Sunday, October 26, 2008

Little Auks are coming....

... is the title of the midget porn spin-off of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. You heard it here first. Looks like being a chilly week. But autumn perhaps not quite over yet, judging by the number of Goldcrests (too many to count) still wandering round Newtonhill this morning. There were a feew Fieldfares passing through during the week, and today at the Mill Garden a single Common Blackcap in 'Blackcap bushes' - a clump of elders where they always turn up eventually. Come to think of it, this has been a very poor year for Blackcaps.

The only other 'migrant' was a single Common Treecreeper along honeypot lane between the Mill and the Retreat. Probably a local bird, but they are less than annual in the village.

Out at sea, no Little Auks, but a few Northern Gannets making their way north, and a stream of Common Gulls going south. Last week's GN Diver has scarpered. Nothing really happening at all, though by 11 am there was a constant trickle of Eurasian Skylarks heading south. They know what's coming.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

It's me. At least, i think it's me.

Guest blogger today... the Tophill Low Amur Falcon.

Hi everyone. It's me. At least, I think it's me. Maybe if I hang around here for a month I might be retrospectively identified from photos. I'm moulting my underwing coverts. It's OK, you can still tick me.

So, I'm another species that was moving through Beijing when Martin was there that was vagrant in the UK at the same time.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Thursday 16th October
The day I was heading off from my holiday among the Yorkshiremen... y'know, they're like Geordies but without the brains. Martin was off work and went round Newtonhill, which was hoaching with newly arrived Goldcrests (30+) and also Coal Tits (many), both of which are signs that it's time to start looking for Pallas's Leaf Warblers. The promise of goldcrest-peeping bushes wasn't backed up with hoards of other migrants, though a Common Chiffchaff at the top of the track from St Annes counts.

Friday 17th October.
Saw the first sizable push of Redwings heading inland at dawn. And a fresh horde of Goldcrests.

The theme was continued on...
Saturday 18th October
when I was surprised to find, while I was breakfasting on dragonflies in Martin's kitchen - a tired and greasy room that need the McKinney touch, that Martin had gone out for a run. I hope he catches a cold. When Martin got back he was trying to explain breathlessly to me what he had seen in the early morning chill. And as they took him away in the ambulance he finally explained - he'd heard a small flock of Long-tailed Tits in the bushes by the A90 (less than annual in Newtonhill), and also a couple of Redpoll sp in willows at Cran Hill.

Later, Martin had a total field* day, photographing things even I wouldn't eat. I was going to say a field mouse day with my witty communist-bloc humour, until Martin pointed out they were wood mice. He wood!! Heh heh heh. Sometimes I crack myself up. Ooops, I laughed so hard I just moulted a bit.

Sunday 19th October

was my last day as Martin's guest, and frankly I'm glad. Those kids of his... I'd rather die in mysterious circumstances in Dumfries and Galloway and then be forgotten about and left in the loft. That's what happened to my great grandfather. At least, I think so. I was doing one of those 'trace my family' tv programmes, hence the trip to Yorkshire, and also I mistook Tophill for Thornhill, where grandpa died. That's why I hung around so long, waiting for Google Maps to open. I thought I wasn't going to be able to fly today though - one of those days that never quite gets light, and Martin was wandering around in the gloom and the wind with very little prospect of seeing anything. Still plenty of Goldcrests and Coal Tits everywhere, White-throated Dipper on the burn and Peregrine Falcon (I'm a bit scared of those) over Cran Hill. Offshore, Martin saw an adult and a juvvy Red-throated Diver just off the breakers, and a herring-gull-dwarfing adult Great Northern Diver (Common Loon) with them. Another sp that is less than annual here, apparently a cause of some satisfaction to Martin, the saddo.

