Is it a finch? Is it a bunting? The PRZEVALSKI’S ROSEFINCH (Urocynchramus pylzowi) has, at one time or another, been classified as both but now sits in a family of its own. With a limited range in China (Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu Provinces) it’s a sought-after species for any visiting birders.
During our recent visit to Qinghai, Marie and I were lucky enough to encounter two pairs in a valley close to Qinghai Lake. One pair, clearly breeding, brought a selection of insects to feed their young which we were able to capture on video.
The call reminded me very much of the central China race of Long-tailed Rosefinch, lepidus.
This bird was a species we were keen to see during the Qinghai trip and we were very happy to see them so well.
Featured image: Przevalski’s Rosefinch by Marie Louise.
What a week. Only 6 days after an incredible encounter with Pallas’s Cats near Qinghai Lake, I have been so lucky (again!) to spot not one but two SNOW LEOPARDS near Yushu in Qinghai Province.
Two weeks ago I was invited to participate in the “International Nature Watch Festival of the Mekong River“, organised by the local government and the brilliant conservation organisation, 山水 (Shan Shui). The competition involved teams of 4 who would spend 3 days recording as many species as possible of of mammal, bird and plant in Zaduo County, Qinghai Province. Initially I was due to be one of the judges but, on the first morning of the competition, the organisers asked whether I would join a team of two Beijing students – Zhang Chengxin and Liu Garbo – who didn’t have much experience at bird or mammal watching. Of course, I was delighted.
Each team was provided with a vehicle and local driver. Our driver took us to a stunning valley where we began our list with White Eared Pheasant, Himalayan Marmot and the cute-looking Glover’s Pika. As we walked along the valley, we met a local Tibetan family of yak herders who were the only inhabitants of this stunning site. They invited us in for tea and yoghurt (both delicious!) and we spoke about the wild animals they had seen.
With a herd of around 100 yaks, the family explained that, every year, they lose around 5 of their animals to large predators, mostly Snow Leopard and Wolf. Although they weren’t pleased about losing 5% of their stock annually, they understood the necessity to balance their needs and those of the wild animals, for which they had great respect. They described to us how the Snow Leopards sometimes come down to their house, particularly in winter, and how they had seen them leisurely ambling by their back yard, much to the chagrin of their Tibetan Mastiff!
One of the family members offered to show us a way up the mountain to help us to look for mammals and so, after a generous helping of yak yoghurt, we set off up the mountain.. at 4,500+ m, struggling to keep up with our local companion.
Every few hundred metres we stopped to scan the rocky slopes. We were rewarded with excellent views of Blue Sheep (good for the mammal list), Red-billed Chough, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture and Wallcreeper. In the heat of the day we thought the chances of seeing any large mammals were slim… Nevertheless, we began to explore the slopes nearby. More Blue Sheep, more vultures and more of the comical Marmots provided entertainment and then, suddenly, through my binoculars, I spotted a suspicious shape on top of a nearby rocky outcrop. I quickly set up the telescope and was shocked to see the head of a Snow Leopard staring back at me.
“Whoaaaa” I gasped, and quickly encouraged the team to look through the telescope in case the big cat decided to bolt. Fortunately, the magnificent cat stayed, seemingly very relaxed and looking around… We watched in awe for more than half an hour before it sloped off the top of the rock and walked down to a sheltered spot below. There, a second shape moved and it was apparent that there was not one but two Snow Leopards! Wow!! It was testament to their camouflage that the second was only seen when it moved. The two cats greeted each other, a ritual that included licking each others fur, and settled down to sleep. We watched them, in awe, for around 2 hours in total, during which time they slept, shuffled around, panted in the heat of the sun and groomed each other. In the late afternoon, knowing it was at least an hour back to camp and I was due to speak at dinner, we decided to leave them in peace. As we walked down the mountain, every few hundred metres, we turned around for another look.. we didn’t want the encounter to end.
I was lucky to have my telescope and iPhone with me so I was able to take some video footage. Despite the distance and the heat haze, I was delighted to be able to record some of our special encounter.
On return to the camp, our sighting was the talk of the tents and earned us an audience with the governor of Zaduo County, Mr Cai Danzhou. Cai explained his ambitions for the area, including becoming a National Park and world-class ecotourism site with limits on tourists, limits on the area open to visitors and prioritising its greatest asset – its wildlife. Mr Cai has been working with the excellent 山水 (Shan Shui) organisation and they have clearly influenced his thinking. The area now has the first human-animal conflict community fund which compensates local people for the loss of livestock to Snow Leopard, Wolf and other predators. Shan Shui has been monitoring the wildlife here with a series of camera traps and recently recorded the mating behaviour of Snow Leopard for the first time. With Snow Leopard, Leopard, Bear, Lynx and Otter all recorded in the area, in addition to the rare plants and birds, it’s a hotspot for biodiversity in a stunning setting of monstrous mountains and spectacular valleys.
