2016: What A Year!

Looking out of my apartment window on the first day of 2017, a blanket of toxic smog seems to drain all colour out of life and the perennial question question pops into my head – why do I live in such a polluted, congested place?

Header image: the view from my apartment at 1200 on 1 January 2017

The answer, of course, is the excitement and adventure of living in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.  And when one considers the positives – the stunning biodiversity, the opportunity for discovery, the potential to make a difference and the wonderful people – the negatives are seen in context and they become far more tolerable.

Looking back, 2016 has been an astonishing year with many highlights, thankfully few lowlights, and progress made in some key conservation issues.  Together, they give me a genuine sense of optimism for the future.

January began with the unexpected discovery, by two young Beijing birders, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of a small flock of the “Endangered” Jankowski’s Buntings at Miyun Reservoir.  This was the first record of Jankowski’s Bunting in Beijing since 1941 and, given the precipitous decline in the population of this poorly known species, a most unexpected find.  The fact they were found by young Chinese is testament to the growing community of talented young birders in Beijing.  There are now more than 200 members of the Birding Beijing WeChat group, in which sightings and other bird-related issues are discussed and shared. Huge credit must go to world-class birders such as Paul Holt and Per Alström who have been generous in sharing their knowledge of Chinese birds with the group. As well as the expanding WeChat group, there are now more than 400 members of the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society (up from 300 in the last 12 months).  So, although starting from a low baseline, the increasing membership, together with the increase in the number of local birdwatching societies, such as in Zigong in Sichuan, and the development of international birding festivals, such as in Lushun, Dalian, shows that there is the beginning of an upsurge in the number of young people interested in birdwatching.  That is a positive sign for the future of China’s rich and unique avifauna.

In tandem with the growth in birding is the emergence of a number of organisations dedicated to environmental education across China.  Given the relative lack of environment in the Chinese State Curriculum, there is high demand amongst many parents for their children to develop a connection with nature.  I’m fortunate to work with one such organisation – EcoAction – set up and run by dynamic Sichuan lady, Luo Peng.    With a birding club for Beijing school kids, a pilot ‘environmental curriculum’ in two of Beijing’s State Schools and bespoke sustainable ecotourism trips to nature reserves for families and schools, Peng deserves great credit for her energy and vision in helping to change the way people interact with the environment.  I am looking forward to working with her much more in 2017.

lp-with-local-boys
Luo Peng in her element – with local children in Hainan

After the boon of seeing Jankowski’s Buntings in Beijing, a lowlight in late January was the desperately sad passing of a much-loved mentor and friend, the inspirational Martin Garner.  Martin fought a brave and typically dignified and open, battle with cancer.  I feel enormously lucky to have met Martin and to have corresponded with him on many birding-related issues.  His wisdom, positivity and selfless outlook on life will be missed for years to come and his influence continues to run through everything I do.

Much of the early part of the spring was spent making the arrangements for what has been, for me, the highlight of the year – The Beijing Cuckoo Project. Following the success of the Beijing Swift Project, the results of which proved for the first time that Swifts from Beijing winter in southern Africa, the obvious next step was to replicate the British Trust for Ornithology’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China.  We needed to find Chinese partners, secure the necessary permissions, raise funds to pay for the transmitters and satellite services, and make the logistical arrangements for the visit of “Team Cuckoo”.  At the end of May, everything was set and the international team arrived in Beijing.  Together with the local team, we caught and fitted transmitters to five Common Cuckoos, subsequently named by Beijing schoolchildren and followed via a dedicated webpage and on social media.  We could not have wished for a better result.  Three of the five are now in Africa,  after making incredible journeys of up to 12,500km since being fitted with their transmitters, including crossing the Arabian Sea.  As of 1 January, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan are in Tanzania and Skybomb Bolt is in Mozambique.

Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
Skybomb Bolt, the first Beijing Cuckoo to make landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
beijing-cuckoos-as-at-1-january-2017
The migration routes, and current positions, of the Beijing Cuckoos, 1 January 2017.
dulwich-applause
Pupils at Dulwich International School broke into spontaneous applause after hearing that SKYBOMB BOLT had made it to Africa…

This Beijing Cuckoo Project has combined groundbreaking science with public engagement.  With articles in Xinhua (China’s largest news agency), Beijing Youth Daily, China Daily, Beijing Science and Technology Daily, India Times, African Times and even the front page of the New York Times, these amazing birds have become, undoubtedly, the most famous cuckoos ever!  Add the engagement with schools, not only in Beijing but also in other parts of China, and the reach and impact of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams.  I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, especially the Chinese partners – the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, China Birdwatching Society and the staff at the tagging locations (Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu) – who have all been brilliant, as well as the BTO’s Andy Clements and Chris Hewson for their vision and sharing of expertise and the sponsors – Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International.  Finally, a big thank you to “Team Cuckoo”: Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Geert De Smet, Gie Goris and Rob Jolliffe.  You can follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos here.  All being well, Flappy, Meng and Skybomb will return to Beijing by the end of May.

In 2017 we are planning to expand the Beijing Cuckoo Project to become the CHINA Cuckoo Project, which will involve tagging cuckoos in different locations across the country.  More on that soon.

