First for Beijing!

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.

Record shot of Beijing's first Little Gull at Yeyahu NR, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011

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…

Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit with Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011

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
Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus) – 4 (an adult female and 3 juveniles)
Pied Harrier (Circus melanoleucos) – 2 (both juveniles)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) – 6 (light passage throughout the day)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) – c25 including several family parties
Common Coot (Fulica atra) – 6
Common Crane (Grus grus) – 1 scoped circling distantly over the mountains to the north.
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) – one juvenile at Ma Chang
Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) – 8
Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) – 12 (all juveniles)
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) – 1
Common Snipe (Gallinago megala) – 3
Eastern Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa melanuroides) – 2, including one white bird (heavily leucistic or albino)
Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus) – 6
Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) – 8
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) – 3
Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) – 1, seen well in flight and appeared to go down on the edge of the reservoir between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) – 27
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.

Yeyahu

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
Close-up

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)

Hog Badger

This weekend I visited Ma Chang and did the usual walk from there to Yeyahu.  I hadn’t walked this route for a while – Ma Chang is very disturbed by recreational activities in summer and the humidity makes a long walk very uncomfortable – so I was very interested to see what birds were around and whether any migration was taking place.  On arrival at 5.30am, the weather was perfect – a lovely fresh 16-17 degrees C with no wind and a little mist.  Already, by 7.30am, the sun was strengthening and gradually burned off the mist to reveal a sunny, clear day.

Migration was in evidence early on with a reasonable passage of Yellow Wagtails plus a couple of Grey Wagtails mixed in.  A few juvenile Yellow Bitterns commuted between the reedbeds and a good number of Little Grebes (the race here in China has pale eyes – a potential split?) were loitering along the edge of the reeds.

An adult female Pied Harrier was a nice sight – these birds pass through in spring and autumn – and it was nice to see it, momentarily, alongside a juvenile Eastern Marsh Harrier, showing the obvious size difference.

The walk to Yeyahu was hot and sticky and, in places, was quite hard work due to the massive growth in vegetation that has occurred over the last few weeks.  Along one trail I noticed some mammal tracks (see photo below).  I suspected these were some sort of badger and, after making some enquiries, it seems that they belong to the Hog Badger, a creature that looks superficially like our European Badger but with a pig’s snout, hence the name.

Hog Badger track, Yeyahu

 

A few months ago, Spike Millington and I discovered a set of burrows not far from where I saw these tracks.  I suspect that they may belong to the Hog Badger, too.  I will try to stakeout this site on a moonlit night sometime soon to see if I can catch a glimpse of these nocturnal mammals.  I might have to take along some irresistable treats to tempt them…

At the Yeyahu reserve, there had clearly been an explosion of butterflies, mostly these small blue butterflies.. they were everywhere and many were congregating in large groups around small puddles.  A real spectacle.

Blue Butterflies, Yeyahu
Blue Butterflies, Yeyahu. There were hundreds, if not thousands, along the tracks at Yeyahu on Sunday.

 

Blue Butterflies, Yeyahu. Watching these insects drinking at close range was fascinating - the proboscis reminded me of an elephant's trunk!

This grasshopper made a brief appearance when it landed near the butterflies..  amazing camouflage.

Grasshopper sp, Yeyahu

Other migrant birds on show here included 5 Black-naped Orioles, 39 Black Drongos (a record count for me), a single Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift and a couple of snipe sp.  I have seen a few snipe recently that are not Common Snipe and I suspected Pin-tailed. However, after a discussion with Paul Holt, it seems that Pin-tailed and the very similar Swinhoe’s are extremely difficult to tell apart and it is not safe to identify them in the field without seeing the individual tail feathers… There is an article in British Birds from a few years ago which I will have to dig out.   Sunday’s birds will have to go down in my book as “Swintail Snipe”..!

