We enjoyed a brilliant two days with 33 species of shorebird logged, including flocks of long-distance migrants, many of which were still in fine breeding plumage, including GREAT KNOT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, GREY PLOVER, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, the ‘Near Threatened’ ASIAN DOWITCHER and even a single ‘Endangered’ NORDMANN’S GREENSHANK. My poor quality video and photos simply don’t do justice to these birds.
As we were travelling back to Beijing, I checked the news on my smartphone. The headline was about the Rio Olympics, a forward look to two weeks of celebrating the astonishing physical feats of the world’s best athletes – from 100m sprinters to marathon runners. The parallel with the shorebirds was striking. Take the Bar-tailed Godwit. One population of this specieswinters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes the return journey directly, a gob-smacking non-stop 11,000 km over the Pacific Ocean. According to scientists, this journey is the equivalent of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more then seven days! Along the way, the birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain in Alaska. And before they embark on this epic journey, they even shrink their digestive organs, superfluous weight for a non-stop 7-day flight. Try that, Usain!
Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has fallen sharply, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today. And the Bar-tailed Godwit is only one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the so-called Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea). The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
So what is the reason for the decline? Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team have, through years of painstaking studies, proved what many birders have long suspected – that the main cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea. Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat. If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.
The problem, in China at least, is a combination of local economics and national regulations. The coastal region of China is home to 40% of the country’s population, and produces roughly 60% of national GDP. Local governments receive much of their revenue through land sales and the land that demands the highest price is agricultural land close to major cities. However, to ensure China’s food security is preserved, there is a national regulation (the Law of Land Management) stipulating that there must be no net loss of agricultural land. So any farmland sold for development must be offset by land elsewhere being allocated for agriculture. The relatively cheap reclamation of mudflats is, therefore, a profitable way for Provinces to be able to sell high-value land for development whilst conforming with the “no net loss” rule by allocating much of the reclaimed land for aquaculture. In the absence of a law protecting nationally-important ecosystems, local priorities rule. And, although large-scale land reclamation projects, at least in theory, require national level approval, these rules are easily circumvented by splitting large projects into several, smaller, constituent parts. With a booming economy over the last few decades, resulting in high demand for land, the tidal mudflats are suffering death by a thousand cuts.
So, what can be done? Ultimately, what’s needed is greater protection for, and more effective management of, nationally important ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, not only for migratory birds but also to avoid undermining China’s basic ecological security, such as providing fishery products, fresh water and flood control. That will require a combination of new laws, amendments to existing laws, regulations and greater public awareness. There is some great work on this, initiated by the Paulson Institute in partnership with China’s State Forestry Administration and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that makes some compelling recommendations.
In parallel to these recommendations, one idea is to secure nomination of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion as a shared World Heritage Site between China and North and South Korea. The concept is based on the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site, a so-called ‘serial’ nomination of linked sites across three countries. Initiated by The Netherlands and Germany in 2009, with Denmark joining in 2014, this World Heritage Site is based in large part on its unique importance for migratory waterbirds. Whilst World Heritage Site status wouldn’t mean automatic protection for the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, it would give it greater national and international recognition based on its significance for migratory shorebirds along the world’s largest and most important flyway. That must be a good thing.
More immediately there is much that must be done to raise awareness about the importance of these areas for migratory shorebirds, as well as local livelihoods – vital work if the conservation community is to have a chance of influencing local governments. Whenever I speak about migratory shorebirds in China, without exception, people are amazed by the journeys these birds undertake and they are enthused to do something to help. Most are simply unaware that the Yellow Sea coast lies at the heart of the flyway. The good news is that there is now an increasing number of local birdwatching and conservation groups in many of China’s coastal provinces engaging local governments and doing what they can to save their local sites. There are grassroots organisations in China working hard to promote environmental education, not only with schools but also the general public. And there is a growing band of young Chinese scientists studying shorebird migration along the Yellow Sea. These groups fill me with great optimism about China’s future conservation community.
