Birding Coastal Hebei Province: Trip Report

The trip report from our visit to Nanpu, Tangshan, Hebei Province, is now available for download here:  Birding coastal Tangshan, Hebei 24-27 Aug 2012

Big hat tip to Paul Holt, not only for finding the star bird of the trip – a Common Ringed Plover – but also for somehow recording every single bird we saw or heard.  Phenomenal.

 

Common Ringed Plover

Paul Holt and I have just returned from a weekend at Nanpu, near Tangshan, in Hebei Province.  Nanpu is a vast area of fish ponds, salt works, reclaimed mudflats and even a prison.  During migration season the area hosts tens of thousands of shorebirds.  Being on the Hebei coastline, not so far from the migration hot-spot of Beidaihe, it is also on the flyway for birds hugging the coast on their journey south.  So, in addition to the waders, visible migration can be superb.

I’ll post fuller details of the trip in due course, including about the resident Reed Parrotbills, the visible migration and the astonishing numbers of Brown Shrikes but this post is about the star bird of the trip – a Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula).

Common Ringed Plover, Hebei Province, 26 August 2012

Picked out by Paul, this wader is rarer than Spoon-billed Sandpiper in eastern China.  With fewer than 30 records away from Xinjiang in the far west, it was a great find.  Of course, when finding a ‘Common Ringed Plover’-type, it’s important to rule out the very similar North American species, Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus).  Call is a great way to separate the two (Semipalmated Plover has a more Spotted Redshank-like call) but, in the absence of a calling bird, there are some subtle plumage differences that allow identification if views are sufficient.

First, one of the most reliable features on Semipalmated Plover (SPP) is that the lower dark mask in the loral area meets the bill above the gape line, whereas in Common Ringed Plover (CRP) it meets at the gapeline, or slightly below.  This seems to be a trustworthy feature, provided that the birds are not in active moult.

Second, the eye-ring.  SPP usually shows a clearly visible pale-yellow eye-ring.

Third, the breast-band.  SPP usually shows a relatively narrow breast band compared with CRP.

Additionally, SPP usually shows a slightly shorter bill and a very small (sometimes absent) white patch to the rear of the eye.

As its name suggests, SPP has some webbing between the toes but this is extremely difficult to see in the field, especially when clinging mud or wet sand can create a similar appearance.

We were fortunate with this bird in that it called several times before we were able to sneak close enough to confirm the plumage features.  Incredibly, the next day, we saw and heard a flying Common Ringed Plover some 7km from the site of the original sighting.   It was probably the same bird but who knows whether this species is under-recorded in this under-watched part of the world…?

Common Ringed Plover, Nanpu, near Tangshan, Hebei Province, 26 August 2012.

Common Ringed Plover breeds on the beach close to my parents’ home in Norfolk, England, and it is a bird with which I am very familiar.  Seeing one as a “rarity” was a little weird…  but that’s birding!

 

Autumn Migration Begins in Beijing

After a superb juvenile Little Curlew was seen and photographed at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing last week, and a report of a male Narcissus Flycatcher in the grounds of the Xiyuan Hotel, I was motivated to get out this weekend to check a local park for early migrants.  And so on Sunday, in the excellent company of Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu, I headed for the Olympic Forest Park, one of the best parks in Beijing for birds.  After cycling up to the park, I met Paul and Qingyu at the southern gate at around 0645 and spent the next 7-8 hours birding both the southern and northern sections on a gorgeous sunny (but hot and humid) day.

In total we logged 35 species, not a bad haul in August in central Beijing.

Full species list (courtesy of Paul):

Mallard 22 in Olympic FP on 19/8/2012. 19 of these (86%) were adult males with just one definite female

Yellow Bittern 7, including two juveniles being fed by a parent

Black-crowned Night Heron 6, including at least three juveniles & one adult

Chinese Pond Heron 5, including at least two juveniles and one second calendar year

Grey Heron 1 juvenile

Great Egret 4, at least one of which was an adult.

Little Egret 5

Amur Falcon 1 adult female flew south.  Apparently a record early date for a bird in the process of migrating. Migrants are often difficult to distinguish from breeding birds but the location, well away from known breeding sites, and the bird’s behaviour are both strongly indicative of this bird being a migrant. Note that another bird, suspected at the time to have been an early autumn migrant was seen at Wild Duck Lake on this same date in 2003 (an unattributed record in the 2003 CBR). Note however that WDL is now known to hold breeding birds – and possibly did so back in 2003.

Common Moorhen 3 adults

Green Sandpiper 1 adult.

