I am just back home from an incredible trip to Qinghai Province with Marie, Tormod Amundsen (Biotope) and Will Soar from the UK’s Rare Bird Alert. Our visit was to support the Chinese NGO, ShanShui, and the local government in developing sustainable ecotourism. We were hosted by, and owe huge thanks to, local yak herders – especially Sen and Chairennima – who welcomed us into their homes and entertained us with stories of Asian Brown Bears breaking into their food stores and Snow Leopards strolling through their back yards.
It was a magnificent trip in so many ways and we have some exciting news to announce very soon.
In the meantime, here is a short video of one of our encounters with SNOW LEOPARD. We were fortunate to enjoy three encounters with Snow Leopards in four days, without any pre-scouting, illustrating just how intact is the ecosystem in this wonderful place. Add in other special mammals and birds, together with the breathtaking scenery and unique Tibetan hospitality, and you have the ingredients for a trip of a lifetime. Stay tuned for some incredible footage by Tormod of this stunningly beautiful and unspoilt part of China and an opportunity to experience it for yourself.
Big respect to Marie, Tormod and Will for being the best travel companions one could wish for.
Almost every yak herder in this area has footage of Snow Leopard on his/her smartphone.. so we now feel part of the club!
This is big news. The Chinese government has just taken an important step to protect some of the key remaining intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. A total of fourteen sites have 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 Chinese government. And, if 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 extensive mudflats, sandflats and associated habitats of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Bay, represent one of the largest areas of intertidal wetlands on Earth and are shared by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (RoK). It is the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF). And yet, in the last few decades, around 70% of the intertidal habitat has been lost to land reclamation projects, causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline dramatically.
Species such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot are highly dependent on the area for food and rest during their long migrations from as far as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. And of course, this area is not only important as a stopover site. Almost the entire world population of Relict Gull winters in the Bohai Bay, and the whole population of Saunders’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill breed in the area.
The tentative nomination has not happened out of thin air. It’s the result of many years of hard work by domestic Chinese organisations, supported by the international community.
Subsequently, national workshops were held in Beijing in 2014, and Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 2016 to implement this resolution nationally. Then, in August 2016, I was fortunate to participate in a joint meeting in Beijing, where representatives of the government authorities of China and the Republic of Korea responsible for World Heritage implementation discussed the nomination of Yellow Sea coastal wetlands.
A further resolution “Conservation of intertidal habitats and migratory waterbirds of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, especially the Yellow Sea, in a global context” was adopted at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), responsible for World Heritage nomination in China has been active in identifying key sites and involving stakeholders to promote the current tentative list, with technical assistance from ShanShui, a Chinese conservation NGO. Whilst the list is not comprehensive – there are other key sites that many conservationists feel should be included – it is a strong foundation and it is possible to add further sites in due course. Importantly, at the same time, the Republic of Korea has been working on a nomination for the tidal flats of the southwest region including the most important site for migratory waterbirds in the country, Yubu Island.
With these proposed nominations by China and the Republic of Korea, the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea are being increasingly recognized by governments for their outstanding global importance and it is hoped that this will result in stronger protection and effective management for the continued survival of migratory waterbirds.
There is a long way to go to secure formal nomination and inscription onto the list of World Heritage Sites – that process can take many years – but it’s a vital step and an important statement of intent that provides a renewed sense of optimism about the potential to save what remains of these unique sites. Huge kudos, in particular to MOHURD and to ShanShui, and to everyone who has been working so hard to make this happen, including the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute, IUCN, John MacKinnon and many more.
The long-term vision is that there will be a joint China/Republic of Korea and maybe even DPRK World Heritage Site covering the key locations along the Yellow Sea/Bohai Bay. Now, wouldn’t that be something?!
In February, when the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) asked me to help them identify the birds depicted in more than eight hundred old paintings, I was both honoured and daunted. The paintings date from the late 19th century and are thought to be by French missionaries, including Pierre Marie Heude. The identifications would be used to create captions for a planned exhibition in Beijing beginning in late March. Despite the doubt running through my head about whether I would be able to distinguish 19th century depictions of Chinese leaf warblers, I said yes.
The collection of exquisite paintings depicts more than 460 species, around one third of the species recorded in China. Thankfully, there are no leaf warblers amongst them and, given the French have a tradition of producing outstanding painters, my task was not as difficult as I feared.
Fast forward a month and I found myself suited up and on a panel of speakers, alongside the French Ambassador, at the opening of the exhibition at the Poly Art Museum in Beijing.
