On the way to Mongolia for the Cuckoo Project, I spent three days with Josh Jones, Ben Wielstra, Jocko Hammar and Chris Campion in Wuerqihan. This small logging town is situated in northern Inner Mongolia on the edge of the taiga forest. It is a wonderful place to spend a few days in summer as it’s a breeding area for many Siberian birds including Japanese Quail, Great Grey Owl, Siberian Rubythroat, Radde’s, Dusky, Thick-billed Warblers, Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Gray’s Grasshopper and Pale-legged Leaf Warblers, Siberian and Eyebrowed Thrushes, Pacific Swift, Common, Indian and Oriental Cuckoos, Common Rosefinch, Yellow-breasted Bunting and many more. Swinhoe’s Rail was recently discovered here and Far Eastern Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit breed in the wet meadows.
Early morning and evening, a cacophony of bird sound fills the air and the beautifully still mornings enabled me to capture a sample, recorded from three different locations around the town. One of the first things to strike me was the abundance of Common Cuckoos; it was impossible to make a recording without hearing the wonderful “cuck-oo” call, as if it was ‘on repeat’.
Listen carefully and a rich array of species can be heard including flycatchers, thrushes, warblers and rosefinches.
How many species can you hear? I believe there are at least 17 species vocalising in this clip.. but there are probably more!
Please leave a comment with any species you can name…
Ma Chang, in Yanqing County, northwest Beijing, is my absolute favourite birding site in April. Although not particularly glamourous with a series of wind turbines, small-scale agriculture and lots of litter left by the tourists who visit to ride horses or drive beach buggies, its geography – on the southeastern shore of Guanting Reservoir – makes it a wonderful place for migration. Early in the month there is a good chance of spotting the spectacular ORIENTAL PLOVER on its way from wintering grounds in Australia to breeding grounds in Inner and Outer Mongolia, and it’s a brilliant place to experience good numbers of pipits and wagtails as they make their way north. WHITE WAGTAILS lead the charge and five of the six subspecies recorded in Beijing have been seen here – leucopsis, ocularis, baicalensis, ‘eastern alba‘ and personata. I am sure it is only a matter of time before the sixth subspecies – lugens – is recorded at this site.
Groups of Citrine Wagtails pass through and it’s not uncommon to see flocks of 20+. Water Pipits are gradually eclipsed by Buff-bellied Pipits as the month progresses and several hundred of the latter can be seen in the middle of the month, with Red-throated, Richard’s and Blyth’s joining the fray a little later. The vagrant Meadow Pipit has also been recorded here several times in early April.
Last Monday I spent a few hours at Ma Chang at the end of the day. There were some tourists riding horses, a few buggies being driven around, it was windy and my expectations were not high. Nevertheless, I found a lovely mixed group of White and Citrine Wagtails on the foreshore and was enjoying watching them feed on the flying insects close to the water.
The White Wagtails were dominated by ocularis (“Siberian Wagtail”) with a few leucopsis (“Chinese Wagtail”) and a couple of baicalensis (“Baikal Wagtail”). As I was observing these birds, I heard a faint sound that reminded me of SWINHOE’S RAIL. It was a vocalisation I had first heard at Wuerqihan in Inner Mongolia in June 2018. I immediately dismissed the thought – a singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing would be ridiculous, surely! But as soon as I had re-trained my concentration on the wagtails, I heard it again… and again. The sound was faint, coming towards me from a small inaccessible island of grass and a few small trees, against the wind, and was competing to be heard amongst the din of revolving wind turbines, the wind itself and calling Black-headed Gulls and Black-winged Stilts.
I moved as close to the sound as I could and listened, intently. There it was again, this time a fraction clearer. Fortunately I had my sound recording kit with me and I scrambled to retrieve it from my backpack whilst hoping that the vocalisations would continue.
They did, and I managed to record a few snippets before the source fell silent, coinciding with a low pass by a hunting Eurasian Sparrowhawk.
A few minutes later I heard the sound again, three maybe four times before again it fell silent.
I was fairly sure the sound was of a SWINHOE’S RAIL but given the magnitude of the record, I had to consider the possibility of it being a frog or a cricket.
I was planning to stay overnight close by and hoped that, in the early morning with less wind and much reduced background noise, I may be able to hear the vocalisation more clearly if the bird was still there. At the guest house, I looked at the sonogram of the sound I had recorded and compared it with that from my recordings of Swinhoe’s Rail from Inner Mongolia last June. The sonogram of the sound from Ma Chang looked good on the screen – 6 or 7 notes in each vocalisation at a frequency of 2kHz. Wow.
