Monthly Archives: August 2012

Jankowski’s Bunting: A Very Rare Bird Indeed

By Terry T

The Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii) is a very rare bird. So rare that, without immediate action, it could slip away before the end of this decade. Unfortunately this little bird isn’t big or furry and doesn’t have a spoon-shaped bill. Instead it falls into the “Little Brown Job” (LBJ) category of birds. Added to the fact that it lives in a rarely visited part of northeast China, this means that its rapid and accelerating journey towards extinction has been progressing with seemingly little effort to save it and even less public awareness. That, I hope, is about to change.

Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii). A male on the breeding grounds in northeast China. Image copyright Martin Hale.

This beautiful bunting, sometimes known by the more descriptive, but less endearing, name of Rufous-backed Bunting, was once described as locally common across its range including Far Eastern Russia, North-eastern China (Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia) and North Korea. But in the last couple of decades, in particular, it has suffered a calamitous population decline. It is now thought to be extinct in Russia, its status is unknown in the small historical range in North Korea and there are only a handful of known individuals hanging on at a few sites in northeast China.

Although there are probably some sites yet to be discovered, the total number of individuals seen in 2012 so far is, as far as I am aware, under 30.

Habitat destruction is almost certainly the main cause of the decline. Jankowski’s Buntings just love grassland peppered with Siberian Apricot (Prunus sibirica) bushes. Over-grazing and a devastating, long-term, drought in the region have decimated its habitat. This, combined (pun unintended) with the cutting of grassland for hay during the breeding season, is thought to have been responsible for the precipitous drop in numbers of Jankowski’s Buntings in recent years. And, on top of that, although northeast China regularly experiences cold winters with temperatures down to -30 degrees C, a particularly harsh winter in 2000-2001, during which unusually deep snow covered the region, is thought to have hit hard the already vulnerable population.


Despite the alarm bells, all is not yet lost. BirdLife International, in partnership with local groups, has recently begun a project to raise awareness of this bird’s plight and establish a robust conservation action plan.  Following the first conservation workshop dedicated to the Jankowski’s Bunting in June 2012 in Jilin Province, there is now a glimmer of hope that some of the pieces of the jigsaw needed to help preserve this species are being put in place.  A growing number of local people are interested in doing what they can to protect the bird’s habitat through more sympathetic land management, an education and awareness programme is planned for local schools, and more widely via social media, and population surveys are being conducted by the Beijing Birdwatching Society at known, and potential new, sites to try to establish a more accurate picture of population levels.  The missing ingredient, to ensure this work is carried out and coordinated effectively, is funding.  That is why BirdLife has set up a JustGiving page to encourage donations from concerned individuals and corporations to help raise the cash required to make this project viable.  An initial target of £10,000 has been set to help fund this particular project in the first year.  To get the ball rolling Birding Beijing has made a three-year financial commitment and become a Species Champion under the BirdLife Preventing Extinction Programme to support Jankowski’s Bunting and other globally threatened species.

Despite being thought to be mostly sedentary and/or a partial migrant (even this is not fully known!), there are historic records of the Jankowski’s Bunting from Beijing and it is also the “Endangered” species with a population closest to the Chinese capital. Living in Beijing, I certainly feel a sense of responsibility to do something to help protect this bird before it slips into extinction.  I hope others will, too.  The resilience of nature is such that, given the right support, species can return from the brink.  If man shows the will, nature will find a way.

Jankowski’s Bunting was first described by Polish zoologist Wladyslaw Taczanowski in 1888 from a specimen of an adult male collected by fellow Pole, Michal Jankowski during an expedition in 1886. Michal Jankowski (1840-1903) was a Polish exile sent to Siberia 1864 and worked with other prominent ornithologists Dybowski and Godlewski (of Godlewski’s Bunting and Blyth’s Pipit fame) on several expeditions to Far Eastern Russia, northeast China and Korea.

Many thanks to Jim Lawrence, Mike Crosby, Vivian Fu and Simba Chan from BirdLife International for their input to this blog post and to Martin Hale for use of the Jankowski’s Bunting image.  Exceptionally, this post has been simultaneously published on Birding Beijing and Birding Frontiers.

