As readers might have noticed, I take every opportunity to rave about the birding in Beijing. One of the reasons is because there is so much opportunity for discovery. The last few weeks have proved this again.
Until now, Beijing birders had presumed all the LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀), occasionally seen in the capital in winter, are from the population breeding in NE China, Russia and Mongolia (the ussuriensis subspecies). We don’t see many, and it was only after Paul Holt and I recently visited Wuerqihan, northern Inner Mongolia, where Long-tailed Rosefinches are common, that sharp-eyed (and sharp-eared!) Paul Holt suspected that the birds I had photographed and sound-recorded at Lingshan in October 2014 and November 2015 were of a different subspecies.
To compare, here are a couple of photos of the northeastern ussuriensis subspecies, the only race previously presumed to occurr in Beijing, taken in the Dalian area of NE China, courtesy of Tom Beeke.
And here is a male from Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia.
Compare the calls of one of the Lingshan birds with a bird of the ussuriensis race from Russia :
Lingshan bird (lepidus):
Ussuriensis from Russia (Albert Lastukhin):
After comparing photos and sound-recordings of ussuriensis with those from Beijing, it became clear that the Lingshan birds were NOT of the ssp ussuriensis. Instead, the Lingshan birds show the characteristics (dark eye-stripe and brown wings on the male, heavy and contrasting streaking on the female) of the ssp lepidus, the race from central China (according to HBW, this subspecies ranges from Eastern Tibet, east to south Shaanxi and southwest Shanxi).
Photos prove that Long-tailed Rosefinches of the lepidus subspecies have now occured at Lingshan in October/November 2014 and again in November 2015, including adult males. This suggests that Lingshan may be a regular wintering ground for the lepidus subspecies.
This was quite a shock.
We don’t *think* lepidus breeds in Beijing – they are active and noisy during the breeding season and there have been a few spring/summer visits by birders to Lingshan in the last 2 years, during which one would expect these birds to have been detected had they been present. So, for the moment at least, it looks as if these birds have moved northeast from their breeding grounds, an unexpected winter movement.
We know that at least some of the few winter records of Long-tailed Rosefinch from lowland Beijing are of the northern subspecies ussuriensis. So Beijing has now recorded two ssp of Long-tailed Rosefinch.
It’s another fascinating, and unexpected, discovery from Lingshan! What next?
Big thanks to Paul Holt for the initial discovery, to Paul Leader for comments and to Tom Beeke for permission to use his photos of Long-tailed Rosefinch from Liaoning Province.
This week I have fallen in love. With a country. A country blessed with magnificent wildlife, a wonderful climate and some of the friendliest and happiest people I have met. Its name is Uganda.
Situated on the East African Plateau, Uganda is often overlooked by tourists who flock to neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania to see the “Big 5” – African Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard, Lion and Rhinoceros. It’s a bit of a secret that Uganda offers not only the “Big 5” but “Big 5 Plus”. And the “Plus” is a big plus – MOUNTAIN GORILLA.
For the birders, there is another major attraction – the prehistoric-looking SHOEBILL, which can be seen in the swamps around Lake Victoria just a couple of hours from the airport at Entebbe.
Ever since I saw Sir David Attenborough’s unforgettable encounter with Mountain Gorillas during the BBC’s series “Life On Earth” (1979), I had dreamt of seeing the Mountain Gorilla. That dream has stayed with me for more than 30 years and when I was invited to attend the BirdLife Global Council meeting in Entebbe this November, I knew this was my chance. I didn’t have much notice, so I was worried that the strictly limited permits to see the Gorillas would be sold out.
I contacted “Gorilla Whisperer”, David Agenya, who reassured me it would be possible. “Leave it to me” he wrote. And, after sweating for 48 hours, he replied “Good news. Everything is arranged.”
Luckily, Marie was able to rearrange her work commitments to accompany me and so, on 11th November, we set off from Beijing to Entebbe, via Dubai. I daren’t raise my expectations.. but I was excited… and the feelings I experienced when I first saw that “Attenborough moment” came flooding back.
On our first full day in Uganda, we visited Mabamba Swamp on the edge of Lake Victoria to look for what must be one of the strangest looking birds in the world – the magnificent SHOEBILL. Despite being the size of a toddler, it has a small and thinly-spread population and, together with its habit of standing motionless and silent for hours deep in the swamp, it is often tough to find.
