The highlight of a few hours at Wild Duck Lake this morning was a sighting of four Great Bustards, the world’s heaviest flying bird. I captured this image of two of the group flying into the rising sun at about 0745.
It was a bitter -12 at dawn with a light to moderate westerly wind making it feel even colder. I counted over 350 Common Cranes roosting on the ice and, when they flew, most had retracted legs, making their appearance not unlike a large goose or a bustard. The big surprise was that I didn’t see a single goose of any description all day. Where have the Bean Geese gone?
The freezing temperatures and wind had created some unusual ice sculptures on the reservoir…
A few Whooper Swans were roaming around in between periods lazing on the ice. This group looks like a family flock – 2 adults and 2 young birds.
A Chinese Grey Shrike sat on a post overlooking a large reedbed and called constantly for about 2-3 minutes. You can hear it here:
After a few busy work weeks, it was cool (in -11 temperatures, coolness is assured) to get out to Wild Duck Lake on Saturday to see what the cold weather had brought in since my previous visit in late November. And it was even cooler to be in the company of Paul Holt, one of the world’s finest birders.. (I am constantly astounded by Paul’s super-human hearing – there are calls that he hears, geolocates and identifies before I have even registered a sound… and I would have certainly missed several species had he not been there).
On this occasion I hired a car for the weekend and so, early Saturday morning, I picked up Paul from near his home in south-east Beijing and we headed north-west to Wild Duck Lake. The traffic was unusually light so we arrived on site around 0715, just as the sun rose. Paul’s trusty thermometer told us that it was -11 degrees C but with a biting westerly wind, it felt colder. I was relieved that Paul had brought along his super-sized thermos for coffee and noodles..
We checked thoroughly the area at Ma Chang, including the ‘island’ to the north, where we enjoyed a close encounter with a very confiding Chinese Grey Shrike. As we were in the car the shrike seemed oblivious to our presence, and it posed beautifully for Paul to grab the images below with my camera out of the passenger window… Superb shots, Paul!
At the island, the angle made viewing difficult so we decided to venture onto the ice to gain a better position from which to check the swans and duck. I am always nervous about walking on ice and, with various creaks and groans coming from underneath our feet, my experience on Saturday did nothing to improve my confidence..! We could see the ice was at least a foot thick but, even so, I didn’t feel comfortable.. that was until we later saw a fisherman WITH HIS CAR on the ice… It was then that I had to admit that I was a wimp… 🙂
After checking the wildfowl and finding a single White-fronted in the Bean Goose flock, we enjoyed a very welcome pot noodle. To me, this was one of the most delicious meals imaginable after a few hours out in freezing temperatures.. I temporarily took off my gloves to eat and, despite holding a lovely warm tub of noodles, my hands were hurting with the cold.. and I knew it was still well below freezing when the condensation from the steam on the lid of my pot noodle froze solid..! Wild Duck Lake is quite a bit higher than Beijing – at about 580 metres (Beijing is only around 80 metres above sea-level) – so it was noticeably colder than in the city centre.
We drove to Yeyahu, entering via the ‘secret passageway’, and covered the area down to ‘eagle field’. No sign of any Black Bitterns this time or anything else outrageous.. but we did see a few wintering Chinese Penduline Tits, more Pallas’s Reed Buntings (common in winter), a Common Reed Bunting (anything but common at Wild Duck Lake), a couple of Hen Harriers, an Upland Buzzard and a very large and active flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbills.. these birds have bags of character and roam the reedbeds in tight flocks, chattering away as they go.
After marvelling at the constitution of the local ice fishermen on the reservoir, we headed back to the car for the journey back to Beijing, enjoying a pre-roost movement of well over 100 Common Magpies..
Thanks to Paul for his company on a ‘bracing’ day out…
Full species list:
Common Pheasant – 20
Bean Goose – 610 roosting and preening on the ice
Greater White-fronted Goose – at least one (adult) with the Bean Geese flock
Whooper Swan – 27
Ruddy Shelduck – 2 in flight
Mallard – 150
Baikal Teal – 6 in flight with Mallard flock
Eurasian Kestrel – 2
Hen Harrier – 4 (3 ringtails and one sub-adult male)
Goshawk – 1 smart adult male hunting at Ma Chang
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 1
Upland Buzzard – 2 (1 juvenile and one older bird)
Common Crane – 120
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Collared Dove – 13
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1 heard
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 4 (including one very confiding individual at Ma Chang)
Common Magpie – 200+. Not many seen during the day but an impressive late afternoon pre-roost movement of at least 100 birds
Great Tit – 9
Chinese Penduline Tit – 4 (3 at Yeyahu and one heard at Ma Chang)
Asian Short-toed Lark – 40 in one flock
Eurasian Skylark – 35 (incl a flock of 25 at Yeyahu)
Chinese Hill Babbler – 3
Chinese/Light-vented Bulbul – 8
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 130 at Yeyahu
White-cheeked Starling – 12
Dusky/Naumann’s Thrush – 4
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – lots
Water Pipit – 1 heard at Ma Chang
Pine Bunting – 8, all flyovers
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – at least 95. Common.
