JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING: Good News From Inner Mongolia!

It’s May and for ornithologists that means only one thing – field season!  This year I was privileged to accompany the JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii) survey team to Inner Mongolia alongside China Birdwatching Society’s Fu Jianping, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society’s Vivian Fu and a team of local researchers from Northeast Normal University in Jilin, led by Dr Wang Haitao.

I’ve just arrived back in Beijing and I’m thrilled to bits…  Here’s why..

Under the guidance of Dr Wang, we visited some “new” sites in eastern Inner Mongolia and, although we were able to cover only a fraction of the total area of suitable habitat, we recorded more than 100 Jankowski’s Buntings.  If the density of the buntings we encountered is typical of the whole area, there should be many hundreds of pairs at the largest of these new sites.  Fantastic news!

2016-05-08 Jankowski's Bunting site, Inner Mongolia
The habitat at this major new site in Inner Mongolia is typical grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot shrubs. Here, the density of Jankowski’s Buntings was reassuringly high.

Encouragingly, we also found some Jankowski’s Buntings in an area of regenerated grassland, replanted only 3 years ago, suggesting that these birds can, and will, colonise areas where the grassland is allowed to recover.

However, amongst this heady cocktail of good news, there is a sobering thought – none of these sites has any form of official protection, meaning they are potentially vulnerable to the main threats to the species and its grassland habitat – overgrazing and the expansion of agriculture.

Nevertheless, it is uplifting to find out that there are, in the unique Inner Mongolian grassland, more of these beautiful “little brown jobs” than we had dared imagine.

The full results of the survey and the fascinating latest research from Dr Wang and his team will be published this summer.  A link will be publicised on Birding Beijing when it is available.  With the latest information, we are slowly developing a greater understanding of the range, and population, of this special bird, found nowhere else on the planet.  This information will form the basis of the next engagement with the local government in Inner Mongolia, during which we will be pushing for official protection for as many of these sites as possible.  And, in the meantime, Dr Wang and his team will be exploring new areas to further understand the boundaries of Jankowski’s Bunting’s range and considering the use of colour-ringing to better understand breeding ecology and seasonal movements.  Could Jankowski’s be extant in northern Hebei?  Or far southeastern Mongolia?   Time will tell…

I was impressed with Dr Wang Haitao and his researchers.  Dr Wang has been studying Jankowski’s Bunting since 1999 and has a wealth of knowledge about the species, built up by years of field observations.  I learned so much from our conversations over the duration of the survey..

2016-05-07 Dr Wang and team with Vivian, Inner Mongolia
Dr Wang Haitao (centre) organising the survey team, including Vivian Fu from Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (left).

Despite the almost omnipresent gales that sweep across this vast landscape in spring, I was able to record some video of the buntings, a compilation of which is below.  Such beautiful birds in their full breeding finery and they looked a real picture amongst the Siberian Apricot blossom.

We left Inner Mongolia  encouraged and, at the same time, determined not to let this special bird slip away.

Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Fu Jianping and Dr Wang and his team for the faultless logistics, thorough field work and great company during the trip.

The Yellow Sea And Shorebirds: An Evening With Professor Theunis Piersma

On Wednesday evening, birders in Beijing were treated to a brilliant lecture by Dutch Professor Theunis Piersma, the world-leading shorebird expert.

China’s east coast hosts one of the world’s most amazing natural spectacles every spring and autumn – the migration of millions of shorebirds from their wintering grounds in Australia and New Zealand to breeding grounds in the Arctic.  It’s a journey that requires sustained physical exertion on a scale that is way beyond the best human athletes in the world.  For many of these birds, the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay on China’s east coast are vital stopover sites on this awe-inspiring journey.  And yet, as we know, the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Chinese coast is advancing at a rapid rate.  Already, around 70% of the intertidal mudflats have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat.

sidebar1
A colour-flagged GREAT KNOT.  Photo by Global Flyway Network.

