Red-throated x Black-throated Thrush

In Beijing in winter we are blessed with good numbers of East Asian thrushes…  In my experience NAUMANN’S (Turdus naumanni) is the most common, followed by RED-THROATED (Turdus ruficollis) and DUSKY (Turdus eunomus) with BLACK-THROATED (Turdus atrogularis) being the most scarce.  It is not uncommon to encounter intergrades, and birds exhibiting features of both NAUMANN’S and DUSKY are frequently encountered (see images at the end of this post).  It is much less common to find birds showing features of both Red-throated and Black-throated.  However, that is exactly what I found on Sunday at Lingshan.

An apparent adult RED-THROATED x BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, Lingshan, 1 March 2015
An apparent adult RED-THROATED x BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, Lingshan, 1 March 2015.  Note the presence of both black and reddish feathers on the throat/upper breast.

 

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to capture many (any!) good quality photographs but the two I did manage (above) show the unusually-marked throat and upper breast.  A ‘pure’ Red-throated should show reddish orange marks only on the throat and breast with no black.  And Black-throated should show only black or grey markings here, lacking any reddish tones.  This bird clearly shows a mixture, with black dominating the lower part of the throat-patch and red dominating the upper part and the neck surrounds.  I have never seen a bird like this before but it seems reasonable to assume that this is an intergrade between RED-THROATED and BLACK-THROATED.  Although Red x Black-throated Thrushes are rare in Beijing, they are fairly frequent in Central Asia – see here for some information from Kazakhstan.

Vagrant East Asian thrushes, especially first year birds, still cause some identification problems in Europe (e.g. the 2013 Dusky Thrush at Margate in the UK and the recent putative Red-throated Thrush in Finland).  This is because we don’t know for sure the variability of ‘pure’ birds, complicated by the fact that we know they interbreed.  If we are to improve our knowledge, studies must be made on the breeding grounds, away from areas of potential interbreeding, so that we can better understand natural variation of pure species and pin down the tell-tale signs of intergradation. Although birders in Beijing and East Asia have a lot of experience of these thrushes, because we see these birds on the wintering grounds, in some cases we cannot be certain whether or not we are looking at pure birds or intergrades.. This means we are not best-placed to provide anything other than opinions about what we *think* are signs of intergradation based on seeing hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of these beautiful thrushes.

That said, I think we can all agree that the Lingshan bird is an intergrade.  And what a cracker it was!

Just for interest, here are a couple of apparent DUSKY x NAUMANN’S THRUSHES from Beijing.

2013-12-11 Dusky x Naumann's Thrush intergrade, Peking University
Superficially this bird resembles DUSKY THRUSH but look at those red markings on the breast and flanks… a good indicator of NAUMANN’S influence. Peking University, December 2013

 

2010-11-30 Dusky-Naumann's intergrade
Another bird showing characters of both DUSKY and NAUMANN’S with many reddish marks on the breast and flanks. Botanical Gardens, November 2011.

 

Birds Korea – Status of Birds 2014

When I arrived in Beijing I soon discovered a small, but amazingly passionate and dedicated, group of people working to conserve birds and their habitats in East Asia.  The wonderful people at Birds Korea, an independent NGO headed by Nial Moores, is one such example.

In China, at least, much original habitat remains and the volume of birds I see on migration still eclipses anything I ever saw in Europe.  However, the conservation challenges in this part of the world are substantial.   With rapid economic growth, large populations, a lack of credible environmental legislation and enforcement, and relatively low environmental awareness among the general public, it is tough to ensure that policymakers give the environment the consideration it deserves.  And even when lawmakers and governments do show a willingness to take into account environmental concerns, there is often a lack of credible data to make an evidence-based case to protect endangered species and their habitats.

That is why the Birds Korea Status of Birds 2014 is such an important publication.  It not only documents the status of the “regularly occurring” species but examines the trends based on habitats and makes concrete recommendations to strengthen conservation of birds in Korea.  It’s an impressive report and will not only serve to inform the Korean government but will also act as the standard-bearer for conservation organisations in the region.  Robust data, interpreted intelligently with practical recommendations for policymakers, is essential to coherent and sustainable economic planning.  And until we have a more complete global measure of wealth (rather than the outdated and not fit for purpose measure of GDP) that requires governments to take into account natural wealth in their national accounts and economic decision-making, it will be up to NGOs and volunteers to provide this information.

