One of the most encouraging signs for the future of China’s biodiversity is the emergence of local organisations across the country dedicated to environmental education and wildlife protection. And almost without exception these organisations are being run by groups of passionate, dedicated and highly educated young people.
Last weekend I was invited to participate in the “I SEE” celebration of biodiversity in the city of Beihai in Guangxi (广西) Autonomous Region.
Located in mountainous terrain in the far south, Guangxi is bordered by Yunnan Province to the west, Guizhou to the north, Hunan to the northeast, Guangdong to the east and Vietnam to the southwest. With a sub-tropical climate and magnificent scenery, dominated by spectacular karst mountains, Guangxi is perhaps most famous for the picturesque tourist towns of Guilin and Yangshuo, through which the Li river slowly meanders.
Ornithologically, Guangxi cemented its place on the map with the recent (2005) discovery of a new species – the Nonggang Babbler – by Chinese ornithologists Zhou Fang and Jiang Aiwu. Less well-known, at least outside China, is that every autumn Guangxi plays host to a spectacular migration or raptors. In October and early November, large numbers can be seen following the mountains as they make their way from China towards southeast Asia.
It is this concentration of birds that attracts not only local birders and photographers but also poachers. Every autumn the mountains around Beihai are tainted by the sound of gunshots. Illegal hunting was one of the drivers for the creation of the Guangxi Biodiversity Research and Conservation Association, known as BRC. This small, but growing, organisation was behind the establishment of an annual raptor watching festival during which birders and interested members of the public descend on the area to watch and count raptors.
The festival is inspiring change. First, it’s helping to raise awareness among local people about, and connecting people with, the spectacular bird of prey migration in the region. And second, it’s acting as a big deterrent to the poachers; it’s now the norm for the guns to fall silent during the festival. Sadly, the guns can still be heard before, and after, the festival despite a recent documentary on Chinese State Television exposing the illegal manufacture and use of guns. However, BRC is clearly making a difference and the direction of travel is in the right direction. I can’t wait to visit next October to offer my support to the volunteers.
BRC’s “I SEE” biodiversity day was the latest in a string of events designed to engage the public and I was honoured to take my place in the line up of speakers addressing 300 schoolchildren alongside their parents and teachers at the public library in Beihai on Saturday morning.
The stories of the Beijing Swifts and Cuckoos were greeted enthusiastically and there was clearly an appetite to explore similar ‘citizen science’ projects in Guangxi to complement the ongoing public engagement work.
It was brilliant to see so many local people participating in an event dedicated to biodiversity in a part of China that is so rich in wildlife and yet suffering from illegal poaching. It’s these young heroes that will consign illegal hunting to history.
I have huge admiration for BRC’s Tao Jingru, Zhao Hongxu, Xiao Xiaobo and Lin Wuying for inspiring so many people and big thanks for the wonderful hospitality.
Title image: The BRC stand at the Xishuangbanna Birding Festival in Yunnan Province.
As birding becomes more popular in China, birding festivals are springing up all over this vast country. There are now annual festivals in Dalian (Liaoning), Beidagang (Hebei), Beihai (Guangxi) and Shangri-La (Yunnan) to name just a few… and they are providing a focus for both experienced and young birders to celebrate their hobby, learn from like-minded people, recruit new members and engage the public. It’s always a privilege to be able to participate in these celebrations and I was delighted to accept an invitation to speak at the 6th birding festival of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens (XTBG), nestled in a wonderful part of southwest Yunnan Province, close to the borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.
Founded in 1959 and covering an area of 1125 hectares, the Botanical Gardens employ more than 300 staff. Wang Ximin leads an enthusiastic team responsible for engaging schools and the local community about wildlife and habitats. His work is particularly important given the significant problem with illegal hunting that still blights the area (during the festival, several of the participants heard gunshots in the forest close to the gardens). Influencing the local communities is not easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but working with children must surely be the most effective way to tackle the issue over the medium- to long-term.
