Hengshui Hu – The Home of Baer’s Pochard

At the end of May, I reported on the successful breeding of Baer’s Pochard at Hengshui Hu, just 300km south of Beijing.  It’s remarkable progress in the conservation of this diving duck which, with fewer than 1,000 remaining, is classified as critically endangered, just one step away from extinction.

This week I paid my latest visit to Hengshui Hu to help deliver more training of the local nature reserve staff including the ‘enforcement team’ on waterbird monitoring and identification.  During the three-hour train journey to Hengshui, I wondered whether the measures taken by the local government and nature reserve to clamp down on illegal fishing, egg collection and to manage the water levels during the breeding season would be sustained.

I needn’t have worried.  Early morning on my first full day, we enjoyed a ‘field visit’ along the causeway to check for Baer’s Pochard and other waterbirds and there wasn’t a fishing boat or net in sight.. There were good numbers of young Great Crested and Little Grebes, Coots, a few groups of juvenile Ferruginous Ducks, tens each of Black-crowned Night, Purple and Grey Herons, Yellow Bitterns were flying back and forth with food and, in contrast to their British counterparts already well on their way to Africa, the Common Cuckoos were still very obvious, calling and chasing each other over the reed beds, much to the annoyance of the local Oriental Reed Warblers.  The colony, 100s strong, of Whiskered Terns on one of the disused fishponds with a Pheasant-tailed Jacana pottering on the lotus leaves showed just how habitat, and its associated biodiversity, can recover if given the chance.

2012-07-13 Yellow Bittern in flight2
One of the many Yellow Bitterns at Hengshui Hu 

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After the training, the nature reserve staff arranged for me to be taken out on a boat patrol with the enforcement team and we found a group of at least four juvenile aythyas, tentatively identified as Baer’s Pochards based on head shape and bill size compared with juvenile Ferruginious seen earlier.  And my hosts quickly sent packing two groups of fishermen who had sneaked to the shore close to the main Baer’s Pochard breeding area.

2018-07-10 stopping illegal fishing at Hengshui Hu
These fishermen, close to the main breeding area of Baer’s Pochard, were sent packing by the local enforcement team.

On arrival at my hotel along the east bank of Hengshui Hu, I was pleasantly surprised to receive my room card, complete with a picture of Baer’s Pochard.. and in my room was a leaflet with information about the Baer’s Pochard and the importance of Hengshui Hu for the species.  Great public engagement!

2018-07-10 Hengshui Hu Longyuan Hotel BP

The bird monitoring team at Hengshui University, led by Dr Wu Dayong and Li Feng, now have an impressive full year of waterbird data, collected at least weekly, for and they’ve even added some new species to the official list for the site.

The future of Baer’s Pochard at this site now looks bright and huge credit must go to the local government, local nature reserve, Hengshui University and the local people who now see Baer’s Pochard as a key part of their identity.

Hengshui Hu is undoubtedly the “Home of Baer’s Pochard”.

 

The Valley of the Cats Website Launched

On behalf of the local community in The Valley of the Cats, close to the source of the mighty Mekong River on the Tibetan Plateau, we are delighted to announce the launch of a new website dedicated to the Valley.

The bilingual (English and Chinese) site includes background information about the Valley, the people and its wildlife.  It includes latest news from the local yak herders, the latest photos from the camera traps set up and operated by the local community and feedback from visitors who participated in the pilot trips.

The Valley of the Cats is a special place and, thanks to the efforts of the local government, local families and ShanShui Conservation Centre, the Valley is now open to receive small numbers of visitors, provided permits are obtained through official channels.  Visitors stay with one of the local yak herder families, who will collect you from, and return you to, the airport at Yushu which, in turn, is just one hour from Xining by air.

Feeling adventurous?  Why not check out the site and contact the local community to arrange the trip of a lifetime…  https://valleyofthecats.org

Header photo by Frédéric Larrey, taken in the Valley of the Cats.

 

Beijing Swift Exhibition at Tiananmen Square

Last week I was excited to receive an invitation to meet with Mr Guan Zhanxiu, the Director of Zhengyangmen Gate (the southern gate of Tiananmen Square) and to view the exhibition about the Beijing Swift currently on show to the public.  Mr Guan made arrangements for me to visit on Tuesday afternoon and so, at around 1400 I made my way to Zhengyangmen via Qianmen, at the southern end of Tiananmen Square.

2018-07-03 Zhengyangmen gate at Tiananmen Square panorama
A panorama of Zhengyangmen (left) with Mao’s mausoleum on the right.

