Who Wants To Be A Champion?

Did you know that one in eight of the world’s 10,000 bird species are threatened with extinction, of which more than 200 are classified as Critically Endangered, the highest category of threat of extinction?  Anyone interested in conservation will be getting used to hearing statistics like these and, although many people feel sad, even angry, that this is happening, it’s often hard to know what can be done to help.

Fortunately, there are practical things we can do right now that can make a difference.   One of them is to become a Species Champion under BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme.

BirdLife International is the world’s largest nature conservation partnership, working with local partners in more than 120 countries.  Since 2007 they have been running the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme (PEP), specifically designed to target conservation efforts where they are most needed.  The PEP creates two ‘communities’ – BirdLife Species Guardians, experts who take the lead in conserving globally threatened species in their country, and BirdLife Species Champions, individuals or organisations who raise awareness, and funding, for the vital conservation that is so urgently required.  And it works.  There are many examples of how conservation, driven by the Species Champions and Guardians, is making a difference.  But instead of listing them (you can see some examples here on the BirdLife website), I want to convey my personal experience of being a Species Champion.

Shortly after I moved to China in 2010, I realised that several species were in real trouble.  Some, such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Black-faced Spoonbill, were well-known and major conservation actions were already underway.  However, when I spoke with Chinese scientists and birders, they all told me that the species in most imminent danger of extinction was the Jankowski’s Bunting, a little-known small brown bird whose tiny remaining range was in a remote part of Inner Mongolia.

I researched the status of Jankowski’s Bunting and, the more I found out, the more I became concerned for its future.  I knew I wanted to do something.  But what could an ordinary birder like me really do?  After speaking to a few friends, I heard about BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme and I was soon having a conversation with Jim Lawrence, the Director of the programme, about what was required to become a Species Champion and what it would involve.  I was quickly convinced that this was the best way I could help Jankowski’s Bunting and, within days, I had donated a modest amount of money (less than the cost of a foreign holiday), pledged to raise a little more, and became a Species Champion.

Jim had explained to me what BirdLife could do to help Jankowski’s Bunting with the funding.  Given there was no BirdLife partner in Mainland China, work on species there was coordinated through the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (HKBWS).  I was soon in touch with BirdLife’s China Programme Manager, Vivian Fu (now a good friend and a real hero of conservation in Asia), and we discussed plans for a survey of Jankowski’s Bunting in partnership with the Beijing Birdwatching Society (BBWS).  The next thing I knew, I was walking slowly through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia alongside Vivian and volunteers from the BBWS looking for populations of this small brown bird.  The surveys reinforced the anecdotal evidence that historic populations of Jankowski’s Bunting were declining fast and, in some cases, disappearing altogether.

On my side, I wrote articles about the Jankowski’s Bunting on both Birding Beijing and Birding Frontiers, and set up a crowdfunding page on behalf of BirdLife International to receive donations from the public.

After the survey, the next step was to begin a conversation with the local government and local people to see what could be done.  At the invitation of the HKBWS and BBWS, I was soon participating in a workshop with local government officials and representatives of the local community to raise awareness of the plight of this small brown bird and to try to encourage some simple actions to try to support the remaining population.  That first meeting was hugely important in terms of simply putting Jankowski’s Bunting into the consciousness of the local government.  Subsequent meetings involved local scientists, one of whom had been studying Jankowski’s Bunting for several years.  His funding was increased, enabling him to recruit a small team dedicated to surveying and studying the bunting and they’ve been working tirelessly to survey this vast area and discover the main reasons for the bunting’s decline.  Without stealing the thunder of his work, there will be a paper published very soon with some welcome good news.  Another major highlight for me was meeting with the Chairman of the Environment Protection Committee in the National Peoples Congress in Beijing and securing a commitment to include Jankowski’s Bunting in the updated list of “Species with Special Protection” under the Wildlife Protection Act.

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.

