This was my first visit to China and although primarily it was a business trip I managed to include three days serious birding at the end of the visit. I had made contact with Nick Moran who is an English birder currently resident in Shanghai and thanks entirely to his efforts we managed to set up a visit to the fabulous Yangcheng Nature Reserve which is approximately 400km northwest of Shanghai. We were due to catch the 1230pm bus from Shanghai to Yangcheng on Friday 14 November so decided to bird Shanghai Botanic Gardens in the morning. These gardens are much populated with local people, many practising a variety of Chinese ritual exercises, which is in itself fascinating to a westerner but there are plenty of areas where it is more secluded and birds can be found. It cost 10 Yuan (c£0.80p) to enter the park.
Friday 14 November 2003 Shanghai Botanic Gardens 0645-1115
This is very much Nick's local patch and he guided me round expertly. Our first birds were inevitably the ubiquitous Tree Sparrow followed by 3 Crested Myna flying over. We diverted off the path into the bushes - nobody seems to object if you wander off the paths and we soon located an adult Black-crowned Night Heron roosting in a tree by a small stream. Numerous Eurasian Blackbirds T.m.mandarinus
, were flying over us to fruiting trees in the garden. To me they appear larger than those in the UK with very different calls and many appear to show a faint pale mark behind the eye. A small river running through the gardens revealed Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Common Snipe and White Wagtail feeding on the mud as well as Light-vented Bulbuls and a Long-tailed Shrike
in the surrounding bushes. We carried on round the back of some sheds and a magnificent male Daurian Redstart
came within a few feet of us with two Azure-winged Magpie
and a Spotted Dove in the trees.
Further on we encountered a flock of around 15 of the very appealing Vinous-throated Parrotbill in bushes and 5 Eurasian Siskin in the trees above. Olive-backed Pipits
and Yellow-billed Grosbeaks were regularly flying over calling and unidentified buntings gave us some problems as they called but refused to reveal themselves. Eventually we managed to see one which proved to be Black-faced Bunting
and later what was a probable Tristram's Bunting. We flushed 2 Woodcock, much to my surprise from an overgrown area and a few Dusky Thrush
were feeding in a line of trees nearby - these comprised what appeared to be both nominate T.n.naumanni
, the race T.n.eunomus
and intergrades. Further on we found a lone Hwamei and heard a Common Kingfisher. Luckily we encountered a roving tit flock in some mature trees and after some time they descended low into bushes and serious identification began. The flock was mainly Long-tailed Tits, very different in appearance to our UK species. There were also at least 10 Pallas Warbler
which we watched at very close range with two bathing and remarkably one singing. There was also at least one Yellow-browed Warbler
, Goldcrest and Great Tit but the real prize was a Black-throated Tit
almost at the extreme north of its range, which gave us brilliant close range views. To cap it all an immature or female Red-flanked Bluetail
put in a brief appearance. By now it was getting near time to catch the bus but Nick suggested we just go into an area of trees before leaving. No sooner had we done so than a lone thrush silently flew up into one of the trees but thankfully remaining in full view. A look through the bins revealed a stunning White's Thrush
and we watched it for around 25 minutes as it remained motionless on its branch. Reluctantly we left to catch the bus to Yancheng.
Species and numbers recorded:
Kingfisher (1); Spotted Dove (6); Common Snipe (6+); Woodcock (2); Green Sandpiper (5); Common Sandpiper (3); Black-crowned Night Heron (2); Long-tailed Shrike* (4); Azure-winged Magpie (20+); White's Thrush *(1); Eurasian Blackbird( 100+);Dusky Thrush *(30+); Red-flanked Bluetail *(2); Daurian Redstart*( 3); Crested Myna (6); Great Tit (5+); Long-tailed Tit (10+); Black-throated Tit *(1);Light-vented Bulbul(100+); Pallas Warbler (10+); Yellow-browed Warbler (2); Goldcrest (1); Hwamei *(1); Vinous-throated Parrotbill* (32); Tree Sparrow (100+); White Wagtail (4); Olive-backed Pipit *(5); Siskin (5); Yellow-billed Grosbeak* (10+); probable Tristram's Bunting *(1); Black-faced Bunting* (3); 30 species in a busy city park (Nick's joint highest tally in one visit there!)
