Swinhoe’s Rail in Beijing

Whilst I was in Dalian participating in the 2nd China International Birding Festival (more on that to come), I received an excited WeChat message from Zhao Qi informing me that Colm Moore had, just a few minutes earlier, seen a SWINHOE’S RAIL at Shahe Reservoir, Beijing.  Due to its secretive habits, this poorly-known species is very rarely seen anywhere and a decline in the number of records in recent years suggests that it is becoming one of China’s rarest birds.  From a personal perspective, it is my most sought-after species and I have lost count of the number of times I have endured squelchy feet as I meandered through soggy meadows around Beijing in the vain hope of encountering one of these enigmatic birds.

Anyone who knows Colm will tell you he is a brilliant birder.  In Beijing he is a relentless patch worker, visiting Shahe whenever he has spare time, which usually equates to a visit each weekend.  If ever a sighting of this magnitude was deserved, this is it.

In a subsequent email, Colm described his encounter in typically thorough and evocative language:

“The bird took off without being put up by me, flew very low continuously and fast just skimming the knee-high vegetation, darkish legs hanging. The landing was exactly like a crane, legs forward, disc-like wings down and a rather prolonged landing, showing the incredible white secondaries.
It got up from soggy knee-length vegetation and flew maybe 120m unlike Baillon’s Crake. It really was tiny, the size of a Tree Sparrow, but clearly Rail…..for all purposes very very dark, “Baillons- in-flight-dark”, ridiculous rounded disc-like wings beating fast and in a default slightly bowed position with no gliding, darkish legs dangling but neatly so, say 30 degrees to body line. Short bill and maybe slightly paler belly but whole impression was very dark. No deviation from line of flight and landing with legs forward, wings angled down and slightly back, revealing shocking white inner wing trailing edge, equivalent to secondaries.
No time in the shock of the moment to do anything but use binoculars. This was at about 11.15am and good half-cloud/sunlight behind me. I know the species from Happy Island 15 yrs ago, where Per Schiermacher Hansen and Jesper Hornskov showed me one and left to my own devices I found another. While in Minnesota in 2006 I was shown American Yellow Rail novaboracensis at a special site and it resembles Swinhoe’s but was bigger. Agony not to get even a record shot I know but the views were great, short I acknowledge but the white amazing. It looked identical, even down to the very dark wings and body impression noticeable on the birds on Happy Island.”

Colm’s description is delightful and if there was a Rarities Committee in China, I am sure this would sail through despite the understandable lack of photographic evidence.  A wonderful record by one of the best birders I have ever met.  It is the 4th record of Swinhoe’s Rail for Beijing, with all records coming since 2014, a statistic that must be due to an increase in the number of birders and greater observer awareness rather than a change of its status in the wild (it is officially classified as “Vulnerable” with the population thought to be in decline).

Thanks to Colm and Zhao Qi for allowing me to share the story of this enviable encounter here.

Featured Image: Swinhoe’s Rail at the Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, October 2014 by 仲平 (Zhou Zhongping).

Baer’s Pochard

Saturday was an awesome day at Wild Duck Lake but little did I know that I would discover possibly my best ever find on Sunday.  Given that I had the hire car until 4pm on Sunday, I decided to try a site in northern Beijing, between the 5th and 6th ring roads – the Shahe river.  It was Jan-erik Nilsen who first told me about, and showed me, this place last autumn (thanks Jan-erik – I owe you one!).  There is some open water – Shahe Reservoir – some reedbeds and some nice reedy fringes to the river banks..  It looks like a great site for crakes and rails, as well as duck.  On arrival this morning, I immediately found a flock of around 60 diving ducks but unfortunately I was on the north side of the river looking south on a very sunny day, so it was not easy to make out anything other than silhouettes…  I hadn’t visited the southern side but with a bit of trial and error, I found a bridge and a track that followed the southern bank.  I drove to the spot where I had seen the diving duck and parked up..  I crept slowly over the earth bank to see whether the duck were still there..  They were, so I had a quick scan with the bins and immediately spotted a darker duck in the group.  It appeared to have lightish flanks and a greenish head and my heart started to race – could it be?  As the birds were fairly distant, I nipped back to the car, grabbed my ‘scope and started to scan the flock.  They were feeding very actively and my instinct suggested they had recently arrived.  The first few birds were all Common Pochards but I soon got onto the much darker bird and, immediately, I could see that it was a drake BAER’S POCHARD!!  After swearing in my mind several times and pinching myself, I uttered a sort of “whoop” and did a victory dance – a la Jack Black in “The Big Year”…  Fortunately, as is not often the case in China, there was nobody around, so I avoided any strange stares and comments under the breath about a strange foreigner etc..  I zoomed in to 60x on the ‘scope and enjoyed fantastic views, albeit quite distant, for the next 30 minutes as I took some notes on its plumage.  Although it was in the middle of a flock Common Pochard when I first saw it, the Baer’s only loosely associated with them.. at times it was several metres away from the flock and seemed to do its own thing, only occasionally joining the Common Pochard flock, usually when there was some disturbance on the far bank (fisherman, walkers etc).  I grabbed a few record images with the camera and then sent a few SMSs to Beijing-based birders..  Although I received a few ‘thank you’ messages, as far as I know, nobody went to see it!  Welcome to birding in China!

