Tag Archives: China

Asian House Martin – Coming Soon To A Headland Near You?

Asian House Martin (Delichon dasypus) must be a candidate for vagrancy to Western Europe.  At least one of the three subspecies is a strong and long distance migrant. However, looking very similar to its common European sister-species, how many people would be able to identify one?

The nominate Asian House Martin is perhaps the most likely to wander.  It breeds in southeast Russia, the Kuril Islands, Japan and Korea and migrates through eastern China to winter in the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, the Philippines, Java and Sumatra.

Ssp cashmeriensis breeds in the Himalayas from Afghanistan east to Sikkim and northwards into Tibet and western and central China. It is a short-range migrant, mainly wintering at lower altitudes in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The third race, ssp nigrimentalis, breeds in southeastern China. Its wintering grounds are unknown, but birds in Taiwan apparently just move to lower altitudes in winter.

In eastern China any sighting of a House Martin is notable.  I have seen a handful of both Asian and Northern House Martins at Laotieshan in Liaoning Province but, in a sign of just how scarce they are in this region, I have still not seen one of either species in Beijing (they are passage migrants and seen in small numbers each spring and autumn – clearly I just haven’t been trying hard enough!).

A recent visit to Chang Bai Shan in Jilin Province, northeast China, provided an opportunity to get to grips with Asian House Martin as several pairs were nest-building on our hotel, allowing some fantastic views.  Capturing any hirundine in flight with a camera is not easy, and the images below won’t win any prizes, but they do show some of the features to look out for in separating Asian House Martin from Northern House Martin.  It’ll be worth making a mental note of these features when checking out those late autumn migrants….!

Asian House Martin (Delichon dasypus), 27 September 2011, Laotieshan, Liaoning Province, China. A typical flight view from a migration hotspot in excellent light. Even with a relatively distant view, the dusky underparts – sometimes even a greyish-washed breastband as shown on this bird – contrasting with the white throat and the dark underwing coverts are all visible.

Asian House Martin, Chang Bai Shan, June 2012. This image was taken at much closer range and in heavily overcast conditions. Again, note the dusky underparts contrasting with the white throat, the dark underwing coverts and the squarish tail.

There are several features that, with decent views, should enable identification of a vagrant Asian House Martin.  Structurally, Asian House Martin is smaller, more compact, shorter- and squarer-tailed than Northern but these characteristics aren’t necessarily easy to ascertain on a single bird.

On plumage, one feature that I have found helpful in the field, is the colour of the underwing coverts.  In the images above, taken in both sunny and dull conditions respectively, one can see the relatively dark underwing coverts, a consistent feature of Asian House Martin.  Compare with this image of a Northern House Martin.  The paler underwing coverts of Northern are not usually as prominent as shown in this linked image (taken in strong light) and can often appear concolourous with the rest of the underwing but a House Martin with obviously dark underwing coverts should be Asian.  Note also the deeply forked tail on Northern House Martin relative to the more shallow, ‘squarer’ tail of Asian.

Asian House Martin, Chang Bai Shan, June 2012. Note the dark speckling in the rump, another good feature of Asian House Martin.

Another feature is the rump.  On Asian House Martin the white rump is usually relatively small and can appear ‘flecked’ with dark streaks, as in the above image.  On Northern the white rump is larger (due to more of the uppertail coverts being white) and is usually clean white.

Asian House Martin, Chang Bai Shan, Jilin Province, China, June 2012.

Asian House Martin, Chang Bai Shan, Jilin Province, China.  This image shows the dark feathering under the lower mandible.  On Northern House Martin, the chin is white.

Another subtle feature to distinguish these two species is the amount of black on the face.  Compare the two images above of Asian with the image of Northern.   The black on the face generally extends a little lower on Asian, producing a dark ‘chin’.  Tough to see in the field but, with good photos, this should be discernible.

Finally, check out these excellent images from John Holmes in Hong Kong showing the full range of features.   The contrast between the dusky underparts and the bright white throat is often the most obvious feature of Asian House Martin in the field.

So, in summary, the combination of a smallish white rump (sometimes flecked), dark underwing coverts, ‘dirty’ underparts contrasting with a clean white throat, a shorter, squarer tail and a darker ‘face’ are all characteristics associated with Asian House Martin.   Maybe one will turn up at your migration watchpoint this 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: http://birdingbeijing.com/2011/11/13/laotieshan-the-trip-report/ 

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.