Context is everything. The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula, 欧亚鸲, Ōu yà qú) is a bird many people take for granted in Europe but when one turns up outside its normal range, it can cause much excitement. A few days ago, news broke of a European Robin in the grounds of Beijing Zoo. The response has been incredible.
Not surprisingly, the news spread fast among the many social media (WeChat) groups and hundreds of (mostly) photographers and birders have descended on a small corner of the grounds of the zoo to catch a glimpse of this rare visitor. After seeing a few photos of the masses from local birders, I was fascinated to see the scene for myself.
So, on Friday morning, I spent a couple of hours on site. For the first hour, with the photographers camped around the spot where the Robin comes to feed on the provided meal worms, there was no sign of the bird. The gathering very much had the feel of a social occasion with people chatting, drinking tea and catching up with friends. If the Robin had been singing or calling, it would have been hard to hear it amongst the din of 200+ people.
One photographer thought it was hilarious that an English person had come to see what he described as a British bird. In fact, many of the photographers I spoke with associated the Robin with Britain and it had even been light-heartedly called a “Brexit Refugee” on social media, escaping the political chaos in the country of its perceived origin. Why the association with Britain? Of course, the Robin was voted as the UK’s national bird in 2015 in an informal vote organised by David Lindo (The Urban Birder). And many locals knew the Robin was associated with Christmas. However, with a range across Europe and into Central Asia, the Beijing Robin is more likely to have originated from the eastern part of its range. Sadly, it is not ringed with a metal ring from one of the UK’s observatories (now THAT would have been something).
It wasn’t long before the Robin appeared close by and it was a bit of a scrum as the chatter stopped and the photographers jostled for a prime spot from where to capture their hoped-for frame filling images. Running off the path and dragging themselves through some dense branches to reach a small clearing in the habitat was no barrier.
I am happy to say I took this video from a public path!
It was all a little bizarre to see so many people so excited about a European Robin but it also helped me to see the UK’s national bird in a new light and with a new sense of awe. After all, it is one of the most charismatic and loved birds of my home nation. And despite the slightly unruly behaviour of some of the photographers, it must be an encouraging sign that so many people are taking an interest in birds and the natural world in the world’s most populous country.
It has already attracted the attention of the media – see this article by China State Television’s international website, CGTN.
The Robin at the Beijing Zoo is Beijing’s third, after previous records in the winters of 2007 and 2014.
Title image: The European Robin at Beijing Zoo, Friday 11 January 2019.
2018 was another brilliant year for birding in Beijing. The growing number of observers and improved observer awareness are almost certainly responsible for the increasing number of unusual records. This is a summary of the records of rare and scarce birds of which I am aware. It is unlikely to be comprehensive. If you know of any records of rare or scarce species in 2018 that are not included, please contact me. My gratitude goes to everyone who has reported sightings over the last 12 months and especially to Paul Holt and XiaoPT for their contributions to this summary.
2018 started strnongly with the JAPANESE THRUSH (Turdus cardis, 乌灰鸫) remaining in the Agricultural Exhibition Center Gardens until 3 March at least, and unseasonal records of COLLARED CROW (Corvus torquatus, 白颈鸦) and CHINESE THRUSH (Turdus mupinensis, 宝兴歌鸫) at Dashihe all on 1st (the former seen on and off until 20th at least). PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (Carpodacus roseus, 北朱雀) and GULDENSTADT’S (WHITE-WINGED) REDSTARTS (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus, 红腹红尾鸲) were on site in relatively low numbers at Lingshan (Oscar Campbell).
A BLACK-THROATED TIT (Aegithalos concinnus, 红头长尾山雀) of uncertain origin was in the grounds of Tsinghua University on 3rd and six or seven YELLOW-BROWED BUNTINGS (Emberiza chrysophrys, 黄眉鹀), scarce in the capital, were at the Summer Palace on 6th (The City Green Island Birdwatching Group of the China Birdwatching Society via XiaoPT).
A male CHAFFINCH (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀), a scarce species in Beijing, was at the Agricultural Exhibition Centre gardens on 7th (Stefan Andrew) and a lingering BROWN-EARED BULBUL (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎) was at Beihai Park on 10th, with four there on 25th (Beijing Feiyu).
13th produced a surprise in the form of a BROWN ACCENTOR (Prunella fulvescens, 褐岩鹨) at Yanhecheng, Mentougou District (Li Zhaonan et al, Friends of Nature Birdwatching Group).
On 21st, Colm Moore found Beijing’s 4th ARCTIC REDPOLL (Carduelis hornemanni, 极北朱顶雀) in a flock of Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea, 白腰朱顶雀) at Miaofengshan and, on 23rd, another CHAFFINCH (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀) was reported from the Botanical Gardens along with a single YELLOW-BROWED BUNTING (Emberiza chrysophrys, 黄眉鹀), (Beijing Feiyu).
