Across China – May 2013

Last May i visited several places across China in a month long birdwatching trip. It all started in Rudong, North of Shanghai, where i joined friends Szablocs and Robert, visiting from Europe, for a 3-days span birding the mudflats and the few remaining forested habitats left in this part of China. Early May the spring migration is at its peak, and Rudong is a key stopover on the East Asian Flyway, with thousands of shorebirds refueling on their way to their Northeast Asia breeding grounds. The few patches of woodland in the area are also teeming with migratory passerines on their way North : flycatchers, robins, buntings, warblers, etc…

The mudflats are huge : over 10 km of coast, and at low tide the flats are almost 6km wide, so most of the shorebird action has to take place around high tide, when the birds concentrate on the narrow band of mudflats still available. Our search was of course focusing on the rarer species, and among them the iconic Spoon-billed Sandpiper was the primary target. This tiny sandpiper, unique among its peers by the shape of its bill, has seen its population collapse over the last decade, and it is now estimated that no more than a few hundreds mature birds remain. Causes for its decline are multiple, but trapping and hunting on its main wintering grounds in the Bay of Bengal is thought to be the major one. The situation for the bird is so critical that a daring captive reproduction program has been implemented in UK since 2011.

Finding the bird, that from a distance closely resembles the numerous red-necked stint, on the huge mudflats requires persistence, as well as a good spotting scope. But when you try to photograph the bird from decently close range, you have to forgo the scope, unless you have a dedicated porter, and just go for it, camera in one hand, binoculars in the other. The best time to do that is when the tide starts to recede, and waders are frenziedly feeding while following the tide down. Different waders have different feeding techniques though, and the spoony prefers to wade in small pools rather than feeding on the mud like most stints, even though it won’t swipe its bill sideways like a Spoonbill would do. It also usually feeds solitarily, even though at the time of our visit 10 to 15 birds were thought to be present according to a local guide. So having those clues in mind, i tried my luck on 2 consecutive days, following the tide as it recedes and scanning with the bins as much as i could. I could only find one bird, still in winter plumage (in early May birds can be either in winter or summer plumage, or anywhere in-between), but it decided to follow a flock of stints and flew away after just a few clicks, not to be found again…

Another sought-after bird, that i was lucky to see thanks to Szabolcs, is the Nordman’s Greenshank, another East Asian wader facing a bleak future for similar reasons. It has a fairly restricted breeding range on the Russian shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, on Sakhalin Island and the adjacent mainland. Identification from Common Greenshank is tricky and it takes an experienced birder like Szabolcs to spot the bird among a large roosting flock of waders.

When we were not around the mudflats looking for rare shorebirds we also spent some time looking for migrant passerines, especially in a little patch of woodland dubbed “magic forest”, just outside the small town of Yangkou. The patch is not larger than a football pitch, but everyday it had an amazing number of birds, as well as number of species, with new birds being picked up at almost every visit. We had 5 different Flycatchers, 3 Robins, 4 Buntings, 4 Warblers, 3 Thrushes, and even an Oriental Scops-owl showed up one morning !

While in Rudong it was also interesting for me to see Robert and Szabolcs at “work” : both are very skillful bird illustrators (or even artists) and they spent good time on the field drawing sketches of their favorite birds. Szablocs website shows some of the work he did in Rudong :

The sad news about Rudong is that this critically important wetland, one of the very few large mudflat area remaining on the East Asian coast, as been earmarked for reclamation and development. A counter-example of China’s increasing commitment on protecting wildlife and biodiversity.

After the Rudong stop i joined a Birdquest tour, actually the 10-days Northeast extension part of their Eastern China tour. China is so vast, and remaining natural habitat is so fragmented, that such a tour, aiming at ticking a high number of species, will need to visit a good number of locations to achieve its goal and necessitate a tedious amount of time in short-haul flights, connections and transfers. At the end, even if as much useable time was spent on transfers as it was on the field, we ended up seeing all the key species  : The rare and endemic Brown-eared Pheasant near Taiyuan in Shanxi province, the breeding endemic and localized Grey-sided Thrush and Green-backed Flycatcher in Wulingshan, Hebei province, the endemic and endangered Jankowski’s Bunting in Manchuria, and the emblematic Crested Ibis and the little-known Blackthroat in the Qinling mountains, in Shaanxi province. The supporting cast was almost equally interesting, notably a pair of lingering Siberian Cranes in migration, over 20 Great Bustards in the grasslands while searching for the Bunting, a male Koklass Pheasant in Wulingshan, and, last but not least, the amazing albeit short sighting of a Giant Panda feeding on Bamboo alongside the road in the Qinlings ! All this to mitigate the rather hectic pace of the tour, and the usual frustration that a photographer feels in a birdwatching group, rushing from species to species and lacking the necessary time and space for a good picture.

The last part of this trip brought me back to Western Qinghai on the trail of Sillem’s Mountain Finch, but that will be another post !

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