Common Sandpiper 1 was heard

Spotted Dove 4 singles

Large Hawk-cuckoo 1.  Known predominantly as an uncommon, rather local breeding summer visitor in Beijing it’s always scarce away from breeding sites. What’s more this often unobtrusive species apparently stops singing before the middle of July and there are remarkably few encounters in Beijing after then. Note however that specimens were procured at Liangxiang on 5 September 1961 & Baihua Shan on 23 September 1976 (both Cai 1987) and an exceptionally late bird was reported at Baiwang Shan on 17/10/2009. (aiyuanyang wanggangge via BirdTalker)

cuckoo sp. 1 bird, probably either a Common or Indian Cuckoo, was seen briefly & in flight.

Common Kingfisher 1

[Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker 1 bird, possibly this species, was seen poorly]

Great Spotted Woodpecker 3, including an adult female

Grey-headed Woodpecker 1

Brown Shrike 8, including one presumed family group of five birds

Black-naped Oriole 1.

Black Drongo 5

Azure-winged Magpie 20, including several locally fledged juveniles

Common Magpie 25, including several locally fledged juveniles

Light-vented (Chinese) Bulbul 32, including several locally fledged juveniles

Barn Swallow 40, including several presumably locally fledged juveniles

Red-rumped Swallow 5

Yellow-browed Warbler 2 singles (one seen & the other only heard).  These are apparently the earliest of the very few August reports from Beijing.

Oriental Reed Warbler 11, including several locally fledged juveniles

Vinous-throated Parrotbill 12 together

Crested Myna 3, two adults and a juvenile together

Eurasian Tree Sparrow 50

Yellow Wagtail 2 separate juveniles, one apparently macronyx & the other apparently simillima.

Grey Wagtail 1

[White Wagtail 1 bird, possibly this species, was glimpsed in flight]

Richard’s Pipit 1 was heard flying high to the south.  Richard’s Pipit is one of the first passerine migrants of the autumn in Beijing with birds that are definite migrants i.e. birds away from breeding sites starting to be seen towards the end of the the first week of August (the earliest autumn records involve one near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 6/8/2009 & two singles that flew south there on the 7/8/2010 [both PIH]). However it’s at least towards the end of the third week of August before sightings become anything close to being regular.

Olive-backed Pipit 1 was heard over. There is perhaps only one other August record of this species from Beijing – an exceptionally early bird near the Xin Zhuang bridge over the Chaohe, Miyun on the 7/8/2010 (PIH).

Grey-capped Greenfinch 5, including at least one presumably locally fledged juvenile

Bunting sp. 1 was heard.

[Escape: Scaly-breasted Munia 2 in the reed bed just to the north of the ‘Underground Corridor’.]

It is clear that autumn migration is underway.  And whilst passerines are only just beginning to move, shorebird migration is now in full swing.  Next weekend, Paul and I will be heading for the coast to check out a site in the north of the Bohai Bay.  Watch this space!

 

Liaoning Trip Report from May 2012

Paul Holt has just finished his detailed trip report from his visit to Liaoning in May.  Bai Qingquan, Tom Beeke and I were lucky enough to accompany him for parts of his trip that included two firsts for the Province – Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Black-winged Cuckooshrike – plus some impressive counts of waders, including a high count of up to 19 Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Bar-tailed Godwits (10,000), Eastern Curlew (4000), Great Knot (4600), Dunlin (10,400) and Broad-billed Sandpiper (1117).  You can download the full report here:

Liaoning – 2-13 May 2012

Nordmann’s Greenshank

Another highlight from the trip to Dandong was the remarkable total of Nordmann’s Greenshanks (Tringa guttifer) that we observed at a high-tide roost.  Totals of 17, 17 and 16 were recorded on my three visits and, on one of the days, local birder Bai Qingquan recorded at least a further 7 from a different location at the same time, making a minimum count of 24 at this important stopover site.  Nordmann’s Greenshank is officially “endangered” with a population estimate of around 500-1,000 individuals.  It breeds in eastern Siberia along the western and northern coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk and also on Sakhalin Island, wintering in south-east Asia (Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia etc) and is encountered on migration along coastal China from Hong Kong north to Liaoning Province.  It’s population is declining, almost certainly related to habitat destruction primarily on its wintering grounds and stopover sites.

We did not try to get close to these birds for fear of flushing them from their roost but the occasional pass by the local Peregrine and even the odd Black-tailed Gull kept them on their toes and, on several occasions, the flocks took to the air, allowing us to hear the air through their wings as they wheeled around in front of us.. a spectacular sight and sound.  It was interesting that the Nordmann’s seemed to associate with the Grey Plover.

