The WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀) has always been a special bird for me. I remember, as a young boy, looking longingly at the plate in my Hamlyn Guide To The Birds of Britain and Europe and wondering if I would ever see one. So rare in the UK, I knew I’d probably need to go overseas to have a chance. I remember my first encounter – at Les Baux in the south of France – and being surprised at just how small and delicate is this bird as it fluttered and probed on the town walls.
In Beijing, Wallcreeper is a scarce bird. Although almost all records are in winter from one site, it probably breeds somewhere in the mountains. Up to 3 can be seen reliably from November to March at Shidu, Fangshan District. The most reliable spot is the cliff just to the northeast of bridge 6. Here, photographers put out meal worms and it’s astonishing to see these birds gradually make their way down the vertical cliff face to eye-level as they grab one of the irresistible snacks on offer.
On my most recent visit to Shidu this winter with Marie, we were lucky to see one of the two Wallcreepers present fly down to the ice on the nearby river… Although the sun was behind, making the light far from ideal, I was able to capture it on video.. Now that is something – a Wallcreeper on ice!
On recent trips to the Olympic Forest Park and Shidu, I encountered wintering Water Pipits, described by my companions as the epitome of LBJs (little brown jobs)! There are several races of Water Pipit and, in the Beijing area in winter, we see the blakistoni subspecies. In the field they strike me as rather grey-headed/naped and brown-backed.
Just back from my second trip to Shidu. Highlight has to be the Wallcreeper.
Shidu looks made for Wallcreepers and I am sure there are more of these incredible gravity-defying birds along the gorge. But this individual is a bit of a star of the Beijing birding scene. It comes down to eye level, encouraged by the meal worms put out for it by bird photographers. Consequently it shows extremely well, albeit intermittently.
On Saturday I took friends Nick Douse, John Gallagher and Hui Ying, a Beijing-based birder I met at the AGM of the Beijing Birdwatching Society, to Shidu. Shidu literally means “10 river crossings” and this site, along the Juma river, is a good winter birding destination as, in addition to Wallcreeper, it hosts wintering Black Storks, Black Vultures, Crested Kingfishers and, occasionally, Long-billed Plover and Ibisbill. We didn’t see the last two but we had a great day in cold but still conditions.
The bridges across the Juma river are numbered from south-east to north-west. We arrived at the southern end of the gorge just under 2 hours after leaving Beijing and made our way slowly to the north-west, stopping occasionally to scan. Our first stop, between bridges 2 and 3, produced over 100 Mallard on an ice-free section of the river plus a handful of Common Merganser (Goosander) and, our first surprise, a drake Mandarin. Just as we were about to leave, 4 Black Storks came flying along the river and almost overhead, providing us with a great chance to study these majestic birds as they made their way downstream.
Our next stop was at Bridge number 6, a well-known ‘hot-spot’. We immediately saw a line of bird photographers on the eastern side of the gorge with their heavy artillery trained on an area of rock face. This had to be the Wallcreeper site. After parking the car and taking a short walk, we were greeted by the big lens boys and began the wait for the Wallcreeper to show. In just a few minutes it appeared and gradually made its way down the face of the rock to an area immediately in front of the photographers to feed on the meal worms. Its stay here probably amounted to no more than 2 minutes but in that time I suspect the number of times a shutter was fired was several thousand..!
After about half an hour at this site, during which time we also recorded Marsh Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Daurian Redstart, Red-billed Blue Magpie and Dusky Thrush, we moved on to bridge number 10. This was an excellent site. Two male Plumbeous Redstarts were singing and displaying, clearly establishing territories for the forthcoming breeding season, but the real stars were the Crested Kingfishers that made several passes, calling loudly.
Bizarrely, two Crested Kingfishers flew up to a new house on the edge of the river and perched on the balconies.. one upstairs and one downstairs..
A drive further north produced a Hen Harrier, several Godlewski’s Buntings, 1 Little Bunting, 8 Hill Pigeons, 18 Daurian Jackdaws and a Wren.
The journey back down the gorge produced 2 Common Kingfishers side by side near bridge 6 and, after enjoying these 2 birds we headed off back to Beijing in time for dinner.
With the Chinese New Year celebrations still ringing in our ears (the year of the Dragon was greeted with deafening fireworks!), we set off to explore an area known as Shidu in Fangshan County, south-west of Beijing. This area of karst limestone hills is sometimes known as the “Guilin of the north” and we could see why.. spectacular rocky outcrops rise up from the valley through which the Juma river runs.. It’s an area well-known to Beijing birders as a regular wintering ground for Black Stork, Wallcreeper and Black Vulture, with supporting cast including Crested Kingfisher, Long-billed Plover and Red-billed Chough.
Today Libby and I drove there in our rented car in convoy with friends John and Sarah Gallagher and Sarah’s visiting friend, Vic. The air was refreshingly clear – a combination of polluting industry closing down for Chinese New Year, fewer cars due to large parts of the Beijing population visiting relatives in other parts of China and a fresh northerly wind – and we enjoyed a stunning blue sky with excellent visibility all day. We took a slightly ’round the houses’ route to get there (taking over 3 hours) but it was worth it. A decent road winds its way through the gorge with a number of bridges crossing the river, many of which are excellent places to stop and view the stony riverbed. Highlights included at least 4 Black Vultures soaring over the peaks, 4-5 Black Storks including 3 young birds, 2 Crested Kingfishers, a single White-tailed Eagle and 2 Upland Buzzards. We didn’t have time to search out a Wallcreeper but the habitat looks ideal and I am sure, with a bit of time and patience, effort would be rewarded here. Definitely worth a return visit sometime soon!