2016: What A Year!

Looking out of my apartment window on the first day of 2017, a blanket of toxic smog seems to drain all colour out of life and the perennial question question pops into my head – why do I live in such a polluted, congested place?

Header image: the view from my apartment at 1200 on 1 January 2017

The answer, of course, is the excitement and adventure of living in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.  And when one considers the positives – the stunning biodiversity, the opportunity for discovery, the potential to make a difference and the wonderful people – the negatives are seen in context and they become far more tolerable.

Looking back, 2016 has been an astonishing year with many highlights, thankfully few lowlights, and progress made in some key conservation issues.  Together, they give me a genuine sense of optimism for the future.

January began with the unexpected discovery, by two young Beijing birders, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of a small flock of the “Endangered” Jankowski’s Buntings at Miyun Reservoir.  This was the first record of Jankowski’s Bunting in Beijing since 1941 and, given the precipitous decline in the population of this poorly known species, a most unexpected find.  The fact they were found by young Chinese is testament to the growing community of talented young birders in Beijing.  There are now more than 200 members of the Birding Beijing WeChat group, in which sightings and other bird-related issues are discussed and shared. Huge credit must go to world-class birders such as Paul Holt and Per Alström who have been generous in sharing their knowledge of Chinese birds with the group. As well as the expanding WeChat group, there are now more than 400 members of the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society (up from 300 in the last 12 months).  So, although starting from a low baseline, the increasing membership, together with the increase in the number of local birdwatching societies, such as in Zigong in Sichuan, and the development of international birding festivals, such as in Lushun, Dalian, shows that there is the beginning of an upsurge in the number of young people interested in birdwatching.  That is a positive sign for the future of China’s rich and unique avifauna.

In tandem with the growth in birding is the emergence of a number of organisations dedicated to environmental education across China.  Given the relative lack of environment in the Chinese State Curriculum, there is high demand amongst many parents for their children to develop a connection with nature.  I’m fortunate to work with one such organisation – EcoAction – set up and run by dynamic Sichuan lady, Luo Peng.    With a birding club for Beijing school kids, a pilot ‘environmental curriculum’ in two of Beijing’s State Schools and bespoke sustainable ecotourism trips to nature reserves for families and schools, Peng deserves great credit for her energy and vision in helping to change the way people interact with the environment.  I am looking forward to working with her much more in 2017.

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Luo Peng in her element – with local children in Hainan

After the boon of seeing Jankowski’s Buntings in Beijing, a lowlight in late January was the desperately sad passing of a much-loved mentor and friend, the inspirational Martin Garner.  Martin fought a brave and typically dignified and open, battle with cancer.  I feel enormously lucky to have met Martin and to have corresponded with him on many birding-related issues.  His wisdom, positivity and selfless outlook on life will be missed for years to come and his influence continues to run through everything I do.

Much of the early part of the spring was spent making the arrangements for what has been, for me, the highlight of the year – The Beijing Cuckoo Project. Following the success of the Beijing Swift Project, the results of which proved for the first time that Swifts from Beijing winter in southern Africa, the obvious next step was to replicate the British Trust for Ornithology’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China.  We needed to find Chinese partners, secure the necessary permissions, raise funds to pay for the transmitters and satellite services, and make the logistical arrangements for the visit of “Team Cuckoo”.  At the end of May, everything was set and the international team arrived in Beijing.  Together with the local team, we caught and fitted transmitters to five Common Cuckoos, subsequently named by Beijing schoolchildren and followed via a dedicated webpage and on social media.  We could not have wished for a better result.  Three of the five are now in Africa,  after making incredible journeys of up to 12,500km since being fitted with their transmitters, including crossing the Arabian Sea.  As of 1 January, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan are in Tanzania and Skybomb Bolt is in Mozambique.

Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
Skybomb Bolt, the first Beijing Cuckoo to make landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
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The migration routes, and current positions, of the Beijing Cuckoos, 1 January 2017.
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Pupils at Dulwich International School broke into spontaneous applause after hearing that SKYBOMB BOLT had made it to Africa…

This Beijing Cuckoo Project has combined groundbreaking science with public engagement.  With articles in Xinhua (China’s largest news agency), Beijing Youth Daily, China Daily, Beijing Science and Technology Daily, India Times, African Times and even the front page of the New York Times, these amazing birds have become, undoubtedly, the most famous cuckoos ever!  Add the engagement with schools, not only in Beijing but also in other parts of China, and the reach and impact of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams.  I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, especially the Chinese partners – the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, China Birdwatching Society and the staff at the tagging locations (Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu) – who have all been brilliant, as well as the BTO’s Andy Clements and Chris Hewson for their vision and sharing of expertise and the sponsors – Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International.  Finally, a big thank you to “Team Cuckoo”: Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Geert De Smet, Gie Goris and Rob Jolliffe.  You can follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos here.  All being well, Flappy, Meng and Skybomb will return to Beijing by the end of May.

