Professor Per Alström is a renowned authority on birds, particularly the birds of East Asia. Earlier this year, he delivered the RSPB Birders’ Lecture at the BirdFair with the title “Identification of Eastern Vagrants to Britain“. It’s a masterclass for anyone hoping to find a rarity in the UK, whether on Shetland, Scilly, the east coast or, more optimistically, at an inland local patch.
A PDF of his slides and a recording of the lecture can be downloaded from the British Birds website or directly here:
Since as far back as the 16th century, the Common Magpie (Pica pica) has been considered, in many cultures, a bird of ill omen. The superstition was put into a rhyme, the first iteration of which was published in 1780, which read:
“One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a funeral And four for birth”
Since then, the rhyme has evolved and the modern version, which I learned from the children’s TV show “Magpie” (1968-1980), goes something like this:
One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told. Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss, Ten for a bird, You must not miss.
With a distribution across Eurasia, northwest Africa, Arabia and western North America, the humble Magpie must be one of the best-known birds in these regions. Yet, this most familiar of birds has been keeping a secret, only now revealed by new research; the Common Magpie is actually seven different species!
The new research, led by Professor Per Alström and Gang Song, was recently published in the Journal of Avian Biology and a summary by Prof Alström for the British Ornithological Union can be read here.
In short, the research shows that despite looking very similar, there is significant divergence between geographic populations of Magpie and, on that basis, the authors suggest that seven species should be recognised:
1. Eurasian MagpiePica pica sensu stricto (comprising six subspecies from Europe to northeast Russia);
Looking out of my apartment window on the first day of 2017, a blanket of toxic smog seems to drain all colour out of life and the perennial question question pops into my head – why do I live in such a polluted, congested place?
Header image: the view from my apartment at 1200 on 1 January 2017
The answer, of course, is the excitement and adventure of living in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation. And when one considers the positives – the stunning biodiversity, the opportunity for discovery, the potential to make a difference and the wonderful people – the negatives are seen in context and they become far more tolerable.
Looking back, 2016 has been an astonishing year with many highlights, thankfully few lowlights, and progress made in some key conservation issues. Together, they give me a genuine sense of optimism for the future.
January began with the unexpected discovery, by two young Beijing birders, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of a small flock of the “Endangered” Jankowski’s Buntings at Miyun Reservoir. This was the first record of Jankowski’s Bunting in Beijing since 1941 and, given the precipitous decline in the population of this poorly known species, a most unexpected find. The fact they were found by young Chinese is testament to the growing community of talented young birders in Beijing. There are now more than 200 members of the Birding Beijing WeChat group, in which sightings and other bird-related issues are discussed and shared. Huge credit must go to world-class birders such as Paul Holt and Per Alström who have been generous in sharing their knowledge of Chinese birds with the group. As well as the expanding WeChat group, there are now more than 400 members of the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society (up from 300 in the last 12 months). So, although starting from a low baseline, the increasing membership, together with the increase in the number of local birdwatching societies, such as in Zigong in Sichuan, and the development of international birding festivals, such as in Lushun, Dalian, shows that there is the beginning of an upsurge in the number of young people interested in birdwatching. That is a positive sign for the future of China’s rich and unique avifauna.
In tandem with the growth in birding is the emergence of a number of organisations dedicated to environmental education across China. Given the relative lack of environment in the Chinese State Curriculum, there is high demand amongst many parents for their children to develop a connection with nature. I’m fortunate to work with one such organisation – EcoAction – set up and run by dynamic Sichuan lady, Luo Peng. With a birding club for Beijing school kids, a pilot ‘environmental curriculum’ in two of Beijing’s State Schools and bespoke sustainable ecotourism trips to nature reserves for families and schools, Peng deserves great credit for her energy and vision in helping to change the way people interact with the environment. I am looking forward to working with her much more in 2017.
After the boon of seeing Jankowski’s Buntings in Beijing, a lowlight in late January was the desperately sad passing of a much-loved mentor and friend, the inspirational Martin Garner. Martin fought a brave and typically dignified and open, battle with cancer. I feel enormously lucky to have met Martin and to have corresponded with him on many birding-related issues. His wisdom, positivity and selfless outlook on life will be missed for years to come and his influence continues to run through everything I do.