As he was looking at that, a
Merlin flew south, harrassed briefly by a Common Gull. Not scared of either of them. It all added to the wintery feel. Also offshore, a Great Skua, but little else. A tour of the village garden while I was waiting for my taxi to the airport produced the obligatory Common Chiffchaff for Martin, which surprised him by bursting into a few seconds of song!! I have that effect on all the girls!! Ha hah hahhh!!! Then Martin suggested it was probably a boy. How I hate him.

Even the allotments had nothing but Goldcrests, Dunnocks, Common Chaffinches and European Robins. Look at the place...

Allotments, with sea beyond and next stop Denmark. It really should have more migrants.

Anyway, that's all from me. How you English say... byeeeeeee!!!!!! Martin is on the toilet with an attack of explosive diarrhoea. How surprised and delighted he will be when he sees I have written his wonderful blog for him. And much better than he ever could.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Back birding the patch

Blessings of Comrade Chairman Mao on Remembird - I remembered (remembird) to put a new battery in this morning before heading out, and aren't I glad I did...

It seemed like a perfect, not too cold, October morning with a hint of southerly breeze - ideal for hoovering up all those Yellow-browed Warblers that would be flycatching in the sunshine, or so I thought. Was frankly, though, a bit wintery to start with, with several hundred Pink-footed Geese heading south, and apart from the usual peeping of tit flocks, chatting European Robins and the usual residents, not a lot happening. Until I checked the path running up to the swingpark (where the Wood Warbler was last month) when I heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling from the sycamores at the top. Ran up the slope, turning Remembird on, and saw the bird pretty well and got a few recordings - some snippets below - try and ignore the persistent rumble of the A90.

You can listen to it here and here

The first file

The second...

Note the high pitched squeaks and them the 'classic' tseooiiiu' calls. But also the variation in the calls (second file) - easy to see on the sonogram, not so easy to hear.

Compare to this bird that I recorded at Yeyahu Lake outside Beijing on 26 Sep 08

Which you can listen to here

the Y-bW headed down the slope, and so did I. It came closer when I gave it some blasts of YbW from my phone, and I saw it pretty much the best I ever saw one, down at bracken level.

Other things going on this morning... apart from generally busy tit flocks including several Coal Tits, always a sign that birds are on the move, a couple of small flocks of Mistle Thrushes heading south, a constant trickle of Meadow Pipits and Eurasian Skylarks, and also a surprising number, 20+, of Barn Swallows lingering.

At the Allotments, which really looked like it should be overrun with Red-breasted Flycatchers and Dusky Warblers, there was a single Common Chiffchaff. I reallycould not see any green or yellow in the supercilium or upperparts of this bird, and actually it looked quite Siberian, but the call was unequivocally Common.

At the Secret Garden* a Eurasian Siskin, and 2 redpoll spp flew over, calling.

*'Secret Garden' is the wrong term... it's not very secret, being right next to the path and visible through large iron gates. However although it is outside the village, walled, apparently attached to no house, and you never see anyone in there, it is always immaculately cut and groomed. Spooky. From now on I will call it the 'Enchanted Garden.' Also, there are pixies living there - that's always a bit of a giveaway.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Birding in China pt 2 - the listy bit

Birds what I saw in China, Chengdu and Beijing, 21st – 29th September 2008.

The list sequence follows MacKinnon and Phillips, which was based on Sibley and Monroe (oooh, bad choice!). Species level taxonomy follows my personal whim.

Daurian Partridge Perdix dauurica

A couple of coveys of 3-4 birds at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Golden Pheasant Chrysolophus pictus

Two males at the Chengdu Panda Research Base may have been plastic.

Green Peafowl Pavo muticus

Wandering birds at the Chengdu Panda Research Base will almost certainly have been plastic.

Bewick’s Swan Cygnus columbianus bewickii

Several birds at Yeyahu Wetland reserve.

Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea

Four birds in flight at Yeyahu Wetland reserve.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

Flocks at Yeyahu Wetland reserve and Sahe Reservoir

Falcated Duck Anas falcata

One at Yeyahu Wetland reserve.

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker Dendrocopus hyperythrus.

