When we conceived the concept of the Beijing Cuckoo Project back in 2015, we had two aims. First, to discover the wintering grounds, and migration route, of Common Cuckoos from East Asia. And second, to inspire the public, especially people who wouldn’t ordinarily care about migratory birds.
When a project like this begins, it’s impossible to know what sort if impact it may have, and whilst the results – discovering that Beijing’s Cuckoos spend the winter in Mozambique and cross the Arabian Sea from India to East Africa and back again – and the associated media coverage were way beyond our expectations, there are sometimes additional benefits that cannot be foreseen.
A few months ago I was contacted by an environmental education organisation who asked if I’d mind if they developed a pop-out educational book for students about the Beijing Cuckoos. Of course, I was delighted!
Over the weekend, I received some photos showing the prototype book being tested with a class of students.
I understand the book will soon be available as a PDF and will be circulated to a network of schools across Beijing and, we hope, across the country. A wonderful legacy for the Beijing Cuckoo Project!
When birding at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain in far western Mentougou District, it’s not uncommon to see mammal scat. Tolai Hare is common and I’ve also seen Siberian Rose Deer, Hog Badger and evidence of Wild Boar. A few weeks ago I spotted some scat that looked suspiciously like cat scat. Amur Leopard Cats (Prionailurus bengalensis euptilura) are seen occasionally in Beijing (I’ve enjoyed three sightings myself, including one in broad daylight). However, although probably not uncommon in the mountains around Beijing, Amur Leopard Cats are difficult to see due to their primarily nocturnal habits. And, in the context of Lingshan, there are a couple of small villages close by, so there is always the chance of a domestic cat roaming around.
I decided to set up a camera trap on the trail where I had found the scat and leave it there for a month. Yesterday I retrieved it and was delighted, first to find the camera trap was still there, and second to find a total of 11 images of Amur Leopard Cat, the best four of which are below. The lightly spotted coat, thick tail and pale vertical stripes on the face are all good features of this wild cat, currently treated as a subspecies of Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis).
It just goes to show that one doesn’t need to travel to the Tibetan Plateau to see wild cats.. they’re thriving in the capital city of the world’s most populous country!
It’s been a busy week in Beijing for the Valley of the Cats. First, last Wednesday evening, I was invited by the Royal Asiatic Society to speak about the community-based wildlife watching tourism project during a special event held at The Bookworm. I shared the platform with John MacKinnon, who has just returned from two weeks in the Valley having recorded a fantastic 20-minute film about this special place, its people and the wildlife, all taken against the stunning backdrop of some of the heaviest snow in living memory. Once edited, we plan to to publish the film shortly.
We were honoured to be joined by 12-year old Joyce Li whose dream of seeing a Snow Leopard came true during her visit to the Valley of the Cats last year. Joyce’s enthusiastic account of her experience encapsulated the magic of the Valley and I know from speaking with her that she is now a committed wildlife champion! This is her written account:
The First Encounter
“In October 2018, I went to the Valley of the Cats along with my parents, to look for the elusive snow leopard. This is a simple recount of my first encounter with this mysterious big cat.
On the second day of our trip, we woke up at 6:00 am, washed, downed some porridge, and we were off. It was snowing outside, with hares popping up in front of our car lights. They froze whenever we passed, too terrified to move.
About an hour had passed, and the sky had lightened up, and rays of sunlight peeked through the mountains. The snow blanketed the slopes and we searched them for any sign of a big cat. We even asked a local if he’d spotted one. He said that he had seen a carcass of a dead sheep around here, killed by a predator, and we continued searching. We came across quite a few herds of blue sheep and white-lipped deer, but no snow leopard. We decided to move to a new location. Suddenly, Yixi, our guide, started running up the slopes, and we followed him, scrambling up the mountainside. When he stopped, we caught up to him, Yixi said that he thought he had spotted a large animal feeding off a dead sheep. We were buzzing with excitement. But it was only a large dog, picking off the scrap bits of meat.
