Siberian Cranes at Yeyahu!

This morning I received an email from An Yi, a Denmark-based birder who has been in Beijing visiting family.  Yi visited Yeyahu NR on Wednesday 27 March and was lucky enough to see some cranes…  but not just any cranes..  she saw 2 SIBERIAN CRANES together with some WHITE-NAPED CRANES.  On top of that, she secured some fantastic images….  With her kind permission, I am reproducing them below.  As far as I know, this is only the 2nd record of SIBERIAN CRANE at Yeyahu NR and the 4th in Beijing (following one at Yeyahu NR in March 2008,  between 1 and 8 at Miyun in March/April 2012 and one at Miyun in March 2013).  Congratulations to Yi and many thanks for allowing me to reproduce the images here.  A fantastic record.

Siberian Cranes (Grus leucogenarus), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013
Siberian Cranes (Leucogenarus leucogenarus), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013.  The bird on the right is an immature.
Siberian Crane with White-naped Crane, Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013
Siberian Crane (Leucogenarus leucogenarus), right, with White-naped Crane (Grus vipio), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013
White-naped Cranes (Grus vipio), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013
White-naped Cranes (Grus vipio), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013

Oriental Plovers – they’re back!

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, Friday 29 March 2013.  The arrival of these birds symobolises the beginning of Spring at Wild Duck Lake.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, Friday 29 March 2013. The arrival of these birds symobolises the beginning of Spring at Wild Duck Lake.

On Good Friday, I visited Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang and Yeyahu NR) with visiting Ed Drewitt and Beijing-based student Alice Carfrae.  The weather was good, if a little cold, and the birding a superb example of an early Spring day in Beijing.  The highlights for me were the 6 stunning Oriental Plovers at Ma Chang early morning and the excellent views of Baikal Teal at Yeyahu NR.  

I collected Ed and Alice around 0530 for the drive to Ma Chang.  After a clear run we were on site and birding by 0720 and, within just a few minutes, a hopeful scan of the ‘desert area’ at Ma Chang produced 6 beautiful Oriental Plovers.  Ma Chang is THE place in Beijing to see this species in early Spring and, for me, these birds are the symbol of the beginning of Spring in the capital.  We enjoyed these birds for around 20 minutes, watching them preen and, occasionally, feed in the early morning light.  After seeing them this time I think this bird is my personal favourite, among so many other great species to be found here.

These birds are well on their way from their wintering grounds in Australia to their breeding grounds in Manchuria and Siberia.
These birds are well on their way from their wintering grounds in Australia to their breeding grounds in Manchuria and Siberia.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, 29 March 2013.  I don't know anything about ageing or sexing OPs.  Do the pale fringes to the feathers on the upperparts and the buffy face indicate immaturity?  Or is this an adult female?
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, 29 March 2013. I don’t know anything about ageing or sexing OPs. Do the pale fringes to the feathers on the upperparts and the buffy face indicate immaturity? Or is this an adult female?

We moved on to the spit by the yurts, where the local fisherman have already returned to set their nets for the summer season.  This location proved to be a good one for visible migration with White Wagtails (ssp leucopsis) dropping in, a stunning close fly-by from a male Goshawk, a couple of Eastern Marsh Harriers, a steady trickle of Eurasian Skylarks and several flocks of cranes, including a few small groups of White-naped in amongst the more numerous Common.

At the next site we secured views, albeit distantly, of some of the duck present, including Falcated Duck, Common Pochard, Pintail, Ferruginous Duck, Mallard, Spot-billed Duck, Gadwall and Common Teal.  A very distant group of swans were probably Whoopers but we couldn’t be sure.

As the day began to warm up from a chilly -4 first thing to about 3-4 degrees C, some raptors began to move, beginning with a few Common (Eastern) Buzzards of the ssp japonicus, a trickle of Goshawks, a couple of Sparrowhawks and a Kestrel.  At about 1030 we were discussing the potential for an eagle and, sure enough, a Greater Spotted Eagle duly appeared against the backdrop of the mountains to the north, followed shortly after by another, then another..  superb!

