Far Eastern Curlew in Inner Mongolia

I’m just back from a few days break in northern Inner Mongolia.  Mid-June is a wonderful time to visit with all of the breeding birds, most of which are migratory, back on territory and singing vigorously.  One of the species I was keen to see and hear was the Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis 大杓鹬 Dà biāo yù), a species now classified as “Endangered” due to its rapidly declining population (it is thought to have declined by up to 80% in Australia, one of its main non-breeding grounds). Incidentally, despite its scientific name, it has never been recorded in Madagascar.

After several failed attempts, I was finally in the right place at the right time when a presumed male engaged in a wonderful, undulating, display flight over a wet meadow.  As the sun set on a perfectly still evening, the sound sent shivers down my spine as it pierced the backing vocals from, among others, Common Cuckoo, Oriental Cuckoo and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler.  Simply magical.

Wouldn’t the world be a poorer place if we lost this awe-inspiring bird?

 

Source: Van Gils, J., P. Wiersma, and G. M. Kirwan (2020). Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.faecur.01

The Dawn Chorus at Lingshan

For some time I have been wanting to record the dawn chorus at Lingshan, a fantastic wooded mountain on the western boundary of Beijing.  In late Spring, when the breeding birds have arrived, the woodland comes alive and it’s a cacophony of birdsong.  

On the morning of 31 May I set out to record at a series of elevations and stitch them together to provide a 30-minute compilation.  The recording begins with the haunting whistle of a White’s Thrush at 0200am before moving to the dawn chorus proper at 0415am at an elevation of 1100m.   From there, the recordings move up the mountain, some of which were recorded during light rain, until the final cut at 1550m.  Each location provides a different mix of species and includes some of the signature birds of Beijing’s mountains such as Green-backed Flycatcher, Grey-sided Thrush, Himalayan Cuckoo, Large Hawk Cuckoo and many many more.  At some point I will make a list of all the species involved but, in the meantime, I hope you enjoy listening!

 

Saving a Flyway

It was only three years ago that many scientists thought the Yellow Sea would become an ‘epicentre of extinction’, such was the pace and extent of the loss of intertidal mudflats along China’s coast.  The populations of many shorebirds in what is known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) were in free-fall.  In the last 30 years, the population of Red Knot had declined by 58%, the Far Eastern Curlew by 80% and the Curlew Sandpiper by 78% to name a few.  And of course the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper was facing imminent extinction.

Today, although there is still a long way to go to secure the future of the millions of migratory shorebirds that rely on this region as a refuelling stop during their incredible journeys from as far away as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic, there is hope.

In 2018 the Chinese government announced a ban on further reclamation of coastal wetlands.  This policy decision, taking many by surprise, effectively removed what was considered the biggest threat to migratory shorebirds in the Flyway.  Two of the most important sites have since been inscribed as World Heritage Sites and a further 12 are due to be added in the next few years.  Focus is now switching to recovery and restoration of sites and tackling the remaining threats to these shorebirds, such as the invasive spartina grass and illegal hunting.   

Over the last 12 months, in my role with the Paulson Institute, I have been part of a team, involving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and EAAFP, producing a video to tell the story of this policy turnaround.  Through interviews with scientists, policymakers and NGOs at the heart of the issue, the 14-minute documentary shows how people from across disciplines and international borders worked together to create an evidence base that, ultimately, was too powerful to ignore.

It is a story of hope that shows that, even when things can seem desperate, it’s vital never to give up.  As we move towards the UN Conference on Biological Diversity in Kunming in October, that is a very important message.

Watch the video here:

Huge thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, EAAFP and my wonderful colleagues at the Paulson Institute for the terrific teamwork over the last 12 months.  Most of all, thank you to all the scientists, NGOs, policymakers, advocates and everyone who has helped count shorebirds whose efforts have given hope to this most diverse, and most threatened of flyways.  

First documented record of Vega Gull in Beijing

Perhaps surprisingly, the taxa known as Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae or Larus argentatus vegae or Larus smithsonius vegae, or simply Larus vegae, depending on your taxonomy of choice) had, until recently, never been reliably recorded in Beijing.  This is most likely due to several factors: first, the fact that vegae appears to be highly coastal, so is likely to be at least scarce and maybe rare in the capital; second, the difficulty in separating vegae from mongolicus (Mongolian Gull), the most frequent large white-headed gull in Beijing; and third a lack of awareness about the potential of this taxa to occur in the capital.  

Large white-headed gulls are not resident in Beijing.  The vast majority we see are the migratory Mongolian Gull (Larus vegae mongolicus, Larus argentatus mongolicus, Larus smithsonius mongolicus) in spring (primarily late February to mid-April) and autumn (late August to November) as they make their way to and from their inland breeding grounds and their coastal non-breeding range.  Flocks of 100+ are not uncommon at reservoirs such as Shahe, Ming Tombs, Miyun Reservoir and Guanting.  Occasionally, a few ‘taimyrensis‘ Lesser Black-backed Gull and Pallas’s Gull are mixed in and it has long been suspected that the occasional vegae might get caught up in these flocks but, despite several reports, none has ever been documented.   Mongolicus and vegae look remarkably similar in breeding plumage when they both have clean white heads but, in the non-breeding season, vegae sports much heavier streaking on the head, including the crown and neck, often reaching the breast.  Mongolicus usually retains a largely clean white head with only limited streaking around the eye and a pale grey, lightly marked ‘neck shawl’.  Given mongolicus’s relatively early breeding season, this taxa attains breeding plumage earlier than vegae, which mostly breeds further north.  Thus, in Beijing, any adult large white-headed gull with heavy streaking on the head and chest in late March should be examined carefully and documented.  

On 20 March young birders, Liu Aitao, Lou Fangzhou and Wei Zichen scrutinised a flock of large gulls loafing close to the southern shore of Shahe Reservoir.  Their awareness, perseverance and tenacity meant that they secured some wonderful images of a candidate vegae, documenting it sufficiently well to become Beijing’s first confirmed record of Vega Gull.  

Congratulations are in order and one of the observers, Liu Aitao, kindly wrote the account below of their find and offered it for publication here.  Aitao and his friends are notching up some great records in the capital and, best of all, they have a lot of fun doing it!

Over to Aitao…

Saturday, 20th March 2021:

After a fruitful morning of birding (including four lifer Lesser White-fronted Geese) at the Ming Tombs Reservoir, Wei Zichen, Lou Fangzhou and I decided to head to another birding hotspot – Shahe Reservoir – in the hope of seeing some gulls we had missed this season.

Upon arrival, we set up our scope on the staircase among rows of photographers who lined the south shore of the reservoir. The wind started to pick up, but the birds made up for the harsh weather: a flock of 60+ Tundra (Bewick’s) Swan, 20+ Common Shelduck, small flocks of Common Goldeneye and a handful of other species of waterfowl rode on choppy waves; Great Cormorants flew past by the hundred; and, in the shallows, around a hundred gulls rested, occasionally flushed by unknown disturbances, just to waver in the wind and settle right back to the same spot; a Eurasian Siskin quietly feasted on a Willow tree overhead while a few Barn Swallows flickered in the breeze.

