Harlequin Duck in Beijing

 

Urban birding often springs surprises.   Given Beijing’s geographic position, the spectacle of migration is particularly impressive and many unusual species can turn up in the city’s parks and gardens.  The Swinhoe’s Rail in the Temple of Heaven Park and Beijing’s first Tree Pipit in the UK Ambassador’s garden are examples of rare and scarce species appearing at unexpected locations.

On Friday evening, news broke of another urban surprise in the shape of a female Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭, Chǒu yā) that had been photographed near Anzhenmen, close to the north 3rd ring road in central Beijing.  The photo, by local bird photographer 侯金生 (Hou Jinsheng), circulated fast on Chinese social media and very soon my Saturday plans, to accompany Paul Holt to a forested area in northern Beijing, changed to take in an early stop to look for the Harlequin.

We arrived around 30 minutes before dawn and quickly found the site, a tiny weir along a concrete-sided canal just a stone’s throw from the busy 3rd ring road at Anzhenmen.  It seemed an odd place for a largely coastal (at least in winter) duck but there was running water which, together with the weir, provided an artificial micro-habitat not completely unlike the Harlequin’s preferred breeding habitat of fast-flowing streams.

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The site of Beijing’s first HARLEQUIN, a first-winter female, near Anzhenmen.

In the darkness, a few Mallards took to the air as local early risers began their morning walks along the canal and a few White-cheeked Starlings and Azure-winged Magpies announced their departure from roosts with raucous calls.  Even though the sun was not yet up it was possible to see that the Harlequin was not at the weir.  We waited close by, using the time to speculate whether the bird had just arrived and had used this site as a temporary stopover before moving on, or had it been here all winter undetected?  Given the location, and lack of observer coverage, the latter was certainly a possibility.  We agreed to give it until around 0730 before heading north to the Labagou Forest Park, as we had originally planned.

Within a few minutes we were joined by some local birders, including Huang Hanchen, Zhao Min, Shen Yan, Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao.  Their arrival delayed our departure as we caught up to chat about birds and all manner of issues, including the significance of the day – Lantern Festival, officially the last day of Chinese New Year.  The Lantern Festival is a family celebration, so most of the Chinese birders had limited time as they needed to visit relatives later in the day, some travelling to other Provinces.  Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao were on their way to the train station to visit relatives at Hengshui, and reluctantly had to leave with the bird not having shown itself..

Just a few minutes later, at around 0730, Paul and I were renewing our discussion about when to leave the site. Hanchen and Paul suddenly spotted something floating on the water, emerging from the tunnel and heading towards the weir.  They initially thought it was a piece of litter but very quickly realised it was the Harlequin!  It had seemingly roosted deep inside the dark tunnel and had emerged to feed around 20 minutes after sunrise.  We watched in awe as it swam and fed amongst the weed for several minutes, often at extremely close quarters and seemingly oblivious to its growing fan base.  Amused locals stopped to see what the fuss was about and, on seeing the Harlequin, one commented “Oh, that small brown duck has been there for at least 20 days”!

Several times the Harlequin stopped to preen on the edge of the weir and, as the sun rose, it looked splendid in the early morning light.

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Beijing’s first HARLEQUIN showed extremely well in its surprisingly urban setting.

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If it’s true, and we have no reason to suspect it isn’t, the Harlequin’s lengthy stay of “at least 20 days” means that the unfortunate Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao, who had to leave just minutes before the Harlequin’s emergence, will hopefully connect when they return to Beijing next week.

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The first birders on the scene. In the foreground, He Wenbo (left) and Zhao Min with the Harlequin on the water.

Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China.  There are a few records from well-watched Beidaihe in neighbouring Hebei Province, and several in the northeast Provinces of Jilin, Inner Mongolia and Liaoning, so it was on the radar as a potential visitor to Beijing.  However, the urban location was a complete surprise.  As well as being the first record for Beijing, the Anzhenmen Harlequin is the 482nd species to be reliably recorded in the capital.  In a personal milestone for Paul Holt, the Harlequin was his 400th species in the Chinese capital since he first birded there around 28 years ago.  Congratulations to Paul!

