Beijing’s first Blue-fronted Redstart: A finder’s account by 13-year old student, Huò Shèngzhé

Finding a first record is a highlight for any birder.  Finding a first for your capital city when you are aged 13 and 15 is the stuff dreams are made of.  That’s what happened on 27 November 2021 to 霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé, 13 yrs old, known by his social media moniker of “Oriental Stork”) and 高孝延 (Gāo Xiàoyán, 15 yrs old) when these two enthusiastic young birders found a female Blue-fronted Redstart (蓝额红尾鸲 Lán é hóng wěi qú) at Shahe Reservoir, the first record of this species in Beijing.

Below is 霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé’s account of that special day.   Excitement and enthusiasm shine through, as does a maturity beyond his years.  I hope you enjoy reading his account as much as I did.


Finding a Blue-fronted Redstart in Beijing, by 霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé.

Our trip to Shahe Reservoir was made simple because Xiaogao and I needed to lead a small birding trip for the school nature club.  We were completely tired out after shouting at everybody to stop talking and get going for more than half a day, but we still made it to 35 species by the time the club activity ended, including quite a large flock of Bearded Reedling (Panurus biarmicus 文须雀 Wén xū què), a few Chinese Penduline Tits (Remiz consobrinus 中华攀雀 Zhōnghuá pān què) uttering their usual “peeeeeel” call, and a Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris 大麻鳽 Dà má jiān) hiding in reeds, only to take off as the seventh graders came chatting along.

We both wanted to see more species to make up for the day, so we decided to check the east bank of the reservoir. The sun, high up in the sky, had no effect on the chilly weather.  The waterfall thundered in the background, and an egret flashed pure white as it went gliding softly over the water’s surface. Daurian Jackdaws (Coloeus dauuricus  达乌里寒鸦 Dá wū lǐ hán yā) soared across the clear blue sky in loose flocks. Silvery bells chimed as a few Silver-throated Bushtits (Aegithalos glaucogularis 银喉长尾山雀 Yín hóu cháng wěi shān què) jumped around in the branches, and a couple of Japanese Tits (Parus minor 大山雀 Dà shānquè) tagged along, glancing curiously down at us.  Just before we climbed into the car, Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo 普通鸬鹚 Pǔtōng lú cí) flew in tens, maybe hundreds, over our heads, creating an endless river of feathers and wings. We were delighted as our checklist finally reached 40 species.

Our plan was to follow the Wenyu river and have a little explore.  As the car went speeding down the road, I suddenly remembered a place off the road I found last autumn. There were quite a lot of birds, I recalled. So for no particular reason, I suggested we have a peek.

We followed a trail down from the road. The call of Little (Emberiza pusilla 小鹀 Xiǎo wú), Black-faced (Emberiza spodocephala灰头鹀 Huī tóu wú) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings (Emberiza spodocephala 灰头鹀 Huī tóu wú) flickered through the air. Between the trees stood a few patches of shrubs, closely huddling against each other helplessly. It was getting late, the sky cast a beautiful shade of red over the scene. A flock of bushtits leapt noisily in the trees.  As we got closer, suddenly I picked out a different sound from the endless chime of bushtits. ”twirrrl”. I tensed instantly. The call reminded me of a wind up sound, similar to the call of a Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla 红喉姬鹟 Hóng hóu jī wēng), but a little different. Maybe it was my ears playing tricks on me, I thought. But then, after a few steps, ”twirrrl” – there it was again! Xiaogao heard it too. It was coming from the bushes!

Something wasn’t right. I thought I had heard the sound before, somewhere, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. We slowed, shared eye contact, then slowly with eyes narrowed and ears peeled, we advanced toward where the sound was coming from. At that moment, time slowed all around us. The noisy hymn of the bushtits seemed to have stopped abruptly. Everything was so quiet. I was getting excited, I could feel my heart racing, thumping against my chest. What could that be?

Another couple of “twirrls”. They echoed through the air. Just then, as we got in front of the patch of thick shrubbery, a flash of red and brown came shooting out from the branches, made a sudden turn in mid-air, as if startled to see us, then dived down into a different bush like a rocket.

The first though that came to me was that this was a Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus 北红尾鸲 Běi hóng wěi qú), but that was almost impossible given to the way it called. We crouched in front of the bush into which our target had dived. ”twirrrl”. Under the thick branches, a Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus 红胁蓝尾鸲 Hóng xié lán wěi qú) was cocking its head up at us. We stared in disblief. A bluetail?How come?But when the sound came again, the bluetail didn’t move its bill…so it wasn’t the bluetail that we heard. Then, a shadow appeared in the shrubs, a few meters away from the bluetail. It flapped its wings, made a dive toward the ground, then hopped up to another branch. So, there it was! That’s when I realised that I had left my camera back in the car, and I would definitely need the camera to get a photo, so I told Xiaogao, who had taken his camera with him, to stay put, try to get a photo, while I teared up the track back to our car where I had left my camera.

I was panting heavily when I got back to the bush, camera at the ready. I was relieved to see Xiaogao crouching on the ground, shutter clicking away. I silently praised that he had gotten an identifiable picture. Xiaogao crept out from the bush, dried leaves in his hair, his poor white pants – our school uniform – were covered with mud. He showed me a blurred picture of a very strange looking redstart. Unlike the common Daurian Redstart, this one had practically no large white patches on its wings, and the body plumage was slightly darker. Xiaogao had no idea about which species. I scowled. Its odd features…I was almost sure that this wasn’t the first time I had seen this species, but I simply couldn’t point my finger on exactly what it was. Whatever the species, we realised this was probably something that was pretty rare. And our task now was to get as much evidence as we could about this bird to help with later identification.