After enjoying the raptor migration for an hour or so we decided to visit Yeyahu NR to check whether it was open (it usually opens at “the end of March” but an exact date is always difficult to pin down!).  Fortunately it was open and we were pleased when we saw a large flock of wild duck on the lake.  Scanning through them produced some stunning Baikal Teal, viewable in excellent light, together with good numbers of Common Pochard, Falcated Duck, Pintail, Common Teal, single pairs of Red-crested Pochard and Ferruginous Duck and several groups of Smew.  Not bad!

After watching a drumming Grey-headed Woodpecker and a confiding male Daurian Redstart we set off back to Beijing having had a typical early Spring day at Wild Duck Lake.

Many thanks to Alice and Ed for their company.

Full Species List (70 in total):

Common Pheasant – 3

Bean Goose – 67

Whooper/Bewick’s Swan – 27
Ruddy Shelduck – 15
Gadwall – 11
Falcated Duck – 82
Eurasian Wigeon – 2
Mallard – 150+
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 18
Northern Pintail – 23
Baikal Teal – 14
Eurasian Teal – 80
Red-crested Pochard – 2
Common Pochard – 64
Ferruginous Duck – 7
Common Goldeneye – 26
Smew – 49
Goosander – 12
Little Grebe – 12
Great Crested Grebe – 18
Great Bittern – at least 1 booming
Grey Heron – 16
Great Cormorant – 17
Eurasian Kestrel – 3
Saker – 1
Black-eared Kite – 13
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (1 ad male, 2 ad fems)
Hen Harrier – 1 imm male
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 2
Northern Goshawk – 7, including a fly-past by a stunning adult male
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 47; good passage between 1030-1300
Greater Spotted Eagle – 3
Common Coot – 9
White-naped Crane – 41
Common Crane – 130
Black-winged Stilt – 12
Grey-headed Lapwing – 2 distant birds in flight
Northern Lapwing – 46
Little Ringed Plover – 8
Kentish Plover – 47
ORIENTAL PLOVER – 6 – superb views early morning; always a star bird!
Dunlin – 4
Black-headed Gull – 18
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Spotted Dove – 1
Collared Dove – 4
Fork-tailed Swift – 10 flying south (!)
Common Kingfisher – 1
Hoopoe – 5
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 3
Chinese Grey Shrike – at least 1, possibly 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 8
Common Magpie – lots
Carrion Crow – 6
Large-billed Crow – 2
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 1
Barn Swallow – 1
Asian Short-toed Lark – 18
Skylark – 39
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 40+
White-cheeked Starling – 4
Common Starling – 46; a good number
Daurian Redstart – 2 (1 male, 1 female)
Thrush sp – 4 flew across the road on the way to Ma Chang.
Tree Sparrow – lots
White Wagtail – 17 (all ssp leucopsis)
Brambling – 1
Oriental Greenfinch – 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 9



Tolai Hare – 1

Chinese Hill Babbler

The Chinese Hill Babbler (Rhopophilus pekinensis), also known as the Chinese Hill Warbler or White-browed Chinese Warbler, is usually on the list of “most wanted” birds for visiting birders.  It has a limited distribution but is quite common in the hills around Beijing.  It’s a bird that has a lovely repertoire of vocalisations and is often heard before it is seen.

On my most recent visit to Wild Duck Lake, I came across 4 of these delightful birds, possibly a family party.  Although usually a bird of elevation, they descend in winter and are regularly seen at Wild Duck Lake from October to March (an altitude of around 500 metres above sea level).  They are occasionally seen at this site in summer, too, and I suspect they bred there this year.

Most field guides call this bird “Chinese Hill Warbler” but it is clearly not a warbler and much more like a babbler, hence the name most local birders prefer to use – Chinese Hill Babbler.  They are inquisitive birds and, with a bit of ‘pishing’, they often come quite close to investigate…

Chinese Hill Babbler (Rhopophilus pekinensis), Yeyahu NR, Beijing, 29 October 2012
Chinese Hill Babbler, Yeyahu NR, 29 October 2012. Absolutely NOT a warbler!

