Jankowski’s Bunting discovered breeding in Mongolia

This morning news broke of an exciting discovery in Mongolia.  During a feasibility study for the World Heritage nomination of the Eastern Mongolian Steppes, a joint team from the Mongolian Bird Conservation Center and the Eastern Mongolian Protected Area Administration discovered two breeding colonies of the globally endangered Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii).

The discovery was revealed in a Facebook post by the Mongolian Bird Conservation Center and was accompanied by some images of the birds and the habitat, including a fantastic image of an adult Jankowski’s Bunting feeding a juvenile.

The text of the post is as follows:

“During the field survey of a feasibility study on World heritage nomination for Eastern Mongolian Steppes, a joint team of Mongolian Bird Conservation Center and Eastern Mongolian Protected Area Administration have discovered two sites of a breeding colony of Jankowski’s Bunting Emberiza jankowskii from southeastern Mongolia, 7 June 2020. The species believed to be vagrant in the country before. Both sites were mountain hills and dominated by Stipa grasses and shrubs. The first site locates within the Protected Area, where there is no human influence and no livestock grazing, and a second site found near the village where there both threats exist and no protection. A team collected data on habitat requirements and checked all valleys, especially for the first site. All the valleys were occupied by the breeding buntings and this site provides the best habitat for nesting buntings. We believe that there can be more potential breeding mountains in the east, especially east of the SPA, a team member said. More surveys needed to estimate the population distribution and determine the threats because there can be threats from livestock grazing in the areas where there is no protection. Therefore, a team is looking for collaborators to survey for this globally endangered bunting in the further. In addition, MBCC team is working on a publication of the bunting based on their findings at the moment.”

This is wonderful news and it’s reassuring to hear that one of the sites lies within a protected area.  

Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii) is globally endangered after suffering a precipitous population decline in recent decades, thought to be due mainly to an increase in livestock and conversion of its traditional grassland habitat to agriculture.  For background about this species and recent developments, see here.

The discovery of breeding Jankowski’s Bunting in Mongolia is a shot in the arm, and some rare good news, for bird conservationists in East Asia.  And whilst more needs to be done to survey this newly discovered population and establish its status, the finding opens up the possibility of collaboration between Mongolia’s southeast Dornod Province and adjacent Inner Mongolia, which hosts the bulk of China’s remaining population.  

For now, big congratulations to the team and I look forward to hearing more in due course.

Here is a short video of Jankowsk’s Bunting on the breeding grounds in Inner Mongolia from 2016.

Cover image: a male Jankowski’s Bunting from Inner Mongolia, May 2013.

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Finally, some good news for pangolins

In the last few days, there has been significant media coverage, including this article in The Guardian, about the removal of pangolin scales from the approved list of ingredients for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  The news of the delisting from the TCM pharmacopoeia comes hot on the heels of an announcement last week by the State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) that the protected status of pangolins had been raised to the highest level, with immediate effect.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, China announced an immediate ban on the wildlife trade for consumption but the wildlife trade for TCM was unaffected.  These new announcements about the pangolin, the world’s most heavily trafficked animal, represent a major step forward. 

However, as with all rules and laws, their effectiveness depends on awareness and enforcement.  Just a few weeks ago, the Beijing and Chicago-based Paulson Institute spoke with Cambridge PhD candidate and pangolin expert, Wang Yifu, about the perilous status of the pangolin and what needed to be done to save this unique group of animals (well worth a read).  

Before the recent announcement, there was a legal, but regulated, trade in pangolin scales, ostensibly from government stockpiles, for TCM in China.  However, transparency, awareness and enforcement was poor.  One study found around 30% of 134 pharmaceutical shops were selling pangolin scale medicine and illegal pangolin products were even found in some of the hospitals authorised to sell pangolin scales. Yet, alarmingly, the doctors and practitioners involved were unaware that their behaviour was illegal.  

So, although laws are necessary, they are not sufficient.  As Yifu says, awareness among the public and TCM practitioners and enforcement by authorities, have equally significant roles to play in reducing the demand for, and supply of, pangolin scales.  

TCM is being heavily promoted by the Chinese government internationally, including through its flagship “Belt and Road” initiative to revitalise old trading routes into Central Asia and Africa.  The TCM industry is worth around USD 60 billion a year, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) Bulletin, and growing at around 11 percent annually.  Even though wildlife parts represent only a small fraction of TCM ingredients, under its current trajectory and with existing approved ingredients, TCM will have an increasing negative impact on wildlife, including many endangered species.  In a recent report, ADM Capital Foundation said that the TCM industry accounted for more than three-quarters of the trade in endangered wildlife products in Hong Kong over the past 5 years.

If TCM is serious about wanting to be accepted more widely, there is a growing responsibility to reduce its impact on wildlife and, ultimately, that means delisting ALL wildlife ingredients.

In the meantime, let’s hope these announcements are not too late for the beleaguered pangolin.   

Title image: Pangolins of the world (IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group)

  

Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) – observations and findings from the first active den ever discovered

Back in 2018 I reported on the discovery by ShanShui Conservation Center of an active den of the Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) on the Tibetan Plateau.  This felid, endemic to China, is one of the most poorly known in the world.  Based on fieldwork over the following months and with the help of infra-red cameras, researchers captured hours of footage of a mother and her two young kittens.  In total, five breeding dens were discovered, and 33 sightings were recorded.  

Now, after painstaking analysis of the footage (more than 7,500 images and 3,000 video clips), much previously unknown information concerning this cat species and its ecology has been revealed and the findings have been published in an article in Zoological Research and can be read and downloaded in PDF format here.

