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4 days in Yangkou

Participants: Mark Maddock & Zhang Lin

Saturday 14th April

International Ritchie Blackmore Day (t'owd git turned 67 today) dawned early at least...bright was a more interesting proposition. Rising at 0430 for a 5am start followed hot on the heels of Friday's departure from Shanghai by bus to Rudong where Zhang Lin (Mcaribou of this parish) met me with the first of the 3 drivers we would use over the following 4 days. A swift 30km to Yangkou; a painless check in and to bed at around 2300 with that 0430 alarm to look forward to.

Our, international (ZL, me, a Dutch, a Swede) party numbered 4 this morning with a further 2 (another Brit,and a fellow Finn (I claim Finnishness on account of living and working there when not seconded here to the People's Republic)) to join us later on for the remainder of the weekend. I than had Monday and Tuesday with Lin before heading back to the city late afternoon on the 17th.

First destination was the mud flats via the seawall and a forest of spartina.?Pallas's Buntings?and?Oriental Skylarks?there to meet us. A very brief chat?turned to give Lin and I a flash of his sparkly,?ruby throat?before disappearing like a sprite...much to the chagrin of the other 2 members of our party! The fish ponds on our left in varying states of repair / preparation were largely empty save 1 that seemed to hold the magic conditions undistinguishable to human eyes, ears or noses; this had a nice selection of waders:?Redshank, Red-necked Stint, Marsh Sandpiper, a?Common Greenshank, some?Kentish Plovers.

A call from the spartina puzzled us and so it was time to leave the relatively easy walking part of the morning's programme and descend to the spartina morass to both investigate what wee beastie was singing siren-like to us and to cross the sea of knots designed to trip the unwary to the clear mudflats beyond...only there would we stand a chance of...¡±them¡±

A bunting was making the noise and after a short while we established we were looking at?Japanese Reed Bunting?¨C the second lifer of the day brightened things up. Next to find the fishermen's path through the spartina. Some hunting around for the trail and distant ¡°3+3¡± marker poles and we were off stumbling along collecting mud and reed stems on our boots to add to the punishing exercise regime.

Finally clear mud was reached...that this was a pleasant surprise was largely due to the somewhat misty morning. Now, where were the waders? Well, overhead we'd already?heard Little Curlew! Seeing them was a different, today, unfulfilled proposition!! Distant was the answer so off we set to look for the waters edge and the wading birds...ghostly boats lay on the mud without the necessary liquid to float on. Slowly birds began to appear and the grilling began...Dunlin,?Grey Plover, Red-necked Stint, Curlew,?the odd smartly-plumaged?Lesser Sandplover.?Saunder's Gulls, immaculately attired kee-awed overhead and?Common Terns?of the black-billed?longipennis?race were in evidence. A few?Great Knot?livened things up as the morning wore on...our tracks tracing a circular path through the glutinous mud...standing still often giving rise to a slightly sinking feeling!

A flock of birds on the shore of a larger channel seemed to hold promise and we worked our way slowly towards them until, just as the script dictates, Lin quietly declared that he had our quarry in his sights...quick views so all could see it and at 0850 on Saturday 14th April 2012 I joined the club of people who can say ¡°Spoon-billed Sandpiper? On my list¡±!!?

There it was...a tiny waif heading north what? Oblivion quite possibly...the pace of industrial development in this increasingly recognised important stopping site for a whole range of waders is changing the behaviour of the birds at high tide...that the chemical industry is the main driving force for new construction surely means accident risk (the poisoning of the whole bay) is increased...mixed emotions...joyful to finally set eyes on this most-wanted species with it's fantastic little spoon-shaped bill coupled with that chill in the stomach that such a wee thing has no hope against the ¡°7 billion¡±...

A winter plumage bird, we soon found a second. Later on we found our 3rd bird of the day, this time a transitional one. The flock soon moved off to follow the tide and so we turned and began our trek back to the spartina edge. Fog had closed in again and we eventually quizzed one of the many shellfish harvesters on the quickest route back...sadly/hilariously this involved the crossing of a channel that was too deep for my welly boots and the cooling waters filled 'em! I squelched to a handily placed raft and emptied them despite the possible health benefits of a water-cooled propulsion system...A lone?mudskipper?showed us how to walk across this terrain properly.

