Friday 2nd February 2018

A quest in the mist

The weekend of 20th and 21st January involved an exciting trip north from Shanghai to look for Red-crowned Cranes, perhaps one of the most culturally significant birds in both China and Japan. The aim was to visit one of their principal wintering grounds near Yancheng, where between 600 and 1000 of these birds spend the colder months of the year. The total World population of this iconic species is estimated at just 2750 wild birds, so we were certainly keen to see them.

The weekend was organised by my friends at Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China, an organisation dedicated to saving that species, and was led by Zhang Lin, one of eastern China’s top birders, known by his followers as Master Zhang.

The group met on the Friday evening in Shanghai, and we then drove north to the small fishing port of Shuilonggang, where we checked into our slightly basic hotel for a short but surprisingly comfortable night followed by a delicious breakfast.

We then continued our journey northwards, eventually arriving at Xinyang, a small town near the renowned Yancheng Red-crowned Crane Reserve, and we checked our bags into our hotel for the coming night before heading out to start our search.

The group getting started on the Saturday morning

What we had not bargained for was thick fog. Cranes are not easy to see in fog, and neither are any birds! However, we did succeed in finding quite a number of interesting species even in spite of the adverse weather conditions, including large numbers of Common Cranes, Bean Geese, Pallas’ Reed Buntings and Chestnut-eared Buntings. But surely the best bird at our first stop was one that I had only seen once before, near Tianjin, and then only distantly, the extraordinary-looking and near threatened Reed Parrotbill.

Reed Parrotbill is a range-restricted eastern Chinese endemic species

With its strange, stubby bill, the Reed Parrotbill is an unusual-looking bird

This bird, which looks like a larger version of a Bearded Tit, but with a stubby, yellow bill, has a limited range in eastern China and is entirely restricted to reedbeds, a habitat type that is disappearing fast. It is very vocal, and has a wide variety of different calls, including a high-pitched piping trill. We were treated to outstanding views of these agile, long-tailed birds, and we were able to see why Parrotbills have such a powerful bill: they use it to tear into the reed stems, and they then eat the pithy interior. I had expected them to eat the reed seeds, but clearly they love the inside of the reed stalks.

Reed Parrotbills use their strong bills to rip into the reed stems

We spent most of the rest of the day cruising along tree-lined bunds between fields, and we scoured as much of the area as we possibly could, finding about four Hooded Cranes among their commoner cousins, but the magnificent white, majestic figure of the Red-crowned Crane was nowhere to be found. Other highlights included Naumann’s Thrush, Spoonbills and a few Oriental White Storks, which are almost as splendid and almost as rare as the mythical cranes.

Common Cranes were much in evidence

Naumann’s Thrush was a bird I had only encountered once before, In Japan

A large flock of Spoonbills could just be made out through the murk

We finally retired to our hotel for a dinner and an early night. I was unable to understand the Chinese instructions on the air conditioning remote control and must have pushed a button that blocked the heating off completely, so I had a freezing night!

Sunday dawned even foggier, but we were out early and the quest for the Red-crowned Cranes continued, with even less visibility. In spite of this, we had more close encounters with the Reed Parrotbills, which again were ripping the reed stems to get at the pithy interior.

It was chilly in the fog on the Sunday morning

Visibility was worse than the previous day

A Reed Parrotbill posing through the mist

The Reed Parrotbill was ripping its way into the reed stem

We could hear Common Cranes calling as they passed over us in the fog, and then a much deeper bugling alerted us to the fact that our quarry was there, just above us, but invisible in the fog. This happened on three occasions, and suddenly all members of the group except me had seen four Red-crowned Cranes through a slightly clearer patch of mist, but try as I might, I just could not see them. I was mortified!

Searching for cranes in fog is a discouraging activity

A Chestnut-eared Bunting showed through the fog

We continued our search throughout the morning, but to no avail. Our guide Zhang Lin suggested that we visit the main official tourist park, where at least we would see captive Red-crowned Cranes, so we drove to the main entrance and walked into the park. The main building features a tower themed on a crane’s head.

