Since as far back as the 16th century, the Common Magpie (Pica pica) has been considered, in many cultures, a bird of ill omen. The superstition was put into a rhyme, the first iteration of which was published in 1780, which read:
“One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a funeral And four for birth”
Since then, the rhyme has evolved and the modern version, which I learned from the children’s TV show “Magpie” (1968-1980), goes something like this:
One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told. Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss, Ten for a bird, You must not miss.
With a distribution across Eurasia, northwest Africa, Arabia and western North America, the humble Magpie must be one of the best-known birds in these regions. Yet, this most familiar of birds has been keeping a secret, only now revealed by new research; the Common Magpie is actually seven different species!
The new research, led by Professor Per Alström and Gang Song, was recently published in the Journal of Avian Biology and a summary by Prof Alström for the British Ornithological Union can be read here.
In short, the research shows that despite looking very similar, there is significant divergence between geographic populations of Magpie and, on that basis, the authors suggest that seven species should be recognised:
1. Eurasian MagpiePica pica sensu stricto (comprising six subspecies from Europe to northeast Russia);
I’m back in Beijing after almost two weeks in Qinghai Province, a trip that included the latest round of tourism training with local yak herder families in the Valley of the Cats, an international conference on Leopard/Snow Leopard Conservation (see previous post) and ShanShui’s 2018 NatureWatch Festival, bringing together teams of young people from across China and overseas to celebrate the biodiversity of this wonderful part of the Tibetan Plateau.
This was my 9th visit to the Plateau. Every visit is special and the more time I spend there, the more I learn, the more secrets are revealed and best of all, the more I get to know the wonderful local people and the wildlife.
The 2018 NatureWatch Festival was arranged by the local government in Zaduo County, Yushu Prefecture, in partnership with 山水 (ShanShui Conservation Center). Twenty teams from across China and overseas competed to photograph as many birds, mammals and plants as possible over four days. Local families were hired to drive and guide the teams as they explored the mountain ridges, valleys and meadows, collectively a treasure trove of nature. And the local people also ran a fabulous campsite, at which all participants stayed during the festival, providing delicious local food to fuel our daily forays into the wilderness. I was invited to be on the judging panel alongside John MacKinnon, author of the Field Guide to the Birds of China.
The event was meticulously organised with a defined “playing field”, a strict code of conduct, an efficient mechanism for collecting and processing the photos and a wonderful array of prizes for the winners, including a telescope and binoculars from Chinese optics manufacturer, Bosma.
For the first two days, John and I were accompanied by Xinhua News Agency as part of a special focus on Sanjiangyuan pilot National Park. You can see some of their English-language coverage here and here.
Over the four days, participants recorded 13 species of mammal, 73 species of bird, 4 species of reptile and 315 species of plant. A full list of the mammals and birds (in English and Chinese) together with the Chinese names of the plants can be downloaded here.
Eight of the 20 teams enjoyed encounters with the King of the Mountains, the elusive Snow Leopard, and Hui Lang’s stunning photo (header image) not surprisingly won the prize for best photograph of the festival.
As in previous years, there were so many things that inspired me about this festival. The involvement of the local Tibetan communities and their relationship with, and respect for, the wildlife. The spirit among the teams of sharing information and helping each other to see as much as possible. The enthusiasm and stamina of the participants – often starting before dawn, returning after dark and climbing steep mountains and walking kilometres through the forests to seek out special plants and animals. And the energy and passion of the ShanShui team, led by Professor Lu Zhi, Shi Xiangying, Zhao Xiang and Li Yuhan, and ably assisted by an army of volunteers.
These festivals are inspiring people to take an interest in nature and wild places and it was brilliant to see so many local people using the resources we’ve been able to provide – binoculars and a field guide to the wildlife of Sanjiangyuan – to observe the plants and animals and learn their names. There is no doubt that long-term conservation can only be effective if it enjoys the full support of the local people. And, for the Valley of the Cats at least, it seems this special place is in good hands.
A selection of photos taken by the participants is below.
