Finding Kamchatka Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus) in Beijing in June 2021

On 1 June 2021, Beijing resident, Colm Moore, found Beijing’s first Kamchatka Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus, 堪察加柳莺 Kān chá jiā liǔ yīng) at the Ming Tombs Reservoir in Beijing.  It is the latest in a series of excellent records from Colm, crowned by the astonishing record of a Streak-throated Swallow (Petrochelidon fluvicola 彩石燕 Cǎi shíyàn) at Shahe Reservoir in May 2014 which was not only a first record for Beijing but also for the whole of China!

Colm is one of the best birders I know and also one of the most genuine guys around.  This is his account of the incredible find on 1 June.

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By Colm Moore.

More than half a decade ago, on Professor Per Alström’s advice, I began the slow, laborious process of recording Beijing warbler songs in some systematic manner. This was solely to further my own meagre knowledge and in order to make sense of the plethora of spring song from that myriad of phylloscopid taxa we hear and see each year. Per’s breakthrough work (Alstrom, P, et al., Ibis (2011), 153, 395–410) on the three “borealis” sibling species, Arctic Warbler P. borealis, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus and Japanese Leaf Warbler P. xanthodryas was on my desktop but surely an academic exercise, and not for the field….. surely.

Six years later, almost to the day, I crept into the woodland of pollarded Salix at Ming Tombs Reservoir’s Flower Garden to record Arctic Warbler P. borealis and compare it with some earlier recordings. I carried a lightweight Sony PCM D100 digital recorder and enough water to last an eight hour vigil. Six years has taught me infinite patience.

Four days of light easterly breezes, a drier than usual Meiyu Low Pressure System and a waning gibbous moon meant that on 1st June, there were very few nocturnal migrant warblers present, but a mellifluous fall of Black-naped Orioles Oriolus chinensis also guaranteed that the trees were alive with an orchestra of sound.  Against this background I could hear the ‘dzrt’ calls of a few Arctic Warblers and an occasional burst of song from the same species, transcribed here as ‘zezezezezezezezezezezezezeze’, increasing in strength mid-way and fading somewhat at the end. All other warblers had indeed vacated the area, apparently. Every phylloscopid sound was borealis-like in nature, all my photographs showed borealis-type birds apparently and so I settled down to listen and perhaps make a few decent recordings.

About two hours into the vigil, listening with too little deep attention to the ‘dzrt‘ and the high mechanical ‘zezezeze‘, like a dreamer awakening from a drowsy woodland sleep, I began to hear a distant stuttering call, ‘drt‘..’drrt‘, audibly underneath and beyond the rest.  It had probably been present for hours. Still stupefied, I slowly rummaged for my recorder, with all the time in the world, apparently.  Meanwhile the bird or the sound had moved to my right and a short strophe of pumping action phylloscopid song leaked out from behind an Oriole’s chortle. Galvanized, I swung around wildly to catch some precious phrase, stumbled upon the correction direction and there, 10s into the recording, was that unique harsh pumping action of an examinandus song, electronically captured, and transcribed in the field as: ‘zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh’.  It was a rather rough, rapid, short series of notes with a regular pumping, pulsing rhythm.  The pumping rhythm seemed to be caused by two different syllables ‘zeze’ and ‘zeh’ being repeated.

Minutes passed in exquisite breathless panic as I waited for the bird to sing again. But the shadow of a Black Stork Cigonia nigra, flying low over the wood now threw the place into silence and though the Orioles were undisturbed, the bird with that unique examinandus sound had departed or rendered silent. Hours and hours later I stumbled into the light, exhausted from combing the wood, leaf by warbler-shaped leaf, frequency by dizzy frequency.  I had dozens of photographs of borealis-types, but I could not definitively match call with image. I even noted wing-flick behaviour in some, but again was unable to match behaviour with call.