We set our gaze on the gulls. The three of us took turns looking through the scope as we ate our lunch. Identifying the gulls was no easy feat. The messy classification of the gulls in the Genus Larus in East Asia and the different moult stages of the individual birds in conjunction with the incessant cold winds that constantly shook both our scope and us made the gull-watching an intimidating challenge. But with our perseverance came rewards; a few minutes in, we picked out a ‘taimyrensis’ Lesser Black-backed Gull, a scarce but regular spring migrant, among the cluster of Mongolian Gulls. Then we spotted another, and another. Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls already put smiles on our faces, but while we were verifying the ID with each other, another odd-looking gull caught our attention. It was an adult gull with many features that seemed odd to us compared with the many Mongolian Gulls. In particular, the heavy streaking on its head and neck seemed too dense and extensive for Mongolian Gull, and the grey on its mantle and wings was not dark enough for a Lesser Black-backed. Furthermore, when it hopped out of the water, its legs were not yellow but obviously pink, denying the possibility of it being a Lesser Black-backed Gull. We were immediately intrigued by this find. I then vaguely recalled that Terry once mentioned the possibility of seeing a Vega Gull in Beijing, so I messaged him asking about how to ID Vega Gulls. Following his advice, we spent the next hour trying to observe and photograph this gull as much as we could, paying special attention to its primary flight feathers, wing shape and colour, streaking on the head, legs and looking for any other differences compared with the Mongolian Gulls. Throughout the 2.5 hours, the gull hopped out of the water once and took off flying twice, providing us with opportunities to photograph its outstretched wings and legs. Another 4th winter gull close by also showed very extensive streaking on the head and neck, so we also took some photos of that bird for further inspection.

Adult Vega Gull, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021 (Photo by Liu Aitao). Note the relatively extensive head-streaking.
The adult Vega Gull (centre) with Mongolian Gulls, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. Photo by Lou Fangzhou.
Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae), Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. The first documented record of this taxa in Beijing (Photo by Lou Fangzhou).  
Vega Gull in flight, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021 (Photo by Lou Fangzhou).
Vega Gull, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. Photo by Lou Fangzhou.  

Back at home, all three of us (Wei Zichen, Lou Fangzhou and I) did some further research about Vega Gulls and sorted through all of our photos and footage of the gull we encountered on the day. Wei Zichen referenced his “Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America” (Olsen) book, Lou Fangzhou provided most of the photos (and the best ones) and consulted other birders he knew, and I read up on any information I could find on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Birds of the World. Although the two gulls we found matched many features of Vega Gull we could find in literature and online resources, other information we found confused us… I compiled all the photos and videos we had and sent them to Terry for further investigation. Terry came to the conclusion that the two gulls we found *could* in fact be Vega Gulls. Since there has not been any confirmed prior sightings of Vega Gulls in Beijing, despite his likely accurate initial judgement, Terry was extra meticulous in the identification of our two gulls. He contacted the Ujiharas in Japan – who have vast experience with Vega Gull – for their opinion. To our delight, Michiaki Ujihara’s opinion aligned with Terry’s judgement, citing the adult gull’s excessive head streaking in late March and shorter-winged impression in flight. Although the identity of the other 4th winter gull remains uncertain, the adult bird is the first documented record of Vega Gull in Beijing!

Although there are so many readily enjoyable aspects of birding, to me it’s moments like this that truly make me appreciate the joy of birding. The constant unpredictability and variability of the birding scene, the thrill and excitement of discovering something unusual/new, the “gruelling” process of correctly identifying a confusing or “difficult” bird, the knowledge I gain and conversations I have during the identification process are all genuinely what makes birding so enthralling and captivating. This sighting of a Vega Gull may only be one small discovery in the grand scheme of things, but it just goes to show that there will always be countless possibilities and opportunities when it comes to birding, especially in Beijing. I hope our Vega Gull finding can encourage more birders to always keep an open mind and open eyes while out in the field. With a little bit of luck, perseverance, curiosity and an open mind, we all have the chance to discover something new in nature.

Finally, I would like to use this opportunity to greatly appreciate Terry for his continued support and guidance. Without him, I would never have been able to make this exciting find. Additionally, I would also like to pay my gratitude towards Michiaki Ujihara for confirming the ID and Wei Zichen & Lou Fangzhou for accompanying me on my birding excursion and spotting this gull with me.

Liu Aitao (centre) with Lou Fangzhou (left) and Wei Zichen (right) in the field. Photo by 贺建华 (Hè jiànhuá).

Additional notes: Due to the disparities between classification systems, I simply called the gulls “Vega Gulls” and “Mongolian Gulls”. I hereby cite the commonly used IOC v11.1 Master Bird List and the most up to date Clements Checklist (2019). According to the IOC list, Vega Gull refers to both the Mongolian Gull (Larus vegae mongolicus) and the Vega Gull I referred to in this text (the nominate subspecies of the IOC Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae). Whereas the Clements Checklist still treats both Vega Gulls and Mongolian Gulls as subspecies of a whole cluster of gulls all classified as Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus mongolicus and Larus argentatus vegae). However, as mongolicus and vegae have distinctive breeding ranges and noticeable morphological differences, I personally think it is important to acknowledge their differences and treat them differently.

Liu Aitao

Local communities in Beijing write to government to promote nature in new park design

Nearly 400 individuals, along with three schools representing more than 2,500 students have written a letter to the Beijing government to ask for a new park to be designed not only for people, but also for nature.  A wonderful initiative that has the potential to change attitudes about the design, and purpose, of urban parks.

What do people want from a park?  The conventional wisdom in Beijing is that local residents want somewhere “beautiful to look at, neat and tidy”.  Anyone who has enjoyed one or more of the city’s parks will have noticed that they are certainly neat, tidy and well-maintained, with an army of workers collecting litter, tidying up dropped leaves, spraying insecticide and strimming any vegetation more than a few centimetres high.  But what does this meticulous management mean for wildlife?  In most cases, although many parks provide temporary shelter for migrant birds during spring and autumn, Beijing’s parks are generally wildlife-deprived.  There are signs that this may be about to change.

As reported earlier, the government is planning to pilot the idea of leaving “10% wild” in some existing parks.  If successful, this pilot could be expanded to cover more of the capital’s green spaces.

And, as part of Beijing’s ‘greening’, the government is planning  a series of new parks on the outskirts of Beijing.  One such park is being planned along part of the Wenyu River, a well-known birding spot, an important habitat for wintering waterbirds, and a corridor for migrants in spring and autumn.  In total, more than 300 species of bird have been recorded along the river, including endangered species with Class I protection in China, such as Scaly-sided Merganser and Yellow-breasted Bunting.   Parks in the capital are traditionally designed by landscaping companies with little understanding of the needs of wildlife.  Fortunately, in the case of the Wenyu River park, the local government has invited Peking University and Beijing Forestry University to provide advice on how to make the new park better for wildlife.  Several suggestions have been made, including using a ‘zoning’ system for activities such as fishing and recreation in order to ensure some areas are relatively undisturbed. 

