As we were riding along the Airport Expressway to our hotel from the Beijing International Airport, I noticed a black and white bird on a wire. A short ways further I saw another one. It flew to the roof of a multi-story building. It’s flight profile clinched it – a magpie! As soon as I checked into the hotel, I pulled out my iPad and consulted Birds of China by John Mackinnon and Nigel Hicks, and confirmed that the birds I had seen were Eurasian Magpies.
My next task was to go back to the ground floor entrance with my binoculars. As we were unloading our suitcases, I noticed small birds in the trees that lined the center of the parking lot. They proved to be Eurasian Tree-Sparrows, very similar to our House Sparrows.
I would see them everywhere.
Since I would be on my own locating and identifying birds while participating in a Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) cultural tour, I prepared by going to eBird and looking for birding hotspots in the cities I would be visiting. I evidently wasn’t the first birder to observe and report birds on a non-birding trip. I discovered that most of the attractions on our itinerary were eBird Hotspots. It enabled me to print lists of birds seen during the time period I would be visiting.
I also studied Birds of East Asia,
a Princeton Field Guide authored by Mark Brazil, which my family had given me for Christmas. While an excellent guide, it did not cover Western China or Tibet.
Downloading Birds of China was a last-minute decision – and a good one.
Not only did it provide photographic reference, descriptions, and range maps to the most common birds, it included the areas that were missing from the field guide.
I took my binoculars with me everywhere except when we were participating in home-hosted events. I’m sure the others in my tour group of fourteen were amused when they would see me staring into the trees.
People told me I wouldn’t see any birds in China, and the joke is that the construction crane is the national bird of China.
Of course, I saw birds everywhere.
During our visit to the Summer Palace, an eBird Hotspot, the first morning in Beijing, I followed a flock of Azure-winged Magpies as they flew across an open area near the entrance, and I had the opportunity to get better looks at the Eurasian Magpie, a species I would see most places we visited.
In addition, there were Common Swifts sailing above the structures – and of course, Eurasian Tree Sparrows.
That afternoon when we visited the Temple of Heaven, I was fortunate to observe Azure-winged Magpies more closely as they chased each other between the trees in Tiantan Park, an eBird Hotspot, that surrounds the Temple area.
“Does China have a national bird?” I inquired of Evan, our OAT guide.
“I think it must be the magpie,” he responded, “since Chinese people say it brings good luck.
The next day as we traveled north out of the city to the Great Wall, I noticed large stick nests in lots of trees along the freeway. They seemed too prevalent for raptor nests. When I returned home and researched various possibilities, I determined that they were Eurasian Magpie nests.
Standing in the parking lot of the older, unrestored area Great Wall site near Badaling, I could hear Common Pheasants (our Ring-necked Pheasant) and Chukars calling. Coal Tits were tittering in the bushes alongside the steps leading up to the wall. There were other species I could not identify by sound. Just before we were ready to board the bus, a large falcon swooped down from the top of the hill opposite the wall – a Peregrine Falcon.
During our visit to the Forbidden City (the adjacent park is an eBird hotspot) the following day, new birds were Carrion Crow, a Spotted Dove and Barn Swallows.
As we were walking from the Bullet Train station in Xian the following evening, there was a Common Kestrel perched on top of a nearby building.
During our visit to the Wild Goose Pagoda new birds included Eurasian Jay and Pallas’s Leaf Warbler.
After entering the grounds of the Terracotta Warrior Museums, we walked through a long stretch of park-like grounds. I could hear birds singing in the trees on either side of the path. Unfortunately, due to the crowds, I could only follow our group and the leader’s yellow flag – most frustrating for a birder.
When the group paused, I was lucky enough to ID a Light-vented Bulbul, and in the afternoon as the group was assembling outside of the museum area, an Oriental Greenfinch was perched on the room of one of the museum buildings.
While we were waiting to take a tuk tuk in the village of Donghancun outside of Xian, I noticed a bird perched on a wire and moved so I could get a better look at it. I didn’t have my binoculars so took a photo. When I zoomed in at the picture, it was a Light-vented Bulbul.
The following morning as we were leaving the hotel to head to the airport, Common Swifts were actively dipping and circling around the Chengdu Gate’s Bell Tower, and a Chinese Blackbird was foraging in the grass at the base.
“I have noticed the swifts around the Bell Tower, but not many elsewhere,” I mentioned to Evan who lives in Xian.
“I think they nest in openings under the eaves,” he replied.
On our first afternoon in Chengdu, there was an optional visit to the People’s Park to give us an opportunity to observe the leisure activities of the locals. While watching the people was interesting, I was drawn to the bird life. Two Green-backed Tits were chasing each other between the trees as a member of our tour group joined a local in a game similar to badminton.
