A possible Steppe Buzzard in Beijing

Anyone who has studied Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) in Europe will know they can be hugely variable, with colouration from almost white to uniformly dark and almost everything in between.  In East Asia, the Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) is, in my experience, less variable and perhaps that is why unusual Buteos stand out.

On Saturday 30 January 2021 I began my latest winter survey of my local stretch of the Wenyu River at 0800 and, at around 1100, reached the end of my transect at the so-called “upper weir”. As I scanned the area to count Grey Herons roosting in the trees, I picked up two Buteos in a tree at about 200m distance on the opposite (northern side) of the river. One was a typical japonicus Eastern Buzzard but the other was clearly smaller, more rufous overall and with barring on the underparts.  I had never seen an Eastern that small, sporting those colours or with that underpart pattern, including a dark hood and barring on the breast. It got my attention and I recorded a short video and took a few record photos of the two together. The smaller bird then flew from its perch, with purpose, across the river to the southern side, where I was standing, caught a rat from the river bank and flew back up to the trees on the other side of the river.

Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) and the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)

 

Shortly after, an Upland Buzzard (Buteo hemilasius) drifted over, and both of the buzzards I had been watching flew up to intercept it and, over the next five minutes or so, the three Buteos interacted, with the Upland being mobbed until it drifted NE. This gave me an opportunity to capture some images in flight and I did my best to record both the underparts and upperparts. In flight, and in direct comparison with the Eastern Buzzard, the rufous bird was clearly smaller and with a more compact structure.

The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)
The upperparts of the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)
The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)

The images show the underparts, including the underwing, pretty well, and show:

– a lack of the usual strong, dark carpal patch of japonicus, with a more broken, speckled and muted carpal patch
– dark lesser underwing coverts
– striking pale bases to the primaries
– conspicuously pale crescent breast band
– lack of a dark upper belly band
– a prominent dark trailing edge to the underwing
– a pale tail, finely barred and with an obvious (more so on the upperparts) sub-terminal band

I have certainly never seen a japonicus with these features, and I began to think of the possibility of Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and the subspecies that was most likely to occur in Beijing – vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard). 

For context, although there have been a couple of candidates, Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) has never been reliably recorded in Beijing, so it was important to document this bird as well as possible.

Back home, having looked at Forsman’s excellent “Flight Identification of Raptors”, the Beijing bird fits well the adult ‘fox-red’ vulpinus, as depicted in plates 605-609 on pages 323 and 324.

One unusual feature highlighted by Paul Holt is the dark area on the face and forehead.  Is this within the range of variability for vulpinus or is it a sign of japonicus?

I had a look online at Eastern Buzzards, including from Beijing, and there is a photo of a very similar-looking bird, almost certainly the same, taken on 2 November at the same site by Yu Kuang-Ping.  So it seems as if this bird has been overwintering.

Having alerted local birders, a few people visited the site and more photos were taken, including these excellent series by 没着落 (Méi zhuóluò).

The Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus), left, with the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 2 February 2021 (Photo by 没着落, Mei Zhuoluo).
The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 2 February 2021 (Photo by 没着落, Mei Zhuoluo).
The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 2 February 2021 (Photo by 没着落, Mei Zhuoluo).

And yesterday I spent the last hour of daylight at the site and captured a little more and better quality video showing the upperparts and underparts.

Given the variability of Buteos, I am not sure whether this bird can be identified with certainty.  With thanks to Colm Moore, the “file” is now with Dick Forsman and we hope to receive an opinion from him in due course.  Any comments, especially from people with experience of vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard) very welcome.  I’d like to thank Colm Moore, Paul Holt, Igor Felefov in Russia and Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok in Thailand for their helpful and instructive comments and 没着落 (Mei Zhuoluo) for the wonderful images of the Wenyu bird taken on 2 February.

Whatever this bird’s identity, it’s been a great learning curve and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed spending time watching this beautiful bird so close to my apartment in Beijing.

