Beijing Ranks No.2 in the G20 of Birding

When I first moved to Beijing, ten years ago, I can remember clearly the reaction of most people on hearing I was a birder:  “Why have you come to Beijing?  There are no birds in Beijing!”

This was disappointing news… but I had trouble believing it.  Although there was almost no English-language information about the birds of China’s capital city, I had heard about the fantastic migration at Beidaihe and the almost mythical “Happy Island”, just a few hours away in Hebei Province.  Surely, Beijing couldn’t be that bad?  

Of course, as I began to explore, I quickly realised that Beijing was a brilliant place for birds. Not only did I see some species I could only dream about in the UK (Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin, Brown Shrike and Thick-billed Warbler all graced the tiny green space around my central Beijing apartment block in the first few weeks), it was the sheer numbers of birds that impressed me.  Flocks of buntings hundreds strong, invasions of wagtails, squadrons of honey buzzards and swarms of leaf warblers awed me in my first few months. 

At that time, there were very few birders in Beijing and it felt as if I had more chance of finding a first for Beijing than seeing another birder.  How times have changed.  Today, any visit to a known birding spot, on any day of the week, will almost certainly result in meeting fellow birders and, as a result, more and more discoveries are being made, not only of vagrants but previously undiscovered or  new breeding birds such as Grey-winged Blackbird, Swinhoe’s Minivet and Slaty-backed Flycatcher.

With the most recent update of the official ‘Beijing list’ – the list of species reliably recorded – completed as far back as 2014, and the subsequent explosion of birding, a review of the list has been long overdue and, in recent months, a team led by Professor Zhao Xinru at Beijing Normal University, has been thoroughly reviewing past records and adding recent new records with a view to publishing an up to date list.  The number of species recorded up to 2014 was 456.  As of 2020 it is over 500 (although the new list has yet to be published – watch this space – we expect the revision of the list to come out somewhere around 510).  To save the mathematically challenged, that’s an increase of c54 in six years, an average of nine new species per year.  A remarkable change.

So where does Beijing rank alongside other major capital cities?  To gain a sense of where Beijing stands, I did some rather crude research online using data from eBird, Avibase and, where available, data from local birding societies.  This is the result:

G20 Capitals and the number of bird species recorded

Source: eBird, Avibase and local birdwatching societies

*Beijing’s official list is under revision.  This figure is an estimate and will be updated when the official figure is available.

 

Even though the figures are unlikely to be 100% accurate for some cities (I welcome contributions from birders in these cities to make the data more accurate), the relative position of Beijing is unlikely to change – second only to Brasilia in the capital cities of G20 countries.

So why is Beijing so good?

There are two main reasons.  The first is Beijing’s size – according to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, the capital covers a relatively large area of 16,410.5 km2 encompassing a variety of habitats from mountains to the north and west, wetlands, grassland and a network of large parks.

The second is location.  Looking at a map, to the north is the vast and relatively sparsely-populated (by humans) Siberia, home to taiga forests and tundra.  In the northern summer, insect populations explode, meaning it is worth the investment for birds to migrate north to take advantage of the glut of food – they can reproduce faster, and raise more young, than if they stayed further south.  Of course, in the winter, this vast area is incredibly cold, most insects die and, as a result, most birds must fly south to find food and shelter.  This mass autumn exodus happens over several months, primarily from July to November, with different species leaving at different times.  Some will stop in Beijing for the winter, some will continue to southern China or Southeast Asia, and some will go as far as Australia, New Zealand or, as we have seen with the cuckoos, swifts and Amur Falcons, to southern Africa.  

As we enter autumn, East China turns into a bird superhighway with birds heading south from a broad swathe of Siberia, many of which funnel east to  avoid crossing the Gobi Desert.  Beijing, with its varied habitats of mountains, wetlands, forests, grassland and a network  of parks, is an attractive service station.  Just a small fraction of the tens of millions of birds that pass over Beijing during this season (most undetected at night) will take the opportunity to stop in the capital to rest, find food and water, offering us the chance to encounter them.  And of course in spring, the reverse happens as these birds return north to Siberia to breed.  So it is in spring and autumn, in particular, that Beijing – and indeed the whole of eastern China – bears witness to a world-class birding spectacle. 