The academics working on these proposals suggested that a letter from local residents to make it known that they would like their park to be designed not only for human leisure but also for wildlife, would strengthen their case. 

A few weeks later, the letter below has been submitted to the Director General of the Beijing Forest and Parks Bureau and the local governments of Shunyi and Chaoyang Districts (the river marks the border of these two districts and the park will include land on both sides of the river).  The letter has been signed by three local schools, representing more than 2,500 students, and nearly 400 individuals.

2021-03-30 Letter to Beijing Municipal Goverrnment

The hope is that the letter will demonstrate to government that the traditional view that people want parks to be places solely for human recreation is out of date and that, in a modern global city, people want their parks to deliver multiple benefits, including supporting and nurturing wildlife.  

Changing attitudes takes time but, with 190 countries due to meet in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in October to thrash out a new international framework to tackle the global biodiversity crisis (the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, commonly known as COP15), it is clear that governments – both national and subnational – business, and indeed all of society will need to integrate biodiversity considerations into their operations if the world is to be successful in slowing and halting biodiversity loss.  The role of cities, home to more than 50% of the world population (expected to increase to 66% by 2050), is vital not only in terms of supporting urban wildlife and providing safe spaces for migrant birds to navigate large urban areas, but also to allow the increasingly disconnected urban population to connect with nature.  

We await the response of the Beijing Municipal government with interest. A huge thank you to everyone who signed and promoted the letter.  It is wonderful to see the overwhelming support from local residents for Beijing’s public parks to put the interests of wildlife at the heart of their design and management.

 

Title image: a river providing space for people and wildlife by Madeleine Donahue

To feed or not to feed?

Feeding birds is a tradition I grew up with in the UK and for many years it was not something I ever considered could have a negative effect on my local birds.  

In China, few people – especially in urban areas – have gardens, so feeding birds does not have the same place in everyday life.  However, in recent years, primarily to serve the growing bird photographic community, feeding stations have been set up where ‘hard to see’ species are attracted to specific spots at which photographers can pay a daily fee for a prime seat.  Some people argue this has had a positive impact on local communities and conservation as the birds are now seen as an economic asset and the incentive to hunt or convert habitat has been much reduced for fear of undermining what could be a sustainable source of income.  However, are there negative aspects to this practice?  And, if so, what is the balance?

To air these arguments, the article below has been written by Chengdu-based Sid Francis.  In it, he sets out the pros and cons of feeding wild birds, drawing on scientific evidence, where available, and his own experiences.  Sid and his colleagues have been working with the local community in Wolong, Sichuan, to set up a new hide targeting Golden Pheasants and other species and has faced some push-back from conservationists.  To feed or not to feed is clearly not a straightforward question to answer. 

Have a read of Sid’s article and let us know what you think..!

A male Golden Pheasant in display at Wolong, Sichuan.

How the Koala Shows Us Feeding Wild Golden Pheasant Might be a Good Thing

An Opinion Piece on Feeding Wild Birds at Chinese Photography Hides                By Sid Francis (contact: chengduuk@hotmail.com)

What can you do when an area, formerly rich in habitat and birds is degraded by farming practise and new cropping method? Our challenge, the hillside farmland at Wolong, a village located in the very heart of China’s largest Giant Panda Conservation area – the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, home to the largest concentration of wild Giant Pandas. Lying in a deep river valley, the steep hillsides were traditionally grazed by farm animals with cropping limited to kitchen gardens for local consumption. In the past, remote and difficult to reach, visitors were few, but new road and tunnels now mean quick and easy connection to the huge urban population of nearby Chengdu and the rest of Modern China. Times are changing fast at Wolong. Gone are the days when it was just goats, yak and vegetables to feed the family – today’s hillside terraces and pasture, lying just outside the panda reserve but also home to a rich array of local wildlife, are being cleared in an intensification of agriculture – areas of flatter land being planted up with cabbage, and the establishment of lucrative plum orchards, giving an easy to manage cash crop, being grown on steeper slopes. Extra prosperity for the locals but at what expense to the local ecology – especially one of the most sought after and iconic birds on the slopes, Golden Pheasant.

Wolong Village lies in a deep valley. The Golden Pheasant feeding site is on terraced land immediately above the village.
Agricultural intensification at Wolong. Hillsides are being cleared of natural scrub, the habitat of many native bird species, to plant plum trees.

Birding in China, I had seen similar development in the Gaoligong area of Southern Yunnan – an impoverished highland backwater, on the Myanmar border, that suddenly found a new source of income through coffee bean farming and China’s increasing love for a daily caffeine perk. During my first visit to the village of Baihauling, in Gaoligong in 2009, I was alarmed by how much biodiverse habitat was being cleared and degraded after replacement with a coffee shrub monoculture. Fast forward to the new year of 2018, my first visit back to the area and it’s literally covered in both bird hides and an army of affluent Chinese bird photographers, rich retirees who devote much of their time to hunting China’s wildlife with a camera, and also starting to attract groups of foreign guests. Hotels were now themed around birding, evenings saw photographers vying to get a place at the best hides, a whole industry, one that had a potential to be a wildlife conserving influence, had sprung up in the area, because wildlife had been turned into a more valuable money-making resource than coffee.

A bird photography hide at Baihauling, Yunnan. Here, in recent years, an industry has emerged where wild birds are being fed and photographers are paying to use the hides.

Taking our cue from the Yunnan example, we concluded that establishing bird hides might be equally beneficial for the situation at Wolong. After all, the village – just an hour’s drive from the birdwatching mecca of Balang Mountain – is already the hotel base for many birdwatchers and photographers. There must be a demand for bird hides around the village, especially if Golden Pheasant were on offer.

Local villager and project-leader Wan Fugui, took on the task of finding a suitable site and soon the vision turned into a viable enterprise. Our first major leap forward was the discovery of a high hillside orchard adjacent to a farmhouse occupied by a remarkably enthusiastic 80-year-old lady and, equally importantly, a group of Golden Pheasants, where male birds regularly strutted around the edges of the orchard. Feeding with corn soon got these birds to be bolder, and the presence of other species around the feeders, Barred and Black-faced Laughingthrushes, Sooty Tits, Grey-headed Bullfinches, and Plain Mountain Finch were an added bonus. Further massive boosts to the project came in the form of donations, including that of building materials from a Chengdu construction company – and hey presto we had built a hide and were ready for action.

The newly finished Wolong hide.
Feeding the Golden Pheasants is carried out by the 80-year-old owner of the orchard.

On paper it all sounds very impressive, but had we really considered whether this is good for our birds, or other species that are attracted to these big commercial hides? Shouldn’t it all be okay – after all people have been commonly feeding backyard birds for well over 50 years. Is there an ethical dilemma in running a bird photography hide? As we started to advertise our new hide we began to hear rumblings of discontent from parties that were very anti any kind of wildlife feeding and as a result I decided to explore the matter more deeply.