The following morning I was on site before dawn and it was wonderfully still – perfect conditions to listen and record sounds. Sadly, I never heard it again. Despite the sonogram looking very good for SWINHOE’S RAIL, I was keen on a second opinion. I sent the recording to a few local birders and most thought it sounded good but cautioned about their lack of experience with the species. Then Paul Holt replied, agreeing that it was indeed a SWINHOE’S RAIL. That gave me the confidence to put out the news – thanks Paul!
Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) is one of east Asia’s least known birds. Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake, Jiangxi Province, in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.
It was only three years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia. And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia. I was fortunate to visit Wuerqihan in June 2018 and recorded its song and trill.
Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) must be one of east Asia’s least known birds. Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only very infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.
It was only two years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia. And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia.
Wuerqihan is a wonderful place… it is very popular with bird photographers in winter when, despite the bitter temperatures (as low as -35 degrees Celsius), it’s possible to see very well species such as Great Grey, Hawk, Ural, Tengmalm’s, Eagle and Little Owls plus other photogenic birds such as Hazel Grouse, Black Grouse, Siberian Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Pallas’s Rosefinch and, if you are lucky, Black-billed Capercaillie, . It is less well-known that summer is also pretty special. In addition to the recently-discovered Swinhoe’s Rail, it is a brilliant site to see Pallas’s and Gray’s Grasshopper Warblers, Lanceolated Warbler, Band-bellied Crake, Pale-legged, Two-barred Greenish, Dusky and Radde’s Warblers, Eyebrowed Thrush, Oriental Cuckoo and many more species. It is also just wonderful to spend time in pristine lush wet meadows, mixed deciduous forest and grassland that are all teeming with life.
I had already made two short summer trips to Wuerqihan, in 2016 with Nick Green and in 2017 with Derrick Wilby and I was keen to return. So, with Marie, we set aside a few days to fly to Hailar, rent a car and drive the 2.5 hours east to Wuerqihan.
We were keen just to enjoy the break and some good birding but of course we were also hoping to encounter the Swinhoe’s Rail.
Our first day would coincide with the last day of the visit by British birder, Jon Holmes, for whom I had arranged local guide Zhang Wu and his 4×4 to take him around. And on day two we bumped into another Brit, Dave Woodford, accompanied by Chinese bird guide, Steven An.
The call of Swinhoe’s Rail is reasonably loud and carries for quite a distance… and during our first evening on site, we had no difficulty in hearing the Swinhoe’s Rails from the track, calling from the wet grass. Being poorly prepared (no wellies or torch), we decided to call it a night, do a spot of shopping in the town the following day and return the next evening.
After each picking up a pair of wellies for CNY 40 (about GBP5) we arrived on site, with Steven and Dave, around 6pm, about 2.5 hours before dusk. Already, one bird was calling intermittently and, before long, two or three began calling. We donned our wellies and headed along the edge of the meadow, stopping regularly to listen to the birds as they began calling more frequently as dusk approached. You can hear a bit about our first encounter here:
Suddenly, a dark shape flew up in front of Dave and dropped into the grass about 15m away. It was tiny and dark with obvious white secondaries – Swinhoes’ Rail! Almost immediately it began to call and, having my sound recording gear with me, I was fortunate to capture this seldom heard, and rarely recorded, sound.
We were stunned and stood still, just soaking up the moment. The wonderful rich colours of the meadow at sunset, not a breath of wind and Swinhoe’s Rails calling amongst the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Common Rosefinches, Japanese Quails and Common Cuckoos. Simply mesmerising.
That moment will stay with us for a very long time. And as we made our way back to the vehicles, we were accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong with Common Cuckoos seemingly all around, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers reeling away and Japanese Quails uttering their squelchy call. Magical.
The Chinese name for Swinhoe’s Rail is 花田鸡 (Huātián jī). Literally translated it means “flower frog”, a fantastically descriptive and apt name.
Over the next few days, we enjoyed some pretty special encounters with some wonderful birds including a stunning Great Grey Owl in the evening light.
Pacific Swifts were common in the town, breeding in many of the buildings, particularly the older properties.
And the omnipresent Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler occasionally showed well, belying its reputation as an extreme skulker.
We recorded 98 species during our visit and had a fantastic time. Wuerqihan is a brilliant birding destination and thoroughly recommended in summer or winter. It is probably also extremely good in spring and autumn but, as far as I know, no birders have visited in that season.