In short, my experience as a BirdLife Species Champion has been overwhelmingly positive.  I moved from a sense of alarm and helplessness about the status of the Jankowski’s Bunting to understanding that something could be done…  I grew a sense of ownership and, with that, a responsibility to do something.  Although the heavy lifting has been done by BirdLife, the HKBWS, BBWS and local scientists, I have been been able to contribute, albeit in a small way, to practical conservation efforts, engage with the local government and local people and gain an understanding of the local dynamics and politics.

Of course, I have been fortunate to live relatively close to the range of Jankowski’s Bunting and I’ve been able to manage my time so that I can participate in the surveys and workshops.  Not everyone is so fortunate.  However, that is the beauty of being a Species Champion – you can be involved as little or as much as you want.  Becoming a Species Champion isn’t just about donating some funds with a couple of clicks and feeling good for a few days.. it’s about developing partnerships with organisations that are best-placed to help, gaining a better understanding of the factors determining the future of your chosen species and, best of all, developing a real bond with the species.  For me, being involved in the conservation efforts so far has been hugely rewarding and, with a long way to go to ensure the survival of Jankowski’s Bunting, I am looking forward to playing my part in the months and years to come.

Given the hugely positive experience of being a Species Champion, I am surprised that there are still many threatened species out there without a Champion.  Wouldn’t it be cool to be Species Champion for Nordmann’s Greenshank?  Or how about Chinese Crested Tern, a bird with which BirdLife is working hard with some recent success?  Most of us donate to, and/or raise funding for, causes important to us but how many donate AND are involved in putting that donation to work?

Chinese Crested Tern is still without a BirdLife Species Champion!

For more details of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme, please see the dedicated pages on the BirdLife website and, if you would like more information or if you’ve already made up your mind to become a Species Champion, please contact Jim Lawrence on email: Jim.Lawrence@birdlife.org or via Facebook.

Cover image: Sir David Attenborough shows his support for the Jankowski’s Bunting conservation effort.

More Good News For Yellow Sea Conservation And How You Can Help!

Protecting the Yellow Sea is the highest conservation priority in East Asia.  Coastal wetlands in China are facing massive pressure from economic development and, over the past 50 years, the country has lost more than 60 percent of its natural coastal wetlands.

As readers of this website will know from articles here, here and here, there has been a huge national and international effort to try to conserve what remains of the incredibly rich intertidal mudflats on which millions of shorebirds, including the charismatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, depend.

Earlier this year, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  I reported at the time that, although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government.  And, should these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

Just a few months later, in mid-June, came another step forward.  The Hebei Provincial Forestry Department, Hebei Luannan County Government, the Paulson Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the aim of protecting one of the most important sites along the East Asian Australasian Flyway – Nanpu coastal wetland, near Tangshan in Hebei Province.  Nanpu is a site Beijing-based birders know well.  The spectacular concentrations of shorebirds, not to mention the world-class visible migration of passerines, makes it one of the best birding sites within easy reach of the capital.

Red Knot is one of the species for which Nanpu is a vital stopover site.

Under the terms of the MoU, the four parties will work closely to conserve and manage the site, and will establish a provincial nature reserve (PNR) at Nanpu wetland within the 12 months.

Located in Luannan County of Hebei Province, Nanpu wetland consists of natural intertidal mudflats, aquaculture ponds, and salt pans. Its unique geographic location and wetland resources make Nanpu Wetland one of the most important stopover sites for migratory water birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), including rare and endangered species such as Red Knot, Great Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and Nordmann’s Greenshank.  Each year, as many as 350,000 water birds stage and refuel here.  Among the water birds at the Nanpu wetland, the population of 22 species exceeds one percent of their global population sizes or their population sizes along the EAAF, making it a wetland of international importance according to criteria determined by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation of wetlands and their resources.

Nanpu wetland is facing many threats, such as reclamation, over-fishing and invasion of spartina, a rapidly spreading grass that suffocates intertidal ecosystems.  Studies show that there has been a steady decrease in population of some migratory water birds that depend highly on Nanpu wetland for refueling. For instance, over the past decade, the population of Red Knots that overwinter in New Zealand and Australia along the EAAF has been declining at an annual rate of nine percent. IUCN claims that if no further conservation measures are taken, few Red Knots might remain ten years from now.

