Beijing: The Capital Of White Wagtails?

April is THE month for seeing White Wagtails in Beijing and, with six of the nine recognised subspecies recorded in the capital, Beijing has a strong claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”.  

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise nine subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.  See map below to see the breeding ranges of the nine currently recognised subspecies.

The breeding ranges of the nine recognised subspecies of White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Reproduced from “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Alström, Mild and Zetterström and published by Helm.

Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).  Since moving to Beijing, it’s been a joy to become familiar with a few more subspecies.  Here, in order of abundance, are the subspecies that have been recorded in Beijing:

1 – “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba leucopsis)

On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, a familiar bird from late March until October and an abundant migrant in spring and autumn.

2014-04-15 White Wagtail ssp leucopsis male, Miyun
Amur Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis), the most common race of White Wagtail in Beijing, and the only breeder.  Note clean white face and black upperparts.

2 – “Eye-striped White” or “Swinhoe’s White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba ocularis)

The striking ssp ocularis is very common on migration in spring (late March-April) and autumn (Sep-Oct).  With the prominent eyestripe and contrasting grey mantle, these birds are relatively easy to identify.  

White Wagtail (Motacialla alba ocularis), a common migrant in Spring and Autumn. Breeds in northern and eastern Siberia. Note the black eye-stripe and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape.  16 April 2016, Ma Chang, Beijing (Terry Townshend)

3 – “Transbaikalan Wagtail” (Motacilla alba baicalensis)

A regular, but much scarcer, migrant than ocularis, a few of the more subtle ssp baicalensis are often mixed with flocks of the more common subspecies.  With the clean white face, white chin and throat and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape, baicalensis is, to me at least, one of the more elegant White Wagtails.  The greyish wash to the flanks is also a good feature.  

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba baicalensis). A scarce migrant in Beijing. Breeds in central Siberia, N Mongolia.  Note pale throat, compared with alba, and the greyish wash on the flanks (Terry Townshend)

4 – “Black-backed” Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

The next most frequently encountered is the “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital (October to April).  A few can often be found in winter along the Tonghui River in Tongzhou and it has also been recorded on passage at reservoirs in Beijing.

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens), male. A scarce winter visitor to Beijing (Terry Townshend).
Male 'lugens' White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.
Male ‘lugens’ White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.  The eyestripe combined with the black upperparts make this ssp distinctive (c.f. ocularis).  The significant white in the wing is also a very good feature if seen in flight.

5 – “Siberian White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba alba)

The fifth subspecies to have appeared in Beijing is the ‘eastern’ alba.  The first record of this subspecies in Beijing was found by local birder, Luo Qingqing, on 29 March 2015. Before that date ‘eastern’ alba had been recorded in northwest China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and was considered a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai.  It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm).  Luo Qingqing’s sighting from 29 March 2015 was not only a first for Beijing but a first that we are aware of in all of east China!

IMG_4401 (1)
The first record of M.a.alba in Beijing and, we think, eastern China, 29 March 2015. Note black chin compared with the similar baicalensis.  Photo by Luo Qingqing.

Since 2015, no doubt due to greater observer awareness and more coverage, alba has proved to be annual in small numbers in Spring. 

‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003).  This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.

6 – “Masked Wagtail” (Motacilla alba personata)

In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in the capital.

2012-04-14 White Wagtain ssp personata, Ma Chang, Beijing

M.a.personata at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 14 April 2012. The first record of this subspecies for the capital.  Up to March 2020 there have been a further six records of this Central Asian race in Beijing.

It wasn’t long before the second personata appeared, a stunning adult male found by Steve Bale in April 2015 along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring.

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The second “Masked Wagtail” (M.a.personata) for Beijing, found by Steve Bale on the Wenyu River.

Following a recent sighting at Miyun Reservoir on 26 and 30 March 2020, there are now at least seven records of personata in the capital.

