An Unfortunate Vulture

On Saturday I visited Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, with 吴岚 (Wu Lan).  It’s a long drive – around 100km – but straightforward as it’s all along the G109.  Lingshan was the location of GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter and looking for this species was one of the aims of the visit.  Leaving well before dawn to miss the traffic, it was stunning to see the colours on the mountains change from a dark pink to a bright orange as the sun rose in the southeast..  Beijing’s mountains really are beautiful.

On the way we were fortunate to see a flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS (小太平鸟) by the roadside at Qingshui…

A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui
A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui

On arrival at Lingshan we quickly spotted a few GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) on the sea buckthorn bushes near the peak.  Stunning birds, especially in flight, there were at least 10 present in the area.

The view from the top of Lingshan looking north.
The view from the top of Lingshan looking north east.
A male GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.

As well as the redstarts, there are also good numbers of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀) and DARK-THROATED THRUSHES (mostly RED-THROATED 赤颈鸫).  

2013-12-07 Pallas's Rosefinches
PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES are superb little birds. And Lingshan is probably the best place to see them in Beijing.
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan.  This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED but not 100% sure....
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan. This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED (reddish tail) but not 100% sure…. could be some BLACK-THROATED influence.

We had only been on the mountain a short time when we saw a distressing sight – a CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) that was clearly injured..  It was hobbling uphill dragging its right wing along the ground.

Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..
Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..

The vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires of this nearby communications tower.

The communications tower at Lingshan.  This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.
The communications tower at Lingshan. This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.

Having previously visited the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre, they were the obvious people to call for advice and 张率 (Zhang Shuai), the head of the centre, said “please catch it and bring it in for treatment – if not, it will die tonight with an open wound in these temperatures.”  She ended the call with “Don’t worry – you will be able to out-run it.”

It sounded easy.  We just catch it, put it in the boot of the car and drive the 100km back to Beijing to the rescue centre.

At this point I regretted not carrying a large box in the back of the car and, with no prospect of finding one on top of a remote mountain, we decided that covering the bird with my thick down winter coat would be the best way to capture it and cover it for the journey back to Beijing.

We began the walk up the hill to where the we last saw the bird and, sure enough, we soon found it.  It was laying on its back with its legs kicking in the air.. clearly in some distress.

The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.
The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.

At this point, 吴岚 (Wu Lan) was brilliant.  She ran towards it and covered it with my coat before it had a chance to right itself and scramble away.

cinereous vulture with wu lan
吴岚 (Wu Lan) just after ‘capturing’ the vulture.

Wrapping it in my fleece and covering its head with Wu Lan’s hat, we were able to calm it and, after a couple of minutes, we lifted it (7kg as it turns out) and began to walk to the car.  It was heavy and we both took shifts in carrying it down the hill to the car.

Me carrying the vulture off the hill.
Me carrying the vulture off the hill.  At this point we were hopeful of the bird’s survival.

We wrapped it gently in my coat and placed it in the boot of the car… It was big enough to sit upright in the backseat with a seatbelt on but, with a broken wing, it was clearly best to be in a dark place to minimise the stress.  And so we began the journey back to Beijing, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.  The injury was clearly very bad, with part of the wing bone protruding and lots of blood.

It took around 2.5 hours to reach the raptor centre and, on arrival, the impressive 张率 (Zhang Shuai) was ready – she had already prepared the operating theatre – and the bird was immediately put under anaesthetic to allow a thorough inspection of the wound.

The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The wound was bad.
The wound was bad.  And the bird was injected with fluids to offset the blood loss and dehydration.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) got to work immediately and cleaned up the wound before taking an x-ray to assess the damage.

2013-12-07 Cinereous Vulture broken wing xray
The x-ray revealed the terrible extent of the injury – breaks on both wing-bones with bad splintering.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) looked at us with tears in her eyes.  We knew immediately what she was going to say.  The injuries were too bad to fix and, with a bird this size, a life in captivity would be miserable for a majestic bird that is used to ruling the skies over the mountains of northern China and Mongolia.  It was emotional for us all.  This poor bird had been doing exactly what it was meant to do – patrolling the skies over the mountains looking for food – when it had collided, badly, with an alien, and almost invisible, structure.   There was no option.  This magnificent bird had to be euthanised.

I can’t help thinking that if the support wires had been marked with flags or even painted a contrasting colour instead of the almost unnoticeable silver grey, this bird might have seen them and taken evasive action.  It seemed such an unnecessary, and desperately sad, death.

RIP.

Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre

A few weeks ago, after delivering a lecture at Beijing Birdwatching Society, I met one of the volunteers “Zhang Crane” from the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre.  She invited me to visit and, a few days later, I made the short journey across town with Jennifer Leung to take a look.

We were immediately impressed.  The facilities were very modern, the staff clearly committed and passionate about birds and the ‘patients’ in their care were looking well.

A selection of leather hoods used by the centre
A selection of leather hoods and gloves used by the centre

The Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre was set up in 2001 and, since then, it has treated 3,500 birds of 33 species.  Of those, 52% have been released back into the wild (this figure is increasing over time as treatment becomes more advanced).  Most have been picked up in the suburbs of Beijing; young birds, recently fledged, victims of illegal nets and birds found for sale in the bird markets of Beijing form the bulk of the patients.

We were shown around by Tong Guo Liang (English name Gavin Tang), one of the 4 full-time staff who, together with a host of volunteers, run the centre 365/24/7.  He told us about the case of a Eurasian Kestrel, currently in care, that was brought in with a broken wing.  After an operation to implant a pin, painstaking care and strength-building activities in an outside aviary, the staff were confident this bird would be released back into the wild..  a heartwarming case.

We were given a tour of the facilities and shown some of the other patients.  A female Amur Falcon and a Eurasian Hobby looked a bit out of place on a chilly winter day but were clearly doing well.  Others included a Long-eared Owl, Peregrine, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Japanese and Eurasian Sparrowhawks and a magnificent Golden Eagle.  Each cage had a board on the door indicating the species and the amount of food it required each day…

This sign reveals the occupant is an Amur Falcon taken into care in November 2012 and requiring 2 chicks a day.
This sign reveals the occupant is an Amur Falcon taken into care in November 2012 and requiring 2 chicks a day.

The Golden Eagle had been brought in by a Beijinger who had been travelling back by car from Inner Mongolia.  He had seen a local guy selling the eagle by the side of the road.  Heartbroken to see this magnificent raptor in such a state, he bought it, thinking that he would simply release it in a suitable area.  After a failed attempt to release it – the bird couldn’t fly – he took it to the raptor rescue centre on his return to Beijing.  Examination revealed that it had a hole in one of its wings and infected feet.   It took three attempts to heal the hole in the wing but now, after 6 months at the centre, it seems to be improving and the chances of it being released back into the wild were given as 50/50.

The Golden Eagle rescued from a roadside seller in Inner Mongolia
The Golden Eagle rescued from a roadside seller in Inner Mongolia

The centre is part-funded by IFAW – the International Fund for Animal Welfare – and is based at Beijing Normal University in the northwest of the city.  They welcome visitors, and of course, donations!