Early June is a fabulous time to listen to the dawn chorus. The vast majority of summer migrants have arrived and there’s no time to waste as males set up and defend a territory, attempt to attract a mate and raise a family in the short summer season.
This morning I was out at 0400 at my local lake, just 20 minutes walk from my apartment, to record the dawn chorus before the thunder of traffic became too much of an irritating soundtrack. On arrival, the air was already full of the loud, churring sounds of the Oriental Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus orientalis 东方大苇莺 Dōngfāng dà wěi yīng) and in the treetops surrounding the lake, the calls of Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus 大杜鹃 Dà dùjuān) and Indian Cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus 四声杜鹃 Sì shēng dùjuān) carried far and wide. The recently arrived Yellow Bitterns (Ixobrychus sinensis 黄苇鳽 Huáng wěi jiān) patrolled the airspace above the reedbeds with their floaty, almost owl-like, display flights and occasionally stopped to call from the reeds.
There are a few other species in this 15-minute recording, too. Can you name any? Headphones recommended!
The Dawn Chorus at Luoma Lake, Shunyi District, Beijing.
It’s a sound dreaded by conservationists the world over.
And it’s a feature of human nature that when heard on TV in a pristine rainforest thousands of kilometres away, the sound of a chainsaw can seem remote and it’s relatively easy to detach oneself from the destruction.. and yet when it happens in a place far less globally important, yet so familiar, it elicits an altogether different reaction.
That’s what I experienced on Sunday on my local patch.
To most people I am sure, the ‘Shunyi patch’, as it has come to be known, looks like a scruffy piece of waste land. To me, it is a beautiful oasis in a concrete desert.
From my first visit in April 2015, I always knew this 0.5km x 0.5km patch of ‘wilderness’ in Shunyi District was on borrowed time.
Surrounded by new apartment blocks, Beijing metro’s line 15 and the new International Exhibition Centre, and just a stone’s throw from Beijing Capital International airport, the city was closing in and it was surely only a matter of when, not if, this place would be ‘developed’. There have been some false starts in the past with occasional clearances of the undergrowth but, with trees being felled and bulldozers moving in, it seems that moment has finally come…
With chainsaws roaring and bulldozers belching out dark smoke as they demolished trees and shrubs, what I had planned to be a relaxing walk around the local patch on Sunday afternoon instead turned into a time for sober reflection about what this tiny space had given me over the past four years.
In 106 visits, 164 species of bird, five species of mammal and ten species of butterfly have been recorded, remarkable for such a small area of shrubs, trees and scrub. The majority of the birds recorded have been migratory, using the site as a temporary refuge to find food and shelter on their way to and from breeding grounds in north China, Mongolia or as far away as northern Siberia. Highlights have included species rarely recorded in the capital, such as Band-bellied Crake, Himalayan Swiftlet and, just a few weeks ago, a probable sighting of the poorly-known Streaked Reed Warbler. In winter it was not uncommon to see Long-eared Owls hunting over the scrub and roosting in the junipers, the sentinel-like Chinese Grey Shrike perched atop a maize stem or leafless sapling and tens of buntings – Little, Pallas’s Reed and Japanese Reed – as well as stunning Siberian Accentors feeding on the dropped seed heads. In summer, breeding species included Light-vented Bulbul, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Brown Shrike and Spotted Dove. Occasionally, an Amur Hedgehog, Tolai Hare or Siberian Weasel showed themselves and, on warm summer evenings, it was common to see at least two species of bat patrolling the patch to feed on the flying insects.
Just ten minutes away from my apartment, this place was a refuge for me and was like my own secret study site. I spent many hours wandering around, enjoying the relative tranquility, observing how the harsh Beijing seasons quickly changed the character of the site from the desperately dry and seemingly barren place in late winter to a wet and lush landscape teeming with insects in late summer.
Rather than mourn the loss of this special place, it seems fitting to celebrate its life and so, in that spirit, here is a gallery of photos taken over the last four years including some of the species that have been found there.
The list of species recorded shows just how important urban oases can be for wildlife. Sites like the ‘Shunyi patch’ can provide ‘stepping stones’ for migratory birds, helping them to cross ever-expanding urban areas by providing places for food, water and shelter. My hope is that, by demonstrating the value to wildlife of such oases, we may learn to see ‘beauty in scruffy’ and persuade government officials that places like the Shunyi patch are an essential element of enlightened urban planning.
The list of species and the concept of ‘urban oases’ have been shared with the Beijing municipal government as part of a project to ‘rewild’ Beijing and have been met with an enthusiastic initial response. So the likely death of the Shunyi patch may not be in vain. Whatever the future, I am immensely grateful to this small patch of land for providing me with an education about the rich biodiversity of China’s capital city.