White Wagtail ssp personata at Miyun Reservoir on 26 March 2020 (Terry Townshend)

To summarise, Beijing is a brilliant place to see White Wagtails.  Thanks to greater observer awareness and significantly increased coverage by a growing number of birders, the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing is six and at least five have been recorded every year since 2015.  And, of course, there is still the potential for alboides to occur, which could bring the total to seven. With statistics like that, Beijing has a justifiable claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”!  

 

Ref: “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Per Alström, Krister Mild and Dan Zetterström, published by Helm (2003).

This post was originally published in April 2015.  It has been updated to take into account post-2015 records in order to better reflect the status of each subspecies in Beijing.

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REDWING in Beijing

On 5 December 2018, Beijing-based Steve Bale visited Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus for the first time.  He found Beijing’s second ever Redwing.  Here’s Steve’s account of that unforgettable find…

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By Steve Bale

For me, one of the highlights of Beijing-birding is the arrival of the ‘winter thrushes’.  There are two species-groups that make the long journey from their Siberian breeding grounds to spend the cold winter-months here – Naumann’s/Dusky and Red/Black-throated.

So far this winter, I have seen very few thrushes of any description by the Wenyu River, my local patch.  Concerns that Beijing had somehow been removed from their winter travel itinerary were allayed when I recieved news from Ben Wielstra, via the Qinghua University birders’ WeChat group, that all of the above-mentioned thrushes could be seen on the university’s ‘Patch 6’. What’s more, they were there in good numbers, and in various guises.

Ben had kindly posted a video of a bird at the edge of Patch 6’s pond, whose gene-line seemed to have Black, Red-throated and Naumann’s branches. Not to be outdone, the thrush next to it appeared to be the progeny of a male Naumann’s and a male Dusky.

Clearly, Qinghua University’s ‘Patch 6’ was the place to have a close look at some of the wonders of thrush evolution (which is very much work-in-progress in this part of the world).

I must admit, though, that the factor that tipped the ‘go or don’t go’ decision, was that Ben had also seen a Grey-backed Thrush that morning – a Beijing rarity no less.  It had been found by Bu Xinchen – one of the band of very active Qinghua birders – more than a week earlier, but was proving hard to pin down.

Decision made, I grabbed my bins and camera, and set off for ‘Thrushtopia’.  15 minutes later I was at the Guo Zhan subway station.  50 minutes after that I had reached the station at the end of Line 15, which is 30 minutes’ walk away from Patch 6.  By 1.30pm I was pond-side watching and hearing  ‘winter thrushes’ – lots of them, and much more besides.

The pond at Patch 6 had frozen overnight, but there was still enough water at the edges to attract more than a dozen species of birds. Within an hour of my arrival, as well as seeing Hawfinch (2), Chinese Grosbeak (c15), Oriental Greenfinch (c10), Chinese Bulbul (6), Great Spotted Woodpecker (1), Brambling (c40), Silky Starling (c10), White-Cheeked Starling (c10) I had enjoyed excellent views of close to 50 thrushes – Chinese Blackbird (c10), Dusky (8), Naumann’s (c10), Red-throated (8), Black-throated (2), Dusky/Naumann’s (6),  Red/Black-throated (2), and a possible Naumann’s/Red-throated.  I had also managed to get a glimpse of the Grey-backed, before it was scared away by someone sweeping up leaves from the water’s edge.

A male GREY-BACKED THRUSH – the reason for Steve’s first birding trip to Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus, 5 December 2018 (Steve Bale)

What an amazing hour’s birding – and certainly well worth the trek across Beijing to get there.

I then realised that my head was painfully cold.  In my haste, I had forgotten to bring a hat.  A bad mistake when it’s minus four, but a potentially life-threatening one when it’s minus four and you are bald.

Before making a hasty exit to find a coffee shop on the way back to the subway station, I decided to have one final look at the bushes by the pool.  There were quite a few thrushes there… a very brick-red Naumann’s, a Dusky, a Redwing, another Naumann’s…

Obviously, my brain had started to freeze.