The ethics behind feeding is a grey area with no real empirical evidence to indicate whether good or bad. It’s one of those discussion subjects where strong viewpoints often rule over hard scientific fact. A basic argument against the feeding is that it isn’t natural. However, that notion can soon be dismissed, since, in today’s heavily man altered landscape, not much, if anything, is left natural. What we can be certain of on the pro-side is that species have been helped, and indeed saved from almost certain extinction, through feeding. While on the anti, there is strong evidence that certain species may have been badly reduced after contracting disease through using feeders and that the habituation of species, caused by feeding, can lead to them altering habits and aspects of ecology.

Let’s first take the cons of feedings. The most serious of these must be the spread of avian disease but we’ve also got to consider factors like –

  • bringing birds into the open causes them to be more vulnerable to predation – our own hide has experienced visits from a large domestic cat, who seems to have an eye for our birds.
  • creates an imbalanced and sometimes dangerous diet – certain common bird-feeds, like peanuts, might be dangerous if parent birds feed to young. We must be careful about what we feed our pheasants – especially commercial Chicken feeds which may contain undesirable anti-biotic or other chemical elements.
  • enables certain unwanted species to flourish at the expense of intended recipients of feed – squirrels (alien Grey Squirrels in the UK) that dominate bird feeders are a good example. At our site, so far, only the cat has turned up as an unwanted species, but at Baihauling there was a constant war between the hide-keepers and the squirrels and tree shrews that came to raid the feed.

By careful feeding management and due caution these factors can be reduced – and pale into insignificance when compared to the spectre of serious disease and parasite transmission. Two well documented cases of disease transmission have been associated with garden bird feeders. One, in North America, that causes a blinding conjunctivitis eye disease, mainly affecting House Finches, and in Europe a deadly trichomonosis parasite that has been linked with a population decline of over 50% for Britian’s European Greenfinch and progressed to afflict other garden species. Both House Finch and Greenfinch are garden feeder species and the speed and scale of disease transmission has been associated with a dependence on urban feeding. Another commonality between the two is that both diseases are assumed to have jumped over from other species. The jump made by trichomonosis, which, before it affected Greenfinches was associated with doves and pigeons could also have been facilitated by feeding, since Wood Pigeons are a common sight on British bird tables. Nowadays advice on feeding gardens birds also comes with hygiene guidelines – good bird feeding practice includes disease control through regularly cleaning feeders.

Female and an immature male Golden Pheasants feeding on corn at Wolong.

When looking at the pro-side of feeding, it’s important to consider the problem of avian disease spread in a balanced way. Serious avian disease problems exist regardless of any human feeding activities, while presumptions regarding scale of transmission and whether feeders are the main or major instigators of disease jumping from one species to another have never been proven. West Nile disease, a mosquito borne pathogen, that has recently found its way to the American Continent, has been relentlessly killing millions of songbirds of many species. Although its emergence and spread has never been blamed on feeding, it has also been associated with urban bird populations. However, here studies have suggested that those species that can utilise feeder resources may fare better than species which don’t. Then in Australia we have Psittacine beak and feather disease, an ailment that affects parrots and passed on through viral contamination of nesting holes. There has also been evidence of the disease jumping species to Bee-eaters, a family so specialised in its feeding habits, that bird feeding could never be considered as a possible vector of cross-contamination.

Any British readers of this article will understand too well the dilemma of quickly jumping to a conclusion when trying to understand the dynamics of disease spread in the wild. One of the most contentious subjects in British wildlife politics is the mass culling of European Badger, the supposed species that is the major cause of bovine TB spreading to farm cattle. Here mass culling of Badgers, in some areas to almost extinction, have not led to any TB decrease in dairy herds, and goes to emphasise when linked with wild species, disease spread is complex and poorly understood, where what looks like the obvious might not be the real reason for a problem.

The Golden Pheasants we are feeding might not be a bird table species, but the factors that put urban songbirds at risk must also be threat factors at any feeding sight – especially like those in Yunnan that specialise in attracting smaller passerines. However, at Wolong, since pheasants, weak flying non-migratory birds that spend most of their time on the ground, the disease spread risk coming from attracting outside birds would seem to be low. But care is still needed in maintaining good hygiene levels around feeding sites, not allowing a build up of rotten corn and being vigilant over any birds that might show signs of ill health. Such precautions should be taken as standard practice for all feeding sites.

What we do know is that feeding must have been a major factor in saving certain bird species. We only have to look to two species here in China to see that – Brown-eared Pheasant, where remnant populations are kept from extinction by feeding at a temple in Shanxi province and the Crested Ibis of Shaanxi Province, which were rescued through feeding and breeding programs. We can also assume that supplementary feeding must be helpful for any species during periods of hard weather – that seems to be obvious at any feeding site where birds flock during periods of harsh winter weather. We also know that garden feeding in the UK, a survey found over 60% of household fed birds during winter, must be linked to growing urban bird populations, while populations on agricultural land are in steep decline. All three scenarios are excellent cases for the argument that feeding, despite the disease risk, is a boost for bird protection and conservation.

Hard weather conditions are when many birds take advantage of feeding.

As a counter argument the con lobby has suggested that feeding can cause change in a species habits. During our discussions we even heard of worries that using feeding sites could cause birds to forget how to feed in ‘wild situations.’  Such arguments can easily be countered by noting that species which have been reintroduced into the wild from captive breeding programs have never had problems eventually to readapting to ‘natural’ feeding habits, while birds that use feeding sites, most only paying short visits, must also take wild feed. The Golden Pheasants at our feeders only spend minutes eating, indicating the corn we provide is a supplement rather than a complete diet.  Maybe a more serious concern is that feeding might encourage migratory species to become resident, like over-wintering Blackcaps in the UK, which normally migrate, but can remain by using bird feeders as a vital source of winter feed. This argument however must be taken into context that birds are highly adaptive organisms, their strategies of survival must be linked with their ability to take advantage of favourable situations, which must have helped them overcome a global history of climatic and habitat change. We never need worry about interfering with any long-distant migratory instincts of our Golden Pheasants (they will migrate to lower level in harsh weather), but we do need to take into account their capacity to adapt to habitat change brought about by agricultural change. There must come a point when that change becomes so radical – more patches of scrub are removed to plant more plum trees – that without our intervention, which includes supplementing the loss in natural feed by our feeding, we lose the pheasant as a local species. We may change our pheasant’s habits to become more dependent on our feeding – even encouraging them to stay higher at a sure site of feeding during harsh weather rather than going lower to seek natural cover and feed – but at least we hang on to species rather than let it die out because those areas of natural habitat have been destroyed.