Well done Birds Korea!

To gain a sense of the report the key messages are listed below, and you can download the full report here.

Key Messages:

  • By the end of April 2014, 535 bird species had been adequately documented in the ROK
  • 365 of these species are considered “regularly occurring”, either historically or in the present century
  • 87% of regularly occurring and all irregularly occurring species are migratory
  • Two of the 365 species are Globally Critically Endangered (with one of these presumed Globally Extinct), seven are Globally Endangered, and 19 are Globally Vulnerable
  • Five regularly occurring species were lost to the regular avifauna between 1910 and 1999
  • At least 103 species have declined substantially during the present century
  • Half of all regularly occurring species still have an unknown trend
  • On present knowledge, 126 species are identified as “Highest” and “High” Conservation Priorities
  • Some progress has been made in recent decades, especially in reforestation, afforestation and the reduction of hunting
  • However, habitat loss and degradation is the main driver of decline for many of the species in decline, including birds of Grassland-type and Open Habitat and most especially waterbirds
  • Three-quarters of the nation’s tidal-flats have been reclaimed and most natural freshwater wetlands have been degraded or lost
  • A third of all waterbird species are in decline, and more than a third still have an unknown trend (and might be declining)
  • Improved research in and especially conservation of Freshwater and Intertidal Wetland remains the most urgent priority
  • An improvement in knowledge by itself will not be enough: policies and laws need strengthening

Yinggeling

“Life-changing”, “Eye-opening”, “Amazing” and “Inspirational” were some of the words used (or, rather, their Chinese equivalents!) by students and teachers to describe their trip to Yinggeling.

As trailed in the previous post, last week I spent 7 days at Yinggeling Nature Reserve, nestled in the mountains of central Hainan, a tropical island off the south coast of China, with 14 students and two teachers from Beijing’s 94th Middle School .  The trip was organised by Luo Peng of Eco Action, a new Chinese company dedicated to raising awareness of sustainability and environmental issues in China, in particular with young people.

The aims were twofold: first, to introduce the students to a forest ecosystem so that they could understand the benefits provided by a forest and the importance of a sustainable relationship between nature and people; and second, to provide income to the village to support an agreement not to hunt wild animals or plant more rubber trees (their main source of income) and to help pay some of the villagers to act as “rangers” (to patrol the forests, remove illegal traps and snares and, if possible, apprehend any poachers).

I was invited to lead the birdwatching activities and, in partnership with officials from the Kadoorie Farm and nature reserve staff from the Yinggeling National Nature Reserve, we put together an itinerary that included conducting a biodiversity survey, birdwatching, night safaris to observe fish and amphibians, learning about local practices, including harvesting honey and basket-weaving, and helping the villagers to plant their rice crop.

The trip started with a flight to Haikou, a city on the northern coast of Hainan.  After a short birding session around Haikou on the first day, where we met with staff from Kadoorie Farm, the local Mangrove Nature Reserve (and some visiting Beijing birders!), we met the students at the airport and set off for the 3-4 hours drive to Yinggeling Nature Reserve.  Here we spent two nights learning about Yinggeling, its wildlife, hiking, birding and even playing football!

Introducing some of the younger members of th group to birding near Haikou
Introducing some of the younger members of the group to birding near Haikou before travelling to Yinggeling
introductions at yinggeling
Introductions and initial briefing at Yinggeling
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An impromptu game of football (in walking boots!) between the students and reserve staff was a good pre-lunch workout at our base in Yinggeling.

After familiarising ourselves with the local area, including a beautiful hike to a stunning waterfall, we prepared for what was to be the highlight of the trip – three days and two nights at Daoyin, a remote village deep inside the nature reserve.

yinggeling reservoir with students
The students take a breather during the hike to the waterfall in Yinggeling Nature Reserve
yinggeling stream
The hike took us through some beautiful forest and alongside a narrow stream..
yinggeling litter picking
The students collected 6 bags of litter over the day!

