Winter is coming…

It’s that time of year again.  As temperatures plummet and the days shorten, many people might think it’s time to stay indoors with a real fire, put on that favourite woolly jumper and sip a warm cup of (green) tea.  However, for birders, it’s worth putting on the thermal underwear and braving those icy temperatures – winter can be a brilliant time.

Here are five reasons why winter is a good time for birding in Beijing:

  • First, with the leaves down, birds are easier to observe
  • Second, winter is the only time we can see certain species (for example, those that breed to the north of Beijing, including as far north as Mongolia and Russian Siberia, and spend the winter here). These species include: Ruddy Shelduck, Common Crane, White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, Mongolian Lark, the winter thrushes (Naumann’s. Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated), Goldcrest, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Siberian Accentor, Brambling, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Japanese Reed Bunting, Lapland Bunting and Pine Bunting.
  • Third, many mountain dwelling species will move lower into the valleys and even into cities in the winter, making them easier to see. For example: Winter Wren, Beijing Babbler, Plain Laughingthrush and Yellow-throated Bunting.
  • Fourth, depending on the seed crops and weather, especially the extent of snowfall, some species ‘irrupt’ in large numbers to areas where they would normally not occur in significant numbers. Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Japanese and Bohemian Waxwings and Redpolls are examples of species that sometimes ‘irrupt’ into Beijing.
  • Finally, there is always a chance of finding something special. The discovery of wintering Jankowski’s Buntings in winter 2015/2016 by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao was exceptional.  Who knows what else might occur – maybe a Snowy Owl at Lingshan?  Or a Gyrfalcon at Ma Chang?
2016-03-07 Jankowski's Bunting, Miyun5
One of the wintering JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS at Miyun Reservoir in winter 2015/2016.

The best winter sites?

Most good birding sites in the capital (e.g. Yeyahu, Lingshan, Huairou, Miyun and Shahe Reservoirs (if accessible)) are worth visiting all year round.  And, within the city itself, the Botanical Gardens, with its berry-laden shrubs, is often one of the first sites to host groups of Japanese or Bohemian Waxwings during a ‘waxwing year’.  The Olympic Forest Park can host Beijing Babbler in winter and is often a good place to see Brown-cheeked Rails and Great Bittern.  It has also played host to some very scarce winter visitors such as ‘caudatus’ Northern Long-tailed Tit and Chiffchaff.  For me, personally, two of the best winter birding sites are Donglingshan and Shidu.

Donglingshan (东灵山)

2015-11-01 Red-throated Thrush male in flight, Lingshan2
Red-throated Thrush usually winters in good numbers at Lingshan.

The site of Beijing’s highest peak (2,303m), around 110km west of the city along the G109, Donglingshan is a superb winter birding site.  It is the only reliable site in Beijing to see the high-altitude specialist, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, and the scarce Pallas’s Rosefinch.  In most winters, tens of the former spend the winter feeding on the sea buckthorn berries in the many gullies and valleys below the peak and small flocks of the latter can be found foraging under stands of silver birch.  Other reliable species here include Chinese Beautiful and Long-tailed Rosefinches (interestingly, the latter are of the subspecies lepidus from central China and not the more northerly ussuriensis that has occurred in other parts of Beijing), not to mention Siberian and Alpine Accentors, good numbers of thrushes, Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle and, in some years, Asian Rosy Finch.  Rarities at this time of year have included Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Black and Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstarts.

At around 2,000m, a visit to Donglingshan in winter can be bitterly cold, especially if the wind is blowing.  However, if you time your visit on a day with light winds and sunshine, it can be surprisingly pleasant and hugely rewarding.

A downloadable PDF guide for Donglingshan (Lingshan) can be found here.

 

Shidu (十渡)

A spectacular gorge worthy of a visit in its own right, even without any birds, Shidu is an excellent winter birding destination, offering species that can be hard to see in other parts of the capital.  A road runs through the gorge, crossing several bridges and it’s a good tactic to stop close to the bridges to scan the area.  Shidu is perhaps most famous in birding circles for its Black Storks, a handful of which can be seen feeding alongside the river.  However, many more interesting species are possible.  For the last few years, at least one, sometimes two, Wallcreepers have been reliable near bridge 6.  And Long-billed Plover, Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Water Redstart and Cinereous Vulture are all regular in winter.  Even the spectacular Ibisbill, a species that is increasingly difficult to see in the capital, is possible.  And Solitary Snipe, another difficult-to-see species has also been recorded.

2013-11-23 Wallcreeper, Shidu
Shidu is the best place in Beijing to see Wallcreeper.

 

Ten Species To Look Out For This Winter

Beijing has many special birds in the colder months and here are a few to look out for.

1.     Merlin This small, compact, falcon can often be seen hunting flocks of small passerines, including buntings and larks.  Open spaces such as Ma Chang (Yanqing) and the edges of reservoirs are good places to look.

