Ten Million Sparrows Canít Be Wrong



Author: Keith Martin.


The Visit

The idea of this report is to give birders (and maybe even normal people!) visiting Beijing an idea of what they might see during a short visit to the captivating capital of China. I visited Beijing from the 9th to the 20th of November 1997 to attend an academic conference, spending the last five days "having a look around", with a bit of opportunistic birding thrown in. I had great trouble getting useful advance information about the birds of Beijing and hence I hope this informal report will be of some interest to anyone else visiting the capital under similar conditions. There is a bit more than bird information in here, so I hope you can extract something useful from the ramblings.

The next section of the report contains some comments on the types of practicality that most visitors have to overcome. This is followed by a site list and then species list for my visit. The species list contains a few open problems for those that like speculative theoretical birding. Any help clarifying them is greatly appreciated.



Frequently Quoted Myths about Beijing

The only places to stay are huge impersonal expensive over-staffed hotels which are about as Chinese as a MacBurger and fries.

Actually this is almost not a myth. I had the unfortunate experience to have to spend the conference week in the Beijing Friendship Hotel in the Haidan District that was guilty of almost all of these offences. However I succeeded in escaping after the conference to the more intimate Foreigners Guest House, where I had four times as much fun for one quarter the price, despite the following somewhat draconian rules:

"Dangerous items such as guns, bullets, bombs, combustible chemicals, are extremely forbidden to be taken into the hotel. It is also suggested that you donít bring pets such as cats, dogs, monkeys, and birds into the hotel."

"Illegal activities such as prostitution, whoring, gambling, getting drink and creating disturbances are extremely forbidden. Non spouse men and women are not allowed to live in the same room."

And, I thought, the rather prude rule:

"No smoling on the bed."

The only way of getting around Beijing is by bicycle, pedicab or government tank.

All of these are of course options, the former occurring in most impressive variety, and the latter being about the only totally safe transportation method. Beijing is, however, no longer that National Geographic image of massed rivers of bicycles surging under washing lines and spilling around market places. It is, like any other city in the world, full of cars, carriage ways and carbon monoxide. But there are a lot of bicycles. The easiest way around is by taxi (plentiful and with impressive dorsal fins Ė sagacious Scrooges would be wise to pre-negotiate the fare). Taxis generally lack that true spirit of adventure though. The connoisseurís transport choice would have to be the public bus network, which is excellent, comprehensive and cheap beyond imagination. The four-fold bus problem is simply Ė one: which bus goes where? (find a local in possession of a babel fish); two: how much small change do I part with to pay for my fare? (do the same as the person in front of you); three: how do I recognise my stop?; four: how do I actually physically get off a bus that is packed like a can of water chestnuts? The last two questions can most effectively be eliminated by standing next to a doorway, which ensures that you will have next to no choice about when and where you are finally flung back onto humanity street. Thrilling and not to be missed.

The greatest biodiversity in Beijing occurs on restaurant menus.

This is possibly also true. Gone are the days of readily available dog and cat burgers (or so Iím toldÖ) but I did chalk up a fine "ate" list by devoting some well spent time to exploring the local hostelries. I thought bullfrog probably leapt ahead of the rest, but eel wriggled in at a close second, pigs feet might have walked it in a lesser competition, Iíd shell out to try turtle, chicken stomach was quite digestible, and snake blood, bile and fillet all wriggle in somewhat towards the end of my list. Beijing Duck is a very common and tasty dish, but inclusion of the beak in the meal is a habit that tested my culinary enthusiasm somewhat. Donít be scared Ė there are lots of varied and affordable restaurants in Beijing, vegetarian options almost always exist (in case you feel the need for instant conversion) and English menus are on the increase (if you actually prefer to anticipate events in advance). Nonetheless it is worth heading for at least one back street establishment so that you can have fun exercising the "I trust you emphatically waitress (wink)" or "take me to the kitchen" ordering techniques.

There are no birds in China.