Once the ¡°3+3¡± had guided us to the proper path we retraced our steps to the sea wall and our welcoming committee of?Pallas's Buntings...all males.Oriental Skylarks?sang overhead and dust-bathed on the path as our driver appeared to save is a few hundred meters of walking.?

Following lunch in the hotel dining room (and very nice it was too) it was decided to check out the fish ponds followed by a late afternoon visit to the magic wood and the ¡°Temple garden¡± for passerine action. The scale of the fish and crustacean farming has to be seen to be believed and the same logic applied here as to those this morning...most were of no interest to birds but a couple had the correct ¡°atmosphere¡± to suit them and we came across flocks of?egrets?(Little?and?Great) and?Common Terns?and gulls mostly?Black-headed?and?Saunder's?but with a few larger?Heuglin's / Mongolian?things thrown in for those that like those things...Highlight was a single, breeding plumaged?Black-faced Spoonbill?that remained distant but no less impressive for that.?

Transiting along the seawall we stopped to scan some pools and scored with a flock of c.20?Falcated Duck?with 8?Eurasian Wigeon?for company.

The woods and scrubby gardens were quiet with a few?buntings,?Red-flanked Bluetails,?thrushes?(mostly?Dusky), etc. A flock of?Red-billed?andWhite-cheeked Starlings?came and went from under the eaves of the Temple (this being a recent artificial construction rather than a genuine antique...part of a drive to create tourism in a town known for the fishing, fish-farming and driving school...¡±Come to Yangkou and get run over¡± not a slogan that rolls off the tongue I guess...

Having declared the ¡°Temple garden¡± (scrubby waste patch outside the Temple proper) empty I enjoyed a pleasent meal as I ate my words while watching a?Red-flanked Bluetail?pair, 1?Olive-backed Pipit, 4?Dusky Thrush?and an?Eastern Crowned Warbler...

Dusk was descending so we retraced our steps to the vehicles and the short trip back to the hotel for a very welcome hot shower, celebratory beer and another good feast before agreeing ¡°same time tomorrow¡± and hitting the sack at about 0830!




Sunday 15th April

Up on time and out ready for action at 0500 we set off in 3 vehicles to accommodate everyone's varied schedules: 2 to leave at 0900, 2 to leave around 1600 and me and Lin remaining for the following 2 days.

The first stop was more mudflats but without the choking spartina of yesterday. A brighter morning had all in good spirits and the ¡°breakfast biscuits¡± were doing their trick as we gathered our energies for more wader hunting. First birds on arrival at a shellfish harvesting shed was a large pipit flock on the landward side of the seawall that resolved into smart?Red-throated Pipits?and later in the morning post-mudflats included several equally smartBuff-bellied Pipits? birds.

Wellies on and down to the waiting gloop we scrambled...plan was to head towards the incoming tide and sunshine so we got the best light on the already located large wader flocks.?Kentish Plovers?were the outriders, patrolling the upper beach and, like all the waders looking smart in their breeding finery.

The distance reduced the scoping of the flocks began in earnest and the same species as the previous day made themselves known albeit in larger numbers:?Dunlin, Grey Plover, Eurasian Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Stint, Lesser Sandplover, Terek Sandpiper?were all seen in varying numbers and at varying distances. No?Nordmann's Greenshank?and no spooner immediately visible but relocating towards a line of fishing nets soon had Lin uttering the magic words again...¡±Possible Spooner¡±. A roosting bird tucked in with some equally snoozy?Dunlin. Eventually a stretch of the wings and some preening revealed the defining field mark...that wonderfully shaped bill in sharp relief against the white breast feathers. Another bird in largely winter plumage.

Our two early leavers and Lin moved off to try to locate that elusive?Nordmann's?amongst the larger waders off to our right whilst my Finnish namesake, Markku, and his camera wandered solo looking for the killer shot. Fellow brit John and myself slowly edged forward towards the still sleeping much a necessity of our settling into the mud as any desire to close the distance...a fresh patch of mud needed every few minutes to level the scope and viewer as we sank at differing rates!