Terry Townshend, to whom I sent the recording, was able to support my tentative identification as examinandus, and with his encouragement I sent the recording and all my photographs to Per Alström, who confirmed the song, saying:

…. I note that there’s a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler on your recording. First there’s a call which sounds like borealis, shortly afterwards is a call that sounds like examinandus (though I’ve heard birds which I thought were borealis on migration in SE China calling pretty examinandus-like, though I couldn’t be absolutely sure they were indeed borealis). However, at c. 10 s, behind an oriole is a very faint song strophe of a definite examinandus….. I see the odd wing flicking behaviour in one or two of your photos. I haven’t noted this in any ”Arctic Warbler”….. Something to check.

Colm’s original recording, with the call of Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis), followed by a two-note call that could be Kamchatka Warbler (P. examinandus), then the diagnostic strophe of song from Kamchatka Warbler (P. examinandus), with background Black-naped Orioles (Oriolus chinensis).

 

The taxon examinandus was first described by Professor E. Stresemann in 1913 but the morphological similarity to xanthodryas and borealis meant that it took a century to fully untangle the phylogenetic complexity of what are now considered three unambiguous clades, based on mitochondrial DNA, an analysis of songs and detailed morphometrics.  But it became clear that for field workers, calls and songs were essentially the field evidence and recordings the tools by which to map the distribution of these sibling species.  It has been established that examinandus breeds in south Kamchatka, Sakhalin and north-east Hokkaido. Likewise, among two-hundred sound-recordings in Xeno-canto (Xeno-canto Foundation and Naturalis Biodiversity Center 2005-2021: accessed September 13, 2021), winter-time records concentrate in S.S.E. Asia, specifically Indonesia. Passage migrants have been recorded in Japan, Nansei-Shoto, S.Korea and China. Remarkably, it has been recorded in Australia and in Finland (www.birdguides.com/articles/western-palearctic/kamchatka-leaf-warbler-in-finland-a-new-western-palearctic-species/).

Some records of the species on presumed passage, have come from as near to Beijing as Dandong, in Liaoning (Birding Beijing: accessed September 13, 2021), Tianjin (eBird Explore: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: accessed September 13, 2021) and coastal Hebei, with one recorded by Matt Slaymaker on 26 May 2013 and 1 June 2013 at the ‘prison trees’ at Nanpu, Tangshan (see https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Phylloscopus-examinandus?pg=1). Thus the Beijing record is probably not wholly unexpected, given the geographical location of the capital, just west of the mapped migratory trajectory.

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Big thanks to Colm for writing up his extraordinary find and for helping to raise awareness about this poorly-known species and its occurrence in Beijing.  With greater awareness among birders, we can expect more records from the capital in future.

 

Title image: a ‘wing-flicking’ Phylloscopus, possibly the P. examinandus, from 1 June 2021 at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Colm Moore) 

Leopard Cat in Beijing 北京豹猫

Not many capital cities can boast populations of wild cats and some may be surprised to learn that Beijing is one.  I am delighted to publish a new page dedicated to Leopard Cats in Beijing.  This page provides information and updates from an exciting new project about this poorly known species, led by Peking University’s Professor Luo Shu-Jin in collaboration with the China Felid Conservation Alliance (CFCA).  The project has already made some exciting discoveries, revealing just how little we know about biodiversity, even in one of the world’s major capital cities.  The page can be found here and includes some fantastic images of Leopard Cat from Beijing.  Check back regularly for updates!

Huge credit to Luo Shu-Jin and her team for her work on what must be one of the jewels in the crown of Beijing’s biodiversity.  

Valuing Nature

This podcast is a must-listen interview for anyone with an interest in the natural world.  It brings together one of the world’s leading economists – Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University, author of the recent groundbreaking study – “The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review” with the real-world financial expertise and political nous of Secretary Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary.   

 

 

Their conversation focuses on the global biodiversity crisis – the risks to human prosperity, the strong links with climate change, and how, in order to manage these risks, the world must do better at valuing nature and broaden its economic goals beyond GDP growth.   