Grey Plovers, Donggang, Dandong, Liaoning Province. The wheeling flocks were a lovely sight.
Nordmann’s Greenshank in flight (with Grey Plover), Donggang, Dandong, Laioning Province. Nordmann’s seem to like Grey Plovers!
Nordmann’s Greenshanks with Grey Plovers.

Having North Korea as a backdrop added human interest to the birding here.

A shellfish picker works the low tide with North Korea just the other side of the Yalu river.
A list of what not to do on the North Korean border. Needless to say, we did as we were told..

And other waders, most in splendid breeding plumage, were a sight to behold.

Two Asian Dowitchers (the small orangey blobs in this awful photo) were a welcome addition to the high tide roost.
“Eastern” Black-tailed Godwits. Beautiful birds.
Our search for Spoon-billed Sandpiper proved fruitless (a little early) but breeding plumaged Red-necked Stints were a joy to watch.

Now, you’ve all heard of the “Magic Woods” at Beidaihe….  well, not to be outdone, Donggang has its own ‘not of this Earth’ site.  Here’s introducing the “Harry Potter Hedge”!

The “Harry Potter Hedge”… every day it would wow us with magical appearances.

Out of thin air it produced a Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Rufous-tailed Robin, Siberian Blue Robin, Siberian Thrush, Eyebrowed Thrush, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Pechora Pipit, Siberian Rubythroat, Oriental Scops Owl and much much more..

Finally, just for fun, here are a couple of photos of wader flocks…  Photo 1 is beginner level.  It has four wader species.. can you identify them?  Photo 2 is a little tougher… it contains 6 species.  A *glittering prize* awaits the first person to list them all correctly.

Photo 1 (Beginners Level). There are 4 wader species in this image. Can you name them?
Photo 2 (Advanced Level). There are 6 species in this photo. Can you name them?

Black-winged Cuckooshrike

I am still wading (no pun intended) through my sightings and images from a shorebirding trip to Donggang, Dandong, last weekend with Paul Holt and local birder, Bai Qingquan.  The highlights were many.  One of the surprises was the amount of passerine migrants that we saw along the newly planted trees that lined the sea wall.. every day we saw buntings, pipits, flycatchers, thrushes and robins which made the walk to the wader high tide roost a real treat.  And it was here that we found the bird of the trip – a Kamchatka Warbler (see previous post).  Another, more mature, hedgerow to the north of the wader high tide roost produced another very special bird and the second highlight of the trip – a Black-winged Cuckoo Shrike.  This is the first record of this species in Liaoning Province and possibly the most northerly record in mainland China.

We had just seen a Brown-eared Bulbul making its way south, noisily, along the sea wall and just a few minutes later a similar-sized bird flew north along the landward side of the hedge.  Bai Qingquan picked it up and both he and I saw it briefly as it flashed by.. what was it?  Paul was on the other side of the hedge and missed it.  Both Bai and I had never seen this bird before..  sort of cuckoo-shaped but we had seen some white on the wing.  Luckily it perched up in a tree a 100 metres or so to the north.  Although it was mostly obscured, we could just see its tail which looked cuckoo-like and we speculated that it could be some sort of cuckoo or hawk cuckoo..  but the white in the wing didn’t tally..  We crept forward and then it flew, luckily just a few metres, and this time sat up in full view.  Paul very quickly identified it as a Black-winged Cuckooshrike.  We were able to secure some pretty good views for about 30 minutes as it fed along the hedgerow.  Bai “high-fived” us..  a new Liaoning bird!

Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Donggang, Dandong, 11 May 2012. The first record in Liaoning Province and, possibly, the most northerly record of this species in China.
Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Donggang, Dandong, 11 May 2012. The white panels in the wings were not always as obvious as shown here.

The cuckooshrike clearly liked the area as we saw it again the following day and again on our last morning..  Isn’t migration brilliant!

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler

The outstanding bird, among many highlights of a trip to Donggang, Dandong in Liaoning Province, was a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus).  This bird is one of the newly recognised Arctic Warbler splits.  See here for the paper by Per Alström et al that presents the rationale behind the taxonomic decision.  The conclusion of the paper states that:

“..the species from continental Eurasia and Alaska should be called Phylloscopus borealis (Arctic Warbler), the one from Kamchatka, Sakhalin and Hokkaido Phylloscopus examinandus (Kamchatka Leaf Warbler) and the one from the rest of Japan Phylloscopus xanthodryas (Japanese Leaf Warbler).”

It appears that this is only the 2nd record of examinandus for China, the first being a specimen collected from Fujian Province, referred to in an article in the Journal of The Asiatic Society of Bengal (29: 265) by Swinhoe in 1860.