With the kind permission of Han Xuesong, the lead author, I am including below a short video compilation of the mother and kittens that were studied in autumn and winter 2018.  It includes the cats emerging from a den, playing, the mother bringing back food and interactions with two potential threats – an Upland Buzzard and a Tibetan Fox.

With a limited distribution on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Chinese Mountain Cat is among the most elusive and vulnerable of the world’s cats and this data will be vital to help better understand, and therefore protect, this beautiful cat.

Big congratulations to Han Xuesong and the ShanShui team, especially the local rangers, Jihti, Tserdo, and Lulu, for their discovery and the subsequent publication of this article.

Title image: Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (ShanShui Conservation Center)

A message from Баян (BAYAN) on International Biodiversity Day

It is with a heavy heart that I must report the loss of Баян (BAYAN), one of the Mongolian Cuckoos. 

The last signals received from his tag were at 1035 local time on 12 May 2020 and showed him almost exactly 100km north of Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province.  Since then, there has been radio silence.  The following analysis of the data from BAYAN’s tag was provided by Dr Chris Hewson of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) who fitted the tag to BAYAN in Mongolia in June 2019:

“…there were some slightly unusually high temps around 1000 local time on 9/5 – reaching 40-41 C on the scale of the PTTs, compared to a normal max in the high c 35 C even in Africa (it does rise to around 37-38 C on occasion though). The tag temperature was also pretty cool the next morning, probably cooler than it should be – down to about 26 C, which is probably indicative of lack of regulation of tag temp due to behaviour / absence of body temp buffering of temp.  My best guess, all things considered, is that Bayan died between 1000 8/5 and 1000 9/5.  The circumstances of disappearance are similar to Flappy who died in Myanmar on spring migration. These birds are really racing on spring migration, which might leave them vulnerable to not finding good stopovers / predation etc.”
 

In the small hope that the tag’s temperature sensor was malfunctioning or there was an alternative explanation, we waited a few days for further signals.  None were forthcoming, strongly suggesting that BAYAN had indeed died on 8 or 9 May 2020.

It is always sad when we lose a tracked bird but we should celebrate his life and the impact he has had on people around the world. 

BAYAN’s journey took him from Mongolia to Mozambique and back to China, crossing 31 borders involving 18 countries and a total distance of c24,000km.  Outward journey from Mongolia to Mozambique in yellow, return in orange. Block dot shows location of last signals, 100km north of Kunming, Yunnan Province on 12 May 2020.

After crossing the Arabian Sea to India, hot on the heels of ONON, he captivated a country with an incredible surge of interest among people in India, most of whom were previously unaware of the distances travelled by some of the most familiar migratory birds.  Below are just a few of the reactions to BAYAN’s crossing of the Arabian Sea:

One of the main purposes of the project was to reach and inspire more people about the wonders of bird migration.  Judging from the reaction on social media, BAYAN certainly did that.

Being able to follow the incredible journeys of these cuckoos opens our eyes to the phenomenal endurance of these birds and the mind-boggling distances they travel.  It also reminds us that migratory birds live life on the edge with little margin for error.  

If there is one message BAYAN, whose name translates as “prosper”, could carry with him, I am sure it would be something like this: 

“Migratory birds like me don’t recognise human borders.  We travel around the Earth, crossing oceans and deserts, powered sustainably by caterpillars, just to survive and breed.  As humans, you are changing the planet in profound ways.  Please ensure there are places for us to rest and refuel along the way so that we all may prosper.”

The fact that we last heard from BAYAN close to Kunming, Yunnan Province in China is fitting.  Next year, this city is due to host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, at which governments are due to agree a “new deal for nature” including targets to slow and reverse the loss of biodiversity.  In many ways it is the most important meeting ever on nature. 

Wouldn’t it be good to think that BAYAN’s legacy is to send his message to delegates to the UN meeting in Kunming?

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Thank you to everyone who has supported, followed and engaged with Баян (BAYAN) and the other Mongolian Cuckoos during this project.  You have all helped to raise awareness about migratory birds and the places they need.       

BAYAN’s journey at a glance:

7 June 2019: fitted with a tag (number 170437) at Khurkh in northern Mongolia.  

11 June 2019: named by schoolchildren at Khurkh Village School

7 June 2019 to 9 May 2020: Mongolia – China – Myanmar – India – Bangladesh – India – Oman – Saudi Arabia – Yemen – Saudi Arabia – Eritrea – Ethiopia – South Sudan – Kenya – Uganda – Kenya – Tanzania – Mozambique – Malawi – Mozambique – Malawi – Mozambique – Zambia – Malawi – Tanzania – Kenya – Somalia – India – Bangladesh – India – Myanmar – China (31 border crossings involving 18 countries)

Total distance: c24,000km

Rest In Peace Баян (BAYAN) 🙏

Young Ambassador for Nature: Soaring High with Ariel Chen

I first met Chen Yanzhi (Ariel) in March 2017 when, with Luo Peng, I helped lead a birding trip for students and families as part of EcoAction’s environmental education programme in Beijing.  I was immediately impressed by Ariel – she was inquisitive, intelligent, fascinated by the natural world and clearly had the respect of her peers.  Last year I was delighted when she agreed to become one of the student “Swift Ambassadors” as part of the SOHO China Swift Project, presenting the story of the Beijing Swift to Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China and one of the most famous entrepreneurs in China.  Since then she has set up a school birding club and her own WeChat channel (China’s equivalent of Facebook/WhatsApp), writing regularly on all things nature and conservation.  At 15 years old, she is already an accomplished writer, in both English and Mandarin, and is building a large following.  I am delighted Ariel has allowed me to reproduce her most recent article here on Birding Beijing.  It’s a joy to read.  As one of a growing band of young people engaged in wildlife conservation across China, she is part of a new generation giving hope for the environment of this biodiversity-rich country.  

