Birding the Gaoligong mountains

The Gaoligong mountains, spanning 500 kilometres along the Yunnan-Myanmar border, near the tropical edge of the Himalayas, are one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world.

Running north-south from the Tibetan Plateau, the mountains channel some of the world’s most impressive rivers – the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze – which help supply more than 3 billion people in Asia with fresh water.  There are volcanoes, hot springs, and some of the largest remaining untouched tracts of evergreen, deciduous, and bamboo forests.  More than 500 bird species have been recorded in the area and these mountains are also home for 154 mammal, 21 amphibian, 46 reptile species, and more than 1,700 insects.

The north-south orientation of the mountains and rivers provide natural corridors for seasonal migration and, as the elevation drops, subtle changes in vegetation create an incredible range of biomes and plant life which, in turn, make the animal species in Gaoligong so unique and abundant.  Alpine meadows give way to sub-alpine forests, deciduous broadleaf forests and finally to tropical monsoon forests. These vertically distributed climatic zones hold around 5,000 plant species, fifty-five of which are rare or endangered.  This means you can go from a scene reminiscent of the Alps to the jungle in one day.  And, along the way, you’ll watch the flora and fauna change with every step.

Vinetree location 1

It is easy to see why the location was chosen for an ambitious, luxury and small-scale sustainable ecotourism project.  Situated on the edge of the Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve, Vinetree Gaoligong Tented Resort has been designed to minimise its impact on the environment while maximising the benefit to the local community and providing visitors with an unforgettable experience.  With fifteen guest tents and five public areas (including a wildlife-focused library) erected in the canopy, supported by stilts and connected by a wooden boardwalk, it’s a wonderful place to connect with nature.  Simply open the flaps covering the huge ‘windows’ of your tent and you’re immediately at eye-level with the treetops, listening to the wonderful sounds of babblers, laughingthrushes, sunbirds and, at night, even owls.

All of the waste from the resort is taken out of the forest for processing, the employees are all local people from the nearby villages and the chefs use only local ingredients to showcase wonderful Yunnan cuisine.

The mastermind of the project and CEO of the operation is Koko Tang, a local Yunnanese and former corporate lawyer trained in the UK.  She is passionate about providing unforgettable experiences for the tourists while helping to conserve nature.  She even has a dream to bring back the struggling Skywalker Gibbon to the forest around the resort.  Given the unsustainable nature of much of mainstream tourism and Koko’s attention to detail at Vinetree, she deserves to succeed and, if she does, her project could serve as a wonderful example to others in China and overseas.

TT with Koko and John
Koko with Terry and John.

As part of the “soft opening” for the resort, Koko asked John MacKinnon and me to help run a birding weekend for families, introducing them to the biodiversity, leading bird walks, providing talks and, at the same time, helping to generate a snapshot of the biodiversity of the area to develop a guidebook to the birds.  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and, despite the frequent rain (summer is rainy season in these mountains), we enjoyed a wonderful few days with some brilliant families from all over China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Xinjiang.

We had so much fun with the children.. setting up camera traps, listening to birdsong at dawn, holding a drawing competition, moth trapping at night and even enjoying a shadow play about a crane and a turtle performed by local villagers.

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We recorded 66 species of bird – see full list here – and one species of snake, Calamaria yunnanensis, a non-venomous range-restricted species, unique to Gaoligongshan.  Best of all was the feedback session at the end when Emily told us she “never wants to go to Disneyland again but instead to wild places like Gaoligongshan”..!

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Koko showed us some outstanding photographs of a Red Panda that frequented the fruiting trees adjacent to the resort last autumn..  she’s hoping it will return this year and, from looking at the amount of soon-to-be-ripe fruit on the closest fig tree, there must be every chance this September/October.

What better experience than to savour a glass of your favourite red whilst watching the rarest red of them all – the Red Panda!

John and I will be returning to Vinetree Gaoligong for a further three visits, once in each season, to gain a more complete sense of the birds and other wildlife around the resort throughout the year.  The next is scheduled for late October – can’t wait!  In the meantime, if you are interested in staying, please do check out their website and book – you won’t be disappointed.

Big thanks to Koko, Emily and the team at Vinetree for hosting us so well and to the families, especially the children, from all over China who were so engaging and who made it such a fun experience.  After the last few days, the future of China’s wildlife is a little brighter..!

