The Search for Swinhoe’s Rail

Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) must be one of east Asia’s least known birds.  Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only very infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.

It was only two years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia.  And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia.

Wuerqihan is a wonderful place… it is very popular with bird photographers in winter when, despite the bitter temperatures (as low as -35 degrees Celsius), it’s possible to see very well species such as Great Grey, Hawk, Ural, Tengmalm’s, Eagle and Little Owls plus other photogenic birds such as Hazel Grouse, Black Grouse, Siberian Jay, Pine GrosbeakPallas’s Rosefinch and, if you are lucky, Black-billed Capercaillie, .  It is less well-known that summer is also pretty special.  In addition to the recently-discovered Swinhoe’s Rail, it is a brilliant site to see Pallas’s and Gray’s Grasshopper Warblers, Lanceolated Warbler, Band-bellied Crake, Pale-legged, Two-barred Greenish, Dusky and Radde’s Warblers, Eyebrowed Thrush, Oriental Cuckoo and many more species.  It is also just wonderful to spend time in pristine lush wet meadows, mixed deciduous forest and grassland that are all teeming with life.

2018-06-19 Inner Mongolian wetland, Wuerqihan
One of the wet clearings in the forest at Wuerqihan.
2018-06-16 silver birch forest, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia
The stunning birch forest at Wuerqihan is home to owls, warblers, thrushes and buntings.
2018-06-19 Clouds over Inner Mongolia meadow
The open wet grasslands of Wuerqihan are full of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers!

I had already made two short summer trips to Wuerqihan, in 2016 with Nick Green and in 2017 with Derrick Wilby and I was keen to return.  So, with Marie, we set aside a few days to fly to Hailar, rent a car and drive the 2.5 hours east to Wuerqihan.

We were keen just to enjoy the break and some good birding but of course we were also hoping to encounter the Swinhoe’s Rail.

Our first day would coincide with the last day of the visit by British birder, Jon Holmes, for whom I had arranged local guide Zhang Wu and his 4×4 to take him around.  And on day two we bumped into another Brit, Dave Woodford, accompanied by Chinese bird guide, Steven An.

The call of Swinhoe’s Rail is reasonably loud and carries for quite a distance… and during our first evening on site, we had no difficulty in hearing the Swinhoe’s Rails from the track, calling from the wet grass.  Being poorly prepared (no wellies or torch), we decided to call it a night, do a spot of shopping in the town the following day and return the next evening.

After each picking up a pair of wellies for CNY 40 (about GBP5) we arrived on site, with Steven and Dave, around 6pm, about 2.5 hours before dusk.  Already, one bird was calling intermittently and, before long, two or three began calling.  We donned our wellies and headed along the edge of the meadow, stopping regularly to listen to the birds as they began calling more frequently as dusk approached.   You can hear a bit about our first encounter here:

Suddenly, a dark shape flew up in front of Dave and dropped into the grass about 15m away.  It was tiny and dark with obvious white secondaries – Swinhoes’ Rail!  Almost immediately it began to call and, having my sound recording gear with me, I was fortunate to capture this seldom heard, and rarely recorded, sound.

We were stunned and stood still, just soaking up the moment.  The wonderful rich colours of the meadow at sunset, not a breath of wind and Swinhoe’s Rails calling amongst the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Common Rosefinches, Japanese Quails and Common Cuckoos.  Simply mesmerising.

2018-06-18 Meadow in Inner Mongolia
Swinhoe’s Rail habitat in Inner Mongolia.
2018-06-17 Swinhoe's Rail habitat
The grass was around 30cm high with c15cm of water.. Wellies definitely required.
2018-06-17 Swinhoe's Rail, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia (Steven An)
Swinhoe’s Rail in flight, Wuerqihan. Photo by Steven An.

That moment will stay with us for a very long time.   And as we made our way back to the vehicles, we were accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong with Common Cuckoos seemingly all around, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers reeling away and Japanese Quails uttering their squelchy call.  Magical.

The Chinese name for Swinhoe’s Rail is 花田鸡 (Huātián jī).  Literally translated it means “flower frog”, a fantastically descriptive and apt name.

Over the next few days, we enjoyed some pretty special encounters with some wonderful birds including a stunning Great Grey Owl in the evening light.

Pacific Swifts were common in the town, breeding in many of the buildings, particularly the older properties.

And the omnipresent Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler occasionally showed well, belying its reputation as an extreme skulker.

 

We recorded 98 species during our visit and had a fantastic time.  Wuerqihan is a brilliant birding destination and thoroughly recommended in summer or winter.  It is probably also extremely good in spring and autumn but, as far as I know, no birders have visited in that season.

2018-06-16 Zhang Wu scoping for Black-billed Capercaillie, Wuerqihan
Local guide, Zhang Wu, with his trusty 4×4.

Anyone wanting to visit should contact local guide, Zhang Wu, who can arrange pick-up and drop-off from Hailar airport, accommodation and food, and, with his unbreakable 4×4 and local knowledge, he will ensure any visiting birder gets to the right places and has a superb time.  Although he speaks no English, it’s possible to communicate the basics using a combination of sign language and the impressive translation APP on his smartphone, and you can guarantee he will work hard to try to connect you with any target species.  He can be contacted directly on +86 13614709187 and, for any non-Chinese speakers, I’d be happy to help make arrangements if required.

Big thanks to Marie, Jon, Dave, Steven and Zhang Wu for being great company during the trip.  And a big hat-tip to the Amur Bird Project team and Paul Holt for their discoveries in 2016 and 2017 which enabled us to connect with the enigmatic Swinhoe’s Rail.

 

 

Swinhoe’s Rail in Beijing

Whilst I was in Dalian participating in the 2nd China International Birding Festival (more on that to come), I received an excited WeChat message from Zhao Qi informing me that Colm Moore had, just a few minutes earlier, seen a SWINHOE’S RAIL at Shahe Reservoir, Beijing.  Due to its secretive habits, this poorly-known species is very rarely seen anywhere and a decline in the number of records in recent years suggests that it is becoming one of China’s rarest birds.  From a personal perspective, it is my most sought-after species and I have lost count of the number of times I have endured squelchy feet as I meandered through soggy meadows around Beijing in the vain hope of encountering one of these enigmatic birds.

Anyone who knows Colm will tell you he is a brilliant birder.  In Beijing he is a relentless patch worker, visiting Shahe whenever he has spare time, which usually equates to a visit each weekend.  If ever a sighting of this magnitude was deserved, this is it.

In a subsequent email, Colm described his encounter in typically thorough and evocative language:

“The bird took off without being put up by me, flew very low continuously and fast just skimming the knee-high vegetation, darkish legs hanging. The landing was exactly like a crane, legs forward, disc-like wings down and a rather prolonged landing, showing the incredible white secondaries.
It got up from soggy knee-length vegetation and flew maybe 120m unlike Baillon’s Crake. It really was tiny, the size of a Tree Sparrow, but clearly Rail…..for all purposes very very dark, “Baillons- in-flight-dark”, ridiculous rounded disc-like wings beating fast and in a default slightly bowed position with no gliding, darkish legs dangling but neatly so, say 30 degrees to body line. Short bill and maybe slightly paler belly but whole impression was very dark. No deviation from line of flight and landing with legs forward, wings angled down and slightly back, revealing shocking white inner wing trailing edge, equivalent to secondaries.
No time in the shock of the moment to do anything but use binoculars. This was at about 11.15am and good half-cloud/sunlight behind me. I know the species from Happy Island 15 yrs ago, where Per Schiermacher Hansen and Jesper Hornskov showed me one and left to my own devices I found another. While in Minnesota in 2006 I was shown American Yellow Rail novaboracensis at a special site and it resembles Swinhoe’s but was bigger. Agony not to get even a record shot I know but the views were great, short I acknowledge but the white amazing. It looked identical, even down to the very dark wings and body impression noticeable on the birds on Happy Island.”

Colm’s description is delightful and if there was a Rarities Committee in China, I am sure this would sail through despite the understandable lack of photographic evidence.  A wonderful record by one of the best birders I have ever met.  It is the 4th record of Swinhoe’s Rail for Beijing, with all records coming since 2014, a statistic that must be due to an increase in the number of birders and greater observer awareness rather than a change of its status in the wild (it is officially classified as “Vulnerable” with the population thought to be in decline).

Thanks to Colm and Zhao Qi for allowing me to share the story of this enviable encounter here.

Featured Image: Swinhoe’s Rail at the Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, October 2014 by 仲平 (Zhou Zhongping).

SWINHOE’S RAIL at the Temple of Heaven!

The Temple of Heaven is on the itinerary for most first-time visitors to Beijing.  It’s an impressive tourist site, attracting thousands of visitors daily.  In spring and autumn it is also something of a migrant trap and in one small fenced off area, local bird photographers set out their stalls and wait to snap photos of the latest crop of migrants that have dropped in for a rest.

Usually, they find relatively common migrants such as Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin, Taiga Flycatcher or Dusky Thrush.  However, on 12 October, whilst photographing a Chinese Thrush, a small rail ran across in front of the startled photographers.  One of them was quick to point their lens and shoot some photos.  I am not sure the photographer knew the significance of the sighting immediately..  but one of the photos was circulated and one of the recipients, Wei Min, forwarded it on to the Birding Beijing WeChat group where, as you can imagine, it caused quite a stir!

I don’t have permission to publish the photo on this blog but you can see the photos by clicking here.  They are probably the best ever photos of SWINHOE’S RAIL in the wild.  It’s a tough bird to see anywhere in the world – extremely skulking and rare, possibly very rare.

Not surprisingly, this bird represents the first record of SWINHOE’S RAIL for Beijing.  However, it was only seen by a handful of photographers.  Unfortunately, it appears that one of the photographers on site ‘caught’ it and, once released, it flew off into deep cover, never to be seen again.  Hopeful birders tried again the next day but, despite a thorough search, it was never re-found.

This sighting continues a remarkable autumn in Beijing that has seen some incredible records, not just in terms of rare species (juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER and STREAKED REED WARBLER take some beating !) but also some astonishing high counts of some more regular birds, for example 50,000 LITTLE BUNTINGS in one day on 26 September and over 8,000 HORNED LARKS on 15 October.  A browse of the Latest Sightings page will give you some idea of the amazing birding in Beijing this autumn.  Long may it continue!