A staggering 1,422 bird species have been seen in China. Around 121 are endemic and 87 are classified as “Vulnerable”, “Endangered” or “Critically Endangered”. In Beijing alone there are 435 species on the official list, making it one of the most bird-rich capital cities in the world. Over the next few posts, I will blog about some of the special birds to be found here and, of course, potential vagrants to western Europe. But first, some of the pleasures of birding in this vast and diverse country…
- Few Birders. Relative to Europe and the US, finding information about recent sightings is difficult. Not because Chinese birders don’t share information (they do) but simply because there are so few birders. Establishing whether the Siberian Crane seen 3 weeks ago is still there, or whether a breeding site for Chinese Penduline Tit mentioned in a 2007 trip report is still active, will usually require checking out the sites for yourself. Despite the information challenge, the presence of few birders is one of the pleasures of birding in Beijing and China. Visiting a prime site in the middle of May and knowing the area probably hasn’t been covered for days, if not weeks, provides fantastic opportunities to find your own birds and a real sense of excitement and anticipation on each visit. It’s sharpened me as a birder, encouraging me to examine every bird, every movement, in the knowledge that a ‘mega’ or even a new record is a real possibility. If I, a birder of modest skill, can find three ‘firsts’ for Beijing Municipality in 18 months, who knows what else is out there? We know so little about the birds of Beijing, let alone the rest of the country, so the opportunities for learning and discovering are limitless.
- Sibes In Abundance. Beijing lies on a major flyway between the vast forests of northern and eastern Siberia and the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Millions of birds pass through in spring and autumn. At times the parks can be dripping with ‘sibes’. Siberian Blue Robins bobbing alongside Eye-browed Thrushes with Asian Brown and Taiga Flycatchers flitting in the branches above was a scene I enjoyed in a central Beijing park last spring. Tens of Greater Spotted Eagles with the odd Imperial and Steppe mixed in can be seen on clear autumn days from the hills on the outskirts of the city. And my ‘garden list’ (a tiny patch of bamboo and a few small trees in a city centre location) includes Japanese Quail, Thick-billed, Eastern Crowned and Pale-legged Leaf Warblers, Asian Stubtail, Siberian Rubythroat, Brown Shrike, Siberian Accentor, Yellow-throated Bunting and Amur Falcon. Any venture to the coast during spring or autumn will be rewarded with a healthy list of birds that would enjoy ‘mega’ status in Western Europe.
- People. As a birder in the West, a dawn visit to the local green space is usually a guarantee of avoiding the crowds and enjoying a few hours of birding solitude. Not so in China. The Chinese are early risers and they like nothing better than bounding up to their local park at first light to exercise. The term ‘exercise’ is used here in a loose sense. Some will exercise in a way familiar to westerners – by walking or jogging (sometimes backwards!). Others will participate in benign activities such as tai chi or stretching. However, a proportion prefers to use the opportunity for more bird-intrusive activities. It is not uncommon to find people standing on prominent perches shouting as loud as humanly possible for half an hour or more. Others will dance, often in synchronized groups, to tunes blaring from ghettoblasters. At times it can feel as if you are birding alongside a million professional bird scarers. However, everywhere I have visited in China, whether it’s Jingshan Park in central Beijing, small communities along the China-North Korea border or remote villages in Yunnan Province, the local people have been among the friendliest I have encountered. I have never felt threatened or uncomfortable. On the contrary. People are genuinely interested in what I am doing, what I am looking at, and will frequently offer information about local birds, even inviting me into their homes for food. Despite the fact they are often disappointed when I tell them I am not David Beckham, the warmth of the Chinese people is one of the best things about being a birder in China.