One juvvy for several days in the park opposite Beijing Grand Continental Hotel.

Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopus major.

At least one for several days in the park opposite Beijing Grand Continental Hotel.

Common Hoopoe Upupa epops

One in trees at Sahe reservoir.

Feral Pigeon Columba livia

Occasional birds on rooftops in Beijing.

Speckled Wood Pigeon Columba hodgsonii

One at Chengdu Panda Research Base.

Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis

Not that common, but a few birds around Sahe Reservoir and suburban Beijing.

Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto

Not uncommon in and around the outskirts of Beijing.

Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus

Individuals at Yeyahu, Sahe and Summer Palace.

Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus

One bird at Sahe Reservoir.

Oriental Honey-buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus

Two birds soaring over Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Black-eared Kite Milvus migrans lineatus

2-3 birds over Yeyahu Wetland Reserve

Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus

One ringtail hunting Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Pied Harrier Circus melanoleucos

One cracking male hunting over Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus

One bird over the outskirts of Beijing on way to Ming Tombs.

Common Buzzard Buteo buteo

At least three birds, all of which I think were this species, over Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga

One bird over Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni

Bit of a surprise was an adult male over Yeyahu Wetland Reserve

Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

One over the Grand Hotel, Beijing, and another at Sahe Reservoir.

Amur Falcon Falco amurensis

4 birds hunting at dusk at Sahe Reservoir.

Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo

One bird flew through Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis

One bird at Yeyahu, up to 250 at Sahe Res, and another singleton at the Summer Palace.

Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus

One bird at Sahe Res.

Little Egret Egretta garzetta

Maybe 5 birds at Sahe Res.

Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax

One adult in flight at Sahe Res.

Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus

One bird in the park opposite the Grand Continental Hotel, Beijing, for one day.

Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus

A cracking monster of a bird at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus

Common throughout Beijing in groups, also at Yeyahu, Sahe, Summer Palace.

Black-billed Magpie Pica pica

Common throughout Beijing in groups, also at Yeyahu, Sahe, Summer Palace.

Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchus

Small groups at the Palace Museum, Beijing, also at the Great Wall.

Siberian Rubythroat Luscinia calliope

A cracking male in the park opposite the Grand Continental Hotel, Beijing.

Siberian Stonechat Saxicola rubicula maurus/stejnegeri

Potential family groups in the park opposite the Grand Continental Hotel, Beijing, and at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

White-cheeked Starling Sturnus cineraceus

One group of around 20 birds at the Palace Museum were the only ones I saw.

Great Tit Parus major

In scrub alongside the Great Wall, and also Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus

In scrub alongside the Great Wall.

Black-throated Tit Aegithalos concinnus

Common in Chengdu, even in city centre.

Sand Martin Riparia riparia

One bird (?sp.) at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica

Flocks not uncommon over Beijing, at the park, Summer Palace, and suburban areas.

Red-whiskered Bulbul Pyconotus jocusus

One bird in Chengdu Panda Research Base.

Light-vented Bulbul Pyconotus sinensis

Very common in Chengdu.

Asian Stubtail Urosphena squamiceps

One bird in reedy edges and trees at Summer Palace.

Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps

One bird in the park opposite Beijing Grand Continental Hotel, and another apparently recently fledged juvvy in reeds at the Summer Palace.

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus progregulus

Two migrants in the park opposite Beijing Grand Continental Hotel.

Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus

These were very common, and in most places when it appeared there were no birds about, eventually a Y=b W call would ring out from the treetops. In the park opposite Beijing Grand Continental Hotel every day, Ming Tombs, several birds at Yeyahu, Sahe – reliable.

Two-barred Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus.

One bird in the park opposite Beijing Grand Continental Hotel.

Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi

Very common in suitable ground-based habitat, and often quite vocal. In the park opposite Beijing Grand Continental Hotel, and also several at the Summer Palace.

Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis

Several flying south over Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus

One with a flock of Black-throated Tits ina park in Chengdu.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus

What can I say. Absolutely everywhere throughout Beijing, flocks of 200+ at times.

