Tag Archives: Beijing

GREENISH WARBLER: new for Beijing and the missing link?

The discovery of breeding GREENISH-type WARBLERS in Beijing could represent part of the missing link between the central Chinese form obscuratus and what is now known as TWO-BARRED (plumbeitarus) from NE China and Siberia  

All my life I have found nature fascinating, usually amazing and often surprising.  But every now and again something happens that just blows me away.

In July, when Paul Holt and I found a small population of Greenish-type Warblers (Phylloscopus trochiloides) at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, I had no idea that the discovery could represent a missing link in the distribution of what is thought be one of few examples of a “ring species”.

The Greenish Warblers are widespread leaf warblers whose breeding range extends from temperate northeastern Europe to subtropical continental Asia. They are strongly migratory and most winter from India east to Thailand.

According to a theory first put forward by Ticehurst in 1938, Greenish Warblers were once confined to the southern portion of their range and then expanded northward along two pathways, evolving differences as they pushed north. When the two expanding fronts met in central Siberia (W Europe’s viridanus and Siberia’s plumbeitarus), they were different enough not to interbreed.  Hence plumbeitarus is now considered a separate species – TWO-BARRED WARBLER.

This unusual situation has been termed a ‘circular overlap’ or ‘ring species’, of which there are very few known examples.

greenish warbler map

“Map of Asia showing the six subspecies of the greenish warbler described by Ticehurst in 1938. The crosshatched blue and red area in central Siberia shows the contact zone between viridanus and plumbeitarsus, which do not interbreed. Colours grade together where Ticehurst described gradual morphological change. The gap in northern China is most likely the result of habitat destruction.” (emphasis added)

Source: http://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~irwin/GreenishWarblers.html

As one might expect when looking at the map, in Beijing we are used to seeing TWO-BARRED WARBLERS (P. plumbeitarus) on migration as they make their way to and from their breeding grounds in NE China and Siberia.  However, until a few weeks ago, there were no records in the capital of any of the races of GREENISH (P. trochiloides).

Fast forward to 22 June 2015 and Paul Holt and I were in the middle of a 3-day trip to explore Beijing’s highest mountain – Lingshan.  We had already encountered the albocoeruleus form of RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL, until very recently thought to be confined to a handful of sites in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces, more than 1,000 km to the southwest.

 In a relatively small piece of woodland on a northeastern facing slope Paul suddenly heard the distant song of a Greenish-type warbler.

 Fortunately the path we were following led us towards the sound and, after walking a little further, we could soon hear, and later see, the songster.  It was clear that it wasn’t alone and, during the next couple of hours we encountered at least four singing birds.  Paul focused on recording the song (see below) as I tried to snatch a photo or two as it flitted almost non-stop amongst the thick foliage in the canopy of the birch trees.

2015-06-22-greenish-warbler-lingshan

GREENISH WARBLER, Lingshan, 22 June 2015.  The only decent photo I was able to capture!

Paul was confident that these birds were not TWO-BARRED WARBLERS and most likely belonged to the obscuratus form of GREENISH WARBLER.

At this point it’s worth outlining the key plumage differences between GREENISH and TWO-BARRED:

  • Two-barred is fractionally stronger billed than the viridanus Greenish we see in W. Europe but these figures probably don’t hold up too well when comparing it with the more poorly known obscuratus of Qinghai and Gansu.
  • A typical Two-barred should have a broader greater covert wing bar that extends on to more inner greater coverts than viridanus – a greater covert bar that doesn’t taper towards the inner wing as conspicuously as it does on viridanus.
  • Two-barred usually also has a second (median covert) wing-bar & this is often whitish or even white – this second bar is rare on viridanus (& when present is indistinct & typically not white).
  • A median covert wing-bar is commonly seen on obscuratus (Paul Holt, pers. obs).
  • Two-barred is also slightly darker above & whiter below than viridanus – but again that’s difficult/impossible to discern on a lone bird & in any case obscuratus has the darkest upperparts of any subspecies of Greenish Warbler (& is often contrastingly darker on the crown then inviting confusion with Large-billed Leaf Warbler P. magnirostris).
  • Two-barred often (‘but not always’ sic Svensson 1992) has a pale yellowish supercilium while obscuratus is ‘apparently on average’ whiter here.

