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.

A Right Old Bird…

Mongolian Gull "AC82", Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, March 2013.  Photograph by Bai Qingquan.
Mongolian Gull (Larus mongolicus) with wing-tag “AC82” (top), Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, March 2013. A “right old bird” at almost 24 years old…  Photograph by Bai Qingquan.

Not long after I arrived in China, I visited Liaoning Province to see my good friend, Dalian-based Tom Beeke.  He very kindly showed me some of his local birding sites, including what must be the best gull-watching site in north-eastern China, Jinzhou Bay.  Attracted by the nearby landfill site, thousands of gulls congregate in the area to spend the winter.  Most are Mongolian Gulls but there is always a good selection with Vega Gull, Heuglin’s Gull, Common Gull, Black-tailed Gull, Black-headed Gull and occasionally something rarer like a Glaucous Gull, Slaty-backed Gull or, as I was lucky enough to see on my first visit, a Pallas’s Gull.

Before I visited, friend and co-author of the excellent Birding Mongolia blog, Andreas Buchheim, asked me to look out for wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls and, sure enough, among the large flocks of Mongolian Gull loafing on the ice in the bay, I was able to pick out several wing-tagged birds.  These birds had been tagged by Andreas at various sites in Mongolia and Russia and showed that these birds, as expected, moved to the east coast of Asia in winter.

This site was so good that I went back in winter 2011/12 with Beijing-based Paul Holt, during which time we found several more wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls.

I haven’t been able to visit Jinzhou Bay this winter but another good friend, and fellow birder, Bai Qingquan from Dandong, visited there on 23 and 24 March.  Qingquan estimated that there were around 6,000 gulls of 7 different species on site.  Excitingly, he found two wing-tagged gulls that I had seen, together with Paul Holt, in winter 2011/12.

Even more excitingly he saw “AC82”.  This bird was originally ringed as a “pullus” (nestling) on 25 June 1989 at Lake Baikal in Russia.  It was subsequently caught again as an adult bird on 20 May 2005 at Airchan Nuur, Mongolia, when the metal leg ring was replaced and a wing tag (“AC82”) attached.  Qingquan’s sighting is the first since the tag was fixed in 2005 and, with the original ringing data from Russia, proves that this bird is almost 24 years old!  (almost as old as me.. cough).  Wow.. what a record!  If anyone has any information about the longevity of large gulls, I would love to know…

Another of Qingquan’s sightings was of “AF63”.  I saw this bird at the same site in February 2011 and Paul Holt and I saw it again in January 2012, showing that at least some of these gulls are site-faithful in winter..  again, another valuable piece of data.

I simply love the information that can be gained through tagging programmes like this.  Looking for marked birds adds another dimension to birding and it’s so rewarding to hear back from the project leaders about the history of individual birds.  I urge every birder to look out for, and report, any wing-tagged, colour-ringed or any other birds marked in any way.

For more information about Andreas Buccheim’s Mongolian Gull wing-tagging programme, see here.

For information about how to report a wing-tagged or colour-ringed bird, see here for Europe and here for Asia.






Illegal Mist Nets in China

Sadly, it is still relatively common to find illegal mist nets in China.  Most appear to be erected by poor people who will likely either eat the birds caught or sell them as cagebirds, if they are popular species.  For me, it is always with a heavy heart that I try to render the nets unusable, knowing on the one hand that they are illegal under Chinese law but, at the same time, that for some people, bird trapping may form an important part of their income.

Encouragingly, the practice of trapping birds seems to be declining, with the market for cagebirds predominantly being driven by a slowly shrinking older generation, so hopefully in the not too distant future illegal mist nets will be a thing of the past in China.

