Spreading the word about the birds and other wildlife of Beijing is so important if we are to build support for policies and measures to protect the capital’s wildlife and the places it needs. So I didn’t hesitate to agree when CCTV, China’s national broadcaster, contacted me and asked me to take them birding as part of a feature on the birds of Beijing to be broadcast later this autumn.
Although it’s only mid-August, autumn migration is already in full swing with shorebirds and passerines such as pipits, wagtails and some of the early buntings passing through Beijing. At this time of year, there is no better site in Beijing than Ma Chang, on the shores of Guanting Reservoir in Yanqing County.
Given the heat of Beijing in August, I recommended an early start and, to their credit, the CCTV crew agreed to collect me at 0430 for the one and a half hour drive to Ma Chang. On site shortly after sunrise, we were treated to a beautiful, still early morning and a good variety of birds.
Most obvious were the noisy breeding Black-winged Stilts with several well-grown young joining their parents in the shallows and one relatively young bird waiting to be fed and just looking cute.
Six Relict Gulls, including one carrying a transmitter, provided an opportunity to discuss how scientists are learning about the incredible journeys of migratory birds and, in particular, how the whole population of the Relict Gull, a bird described to science as recently as the 1970s, relies on the Bohai Bay/Yellow Sea in winter.
A few Red-necked Stints, a Temminck’s Stint, several Long-toed Stints and a cracking juvenile Broad-billed Sandpiper brought us onto the subject of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and the incredible journeys of these tiny shorebirds from Arctic breeding grounds to non-breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere, including the importance of stopover sites or ‘service stations’ on this bird ‘superhighway’.
Flyover Richard’s Pipits and Eastern Yellow Wagtails, many of which were calling, gave a glimpse of migration in action and we spoke about how, although some birds migrate during the day, many pass over the city at night, undetected, as we sleep. In total we recorded 50 species by late morning and the crew secured some high quality footage of some of the stars of the show. As we began to pack up, a few Globe Skimmer dragonflies mating and ovipositing in a pool next to the car reminded us that it’s not only birds that migrate incredible distances.. some individuals of this species have been known to travel 6,000km.
The reporter was overwhelmed with what she saw and experienced at Ma Chang and, as we returned to the city, she spoke of her hopes to do much more to cover ‘Wild Beijing’… so fingers crossed we can work together more to help promote awareness of just how special the Chinese capital is for birds and other wildlife.
In the meantime, the CCTV/CGTN feature on migratory birds in Beijing will be shown sometime in the autumn.
Title image: CCTV/CGTN capturing Relict Gulls on film at Ma Chang
Next month, the local government and the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) will host a birding festival in the Tianjin Binhai New Area. As well as being a vital site for more than 30 species of shorebird, this part of the Bohai Bay is the most important non-breeding site for the ‘Vulnerable’ RELICT GULL and, in March, they begin to congregate and pair up ahead of the breeding season. Their gatherings can be spectacular (see video below). In addition to seeing good numbers of Relict Gulls, participants are likely to see ORIENTAL STORK and a host of other wetland species – more than 90 species were recorded at the festival last year.
The organisers welcome teams from all over the world. Please read on if you are interested in participating!
This message from CBCGDF:
Welcome to the 2nd Tianjin International Birding Competition!
With the warmth of spring returning, the wetland parks in Tianjin are ready to welcome a large number of migratory birds heading north from their wintering grounds. Tianjin Binhai New Area is a vital place for birds to stop and rest on these hazardous journeys.
On March 16th-18th, the 2nd Tianjin International Birding Competition, co-hosted by Binhai New Area Government of Tianjin and China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) will be held in Tianjin Binhai New Area. We expect to host at least 15 teams of three from all over the world to participate in the competition.
Special birds can be observed including Relict Gull (vulnerable), Oriental White Stork (endangered) and around 90 other bird species that were found during last year’s competition. Bohai Bay Area is the most important non-breeding site for Relict Gull in the world, so it is critical for us to protect the environment.
Through this competition, we wish to share with you the beauty of all the migratory birds, the importance of the intertidal mudflats, and the excitement of bird watching!
The deadline for registration is March 9th, 2018. Please sign up for the competition via the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is big news. The Chinese government has just taken an important step to protect some of the key remaining intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. A total of fourteen sites have been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination. Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government. And, if these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.
The extensive mudflats, sandflats and associated habitats of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Bay, represent one of the largest areas of intertidal wetlands on Earth and are shared by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (RoK). It is the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF). And yet, in the last few decades, around 70% of the intertidal habitat has been lost to land reclamation projects, causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline dramatically.
Species such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot are highly dependent on the area for food and rest during their long migrations from as far as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. And of course, this area is not only important as a stopover site. Almost the entire world population of Relict Gull winters in the Bohai Bay, and the whole population of Saunders’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill breed in the area.
The tentative nomination has not happened out of thin air. It’s the result of many years of hard work by domestic Chinese organisations, supported by the international community.
