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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: Happy Island and Beidaihe

2017 Narrative

The tour started smoothly with a flight that landed in Beijing, the historic Capital of this the planet’s most populous nation, slightly early! We then had a fairly lengthy drive east to the coast of neighbouring Hebei province where we arrived in time for some initial, exploratory birding – birding that produced our only Western Osprey and our first gorgeous Yellow-bellied Tit of the tour as well as our first Siberian bound migrants such as a pair of Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers, a cooperative Eyebrowed Thrush sitting up with a Naumann’s Thrush, our first phylloscopus warblers with Dusky, Pallas’s Leaf and Yellow-browed all being well represented. The highlight of the afternoon however was undoubtedly the woodland strip that held no less than six Yellow-browed Buntings.

The following day saw us returning to the woodland strips that satisfied birders have named the ‘Magic’ and ‘Big Magic’ Woods for more of the same and today we found our first gorgeous Black-naped Orioles, Radde’s and Claudia’s Warblers, an elusive White’s Thrush, no less than 60 Taiga Flycatchers, and our first Blyth’s Pipit. It was also pleasing to see that yesterday’s Yellow-browed Buntings had been replaced by some equally handsome Tristram’s. A large mixed flock of terns containing no less than 350 Little and 60 Common, many of the distinctive longipennis form, delayed our crossing over the causeway that still links Happy Island to the mainland. Once we’d settled in to our comfortable island accommodation we were treated to great looks at our first Grey-streaked Flycatcher and later we spent time on the island’s shore seeing our first diminutive, vociferous Saunders’s Gulls and our first east Asian waders such as osculans Eurasian Oystercatcher, Terek Sandpiper, Great Knot, and both Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers.

With four full days and five nights on Happy Island we soon settled in to a rhythm – we took time on our early morning options to watch visible migration and ‘get a feel’ as to what was happening and from this we planned activities for the rest of the day. Migrant hunting was the name of the game and we were superbly well placed. Herons and egrets were always well represented and it was particularly encouraging to see huge numbers of Black-crowned Night Herons (we counted 1365 one morning) and increasing numbers of Little Egrets (150) as time went on. We were also treated to great looks at a solitary fly-by Chinese Egret. Saunders’s Gulls were seen each and every day, while our only Daurian Starlings and Oriental Cuckoo of the tour put in memorable appearances early on our second day on the island. That same day that we had a vocal, fly-by Mongolian Short-toed Lark, a Black-capped Kingfisher, Eurasian Wryneck and our first well-appreciated Mugimaki and Yellow-rumped Flycatchers. We had a Hair-crested Drongo on our third day on the island – the day that the first Two-barred Warblers (three birds) arrived. We found what was arguably the tour’s best local rarity, a vocal Bianchi’s Warbler, on our penultimate day on the island (it stayed for at least one more day). And then there were the memorable performances by the pair of Japanese Grosbeaks, several Siberian Blue, and Rufous-tailed Robins and, on our final morning on the island, our one and only Japanese Waxwing, usually a considerable rarity here and always a highly-prized gem.

And then there was the elusive male Siberian Thrush that some of us glimpsed. Perhaps that’ll be the bird they remember the longest, or perhaps it’ll be the two gorgeous Mugimaki’s or the glaring Yellow-rumped Flycatchers or the myriad buntings – the close-range and repeated encounters with Yellow-browed and Tristram’s Buntings or even our sighting of an elusive Japanese Reed Bunting…

Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to experience a large fall during our time on Happy Island – the weather was simply too good – but we saw some great birds before we had to move on. It was windy during our first afternoon further down the Hebei coast at Nanpu but we persevered and found many of our target species at the first attempt. Our first port-of-call was the coastal mudflats. These were spectacular and yielded our first Relict Gulls and huge numbers of shorebirds – huge numbers – we estimated 4000 Great and 2500 Red Knot! Then of course there were the scarcer species: the Eastern Curlew, the Asian Dowitchers, and after a considerable amount of effort and long-range straining, two summer-plumaged Nordmann’s Greenshank! We were left in no doubt that this was shorebirding at its very best! We spent the following day again at Nanpu, splitting our time between the tidal mudflats and a massive complex of inland saltpans. The numbers of knot on the mudflats had declined slightly but little else had and we counted 92 Asian Dowitchers, saw another two Nordmann’s Greenshank, over 1500 Red-necked Stint (plus a remarkable 21 Little Stints), 350 Sharp-tailed, almost 400 Curlew Sandpipers and 110 Broad-billed Sandpipers, a single male Ruff, and two early Grey-tailed Tattlers. We also counted 391 lingering Relict Gulls. The wind had dropped and it didn’t take us long to find our first Reed Parrotbills today either. Several of these, arguably the most attractive of China’s 20 species of parrotbill, performed superbly – several individuals sat right up and allowed us all to admire them at length.

We headed up to Beidaihe a day earlier than planned on the 15th but not before we’d scoured a park in the centre of Nanpu for migrant passerines. With a male Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, 15 Arctic and two singing Pale-legged Leaf Warblers, one Siberian and 15 Eyebrowed Thrushes, five Yellow-rumped, one Mugimaki and a male Blue-and-white Flycatcher it was a full three hours before we were fully satiated and it was time to move on.

We arrived at Beidaihe coastal resort in time to have a look on the sandflats but it was the grounds of our hotel that produced the afternoon’s best bird, a secretive Oriental Scops Owl. A first-summer Little Gull, an elusive Manchurian Reed Warbler and a migrant Grey-sided Thrush were the best that Beidaihe had to offer while excursions to the Great Wall and south to the Yanghe, Dapuhe and Qilihai offered ample distractions that included a remarkable 19 breeding-plumaged Chinese Egrets.

Our next port of call was Old Peak and having reduced the number of nights we spent at Nanpu from three to two we opted to spend our additional night on this fabulously bird-thronged forested mountain. This worked well. We were blessed with immaculate weather and a wall of birdsong greeted us as we entered the hill’s superb forests. Our excursion got off to a great start with superb looks at a Manchurian Bush-warbler, Meadow, and umpteen Godlewski’s Buntings even before we’d entered the park. Other highlights here on Old Peak included several encounters with Grey-sided Thrushes, excellent numbers of often in-our-face Green-backed Flycatchers, several particularly memorable encounters with Chinese Nuthatches, and Yellow-bellied Tits galore. Other goodies included prolonged studies of Chinese, Hume’s Leaf, and numerous hyperactive Claudia’s Warblers, two confiding Blunt-winged Warblers, Silver-throated Tits on both days and prolonged telescope views of an Asian Stubtail. Oh, and then of course there was the fabulous mountain scenery, the cacophony of birdsong, the male Bull-headed Shrike, and the cuckoos.

Leaving Old Peak, we stopped to watch some Hill Pigeons and an apparently nesting pair of Long-billed Plover en route back to the coast and back to Beijing. A final feast and there we had it – the end of a fabulous tour searching for migrants in northern China.

We’d finished the tour having tallied five species of cuckoo, one of which (Indian) was actually the last bird that we added to our lists, and we had particularly outstanding looks at Large Hawk and Himalayan; 41 species of wader including sought-after specialities such as Long-billed Plover, Asian Dowitcher, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Great Knot, Grey-tailed Tattler, and Oriental Pratincole; we’d seen Saunders’s Gulls on seven dates and up to 381 Relict Gulls on four; a spectacular feeding flock of over 1800 White-winged Terns; 12 species of phylloscopus warbler, ten species of thrush; eight species of flycatcher including umpteen gorgeous Yellow-rumpeds, four pipits, and 11 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, 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 and the mud flats, particularly those off Nanpu, bird-filled.

We’d once again 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.

-        Paul Holt


Created: 30 May 2017