The fourth guest post on Birding Beijing is the first from a Chinese national. Followers of this blog will know that, soon after I arrived in Beijing last August, I arranged to visit a small town called Yangkou in Rudong County (about 3 hours north of Shanghai) to look for Spoon-billed Sandpipers. I set up the trip after contacting Zhang Lin at Shanghai Bird Tours and he accompanied me on a very memorable visit to Yangkou, showing me not only at least 3 Spoon-billed Sandpipers but also other sought after species such as Nordmann’s Greenshank, Reed Parrotbill, Grey-tailed Tattler, Long-toed Stint, Pied Harrier etc etc. The woods nearby also held huge numbers of migrants. In short, it was a superb place to go birding. In this post Zhang Lin provides a short introduction to Yangkou and how the visiting Spoon-billed Sandpipers, for which it is most famous, were discovered as recently as 2008. If you are thinking of going, I should warn you that this is a vast site and you would be very lucky just to turn up and see the Spooners. If you want to maximise your chances, Zhang Lin knows the most likely hangouts!
In the summer vacation of 2008, a birder who works as a teacher in a police college in Nanjing city was sent to Nantong District for training. He chose the police station at Yangkou Town, Rudong County because it’s on the coast and he was hopeful for some migrants. In his first few days he found the best site for shorebirds – thousands of shorebirds – plus hundreds of juvenile Saunders’s Gulls from the breeding ground in Yancheng District.
Shortly afterwards, I stayed at the police station with him for a few weeks in July. Every day we went birding and, in mid- to late- July, we saw Nordmann’s Greenshank in full breeding plumage.
We guessed that the Bar-tailed Godwits banded in Australia/New Zealand with satellite tracking equipment might roost there and, when the migration was in full swing, we saw that, indeed, from the satellite tracking data, a few were there, although we didn’t see any.
It was a pity that he went back to Nanjing after the training and lost the chance to see the first Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which we also guessed might roost here. In mid-August, the first Spooner arrived!
From August, other migrants such as passerines started to come. All the woods, bushes and reeds provided exciting birds – tens or hundreds of warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, robins, cuckoos… and probably the first record of Wood Warbler in East China.
The coast at Yangkou Town in Rudong County is now established as one of the premier sites on the eastern coast of China.
Thanks to the new Sutong Bridge built in 2008, we Shanghai birders only need three hours to drive there. With more and more visits to this small town, we have recorded more species than the nature reserves nearby such as Yancheng and Dongtan.
However, as with all other coastal areas in China, Yangkou faces pressure from industry and there is much development, including land reclamation. The local government is also developing ‘eco-tourism’, part of which involves planting famous invasive species such as Smooth Cordgrass on the mudflat to develop it into ‘Huanghai Steppe’. In 2008/2009, Smooth Cordgrass didn’t cover too much of the mudflat and it was still easy to watch shorebirds even from the seawall. However, in 2010 Smooth Cordgrass expanded further out very fast. Now, at low tide, birds tend to stay behind the grass, meaning that to see them we need to walk out onto the flats quite a long way. At high tide, some birds land on the mud between the patches of grass while some land into aquaculture ponds beside the seawall which makes counting them increasingly difficult.
Now as our knowledge of this area improves, we are counting more Spooners in the last two years. You can see the results of the 2010 Spooner survey here. With the help of some funding, we’re doing what we can to promote conservation efforts. After all, the fate of our birds is in our hands…
Zhang Lin was born in north China. He majored in Air Traffic Control in Nanjing City, where there were rich resources of woodland birds which attracted him to start birding. He’s also fond of astronomy and geography.
Years ago Lin did shorebird banding in Dongtan Nature Reserve, Chongming Island. Having kept travelling, including to Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, Ningxia, Nei Mongal and Guangxi… for years, doing birding and biological research, he has much experience in birds especially in the Shanghai area. His interest in sound recording has helped a lot with his field identification skills.
Zhang Lin is now one of the editors of China Bird Report published by China Ornithology Society and is a guide with Shanghai Birding Tours. He speaks Chinese and English.
After making contact with local birder Zhang Lin, I arranged for him to guide me for two days with the primary objective to see the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper. This charismatic wader has declined dramatically in the last few years and the total population is now probably in the 100s. It breeds in Siberia, around the Chukotka peninsula and winters in SE Asia (especially Thailand, Bangladesh and Burma), although the wintering area of much of the population remains unknown. China is on the migration path and ‘Spooners’, as they are often called, can be seen during the spring and autumn with Rudong (only discovered in 2008 as a site for this species) one of the most reliable and accessible sites.
