The Birds of Dalian

When I first moved to China it wasn’t long before I discovered Tom Beeke’s excellent BirdForum thread about his sightings in and around Dalian, located in China’s northeast Liaoning Province.  Tom’s superb sightings, enthusiastically documented for all to see, were a big inspiration to me.  As a teacher at the Maple Leaf School in Jinshitan, he developed groundbreaking environmental education classes for his students and, somehow, found the time to write a bird book.

 “The Birds of Dalian” was first published in 2010 and the 2nd edition, in both English and Chinese, is now available, thanks to the support of Swarovski Optik and Zhu Lei for the Chinese translation.  The book covers 326 species and includes Tom’s photos of the various plumages of each species.

Tom writes:

“The Birds of Dalian was put together for the purpose of introducing local wildlife.  The goal of the project is to stir up conservation mindedness by showing the remarkable species that can be found in this area of Mainland China.  When people are aware of how many species live in and/or move through an area, they can then be aided in making informed decisions about the future of that area.  Why preserve this wetland?  Because there are over 200 species of birds that rely on it in one calendar year.  Why save this tidal mudflat?  Because there are over 200 species of birds that rely on it in one calendar year.  Why save this forested area?  Because there are over 200 species of birds that rely on it in one calendar year.  During my 12 years in China, I was surprised by how few people knew about the wonderful world of birds in their area.  China is remarkably rich, as far as birds are concerned.  Hopefully this book will help to prove this and help in some way to protect what is there.”
Hear hear, Tom.  To read more about the book, and to purchase a copy for only 150 Chinese Yuan (under GBP 20), follow this link.  Thoroughly recommended!

China Thanks India For Protecting Amur Falcons

As we track the Beijing Cuckoos from the Chinese capital all the way to Africa, we are learning that they take a remarkably similar route to another long-distance avian migrant, the Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis).

The Amur Falcon is one of the most beautiful and agile of all birds of prey.  It’s a spectacular aerial hunter that often causes one to gasp when seeing it wheeling in the sky as it hunts dragonflies and other flying insects.

A few years ago it came to light that Amur Falcons, on their way to Africa each autumn, congregated in Nagaland in northeast India.  The size of the gathering was on a staggering scale, estimated to be around 1 million birds.

The sight of up to a million Amur Falcons at a stopover site in Nagaland, India. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.
The sight of up to a million Amur Falcons at a stopover site in Nagaland, India. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.

Unfortunately, in 2012, it was revealed that hunting of Amur Falcons by the local people was also on a huge scale.  Staff at Conservation India had discovered that tens of thousands of migrating Amur Falcons were being illegally trapped on the roost at a reservoir at Doyang in Nagaland and then being taken to local markets alive, or killed and smoked, for sale as food.  What happened next is a major conservation success story.

In 2013, Dr Asad Rahmani, Director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) said: “From an estimated 100,000 falcons killed last year, none have been trapped in nets this year. The transformation is extraordinary and the change has come very quickly. But we also have to guard against this rapid change getting reversed. We needed to also set up solutions which are sustainable and of practical use to the community.”

As conservationists will know very well, it’s one thing to put a stop to illegal hunting in a single year, it’s another to sustain it.  That is why there has been so much work to engage the local communities, including providing alternative livelihoods.  One of the key elements of the public awareness campaign has been the project to track Amur Falcons, with individual birds named after local villages in Nagaland.

Just a few days ago, I received a note from Suresh Kumar of the Wildlife Institute of India who has just spent a few weeks in Nagaland.  He writes:

“This season was the initiation of a “New Chapter” in our efforts to further our understanding of this species and continue with the conservation efforts that appears to have rooted deep in the remote villages of not only in Nagaland but in many parts of the Northeastern hill States.  No Amur falcons were hunted this season – “ZERO”. I received a number of requests from administrators and villagers to come visit their area and acknowledge their efforts in protecting falcons, and also tag and release a bird there with the name of the village. A lot more sites in the whole of NE appears to host sizeable number of falcons during October-November, which was previously unknown.