Whilst at Laotieshan for several days last week we bumped into a few members of the Panjin Birdwatching Society (from northern Liaoning).  The group, led by the famous Mr Zhang Ming (a very talented photographer) was predominantly interested in bird photography and were visiting to take advantage of the raptor migration at Laotieshan.  Mr Zhang told us about the sighting of a Band-bellied Crake on a very small pool near to Dalian city..  Having never seen this species, Mr Zhang and his friends offered to take us there..  so off we went in a small convoy of 4x4s for the short journey to the site.  After stopping for a delicious lunch, during which Mr Zhang showed us some stunning images of rare and difficult to see Chinese birds, including Jankowski’s Bunting, we arrived at the site and began to look for the specific pond.  It wasn’t long before we found it but, despite observing the weedy fringes for close on 2 hours, there were no signs of any crakes and we were forced to assume that the bird had moved on.  Whilst exploring the site we came across several illegal mist nets, some of which held live birds.  It was pleasing to see the Panjin Birdwatching Society members rescue the birds, take down the nets and destroy them.  And much better that they were taken down by Chinese birders and not ‘interfering foreigners’..!

Members of the Panjin Birdwatching Society proudly displaying their society’s flag, alongside Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu, Dalian, Liaoning Province.
Mr Zhang, who must be one of China’s most talented bird photographers (and a very nice guy).
Mr Zhang junior saved this Common Kingfisher from one of the illegal mist nets
This Brown Shrike was also released from the illegal mist nets.
This Yellow-browed Warbler, although released, was very poorly and, sadly, probably didn’t make it.

‘taimyrensis’ Gulls

I have been meaning to post these images for a while.  In late January, when I was in Dalian, I made two visits to Jinzhou Bay, a fantastic winter gull site (and also a great site for White-tailed Eagles).  By far the most common gull was Mongolian (3-4,000) with Vega Gull also well represented alongside a sprinkling of Common, Black-tailed, Black-headed and Glaucous.  Among them were a few dark-mantled and yellow-legged large gulls.  These are presumed to be the ‘taimyrensis‘ subspecies of Heuglin’s Gull, considered by some to be a hybrid between Vega Gull and nominate Heuglin’s Gull.

Whatever they are, they are smart gulls.  In late January most were sporting significant head streaking, including the typical East Asian ‘shawl’ of patterning on the lower nape.  They were relatively large, on a par with Vega in terms of size with mantle shade in between nominate Heuglin’s and Vega Gull.  I estimated that there were around 30-40 of these gulls on site.  All images taken in late January.  Comments very welcome!

Presumed 'taimyrensis' gull. Note mantle shade, yellow legs and head streaking.


Note heavy head streaking.


This individual has reduced head streaking. Iris pale yellow. Note shade of mantle compared with Vega Gull behind.
Reduced streaking on head, limited to lower nape. Extensive red gonys spot but not leaking onto upper mandible.
This image shows white 'mirrors' on p10 and p9.


This individual is still moulting its primaries. Looks as if there is a 'mirror' on the new p10.

Common Gulls at Jinzhou Bay, Dalian

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Liaoning Province was the opportunity to see so many gulls at Jinzhou Bay (we estimated over 4,000).  This number must make Jinzhou Bay one of the premier gull-watching sites in northern China (if you know of a comparable site, please let me know!).  The channel of running water alongside the landfill tip was a favoured haunt of Common Gulls (Larus canus) and, over the two days I spent at this site, I saw several young birds, presumably of both the subspecies found in this area – kamtschatschensis and heinei.  Here are a few images and personal comments.  Please let me know if you disagree with my identification or if you have more to add.

The kamtschatschensis bird, in particular, would certainly stand out if it turned up in the Western Europe!

First winter Common Gull of the subspecies kamtschatschensis, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, Liaoning Province. Note the dark, well marked underparts and strongly barred undertail coverts.
First winter Common Gull subspecies heinei, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, Liaoning Province, 25 January 2012. Note the very clean, white underparts.
First winter Common Gull ssp kamtschatschensis, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, Liaoning Province, 25 January 2012. The upperparts are well-marked and the moult of juvenile feathers seems to be later than the heinei ssp below.
First winter Common Gull ssp heinei, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, Liaoning Province. Much cleaner, especially the uppertail, and more advanced moult, notably on the scapulars.

It’s difficult to tell from these images but, in the field, the kamtschatschensis bird appeared to be stockier with a slightly longer bill.