In 2017 we are planning to expand the Beijing Cuckoo Project to become the CHINA Cuckoo Project, which will involve tagging cuckoos in different locations across the country.  More on that soon.

As well as being privileged to have been part of such a groundbreaking project, I have been fortunate to be involved with some exciting progress on some of the highest priority conservation issues, working with so many brilliant people, including Vivian Fu and Simba Chan at Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife.  The plight of shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is well-known, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper the “poster species” of conservation efforts to try to save what remains of the globally important intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  More than 70% of these vital stopover sites have been destroyed already through land reclamations and much of the remaining area is slated for future reclamation projects.   Scientists, including an ever greater number of young Chinese such as Zhu Bingrun, now have the evidence to show that the population declines of many shorebird species, some of which are now classified as “Endangered”, can be attributed in large part to the destruction of the vital stopover sites in the Yellow Sea.  After meeting world-leading shorebird expert, Professor Theunis Piersma, in Beijing in May and arranging for him to address Beijing-based birders with a compelling lecture, it’s been a pleasure to support the efforts of international organisations such as BirdLife International, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), led by Spike Millington, IUCN, UNDP and The Paulson Institute as well as local NGOs such as Save Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 山水 (ShanShui) in their interactions with the Chinese government to try to encourage greater protection for, and sustainable management of, the remaining intertidal sites.  One of the pillars of the conservation strategy is to nominate the most important sites as a joint World Heritage Site (WHS) involving China and the Koreas (both North and South).  This would have the advantage of raising awareness of the importance of these sites to those in the highest levels of government and also requiring greater protection and management of the sites.  I am pleased to say that, due to the hard work of these organisations, much progress has been made and the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MoHURD), the ministry responsible for WHS nominations, is now positively taking forward the suggestion and working on the technical papers required to make a submission to the State Council for formal nomination.  Special mention should be made of John MacKinnon, whose expertise, network of contacts in China and enthusiasm has made a big difference, to Nicola Crockford of RSPB and Wang Songlin of BirdLife International for their diplomatic work to create the conditions for the WHS issue to come to the fore, to David Melville, who recently delivered a compelling presentation covering a lifetime of shorebird study, to MoHURD at a workshop convened by ShanShui, and to Hank Paulson who, through the publication of the Paulson Institute’s “Blueprint Project” and his personal engagement at a very senior level with Provincial governors, has secured a commitment from the Governor of Hebei Province to protect the sites in his Province highlighted in the Blueprint.  These are significant advances that, although far from securing the future of China’s intertidal mudflats, have significantly improved the odds of doing so.

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Professor Theunis Piersma delivers his lecture to Beijing-based birders at The Bookworm, Beijing, in May 2016.

China’s east coast hosts the world’s most impressive bird migration, known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway.  That flyway consists of not only shorebirds but also many land birds and it is this concentration of migratory birds every spring and autumn that attracts not only birders but also poachers.  This year has seen several horrific media stories about the illegal trapping of birds on an industrial scale, primarily to supply the restaurant trade in southern China where wild birds are considered a delicacy.  Illegal trapping is thought to be the primary cause of the precipitous decline in the population of, among others, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially classified as Endangered.

A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting in a cage adjacent to some illegal nets, designed to act as a lure.  Now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

It would be easy to be depressed by such incidents but I believe there are two developments that provide optimism for the future.  First, although the legal framework is far from watertight, the authorities are now acting, the incidents are being reported in the media and the culprits are receiving, at least in the largest scale cases, heavy punishments.  And second, these cases are being uncovered by volunteers, groups of mostly young people that spend their free time – weekends and days off during weekdays – specifically looking for illegal nets and poachers at migration hotspots.  They work with law enforcement to catch the culprits and destroy their tools of the trade.  These people are heroes and, although at present it’s still easy for poachers to purchase online mist-nets and other tools used for poaching (there are ongoing efforts to change this), it’s a harder operating environment for them than in the past.  Big change doesn’t happen overnight but the combination of greater law enforcement, citizen action and media coverage are all helping to ensure that, with continued effort and strengthening of the legal framework, illegal trapping of migratory birds in China is on borrowed time.

