On Saturday morning I decided to check on the Western Water Rail in the Olympic Forest Park. When I arrived on site, my heart sank. All of the small areas of reeds that had been left uncut at the beginning of the winter had disappeared, including the section favoured by the Water Rail and its Moorhen companions. There has clearly been some ‘management work’ over the last few days and, for some reason, these reedbeds – which were also a haven for other species, including Chinese (Light-vented Bulbul) and Black-faced Bunting – were given the chop. Needless to say, there was no sign of these birds today and, with a brisk northerly blowing, I recorded very few birds at all. A couple of Red-flanked Bluetails and a male Daurian Redstart were as good as it got.
It’s been a strange winter so far.. not so cold and no snow to speak of. It’s been the same up north in Liaoning Province. No Waxwings at all (contrasting strongly with last winter’s invasion of both Bohemian and Japanese Waxwings), very few Rosefinches (Long-tailed or Pallas’s) and a few so-called summer visitors have been lingering in the capital.
This week I have made short visits to both the Olympic Forest Park and the Summer Palace to see what was around.
I was surprised to see several Pallas’s Warblers, double figures of Red-flanked Bluetails, three Red-crested Pochard and singles of Black-faced Bunting and Ferruginous Duck (the duck were together on a tiny patch of open water at the summer palace). All of these birds should really be further south in the middle of winter but all seemed in good shape.
This Common Kingfisher looked much healthier than the last one I saw at Wild Duck Lake (which expired as we were watching it in late November).
Several Smew were accompanying the Ferruginous Duck and the Red-crested Pochard, adding a reassuring feel to the winter. I managed this image of one in flight.
With clear skies and little wind it was a good day to be outside, so we packed a picnic and visited the Botanical Gardens in north-west Beijing. There was a surprising lack of thrushes around (normally this is a good site for wintering Naumann’s, Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated Thrushes) but the usual residents – Red-billed Blue Magpie, Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul, Chinese Grosbeak etc were around in small numbers. Despite a short search of their favoured habitat, I failed to see any Chinese Nuthatches.
On the boardwalk that runs along the stream to the west of the gardens, I heard a Red-flanked Bluetail and, as we rounded a corner, there were 4 or 5 bird photographers staked out by the frozen stream. I joined them for 5 minutes and in that time the Bluetail and a Winter Wren came down to drink from a small puddle and took advantage of the worms that the photographers had strategically placed on a prominent branch. The Bluetail and the Wren showed extremely well, clearly used to the attention. The Wren even indulged in a few bouts of song, no doubt encouraged by the relatively warm, almost Spring-like conditions.
After the disappointment of being kicked off one of the prime raptor migration watchpoints on Tuesday, we took up the invitation from the local reserve officials, introduced to us by the Beijing Birdwatching Society, to visit a ringing station at Laotieshan. Our hosts, Mr Wang (Head of Research) and Mr Zhang (a researcher and ringer) met us near the lighthouse car park at 0630 and drove us to the ringing station where we met with two more staff. At this site (one of 8 ringing stations in the area), they operate four mist nets, three of which are targeted at passerines and one at raptors. It wasn’t long before the resident bird-catcher, Mr Sun, appeared with some birds and we were pleased to see Grey-backed Thrush and Tristram’s Bunting in the hand.
These birds were ringed and released promptly and soon we were discussing the birds of Laotieshan and the various species they had ringed. They gave us each a book that covered the birds of the Laotieshan peninsula and the nearby Snake Island (the island featured in the BBC series, Wild China, where the Pallas’s Pit Vipers have evolved to climb trees to wait for unsuspecting migrant birds). The list makes for very interesting reading, giving the status of each bird at Laotieshan – resident, summer visitor, winter visitor or passage migrant. I’ll post a translation of it on here at some point.
During this discussion Mr Sun disappeared, then reappeared with a Mugimaki Flycatcher.. a nice trick! Unfortunately this bird had lost its tail, either in the net or in the bag, but nevertheless, it was a smart bird.
We asked about access to Snake Island. Officially there was no access unless one had a permit (a familiar story in China!). Mr Wang was due to go out there later that day and stay for a week, part of the rolling wardening duties on the island. Mr Zhang told us that Mr Wang was once bitten on the finger by a Pallas’s Pit Viper and spent the next three months recovering in hospital.. ouch.
Mr Sun appeared again, accompanied by gasps from the audience.. this time he held single Tristram’s and Black-faced Buntings.
The volume of birds being caught here was not high – they said that, on average at this time of year, about 30 birds were caught each day – but the quality and variety was good. We accompanied Mr Zhang on a walk around the nets and discovered over 20 Chestnut-flanked White-eyes together with a single Radde’s Warbler and another Tristram’s Bunting. It took us some time to help retrieve these birds from the nets but they were promptly ringed and released. White-eyes have been a big feature of our time at Laotieshan with thousands passing through… they are full of character and it was interesting to see some in the hand.