Common Reed Bunting – 1 in the reedbed at Yeyahu with Great Tits.
In between leading tours to see Giant Panda in the wild in China (successful) and Tiger in India (fingers crossed), Sweden-based Phil Benstead dropped in on Beijing. Phil is a good friend from my time in Copenhagen: we hooked up for a few birding trips in 2009 and 2010, including around Phil’s local patch in Båstad Kommune, Falsterbo in Skåne and the island of Oland.
Phil arrived on Thursday with the Townshend household in something of a crisis. We were supposed to be cooking a turkey for 9, including two American friends, for Thanksgiving and Libby, who had planned to take the afternoon off work to prepare, was stuck at work… I was frantically looking on the internet, in between work conference calls to London – to discover precisely how long a 9kg turkey – at that time defrosting in the laundry room – would take to cook…. Phil stepped in magnificently and, after peeling and chopping I don’t know how many potatoes, carrots and green beans, he had certainly earned his supper by the time guests arrived for the 7pm start… And boy was that turkey good… (after months of Chinese food, you can’t imagine how good a roast turkey with all the trimmings tasted…!).
After following this blog since I moved to China, Phil wanted to visit my regular patch at Wild Duck Lake and so I had hired a car and we had arranged to leave at 0530 the following morning (tough after a post-midnight dinner party). We picked up Jesper Hornskov at 0600 and, after some all-too-common traffic issues on the G6 Badaling Expressway (broken down lorries), we arrived at Ma Chang around 0745, around 30 minutes after first light.
The first thing that struck me was that the reservoir was almost completely frozen over. The weather had turned cold mid-week and it had taken just a couple of cold nights for the water to freeze. After giving it some time at the spit by the yurts, we checked the island to the north of the ‘desert’ area, lucking in on 2 Daurian Partridges (my first of the winter) on the way, and enjoyed a flock of several hundred Ruddy Shelduck and a rather late Ferruginous Duck. A couple of inquisitive Chinese Hill Warblers was a bonus. A very showy Baikal Teal looked a bit lost walking on the ice in a frozen dyke and we enjoyed a couple of Chinese Grey Shrikes hunting over the grassland. After combing the area for larks – we counted a few Eurasian Skylark and up to 12 Asian Short-toed Larks plus a bonus Japanese Reed Bunting – we made our way to Yeyahu. Officially, Yeyahu closed last week but we were able to use the ‘secret entrance’ to gain entry and it was here that we heard (but sadly for Phil didn’t see) a Chinese Penduline Tit, a few Pallas’s Reed Buntings and a Great Egret. However, the most exciting sighting of the day was a very uniformly dark medium-sized bittern that flew from the west to east end of the lake. It was clearly smaller than Eurasian Bittern but larger than Yellow Bittern. Initially against the light it looked uniformly very dark with longish legs and big feet. As it flew into better light, it still looked uniformly very dark.. Phil managed to view it through his telescope and saw a pale line below and behind the eye, beginning at the base of the bill… There were some pale fringes to the wing coverts, indicating a first winter bird. It dropped in to a reedbed on the far side of the lake and we hurried over to see if we could see it again.. what could it be? Little Green Heron (Striated) and Black Bittern (a bird that I have never seen) entered our minds.. Jesper didn’t think it looked right for Little Green Heron – the jizz and colour were wrong and the leg length – with clearly protruding legs – wasn’t right for Little Green. Could it really be a Black Bittern in Beijing in late November?? That would be a very strange record. Unfortunately, despite spending some time near to where it went down, we did not see it again.
Edit: After looking at many images on the internet, including Oriental Bird Images, Jesper’s view is that it could only have been a Black Bittern.
After seeing a Common Kingfisher literally die in front of our eyes on the ice at the edge of the lake (it was heartbreaking), we walked down to ‘eagle field’ and, on the way, enjoyed my best ever views of Pine Bunting (two birds) and watched a young Upland Buzzard soaring. Most pleasing were two Great Bustards flying west along the reservoir.
Several decapitated Common Pheasants were a clear sign of a large predator.. possibly Goshawk but more likely an Eagle Owl… it’s the same area where I saw an Eagle Owl last winter.
We made our way back to the car and, with Naumann’s Thrush the last bird of the day, we headed back to Beijing for dinner with Jesper and his wife, Aiqin.
Saturday morning I visited the Botanical Gardens with Phil and Nick (a friend and non-birder), where Phil scored a few new birds – Chinese Grosbeak, Pere David’s Laughingthrush and Chinese Nuthatch – before he had to make his way to the airport to catch his flight to Delhi.
It was a great couple of days and we saw some good birds. Phil was a big hit with our friends – as illustrated by the number of offers he had for accommodation in Beijing when he returns next year to lead a similar panda trip in October – and we wish him all the best for the forthcoming trip to India for tigers.. we can’t wait to hear how he gets on.
Full species list for Wild Duck Lake below:
Ma Chang and Yeyahu NR 0745-1600.
Temp -5 at 0745 increasing to +2 or +3 by early afternoon; very light N wind increasing to force 2-3 by midday; visibility 2-3km.
Reservoir almost completely frozen with just a few small patches of open water. Yeyahu completely frozen.