Second winter Common Gull, Zhuanghe, Liaoning Province, 28 January 2012. I suspect this individual is of the subspecies kamtschatschensis. Aged as a second winter due to the presence of some adult-type wing feathers, the small white 'mirror' on the outer primary (P10) and the relatively clean tail. Note the brownish fringes to some of the coverts, a good feature of second winter kamtschatschensis.
Second Winter Common Gull, Zhuanghe, Liaoning Province, 28 January 2012. Probably of the ssp kamtschatschensis. Same bird as above.

My North Korean Bird List

Many birders, being obsessive types, like to keep lists of the birds they have seen.  This could be a “life list” (a list of the total number of species seen in one’s life), a “year list”, the total seen in a given year etc.  Many people keep national lists, for example a UK or China list.  I have to confess that I don’t know how many species I have seen in the UK (I know it’s roughly 400) and I have been lax recently at keeping my China list up to date (somewhere between 500 and 520).  However, I can proudly say that I know exactly the number of bird species I have seen in North Korea – 7!

Under the listing ‘rules’ it matters not that I haven’t actually been to North Korea as all have been seen over N Korean airspace from the China side of the border…

I have just returned from a few days in Liaoning Province with Paul Holt, Tom Beeke and Dandong-based birder Bai Qingquan – the perfect opportunity to boost my North Korea list!  We visited some sites in Dalian, southern Liaoning, before driving north to visit the area in and around Dandong, including the Yalu River, the waterway marking the border between China and North Korea.  In stunning weather, and temperatures approaching -20 at times, we saw some pretty special birds with the constant backdrop of North Korea providing a fascinating distraction.

Birding highlights from the trip north included Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Varied Tit, Hazel Grouse, Cinereous (Black) Vulture, Alpine Accentor, Relict Gull (at Zhuanghe) and Slaty-backed Gull.  Another spectacle was the sight of 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay, near Dalian, in the company of over 4,000 gulls, attracted by a landfill tip.  Birding takes us to some glamourous places.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, Liaoning Province
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Feng Huang Shan, north-west of Dandong, Liaoning Province
Varied Tit. A common resident at Feng Huang Shan.
Eurasian Nuthatch ssp amurensis, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

I began my visit by meeting up with Paul Holt at Dalian airport and heading to Dalian and Jinzhou Bays.  Dalian Bay, on the eastern side of the peninsula, was largely ice-free and produced an adult Glaucous Gull, Vega, Mongolian and Black-tailed Gulls, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Mallard, Falcated and Chinese Spot-billed Duck.  After an hour or so we crossed to the west coast to visit Jinzhou Bay.  Here the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see and an impressive group of around 4,000 gulls was loafing on the ice.  They were attracted by the large landfill site bordering the bay and this food source is clearly the reason why Jinzhou Bay must be one of the best gull-watching sites in northern China.

The vast majority of the gulls were Mongolian, with a sprinkling of Vega (a few hundred), Heuglin’s (up to 100), Common (20-30), Slaty-backed (3-5), Glaucous (2-3), Black-headed (2) and Black-tailed (2).  Paul Holt also saw a first winter Pallas’s Gull at this site before I arrived.  Searching through the Mongolian Gulls, recalling my sighting of 3 wing-tagged birds in February 2011 at this site, we were able to find a total of 5 wing-tagged birds during our visit (2 of which Paul and I both saw, 3 of which Paul found before I arrived and one after I left).  These birds were ringed by Andreas Buchheim and colleagues under a ringing scheme operated in Mongolia and Russia’s Lake Baikal.

The gulls were not the only scavengers attracted to the tip.  Each day we were there, a group of locals sifted through the rubbish and collected anything recyclable – bottles, cardboard, paper, metal etc..  It has to be one of the dirtiest jobs – they were black with grime – but despite the working conditions, they were a jolly bunch, laughing and joking with each other and they seemed thoroughly bemused that a couple of foreigners were joining them on the tip looking at gulls….  We showed them eagles through our telescopes and they showed us sacks of scrap paper..  :)

One of the locals collecting recyclable waste
It's a dirty job...
The constant flow of trucks provided a high turnover of rubbish through which to look for recyclables..
Despite their working conditions, these people were very jolly, friendly and more than a little bemused that two foreigners were looking at gulls!