Redwing?!?!

…It dawned on me that I wasn’t in Norfolk, where flocks of Redwing can be seen on most winter days. I was in Beijing, where there has only been one previous record.

I looked again. It was still there. Instinctively, I put my bins down and picked my camera up. I watched the bird – seemingly an adult – for a few minutes as it dropped down from the bush to the pond-side rocks, and back to the bush. Then it was gone.  Bizarrely, happy memories of the first time I had ever seen a Redwing – when I was 11 – popped in to my head.  I remembered thinking, what a brilliant bird it was, and marvelling at its night-migration across the North Sea on its way to eat apples in my back garden.

The first photo of the REDWING at Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus, 5 December 2018 (Steve Bale)

Pushing nostalgia aside, I immediately sent a WeChat message to Ben, attaching a record shot (phone-photo of the camera’s review-sceen).  Within a few minutes of finding the bird, I had also sent the photo and directions to the Qinghua WeChat birding group’s 38 other members.

Ben was the first to arrrive; then XiaoPT, who I thanked again for inviting me to join the WeChat group.  Within 30 minutes there were ten people waiting for the Redwing’s return.  Only problem was that there had been no sign of it since my initial sighting. It would be almost an increasingly tense hour before the bird decided to show itself to its waiting admirers. By then, the crowd had swelled to about 15 people (a major twitch by Chinese standards).

It was of course wonderful to find the bird, but the real pleasure came from sharing the joy with so many enthusiastic young birders. The Qinghua birding group is one of the many local groups that have popped up all over China in recent years. Many of the people in these groups are not just active birders, they are passionate conservationists also.  These young people are at the forefront of the drive to make China’s environment a better place for the birds and other animals that depend on it. I take my hat off to them.

Talking of hats, many thanks to Ben – not just for inspiring me to visit Qinghua University for the first time – but also for lending me a life-saving woolly hat.

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Title photo of Tsinghua University campus by Steve Bale.

White-throated Redstart at Lingshan

Wednesday was a shocker of a day in Beijing.  In the last two years, the air quality has improved significantly through a combination of government efforts to shut down coal-fired power stations and old heavy industry, in particular steel production, and favourable winds.  However, after a few days of gentle southerly winds, bringing pollution from industrial Hebei Province, the air quality was the worst for many months.  If there’s one place to be in those circumstances, it’s the mountains; even the relatively modest 2,303m elevation of Beijing’s highest peak at Lingshan is usually above the smog and enjoys blue skies while the majority of the capital suffocates in a blanket of toxic pollution.

It wasn’t the pollution forecast but instead a happy coincidence that I had arranged to visit Lingshan with good friend and fellow Beijinger, Steve Bale.  It would be my first visit to this special site since summer and the first visit of the winter invariably evokes memories of the special birds I’ve been lucky to encounter there, not least the male PRZEVALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART from February 2014.

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (Phoenicurus alaschanicus) at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.

The morning started brightly with the expected blue skies and clean air, enabling us to look towards downtown Beijing cloaked in a horrible grey-brown murk.

As usual, our first stop was ‘Przewalski’s Gully”, the site of that memorable 2014 find.  A group of six PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSHES, a single RED-THROATED THRUSH and a pair of BEIJING BABBLERS greeted us we made our way up the gully, shortly followed by three male and two female WHITE-WINGED (GULDENSTADT’S) REDSTARTS and a pair of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.

After birding the gully we headed up to the ‘old road’ and, with the sun behind us, started to walk up the valley.  It was fairly quiet with a few RED-THROATED THRUSHES, a handful of GODLEWSKI’S and MEADOW BUNTINGS and a trickle of WHITE-WINGED REDSTARTS.

