China is a good place to see bitterns.  In addition to the Great Bittern (the one familiar to European readers), it is also possible to see Black Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, Von Schrenck’s Bittern and Yellow Bittern.  Of the smaller bitterns, the Yellow Bittern is most numerous in Beijing with Von Schrenck’s also breeding in small numbers.  Cinnamon is an occasional (and increasing?) late Spring visitor (and possible breeder?) and there is just one record of Black Bittern.

Below are some images of Cinnamon, Von Schrenck’s and Yellow Bitterns, all taken in Beijing or neighbouring Hebei Province.

First, the beautiful richly coloured Cinnamon Bittern.

Cinnamon Bittern (male). No mistaking this species!
Cinnamon Bittern (presumed female with streaking below and pale spotting on the upperparts).

Next up, Von Schrenck’s Bittern.  The males and females look quite different.

Von Schrenck’s Bittern (male). Note the dark back, dark face and wing pattern (compared with Yellow Bittern below).
Von Schrenck’s Bittern (male).
Von Schrenck’s Bittern (female). Note the heavy and dark streaking.
Von Schrenck’s Bittern (female). Note the white-spotted upperparts combined with the dark back and face.

Finally, the Yellow Bittern.  A common breeder, including in the Olympic Forest Park and Yeyahu NR.

Yellow Bittern (male). The contrasting underwing is a good feature of Yellow Bittern).
Yellow Bittern showing uppewing pattern.  This individual has a particularly dark back.
Yellow Bittern.
Yellow Bittern from below.


A few days ago I accompanied visiting birder, Claus Holzapfel, and his wife to Yeyahu.  After an early start and navigating the broken down trucks on the hill past Badaling Great Wall, we arrived on site around 0730.  It was a very pleasant temperature early morning and visibility gradually improved throughout the morning.  Passerine migration was in evidence with singles of Two-barred Greenish and Arctic Warbler along the entrance track in the company of Grey-streaked and Asian Brown Flycatchers and local breeding was also in evidence with three young Grey-headed Woodpeckers crossing our path on the way to the lake.  As we made our way along the boardwalk, a Common Kingfisher perched ahead of us and we encountered a family of Yellow Bitterns, including 4 juveniles looking like sulking teenagers as their parents hurried backwards and forwards with food.

Juvenile Yellow Bittern, Yeyahu. "Come on muummm, I'm hungry"

A few Night Herons and Chinese Pond Herons flopped over the lake and several juvenile Purple Herons commuted back and forth to the reservoir.

The first of what turned out to be many Black Drongos appeared from the gloom and headed north and a few Oriental Reed Warblers revealed themselves with their chattering.  It was good to see the nests of Chinese Penduline Tit at the north-west corner of the lake and we heard a couple of these birds calling from the reeds.  Terns were present in the form of at least 4 Common (ssp longipennis) and 4 Whiskered.

We took a short break at a gap in the trees to overlook the grassland and shrubs towards Ma Chang and it was here that we enjoyed a magic couple of minutes.  First, a juvenile Pied Harrier floated in from the west, soon followed by a male Eastern Marsh Harrier (both new birds for Claus).  Then, almost immediately, a Chinese Grey Shrike (another new bird for Claus) alighted on the top of a poplar and a female Pied Harrier flew in from the north.  Brilliant stuff..  and, as happens frequently in birding, two minutes later all of the birds had gone…!

We slowly made our way along the wooded edge of the lake picking up at least 4 Wood Sandpipers, both Barn and Red-rumped Swallow and a stunning male Black-naped Oriole.  But the highlight along here was a lovely encounter with a mammal, which we first suspected was a Yellow-throated Marten.  However, I have been reliably informed that it is not this species (EDIT: after a bit of detective work – Claus visited the Zoological Museum of Beijing – we believe it is a Siberian Weasel.  These are the elusive creatures that inhabit the hutongs of Beijing and are believed by locals to hold the power to capture and return human souls…!  We gave it a wide berth just in case…)

Siberian Weasel, Yeyahu. Photo by Claus Holzapfel

After enjoying this lovely animal as it made its way along the path towards us before scurrying into the vegetation, we made our way down to the viewing tower overlooking the reservoir.  Again, as on my most recent visit, hundreds of blue butterflies were congregating on the path and I couldn’t resist taking a few more photos of this spectacle.