As well as being privileged to have been part of such a groundbreaking project, I have been fortunate to be involved with some exciting progress on some of the highest priority conservation issues, working with so many brilliant people, including Vivian Fu and Simba Chan at Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife.  The plight of shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is well-known, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper the “poster species” of conservation efforts to try to save what remains of the globally important intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  More than 70% of these vital stopover sites have been destroyed already through land reclamations and much of the remaining area is slated for future reclamation projects.   Scientists, including an ever greater number of young Chinese such as Zhu Bingrun, now have the evidence to show that the population declines of many shorebird species, some of which are now classified as “Endangered”, can be attributed in large part to the destruction of the vital stopover sites in the Yellow Sea.  After meeting world-leading shorebird expert, Professor Theunis Piersma, in Beijing in May and arranging for him to address Beijing-based birders with a compelling lecture, it’s been a pleasure to support the efforts of international organisations such as BirdLife International, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), led by Spike Millington, IUCN, UNDP and The Paulson Institute as well as local NGOs such as Save Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 山水 (ShanShui) in their interactions with the Chinese government to try to encourage greater protection for, and sustainable management of, the remaining intertidal sites.  One of the pillars of the conservation strategy is to nominate the most important sites as a joint World Heritage Site (WHS) involving China and the Koreas (both North and South).  This would have the advantage of raising awareness of the importance of these sites to those in the highest levels of government and also requiring greater protection and management of the sites.  I am pleased to say that, due to the hard work of these organisations, much progress has been made and the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MoHURD), the ministry responsible for WHS nominations, is now positively taking forward the suggestion and working on the technical papers required to make a submission to the State Council for formal nomination.  Special mention should be made of John MacKinnon, whose expertise, network of contacts in China and enthusiasm has made a big difference, to Nicola Crockford of RSPB and Wang Songlin of BirdLife International for their diplomatic work to create the conditions for the WHS issue to come to the fore, to David Melville, who recently delivered a compelling presentation covering a lifetime of shorebird study, to MoHURD at a workshop convened by ShanShui, and to Hank Paulson who, through the publication of the Paulson Institute’s “Blueprint Project” and his personal engagement at a very senior level with Provincial governors, has secured a commitment from the Governor of Hebei Province to protect the sites in his Province highlighted in the Blueprint.  These are significant advances that, although far from securing the future of China’s intertidal mudflats, have significantly improved the odds of doing so.

2016-05-04 Theunis lecture1
Professor Theunis Piersma delivers his lecture to Beijing-based birders at The Bookworm, Beijing, in May 2016.

China’s east coast hosts the world’s most impressive bird migration, known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway.  That flyway consists of not only shorebirds but also many land birds and it is this concentration of migratory birds every spring and autumn that attracts not only birders but also poachers.  This year has seen several horrific media stories about the illegal trapping of birds on an industrial scale, primarily to supply the restaurant trade in southern China where wild birds are considered a delicacy.  Illegal trapping is thought to be the primary cause of the precipitous decline in the population of, among others, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially classified as Endangered.

A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting in a cage adjacent to some illegal nets, designed to act as a lure.  Now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

It would be easy to be depressed by such incidents but I believe there are two developments that provide optimism for the future.  First, although the legal framework is far from watertight, the authorities are now acting, the incidents are being reported in the media and the culprits are receiving, at least in the largest scale cases, heavy punishments.  And second, these cases are being uncovered by volunteers, groups of mostly young people that spend their free time – weekends and days off during weekdays – specifically looking for illegal nets and poachers at migration hotspots.  They work with law enforcement to catch the culprits and destroy their tools of the trade.  These people are heroes and, although at present it’s still easy for poachers to purchase online mist-nets and other tools used for poaching (there are ongoing efforts to change this), it’s a harder operating environment for them than in the past.  Big change doesn’t happen overnight but the combination of greater law enforcement, citizen action and media coverage are all helping to ensure that, with continued effort and strengthening of the legal framework, illegal trapping of migratory birds in China is on borrowed time.

Another conservation issue on which progress has been made is the plight of Baer’s Pochard.  The population of this Critically Endangered duck has declined dramatically in the last few decades, the reasons for which are largely unknown.  However, after 2016 there is much to be optimistic about.  First, there are now dedicated groups studying Baer’s Pochard in China, including population surveys, study of breeding ecology and contributing to an international action plan to save the species.  These groups are working with the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, EAAFP and others to build a knowledge base about the species, raise awareness and develop concrete steps to conserve the species at its remaining strongholds.  A record count of 293 birds in December at the most important known breeding site in Hebei Province (Paul Holt and Li Qingxin) is a brilliant end to a year that will, hopefully, be a turning point for this species.

On a personal level I was extremely lucky, alongside Marie, to experience a ‘once in a lifetime’ encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai and, just a few days later, two Snow Leopards.  Certainly two of my most cherished encounters with wildlife.

So, as I glance out of my window again, I realise that a few days of smog are a small price to pay to be part of the birding and conservation community in China.  As 2017 begins, I have a spring in my step.

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The Wonderful World of Waders

During my trip to Liaoning Province in May, primarily for visible migration at Laotieshan, I spent a day with Tom Beeke and Spike Millington north of Dalian towards the North Korean border, to look for waders.  The whole area is brilliant with good numbers of mudflats holding birds such as Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Lesser Sand Plover, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Great Knot, etc etc.  It was along this stretch of coast that we enjoyed fantastic views of hundreds of waders gradually walking towards us on the incoming tide, most of which were in stunning summer plumage and on their way to their arctic breeding grounds.  It was awesome to see so many Great Knots, Terek Sandpipers, Greater Sand Plovers and the ‘sakhalina‘ subspecies of Dunlin – simply stunning birds.

