A Black Skimmer demonstrates its unusual feeding technique at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida, 3 Feb. 2017. In this second of a two-post series, I describe to you my recent experiences birding in my home state of Florida. (Click here for Part 1.)
On Tues. 28 Feb. 2017, Elaine Du and I returned to Shanghai, having spent most of the previous six weeks in the United States. Amid family reunions and other business, my wife and I noted 151 bird species.
We birded mainly in Volusia County in central Florida. We took a five-day trip to southwest Florida and birded a day in Nassau, capital of The Bahamas. We deepened our understanding of Nearctic avifauna and noted its many similarities to and differences from the birds of China.
BIRDING AND FAMILY
We seamlessly mixed in birding with daily life, something easy to do in Florida. The very subdivision in which my parents live holds endemic Florida Scrub Jay as well as Florida Sandhill CraneGrus canadensis pratensis. Ponds, even those along busy highways, hold Wood StorkMycteria americana. A fixture in coastal towns are Brown PelicanPelecanus occidentalis and Ring-billed GullLarus delawarensis.
BIRDING BOTH COASTS
We enjoyed great coastal birding at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Atlantic coast and J. N. “Ding” Darling NWR on the Gulf of Mexico coast. Among the most beautiful birds was Roseate SpoonbillPlatalea ajaja, cousin of Shanghai’s Black-faced Spoonbill P. minor. We also found American White Pelican and Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
10 LIFE BIRDS IN BAHAMAS
During a cruise to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, Elaine and I had 10 life birds in Nassau. Although close to the North American mainland, The Bahamas holds various taxa rarely noted in Florida, among them Red-legged ThrushTurdus plumbeus and the endemic hummingbird Bahama Woodstar. We had visible migration in the form of a Northern Parula that appeared on our cruise ship while the vessel was far out at sea.
FOCUS ON PHOTOGRAPHY
In the United States poaching is rare, and the unwary as well as the secretive birds survive. Elaine and I were able to get close to various species and with little trouble achieve excellent photos. Because the air in Florida is clean, the light is often exquisite, and the photos, especially those taken early and late in the day, really pop. Here is Eastern Meadowlark from Osceola County and Cooper’s HawkAccipiter cooperii from Sanibel Island. In Nassau I got close to wintering Ovenbird.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker is one of the few birds endemic to the United States. Northern Crested Caracara is a New World member of the falcon family. Its diet includes carrion, and here it was feeding on a dead raccoon.
Sedge Wren is a winter visitor to Florida; White-eyed Vireo breeds in the Sunshine State. Black-and-white Warbler moves up and down tree trunks like a nuthatch.
A cosmopolitan species, Glossy IbisPlegadis falcinellus inhabits the coastal eastern United States and has been recorded in southeast China. Neither heron nor rail, Limpkin is most closely related to cranes.
American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus and Barred OwlStrix varia represent genera well-known to Shanghai birders.
I use a Nikon D3S and Nikkor 600 mm F/4. I mount my lens and camera atop a Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod and MVH502AH video head. I use my iPhone 6 for landscape shots.
Editor’s note: In the photo above, Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus pauses while feeding in a “hammock” or stand of trees. American Robin Turdus migratorius is visible in the background. The photo is from Gemini Springs Park in Volusia County, Florida and was taken on 22 Jan. 2017. This post is the first in a two-part series about my recent experiences birding in Florida. For Part 2, click here.
Greetings from the United States! On 19 Jan. Elaine Du and I arrived at my parents’ home in Florida. Birding began immediately, with good records such as Sandhill Crane coming from my parents’ very own front yard. The Sunshine State may be the best state in the USA for birding, and it is particularly good in winter. In this post, I will give you an introduction to birding in central Florida.
Where Are We?
Elaine and I are in Debary, a town in Volusia County, near Orlando, 50 km (30 miles) inland from the Atlantic Ocean. We are at about 29 degrees north latitude at a point 262 km (163 miles) south of the parallel that runs through People’s Square in Shanghai.
Because Elaine and I have not seen my parents in two years, much of my time has been spent with family. We have visited only two nature reserves, but they are good ones: Gemini Springs Park and Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The former is 7 km from my parents’ home; the latter, 31 km.