It was brilliant to see not only seasoned wildlife watchers at the event – including China’s most famous wildlife photographer, Xi Zhinong, but also young students with bags of enthusiasm for wildlife. And with coverage on national and local TV and in newspapers, the event did a great deal to celebrate the world-class wildlife of this beautiful corner of Qinghai Province. I can’t wait to return!
I’d like to acknowledge my teammates, Liu Garbo and Zhang Chengxin, for their fun company – their reaction at seeing the Snow Leopards was something to behold. I really hope to see you guys again in Beijing for some birding! And big thanks to 山水 for inviting me. It’s a real shot in the arm to meet such a dedicated, passionate and professional bunch of people. Looking forward to working with you guys in the future – lots of potential for some very exciting conservation and public engagement projects.
A few days ago a friend asked me which mammal I most wanted to see in China. Perhaps predictably, I said “SNOW LEOPARD”. I followed up quickly with “…but PALLAS’S CAT is a close second.” The second part of my reply is now obsolete after a stunning encounter near Qinghai Lake on Friday.
To celebrate my birthday, Marie and I have spent the last week in China’s Qinghai Province, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. We have explored the shores of Qinghai Lake, enjoying the colonies of Pallas’s and Brown-headed Gulls, caught sight of the Tibetan Lark, the rare Przewalski’s Rosefinch and enjoyed encounters with Wolf and Tibetan and Red Foxes. Along the way we have explored some spectacular mountains and valleys, some of which are rarely visited by anyone except a few local yak and goat herders.
On my birthday we discovered a track that ran from Qinghai lake towards a stunning gorge. We were able to drive our car for about 1km before parking up and setting out on foot. The scenery soon took our breath away as we walked further upstream, the cliffs either side of us becoming ever more imposing.
Despite having only two hours to explore the gorge, we saw Lammergeier, Saker, Tibetan Partridge, Salim Ali’s Swift, Asian House Martin, White-browed Tit, Kessler’s Thrush, Alpine Leaf Warbler, Black and Blue-fronted Redstarts, Ground Tits and Rufous-necked Snowfinches. As we tore ourselves away, we resolved to be back at first light to explore further.
Heavy rain around dawn the next morning delayed our start and, after the weather improved around 0630, we set off for the journey from our hotel to the beginning of the track. Just before 7am we drank our coffee, packed some water and snacks to fuel our walk and began our expedition into the gorge, pikas scampering down their burrows as we headed across the stone-covered grassland into the valley.
After about 20 minutes we had passed the first crags, almost like practice attempts at cliff-building compared with the finished product we would encounter further into the gorge.
Suddenly, in the overcast early morning light, movement caught my eye. I raised my binoculars and was astonished to see not one but two PALLAS’S CATS scampering around some rocks on the nearby hillside. I said to Marie “Pallas’s Cat!”, as softly as my excitement would allow. I quickly set up the telescope thinking that they would almost certainly run away fast as soon as they saw us. Instead, we were treated to incredible prolonged views as these two youngsters practiced their hunting skills, chasing each other, biting each other’s tails and generally having lots of fun.
We had clearly stumbled across their den and we knew it was only a matter of time before mother, presumably out hunting, would return. To our delight, we settled down around 30-40 metres away with the kittens completely relaxed, playing right in front of us. We were enthralled. We couldn’t stop grinning to each other. I took some video with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 telescope as the kittens continued to perform. After around 40 minutes, which went in a flash, the kittens suddenly stopped fooling around and both stared intently in the direction of some nearby rocks.. A quick scan in that direction revealed the mother, slowly walking towards the den with a pika in her teeth. We froze with anticipation. Then, suddenly, she dropped the pika, turned around and, almost in slow motion, crawled to a nearby hollow before raising her head and looking directly at us. She had seen us. And we were obviously too close for her liking.. Not wanting to intrude, we began to retreat and before we had even moved 10m from our position, she returned to pick up the pika and headed towards the den, seemingly completely relaxed. Fortunately I was able to record the moment when the kittens scampered up to her, one of which grabbed the pika and took it back to the den, before being followed by its sibling and, finally, its mother. A magical moment.