As part of the “Amur Falcon Conservation Initiative” this season we satellite tagged five more Amur falcons across four roosting sites in Nagaland. A special grant for undertaking this study has been provided by MoEF & CC to WII. This comes at a perfect time with India becoming a signatory of the Convention on Migratory Species – Raptors MoU from March 2016.”

You can follow the progress of the tagged birds here.

Two of the Amur Falcons originally tagged in 2013 have been visiting an area just a few hundred kilometres north of Beijing to breed and, although it breeds in the capital in small numbers, it is in spring and autumn when we are fortunate to see flocks of Amur Falcons at suitable stopover sites such as Yeyahu or Miyun Reservoir.  So here in Beijing we have a strong affinity with this bird.

Recognising that it is this conservation effort that enables us in northeastern China to enjoy these wonderful birds, birders wanted to thank the Indian government and, most importantly, the local people for protecting Amur Falcons.  Birding Beijing facilitated the letter below, which has been signed by Ms Fu Jianping, President of China Birdwatching Society, on behalf of their members and also by many individual birders in Beijing and around the country.

As we collected signatures, it was wonderful to receive a message from the “Wind Child” young birding group in Hunan Province who, on their very first field trip, saw some Amur Falcons and adopted it as their favourite species.  They were keen to add their voices to the letter and, thanks to the efforts of Suresh Kumar at the Wildlife Institute of India, the letter was made into a poster, framed and handed over to the local community leaders (see header photo) during the annual gathering of Amur Falcons earlier this month.

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Just as with the Beijing Cuckoos, the Amur Falcon reminds us that birds have no borders and they are shared by all the countries they grace.  It is only by working together that these incredible travellers, and the habitats they need, can be protected.

Huge thanks to Suresh Kumar for arranging the design, framing and the handover of the letter, thank you to Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International for supporting the initiative, and thank you to all of the signatories of the letter.  Most of all, a big thank you to the local people in Nagaland for their wonderful work.

Maybe the Amur Falcons from Nagaland will mingle with the Beijing Cuckoos somewhere in Africa this winter!

Bolt Takes Gold In Marathon!

What a moment!  On the evening of 30 October 2016, a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) fitted with a satellite tag in Beijing in May 2016 made landfall in Africa, a journey of more than 9,000km, the most recent leg of which was a non-stop flight of over 3,700km from central India, across the Arabian Sea, to Somalia.

Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.

 

Skybomb Bolt, as he was named by schoolchildren in Beijing, is one of five Beijing Cuckoos fitted with transmitters as part of the Beijing Cuckoo Project. The project, a collaboration between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), the China Birdwatching Society (CBS), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing, was designed to bring together scientific discovery and public engagement with the primary aim of raising awareness of bird migration, conservation and the environment in China.

As in Europe, cuckoos are familiar and popular summer visitors to Beijing. Their well-known call, often heard for the first time in mid-May, is a traditional sign of spring. However, until this project, the wintering grounds and the routes they took to get there were unknown.

Thanks to technological advances, tracking devices are now small enough to be used on cuckoos and they are enabling scientists to gain an understanding of bird migration on a scale and depth as never before. Learning about the wintering grounds and the migration routes will inform conservationists as they seek to protect these special birds and many others like them. Importantly, using the BTO’s cuckoo tracking project as a model, this project has involved the participation of not only professional scientists but also volunteers from all walks of life. Through engaging schools to give names to the cuckoos, and providing updates on special webpages in English and Chinese, the impact of this project has been way beyond a traditional scientific endeavour.

After having tags fitted in May 2016, the “famous five” cuckoos spent the summer breeding season in Beijing, Mongolia and Russia and, in late July, they began their southward migration to unknown winter quarters.

The journeys of these amazing birds have captured the imagination of the general public both in China and overseas with hundreds of thousands of reactions on social media, including Twitter, Facebook and the Chinese social media equivalents of WeChat and Weibo.

The BTO’s Chris Hewson said:

“Watching how Skybomb has made ‘our’ world look small is a fantastic and humbling experience. Before leaving India, he had already travelled nearly as far as some UK cuckoos do on their entire migrations. This latest flight is the equivalent to the very longest desert crossings of UK birds, with no prospect of landing and consequently no margin for error. Given the rainfall patterns, we expect him to move gradually south, possibly as far again as this latest flight, through the winter. ‘Epic’ hardly seems to do justice to the travels of this small bird that has not previously been renowned for its powers of flight!”

Dr Ji Jianwei, Deputy Director of the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre said:

“We are delighted to work with international partners to track the migration of Beijing Cuckoos. We have welcomed these birds every spring and, until now, have wondered where they go and how they get there. Thanks to this project, now we know! Inspiring examples of bird migration, such as this, are powerful ways to help raise awareness amongst the general public about the environment, on which we all depend.”

Professor Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London, said:

“The Beijing Cuckoo Project is revealing, for the first time, the remarkable journeys of one of our most familiar birds.  That a bird weighing around 100g can fly more than 3,700km non-stop over the Arabian Sea is astonishing and, through the engagement of schoolchildren in the world’s most populous country, this project is inspiring a new generation.”

Skybomb Bolt was fitted with his tag at Hanshiqiao Wetland Park in Shunyi District, close to Beijing Capital International Airport in the northeast of the city.  The managers of the nature reserve are proud of “their” cuckoo and are planning to set up a special board at the reserve to showcase Skybomb and his epic journey, helping to explain to visitors why nature reserves are so important for wild birds.

We expect the other cuckoos to follow Skybomb’s lead and head to Africa but just how far they will go once in that huge continent is still a question mark. We think Skybomb will head south and follow the seasonal rains in eastern Africa.   His route so far is remarkably similar to that of another long-distance migrant – the Amur Falcon.  The journeys of these birds are simply staggering.

Big thanks to the sponsors of this project – the Zoological Society of London, the Oriental Bird Club and the British Birds Charitable Foundation – and to the partners, especially the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, the China Birdwatching Society and the British Trust for Ornithology.

Don’t forget, you can follow the latest updates about the cuckoos on the special Beijing Cuckoo Project page.

The 2nd China International Birding Festival in Lushun, Dalian

Last week I was honoured to represent BirdLife International and the Oriental Bird Club at the 2nd China International Birding Festival in Lushun, near Dalian in Liaoning Province. The centrepiece was a one-day ‘bird race’ in which teams of three to four people attempted to record as many species as possible at four pre-selected sites around the district. This year I was delighted to be joined by two friends from the UK – Brian Egan, who manages the UK’s Rare Bird Alert, and Rob Holmes, for whom the best title we came up with was “ex-YOC member from Suffolk”. Together with Marie, we formed the “Foreign Flappers”, one of 21 teams to take part.

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Google map showing the location of Laotieshan, Lushun, in southern Liaoning Province

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The Festival was again supported by the local government and organised by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) and the China Birdwatching Society. The aim was to raise the profile of birding in China and to celebrate the world-class migration hosted by Lushun every spring and autumn on the East Asian Flyway. For more about this magnificent place, see this post.

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Terry signing in for BirdLife International

The professionalism of the opening ceremony demonstrated the importance the local government places on wild birds. The Lushun Party Secretary, Mr Yi opened the event and spent time meeting all of the participants over the opening dinner.

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Lushun Part Secretary, Mr Yi, toasting the Foreign Flappers at the opening ceremony.

Educated at Coventry in the UK, he was fluent in English and relatively western in his outlook. He told us how he had been clamping down on poaching and strengthening the management of the Laotieshan National Nature Reserve, including the famous Snake Island, an offshore rock islet where every spring and autumn the resident Pallas’s Pit Vipers climb the trees and await tired migrants. He was proud to say that poaching incidents were down by 90% this year.

On Snake Island, Pallas's Pit Vipers feed twice a year on migratory birds.
On Snake Island, Pallas’s Pit Vipers feed twice a year on migratory birds. Photo by Wang Xiaoping.

Mr Yi, who committed to hosting the event next year, asked us for advice about how to expand the birding festival to attract more participants, particularly from overseas. We told him about similar events and places overseas, for example the annual BirdFair at Rutland Water, the largest of its kind in the world, the Champions Of The Flyway bird race in Israel and other migration hotspots such as Falsterbo in Sweden and Cape May on the east coast of the United States. We promised to write to him with ideas and advice and we very much hope he will be able to visit the UK in 2017 to experience the BirdFair for himself.

The bird race was exceptionally well-organised. Each team was provided with a vehicle and driver and a local forestry administration official who acted as a guide. Judges were allocated to each site and assisted with identifications and helped to engage the public. It was a slick operation and our team recorded a respectable 81 species, with favourites including Baikal Teal, Oriental White Stork, Chinese Egret (colour ringed with the inscription “T03”), Oriental Honey Buzzard, Red-necked Stint, Lanceolated Warbler and Pallas’s Bunting.

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Back of the camera photo of one of 4 ORIENTAL STORKS we were lucky to see during the bird race.  Photo by Brian Egan.

After the event, we took the opportunity to visit Professor Ma Li who leads a team of volunteers focused on finding and dismantling illegal nets at Laotieshan Nature Reserve. She works with the local police and nature reserve staff and she confirmed what Mr Yi had told us – that poaching was well down this year. Prof Ma took us to some sites around Laotieshan and introduced us to a former poacher who had been ‘converted’ into a bird protection volunteer. Now he helps Ma Li’s team to find illegal nets and to catch other poachers. When we visited, he had a Japanese Scops Owl in a cage, brought to him by a local boy. It was unclear how the boy came to have the owl but it was in good condition and he gave it to us to release.

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Professor Ma Li going over owl identification with former poacher, Mr Wang.

After an extra day of birding around Laotieshan, which included finding a rare Red-breasted Flycatcher and being fortunate to have stunning close-up views of the resident Finless Porpoises, it was time to leave. With so many young people participating in the festival from all parts of China, generous media coverage, the engagement of local residents and the commitment outlined by the local government leaders, we came away feeling optimistic about the future of Laotieshan and about birding in China.

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The local media covered the bird festival for their main news bulletin.

And the spectacle of hundreds of Common Buzzards circling above us at the lighthouse on our final day is something that will stay with us for a very long time. Big thanks to the Lushun government, especially Mr Yi and his deputy Mr Li, the CBCGDF and China Birdwatching Society and to all of the participants who made it such a fun and inspirational event. Looking forward to the 3rd festival in 2017!

Swinhoe’s Rail in Beijing

Whilst I was in Dalian participating in the 2nd China International Birding Festival (more on that to come), I received an excited WeChat message from Zhao Qi informing me that Colm Moore had, just a few minutes earlier, seen a SWINHOE’S RAIL at Shahe Reservoir, Beijing.  Due to its secretive habits, this poorly-known species is very rarely seen anywhere and a decline in the number of records in recent years suggests that it is becoming one of China’s rarest birds.  From a personal perspective, it is my most sought-after species and I have lost count of the number of times I have endured squelchy feet as I meandered through soggy meadows around Beijing in the vain hope of encountering one of these enigmatic birds.

Anyone who knows Colm will tell you he is a brilliant birder.  In Beijing he is a relentless patch worker, visiting Shahe whenever he has spare time, which usually equates to a visit each weekend.  If ever a sighting of this magnitude was deserved, this is it.

In a subsequent email, Colm described his encounter in typically thorough and evocative language:

“The bird took off without being put up by me, flew very low continuously and fast just skimming the knee-high vegetation, darkish legs hanging. The landing was exactly like a crane, legs forward, disc-like wings down and a rather prolonged landing, showing the incredible white secondaries.
It got up from soggy knee-length vegetation and flew maybe 120m unlike Baillon’s Crake. It really was tiny, the size of a Tree Sparrow, but clearly Rail…..for all purposes very very dark, “Baillons- in-flight-dark”, ridiculous rounded disc-like wings beating fast and in a default slightly bowed position with no gliding, darkish legs dangling but neatly so, say 30 degrees to body line. Short bill and maybe slightly paler belly but whole impression was very dark. No deviation from line of flight and landing with legs forward, wings angled down and slightly back, revealing shocking white inner wing trailing edge, equivalent to secondaries.
No time in the shock of the moment to do anything but use binoculars. This was at about 11.15am and good half-cloud/sunlight behind me. I know the species from Happy Island 15 yrs ago, where Per Schiermacher Hansen and Jesper Hornskov showed me one and left to my own devices I found another. While in Minnesota in 2006 I was shown American Yellow Rail novaboracensis at a special site and it resembles Swinhoe’s but was bigger. Agony not to get even a record shot I know but the views were great, short I acknowledge but the white amazing. It looked identical, even down to the very dark wings and body impression noticeable on the birds on Happy Island.”

Colm’s description is delightful and if there was a Rarities Committee in China, I am sure this would sail through despite the understandable lack of photographic evidence.  A wonderful record by one of the best birders I have ever met.  It is the 4th record of Swinhoe’s Rail for Beijing, with all records coming since 2014, a statistic that must be due to an increase in the number of birders and greater observer awareness rather than a change of its status in the wild (it is officially classified as “Vulnerable” with the population thought to be in decline).

Thanks to Colm and Zhao Qi for allowing me to share the story of this enviable encounter here.

Featured Image: Swinhoe’s Rail at the Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, October 2014 by 仲平 (Zhou Zhongping).

The 2nd China International Birding Festival

From 20-22 October I will be participating in the 2nd China International Birding Festival in Lushun, near Dalian.  As with the 1st Festival last year, the centrepiece is a ‘bird race’, a 24-hour period during which teams will compete to see or hear as many species of bird as possible within the recording area.  The event, organised by the China Birdwatching Society and sponsored by the local government, has been designed to promote birding and bird conservation in China.  At least 20 teams from across the country, with one or two from overseas, will be competing for the “Steller’s Sea Eagle” trophy…

I’m delighted that two friends, Brian Egan and Rob Holmes, are flying over and will join Marie and I to make up the “Foreign Flappers”.  To many British birders, Brian’s name will be familiar – he manages the Rare Bird Alert (RBA) operation from its headquarters in Norwich – and RBA, along with BirdLife International, will be international partner organisations for the event.

Lushun, near Dalian, is famous for its impressive raptor migration but it’s also an excellent site for passerine migration and we can expect a variety of sought after species, including good numbers of SIBERIAN ACCENTOR, a species that just a few days ago appeared on UK soil for the first time.  Look out for updates via Twitter from @BirdingBeijing and @RareBirdAlertUK …!

 

 

“A Bridge of Magpies”: Birds in Chinese Folklore

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been introducing the wonderful pupils at the International School of Beijing (ISB) to the birds of China’s capital city, including a field trip to Hanshiqiao (the wetland where Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo, was fitted with his tag).  As part of the classroom based material, Annie He, who is responsible for integrating Chinese culture into the ISB curriculum, created a brilliant document outlining how birds feature in Chinese folklore.  With Annie’s kind permission,  “Beyond The Legend”  is now available to download.  I love the story about the magpie’s role in Chinese Valentine’s Day:

“On the evening of the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese lunar calendar, don’t forget to look carefully at the summer sky.  You’ll find the Cowherd (a bright star in the constellation Aquila, west of the Milky Way) and the Weaving Maid (the star Vega, east of the Milky Way) appear closer together than at any other time of the year. Chinese believe the stars are lovers who are permitted to meet by the queen of Heaven once a year. That day falls on the double seventh (七⼣夕 in Chinese), which is China’s own Valentine’s Day. Most Chinese remember being told a romantic tragedy when they were children on the double seventh. In the legend, the cowherd and the Weaving Maid will meet on a bridge of magpies across the Milky Way once a year. Chinese grannies will remind children that they would not be able to see any magpies on that evening because all the magpies have left to form a bridge in the heavens with their wings.”