After the short speeches, a group of local schoolchildren put on a fantastic mini play about the importance of protecting birds and their habitats. It was heartwarming to see young people enthused about wild birds and aware of the threats they face, from habitat loss to illegal hunting.
The opening was covered by Beijing TV and the print media. See here (in Chinese):
The exhibition is a superb way to engage the public about the rich and diverse avifauna in China. As a famous conservationist once said “we want to protect what we love, but we can only love what we know”. Awareness is the first step towards conservation. As the opening ceremony closed, already school groups were filing in to enjoy the paintings.
Congratulations to CBCGDF for putting together a wonderful exhibition and a special thank you to Dr Zhou Jinfeng, Secretary General of the CBCGDF and his staff, including Linda Wong, for being such great partners during this adventure.. Also a big thank you to Lynx Edicions for allowing use of the text from Handbook of the Birds of the World about distributions and habitat preferences for individual species.
The exhibition, on the 10th floor of the New Poly Building at Dongsishitiao, runs until 13 April and is open from 0930 to 1630 daily. Entrance is free.
When my good friend, Yoav Perlman, first encouraged me to lead a China-based team for the Champions Of The Flyway, I was a little sceptical. Travelling all the way to Israel for a bird race sounded like an indulgence. However, the more I looked into it, the more I became convinced that it was a good idea. It was clear to me that the bird race, although lots of fun, was a sideshow. The real purpose was to raise awareness – and funds – to tackle the illegal hunting of wild birds that still, to our shame, happens on an incomprehensible scale across the Mediterranean and, indeed, the rest of the world.
Every year an estimated 25 million, yes 25 MILLION birds are illegally killed by poachers and trappers in the Mediterranean region. That is a shocking statistic. Birds such as the European Turtle Dove, Blackcap and Ortolan Bunting, to mention only three, are declining so fast that it’s possible they could be gone forever in the next decade or two… And that’s just the Middle East flyway.. we all know that illegal killing is rampant in many other flyways, including East Asia, and some species, such as Yellow-breasted Bunting, are on the brink. Wouldn’t the world be a poorer place without these beautiful songsters?
Migratory birds never cease to astonish and inspire me. The journeys made by these birds are simply astounding.. they cross deserts, oceans and cities just to survive and breed. And the journeys are perilous.. it’s not only the endurance they need – combating hunger, thirst and exhaustion – but also natural predators such as falcons and sparrowhawks waiting for tired migrants to show any sign of weakness.. This was brought home when, during the bird race, a tired migrant warbler landed on Eilat North Beach and, right there, died of exhaustion in front of a group of helpless birders.
The last thing these birds need, or deserve, is a bunch of humans shooting them out of the sky or trapping them with evil glue traps or almost invisible mist-nets in the name of “fun”.
That is why The Champions Of The Flyway was conceived… to raise funds to support conservation organisations in raising awareness about the scale of illegal killing that continues to blight the world and to fight the battle against the poachers.
Having arrived in Eilat with my teammates, travel writer Chen Ting and birder, Tong Menxiu, we were immediately struck by the scale of migration in this part of the Mediterranean flyway.. with raptors, including Steppe Buzzards, Steppe Eagles, vultures and harriers streaming overhead. What we experienced over the following days was nothing short of inspirational..
I could try for hours to compose the words to describe the spirit of #COTF17 but, instead, I encourage you to click on this link and read a Facebook post from Jessleena Suri, a member of the brilliant Youth African Birders team from South Africa.
I was hugely impressed with the Israeli organisers, especially Jonathan Meyrav and Dan Alon who, at every step, encouraged an open, sharing and supportive culture… teams were sharing their scouting finds and, during the race, even helped each other out after getting stuck in the desert.. everyone was united and focused in the common goal – to raise as much money as possible for Doga Dernegi, a brilliant organisation in Turkey who, among other things, are working with Syrian refugees (of which there are 3 million in Turkey) to raise awareness about the importance of the region to migratory birds and to encourage hunters to be bird protectors.
With more than USD 60,000 raised so far, it’s been a monumental effort and the guys from Doga were visibly emotional when they received the cheque.. they were so moved that the international birding community, most of whom had never visited Turkey, had come together to support them..
As if to stick two fingers up to politics and as a reminder that birds have no borders, the Turkish and Dutch teams embraced and the loudest applause was for the joint Israeli-Palestinian team, led by the brilliant local birder Noam Weiss.. inspirational stuff.
