Sunday, October 05, 2008

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

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