The bird was discovered along a relatively new sea wall lined with young trees (a result of recent reclamation work).  Paul Holt and I were checking the shorebirds on the mudflats along a 2-3 km stretch of the coast road (Binhai Lu) alongside the Yalu River, right on the border between China and North Korea.  Every few minutes we would walk upstream and begin to check the next group of birds.  We were enjoying splendid views of Red-necked Stint, Terek Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Far Eastern Curlew, Saunders’ Gulls and many more species – a real spectacle on the falling tide.  As we were walking between watchpoints, we heard an unfamiliar call…  I thought it sounded a little like a flycatcher – a series of rapid low to mid-pitched notes – and thought nothing else of it (we had been seeing several Asian Brown, Yellow-rumped and Red-throated Flycatchers along that stretch of road).  However, Paul knew immediately it was different and might be something interesting.  We scanned the area of trees from where the call came from and soon picked up an ‘Arctic Warbler’..  it called repeatedly for about 20 seconds but no sooner as I had grabbed my video camera to record the call, the bird fell silent and did not call again.  We watched the bird for a few minutes as it flitted from tree to tree.  It appeared quite yellow and buff for a standard Arctic Warbler with a  yellowish wash on the throat and upper breast and a buffy supercilium.  Neither of us had seen an Arctic Warbler like this before.  Luckily, our driver was parked nearby and Paul’s laptop was in the car, on which were the calls of the three ‘Arctic Warbler’ species.  We listened to the calls and immediately knew that the call we had heard was of Phylloscopus examinandus  (Kamchatka Leaf Warbler).  We quickly walked back to where the bird had been and, after a few minutes of searching, we relocated it along a roadside bank, just inland from the original location.  With a bit of patience it showed quite well, even though the light was bad (heavily overcast).  We took some images that captured the features of the bird as we were seeing it in the field.  After about an hour, and with the light fading, we eventually left the site having secured lots of images but, unfortunately, without a sound recording of the call; it didn’t call a single time after that initial burst when we first saw it.

Paul knew it would be a good record and certainly a first record for Liaoning Province.  What we didn’t know was that it would be the first record (that we are aware of) for China since that 19th century specimen referred to by Swinhoe!

Of course, this species has almost certainly been overlooked and birders will only have been looking for these new species since Per Alström’s paper was published in 2010, so I am sure there will be more records to come…  As a bird that breeds in Kamchatka, it must pass through eastern China on migration.  Even so, it’s pretty cool to be involved with a first record for China for over 100 years!  It’s a fantastic tribute to Paul’s birding skill that he picked up the unusual call and nailed the record..

Images below.

Kamchatka Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus), Donggang, Dandong, Liaoning Province, 12 May 2012. Probably the first record for China since a specimen was collected in the 1800s. Note the buffy supercilium and yellow wash on the underparts, both clearly seen in the field.
Kamchatka Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus), Donggang, Dandong, 12 May 2012.  The yellowish wash down the centre of the breast can be see clearly on this image.
Kamchatka Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus), Donggang, Dandong, Liaoning Province, 12 May 2012. Although out of focus, a yellowish wash on the vent can be seen clearly in this image.

The calls and songs of the three species of “Arctic Warbler” can be found here.  It should be noted that, at present, vocalisations are the only way to definitively identify these three species.  However, given the plumage features noted on this bird, it may not be too long before a suite of features allows non-calling/singing birds to be separated in the field.

Now you know what to look for, I hope you find one for yourself…!

Blyth’s Pipits and more…

On Tuesday I spent the day at Miyun Reservoir with Paul Holt (fresh back from leading tours to Bhutan and Taiwan).  We started at Houbajia Zhuangcun on the eastern side (the best place to view any cranes lingering in the area) and then visited the north-west side near Bulaotun where the water levels are providing some good habitat for waders.

Our first surprise was on the walk down to the reservoir from the village at Houbajia Zhuangcun as every field seemed to be full of pipits.  It was immediately obvious that there were many Richard’s Pipits around along with good numbers of Buff-bellied and Red-throated with the occasional Olive-backed flying overhead.  No sooner as Paul said he thought there must be a Blyth’s on site, we turned a corner and flushed four largish pipits that called as they took to the air revealing themselves to be Blyth’s!  They circled and landed again, allowing us to secure some wonderful views of these scarce pipits on the deck.  Seeing them alongside Richard’s Pipits was very instructive and, although I would hesitate to identify a silent Blyth’s unless I had extremely good views, Paul was able to give me some very good insights into how to separate Blyth’s from Richard’s on the ground.  The shorter bill, more heavily streaked mantle, shorter tail and, of course, the shape of the dark centres to the tertials if seen well enough, are all features to look for but, for me, the most obvious difference is structural, particularly noticeable in flight.  Blyth’s look noticeably shorter-tailed in flight and can even recall a smaller pipit at times.  We spent a long time watching these pipits and it probably took us an hour and a half to get to the reservoir, a walk that usually takes about 10 minutes!