Subsequently, national workshops were held in Beijing in 2014, and Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 2016 to implement this resolution nationally. Then, in August 2016, I was fortunate to participate in a joint meeting in Beijing, where representatives of the government authorities of China and the Republic of Korea responsible for World Heritage implementation discussed the nomination of Yellow Sea coastal wetlands.
A further resolution “Conservation of intertidal habitats and migratory waterbirds of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, especially the Yellow Sea, in a global context” was adopted at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), responsible for World Heritage nomination in China has been active in identifying key sites and involving stakeholders to promote the current tentative list, with technical assistance from ShanShui, a Chinese conservation NGO. Whilst the list is not comprehensive – there are other key sites that many conservationists feel should be included – it is a strong foundation and it is possible to add further sites in due course. Importantly, at the same time, the Republic of Korea has been working on a nomination for the tidal flats of the southwest region including the most important site for migratory waterbirds in the country, Yubu Island.
With these proposed nominations by China and the Republic of Korea, the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea are being increasingly recognized by governments for their outstanding global importance and it is hoped that this will result in stronger protection and effective management for the continued survival of migratory waterbirds.
There is a long way to go to secure formal nomination and inscription onto the list of World Heritage Sites – that process can take many years – but it’s a vital step and an important statement of intent that provides a renewed sense of optimism about the potential to save what remains of these unique sites. Huge kudos, in particular to MOHURD and to ShanShui, and to everyone who has been working so hard to make this happen, including the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute, IUCN, John MacKinnon and many more.
The long-term vision is that there will be a joint China/Republic of Korea and maybe even DPRK World Heritage Site covering the key locations along the Yellow Sea/Bohai Bay. Now, wouldn’t that be something?!
It was as recently as 1970 that RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) was confirmed as a valid species. Before that it was thought to be either an eastern race of Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) or a hybrid between Brown-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and Pallas’s Gull (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus)! Since its rather late acceptance into the global ornithological fold much has been discovered about this beautiful gull. Breeding sites have been found in China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia and it appears that, although a few spend the winter in Korea, almost the entire world population winters on the northeast China coast, around the Bohai Bay.
And just before their spring migration, gatherings on the coast of birds in stunning breeding plumage, are simply spectacular.
Last week, local Tianjin birder Mo Xunqian (“Nemo”) and friend Zhu Bingrun (“Drew”) counted 10,652 Relict Gulls from 3 sites around Hangu, Tianjin. This is a world record count and was simply too much to resist. So, together with Paul Holt and members of Beijing Birdwatching Society, including President Fu Jianping, I headed to the coast to try to catch a glimpse of these awesome birds before they left for the breeding grounds.
With the help of Nemo and local bird photographer and conservationist Mr Wang Jianmin, we arrived on site at the perfect time – just as the tide was beginning to fall. And we were greeted with a sea of Relict Gulls, the adults resplendent in their hooded breeding plumage and with hormones raging. Many were engaging in courtship display, throwing back their heads and holding open their wings as they called loudly. Superb!
After a few minutes of simply admiring this breathtaking spectacle, Paul was quick to get to work counting the flock. His tally was an outstanding 10,405, a record for a single site. I focused on capturing some video footage and, as the wind began to increase, making the conditions difficult for video, I began to scan the flock, observing their behaviour and enjoying the birds.
It wasn’t long before I found a leg-flagged adult sporting an orange flag on its right tibia and then, incredibly, another with an orange flag engraved with the number “1”.
We enjoyed several hours with these birds until, as the tide receded, the birds began to move out onto the mud to feed. Every few minutes, as more mud became exposed, the whole flock would rise into the air, wheeling around before settling a few metres closer to the retreating sea. It was an awesome sight. All against the unlikely backdrop of an aircraft carrier, moored to the north…
As the birds moved away we made our way back to the car, still buzzing from witnessing one of the most impressive birding sights during my time in China.
Mr Wang took us to a local restaurant for lunch where we reflected on the status of Relict Gull. It was then that a hint of sadness hit us. As impressive as this spectacle was, the fact that so many are concentrated in one spot is not a good sign. It’s a symptom of shrinking habitat. And the concentration into such a small area makes the population extremely vulnerable to shocks.. A serious oil spill, for example, could devastate these birds.
Anyone familiar with east Asia won’t be surprised that the cause of the shrinking habitat is land reclamation. Mr Wang told us that, so far, around 80% of Tianjin’s tidal mudflats have been reclaimed, with just over 30km of coastal mudflat remaining of an original 140+km. And then the news got worse; the site where we had just recorded a world record count of this special gull was due to be reclaimed and turned into housing. My heart sank.
Much has been made of the breathtaking pace of ‘development’ along China’s east coast, in particular in the context of Spoon-billed Sandpiper. And whilst the disappearance of tidal mudflats will undoubtedly affect many shorebird species, the Relict Gull is perhaps the most vulnerable species of all. With almost the entire global population dependent on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay, this bird is being squeezed into ever-decreasing pockets of viable habitat. At the present rate of land reclamation it is questionable for how long the remaining areas of tidal mudflats will be able to sustain the wintering population. And with human disturbance, unsustainable water use and climate change, there are significant threats to the breeding grounds, too. The Relict Gull fully deserves its “Vulnerable” status.
