When I first moved to Beijing, ten years ago, I can remember clearly the reaction of most people on hearing I was a birder: “Why have you come to Beijing? There are no birds in Beijing!”
This was disappointing news… but I had trouble believing it. Although there was almost no English-language information about the birds of China’s capital city, I had heard about the fantastic migration at Beidaihe and the almost mythical “Happy Island”, just a few hours away in Hebei Province. Surely, Beijing couldn’t be that bad?
Of course, as I began to explore, I quickly realised that Beijing was a brilliant place for birds. Not only did I see some species I could only dream about in the UK (Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin, Brown Shrike and Thick-billed Warbler all graced the tiny green space around my central Beijing apartment block in the first few weeks), it was the sheer numbers of birds that impressed me. Flocks of buntings hundreds strong, invasions of wagtails, squadrons of honey buzzards and swarms of leaf warblers awed me in my first few months.
At that time, there were very few birders in Beijing and it felt as if I had more chance of finding a first for Beijing than seeing another birder. How times have changed. Today, any visit to a known birding spot, on any day of the week, will almost certainly result in meeting fellow birders and, as a result, more and more discoveries are being made, not only of vagrants but previously undiscovered or new breeding birds such as Grey-winged Blackbird, Swinhoe’s Minivet and Slaty-backed Flycatcher.
With the most recent update of the official ‘Beijing list’ – the list of species reliably recorded – completed as far back as 2014, and the subsequent explosion of birding, a review of the list has been long overdue and, in recent months, a team led by Professor Zhao Xinru at Beijing Normal University, has been thoroughly reviewing past records and adding recent new records with a view to publishing an up to date list. The number of species recorded up to 2014 was 456. As of 2020 it is over 500 (although the new list has yet to be published – watch this space – we expect the revision of the list to come out somewhere around 510). To save the mathematically challenged, that’s an increase of c54 in six years, an average of nine new species per year. A remarkable change.
So where does Beijing rank alongside other major capital cities? To gain a sense of where Beijing stands, I did some rather crude research online using data from eBird, Avibase and, where available, data from local birding societies. This is the result:
G20 Capitals and the number of bird species recorded
Source: eBird, Avibase and local birdwatching societies
*Beijing’s official list is under revision. This figure is an estimate and will be updated when the official figure is available.
Even though the figures are unlikely to be 100% accurate for some cities (I welcome contributions from birders in these cities to make the data more accurate), the relative position of Beijing is unlikely to change – second only to Brasilia in the capital cities of G20 countries.
So why is Beijing so good?
There are two main reasons. The first is Beijing’s size – according to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, the capital covers a relatively large area of 16,410.5 km2 encompassing a variety of habitats from mountains to the north and west, wetlands, grassland and a network of large parks.
The second is location. Looking at a map, to the north is the vast and relatively sparsely-populated (by humans) Siberia, home to taiga forests and tundra. In the northern summer, insect populations explode, meaning it is worth the investment for birds to migrate north to take advantage of the glut of food – they can reproduce faster, and raise more young, than if they stayed further south. Of course, in the winter, this vast area is incredibly cold, most insects die and, as a result, most birds must fly south to find food and shelter. This mass autumn exodus happens over several months, primarily from July to November, with different species leaving at different times. Some will stop in Beijing for the winter, some will continue to southern China or Southeast Asia, and some will go as far as Australia, New Zealand or, as we have seen with the cuckoos, swifts and Amur Falcons, to southern Africa.
As we enter autumn, East China turns into a bird superhighway with birds heading south from a broad swathe of Siberia, many of which funnel east to avoid crossing the Gobi Desert. Beijing, with its varied habitats of mountains, wetlands, forests, grassland and a network of parks, is an attractive service station. Just a small fraction of the tens of millions of birds that pass over Beijing during this season (most undetected at night) will take the opportunity to stop in the capital to rest, find food and water, offering us the chance to encounter them. And of course in spring, the reverse happens as these birds return north to Siberia to breed. So it is in spring and autumn, in particular, that Beijing – and indeed the whole of eastern China – bears witness to a world-class birding spectacle.
The sheer volume of birds was something that stunned me when I arrived here and there is no doubt that location is everything. Recalling my birding days at home in Norfolk, England, I would be delighted to see a single Common Redstart or a Wryneck on my local patch at Winterton-on-Sea, usually coinciding with easterly winds. One look at a map shows why the migration of land birds on my local patch was relatively small… with only a few hundred kilometres of land to the north and, after that, the Arctic Ocean; there is no Siberia to the north of the UK to supply the birds and we relied on birds ‘drifting’ from continental Europe.
Slowly, but surely, more and more people are learning about the rich birdlife in Beijing. As well as more people picking up binoculars for the first time, thanks to the media increasingly reporting on the natural world, more and more of the general public are understanding, to the surprise of many, that Beijing is a good place for birds and other wildlife. The projects to track Beijing’s iconic Swifts and Cuckoos have certainly helped, discovering for the first time the migration of these incredible travellers from Beijing to Africa, receiving significant mainstream media coverage. However, it is the grassroots awakening that has been most impressive. Young students setting up nature clubs at their schools, the countless local groups organising field trips and lectures to introduce people to nature and volunteers spending much of their free time educating people about wild birds and patrolling to catch the illegal bird hunters, a practice that still goes on in the capital but is certainly diminishing here, thanks also in part to increased enforcement by the local police.
So, as I celebrate ten years in Beijing, it’s encouraging to see that awareness about the birds of Beijing is growing… The next step is to turn that awareness into pride, building more support for policies and measures that work towards protecting and enhancing the environment for birds. I firmly believe that, with some small changes to how the environment is managed in Beijing, this brilliant city could overtake Brasilia as the best G20 capital for birding. Let’s make it happen!