First documented record of Vega Gull in Beijing

Perhaps surprisingly, the taxa known as Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae or Larus argentatus vegae or Larus smithsonius vegae, or simply Larus vegae, depending on your taxonomy of choice) had, until recently, never been reliably recorded in Beijing.  This is most likely due to several factors: first, the fact that vegae appears to be highly coastal, so is likely to be at least scarce and maybe rare in the capital; second, the difficulty in separating vegae from mongolicus (Mongolian Gull), the most frequent large white-headed gull in Beijing; and third a lack of awareness about the potential of this taxa to occur in the capital.  

Large white-headed gulls are not resident in Beijing.  The vast majority we see are the migratory Mongolian Gull (Larus vegae mongolicus, Larus argentatus mongolicus, Larus smithsonius mongolicus) in spring (primarily late February to mid-April) and autumn (late August to November) as they make their way to and from their inland breeding grounds and their coastal non-breeding range.  Flocks of 100+ are not uncommon at reservoirs such as Shahe, Ming Tombs, Miyun Reservoir and Guanting.  Occasionally, a few ‘taimyrensis‘ Lesser Black-backed Gull and Pallas’s Gull are mixed in and it has long been suspected that the occasional vegae might get caught up in these flocks but, despite several reports, none has ever been documented.   Mongolicus and vegae look remarkably similar in breeding plumage when they both have clean white heads but, in the non-breeding season, vegae sports much heavier streaking on the head, including the crown and neck, often reaching the breast.  Mongolicus usually retains a largely clean white head with only limited streaking around the eye and a pale grey, lightly marked ‘neck shawl’.  Given mongolicus’s relatively early breeding season, this taxa attains breeding plumage earlier than vegae, which mostly breeds further north.  Thus, in Beijing, any adult large white-headed gull with heavy streaking on the head and chest in late March should be examined carefully and documented.  

On 20 March young birders, Liu Aitao, Lou Fangzhou and Wei Zichen scrutinised a flock of large gulls loafing close to the southern shore of Shahe Reservoir.  Their awareness, perseverance and tenacity meant that they secured some wonderful images of a candidate vegae, documenting it sufficiently well to become Beijing’s first confirmed record of Vega Gull.  

Congratulations are in order and one of the observers, Liu Aitao, kindly wrote the account below of their find and offered it for publication here.  Aitao and his friends are notching up some great records in the capital and, best of all, they have a lot of fun doing it!

Over to Aitao…

Saturday, 20th March 2021:

After a fruitful morning of birding (including four lifer Lesser White-fronted Geese) at the Ming Tombs Reservoir, Wei Zichen, Lou Fangzhou and I decided to head to another birding hotspot – Shahe Reservoir – in the hope of seeing some gulls we had missed this season.

Upon arrival, we set up our scope on the staircase among rows of photographers who lined the south shore of the reservoir. The wind started to pick up, but the birds made up for the harsh weather: a flock of 60+ Tundra (Bewick’s) Swan, 20+ Common Shelduck, small flocks of Common Goldeneye and a handful of other species of waterfowl rode on choppy waves; Great Cormorants flew past by the hundred; and, in the shallows, around a hundred gulls rested, occasionally flushed by unknown disturbances, just to waver in the wind and settle right back to the same spot; a Eurasian Siskin quietly feasted on a Willow tree overhead while a few Barn Swallows flickered in the breeze.