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Many birds from Siberia funnel through NE China to avoid the Gobi Desert to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, making the Bohai Bay/Yellow Sea and Beijing/Hebei/Tianjin a ‘pinchpoint’ where migration is concentrated.  Source: ABC News

The sheer volume of birds was something that stunned me when I arrived here and there is no doubt that location is everything.  Recalling my birding days at home in Norfolk, England, I would be delighted to see a single Common Redstart or a Wryneck on my local patch at Winterton-on-Sea, usually coinciding with easterly winds.  One look at a map shows why the migration of land birds on my local patch was relatively small…  with only a few hundred kilometres of land to the north and, after that, the Arctic Ocean; there is no Siberia to the north of the UK to supply the birds and we relied on birds ‘drifting’ from continental Europe.

Slowly, but surely, more and more people are learning about the rich birdlife in Beijing.  As well as more people picking up binoculars for the first time, thanks to the media increasingly reporting on the natural world, more and more of the general public are understanding, to the surprise of many, that Beijing is a good place for birds and other wildlife.  The projects to track Beijing’s iconic Swifts and Cuckoos have certainly helped, discovering for the first time the migration of these incredible travellers from Beijing to Africa, receiving significant mainstream media coverage.  However, it is the grassroots awakening that has been most impressive. Young students setting up nature clubs at their schools, the countless local groups organising field trips and lectures to introduce people to nature and volunteers spending much of their free time educating people about wild birds and patrolling to catch the illegal bird hunters, a practice that still goes on in the capital but is certainly diminishing here, thanks also in part to increased enforcement by the local police.

So, as I celebrate ten years in Beijing, it’s encouraging to see that awareness about the birds of Beijing is growing…  The next step is to turn that awareness into pride, building more support for policies and measures that work towards protecting and enhancing the environment for birds.  I firmly believe that, with some small changes to how the environment is managed in Beijing, this brilliant city could overtake Brasilia as the best G20 capital for birding.  Let’s make it happen!

 

Swarovski’s NL Pure – the best binocular yet?

In my opinion, the binocular, or binoculars as they are commonly known, is one of humankind’s greatest inventions.  Whether it’s birds, mammals or even insects, a good pair of binoculars transforms our engagement with the natural world, allowing us to observe, from a distance that minimises disturbance, details way beyond the natural capabilities of the human eye.  They help us to determine whether that movement on the edge of the forest 100m away was a wild cat or just branches moving in the wind, and whether the Phylloscopus warbler that moved through the canopy overhead had two wing-bars or only one, thus helping us to identify it with certainty.  In short, they add another dimension to our experience in the outdoors.

Since the first attempts at fixing two telescopes side by side in the 17th century, many advances have been made in binocular manufacturing.  Modern binoculars are lightweight, use high-precision glass and cutting-edge machine technology to make the image we see as clear, bright and sharp as possible, even in low light conditions.

The law of diminishing returns tells us that, over time, efforts to improve binoculars will gradually lead to fewer and less significant advances.  However, just occasionally, there are breakthroughs that prove the exception, leading to a noticeable step forward.  Having just spent a few days testing the new Swarovski Optik NL Pure, I can say with confidence that this new flagship binocular represents one such advance!

Over the last few days, since I opened the package from Swarovski in my front room, I have tested the NL Pure 8×42 in dull, almost dark, conditions when caught in a deluge during a thunderstorm in the mountains while watching dragonflies and on a hot, bright and sunny day on my local patch in urban Beijing watching breeding Zitting Cisticolas, newly-fledged Red-rumped Swallows and migrant Yellow-breasted Buntings.  Am I impressed?  You bet.

Opening the NL Pure for the first time..

Having been spoiled by the flagship EL 8×32, I was intrigued, and to be honest a little sceptical, that the new NL Pure could improve on the EL.  I am no longer sceptical.

There are two big things that make the NL Pure so good.

The first – and the thing that jumps out at you as soon as you pick them up – is the new ergonomic design of the barrels.  They simply fit perfectly into the hand and, in a direct comparison test with the EL, I found the NL easier to hold for long periods.  As I am often out in the field for hours at a time, comfort has always been an important factor, which is why I tend to prefer the lighter 8x rather than the more powerful, but heavier, models of binocular.  The ergonomics of the NL Pure are a big plus for me and, if you invest in the revolutionary forehead rest, the comfort level increases again, acting like an image stabiliser.  