 

Update 22 February 2021:

I have received a reply from Dick Forsman.  The bottom line is that he does not think it’s a vulpinus Common Buzzard, or at least not a pure one. He cites the dark malar stripe, dark forehead/face, rather uniform breast and flanks and the rather uniform uppertail as features not so consistent with vulpinus. He says despite the plumage differences, he would put more emphasis on structural differences, with japonicus (Eastern) having shorter and broader wings than vulpinus with a broader blunter wingtip. He says the size difference could be explained by the size difference between the sexes, the males being smaller than the females. Interestingly, he goes on to say that genetic studies have shown the genus Buteo to be fairly young and its species are poorly defined. One of the results of this poor differentiation is widespread interbreeding between the taxa. Hybridization is known to take place between Common x Rough-legged, Common x Long-legged and Long-legged x Upland. He says it appears that nobody knows what happens when vulpinus meets japonicus, which is very likely to happen. He recalls a trip to Mongolia where he found a breeding pair of buzzard including a male with mixed japonicus and vulpinus features paired with a female japonicus. He suspects that mixed pairs are likely to be quite common where the two taxa meet and that maybe the Wenyu bird was one of these, a bird with some vulpinus genes combined with a migratory habit inherited from japonicus. He hopes people will pay more attention to buzzards in the future and document them wherever possible, especially during the breeding season as this is the only way to tackle the issue.

A key lesson is that we cannot identify everything we see, no matter how well-documented, and sometimes it’s good to just enjoy watching birds for what they are and not try to label them.. 

Update: 3 March 2021

Two superb new images of the Wenyu buzzard have been submitted by Wang Yibin and reproduced here with permission.

The Wenyu buzzard, Wenyu River, 5 February 2021 (Wang Yibin)
Another superb image of the Wenyu buzzard, Wenyu River, 5 February 2021 (Wang Yibin)

Header image: Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) with the possible (Steppe) Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River.  Photo by 没着落 (Méi zhuóluò).

Scaly-sided Merganser in Beijing

About ten days ago we experienced a cold snap in Beijing with temperatures down to about -20 degs C at night.  This spell meant that most, if not all, fresh water bodies, such as reservoirs and lakes, were locked in ice, forcing waterbirds to move to the rivers which remained relatively ice-free due to the flow.  During such weather, it’s a good time to visit the local river – the Wenyu – on the border of Chaoyang and Shunyi Districts.  Last week I recorded over 300 Common Merganser (普通秋沙鸭, Pǔtōng qiū shā yā) along a relatively short stretch of the river, as well as Goldeneye (鹊鸭, Què yā), Smew (白秋沙鸭, Báiqiū shā yā) and even a Coot (骨顶鸡 Gǔ dǐng jī), surprisingly scarce on the Wenyu River.  Encouraged by this, I decided to make another visit on Saturday afternoon.

The best part of the river, although only about 1km from my apartment as the Coot flies, is around 4-5km away by road given the layout and position of the bridges, so I had planned to get a taxi and then walk the best section, before walking back.  However, given the semi-lockdown in my district due to a handful of new COVID-19 cases, no taxis or DiDis are allowed to operate in the area, so I decided to walk, taking in a section of the river that I don’t normally focus on.  Having reached the river, I was expecting to walk c3km without seeing much before reaching what’s known as the lower weir.  How wrong I was!

About 1km along, I noticed a small group of Mallard (绿头鸭 Lǜ tóu yā).  I scanned them with my binoculars in case a Gadwall (赤膀鸭, Chì bǎng yā) or Falcated Duck (罗纹鸭, Luówén yā) was lurking.. but instead, to my surprise, I saw a female merganser.  Clearly smaller than Common Merganser (普通秋沙鸭, Pǔtōng qiū shā yā) and lacking the sharp contrast between the brown head and neck and the white throat of Common Merganser, the bird that popped into my mind was Scaly-sided Merganser (中华秋沙鸭, Zhōnghuá qiū shā yā), an endangered species with fewer than ten records in Beijing and a species that I had never seen in the capital.  Having left my telescope at home, as I would be walking so much, I needed to get closer to rule out the other possibility – Red-breasted Merganser (红胸秋沙鸭, Hóng xiōng qiū shā yā).  The latter is a scarce species in Beijing but much more frequent than its endangered cousin.  Sneaking closer, using the cover of a few trees, I was able to see the bird clearly and, immediately, I could see the diagnostic scaly markings on the flanks and a yellow tip to the bill.  It was a Scaly-sided Merganser!  