In Chinese, Harlequin is  丑鸭 (pronounced “chǒu yā”).  The second character “鸭” is pronounced “yā”, meaning duck.  The first character “丑”, pronounced “chǒu” has several meanings..  one is “clown”, the intended meaning in the case of the Harlequin, but another is “ugly”, hence Harlequin is known as “the ugly duck”!  Despite its ugliness, it’s proving to be probably the most-photographed Harlequin in China.

What will be next?

Big thanks to Hou Jinsheng for circulating his original photo of the Harlequin and to Huang Hanchen for passing on the news.  Thanks also to Paul Holt for driving on Saturday morning.

Note on diet: according to HBW, the Harlequin’s diet consists of “molluscs (e.g. gastropods such as Littorina sitkana), crustaceans and, in spring and summer, insects and their larvae/pupae (e.g. blackflies Simulium); also other invertebrates (worms) and small fish; very little plant material recorded.”  The Beijing bird appeared to be feeding on weed but it’s possible it was sifting this material for tiny molluscs or invertebrates.

Yeyahu with Per Alström and Zhao Min

Birding in Beijing is brilliant at any time of year but, during spring migration, it’s hard to beat and there are so many highlights from Sunday’s trip to Yeyahu Nature Reserve with Per Alström and Zhao Min that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Birding with Per has many advantages, one of which is his encyclopaedic knowledge of China’s birds, especially pipits and wagtails.  So perhaps it should not be a surprise that an encounter with a mixed flock of more than 70 pipits and wagtails at Ma Chang produced Beijing’s second ever MEADOW PIPIT (草地鹨).  Initially found by Min and identified by Per, this bird was the undoubted rarity highlight but there were so many other great moments – the 21 ORIENTAL PLOVERS (东方鴴), displaying EASTERN MARSH HARRIERS (白腹鹞), GREATER SPOTTED (乌雕) and SHORT-TOED EAGLES (短趾雕), SAKER (猎隼), a flock of 90+ BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭), displaying ASIAN SHORT-TOED LARK ((亚洲) 短趾百灵), a flock of 52 WHITE WAGTAILS (白鹡鸰) that included 3 subspecies – leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis – and a flock of ‘eastern’ ROOKS (秃鼻乌鸦) – a possible future new species?

WHITE WAGTAIL ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang, 6 April 2014
WHITE WAGTAIL (白鹡鸰) ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang, 6 April 2014

We started at Ma Chang, a reliable spot for ORIENTAL PLOVER (东方鴴) in early April.  It’s important to arrive here early as this site is extremely popular with horse-riders, motorised buggies and even people driving imitation tanks, so it’s hopeless as a birding destination at the weekend after around 0800.  We were fortunate to find a single ORIENTAL PLOVER (东方鴴) with a flock of 30+ KENTISH PLOVERS (环颈鴴) and, later, we found a flock of 21 OPs in agricultural fields just east of the main site.  These birds – that winter in Australia – are special and one of the signs that Spring has arrived in Beijing.

ORIENTAL PLOVERS at Ma Chang, 6 April 2014
ORIENTAL PLOVERS (东方鴴) at Ma Chang, 6 April 2014

After enjoying the pipits, wagtails and plovers, as well as a beautiful male MERLIN (灰背隼) that buzzed us before sitting up on a stand of maize, we headed off to Yeyahu Nature Reserve.

This adult male MERLIN was a nice sighting at Ma Chang.
This adult male Merlin (灰背隼) was a nice sighting at Ma Chang.

At Yeyahu we enjoyed the spectacular sight of displaying EASTERN MARSH HARRIERS (白腹鹞), newly arrived and preparing to breed.  These are stunning raptors, the males in particular, and this adult male made a close pass when were in one of the tower hides..  awesome!