Professor Piersma has been studying shorebird migration for decades and, working with a brilliant team of researchers from China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea, among others, his research, using colour-ringing and satellite tagging, is showing two clear findings.

First, that populations of many shorebird species, in particular the study species of Red Knot, Great Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, are declining rapidly.  And second, that the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay is the problem.

To birders familiar with China’s east coast, these two findings won’t come as a surprise but of course, if there is to be any chance of convincing policymakers to adjust their plans, the most important thing is to provide evidence.

That is why Professor Piersma’s work is so important.  He and his team have been able to provide several key pieces of compelling scientific evidence.

First, their research shows that the three study species, each of which uses a different habitat in the Arctic, are showing similar increasing mortality rates.  To find out what is causing this rising mortality rate, each part of their life-cycle must be studied.  Monitoring on the wintering grounds in Australia and New Zealand shows that mortality there is normal, demonstrating that the problem lies elsewhere.  The main reason for mortality on the Arctic breeding grounds that could affect all three locations simultaneously is when the ice is slow to retreat, meaning that birds arrive on the breeding grounds when they are still frozen and there is a lack of food, leading to high mortality.  Weather data from the last 7-8 years during the study period shows that, if anything, the melt has been earlier than usual, meaning that cold springs are not the reason for high mortality.  This strongly suggests that the problem is not in the Arctic but instead along the migration route.

Second, different subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit that use different migration routes are experiencing different mortality rates.  Birds that winter in Australia use the Yellow Sea twice every year, during their spring and autumn migrations to and from their breeding grounds.  Birds that winter in New Zealand use the Yellow Sea only once – in spring – making an incredible non-stop journey of more than 10,000km from Alaska to New Zealand.  If the problem was the Yellow Sea, one would expect the two subspecies to show different mortality rates.  Sure enough, satellite tracking by scientists has shown that birds that use the Yellow Sea twice are experiencing a mortality rate twice as high as birds that use the Yellow Sea only once per year.  That’s pretty telling.

This information, together with other supporting evidence, strongly supports the hypothesis that the reclamation of tidal mudflats in the Yellow Sea is causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline fast.

The challenge is to inject this scientific evidence into the Chinese policymaking circles.  That is why Theunis met with officials from the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) during his visit to Beijing.  This group is a government-sponsored “NGO” (is that an oxymoron?) that has the authority to make submissions to the State Council (China’s cabinet) about issues relating to wildlife conservation and biodiversity.  The meeting was positive with a keen interest from the officials in Professor Piersma’s work and an appetite to use the scientific data to develop proposals to the State Council.  There is a lot of work to do to influence decision-makers about the importance of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay for migratory shorebirds but, as someone important once said, “every great journey starts with a single step.”

Professor Piersma explaining his research findings to officials at the CBCGDF.
Professor Piersma explaining his research findings to officials at the CBCGDF.
2016-05-04 Theunis lecture2
Professor Piersma chats to young Beijing birders after his lecture.
2016-05-04 Theunis lecture3
One question was about how to ensure this scientific data is seen by top leaders…

2016-05-04 Theunis lecture4

Big thanks to Professor Piersma for taking the time to meet with young Chinese birders during his visit and we wish him good luck as he continues his research and begins the task of convincing policymakers to take into account the importance of China’s east coast to so many amazing shorebird species.  Any birders visiting the coast should look out for and report any colour-ringed or tagged birds they see, recording the species, location, position of the colour-flags and any other interesting information.  Observations from amateur birders play a vital role in contributing to the research.  See here for details about how to report a flagged bird.  And here for a visual guide to the flags used and their places of origin.

 

 

 

 

 

Birding with the BBC

As a Brit, I feel a sense of pride when foreigners tell me how much they admire the BBC and, especially, the documentaries produced by the Natural History Unit.  The influence of Sir David and the Bristol-based team is often cited by young birders in China when we speak about what sparked their interest in birds and nature.  And so, when the BBC contacted me about arranging interviews with young Chinese birders for a forthcoming World Service Radio series about the East Asian Australasian Flyway,  it was an easy job to recruit willing volunteers.