Highlights: 1 juv/first winter BLACK BITTERN; 2 Great Bustards, Upland Buzzard, 2 Daurian Partridges, 550+ Bean Geese, 200+ Common Cranes, Japanese Reed Bunting
Full species list:
Daurian Partridge – 2 at Ma Chang
Common Pheasant – 25
Bean Goose – at least 870, probably more. Most in flight along the north edge of the reservoir with some on the ice itself
Whooper Swan – 42 on the ice, swimming on the open patches of water and in flight
Ruddy Shelduck – 550 at least, mostly on the ice and on the northern side of the reservoir
Eurasian Wigeon – 3
Mallard – 850
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 12
Baikal Teal – 4-5 seen, including one drake incredibly well in a frozen dyke; probably many more in the distant tight flocks of duck on the patches of open water
Ferruginous Duck – 1 seen from the island north of Ma Chang, possibly with injured wing
Common Goldeneye – 3 seen from Ma Chang but probably many more
Smew – 5-6 seen but probably many more
Goosander – 40 seen
Great Bittern – 3 seen well, including one walking on the open ice
BLACK BITTERN – one juvenile/first winter seen in flight through binoculars for around 30 seconds over the lake at Yeyahu at around 150-200m range. Initially seen against the light but gradually into better light, this bird was clearly larger than Yellow Bittern but smaller than Great Bittern and uniformly very dark. Phil managed to see it through the telescope and saw a pale line starting at the base of the bill running back below and behind the eye; streaking below not seen. Legs were relatively long with large feet. Slight pale margins seen on the wing coverts, indicating a first winter. Little Green Heron ruled out on size, colour and leg length; Cinnamon Bittern ruled out on colour and size.
Grey Heron – 1
Great Egret – 1
Kestrel – 1
Merlin – 1 at Ma Chang
Hen Harrier – 3 (two ‘ringtails’ and one imm male)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 1 (Phil only)
Upland Buzzard – 1
Great Bustard – 2 in flight from ‘eagle field’ heading west
Common Crane – 200+
Large White-headed Gull sp – 1 seen by Phil at Ma Chang
Black-headed Gull – 3 at Yeyahu
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Eurasian Collared Dove – 31
Common Kingfisher – 1. Seen sitting forlornly on the edge of the ice at the base of some reeds. After a few minutes, its head dropped onto the ice and, after a brief flapping of its wings, it sat motionless and appeared to die – an early victim of the winter.
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – lots
Rook – 8
Carrion Crow – 6
Large-billed Crow – 1
Great Tit – 4
Marsh Tit – 3
Chinese Penduline Tit – 1 (heard only)
Asian Short-toed Lark – 13 at Ma Chang
Eurasian Skylark – 6
Chinese Hill Warbler – 4, including 2 on the island north of Ma Chang
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 40+
Naumann’s Thrush – 1 ssp naumanni at Yeyahu
Tree Sparrow – many
Pine Bunting – 4, including 2 showing exceptionally well at Yeyahu
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 30+
Japanese Reed Bunting – 1 at Ma Chang. Flushed from short grass 2-3 times and seen only in flight. (Very bad) photo attached.
When Jan-Erik Nilsen contacted me to say he had seen a first winter Glaucous Gull at Yeyahu last Saturday, I knew it was an excellent inland record. What I didn’t know – before consulting Paul Holt – was that it was a first for Beijing. Congratulations Jan-Erik! This record represents the second new gull for Beijing this year, following my first winter Little Gull at the same site in September.
I did not expect the GG to still be there on Friday – the first day I could make it to Wild Duck Lake – but fortunately, after scanning the gulls and duck and just before I decided to walk away, the Gluacous Gull flew in and settled in the middle of the lake. Fantastic. A real brute of a gull sporting classic uniformly pale ground colour plumage and the typical pinkish bill with an obvious black tip. Nice. There can’t be many images of Glaucous Gulls with poplar trees and a smoking chimney stack in the background! Yeyahu is never a great site for gulls but it does occasionally pull in the odd unlikely individual. The most common gull by far is Black-headed but Common Gull, Mongolian Gull, Relict Gull, Brown-headed Gull, Heuglin’s Gull, Little Gull and now Glaucous Gull have all been recorded.
Another highlight was my first Crested Lark in China. I found this bird along a track that I don’t usually inspect. It’s a little further west than I usually walk and, subsequently, the site could possibly be in Hebei Province rather than Beijing Municipality. A close look at Google Earth required..! In any case, it’s now a quality bird in the Beijing area.. formerly quite common, its numbers have crashed in the last 20 years and it’s now a difficult bird to find.
Coming third in my list of highlights (usually these would be much higher but there was stiff competition this week!) included two flocks of Baikal Teal totalling 73 birds, including some stunning drakes, and a roost of 3 Long-eared Owls.