Not true. There are spillions of sparrows. Sparrows on the roofs of the Forbidden City, sparrows foraging in the rubbish tips, sparrows at the market places, sparrows in Tiananmen Square. Loadsasparrows. Sure Ė there are birds in China.

There are no birds other than sparrows in China.

Whoa.. whistle.. Hmm.. Now thatís a question (etc). There are certainly a lot fewer birds in China than available habitat often appears to promise. There are few prizes for providing possible general reasons for the low density (general environmental annihilation, mass deforestation, to start with a few). Perhaps what is then surprising is the variety of birds that actually are in the Beijing area. I saw over 30 species in my couple of days birding, and no doubt there were more out there. Consider birding here a challenge, but one not without its rewards.


As this was not a birding trip per se, I was neither well equipped from a literature nor an optical viewpoint (I took my crash-damaged Nikon compacts). The literature I did have was:

Lonely Planet City Guide: Beijng. The Book! A "God send".. You can easily identify foreign visitors to the city by the fact that this little book will either be being tightly grasped in their sweaty hands, or will be peeping out of a tell-tale pocket. Very useful. A "must buy".

Rough guide: Mandarin Phrasebook. Useless, completely useless (donít smirk please..)

A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan. Yes, yes Ė I know! Japan is somewhere else. But isnít that far away. This actually had good, but not comprehensive coverage of most Beijing birds (it has a picture of a Eurasian Tree Sparrow after all), The distribution maps do extend to Beijing, and this book was already on my shelf. Moreover, it is portable. The only books I have seen that cover Northern China look like they would need a golfing trolley to take out into the field.

DBTR Trip reports. I bought two trip reports from the Dutch Birding Travel Service. The report by Pearce and Speight was hilarious, if a bit dated. Their birding was of a more serious nature to mine. The report by Niks was less useful as niks was exactly what he saw in Beijing (thatís a Dutch language joke Iím afraid - but itís a good one..).



Beijing City

If you have just two spare days in Beijing Ė donít go birding. The main "tourist" sites are all worth visiting and the city is worth absorbing just by getting out and about. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (aka The Last Emperor movie set) are essentials. A day of shopping in the markets and the adrenalin rush from riding the public transport network are both recommended. And you can see birds while you are on the rounds. Exactly how many wonít be Eurasian Tree Sparrows is hard to predict, but Black-billed and Azure-winged Magpies are highly visible, with the odd Large-billed Crow and Feral Pigeon likely to fly over from time to time. Most interesting looking raptors will however almost certainly be attached to the ground by a very long piece of string, and any beautiful songster is likely to be calling from the confines of a metal prison. In saw a couple of other species at the Beijing University Campus. But itís a great city.

Summer Palace / Kunming Lake

Several birding reports that I read were scathing in their dismissal of the glorious Summer Palace as a place to take an ornithological perambulation. I found it to be the outstanding Beijing bird site and I saw almost all the species that I saw at this one site. The Summer Palace occupies a small corner of an expansive park that largely consists of the extensive Lake Kunming and a few attached smaller ponds. Surrounding the lake are patches of woodland and open grassland. I took a bus to the Summer Palace (there are many) at about 8am, ahead of most of the visitors, but not before the many small groups of Chinese conducting morning exercises around their cassette players. The grounds staff engaged in the endless and thankless task of sweeping leaves from the paths, called out to one another through the crisp and sharp morning mist rising off the lake, creating a much more serene atmosphere than it might sound. I walked around the entire lake system in a couple of hours. By far the best birding spot surprisingly proved to be the slopes of Longevity Hill, which provide the backdrop to the Palace itself (I say surprisingly, because this is by far the busiest part of the park). A full suite of woodland species were seen here, from Tits, Woodpeckers and Nuthatch, to the wonderful Blue Magpies. Lake Kunming was quiet except for some decent flocks of diving ducks (Smew, Goosander, Goldeneye). The most intensely productive spot proved to be a tiny reed bed on the western shore of the lake which turned up a flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbills, a Siberian Accentor, a Common Kingfisher, and to my astonishment a male Bearded Tit. I have the distinct impression that a second visit to the Summer Palace would have taken the site list comfortably beyond the 30 mark. By early afternoon conditions had ultimately got too busy and the wind off the lake too icy, so I strategically withdrew, spent another worthless note on a bus fare and retired to a small restaurant to beef up on a superb eggplant dish, which I washed down with a large bottle of Tsingtao beer. Intriguingly the building next door claimed to be a club offering "bar, sauna, gym, chess". I completely failed to find a satisfactory answer to the most obvious question: in which order?

