Jankowski’s Bunting Survey In Mongolia Draws A Blank

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).

2015-05-30 Mongolia survey team
The survey team (from left to right): Baatargal Otgonbayar “Oggy” (driver, spotter, photographer and all round good guy), Yann Muzika (The Wilderness Alternative), Yu Yat-tung (Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, Huiga (driver and excellent chef!), Vivian Fu (Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, Wu Lan (China Birdwatching Society), Terry and Dr Tseveenmydag Natsagdorj from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.

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.

Mongolian Grasslands at sunset2
Sunset at our camp… image taken with an iPhone and unaltered.
tents at sunset on Mongolian grassland
Here we woke to singing Siberian Rubythroats, Asian Short-toed Larks and Pallas’s Buntings.
Happy Vivian
Vivian wanted to live in this place forever…

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.

2015-06-04 Oriental Plover with chick, Mongolia
Oriental Plover with chick by the roadside.

At one of our camping sites, given the recent publicity surrounding the calamitous decline of the Yellow-breasted Bunting, it was poignant to wake up to the song of this beautiful but now endangered bird.

The Moon
Views of the moon, planets and stars were superb in the crystal clear air. We enjoyed ‘scoping the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Venus.  This photo taken with iPhone through the Swarovski ATX95 telescope (with adaptor).

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.

The Birding Baroness

After accompanying the Conservative Minister, Rt Hon Ken Clarke MP, on a birding trip during his visit to Beijing last winter, it seemed only right to balance Birding Beijing’s political affiliation!  And so, on Sunday, I took visiting (Labour) Baroness Bryony Worthington on a trip to Yeyahu Nature Reserve as part of her visit to China.

Bryony is Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change and, if the elections go Labour’s way in May 2015, she could be part of the ministerial team in charge of the UK’s energy and climate change policies.

Among her many talents, Bryony is an expert in emissions trading and the main purpose of her visit was to engage with officials from the seven pilot emissions trading schemes in China to help develop advice to the Chinese government about the design of their national emissions trading scheme, due to be implemented sometime before 2020 and a key pillar of China’s climate change policy.

Her busy programme involved meetings in Beijing and Shanghai and, with just one ‘free’ day on Sunday and knowing I was a keen birder, she asked if I would take her birding… Of course, I was only too happy to say yes!  The obvious choice of location was Yeyahu Nature Reserve – one of my favourite Beijing birding sites and, in Spring, host to a diverse range of China’s birds.  In the company of friend and colleague Wu Qian and her husband, Calvin, we set off at 0600 from central Beijing and arrived at a sunny, warm and clear Yeyahu just before 0800.

Baroness Worthington 'scoping a pair of Chinese Spot-billed Duck
Baroness Worthington ‘scoping a pair of Chinese Spot-billed Duck

To add a bit of extra fun to the day we had a sweepstake on the number of species we would see..  Guesses ranged from a conservative 40 (Wu Qian) to an over-optimistic 65 (Terry) with Bryony guessing 49 and Calvin 60.

On a beautiful spring morning we started off well with several Chinese Penduline Tits, Pallas’s Reed Buntings and displaying Eastern Marsh Harriers.  A booming Bittern and a flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbills provided more entertainment as we made our way around the reserve….  After the 3,000 (!) visitors present the last time I was there (during Qing Ming Festival), the reserve seemed strangely quiet for a sunday but that was no bad thing!

We made our way to the new watchtower and, as the day warmed up, we enjoyed more raptors including 2 Greater Spotted Eagles, a single Short-toed Eagle, Eastern Buzzard, Goshawk and several Black Kites before we tucked into our picnic..

Enjoying a picnic in the watchtower at Yeyahu NR.
Enjoying a picnic in the watchtower at Yeyahu NR. From left to right: Wu Qian, Calvin and the Baroness.

Bryony was impressed with the reserve and the number of birds it was possible to see in the capital.

By the time we made it back to the car, it was time to count up the species seen.  The final total was 54 so, rather embarrassingly for me, the Baroness as a first-time China birder, won the sweepstake..!

