Rare and Scarce Birds in Beijing 2017

2017 was another year of exciting avian discoveries in Beijing.

There was a little snow at the turn of the year and it didn’t take long for the first new Beijing record to be found; on 7 January local photographer Qu Lijun snapped some photos of Beijing’s first SNOW BUNTINGS (Calcarius nivalis, 雪鹀) – a flock of at least ten – at Bulaotun, near Miyun Reservoir.

Three of the flock of at least 10 SNOW BUNTINGS at Bulaotun, Miyun in January 2017.

February began with a LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺) photographed by Jiang Xiaobo (per Yang Yuejiang) on 6 February in the Olympic Forest Park.  This bird was reported on and off for around two months and was last seen on 3 April by Yang Yuejiang. On 10th February, news broke of a HARLEQUIN (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭) at the most unlikely urban setting of Anzhenmen, close to Beijing’s 2nd ring road.  According to locals it had been present for “at least 20 days” and remained on site well into March, delighting a string of visiting birders from all over the country.

This first-winter female HARLEQUIN was the first record of this species in Beijing.
The HARLEQUIN’s favoured spot – a small city-centre weir in central Beijing.

There were two notable records in March.  First, on 10th, Li Boyang and Liu Ziang photographed a CRESTED GOSHAWK (Accipiter trivirgatus, 凤头鹰) close to Wangjinglou.  With a distribution in China limited to the south, this species is a rare, but possibly overlooked, vagrant to Beijing.  Second, for the second consecutive winter, the presence of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) was confirmed with a count of at least eight birds on 25th at Miyun Reservoir, the same site as the discovery of a small flock by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao in winter 2015/2016.  Note Miyun Reservoir remains out of bounds to the public; this record was possible due to special permission given to a group from China Birdwatching Society to undertake their annual waterbird survey.

April began with a first-winter BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) at Ma Chang (Terry Townshend and Richard Fuller).  Then, on 5th, came the biggest surprise of the month with a SULPHUR-BREASTED WARBLER (Phylloscopus ricketti, 黑眉柳莺) photographed at the Deer Park, Nanhaizi (南海子麋鹿苑), by Mr Guo Geng, the Vice Director of the Park.  Although there are two previous reports of this species from the Temple of Heaven Park (per Li Zhaonan), Mr. Guo’s is the first documented record in Beijing.

Further good finds in the month saw an ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳) at Yeyahu on 8th during a bird-race and a remarkable occurrence of 14 GREAT BUSTARDS (Otis tarda, 大鸨) migrating over Shisanling on 15th, needless to say found by committed patchworker, Colm Moore.

Four of the GREAT BUSTARDS at Shisanling on 15 April.

A EURASIAN BULLFINCH (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, 红腹灰雀) was reported from the Olympic Forest Park on 19th by visiting birder, Andrew Thornton (there are only two documented records of this species in Beijing – in December 2012  in the Botanical Gardens and November 2013 in the Temple of Heaven Park).  A GREY-BACKED THRUSH (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫), very scarce in Beijing, was in the grounds of Peking University on 27th and a single NORTHERN HOUSE MARTIN (Delichon urbicum, 毛脚燕), a scarce migrant in Beijing, was found by Colm Moore at Shisanling on 28th.  On the same day, Beijing’s 4th LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata ariel, 白斑军舰鸟) was photographed by Mr Nan Hai (南海) at Shahe Reservoir.  Unfortunately, this rarity was flushed by local Grey Herons just five minutes after its arrival and it wasn’t seen again.

As expected, May hosted some interesting records including Beijing’s first CHESTNUT-CROWNED WARBLER (Seicercus castaniceps, 栗头鹟莺), photographed at the Temple of Heaven Park on 6th by Youjiduiyuan (online nick name).  See photo here.  A COTTON PYGMY GOOSE (Nettapus coromandelianus, 棉凫) was at the Summer Palace on 16th (Zhang Yu), a singing SIBERIAN THRUSH (Zoothera sibirica, 白眉地鸫) on Terry’s local patch in Shunyi District on 18th and at least 3 singing male GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS (Turdus boulboul, 灰翅鸫) were back at Lingshan on 27th (this likely breeding population was first discovered in 2016), with a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺) at Shisanling on the same date (Colm Moore).  A single DOLLARBIRD (Eurystomus orientalis, 三宝鸟) at Yeyahu on 30th was a nice end to the month.

June saw a handful of reports of ASIAN KOEL (Eudynamys scolopacea, 噪鹃), a bird that, until very recently, was rare in Beijing.  Now it’s annual in small numbers and there was a singing bird at Yeyahu on 3rd.  Also on 3rd, two LESSER COUCALs (Centropus bengalensis, 小鸦鹃) were found by Beijing-based Jan-Erik Nilsen at Lingshan.  On 11th June a BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (Platalea minor, 黑脸琵鹭) was photographed by Zhang Weimin at Miyun Reservoir, apparently present since 7 May.  This represents the first documented record of this endangered species in Beijing.

