One of Birding Beijing’s priorities is to provide helpful information about the birds of China’s capital for beginners and experienced birders alike. It’s a delight, therefore, to announce that there are two new downloadable PDF guides available on this website.
The first – A Guide To Beijing’s Common Birds – is designed to help the beginner to identify some of the most frequently seen birds. With photos and brief explanatory text – including English, scientific and Chinese names – it’s a handy guide to download onto a smartphone or to have printed on your desk!
The second – A Guide To Beijing’s Most Sought-after Birds – is designed to help visiting birders to connect with the “Top 10” special birds that can be found in China’s capital. From range-restricted species such as the Grey-sided Thrush to the spectacular Przewalski’s Redstart, this guide should help to increase the chances of encountering these birds during a visit to Beijing.
Of course, bird distributions are not static and so these guides are works in progress, based on best-available information at this time. If you spot any errors or omissions or have any information that will improve these guides, please contact me using the Contact form or through the Comments facility.
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”– Aldous Huxley
So-called “propaganda posters” have been an important part of Chinese culture since the Mao Zedong era. These often colourful and striking artworks were designed to sway public opinion in favour of its policies (a bit like News International does for right wing governments in the West today.. cough). The posters have become collectible and several of my China-based friends spend large amounts of their spare time visiting flea markets to add to their collection. It was one of these friends who introduced me to these posters and I soon became interested in how the environment was depicted. Perhaps surprisingly to some, as far back as the 1950s posters promoted messages about the benefits of planting trees and “greening” the countryside. The header image is from the early 1970s with the message “Start a new upsurge of the people’s duty of tree planting movement”.
However, there is one poster that jumped out at me.
This poster is from 1959 and was part of a series to support Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign to eradicate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. How this policy played out is an important lesson about the unintended consequences of altering the natural balance of ecosystems. It won’t surprise many to hear that the campaign backfired spectacularly and it’s a lesson that ALL governments would do well to heed.
Mao Zedong initiated the “Four Pests” campaign in 1958 after concluding that several blights should be exterminated – namely mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. According to environmental activist Dai Qing, “Mao knew nothing about animals. He didn’t want to discuss his plan or listen to experts. He just decided that the ‘four pests’ should be killed.”
Mao was particularly annoyed by the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus, 树麻雀) part of the diet of which was grain. Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow consumed 4.5kg of grain each year — and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people. Armed with these statistics, Mao launched the Great Sparrow Campaign to address the problem. Millions of people were mobilised and the excitement was captured in this report from a Shanghai newspaper:
“On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries. In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight. The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui distrct and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows. In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labour force was mobilised into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. In the parks, cemeteries and hot houses where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques for shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.”
The effectiveness of the campaign was such that the Tree Sparrow population was decimated. And without the sparrows to curb the insect population, crops were being devastated in a way far worse than if birds had been spared. At least partly as a result, agricultural yields that year were disastrously low.
The campaign against the sparrows was finally terminated in late 1959 when the Academy of Sciences leaders highlighted the findings of scientists such as Zhu Xi and Zheng Zuoxin. Zhu and Zheng had autopsied the digestive systems of sparrows and found that three-quarters of the contents were harmful insects and only one-quarter was human food. This showed that sparrows were beneficial for humans.
On this advice from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mao declared a complete halt to the Great Sparrow Campaign, replacing sparrows with “bed bugs” in the “Four Pests” campaign. Suddenly sparrows were not just protected but the domestic population was supplemented by imports of sparrows from Russia! Eventually, after several years of poor crop yields, the situation began to improve. The number of people who starved in the 1958-1961 famine is disputed – and it’s impossible to say how much of the disaster was caused by the extermination of sparrows – but there can be no doubt that this episode is a stark lesson about the unintended consequences of human interference into natural ecosystems. I hope it’s one lesson in history that is not forgotten by the current generation of leaders, not just in China but around the world.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks. After the incredibly successful project to track the migration route of Beijing’s Swifts, and the unprecedented media coverage including articles in the UK’s Guardian and Xinhua (one of China’s largest media agencies), there was barely time to catch up on sleep before I boarded a plane to Ulaanbaatar to participate in a survey of remote southeastern Mongolia to look for Jankowski’s Bunting (栗斑腹鹀, Emberiza jankowskii).