And here are a few video clips of some of the wildlife and the environment:
The Glover’s Pika must rank as one of the most popular mammals on the Plateau.
Musk Deer is common in the Valley but not easy to see. Dawn and dusk are the best times.
The Woolly Hare is one of the most frequently encountered mammals in the Valley and it’s not uncommon to see 10 or more together in its preferred habitat – grass meadows.
Wolf is a sought-after mammal and the so-called “new road” is the best place to see it. These are part of a group of seven seen early morning on 25 July.
The streams of the side valleys are adorned with wild flowers and flanked by 4,000m+ peaks, providing a stunning backdrop to the festival.
For those interested in the night sky, The Valley of the Cats is a superb place from where to view the Milky Way and, if you are lucky, you might get to see other natural phenomena such as this magnificent double rainbow, photographed over ShanShui’s workstation.
If you’re feeling adventurous, why not arrange your own visit to the Valley of the Cats? Small-scale community-based tourism is now up and running and for a very reasonable price you can stay with one of the local families and be guided around to see the local wildlife. As well as enjoying some incredible encounters with wildlife, you’ll experience the wonderful culture of the local people in a very special part of the world. With 100% of the revenue staying in the local community, you’ll be supporting the local people too, helping them to continue the lifestyle they’ve been enjoying for generations. See the Valley of the Cats website for more details and to register your interest.
I’m writing this from Yushu in Qinghai Province where I’m participating in a conference “With The Leopards”, hosted by the Yushu local government and Yushi Party Committee and organised by ShanShui Conservation Center. The event is focusing on the conservation of these magnificent cats on the Tibetan Plateau. It’s quite a gathering, including many local, national and international experts including representatives from Panthera and The Snow Leopard Trust. Among the speakers are Professor Lu Zhi of Peking University (founder of ShanShui Conservation Center), John MacKinnon (author of The Field Guide to the Birds of China and veteran of conservation in Asia, especially China) and, perhaps most encouragingly of all, the Party Secretaries from Yushu Prefecture, Zaduo County and Angsai (“The Valley of the Cats”).
Importantly, there are many representatives from the local communities, some of whom have already been involved in community-based conservation initiatives and others who are keen to participate. Their perspectives have added a great deal to the proceedings, helping to ensure policy recommendations take into account, and work with rather than against, the realities on the ground.
The conference has heard about the latest scientific research on Common Leopard and Snow Leopard from across China, including Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan and Xinjiang, how to fill the remaining knowledge gaps and a discussion about the issues that need to be addressed, including overall management of the grassland, human-animal conflict and climate change.
I was delighted to be invited to speak about the community-based wildlife tourism project in The Valley of the Cats and enjoyed a Q&A session with the audience where we discussed important issues around monitoring the environmental impact of tourism, how to ensure the opportunities are shared equally among the families in the valley and the potential for replicating the model in other areas of Qinghai. I was happy to report that, so far, the community had hosted 18 groups of visitors and raised 72,000 RMB. And, thanks to the generosity of Taiwanese optics company, Optisan, we had been able to provide each family with a pair of binoculars and a guide book about the wildlife of Sanjiangyuan to support their guiding efforts.
Of course, this was just the beginning of the journey and we expected that, with a growing reputation and the launch of a dedicated website, the number of visitors would increase in 2019 and beyond.
The conference was the catalyst for the various Chinese organisations working on Snow Leopard conservation to collate their knowledge and advance a paper that will pull together all the data from across this vast country to provide an updated summary of the status of Snow Leopard in China.
The afternoon of the second day will see a field trip to see Black-necked Cranes at a nearby wetland but John MacKinnon and I will instead head to the Valley of the Cats with the ShanShui team, where we will be part of the judging panel for 2018 Nature Watch Festival, due to take place from 21-24 July. This year there are 18 teams from across China, including one team from Hong Kong, and one international team with participants from the UK and US. It promises to be a wonderful event. With a newly-installed phone mast close to the camp, we should be enjoying connectivity, so check Birding Beijing’s Twitter feed (@birdingbeijing) for updates!
