as the skua!), Oriental White Stork, Watercock, Manchurian Reed Warbler and many more… It just goes to show what can be found by combining skill and effort, even in a relatively uninspiring urban location.
Here are a couple more images of the skua taken by Zhao Qi.
On the status of Long-tailed Skua in China, Paul Holt offered this response:
“..there are very few reports of any species of skua/jaeger from anywhere in China. …….. I saw one Long-tailed at Laotieshan, Lushun, Liaoning last September (the first record for Liaoning) – plus several unidentifed distant jaegers, another Long-tailed in Shandong on 13 Oct. 2010 (the first for Shandong) & ………… Jesper [Hornskov]’s also seen a Long-tailed in Qinghai. Long-tailed’s reasonably common/regular off Taiwan in April & is the commonest of the skuas/jaegers there.”
Paul’s comments help to put into perspective just how good is Colm’s record… and, on a lighter note, as Colm commented, it’s also the first skua seen by an Irishman anywhere in China…!
After a tip-off, Paul Holt, Alice Carfrae and I spent yesterday evening looking for an owl… not just any owl but a Northern Boobook (formerly known as Brown Hawk Owl but now ‘split’ into a species in its own right). We arrived on site at 6pm and, after a short walk, we soon heard and saw, spectacularly well, this lovely owl: the first time I have ever seen this uncommon species. Unfortunately it was an overcast evening, meaning the light was poor for photography, but it was also very still, enabling us to hear it well.
Although we only saw one bird, it was clear that there were two birds present, probably a pair, with the other bird (a female?) calling at a slightly different pitch.
We were then told about a nearby breeding pair of Oriental Scops Owl and, sure enough, after a 5-minute walk, we were watching and listening to one of these small owls in the company of a few uncomfortably large, low flying bats. Although Oriental Scops Owl is a migrant in good numbers through Beijing, we didn’t know it bred….
There is so little we know about the birds in the capital, let alone the rest of China….!
The last week of May and first week of June is THE best time for seeing acrocephalus warblers in Beijing. These birds arrive relatively late in the spring migration to allow the reedbeds and vegetation, on which they depend, to grow sufficiently. This Spring I have been hoping to see two specific acrocephalus warblers that I have never seen before – the Streaked Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus sorghophilus) and the Manchurian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus tangorum). The chances of seeing the former are slim – there have been no records anywhere since 2011, when one was well-described from the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, by a visiting birder and before that one must look back to 2009 when one was trapped in winter at Candaba Marshes, Philippines (unsure of date) and another was found by Paul Holt at the Summer Palace, Beijing, on 6 June. As far as I am aware, there have been no sightings at the well-covered migration hotspot of Beidaihe since 1999 and the breeding grounds, although thought to be in northeast China and southwest Russia, have never been discovered. This is a bird I am seriously worried about and its decline since the days of La Touche (who described it as “swarming” at Beidaihe in late August and early September in the early 20th century) has been catastrophic. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have not yet found a Streaked Reed Warbler. However, yesterday (1 June) I saw my first Manchurian Reed Warbler at Huairou Reservoir, Beijing.
It is always rewarding to go birding with someone who knows a lot more than yourself – it’s one of the best ways to learn. And to go birding with a real China expert – is a treat. So when Paul Holt asked me if I wanted to accompany him for a day’s birding around the northeastern reservoirs of Huairou and Miyun, I jumped at the opportunity. Paul had spent the previous day in the area and had found two special birds – Manchurian Reed Warbler and Chinese Bush Warbler – both, especially the latter, very difficult to see in the capital.
Our first stop was an area of superb habitat on the eastern fringe of Huairou Reservoir. Sure enough, after a few minutes, we were listening to, and watching, a splendid Manchurian Reed Warbler…. I had wondered how straightforward separation from the similar Black-browed and Blunt-winged Warblers would be. I was a little surprised at how different they are. With a prominent, but not as broad as Black-browed, white supercilium with a limited black upper border, long bill, prominent white throat bordering buffy underparts and an almost speckled crown, this warbler, given reasonable views, is distinctive. And the song, although resembling other ‘acros‘ lacks the fast pace or repetition of Black-browed.
We enjoyed this bird for as long as 15 minutes as it made its way along a patch of reeds before moving back into a larger reedbed. Although reed warblers definitely fit into the “little brown job” of birds, the subtle differences in appearance and vocalisations make them a rewarding challenge for birders. And Manchurian Reed Warbler is a difficult bird to see anywhere. With a very restricted breeding range in northeast China (and southwest Russia), as its name suggests, the breeding grounds are relatively inaccessible and I imagine non-vocalising winter birds to be hard to find in large areas of wetland habitat.