With no more signs of anything interesting, we decided to stop by Yixi’s cousin’s and have a nice cup of tea. After resting up, we went looking for the snow leopard again, and asked Yixi’s cousin for some help on the walkie talkie. Yixi drove us along the dirt road again, and I fell asleep.
I was already awake when mom called, and still deciding whether to snooze for a few minutes more, but when I heard the words “snow leopard”, all thought of another nap disappeared. Yixi came rushing back to us (he was out searching for snow leopards while we rested in the car) and told us that his cousin had spotted one across the valley. We sped along the small dirt road to the spot where the snow leopard was last found. We raced up the mountain, panting and out of breath, and threw our equipment down. It took a LOT of searching for us to spot the snow leopard, it was so well camouflaged on the rocks, with its grey and white pelt.
The snow leopard seemed quite lazy and full, because when a herd of blue sheep came by, it made no move to hunt, instead lounging on a rock. A few minutes later of cameras clicking and admiring the big cat, the King of the Snow Mountains decided to take a little nap, and disappeared behind the rocks. We waited for another hour, and the sky had turned dark. It didn’t reappear, so we went home too, to a warm dinner.”
The Second Encounter
“It was our third day, and we were up in the mountains, searching again for the mysterious snow leopard. We parked outside Yixi’s cousin’s house, watching them milk their yak and collecting their dung for fueling fires. Someone had spotted a red fox up the mountain, and we rushed to see. We were snapping away at the little creature, until Yixi yelled “Sa!” which means snow leopard in Tibetan. The poor fox was suddenly not the center of attention anymore. We scrambled to follow Yixi, and set up our equipment. There were two of them! They were a little far away, but we could see their big furry heads poking up. Sometimes a fluffy tail would appear and wave around. An hour later, they went down the mountain to somewhere we couldn’t see. We tried searching for them again, but with no success.
We moved to a new part of the valley, and waited an entire four hours for a snow leopard to appear. No luck. Not even when we spotted three herds of blue sheep, the snow leopard’s favorite snack. So after a while, we just started to eat snacks and not really bother looking. About twenty minutes later of infinite boredom and listening to dad’s observations of blue sheep and their horns and markings, Mr. Puma, a local guide for another group (we call him because he was wearing a puma jacket), drove up the little dirt road (you could hardly call it a road, path more like it), and shouted that the two snow leopard siblings we saw in the morning were spotted again, on the same mountain, but this time closer.
We descended the slopes as fast as we could, trying not to let large piles of yak manure get in our way, and scrambled in to our car.
When we arrived, there seemed to be nothing in sight, but two little ears gave the snow leopards’ hiding place away. The two siblings were having a very nice afternoon snooze. We waited, and waited, and waited for them to stir. A while later, a big furry paw raised, and playfully cuffed it’s sibling on the head. A few seconds later, the paw disappeared. When it reappeared again, this time a paw and one of the snow leopard’s heads, it was to very excited rapid clicking from our cameras. Soon after they’d woken up, the snow leopards were play fighting. They also sprayed and rubbed rocks to make what we guessed were border marks. We captured photos and videos of them digging holes, then pooping in them, which was also a form of marking their territory, as we later learned.
It was getting dark, and all too soon, we had to go. Apparently the snow leopards agreed, because they climbed back to their hiding spot. It had been an amazing day, and I was literally dancing on the rocks.
After dinner, we visited the Research Station to meet a volunteer who’s coming here today, who has lived in Qinghai for a year, studying wildlife and their behavior. When we told the researchers we had seen two young snow leopards, they wowed and congratulated us. I asked the volunteer some questions on snow leopard behavior, and she confirmed that the snow leopards were indeed marking their territory by pooping and spraying. We also learned that young snow leopard siblings, no matter what gender they are, can stay together for a few months after becoming independent from their mother. I had once thought that only females will stay together, because males will be aggressive towards each other, as adult males often are.