Internationally, organisations such as BirdLife, including their superb China Programme team – Simba Chan and Vivian Fu – are working with groups such as the Global Flyway Network, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, as well as Professor Theunis Piersma and his dedicated team. Together, they are advancing the concept of the World Heritage Site with the UN, governments and local groups. At the same time, I believe it is incumbent on us all to be Ambassadors for these birds, to celebrate their lives and to do what we can to promote awareness about their incredible journeys.
The tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are one of China’s treasures, alongside the Great Wall, but they are in peril. Affording them robust protection and effective management is the highest conservation priority in east Asia and it’s a race against time.
Wouldn’t it be something if, alongside the rolling coverage of the Olympics, state TV and radio profiled the most impressive athletes of all – the shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway?
References and resources:
BIRDS OF THE YELLOW SEA – datavisualization of migration routes by 422 South on Vimeo. See URL: https://vimeo.com/150776396
BBC World Service/ABC Radio series on the East Asian Flyway, 2016. See URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wpkd8
Saemangeum on Birds Korea. See URL: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-Mainpage.shtml
Why North Korea Is A Safe Haven For Birds, BBC, 2016. See URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36533469
I have just spent three days in Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, in the company of Shanghai-based British birder, Nick Green. It was my third visit to this stunning part of northeastern China and, after two previous trips in winter, it was a delight to see it so green and leafy, without needing to wear six layers in -30 degrees Celsius!
Whilst in winter the main attractions here are undoubtedly the owls (Snowy, Great Grey, Ural, Hawk, Eagle, Boreal and Little) our main target during this visit was to try to see the three breeding locustella warblers – Lanceolated Warbler, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and the sought-after Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. I thought we wouldn’t have too much difficulty in finding all three but I hadn’t expected the numbers we encountered. Pallas’s were seemingly in every inch of suitable habitat and, particularly early morning and evening, were singing constantly, even though it was mid-July. We recorded 53 (surely a considerable under-count) on our first full day. Lanceolated were less common, but still frequent, with 22 recorded and, the following morning, we counted 17 singing Gray’s from the moving car during a 45-minute drive.
Renowned for their skulking habits, locustella warblers are usually tough to see. However, on the breeding grounds, despite most preferring to sing from deep cover, we were fortunate to see several examples of each species singing from exposed perches.
Wu’erqihan in July isn’t only locustella heaven. The supporting cast includes White-throated Needletail, Great Grey, Ural and Eagle Owls, Siberian Rubythroat, Mugimaki Flycatcher, David’s and Chinese Bush Warblers, Pale-legged, Two-barred, Pallas’s, Thick-billed, Radde’s and Dusky Warblers and a host of other ‘sibes’.
Last weekend I visited the Baer’s Pochard breeding site in Hebei Province with Dr Wu Lan, a post-doc researcher from Beijing Forestry University, and visiting South African birder, Derrick Wilby. Our key aims were first, to try to see Baer’s Pochard and, second, to establish whether breeding had taken place this year.
As is usual at this site, there were reasonable numbers of Baer’s Pochards present in spring, with double-figure counts regular. And, with the vegetation low and the birds displaying, it is easily the best season in which to see them.
However, as spring turns to summer, the birds become much more secretive as they begin to breed and the higher vegetation makes viewing more difficult. July is certainly not the ideal time to visit but, with a combination of knowing where to look and a little luck, it should be possible to find some. And of course there is the possibility of finding birds with young.
On Sunday morning, after finding several families of Ferruginous Duck, we encountered a female bird, accompanied by 5 ducklings, that stood out from the crowd. Although not always straightforward to separate from the closely-related Ferruginous Duck on plumage, structure is a helpful way to differentiate Baer’s, particularly the relatively flat head shape and long, deep bill.
I often feel that Baer’s also sit slightly lower in the water and don’t look as ‘buoyant’ as Ferruginous. A combination of that structure and overall darker brown colouration (as opposed to the more reddish brown of Ferruginous) and hints of pale fore-flanks, are all strongly indicative of Baer’s.
After enjoying the family of Baer’s, we moved to some other locations around the lake to try to find adult males. It was with some disgust for the female member of our group that, whilst the female Baer’s was looking after the ducklings, the males were ‘hanging out’ in a different part of the lake.. seemingly without a care in the world!
