Biodiversity rising up the agenda..

With biodiversity rising up the agenda due to the forthcoming UN negotiations due to take place in Kunming, China, in 2021, there is a lot happening here in Beijing and China.. on many fronts.  Here’s a quick summary of an eventful last few weeks.

At the end of October, I was honoured to be invited by my good friend, Shen Chu (Becky), of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to Kunming in Yunnan to deliver a public lecture at an event to celebrate International Snow Leopard Day.  With the exception of a couple of day trips into Hebei Province, this was my first trip out of Beijing this year.  The event was hosted by the Elephant Bookstore in Kunming and, as well as a live public audience, the event was streamed online to more than a hundred thousand people.  The organisers did a fantastic job, bringing together local artists, schools and musicians, and there was even a special Snow Leopard IPA produced by the local craft brewery which included a QR code with lots of facts about the Snow Leopard. 

Speaking about the Valley of the Cats community-based conservation and wildlife-watching project in Kunming.
Snow Leopard IPA. At 8% it’s a fitting strength for a beer celebrating the “King of the Mountains”!

With the city scheduled to host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity next year, it was wonderful to see such energy – and innovative ideas – among local people to engage the public about nature and wildlife.

Just a few days later, I set off to the Valley of the Cats with a subset of these brilliant young people from Kunming.  Having promised Becky several years ago to help her to see a Snow Leopard in the wild, there was an air of expectation as we landed in Yushu and made our way to the Valley.  It was my first visit of the year to this magical place and, as always, it did not disappoint.  We enjoyed a spectacular few days and treasured encounters with four Asian Brown Bears (an adult male and a separate mother with two cubs), a single Snow Leopard on a fresh kill of yak and a wonderful hike through some of the most stunning scenery I have seen. 

On our last morning we stopped by Yunta’s house for a cup of tea. Yunta is one of the village leaders and has been a strong supporter of the Valley of the Cats project since its inception.  It was early morning, around -10 degs C and I was shivering in four layers, yet Yunta was in a vest!

It was particularly encouraging to meet with a group of young local people who are keen to take on some of the running of the tourism project and to contribute to wildlife monitoring.  Seeing their enthusiasm and pride in their local environment was heartwarming.

Just a few days after returning from Qinghai, I was delighted to hear that the Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife-watching tourism project had been named as a runner-up and received a “recognition of excellence” under the Nature Stewardship category of the Paulson Prize for Sustainability.  Competing with more than a hundred projects across China, this was fantastic recognition for the local community.  You can read about the winning projects – on battery recycling in Wuhan and wetland restoration in Haikou – here.

Having been part of the team to produce the report entitled “Financing Nature: Closing The Global Biodiversity Financing Gap”, the authors have been busy reaching out to as many influential governments, ministers, organisations and individuals as possible to try to influence the debate on how countries finance the USD 700 billion per year needed to protect our most important biodiversity and ecosystem services.  That figure may sound like a lot of money – and it is – but to put it in context, it is less than the world spends each year on soft drinks.  Governments have a fundamental role to create the right regulation that generates funding for nature.  That means no longer allowing those that do harm to the environment to do so for free and rewarding those who protect and preserve.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the figure of USD 700 billion could be reduced by around half by reforming harmful subsidies (specifically on agriculture, fisheries and forestry).  It does seem out of step that, in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, governments around the world are still paying people billions of dollars to employ practices that cause harm to our environment.  This week I was invited to brief senior staff at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing.  As an organisation that funds many large infrastructure projects in developing countries, it was encouraging to hear about their enthusiasm for ensuring biodiversity and climate change criteria feature prominently in their lending criteria. 

Handing over a copy of the “Financing Nature” report to Sir Danny Alexander, Vice President of AIIB.

A second meeting has now been planned to examine how AIIB can become a leader amongst multilateral development banks on this issue.  There is a very long way to go to ensure that infrastructure projects are mandated to minimise harm to the environment and offset any unavoidable damage by investing in habitat protection and restoration elsewhere.. but that change is coming.. the only question is how fast?

Continuing the theme, last Saturday I participated in a discussion panel on biodiversity and climate change at the Caixin Global Summit in Beijing, an annual event that brings together an impressive line-up of people – from China and overseas – to discuss major global issues.  

And the following day I participated in the launch of the Beijing government’s “Urban Forestry Network”, a group of c30 people who will develop proposals for improving the quality of the capital’s tree planting and biodiversity-related projects in Beijing.  This network has the potential to make a big difference to how land is managed in Beijing, improving and restoring habitat for wildlife, and I look forward to playing an active role as the group develops its workplan.

Launch of the Beijing Urban Forestry Network on Sunday 15 November 2020.