I only managed a couple of images of Blyth’s in flight…  I won’t apologise for spending most of my time studying them through my telescope rather than stalking them for photographs!  Below is a comparison of Blyth’s and Richard’s.

Blyth’s (upper) and Richard’s (lower) Pipits in flight. In this direct comparison, one can see the slightly shorter tail and shorter bill of Blyth’s. The much-superior Richard’s Pipit image is by Graham Catley.

Of course, call is one of the ways to separate these two; you can hear the calls of Blyth’s and Richard’s Pipits on Xeno Canto Asia.  The Pipit frenzy also included good numbers of Red-throated and Buff-bellied and I was able to capture these images of these good-looking species.

Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus in breeding plumage, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Red-throated Pipit, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012

In the damper fields near to the reservoir we encountered several Eastern Yellow Wagtails, mostly of the subspecies macronyx, and a few stunning Citrine Wagtails, including one with a very dark back (on close inspection it was a very dark grey back with some black speckling), recalling the subspecies calcarata.  Possibly an intergrade?  A male Bluethroat then appeared and began to sing from an exposed perch in a small reedbed.

As we were enjoying the pipits and wagtails, a corvid flew by us and headed south..  with the naked eye it looked as if it had a pale neck and a quick lift of the binoculars confirmed it was a Collared Crow!  This species is now rare in Beijing and yet, after seeing my first only two days before, here I was watching a second!  It was Paul’s first sighting in the capital for around 10 years…  It is almost certainly a different individual to that seen by Colm Moore and me at the Ming Tombs, so maybe there has been a mini-influx.  It reappeared a few minutes later in the company of a pair of Carrion Crows.

Collared Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Collared Crow with Carrion Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012.

When we eventually reached the reservoir, we checked the stubbly area frequented by cranes this winter and counted 5 White-naped Cranes and 4 Common Cranes but there was no sign of the single immature Siberian Crane that had been present from mid-March.  After an hour or so watching from here we moved on to the north-western side to check out the wader site near Bulaotun.  As we arrived, we were greeted with huge numbers of Little Buntings… they were everywhere: in the fields, in the bushes, on the tracks and, occasionally, if spooked by a raptor or a local farmer, the air would be filled with clouds of Little Buntings.. an awesome sight.  Many were singing, providing a wonderful soundtrack as we scanned through the flocks.  A single male Yellow-breasted Bunting was with the group and it, too, sang on occasion.  We estimated around 700 Little Buntings along one hedgerow but the real number on site was certainly much higher – many were hidden feeding in the crops.

A short recording of the cacophony can be heard here:

Little Buntings

Waders on site included over 150 Black-winged Stilts, 80+  Wood Sandpipers, 30+ Common Snipe, a few Marsh Sandpipers, a couple of Spotted Redshank, a single Common Redshank, 10 Common Sandpipers, 6 Black-tailed Godwits and 30 Little Ringed Plovers. 2 Eurasian Spoonbills, 6 Great Egrets and 2 Little Egrets added a splash of white and an Osprey, several Eastern Marsh Harriers, a couple of Common Kestrels and a handful of Amur Falcons provided the raptor interest.

A quick look at another site at Bulaotun rewarded us with a stunning male Pied Harrier, a single Hobby (chasing Little Buntings), 5 Greater Short-toed Larks, 14 Siberian Stonechats and 20 Oriental Pratincoles.

Oriental Pratincole, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012. Note lack of a white trailing edge to the wing (the best feature with which to distinguish Oriental from Collared Pratincole).

It was another fantastic day’s birding in the Chinese capital and I am indebted to Paul for his pipit masterclass…!

Siberian Crane

Today was one of those amazing days that makes birding such an enthralling hobby.  I accompanied Paul Holt on a visit to Huairou and Miyun Reservoirs, sites that I had not – for some unknown reason – visited before.  The highlights were undoubtedly the cranes.  Top of the list comes the 3 Siberian Cranes (2 adults and an immature) that we believe constitute only the second record for Beijing.  But perhaps more significant was the count of 256 White-naped Cranes, around 10 per cent of the known wintering population in China at one location on Spring passage.  Add in 620 Common Cranes and it was a real crane bonanza.  The other unexpected bird of the day was a single Oriental Stork, a real rarity in Beijing.