One of the species Wang Ximin and his colleagues focus on is the Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus), now classified as “Endangered” given the spectacular decline in the population over the last two decades. Closely related to the more familiar Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Green Peafowl is a stunningly beautiful bird, once ranging from SW China and Myanmar through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, to as far south as Java, but which has suffered from hunting pressure and habitat loss meaning that it’s range now consists of ever-shrinking isolated pockets of suitable habitat. Thankfully, according to the locals, it doesn’t taste good.. so at least it’s not popular to eat!
We were treated to an informative talk about the Green Peafowl by Gu Bojian, attended by students, teachers and parents from local schools.
As well as lectures and a bird race involving teams from all over China, from Beijing to Shanghai to Guangzhou to Yunnan, there were stalls operated by birding organisations, optics companies and nature-related publications such as China Bird Watch.
Maybe it’s because I am getting older but I am always struck by just how many young people participate in these events.. It’s heartening to see the youth of China enjoying and celebrating wild birds and their habitats. And this energy is being channelled into developing resources that help to engage the wider community. During my brief visit, Wang Ximin and his colleagues launched a new book about the birds of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens and handed out leaflets about the butterflies, insects and plants that can be found there. All of this is wonderful to see.
More than 100 species of bird were recorded during the festival with highlights being Asian Openbill, Brown-throated Sunbird, Orange-breasted Trogon, Limestone Babbler and Pied Falconet. And there were some sightings of some other cool wildlife including this Tokay Gecko, scientific name “Gekko gecko”.
With a good quality hotel (Royal Waterlily) in the gardens and beautiful surroundings, XTBG is a wonderful place to spend a few days to escape the cold northern winter and by buying the new book or hiring a local guide you’ll be supporting the brilliant conservation work ongoing in this beautiful part of the world. Go now!
Title image: birders distracted by an overflying raptor during the festival. Photo by Zhu Lei.
It’s that time of year again. As temperatures plummet and the days shorten, many people might think it’s time to stay indoors with a real fire, put on that favourite woolly jumper and sip a warm cup of (green) tea. However, for birders, it’s worth putting on the thermal underwear and braving those icy temperatures – winter can be a brilliant time.
Here are five reasons why winter is a good time for birding in Beijing:
First, with the leaves down, birds are easier to observe
Second, winter is the only time we can see certain species (for example, those that breed to the north of Beijing, including as far north as Mongolia and Russian Siberia, and spend the winter here). These species include: Ruddy Shelduck, Common Crane, White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, Mongolian Lark, the winter thrushes (Naumann’s. Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated), Goldcrest, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Siberian Accentor, Brambling, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Japanese Reed Bunting, Lapland Bunting and Pine Bunting.
Third, many mountain dwelling species will move lower into the valleys and even into cities in the winter, making them easier to see. For example: Winter Wren, Beijing Babbler, Plain Laughingthrush and Yellow-throated Bunting.
Fourth, depending on the seed crops and weather, especially the extent of snowfall, some species ‘irrupt’ in large numbers to areas where they would normally not occur in significant numbers. Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Japanese and Bohemian Waxwings and Redpolls are examples of species that sometimes ‘irrupt’ into Beijing.
Finally, there is always a chance of finding something special. The discovery of wintering Jankowski’s Buntings in winter 2015/2016 by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao was exceptional. Who knows what else might occur – maybe a Snowy Owl at Lingshan? Or a Gyrfalcon at Ma Chang?
The best winter sites?
Most good birding sites in the capital (e.g. Yeyahu, Lingshan, Huairou, Miyun and Shahe Reservoirs (if accessible)) are worth visiting all year round. And, within the city itself, the Botanical Gardens, with its berry-laden shrubs, is often one of the first sites to host groups of Japanese or Bohemian Waxwings during a ‘waxwing year’. The Olympic Forest Park can host Beijing Babbler in winter and is often a good place to see Brown-cheeked Rails and Great Bittern. It has also played host to some very scarce winter visitors such as ‘caudatus’ Northern Long-tailed Tit and Chiffchaff. For me, personally, two of the best winter birding sites are Donglingshan and Shidu.