You may be wondering if I have been able to do any birding recently and, sadly, the answer is no!  However, I am looking forward to this Sunday when I will be accompanying the new UK Ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson, on a birding trip to Yeyahu, during which we will be discussing biodiversity, China and the importance of the UK and China working closely together, as hosts of the UN climate change and biodiversity negotiations respectively, to ensure these processes are reinforcing and lead to a successful outcome.  It’s hugely encouraging to see the UK Ambassador taking a strong and early interest in these issues and I look forward to doing my bit to work for the strongest outcomes possible at both Kunming and Glasgow in 2021.

With Christmas in the UK out of the question this year due to the pandemic, I’m hoping for a few days of relaxation and birding around the capital.  With waxwings arriving and the first snow today, the excitement of what might turn up is palpable.  Will it be a Pallas’s Sandgrouse winter or could there be an influx of Asian Rosy Finches, or maybe even another of the special redstarts from the Tibetan Plateau.  Can’t wait to get out there and explore!

 

Beijing and Biodiversity: China Dialogue article

A few weeks ago I was invited to contribute an article to China Dialogue, one of the most respected platforms on China issues relating to the environment.  In the build up to what will be arguably the most important meeting ever on nature, due to take place in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in 2021, biodiversity is climbing the political agenda.  However, it would be a mistake to think that national governments alone can solve the nature crisis.  Home to the majority of the world’s population, cities have a vital role to play.  My article focuses on how Beijing could help to show the way in designing and managing a city that is good for people and for nature.  You can read it here (available in English and Chinese).

Global Birding Weekend in Beijing

Earlier this month, on 17 & 18 October 2020, I was delighted to participate in the Global Birding Weekend, an initiative by Tim Appleton MBE in collaboration with eBird and Swarovski Optik.  The aim was a worldwide celebration of birds by encouraging people everywhere to go out locally and record the birds they see, with the hope that the combined total might constitute a world record for the highest number of species recorded in a single weekend.  It was the perfect excuse to set up a birding trip with the Chevening Scholars – young Chinese who have been sponsored to study in the UK by the British Embassy, many of whom now hold influential positions in the Chinese government.  

In conjunction with the British Embassy, we arranged an itinerary that took us to the mountains of Mentougou District in the west of the municipality, spending Saturday afternoon at the Youzhou Valley, followed by the Sunday morning at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain.  I had also been invited to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event, organised by Swarovski Optik, on the Sunday afternoon. To add to the excitement, Swarovski had kindly sent me the new 115mm telescope objective lens for us to try out for the weekend!  What a treat…

The new 115mm objective lens for the modular ATX/STX set-up was a revelation.  With its impressive light-gathering capability, it was a big hit with the Chevening Scholars both for observing birds and for planet-watching, including looking at Saturn’s rings.   

With the oppressive heat of the summer a distant memory, a nip in the air early mornings and in the evenings, combined with the tress displaying a kaleidoscope of colour, October is a wonderful time to be outside in Beijing.  And we were blessed with beautiful weather as we made our way to the first site, the Youzhou Valley.

Almost the first bird we saw was Wallcreeper – a rare bird to see away from the regular winter haunt of Shidu in Fangshan District.  This was soon followed by a Golden Eagle and a Siberian Accentor before we added Red-billed Chough, Eurasian Crag Martin, Hill Pigeon, Larg-billed Crow and Grey-headed Woodpecker.  

Record image of the Wallcreeper at the Youzhou Valley.
“Wow.. They seem so close!” One of our younger participants watching more than 30 Eurasian Crag Martins congregating on a sunny cliffside – one of the highlights of our Saturday afternoon..
Beibei checking out the Swarovski ATX 115mm

After a long walk through the gorge, taking in the magnificent views and adding a few more species such as Japanese Tit, Little Bunting, Red-billed Blue Magpie and Mandarin, we headed back to the minibus for the drive to Lingshan, our overnight accommodation and focus for the following morning.

The drive up to Lingshan was stunning, with the autumn colours in their full glory.

The wooded hillsides on the drive up to Lingshan were spectacular in their autumn dress.

We arrived at our accommodation just as it was getting dark and, after a wholesome home-cooked meal from our hosts, including locally-harvested herbs, we took advantage of the clear skies and tested the 115mm telescope to look for the planets on show – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  With the extra light gathering capability of the 115mm versus the 95mm, Saturn’s rings were obvious and clear, even at 30x (using the 30-70x zoom eyepiece) to the astonishment and joy of the group!

The following day we were up for sunrise and were rewarded with a spectacular early morning, including brief sightings of three Siberian Roe Deer and a hunting Short-eared Owl, as well as a few migrating passerines – Buff-bellied Pipits, Pine Buntings, and a handful of Eurasian Skylarks.