On Tuesday morning I accompanied the Baroness to a meeting with Lu Hao, Chairman of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee in the National Peoples Congress..  This is the committee responsible for drafting and passing China’s environmental legislation. It’s a busy time for the committee, with much environmental legislation under development.  See here for analysis of the strengthening of China’s Environment Protection Law just last week.  Included in their legislative programme for this year is a review of the protected species list.. The current list is more than 20 years old and woefully out of date.  For example, it doesn’t include Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Jankowski’s Bunting or Baer’s Pochard, species that are in desperate trouble and at risk of extinction.

I took the opportunity to brief Lu Hao on the work being carried out by BirdLife, the Beijing Birdwatching Society and local groups to try to save Jankowski’s Bunting and presented him with the BirdLife special edition newsletter.  He confirmed that Jankowski’s Bunting would be added to the revised list and invited me to submit views on which other species should be on the list.

Baroness Worthington presents Lu Hao, Chairman of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee with a copy of the BirdLife International special edition newsletter about Jankowski's Bunting.
Baroness Worthington presents Lu Hao, Chairman of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee with a copy of the BirdLife International special edition newsletter about Jankowski’s Bunting.

Extra legal protection by itself will not save Jankowski’s Bunting from extinction.  However, it’s an important step and, as China works to strengthen enforcement of its environmental legislation (the amendments last week to China’s environmental law made huge progress in that regard), ensuring that the legal protection of China’s birds is as strong and unambiguous as possible will help to create the foundation for a stronger conservation movement in China.

Many thanks to Baroness Worthington for her support for the Jankowski’s Bunting campaign and also to Chairman Lu Hao for his work to strengthen China’s environmental laws and their enforcement.  He is a very important man!

 

 

 

National Peoples Congress pledges to protect Jankowski’s Bunting!

Great news!  The Environment Protection and Resources Conservation (EPRC) Committee of the National Peoples Congress (the lawmaking body in China) has pledged to protect Jankowski’s Bunting under a new law it is developing on biodiversity.

Last week I co-organised a conference in Beijing involving 35 countries to share experiences on climate change laws, at which the National Peoples Congress gave an update on the progress with China’s national climate change legislation.  In the margins I met with the key staff of the EPRC and discussed their current work programme which, in addition to the climate law, includes a new law on biodiversity.  The staff had heard about my campaign to help save Jankowski’s Bunting from extinction and wanted to find out more…  Of course, I was only too happy to oblige and after showing them pictures and video, playing sound recordings of the bird and explaining about the perilous status of the population and my recent visit to Inner Mongolia and Jilin to survey the bird, they were enthused about helping… After about an hour of conversation, they pledged to ensure that Jankowski’s Bunting was given special protection under the new law and even went so far as to say that they should set a target to double the population…

Details are still to be worked out, and it’s likely to be some time before the law is complete and approved, but extra legal protection for this bird will certainly help to ensure the local authorities prioritise the conservation of this species and will hopefully help them to secure the necessary resources from central government to implement conservation measures.

I took the opportunity to brief the Committee staff on two other birds in desperate trouble – Baer’s Pochard and Streaked Reed Warbler – and I will follow up with another meeting soon to explain more about the plight of these birds.

Watch this space!

Birding Beijing in the Chinese media

This week Birding Beijing has been published in two major Chinese media outlets – The China Daily and The Global Times.

In the second of an excellent new 8-part video series about Wild Beijing, Terry gives an interview on the importance of, and threats to, Beijing’s wetlands.

And an article in The Global Times describes how the fate of Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia and Jilin Provinces will be a good test of China’s attitude towards the extinction challenge.

Look out for more soon!

Jankowski’s Bunting – an update

Jankowski's Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii), Inner Mongolia, 19 May 2013
Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii), Inner Mongolia, 19 May 2013

This week I spent five days in Inner Mongolia and Jilin Province helping the team led by Beijing Birdwatching Society to survey known, and potential new, sites for Jankowski’s Bunting.  The aim was to try to establish a better understanding of the existing population, to identify threats to its habitat and to study its behaviour.  The survey is still ongoing as I write – and I will report the full results as soon as they are available – but the good news is that, so far, two new sites – holding at least 12 birds – have been found and, in addition, more than 30 individuals have been found at a single established site.  However, to temper this positive news, it is also clear that almost all of the sites are under threat… predominantly from encroaching agriculture and/or over-grazing.

