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.

The 1st China International Birding Festival

The 1st China International Birding Festival will take place at the superb migration hotspot of Laotieshan, Liaoning Province on 25-27 September 2015.

The event, sponsored by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), China Birdwatching Society and the Dalian Wildlife Conservation Society, has been designed to promote birding and wildlife conservation in China.

The 3-day event will include a 24-hr ‘bird race’ and teams of up to 4 people from around the world are welcome to test their birding skills against the locals.  China birding legend, Paul Holt, will be one of the judges.

The generosity of the hosts means that accommodation will be provided but travel to and from Laotieshan is at the expense of the participants.

Readers of this website will know that Laotieshan is a special place.  You can read about it here.  The Festival has been timed to coincide with peak raptor migration and, in the right conditions, it’s possible to see more than 1,000 ORIENTAL HONEY BUZZARDS in a day, as well as many other species (we recorded more than 200 species during an autumn visit in 2013).  In the early morning passerine migration is impressive and, offshore, rafts of STREAKED SHEARWATERS will add to the mix.  I can’t wait!

More details, including an application form, can be found here.  Although the deadline on the flyer for entering teams is 8 August, this is flexible.  But hurry – it’s likely to be very popular!

More importantly, the Festival should serve as a boost to the fledgling (but growing fast) birding community in China.  Be there or be sqaure!

EDIT: As at 10 August more than 30 teams have entered! And, as the deadline for applications has been extended to 15 August, you still have time to get together that team to challenge for title!  Each team will be allocated an english-speaking member of the China Birdwatching Society to help with any logistical or language challenges over the course of the festival.  So there’s no excuse not to be there!  

Stejneger’s Stonechats

I have just returned from a few days with Paul Holt and Marie Louise at the brilliant visible migration watchpoint that is Laotieshan in Liaoning Province.  Learned lots, as we always do when we visit this superb place.  Paul is staying on for a few days and a full report will be available soon but I’ll blog about a few of my highlights over the next few days.  First up is a video compilation of a few of the 15+ STEJNEGER’S STONECHATS that frequented the point on 9 September.  Remarkably different from the stonechats with which I recently re-acquainted myself at Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk….!

Laotieshan Autumn 2012 report

Paul Holt has just finished his report from Laotieshan this autumn, covering the period 5-26 September.  For a few of those days, towards the end, he was joined by Per Alström and me, but he generously credited us a joint authors.  The full report can be downloaded here: Birding in Liaoning 5-26 Sept. 2012 (Holt, Townshend & Alstrom) but, for the busy reader, highlights included:

Five new species for Liaoning:

• 14 bird-days with up to 11 Short-tailed Shearwaters being noted on four dates between 12-19 September;

• seven bird-days for skuas/jaegers between 12-18 September – most were unidentified but a Long-tailed Jaeger was identified on the 12th as was a single Pomarine on the 18th;

• a Swinhoe’s Minivet on the 14 September;

• a Chestnut-cheeked Starling on 6 September.


High counts included:

• 3,274 bird-days for Streaked Shearwater with a count of 1,605 during the 4.5 hour sea watch off the point at Laotie Shan, Lushun on the 13 September possibly being a Chinese record;

• 4,313 bird-days of Oriental Honey-buzzard with 1,181 south on the 23 September;

• 938 bird-days of Japanese Sparrowhawk with 446 (possibly a Chinese record) south on the 6 September;

• 16,000 Black-tailed Gulls and 5,000 Mongolian Gulls west off the point on the 18 September (possibly both Chinese records);

• 20,959 bird-days of Ashy Minivet with 10,380 on the 21 September (a Chinese record);

• 270 bird-days for Black-naped Oriole with 72 on the 6th & 62 on the 9 September;

• 20,600 bird-days for Barn Swallow with 7,500 south on 14 September;

• 56 bird-days for Asian House Martin with 37 south on 6 September;

• 90 Forest Wagtails south on 11 September;

• 3,160 bird-days for White Wagtail with 1,134 on the 11 September;

• 196 bird-days for Pechora Pipit with exactly half this number, 98 birds, on the 12 September possibly being a Chinese record

Local rarities included:

• single adult Black-legged Kittiwakes on the 12th & 18 September

• one juvenile Pallas’s Gull during a seawatch on the 18 September – perhaps only the sixth record for Liaoning;

• 1 Spotted Nutcracker on the 24 September;


I suspect that, with irruption species such as Varied Tit, ‘Northern’ Great Tit, Rosefinches etc on the move this autumn, October might have been exciting, too…   but there have been no birders there to find out!

