Celebrating Insects

It’s a serious concern that insect populations seem to be plummeting in many parts of the world.  Studies have shown that populations of European butterflies have halved since 1990, honeybee colonies have fallen by 59 percent in North America since World War II, and populations of British moths are dropping by 30 percent per decade.  Recent stories such as this from Germany, where 75 percent of flying insects have been lost in the last 25 years (and that’s in nature reserves!), and in Australia are representative of the situation in many countries.  It doesn’t take a biologist to know that insects are a key part of the ecosystem.  Around 60 percent of birds rely on them for food. Around 80 percent of wild plants depend on them for pollination. If they disappear, ecosystems will be put under serious strain or even collapse.  Certainly when I visit home in Norfolk, England, the dearth of insects, particularly large flying insects, is striking, and it should be no surprise that species such as shrikes, which feed predominantly on flying insects, have declined dramatically.

Fortunately, in China, large-scale intensive agriculture and the associated widespread use of insecticides, is not yet a standard feature of the landscape.  And it shows in terms of the insect populations, even in urban areas like Beijing.

A couple of years ago, I met Nial Moores (of Birds Korea) in the Chinese capital during his stopover on the way to Seoul.  We squeezed in a few hours of birding along the Wenyu River, a good birding site within easy reach of the airport.  As we began our walk along the south bank of the Wenyu, Nial immediately commented on the vast columns of insects, perhaps 10-20m high,  that were dancing over the river bank, remarking that he hadn’t seen anything like that for decades.

On my local patch, just a few minutes walk from my apartment, I can personally vouch for the fact that insect populations, especially biting insects, are healthy!

TT insect bites, shunyi
An hour on the local patch on a July evening can be punishing!

Fast forward to last weekend and I was roaming the alpine meadows at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain.  As well as seeing some great birds such as Himalayan Cuckoo, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Grey-sided and Chinese Thrushes, Siberian Blue Robin and Green-backed Flycatcher to name a few, I was overwhelmed by the sight and sound of the insects.  I was so struck by the diversity and abundance that I wanted to capture the scene by recording the sight and sound.

Fortunately I had my recording equipment with me and I spent a few minutes just sitting in the grass and recording the “sound of the meadow”.  At home, if I close my eyes and play this track, I am transported back and I instantly feel myself relaxing…

For several years I’ve been ‘digiscoping’ birds using my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 telescope with a special Swarovski adaptor.  It’s a wonderful set-up, easy to use and quick to switch from observation mode to video mode.  Combining the excellent quality video (4k) of the iPhone with the superlative optics of Swarovski, I’ve been able to achieve some remarkable results, whether it’s capturing record images of distant rarities, behaviour of Beijing’s resident birds or even Snow Leopards on the Tibetan Plateau.

It had never occurred to me to try to digiscope insects..  but when a Hummingbird Hawk-moth was seemingly in a pattern of returning to the same flower time after time, I thought I’d give it a go.  The meadow at Lingshan was teeming with insect life and I was surrounded by opportunities, whether it was bees, butterflies, moths or beetles.  Within half an hour, and experimenting with the slow motion feature on the iPhone, I had achieved some pleasing results for a beginner.

So, in celebration of insects, here is a short compilation.


I’d love to hear about insect populations in your areas.  Please leave a comment if you know of any good links or resources.  In the meantime, let’s hear it for the insects!

Baer’s Pochard breeds successfully at Hengshui Hu

At 1748 local time on 28 May 2018, Li Feng, a researcher and bird surveyor from Hengshui University found, photographed and videoed a female BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri) with ducklings at Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve in Hebei Province, China. This is the first confirmed breeding of the “Critically Endangered” diving duck anywhere in the world in 2018 and is almost certainly a direct result of conservation efforts by the local government and nature reserve staff, supported by the Sino-German Hengshui Lake Conservation and Management Project

The breeding success follows hot on the heels of the first international workshop of the Baer’s Pochard Task Force at Hengshui Hu in March 2018 and the subsequent commitments from the local government and local nature reserve to manage the lake for the benefit of this beautiful diving duck.

Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri) is a poorly known migratory diving duck that was formerly widespread in eastern Asia.  Since the 1980s it has suffered a precipitous decline throughout its range, estimated to be >90%, and fewer than 1,000 birds now survive in the wild, making it rarer than the Giant Panda.  Since 2012 it has been classified by the IUCN as “Critically Endangered”, meaning it is just one step away from extinction in the wild.  In the last five years it has become clear that Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province is the most important known site in the world for this species with more than 300 recorded during spring migration in 2017, several overwintering and a few pairs spending the summer.  However, due to a combination of fluctuating water levels during the breeding season, illegal egg collection and disturbance by electro-fishermen and tourist boats, there has been no recent evidence of breeding.

It was back in March 2017 that I visited Hengshui Hu, as part of the Sino-German Hengshui Hu Project run by German Development Bank, KfW, to to help train Hengshui University and nature reserve staff about waterbird monitoring and identification of Baer’s Pochard.  At that time I could not have dared dream that there would be breeding success a little over a year later.

Since then, the local groups have been systematically counting waterfowl, in particular Baer’s Pochard, on a weekly basis, helping to build up a better picture of how the lake is used by Baer’s Pochard and other waterbirds.  At the same time, a series of targeted conservation actions have been initiated, including declaring the likely favoured breeding area as a seasonal fully protected zone, compensating fishermen who could no longer fish in the protected zone, clamping down on illegal activity including illegal fishing and egg collection, stabilising the water level during the breeding season to avoid nests being flooded, and beginning a public information campaign to raise awareness about the global importance of Hengshui Hu for Baer’s Pochard.

New interpretation boards focusing on Baer’s Pochard have been erected at Hengshui Hu
Public information is crucial to help enthuse the local people and engender a sense of pride that they have such an endangered bird in their community

Just two months ago, the international spotlight shone on Hengshui Hu when, on 19-20 March 2018, delegates from ten countries gathered for the first international workshop on the conservation of the Baer’s Pochard under the auspices of the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP).  Delegates from Bangladesh, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Russia and Thailand heard from senior Chinese local and national government officials, academics and international experts, discussed urgent conservation priorities and agreed the “Hengshui Declaration”. 

The actions by the local nature reserve and Hengshui University, enabled and reinforced by the political will shown by the local government, have undoubtedly created the conditions for successful breeding in 2018 and, in another demonstration of local commitment, more than 40 volunteers from Hengshui University have already set up a group to monitor the progress of these, and hopefully more, Baer’s Pochard ducklings. 

The positive results from Hengshui, coming so quickly after the concerted actions to support Baer’s Pochard, are deeply heartening and demonstrate that local conservation actions can deliver results.  And although there is a very long way to go to secure the future of this endangered species in the wild, successful breeding represents a positive step forward for the conservation effort.

Big congratulations to the local government, the local nature reserve, especially Mr Yuan Bo and Ms Liu Zhenjie, and to Hengshui University, in particular Dr Wu Dayong and Li Feng, and to everyone else involved, including Professors Ding Changqing and Lei Guangchun and Dr Wu Lan at Beijing Forestry University, Guido Kuchelmeister, Matthias Bechtolsheim and John Howes from the KfW project, Rich Hearn at WWT, Hyeseon Do from EAAFP and many more.

Farewell Flappy

At 20:17 and 24 seconds China time on 17 May 2018 we received what we think will be the last transmission from a satellite tag fitted to a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) named Flappy McFlapperson.