And here is a recording of one of the birds from Yeyahu NR…  a great sound!

Chinese Hill Babbler

“****! That looked like a BAER’S POCHARD!!!”

With apologies to my mum, that’s exactly what went through my head as I scanned a group of diving duck at Wild Duck Lake on Wednesday morning and came across a bird with a green-tinged head and pale flanks…  It immediately turned away so that I could only see it’s backside and there were agonising seconds of self-doubt before it turned side-on again to show me that it was, without a doubt, most definitely, a drake BAER’S POCHARD….  Wow.

Wednesday morning started off badly.  For more than half an hour I was stuck in traffic on the G6 caused by broken down lorries that failed to make the steep ascent over the Badaling Great Wall pass, meaning that I arrived at Ma Chang around 0645, about half an hour after dawn.  Already, many bird photographers were driving around in 4x4s searching for something to photograph..  and there were no birds on the ‘desert area’.  As usual, I went to the more isolated western end of the track, near a ‘spit’ of land on which several fishermen’s ‘tents’ or yurts are situated in the summer months.  I set up my telescope here and began to watch.  Visible migration was relatively slow with just Buff-bellied and a few Water Pipits accompanied by some Little Buntings and a few Skylarks.  An immature male Hen Harrier and a Saker both came through in the first half an hour (the latter with prey).  Initially, there were no duck to be seen but, later on, a large mixed flock flew in, presumably flushed by fishermen.  They settled some distance away but were viewable with a telescope from my position.  I began to scan through them and there were almost 300 Mallard, 82 Gadwall and 79 Spot-billed Duck dabbling against the far reedbed.  A little closer, in a line, was a large group of diving duck.  In this flock was a good number of Ferruginous Duck and, as I began to count them, I stumbled across a diving duck with pale flanks and a greenish tinge to the head.. However, just as I got onto it, it turned away.  I immediately thought ” ****!  That looked like a Baer’s Pochard”…  At this point I lost count of the Ferruginous Duck..  I watched the BAER’S POCHARD for a couple of minutes as it fed – with short dives – amongst the Ferruginous Ducks.  I then remembered that I was counting Ferruginous Ducks and, being someone who likes to finish what they have started, I began to count them again..  I got to about 12 before I saw the BAER’S POCHARD again..  and after lingering a few seconds, continued with the count.. I was working from left to right and, as I approached the far right of the flock, I saw a drake BAER’S POCHARD.  Thinking that it must have been the same one that had simply moved across unseen, I scanned back to the original position and, to my amazement, the original bird was still there!  So there were two drake BAER’S..!!  Gulp..

The second BAER’S was the last viewable bird in the flock – the rest were behind the reeds.  I realised that the angle from which I was observing the birds wasn’t great and that if I moved a little further west along the spit, I would be able to see more of the flock.  I moved the car and, sitting on the back seat with the back door open, I was able to use it as a wind break to help minimise wind shake.  Again, I went through the flock, this time a little closer and with much less wind shake.  I counted 38 Ferruginous Ducks, 18 Common Pochard, 3 Smew and an incredible 4 BAER’S POCHARD (the same two males, the latter of which enjoyed the company of two females).  This total is a minimum as there were still more birds in the flock that were not viewable..   I sent SMSs to a few people before settling down and just enjoying observing these birds..  Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph with my 400mm lens.  The picture below was taken with my 400mm lens to illustrate just how distant they were.

On 17 October 2012, there were at least 4 Baer’s Pochards here (beyond the 3rd set of nets)!

My telescope was on 40-50x during the observation but the light was excellent, with the sun directly behind me.