And those Koalas from the title line? Well, we also know that one of the best defences for a species against annihilation by disease is a large population and a deep genetic pool, where resistant individuals survive, and an immunity is eventually established. This case is supported by Koalas – recent DNA work has shown most Koala populations in the southern Australian state of Victoria to have a very low genetic diversity, and there is concern that this may lead to less ability for these populations to adapt to environmental challenges such as a deadly or debilitating disease epidemic.  Another Australian marsupial, the Tasmanian Devil is currently suffering this fate. Reduced genetic diversity has allowed the development of a contagious facial cancer which has decimated the species.  For koalas, there is concern that low genetic diversity could equate to low levels of resistance to diseases such as diseases such as Chlamydia and Koala Retrovirus (KoRV) .

In the avian world there large genetic pools are known to boost resilience and recovery. When West Nile disease hit the US population of Red-eyed Vireo, during the first year there was a 29% population decline –which assumes a death toll of 37 million birds. But that was out of a population of 130 and during the following years the numbers recovered. One could suppose this trend is influenced by a species that possesses a rich and diverse genetic pool and resultant immunity, which is obviously something more likely to occur within a common species rather than a rare one.

Using that argument, we can debate the case for feeding – especially in areas like our Golden Pheasant hide, where habitat is being destroyed and birds are being pushed out – that conservation aspects are strong enough to trump the fear of an eventual case of bird disease, that may arrive anyway regardless of any feeding activity we may be carrying out. It’s surely a case of what’s happening versus what might happen. We know that in our project area the economics of plum farming will always out-trump any conservation crusade that hopefully relies on goodwill rather than pragmatic reason to preserve a bird or animal species that may eventually, in the eyes of the local, be seen as burden rather than a benefit. If that same bird or animal is reconfigured as an economic resource, then suddenly the tables are turned – which has indeed been the case at our hide in Wolong.  We’re also confident that our feeding, if successful will be a double-edged sword when it comes to a conservation commitment. On the one hand giving a reason for the local farmers to maintain a large healthy Golden Pheasant population, with obvious benefits being related to both protection and saving habitat, while the hobby of bird watching and photography will be encouraged and nurtured, with future demand of more of the same and an increase in hides and other related wildlife promoting enterprises.

To feed or not to feed – well in our case I think we’re on the right track with feeding.

Using the Wolong hide as an outdoor classroom to encourage environmental awareness.

The above article should be regarded as personal opinion, based on internet research and experience of visiting various hides, rather than any deep scientific study. Because of my own interest and commitments to the Wolong hide project it may come over as biased towards pro-hide/pro feeding, but throughout I’ve tried to use balanced argument. Much of the evidence of regarding the impact of feeding is found in the following article –

Reynolds, Galbraith, Smith and Jones – Garden Bird Feeding: Insights and Prospects from a North-South Comparison of This Global Urban Phenomenon – Front. Ecol. Evol., 07 April 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2017.00024

An article that deals with public photographic hides, their purpose and that touches on feeding can be found here:

Richie – A Guide to Wildlife Viewing and Photography Blinds, Creating Facilities To Connect People With Nature;  – https://donnallong.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/us-viewing-blinds-publication-low-res.pdf  

Although very little is written about feeding, this article shows a far more cautious approach to the subject (see page 28). However, feeding is mainly discussed in terms of general wildlife feeding and, being focused on North American experience, is influenced by problems faced in attracting larger mammals, particularly bears, to feeding sites.

 

Title image: a male Golden Pheasant at Wolong, Sichuan.

Chinese National Geography publishes new Field Guide to the Birds of China

For many years, the primary field guide to the birds of China has been the MacKinnon and Phillips guide.  Hugely popular in China, given its translation into Mandarin, it has been the gateway to birding for nearly all Chinese birders.  Given huge advances in knowledge about distributions and taxonomy, the MacKinnon guide has, inevitably, started to show its age and a newer, more modern field guide, has been desperately needed.

Step forward Chinese National Geography who put together an all-Chinese editorial team led by well-respected ornithological Professor Liu Yang, and commissioned a new set of plates from a range of Chinese artists.  The result is “The CNG Field Guide to the Birds of China”, covering 1,491 species.

The guide follows the traditional layout of plates opposite the texts and, through annotations, points out salient ID features.  Although the text is in Mandarin, the English and scientific names are given for each species, making it accessible to non-Mandarin speakers.  QR codes allow smartphone users to access sound recordings.

Samples of the species texts and plates are below.

The traditional layout shows species’ texts opposite their plates, with basic information about each species, its IUCN categorisation, and a colour-coded distribution map showing breeding and wintering ranges, and migration routes. QR codes allow access to sound recordings, where available.
The new plates are annotated to point out important identification features.
A plate showing the differences between Yellow-rumped and Green-backed Flycatchers.
A close-up of the species texts for Himalayan and Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches.  
Annotated plates provide tips on how to identify similar species.
The plate for Blood Pheasant illustrates the range of subspecies and how they differ from each other.

Having browsed my copy, I can say that this guide is a major step forward.  The plates, although variable in quality, are generally of a high standard and the distribution maps are a major improvement on the old MacKinnon guide.  That said, for NE China, where my knowledge is strongest, some of the maps are surprising, for example the wintering range of Dusky Thrush is shown as being south of the Yangtze but it regularly winters as far north as Beijing, and Pied Wheatear is shown as being resident to the north and west of Beijing (it is a summer visitor).  The editorial team is keen to hear about any errors or omissions so that they can be rectified in future editions.  These relatively minor quibbles aside, I can thoroughly recommend this new guide and it is a ‘must-have’ for anyone with an interest in China’s birds.  

The new guide retails in China for a very reasonable CNY 128 (GBP 14) and is available through Chinese online platforms.  For those overseas wishing to purchase a copy, the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society is offering this book for sale for 160 Hong Kong Dollars (GBP 14) and can ship to a limited number of countries, including the UK and US.  See here for a link.

There is some discussion about producing an English language version but, even if that comes to pass, it is likely to take many months, and possibly years, for that to be realised.  So my advice for any non-Chinese speaking birders is don’t wait.  Given the reasonable price and its accessibility even to non-Chinese speakers, this book should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in China’s birds.

ISBN 978-7-5710-0874-1

China updates list of species with special protection

Last week, the Chinese government announced the publication of a revised list of species with special protection under its Wildlife Protection Law.  This is the first revision since the list was originally published in 1988, more than 30 years ago.  An update was badly needed as the original list contained mostly large and obvious species, in the case of birds this meant families such as cranes, storks and pheasants, with passerines and shorebirds largely ignored.  And of course the status of many species has changed significantly in the last three decades, meaning that many more species are in need of special protection.

In summary, there are now 980 species of wildlife, including mammals and birds,  that have special protection – either Class I or Class II – in China, of which 394 species are birds.  Of the 394 bird species, 92 now enjoy Class I protection.  

The table below lists ALL 92 species of bird now under Class I protection.  It includes the English name, Chinese name, scientific name and change compared with the 1988 list.  