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This article is written by Chen Yanzhi (Ariel Chen)

The temperature was not warm on that day in June, but sweat still came off my back. In the open-air meeting room, suited men and women flowed into the space, and media reporters, with their giant black cameras, slowly positioned themselves at the back.

It was 27 June, 2019 when the Beijing SOHO Swift Project was officially launched on the rooftop of Qianmen SOHO. In the next few months, several buildings under SOHO China would erect artificial nest boxes for the Beijing Swift (the pekinensis subspecies of the Common Swift Apus apus), to provide a breeding ground for those little creatures that lost their homes in the waves of urbanisation.  As one of the “Swift Ambassadors,” I was invited to share my thoughts on protecting these birds. In front of those entrepreneurs, I began: “The swifts stay all summer in Beijing. But where will they go for the rest of the year?”

“The swifts stay all summer in Beijing. But where will they go for the rest of the year?”

Although I was extremely nervous during the meeting, I was thankful of this opportunity to spread the story of the Beijing swifts and rally support from people to find a new habitat for these unique birds.

A Journey Started in Africa

I have always been fascinated by different animals, although my story with the birds started in Africa just recently. I could read all day, repetitively flipping through the few pages in a book, looking at the pictures of animals. And when I was eight, I went hiking in Yunnan and fell in love with the rays of sun beaming through forest leaves, and the sage-coloured mosses creeping on the rocks. I longed for the place and even cried after returning.

But I rarely noticed the birds back then.

In 2017, our family traveled to Tanzania. And I only realised later that this was a life-changing journey.  Like most travellers in Tanzania, our goal was to see the “big animals”: lions, giraffes, and elephants. Yet, by the middle of the trip, staring at sleepy lions and uniformed herbivores, we felt a little bored already. Under the scorching sun, I felt trapped in the perfectly still air.

And one of our group members, a birder, changed the story.  In the hottest noon, she led us, a group of restless kids, to find the little creatures that lived around our camp. She led us to the sunbirds resting on the trees, the secretary birds roaming on the savannah, and the Egyptian geese wandering in the lakes. I saw, at that time, how so many different kinds of interesting birds were there, hidden in the least noticeable corners.

A wandering marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer).

By accidentally peeking from this newly opened window, my birdwatching journey began. And I have never turned back.

A “Birding Fanatic” Left Alone in the Forest

Since that trip to Africa, I’ve started a mode of birding-around-the-world. From around Beijing to as far as South America, I’ve seen over 1,500 species of birds and become quite literally a “birding fanatic” and have had fun memories.

I’ve been to Yunnan, a magical land where two-thirds of all the birds in China fly high, numerous times. On most occasions, we would birdwatch in some remote villages that tourists wouldn’t even bother knowing. My most unforgettable memory happened in Pudacuo National Park, a traveling destination packed with tourists.

“普达措国家公园属都湖 – PuDaCuo National Park(ShuDu Lake)” by Yang Yu’s Album is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

As we walked along the trail, we found many more birds than I previously expected. Novel bird chirps and mysterious noises in the undergrowth attracted our attention, and we would stop every few meters, sometimes even going into the forest. We would end up spending seven hours straight on a three-kilometer trail that would be hiked for more or less one hour. When we reached the bus stop at the end of the trail, the sky is already darkening.

A greenish warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides)

Any outside automobiles are banned in the National Park, so we had to wait for the buses that navigate between locations.

10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes… time slowly ticked by, but no cars nor even a living human, were there. Under the slate grey sky, the tourist centre laid dead silent and the giant and unmoving spruce trees seemed to emanate an ominous shade. Our confusion continued and we were even more shocked when we looked at the notice board: “What? The National Park closes up at 6 p.m.? The bus stations close at 5 p.m.?” That meant the buses had already stopped coming for 2 hours! “Are we going to spend the night in the forest, where anything can happen?” We were worried and anxious, like someone trapped in a maze.

Eventually, we saw on the notice board the telephone number of the Public Security Bureau of Forestry.  A few minutes later, two cops arrived in front of us, with their mobile car siren screaming.

“What is the matter? How long have you stayed? Why haven’t you left already?” Just as we were getting on the patrol mobile, the police fired the questions at us. We had to tell them how we missed the clear-out because we were too engrossed by birdwatching, and how we never noticed that the rest of the tourists already left, and how we spent seven hours on the three-kilometer trail.

Obvious enough, the police did not believe what we said and queried us back and forth before driving us back to the hotel. As I sat on the back row of the cop, with metal railings on both sides, I felt like an escapee caught by the police.

As I reflected while on my way back, I thought it was quite terrifying being in the mountains alone, much more being rescued by police. It was an unusual episode in my birdwatching journey. When we were anxiously waiting for the bus, the forest was still alive: the goldcrest jumped around from tree to tree, showing off its fire-colored crest, and the Eurasian wren wagged its tail by the trail. The adventurous excitements, free-flying birds, and the power of lives in nature charmed up this unique experience and only led me to liking birdwatching even more.

Spreading the Love

My skills have gradually improved after countless birdwatching trips. From a know-nothing novice who can only follow others and ask “Where is the bird?” I can confidently say I can now find and identify birds swiftly.

One day, a thought flashed through my mind: “Why don’t I spread such a remarkable activity to more people?” As a result, I launched the Birding Club in my school, Keystone Academy.