The series of 4 programmes, a joint production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is following the migration of shorebirds from the southern tip of the flyway in Tasmania to their breeding grounds in Siberia, and the reporters are stopping off in China along the way, just as the birds do.

We arranged to meet the BBC/ABC team on Saturday morning at the Wenyu River, a birding site on the northeast of the city between the 5th and 6th ring roads and convenient for the airport (the team was due to fly to Dandong that afternoon).

Members of two local groups participated – the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society and the Swarovski Optik-sposored 北京飞羽 (“Beijing Feathers”).  The latter is a group of university students who volunteer to introduce birding to members of the public in Beijing with activities at the Beijing Zoo and the Olympic Forest Park.

They excelled – with impressive English-language skills – at answering questions about why they are interested in birding, why Beijing is so good for birds, how birding is expanding in China and their hopes for the future…

I can’t wait to hear them on the radio in June!

2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu
The BBC/ABC team interviewed each birder against a backdrop of singing Chinese Bulbul, Yellow-browed and Pallas’s Warblers. Here with Wang Yan.
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Xing Chao, Wenyu
Xing Chao describes finding the first record of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing for 75 years!  A talented birder, he also found Beijing’s first JAPANESE THRUSH and has only been birding for 3 years!
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu2
Zhang Runchao explains how he developed an interest in birding..
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu3
Yan Xiaoyu described how her passion for birds will stay with her “forever”.
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu4
Zhang Guoming is studying Traditional Chinese Medicine and says his parents fear that birding will distract him from his studies!
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu5
Wang Yan is optimistic about China’s birds, citing the “explosion” of interest in birding as evidence of a growing awareness about nature amongst the Chinese public.

Update:

The ABC/BBC World Service radio series about the East Asian Australasian Flyway are now online.

For the ABC versions, click here.

For the BBC versions, click here.

There is also this article on Birding in China by Ann Jones on the ABC website and related articles on a hunter turned gamekeeper in China and how North Korea could be an unlikely saviour of East Asia’s migratory birds.

 

 

Tianjin State Grid Company Saves Oriental Stork Nest

Conservationists are used to bad news.  It comes with the territory.  Which means celebrating good news is even sweeter than usual!  Last week something incredible happened in Tianjin, just a few hours from Beijing.  A pair of Endangered ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳) was breeding on an electricity pylon.  The local grid company was concerned about transmission safety and wanted to remove the nest.  Local birders and conservation groups protested and appealed for help from international conservationists who had experience of this issue overseas, hence a plea on Twitter.  Several people responded (thank you Eddie Myers, Keith Duncan and Anne Sytske Keijser), and we received some fantastic information from José Luis Copete in Spain and Guy Dutson in Australia.  Local volunteers were able to use all of this information to persuade the company to erect a special platform adjacent to the original nest, allowing the storks to continue to breed whilst minimising the risk to grid safety.  Happily the storks accepted the minor inconvenience!  The full story (in Chinese), with photos, can be seen here.  Big thanks to José Luis and Guy and, in particular, to the local volunteers, including our good friend Mo Xunqiang (Nemo), who, along with friends Yang Jiwen from Binhai Wild Protection Centre and Wang Jianmin from Tianjin Binhai Wetland and Bird Conservation Society, persuaded the company to take this action.  As we understand it, it’s the first time in China that such action has been taken to preserve a nest considered to be a risk to electricity transmission security.  Let’s hope it sets a precedent.

Featured photo by Mo Xunqiang.

 

The Beijing Cuckoo Project

Birding Beijing is excited to announce the launch of The Beijing Cuckoo Project, a new initiative that has the potential to make a huge difference to conservation in China whilst, at the same time, making ground breaking scientific discoveries.

