12 Months And Almost 27,000km Later, The First Beijing Cuckoo Is Back!

On 20 May 2017 Gao Jingxin was visiting Yeyahu wetland in Beijing when she spotted a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) sitting atop a bush.  It was the first time she had seen cuckoos this spring and, as an accomplished photographer, she quickly snapped some photos.  After studying the photos carefully, Jingxin realised there was something special about this particular cuckoo; an antenna was clearly visible protruding from the bird’s back.  Jingxin had been following the Beijing Cuckoo Project since the beginning and immediately thought the bird in her photos could be one of the Cuckoos fitted with a tag last spring.  She sent the photos to me via WeChat and asked the question.  When I opened the message I was elated and, I must admit, emotional.  Having received a signal from Meng’s tag on 20 May showing he had arrived back at Yeyahu, I simply replied “It’s Meng” !

Gao Jingxin’s photographs are a joy to see.  They show Meng (full name Meng Zhi Jian, 梦之鹃), seemingly in fantastic condition, back on the breeding grounds and claiming a territory.  Incredibly, he was photographed just a few hundred metres from the place where he was fitted with a tag on 25 May 2016.

梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan), Yeyahu, 20 May 2017 (Photo by Gao Jingxin)
梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan) seemingly in great condition after his marathon migration to Mozambique and back, Yeyahu, 20 May 2017 (Photo by Gao Jingxin)

The signals show that, since being fitted with his tag, Meng has crossed 16 borders involving 10 countries (China – Vietnam – Laos – Myanmar – Bangladesh – India – Somalia – Kenya – Tanzania Mozambique – Tanzania – Kenya – Somalia – India – Bangladesh – Myanmar – China).  All without a passport or visa.  And along the journey he’s passed through 13 Chinese Provinces and crossed the Arabian Sea twice.  In total, we calculate he has flown at least 26,990 kilometers in 12 months.  That’s equivalent to more than half way around the world.  Wow.

Meng has given us so much new data about the life cycle of cuckoos from East Asia, including information about migration routes, stopover sites, the relationship between the timing of migration and weather/climatic patterns, not to mention the location of, and habitat preferences at, the wintering grounds.  This is all vital information if we are to ensure the continued survival of the cuckoo and birds like them.  Over the next few weeks and months we’ll be analysing the data to ensure we make full use of the information he has provided.

Experience from Europe shows that cuckoos usually return to the same general area each year to breed so we had expected Meng to return to Beijing Municipality.  However, to see him so close to the area where we caught him last May is testament to the incredible navigational ability of these birds, especially since they never even know their parents, let alone learn from them.

Gao Jingxin’s photos are the perfect way to celebrate the first anniversary of the Beijing Cuckoo Project and they’ve rightly gone viral on Chinese social media.

The Project Team is deeply grateful to Gao Jingxin for allowing the use of her wonderful photos on the Birding Beijing website and for helping to complete the cycle of Beijing Cuckoo migration in style.  We’d also like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has supported the project over the last 12 months, including the partners – the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), especially Chris Hewson, and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), especially Shi Yang, Aodan Zhula, Wang Bojun and Wu Mengwei, the sponsors – Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Oriental Bird Club (OBC), British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International.  Yeyahu Wetland Reserve, Cuihu Urban Wetland and Hanshiqiao Wetland for allowing us to tag birds at their reserves.  To Wu Lan, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Gie Goris, Geert De Smet, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Mu Tong, Li Qingxin and Rob Jolliffe who have all played vital roles.  And a special thanks to all the members of the public who have either donated to the JustGiving site or followed and helped to spread the word on social media in China and overseas, and to the many schools and schoolchildren across China who have been so engaged in the project.

As we await the return of Flappy, currently in Hubei Province, all that remains is to say “Welcome Home, Meng” and to wish him a successful breeding season in Beijing.

The reaction to the Beijing Cuckoo Project on social media has been wonderful.  Below are some of the recent reactions to the journeys of the Beijing Cuckoos.  Keep them coming!  And follow @BirdingBeijing on Twitter for updates.

