White-throated Redstart at Lingshan

Wednesday was a shocker of a day in Beijing.  In the last two years, the air quality has improved significantly through a combination of government efforts to shut down coal-fired power stations and old heavy industry, in particular steel production, and favourable winds.  However, after a few days of gentle southerly winds, bringing pollution from industrial Hebei Province, the air quality was the worst for many months.  If there’s one place to be in those circumstances, it’s the mountains; even the relatively modest 2,303m elevation of Beijing’s highest peak at Lingshan is usually above the smog and enjoys blue skies while the majority of the capital suffocates in a blanket of toxic pollution.

It wasn’t the pollution forecast but instead a happy coincidence that I had arranged to visit Lingshan with good friend and fellow Beijinger, Steve Bale.  It would be my first visit to this special site since summer and the first visit of the winter invariably evokes memories of the special birds I’ve been lucky to encounter there, not least the male PRZEVALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART from February 2014.

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (Phoenicurus alaschanicus) at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.

The morning started brightly with the expected blue skies and clean air, enabling us to look towards downtown Beijing cloaked in a horrible grey-brown murk.

As usual, our first stop was ‘Przewalski’s Gully”, the site of that memorable 2014 find.  A group of six PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSHES, a single RED-THROATED THRUSH and a pair of BEIJING BABBLERS greeted us we made our way up the gully, shortly followed by three male and two female WHITE-WINGED (GULDENSTADT’S) REDSTARTS and a pair of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.

After birding the gully we headed up to the ‘old road’ and, with the sun behind us, started to walk up the valley.  It was fairly quiet with a few RED-THROATED THRUSHES, a handful of GODLEWSKI’S and MEADOW BUNTINGS and a trickle of WHITE-WINGED REDSTARTS.

After reaching the top, I headed back down the valley to collect the car while Steve made his way on foot along the road, passing the formerly derelict, now shiny and renovated, buildings.  Collecting Steve as I drove up, we stopped briefly at the ‘saddle’ to check the rocky slopes for ASIAN ROSY FINCHES or ALPINE ACCENTORS (sadly absent) before continuing along the road as it began to descend.  With windows open and almost no wind we were listening for birds and almost immediately we heard the familiar call of CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH.  Two males were sitting up in some dwarf birches, showing off their stunning pink plumage.  A resident breeder, these birds are always a delight to see.

Male CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCHES, Lingshan (Steve Bale)

Continuing on we stopped after only a few metres when I thought I heard a PINE BUNTING.  We stopped the car at a shallow gully, dotted with silver birch trees.

The lightly wooded gully (c1550m asl) where we stopped to look for a Pine Bunting.

Steve began to walk up the gully as I checked the top close to the road.  As Steve made his way up we saw a few MEADOW BUNTINGS, a GODLEWSKI’S BUNTING and a couple of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.  It was at this point that I heard a harsh ‘tick’ call that I thought could be a redstart.  Suddenly, a bird flew past me at head height at such speed that I was unable to lift my binoculars in time..  My first reaction, on seeing the striking orange underparts, was “that was a really bright stonechat”!  However, a split second later as it headed down the gully, I could see the dark wings with a white wing-bar and immediately knew it was a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, a species with which I am familiar from the Valley of the Cats on the Tibetan Plateau.  Wow!

I could see that the bird dropped and appeared to land in bushes at the bottom the gully, from where Steve had walked in.  I shouted to Steve and he quickly joined me at the top of the gully.  Steve agreed to head back down the road to the bottom of the gully while I stayed at the top to ensure I could see it if it relocated.  I spotted it deep in a bush and, as Steve made his way down, it made two brief forays onto the grassy slope to catch insects, before heading back to the bushes.  After a couple of minutes, Steve was at the base of the gully and secured a few record images as it foraged for insects.  Relieved that we had some documentation of the record, I headed down with the car and we both viewed from the road as the redstart caught insects and, occasionally, delivered a relatively quiet subsong.  After enjoying the bird for around half an hour and securing some photos and video from a safe distance, we decided to move on, feeling elated at such an unexpected find.

Male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, Lingshan, 14 November 2018. Photo by Terry Townshend.

Lingshan lies on the boundary of Beijing Municipality and Hebei Province and, whilst the peak is in Beijing, the border snakes erratically and some of the areas to the north and west are in Hebei.  On checking the specific location on Google Maps, we found that the White-winged Redstart was in Hebei Province, around 250m outside Beijing, so technically it can’t be counted as a Beijing record, although I suspect it would be possible to view from inside the capital!