The good run of CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀) continued when Colm Moore discovered another at Shisanling on 27th and on the same day another unseasonal CHINESE THRUSH (Turdus mupinensis, 宝兴歌鸫) was seen in the Botanical Gardens (Tang Bohui).
Beijing’s 7th MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨) was found at Dashihe by XiaoPT and Luo Qingqing on 12th. On 15th the male CHAFFINCH (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀) was still in the Botanical Gardens (Stefan Andrew) and a SOLITARY SNIPE (Gallinago solitaria, 孤沙锥) was at Dashihe on 22nd. An exceptionally early PACIFIC SWIFT (Apus pacificus, 白腰雨燕) was reported on 26th at Shuangjing (Andrew Morrissey).
Two BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) were at Dashihe on 4th (Chen Xi’er and Liang Shujie) and, on 25th, a single PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥) was at Shahe (XiaoPT, Zhang Yongge and Sui Liling). On 30th a MANCHURIAN BUSH WARBLER (Cettia canturians, 远东树莺) was found at Tsinghua University campus, an unusually early migrant or a previously unseen wintering bird (Zhao Xiangyu).
There was no fooling Colm Moore on 1st as he picked out Beijing’s 6th personata WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba, 白鹡鸰) at Shisanling. Colm continued his run of rarities when he found Beijing’s 3rd ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙鵖) at Shisanling on 7th, alongside 3 PALLAS’S GULLS (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥) at the same site. On 10th, a Beijing record 223 ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴) were at Ma Chang (Paul Holt) together with Beijing’s 8th MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨). Probably the same individual was seen on 16th at the same site by the same observer. On 17th there was a major surprise with Beijing’s second CHESTNUT-CROWNED WARBLER (Seicercus castaniceps, 栗头鹟莺) singing close to Ma Chang, also found by Paul Holt (the first record was in 2017 at the Temple of Heaven Park). On 22nd, a single NORTHERN HOUSE MARTIN (Delichon urbicum, 毛脚燕) was photographed at Shisanling by Colm Moore and a LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬) was at Bulaotun (XiaoPT, Chen Wei, Huang Yue, Luo Qingqing, Dahao and Chen Dameng).
The first day of May brought a LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata ariel, 白斑军舰鸟), Beijing’s 5th, to Yeyahu (Pan Wenxing) and, on 13th, a male MUGIMAKI FLYCATCHER (Ficedula mugimaki, 鸲姬鹟) at Tsinghua University campus was just the 11th record of this species for the capital. A RUFOUS-TAILED ROBIN (Luscinia sibilans, 红尾歌鸲) at the same site on 19th was a notable record of this scarce migrant and, just a day later, five SWINHOE’S MINIVETS (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟) were at Gubeikou, just the 5th record of this species in Beijing. On 22nd, a SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hodgsonii, 锈胸蓝姬鹟) at Peking University was possibly the first lowland record of this species in the capital (it has been recorded at Lingshan and Haituoshan in summer in recent years). A singing PALE-LEGGED LEAF WARBLER (Phylloscopus tenellipes, 淡脚柳莺) was a nice find at Xinglong Park by Jan-Erik Nilsen on 25th and the month ended with a singing CHINESE BUSH WARBLER (Bradypterus tacsanowskius, 中华短翅莺) on the Shunyi Patch (Terry Townshend).
On 7th a SLATY-BREASTED RAIL (Lewinia striata, 蓝胸秧鸡) was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park (Lou Fangzhou), possibly only the 3rd Beijing record. A BROWNISH-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺) was at Baihuashan on 10th (Jan-Erik Nilsen), the third consecutive year this usually more southerly distributed species has been recorded at this site. On 12th news broke of a CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO (Clamator coromandus, 红翅凤头鹃) seen on 2nd in the Botanical Gardens (Li Tian). A single BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) was seen at Yeyahu, a potential breeding site, on 20th (Beijing Feiyu) and on 24th at least 4 SWINHOE’S MINIVETS (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟), showing signs of breeding, were at Gubeikou (XiaoPT, Zhao Min and Luo Qingqing). Several hours earlier, Li Zhaonan et al recorded more than 10 individuals at the same site. A TIGER SHRIKE (Lanius tigrinus, 虎纹伯劳), also at Gubeikou, was another surprise (XiaoPT et al).
The second BROWNISH-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺) of the year was recorded at Yudushan on 14th (Luo Qingqing).
The main highlight from an otherwise typically quiet month (at least partly due to lack of observations due to the uncomfortable heat) was a PIED KINGFISHER (Ceryle rudis, 斑鱼狗) at Bulaotun, Miyun Reservoir, on 25th (Chen Wei, Huang Yue, XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing and Chen Dameng).