Beijing Swifts 2017

I spent Saturday morning with Belgium-based Lyndon Kearsley and the Beijing team at the Summer Palace for the annual Swift banding project.  Led by Professor Zhao Xinru of the China Birdwatching Society, in collaboration with scientists from the UK, including the BTO, Sweden and Belgium, the project has recently been responsible for discovering the Beijing Swift’s wintering grounds and migration route, proving for the first time that these incredible aviators travel to southern Africa and back every year.

This year, we are hoping to prove an even more incredible aspect of the Beijing Swift’s lifestyle.  In 2016 selected birds were fitted with a new type of technology – accelerometers – which can, in short, establish whether the birds are moving or stationary.  Having this morning recaptured seven birds fitted with accelerometers in 2016, and provided the data are good, we should be able to show whether these birds have spent the nine months away from Beijing in continuous flight, just as Susanne Åkesson and her team have recently proved with Swifts from Sweden.  Wouldn’t that be something?

The analysis of the data will take some weeks and months to complete, so we don’t expect to have an answer quickly.  In the meantime, here is a short video of the Beijing Swifts in slow motion, taken this morning at the Summer Palace.  One striking aspect is the sound of the calls when slowed down…  my advice is don’t play this video if alone at night or at Halloween – it’s almost creepy!

Huge credit to our Chinese colleagues, especially Professor Zhao Xinru, Wu Lan, Liu Yang and the army of volunteers who work so hard to make the project a success.  And big thanks to Dick Newell, Chris Hewson, Lyndon Kearsley, Susanne Åkesson, Rob Jolliffe, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris who have all played a key role in the Beijing Swift Project over the last few years.

 

 

The EcoAction Young Birders

Over the last two years I’ve worked with Luo Peng to develop EcoAction’s Youth Birding Club, helping to lead birding trips to some of Beijing’s best birding spots and supporting the development of the children’s birding skills.  It’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of my time in Beijing.

The Club was set up to help young people to connect with nature through birding and so far more than 30 children, often accompanied by their parents, have participated, most of them joining several trips.  With thanks to Swarovski Optik, we provide binoculars and encourage the young birders to observe closely, write notes about what they have seen and learn about the lifestyles of the species and the habitats they need.  Some have set up their own microblogs to share their experiences.

Through this post I wanted to introduce readers to three of the young birders.  Each has answered some questions about themselves and birds.  I hope you enjoy reading their answers as much as I enjoyed going birding with them.  These brilliant young people are the future of conservation in China.

Young Birder 1 – Chen Yanzhi, 12 years old

陈雁之 (Chen Yanzhi),  12 years old

How long have you been interested in birding?

I have loved wildlife and nature observation since I was little, including birding. I started birding regularly when I went to Borneo last year. Since then I have participated in several birding activities, including birding in Africa and Borneo again.

Which bird is your favourite?

I love all birds except ducks, but the pochard is OK.  At the beginning of my birding, I liked White-crowned Hornbills, when I saw them in Borneo.  The most lovely and graceful bird as far as I see is the Marabou Stork (秃鹳) and, among all the birds I saw in Beijing, I like the Pied Harrier (鹊鹞) and Black Stork (黑鹳) the most.  The most peculiar bird is the Great Barbet (大拟啄木鸟), which I saw in Borneo. It is very funny that I saw Great Barbet for the first time during the evening, just beside the insect lamp-trap.  Now Chestnut-breasted Malkoha is my favourite bird. I was so excited when I first saw such a big bird jumping on a small tree just one metre from me in Borneo. Its beautiful feathers were shining in the sunshine. I was happy for a long time.

Why do you feel it is important to protect birds and their habitats?

Birds live in their specific habitats and they only perform naturally when they are at home, which is quite different from those living in the zoo. So the birding is more interesting.

What do you want to say to other children with no birding experience?

What I would like to tell other youth in China is, there are many bird species which only live in China, and birding can be very easy.  We can easily see 30 to 40 different birds on the outskirts of Beijing.  Birds are everywhere, on the lakes, on the beach, in the forests, on the mountains and everywhere else. They are all very beautiful. Come birding with me!

 

Young Birder 2 – Gao Zijun, 6 years old

高子隽 (Gao Zijun), 6 years old

How long have you been interested in birding?

I started birding when I was 5 years old, for more than 1 year now.

Which bird is your favourite?