What Can a non-American Birder Learn in Florida?
Birders who do most of their birding in China will find many differences in the avifauna of Florida. Entire families, such as the wood warblers (Parulidae), would be new to the first-time birder in the New World. Other families such as Troglodytidae (wrens) and Vireonidae (vireos) would be vaguely familiar. Still other families such as Accipitridae (hawks) and Strigidae (owls) are well-represented in both the Old World and New.
Here are some of the families I have noted recently in Volusia County:
Wood Stork is the only stork that breeds in the United States. I note it regularly around Debary.
Cathartidae (New World Vultures)
One of the most widespread of New World vultures is Black VultureCoragyps atratus. Like Old World vultures, Black Vulture finds carrion by sight, and it lacks feathers on its face, crown, and throat. The birds are very tame and approached me when I lay on the ground for these closeups.
In some cases, China and America share birds not only of the same family or genus, but also of the same species. Western OspreyPandion haliaetus is common in Shanghai as well as in the wetlands of Volusia County.
Accipitridae (Kites, Hawks, and Eagles)
A common forest hawk of the eastern United States, Red-shouldered HawkButeo lineatus is in the same genus as Shanghai’s Eastern Buzzard B. japonicus. On 27 Jan. at Gemini Springs Park, I photographed a pair mating.
America’s Northern HarrierCircus hudsonius is immediately familiar to China-based birders. It is similar to, and was once considered conspecific with, Hen Harrier C. cyaneus.
Shanghai has Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus; Florida offers King RailR. elegans. I found a pair at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. All rails are hard, and a good view such as this one is an experience to be treasured.
Volusia County is home to Florida Sandhill CraneGrus canadensis pratensis. The cranes are a non-migratory population, and as suburbia has grown up around them, the cranes have not only adapted, but flourished. Here is a group outside my parents’ home in Debary, photographed through the window of my car.
LimpkinAramus guarauna is the sole member of Aramidae. It looks like a large rail or heron but is most closely related to cranes. The species ranges from Florida to Argentina. At Gemini Springs I found a Limpkin feeding with American White IbisEudocimus albus.
Barred OwlStrix varia is an owl of dense forests. It is common, and its hoot is well-known. Strix is a large genus and includes China’s Himalayan Owl S. nivicolum.
Pileated WoodpeckerDryocopus pileatus is part of a genus of large, powerful woodpeckers that includes Eurasia’s Black Woodpecker D. martius. Pileated Woodpecker flourishes in dense forests with large trees, of which there are many in central Florida.
This is Red-bellied WoodpeckerMelanerpes carolinus. Melanerpes contains 24 species, all in the Americas.
Vireonidae is a group of small to mid-sized passerines. Most live in the New World. White-bellied Erpornis and the shrike-babblers occur in China. In recent days in Florida I have found White-eyed VireoVireo griseus and Blue-headed VireoV. solitarius.
Regulidae (Goldcrests, Kinglets)
All six members of Regulidae are in a single genus, Regulus. Goldcrest Regulus regulus can be found in winter and on migration in Shanghai. North America has the very similar Ruby-crowned KingletR. calendula.
The sole Old World representative of Troglodytidae is Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes. In Florida I have had House WrenT. aedon, Marsh WrenCistothorus palustris, and the accomplished songster Carolina WrenThryothorus ludovicianus.
Parulidae (New World Warblers)
The New World warblers are an important passerine family confined to the New World. Most species are arboreal and insectivorous and fill niches similar to those filled in the Old World by leaf warblers. Black-and-white WarblerMniotilta varia is the sole member of its genus. It is the only New World warbler to move up and down tree trunks in the manner of a nuthatch.
Icterids are a strictly New World family. Boat-tailed GrackleQuiscalus major lives along the U.S. coast from New York to Texas. In Florida it also occurs inland.
Emberizidae (Buntings and New World Sparrows)
American “sparrows” are more closely related to Old World buntings. Both groups are in Emberizidae. Savannah SparrowPasserculus sandwichensis is a bird of open country. It breeds from Alaska through Canada and the northern Lower 48 states and is a winter visitor to Florida. Swamp SparrowMelospiza georgiana is most at home in wetland habitats. It too is a winter visitor to Florida. It breeds in the northern U.S. and Canada.