Birding gadgets – for under 20 quid

by Roger

After a l-o-n-g weekend in a hot, humid marquee – at a sweltering birdfair – I have no birds of note to write about. Hence the first post in this exciting new series: Great Birding Gadgets for less than 20 quid (that’s 30 euros/30 bucks for those of you in Europe or the States).

Me at the birdfair, on the lookout for potential new subscribers…

Autumn migration arrived in Shetland with a bang last week, with a pulse of easterlies bringing plenty of common migrants and a scatter of rares – three Citrine Wagtails, an Arctic Warbler – and a Booted Warbler at Sumburgh Hotel, two miles from my house. The easterlies started the day I headed south for Rutland, so I managed to miss most of the migrants. No surprise there – in fact, my favourite Birdfair Factoid is that all the Hippolais warblers (in the old sense – i.e. before half of them transferred to the Iduna team) on the British List have turned up in Shetland in the past 10 years or so while I have been away for the birdfair!

Anyway, to get back to gadgets. We’ve heard a lot on this blog about the fantastic and revolutionary new Swarovski scope. But they don’t come cheap, so I thought it was time to redress the balance a little. How about some key components of the birding kitbag that cost a bit less? Let’s start with this one…

Great Birding Gadgets no. 1: The Finnstick

This one comes courtesy of the excellent Jari Peltomaki and his team at Finnature, who just happen to be our next-door neighbours in Marquee 3 at birdfair. This is my first custom-built finnstick – and early indications are that it works very well.

Brits don’t seem to ‘get’ finnsticks. In fact, there was widespread ridicule when I appeared back on the BB stand proudly brandishing a shiny new finnstick. Which just about sums up the attitude of the British birding community as a whole. (I was very relieved when Paul French appeared on the stand, and provided some moral support…) I guess that most Brits just don’t do enough vis mig to appreciate the benefits of looking through ‘bins for long periods without their arms falling off. But are we missing a trick? The Finns certainly think we are. Surely there are times when a finnstick would come in handy?

For me, seawatching in Shetland is a rare pastime, but when I do it, I generally watch from the car and I often use bins rather than a ‘scope – to catch the Little Auks, skuas and terns coming past close to the cliffs. A finnstick keeps you looking through your bins for longer. Previously, I’d made a fairly clumsy attempt to fashion my own basic finnstick from a nice offcut of oak floorboard. My carpentry skills aren’t up to much, but I managed to whittle something that worked ok with my second-string bins, the old Leica 8×32’s.

Using a T-shaped design and a quick-release nylon strap means you can use any roof-prism bins, meaning that I can now use my bigger Zeiss 8x42s with confidence. (They kept falling off my home-made model.)

So there we are – a top birding gadget for less than £20. You can make your own – but to be honest, for the princely sum of £15 for the Finnature version, it’s hardly worth it. It might just mean you’re still looking through your bins rather than resting your arms when that Black-bellied Storm-petrel zips through, close in…

Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Adventure on Video

by Jochen


In summer 2011 I had the opportunity to spend 2 months in the core breeding area of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Chukotka (eastern Russia). It was a dream for me to visit the breeding areas of eastern arctic waders. The landscape around Meynipylgino is just fantastic and beside Spoon-billed Sandpipers I could observe a variety of arctic breeding birds and migrants such as Ross’ Gull, Spectacled Eider and Emperor Goose.


North shore of Lake Pekulneyskoye in late May



White-billed Diver in mid June, when most large waterbodies were still almost completely frozen.


Ross’ Gull was a rare migrant in eaarly June.


Emperor Goose is a scarce breeding bird in the area.

However, the reason to be there was a sad one: The Spoon-billed Sandpiper had declined dramatically in recent years due to hunting in the wintering areas in Myanmar and Bangladesh as well as the destruction of the stopover sites in South Korea and China. While there are recent improvements in the wintering sites, the habitat destruction is still going on. The population size of this enigmatic wader is worrying and it was decided that a backup in captivity will be necessary for future reintroduction.