Big thanks to Paul for finding, and taking me to see, one of my most-wanted Beijing birds. Now, where’s that Streaked Reed…..?
The Black-throated Blue Robin (Blackthroat) was, until very recently, an almost mythical bird. Known only from the odd scattered record in the Chinese Provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, with presumed wintering records in southern China and Thailand, it has been “the Holy Grail” of China birding.
The chances of seeing one were as close to zero as one could get until June 2011 when Per Alström and a team of Chinese scientists discovered a total of 14 males at two sites – Foping and Changqing – in Shaanxi Province.
I had long been planning a trip to neighbouring Sichuan Province in May this year with friends Rob Holmes and Jonathan Price and, after consulting our local guide – Sid Francis – we decided to tag on a couple of extra days to visit Changqing and try to see Blackthroat. It was a gamble. We knew that, in 2012, the first birds were seen in Foping and Changqing on 4 and 18 May respectively. So it was by no means certain that they would have arrived and be on territory on 8 May, the day we had planned to visit. And even if they had arrived, would we be able to find one?
Per had kindly uploaded some sound recordings of the Blackthroat’s song, so we knew what to listen for. And on our arrival at Changqing we met with our guide for the day – Zhang Yongwen – who was part of the team that made the discovery in 2011. We were as prepared as we could be, and in good hands.
Yongwen told us that we had “a chance”. This Spring had been a little warmer than usual. His visit with us would be the first time he had looked for the birds this year. If successful, we would be the first people to see Blackthroat in 2013.
Our day began as a typical Spring day in Shaanxi – overcast with the threat of rain and a little chilly in a brisk breeze. Not ideal conditions to look for a skulking robin but not terrible either – it is not uncommon for rain to last days in this part of the world in Spring.
We drove from our hotel in the “ancient” town of Huayang (which looked about 5 years old!) into the core reserve area. The ‘road’ was an old logging track that took us into the heart of some superb habitat. The forest in the reserve is mostly mature secondary growth with generous areas of bamboo. In addition to Blackthroat, the reserve hosts around 100 Giant Pandas as well as Takin, Goral, Serow, Wild Boar and Tufted Deer. The chances of seeing Giant Panda in the wild at this time of year are slim, with the trees in full leaf, but we did see evidence – panda poo!
After an hour’s drive, including seeing a couple of Golden Pheasants by the side of the road, we stopped at the edge of a small valley – “Wo Wo Dian” at an altitude of 2,200-2,400 metres. It was along this valley that Blackthroat was found in 2011 and seen subsequently in 2012. Fortunately the rain was holding off and we began the short walk to the prime area. The sense of excitement among the group was palpable.
The search was focused on areas of dense bamboo alongside a small stream. The constant sound of running water muffled any birdsong, making it difficult to hear and identify any birds along the way… At the first patch of bamboo, just a few hundred metres along the valley, we had a frustrating glimpse of a robin running along the ground.. but it was so deep in the bamboo that it just looked like a black shape and, after waiting patiently for 20 minutes or so, Yongwen said that the best area was further up, so we moved on…
The next stand of bamboo looked good – it was relatively open and, with a low vantage point gained by standing in the rocky stream, it was easier to see any movement. We soon heard a robin singing… and it sounded similar, if not identical, to the sound recordings we had of Blackthroat… our hearts jumped. It wasn’t long before we spotted a robin at the base of the bamboo, deep inside the thicket, and after a frustrating few minutes of half-glimpses and flight views, it finally sat up and sang from a rock – FIRETHROAT! A robin, and a fantastic bird at that, but not the bird we were looking for… Although disappointing that it wasn’t a Blackthroat, we were encouraged that this bird was on territory… would this sighting suggest that the related Blackthroat was also back?
Onwards we walked to the next area… constantly alert to listen for any song. After no joy at the next couple of stands of bamboo, I began to feel a little deflated… had we arrived just a day or two too early?