Another conservation issue on which progress has been made is the plight of Baer’s Pochard.  The population of this Critically Endangered duck has declined dramatically in the last few decades, the reasons for which are largely unknown.  However, after 2016 there is much to be optimistic about.  First, there are now dedicated groups studying Baer’s Pochard in China, including population surveys, study of breeding ecology and contributing to an international action plan to save the species.  These groups are working with the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, EAAFP and others to build a knowledge base about the species, raise awareness and develop concrete steps to conserve the species at its remaining strongholds.  A record count of 293 birds in December at the most important known breeding site in Hebei Province (Paul Holt and Li Qingxin) is a brilliant end to a year that will, hopefully, be a turning point for this species.

On a personal level I was extremely lucky, alongside Marie, to experience a ‘once in a lifetime’ encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai and, just a few days later, two Snow Leopards.  Certainly two of my most cherished encounters with wildlife.

So, as I glance out of my window again, I realise that a few days of smog are a small price to pay to be part of the birding and conservation community in China.  As 2017 begins, I have a spring in my step.

Rare And Scarce Birds In Beijing 2016

2016 has been another year of surprise and discovery in Beijing.  With eight new species recorded, and two further new records coming to light from previous years, the number of species reliably recorded in the capital now stands at 480, cementing Beijing’s position as one of the best major capital cities in the world for birding.

The year started with the brilliant discovery, by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of wintering JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS (Emberiza jankowskii) at Miyun Reservoir.  After the initial sighting and photograph of a single bird, subsequent visits revealed that up to 13 were present.  This group of buntings was enjoyed by many birders, both Beijing-based and visiting, until mid-March when access to the reservoir was forbidden following a major fire in the area.  It is not known for how long they stayed but, on later visits (the last was apparently on the 19 March) at least one of the males was heard in sub-song.  Although not a first record of this species in Beijing, given the “Endangered” status of Jankowksi’s Bunting, it was certainly a most unexpected find.  It was the third record of this species in the capital, following the collection of two individuals in February and March 1941 (now in the NHM Tring).  An article about these birds was published in Birding Asia, the magazine of the Oriental Bird Club.

The next major find was a REDWING (Turdus iliacus), found by a local photographer (一路摄, Yīlù shè) in the Botanical Gardens on 6 April.  Often frustratingly elusive, it was last seen on 14 April.  The first record of this species in Beijing & indeed anywhere in eastern China.

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Beijing’s first REDWING (Turdus iliacus), Botanical Gardens.  Photo by Yan Shen.

On 17 April, a COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula) at Ma Chang (Guan Xueyan and Wen Hui) was possibly only the 4th record from the capital.

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On 23 April a BESRA (Accipiter virgatus) was photographed at Baiwangshan (Du Songhan et al). Possibly only the second record of this difficult to identify species. Photo below by Sun Zhiguang.

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The status of BESRA in Beijing is unclear, given the difficulty of separating it from the much more common JAPANESE SPARROWHAWK. This appears to be the second documented record.

May, usually one of the best months for finding rarities, saw just one new record – a female SLATY BUNTING (Emberiza siemsseni) at the Summer Palace found by Jesper Hornskov – and two second records.  First, a GREY-HEADED CANARY-FLYCATCHER (Culicicapa ceylonensis) at Lingshan found by Professor Susanne Åkesson and the international team visiting to assist with the Beijing Swift and Cuckoo Projects.  And second, a male NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER (Ficedula narcissina) on the Wenyu River (郝建国, Hǎo jiànguó)

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This first summer male NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER was the second documented record for Beijing (郝建国, Hǎo jiànguó)

June produced three new records and a second record.  First, a PALLAS’S FISH EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) spent several days at Yeyahu NR, where it was photographed by Fang Chun, one of the nature reserve staff on 7th June.  Although there is a historical & unconfirmed report of this species in the capital, this was the first to be documented.

Second, on 10 June, a singing BROWNISH-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Cettia fortipes) at Baihuashan, sound-recorded by Jan-Erik Nilsen.  The first documented record.