Full species list:
Common Pheasant (18)
Bean Goose (246)
Whooper Swan (12)
Falcated Duck (2)
Chinese Spot-billed Duck (6)
Baikal Teal (67)
Little Grebe (8)
Grey Heron (8)
Hen Harrier (2)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)
Common (Eastern) Buzzard (1)
Upland Buzzard (2)
Common Crane (267)
Common Greenshank (1)
Common Gull (3) – two first winters and one second winter
Glaucous Gull (1) – a first winter, probably for its 7th day (first reported by Jan-Erik Nilson on Saturday 12 November
Mongolian Gull (2) – both first winters
Black-headed Gull (75)
Collared Dove (6)
Long-eared Owl (3) – roosting together at Yeyahu
Great Spotted Woodpecker (2)
Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)
Chinese Grey Shrike (2)
Azure-winged Magpie – 12
Common Magpie – lots
Carrion Crow (5)
Great Tit (3)
Chinese Penduline Tit (2) – both presumed first winters (very pale and washed out)
Asian Short-toed Lark (4)
Crested Lark (1) – along the track west of Ma Chang
Eurasian Skylark (8)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (40)
Tree Sparrow – lots
Siberian Accentor (1)
Pine Bunting (4)
Pallas’s Bunting (46)
Japanese Reed Bunting (1 possible) – not seen well enough to be sure.
Apologies for the lack of updates in recent weeks – work has been rather all-consuming! To be honest, it’s not been so bad to be indoors – a persistent high pressure system, combined with very slack winds, have seen a blanket of smog covering Beijing with poor visibility and, at times, appalling air quality. The US Embassy ‘twitter feed’ is updated hourly and rates the pollution levels of PM2.5 (a particulate pollutant) and ozone.
This is the US Environment Protection Agency’s definition of PM2.5:
“Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Particles can be suspended in the air for long periods of time. Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot or smoke. Others are so small that individually they can only be detected with an electron microscope.
Many manmade and natural sources emit PM directly or emit other pollutants that react in the atmosphere to form PM. These solid and liquid particles come in a wide range of sizes.
Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as “fine” particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.”
Sounds nice, eh?
There is a scale of descriptors ranging from “Good” to “Hazardous”. Last week saw several days with the pollution at “hazardous” levels. I am not exactly sure what “hazardous” means but at these levels, you can taste and smell the pollution when you step outside. Not pleasant.
Of course, the Chinese media describes the smog as “fog” and on one dark day last week, it was laughable that the media was saying that there were “boundless blue skies over Beijing”… Of course….
Fortunately, this smoggy period seems to be breaking now and on Sunday I visited Ma Chang/Wild Duck Lake with Libby and a couple of UK friends John and Sarah Gallagher. They have been keen to accompany me on one of my birding trips for some time and so, with a window of decent weather and visibility, we grabbed the chance before the winter sets in. We enjoyed a very good day.
The visibility was above average and, when the cloud broke in the afternoon, it turned into a gorgeous late autumn day….
0645-1530, 6 November 2011.
Cloud 8/8 and 5 degrees C at 0640 with very light north-easterly wind. 13 degrees C, cloud 3/8 and light north-easterly at 1500. Visibility above average all day.
The highlight was my first Great Bustard in China (a flyover), 2 Black Storks, 6 White-naped Cranes, 58 Common Cranes, Upland Buzzard, 2 Short-eared Owls, 2Common Starlings.
Full species list (52 in total):
Common Pheasant 12
Bean Goose 115
Whooper Swan 1
Falcated Duck 4
Eurasian Wigeon 2
Chinese Spot-billed Duck 10
Northern Pintail 42
Eurasian Teal 25
Tufted Duck 8
Common Goldeneye 2
Little Grebe 23
Great Crested Grebe 8
Black-necked Grebe 2
Black Stork 2 (high west @ 1455)
Eurasian Bittern 1
Grey Heron 3
Eurasian Kestrel 2
Hen Harrier 4 (1 adult male, 1 immature male, and 2 females)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard 1
Upland Buzzard 1
Great Bustard 1 in flight (flew west over Ma Chang @ 0910)
Common Coot 4
White-naped Crane 6
Common Crane 58, including 2 groups arriving from the mountains to the north (9 @1445 and 35 @1440)
Mongolian Gull 2
Black-headed Gull 68
Eurasian Collared Dove 14
Short-eared Owl 2
Common Kingfisher 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker 1
Chinese Grey Shrike 5
Azure-winged Magpie 1
Common Magpie lots
Carrion Crow 11
Great Tit 2
Asian Short-toed Lark 12
Eurasian Skylark 7
Chinese Bulbul 2
Vinous-throated Parrotbill 100+ in a single flock
Common Starling 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow lots
Buff-bellied Pipit 3
Pine Bunting 2
Little Bunting 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting 23
Finally, we enjoyed excellent views of this yellow butterfly, the only butterfly we saw. It was a little sluggish, allowing close photography, in contrast to the many times when I have tried to photograph this species in the spring/summer.. I am not sure what the specific species is but it’s pretty common in the area. EDIT: Thanks to John Furse for identifying the butterfly as a Clouded Yellow.
Paul Holt continues to enjoy his birding at Laotieshan. Yesterday (Tuesday) he saw two Golden Eagles (in addition to seven Greater Spotted Eagles) plus both Siberian and Alpine Accentors. A Marsh Grassbird (Japanese Swamp Warbler) was also something of a surprise.