This autumn has been so busy that I have hardly had time to visit my local patch, an area of 0.5km square wilderness surrounded by tower blocks, roads and Beijing Metro’s line 15. It’s a shame as the habitat is superb. After the late summer rain, there are several pools of standing water and some areas of wet grass, in addition to the small areas of shrubs and trees. And it’s clear that almost nobody visits as there are no paths and it’s hard work to wrestle one’s way through the tangleweed.
On Sunday I finally had a whole morning free and planned to give the patch a good going over.. After a cold front came through Beijing on Thursday, it was now much cooler and it was clear from visible migration over the city on Saturday that birds were moving.. I was confident it would be good birding and, if I was lucky, I might add to the 162 species I have recorded here in 102 visits.
I arrived on site at 0700 with the temperature around 6 degs C. There was a hint of ground frost and a heavy dew. Light cloud cover and almost no wind made conditions perfect. Immediately I could hear several Black-browed Reed Warblers calling from a small patch of long grass. I stopped to enjoy these charismatic warblers and attempted to count exactly how many there were. Little Buntings called overhead as they circled, before dropping into the weedy field and some harsher bunting calls gave away the presence of Black-faced Buntings in the thicker cover. A Bluethroat scrambled away as I walked through the grass, showing it’s contrasting orange and dark brown tail before it dived into deep cover. It was ‘birdy’..!
Olive-backed Pipits, the occasional Eurasian Skylark and small groups of Little Buntings filled the air as I traced my usual route around the patch. Three Chestnut Buntings were a nice surprise, only the third time I have recorded this species on the patch. Two Tristram’s Buntings in a thicket added to the buntings tally before I reached one of the pools. A Common Snipe lifted as soon as I somewhat heavy-footedly reached the edge, my boots sinking into the soft mud making for slow progress and concentration temporarily having to focus on the feet more than the birds. More Black-faced Buntings, with a few Pallas’s Buntings, were feeding around the edges and a Pallas’s Warbler, the first of many, called from a willow close by. I accidentally interrupted an adult male Red-flanked Bluetail taking a bath and it quickly flew up to an open branch and shook itself, preening in the soft sunlight.
A little further on I disturbed a Woodcock, only my second in Beijing and just 5 days after my first. More Pallas’s Warblers were obvious as I reached a small stand of willows and Little Buntings continued to fly around overhead.
As I left the stand of trees, I entered an area of long grass. There was no path here, so I was creating one as I went, each step forcing down a narrow line of grass to make my passage easier. After a few steps, I disturbed a small bird and it flew fast and low for about ten metres before dropping into deep cover. I could almost feel the cogs going round in my brain trying to process what my eyes had seen. With the naked eye – there was no time to raise my binoculars, let alone get them onto the bird – I could see it was a small warbler, similar in size to the Black-browed Reed Warblers I had just seen. But this bird was significantly paler in colour and with obvious streaking on the upperparts. The colouration was a good match for the colour of the seed heads on the grass. The rump looked slightly darker than the mantle. And that was all I saw. It called as it flew.. a soft note similar in pitch to the Black-broweds but more a singular note without sounding as if ‘two stones banged together’.
I started to go through the list of possibilities. It was too pale for a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated or a Black-browed and the obvious streaking also ruled out the latter. It was certainly not a Zitting Cisticola. My mind kept returning to one outrageous possibility – could it have been a Streaked Reed Warbler? But on my local patch in Beijing? Don’t be ridiculous. I kept dismissing that suggestion over and over again as if to say to my brain – “wrong answer” and asking it to re-process the information.
With my brain refusing to comply, I waited patiently to see whether I could relocate the bird. There was no movement where it went down and no more vocalisations. A Black-browed called from the opposite direction and brief views revealed it to be nothing like the bird I saw. After around 45-50 minutes, as the sun came out, I moved a few steps to my right, towards the east, so that the sun was directly behind me, giving me the best lighting should the bird show again. As I moved, the same bird flew again, from slightly behind me, over my shoulder and, again, dropped into deep cover about 10 metres in front of me, to the north. This view was slightly longer, and even closer than the first. Again, I saw a small, pale warbler with obvious streaking on the upperparts and a slightly darker rump.
This time, I could see movement where it dived into cover. The grass was twitching as it moved along the base of the stems. The cover was so thick that I couldn’t see anything of the bird, just the quiver of a stem as it hopped from one to another. It was heading towards a small gap in the grass and I grabbed my camera so that I was ready to press the shutter as soon as it showed. To my disappointment, it never reached the gap… stopping just short before heading back from where it came. However, it was now calling.. possibly prompted by a Black-browed Reed Warbler that had also started to vocalise. The two calls were quite different with Black-browed sounding like two stones striking together and this bird quieter and more monotone. I did not have my recording equipment with me so I grabbed my iPhone and started recording, knowing that it would be almost impossible to pick up the sound. After a few seconds, I saw movement again and try as I might, I just could not see the bird. A couple of minutes later, the movement and the vocalisations stopped. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Nothing.