Finally, on 17th June at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, Terry Townshend stumbled across a singing GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Turdus boulboul).  A few days later, at least three were heard in the same area, suggesting that there is probably a small breeding population.  This species was previously thought to be a largely Himalayan bird, with the nearest breeding grounds in southwest China, and was certainly not on the radar as a potential vagrant in Beijing, let alone a probable breeding bird.  Details here.

A few days later, on 23 June, Paul Holt found a singing male SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER (Ficedula tricolor) at Lingshan, the second record of this species following one found by Ben Wielstra in the grounds of Tsinghua University in September 2015.

July and August were unremarkable and it was 29 September when Paul Holt  and Wang Qingyu found the next significant bird – a SIBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF (Phylloscopus collybita tristis) at Yeyahu (PH), the second documented record for the capital.

Colm Moore was rewarded for his loyalty to Shahe Reservoir when, on 22 October, he found a SWINHOE’S RAIL.  Seen briefly, but well, this was the fourth record for Beijing, with all records coming since 2014, a statistic that must be due to an increase in the number of birders and greater observer awareness rather than a change of its status in the wild (it is officially classified as “Vulnerable” with the population thought to be in decline).

A week later, on 29 October, Jesper Hornskov reported a HOODED CROW (Corvus cornix) close to Beijing Capital International Airport.  This is the first record of this species in Beijing and, we think, all of eastern China.

The next day, Beijing’s first POMARINE SKUA (Stercorarius pomarinus), a juvenile, was photographed at the ‘Rubber dam’ near Yanqing and stayed until at least 2 November (Zhang Weimin & Yang Yuhe).

November was another productive month with the discovery, by photographers, of a small flock of REED PARROTBILLS (Paradoxornis heudei) at Wanping Hu in western Beijing (per Mr. Xu).  With breeding populations to the south in Hebei Province and to the east in coastal Hebei/Tianjin, this species was high up on the list of potential discoveries in Beijing but, despite its predictability, the group of at least seven birds proved extremely popular. They came hot on the heels of a widely seen bird in the Olympic Forest Park on the 8 June 2016. That city centre bird was believed, at the time, to have been an escape or deliberate release. But in the advent of the November sightings perhaps not…

On 12th December Beijing’s second LAMMERGEIER (Gypaetus barbatus), a juvenile, was watched by Paul Holt and Terry Townshend at head height as it drifted by the communications tower at Lingshan before slowly heading northwest and into Hebei.  It follows the first record from sometime in February 2008 at Shidu.

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Beijing’s second LAMMERGEIER drifted over Lingshan on 12 December 2016.

The following day, Paul Holt found a male SCALY-SIDED MERGANSER (Mergus squamatus) among a group of Common Mergansers at Huairou Reservoir.  With only four previous records, this was a stunning find.  One could even call it a “Christmas Quacker” (groan).

In addition to the new species found in 2016, two further records of new species came to light.  First, a LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus), photographed at Yeyahu on 19 October 2009 (Yan Xiaoqin), was reported by Li Xiaomai on the 6 May 2016 and an ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH (Zoothera citrina) that was photographed in Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven) on the 22 May 2011 by 青花收藏. See here.  Thanks to Huang Hanchen for uncovering this superb record.

All in all, a brilliant year for birding in Beijing, illustrating just how much we are still learning about the birds of China’s capital city.  My personal favourite?  Given their precarious status, the appearance of the flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS at Miyun Reservoir ranks, for me, as the best and most unexpected record of the year.  Big congratulations to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for their brilliant find.

Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI'S BUNTING
Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING

Big thanks to Paul Holt & Huang Hanchen for contributing significantly to this summary and to all Beijing-based birders who have reported sightings throughout the year, whatever the status of the species involved.  Together, we are slowly but surely gaining a better understanding of the birds of China’s capital city.

Finally, although not in Beijing, it’s worth mentioning the record count of the “Critically Endangered” BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri) from Hengshui Hu, in neighbouring Hebei Province. An astonishing 293 were counted on 9 December by Paul Holt and Li Qingxin.  That’s a positive note on which to end a remarkable year.

LAMMERGEIER in Beijing

Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, is probably my favourite birding site in the capital.  It’s one of those sites where, walking around, it feels as if almost anything could turn up.  That feeling is not irrational.  With wintering PRZEWALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART, Beijing’s first LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER, breeding GREENISH WARBLERS, ALSTROM’S WARBLERS, SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHERS, ‘Gansu’ RED-FLANKED BLUETAILS and GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS all discovered in the last few years, expectation is high whatever the season.