The site of Beijing’s highest peak (2,303m), around 110km west of the city along the G109, Donglingshan is a superb winter birding site. It is the only reliable site in Beijing to see the high-altitude specialist, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, and the scarce Pallas’s Rosefinch. In most winters, tens of the former spend the winter feeding on the sea buckthorn berries in the many gullies and valleys below the peak and small flocks of the latter can be found foraging under stands of silver birch. Other reliable species here include Chinese Beautiful and Long-tailed Rosefinches (interestingly, the latter are of the subspecies lepidus from central China and not the more northerly ussuriensis that has occurred in other parts of Beijing), not to mention Siberian and Alpine Accentors, good numbers of thrushes, Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle and, in some years, Asian Rosy Finch. Rarities at this time of year have included Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Black and Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstarts.
At around 2,000m, a visit to Donglingshan in winter can be bitterly cold, especially if the wind is blowing. However, if you time your visit on a day with light winds and sunshine, it can be surprisingly pleasant and hugely rewarding.
A downloadable PDF guide for Donglingshan (Lingshan) can be found here.
A spectacular gorge worthy of a visit in its own right, even without any birds, Shidu is an excellent winter birding destination, offering species that can be hard to see in other parts of the capital. A road runs through the gorge, crossing several bridges and it’s a good tactic to stop close to the bridges to scan the area. Shidu is perhaps most famous in birding circles for its Black Storks, a handful of which can be seen feeding alongside the river. However, many more interesting species are possible. For the last few years, at least one, sometimes two, Wallcreepers have been reliable near bridge 6. And Long-billed Plover, Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Water Redstart and Cinereous Vulture are all regular in winter. Even the spectacular Ibisbill, a species that is increasingly difficult to see in the capital, is possible. And Solitary Snipe, another difficult-to-see species has also been recorded.
Ten Species To Look Out For This Winter
Beijing has many special birds in the colder months and here are a few to look out for.
This small, compact, falcon can often be seen hunting flocks of small passerines, including buntings and larks. Open spaces such as Ma Chang (Yanqing) and the edges of reservoirs are good places to look.
2. Cinereous Vulture
With a wingspan of c3m, this huge bird of prey can be seen in the mountains around Beijing from November to March. Feeding on carrion, they can often be seen patrolling the ridges of mountainous areas on sunny days, especially when there is a breeze, providing them with lift.
This tiny bird is insectivorous and, somehow, it can find enough food in Beijing in winter. The larger parks, such as the Botanical Gardens and the Olympic Forest Park, are good places to look. Focus your search on areas with conifers and listen for their high-pitched calls.
4. Siberian Accentor
This beautiful sparrow-sized bird likes scrubby areas with lots of good undergrowth. They can be shy but with patience and knowledge of their high-pitched call, searching in the right areas should be successful. The Botanical Gardens and Donglingshan are two good places to look.
5. Naumann’s Thrush
Naumann’s is the most common of the four classic ‘winter thrushes’ in Beijing (the others are Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated). With its orange-coloured tones, Naumann’s Thrush is a very pretty bird and can often be seen feeding on berries or on the ground in Beijing’s parks.
6. Japanese Waxwing
The beautiful Japanese Waxwing is an annual winter visitor to Beijing in varying numbers. Sometimes in large flocks, they can strip berries from a bush in minutes. Listen for their ‘ringing’ calls and look for flocks of birds that have similar silhouettes to starlings. Can most easily be told from the very similar Bohemian Waxwing by the pinkish, not yellow, tip to the tail.