I have absolutely no experience initiating and leading a club. During our first meeting, I couldn’t even face the members! I couldn’t believe that all those people signed up to the club, and I couldn’t think that I would, soon, talk to all of them for the next 40 minutes. Before my class, I squat at the corner of the classroom, unready to speak. I asked myself: “Is there something missing in your mind? How could I ever imagine that I could teach them about birds!”

But I couldn’t squat there all day. Eventually, I stood up, with my palm sweating profusely, and started the first Birding Club lesson. My talking speed was so rapid that I finished the lesson within 20 minutes when it was originally planned for double that time. I had to find something for the members to watch to pass the next 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the documentary did not play. Either my laptop hung or the file needed VIP access to view. Minutes ticked by, and there was still nothing to show the students. In the end, I found one documentary and played it for two minutes before the class finished.

Although the first lesson was a near disaster, over time, I became more confident, more experienced, and my lessons were more interesting. In the one-and-a-half years that have gone by, I’ve performed nearly 30 mini-lessons, hosted six outside-campus birding trips, and organised two lectures with experts. But the thing that has rewarded me the most is how the students slowly begin to like these “feathered wings,” and will sometimes show me the birds that they photographed when traveling.

Some PowerPoint pages from my Birding Club lessons. When my mini lessons become more interesting, “Wow”, “Oh really? A bird can do that?” “Birds are not bird-brains!” are common responses from the club members.

I’ve also created my own official WeChat account and written around 40 original articles to raise awareness of birds and other wildlife. From recording my traveling experiences at first, to writing about specific animals (for example, a disclosure on the wing structure of the club-winged manakins) and debating topics like “Why we shall protect animals,” the interactions of people and animals in Tibet, and the conflicts between animal welfare and nature conservation, I went from simply “liking animals” to digging deep into the topics of nature conservation.

Voicing out for those who cannot speak

An encounter in Yunnan in December 2018 strengthened my dream to participate in nature conservation in the future. In a national park in the city of Pu’er, I sneaked into the “No Tourists” area while no one was around. The midday sun warmed my back, and the air smelled tropical, but I still felt cold on the inside. Following the clamour of animals, I found what I was searching for: a line of cages, with some irritated macaques and stressed eagle owls. I started to record videos with my camera and my shaking hands. Because I was way too nervous, there were several lapses in my footage so I had to redo the filming. After finishing the record, I scrambled out of the place, not even daring to look back.

Here you might be wondering, what was I doing in a no-tourist area?

A few days before the filming, I came to this national park with the idea of viewing wildlife. This place was advocated as the “heaven for interacting with animals,” and indeed, the animals seemed to be roaming free, ready for the tourists to see at a close distance.  However, I soon realised that something was amiss: elementary feathers are necessary for a bird to fly, yet they were gone on the owls here; when the tourists come close, these owls could only stumble away. Nocturnal animals should appear only at night, but here, they stayed on the treetops in broad daylight. To discover what was happening, I launched a “personal investigation” and eventually found these cages that backed up my assumption: the park caged the animals every night in a confined little space and released them in the day, to conjure up a scene of “animals peacefully interacting with humans.” 

The Bengal slow loris (Nycticebus bengalensis) is a nocturnal animal but is forced to stay on the treetops in daylight to face the cameras of tourists.

But how could no one notice that these were against an animal’s natural behaviours? How could anyone miss such blatant deceits and leave this park satisfied, thinking that “this is how we interact with wildlife”? I realised that, at least in China, public education on nature conservation still has a long way to go. Still, many people assume that wildlife conservation is to confine the animals while feeding them well; still, many people believe that wildlife is a tool to play with.

When I wrote my observations, I realised how I could use my power to inform other people, and perhaps change their behaviour, when a stranger who read the article told me, “I will never go there again.” Yes, I am going to tell people how conservation isn’t “saving” the animals and keep them in a sanctuary, nor is it as simple as “putting them into a nature reserve.” It is using scientific methods to enable an increase in the population of animal species and it is considering the need for animals and people, to fully realise a strong correlation.

When I first tried birdwatching two years ago, I never considered it as my lifelong goal. But now, through finding these feathered heralds, preparing the lessons in the Birding Club, and organising more birdwatching trips, I have established my future goal.

When I was young, hearing stories about burned and chopped rainforest always made me feel helpless and sad. But now I realised, although coming to the Anthropocene is unavoidable, we can still change our attitudes towards nature and wildlife. Birdwatching, for me, is not merely an interest, but also a way to view the world, and a forever lighthouse to light up my future path towards nature conservation.

A hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoatzin) in the Amazon Rainforest.

There will always be dark corners in the world, but that is why we endeavour to fight: to make our earth a better, and better home.

Photos: Animal pictures taken by Ariel Chen

 

Featured Image: Chen Yanzhi (Ariel) taking field notes in Yunnan Province, China.

 

Mongolian Cuckoos Cross The Arabian Sea, Enchanting A Nation

Thanks to modern technology, we are beginning to unlock the secrets of our migratory birds.  And, although removing some of the mystery, gaining knowledge of these journeys in no way diminishes our awe at what these birds achieve in terms of endurance and navigation.  Every year, a new generation of birds following in their predecessors wing-flaps, inspires a new group of people. 

When it all began in June 2019, one of the aims of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project was to engage the public about migratory birds and the places they need.  Knowledge and experience are the first steps towards falling in love with nature and, as Baba Dioum, the Senegalese conservationist famously said: 

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”  

Thus, connecting more people to nature is crucial if conservationists are to build support for more, and better, protection of species and the wild places they need.  With biodiversity in crisis (according to The Living Planet Index, compiled by several leading wildlife science organisations, the populations of vertebrates have fallen, on average, by around 60% since 1970), there can be no more important task.