The transmission was the last of a series since 14 May that showed two important pieces of information: first, increasing temperature fluctuations and second, a rapidly depleting battery charge.  The first information is significant; a healthy bird’s body temperature will offset the fluctuations in ambient temperature from day to night, meaning that the temperature of the tag remains relatively constant.  Significant fluctuations in temperature are a tell-tale sign that all is not well.  The second piece of information about battery depletion, in itself, is not necessarily a bad sign but when combined with the temperature data, it adds weight to the view that something is amiss.  Whilst, theoretically, these symptoms could occur if the tag becomes detached from the body, this scenario is unlikely given the design of the harness used.  Sadly, the conclusion must be that Flappy McFlapperson perished sometime during the night of 14-15 May 2018.

The most recent transmissions from Flappy’s tag, received on 17 May 2018, put her around 100km north of Mandaly and 30km east of the Irrawaddy River.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Flappy McFlapperson, or “Flappy” as she was affectionately known, will be missed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world.

It was on 24 May 2016, at Cuihu Urban Wetland in northern Beijing, that the first cuckoo, a female, was fitted with a tag as part of the Beijing Cuckoo Project, a collaboration between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center (BWRRC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing, and supported by the British Birds Charitable Trust, the Oriental Bird Club, Zoological Society of London and BirdLife International.  The project was designed to combine scientific discovery with public engagement.  The aims were twofold: first, to find out, for the first time, where cuckoos from East Asia spent the winter and how they got there, and second, to reach and enthuse the public about the incredible journeys made by Beijing’s birds (BTO’s work tracking cuckoos from the UK has demonstrated the potential for these iconic birds to engage and enthuse new audiences about the science of bird migration).

Shortly after being fitted with a tag, students at Dulwich International School in Beijing put forward, and voted on, names during an assembly.  The story of “Flappy McFlapperson” had begun.

Students at Dulwich International School vote for their favourite Cuckoo names

Flappy was about to begin an incredible journey, not only in terms of her migration from Beijing to Africa, via her breeding grounds in the Onon Balj Basin National Park in northern Mongolia, but also in terms of the number of people she would reach in China and around the world, most of whom probably wouldn’t, ordinarily, take an interest in migratory birds.

Her following was modest to begin with as she spent a relatively uneventful summer in Mongolia, close to the Russian border.  However, through regular social media in China and overseas, and articles in more traditional print and online media, she began to attract more and more followers as people marvelled at her incredible autumn migration that took her from northern Mongolia, across China and, via Yunnan Province, into South Asia, spending time in Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.  When she set off across the Arabian Sea, she provoked an outpouring of awe and admiration that a Cuckoo from Beijing could make such a journey to Africa.

Of course, Flappy and her kind have been making this journey for millennia, so it was routine for her.  But for humans, discovering for the first time to where these birds migrate and the route they took to get there, the reaction was like a child unwrapping a wonderful new gift – faces lit up, voices rose excitedly and her followers, many of whom had never before taken notice of nature, began talking about the wonders of migratory birds.

Flappy continued through the Horn of Africa, ultimately settling in Mozambique for the northern winter before returning via a similar route the following spring.

Since being fitted with her tag, in a nice symmetry, she has crossed 61 international borders involving 16 countries: China, Mongolia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Oman, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia and DRC (Congo).  That list is better than most gap-year students’ backpacking adventures and her journey was made without the assistance of powered transport, or the necessity of a passport or visas.

Flappy was an ambassador.  She linked the Great Wall with the Taj Mahal, Jaipur with Mogadishu and Cuihu Urban Wetland with the Arabian Sea.  As one loyal follower on Twitter remarked, her most recent position – and it seems final resting place – around 100km north of Mandalay and c30km east of the Irrawaddy River recalls Rudyard Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay”, the last words of which are:

“Oh the road to Mandalay,
⁠Where the flyin’-fishes play,
⁠An’ the dawn comes up like thunder out China ‘crost the Bay!”

Flappy linked China and Africa and was even touted as an ambassador for one of China’s most prominent foreign policy priorities – the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, revitalising the traditional trade links between China and that great continent.