White-throated Redstart is, I believe, the 5th species of Phoenicurus redstart to be encountered at Lingshan after Black, Daurian, Przevalski’s and White-winged, and adds to the growing number of Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau species found in the mountains around Beijing.  With the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau linked, albeit loosely, to the capital via the severely under-birded Qinling, Luliang and Taihang ranges, it’s entirely possible that more Plateau species occasionally make their way to the mountains around Beijing.  What price a Blue-fronted or Hodgson’s Redstart?

Big thanks to Steve Bale for his great company and use of his photos from the trip.

According to HBW, White-throated Redstart (Phoenicurus schisticeps) is a high-altitude breeder (2400-4500m) in Central and Eastern Himalayas East from West Central Nepal, and Central China (East and Southeast Qinghai, South Gansu and Southwest Shaanxi, South to South and Southeast Tibet and North Yunnan).  It is mostly sedentary with some elevational movements in winter, down to 1,400m.  The Lingshan bird is >1,000km to the east of its normal range and, with only one historical record from a park in coastal Hebei (PH via WeChat), this is possibly only the second record for Eastern China.  We’d both be very interested to hear about other extralimital records of this species in eastern China.

 

Title photo: White-throated Redstart, Lingshan by Steve Bale.

Wallcreeper in urban Beijing

When I was growing up in a small village in Norfolk, England, the WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀) was one of those species that I used to dream about as I flicked through my beloved Hamlyn Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe.  The dream remained just that for many years and I was almost 30 years old before I finally saw one, in southern France on a dreary day in mid-winter.  It was distant, in bad weather and appalling light, but unmistakably, it was a WALLCREEPER.  I was ecstatic.

Since moving to China, I’ve been fortunate to see many more in the spectacular mountains of the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan and Qinghai – including the Valley of the Cats – and they always set the pulse racing.  Showing off that beautiful red, black and white pattern, wing-flicking as they forage for spiders and other insects in rocky crevices, to me the species recalls sheer cliff faces, penetrating gorges and vast rocky outcrops.

It’s a bird I never expected to find just a few minutes from my apartment in urban Beijing but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday.

Heading out for a morning walk before planning to grab a coffee and make inroads into my burgeoning email inbox, I decided on a route I rarely take, alongside a small river adjacent to the local shopping mall.. The decision was based on the fact there are some areas of thick vegetation in the water and I harboured the thought of a Brown-cheeked Rail or, more likely, a Green Sandpiper or Water Pipit.  After the first few hundred metres I was thinking that the single Water Pipit, calling as it flew down river, would likely be my only reward.  Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small, what appeared to be a grey-white, bird that flicked its wings before immediately disappearing behind a fence post.  I thought to myself that it had the ‘jizz’ of a Wallcreeper but immediately dismissed the thought as ridiculous.  Slowly walking closer, it was just a few seconds later that the bird reappeared as it flew up and sat on a fence post in full view.  I was gobsmacked – there was a WALLCREEPER!  On a fence post.  Alongside a tiny river just 50m from a shopping mall.  In Beijing.

Not having any birding optics with me, I took out my iPhone and snapped a few photographs knowing that any kind of record image would be important to document the record.  The bird flew past me and I was able to get some pretty terrible, but recognisable, images.

My first photo of the WALLCREEPER. Can you spot it?
In flight along the river.
A second in-flight photo captured on iPhone.

I was relieved to capture something that was recognisable and set off back home to fetch my binoculars and telescope in the hope that it might hang around.

Fortunately, the bird was still there when I returned and I was able to record some video, including some slow motion clips, as it crept its way along the wall, seemingly finding plenty of food.

I am constantly amazed at the birds that turn up in urban locations and that’s what makes birding in Beijing so rewarding.  The lesson is: expect the unexpected!

 

Status of Wallcreeper in Beijing: one or two Wallcreepers regularly spend the winter (migrating from unknown breeding grounds) at Shidu, a mountainous area in Fangshan on the southwest fringes of Beijing Municipality.  However, there are no previous lowland Beijing records and this is the first record for Shunyi District.

China vows to rehabilitate Yangtze River ecosystems

After the recent announcement banning commercial land reclamation along China’s coast, spelling good news for the country’s beleaguered coastal wetlands and the millions of shorebirds that depend on them, it is heartening to report some good news for China’s freshwater ecosystems.

