#423 and #424 in Desert Hot Springs

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

There’s nothing like getting to new habitat for finding life birds. A couple of weekends ago (2008-05-17) Beth and I drove out to Desert Hot Springs in the Coachella Valley to visit a friend who runs a small hotel there.

The Lido Palms Hotel

Jill mentioned that she had Cactus Wrens nesting up by her house, but before we could even get there, these birds flew into a palm by the pool:

2 Cactus Wrens in a Palm Tree
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#413 Red-billed Blue Magpie at the New Summer Palace

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Tuesday, Day #6, Beth was playing hooky from the electronic music at the conference, so I took her to visit the New Summer Palace (the one the Empress Dowager Cixi built after the Old Summer Palace was destroyed by the British and French Allied Forces around 1860.) In the cab ride over I saw two more of my “White-winged Starlings” (that I suspected were Crested Mynas) but once again I didn’t see them long enough or well enough to be sure.

The Summer Palace itself is very pretty: lots of people, temples, and palaces. We didn’t see half of them. Not many birds though, despite the large lake. (Lakes and water features are usually surefire bird attractors, but in Beijing most water was shockingly bird free except at the Old Summer Palace. The only water birds we saw at the New Summer Palace were a few Mallards in the lagoon at Suzhou Street.) Aside from the ubiquitous Black-billed and Azure-winged Magpies, most of the birds were painted:

Painting of swallows on building eave

There was a Hall of Listening to Orioles (for opera, think “nightingale” in English) but we didn’t see or hear a single oriole the entire trip. :-(

We climbed up to the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, then walked down the back. There aren’t many hills in Beijing, and the emperors seemed fond of putting temples on top of the few hills they have. I don’t think we saw one hill the whole trip that didn’t have a temple on top.

Buddhist temple of the Sea of Wisdom from below

Walking down the hill, we headed toward Suzhou Street. On the way I heard a really raucous cry. I’d heard this same cry the day before at The Temple of Heaven Park, but hadn’t been able to track the bird down. This time I got luckier. It was a Red-billed Blue Magpie! I only saw it briefly, and didn’t get a photo, but it was unmistakable. This is a really impressive bird. In fact, after finding it inside the field guide, I realized it was also the bird on the cover:


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#411 and 412 at the Old Summer Palace

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

Saturday morning (Day #3) Beth was attending the conference so I decided to do some local birding. It took a bit of doing, but the kind folks at the registration desk managed to write “Please take me to the Old Summer Palace” on a piece of paper I could give to a cab driver. The disadvantages of a non-alphabetic language: they knew how to say the Chinese name of the Old Summer Palace, but it’s an uncommon name so no one knew how to write it. They ended up copying it out of my guide book. Nor did the first cab driver I tried no how to read it. Fortunately, the second cab driver understood it; and eventually I got there, paid my $10 Yuan admission, and walked in.

The first bird I spotted was a Black-billed Magpie, but soon after I found a different magpie, the Azure-winged Magpie, my first life bird of the day. This is very pretty bird, with an unusual distribution. They’re found in Spain, but then, for some reason no one understands, there’s a huge gap in their distribution until the middle of Asia. I didn’t get any good photos of Azure-winged Magpies thast day, but here’s one from a couple of days later at the Zoo:

Azure-winged magpie

Shortly after spotting the magpie, I met a Chinese birder, the first and only one I saw the whole trip. He was as excited to see me as I was to see him. Unfortunately his English extended as far as my Chinese: I could say “Nihao” and he could say, “Hello” and after that our conversation degenerated into a lot of pointing at trees and field guides. However in this process we were able to find a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and he was able to tell me that the crows we were seeing were indeed Thick-billed Crows, Corvus macrorynchos, not Carrion Crows. That made them life bird #412 for me. He also found a Great Spotted Woodpecker for me, and tried to teach me the Chinese word for Woodpecker (Sicha, I think if I’m remembering correctly). I tried to teach him the English word for “Magpie”. I’m not sure how much of that stuck with either of us, but it was the most significant interaction I had with a non-Anglophone Chinese the entire trip.
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Beijing Day 8

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Our plane doesn’t leave till 9:00 PM tonight (and arrives at LAX at 5:00 PM tonight, the wonders of the international dateline) so we did a little more sightseeing.

First stop was the Dongyu Temple, the first Taoist Temple we’d visited after slews of Buddhist Temples. It was a bit of an eye opener. I had no idea Taoism was this pagan. It apparently rivals Hinduism for sheer number of deities, not to mention ghosts, demons, and assorted other creatures. Plus there’s reincarnation, and a hierarchy of possible next lives. If I recall correctly, if you do nothing but evil you come back as an insect; if you do more evil than good, you come back as a bird or a fish; and if you do equal amounts of good and evil, you come back as a mammal (but not a person). Of course, you can also just end up tortured in one of 14 hells:

Punishment Department
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Beijing Evening 7

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Dateline: Beijing, Wednesday, April 23. We ate an early dinner at the Rathskellar again (not its real name, but I don’t know what else to call it.) We had the fish hot pot again. Then we grabbed a cab for the other side of town to catch the “Peking Opera for Dummies” at the Liyuan Theatre. We planned to wander around a bit before the show, but we hit the worst traffic we’d seen the whole trip, and got there with not so much time to spare. The folks we were planning to go with never showed up. I hope they just didn’t come instead of being stuck in traffic for two hours and still missing the show.
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Beijing Day 4

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Sunday it rained all day non-stop. I explored the subways and tried to get to the Natural History Museum, but the street I was planning to walk down was closed, and trying to take an alternate route I got lost in some Hutongs southwest of Tian’anmen Square. (The government is busy knocking down hutongs all over the city, and other perceived eyesores before the Olympics. Entire neighborhoods are being leveled left and right. Usually they don’t bother to exclude people from the destruction site, but for some reason this particular one was fenced off.) I eventually found my way back, but not a lot was accomplished today.

For lunch I stopped at a tourist joint near Tian’anmen square because I figured they’d have an English menu. (They did.) I don’t worry too much about eating at Tourist restaurants here because they’re mostly aimed at Chinese tourists, and are still weird and different enough. I have yet to see a burger or fries on any menu anywhere. First course was some nice fish soup (I thought I ordered beefball soup, but ‘m flexible) followed by the largest bowl of carp with Udon noodles I’ve ever seen. This could have fed a village. I was embarrassed when it showed up on the table. I hadn’t meant to order two courses, but I must have misunderstood the waitress when she brought the menu back to me and showed me some extra pages. I have got to learn enough Chinese to at least order competently by pointing at a menu. Pricewise though the whole experience cost just 70 Yuan, about $10. By local standards, that’s a princely sum for a meal for one.

I’m getting a little tired of playing tourist. I usually like to mix tourist activities with actual work, or a conference, or some non-tourist reason to be in a city. However, this time it’s Beth who’s at the conference, and I’m just spending the days exploring the city. This would be easier if the conference hotel was a little more centrally located. Beijing’s a huge city and walking around it in the rain just isn’t all that much fun.
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