Fragrance Hills Park

Fragrance Hills Park lies west of the Summer Palace and occupies the slopes and summits of a corner of the eastern fringe of the Western Hills. Pine forest covers much of the slopes, often with an attractive understorey of plastic bottles, steel cans and bin liners. The ridge tops are more sparsely vegetated and offer views into the visually impenetrable Beijing smog. Actually this makes the place sound awful. It ainít so bad. Fragrance Hills Park is easily reached by bus (change at the Summer Palace), at least in theory. I had my finest bus hour on the way there when, despite the enthusiastic nods from driver and passengers alike to my bit of paper indicating my desired destination, the bus propelled me to a small village in the centre of a flat valley somewhere rather north of Fragrance Hills. If I had missed out on being stared at in Beijing (western tourists have almost no novelty value to the city residents), I made up for the short fall here. Failing dismally to become inconspicuous, I took a short walk into the countryside in a sad attempt to make it look as if I was not completely lost, and admired lots of Tree Sparrows almost as much as a man riding a bicycle towing the most enormous pile of dung I have ever seen. In short Ė donít catch a 330. I boarded the 330 back to the Summer Palace and finally cheated and took a cab to Fragrance Hills, which turned out to be so close that I could have almost walked. By lunchtime the Hills were very busy with groups of enthusiastic would-be mountaineers striding purposefully up the slopes of Incense Burner Peak whilst engaging in long distance communication with almost every other would-be hill climber within earshot. There were certainly more travelling drinking water merchants than birds, but a few forays away from the main track turned up some goodies such as Blue Magpie and Pere Davidís Laughingthrush. Several small elusive bush birds escaped my dodgy Nikons and tended to make infuriating mid afternoon squeaking noises (as actually did the Nikons). A distant raptor seen from the summit was almost certainly not tied to a bit of string, but was too distant to be identified. I succeeded in picking up a woman on my return trip. She took me on a tour of her favourite parts of the Park and then guided me safely to the correct bus stop. She wanted me to guess her age, but my mutterings of late 40s were dismissed with a knowing wink. "Iím 70" she said with a mischievous smile as she hopped off the bus to vanish into the ten million.

Badaling / The Great Wall

This is of course the obvious day trip destination and is by far the easiest way of seeing a bit of rural China during a brief city stay. As it is probably easier to get to The Wall than not to get to The Wall, it is worth a few words. I made two visits Ė the brief, official, automated one as part of the conference package, and a second independent one.

On the first trip we were whisked to a section of The Wall that seemed to be for western visitors only (or maybe this simply reflected the lack of public transportation to this gate). It was relatively quiet, especially once we had walked beyond the restored section onto the crumbling magnificence of the more distant battlements. I was surprised to discover that the dense low heath beneath the wall seemed to be the source of rather a lot of birdcalls. The excellent vista from the heights of the wall also allowed several birds to be seen overhead, gently riding the thermals or drifting over the ridge tops. Unfortunately good views of birds in either location were few and frustratingly far between. The only clear view I had was of a Goshawk that swooped low over our heads. Glimpses of various buntings in the low mountain cover proved insufficient for identification.