Daoyin, with a population of 90 ethnic Li people, has no roads to link it with the outside world, no phone signal, no hot water (a revitalising dip in the river is the nearest thing to a shower) and, of course, no WiFi (hard for those of us addicted to smart phones!).  It was only recently that the fitting of solar panels provided limited electricity (for lighting) for the first time.

Getting to Daoyin required a 3.5 hour drive from our base at the nature reserve, mostly along rough dirt tracks, followed by a stunning, but demanding, 5-6 hour hike along the river, crossing the river three times… it was a real adventure and wonderful to see the students pushing themselves and helping each other to reach the village.

preparing for hike into daoyin
Preparing for the hike to Daoyin
river crossing
Students making one of the river crossings on the way to Daoyin
tree
A spectacular old tree on the way to Daoyin

On arrival we were met by the local villagers, including Mr Fu Guohua, the current village leader, and Mr Fu Jinhai, the former leader (the villagers have a system whereby the leadership is rotated).  Although the villagers lived a very basic life with mud-huts and chickens and pigs wandering around, we were struck by just how happy everyone looked…  the children were having a ball exploring the forest, climbing trees and playing badminton.. as the villagers busied themselves with their daily tasks – fishing, preparing food, washing clothes and building or repairing houses.  Surrounded by bird, insect and frog song, with none of the noise and stresses of the city, life seemed idyllic.

local children
Local children
village scene
One of the new houses in Daoyin. On the orders of the government, any new buildings must have metal roofs as traditional grass roofs are considered a fire hazard.
typical village house
A more traditional house, made from mud and bamboo, with a roof of dried leaves.

At this point, feeling adventurous and slightly proud of myself for making it to this remote place, I asked Mr Fu if I was the first British person to visit the village…  He thought for a moment and then said “no!”  A scientist – an expert from Kadoorie Farm – had visited several years previously.  My slight disappointment soon melted away when he told me that this British scientist was well-remembered for having given the then leader a gift of a wind-up head torch, something the leader cherished…  and now almost everyone in the village owned one.  I felt proud to be British and offered the leader my own gift – a Swiss Army Knife – which he looked at with some confusion before I showed him what it could do!

The villagers were fantastic hosts.  Over the two full days that we spent in the village they helped us to arrange a host of activities for the students, including early morning bird walks, a survey of the “fish sanctuary”, an area where fishing is prohibited to ensure fish stocks remain healthy, the release back into the wild of a Hainan Partridge that had been found in an illegal trap several weeks before, a hike to collect footage from some of the camera traps that have been placed inside the forest (the rare and endemic Hainan Peacock Pheasant has been caught on film!), harvesting honey from the village hives, making baskets and cups from bamboo and helping the villagers to plant their rice crop.

harvesting honey
Harvesting honey from one of the villages’ hives

 

tasting bee grubs
Eating the grubs from the beehive was not to everyone’s taste!

 

releasing Hainan Partridge
Local children released a Hainan Partridge back into the wild after it had recovered from being injured in an illegal trap (see more on the video at the end of this post!)

On the second day a group of villagers returned from a 3-day expedition into the mountains to look for poachers and traps…  After great work by Kadoorie and the local nature reserve staff, these villagers had agreed to become “rangers”, paid to sacrifice hunting and, instead, help to protect the forest’s wildlife.  They told us that, with the rubber price very low this year and the forthcoming Chinese New Year (a traditional time to eat exotic food), some of the people in other local villages had been tempted to try to make money through hunting and selling of wild animals..  The head of the nature reserve told me that demand for exotic meat was such that a hunter could receive as much as Yuan 1,000 (GBP 100) for 1.5 kilos of wild animal meat..  With prices like that, it’s no wonder that some people are tempted to break the law…  and it’s an indicator of just how important it is to tackle demand..

rangers drinking tea
The rangers enjoying a well-earned cup of tea after three days patrolling the forest.

The rangers had found an injured Yellow-bellied Weasel in an illegal trap and, the day we returned to the nature reserve HQ, they found an endemic Hainan Flying Squirrel that had been shot.  Hunting is clearly still an issue but the villagers say that it is much reduced, largely thanks to the hard work and of the nature reserve officials and Kadoorie Farm, together with the positive engagement of the local villagers.

yellow-bellied weasel caught in illegal trap
This Yellow-bellied Weasel was caught in an illegal trap. After recuperating, it will be released back into the wild in the area where it was found.