Back in the early 1990s when I was studying economics at university, I was taken aback when I learned that economic models took nature’s services for granted; in essence nature’s benefits were considered free and inexhaustible.  As Professor Dasgupta says, going back just a few decades, “this was not a travesty, as we were small beer at the time. But now we are not”.  Today, demand for the Earth’s resources and services severely outstrips the ability of the Earth to renew itself, bringing with it tremendous risks.  This is cause for a fundamental realignment to bring the global economy within the boundaries of the biosphere and to no longer consider it independent.  

It’s a fascinating and hugely important subject.  Education, the need for government regulation and generational equity feature strongly.  If you have a spare 45 minutes, please listen and, if you are motivated to do something, think about what you can do to make a difference – whether it’s writing to your elected representative, asking questions about how your company or organisation is incorporating biodiversity into its strategy and operations, or by making personal choices as consumers.   

 

For more on the “Dasgupta Review”, see here.

For more on the Paulson Institute’s “Financing Nature: Closing the Biodiversity Financing Gap”, see here.

 

Title image: a longhorn bee sp., Shunyi District, Beijing, July 2021.

“Wild China with Ray Mears” to be broadcast on ITV this summer

Back in 2019, which almost seems a lifetime ago, I had the honour of working with a hero of mine – Ray Mears – and his team as part of a new series on China’s wild places.  Entitled “Wild China with Ray Mears”, the seven-episode ITV series chronicles his journey across this vast and diverse country, exploring some of its special wildernesses. 

The previous year, two of his researchers contacted me when they were scouting for locations.  They were keen to visit the Valley of the Cats, the location of the community-based wildlife watching tourism project.  I arranged for them to stay with a local family in one of the most spectacular locations and met them there on arrival.  The idea was that we would have two days to explore potential filming opportunities and locations.  The following morning, the local ShanShui staff and I drove to meet them at their homestay and there was quite a commotion.  Several members of the family were chatting loudly and gesturing towards one of the rooms of their house which looked as if a bomb had hit it.  The two researchers had been woken with a bang at 1am when the family started banging pots and pans, and were startled to learn that a brown bear had broken into the room adjacent to their sleeping quarters! Huge paw prints around the house and some muddy prints on the walls betrayed the bear’s shenanigans.

Inspecting the evidence of the bear’s visit in the Valley of the Cats.

Unfazed by their experience, the first thing the researchers said to me when I arrived was “ok, we know already this is a good place for Ray!”

I won’t reveal how Ray fared in the Valley, except to say that this episode is not to be missed.

The series will be broadcast on ITV in the UK this summer,  beginning with episode 1 from a very cold Beijing on Tuesday 13 July from 1930-2000.  With visits to the country’s tropical rainforest, the bamboo forest home of giant pandas, bat caves in karst landscapes as well as the Tibetan Plateau, this series is a must-watch for anyone with an interest in China and its wild places.  

The Butterflies of Beijing

Of the 2,153 species of butterfly recorded throughout China (壽 等, 2006), more than 170 have been recorded in Beijing.  That is a large number by any standards, and indeed many more than the whole of the UK (59)*. 

In keeping with the aim of producing English language resources for Beijing’s wildlife, a dedicated page for the butterflies of Beijing has now been added to this site.  

It includes the official list of species recorded in Beijing, including scientific names, Chinese names (with pinyin) and English names where given.  Species are illustrated with images where available and contributions are welcome, especially for species not yet illustrated.  Over time, it is hoped that this page can become a helpful resource for any visitor to Beijing interested in these beautiful insects.

*See URL: https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies

Header image: Melitaea didymoides, 斑网蛱蝶,  Bān wǎng jiá dié, Shunyi District, 28 July 2020 (Terry Townshend)

Far Eastern Curlew in Inner Mongolia

I’m just back from a few days break in northern Inner Mongolia.  Mid-June is a wonderful time to visit with all of the breeding birds, most of which are migratory, back on territory and singing vigorously.  One of the species I was keen to see and hear was the Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis 大杓鹬 Dà biāo yù), a species now classified as “Endangered” due to its rapidly declining population (it is thought to have declined by up to 80% in Australia, one of its main non-breeding grounds). Incidentally, despite its scientific name, it has never been recorded in Madagascar.