7. Winter Wren
The charismatic Winter Wren breeds in the mountains around Beijing and, in winter, it moves to lower elevations to escape the harshest winter temperatures. In winter it can be found in the Botanical Gardens and other large parks, often near water. The distinctive cocked tail means that it’s unmistakeable.
The Brambling is a common winter visitor to Beijing. A sociable bird, it can often be found in flocks feeding on seeds (often beech mast) at the base of trees. Listen for its upslurred call as flocks wheel around over wooded areas.
9. Pallas’s Rosefinch
A real gem of the Beijing winter, the Pallas’s Rosefinch is one of the most sought after species by foreign birders visiting the capital. A winter visitor in varying numbers, usually to relatively high elevations, it is most reliably found at Donglingshan in winter. The ridge above the Botanical Gardens and sites around the Great Wall can also produce this species. A favourite food is birch mast, so look for stands of silver birch and check the ground around the bases of the trees.
10. Pallas’s Bunting
A winter visitor in good numbers, the Pallas’s Bunting is one of Beijing’s signature winter birds. Found in reedbeds and any areas of rank grass and/or scrub, it can be skittish but will sometimes sit on the top of vegetation and utter its sparrow-like call, quite different to that of the similar, but scarcer, Common Reed Bunting and Japanese Reed Bunting.
Of course, the most important thing about going birding is not where you go or what you see but that you enjoy it. Wishing everyone a wonderful winter’s birding.
Title image: Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstart, Lingshan, February 2014.
This article has been translated into Chinese and appeared in the Winter edition of the China Birdwatching Society magazine.
Last Friday I visited the International School of Beijing (ISB). On the back of their involvement with the Beijing Cuckoo Project, the three students elected as “Cuckoo Ambassadors” have set up a birding club. Meeting on Friday afternoons, the group is planning to invite external speakers to talk about various aspects of birds and to arrange field trips to birding sites in Beijing. I was invited to speak about the Beijing Swift. After a short talk about the Beijing Swift Project and a great Q&A session, we discussed how ISB could help the declining population of Swifts, caused by the demolition of traditional buildings, many of which host Swift nests, and their replacement with new, shiny buildings with no nooks and crannies for Swifts. Including ‘swift bricks’ in the designs of new buildings is one way to help and, for existing buildings, retrofitting nest boxes is another. The students were keen to explore the idea of making nest boxes in their woodwork classes and erecting them on campus with a view to trying to attract a colony to their school and they will be discussing with their teachers this week. If they go ahead, they’ll be the second school to commit to building and erecting swift boxes in Beijing after Harrow International School.
The first field trip, to Yeyahu, was scheduled for the following weekend.
Just two days later I was at the Olympic Forest Park helping to lead a group of students from Hepingli No4 Primary School. This school, too, has its own birding club and even has its own badge, proudly displayed on their backpacks! On a beautiful, but cold, morning we enjoyed good views of some of the park’s residents including Grey Herons, Little Grebes and Light-vented Bulbuls.
It’s heartening to see Beijing’s schools setting up birding clubs and hopefully these two leading lights represent just the beginning of a new trend.
Update: On Monday 6 November I was informed that Kevin O’Shea, one of the teachers at the Canadian International School of Beijing (CISB), has just set up a wildlife club for students, meeting every Wednesday. Congratulations, CISB!
Title image: the badge of Hepingli No4 Primary School’s Birdwatching Society.
The love affair with the Tibetan Plateau continues. Here’s a short video covering some of the highlights of our most recent visit to the Yushu area with Mark Andrews, Rick Bateman, Brian Egan, Dale Forbes and Marie Louise. Once again we were fortunate to enjoy some stunning encounters with Snow Leopards and much much more, including Tibetan Wolf, multiple superb views of Tibetan Fox, Glover’s and Plateau Pikas, Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Antelope, White-lipped Deer, Blue Sheep, Woolly Hare, Asian Badger (at 4400m!) as well as some special birds such as Bar-headed Goose, Black-necked Crane, Pinktail, White Eared Pheasant, Alashan, White-throated, Hodgson’s and White-winged Redstarts, Brown and Robin Accentors, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Saker, White-winged Grosbeak, many snowfinches and rosefinches, Tibetan Bunting and Tibetan Babax, to name a few. Despite spending a lot of time in suitable habitat, we failed to find Pallas’s Cat, a species that is probably quite common in the area but difficult to see due to its primarily nocturnal habits. And we had a frustratingly brief encounter with a probable Chinese Mountain Cat. It’s a special place!