Yesterday, Caixin reported that government ministers and city leaders from 15 Provinces have signed the “Wuhan Declaration on the Protection of Life of the Yangtze River”, a commitment to coordinate efforts to rehabilitate the Yangtze River’s ecosystem, a welcome boost to the ailing river.

Sourced on the Tibetan Plateau and snaking 6,300 kilometres to China’s east coast, the Yangtze is the third-longest river in the world and Asia’s largest river system.  It spans 19 provinces/municipalities and hosts over 400 species of fish, 183 of which are endemic. The river is also home to the endangered Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis) and, in winter, its floodplain is globally important for more than half a million migratory birds, many of which are endangered, including the Siberian Crane and Oriental Stork.

The ecological condition of this mighty river has declined dramatically over the last few decades through a combination of dredging, damming, pollution and other harmful human-related activities.  Around 40% of China’s population live along the river and this population pressure has caused disruption to the flood plains and polluted the river with pesticides and agricultural waste.  According to Caixin’s article, more than 50,000 dams and hydropower stations have been built along the river, including the enormous Three Gorges Dam.

The “Wuhan Declaration on the Protection of Life of the Yangtze River” pledges to coordinate efforts to promote the protection of the ecology and environment of China’s “mother river” and quotes President Xi Jinping’s comments during a visit in April that development along the river should be based on the premise of maintaining ecological protection.

Let’s hope this is the beginning of a major new commitment to properly value, protect, and restore, China’s vital freshwater ecosystems.

 

Header photo: releasing fish into the Yangtze River by VCG via Caixin

Chinese Mountain Cat

Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) must be one of the most poorly known cats in the world.  With a very small known range on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau (Qinghai and northwest Sichuan), it is the only cat endemic to China and it was as recently as 2007 that it was first photographed in the wild (via a camera trap).

Chinese Mountain Cat is so poorly known that a young Chinese scientist who wanted to study it for his PhD was told by his supervisor that there simply wasn’t enough information to warrant a PhD and to focus on another mammal.  In recent years there have been sporadic sightings in Rouergai (Sichuan Province) and near Yushu (Qinghai Province) but it remains one of the most mysterious felids on the planet.

It was therefore with some excitement that I heard about the discovery of an active den while in the Valley of the Cats, near Yushu, in mid-September and was fortunate and privileged to be taken to the site by the finder, local ShanShui employee Dawa.

Dawa had been working with Han Xuesong, ShanShui’s project lead on another Tibetan Plateau species – Black-necked Crane – when he spotted movement alongside the road.  Thinking the animal was a Tibetan Fox, common in the area, he grabbed his camera and took a series of photographs.  It was only when he later looked through the images that he realised he had photographed not a Tibetan Fox but a cat..  and after circulating the images to colleagues at ShanShui, it was soon confirmed as a Chinese Mountain Cat, a poorly known and rarely seen felid.

On returning to the site, the ShanShui staff were delighted to find not one cat but three – a mother with two young kittens.  They had found an active den – possibly the first ever discovered in the wild.  The location, close to a road, meant that the cats appeared to be relatively used to seeing people and so, not long after, while the mother cat was away from the den hunting for prey, Dawa and Xuesong placed a camera trap close to one of the three entrances to the den (thought to be an old Himalayan Marmot hole).  The resulting footage is spectacular and, courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center, a compilation can be seen below.

The three cats performed magnificently for the camera trap for several days until, late in September, the mother led her kittens to another, unknown, site.  The hours of footage will undoubtedly add significantly to the current knowledge of Chinese Mountain Cat, including breeding ecology, diet and behaviour.  And with local people commenting that this cat is seen frequently in the area, this find may turn out to be just the beginning of a new insight into this most mysterious of cats.  The perfect subject for a PhD!

Big congratulations to Dawa, Xuesong and the ShanShui team for their discovery and for capturing such riveting and intimate footage of China’s only endemic cat.

Here are some still images from the camera trap.

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Title photo, still images and video clip all courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center.

 

Reference:

https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/eurasia/chinese-mountain-cat/

 

Snow Leopard Caught on Camera

Six weeks ago, working with ShanShui Conservation Center, I finished the latest round of training for the host families in the Valley of the Cats in Qinghai Province as part of the community-based wildlife tourism project.  Before leaving, I spent an afternoon high up in the mountains, where I set up a camera trap along the edge of a crag.  Two days ago, I retrieved it.  The memory card was full and included more than 1,800 images.  I was excited but at the same time wary that I may have 1,800 photos of a blade of grass waving in the wind, triggering the camera trap’s motion sensor!