Given the status of this duck, the sighting of ducklings is a welcome boost. And, with just a tiny number of known breeding sites, the survival of these youngsters will have a significant effect on the known population.
We wish them well as they begin their life adventure…
You can follow the international effort to save the Baer’s Pochard here.
The potential for discovery is one of the most exciting elements of birding in Beijing. Despite being probably the most-birded part of China, new species are recorded regularly. As one would expect, vagrants make up most of the additions to Beijing’s avifauna. However it’s an indication of just how little we know about Beijing’s birds that new breeding birds are also being discovered. Last summer at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, Paul Holt and I discovered GREENISH WARBLERS (Phylloscopus trochiloides) – the first record of this species in Beijing – and a male SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hodgsonii) – the second record for Beijing – both in suitable breeding habitat. At the time, we speculated about what else could be hiding on the forested slopes of this under-birded site. Our minds wandered to many outlandish possibilities, including WHITE-BROWED ROSEFINCH, CHESTNUT THRUSH and GREY-HEADED BULLFINCH. However, as if to tell us we were lacking in ambition, the next secret to be revealed by Lingshan was to be even more outlandish – the discovery of GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS (Turdus boulboul, 灰翅鸫), a primarily Himalayan species!
This is the story..
Last weekend, after a particularly busy May and early June involving very little birding, I decided to escape the Beijing heat for a few days to stay at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, around 100km west of the city centre. It’s usually at least 10 degrees Celsius cooler here and, of course, the birding is fantastic with a host of breeding phylloscopus warblers, range-restricted species such as GREEN-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula elisae), GREY-SIDED THRUSH (Turdus feae) and some spectacular Sibes such as SIBERIAN BLUE ROBIN (Luscinia cyane), ASIAN STUBTAIL (Urosphena squameiceps) and LONG-TAILED MINIVET (Pericrocotus ethologus).
On my final morning I decided to spend the early part of the day birding the slopes below the village by walking down the access road before heading back to Beijing around 0900. At the furthest point, just as I was about to turn around and walk back up to the car, I heard a thrush singing close by. The two most likely thrushes at Lingshan at this elevation are GREY-SIDED THRUSH and CHINESE THRUSH. It definitely wasn’t a Grey-sided and, knowing the variation in Chinese Thrush, I thought it was most likely this species. Usually, singing birds are very difficult to see but on this occasion, as I looked up the slope, I could see a thrush-sized bird perched on a bare branch on top of the ridge. Even though it was silhouetted by the rising sun, I set up the telescope to check it out. What I saw flummoxed me.. it appeared to be a blackish thrush with a clear yellow eye-ring, a yellow bill and a white wing-panel. The east Asian thrushes flashed through my head but none matched what I was seeing. Definitely not a Siberian Thrush or a Japanese Thrush… maybe it was a CHINESE BLACKBIRD with leucism (a condition of partial loss of pigmentation resulting in white patches on the plumage)? However, I had never before seen a Chinese Blackbird at Lingshan, it was atypical habitat and it didn’t sound like one… I recorded a short video and committed to following up the sighting when I was home.. By now I was a little late and needed to head back to the car for the journey back to Beijing in time to meet friends for lunch.
The original video clip, horribly backlit.
It wasn’t until the next day that I had the chance to speak to Paul Holt about what I had seen. He immediately suggested it could be a GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD, a species with which he was very familiar but that I had yet to see. After checking images of this species online, I was in no doubt that was the bird.
After alerting the Birding Beijing WeChat group, the general reaction from birders was that it was such a bizarre record that it was almost certainly an escape. One look at the known range of this species suggested why – it is largely a Himalayan bird and the nearest breeding grounds are in far southwest China – in Yunnan, Guangxi and southern Sichuan.
However, it just didn’t feel right that this bird – singing on a remote mountain 100km to the west of Beijing – was an escape. A quick check of a list of species recorded in Beijing’s bird markets showed that Grey-winged Blackbird had never been recorded for sale in the capital. In itself that didn’t prove anything, however it was certainly encouraging…
The most obvious next step was to return to Lingshan to try to establish whether the original bird was alone or part of a small, previously undiscovered, breeding population.