* 12 Lifers for Ewan Urquhart (Tristrams Bunting not counted as only probable)
Yangcheng Nature Reserve in Jiangsu Province by the Yellow Sea is justly famous but is visited by less than 200 western birders a year according to Mr Wang Hui who is the Deputy Chief of the Scientific Research Section of Yangcheng Biosphere Reserve, and who we were lucky enough to have as our guide. Mr Wang speaks good English and is extremely helpful and courteous - you only have to ask and he will do his best to co-operate. Mr Wang arranged both the accommodation and the transport to get us around and took us to the best areas for birds. The Reserve comprises a staggering 4530 square kilometers with a core area (barred to foreigners per Mr Wang) of 10,000 hectares. Getting to it is not for the faint hearted and any visit requires an overnight stay but is well worth the effort. Our visit was based on the report by Steve Bale www.surfbirds.com/mb/trips/china-0102-sb.html
of a visit he made in December 2001. Visits have to be arranged in advance and any foreign birder has to be accompanied by one of the wardens, without exception. Nick made all the arrangements and apparently the easiest way to do it is to book the visit via Jean Wang. She runs a travel service based in Beidaihe and can arrange an all inclusive trip to Yancheng. She is very professional, speaks fluent English and is versed in the ways of birders. Her contact email is email@example.com
; and her charge for arranging the trip was 150 Yuan (c£12-13). All other charges apart from the bus we paid to Mr Wang and these amounted to around 660 Yuan (c£55.00) each, which included accommodation, food, driver, transport and reserve entry as well as the services of Mr Wang
There is apparently only one bus per day from Shanghai to Yangcheng leaving at 1230 and on our trip it cost 72 Yuan (c£6.00) each - one way. Conversely on the way back we were surprised to be told by Mr Wang that there were buses every hour and the cost was only around 50 Yuan (c£4.00) one way. It may be worth checking at the time of booking but those were the prices when we made the trip. The buses are clean, modern and reasonably comfortable although leg room is a little cramped and if non-stop it might be worth taking some liquid and snacks for the journey. The bus trip takes approx 4 hours. It was non stop on the way there but with one short rest stop on the way back. A highlight for me on the outward trip was crossing the mighty Yangtse River.
On arrival in Yangcheng Bus Station we were met by Mr Wang and our driver. There is then another drive of approx. 1 hour to the village of Xinyang Gang, adjacent to the Reserve, where we were to be accommodated. I cannot really describe where we stayed as a hotel, as there were no towels, the toilet cistern did not work and the heater in the room worked for only 30 minutes after being turned on and then blew cold air. I think this might have even been someone's private home and this was a Chinese version of bed and breakfast! Having eaten what was a remarkably good evening meal of home cooked local delicacies prepared by our hosts and washed down with local beer, we retired to bed in anticipation of an early start. Shortly after retiring we were then visited by the police (friendly) in our room to complete official papers and after a succession of knocks at our door bringing apples, an electric light bulb attached to a cable and finally hot water in thermos flasks by the very friendly and willing staff, we finally tried to get some sleep. However there was a family of rodents living behind the heater in the wall which then proceeded to keep us awake. When they finally settled down and sleep was beckoning there was a frantic banging at the door and Nick was confronted by a Chinese lady who obviously was not expecting to find us in the room!
I believe from Mr Wang that the Reserve will have its own brand new accommodation ready from the 28 November 2003 so the accommodation will probably not be quite so idiosyncratic but it might be worth enquiring whether you need to bring toilet paper, towels and possibly ear plugs. The weather during our trip could not have been much better - approximating to a typical early autumn day in the UK with sun and a light wind from the north. However as in the UK conditions can vary considerably for the worse so it would be wise to take a change of clothing (include something waterproof) and footwear.
For reference we used Mackinnon & Phillips - Field Guide to Birds of China. Some of the maps are inaccurate to put it mildly but the illustrations are more than adequate.