White Wagtail Motacilla alba

One alboides at Chengdu Panda Research Base, and a flock of 4-5 ocularis at Sahe Reservoirs.

Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus

One flew over calling at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Yellow-billed Grosbeak Eophona migratoria

A small party at Longevity Hill in the Summer Palace area.

Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla

Very common at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve. Not seen elsewhere.

Birding in China - part 1 - the wordy bit.

This is the first part… a kind of poorly written narrative. Have included some photos but the full albums are available here and here. Part 2 will follow – the full bird list.

22nd September 2008.

Found myself in ChinaChengdu even… after a series of spectacularly uncomfortable flights. Birding opportunities in Chengdu were limited, though by a stroke of luck there was a fetid little park, complete with twisted trees, puddles of sewage and piles of rotting vegetables, just across the road from the hotel. So for those of us (i.e. me) prepared to buy travel insurance and try to cross the road, there were the delights of small flocks of Black-throated Tits, Pale-vented Bulbuls, and a single Japanese White-eye.

A couple of hours at the superb panda Research Base, just to the north, would have repaid ignoring the pandas and going for bush-bashing, but casually I also got a single Red-whiskered Bulbul and a Speckled Pigeon. I’m assuming the Green Peafowl wandering about were ornamental, but I’m not sure about the 2 Golden Pheasants I flushed from a bamboo stand. The best real bird, by far was a cracking alboides White Wagtail. First drew attention to itself by giving a call that was loud and shrill – immediately different from familiar alba and yarrellii birds – then showing itself to be a personata-lookalike, though with a black back and shiny, extensively white wing coverts.

23rd September 2008.

To Beijing. I must admit that my expectations of birding Beijing were pretty low. Basically I was told ‘Tree Sparrows’. And that although there may be a few hotspots where I might catch up with a few more species, not to get my hopes up. The only trip report I had was one by Keith Martin from November 1997 (you can see it here, which did however give a bit more cause for optimism, without going overboard.

By happy chance, there was once again another park just opposite my hotel next to the Olympic Stadium. Only this time the road was crossable without risking near-certain death. The park had a security guard and a sign saying ‘Residents – permits only’ or similar, but I assumed an air of self-confidence and walked right in. Immediately it was obvious that although Beijing may be crap for resident birds… this was autumn and migrants were coming through. In the tiniest possible clumps of trees and scattered rosebush ground cover I winkled out 2 Yellow-browed Warblers, a juvenile Brown Shrike, 3 Radde’s Warblers, Rufous-bellied and Great Spotted Woodpeckers and then a male Siberian Rubythroat popped out from a low hedge and started feeding in front of me. All genuine migrants – it was just like your average autumn day in Newtonhill. Nearly. There were also groups of Azure-winged Magpies (and Black-billed) kicking about noisily, and hordes (50+) of Tree Sparrows. Mao was quite right to suppress the Tree Sparrows – counter-revolutionaries, the lot of ‘em. I resolved to return to this park.

Makes you wonder about the decline of House Sparrows in British cities, and how everything we think we know about them must be wrong, Basically, if flocks of 200+ Tree Sparrows can thrive in central Beijing, the only thing wrong with House Sparrows in Kensington is that they are lazy.

24th September 2008.

I have to echo something that Keith Martin alluded to in his trip report. If you only have a couple of days in Beijing, and you waste them birding, you are a petit-bourgeouis intellectual who can and should be put to work cleaning out the public toilets in a hostel of leprous tramps for a couple of years, before you are shot. There is absolutely no excuse for it. There is so much to see here, and today was my day for Tian Anmen Square, Forbiddien city etc. But first I spent the dawn in ‘my’ local park, seeing Yellow-broweds and Radde’s etc as yesterday, but also a party of 3 Siberian Stonechats working their way over the tops of the rosebushes. One of them was an ‘obvious’ pale, supercilium-ed one with white throat and creamy underparts and a pale ground colour to the streaked mantle, but the other two were much more subtly different from European Stonechats – in fact they had dark heads and deeper orangey breasts and frankly I would have overlooked them in UK.