And so, on Wednesday, I teamed up with Paul Holt and headed west. We arrived at the location of my original sighting, between km 11 and km 12 on the access road, at around 0750. Immediately we could hear, and see, a Grey-winged Blackbird, presumably the same individual as my original sighting, singing from the same perch, high up to the east of the access road. After spending a lot of time with this bird, including making sound-recordings and video, the bird stopped singing and so we headed up the mountain to check on the Greenish Warblers that were discovered in a high tract of forest last year.
The following morning, we were out at 0400 to check on the blackbird. And, as we suspected, there wasn’t just one singing male but two, and then three! The presence of multiple birds surely reduced, if not eliminated, the chance that these birds were escapes. Instead, it was most likely we had discovered a small breeding population, more than 1,500 kilometres from the nearest known breeding sites. Wow!
Grey-winged Blackbird is primarily a Himalayan bird, with the closest known populations in China being in Yunnan, Guangxi and southern Sichuan. The discovery of, most likely breeding, birds at Lingshan represents a significant range expansion.
Thanks to the excellent contributions from Chinese birders on the Birding Beijing WeChat group, especially Lei Jinyu, we now know of several records away from the known range, including 3 records each from Shaanxi and Hubei Provinces, “a few” from Hunan and a single record from Chongqing. So it is clear the species does occur, at least occasionally, away from southwest China. It seems likely that the Lingshan birds represent a relict population, survivors of what once might have been a breeding range that extended across China’s mountains from the southwest to the northeast.
Immediately after this discovery, we began to think about what else could be on this magical mountain. Speculation on the Birding Beijing WeChat group included a suggestion from Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra – “breeding SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER“. Ben found Beijing’s first record of this species last autumn in the grounds of Tsinghua University. Incredibly, within 8 hours of his message, Paul found a singing SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER in the same area as the GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS! The second record for Beijing and, given the date, indicative of possible breeding. What. A. Day.
Now, the big question is, again: what next for Lingshan?
Big thanks to Paul Holt for his, as always, valuable counsel and for his company on the second visit to Lingshan this week.
Featured Image: Lingshan in June: a magical place.
Zhu Bingrun (Drew) is one of a new generation of brilliant Chinese ornithologists. These young scientists are adding a great deal to our knowledge about migratory birds in China, keen to collaborate with international experts and part of a growing network of young people in this vast country who want to study, and protect, wild birds.
I first met Drew when we worked together on the 2013 survey of Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia. Since then he has been working on his PhD in the Bohai Bay, focusing on the BLACK-TAILED GODWIT. As well as painstaking observations, Drew’s research has involved fitting satellite tags to learn more about the migration, breeding grounds and the most important stopover sites where these godwits rest and refuel. This information is vital to inform conservation efforts.
This year, Drew has spent all spring at Nanpu in coastal Hebei Province, studying the Black-tailed Godwits. One part of Drew’s studies was to catch, measure and fit rings to several Black-tailed Godwits to help gain data not available from viewing alone. Not surprisingly, they are difficult to catch. After much effort, and many attempts, three godwits were caught and tagged by Drew this spring. Resting on the shoulders of these three birds were not only satellite tags but also Drew’s hopes of finding out where they bred and the routes they took to reach the breeding sites.
On 1 May 2016 Drew captured and banded a single male Black-tailed Godwit. The usual metal ring was supplemented with colour flags (blue over yellow) with the individual engraving “H03” which would enable scientists and birders to identify this individual in the field. The bird was also fitted with a GPS transmitter, allowing Drew to monitor its location on a near real-time basis and potentially showing, for the first time, the migration route and breeding grounds.
After tagging, the bird was released and the satellite data showed that, just like hundreds of thousands of other shorebirds, it spent the next two weeks feeding up in the Nanpu area, preparing for its northward migration. On 17 May it began its journey north. On 18 May the last signal was received, on the border of Inner Mongolia. Three days later, on 21 May, two photos were uploaded to Facebook showing a Black-tailed Godwit with blue and yellow flags and a satellite transmitter. The bird had been shot, killed and proudly shown off by a hunter in Sakha, Russia.
Not surprisingly, Drew was devastated when Russian researcher, Inga Bystykatova, alerted him to the photos. “H03”, one of only three birds tagged this Spring, was gunned down for sport almost as soon as it left China.