Over time, Flappy’s following grew and grew, with media articles about the Beijing Cuckoo Project in the Beijing Evening News, Beijing Science and Technology Magazine, Xinhua (more than a million hits online), Times of India, Hindustan Times, Daily News and Analysis (DNA) India, African Times, The Diplomat, The World of Chinese, GBTimes (Russia), BBC Wildlife Magazine and many more, including of course the front page of The New York Times (brilliantly titled “Cynical avian freeloader wins some respect”).

As recently as last week, her following in China multiplied thousands-fold after prominent bloggers enthused about her journey online, prompting three more media articles, including the one below in Beijing’s most popular newspaper, the Beijing Youth Daily.

The Beijing Tourism Board published a note to welcome Flappy to Beijing and a partially-sighted artist created the wonderful picture below to celebrate Flappy’s migration.

The reach of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams.

I know many scientists baulk at the thought of emotional attachments to their study subjects and, whilst I understand that perspective, I find it impossible not to feel a connection to this remarkable bird.  In fact, I actively encourage it.  If we are to stem the human-induced rate of species extinction and habitat loss, conservationists must get better at reaching beyond their own circles to enthuse more people about the wonders of the natural world.  Technology is opening up a new era of discovery and it’s an unprecedented opportunity to involve the public in science and thus engage a new generation of people about the natural world.  In my view, a good scientist is one who views public engagement as an essential part of his or her work.

Flappy has certainly more than played her part, connecting millions of people to migratory birds and if just one of those people is, or goes on to be, in a position of power and makes a decision that takes into account migratory birds and their habitats, it will be an incredible legacy for a remarkable bird.

With thanks to Chris Buckley, I end this celebration of Flappy’s life with some words from a poem, “The Death of The Bird” by A.D. Hope.  The full text can be found here but the poem begins:

“For every bird there is this last migration…”

and ends:

“And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,

And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,

And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice, 

Receives the tiny burden of her death.”


RIP Flappy.


This map shows Flappy’s movements since being fitted with a satellite tag in May 2016. Her 2018 spring migration is in bold pink and the black dot depicts the location of the final transmission from her tag.


Title image: Flappy McFlapperson, a female Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) fitted with a satellite tag at Cuihu Urban Wetland, Beijing, on 24 May 2016.  Died 14 or 15 May 2018 in Myanmar, c100km north of Mandalay.  Age unknown.  RIP.




永别, Flappy !

 Terry Townshend 生地行 今天

“For every bird there is this last migration…”

“…And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,

And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,

And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,

Receives the tiny burden of her death.”

-“The Death of The Bird” 

by A.D. Hope


题图:Flappy McFlapperson,雌性大杜鹃(Cuculus canorus),2016年5月24日在北京翠湖湿地公园佩戴卫星标识。死于2018年5月14或15日,缅甸曼德勒以北100公里处。年龄未知。安息。


该信号是5月14日以来一系列信号的最后一个,它显示了两条重要的信息:第一,温度波动增加,第二,电池电量快速消耗。第一个信息很重要;一只健康的鸟自身体温会抵消环境温度的日夜波动,也就是说仪器的温度会保持相对恒定。温度的显著波动是情况恶化的迹象。电池耗尽的信息本身并不一定是坏事,但结合温度数据后,它增加了问题存在的可能。虽然理论上讲,如果标识脱离身体,也可能出现以上情况,但考虑到标识固定得十分牢固,这种情况不太可能。很不幸,结论必然是Flappy McFlapperson在2018年5月14日至15日的某个夜晚中消失了



毫不夸张地说,Flappy McFlapperson,或者我们亲切的称它为“Flappy”,将牵动全球数十万人甚至数百万人的思念。

在北京杜鹃项目中,2016年5月24日,北京北部翠湖城市湿地,我们给第一只雌性杜鹃带上了卫星标识。该项目由北京野生动物救护中心(BWRRC)、英国鸟类基金会(BTO)和北京观鸟(Birding Beijing)合作开展,并得到英国鸟类慈善信托基金(British Birds Charitable Trust)、东方鸟类俱乐部(riental Bird Club)、伦敦动物学会(Zoological Society of London)和国际鸟盟(BirdLife International)的支持。该项目旨在将科学发现与公众参与结合起来。首先,我们希望了解东亚的杜鹃的越冬地点以其迁徙过程;第二,我们希望让公众了解北京鸟类惊人的迁徙过程(BTO已经开展了追踪英国杜鹃的项目,证实这些偶像般的鸟类可以吸引大众关注鸟类迁徙科学)。