Development is clearly necessary for the government to continue to bring millions of Chinese out of poverty. That includes expanding ports, improving infrastructure and building homes and businesses. The key question is whether or not this development can be more sensitive to the natural world. Unfortunately, it is still the case that ecosystems and biodiversity have zero value in our economic model. That’s not unique to China, it’s a global phenomenon. To protect sites and species often requires monumental efforts from passionate individuals and groups. It should be the default.
Mr Wang has been championing the need to protect the remaining tidal mudflats around Tianjin. He has exhibited his excellent photographs to raise awareness among the local community and, importantly, he has met with local government officials to highlight the global importance of this habitat. He is committed to doing everything he can to help Relict Gull, a species that is clearly very close to his heart. With the vast majority of the population breeding in China and wintering along the Bohai Bay, Relict Gull is a Chinese treasure, just like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven or the Terracotta Warriors. I hope that, one day, it will be given the same protection.
Big thanks to Nemo, Zhu Bingrun, Wang Jianmin, Paul Holt, Wang Qingyu, Fu Jianping and the Beijing Birdwatching Society for ensuring our trip to see Relict Gulls was successful, for the use of photographs and for their fun company in Tianjin.
Many of my friends will know that one of my most-wanted birds in Beijing has been the Pallas’s Sandgrouse. This is a species that breeds as close as Inner Mongolia and, just occasionally, irrupts in large numbers beyond its normal range.
It’s a bird that has been on my mind since my childhood when I first heard about major irruptions in the late 19th century that resulted in them being “everywhere” in winter 1889 at my original local patch of Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk, England. Sadly, irruptions on that scale appear to be a thing of the past and it is now a very rare species in the UK and Europe. However, in Beijing, its appearance is a little more regular and in 2009-2010, the winter before I moved to China, there was a decent irruption in the capital with flocks of 100+ reported from Wild Duck Lake and even good numbers at sites inside the 6th ring road. Unfortunately, since then, they have been very few and far between – I am aware of just one record of a small flock at Miyun last winter (Jan-Erik Nilsen) that was never seen again.
I have been secretly (and openly!) hoping that this winter might prove to be THE winter and yesterday, Sunday 3 November, that hope turned to reality.
Having returned from Inner Mongolia on Saturday, where I had been attending a workshop with local government officials, nature reserve managers and local groups about JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (a post about that will come soon!), I had arranged to go birding on Sunday with Ben Wielstra, visiting Catalan, Eugeni Capella Roca, and 吴岚 from the Beijing Birdwatching Society. I left central Beijing at 0445, collecting the team on the way, and we arrived at a chilly Ma Chang at around 0645.
Two first year RELICT GULLS represented a superb beginning to the day. These two young gulls were almost certainly the same two individuals that had been seen the weekend before and they were remarkably tame.
Unfortunately the water levels at Ma Chang are now so high that the best vantage points from which to view the wildfowl are now inaccessible, so after checking the ‘desert area’ for anything interesting, we were soon on our way to Yeyahu Nature Reserve to focus most of our day at this superb Beijing site.
On arrival there was a nice mixed flock of GADWALL and FALCATED DUCK on the lake with a lone BEWICK’S SWAN and we secured our first sightings of PALLAS’S REED BUNTING, CHINESE GREY SHRIKE and CHINESE PENDULINE TIT.
A scan of the grassland produced a ringtail HEN HARRIER and one of the tractors cutting the grass flushed a SHORT-EARED OWL. Then a distant SAKER and an adult PEREGRINE passed by. Pretty good! We made our way to the new tower hide and spent some time there scanning for raptors and checking the flocks of duck that were occasionally flushed by the HEN HARRIER. A single COMMON (EASTERN) BUZZARD and a flock of BEAN GEESE kept the interest going and soon we began to hear the sound of CRANES… a sound that was almost omnipresent all day as more and more groups seemed to arrive high from the west… a wonderful sight and sound.
From the hide we caught sight of several very distant flocks of birds, the identification of which we couldn’t quite put our finger on.. they looked to have pointed wings, almost wader-like, and yet their size meant that the only species that came to mind was PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER.. but that identification didn’t fit – these birds didn’t fly like plovers – they were in an irregular, and reasonably tight, formation flying strongly north.. what were they??
They went down in the notebook as “possible plover sp” but we weren’t happy. Several minutes later, Eugeni suddenly shouted out “SANDGROUSE!” and we all quickly got onto two birds streaming very fast past our vantage point, heading north. Plump birds with a dark belly patch and a pointed tail… Wow! PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE – my most wanted Beijing bird!!! They disappeared out of sight almost as soon as they had arrived and we looked at each other with broad smiles.. we might even have done a couple of “high-fives”!
