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.

Neck-collared Whooper Swan

Building knowledge about the movements of migratory birds is vital if we are to put in place effective conservation measures.  Traditionally, in an attempt to understand better migration, birds have been trapped by ornithologists using mist nets and ‘ringed’ or ‘banded’ with small light-weight metal rings.  This means that if they are re-trapped by another ornithologist in another location, re-trapped the following year in the same or a different place, or found dead by a member of the public, information can be gained about the migration routes, wintering and breeding grounds and the importance of specific stopover sites.  The recovery rate varies but roughly one in a thousand small birds are recovered in this way.  In recent years a number of new methods have been used (e.g. wing tags, combinations of coloured leg rings on shorebirds or neck collars on swans and geese), all designed to allow birders in the field to identify individual birds and thus increase the likelihood of a given bird being ‘tracked’.

Looking for colour rings, wing tags or collars adds a new dimension to birding and it is rewarding to see a marked bird, note the colour and letter/number combination, report it to the relevant authority – see here for East Asia and here for Europe – and then receive the “life history” of the bird you saw.

On 15 November at Wild Duck Lake I encountered a Whooper Swan with a neck collar amongst a flock of over 30 swans.  The flock consisted of mostly Whoopers but with a few Mutes mixed in (Mute Swans are rare in Beijing and these were my first in the capital).  The flock was distant but, with my telescope, I was able to read the number/letter combination on the collar.  It was dark blue with white letters/numbers reading “1T86″.  I contacted the ringer directly by email and, a few weeks later, I received the following information about this bird:

“1T86″ was captured and marked on 14 July 2012 at Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake (N48° 9’20.98″,   E99°40’16.39″), Arkhangai Province, Mongolia. We did not check its sex, but the weight was 9.95 kg at the time of capture.

I put these coordinates into Google Earth and created the map below showing the distance and direction this bird has travelled.  Wild Duck Lake was only a stopover site – the swans had moved on when I visited again in December – so I can only guess where this individual is now – very likely somewhere further south where at least some water bodies remain unfrozen.

The journey of Whooper Swan "1T86" between 12 July 2012 and 15 November 2012.  A distance of just over 1,500km.
The journey of Whooper Swan “1T86″ between 14 July 2012 and 15 November 2012. A distance of just over 1,500km.

Data like this helps ornithologists to understand migratory movements and is invaluable in informing conservation planning.  So reporting birds like this makes a genuine difference to our collective knowledge of birds and directly supports those trying to conserve our birds.  For me, as a mere birder, it also reinforces a sense of wonder at the journeys our birds undertake each spring and autumn and is a reminder that Wild Duck Lake is a vital stopover site for many migratory birds.