Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been introducing the wonderful pupils at the International School of Beijing (ISB) to the birds of China’s capital city, including a field trip to Hanshiqiao (the wetland where Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo, was fitted with his tag). As part of the classroom based material, Annie He, who is responsible for integrating Chinese culture into the ISB curriculum, created a brilliant document outlining how birds feature in Chinese folklore. With Annie’s kind permission, “Beyond The Legend” is now available to download. I love the story about the magpie’s role in Chinese Valentine’s Day:
“On the evening of the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese lunar calendar, don’t forget to look carefully at the summer sky. You’ll find the Cowherd (a bright star in the constellation Aquila, west of the Milky Way) and the Weaving Maid (the star Vega, east of the Milky Way) appear closer together than at any other time of the year. Chinese believe the stars are lovers who are permitted to meet by the queen of Heaven once a year. That day falls on the double seventh (七⼣夕 in Chinese), which is China’s own Valentine’s Day. Most Chinese remember being told a romantic tragedy when they were children on the double seventh. In the legend, the cowherd and the Weaving Maid will meet on a bridge of magpies across the Milky Way once a year. Chinese grannies will remind children that they would not be able to see any magpies on that evening because all the magpies have left to form a bridge in the heavens with their wings.”
I was delighted to receive this email from Wieland Heim, leader of the Amur Birding Project, just up the road.. (it’s a long road).
“Rapidly declining population trends have recently been found for Yellow-breasted BuntingEmberiza aureola and Rustic BuntingE. rustica, but our knowledge about their migration routes and survival rates is still very limited. To address this, a colour-ring study was started at Muraviovka Park in Far East Russia. Volunteers of the Amur Bird Project equipped the first Yellow-breasted Buntings with individual combinations during breeding season in 2015. Happily, three out of seven males safely returned to their breeding grounds in 2016. To compare survival rates among sympatric breeding species, we decided to include Black-faced BuntingE. spodocephala, Chestnut-eared BuntingE. fucata, Common Reed BuntingE. schoeniclus and Japanese Reed BuntingE. yessoensis in our study. During spring and summer 2016, we managed to equip almost 200 buntings with colourful ring combinations at our study site on the Amur river.
Now, migration has begun for most of these species, and our colour-ringed buntings might occur anywhere in East Asia. Please scan all bunting flocks carefully! All birds have one colour-ring above the metal ring of the Moscow ringing centre on one leg, and two colour-rings on the second leg. Used colours are black, blue, green, orange, purple, red, white and yellow. If possible, take pictures of buntings which seem to wear a ring. We had to find out that it can be hard to determine the colour in the field, however it is very easy on the computer screen, even if the photo is anything but perfect.
Please let us know if you come across a colour-ringed bird, and help to shed light on the yet unknown migration routes of this beautiful birds! We will send you in return all information about the bird.”
If you see any, please report information, including date, location and, if possible, a photo to Wieland Heim (amurbirding|at|gmx.de) or via the excellent Amur Birding blog: amurbirding.blogspot.com
Is it a finch? Is it a bunting? The PRZEVALSKI’S ROSEFINCH (Urocynchramus pylzowi) has, at one time or another, been classified as both but now sits in a family of its own. With a limited range in China (Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu Provinces) it’s a sought-after species for any visiting birders.
During our recent visit to Qinghai, Marie and I were lucky enough to encounter two pairs in a valley close to Qinghai Lake. One pair, clearly breeding, brought a selection of insects to feed their young which we were able to capture on video.
The call reminded me very much of the central China race of Long-tailed Rosefinch, lepidus.
This bird was a species we were keen to see during the Qinghai trip and we were very happy to see them so well.
Featured image: Przevalski’s Rosefinch by Marie Louise.
What a week. Only 6 days after an incredible encounter with Pallas’s Cats near Qinghai Lake, I have been so lucky (again!) to spot not one but two SNOW LEOPARDS near Yushu in Qinghai Province.
Two weeks ago I was invited to participate in the “International Nature Watch Festival of the Mekong River“, organised by the local government and the brilliant conservation organisation, 山水 (Shan Shui). The competition involved teams of 4 who would spend 3 days recording as many species as possible of of mammal, bird and plant in Zaduo County, Qinghai Province. Initially I was due to be one of the judges but, on the first morning of the competition, the organisers asked whether I would join a team of two Beijing students – Zhang Chengxin and Liu Garbo – who didn’t have much experience at bird or mammal watching. Of course, I was delighted.
Each team was provided with a vehicle and local driver. Our driver took us to a stunning valley where we began our list with White Eared Pheasant, Himalayan Marmot and the cute-looking Glover’s Pika. As we walked along the valley, we met a local Tibetan family of yak herders who were the only inhabitants of this stunning site. They invited us in for tea and yoghurt (both delicious!) and we spoke about the wild animals they had seen.