The Red-crowned Crane reserve at Yancheng

The main tower is shaped like a crane’s head

Beyond this is a large area of pools and reedbeds, but there was no sign of any crane activity at all. We then started walking along a long straight roadway, and we were treated to the rare sight of no fewer than twelve Oriental White Storks circling high overhead.

Oriental Storks are almost as rare as Red-crowned Cranes

And then, just as we were thinking of giving up, two magnificent, elegantly gliding white birds appeared low in the sky far ahead of us, and a quick look through the binoculars revealed them to be Red-crowned Cranes, with their black secondaries and necks contrasting with their pure white plumage. The mist had by this time cleared, and the sun illuminated these splendid birds beautifully.

Distant though they were, there was no mistaking this pair of Red-crowned Cranes; our objective at last

We then went on to see another three, this time on the ground against a reedbed on the far side of a large pool. Unusually, all three members of this family appeared to be adult birds. So finally, after so much effort, our quest was fulfilled and we had seen the Red-crowned Cranes, the birds we had so ardently pursued.

Three distant Red-crowned Cranes, apparently in a family party, yet all three adult birds

Just before departing, I briefly inspected the area in which the captive birds were kept. I was rather dismayed to find a strange semi-circular structure divided into small pens, in each of which was a captive Red-crowned Crane, each bird with hardly room to move. In one pen, there was a lone African Wattled Crane. What it was doing there I have no idea. Apparently these birds are let out in front of an audience to dance for the tourists. What an undignified destiny for the bird that symbolizes dignity.

Is it really necessary to keep Red-crowned Cranes like this?

And so this highly enjoyable trip came to an end. My thanks go to the entire group, especially Zhang Lin, the master birder, Lisa, his co-driver and the powerhouse of Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China, and to my dear friend Ziyou, who alerted me to these weekend birding trips and whose impressive winter hat makes a fine spectacle!

The team with Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China banner


Monday 4th December 2017

Another weekend of extraordinary contrasts

This weekend has been quite a rollercoaster of visual contrasts. I had been invited to participate in a group excursion of the Shanghai Birding Group, so I left Suzhou on Friday evening and stayed over in a hotel in Shanghai with a couple of my new birding friends, and we were duly picked up at 05.30 on Saturday morning for the drive to Nanhui, the fabulous but gravely endangered birding area out on the coast beyond Pudong International Airport.

We arrived at the northern end of this highly important wildlife area just as it was getting light, and within a few minutes, we were treated to a wonderful sighting of a Brown-cheeked Rail, which appeared on the edge of a pool, skulking in and out of the waterside vegetation and every now and then rewarding us with outstanding views of what is normally a highly elusive species. A great start.

We worked our way southwards along the seawall road, meeting up with various other car-loads of Chinese birders who had also been invited along, and eventually we arrived at what is known as “the magic parking lot”, and it lived up to its magical reputation for turning up some marvelous birds again on this occasion.

The car park is favoured by Chinese bird photographers, who place live mealworms on a couple of hunks of wood, and this bait lures the birds in, and it was not long before we were treated to outstanding views of an extraordinarily beautiful male Japanese Robin. Unlike the familiar European Robin, this species has a fiery orange face and breast, bordered below by a deep slaty-grey band. It is not common at all on the China coast, least of all this late in the year, and we savoured this splendid viewing for quite some time.

The Japanese Robin put on a splendid show

The photographers in the Magic Parking Lot are almost as much of a sight as the birds they photograph

Hair-crested Drongo was a nice bird to see; the hair crest can just be seen sticking up from its forehead

A Blue Rock Thrush of the race philippensis posed nicely on the seawall

An Osprey sat on a post offshore

The Shanghai birding group team

The rest of the day was spent birding along the coast and at the nearby Dishui Lake, and by the end of the day we had notched up a respectable list of 72 species. We then headed back towards the city, and ended what had been a great day with some German beer and food in the newly opened Paulaner Bräuhaus, which was well worth a visit.