As an aside, check out this beast photographed at Wild Duck Lake on Sunday… any ideas as to identification?
I visited Wild Duck Lake on Sunday with Peter Cawley. The weather was far from ideal and we endured thick fog, with visibility down to around 20-25 metres, for the first few hours. The fog gradually dispersed from around 1000am and, by 3pm, it was a glorious day.. nevertheless, we definitely missed out at what felt like a very ‘birdy’ Ma Chang and, rather unnervingly, almost got lost in the ‘desert’ area… (thanks to the GPS on my phone, we found the right path).
Temp around 15 degrees C at 0600 with thick fog and no wind. From 1000am a very light NE breeze. Temp around 22 degrees C mid-afternoon.
Highlights: a single Short-toed Eagle, Pied, Eastern Marsh and Hen Harriers, 30 Common Buzzards, Goshawk, 2 Mongolian Larks and a Wren (only my second at Wild Duck Lake).
Full species list:
Japanese Quail – 1
Common Pheasant – 6
Bean Goose – 3
Mandarin – 1
Gadwall – 1
Mallard – 26
Spot-billed Duck – 5
Eurasian Teal – 4
Little Grebe – 15
Great Crested Grebe – 7
Black-crowned Night Heron – 45
Grey Heron – 2
Purple Heron – 1
Short-toed Eagle – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 1
Hen Harrier – 2
Pied Harrier – 1 adult male
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 1
Common Buzzard – 30 (including 28 migrating in one 10-minute spell late morning)
Common Moorhen – 1
Common Coot – 5
Northern Lapwing – 1
Common Snipe – 3
Green Sandpiper – 1
Oriental Turtle Dove – 2
Collared Dove – 8
Long-eared Owl – 1
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3 (2 heard only in the fog)
Azure-winged Magpie – 1
Common Magpie – 24
Daurian Jackdaw – 1 adult flew east
Carrion Crow – 8
Great Tit – 3
Marsh Tit – 1
Mongolian Lark – 2. An early date and hopefully the precursor to a good winter for this species.
Eurasian Skylark – 8
Lark sp (possibly Greater Short-toed) – 4
Zitting Cisticola – 2
Chinese Hill Warbler – 3
Chinese Bulbul – 13
Black-browed Reed Warbler – 9
Oriental Reed Warbler – 1 probable chattering at Ma Chang in thick fog.
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 1
Dusky Warbler – 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 60
White-eye sp – 1
Wren – 1. A very dark individual.
Thrush sp – 1
Bluethroat – 1
Red-flanked Bluetail – 1
Daurian Redstart – 5
Siberian Stonechat – 1
Tree Sparrow – 80+
White Wagtail – 17 (ssps ocularis, leucopsis and baicalensis)
Buff-bellied Pipit – 5
Water Pipit – 1 probable
Chestnut-eared Bunting – 1
Little Bunting – 77
Yellow-throated Bunting – 5
Black-faced Bunting – 14
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 7
Meanwhile, at Laotieshan, Paul Holt continues to see huge numbers of Amur Falcons (over 1,800 yesterday evening in a pre-roost gathering – the highest autumn count anywhere in China), good numbers of Greater Spotted Eagles (at least 7 and up to 17 yesterday) and Goshawk (64), over 250 Common (Eastern) Buzzards and has also added Japanese Reed Bunting to the species list.
On Saturday I made my first visit to Ma Chang/Yeyahu for a few weeks and boy, was it worth it?! The autumn migration is now in full swing. The highlight was undoubtedly the juvenile/first winter Little Gull that I found feeding on the reservoir before it gained height and flew strongly east. Despite being almost annual on the Bohai coast, I believe this is the first record for the Beijing municipality. Coming a close second was a stunning Short-toed Eagle that drifted right overhead near Yeyahu lake. Wow.
Other good birds include a very early crane sp that was soaring very distantly over the mountains to the north. I initially assumed this must have been a Common Crane but I noticed dark secondaries and this is more consistent with Demoiselle Crane. Common Cranes are very scarce at this time of year, in fact I don’t think any have been recorded in September, whereas Demoiselle should be leaving its breeding grounds in Inner Mongolia about now. It’ll have to go down in the book as a crane sp. Also seen were 5 Chinese Grey Shrikes, including a very instructive juvenile that superficially looked a little like ssp pallidirostris (Steppe Grey Shrike), a heavily leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, a Ruff (very scarce in Beijing, possibly the 4th record for the municipality) as well as many passerine migrants – Little Buntings, Eurasian Skylarks, Yellow Wagtails, Richard’s Pipits and so on…
Full species list in systematic order:
Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica) – my first two of the autumn, flushed between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.
Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasaianus colchicus) – 6
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) – 24
Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha) – 3
Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca) – 1
Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina) – 3 (possibly relating to feral birds from Yeyahu)
Common Pochard (Aythya ferina) – 10 in one flock flying strongly west
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) – at least 75
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) – 6
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) – 4
Chinese Pond Heron (Ardeola bacchus) – 6
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) – 2
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) – 3
Great Egret (Casmerodius albus) – 3 flying south early morning
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) – a flock of 13 feeding together on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang
Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) – 5
Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) – just one, an adult male
Northern Hobby (Falco subbuteo) – at least 6, including 3 juveniles
Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) – one at Ma Chang soaring
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) – one fishing at Ma Chang early morning then flew west
Black-eared Kite (Milvus lineatus) – 10; one on the ground at Ma Chang followed by a group of 7 kettling mid-morning and two other singles.
Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) – one low overhead at Yeyahu mid-afternoon
Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) – 1, a juvenile/first winter seen well but briefly over the reservoir at the east end of Ma Chang. After ‘dip-feeding’ a couple of times, gained height and flew strongly east.
Whiskered Tern (Chilidonias hybrida) – at least 12
Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis) – 4
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) – 3
Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – 1
Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus) – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike (Lanius sphenocercus) – 5 seen, one of which I originally thought could be a ssp of Great Grey (see photos).
Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) – 2
Common Magpie (Pica pica) – many
Crow sp (Corvus sp) – a group of 6 soaring around mid-day were probably Carrion Crows
Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus) – two heard
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) – only 3 seen
Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) – at least 60 ssw early morning and small groups encountered between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) – just 4 seen
Locustella sp – one flushed 3 times appeared quite rusty, probably Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus) – encountered in every group of bushes or trees. At least 40 seen or heard.
Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis) – one in a hedge at the east end of Ma Chang
Two-barred Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus) – one on the walk to the viewing tower at Yeyahu
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Paradoxornis webbianus) – at least 40 seen and heard
White-cheeked Starling (Sturnus cineraceus) – 22
Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope) – 1, an adult male, seen in shrubs at the east end of Ma Chang
Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus) – at least 25 seen
Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla) – 3
Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) – many
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) – at least 200 ssw early morning, followed by the odd small group thereafter. c250 in total.
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) – 34 (mostly migrating ssw early morning)
Richard’s Pipit (Anthus richardi) – 26 migrating ssw early morning with an additional 16 encountered during the day
Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni) – c25 migrating ssw early morning with several others seen and heard during the day. c40 in total
Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla) – many buntings, probably this species, migrating ssw early morning and c30 seen during the day.
Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala) – one seen well
bunting sp – many hundreds of buntings migrating between 0600 and 0730; most probably Little Bunting but some looked slightly larger.
May in Beijing has been gorgeous so far.. cool, fresh mornings which warm up fast as the sun burns off any lingering mist and with a cool breeze to keep the heat bearable in the hottest part of the day. And, as the trees and shrubs burst into leaf, the birds that feed on the insect life they harbour are arriving in numbers. Even in the ‘garden’ in Central Park I have seen singing Pallas’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Bunting, Yellow-bellied Tit and a couple of migrating Common Buzzards.
A visit by the in-laws has meant that I have not been able to visit Wild Duck Lake as much as I would have liked but, in a way, the absence in between makes each visit that much more special and one really notices the difference in terms of the birds present – there is a high turnover with each visit producing several new species for the year.
My most recent visit this week followed a day of heavy rain and wind which, I was hoping, might have downed a few migrants. With a clear day forecast, I hoped that it might also produce a few migrating raptors. The day started at Ma Chang at 0530 in heavy mist and with visibility reduced to just a few hundred metres. The first surprise of the day was finding 10 Greater Sand Plovers on the ‘desert’, by no means common at this inland site. A party of 8 Eurasian Spoonbills was relaxing and preening on the edge of the reservoir as I carefully checked for a rare Black-faced Spoonbill. There was no Black-faced this time and, at around 0620, all 8 suddenly alighted and flew west into the mist, not to be seen again.
The walk out to the island produced good numbers of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, probably of the subspecies macronyx, together with several stunning adult male Citrine Wagtails and a few Buff-bellied Pipits. A Purple Heron lazily made its way east and Night Herons were mooching around in good numbers.
Wildfowl was thin on the ground with just a few Mallard, Spot-billed Ducks, Gadwall and a single Goldeneye on view from the island’s north shore. It was at this point that the wind began to increase and, slowly, the mist began to clear. By 0830 the sun was out, the visibility had increased to at least a kilometre and was improving fast.
Amur Falcons began to appear and there was a thin but steady passage throughout the day.. I do love Amurs – masters of flight – and the adult males, in particular, are just gorgeous.
After checking the area around the yurts which produced some Whiskered and Little Terns, I began to walk to Yeyahu. By this time the wind was fierce and my expectations for raptors began to wane.. surely it was too windy for much to be on the wing. Thankfully, as I reached Yeyahu Reserve, the wind suddenly dropped by half and was reduced to a stiff breeze. As I walked the perimeter of the lake, I flushed a large bird of prey from a poplar which immediately attracted the attention of the local pair of Eastern Marsh Harriers. Greater Spotted Eagle! I enjoyed great views of this bird as it began to circle and gain height, in the company of the male Eastern Marsh (the female kept her distance but gave encouraging cries as the male saw off this intruder). Another male Amur then screamed in from the east, briefly tussling with both the Eastern Marsh Harrier and the eagle before disappearing as fast as it had appeared. Wow…
As the eagle drifted west, struggling in the wind, I continued my walk east and, almost immediately picked up another 2 large birds of prey, this time quite high. Two more Greater Spotted Eagles! At this point I knew I should head for ‘eagle field’, the open area bordering the western part of the reservoir. As I walked I kept watch on the skies and picked up 2 (possibly the same) Greater Spotted Eagles hanging in the wind..
