An Exotic Robin in China

By Terry

When most birders think of exotic robins in China, it’s images of Blackthroat, Rufous-headed Robin or Siberian Rubythroat that come to mind.  However, at a 15th century World Heritage Site in the heart of Beijing, it’s a different species that has captured the imagination of local birders and photographers on an unprecedented scale.

On 10 November 2014 a local bird photographer posted onto a Chinese photography forum some photos he had taken in the Temple of Heaven Park.  It was a bird he had not seen before.  Sharp-eyed local birders Huang Hanchen and Li Xiaomai quickly spotted the images, posting them onto the Birding Beijing WeChat group, where they caused quite a stir.  It was a EUROPEAN ROBIN!  WOW!! (“BOOM” hasn’t yet caught on in Chinese birding circles).

The following day I was on site at dawn, together with 3 young Chinese birders.  The only directions we had were vague at best – “the northwest section“.  Temple of Heaven Park is a huge site and, after a 3-hour search, there was no sign of the exotic visitor.  My 3 companions decided to leave to look for a Brown-eared Bulbul (another Beijing rarity) that had been reported in Jingshan Park.  I decided to walk one more circuit around an area of shrubs that looked the most likely spot for a Robin.  Along the last line of shrubs I suddenly heard a call – one that I immediately recognised from home.  It was hard to believe, and I almost felt embarrassed, but my heart leapt!  Immediately afterwards, a blurred shape made a dart from a bush, across the path in front of me, deep into the base of another thick shrub.  It was a full 5 minutes before I was able to secure a clear view.  It was still here – a European Robin!!  I hurriedly sent out a message to the group and, just a few minutes later, the original 3 birders were back and we all enjoyed intermittent views of what was, at that time, a very elusive bird.

Little did we know what a fuss this bird would cause.  Over the next few days the local bird photographers flocked to the site and, on a single day that week, there were over 150 photographers present (see below).  It was a scene reminiscent of a “first for Britain” and, despite a similar but much smaller scale twitch two years ago for another robin – Japanese Robin – this was something I had not seen in China before….

Bird photographers at the Temple of Heaven Park a few days after the initial sighting.  Photo by China Youth Daily

Bird photographers at the Temple of Heaven Park a few days after the initial sighting. Photo by China Youth Daily

As is often the case in China (as well as large parts of Asia), some of the photographers immediately began putting out mealworms and created artificial perches for the bird to try to create the conditions for the most aesthetically pleasing photos possible.  It wasn’t long before the robin became habituated and performed spectacularly for the assembled masses.

And the interest in this bird has not dwindled.  As I write this, on 6 December, there are still many photographers on site, almost four weeks after the initial sighting.  Incredible.  It must be the most photographed EUROPEAN ROBIN ever.

6th December: still a good crowd of bird photographers almost 4 weeks after the Robin was first seen.

6th December: still a good crowd of bird photographers almost 4 weeks after the Robin was first seen.

During its stay, as well as bird photographers, this bird has attracted unprecedented attention from the Chinese media, with articles published in The China Daily (in English) and China Youth Daily (in Chinese), the latter reporting that this individual has come all the way from England!  There is no doubt that this vagrant – an ambassador for wild birds – has raised awareness among many people in Beijing about the importance of Beijing’s parks for wild birds and generated an appreciation for the birds that can be found in the capital.

A species that we take for granted in Europe, this bird’s presence is a reminder both that the European Robin is a stunningly beautiful bird and that watching rare birds is all relative.  In Europe birders dream of finding a SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT or visiting China to see the enigmatic BLACKTHROAT.  In Beijing, it’s a EUROPEAN ROBIN that gets the juices flowing….  and rightly so….!

The world's most photographed EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula), Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, 3 December 2014

The world’s most photographed EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula), Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, 3 December 2014

Status of EUROPEAN ROBIN in China.

The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) has recently been discovered as a regular winter visitor, in small numbers, to western Xinjiang, in the far northwest of China.  It is very rare further east, with just one previous record in Beijing, a bird that spent the winter in the grounds of Peking University in 2007-2008.  


5 thoughts on “An Exotic Robin in China

  1. Pingback: European robin, very rare in China | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. adam hutt

    Part of the story missing is that a bird trapper tried to catch the bird early in its stay but vigils by birders put a stop to it.

  3. Terry Townshend Post author

    Adam, thanks. It is true that bird trappers operate in the Temple of Heaven. Birds such as robins and chats are particularly vulnerable when they are fed by photographers as they become habituated and become easy to catch with a simple trap. At the beginning of the robin’s stay, a well-known trapper was seen in the vicinity and he was moved on by birders and photographers. Thankfully, bird photographers have been on site from dawn to dusk so far, which acts as a deterrent to the poachers. However, it’s impossible for birders and photographers to “police” the site at all times… That is why we approached the China Daily to write an article about this bird, highlighting the risks it faced. The China Daily approached the Temple of Heaven authorities to ask them what they will do to safeguard the bird and you can see the comment from them in the article. By showing that wild birds are an attraction for the park and by highlighting the reputational risks of allowing illegal behaviour inside a World Heritage Site, we hope that there will be pressure to make bird trapping a thing of the past in the Temple of Heaven. It’s only one of many large parks in Beijing, but it’s a start. Thanks again, Terry

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