After several failed attempts, I was finally in the right place at the right time when a presumed male engaged in a wonderful, undulating, display flight over a wet meadow.  As the sun set on a perfectly still evening, the sound sent shivers down my spine as it pierced the backing vocals from, among others, Common Cuckoo, Oriental Cuckoo and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler.  Simply magical.

Wouldn’t the world be a poorer place if we lost this awe-inspiring bird?

 

Source: Van Gils, J., P. Wiersma, and G. M. Kirwan (2020). Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.faecur.01

The Dawn Chorus at Lingshan

For some time I have been wanting to record the dawn chorus at Lingshan, a fantastic wooded mountain on the western boundary of Beijing.  In late Spring, when the breeding birds have arrived, the woodland comes alive and it’s a cacophony of birdsong.  

On the morning of 31 May I set out to record at a series of elevations and stitch them together to provide a 30-minute compilation.  The recording begins with the haunting whistle of a White’s Thrush at 0200am before moving to the dawn chorus proper at 0415am at an elevation of 1100m.   From there, the recordings move up the mountain, some of which were recorded during light rain, until the final cut at 1550m.  Each location provides a different mix of species and includes some of the signature birds of Beijing’s mountains such as Green-backed Flycatcher, Grey-sided Thrush, Himalayan Cuckoo, Large Hawk Cuckoo and many many more.  At some point I will make a list of all the species involved but, in the meantime, I hope you enjoy listening!

 

Saving a Flyway

It was only three years ago that many scientists thought the Yellow Sea would become an ‘epicentre of extinction’, such was the pace and extent of the loss of intertidal mudflats along China’s coast.  The populations of many shorebirds in what is known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) were in free-fall.  In the last 30 years, the population of Red Knot had declined by 58%, the Far Eastern Curlew by 80% and the Curlew Sandpiper by 78% to name a few.  And of course the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper was facing imminent extinction.

Today, although there is still a long way to go to secure the future of the millions of migratory shorebirds that rely on this region as a refuelling stop during their incredible journeys from as far away as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic, there is hope.

In 2018 the Chinese government announced a ban on further reclamation of coastal wetlands.  This policy decision, taking many by surprise, effectively removed what was considered the biggest threat to migratory shorebirds in the Flyway.  Two of the most important sites have since been inscribed as World Heritage Sites and a further 12 are due to be added in the next few years.  Focus is now switching to recovery and restoration of sites and tackling the remaining threats to these shorebirds, such as the invasive spartina grass and illegal hunting.   

Over the last 12 months, in my role with the Paulson Institute, I have been part of a team, involving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and EAAFP, producing a video to tell the story of this policy turnaround.  Through interviews with scientists, policymakers and NGOs at the heart of the issue, the 14-minute documentary shows how people from across disciplines and international borders worked together to create an evidence base that, ultimately, was too powerful to ignore.

It is a story of hope that shows that, even when things can seem desperate, it’s vital never to give up.  As we move towards the UN Conference on Biological Diversity in Kunming in October, that is a very important message.

Watch the video here:

Huge thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, EAAFP and my wonderful colleagues at the Paulson Institute for the terrific teamwork over the last 12 months.  Most of all, thank you to all the scientists, NGOs, policymakers, advocates and everyone who has helped count shorebirds whose efforts have given hope to this most diverse, and most threatened of flyways.  

First documented record of Vega Gull in Beijing

Perhaps surprisingly, the taxa known as Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae or Larus argentatus vegae or Larus smithsonius vegae, or simply Larus vegae, depending on your taxonomy of choice) had, until recently, never been reliably recorded in Beijing.  This is most likely due to several factors: first, the fact that vegae appears to be highly coastal, so is likely to be at least scarce and maybe rare in the capital; second, the difficulty in separating vegae from mongolicus (Mongolian Gull), the most frequent large white-headed gull in Beijing; and third a lack of awareness about the potential of this taxa to occur in the capital.  