John eventually retired towards the seawall as the borrowed boots took their toll on his feet. Short phone calls with Lin across the mud established that the?Nordmann's?was still not playing so...there I was...probably the only 1 in 7 billion watching a?Spoon-billed Sandpiper?right here, right now! I could probably have closed the distance more but the thought of flushing a spooner just didn't sit well with me so I settled for a respectable distance to watch the little fella and absorb the general spectacle of estuary birding...memories of umpteen trips over to Hilbre back in the early '70's with the Mid-Cheshire OS surfaced before a call from Lin to suggest an early lunch (well early by the clock but long overdue by the stomach!) followed by an afternoon move to the woods and fish ponds broke the reverie. A gentle reverse to a safe distance then a short walk back to the seawall and the waiting vehicles.

The ¡°woods¡± reality belts of trees lining the roads along the seawall and those heading inland but islands of habitat that tired birds in a hurry to head north to the breeding grounds welcome all the same.?

¡°The 'tic' of rare buntings¡± greeted us and?Black-faced?and?Little Buntings?were quickly added to the day's tally.?Manchurian Bush?and?Pallas's Warblers; a female?Daurian Redstart; several smart?Red-flanked Bluetails, ubiquitous?Chinese Bulbuls;?Chinese Grosbeaks?(who on earth named them ¡°Yellow-billed¡± then? Go g**gl* Chinese and Japanese and see who has the cleanest, yellowest beak of all...); and flightly?thrushes?were all present and?Olive-backed Pipits?were buzzing away. No sign of the?Japanese Thrush, Narcissus Flycatcher, male Pied Harrier or Japanese Robinall found by other birders (Hi Jocko, Tong!) the previous day. It was soon time for John and Markku to begin their drive south to Shanghai to prepare for their weeks business.

A late afternoon trip to the fishponds for Lin and I revealed smart?Sharp-tailed Sandpipers?(Shotwick '73 ('74?!) continued the reminiscing...) and courting?Saunder's Gulls. No sign of the?Black-faced Spoonbill?however. Amongst the gulls we spied an ugly brute that seemed to fit the description of the?Slaty-backed Gull?also seen the previous day. In heavy moult it was a bird only a mother could love (see thread in ID forum for more of this beauty ( A lone?Whiskered Tern?surprised us as we tried to grab shots of this uncommon visitor.

All too soon the light was fading and day 2 rapidly drew to a close. Back to the hotel for the welcoming hot shower and evening meal and a decision to start at 0530 and stop for a delicious al fresco breakfast in the morning...well the high tide was getting later day by day so why not enjoy the lie in?!



top   Monday 16th April

A lie-in until 0500 saw Zhang Lin and me leave the hotel at 0530 for a short drive down the road to an al fresco breakfast of omelette and dumplings with warm soya milk to wash it all down with. Seems I was unusual enough to be sitting there at that time of day to draw a few stares but all was good fun.?

A leisurely affair as there was a distinct lack of light due to the considerable amount of fog hanging around...things didn't look great for long distance wader watching. We moved off and opted to try a new seawall site but it quickly became obvious we'd not be venturing on to the mud in the ¡°pea-souper¡± that surrounded us and would've left us directionless had we tried. Still, compensation came in the form of several?Eurasian Oystercatcher(soon to be split? Where Mr Klim when you need him?!) in pools on the landward side and a small flock of waders on the just-visible mud below us on the seaward (one assumed...) side...given we could see no more than 30 birds we did well to pick out 1 Leg-flagged?Dunlin?and (I think) 2 leg-flaggedBar-tailed Godwits?(could've been just the one, I'm not sure). Two?Far-eastern Curlew?drifted in and out of the gloom as well...