Another amazing and fruitful day in the Valley of Cats!”
March 10th, 2019
It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening with some great questions and conversation after the presentations. I am confident many of the participants will be booking their trips to the Valley very soon! A big thanks to Alan and Melinda of the Royal Asiatic Society for inviting us and to The Bookworm for hosting us for this special event.
I arrived at The Bookworm directly from the studios of Radio Beijing International who had invited me for an interview about the Valley of the Cats project. The interview was broadcast in two segments over the weekend and can be heard here.
Big thanks to Christine from Radio Beijing International for the opportunity!
With several bookings already for 2019, we are hoping that we’ll be able to build on the success of 2018 during which 61 groups of guests visited, raising CNY 460,000 for the local community and snow leopard conservation.
Readers of Birding Beijing will know about the unfortunate Chinese practice of using mist nets to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes at airports. Some background is here. In short, the blanket measure used at the now more than 300 Chinese airports, is to line the runways with kilometres of mist nets. This lethal method is effective only with small birds, the vast majority of which represent a negligible risk to aircraft. The nets do nothing to address the risk associated with larger birds such as waterbirds and birds of prey.
The international recommended best practice is for each airport to undertake a risk assessment to identify the specific risks faced by that facility and then to implement measures to manage that risk. It goes without saying that a coastal airport on a major migratory flyway will face very different risks to an airport in the middle of the Inner Mongolian desert. Currently, the two are treated the same.
A little over two years ago, I co-authored a report with Zhu Lei, commissioned by the Global Environment Facility, about the methods used to address the risk of bird strikes at Chinese airports, setting out international best practice and making recommendations for a review of the policy used in China. The report, in both Chinese and English, was circulated to Chinese organisations. Frustratingly, it was hard to find out just who was responsible for the policy, let alone to reach them. Time and again we were told it was “too difficult” or that we were “wasting our time”.
John MacKinnon, who has helped to champion efforts to change the policy of using mist nets, used every opportunity he had to raise the issue in interactions with Chinese officials and media and we both sent the report to multiple officials and academics in the hope that someone would be able to help.
Persistence is key and sometimes opportunities present themselves in unexpected ways.
Last year, John and I were invited to survey the birds around a luxury ecotourism resort in Gaoligiong, Yunnan Province. The CEO is well-connected and when she heard about the issue, she offered to help. She is a family friend of Mu Hong, the Minister at the powerful planning ministry – the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Executive Deputy Director of the Office of Deepening Reform.
Last week, she spent half an hour with the minister discussing the issue and handed him a hard copy of our report on bird strikes and mist nets. He was apparently engaged on the issue, especially in the context of China hosting the major UN Conference on Biological Diversity in 2020. It would not look good if the world’s most influential environmental journalists arrive in China to be greeted by dead birds dangling in nets alongside the airport. The Minister promised to look into the policy. Although he is not directly responsible for aviation security, his seniority is such that if he suggests a policy review, it is likely to happen.
Whilst we are a long way from a change of policy, this is a major breakthrough after a frustrating couple of years of trying to reach senior policymakers and it gives us hope that the policy responsible for unnecessarily killing millions of small birds each year could yet be changed.
Situated on the border of the provinces of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia is the small, isolated HeLanShan (Alashan) range of mountains. The semi-desert area immediately to the west is one of few places to see one of Asia’s least-known birds – the Mongolian or Kozlov’s Accentor (Prunella kozlowi, 贺兰山岩鹨) . Not much to look at, the Mongolian Accentor is unlikely to win any beauty contests and its low density in the vast habitat makes it a challenge to find. However, when one combines the Accentor with another of the area’s specialities, the stunning Alashan (Przevalski’s) Redstart (Phoenicurus alaschanicus, 贺兰山红尾鸲), a winter visit HeLanShan can be very rewarding.