On our second and last night, the local villagers not only provided us with a tasty meal of fish, vegetables and rice, but also put on an impromptu talent contest…  one of the villagers was famed for his ability to “play” the leaf…  and we were treated to renditions of some traditional Li songs before the nature reserve staff and village leaders together sang the “Yinggeling Song” (the soundtrack to the video at the end of this post).

After enjoying our time in the village, all too quickly we had to leave, and after hiking a different route back to the road, over the mountains instead of along the river, we met our 4wd vehicles and headed back to the nature reserve HQ.

farewell toast
As we left the village, I just had time for a farewell toast with village leader, Mr Fu Guohua, using the bamboo cups he had made for me as a gift..
saying goodbyes
Farewells at Daoyin

Back at HQ, the students were divided into teams and were invited to make a presentation about what they had learned, their ideas about how to protect the forest and the livelihoods of the local people, and how their experience would affect them.

students wrap up
One of the student groups explaining what they had learned and their ideas for the future
receiving certificates
All 14 students received a certificate from the head of the Yinggeling nature reserve

After receiving their certificates for volunteering in Daoyin we made our way back to Haikou where we enjoyed a delicious meal at the local seafood market before resting ahead of our early morning flight back to Beijing.

student group photo at yinggeling
The group photo at the reserve HQ just before departure to Haikou
haikou seafood market 1
The seafood market in Haokou was a visual treat!
haikou seafood market 2
Some strange-looking fish were on sale in Haikou market
coconut drink
Enjoying a coconut was a great way to end the trip for most of the students

I felt privileged to be part of such a rewarding and meaningful trip.  The students clearly gained a lot and it was easy to see that several were truly inspired by their experience.  The head teacher told us that, when they had spoken about the village of Daoyin in the classroom, the students did not believe that such places existed…  …and yet, here they were at the end of the trip, devising lots of positive ideas about how to support the villagers and to protect the forest.  It was great to see.  And, of course, it wasn’t just the students who benefitted.  For each guest, a payment was made to the local village that will help to ensure they do not need to hunt wild animals to sustain a living and also providing the resources to make some improvements to the village…

My heartfelt thanks go to Luo Peng , of EcoAction, for devising the initiative, to Mr Fu Guohua and Fu Jinhai and all the villagers at Daoyin who made us feel so welcome, to the Yinggeling Nature Reserve staff, especially Mi Hongxu and Liao Gaofeng, and to the officials at Kadoorie Farm, in particular Li Fei, who accompanied us throughout.  Finally, a big thank you to the students and teachers from Beijing’s 94th Middle School for engaging so positively and for making the trip so much fun.

EcoAction hopes to plan similar trips to Daoyin in the future, not only for schools but, potentially, for small parties of tourists, ideally families.  If you are interested in a truly authentic Chinese experience that will benefit the local community as well as providing you with an unforgettable encounter, feel free to contact me..

I’ll finish the post with a short video that captures some of the activities during the trip.. all to the backdrop of the “Yinggeling Song”, as sung by the nature reserve staff and local villagers..!

PS I almost forgot the birds!  In total, we saw 105 species, including 2 of the 3 endemic species, Hainan Leaf Warbler and Hainan Partridge.  A full species list is available here.

A Hainan Adventure

For more than a year Birding Beijing has been a proud partner of EcoAction, a new and innovative Chinese organisation focused on education for the environment, sustainable development and ecotourism.  In November I helped to introduce birding to a group of middle school students at the Botanical Gardens in Beijing.  On Friday I will travel to Hainan, an island off the south coast of China, to help lead my first field trip outside the capital.  We will be taking 16 students to Yinggeling (鹦哥岭) Nature Reserve in the remote and mountainous centre of Hainan.

The reserve covers a large area – 33km from north to south and 39km from east to west – crossing the boundaries of  Baisha, Wuzhishan and Qiongzhong Counties, and with an elevation range of 200-1812m.  It is apparently the largest remaining contiguous tract of primary rainforest in China.