Recently, much has been written about the threats faced by shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway (EAAF), most of which has rightly focused on habitat loss in the Yellow Sea ecoregion. At least one-fifth of the waterbird populations of the EAAF are threatened, the highest proportion among the global flyways. The most endangered, and most well-known, is the Spoon-billed Sandpiper but this species is far from alone. In the last decade 12 species of shorebird have been moved onto the lists of global conservation concern, and strong declines are suspected in others in the region. In past 50 years, 51% of intertidal habitat in China has been converted to urban, industrial and agricultural land. The remaining areas are affected by numerous on-going and planned land conversion projects. The conversion of an estimated 578,000 hectares of coastal wetlands has recently been approved. On the positive side, there is a huge conservation effort, involving the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, BirdLife International and many others, focused on trying to protect the remaining areas of intertidal mudflats and there are signs that this effort is making progress.
However, there are other threats. And what is much less well-known is the scale of hunting in Russia. There are apparently 2 million hunters in Russia. There is a tradition of hunting Whimbrel – they taste good and hunting this species is a special focus of hunters on coastal spits, particularly in autumn. However, hunters don’t just stick to Whimbrel and often other shorebirds, such as sandpipers, curlews and godwits, are taken when they have the opportunity, even though some of these species are officially protected. Enforcement of the law in remote eastern Siberia is almost non-existent.
When I asked Drew about this, his reply was honest, thoughtful and hard-hitting:
“China takes the blame for a long time for the population decline of migratory birds. That is fine – we have a problem and we are changing. But conservation of migratory birds is never a single country’s duty. As the major breeding ground, Russia keeps a very low profile but slaughters God knows how many birds each year.”
It is clear that there is an urgent need, in parallel to the efforts to save the remaining habitat along the Yellow Sea ecoregion, for more awareness and more constructive communication with hunters in Russia. It is, of course, impossible to stop hunting of wild birds altogether, at least in the short term. However, with better communication, it should be possible to ensure the hunters are aware of those species that are endangered and to encourage restraint when these species are encountered.
As Drew says, protecting migratory birds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is the responsibility of all nations in the region, from New Zealand and Australia in the south to southeast Asia, China and Russia. It is only by protecting birds on the wintering grounds, the breeding grounds and the key stopover sites that the health and viability of the East Asian Australasian Flyway will be maintained.
As for “H03”, contact with the hunter in Russia has been established and he has agreed to send back the bird, complete with transmitter, to Drew. Let’s hope “H03” did not die in vain and that he is the catalyst for a new conservation effort focusing on dialogue with hunters in Russia.
I have just spent a week ‘in the field’ with “Team Cuckoo” and I am elated. After five days of exhausting 0300 starts, we’ve fitted satellite tags to a total of five Beijing Cuckoos, two females and three males, caught at three different sites – Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu Nature Reserve. All tags appear to be transmitting normally and we hope, very soon, to be able to receive data about their locations. All being well, in a few months we will know, for the first time, the location of the wintering grounds of Beijing Cuckoos and the route they take to get there. Exciting indeed!
Here is a short video giving a flavour of the last few days..
Next week we will begin the naming process with local schools who will follow the cuckoos’ progress and learn about their migration and habitat requirements as part of a special environmental curriculum.
Very soon we’ll have a website up and running that will enable the public to follow their progress, too. Watch this space! In the meantime, I have set up a dedicated page on the Birding Beijing website where regular updates will be posted in English. See here.
The project is a partnership between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), the China Birdwatching Society (CBWS), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing and kindly supported by the Zoological Society of London, the Oriental Bird Club and the British Birds Charitable Foundation.
It’s a project that has everything – scientific discovery, public engagement, enthusing young people, collaboration between organisations in China and Europe and cultural exchange. I am hugely grateful to Chris Hewson from the BTO for travelling to Beijing to share his expertise and oversee the catching operation. He is a superb ambassador for the BTO and for UK science in China.
We still need to raise funds to pay for the “satellite services” that will enable us to receive the data… A dedicated JustGiving page has been set up to receive any donations. All contributions, no matter how big or small, are very welcome!