English NameChinese NameScientific NameChangs in Status
Sichuan Partridge  四川山鹧鸪Arborophila rufipectusNo change
Hainan Partridge  海南山鹧鸪Arborophila ardensNo change
Chinese Grouse  斑尾榛鸡Tetrastes sewerzowiNo change
Black-billed Capercaillie  黑嘴松鸡Tetrao urogalloidesNo change
Black Grouse  黑琴鸡Lyrurus tetrixUpgraded from Class II
Chestnut-throated Partridge  红喉雉鹑Tetraophasis obscurusUpgraded from Class II
Buff-throated Partridge  黄喉雉鹑Tetraophasis szechenyiiUpgraded from Class II
Western Tragopan  黑头角雉Tragopan melanocephalusNo change
Satyr Tragopan  红胸角雉Tragopan satyraNo change
Blyth's Tragopan  灰腹角雉Tragopan blythiiNo change
Cabot's Tragopan  黄腹角雉Tragopan cabotiNo change
Himalayan Monal  棕尾虹雉Lophophorus impejanusNo change
Sclater's Monal  白尾梢虹雉Lophophorus sclateriNo change
Chinese Monal  绿尾虹雉Lophophorus lhuysiiNo change
Swinhoe's Pheasant  蓝腹鹇Lophura swinhoiiNo change
Brown Eared-pheasant  褐马鸡Crossoptilon mantchuricumNo change
Elliot's Pheasant  白颈长尾雉Syrmaticus elliotiNo change
Hume's Pheasant  黑颈长尾雉Syrmaticus humiaeNo change
Mikado Pheasant  黑长尾雉Syrmaticus mikadoNo change
Reeve's Pheasant  白冠长尾雉Syrmaticus reevesiiUpgraded from Class II
Grey Peacock-pheasant  灰孔雀雉Polyplectron bicalcaratumNo change
Hainan Peacock-pheasant  海南孔雀雉Polyplectron katsumataeRecent split
Green Peafowl  绿孔雀Pavo muticusNo change
Baer's Pochard  青头潜鸭Aythya baeriNew
Scaly-sided Merganser  中华秋沙鸭Mergus squamatusNo change
White-headed Duck  白头硬尾鸭Oxyura leucocephalaNew
Little Cuckoo-dove  小鹃鸠Macropygia ruficepsUpgraded from Class II
Great Bustard  大鸨Otis tardaNo change
Macqueen's Bustard  波斑鸨Chlamydotis macqueeniiNo change
Little Bustard  小鸨Tetrax tetraxNo change
Siberian Crane  白鹤Grus leucogeranusNo change
White-naped Crane  白枕鹤Grus vipioUpgraded from Class II
Sarus Crane  赤颈鹤Grus antigoneNo change
Red-crowned Crane  丹顶鹤Grus japonensisNo change
Hooded Crane  白头鹤Grus monachaNo change
Black-necked Crane  黑颈鹤Grus nigricollisNo change
Nordmann's Greenshank  小青脚鹬Tringa guttiferUpgraded from Class II
Spoon-billed Sandpiper  勺嘴鹬Calidris pygmeusNew
Saunders's Gull  黑嘴鸥Saundersilarus saundersiNew
Relict Gull  遗鸥Ichthyaetus relictusNo change
Chinese Crested Tern  中华凤头燕鸥Thalasseus bernsteiniUpgraded from Class II
River Tern  河燕鸥Sterna aurantiaUpgraded from Class II
Black-footed Albatross  黑脚信天翁Phoebastria nigripesNew
Short-tailed Albatross  短尾信天翁Phoebastria albatrusNo change
Painted Stork  彩鹳Mycteria leucocephalaUpgraded from Class II
Black Stork  黑鹳Ciconia nigraNo change
White Stork  白鹳Ciconia ciconiaNo change
Oriental Stork  东方白鹳Ciconia boycianaNo change (previously treated as White Stork)
Christmas Frigatebird  白腹军舰鸟Fregata andrewsiNo change
Black-headed Ibis  黑头白鹮Threskiornis melanocephalusUpgraded from Class II
White-shouldered Ibis  白肩黑鹮Pseudibis davisoniUpgraded from Class II
Crested Ibis  朱鹮Nipponia nipponNo change
Glossy Ibis  彩鹮Plegadis falcinellusUpgraded from Class II
Black-faced Spoonbill  黑脸琵鹭Platalea minorUpgraded from Class II
White-eared Night-heron  海南鳽Gorsachius magnificusUpgraded from class II
White-bellied Heron  白腹鹭Ardea insignisNew
Chinese Egret  黄嘴白鹭Egretta eulophotesUpgraded from class II
Great White Pelican  白鹈鹕Pelecanus onocrotalusUpgraded from class II
Spot-bellied Pelican  斑嘴鹈鹕Pelecanus philippensisUpgraded from class II
Dalmatian Pelican  卷羽鹈鹕Pelecanus crispusUpgraded from class II
Bearded Vulture  胡兀鹫Gypaetus barbatusNo change
White-rumped Vulture  白背兀鹫Gyps bengalensisNo change
Red-headed Vulture  黑兀鹫Sarcogyps calvusUpgraded from Class II
Cinereous Vulture  秃鹫Aegypius monachusUpgraded from Class II
Greater Spotted Eagle  乌雕Clanga clangaUpgraded from Class II
Steppe Eagle  草原雕Aquila nipalensisUpgraded from Class II
Eastern Imperial Eagle  白肩雕Aquila heliacaNo change
Golden Eagle  金雕Aquila chrysaetosNo change
White-bellied Sea-eagle  白腹海雕Haliaeetus leucogasterUpgraded from Class II
Pallas's Fish-eagle  玉带海雕Haliaeetus leucoryphusNo change
White-tailed Eagle  白尾海雕Haliaeetus albicillaNo change
Steller'a Sea-eagle  虎头海雕Haliaeetus pelagicusNo change
Blakiston's Fish-owl  毛腿雕鸮Bubo blakistoniUpgraded from Class II
Père David's Owl  四川林鸮Strix davidiTaxonomic change
Austen's Brown Hornbill  白喉犀鸟Anorrhinus austeniUpgraded from Class II
Oriental Pied Hornbill  冠斑犀鸟Anthracoceros albirostrisUpgraded from Class II
Great Hornbill  双角犀鸟Buceros bicornisUpgraded from Class II
Rufous-necked Hornbill  棕颈犀鸟Aceros nipalensisUpgraded from Class II
Wreathed Hornbill  花冠皱盔犀鸟Rhyticeros undulatusUpgraded from Class II
Saker Falcon  猎隼Falco cherrugUpgraded from class II
Gyrfalcon  矛隼Falco rusticolusUpgraded from class II
Sichuan Jay  黑头噪鸦Perisoreus internigransNew
Rusty-throated Parrotbill  灰冠鸦雀Sinosuthora przewalskiiNew
Golden-fronted Fulvetta  金额雀鹛Schoeniparus variegaticepsNew
Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrush  黑额山噪鹛Garrulax sukatschewiNew
White-speckled Laughingthrush  白点噪鹛Garrulax bietiNew
Blue-crowned Laughingthrush  蓝冠噪鹛Garrulax courtoisiNew
Bugun Liocichla  黑冠薮鹛Liocichla bugunorumNew
Emei Shan Liocichla  灰胸薮鹛Liocichla omeiensisNew
Rufous-headed Robin  棕头歌鸲Larvivora ruficepsNew
Jankowski's Bunting  栗斑腹鹀Emberiza jankowskiiNew
Yellow-breasted Bunting  黄胸鹀Emberiza aureolaNew

 

The full list, including both Class I and Class II, can be downloaded here (tab one includes all species, tab two contains birds only with all Class I species highlighted yellow)

For comparison, the original list from 1988 can be seen here.