Watching the sunrise at Lingshan..

After a quick breakfast back at the guesthouse, we walked a few of the valleys looking for birds and quickly encountered Beijing Babbler, Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Red-throated Thrush, White-winged Redstarts, Silver-throated and Willow Tits, a single Pallas’s Rosefinch, a superb Eastern Buzzard and a Northern Goshawk.  

A pair of Hill Pigeons posed nicely for the group.

At around 1030am the group split into two, with one following Chris and Rhys from the embassy hiking up to the peak (2,303m asl) and the other joining me to set up an infrared camera in the woods targeting mammals. 

After exploring for a while, we found a good narrow animal trail with fresh deer tracks so we set up the camera with the help of the younger members of the group pretending to be deer to make sure we had placed the camera at the right angle…

Setting up the infrared camera at Lingshan with the children.

We’ll leave the camera there for a couple of months and, on collection, will send any images to the group.  After setting up the camera, we headed back to the guesthouse for lunch, meeting up with the others who had big appetites after their exertion!

Looking very proud of themselves…. !

After lunch the Chevening team left for the three-hour journey back to the city whilst I stayed on to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event..  You can watch a recording of that event here.

The relative quiet of the afternoon also allowed me to put the 115mm through its paces..  As one would expect of Swarovski the image quality was outstanding but I wanted to see how it performed in low light conditions..  I stayed on site until dusk and, although it’s hard to believe, I recorded this video of a Red-throated Thrush after the sun had disappeared behind the mountain.  The video has not been altered in any way, except for a little cropping, and I was shocked at the brightness of the image.  

Red-throated Thrush recorded with Swarovski ATX 115 plus iPhone 6S and adaptor.

 

Although I was able to test the 115mm objective lens for only a limited time, I can say with confidence that it sets the standard for birding telescopes.  The brightness of the image, especially in low light conditions, is simply incredible and I hope I am allowed a longer experience with it very soon to experiment with some more digiscoping..! 

In the days following the trip, we were delighted to see the number of species recorded over the weekend creep up as lists were submitted from around the world.  At the time of writing, the total number of species recorded over the weekend was an astonishing 7,243 with 7,098 recorded on the Saturday alone, a new world record for the number of species recorded in a single day.  You can see the latest news from the Global Birding Weekend here.

Big congratulations to Tim Appleton on the huge success of the event which, as well as beating world records, also raised tens of thousands of pounds for BirdLife International’s appeal to tackle the illegal bird trade.  And big thanks to Swarovski Optik for allowing us the use of the brilliant new 115mm objective lens…  the only problem now is going back to the 95mm!  

For us in Beijing, inspired by the weekend, we now have a group of new birders, enchanted by the birds and other wildlife that can be found in the capital.  Some of the participants have already bought their first binoculars (Swarovski of course!) and field guides, and we are now working on plans for the next trip…

Huge thanks to Chris, Rhys and Beibei from the British Embassy for the flawless arrangements and for their great company.  Can’t wait until the next one!

 

 

In celebration of Onon, a remarkable cuckoo

On 8 June 2019 “Team Cuckoo” caught and fitted a tag to the fifth and final cuckoo during an expedition to Khurkh in northeast Mongolia as part of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project

On 1 October 2020 we received what were most likely the last transmissions from his tag, from southern Yemen. 

Tuvshi, from the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center, releasing the fifth cuckoo, soon to be named “Онон” (Onon), on 8 June 2019 at Khurkh.

This cuckoo, named “Онон” (Onon) by local schoolchildren after the local river, had just crossed the Arabian Sea from India.  To refuel after his marathon, almost certainly non-stop, flight of more than 3,500km in 64 hours, he had chosen an area that had recently experienced rain, good conditions for the emergence of caterpillars, seemingly ideal for a migrating cuckoo.  Yet just a few days after having arrived, the transmissions from his tag reduced in frequency and both the battery charge and temperature of the tag dropped rapidly, sounding alarm bells.  We waited for several days, desperately hoping for more signals, but sadly, as of today – 15th October 2020 – no further signals have been forthcoming and we must assume that Onon died in southern Yemen sometime between 27 September and 1 October.

Onon’s final resting place appears to be c100km WNW of Aden in southern Yemen.

Onon was a remarkable cuckoo.  After being fitted with his tag, he travelled almost 40,000km in 16 months, making 33 border crossings involving 17 countries, including three crossings of the Arabian Sea.  

Onon’s migration from June 2019 to October 2020 (outward tracks from Mongolia to Africa in darker green and the return from Africa to Mongolia in light green).