Dunlin (ssp sakhalina), near Pikou, Liaoning Province, 14 May 2011

Among the flocks, we saw several colour-flagged birds and, having noted down the details and reported them to the Global Flyway Network, I received some fascinating data about the individual birds.  One Bar-tailed Godwit, originally flagged in Australia, was at least 19 years old (!) and another was flagged near Auckland, New Zealand, over 10,000 kilometres away from where we saw it… amazing! It was this experience that prompted me to find out more about the East Asian Flyway, the studies taking place and the information these studies were revealing and it was through these inquiries that I made contact with Chris Hassall.

Bar-tailed Godwits near Pikou, Liaoning Province, China

For the last few years Chris has been visiting the Bohai Bay in Spring and, with local PhD student Yang Hong-Yan, he has been studying migrant waders using this area, with an emphasis on the Red Knot.  Their work has contributed a huge amount to our knowledge of the movements of waders and how long they spend at these stopover locations, revealing the importance of the Chinese coast.  The numbers of birds passing through is incredible – Chris counted an astonishing 64,000 Red Knot in the Bohai Bay near Tangshan on one day in early May 2010!

One of the key methods for obtaining information about the movements of these birds has been colour-flagging or banding.  Colour-flagging schemes are now being operated in several countries along the flyway including Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, China and north-eastern Russia. Birds caught are marked with either plain coloured flags, engraved leg flags (ELF) or 4 colour-bands and one flag. Each capture location has its own colour flag and/or position of the flag on its leg to allow easy identification of the origin of each bird. The birds with plain flags cannot be identified to individual level but simply reveal the place where that individual was banded. The colour-bands and the engraved leg flags can be attributed to individuals, allowing fascinating life-histories to be discovered.

The flagged Terek Sandpiper we found at Pikou. This individual was colour-flagged at Chongming Island (southern China).

These schemes have allowed Hong-Yan, Chris and his team to identify Red Knot from as far afield as Chukotka, Kamchatka, Sumatra, Chongming Dongtan (China), 5 sites in Australia and both north and south islands of New Zealand. The study has also revealed the differing migratory patterns of the two subspecies of Red Knot – rogersi and piersmai – with rogersi (from SE Australia and New Zealand) arriving earlier and leaving their eastern Siberian breeding grounds earlier than the piersmai birds, predominantly from NW Australia and breeding on the New Siberian Islands.

One of the major threats to these birds is land reclamation which is happening all along the Bohai Bay coastline at a frightening pace. The China Marine Environment Monitoring Centre estimates that between 2006 and 2010, 1000km2 of land were reclaimed EACH YEAR in China. Added to this, the Bohai Sea is the most polluted in the world; it absorbs nearly 5.7 billion tonnes of sewage each year and 43 of the 52 rivers that flow into it are heavily polluted.

Traditional 'harvesting of the mudflats' for crabs and shellfish.. a way of life that is also threatened by the huge reclamation projects on the Chinese coast.

It is perhaps surprising that the number of birds at Chris’s study site has increased in the last few years. However, this is almost certainly due to the destruction of nearby habitat where many birds used to feed with birds now ‘crowding’ into an ever-decreasing feeding area. A big concern now is the sustainability of the remaining areas. Competition for the declining food sources will almost certainly mean birds will have to move on earlier and with fewer fat reserves, which could lead to a higher mortality rate and lower breeding success.

As Chris mentions in his latest report, all of the migratory birds using the Bohai Sea coast and covered in his report are covered by the China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement and it should be a “source of embarrassment to both governments that this destruction of critical habitat.. ..is happening“.

So what are the prospects for the future?  Chris and his team are leading, with WWF-China, calls for part of the area – including mudflats and some of the saltpans – to be protected by establishing an ‘International Shorebird Shared Resources Reserve at Bohai”.  The mudflats would provide the inter-tidal area for migrant and wintering shorebirds and the saltpans could be developed as high-quality high tide roosts and breeding areas for Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and Kentish Plovers.  Let’s hope this proposal gains enough support to outweigh the local financial incentives for development.

The plight of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (see recent posts) is certainly helping to raise awareness of the importance of protecting stopover sites along this coast and hopefully efforts to stop the decline of this most charismatic of waders will help all of the other species that rely on the same sites.  These small birds travel tremendous distances – many from Australasia to the arctic and back again each year – and it would be a tragedy if we lost them…

Me introducing the locals to wader-watching, Pikou, May 2011. Photo: Tom Beeke

Below is the list of colour-flagged or banded birds we saw along the coast between Pikou and Zhuange on the east coast of Liaoning Province in mid-May.  I find this data incredibly rewarding and it adds a new dimension to wader-watching.  It has even converted wader-wary local birder, Tom Beeke, into a shorebird fan! (well, almost…).

Bar-tailed Godwit

Yellow engraved “ELT” flag on right leg.

This bird was flagged Beaches, Crab Ck Rd, Roebuck Bay, Broome, Australia, approximate co-ordinates 18deg 0min S, 122deg 22min E, which uses the flag combination ‘Yellow Engraved’, on 1/04/2011.

Originally ringed on 2 April 1994 as a 2+ years old bird.  This bird is now 19+ years old!

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6406 km from the marking

location.

Yellow engraved “CST” flag on right leg

This bird was flagged Beaches, Crab Ck Rd, Roebuck Bay, Broome, Australia, approximate co-ordinates 18deg 0min S, 122deg 22min E, which uses the flag combination‘Yellow Engraved’, on 5/03/2005.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6406 km from the marking

location.

Orange flag on right tibia

This bird was flagged in Victoria (Australia), approximate co-ordinates

38deg 0min S, 145deg 0min E, which uses the flag combination ‘Orange’,

sometime since January 1990.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 8922 km, with a bearing

of 343 degrees, from the marking location.