Rhapsody in Blue

Claus captured me getting up close and personal with these butterflies.. not the most flattering photo!

Me getting down and dirty... Photo: Claus Holzapfel

At the reservoir we added more species to our day list including Mandarin Duck, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Caspian Tern, Little Egret, White-winged Tern, Great Spotted Woodpecker and, best of all, a Eurasian Crag Martin that passed south in the company of some Barn Swallows.  Picked up by its size, lack of breast band and white spots on the tail, this was my first record of this species at Yeyahu.

After enjoying our packed lunches we slowly made our way back, where we flushed a Snipe sp for the second time (it was in exactly the same place on the way out to the tower).  It was clearly not a Common Snipe, lacking an obvious white trailing edge to the secondaries and with a call that was harsher than Common Snipe (almost Corncrake-like in quality).  Photos below.  Comments welcome!

Snipe sp, Yeyahu. Note lack of white trailing edge to secondaries.
Snipe sp. This image shows the rather 'pot-bellied' appearance of this bird.
Snipe sp. Note feet projection beyond tail. Suggests Pin-tailed?

Claus and his wife are both interested in botany and I thoroughly enjoyed them pointing out interesting plants, including various grasses, flowers and shrubs.  Perhaps the most surprising was the discovery of the plant below growing ‘wild’ on the edge of the marsh…  there must have been at least 20-30 of these plants, of various ages, growing among the other vegetation and it certainly didn’t look like manmade cultivation.

Cannabis plant, Yeyahu

A thoroughly enjoyable day and many thanks to Claus and his wife for their company and for adding a new dimension to my knowledge of the natural environment at Yeyahu.

It’s not very often I have pictures of myself to post on this blog, so here is one more from Claus, taken on the boardwalk at Yeyahu.  You can see more of Claus’s photos here.

"Up on the boardwalk". I am sure there is a song about that...

Full Species List (in chronological order of first sighting):

Tree Sparrow (many)

Common Magpie (many)

Grey Heron (2)

Common Pheasant (4)

Grey-headed Woodpecker (4)

Arctic Warbler (2)

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (2)

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (1)

Yellow Bittern (9)

Night Heron (18)

Great Crested Grebe (6)

Marsh Tit (2)

Oriental Turtle Dove (1)

Chinese Pond Heron (4)

Common Kingfisher (3)

Grey Wagtail (2)

Hobby (5)

Oriental Reed Warbler (5)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (50+)

Moorhen (5)

Snipe sp (2)

Common Tern (4)

Chinese Penduline Tit (3)

Black Drongo (c45)

Whiskered Tern (18)

Purple Heron (3)

Chinese Grey Shrike (1)

Pied Harrier (2)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (2)

Coot (8)

Wood Sandpiper (4)

Kestrel (2)

Barn Swallow (26)

Red-rumped Swallow (6)

Mallard (2)

Zitting Cisticola (12)

Black-naped Oriole (1)

Richard’s Pipit (3)

Mandarin (4)

Eurasian Crag Martin (1)

Gull-billed Tern (2)

Little Egret (1)

Spot-billed Duck (5)

Caspian Tern (2) – one ad and one juv

White-winged Tern (2) – adults

Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)

Cinnamon Bittern

I spent Monday evening at the Olympic Forest Park in Beijing, primarily to look for dragonflies but also on the off-chance that there could be an interesting crake or rail calling at dusk.  The park officially allows last entry at 8pm and everyone is required to be out by 9pm.  With sunset around 7.45pm, this offers an opportunity to check for crespuscular activity.  Unfortunately there were no crakes or rails heard (apart from the local Moorhens) but, whilst photographing a local dragonfly, I caught sight of a bittern flying from a large reedbed.  It was much richer and darker coloured than the resident Yellow Bitterns, with uniform rich brown upperparts.  As it dived into the reeds nearby, I realised it could only be one species – a Cinnamon Bittern.  A new bird for me and, I believe, a pretty scarce species in Beijing.  Unfortunately, as I had my macro lens on my camera, I couldn’t obtain any photos and, despite waiting in the same area until dusk, I did not see it again.