More than that, he touched millions of people in countries along his route and beyond, many of whom learned about these birds’ inter-continental migrations for the first time.  After his record-breaking journey in spring 2020 of >7,200km in seven days from Somalia to India, he attracted considerable mainstream media attention, with articles in The Guardian and The Times of India, as well as being featured on BBC Breakfast TV and on BBC Radio 4.

The Times of India  

The Guardian

BBC Breakfast TV

Onon achieved something of a cult status in India after social media influencer Parveen Kaswan (@ParveenKaswan), with almost a quarter of a million followers on Twitter, celebrated Onon’s crossing of the Arabian Sea.  For several days, we held an online “Q&A session” with new followers asking great questions about how these birds make these crossings, what they eat, how they sleep and what people can do to help them.  One follower, Rajesh Ghotikar, even visited Onon’s position to report on the condition of the habitat near Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh.

Rajesh Ghotikar checking out ONON’s location near Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh.

Reaching more people, especially outside conservation and birding circles, was one of the aims of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project and, thanks to Onon, I think we can say this aim has been achieved.  If just one person who was touched by Onon’s incredible migration goes on to a position of influence and supports the conservation of migratory birds and the habitats they need, Onon’s life will have been incredibly meaningful.

Of course, Onon is just one of many thousands of Common Cuckoos making similar journeys at the same time every year and, although we now mourn the loss of a special bird we had the privilege of following for 16 months, his legacy is that we now know more about the incredible journeys made by these birds and the places they need along the way.  With this knowledge, all of us who have been enthralled and inspired by Onon should use every opportunity to champion the protection of migratory birds and the habitats they need.  

Next year in spring, on hearing their first cuckoo of the year, I am sure there will be many many thousands of people who will recall the life of Onon, a remarkable cuckoo indeed.

Birding Beijing, October 2020

Onon’s journey at a glance (33 border crossings involving 17 countries)

Mongolia – China – Myanmar – India – Bhutan –  Nepal – India – Pakistan – Oman – Saudi Arabia – Eritrea – Ethiopia – Kenya – Tanzania – Malawi – Zambia – Malawi – Tanzania – Kenya – Somalia – India – Bangladesh – India – Myanmar – China – Mongolia – China – Myanmar – India – Bangladesh – India – Pakistan – India – Yemen.

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Birding Beijing would like to thank the partners of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project – the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Batmunkh Davaasuren and Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg) and the British Trust for Ornithology (especially Chris Hewson) –  the supporters who made it possible (especially the Oriental Bird Club, Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley – who, as well as helping with the tagging, also heroically updated the Google Map with all the latest movements), the local schools at Khurkh and Binder, to Richard Porter for facilitating the contact with schools on Socotra, and to everyone who has followed and/or supported the project in any way.   Thank you.

Update: reactions in the media:

ONON was featured on BBC Radio 4’s 6 o’clock news on 15 October 2020.

Social media:

 

The Status of the Birds of Beijing

The most recent published information about the status of the birds of Beijing was the 1987 book “Birds of Beijing” written by Cai Qikan and published by the Beijing Natural History Museum.  Written in Chinese, it’s an important reference, providing information about the status of species found in the capital, including specific details about the occurrence of rarities and specimens collected for the museum.

       

A lot has happened since 1987, not least a significant increase in the number of birders and thus the number of birds recorded, all of which means that this book, although a hugely important historical record, is now out of date.  

The lockdown of early 2020 and subsequent reduction in travel, has meant much more time spent at home, providing an opportunity to research the current status of the birds of Beijing.  The result is a new page on this website providing a basic status of those species reliably recorded in the capital, including maximum counts where available.  The intention is to maintain this page as “live” and it will be updated as and when new species or notable records are discovered, or when there is a greater understanding of a species’ status. 

As of October 2020, the official list of species recorded in Beijing, last published in 2014, is under review by a team led by Professor Zhao Xinru of Beijing Normal University.  We expect the revised list to be published later this year and the new page will be updated to reflect the latest list as soon as it is available.

Birding Beijing welcomes corrections, additions and updates in order to ensure the new page is, and remains, as accurate as possible.  A big shout out to all the birders who have submitted records to the publicly available sources from which this new page was produced.

I hope this new resource will assist both visiting and resident birders alike.

The Status of the Birds of Beijing.

 

Title image: Birding in Beijing by Madeleine Donohue.

Keeping “10% wild” to be piloted in Beijing parks

Title image: a walk in the park by Madeleine Donohue.

Back in 2018 the Beijing government partnered with Peking University to develop ideas for how to Beijing better for wildlife.  I was honoured to be invited to be an advisor and delivered a lecture to government officials with some specific ideas to enhance biodiversity in Beijing, as detailed in this post from December 2018.