With a herd of around 100 yaks, the family explained that, every year, they lose around 5 of their animals to large predators, mostly Snow Leopard and Wolf. Although they weren’t pleased about losing 5% of their stock annually, they understood the necessity to balance their needs and those of the wild animals, for which they had great respect. They described to us how the Snow Leopards sometimes come down to their house, particularly in winter, and how they had seen them leisurely ambling by their back yard, much to the chagrin of their Tibetan Mastiff!
One of the family members offered to show us a way up the mountain to help us to look for mammals and so, after a generous helping of yak yoghurt, we set off up the mountain.. at 4,500+ m, struggling to keep up with our local companion.
Every few hundred metres we stopped to scan the rocky slopes. We were rewarded with excellent views of Blue Sheep (good for the mammal list), Red-billed Chough, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture and Wallcreeper. In the heat of the day we thought the chances of seeing any large mammals were slim… Nevertheless, we began to explore the slopes nearby. More Blue Sheep, more vultures and more of the comical Marmots provided entertainment and then, suddenly, through my binoculars, I spotted a suspicious shape on top of a nearby rocky outcrop. I quickly set up the telescope and was shocked to see the head of a Snow Leopard staring back at me.
“Whoaaaa” I gasped, and quickly encouraged the team to look through the telescope in case the big cat decided to bolt. Fortunately, the magnificent cat stayed, seemingly very relaxed and looking around… We watched in awe for more than half an hour before it sloped off the top of the rock and walked down to a sheltered spot below. There, a second shape moved and it was apparent that there was not one but two Snow Leopards! Wow!! It was testament to their camouflage that the second was only seen when it moved. The two cats greeted each other, a ritual that included licking each others fur, and settled down to sleep. We watched them, in awe, for around 2 hours in total, during which time they slept, shuffled around, panted in the heat of the sun and groomed each other. In the late afternoon, knowing it was at least an hour back to camp and I was due to speak at dinner, we decided to leave them in peace. As we walked down the mountain, every few hundred metres, we turned around for another look.. we didn’t want the encounter to end.
I was lucky to have my telescope and iPhone with me so I was able to take some video footage. Despite the distance and the heat haze, I was delighted to be able to record some of our special encounter.
On return to the camp, our sighting was the talk of the tents and earned us an audience with the governor of Zaduo County, Mr Cai Danzhou. Cai explained his ambitions for the area, including becoming a National Park and world-class ecotourism site with limits on tourists, limits on the area open to visitors and prioritising its greatest asset – its wildlife. Mr Cai has been working with the excellent 山水 (Shan Shui) organisation and they have clearly influenced his thinking. The area now has the first human-animal conflict community fund which compensates local people for the loss of livestock to Snow Leopard, Wolf and other predators. Shan Shui has been monitoring the wildlife here with a series of camera traps and recently recorded the mating behaviour of Snow Leopard for the first time. With Snow Leopard, Leopard, Bear, Lynx and Otter all recorded in the area, in addition to the rare plants and birds, it’s a hotspot for biodiversity in a stunning setting of monstrous mountains and spectacular valleys.
It was brilliant to see not only seasoned wildlife watchers at the event – including China’s most famous wildlife photographer, Xi Zhinong, but also young students with bags of enthusiasm for wildlife. And with coverage on national and local TV and in newspapers, the event did a great deal to celebrate the world-class wildlife of this beautiful corner of Qinghai Province. I can’t wait to return!
I’d like to acknowledge my teammates, Liu Garbo and Zhang Chengxin, for their fun company – their reaction at seeing the Snow Leopards was something to behold. I really hope to see you guys again in Beijing for some birding! And big thanks to 山水 for inviting me. It’s a real shot in the arm to meet such a dedicated, passionate and professional bunch of people. Looking forward to working with you guys in the future – lots of potential for some very exciting conservation and public engagement projects.
A few days ago a friend asked me which mammal I most wanted to see in China. Perhaps predictably, I said “SNOW LEOPARD”. I followed up quickly with “…but PALLAS’S CAT is a close second.” The second part of my reply is now obsolete after a stunning encounter near Qinghai Lake on Friday.
To celebrate my birthday, Marie and I have spent the last week in China’s Qinghai Province, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. We have explored the shores of Qinghai Lake, enjoying the colonies of Pallas’s and Brown-headed Gulls, caught sight of the Tibetan Lark, the rare Przewalski’s Rosefinch and enjoyed encounters with Wolf and Tibetan and Red Foxes. Along the way we have explored some spectacular mountains and valleys, some of which are rarely visited by anyone except a few local yak and goat herders.
On my birthday we discovered a track that ran from Qinghai lake towards a stunning gorge. We were able to drive our car for about 1km before parking up and setting out on foot. The scenery soon took our breath away as we walked further upstream, the cliffs either side of us becoming ever more imposing.