According to the MoU, The Paulson Institute and WWF will provide best domestic and international nature reserve construction and management practices in the process of planning, approving, building, and managing Nanpu Wetland Nature Reserve, so as to build, protect and manage it in an effective and efficient manner.

Let’s hope this initiative is the first of many and that more Provincial and local governments along the Yellow Sea coast will follow this example and work to protect the remaining intertidal mudflats in their regions.  There is no doubt that the Yellow Sea is a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and it has the potential to attract thousands of visitors each year, as well as endearing a sense of pride for local people and, indeed, the whole country.

Finally, if you would like to experience the astonishing Yellow Sea migration for yourself, contribute to the conservation effort and you’re free this November, you’re in luck! One of the most hard-working and impressive domestic organisations working to protect the Yellow Sea intertidal mudflats – local NGO, Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBS in China) – is running the second of its special birding tours to the Yellow Sea coast this autumn.  Showcasing the global importance of this coastline, the tour will focus on some of the most endangered and unique birds of the region, including Spoonie.  It will be led by some of China’s finest young conservationists and bird guides and 10 per cent of the participation fee will go directly to support local conservation NGOs in China.  Background about the first trip, this spring, can be found here.  And here’s a summary of the November trip:

Dates: November 2 to November 17 (16 days)

Sites: Shanghai, Jiangsu coast, Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces, Poyang Lake Nature Reserve, Dongzhai Nature Reserve, Yancheng Nature Reserve.

Highlights:

Yellow Sea coast: Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Red Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Saunders’s Gull, Relict Gull, Black- faced Spoonbill, Reed Parrotbill and over 200 migratory shorebirds and forest birds.

Wuyuan: Scaly-sided Merganser, Scimitar Babblers, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Dusky Fulvetta, Chinese Bamboo Partridge, and other forest birds including Pied Falconet, Red-billed Leiothrix, Red-billed Starling, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Chestnut Bulbul, Grey-headed Parrotbill etc.

Poyang Lake NR: Siberian Crane, Baer’s Pochard and Geese of all kinds

Dongzhai NR: Reeves’s Pheasant and the reintroduced Crested Ibis.

Yancheng NR: Red-crowned Crane, Japanese Reed Bunting and Baikal Teal

The tour will be led by China Coastal Waterbird Census Team surveyors who have been working as volunteers for over 10 years.

For more details on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there is a downloadable PDF and, for further questions, you can contact Li Jing, leader of SBS in China, on info@sbsinchina.com.

I wish I could join!

 

Cover photo of Spoon-billed Sandpiper by Chen Tengyi, one of the guides for the November Yellow Sea tour.

Northern Inner Mongolia in June

When South African world-lister, Derrick Wilby, invited me to accompany him to Inner Mongolia in search of some skulking grasshopper warblers, I was delighted to accept.

Wuerqihan, in the far north of the province, east of Hailar, is well-known as a special winter birding destination.  With up to 8 species of owl (Eagle, Great Grey, Little, Northern Hawk, Eurasian Pygmy, Tengmalm’s, Ural and Snowy) possible in that season, not to mention special birds such as Siberian Jay, Black-billed Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Hazel Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinch, it’s a must-visit for any China-based birders.

Black-billed Capercaillie is one of the sought-after species at Wuerqihan. Late autumn is the best time. This one from October 2015.

What’s much less well-known is that Wuerqihan is also a brilliant birding destination in summer.  On the edge of the magnificent, and vast, taiga forest, the habitat is a mixture of deciduous forest, wet meadows and damp scrub.  This was only my second visit during this season but already it’s becoming clear that it’s a reliable place to see some of China’s most-wanted species such as GRAY’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, BAND-BELLIED CRAKE and CHINESE BUSH WARBLER as well as providing a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with some breeding birds that are much sought-after vagrants back in the UK, such as PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, LANCEOLATED WARBLER, THICK-BILLED WARBLER, BROWN SHRIKE, SIBERIAN THRUSH, WHITE-THROATED NEEDLETAIL and many more.