We set our gaze on the gulls. The three of us took turns looking through the scope as we ate our lunch. Identifying the gulls was no easy feat. The messy classification of the gulls in the Genus Larus in East Asia and the different moult stages of the individual birds in conjunction with the incessant cold winds that constantly shook both our scope and us made the gull-watching an intimidating challenge. But with our perseverance came rewards; a few minutes in, we picked out a ‘taimyrensis’ Lesser Black-backed Gull, a scarce but regular spring migrant, among the cluster of Mongolian Gulls. Then we spotted another, and another. Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls already put smiles on our faces, but while we were verifying the ID with each other, another odd-looking gull caught our attention. It was an adult gull with many features that seemed odd to us compared with the many Mongolian Gulls. In particular, the heavy streaking on its head and neck seemed too dense and extensive for Mongolian Gull, and the grey on its mantle and wings was not dark enough for a Lesser Black-backed. Furthermore, when it hopped out of the water, its legs were not yellow but obviously pink, denying the possibility of it being a Lesser Black-backed Gull. We were immediately intrigued by this find. I then vaguely recalled that Terry once mentioned the possibility of seeing a Vega Gull in Beijing, so I messaged him asking about how to ID Vega Gulls. Following his advice, we spent the next hour trying to observe and photograph this gull as much as we could, paying special attention to its primary flight feathers, wing shape and colour, streaking on the head, legs and looking for any other differences compared with the Mongolian Gulls. Throughout the 2.5 hours, the gull hopped out of the water once and took off flying twice, providing us with opportunities to photograph its outstretched wings and legs. Another 4th winter gull close by also showed very extensive streaking on the head and neck, so we also took some photos of that bird for further inspection.

Adult Vega Gull, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021 (Photo by Liu Aitao). Note the relatively extensive head-streaking.
The adult Vega Gull (centre) with Mongolian Gulls, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. Photo by Lou Fangzhou.
Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae), Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. The first documented record of this taxa in Beijing (Photo by Lou Fangzhou).  
Vega Gull in flight, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021 (Photo by Lou Fangzhou).
Vega Gull, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. Photo by Lou Fangzhou.  

Back at home, all three of us (Wei Zichen, Lou Fangzhou and I) did some further research about Vega Gulls and sorted through all of our photos and footage of the gull we encountered on the day. Wei Zichen referenced his “Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America” (Olsen) book, Lou Fangzhou provided most of the photos (and the best ones) and consulted other birders he knew, and I read up on any information I could find on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Birds of the World. Although the two gulls we found matched many features of Vega Gull we could find in literature and online resources, other information we found confused us… I compiled all the photos and videos we had and sent them to Terry for further investigation. Terry came to the conclusion that the two gulls we found *could* in fact be Vega Gulls. Since there has not been any confirmed prior sightings of Vega Gulls in Beijing, despite his likely accurate initial judgement, Terry was extra meticulous in the identification of our two gulls. He contacted the Ujiharas in Japan – who have vast experience with Vega Gull – for their opinion. To our delight, Michiaki Ujihara’s opinion aligned with Terry’s judgement, citing the adult gull’s excessive head streaking in late March and shorter-winged impression in flight. Although the identity of the other 4th winter gull remains uncertain, the adult bird is the first documented record of Vega Gull in Beijing!

Although there are so many readily enjoyable aspects of birding, to me it’s moments like this that truly make me appreciate the joy of birding. The constant unpredictability and variability of the birding scene, the thrill and excitement of discovering something unusual/new, the “gruelling” process of correctly identifying a confusing or “difficult” bird, the knowledge I gain and conversations I have during the identification process are all genuinely what makes birding so enthralling and captivating. This sighting of a Vega Gull may only be one small discovery in the grand scheme of things, but it just goes to show that there will always be countless possibilities and opportunities when it comes to birding, especially in Beijing. I hope our Vega Gull finding can encourage more birders to always keep an open mind and open eyes while out in the field. With a little bit of luck, perseverance, curiosity and an open mind, we all have the chance to discover something new in nature.

Finally, I would like to use this opportunity to greatly appreciate Terry for his continued support and guidance. Without him, I would never have been able to make this exciting find. Additionally, I would also like to pay my gratitude towards Michiaki Ujihara for confirming the ID and Wei Zichen & Lou Fangzhou for accompanying me on my birding excursion and spotting this gull with me.

Liu Aitao (centre) with Lou Fangzhou (left) and Wei Zichen (right) in the field. Photo by 贺建华 (Hè jiànhuá).