After another hour or so had passed, I knew I had to leave soon as I had a lunch appointment. I edged towards the area where I had last seen movement, camera at the ready just in case it showed. There was nothing. I crept slowly around the whole area but only the Black-browed Reed showed disapproval at my presence.
It was frustrating but I had to leave. The only consolation was that I felt as if I could have stayed there all day and not seen it. It was THAT elusive.
So, what was it? Given the rarity and magnitude of a record of Streaked Reed Warbler, without seeing the whole bird through binoculars I am reluctant to claim it as a certain record. However, I have trouble believing that it could have been anything else.
One positive thing to take from this experience is that, if this bird is so elusive, there must be hope that there are many more out there!
Header photo: the habitat where the probable Streaked Reed Warbler was seen and heard.
When I was growing up in a small village in Norfolk, England, the WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀) was one of those species that I used to dream about as I flicked through my beloved Hamlyn Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. The dream remained just that for many years and I was almost 30 years old before I finally saw one, in southern France on a dreary day in mid-winter. It was distant, in bad weather and appalling light, but unmistakably, it was a WALLCREEPER. I was ecstatic.
Since moving to China, I’ve been fortunate to see many more in the spectacular mountains of the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan and Qinghai – including the Valley of the Cats – and they always set the pulse racing. Showing off that beautiful red, black and white pattern, wing-flicking as they forage for spiders and other insects in rocky crevices, to me the species recalls sheer cliff faces, penetrating gorges and vast rocky outcrops.
It’s a bird I never expected to find just a few minutes from my apartment in urban Beijing but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday.
Heading out for a morning walk before planning to grab a coffee and make inroads into my burgeoning email inbox, I decided on a route I rarely take, alongside a small river adjacent to the local shopping mall.. The decision was based on the fact there are some areas of thick vegetation in the water and I harboured the thought of a Brown-cheeked Rail or, more likely, a Green Sandpiper or Water Pipit. After the first few hundred metres I was thinking that the single Water Pipit, calling as it flew down river, would likely be my only reward. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small, what appeared to be a grey-white, bird that flicked its wings before immediately disappearing behind a fence post. I thought to myself that it had the ‘jizz’ of a Wallcreeper but immediately dismissed the thought as ridiculous. Slowly walking closer, it was just a few seconds later that the bird reappeared as it flew up and sat on a fence post in full view. I was gobsmacked – there was a WALLCREEPER! On a fence post. Alongside a tiny river just 50m from a shopping mall. In Beijing.
Not having any birding optics with me, I took out my iPhone and snapped a few photographs knowing that any kind of record image would be important to document the record. The bird flew past me and I was able to get some pretty terrible, but recognisable, images.
I was relieved to capture something that was recognisable and set off back home to fetch my binoculars and telescope in the hope that it might hang around.
Fortunately, the bird was still there when I returned and I was able to record some video, including some slow motion clips, as it crept its way along the wall, seemingly finding plenty of food.
I am constantly amazed at the birds that turn up in urban locations and that’s what makes birding in Beijing so rewarding. The lesson is: expect the unexpected!
Status of Wallcreeper in Beijing: one or two Wallcreepers regularly spend the winter (migrating from unknown breeding grounds) at Shidu, a mountainous area in Fangshan on the southwest fringes of Beijing Municipality. However, there are no previous lowland Beijing records and this is the first record for Shunyi District.
After an evening of drama, tonight the Beijing police arrested two poachers on my local patch. Returning home at about 5pm I decided to go to the roof of my apartment block to scan for illegal mist nets. To my surprise there were two guys putting up nets in the same area as on Friday! It was just a few days after I discovered, and took down, some illegal mist nets and told the poacher that if I saw him again I would send his photo to the police. And yet here he was again, with a friend, in exactly the same spot. He can’t say he wasn’t warned!
After a quick phonecall the police were on their way and, this time, they would catch the poachers red-handed. One had a Japanese Sparrowhawk and, as I led the police to the spot, the poacher inadvertently walked straight towards us with his illegally caught bird of prey on his wrist. He was so shocked to see us that he froze, allowing one of the officers to grab him by the scruff of the neck. After a few choice words the poacher led the police to the mist nets and it was here that they apprehended, after a brief attempt to flea, the second poacher. After taking photos for evidence and then taking down the nets, the police escorted the poachers to the local police station for questioning. I don’t know what the outcome will be but being in possession of a bird of prey, a state protected species, is a serious offence.
And so, after several days of battling these poachers, it was gratifying to finally catch them. I cannot praise the Shunyi State Forestry Police high enough. They responded quickly, with enthusiasm, and effectively apprehended the poachers. I am sure these guys will refrain from trapping wild birds for the foreseeable future.. and I hope their arrest will act as a deterrent for others, too.