A recording of the Lingshan Greenish Warbler is below.  Note that the interval between strophes has been shortened for convenience.

 

We thought that this newly discovered population was most likely the obscuratus form of GREENISH WARBLER rather than plumbeitarsus (TWO-BARRED WARBLER).  Or is it an intermediate form between obscuratus and plumbeitarus?

We are keen to hear the views of others with experience of these species.  If it is obscuratus, the find represents the first record for Beijing of GREENISH WARBLER.

Perhaps supporting the identification as obscuratus, it’s worth noting that there are two other species from Gansu/Qinghai that have recently been discovered breeding on mountains in or nearby Beijing  – “Gansu” Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanus albocoeruleus) at Haituoshan (a forested mountain in Hebei immediately to the north of Beijing) and Lingshan and Large-billed Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus magnirostris) at Wulingshan (a forested mountain in Hebei immediately to the northeast of the Chinese capital).  It seems likely that small pockets of forest on some of Beijing’s higher mountains are supporting small disjunct populations of these relatively high elevation species, helping to fill in the gap in the map above (attributed to habitat loss).

The finding begs the question: are there other species from the Gansu/Qinghai area that could yet be discovered in the capital?  Grey-headed Bullfinch, Chestnut Thrush and Chinese White-browed Rosefinch are possible candidates…  In any case the Lingshan Greenish-type Warblers provide yet more evidence that there is still so much to be discovered in Beijing, the most well-watched part of China, let alone the rest of this vast country.

 

The New Garden: Full Of Eastern Promise

By Terry

OK so it’s not, strictly speaking, my “garden”.. but I am claiming the area of scrub next to my new apartment block in suburban Beijing as my new patch.   And in just 10 days since I moved in, and only three visits, I have racked up a list of species that would do Fair Isle proud.  
Shunyi patch5

The new local patch.

Shunyi patch3

My new apartment block viewed from the patch

Shunyi patch2

This area of poplars has already produced Taiga Flycatcher and Little Bunting.

At the beginning of May I moved apartments to a suburb in northeast Beijing.  It’s close to the metro, a new shopping centre, a good mix of Chinese and western restaurants and, importantly, it provides easy access to some of Beijing’s best birding spots such as Miyun Reservoir and Wild Duck Lake.  A bonus was discovering a relatively wild area of scrub close by and, in just three short visits, it has produced some quality birds.  Yet more evidence that the migration through China’s capital is on a scale that is hard to beat.  At this time of year, almost any green patch will attract birds.  Birding in Beijing continues to surprise and delight.

My first visit to the new local patch was when I was simply walking to the closest metro station, without binoculars.  I stumbled across an Oriental Scops Owl roosting close to the path.  Astonishingly I managed to photograph it using only my iPhone.

Taken using only an iPhone, this ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL was the first species I recorded on the new local patch!

Taken using only an iPhone, this ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL was the first species I recorded on the new local patch!

Not surprisingly, this chance occurrence prompted a more dedicated birding visit and so, during an early morning hour before breakfast the following day, I logged Oriental Turtle Dove, Dusky Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler, Eye-browed Thrush, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Taiga Flycatcher, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Olive-backed Pipit and Little and Yellow-throated Buntings.  Not bad!

2015-05-05 Olive-backed Pipit, Wenyu He

Olive-backed Pipits have so far been a common migrant at the local patch with up to 10 present at any one time.

 

2015-05-07 Taiga Flycatcher, Shunyi2

Taiga Flycatcher is a common migrant through Beijing in spring and autumn. Their ‘rattle’ is a frequent accompaniment to a walk through any green space in early May.