Little did we know that we would soon see some more… and as we made our way around the flooded fields towards the smaller observation tower, we saw another… then another.. and from the tower itself we saw another 3. The same or different? Not sure but they were definitely PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE. Suddenly the penny dropped on the flocks we had seen earlier – surely they must have been PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE too…! And we had even more reason to believe they were sandgrouse when we heard from a Chinese friend that over 200 had been seen around the same time over central Beijing..! At the rate they flew, it would only have taken them a few minutes to reach the mountains at Badaling from central Beijing and the birds we saw could easily have been the same flocks. Something is clearly going on with PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE this winter!
Another nice encounter involved this SIBERIAN WEASEL, a reasonably common mammal in Beijing but rarely seen well in daylight. This individual ran towards us, stopping occasionally to check us out, before disappearing into the reedbed.. a very cool animal…
We decided to make a return visit to Ma Chang before heading home. That was the place that held large flocks of sandgrouse during the 2009-2010 winter and we thought that maybe, just maybe, some had dropped in during the day. We didn’t see any on our afternoon visit but we did stumble across a nice flock of HORNED LARKS, another scarce and irruptive visitor to Beijing. A group of 3 was soon followed by a much larger group consisting of at least 53 birds.. wow.
These beautiful larks wheeled around uttering their ‘tinkly’ call in the late afternoon sun… a magnificent sight to end the day. After a quick cup of coffee we headed back to Beijing, tired but elated… what a day!
Big thanks to Ben, Eugeni and Wu Lan for their excellent company on this special day…
Full species list:
TUNDRA BEAN GOOSE Anser serrirostris 74 (Apparently 300 in the area, according to Yeyahu NR staff).
TUNDRA SWAN Cygnus columbianus 小天鹅 1 at Yeyahu NR
RUDDY SHELDUCK Tadorna ferruginea 赤麻鴨 8
GADWALL Anas strepera 赤膀鴨 108
FALCATED DUCK Anas falcata 罗纹鸭 14
MALLARD Anas platyrhynchos 綠頭鴨 122
CHINESE SPOT-BILLED DUCK Anas zonorhyncha 斑嘴鴨 29
NORTHERN SHOVELER Anas clypeata 琵嘴鸭 1
NORTHERN PINTAIL Anas acuta 针尾鸭 5
EURASIAN TEAL Anas crecca 绿翅鸭 14
COMMON GOLDENEYE Bucephala clangula 鹊鸭 1
SMEW Mergellus albellus 白秋沙鸭 83
LITTLE GREBE Tachybaptus ruficollis 小鸊鷉 4
GREAT CRESTED GREBE Podiceps cristatus 凤头鸊鷉 5
GREAT BITTERN Botaurus stellaris 大麻鳽 2
HEN HARRIER Circus cyaneus 白尾鹞 4 (3 ‘ringtails’ and one adult male)
EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK Accipiter nisus 雀鹰 1
NORTHERN GOSHAWK Accipiter gentilis 苍鹰 2
EASTERN BUZZARD Buteo japonicus 普通鵟 1
MERLIN Falco columbarius 灰背隼 1 adult male
SAKER FALCON Falco cherrug EN 猎隼 1 one distant bird, probably this species
PEREGRINE FALCON Falco peregrinus 游隼 1
COMMON COOT Fulica atra 骨顶鸡(白骨顶) 17
COMMON CRANE Grus grus 灰鹤 109 We could hear cranes almost all day. Many seemed to be arriving. Very difficult to count but the biggest count at any one time consisted of a single group of 109 birds
RELICT GULL Ichthyaetus relictus VU 遗鸥 2 First calendar-year birds. Almost certainly the same as seen the previous weekend by multiple observers.
PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE Syrrhaptes paradoxus 毛腿沙鸡 5 The first picked up in flight by Eugeni at Yeyahu NR @c1130. Followed by 3 @c1315 and 2 singles later in the afternoon. Four distant large flocks totalling over 150 birds seen c1100 and c1230 were probably this species.
EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE Streptopelia decaocto 灰斑鸠 18
SHORT-EARED OWL Asio flammeus 短耳鸮 1 Flushed by one of the bailers on the Kangxi Grassland
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.
On Saturday 24 August I visited Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh. I collected Steve from his hotel at 0530 on a beautiful clear, sunny morning and, after a pretty clear run over the mountains past Badaling, we were at the entrance to the reserve by 0645. A juvenile TIGER SHRIKE (Lanius tigrinus, 虎纹伯劳) was a nice surprise along the entrance track, the first time I have seen this species in the capital. Other highlights included a BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER (Acrocephalus concinens, 钝翅 (稻田) 苇莺), 2 SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (Ixobrychus eurhythmus, 紫背苇鳽), an adult RELICT GULL (Ichthyaetus relictus, 遗鸥) and a juvenile PIEDHARRIER (Circus melanoleucos, 鹊鹞). Unfortunately there was no sign of any STREAKED REED WARBLERS (Acrocephalus sorghophilus, 细纹苇莺), the autumn passage of which peaked between 22 August and 7 September in the 1920s, according to La Touche. I shall keep looking!