Yellow flag on right tibia (4 birds)

These birds were flagged in North-west Australia, approximate

co-ordinates 19deg 0min S, 122deg 0min E, which uses the flag

combination Yellow, sometime since August 1992.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6518 km, with a bearing

of 1 degrees, from the marking location.

White flag on right tibia

This bird was flagged in the Auckland area, North Island (NZ),

approximate co-ordinates 37deg 0min S, 175deg 0min E, which uses the

flag combination White, sometime since 22 December 1991.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 10048 km, with a bearing

of 323 degrees, from the marking location.

Great Knot

Yellow flag on right tibia (2 birds)

These birds were flagged in North-west Australia, approximate

co-ordinates 19deg 0min S, 122deg 0min E, which uses the flag

combination Yellow, sometime since August 1992.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6518 km, with a bearing

of 1 degrees, from the marking location.

Black flag above white flag on right tibia

This bird was flagged at Chongming Dao, Shanghai, China, approximate

co-ordinates 31deg 27min N, 121deg 55min E, which uses the flag

combination Black/White, since April 2006.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 910 km, with a bearing of

5 degrees, from the marking location.

White band on tarsus

This bird was flagged as a juvenile at Roebuck Bay, Broome, Australia, approximate co-ordinates 17deg 55min S, 122deg 35min E, which uses the flag

combination White band, at age 1, between Sept. & July in 1999-2000 or

2003-4.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6397 km from the marking

location.

Grey Plover

Black flag on tibia

This bird was flagged at Chongming Dao, Shanghai, China, approximate

co-ordinates 31deg 27min N, 121deg 55min E, which uses the flag

combination Black+White (inferred), since April 2003.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 910 km, with a bearing of

5 degrees, from the marking location.

Red Knot

Orange flag on tibia

This bird was flagged in Victoria (Australia), approximate co-ordinates

38deg 0min S, 145deg 0min E, which uses the flag combination Orange,

sometime since January 1990.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 8922 km, with a bearing

of 343 degrees, from the marking location.

Terek Sandpiper

Black flag on tibia above white flag on tibia

This bird was flagged at Chongming Dao, Shanghai, China, approximate

co-ordinates 31deg 27min N, 121deg 55min E, which uses the flag

combination Black/White, since April 2006.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 893 km, with a bearing of

4 degrees, from the marking location.

Guest Post 3: Brian Jones – The Magic of Yeyahu NR and Ma Chang (Wild Duck Lake)

The third in the series of guest posts on Birding Beijing is from Brian Jones. Brian was kind enough to take me on my first visit to Wild Duck Lake (covering the areas of Ma Chang and Yeyahu Nature Reserve) soon after I arrived in Beijing and his enthusiasm for the place, as well as the great birds, made it a fantastic introduction to birding in China. That enthusiasm was infectious and I have since made regular visits to what is surely the premier birding site in the Beijing area. Brian visited WDL almost every week over a period of three years and thus has an unrivalled understanding of the birding in all seasons at this site and he has racked up an impressive list of records, including an amazing sighting of a Leopard Cat (with photo!). And so, with that short introduction, it’s over to Brian to tell you more about this wonderful place….

The Magic of Yeyahu Nature Reserve and Its Environs of Ma Chang

The viewing tower at "Eagle Field", Yeyahu Nature Reserve

This is my spiritual birdwatching home and somewhere I would recommend to any birder visiting Beijing.  It is good at all times of the year but perhaps marginally less so during June and July.

Yeyahu NR and neighbouring Ma Chang are, to my mind, the premier birdwatching sites in the Beijing area. Surprisingly the area is grossly under-birded and in the three years that I lived in Beijing having visited the site more than 160 times, apart from regulars like Jesper Hornskov, the highly respected China guide and his parties, I have probably seen no more than 30-40 birders.

The reserve lies approximately 80kms to the NW of Beijing and is reached by the Badaling expressway. The trip, depending on delays caused by trucks breaking down, normally takes about one and a half hours. But this can become over two and a half hours with delays so I got into the habit of busing out on Friday evening and staying overnight in Yanqing. My ever-reliable taxi driver Li Yan would look after me like a surrogate mother and pick me up at all hours.

My regular birdwatching companion Spike Millington and I would normally start at Ma Chang which is an open sandy desert-like area surrounded by crop fields mostly Maize and Peanuts.This is a haven for Cranes (Common, White-naped, Hooded, occasionally Demoiselle and Siberian) as well as the elusive Oriental Plover in the Spring (end of March-beginning of May and very occasionally in the Autumn), Great Bustard and raptors.

Demoiselle Crane, Wild Duck Lake

This is a wonderful location for raptors and it is not unusual to reach double figures of species during a day’s birdwatching. Larks are also plentiful including the much sought-after Mongolian Lark which, in the very cold winter of 2009/10, could be found in flocks of 200 birds. That particular winter also produced an irruption of Pallas’s Sandgrouse – one day I counted over 300 birds – and the extraordinary record of a dark variant Gyr Falcon. It is worthwhile exploring the area surrounding the wind turbines to the west of Ma Chang for Great Bustard, which are normally seen during the Autumn and late winter.

Mongolian Lark, Wild Duck Lake
Great Spotted Eagle ssp fulvescens, Wild Duck Lake
Pallass Sandgrouse, Wild Duck Lake, winter 2009/10

You can walk from Ma Chang to Yeyahu NR either through or round the fence that divides the two areas and it is certainly more worthwhile to do so as you will see far more birds than taxi cabbing from one to the other. Daurian Partridge are present in small numbers as well as Japanese Quail. During Winter and Spring time, the walk produces many Buntings, including the occasional irruption of Pine Buntings (one flock of 300 seen in 2010). I have also recorded the rare Streaked Reed Warbler along the edge of the reservoir.