The adventure began on Sunday evening when I caught an overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai. The trains are very modern, fast, reliable and clean, with very comfortable bunks (4 to a cabin). And the current journey time of 9 hours will soon be cut to around 5 hours when the new high-speed rail link comes online in 2011. The demand for tickets is high, though, so advance purchase is recommended. Frustatingly, tickets cannot be bought more than a week or so ahead of travel due to “the rules” and this year, due to the Expo being held in Shanghai, demand is higher than usual. All this combined to mean that there were no bunks left for my outward journey, so I had to make do with a ‘soft seat’ instead. These were airline style with partially reclining chairs in rows of 3. I had a window seat which at least meant I had the window to lean on and, incredibly with the help of an eye-mask and ear plugs, I managed about 4 hours sleep.
On arrival at the spanking new and impressive Shanghai railway station, I was met by Zhang Lin and we began the 2-3 hour drive north to Rudong. Driving on rural Chinese roads is not for the faint-hearted with a combination of trucks, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, suicidal pedestrians and all sorts of weird motor vehicles providing constant entertainment. Fortunately our driver was very skilled in navigating these obstacles and it wasn’t long before we were doing our first birding, at a wetland site just before the estuary. Here we were greeted by Long-tailed Shrike, lots of ‘eastern’ Yellow Wagtails, Hobby, Red-rumped Swallow, Hoopoe, Oriental Reed Warbler, Richard’s Pipit, Chinese Pond Heron, Little Egret, Yellow Bittern, Little Grebe, Arctic Warbler, Oriental Pratincole, Black Drongo and White-winged Black Tern. Soon, Lin picked up the distinctive calls of the Reed Parrotbill, a very charismatic endemic. Small flocks of these weird-looking birds were calling from the reeds and, with a bit of patience, we were able to secure excellent views as a pair came to investigate our presence.
Soon after this encounter, we added Plain Prinia, Common Kingfisher, Cattle Egret and Chinese Bulbul to the list. Our return walk back to the car unexpectedly produced 3 Pechora Pipits that perched on wires for a few minutes before heading off south-west. Nice!
We then drove on to the estuary but, with high-tide several hours away, Lin took me to the woods, a relatively young stand of trees planted along part of the seawall (the land here was reclaimed to build wind turbines and several massive Vestas turbines towered over us as we birded the track (a reminder of Denmark!)). Here was full of migrants with Eastern Crowned Warbler, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Dark-sided Flycatcher, White’s Thrush, a cracking male Siberian Thrush, Black-naped Oriole, Striated Heron, Blue Rock Thrush, Forest Wagtail, Dollarbird, Grey-headed Lapwing, Red Collared Dove and Oriental Turtle Dove. After a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours we headed for lunch at a local seafood restaurant (lots of squid, shellfish, fish and lovely Chinese dumplings). Yum.
We were then well-fuelled for the Spooner hunt. Slightly disconcertingly, Lin told me that they had bought some special cheap ‘shoes’ for me as we would be walking out on the mud flats and would need to cross several creeks, potentially waist-deep in water and mud. My walking boots were not appropriate and I would need shorts and tight-fitting plimsoles to avoid getting stuck in the mud. Thankfully, they didn’t tell me that two people had died recently after getting stuck in the mud until I was already about 1km out onto the mud! Gulp…
Anyway, we met up with Tong Menxiu (who is temporarily based in Rudong to make daily counts of Spooners until the end of October), and set off for the mud flats. The plan was to walk a short distance (around 200-300 metres) onto the flats to await the small high tide roost at this site. Often Spooners come into this roost site and, with patience, they will gradually come close, sometimes as little as 10 metres away. Today, we were not so lucky – no Spooners in this roost – but there were 6 Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Common Greenshank, Redshank, a Long-toed Stint, Greater and Lesser Sandplover, a Great Knot, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlews, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Suddenly the whole group took to the wing and it meant only one thing – a raptor. A quick scan produced a male Pied Harrier quartering the area.. simply stunning.