The ergonomic design of the NL Pure is a joy.

The second thing is the field of view.  At the online launch presentation by Swarovski, Wolfgang Schwarz, Deputy Head of Product Management said:

“In the past, we have talked about edge-to-edge sharpness.  But there is one thing that’s even better – no edges at all.”

Of course, in reality, there are edges to the image but I can see what he means.  The model I tested (NL Pure 8×42) has a field of view of 159m/1000m compared with 133m/1000m for the EL 8.5×42. There is no doubt that a wider field of view increases the chances of detecting more, whether it’s birds, mammals or any other wildlife.  In a direct comparison between the NL Pure and the EL, the difference is startling.

The NL Pure is simply the best binocular I have ever experienced.  

Today, 1 September, the NL Pure goes on general release.  To celebrate, together with 7 colleagues across Asia, from Borneo to India, I participated in a live birding webcast as part of Swarovski Optik’s continental birding series.  You can see the recording here.   Enjoy!

 

Filming Beijing’s migratory birds with CCTV

Spreading the word about the birds and other wildlife of Beijing is so important if we are to build support for policies and measures to protect the capital’s wildlife and the places it needs.  So I didn’t hesitate to agree when CCTV, China’s national broadcaster, contacted me and asked me to take them birding as part of a feature on the birds of Beijing to be broadcast later this autumn.

Although it’s only mid-August, autumn migration is already in full swing with shorebirds and passerines such as pipits, wagtails and some of the early buntings passing through Beijing.  At this time of year, there is no better site in Beijing than Ma Chang, on the shores of Guanting Reservoir in Yanqing County.  

Given the heat of Beijing in August, I recommended an early start and, to their credit, the CCTV crew agreed to collect me at 0430 for the one and a half hour drive to Ma Chang.  On site shortly after sunrise, we were treated to a beautiful, still early morning and a good variety of birds.

The wind turbines dominate the skyline at Ma Chang and can play havoc with any attempts at sound recording. Fortunately we enjoyed still conditions for the first few hours.

Most obvious were the noisy breeding Black-winged Stilts with several well-grown young joining their parents in the shallows and one relatively young bird waiting to be fed and just looking cute. 

Six Relict Gulls, including one carrying a transmitter, provided an opportunity to discuss how scientists are learning about the incredible journeys of migratory birds and, in particular, how the whole population of the Relict Gull, a bird described to science as recently as the 1970s, relies on the Bohai Bay/Yellow Sea in winter.  

This moulting adult Relict Gull, on its way to the Bohai Bay from breeding grounds in Inner Mongolia, Mongolia or Russia, posed nicely for the cameras.
This Relict Gull was carrying a transmitter and we are working to find out the history of this bird from Chinese researchers.

A few Red-necked Stints, a Temminck’s Stint, several Long-toed Stints and a cracking juvenile Broad-billed Sandpiper brought us onto the subject of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and the incredible journeys of these tiny shorebirds from Arctic breeding grounds to non-breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere, including the importance of stopover sites or ‘service stations’ on this bird ‘superhighway’.  

This juvenile Broad-billed Sandpiper dropped in right on cue as we were discussing the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

Flyover Richard’s Pipits and Eastern Yellow Wagtails, many of which were calling, gave a glimpse of migration in action and we spoke about how, although some birds migrate during the day, many pass over the city at night, undetected, as we sleep.  In total we recorded 50 species by late morning and the crew secured some high quality footage of some of the stars of the show.  As we began to pack up, a few Globe Skimmer dragonflies mating and ovipositing in a pool next to the car reminded us that it’s not only birds that migrate incredible distances.. some individuals of this species have been known to travel 6,000km.  

Globe Skimmers (Pantala flavescens) mating at Ma Chang.
Globe Skimmers (Pantala flavescens) ‘ovipositing’ at Ma Chang

The reporter was overwhelmed with what she saw and experienced at Ma Chang and, as we returned to the city, she spoke of her hopes to do much more to cover ‘Wild Beijing’… so fingers crossed we can work together more to help promote awareness of just how special the Chinese capital is for birds and other wildlife.

In the meantime, the CCTV/CGTN feature on migratory birds in Beijing will be shown sometime in the autumn.