Although access to the area is restricted, and sensitive (the area is inside a national nature reserve and it is due to become one of China’s first national parks), small groups can be facilitated as long as the trip is arranged through the proper channels. Independent travel is not permitted and, to reinforce that, while we were there, a group of foreigners was ejected from the valley because they had not registered.
It was great to stay with one of the local families of yak herders and to see how the training, just a few weeks earlier, had influenced their thinking. It’s still very early days in terms of developing wildlife watching tourism in the area, and there are still many issues to address before these pilot trips can be scaled up, however there is no doubting the potential to provide visitors with an unforgettable experience whilst supporting the local people and raising funds for conservation and I’m excited to be working with the local government and ShanShui to make it happen.
If you are interested in visiting, please get in touch.
A huge thank you to the local government and to ShanShui Conservation Center (especially Zhao Xiang and Li Yuhan) for their invaluable help and support, without which our trip would not have been possible.
Finally, just for fun, this photo from the trip has been causing a stir on social media; a Snow Leopard stalking a magpie that’s a little too close to his kill.. can you spot it?
Over the last 12 months I have been lucky enough to work with ShanShui Conservation Centre, one of China’s most active and impressive conservation NGOs focusing on community-led conservation projects, especially on the Tibetan Plateau. ShanShui was founded in 2007 by Professor Lu Zhi, perhaps China’s most famous conservationist who made her name working with Giant Pandas in the 1980s and 1990s. In the first of an occasional series of interviews to showcase China’s conservation heroes, I visited Peking University to speak with Professor Lu about how she got into conservation (by accident!), her motivation for forming her own NGO, her take on the current conservation challenges in China and even what she would say if she had 5 minutes with President Xi Jinping (she has two great pieces of advice). The complete interview is just over an hour long.
I hope you enjoy listening to Professor Lu Zhi as much as I did.
Cover image: Professor Lu speaking with a young conservationist on the Tibetan Plateau.
Providing training to yak herders on the Tibetan Plateau was not something I ever expected to feature in my career.. but that’s precisely what I was doing last week!
In partnership with Chinese NGO, 山水 (ShanShui), the training was designed to build capacity for small-scale, high-value wildlife tourism in a stunning valley near Yushu in Qinghai Province. It was my 6th visit to this special part of China and each time I am in awe of the sheer majesty of the scenery, the wildlife and, especially, the local people.
Traditionally, the Tibetan communities in this area have been nomadic, making a living by roaming the mountains and valleys of the Tibetan Plateau to seek out the best grazing for their herds of yak. For centuries they have lived alongside wildlife, including some of the most impressive predators in Asia – Lynx, Leopard, Tibetan Wolf, Asian Brown Bear and, of course, the ‘grey ghost’ (Snow Leopard). In recent decades, these communities have been encouraged to become less nomadic, living in more permanent settlements dotted along the valleys, concentrated around the best grazing, enabling easier provision of services and greater access to schools. Today, overgrazing is a serious issue on the Plateau and there is pressure on the local people to reduce the size of their herds which will, of course, reduce incomes. Identifying alternative income sources is therefore paramount to help ensure the sustainability of their way of life. Given the relatively high density of predators, the existence of some range-restricted birds such as Tibetan Bunting and Tibetan Babax, and the stunning scenery, one potential alternative source of income is wildlife watching tourism.