 

Seven For A Secret Never To Be Told?

Since as far back as the 16th century, the Common Magpie (Pica pica) has been considered, in many cultures, a bird of ill omen.  The superstition was put into a rhyme, the first iteration of which was published in 1780, which read:

“One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for birth”

Since then, the rhyme has evolved and the modern version, which I learned from the children’s TV show “Magpie” (1968-1980), goes something like this:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.

With a distribution across Eurasia, northwest Africa, Arabia and western North America, the humble Magpie must be one of the best-known birds in these regions.  Yet, this most familiar of birds has been keeping a secret, only now revealed by new research; the Common Magpie is actually seven different species!

The new research, led by Professor Per Alström and Gang Song, was recently published in the Journal of Avian Biology and a summary by Prof Alström for the British Ornithological Union can be read here.

In short, the research shows that despite looking very similar, there is significant divergence between geographic populations of Magpie and, on that basis, the authors suggest that seven species should be recognised:

1. Eurasian Magpie Pica pica sensu stricto (comprising six subspecies from Europe to northeast Russia);

2. Maghreb Magpie P. mauritanica (Northwest Africa);

3. Asir Magpie P. asirensis (southwest Saudi Arabia);

4. Black-rumped Magpie P. bottanensis (eastern Tibetan plateau);

5. Oriental Magpie P. serica (east China and neighbouring areas);

6. Black-billed Magpie P. hudsonia (northwestern North America); and

7. Yellow-billed Magpie P. nutalli (California).

 

This means that Beijing’s Magpies should, from now on, be known as Oriental Magpies.

And so, the Magpie’s secret is finally told… and it just goes to prove that there is still much to discover, even about our most common and familiar birds.

 

 

References:

I. Opie and M. Tatem, eds, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 235-6.

J Brand, “Observations on Popular Antiquities” (1780)

NatureWatch 2018: Citizen Science on the Tibetan Plateau

I’m back in Beijing after almost two weeks in Qinghai Province, a trip that included the latest round of tourism training with local yak herder families in the Valley of the Cats, an international conference on Leopard/Snow Leopard Conservation (see previous post) and ShanShui’s 2018 NatureWatch Festival, bringing together teams of young people from across China and overseas to celebrate the biodiversity of this wonderful part of the Tibetan Plateau.

This was my 9th visit to the Plateau.  Every visit is special and the more time I spend there, the more I learn, the more secrets are revealed and best of all, the more I get to know the wonderful local people and the wildlife.

2018-07-21 NatureWatch banner, Angsai

The 2018 NatureWatch Festival was arranged by the local government in Zaduo County, Yushu Prefecture, in partnership with 山水 (ShanShui Conservation Center).  Twenty teams from across China and overseas competed to photograph as many birds, mammals and plants as possible over four days.  Local families were hired to drive and guide the teams as they explored the mountain ridges, valleys and meadows, collectively a treasure trove of nature.  And the local people also ran a fabulous campsite, at which all participants stayed during the festival, providing delicious local food to fuel our daily forays into the wilderness.  I was invited to be on the judging panel alongside John MacKinnon, author of the Field Guide to the Birds of China.

2018-07-20 campsite at Angsai
The hospitality tent, used for dining, presentations and as a general meeting place.
2018-07-20 TT's tent, Angsai
Tent No.3 – my home for the festival.

The event was meticulously organised with a defined “playing field”, a strict code of conduct, an efficient mechanism for collecting and processing the photos and a wonderful array of prizes for the winners, including a telescope and binoculars from Chinese optics manufacturer, Bosma.

2018-07-24 SX, JM, JS and ZX at Angsai
John MacKinnon (second from left) and Justine Shanti Alexander of the Snow Leopard Trust, flanked by Shi Xiangying and Zhao Xiang of ShanShui Conservation Center.

For the first two days, John and I were accompanied by Xinhua News Agency as part of a special focus on Sanjiangyuan pilot National Park.  You can see some of their English-language coverage here and here.

2018-07-21 TT with Xinhua and Xiangying
Terry (standing) with Shi Xiangying of ShanShui (left) and the Xinhua team (right).