Yeyahu NR produces a remarkable number of species considering the lack of any forested areas. If you want to find large raptors then head for the area we call Eagle field which lies between the lake and the reservoir to the north. Late morning in the Spring and Autumn will normally produce something special. Short-toed Eagle, which is a scarce bird in north China, is easily found here as well as Greater Spotted Eagles. During the winter White-tailed Eagles are commonly seen but, surprisingly, Golden Eagles are rare at Yeyahu. We have also found Booted and Terry Townshend this year saw an Imperial Eagle. I recorded Himalayan Griffon (2010) at this location. I believe it is the only Beijing record and I am quite sure a Steppe Eagle and Lammergeier will one day put in an appearance. Accipiters and Falcons are plentiful depending on the time of year with Saker Falcons being more common than Peregrines and an occasional Siberian Goshawk amongst the Northern Goshawks, being found. During migration it is not unusual to see migrating flocks of 50+ Amur falcons sometimes with small parties of Lesser Kestrel (best location at the bottom of Ma Chang). I found a flock of over 30 Lesser Kestrels one morning.

All the Harriers can be found with good numbers of Eastern Marsh (which breed both at Ma Chang and on the lake), Hen, Pied and on four occasions I have seen Pallid Harriers. Relict Gulls in the Spring and occasionally a Pallas’s Gull will show. Bitterns are common, I estimate there maybe as many as 30 breeding pairs of Great Bitterns in the area as well as good numbers of Von Schrenck’s, a rare bird in most areas of China, and the ubiquitous Yellow Bittern. If you walk along the boardwalk at Yeyahu early in the morning in May you will probably find Crakes or Water Rail. The reedbeds also hold breeding Chinese Penduline Tits, one of the very few places where they breed in the Beijing area, perhaps the only location and last year we recorded the first breeding pair of Chinese Grey Shrikes at Yeyahu for the area. Chinese Grey Shrikes, which are uncommon elsewhere, are common at Yeyahu during the winter.

One of my birdwatching friends Richard Carden from Singapore who has visited the site with me on several occasions has a habit of setting me lists of target birds to find. There have only been two glaring misses to the “list”, Great Bustard and Eagle Owl neither of which is normally that hard to locate at the appropriate time of the year. However Yeyahu made up for these deficiencies by producing an extralimital male Desert Wheatear and a Baird’s Sandpiper (yet to be ratified but the id of which we are both quite certain is correct) as well as a female Pallid Harrier. Peter Ericsson, the well-known guide from Bangkok was also present on one of the red-letter days. I would happily take an oath, that there is no such thing as a bad day during a visit to Yeyahu/Ma Chang. You can always count on the “Yeyahu surprise”.

Yeyahu also supports a considerable bio-diversity especially for lepidoptera, diurnal moths, amphibians and flora. Unfortunately to study lepidoptera you need to look down while birdwatching you are looking up so a choice must be made. I was also very lucky one morning to find myself walking down a track undetected behind a Leopard Cat which are rare now and usually strictly nocturnal.

Leopard Cat, Wild Duck Lake

There are of course aspects which are less favourable not least the “cavalry and dune buggies” who are out all year except during winter in the Ma Chang area.These are riders who charge hither and thither, yelling like cowboys, but falling off with great regularity. It is quite common to see riderless horses heading back to the corral followed some minutes later by a limping vacquero. Dune buggies have a nice habit of getting bogged down as do the cars full of photgraphers who spend much of their time chasing Lapwings. This is why it is worthwhile arriving at Ma Chang by 0700hrs before the Oriental Plovers etc. have been disturbed by the “Charge of the Light Brigade”. There used to be a problem with boatloads of shooting parties, mist netters, snare trappers and long-doggers, all illegal activities in China. But many of these activities have been curtailed because we took a very pro-active stance and “destroyed” all that crossed our path. You can never entirely limit poaching in China because there is a lack of understanding and caring amongst the local population but you can keep it under control by making a big fuss whenever you catch somebody setting up nets etc.
Finally I would recommend to any birder that they walk and not drive round the area. It will prove to be so much more rewarding. If you consider that the area has practically no trees and is mostly flat grassland, the 260 odd species that we have recorded in the reserve is, by China’s birdwatching standards, quite remarkable. I have rarely exceeded 60 species in a day at Yeyahu, but the list will always be full of unusual and exciting birds.

Brian Jones is a 66 years-old Art & Financial consultant who worked at Sothebys for ten years. He has spent three years in China, mostly in Beijing but now based in Shenzhen, working as an independent consultant with a Chinese metals information board and industrial re-cycling group as well as a Chinese investment company.  Brian has a great interest in all aspects of the environment, is a keen ornithologist and entomologist and an avid Scuba diver. He is also an ex-falconer, hence his excitement anytime something with a hooked beak flies past!.

Great Expectations

Spike and I have just paid another visit to Wild Duck Lake. The previous two days had been very warm (top temperatures in Beijing of over 20 degrees Celsius) and with very little wind. Lack of wind is always a good thing at Wild Duck Lake but it pays to visit on the first windless day after a period of windy weather as the pollution can accumulate quickly. Unfortunately, Thursday morning was the third consecutive day of light winds and, as a result, the visibility was poor – we couldn’t even see the mountains to the north (probably only 3-4 kms away).