Deciding that high tide would be pointless without better vision we headed off to the magic woods and walked them slowly.?Tristram's Buntings; a ghostly?Hoopoe, several?Chinese Penduline Tits?and a?Spotted Redshank?plus a few?Black-winged Stilts?were there to greet us...the redshank and stilts in a channel not in the trees although in the circumstances you could've forgiven them an error! Crossing the channel produced a small cotton field alive with?Pallas's Buntings,?Red-throated Pipits?and a couple of smart?Buff-bellied Pipits?for good measure. A lone?Bluethroat, somePlain Prinia, White Wagtails, Yellow-browed Warblers?and?Tree Sparrows?were also in evidence.

Drama in the fishponds which we were now adjacent to as a rowing boat pulled in centre stage and let off a sulphurous chemical treatment into the water...

Our slow, careful walk managed to fill the morning and we decided to take a circuitous route back to lunch via some grassy fields a little further inland...prompted by the hope of?Little Curlew?(or is it Whimbrel) or?Oriental Plover?being waiting for us unable to travel on while the murk luck there but we did stumble over a battle royal in progress...sufficient to interest our driver...a roadside had what seemed to be aGreat-spotted Woodpecker's?nest hole half way up the main trunk and it was being thoroughly investigated by a pair of?White-cheeked Starlings. The woodies didn't seem to like this and the male was staunchly defending the hole while his female made more occasional sorties into the sign or sound of nestlings so was it an attempted eviction prior to the woodies laying or were there eggs that represented a free meal at stake? Dunno but it was good fun watching the 4 protagonists go at each other! Exhausted by all the action we eventually left them to it and went for din-dins!

The weather remained dull and the fog wasn't going anywhere so our afternoon consisted of more of the same as we retraced our passerine perambulations of the morning.?Black-faced Buntings, Manchurian Bush Warbler, and?Oriental Turtle Dove?astride the nest;?Chinese Grosbeak, were all familiar friends by now but the day improved as we were joined by a lone?Ashy Minivet, a?Wryneck,?Little Bunting, male?Red-flanked Bluetail?and, finally a?Grey-headed Lapwing?(again, this wader firmly on the ground not among the case you were worrying...

...and so the day came to a, barely any waders but a slow morning picked up and there was enough new stuff about in the afternoon to bring hope of a grande finale tomorrow...

We ate in the hotel and were joined by Tong; his Singapore-based Danish photographer client and his wife and a photographer friend of Zhang Lin's from Shanghai who'd driven up that morning and would journey back next day...fitting in some photography between work commitments...

...and so to bed...alarm set for 0500 again...

top   Tuesday 17th April

0500 and off we go again...shower, dress, stumble down corridor to lift, reception, check-out - smile at lady who has her bed behind the desk (!) and out into the bracing morning air for al fresco breakfast part the second...same menu as yesterday but with added deep fried bread stick / twirly thing...yum

Now what? With high tide set for c.1030 we went towards the woods again with a brief stop for stunning?philippensis?Blue Rock Thrush?at the ¡°water gate¡± or lock as us westerners know them. Some ladies engaged in some sort of religious blessing ceremony were flinging some powdery stuff about on the concrete walls...we left 'em to it!

We basically made the same circuit as in previous days and connected with a?Wryneck; some locals en route to work; a lovely tranquil lane with only one rubbish bag to despoil it until a green truck belching evil black smog trundled by moving some old pumping engine between fish ponds.

The windmills that are an unavoidable sight and sound (how un-nerving is that whooshing noise overhead as you stand beneath them...?!) were in full production and the day was obviously a lot clearer for their having ample fuel supplies today

A?Kingfisher?on the nets;?Spotted Redshank?and?Black-winged Stilts?¡°as you were¡± in yesterday's locations; a?Little Egret?with pinkish lores and we moved into the fish ponds proper for a scan of the currently favoured pools...

...and so started the ¡°morning of the big three¡±...

3?Caspian Terns, some?Heuglin's Gulls?dotted amongst the?Black-headed Gulls, mostly in non-breeding, er, finery and some brick-red, long-legged waders...but wait! One has an all-black, straight bill with a funny bump at the end??

Oh yes! One had been reported on Saturday but we'd searched to no it or another was back and feeding serenely with a pair of?Bar-tailed Godwits?for direct useful is that??Asian Dowitcher!! Get in!!!! A reasonable amount of time was spent edging as close as we could to get shots of the two species together...seems you can always have more, bigger, better equipment but you can see the necessary in those I got in some sort of focus at least!

