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Pelagic trip to Cheniushan Island on 23 Jan, 2010

by Zhang Lin etc




In the Chinese lunar calendar, 20 Jan 2010 is Dahan, literally The Coldest Period in a year. A very strong cold front has just passed the area of Rizhao, south Shandong. Before this, all the pelagic trips in Qingdao region (to the north of Rizhao) have been cancelled due to unusually heavy icing all around Qingdao, and the one to Chenniushan Island, Lianyungang (to the south of Rizhao) on 2 Jan ended in a nightmare¡ª30 years cold winter!

Our trip to Cheniushan Island on 28 Feb 2009 reveals that there should be a wintering population of Yellow-billed Loon in this region. Just one week ago, a local bird photographer found an adult in a lagoon just at the outskirt of Rizhao city, which convinced this stable population.


    I arrived in Rizhao on 22 Jan as planned a month ago, and visited the Rizhao photographers¡ªLi, Cheng and Huang and the loon that afternoon. It had been staying there for the whole week. Also a Red-throated Loon nearby. After a cold front, there should be good weather for days to provide us a chance to do the pelagic trip. And indeed, 23 Jan shows us a clear sky, high visibility and not windy at all, exactly what predicted. We don¡¯t have to wait until next weekend! Chen from Beijing and Lei from Wuhan who arrived the midnight before join in watching the loon in the lagoon at sunrise and we drive on to Lanshan Port, waiting for the tide to be high enough to sail out of the harbor. Yellow-billed Loon  
    Black-throated Loon   Gulls (Vega, Mongolian, Common and Black-headed) gather in the harbor. We leave at about 9 am, heading Cheniushan Island. A pair of Smew, a pair of White-winged Scoter, Crested Grebe and Mallard around the buoys, and Black-tailed and other gulls follow our boat sometimes. This time we hire a big fishing boat. The speed of the boat is 20.5km/h, much faster than the one we used in 2009. Two hours needed to Cheniushan Island. We have much time to stop and try to get close to the birds swimming in the sea¡ª many Black-throated Loon and a few pairs of Ancient Murrelet. Ancient Murrelet are all in breeding plumage. In the trip in 2009, we saw them with breeding plumage in small flocks, not in pairs. I think it¡¯s the time of their mating.  

The front deck is about 1.5m above sea level. It¡¯s so stable that we can even use tripod mounted scope, and so stable that Lei for the first time doesn¡¯t show any sign of seasick. In the same weather condition, we see more seabirds than on a smaller boat. But obviously, the disadvantage is also the size of the boat, which frightens the birds more. Thus we can¡¯t get so close to them to get as good photos as on a smaller boat.

We arrive at Cheniushan Island at noon. On the island, we scan the sea and islets around. It¡¯s easier to see more Black-throated Loon here. One bird shows a smaller bill, and a stripe around the upper breast, not the throat. It also shows much white on rear flanks. We treat it again as Black-throated, although we expect to find one or two Pacific. A big flock of Scoter sp. passes by. Still no Yellow-billed Loon.

After lunch, we sail around the islets. Just when we get on board, cloud and wind come. Temperature falls abruptly. Temporary spring leaves, winter comes back. Many Red-breasted Merganser are displaying. No Long-tailed Duck. One juv Japanese Cormorant stands on one of the islets. A few Crested Grebe. No Ancient Murrelet, while in the trip in 2009 they gathered around here. Finally one Yellow-billed Loon appears! Yes, it¡¯s there, with its thick bill and thick neck! As the bird in 2009 and the one in Rizhao, it swims confidently and we can get to it much closer than Black-throated. It dives but not flies away as many Black-throated do. Cheers and go on to Danianshan Island which is not far away!

Between Cheniushan and Danianshan Island, there¡¯re more Black-throated Loon counted than in the morning. Easier to find food than in the open sea maybe. No more Yellow-billed. One Yellow-billed is good enough but don¡¯t give up. Hopefully we can find more! Turning to the west corner of Danianshan Island, a single loon is swimming just beside the rock. The water there is too shallow for our big boat. But the distance is already Ok to confirm it as another Yellow-billed Loon, our third bird in one day!
Quite satisfied, at 14:30, we sail back. Pingshan Island, 15km northward becomes more and more obscure as cloud and haze gather above the horizon. No time to visit there. Might there be another Yellow-billed Loon? Or more?


Red-breasted Merganser


On the way back, the speed is 19.5km/h. Still many Black-throated Loon seen, and another small flock of White-winged Scoter. Not much time before it gets all dark. In pairs of Ancient Murrelet we see some murrelets with neck stretched, and bill pointed upward like Black-throated Loon, while the compact Ancient Murrelet swims more like Yellow-billed Loon. We think it worth a stop. The black bill and white throat also make it similar to Black-throated Loon in jizz. No white above eye. When swimming, and in flight, we see two white lines/patches along the scapulars. It may also show more white on flanks than Ancient but this is not easy to detect in waves. Long-billed Murrelet (split from Marbled Murrelet) fits! Another goodie today! As we know, it¡¯s a winter visitor here, all the five birds with non-br plumage, two in a group, and three in another. Ancient Murrelet breeds here, with breeding plumage already, two in every group.


This wonderful pelagic trip ends after 17:30, all dark with quite low tide. We endeavors to jump and climb up onto the dock. Lanshan Port is located on the border of Shandong and Jiangsu, and Cheniushan/Danianshan Island are in Jiangsu. We see Long-billed Murrelet over 15km from continent. I¡¯d like to treat it as a rare record for both of the two provinces. Thus it becomes a new record for Jiangsu.
Long-billed Murrelet  
Long-billed Murrelet
Ancient MurreletAncient Murrelet








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