Lao Tie Shan: The Falsterbo of the East

By Terry T

Oriental Honey Buzzard, Lao Tie Shan, September 2011

On 24 September 2011 Paul Holt, Peter Cawley and I counted an astonishing 1,035 Oriental Honey Buzzards. It was our first day at Lao Tie Shan, a poorly known site in northeast China. Little did we know that, over the following days, we would smash the China day records for Amur Falcon, Ashy Minivet (by a factor of 15) and Yellow-bellied Tit, see staggering numbers of raptors and, best of all, have a great time.

Looking at a map of eastern China, the eyes of any birder will be drawn to the southward facing shard of land close to Dalian, in Liaoning Province. The Liaodong peninsula, with the vast landmass of eastern Siberia to the north, acts as a natural funnel for birds heading south.

A map showing the location of Lao Tie Shan.

Lao Tie Shan has been on the birding map since the middle of the 19th century (renowned ornithologist Robert Swinhoe visited in 1861). However, until very recently, it has been off limits to foreigners due to the presence of the Chinese Navy at nearby Lushun. Fortunately access restrictions were relaxed in 2008 and, although Lao Tie Shan remains sensitive due to the nearby military presence, it is possible to access the area around the lighthouse, including some of the wooded hillsides to the northeast. The area received protection as a National Nature Reserve in 1980 and Chinese ringing stations have operated there for at least a decade.

The lighthouse at Lao Tie Shan viewed from the ridge to the north-east.

China-based Canadian Tom Beeke visited Lao Tie Shan in September and October 2010 and excitedly reported, via his excellent thread on Birdforum, the number and variety of birds migrating at the point. Tom was probably the first western birder in modern times to visit this site in autumn. With nearby Dalian just an hour’s flight away from Beijing, I knew I had to visit.

Autumn was clearly going to be the best time. But such was my enthusiasm and impatience that I first arranged a spring visit with Beijing-based Spike Millington. At the very least it would be a good ‘recce’ for the autumn and, if we were lucky, we’d see some good birds. We spent 8 days at Lao Tie Shan and were blown away. Although raptor migration was limited, as you’d expect in spring at this location, we enjoyed the first Liaoning Province record of Russet Sparrow, a flyover Japanese Waxwing, several White-throated Needletails and a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker ‘in off’. In the lighthouse garden Oriental Scops Owls, White-throated Rock Thrushes, White’s and Pale Thrushes, Siberian Rubythroats, Rufous-tailed and Siberian Blue Robins and Yellow-legged Buttonquail all added to the excitement. What a site.

White-throated Needletail, Lao Tie Shan, 16 May 2011

The locals spoke about “September skies full of eagles”. So it was with great excitement that, during the long, hot summer, I planned my return in Autumn. Norfolk-based friend (and sausage lover) Peter Cawley was interested in joining me and Paul Holt, too, soon confirmed his availability. The three of us would spend two weeks (in Paul’s case longer) and we’d be joined by Tom for the odd day trip. This was almost certainly going to be the first occasion that the area would be systematically watched by foreign birders. On arrival, visible migration was immediately obvious. Flocks of Ashy Minivets, pipits, buntings and white-eyes moving overhead at dawn were soon joined by Oriental Honey Buzzards, Black Kites and a seemingly never-ending stream of Red-rumped Swallows flowing past the lighthouse, all heading out to sea towards Shandong. Although passerine migration was most intense during the first few hours after sunrise, the movement continued throughout the day with raptors peaking in late morning/early afternoon. The numbers of birds were phenomenal.

Paul Holt looking out to sea searching for Streaked Shearwaters while Peter Cawley excitedly contemplates the prospect of his next delicious Chinese sausage.

At the end of our trip, these are some more numbers taken from our notebooks: 2,155 Oriental Honey Buzzards (and we almost certainly missed the peak), 1,150 Black Kites, 1,255 Eurasian Sparrowhawks, 248 Northern Goshawks, 6,944 Eastern Buzzards, 7,971 Amur Falcons, 20,000 Ashy Minivets and 60,000 Red-rumped Swallows. Add in quality species such as Oriental Stork, Greater Spotted, Steppe and Golden Eagles and Lesser Kestrel and you begin to gain a sense of the scale and variety of visible migration at this little-known watch-point in northeast China. During our stay we also visited one of the ringing stations that had, the day before, caught and ringed the rarely seen Swinhoes’s Rail!

Mugimaki Flycatcher in the hand, Lao Tie Shan, October 2011

In total we recorded 202 species. However, it wasn’t the species list that made this place so special; it was the spectacle of visible migration. I can only imagine what would be found if the area was covered by more birders over a longer period. Lao Tie Shan is a truly special place. Guess where I’ll be this autumn!

A detailed trip report from the Autumn 2011 visit, including logistical details, can be found here: 

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8 Responses to Lao Tie Shan: The Falsterbo of the East

  1. Terry,

    Sounds absolutely amazing there! One more reason to get in gear and do a trip to China. I’ve long wondered about that peninsula, and I’m glad to hear birders are monitoring it again. I hope these amazing counts of yours are getting into a database somewhere. If none exists in China, eBird ( would be a good place for them. While really firing now in the Western Hemisphere (especially North America), its functionality is still basic in China, but it works. And it will improve with time.

    Good birding,

    • Hi Brian. We submit all of our sightings to the China Bird Report and I do my best (although I am not as rigourous as I should be) to input them to China’s online sightings database at As you imply, it’s critical to collate sightings, especially at important sites like Lao Tie Shan, to build the evidence base needed to protect them. I hope you get to visit one day! Terry

  2. Tony Disley says:

    Fantastic report, like others I had presumed this place must get some great migration, it looks a great shortcut for migrants, was looking at it on Google Earth and wondering what it would be like. many thanks for the great report and bringing it to life!! Tony

  3. Desmond Allen says:

    Has anyone found any of the ‘Vulnerable” Streaked Reed Warblers there? It looks like it might be a suitable spot…

    • Hi Desmond. As I am sure you know, Streaked Reed Warbler is an extremely difficult bird to see anywhere. I have not seen the records from the ringing stations at Lao Tie Shan (it’s something I hope to explore this autumn) but, with their breeding grounds to the north and wintering grounds to the south, it seems likely that they pass through. I’ll see what I can find out when I am there in a few weeks. Terry

      • Desmond Allen says:

        Thanks Terry. That should be very worthwhile, although misIDs are still a possibility. There seem to be no very recent photos of it from the BeiDaiHe area despite the increase in photographers and birdwatchers. And i don’t recall any very recent Philippine records either

  4. Pingback: Asian House Martin – Coming Soon To A Headland Near You? | Birding Frontiers

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