The Sound of Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

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

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

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

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

Please leave a comment with any species you can name…

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The Mongolia Cuckoo Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting up the nets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rewilding” Beijing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Illegal Use of Mist Nets Profiled in South China Morning Post

With thanks to journalist, Thomas Bird, a ‘long-read’ about birding in China’s capital has just been published in the South China Morning Post.

In addition to celebrating the birds that can be found in China’s capital city, this article is significant for two reasons.

First, it shines a light on the use of mist nets, both legally as a tool to address the risk of bird strikes at China’s (300+) airports, and illegally to trap wild birds for the cage bird and exotic food trade.  The former is an ineffective way to address the risk of bird strikes and the latter is largely driven by demand in South China.

Second, the South China Morning Post happens to be owned by Ma Yun (known as Jack Ma in the west), the billionaire founder of Alibaba and owner of Taobao, the online shopping platform which freely sells mist nets and other poaching tools.  Ma is one of China’s richest men, in fact one of the wealthiest people in Asia.  According to Bloomberg, he had a net worth of USD 44.9 billion as of December 2017.

We’re delighted that the editors allowed the link between Taobao and illegal poaching to be published and, presuming Jack Ma reads his own newspaper, this article can only help to raise awareness and put some pressure on Alibaba to restrict the sale of mist nets.

Let’s remember that, in late 2020, China will host the most significant meeting of the UN Convention on Biodiversity for many years, at which governments are expected to agree on new targets to slow, stop and reverse the decline of biodiversity from 2020.  If I was Jack Ma, I would want to ensure that Alibaba and, in particular, Taobao, was playing its part in supporting biodiversity and was not part of the problem.  It would be embarrassing and seriously harmful to the company’s reputation if, when the world’s eyes are on China, journalists focused on the role of Taobao/Alibaba in the illegal wildlife trade and poaching.  I am sure shareholders would not be pleased.

Previous reporting about the sale of critically endangered Yellow-breasted Buntings on Alibaba’s Taobao can be seen here.

 

Ten birds to look out for in Beijing this Spring

Inspired by Twitter users who were asking about the identity of birds seen locally this spring, and a forthcoming article in the South China Morning Post, I’ve put together a list of ten birds to look out for in the capital this Spring.  It’s by no means an exhaustive list – in fact, I could have picked a different ten for every day of the week!  However, it is illustrative of the variety and diversity of the birds that are, right now, either passing through the capital on their way from wintering grounds as far away as southern Africa and Australia, to more northerly breeding grounds in north China, Mongolia and Russia, or raising a family right here in Beijing.

The scale of the migration happening around us right now is hard to comprehend.  Millions of birds of hundreds of different species will be flying over Beijing in the next few weeks, most of which will pass undetected at night as we sleep.  A few will stop over in one of the many parks, wetlands, rivers, forests or even small green spaces in residential areas to rest and refuel, offering us a privileged opportunity to observe them.  Knowing a little about these birds, and the journeys they are making will, I hope, help us to better appreciate these birds and the places they need to survive on these marathon journeys.

You can download the “Ten Birds to look out for this Spring” as a PDF.

Feel free to add a comment about your favourite birds seen this spring!

Singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing

Ma Chang, in Yanqing County, northwest Beijing, is my absolute favourite birding site in April.  Although not particularly glamourous with a series of wind turbines, small-scale agriculture and lots of litter left by the tourists who visit to ride horses or drive beach buggies, its geography – on the southeastern shore of Guanting Reservoir – makes it a wonderful place for migration.  Early in the month there is a good chance of spotting the spectacular ORIENTAL PLOVER on its way from wintering grounds in Australia to breeding grounds in Inner and Outer Mongolia, and it’s a brilliant place to experience good numbers of pipits and wagtails as they make their way north.  WHITE WAGTAILS lead the charge and five of the six subspecies recorded in Beijing have been seen here – leucopsis, ocularis, baicalensis, ‘eastern alba‘ and personata.  I am sure it is only a matter of time before the sixth subspecies – lugens – is recorded at this site.

Oriental Plover at Ma Chang, 7 April 2019 (Zhang Weimin)

White Wagtail ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang (Terry Townshend)

White Wagtail ssp ocularis (Terry Townshend)

Groups of Citrine Wagtails pass through and it’s not uncommon to see flocks of 20+.  Water Pipits are gradually eclipsed by Buff-bellied Pipits as the month progresses and several hundred of the latter can be seen in the middle of the month, with Red-throated, Richard’s and Blyth’s joining the fray a little later.  The vagrant Meadow Pipit has also been recorded here several times in early April.