Additional notes: Due to the disparities between classification systems, I simply called the gulls “Vega Gulls” and “Mongolian Gulls”. I hereby cite the commonly used IOC v11.1 Master Bird List and the most up to date Clements Checklist (2019). According to the IOC list, Vega Gull refers to both the Mongolian Gull (Larus vegae mongolicus) and the Vega Gull I referred to in this text (the nominate subspecies of the IOC Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae). Whereas the Clements Checklist still treats both Vega Gulls and Mongolian Gulls as subspecies of a whole cluster of gulls all classified as Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus mongolicus and Larus argentatus vegae). However, as mongolicus and vegae have distinctive breeding ranges and noticeable morphological differences, I personally think it is important to acknowledge their differences and treat them differently.

Liu Aitao

Late Autumn Highlights from Beijing

This autumn has been exceptional.  As well as some outstanding rarities in the traditional autumn period of September and October such as Streaked Reed Warbler, Swinhoe’s Rail, Great White Pelican etc etc, November has continued in the same vein with Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Black Redstart at Lingshan (both very rare), European Robin and Eurasian Bullfinch (both 2nd records for Beijing and still present, as I write, in the Temple of Heaven Park) – Brown-cheeked Bulbul in Yuanmingyuan Park and now a pair of Long-tailed Duck at Shahe Reservoir, an excellent find by Chen Yanxin.

Here are a few pictures and video of the star attractions of November (so far!).  Long may this incredible run continue…

EUROPEAN ROBIN, Temple of Heaven, 11 November 2014
EUROPEAN ROBIN, Temple of Heaven, 11 November 2014
Eurasian Bullfinch (but which ssp?), Temple of Heaven Park
Eurasian Bullfinch (but which ssp?), Temple of Heaven Park
Brown-eared Bulbul, Yuanmingyuan Park, 2 November 2014
Brown-eared Bulbul, Yuanmingyuan Park, 2 November 2014
Black Redstart, Lingshan, 9 November 2014.
Black Redstart, Lingshan, 9 November 2014.

First for China: STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW in Beijing!

Last summer, when I first met Colm Moore and his partner Zhao Qi at the first informal Beijing birders’ meet-up, I was struck by their warm, polite and above all modest manner.  A truly lovely couple.  Of course I already knew Colm through reputation.  Here was a guy who had already found some astonishing birds at his local patch at Shahe – a small urban reservoir in Beijing – including Beijing’s first skua (a stunning Long-tailed) and Black-headed Wagtail (ssp feldeggi) supported by a host of other excellent records such as White-winged Scoter.

Most birders dream of finding a national first.  It’s something I have never come close to… but Colm has form, having found Portugal’s first records of Pallas’s Reed Bunting and, I believe, American Herring Gull.  And so it should have come as no surprise that it was he who was behind an astonishing find, again at Shahe, on 4 May…  Here is Colm’s tale of that red-letter day…

“Streak-throated Swallow: a taxon apparently new to the Chinese avifauna; Colm Moore and Zhao Qi.

Dawn on 4th May 2014 broke clear and anticyclonic at Shahe, allowing a substantial northwards movement of hirundines to occur. Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica were in the majority but with up to forty Sand Martins Riparia riparia present as well. By mid-morning this passage had been almost entirely inhibited by a strengthening northerly gale and hundreds of Barn Swallows were sheltering in the lee of the Poplar grove at the western end of the reservoir. A smaller hirundine that had puzzled us earlier in the morning now reappeared in flight and finally, after some hours, allowed closer examination. Over 100 photographs were taken of the bird in bright sunlight, both in flight and while perched on the sandy waste ground, facing into the wind. At about 1300hrs the storm abated temporarily and the Barn Swallows drifted away northwards, along with their erstwhile companion. Puzzled by this diminutive hirundine and unable to identify the species, we decided to draw on Paul Holt’s encyclopaedic knowledge and sent him some images.  However, with Paul in the field, it was almost a month before he opened them.  He instantly recognised it as a STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW, a south Asian species, and called for more images.

Paul eventually saw the entire series of photographs and verified his initial identification of the Shahe hirundine.

