Mongolian Cuckoos on the move

Back in early June, five cuckoos were fitted with tags at Khurkh Ringing Station in Mongolia. The first one fitted with a tag was an Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus), believed to be the first ever individual of this species to be tracked. The other four were Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus). All five were given names by schoolchildren in the local community and in Ulan Bataar.

The next six weeks were fairly quiet for the four Common Cuckoos, all of which remained in the vicinity of Khurkh. However, the Oriental Cuckoo (named NOMAD) was clearly still on migration when he was caught in early June and continued north to breeding grounds on the central Siberian plane.

Now, into August, the cuckoos are already on the move. NOMAD, after only four weeks on his breeding grounds in central Siberia, has begun to move south and is currently close to the border of Irkutsk Province in Russia. Three of the four Common Cuckoos (NAMJAA, ONON and Captain KHURKH) have also begun their journey south with only BAYAN remaining in the vicinity of Khurkh. After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other, more than 2,800km now separates the five birds.

After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other in June, more than 2,800km separates NOMAD and NAMJAA in early August.

Over the next few weeks and months, following their progress is sure to be a roller-coaster ride. We expect the four Common Cuckoos to head into south Asia before crossing the Arabian Sea to Africa. However, the migration route and wintering grounds of NOMAD, the Oriental Cuckoo, will be new to science. From sight records we believe NOMAD’s most likely destination is southeast Asia or possibly Australia. However, nobody knows for sure, and one thing is for certain.. there will be some surprises along the way!

The schoolchildren in Mongolia are excited to follow ‘their’ birds and already the project has reached many who wouldn’t ordinarily take an interest in migratory birds.

Local schoolchildren gave names to the cuckoos and will be following them as they flee the cold of the Mongolian winter until their return the following spring.

You, too, can follow the progress of NOMAD, Captain KHURKH (will he boldly go where no cuckoo has gone before?), NAMJAA, ONON and BAYAN at the dedicated Mongolian Cuckoo Project page or via the BTO’s international projects page and on Twitter @BirdingBeijing or WeChat “BirdingBeijing”.

If you enjoy following these birds, please consider making a donation, no matter how small, to the JustGiving site towards the ongoing satellite fees. All contributions will go directly to BTO and 100% of the funds will go towards the cost of the satellite fees only.

Big thanks to the project partners, the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and to the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) and Mr Dick Newell for their financial support.

Thanks also to you, the reader, for following the Mongolian Cuckoos. Isn’t migration amazing?

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Valley of the Cats awarded first franchise for wildlife tourism in China’s national parks

Some great news from the Tibetan Plateau. The community cooperative in The Valley of the Cats has been awarded the first ever franchise for community-based tourism inside a Chinese National Park.

The franchise was awarded at a special meeting in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, involving the central and local governments, representatives of the local community and ShanShui Conservation Center.

The franchise recognises the community-based wildlife watching project as a way to facilitate public access to a national park whilst respecting the local community and the fragile environment.

The local community participated in several training courses in 2017 before opening their homes to tourists.

This recognition comes at an important time for China’s National Parks. Currently there are 11 pilot National Parks across the country, including Sanjiangyuan (literal translation “three rivers park”, recognising it as the source of the three great rivers – the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow), in which the Valley of the Cats resides. Next year, based on the experience of the pilots and ongoing research, including learning from overseas, the Chinese government is due to announce its first tranche of National Parks and how they will be managed. Tourism will be a major element of the policy and the Valley of the Cats community-based project is now formally recognised as a model for tourism that could be appropriate for environmentally sensitive areas.

Having received local government approval in 2017 and after intensive training with 22 families in the Valley, the community-based wildlife watching tourism project was open to visitors in 2018 and, in its first full year, received 61 groups of visitors raising 460,000 CNY for the local community. Demand is up in 2019 and we expect the revenue to pass 1 million CNY sometime this autumn. Importantly, 100% of the revenue stays in the community with 45% from each visit going directly to the host family, 45% to a community fund run by a locally-appointed committee and 10% to community-based conservation projects.