Salim Ali’s Swift?

I saw my first Pacific Swift in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 2010 just a few weeks before moving to China.  Since then I have seen many more in north-east China – it is a common migrant through Beijing in spring and autumn.  Last year,  a thorough assessment of four Pacific Swift subspecies by Paul Leader (Leader, P J. 2011. Taxonomy of the Pacific Swift Apus pacificus Latham, 1802, complex. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 131: 81-93) found that they may deserve species status.  This is an extract from an article in Birdwatch magazine by David Callahan in June 2011:

“Four subspecies of Pacific Swift are generally recognised, and the species as it is known traditionally has a wide breeding distribution throughout the eastern Palearctic. It is a long distance migrant, wintering south to Indonesia and Australasia.

Leader (2011) measured and assessed the plumage of 146 specimens of Pacific Swift from four different museums across Eurasia, as befits a species with pan-Palearctic records. The four forms were found to differ in wing and tail measurements, as well as the size and shape of their distinctive white rump patch, white throat patch, pale underpart fringes and the colour of the underwing coverts.

The new prospective species are as follows:

Pacific Swift Apus pacificus: cleaner white throat patch, a slightly longer tail fork and tail length, and the broadest rump patch by a margin; breeds from Siberia through to Japan, winters from Indonesia south and east to Tasmania (incorporating the subspecies A p pacificus and A p kurodae – other subspecies were found to be invalid).

Sàlim Ali’s Swift A salimali: five to 10 mm longer tail but with similar wing length to A pacificus, throat patch forming a thin white strip half the width of the other three forms, thinnest at the bill end, and very little white to the underpart feathers; breeds at high altitude on the east Tibetan Plateau and west Sichuan, China, but its winter range is unknown.

Blyth’s Swift A leuconyx: the smallest of the four forms, with the rump patch consistently narrow, brown-tinged crown and nape contrasting with the glossy black mantle, broad white thoat patch with black shaft streaks extending onto the upper breast, hardly any pale underpart fringing; mid- to high-altitude breeder across the Himalayan part of the Indian subcontinent into Bhutan and Nepal.

Cook’s Swift A cooki: shallowest tail fork, first primary the longest (the other three have P2 as the longest), narrow white rump patch with dark, club-shaped shaft streaking, overall black upper- and underpart-coloration (brownish tinge in the other three), broad well-defined fringes to the underpart feathers, throat patch off-white with broad black shaft streaks, black contrasting underwing coverts, and green iridescence to upperparts with some white fringed scapulars; restricted range in limestone caves in northern south-east Asia, and a short distance migrant to then south.”

During my recent trip to Jiuzhaigou, I enjoyed watching a flock of “Fork-tailed” Swifts wheeling around the mountain tops at around 3,000m altitude.  A (poor quality) image of one of them is below.

Fork-tailed Swift, Jiuzhaigou, 27 June 2012. Is this a Salim Ali’s Swift?

Compare this image with a couple of Pacific Swifts taken at Laotieshan in May 2011:

Pacific Swift, Laotieshan, Liaoning Province, May 2011
Pacific Swift, Laotieshan, Liaoning Province, May 2011.

To my eyes at least the bird from Jiuzhaigou appears longer tailed and with a narrower white patch on the rump.  I don’t have access to the article by Paul Leader so I am not sure on precise range but I think there is a good chance this is a Salim Ali’s Swift.  Comments welcome!