 

Full species list (in chronological order of first sighting):

Tree Sparrow and Common Magpie – lots
Great Bittern (1)
Common Snipe (1)
Whiskered Tern (18)
Chinese Pond Heron (12)
Bunting sp (one of the ‘tick’ buntings but not identified) (1)
Little Egret (9)
Amur Falcon (1)
Little Grebe (20)
Night Heron (12)
Common Kingfisher (2)
Asian Short-toed Lark (2)
Zitting Cisticola (34)
White-cheeked Starling (6)
Yellow Bittern (6), all juveniles.
Grey Heron (2)
Northern Lapwing (1)
Coot (8)
Moorhen (16)
Common Sandpiper (3)
‘Swin-tailed’ Snipe (2) – both flushed from dry-ish habitat, ‘dumpy birds’, if anything slightly smaller than Common Snipe, no obvious white trailing edge to secondaries, feet projected beyond tail and wingbeats slightly slower than Common Snipe.  Call was similar but slightly less ‘squelchy’ if that makes sense!
Grey Wagtail (2)
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (24), all migrating south-west
Purple Heron (5)
Wood Sandpiper (3)
Eastern Marsh Harrier (4), 1 adult male, 1 adult female and 2 juveniles
Black-winged Stilt (10)
Great Egret (2)
Brown Shrike (2)
Richard’s Pipit (12)
Hoopoe (1)
Black Drongo (39), my highest count of this species so far
Chinese Grey Shrike (1)
Wryneck (1)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (40+)
Arctic Warbler (2)
Hobby (2)
Pied Harrier (1)
Barn Swallow (18)
Red-rumped Swallow (12)
Black-headed Gull (3)
Common Pheasant (6)
Sand Martin (1)
Chinese Penduline Tit (2) – at least 2, possibly 3 active nests this year at Yeyahu but, if still around, difficult to see.
Oriental Reed Warbler (3)
Black-naped Oriole (5)
Chinese Hill Warbler (2)
Mandarin (4)
Spot-billed Duck (4)
Great Crested Grebe (8)
Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift (1)
Von Schrenck’s Bittern (1 probable): a juvenile seen in flight only, much darker ground colour than the juvenile yellow bitterns with heavy dark streaking on the breast.
Kestrel (1)
Azure-winged Magpie (1)
Great Tit (3)
Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)

A Tale of Two Eagles

In June many birders think the marvels of spring migration are over and thoughts turn to butterflies, dragonflies, family holidays or even moths (I kid you not!).  But, here in the Beijing area, early June can be a very good time for the late migrating locustella and acrocephalus warblers, as well as other reedbed-dwelling birds such as crakes and rails.

One of the birds that I wanted to catch up with when I moved to Beijing was the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, a bird on many a ‘most-wanted’ list back in the UK and, unless you go to Fair Isle in mid-September, your chances of seeing one in the UK are pretty slim.  I have been lucky enough to see over 20 of these birds here in Beijing, nearly all of which I have seen in the last 7-10 days!  On Saturday, during a visit to Yeyahu Nature Reserve, we counted 10 of these super-skulkers, at least 3 of which provided us with more than a just a fleeting glimpse of a shape disappearing into a dense reedbed after being flushed from the path!

Yayahu Nature Reserve officially opens at 0830 in the morning and is very popular for Beijingers at the weekend to get away from the stress and heat of the city.  So if you want to see birds, it’s important to arrive early, before the masses.  Ideally you want to be first onto the boardwalk to see any lurking crakes, rails or bitterns before they are flushed deep into the reeds by the noisy hordes.

On Saturday, despite arriving at 0520 and finding the gates open (sometimes we have to use the ‘alternative entrance’), we were a little disappointed to see 3 people already on the boardwalk..  nevertheless, we had the place to ourselves for the next 2 hours with some success whilst enjoying the cacophony of reed warblers – mostly Oriental Reed but with the odd Black-browed Reed mixed in.

We took our time doing a circular walk around the lake, trying to distinguish any other birds’ songs from the rasping Oriental Reeds, and were rewarded with a single Spotted (David’s) Bush Warbler that was singing intermittently from a patch of young willows, a Baillon’s Crake that we disturbed from the boardwalk and gave us fleeting flight views before it dived into deep cover, a handful of Zitting Cisticolas as well as a good number of the enigmatic Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers.