The stunning conference logo of a Common Leopard and a Snow Leopard is by Xu Ning.
At the end of May, I reported on the successful breeding of Baer’s Pochard at Hengshui Hu, just 300km south of Beijing. It’s remarkable progress in the conservation of this diving duck which, with fewer than 1,000 remaining, is classified as critically endangered, just one step away from extinction.
This week I paid my latest visit to Hengshui Hu to help deliver more training of the local nature reserve staff including the ‘enforcement team’ on waterbird monitoring and identification. During the three-hour train journey to Hengshui, I wondered whether the measures taken by the local government and nature reserve to clamp down on illegal fishing, egg collection and to manage the water levels during the breeding season would be sustained.
I needn’t have worried. Early morning on my first full day, we enjoyed a ‘field visit’ along the causeway to check for Baer’s Pochard and other waterbirds and there wasn’t a fishing boat or net in sight.. There were good numbers of young Great Crested and Little Grebes, Coots, a few groups of juvenile Ferruginous Ducks, tens each of Black-crowned Night, Purple and Grey Herons, Yellow Bitterns were flying back and forth with food and, in contrast to their British counterparts already well on their way to Africa, the Common Cuckoos were still very obvious, calling and chasing each other over the reed beds, much to the annoyance of the local Oriental Reed Warblers. The colony, 100s strong, of Whiskered Terns on one of the disused fishponds with a Pheasant-tailed Jacana pottering on the lotus leaves showed just how habitat, and its associated biodiversity, can recover if given the chance.
After the training, the nature reserve staff arranged for me to be taken out on a boat patrol with the enforcement team and we found a group of at least four juvenile aythyas, tentatively identified as Baer’s Pochards based on head shape and bill size compared with juvenile Ferruginious seen earlier. And my hosts quickly sent packing two groups of fishermen who had sneaked to the shore close to the main Baer’s Pochard breeding area.
On arrival at my hotel along the east bank of Hengshui Hu, I was pleasantly surprised to receive my room card, complete with a picture of Baer’s Pochard.. and in my room was a leaflet with information about the Baer’s Pochard and the importance of Hengshui Hu for the species. Great public engagement!
The bird monitoring team at Hengshui University, led by Dr Wu Dayong and Li Feng, now have an impressive full year of waterbird data, collected at least weekly, for and they’ve even added some new species to the official list for the site.
The future of Baer’s Pochard at this site now looks bright and huge credit must go to the local government, local nature reserve, Hengshui University and the local people who now see Baer’s Pochard as a key part of their identity.
Hengshui Hu is undoubtedly the “Home of Baer’s Pochard”.
On behalf of the local community in The Valley of the Cats, close to the source of the mighty Mekong River on the Tibetan Plateau, we are delighted to announce the launch of a new website dedicated to the Valley.
The bilingual (English and Chinese) site includes background information about the Valley, the people and its wildlife. It includes latest news from the local yak herders, the latest photos from the camera traps set up and operated by the local community and feedback from visitors who participated in the pilot trips.
The Valley of the Cats is a special place and, thanks to the efforts of the local government, local families and ShanShui Conservation Centre, the Valley is now open to receive small numbers of visitors, provided permits are obtained through official channels. Visitors stay with one of the local yak herder families, who will collect you from, and return you to, the airport at Yushu which, in turn, is just one hour from Xining by air.
Feeling adventurous? Why not check out the site and contact the local community to arrange the trip of a lifetime… https://valleyofthecats.org
Header photo by Frédéric Larrey, taken in the Valley of the Cats.
Last week I was excited to receive an invitation to meet with Mr Guan Zhanxiu, the Director of Zhengyangmen Gate (the southern gate of Tiananmen Square) and to view the exhibition about the Beijing Swift currently on show to the public. Mr Guan made arrangements for me to visit on Tuesday afternoon and so, at around 1400 I made my way to Zhengyangmen via Qianmen, at the southern end of Tiananmen Square.