在给这只雌性杜鹃装上标识后不久,北京德威国际学校的学生们提出要给它取个名字,经过投票表决,“Flappy McFlapperson”的故事开启了。



Flappy即将开始一段惊人的旅程,她要一路从北京飞到非洲,路过蒙古国北部Onon Balj盆地国家公园繁殖。她带着中国乃至全世界许多人的关注,其中多数人刚刚发掘对候鸟的兴趣。





Flappy是一位大使她将长城与泰姬陵、斋浦尔与摩加迪沙、翠湖湿地公园与阿拉伯海相连。正如Twitter上一位忠实的粉丝所说,她最近的位置——也许是它最终的位置——曼德勒(Mandalay)以北约100公里,伊洛瓦底江以东约30公里的地方,让人想起Rudyard Kipling的“通往曼德勒之路”(Road to Mandalay),最后一句是:





Flappy 将中国与非洲联系起来,甚至被称为“一带一路”政策的代表,振兴中国与非洲大陆之间的传统贸易联系。

随着时间的推移,Flappy 的关注度越来越高,《北京科技杂志》、《新华社》(超过一百万次在线点击)、《印度时报》、《印度斯坦时报》、《印度每日新闻和分析(DNA)》、《非洲时报》、《外交官》、《汉语世界》,《GBTimes》(俄罗斯),《BBC野生动物杂志》等争相对北京杜鹃项目进行报道,《纽约时报》还刊出头版,标题为《愤世的不速之客赢回一些尊重》。






感谢Chris Buckley,我引用A.D.霍普的诗《鸟逝》(The Death of The Bird)结束对Flappy的纪念。这首诗开头写到:


















In Celebration of Shorebirds

In June 2017 the Hebei Provincial Forestry Department, Hebei Luannan County Government, the Paulson Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the aim of protecting one of the most important sites along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – Nanpu coastal wetland, near Tangshan in Hebei Province.  Nanpu is a site Beijing-based birders know well.  The spectacular concentrations of shorebirds, not to mention the world-class visible migration of passerines, makes it one of the best birding sites within easy reach of the capital.

Red Knot is one of the species for which Nanpu is a vital stopover site.

That agreement was one of a series of recent positive announcements from China about the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  In early 2017, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  I reported at the time that, although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government.  And, should these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

More recently, in January 2018, the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on all ‘business-related’ land reclamation along China’s coast and issued an order to restore illegally-reclaimed land.  Already, at Yancheng, sea-walls are being removed to allow the tide once again to feed the mudflats.  In March 2018, a major government reorganisation saw environment and biodiversity elevated as government priorities and management of all protected areas being brought under one ministry.  These developments are enough to put a smile on even the most pessimistic conservationist’s face!

And so it was with a spring in my step that last weekend I was fortunate to participate in a visit to Nanpu with a delegation that consisted of the mightily impressive, and growing, group of scientists – both Chinese and international – working to study shorebirds along the flyway and some VIPs including Hank and Wendy Paulson of The Paulson Institute and Pulitizer-nominated writer Scott Weidensaul.

It was such a joy to see so many young and extremely capable Chinese scientists – Zhu Bingrun, Lei Ming, Mu Tong to name a few – contributing such a huge amount to our knowledge about the importance to migratory birds of the intertidal mudflats and salt ponds and, being led by Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, they are in great hands.