Following the hugely successful, and ongoing, citizen science project to track the Beijing Swift, over the last few months we have been working with partners in the UK and China to replicate the BTO’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China’s capital.

The Cuckoo – famous for laying its eggs in the nests of other, often smaller, birds – is a popular and well-known bird in Beijing.  The life of the Cuckoo, including a wonderful account of the ongoing evolutionary battle between the Cuckoo and its hosts, was covered eloquently by Nick Davies in his award-winning book – Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature.

Cuckoo and Reed Parrotbill
In China, one of the host species of Common Cuckoo is Reed Parrotbill!

The Beijing Cuckoo Project, led by China Birdwatching Society, will deliver two incredibly exciting outcomes. The first is to engage the public in China, on an unprecedented scale, about the wonders of bird migration. The second is to discover the currently unknown wintering grounds, and migration routes, of Common Cuckoos breeding in East Asia – vital if conservationists are to understand how best to protect the Cuckoo and similar migratory species.

As in the UK, we plan to deploy ultra-lightweight satellite tags onto as many as 10 cuckoos in the Beijing area. Drawing on the BTO’s expertise and experience, Chris Hewson, a leading scientist from the UK, will travel to Beijing to train local volunteers and lead the catching and fitting of the tags.

Local schoolchildren will name the cuckoos and follow their progress as part of EcoAction’s specially designed “environmental curriculum”.

13th middle school
Students from Beijing’s 13th Middle School recently received their certificates as the first graduates of the “Environmental Curriculum” and will follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos as part of their ongoing studies.

National and local media will cover the project via their print and online publications. A special APP will allow members of the public to follow their progress, too, providing information about cuckoos, maps showing their latest positions and the routes taken, as well as background about the project.

We are delighted that around 75% of the funding has been raised through generous donations from the Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, the British Birds Charitable Trust and Beijing Forestry University. We are also fortunate to enjoy in kind support from the British Trust for Ornithology, the China Birdwatching Society and the many volunteers who will be involved.

However, given the costs of “satellite services”, the costs associated with accessing the data transmitted by the tags, and the costs of maintaining the dedicated APP, we still need to raise another GBP 10,000 over the next 12 months.

That is why we have set up a new, dedicated JustGiving page to allow anyone wishing to be part of this project to contribute. The page can be found here: https://www.justgiving.com/BeijingCuckooProject

Everyone involved with the Beijing Cuckoo project is excited about the potential and all donors, with their permission, will be recognised on the interpretation material that will be erected at the catching sites in Beijing.

Please join us in being part of an incredible and worthwhile project!

First Graduates Of Environmental Curriculum In Beijing

This is the start…

Everyone knows that China is one of the most important and biodiverse countries on the planet.  It is blessed with stunning wildlife, much of it found nowhere else in the world.  China has, according to one measure, 7,516 species of vertebrates including 4,936 fish, 1,269 bird, 562 mammal, 403 reptile and 346 amphibian species.  In terms of the number of species, China ranks third in the world in mammals, eighth in birds, seventh in reptiles and seventh in amphibians. In each category, China is the most biodiverse country outside of the tropics.  Many species are endemic to China, including the country’s most famous wildlife species, the Giant Panda. In all, about one-sixth of mammal species and two-thirds of amphibian species in China are endemic to the country.

However, not surprisingly, with rapid economic development and a human population of 1.3 billion, the environment in China is coming under huge pressure and, in addition to the obvious and well-publicised air pollution, China’s water and soil are both in a desperate state, not to mention the ongoing destruction of valuable and biodiverse habitats, not least along the Yellow Sea coast where tidal mudflats – so important for millions of long-distance migratory shorebirds – are being lost at an alarming rate.  In fact, at least 840 animal species are threatened, vulnerable or in danger of local extinction in China, due mainly to human activity such as habitat destruction, pollution and poaching for food, fur and ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine.