So what does first or second class protection mean? 

It is worth stating that ALL wild birds are protected in China and that harming or taking any bird from the wild is illegal without a special license, only granted for scientific research purposes.  Class I and Class II protection means that there are more severe punishments for anyone harming these species or their habitats.  The punishments that can be administered are outlined in Chapter IV of the Wildlife Protection Law.  The latest text in English, including a draft amended law from 2020, can be found here  (a broader analysis of the law in terms of trade and use of wild animals, can be found on the EIA’s website).  In summary, although the law is typically vague, fines of up to CNY 100,000 (GBP 11,000) can be levied, depending on the type and severity of the offence, with additional negative impacts to individuals’ social credit score and the potential for custodial sentences.  

Although this post focuses on birds but there are major steps forward on other wildlife, too, with perhaps the most eye-catching being that the Wolf (Canis lupus) and Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) are now given special protection (Class II) for the first time and Dhole (Cuon alpinus) upgraded to Class I from Class II.  Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti), Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) and Asian Golden Cat (Pardofelis temminckii) are also upgraded to Class I, joining Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia), Common Leopard (Panthera pardus) and Tiger (Panthera tigris).

Under the new Wildlife Protection Law, the list of species with special protection should be revised every five years.  If implemented, this will enable a more dynamic process of protection for China’s most endangered species.

The publication of the new list is a major step forward in the recognition, and protection, of China’s wildlife, much of which is unique, and coincides with the formation of a system of national parks, the ban on further land reclamation along its coast, with inscription of key coastal wetlands as World Heritage Sites, and the hosting of the UN Conventions on Biological Diversity and Wetlands in 2021 in Kunming and Wuhan respectively.  The next step is to implement a robust education and awareness programme for both law enforcement officials and the general public to ensure this new list is fully respected and enforced and to ensure credible monitoring mechanisms are in place in order to provide science-based evidence to underpin changes to the list five years from now.

Big credit must go to the Chinese academics and conservationists who have been working hard over a long period to update and strengthen the list.  

 

Thank you to ShanShui Conservation Center for comments on the original version of this article which clarified the status of some species on the original list.

 

A possible Steppe Buzzard in Beijing

Anyone who has studied Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) in Europe will know they can be hugely variable, with colouration from almost white to uniformly dark and almost everything in between.  In East Asia, the Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) is, in my experience, less variable and perhaps that is why unusual Buteos stand out.

On Saturday 30 January 2021 I began my latest winter survey of my local stretch of the Wenyu River at 0800 and, at around 1100, reached the end of my transect at the so-called “upper weir”. As I scanned the area to count Grey Herons roosting in the trees, I picked up two Buteos in a tree at about 200m distance on the opposite (northern side) of the river. One was a typical japonicus Eastern Buzzard but the other was clearly smaller, more rufous overall and with barring on the underparts.  I had never seen an Eastern that small, sporting those colours or with that underpart pattern, including a dark hood and barring on the breast. It got my attention and I recorded a short video and took a few record photos of the two together. The smaller bird then flew from its perch, with purpose, across the river to the southern side, where I was standing, caught a rat from the river bank and flew back up to the trees on the other side of the river.

Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) and the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)

 

Shortly after, an Upland Buzzard (Buteo hemilasius) drifted over, and both of the buzzards I had been watching flew up to intercept it and, over the next five minutes or so, the three Buteos interacted, with the Upland being mobbed until it drifted NE. This gave me an opportunity to capture some images in flight and I did my best to record both the underparts and upperparts. In flight, and in direct comparison with the Eastern Buzzard, the rufous bird was clearly smaller and with a more compact structure.

The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)
The upperparts of the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)
The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)

The images show the underparts, including the underwing, pretty well, and show:

– a lack of the usual strong, dark carpal patch of japonicus, with a more broken, speckled and muted carpal patch
– dark lesser underwing coverts
– striking pale bases to the primaries
– conspicuously pale crescent breast band
– lack of a dark upper belly band
– a prominent dark trailing edge to the underwing
– a pale tail, finely barred and with an obvious (more so on the upperparts) sub-terminal band

I have certainly never seen a japonicus with these features, and I began to think of the possibility of Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and the subspecies that was most likely to occur in Beijing – vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard). 

For context, although there have been a couple of candidates, Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) has never been reliably recorded in Beijing, so it was important to document this bird as well as possible.

Back home, having looked at Forsman’s excellent “Flight Identification of Raptors”, the Beijing bird fits well the adult ‘fox-red’ vulpinus, as depicted in plates 605-609 on pages 323 and 324.

One unusual feature highlighted by Paul Holt is the dark area on the face and forehead.  Is this within the range of variability for vulpinus or is it a sign of japonicus?

I had a look online at Eastern Buzzards, including from Beijing, and there is a photo of a very similar-looking bird, almost certainly the same, taken on 2 November at the same site by Yu Kuang-Ping.  So it seems as if this bird has been overwintering.

Having alerted local birders, a few people visited the site and more photos were taken, including these excellent series by 没着落 (Méi zhuóluò).

The Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus), left, with the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 2 February 2021 (Photo by 没着落, Mei Zhuoluo).
The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 2 February 2021 (Photo by 没着落, Mei Zhuoluo).
The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 2 February 2021 (Photo by 没着落, Mei Zhuoluo).

And yesterday I spent the last hour of daylight at the site and captured a little more and better quality video showing the upperparts and underparts.

Given the variability of Buteos, I am not sure whether this bird can be identified with certainty.  With thanks to Colm Moore, the “file” is now with Dick Forsman and we hope to receive an opinion from him in due course.  Any comments, especially from people with experience of vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard) very welcome.  I’d like to thank Colm Moore, Paul Holt, Igor Felefov in Russia and Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok in Thailand for their helpful and instructive comments and 没着落 (Mei Zhuoluo) for the wonderful images of the Wenyu bird taken on 2 February.

Whatever this bird’s identity, it’s been a great learning curve and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed spending time watching this beautiful bird so close to my apartment in Beijing.