A pair of Caspian Terns represented a good June record.  They came in high from the north and began to hunt over the lake but, by the time we left the site, they had already moved on..  early return migrants?  failed breeders?  who knows?

On the second circuit we found a relatively small plain reed warbler (smaller than the resident Oriental Reeds).  Our thoughts turned to Manchurian Reed and, fortunately, I had just uploaded the song of Manchurian Reed Warbler onto my smartphone!  So I gave it a blast and it reacted strongly, flying closer and proceeding to sing.  Nice!  I took a few notes and photos before we moved on to eagle field.

The walk down to eagle field was hot – the sun had burned off the clouds and there was only a light breeze just about taking the edge off the heat.  A circling flock of 17 falcons turned out to be a mixed flock of Amur Falcon and Hobby, giving us hope that a larger raptor would likely get up if there was one around…   We reached the tower and, after a brief scan, began to have our packed lunches.  It was quiet on the reservoir with just a few Night Herons, a couple of Purple Herons, some Mallard and a pair of Spot-billed Ducks.  I said to Spike that I would do a thorough scan for any eagles before heading back and, almost immediately, I picked up a large bird of prey heading straight for us from the north-east.  It was large, dark and displayed several ‘fingers’ on each hand – it had to be an eagle.  I was pretty confident it was a Greater Spotted Eagle but with just head-on views, I wasn’t certain.  We watched it as it came closer and, just as it reached the northern edge of the reservoir, it dropped, stone-like, with legs akimbo into the edge of the reedbed…  …wow – that was some dive!  We couldn’t see it on the ground but, after only a couple of minutes, it took off and headed low over the reservoir towards us, providing excellent views, at head height, as it attempted to avoid the attentions of one of the local magpies.

It was now pretty obvious that it was a Greater Spotted Eagle and, when it reached ‘eagle field’, it began to circle, gained height quickly and headed off south-west.  Certainly my best ever views of Greater Spotted Eagle.

Any day you see an eagle is a good day.  We began the walk back having already had a good day.  Then, half way back, we got onto a large bird of prey heading north and away from us..  a quick view through the binoculars revealed it to be a Short-toed Eagle. Almost certainly the same bird that Paul Holt, Chris Gooddie and I saw last week.  A good day just got better.

A calling Two-barred Greenish Warbler on the entrance track on the way out was our last species of the day and we reflected on another excellent day at this productive site as we met our driver for the short journey back to Yanqing bus station.

Edit: on looking at the photographs of the presumed Manchurian Reed Warbler, I am now thinking it may be the very similar Blunt-winged Warbler.  The supercilium does not reach far behind the eye and lacks the dark upper border that is a characteristic of Manchurian Reed.  Even though the bird reacted to the song of Manchurian, I am not sure how reliably this behaviour indicates the species.  The two very similar species may well react to each others’ songs – I don’t know!  I don’t have any experience of either bird, so comments very welcome..

Manchurian Reed Warbler or Blunt-winged Warbler? Answers on a postcard...
The tail on Blunt-winged is supposed to be 'blackish with brown edges"... this image does not show that feature. On the other hand, Manchurian should show a strong white supercilium that extends behind the eye and that has a blackish upper border. Hmm...
Greater Spotted Eagle (prob 2 cal yr)
Greater Spotted Eagle attracting the attention of a local magpie, Yeyahu, 4 June 2011
Close-up.. that Magpie had a tug at the eagle's tail before it left it alone

Full species list (in chronological order of first sighting):

Common Magpie (many)

Tree Sparrow (many)

Collared Dove (2)

Common Pheasant (4)

Indian Cuckoo (2)

Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul (2)

Black-naped Oriole (3)

Eurasian Cuckoo (8)

Great Bittern (2-3 heard)

Oriental Reed Warbler (30+)

Red-crested Pochard (3) – a little unsure of the provenance of these regularly seen birds (sometimes seen near the feral ducks and geese but certainly a lot more rangey than the remainder of the feral birds).