The project is still in its infancy and, not unexpectedly, challenges remain. For example:

i) The standard of accommodation, basic food and lack of dedicated toilets mean that this type of tourism is only for the adventurous traveller;

ii) Language can be a barrier for foreign visitors; with very few herder families having any english language capability, visitors with no Tibetan or Mandarin proficiency can struggle to communicate; and although much can be achieved with modern translation APPs, this is no substitute for direct communication;

iii) Illegal visitors – some households and visitors didn’t follow the rules and received tourists privately; this is against the regulations and can cause ill feeling in the community. With the Valley covering a large area, it is hard to police effectively. Any illegal visitors will be ejected and banned from re-entry and, from 2020, manned gates will be active at each entry point.

Other, more long-term risks to consider include:

Will the economic benefits of this kind of tourism break the balanced structure of the community and, if so, will it lead to negative behaviour?

Will the arrival of more visitors accelerate the change of traditional culture here? And will these changes affect the herders’ attitude towards wildlife? After all, it is their culture and harmonious attitude towards nature that has made it possible for this pristine environment to be preserved to this day.

Whilst recognising these risks, the experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive and invaluable knowledge is being gained that will have an influence on the way tourism is managed in China’s national parks from 2020. On behalf of the local community, a big thank you to everyone who has supported the project!

2019 began with several groups braving the cold and unusually heavy snow in February and March to experience the Valley in stunningly beautiful wintery conditions.

Carpeted with snow, the Valley takes on a new look.

I made my first visit of the year in early May, coinciding with the visit of a Scottish couple, Graeme and Moira Wallace, who had flown 10,000km to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in the Valley of the Cats. It was very special, and emotional, to see Graeme and Moira encountering their first Snow Leopard. They were extremely lucky, viewing a sleepy male just 160m from the vehicle!

A sleepy male Snow Leopard just 160m from the vehicle in the Valley of the Cats. A wonderful 40th wedding anniversary present for Graeme and Moira Wallace.

The next day they saw another Snow Leopard, probably a female, at a different location. The experience of seeing these wild cats on the stunning Tibetan Plateau, enjoying the incredible scenery and staying in the home of a local herder made their 40th wedding anniversary hard to beat. See you back here for your 50th?

Graeme and Moira Wallace on top of the world!
Graeme and Moira Wallace with Abao, their herder host and guide.

On their return to Scotland, Graeme and Moira kindly made a donation towards the community-based conservation project in the Valley of the Cats. Thank you, Graeme and Moira!

I was back in July, accompanying the visiting Panthera scientist, Imogene Cancellare, and helping a joint UK-China TV production company with a recce ahead of planned filming in October. Imogene was collecting Snow Leopard scat, in partnership with ShanShui Conservation Center, as part of her PhD studying Snow Leopard genetics.

Imogene Cancellare (left) with Emilie (Wang Yiliao) of ShanShui Conservation Center, collecting Snow Leopard scat at 4,500m

On their first night, the TV producers had some excitement when a Brown Bear broke into their family homestay. Fortunately, the bear didn’t get into their sleeping quarters and was scared off by the family banging pots and pans without any lasting damage but it was a stark reminder that living in this area is not without risk!

Inspecting the break-in by a Brown Bear. Can you see the paw prints?

The summer nights in the Valley of the Cats are perfect for viewing the core of the Milky Way and, for the first time, I attempted to photograph the night sky. I was pleased with the results but, given the elevation and light pollution-free skies, I am sure anyone with experience and a better camera would be able to capture some stunning images.

The Milky Way over the ShanShui workstation in the Valley of the Cats.

The Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife tourism project has been, without doubt, the most rewarding project with which I have been involved. Together, we are learning by doing. A big thank you to the local government, the herder families and to the brilliant ShanShui Conservation Center for making it possible. And a special thank you to everyone who has supported the project by visiting.

If you haven’t yet visited but are interested, check out the website to learn more and make an inquiry!

Chinese coastal sites secure World Heritage status

Only three years ago there were fears that China’s east coast could become an epicentre of extinction, such was the rate and extent of loss of intertidal mudflats, vital to millions of migratory shorebirds including many species whose populations are in sharp decline. However, in the last three years things have moved fast, even by China standards, and the emotions of shorebird researchers and conservationists have swung from depression and despair to hope and celebration.

In early July 2019, the future of migratory shorebirds in Asia and Australasia became a little more secure due to the addition by the United Nations of two of the most important locations – Taozini and Yancheng – onto the list of World Heritage sites. Whilst not a silver bullet for saving these migratory shorebirds, shared by at least 22 countries in East Asia and Australasia, it’s a big step forward and reflects significant recent progress by China on a range of conservation issues.