A busy month began with 3 BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) at Yeyahu on 3rd (Jenny Fang and Zhen Niu), followed by a BAND-BELLIED CRAKE (Porzana paykullii, 斑肋田鸡) on the Shunyi Patch on 5th (Terry Townshend). On 11th there was a rare chance to positively identify to species level one of the many ‘SWINTAILED SNIPE’ seen in the capital. A single juvenile showed tremendously well at Tsinghua University campus, allowing close observation and photographs of the spread tail, showing that it was a PIN-TAILED SNIPE (Gallinago stenura, 针尾沙锥). Something of a red-letter day for Paul Holt on 14th at Yeyahu produced two Beijing ‘firsts’ in the form of a WOOD WARBLER (Phylloscopus sibilatrix, 林柳莺) and a HIMALAYAN SWIFTLET (Aerodramus brevirostris, 短嘴金丝燕) and, as if that wasn’t enough, Paul also heard a SWINHOE’S RAIL (Coturnicops exquisitus, 花田鸡). All three records were within a single, remarkable, hour. An adult LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus, 小鸥) was at Ma Chang on 22nd (Paul Holt and XiaoPT) and, on 24th, a dark morph BOOTED EAGLE (Hieraaetus pennatus, 靴隼雕) was at Shahe (Colm Moore). On 26th, a MARSH GRASSBIRD (Locustella pryeri, 斑背大尾莺) at Shahe (XiaoPT et al) was a nice record (it or another was at the same site on 8th October).
Three BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) were still at Yeyahu on 3rd (Paul Holt, Ben Wielstra and Terry Townshend) and, on the same day, belated news broke of a BLACK-WINGED CUCKOOSHRIKE (Coracina melaschistos, 暗灰鹃鵙) in the Olympic Forest Park ‘in early September’ (via XiaoPT). A WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri, 斑脸海番鸭) was at Ma Chang on 6th (Zhen Niu) and a MARSH GRASSBIRD (Locustella pryeri, 斑背大尾莺), was at Shahe on 8th (Zhao Xiangyu), possibly the lingering September bird. A BULL-HEADED SHRIKE (Lanius bucephalus, 牛头伯劳) was at Yeyahu on 14th (Beijing Feiyu) and a BLACK-THROATED DIVER (Gavia arctica, 黑喉潜鸟) was found at the Summer Palace on 19th (Denis Corbeil), remaining until 3rd November at least. On 23rd a single GULDENSTADT’S (WHITE-WINGED) REDSTART (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus, 红腹红尾鸲) was photographed at Shahe, a rare lowland Beijing record.
A first calendar-year BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) was at the Summer Palace on 3rd (Zhang Jingkang). On 5th, a BLACK-WINGED KITE (Elanus caeruleus, 黑翅鸢) was at Yeyahu (Terry Townshend) and, on 10th, the same site hosted Beijing’s 3rd or 4th CHIFFCHAFF (Phylloscopus collybita, 叽喳柳莺) (Lou Fangzhou). An unseasonal CHINESE THRUSH (Turdus mupinensis, 宝兴歌鸫) was in the Temple of Heaven Park on 8th (Chris Bowden). A WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀) in Shunyi on 11-12 November was possibly the first lowland Beijing record (Terry Townshend). On 14th, what we think is the first modern day record of HAZEL GROUSE (Tetrastes bonasia, 花尾榛鸡) was at Lingshan (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend) and, on the same day, a WHITE-THROATED REDSTART (Phoenicurus schisticeps, 白喉红尾鸲) was discovered just 250m on the ‘wrong side’ of the border with Hebei Province, apparently just the second record for eastern China (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend). A second BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) was at Shahe on 19th (Colm Moore), the same day a RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula parva, 红胸姬鹟) was photographed in the Temple of Heaven Park (Zhang Xiaoling). The latter bird, certainly present on 18th and possibly before, was just the 6th Beijing record of this species. Three BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) were at Huairou Reservoir on 20th (Steve Bale) and, on 21st, a ‘sibiricus‘ NORTHERN GREY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor, 灰伯劳) was at Lingshan (Steve Bale, XiaoPT and Terry Townshend). A first calendar year LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis, 长尾鸭) was at Peking University on 24th (Wang Yishan) but unfortunately found dead on 27th (per XiaoPT). Another first calendar-year BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) was at Huairou Reservoir on 27th (Steve Bale) and, on 30th a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART (Phoenicurus schisticeps, 白喉红尾鸲) was found at Miaofengshan by Colm Moore. Given the Lingshan bird on 14th was just over the border in Hebei Province, Colm’s bird represents the first Beijing record and only the third record for eastern China.