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.
PRZEVALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART, Sunday 23 February 2014.  My favourite discovery at Lingshan.

My most recent visit was with Paul Holt on Monday.  On arrival it was cold, breezy and seemingly almost birdless.  Around the derelict buildings, at the highest point of the road, our hopes of Asian Rosy Finch drew a blank.  And there were no birds at all on the scree slopes..  However, almost the first bird we saw was a good one – a sibiricus GREAT GREY SHRIKE.  Scarce in Beijing, Lingshan in winter is certainly the best site for this monochrome predator.  A check of the sheltered side valley a little lower down was more productive, with three species of rosefinch – PALLAS’S, CHINESE BEAUTIFUL and LONG-TAILED.  The highlight here was a count of 7 LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES of the central China lepidus subspecies, a form only discovered in Beijing two winters ago. One male, in particular, showed spectacularly well.

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Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp lepidus, Lingshan, 12 December 2016
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One of the male Long-tailed Rosefinches ssp lepidus, Lingshan, 12 December 2016
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Female Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp lepidus, Lingshan, 12 December 2016

We walked the old road which was also relatively quiet with only one WHITE-WINGED REDSTART (a male) and an owl sp (SHORT-EARED or LONG-EARED), flushed by Paul and seen only briefly.

We decided to try an area of scrub further up the mountain and, after a 20-minute walk, we discovered four more lepidus LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES and flushed a EURASIAN WOODCOCK, scarce in Beijing especially in winter.  We headed back to the car, talking about how great it was to see so many rosefinches and feeling happy with the day..

As we started to drive back to the road, a large raptor drifted past the communications tower… right at that moment, the jizz reminded me a little of Black Kite – long tail and lazy flight – but this bird was certainly not that species, it was huge!  Paul immediately shouted an expletive followed by “juvenile Lammergeier”.  Wow.  We jumped out of the car and I grabbed my camera to take a few record shots..  As it drifted behind a hill we bundled back into the car and made our way back to the road to try to see it again.. We rounded the bend just before the road descends on the Hebei side and saw it again, this time at eye-level as it drifted north in the company of several LARGE-BILLED CROWS.  The fact that we initially though the crows were RED-BILLED CHOUGHS gives an indication of its size.  We watched as this magnificent bird of prey banked around and then flew directly over our heads before slowly heading northwest.  What an encounter!

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Juvenile Lammergeier, Lingshan, 12 December 2016. With the dark hood and relatively dark underparts, the colouration of juveniles is different to adults. But that tail is unmistakeable!
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The Lingshan Lammergeier showed very well as it drifted from Beijing into neighbouring Hebei Province.
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Juvenile Lammergeier, Lingshan, 12 December 2016

With the nearest known breeding grounds on the Tibetan Plateau, more than 1,200km to the west, LAMMERGEIER is a bird I wasn’t expecting to see in Beijing.  As far as I know there is only one previous record from the capital, from Shidu, Fangshan District, in February 2008 (Wang Qin) so this is Beijing’s second.

Lingshan delivers again!

A PDF site guide to Lingshan, including travel directions and a map of the best sites, can be downloaded here.

The Birds of Dalian

When I first moved to China it wasn’t long before I discovered Tom Beeke’s excellent BirdForum thread about his sightings in and around Dalian, located in China’s northeast Liaoning Province.  Tom’s superb sightings, enthusiastically documented for all to see, were a big inspiration to me.  As a teacher at the Maple Leaf School in Jinshitan, he developed groundbreaking environmental education classes for his students and, somehow, found the time to write a bird book.

 “The Birds of Dalian” was first published in 2010 and the 2nd edition, in both English and Chinese, is now available, thanks to the support of Swarovski Optik and Zhu Lei for the Chinese translation.  The book covers 326 species and includes Tom’s photos of the various plumages of each species.

Tom writes:

“The Birds of Dalian was put together for the purpose of introducing local wildlife.  The goal of the project is to stir up conservation mindedness by showing the remarkable species that can be found in this area of Mainland China.  When people are aware of how many species live in and/or move through an area, they can then be aided in making informed decisions about the future of that area.  Why preserve this wetland?  Because there are over 200 species of birds that rely on it in one calendar year.  Why save this tidal mudflat?  Because there are over 200 species of birds that rely on it in one calendar year.  Why save this forested area?  Because there are over 200 species of birds that rely on it in one calendar year.  During my 12 years in China, I was surprised by how few people knew about the wonderful world of birds in their area.  China is remarkably rich, as far as birds are concerned.  Hopefully this book will help to prove this and help in some way to protect what is there.”
Hear hear, Tom.  To read more about the book, and to purchase a copy for only 150 Chinese Yuan (under GBP 20), follow this link.  Thoroughly recommended!