As for us, the Golden Pheasants, we recorded 143 species in the 24 hours, placing us in the top ten but way behind the Finns – the Zeiss Arctic Redpolls – who scored a massive 181 species and, for the third consecutive year, took home the winners’ trophy. However, the scores seemed almost meaningless at the end as the large cheque was handed over. We came away feeling inspired and The Golden Pheasants are doing all we can to raise awareness in China of the illegal killing that happens along the East Asian Flyway… I hope that, by bringing China into the COTF fold, we can encourage more awareness and action along the East Asian Flyway. Watch this space for some exciting developments soon…
A huge shout to the Spokes Folks, led by Gary Prescott and with his wonderful team of Erin, George and Sam, who recorded an astonishing 122 species by bicycle.. you guys rock!
Massive heartfelt thanks to the COTF team for the immaculate arrangements, to Swarovski Optik, especially Jackson Chan and Julian Wengenmayr, for supporting The Golden Pheasants and to all the other teams for their brilliant cooperation, their company during the week and for sharing bird news throughout the tournament. My only regret is not having enough time to spend with all the incredible people.
I very much hope to be back next year.. and, who knows, there may be more than one China team!
Finally, there is still time to donate to the cause and join the thousands of others in showing they care about migratory birds. Every penny will go to Doga Dernegi. Please give anything you can by clicking here.
Title image: The handover of the cheque for USD 62,000 to Doga Dernegi. On the right, the Youth African Birders who picked up two awards for their outstanding contribution in terms of fundraising and embodying the spirit of COTF.
Beijing’s first ever HARLEQUIN (丑鸭) was discovered on 9 February 2017, when it was photographed by a local bird photographer at the unexpected location of Anzhenmen in central Beijing. Not surprisingly, this first for the capital has proved extremely popular with birders and photographers and has attracted the attention of the local media.
The vast majority of people have been very well-behaved and kept their distance, especially since the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC) erected a banner on site with information about the species and asking people not to feed it or get too close.
However, last week the bird suddenly lost the majority of its tail feathers and there was speculation that it had attracted the attention of some people with ill intentions. Shortly afterwards, someone was spotted on site after dark with a powerful spotlight and a fishing net acting suspiciously.
Local birder, 武其 (Wu Qi), was determined not to let the criminals catch the Harlequin and, with some friends, organised patrols after dark to ensure the bird’s safety and recruited young volunteers to speak to local people and passers by. As of today, those patrols are ongoing and the bird remains on site.
On Monday, with the help of 钟婕 (Zhong Jie), I conducted a short interview with Wu Qi to discuss his actions, including his views on wild bird conservation in China. Wu Qi’s answers are below:
Q: What are the threats to the Harlequin at Anzhenmen?
A: The threats to the Anzhenmen Harlequin are: illegal catching for food, inappropriate feeding and water quality (pollution). According to witnesses on-site, some people have tried to catch it for eating.
Q: What motivated you to try to protect this bird?
A: We understand that worldwide, the Harlequin Duck is not rare and is not classified as an endangered species. However, Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China, and this is the first record of this species in Beijing. As birders, we want something good for this Harlequin, which is to see it safely survive the winter and migrate back to its breeding grounds in Spring. At the same time, we want to take this opportunity to raise the awareness and knowledge of the public about how to protect wildlife correctly. We believe that the energy and efforts of a few of us are limited, so we decided to arrange volunteers to help to protect the Harlequin.
Q: Do you think the bird is safe now?
A: We have been protecting the bird for a week and, so far, there has been no catching behaviour, and inappropriate feeding has also been substantially reduced. However, we believe the water quality at the weir is not so good and we are concerned that it may contain toxic substances which may accumulate in the Harlequin’s body and affect its health and breading potential.
Q: What do your friends and family think about your actions to protect this bird?
A: My family is supportive about what I have done. And they felt very proud when they saw me on the Beijing TV news about our Harlequin protection. My friends are all nature enthusiasts or professionals engaged in nature education and wildlife conservation. So they understood very well my actions. Many of my friends have been directly involved in protecting the Harlequin. They call me “a guy of action”.
Q: Every country has a minority of people who want to harm wild birds. What do you think can be done to help protect wild birds in China?
A: In China, I feel the most critical thing is not to protect a specific bird or a species of birds, but to change the mindset and attitude of the public and government sectors towards wildlife. For example, we should let people know that wild birds do not a provide higher nutritional value than poultry. On the contrary, wild birds may have the risk of carrying parasites and contagious disease. As for the government sectors, we expect them to understand the meaning of biological function and diversity. Investing a huge amount of money to create an artificial “wetland park” is not as good as providing a lake or natural wetland that is left wild and has reduced human disturbance. I think public campaigns and communication are very important. It’s also important to promote birding activities, especially involving young kids, to help communicate and spread appreciation, knowledge and awareness about wildlife protection.