The status of Jankowski’s Bunting is precarious. It is clinging on at just a handful of sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and Jilin Province. However, the sighting of a single bird in southeastern Mongolia in September 2013 raised hopes that there could be a previously undiscovered population in this remote and under-birded part of the country and a plan was devised to put together a team to survey this area in early June. Hopes were high. The area was close to the known sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and would likely contain areas of similar habitat – grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot bushes – preferred by Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia.
The team, consisting of representatives of the China Birdwatching Society, the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences plus Yann Muzika (of Sillem’s Mountain Finch rediscovery fame) and myself arrived in Ulaanbaatar full of optimism.
With the invaluable help of Nyambayar Batbayar, Director of the Wildlife Science And Conservation Center of Mongolia, we had planned a circular route first taking us southeast from Ulaanbaatar to some remote protected areas in the south close to the Chinese border, from where we would head east and then north to another section of the Chinese border, rarely visited by anyone let alone birders. We were to camp wild and drive more than 2,500 kilometres in search of our target bird.
The journey was an adventure that took us through some stunning Mongolian landscapes with the grassland varying in character every day and the spectacular light at sunset and sunrise creating dynamic landscapes that changed in form every few seconds.
And the birds were brilliant… We recorded 180 species including some spectacular encounters with breeding Oriental Plovers and Saker Falcons, displaying Great Bustards and Pied Harriers, singing Yellow-breasted Buntings and Chinese Bush Warblers and a gezillion larks – Mongolian Larks were omnipresent with Greater Short-toed, Asian Short-toed and Horned Larks also in plentiful supply.
Sadly, despite our best efforts, we drew a blank with Jankowski’s Bunting and, even taking into account the impact of a destructive fire that ripped through the area in April, we found very few suitable sites, all of which were small and fragmented. Due to a current fire in the far southeast, we were unable to reach potentially the best habitat and it is just possible that some Jankowski’s Buntings may exist here.
Despite our disappointment at not finding Jankowski’s Bunting in Mongolia, negative results are just as important and positive results and the existing known sites in Inner Mongolia now take on even greater importance. If Jankowski’s Bunting is to survive we must re-double our efforts to protect these birds by continuing our engagement with the local government, farmers and communities. That work begins now.
Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Yu Yat-tung, Yann Muzika and Wu Lan for their great company on the adventure and a special thanks to our Mongolian hosts, Nyambayar, Dr Tseveen, Oggy and Huiga, all of whom put in an enormous amount of work to make our survey possible.
“Woohoo!” was the shout when the first geolocator-carrying Swift was caught early this morning at The Summer Palace.
After a wait of 12 months, we were finally going to find out, for the first time, where Beijing’s swifts spent the winter. In the end we re-captured 13 of the 31 birds fitted with geolocators last spring and, after downloading and processing the data (all worked perfectly – big kudos to Migrate Technology in England), we discovered that these magnificent birds travel an incredible 26,000km per year on migration to spend the winter in southern Africa. It’s astonishing to think that, over the lifetime of the average Beijing Swift, the distance travelled on migration is equivalent to half way from Earth to the Moon!
The map below shows a typical track of a Beijing Swift, based on preliminary analysis of the data from the 13 birds re-trapped today. A fuller analysis will be made in due course with a scientific paper planned for later this year.