Over the four days, participants recorded 13 species of mammal, 73 species of bird, 4 species of reptile and 315 species of plant.  A full list of the mammals and birds (in English and Chinese) together with the Chinese names of the plants can be downloaded here.

Eight of the 20 teams enjoyed encounters with the King of the Mountains, the elusive Snow Leopard, and Hui Lang’s stunning photo (header image) not surprisingly won the prize for best photograph of the festival.

As in previous years, there were so many things that inspired me about this festival.  The involvement of the local Tibetan communities and their relationship with, and respect for, the wildlife.  The spirit among the teams of sharing information and helping each other to see as much as possible.  The enthusiasm and stamina of the participants – often starting before dawn, returning after dark and climbing steep mountains and walking kilometres through the forests to seek out special plants and animals.  And the energy and passion of the ShanShui team, led by Professor Lu Zhi, Shi Xiangying, Zhao Xiang and Li Yuhan, and ably assisted by an army of volunteers.

These festivals are inspiring people to take an interest in nature and wild places and it was brilliant to see so many local people using the resources we’ve been able to provide – binoculars and a field guide to the wildlife of Sanjiangyuan – to observe the plants and animals and learn their names.  There is no doubt that long-term conservation can only be effective if it enjoys the full support of the local people. And, for the Valley of the Cats at least, it seems this special place is in good hands.

A selection of photos taken by the participants is below.

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And here are a few video clips of some of the wildlife and the environment:

The Glover’s Pika must rank as one of the most popular mammals on the Plateau.

Musk Deer is common in the Valley but not easy to see.  Dawn and dusk are the best times.

The Woolly Hare is one of the most frequently encountered mammals in the Valley and it’s not uncommon to see 10 or more together in its preferred habitat – grass meadows.

Wolf is a sought-after mammal and the so-called “new road” is the best place to see it.  These are part of a group of seven seen early morning on 25 July.

The streams of the side valleys are adorned with wild flowers and flanked by 4,000m+ peaks, providing a stunning backdrop to the festival.

For those interested in the night sky, The Valley of the Cats is a superb place from where to view the Milky Way and, if you are lucky, you might get to see other natural phenomena such as this magnificent double rainbow, photographed over ShanShui’s workstation.

Night Sky Sanjiangyuan by Zhao Chenghao
The night sky in Sanjiangyuan by Zhao Chenghao

2018-07-19 rainbow over ShanShui workstation, Angsai

If you’re feeling adventurous, why not arrange your own visit to the Valley of the Cats?  Small-scale community-based tourism is now up and running and for a very reasonable price you can stay with one of the local families and be guided around to see the local wildlife.  As well as enjoying some incredible encounters with wildlife, you’ll experience the wonderful culture of the local people in a very special part of the world.  With 100% of the revenue staying in the local community, you’ll be supporting the local people too, helping them to continue the lifestyle they’ve been enjoying for generations.  See the Valley of the Cats website for more details and to register your interest.

With The Leopards

I’m writing this from Yushu in Qinghai Province where I’m participating in a conference “With The Leopards”, hosted by the Yushu local government and Yushi Party Committee and organised by ShanShui Conservation Center.  The event is focusing on the conservation of these magnificent cats on the Tibetan Plateau.  It’s quite a gathering, including many local, national and international experts including representatives from Panthera and The Snow Leopard Trust.  Among the speakers are Professor Lu Zhi of Peking University (founder of ShanShui Conservation Center), John MacKinnon (author of The Field Guide to the Birds of China and veteran of conservation in Asia, especially China) and, perhaps most encouragingly of all, the Party Secretaries from Yushu Prefecture, Zaduo County and Angsai (“The Valley of the Cats”).

The opening of the “With the Leopards” conference in Yushu, Qinghai Province.

Importantly, there are many representatives from the local communities, some of whom have already been involved in community-based conservation initiatives and others who are keen to participate.  Their perspectives have added a great deal to the proceedings, helping to ensure policy recommendations take into account, and work with rather than against, the realities on the ground.

Zha Shuji is the Secretary of Angsai, including The Valley of the Cats

The conference has heard about the latest scientific research on Common Leopard and Snow Leopard from across China, including Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan and Xinjiang, how to fill the remaining knowledge gaps and a discussion about the issues that need to be addressed, including overall management of the grassland, human-animal conflict and climate change.