My favourite bird is the Common Kingfisher.

Why do you feel it is important to protect birds and their habitats?

I love nature and want to protect it.  If we only seek money, have lots of money, buy many toys, and throw them in the ocean when they are broken, there will be tons of rubbish.  Birds may eat these small pieces at food, and that is harmful for them.  And batteries, even only one, can pollute important water sources and wild plants.  Without a healthy environment, plants will die, and birds will have no place to nest, animals will lose their food, and we cannot live either.

What do you want to say to other children with no birding experience?

I want my little friends to love the nature as I do. We can play with our family in nature and can make friends with animals and birds. I love and enjoy this kind of life, which has taught me a lot.  If we only play with iPad, our eyes will be damaged and the money we earn in games is fake, means nothing. Birding is good for the eyes.

 

Young Birder 3 – Li Haoming, 12 years old

李浩铭 (Li Haoming) 12 years old

How long have you been interested in birding?

I have been birding for more than one year, since February 2016.

Which bird is your favourite?

I have seen over 400 different birds since I started, but I don’t favour any particular bird species. Each of them is special.

Why do you feel it is important to protect birds and their habitats?

The most important part of bird protection is habitat. They can only breed well in suitable habitat, so that the population can increase and we can carry out better study of them, introduce them to many more people.  This is the most important thing to protect biodiversity.

What do you want to say to other children with no birding experience?

I would like to tell my friends who do not go birding that birds are our closest friends; we can hear them sing everywhere –  in our yard, in the street and in nature.  As long as you look carefully, you will find them. They not only have colourful feathers, but also perform interesting behaviours, the same as us.  For example, many birds will dance during courtship, and many bird parents will sacrifice themselves to protect their babies, just as human beings do. They are also awesome architects. It is so interesting to observe and understand them.

 

About the EcoAction Youth Birding Club

The EcoAction Youth Birding Club was set up to introduce children and their families to nature through birding.  Led by experienced birders and conservationists, the trips visit a variety of birding hotspots around Beijing and encourage children to learn about the species they see, the habitats they need and the importance of conservation.  The next trip will take place on 14th May to Yeyahu Wetland Reserve, when we will be participating in the Global Big Day, a project set up by eBird to record as many species as possible across the world on a single day.  For more information about the club, the forward programme and for reports about previous trips, please add “EcoAction” on WeChat or contact Luo Peng on peng.luo@ecoactionnow.com.

 

Thank you so much to Chen Yanzhi, Gao Zijun and Li Haoming for being great company on the birding trips and for taking the time to answer these questions.  Thanks also to Luo Peng and Wu Qian for their help with this post.

The Beijing Cuckoo Project 2017

It’s almost a year since satellite tags were fitted to five Beijing Cuckoos.  Imaginatively named by local schoolchildren, these pioneers charmed, enthralled and astonished us with their incredible journeys through China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.  Then, after SKYBOMB BOLT’s non-stop 3,700km flight across the Arabian Sea from India to Somalia, followed by thousands in near real-time on social media, we were able to say with certainty that cuckoos from east Asia migrate to Africa for the northern winter, a journey of more than 12,000km from Beijing.  And, with media coverage across China and in more than ten countries across the world, including the front page of the New York Times, these birds captured the imagination on a scale that was beyond our wildest dreams.

Pupils at Dulwich International School vote for their favourite cuckoo names, June 2016.

As Flappy McFlapperson and 梦之鹃 (Mèng zhī juān), currently in Somalia, head ‘home’, the Beijing Cuckoo Project team is excited to announce plans for 2017.

The tracks and positions of the Beijing Cuckoos as at 3 May 2017. Flappy McFlapperson is shown by the red (and pink for the return journey) tracks, Meng Zhi Juan by the dark (and light blue for the return journey) tracks. As of 3 May they are less than 100km apart in Somalia on their return journey to China.

Subject to securing the necessary financial support, we’re planning to tag 3 more bakeri Common Cuckoos in Beijing, using some new ultra-lightweight tags, in late May and then travel to Heilongjiang in north China to fit tags to a further 7 birds of the larger canorus race.  As with the current project, the birds will be named by local schoolchildren who will follow their progress, learning about migratory birds and the challenges they face.  We’re proud to be working with the International School of Beijing, Hepingli No.4 Primary School and local schools in Heilongjiang.