Just last week I participated in a meeting to discuss one of the ideas – the potential for Miyun Reservoir to be managed for wildlife as well as water quality.  Three days later, I was informed by the government that another suggestion – to leave 10% of parks “wild” – was to be piloted in a new park in Tongzhou District.  Wonderful news!

This is a summary of the concept idea submitted in 2019:

“10% Wild”

Beijing’s parks are impressive and a huge positive feature of the city landscape, attracting millions of visitors each year.  They are also important refuges for wildlife.  However, almost all could be significantly better for wildlife if they were managed differently.  Currently, nearly all undergrowth is cleared away.  Fallen leaves are swept up.  Trees are sprayed with insecticide.  Very few areas are allowed to be wild, meaning that wildlife is restricted. 

One suggestion is to leave 10% of each park to be ‘wild’, meaning that the grass and other plants would be allowed to grow without being cut, leaves allowed to drop and decompose, providing shelter for insects and a basis for other wildlife to thrive.  This 10% would not affect the overall look of the parks and, if signs and other information were erected, the initiative would serve as a positive addition by educating the public about nature.  Each park could partner with a local school or schools – citizen scientists – who could be responsible for monitoring the wildlife in the parks and comparing the ‘wild’ areas with those managed in the traditional way.  Subject to the results, consideration could be given to expanding the percentage allowed to be “wild”.

Potential benefits:

– More and better habitat for wildlife in urban Beijing

– Students at local schools become citizen scientists

– Public engagement on the role of parks in providing homes for wildlife in cities

– Fewer resources needed for park management

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It’s an idea that gained traction very quickly and I am delighted that the Beijing government has now decided to pilot it.  I can’t wait to see how it works out. After the mid-autumn holiday we’ll be discussing the details with the park management authorities to help identify a suitable area and to develop a plan of engagement with a local school.  

Combined with the ongoing discussions around Miyun Reservoir, these are positive developments and could help to form the basis for a “Blueprint on Biodiversity” in Beijing. 

Next year will see governments meet in Kunming, China to agree on a “new deal for nature” aimed at slowing and halting the staggering global biodiversity loss we are witnessing.  However it is clear that national governments, although arguably the most critical part of the jigsaw, cannot solve the biodiversity crisis alone.  It’s vital that cities, communities, business and NGOs all step up.  And it’s clear that cities that provide space for wildlife will be better places for people, too.  

There’s a long way to go in Beijing but these developments offer genuine hope.

 

New hope for Miyun Reservoir

Miyun Reservoir is Beijing’s largest and most important drinking water reservoir.  Until public access was forbidden in 2016, this site was the premier birding site in the capital, providing wonderful habitat for a range of waterbirds, including important numbers of cranes (incredibly, seven species – Common, Demoiselle, Hooded, Red-crowned, Sandhill, Siberian, and White-naped – have been recorded here) and the surrounding scrub attracted thousands of passerines in winter, including the first records of the endangered Jankowski’s Bunting in the capital for 75 years in the winters of 2015/2016 and 2016/2017. 

Miyun Reservoir is a spectacular site and an important stopover for many waterbirds.
Miyun Reservoir has the potential to be a world-class wetland reserve, including for many species of crane, such as these White-naped Cranes.
A small wintering population of the endangered Jankowski’s Bunting was found by young birders Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao in January 2016 and they returned the following winter. Unfortunately the area they favoured was cleared and replaced with trees.

Sadly, after a fire in the area, the vegetation was ripped out and replaced with trees, a disaster for wintering passerines and making the area no longer suitable for cranes and other large birds such as Great Bustard.  

After some conversations with the government about England’s experience of managing its largest reservoir for water quality and wildlife, in 2019 the Beijing government invited Tim Appleton, former manager of the Rutland Water Nature Reserve, to Beijing to meet officials and share his experience.  That visit took place almost exactly a year ago.  

We knew that change would not happen overnight but it is heartening that, a year on, I can report some progress. 

September 2020 marked the 60th anniversary of the reservoir’s creation, prompting President Xi Jinping to write a letter to local residents to thank them for protecting the capital’s most important water source.  Sparked by that letter, the Beijing government convened a meeting to discuss how the reservoir should be managed in future.  I was honoured to be invited and to present my ideas about how the reservoir could be managed for wildlife as well as water, explaining how important the site is for migratory and wintering birds, including the occurrence of important numbers of cranes and other waterbirds, as well as the records of the Jankowski’s Bunting (of which they were unaware).  Miyun Reservoir had the potential to become a world-class wetland reserve, boosting the local economy and improving Beijing’s image in the process… and with China hosting the important meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2021, what better time to show how Beijing was making its contribution towards stemming biodiversity loss?