The immature BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (left) with EURASIAN SPOONBILL, Miyun Reservoir, 11 June 2017. Photo by Zhang Weimin.

On 27th a pair of breeding SWINHOE’S MINIVETS (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟) was found at Huairou Reservoir by Paul Holt, only the fourth record for the capital and the first breeding record.

Although not in Beijing, July is worthy of mention for the presence of Hebei Province’s second and China’s fourth LESSER CRESTED TERN (Thalasseus bengalis, 小凤头燕鸥) found by Que Pinjia and Wang Yuqi on 26th at Jingtanggang, close to Happy Island.  Fortunately for the few hardcore China listers, it lingered until 5 August at least, occasionally coming to bathe in what can best be described as a fresh water puddle!

China’s 4th LESSER CRESTED TERN at Jingtanggang, Hebei Province. Photo by Shen Yan

August was relatively quiet with no unusual records.  However, it didn’t take long for September to score when, on 2nd, a MARSH HARRIER sp was photographed by Jing Xin at Bulaotun.  With the lack of pale on the leading edge of the wing, dark rump, lack of significant pale bases to the underside of the primaries and the absence of a pale breastband, the photographs look very good for WESTERN MARSH HARRIER (Circus aeruginosus, 白头鹞), a rare bird in east Asia.  The question is – can Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus, 白腹鹞) ever look like this?   Answers on a postcard, please…

Probable WESTERN MARSH HARRIER, Bulaotun, 2 September 2017. Photograph by Jing Xin.
Another photo of the probable WESTERN MARSH HARRIER at Bulaotun on 3 September 2017 showing the underside. Photograph by Jing Xin.

On 20th, the second COTTON PYGMY GOOSE (Nettapus coromandelianus, 棉凫) of the year, and Beijing’s first autumn record, was found at Yuanmingyuan and remained until 24th at least.


October saw Beijing’s first autumn record of MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨) amongst a large flock of BUFF-BELLIED PIPITS (Anthus rubescens japonicus, 黄腹鹨) at Ma Chang on 7th and a MONGOLIAN FINCH (Eremopsaltria mongolica, 蒙古沙雀), the first modern day record, was photographed at Baiwangshan by Ding Deyong.  A male ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH (Zoothera citrina, 橙头地鸫), of unknown origin, was photographed in the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park on 13th and, if a genuine vagrant, will be the second record for the capital of this very attractive species, following one in the Temple of Heaven Park on 27 May 2012 (Qinghua Shoucang).

The male ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH in the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park, 13 October 2017. Photo by Yuhuashi.

November saw an unusually urban EURASIAN EAGLE OWL (Bubo bubo, 雕鸮), photographed in the grounds of Peking University on 10th, with another on 21st near the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution (Tom Stidham).  On 19th there was a new species for Beijing in the form of a CHESTNUT THRUSH (Turdus rubrocanus, 灰头鸫), photographed in the Olympic Forest Park by Xi Yanghong.

This CHESTNUT THRUSH, the first record for Beijing, was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park by Xi Yanghong on 19 November and was not seen again.

A small influx of BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎) was recorded from 22nd with birds in Beihai Park and the Olympic Forest Park.  The photo below by Zhang Xiaoling.

BROWN-EARED BULBUL, Beihai Park, 26 November 2017. Photo by Zhang Xiaoling.

And modest numbers of JAPANESE WAXWINGS (Bombycilla japonica, 小太平鸟) arrived in the month with small flocks at the Botanical Gardens, Tsinghua University and the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park with the birds at the latter two sites remaining into 2018.

December is not a month that usually produces first records but Guan Xiangyu and friends found Beijing’s first FIELDFARE (Turdus pilaris, 田鸫) at Lingshan on 10 December, a superb find.

Beijing’s first FIELDFARE was photographed at Lingshan by Zhang Bing on 10 December 2017.

A male JAPANESE THRUSH (Turdus cardis, 乌灰鸫) first seen on 24 December and remaining into 2018 at the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park is likely of suspect origin and the year ended with an unseasonal WHITE-BREASTED WATERHEN (Amaurornis phoenicurus, 白胸苦恶鸟) in the grounds of Peking University on 28th.

And that was 2017… !  Another brilliant year of birding in Beijing.

A big thank you to all the birders, resident and visitors, who have contributed bird sightings throughout 2017 and a special thanks to XiaoPT for assisting with this summary.

*The 2017 summary has been collated with the best available information at the time.  If you spot any errors or omissions, please post a comment below or contact Birding Beijing via the Latest Sightings page. Thank you.

2017: A Turning Point For China’s Biodiversity?

2017 has been quite a year.  Politically, one can feel the tectonic plates shifting with the turmoil in the West contrasting with the increasing power, and confidence, of a resurgent China.  It’s a fascinating time to live in the capital city of the world’s largest economy in waiting.