Part of our team were WWT-employees Nigel Jarret and Martin McGill, who were responsible for egg-collecting and chick-rearing. The logistics were organized by Liza Tambovtseva from Birds Russia. Thanks to all of them for their enthusiastic work and great company!


Nigel, Martin & Liza

The result of the expedition can be viewed on many websites: Spoon-billed Sandpipers in an aviary in Britain. Now a video of the expedition was published by WWT – just buy it and support the work of WWT, so that many generations of birders can enjoy views of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in future!

Spurn’s juvenile Caspian Gull

Friday 17th August 2012

by Martin and Pete Wragg

Nice one Pete Wragg. Pete sent a couple of photos of a juvenile Caspian Gull he found last Friday from the Chalk bank hide. First juvenile for the Spurn area. He said he was partly inspired by posts on the Birding Frontiers blog. So hopefully some more will be found!

I (MG) had a lovely juvenile loafing off Flamborough Head in late August several years ago so reaching this far north as juveniles is not new – just (as ever) overlooked.

Need more information and inspiration? Click on these:

Juvenile Caspian Gulls in Essex 

Full range of juvenile Caspian Gulls from core breeding area

Juvenile Caspian Gull at Flamborough in August 2011

juvenile Caspian Gull, Spurn 17th August 2012 by Pete Wragg

Black-bellied Storm-petrel, again, off Lanzarote

Black-bellied Storm-petrel (Fregetta tropica tropica). Location: Banco de la Concepcion, 45 miles off Lanzarote. 18-8-2012. Photographer: Javier Portillo.

One of the most exciting moments of my birding career in the Western Palearctic occured last September off Lanzarote. While leading, together with Juan Sagardía, the very first dedicated pelagic off the Canaries, I was fortunate to call a Black-bellied Storm-petrel. Only the second WP record, and a really great bird to watch.

Given the mega rarity status of the species, who would have thought that we were going to see another one on the next late summer pelagic…?

So, after that very succesful first trip (where we also saw at least 3 South Polar Skuas), this year we´ve been running more trips through Lanzarote Pelagics, trying to break new ground out there.

We ´ve discovered that birds like White-faced and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, Wilson´s and Bulwer´s Petrels, Long-tailed Skuas, Great Shearwaters, etc.. (some already highlighted on previous posts) are pretty common offshore at the right time of the year. And some surprises are still awaiting to be discovered…

On last weekend´s trip, and about 45 miles to the NE of Lanzarote, at the very same place where 2 South Polar Skuas spent more than an  hour around our boat last year, a stunning Black-bellied Storm Petrel was attracted to the chum. First located by Oscar Llama, the bird put on a great show for almost 20 mins, to the delight of all observers on board.

Black-bellied Storm-petrel (Fregetta tropica tropica). Location: Banco de la Concepcion, 45 miles off Lanzarote. 18-8-2012. Photographer: Juan Sagardia / Lanzarote Pelagics. Even if the black breast band can´t be noticed (broken on the upper breast on this individual), other visible features help distinguish it from both “White-bellied” Storm-petrels (Fregetta tropica melanoleuca and F.grallaria leucogaster), such as extensive dark hood, extending into the upper belly; dark markings on the underwing-coverts and black undertail coverts extending at an angle towards the black belly stripe.

Black-bellied Storm-petrel (Fregetta tropica tropica). Location: Banco de la Concepcion, 45 miles off Lanzarote. 18-8-2012. Photographer: Javier Portillo

Black-bellied Storm-petrel (Fregetta tropica tropica). Location: Banco de la Concepcion, 45 miles off Lanzarote. 18-8-2012. Photographer: Juan Sagardía / Lanzarote Pelagics

As can be seen on the photos below, last year´s and last weekend´s birds are definitely different individuals. Amongst other things, last year´s bird had a very striking and complete black belly-stripe, reaching all the way to the upper breast and connecting with the hood. Whereas this year´s bird had a broken and much less noticeable black belly-stripe, broken at the upper breast and not connecting with the dark hood.