Time was pressing and we jumped into the van and headed past the Temple along the seawall to the shellfish harvesters blockhouse and boat/tractor ramp. Visibility was positively sparkling and there were birds a-plenty...wellies on we descended the seawall to trek across the mud, edging towards the sun and tide to get the best light and to walk along with the flocks as they leap-frogged each other as the incoming waters forced them off their immediate positions.

Straight away we closed on a flock with an interesting pale wader roosting and giving as little away as possible but...interesting...patience paid off and it lifted it's bill to preen and changed position enough for Zhang Lin to confirm his first thoughts...Nordmann's Greenshank! Target wader number two for this trip held out as had the dowitcher until my final morning but finally gave itself up for grilling...not for too long as both the flock and ourselves found the incoming waters lapping over our feet...

Off we all moved...Nordmann's, Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plovers?and shellfish pickers...the odd?Great Knot?interspersed too.?Eurasian Oystercatcher?in small numbers.?Eurasian Curlew?likewise. turn to shine...¡±what's that¡±? Sez I. Hmm...yes...a?Spooner!! Number 1 target of the trip showed again...Zhang Lin quickly found another 4 birds to add to my one...1 Asian Dowitcher, 1 Nordmann's Greenshank and 5 Spoon-billed Sandpiper all in the space of a short morning's birding...if that doesn't put a silly grin on your mush then birding ain't for you!!?

Before we could close and try for pictures a?Peregrine?came muscling through the skies and put the flocks to flight...clouds of waders whirling around in clean blue skies gradually settled and we moved along again to see what we could see...Great Knot...tens of birds that did give themselves up to close scrutiny and photo-ops...sweet!

While I'm absorbed blasting off pics of these beauties, Zhang Lin notes that we have?both sandplovers?with us today and furthermore that group there contain both with a couple of?Kentish Plover?and 2?Terek Sandpipers?thrown in for fun!

Next we relocate our?Nordmann's?and start grilling the flock it's with...the game is spot the leg flags...and we do pretty well...4-5 yellow-flaggedBarwits, and a?Red-necked Stint?also sporting tell-tale leg adornments! (ZL later emails me the details:

Dunlin?upper left White Flag,lower left Blue/Green Flag
White Blue is from Taiwan.White Green is from south island,New Zealand.Since Dunlin doesn't go to NZ,it's probably from Taiwan.

Red-necked Stint
Upper right Orange flag over White flag
it's from Korea(discontinued)

The others are from Australia,New Zealand and Chongming.

Eventually the receding waters begin to spread the flocks out at a greater distance than we feel the need to walk...mission is well and truly accomplished...Spoon-billed sandpiper?seen well on 3 of 4 days;?Asian Dowitcher?and?Nordmann's Greenshank?teased us but eventually gave excellent views; the bonus of many other waders in best breeding attire and the sheer numbers of them and the final morning's excellent lighting conditions all combine to create a powerful memory...cheers ZL!

A last lunch and a quick swing around the area nets us (ho-ho..¡±nets us¡±...sorry) a few more additions to the Thrush?and photogenic?Grey-headed Lapwing?and a male?Red-billed Starling?atop the temple roof...

Slowly we began our trip south back to Shanghai...only for a phone call to advise us that an?Oriental Plover?has just dropped in by the Temple where we'd been not long before...we continued south sure in the knowledge that if we turned around the bird would disappear and if we kept going it wouldn't...sometimes you have to know when to let go and this was one such time...the focus now was on watching the rally that passes for driving in modern China...Yangkou is a centre for people to come and learn to drive...lord knows what they teach 'em...

All too soon and I'm being dropped outside my apartment and waving ZL and the driver off into the evening...ZL was heading back up next day and I've been texting with him today to tell him of the little haul of goodies Dev, Jocko and I had today (Saturday 21st...coming soon...)...the reply? ¡°We have much more¡±...I had 6 lifers down here I Shanghai today so I can't begin to imagine what sort of stuff they've got up the coast!!



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