On 5th, whilst visiting Tsinghua University for the first time to try to see a long-staying GREY-BACKED THRUSH (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫), Steve Bale found and photographed Beijing’s 2nd REDWING (Turdus iliacus, 白眉歌鸫), enjoyed by many local birders and still present, along with the GREY-~BACKED THRUSH, at the year’s end. On 8th a nice flock of 6 CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀) was at Taishitun (XiaoPT). Three ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (Leucosticte arctoa, 粉红腹岭雀) at Lingshan on 15th (Jan-Erik Nilsen) was the first record this winter of a species with an unpredictable pattern of occurrence. Continuing the run of rare and scarce thrushes, a PALE THRUSH (Turdus pallidus, 白腹鸫) was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park on 16th and was still present at the year’s end. Xing Chao found and photographed a LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺) at Peking University on 22nd and, on 26th, an unseasonal CHESTNUT-FLANKED WHITE-EYE (Zosterops erythropleurus, 红胁绣眼鸟) was in the Botanical Gardens (XiaoPT). Finally, the capital’s 9th MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨) was photographed at Shidu on 30 December (via XiaoPT).
Thanks again to everyone who has reported sightings in 2018 and wishing everyone a happy, healthy and bird-filled 2019.
Title photo: The highlight of December 2018 was undoubtedly the capital’s 2nd Redwing, found by Steve Bale at Tsinghua University on 5th.
About a year ago, the BBC Natural History Unit was in contact about the feasibility of filming the Beijing Swift for a forthcoming series on urban wildlife. After introducing them to local experts, including Professors Gao and Zhao, the China Birdwatching Society and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, the BBC applied for permission to visit and film the Swifts in the Chinese capital. One of the locations was the Summer Palace, where the China Birdwatching Society has been studying the colony of 200+ birds for more than 10 years. It was here that, in 2014, the Society collaborated with experts from Europe on the Beijing Swift Project, tracking the migration of these avian wonders and discovering for the first time their migration route and wintering grounds in southern Africa.
The new series – “Cities: Nature’s New Wild” – is being shown on BBC2 and the Beijing Swifts are due to appear in episode three on Sunday 13 January (2000-2100). For those who can’t wait that long, a trailer about the Beijing Swift is available on the BBC website.
It’s fantastic exposure for Beijing’s Swifts and the people working to support them.
If you’re in the UK on the evening of Sunday 13th January, put the kettle on, settle into your favourite armchair and enjoy….
UPDATE 9 January: The BBC Natural History Unit has informed me that the Beijing Swifts will now NOT be shown in episode 3 of “Cities: Nature’s New Wild” on BBC2 on 13 January. Instead, episode 3 of the UK version of the series will include a segment on Indonesian Swiftlets. The Beijing Swifts will feature in the international version of the series. I’m awaiting broadcast details. Updates will appear here as more information is available.
Illegal hunting is a major threat to wild birds in most parts of the world. Even in so-called advanced countries, the problem persists. My home country – the UK – is certainly not immune with the continued illegal persecution of raptors to protect commercial shooting interests.
In China, trapping birds both for the cage-bird trade and for food is an activity that, despite tougher laws and greater enforcement, remains a problem. However, increasingly, people – especially young people – are standing up for wildlife. For example, in Beijing during spring and autumn – peak times for bird migration – groups of volunteers go out every day looking for illegal nets and, through liaison with the local police and direct action, are working hard to accelerate the demise of illegal hunting in China’s capital city. A few weeks ago I met with Beijing’s most active anti-poacher – Gu Xuan. Through crowdsourcing he receives a small – and increasingly unsustainable – income that just about allows him to be a full-time bird protector. Before our meeting, I thought I had a reasonably good understanding of poaching in Beijing but what he told me – both the scale of the illegal activity and the prices of some cage birds – shocked me. He agreed to answer a few questions and, with his permission, I have reproduced his answers below.
Although the scale of the problem and the way many migratory birds suffer, may be heartbreaking, it is heartening to hear about the dedication of young people such as Xuan and the progress he and his fellow volunteers are making against incredible odds. They deserve the respect and support of wildlife lovers the world over.
Beijing may be just one battleground in the war against illegal hunting in China but I strongly believe that if attitudes can be changed here, it will have a knock-on effect across the whole country.
Interview with Gu Xuan
1. Please tell me about yourself – how old are you? Where are you from? What is your background?
My name is Gu Xuan. I also have a Spanish name – Silva. I was born into a normal family in a small village called Bakou in the northwest of Beijing. I am 29 years old.
Before I began to protect wild birds, I used to teach life skills to orphaned children, for example, showing them how to take care of themselves and teaching blind children how to use a cane to navigate.
2. For how long have you been tackling poaching of wild birds in Beijing?
I began this work in December 2015, so it’s now three years.