Here is last year´s (2011) bird

Black-bellied Storm-petrel (Fregetta tropica tropica). Location: Banco de la Concepcion, 40 miles off Lanzarote. 10-9-2011. Photographer: Miguel Rouco

And here´s this year´s (2012) bird, again.

Black-bellied Storm-petrel (Fregetta tropica tropica). Location: Banco de la Concepcion, 45 miles off Lanzarote. 18-8-2012. Photographer: Javier Portillo. Note the broken an narrow breast band of this year´s individual.

We will keep running pelagics off Lanzarote, as there´s still much to learn on the distribution of many species of seabirds around the Canaries.

Time will tell whether these 2 sightings were a mere a coincidence, and we were just extremely lucky, or BBSP are not as extremely rare as previousty thought around the Canaries Current.

So why don´t join us next year?

More photos of the bird, and of all other species seen on previous trips, here

Black-bellied Storm-petrel (Fregetta tropica tropica) and Long-tailed Skua (Stercorarius longicaudus). Location: Banco de la Concepcion, 45 miles to the NE of Lanzarote. Photographer: Juan Sagardia / Lanzarote Pelagics.
2 great species side by side!

Special thanks to Marcel Gil for helping us out with this weekend´s trip.

Tree Pipits of the Indian kind

Dreaming of…

Coming back form an excellent Birdfair 2012, and looking forward. Autumn. Migration. All kinds of stories to be in, and I would like to be in some good stories this autumn!

I am thinking Tree Pipits right now. They start moving in the Sheffield area in late August and I am experimenting with nocturnal recording, so wondering if I will get one.

And September is very close- when it really kicks off, so I am thinking about the ‘Indian Tree Pipit’ – old speak for the Olive-backed Pipit. Been fortunate to be in on finding 4 of these on Shetland in the last few years and for me an ‘ultimate Sibe’. Then maybe there will be some next spring at the ultimate migratory watch in Eilat, Israel.

Here’s what I am on about:

Tree Pipit, Eilat, March 2012. I had the privilege of speaking about spring migration in Eilat at the Birdfair. This was one of many Tree Pipits seen. A species I always enjoy connecting with and currently hoping for some on my night time recording locally– maybe in the next few days (even over my house?).

Date Palms, Eilat, March 2012. Of course when you watch Tree Pipits in the Eilat dates palms you can expect to be overwhelmed by  more. In with the Tree Pipits were up to 5 Olive-backed Pipits:

Olive-backed Pipit. Eilat Date Palms, March 2012. Scruffy, moulting, dull plumaged. Interestingly they seem to have a different moult regime to the Tree Pipits.

Tree Pipits and (big numbers) of Meadow Pipits will be moving through Sheffield and  Spurn in the next few weeks. Nice to see them close, when you can discern differences in the bill shape and head patterns.:

Meadow Pipit, Spurn, September 2011

Tree Pipit, Spurn, September 2011

and (one of) the love(s) of my life which as I look ahead I am hoping for  AGAIN! Still a few places left on 2nd week and ONE PLACE has become available on week one due to a cancellation. All info on Shetland Nature pages 

Olive-backed Pipit,  Unst, Shetland, October 2011 by Stef Mcelwee. Watching THIS bird was one of my favourite memories of Shetland last autumn.

Lao Tie Shan: The Falsterbo of the East

By Terry T

Oriental Honey Buzzard, Lao Tie Shan, September 2011

On 24 September 2011 Paul Holt, Peter Cawley and I counted an astonishing 1,035 Oriental Honey Buzzards. It was our first day at Lao Tie Shan, a poorly known site in northeast China. Little did we know that, over the following days, we would smash the China day records for Amur Falcon, Ashy Minivet (by a factor of 15) and Yellow-bellied Tit, see staggering numbers of raptors and, best of all, have a great time.

Looking at a map of eastern China, the eyes of any birder will be drawn to the southward facing shard of land close to Dalian, in Liaoning Province. The Liaodong peninsula, with the vast landmass of eastern Siberia to the north, acts as a natural funnel for birds heading south.