武其 (Wu Qi), “a guy of action”, works for an environmental NGO called “The Nature Library”, dedicated to promoting nature and environmental education in schools, among communities and in public parks. He’s a great example of the growing number of people passionate about protecting biodiversity in Beijing. Thank you Wu Qi and friends!
Big thanks to 钟婕 (Zhong Jie), English name Michelle, for assistance with the translations.
Title image: Wu Qi (right) with Shi Yang of the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC).
Last week I was invited to Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province by officials from the German government-owned development bank, KfW. In partnership with the Hengshui Hu nature reserve and Hengshui University, KfW is beginning a project to support the sustainable management of this impressive wetland which, as well as supporting breeding populations of Reed Parrotbill, Blunt-winged Warbler and Schrenck’s Bittern, happens to be the most important known site for the ‘Critically Endangered’ BAER’S POCHARD (BP).
I arrived at Hengshui Hu on the afternoon of 7 March and spent the last two hours of daylight checking the southern part of the lake. I recorded a minimum of 42 BPs as well as 21 Ferruginous Duck, at least 2,300 Coot, a handful of Smew and 2 Common Mergansers. However, as the light faded, I could see distant rafts of birds on the water in the more northerly part of the lake and I wondered what the morning would bring. On the short drive back to the hotel I was pleasantly surprised to see a banner with a large photograph of Baer’s Pochard draped over the road on the western side of the lake – public awareness!
I’d arranged to meet Guido and Matthias from KfW and Dr Wu Dayong of Hengshui University the following morning at 0630 for a survey. As we began our walk along the causeway, we were treated to a wonderful morning with little wind, a temperature hovering around freezing and beautiful clear blue skies. Perfect conditions. It wasn’t long before we were encountering small groups of BP and, in the ideal conditions, we enjoyed some superb views of males and females.
As we walked further we began to see some larger groups and, before we had even walked half of the causeway, our count was well over 200. Soon after a stunning encounter with some of the local Reed Parrotbills, Guido and Matthias reluctantly had to leave to attend a meeting as I continued my walk.
About an hour and a half later I met Dr Wu at the southern end of the causeway having counted 308 BPs, a new record for the site, eclipsing the 293 recorded by Paul Holt and Dr Li Qingxin on 9 December 2016. An additional 5 birds were presumed BP x Ferruginous Duck hybrids (some video of females and presumed hybrids can be seen here).
After lunch with KfW and the nature reserve staff I held a short identification workshop with the nature reserve staff focusing on how to distinguish BP from the superficially similar, at least in female, immature and eclipse plumages, Ferruginous Duck. I hope to be able to provide some more support over the next few weeks to help the staff begin regular monitoring of the birds at this important site.
On the 4-hour journey home I began to think about the future of BP. With two groups of Beijing-based scientists and conservationists, led by Dr Wu Lan and Dr Li Qingxin, already researching BP’s ecology and population dynamics, the creation of an international Baer’s Pochard Task Force, a new project at Hengshui Hu involving both local and international experts that will help take into account biodiversity in the management of the reserve, a clear understanding by the nature reserve staff and local academics of the importance of Hengshui Hu to BP, their willingness to begin regular bird monitoring, signs of public engagement and a record site count of BPs, I began to smile. Of course there is a long way to go to slow, halt and reverse the decline in the population of Baer’s Pochard but it appears some of the key building blocks are beginning to be put in place.
Whether it’s scanning through flocks of shorebirds along the Yellow Sea looking for a Spoon-billed Sandpiper or searching the barren rocky slopes of the Tibetan Plateau in the hope of glimpsing the elusive Snow Leopard, anyone who has used a telescope for hours on end will testify to the fact that squinting with one eye for any length of time can cause considerable discomfort. Regular breaks to ‘recalibrate’ the eyes and relax the muscles are required, interrupting the concentration and potentially causing the observer to miss what he/she is looking for.
This longstanding problem for regular telescope users now has a solution – the Swarovski BTX. The BTX is a new module for the ATX/STX modular set-up and essentially offers a binocular eyepiece whilst maintaining the single objective lens. Not only do the two (adjustable) eyepieces make for much more comfortable, and balanced, scanning, the addition of the adjustable forehead rest means that the biggest risk of use is falling asleep!