Nevertheless, we had quite a good day, surprisingly seeing 10 species of bird of prey despite the poor visibility and several new spring migrants (eg Little Ringed Plover, Garganey, Mandarin and Common Buzzard). The full species list is copied below to give you a ‘feel’ for the place. It is a reflection of the richness of this site, and the high expectations that we have developed hoping for that ‘something special’, that we left feeling a little disappointed. No Baer’s Pochard, Oriental Plover or Relict Gull yet! Reading through the species list again as I write this, I realise that I have absolutely no right to be disappointed at all – that is quite a day list!

One of the highlights was definitely the groups of thrushes – mainly Red-throated – that were feeding and flying around Ma Chang. Some of them were in stunning summer plumage – fantastic birds.

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From the notebook:

0600 very little wind, cold at first (around 2 degrees C with a slight ground frost), warming up later to around 18 degrees C. Visibility poor due to pollution (mountains to the north not visible).

As the visibility was very poor, the wildfowl counts will not reflect the actual numbers (Tree Sparrow and Magpie too numerous to count).

Japanese Quail 2
Swan Goose 8
Bean Goose 6
Bewick’s Swan 1
Ruddy Shelduck c50
Mandarin 7
Gadwall c30
Falcated Duck c75
Eurasian Wigeon 2
Mallard c120
Chinese Spot-billed Duck 6
Shoveler 4
Pintail 2
Garganey 3
Common Teal c200
Common Pochard 25 (plus another group of 25, prob the same)
Tufted Duck 45
Goldeneye 22
Smew c150
Goosander c25
Great Crested Grebe c25
Little Grebe 4
Grey Heron 6
Kestrel 1
Merlin 1 – a small male
Osprey 1
Black-eared Kite 2
Eastern Marsh Harrier 1 (adult male)
Hen Harrier 4
Eurasian Sparrowhawk 2
Goshawk 1
Common Buzzard 1
Upland Buzzard 1, possibly the same seen again later
Coot 15
Common Crane 6
Grey-headed Lapwing 2
Northern Lapwing c40
Pacific Golden Plover 1 (still in winter plumage)
Little Ringed Plover 14
Kentish Plover c10
Common Snipe 3
Mongolian Gull 2 (1 ad and 1 3cy)
Black-headed Gull 56
Spotted Dove 1
Eurasian Collared Dove 4
Hoopoe 2
Great Spotted Woodpecker 1
Chinese Grey Shrike 2
Carrion Crow 65
Great Tit 2
Marsh Tit 2
Eurasian Skylark c300
Asian Short-toed Lark c10
Chinese Hill Warbler 2
Plain (Pere David’s) Laughingthrush 2 (possibly 3) in the reedbed on the western edge of Yeyahu reserve. Apparent first site record.
Vinous-throated Parrotbill c40
White-cheeked Starling 12
Eurasian Starling 6
Black-throated Thrush 4
Red-throated Thrush 42 – many in stunning summer plumage, feeding on the ground around Ma Chang
Naumann’s Thrush 3
Dusky/Naumann’s intergrade 1 – a real stunner
Red-flanked Bluetail 8 – including one very blue adult male
Daurian Redstart 12
Siberian Accentor 1
White Wagtail c80
Water Pipit 3
Brambling c40
Oriental Greenfinch 3 – flyovers
Meadow Bunting 2
Yellow-throated Bunting 5
Pallas’s Reed Bunting c250

Eastern Imperial Eagle

Another trip to Wild Duck Lake gave rewards but not in the way we had expected!  A big target bird was Baer’s Pochard, a rare duck that breeds in NE China and the S Russian Far East and winters in south-eastern China. They *must* pass through Wild Duck Lake in Spring, we think.. it’s just a case of finding one! With conflicting forecasts, we had gambled on the wind being slack and, on arrival at Yanqing at 0715, it seemed the gamble had paid off. Hardly a breath of wind and a glorious sunny day.  However, when we arrived at Ma Chang 20 minutes later, we could see the wind turbines rattling around at a fair pace and, as soon as we got out of the car, we were stood facing into a moderate to strong north-westerly – exactly the direction in which we needed to look to see the wildfowl.

Wind can be a real downer at this very open site – apart from the fact that it can be uncomfortable (and very cold) with icy winds from Siberia and Mongolia whipping into your face, it makes viewing the birds that much more difficult, especially using a lightweight tripod and telescope.  To add to this, the wildfowl were all keeping their heads low at the relatively sheltered far side of the lake, and amongst the reeds, making viewing very difficult indeed on the choppy water.

Still, we persevered, and reached some reasonable counts of Common Crane (c200), Swan Goose (c100), Bean Goose (c250), c450 Ruddy Shelduck, c150 each of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Falcated Duck, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall, c350 Smew and a nice flock of 8 White-naped Cranes feeding nearby in a field.  But there was no sign of the first Garganey of spring or the rare Baer’s Pochard.  Never mind.  Not this time.