Anyone wanting to visit should contact local guide, Zhang Wu, who can arrange pick-up and drop-off from Hailar airport, accommodation and food, and, with his unbreakable 4×4 and local knowledge, he will ensure any visiting birder gets to the right places and has a superb time. Although he speaks no English, it’s possible to communicate the basics using a combination of sign language and the impressive translation APP on his smartphone, and you can guarantee he will work hard to try to connect you with any target species. He can be contacted directly on +86 13614709187 and, for any non-Chinese speakers, I’d be happy to help make arrangements if required.
Big thanks to Marie, Jon, Dave, Steven and Zhang Wu for being great company during the trip. And a big hat-tip to the Amur Bird Project team and Paul Holt for their discoveries in 2016 and 2017 which enabled us to connect with the enigmatic Swinhoe’s Rail.
When South African world-lister, Derrick Wilby, invited me to accompany him to Inner Mongolia in search of some skulking grasshopper warblers, I was delighted to accept.
Wuerqihan, in the far north of the province, east of Hailar, is well-known as a special winter birding destination. With up to 8 species of owl (Eagle, Great Grey, Little, Northern Hawk, Eurasian Pygmy, Tengmalm’s, Ural and Snowy) possible in that season, not to mention special birds such as Siberian Jay, Black-billed Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Hazel Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinch, it’s a must-visit for any China-based birders.
What’s much less well-known is that Wuerqihan is also a brilliant birding destination in summer. On the edge of the magnificent, and vast, taiga forest, the habitat is a mixture of deciduous forest, wet meadows and damp scrub. This was only my second visit during this season but already it’s becoming clear that it’s a reliable place to see some of China’s most-wanted species such as GRAY’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, BAND-BELLIED CRAKE and CHINESE BUSH WARBLER as well as providing a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with some breeding birds that are much sought-after vagrants back in the UK, such as PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, LANCEOLATED WARBLER, THICK-BILLED WARBLER, BROWN SHRIKE, SIBERIAN THRUSH, WHITE-THROATED NEEDLETAIL and many more.
Derrick had a list of warblers he wanted to see – Chinese Bush, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Gray’s Grasshopper and Lanceolated – as well as two owls – Great Grey and Ural – plus Japanese Quail and Band-bellied Crake. I was reasonably confident about all except the crake, which I had heard once last year but not yet seen.
On arrival in Wuerqihan in the afternoon, we met local guide, Zhang Wu, checked into the hotel and immediately headed out east from the town along the old logging road. We started well with good views of several singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers along the first few kms of the road, singing Japanese Quail in the meadows, watchful Brown Shrikes seemingly atop every bush and Common Rosefinches whistling from their songposts before a superb encounter with a stunning GREAT GREY OWL just a few metres from the road. As we enjoyed more than 30 minutes with this most magnificent owl, a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler sang from deep in the forest.
As we headed back to town for dinner, a spectacular thunderstorm swept past to the west..
The morning of day two added singing Lanceolated Warbler (see header image by Nick Green), a handful of White-throated Needletails, Azure Tit, singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Thrush, Chestnut and Black-faced Buntings.
We decided to rest in the afternoon and head back out in the evening for a night drive in the hope of finding Ural Owl and, perhaps, Band-bellied Crake. The evening shift started well when we heard the latter calling briefly at dusk from the edge of a small pool. However, despite waiting patiently for more than 30 minutes, frustratingly there was no further sign. We headed into the forest to look for owls and, after only a few minutes, had a sighting of an owl by the side of the track.. it was large and pale. We turned around and approached slowly. We could see large orange eyes staring back at us and it was obvious this was an Eagle Owl, not the hoped-for Ural.
Heading east along the main track, we drove slowly with the windows down, listening. We stopped at several promising-looking areas, turned off the engine and waited for something to penetrate the silence. A few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers and a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler chuntered away in the darkness.. and then a Chinese Bush Warbler sang from some scrub. Driving further, we picked out a Band-bellied Crake and, once we had stopped, it was clear that several were singing in the wet scrub alongside the road. One, two, three.. at least four birds competing for attention. In the darkness, there was no chance of seeing them, so we took a note of the location and would return in the morning.
By now it was after midnight and our hopes for a Ural Owl were fading. Zhang Wu turned off the main track onto a rutted, obviously rarely travelled track into the forest. After around 100m, he stopped. He had heard something. Cutting the engine, we listened intently. And there it was – a deep, low ‘hoot’. Zhang Wu smiled. It was a Ural Owl. Our guide played the call of Ural Owl in answer to the bird. Immediately it responded and flew in to a tree right above us to check us out.
We returned to the hotel at around 0130, the adrenaline still rushing after a special encounter.