Baer’s Pochard is now, sadly, a very rare bird and declining fast.  This text was recently posted on Birdforum by Alan Lewis (who famously ‘twitched’ a Baer’s Pochard in Japan this winter):

“Wang Xin, Cao Lei, Lei Jinyu, Tony Fox says: 
February 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm 
Based on recent compilation and collation of counts and observations from a wide array of available information, we are deeply concerned to find a drastic decline in wintering numbers and range contraction of Baer’s Pochard. The results of the exercise have been gathered in a database and analyses have been prepared for formal reporting, but given the urgency of the situation, we feel the very pressing need to report preliminary findings here. Because of lack of consistent and regular counts from many wintering sites, it is difficult to present count data in any logical way that provides a clear indication of true population trajectory. 

However, it is our impression from counts and speaking directly to national experts that the species has now functionally ceased to winter in regular numbers at any site outside of mainland China as of winter 2010/11. Within China, the sum of maximum annual winter counts (November to March) from each province fell from 16,792 during 1987-1993 to 2,131 in 2002-2011. There was a marked contraction of range within China over this period, with no records from many provinces in recent years, despite increases in birdwatching activity. Clearly using maximum counts over a series of years likely over-estimates the true numbers actually present in any one year, but the relative values indicate the magnitude of the decline and the geographical contraction in range which is very evident throughout the winter quarters. 

The Chinese State Forest Agency and WWF-China recently coordinated coverage of winter resorts in the middle and lower Yangtze River Floodplain (now considered the core wintering area for the species) but found less than 200 Baer’s Pochard in January 2011. Perhaps far worse, a special survey by Wuhan Birdwatching Society this winter (2011/12) did not find any Baer’s Pochard at all, even at Liangzi Lake (where the survey had found c. 130 individuals last year). Birdwatchers have also been to the upper part of Wuchang Lake in Anhui this winter where Cao Lei’s group have been finding more than 200 in recent years and found none there as well. In the Baiquan wetlands, in Wuhan, where the species was often found in the past, there are only reports of poisoned swans and geese because the water levels in winter 2011/12 are so low and people can get near to the waterbirds as never before. 

Based on improved counts from very recent years, we fear that the global population of the species is now less than 1000 individuals and are deeply concerned that the true world total could be very much lower than this. Since we find very little information about current breeding and staging areas, there is an immediate need to better understand the breeding distribution and biology of Baer’s Pochard. Given the widespread and rapid decline, it seems unlikely that factors on all the non-breeding areas have simultaneously contributed to its demise alone, although we cannot rule out the effects very heavy mortality at a key staging site (such as hunting) where a large proportion of the population passes each year. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need to determine the food supply and conditions for the species on the last few remaining lakes used on the winter quarters to secure their sympathetic management in winter, if it is not already too late. There is no denying the very urgent need for rapid and coordinated actions to protect the Baer’s Pochard throughout its remaining range and recommend suitable re-grading of its current status as soon as possible.”

It is tragic to think that this bird could disappear within the next few years.  With so little known about it and so few recent sightings, the future is not bright for this attractive duck.  Fortunately there are several in captivity.  It is a bird I have wanted to see since I moved to China in 2010 and I was beginning to think I had left it too late…  so I was overjoyed to find this male today.

If anyone is interested in directions to look for this bird, please send me a message.  I suspect it won’t stay for long but there must be a reasonable chance it will stay a few days.

Whilst on site I also counted two Hoopoes and a very high migrating Black-eared Kite (my first of the year).  But it is due to the Baer’s that I will forever remember today!

The Baer's Pochard on the Shahe river, Beijing, 25 March 2012
Baer's Pochard, showing its aversion to fraternising too closely with the commoners...

 

Baer's Pochard giving the locals a wide berth. With Common Pochard and Little Grebes.

 

The location. Baer's Pochards aren't fussy.