Last week I was honoured to represent BirdLife International and the Oriental Bird Club at the 2nd China International Birding Festival in Lushun, near Dalian in Liaoning Province. The centrepiece was a one-day ‘bird race’ in which teams of three to four people attempted to record as many species as possible at four pre-selected sites around the district. This year I was delighted to be joined by two friends from the UK – Brian Egan, who manages the UK’s Rare Bird Alert, and Rob Holmes, for whom the best title we came up with was “ex-YOC member from Suffolk”. Together with Marie, we formed the “Foreign Flappers”, one of 21 teams to take part.
The Festival was again supported by the local government and organised by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) and the China Birdwatching Society. The aim was to raise the profile of birding in China and to celebrate the world-class migration hosted by Lushun every spring and autumn on the East Asian Flyway. For more about this magnificent place, see this post.
The professionalism of the opening ceremony demonstrated the importance the local government places on wild birds. The Lushun Party Secretary, Mr Yi opened the event and spent time meeting all of the participants over the opening dinner.
Educated at Coventry in the UK, he was fluent in English and relatively western in his outlook. He told us how he had been clamping down on poaching and strengthening the management of the Laotieshan National Nature Reserve, including the famous Snake Island, an offshore rock islet where every spring and autumn the resident Pallas’s Pit Vipers climb the trees and await tired migrants. He was proud to say that poaching incidents were down by 90% this year.
Mr Yi, who committed to hosting the event next year, asked us for advice about how to expand the birding festival to attract more participants, particularly from overseas. We told him about similar events and places overseas, for example the annual BirdFair at Rutland Water, the largest of its kind in the world, the Champions Of The Flyway bird race in Israel and other migration hotspots such as Falsterbo in Sweden and Cape May on the east coast of the United States. We promised to write to him with ideas and advice and we very much hope he will be able to visit the UK in 2017 to experience the BirdFair for himself.
The bird race was exceptionally well-organised. Each team was provided with a vehicle and driver and a local forestry administration official who acted as a guide. Judges were allocated to each site and assisted with identifications and helped to engage the public. It was a slick operation and our team recorded a respectable 81 species, with favourites including Baikal Teal, Oriental White Stork, Chinese Egret (colour ringed with the inscription “T03”), Oriental Honey Buzzard, Red-necked Stint, Lanceolated Warbler and Pallas’s Bunting.
After the event, we took the opportunity to visit Professor Ma Li who leads a team of volunteers focused on finding and dismantling illegal nets at Laotieshan Nature Reserve. She works with the local police and nature reserve staff and she confirmed what Mr Yi had told us – that poaching was well down this year. Prof Ma took us to some sites around Laotieshan and introduced us to a former poacher who had been ‘converted’ into a bird protection volunteer. Now he helps Ma Li’s team to find illegal nets and to catch other poachers. When we visited, he had a Japanese Scops Owl in a cage, brought to him by a local boy. It was unclear how the boy came to have the owl but it was in good condition and he gave it to us to release.
After an extra day of birding around Laotieshan, which included finding a rare Red-breasted Flycatcher and being fortunate to have stunning close-up views of the resident Finless Porpoises, it was time to leave. With so many young people participating in the festival from all parts of China, generous media coverage, the engagement of local residents and the commitment outlined by the local government leaders, we came away feeling optimistic about the future of Laotieshan and about birding in China.
And the spectacle of hundreds of Common Buzzards circling above us at the lighthouse on our final day is something that will stay with us for a very long time. Big thanks to the Lushun government, especially Mr Yi and his deputy Mr Li, the CBCGDF and China Birdwatching Society and to all of the participants who made it such a fun and inspirational event. Looking forward to the 3rd festival in 2017!