This 4-minute video is a compilation of the best footage I was able to capture.
We had spoken about the possibility of seeing a Pallas’s Cat on this trip. However, not in our wildest dreams did we consider an encounter such as this.
According to wikipedia, Pallas’s Cats are usually solitary. Both males and females have territories which they scent mark. They often spend the day in caves, rock crevices, or marmot burrows, and emerge in the late afternoon to begin hunting, although when they have young, they often hunt around the clock. They are not fast runners, and hunt primarily by ambush or stalking, using low vegetation and rocky terrain for cover. They feed largely on diurnally active prey species such as gerbils, pikas and voles.
We owe huge thanks to Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu for helping to arrange our Qinghai itinerary and for providing site information for many of the special birds to be encountered in this wonderful part of China.
At the end of May, with the BTO’s Chris Hewson’s arrival in Beijing, we began The Beijing Cuckoo Project. It’s an exciting initiative as it combines genuine scientific discovery with the participation of schools and the general public.
After catching 16 cuckoos, 11 of which were too small to carry a tag according to the BTO’s admirably strict ethical rules, we fitted tags to five Beijing Cuckoos at three locations – Cuihu Urban Wetland Park, Hanshiqiao Wetland Park and Yeyahu National Wetland Reserve. The five, three males and two females, were given names by local schools and birdwatching organisations. As expected, the three males were most likely of the subspecies bakeri, the ssp that breeds in Beijing. Interestingly, the two (larger) females appeared to be of the more northerly subspecies, canorus. This will hopefully be confirmed by DNA analysis in due course. We were excited to have potentially tagged two different subspecies as there is the possibility that the two races use different migration routes and wintering grounds.
Over the summer the project has gained wide exposure here in China and overseas with media articles, engagement with schools and events at the tagging locations to showcase the project. The most recent was a short article by BBC Wildlife Magazine.
The super-exciting news is that, after the breeding season, the first cuckoo – Flappy – has begun her autumn migration. Already she has crossed the Mongolian desert from her breeding grounds on the Mongolia/Russia border and is now south of Beijing in Hebei Province.
The other four are all doing well but remain at, or close to, their breeding grounds. We are expecting them to begin their migration very soon. There is a dedicated webpage on which updates are posted regularly and, for even more detail, there are individual sub-pages for each cuckoo. The next few weeks promises to be a really exciting time – all being well, we will find out, for the first time, where east Asian Cuckoos go for the winter and how they get there..!
We enjoyed a brilliant two days with 33 species of shorebird logged, including flocks of long-distance migrants, many of which were still in fine breeding plumage, including GREAT KNOT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, GREY PLOVER, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, the ‘Near Threatened’ ASIAN DOWITCHER and even a single ‘Endangered’ NORDMANN’S GREENSHANK. My poor quality video and photos simply don’t do justice to these birds.
As we were travelling back to Beijing, I checked the news on my smartphone. The headline was about the Rio Olympics, a forward look to two weeks of celebrating the astonishing physical feats of the world’s best athletes – from 100m sprinters to marathon runners. The parallel with the shorebirds was striking. Take the Bar-tailed Godwit. One population of this specieswinters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes the return journey directly, a gob-smacking non-stop 11,000 km over the Pacific Ocean. According to scientists, this journey is the equivalent of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more then seven days! Along the way, the birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain in Alaska. And before they embark on this epic journey, they even shrink their digestive organs, superfluous weight for a non-stop 7-day flight. Try that, Usain!
Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has fallen sharply, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today. And the Bar-tailed Godwit is only one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the so-called Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea). The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
So what is the reason for the decline? Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team have, through years of painstaking studies, proved what many birders have long suspected – that the main cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea. Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat. If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.
The problem, in China at least, is a combination of local economics and national regulations. The coastal region of China is home to 40% of the country’s population, and produces roughly 60% of national GDP. Local governments receive much of their revenue through land sales and the land that demands the highest price is agricultural land close to major cities. However, to ensure China’s food security is preserved, there is a national regulation (the Law of Land Management) stipulating that there must be no net loss of agricultural land. So any farmland sold for development must be offset by land elsewhere being allocated for agriculture. The relatively cheap reclamation of mudflats is, therefore, a profitable way for Provinces to be able to sell high-value land for development whilst conforming with the “no net loss” rule by allocating much of the reclaimed land for aquaculture. In the absence of a law protecting nationally-important ecosystems, local priorities rule. And, although large-scale land reclamation projects, at least in theory, require national level approval, these rules are easily circumvented by splitting large projects into several, smaller, constituent parts. With a booming economy over the last few decades, resulting in high demand for land, the tidal mudflats are suffering death by a thousand cuts.