Female Scaly-sided Merganser with female Mallard, Wenyu River, 16 January 2021.

Having not expected to see much along the first stretch of river, I had not yet unpacked my camera from my backpack (schoolboy error) and so I slowly removed my backpack and crouched, all the time keeping one eye on the merganser in case my movement caused it to fly.  Fortunately, I was able to extract my camera and take a few images to document the sighting.  As I sat quietly, remarkably, the merganser swam towards me and stood on a barely submerged patch of mud to preen.  I watched it for several minutes, gripped by the presence of this globally rare bird, before a dog walking couple came by and, checking out my presence, their two dogs barked loudly and scared the group of duck, including all the Mallard and, of course, the merganser. 

The Scaly-sided Merganser flying upstream after being flushed by two dogs.

All of the birds flew upstream, the direction I was heading, and it was perhaps only five minutes later that I reconnected with the group, including the merganser.  Again I watched the Scaly-sided Merganser at reasonably close quarters before a fisherman, walking along the edge of the river bank looking for the best spot from which to fish, came a little too close and the merganser was again flushed and flew upstream.

Although I didn’t have my telescope with me, I was elated with the views and had secured some record images that at least documented the record.  

Scaly-sided Merganser is a species that I have had on my radar for some time when walking the Wenyu River in winter.  Although there are only around ten records from the capital in total, the Wenyu bird is perhaps surprisingly the third record this winter, all of which have been females.  A female was photographed in Tongzhou (part of the same river) on 31 December 2020 and it, or another, was at the Summer Palace on 10 January and has been seen on and off since that date.  Whether all of the sightings relate to the same individual, or whether two or even three birds are involved, is an open question.  Interestingly, the Scaly-sided Merganser did not seem to associate with Common Merganser, several groups of which were on the river, instead preferring to be on its own or loosely associating with Mallard.  

The sighting takes on greater significance given the plans to ‘develop’ the Wenyu River, including raising the water level by several metres and running a tourist ‘cruiser’ along part of the river in summer.  Academics are working with the local government to try to ensure the plans take into account the needs of biodiversity, especially waterbirds, particularly in winter.  This will include ‘zoning’ to set aside some undisturbed areas for waterbirds and to protect the breeding habitat of egrets and herons in summer.  Having records of an endangered species along the river will strengthen the case of the academics.

Scaly-sided Merganser (中华秋沙鸭, Zhōnghuá qiū shā yā) is a rare East Asian endemic, breeding along montane rivers in mixed forest in the Russian Far East, NE China and probably DPRK, and wintering in the Republic of Korea and central and E China.  It is probably more frequent in Beijing than we realise and the fact that all of the capital’s confirmed records bar one have come in the last five years suggests greater observer coverage is a factor.  We can expect more records as birding continues to grow in popularity.  Scaly-sided Merganser is classified as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN Red List.

Title image: Scaly-sided Merganser along the Wenyu River, 16 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)

Beijing police keeping up fight against wildlife crime

I have reported before – for example here and here – about the local police in Beijing responding to reports of wildlife crime.  I am pleased to say their good work appears to be a sustained effort.

On Thursday afternoon I paid a short visit to the Wenyu River.  It’s a reasonably fast-flowing river so, even in the depths of winter when most water bodies are frozen, it is often ice-free and attracts many water birds, including thousands of duck and occasionally swans and geese.  However, as well as providing good birding, this knowledge is not lost on wildlife criminals.

Thursday was not particularly birdy and the highlight was a party of four Whooper Swans which relaxed on the river with one eye on me as I scanned the duck from the river bank.  Suddenly, around 60 Mallard took flight and I wondered what had caused the disturbance..  Then I saw the culprit – a young man with a catapult who had been firing ball bearings at the flock, initially from his car and then from much closer as he hid behind a tree.