Zhengyangmen gate, right at the heart of Beijing, is certainly one of the best places in the capital to view the Beijing Swift with several hundred pairs breeding amongst the beams of this historic building. On warm summer evenings from mid-April until late July, the Beijing Swifts’ spectacular sociable and noisy flights, wheeling around the rafters, are a sight to behold and an example of how wildlife can thrive even in the heart of our capital cities. From now until September this historic venue is hosting a stunning public exhibition dedicated to the Beijing Swift.
The exhibition is a wonderful mix of science, culture and history. There is a 25-minute video, including the history of the Beijing Swift in China, spectacular footage of the birds in flight and at their nests, and an animation of their migration.
Did you know, for example, that the first known visual representation of the Beijing Swift (see below) dates back more than 3,000 years to artefacts found in an ancient royal tomb? At that time, Chinese people believed their ancestors were transformed into Swifts after death, and these birds have had a special place in their culture ever since.
The video follows a pair of Beijing Swifts being studied by local academics. Incredibly, and shockingly, one of the nests contains a significant amount of plastic, a reflection of the omnipresence of this manmade material in our environment today.
Of course, the story of the Beijing Swift would not be complete without showcasing the Beijing Swift Project and the tracking of birds from the Summer Palace. Their incredible migration to southern Africa for the northern winter is depicted by a magnificent map showing the countries through which they pass on their way to and from southern Africa.
The exhibition will run until September and is open daily from 1000 to 1600. If you’re going to be in Beijing during this time, don’t miss it!
We’re hopeful that, after September, the exhibition will be available to schools and public spaces around the capital and beyond.
A big thanks to Director Guan Zhanxiu and his wonderful staff – Yuan Xuejun, Zhao Penghua, Li Lianshun, Jiang Junyi and Wang Jichao – for showing me around and explaining their personal connections with, and commitment to protecting, the Beijing Swift.
To encourage and strengthen connections between some of the world’s brightest young people and the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office runs something called the Chevening Programme. Chevening offers scholarships for young people, selected by British Embassies around the world, to study in the UK and, when they return, as well as hopefully going on to occupy positions of leadership and influence whilst being sympathetic to the UK, they become part of a growing community of Chevening alumni. It must be a sound investment.
On Saturday I was honoured to be invited to accompany a group of Chevening alumni from Beijing on an introductory birding trip. Being mid-summer, the city is hot and sticky with temperatures into the high 30s degrees Celsius, so it was a wonderful opportunity to head to the mountains where it’s a little cooler.
Our destination was the Youzhou Valley in Mentougou District in west Beijing. It’s a spectacular gorge with towering cliffs through which a beautifully clear river meanders its way southeast. As well as offering stunning scenery, the Youzhou Valley hosts some birds that are hard to see anywhere else in the capital such as Chukar, Golden Eagle and Blue Rock Thrush.
For most of the group it was their first birding trip and it was a joy to see the pleasure they gained from seeing two soaring Golden Eagles at our first stop. Not a bad start!
We enjoyed spectacular views of singing Meadow Bunting, Daurian Redstart, Red-billed Chough, Hill Pigeon and Eurasian Crag Martin before heading to the most expansive cliff-face to look for Pacific Swift. A few pairs of Pacific Swifts breed here and the group found it hard to believe this small bird could fly all the way to Australia for the northern winter… which prompted a discussion about the Beijing Swift making an even longer journey to South Africa from the Summer Palace. The miracle of bird migration never fails to inspire.
After a short walk to find a picnic spot, we were fortunate to gain good views of several Blue Rock Thrushes and a nest-building Russet Sparrow, however a much-wanted Common Kingfisher put in an all too brief appearance. Two Mandarin and a family of Mallard provided a fitting end before we set off for the journey back to the sweltering city.
We recorded 24 species in total, uploaded to eBird.
Big thanks to everyone who came along and a special thanks to the Chevening Team at the British Embassy for making the arrangements. I very much hope this was the first of many birding trips for this awesome, and influential, bunch of people!
As Kenn Kaufman says, “everyone is a birder, it’s just that some people don’t know it yet”