Despite the recent high-level political rhetoric about the importance of “ecological civilisation” and “green development”, decision-making, particularly at the local level, is still not effectively taking into account the environmental cost.  One reason for this disconnect is the low level of environmental awareness among the general population, in turn caused by an almost complete lack of environmental issues in the Chinese State Curriculum.

That is why education on the environment is so important and it’s the main reason why EcoAction has developed an “Environmental Curriculum”.  The curriculum, focusing on migratory birds, has been piloted in two Beijing schools during the 2015-2016 academic year.  Given the pressures on students in China, there was no room to fit in the lessons during normal school time, so these classes have been an optional extra for the participating students.  It is testament to the thirst for knowledge of the children involved that they have committed to participate and seen it through to the end.

The curriculum has involved classroom-based lectures, field studies (including birding trips to Miyun Reservoir and Yeyahu Nature Reserve) and lectures by national and international experts, including leading ornithologist Professor Per Alström.

IMG_0011 2
Professor Per Alström provides an introduction to taxonomy – the classification of birds.
IMG_0010 2
Per’s Chinese skills have come a long way!
IMG_0009 2
The class is gripped by Per’s lecture!

The students have also been encouraged to carry out an “investigation”, for example visiting Beijing’s wild bird markets to find out who are the buyers and sellers, where the birds come from and what can be done to accelerate their demise.

94th middle school
Students from Beijing’s 94th Middle School receiving their certificates.

This week it was time for the participants to receive their certificates for completing the course.

13th middle school
Students from Beijing’s 13th Middle School received their certificates this week.
Certificate for Saving Migratory Birds from Class
The certificate. Big thanks to BirdLife and ZSL for supporting the programme.

Our hope is that we can expand the pilots to involve more schools in Beijing later this year and, if we can secure the resources, to train teachers to be able to deliver the course in other parts of China.  Eventually, our aim is to do ourselves out of a job by having the Chinese government incorporate this course into the State Curriculum!

I’d like to pay tribute to EcoAction’s Luo Peng for driving the development and delivery of the course and to BirdLife International and Zoological Society of London for their support.  Can’t wait for the 2016 course to begin!

 

Access To Miyun Reservoir Prohibited

It was only in May last year that I wrote about Miyun Reservoir, describing it as a world-class birding site little known by birders.  Sadly, as of last week, it appears the government has decided to prohibit access and birders have been turned away by officials.

Ever since I came to Beijing, visting Miyun Reservoir has always felt a little like trespassing..  There is an old, rusting fence that runs alongside the northern boundary of the reservoir, through which one must traverse in order to view the water.  Many panels of the fence are missing, probably the work of local fishermen and goat herders, allowing easy entry to the reservoir and the whole area is criss-crossed with vehicle tracks, testament to the traffic it has seen over the years.

Since terrorism has become a global risk, it’s always felt a little strange to be able to walk, or even drive, to the edge of Beijing’s main source of drinking water. For anyone with evil intentions, it would be relatively easy to cause havoc through contamination.  There aren’t many capital cities in the world that would allow such open access.

2013-09-01 paul and tom at miyun
Paul Holt (left) and Tom Beeke birding at Miyun Reservoir, a world-class birding site.

Birders in Beijing have been spoiled.  We have become used to visiting the shores of this vast reservoir and the top quality birding it has to offer.  Highlights in the last 3 years have included Beijing’s first Sandhill Crane, Slender-billed Gull, Bar-tailed Godwit, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and the second record of Red-throated Diver, to name a few..   And then, of course, there is the flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS that have graced the northern shores of the reservoir this winter.  With regular migrants such as Baer’s Pochard, Baikal Teal, Relict Gull, Great Bustard, White-naped Crane, Saker, Greater Spotted Eagle and Yellow-breasted Bunting, it is undoubtedly a world-class birding site.

Given that decision-making in China is opaque, it is unclear at this time whether the prohibition of access is temporary or permanent.  Time will tell.  One thing is for sure: a lack of human access to the reservoir, whilst a blow to local birders, is great news for the birds!