Saturday 15 November 2003 Yangcheng Nature Reserve 0800-1600
Early morning we set off with Mr Wang to the Reserve. We stopped approximately a half mile from the entrance to the Reserve and birded the trees on either side of the road. First to show were a small flock of White-cheeked Starling followed by Yellow-browed Warbler, Goldcrest, Black-faced Bunting, Long-tailed Shrike and Light-vented Bulbul. Great-Spotted and Grey-headed Woodpecker were soon added with Hoopoe, Rook and Lapwing flying over. Near the Reserve entrance was a flock of 50+ Barn Swallow. On entering the Reserve we made immediately for the reed beds - our main priority to see the endangered Reed Parrotbill. The first reed bed drew a blank but did reveal Black-faced Bunting and Pallas Reed Bunting
. Night Heron, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Great White Egret, Great Bittern, Common Coot, Common Moorhen, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Teal, Spot-billed Duck, Buff-bellied Pipit
, Vega Gull, Caspian Tern and Oriental Skylark
were also added to the list. Mr Wang assured us that Reed Parrotbill was no problem and sure enough the adjacent reed bed held a small flock (15-20) of them. We watched these confiding, charismatic and quite charming birds for some time calling and singing, clinging to the reed stalks or scuttling around at the base of the reeds. A nearby lagoon held a flock of 70+ Spotted Redshank, 10 Greenshank flew over and our count by now of Pallas Reed Bunting was over 30 with only 3 Reed Bunting. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew low over the reeds flushing a Common Snipe and a flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbill joined the Reed Parrotbills. A Water Rail was also seen creeping through the reeds with another calling further away.
Mr Wang then took us to some woodland interspersed with cotton fields where we added Yellow-throated Bunting, Little Bunting
, Common Pheasant, Black-billed Magpie, Azure-winged Magpie, Daurian Redstart, Eurasian Blackbird, Dusky Thrush and Oriental Turtle Dove
to the list of species seen. Lunch was taken fast and alfresco and then on with the birding. We drove north of the Reserve and stopped on the road overlooking a vast area of marsh and reeds. Here the star attractions were 32 Red-crowned Cranes
and 13 Common Cranes
plus around 85 Bean Geese - we were to see many more Cranes and geese from here the next day. Overhead on the phone wires were single Chinese Grey Shrike,
Long-tailed Shrike and Siberian Stonechat. A Peregrine and a Common Buzzard were also added.
After admiring the Cranes we travelled slightly further north and turning east drove down a very bumpy track for some time that eventually became a causeway leading on to a vast area of water called the Sheyang Saltworks. As we came near to the far end of the water a very large congregation of ducks, waders, gulls, herons and egrets revealed itself. Our count revealed the following numbers: Falcated Duck 100, Common Pochard 1000, Eurasian Wigeon 2500, Northern Shoveler 700, Mallard 700, Gadwall 100, Northern Pintail 100, Goosander 50 and smaller numbers of Eurasian Teal, Spot-billed Duck and Common Shelduck. There was also an incredible flock of 1100 Pied Avocet with 80 Caspian Tern, alongside the ducks. Other waders present were Marsh Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, Dunlin, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Eurasian Curlew. However we were really here to seek out the rarities and sure enough Nick soon located 2 Black Faced Spoonbill
feeding left of a flock of 17 Eurasian Spoonbill. In the end we managed to count four of this much endangered species and then onto the gulls. A small gull slightly apart from the flock of Black-headed Gulls revealed itself to be a first year Saunders Gull
and then finally a single first year Relict Gull
was picked out feeding on the mud. Vega Gull
and the race of Caspian Gull
(Larus cachinanns mongolicus
) possibly to become a species in its own right - Mongolian Gull, were added before we retraced our way making a brief stop at the Crane viewpoint where we watched a flock of around 1000 White-cheeked Starlings going to roost in the reeds and 16 Red-crowned Cranes flying against the setting sun As the light faded we made our way back to Xinyanbang for a celebratory beer on what both Nick and I agreed had been a brilliant days birding.