These iconic birds – synonymous with Beijing since 1417 when they made their nests in the original city gatehouses – arrive in Beijing in April and, after breeding, begin their long journey to Africa in late July, taking a route that first leads them west-northwest into Mongolia, from where they pass north of the Tianshan mountains, then south through Iran and central Arabia into tropical Africa, before spending 3 months of the winter in Namibia and the Western Cape. They begin the return journey in February, retracing a similar route, arriving in Beijing in mid-April, a journey that sees them cross about 20 borders. Wow!
Again, I was hugely impressed with the professionalism of the China Birdwatching Society and its army of volunteers. Not only did they get up incredibly early to set up the nets at 0230 but, together with visiting swift ringer Lyndon Kearsley and Dick Newell, they captured, processed and released more than 80 birds in 2 hours, including downloading data from 13 birds with geolocators and fitting a further 25 geolocators to ‘new’ birds. Impressive stuff. And it was great to see Liu Yang, one of China’s top ornithological professors, making the trip from Guangdong to participate in the catch.
This was the scene at around 0600 on the day of the catch. A wonderful sight and sound.
I had the privilege of releasing a geolocator-tagged bird and Zhang Weimin took this photo. A special moment for me. I wish it well on its journey to southwest Africa..
Big thanks to Professor Zhou, Ms Fu Jianping and Wu Lan from the China Birdwatching Society for their incredible hard work in making this project possible. And big kudos to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley for their vision and expertise. I’d also like to thank Lyndon’s wife, Hilde and Rob Jolliffe (“JJ”) for their help and good company during these past few days..
There is a world-class birding site, visited by very few birders, just an hour from downtown Beijing.
Its name is Miyun Reservoir.
Historically, most birders visiting Beijing have headed to the coast to visit the well-known birding spots of Beidaihe and Kuaile Dao (Happy Island). This is understandable when one considers the observations made there between 1910-1917 by British Consul John D D La Touche, by Dane Axel Hemmingsen in the 1940s and by Dr Martin Williams, among others, in the mid-1980s. These pioneers put northern China, and in particular the coastal town of Beidaihe, on the birding map.
And these locations have dominated the northern China birding scene ever since, with international tour companies visiting annually in May to offer their clients “up close and personal” experience of some of East Asia’s specialities, including the sought after ‘Sibes’ that cause so much excitement when they turn up as vagrants in western Europe or North America.
However, it is increasingly clear that the phenomenal migration along the East Asian flyway is not only concentrated on the coast. It is happening on a broad front and Beijing, China’s bustling capital, is slap bang in the middle of this birding superhighway.
Until recently, coverage of Beijing’s birds can most generously be described as ‘sparse’. Even now, with a growing young Chinese birding community, it is no more than partial. And yet, when one considers the diversity of species (more than 460 species have been recorded in the capital), together with the numbers, it is clear that Beijing is up there with the best birding sites in China. And, within Beijing, there is one location that stands out right now – Miyun Reservoir. The evidence? How about this:
– More than 50,000 Little Buntings in one morning on 26 September 2014
– More than 8,000 Horned Larks on 15 October 2014
– 7 species of goose: Bar-headed, (Taiga and Tundra) Bean, Greater and Lesser White-fronted, Greylag and Swan
– 7 species of crane recorded in the last two years: Common, Demoiselle, Hooded, Red-crowned, Sandhill, Siberian and White-naped.
– A raptor list that includes Amur Falcon, Lesser and Common Kestrels, Hobby, Saker, Peregrine, Chinese, Eurasian and Japanese Sparrowhawks, Goshawk, Booted, Golden, Greater Spotted, Eastern Imperial, Short-toed and White-tailed Eagles, Osprey, Grey-faced, ‘Eastern’, Oriental Honey and Rough-legged Buzzards, Cinereous Vulture, Black and Black-winged Kites, Eastern Marsh, Hen and Pied Harriers.
– Red-throated and Black-throated Loon, Baikal and Eurasian Teal, Baer’s and Common Pochards, Falcated, Ferruginous, Spot-billed and Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, Mallard, Pintail and Wigeon, Greater Scaup and White-winged (Stejneger’s) Scoter.