The Yellow Sea is critically important as a staging site for millions of shorebirds in the region

The Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay are at the heart of one of the world’s largest, and most threatened, flyways known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), a bird ‘superhighway’ that connects the Arctic with the southern hemisphere. Millions of shorebirds rely on the intertidal mudflats of China’s coast as a ‘service station’ to refuel and rest on their incredible journeys from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle to non-breeding grounds as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Their journeys, which scientists have only recently begun to understand, are stories of life on the edge; incredible endurance, specialism, beauty and awe. Just one example is the ‘baueri‘ Bar-tailed Godwit that migrates from New Zealand to Alaska via the Yellow Sea to breed, before flying non-stop from Alaska back to New Zealand after the breeding season. In the last ten years it has become clear that the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper relies on the Yellow Sea in both spring and autumn for food, rest and moulting.

The critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper is just one step away from extinction. Around 10 years ago, local Chinese birders first discovered the importance of the Yellow Sea to this charismatic species. Photo by Chen Tengyi.

One of the most effective ways to secure protection for the remaining intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea coast would be to secure nomination as World Heritage sites. This would not only require detailed evaluations and management plans but would also help promote the importance of the area both nationally and internationally. At the same time, inscription as World Heritage site would come with hard protection obligations.

And so the process, and all the hard work that comes with such a complex nomination, including liaison between the local and national governments, academics, NGOs and China’s World Heritage team, began.

As a first step, in February 2017 a total of 14 sites were added to China’s “tentative” list for World Heritage status, a pre-requisite to a formal nomination. The early efforts were given a significant boost in January 2018 when the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on further ‘commercial-related’ land reclamation along its coast. This was reinforced by a circular from the State Council (China’s Cabinet) in July of that year. Momentum was building.

The process of securing nomination as a World Heritage site is not easy. Vast amounts of technical data are required and the nomination must address detailed questions about why the sites are important, how the sites will be protected and managed, as well as addressing the interests of various stakeholders. As a complex ‘serial’ nomination, involving more than one site, the process was even more demanding.

Eventually, after much work and collaboration, the formal nomination documents were submitted. The next part of the process for ‘natural heritage’ sites is for the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to conduct a technical review of the submission in order to make a recommendation to governments on the World Heritage Committee, the body that approves nominations.

In this case, the IUCN recommended deferral of the Yellow Sea application, pointing out some weaknesses in the application.

Whilst the IUCN report was unquestionably thorough and correct in its assessment, the recommendation to defer was greeted with gasps of horror from the conservation community in China and overseas. The reality was that, should the application be deferred, there were so many other sites in China on the waiting list for World Heritage nomination that it could be years before the Yellow Sea sites could be put forward again and, such was the urgency of the conservation issue related to this nomination, there simply wasn’t time. The Chinese team, supported by an incredible effort from the international conservation NGOs, orchestrated by BirdLife International, quickly put together a business case as to why, in this case, the global importance and urgency of the nomination was such that the recommendation from IUCN should be noted but that the sites should be inscribed in any case. The Australian government, encouraged by BirdLife Australia, put forward a motion to this effect.

In early July, the World Heritage Committee met in Baku, Azerbaijan, to decide whether to accept the latest series of nominations for World Heritage status from all over the world. The conservation community held its breath.

On 5 July, it was the turn of China’s Yellow Sea nomination to be discussed. The proceedings can be seen here but the most relevant part of the World Heritage Congress’s decision is simply this:

“The World Heritage Committee, Having examined Documents WHC/19/43.COM/8B and WHC/19/43.COM/INF.8B2,

Inscribes the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf of China (Phase I), China, on the World Heritage List on the basis of criterion (x);”

In short, the nomination was accepted subject to China complying with certain conditions to address the weaknesses outlined in the IUCN technical report. An excellent and sensible resolution. I think it’s fair to say that the conservation community breathed a huge collective sigh of relief.