As well as searching for new sites (of which I suspect there are several more, albeit small and fragmented), there is an urgent need to establish protection for the remaining areas of habitat by erecting fencing and engaging with local farmers and landowners.

==

Here’s the story..

On Saturday morning I met up with Mrs Fu Jianping from the Beijing Birdwatching Society for the short flight from Beijing to Wulanhaote in Inner Mongolia.  Here we met up with Zhu Bing Run, a student from Harbin University in Heilongjiang Province, and the three of us proceeded to our first destination – Tumuji National Nature Reserve.  Tumuji is a known site for Jankowski’s Bunting and many visiting birders will probably have seen the bunting at this site.  We were given a very warm welcome by the Reserve Director, Mr Han and his staff.   After a convivial lunch we drove straight to the “core area”, an area of fenced off grassland with scattered Siberian Apricot bushes – just a few hundred metres square – surrounded by well-grazed land (supporting at least 6 pairs of Great Bustards).

The fenced off area at Tumuji NNR.
The fenced off area at Tumuji NNR.

It was very windy on our first afternoon and, in a survey of the area we found only a Daurian Partridge, three Japanese Quails, a few Stonechats and several Richard’s Pipits.  We would try again the next day and, sure enough, despite it still being fairly windy, we discovered two singing males and a female here – my first ever sighting of Jankowski’s Bunting!

The team: Fu Jianping and Zhu Bing Run at a windy Tumuji NNR.
The team: Fu Jianping and Zhu Bing Run at a windy Tumuji NNR.

We proceeded to check other areas of the reserve, in particular areas with similar habitat.  However, despite searching thoroughly, we failed to see any more Jankowski’s Buntings at Tumuji.  We did, however, come across this “chicken snake” which has a talent for doing a remarkable impression of a cobra!

The so-called "Chicken Snake"..  apparently venomous.
The so-called “Chicken Snake”.. apparently venomous.  Eek..
2013-05-19 Mrs Fu photographing plants
Mrs Fu photograping plants during the Jankowski’s Bunting survey at Tumuji NNR.

After two nights and two days at Tumuji we moved on to an area called Xi Er Gen.  Here, the enlightened local landowner, Mr Wang Tie Jun, with the support of the nearby Xi Er Gen Nature Reserve, has fenced off an impressively large area of grassland specifically for the bunting.  It’s proving to be a very successful initiative; the first visit by the survey team, just a few weeks ago, found more than 30 birds at this site.  We didn’t survey the whole area during this visit but, just by walking the road through the area, we counted at least 5 males.  It was interesting that, at this site, Jankowski’s Bunting was seen alongside Meadow Bunting – the only site where we saw both species together.

2013-05-20 fenced off J Bunting habitat at XiErGen
The fenced off area at Xi Er Gen. A great example of local landowners and nature reserve staff working together to protect an endangered species.

After breakfast with the Xi Er Gen Nature Reserve staff we moved on again to explore potential new sites around Wulanhaote.  We stopped whenever we saw suitable habitat.  Most of these interludes produced a blank but, during one fruitless stop, through my telescope I could see an area on the horizon that looked as if it had potential…  and there appeared to be a track winding its way towards the area..  We made our way there and, sure enough, almost as soon as we stopped the car, we heard and saw a male Jankowski’s Bunting.  Result!  This sighting buoyed us considerably and we prepared to survey the area.  Almost immediately we saw another male… then another..  wow, this was clearly a very good area..  And as we moved over the brow of the hill, it was clear that there were more areas of similar habitat.  In the stunning late afternoon light we surveyed three of these ‘patches’ of habitat and found at least 6 singing males.  There were several more ‘patches’ of habitat close by that could easily hold more birds and the whole area warrants a more thorough survey.  The still conditions enabled me to make a recording of the Jankowski’s Bunting song using my Canon EOS 7D..

There were two obvious threats to the habitat at this new site.  The first was encroaching agriculture.  The grassland was not fenced off or protected in any way and it was clear that local farmers were gradually ploughing up more and more of this grassland to provide a greater area for their crops.