As a wildlife-lover, sights like this make me angry and sad.  In the modern world, wildlife is facing enough pressures from habitat destruction, pollution and the impacts of climate change without the actions of an ignorant few.  I took some photos and video, including a clear image of his car plate, and sent them to the local State Forestry Police in Shunyi District.  Despite it still being the Chinese New Year holiday, to my delight the police responded immediately and, the following day, they had tracked down the owner of the vehicle, called him in to the police station, confiscated his catapult and ‘educated’ him about the law.

This man was called in to the police station and educated about the law that protects all wild birds in China.
The weapon: a catapult and ball bearings used to try to kill duck on the Wenyu River

Given no ducks were seen to be killed (thankfully he had a poor aim!), the most the police could do was give him a stern warning and remind him that his actions were against the law.  The police said he was very sorry and went home feeling repentant.

The offender with his vehicle, showing the same plate as in my photos sent to the police.

It is a good reminder to anyone who sees wildlife crime in Beijing (or anywhere) not to turn the other cheek or to think that the police won’t take it seriously.  Please capture as much evidence as you can, note the location and call the police.  At least in Beijing, they WILL act to enforce the law that protects all wild birds in China.

To help, I have published a list of the telephone numbers for the State Forestry Police in Beijing.  Note the police are organised by District, so the numbers are different, depending on where you live or go birding.  If you live in Beijing, or visit regularly, please save this image on your phone so you know who to call if you encounter any wildlife crime.

Huge thanks and kudos to the Shunyi District State Forestry Police for responding so fast and effectively, especially during the Chinese New Year festivities.

Beijing police: ridding the capital of wildlife crime, one offender at a time!

The Birds of the Wenyu, Beijing’s Mother River

Beijing is one of the few major inland capital cities not built on a major river.  In fact, the choice of site for China’s capital was taken partly because it wasn’t coastal or on a major river, thus reducing the risk of invasion via water.

However, to think that Beijing doesn’t have ANY rivers would be a mistake.  The Yongding, Chaobai and Juma originate in the highlands of neighbouring provinces, Hebei and Shanxi, and meander through the mountains west and north of the city.  And there is a fourth river – the Wenyu – that runs from Shahe Reservoir, between the 5th and 6th ring roads in the north of the city, to Tongzhou in the southeast.  All four rivers are tributaries of the Hai river that eventually empties into the Bohai on China’s east coast.

Running along the border of Chaoyang (urban Beijing) and Shunyi (Suburban) Districts, the Wenyu River is a flyway for migratory birds that has attracted Beijing ‘firsts’ such as Greater Flamingo, Grey-tailed Tattler and Buff-throated Warbler.  The Wenyu has also been the local patch for one of the most active of Beijing’s patch watchers – Steve Bale (Shi Jin).

There is something magical about birding a local patch.  Over time, the patch-birder develops an intimate knowledge of the resident species and the migratory birds likely to turn up, including when they are likely to appear.  The joy of finding a “patch first”, even if it’s a relatively common species in the region, is hard to beat… and the more effort invested, the more rewarding the results.

Of course, some locations are better than others and Steve’s choice of a relatively unknown river in the most populated capital city in the world perhaps doesn’t sound the most promising of local patches.  However, the reality is very different.  As you will see from the free-to-enjoy PDF of Steve’s book, The Birds of the Wenyu ..Beijing’s Mother River, this is a place that all birders living in or passing through China’s capital should be visiting time and time again.  As I am sure your will agree, this is a mightily impressive and wonderfully written work, which documents the 280 species recorded by (on, and over) the Wenyu River.

We perhaps should not be surprised that the Wenyu River is so productive.  After all, it’s part of Beijing, an under-birded city located on one of the world’s most impressive flyways.  And, as Steve says in his introduction, the potential for discovery is huge and it must only be a matter of time before the 300th species is recorded there.

Steve should be congratulated on a brilliant and comprehensive piece of work.  Not only is his the first book of its kind for China’s capital city, adding significantly to our understanding of the avifauna of Beijing, but with plans to translate and distribute it free of charge to schools and community groups, it will certainly inspire a whole new generation of birders in the capital.

Thank you, Steve!