The team will be attempting to tag cuckoos from 23 May into early June.  You can follow our progress, and the return journeys of Flappy and Meng, by visiting the dedicated Beijing Cuckoo Project page and by following @BirdingBeijing on Twitter.

The Beijing Cuckoo Project is a partnership between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Liaoning University, facilitated by Birding Beijing.  It involves members of the public and schools in genuine scientific discovery to help raise awareness in China of migratory birds and the environment.  We consider every donor as part of the Project team.  Please join us by donating to the JustGiving site.  Thank you!

 

Title image: SKYBOMB BOLT, the Beijing Cuckoo tagged at Hanshiqiao Wetland, Beijing.  Skybomb was the first of the Beijing Cuckoos to cross the Arabian Sea to Africa.

Snow Leopards in Qinghai

I am just back home from an incredible trip to Qinghai Province with Marie, Tormod Amundsen (Biotope) and Will Soar from the UK’s Rare Bird Alert.  Our visit was to support the Chinese NGO, ShanShui, and the local government in developing sustainable ecotourism.  We were hosted by, and owe huge thanks to, local yak herders – especially Sen and Chairennima – who welcomed us into their homes and entertained us with stories of Asian Brown Bears breaking into their food stores and Snow Leopards strolling through their back yards.

It was a magnificent trip in so many ways and we have some exciting news to announce very soon.

In the meantime, here is a short video of one of our encounters with SNOW LEOPARD.  We were fortunate to enjoy three encounters with Snow Leopards in four days, without any pre-scouting, illustrating just how intact is the ecosystem in this wonderful place.  Add in other special mammals and birds, together with the breathtaking scenery and unique Tibetan hospitality, and you have the ingredients for a trip of a lifetime.  Stay tuned for some incredible footage by Tormod of this stunningly beautiful and unspoilt part of China and an opportunity to experience it for yourself.

Big respect to Marie, Tormod and Will for being the best travel companions one could wish for.

Almost every yak herder in this area has footage of Snow Leopard on his/her smartphone.. so we now feel part of the club!

Here’s Tormod’s reaction after seeing his first Snow Leopard…

 

You can read Tormod’s account of the trip, and see his video containing some stunning drone footage of the area, by clicking here.

All Snow Leopard footage taken using an iPhone 6S with Swarovski Optik ATX95 and iPhone adaptor.

China Takes Important Step Towards Protecting Remaining Intertidal Mudflats

This is big news.  The Chinese government has just taken an important step to protect some of the key remaining intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  A total of fourteen sites have been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government. And, if these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

The fourteen sites listed as “tentative” World Heritage Site nominations by the Chinese government. Credit: EAAFP

The extensive mudflats, sandflats and associated habitats of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Bay, represent one of the largest areas of intertidal wetlands on Earth and are shared by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (RoK). It is the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF).  And yet, in the last few decades, around 70% of the intertidal habitat has been lost to land reclamation projects, causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline dramatically.

Species such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot are highly dependent on the area for food and rest during their long migrations from as far as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.  And of course, this area is not only important as a stopover site.  Almost the entire world population of Relict Gull winters in the Bohai Bay, and the whole population of Saunders’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill breed in the area.

RELICT GULLS in Tianjin. One of the species entirely dependent on the intertidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay.

The tentative nomination has not happened out of thin air.  It’s the result of many years of hard work by domestic Chinese organisations, supported by the international community.

Back in September 2012, concern about habitat loss and the plight of migratory waterbirds led to a call to ensure a suitable framework for the conservation and management of the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Gulf, and associated bird species at the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Jeju, Republic of Korea.  A resolution on the ‘Conservation of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and its threatened waterbirds, with particular reference to the Yellow Sea’ was adopted by 100% of voting governments.

Subsequently, national workshops were held in Beijing in 2014, and Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 2016 to implement this resolution nationally.  Then, in August 2016, I was fortunate to participate in a joint meeting in Beijing, where representatives of the government authorities of China and the Republic of Korea responsible for World Heritage implementation discussed the nomination of Yellow Sea coastal wetlands.