Sunday morning saw the three of us who were staying in the hotel meeting again at 06.00AM, and heading on the metro to Century Park, a sort of Shanghainese equivalent of Central Park in New York. We birded that park intensively between around 7.00 and 11.00AM, when the crowds began to build up, and reached 32 species of bird, not a bad total for a park in the centre of a huge city (by some measures, Earth’s largest metropolis). The total included some quite interesting birds, including Red-billed Starling (a lifer for me), Pallas’s and Yellow-browed Warblers, Chinese Grosbeak, Azure-winged Magpies, Dusky, Pale and White’s Thrush, and Hoopoe.

Century Park is an oasis of calm in the teeming city of Shanghai

Looking north across the lake in the park

These flats have a good view of the park

The lotus plants have died back for the winter now

Night Herons are not rare in Shanghai

A splendid gingko tree in all its autumn finery

A charming bridge in Century Park

There are some quite wild parts in the corners of the park

Little did I know that I would be near the top of the tallest building later that day

We then headed to the metro station, and I split from the others as I had arranged to meet my ex-boss and friend Brian in the skyscraper zone of Pudong for lunch, and when I emerged from the underground station, I was confronted by a plethora of stupendous buildings towering into the sky above me.

Completed in 1994, the Pearl Oriental TV Tower was the tallest building in Shanghai until 2007

Futuristic skyscape in Pudong

The Shanghai Tower stands proudly above all its neighbours

We first wandered down to the waterfront, directly opposite the stately buildings of the Bund, symbols of western power during the early half of the 20th century. These are utterly dwarfed by the immense structures on the Pudong side.

The stately buildings along the Bund as seen from Pudong

After lunch, we headed for the tallest of all, the unimaginatively named Shanghai Tower. Designed with a unique curve that twists all the way up the 632 metres to the top, this structure is currently the second tallest building in the World.

The Shanghai Towers towers over its neighbour, the 492m World Financial Center, nicknamed “The Bottle-opener”

After some difficulty in finding the entrance, we were surprised at having to go down two floors in order to then go up, but then we shot up in what are apparently the fastest lifts on Earth, travelling at 18 metres/second. I was surprised that I did not feel dizzy rising at this pace, but it was a smooth ride, and despite the air pollution and haze that obscured the view from the viewing platform on the 118th floor, the vistas in all directions were quite simply stupendous. All the other skyscrapers nearby were like toys in comparison to this monster, and I found myself almost at a loss for words. The pictures say it all.

The Huangpu River curves its way through Shanghai

The other buildings in Pudong look like toys from this extraordinary viewpoint

The Jinmao Tower looks tiny in comparison

“The Bottle-opener” is an appropriate nickname for the second highest building in Shanghai

These blocks of flats are not small in themselves, yet they look insignificant from this height


Wednesday 29th November 2017

Into the frozen North

Last weekend was one of the highlights of my time in China to date. Friday afternoon saw me hurrying to Shanghai to meet a group of birdwatchers and to catch the bullet train for a 1000km journey north to Tianjin, a vast metropolis with 15.5 million inhabitants and apparently the sixth largest city on Earth. The journey took just 3 hours and 20 minutes, indicating that our average speed was well over 300kph.

The most noticeable difference was immediately apparent when we stepped out of the train: a dramatically lower temperature. Luckily we were able to find a taxi fairly quickly, and we were soon in the warmth of our hotel, where we spent the night before a really great day of birding.

We piled into our minibus in the morning, and headed out through the seemingly endless industrial outskirts of Tianjin, aiming for the renowned site of Beidagang, a reservoir to the south-east of the city with large areas of reed and a convenient causeway across the middle that facilitates watching on both sides.

An icy temperature greeted us when we stepped out of the vehicle, but once the sun started exerting its influence, the bright weather and large numbers of birds combined to lift our spirits. The Chinese members of the group (all but two) were excited by a group of Mute Swans, and a huge flock of Avocets attracted our attention in the far distance, along with large numbers of Goosanders and other ducks far away across the lake.

