Nantong, Jiangsu, China …

15 01 2017

Yangtze River from Nantong

A bright sunny day, though freezing cold, was the clarion call for birding. I feel almost guilty admitting that I have been in China for three months and have hardly done any birding in that time. A notable exception was a delightful day at Wai Po Marsh in Hong Kong  in early November. However I am in a new job, studying hard outside of work and getting around without my own transport is difficult plus there is the not insignificant matter of the language barrier. As readers will know my enthusiasm for being in the field had waned too while in Thailand, due to a combination of family, work and study.

Nantong is at the heart of the planned development of the north side of  the Yangtze river delta. The delta is home to Shanghai and a host of other huge cities, making it one of the most built up, developed and congested areas in China. Proximity to the sea means that air pollution is not  usually as hazardous as in inland areas such as Beijing, further north. The north eastern area of the delta area remains undeveloped in industrial terms – high speed rail links are scheduled to open later this year which will, inter alia, have the effect of linking  Nantong to Shanghai in about 35 minutes, a big improvement on the current 2.5 hours it takes by bus. Nantong is close to a number of important areas, known collectively as the East Asian Fyway, which are used by birds, notably Spoon-billed Sandpaper and other waders which stop off here during migration . There are important sites for cranes a couple of hours to the north. All are under threat. Add in that I doubt much birding is done in this locale so who knows what is actually out there to be displaced and destroyed by habitat loss.

Birding in China is going to be a whole new ball game, a  precarious matter for a novice birder like myself. I know nothing about Chinese avifauna although my Thai experience, and even a few days in Tokyo,  are a useful foundation. It took me a while to work out that the birds that feed in my trees were Chinese Bulbuls! Eurasian Blackbirds, which were not present in October, moved in to my estate while I was away over the Christmas periods. Lots of small unknown birds flirt around, usually when I don’t have my binoculars. The local park, Central Park,  in Nantong’s National Economic and Technological Development Area, (‘NETDA’), holds a good number of species including the very common Eurasian Magpie and the elegant Azure-winged Magpie; I’ve seen a fair few Common Kingfishers here too as well as good numbers of Red-breasted Flycatchers and the very striking Daurian Redstart. Last Sunday, a  female Daurian Redstart put the mix in and really had me working on separating it from the afore-mentioned flycatcher. The park has been colonised by large numbers of starlings which I can’t recognise and there are also lots of Eurasian Blackbirds too. So expect mistakes, and if you’re lucky, a few howlers!


Screenshot from my phone … the green bit …!

I recently discovered  Osmand maps which are available for android devices and possibly other platforms. I really recommend these maps, especially for China, as they have places names in Chinese and English and you can easily add notes and markers. Remember the Google empire is off limits here so unless you are running a VPN, Google Maps will not work for you here in China whether on a PC or mobile appliance.



The Location

From rummaging through Osmand’s Jiangsu map I noticed an an area of river fronting park land, one of a handful of such places not so far away from home and the fine weather was just the spur I needed. It involved a bus ride and then a walk but after a while the river front was signed. To be honest, it was rather bleak not withstanding the radiant sun: virtually all the land has industrial plant and therefore no surprises that  I saw a grand total of two waders – both Common Sandpipers. However there were pockets of reeds and plantations along the riverside which yielded some nice birds: an unidentified bunting species, a Long-tailed Shrike, 5 Grey Herons from a distance had me wondering if they were to be my first encounter with cranes, another unidentified bunting species, and a small flock of what I  imagine were Vinous-Throated Parrotbills foraging in some tall reeds, a white-eye species also performed a bit but my notes are insufficient for identification: I didn’t notice if it had chestnut flanks. There were a couple of other birds which flashed up only to disappear so great potential there. For me the bird of the day was the Red-flanked Bluetail. I need to confess I was wondering if it was a cyornis flycatcher but my notes this time helped subsequent identification as I had noted the blue tail and red flanks together with the olive/brown uppers. As I walked home I noted another one fitting the same description and relatively confiding – this was within a range which made me think I might have cleaned up with a 400 mm lens! I really didn’t get into the park proper as I spent all my time on the road that borders the river and only put my big toe into the park in the freezing cold of late afternoon. At a deserted car park/visitor centre a Common Kingfisher was noteworthy.


Bleak really … 

I’m returning to Thailand for the Chinese New Year and will return with the scope and tripod. I want to head north and see some cranes …



More Black Bazas …

11 04 2016

At about 17:40h this evening in the rice paddy my daughter very excitedly pointed to some birds behind me and said : “Look Dad, birds”.  On turning round I counted no less than 60 Black Bazas  coming down for a nocturnal roost. We watched them fly around a little before finally settling on a cluster of trees near the Rose Garden estate in the rice paddy. We went in pursuit, and on our way told a few curious local farmers what we were looking for and showed them images of Black Bazas in the guidebook: they were in disbelief. But the bazas were closeby as we discovered.  Difficult to see but I did make out several of their very striking crests. Amazing stuff. So tonight’s small flock makes it seem that Wednesday’s flock was not ‘accidental’ but that we are probably on some sort of northbound route for Black Bazas. I imagine these bazas will  be headed for the forests that line the western Thai-Myanmar border and beyond that into the north of Thailand proper.

Barn Owl in the Rice Paddy

10 04 2016

We had great views of a Barn Owl being mobbed by some White-vented Mynas this evening. He flew right over me showing his love-heart face and perched in a  palm tree in the thicket which was of interest to the Black Bazas we saw on Wednesday. I walked into the thicket for better views but put him up which enabled my wife and daughter to get great views. We’ve had Barn Owls in our soi before, and a few years ago in trees at my school, so no big deal but not a bird we see every day.

Chinese Francolin still in residence

10 04 2016

A male Chinese Francolin   walked nonchalantly in front of my truck this afternoon at Huay Mai Teng Reservoir, Ratchaburi Province, and proceeded on its purposeful way before disappearing into furrowed fields supporting cassava cultivation. Not a sound or indication that it was on the premises. I was genuinely shocked and pleased at the same time: fearful that this species was no more as far as  the reservoir is concerned, and pleased for obvious reasons that this sighting contradicts that concern.

The effects of Thailand’s drought crisis are all too obvious here. The locals are saying : “Nam ha yak mak mak” which translates as “Water is extremely  rare” ;  of course ‘…ha yak mak mak‘ is how you would describe a very rare bird. While there is still water in the reservoir, levels are as low as I have ever seen them and there are extensive areas which have dried out. We need rain urgently, lots of it. Perhaps that will bring out Rain Quail, one of the reservoir’s signature species, which was strangely missing from today’s observations: not a sight or a sound. Clearly this need for rain explains Rain Quail’s nomenclature. There were plenty of Small Pratincoles, another key species which can usually be seen with ease at this site; they seemed to be enjoying the dry dusty conditions on paths and tracks. I would estimate over one hundred across the site today; there were also a handful of Oriental Pratincoles in their midst.

In amongst one Richard’s Pipit, a number of Paddyfield Pipits, Red-throated Pipits, Little Ringed Plovers  and Yellow Wagtails I picked out a single Bluethroat, a very pleasing sight as it was only the second record I have for this site. There were also good numbers of Oriental Skylarks and a few Indochinese Bushlark. A Black-capped Kingfisher loitering on a pole in the reservoir was unexpected too. In and around the water edge there were lots of Wood Sandpiper, huge numbers of Little Cormorants and Lesser Whistling Ducks and a few Pheasant-tailed Jacanas. There were also a few Little Grebes and I was very happy to see a few Cotton Pygmy-geese in there too.

A low-flying Kestrel put in an appearance, perching up for a while on a nearby pole. Otherwise no raptors and I would be dishonest if I said I wasn’t expecting some Oriental Honey Buzzards and Black Bazas to be around. At dusk I headed to the usual place and it did not disappoint:at least two Savanna Nightjars, immediately recognisable by their rasping call, were on the move.

An idyllic couple of hours in one of my favourite birding sites.