 

Birding with the BBC

As a Brit, I feel a sense of pride when foreigners tell me how much they admire the BBC and, especially, the documentaries produced by the Natural History Unit.  The influence of Sir David and the Bristol-based team is often cited by young birders in China when we speak about what sparked their interest in birds and nature.  And so, when the BBC contacted me about arranging interviews with young Chinese birders for a forthcoming World Service Radio series about the East Asian Australasian Flyway,  it was an easy job to recruit willing volunteers.

The series of 4 programmes, a joint production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is following the migration of shorebirds from the southern tip of the flyway in Tasmania to their breeding grounds in Siberia, and the reporters are stopping off in China along the way, just as the birds do.

We arranged to meet the BBC/ABC team on Saturday morning at the Wenyu River, a birding site on the northeast of the city between the 5th and 6th ring roads and convenient for the airport (the team was due to fly to Dandong that afternoon).

Members of two local groups participated – the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society and the Swarovski Optik-sposored 北京飞羽 (“Beijing Feathers”).  The latter is a group of university students who volunteer to introduce birding to members of the public in Beijing with activities at the Beijing Zoo and the Olympic Forest Park.

They excelled – with impressive English-language skills – at answering questions about why they are interested in birding, why Beijing is so good for birds, how birding is expanding in China and their hopes for the future…

I can’t wait to hear them on the radio in June!

2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu
The BBC/ABC team interviewed each birder against a backdrop of singing Chinese Bulbul, Yellow-browed and Pallas’s Warblers. Here with Wang Yan.
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Xing Chao, Wenyu
Xing Chao describes finding the first record of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing for 75 years!  A talented birder, he also found Beijing’s first JAPANESE THRUSH and has only been birding for 3 years!
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu2
Zhang Runchao explains how he developed an interest in birding..
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu3
Yan Xiaoyu described how her passion for birds will stay with her “forever”.
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu4
Zhang Guoming is studying Traditional Chinese Medicine and says his parents fear that birding will distract him from his studies!
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu5
Wang Yan is optimistic about China’s birds, citing the “explosion” of interest in birding as evidence of a growing awareness about nature amongst the Chinese public.

Update:

The ABC/BBC World Service radio series about the East Asian Australasian Flyway are now online.

For the ABC versions, click here.

For the BBC versions, click here.

There is also this article on Birding in China by Ann Jones on the ABC website and related articles on a hunter turned gamekeeper in China and how North Korea could be an unlikely saviour of East Asia’s migratory birds.

 

 

Birding In The Haze

When a British friend recently asked me what it’s like to live in Beijing, my instinctive reaction was to say “I love it”.  Professionally speaking it is one of the most exciting and interesting places on the planet.  And, of course, the birding is epic.

Then, after thinking for a few seconds, I qualified that statement with a “But” and described Beijing as “schizophrenic”.  On nice days, when the air is clear and the weather good, Beijing is stunningly beautiful, cradled by mountains that run from the southwest to the northeast, providing a spectacular backdrop to what must be one of the most exciting cities in the world.  However, on bad days, the air pollution renders invisible the tops of even the nearest tower blocks and, after just a few minutes outside, your clothes can smell as if you’ve spent an hour or two in the smoking room at Beijing Capital International Airport.

For visitors, Beijing’s air pollution is usually a relatively minor inconvenience that can affect the views when visiting the Great Wall.  It’s very unlikely to have a lasting impact.  For residents, given the serious, albeit unquantified, risks it’s something we really should take seriously.

On waking, my first act is to check the air quality index on my iPhone.  It dictates my mood.  If the pollution is low and classified as “suitable for outdoor activities”, I rejoice and it puts a spring in my step for the whole day.  Conversely, if the pollution level is high, I sigh and just want to snuggle under the duvet..   It’s THAT important to my quality of life.

The air quality in Beijing as I wrote this post.
The air quality in Beijing as I wrote this post.  Anything over 150 is serious.

Most ex-pats, and an increasing number of Chinese, invest in air purifiers for their apartments and wear masks to protect themselves when air quality is poor.  For those of us who like outdoor activities, such as birding or hiking, Beijing’s air can be particularly frustrating.