As much as the scientific data is necessary to help make the case for conservation, it is not sufficient.  Also needed is a champion who can make the case at senior levels of government and that’s where Hank and Wendy Paulson come into their own.  With Hank’s unrivalled experience and access in China, underpinned by the work of his institute, including the Coastal Wetlands Blueprint Project, they have been instrumental in engaging with local governors and the Chinese leadership about the importance of the intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and convincing them of their value.  Together, it’s a formidable team.

2016-04-29 Asian Dowitchers, Nanpu
Asian Dowitcher is one of the species for which Nanpu is an important staging site.

We enjoyed so many stimulating discussions about the latest research, the progress of the work to create Nanpu Nature Reserve and, of course, shorebirds!  And thanks to the advice of the Aussie shorebird researchers (Chris Hassall, Adrian Boyle and Matt Slaymaker are back for their 10th year to monitor the Australian-banded birds!), we were on site in perfect time to witness the most amazing spectacle of RED and GREAT KNOTS commuting from their roosting sites in the ponds to the newly-exposed mud on the falling tide.  Seeing these shorebirds, most of which were in full breeding plumage, was something to behold and there were gasps of awe as the flocks, sometimes numbering thousands of birds, wheeled around before settling just a few metres in front of us in stunning early morning light.  It was the perfect reminder of just why protecting these mudflats is so important – the world would be a much poorer place without these incredible travellers.

There is no doubt that the intertidal mudflats are a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and they have the potential to attract thousands of visitors each year, as well as endearing a sense of pride for local people and, indeed, the whole country.  With national level policy seemingly moving in the right direction, let’s hope the local progress at Nanpu will act as an example for other sites along the Flyway.  Huge thanks to Hank and Wendy Paulson, Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, Scott Weidensaul, Zhu Bingrun, Mu Tong, Lei Ming, Wang Jianmin, Dietmar Grimm, Shi Jianbin, Rose Niu, Adrian Boyle, Chris Hassell, Matt Slaymaker and Kathrine Leung for making it such an enjoyable trip!

Video: RED and GREAT KNOTS at Nanpu, May 2018.


Title image: (l-r) Scott Wiedensaul, Professor Zhang Zhengwang, Professor Theunis Piersma, Wendy Paulson, Hank Paulson, Terry Townshend.  Photo by Zhu Bingrun.


About Nanpu

Located in Luannan County of Hebei Province, Nanpu wetland consists of natural intertidal mudflats, aquaculture ponds, and salt pans. Its unique geographic location and wetland resources make it one of the most important stopover sites for migratory water birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), including rare and endangered species such as Red Knot, Great Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and Nordmann’s Greenshank.  Each year, as many as 350,000 water birds stage and refuel here.  Among the water birds at the Nanpu wetland, the population of twenty-two species exceeds one percent of their global population sizes or their population sizes along the EAAF, making it a wetland of international importance according to criteria determined by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation of wetlands and their resources.

Nanpu wetland is facing many threats, such as reclamation, over-fishing and invasion of spartina, a rapidly spreading grass that suffocates intertidal ecosystems.  Studies show that there has been a steady decrease in population of some migratory water birds that depend highly on Nanpu wetland for refueling. For instance, over the past decade, the population of Red Knots that overwinter in New Zealand and Australia along the EAAF has been declining at an annual rate of nine percent. IUCN claims that if no further conservation measures are taken, few Red Knots might remain ten years from now.


Taking Care of the Birds

I’m on my way back to Beijing from the most inspirational meeting about birds I’ve ever witnessed. This week in Abu Dhabi I met birders, conservationists, scientists, government representatives, NGOs and many more people from an array of backgrounds and cultures who share a single passion – for migratory birds.

Convened by BirdLife International and hosted by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, the “Summit for the Flyways” was designed to address the decline in migratory bird populations on all of the world’s flyways, from the Eastern Pacific to East Asia-Australasia and everywhere in between. On all these migratory routes, populations of migratory birds are declining and, according to the “State of the World’s Birds“, launched at the Summit, 1 in 8 of the world’s bird species is at risk of extinction. However, alongside that wake-up call, there was a strong message of hope: conservation works!