The species is a monotypic taxon. It occurs from Oman in the west, through Pakistan and India to Nepal and Bangladesh in the east, occurring as a vagrant in Sri Lanka, the Arabian Gulf and Egypt. Just a month before the Shahe record, one was seen in Kuwait. Though burdened with a plethora of English names, its taxonomic position is fairly stable. The taxon is placed in the Petrochelidon clade rather than in Hirundo. Its scientific name, as of 2013 (Ibis, 155:898-907, October 2013), is Petrochelidon fluvicola, retaining the specific name fluvicola ever since Blyth first named it in 1855. Though subject to vagrancy, the species has apparently never been recorded in China, even in Yunnan where south and east Asian species might be expected to overlap in range. It is the first record for Beijing. Though vagrants may travel alone, often their proximate cause of arrival is the presence of sister species on passage; in the Shahe case this would be Barn Swallow or Sand Martin.  According to the literature, the species may be increasing in population in south Asia and is listed as “of least concern” in the IUCN Redlist.”

Here are some of Colm’s photos….

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore)
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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore). Note size difference in comparison with Barn Swallow.
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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore).
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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014. A first for Beijing and a first for China!

Big congratulations to Colm and Zhao Qi..  a truly astonishing record.  I definitely owe you a beer at the next Beijing birders meet-up…

 

Pelicans in Beijing!

As I was having a short Easter break in Singapore, it was predictably a superb weekend of birding in Beijing..!  The main highlight was the appearance of at least 6 DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) at Shahe Reservoir.

Shahe is a regular spot for Irish birding legend, Colm Moore, and he has found some excellent birds at this city reservoir over the last few years, including Black-headed Wagtail, Bar-tailed Godwit, Long-tailed Skua, a recent Black-tailed Gull and many more.

The site is also visited by some Chinese birders including Chen Yanxin and it was both of these guys who found 3 DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) on the reservoir early Saturday morning.  Colm also saw an additional 3 flyover DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕), bringing the total seen to at least 6.

Shahe suffers from regular disturbance by fishermen and a whole range of other leisure activities, especially at weekends, so it’s certainly a site that should be visited early morning if at all possible.  And this was evidenced by the fact that the pelicans flew off north west around 1000am before many local birders could reach the site.

Here are some photos by Chen Yanxin.

DALMATIAN PELICANS at Shahe.  Two adults (with bright bills) and one subadult. Photo by Chen Yanxin.
DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) at Shahe. Two adults (with bright bills) and one subadult. Photo by Chen Yanxin.
DALMATIAN PELICAN, Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014
DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕), Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014.  Photo by Chen Yanxin.
DALMATIAN PELICANS at Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014
DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) at Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014
Shahe in the early morning mist..  hard to believe this is Beijing!  Photo by Chen Yanxin.
Shahe in the early morning mist.. hard to believe this is Beijing! Photo by Chen Yanxin.
Colm Moore (left) chats to a fellow birder at Shahe...
Colm Moore (left) chats to a fellow birder at Shahe…

Although increasing in parts of Europe, DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕) is classified as “Vulnerable” by Birdlife International due to the sharp decline in the Asian population.  In the region, these birds breed in western Mongolia and some winter on the southeast coast of China.  It is a rare migrant in Beijing, usually in Spring, as it makes its way from the wintering grounds to the breeding areas.

Congratulations to Colm and Chen Yanxin for seeing, and photographing so well, these special birds..!

Long-tailed Skua

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Long-tailed Skua, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 22 June 2013 (Photo by Zhao Qi). The first documented record of a skua – of any species – in the capital.

When Beijing-based Colm Moore sent me an email saying that he had seen a Long-tailed Skua at the capital’s Shahe reservoir on 22 June, I was impressed. Skuas of any species are very scarce in China, especially inland. What I didn’t know at the time was that Colm’s sighting was the first ever documented record of a skua – any skua – in the capital. Wow!

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Over the last 18 months or so, Colm has consistently been finding interesting birds at this reservoir, situated between the 5th and 6th ring roads in northern Beijing, demonstrating the benefits of patch birding.  This year alone he has found a feldeggi Black-headed Wagtail (the first record in China away from the far western Province of Xinjiang), Dalmatian Pelican, Beijing’s second record of Bar-tailed Godwit (a group of 7 on the same day as the skua!), Oriental White Stork, Watercock, Manchurian Reed Warbler and many more… It just goes to show what can be found by combining skill and effort, even in a relatively uninspiring urban location.