I was one of eight people in the meeting with government officials, with most of the others promoting forestry-related ideas.  Although there is surely a role for forests and tree-planting, it would not be appropriate, and in fact would be detrimental to many migratory birds, to manage the site solely for this purpose.

The result of the meeting was the formation of a “Working Group” to develop proposals.  I was honoured to be invited to join and we are planning our first field visit to the reservoir in late October.  

We are still a long long way from securing any management changes that may be beneficial to wildlife but it is heartening to see an openness to ideas and I feel there is a genuine chance to influence the way ahead, especially with China hosting the UN conference on biological diversity, meaning biodiversity issues are probably higher on the agenda than ever.

I want to put on record my thanks to Tim Appleton for visiting Beijing in 2019 and for encouraging those first steps.  I’d also like to thank Madeleine Donahue for providing the wonderful illustration at the top of this post, showing how the reservoir could be managed in future – for water, for birds and for people.

Watch this space!

 

 

Title image: an artist’s impression of how Miyun Reservoir could be managed in future – for water, for birds and for people.  By Madeleine Donahue.

 

 

Beijing Ranks No.2 in the G20 of Birding

When I first moved to Beijing, ten years ago, I can remember clearly the reaction of most people on hearing I was a birder:  “Why have you come to Beijing?  There are no birds in Beijing!”

This was disappointing news… but I had trouble believing it.  Although there was almost no English-language information about the birds of China’s capital city, I had heard about the fantastic migration at Beidaihe and the almost mythical “Happy Island”, just a few hours away in Hebei Province.  Surely, Beijing couldn’t be that bad?  

Of course, as I began to explore, I quickly realised that Beijing was a brilliant place for birds. Not only did I see some species I could only dream about in the UK (Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin, Brown Shrike and Thick-billed Warbler all graced the tiny green space around my central Beijing apartment block in the first few weeks), it was the sheer numbers of birds that impressed me.  Flocks of buntings hundreds strong, invasions of wagtails, squadrons of honey buzzards and swarms of leaf warblers awed me in my first few months. 

At that time, there were very few birders in Beijing and it felt as if I had more chance of finding a first for Beijing than seeing another birder.  How times have changed.  Today, any visit to a known birding spot, on any day of the week, will almost certainly result in meeting fellow birders and, as a result, more and more discoveries are being made, not only of vagrants but previously undiscovered or  new breeding birds such as Grey-winged Blackbird, Swinhoe’s Minivet and Slaty-backed Flycatcher.

With the most recent update of the official ‘Beijing list’ – the list of species reliably recorded – completed as far back as 2014, and the subsequent explosion of birding, a review of the list has been long overdue and, in recent months, a team led by Professor Zhao Xinru at Beijing Normal University, has been thoroughly reviewing past records and adding recent new records with a view to publishing an up to date list.  The number of species recorded up to 2014 was 456.  As of 2020 it is over 500 (although the new list has yet to be published – watch this space – we expect the revision of the list to come out somewhere around 510).  To save the mathematically challenged, that’s an increase of c54 in six years, an average of nine new species per year.  A remarkable change.

So where does Beijing rank alongside other major capital cities?  To gain a sense of where Beijing stands, I did some rather crude research online using data from eBird, Avibase and, where available, data from local birding societies.  This is the result:

G20 Capitals and the number of bird species recorded

Source: eBird, Avibase and local birdwatching societies

*Beijing’s official list is under revision.  This figure is an estimate and will be updated when the official figure is available.

 

Even though the figures are unlikely to be 100% accurate for some cities (I welcome contributions from birders in these cities to make the data more accurate), the relative position of Beijing is unlikely to change – second only to Brasilia in the capital cities of G20 countries.

So why is Beijing so good?

There are two main reasons.  The first is Beijing’s size – according to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, the capital covers a relatively large area of 16,410.5 km2 encompassing a variety of habitats from mountains to the north and west, wetlands, grassland and a network of large parks.

The second is location.  Looking at a map, to the north is the vast and relatively sparsely-populated (by humans) Siberia, home to taiga forests and tundra.  In the northern summer, insect populations explode, meaning it is worth the investment for birds to migrate north to take advantage of the glut of food – they can reproduce faster, and raise more young, than if they stayed further south.  Of course, in the winter, this vast area is incredibly cold, most insects die and, as a result, most birds must fly south to find food and shelter.  This mass autumn exodus happens over several months, primarily from July to November, with different species leaving at different times.  Some will stop in Beijing for the winter, some will continue to southern China or Southeast Asia, and some will go as far as Australia, New Zealand or, as we have seen with the cuckoos, swifts and Amur Falcons, to southern Africa.  