Alongside many prominent birders from around the world, I was privileged to be invited to Swarovski Optik’s headquarters in Tyrol, Austria, in February to be introduced to, and to road-test, the BTX. As Swarovski Optik CEO, Carina Schiestl-Swarovski, and Dale Forbes, Head of Strategic Business Development, unveiled the BTX there were audible gasps around the room, then a spontaneous round of applause. And that was before any of us had even looked through one. It simply looked the business. Minutes later, several BTXs were set up outside and we were soon trying out this masterpiece of engineering in the stunning mountains of Austria.
So, how was it?
My first reaction was that the BTX will revolutionise scanning. Anyone who uses a telescope for prolonged periods, whether its a waterbird surveyor, a tour guide in Ladakh or a sea-watcher at the coast, the BTX will be a God-send. The comfort is striking when compared with a traditional telescope and, additionally, seeing with two eyes certainly adds a good deal to the quality of the viewing. It seemed to me that I was seeing more, and more quickly, when using the BTX compared with the traditional ATX. It’s simply a more pleasurable, and more natural, viewing experience.
Over the following two days we took the new kit to Lake Constance where we scanned the flocks of waterfowl. After only a couple of minutes, adjusting the (removable) forehead rest and getting used to using two eyes, I found the BTX a delight. We enjoyed superb views of a range of waterfowl including Whooper Swan, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Common Pochard, Goldeneye, Common Merganser and even a few Red-throated and Black-throated Divers before there were whoops of joy from the Americans when a much-coveted ‘redhead’ Smew flew in and landed in front of us.
Visiting more locations around Lake Constance, we put the BTX through its paces in varying light conditions, paired with different objective lenses and using the new ME 1.7x extender (compatible with the ATX/STX and BTX), all of which displayed the optical quality one would expect from Swarovski. With two representatives from Cornell Lab, Jessie Barry and Chris Wood, we were of course religiously recording our sightings using the eBird APP and were racking up an impressive list including White Stork, Short-toed Treecreeper and Red Kite.
As with many brilliant innovations, it begs the question – why hasn’t the BTX been developed before? Well, the answer is, of course, that similar designs that incorporate a binocular eyepiece with a telescope (usually involving two objective lenses) have been produced before but most are bulky and impractical for use in the field. As the engineers explained to us during our ‘behind the scenes’ tour, technically it’s been a challenging project and this is the first time such a design, with the optical quality and practicality we have come to expect from Swarovski, has been produced for birders.
Are there any downsides? Well, the fixed magnification of 30x (or 35x on the ATX/STX 95) is a limiting factor. Producing a zoom would have, according to the engineers, made the BTX bulkier, heavier and a lot more expensive. And there is a little extra weight. For me, the lack of zoom is a minor limitation – when I use my telescope for scanning I generally prefer a relatively low magnification to maximise field of view and the brightness of the image. And, of course, the modular system means that it’s straightforward to swap the BTX for an ATX zoom eyepiece once the target has been found or, if you prefer to stay with the BTX eyepiece, add the ME 1.7x magnification extender, small enough to easily fit into a pocket. In the context of the whole set-up (telescope and tripod), the extra weight is marginal. In summary, the benefits of the binocular view far outweigh the downsides.
The price tag of Euro 2,490 including 20% VAT is not cheap, reflecting the expertise that has gone into the design and the quality of the manufacturing. For existing ATX/STX users, the BTX will be an attractive addition to expand the performance of, and comfort of using, the modular set-up. I expect it to be popular..
Personally, I know the BTX will make a big difference when I go to Qinghai looking for Snow Leopards or scanning the local reservoir counting the ducks and geese whilst looking for Baer’s Pochards and I can’t wait to get my hands on one!
Swarovski is to be congratulated on an innovative and stylish product that cements their place as the pioneer at the forefront of the optics manufacturing. The BTX will be available from May and interested potential customers should know that, from 30 April until 12 May, this revolutionary scope can be tried out in some of Europe’s best birding areas in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. See here for more details.
Huge thanks to the Swarovski ‘family’ for providing us with wonderful hospitality in Tyrol and for allowing a rare insight ‘behind the scenes’. As well as being at the forefront of their industry, it was heartening to see how much Swarovski Optik invests in corporate and social responsibility, in particular sustainability. Their energy and waste management programmes are hugely impressive meaning that their environmental ‘footprint’ is minimal. Combined with the facilities made available to staff, including a kindergarten for employees’ children, a superb cafeteria and impressive working conditions, it’s clearly a great company that is a model for how a company can not only be at the forefront of their industry but also make a positive contribution to the community. Another reason to choose Swarovski!