Cardinalidae is a family of finch-like seed-eating birds endemic to the New World. Painted BuntingPasserina ciris is often described as the most beautiful bird in North America.
I use a Nikon D3S that I purchased in October 2010. The camera has been a steady performer, and I have seen no need to replace it. My lens is the Nikkor 600 mm F/4. I mount my lens and camera atop a Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod and MVH502AH video head. I use my iPhone 6 for landscape shots.
My Day Lists
Visit my eBird profile page for access to my day lists from Florida as well as China. You will need an eBird account to view the profile.
Editor’s note: In recent weeks, Shanghai has had extraordinary visits by three species of crane. Since 12 Nov. 2016, 3 Siberian Crane, a Critically Endangered species, have been recorded regularly in a reclaimed area of Hengsha Island (photo above, left). On 10 Dec. 2016, Endangered Red-crowned Crane made the first recorded visit by that species to Cape Nanhui (top right). Also since 12 Nov. 2016, Vulnerable Hooded Crane has been recorded regularly at Cape Nanhui (bottom right). Before 12 Nov., Hooded Crane had never been recorded on the Shanghai Peninsula. Photos by Craig Brelsford.
The appearance on 10 Dec. 2016 of 2 Red-crowned Crane at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui was more than just a historic, first-ever sighting. It was a message. The endangered cranes, as well as the Siberian Crane on Hengsha Island and Hooded Crane at Cape Nanhui, are telling us that habitat is steadily disappearing elsewhere along the Chinese coast, particularly in Jiangsu; that the habitats in Shanghai are some of the best that remain; and that those habitats require world-class protection. The most pressing need is the creation of a world-class, small to mid-sized wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui.
Errant cranes migrating along the Chinese coast may once have settled for a while somewhere in Jiangsu. Every year, however, cranes migrating along the coast of that densely populated province find fewer and fewer places suitable to them. My wife Elaine Du and I have surveyed the Jiangsu coastline from Qidong on the Yangtze River 250 km north to Yancheng National Nature Reserve. We have seen with our own eyes the dramatic transformation of the Jiangsu coast. Even areas in Jiangsu receiving considerable international attention, such as Yangkou and the coastal areas of Dongtai, are under threat.
Cape Nanhui may not seem like a first-rate natural area, but it is in better condition than almost any place I have seen between Qidong and Yancheng. I say, therefore, that the recent crane sightings in Shanghai have come about in large part because elsewhere so much has been lost. The cranes have nowhere else to go.
And that is why conserving Cape Nanhui is so important. Shanghai is facing a crisis, a “danger-opportunity” (危机). The 危 or danger is that amid the wholesale destruction of so much coastal habitat elsewhere, Shanghai will follow suit and destroy its remaining good habitat. The 机 or opportunity is for Shanghai to gather into its bosom the birds ejected from Jiangsu–to be not only the economic but also the conservationist leader on the Chinese coast. The creation at Cape Nanhui of an easily accessible, world-class, small to mid-sized wetland reserve along the lines of Sungei Buloh in Singapore would be a way of avoiding the 危 and seizing the 机.
The case for an easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could scarcely be more clear-cut:
(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, habitat critical to Reed Parrotbill and other species at risk.
Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province (which is a third the size of Wales). There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in this megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the natural side of Shanghai, a city with an extraordinarily rich natural heritage. There is no known plan to conserve any of the dozens of square kilometers of reclaimed land on Hengsha.
(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could be the match to light the fire of conservation across all China.
Hundreds of thousands of children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland.” A day at a Cape Nanhui Wetland would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster an appreciation of the natural world.
If Shanghai can be a world economic center and have world-class airports and a world-class skyline and world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must have world-class preservation of its priceless coastline and migratory birds.
I repeat: The case for a world-class, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui is clear-cut.