 

Update 22 February 2021:

I have received a reply from Dick Forsman.  The bottom line is that he does not think it’s a vulpinus Common Buzzard, or at least not a pure one. He cites the dark malar stripe, dark forehead/face, rather uniform breast and flanks and the rather uniform uppertail as features not so consistent with vulpinus. He says despite the plumage differences, he would put more emphasis on structural differences, with japonicus (Eastern) having shorter and broader wings than vulpinus with a broader blunter wingtip. He says the size difference could be explained by the size difference between the sexes, the males being smaller than the females. Interestingly, he goes on to say that genetic studies have shown the genus Buteo to be fairly young and its species are poorly defined. One of the results of this poor differentiation is widespread interbreeding between the taxa. Hybridization is known to take place between Common x Rough-legged, Common x Long-legged and Long-legged x Upland. He says it appears that nobody knows what happens when vulpinus meets japonicus, which is very likely to happen. He recalls a trip to Mongolia where he found a breeding pair of buzzard including a male with mixed japonicus and vulpinus features paired with a female japonicus. He suspects that mixed pairs are likely to be quite common where the two taxa meet and that maybe the Wenyu bird was one of these, a bird with some vulpinus genes combined with a migratory habit inherited from japonicus. He hopes people will pay more attention to buzzards in the future and document them wherever possible, especially during the breeding season as this is the only way to tackle the issue.

A key lesson is that we cannot identify everything we see, no matter how well-documented, and sometimes it’s good to just enjoy watching birds for what they are and not try to label them.. 

Update: 3 March 2021

Two superb new images of the Wenyu buzzard have been submitted by Wang Yibin and reproduced here with permission.

The Wenyu buzzard, Wenyu River, 5 February 2021 (Wang Yibin)
Another superb image of the Wenyu buzzard, Wenyu River, 5 February 2021 (Wang Yibin)

Header image: Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) with the possible (Steppe) Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River.  Photo by 没着落 (Méi zhuóluò).

Scaly-sided Merganser in Beijing

About ten days ago we experienced a cold snap in Beijing with temperatures down to about -20 degs C at night.  This spell meant that most, if not all, fresh water bodies, such as reservoirs and lakes, were locked in ice, forcing waterbirds to move to the rivers which remained relatively ice-free due to the flow.  During such weather, it’s a good time to visit the local river – the Wenyu – on the border of Chaoyang and Shunyi Districts.  Last week I recorded over 300 Common Merganser (普通秋沙鸭, Pǔtōng qiū shā yā) along a relatively short stretch of the river, as well as Goldeneye (鹊鸭, Què yā), Smew (白秋沙鸭, Báiqiū shā yā) and even a Coot (骨顶鸡 Gǔ dǐng jī), surprisingly scarce on the Wenyu River.  Encouraged by this, I decided to make another visit on Saturday afternoon.

The best part of the river, although only about 1km from my apartment as the Coot flies, is around 4-5km away by road given the layout and position of the bridges, so I had planned to get a taxi and then walk the best section, before walking back.  However, given the semi-lockdown in my district due to a handful of new COVID-19 cases, no taxis or DiDis are allowed to operate in the area, so I decided to walk, taking in a section of the river that I don’t normally focus on.  Having reached the river, I was expecting to walk c3km without seeing much before reaching what’s known as the lower weir.  How wrong I was!

About 1km along, I noticed a small group of Mallard (绿头鸭 Lǜ tóu yā).  I scanned them with my binoculars in case a Gadwall (赤膀鸭, Chì bǎng yā) or Falcated Duck (罗纹鸭, Luówén yā) was lurking.. but instead, to my surprise, I saw a female merganser.  Clearly smaller than Common Merganser (普通秋沙鸭, Pǔtōng qiū shā yā) and lacking the sharp contrast between the brown head and neck and the white throat of Common Merganser, the bird that popped into my mind was Scaly-sided Merganser (中华秋沙鸭, Zhōnghuá qiū shā yā), an endangered species with fewer than ten records in Beijing and a species that I had never seen in the capital.  Having left my telescope at home, as I would be walking so much, I needed to get closer to rule out the other possibility – Red-breasted Merganser (红胸秋沙鸭, Hóng xiōng qiū shā yā).  The latter is a scarce species in Beijing but much more frequent than its endangered cousin.  Sneaking closer, using the cover of a few trees, I was able to see the bird clearly and, immediately, I could see the diagnostic scaly markings on the flanks and a yellow tip to the bill.  It was a Scaly-sided Merganser!  

Female Scaly-sided Merganser with female Mallard, Wenyu River, 16 January 2021.

Having not expected to see much along the first stretch of river, I had not yet unpacked my camera from my backpack (schoolboy error) and so I slowly removed my backpack and crouched, all the time keeping one eye on the merganser in case my movement caused it to fly.  Fortunately, I was able to extract my camera and take a few images to document the sighting.  As I sat quietly, remarkably, the merganser swam towards me and stood on a barely submerged patch of mud to preen.  I watched it for several minutes, gripped by the presence of this globally rare bird, before a dog walking couple came by and, checking out my presence, their two dogs barked loudly and scared the group of duck, including all the Mallard and, of course, the merganser. 

The Scaly-sided Merganser flying upstream after being flushed by two dogs.

All of the birds flew upstream, the direction I was heading, and it was perhaps only five minutes later that I reconnected with the group, including the merganser.  Again I watched the Scaly-sided Merganser at reasonably close quarters before a fisherman, walking along the edge of the river bank looking for the best spot from which to fish, came a little too close and the merganser was again flushed and flew upstream.

Although I didn’t have my telescope with me, I was elated with the views and had secured some record images that at least documented the record.  

Scaly-sided Merganser is a species that I have had on my radar for some time when walking the Wenyu River in winter.  Although there are only around ten records from the capital in total, the Wenyu bird is perhaps surprisingly the third record this winter, all of which have been females.  A female was photographed in Tongzhou (part of the same river) on 31 December 2020 and it, or another, was at the Summer Palace on 10 January and has been seen on and off since that date.  Whether all of the sightings relate to the same individual, or whether two or even three birds are involved, is an open question.  Interestingly, the Scaly-sided Merganser did not seem to associate with Common Merganser, several groups of which were on the river, instead preferring to be on its own or loosely associating with Mallard.  

The sighting takes on greater significance given the plans to ‘develop’ the Wenyu River, including raising the water level by several metres and running a tourist ‘cruiser’ along part of the river in summer.  Academics are working with the local government to try to ensure the plans take into account the needs of biodiversity, especially waterbirds, particularly in winter.  This will include ‘zoning’ to set aside some undisturbed areas for waterbirds and to protect the breeding habitat of egrets and herons in summer.  Having records of an endangered species along the river will strengthen the case of the academics.

Scaly-sided Merganser (中华秋沙鸭, Zhōnghuá qiū shā yā) is a rare East Asian endemic, breeding along montane rivers in mixed forest in the Russian Far East, NE China and probably DPRK, and wintering in the Republic of Korea and central and E China.  It is probably more frequent in Beijing than we realise and the fact that all of the capital’s confirmed records bar one have come in the last five years suggests greater observer coverage is a factor.  We can expect more records as birding continues to grow in popularity.  Scaly-sided Merganser is classified as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN Red List.

Title image: Scaly-sided Merganser along the Wenyu River, 16 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)