However, after struggling for several hours, we finally found one of these superb birds standing motionless – like a statue – in the swamp. As we paddled slowly towards it, this magnificent bird was unconcerned.. it didn’t even look at us but instead focused on a small patch of water, waiting…. We watched in awe. What a bird! After a few minutes it suddenly thrust its head into the water… Whatever it had targeted escaped and, after a few seconds shaking itself dry, the Shoebill began to walk slowly as if taxiing for takeoff and, sure enough, after throwing us a brief, penetrating stare it began to accelerate and, eventually, this huge beast took to the air to find a new hunting spot. A truly unforgettable encounter.
Mountain Gorillas – The Ultimate Wildlife Experience?
Elated, we began the long journey west to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park to begin the second leg of our Uganda experience. Taking in Queen Elizabeth National Park on the way, where we connected with African Elephant, Water Buck, Impala, Topi and Hippo, we arrived at the excellent Silverback Lodge after 13 hours on the road.
Penetrating The Impenetrable
The next morning will stay with me forever. At 0730, after a 5-minute drive from our lodge, we were at the entrance to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, ready to be briefed before beginning our trek. Gorilla trekking is, admirably, strictly controlled with a limited numbers of tourists being allowed into the park each day, and the time spent with the gorillas strictly limited to a maximum of one hour.
The visitors split into three groups of 8 and we were allocated a guide. David was the head guide and would be leading our group. After the CB radio crackled into life with messages from the trackers, who had headed out at first light to discover the whereabouts of each family, we set off. The trek can be anything from 1 hour to 6 hours each way, depending on the gorillas’ location. We were lucky. The family we were to visit were a little over 90 minutes away and, after a steady but not too taxing hike through the forest, we were on site.
A few hundred metres away from the gorillas we made a base where we left our bags with the porters and prepared ourselves as best we could for what we knew would be a special experience.
Before we had even put down our bags, the dominant male – the so-called “silverback” approached us, almost as if to check us out. He lumbered past, just a few metres away, as we stood in awe, before climbing a nearby tree to join 4 other members of the group. Wow.
David summoned us a little further into the forest where two female gorillas, with young babies (12 and 14 months old respectively) were relaxing on the ground. Words cannot describe how it felt to watch these majestic animals. The mothers were so caring and attentive to the young, cradling them, hugging them, grooming them.. as the playful young clumsily clambered up and down onto their mothers’ backs. It was such a privilege to watch this behaviour at close quarters. Everyone was speechless.
All too soon, our time was up and we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from these gentle creatures. But there was one more treat for us in store. The silverback climbed down from his lofty perch and slumped in front of us as we made our way back to the trail.. providing the group with stunning views. What an experience! We really couldn’t have asked for a more memorable encounter.
It’s now two days since our visit and, as we sit in our hotel lobby in Entebbe ahead of my work meeting, we are still on a high. A little boy’s dream has (finally) come true!
Edit: here is a short video of our encounter (handheld using my Canon EOS7D and a 100mm f2.8 lens).
I cannot recommend Uganda highly enough. A truly wonderful country – appropriately described by Churchill as “the pearl of Africa”. It was heartening to see the gorilla experience extremely well-managed, minimising the stress to the animals and generating funding to ensure the protection of their habitat. The Bwindi National Park authorities spend 18 months to habituate each family of gorillas before allowing tourists to visit and three quarters of the families are deliberately left completely wild. The fact that the gorillas are so relaxed in human company, breeding well and residing so close to the Park HQ says everything about the professionalism and dedication of the staff to put the welfare of the gorillas first. If you are interested in visiting and would like to contact our guide directly, his email address is: email@example.com.
With the days shortening, falling temperatures and the emergence of winter woollies, it’s an exciting time to be a birder in Beijing. As most people wrap up and stay indoors to minimise their exposure to what can be a brutal Beijing winter, with sub-zero temperatures and icy northwesterly winds from Siberia, I am itching to get out as much as possible to my favourite winter birding destination – Lingshan. Situated around 110km west of Tiananmen Square, Lingshan is Beijing’s highest mountain and one of the very few high places that is not closed in winter due to “fire risk” (ironically often policed by chain-smoking guards). Its accessibility, coupled with the habitat of stunted birch, rocky scree slopes and valleys of sea buckthorn, make it possible to see several sought-after species that are difficult to see elsewhere in the capital and, in some cases, anywhere in the world.