Highlights:

– second record of Siberian Crane in Beijing (2 adults and an immature)

– second highest (possibly highest) count of White-naped Cranes in Beijing

– seventh record of Oriental Stork in Beijing

– earliest Garganey and Common Shelduck in Beijing

– second earliest Fork-tailed Swift in Beijing

Siberian Cranes, Miyun Reservoir, 19 March 2012
White-naped Crane, Miyun Reservoir, 19 March 2012. We saw around 10 per cent of the Chinese wintering population today at this important staging post.
Common Cranes, Miyun Reservoir, 19 March 2012
Oriental Stork, Miyun Reservoir, 19 March 2012

 

Detailed species list from Miyun Reservoir (courtesy of Paul Holt):

Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun Reservoir. (40°30.3’N., 117°01.1’E.). Alt. 75 metres. (07h15-11h00).

 

Xin Zhuang Qiao (bridge over the Chao He), Miyun. (40°35.11’N., 117°07.95’E.). Alt. 115 metres. (11h30-12h50)

 

Miyun Reservoir – south of Bulaotun satellite tracking station, Miyun. (40°31.75’N., 116°57.77’E.). Alt. 75 metres. (13h20-17h05)

 

Japanese Quail                  2 at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Pheasant                  7 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Swan Goose                  20 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Tundra Bean Goose                  10 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Taiga or Tundra Bean Goose                  ca.400 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Tundra Swan                  4 adults at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Whooper Swan 168 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. 146 birds were also counted at Bulaotun in the late afternoon – but some or possibly even all of these could have been among those seen at HBJZ earlier in the day.

Ruddy Shelduck 796 at Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Most of these (780 birds) were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang with just one being seen on the Chaohe near Taishitun & 15 at Bulaotun.

Gadwall                  5 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Falcated Duck                  12 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Mallard                  ca.600 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Almost all of these were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang.

Chinese Spot-billed Duck                  14 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Almost all of these were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang.

Northern Pintail                  5 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Baikal Teal                  20 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Teal                  150 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Pochard                  20 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Ferruginous Pochard                  2 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Tufted Duck                  2 males at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Goldeneye                  13 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Smew                  51 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Merganser 80 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. These involved 65 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, three in the Chaohe near the Xin Zhuang bridge, Taishitun & 12 at Bulaotun.

Little Grebe 7 at Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Two of these were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang & the other five in the Chaohe near Taishitun.

Great Crested Grebe                  18 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Black Stork                  1 flew high near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Oriental Stork                  1 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Oriental Stork is rare in Beijing – the other records that I’m aware of are –

1875

A small flock was seen near the city in summer 1875 (Wilder and Hubbard 1924, Wilder 1940b)

1924

1 collected in April 1924, probably south of the city in Nanhaizi (Nan Hai Tzu) hunting park (Wilder and Hubbard 1924, Wilder 1940b).

1955

1 specimen from Tongxian county on 8 June 1955 (Cai 1987). Mid-summer records must be exceptional!

1964

1 specimen from  Niulanshan, Shunyi on 22 January 1964 (Cai 1987). Mid-winter records are probably also exceptional.

1999

14 on a flooded area in Shunyi, January 1999 (Qian Fawen in litt. 1999 to BirdLife International [2001]

2004

1 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang Miyun reservoir on the 1/10/2004. It was circling high up with a party of 5 Black Storks and would have been an early date even on the Hebei coast.

2009

3 at WDL on 21/3/2009 (Brian Ivon Jones, Spike Millington & Richard Carden – BIJ in litt. to PH on 20 March 2012)

Grey Heron 12 at Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Seven of these were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, one besides the Chaohe near Taishitun & the other four near Bulaotun.

Great Egret                  2 besides the Chaohe when viewed from the Xin Zhuang bridge near Taishitun, Miyun on the 19/3/2012.

Great Cormorant                  1 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

White-tailed Eagle                  1 juvenile at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk                  2 singles near Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Kestrel 3 near Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Two were seen just south of Miyun reservoir dam while the third was at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang.

Great Bustard                  3 distant birds at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Coot                  108 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Siberian Crane 3, a family party with two adults and a first year, at Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. First seen at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang in the late morning what were undoubtedly these same three birds were later seen at Bulaotun. Rare in Beijing – the only previous sighting from Beijing was of a bird at Wild Duck Lake in March 2008. Terry suggested that the easterly winds of the previous weekend might have drifted this bird, and the White-naped Cranes, inland from the Hebei coast.

