Out of Africa! The Beijing Swift’s Incredible Journey Charted At Last

“Woohoo!” was the shout when the first geolocator-carrying Swift was caught early this morning at The Summer Palace.

After a wait of 12 months, we were finally going to find out, for the first time, where Beijing’s swifts spent the winter.  In the end we re-captured 13 of the 31 birds fitted with geolocators last spring and, after downloading and processing the data (all worked perfectly – big kudos to Migrate Technology in England), we discovered that these magnificent birds travel an incredible 26,000km per year on migration to spend the winter in southern Africa.  It’s astonishing to think that, over the lifetime of the average Beijing Swift, the distance travelled on migration is equivalent to half way from Earth to the Moon!

The map below shows a typical track of a Beijing Swift, based on preliminary analysis of the data from the 13 birds re-trapped today.  A fuller analysis will be made in due course with a scientific paper planned for later this year.

A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.
A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.

These iconic birds – synonymous with Beijing since 1417 when they made their nests in the original city gatehouses – arrive in Beijing in April and, after breeding, begin their long journey to Africa in late July, taking a route that first leads them west-northwest into Mongolia, from where they pass north of the Tianshan mountains, then south through Iran and central Arabia into tropical Africa, before spending 3 months of the winter in Namibia and the Western Cape.  They begin the return journey in February, retracing a similar route, arriving in Beijing in mid-April, a journey that sees them cross about 20 borders.  Wow!

Again, I was hugely impressed with the professionalism of the China Birdwatching Society and its army of volunteers.  Not only did they get up incredibly early to set up the nets at 0230 but, together with visiting swift ringer Lyndon Kearsley and Dick Newell, they captured, processed and released more than 80 birds in 2 hours, including downloading data from 13 birds with geolocators and fitting a further 25 geolocators to ‘new’ birds.  Impressive stuff.  And it was great to see Liu Yang, one of China’s top ornithological professors, making the trip from Guangdong to participate in the catch.

This was the scene at around 0600 on the day of the catch.  A wonderful sight and sound.

I had the privilege of releasing a geolocator-tagged bird and Zhang Weimin took this photo.  A special moment for me.  I wish it well on its journey to southwest Africa..

Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.
Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.
Swift expert, Lyndon Kearsley, releasing a Swift this morning at The Summer Palace.

You can read the full story in the press release.

Big thanks to Professor Zhou, Ms Fu Jianping and Wu Lan from the China Birdwatching Society for their incredible hard work in making this project possible.  And big kudos to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley for their vision and expertise.  I’d also like to thank Lyndon’s wife, Hilde and Rob Jolliffe (“JJ”) for their help and good company during these past few days..



 “哇哦!!!” 今天早晨,当第一只佩戴了定位器的雨燕在颐和园被捉住时,人群中爆发出一阵欢呼。 经历了整整一年的漫长等待,我们终于第一次将要知道,夏季盘旋在北京的雨燕会去那里度过冬天了。去年我们在这里给31只雨燕佩戴了定位器,而截止到上午工作结束,我们一共回收了其中的十三只。在对定位数据进行下载和处理(都进展得十分顺利,感谢英国Migrate Technology公司)后我们发现,这些小鸟每年要进行2万6千公里的难以置信的长途旅行,并在非洲南部越冬。这一切想想都让人吃惊,按北京雨燕的平均寿命来算,在它们的一生中,每年迁徙的距离至少相当于从地球到月球的一半那么远! 下图所示的是针对我们今天重捕的13只北京雨燕迁徙数据进行初步分析后得到的典型的迁徙路线。更为详细的分析数据将在今年晚些时候发表在学术期刊上。

A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.
A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.


这些象征着北京形象的鸟——因为它们从1471年开始就在这座城市的旧城门上筑巢了——每年四月来到北京,在这里生儿育女之后,七月底又开始了飞向非洲的漫长旅程。它们先是朝西北方向飞到蒙古,又从北部飞跃天山山脉,然后向南穿过伊朗和阿拉伯半岛中部直到非洲热带地区,最后到达它们将要度过3个月冬天的纳米比亚和西开普省。次年2月,它们又沿着近乎一致的路线开始了回程,最终在4月中旬到达北京。哇!这一路可是穿越了20个左右的国家呢!  我再一次为中国观鸟会志愿者们的专业而深感钦佩。不仅仅是他们令人难以置信地在凌晨两点半就赶来布网,而且和远道而来的雨燕环志专家Lyndon Kearsley、Dick Newell一起,在短短两个小时内就捕获、处理、放飞了超过80只雨燕,这其中还包括从13只已戴定位器的雨燕身上下载数据、给25只“新鸟”带上定位器。他们真是令人佩服。


Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.
Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.