Species and numbers seen
* indicates lifer for Ewan Urquhart
Common Pheasant (10+); Bean Goose (85+); Common Shelduck (20+); Mallard (700+); Spot-billed Duck* (65); Northern Shoveler (700+); Northern Pintail (100+); Gadwall (100+); Falcated Duck* (100+); Eurasian Wigeon (2500+); Eurasian Teal (100+); Common Pochard (1000+); Goosander (50+); Great-spotted Woodpecker (1); Grey-headed Woodpecker*(1); Common Kingfisher (4); Hoopoe (3); Oriental Turtle Dove* (35); Spotted Dove (15+); Common Crane* (13); Red-crowned Crane* (32); Water Rail (2); Common Moorhen (4); Common Coot (10); Eurasian Oystercatcher (40+); Pied Avocet (1100+); Common Snipe (1); Eurasian Curlew (10+); Spotted Redshank (350+); Marsh Sandpiper (10); Common Greenshank (11); Common Sandpiper (10+); Dunlin (50); Kentish Plover (10); Northern Lapwing (6); Common Gull (1); Vega Gull* (2); Caspian Gull (4); Black-headed Gull (200+); Saunders Gull* (1); Relict Gull* (1); Caspian Tern (85+); Hen Harrier (5); Eurasian Sparrowhawk (1); Common Buzzard (1); Common Kestrel (1); Peregrine Falcon (1); Great Crested Grebe (3); Little Grebe (20+); Great Cormorant (11); Little Egret (50+); Great White Egret (10+); Grey Heron (60+); Black-crowned Night Heron (2); Great Bittern (3); Eurasian Spoonbill (17); Black-faced Spoonbill* (4); Long-tailed Shrike (10+); Chinese Grey Shrike* (1); Azure-winged Magpie (20+); Black-billed Magpie (60+); Rook (1); Eurasian Blackbird T.m.mandarinus (3); Dusky Thrush T.n.eunomus (1); Daurian Redstart (9); Siberian Stonechat S.m.stejnegeri (1); White-cheeked Starling*(1000+); Great Tit (4); Barn Swallow (50+); Light-vented Bulbul (20+); Yellow-browed Warbler (6+); Goldcrest (2); Reed Parrotbill* (20+); Vinous-throated Parrotbill (55+); Eurasian Skylark (6); Oriental Skylark* (2); Tree Sparrow (200+); Yellow Wagtail M.f.taivana (1); White Wagtail M.a.leucopsis (5); Olive backed Pipit (2); Water Pipit (2); Buff-bellied Pipit* (1); Little Bunting (10+); Yellow-throated Bunting* (3); Black-faced Bunting (20+); Pallas Reed Bunting* (30+); Reed Bunting (3);
87 species for the day; 16 lifers for Ewan Urquhart
Sunday 16 November 2003 0830-1530
Fortunately the second night in our "hotel" was less disturbed and we woke prepared for another day of serous birding. As we left the hotel 3 Crested Myna flew over. Our first stop was again at what Nick aptly christened "Crane Corner" and we were rewarded with the magical sight of hundreds of Cranes flying in all directions, some landing and others carrying on into the distance. For me the sight of these magnificent birds flying and calling over the vast expanse of marshland and water will long live in the memory. Mr Wang informed us that the peak numbers of Red-crowned Crane wintering on the Reserve now exceed over 1000 birds. There were also a lot of geese flying around and those that came close enough to identify proved to be Bean Geese.
On my suggestion we returned to the Saltworks as I wanted to get to further grips with the gulls and ducks. The wind had changed and dropped during the night and this allowed us to get onto the more distant flocks of ducks out on the water and for Nick to get some digital photos of the Relict Gulls. The dividend soon became apparent as Nick called out he had Baikal Teal
in with a flock of Tufted Duck and Greater Scaup. Careful scrutiny revealed 3 drakes and a female of this beautiful species. Another group of three distant ducks proved to be Common Goldeneye and the number of Relict Gulls had risen to two - both first year birds. Mr Wang then located a Saunders Gull flying around behind us. There was no sign of Spoonbills of either species but the number of Marsh Sandpiper
had risen to 70. Then a female Peregrine landing on the muddy spit disturbed all the ducks and waders so we decided to move to a new location south of the Reserve entrance where we stopped by the road overlooking a large, shallow expanse of water full of birds. Counting revealed 214 Eurasian Spoonbill and at least 2 possibly 4 Black-faced Spoonbill with them. I then noticed a large bird standing on its own and we had our first Oriental White Stork
. We remained here for some time and during this period another four flew in followed by another seven wheeling and soaring over the lake. On the other side of the road was another expanse of shallow water covered with small gulls, Little and Great Egrets. The majority of gulls were Black-headed but Mr Wang soon located a couple of adult winter plumage Saunder's Gulls with their distinctive black and white chevrons on the closed wing tips. Further scrutiny revealed at least 4 adults and 4 first year birds. Two very distant raptors had to remain unidentified apart from one being Harrier sp. and the other Eagle or Buzzard sp.