When I reached the viewing tower, I laid down and watched the skies.. 2 Greater Spotted Eagles, then a third all in view at the same time.. They drifted west into the wind before swinging back east and going down somewhere on the far side of the wood. As I lay there snacking at my lunch while watching Greater Spotted Eagles, Amur Falcons and Black-eared Kites pass overhead, I was overcome with a real sense of privilege to be watching these magnificent birds on their incredible migrations.. Perhaps the greatest journey is that of the Amur Falcons which winter in southern and eastern Africa and return to north-eastern China and eastern Russia each Spring. It’s an arduous journey and yet here they were, full of energy, wheeling in the sky, catching insects on the wing and seemingly enjoying the onset of Spring.
I enjoyed 2 hours of observation at this spot as the eagles made several passes. At one point there were 6 Greater Spotted Eagles in the air together… a stunning sight.
As I reluctantly made my way back, I was left bemoaning the fact that this would probably be my last visit to Wild Duck Lake for at least 2 weeks as I am travelling to Dalian (Tom Beeke-land!) to bird the point at Laotieshan from 11-19 May – I believe the first time this peninsula will have been systematically covered for any length of time in Spring. I can only imagine what I will be missing at Wild Duck Lake during this time! Best not think about it…..
Full species list (Magpie and Tree Sparrow too numerous to count):
Japanese Quail (2 – flushed from the path at Yeyahu)
Common Pheasant (6)
Gadwall (22 – most on the reservoir seen from the viewing tower at Yeyahu)
Falcated Duck (6 – numbers well down from my previous visit and only now present on the eastern part of the reservoir at Yeyahu)
Eastern Spot-billed Duck (8)
Eurasian Teal (68)
Red-crested Pochard (2)
Ferruginous Duck (4)
Little Grebe (20)
Great Crested Grebe (14)
Eurasian Spoonbill (8) – on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang until 0620 when flew west into the mist.
Bittern (at least 4 heard)
Black-crowned Night Heron (40+)
Chinese Pond Heron (1)
Cattle Egret (1)
Grey Heron (2)
Purple Heron (4)
Great Cormorant (1)
Amur Falcon (30+ light but steady passage throughout the day)
Black-eared Kite (8)
Eastern Marsh Harrier (at least 6)
Japanese Sparrowhawk (1)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)
Common Buzzard (2)
Greater Spotted Eagle (over 10 sightings involving at least 6 different birds; 6 in the air together between 1510-1530)
Coot – at least 40
Black-winged Stilt (16)
Northern Lapwing (14)
Little Ringed Plover (16)
Kentish Plover (4)
Greater Sand Plover (10) – all at Ma Chang including two adult summer males.
Common Snipe (6)
Green Sandpiper (1)
Common Sandpiper (1)
Temminck’s Stint (2)
Oriental Pratincole (6)
Black-headed Gull (50+)
Common Tern (12 of the dark-billed race longipennis)
Little Tern (4)
Whiskered Tern (4)
Oriental Turtle Dove (2)
Collared Dove (6)
Common Swift (8)
Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift (18)
Common Kingfisher (5)
Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)
Chinese Penduline Tit (4)
Sand Martin (2)
Barn Swallow (80+)
Red-rumped Swallow (16)
Greater Short-toed Lark (12) – including one with an abnormal upper mandible
Asian Short-toed Lark (2)
Eurasian Skylark (2)
Chinese Hill Warbler (2) – 2 possibly with a nest at Yeyahu
Chinese Bulbul – (2) including one singing at the plantation on the island
Pallas’s Warbler (2) singing in the plantation on the island
Eastern Crowned Warbler (1) singing in the plantation on the island
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (12)
White-cheeked Starling (10)
Red-throated Thrush (3)
Naumann’s Thrush (1)
Dusky Thrush (1)
Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades (1)
Bluethroat (1) at Yeyahu
Siberian Stonechat (8)
Taiga Flycatcher (12)
Yellow Wagtail (80+ most looked liked Western Yellow Wagtail ssp thunbergi but I am not sure whether that occurs here. ssp macronyx of Eastern Yellow Wagtail looks a good match, too)
Ok, I know it sounds as if I am making this up but on Saturday I found another pelican at Wild Duck Lake. Only this time, it was a DALMATIAN PELICAN. A stunning end to another fantastic day of birding at this site that included a Short-toed Eagle (rare in northern China), two Greater Spotted Eagles and my largest total of species in one day at this prime location (79).
I had a feeling it might be a good day when I travelled to Yanqing on Friday evening. The afternoon had been very showery with some thunderstorms, one of which hit Beijing with its full force. This meant that the pollution mist had been cleared, reminding everyone that Beijing is surrounded on three sides by fantastic mountains, a fact easy to forget given the majority of days are afflicted with at least some level of smog.
On arrival at the site at 0530, it was a chilly 5 degrees C with a moderate NNW wind which felt distinctly wintry again (gloves most definitely required). However, the visibility was fantastic and I could see, uninterrupted, the mountains stretching into the distance on both the northern and southern sides of the reservoir.