So, what can be done? Ultimately, what’s needed is greater protection for, and more effective management of, nationally important ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, not only for migratory birds but also to avoid undermining China’s basic ecological security, such as providing fishery products, fresh water and flood control. That will require a combination of new laws, amendments to existing laws, regulations and greater public awareness. There is some great work on this, initiated by the Paulson Institute in partnership with China’s State Forestry Administration and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that makes some compelling recommendations.
In parallel to these recommendations, one idea is to secure nomination of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion as a shared World Heritage Site between China and North and South Korea. The concept is based on the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site, a so-called ‘serial’ nomination of linked sites across three countries. Initiated by The Netherlands and Germany in 2009, with Denmark joining in 2014, this World Heritage Site is based in large part on its unique importance for migratory waterbirds. Whilst World Heritage Site status wouldn’t mean automatic protection for the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, it would give it greater national and international recognition based on its significance for migratory shorebirds along the world’s largest and most important flyway. That must be a good thing.
More immediately there is much that must be done to raise awareness about the importance of these areas for migratory shorebirds, as well as local livelihoods – vital work if the conservation community is to have a chance of influencing local governments. Whenever I speak about migratory shorebirds in China, without exception, people are amazed by the journeys these birds undertake and they are enthused to do something to help. Most are simply unaware that the Yellow Sea coast lies at the heart of the flyway. The good news is that there is now an increasing number of local birdwatching and conservation groups in many of China’s coastal provinces engaging local governments and doing what they can to save their local sites. There are grassroots organisations in China working hard to promote environmental education, not only with schools but also the general public. And there is a growing band of young Chinese scientists studying shorebird migration along the Yellow Sea. These groups fill me with great optimism about China’s future conservation community.
Internationally, organisations such as BirdLife, including their superb China Programme team – Simba Chan and Vivian Fu – are working with groups such as the Global Flyway Network, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, as well as Professor Theunis Piersma and his dedicated team. Together, they are advancing the concept of the World Heritage Site with the UN, governments and local groups. At the same time, I believe it is incumbent on us all to be Ambassadors for these birds, to celebrate their lives and to do what we can to promote awareness about their incredible journeys.
The tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are one of China’s treasures, alongside the Great Wall, but they are in peril. Affording them robust protection and effective management is the highest conservation priority in east Asia and it’s a race against time.
Wouldn’t it be something if, alongside the rolling coverage of the Olympics, state TV and radio profiled the most impressive athletes of all – the shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway?
References and resources:
BIRDS OF THE YELLOW SEA – datavisualization of migration routes by 422 South on Vimeo. See URL: https://vimeo.com/150776396
BBC World Service/ABC Radio series on the East Asian Flyway, 2016. See URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wpkd8
Saemangeum on Birds Korea. See URL: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-Mainpage.shtml
Why North Korea Is A Safe Haven For Birds, BBC, 2016. See URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36533469
I have just spent three days in Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, in the company of Shanghai-based British birder, Nick Green. It was my third visit to this stunning part of northeastern China and, after two previous trips in winter, it was a delight to see it so green and leafy, without needing to wear six layers in -30 degrees Celsius!
Whilst in winter the main attractions here are undoubtedly the owls (Snowy, Great Grey, Ural, Hawk, Eagle, Boreal and Little) our main target during this visit was to try to see the three breeding locustella warblers – Lanceolated Warbler, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and the sought-after Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. I thought we wouldn’t have too much difficulty in finding all three but I hadn’t expected the numbers we encountered. Pallas’s were seemingly in every inch of suitable habitat and, particularly early morning and evening, were singing constantly, even though it was mid-July. We recorded 53 (surely a considerable under-count) on our first full day. Lanceolated were less common, but still frequent, with 22 recorded and, the following morning, we counted 17 singing Gray’s from the moving car during a 45-minute drive.
Renowned for their skulking habits, locustella warblers are usually tough to see. However, on the breeding grounds, despite most preferring to sing from deep cover, we were fortunate to see several examples of each species singing from exposed perches.
Wu’erqihan in July isn’t only locustella heaven. The supporting cast includes White-throated Needletail, Great Grey, Ural and Eagle Owls, Siberian Rubythroat, Mugimaki Flycatcher, David’s and Chinese Bush Warblers, Pale-legged, Two-barred, Pallas’s, Thick-billed, Radde’s and Dusky Warblers and a host of other ‘sibes’.