That is why the engagement inspired by ONON and BAYAN, two Common Cuckoos fitted with transmitters in Mongolia in June 2019, has been so up-lifting.  Over the last seven days these cuckoos, named by schoolchildren in northern Mongolia, have crossed the Arabian Sea from Africa (Kenya and Somalia, respectively).  As I write, ONON is in Bangladesh and BAYAN just 30km northwest of Kolkata in West Bengal, India.  That means that, since 29 April, ONON has flown >6,300km, and BAYAN >5,800km in just under seven days.

Tracks show data from 29 April to 6 May 2020. ONON in red and BAYAN in green.
As of late on 6 May 2020, ONON was in Rajshahi Division, Bangladesh and BAYAN just northwest of Kolkata in West Bengal, India.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, each step of the journey has been published in near real time, allowing followers to track the progress of the birds as they headed out over the open ocean towards India.  And, as they did so, interest in India soared…  With huge thanks to Parveen Kaswan of the Indian Forest Service, ONON and BAYAN now have thousands of new followers in India.  Parveen has more than 130,000 followers on Twitter and, when he sent out a message about ONON making landfall in India, interest exploded.  

Many people were stunned that a cuckoo could make such a flight and asked questions, which I did my best to answer!  See the end of this post for a selection.  Parveen’s tweet also inspired an article in the Bangla version of the Indian Times, under the title “Migrants from Kenya to Madhya Pradesh in a Week”.

One follower, Rajesh Ghotikar, who lives close to Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh, even went out to check on ONON’s location, taking precautions and respecting local rules on mask wearing and social distancing as he did so.

I’ve been so impressed by the interest and, most of all, by the warmth, politeness and friendly nature of the Indian people who have engaged with these birds.  It is moments like this that make the project so worthwhile.  Having never had the pleasure to visit the country, I am beginning to see why it is known as Incredible India.

Once again, huge thanks to the Mongolian Cuckoo Project team, especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, Batmunkh Davaasuren, to Chris Hewson from BTO and to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley.  And big thanks, too, to the Oriental Bird Club for generously sponsoring the project.

You can follow the exploits of ONON and BAYAN as they continue their journeys to Mongolia on Twitter (@birdingbeijing) or at this dedicated webpage.

Title image: map showing the positions of ONON (red) and BAYAN (green) over the last seven days. As of 7 May 2020, ONON is in Bangladesh and BAYAN is in West Bengal, India.

A selection of reactions from India on social media to ONON’s and BAYAN’s astonishing journeys:

Agitated Lemons

As the passage of White Wagtails begins to slow, the passage of the closely related Citrine Wagtail is hitting its peak in the capital.  One silver lining to the ongoing restrictions on leisure activities in Beijing is that places that would usually be busy with tourists are currently much quieter.  One such place is Ma Chang, on the margins of Guanting Reservoir in Yanqing District.  At this time of year, especially at weekends, this area of land would, in normal times, be busy with horse riders and motorised buggy drivers, meaning that from around 0730 many of the migrant birds that had stopped at this site would be pushed off. 

This spring, with the absence of human activity beyond a handful of local fishermen, the site is a paradise for migrant birds, attracting large numbers of many different species.  On Sunday, perhaps the biggest highlight, among many, was the large flocks of Citrine Wagtail feeding along the edge of the reservoir.  The short video below shows a fraction of the 250+ birds on site.  

Wagtails are busy birds, pursuing insects as they fatten up for the next leg of their journey to breeding grounds further north, and in perfectly still and sunny conditions, it was quite a sight to behold.  

How to describe this group of  bright yellow birds? “A bunch of agitated Lemons” was what we came up with… 

How would you describe them?

 

Beijing: The Capital Of White Wagtails?

April is THE month for seeing White Wagtails in Beijing and, with six of the nine recognised subspecies recorded in the capital, Beijing has a strong claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”.  

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise nine subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.  See map below to see the breeding ranges of the nine currently recognised subspecies.

The breeding ranges of the nine recognised subspecies of White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Reproduced from “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Alström, Mild and Zetterström and published by Helm.

Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).  Since moving to Beijing, it’s been a joy to become familiar with a few more subspecies.  Here, in order of abundance, are the subspecies that have been recorded in Beijing:

1 – “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba leucopsis)

On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, a familiar bird from late March until October and an abundant migrant in spring and autumn.

2014-04-15 White Wagtail ssp leucopsis male, Miyun
Amur Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis), the most common race of White Wagtail in Beijing, and the only breeder.  Note clean white face and black upperparts.
Presumed female White Wagtail ssp leucopsis, Beijing, 10 April 2020. Note more greyish upperparts.

2 – “Eye-striped White” or “Swinhoe’s White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba ocularis)

The striking ssp ocularis is very common on migration in spring (late March-April) and autumn (Sep-Oct).  With the prominent eyestripe and contrasting grey mantle, these birds are relatively easy to identify.  

White Wagtail (Motacialla alba ocularis), a common migrant in Spring and Autumn. Breeds in northern and eastern Siberia. Note the black eye-stripe and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape.  16 April 2016, Ma Chang, Beijing (Terry Townshend)

3 – “Transbaikalan Wagtail” (Motacilla alba baicalensis)

A regular, but much scarcer, migrant than ocularis, a few of the more subtle ssp baicalensis are often mixed with flocks of the more common subspecies.  With the clean white face, white chin and throat and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape, baicalensis is, to me at least, one of the more elegant White Wagtails.  The greyish wash to the flanks is also a good feature.  