111 SPECIES AT CORE SHANGHAI SITES
Elaine and I birded four of the eight days between 3 Dec. and 10 Dec. 2016, noting 111 species. We birded three days at Cape Nanhui, half a day on Hengsha Island, and half a day at Binjiang Forest Park in Pudong. On 10 Dec. Elaine and I led a group of members of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group on a tour of Nanhui. We birded the other days with Shanghai-based U.K. birder Michael Grunwell and U.S. birder Susan Lessner.
Major highlights were 2 Red-crowned Crane and Hooded Crane at Cape Nanhui and 3 Siberian Crane on Hengsha as well as Baikal Teal and Red-breasted Flycatcher at Nanhui and Ferruginous Duck on Hengsha.
Nanhui also gave us three-day counts of 20 VulnerableSwan Goose, 14 Greater White-fronted Goose, 190 Tundra Swan (bewickii), 255 Common Shelduck, 11 Greater Scaup, 4 Black-necked Grebe, Brown Crake, VulnerableSaunders’s Gull, 2 Mew GullLarus canus, 2 Lesser Black-backed Gull (heuglini), late Eurasian Wryneck, uncommon winter visitor Dusky Warbler, 22 Near ThreatenedReed Parrotbill, and 2 extralimital Common Starling.
Hengsha gave us a rare Shanghai sighting of adult-male Hen Harrier as well as 3 Chinese Grey Shrike and impressive numbers of buntings. In a single stretch of scrub just 500 m long, we counted 14 Little Bunting, 18 Rustic Bunting, 17 Yellow-throated Bunting, 4 Black-faced Bunting, and 150 Pallas’s Reed Bunting.
Binjiang Forest Park once again proved to be one of the only places in urban Shanghai where Great Spotted Woodpecker is reliable. Thrushes were numerous, with Naumann’s Thrush leading the list.
Swan Goose Anser cygnoides 10
Tundra Bean Goose A. serrirostris 50
Greater White-fronted Goose A. albifrons 12
Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus bewickii 62
Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 100
Falcated Duck Anas falcata 600
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 30
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 260
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 350
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 100
Northern Pintail A. acuta 120
Baikal Teal A. formosa 5
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 210
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 2
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 110
Greater Scaup A. marila 11
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 20
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 20
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 4
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 100
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 80
Great Egret A. alba 20
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 200
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 6
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 28
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus 3
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 400
Hooded Crane Grus monacha 1
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 120
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus 100
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 30
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 2
Dunlin Calidris alpina 500
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 12
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia 25
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae/L. v. mongolicus 3
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 7
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla 1
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 2
Peregrine Falcon F. peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 30
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/gulgula 4
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 40
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 15
Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus 2
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 1
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 8
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 20
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 30
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 3
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 2
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 3
Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 8
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 100
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis taivana 2
White Wagtail M. alba 40
Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens japonicus 30
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 12
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 3
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 1
List 1 of 2 for Wed. 7 Dec. 2016 (48 species)
Birds noted on Hengsha Island (Héngshā Dǎo [横沙岛]), small alluvial island at mouth of Yangtze River in Shanghai, China. S gate to reclaimed area at 31.298821, 121.854439. Mostly sunny, hazy. Low 3° C, high 15° C. Humidity 47%. Visibility: 10 km. Wind WNW 6 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 187 (unhealthful). Sunrise 06:41, sunset 16:51. WED 07 DEC 2016 06:20-12:40. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Susan Lessner.
Gadwall Anas strepera 270
Falcated Duck A. falcata 30
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 2
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 50
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 15
Northern Pintail A. acuta 20
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 100
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 8
Ferruginous Duck A. nyroca 2
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 8
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 5
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 2
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 15
Great Egret A. alba 6
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 25
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 1
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 1
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus 2 Circus sp. 3
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus 2
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 15
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 80
Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus 3
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus 20
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 1
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 18
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 3
Peregrine Falcon F. peregrinus 2
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 14
Chinese Grey Shrike L. sphenocercus sphenocercus 3
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/gulgula 8
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 20
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 5
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 5
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 2
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 6
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 1
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 4
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 6
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 50
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 20
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 6
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 22
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 14
Rustic Bunting E. rustica 18
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans 17
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 4
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 150
List 2 of 2 for Wed. 7 Dec. 2016 (22 species)
Birds noted at Binjiang Forest Park, Pudong New Area (Pǔdōng Xīn Qū [浦东新区]), Shanghai, China (31.383916, 121.523818). Mostly sunny, hazy. Low 3° C, high 15° C. Humidity 47%. Visibility: 10 km. Wind WNW 6 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 187 (unhealthful). Sunrise 06:41, sunset 16:51. WED 07 DEC 2016 14:45-16:45. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Susan Lessner.
