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.

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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.

Chinese Crested Tern

The Chinese Crested Tern has a fascinating history… first described in 1863, it was probably locally relatively common on the eastern coast of China in the early 1900s where more than 20 were ‘collected’ at a site in Shandong Province in 1937.  However, it has since suffered a massive decline, probably due to a combination of egg-collection, disturbance and the loss of coastal wetlands.  Its decline was so dramatic that it was even thought by many to be extinct, with only two records – Hebei Province in 1978 and Shandong in 1991 – between 1937 and 2000, when four adults and four young were discovered on an island in the Matsu Archipeligo off the east coast of mainland China.

Today its population is perilously low, very likely below 50 individuals and possibly as low as 10 pairs and it is known to breed at just two sites – the Matsu Archipeligo off Fujian Province and some small islands of Zhejiang Province to the north.

It is classified as “Critically Endangered”.  The fact it is here at all is in no small part due to the conservation efforts of local ornithologists supported by Birdlife International.  The Matsu colony and the surrounding islands were declared a national nature reserve in 2000 and nobody is allowed to land on eight of the islets during the breeding season.  Taiwanese patrols apparently seize the nets of fishermen caught egg-collecting, the deterrent effect of which appears to have much reduced this activity.  Talks and exhibitions in local schools and communities have also helped to increase awareness of the special bird they have on their doorstep.

For the moment, at least, it is relatively easy to see Chinese Crested Terns during the summer at a high-tide roosting/resting site on the Minjiang Estuary in Fujian Province.  Even so, it still requires a short boat trip to reach the island from which these birds can be viewed, so the site remains relatively undisturbed. That said, as with many places along China’s coast, the threat of ‘development’ is looming large and, even though this site is officially a nature reserve, a large channel has just been dug through the middle to divert water to a proposed fish farm.  Thankfully, this site is not a breeding site and there are almost certainly alternative sites nearby to which the birds could relocate to rest if the current site becomes unattractive.  Whether they will be accessible or not is a question.

I visited Minjiang with local birder and friend, Tong Menxiu, who I first met in September 2010 at Rudong when I went to see the Spoon-billed Sandpipers.  Menxiu is from Fujian so knows the area, and its birds, intimately.  After a short boat ride out to the island at high tide we scanned through the mixed flock of terns.  Most were Greater Crested with superb large yellow bills and dark mantles.  Menxiu soon picked out the first Chinese Crested and a scan of the rest of the flock produced at least 4.

Local transport at the Minjiang Estuary
Tong Menxiu (foreground) scans for Chinese Crested Terns as his friend (a former illegal hunter turned birder!) practises his photography skills.
The sandbanks at the Minjiang Estuary at high tide.  The terns congregate on the distant sandbar

After enjoying good, albeit distant, views of the terns, we walked along the island to look for Swinhoe’s (White-faced) Plovers.  They will be the subject of my next post.

As the water began to drop, we walked back towards the sandbar and, given the lower water levels, we were able to make a closer approach, at all times being very careful not to flush the terns.

It didn’t take long before we were enjoying spectacular views and I was extremely fortunate when two Chinese Crested Terns took off from the group and dropped down on the shore just a few metres away…   allowing me to capture a few images.

Chinese Crested Tern, Minjiang Estuary. What a stunner.
Chinese Crested Tern in flight.  Note the very pale plumage and the contrasting dark tips to the outer primaries.
Chinese Crested Tern in flight.

Sitting on the sand watching these terns was a real privilege and I enjoyed every moment.  The Greater Crested Terns also put on a show.

Greater Crested Tern. Note the all yellow bill and darker upperparts.
Greater Crested Tern preening. They have an almost comical appearance with their crests…
Greater Crested Tern in flight.
Greater Crested Tern.
Greater Crested Tern with fish. Some were still courting with presumably males bringing offerings of fish to their partners.

With overcast conditions, the light was pretty good for photography.  Menxiu even managed to take a photo of a Chinese Crested Tern with me in the background (thankfully he focused on the tern – much better looking!).

Me and the Chinese Crested Tern…  Photo by Tong Menxiu.

At one point, a pair flew in and began to display.. the male strutting around the presumed female and occasionally calling.  I noticed the slightly darker mantle of one of the birds and, on looking at the photographs later, the bill appears a slightly different shape (the upper mandible appears more curved, like a Greater Crested) and colour.  We speculated that this could be a hybrid of some sort… possibly a second generation?  Or maybe it’s just natural variation.  With the population size so small, I am not sure we will ever know..

Chinese Crested Tern and possible hybrid. Note the darker mantle, more curved upper mandible and more yellowish bill.

After about 3 hours on site and enjoying the spectacle of these birds until they gradually drifted off as the tide fell, we headed back to the boat.  I was elated and privileged to have spent so much time with these incredibly rare and endangered birds.  We counted a minimum of 5 Chinese Crested Terns, a significant proportion of the known global population.  The Minjiang Estuary is a fantastic site and I hope, that with the ongoing efforts to try to save this species, it will be a place where one can see Chinese Crested Tern for many years to come..

Huge thanks to Tong Menxiu for making the arrangements and his excellent company during the visit..