Despite having only two hours to explore the gorge, we saw Lammergeier, Saker, Tibetan Partridge, Salim Ali’s Swift, Asian House Martin, White-browed Tit, Kessler’s Thrush, Alpine Leaf Warbler, Black and Blue-fronted Redstarts, Ground Tits and Rufous-necked Snowfinches. As we tore ourselves away, we resolved to be back at first light to explore further.
Heavy rain around dawn the next morning delayed our start and, after the weather improved around 0630, we set off for the journey from our hotel to the beginning of the track. Just before 7am we drank our coffee, packed some water and snacks to fuel our walk and began our expedition into the gorge, pikas scampering down their burrows as we headed across the stone-covered grassland into the valley.
After about 20 minutes we had passed the first crags, almost like practice attempts at cliff-building compared with the finished product we would encounter further into the gorge.
Suddenly, in the overcast early morning light, movement caught my eye. I raised my binoculars and was astonished to see not one but two PALLAS’S CATS scampering around some rocks on the nearby hillside. I said to Marie “Pallas’s Cat!”, as softly as my excitement would allow. I quickly set up the telescope thinking that they would almost certainly run away fast as soon as they saw us. Instead, we were treated to incredible prolonged views as these two youngsters practiced their hunting skills, chasing each other, biting each other’s tails and generally having lots of fun.
We had clearly stumbled across their den and we knew it was only a matter of time before mother, presumably out hunting, would return. To our delight, we settled down around 30-40 metres away with the kittens completely relaxed, playing right in front of us. We were enthralled. We couldn’t stop grinning to each other. I took some video with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 telescope as the kittens continued to perform. After around 40 minutes, which went in a flash, the kittens suddenly stopped fooling around and both stared intently in the direction of some nearby rocks.. A quick scan in that direction revealed the mother, slowly walking towards the den with a pika in her teeth. We froze with anticipation. Then, suddenly, she dropped the pika, turned around and, almost in slow motion, crawled to a nearby hollow before raising her head and looking directly at us. She had seen us. And we were obviously too close for her liking.. Not wanting to intrude, we began to retreat and before we had even moved 10m from our position, she returned to pick up the pika and headed towards the den, seemingly completely relaxed. Fortunately I was able to record the moment when the kittens scampered up to her, one of which grabbed the pika and took it back to the den, before being followed by its sibling and, finally, its mother. A magical moment.
This 4-minute video is a compilation of the best footage I was able to capture.
We had spoken about the possibility of seeing a Pallas’s Cat on this trip. However, not in our wildest dreams did we consider an encounter such as this.
According to wikipedia, Pallas’s Cats are usually solitary. Both males and females have territories which they scent mark. They often spend the day in caves, rock crevices, or marmot burrows, and emerge in the late afternoon to begin hunting, although when they have young, they often hunt around the clock. They are not fast runners, and hunt primarily by ambush or stalking, using low vegetation and rocky terrain for cover. They feed largely on diurnally active prey species such as gerbils, pikas and voles.
We owe huge thanks to Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu for helping to arrange our Qinghai itinerary and for providing site information for many of the special birds to be encountered in this wonderful part of China.
At the end of May, with the BTO’s Chris Hewson’s arrival in Beijing, we began The Beijing Cuckoo Project. It’s an exciting initiative as it combines genuine scientific discovery with the participation of schools and the general public.
After catching 16 cuckoos, 11 of which were too small to carry a tag according to the BTO’s admirably strict ethical rules, we fitted tags to five Beijing Cuckoos at three locations – Cuihu Urban Wetland Park, Hanshiqiao Wetland Park and Yeyahu National Wetland Reserve. The five, three males and two females, were given names by local schools and birdwatching organisations. As expected, the three males were most likely of the subspecies bakeri, the ssp that breeds in Beijing. Interestingly, the two (larger) females appeared to be of the more northerly subspecies, canorus. This will hopefully be confirmed by DNA analysis in due course. We were excited to have potentially tagged two different subspecies as there is the possibility that the two races use different migration routes and wintering grounds.
Over the summer the project has gained wide exposure here in China and overseas with media articles, engagement with schools and events at the tagging locations to showcase the project. The most recent was a short article by BBC Wildlife Magazine.
The super-exciting news is that, after the breeding season, the first cuckoo – Flappy – has begun her autumn migration. Already she has crossed the Mongolian desert from her breeding grounds on the Mongolia/Russia border and is now south of Beijing in Hebei Province.
The other four are all doing well but remain at, or close to, their breeding grounds. We are expecting them to begin their migration very soon. There is a dedicated webpage on which updates are posted regularly and, for even more detail, there are individual sub-pages for each cuckoo. The next few weeks promises to be a really exciting time – all being well, we will find out, for the first time, where east Asian Cuckoos go for the winter and how they get there..!