As I looked through the images, I was not prepared for what I was about to see.  Many of the photos were of a cute GLOVER’S PIKA, busily preparing for winter by gathering vegetation and placing it in its den.

A TIBETAN SNOWCOCK was a joy to see, strutting along the rocks..

This was shortly followed by a group of BLUE SHEEP, a wonderful ungulate that roams these mountains in large groups, often 100+ strong.

Then, after checking around 500 photos, suddenly I had a surprise..  a SNOW LEOPARD!  The spectacular series of five photos show what I believe to be a fresh-faced young animal walking closer and closer to the camera before appearing to look right into the lens…  spectacular!

I could not have wished for a better result!

This Snow Leopard was caught on camera in a part of the valley previously not known to hold this species, so it’s helpful information to the ShanShui scientists working in the area.

The last two weeks have been a busy time for the Valley of the Cats with five groups of visitors staying with local families as part of the community-based tourism project. The groups included Professor Per Alström and his brother Klas, Beijing-based Ben Wielstra and Jan-Erik Nilsen, Alan Babington-Smith and Melinda Liu from the Royal Asiatic Society, as well as James Eaton and Rob Hutchinson from BirdTour Asia who visited with Dan Brown and his wife Rachael Iveson-Brown.  Roland Zeidler visited with Fiona Fyfe and John MacKinnon accompanied us for a few days before heading to a birding festival in Yushu.  Finally, the day before I left, Yann Muzika, Abdelhamid Bizid, Yong Ding Li, Irene Dy and Summer Wong began their 4-day visit.

I’m delighted to say that, thanks to their supreme efforts in scanning endless ridges and crags, Per’s, James’s and Roland’s groups were successful in seeing, and recording video, of Snow Leopard in two different places, as well as spotting Wolf, Lynx, White-lipped and Alpine Musk Deer, Woolly Hare and Himalayan Marmot.  As I write this, I have just heard that Yann’s group has also been successful with two separate sightings of Snow Leopard.

To give you a sense of the place, here’s a selection of photos from last week.

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Huge thanks to all the visitors for being such great company last week and for supporting this fledgling community-based tourism project.

Reading this, you may think that seeing Snow Leopards in the Valley of the Cats is easy.  I can assure you it’s not.  Really not.  Unless one is supremely lucky to encounter one close to the road (which is possible), it can take many many hours of scanning rocks and ridges in the seemingly endless suitable habitat to find one.  But that elusiveness is surely part of the charm of the Snow Leopard.  However, even if you don’t see a Snow Leopard, the spectacular scenery, wonderful local culture and the array of other special mammals and birds make any visit an unforgettable experience.

If you’re interested in visiting the Valley of the Cats and supporting the community-based tourism project, please check out the website.  Please be warned – conditions are basic: no toilets, no running water and no heating – so the Valley is not for the faint-hearted.  However, if you are prepared to live like a yak herder for a few days, you will have a truly authentic experience.  100% of the revenue stays in the community, so visitors can be confident they are supporting the local people and conservation while enjoying the trip of a lifetime.

 

Beijing Police Step Up Anti-poaching Efforts

As birders well know, September is a peak time for autumn migration.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that millions of birds must pass over Beijing, most undetected as we sleep, from their breeding grounds in the vast forests and tundra of Siberia to wintering grounds in China, SE Asia and some as far away as Australia and New Zealand.  As well as being an exciting time for birders (as can be seen from the Latest Sightings page), this is also a time of peak activity for poachers – those who wish to capture these miracles of nature and put them into cages.

Last weekend Marie and I found an illegal mist net on the local patch.  The poacher was almost certainly targeting Siberian Rubythroats and Bluethroats, birds that command a decent price (CNY 200-300 each, GBP 20-30) in the now mostly underground bird markets scattered around the capital.  Petrified we’d call the police, he willingly helped us release the birds in the net and freed those he had already caught and bagged, before making a run for it as we destroyed the nets and poles.

IMG_5263
The poacher, typically a man of retirement age, became suddenly very shy.
Mist nets are, by design, almost undetectable for birds.
The poles and nets were rendered harmless and disposed of in an incinerator.