We began the walk to Yeyahu, with the wind on our backs, and enjoyed sightings of 3 Hen Harriers (two ringtails and a beautiful adult male), 2 Kentish Plovers, a single Eurasian Curlew (first of the year), a Grey-headed Lapwing, 100s of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and 100s of Eurasian Skylarks with a few Asian Short-toed Larks mixed in (no Mongolian this time).  As we reached Yeyahu, the wind suddenly seemed to drop and, almost immediately, we began to see a few raptors – first another Hen Harrier, then an Upland Buzzard, then a second Upland.  At this point we had reached the long line of trees that runs south to north from Yeyahu lake to the reservoir.  Here, we usually split up with one of us doing the east side, the other the west.  I took the east side and, by the time I had reached almost half way down, I had seen only single Meadow and Little Buntings plus a few Tree Sparrows.  Then I heard some corvids calling overhead and I looked up to see a flock of around 20 Carrion Crows very high up in the sky flying south..  they deviated slightly to intercept a much larger bird gliding east… it had to be an eagle!  I could immediately see it was large and, after quickly narrowing down the possibilities in my head to Great Spotted/Imperial or Steppe, I called Spike to get him onto the bird.  As I was speaking to him, it began to head north towards the mountains and I quickly gave Spike directions before focusing the telescope on it as it drifted away.  In the strong light, the only colouration I could make out was that it looked mostly dark with paler undertail coverts.  I counted 7 ‘fingers’ on its broad and long wings before it became just a ‘dark bird of prey’ at distance.  Frustratingly, I didn’t get enough detail to confirm the identification. I made my way north towards the viewing tower that is well-situated on the south-eastern end of the reservoir in the hope that it might reappear.

Spike joined me there, unfortunately having not seen the bird.  We took the opportunity to take lunch and waited, scanning the skies.  It’s quite usual for large birds of prey to turn up in this area and often, with a little patience, they return.  So we were hopeful.  Then, about half an hour later, I got on to a large bird of prey heading our way.  Large eagle.  This time Spike saw it and we both enjoyed views through the telescope.  We began to note the features.  Great Spotted Eagle was probably the most likely species but it didn’t ‘feel’ like one.  This bird had long, broad wings, black primary tips and a dark trailing edge to the wings, but with a paler panel on the inner primaries that reached the tip.  The underwing coverts looked paler and the body was mottled.  The head appeared dark from underneath but looked slightly paler from above.  The tail was relatively long and almost two-toned.  It glided on slightly bowed wings.  It was clearly not an adult of any of the candidate species and immatures can be very variable. Neither of us had much experience with large eagles, so we decided to take as many notes as possible and also try to grab a few photographs.  The bird stayed quite distant, so photographing it was not easy but I was able to capture a few images which, after being heavily cropped, show some of the distinctive features.

On arriving home and looking at the literature, we both independently suspected it was an immature Eastern Imperial Eagle and this was also the view of Jesper Hornskov, to whom I had sent the photographs and description.  I have never seen Eastern Imperial Eagle before and it’s quite a scarce bird in the Beijing area, so we were pretty pleased with the record.  The images are below.

 

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Wild Goose Chase

This week, Birding Beijing is brought to you by the letter “M” and the number “2”.

“M” because there was a distinctly Mongolian feel to Saturday’s birding, and “2” because I saw two new birds!

Spike and I visited Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang to Yeyahu) again on Saturday. We were buoyed by last week’s hints of Spring and, on the bus to Yanqing, our conversation revolved around the possibility of seeing early migrants – would there be a first Little Ringed Plover, or even an Oriental Plover? A Mongolian Lark or Great Bustard? Or something rarer like a Pallas’s Sandgrouse? As usual, speculation about just what might be was pretty outrageous..!

In the end, the reality was much better than I could have reasonably expected with two new birds for me – a single Mongolian Lark (yess!) and 2 White-naped Cranes that were seen cohorting with the local Common Crane flock – whilst the rarest bird must be the all-too-brief probable Lesser White-fronted Goose that was associating with around 3,000 Bean Geese (mostly of the subspecies serrirostris but with a few middendorffii mixed in).

The supporting cast included c400 Swan Geese, 2 Hooded Cranes, the first Shoveler and Wigeon of the year, a stunning drake Baikal Teal, 9 Kentish Plovers, a single Grey-headed Lapwing, my first 3 White Wagtails (ssp leucopsis) of the year, 20 Mongolian Gulls (18 of which were migrating west), 10 Black-headed Gulls, c300 Smew, 2 Upland Buzzards, 2 ‘ringtail’ Hen Harriers, 2 Siberian Accentors, 4 Chinese Grey Shrikes and 3 White-cheeked Starlings.

The day started at Ma Chang at around 0645 and we were greeted by a big flock of Common Cranes by the side of the track. Amongst them were 2 Hooded Cranes, spotted as they took flight. A good start! Then, just as I had set up my telescope to go through the flocks of wildfowl on the far side of the reservoir, everything took flight. This had to mean one thing – a major raptor. Sure enough, a White-tailed Eagle lumbered low over the reeds and settled on the ice. Looking at the sky revealed the sheer scale of the wildfowl present – the sky was full of birds. Bean Geese were everywhere… The sight and sound of the geese in flight shortly after dawn was something to behold. I tried to capture some of the atmosphere on video and you can view a short clip of the Bean Geese here. We just stood and marvelled at the sight for a couple of minutes and then I thought it would probably be a good idea to go through the flocks to see if there were any other geese mixed in.

I began to check the flying flocks with my telescope and, in the third flock I checked, I saw a significantly smaller ‘white-fronted’ goose in a flock of serrirostris Bean Geese. I watched it for about 10 seconds in flight before the flock landed on the ice. I could see the relatively small size (at the time, I estimated it was 20 per cent smaller than the serrirostris Bean Geese), dark belly markings, the white base to the bill and I could just make out an eye-ring. I called out “I think I have a Lesser White-front!”. After a scan of the flock on the ground I picked it up at about 200-300m distance, and was again struck by the noticeably smaller size, relatively small head and very peaked forehead. Unfortunately many other serrirostris Bean Geese landed in the same area and several birds walked in front of the LWFG and it was lost to view. I couldn’t get Spike onto the bird… very frustrating! After several minutes of waiting to see if it would reveal itself, we decided to walk to another vantage point to try to view the flock from a different angle. This proved fruitless when the flock flew up to join another flock of Bean Geese heading west and was lost to view.