China’s World Heritage team after the decision in Baku. Photo credit: CEAAF

As referenced by the official decision, this is just the beginning involving two of the most important sites. By 2020, phase II will be prepared, under which additional sites are expected to be added to this ‘serial’ World Heritage Site and, ideally, given the Yellow Sea region is shared by China, the Republic of Korea (RoK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a joint three-way World Heritage Site would better reflect the shared natural heritage of this area and would illustrate the importance of countries working together to conserve migratory birds.

There is still an enormous amount of work to do to secure the future of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. However, it is hard to overstate the change from three years ago.

So, for now, big congratulations to China and to everyone who has worked so hard to support the nomination, including the scientists and think-tanks who have proven the importance of the Yellow Sea to migratory birds and the economic value of coastal wetlands, to the national and local governments for creating an enabling policy framework, to academics, domestic NGOs and conservationists for the advocacy and technical support for the nomination, to international NGOs for rallying international support and to every individual who has expressed support, providing day to day encouragement to everyone working on this issue… today, you are all conservation heroes!

The depression and despair has turned into genuine hope.

Title image: Greater Sand Plover, Bohai Bay

China’s leading property developer commits to “Swift-friendly” buildings

“We have designed and built buildings for over 20 years. Our focus has always been on humans and how to make our lives better. In the future, we need to consider biodiversity and to create a better living environment for both citizens and wildlife, such as the Beijing Swift.”

– Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China

On Thursday 27 June 2019, Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, the leading property development and management company in China, met with four student “Beijing Swift Ambassadors” from Beijing schools. In response to their presentations about the Beijing Swift – its lifestyle, its migration, the falling population and what schools were doing to help – and a video message of support from Hank Paulson, former Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute, Mr Pan made three major commitments:

First, to trial the retrofitting of swift boxes on two of its buildings in Beijing

Second, to consider incorporating of biodiversity criteria into new building design

And third, to promote biodiversity among the building sector in China.

That’s quite a statement. And, as a prominent figure in Chinese industry and a national celebrity with more than 19 million followers on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), this big announcement by Mr Pan will reach far and wide and, we hope, influence the business community not only in China but overseas.

BEI Zhilei explaining the difference between Swallows and Swifts
CHEN Yanzhi explaining the incredible migration of the Beijing Swift
JING Sicheng spoke about how the number of nest sites had fallen in the city due to the loss of traditional buildings
GAO Chuxuan briefing about school’s efforts to make and erect nest boxes for the Beijing Swift.
Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute, recorded a special message of support for the SOHO China Beijing Swift Project
Pan Shiyi setting out SOHO China’s commitments following the Beijing Swift Ambassadors’ presentation and the message from Hank Paulson.

The roots of this initiative go back to December 2013 when, by chance, I had a conversation with Dick Newell at a BirdLife International reception in London about the potential to track the Beijing Swift’s migration, until then a mystery. Back in Beijing, after a few conversations, a project was born and, in May 2014, a team of volunteers from the China Birdwatching Society, the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and the Summer Palace joined Dick, Lyndon Kearsley and I to fit geolocators to 31 Beijing Swifts. A year later, after re-trapping 13 of the original 31 birds, we were able to prove for the first time that these special birds migrated to southern Africa for the northern winter.

Since then, I have visited more than 20 schools to tell the story of the Beijing Swift and, invariably, when the students hear about the population decline caused by the loss of nest sites due to the demolition of traditional style buildings, they want to help. Many schools have set up projects to make and erect artificial nest boxes on their school campuses (just this spring, we received exciting news from ISB – the International School of Beijing – that they had been successful in attracting swifts). Then, at one school, a young girl put up her hand and asked if we could write to the bosses of the building companies to ask them to make new buildings friendlier for swifts.

What a fabulous idea!

And so, student “Beijing Swift Ambassadors” wrote a letter to Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, asking him to help and yesterday they were invited to meet him to make the case.

After a scene-setting clip from the BBC Natural History Unit about the Beijing Swift, recorded in the capital last year as part of the “Wild Metropolis” series, the meeting began with a short introduction by Terry, followed by a video message of support from Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute. The floor was then given to the student Beijing Swift Ambassadors to set out their case. They were eloquent, passionate and very persuasive.

The Beijing Swift Ambassadors (from left to right): Chen Yanzhi, Keystone Academy, GAO Chuxuan, No.13 Middle School, BEI Zhilei, The High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China and JING Sicheng, No.2 Middle School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University.