Negotiating text at the August 2016 IUCN meeting in Beijing, involving officials from China and the Republic of Korea.

A further resolution “Conservation of intertidal habitats and migratory waterbirds of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, especially the Yellow Sea, in a global context” was adopted at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), responsible for World Heritage nomination in China has been active in identifying key sites and involving stakeholders to promote the current tentative list, with technical assistance from ShanShui, a Chinese conservation NGO.  Whilst the list is not comprehensive – there are other key sites that many conservationists feel should be included – it is a strong foundation and it is possible to add further sites in due course. Importantly, at the same time, the Republic of Korea has been working on a nomination for the tidal flats of the southwest region including the most important site for migratory waterbirds in the country, Yubu Island.

With these proposed nominations by China and the Republic of Korea, the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea are being increasingly recognized by governments for their outstanding global importance and it is hoped that this will result in stronger protection and effective management for the continued survival of migratory waterbirds.

There is a long way to go to secure formal nomination and inscription onto the list of World Heritage Sites – that process can take many years – but it’s a vital step and an important statement of intent that provides a renewed sense of optimism about the potential to save what remains of these unique sites.  Huge kudos, in particular to MOHURD and to ShanShui, and to everyone who has been working so hard to make this happen, including the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute, IUCN, John MacKinnon and many more.

The long-term vision is that there will be a joint China/Republic of Korea and maybe even DPRK World Heritage Site covering the key locations along the Yellow Sea/Bohai Bay.  Now, wouldn’t that be something?!

 

Links:

The formal listing of the sites can be found here: UNESCO: The Coast of the Bohai Gulf and the Yellow Sea of China

For the EAAFP press release, see here.

Title Image:

Far Eastern Curlew, Nanpu, August 2014.  One of the species heavily dependent on the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.

Exhibition of 19th Century Bird Art Opens In Beijing

In February, when the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) asked me to help them identify the birds depicted in more than eight hundred old paintings, I was both honoured and daunted.  The paintings date from the late 19th century and are thought to be by French missionaries, including Pierre Marie Heude.  The identifications would be used to create captions for a planned exhibition in Beijing beginning in late March.  Despite the doubt running through my head about whether I would be able to distinguish 19th century depictions of Chinese leaf warblers, I said yes.

The collection of exquisite paintings depicts more than 460 species, around one third of the species recorded in China.  Thankfully, there are no leaf warblers amongst them and, given the French have a tradition of producing outstanding painters, my task was not as difficult as I feared.

Swinhoe’s Rail is one of the species depicted in the exhibtion.
This painting of a Wryneck dates from 1877.
One of three paintings in the collection depicting Baer’s Pochard.

Fast forward a month and I found myself suited up and on a panel of speakers, alongside the French Ambassador, at the opening of the exhibition at the Poly Art Museum in Beijing.

Terry speaking at the opening ceremony.

After the short speeches, a group of local schoolchildren put on a fantastic mini play about the importance of protecting birds and their habitats.  It was heartwarming to see young people enthused about wild birds and aware of the threats they face, from habitat loss to illegal hunting.

Local schoolchildren perform a wonderful play about the importance of protecting wild birds.
Dressing up as an owl is fun!
One species I couldn’t identify..!
The French Ambassador, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, chats with the children after their performance.

The opening was covered by Beijing TV and the print media.  See here (in Chinese):

http://www.cbcgdf.org/NewsShow/4936/1860.html

http://mt.sohu.com/20170331/n485857583.shtml

The exhibition is a superb way to engage the public about the rich and diverse avifauna in China.  As a famous conservationist once said “we want to protect what we love, but we can only love what we know”.  Awareness is the first step towards conservation.  As the opening ceremony closed, already school groups were filing in to enjoy the paintings.

Congratulations to CBCGDF for putting together a wonderful exhibition and a special thank you to Dr Zhou Jinfeng, Secretary General of the CBCGDF and his staff, including Linda Wong, for being such great partners during this adventure.. Also a big thank you to Lynx Edicions for allowing use of the text from Handbook of the Birds of the World about distributions and habitat preferences for individual species.

The exhibition, on the 10th floor of the New Poly Building at Dongsishitiao, runs until 13 April and is open from 0930 to 1630 daily.  Entrance is free.