Derrick had a list of warblers he wanted to see – Chinese Bush, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Gray’s Grasshopper and Lanceolated – as well as two owls – Great Grey and Ural – plus Japanese Quail and Band-bellied Crake.  I was reasonably confident about all except the crake, which I had heard once last year but not yet seen.

Local guide, Zhang Wu, with his trusty 4wd.

On arrival in Wuerqihan in the afternoon, we met local guide, Zhang Wu, checked into the hotel and immediately headed out east from the town along the old logging road.  We started well with good views of several singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers along the first few kms of the road, singing Japanese Quail in the meadows, watchful Brown Shrikes seemingly atop every bush and Common Rosefinches whistling from their songposts before a superb encounter with a stunning GREAT GREY OWL just a few metres from the road.  As we enjoyed more than 30 minutes with this most magnificent owl, a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler sang from deep in the forest.

As we headed back to town for dinner, a spectacular thunderstorm swept past to the west..

The morning of day two added singing Lanceolated Warbler (see header image by Nick Green), a handful of White-throated Needletails, Azure Tit, singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Thrush, Chestnut and Black-faced Buntings.

We decided to rest in the afternoon and head back out in the evening for a night drive in the hope of finding Ural Owl and, perhaps, Band-bellied Crake.  The evening shift started well when we heard the latter calling briefly at dusk from the edge of a small pool.  However, despite waiting patiently for more than 30 minutes, frustratingly there was no further sign.  We headed into the forest to look for owls and, after only a few minutes, had a sighting of an owl by the side of the track..  it was large and pale.  We turned around and approached slowly.  We could see large orange eyes staring back at us and it was obvious this was an Eagle Owl, not the hoped-for Ural.

Heading east along the main track, we drove slowly with the windows down, listening.  We stopped at several promising-looking areas, turned off the engine and waited for something to penetrate the silence.  A few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers and a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler chuntered away in the darkness.. and then a Chinese Bush Warbler sang from some scrub.  Driving further, we picked out a Band-bellied Crake and, once we had stopped, it was clear that several were singing in the wet scrub alongside the road.  One, two, three..  at least four birds competing for attention.  In the darkness, there was no chance of seeing them, so we took a note of the location and would return in the morning.

By now it was after midnight and our hopes for a Ural Owl were fading.  Zhang Wu turned off the main track onto a rutted, obviously rarely travelled track into the forest.   After around 100m, he stopped.  He had heard something.  Cutting the engine, we listened intently.  And there it was – a deep, low ‘hoot’.  Zhang Wu smiled.  It was a Ural Owl.  Our guide played the call of Ural Owl in answer to the bird. Immediately it responded and flew in to a tree right above us to check us out.

Ural Owl is a scarce resident at Wuerqihan.

We returned to the hotel at around 0130, the adrenaline still rushing after a special encounter.

A tougher than usual early start the next morning saw us at the site where we had heard Band-bellied Crake during the previous night.  Even in the early morning, the birds were not singing..  suggesting they might be predominantly nocturnal vocalisers.  We carefully walked into the marsh, trying to avoid the deep pools of water in between the grassy tufts.  We heard a short call and froze.  It was a crake.  As we stood motionless, as if to “warm up”, the short note gradually morphed into a full song..  and before long, we could see the grass ‘twitching’ as the crake made its way through the bog.

Band-bellied Crake, Wuerqihan (Derrick Wilby)
Band-bellied Crake, Wuerqihan (Derrick Wilby)

All that was left was to try to secure a decent view of Chinese Bush Warbler.  Thanks to Zhang Wu’s local knowledge, we were able to find a spot with one singing and, with patience, we were able to secure a “jigsaw” of views..  at first the bill, then the tail, then the legs…  then the supercilium..  and piecing them together we were able to get a good impression of this skulker.

We headed back to the hotel in the late morning, packed our things and set off for the airport all too quickly.  It had been a superb 3 days and, in total, we had recorded 102 species.  I can’t wait to go back…  with a bit more time, I think there could be some more special birds waiting to be discovered.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Swinhoe’s Rail is there and, who knows, maybe the enigmatic Streaked Reed Warbler is lurking in the vicinity.

You can download the full species list here.