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 1
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae/L. v. mongolicus 1
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 5
Spotted Dove S. chinensis 9
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 3
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major 2
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 2
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus 3
Japanese Tit Parus minor 5
Collared Finchbill Spizixos semitorques 5
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 50
Chinese Hwamei Garrulax canorus 5
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 3
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum 1
Chinese Blackbird T. mandarinus 32
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 14
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 16
Naumann’s Thrush T. naumanni 1
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 2
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 3
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 3
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla 29
Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is the co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Since its publication in 2000, this pioneering work has been the standard guide to the birds of China for foreign and Chinese birders alike. MacKinnon is a pioneer in another, smaller way–he is the author of the first, and now the second, guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com. Herewith we present “Daxing’anling: Kingdom of the Great Owls.” It is about MacKinnon’s experiences with the owls of the Daxing’anling (大兴安岭) or Greater Khingan Range in northern Inner Mongolia. The photo above, taken by Li Jixiang, is of Ural Owl, one of the great owls of that remote and wild region. — Craig Brelsford
She is big. Wow, she is big. But she is beautiful and she knows it. She watches me with a disdain that most beautiful ladies seem to acquire. She is a hunter–a killer, but she has every right to be so. She is the Great Grey Owl, and I have been her admirer, hoping to meet her for many years.
She is perched only 2 metres off the ground in a flimsy larch bush that looks too weak to support her great size. But in fact she is lighter than she looks. Most of her bulk is feathers. The Great Grey Owl is marginally the longest owl in the world from head to tail, and the only two or three species that may be able to outweigh her are also here in the forests of Genhe Wetland Park of Daxing’anling: Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Blakiston’s Fish Owl and Snowy Owl.
Suddenly she hears a movement below her and pounces. A few moments scrabbling in the grass and she rises up again on silent, slow wing beats to settle on another small bush a few metres away. But now she has a large lemming in her beak. She transfers the lemming to the safer grasp of her foot then launches off on wide wings low over the ground, through a small clump of trees then out of sight into the larch forest beyond. I know she must have young to feed, and I want to see them also.
But before I find her young, I meet her two boyfriends a few hundred metres apart along the same trail leading deeper into the tall larch forest. Like Madame, they are relatively tame, and I can approach quite close to take photos. One has got wet in the night rain and looks rather miserable with straggly wet feathers. They are smaller than the female, but still pretty large. I am gradually getting to understand their habits. They are more diurnal than I expected, and they hunt in clearings rather than in the dense forests.
But her nest is in the forest, and I still try to find out where, so I return to her favourite hunting area and watch her a few more times to see exactly where she flies each time she catches another lemming or vole.
As chief technical advisor of the Daxing’anling wetlands conservation project funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, I have other duties to attend to. I can only steal occasional moments and weekends for treks in the woods looking for birds! I have to wait two weeks before I get the chance to return and find where she hides her young.
Meanwhile, Deputy Director Li Ye of the nearby Hanma Nature Reserve has found another nest of Great Grey Owl and has taken great shots and video of the male bringing food for his mate, who sits on a large platform of sticks–probably an old crow’s nest–where she tends to two small chicks.
When I return to Genhe in July, I find Madame hunting in the same area as previously, but this time she flies less far into the forest between catches, and this time I can hear the weak, hoarse calls of a youngster. I find the young fledgling clumsily clambering about in the larch trees and making short flights from tree to tree. But I find only one baby–a fluffy fellow–already quite large but lacking the great broad face disk of the parents. It pours with rain, and I have to move on back to Hanma, where I have another owl family to monitor. By August I return to find there are indeed two chicks–and looking very much mature, with clear concentric facial disk rings.