The deflated feeling didn’t last long… as we turned a corner, Sid heard what he thought was a short burst of Blackthroat song and, standing absolutely still and turning our heads to one side, we all heard what sounded like the beginning of Blackthroat song… but it was distant and barely audible above the sound of the running water… could it be one? Or was it another mimicking Firethroat? We daren’t presume anything but one could sense the excitement among the group. We edged down a bank towards the location of the sound and, sure enough, we began to hear more of the song above the sound of the stream… it matched very closely the recording we had. The song was clearly coming from the opposite side of the stream, so we edged to the bank and sat quietly, hoping that the bird would reveal itself… First, there was a fleeting glimpse of a dark shape in the bamboo… it was a robin. Then a second glimpse.. but both times it was gone before we could get onto it with binoculars.. A few seconds later it flew to a moss-covered rock and sang, just for a second, before diving into cover again.. There was stunned silence.. we looked at each other and smiled… we had all seen a male BLACKTHROAT! Wow…(or maybe I should say “BOOM!”). For the next couple of minutes, we sat in awe as the Blackthroat moved to several different song posts, delivered a short burst of song and then dived back into cover…
Whilst my attempts at photographing Blackthroat resulted in blurred twigs and images of the space where the bird had been just a split-second before, Rob managed to secure the image at the beginning of this post. It’s an image that captures the essence of our experience – fleeting glimpses of an enigmatic and elusive bird in thick bamboo in poor light… Sharp, in-focus, full-frame photographs are over-rated!
I also made a short recording of the song using my Canon 7D’s video facility:
After enjoying this bird for some time, we continued up the valley and encountered several more birds.. all were elusive and, although we heard at least 5 individuals, we only saw one more definite Blackthroat. Mr Zhang also pointed out an old nest from 2012 – possibly the only nest ever discovered.
The elusiveness of this bird surprised me a little. I had expected newly arrived Blackthroat males to be more obvious… maybe it was the weather conditions (overcast and a little breezy) that suppressed their activity or maybe they are louder and more obvious when the females arrive.. I don’t know..
In any case, I am very grateful to Sid for picking up the faint song of the first Blackthroat we saw and to Mr Zhang for his expert company throughout the day. I am also grateful to Per Alström and Paul Holt who provided information about Blackthroat ahead of our visit. Finally, a big thank you to Jonathan and Rob for their company on what was an outstanding trip to Sichuan and Shaanxi that ended on this magnificent high.
If anyone is heading this way and wants to explore the option of visiting Changqing National Nature Reserve to see this bird, please feel free to contact me or Sid Francis for advice.
Paul Holt has just finished his report from Laotieshan this autumn, covering the period 5-26 September. For a few of those days, towards the end, he was joined by Per Alström and me, but he generously credited us a joint authors. The full report can be downloaded here: Birding in Liaoning 5-26 Sept. 2012 (Holt, Townshend & Alstrom) but, for the busy reader, highlights included:
Five new species for Liaoning:
• 14 bird-days with up to 11 Short-tailed Shearwaters being noted on four dates between 12-19 September;
• seven bird-days for skuas/jaegers between 12-18 September – most were unidentified but a Long-tailed Jaeger was identified on the 12th as was a single Pomarine on the 18th;
• a Swinhoe’s Minivet on the 14 September;
• a Chestnut-cheeked Starling on 6 September.
High counts included:
• 3,274 bird-days for Streaked Shearwater with a count of 1,605 during the 4.5 hour sea watch off the point at Laotie Shan, Lushun on the 13 September possibly being a Chinese record;
• 4,313 bird-days of Oriental Honey-buzzard with 1,181 south on the 23 September;
• 938 bird-days of Japanese Sparrowhawk with 446 (possibly a Chinese record) south on the 6 September;
• 16,000 Black-tailed Gulls and 5,000 Mongolian Gulls west off the point on the 18 September (possibly both Chinese records);
• 20,959 bird-days of Ashy Minivet with 10,380 on the 21 September (a Chinese record);
• 270 bird-days for Black-naped Oriole with 72 on the 6th & 62 on the 9 September;
• 20,600 bird-days for Barn Swallow with 7,500 south on 14 September;
• 56 bird-days for Asian House Martin with 37 south on 6 September;
• 90 Forest Wagtails south on 11 September;
• 3,160 bird-days for White Wagtail with 1,134 on the 11 September;
• 196 bird-days for Pechora Pipit with exactly half this number, 98 birds, on the 12 September possibly being a Chinese record
Local rarities included:
• single adult Black-legged Kittiwakes on the 12th & 18 September
• one juvenile Pallas’s Gull during a seawatch on the 18 September – perhaps only the sixth record for Liaoning;
• 1 Spotted Nutcracker on the 24 September;
I suspect that, with irruption species such as Varied Tit, ‘Northern’ Great Tit, Rosefinches etc on the move this autumn, October might have been exciting, too… but there have been no birders there to find out!