Zhengyangmen gate, right at the heart of Beijing, is certainly one of the best places in the capital to view the Beijing Swift with several hundred pairs breeding amongst the beams of this historic building.  On warm summer evenings from mid-April until late July, the Beijing Swifts’ spectacular sociable and noisy flights, wheeling around the rafters, are a sight to behold and an example of how wildlife can thrive even in the heart of our capital cities.  From now until September this historic venue is hosting a stunning public exhibition dedicated to the Beijing Swift.

Beijing Swift exhibition title

Beijing Swift exhibition photos

The exhibition is a wonderful mix of science, culture and history.  There is a 25-minute video, including the history of the Beijing Swift in China, spectacular footage of the birds in flight and at their nests, and an animation of their migration.

Did you know, for example, that the first known visual representation of the Beijing Swift (see below) dates back more than 3,000 years to artefacts found in an ancient royal tomb?  At that time, Chinese people believed their ancestors were transformed into Swifts after death, and these birds have had a special place in their culture ever since.

The video follows a pair of Beijing Swifts being studied by local academics.  Incredibly, and shockingly, one of the nests contains a significant amount of plastic, a reflection of the omnipresence of this manmade material in our environment today.

2018-07-03 Beijing Swift nest with plastic

Of course, the story of the Beijing Swift would not be complete without showcasing the Beijing Swift Project and the tracking of birds from the Summer Palace.  Their incredible migration to southern Africa for the northern winter is depicted by a magnificent map showing the countries through which they pass on their way to and from southern Africa.

Beijing Swift ewxhibition migration route

The exhibition will run until September and is open daily from 1000 to 1600.  If you’re going to be in Beijing during this time, don’t miss it!

We’re hopeful that, after September, the exhibition will be available to schools and public spaces around the capital and beyond.

A big thanks to Director Guan Zhanxiu and his wonderful staff – Yuan Xuejun, Zhao Penghua, Li Lianshun, Jiang Junyi and Wang Jichao – for showing me around and explaining their personal connections with, and commitment to protecting, the Beijing Swift.

Beijing Swift couple selfie
The old and the new. This young couple takes a ‘selfie’ with Beijing Swifts at the Summer Palace.

 

Birding with Chevening Alumni in Beijing

To encourage and strengthen connections between some of the world’s brightest young people and the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office runs something called the Chevening Programme.  Chevening offers scholarships for young people, selected by British Embassies around the world, to study in the UK and, when they return, as well as hopefully going on to occupy positions of leadership and influence whilst being sympathetic to the UK, they become part of a growing community of Chevening alumni.  It must be a sound investment.

On Saturday I was honoured to be invited to accompany a group of Chevening alumni from Beijing on an introductory birding trip.  Being mid-summer, the city is hot and sticky with temperatures into the high 30s degrees Celsius, so it was a wonderful opportunity to head to the mountains where it’s a little cooler.

With the lush vegetation and spectacular contours, it was hard to believe we were still in the capital city of the most populous country in the world.

Our destination was the Youzhou Valley in Mentougou District in west Beijing.  It’s a spectacular gorge with towering cliffs through which a beautifully clear river meanders its way southeast.  As well as offering stunning scenery, the Youzhou Valley hosts some birds that are hard to see anywhere else in the capital such as Chukar, Golden Eagle and Blue Rock Thrush.

Eyes up! A stunning male Daurian Redstart captures the attention of the group.

For most of the group it was their first birding trip and it was a joy to see the pleasure they gained from seeing two soaring Golden Eagles at our first stop.  Not a bad start!

Smiles all round after seeing two Golden Eagles at the first stop.

We enjoyed spectacular views of singing Meadow Bunting, Daurian Redstart, Red-billed Chough, Hill Pigeon and Eurasian Crag Martin before heading to the most expansive cliff-face to look for Pacific Swift.  A few pairs of Pacific Swifts breed here and the group found it hard to believe this small bird could fly all the way to Australia for the northern winter… which prompted a discussion about the Beijing Swift making an even longer journey to South Africa from the Summer Palace.  The miracle of bird migration never fails to inspire.

 The youngest member of the group loved the singing Meadow Bunting.

After a short walk to find a picnic spot, we were fortunate to gain good views of several Blue Rock Thrushes and a nest-building Russet Sparrow, however a much-wanted Common Kingfisher put in an all too brief appearance.  Two Mandarin and a family of Mallard provided a fitting end before we set off for the journey back to the sweltering city.