Citrine Wagtail (Terry Townshend)

Buff-bellied Pipit (Terry Townshend)

Last Monday I spent a few hours at Ma Chang at the end of the day.  There were some tourists riding horses, a few buggies being driven around, it was windy and my expectations were not high.  Nevertheless, I found a lovely mixed group of White and Citrine Wagtails on the foreshore and was enjoying watching them feed on the flying insects close to the water.

The White Wagtails were dominated by ocularis (“Siberian Wagtail”) with a few leucopsis (“Chinese Wagtail”) and a couple of baicalensis (“Baikal Wagtail”).  As I was observing these birds, I heard a faint sound that reminded me of SWINHOE’S RAIL.  It was a vocalisation I had first heard at Wuerqihan in Inner Mongolia in June 2018.  I immediately dismissed the thought – a singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing would be ridiculous, surely!  But as soon as I had re-trained my concentration on the wagtails, I heard it again…  and again.  The sound was faint, coming towards me from a small inaccessible island of grass and a few small trees, against the wind, and was competing to be heard amongst the din of revolving wind turbines, the wind itself and calling Black-headed Gulls and Black-winged Stilts.

The SWINHOE’S RAIL was singing from the island with dry vegetation and a handful of trees.

I moved as close to the sound as I could and listened, intently.  There it was again, this time a fraction clearer.  Fortunately I had my sound recording kit with me and I scrambled to retrieve it from my backpack whilst hoping that the vocalisations would continue.

They did, and I managed to record a few snippets before the source fell silent, coinciding with a low pass by a hunting Eurasian Sparrowhawk.

A few minutes later I heard the sound again, three maybe four times before again it fell silent.

I was fairly sure the sound was of a SWINHOE’S RAIL but given the magnitude of the record, I had to consider the possibility of it being a frog or a cricket.

I was planning to stay overnight close by and hoped that, in the early morning with less wind and much reduced background noise, I may be able to hear the vocalisation more clearly if the bird was still there.  At the guest house, I looked at the sonogram of the sound I had recorded and compared it with that from my recordings of Swinhoe’s Rail from Inner Mongolia last June.  The sonogram of the sound from Ma Chang looked good on the screen – 6 or 7 notes in each vocalisation at a frequency of 2kHz.  Wow.

A sonogram of Swinhoe’s Rail recorded at very close distance in Inner Mongolia, June 2018.

A sonogram of the Swinhoe’s Rail at Ma Chang, Beijing, on 15 April 2019. Much fainter, due to the distance, but the same 6-7 notes at 2kHz, with similar spacing.

The following morning I was on site before dawn and it was wonderfully still – perfect conditions to listen and record sounds.  Sadly, I never heard it again. Despite the sonogram looking very good for SWINHOE’S RAIL, I was keen on a second opinion.  I sent the recording to a few local birders and most thought it sounded good but cautioned about their lack of experience with the species.  Then Paul Holt replied, agreeing that it was indeed a SWINHOE’S RAIL.  That gave me the confidence to put out the news – thanks Paul!

Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) is one of east Asia’s least known birds.  Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake, Jiangxi Province, in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.

It was only three years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia.  And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia.  I was fortunate to visit Wuerqihan in June 2018 and recorded its song and trill.  

Beijing Swifts are back!

In the last few days, birders from across the capital have been reporting the return of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis).  The first record seems to have been one at the TongHuiHe  by 岳小鸮 (Yuè xiǎo xiāo) on 1st April.  This was followed by another single at Peking University on 9th April (Yang Hua) and then nine at Baiwangshan, a traditional migration watchpoint in the northwest of the city (小隼仙人) on 10th.  Yesterday, 11th April, the staff at ZhengYangMen (正阳门), a traditional breeding site at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, reported sightings, too.

It is only a few weeks ago that these birds could have been circling over Table Mountain in Cape Town in South Africa having almost certainly spent the entire northern winter on the wing – an incredible feat of endurance and stamina that is hard to comprehend.

With several Beijing schools having built and erected nest boxes for the Beijing Swift over the last few months, we are keeping everything crossed that some of the birds arriving in the capital will find and choose to breed in these newly-built homes.  We’re hopeful, too, that students from these schools will be able to meet with the CEOs of some of China’s largest building companies to tell the story of the Beijing Swift, outline what their schools are doing to help and to ask the CEOs to trial ‘swift-friendly’ buildings in Beijing.  Watch this space!

 

Title image showing the autumn migration route of the Beijing Swift to southern Africa courtesy of Lyndon Kearsley.