I decided a second visit was merited, as much for the excuse of catching a Chinese train as to see more of The Wall (there are plenty of buses and taxis for those with less bizarre needs for personal challenges). The train was a great experience and incredibly cheap (about 20 UK pence). I boarded at a local station and thus avoided all the nightmare travel tales of long queues at Beijingís main railway station. The train staff were very friendly and carefully made sure that I didnít miss Qinglongqiao station after the gentle two hour journey. Beware Ė Qinglongqiao has two railway stations and trains appear to stop at each at random Ė check before you return journey! Qinglongqiao is the main Chinese access to The Wall and as a result was incredibly busy. Birding The Wall here was not very good, but I did see close views of Chinese Hill Warbler from the turrets. I walked back to Qinglongqiao Old Station (follow the railway tracks Ė I couldnít find the road) and then continued into a small valley behind the station. This was a very pleasant little spot, shrouded by the hills and The Wall, and turned up a number of species such as Pere Davidís Laughingthrush, Rock Bunting, Siberian Accentor, Grey-headed Woodpecker and Pheasant. Several Chaffinch lookalikes were probably nice Rosefinches, but the Nikons let me down on the few glimpses I got. At the head of the valley was a small graveyard, guarded by two friendly men with unfriendly dogs. I indicated my desire to keep walking and they cheerily waved me on. Unfortunately there was an apparent change of policy some ten minutes later, which may have had something to do with their belief that I was in danger of missing my train, but the friendly men retained their friendliness, while enforcing less restraint on the unfriendliness of their unfriendly dogs. So I wisely left. I think any time spent around The Wall, especially if you can get away from the crowds, would be time ornithologically well spent. But The Wall is almost as impressive as a Chinese Hill Warbler, so make that trip anyway.



**Help Wanted

The following bird list contains several questioned sightings and comments requiring clarification. If any reader can provide useful comment or further information on any of the entries pre-marked ** then I would welcome the feedback. I still hope that dodgy information is better than no information at all!




Little Grebe Podiceps ruficollis

Just one lonely little bird, seen bobbing up and down on Lake Kunming.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

A large flock of over 60 wild birds were seen on Lake Kunming. Several others were probably eaten during the visit.

Goldeneye Bucephala clangula

Six birds seen on Lake Kunming.

Smew Mergus albellus

At least 20 seen on Lake Kunming, and many seen in flight. The figure 20 is almost certainly conservative.

Goosander Mergus merganser

Majestic as ever. Around a dozen observed on Lake Kunming.

Black Kite Milvus migrans

About four seen above The Great Wall. Several distant unidentified raptors could also have been this species.

**Buzzard Buteo buteo

Several distant raptors looked like this species to me, but I am not convinced enough to state this with authority. There may be other local possibilities.

Goshawk Accipter gentilis

One seen flying over The Great Wall.

**Common Sparrowhawk Accipter nisus

Two sparrowhawks circling above Longevity Hill (Summer Palace) were assumed to be this species. The Japanese Field Guide suggests that the range of other related species do extend to Beijing.

Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus

One bird seen fleeing up the slopes beneath The Great Wall. Given the breadth of the local culinary tastes, I am amazed that this species survives in the wild.

Spotted (Turtle) Dove Streptopelia chinensis

Around fifteen seen at The Summer Palace. I expected this bird to be commoner.

Feral Pigeon Columba livia

Not as common as might be expected, but a regular sight in Beijing nonetheless.

Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis

One bird seen in a tiny reed bed reed bed at Lake Kunming.

Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus

Three birds seen altogether. One on Longevity Hill, one on Incense Burner Peak (Fragrance Hills Park) and one at Qinglongqiao Old Station (Badaling).

**White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos

See entry for Great-spotted Woodpecker.

Great-spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major

Surprisingly common for a region which has treated trees solely as industrial and domestic fuel. At least five seen at the Summer Palace and three at Fragrance Hills Park. A large and unusual looking one on the Beijing University campus may have been White-backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos).

(Winter) Wren Troglodytes troglodytes

Just one bird seen, foraging conspicuously at the edge of Lake Kunming.

Siberian Accentor Prunella montanella

A very striking little bird and worth hunting out. One seen in the reeds at Lake Kunming, and about five seen in the valley near Qinglongqiao Old railway station.

Dusky Thrush Turdus naumanni naumanni

Only one bird seen well on Longevity Hill, among several glimpses of mysterious thrushes. I suspect this was a commoner species than the one sighting indicates.