Much of the early part of the spring was spent making the arrangements for what has been, for me, the highlight of the year – The Beijing Cuckoo Project. Following the success of the Beijing Swift Project, the results of which proved for the first time that Swifts from Beijing winter in southern Africa, the obvious next step was to replicate the British Trust for Ornithology’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China. We needed to find Chinese partners, secure the necessary permissions, raise funds to pay for the transmitters and satellite services, and make the logistical arrangements for the visit of “Team Cuckoo”. At the end of May, everything was set and the international team arrived in Beijing. Together with the local team, we caught and fitted transmitters to five Common Cuckoos, subsequently named by Beijing schoolchildren and followed via a dedicated webpage and on social media. We could not have wished for a better result. Three of the five are now in Africa, after making incredible journeys of up to 12,500km since being fitted with their transmitters, including crossing the Arabian Sea. As of 1 January, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan are in Tanzania and Skybomb Bolt is in Mozambique.
This Beijing Cuckoo Project has combined groundbreaking science with public engagement. With articles in Xinhua (China’s largest news agency), Beijing Youth Daily, China Daily, Beijing Science and Technology Daily, India Times, African Times and even the front page of the New York Times, these amazing birds have become, undoubtedly, the most famous cuckoos ever! Add the engagement with schools, not only in Beijing but also in other parts of China, and the reach and impact of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams. I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, especially the Chinese partners – the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, China Birdwatching Society and the staff at the tagging locations (Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu) – who have all been brilliant, as well as the BTO’s Andy Clements and Chris Hewson for their vision and sharing of expertise and the sponsors – Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International. Finally, a big thank you to “Team Cuckoo”: Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Geert De Smet, Gie Goris and Rob Jolliffe. You can follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos here. All being well, Flappy, Meng and Skybomb will return to Beijing by the end of May.
In 2017 we are planning to expand the Beijing Cuckoo Project to become the CHINA Cuckoo Project, which will involve tagging cuckoos in different locations across the country. More on that soon.
As well as being privileged to have been part of such a groundbreaking project, I have been fortunate to be involved with some exciting progress on some of the highest priority conservation issues, working with so many brilliant people, including Vivian Fu and Simba Chan at Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife. The plight of shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is well-known, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper the “poster species” of conservation efforts to try to save what remains of the globally important intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. More than 70% of these vital stopover sites have been destroyed already through land reclamations and much of the remaining area is slated for future reclamation projects. Scientists, including an ever greater number of young Chinese such as Zhu Bingrun, now have the evidence to show that the population declines of many shorebird species, some of which are now classified as “Endangered”, can be attributed in large part to the destruction of the vital stopover sites in the Yellow Sea. After meeting world-leading shorebird expert, Professor Theunis Piersma, in Beijing in May and arranging for him to address Beijing-based birders with a compelling lecture, it’s been a pleasure to support the efforts of international organisations such as BirdLife International, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), led by Spike Millington, IUCN, UNDP and The Paulson Institute as well as local NGOs such as Save Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 山水 (ShanShui) in their interactions with the Chinese government to try to encourage greater protection for, and sustainable management of, the remaining intertidal sites. One of the pillars of the conservation strategy is to nominate the most important sites as a joint World Heritage Site (WHS) involving China and the Koreas (both North and South). This would have the advantage of raising awareness of the importance of these sites to those in the highest levels of government and also requiring greater protection and management of the sites. I am pleased to say that, due to the hard work of these organisations, much progress has been made and the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MoHURD), the ministry responsible for WHS nominations, is now positively taking forward the suggestion and working on the technical papers required to make a submission to the State Council for formal nomination. Special mention should be made of John MacKinnon, whose expertise, network of contacts in China and enthusiasm has made a big difference, to Nicola Crockford of RSPB and Wang Songlin of BirdLife International for their diplomatic work to create the conditions for the WHS issue to come to the fore, to David Melville, who recently delivered a compelling presentation covering a lifetime of shorebird study, to MoHURD at a workshop convened by ShanShui, and to Hank Paulson who, through the publication of the Paulson Institute’s “Blueprint Project” and his personal engagement at a very senior level with Provincial governors, has secured a commitment from the Governor of Hebei Province to protect the sites in his Province highlighted in the Blueprint. These are significant advances that, although far from securing the future of China’s intertidal mudflats, have significantly improved the odds of doing so.