The second was the presence of Eurasian Cuckoos.  We saw several cuckoos in this area perched on Siberian Apricot bushes and clearly watching the Jankowski’s Buntings.  One was even seen to drop to the base of a Siberian Apricot bush for a few minutes before reappearing looking distinctly guilty..   Apparently cuckoos like Jankowski’s Buntings as hosts and our guide – Mr Zhao Zhun – told us a story about finding a Jankowski’s Bunting nest with two birds inside – a young cuckoo and a young Jankowski’s Bunting – face to face.  He returned a day later with his camera but there was just a young cuckoo with the remains of a young Jankowski’s Bunting.  Clearly, this is a natural occurrence and, of course, ordinarily with a strong population the losses would not be significant, but with such a small and declining population, predation by cuckoos is a worrying threat.

2013-05-21 new site with encroaching agriculture
One of the new sites discovered near Wulanhaote with encroaching agriculture in the background.
2013-05-21 surveying new site
Surveying the new site near Wulanhaote.
2013-05-21 Jankowski's Bunting portrait
Singing male Jankowski’s Bunting at the newly discovered site.  We counted at least 6 males here.

We left the site at sunset for the drive back to Wulanhaote.  We were elated at finding a new breeding site and celebrated with a few bottles of the local beer over dinner.  Unfortunately I had to return to Beijing the following morning and, after saying my goodbyes at the airport and wishing the team well for the remainder of the survey, I caught my return flight back to Beijing.  During the journey, I reflected on my trip.  What an experience.  And a real privilege to be part of the team to discover a new site for this bird on the brink.  However, the elation was tempered by the knowledge that almost all of the sites we visited were under threat in some way from the expansion of intensive agriculture.  Fencing appears to be a very effective way to protect the remaining habitat. A priority – in addition to further survey work to identify new sites – must be to engage with local landowners and farmers to try to build support for more fenced off areas.  Without this, I fear that almost all of the sites will disappear within a few years and the result will be the loss of this beautiful and unique bird.

I wanted to put on record my thanks to Mrs Fu from Beijing Birdwatching Society and Zhu Bing Run from Harbin University for their company and expertise during the survey and to Mr Zhao Zhun for his local knowledge about existing and potential new sites for Jankowski’s Bunting.  I would like to thank all the reserve staff at Tumuji and Xi Er Gen for their generous hospitality and assistance during our visits to their reserves.

I would also like to thank the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, in particular Vivian Fu, BirdLife International, the Oriental Bird Club and everyone else who has been working to conserve this species.

Finally, I wanted to thank everyone who has donated to the Jankowski’s Bunting JustGiving appeal.  Although I – quite rightly – paid my own costs to participate in the survey, some of the money raised during the appeal went towards supporting the participation of the Chinese team in this survey.  Without that support, this survey would not have been possible.

There is clearly a long way to go to secure the future survival of this species, and I await the full survey report and the resulting discussion about how to proceed, but I am optimistic that, with greater awareness and further financial support (please donate more if you can!), much can be done to slow and halt the decline in this species to ensure that future generations can enjoy this bird in its natural habitat in a special part of China.  If we can achieve that, what a legacy it will be for everyone involved.

Sir David Attenborough joins the campaign to save Jankowski’s Bunting!

2013-01-15 DA with JB
Sir David Attenborough supporting the campaign to save JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING.

If I was asked to name just one person who had been the biggest inspiration to me over my lifetime, I would have no hesitation.  Sir David Attenborough.  Vivid in my memory from a child to the present day are series such as Life on Earth, Living Planet, Life in the Freezer, The Life of Birds and, more recently, The Blue Planet and Planet Earth.  The significant percentage of my DVD collection that is made up of natural history documentaries narrated by Sir David is testament to the influence he has had on me.  In my view he is simply the greatest broadcaster and communicator of conservation that has ever lived.

As well as teaching me an immense amount about the natural world and nurturing my sense of wonder and awe at the incredible diversity and complexity of life on our planet, Sir David has also imprinted on my DNA the importance of conservation.  The message he delivered at the end of State of the Planet in 2000 has stayed with me:

“The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there’s a change in our societies and our economics and in our politics. I’ve been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy, inhabitable by all species.”