A major part of the work of the ringing station is to try to stop illegal bird trapping. This is a traditional activity at Laotieshan that has been ongoing for many years and, therefore, is not easy to eradicate. Every day the staff explore the ridges for illegal nets, cut down any they find and also report any individuals they see to the police. One guy told us that the illegal bird trappers used to catch around 4,000 raptors each year at Laotieshan (!). This has significantly decreased due to the work of the reserve staff but they told us that it is still common to find illegal mist nets. One event that they are proud of ,and that they hope will act as a major deterrent to others, is the fact that, last year, one guy was apprehended with a haul of Oriental Scops Owls and was given a 10-year custodial sentence! I had read about this story in the China Daily last autumn and it seems as if this has acted as a warning to the locals.. Mr Zhang said that the illegal bird catchers were now extremely nervous and, if they saw anyone near their nets, they would run away quickly.. I am not surprised with punishments like that!
Mr Sun returned and his latest bit of magic produced a Red-flanked Bluetail..
Shortly after, Mr Wang drove up in his 4×4 and opened the boot to reveal a Short-eared Owl he had found in an illegal net.. Unfortunately it had a broken wing, so could not be released.. very sad to see the fate of such a beautiful bird. No doubt many more birds or prey and passerines suffer a similar fate every autumn in the hills around this special site.
As the early morning migration slowed, Peter and I took the opportunity to hike up the hill to a raptor watchpoint above the ringing station. Mr Zhang showed us the way and, after a steep ascent lasting around 40 minutes, we emerged on the ridge to a spectacular view of the hills. The lighthouse could be seen to the south-west and, to the east, there was a stunning view of a valley and hills stretching north towards Lushun. In a 90-minute count from here we saw a flock of 28 Black-eared Kites, 4 Goshawks, a Peregrine, at least 30 Amur Falcons, 9 Common Buzzards, 2 Hobbies, a single House Martin sp (probably Northern) and a good passage of around 350 Swallows (75 per cent Red-rumped and 25 per cent Barn). On the walk down we encountered a spectacular spider whose web was reminiscent of one of the mist nets! If I was a small bird I’d be wary of this particular spider..
We did a further round of the nets and birded the woods around the station before saying our goodbyes to the crew. They had made us feel very welcome and we are exremely grateful to Mr Wang, Mr Zhang and Mr Sun for their hospitality, including the fantastic lunch of fried fish and rice – delicious!
The visit to the ringing station represented the end of my stay in Laotieshan this autumn. To see in the hand some of the migrant birds we had been seeing over the last few days was a fitting end to my stay at this special place. Mr Wang kindly drove us back to our hotel in Lushun and, after a typically delicious meal at a local restaurant, I picked up my bags, said my goodbyes to Paul and Peter and made my way to the airport for the short flight back to Beijing. It was a real wrench to tear myself away from this globally significant site and, in particular, the company of Paul Holt and Peter Cawley. It was a real privilege for me to spend 10 days birding with these guys. Paul is simply one of the best birders I have ever met – his knowledge of China’s birds and his identification skills are second to none. I know I would have missed many birds – such as the flyover Pechora Pipits and Pine Bunting – if I was on my own. So, a big thanks Paul! I owe you a few beers when you are back in Beijing…
Peter Cawley, a friend from my old local patch at Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk, is staying on for a couple of days and will return to Beijing on Friday. I’ll be taking him to Wild Duck Lake at the weekend and he’ll spend a couple of days doing the tourist sites of Beijing before returning to the UK.
Paul is going to stay on at Laotieshan for a while yet, building yet more knowledge about this important site. I suspect he will see good numbers of the large eagles in the next few weeks – mostly Greater Spotted but hopefully with more Steppe and possibly an Imperial thrown in. During my short time there we think we have recorded some record numbers of birds in the Chinese context. The counts of Ashy Minivets, Amur Falcons and many other birds have been simply outstanding and, in many cases, are much higher than those recorded at the traditional well-watched migration site at Beidaihe. It is clear that Laotieshan is globally significant and the good news is that, due to the proximity of the military and the geographic make-up, it is likely to remain undeveloped. Clearly, access to the best areas is still sensitive but hopefully, in time, this will improve as birding becomes more popular in China and there is a better understanding of the contribution birders can make to the increase in knowledge about China’s birds. Even so, there are still many areas that are accessible now and the birding is simply spectacular. I am sure I will be back!
I’ll post some detailed species accounts and a full report soon, once we have collated all the data. There is so much to put down on paper that it may take a while. In the meantime, if I hear about more significant counts from Paul, I will post them here.
Finally, I’d like to say a massive thank you to Tom Beeke whose reports from Laotieshan last year were the inspiration for our visit. Tom has been birding Liaoning Province, largely on his own, for the last few years and has made a major contribution to the knowledge of the birds to be found in and around Dalian. His book – “The Birds of Dalian” – is an excellent piece of work for which he deserves enormous credit. I am sure it will inspire a new generation of Chinese birdwatchers…
Next stop Wild Duck Lake at the weekend! In the meantime, here are a few more images from the last few days…