But hang on, why do I begin the Birding Beijing review of 2017 by writing about politics?  The reason is that, if you care about birds or conservation, politics matters.  And, with Xi Jinping beginning his second five-year term as President, the direction in which he is taking China is becoming clearer and that has implications for birds and wildlife.  In October 2017, at the 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi delivered the ‘manifesto’ for his second term, a three-and-a-half-hour speech, catchily entitled “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” The speech touched on everything from reform of State-owned Enterprises to the Digital Economy.  And at every meeting I have attended with government since, officials have quoted from the speech.  Given the top-down nature of China’s government, what Xi says is that important.

From my conversations with Chinese friends in government and outside, I am convinced that President Xi is personally committed to protecting China’s environment and there are sections of his speech from which conservationists should take heart.  For example:

“We must pursue a model of sustainable development featuring increased
production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems. We must continue
the Beautiful China initiative to create good working and living environments for
our people and play our part in ensuring global ecological security.”

“We will establish an environmental governance system in which government takes the lead, enterprises assume main responsibility, and social organizations and the public participate.”

“We will take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.”

Xi has also committed to create a system of National Parks and launched the overarching policy in September 2017.  According to the associated press release, China “has set up ten pilot programs for the national park system, covering areas including Sanjiangyuan (the source of China’s three major rivers), Giant Panda habitats and the Great Wall” and “ordered all its provinces and regions to establish an ecological “red line” that will declare designated regions under mandatory and rigorous protection.”

These are positive steps and the relevant government departments and local officials will be using these statements and policies as their guiding light for the next five years.

And in case you might think that words are hollow, there has been some tangible progress this year that will give conservationists cause for optimism.

For example, in April the Chinese government announced that 14 sites along the Yellow Sea coast and Bohai Bay – critical to millions of migratory shorebirds, including the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper – had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the 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.

The fourteen sites listed as “tentative” World Heritage Site nominations by the Chinese government.

At a more micro level, under the terms of the revised Environment Protection Law, ‘public interest’ lawsuits have been pursued against local governments that violate environmental regulations.  For example, the government in Henan Province was fined around USD 555,000 for destroying Jujube trees, some of which were up to 500 years old, as part of a land reclamation project.  At the end of its verdict announcement, the court said it would continue to improve its handling of environmental cases, in accordance with the “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” policy laid out by President Xi Jinping during the Party’s 19th National Congress in October, illustrating the power of President Xi’s speech.

And, of course, to improve its domestic environment, the battle against air pollution is well underway and, with an uncertain impact globally, China has banned the import of plastic waste.

At the same time, 2017 has seen significant growth in philanthropy from China’s wealthy elite and public charitable giving.  And, as Chinese companies seek lucrative public listings on stock exchanges and a greater role overseas, there is a growing emphasis on their image and, with that, comes greater investment in Corporate and Social Responsibility through the creation of charitable foundations or individual projects.  A reasonable chunk of that spending is going into, primarily domestic-focused, conservation.

All of this should improve the prospects for China’s biodiversity.

So what of the birds in 2017?  Well, it’s heartening to be able to report some good news here too.

First, after great work by Han Zheng and his team from Northeast Normal University in Changchun in discovering some previously unknown breeding sites, the estimated population of the “Endangered” JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskicould be as high as 9,800-12,500, a massive increase on the previous estimate of fewer than 1,000 individuals.  The new sites enjoy no official protection so work is already underway to engage the local government to see what can be done to ensure as many of these important news sites as possible are protected.

Sir David Attenborough will be pleased to hear the good news about Jankowski’s Bunting.

Second, in March 2017, a site record 308 BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri) were counted at Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province, illustrating just how important the site is for this now “Critically Endangered” Aythya.  The good news was tempered by a very poor breeding season at Hengshui Hu, caused by a combination of rising water levels and illegal egg collection, with no confirmed successful fledging of young in 2017.

Mixed news for BAER’S POCHARD in 2017.  Photo: drake BAER’S POCHARD at Yeyahu, 21 April 2017 by Tormod Amundsen.

Third, after the success of the Beijing Swift Project, which resulted in the discovery of the wintering grounds and migration route of the pekinensis Common Swift, several schools in the capital are developing projects to manufacture and erect artificial nest boxes with a view to attracting birds to their schools campuses.  With a falling Swift population in Beijing due to the demolition of traditional old buildings with nooks and crannies for nest sites, this is a welcome initiative that will hopefully begin to slow and, ultimately reverse, the decline.

The Beijing Swift Project has inspired schools to help try to slow the population decline.

Fourth, the explosion of birding festivals across China, run by local birding and conservation organisations, is an excellent sign that birding, and conservation, are attracting a growing band of young people all over the country.  From Liaoning in the northeast to Guangxi and Yunnan in the south-west and from Qinghai to Qingdao, local groups – powered by enthusiastic young people – are organising events to celebrate China’s birds and biodiversity.  That is a fantastic sign for the future.

