The Chinese Crested Tern has a fascinating history… first described in 1863, it was probably locally relatively common on the eastern coast of China in the early 1900s where more than 20 were ‘collected’ at a site in Shandong Province in 1937. However, it has since suffered a massive decline, probably due to a combination of egg-collection, disturbance and the loss of coastal wetlands. Its decline was so dramatic that it was even thought by many to be extinct, with only two records – Hebei Province in 1978 and Shandong in 1991 – between 1937 and 2000, when four adults and four young were discovered on an island in the Matsu Archipeligo off the east coast of mainland China.
Today its population is perilously low, very likely below 50 individuals and possibly as low as 10 pairs and it is known to breed at just two sites – the Matsu Archipeligo off Fujian Province and some small islands of Zhejiang Province to the north.
It is classified as “Critically Endangered”. The fact it is here at all is in no small part due to the conservation efforts of local ornithologists supported by Birdlife International. The Matsu colony and the surrounding islands were declared a national nature reserve in 2000 and nobody is allowed to land on eight of the islets during the breeding season. Taiwanese patrols apparently seize the nets of fishermen caught egg-collecting, the deterrent effect of which appears to have much reduced this activity. Talks and exhibitions in local schools and communities have also helped to increase awareness of the special bird they have on their doorstep.
For the moment, at least, it is relatively easy to see Chinese Crested Terns during the summer at a high-tide roosting/resting site on the Minjiang Estuary in Fujian Province. Even so, it still requires a short boat trip to reach the island from which these birds can be viewed, so the site remains relatively undisturbed. That said, as with many places along China’s coast, the threat of ‘development’ is looming large and, even though this site is officially a nature reserve, a large channel has just been dug through the middle to divert water to a proposed fish farm. Thankfully, this site is not a breeding site and there are almost certainly alternative sites nearby to which the birds could relocate to rest if the current site becomes unattractive. Whether they will be accessible or not is a question.
I visited Minjiang with local birder and friend, Tong Menxiu, who I first met in September 2010 at Rudong when I went to see the Spoon-billed Sandpipers. Menxiu is from Fujian so knows the area, and its birds, intimately. After a short boat ride out to the island at high tide we scanned through the mixed flock of terns. Most were Greater Crested with superb large yellow bills and dark mantles. Menxiu soon picked out the first Chinese Crested and a scan of the rest of the flock produced at least 4.
After enjoying good, albeit distant, views of the terns, we walked along the island to look for Swinhoe’s (White-faced) Plovers. They will be the subject of my next post.
As the water began to drop, we walked back towards the sandbar and, given the lower water levels, we were able to make a closer approach, at all times being very careful not to flush the terns.
It didn’t take long before we were enjoying spectacular views and I was extremely fortunate when two Chinese Crested Terns took off from the group and dropped down on the shore just a few metres away… allowing me to capture a few images.
Sitting on the sand watching these terns was a real privilege and I enjoyed every moment. The Greater Crested Terns also put on a show.
With overcast conditions, the light was pretty good for photography. Menxiu even managed to take a photo of a Chinese Crested Tern with me in the background (thankfully he focused on the tern – much better looking!).
At one point, a pair flew in and began to display.. the male strutting around the presumed female and occasionally calling. I noticed the slightly darker mantle of one of the birds and, on looking at the photographs later, the bill appears a slightly different shape (the upper mandible appears more curved, like a Greater Crested) and colour. We speculated that this could be a hybrid of some sort… possibly a second generation? Or maybe it’s just natural variation. With the population size so small, I am not sure we will ever know..
After about 3 hours on site and enjoying the spectacle of these birds until they gradually drifted off as the tide fell, we headed back to the boat. I was elated and privileged to have spent so much time with these incredibly rare and endangered birds. We counted a minimum of 5 Chinese Crested Terns, a significant proportion of the known global population. The Minjiang Estuary is a fantastic site and I hope, that with the ongoing efforts to try to save this species, it will be a place where one can see Chinese Crested Tern for many years to come..
Huge thanks to Tong Menxiu for making the arrangements and his excellent company during the visit..