The BAER’S POCHARD is in a perilous state.  It’s status was recently amended to “Critically Endangered” reflecting the dramatic decline of this species.  In a worrying sign, the surveys by Chinese ornithologists on some of its traditional wintering grounds yielded no birds in winter 2011/12.  This is an extract from an internet posting by Wang Xin, Cao Lei, Lei Jinyu and Tony Fox:

“a special survey by Wuhan Birdwatching Society this winter (2011/12) did not find any Baer’s Pochard at all, even at Liangzi Lake (where the survey had found c. 130 individuals last year). Birdwatchers have also been to the upper part of Wuchang Lake in Anhui this winter where Cao Lei’s group have been finding more than 200 in recent years and found none there as well. In the Baiquan wetlands, in Wuhan, where the species was often found in the past, there are only reports of poisoned swans and geese because the water levels in winter 2011/12 are so low and people can get near to the waterbirds as never before.”

I also understand that a (partial) summer survey of its traditional breeding ground this year resulted in no confirmed sightings at all.  Amongst all this gloom, one positive development has been the discovery of two breeding sites, both holding very few pairs, a long way south of the known traditional breeding range.  Whether these birds represent a previously undiscovered population or whether breeding at these sites reflects an adaptation strategy to the deterioration of their preferred habitat further north is a question to which I don’t know the answer…  Whatever, it is clear that this bird is in serious trouble.  I hope to write something more in-depth on the plight of the Baer’s Pochard very soon.  Watch this space.

PS.  The four-letter word I used was “Gosh”.. 🙂
Full species list below.

Common Pheasant – 8
Bean Goose – 7
Ruddy Shelduck – 4
Gadwall – 82 @ Ma Chang plus 16 @ Yeyahu
Mallard – 280
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 88
Eurasian Teal – 12
Common Pochard – 18
BAER’S POCHARD – 4 (two males, two females)
Ferruginous Duck – 39 (38 @ Ma Chang plus 1 @ Yeyahu) – possibly a record Beijing count.
Common Goldeneye – 6
Smew – 5 (2 @ Ma Chang, 3 @ Yeyahu)
Goosander – 3
Little Grebe – 18
Great Crested Grebe – 6
Black Stork – 2 over Yeyahu
Grey Heron – 1
Great Cormorant – 1
Common Kestrel – 1
Saker – 2
Hen Harrier – 2 (one imm male and one first winter)
Northern Goshawk – 2
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 3
Coot – 76
Common Crane – 15
Northern Lapwing – 1
Snipe sp (Swinhoe’s or Pin-tailed) – 1
Spotted Redshank – 2
Black-headed Gull – 93
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 7
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 431
Carrion Crow – 1
Corvid sp (Rook/Carrion/Long-billed Crow) – 28
Great Tit – 1
Marsh Tit – 2
Skylark – 8
Chinese Hill Babbler – 2
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 7
Yellow-browed Warbler – 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 6
White-cheeked Starling – 4
Red-flanked Bluetail – 1
Daurian Redstart – 1
Tree Sparrow – lots
Buff-bellied Pipit – 44
Water Pipit – 4
Brambling – 14
Oriental Greenfinch – 1
Pine Bunting – 3
Little Bunting – 21
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 8

Chinese Penduline Tits

Yeyahu NR is the only known breeding site for Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus) in Beijing.  I have found 2-3 nests at this site in Springs 2011 and 2012.  They are also a regular passage migrant, sometimes in good numbers, and an occasional winter visitor (in the winter of 2010-2011 up to 10 birds were present at Yeyahu but there were none in 2011-2012).  They can be quite elusive in the reedbeds and scrub but their presence is often given away by their distinctive call.  Listen here.

Last week, during my visit to Yeyahu, I enjoyed several encounters with these charming birds and watched a group of 6 birds extremely well from the boardwalk.  Below are a few images.  Chinese Penduline Tit used to be considered conspecific with Eurasian Penduline Tit, which I first saw at Rainham Marshes in the UK, but now it is considered a separate species.

Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus), Yeyahu NR, Beijing
Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus), Yeyahu NR
Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus), Yeyahu NR.
Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus), Yeyahu NR
Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus), Yeyahu NR, Beijing.