China’s east coast hosts the world’s most impressive bird migration, known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway. That flyway consists of not only shorebirds but also many land birds and it is this concentration of migratory birds every spring and autumn that attracts not only birders but also poachers. This year has seen several horrific media stories about the illegal trapping of birds on an industrial scale, primarily to supply the restaurant trade in southern China where wild birds are considered a delicacy. Illegal trapping is thought to be the primary cause of the precipitous decline in the population of, among others, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially classified as Endangered.
It would be easy to be depressed by such incidents but I believe there are two developments that provide optimism for the future. First, although the legal framework is far from watertight, the authorities are now acting, the incidents are being reported in the media and the culprits are receiving, at least in the largest scale cases, heavy punishments. And second, these cases are being uncovered by volunteers, groups of mostly young people that spend their free time – weekends and days off during weekdays – specifically looking for illegal nets and poachers at migration hotspots. They work with law enforcement to catch the culprits and destroy their tools of the trade. These people are heroes and, although at present it’s still easy for poachers to purchase online mist-nets and other tools used for poaching (there are ongoing efforts to change this), it’s a harder operating environment for them than in the past. Big change doesn’t happen overnight but the combination of greater law enforcement, citizen action and media coverage are all helping to ensure that, with continued effort and strengthening of the legal framework, illegal trapping of migratory birds in China is on borrowed time.
Another conservation issue on which progress has been made is the plight of Baer’s Pochard. The population of this Critically Endangered duck has declined dramatically in the last few decades, the reasons for which are largely unknown. However, after 2016 there is much to be optimistic about. First, there are now dedicated groups studying Baer’s Pochard in China, including population surveys, study of breeding ecology and contributing to an international action plan to save the species. These groups are working with the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, EAAFP and others to build a knowledge base about the species, raise awareness and develop concrete steps to conserve the species at its remaining strongholds. A record count of 293 birds in December at the most important known breeding site in Hebei Province (Paul Holt and Li Qingxin) is a brilliant end to a year that will, hopefully, be a turning point for this species.
On a personal level I was extremely lucky, alongside Marie, to experience a ‘once in a lifetime’ encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai and, just a few days later, two Snow Leopards. Certainly two of my most cherished encounters with wildlife.
So, as I glance out of my window again, I realise that a few days of smog are a small price to pay to be part of the birding and conservation community in China. As 2017 begins, I have a spring in my step.
Everyone knows that China is one of the most important and biodiverse countries on the planet. It is blessed with stunning wildlife, much of it found nowhere else in the world. China has, according to one measure, 7,516 species of vertebrates including 4,936 fish, 1,269 bird, 562 mammal, 403 reptile and 346 amphibian species. In terms of the number of species, China ranks third in the world in mammals, eighth in birds, seventh in reptiles and seventh in amphibians. In each category, China is the most biodiverse country outside of the tropics. Many species are endemic to China, including the country’s most famous wildlife species, the Giant Panda. In all, about one-sixth of mammal species and two-thirds of amphibian species in China are endemic to the country.
However, not surprisingly, with rapid economic development and a human population of 1.3 billion, the environment in China is coming under huge pressure and, in addition to the obvious and well-publicised air pollution, China’s water and soil are both in a desperate state, not to mention the ongoing destruction of valuable and biodiverse habitats, not least along the Yellow Sea coast where tidal mudflats – so important for millions of long-distance migratory shorebirds – are being lost at an alarming rate. In fact, at least 840 animal species are threatened, vulnerable or in danger of local extinction in China, due mainly to human activity such as habitat destruction, pollution and poaching for food, fur and ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine.