Here are a couple more images of the skua taken by Zhao Qi.

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Long-tailed Skua, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 22 June 2013. Another brilliant find by Colm Moore. Photograph by Zhao Qi.
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Long-tailed Skua, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 22 June 2013 (Photograph by Zhao Qi)

On the status of Long-tailed Skua in China,  Paul Holt offered this response:

“..there are very few reports of any species of skua/jaeger from anywhere in China. …….. I saw one Long-tailed at Laotieshan, Lushun, Liaoning last September (the first record for Liaoning) – plus several unidentifed distant jaegers, another Long-tailed in Shandong on 13 Oct. 2010 (the first for Shandong) & ………… Jesper [Hornskov]’s also seen a Long-tailed in Qinghai. Long-tailed’s reasonably common/regular off Taiwan in April & is the commonest of the skuas/jaegers there.”

Paul’s comments help to put into perspective just how good is Colm’s record… and, on a lighter note, as Colm commented, it’s also the first skua seen by an Irishman anywhere in China…!

Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus and White Wagtail ssp ocularis

Yesterday morning I spent a couple of hours at Shahe Reservoir.  No sign of the Baer’s Pochard from 25 March but there was a nice cross-section of wildfowl on site and some light raptor passage.  Buff-bellied Pipits are beginning to come through now and, here in Beijing, we see the subspecies japonicus.  One smart individual – albeit not so buff-bellied  – dropped in as I was scanning the duck on the reservoir and proceeded to jerk its way along the edge of the reservoir, providing a good opportunity to study it closely.

Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Shahe Reservoir, 3 April 2012.
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 3 April 2012. Note the relatively heavy streaking on the underparts reaching the flanks, the relatively long, thin bill, plain face and fleshy-coloured legs.
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 3 April 2012.

The call of this bird reminded me of Meadow Pipits from back home in the UK.

As I was watching this pipit, a small flock of White Wagtails dropped in, mostly of the ssp leucopsis but including this smart male of the ocularis subspecies.

Adult male White Wagtail ssp ocularis. Note the black cap/nape contrasting with the grey back and the thin black eye-stripe extending in front of, and behind, the eye. Apologies for the dead fish backdrop!

Along the reedy edges of the reservoir there were a few Pallas’s Reed Buntings.  This individual caused me some confusion at first, being much brighter and more rufous than the very pale and frosty Pallas’s I have been used to seeing all winter.  I suspected Japanese Reed Bunting.  But after looking at images on the Oriental Bird Club image database and consulting with my bunting guru, Tom Beeke, I realised that this is indeed a Pallas’s.  Japanese should show a much darker cap and darker ear coverts.  Always learning!

Pallas's Reed Bunting (female?), Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 3 April 2012. Looking quite smart now it's spring..

Full species list:

Swan Goose – 2 (asleep on the island)
Ruddy Shelduck – 4
Gadwall – 8
Falcated Duck – 28
Mallard – 345
Spot-billed Duck – 12
Shoveler – 16
Garganey – 3
Eurasian Teal – 33
Common Pochard – 13
Goldeneye – 64
Little Grebe – 40
Great Crested Grebe – 32
Grey Heron – 29
Little Egret – 3
Great Cormorant – 6
Black-eared Kite – 2 migr north-east
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 2
Eastern Buzzard – 15 (12 migr north-east and 3 hunting on the southern shore of the reservoir)
Upland Buzzard – 2 migr north-east
Common Coot – 4
Mongolian Gull – 23 (18 migrating west, 5 on the water)
Black-headed Gull – 10 on the reservoir
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 235 (in 4 groups, migrating north – apparently mostly immature birds)
Carrion Crow – 8
Corvid sp (Carrion/Large-billed Crow/Rook) – 23
Barn Swallow – 1
Dusky Thrush – 1
Tree Sparrow – 28
Grey Wagtail – 2
White Wagtail – 22 (20 of the ssp leucopsis and 2 ocularis)
Buff-bellied Pipit – 5
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 5