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba baicalensis). A scarce migrant in Beijing. Breeds in central Siberia, N Mongolia.  Note pale throat, compared with alba, and the greyish wash on the flanks (Terry Townshend)

4 – “Black-backed” Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

The next most frequently encountered is the “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital (October to April).  A few can often be found in winter along the Tonghui River in Tongzhou and it has also been recorded on passage at reservoirs in Beijing.

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens), male. A scarce winter visitor to Beijing (Terry Townshend).
Male 'lugens' White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.
Male ‘lugens’ White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.  The eyestripe combined with the black upperparts make this ssp distinctive (c.f. ocularis).  The significant white in the wing is also a very good feature if seen in flight.

5 – “Siberian White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba alba)

The fifth subspecies to have appeared in Beijing is the ‘eastern’ alba.  The first record of this subspecies in Beijing was found by local birder, Luo Qingqing, on 29 March 2015. Before that date ‘eastern’ alba had been recorded in northwest China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and was considered a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai.  It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm).  Luo Qingqing’s sighting from 29 March 2015 was not only a first for Beijing but a first that we are aware of in all of east China!

IMG_4401 (1)
The first record of M.a.alba in Beijing and, we think, eastern China, 29 March 2015. Note black chin compared with the similar baicalensis.  Photo by Luo Qingqing.

Since 2015, no doubt due to greater observer awareness and more coverage, alba has proved to be annual in small numbers in Spring. 

‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003).  This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.

6 – “Masked Wagtail” (Motacilla alba personata)

In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in the capital.

2012-04-14 White Wagtain ssp personata, Ma Chang, Beijing

M.a.personata at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 14 April 2012. The first record of this subspecies for the capital.  Up to March 2020 there have been a further six records of this Central Asian race in Beijing.

It wasn’t long before the second personata appeared, a stunning adult male found by Steve Bale in April 2015 along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring.

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The second “Masked Wagtail” (M.a.personata) for Beijing, found by Steve Bale on the Wenyu River.

Following a recent sighting at Miyun Reservoir on 26 and 30 March 2020, there are now at least seven records of personata in the capital.

White Wagtail ssp personata at Miyun Reservoir on 26 March 2020 (Terry Townshend)

To summarise, Beijing is a brilliant place to see White Wagtails.  Thanks to greater observer awareness and significantly increased coverage by a growing number of birders, the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing is six and at least five have been recorded every year since 2015.  And, of course, there is still the potential for alboides to occur, which could bring the total to seven. With statistics like that, Beijing has a justifiable claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”!  

 

Ref: “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Per Alström, Krister Mild and Dan Zetterström, published by Helm (2003).

This post was originally published in April 2015.  It has been updated to take into account post-2015 records in order to better reflect the status of each subspecies in Beijing.

Cuckoos Connecting Schools in Mongolia and Socotra, Yemen

Unburdened by responsibility and blessed with a natural sense of wonder, children can be incredibly up-lifting!  This week, I was delighted to receive news of an exchange of letters between schoolchildren in Mongolia and on Socotra Island, Yemen, about the Mongolian Cuckoos….

Back in June 2019, a team from the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) in Mongolia, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing visited Khurkh in northeastern Mongolia to fit transmitters to five cuckoos.  A key part of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project was to visit local schools to raise awareness about migratory birds and invite the students to provide names for the cuckoos.

Since then, at least three of the five cuckoos have made it to Africa, crossing the Arabian Sea and, in the case of two, the Saudi Arabian desert, before settling in Zambia and Malawi for the winter (you can see the latest positions here).  On 27 November, one of the cuckoos named NAMJAA (Mongolian for “storyteller”), briefly stopped on Socotra, a Yemeni island in the Arabian Sea, some 240 kilometres east of the coast of Somalia and 380 kilometres south of the Arabian Peninsula.

Socotra is an isolated island and, as a result, home to a high number of species found nowhere else; up to a third of its plant life is endemic.  In recognition of its unique flora and fauna, it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2008.  Socotra’s isolation also means that it is a magnet for migratory birds, in particular those crossing the Arabian Sea from India to Africa in autumn and we can be sure that NAMJAA was just one of many cuckoos crossing Socotra on that day.

Map-of-the-North-Western-Indian-Ocean-and-localization-of-Socotra-Archipelago-Source_W640
Map showing the location of Socotra. Source: ReefGIS

Learning that NAMJAA visited Socotra, schoolchildren in Mongolia decided to write letters to their counterparts on the island to thank them for the safe passage of “their” cuckoos and to tell them how important their island is, not only for the resident birds, but also for the millions of migratory birds that cross the Arabian Sea during their intercontinental journeys.

Children
Schoolchildren from Binder school, near Khurkh in northeast Mongolia, writing letters to their counterparts in Socotra. Photo by Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg.

 

Letters from Mongolia

 

Letter 1 from Dulguun B

1.

 

Dear Socotran school friends
My name is Dulguun B. I study in the 7th grade at the general education school of the Binder village of Khentii province. Thank you for visiting us and expanding our knowledge. Thank you for teaching us the names and their character of some birds. I hope you will protect many more birds in the future.

 

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Letter 2 from Khishigdelger

Dear Socotran school friends,
Hello friends, my name is Khishigdelger. I study in the 7th grade at the general education school of the Binder village, Khentii province. The researchers who came to study the cuckoo in our area visited us in our classroom and had a great talk about the cuckoo, a bird which we don’t know much. We learned a lot from our teacher and the researchers. It was very interesting to know the migration route of the cuckoos, to whom we gave their names and tagged by the researchers with satellite tags. We gave the name Nomad, because we Mongolians are nomadic and move every season of a year. We gave the name Onon, because of our village is located next to Onon river. The researchers said that the cuckoo is a very interesting bird and they eat caterpillars and protect forest. We believe they are also protecting forests in your country now. Mongolia has 4 seasons. At this moment it is snowing and cold outside, the temperature is somewhere between -20 and -30 Celsius. Because it is winter season here. I hope the cuckoos will be back in the summer. I’m looking forward to the moment when cuckoos returns to Mongolia.