 

2.     Cinereous Vulture  With a wingspan of c3m, this huge bird of prey can be seen in the mountains around Beijing from November to March.  Feeding on carrion, they can often be seen patrolling the ridges of mountainous areas on sunny days, especially when there is a breeze, providing them with lift.

 

3.     Goldcrest This tiny bird is insectivorous and, somehow, it can find enough food in Beijing in winter.  The larger parks, such as the Botanical Gardens and the Olympic Forest Park, are good places to look.  Focus your search on areas with conifers and listen for their high-pitched calls.
4.     Siberian Accentor This beautiful sparrow-sized bird likes scrubby areas with lots of good undergrowth.  They can be shy but with patience and knowledge of their high-pitched call, searching in the right areas should be successful.  The Botanical Gardens and Donglingshan are two good places to look.

 

5.     Naumann’s Thrush  Naumann’s is the most common of the four classic ‘winter thrushes’ in Beijing (the others are Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated).  With its orange-coloured tones, Naumann’s Thrush is a very pretty bird and can often be seen feeding on berries or on the ground in Beijing’s parks.
6.     Japanese Waxwing The beautiful Japanese Waxwing is an annual winter visitor to Beijing in varying numbers.  Sometimes in large flocks, they can strip berries from a bush in minutes.  Listen for their ‘ringing’ calls and look for flocks of birds that have similar silhouettes to starlings.  Can most easily be told from the very similar Bohemian Waxwing by the pinkish, not yellow, tip to the tail.
7.     Winter Wren The charismatic Winter Wren breeds in the mountains around Beijing and, in winter, it moves to lower elevations to escape the harshest winter temperatures.  In winter it can be found in the Botanical Gardens and other large parks, often near water.  The distinctive cocked tail means that it’s unmistakeable.
8.     Brambling The Brambling is a common winter visitor to Beijing.  A sociable bird, it can often be found in flocks feeding on seeds (often beech mast) at the base of trees.  Listen for its upslurred call as flocks wheel around over wooded areas.
9.     Pallas’s Rosefinch A real gem of the Beijing winter, the Pallas’s Rosefinch is one of the most sought after species by foreign birders visiting the capital.  A winter visitor in varying numbers, usually to relatively high elevations, it is most reliably found at Donglingshan in winter.  The ridge above the Botanical Gardens and sites around the Great Wall can also produce this species.  A favourite food is birch mast, so look for stands of silver birch and check the ground around the bases of the trees.
10.  Pallas’s Bunting  A winter visitor in good numbers, the Pallas’s Bunting is one of Beijing’s signature winter birds.  Found in reedbeds and any areas of rank grass and/or scrub, it can be skittish but will sometimes sit on the top of vegetation and utter its sparrow-like call, quite different to that of the similar, but scarcer, Common Reed Bunting and Japanese Reed Bunting.

Of course, the most important thing about going birding is not where you go or what you see but that you enjoy it.  Wishing everyone a wonderful winter’s birding.

 

Title image: Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstart, Lingshan, February 2014.

This article has been translated into Chinese and appeared in the Winter edition of the China Birdwatching Society magazine.

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Owl eats Owl

On Saturday I accompanied visiting Swedish birder, Anders Magnusson, to Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang/Yeyahu Nature Reserve) for a day’s birding. Thankfully the forecast strong winds were absent as we were dropped off at Ma Chang at 0730 in -12 degrees C. My ‘michelin man’ outfit including ‘man tights’ (and they are very manly, honest), thermal underwear, 4 layers of t-shirts and fleece plus a long, down-filled coat, two pairs of gloves, woolly hat and thermal snow boots meant I was snug as a bug with only my nose really feeling the cold.

A few Common Cranes were a good start, including one that seemed to completely retract its legs when flying (either that or it had no legs at all – unlikely given that it had obviously been able to take off). Soon we were enjoying a ringtail Hen Harrier and over 200 Bean Geese. A scan of the reservoir revealed a small patch of open water near the far bank, on which swam 20-30 more Bean Geese and around 10 Goosander. Asian Short-toed Larks and Lapland Buntings occasionally flew overhead and, as we began the walk towards Yeyahu a Peregrine engaged in a (unsuccessful) hunt for a feral pigeon. Shortly afterwards, an immature White-tailed Eagle appeared from the west and spooked a flock of around 250 Ruddy Shelducks that were standing on the far side of the ice. Nice.

We worked our way across the open area, enjoying 2 Upland Buzzards (one of which flew alongside a Hen Harrier and looked absolutely huge in comparison) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings seemed to be in every shrub. We flushed a few Common Skylarks as they fed on the ground and, as we approached Yeyahu, 2 male Hen Harriers (one adult and one sub-adult) quartered the reeds. Here we also heard and saw briefly the first of two Chinese Hill Warblers. After a welcome coffee stop (which tasted soooo good) we pushed on towards the lake and, in an area of only a few square metres, we flushed 16 Japanese Quail which scattered in different directions (clearly a deliberate strategy to confuse predators). The reedbed held good numbers of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and, after a bit of work, we managed to identify a single ‘tik’-ing Rustic Bunting in amongst them and then, after a bit of persistence, were treated to good but brief views of the second Chinese Hill Warbler after we heard it calling several times. A fly-by Saker was a bonus.

