By Terry T
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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: http://birdingbeijing.com/2011/11/13/laotieshan-the-trip-report/