White-naped Crane 256 at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. 240 had been counted at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang earlier in the day but these were probably part of the group later seen at Bulaotun. Possibly only the second three figure count for Beijing  – but not the largest as 500 birds were reported at Miyun reservoir  one day later that our sighting in 2011 (fide “Xiaoming” in a BirdForum posting of 20 March 2011)

Common Crane 620 at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. 100 had been estimated at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang earlier in the day but these were probably part of the group later seen at Bulaotun.

Northern Lapwing                  6 around Miyun reservoir (four at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang & two at Bulaotun) on the 19/3/2012.

Long-billed Plover                  1 besides the Chao river when viewed from the Xin Zhuang bridge near Taishitun, Miyun on the 19/3/2012.

Kentish Plover                  2 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Black-headed Gull                  61 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Mongolian Gull                  2 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Oriental Turtle Dove                  2 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Collared Dove                  1 near Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Chinese Grey Shrike                  1 at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Black-billed Magpie                  80 around Miyun reservoir & Miyun town on the 19/3/2012.

Carrion Crow                  4 flew north high over Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir at 16h45 on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Skylark                  2 singles at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

White-cheeked Starling                  2 in Hou Ba Jia Zhuang village, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Starling                  1 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow                  Present but not counted around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

White Wagtail 14 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. These included 12 besides the Chaohe when viewed from the Xin Zhuang Bridge. Seven birds were seen well enough to racially assign & they were all leucopsis.

Meadow Bunting                  3 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Pallas’s Bunting                  8 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

My North Korean Bird List

Many birders, being obsessive types, like to keep lists of the birds they have seen.  This could be a “life list” (a list of the total number of species seen in one’s life), a “year list”, the total seen in a given year etc.  Many people keep national lists, for example a UK or China list.  I have to confess that I don’t know how many species I have seen in the UK (I know it’s roughly 400) and I have been lax recently at keeping my China list up to date (somewhere between 500 and 520).  However, I can proudly say that I know exactly the number of bird species I have seen in North Korea – 7!

Under the listing ‘rules’ it matters not that I haven’t actually been to North Korea as all have been seen over N Korean airspace from the China side of the border…

I have just returned from a few days in Liaoning Province with Paul Holt, Tom Beeke and Dandong-based birder Bai Qingquan – the perfect opportunity to boost my North Korea list!  We visited some sites in Dalian, southern Liaoning, before driving north to visit the area in and around Dandong, including the Yalu River, the waterway marking the border between China and North Korea.  In stunning weather, and temperatures approaching -20 at times, we saw some pretty special birds with the constant backdrop of North Korea providing a fascinating distraction.

Birding highlights from the trip north included Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Varied Tit, Hazel Grouse, Cinereous (Black) Vulture, Alpine Accentor, Relict Gull (at Zhuanghe) and Slaty-backed Gull.  Another spectacle was the sight of 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay, near Dalian, in the company of over 4,000 gulls, attracted by a landfill tip.  Birding takes us to some glamourous places.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, Liaoning Province
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Feng Huang Shan, north-west of Dandong, Liaoning Province
Varied Tit. A common resident at Feng Huang Shan.
Eurasian Nuthatch ssp amurensis, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

I began my visit by meeting up with Paul Holt at Dalian airport and heading to Dalian and Jinzhou Bays.  Dalian Bay, on the eastern side of the peninsula, was largely ice-free and produced an adult Glaucous Gull, Vega, Mongolian and Black-tailed Gulls, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Mallard, Falcated and Chinese Spot-billed Duck.  After an hour or so we crossed to the west coast to visit Jinzhou Bay.  Here the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see and an impressive group of around 4,000 gulls was loafing on the ice.  They were attracted by the large landfill site bordering the bay and this food source is clearly the reason why Jinzhou Bay must be one of the best gull-watching sites in northern China.

The vast majority of the gulls were Mongolian, with a sprinkling of Vega (a few hundred), Heuglin’s (up to 100), Common (20-30), Slaty-backed (3-5), Glaucous (2-3), Black-headed (2) and Black-tailed (2).  Paul Holt also saw a first winter Pallas’s Gull at this site before I arrived.  Searching through the Mongolian Gulls, recalling my sighting of 3 wing-tagged birds in February 2011 at this site, we were able to find a total of 5 wing-tagged birds during our visit (2 of which Paul and I both saw, 3 of which Paul found before I arrived and one after I left).  These birds were ringed by Andreas Buchheim and colleagues under a ringing scheme operated in Mongolia and Russia’s Lake Baikal.