3. What motivates you to do this work?
Ever since I was a little boy, I have had a desire to be with mother nature and the animals, to watch them and spend time with them. One day I took home a stray dog; I could feel the energy, the connection between us and with mother nature, and this experience showed me my future. When I was offered the chance to work on this bird protection project, I knew 100% for sure this was my duty and my dream to fight for nature. I don’t think I need any other motivation. This is the way I see and feel the world.
4. What is the scale of poaching in Beijing? E.g how many birds do you think are caught each year? Is it getting better or worse?
When I began three years ago, it was a very bad situation. Even though this is the capital of my country, the need to do this work is very pressing.
Due to old traditions, there are a lot of local people who like to cage birds to watch them and listen to their sound. So, in order to satisfy this demand, many people set nets during the migration season to catch wild birds. We find very large numbers of illegal nets in the Beijing area. And it is not only for the cage-bird trade. We have often found people catching birds for food.
Nowadays, three years on, the areas where I patrol are a little better but we can always find new places with illegal nets. The overall situation is out of my control and I cant tell the full scale, but i think it’s bad.
5. Who are the poachers? What’s their profile? Are they old or young, men or women?
The majority of poachers are unemployed men between 40-60 years old. However, we do find a few young people and women.
6. Why are they catching wild birds? For the cagebird trade or for food or both? These aren’t hungry people, right? Not for survival?
Some are rich and some poor but they all have a good life and do not need to eat wildlife to live.
7. Who are the buyers of the birds for the cagebird trade?
At the market, many local people from many different backgrounds buy the wild birds.
8. Which species are the poachers particularly targeting and why?
The most popular cage birds are the Bluethroat, Siberian Rubythroat, Eurasian Siskin, Yellow-bellied, Marsh and Coal Tits, Yellow-breasted Bunting, white-eyes and larks. A pristine male Siberian Rubythroat can sell for as much as 200,000 CNY (GBP 22,000) but most will change hands for a few hundred or few thousand CNY, depending on species and condition.
9. What if they catch other species such as buntings, shrikes, pipits?
If they catch birds not on their target list, for example a Brown Shrike, an Olive-backed Pipit or a warbler, some poachers will release them but others will take them for food.
10. Which areas are the worst in Beijing?
Some places are particularly bad, such as Tongzhou, Chaoyang, Mentougou, Haidian and Fengtai.
11. What is the attitude of the police?
At the very beginning, the police did not care too much. They would not allow us to see their work and they were afraid that someone will blame them. However, in the last three years, I can see a real change in their attitude and action. Now they respond quickly and efficiently when we report illegal nets and will do their best to catch the poachers.
12. What are the penalties if the police catch poachers?
We have the Wildlife Protection Law, and poachers will be punished according to the law. Usually a fine or, if the offence is serious involving a large number of birds, they may receive a custodial sentence.
13. What do you think needs to be done to bring an end to the poaching?
I think if we want to end poaching, there are a number of things that must happen:
Police must strictly implement the law
We, as volunteers, must patrol frequently
We must raise awareness among the local population about the amazing birds we have in Beijing, the effect of poaching on these wild birds and how people can help through discouraging the keeping of cage birds and discouraging eating wild birds
We need to work together and we need more volunteers!
14. What can people do to help?
Obviously, we need money to carry on our frontline action. We need to be able to support full-time volunteers. I have many ideas to protect the birds but I can’t end poaching by myself. I hope people will join us if they have time and chance. Anyone who comes out with us will feel the energy on the front line. Then, spread this energy to your family, your friends and your social media (Wechat) groups. We need your help!
15. Anything else you want to say?
The persecution of wild birds is like other wild animals. In order to satisfy their own needs, in order to satisfy a moment of happiness, in order to make more money, some people harm animals and destroy them. The habitat that protects this magical life also protects ourselves because we live together on this beautiful planet. Everyone has a responsibility!
I was struck by Xuan’s passion and dedication for saving wild birds. He told me that, in peak migration season, he rises around 3 or 4am every day in order to be on site at dawn when the poachers are most active. He invited me to join him for a day next spring, an invitation I was only too pleased to accept. I very much hope others will join him to accelerate the demise of illegal poaching in Beijing.
When you think of Beijing, what image comes into your head? The Great Wall? Maybe Tiananmen Square? Or maybe air pollution? For those of a more mature generation, maybe even the picture of a city full of bicycles..? Whatever the image, I suspect that for most people, birds or wildlife might not be front and centre.
That could be about to change.
In 2020, Beijing will host the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This clumsily-named UN convention meets every two years and I suspect most people not directly involved with the process would be hard pressed to say much about any of the previous meetings or what has been achieved. However, the 2020 meeting promises to be different. It is the time when governments are due to conclude an agreement on targets and measures to slow, stop and eventually reverse the loss of wildlife on Earth.
The meeting will take place in the context of the most recent Living Planet index showing that, since 1970, we have lost more than 60% of the animals on our planet. That is a shocking statistic and should be a wake-up call for governments and the public everywhere.