A nest-building male Russet Sparrow.
One of the male Blue Rock Thrushes serenaded us during lunch.
The obligatory group photo taken just before we left the valley.

We recorded 24 species in total, uploaded to eBird.

Big thanks to everyone who came along and a special thanks to the Chevening Team at the British Embassy for making the arrangements.  I very much hope this was the first of many birding trips for this awesome, and influential, bunch of people!

As Kenn Kaufman says, “everyone is a birder, it’s just that some people don’t know it yet”

 

The Search for Swinhoe’s Rail

Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) must be one of east Asia’s least known birds.  Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only very infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.

It was only two years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia.  And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia.

Wuerqihan is a wonderful place… it is very popular with bird photographers in winter when, despite the bitter temperatures (as low as -35 degrees Celsius), it’s possible to see very well species such as Great Grey, Hawk, Ural, Tengmalm’s, Eagle and Little Owls plus other photogenic birds such as Hazel Grouse, Black Grouse, Siberian Jay, Pine GrosbeakPallas’s Rosefinch and, if you are lucky, Black-billed Capercaillie, .  It is less well-known that summer is also pretty special.  In addition to the recently-discovered Swinhoe’s Rail, it is a brilliant site to see Pallas’s and Gray’s Grasshopper Warblers, Lanceolated Warbler, Band-bellied Crake, Pale-legged, Two-barred Greenish, Dusky and Radde’s Warblers, Eyebrowed Thrush, Oriental Cuckoo and many more species.  It is also just wonderful to spend time in pristine lush wet meadows, mixed deciduous forest and grassland that are all teeming with life.

2018-06-19 Inner Mongolian wetland, Wuerqihan
One of the wet clearings in the forest at Wuerqihan.
2018-06-16 silver birch forest, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia
The stunning birch forest at Wuerqihan is home to owls, warblers, thrushes and buntings.
2018-06-19 Clouds over Inner Mongolia meadow
The open wet grasslands of Wuerqihan are full of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers!

I had already made two short summer trips to Wuerqihan, in 2016 with Nick Green and in 2017 with Derrick Wilby and I was keen to return.  So, with Marie, we set aside a few days to fly to Hailar, rent a car and drive the 2.5 hours east to Wuerqihan.

We were keen just to enjoy the break and some good birding but of course we were also hoping to encounter the Swinhoe’s Rail.

Our first day would coincide with the last day of the visit by British birder, Jon Holmes, for whom I had arranged local guide Zhang Wu and his 4×4 to take him around.  And on day two we bumped into another Brit, Dave Woodford, accompanied by Chinese bird guide, Steven An.

The call of Swinhoe’s Rail is reasonably loud and carries for quite a distance… and during our first evening on site, we had no difficulty in hearing the Swinhoe’s Rails from the track, calling from the wet grass.  Being poorly prepared (no wellies or torch), we decided to call it a night, do a spot of shopping in the town the following day and return the next evening.

After each picking up a pair of wellies for CNY 40 (about GBP5) we arrived on site, with Steven and Dave, around 6pm, about 2.5 hours before dusk.  Already, one bird was calling intermittently and, before long, two or three began calling.  We donned our wellies and headed along the edge of the meadow, stopping regularly to listen to the birds as they began calling more frequently as dusk approached.   You can hear a bit about our first encounter here:

Suddenly, a dark shape flew up in front of Dave and dropped into the grass about 15m away.  It was tiny and dark with obvious white secondaries – Swinhoes’ Rail!  Almost immediately it began to call and, having my sound recording gear with me, I was fortunate to capture this seldom heard, and rarely recorded, sound.

We were stunned and stood still, just soaking up the moment.  The wonderful rich colours of the meadow at sunset, not a breath of wind and Swinhoe’s Rails calling amongst the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Common Rosefinches, Japanese Quails and Common Cuckoos.  Simply mesmerising.

2018-06-18 Meadow in Inner Mongolia
Swinhoe’s Rail habitat in Inner Mongolia.
2018-06-17 Swinhoe's Rail habitat
The grass was around 30cm high with c15cm of water.. Wellies definitely required.
2018-06-17 Swinhoe's Rail, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia (Steven An)
Swinhoe’s Rail in flight, Wuerqihan. Photo by Steven An.

That moment will stay with us for a very long time.   And as we made our way back to the vehicles, we were accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong with Common Cuckoos seemingly all around, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers reeling away and Japanese Quails uttering their squelchy call.  Magical.

