Birding In The Haze

When a British friend recently asked me what it’s like to live in Beijing, my instinctive reaction was to say “I love it”.  Professionally speaking it is one of the most exciting and interesting places on the planet.  And, of course, the birding is epic.

Then, after thinking for a few seconds, I qualified that statement with a “But” and described Beijing as “schizophrenic”.  On nice days, when the air is clear and the weather good, Beijing is stunningly beautiful, cradled by mountains that run from the southwest to the northeast, providing a spectacular backdrop to what must be one of the most exciting cities in the world.  However, on bad days, the air pollution renders invisible the tops of even the nearest tower blocks and, after just a few minutes outside, your clothes can smell as if you’ve spent an hour or two in the smoking room at Beijing Capital International Airport.

For visitors, Beijing’s air pollution is usually a relatively minor inconvenience that can affect the views when visiting the Great Wall.  It’s very unlikely to have a lasting impact.  For residents, given the serious, albeit unquantified, risks it’s something we really should take seriously.

On waking, my first act is to check the air quality index on my iPhone.  It dictates my mood.  If the pollution is low and classified as “suitable for outdoor activities”, I rejoice and it puts a spring in my step for the whole day.  Conversely, if the pollution level is high, I sigh and just want to snuggle under the duvet..   It’s THAT important to my quality of life.

The air quality in Beijing as I wrote this post.
The air quality in Beijing as I wrote this post.  Anything over 150 is serious.

Most ex-pats, and an increasing number of Chinese, invest in air purifiers for their apartments and wear masks to protect themselves when air quality is poor.  For those of us who like outdoor activities, such as birding or hiking, Beijing’s air can be particularly frustrating.

Often, before I decide when to go birding, I take into account the likely pollution levels, bearing in mind key factors such as wind direction and speed in the preceding days.  Residents know that a northerly or westerly wind generally clears the air, as the airflow originates from relatively pollution-free Mongolia and Siberia, whereas a southwesterly or southerly airflow brings up pollution from some of China’s most polluted towns and cities in neighbouring Hebei Province.

I am fortunate in the sense that, much of the time, I can arrange my work and birding according to the pollution levels and weather.  If it’s smoggy at the weekend, I will work and then take a day off during the week to get my birding fix when the air is better.  Most people are not that lucky.  Even so, there are times – for example when friends are visiting – when I arrange to go birding on specific days, and take a gamble on the air quality.

If we are unlucky, we take a deep breath, don our masks and go birding in the smog.  That’s exactly what Marie and I did yesterday and Marie’s photo of me birding along the Wenyu River is what prompted me to write this post.

Wearing a mask for several hours can be uncomfortable and of course, to eat and drink, one must remove it, at least temporarily.  Perhaps the most obvious effect of the air pollution when birding is the reduced visibility.  When the pollution is bad, even on a supposedly cloudless day, visibility can be reduced to a few hundred metres and, when visiting birding sites like Miyun Reservoir or Yeyahu – vast areas overlooking large areas of water – that can seriously impact the number of birds one is likely to see.  On bad days, it’s best to visit sites where one doesn’t need to look too far into the distance – parks and the local river are ideal candidates.

People often ask me how the pollution affects birds.  It’s a question I can only speculate about; as far as I know there have been no scientific studies examining the effects (if you know of any, please get in touch!).  My sense is that the air pollution may impact the journeys of some migrants – particularly birds of prey? – that rely on sight and landmarks for navigation, causing them to delay their migration if the visibility is low.  However, most of the health impacts of air pollution are related to long-term exposure and I suspect that most birds are not long-lived enough to be affected by these.  I am sure water pollution – also chronic over much of China – is a much bigger threat.

In Marie’s photo, I think I cut a sorry figure on the banks of the (heavily polluted) Wenyu River, close to Beijing’s 5th ring road and airport.  However, it’s a sign of just how good the birding is in Beijing that days like this are accepted and tolerated.  When it’s good, there is nowhere I would rather be…

The Pearl Of Africa: Mountain Gorillas and Shoebill in Uganda

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.

Mabamba is an Important Bird Area (IBA) and a Ramsar wetland site.
Mabamba is an Important Bird Area (IBA) and a Ramsar wetland site.
2015-11-13 Ismal scanning for Shoebill at Mabamba2
Our guide, Ismal, scanning for Shoebill at Mabamba

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.

2015-11-13 Shoebill, Mabamba Wetland, Uganda7

2015-11-13 Shoebill, Mabamba Wetland, Uganda5

2015-11-13 Shoebill, Mabamba Wetland, Uganda

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.

