Out of Africa! The Beijing Swift’s Incredible Journey Charted At Last

“Woohoo!” was the shout when the first geolocator-carrying Swift was caught early this morning at The Summer Palace.

After a wait of 12 months, we were finally going to find out, for the first time, where Beijing’s swifts spent the winter.  In the end we re-captured 13 of the 31 birds fitted with geolocators last spring and, after downloading and processing the data (all worked perfectly – big kudos to Migrate Technology in England), we discovered that these magnificent birds travel an incredible 26,000km per year on migration to spend the winter in southern Africa.  It’s astonishing to think that, over the lifetime of the average Beijing Swift, the distance travelled on migration is equivalent to half way from Earth to the Moon!

The map below shows a typical track of a Beijing Swift, based on preliminary analysis of the data from the 13 birds re-trapped today.  A fuller analysis will be made in due course with a scientific paper planned for later this year.

A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.
A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.

 

These iconic birds – synonymous with Beijing since 1417 when they made their nests in the original city gatehouses – arrive in Beijing in April and, after breeding, begin their long journey to Africa in late July, taking a route that first leads them west-northwest into Mongolia, from where they pass north of the Tianshan mountains, then south through Iran and central Arabia into tropical Africa, before spending 3 months of the winter in Namibia and the Western Cape.  They begin the return journey in February, retracing a similar route, arriving in Beijing in mid-April, a journey that sees them cross about 20 borders.  Wow!

Again, I was hugely impressed with the professionalism of the China Birdwatching Society and its army of volunteers.  Not only did they get up incredibly early to set up the nets at 0230 but, together with visiting swift ringer Lyndon Kearsley and Dick Newell, they captured, processed and released more than 80 birds in 2 hours, including downloading data from 13 birds with geolocators and fitting a further 25 geolocators to ‘new’ birds.  Impressive stuff.  And it was great to see Liu Yang, one of China’s top ornithological professors, making the trip from Guangdong to participate in the catch.

I had the privilege of releasing a geolocator-tagged bird and Zhang Weimin took this photo.  A special moment for me.  I wish it well on its journey to southwest Africa..

Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.
Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.
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Swift expert, Lyndon Kearsley, releasing a Swift this morning at The Summer Palace.

You can read the full story in the press release.

Big thanks to Professor Zhou, Ms Fu Jianping and Wu Lan from the China Birdwatching Society for their incredible hard work in making this project possible.  And big kudos to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley for their vision and expertise.  I’d also like to thank Lyndon’s wife, Hilde and “JJ” for their help and good company during these past few days..

Tracking The Summer Palace’s Swifts

This weekend I was involved in a very cool project to track the ‘pekinensis‘ Common Swifts at the Summer Palace.  It all began with a conversation with Dick Newell, over a beer, in London in December.  And on Saturday we fitted 31 geolocators to swifts at the Summer Palace in Beijing.  We know almost nothing about the migration route or the wintering grounds of these magical birds that have a special significance to Beijing’s residents. Provided we can re-trap some next year, we’ll find out where they go…  Exciting stuff!  And the great thing is that this is a brilliant collaboration between Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, the Beijing Birdwatching Society, the Summer Palace, the University of Lund in Sweden and many volunteers, young and old.  You can read the full story on Birding Frontiers.

A 'pekinensis' COMMON SWIFT with a backpack, Summer Palace, Beijing, 24 May 2014
A ‘pekinensis’ COMMON SWIFT with a backpack, Summer Palace, Beijing, 24 May 2014

Parklife

It’s been a strange winter so far.. not so cold and no snow to speak of.  It’s been the same up north in Liaoning Province.  No Waxwings at all (contrasting strongly with last winter’s invasion of both Bohemian and Japanese Waxwings), very few Rosefinches (Long-tailed or Pallas’s) and a few so-called summer visitors have been lingering in the capital.

This week I have made short visits to both the Olympic Forest Park and the Summer Palace to see what was around.

The Summer Palace, Beijing.. not so crowded on a cold February day.

I was surprised to see several Pallas’s Warblers, double figures of Red-flanked Bluetails, three Red-crested Pochard and singles of Black-faced Bunting and Ferruginous Duck (the duck were together on a tiny patch of open water at the summer palace).  All of these birds should really be further south in the middle of winter but all seemed in good shape.

Red-flanked Bluetail, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing. This bird was feeding on berries.
Red-flanked Bluetail, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing
Pallas's Warbler, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing
Ferruginous Duck, Summer Palace, Beijing
This Fudge Duck is on a small patch of open water and, consequently, gives exceptionally good views.
Red-crested Pochard, Summer Palace, Beijing

 

Some of Beijing's bird photographers taking advantage of the excellent photo-opportunities presented by the Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochards and Smew at the Summer Palace.
This Black-faced Bunting was eking out a living among the reeds at the Olympic Forest Park.

This Common Kingfisher looked much healthier than the last one I saw at Wild Duck Lake (which expired as we were watching it in late November).

Common Kingfisher exploiting one of the few ice-free areas at the Olympic Forest Park.

Several Smew were accompanying the Ferruginous Duck and the Red-crested Pochard, adding a reassuring feel to the winter.  I managed this image of one in flight.

A 'redhead' Smew, Summer Palace, Beijing

Another looker..

Now I know many people in the UK have had their fill of Red-flanked Bluetails in the last few months, with the unprecedented influx last autumn. But I bet none of them looked like this…!

Red-flanked Bluetail - smart, eh?

RFBs are beginning to arrive in the Beijing area now and the adult males are absolute stunners. Forgive me for posting a few more images….

STOP PRESS: Jesper Hornskov just sent me a SMS to say he has just seen a GREAT BUSTARD flying over the Summer Palace.. A great record. Spring is here.. let the big migration commence…

A newly arrived RFB
Note the white brow (which the Himalayan form lacks)

Going Japanese

After a tip-off from Jesper about some Japanese Waxwings in the Summer Palace, I spent a couple of hours there on Saturday afternoon.  Eventually, after dodging the crowds to get to the north-west corner of the park, I discovered a mixed flock of Waxwings in a quiet corner.  Unusually, Japanese outnumbered Bohemian by about 4 to 1.  They were very loyal to a couple of ‘leylandii’-type trees, to which they frequently flew down to feed before flying up to some tall poplars to preen, rest and eat a little of the snow that had fallen overnight.

Despite the very overcast conditions, I was able to capture a few pleasing images.

Japanese Waxwings, Summer Palace, Beijing, 26 February 2011. Note the pale belly, bright pink tip to the tail and fiery-orange undertail coverts.
The black on the back of the crest can be seen well on the bottom left bird.

Japanese Waxwing take-off


Japanese Waxwing: close up of the wing and tail patterns