As host of the CBD, the Chinese government will want a successful outcome and, with recent progress towards President Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘ecological civilisation’ including a ban on further reclamation of intertidal mudflats and nomination of key coastal wetland sites for World Heritage status, the creation of a national park system, species-specific conservation work, e.g. on Baer’s Pochard and Scaly-sided Merganser, the country is creating the foundation for a positive story to tell.
But what about the host city? Could hosting the CBD be an opportunity to change the global image of Beijing from one of a crowded, polluted, grid-locked city to one of the world’s best capital cities for wildlife?
Beijing is already one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds, with around 500 species recorded. And in case the Mayor of Beijing is reading, here are some ideas that would require very limited resources but which could have a major impact on Beijing’s image:
Idea 1: A world-class wetland reserve in Beijing
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Beijing had a large waterbody that could be an important stopover site for migratory birds, including cranes, geese, ducks, shorebirds and others? Well, just 75km from Tiananmen Square lies Miyun Reservoir. It is Beijing’s largest drinking water reservoir and, until public access was prohibited in April 2016, it was the best birding site in the capital attracting flocks of cranes, bustards and large numbers of waterfowl, not to mention huge numbers of buntings in winter. However, after a large fire in the area and concerns about water quality, much of the land around the reservoir – ideal habitat for shorebirds, cranes, bustards, birds of prey, buntings and pipits – has been cleared and planted with mostly non-native trees in monocultures. This policy has undoubtedly had a negative impact on birds. Whilst it is understandable to prioritise water quality, this need not be at the expense of wildlife. Internationally, there are examples of reservoirs being managed for both water quality and wildlife. One example is Rutland Water, England’s largest drinking water reservoir. In fact, Rutland Water is managed for three objectives – water quality, birds and recreation. If we can share this experience and demonstrate that a large water body can be managed as a place for wildlife as well as water quality, there would be an opportunity to develop a management plan for Miyun Reservoir that maintained a high standard of water quality whilst attracting world-class numbers of cranes and other waterbirds and providing limited public access, attracting millions of visitors each year and an associated boost to the local economy. Given the CBD conference will likely be in the last quarter of the year, the Beijing government could even invite international media to see the large flocks of cranes that would almost certainly be present if the area was managed sympathetically.
– High standard of water quality
– Providing a refuge for thousands of waterbirds, including threatened and endangered species such as cranes and bustards
– Providing opportunities for the urban population to connect with nature
– Through the visiting public staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants, bringing income to the local people in relatively poor Miyun county
Idea 2: 10% Wild
Beijing enjoys some large and expansive green spaces. Parks such as the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) and the Olympic Forest Park are all hugely popular places providing urban Beijingers with opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Anyone who has visited these parks will know that they are heavily manicured with an army of staff ready to collect any leaf that falls or any blade of grass that grows in one of the cultivated flower beds. These parks are over-managed to the extent that they are not as friendly for wildlife as they could be. One idea is for the management of these spaces to leave “10% wild”. This would mean no significant active management of an allocated part of the park – no use of insecticides, no removal of native plants and no cutting of grass or removal of fallen leaves. Each park could partner with a local school, the students of which would be invited to undertake surveys of biodiversity – insects, birds and plants – and compare the “10% wild” with other managed parts of the park. Interpretation signs around the allocated area could promote this experiment to visitors, publishing the results of the student surveys and helping to engage the public about wildlife. After two years there could be a review to assess the results and to explore whether the experiment should be expanded.
– 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
Idea 3: Urban wildlife oases
Beijing lies on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and, every spring and autumn, millions of birds pass the Chinese capital on their way to and from breeding grounds to the north and wintering grounds to the south. To make these remarkable journeys, birds require places to rest and refuel along the way. The trans-continental journeys, such as those of the Beijing Swift and Beijing Cuckoo, are challenging for the hardiest of birds, and the challenges are only increased as vast areas of natural habitat along migration pathways are altered or eliminated, making it difficult for exhausted birds to find suitable places to rest and refuel.
“Urban wildlife oases” could provide ‘stepping stones’ for migrating birds to cross urban areas where there is limited quality habitat. Each community has the potential to provide important habitat for native birds – and a richer, more beautiful place to live for people.
To illustrate the potential, I’d like to convey my experience with a patch of land close to my apartment in Shunyi District. Surrounded by new developments, including apartments and shopping malls, this 1km x 1km patch of land, very close to the airport, has yet to be developed and, in the two years since I moved to the area and in almost 100 visits, I have recorded 156 species of bird, five species of mammal and nine species of butterfly. Highlights have included Band-bellied Crake, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Siberian Thrush and Rough-legged Buzzard, demonstrating the importance of the site to migratory birds.
Maintaining a patchwork of urban oases across the city, potentially with some limited public access, would cost little – beyond the opportunity cost of the land – and provide significant benefits to both wildlife and people.
– providing shelter and food for some of the millions of migratory birds that pass through the capital each spring and autumn; plus important areas for breeding and wintering species
– with limited public access, these sites could provide the public with access to wild spaces and places for students from local schools to become citizen scientists
– interpretation would mean that these urban oases could act as outdoor classrooms for Beijing’s urban population
Idea 4: Adopting the Beijing Swift
In 2015, a project involving Beijing Birdwatching Society and international experts discovered, for the first time, the migration route and wintering grounds of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis). It was a hugely popular story, covered by mainstream media – both print and broadcast – and engaged millions of people, most of whom would never ordinarily take an interest in birds. The Beijing Swift is the perfect symbol for modern Beijing. One of the old names for Beijing is Yanjing, which, in Chinese, breaks down to “燕” (Yan) and “京” (Jing). The first character, “燕” means “swift” or “swallow”, so the name Yanjing could be interpreted as “Swift capital”. This bird also links China with Central Asia, the Gulf and Africa, aligned with the much-touted “One Belt, One Road” initiative to revive old trade routes. Why not formally adopt the Beijing Swift as the official bird of the Chinese capital? There can be no more appropriate candidate.
– Associating Beijing with a bird of endurance, elegance and global reach
– Greater public awareness about the wildlife of Beijing
– Encouragement to businesses and communities to help stem the decline of the Beijing Swift – caused by the demolition of traditional buildings – by erecting artificial nest boxes at suitable sites and encouraging the inclusion of Swift-friendly designs in new buildings
Idea 5: Removing the invisible killer: mist nets at China’s airports
When thousands of environmentally-minded people arrive in Beijing for the UN Conference on Biological Diversity, the first thing they will see is lines and lines of mist nets alongside the runway at Beijing Capital International Airport, many of which will hold bird corpses dangling in the wind. China’s policy to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes is to line each runway with several kilometres of mist nets. This method is only effective against small birds which, unless in large flocks, represent almost no risk to aircraft. Nets at ground level are ineffective against the more significant risks associated with flocks of large birds such as geese, swans or herons. In fact, guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) makes no mention of mist nets as a way to mitigate the risk of bird strikes. Recommended good practice is to undertake a risk assessment at each airport to identify the unique risks from wildlife and take appropriate measures to address these specific risks. Non-lethal methods such as managing habitat, playing distress calls, using birds of prey etc are the most effective methods. China, with more than 300 airports, takes a general approach of simply erecting lines of mist nets. It’s lazy and ineffective. Could CBD be the catalyst for a review of this policy?
– stopping the unnecessary killing of millions of birds each year
– more effective management of the risk of bird strikes
– a better international image for China and Beijing
With two years to go until Beijing hosts what will probably be the world’s largest governmental conference on biodiversity, there is ample time to develop a strategic plan that would make Beijing one of the world’s most wildlife-friendly cities. Instead of “smoggy Beijing”, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to label Beijing as the capital of ecological civilisation? These are just five ideas. If you have more, please comment and let us know.. you never know who might be reading.
For a helpful general overview of the CBD process and the current status, read this article by Jonathan Watts.
On 5 December 2018, Beijing-based Steve Bale visited Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus for the first time. He found Beijing’s second ever Redwing. Here’s Steve’s account of that unforgettable find…
By Steve Bale
For me, one of the highlights of Beijing-birding is the arrival of the ‘winter thrushes’. There are two species-groups that make the long journey from their Siberian breeding grounds to spend the cold winter-months here – Naumann’s/Dusky and Red/Black-throated.
So far this winter, I have seen very few thrushes of any description by the Wenyu River, my local patch. Concerns that Beijing had somehow been removed from their winter travel itinerary were allayed when I recieved news from Ben Wielstra, via the Qinghua University birders’ WeChat group, that all of the above-mentioned thrushes could be seen on the university’s ‘Patch 6’. What’s more, they were there in good numbers, and in various guises.
Ben had kindly posted a video of a bird at the edge of Patch 6’s pond, whose gene-line seemed to have Black, Red-throated and Naumann’s branches. Not to be outdone, the thrush next to it appeared to be the progeny of a male Naumann’s and a male Dusky.
Clearly, Qinghua University’s ‘Patch 6’ was the place to have a close look at some of the wonders of thrush evolution (which is very much work-in-progress in this part of the world).
I must admit, though, that the factor that tipped the ‘go or don’t go’ decision, was that Ben had also seen a Grey-backed Thrush that morning – a Beijing rarity no less. It had been found by Bu Xinchen – one of the band of very active Qinghua birders – more than a week earlier, but was proving hard to pin down.