China Thanks India For Protecting Amur Falcons

As we track the Beijing Cuckoos from the Chinese capital all the way to Africa, we are learning that they take a remarkably similar route to another long-distance avian migrant, the Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis).

The Amur Falcon is one of the most beautiful and agile of all birds of prey.  It’s a spectacular aerial hunter that often causes one to gasp when seeing it wheeling in the sky as it hunts dragonflies and other flying insects.

A few years ago it came to light that Amur Falcons, on their way to Africa each autumn, congregated in Nagaland in northeast India.  The size of the gathering was on a staggering scale, estimated to be around 1 million birds.

The sight of up to a million Amur Falcons at a stopover site in Nagaland, India. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.
The sight of up to a million Amur Falcons at a stopover site in Nagaland, India. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.

Unfortunately, in 2012, it was revealed that hunting of Amur Falcons by the local people was also on a huge scale.  Staff at Conservation India had discovered that tens of thousands of migrating Amur Falcons were being illegally trapped on the roost at a reservoir at Doyang in Nagaland and then being taken to local markets alive, or killed and smoked, for sale as food.  What happened next is a major conservation success story.

In 2013, Dr Asad Rahmani, Director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) said: “From an estimated 100,000 falcons killed last year, none have been trapped in nets this year. The transformation is extraordinary and the change has come very quickly. But we also have to guard against this rapid change getting reversed. We needed to also set up solutions which are sustainable and of practical use to the community.”

As conservationists will know very well, it’s one thing to put a stop to illegal hunting in a single year, it’s another to sustain it.  That is why there has been so much work to engage the local communities, including providing alternative livelihoods.  One of the key elements of the public awareness campaign has been the project to track Amur Falcons, with individual birds named after local villages in Nagaland.

Just a few days ago, I received a note from Suresh Kumar of the Wildlife Institute of India who has just spent a few weeks in Nagaland.  He writes:

“This season was the initiation of a “New Chapter” in our efforts to further our understanding of this species and continue with the conservation efforts that appears to have rooted deep in the remote villages of not only in Nagaland but in many parts of the Northeastern hill States.  No Amur falcons were hunted this season – “ZERO”. I received a number of requests from administrators and villagers to come visit their area and acknowledge their efforts in protecting falcons, and also tag and release a bird there with the name of the village. A lot more sites in the whole of NE appears to host sizeable number of falcons during October-November, which was previously unknown.

As part of the “Amur Falcon Conservation Initiative” this season we satellite tagged five more Amur falcons across four roosting sites in Nagaland. A special grant for undertaking this study has been provided by MoEF & CC to WII. This comes at a perfect time with India becoming a signatory of the Convention on Migratory Species – Raptors MoU from March 2016.”

You can follow the progress of the tagged birds here.

Two of the Amur Falcons originally tagged in 2013 have been visiting an area just a few hundred kilometres north of Beijing to breed and, although it breeds in the capital in small numbers, it is in spring and autumn when we are fortunate to see flocks of Amur Falcons at suitable stopover sites such as Yeyahu or Miyun Reservoir.  So here in Beijing we have a strong affinity with this bird.

Recognising that it is this conservation effort that enables us in northeastern China to enjoy these wonderful birds, birders wanted to thank the Indian government and, most importantly, the local people for protecting Amur Falcons.  Birding Beijing facilitated the letter below, which has been signed by Ms Fu Jianping, President of China Birdwatching Society, on behalf of their members and also by many individual birders in Beijing and around the country.

As we collected signatures, it was wonderful to receive a message from the “Wind Child” young birding group in Hunan Province who, on their very first field trip, saw some Amur Falcons and adopted it as their favourite species.  They were keen to add their voices to the letter and, thanks to the efforts of Suresh Kumar at the Wildlife Institute of India, the letter was made into a poster, framed and handed over to the local community leaders (see header photo) during the annual gathering of Amur Falcons earlier this month.

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Just as with the Beijing Cuckoos, the Amur Falcon reminds us that birds have no borders and they are shared by all the countries they grace.  It is only by working together that these incredible travellers, and the habitats they need, can be protected.