By now it was 11am and, as is usual at this site, suddenly the wind got up, making the temperature feel another 5-10 degrees colder (wind chill was probably around -20 to -25). At the lake, the brief search for Chinese Penduline Tit proved fruitless, probably due to the fresh wind, but we did see one of the eastern races of Common Reed Bunting (with distinctly pale mantle stripes compared with the nominate race).  After scrutinising it for a while (ruling out Japanese Reed Bunting) we headed north to the lookout tower, choosing the more sheltered side of the trees. Here we discovered a fresh eagle owl kill – of another owl (probably a Short-eared Owl but comments welcome on the feathers below). There were owl feathers covering an area of a couple of square metres with a huge pellet alongside. The site was within 100 metres of where we saw an Eagle Owl in December, so this is probably evidence of the same bird wintering here.

A bit further along Anders spotted a Siberian Accentor (a new bird for him) and, on close examination, there proved to be 2 birds foraging in the lee of the bank. Nice. Before we entered the open area towards the tower we flushed a Grey-headed Woodpecker which flew a long way and out of sight and stumbled across a small flock of Meadow Buntings which showed very well for a few minutes before disappearing over the bank. The walk to the tower produced another 4 Japanese Quails. A scan of the open area from the tower did not produce the hoped for Great Bustard (one was reported two weeks ago) and, given the cold wind, we did not stay up there very long – just long enough to take a couple of images of the ice fishermen. Clearly they are now more confident about the ice thickness given they are driving their vehicles onto the lake…

The walk back to the entrance to the reserve was uneventful and we were met by our driver who took us to the bus station for the journey back to Beijing. A thoroughly enjoyable day out!

Hen Harrier at Yeyahu, 22 January 2011
The scene of the Eagle Owl kill
Eagle Owl pellet
One of the victim's (primary?) feathers - Short-eared Owl?
Ice fishing at Yeyahu
Ice fishing - a cold and lonely pursuit!

Botanical Gardens

This morning, despite the freezing temperatures, I donned my thermal underwear, thick socks, snow boots and parka for a foray into the Botanical Gardens and the ridge beyond. It was a gorgeous day, despite the -8 (ish) temperature, and I had a wonderful few hours. The journey there is best forgotten – taxi drivers in Beijing are variable at best and let’s just say that today, I had the misfortune to encounter a particularly clueless individual who not only took me the wrong way (twice) but also, at one point, stopped to have a cigarette – in the car – while I helplessly waited. One of the joys of Beijing.

Nevertheless, I arrived on site around 0730, not long after dawn, and I was soon enjoying very good views of thrushes – namely Dusky, Naumann’s, Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades, Red-throated, Black-throated and a wonderful presumed Red/Black-throated hybrid which exhibited a mixed red and black throat patch (mostly red upper-throat and black lower-throat). The birds were congregating at a small break in the ice to drink. The break had clearly been man-made, presumably by a bird-friendly soul, as the ice on the lakes was at least 3 inches thick.

After enjoying some close encounters, I decided to press on and up to the ridge in the hope of some buntings, laughingthrushes and accentors. On the way up I was a little surprised to see 2 Red-flanked Bluetails, somehow managing to eke out a living on the frozen banks of a stream and a group of 9 Chinese Grosbeaks was a delight to see. A party of 34 Chinese Bulbuls and a Chinese Nuthatch was the supporting cast as I followed the stream up to the hills. During a short refreshment break, a squirrel gave me a close encounter as it tried to find water, eventually managing to find a trickle under a boulder.

The last time I had walked up the ridge was in October, when the trees and shrubs were still largely in leaf, so today, with the trees almost bare, I enjoyed some very good views of normally tricky species to see – namely Chinese Hill Warbler and Pere David’s Laughingthrush. I saw at least 18 of the latter, many of which first attracted my attention by the sound of turning over dried leaves.. After the experience of Yunnan, where it was almost impossible to see any laughingthrushes despite hearing them all the time, this was a very welcome sight!

On the ridge itself, I stumbled across several groups of Siberian Accentor feeding on the edge of the track and a few posses of Yellow-bellied Tits rampaged through the evergreen shrubs. A single japonicus Common Buzzard proved to be 50 per cent of my raptor total for the day (the only other sighting being a male Sparrowhawk that caused havoc among the thrushes on the way down). Bramblings were constant companions and the odd Oriental Greenfinch called overhead.

On the journey down, I bumped into Jesper and his wife, Aiquin, enjoying a walk half-way up the ridge. After a short natter, I was back at the entrance gate and flagged down a taxi (luckily a competent driver) for the uneventful journey home. A thoroughly enjoyable morning..

A squirrel looking for water, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
The same squirrel doing its morning leg exercises
Laughingthrushes are much more cooperative when there are no leaves on the trees!
Red-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Black-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Siberian Accentor, one of many on the ridge above the Botanical Gardens