One thing to bear in mind if visiting in summer; the insects can be a nuisance, especially the horseflies.  Most active in the heat of the day, the worst can be avoided by being out early and late in the day.  This video gives a sense of their menace!

 

Snow Leopard Watching in Qinghai

Following our successful trip in April, we’re just back from another visit to “The Valley of the Cats” on the roof of the world in Qinghai Province.  Joined by Jocko Hammar from Sweden and Hong Kong-based Chris Campion, it was our second ‘pilot’ visit as part of the project with ShanShui Conservation Centre and the local government to establish the viability of sustainable ecotourism in the area.  Again, we succeeded in observing the main target – the elusive Snow Leopard.  We enjoyed two encounters, just four hours apart, including witnessing a spectacular (failed) hunt of a baby Blue Sheep.

Staying with local yak herder families in the valley was, as always, a delightful cultural experience – their wonderful hospitality, warm family atmosphere and being able to witness the activities of the working yak herders added immensely to the trip.

Qinghai in June is stunningly beautiful..  the dry barren slopes of winter and spring are replaced by lush green meadows, anointed by a wonderful array of wild flowers.  The herds of Blue Sheep are swelled by the arrival of a new generation and, although the weather can turn from summer to winter on a whim, as evidenced by the blizzard we experienced on day two, the temperature is generally a pleasant 15-25 degrees C during the day.

Add in some special scenery and the supporting cast of wildlife, including White-lipped Deer, Musk Deer, Mountain Weasel, Tibetan Fox, Glover’s Pika, White Eared Pheasant, Monal-pheasant, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture to name just a few, the result is the experience of a lifetime.

The charismatic Glover’s Pika is common in the Valley of the Cats.

A short video giving an insight into the most recent trip, including footage of Snow Leopards, can be seen below.

After seeing Snow Leopards so well, we explored a nearby side valley and were rewarded with a thrilling encounter with a rarely seen bird – the Tibetan Bunting.  We counted at least 4 of these high altitude specialists and enjoyed a stunning performance just a few metres away as it sang to defend its territory and fed in the meadow.

We are delighted to announce that we’ll soon be able to arrange bespoke trips for small groups to this unique location.  The trips are being carefully designed in consultation with the local government, the local community and the ShanShui Conservation Centre.  Visitors will support the local community, including contributing to the special “Compensation Fund” offering local yak herders recompense when their animals are taken by predators, and the ShanShui Snow Leopard Conservation Project.  More details will be available soon.

The Beijing Cuckoo Project: Class of 2017

It’s been an eventful ten days for the Beijing Cuckoo Project Team.  After the elation of Flappy’s and Meng’s return to the breeding grounds, following monumental journeys of 32,000 and 26,000km respectively, there was little time to take a breath before beginning phase two of the Beijing Cuckoo Project.  The plan for this year was based on two aims.  First, to increase the sample of tagged cuckoos from Beijing and NE China to strengthen the dataset which would enable scientists to make more informed conclusions about the migration of cuckoos from East Asia.  And second, to build on the public engagement to reach more people in China and overseas about the wonders of bird migration.

It’s fair to say that this year has been challenging.  Over the last ten days or so the Beijing Cuckoo Team has been valiantly navigating all manner of unfortunate incidents including Chinese visa issues, the British Airways IT shutdown, a major forest fire in Inner Mongolia (where we had hoped to tag some of the larger ‘canorus‘ cuckoos) and a hospital visit for one team member, Dick Newell (thankfully, not serious)..

Dick Newell being sewn up at the local hospital in Yanqing after cutting his head on a low doorway.

Despite this, three Common Cuckoos (two females and one male) were fitted with tags at Yeyahu in Beijing.  They are all of the bakeri subspecies and all were fitted with the tiny new 2g tags from Microwave Telemetry.

The Beijing birds have been given names and are already famous..

The first, a female, was named by the students from the International School of Beijing (ISB). Three students from ISB, along with two teachers, came to Yeyahu and witnessed the setting up of the nets, the capture, tagging and release of the bird.  After a vote at school last week involving the whole year, the bird has been named 玉琳 (Yu-Lin). This means “precious jade in the forest”.