A word on Field Guides. The AC Black one is not published yet, so I was using MacKinnon and Phillips ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of China’ (OUP). Before I set off, I looked at the pictures of birds where I already knew what they looked like, and wasn’t too impressed. In fact I got the impression I’d have trouble identifying my granny using that book. In the end though, it was OK. At least, I managed to identify everything I saw well. Some of those warblers could have been trouble though, if I’d spent longer in the south.

So I spent today in Tian Anmen Square and proclaimed the Peoples’ Republic. Forbidden City (Palace Museum) was impressive for all sorts of reasons that weren’t birds. Apart from Tree Sparrows, there were some parties of Azure-winged Magpies, Large-billed Crows and a single flock of White-cheeked Starlings, which turned outto be the only ones I saw.

The wording says: 'On this site, on 4th June 1989, nothing happened'.

25th September 2008.

If the urban centre of Beijing was not a birding paradise, the Great Wall at Qinglongqiao was worse. I expected maybe, up in the hills, there’d be funky buntings and warblers scrounging sandwiches in the car park and lurking in the bushes, but my experience was very like Keith Martin’s – some discrete peeping noises from unseen birds in bushes below the wall may have been White-browed Chinese Warbler (Chinese Hill Warbler), but the only passerines I saw was a distant flock of tits that contained Great Tit and Long-tailed Tit, and possibly others. Nor was it a raptor-fest. Only a few Large-billed Crows breaking the skyline.

26th September 2008. Beijing Xinhua Tours

Today was my full day’s birding. Via the magic of the internet I found a company Beijing Xinhua Tours who for $120 would give you a car and a driver for the day and visit a couple of birding spots outside Beijing for the whole day. I decided to give it a go. At 6 am my guide turned up at the hotel as promised – ‘Nancy’ – and off we went. Nancy was great – very helpful, chatty, spoke perfect English, knew exactly where to go – but she didn’t know anything really about birds, as will become obvious. We went up to Yeyahu Lake, to the northwest (‘Wild Duck Lake’). Sounded promising. And there… some ducks - a small number of Bewick’s Swans, flocks of Mallards, and a motley collection of domestic geese. Nancy asked if a passing flock of birds were pigeons, but I said know they were ducks, Mallards. And Nancy was astonished and not a little amused… ‘So can ducks fly??’. Aaaaahhhhhhha… we’re starting to find our level here. Nancy didn’t have binoculars either, so she borrowed mine and I did the bird guiding bit. To her credit, Nancy was interested in finding out what birds were around, so she could help people out a bit more next time. I’m going to post my day list to the company, just so they know.

Actually I got the impression that we were a bit early in the Fall for a wildfowl spectacular, but there was still, in the end, plenty to be looking at. There was a single Falcated Duck, and there may have been Spot-billed Ducks out there, but they were just too far away. We took a walk round the Lake, me showing Nancy the birds. Mostly it was wet rushy vegetation, with a bit of open water. Funky buntings – very shy, but in the end we got excellent views of Little Buntings, flushes a covey of Daurian Partridges, and a cracking HUGE Chinese Grey Shrike, flushed from the bushes and perched for several minutes on a bush in the middle of the marsh. Eurasian Skylarks were flying over south, calling, and a single Sand Martin.

While this was happening, there was a bit of a raptor-fest going on, or at least there were a few about. Several Black-eared Kites, Oriental Honey-buzzards, some apparently japonicus Common Buzzards (on size they were not Upland). The size comparison occurred when one of them started mobbing a Greater Spotted Eagle. A ringtail (clearly) Hen Harrier was hunting, as was a male Pied Harrier, a Eurasian Hobby and surprisingly, a male Lesser Kestrel, a little bit out of range perhaps. I felt a big distant falcon was probably a Saker, but it never reappeared.