Groups of dedicated young people passionate about biodiversity are springing up all across the country.

And fifth, there has been some progress with tackling the trade in illegally caught wild birds online.  Taobao, often described as the equivalent of the West’s eBay or Amazon, is a platform on which one can buy almost anything from military tanks to Boeing 747s and even mini nuclear fusion reactors.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, that wild birds are often offered for sale.  After the outrage expressed when “Critically Endangered” Yellow-breasted Buntings were found for sale, Alibaba (Taobao’s parent company) has reacted by taking down the offending posts and made a commitment to review their practices with a view to stopping the sale of wild birds.  We’re now in a dialogue with Alibaba and hope to be able to report more good news soon.

The discovery of Critically Endangered Yellow-breasted Buntings for sale was a lowlight of 2017, however Alibaba is now engaged on how to stop the trade in wild birds on their online platform, Taobao.

Of course it’s not all a bed of roses and, on the negative side, the news about the perilous state of Rufous-headed Robin and no reports at all of Streaked Reed Warbler are sobering reminders that around 10% of bird species are threatened with extinction.  And there remain huge challenges with poaching and illegal trapping.

However, with Xi’s speech, strengthened environment protection laws and a growing awareness among the general public, especially young people, about the environment, it appears that things are moving in the right direction.  And with the emergence and growth of local environmental organisations, there is now an army of young people across the country working hard to raise awareness of China’s unique biodiversity, connect people to nature and protect important species and habitats.  That is a big change from when I arrived in this vast country seven years ago and it gives me great optimism for the future.  I hope that, in 2018, Birding Beijing can play a small role in encouraging, supporting and promoting the work of those who are championing China’s biodiversity.

Alibaba Takes Action To Stop The Sale Of Wild Birds On Taobao

After the outcry from birders, conservationists and members of the public about the illegal sale of ‘critically endangered’ YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTINGS on Taobao (Alibaba’s online sales platform), it was good to receive a call from Alibaba on Friday.  The official was ‘horrified’ to see the social media posts, confirmed the link had already been taken down and that a review of procedures was underway.

We discussed the scale of wild birds and poaching equipment for sale on Taobao and the fact that it was illegal to trap ANY wild bird in China without a license.  I was invited to send any links of concern and the company would ensure they were investigated.

After some fast work by some Beijing birders, I sent to the company more than 100 links, almost certainly the tip of the iceberg, where sellers were offering wild birds, traps or mist nets.  I await their response.

Alibaba now has a chance to show that they genuinely care about stopping the illegal wildlife trade and to demonstrate the company’s policy is consistent with the public statements by their Chairman, Jack Ma, President Xi Jinping’s vision of a “Beautiful China” and, most importantly, the law.

On the latter point, whilst selling wild birds is clearly illegal, the sale of mist nets and traps to catch birds appears to be a grey area.  Nevertheless, it seems to me the reputational benefit of banning the sale of these items on their platform will significantly outweigh any negligible loss of revenue.

Rest assured Beijing birders will be checking regularly to see whether the links provided to Alibaba have been removed and we’ll report on progress – good or bad – via this website.  In the meantime, if you find any links of sellers offering wild birds or trapping equipment on Taobao, please contact me and I’ll ensure they are passed on to the company.


Title image: a caged Yellow-breasted Bunting being used as a lure.

Critically Endangered YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTINGS for sale online in China

It’s been a bad week for Yellow-breasted Bunting.

First, this beautiful songbird, once super-abundant across its range from northern Europe in the west to Japan in the east, has been classified as “Critically Endangered” on the 2017 IUCN Red List.  This is the most endangered category and means that Yellow-breasted Bunting is just one step away from extinction.

And second, thanks to eagle-eyed Beijing birders, we’ve learned that, for around CNY 100-220 (GBP 12 to 25) per bird, it’s possible to buy live Yellow-breasted Buntings on Taobao, China’s version of eBay/Amazon (this link is still live at the time of publication).

The first piece of news is desperately sad, if not unexpected.  The plight of the Yellow-breasted Bunting has been well-documented (for example, here and here) in conservation circles.  In short, over the last two to three decades, the population has suffered a catastrophic decline of up to 95 per cent, with the main cause thought to be illegal trapping for food in China.  Parallels have been drawn with the extinction of the once abundant Passenger Pigeon in North America, the last of which died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 after the wild population was driven to extinction by a combination of hunting and habitat loss.

Conservationists in Asia, led by Hong Kong Birdwatching Society and supported by BirdLife International, are doing their best to help this ailing species through a combination of scientific studies and awareness campaigns, including distribution of the poster below and the production of ‘Yellow-breasted Bunting-friendly’ rice in Hong Kong’s Long Valley, a wintering site for the species.

The poster distributed by Hong Kong Birdwatching Society in south China – the main source of demand for Yellow-breasted Bunting as food.