It was in February 2013 that I visited this site for the first time. Back then I was delighted to discover a good number of wintering GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲), a high-altitude specialist, in a small gully close to the apex of the road. These have proved to be annual winter visitors and, with a supporting cast of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCH (北朱雀), ASIAN ROSY FINCH (粉红腹岭雀), ALPINE ACCENTOR (领岩鹨), REDPOLLS (白腰朱顶雀), including the occasional ARCTIC REDPOLL (极北朱顶雀), GOLDEN EAGLE (金雕) and CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫), Lingshan provides excellent winter birding. The jewel in the crown of Lingshan, so far, was the discovery in February 2014 of a male PRZEWALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), surely the prettiest of all Phoenicurus.
The Lingshan ALASHAN REDSTART(贺兰山红尾鸲) was only the 3rd record for Beijing (the previous two were in the 1930s and during a survey of nearby Xiaolongmen in 1994) and it caused much excitement with more than 30 birders making the journey to see it. Birders in Beijing were hopeful that this stunning high-altitude redstart, whose breeding grounds lie 1000s of kilometres away in Qinghai and Gansu, might also prove to be an annual visitor. And, despite a poor crop of sea buckthorn berries last winter, there were two independent sightings of ALASHAN REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), although it appears that the birds were highly mobile due to the scarcity of berries and many people, including me, missed them.
As well as ALASHAN REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), the previous two winters have also thrown up some other surprises with Beijing’s first record of LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER (小斑啄木鸟) and the 5th record of BLACK REDSTART (赭红尾鸲). Recent summer visits have also revealed the first summer record of GREENISH-type WARBLERS (暗绿柳莺, July 2015), the first Beijing record of JAPANESE PYGMY WOODPECKER (小星头啄木鸟, September 2015) and the second record of SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (锈胸蓝姬鹟, July 2015).
And so, it was with great anticipation last week that I made my first late autumn visit of the year to Lingshan. I had several questions in my head:
First, would the berry crop be better this year?
Second, would the redstarts have arrived (we have no idea yet of typical arrival or departure dates)?
And third, would there be another surprise or two?
Within 10 minutes of my arrival I had the answers to the first two questions. Immediately I could see the valley along the “old road” awash with the yellow-orange berries of sea buckthorn. Hoorah!
And within a few minutes the familiar flash of black and white wings revealed that a male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART (红腹红尾鸲) was already on site. I counted at least 10 (6 males and 4 females) as I walked up the valley.
A handful of PALLAS’S (北朱雀), CHINESE BEAUTIFUL (红眉朱雀) and LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (长尾雀) continued the winter theme.
After walking the ‘old road’ the sun had risen enough to begin warming “Przewalski’s Gully” and so I headed there with fond memories. After accidentally disturbing a feeding a group of RED-THROATED THRUSHES (赤颈鸫) and glimpsing several SIBERIAN ACCENTORS (棕眉山岩鹨), a shrike appeared atop a close buckthorn shrub – a first winter sibiricus GREAT GREY SHRIKE (灰伯劳) – a rarity in Beijing and only my second in the capital. I had the answer to question 3!
And so, although no ALASHAN REDSTART yet, Lingshan is full of promise for the forthcoming winter. Perhaps the only certainty is that there will be more surprises… As with much of Beijing, and China as a whole, there is still so much to discover.. and I can’t wait!
For the latest sightings from Lingshan this winter, keep an eye on the Latest Sightings page. For a birders’ guide to Lingshan, click here.
Over the last few months I have visited several universities, state and international schools in Beijing to speak about birds and the environment, and accompanied several classes on birding field trips to sites in and around Beijing. As part of my environmental education work with EcoAction, I have also participated in an exciting new project to develop an “environmental curriculum” focused on wild birds. I am pleased to say this “environmental curriculum” has been approved by the government and is now being piloted in two Beijing state schools by EcoAction’s founder Luo Peng.
The environment is almost completely absent from the Chinese state curriculum and our aim is to help fill the gap by providing schools with supplementary classes dedicated to the natural world. As well as classroom-based theory, including lectures by professional scientists, the environmental curriculum includes practical exercises, field trips to some of Beijing’s best birding sites, investigative studies – for example of Beijing’s wild bird markets – and learning how to communicate nature by writing basic scientific or media reports about their findings.