Often, before I decide when to go birding, I take into account the likely pollution levels, bearing in mind key factors such as wind direction and speed in the preceding days.  Residents know that a northerly or westerly wind generally clears the air, as the airflow originates from relatively pollution-free Mongolia and Siberia, whereas a southwesterly or southerly airflow brings up pollution from some of China’s most polluted towns and cities in neighbouring Hebei Province.

I am fortunate in the sense that, much of the time, I can arrange my work and birding according to the pollution levels and weather.  If it’s smoggy at the weekend, I will work and then take a day off during the week to get my birding fix when the air is better.  Most people are not that lucky.  Even so, there are times – for example when friends are visiting – when I arrange to go birding on specific days, and take a gamble on the air quality.

If we are unlucky, we take a deep breath, don our masks and go birding in the smog.  That’s exactly what Marie and I did yesterday and Marie’s photo of me birding along the Wenyu River is what prompted me to write this post.

Wearing a mask for several hours can be uncomfortable and of course, to eat and drink, one must remove it, at least temporarily.  Perhaps the most obvious effect of the air pollution when birding is the reduced visibility.  When the pollution is bad, even on a supposedly cloudless day, visibility can be reduced to a few hundred metres and, when visiting birding sites like Miyun Reservoir or Yeyahu – vast areas overlooking large areas of water – that can seriously impact the number of birds one is likely to see.  On bad days, it’s best to visit sites where one doesn’t need to look too far into the distance – parks and the local river are ideal candidates.

People often ask me how the pollution affects birds.  It’s a question I can only speculate about; as far as I know there have been no scientific studies examining the effects (if you know of any, please get in touch!).  My sense is that the air pollution may impact the journeys of some migrants – particularly birds of prey? – that rely on sight and landmarks for navigation, causing them to delay their migration if the visibility is low.  However, most of the health impacts of air pollution are related to long-term exposure and I suspect that most birds are not long-lived enough to be affected by these.  I am sure water pollution – also chronic over much of China – is a much bigger threat.

In Marie’s photo, I think I cut a sorry figure on the banks of the (heavily polluted) Wenyu River, close to Beijing’s 5th ring road and airport.  However, it’s a sign of just how good the birding is in Beijing that days like this are accepted and tolerated.  When it’s good, there is nowhere I would rather be…

EDIT: BBC World Service interviewed Terry on 8 December about the smog in Beijing and how it affects residents and birds. You can hear the interview here.

Aaaarrrggghhhhhh!

Twice in the last few days, inspired by the reports from this site by Shi Jin on Birdforum, I visited the Wenyu River in the Chaoyang District of Beijing.  It is a fantastic area of paddies, weedy fields and even a disused golf course.  Brian Jones and Spike Millington, both former Beijing residents, used to visit this site regularly and I can see why.

Habitat along the Wenyu River in Chaoyang District, Beijing. Perfect for Waterhens and locustellas!

 

Frustrating habitat at the Wenyu River paddies. When a locustella goes down in this lot, the chances of seeing it again are slim..!

On my first visit, late one evening, I arrived at the paddies just half an hour before dusk and yet I saw 4 new birds for me in Beijing – Chestnut-eared Bunting, White-breasted Waterhen, Yellow-legged Buttonquail and Little Owl..  Not bad.   My second visit, early morning on Thursday, was just as rewarding.  A singing David’s Bush Warbler was a nice start, soon followed by the White-breasted Waterhen, singing Lanceolated Warbler, several Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, two Schrenck’s Bitterns, Yellow Bittern, Pechora Pipit on the deck and a Black-naped Oriole calling from the willows.  Wow.  I walked the narrow pathways between the paddies and enjoyed several encounters, albeit brief, with Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Black-browed Reed Warblers and the odd Zitting Cisticola.  A couple of Oriental Reed Warblers were much more obliging, singing purposefully from prominent perches in the reeds.  It was a cacophony of birdsong.

Oriental Reed Warbler singing its heart out early morning in the paddyfields at Wenyu River.
Schrenck’s Bittern (female), Wenyu River, Beijing. One of two seen in the paddies.
Pechora Pipit. Seeing one on the ground in Beijing is not easy!

