Birding In The Haze

When a British friend recently asked me what it’s like to live in Beijing, my instinctive reaction was to say “I love it”.  Professionally speaking it is one of the most exciting and interesting places on the planet.  And, of course, the birding is epic.

Then, after thinking for a few seconds, I qualified that statement with a “But” and described Beijing as “schizophrenic”.  On nice days, when the air is clear and the weather good, Beijing is stunningly beautiful, cradled by mountains that run from the southwest to the northeast, providing a spectacular backdrop to what must be one of the most exciting cities in the world.  However, on bad days, the air pollution renders invisible the tops of even the nearest tower blocks and, after just a few minutes outside, your clothes can smell as if you’ve spent an hour or two in the smoking room at Beijing Capital International Airport.

For visitors, Beijing’s air pollution is usually a relatively minor inconvenience that can affect the views when visiting the Great Wall.  It’s very unlikely to have a lasting impact.  For residents, given the serious, albeit unquantified, risks it’s something we really should take seriously.

On waking, my first act is to check the air quality index on my iPhone.  It dictates my mood.  If the pollution is low and classified as “suitable for outdoor activities”, I rejoice and it puts a spring in my step for the whole day.  Conversely, if the pollution level is high, I sigh and just want to snuggle under the duvet..   It’s THAT important to my quality of life.

The air quality in Beijing as I wrote this post.
The air quality in Beijing as I wrote this post.  Anything over 150 is serious.

Most ex-pats, and an increasing number of Chinese, invest in air purifiers for their apartments and wear masks to protect themselves when air quality is poor.  For those of us who like outdoor activities, such as birding or hiking, Beijing’s air can be particularly frustrating.

Often, before I decide when to go birding, I take into account the likely pollution levels, bearing in mind key factors such as wind direction and speed in the preceding days.  Residents know that a northerly or westerly wind generally clears the air, as the airflow originates from relatively pollution-free Mongolia and Siberia, whereas a southwesterly or southerly airflow brings up pollution from some of China’s most polluted towns and cities in neighbouring Hebei Province.

I am fortunate in the sense that, much of the time, I can arrange my work and birding according to the pollution levels and weather.  If it’s smoggy at the weekend, I will work and then take a day off during the week to get my birding fix when the air is better.  Most people are not that lucky.  Even so, there are times – for example when friends are visiting – when I arrange to go birding on specific days, and take a gamble on the air quality.

If we are unlucky, we take a deep breath, don our masks and go birding in the smog.  That’s exactly what Marie and I did yesterday and Marie’s photo of me birding along the Wenyu River is what prompted me to write this post.

Wearing a mask for several hours can be uncomfortable and of course, to eat and drink, one must remove it, at least temporarily.  Perhaps the most obvious effect of the air pollution when birding is the reduced visibility.  When the pollution is bad, even on a supposedly cloudless day, visibility can be reduced to a few hundred metres and, when visiting birding sites like Miyun Reservoir or Yeyahu – vast areas overlooking large areas of water – that can seriously impact the number of birds one is likely to see.  On bad days, it’s best to visit sites where one doesn’t need to look too far into the distance – parks and the local river are ideal candidates.

People often ask me how the pollution affects birds.  It’s a question I can only speculate about; as far as I know there have been no scientific studies examining the effects (if you know of any, please get in touch!).  My sense is that the air pollution may impact the journeys of some migrants – particularly birds of prey? – that rely on sight and landmarks for navigation, causing them to delay their migration if the visibility is low.  However, most of the health impacts of air pollution are related to long-term exposure and I suspect that most birds are not long-lived enough to be affected by these.  I am sure water pollution – also chronic over much of China – is a much bigger threat.

In Marie’s photo, I think I cut a sorry figure on the banks of the (heavily polluted) Wenyu River, close to Beijing’s 5th ring road and airport.  However, it’s a sign of just how good the birding is in Beijing that days like this are accepted and tolerated.  When it’s good, there is nowhere I would rather be…

EDIT: BBC World Service interviewed Terry on 8 December about the smog in Beijing and how it affects residents and birds. You can hear the interview here.

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