So, as you can imagine, it was with huge excitement that I learned Sir David was to visit Beijing as part of a trip to China to film a new series on the origins of vertebrates.  At the age of 86, he maintains an enthusiasm and passion for the natural world that is impossible not to admire.  His visit was a golden opportunity to discuss the plight of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING and, of course, he was only too happy to lend his weight to the campaign.  Sir David is already a Species Champion for the Araripe Manakin under the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme, so he knows how vital it is to protect our biodiversity and also, importantly, what is needed to save a species from extinction.

Thank you, Sir David.

You too can support the campaign to save Jankowski’s Bunting by donating here.  We have so far raised over GBP 1,200 towards a target of GBP 10,000.  We are confident that, with modest resources, this bird can be saved.  How cool would it be to think that you were one of only a handful of people in the world that helped save a species from extinction?   

2013: Let’s Make It A Good One!

2012 was my second full year living in China’s capital.  Thanks to Libby, my understanding wife, I have been fortunate enough to make regular visits to some of the capital’s most productive birding sites and to see some stunning birds.  It is a joy to spend time in the outdoors observing familiar, and some not so familiar, species whilst at the same time adding a little to the knowledge, and status, of Beijing’s avifauna.  Through the growing network of Beijing-based birders, both Chinese and ex-pats, and my expanding contacts among Chinese birdwatchers, many of whom I now consider good friends, I have learned a great deal over the last 12 months.

The end of the year is traditionally a time to take stock and look forward to the opportunities ahead.  As in most parts of the world, it would be easy to feel depressed about the state of wild birds in China.  Jankowski’s Bunting is in desperate trouble.  The prospects are also grim for Baer’s Pochard.  More well-known is the Chinese Crested Tern, which is in a precarious situation but hanging on, and of course Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  In total there are 9 species classified as “Critically Endangered” in China.  And, although only officially classified as “Vulnerable”, there is another species that I am very concerned about, a species whose song has never been recorded.  Hands up if you have seen a Streaked Reed Warbler anywhere in the world in the last few years.  The status of these species, almost certainly all moving in the wrong direction primarily due to habitat destruction, together with the ongoing battle against illegal poaching and bird-trapping, make it easy to paint a grim picture.

However, as we welcome 2013 and despite the growing pressures faced by the natural world, I am more optimistic about the future of China’s birds.  Why?  Who had expected the inspirational efforts by birders, volunteers and local authorities to take down over 2km of illegal mist nets and, later, save the poisoned Oriental Storks at Beidagang? Or the brave journalist, Li Feng, who secretly recorded and exposed the illegal shooting of migratory birds in Hunan Province?  These events and many others like them, publicised through social media, sparked a huge response from ordinary Chinese people, demonstrating that there is a deep and widespread concern for the welfare of wild birds in China.  This, in turn, has resulted in a new government initiative to strengthen the enforcement of laws relating to illegal poaching.  On 29th November, shortly after the crackdown was announced, it was reported that in October and November the local authorities in Guangdong had seized 51,622 wild animals and 9,497 bird nets, following investigations spanning 584 markets and 1,320 restaurants.  According to the report, 102 people have been sentenced as a result of the crackdown.

As one Chinese friend told me, the events in Hunan and at Beidagang could mark a turning point in the future of wild birds in China.

So, as we enter a new year with optimism and a renewed belief that, collectively, we can make a difference, it is an appropriate time to say a big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to comment and contribute through this blog, via the associated Birding Beijing Facebook page, the Twitter feed or directly to me via email.  Birding Beijing would be a shadow of itself, and less fun to write, without all of you joining in!

And I am sure that I speak for all readers as I pay tribute to the hundreds of volunteers across China who have bravely taken a stand to protect their wild birds.  I wish them every success in 2013 as they seek to consign to history wild bird persecution.

Me with the Tianjin crew.  From left to right:
Me with the Tianjin heroes. From left to right: Mo Xunqiang (Nemo), Wang Weihao, Wu Jianyu (Emily), me, Meng Xiangxi, Zhang Yue, Ma Yufang.

I wish everyone a happy, healthy and bird-filled 2013.