I have seen LWFG in Copenhagen in Spring 2010 (a flock of 50+) and I am confident that the bird was that species, although I would have liked to have studied it for longer to rule out hybrids, taken more notes and, ideally, photographed it.. a little frustrating but hopefully it will hang around and be seen by others.

It was shortly after this sighting that we began the walk towards Yeyahu and it was on the shore of the reservoir that we encountered a large flock of larks feeding out in the open. A Kentish Plover called and we soon picked up two, three, then four of these dainty plovers. I set up the telescope to go through the flock with the main aim of counting the KPs (9 in total) when I suddenly got onto a very striking lark mixed in with the Eurasian Skylarks. Slightly larger than the Skylarks and with a black mark at the top of the breast bordered with a rusty wash on the sides of the upper breast, rusty colouration to the median and lesser coverts and a rusty stripe on the head, this could only be one thing – a Mongolian Lark! This is a bird I had hoped to see around Beijing in winter and I was beginning to think my luck was out. To see one in mid- to late March was a nice surprise! After only about a minute it took flight on its own and, with its very distinctive ‘floppy’ flight, it looped over to a more shrubby area and dropped to the ground. Despite a brief search of the area, it never showed again.

We walked round to the east side of the reservoir to try to view the flocks of wildfowl that were congregating on the northern shore. Lots of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Swan Geese and masses of duck. Most surprising of all was the sight of 4 cormorant fishermen who paddled out into the middle of the reservoir and released their cormorants to begin fishing. I thought this practice had all but died out so was surprised to see it being used less than 90 minutes from the capital… (and there wasn’t a tourist in sight!).

The onward walk was relatively quiet with just a couple of Upland Buzzards, a few Japanese Quail, 3 Meadow Buntings, 2 Siberian Accentors and lots more Pallas’s Reed Buntings. We were met by our driver at Yeyahu and began the journey home, tired but exhilarated. That first 3 to 4 hours at the reservoir on Saturday morning will stay with me for a long time – fantastic birding.

This site has bags of potential in Spring and I can’t wait to return.

Mixed flock of Bean Geese and Swan Geese, Ma Chang, 19 March 2011
Cormorant fisherman with wildfowl flock in background, Ma Chang, 19 March 2011

Death at the Lake

With Spring in the air, Spike Millington and I decided to pay a visit to Wild Duck Lake to see whether birds were on the move. We caught the first bus from Beijing at 6am and arrived in Yanqing at 0715, after seeing several small flocks of Waxwings totalling about 30 birds, during the journey. Here we met our driver for the onward 20-minute journey to Ma Chang/Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake). On arrival it was beautifully still and we were pleased to see patches of open water on the reservoir on which were congregating good numbers of wildfowl. 150 swans (mostly Whooper with perhaps 50 Bewick’s) were providing a great soundtrack in the still morning air while we scanned through the flocks. We counted 250 Bean Geese, 10 Swan Geese, over 50 Goosander, c200 Smew, a female Red-crested Pochard, 2 Ferruginous Ducks, 8 Pintail, a handful of Common Pochard, 150+ Ruddy Shelduck, 4 Gadwall and good numbers of Falcated Duck, Mallard and Common Teal. Nearby over 170 Common Cranes fed around the edges of the lake and a single Lapwing (the first of the spring) flew overhead. A lone White-tailed Eagle sat watchfully on the ice.

After scanning (more in hope than expectation) the open grassland for Great Bustard, we began the walk from Ma Chang to Yeyahu. The open grassy areas produced 4 Chinese Grey Shrikes, good numbers of Asian Short-toed Larks and Skylarks (some singing), 200-300 Pallas’s Reed Buntings, a single Lapland Bunting, 2 flocks of Daurian Partridges (totalling 11 birds), 4 Japanese Quails and a single Upland Buzzard. Sadly, it was in this area that we also found a dead Eagle Owl. A superficial examination revealed no obvious cause of death and we speculated about the possibility of starvation or, given that we hardly saw any raptors all day (single White-tailed Eagle and Upland Buzzards were the only birds of prey of the day), the possibility of poisoning taking place nearby.. who knows? In any case, it is probably the same Eagle Owl that we saw here in the first part of the winter and that which, in January, was responsible for the killing of a Long-eared Owl whose remains we found next to a huge pellet. Coincidentally, Brian Jones found a dead Eagle Owl in a similar area two winters ago.

The dead Eagle Owl found at Ma Chang/Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake), near Yanqing

The walk along the boardwalk at Yeyahu produced at least 10 Chinese Penduline Tits and more Pallas’s Reed Buntings but it was a little further on where Spike dug out the surprise bird of the day – a superb adult summer male Long-tailed Rosefinch. It was pretty elusive and I only enjoyed brief views before it seemed to just disappear into thin air.. and there was no sign an hour later when we returned for a second look. This is apparently the first record of Long-tailed Rosefinch at this site.

The walk down to the observation towers produced a few Siberian Accentors, 2 Oriental Turtle Doves, 2 Grey-capped Woodpeckers, 2 Grey-headed Woodpeckers and 3 Marsh Tits. A single Daurian Jackdaw by the exit track was an uncommon sight at Yeyahu as we made our way out of the reserve for the journey back to Beijing.

With the weather warming up and the ice cover retreating, the next few weeks could be very good at Wild Duck Lake. Late March is a good time for Oriental Plover and it’s possible that other early migrants such as Mongolian Lark, Great Bustard and even the now rare Baer’s Pochard may pass through. One of us at least will try to visit once a week for the spring period… Watch this space!