The Chinese name for Swinhoe’s Rail is 花田鸡 (Huātián jī).  Literally translated it means “flower frog”, a fantastically descriptive and apt name.

Over the next few days, we enjoyed some pretty special encounters with some wonderful birds including a stunning Great Grey Owl in the evening light.

Pacific Swifts were common in the town, breeding in many of the buildings, particularly the older properties.

And the omnipresent Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler occasionally showed well, belying its reputation as an extreme skulker.

 

We recorded 98 species during our visit and had a fantastic time.  Wuerqihan is a brilliant birding destination and thoroughly recommended in summer or winter.  It is probably also extremely good in spring and autumn but, as far as I know, no birders have visited in that season.

2018-06-16 Zhang Wu scoping for Black-billed Capercaillie, Wuerqihan
Local guide, Zhang Wu, with his trusty 4×4.

Anyone wanting to visit should contact local guide, Zhang Wu, who can arrange pick-up and drop-off from Hailar airport, accommodation and food, and, with his unbreakable 4×4 and local knowledge, he will ensure any visiting birder gets to the right places and has a superb time.  Although he speaks no English, it’s possible to communicate the basics using a combination of sign language and the impressive translation APP on his smartphone, and you can guarantee he will work hard to try to connect you with any target species.  He can be contacted directly on +86 13614709187 and, for any non-Chinese speakers, I’d be happy to help make arrangements if required.

Big thanks to Marie, Jon, Dave, Steven and Zhang Wu for being great company during the trip.  And a big hat-tip to the Amur Bird Project team and Paul Holt for their discoveries in 2016 and 2017 which enabled us to connect with the enigmatic Swinhoe’s Rail.

 

 

Celebrating Insects

It’s a serious concern that insect populations seem to be plummeting in many parts of the world.  Studies have shown that populations of European butterflies have halved since 1990, honeybee colonies have fallen by 59 percent in North America since World War II, and populations of British moths are dropping by 30 percent per decade.  Recent stories such as this from Germany, where 75 percent of flying insects have been lost in the last 25 years (and that’s in nature reserves!), and in Australia are representative of the situation in many countries.  It doesn’t take a biologist to know that insects are a key part of the ecosystem.  Around 60 percent of birds rely on them for food. Around 80 percent of wild plants depend on them for pollination. If they disappear, ecosystems will be put under serious strain or even collapse.  Certainly when I visit home in Norfolk, England, the dearth of insects, particularly large flying insects, is striking, and it should be no surprise that species such as shrikes, which feed predominantly on flying insects, have declined dramatically.

Fortunately, in China, large-scale intensive agriculture and the associated widespread use of insecticides, is not yet a standard feature of the landscape.  And it shows in terms of the insect populations, even in urban areas like Beijing.

A couple of years ago, I met Nial Moores (of Birds Korea) in the Chinese capital during his stopover on the way to Seoul.  We squeezed in a few hours of birding along the Wenyu River, a good birding site within easy reach of the airport.  As we began our walk along the south bank of the Wenyu, Nial immediately commented on the vast columns of insects, perhaps 10-20m high,  that were dancing over the river bank, remarking that he hadn’t seen anything like that for decades.

On my local patch, just a few minutes walk from my apartment, I can personally vouch for the fact that insect populations, especially biting insects, are healthy!

TT insect bites, shunyi
An hour on the local patch on a July evening can be punishing!

Fast forward to last weekend and I was roaming the alpine meadows at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain.  As well as seeing some great birds such as Himalayan Cuckoo, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Grey-sided and Chinese Thrushes, Siberian Blue Robin and Green-backed Flycatcher to name a few, I was overwhelmed by the sight and sound of the insects.  I was so struck by the diversity and abundance that I wanted to capture the scene by recording the sight and sound.

Fortunately I had my recording equipment with me and I spent a few minutes just sitting in the grass and recording the “sound of the meadow”.  At home, if I close my eyes and play this track, I am transported back and I instantly feel myself relaxing…

For several years I’ve been ‘digiscoping’ birds using my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 telescope with a special Swarovski adaptor.  It’s a wonderful set-up, easy to use and quick to switch from observation mode to video mode.  Combining the excellent quality video (4k) of the iPhone with the superlative optics of Swarovski, I’ve been able to achieve some remarkable results, whether it’s capturing record images of distant rarities, behaviour of Beijing’s resident birds or even Snow Leopards on the Tibetan Plateau.

