On Saturday 9 January I was leaving the RSPB Headquarters at Sandy after participating in the Oriental Bird Club’s council meeting when I received a message from Xing Chao, a young Beijing-based birder. Chao had visited Miyun Reservoir that day with friend Huang Mujiao, both of whom are members of the Swarovski-sponsored group of young birders called “北京飞羽” (Beijing Feathers). The message simply said “Jankowski’s?” and was accompanied by a photo.
My heart raced. Could there really be a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) in Beijing? The bird in the photo sure seemed to show a dark belly patch – diagnostic of JANKOWSKI’S – and the face pattern looked ok with a strongly dark malar stripe, dark lores and a prominent white supercilium…. But could that dark belly patch be due to missing feathers?
For context, JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING is a very rare bird indeed. After a serious and precipitous decline over much of its traditional range in NE China, Russia and N Korea, the known population is in the low 100s. Little is known about its winter range. Most literature suggests that they remain on the breeding grounds or, perhaps, move south a little if heavy snow prevents these ground feeders from finding food. Indeed, although few people are looking, there are several winter records from the breeding sites in Inner Mongolia. There is only one previous record of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing – two specimens collected from The Summer Palace in February and March 1941 (now in the Natural History Museum at Tring). Of course, in 1941, the population of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING was very likely considerably larger so I think it’s fair to say that Beijing birders had given up all hope of another JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING turning up in the capital.
As I sat in my car about to drive from Sandy to Norfolk, I contemplated the magnitude of a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing. I replied to Xing Chao saying that I thought it probably was one but asking whether he had more photos. Thoughts then jumped to when I would be back in Beijing.. With my return flight from London planned on Monday, I would arrive in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon and could potentially visit the site on Wednesday. Would it still be there?
Xing Chao responded the following day with two more photos, also sent to Paul Holt.
These additional photos clearly showed two very pale and prominent wing-bars, a good feature of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING vs the main confusion species, MEADOW BUNTING. Gulp. Paul replied that he also thought it was a JANKOWSKI’S! I encouraged Xing Chao to put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and, rightly so, there followed plaudit after plaudit. Not only was there a JANKWOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing but it had been found by young Chinese birders – brilliant!
And so, fast forward 3 days and I had arrived back in Beijing and immediately arranged to visit the site on Wednesday in the company of the two finders and Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.
After leaving central Beijing at 0600 we arrived on site around 0800. It was a beautiful, but cold, morning with the temperature around -15 degrees Celsius thankfully accompanied by almost no wind. The first hour or so produced several PALLAS’S BUNTINGS, 2 JAPANESE REED BUNTINGS, SIBERIAN ACCENTOR, COMMON CRANE, JAPANESE QUAIL, MONGOLIAN LARK, 2 LONG-EARED OWLS, ROUGH-LEGGED and UPLAND BUZZARDS, SAKER, MERLIN and HEN HARRIER but no JANKOWSKI’S.
We split into two groups to cover more ground and, shortly after that, I could see Ben waving frantically. He had just seen – very well – a male JANKOWSKI’S! Unfortunately, by the time I reached him, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, the bird had disappeared. After a vigil of an hour or so at this spot, we began to widen our search. Soon we happened upon a small flock of largish, long-tailed buntings. As they occasionally sat up in the bare branches of some nearby shrubs, we could see that at least two had dark belly markings, although not as substantial as seen on adult males. Another feature stood out on these birds – strikingly pale double wingbars. It slowly dawned on us that we were looking at not one JANKOWSKI’S but a small flock!
We spent the remainder of the day with these birds, observing them, listening to their distinctive calls (a single Meadow/Japanese Reed Bunting like “tsip” and a “chup” call most often uttered in flight) and trying to photograph as many as possible. Some of the birds were in interesting plumages that had not been photographed, or even described, before.
We counted at least 7 individuals in the group and were elated. What a privilege to see so many of these globally endangered birds together in one spot… and exhibiting such fascinating plumages. As the light began to fade we reluctantly tore ourselves away and began the drive back to Beijing. What a day!
Two days later, on Friday, Paul Holt visited the site with Gabriel David. They, too, enjoyed a very special day and, fantastically, counted 9 JANKOWSKI’S!
It’s interesting to speculate about the status of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in under-watched Beijing. Is it here every winter and been overlooked? Or is this winter exceptional? I suspect the latter. Certainly the habitat around Miyun is much better for buntings this winter, caused by the prohibition of crops close to the water (driven by fears of pesticides seeping into Beijing’s drinking water supply). The area around the reservoir has been left to nature and the resulting growth of wild, seed-producing, plants has provided excellent feeding for buntings (as witnessed by the record-breaking flock of more than 5,500 LAPLAND BUNTINGS earlier in the winter). However, that said, the truth is we simply don’t know!
Huge kudos to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for the initial find. Although it’s only mid-January, this will almost certainly be the best discovery in Beijing of 2016.
JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING is a species in serious trouble. Martin Hale in Hong Kong and Jesper Hornskov in Beijing first rang the alarm bell and, in 2012, Birding Beijing became a Species Champion under the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme. In partnership with BirdLife, Beijing (China) Birdwatching Society, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, Oriental Bird Club and others, Birding Beijing has been involved with shaping, and participating in, an action plan to try to save the species from disappearing. This has included surveys on the breeding grounds, workshops with the local government and public outreach. BirdLife’s Simba Chan, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society’s Vivian Fu and China Birdwatching Society’s Fu Jianping, Wu Lan and many others have been tireless in their efforts. The campaign received a boost in January 2013 when Sir David Attenborough lent his support and, later that year, the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of the National Peoples Congress committed to include JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING on the list of species with special protection. There is a dedicated page on this website providing the latest information and a JustGiving page to receive contributions towards the conservation effort.
Sir David joining the campaign to save JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING, January 2013.