Huge thanks to Suresh Kumar for arranging the design, framing and the handover of the letter, thank you to Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International for supporting the initiative, and thank you to all of the signatories of the letter.  Most of all, a big thank you to the local people in Nagaland for their wonderful work.

Maybe the Amur Falcons from Nagaland will mingle with the Beijing Cuckoos somewhere in Africa this winter!

Bolt Takes Gold In Marathon!

What a moment!  On the evening of 30 October 2016, a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) fitted with a satellite tag in Beijing in May 2016 made landfall in Africa, a journey of more than 9,000km, the most recent leg of which was a non-stop flight of over 3,700km from central India, across the Arabian Sea, to Somalia.

Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.

 

Skybomb Bolt, as he was named by schoolchildren in Beijing, is one of five Beijing Cuckoos fitted with transmitters as part of the Beijing Cuckoo Project. The project, a collaboration between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), the China Birdwatching Society (CBS), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing, was designed to bring together scientific discovery and public engagement with the primary aim of raising awareness of bird migration, conservation and the environment in China.

As in Europe, cuckoos are familiar and popular summer visitors to Beijing. Their well-known call, often heard for the first time in mid-May, is a traditional sign of spring. However, until this project, the wintering grounds and the routes they took to get there were unknown.

Thanks to technological advances, tracking devices are now small enough to be used on cuckoos and they are enabling scientists to gain an understanding of bird migration on a scale and depth as never before. Learning about the wintering grounds and the migration routes will inform conservationists as they seek to protect these special birds and many others like them. Importantly, using the BTO’s cuckoo tracking project as a model, this project has involved the participation of not only professional scientists but also volunteers from all walks of life. Through engaging schools to give names to the cuckoos, and providing updates on special webpages in English and Chinese, the impact of this project has been way beyond a traditional scientific endeavour.

After having tags fitted in May 2016, the “famous five” cuckoos spent the summer breeding season in Beijing, Mongolia and Russia and, in late July, they began their southward migration to unknown winter quarters.

The journeys of these amazing birds have captured the imagination of the general public both in China and overseas with hundreds of thousands of reactions on social media, including Twitter, Facebook and the Chinese social media equivalents of WeChat and Weibo.

The BTO’s Chris Hewson said:

“Watching how Skybomb has made ‘our’ world look small is a fantastic and humbling experience. Before leaving India, he had already travelled nearly as far as some UK cuckoos do on their entire migrations. This latest flight is the equivalent to the very longest desert crossings of UK birds, with no prospect of landing and consequently no margin for error. Given the rainfall patterns, we expect him to move gradually south, possibly as far again as this latest flight, through the winter. ‘Epic’ hardly seems to do justice to the travels of this small bird that has not previously been renowned for its powers of flight!”

Dr Ji Jianwei, Deputy Director of the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre said:

“We are delighted to work with international partners to track the migration of Beijing Cuckoos. We have welcomed these birds every spring and, until now, have wondered where they go and how they get there. Thanks to this project, now we know! Inspiring examples of bird migration, such as this, are powerful ways to help raise awareness amongst the general public about the environment, on which we all depend.”

Professor Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London, said:

“The Beijing Cuckoo Project is revealing, for the first time, the remarkable journeys of one of our most familiar birds.  That a bird weighing around 100g can fly more than 3,700km non-stop over the Arabian Sea is astonishing and, through the engagement of schoolchildren in the world’s most populous country, this project is inspiring a new generation.”

Skybomb Bolt was fitted with his tag at Hanshiqiao Wetland Park in Shunyi District, close to Beijing Capital International Airport in the northeast of the city.  The managers of the nature reserve are proud of “their” cuckoo and are planning to set up a special board at the reserve to showcase Skybomb and his epic journey, helping to explain to visitors why nature reserves are so important for wild birds.

We expect the other cuckoos to follow Skybomb’s lead and head to Africa but just how far they will go once in that huge continent is still a question mark. We think Skybomb will head south and follow the seasonal rains in eastern Africa.   His route so far is remarkably similar to that of another long-distance migrant – the Amur Falcon.  The journeys of these birds are simply staggering.

Big thanks to the sponsors of this project – the Zoological Society of London, the Oriental Bird Club and the British Birds Charitable Foundation – and to the partners, especially the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, the China Birdwatching Society and the British Trust for Ornithology.

Don’t forget, you can follow the latest updates about the cuckoos on the special Beijing Cuckoo Project page.