A tougher than usual early start the next morning saw us at the site where we had heard Band-bellied Crake during the previous night. Even in the early morning, the birds were not singing.. suggesting they might be predominantly nocturnal vocalisers. We carefully walked into the marsh, trying to avoid the deep pools of water in between the grassy tufts. We heard a short call and froze. It was a crake. As we stood motionless, as if to “warm up”, the short note gradually morphed into a full song.. and before long, we could see the grass ‘twitching’ as the crake made its way through the bog.
All that was left was to try to secure a decent view of Chinese Bush Warbler. Thanks to Zhang Wu’s local knowledge, we were able to find a spot with one singing and, with patience, we were able to secure a “jigsaw” of views.. at first the bill, then the tail, then the legs… then the supercilium.. and piecing them together we were able to get a good impression of this skulker.
We headed back to the hotel in the late morning, packed our things and set off for the airport all too quickly. It had been a superb 3 days and, in total, we had recorded 102 species. I can’t wait to go back… with a bit more time, I think there could be some more special birds waiting to be discovered. It wouldn’t surprise me if Swinhoe’s Rail is there and, who knows, maybe the enigmatic Streaked Reed Warbler is lurking in the vicinity.
One thing to bear in mind if visiting in summer; the insects can be a nuisance, especially the horseflies. Most active in the heat of the day, the worst can be avoided by being out early and late in the day. This video gives a sense of their menace!
I have just spent three days in Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, in the company of Shanghai-based British birder, Nick Green. It was my third visit to this stunning part of northeastern China and, after two previous trips in winter, it was a delight to see it so green and leafy, without needing to wear six layers in -30 degrees Celsius!
Whilst in winter the main attractions here are undoubtedly the owls (Snowy, Great Grey, Ural, Hawk, Eagle, Boreal and Little) our main target during this visit was to try to see the three breeding locustella warblers – Lanceolated Warbler, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and the sought-after Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. I thought we wouldn’t have too much difficulty in finding all three but I hadn’t expected the numbers we encountered. Pallas’s were seemingly in every inch of suitable habitat and, particularly early morning and evening, were singing constantly, even though it was mid-July. We recorded 53 (surely a considerable under-count) on our first full day. Lanceolated were less common, but still frequent, with 22 recorded and, the following morning, we counted 17 singing Gray’s from the moving car during a 45-minute drive.
Renowned for their skulking habits, locustella warblers are usually tough to see. However, on the breeding grounds, despite most preferring to sing from deep cover, we were fortunate to see several examples of each species singing from exposed perches.
Wu’erqihan in July isn’t only locustella heaven. The supporting cast includes White-throated Needletail, Great Grey, Ural and Eagle Owls, Siberian Rubythroat, Mugimaki Flycatcher, David’s and Chinese Bush Warblers, Pale-legged, Two-barred, Pallas’s, Thick-billed, Radde’s and Dusky Warblers and a host of other ‘sibes’.
The Rosefinches were one of the highlights of our recent trip to northern Inner Mongolia. Long-tailed Rosefinch (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀) is a scarce but regular visitor to Beijing in winter. I have seen it three times in the capital – once at Yeyahu and twice at Lingshan. Usually we only see the brown, streaky immatures or females, so it was very cool to see some stunning adult males in Wuerqihan. On the journey from Hailar airport to Wuerqihan we counted more than 25 of these stunning finches.
And it wasn’t only Long-tailed that we saw in Wuerqihan. There were also some of the sought after Pallas’s Rosefinches (Carpodacus roseus, 北朱雀). Pallas’s Rosefinch is a difficult bird to see anywhere and we were fortunate to see several small flocks of these beautiful birds around Wuerqihan.
Our guide, Mr Zhang, regularly puts out seed to attract birds and, as well as these stunning rosefinches, the food attracted Northern Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, 红腹灰雀), including some of the grey-bellied race, cineracea, Common and Arctic Redpolls (Carduelis flammea, 白腰朱顶雀, and Carduelis hornemanni, 极北朱顶雀), Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius, 松鸦) and even a Siberian Weasel. That’s a quality line up for any bird table!
Introducing the last of the “most-wanted 3” owls we saw in Inner Mongolia this Christmas. This is the unmistakeable HAWK OWL, a bird that blew me away when I first saw it in Sweden in the 1990s. It often sits, sentinel-like, on the top of a tree from where it monitors the surrounding activity with razor-sharp vision and incredibly sensitive hearing. Such a different character to the more deliberate and almost “royal” Great Grey Owl….
Wishing everyone a very happy, healthy and bird-filled 2015!
For interest, here are some pictures of the superb habitat in which we found two of these special owls.