Great Crested Grebe (6) – one of the pairs had young

Little Grebe (4) – one pair had young

Chinese Pond Heron (6)

Mandarin (2)

Common Coot (6) – some with young

Zitting Cisticola (9)

Black-crowned Night Heron (18)

Black-winged Stilt (6)

Hobby (9)

Yellow Bittern (1)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (18)

Grey Heron (2)

Common Tern (4)

Black-faced Bunting (3)

Black Drongo (4)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (3)

Amur Falcon (10) – at least 3 adult males and 4 adult females plus some immature birds.

Baillon’s Crake (1) – one flushed from the boardwalk and seen briefly in flight only

Black-browed Reed Warbler (6)

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (10) – good number seen from the boardwalk and the north side of the lake

Grey-headed Lapwing (4)

Purple Heron (10) – at least this number.  Several pairs breeding in the reedbed in the south-west corner of the lake

Little Egret (1)

Little Tern (1)

David’s (Spotted) Bush Warbler (2-3) – one heard only and one seen only (in different locations).  One other possible heard briefly.

Garganey (1) – a flyover drake

Marsh Sandpiper (1) – flyover

Northern Lapwing (2)

Richard’s Pipit (4) – displaying

Chinese Penduline Tit (4) – at least two active nests

Common Kingfisher (2)

Caspian Tern (2) – flew in high from the north and began feeding.  Not seen later on return.

Blunt-winged Reed Warbler (1) – one probably this species.  Seen well and heard singing in the reed-fringed dyke to the west of the main lake (just south of the point where the boardwalk ends).  Responded well to playback of Manchurian Reed Warbler (Blunt-winged not played) and we initially identified it as this species.  However, photos suggest to me that it is a Blunt-winged Warbler (supercilium very weak behind eye, lacking the black upper edge).  I suspect that both species would react to each others’ songs? Comments welcome.

Chinese Blackbird (1) – my first at this site

White-cheeked Starling (3)

Barn Swallow (6)

Ferruginous Duck (1)

Greater Spotted Eagle (1) – came in from the north-east at around 1315.  Subsequently dropped like a stone, legs akimbo, into the edge of the reedbed on the north side of the reservoir (opposite the viewing tower).  About 2-3 minutes later, took off again and flew low, in the company of one of the local magpies, across the reservoir and past the tower to the grassy field where it circled, gained height and headed south-west.  A probable 2cy bird.  See photos.

Chinese Spot-billed Duck (6)

Mallard (15)

Short-toed Eagle (1) – seen on the walk back to the car park.  Flew from area east of eagle field and then seen soaring north-east of eagle field close to mountain ridge.

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1) – one heard on entrance track to reserve

Siberian Bush Warbler

On Saturday I joined leading China expert, Paul Holt, and visiting Chris Gooddie (of “The Jewel Hunter” fame) for a visit to Yeyahu Nature Reserve.  We were hoping to see some late migrants – birds such as Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler – and of course had in the back of our minds the chance of seeing the rare Streaked Reed Warbler, a possible of which I saw on Thursday at the same site.

After a 4am start and a predictably tortuous journey over the mountains past Badaling Great Wall (this route is notorious for breaking down lorries!), we arrived at the site by around 0615.  After seeing Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Yellow-throated Bunting and Chinese Pond Heron along the entrance track, we took the boardwalk through the reedbed.  The first stretch produced a high density of singing Oriental (Great) Reed Warblers along with a few Black-browed Reed Warblers, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers (most of which were picked up by Paul on call or a brief burst of song), a calling Yellow Bittern, a few Zitting Cisticolas and several Purple Herons (breeding in the reedbed in the south-west corner of the lake).  But the highlight was undoubtedly the Siberian Bush Warbler Bradypterus davidi (a split from Spotted Bush Warbler Bradypterus thoracicus) that was expertly identified by Paul after a very brief burst of song…  I have to say I would have almost certainly walked straight past it and, if I had heard it, I would probably have passed it off as an insect!  After a bit of patience and ‘pishing’, this bird showed well at very close range, albeit briefly… A very difficult bird to see and a scarce, albeit regular, migrant in the Beijing area (almost certainly overlooked due to its extreme skulky nature).  This experience reinforced to me the need to get learning all of the calls and songs of some of the more irregular and difficult to see birds in the Beijing area.  Unless one is familiar with the calls, identifying and seeing many of these “difficult enough at the best of times” birds becomes almost impossible.