 

A second dedicated visit produced singing Two-barred Greenish Warbler, more Olive-backed Pipits, Richard’s Pipit, Common Rosefinch and a flyover Oriental Honey Buzzard.

2015-05-05 Richard's Pipit, Wenyu He

A flight call is usually the first sign that a Richard’s Pipit is on the patch.

 

And on my way to the metro station this morning I encountered a stunning Radde’s Warbler, singing its heart out next to the path.

So far I have recorded 38 species and I am certain I am only scratching the surface.  My target for the end of May is 50 species…  and my (ambitious?) target for the end of the year is 75. Will I make it? Watch this space!

 

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.  

 

Tracking ‘pekinensis’ Common Swifts

By Terry

 We know very little about the migration route and wintering grounds of pekinensis Common Swifts.  This project, a collaboration between Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, the Beijing Birdwatching Society and the Summer Palace, aims to change that by using ultra-lightweight geolocators.   
 

 

A 'pekinensis' Swift fitted with one of the ultra-lightweight geolocators.

A ‘pekinensis’ Swift fitted with an ultra-lightweight geolocator.

In December, during a BirdLife drinks reception coinciding with a work visit to London, I had a chance encounter with Dick Newell who, as anyone who knows him will testify, is passionate about Swifts.  He coordinates the Action For Swifts website and helped to organise the International Swift Conference in April this year, as well as being involved in all manner of swift conservation projects.

During our conversation, covering a range of Chinese birds, we spoke about ‘pekinensis‘ Swifts, the subspecies of Common Swift that breeds in China.  Dick waxed lyrical about how cool it would be to develop a project to fit geolocators to the ‘pekinensis‘ Swifts in Beijing to find out where they spent the winter (thought to be southern Africa), and what route they took to and from China.  I briefed him on the annual swift ringing programme that took place at the Summer Palace, Beijing, arranged by the Beijing Birdwatching Society (BBWS) and straight away his eyes lit up….  “Perfect.  Leave it with me” he said…  If I could speak to the BBWS about their willingness to participate in a geolocator project for their swifts, Dick would investigate sourcing some geolocators and arrange a visit to Beijing with Lyndon Kearsley from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, a very experienced ringer and a veteran of projects to fit geolocators to Common and Pallid Swifts in Europe.

A few short weeks later, with the generous help of Susanne Åkesson from Lund University in Sweden, Dick had sourced a total of 31 geolocators and we were arranging dates for Dick and Lyndon to visit Beijing to work with, and train, the BBWS folks to fit this amazing technology to the resident swifts.

Saturday 24 May was the big day and, after rising at 0400, I met Dick and Lyndon, together with Wu Lan from the BBWS (who has worked miracles to ensure the Chinese authorities were comfortable with the project) and by 0515 we were in the pavilion at the Summer Palace where the very efficient BBWS team had already erected the nets and had started to catch swifts.

Retrieving the first 'pekinensis' Common Swift (Apus apus) from the net.

Retrieving the first ‘pekinensis’ Common Swift (Apus apus pekinensis) from the net.

Lyndon set to work and, having trained several teams from the BBWS the previous evening about how to fit the geolocators, the first pioneering birds began to be fitted with their ultra-lightweight backpacks.

Lyndon Kearsley preparing the geolocators.

Lyndon Kearsley preparing the geolocators.

These geolocators do not allow the birds to be satellite-tracked – that still requires technology too heavy for a swift – instead, to collect the data, the birds must be re-trapped at a later date.  That is why it was so fortunate that almost all of the birds fitted with geolocators today had been ringed at the same site in previous years, proving that the individuals to whom the backpacks have been fitted are site-loyal.  This gives us all hope that there will be a significant re-capture rate next year, allowing us to find out for the first time where these birds spend the winter and what route they take on migration.  Exciting stuff!