The gulls were not the only scavengers attracted to the tip.  Each day we were there, a group of locals sifted through the rubbish and collected anything recyclable – bottles, cardboard, paper, metal etc..  It has to be one of the dirtiest jobs – they were black with grime – but despite the working conditions, they were a jolly bunch, laughing and joking with each other and they seemed thoroughly bemused that a couple of foreigners were joining them on the tip looking at gulls….  We showed them eagles through our telescopes and they showed us sacks of scrap paper..  🙂

One of the locals collecting recyclable waste
It's a dirty job...
The constant flow of trucks provided a high turnover of rubbish through which to look for recyclables..
Despite their working conditions, these people were very jolly, friendly and more than a little bemused that two foreigners were looking at gulls!

Just north of the landfill, a still unfrozen stream flowed into the bay, attracting some duck – mostly Mallard but also some Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Ruddy and Common Shelduck.  In turn, these attracted the attention of birds of prey and we counted 25 White-tailed Eagles in the bay on Sunday morning – an impressive count for anywhere in China.  The stream also proved popular with the Common Gulls and we saw both henei and kamtschatschensis subspecies here.  I’ll follow up this post with a dedicated gull post soon.

One of the 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay. The vast majority were immature birds and they caused havoc during their occasional forays over the bay.
When one eagle found something to eat, it would soon be harrassed by the others trying to steal its find.

And this Merlin flashed through, surprisingly putting up most of the gulls as it did so..

Merlin, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian.

From the landfill at Dalian, we drove north to meet with Tom Beeke at Jinshitan and set off to Dandong, a city of 2.5 million people on the North Korean border.  Here we met up with local birder (possibly the only birder in northern Liaoning!), Bai Qingquan, a great guy who was not only a talented birder but also excellent company and extremely knowledgeable about the sites in this special province.

The gang in Dandong. From left to right: Mr Zhang (our driver), Tom Beeke, Paul Holt and Bai Qingquan

We started birding along the promenade in Dandong, just a few hundred metres from North Korea which we could see clearly just across the Yalu river.  Dandong is an interesting city.  It is home to the “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge”, one of the few crossings between the two countries and, immediately next to this is another bridge – the “Short Bridge” – that was partially destroyed by a US bombing raid during the Korean War.  The town also hosts a museum dedicated to the “War to Resist US Aggression”…  We didn’t have time to visit but next time I am in town, I fancy a look in there!

We tried several sites along the river from Dandong and to the north looking for Scaly-sided Merganser.  This rare bird is regular along this stretch of river in spring and autumn, breeding a little further north and wintering in central and southern China.  This winter had been unusually mild with no snow and Bai had seen the Mergansers in December, so we thought we’d try our luck.  Unfortunately, despite 4 pairs of eyes scanning the river, we drew a blank.  Next we visited the Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, catching up with Brown-eared Bulbul, Alpine Accentor and enjoying panoramic views of North Korea.

North Korea, as viewed from the Great Wall, north of Dandong.

The next day was spent at Feng Huang Shan, a mountain roughly an hour north-west of Dandong.  It was a bitter -18 here but, after driving up almost to the summit, the birding was spectacular.  Almost immediately we encountered a Varied Tit, followed by a couple of White-backed Woodpeckers and then at least 3 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, all within a few minutes of getting out of the car…  Superb!  We wandered up and down the track and, after hearing at least two Hazel Grouse calling, a careful 30-minute stalk was  eventually rewarded with views of a male perched on a rock on a hillside..  fantastic.

Hazel Grouse, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

On the way back south, we stopped at Zhuanghe, a port town between Dandong and Dalian, to look for Relict Gulls, a large flock of which Paul found a few days before.  We saw only a handful, probably due to the high tide, but with a little time on our hands we decided to look at the deep-water harbour for sea duck.  As we arrived, a ferry was about to leave to some of the outlying islands and, with a bit of negotiation from Qingquan, we were soon on board and sailing through an almost Antarctic-esque ice-filled sea.  It was bone-chillingly cold on deck but we were rewarded with over 60 Long-tailed Duck as well as good China species such as Pelagic Cormorant, Slaty-backed Gull and Red-breasted Merganser.

From left to right: Tom Beeke, Bai Qingquan and Paul Holt. On the ferry from Zhuanghe to outlying islands.
Our first stop.
The sea was almost Antarctica-esque..!

After returning to Zhuanghe around dusk, we headed into town to find Qingquan a taxi back to Dandong and to warm up with some hot food before heading south to Dalian.  A thoroughly enjoyable trip…

So, after all that, what are the seven species on my North Korea list?  They are, in chronological order, Saunders’ Gull (from Sep 2011), White-tailed Eagle, Mongolian Gull, Kestrel, Goldeneye, Goosander and Mallard.  Anyone beat that?