Full species list below.
Common Pheasant – 1
Mandarin – 3
Mallard – 1
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 3
Little Grebe – 7
Great Crested Grebe – 8
Yellow Bittern – 3 (2 adults and one juvenile)
SCHRENCK’S BITTERN – 2 (a pair) – seen in the same place as the male seen in early June – possibly a breeding pair?
Night Heron – 4
Chinese Pond Heron – 12
Grey Heron – 2
Purple Heron – 6
Little Egret – 2
Great Cormorant – 1
Amur Falcon – 5
Hobby – 2
Peregrine – 1 juvenile
Black-eared Kite – 1 juvenile
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (one adult male, two juveniles)
Pied Harrier – 1 juvenile
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Moorhen – 5
Coot – 9
Swinhoe’s/Pin-tailed Snipe – 2
RELICT GULL – 1 moulting adult. My first autumn sighting in Beijing.
Gull sp – 1 juvenile/first winter not seen well enough to id
White-winged Tern – 4 juveniles
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Spotted Dove – 5
Common Cuckoo – 1 juvenile
Common Kingfisher – 1
Hoopoe – 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 3
TIGER SHRIKE – 1 juvenile. My first in Beijing.
Brown Shrike – 12
Black Drongo – 62
Azure-winged Magpie – one seen from car on return journey
Common Magpie – 12
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 7
Marsh Tit – 4
Chinese Penduline Tit – 9, including at least 3 juveniles
Barn Swallow – c80
Red-rumped Swallow – c20
Zitting Cisticola – 11
Chinese Bulbul – 9
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler – 1
Thick-billed Warbler – 3
Black-browed Reed Warbler – 15
BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER – 1, possibly 2.
Yellow-browed Warbler – 2
Arctic Warbler – 4
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – c35
Siberian Stonechat – 4
Taiga Flycatcher – 2
Tree Sparrow – lots
Yellow Wagtail – 4
White Wagtail – 2
This morning I found what I believe is the 2nd Beijing record of Desert Wheatear. It was the highlight on a special day that included 19 stunning Oriental Plovers, 12 Relict Gulls anda Mongolian Lark.
Early April is a great time in Beijing with migration stepping up a gear as the winter visitors (e.g. cranes, geese etc) begin to move on and birds from further south take their place. Swan Geese are now moving through in good numbers and I counted 67 first thing. An over-eager bird photographer in his 4×4 saw I was looking at this group, drove directly to the water’s edge at pace and, not surprisingly, the birds took flight. The silver lining was that I was able to capture this image of the flock rising against the mountains in the early morning sun..
A check of the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plover initially drew a blank but, as I was watching a group of Little Ringed Plovers, 9 Oriental Plovers dropped in, closely followed by 2 more, then another 4 and then, amazingly, another 4, totalling 19 birds… Wow! The birds were in a variety of plumages with most in full breeding attire. Oriental Plover is a jewel among waders and its inaccessible breeding and wintering sites make it a difficult bird to see. I will post some more images and video of the Oriental Plovers separately but here is a portrait of one of the smarter birds in the group.
I watched these birds for about 20 minutes before heading towards the yurts on the edge of the reservoir to the west. It was on the way that I caught sight of a small bird perching on a stone. Through the binoculars I could see it was a Wheatear. Any wheatear is scarce in eastern China, so I knew it was a good record. I walked around so that I had the sun behind me and slowly edged closer. It was very confiding and, after grabbing a few images, I was pretty happy that it must be a Desert Wheatear. I knew one had been seen at the same site in 2010 (the first Beijing record). But then I began to have doubts.. I had never seen Pied or Isabelline (the other two possibilities).. and unfortunately I didn’t see the tail pattern well at all.. which I knew would be very instructive. Shortly after I took the images below, the wheatear was flushed by a Merlin and flew high west until out of view. On returning home, I checked images on Oriental Bird Club image database and worked out that it could only be a Desert. Jesper Hornskov kindly confirmed the id.
I had only been on site a couple of hours and already I had seen some special birds.. it was one of those mornings that makes you so happy to be alive!
Just a few metres from the Desert Wheatear I stumbled across a Mongolian Lark, a regular but scarce passage migrant.
After enjoying 2 Avocets (my first in Beijing) on the edge of the reservoir, I headed to the ‘island’ to scan the duck.. Here there was a good selection of wildfowl but the highlights were a flock of 10 Relict Gulls in stunning breeding plumage, soon joined by a further 2 birds, and a single Red-billed Starling that flew in from the east, settled briefly on a nearby tree and then headed off west again.. another first for me in Beijing.
It was about this time that the wind began to increase and, within a few minutes, there were some large dust clouds being whipped up, making Ma Chang an uncomfortable place to be… These winds are quite common at this time of year and, after the very dry winter, the ground is very dusty, making dust storms fairly frequent occurrences in Spring.
Yeyahu didn’t produce any major surprises and it wasn’t long before I headed home having had another great day at Wild Duck Lake.