Large white-headed gulls are not resident in Beijing.  The vast majority we see are the migratory Mongolian Gull (Larus vegae mongolicus, Larus argentatus mongolicus, Larus smithsonius mongolicus) in spring (primarily late February to mid-April) and autumn (late August to November) as they make their way to and from their inland breeding grounds and their coastal non-breeding range.  Flocks of 100+ are not uncommon at reservoirs such as Shahe, Ming Tombs, Miyun Reservoir and Guanting.  Occasionally, a few ‘taimyrensis‘ Lesser Black-backed Gull and Pallas’s Gull are mixed in and it has long been suspected that the occasional vegae might get caught up in these flocks but, despite several reports, none has ever been documented.   Mongolicus and vegae look remarkably similar in breeding plumage when they both have clean white heads but, in the non-breeding season, vegae sports much heavier streaking on the head, including the crown and neck, often reaching the breast.  Mongolicus usually retains a largely clean white head with only limited streaking around the eye and a pale grey, lightly marked ‘neck shawl’.  Given mongolicus’s relatively early breeding season, this taxa attains breeding plumage earlier than vegae, which mostly breeds further north.  Thus, in Beijing, any adult large white-headed gull with heavy streaking on the head and chest in late March should be examined carefully and documented.  

On 20 March young birders, Liu Aitao, Lou Fangzhou and Wei Zichen scrutinised a flock of large gulls loafing close to the southern shore of Shahe Reservoir.  Their awareness, perseverance and tenacity meant that they secured some wonderful images of a candidate vegae, documenting it sufficiently well to become Beijing’s first confirmed record of Vega Gull.  

Congratulations are in order and one of the observers, Liu Aitao, kindly wrote the account below of their find and offered it for publication here.  Aitao and his friends are notching up some great records in the capital and, best of all, they have a lot of fun doing it!

Over to Aitao…

Saturday, 20th March 2021:

After a fruitful morning of birding (including four lifer Lesser White-fronted Geese) at the Ming Tombs Reservoir, Wei Zichen, Lou Fangzhou and I decided to head to another birding hotspot – Shahe Reservoir – in the hope of seeing some gulls we had missed this season.

Upon arrival, we set up our scope on the staircase among rows of photographers who lined the south shore of the reservoir. The wind started to pick up, but the birds made up for the harsh weather: a flock of 60+ Tundra (Bewick’s) Swan, 20+ Common Shelduck, small flocks of Common Goldeneye and a handful of other species of waterfowl rode on choppy waves; Great Cormorants flew past by the hundred; and, in the shallows, around a hundred gulls rested, occasionally flushed by unknown disturbances, just to waver in the wind and settle right back to the same spot; a Eurasian Siskin quietly feasted on a Willow tree overhead while a few Barn Swallows flickered in the breeze.

We set our gaze on the gulls. The three of us took turns looking through the scope as we ate our lunch. Identifying the gulls was no easy feat. The messy classification of the gulls in the Genus Larus in East Asia and the different moult stages of the individual birds in conjunction with the incessant cold winds that constantly shook both our scope and us made the gull-watching an intimidating challenge. But with our perseverance came rewards; a few minutes in, we picked out a ‘taimyrensis’ Lesser Black-backed Gull, a scarce but regular spring migrant, among the cluster of Mongolian Gulls. Then we spotted another, and another. Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls already put smiles on our faces, but while we were verifying the ID with each other, another odd-looking gull caught our attention. It was an adult gull with many features that seemed odd to us compared with the many Mongolian Gulls. In particular, the heavy streaking on its head and neck seemed too dense and extensive for Mongolian Gull, and the grey on its mantle and wings was not dark enough for a Lesser Black-backed. Furthermore, when it hopped out of the water, its legs were not yellow but obviously pink, denying the possibility of it being a Lesser Black-backed Gull. We were immediately intrigued by this find. I then vaguely recalled that Terry once mentioned the possibility of seeing a Vega Gull in Beijing, so I messaged him asking about how to ID Vega Gulls. Following his advice, we spent the next hour trying to observe and photograph this gull as much as we could, paying special attention to its primary flight feathers, wing shape and colour, streaking on the head, legs and looking for any other differences compared with the Mongolian Gulls. Throughout the 2.5 hours, the gull hopped out of the water once and took off flying twice, providing us with opportunities to photograph its outstretched wings and legs. Another 4th winter gull close by also showed very extensive streaking on the head and neck, so we also took some photos of that bird for further inspection.