It’s the second piece of news that is shocking and disgusting.

Yellow-breasted Bunting is not easily bred in captivity and the birds for sale are almost certainly of wild origin.  In China it is illegal to trap any wild bird without a license, only issued for scientific purposes.  It is extremely unlikely the sellers have trapped these birds legally and, in the unlikely event they have a licence, the sellers are clearly abusing the terms under which that license was issued.

Taobao, often described as China’s Ebay or Amazon, is part of the Alibaba Group founded by Ma Yun (known as Jack Ma).  He is one of China’s richest men, in fact one of the wealthiest people in Asia.  According to Bloomberg, he has a net worth of USD 44.9 billion as of December 2017.

What makes the sale of almost extinct wildlife on his platform all the more galling is that Jack Ma has made many public statements and commitments about not selling wildlife products.  In 2014, after bowing to public pressure, Alibaba made a commitment to “abide by national laws and regulations to remove all illegal wildlife information from our platform“.  And The China Daily reported that Alibaba, together with other online sales platforms  “..vowed to enable no advertising or trade in illegal wildlife and its products on their platforms and said they would voluntarily accept supervision from the society and government.

On top of that Jack Ma has, not surprisingly given his wealth, been courted by the big conservation NGOs.  In 2009 he became a trustee of The Nature Conservancy’s China program and, in April 2010, joined its global board of directors.  In 2013, he became chairman of the board for The Nature Conservancy’s China Program.  It surely undermines TNC’s reputation and credibility on wildlife conservation if members of their board facilitate the sale of critically endangered wildlife.

I am of the belief that, when discovering issues such as this, it is better to engage privately at first, highlighting the problem and allowing the company, which may not be aware of the illegal nature of the sales, to have a chance to fix it before going public.  Of course it must be extremely difficult to monitor everything for sale on a large online platform such as Taobao.  To do so needs capacity and specialist knowledge; these things take time to develop and, given the rapid growth of the business, it’s not surprising that oversight capacity has been slow to keep up.

However, it is now several years since Alibaba first courted controversy for selling illegal wildlife products and sadly it appears that “voluntarily accepting supervision from society and government”, as committed by Alibaba in 2014, are hollow words.

Back in December 2015 Birding Beijing alerted Alibaba to several sellers offering migrant birds for sale including Mongolian and Black Larks.  After an acknowledgement of our correspondence, we subsequently received a reply to say that, as we could not prove these birds were captured in the wild, it was not illegal to sell them.  So, according to Alibaba, there was no onus on them to ensure the products sold on their platform are legal.  A disappointing response.

On hearing about sellers offering Yellow-breasted Buntings for sale, we once again contacted Alibaba to inform them of this illegal activity on their site.  This time we received no reply at all after 10 days.

It is therefore with reluctance that I am writing this article to publicise the fact that Alibaba is selling almost extinct wildlife on its platform and doesn’t appear to care.

What is even more shocking about this latest episode is that it flies in the face of President Xi Jinping’s vision of a “Beautiful China”.  The speech President Xi delivered to the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017 is widely seen as the guiding light for government and society in China and is quoted in almost all meetings with government officials.  Some relevant extracts from the speech are below:

“We must pursue a model of sustainable development featuring increased
production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems. We must continue
the Beautiful China initiative to create good working and living environments for
our people and play our part in ensuring global ecological security.”

“We will establish an environmental governance system in which government takes the lead, enterprises assume main responsibility, and social organizations and the public also participate.”

“We will take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.”

Alibaba’s facilitation of the illegal wildlife trade is clearly inconsistent with all three of these statements.

The amount of money Taobao makes from selling items such as this must be tiny in the context of their overall business.  Wouldn’t it make sense, for the sake of their reputation, to ban the sales of any wildlife, whether it’s clearly illegal or if there is any doubt?  The cost would be negligible and the benefits to their image considerable.

Only then will they be able to claim that they care about wildlife and only then will their business be consistent with Xi Jinping’s vision for a modern “Beautiful China”.  If Alibaba’s leader is going to make big commitments, it is wise to ensure he or she can live up to them. I hope someone from Alibaba can comment.

The Yellow-breasted Bunting is one of the most beautiful songbirds in China; it’s a feature of spring and autumn in Beijing and as recently as September, I was fortunate to see one on the patch of scrub close to my apartment in Shunyi.  It’s decline towards extinction may yet be irreversible.  However, with the efforts of conservationists in China and other parts of east Asia, supported by people from all over the world, it has a chance.  It would be tragic if these efforts are undermined by the selfish and irresponsible attitude of Alibaba.