Mr Pan listened carefully and responded with his groundbreaking commitments, including presenting the students with signed, handmade swift boxes made by Mr Pan personally from recycled wood reclaimed from SOHO China’s building sites. In return, the students presented Mr Pan with a signed certificate, awarding him the title “Beijing Swift Ambassador”.

Mr Pan signed a handmade box for each Swift Ambassador
Mr Pan receiving his “Beijing Swift Ambassador” certificate from his fellow Ambassadors

After the presentations, guests were invited to the roof to watch the Beijing Swifts wheeling around Zhengyangmen Gate at the southern end of Tiananmen Square. This must be one of the best places in the world to view the Beijing Swift!

The SOHO China Beijing Swift Project logo
The view across Tiananmen Square is made even more impressive by the sight and sound of screaming Beijing Swifts
Mr Pan pointing out Beijing Swifts from the rooftop overlooking Tiananmen Square

This initiative could not be better timed. Next year, governments will meet in Kunming, China, to agree new targets to slow and stop the decline in wildlife at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. This meeting happens in the context of a biodiversity crisis – according to best estimates, we have lost around 60% of wildlife on Earth in the last 50 years. But whilst the governmental meeting is crucial, it is clear that governments alone cannot tackle the biodiversity crisis. All sectors of society including cities, regions, communities, NGOs and business must find ways to incorporate biodiversity criteria into their daily activities.

That is why this initiative by SOHO China and Mr Pan is so important. It shows that we can develop, we can have cutting-edge design and functionality and, at the same time, make a positive contribution to biodiversity. It is leadership of the highest order and will send a strong signal to business in China and overseas.

With the world’s spotlight on biodiversity next October, if you were a CEO, wouldn’t you want your company to have a good story to tell about how its supporting wildlife?

Huge thanks to the Beijing Swift Ambassadors, without whom this project would not have been possible. Their professional and slick presentation was exceptional. And a big thank you to Hank Paulson for his strong message of support; it was very special for the Swift Ambassadors and for SOHO China to hear these words of encouragement from a person of his stature. We are, of course, indebted to SOHO China, especially Pan Shiyi and Charlie (Tang Yin), who not only put on a special event but ensured it was backed up by lasting, meaningful commitments. Thank you to Dick Newell for providing technical advice to SOHO China about swift boxes and for being so encouraging. We are grateful to the BBC Natural History Unit for providing the clip of the Beijing Swift and to my colleague, Luo Peng, at EcoAction who worked hard to help prepare the students and to the SEE Foundation for their support for the project. Finally, I’d like to say a huge thank you to Wendy Paulson for initially connecting me to Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin and for her unstinting support.

The Sound of Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

On the way to Mongolia for the Cuckoo Project, I spent three days with Josh Jones, Ben Wielstra, Jocko Hammar and Chris Campion in Wuerqihan. This small logging town is situated in northern Inner Mongolia on the edge of the taiga forest. It is a wonderful place to spend a few days in summer as it’s a breeding area for many Siberian birds including Japanese Quail, Great Grey Owl, Siberian Rubythroat, Radde’s, Dusky, Thick-billed Warblers, Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Gray’s Grasshopper and Pale-legged Leaf Warblers, Siberian and Eyebrowed Thrushes, Pacific Swift, Common, Indian and Oriental Cuckoos, Common Rosefinch, Yellow-breasted Bunting and many more. Swinhoe’s Rail was recently discovered here and Far Eastern Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit breed in the wet meadows.

Early morning and evening, a cacophony of bird sound fills the air and the beautifully still mornings enabled me to capture a sample, recorded from three different locations around the town. One of the first things to strike me was the abundance of Common Cuckoos; it was impossible to make a recording without hearing the wonderful “cuck-oo” call, as if it was ‘on repeat’.

Listen carefully and a rich array of species can be heard including flycatchers, thrushes, warblers and rosefinches.

How many species can you hear? I believe there are at least 17 species vocalising in this clip.. but there are probably more!

Please leave a comment with any species you can name…

The Mongolia Cuckoo Project

Followers of Birding Beijing’s Twitter feed (@BirdingBeijing) will know that Team Cuckoo (Chris Hewson of BTO, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley and Terry Townshend) has been in Mongolia, partnering with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) to begin a new cuckoo tracking project.