We called the police in any case and sent them the photos before publishing the images on Chinese social media.  Just an hour or so later, a journalist from the Beijing Evening News (one of Beijing’s most popular newspapers) called and asked some questions before writing an article about the incident.  The link was published on the popular social media platform – WeChat – and was soon picked up by the Shunyi Forestry Police, who subsequently issued this public notice.

2018-09-11 Forestry Police Notice, Shunyi

For those of you who don’t read Chinese, the notice refers to a British “bird protection volunteer” who found some illegal nets, dismantled them and reported the incident to the police.  It then warns poachers that the police will increase their patrols in the area, requests that anyone who sees illegal nets to call the police and commits to increasing education and awareness about wild bird protection.

That’s a pretty good result and shows how attitudes are changing, both among the media and with the law enforcement authorities.  When I arrived in China seven years ago there was little chance the police would have responded to reports of people catching wild birds.  Now they act positively and swiftly.  And whilst this is Beijing, and other parts of China almost certainly lag behind, it’s nevertheless another good sign for China and bird conservation.  Well done, Shunyi Forestry Police!

 

Valuing Wetlands in China

At first glance, coastal mudflats can seem grim and desolate places with little obvious economic value.  It is therefore not surprising that these areas have often been considered by planners, and the public, to be suitable for reclamation projects and development.

Over the past 50 years in China, 60% of temperate coastal ecosystems, 73% of mangroves and 80% of coral reefs have been lost mostly due to economic development. Only 24% of coastal wetlands have been legally designated as protected areas, much lower than the mean wetland protection rate of 43.5% across China, and coastal wetlands in China’s most economically developed provinces/municipalities – such as Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Tianjin, and Shandong – are hot targets for development projects.

This rapid development has not come without costs. Thanks to studies such as the Blueprint for Coastal Wetlands in China, we now know that many of the decisions to develop these coastal areas have neglected the significant benefits of wetlands – so called ecosystem services – including helping to prevent and mitigate flooding and storm surges, regulating climate change by storing carbon, purifying water and providing sustainable livelihoods for local people, as well as providing invaluable habitat for millions of migratory shorebirds as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere.  Such ‘natural capital’ is not reflected on most countries’ balance sheets but, nevertheless, its erosion undermines the ability to achieve sustainable economic growth.

One of the six recommendations contained in the Blueprint was the need to carry out publicity and education activities about wetland conservation, raising awareness and involving the public in protecting coastal wetlands and migratory birds.

That is why, this week, the Wetland Conservation and Management Office of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration in partnership with the Paulson Institute, the Lao Niu Foundation and the Mangrove Conservation Foundation, launched a new project to set up Wetland Education Centres across China.

The project, due to run for three years, will draw on national and international best practice, including from Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong, Guandu Nature Reserve in Taiwan and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Singapore as well as wetlands in Japan, Korea and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserves in the UK.

The objectives are to establish:

  • A standard system for wetland education centres in China
  • Three to five demonstration wetland education centres within three years
  • A professional network for wetland education centres in China and to provide support for the establishment and development of further wetland education centres

This project will help build and strengthen public awareness about the value of China’s remaining coastal wetlands and underpins the recent announcement by the Chinese government to ban all further commercial land reclamation along the coast.

Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University delivered a comprehensive overview of wetlands in China and it was great to see Chris Rostron of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) addressing the meeting to relay some of their experience in bringing wetland education to the public.

It’s heartening to see China’s top level policy announcements being backed up by the less high-profile but arguably more important, initiatives on the ground to raise awareness about the value of wetlands and the need to protect them.

And it’s not only in China that the value of wetlands is being recognised.  At the end of August, the government in Sri Lanka approved recommendations to protect and restore the urban wetlands of the capital, Colombo, after a study by The World Bank and WWT Consulting showed that benefits included:

  • Flood damage mitigation (without the wetlands, it was modelled that a 1 in 100 years flooding event could happen every year)
  • The wetlands provided cooling for the city of up to 5 degrees Celsius in the summer
  • Providing a home for >250 species of wildlife, including the endangered Fishing Cat
  • Air and water pollution mitigation
  • Food security for the urban poor
  • Places for recreation, education and tourism
  • Carbon sequestration

In total, these benefits were calculated to be worth 8.8 million RS (GBP 41,500, USD 54,000, CNY 370,000) per hectare per year.

On 28 August the Sri Lankan cabinet approved the recommendations and will designate the remaining wetlands as protected areas as well as setting up a dedicated management body to ensure they are managed effectively.  What a great example!