While the rest of the group watched karaoke in the park, I followed a male Chinese Blackbird pursuing a female in the adjacent woodland area.
Later while meandering around a small lake and bonsai garden, I was able to watch a White-browed Laughingthrush take a bath in one of the small streams and got good looks at a Spotted Dove.
The Panda Breeding Site was a birder’s paradise. While I was not able to observe all of the birds I would have liked, there were some wonderful opportunities to see birds – while also observing the Giant and Red Pandas in their natural habitat.
As we walked towards the area where the pandas lived, we passed a small lake where two Black Swans were head-bobbing. Their red bills and black feathers were stunning. I didn’t realize until I went to enter my eBird list and couldn’t find them listed, that they are introduced species at locations across China. They are endemic in Australia.
Swimming near them was a Eurasian Moorhen and two drake Mallards.
I kept hearing the sound of peacocks calling from the trees as we walked along. As we were watching one of the Giant Pandas munch on its bamboo stalk, I noticed movement back in the trees – a White-crowned Forktail, and nearby was a peacock (Indian Peafowl) perched in the tree.
A short time later as we meandered along, one of the peacocks landed on the path and walked right past us.
My thought at the time was that I had finally seen a countable peacock; however, when I got home, I discovered that the blue peacock subspecies is also an introduced species.
In the Red Panda forested area, a White-browed Laughingthrush paused on a platform and let me photograph it.
A little further on, a Red-billed Leothrix was eating fruit and I marveled at its striking coloration.
The following day we flew to Lhasa, Tibet. As our bus traveled towards town from the airport, I kept my eyes peeled for potential birds along the river. One of the birds I had really hoped to see in China was a Eurasian Hoopoe, and I was rewarded at a stretch of the river that also had a Eurasian Coot, a Ruddy Shelduck and two Brown-headed Gulls.
The next afternoon, my friend Jan and I walked over to the park and gardens adjacent to the Portola Palace, an eBird Hotspot. It was my only opportunity to really take time to look carefully at the birds we saw.
About two hundred Brown-headed Gulls could be seen around the lake,
along with two male Ruddy Shelducks,
two Bar-headed Geese,
and a Great Crested Grebe.
Tibetan Blackbirds foraged for insects in the grass, along with Oriental Turtle Doves.
We heard squabbling from within a hedge, then a Great Tit popped up and paused briefly, before diving back into the edge.
We spent three days on the Yangtze River. I was disappointed that I didn’t have the opportunity to see many bird species. While docked at Fengdu the first morning, I watched 5 Little Egrets foraging along the edge of the river.
That afternoon, we stopped at Shibaozhau and went ashore to visit with a local family. As we walked along the street to his home, I noticed a bird fly into the open second-story window across from his apartment. It seemed strange. As we were leaving, a bird was flying out of the window. I walked where I could see into the apartment and discovered a nest hanging from the ceiling. Since I didn’t have my binoculars with me for the home visit, I never could identify the mystery birds nesting in the hanging nest.
In a mudflat near the dock a Common Sandpiper was probing for crustaceans.
The next morning when we were docked at White Emperor City, there were Black-tailed Gulls and Red-rumped Swallows flying nearby.
Unfortunately, it was windy and then rainy as we traveled through the Three Gorges – with no bird sightings.
Black Kites were everywhere in Hong Kong, often seen cruising around the skyscraper towers. Unfortunately, I never got a photo.
On our last day, Jan and I traveled to Ma Liu Shui to visit Chung Chi College where I had spent my junior year of college in 1961-2. While we were waiting for Iris, the graduate student who would be guiding us around the much-expanded campus, I noticed signs with pictures of birds on them. Each had colored drawings – The Birds of CUHK (Chinese University of Hong Kong). The Chinese University of Hong Kong is an eBird Hotspot.
Sixteen Cattle Egrets were gathered on the nearby athletic field.
In another area, an Oriental Magpie-Robin flew down from a tree to pick up something from the ground.
Later as we walked past a pond, a Black-crowned Night-Heron waited patiently for a fish.
As we strolled, I kept stopping to look at birds that landed nearby, including a Red-whiskered Bulbul,
While I didn’t get pictures, we were able to spot Sooty-headed Bulbul and Crested Myna.
Earlier that morning, I had told Jan that after we said goodbye to our student host, I wanted to do some serious birding near the pond. However, by time we returned to University Station, the heat and humidity had done us in, and we were ready to board the air-conditioned train. The main focus of our visit was to re-visit the campus, and birding was secondary.
I felt fortunate to enjoy a number of interesting and new bird species while in China.