UPDATE: on the morning of 8 December we received a call from a representative of Alibaba.  The representative said Taobao was ‘horrified’ to see the social media posts about Yellow-breasted Buntings for sale and, in response to the article, removed the seller’s page and other similar posts.  The representative also said the company was reviewing its procedures to try to improve their success rate at spotting sellers offering wild birds.  They would be happy to receive links of any posts of concern and would deal with them appropriately.  Additionally, they committed to passing on the details of sellers of wild birds to the police.  Comment: This is a positive response but, of course, the proof is in the pudding.  We have a long list of links showing wild birds for sale and we’ll be regularly monitoring Taobao to ensure there is an improvement.  

Title image: screenshot of the page on Taobao selling Yellow-breasted Buntings (taken 7 December 2017).

Guangxi’s “I SEE” Biodiversity Festival

One of the most encouraging signs for the future of China’s biodiversity is the emergence of local organisations across the country dedicated to environmental education and wildlife protection.  And almost without exception these organisations are being run by groups of passionate, dedicated and highly educated young people.

Last weekend I was invited to participate in the “I SEE” celebration of biodiversity in the city of Beihai in Guangxi (广西) Autonomous Region.

Located in mountainous terrain in the far south, Guangxi is bordered by Yunnan Province to the west, Guizhou to the north, Hunan to the northeast, Guangdong to the east and Vietnam to the southwest.  With a sub-tropical climate and magnificent scenery, dominated by spectacular karst mountains, Guangxi is perhaps most famous for the picturesque tourist towns of Guilin and Yangshuo, through which the Li river slowly meanders.

Ornithologically, Guangxi cemented its place on the map with the recent (2005) discovery of a new species – the Nonggang Babbler – by Chinese ornithologists Zhou Fang and Jiang Aiwu.  Less well-known, at least outside China, is that every autumn Guangxi plays host to a spectacular migration or raptors. In October and early November, large numbers can be seen following the mountains as they make their way from China towards southeast Asia.

It is this concentration of birds that attracts not only local birders and photographers but also poachers.  Every autumn the mountains around Beihai are tainted by the sound of gunshots.  Illegal hunting was one of the drivers for the creation of the Guangxi Biodiversity Research and Conservation Association, known as BRC.  This small, but growing, organisation was behind the establishment of an annual raptor watching festival during which birders and interested members of the public descend on the area to watch and count raptors.

The festival is inspiring change.  First, it’s helping to raise awareness among local people about, and connecting people with, the spectacular bird of prey migration in the region. And second, it’s acting as a big deterrent to the poachers; it’s now the norm for the guns to fall silent during the festival.  Sadly, the guns can still be heard before, and after, the festival despite a recent documentary on Chinese State Television exposing the illegal manufacture and use of guns.  However, BRC is clearly making a difference and the direction of travel is in the right direction.  I can’t wait to visit next October to offer my support to the volunteers.

BRC’s “I SEE” biodiversity day was the latest in a string of events designed to engage the public and I was honoured to take my place in the line up of speakers addressing 300 schoolchildren alongside their parents and teachers at the public library in Beihai on Saturday morning.

The stories of the Beijing Swifts and Cuckoos were greeted enthusiastically and there was clearly an appetite to explore similar ‘citizen science’ projects in Guangxi to complement the ongoing public engagement work.

It was brilliant to see so many local people participating in an event dedicated to biodiversity in a part of China that is so rich in wildlife and yet suffering from illegal poaching.  It’s these young heroes that will consign illegal hunting to history.

I have huge admiration for BRC’s Tao Jingru, Zhao Hongxu, Xiao Xiaobo and Lin Wuying for inspiring so many people and big thanks for the wonderful hospitality.


Title image: The BRC stand at the Xishuangbanna Birding Festival in Yunnan Province.

The 6th Xishuangbanna Birding Festival

As birding becomes more popular in China, birding festivals are springing up all over this vast country. There are now annual festivals in Dalian (Liaoning), Beidagang (Hebei), Beihai (Guangxi) and Shangri-La (Yunnan) to name just a few… and they are providing a focus for both experienced and young birders to celebrate their hobby, learn from like-minded people, recruit new members and engage the public.  It’s always a privilege to be able to participate in these celebrations and I was delighted to accept an invitation to speak at the 6th birding festival of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens (XTBG), nestled in a wonderful part of southwest Yunnan Province, close to the borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

Founded in 1959 and covering an area of 1125 hectares, the Botanical Gardens employ more than 300 staff.  Wang Ximin leads an enthusiastic team responsible for engaging schools and the local community about wildlife and habitats.  His work is particularly important given the significant problem with illegal hunting that still blights the area (during the festival, several of the participants heard gunshots in the forest close to the gardens).  Influencing the local communities is not easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but working with children must surely be the most effective way to tackle the issue over the medium- to long-term.

One of the species Wang Ximin and his colleagues focus on is the Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus), now classified as “Endangered” given the spectacular decline in the population over the last two decades.  Closely related to the more familiar Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Green Peafowl is a stunningly beautiful bird, once ranging from SW China and Myanmar through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, to as far south as Java, but which has suffered from hunting pressure and habitat loss meaning that it’s range now consists of ever-shrinking isolated pockets of suitable habitat.  Thankfully, according to the locals, it doesn’t taste good.. so at least it’s not popular to eat!