Despite the recent high-level political rhetoric about the importance of “ecological civilisation” and “green development”, decision-making, particularly at the local level, is still not effectively taking into account the environmental cost. One reason for this disconnect is the low level of environmental awareness among the general population, in turn caused by an almost complete lack of environmental issues in the Chinese State Curriculum.
That is why education on the environment is so important and it’s the main reason why EcoAction has developed an “Environmental Curriculum”. The curriculum, focusing on migratory birds, has been piloted in two Beijing schools during the 2015-2016 academic year. Given the pressures on students in China, there was no room to fit in the lessons during normal school time, so these classes have been an optional extra for the participating students. It is testament to the thirst for knowledge of the children involved that they have committed to participate and seen it through to the end.
The curriculum has involved classroom-based lectures, field studies (including birding trips to Miyun Reservoir and Yeyahu Nature Reserve) and lectures by national and international experts, including leading ornithologist Professor Per Alström.
The students have also been encouraged to carry out an “investigation”, for example visiting Beijing’s wild bird markets to find out who are the buyers and sellers, where the birds come from and what can be done to accelerate their demise.
This week it was time for the participants to receive their certificates for completing the course.
Our hope is that we can expand the pilots to involve more schools in Beijing later this year and, if we can secure the resources, to train teachers to be able to deliver the course in other parts of China. Eventually, our aim is to do ourselves out of a job by having the Chinese government incorporate this course into the State Curriculum!
I’d like to pay tribute to EcoAction’s Luo Peng for driving the development and delivery of the course and to BirdLife International and Zoological Society of London for their support. Can’t wait for the 2016 course to begin!
Birding in Beijing is brilliant at any time of year but, during spring migration, it’s hard to beat and there are so many highlights from Sunday’s trip to Yeyahu Nature Reserve with Per Alström and Zhao Min that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Birding with Per has many advantages, one of which is his encyclopaedic knowledge of China’s birds, especially pipits and wagtails. So perhaps it should not be a surprise that an encounter with a mixed flock of more than 70 pipits and wagtails at Ma Chang produced Beijing’s second ever MEADOW PIPIT (草地鹨). Initially found by Min and identified by Per, this bird was the undoubted rarity highlight but there were so many other great moments – the 21 ORIENTAL PLOVERS (东方鴴), displaying EASTERN MARSH HARRIERS (白腹鹞), GREATER SPOTTED (乌雕) and SHORT-TOED EAGLES (短趾雕), SAKER (猎隼), a flock of 90+ BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭), displaying ASIAN SHORT-TOED LARK ((亚洲) 短趾百灵), a flock of 52 WHITE WAGTAILS (白鹡鸰) that included 3 subspecies – leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis – and a flock of ‘eastern’ ROOKS (秃鼻乌鸦) – a possible future new species?
We started at Ma Chang, a reliable spot for ORIENTAL PLOVER (东方鴴) in early April. It’s important to arrive here early as this site is extremely popular with horse-riders, motorised buggies and even people driving imitation tanks, so it’s hopeless as a birding destination at the weekend after around 0800. We were fortunate to find a single ORIENTAL PLOVER (东方鴴) with a flock of 30+ KENTISH PLOVERS (环颈鴴) and, later, we found a flock of 21 OPs in agricultural fields just east of the main site. These birds – that winter in Australia – are special and one of the signs that Spring has arrived in Beijing.
After enjoying the pipits, wagtails and plovers, as well as a beautiful male MERLIN (灰背隼) that buzzed us before sitting up on a stand of maize, we headed off to Yeyahu Nature Reserve.
At Yeyahu we enjoyed the spectacular sight of displaying EASTERN MARSH HARRIERS (白腹鹞), newly arrived and preparing to breed. These are stunning raptors, the males in particular, and this adult male made a close pass when were in one of the tower hides.. awesome!
Two GREATER SPOTTED EAGLES (乌雕) added to our raptor list which, by the end of the day, had reached 10 species and bizarrely missing COMMON KESTREL (红隼)!