EASTERN MARSH HARRIER, Yeyahu, 6 April 2014.  Is there a more spectacular raptor anywhere?
EASTERN MARSH HARRIER (白腹鹞), Yeyahu, 6 April 2014. Is there a more spectacular raptor anywhere?
EASTERN MARSH HARRIER 'buzzing' us at Yeyahu.
EASTERN MARSH HARRIER (白腹鹞) ‘buzzing’ us at Yeyahu.

Two GREATER SPOTTED EAGLES (乌雕) added to our raptor list which, by the end of the day, had reached 10 species and bizarrely missing COMMON KESTREL (红隼)!

 

GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE, Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014
GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE (乌雕), Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014

In stunning spring weather (and clean air!) we enjoyed so many other highlights on a day that produced a total of 81 species.  Just before dusk we were treated to a magnificent flight of ducks that included MALLARD (綠頭鴨), SPOT-BILLED DUCK (斑嘴鴨), PINTAIL (针尾鸭), COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭), FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭), SHOVELER (琵嘴鸭), GARGANEY (白眉鸭), COMMON TEAL (绿翅鸭) and, just as we had hoped, BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭).  A flock of at least 90 of the latter wheeled around in the fading light – a magnificent sight and a fitting end to a wonderful day at this world-class birding site.

BAIKAL TEAL. Part of a 90+ strong flock that wheeled around just before dusk.
BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭). Part of a 90+ strong flock that wheeled around just before dusk.

Big thanks to Per and Min for their company on a day that will live long in the memory…!

Per and Zhao Min at one of the hides at Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014.
Per and Min (being careful not to ‘stride’) at one of the hides at Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014.

 

Full species list below:

JAPANESE QUAIL   Coturnix japonica  鵪鶉   1

COMMON PHEASANT   Phasianus colchicus  雉雞  4

SWAN GOOSE   Anser cygnoides   VU  鴻雁  1

GREYLAG GOOSE   Anser anser 3

RUDDY SHELDUCK   Tadorna ferruginea  赤麻鴨  6

MANDARIN DUCK   Aix galericulata  鴛鴦  9

GADWALL   Anas strepera  赤膀鴨  94

FALCATED DUCK   Anas falcata  罗纹鸭  14

MALLARD   Anas platyrhynchos  綠頭鴨  500

CHINESE SPOT-BILLED DUCK   Anas zonorhyncha  斑嘴鴨  38

NORTHERN SHOVELER   Anas clypeata  琵嘴鸭  13

NORTHERN PINTAIL   Anas acuta  针尾鸭  6

GARGANEY   Anas querquedula  白眉鸭  4

BAIKAL TEAL   Anas formosa  花脸鸭  a flock of 90 plus a separate flock of 70, which could have been different birds.

EURASIAN TEAL   Anas crecca  绿翅鸭  350

RED-CRESTED POCHARD   Netta rufina  赤嘴潜鸭  1

COMMON POCHARD   Aythya ferina  红头潜鸭  3

FERRUGINOUS POCHARD   Aythya nyroca   NT  白眼潜鸭  8

TUFTED DUCK   Aythya fuligula  凤头潜鸭  4

COMMON GOLDENEYE   Bucephala clangula  鹊鸭  6

SMEW   Mergellus albellus  白秋沙鸭  24

LITTLE GREBE   Tachybaptus ruficollis  小鸊鷉  4

GREAT CRESTED GREBE   Podiceps cristatus  凤头鸊鷉  8

GREAT BITTERN   Botaurus stellaris  大麻鳽  1

GREY HERON   Ardea cinerea  苍鹭  16

PURPLE HERON   Ardea purpurea  草鹭  2

EASTERN GREAT EGRET   Ardea modesta  大白鹭  1

GREAT CORMORANT   Phalacrocorax carbo  普通鸬鹚  12

SHORT-TOED SNAKE EAGLE   Circaetus gallicus  短趾雕  1

EASTERN MARSH HARRIER   Circus spilonotus  白腹鹞  7

HEN HARRIER   Circus cyaneus  白尾鹞  1 adult female

EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK   Accipiter nisus  雀鹰  2

NORTHERN GOSHAWK   Accipiter gentilis  苍鹰  2

EASTERN BUZZARD   Buteo japonicus  普通鵟  19

GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE   Aquila clanga   VU  乌雕  2