After reaching the western end of the paddies, I decided to head back and return across the maze of paths.  It was along one such narrow weedy path between two paddies that I experienced one of those moments in birding that makes it such an exciting (and sometimes frustrating!) hobby.  I knew that Shi Jin had seen a large locustella warbler, possibly Middendorff’s, a day or two before and so I was on the lookout for large locustellas.  I had also listened to the songs of the three possible large locustellas – Gray’s, Pleske’s and Middendorff’s – on Xeno Canto Asia just in case.  Suddenly, I flushed a bird from the path that zipped into the paddy and down into the vegetation before I even had a chance to lift my binoculars.  It was clearly interesting – my sense was that it looked larger than the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers I had been seeing, but still looked like a locustella in shape and structure..  ..it was plain looking, greyish, without much, if any, contrast on the upperparts…  Hmmm…  could it be one of the large locustellas I had been thinking about?  I knew that there was a very good chance that I would never see it again… they are notorious skulkers and it was a large paddy.  However, I decided to wait to see whether anything emerged from the area in which it had gone down.  To my surprise, just a few seconds later, a bird began to sing and the sound appeared to be coming from the same area…  I remembered the songs from Xeno Canto and immediately ruled out Gray’s and Middendorff’s.  It reminded me of the Pleske’s song…  I put two and two together – large locustella, song like a Pleske’s – and in my mind a big neon sign lit up flashing “Pleske’s Warbler!!”.  But could it really be a Pleske’s Warbler?  In Beijing??  The bird sang for a few minutes and I quickly took out my handheld video camera to record the song, knowing that I would need that to have any chance of identifying this bird for certain in the absence of a good sight view.  I recorded a few seconds of the song and then concentrated on trying to see it.  Only once in the next 20-30 mins did I see a bird in that area, an incredibly brief view as a largish bird flitted across a small gap in the vegetation.  Again, I got nothing on it other than it was largish and plain looking..  Frustrating to say the least.

At this point, I was excited..  I really thought that there was a singing Pleske’s Warbler just a few metres away from me.  I sent a SMS to Shi Jin to tell him.  A few minutes later, after no sign of the bird, I began to walk back to the metro station as I didn’t want to be too late back in town.  And I wanted to download that sound file and check it against Xeno Canto!  I then received a reply from Shi Jin to say he was on his way.  He only lives 10 minutes away by car, so I headed back to the site to meet him and show him the precise spot. There was no song now and no sign of the bird.  We waited a few minutes and after providing sustenance for the local mosquito population and with the day heating up fast, we decided that probably the best chance of seeing/hearing the bird would be to come back in the evening or the next morning.  Neither of us could make it that evening but Shi Jin was hoping to try for it the next day.  After a brief stop at the Little Owl nest site I discovered a few days before, Shi Jin kindly dropped me at the metro station for the return journey home.

On arriving home, the first thing I did was download the sound file from the video camera and check out Xeno Canto.  There is one recording on Xeno Canto of Pleske’s.  For comparison, my recording can be heard below:

Locustella Warbler

Hmm… on listening to them both, now I wasn’t so sure..  there were elements of the song that were similar but there were also differences…  Doubt began to creep into my mind.  Was the singing bird a Pleske’s?  And, in any case, could I say that the singing bird was definitely the large locustella I saw?  I began to think that maybe the song was a different species.  I listened to Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (the other locustella species seen that morning in the same area) on Xeno Canto but the few recordings of this species on the site sounded different).

So, the bottom line is I don’t know.  I have a recording that I can’t identify and a brief sighting of a largish locustella that isn’t necessarily the same bird that I recorded singing anyway…!  Arrggghhhh….

If anyone can help with the recording, please let me know.  I have sent it to Paul Holt (who is currently away) and to Peter Kennerley, so hopefully the mystery will be resolved soon.  In my head, I am expecting my song to be identified as a variation of Pallas’s Grashopper Warbler but my heart is hoping that it’s a Pleske’s.  Watch this space!

Whatever the outcome of this experience, one of the highlights of the day was meeting Shi Jin, a top birder with a lot of China experience!