Anyway, I managed a few images of one the common dragonflies… I have no idea what species this is, so if anyone knows, please comment on here.  Also, I saw a ladybird sp that looked suspiciously like a Harlequin Ladybird.  Again, I have no idea what species are present in the Beijing area, so any help much appreciated..!

On the way out of the park, I rescued a toad that had got itself stuck trying to cross a newly painted cycle lane.  I was alerted to the toad’s plight by a young boy who could see it struggling but was afraid to cross the wet paint.  Fortunately, my longer reach allowed me to free it without stepping onto the horrible thick red paint and it soon walked off into the long grass, seemingly no worse for wear.

Dragonfly sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing
Ladybird sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing
Yellow Bittern at dusk. I saw at least 8 of these charismatic birds this evening.

Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

First thing this morning I made my first visit to the Olympic Forest Park in Beijing.  This relatively new park, as its name suggests, was created for the 2008 Olympic Games and has won awards for its design.  I was pleasantly surprised by how ‘bird-friendly’ it is.  There is some great habitat, including some large reedbeds, lakes, mature (ish) woodland and open areas, all of which are attracting birds.

Today, I explored the southern section prompted by a visiting birder, Claus Holzapfel, who had seen a Streaked Reed Warbler a few days ago.  I didn’t see any of these rare ‘acro‘ warblers but I chalked up an impressive list of species for a central Beijing location (see below).

The highlight for me was an enjoyable encounter with a confiding Yellow Bittern as it hunted in one of the lily-filled lakes.  It’s ungainly stance belied the effectiveness with which it stalked small fish and frogs.

Oriental Reed Warblers filled the air with their chattering and there were also a few Black-browed Reed Warblers competing to be heard and a few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers skulking at the base of the reeds.  Indian and Eurasian Cuckoos were calling frequently and the song of the Black-naped Oriole was an occasional accompaniement.

In the more mature trees on the eastern side, a singing male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was a nice sight but I failed to find the Green-backed (Elisae’s) Flycatcher that Paul Holt had seen the previous day.

The Olympic Park is situated just north of the 4th ring road, north of the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium and is served by metro stops as well as several bus routes, so it is easy to get to.  It opens at 6am and, this morning, there were relatively few people around and it was very easy to find quiet spots – not to be taken for granted in Beijing where most city parks are full of early morning exercisers for the first few hours of daylight.  For me, it’s the best birding site I’ve seen so far in Beijing city.  I’ll definitely be back!

Map of Beijing Olympic Forest Park
Yellow Bittern, Beijing Olympic Forest Park, 2 June 2011
Comical as it made its way across the lillies... would definitely qualify as a Monty Python 'silly walk'
Watching you watching me..
I enjoyed half an hour with this confiding bird today in the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

Species List (in chronological order of first sighting):

Collared Dove (1)

Common Magpie (many)

Tree Sparrow (many)

Grey-capped Woodpecker (3)

Eastern Crowned Warbler (2)

Indian Cuckoo (4)

Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul (7)

Oriental Reed Warbler (at least 30)

Eurasian Cuckoo (5)

Oriental Greenfinch (3)

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (3)

Night Heron (7)

Red-rumped Swallow (4)

Black-browed Reed Warbler (4)

Black Drongo (1)

Common Moorhen (6)

Common Swift (12)

Yellow Bittern (7)

Goldeneye (1) – a drake on the lake near the ‘underwater corridor’

Barn Swallow (3)

Little Egret (1) – flyover

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (1) – singing just north-east of Wali Lake

Marsh Tit (2)

Black-naped Oriole (3)

Dark-sided Flycatcher (1) – northeast of Wali Lake

Arctic Warbler (4)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)

Grey Heron (1)

Little Grebe (2)

Radde’s Warbler (2)

Azure-winged Magpie (6)

Spotted Dove (2)

Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)