The walk along the grove of trees alongside the lake produced a good variety of phylloscopus warblers including Arctic, Two-barred Greenish, Pallas’s, Dusky and Radde’s plus a female Siberian Blue Robin, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Black-faced Bunting, a pair of Chinese Hill Warblers and a pair of nest-building Chinese Penduline Tits.  On our second circuit we paused at a gap in the trees to scan the area of reedbeds and scrub to the north.  After watching a pair of Eastern Marsh Harriers, a handful of Amur Falcons, displaying Richard’s Pipits, Siberian Stonechat, Hobby and Kestrel, the surprise of the day emerged, in the form of a Short-toed Eagle that appeared from nowhere and dropped into a field a few hundred metres away..  Short-toed Eagle is a pretty rare bird in northern China, although records from recent years suggest that it is probably a scarce passage migrant with multiple annual records in Spring and, particularly, Autumn.

With the visibility shockingly poor (due to the air pollution mist), our chances of seeing more large raptors were pretty low, so we decided to make a brief visit to Ma Chang to check the reservoir before heading back to Beijing.  Ma Chang was a bit of a disappointment, largely due to the heavy disturbance involving cars, motorised buggies, horses, even coaches, driving all over the area adjacent to the reservoir… We did see a few Common Terns, Night Herons, Black-headed Gulls, the local Black-winged Stilts and a few Asian Short-toed Larks but there was little else on offer, so we knocked it on the head and headed back.  On the journey back, Chris regaled us with tales of various leech encounters during his Pitta quest..  the one that took the biscuit had to be the case of the leech on the eyeball (thankfully for him, not his!)…  OMG.

A very good day out and it’s always a pleasure to go birding with people as knowledgeable as Paul and Chris – I learned a lot.  Thanks guys!

You can see a short video of Chris tracking the Bush Warbler here…  The Bush Warbler’s call is very difficult to make out on the video (an up-slurred raspy sound), so you can hear a much clearer one on Xeno-Canto.

Eagles

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.

Greater Sand Plover (male)
Greater Sand Plover (female)

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.

Adult male Amur Falcon in flight... beautiful
Amur Falcon (female). These stunning falcons breed in Manchuria and eastern Russia and winter in southern and eastern Africa. An epic journey.

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…

Greater Spotted Eagle (2 cal yr), Yeyahu NR
Greater Spotted Eagle being mobbed by male Eastern Marsh Harrier

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..

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR (same bird as above)
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR

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)

Wigeon (4)

Mallard (8)

Eastern Spot-billed Duck (8)

Shoveler (4)

Garganey (6)

Eurasian Teal (68)

Red-crested Pochard (2)

Ferruginous Duck (4)

Goldeneye (1)

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)

Kestrel (2)

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)

Redshank (4)

Greenshank (4)

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

Greater Short-toed Lark with abnormally long upper mandible. It's amazing how this bird manages to feed..

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)

Citrine Wagtail (10)

White Wagtail (2 of the ssp ocularis)

Richard’s Pipit (6)

Olive-backed Pipit (37)

Buff-bellied Pipit (60+)

Little Bunting (400+ everywhere)

Yellow-throated Bunting (1)

Black-faced Bunting (12)

Pallas’s Reed Bunting (30+)

Lightning Strikes Twice at Wild Duck Lake!

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.

Ma Chang, shortly after dawn
The 'desert' at Ma Chang

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…..

This bird photographer, despite having a 4wd, got well and truly stuck!

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.

Fishermen at Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

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.

The buggies that disturb the 'desert' area from around 0800, especially at weekends, in all seasons with the exception of winter

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.

Short-toed Eagle, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

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.

Greater Spotted Eagles, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

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.

A heavy rain shower at Yeyahu (a rare occurence in itself!)
The view north from Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

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.

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

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.

Dalmatian Pelican arriving at Wild Duck Lake from the east, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican showing underwing pattern, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

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??