MERLIN   Falco columbarius  灰背隼  1

SAKER FALCON   Falco cherrug   EN  猎隼  1

PEREGRINE FALCON   Falco peregrinus  游隼  1

COMMON COOT   Fulica atra  骨顶鸡(白骨顶)  44

BLACK-WINGED STILT   Himantopus himantopus  黑翅长脚鹬  4

NORTHERN LAPWING   Vanellus vanellus  凤头麦鸡  33

GREY-HEADED LAPWING   Vanellus cinereus  灰头麦鸡  1

LITTLE RINGED PLOVER   Charadrius dubius   金眶鴴  2

KENTISH PLOVER   Charadrius alexandrinus  环颈鴴  48

ORIENTAL PLOVER   Charadrius veredus  东方鴴  21

COMMON SNIPE   Gallinago gallinago  扇尾沙锥  9

BLACK-HEADED GULL   Chroicocephalus ridibundus  红嘴鸥  39

ORIENTAL TURTLE DOVE   Streptopelia orientalis  山斑鸠  4

EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE   Streptopelia decaocto  灰斑鸠  6

COMMON KINGFISHER   Alcedo atthis  普通翠鸟  2

EURASIAN HOOPOE   Upupa epops  戴胜  2

GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER   Dendrocopos major  大斑啄木鸟  1

GREY-HEADED WOODPECKER   Picus canus  灰头绿啄木鸟  1

AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE   Cyanopica cyanus  灰喜鹊  1

COMMON MAGPIE   Pica pica  喜鹊  30

DAURIAN JACKDAW   Coloeus dauuricus  达乌里寒鸦  400+

ROOK   Corvus frugilegus  秃鼻乌鸦  33

CARRION CROW   Corvus corone  小嘴乌鸦  2

MARSH TIT   Poecile palustris  沼泽山雀  1

JAPANESE TIT   Parus minor  大山雀  2

CHINESE PENDULINE TIT   Remiz consobrinus  中华攀雀  15

GREATER SHORT-TOED LARK   Calandrella brachydactyla  (大) 短趾百灵  8

ASIAN SHORT-TOED LARK   Calandrella cheleensis  (亚洲) 短趾百灵  1

EURASIAN SKYLARK   Alauda arvensis  云雀  14

BARN SWALLOW   Hirundo rustica  家燕  8

VINOUS-THROATED PARROTBILL   Sinosuthora webbianus  棕头鸦雀  40

WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING   Spodiopsar cineraceus  灰椋鸟  26

COMMON STARLING   Sturnus vulgaris  紫翅椋鸟  1

RED-THROATED THRUSH   Turdus ruficollis  赤颈鸫  1

DAURIAN REDSTART   Phoenicurus auroreus  北红尾鸲  1

EURASIAN TREE SPARROW   Passer montanus  (树) 麻雀  150

CITRINE WAGTAIL   Motacilla citreola  黄头鹡鸰  1

WHITE WAGTAIL   Motacilla alba 白鹡鸰  63

RED-THROATED PIPIT   Anthus cervinus  红喉鹨  1

BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT   Anthus rubescens japonicus  黄腹鹨  18

WATER PIPIT   Anthus spinoletta  水鹨  20

MEADOW PIPIT   Anthus pratensis  1   *** the 2nd record for Beijing***

GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH   Carduelis sinica  金翅 (雀)  4

LITTLE BUNTING   Emberiza pusilla  小鹀  1

PALLAS’S BUNTING   Emberiza pallasi  苇鹀  22

REED BUNTING   Emberiza schoeniclus  芦鹀  1

TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES 81