A Green Peafowl made from leaves by birders from YuXi Birdwatching Society.  Photo by Gu Bojian.

We were treated to an informative talk about the Green Peafowl by Gu Bojian, attended by students, teachers and parents from local schools.

As well as lectures and a bird race involving teams from all over China, from Beijing to Shanghai to Guangzhou to Yunnan, there were stalls operated by birding organisations, optics companies and nature-related publications such as China Bird Watch.

Maybe it’s because I am getting older but I am always struck by just how many young people participate in these events..  It’s heartening to see the youth of China enjoying and celebrating wild birds and their habitats.   And this energy is being channelled into developing resources that help to engage the wider community.  During my brief visit, Wang Ximin and his colleagues launched a new book about the birds of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens and handed out leaflets about the butterflies, insects and plants that can be found there.  All of this is wonderful to see.

Terry and Wang Ximin tell the story of the Beijing Cuckoos (which pass through Yunnan Province) to local schoolchildren.

More than 100 species of bird were recorded during the festival with highlights being Asian Openbill, Brown-throated Sunbird, Orange-breasted Trogon, Limestone Babbler and Pied Falconet.  And there were some sightings of some other cool wildlife including this Tokay Gecko, scientific name “Gekko gecko”.

Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko). Photo by Zhao Jiangbo.

With a good quality hotel (Royal Waterlily) in the gardens and beautiful surroundings, XTBG is a wonderful place to spend a few days to escape the cold northern winter and by buying the new book or hiring a local guide you’ll be supporting the brilliant conservation work ongoing in this beautiful part of the world.  Go now!


Title image: birders distracted by an overflying raptor during the festival.  Photo by Zhu Lei.

Winter is coming…

It’s that time of year again.  As temperatures plummet and the days shorten, many people might think it’s time to stay indoors with a real fire, put on that favourite woolly jumper and sip a warm cup of (green) tea.  However, for birders, it’s worth putting on the thermal underwear and braving those icy temperatures – winter can be a brilliant time.

Here are five reasons why winter is a good time for birding in Beijing:

  • First, with the leaves down, birds are easier to observe
  • Second, winter is the only time we can see certain species (for example, those that breed to the north of Beijing, including as far north as Mongolia and Russian Siberia, and spend the winter here). These species include: Ruddy Shelduck, Common Crane, White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, Mongolian Lark, the winter thrushes (Naumann’s. Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated), Goldcrest, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Siberian Accentor, Brambling, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Japanese Reed Bunting, Lapland Bunting and Pine Bunting.
  • Third, many mountain dwelling species will move lower into the valleys and even into cities in the winter, making them easier to see. For example: Winter Wren, Beijing Babbler, Plain Laughingthrush and Yellow-throated Bunting.
  • Fourth, depending on the seed crops and weather, especially the extent of snowfall, some species ‘irrupt’ in large numbers to areas where they would normally not occur in significant numbers. Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Japanese and Bohemian Waxwings and Redpolls are examples of species that sometimes ‘irrupt’ into Beijing.
  • Finally, there is always a chance of finding something special. The discovery of wintering Jankowski’s Buntings in winter 2015/2016 by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao was exceptional.  Who knows what else might occur – maybe a Snowy Owl at Lingshan?  Or a Gyrfalcon at Ma Chang?
2016-03-07 Jankowski's Bunting, Miyun5
One of the wintering JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS at Miyun Reservoir in winter 2015/2016.

The best winter sites?

Most good birding sites in the capital (e.g. Yeyahu, Lingshan, Huairou, Miyun and Shahe Reservoirs (if accessible)) are worth visiting all year round.  And, within the city itself, the Botanical Gardens, with its berry-laden shrubs, is often one of the first sites to host groups of Japanese or Bohemian Waxwings during a ‘waxwing year’.  The Olympic Forest Park can host Beijing Babbler in winter and is often a good place to see Brown-cheeked Rails and Great Bittern.  It has also played host to some very scarce winter visitors such as ‘caudatus’ Northern Long-tailed Tit and Chiffchaff.  For me, personally, two of the best winter birding sites are Donglingshan and Shidu.

Donglingshan (东灵山)

2015-11-01 Red-throated Thrush male in flight, Lingshan2
Red-throated Thrush usually winters in good numbers at Lingshan.

The site of Beijing’s highest peak (2,303m), around 110km west of the city along the G109, Donglingshan is a superb winter birding site.  It is the only reliable site in Beijing to see the high-altitude specialist, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, and the scarce Pallas’s Rosefinch.  In most winters, tens of the former spend the winter feeding on the sea buckthorn berries in the many gullies and valleys below the peak and small flocks of the latter can be found foraging under stands of silver birch.  Other reliable species here include Chinese Beautiful and Long-tailed Rosefinches (interestingly, the latter are of the subspecies lepidus from central China and not the more northerly ussuriensis that has occurred in other parts of Beijing), not to mention Siberian and Alpine Accentors, good numbers of thrushes, Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle and, in some years, Asian Rosy Finch.  Rarities at this time of year have included Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Black and Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstarts.