A map showing the location of Lao Tie Shan.

Lao Tie Shan has been on the birding map since the middle of the 19th century (renowned ornithologist Robert Swinhoe visited in 1861). However, until very recently, it has been off limits to foreigners due to the presence of the Chinese Navy at nearby Lushun. Fortunately access restrictions were relaxed in 2008 and, although Lao Tie Shan remains sensitive due to the nearby military presence, it is possible to access the area around the lighthouse, including some of the wooded hillsides to the northeast. The area received protection as a National Nature Reserve in 1980 and Chinese ringing stations have operated there for at least a decade.

The lighthouse at Lao Tie Shan viewed from the ridge to the north-east.

China-based Canadian Tom Beeke visited Lao Tie Shan in September and October 2010 and excitedly reported, via his excellent thread on Birdforum, the number and variety of birds migrating at the point. Tom was probably the first western birder in modern times to visit this site in autumn. With nearby Dalian just an hour’s flight away from Beijing, I knew I had to visit.

Autumn was clearly going to be the best time. But such was my enthusiasm and impatience that I first arranged a spring visit with Beijing-based Spike Millington. At the very least it would be a good ‘recce’ for the autumn and, if we were lucky, we’d see some good birds. We spent 8 days at Lao Tie Shan and were blown away. Although raptor migration was limited, as you’d expect in spring at this location, we enjoyed the first Liaoning Province record of Russet Sparrow, a flyover Japanese Waxwing, several White-throated Needletails and a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker ‘in off’. In the lighthouse garden Oriental Scops Owls, White-throated Rock Thrushes, White’s and Pale Thrushes, Siberian Rubythroats, Rufous-tailed and Siberian Blue Robins and Yellow-legged Buttonquail all added to the excitement. What a site.

White-throated Needletail, Lao Tie Shan, 16 May 2011

The locals spoke about “September skies full of eagles”. So it was with great excitement that, during the long, hot summer, I planned my return in Autumn. Norfolk-based friend (and sausage lover) Peter Cawley was interested in joining me and Paul Holt, too, soon confirmed his availability. The three of us would spend two weeks (in Paul’s case longer) and we’d be joined by Tom for the odd day trip. This was almost certainly going to be the first occasion that the area would be systematically watched by foreign birders. On arrival, visible migration was immediately obvious. Flocks of Ashy Minivets, pipits, buntings and white-eyes moving overhead at dawn were soon joined by Oriental Honey Buzzards, Black Kites and a seemingly never-ending stream of Red-rumped Swallows flowing past the lighthouse, all heading out to sea towards Shandong. Although passerine migration was most intense during the first few hours after sunrise, the movement continued throughout the day with raptors peaking in late morning/early afternoon. The numbers of birds were phenomenal.

Paul Holt looking out to sea searching for Streaked Shearwaters while Peter Cawley excitedly contemplates the prospect of his next delicious Chinese sausage.

At the end of our trip, these are some more numbers taken from our notebooks: 2,155 Oriental Honey Buzzards (and we almost certainly missed the peak), 1,150 Black Kites, 1,255 Eurasian Sparrowhawks, 248 Northern Goshawks, 6,944 Eastern Buzzards, 7,971 Amur Falcons, 20,000 Ashy Minivets and 60,000 Red-rumped Swallows. Add in quality species such as Oriental Stork, Greater Spotted, Steppe and Golden Eagles and Lesser Kestrel and you begin to gain a sense of the scale and variety of visible migration at this little-known watch-point in northeast China. During our stay we also visited one of the ringing stations that had, the day before, caught and ringed the rarely seen Swinhoes’s Rail!

Mugimaki Flycatcher in the hand, Lao Tie Shan, October 2011

In total we recorded 202 species. However, it wasn’t the species list that made this place so special; it was the spectacle of visible migration. I can only imagine what would be found if the area was covered by more birders over a longer period. Lao Tie Shan is a truly special place. Guess where I’ll be this autumn!

A detailed trip report from the Autumn 2011 visit, including logistical details, can be found here: