I almost struck out in Rochester

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Abraham Lincoln Park

Last Day Lifers in Rochester

We spent Thanksgiving week this year in Rochester, New York. It’s was a great trip – good weather and good family times. Birding-wise, there isn’t a lot to see in Rochester in late November, unless it’s an irruption year for boreal species like Snowy Owl and Common Redpoll. It either wasn’t one of those years, or it was too early. Still, birders had been reporting a Bohemian Waxwing and a trio of Pine Grosbeaks at a place called Webster Park, both of which would’ve been lifers. I dutifully headed there the first morning I was in town. As often often happens when you’re birding out of town, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go. The eBird hotspot was “Webster Park–campground area.” There was a quarter-mile long road that turned left into a campground area, so I basically walked around the area. I saw a few birds, but no Pine Grosbeaks or any waxwings. It wasn’t until the end of my stay that I ran into some local birders, who told me which loop trail with the crabapple trees the Pine Grosbeaks had been favoring.

I came back the next morning and, despite the additional presence of a half-dozen other birders, didn’t find any Pine Grosbeaks and couldn’t pick a Bohemian Waxwing out of a flock of two dozen Cedar Waxwings. Each day, the Pine Grosbeaks were reported either before I arrived or in the afternoon after I left. I stayed home on Thanksgiving, but was out again on Friday morning. The wind was gusty. There was occasional light drizzle. And I didn’t see any grosbeaks or waxwings. Saturday was the last day of our trip, and thus my last chance. I showed up at 8am, apparently 15 minutes after the Pine Grosbeaks had made a brief stop at the crabapple trees. After an hour of half of stalking the same quarter-mile of trail, my patience was finally rewarded. I heard the Pine Grosbeaks before I saw them.  Conveniently, they then flew atop a pine tree for clear views. They’re big finches with some delicate plumage. 

Another lifer target for the trip was Eastern Screech-Owl. There were scattered reports of these tiny creatures across town. But given their excellent camouflage, I either needed to get incredibly luck or some local intel. I ended up scoring the intel. Thanks to my multiple trips to Webster Park failing to find the Pine Grosbeaks, I crossed paths with local birders who gave me suggestions. One woman directed me to two specific trees where I might find an Eastern Screech-Owl. I checked them both one day, and struck out. But on the morning of our last day in Rochester, before I went to Webster Park for my 4th try at Pine Grosbeak, I found the little dude pictured below in a tree cavity in Abraham Lincoln Park. These little owls aren’t much bigger than your hand. And despite their name, they don’t screech.

Eastern Screech Owl

While I was failing to find lifers, I did manage to see some good birds that don’t call Los Angeles home. During my travels, I saw Long-tailed Ducks lounging and feeding just off shore on Lake Ontario. A lone Tundra Swan was calling in flight during a hike, and then stood on a frozen pond bellowing for companionship. A crow mob at Webster Park distracted us from the lack of Pine Grosbeaks and led me to a Barred Owl. Among the many woodpeckers I saw, I found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working a leafless tree at Mendon Ponds. And I finally got a (distant) photo of an American Black Duck.

Long-tailed Duck, Lake Ontario

You fully appreciate the species diversity of Los Angeles when you travel to somewhere like Rochester in late fall. For the month of November, birders have reported seeing 142 species in eBird in Monroe County, New York, compared to 299 species in Los Angeles County. Granted, LA County is much bigger than Monroe County. but consider this: for the entire state of New York, eBirders have only reported 263 species in November. I didn’t have a single checklist in Rochester with more than 18 species, whereas counts in the 20s and 30s are common when birding Los Angeles. In Rochester, if you’re walking parks or forest, it’s Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays on every list. After that, it’s a scattering of a few others species. I was surprised by the almost total absence of sparrows and other ground birds.

Our last adventure during the trip was to a place called Wild Wings Birds of Prey Facility. It’s located at Mendon Ponds, and is a non-profit educational organization. They care for injured birds of prey that cannot be re-released into the wild. You can walk around the cages where they keep many of the birds, and get point blank views at all kinds of hawks and owls. Visiting on Thanksgiving weekend is a treat, because they’ve got many of the animals out of the cages with handlers. While we were there, we got to see Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Screech-Owl, Short-eared Owl, Gyrfalcon, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk all on a handler’s arm. Inside the cages they had a Northern Saw-whet Owl, two Snowy Owls, Long-eared Owl, Great-Horned Owl, Bald Eagles, Barn Owls, Barred Owls, and a Pileated Woodpecker. I can’t describe how much of a treat it was to get arms-length views of all of these birds. 

On top of that, another amazing thing about visiting the Wild Wings Nature Center is the chance to hand-feed some wild birds. They sell birdseed at the nature center, and over the years enough humans have walked the trails in the area with their hands full of birdseed that the Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees have grown accustomed to feeding out of your hand.

 

 

Birding Beijing, the Great Wall, & Yeyahu (in 2017)

A Bearded Reedling at Yeyahu National Wetland Park

Birding Beijing, China and surrounding area

This blog is rarely a place for breaking birding news. My trip reports generally come weeks, if not months or years, after the outings they recount. This one here comes more than 5 years later. And it’s mostly an indulgence. I was recently looking at photos of the 2-week trip I took to Beijing, China in May 2017 and was delighted by the memories it brought back. It was a work trip, but I brought my son with me for what I hoped would be an amazing adventure. And it was. My son was, at 10, the perfect age to travel with – enthusiastic, curious, and independent. 

While we were there for 2 weeks, I was teaching Monday-Friday, in the mornings, so there wasn’t as much time for birding as I would’ve liked. On top of that, getting to good birding spots was a real challenge. Beijing is a city of 21 million people, with roads and buildings as far as the eye can see. We didn’t have a car, and we didn’t speak or read Mandarin. In addition, we had a lot of cultural destinations, like Tiananmen Square, and hutongs and Houhai and restaurants to visit that weren’t always bird friendly. Still, we managed to squeeze in a couple of good trips and some afternoon visits to parks. Like everywhere else in the world, if you looked around, you could find some birds.

Our first excursion was to Olympic Forest Park. It was built for the 2008 Summer Olympics. It’s where the Beijing National Stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest) is located. It’s huge, and has a nice combination of grassy fields, trees and bushes, hills, and a lake with some reeds. We saw Yellow Bittern and Gray Heron. A Common Kingfisher was catching fish as large as its body.  Azure-winged and Oriental Magpies were abundant. We saw them, and Eurasian Tree Sparrows, more frequently than we saw anything else. We spied a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Vinous-throated Parrotbill. Besides birds, we were getting our first taste of life in China, including a large group of people singing songs, which was fun. From some of the reactions my son was getting, some locals were getting their first views of a California white kid with long light brown hair.

The class I taught was held on the campus of the University of International Business and Economics, which is north-northeast of central Beijing but well within the city. There were some birds in the trees on campus, especially the ubiquitous Azure-winged Magpie and Eurasian Tree Sparrow. A nearby spot we visited a couple of times was the Yuan Dadu City Wall Ruins Park. The park preserves a section of an earthen city wall that encircled the 13th century capitol of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. You can walk along the 25-foot tall wall, which is mostly covered in trees. We found some good birds in this long, thin slice of a park, including Gray-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Arctic Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Crested Myna, and Chinese Blackbird. Owing to the muddy conditions, we came back from the park with some of the centuries-old earthen wall stuck to the bottom of our shoes.

We also picked up some birds visiting places like Temple of the Earth, Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and the Old Summer Palace (aka Yuanmingyuan Relic Park). At the Old Summer Palace, we made friends with some local Chinese birders and walked around with them for 20 minutes and shared a mutual pleasure in seeing the birds despite our inability to talk to each other. The more memorable parts of those visits included all the dragons carved on the temples, some small boat rides with my son as Captain, an impromptu hide-and-seek game my son played with some local kids, a crazy sport that combined soccer and badminton but without a net or goal, and a conversation at the Temple of Heaven’s Echo Wall. Across the street from the Temple of Heaven was the Hongqiao Pearl Market, which included a shop called Toy City, where my son bargained for a knock-off Pirates of the Caribbean lego ghost ship.

Bird + Dragon = Happy Dad and Son

Birding the Great Wall of China

One of the highlights of the trip was an excursion to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. It’s just over an hour from campus in Beijing. The experience from beginning to end was amazing. To get to the wall from the parking/ticket area, you can walk or you can ride a cable car up. We obviously chose the cable car (like a ski lift). From there, you are dropped off to a well-preserved and restored section of the Great Wall. The wall is an astounding absurdity. You’re beyond the city in what feels like the middle of a remote mountain range. And there, zig-zagging out in two directions is a 20-30 foot tall rock wall. Where all the rocks came from, how they got them to the site, and how the assembled the wall are crazy questions to ponder as you stand there. This section of the wall was apparently first built in the 6th century. The wall as you visit it to day was built in the 16th century.

There are some concessions stands along the wall, and we enjoyed a delicious ice cream snack. At one point, my son went off ahead (or, more likely, I straggled behind). I had to use my binoculars to find him. When it was time to meet back up with our group, I had to yell out to him across a valley, from my tower to his. Unbeknownst to us, our already great visit was about to get a perfect finish. To get back down to the parking area at Mutianyu, you can walk or you can take a one-man wheeled toboggan down a one-mile long metal slide. We definitely chose the toboggan. It was so much fun. My son even saw goats along the track as we went down (I missed them somehow). When you get off at the bottom, two old dudes in ancient Chinese warrior outfits pose with you for pictures. I haven’t visited any other section of the wall, but I can’t imagine any of them beating Mutianyu.

When I wasn’t dumbfounded, I managed to see a few birds. I heard more birds than I saw, down in the trees and bushes below the wall, but had no chance of doing sound IDs. Of the birds I got my eyes on and could ID, there were Large-billed Crows and Oriental Magpies. I managed an out-of-focus photo of a Chinese Sparrowhawk (it looked to me like a Cooper’s Hawk. I also saw a Japanese Tit, a Daurian Redstart, a Pere David’s Laughingthursh, and a Godlewski’s Bunting. You can check out a really helpful birder’s guide to the Great Wall here.

Birding Yeyahu National Wetland Park (aka Wild Duck Lake)

The last of our adventures that involved a bunch of birds was a day trip out to Yeyahu National Wetland Park (aka Wild Duck Lake). It’s a big wetland just over an hour’s drive from Beijing, past the Great Wall. Through the help of someone at the university, we hired a driver to take us out there early in the morning (after stopping at the amazing dumpling place, as we did almost every morning). Our driver didn’t speak any English, which created a couple of challenges later in the day. But he took us where we wanted to go, and waited for us while we wandered around. We arrived at Yeyahu an hour before it opened (which was news to us). No matter, a guy at the entrance allowed us to buy tickets and enter. 

Since this was new habitat (all we’d experienced so far was urban parkland), there were lifers everywhere. We saw a few ducks (Eastern Spot-billed, Ferruginous Ruddy Shelduck) and an apparently non-domestic Graylag Goose. There were little Grebes and Great Crested Grebes working the water. Perhaps the best sighting of the trip was a Ruddy-breasted Crake that made a quick appearance before disappearing into the reeds. We spotted Northern Lapwing and Gray-headed Lapwing, LIttle Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper. There were a bunch of Gray Herons and Purple Herons, and we spied a single Chinese Pond-Heron and Yellow Bittern. Some Eurasian Spoonbills flew by. 

In the reeds, bushes, and trees, we saw a bunch of Bearded Reedlings and Oriental Reed Warblers, a Marsh Tit,  a Black-faced Bunting, and a Beijing Babbler. IN the skies, we saw several Amur Falcons (which migrate in massive flocks between China and southern Africa), an Eastern Marsh Harrier, an Eurasian Hobby, and Oriental Pratincole. We ended the day with 43 identified species at Yeyahu.

One of the highlights of Yeyahu is its massive birding tower. It’s the biggest, and sturdiest, birding tower I’ve ever seen. We made our way to the top, and enjoyed our lunch and the view. We were way too high to make out anything on the ground except a Ring-necked Pheasant, but were entertained by Amur Falcons flying by at eye-level. My son needed a break from birding, so he pulled out his iPad and did some reading and played some games while I stared like a dork through my binoculars. 

We had planned to visit some forest habitat after Yeyahu, but when our driver took us to the spot that had been recommended to us, a sign (surprisingly in both Mandarin and English) said it was closed for the day. That was a bit of a bummer, because a whole new set of birds awaiting us in the mountain trees. We were not far from the Badaling section of the Great Wall, so we headed over to the parking lot. We didn’t pay to visit the wall, but instead wandered around the area. There wasn’t much birding action, but we got to do a little impromptu exploring of a non-tourist area, which was nice. After about 90 minutes, we decided to call it a day and return to town.

If you’re headed to Beijing, definitely check out birdingbeijing.com. It’s a great blog by a British guy who lives in Beijing and has all kinds of helpful information about sites, the birds, and conservation efforts in the area.

 

 

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