For an inland location, the shorebird list is impressive, too. Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings, Jack, Common and “Swintail” Snipe, Asian Dowitcher, Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits, Eurasian, Far Eastern and Little Curlews, Whimbrel, Common and Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Common, Curlew, Green, Marsh, Pectoral, Sharp-tailed, Terek and Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed, Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Ruff, Dunlin, Grey, Kentish, Little Ringed, Oriental and Pacific Golden Plovers, Greater Sandplover, Turnstone, Red Knot, Grey and Red-necked Phalarope and Oriental Pratincole have all been recorded.
And how about this for a bunting list: Black-faced, Chestnut, Chestnut-eared, Common Reed, Godlewski’s, Japanese Reed, Lapland, Little, Meadow, Pallas’s Reed, Pine, Rustic, Tristram’s, Yellow-breasted, Yellow-browed and Yellow-throated.
Not to mention the cuckoos, shrikes, gulls, terns, pipits, wagtails etc
It is not unusual in spring, especially in May, to record more than 100 species in a day. This year Paul Holt achieved that in March! And Jan-Erik Nilsen, a Beijing-based Swedish birder, recorded 123 species last week.
As a general birding location, it is probably THE best in the capital.
So opens a 1961 poem by British ornithologist, Beryl Patricia Hall.
Thankfully, our appreciation of pipits has matured a little since then and, in Beijing, we have 10 species on the official list: Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Meadow, Olive-backed, Pechora, Red-throated, Richard’s, Rosy, Tree and Water. Rosy and Richard’s are scarce breeders and passage migrants; Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Olive-backed, Pechora and Red-throated are all passage birds; Water Pipit is a winter visitor; and Meadow (three records) and Tree Pipit (one record, photographed in the UK Ambassador’s garden in May 2013!) are vagrants.
In mid-April the passage of pipits is in full swing and, last weekend, I encountered large flocks of Buff-bellied Pipits (ssp japonicus) at Miyun Reservoir. With a few late Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni) mixed in, it was an ideal opportunity to get to grips with this subtle and underrated species.
Here are some photos that show typical japonicusBuff-bellied Pipits in breeding plumage.
And here are a few Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni), the most likely confusion species.
Of course, another good indicator of ID is call. The calls of Water and Buff-bellied Pipits are similar but with practice can be differentiated. To my ears Buff-bellied sounds slightly down-slurred compared with Water Pipit’s slightly up-slurred call note. You can hear the calls of Buff-bellied Pipit here and Water Pipit here. What do YOU think?
The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise 9 subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.
Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).
On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, and saw ssp ocularis and ssp baicalensis on migration in spring and autumn.
In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in Beijing. And in winter 2013/2014 I saw my first “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital.
Just last week, Shi Jin found a stunning, and Beijing’s second, “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring. It is probably no coincidence that, on Sunday, young local birder Luo Qingqing found the first record of eastern alba for the capital. In fact it seems that this latter sighting is not just a first for Beijing but for all of eastern China! An incredible record.
‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003). This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.
‘Eastern’ alba has been recorded in west China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and is a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai. It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm). Sunday’s sighting is the first that we are aware of in all of east China.
Having already recorded lugens, leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis, the sightings of personata and now alba bring the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing so far this year to 6! Is there anywhere in the world that can beat that?
STOP PRESS: On Friday 3 April Shi Jin found a second, and Beijing’s third, personata along the Wenyu River. And, incredibly, on 6 April, local bird photographer Cheng Dong shot this image of Beijing’s 2nd alba White Wagtail at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake!
(1) L. Shyamal, based on; Nakamura, Kazue (1985). “Historical change of the geographical distribution of two closely related species of the genus Motacilla in the Japanese Archipelago: a preliminary note”. Bulletin of the Kanagawa prefecture Museum of Natural Science No.16.