I was delighted to be invited to speak about the community-based wildlife tourism project in The Valley of the Cats and enjoyed a Q&A session with the audience where we discussed important issues around monitoring the environmental impact of tourism, how to ensure the opportunities are shared equally among the families in the valley and the potential for replicating the model in other areas of Qinghai.  I was happy to report that, so far, the community had hosted 18 groups of visitors and raised 72,000 RMB.  And, thanks to the generosity of Taiwanese optics company, Optisan, we had been able to provide each family with a pair of binoculars and a guide book about the wildlife of Sanjiangyuan to support their guiding efforts.

The local families in the Valley of the Cats testing out their new binoculars, kindly provided by Taiwanese optics company, Optisan.
A copy of this excellent field guide is now with each family in The Valley of the Cats.

Of course, this was just the beginning of the journey and we expected that, with a growing reputation and the launch of a dedicated website, the number of visitors would increase in 2019 and beyond.

The conference was the catalyst for the various Chinese organisations working on Snow Leopard conservation to collate their knowledge and advance a paper that will pull together all the data from across this vast country to provide an updated summary of the status of Snow Leopard in China.

The afternoon of the second day will see a field trip to see Black-necked Cranes at a nearby wetland but John MacKinnon and I will instead head to the Valley of the Cats with the ShanShui team, where we will be part of the judging panel for 2018 Nature Watch Festival, due to take place from 21-24 July.  This year there are 18 teams from across China, including one team from Hong Kong, and one international team with participants from the UK and US.  It promises to be a wonderful event.  With a newly-installed phone mast close to the camp, we should be enjoying connectivity, so check Birding Beijing’s Twitter feed (@birdingbeijing) for updates!

The stunning conference logo of a Common Leopard and a Snow Leopard is by Xu Ning.

Hengshui Hu – The Home of Baer’s Pochard

At the end of May, I reported on the successful breeding of Baer’s Pochard at Hengshui Hu, just 300km south of Beijing.  It’s remarkable progress in the conservation of this diving duck which, with fewer than 1,000 remaining, is classified as critically endangered, just one step away from extinction.

This week I paid my latest visit to Hengshui Hu to help deliver more training of the local nature reserve staff including the ‘enforcement team’ on waterbird monitoring and identification.  During the three-hour train journey to Hengshui, I wondered whether the measures taken by the local government and nature reserve to clamp down on illegal fishing, egg collection and to manage the water levels during the breeding season would be sustained.

I needn’t have worried.  Early morning on my first full day, we enjoyed a ‘field visit’ along the causeway to check for Baer’s Pochard and other waterbirds and there wasn’t a fishing boat or net in sight.. There were good numbers of young Great Crested and Little Grebes, Coots, a few groups of juvenile Ferruginous Ducks, tens each of Black-crowned Night, Purple and Grey Herons, Yellow Bitterns were flying back and forth with food and, in contrast to their British counterparts already well on their way to Africa, the Common Cuckoos were still very obvious, calling and chasing each other over the reed beds, much to the annoyance of the local Oriental Reed Warblers.  The colony, 100s strong, of Whiskered Terns on one of the disused fishponds with a Pheasant-tailed Jacana pottering on the lotus leaves showed just how habitat, and its associated biodiversity, can recover if given the chance.

2012-07-13 Yellow Bittern in flight2
One of the many Yellow Bitterns at Hengshui Hu 

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After the training, the nature reserve staff arranged for me to be taken out on a boat patrol with the enforcement team and we found a group of at least four juvenile aythyas, tentatively identified as Baer’s Pochards based on head shape and bill size compared with juvenile Ferruginious seen earlier.  And my hosts quickly sent packing two groups of fishermen who had sneaked to the shore close to the main Baer’s Pochard breeding area.

2018-07-10 stopping illegal fishing at Hengshui Hu
These fishermen, close to the main breeding area of Baer’s Pochard, were sent packing by the local enforcement team.

On arrival at my hotel along the east bank of Hengshui Hu, I was pleasantly surprised to receive my room card, complete with a picture of Baer’s Pochard.. and in my room was a leaflet with information about the Baer’s Pochard and the importance of Hengshui Hu for the species.  Great public engagement!