A huge flock of Avocets flies over the Beidagang lake, with Mute Swans in the foreground

Industry rarely seems to be out of sight while birdwatching in China

My attention was quickly drawn to a by now familiar call on the other side of the causeway, in the reeds. I immediately recognized this as perhaps the bird I most wanted to see here in eastern China, the enigmatic and endangered Reed Parrotbill. I had missed it on my two visits to Nanhui, a well-known site near Shanghai, and I was determined to see it this time. Searching for reed-loving birds can often be frustrating, but it was not long before a long-tailed bird with whirring wings flew across and landed in full view near the top of some reeds, and there was my first “lifer” of the weekend. We later went on to see at least twenty of these unusual-looking birds, with their stumpy yellowish bill, grey head with a bold, curving black eyestripe and long, graduated tail. This species is endangered due to the ongoing destruction of reedbeds, and I was delighted to acquaint myself with this very special bird.

Reed Parrotbill was a bird I had long hoped to see

The causeway provided excellent views over the lake on one side and reeds on the other

We then reached the far end of the lake, and headed on up a parallel road. A look away over the reeds revealed some very large but very distant white birds, and a telescope examination confirmed my second “lifer” of the trip, another endangered species and one that I had long dreamt of seeing, the stately Oriental White Stork. We finally managed to see up to 100 of these magnificent birds, a very significant proportion of the entire World population of perhaps 3000 birds. Larger than the European White Stork, and with a black rather than a red bill, and a piercing white eye, this bird is still on the decline. It breeds in north-eastern China and adjoining parts of Russia. It is apparently still illegally hunted, as well as suffering from the destruction of its nesting trees, collisions with power cables (one bird we saw had one of its legs dangling uselessly beneath it as it flew past), and poisoning. Apparently over thirty of these storks were found poisoned here in 2012, victims of the extraordinary method of poaching of ducks and geese that occurs frequently in China; surely eating birds that have been poisoned can hardly be a healthy option for humans, yet still it goes on.

The large white birds in the distance turned out to be Oriental Storks

The Oriental Stork is larger than its much commoner European cousin

The black flight feathers of the Oriental Stork show a whitish area on the upper side

A group of Eurasian Spoonbills, with a flock of Bean Geese beyond

While watching these storks, along with large numbers of Bean Geese, my third “lifer” of the day appeared, perched on top of a signpost: a Chinese Grey Shrike. Larger and with more extensive white on the wing than the similar Great Grey Shrike, this bird was distant but clearly identifiable, and I savoured my view of this attractive species.

A distant Chinese Grey Shrike posed on a signpost

A stately group of Great White Egrets and a Grey Heron provided a beautiful composition

After a photo stop with one of the staff members of this reservoir reserve, we headed off towards the coast of the Bohai Gulf, and we stopped at a scruffy area near the seawall. Unfortunately, the tide was way out, and other than a few Eurasian Curlews it seemed at first that we were not destined to see much here, but soon a small gull flew along, looking similar to the familiar Black-headed Gull, but smaller, and with a shorter, more stubby black bill, another vulnerable species, the Saunders’s Gull.

I was already familiar with this attractive little gull, which I used to see in small numbers in Japan, but here we were treated to views of perhaps twenty individuals, a privilege considering that the total population of this bird probably does not exceed 15,000 to 20,000 individuals.

More exciting still was a line of more distant gulls, the species that we had really come here to see, the Relict Gull. This species breeds around high-altitude salt lakes in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and adjacent parts of China and Russia, with an estimated population of around 10,000 birds. Until recently, it was not really known where the majority of these birds spend the winter. I saw it in Korea in the winter of 1990, at a most beautifully peaceful site at the mouth of the Naktong River, near Pusan; that place is now totally destroyed and converted into a huge container port. Now, however, it has been revealed that up to 7,000 of these delightful birds winter on the mudflats of the Haibin coast.

Relict Gulls can be recognised by the white eyelids that make their eyes look half closed, and the feathers that come a long way down their bills

From here, we headed along the heavily developed coast on a major road, and at one point I was very surprised to find myself looking at the former Soviet aircraft carrier Kiev, which was bought by a Chinese company after the collapse of the Soviet Union and is now the centrepiece of the Tianjin Aircraft Carrier World theme park.

The ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Kiev. Photo courtesy Binhai Aircraft Carrier Themepark

We finally checked another series of coastal pools, where we enjoyed a spectacular sunset and large numbers of Common Shelducks, before driving 120kms or so northwards to our hotel for the Saturday night, in Tangshan.

Even industrial landscapes can have a surprising beauty

Shelducks were numerous here

Evening near Tangshan

The nets here attracted large numbers of gulls

The evening light was spectacular

A tranquil scene in the sunset

Shelducks against the evening sun

The sun slipped down beyond the reeds

A vast new skyscraper thrusts its way upwards into the evening sky

Sunday morning saw us leaving our hotel, with its spectacular mural of Napoleon, at around 6.00AM, and a short drive took us towards the Bohai coast, where we found that it was colder than the previous morning, with a bitter wind, and it was with some reluctance that we emerged from our minibus on the windswept expanse of the Caofeidian marshes, a peninsula that juts out into the Bohai Gulf.

An impressive mural of Napoleon graced the lobby of our hotel

Large numbers of both White-naped and Red-crowned Cranes are supposed to winter here, but all we found was one distant Common Crane, that flew off long before we could approach it. A digger in the distance was an ill omen, and it later emerged that even though this is a Provincial Nature Reserve, it has recently been designated as the site of a future petrochemical plant. What are we humans doing? I find it utterly extraordinary that one of the last areas of relatively natural marshland on the whole of this coast, home to some of the rarest and most culturally significant birds, should be earmarked for destruction. A road is already under construction through the middle of this “reserve”, and the theory is that this disturbance has already frightened the cranes away. But where can they go when almost everywhere else is wrecked?

An icy sunrise over the Bohai Gulf

Only one Common Crane was to be seen, where White-naped Cranes should have been

Site of a future petrochemical plant. What are we doing?

These pools will soon be gone

Disappointed, we headed back towards Tianjin, and stopped for lunch in an almost deserted motorway rest area. Very few birds were visible from the road, and I was becoming despondent, thinking that we were destined to see nothing for the rest of the day. However, little did I know that we would be stopping at the Tuanbowa reservoir, and the bright sunshine and large numbers of birds here soon improved my mood.

The commonest species here was the Eurasian Coot, with Mute Swans and Great Crested Grebes adding to the homely feel. More interesting to me, however, were considerable numbers of Falcated Teal, a delightful bird that I used to see frequently on the lakes around Tokyo. Wigeon, Common Teal, Gadwall, Goosander, Goldeneye and large numbers of Smew were also here, and we spent some time scoping out across the lake in search of rarer species.

Tuanbowa Reservoir attracts numerous waterbirds

A telescope was necessary to identify the more distant birds

It was near the end of our time here, after we had moved to the northern end of the lake, that Nemo, our local guide, spotted a small group of Ferruginous Ducks close to the reeds on the far shore, and with them, two similar birds with whitish flanks. Unfortunately, they were asleep, and we could not see their heads, but we were almost certain that these were another drastically endangered species, the Baer’s Pochard. BirdLife International’s factsheet on this duck states: This species is classified as Critically Endangered as it is apparently undergoing an extremely rapid population decline, as measured by numbers on both the breeding and wintering grounds. It is now absent or occurs in extremely reduced numbers over the majority of its former breeding and wintering grounds and is common nowhere. It is thought that hunting and wetland destruction are the key reasons for its decline. Population size: 150-700.

By this time, excitement was high, but time was low, as we still had to reach Tianjin station in time to catch our trains home. However, just as we were about to leave, Nemo spotted another very special bird which swam through his telescope view as he was hoping that one of the almost-certain Baer’s Pochards would raise its head to clinch its identification: a splendid male Baikal Teal. This delightful little duck, with its green head and complicated yellow face pattern, was thought to be highly endangered until the late 1980s, when a number of vast flocks were discovered in South Korea, where over 95% of the global population overwinters. I had visited two of those lakes in the winter of 1990, and marveled at the vast concentration of these birds, which has been estimated at 400,000 individuals. Even to see one was a fitting end to this excellent weekend, and I look forward to birding again with this group at some future date.

Ferruginous Duck, probable Baer’s Pochard and definite Baikal Teal were a fine ending to a great weekend