At around 2,000m, a visit to Donglingshan in winter can be bitterly cold, especially if the wind is blowing.  However, if you time your visit on a day with light winds and sunshine, it can be surprisingly pleasant and hugely rewarding.

A downloadable PDF guide for Donglingshan (Lingshan) can be found here.


Shidu (十渡)

A spectacular gorge worthy of a visit in its own right, even without any birds, Shidu is an excellent winter birding destination, offering species that can be hard to see in other parts of the capital.  A road runs through the gorge, crossing several bridges and it’s a good tactic to stop close to the bridges to scan the area.  Shidu is perhaps most famous in birding circles for its Black Storks, a handful of which can be seen feeding alongside the river.  However, many more interesting species are possible.  For the last few years, at least one, sometimes two, Wallcreepers have been reliable near bridge 6.  And Long-billed Plover, Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Water Redstart and Cinereous Vulture are all regular in winter.  Even the spectacular Ibisbill, a species that is increasingly difficult to see in the capital, is possible.  And Solitary Snipe, another difficult-to-see species has also been recorded.

2013-11-23 Wallcreeper, Shidu
Shidu is the best place in Beijing to see Wallcreeper.


Ten Species To Look Out For This Winter

Beijing has many special birds in the colder months and here are a few to look out for.

1.     Merlin This small, compact, falcon can often be seen hunting flocks of small passerines, including buntings and larks.  Open spaces such as Ma Chang (Yanqing) and the edges of reservoirs are good places to look.


2.     Cinereous Vulture  With a wingspan of c3m, this huge bird of prey can be seen in the mountains around Beijing from November to March.  Feeding on carrion, they can often be seen patrolling the ridges of mountainous areas on sunny days, especially when there is a breeze, providing them with lift.


3.     Goldcrest This tiny bird is insectivorous and, somehow, it can find enough food in Beijing in winter.  The larger parks, such as the Botanical Gardens and the Olympic Forest Park, are good places to look.  Focus your search on areas with conifers and listen for their high-pitched calls.
4.     Siberian Accentor This beautiful sparrow-sized bird likes scrubby areas with lots of good undergrowth.  They can be shy but with patience and knowledge of their high-pitched call, searching in the right areas should be successful.  The Botanical Gardens and Donglingshan are two good places to look.


5.     Naumann’s Thrush  Naumann’s is the most common of the four classic ‘winter thrushes’ in Beijing (the others are Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated).  With its orange-coloured tones, Naumann’s Thrush is a very pretty bird and can often be seen feeding on berries or on the ground in Beijing’s parks.
6.     Japanese Waxwing The beautiful Japanese Waxwing is an annual winter visitor to Beijing in varying numbers.  Sometimes in large flocks, they can strip berries from a bush in minutes.  Listen for their ‘ringing’ calls and look for flocks of birds that have similar silhouettes to starlings.  Can most easily be told from the very similar Bohemian Waxwing by the pinkish, not yellow, tip to the tail.
7.     Winter Wren The charismatic Winter Wren breeds in the mountains around Beijing and, in winter, it moves to lower elevations to escape the harshest winter temperatures.  In winter it can be found in the Botanical Gardens and other large parks, often near water.  The distinctive cocked tail means that it’s unmistakeable.
8.     Brambling The Brambling is a common winter visitor to Beijing.  A sociable bird, it can often be found in flocks feeding on seeds (often beech mast) at the base of trees.  Listen for its upslurred call as flocks wheel around over wooded areas.
9.     Pallas’s Rosefinch A real gem of the Beijing winter, the Pallas’s Rosefinch is one of the most sought after species by foreign birders visiting the capital.  A winter visitor in varying numbers, usually to relatively high elevations, it is most reliably found at Donglingshan in winter.  The ridge above the Botanical Gardens and sites around the Great Wall can also produce this species.  A favourite food is birch mast, so look for stands of silver birch and check the ground around the bases of the trees.
10.  Pallas’s Bunting  A winter visitor in good numbers, the Pallas’s Bunting is one of Beijing’s signature winter birds.  Found in reedbeds and any areas of rank grass and/or scrub, it can be skittish but will sometimes sit on the top of vegetation and utter its sparrow-like call, quite different to that of the similar, but scarcer, Common Reed Bunting and Japanese Reed Bunting.

Of course, the most important thing about going birding is not where you go or what you see but that you enjoy it.  Wishing everyone a wonderful winter’s birding.


Title image: Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstart, Lingshan, February 2014.

This article has been translated into Chinese and appeared in the Winter edition of the China Birdwatching Society magazine.