ShanShui has been working with this particular community for some time, engaging them in their Snow Leopard conservation project. Zhao Xiang, who heads up the project, spends most of his time in this area, ably assisted by Li Yuhan and some local staff, including the wonderful ZhaLa. Already, many of the families have been involved in placing and managing a host of camera traps, designed to help map the density of predators in the valley. Together, they’ve identified more than 20 individual Snow Leopards in the area as well as capturing images of Leopard and Snow Leopard in the same place, suggesting their territories overlap, something that has only rarely been documented before.
The video below shows some of the local people setting up and testing one of the camera traps (by pretending to be a Snow Leopard).
Wildlife watching is something I’ve been discussing with the local government and ShanShui since my first visit in August 2016 when I was fortunate enough to see two Snow Leopards on the first day of the wildlife watching festival. After writing some advisory papers and following discussions involving the local government, ShanShui and local people, we organised two ‘pilot’ wildlife watching trips to the valley in April and June 2017, both of which were successful in seeing Snow Leopards and a range of other special wildlife, thus proving the potential for wildlife watchers to enjoy a special experience in this valley. Since then I’ve been working with ShanShui to build the capacity of homestay families, drivers and guides to host visiting wildlife watching tourists. Last week’s training was the first of what we expect to be a series of five or six courses over the next few months.
I must admit I was a little apprehensive at the prospect of training Tibetan yak herders. Would these nomads really take to being in a ‘classroom’? Would they be receptive to the ideas and experience we would convey? Would they even turn up at all…!? I needn’t have worried. The yak herders were an absolute joy to work with – full of enthusiasm, a hunger for knowledge, participatory and most of all, fun! In fact they taught us as much as we taught them.
We conveyed examples of sustainable wildlife watching tourism in other parts of the world, learned about cultural differences and how to communicate in the absence of a shared language, discussed good practice in hosting wildlife watching tourists… including a session on basic medical training from a local doctor, and there was even a cookery session dedicated to catering for different tastes including vegetarians (not something that comes naturally to a community that relies on yak for almost everything).
As an early ice-breaker, the participants put together a map of the valley on which they annotated the best areas for the most sought after wildlife – Snow Leopard, Leopard, Asian Brown Bear, Tibetan Wolf, Lynx and Tibetan Bunting.
After two days of classroom-based training we set up a ‘field day’ during which the participants would put into practice their knowledge and guide us for a day.
We had a wonderful time, following them into secret side valleys, listening as they told us about the significance of the local plants and pointing out signs of wild animals including a Snow Leopard scrape and fresh bear scratches on an ancient tree.
As with many rural communities around the world, a significant proportion of the young people are tending to move to the cities where they hope to find more opportunities. It was heartening to hear the young guys in my group say they wanted to stay in the valley and were looking for ways to generate alternative income that would enable them to do so.. wildlife watching tourism, they said, might be just such an enabler.
I returned to Beijing feeling positive about the future of the wildlife and the wonderful people that co-exist in this special part of the world. If managed well, including restricting the total numbers of visitors, implementing a code of conduct for visitors and monitoring the impact on the fragile ecosystem, tourism has the potential to raise income levels for local people across the community, raise funds for Snow Leopard conservation and provide visitors with a special experience. I’m looking forward to further supporting the local people to take advantage of this opportunity.
Big thanks to Zhao Xiang, Li Yuhan and Zhala of ShanShui for making the arrangements and for their wonderful hospitality. Also to Cuomao, my skilled Tibetan-English interpreter, the local government who provided me with accommodation and food during this stay and, of course, to all of the wonderful participants of the course for being such brilliant students and teachers.
The third pilot trip – the first since the training – will take place next week when I visit the valley with an international group of wildlife watchers and I am sure it will help further to develop the capacity of the local people whilst learning more about the best places to see the wildlife. If you have a small group interested in visiting, please don’t hesitate to contact me.