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Letter 3 from Shinekhuu

3.

Dear Socotran friends
Hello my friends. My name is Shinekhuu. I live in the countryside and was born in a herder family. When I was a child, cuckoos used to sing almost every morning. But I have never seen a cuckoo! One day, researchers who study cuckoos visited us and they told a lot about cuckoos and their migration. I’m so glad to hear that the three cuckoos that we named have crossed the ocean and an island and then finally arrived a site where many birds gather, and they have survived to their wintering destination. I could not imagine how those birds traveled so far, having heard that they had traveled 13,000 km. I really want this bird to return to Mongolia. You should please take care of the birds and wildlife on the island of Socotra.
Best regard Shinekhuu, Binder village, Mongolia

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Letter 4 from Nomingoo

4.

 

Dear Socotran school friends
How are you? My name is Nomingoo. We are delighted to know that Namjaa, the cuckoo, flew over your special island in the Arabian Sea. We also learned that the Bayan crossed many countries to reach Malawi and Onon is now in Tanzania. It is just amazing, to imagine how these little birds went that far. As you may know those birds were caught in Mongolia, where we live and fitted with a satellite tag, so we could track their long migration. We look forward to seeing these 3 cuckoos back in Mongolia.
We send our good wishes for 2020
Highschool, Binder village, Mongolia

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Letter 5 from Goomaral

5

 

 

Dear Socotran school friends
Hello my friends. My name is Goomaral. I study in Binder village. Thank you to our researchers for coming to us. If they hadn’t come then we would not know about the birds, especially the cuckoo. Thank you so much for letting us know about the cuckoo’s migration. I liked how the satellite tag is used for studying migration. Good luck with your work. I’m looking forward to the moment when cuckoos returns to Mongolia.

 

 

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Letter 6 from Semuun

6

 

Dear Socotran school friends
I am Semuun. There are many species of birds and animals in Mongolia. I and my classmates are very pleased to give the name to the cuckoo that has come a long way to East Africa. Namjaa, Onon and Bayan cuckoos are probably having a great winter vacation. As you all may know, Namjaa cuckoo flew to your your beautiful island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea. I have heard that the island where you live is an important place for thousands of birds. I am writing a letter for the first time to my friends abroad. I heard about you and researchers are trying to protect this island. Good luck with your work and everything. We expect the Namjaa, Bayan and Onon cuckoos return to Mongolia soon from East Africa.
We wish you all the best for 2020
School children from Khurkh village, Mongolia

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Just a few days later, schoolchildren on Socotra received the letters, read out by their teachers, and replied with their own letters and drawings.

Karim and co
Ashraf (left) and Nawwaf writing their replies to Mongolia.  Photo by Karim Nasher.

 

Replies from Socotra

 

Letter 1 from Ashraf Saeed

Ashraf Egyptian Vulture

 

To our friends at Binder and Khurkh villages schools.

My name is Ashraf Saeed. I am studying in the second year at Khaled Ibn Al Waleed High School. Thank you for writing to us, we are amazed by the small bird “Namjaa” for travelling such long distances.  We hope “Namjaa” will return safely and fly over Socotra on his way back home to Mongolia. I wish you can manage to visit Socotra one day and see its rare bird and plant species.  Below is one of the interesting birds, Egyptian Vulture, called locally “Su’aidoo”.

 

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Letter 2 from Nawwaf

Nawwaf tree

To our friends, school children in the villages of Binder and Khurkh.
My name is Nawwaf. I study at 30th November School in Hadibo, Socotra. Thank you for your letter, we are also proud of Namjaa who visited us in Socotra. The teacher read your letter from Mongolia. We hope Namjaa will return again and fly over Socotra on his way back to Mongolia. I hope you can visit Socotra and enjoy the unique biodiversity of trees and birds, such as the dragon blood tree.  Drawing by Assim Mohammed Saeed

 

 

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Letter 3 from Sa’adiyah

Saadiyah2

Saadiyah1

To our Friends students of Mongolia schools
My name is Sa’adiyah. I am a student at Al Zahra” secondary school for girls, Hadibo, Socotra.  I would like to inform you that we have many species of rare birds and animals in our Island. Thank you for writing to us, we are also proud of the bird “Namjaa” who visited Socotra. We have a very special tree “Dragon Blood Tree” which one of the rare plants. We have also rare birds like the Egyptian Vulture, “Su’aidoo”. We hope you can visit Socotra and see the unique biodiversity of rare trees and birds.

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Letter 4 from Yu’adah

Yuadah

My Name is Yu’adah. I am in the first year at Al Zahra’a Secondary School for girls in Socotra Island.  To our friends at Binder and Khurkh villages. How are you? I thank you for your letters to us.  We are proud of the bird “Namjaa” who visited us in Socotra and we hope “Namjaa” will come back and fly over Socotra on his way back home in Mongolia.  There are many species of birds on Socotra, about 141 bird species are found here.  We hope you can visit Socotra and see all kinds of birds and animals and landscape.

==========

 

Although Socotra is a World Heritage Site, conservation is understandably not high on the agenda given the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the resulting complete collapse of tourism, and it is hoped that these letters from far away Mongolia will help to raise awareness about the importance of the island to migratory birds and to support those working hard in difficult circumstances to try to protect the island’s key habitats.  At the same time, the Mongolian children are learning about a part of the world with which they previously didn’t realise they were connected..

Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East and Advisor to BirdLife International’s Middle East Programme, said:

The Mongolian Cuckoos are connecting countries, continents and people!

 

The Mongolian Cuckoo Project team is grateful to the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Society (WSCC), especially Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, for facilitating the letters from Mongolia and to Richard Porter and Karim Nasher, one of Yemen’s leading conservationists, for arranging their delivery to schools on Socotra and for sending their replies.

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Birds

As COVID-19 begins to take hold in many countries around the world, it is perhaps of no consolation to most people that the situation in Beijing appears to be stabilising. Life in the capital is slowly taking small steps towards normality, treading the fine line between continuing to contain the spread of this seemingly incredibly infectious virus and minimising the disruption to the economy and people’s lives.  More shops and restaurants are open, albeit with restrictions on numbers and temperature checks on entry, and office workers are being allowed to return, with limits on the maximum number of people in an office at any one time and regular checks by the government.

However, as a reminder that things remain far from normal, housing compounds still forbid entry to non-residents and residents are checked for symptoms each time they enter, with everyone required to wear a mask when in public places.  Admirably, the local staff in my compound have been religiously disinfecting the lifts, door handles and any other potential sources of transmission at least twice per day.  And, given many people rely on deliveries for groceries and other essentials, these are now contactless – the couriers leave packages at the security gate for residents to collect, avoiding any direct contact.

The lockdown must be a gold mine of information for social scientists.  The psychological effects of severe restrictions on human interaction beyond immediate family must be significant and there are already articles doing the rounds about an increase in the divorce rate, and also pregnancies, during these strange times.

For me, as someone who has always found solace and inspiration in nature, and particularly with birds, this time has been a reminder of their positive power.  I’ve taken the opportunity to read more, something I have certainly neglected in recent years, and one book, in particular, made me realise what I have been missing… I lost myself for hours in “The Seabird’s Cry” by Adam Nicholson, a captivating book celebrating the incredible lives of seabirds, following ten species around the coasts and islands of Scotland, Ireland, the Americas and across the vast ocean in between.  For a taste, here is Adam’s description of the Kittiwake:

“a sprung and beautiful thing, dawn grey, black eyes, black tips to the wings . . . its whole being like a singer’s held note, not flickering or rag-like, nor blown about like a tern, but elastic, vibrant, investigative, delicate . . . ”

Invigorated by nature writing, the self-quarantine has also allowed me time to research historical records of birds in Beijing, going through books and journals from the likes of Cai Qikan, Robert Swinhoe, J D D La Touche, Père Armand David and other early ornithologists in China.  The result will be a new online resource, coming soon, which will provide the status of every species recorded in Beijing.  Watch this space!

And in the last few days, as the situation stabilises, birders have been venturing out, in many ways the perfect activity in these times – small numbers of people in large, open spaces, always following the local regulations to wear a mask.  And some of the young local birders have been handsomely rewarded with some special sightings.  On Thursday, Wang Xue visited Ming Tombs Reservoir and found Beijing’s first ever AMERICAN WIGEON (绿眉鸭, Lǜ méi yā).  The stunning drake lingered for the rest of the day, loosely associating with some MALLARD (绿头鸭 Lǜ tóu yā), a COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭 Hóng tóu qián yā) and a drake BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭 Huā liǎn yā).

A summer-plumaged PALLAS’S GULL (渔鸥, Yú ōu) at the same site would normally be the star of the show but that day it was relegated to the role of supporting actor.

An adult PALLAS’S GULL in breeding plumage at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Terry Townshend)

After putting out the news of her find on WeChat, Wang Xue stayed around to help the 60 or so birders who made the short journey to experience this rare visitor.  I am grateful to Steve and Zhou Xi Bale who collected me on the way, allowing me to share the moment.  The sense of elation, and even release, among the group was palpable… a rare moment of joy and celebration in what has been a tough beginning to the year.

Beijing birders enjoying a rare day out, catalysed by the presence of a drake American Wigeon, the first record of this species in Beijing.
Local birders watching the American Wigeon at Ming Tombs Reservoir, 5 March 2020.

On the same day, two male BAER’S POCHARD (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) were found at DaShiHe in Fangshan District (Xi’ao’pai Yuren), associating with some COOT (骨顶鸡 Gǔ dǐng jī), a few GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) and a single FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭 Bái yǎn qián yā).  Fortunately, they stayed around and were still present at the weekend, allowing many people to catch up with this critically endangered duck.

Of course, it’s not only rare birds that provide joy.  The flocks of DAURIAN JACKDAW (达乌里寒鸦 Dá wū lǐ hán yā) migrating north, the REED PARROTBILL (震旦鸦雀 Zhèn dàn yā què) calling incessantly from a reedbed and the sight of GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) beginning their courtship displays, were all wonderful to behold.

Daurian Jackdaws at dusk, Beijing (Terry Townshend)

The positive feelings were reinforced when we met with two groups of local forestry police, both of whom asked us if we had seen anyone setting up nets.  They were actively patrolling and clearly getting ready to crack down on poaching in the forthcoming migration season.  A few years ago, an encounter like that would have been just a dream!

The experience of the last few days has been uplifting and has reminded me just how positive birds can be to our every day lives, including our mental health.  I am optimistic that the joy provided by these rare visitors and the inspiration they have provided to get out into nature, represent the beginning of a change in fortune for Beijing and its inhabitants.  Spring, with all its optimism and anticipation, is here at last.

 

Title image: the drake AMERICAN WIGEON at Ming Tombs Reservoir (photo by Wang Xue)