High tide came and went without me getting my feet wet but, given that there were no Spooners in the roost, Lin suggested we walk further out towards the slowly expanding feeding grounds to try to see them there… this involved wading through several muddy creeks, some of which were waist deep and with patches of very sticky mud, whilst trying to keep my rucksack and optics free of water and mud – not easy! My tripod came in very handy as a third leg… The walk was around 1.5-2km through this terrain before we eventually reached the open flats with literally thousands of feeding birds. The timing of the tides meant that we probably only had about an hour left of daylight, so we began to scan in earnest, Lin from the left and me from the right. After only a couple of minutes, Lin said he could see a Spooner. My heart raced – would I really connect with this sought-after wader? He offered me his scope and seconds later I was watching my first ever Spoon-billed Sandpiper! Wow.. I soon found it in my own scope and I watched it avidly for several minutes – a non-breeding plumaged adult – as Lin scanned for others. The Spooner seemed to have three feeding actions, two of which were very different to the confusion species – Red-necked Stint. The first was a sort of Snipe-like digging, with three to four vertical ‘drills’, all of the bill going deep into the mud. The second was a sort of a Spoonbill-like ‘sweep’ from side to side or a ‘shovel’ straight ahead. And the third was a more Red-necked Stint-like poking at the surface. After a few minutes the bird flew and I lost it, so I began to scan and, amazingly, I found my own Spooner! This one was an adult moulting out of summer plumage with some rufous colour still on the throat – a stunner. I watched this bird for about ten minutes as Lin scanned the rest of the flock, picking up one more adult in non-breeding plumage. The feeding technique of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a very good initial identification feature, especially at distance. They tend to run around with their head down and the distinctive ‘shovelling’ or ‘drilling’ means that you can often tell them apart from Red-necked Stints at quite a distance.
With the light fading, we had to head back.. I knew the walk out had taken us about an hour and I knew it would be dark well before that so I was relieved when Lin said we would be taking a short cut back across a relatively deep creek (waist high again) that is not passable at anything other than low tide. Thirty minutes later we were on a track and were met by our driver, who took us to a local restaurant for a celebratory seafood meal, accompanied by the local beer.. I was very happy!
We then retired to the small local hotel where the rooms were comfortable, if a little basic, with a shower and air conditioning. For about GBP 12 per night, it was pretty good.
Day two began wet and windy (the remnants of a typhoon) so we visited the wood again, as it would provide at least a little shelter. We got a drenching but with the temperature around 30 degrees C, it was not unpleasant and we soon dried out when the rain stopped. The morning produced Red-billed Starling, Chinese Grosbeak, Siberian Blue Robin, Northern Hawk Cuckoo (easily mistaken for a hawk!), Japanese Sparrowhawk, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Dark-streaked Flycatcher, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Black-naped Oriole and another two Siberian Thrushes. An adult male Blue and White Flycatcher added a splash of colour and a juvenile Tiger Shrike was a nice addition to the list.
And so, after another seafood based lunch, we set out to look for more Spooners. This time we sat on the sea wall a few kilometres away from yesterday’s site and watched the birds as they gradually moved closer with the incoming tide. Again, lots of waders were present of many different species. New additions here included a Grey-tailed Tattler and several Marsh Sandpipers. But no Spooners. So with the tide reaching its peak we headed to the area behind the sea wall, the favoured high tide roost here. We walked out towards the largest of three flocks of roosting birds. A painstaking scan failed to show any Spooners but there was a nice roosting flock of Saunders’ Gulls with a few Black-tailed Gulls mixed in.
With the tide now receding, we went back to the sea wall to watch the waders as they began to leave the roost to feed.. Here, the birds were pretty close, feeding avidly and, again, Lin soon found an adult in non-breeding plumage, closely followed by a second. I watched one of the birds for about 10 minutes, knowing that it would be my last sighting before the journey back to Beijing. I felt very privileged to be watching this small wader, especially in the knowledge that the species may already be beyond the point of no return. With threats on its wintering ground from hunters and coastal development, many of its migration stopover sites already lost, and almost all of the remaining sites under threat from development, the future is not bright. But where there is life there is hope and I will be keeping my fingers crossed that the international effort to save the species from the brink of extinction is successful. The world will be a poorer place without this charismatic bird.
Reluctantly, we tore ourselves away to begin the drive back to Shanghai. I was tired but elated. Thankfully, I had a sleeper berth on the journey back to Beijing and I managed to sleep for around 6 hours before arriving back at Beijing South Station at 0730.
To see a stunning displaying adult male Spoon-billed Sandpiper on its breeding grounds, click here. And for David Sibley’s Spoon-billed Sandpiper resource, including investigation of why the species is disappearing so fast, click here.
I also recommend the series of 6 posts about the SBS on the top birding blog, “10,000 Birds“. The interview with SBS expert, Christoph Zöckler, is particularly revealing.
To contact Zhang Lin about tours in the Shanghai area or to see Spoon-billed Sandpipers at Rudong, click here…