Title image: CCTV/CGTN capturing Relict Gulls on film at Ma Chang

How a strange Brown Shrike turned into a Grey-backed Shrike – a new Beijing record

On 11 July, local birders Wei Chunzhi, Ren Lipeng and He Yongzhou visited Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, to try to see some of the special breeding birds that are rarely seen in the city.  They were rewarded with sightings not only of their main target species – Slaty-backed Flycatcher – but also a big surprise.

Ren Lipeng, He Yongzhou and Wei Chunzhi, the finders of Beijing’s first Grey-backed Shrike.

Wei Chunzhi tells the story of their adventure, complete with some beautiful photos of the bird and the scenery, and how the sighting of an odd shrike turned into a first for Beijing.

How a Brown Shrike turned into a Grey-backed Shrike!

“My name is Wei Chunzhi (Tracey), a relatively new birder who loves to go birding in Beijing.  On 11 July 2020 I visited Lingshan with two friends, Ren Lipeng and He Yongzhou. We were shocked to find a Grey-backed Shrike, the first record of this species in Beijing! Magical days like this are a lot of fun…

Lingshan, as Beijing’s highest mountain, is cool in summer and, with birding slow in the heat of the city during that season, it’s a good place to visit to see some target birds such as Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Rosy Pipit and many other birds that are rarely seen in the city. 

It’s hard work to hike at 2,000m while carrying cameras and binoculars.  As we were walking up, I suddenly saw a dark bird sitting on top of a cedar tree about 10-20 metres away. I quickly alerted Ren Lipeng and pointed him at the bird. He couldn’t see it at first and then the bird flew.  Fortunately, it didn’t fly far and landed on top of another tree close by.  This time, both of my friends saw it and managed to take some photographs. Using my ‘toy camera’ and focusing manually, I could only manage a photo of the branches shaking immediately after the bird flew! 

The Grey-backed Shrike at Lingshan, 11 July 2020 (Photo by Ren Lipeng)
Now you see it… Grey-backed Shrike at Lingshan, 11 July 2020 (Photo by Ren Lipeng)

After looking at the photos, He Yongzhou confidently announced “Brown Shrike!” (a fairly common breeder in lowland Beijing and a very common passage migrant). Ren Lipeng said it looked a bit like a Grey-backed Shrike and asked me to look at the photo. I also thought the bird looked grey-backed but then thought it must be the greyish subspecies of Brown Shrike (ssp lucionensis) . There are no other shrikes except Chinese Grey, Bull-headed, Brown and Long-tailed. We didn’t spend any more time on the bird and carried on to look for the Slaty-backed Flycatcher and other birds. The joy of seeing many good species – such as Rosy Pipit and the Slaty-backed Flycatcher – made us forget our doubts about the shrike and we marked it as a Brown Shrike on our eBird checklist.

A male Slaty-backed Flycatcher at Lingshan, 11 July 2020. One of the special species at Beijing’s highest mountain and rarely seen in the capital away from this site.

When reviewing the Field Guide to the Birds of China by John MacKinnon we looked at the lucionensis subspecies of Brown Shrike and I felt it was not this bird. After getting copies of the photos from Ren Lipeng and He Yongzhou, I sent the photos to Huang Hanchen who also sent them to Guan Xiangyu, both experienced birders. They responded that it was a Grey-backed Shrike, not only a new species for me but also a new record for Beijing. After learning this news, the three of us were very happy!

On cloud nine. Wei Chunzhi and Ren Lipeng enjoying Lingshan (Photo by He Yongzhou)

This is a story of a Brown Shrike ‘turning into’ a Grey-backed Shrike. Birding not only brings us these exciting moments but also takes us into nature where we can relax, feel calm and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. It reminds us of the main theme of the Chinese Lao Zhuang philosophy – the law of nature.”

 

Big congratulations to Wei Chunzhi, Ren Lipeng and He Yongzhou for their brilliant find and huge thanks for telling their story and for allowing the use of their photographs.  Grey-backed Shrike is typically a bird of the Himalayas, including the Tibetan Plateau, breeding at elevations from 2,700-4,500+ metres above sea level (Birds of the World).  It has been recorded as far east as Shanxi Province in summer and at Beidaihe/Happy Island on at least two occasions in spring, so it’s not a complete surprise that it has turned up in the mountains of the capital but, nevertheless, it’s a wonderful addition to the list of species recorded in Beijing. What next?!