The 2nd China International Birding Festival in Lushun, Dalian

Last week I was honoured to represent BirdLife International and the Oriental Bird Club at the 2nd China International Birding Festival in Lushun, near Dalian in Liaoning Province. The centrepiece was a one-day ‘bird race’ in which teams of three to four people attempted to record as many species as possible at four pre-selected sites around the district. This year I was delighted to be joined by two friends from the UK – Brian Egan, who manages the UK’s Rare Bird Alert, and Rob Holmes, for whom the best title we came up with was “ex-YOC member from Suffolk”. Together with Marie, we formed the “Foreign Flappers”, one of 21 teams to take part.

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Google map showing the location of Laotieshan, Lushun, in southern Liaoning Province

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The Festival was again supported by the local government and organised by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) and the China Birdwatching Society. The aim was to raise the profile of birding in China and to celebrate the world-class migration hosted by Lushun every spring and autumn on the East Asian Flyway. For more about this magnificent place, see this post.

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Terry signing in for BirdLife International

The professionalism of the opening ceremony demonstrated the importance the local government places on wild birds. The Lushun Party Secretary, Mr Yi opened the event and spent time meeting all of the participants over the opening dinner.

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Lushun Part Secretary, Mr Yi, toasting the Foreign Flappers at the opening ceremony.

Educated at Coventry in the UK, he was fluent in English and relatively western in his outlook. He told us how he had been clamping down on poaching and strengthening the management of the Laotieshan National Nature Reserve, including the famous Snake Island, an offshore rock islet where every spring and autumn the resident Pallas’s Pit Vipers climb the trees and await tired migrants. He was proud to say that poaching incidents were down by 90% this year.

On Snake Island, Pallas's Pit Vipers feed twice a year on migratory birds.
On Snake Island, Pallas’s Pit Vipers feed twice a year on migratory birds. Photo by Wang Xiaoping.

Mr Yi, who committed to hosting the event next year, asked us for advice about how to expand the birding festival to attract more participants, particularly from overseas. We told him about similar events and places overseas, for example the annual BirdFair at Rutland Water, the largest of its kind in the world, the Champions Of The Flyway bird race in Israel and other migration hotspots such as Falsterbo in Sweden and Cape May on the east coast of the United States. We promised to write to him with ideas and advice and we very much hope he will be able to visit the UK in 2017 to experience the BirdFair for himself.

The bird race was exceptionally well-organised. Each team was provided with a vehicle and driver and a local forestry administration official who acted as a guide. Judges were allocated to each site and assisted with identifications and helped to engage the public. It was a slick operation and our team recorded a respectable 81 species, with favourites including Baikal Teal, Oriental White Stork, Chinese Egret (colour ringed with the inscription “T03”), Oriental Honey Buzzard, Red-necked Stint, Lanceolated Warbler and Pallas’s Bunting.

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Back of the camera photo of one of 4 ORIENTAL STORKS we were lucky to see during the bird race.  Photo by Brian Egan.

After the event, we took the opportunity to visit Professor Ma Li who leads a team of volunteers focused on finding and dismantling illegal nets at Laotieshan Nature Reserve. She works with the local police and nature reserve staff and she confirmed what Mr Yi had told us – that poaching was well down this year. Prof Ma took us to some sites around Laotieshan and introduced us to a former poacher who had been ‘converted’ into a bird protection volunteer. Now he helps Ma Li’s team to find illegal nets and to catch other poachers. When we visited, he had a Japanese Scops Owl in a cage, brought to him by a local boy. It was unclear how the boy came to have the owl but it was in good condition and he gave it to us to release.

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Professor Ma Li going over owl identification with former poacher, Mr Wang.

After an extra day of birding around Laotieshan, which included finding a rare Red-breasted Flycatcher and being fortunate to have stunning close-up views of the resident Finless Porpoises, it was time to leave. With so many young people participating in the festival from all parts of China, generous media coverage, the engagement of local residents and the commitment outlined by the local government leaders, we came away feeling optimistic about the future of Laotieshan and about birding in China.

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The local media covered the bird festival for their main news bulletin.

And the spectacle of hundreds of Common Buzzards circling above us at the lighthouse on our final day is something that will stay with us for a very long time. Big thanks to the Lushun government, especially Mr Yi and his deputy Mr Li, the CBCGDF and China Birdwatching Society and to all of the participants who made it such a fun and inspirational event. Looking forward to the 3rd festival in 2017!