The Mongolia Cuckoo Project is a partnership between the WSCC and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), facilitated by Birding Beijing and supported by the Oriental Bird Club.

The project builds on the success of the Beijing Cuckoo Project and aims to discover more about the wintering grounds and migration routes of cuckoos in East Asia, as well as engaging the public through naming and following the birds.

From 5-8 June, the team was based at Khurkh Bird Banding Station in northern Mongolia, an 8-hour drive from the capital Ulan Bator. Here, Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, the manager of the ringing station, works with volunteers to ring migratory birds each spring and autumn. The site is stunning – a lush valley with a tributary of the river Onon at its heart, nestled between hills of rolling grassland just south of the Russian border.

The Khurkh Bird Ringing Station seen from adjacent hills
The ger at Khurkh Bird Ringing Station alongside our trusty “go anywhere” Russian vehicle.
Young volunteers from Sweden and Singapore were manning the ringing station during our visit.

On arrival, we were told by the ringers that they had just caught a probable ORIENTAL CUCKOO in the nets. Without hearing it sing, this species is tricky to separate from COMMON CUCKOO. However, using criteria relating to the number of pale spots on the underside of the primaries and the colour and markings on the innermost underwing coverts, it can be done. Sure enough, the bird the ringers had caught was an ORIENTAL CUCKOO and, being unaware of any of this species being tracked before, we fitted a transmitter to this individual and released it.

The BTO’s cuckoo expert, Chris Hewson, with the ORIENTAL CUCKOO immediately before release

There are records of ORIENTAL CUCKOO from SE Asia and Australia in the northern winter and, intriguingly, according to HBW there is a record of a specimen from Zambia…! Assuming it stays healthy, it’ll be fascinating to see the movements of this bird.

The same day, after heavy rain for several hours in the afternoon, we caught and tagged a male COMMON CUCKOO in the early evening, just a couple of hundred metres from the camp.

On our second full day, the weather was cold, windy and wet for several hours but as soon as the rain stopped, we were out to set up the nets further along the valley.. and within five minutes had caught an incredible five cuckoos!

Setting up the nets

One was a beautiful female ‘hepatic’ (rufous morph) bird, unfortunately too small to carry a tag (there are strict guidelines about the relative weight of the tag and the bird’s body weight to ensure the tag effect is as small as possible), as well as another small ORIENTAL CUCKOO. The other three were good-sized male COMMON CUCKOOS; we fitted tags to two of them and released the third bird after fitting a metal ring (the tagging process can take 30-40 minutes, so we didn’t want the third bird to be waiting around for too long).

This hepatic female was released after being fitted with a metal ring.

After processing these birds, we set off to the local town of Binder to participate in a crane festival. Here we met up with George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, and joined in the celebration. The art exhibition produced by the local children was magical. Despite encouragement, we couldn’t persuade BTO’s Chris Hewson to represent Team Cuckoo in the Mongolian wrestling competition…!

The visit to the town provided us with an opportunity to visit the local school to speak with the students about the cuckoo project and to invite them to name two of the birds. The students, who have recently set up an “Eco Club”, were impressively knowledgeable about their local birds and were excited to be part of the project.. They quickly put forward several names and, after a vote, decided on two – “нүүдэлчин” (English translation: Nomad) and “Онон” (English translation: Onon), after the local river that runs through the town. The students are looking forward to following “their” birds over the next few weeks, months and hopefully years.

Students put forward ten names
Putting the suggested names to the vote
The two most popular names

Day three saw us travel around 30 minutes from the camp to a small copse on a hillside and no sooner had we arrived than we heard two male COMMON CUCKOOS singing. After setting up the nets, again we quickly caught one of the males. Cuckoo number five was ‘in the bag’ after only two and half days in the field.

Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg releasing the fifth cuckoo to be fitted with a tag at Khurkh

And so, it is with much excitement and expectation that we can introduce the five Mongolian Cuckoos we’ll be tracking..

Names will be given to the currently un-named three cuckoos over the next few weeks.

As with the Beijing Cuckoo Project, we’ve created a special web page which will be updated regularly with the cuckoo’s movements. Already, there’s been a big move by one of the five! Check out the page to find out details. You can also follow their progress via Twitter (@BirdingBeijing).