Birding Beijing with the British Embassy

On Saturday I led a tour of Yeyahu NR with a group from the British Embassy in Beijing.  It was a fun day out that will hopefully inspire a new generation of birders and we also raised GBP 75 to help save the Jankowski’s Bunting!

Given that the embassy bus wasn’t going to leave Beijing city centre until 0900, Libby and I plus good friends, Sarah and John Gallagher, decided to travel up early morning under our own steam and meet the group when they arrived late morning (hopefully having scouted out a few birds!).

The four of us arrived around 0800 and we enjoyed a very ‘birdy’ few hours.  The weather was clear and sunny, allowing stunning views of the mountains to the north and south.. The only downside was a strong north-westerly wind that was blowing straight from the Mongolian steppe, making it feel cold.

Despite the wind, it was clear that migration was happening all around us.  Flocks of Brambling regularly wheeled overhead, interspersed with groups of Skylark, Little Bunting, Daurian Jackdaws and Olive-backed and Buff-bellied Pipits.  A young Hen Harrier gave us exceptional views as it hugged the leeward side of a hedge and then a flock of at least 17 calling Hawfinches flew low over the treetops…  my first sighting of this chunky finch at Wild Duck Lake.  A little further on we stumbled across 2 Siberian Accentors – my first of the autumn and hopefully a sign that numbers will be back to normal this year after being pretty scarce in the capital last winter.

We stuck to the sheltered side of the hedge and had planned to make it as far as the tower hide at the edge of the reservoir before heading back to the car park to meet the embassy bus. However, our progress was slow given the number of birds we were seeing and we ended up circling back long before the tower.  Just as we turned, a large flock of Daurian Jackdaws came low over the fields, almost flying in between us as they headed fast south-west.  Stunning.

Highlights of the return included a young Saker patrolling one of the lakes on which domesticated ducks have been released.. causing a panic.. and a Tolai Hare flushed by Sarah as we walked through a grassy field.

The embassy bus had, not unusually for a Saturday morning, been caught in heavy traffic on the G6, the main highway from Beijing to Badaling (one of the most popular stretched of the Great Wall) and it wasn’t until 1130 that they arrived.

The British Embassy minibus arriving at Yeyahu NR. With Libby and chief spotter, Joe Wild.

First priority was to find a sheltered spot for the picnic lunch..  It was pleasant out of the wind so we chose a spot on the eastern side of a row of poplar trees with a wide vista of the mountains and open fields..

Picnic time at Yeyahu with the British Embassy group

The picnic lunch also provided an opportunity for the youngsters in the group to get to grips with birding optics for the first time… It was clear early on that Joe was going to be chief spotter!  Here he is looking at a group of Common Cranes that flew in from the east during lunch.

Joe using a telescope for the first time..
Sam lamented the weight of my Nikon binoculars…!

After lunch we split into two groups – one staying by the lake to feed the domesticated ducks and one that would follow me on a walk to the reservoir to look for wild birds.

To add a bit of extra fun to the day, we had arranged a competition to guess how many species we would see on the day.  Guesses cost 20 Yuan each (GBP 2) with the winner receiving a copy of “Birds of East Asia” by Mark Brazil (easily the best field guide for birds in the Chinese capital).  The proceeds would go to BirdLife International’s JustGiving page to help save Jankowski’s Bunting.

With only a couple of hours at Yeyahu in the middle of the day, and with a strong wind, I was expecting a relatively low total.  Guesses ranged from 15 to 50.  We saw 22, with the best of the bunch a flock of Common Cranes that arrived from the east and a Short-toed Eagle hunting briefly near the entrance to the reserve.

A fun day out and money raised for a good cause.  Thanks to everyone involved, especially Feian Downing and Jon Baines from the embassy who made the logistical arrangements.

Finally, I should add that the British Embassy in Beijing has an association with birds.  Former Ambassador (1997-2002) Sir Anthony Galsworthy was a keen birder and regularly set up mist nets in the garden of his residence to trap and ring birds..  I am trying to get hold of his records.. would be fascinating to see what he caught in his central Beijing garden!

