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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: Happy Island and Beidaihe

2014 Tour Narrative

It didn’t take us long - we heard our first one during breakfast and in it came. In it came, right up to us in fact, flying in to the closest reeds. This was our first Reed Parrotbill, arguably the most attractive of China’s 20 species of parrotbill, and we saw it, and its mate, superbly well. Performing brilliantly it sat right up and allowed us all to admire it at length. No mistaking it, no mistaking its voice and a certainly no mistaking it in life! Tit came as no surprise to any of us that this gorgeous species would once again be voted Bird of the Trip in the end of tour poll. We were at Nanpu on the Hebei coast and were already on day nine at the start of the second week of our two week tour. Two days earlier we’d returned to the mainland after five nights on Happy Island and were quite rightly ecstatic.

The tour started smoothly with a flight that landed in Beijing, the historic Capital of this the world’s most populous nation, virtually one time! We then had a modest drive east, to the coast of neighbouring Hebei province, where we arrived in time for some initial, exploratory birding – birding that produced a modest number of our first Siberian bound migrants such as Tristram’s and Little Bunting. Day two yielded many, many, many more birds with an early morning raptor passage that included Crested Honey-buzzard, Eastern Marsh and a cracking male Pied Harrier, both Japanese and an early Chinese Sparrowhawk, a Grey-faced Buzzard that perched up for all to admire and two Amur Falcons. Small areas of woodland nearby on the mainland held our first Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Ashy Minivets, Pallas’s Leaf and Eastern Crowned Warblers and produced our first encounter with a Yellow-browed Bunting - always a highly prized gem.

The tidal mudflats close to the quay on the mainland here yielded surprising numbers of Little Terns (320), several vociferous Saunders’s Gulls and our first migrating marsh terns. It’s here too that we caught up with a good number of shorebirds for the first time – with Greater Sand Plovers, Asian Dowitchers, Eastern Curlews, Terek Sandpiper, Great Knots and Red-necked Stint all being well appreciated. We’d go on to see remarkable number of all of these exotic (well they were exotic for some of us!) species and many more later on in the tour.

We caught the high speed ferry over to Happy Island later that same afternoon and spent the ensuing five nights at this fabulous site. Currently, but only temporarily not an island (there’s a narrow, driveable causeway connecting it to the mainland) it really didn’t take us long to discover why Happy Island’s called what it is. Highlights of our stay included more Black-crowned Night Herons than you could shake a stick at, Saunders’s Gulls every day and Amur Falcons on most; a solitary Grey-tailed Tattler, a less than obliging Northern Boobook, our first Black-capped Kingfisher, a cooperative Japanese Waxwing and a similarly well appreciated Japanese Grosbeak. We saw Daurian Starlings most days and a Red-billed Starling once; had repeated encounters with a good numbers of cooperative White’s and Eyebrowed Thrushes and saw several Siberian Rubythroats, Siberian Blue Robins, a lingering female Red-flanked Bluetail, our first Mugimaki and an absolutely brilliant, in-our-face, Green-backed Flycatcher. And then there were the buntings – lots of ‘em! Unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to experience a large fall – the weather was simply too good – but we saw some great birds before we had to move on.

The small town of Nanpu was our next destination and, after a modest change to the tour’s itinerary, we now had two full days at this fantastic site. Unusually it rained fairly hard during our first day on site but even that didn’t prevent us from getting out and seeing lots. With a strong wind keeping passerines down we concentrated on the area’s waders – and came up trumps. The saltpans held thousands of birds and here alone we estimated 1600 Curlew and 320 Curlew Sandpipers – surely only a fraction of what was actually present. The tidal mudflats were our main focus however and here we counted a remarkable 1525 Broad-billed Sandpipers, 4100 Great Knot and 143 Asian Dowitchers! Shore birding at its very best…but even this wasn’t enough as a relatively leisurely cruise-past by a couple of White-throated Needletails were a welcome distraction. Nine breeding plumaged male Ruff a short distance further up the coast was an impressive sight, and a local rarity, as were the three Little Stints around the Saltpans…

The weather during our second day at Nanpu was significantly better – and that was the day of the Reed Parrotbills, the three close range Nordmann’s Greenshank, the ten Oriental Pratincoles and 28 lingering Relict Gulls. Nanpu had certainly been worthwhile!

We finally headed up to Beidaihe on the 13th of May – and arrived at the coastal resort with just enough time to have a quick look on the Sandflats, a site that produced our only Falcated Duck, a resplendent male, as well as our only Chinese Egret, a fine breeding-plumaged adult. We only stayed for a single night at Beidaihe opting to head to Old Peak a day earlier than we’d done last year. This worked well – we were blessed with immaculate weather and a wall of bird-song greeted us as we entered the hill’s superb forests. Our excursion got off to a great start with superb looks at Blunt-winged Warblers, Manchurian Bush-warblers and umpteen Meadow and Godlewski’s Buntings.

Other highlights here on Old Peak included exciting encounters with both Grey-sided and Pale Thrushes, umpteen more Green-backed Flycatchers, an obliging Asian Stubtail, several particularly memorable encounters with Chinese Nuthatches and Yellow-bellied Tits galore. Other goodies included Chinese and Hume’s Leaf Warblers, Silver-throated Tits on both days and an unusually co-operative Chinese Hill Babbler. Unfortunately however our only White-bellied Redstart failed to co-operate. Oh and then of course there was the fabulous scenery.

Leaving Old Peak we had a cultural excursion to where the Great Wall enters the sea at Shanhaiguan, but stopped to watch some Hill Pigeons, Crag Martins and a Long-billed Plover on route. Even the cultural excursion around the Wall produced a decent assortment of birds – with a Chinese Thrush handsomely stealing the show.

We spent the next two nights in the comfortable Jin Shan hotel at Beidaihe – a sojourn that produced our rarity of the trip, a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Rather underwhelming it looked just like the Arctic Warbler in the same trees and could only be distinguished by its voice! Despite its rarity it wasn’t too surprisingly that a male Siberian Thrush closer to our hotel proved more popular! Then, all too soon, it was time to head back to Beijing. A final feast, this time including the obligatory Peking Duck (outstanding food is one of the features of all China visits) and there we had it – the end of a fabulous tour searching for migrants in northern China.

We’d finished the tour having tallied four species of cuckoo; 43 species of wader including sought after specialities such as Long-billed Plover, Asian Dowitcher, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Grey-tailed Tattler, Great Knot, Long-toed Stint, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Oriental Pratincole; we’d seen Saunders’s Gulls on eight dates and Relict Gull on three: nine species of thrush; six species of flycatcher including a couple of gorgeous Mugimaki’s and Yellow-rumpeds as well as a remarkable eight different Green-backed; 12 species of phylloscopus warbler including Hebei province’s first Kamchatka Leaf Warbler; six pipits and eleven buntings. Where in the world could you do this? Happy Island and Beidaihe in eastern China, of course. These two names alone conjure up, for birders at least, images of Siberian bound migrants; of woods with skulking Siberian Thrushes, marshes with snipe, Pechora Pipits and buntings and of coastal sand flats with flocks of multiple species of wader. This is the spectacle that we experienced this May…the woods were, on occasion, bustling with migrating passerines, the marshes equally thronged and the mud flats, particularly those off Nanpu, bird filled.

We’d done so much in this the world’s most populous nation. We’d avoided the throngs of people, exchanging them for the birds and seen a remarkable variety of what this part of China has to offer.

Updated: July 2014