I made a few recordings of its mysterious call and then, for the rest of the day, we crept around the bushes, straining to get some better photos. Believe me, we had a pretty hard time. The bird was really alert, so every time we tried to get close, it fluttered away and disappeared into another set of bushes. Plus, it hid itself really deep in the branches, constantly changing its position, so it was nearly impossible to focus the camera, much less taking a clear photo. Finally, we managed to secure a couple of clear pictures of the bird.

By now, the sun was sinking and the clouds above us reflecting a fiery red glow. We straightened our arms and legs, sore from crouching on the ground, our trousers mud-soaked with grass hanging down. Sweat dripped from our cheeks, despite the cold weather. “twirrrl” – our redstart made another jeer at us from somewhere deep in the branches. We stole another glance at the bushes, then left with half a dozen barely identifiable photographs, and a thousand questions.

On the way back, I kept wondering about this bird. Can it actually be something really rare? Images of people finding rare species kept popping into my head, the eBird rare bird alert, followed by birders from all over the city rushing toward a single spot to catch a glimpse of the bird, a tiny patch of shrubbery surrounded by layers of people.  Thousands of possibilities soared around in my mind.

Maybe it’s a Daurian Redstart after all, I thought, after flipping through articles about redstart identification, and listening to lots of recordings on Xeno-canto with no result. After dinner, I had no choice but to put my pictures and the recording, along with Xiaogao’s, on We-chat, asking for help from other birders.

The first image of the mystery redstart by 高孝延 Gāo Xiàoyán, circulated to birders on 27 November 2021 (Photo by 高孝延 Gāo Xiàoyán).
One of the first images of the mystery redstart circulated to birders on 27 November 2021 (Photo by 霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé)

The original sound recording circulated to birders on 27 November 2021 (霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé).


Anything but Daurian, I prayed!

People started giving their opinions, with some saying Daurian, some suggesting Alashan Redstart (Phoenicurus alaschanicus 贺兰山红尾鸲 Hèlánshān hóng wěi qú), a major rarity in Beijing.  Some mentioned that the call was similar to Blue-fronted (Phoenicurus frontalis 蓝额红尾鸲 Lán é hóng wěi qú), which had never before appeared in Beijing. Hope planted itself in my mind. I started to get restless, flicking up the screen of my phone every few minutes, checking for the latest news. Meanwhile, more and more people, including Terry Townshend, suggested Blue-fronted Redstart. My heart pounded furiously, excitement twirling in my brain. I have seen the Blue-fronted Redstart fewer than half a dozen times in Yunnan. It’s really hard to imagine it turning up in Beijing. Then, the remark came from Mr.Holt: “perfect Blue-Fronted.” At the same time, Terry returned from Xeno-canto, the sound recording website, and told me the call matched Blue–fronted Redstart!

At first, there was only numbness. I could feel my heart pounding, my eyes glued to the screen. After God knows how long, my heart erupted with joy, and I nearly fainted with excitement. My gosh, a Blue-fronted Redstart, the first sighting of this bird in the whole damn capital. Now, I and Xiaogao are finders of a new record for Beijing!

For half an hour, I was overwhelmed with disbelief and pride. The good thing was, I cooled down shortly after that. After a short discussion with Xiaogao, we reached an agreement that the location of this bird should be kept secret. I don’t know what others would think about our decision, but I do remember what happened to the Robin in Beijing Zoo, and the poor Great Bustards in Tongzhou. I, surely, wouldn’t want anything like that to happen again, especially not to this new record for Beijing.

The assembled crowd waiting for the European Robin at the Beijing Zoo in January 2019, referred to by Huò Shèngzhé above (Photo by Terry Townshend).

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Thoughts raced around my mind, thoughts about our decision, and about how I could possibly find a bird which is a new record for Beijing. It’s pretty accidental but, at the same time, not exactly random. Unlike some other birdwatchers in Beijing, I and Xiaogao have our own style. I seldom go “twitching”, which means to go and see a rare bird the second after the location is released. Throughout this whole year, I hadn’t visited many hotspots, hadn’t put most of my attention simply on boosting my own life list. Instead, I  focused all my might on my own birding patch, trying my best to find birds on my own, first–hand. Sometimes, seeing birds you have seen a million times can seem boring, but if you keep up long enough, there are always surprises. If I hadn’t thought of the place I found last autumn, if I simply had taken a hike through the well-known birding areas, then leave like so many other birders do, this bird would have never been found.

Maybe that’s what the birding community in Beijing needs: fewer trips to hotspots for target species or good photos, fewer people birding simply for their life lists, just a little more attention to the common-looking overgrown fields which aren’t so far away from your house, and maybe new sightings for Beijing will be popping out from everywhere!

霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé, known by the moniker “Oriental Stork” on social media).


The co-finders:

霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé), also known as “Oriental Stork”, birding at his local patch in west Beijing.
高孝延 (Gāo Xiàoyán), the co-finder of Beijing’s first Blue-fronted Redstart, at Ma Chang in Beijing.

Title image: the female Blue-fronted Redstart at Shahe Reservoir found by 霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé) and 高孝延 (Gāo Xiàoyánon) 27 November 2021.  The first record of this species for Beijing.  (Photo by 高孝延 Gāo Xiàoyán).

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….

Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore)
Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore). Note size difference in comparison with Barn Swallow.
Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore).
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

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.

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