Nancy borrows my binoculars as a Red-throated Pipit flies by...

After a visit to the Yeyahu Wetland Museum -‘The museum contains a great number of sample birds and animals which once lived in this area’… I kid you not – we drove to Sahe Reservoirs.

I think the specimens died of shame

Sahe Reservoirs looked good, but from the causeway the flocks of wildfowl were a bit distant – need a scope. What was within binocular distance were groups of Little Grebes, over 250 of them in total. Also a bit distant, but in the trees and on the shoreline were 5 egrets. On range, I was expecting these to be Great Egrets, but au contraire they were Little Egrets – no doubt, with the black bill, black legs and yellow feet, as well as looking small. According to MacKinnon and Phillips, these are vagrant to Beijing, but this must be nonsense – I assume Little Egrets have expanded north in the Eastern Pal as well as the Western. A Black-crowned Night Heron flew past too. Real birding – a group of 4 ocularis White Wagtails, migrants, on the dam, and a Common Kestrel and 4 Amur Falcons hunting as the sun started to head down. Plenty of birds around by now, including a Common Hoopoe perched openly in a tree. Nancy liked that one.

Beijing Xinhua Tours then let themselves down a bit by taking me to a silk factory and outlet store where I got the opportunity to purchase duvets and ties. Not really my thing.

27th September 2008

Back at my Beijing Park early morning, where a funny-sounding presumed Radde’s Warbler skulking in the low undergrowth turned out, when it showed, to be a Black-browed Reed Warbler. A surprisingly obvious identification. Also new for the trip was a brief front-on view of of what was either Dark-Sided or Asian Brown Fly. It’s starting to feel a bit like Shetland. Excellent views of a real Radde’s Warbler among the rosebushes, and a very vocal Yellow-browed. The I bumped into a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler feeding among the willows, and it flitted off round to the next bush where it introduced me to its mate, another Pallas’s, also a Yellow-browed and a Two-barred Greenish Warbler feeding together. Ker-ching!

28th September 2008

My casual birding list was doing OK, but I was tempted by Keith Martin’s promise of Blue Magpies and Vinous-throated Parrotbills at the Summer Palace, so I got on the subway and headed thataway. I don’t think Keith Martin went on a Sunday morning though, and by the time I got lost and wandered round suburban Beijing for an hour before finding the place, it was nearly nine o’ clock and people were pouring in – 25000 visitors a day. I tried to bomb round the back and find a ‘quiet’ place, but it soon became obvious that there wasn’t going to be a quiet place and if I didn’t slow down and start in earnest I wasn’t going to get any birding done at all here. When I did that, there were some things to be seen, albeit not much. The tall trees around Longevity Hill held the usual Azure-winged and Black-billed Magpies, also some Yellow-billed Grosbeaks, and a Mynah in flight that I guess was likely to be an introduced Hill Mynah. Round the west end of Kumming Lake, there were some reedbeds and lotus beds with a bit of habitat, and a large number of Tree Sparrows. I bumped into 4-5 Radde’s Warblers, and while trying to get views of one of these flushed a dinky little Asian Stubtail, which paraded in front of me on low branches. Stonking super. Of Blue Magpies and Parrotbills, alas, none.

Habitat OK at Summer Palace...

... but from a birding perspective you can see the problem.

If you are birding the Summer Palace, I recommend getting there at 7, queuing until it opens and then bombing to Longevity Hill ASAP.

29th September 2008.

Last look round my park before heading home – nothing new. Black-browed Reedies, Yellow-browed and Radde’s Warblers. I tried to stuff a few in my bag to bring home, but it was already writhing with baby Pandas and there wasn’t room.

Overall I got the impression that Beijing would indeed be pretty shit for birding, outside migration season. However at the end of September every patch of bushes and puddle of sewage gave a chance of migrants. The birds weren’t exactly throwing themselves at me, but a visit that didn’t involve having to attend a conference would pay off better.

'My' Park