Our hope is that we can develop and expand the pilots to cover more schools in Beijing before engaging schools across China and, ultimately, making ourselves redundant by influencing the national curriculum.
Through all of my engagement thus far, I have been so impressed with the enthusiasm and depth of engagement of the students. Their sense of wonder and awe about all things natural reminds me very much of my youth when I began to discover birds and the environment in which they live. If we can help just a little to make, and nurture, that connection with the environment, I am confident that the leaders of tomorrow will make more enlightened decisions.
You can keep up to date about the latest engagement with schools on a new dedicated Education page.
After the success of the 1st China International Birding Festival, it was with some sadness that I received a call from the Dalian Lushun Wild Bird Protection Association on Thursday evening. Volunteers had been out that day and found more than 800 metres of illegal mist nets at Laotieshan, the site of the festival. They sent me these shocking images.
The group’s leader explained that, when the festival was in progress, the poachers had lain low, knowing that the discovery of mist nets during the event would have embarrassed the local government and almost certainly led to severe punishment. However, now, with the spotlight turned away, the poachers were back in force. Apparently 7-8 poachers regularly haunt the Laotieshan area and every autumn there is a running battle between the criminals and the local wild bird society, Laotieshan nature reserve staff and forestry police.
One piece of good news is that the local bird group has been engaging with the poachers to try to persuade them away from catching birds to becoming bird protectors. One of them has already given up his nets and is now paid a small amount to look for, and take down, illegal nets. Discussions with a second poacher are ongoing.
As is well-known, poachers make the best gamekeepers, so I have my fingers crossed that they are successful. Whatever the result, it’s important to highlight the brilliant work of the Dalian Lushun Wild Bird Protection Group. Heroes.
After a whirlwind 48 hours, and the participation of almost 200 birders from all over China and overseas, the 1st China International Birding Festival has officially closed. And what a success it was.
The centrepiece was a 24-hour “bird race” during which 49 teams of 4 (age range 10 to 71) competed to record as many species of bird as possible by visiting 5 pre-determined sites in the Laotieshan area. Each team was allocated a volunteer student from the Dalian University of Foreign Languages, a local State Forestry Fire Prevention officer and provided with a car and driver. And, after the opening ceremony in which the Vice Mayor of Dalian and other senior government officials participated, the race began at 4pm on Friday.
With China birding guru, Paul Holt, honourably serving as one of the team of judges, suddenly everyone else was in with a chance of victory!
Our team, including Marie Louise and two fabulous and enthusiastic young birders, Zhao Tianhao and Cheng Xi, decided to spend the first two hours of the race, and the last two hours of daylight, visiting the “Tiger Tail mudflats” where we connected with, among others, Chinese Egret, Osprey, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gull as well as Red-throated Pipit, Lanceolated Warbler and a stunning adult male Yellow-breasted Bunting in the scrub.
After the formal dinner in the evening, we arranged to meet at 0500 (half an our before dawn and the earliest the driver and forestry officer could start) to continue the race..
We first visited the saltpans from where we hoped to be lucky with Streaked Shearwater (possible, with luck, from the sea wall). We did not see one but we did connect with some shorebirds, including Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Dunlin, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Pacific Golden Plover. It was shortly after sifting through the waders that we finally saw something ‘streaked’, only it was not ‘shearing’ over the sea but hiding in a small reedbed. Astonishingly, we connected with a STREAKED REED WARBLER, an almost mythical and now almost certainly extremely rare bird. See here for some background about this species and the story of this observation.
After the excitement of the Streaked Reed Warbler sighting, we continued to increase our species list as we visited the other sites, including a wooded mountainside and a tidal estuary. An encounter with two NORTHERN HOUSE MARTINS (scarce in NE China) was a nice bonus during our last hour.
As time wore on, our ‘guide’ slowly increased the pressure on us to get back to base – any team that was late, even by a minute, would be disqualified. So, at 1520 we left the last site and headed back for the 20 minute journey to hand in our scoresheet. In the car we made a final count – 71 species. Not bad. At the beginning of the race I had thought that 70 species would be a good score, so we were pretty pleased, even though we had, alarmingly, missed some common birds; we had seen no woodpeckers, no owls, no harriers, no Little Bunting (how did that happen?), no pheasant or quail and ‘Japanese’ was the only Tit species!
