This lunar new year has been like no other I have experienced. With the emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan and the subsequent lockdown of most of Hubei, including the shutdown of flights and trains to and from the stricken Province, people everywhere – including Beijing – are fearing to venture to public places and, on the rare occasions they do head beyond their own four walls, for example to stock up on groceries, face masks are worn, tasks are completed in a hurry and every sneeze or cough is greeted by fellow shoppers with looks of horror.
As I write this post, there are 7,736 confirmed cases nationwide and a further 12,167 suspected, with 124 recoveries and 170 deaths so far. In Beijing alone, there are 111 confirmed cases, 4 recoveries and 1 death. Given the rapid increase in cases and the likelihood that many millions of people will be returning to their workplaces at some point over the next few days and weeks, it seems as if this could be just the beginning.
In this context, birding seems trivial and inconsequential. However, in some ways, it’s a good distraction to have..
Having fortuitously arranged the rental of a car before the start of the lunar new year, I have been able to get out and about for a few days over the past week or so without relying on public transport, of which most people are, quite sensibly, steering well clear. It was refreshing to get outside, enjoy some exercise and, of course, see some good birds, with almost nobody else around.
The main destination was a classic winter site in Beijing called Shidu (十渡), literally “ten crossings”, a small village on the Juma River in southwest Beijing’s Fangshan District, just 4km from the border with Hebei Province. Here, a series of bridges offer great vantage points from which to scan the winding river, which almost never freezes due to its relatively fast flow.
It is a spectacular place, winding through stunning canyons and gorges, and is well-known for its Black Storks. But it’s much more than that.. ..species that are local or hard to find in Beijing but that can be found here include Wallcreeper (regular in winter near bridge 6), Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Long-billed Plover, Plumbeous Water Redstart and White-capped Water Redstart. And, if you look up, you can often see the impressive Cinereous Vultures soaring overhead, scanning for carrion. Grey Herons breed on the steep cliffs and, if you are really lucky, you may encounter a Solitary Snipe or even an Ibisbill, although it’s a few years since either have been seen here.
Shidu is a site I once had the pleasure of birding with none other than former UK Chancellor, the Right Hon Kenneth Clarke and his late wife, Gillian, during one of his official visits to Beijing. It was that special day that we recorded not only Wallcreeper but my first ever Solitary Snipe.
And on this latest visit to Shidu, the Wallcreeper didn’t disappoint, coming down to head height to take advantage of the meal worms put out by photographers.
We were also fortunate to enjoy the company of a spectacular Crested Kingfisher, a scarce resident in the capital.
Having dropped off the hire car and returned home, it’s been fascinating to see the online conversation about China’s wildlife trade, thought to be responsible for the current outbreak of novel coronavirus in Wuhan. With the government announcement of a temporary ban, many citizens are calling for it to be made permanent. For a summary of the situation, there is an excellent article by Natasha Daly from National Geographic.
Seizing the moment, Peking University is running an online questionnaire (Chinese only) to gauge public opinion on the wildlife trade with a view to submitting the results to policymakers. With China due to host the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in October, what better time to announce a permanent ban!
The next few days – and likely weeks – will involve voluntary ‘self-quarantine’ with trips out only to buy essentials. It’s going to be a strange start to the year of the rat.