雨燕专家Lyndon Kearsley今天早上在颐和园放飞雨燕

我被允许放飞了一只佩戴了定位器的雨燕,并从拍摄雨燕放飞照片的张为民先生那里得到了授权。照片定格了我那特别的瞬间。希望它飞向非洲西南部的旅途一切都好。  你可以点击这里看到关于这个故事的完整报道。

深深的感谢来自中国观鸟会的赵欣如教授、付建平老师和吴岚的辛勤付出,让这个项目变成可能。同样深深感谢 Dick Newell 和Lyndon Kearsley专长和视野。同样,我还想感谢Lyndon的妻子Hilde和他们的好朋友“JJ”这些天来的美好陪伴。

35 thoughts on “Out of Africa! The Beijing Swift’s Incredible Journey Charted At Last”

  1. Hi Terry, great work by all concerned. I lived in South Africa between 1991 and 2001 and always assumed that the migrant Common Swifts I saw there in the Austral summer were European birds. Amazing to think that some of them may have come all the way from China. Mind you the area where I lived had some decent flocks of Amur Falcons (up to 90 in a flock not unusual) as well – another amazing long-distance migrant. Thanks for posting. All the best, Paul

    1. Hi Paul. Thanks for your comment. It is astonishing… but as you say, the Swift is not the only bird to make that journey. Amur Falcon is another species that commutes between China and Africa, following an even more incredible migration – of dragonflies! The natural world is the greatest source of inspiration and wonder. To come face to face with these awesome swifts, that fit into a human hand, was something very special for me. I hope this research will inspire the hundreds of thousands of people that visit the Summer Palace every day. Thanks again, Terry

  2. ps – Terry – I am trying to picture the mist nets capturing the swifts – i.e. the swifts being terribly high and …

    1. Hi Edna. Thank you. The Beijing Birdwatching Society use specially made nets that cover the pavilion so that they catch the swifts as they leave their nests. They are then ‘processed’ as quickly as possible and released to minimise the disturbance. I hope to post some more photos of the day very soon. Thanks again, Terry

    1. Thanks Andrew. On average, Swifts live for 7-8 years but some live much longer. They are supremely adapted for these long flights and, thankfully, the survival rates are high.

  3. This is fantastic news! Thanks Terry, and congratulations to all of you. I have been observing pekinensis Common Swifts in the Western Cape of South Africa the past few years, and often over my house in Somerset West near Cape Town, especially in January. Your study has now confirmed this and I am looking forward to the results of the comprehensive analysis of the data from the geolocators. Who knows, perhaps some of the birds I observed were from Beijing?!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tertius! So good to hear you see Swifts in the Western Cape… almost certainly some of the birds you see will be from Beijing! The full data will be published in due course… and I will certainly publicise it on here when I have a link. Thanks again, Terry

  4. Outstanding work by all concerned and a great story told excellently well: thank you! Okay to ask: is there much understanding yet of how far Beijing’s Common Swifts range in search of food during the summer?

    1. Thank you Nial! Understanding local movements on the breeding grounds is an obvious next step. I know some work has been done on this in Europe, showing some surprisingly large movements away from the breeding site. Hopefully we can do similar work in Beijing.

  5. Amazing in so many ways, and asks so many questions. Swifts could do fine wintering in SE Asia ….. but of course they don’t, perhaps because they are fundamentally African birds, pushing the boundaries of the bounteous Palaearctic summer insect flush …..

    Brilliant stuff ….

  6. Thanks Spike.. Yes, the more we understand, the more questions we have… One thing is for sure – these birds are great ambassadors for raising awareness about conservation in China.

  7. Dear Terry, Dick and Lyndon, Congratulations! This is brilliant work! A great aim, to find out the eastern Swift population’s migration route, seamless cooperation with local birders and organisations, faultless planning and immaculate execution – just superb. We have featured it all on our web site’s News page (and copied the map – with an attribution – hope that’s OK Terry?) and put in a link to this site too. All the very best, Edward

    1. Dear Edward. Thank you for the message and, of course, we are delighted that you have profiled the project on your website. Feel free to use any of the material. Lyndon just delivered a lecture to the Beijing Birdwatching Society, which was streamed live, about swifts in general and the results of the project. The fact that it was standing room only shows the impact this project has had. Swifts have a special place in the heart of Beijingers and this project will have an impact way beyond the scientific results – I firmly believe it will be the catalyst to inspire a generation of Chinese about swifts, and migratory birds, and will encourage more people to consider birds and wildlife as China’s rapid development continues. All the best, Terry

  8. Terry,Dick and Lyndon,
    what a fantastic result ,and aside from the knowledge gained ,what a way to raise the profile of this Iconic bird ,and to help the wonderful people of China continue their efforts in this field.

  9. I have been seeing large number of Swifts circling around my roof in Guoxue Hutong (immediately next to the Confucian Temple in Guozijian/Yonghegong). It’s a fascinating sight in the early evening in particular. Do they have nests in the Confucian Temple? My house is right next to the Dacheng Hall (大成殿) the main building which apparently dates back to the 14th century.

    1. Hi Simon. Thanks for the comment. You live in a great place for Swifts – they certainly do nest in the Temple at Yonghegong and, in fact, I was close by one evening last week and stopped to enjoy the ‘screaming’ parties of Swift just before dusk. The traditional style buildings have plenty of nooks and crannies in which the Swifts can make their nests. Unfortunately most new buildings lack suitable nesting sites so as the old is replaced with the new, the Swifts are often made homeless. The good news is it’s very easy and adds almost no extra cost to install “Swift bricks” into new buildings which include specially-designed holes for Swifts. Following the study at the Summer Palace we are in contact with some of the largest property developers in China to explore whether new buildings can be made more Swift-friendly. Fingers crossed! Terry

  10. Terry, thanks for the response. The idea of “Swift bricks” is interesting. How high do they have to be off the ground? My flat roof is about 4 metres above the hutong. Is that too low?

      1. Thanks for the link. Putting a box or brick high up here might be possible, but I see magpies are potential predators — and we also have a Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica) roaming around — so maybe by a flat roof area is not suitable?

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