I began by checking the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plovers but no sign. Just a few Kentish Plovers and a handful of Greater Short-toed Larks. The reservoir shore here produced a single female Ruff associating with half a dozen Black-winged Stilts. And evidence that one Chinese bird photographer had been a little overeager to secure that frame-filling shot…..
Barn Swallows were already moving overhead with the odd group of buntings and pipits. I decided to check the spit for wildfowl (the scene of the Great White Pelican last week) and, on the short walk, I flushed a Short-eared Owl that immediately took offence to the mobbing by the local magpies, climbed quickly and then flew high south. Sorry!
On arrival at the spit, my scan of the reservoir revealed very few birds, probably due to the presence of 3 fishing boats.
One tightly-packed group of birds on the far side of the reservoir revealed themselves to be breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebes and I counted 32 in this ‘flotilla’. A single Daurian Jackdaw, a few Eastern Marsh Harriers, some Buff-bellied Pipits and the occasional ‘boom’ of a Bittern were my further rewards before I decided to head off to try the island (offering views of another part of the reservoir).
Just as I was leaving the spit I could hear the rasping call of terns and I looked up to see two Common Terns (of the dark-billed ssp longipennis) arriving from the south. Then, I spotted a group of raptors lazily flapping across Ma Chang… 9 Black-eared Kites!
I reached the island at Ma Chang a few minutes later and I began to check for wildfowl. A group of over 180 Falcated Duck was the highlight with the supporting role going to an Osprey sitting on a far post. Then I began to notice swifts moving overhead and, before long I had counted the first of what would prove to be a movement of over 350 Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts migrating north-west. A few Oriental Pratincoles began to drift in and, as with the swifts, they kept coming. I counted over 85 altogether.
I began the walk to Yeyahu with my heart sinking as I experienced the disturbance that is commonplace here. First, three local guys were chasing about in a speedboat with shotguns targeting the Common Teal. Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph but I will report this activity to the police (it is illegal both to own a gun and to shoot wild birds). And second, the ‘buggies’ were out and about on the ‘desert’.. they often start around 0800 and any plovers or larks are moved off immediately.
Almost as soon as I had retraced my steps from the island to Ma Chang, I spotted a raptor hovering over the area between Ma Chang and Yeyahu. It looked long-winged and it didn’t take long to realise it was a Short-toed Eagle. Fantastic. I watched as it hunted and was able to capture a few images before it drifted off east to hunt over Yeyahu. It is at least the fourth STE I have seen at WDL, having seen three in the autumn.
A few minutes later I spotted another two large raptors in the same area. With the bins I could see they were large eagles and, through the telescope I could see they were Greater Spotted – a regular but uncommon visitor during migration. Very nice! They drifted east and seemed to go down in a small wood to the east of Yeyahu.
At this point I was thinking how lucky I was to have experienced an excellent day but, little did I know, the icing on the cake was to come. As the weather looked increasingly threatening, with showers in the mountains looking as if they were thinking about exploring the valley, I made my way to Yeyahu and, specifically, to ‘eagle field’ where I hoped to see the Greater Spotted and Short-toed Eagles again. On the way I was entertained by at least 5 Eastern Marsh Harriers displaying over the reedbeds at Yeyahu – a real treat of aerobatic skill. Then I picked up the Greater Spotted Eagles again – this time closer – and, as with the previous sighting, they gained height and drifted west before gliding back east and settling in the wood. Just a few minutes later, ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, they were up again and this time they again gained height and worked their way slowly west into the wind and the approaching shower. At this point they obviously felt the rain and they quickly turned. One of the eagles drifted high east and I lost it to view. The second clearly wasn’t allergic to rain and just dropped back into the wood. At this point I got a drenching. As I had been concentrating on the eagles, the shower had sneaked up on me and I ran for the cover of a hedgerow. Thankfully the rain lasted no more than 5-10 minutes and I made my way to the viewing tower at ‘eagle field’ to have my packed lunch.
From here I enjoyed another sighting of the Greater Spotted Eagle as well as counting the wildfowl on the eastern part of the reservoir. There were good numbers of Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Teal as well as a few Great Crested Grebes, Falcated Duck and 4 Smew.
At about 1345 I began the walk back to the reserve entrance, where I had arranged to meet my taxi driver, looking over my shoulder every now and then to check for birds of prey. About half-way to the entrance, during one of my glances, I spotted a large bird circling.. I thought it must be the eagle and set up the telescope. To my surprise, it was not an eagle but a Pelican! Unbelievable… I immediately began to take notes on the plumage. It was a much duskier bird than the brilliant white plumage of last week’s Great White Pelican and the secondaries were brown, not black. The underwing was rather dusky without noticeable contrast between the primaries and secondaries. It had to be a Dalmatian Pelican! I grabbed the camera and fired off a few record images as it made its way west along the reservoir. It looked majestic against the mountain backdrop as it slowly flapped its way across to Ma Chang. Wow.
I met my driver and caught the bus back to Beijing feeling very elated after an excellent day in the field. What will this site turn up next??