8 04 2016

Two watercocks were out in the open this evening in the Ratchaburi rice paddy. Since Wednesday’s Black Baza invasion there’s been a spring in our steps with every bird attracting our attention. Watercocks are residents as opposed to migrants and they are generally not very showy birds usually well concealed by  rice plants and normally only visible when they fly. They do not appear to be as common as once so it was nice to see this pair in the mud.

There have been no new Black Bazas since Wednesday but the whole experience of seeing those birds underlines the fascination of bird watching for me. First of all there’s the connection with the natural world and specifically migration: this is peak period for many species to be on the move during which they often cover astonishing distances. The second element arises from this: during migration anything can quite literally fall out of the sky and it is this chance element, of being in the right place at the right time, that throws up so many exciting possibilities. We were so lucky to be where we were at that particular time on Wednesday evening when the bazas came down. But Black Bazas were the last thing I was expecting to see !

Black Bazas

6 04 2016

At about 18:25 this evening we had just finished our little bit of exercise in the rice paddy and had just turned the truck round to head home when we became aware of a lot of bird activity in and around some nearby trees. Basically a lot of small, raptor like birds but nothing immediately discernible beyond a silhouette. My first instinct was sparrow hawks, perhaps. There were lots of them and some were perching in trees in a nearby thicket. It was only when some started to fly directly above us that I could make out the white upper breast and the banding on the lower breast; we were watching Black Bazas, some of the most striking looking birds you’re ever likely to see: check out this image. In Chumphon, in the south of Thailand, towards the end of October, it is possible to watch the Black Baza southern migration: they pass through in tens of thousands. Today we were watching their migration back to their breeding grounds in the north of Thailand from peninsular Malaysia. Presumably these birds had flown up Thailand’s east coast and had cut inland  to head northwards overland. As day time migrants these Black Bazas would be looking for a roost for the evening before continuing the next leg of their journey. They flew off in the end in search of a roost but what a magic moment for us. I suspect we were the only people around who had any idea of what was happening.

Siberian Rubythroat in the Rice Paddy

10 02 2016

A notable first ever record of a Siberian Rubythroat in the local rice paddy made yesterday evening’s after-work stretch all the more pleasant. There it was, perched atop a bush, its rich brown hues resplendent in the late evening sun, and my scanning eyes stopped on its rich red gorget. Bingo, I thought! Unmistakeable! I’ve got Ruby etched in my mind as a skulker but this one was far from it, out in the open giving off strong vocalisations and only really dipped down into the scrub when my movement finally registered. First one I’ve ever recorded here but not a surprise as I have records of them further west at Huay Mai Teng Reservoir.

The rice paddy throws up some interesting birds. At this time of the year there are plenty of Oriental Reed Warblers and some Black-browed Reed Warblers in the reeds that grow in and about the rice paddy’s irrigation canals. I am sure closer scrutiny would throw up more interesting species too. In recent weeks the bird that has given me the greatest pleasure apart from the rubythroat is Red-rumped Swallow. In the last few days I’ve picked out two on the basis of distinct whitish rumps in amongst the Asian Swifts and Barn Swallows.

A few weeks ago there was a Booted Eagle soaring high in the sky with a  handful of Black Kites. About this time we often get visits from Greater Spotted and Steppe Eagles too and a Peregrine is not uncommon either. I also expect to see Black-shouldered Kite every time I am out here and in fact this expectation made me miss a sparrowhawk species which flew over us. I would be reluctant to name it suffice to say it wasn’t a Black-shouldered Kite, which became very obvious when I looked up and failed to see the familiar diagonal black-and-white separation of the kite’s wing.

It is noteworthy that there are virtually no harriers present at this moment. I have one record of an Eastern Marsh Harrier from last week and that is it for the last few weeks. Perhaps there is no obvious food for harriers with the rice crop harvested and much of the paddy dry and cut down, or perhaps there are simply better offerings elsewhere. Who knows? However water is starting to be pumped into some areas ahead of tilling and replanting and this has brought in some waders, notably Black-winged Stilts but also a couple of Oriental Pratincoles. This should also bring in some Grey-headed Lapwing before they migrate northwards too. So potentially some excellent birding right on my doorstep over the next few weeks.