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Try this: birdwatching

One of the rarest birds in the world is back in Beijing for the first time in 75 years

Beijing offers ‘world-class’ birdwatching, local amateur birder Terry Townshend says as he drives us out to Miyun Reservoir for a day of ‘twitching’. He’s not exaggerating: we see no fewer than 68 types of bird over the course of one day, including one of the rarest in China, if not the world.


Earlier this year, the unassuming Jankowski’s bunting caused quite a stir after reappearing in Beijing municipality for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China. They were last seen in Beijing in 1941 at the Summer Palace, when two specimens were caught and killed.


Once common in Siberia, North Korea and China’s northeastern region, it’s now thought to be extinct in Russia, its numbers unknown in North Korea and just thirty birds were counted in northeastern China in 2012. Habitat destruction is believed to be the main cause of decline.

Its rather plain appearance perhaps doesn’t help conservation efforts. The clearest distinguishing feature on the brown bird is the dark spot in the centre of adults’ chests, giving it the Chinese name liban fuwu (栗斑腹鵐), which means ‘chestnut-patterned bunting’.

It’s a thrill to see some of them just a couple of hours away from downtown Beijing. Through binoculars they’re actually quite jazzy, teasing us with a flash of their chestnut chests before jumping down into the grass where they spend 99 percent of their time. It’s also not that often you spot a bird with its own Just Giving account.


While stalking the elusive bunting, so many other birds fly overhead, underfoot (we pretty much stand on a sleeping eagle owl, which quickly takes off, unfurling its six-foot wingspan) or paddle past that even if you don’t see the Jankowski’s bunting before it heads back north soon, you’re still going to see a whole lot of birdlife. ‘Miyun is like a service station for birds,’ says Townshend. There’s around 50 migrating species passing through in spring, meaning that on a good day in May you could easily see 100 species. Townshend’s personal best is 115.


The area immediately around Miyun Reservoir is protected – even farming has been stopped recently. This has created more scrubland, which the birds clearly enjoy. With the massive South-North Water Transfer Project already causing the reservoir’s water level to rise, however, much of this land could disappear again as the level rises 10m.


Even with no birding experience, heading out of the city, even at 4am, is a fantastic way to get a total change of scene. The views are stunning and the birds put on quite a show. If Miyun is a bit on the far side, Townshend recommends the Olympic Park and Botanical Garden as other decent places to marvel at our feathered friends.

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Other birds we saw:

- Eagle owl
- Rough-legged buzzard
- Beijing babbler
- Golden eagle
- Baikal teal
- Chaffinch (a big deal in Beijing, apparently)

For more information on birdwatching in and around Beijing, check out birdingbeijing.com.

  • 4 out of 5 stars