In stunning spring weather (and clean air!) we enjoyed so many other highlights on a day that produced a total of 81 species. Just before dusk we were treated to a magnificent flight of ducks that included MALLARD (綠頭鴨), SPOT-BILLED DUCK (斑嘴鴨), PINTAIL (针尾鸭), COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭), FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭), SHOVELER (琵嘴鸭), GARGANEY (白眉鸭), COMMON TEAL (绿翅鸭) and, just as we had hoped, BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭). A flock of at least 90 of the latter wheeled around in the fading light – a magnificent sight and a fitting end to a wonderful day at this world-class birding site.
Big thanks to Per and Min for their company on a day that will live long in the memory…!
Full species list below:
JAPANESE QUAIL Coturnix japonica 鵪鶉 1
COMMON PHEASANT Phasianus colchicus 雉雞 4
SWAN GOOSE Anser cygnoides VU 鴻雁 1
GREYLAG GOOSE Anser anser 3
RUDDY SHELDUCK Tadorna ferruginea 赤麻鴨 6
MANDARIN DUCK Aix galericulata 鴛鴦 9
GADWALL Anas strepera 赤膀鴨 94
FALCATED DUCK Anas falcata 罗纹鸭 14
MALLARD Anas platyrhynchos 綠頭鴨 500
CHINESE SPOT-BILLED DUCK Anas zonorhyncha 斑嘴鴨 38
NORTHERN SHOVELER Anas clypeata 琵嘴鸭 13
NORTHERN PINTAIL Anas acuta 针尾鸭 6
GARGANEY Anas querquedula 白眉鸭 4
BAIKAL TEAL Anas formosa 花脸鸭 a flock of 90 plus a separate flock of 70, which could have been different birds.
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.
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.
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.
Güldenstädt’s Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus), also sometimes known as White-winged Redstart, is the world’s largest redstart. It breeds at high altitudes from 3,600–5,200 m in alpine meadows and rock-fields, moving to slightly lower altitudes in winter. Apparently, the northernmost population, in the mountains around Lake Baikal, migrate furthest and sometimes reach northeastern China.
I had heard that this bird occasionally showed up in Beijing in winter. However, I wasn’t aware of any regular sites and so it wasn’t really on my radar.
However, during the visit to the Mentougou District to see the BROWN ACCENTOR last week, I realised that we were relatively close to Lingshan, a mountain (Beijing’s highest peak) near the border with Hebei Province. I had heard about this site but never visited. We decided to take the opportunity to have a quick look and, although we didn’t have much time – only an hour at the top – I was very pleased we did. The road to the peak was a little treacherous, but passable, and as the landscape opened up as we neared the top it was obvious that the area had potential. This potential was realised almost immediately when we spotted some redstarts atop some berry bushes by the side of the road. Although superficially looking similar to the common Daurian Redstart, it would be highly unlikely to find Daurian Redstarts at the top of a mountain in winter…and these birds looked BIG! We got out of the car to investigate and, as soon as one of the males flew, showing a huge white wing patch, it was clear that this was a different redstart sp – Güldenstädt’s Redstart – a high altitude specialist. Wow. There were many birds present and we counted at least 17, a mixture of males and females. We think this is a record Beijing count. We enjoyed these birds for a good 30 minutes, and also saw several Black- and Red-throated Thrushes sharing the same shrubs, before reluctantly leaving for the journey back to Beijing.
My report of these birds to Beijing birders caused something of a stir and, on Saturday, I returned to the spot with Per Alström and Jennifer Leung and we were joined by Swedish birder, Anders Magnussen, who had driven from Tainjin (!) and three cars full of Beijing birders led by Zhu Lei.
This second visit, with more time to explore the area and more pairs of eyes, proved even more productive with an astonishing 28+ redstarts counted (Anders, who arrived before us, estimated at least 40) plus at least 60 PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES, a single BOHEMIAN WAXWING and at least 50 dark-throated thrushes (mostly Red-throated).
We also enjoyed good views of Songar Tit, 3 Cinereous Vultures and an Upland Buzzard. We dipped on the hoped for ASIAN ROSY FINCH, 200 of which were seen at this location a few winters ago.. but that didn’t detract from a very productive day. My thanks to Per, Jennifer, Anders, Zhu Lei and friends for their good company!