After reaching the top, I headed back down the valley to collect the car while Steve made his way on foot along the road, passing the formerly derelict, now shiny and renovated, buildings.  Collecting Steve as I drove up, we stopped briefly at the ‘saddle’ to check the rocky slopes for ASIAN ROSY FINCHES or ALPINE ACCENTORS (sadly absent) before continuing along the road as it began to descend.  With windows open and almost no wind we were listening for birds and almost immediately we heard the familiar call of CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH.  Two males were sitting up in some dwarf birches, showing off their stunning pink plumage.  A resident breeder, these birds are always a delight to see.

Male CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCHES, Lingshan (Steve Bale)

Continuing on we stopped after only a few metres when I thought I heard a PINE BUNTING.  We stopped the car at a shallow gully, dotted with silver birch trees.

The lightly wooded gully (c1550m asl) where we stopped to look for a Pine Bunting.

Steve began to walk up the gully as I checked the top close to the road.  As Steve made his way up we saw a few MEADOW BUNTINGS, a GODLEWSKI’S BUNTING and a couple of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.  It was at this point that I heard a harsh ‘tick’ call that I thought could be a redstart.  Suddenly, a bird flew past me at head height at such speed that I was unable to lift my binoculars in time..  My first reaction, on seeing the striking orange underparts, was “that was a really bright stonechat”!  However, a split second later as it headed down the gully, I could see the dark wings with a white wing-bar and immediately knew it was a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, a species with which I am familiar from the Valley of the Cats on the Tibetan Plateau.  Wow!

I could see that the bird dropped and appeared to land in bushes at the bottom the gully, from where Steve had walked in.  I shouted to Steve and he quickly joined me at the top of the gully.  Steve agreed to head back down the road to the bottom of the gully while I stayed at the top to ensure I could see it if it relocated.  I spotted it deep in a bush and, as Steve made his way down, it made two brief forays onto the grassy slope to catch insects, before heading back to the bushes.  After a couple of minutes, Steve was at the base of the gully and secured a few record images as it foraged for insects.  Relieved that we had some documentation of the record, I headed down with the car and we both viewed from the road as the redstart caught insects and, occasionally, delivered a relatively quiet subsong.  After enjoying the bird for around half an hour and securing some photos and video from a safe distance, we decided to move on, feeling elated at such an unexpected find.

Male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, Lingshan, 14 November 2018. Photo by Terry Townshend.

Lingshan lies on the boundary of Beijing Municipality and Hebei Province and, whilst the peak is in Beijing, the border snakes erratically and some of the areas to the north and west are in Hebei.  On checking the specific location on Google Maps, we found that the White-winged Redstart was in Hebei Province, around 250m outside Beijing, so technically it can’t be counted as a Beijing record, although I suspect it would be possible to view from inside the capital!

White-throated Redstart is, I believe, the 5th species of Phoenicurus redstart to be encountered at Lingshan after Black, Daurian, Przevalski’s and White-winged, and adds to the growing number of Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau species found in the mountains around Beijing.  With the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau linked, albeit loosely, to the capital via the severely under-birded Qinling, Luliang and Taihang ranges, it’s entirely possible that more Plateau species occasionally make their way to the mountains around Beijing.  What price a Blue-fronted or Hodgson’s Redstart?

Big thanks to Steve Bale for his great company and use of his photos from the trip.

According to HBW, White-throated Redstart (Phoenicurus schisticeps) is a high-altitude breeder (2400-4500m) in Central and Eastern Himalayas East from West Central Nepal, and Central China (East and Southeast Qinghai, South Gansu and Southwest Shaanxi, South to South and Southeast Tibet and North Yunnan).  It is mostly sedentary with some elevational movements in winter, down to 1,400m.  The Lingshan bird is >1,000km to the east of its normal range and, with only one historical record from a park in coastal Hebei (PH via WeChat), this is possibly only the second record for Eastern China.  We’d both be very interested to hear about other extralimital records of this species in eastern China.

 

Title photo: White-throated Redstart, Lingshan by Steve Bale.