玉琳 (YuLin), a female, was the first Beijing Cuckoo to be fitted with a tag in 2017.
Students from ISB helped put up the nets ahead of the catching operation

The release of Yu-Lin was filmed by Chinese national television (CCTV) as part of a documentary on Beijing’s wildlife. The CCTV crew also managed to secure some fantastic footage of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan) calling close by..!

The documentary will be shown on national television later this year and we’ll publish a link as soon as the programme is available online.

The second cuckoo, a male, was named by staff at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve. The name given is 小松 (XiaoSong) which means “small pine tree”.

小松 (XiaoSong), a male, was named by staff at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.
Yeyahu Wetland Reserve is a wonderful setting. When here, it’s hard to believe one is in Beijing.

The third cuckoo, another female, was named by the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre after an online public vote. After thousands of votes from members of the public, the name chosen was 六月 (LiuYue) meaning “June”.

六月 (LiuYue), the third Beijing Cuckoo to be fitted with a tag in 2017.

Of course, being at Yeyahu, we were all hoping to catch a glimpse of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan), one of the Beijing Cuckoos fitted with a tag in 2016.  After his marathon journey of more than 26,000km to Mozambique and back, Meng was photographed at Yeyahu on 20 May.  And, on 31st May, as we were catching the first Beijing Cuckoos of 2017, we were treated to several close encounters, including a magnificent fly-by just metres away in front of the students and teachers from ISB.

A wonderful moment: teacher Wayne Winkelman and students from ISB watch as Meng flies by.. Photo by Allison Wise.

It was wonderful to see and hear so many Cuckoos on the reserve and Meng looked fit and healthy as he interacted aggressively with other males and chased females in all directions.

Each of the three members of the Class of 2017 has its own webpage and their journeys will be added to the map on the dedicated Beijing Cuckoo Project webpage.

What will the next 12 months bring?  One thing is for sure – they will entertain, educate, surprise and inspire us…

Huge thanks to my fellow Beijing Cuckoo Project Team members, including Chris Hewson, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan and Robert and Robin Jolliffe.   The Beijing Cuckoo Project Team is extremely grateful to all the staff at Yeyahu Nature Reserve and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, especially Shi Yang, Wu Mengwei, Aodan Zhula, Zhang Yaqiong and Wang Bojun for their fantastic support and wonderful hospitality.

2017-06-01 Chris local transport
The BTO’s Chris Hewson enjoying the local transport.

 

After 12 Months, And Almost 27,000km, The First Beijing Cuckoo Is Back!

On 20 May 2017 Gao Jingxin was visiting Yeyahu wetland in Beijing when she spotted a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) sitting atop a bush.  It was the first time she had seen cuckoos this spring and, as an accomplished photographer, she quickly snapped some photos.  After studying the photos carefully, Jingxin realised there was something special about this particular cuckoo; an antenna was clearly visible protruding from the bird’s back.  Jingxin had been following the Beijing Cuckoo Project since the beginning and immediately thought the bird in her photos could be one of the Cuckoos fitted with a tag last spring.  She sent the photos to me via WeChat and asked the question.  When I opened the message I was elated and, I must admit, emotional.  Having received a signal from Meng’s tag on 20 May showing he had arrived back at Yeyahu, I simply replied “It’s Meng” !

Gao Jingxin’s photographs are a joy to see.  They show Meng (full name Meng Zhi Jian, 梦之鹃), seemingly in fantastic condition, back on the breeding grounds and claiming a territory.  Incredibly, he was photographed just a few hundred metres from the place where he was fitted with a tag on 25 May 2016.

梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan), Yeyahu, 20 May 2017 (Photo by Gao Jingxin)
梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan) seemingly in great condition after his marathon migration to Mozambique and back, Yeyahu, 20 May 2017 (Photo by Gao Jingxin)

The signals show that, since being fitted with his tag, Meng has crossed 16 borders involving 10 countries (China – Vietnam – Laos – Myanmar – Bangladesh – India – Somalia – Kenya – Tanzania Mozambique – Tanzania – Kenya – Somalia – India – Bangladesh – Myanmar – China).  All without a passport or visa.  And along the journey he’s passed through 13 Chinese Provinces and crossed the Arabian Sea twice.  In total, we calculate he has flown at least 26,990 kilometers in 12 months.  That’s equivalent to more than half way around the world.  Wow.