Yinggeling is a treasure trove of biological diversity and recent scientific expeditions have discovered many new species, including more than a dozen new trees and the Yinggeling Tree Frog (first described in 2003).  Scientists believe that there are still many discoveries to be made in this relatively unspoiled part of China.

We are privileged to have been invited into the heart of the nature reserve (no wifi or mobile phone signal and not even electricity or running water!), where we will be hosted by staff from the conservation organisation, Kadoorie Farm, and local minority people.  The aim is to demonstrate to the students the beauty and value of a forest ecosystem and the intricate dependencies, from the smallest leaf-ant to the mammals and birds of prey at the top of the food chain.  Activities will include exploring the forest looking for, and studying plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and, of course birds, as well as learning about the local Li minority’s culture and how they have lived in harmony with the environment for generations.

It’s going to be an adventure…  and with three Chinese endemics possible – Hainan Peacock-pheasant, Hainan Partridge and Hainan Leaf Warbler – as well as a host of amazing wildlife, I can’t wait!

Here are a couple of photos of the reserve to whet the appetite…

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Rosefinches

The Rosefinches were one of the highlights of our recent trip to northern Inner Mongolia.  Long-tailed Rosefinch (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀) is a scarce but regular visitor to Beijing in winter.  I have seen it three times in the capital – once at Yeyahu and twice at Lingshan.  Usually we only see the brown, streaky immatures or females, so it was very cool to see some stunning adult males in Wuerqihan.  On the journey from Hailar airport to Wuerqihan we counted more than 25 of these stunning finches.

2014-12-22 Long-tailed Rosefinch male4, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

 

And it wasn’t only Long-tailed that we saw in Wuerqihan.  There were also some of the sought after Pallas’s Rosefinches (Carpodacus roseus, 北朱雀).  Pallas’s Rosefinch is a difficult bird to see anywhere and we were fortunate to see several small flocks of these beautiful birds around Wuerqihan.


2014-12-22 Pallas's Rosefinch ad male4, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

2014-12-22 Pallas's Rosefinch male, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

Our guide, Mr Zhang, regularly puts out seed to attract birds and, as well as these stunning rosefinches, the food attracted Northern Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, 红腹灰雀), including some of the grey-bellied race, cineracea, Common and Arctic Redpolls (Carduelis flammea, 白腰朱顶雀, and Carduelis hornemanni, 极北朱顶雀), Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius, 松鸦) and even a Siberian Weasel.  That’s a quality line up for any bird table!

2014-12-23 Eurasian Bullfinch male2, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia
Northern Bullfinch (male)
2014-12-23 Eurasian Bullfinch (grey-bellied)2, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia
Northern Bullfinch (of the cineracea – grey-bellied – subspecies)
2014-12-20 Arctic Redpoll, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia
Arctic Redpoll
Siberian Weasel
Siberian Weasel

 

 

Hawk Owl

Introducing the last of the “most-wanted 3″ owls we saw in Inner Mongolia this Christmas. This is the unmistakeable HAWK OWL, a bird that blew me away when I first saw it in Sweden in the 1990s. It often sits, sentinel-like, on the top of a tree from where it monitors the surrounding activity with razor-sharp vision and incredibly sensitive hearing. Such a different character to the more deliberate and almost “royal” Great Grey Owl….

Wishing everyone a very happy, healthy and bird-filled 2015!

For interest, here are some pictures of the superb habitat in which we found two of these special owls.

2014-12-22 Hawk Owl habitat2, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

2014-12-22 Hawk Owl habitat, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

2014-12-22 Hawk Owl habitat3, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

Great Grey Owl

To me, seeing a GREAT GREY OWL (Strix nebulosa) ranks as one of the most magical sights of the bird world. With its human-like face and haunting stare, any encounter with the “Phantom of the North” in a snow-blanketed spruce forest makes for an eerie experience. In China, this magnificent owl can be found in the forests of the northern Provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia and it was a much-wanted bird during our recent visit to Wuerqihan and XiQi. Fortunately, after a long search, we finally caught up with this silent assassin. We enjoyed a spectacular encounter with this bird, watching as it surveyed the immediate area with slow, deliberate turns of its head. Typically it was not unduly bothered by our presence and, with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX I was able to take this video which captures the spirit of this most majestic of owls.