After handing in the entries the judges got to work and, following a late evening, the results were ready to be announced at the closing ceremony the following morning.
On arrival, we were ushered to a row of seats close to the front so we knew we had won an award. We were delighted to receive two – “The Black-faced Spoonbill Award” for the rarest bird seen (the Streaked Reed Warbler was always going to be a shoe-in for that) and also the 3rd place team award (our 71 species was just 3 behind the winners – Tong Menxiu’s “China Wild Tour” team.
In addition, I was humbled and honoured to receive the judges’ “Birding Master” award…
It was hugely encouraging to see big numbers of young Chinese birders participating and, during the 24-hour race we met with teams from as far afield as Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian, as well as several teams from host province, Liaoning and the capital, Beijing. Even better was the gender balance – there were just as many young women as men (it was never like that in the UK when I was a young birder!).
Huge thanks to the organisers, including the China Birdwatching Society, the Dalian local government, the Dalian University of Foreign Languages and all of the other volunteers… And a special thanks to my team mates – Marie Louise, Zhao Tianhao and Cheng Xi.
With participation from the highest levels of the Dalian government, including generous financial support for the event, I sensed a genuine enthusiasm for birding and an appreciation for wild birds, the scale of which I have never before witnessed in China. All around were banners stating “Protect our birds” and “Dalian – honoured to be hosting the 1st China International Birding Festival”. During the race, many of the 49 teams took the time to explain to interested passers-by what they were doing and to show them wild birds.. And the bird race was covered by national and local TV as well as print media, including the most popular Chinese language newspaper, the People’s Daily. So the event has helped to raise awareness among the general public, as well as enthusing a new generation of Chinese birders. I was heartened when one young Chinese student volunteer approached me at the closing ceremony and said “This event has made me want to be a birder”.
Forget all the trophies handed out, the most important winner of all was Birding in China.
Yesterday I received a reply from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to my correspondence outlining concerns about the proposed venue for the downhill ski slope for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Their letter can be seen here. The background can be found here.
The IOC’s reply is, predictably, disappointing. It repeats the claim that the location of the alpine skiing events will be “adjacent” to the national nature reserve. This is true but only after the Chinese government has “adjusted” the boundaries!
The letter goes on to say that the Host City Contract, signed by Beijing, includes a section dedicated to protected natural areas which reads as follows:
“If a Bid City/ Host City/ OCOG proposes locating a venue, a facility, and/or infrastructure in or in close proximity to a protected natural and/or heritage area, a detailed assessment of environmental (flora, fauna, soil and water) and/or cultural heritage (landscape, amenity, built heritage, archaeology) constraints, potential impacts, risks and mitigation requirements must be undertaken.”
There is no evidence that any of this has happened. And, even if it had, the IOC’s contract essentially gives license to cause damage to protected areas as long as “mitigation requirements” are undertaken.
The reply raises two questions. First, what if the host city does not fulfil their obligations (as they clearly haven’t done in this case) and is therefore in breach of contract?
And second, is there any assessment, independent or otherwise, of the so-called “mitigation requirements” to assess their suitability and effectiveness?
Sadly, it looks as if the environmental concerns raised about the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are not unique. The 2018 Winter Games will take place in South Korea and a “virgin 500-year old forest” has been felled to accommodate a ski slope, despite an online petition attracting more than 1.1 million signatures. In the South Korean case, the organising committee says it plans to replace more than 1,000 trees after the Games and restore the natural habitat to its former state – a promise that forest experts say is practically impossible to keep.
In Beijing the government has promised to plant some trees to “offset” those felled to make way for the ski slope. That may sound reasonable to Joe Public but conservationists and experts will know that cutting down a several hundred-year old tree and planting a new sapling is not a “like for like” replacement, especially when the former is part of a complex and biodiverse ecosystem.
In an age when we are losing our biodiversity at an alarming rate (some estimates suggest we have lost more than 50% of the world’s biodiversity in the last 50 years) it seems to me unforgivable to sacrifice highly biodiverse areas for the sake of a few days of sporting events.
If the IOC doesn’t take its environmental responsibilities and commitments seriously, I hope that the sponsors (many of whom are likely to be large international companies with reputations to protect) will insist on much stricter environmental criteria as a pre-requisite to supporting the Olympics.
In any case, isn’t it time for the IOC to begin to re-use facilities rather than look for a new host country every 4 years?