Blunt-winged Warbler

This autumn I have a bird on my target list.  It’s a bird that, in reality, I probably have almost no chance of finding because, as far as I am aware, there have been only a handful of records from anywhere in the last few years – Streaked Reed Warbler.  The paucity of records may be at least partly due to the lack of observers in its breeding areas (thought to be north-east China and south-east Russia) but, from recent reports from its known wintering grounds in the Philippines, this bird is declining very rapidly.

I was inspired by reading some notes from La Touche at the turn of the century who described Streaked Reed Warbler as “swarming” in late August and early September at Beidaihe.  But it was more with hope than expectation that I visited Yeyahu Nature Reserve this weekend with the intention of scrutinising the reed-beds for Acro warblers.

After hearing several “tack”-ing Acro warblers that revealed themselves to be the relatively common Black-browed Reed Warbler, I discovered a singing Acrocephalus warbler..  not what I expected in September!  It was difficult to pick up given the noise from the earth-movers and heavy vehicles associated with the major works ongoing at Yeyahu to make it more “tourist friendly” (more on that in a later post!).  Frustratingly I couldn’t see it, despite waiting in the area for around 45 minutes.  Then a Chinese Grey Shrike appeared, clearly spooked the singing bird and it fell silent.  After waiting around for a while just in case it started to sing again, and with no sign, I left to cover more of the reserve but with a yellow sticky note in my mind to return later.

After covering the remaining reed-beds and finding more Black-browed Reed Warblers and several Oriental Reed Warblers, I returned to the same spot in the late afternoon.  Incredibly, it (or a different bird) was singing again just a few metres from the original spot.  This time, without the din of the earth-movers (they had packed up for the day), I was able to record it using my video camera.  It didn’t sound like a Black-browed Reed Warbler but these Acro species can sound very similar, so I wasn’t sure.

I tried ‘pishing‘ and immediately it popped up for the briefest of moments before dropping out of sight.  My impression was of a very warmly coloured bird with a strikingly white throat and lacking the well-marked face and blackish ‘brow’ of Black-browed.  I pished again.  Again it clambered up a reed stem and looked at me curiously..  This time I was able to rattle off a few images with the camera before it dropped again.  It continued to sing from its perch out of sight.  I looked at the images on the camera and immediately knew it was not a Black-browed Reed Warbler.  Any other small Acrocephalus warbler would be very interesting.   The likelihood was that it was either a Manchurian Reed Warbler or a Blunt-winged Warbler, both rare in Beijing.  Given the bird’s warm colouration, my instinct suggested Manchurian Reed Warbler as I had found a Blunt-winged Warbler in spring at Yeyahu which was much paler than this bird.  However, the face pattern – with a supercilium in front of the eye but not behind and the lack of a black upper border – fitted better Blunt-winged.  The wings also looked incredibly short, also good for Blunt-winged.  An email exchange with Paul Holt confirmed it as a Blunt-winged.  Apparently both Manchurian Reed and Blunt-winged look much ‘warmer’ in autumn after their moult.  Result!

Blunt-winged Warbler used to breed at the Summer Palace in Beijing but in recent years it has become a real rarity in Beijing.  With a disjunct population, Blunt-winged Warbler is also present in parts of Central Asia and north-east India.  The small population in northeast China has been the subject of speculation that it could be a different species, especially given the habitat preference seems to be different.  However, my understanding is that DNA analysis has shown that they are identical.

It is certainly unusual, but not unprecedented, for Acrocephalus warblers to sing in autumn.  Several of the Oriental Reed Warblers on site were still chuntering away, albeit half-heartedly.

So, no Streaked Reed Warbler (yet) but the Blunt-winged Warbler was a nice consolation!  Here are a couple of images.

Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 8 September 2012. Note how the supercilium is strong in front of the eye but absent behind it. In Manchurian, the supercilium should also be present behind the eye with a narrow black upper border.
Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 8 September 2012.