It had never occurred to me to try to digiscope insects..  but when a Hummingbird Hawk-moth was seemingly in a pattern of returning to the same flower time after time, I thought I’d give it a go.  The meadow at Lingshan was teeming with insect life and I was surrounded by opportunities, whether it was bees, butterflies, moths or beetles.  Within half an hour, and experimenting with the slow motion feature on the iPhone, I had achieved some pleasing results for a beginner.

So, in celebration of insects, here is a short compilation.

 

I’d love to hear about insect populations in your areas.  Please leave a comment if you know of any good links or resources.  In the meantime, let’s hear it for the insects!

Baer’s Pochard breeds successfully at Hengshui Hu

At 1748 local time on 28 May 2018, Li Feng, a researcher and bird surveyor from Hengshui University found, photographed and videoed a female BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri) with ducklings at Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve in Hebei Province, China. This is the first confirmed breeding of the “Critically Endangered” diving duck anywhere in the world in 2018 and is almost certainly a direct result of conservation efforts by the local government and nature reserve staff, supported by the Sino-German Hengshui Lake Conservation and Management Project

The breeding success follows hot on the heels of the first international workshop of the Baer’s Pochard Task Force at Hengshui Hu in March 2018 and the subsequent commitments from the local government and local nature reserve to manage the lake for the benefit of this beautiful diving duck.

Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri) is a poorly known migratory diving duck that was formerly widespread in eastern Asia.  Since the 1980s it has suffered a precipitous decline throughout its range, estimated to be >90%, and fewer than 1,000 birds now survive in the wild, making it rarer than the Giant Panda.  Since 2012 it has been classified by the IUCN as “Critically Endangered”, meaning it is just one step away from extinction in the wild.  In the last five years it has become clear that Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province is the most important known site in the world for this species with more than 300 recorded during spring migration in 2017, several overwintering and a few pairs spending the summer.  However, due to a combination of fluctuating water levels during the breeding season, illegal egg collection and disturbance by electro-fishermen and tourist boats, there has been no recent evidence of breeding.

It was back in March 2017 that I visited Hengshui Hu, as part of the Sino-German Hengshui Hu Project run by German Development Bank, KfW, to to help train Hengshui University and nature reserve staff about waterbird monitoring and identification of Baer’s Pochard.  At that time I could not have dared dream that there would be breeding success a little over a year later.

Since then, the local groups have been systematically counting waterfowl, in particular Baer’s Pochard, on a weekly basis, helping to build up a better picture of how the lake is used by Baer’s Pochard and other waterbirds.  At the same time, a series of targeted conservation actions have been initiated, including declaring the likely favoured breeding area as a seasonal fully protected zone, compensating fishermen who could no longer fish in the protected zone, clamping down on illegal activity including illegal fishing and egg collection, stabilising the water level during the breeding season to avoid nests being flooded, and beginning a public information campaign to raise awareness about the global importance of Hengshui Hu for Baer’s Pochard.

IMG_3139
New interpretation boards focusing on Baer’s Pochard have been erected at Hengshui Hu
IMG_3141
Public information is crucial to help enthuse the local people and engender a sense of pride that they have such an endangered bird in their community

Just two months ago, the international spotlight shone on Hengshui Hu when, on 19-20 March 2018, delegates from ten countries gathered for the first international workshop on the conservation of the Baer’s Pochard under the auspices of the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP).  Delegates from Bangladesh, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Russia and Thailand heard from senior Chinese local and national government officials, academics and international experts, discussed urgent conservation priorities and agreed the “Hengshui Declaration”. 

The actions by the local nature reserve and Hengshui University, enabled and reinforced by the political will shown by the local government, have undoubtedly created the conditions for successful breeding in 2018 and, in another demonstration of local commitment, more than 40 volunteers from Hengshui University have already set up a group to monitor the progress of these, and hopefully more, Baer’s Pochard ducklings. 

The positive results from Hengshui, coming so quickly after the concerted actions to support Baer’s Pochard, are deeply heartening and demonstrate that local conservation actions can deliver results.  And although there is a very long way to go to secure the future of this endangered species in the wild, successful breeding represents a positive step forward for the conservation effort.

Big congratulations to the local government, the local nature reserve, especially Mr Yuan Bo and Ms Liu Zhenjie, and to Hengshui University, in particular Dr Wu Dayong and Li Feng, and to everyone else involved, including Professors Ding Changqing and Lei Guangchun and Dr Wu Lan at Beijing Forestry University, Guido Kuchelmeister, Matthias Bechtolsheim and John Howes from the KfW project, Rich Hearn at WWT, Hyeseon Do from EAAFP and many more.