Bearded Tit Panarus biarmicus

One male bird, hiding in the reeds at Lake Kunming. A most pleasant surprise.

Chinese Hill Warbler Rhopophilus pekinensis

A terrific bird which eventually revealed itself in the heath below The Great Wall after the source of several elusive seeping calls had been hunted for rather desperately from the upper battlements! Somewhat resembled an Australian Grass-wren, which is probably why I got so excited.

Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus

One bird seen briefly on Longevity Hill. There is an outside bet this could have been Pallasí Warbler (Phyllocsopus proregulus), but the overall impression was of a dull green bird with a bright eyestripe.

Vinous-throated Parrotbill Paradoxornis webbianus

Little cutees. They seem to be gregarious and active, but although they work their way through dense vegetation fairly noisily, they seem easy to overlook. One party of eight were seen in my favourite small reed bed on the shore of Lake Kunming, and another party at Qinlongqiao Old Station.

Pere Davidís Laugingthrush Garrulax davidi

A somewhat bizarre looking bird occurring in several parties and pairs around Badaling, and one lone example working the slopes of Incense Burner Peak (Fragrance Hills Park).

Willow Tit Parus montanus

Seemed to be a common species on Longevity Hill (Summer Palace). It is also possible that Marsh Tit (Parus palustris) was present, but I didnít hear any tell-tale calls.

Coal Tit Parus ater

Just two birds seen on Longevity Hill (Summer Palace)

Great Tit Parus major

Regularly observed. One at Beijing University, ten at Fragrance Hills Park, twelve at The Great Wall and more than I could be bothered counting on Longevity Hill (Summer Palace).

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus

They are always having such an apparently great time arenít they? Several noisy frolicking flocks at The Summer Palace.

**Nuthatch Sitta europaea

Two small and dull plumaged nuthatches on Longevity Hill (Summer Palace) were assumed to be this species. Are there other possibilities in this region?

Hill Mynah Gracula religilosa

One seen at The Summer Palace. Presumably an escapee.

Blue (Red-billed Magpie) Urocissa erythrorhyncha

The sensational, marvellous, glorious "Blue Happy Bird" (or so the local name wonderfully translates). Blue Happy Birder more like. These birds are just superb. Usually in small groups, with wonderful Lyrebird like tails. I saw one from the bus near Badaling, about ten at the Summer Palace (Longevity Hill), and two parties on the slopes of Incense Burner Peak (Fragrance Hills Park). Also spotted painted on numerous glass souvenirs. Too many Blue Happy Birds is nowhere near enoughÖ

Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyana

"Grey Happy Birds". The second most common happy bird species. Very noisy, conspicuous and usually in small parties. One of the commonest species in central Beijing.

Black-billed Magpie Pica pica

The "Black Happy Bird". Common and highly visible in both urban and rural locations.

**Daurian Jackdaw Corvus dauuricus

A flock of over 100 very pale looking Jackdaws flew high over the Summer Palace. I am not sure the current taxonomic status of the Daurian Jackdaw, or whether hybrid forms exists between this and the Common Jackdaw. Certainly Jackdaws, certainly very pale underneath.

**Carrion Crow Corvus corone

See entry for Large-billed Crow.

Large-billed (Jungle) Crow Corvus macrorhynchos

Probably the most common corvid seen. Certainly observed in the Forbidden City and Badaling. Massive flocks of hundreds of birds seen nightly from my hotel were assumed to be this species, but there are suggestions that Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) may also be present. Careless identification Ė sorry about that Ė can anyone clear this one up?

Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus

There is no evidence of Maoís hopeless eradication program. Absolutely everywhere and doubtless available as a sandwich filling if you find the right street stalls.

**Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala

This comes with a definite question mark. I saw several glimpses from The Great Wall of birds resembling Yellowhammer (Emberize citrinella) except with grey heads, brown backs and yellow bellies. These birds were probably also the source of monotonous piping from the heath.

Rock Bunting Emberiza cia

A striking bird, seen only in the small valley behind Qinglongqiao Old station.

Back to: