In Celebration of an Urban Oasis

It’s a sound dreaded by conservationists the world over.

And it’s a feature of human nature that when heard on TV in a pristine rainforest thousands of kilometres away, the sound of a chainsaw can seem remote and it’s relatively easy to detach oneself from the destruction.. and yet when it happens in a place far less globally important, yet so familiar, it elicits an altogether different reaction.

That’s what I experienced on Sunday on my local patch.

To most people I am sure, the ‘Shunyi patch’, as it has come to be known, looks like a scruffy piece of waste land. To me, it is a beautiful oasis in a concrete desert.

Scruffy or beautiful?

From my first visit in April 2015, I always knew this 0.5km x 0.5km patch of ‘wilderness’ in Shunyi District was on borrowed time.

Surrounded by new apartment blocks, Beijing metro’s line 15 and the new International Exhibition Centre, and just a stone’s throw from Beijing Capital International airport, the city was closing in and it was surely only a matter of when, not if, this place would be ‘developed’. There have been some false starts in the past with occasional clearances of the undergrowth but, with trees being felled and bulldozers moving in, it seems that moment has finally come…

The ‘Shunyi patch’ inset onto map of Beijing, showing the location adjacent to Beijing Capital International Airport

With chainsaws roaring and bulldozers belching out dark smoke as they demolished trees and shrubs, what I had planned to be a relaxing walk around the local patch on Sunday afternoon instead turned into a time for sober reflection about what this tiny space had given me over the past four years.

In 106 visits, 164 species of bird, five species of mammal and ten species of butterfly have been recorded, remarkable for such a small area of shrubs, trees and scrub. The majority of the birds recorded have been migratory, using the site as a temporary refuge to find food and shelter on their way to and from breeding grounds in north China, Mongolia or as far away as northern Siberia. Highlights have included species rarely recorded in the capital, such as Band-bellied Crake, Himalayan Swiftlet and, just a few weeks ago, a probable sighting of the poorly-known Streaked Reed Warbler. In winter it was not uncommon to see Long-eared Owls hunting over the scrub and roosting in the junipers, the sentinel-like Chinese Grey Shrike perched atop a maize stem or leafless sapling and tens of buntings – Little, Pallas’s Reed and Japanese Reed – as well as stunning Siberian Accentors feeding on the dropped seed heads. In summer, breeding species included Light-vented Bulbul, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Brown Shrike and Spotted Dove. Occasionally, an Amur Hedgehog, Tolai Hare or Siberian Weasel showed themselves and, on warm summer evenings, it was common to see at least two species of bat patrolling the patch to feed on the flying insects.

Just ten minutes away from my apartment, this place was a refuge for me and was like my own secret study site. I spent many hours wandering around, enjoying the relative tranquility, observing how the harsh Beijing seasons quickly changed the character of the site from the desperately dry and seemingly barren place in late winter to a wet and lush landscape teeming with insects in late summer.

Rather than mourn the loss of this special place, it seems fitting to celebrate its life and so, in that spirit, here is a gallery of photos taken over the last four years including some of the species that have been found there.

The list of species recorded shows just how important urban oases can be for wildlife. Sites like the ‘Shunyi patch’ can provide ‘stepping stones’ for migratory birds, helping them to cross ever-expanding urban areas by providing places for food, water and shelter. My hope is that, by demonstrating the value to wildlife of such oases, we may learn to see ‘beauty in scruffy’ and persuade government officials that places like the Shunyi patch are an essential element of enlightened urban planning.

The list of species and the concept of ‘urban oases’ have been shared with the Beijing municipal government as part of a project to ‘rewild’ Beijing and have been met with an enthusiastic initial response. So the likely death of the Shunyi patch may not be in vain. Whatever the future, I am immensely grateful to this small patch of land for providing me with an education about the rich biodiversity of China’s capital city.

Advertisements

Identification of Eastern Vagrants to Britain

Professor Per Alström is a renowned authority on birds, particularly the birds of East Asia. Earlier this year, he delivered the RSPB Birders’ Lecture at the BirdFair with the title “Identification of Eastern Vagrants to Britain“. It’s a masterclass for anyone hoping to find a rarity in the UK, whether on Shetland, Scilly, the east coast or, more optimistically, at an inland local patch.

A PDF of his slides and a recording of the lecture can be downloaded from the British Birds website or directly here:

PDF

Audio file of Professor Per Alström’s RSPB Birders’ lecture

Title image: A youthful Per attracting the attention of bewildered locals

UK experience on managing reservoirs for water quality and nature shared with Beijing government

It’s been a hectic autumn and I’m a little behind in writing up developments but I wanted to highlight a recent visit to Beijing by Tim Appleton of Rutland Water and, of course, founder of the UK’s BirdFair.

Tim was invited by the Beijing government to share the experience of managing England’s largest reservoir for drinking water, as a nature reserve and for leisure.

The reason for inviting Tim was to begin a conversation about the potential for reviewing the management of Miyun Reservoir, Beijing’s major source of drinking water. Situated in the northeast of Beijing Municipality against a stunning backdrop of mountains, Miyun Reservoir used to be the prime birding location in the capital, providing superb habitat for water birds, cranes, bustards, birds of prey and passerines. The site even hosted a small flock of the endangered Jankowski’s Bunting for two consecutive winters.

However, recent years has seen a tightening of security with a large fence erected around the perimeter and guarded entrances to stop members of the public from entering. That may seem reasonable for the most important water source of a major capital city. Perhaps less forgivable is the removal of the scrub, prime habitat for migrating and wintering passerines and associated birds of prey, to be replaced with trees, all the same age, planted in straight lines, creating a monoculture that not only takes away the habitat for passerines but also making the area unsuitable for cranes and many other water birds.

The site is managed by Beijing’s water bureau which has only one aim – protecting water quality. Hence the lack of consideration for any other interests.

Considering that Miyun Reservoir is located in Miyun County, a relatively poor part of Beijing, there is huge potential to manage the reservoir in a more enlightened way that would maintain water quality whilst at the same time attracting visitors to enjoy the wide open spaces and the wildlife, providing a boost to the local economy. Such a policy could include managing part of the reservoir as a wetland nature reserve with access for the public via a series of hides and boardwalks and, potentially, opening other areas for sailing or limited angling. This ‘zoning’ policy has been used successfully at Rutland Water, providing value for many stakeholders and, at the same time, bringing in millions annually to the local economy.

Tim delivered a lecture to Beijing government officials and academics about how Rutland Water has been managed to deliver multiple benefits, followed by a lively discussion. The government also arrnged for him to visit several sites, including Yeyahu Wetland Reserve and the Wenyu River pilot wetland park. There was clear enthusiasm for Tim’s experience and our interlocutors shared hope that, one day, Rutland Water’s experience could be replicated in Beijing.

Tim Appleton giving an interview during a site visit to the Wenyu River pilot wetland park

Changing the management of Miyun Reservoir will not happen overnight. It will take many discussions, internal studies and engagement with a broad range of government officials in different ministries to build the support for change. However, every great journey starts with a single step and I am grateful to Tim for taking the time to visit and share his experience. In a few years time, we may look back on that visit as a decisive moment.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Beijing had a world-class wetland reserve, providing habitat for water birds and passerines along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, boosting the local economy and providing visitors with an unforgettable experience. Simultaneously, it would significantly help to improve the international image of Beijing and what better time to do that than in 2020 when China hosts the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

If I was the Mayor of Beijing, I would say “make it so!”

Cover photo: Miyun Reservoir, Beijing’s largest reservoir and potentially a world-class nature reserve.

Streaked Reed Warbler on the local patch?

This autumn has been so busy that I have hardly had time to visit my local patch, an area of 0.5km square wilderness surrounded by tower blocks, roads and Beijing Metro’s line 15. It’s a shame as the habitat is superb. After the late summer rain, there are several pools of standing water and some areas of wet grass, in addition to the small areas of shrubs and trees. And it’s clear that almost nobody visits as there are no paths and it’s hard work to wrestle one’s way through the tangleweed.

On Sunday I finally had a whole morning free and planned to give the patch a good going over.. After a cold front came through Beijing on Thursday, it was now much cooler and it was clear from visible migration over the city on Saturday that birds were moving.. I was confident it would be good birding and, if I was lucky, I might add to the 162 species I have recorded here in 102 visits.

I arrived on site at 0700 with the temperature around 6 degs C. There was a hint of ground frost and a heavy dew. Light cloud cover and almost no wind made conditions perfect. Immediately I could hear several Black-browed Reed Warblers calling from a small patch of long grass. I stopped to enjoy these charismatic warblers and attempted to count exactly how many there were. Little Buntings called overhead as they circled, before dropping into the weedy field and some harsher bunting calls gave away the presence of Black-faced Buntings in the thicker cover. A Bluethroat scrambled away as I walked through the grass, showing it’s contrasting orange and dark brown tail before it dived into deep cover. It was ‘birdy’..!

Olive-backed Pipits, the occasional Eurasian Skylark and small groups of Little Buntings filled the air as I traced my usual route around the patch. Three Chestnut Buntings were a nice surprise, only the third time I have recorded this species on the patch. Two Tristram’s Buntings in a thicket added to the buntings tally before I reached one of the pools. A Common Snipe lifted as soon as I somewhat heavy-footedly reached the edge, my boots sinking into the soft mud making for slow progress and concentration temporarily having to focus on the feet more than the birds. More Black-faced Buntings, with a few Pallas’s Buntings, were feeding around the edges and a Pallas’s Warbler, the first of many, called from a willow close by. I accidentally interrupted an adult male Red-flanked Bluetail taking a bath and it quickly flew up to an open branch and shook itself, preening in the soft sunlight.

A little further on I disturbed a Woodcock, only my second in Beijing and just 5 days after my first. More Pallas’s Warblers were obvious as I reached a small stand of willows and Little Buntings continued to fly around overhead.

As I left the stand of trees, I entered an area of long grass. There was no path here, so I was creating one as I went, each step forcing down a narrow line of grass to make my passage easier. After a few steps, I disturbed a small bird and it flew fast and low for about ten metres before dropping into deep cover. I could almost feel the cogs going round in my brain trying to process what my eyes had seen. With the naked eye – there was no time to raise my binoculars, let alone get them onto the bird – I could see it was a small warbler, similar in size to the Black-browed Reed Warblers I had just seen. But this bird was significantly paler in colour and with obvious streaking on the upperparts. The colouration was a good match for the colour of the seed heads on the grass. The rump looked slightly darker than the mantle. And that was all I saw. It called as it flew.. a soft note similar in pitch to the Black-broweds but more a singular note without sounding as if ‘two stones banged together’.

I started to go through the list of possibilities. It was too pale for a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated or a Black-browed and the obvious streaking also ruled out the latter. It was certainly not a Zitting Cisticola. My mind kept returning to one outrageous possibility – could it have been a Streaked Reed Warbler? But on my local patch in Beijing? Don’t be ridiculous. I kept dismissing that suggestion over and over again as if to say to my brain – “wrong answer” and asking it to re-process the information.

Streaked Reed Warbler is now an almost mythical species not seen anywhere for several years, whose breeding grounds have yet to be discovered and whose song has never been recorded. This photo by Martin Williams taken at Beidaihe in the 1980s.

With my brain refusing to comply, I waited patiently to see whether I could relocate the bird. There was no movement where it went down and no more vocalisations. A Black-browed called from the opposite direction and brief views revealed it to be nothing like the bird I saw. After around 45-50 minutes, as the sun came out, I moved a few steps to my right, towards the east, so that the sun was directly behind me, giving me the best lighting should the bird show again. As I moved, the same bird flew again, from slightly behind me, over my shoulder and, again, dropped into deep cover about 10 metres in front of me, to the north. This view was slightly longer, and even closer than the first. Again, I saw a small, pale warbler with obvious streaking on the upperparts and a slightly darker rump.

This time, I could see movement where it dived into cover. The grass was twitching as it moved along the base of the stems. The cover was so thick that I couldn’t see anything of the bird, just the quiver of a stem as it hopped from one to another. It was heading towards a small gap in the grass and I grabbed my camera so that I was ready to press the shutter as soon as it showed. To my disappointment, it never reached the gap… stopping just short before heading back from where it came. However, it was now calling.. possibly prompted by a Black-browed Reed Warbler that had also started to vocalise. The two calls were quite different with Black-browed sounding like two stones striking together and this bird quieter and more monotone. I did not have my recording equipment with me so I grabbed my iPhone and started recording, knowing that it would be almost impossible to pick up the sound. After a few seconds, I saw movement again and try as I might, I just could not see the bird. A couple of minutes later, the movement and the vocalisations stopped. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Nothing.

After another hour or so had passed, I knew I had to leave soon as I had a lunch appointment. I edged towards the area where I had last seen movement, camera at the ready just in case it showed. There was nothing. I crept slowly around the whole area but only the Black-browed Reed showed disapproval at my presence.

It was frustrating but I had to leave. The only consolation was that I felt as if I could have stayed there all day and not seen it. It was THAT elusive.

So, what was it? Given the rarity and magnitude of a record of Streaked Reed Warbler, without seeing the whole bird through binoculars I am reluctant to claim it as a certain record. However, I have trouble believing that it could have been anything else.

One positive thing to take from this experience is that, if this bird is so elusive, there must be hope that there are many more out there!

Header photo: the habitat where the probable Streaked Reed Warbler was seen and heard.

Yancheng planning to become a world-leader on coastal wetland conservation

Just three years ago, Taozini, the recently-discovered and most important known staging site for the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, was under grave threat from land reclamation projects. At that time, already around 70% of the Yellow Sea’s intertidal mudflats had been lost and much of the remaining 30% was under threat of a similar fate.

It is astonishing, and illustrative of how fast things can change, that today it is a World Heritage Site (WHS) with hard commitments for protection and management.

Readers of Birding Beijing will know it was on 5 July that saw Phase I of China’s two-phase, serial nomination “Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea/Bohai Gulf of China” inscribed on the list of natural World Heritage Sites in recognition of its critical importance to migratory waterbirds. The Phase I inscription comprises Jiangsu Dafeng National Nature Reserve (NNR), the experimental zone of Jiangsu Yancheng NNR including Dongsha Radial Sands, Jiangsu Yancheng Tiaozini Wetland Park, Jiangsu Dongtai Gaoni Wetland Nature Reserve Plots and Jiangsu Dongtai Tiaozini Wetland Nature Reserve Plots.  At least 14 additional sites will be included in the Phase II nomination, scheduled for 2022.

Last weekend I participated in the 2019 Yellow and Bohai Sea Wetlands International Conference: Natural World Heritage, Conservation, Management and Sustainable Development to celebrate the inscription of this special part of the coast as a WHS and to help develop ambitious plans for management and public engagement.

Terry making the case for Yancheng to become the “mission control” for tracking shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway as a way of engaging the public, especially schools, about the wonders of migratory birds and the importance of China’s coastal wetlands.

The thing that struck me most was the language and tone of the senior officials, including the Mayor of Yancheng and representatives of the national and local Forestry and Grassland Bureau, who spoke clearly and passionately about the importance of protecting coastal wetlands in line with President Xi’s “ecological civilisation” and “beautiful China”. This kind of language would have been unthinkable from such officials three years ago.

The commitment of the local government was illustrated by the lengths to which they had gone to secure the participation of international experts in the fields of science, policy, management and communications. There is no doubt they are serious about making Yancheng, including Taozini, a world-class natural World Heritage Site and to become a leader in coastal wetland conservation.

Chinese and international experts gather to celebrate the inscription of Phase I of China’s serial World Heritage Site and to develop plans for effective protection, management, research and outreach.

Whilst there is a long way to go to secure the long-term future of these coastal wetlands and many challenges to overcome, it is important to acknowledge this progress. And it is testament to the scientists, especially Professor Theunis Piersma and his team of Chinese and international scientists, who have provided robust evidence about just how important these coastal wetlands are for migratory waterbirds, to the local birders, including Zhang Lin and the local NGO Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China led by Li Jing, who first discovered the importance of Taozini for the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, to the academics and policy makers in China, especially those led by Professor Lei Guangchun at Beijing Forestry University, who have been building and promoting the case for coastal wetland protection, to the Paulson Institute who developed a hard-nosed economic analysis of the value of coastal wetlands, to the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership for promoting cooperation along the Flyway, to the international conservation community, including BirdLife International, offering support and expertise along the way. And most importantly, to all the individuals who have supported and provided encouragement to all of the above. To get this far has been a remarkable national, international and multi-disciplinary team effort that has changed the fate of the most threatened Flyway in the world.

Seeing the huge sign at the header of this post towering over the main road to the coast, somehow made it feel real.

Where is NOMAD going? Poll results

Earlier this month we began a poll to see where readers think NOMAD, the first Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus) to be tracked, would spend the northern winter. The poll closed on 10 September and here are the results:

Indonesia/Malaysia – 39%

Africa – 27%

Australia – 13%

India – 8 %

New Zealand – 5%

Other – 8%

Perhaps not surprisingly, SE Asia is the most popular suggestion. However, with one specimen from Zambia (per Handbook of the Birds of the World), and eBird records from Australia and New Zealand, there remains a large element of mystery about where NOMAD will go.

Having spent the breeding season on the Central Siberian Plateau, NOMAD is now well on his way south and is currently in China’s Shanxi Province.

The migration tracks of the Mongolian Cuckoos. NOMAD’s migration is represented by the dark blue line. Zoom into the map using + and – to see more detail.

NOMAD’s migration so far isn’t giving much away but if he remains healthy for the next month or so, we should finally discover his destination. You can follow the progress of NOMAD, and all of the cuckoos tagged in Mongolia, by regularly visiting this dedicated page or the map on the BTO’s website. For Twitter users, follow @BirdingBeijing for near real-time updates of significant moves.

Thank you to everyone who voted and, if you enjoy following this project, please do consider a donation via JustGiving towards the cost of the satellite time which, at this time, remains unfunded. Thank you!

National Parks are coming to China

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the community in the Valley of the Cats being awarded the first concession for community-based tourism in a Chinese (pilot) national park. In late August, I was invited to China’s first National Parks Forum in Xining, to see for myself how the community’s efforts are influencing national policy.

From the stunning mountain ecosystems of the Tibetan Plateau to the pristine forests of Heilongjiang there is no doubt that China has world-class natural heritage. Historically, China’s preserved land, covering one fifth of its land surface – an area the size of Mexico – has been protected by a complex patchwork of more than 12,000 protected areas made up of nature reserves, world natural and cultural heritage sites, scenic zones, wetland parks, forest parks, geological parks, and water conservancy scenic locations, each with varying levels of legal protection and opaque administrative procedures.

Back in 2015, the Chinese government announced plans to streamline the system of protected areas and pilot national parks in nine selected provinces (expanded to thirteen today). After much research, earlier this year the government announced an intention to rationalise the existing mosaic of protected areas into just three categories – national parks, nature reserves and natural parks.

Work to create national parks is now well advanced and, to take stock of progress and learn from international experience, China’s first national parks forum took place in Xining, Qinghai Province, on 19-20 August, bringing together over 400 participants from government, academia, international organisations and NGOs.

The high-level forum was opened by Liu Ning, the Governor of Qinghai Province, and began with a congratulatory letter from President Xi Jinping. The letter set out the importance of national parks in delivering the President’s vision of “eco-civilisation” and “Beautiful China”.

“China has adopted the vision that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets, pursued a holistic approach to conserving its mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, and grasslands, and implemented a national park system. By implementing the system, China aims to maintain the primitiveness and integrity of natural ecology, protect biodiversity and ecological security, and preserve precious natural assets for future generations.”

President Xi Jinping

Jonathan Jarvis, former Director of the US’s National Parks Service and now Executive Director of the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley, offered perspectives from his 40-year career in the National Parks Service and summarised the key findings from his recent visit to, and evaluation of, Sanjiangyuan pilot national park. This included recommendations relating to the legal framework, management policies, the role of science and Chinese universities, funding models, payment for ecosystem services, law enforcement, visitor facilities and branding and marketing.

“Through this new national park system, China has the opportunity to contribute to world biodiversity conservation and to show leadership in ecosystem services and the relationship between humans and environment.”

Jonathan Jarvis, former Director of the National Parks Service, USA
Liu Ning, Governor of Qinghai Province, opens the National Parks Forum

Sessions and sub-forums addressed issues as wide-ranging as biodiversity protection, community participation, climate change, environmental education and public access. Together with ShanShui Conservation Center, I was honoured to represent the community project in the Valley of the Cats and there was much interest in how the project, soon to pass the 1 million Chinese Yuan mark in terms of funds raised for the local community, is providing sustainable benefits to multiple stakeholders – government (informing policy on tourism for national parks, promoting national parks domestically and internationally and improving China’s image overseas), community, (financially and in terms of reducing the risk of human-wildlife conflict), visitors (a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ authentic experience), research institutes (benefiting from the community’s involvement in collecting data) and conservation NGOs (financial contribution to conservation projects in the community). It was heartening to see how the community-based tourism project in the Valley of the Cats had caught the attention of policymakers and was in their thoughts as they developed plans for how to manage tourism in the new national parks.

Presenting the Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife watching tourism project to the forum.
The Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife-watching tourism project is helping to shape China’s policy on tourism for its National Parks.

Throughout the forum there was a palpable sense of excitement, pride and, with that, responsibility about the potential of China to develop a world-class system of national parks, not only in terms of their natural heritage but also in terms of how they are managed.

The participants learned about the importance of wild places for human well-being. For example, the rivers that originate in Sanjiangyuan pilot national park in Qinghai Province, provide fresh water for more than 900 million people. And how personal connections to wild places and wildlife can be inspiring and even life-changing. As if to illustrate this, at the opening dinner I was seated next to a representative of WWF China. He told me how, on a visit to an African national park, he was so moved by his encounter with elephants that, on learning how this species is threatened with extinction by illegal hunting for ivory, he quit his job with the government and joined an environmental NGO focusing on the illegal wildlife trade and has worked in that sector ever since.

With veteran conservationist George Schaller (left) and Jonathan Jarvis (right), former Director of the US National Parks Service at the opening of the forum.

I left Xining with a better understanding of the enormity and complexity of establishing national parks in China and some of the key issues being grappled with by policymakers. These include balancing protection and public access, the legal framework, including enforcement, clarity on land rights, long-term funding models and the role of local communities.

There is much still to do before China launches its first tranche of national parks in 2020. However, I am confident that, with the clear political will, the collective talents across China’s government, academic and NGO sectors, combined with international experience facilitated by partners such as the Paulson Institute, China is well on the way to developing a system of national parks that will provide robust protection for its most important natural heritage as well as being a major source of national pride, respected and enjoyed by people the world over for generations to come.

The outcome of the forum, the “Xining Declaration”, is available here (Chinese only).