Just north of the landfill, a still unfrozen stream flowed into the bay, attracting some duck – mostly Mallard but also some Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Ruddy and Common Shelduck.  In turn, these attracted the attention of birds of prey and we counted 25 White-tailed Eagles in the bay on Sunday morning – an impressive count for anywhere in China.  The stream also proved popular with the Common Gulls and we saw both henei and kamtschatschensis subspecies here.  I’ll follow up this post with a dedicated gull post soon.

One of the 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay. The vast majority were immature birds and they caused havoc during their occasional forays over the bay.
When one eagle found something to eat, it would soon be harrassed by the others trying to steal its find.

And this Merlin flashed through, surprisingly putting up most of the gulls as it did so..

Merlin, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian.

From the landfill at Dalian, we drove north to meet with Tom Beeke at Jinshitan and set off to Dandong, a city of 2.5 million people on the North Korean border.  Here we met up with local birder (possibly the only birder in northern Liaoning!), Bai Qingquan, a great guy who was not only a talented birder but also excellent company and extremely knowledgeable about the sites in this special province.

The gang in Dandong. From left to right: Mr Zhang (our driver), Tom Beeke, Paul Holt and Bai Qingquan

We started birding along the promenade in Dandong, just a few hundred metres from North Korea which we could see clearly just across the Yalu river.  Dandong is an interesting city.  It is home to the “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge”, one of the few crossings between the two countries and, immediately next to this is another bridge – the “Short Bridge” – that was partially destroyed by a US bombing raid during the Korean War.  The town also hosts a museum dedicated to the “War to Resist US Aggression”…  We didn’t have time to visit but next time I am in town, I fancy a look in there!

We tried several sites along the river from Dandong and to the north looking for Scaly-sided Merganser.  This rare bird is regular along this stretch of river in spring and autumn, breeding a little further north and wintering in central and southern China.  This winter had been unusually mild with no snow and Bai had seen the Mergansers in December, so we thought we’d try our luck.  Unfortunately, despite 4 pairs of eyes scanning the river, we drew a blank.  Next we visited the Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, catching up with Brown-eared Bulbul, Alpine Accentor and enjoying panoramic views of North Korea.

North Korea, as viewed from the Great Wall, north of Dandong.

The next day was spent at Feng Huang Shan, a mountain roughly an hour north-west of Dandong.  It was a bitter -18 here but, after driving up almost to the summit, the birding was spectacular.  Almost immediately we encountered a Varied Tit, followed by a couple of White-backed Woodpeckers and then at least 3 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, all within a few minutes of getting out of the car…  Superb!  We wandered up and down the track and, after hearing at least two Hazel Grouse calling, a careful 30-minute stalk was  eventually rewarded with views of a male perched on a rock on a hillside..  fantastic.

Hazel Grouse, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

On the way back south, we stopped at Zhuanghe, a port town between Dandong and Dalian, to look for Relict Gulls, a large flock of which Paul found a few days before.  We saw only a handful, probably due to the high tide, but with a little time on our hands we decided to look at the deep-water harbour for sea duck.  As we arrived, a ferry was about to leave to some of the outlying islands and, with a bit of negotiation from Qingquan, we were soon on board and sailing through an almost Antarctic-esque ice-filled sea.  It was bone-chillingly cold on deck but we were rewarded with over 60 Long-tailed Duck as well as good China species such as Pelagic Cormorant, Slaty-backed Gull and Red-breasted Merganser.

From left to right: Tom Beeke, Bai Qingquan and Paul Holt. On the ferry from Zhuanghe to outlying islands.
Our first stop.
The sea was almost Antarctica-esque..!

After returning to Zhuanghe around dusk, we headed into town to find Qingquan a taxi back to Dandong and to warm up with some hot food before heading south to Dalian.  A thoroughly enjoyable trip…

So, after all that, what are the seven species on my North Korea list?  They are, in chronological order, Saunders’ Gull (from Sep 2011), White-tailed Eagle, Mongolian Gull, Kestrel, Goldeneye, Goosander and Mallard.  Anyone beat that?