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Story in Chinese/中文

红尾伯劳“变身”灰背伯劳记

我是Tracey,是个热爱观鸟但刚刚入门的菜鸟。7月11日,有幸和两位观鸟朋友:任立鹏老师和大河老师去灵山观鸟时,不期而遇看到灰背伯劳。整个过程如同变魔术般很有趣。 尽管灵山上很凉快,可是夏季鸟荒让我们寻找目标鸟的步伐越来越沉重。走在最后的我,突然发现一二十米外的雪松尖上立着一只深色的鸟,赶紧拉住前面的任老师,指给他看鸟的位置,糟糕的是他看不到鸟,更糟糕的是鸟飞了。幸运的是鸟飞到不远的树尖,更幸运的是前面两位老师都看到了这鸟,先后举起了相机按动了快门。随即鸟就飞走了。使用“玩具相机”手动对焦的我只拍到了鸟飞后摇晃的树枝。两位老师看过照片后,大河老师自信地宣布“红尾伯劳!”。任老师边说有点灰像灰背伯劳边让我看照片,我也认为这只伯劳很灰,可是想到红尾伯劳的灰色亚种,就说红尾伯劳有个灰色亚种,大河更加肯定地说“灰色亚种的红尾伯劳,这里除了常见的牛头,红尾,棕背,不会有别的伯劳。”我们没再为这只红尾伯劳花费时间,继续寻找目标鸟。看到几种目标鸟后的喜悦让我们淡忘了对那只红尾伯劳的疑虑,并以红尾伯劳填写EBIRD记录。 

灰背伯劳 摄影:任立鹏  锈胸蓝姬鹟雄 摄影:任立鹏 在对照马敬能大师的《中国鸟类野外手册》复习时,想起了那只很灰的红尾伯劳,我感觉不是红尾伯劳的灰色亚种。向两位老师要照片,任老师积极回应,大河老师觉得我太啰嗦。照片和图鉴对比,我觉得不是红尾伯劳,是什么无法确定。赶紧把照片转发给观鸟大师黄博士,他和另一位大师关先生(特别感谢两位大师认鸟)讨论后,认定是灰背伯劳,这不仅是我的新纪录,而且是北京新纪录。得知此消息后,我们三个人非常高兴。 如今,想想那天的纪录,仍然让人兴奋不已。一路为我们奏乐的云南柳莺、棕眉柳莺,站在枝头开会的红眉朱雀,不知雌雄的红胁蓝尾鸲在我们身边蹦来蹦去,树林鸣唱的白腹短翅鸲, 更有辛勤育雏的锈胸蓝姬鹟夫妻……这一切的美好,似乎都在预示着我们发现了北京新记录——灰背伯劳。 这就是红尾伯劳“变”灰背伯劳的故事。观鸟不仅带给我们这些趣事,更把我们带进大自然怀抱,让我们放松,平和,简单,让我们重新思考一下中国老庄哲学的主旨:法自然。



听鸟阅云海 摄影:大河

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Title image: Grey-backed Shrike, Lingshan, 11 July 2020 (Photo by Ren Lipeng)

 

The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Beijing

Summer is a good time to experience the wealth of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) that grace our local patches and, given the birding is usually relatively quiet at this season, the number of insect enthusiasts is often swelled by birders for a couple of months of the year.

It’s overdue to include information on Birding Beijing about these flying insects and so I am pleased to finally publish a dedicated page, accessible from the main menu.  The page includes a downloadable PDF of the 60 species of dragonfly and damselfly to be found in Beijing, including scientific, Chinese (including pinyin) and English common names where available. 

I am planning to supplement the list with images taken in the capital, slowly building up a library of images showing the different sexes and ages.  The image gallery currently has only eight species, so there is much room for expansion!  If you have any images of Odonata from Beijing that you are willing to share, particularly of species not yet illustrated, please contact me using the form on the dedicated page.

Special thanks you to Yue Ying who provided a list of species found in Beijing.  

 

Title image: a Dusky Lilysquatter, Paracercion calamorum dyeri,  苇尾蟌, in the Olympic Forest Park, 26 June 2020 (Terry Townshend)

 

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.

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.