Meng has given us so much new data about the life cycle of cuckoos from East Asia, including information about migration routes, stopover sites, the relationship between the timing of migration and weather/climatic patterns, not to mention the location of, and habitat preferences at, the wintering grounds.  This is all vital information if we are to ensure the continued survival of the cuckoo and birds like them.  Over the next few weeks and months we’ll be analysing the data to ensure we make full use of the information he has provided.

Experience from Europe shows that cuckoos usually return to the same general area each year to breed so we had expected Meng to return to Beijing Municipality.  However, to see him so close to the area where we caught him last May is testament to the incredible navigational ability of these birds, especially since they never even know their parents, let alone learn from them.

Gao Jingxin’s photos are the perfect way to celebrate the first anniversary of the Beijing Cuckoo Project and they’ve rightly gone viral on Chinese social media.

The Project Team is deeply grateful to Gao Jingxin for allowing the use of her wonderful photos on the Birding Beijing website and for helping to complete the cycle of Beijing Cuckoo migration in style.  We’d also like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has supported the project over the last 12 months, including the partners – the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), especially Chris Hewson, and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), especially Shi Yang, Aodan Zhula, Wang Bojun and Wu Mengwei, the sponsors – Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Oriental Bird Club (OBC), British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International.  Yeyahu Wetland Reserve, Cuihu Urban Wetland and Hanshiqiao Wetland for allowing us to tag birds at their reserves.  To Wu Lan, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Gie Goris, Geert De Smet, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Mu Tong, Li Qingxin and Rob Jolliffe who have all played vital roles.  And a special thanks to all the members of the public who have either donated to the JustGiving site or followed and helped to spread the word on social media in China and overseas, and to the many schools and schoolchildren across China who have been so engaged in the project.

As we await the return of Flappy, currently in Hubei Province, all that remains is to say “Welcome Home, Meng” and to wish him a successful breeding season in Beijing.

The reaction to the Beijing Cuckoo Project on social media has been wonderful.  Below are some of the recent reactions to the journeys of the Beijing Cuckoos.  Keep them coming!  And follow @BirdingBeijing on Twitter for updates.

Beijing Swifts 2017

I spent Saturday morning with Belgium-based Lyndon Kearsley and the Beijing team at the Summer Palace for the annual Swift banding project.  Led by Professor Zhao Xinru of the China Birdwatching Society, in collaboration with scientists from the UK, including the BTO, Sweden and Belgium, the project has recently been responsible for discovering the Beijing Swift’s wintering grounds and migration route, proving for the first time that these incredible aviators travel to southern Africa and back every year.

This year, we are hoping to prove an even more incredible aspect of the Beijing Swift’s lifestyle.  In 2016 selected birds were fitted with a new type of technology – accelerometers – which can, in short, establish whether the birds are moving or stationary.  Having this morning recaptured seven birds fitted with accelerometers in 2016, and provided the data are good, we should be able to show whether these birds have spent the nine months away from Beijing in continuous flight, just as Susanne Åkesson and her team have recently proved with Swifts from Sweden.  Wouldn’t that be something?

The analysis of the data will take some weeks and months to complete, so we don’t expect to have an answer quickly.  In the meantime, here is a short video of the Beijing Swifts in slow motion, taken this morning at the Summer Palace.  One striking aspect is the sound of the calls when slowed down…  my advice is don’t play this video if alone at night or at Halloween – it’s almost creepy!

Huge credit to our Chinese colleagues, especially Professor Zhao Xinru, Wu Lan, Liu Yang and the army of volunteers who work so hard to make the project a success.  And big thanks to Dick Newell, Chris Hewson, Lyndon Kearsley, Susanne Åkesson, Rob Jolliffe, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris who have all played a key role in the Beijing Swift Project over the last few years.