Vivian Fu and Yong Ding-Li, two of Asia’s brightest stars in bird conservation, enjoy an early morning birding walk during the Summit of the Flyways.

The Summit showcased inspirational examples of how, when resources are available, bird conservation can be successful.  And passionate people – through local communities and champions – are at the heart of successful efforts to protect birds.  Given that migratory birds respect no borders, the BirdLife family – with more than 120 national partners around the world – is uniquely placed to coordinate efforts to save migratory birds along the flyways.

Alongside other members of the BirdLife Advisory Group, I was honoured to support Patricia Zurita, BirdLife’s CEO, to convene more than ten international donors with a view to creating a “Global Alliance for Bird Conservation Action” and, with commitments secured from China’s Qiaonyu Foundation and the US’s National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to host further meetings in 2018 to broaden the alliance, it looks as if we’re well on the way to a step-change in funding for global bird conservation.

Tom Lovejoy, “The Godfather of Biodiversity”, with representatives of the Qiaonyu Foundation.

As Thomas Lovejoy said at the opening of the meeting – “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world” and today I think we can say that, although there is still a huge amount to do to halt and reverse their decline, the future of migratory birds is a little brighter.

See the outcome declaration here.

Summit for the Flyways: Progress in China

As I write this, we’re beginning day two of the Summit for the Flyways in Abu Dhabi and, although there will be a formal outcome statement at the end of day three, I wanted to emphasise what, for me, was the highlight of day one – the outline of progress in China presented by Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University.

Readers of Birding Beijing will have heard about some of the recent progress, including the ban on land reclamation and the government reorganisation that puts all protected areas under one agency.  However, it’s one thing to hear about changes from an enthusiastic and optimistic foreigner but quite another to hear about it directly from a Chinese academic.

The key slide is below.

For clarity, the text reads:

National Policy Change
1. All Reclamation Projects Suspended
2. Zero Loss of Nature Wetlands
3. Wetland Conservation and Restoration Order
4. Leadership Accountability for Wetland Loss
5. Nomination of World Heritage Sites

New Ministry
Ministry of Natural Resources
State Administration for Forestry and Grassland
National Park Administration

It’s hard to overestimate the significance, and pace, of these changes, all aligned with Xi Jinping’s vision of “ecological civilisation” as set out in the manifesto for his second term presented last year.  And whilst implementation is, of course, the real test, putting in place the right policies is a fundamental first step.  With China hosting the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020, the time when new targets for conserving and celebrating nature are due to be designed, this vast country with unique natural heritage is seemingly getting its house in order and setting an example.


Summit for the Flyways

I’m writing this from Abu Dhabi at the opening of BirdLife International “Summit for the Flyways” which, from 23-26 April, brings together some of the world’s greatest bird scientists, conservationists, communicators and policy influencers to address one question: how do we best tackle the threats facing migratory birds?

Migratory birds have a hard life. To get to where they need to be – to breed and find food and shelter – they must run the gauntlet of illegal hunting/killing, insensitively placed wind turbines, pollution and a panoply of other threats. And these threats are only increasing.

The Beijing Cuckoo undertakes a phenomenal migration, linking China’s capital with Mozambique and southeastern Africa, but is facing threats including habitat loss, changes in agricultural practices and climate change. 

To underpin the Summit, BirdLife International has released a key publication: The State of the World’s Birds 2018.  This important and comprehensive report provides a snapshot of the health of not only the world’s birds, but the ecosystems they represent.  It’s described as “taking the pulse of the planet”.

State of the World’s Birds shows that many of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in dire straits. At least 40% of these species are in decline, and one in eight bird species is globally threatened with extinction.  It’s a wake-up call.

2011-09-05 Far Eastern Curlew
The Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) is one of several shorebird species in danger of extinction.