Lyndon and Zhang Shen from Beijing Birdwatching Society fitting a geolocator.

Lyndon and Zhang Shen from Beijing Birdwatching Society fitting a geolocator.

It was heartening to see the interest shown by the BBWS and, despite the rain that persisted throughout, it was a real family occasion with many young children, students, parents and grandparents turning out to volunteer.  There were huge smiles all around when the swift carrying the first geolocator was released… It powered into the air, seemingly oblivious to both the special package it was carrying and the excitement among the group that, very soon, we will know much more about the famous Summer Palace swifts of Beijing.

The BBWS took the opportunity of the swift ringing to brief visiting school children about the importance of bird conservation.

The BBWS took the opportunity of the swift ringing to brief visiting school children about the importance of bird conservation.

Having come directly from working with Common Swifts in Europe, it was interesting that both Dick and Lyndon said very early on how ‘brown’ these pekinensis birds are compared with Common Swift in Europe and also how the call was closer to Pallid Swift than Common… We hope to record some calls over the next few weeks to enable some analysis and comparisons with nominate Common and Pallid to be made.

A huge thank you to Dick and Lyndon for sourcing the geolocators and visiting Beijing to fit them, as well as training the BBWS team and spreading the word about swifts at universities here; to Wu Lan and the team at BBWS, especially Ms Fu Jianping and Mr Zhao, who have been instrumental in making everything happen at this end, and to the authorities at The Summer Palace for allowing this project to go ahead and for taking so much interest in these special birds that have chosen this most famous of Beijing landmarks as their home.

Seeing this project set up from nothing in less than 6 months, the lesson that I draw from all this is that I should drink more beer!

Some more photos from the day below.

The data centre.  Volunteers from the BBWS log all the vital statistics during the ringing programme.

The data centre. Volunteers from the BBWS log all the vital statistics during the ringing programme.

Lyndon releasing a 'pekinensis' Swift fitted with a geolocator.

Lyndon releasing a ‘pekinensis’ Swift fitted with a geolocator with Dick in the background recording the moment.

 

 

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART in Beijing!

By Terry Townshend

Przevalski’s Redstart is endemic to China.  It breeds in Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia Provinces and is a very rare winter vagrant to eastern China

BOOM!  On Saturday 15 February I found a male Przevalski’s Redstart (Alashan Redstart, Phoenicurus alaschanicus) at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain.  This is the first record in Beijing for at least 20 years and is possibly only the second ever.

Przevalski's Redstart (Phoenicurus alaschanicus), Lingshan, Beijing, 15 February 2014.

Przevalski’s Redstart (Phoenicurus alaschanicus), Lingshan, Beijing, 15 February 2014.

GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART (left) chasing the PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART (right), Lingshan, 15 February 2014.

GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART (left) chasing the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (right), Lingshan, 15 February 2014.

Przevalski’s (don’t ask me to pronounce it) is arguably the most attractive and one of the most sought-after redstarts in China.  It is a high-altitude specialist, breeding on rocky and scrub-covered slopes above 3,300 metres and descending to 2,000 metres in winter.  Lingshan in Beijing has a peak of 2,303 metres and the altitude of the current bird is around 1800 metres.  It’s in the company of several Guldenstadt’s Redstarts (White-winged Redstart, Phoenicurus erythrogastrus).

Full story here.  Anyone visiting Beijing and wanting to see it, please contact me for precise location details.

 

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.

Hope.

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.

https://www.justgiving.com/Jankowskis-Bunting

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.

Discovering Birds in Beijing

by Terry

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.

Common Cranes against a mountain backdrop, Yeyahu NR, Beijing. In more than 20 visits to this site in prime migration season, I have seen fewer than 5 birders.

  • 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.

Siberian Blue Robin. One of the ‘sibes’ that can be seen in Beijing’s parks in spring and autumn.

  • 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.

A local shellfish digger in Liaoning Province enjoys his first taste of wader watching.