Full Species List:
Common Pheasant – 3
Swan Goose – 67
Bean Goose – 13
Whooper Swan – 30
Bewick’s Swan – 27
Common Shelduck – 5
Ruddy Shelduck – 38
Gadwall – 10
Falcated Duck – 146
Eurasian Wigeon – 4
Mallard – 290
Spot-billed Duck – 8
Northern Pintail – 21
Garganey – 2
Baikal Teal – 16
Eurasian Teal – 12
Red-crested Pochard – 7
Common Pochard – 1
Ferruginous Duck – 4
Common Goldeneye – 67
Goosander – 44
Little Grebe – 5
Great Crested Grebe – 71
Black Stork – 2
Bittern – 2 (heard booming at 2 different sites)
Grey Heron – 13
Little Egret – 1
Great Cormorant – 75
Kestrel – 1
Merlin – 1
Black-eared Kite – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3
Hen Harrier – 1
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Goshawk – 1
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 4
Common Coot – 38
Common Crane – 6
Black-winged Stilt – 15
Pied Avocet – 2 at Ma Chang; my first record of this species at Wild Duck Lake
Grey-headed Lapwing – 5
Northern Lapwing – 18
Little Ringed Plover – 21
Kentish Plover – 8
Oriental Plover – at least 19 (another flock of 10+ plovers in flight could have been this species)
Mongolian Gull – 31 at Yeyahu, including 3 immatures
Relict Gull – 12
Black-headed Gull – 88
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Eurasian Collared Dove – 3
Common Swift – 1
Fork-tailed Swift – 32
Hoopoe – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 1
Common Magpie – too many
Daurian Jackdaw – 26
Rook – 2
Carrion Crow – 4
Great Tit – 4
Barn Swallow – 11
Red-rumped Swallow – 1
Mongolian Lark – 1; within a few metres of the Desert Wheatear
Asian Short-toed Lark – 28
Eurasian Skylark – 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 8
Red-billed Starling – 1; my first record at Wild Duck Lake; flew in from the east, rested briefly on the island to the north of Ma Chang and then continued West.
White-cheeked Starling – 2
Red-throated Thrush – 1
Red-flanked Bluetail – 2
Daurian Redstart – 2
Desert Wheatear – 1 (fem); very confiding until spooked by a Merlin and then flew high west and lost to view. Had not returned an hour later when I re-scanned.
Tree Sparrow – lots
White Wagtail – 22
Buff-bellied Pipit – 12
Oriental Greenfinch – 4
Godlewski’s Bunting – 1
Little Bunting – 2
Yellow-throated Bunting – 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 18 (some males now coming into breeding plumage)
Last weekend I hired a car and drove to the Bohai coast south of Tangshan (唐山) – specifically to the Nanpu Development Zone – to look for waders.
It took me a little over two and a half hours to drive the 200km from Beijing to the coast, mostly along the excellent G1 highway, and it didn’t take me long to find a suitable hotel relatively close to the coast at which to base myself for 2 days.
The Nanpu Development Area is vast and the changes taking place, including land reclamation, are on a mesmerising scale. There were heavy lorries and large machinery almost everywhere and, apart from the birds, it would be a very depressing place to spend a few days. From the small town of Nanpu, south of Tangshan, it is still a 30km journey along relatively narrow roads, through a prison, to reach the mudflats. The city of Tangshan, a little to the north, is famous for a huge earthquake that killed over 250,000 people in 1976 and there were signs for memorials and museums as I skirted the city on my way to the coast.
A Beijing-based PhD student, Yang Hong-yan, has been studying the waders in the Nanpu area – specifically the spring migration of the Red Knot – and has extensively covered the area from March to May in the last few Springs. I am very grateful to her for sharing her knowledge (including maps and directions), without which I would have almost certainly got completely lost in the labyrinth of dirt tracks and roads that criss-cross the fish farms and salt works in this area.
Once I had checked into the hotel, I began the journey to the coast to check out the area in preparation for a full day’s birding the following day. I followed Hong-yan’s directions with a little trepidation as she advised me that the best route was to take a road that ran “directly through a huge prison” and that I “shouldn’t get out of the car or have any of my optics on view” when I was on this section of the road, no matter how tempting the flocks of waders looked! Hmm, I thought.. this could be interesting – a foreigner on his own in a Beijing-plate car driving through a Chinese prison.
Still, she assured me that I would “probably be ok” and, with that encouragement I reached the entrance to the prison where I was met by a delegation of what looked like Chinese army officers. They seemed to be operating a policy of stopping a random selection of vehicles, controlled by one officer standing on a box and waving either a red or a green flag, depending on whether that vehicle would be stopped. Surprisingly, I was given a green flag and waved through. There was a large and forbidding-looking fence on either side of the road, beyond which prisoners were working in the salt works. It looked like extremely hard manual work and I began to wonder what crimes these people had committed and in what conditions they lived. They looked desperate.
My mind was soon back on birds when I began to see flocks of Black-winged Stilts on some of the ponds.. hundreds turning into thousands.. they were everywhere (I estimated 3,000 along this stretch alone). And amongst them I could see there were other waders – I could make out Godwits but many of the others were too distant to identify with the naked eye and, following Hong-yan’s advice, I had no intention of stopping the car along this road.
After several kilometers, I reached the other side of the prison and, again, was greeted by a group of soldiers. They were stopping all vehicles leaving the prison, apparently checking for stowaway prisoners.. With a combination of my broken Chinese and innovative sign language (they were pointing at the boot!), I could sense that they wanted to look into the boot of the car. Using mirrors on long poles, one guard checked the underside of the car while another looked with some concern at my tripod and telescope in the boot.. I explained that I was birdwatching and, with a warm smile, he indicated to the flag man that all was ok and I was given the green flag to continue. Phew.
The drive from here to the coast was very ‘birdy’… there were pools on my right-hand side, many holding good numbers of waders and, on my left, there was a tidal creek hosting good numbers of Sharp-tailed, Marsh, Common and Wood Sandpipers. Given the width of the road and my uneasiness at the proximity of the prison, I did not stop and drove on. The next few kilometers were the same – lots of birds – and I soon found a couple of tracks off to the side that allowed me to pull off the road and scan.. I saw Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, hundreds of White-winged and Whiskered Terns, Gull-billed Terns, more Black-winged Stilts, Common Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Avocet, Kentish and Little Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, a few Black-tailed Gulls and a single Grey-tailed Tattler. Wow.. Knowing that the high tide was due, I pressed on to the coast and, as I reached the mudflats, the road ended and a dirt track branched off to the right along the sea wall. I parked up about 2 km along the track in an area that allowed me to scan the mudflats and also watch the waders fly over the seawall to an area of flooded pools that provided a good roost site for the birds until the mud was uncovered again on the falling tide.
Despite it being late afternoon, it was hot and humid. Around 35 degrees C without a breath of wind and, even with a hat and lots of water, it was not the most pleasant of conditions and I was constantly wiping my brow to stem the flow of sweat into my eyes.. Nevertheless, it was very good to be birding on the coast and seeing waders. This area produced good numbers of Curlew – both Far Eastern (34) and Eurasian (29) – on the mudflats that gradually made their way closer to me as the tide pushed in. Some Saunders’ Gulls (12) occasionally passed along the sea wall and a few Pacific Golden (4) and Grey Plovers (14) fed on the mud alongside many Kentish Plovers (c80) and a single Lesser Sand Plover. On the inland side of the seawall, a party of 56 Great Knot, 2 Red-necked Stints, 23 Spotted Redshank, 48 Marsh Sandpiper, 7 Common Sandpiper, 29 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 4 Common Redshank, 3 Wood Sandpiper, 34 Avocet, 2 Terek Sandpiper and a single Grey-tailed Tattler all loafed on the edges of the lagoons. A Long-tailed Shrike hunted from the wires along the sea wall and 2 Dark-sided Flycatchers fed on insects in the nearby shrubs.
The visibility was poor on my first evening on site, so I wasn’t able to see the full extent of the mudflats or the birds that were using them but I left that evening having a good feel for the site and the areas that offered most promise.
After a delicious meal in a small local restaurant, where I was treated as if I was the first foreigner many of the locals had ever seen, I retired early and made an early start the next day. The day started out very foggy but, thankfully, by the time I had made my prison break, it had cleared a lot and on arrival at the mudflats I could see for around two miles. It was at this point that I could appreciate the full scale of the area.. everywhere I looked out to sea, I could see local people digging for shellfish or checking nets on the mud. Heavy machinery – cranes and earth-movers – punctured the skyline. Despite this unnatural setting, there were birds.. not huge numbers but a good variety. After a few minutes of scanning I looked up to see a gull fly overhead and land on the mud a few hundred metres away. It had a black hood and, from the underwing pattern in flight and its structure I thought it could be a Relict Gull. I trained my telescope onto it and, sure enough, there was a stunning Relict Gull, just beginning to moult from its breeding plumage. I made some field notes and enjoyed watching this rare gull preen and feed. Relict Gulls have a very distinctive front-heavy look and they patrol the mud looking for crabs in a manner reminiscent of plovers. On another stretch of mudflats, in amongst some local crabbers, there were at least 50 of these gulls feeding at low tide.. a really great sight and, trumping my spring sighting of a few flyovers at Yeyahu in Spring, these were my best ever views of Relict Gull.
Other birds on view included Bar-tailed Godwit, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, a few Black-headed Gulls, small numbers of Red-necked Stint and both Gull-billed and Little Terns. On the roost were loafing Black-tailed Gulls, a few Black-headed Gulls, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Common, Gull-billed, Little, Whiskered and White-winged Terns and Wood and Common Sandpipers.