As we enter autumn, East China turns into a bird superhighway with birds heading south from a broad swathe of Siberia, many of which funnel east to  avoid crossing the Gobi Desert.  Beijing, with its varied habitats of mountains, wetlands, forests, grassland and a network  of parks, is an attractive service station.  Just a small fraction of the tens of millions of birds that pass over Beijing during this season (most undetected at night) will take the opportunity to stop in the capital to rest, find food and water, offering us the chance to encounter them.  And of course in spring, the reverse happens as these birds return north to Siberia to breed.  So it is in spring and autumn, in particular, that Beijing – and indeed the whole of eastern China – bears witness to a world-class birding spectacle. 

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Many birds from Siberia funnel through NE China to avoid the Gobi Desert to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, making the Bohai Bay/Yellow Sea and Beijing/Hebei/Tianjin a ‘pinchpoint’ where migration is concentrated.  Source: ABC News

The sheer volume of birds was something that stunned me when I arrived here and there is no doubt that location is everything.  Recalling my birding days at home in Norfolk, England, I would be delighted to see a single Common Redstart or a Wryneck on my local patch at Winterton-on-Sea, usually coinciding with easterly winds.  One look at a map shows why the migration of land birds on my local patch was relatively small…  with only a few hundred kilometres of land to the north and, after that, the Arctic Ocean; there is no Siberia to the north of the UK to supply the birds and we relied on birds ‘drifting’ from continental Europe.

Slowly, but surely, more and more people are learning about the rich birdlife in Beijing.  As well as more people picking up binoculars for the first time, thanks to the media increasingly reporting on the natural world, more and more of the general public are understanding, to the surprise of many, that Beijing is a good place for birds and other wildlife.  The projects to track Beijing’s iconic Swifts and Cuckoos have certainly helped, discovering for the first time the migration of these incredible travellers from Beijing to Africa, receiving significant mainstream media coverage.  However, it is the grassroots awakening that has been most impressive. Young students setting up nature clubs at their schools, the countless local groups organising field trips and lectures to introduce people to nature and volunteers spending much of their free time educating people about wild birds and patrolling to catch the illegal bird hunters, a practice that still goes on in the capital but is certainly diminishing here, thanks also in part to increased enforcement by the local police.

So, as I celebrate ten years in Beijing, it’s encouraging to see that awareness about the birds of Beijing is growing…  The next step is to turn that awareness into pride, building more support for policies and measures that work towards protecting and enhancing the environment for birds.  I firmly believe that, with some small changes to how the environment is managed in Beijing, this brilliant city could overtake Brasilia as the best G20 capital for birding.  Let’s make it happen!

 

Swarovski’s NL Pure – the best binocular yet?

In my opinion, the binocular, or binoculars as they are commonly known, is one of humankind’s greatest inventions.  Whether it’s birds, mammals or even insects, a good pair of binoculars transforms our engagement with the natural world, allowing us to observe, from a distance that minimises disturbance, details way beyond the natural capabilities of the human eye.  They help us to determine whether that movement on the edge of the forest 100m away was a wild cat or just branches moving in the wind, and whether the Phylloscopus warbler that moved through the canopy overhead had two wing-bars or only one, thus helping us to identify it with certainty.  In short, they add another dimension to our experience in the outdoors.

Since the first attempts at fixing two telescopes side by side in the 17th century, many advances have been made in binocular manufacturing.  Modern binoculars are lightweight, use high-precision glass and cutting-edge machine technology to make the image we see as clear, bright and sharp as possible, even in low light conditions.

The law of diminishing returns tells us that, over time, efforts to improve binoculars will gradually lead to fewer and less significant advances.  However, just occasionally, there are breakthroughs that prove the exception, leading to a noticeable step forward.  Having just spent a few days testing the new Swarovski Optik NL Pure, I can say with confidence that this new flagship binocular represents one such advance!

Over the last few days, since I opened the package from Swarovski in my front room, I have tested the NL Pure 8×42 in dull, almost dark, conditions when caught in a deluge during a thunderstorm in the mountains while watching dragonflies and on a hot, bright and sunny day on my local patch in urban Beijing watching breeding Zitting Cisticolas, newly-fledged Red-rumped Swallows and migrant Yellow-breasted Buntings.  Am I impressed?  You bet.

Opening the NL Pure for the first time..

Having been spoiled by the flagship EL 8×32, I was intrigued, and to be honest a little sceptical, that the new NL Pure could improve on the EL.  I am no longer sceptical.

There are two big things that make the NL Pure so good.

The first – and the thing that jumps out at you as soon as you pick them up – is the new ergonomic design of the barrels.  They simply fit perfectly into the hand and, in a direct comparison test with the EL, I found the NL easier to hold for long periods.  As I am often out in the field for hours at a time, comfort has always been an important factor, which is why I tend to prefer the lighter 8x rather than the more powerful, but heavier, models of binocular.  The ergonomics of the NL Pure are a big plus for me and, if you invest in the revolutionary forehead rest, the comfort level increases again, acting like an image stabiliser.  

The ergonomic design of the NL Pure is a joy.

The second thing is the field of view.  At the online launch presentation by Swarovski, Wolfgang Schwarz, Deputy Head of Product Management said:

“In the past, we have talked about edge-to-edge sharpness.  But there is one thing that’s even better – no edges at all.”

Of course, in reality, there are edges to the image but I can see what he means.  The model I tested (NL Pure 8×42) has a field of view of 159m/1000m compared with 133m/1000m for the EL 8.5×42. There is no doubt that a wider field of view increases the chances of detecting more, whether it’s birds, mammals or any other wildlife.  In a direct comparison between the NL Pure and the EL, the difference is startling.

The NL Pure is simply the best binocular I have ever experienced.  

Today, 1 September, the NL Pure goes on general release.  To celebrate, together with 7 colleagues across Asia, from Borneo to India, I participated in a live birding webcast as part of Swarovski Optik’s continental birding series.  You can see the recording here.   Enjoy!

 

Filming Beijing’s migratory birds with CCTV

Spreading the word about the birds and other wildlife of Beijing is so important if we are to build support for policies and measures to protect the capital’s wildlife and the places it needs.  So I didn’t hesitate to agree when CCTV, China’s national broadcaster, contacted me and asked me to take them birding as part of a feature on the birds of Beijing to be broadcast later this autumn.

Although it’s only mid-August, autumn migration is already in full swing with shorebirds and passerines such as pipits, wagtails and some of the early buntings passing through Beijing.  At this time of year, there is no better site in Beijing than Ma Chang, on the shores of Guanting Reservoir in Yanqing County.  

Given the heat of Beijing in August, I recommended an early start and, to their credit, the CCTV crew agreed to collect me at 0430 for the one and a half hour drive to Ma Chang.  On site shortly after sunrise, we were treated to a beautiful, still early morning and a good variety of birds.

The wind turbines dominate the skyline at Ma Chang and can play havoc with any attempts at sound recording. Fortunately we enjoyed still conditions for the first few hours.

Most obvious were the noisy breeding Black-winged Stilts with several well-grown young joining their parents in the shallows and one relatively young bird waiting to be fed and just looking cute. 

Six Relict Gulls, including one carrying a transmitter, provided an opportunity to discuss how scientists are learning about the incredible journeys of migratory birds and, in particular, how the whole population of the Relict Gull, a bird described to science as recently as the 1970s, relies on the Bohai Bay/Yellow Sea in winter.  

This moulting adult Relict Gull, on its way to the Bohai Bay from breeding grounds in Inner Mongolia, Mongolia or Russia, posed nicely for the cameras.
This Relict Gull was carrying a transmitter and we are working to find out the history of this bird from Chinese researchers.

A few Red-necked Stints, a Temminck’s Stint, several Long-toed Stints and a cracking juvenile Broad-billed Sandpiper brought us onto the subject of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and the incredible journeys of these tiny shorebirds from Arctic breeding grounds to non-breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere, including the importance of stopover sites or ‘service stations’ on this bird ‘superhighway’.  

This juvenile Broad-billed Sandpiper dropped in right on cue as we were discussing the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

Flyover Richard’s Pipits and Eastern Yellow Wagtails, many of which were calling, gave a glimpse of migration in action and we spoke about how, although some birds migrate during the day, many pass over the city at night, undetected, as we sleep.  In total we recorded 50 species by late morning and the crew secured some high quality footage of some of the stars of the show.  As we began to pack up, a few Globe Skimmer dragonflies mating and ovipositing in a pool next to the car reminded us that it’s not only birds that migrate incredible distances.. some individuals of this species have been known to travel 6,000km.  

Globe Skimmers (Pantala flavescens) mating at Ma Chang.
Globe Skimmers (Pantala flavescens) ‘ovipositing’ at Ma Chang

The reporter was overwhelmed with what she saw and experienced at Ma Chang and, as we returned to the city, she spoke of her hopes to do much more to cover ‘Wild Beijing’… so fingers crossed we can work together more to help promote awareness of just how special the Chinese capital is for birds and other wildlife.

In the meantime, the CCTV/CGTN feature on migratory birds in Beijing will be shown sometime in the autumn.

Title image: CCTV/CGTN capturing Relict Gulls on film at Ma Chang