We then moved on to another lake that had been drained and was now exposed mud. We came across only our second Yellow Wagtail and some White Wagtails. Mr Wang informed us that two days ago there had been hundreds of Kentish Plover here but we managed only four, but three other small waders on this same patch of mud turned out to be Temminck's Stint
. We had our lunch here. Note the normal procedure for lunch would appear to be to go back to the hotel but to get maximum birding time we requested we take a packed lunch each day but you have to make this clear to the guide when you set off in the morning.
Our final visit was, after an interminably long and very bumpy drive down an unmade track, to a raised embankment with wooded banks of small trees surrounded on its east side by sea defences comprising of bare fields and raised dykes and on the other by vast areas of water and marshland. Three Dalmatian Pelicans had been seen here two days ago plus lots of thrushes and Brambling but today there were only scattered parties of Dusky Thrush. On the fields we counted another 66 Red-crowned Cranes plus many Great and Little Egret and some Greenshank. A scan of some large gulls produced one adult Heuglin's Gull
. We left the transport and proceeded to walk down the track running along the top of the embankment. Small parties of Rustic, Yellow-throated
and Little Buntings
were flushed from the undergrowth plus a few Long-tailed Shrike. Then a smallish dark bird flew from one side of the track to the other perching in one of the small bare trees on the embankment . We slowly approached it desperately hoping it would remain and we got within a few metres of it. It was a flycatcher with dark blue upperparts with a distinct greenish hue but the underparts were not the expected white but dusky grey with mottled grey/white undertail coverts. For a time we were all perplexed but consultation of Mackinnon & Phillips pointed to Verditer Flycatcher
with the greenish tinge to the blue and the mottled undertail coverts the main ID features. Mr Wang proudly informed us that this was a first for Yangcheng and we watched it for 20 minutes as it became increasingly nervous of our presence. Nick managed to get some record shots on his digital camera. This seemed an appropriate close to a brilliant weekend of birding as it was now time for us to return to the transport taking us on the two hour drive to Yangcheng to catch the 5.30pm bus back to Shanghai.
Species and numbers seen; n/c= not counted; * lifer for Ewan Urquhart
Common Pheasant (2); Bean Goose (220+); Common Shelduck (5); Mallard (n/c); Spot-billed Duck (135); Northern Shoveler (n/c); Northern Pintail (n/c); Gadwall (n/c); Falcated Duck (100+); Eurasian Wigeon (n/c); Eurasian Teal (3); Baikal Teal* (4 [3 male 1 female]); Greater Scaup (10+); Tufted Duck (50+); Goldeneye (3); Common Pochard (n/c); Goosander (n/c); Hoopoe (2); Oriental Turtle Dove(n/c); Spotted Dove(n/c); Common Crane (100+); Red-crowned Crane (174); Common Moorhen(n/c); Common Coot(n/c); Pied Avocet (n/c); Eurasian Oystercatcher (n/c); Northern Lapwing (15); Eurasian Curlew (46); Spotted Redshank (200+); Marsh Sandpiper (70+); Greenshank (20+); Common Sandpiper (1); Dunlin (n/c); Temminck's Stint (3); Kentish Plover (4); Heuglin's Gull (1); Vega Gull (50+); Caspian Gull L.c.mongolicus (10+); Saunders Gull (9); Relict Gull (2 both first year); Caspian Tern (50+); Hen Harrier (1); Common Kestrel (1); Merlin (1); Peregrine (3); Great-crested Grebe (10); Little Grebe (20+); Great Cormorant (100+); Little Egret (n/c); Great White Egret (100+); Grey Heron (100+); Black-crowned Night Heron (1); Oriental White Stork*(13); Eurasian Spoonbill (214); Black-faced Spoonbill (2); Long-tailed Shrike (20+); Azure-winged Magpie (2); Black-billed Magpie (15); Dusky Thrush (40+ T.n.naumanni/eunomus & intergrades); Daurian Redstart (1); Verditer Flycatcher* (1); White-cheeked Starling (3); Crested Myna (3); Light-vented Bulbul (n/c); Yellow-browed Warbler (1); Vinous-throated Parrotbill (10+); Oriental Skylark (2); Tree Sparrow (n/c); Yellow Wagtail (1); White Wagtail (3); Buff-bellied Pipit (20+); Little Bunting (20+); Yellow-throated Bunting (2); Rustic Bunting* (9);
74 species; 4 lifers for Ewan Urquhart
Total species for two days at Yangcheng - 99