2015-11-15 Bwindi view from lodge
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest viewed from the Silverback Lodge
2015-11-15 Silverback Lodge
Our base for two nights – the Silverback Lodge

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 entrance to Bwindi.
The entrance to Bwindi.

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.

2015-11-15 group hiking
The beginning of the hike is relatively easy, along an old trail
2015-11-15 forest at Bwindi with stream
After we left the trail, we walked through some stunning forest at Bwindi
2015-11-15 forest at Bwindi
Beautiful forest at Bwindi

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.

2015-11-15 Mountain Gorilla baby waving, Bwindi, Uganda
A baby Mountain Gorilla waves to his visiting relatives!
2015-11-15 Mountain Gorilla baby on mother, Bwindi, Uganda
Riding on mother’s back is fun..
2015-11-15 Mountain Gorilla female, Bwindi, Uganda
Keeping an eye on the silverback is important for any member of the family!

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.

2015-11-15 Mountain Gorilla silverback close up2, Bwindi, Uganda
Kanyonyi, the silverback, in contemplative mood.

2015-11-15 Mountain Gorilla silverback5, Bwindi, Uganda

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:





Winter Is Coming..

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.

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.

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!

The Sea Buckthorn berry crop, 31 October 2015
The Sea Buckthorn berry crop, 31 October 2015

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.

2015-10-31 Guldenstadt's Redstart male, Lingshan9
A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART, Lingshan, 31 October 2015.  One of 10 seen on 31 October.  It is likely that these represent the vanguard and we can expect more to arrive over the next few weeks, hopefully accompanied by one or two ALASHAN REDSTARTS!

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.

One of the male PALLAS'S ROSEFINCHES at Lingshan. At least 30 are scattered around the higher slopes, preferring the birch scrub.
Adult male PALLAS’S ROSEFINCH at Lingshan.
Long-tailed Rosefinch (female), Lingshan
Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch male3

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!

2015-10-31 Great Grey Shrike ssp sibiricus 1w, Lingshan
‘sibiricus’ GREAT GREY SHRIKE, Lingshan, 31 October 2015. A rare bird in Beijing.
A male RED-THROATED THRUSH, one of more than 200 on site and taking advantage of the berry bonanza.
A male RED-THROATED THRUSH, one of more than 200 on site and taking advantage of the berry bonanza.

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

The Future Is Bright

Something exciting is happening…

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.

Students at Dulwich School, Beijing, receiving Swarovski keyrings after their class about birds.

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.

Students enjoying their first sighting of COMMON BUZZARD at Miyun Reservoir.

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.

After a field trip with one Beijing school, students were asked to choose their favourite species, to draw it and to learn about its life, including its migration, food and habitat requirements. I don’t need to tell you that this student chose the Great Crested Grebe!

You can keep up to date about the latest engagement with schools on a new dedicated Education page.


Poachers Waste No Time After 1st China International Birding Festival

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.

2015-10-01 Nets at Laotieshan
Volunteers from the Dalian Lushun Wild Bird Protection Association, Laotieshan Nature Reserve staff and Forestry Police taking down illegal nets at Laotieshan on Thursday.
2015-10-01 dead woodcock, laotieshan
The removal of the illegal nets came too late for this Woodcock.
2015-10-01 releasing brown hawk owl, Laotieshan
However, this NORTHERN BOOBOOK was lucky. After untangling this beautiful bird from the net, the volunteers released it unharmed.
2015-10-01 releasing brown hawk owl, laotieshan2
Stressed but unharmed. Hopefully this NORTHERN BOOBOOK will have an uneventful migration to south-east Asia.

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.

The 1st China International Birding Festival: A Major Success

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.

The formal opening ceremony of the 1st China International Birding Festival. A grand affair!
However, some were briefly distracted from the speeches when an ORIENTAL HONEY BUZZARD drifted overhead..
map of birding locations
The map of the birding locations for the 24-hour “bird race”. The birding sites are marked in red, A to E. The accommodation and event sites marked in green, F to H.

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.

The “Ibisbill” team (from left to right): Zhao Tianhao, our forestry minder, TT, Marie Louise and Cheng Xi)

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.

IMG_5875 2
Zhao Tianhao suffered from an allergic reaction to the local scrub and took an emergency soaking to calm the itchiness!

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.

The “Ibisbills” team receiving the 3rd place award.
The China Wild Tour team receiving their award for 1st place.
The China Wild Tour team receiving their award for 1st place.

In addition, I was humbled and honoured to receive the judges’ “Birding Master” award…

It was a big surprise, and a huge honour, to be presented with the
It was a big surprise, and a huge honour, to be presented with the “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.

Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics: Reply From IOC

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?