Rare Breeding Record of Great Grey Owl in China

Last July, Elaine and I spent two weeks covering the vast Hulunbeier region of Inner Mongolia with Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. On our very first day (11 July 2015), we had a rare breeding record of Great Grey Owl. We found the owls at 49.501528, 121.364934. The story below comes from Elaine’s and my report, Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015:

“As we were driving, we saw, far in the distance atop a billboard, a Great Grey Owl. As I stepped out of the car to admire it, a car came from the opposite direction and scared it away. We sighed, drove to the billboard, and parked. Would the owl come back? No. But something interesting occurred. From somewhere in the forest came begging calls, which I recorded (00:08; 1.1 MB):

“Those are clearly the begging calls of a juvenile Great Grey Owl. A breeding record! That is good news, though not wholly unexpected. Though ‘very rare in China’ (MacKinnon), Strix nebulosa lapponica has one stronghold in this country, and that is the Greater Khingan Range of Hulunbeier–a fact known to the birders who find the species here each year (usually in winter). What’s more, next to us was ideal Great Grey Owl habitat, being ‘dense boreal or coniferous forest … with openings,’ as Handbook of the Birds of the World describes it–again, no surprise, as the forest next to which we were standing is known to hold Great Grey Owl and other owls. Why, then, is a breeding record important? A breeding record matters because it confirms that at least some of the Great Grey Owl in the region are not simply wandering to Hulunbeier in the winter but are using the area year-round.”

Why am I posting this news now? For months, the recording of the begging calls lay in my computer, inert. Recently, reviewing the events of July 2015, I happened upon the recording. I remember Jan-Erik mentioning, way back in July, that we may have a breeding record of Strix nebulosa. But we got busy and never followed up, and so only now can we report this interesting record.

The report from which this post was derived, Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015, is just one of many richly illustrated, useful reports on the shanghaibirding.com Explorations page. Plan your big China trip, learn about birding, or just sit back and enjoy our accounts of our birding expeditions in China. We are adding more and more of my sound recordings to the reports for a true multimedia experience. You’ll love Explorations!

Featured image: L-R: Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, and Jan-Erik Nilsén, on the S301 between Genhe and Labudalin, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, China, 19 July 2015.

Cinereous Vulture in Shanghai

On 23-24 Jan. Elaine and I noted 68 species on one of the coldest weekends in Shanghai in recent memory. We birded Chongming, the great alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and Nanhui. With strong northwesterly winds making temperatures feel as cold as -16°C, many birds lay low, but the strange weather probably played a role in two extraordinary records: 2 Cinereous Vulture (Chongming) and 3 Red-throated Loon (Nanhui). Other notable records were 2 Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake and a winter record of Wood Sandpiper at Nanhui as well as Eastern Yellow Wagtail (taivana) and Red-throated Thrush on Chongming. On Chongming and at Nanhui, we had Red-throated Pipit and Water Pipit mixed in with Buff-bellied Pipit.

Listed as near threatened by IUCN, Cinereous Vulture breeds across Eurasia, from Spain to China. In China, Aegypius monachus breeds mainly in the west as well as in Hulunbeier in northeastern Inner Mongolia. It is a “sporadic” (MacKinnon) or “rare” (Brazil) winter visitor to the southeast China coast. The largest Old World vulture, it has a wing span of about 260 cm (8.5 ft).

From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs. They usually stayed close together.
From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs. They usually stayed close together. (Craig Brelsford)

From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs as they rested on the ground. The pair was approachable. They usually stayed close together. Their plumage was shiny, and they appeared healthy. I doubt, however, that the eastern end of Chongming Island is a place that can support a pair of these huge birds for long. A Chinese photographer we met said the Chongming pair was probably the same pair that had been reported recently in Nantong. As of Saturday, the vultures had been on Chongming for a week to 10 days.

According to the IUCN, only about 50 Red-throated Loon winter along the Chinese coast.
According to the IUCN, only about 50 Red-throated Loon winter along the Chinese coast. (Craig Brelsford)

Red-throated Loon is also known as Red-throated Diver. Gavia stellata breeds in tundra bogs and taiga pools above 50° N latitude in Eurasia and North America. It winters along the coasts of Europe, Asia, and North America. Though the species faces no global threat, it is rare in China, with IUCN estimating that less than 50 spend the winter on the Chinese coast. Two of our three birds were feeding in one of the few unfrozen fish ponds inside the sea wall. A third was not feeding, and our partner Michael Grunwell feared it had been contaminated by oil.

Elaine and I birded Chongming alone. On Sunday at Nanhui, Michael joined us. We car-birded both days, driving a Skoda Scout rented from Avis.

Cinereous Vulture and Red-throated Loon became the 265th and 266th species of bird that Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept. 2015.

PHOTOS

Michael Grunwell searching for Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 24 Jan. 2016.
Michael Grunwell searching for Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 24 Jan. (Craig Brelsford)
Mixed in with the Buff-bellied Pipit were Red-throated Pipit (above) and Water Pipit.
Mixed in with the Buff-bellied Pipit were Red-throated Pipit (above) and Water Pipit. (Craig Brelsford)
Blustery winds made for tough birding. Here, Dishui Lake looks like a surging Arctic sea. Note Black-headed Gull flying in background.
Blustery winds made for tough birding. Here, Dishui Lake looks like an Arctic sea. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus, Chongming Island, Shanghai, 23 Jan. Photographed using Nikon D3S and Nikkor VR 600mm F/4G lens mounted atop Manfrotto 055 carbon-fiber tripod and MVH502AH video head. F/9, 1/1250, ISO 2000. (Craig Brelsford)