When I was growing up in a small village in Norfolk, England, the WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀) was one of those species that I used to dream about as I flicked through my beloved Hamlyn Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. The dream remained just that for many years and I was almost 30 years old before I finally saw one, in southern France on a dreary day in mid-winter. It was distant, in bad weather and appalling light, but unmistakably, it was a WALLCREEPER. I was ecstatic.
Since moving to China, I’ve been fortunate to see many more in the spectacular mountains of the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan and Qinghai – including the Valley of the Cats – and they always set the pulse racing. Showing off that beautiful red, black and white pattern, wing-flicking as they forage for spiders and other insects in rocky crevices, to me the species recalls sheer cliff faces, penetrating gorges and vast rocky outcrops.
It’s a bird I never expected to find just a few minutes from my apartment in urban Beijing but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday.
Heading out for a morning walk before planning to grab a coffee and make inroads into my burgeoning email inbox, I decided on a route I rarely take, alongside a small river adjacent to the local shopping mall.. The decision was based on the fact there are some areas of thick vegetation in the water and I harboured the thought of a Brown-cheeked Rail or, more likely, a Green Sandpiper or Water Pipit. After the first few hundred metres I was thinking that the single Water Pipit, calling as it flew down river, would likely be my only reward. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small, what appeared to be a grey-white, bird that flicked its wings before immediately disappearing behind a fence post. I thought to myself that it had the ‘jizz’ of a Wallcreeper but immediately dismissed the thought as ridiculous. Slowly walking closer, it was just a few seconds later that the bird reappeared as it flew up and sat on a fence post in full view. I was gobsmacked – there was a WALLCREEPER! On a fence post. Alongside a tiny river just 50m from a shopping mall. In Beijing.
Not having any birding optics with me, I took out my iPhone and snapped a few photographs knowing that any kind of record image would be important to document the record. The bird flew past me and I was able to get some pretty terrible, but recognisable, images.
I was relieved to capture something that was recognisable and set off back home to fetch my binoculars and telescope in the hope that it might hang around.
Fortunately, the bird was still there when I returned and I was able to record some video, including some slow motion clips, as it crept its way along the wall, seemingly finding plenty of food.
I am constantly amazed at the birds that turn up in urban locations and that’s what makes birding in Beijing so rewarding. The lesson is: expect the unexpected!
Status of Wallcreeper in Beijing: one or two Wallcreepers regularly spend the winter (migrating from unknown breeding grounds) at Shidu, a mountainous area in Fangshan on the southwest fringes of Beijing Municipality. However, there are no previous lowland Beijing records and this is the first record for Shunyi District.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀) has always been a special bird for me. I remember, as a young boy, looking longingly at the plate in my Hamlyn Guide To The Birds of Britain and Europe and wondering if I would ever see one. So rare in the UK, I knew I’d probably need to go overseas to have a chance. I remember my first encounter – at Les Baux in the south of France – and being surprised at just how small and delicate is this bird as it fluttered and probed on the town walls.
In Beijing, Wallcreeper is a scarce bird. Although almost all records are in winter from one site, it probably breeds somewhere in the mountains. Up to 3 can be seen reliably from November to March at Shidu, Fangshan District. The most reliable spot is the cliff just to the northeast of bridge 6. Here, photographers put out meal worms and it’s astonishing to see these birds gradually make their way down the vertical cliff face to eye-level as they grab one of the irresistible snacks on offer.
On my most recent visit to Shidu this winter with Marie, we were lucky to see one of the two Wallcreepers present fly down to the ice on the nearby river… Although the sun was behind, making the light far from ideal, I was able to capture it on video.. Now that is something – a Wallcreeper on ice!
Just back from my second trip to Shidu. Highlight has to be the Wallcreeper.
Shidu looks made for Wallcreepers and I am sure there are more of these incredible gravity-defying birds along the gorge. But this individual is a bit of a star of the Beijing birding scene. It comes down to eye level, encouraged by the meal worms put out for it by bird photographers. Consequently it shows extremely well, albeit intermittently.
On Saturday I took friends Nick Douse, John Gallagher and Hui Ying, a Beijing-based birder I met at the AGM of the Beijing Birdwatching Society, to Shidu. Shidu literally means “10 river crossings” and this site, along the Juma river, is a good winter birding destination as, in addition to Wallcreeper, it hosts wintering Black Storks, Black Vultures, Crested Kingfishers and, occasionally, Long-billed Plover and Ibisbill. We didn’t see the last two but we had a great day in cold but still conditions.
The bridges across the Juma river are numbered from south-east to north-west. We arrived at the southern end of the gorge just under 2 hours after leaving Beijing and made our way slowly to the north-west, stopping occasionally to scan. Our first stop, between bridges 2 and 3, produced over 100 Mallard on an ice-free section of the river plus a handful of Common Merganser (Goosander) and, our first surprise, a drake Mandarin. Just as we were about to leave, 4 Black Storks came flying along the river and almost overhead, providing us with a great chance to study these majestic birds as they made their way downstream.
Our next stop was at Bridge number 6, a well-known ‘hot-spot’. We immediately saw a line of bird photographers on the eastern side of the gorge with their heavy artillery trained on an area of rock face. This had to be the Wallcreeper site. After parking the car and taking a short walk, we were greeted by the big lens boys and began the wait for the Wallcreeper to show. In just a few minutes it appeared and gradually made its way down the face of the rock to an area immediately in front of the photographers to feed on the meal worms. Its stay here probably amounted to no more than 2 minutes but in that time I suspect the number of times a shutter was fired was several thousand..!
After about half an hour at this site, during which time we also recorded Marsh Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Daurian Redstart, Red-billed Blue Magpie and Dusky Thrush, we moved on to bridge number 10. This was an excellent site. Two male Plumbeous Redstarts were singing and displaying, clearly establishing territories for the forthcoming breeding season, but the real stars were the Crested Kingfishers that made several passes, calling loudly.
Bizarrely, two Crested Kingfishers flew up to a new house on the edge of the river and perched on the balconies.. one upstairs and one downstairs..
A drive further north produced a Hen Harrier, several Godlewski’s Buntings, 1 Little Bunting, 8 Hill Pigeons, 18 Daurian Jackdaws and a Wren.
The journey back down the gorge produced 2 Common Kingfishers side by side near bridge 6 and, after enjoying these 2 birds we headed off back to Beijing in time for dinner.