Adult Vega Gull, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021 (Photo by Liu Aitao). Note the relatively extensive head-streaking.
The adult Vega Gull (centre) with Mongolian Gulls, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. Photo by Lou Fangzhou.
Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae), Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. The first documented record of this taxa in Beijing (Photo by Lou Fangzhou).  
Vega Gull in flight, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021 (Photo by Lou Fangzhou).
Vega Gull, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. Photo by Lou Fangzhou.  

Back at home, all three of us (Wei Zichen, Lou Fangzhou and I) did some further research about Vega Gulls and sorted through all of our photos and footage of the gull we encountered on the day. Wei Zichen referenced his “Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America” (Olsen) book, Lou Fangzhou provided most of the photos (and the best ones) and consulted other birders he knew, and I read up on any information I could find on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Birds of the World. Although the two gulls we found matched many features of Vega Gull we could find in literature and online resources, other information we found confused us… I compiled all the photos and videos we had and sent them to Terry for further investigation. Terry came to the conclusion that the two gulls we found *could* in fact be Vega Gulls. Since there has not been any confirmed prior sightings of Vega Gulls in Beijing, despite his likely accurate initial judgement, Terry was extra meticulous in the identification of our two gulls. He contacted the Ujiharas in Japan – who have vast experience with Vega Gull – for their opinion. To our delight, Michiaki Ujihara’s opinion aligned with Terry’s judgement, citing the adult gull’s excessive head streaking in late March and shorter-winged impression in flight. Although the identity of the other 4th winter gull remains uncertain, the adult bird is the first documented record of Vega Gull in Beijing!

Although there are so many readily enjoyable aspects of birding, to me it’s moments like this that truly make me appreciate the joy of birding. The constant unpredictability and variability of the birding scene, the thrill and excitement of discovering something unusual/new, the “gruelling” process of correctly identifying a confusing or “difficult” bird, the knowledge I gain and conversations I have during the identification process are all genuinely what makes birding so enthralling and captivating. This sighting of a Vega Gull may only be one small discovery in the grand scheme of things, but it just goes to show that there will always be countless possibilities and opportunities when it comes to birding, especially in Beijing. I hope our Vega Gull finding can encourage more birders to always keep an open mind and open eyes while out in the field. With a little bit of luck, perseverance, curiosity and an open mind, we all have the chance to discover something new in nature.

Finally, I would like to use this opportunity to greatly appreciate Terry for his continued support and guidance. Without him, I would never have been able to make this exciting find. Additionally, I would also like to pay my gratitude towards Michiaki Ujihara for confirming the ID and Wei Zichen & Lou Fangzhou for accompanying me on my birding excursion and spotting this gull with me.

Liu Aitao (centre) with Lou Fangzhou (left) and Wei Zichen (right) in the field. Photo by 贺建华 (Hè jiànhuá).