Many bird species known for being widespread and common are now at risk of extinction; the Snowy Owl, Atlantic Puffin, Grey Parrot and European Turtle-dove are among the instantly recognisable bird species that are now threatened with extinction due to human-driven factors such as climate change, illegal hunting and overfishing.  Overall, agriculture (the loss of habitat from agricultural expansion, as well as agricultural intensification) is the greatest driver of bird extinction worldwide.

The continued deterioration of the world’s birds is a major concern for the health of our planet; birds provide a wide variety of ecosystem services, such as controlling insect pest populations, and dispersing plant seeds. Vultures, one of the most threatened bird groups, provide crucial sanitary services across South Asia and Africa through the disposal of animal carcasses.

Here are some more of the publication’s key findings:

The Yellow-breasted Bunting could become the next Passenger Pigeon

Many people are familiar with the cautionary tale of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, a bird that once numbered billions in North America, and that was driven to extinction by 1914 through excessive hunting and habitat destruction. Sadly, history appears to be repeating itself.

Until recently, the Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola was one of Eurasia’s most abundant bird species, breeding across the northern Palaearctic from Finland to Japan. However, since 1980, its population has declined by 90%, while its range has contracted by 5,000 km, and BirdLife has now assessed the species as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List – meaning that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction. Although now officially banned, large-scale hunting of this bird, particularly in China, continues – in 2001, an estimated one million buntings, known colloquially as ‘the rice bird’, were consumed in China’s Guangdong province alone and, in November 2017 they were found for sale on China’s online shopping website, Taobao.

The European Turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur was once a familiar migrant to Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East from the Sahel zone of Africa. Because of habitat loss and hunting, the species is now declining across its range, especially in Western Europe, and its conservation status has recently been re-classified as Vulnerable to extinction.

The Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus is surely one of the most widely recognised birds in the world. It is also widespread, occurring throughout the Arctic tundra of the Northern Hemisphere and, in Asia, wintering as far south as northern China. Yet, the species is experiencing a rapid decline, most likely connected to climate change: changes to snowmelt and snow cover can affect the availability and distribution of prey. The species has recently been categorised as Vulnerable.

In the marine realm, the depletion of fish populations through overfishing and climate change has caused rapid declines in widespread and much-loved seabirds such as Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla—both are now considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Overall threats to the world’s birds

Human actions are responsible for most threats to birds. Foremost among these threats are: agricultural expansion and intensification, which impacts 1,091 globally threatened birds (74%); logging, affecting 734 species (50%); invasive alien species, which threaten 578 (39%) species; and hunting and trapping, which put 517 (35%) species at risk. Climate change represents an emerging and increasingly serious threat—currently affecting 33% of globally threatened species—and one that often exacerbates existing threats.

A powerful example of unsustainable agricultural practices, neurotoxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids are proving highly detrimental to birds. One recent study from the USA found that migrating White-crowned Sparrows Zonotrichia leucophrys exposed to neonicotinoids lost a quarter of their body mass and fat stores. The neurotoxin also impaired the birds’ migratory orientation.

Importantly, as well as the wake-up call about the decline in many bird species, the report also provides a message of hope, showing that conservation works and can change the fortunes of species in trouble.

At least 25 bird species would have gone extinct without conservation action over recent decades. These include the Seychelles White-eye Zosterops modestus, the Echo Parakeet Psittacula eques and the Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina – all species confined to oceanic islands.

These messages are providing the backdrop to the Summit for the Flyways and the challenge now is to design a coordinated response across the flyways including governments, international organisations, NGOs, civil society and business.

In that context, it’s heartening to see so many people representing countries along all the major flyways, from China, Mongolia and Australia in the East Asian Australasian Flyway to the Netherlands, UK, North Africa in the Eurasian-African Flyway and the Americas in the west.  From China specifically, Professor Lei Guangchun from Beijing Forestry University is here and will be speaking about the recent positive changes in policy in China.

It promises to be an inspirational few days and, I hope, a catalyst for scaling up both awareness and conservation action to protect these great avian travellers and the ecosystems to which they belong.