After waiting until the tide pushed off all of the birds from the flats I began to make my way back towards town, stopping to check the roadside pools. More Black-winged Stilts, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Kentish Plovers… Then I saw a much smaller pool with lots more birds and there was a track that went alongside, enabling me to view with the sun behind me. There were lots of Bar-tailed and a few Black-tailed Godwits, Marsh, Wood and Common Sandpipers, two Red Knot, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Avocet and the omnipresent Black-winged Stilt. Amongst the Bar-tailed Godwit I spotted a slightly smaller godwit-like bird with a straight all-dark bill and dark legs. An Asian Dowitcher! A new bird for me. Soon I got onto a second bird – this time a juvenile (quite early?) – and I watched these two birds for some time as they fed with the godwits. The ‘tramlines’ along the back, together with the straight bills, helped me to pick out these birds quite easily in the group.
A local fisherman walked past and flushed all the waders and, after waiting a few minutes to see if they would return, I carried on when it was clear that the birds had dispersed.
A single Kestrel was the only raptor I saw and the rest of the supporting cast included Black Drongo, Tree Sparrow, Grey and White Wagtails, Common Magpie, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Great Cormorant, Yellow and Great Bitterns, Grey Heron, Little and Great Egrets.
I spent the following morning at the same spots, enjoying a lovely encounter with a feeding flock of marsh terns, before heading back to Beijing around lunchtime in time to return the hire car for 5pm.
A thoroughly enjoyable couple of days in a challenging setting. The development is relentless but, despite this, the birds are there and seemingly adapting to the ever-changing shape of the environment. One can only hope that at least part of the mudflats of the Bohai Gulf are protected from land reclamation to ensure that this important stopover is not completely lost.
After Brian Jones’s post about Wild Duck Lake and his comment that there was always a “Yeyahu surprise” I guess I should not have been shocked that my next visit in prime migration season should produce a Chinese mega in the form of a Great White Pelican! Even so this record, the significance of which I only realised after returning home, was way beyond my wildest expectations.
Great White Pelican (GWP) is a very rare bird in China. In fact any Pelican sp (Dalmatian is more frequent) is a rare bird in this part of the world. Jesper Hornskov, of 20 years experience in China, has only seen one other GWP in Xinjiang over 15 years ago. And Paul Holt has just informed me that my sighting is the second record for the Beijing area, the first being at Miyun Reservoir in October-November 2009. Fortunately, given I was not able to secure any images of the Wild Duck Lake bird and the fact it was only present for around 90 minutes, Jesper was also coincidentally in the vicinity and saw it in flight.
This is the story…
With Libby in Shanghai with her visiting sister, I decided to take the opportunity to travel up to Yanqing on Friday evening and stay over to allow a dawn start at WDL. After enjoying a Friday night in the happening town of Yanqing (or rather being in bed by 9pm), I arrived at Ma Chang at first light (about 0545) and, after checking the ‘desert area’ for Oriental Plovers (no sign) and enjoying the flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks that were wheeling around, I made for the narrow spit to the west (complete with yurts) to check the reservoir. On arrival here, at about 0705, I immediately saw a large white bird with the naked eye at the far side of the reservoir and thought it must be a late swan. But it looked big. I set up the telescope and was shocked to see a pelican sp swimming on the water! It was resting on the far side of the reservoir among a large flock of some 250+ Black-headed Gulls. I immediately sent SMSs to Jesper and Brian Jones and Jesper responded to say he was also at WDL but in a different part (!) and asked for directions. I explained where it was but wasn’t sure whether or not Jesper could see it from his vantage point. I then watched the bird for about an hour during which time it preened and swam along the far side of the reservoir, looking settled. At one point a small group of 8 Relict Gulls flew right over it! On any other day, the Relict Gulls would have been the star of the show… I knew there had been the odd record of Dalmatian Pelican in the Beijing area, so assumed it must be this species (having seen neither I was not sure of the identification criteria). But nevertheless, I took some notes on the features I could see. Although distant, I could see that it was large, bulkier than a swan, and the plumage was a brilliant white with a yellowish bill. At about 0830 I left the reservoir to do my normal walk to Yeyahu. Jesper was further north and east of me and I assumed, as I had not seen or heard from him, that he had been able to pick it up. Then, at 0845, as I was walking east, Jesper sent me a text to say the pelican was in flight over the reservoir. I picked it up easily in my bins and then watched it through my telescope as it circled, gained height and, after a few minutes, was lost to view in the murk. I took some notes about the features I could see. In flight, it looked a brilliant white against the mountains as it soared, with intermittent wingbeats. On the upperside, there was a clear and sharp contrast between the black wing tips and black secondaries and the brilliant white plumage. I did not clearly see the underside. Jesper then sent me a SMS to say the wing pattern fitted Great White. It was only when I returned home and looked at the literature that I realised, from my notes, that it was definitely a Great White and just how rare it is in northern China. Unfortunately, at no time did it come close enough for me to obtain a photo. I am just very pleased that Jesper saw it too!
I am assuming that it was a wild bird but, of course, there is the possibility of it being a free-flying escape from some park. I’ll try to do some digging about this possibility.