At Hanma it is the Ural Owl that lures me out into the dark forest at night. Ural Owl is a true wood owl and unlike Great Grey it nests in tree holes. It is smaller than the Great Grey, but at 54 cm it is still an impressively large bird. It looks, sounds, and behaves like a giant Himalayan Owl, which is a common species across much of China.
On a visit the previous year I had found and photographed two fully flying young fledglings, so I headed to the same spot, hoping to find they had bred in the same area. I was rewarded by finding an adult Ural Owl perched on the stump of a dead tree. I got some pictures in the dark. I had to use a flash, so the owl’s eyes reflect back spookily.
But this year I find and hear no young. It has been a very cold winter, and the season is two to three weeks later than the previous year. I think the young are still in their nest hole, and I am pretty sure I know which tree they are in: a tall dead larch with three potentially good holes or an open chimney top to choose from.
I head back to the cabin I stay in, seeing several Grey Nightjar on my way. Sometimes the nightjars perch on the road, sometimes in trees, and sometimes they give their strange clonking calls as they fly around catching mosquitoes. Did I not mention the mosquitoes? Wow, how can I forget. There were hundreds of them, and they settled all over me whenever I stopped to take pictures. Their swollen bites still itch a week later. But I am happy to have seen these wonderful owls and cannot wait to find them again in the winter, when the snow lies on the ground.
It is in the snow time that the owls of Daxing’anling really show what they can do. The great Snowy Owl is perfectly coloured to creep up on unsuspecting white Mountain Hare. Snowy Owl is large, with a lazy yellow-iris stare. It is pure white and variously speckled with black spots, which break up its shape and make it almost invisible in the snowy landscape.
Another owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, is also largely white but with black ear muffs and thin stripes across its belly. The Northern Hawk-Owl catches birds and smaller prey in the woods. It is totally diurnal.
Other woodland owls such as the bulky Eurasian Eagle-Owl and its smaller cousin the Long-eared Owl are brown with black streaky plumage, long ear tufts, and fearsome orange eyes. In summer these two owls hunt chipmunks and pikas in dense forest, but in winter they move south or take up residence only in the most sheltered valleys. The smaller Boreal Owl lives in the tundra forests and is strictly nocturnal and rather solitary. Short-eared Owl is a grassland species that also moves to warmer locations in winter.
But the Great Grey stays put, hunting in the forest clearings from its low perches. This owl has amazing hearing and can detect voles and lemmings moving in their burrows underneath half a metre of snow. Like a polar bear catching seals beneath the Arctic ice, the owl can plunge to its own depth in snow and drag out these unsuspecting rodents.
In winter the larch trees lose their needle leaves. But the forest is not silent. Moose rummage in the frozen wetlands and find food beneath the snow. Lynx compete with Snowy Owl to catch Mountain Hare, which have also gone white for the winter.
Willow Grouse, stoat, and weasel also turn white for the winter. Bears are hibernating, but the huge spotted capercaillies are active in the larch trees, eating the buds and shoots for the next year’s leaves and already starting to fight for females with their load croaking calls, fanning their tails like turkeys and eyeing the world fiercely under their red eyelids.
Daxing’anling is all about winter. The winter lasts for nine months, and summer is short. And there she rules–ice queen of China’s most northerly forests–the Great Grey Owl.
Mountain range NE China (Inner Mongolia) dividing Greater Manchurian Plain & Mongolian Plateau. Range runs ca. 1200 km (744 mi.) S from Amur River, is broad in N & narrow in S, & is heavily forested throughout. Elevation of highest peak: 2035 m (6,675 ft.). In Inner Mongolia most of Daxing’anling lies within Hulunbeier Prefecture. Also called Greater Khingan Range, Greater Khingan Mountains.
Hulunbeier (Hūlúnbèi’ěr Shì [呼伦贝尔市]): sub-provincial administrative area NE Inner Mongolia. Area: 263,953 sq. km. (101,913 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): larger than United Kingdom; slightly smaller than Colorado. Pop.: 2.6 million. Much of Greater Khingan Range lies in Hulunbeier. Officially Hulunbeier “city” (市).