Decision made, I grabbed my bins and camera, and set off for ‘Thrushtopia’. 15 minutes later I was at the Guo Zhan subway station. 50 minutes after that I had reached the station at the end of Line 15, which is 30 minutes’ walk away from Patch 6. By 1.30pm I was pond-side watching and hearing ‘winter thrushes’ – lots of them, and much more besides.
The pond at Patch 6 had frozen overnight, but there was still enough water at the edges to attract more than a dozen species of birds. Within an hour of my arrival, as well as seeing Hawfinch (2), Chinese Grosbeak (c15), Oriental Greenfinch (c10), Chinese Bulbul (6), Great Spotted Woodpecker (1), Brambling (c40), Silky Starling (c10), White-Cheeked Starling (c10) I had enjoyed excellent views of close to 50 thrushes – Chinese Blackbird (c10), Dusky (8), Naumann’s (c10), Red-throated (8), Black-throated (2), Dusky/Naumann’s (6), Red/Black-throated (2), and a possible Naumann’s/Red-throated. I had also managed to get a glimpse of the Grey-backed, before it was scared away by someone sweeping up leaves from the water’s edge.
What an amazing hour’s birding – and certainly well worth the trek across Beijing to get there.
I then realised that my head was painfully cold. In my haste, I had forgotten to bring a hat. A bad mistake when it’s minus four, but a potentially life-threatening one when it’s minus four and you are bald.
Before making a hasty exit to find a coffee shop on the way back to the subway station, I decided to have one final look at the bushes by the pool. There were quite a few thrushes there… a very brick-red Naumann’s, a Dusky, a Redwing, another Naumann’s…
Obviously, my brain had started to freeze.
…It dawned on me that I wasn’t in Norfolk, where flocks of Redwing can be seen on most winter days. I was in Beijing, where there has only been one previous record.
I looked again. It was still there. Instinctively, I put my bins down and picked my camera up. I watched the bird – seemingly an adult – for a few minutes as it dropped down from the bush to the pond-side rocks, and back to the bush. Then it was gone. Bizarrely, happy memories of the first time I had ever seen a Redwing – when I was 11 – popped in to my head. I remembered thinking, what a brilliant bird it was, and marvelling at its night-migration across the North Sea on its way to eat apples in my back garden.
Pushing nostalgia aside, I immediately sent a WeChat message to Ben, attaching a record shot (phone-photo of the camera’s review-sceen). Within a few minutes of finding the bird, I had also sent the photo and directions to the Qinghua WeChat birding group’s 38 other members.
Ben was the first to arrrive; then XiaoPT, who I thanked again for inviting me to join the WeChat group. Within 30 minutes there were ten people waiting for the Redwing’s return. Only problem was that there had been no sign of it since my initial sighting. It would be almost an increasingly tense hour before the bird decided to show itself to its waiting admirers. By then, the crowd had swelled to about 15 people (a major twitch by Chinese standards).
It was of course wonderful to find the bird, but the real pleasure came from sharing the joy with so many enthusiastic young birders. The Qinghua birding group is one of the many local groups that have popped up all over China in recent years. Many of the people in these groups are not just active birders, they are passionate conservationists also. These young people are at the forefront of the drive to make China’s environment a better place for the birds and other animals that depend on it. I take my hat off to them.
Talking of hats, many thanks to Ben – not just for inspiring me to visit Qinghua University for the first time – but also for lending me a life-saving woolly hat.
Title photo of Tsinghua University campus by Steve Bale.
As the sun will soon set on 2018, it’s a good time to review the results of the community-based wildlife watching tourism project in the Valley of the Cats.
I am delighted to announce that, in 2018, 61 groups of visitors stayed in the Valley of the Cats as part of the community-based wildlife tourism project (with the last visitors of 2018 arriving today!). These trips have generated revenue of CNY 432,400 (almost GBP 50,000) for the community. That’s just under CNY 20,000 (GBP 2,200) of benefit for each of the 22 families involved in the project. At the same time, many visitors have enjoyed the trip of a lifetime, including special encounters with some of the resident wildlife such as Snow Leopard, Common Leopard, Wolf, Asian Brown Bear, Lynx, Tibetan and Red Fox and much more.
One of the year’s more high-profile visitors was Professor Per Alström. His 30+ year quest to record Snow Leopard on camera was finally rewarded in the Valley of the Cats with the video below.
We’ve received some excellent – and importantly, honest – feedback from visitors to the Valley this year and from the host families. This feedback will be instrumental in guiding a meeting with the local community in January to review progress and discuss plans for 2019.
We can expect a few minor changes to the way the project operates, based on the experience of 2018, but we will ensure the project retains its strong sense of authenticity.
On behalf of the local community, I’d like to say a big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported the project in 2018 either by visiting or helping to promote the Valley of the Cats and, if you haven’t yet visited, please take a look at the website and consider a trip in 2019!