“Team Cuckoo” would like to express huge thanks to the Mongolian team, especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Batmunkh Davaasuren and Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, to the British Trust for Ornithology and to the Oriental Bird Club and Mr Dick Newell for making the project possible.

We can be sure that these avian travellers will surprise, impress, enthral and, most of all, inspire us. We can’t wait to learn more about these incredible birds.

“Rewilding” Beijing

A few months ago, I wrote a short article with some ideas for how Beijing could become better for wildlife.  The article was prompted by the fact that, in 2020,  China is due to host the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and, with thousands of delegates from 180+ countries due to descend on the country, including many journalists, it would be a brilliant opportunity to help improve China’s image on the environment by devising and implementing meaningful plans to make the country better for wildlife.  And what better place to start than Beijing?

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the Beijing government and delighted to discover that they were a step ahead; a significant amount of money (I have heard 20 billion CNY) has been allocated to develop and implement a strategic plan to make the city better for wildlife.  The government has commissioned Peking University to help develop plans.

In the last two weeks I have participated in two meetings with the Beijing Municipal Government and Peking University during which we have discussed many ideas, including those put forward in my original article from last year.  And last week I was invited to deliver a lecture to all staff in the Beijing Forest and Parks Bureau after which I was formally invited to be part of the team working on this project.

Mr WANG Xiaoping, Director of Beijing Forestry and Parks Department, awarding Terry with an “honorary credential” after his lecture to staff.

Beijing has a solid foundation.  The Chinese capital lies on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, a major migratory route for birds, and has recorded around 500 species, a total that is better than almost all other major capital cities in the world.  Additionally, in the mountains around the city, mammals such as Siberian Roe Deer, Raccoon Dog, Wild Boar, Hog Badger and Leopard Cat can be found.  It is not a stretch to imagine the return of the Common Leopard, a species that was present in Beijing until just a few decades ago and is now thought to be making a comeback via the mountains to the west in Hebei and Shanxi.  One was recently caught on camera less than 50km from the capital’s boundary.  How many major capital cities have multiple species of wild cat?

As is often the case in China’s policymaking, projects are likely to take place on a pilot basis to test the feasibility, practicality and effectiveness before, if successful, being scaled up.

One such pilot will involve part of the Wenyu River, traditionally one of Beijing’s best birding spots but which has recently suffered from the clearance of vegetation, planting of inappropriate trees and, in places, reinforcing the banks with concrete.

wenyu original bank1
The banks of the Wenyu River as they used to be.. (Photo: Steve Bale)

Wenyu cleared bank1
A similar stretch of the Wenyu River today (Photo: Steve Bale)

The pilot, which will include a stretch of over 10km of Beijing’s “Mother River”, will aim to show the benefits to wildlife of shallow banks, muddy fringes and natural vegetation.  This pilot is important for another reason – it will be the first major collaboration between the Beijing Forest and Parks Department (which manages the land) and the Water Bureau (which manages the reservoirs and rivers, including the margins).  We know that rivers are important corridors for wildlife and this project, if successful, will hopefully influence the way the Water Bureau manages Beijing’s rivers and could open the way for some exploratory discussions about the future management of Miyun Reservoir.

The idea of “10% Wild” – allowing 10 per cent of some of Beijing’s major city parks to grow wild – seems to be gaining traction and it’s something that we’ll be discussing in more detail over the next few weeks.

“Urban oases” or a series of stepping stones for migratory birds, possibly linked by a “wild ring road”, a ‘wildlife audit’ involving local schools, restoring habitat in the mountains and plains and introducing biodiversity criteria into Beijing’s vociferous tree-planting campaign are all ideas being discussed.

I have been struck by the enthusiasm and sincerity of the Beijing Municipal government, in particular Director Wang Xiaoping and his staff, and I am excited to work with them and Peking University over the next few months and years to support the city’s efforts.  Suddenly, the vision of Beijing being the “capital of biodiversity” doesn’t seem such a long way off.

 

I’d like to thank James Phillips from Natural England who passed on some excellent information about biodiversity and agriculture projects that have worked in England. 

 

Header photos (by Terry Townshend unless stated otherwise): Amur Hedgehog, White-naped Cranes, dragonfly sp, Leopard Cat (Peking University), Oriental Plover (Zhang XiaoLing) and Eastern Marsh Harrier.