Additional notes: Due to the disparities between classification systems, I simply called the gulls “Vega Gulls” and “Mongolian Gulls”. I hereby cite the commonly used IOC v11.1 Master Bird List and the most up to date Clements Checklist (2019). According to the IOC list, Vega Gull refers to both the Mongolian Gull (Larus vegae mongolicus) and the Vega Gull I referred to in this text (the nominate subspecies of the IOC Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae). Whereas the Clements Checklist still treats both Vega Gulls and Mongolian Gulls as subspecies of a whole cluster of gulls all classified as Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus mongolicus and Larus argentatus vegae). However, as mongolicus and vegae have distinctive breeding ranges and noticeable morphological differences, I personally think it is important to acknowledge their differences and treat them differently.

Liu Aitao

Local communities in Beijing write to government to promote nature in new park design

Nearly 400 individuals, along with three schools representing more than 2,500 students have written a letter to the Beijing government to ask for a new park to be designed not only for people, but also for nature.  A wonderful initiative that has the potential to change attitudes about the design, and purpose, of urban parks.

What do people want from a park?  The conventional wisdom in Beijing is that local residents want somewhere “beautiful to look at, neat and tidy”.  Anyone who has enjoyed one or more of the city’s parks will have noticed that they are certainly neat, tidy and well-maintained, with an army of workers collecting litter, tidying up dropped leaves, spraying insecticide and strimming any vegetation more than a few centimetres high.  But what does this meticulous management mean for wildlife?  In most cases, although many parks provide temporary shelter for migrant birds during spring and autumn, Beijing’s parks are generally wildlife-deprived.  There are signs that this may be about to change.

As reported earlier, the government is planning to pilot the idea of leaving “10% wild” in some existing parks.  If successful, this pilot could be expanded to cover more of the capital’s green spaces.

And, as part of Beijing’s ‘greening’, the government is planning  a series of new parks on the outskirts of Beijing.  One such park is being planned along part of the Wenyu River, a well-known birding spot, an important habitat for wintering waterbirds, and a corridor for migrants in spring and autumn.  In total, more than 300 species of bird have been recorded along the river, including endangered species with Class I protection in China, such as Scaly-sided Merganser and Yellow-breasted Bunting.   Parks in the capital are traditionally designed by landscaping companies with little understanding of the needs of wildlife.  Fortunately, in the case of the Wenyu River park, the local government has invited Peking University and Beijing Forestry University to provide advice on how to make the new park better for wildlife.  Several suggestions have been made, including using a ‘zoning’ system for activities such as fishing and recreation in order to ensure some areas are relatively undisturbed. 

The academics working on these proposals suggested that a letter from local residents to make it known that they would like their park to be designed not only for human leisure but also for wildlife, would strengthen their case. 

A few weeks later, the letter below has been submitted to the Director General of the Beijing Forest and Parks Bureau and the local governments of Shunyi and Chaoyang Districts (the river marks the border of these two districts and the park will include land on both sides of the river).  The letter has been signed by three local schools, representing more than 2,500 students, and nearly 400 individuals.

2021-03-30 Letter to Beijing Municipal Goverrnment

The hope is that the letter will demonstrate to government that the traditional view that people want parks to be places solely for human recreation is out of date and that, in a modern global city, people want their parks to deliver multiple benefits, including supporting and nurturing wildlife.  

Changing attitudes takes time but, with 190 countries due to meet in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in October to thrash out a new international framework to tackle the global biodiversity crisis (the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, commonly known as COP15), it is clear that governments – both national and subnational – business, and indeed all of society will need to integrate biodiversity considerations into their operations if the world is to be successful in slowing and halting biodiversity loss.  The role of cities, home to more than 50% of the world population (expected to increase to 66% by 2050), is vital not only in terms of supporting urban wildlife and providing safe spaces for migrant birds to navigate large urban areas, but also to allow the increasingly disconnected urban population to connect with nature.  

We await the response of the Beijing Municipal government with interest. A huge thank you to everyone who signed and promoted the letter.  It is wonderful to see the overwhelming support from local residents for Beijing’s public parks to put the interests of wildlife at the heart of their design and management.

 

Title image: a river providing space for people and wildlife by Madeleine Donahue