2018-07-10 Hengshui Hu Longyuan Hotel BP

The bird monitoring team at Hengshui University, led by Dr Wu Dayong and Li Feng, now have an impressive full year of waterbird data, collected at least weekly, for and they’ve even added some new species to the official list for the site.

The future of Baer’s Pochard at this site now looks bright and huge credit must go to the local government, local nature reserve, Hengshui University and the local people who now see Baer’s Pochard as a key part of their identity.

Hengshui Hu is undoubtedly the “Home of Baer’s Pochard”.

 

The Valley of the Cats Website Launched

On behalf of the local community in The Valley of the Cats, close to the source of the mighty Mekong River on the Tibetan Plateau, we are delighted to announce the launch of a new website dedicated to the Valley.

The bilingual (English and Chinese) site includes background information about the Valley, the people and its wildlife.  It includes latest news from the local yak herders, the latest photos from the camera traps set up and operated by the local community and feedback from visitors who participated in the pilot trips.

The Valley of the Cats is a special place and, thanks to the efforts of the local government, local families and ShanShui Conservation Centre, the Valley is now open to receive small numbers of visitors, provided permits are obtained through official channels.  Visitors stay with one of the local yak herder families, who will collect you from, and return you to, the airport at Yushu which, in turn, is just one hour from Xining by air.

Feeling adventurous?  Why not check out the site and contact the local community to arrange the trip of a lifetime…  https://valleyofthecats.org

Header photo by Frédéric Larrey, taken in the Valley of the Cats.

 

Beijing Swift Exhibition at Tiananmen Square

Last week I was excited to receive an invitation to meet with Mr Guan Zhanxiu, the Director of Zhengyangmen Gate (the southern gate of Tiananmen Square) and to view the exhibition about the Beijing Swift currently on show to the public.  Mr Guan made arrangements for me to visit on Tuesday afternoon and so, at around 1400 I made my way to Zhengyangmen via Qianmen, at the southern end of Tiananmen Square.

2018-07-03 Zhengyangmen gate at Tiananmen Square panorama
A panorama of Zhengyangmen (left) with Mao’s mausoleum on the right.

Zhengyangmen gate, right at the heart of Beijing, is certainly one of the best places in the capital to view the Beijing Swift with several hundred pairs breeding amongst the beams of this historic building.  On warm summer evenings from mid-April until late July, the Beijing Swifts’ spectacular sociable and noisy flights, wheeling around the rafters, are a sight to behold and an example of how wildlife can thrive even in the heart of our capital cities.  From now until September this historic venue is hosting a stunning public exhibition dedicated to the Beijing Swift.

Beijing Swift exhibition title

Beijing Swift exhibition photos

The exhibition is a wonderful mix of science, culture and history.  There is a 25-minute video, including the history of the Beijing Swift in China, spectacular footage of the birds in flight and at their nests, and an animation of their migration.

Did you know, for example, that the first known visual representation of the Beijing Swift (see below) dates back more than 3,000 years to artefacts found in an ancient royal tomb?  At that time, Chinese people believed their ancestors were transformed into Swifts after death, and these birds have had a special place in their culture ever since.

The video follows a pair of Beijing Swifts being studied by local academics.  Incredibly, and shockingly, one of the nests contains a significant amount of plastic, a reflection of the omnipresence of this manmade material in our environment today.

2018-07-03 Beijing Swift nest with plastic

Of course, the story of the Beijing Swift would not be complete without showcasing the Beijing Swift Project and the tracking of birds from the Summer Palace.  Their incredible migration to southern Africa for the northern winter is depicted by a magnificent map showing the countries through which they pass on their way to and from southern Africa.

Beijing Swift ewxhibition migration route

The exhibition will run until September and is open daily from 1000 to 1600.  If you’re going to be in Beijing during this time, don’t miss it!

We’re hopeful that, after September, the exhibition will be available to schools and public spaces around the capital and beyond.

A big thanks to Director Guan Zhanxiu and his wonderful staff – Yuan Xuejun, Zhao Penghua, Li Lianshun, Jiang Junyi and Wang Jichao – for showing me around and explaining their personal connections with, and commitment to protecting, the Beijing Swift.

Beijing Swift couple selfie
The old and the new. This young couple takes a ‘selfie’ with Beijing Swifts at the Summer Palace.