Alashan Redstart breeds in the He Lan Shan Mountains and, in winter, most of them descend to the foothills and even the local town parks, making this species more accessible. Of course, it was only five years ago that a pair of these beautiful redstarts made it to Beijing. Our hopes of them being annual visitors to the capital so far remain unfulfilled. Hence the lure of the small town of Alxa in sub-zero temperatures.
We hired local guide, 王志芳 (Wang Zhifang) who was the first to ‘rediscover’ the wintering grounds of Mongolian Accentor back in 2009, many years after specimens were taken from the area.
Ms Wang first took us to a private site where we enjoyed two male Alashan Redstarts alongside Red-billed Chough, Plain Laughingthrush, Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, Brown and Siberian Accentors, Red-throated Thrush, Beijing Babbler, Hawfinch and Godlewski’s Bunting. The redstarts appeared to have a routine involving eating, drinking and singing (not dissimilar to many Beijingers on a Saturday night). In the arid semi-desert habitat, the berries they were feeding on were very dry, hence the need for regular forays to the edge of the stream, where the direct sun caused small amounts of ice to melt. Often, the redstarts would pause above the stream, calling frequently, before dropping down to drink. After drinking, they would often fly up to a perch and begin a weak, barely audible, song (subsong?), sometimes for several minutes at a time.
It was a joy to spend time with these birds and I recorded as much video and audio as I could.
Here is an audio recording of the calls and (sub) song:
In the afternoon we headed to a town park where we enjoyed another male Alashan Redstart as well as 85+ Red-throated Thrushes with just 2 Naumann’s Thrushes and 3 Black-throated Thrushes mixed in. A male Chaffinch was a nice addition the day.
One of the thrushes appeared to be an intergrade between Red-throated and Black-throated, sporting reddish feather around the face and throat and much darker, blackish feathering around the mid- to lower chest. This bird also had less rufous in the tail compared with a typical Red-throated. Comments welcome!
On day two we focused on Mongolian Accentor and it wasn’t long before we saw our first one at a site close to the town.
This bird is poorly known with a limited distribution in Mongolia and, in winter, it’s regular in small numbers in Inner Mongolia near the HeLanShan mountains. This individual spent most of its time feeding on the ground close to thick cover.. and its favourite food appeared to be the seeds of this thistle-like plant. I’d love to identify the plant so if anyone knows the name, please let me know!
After enjoying prolonged views of the Accentor, we spent the remainder of the time checking out nearby sites for Mongolian Ground Jay. We were fortunate to find two within a few kilometres of the town and found another site holding at least six more Mongolian Accentors before heading back to the airport for the return to Beijing, passing an original mud section of the Great Wall on the way.
All in all, an enjoyable weekend in a fascinating part of China.
For anyone interested in visiting, the local guide, Ms Wang Zhifang, can be contacted on WeChat (“alscw2016”) or on +86 18604836422.
I have reported before – for example here and here – about the local police in Beijing responding to reports of wildlife crime. I am pleased to say their good work appears to be a sustained effort.
On Thursday afternoon I paid a short visit to the Wenyu River. It’s a reasonably fast-flowing river so, even in the depths of winter when most water bodies are frozen, it is often ice-free and attracts many water birds, including thousands of duck and occasionally swans and geese. However, as well as providing good birding, this knowledge is not lost on wildlife criminals.
Thursday was not particularly birdy and the highlight was a party of four Whooper Swans which relaxed on the river with one eye on me as I scanned the duck from the river bank. Suddenly, around 60 Mallard took flight and I wondered what had caused the disturbance.. Then I saw the culprit – a young man with a catapult who had been firing ball bearings at the flock, initially from his car and then from much closer as he hid behind a tree.
As a wildlife-lover, sights like this make me angry and sad. In the modern world, wildlife is facing enough pressures from habitat destruction, pollution and the impacts of climate change without the actions of an ignorant few. I took some photos and video, including a clear image of his car plate, and sent them to the local State Forestry Police in Shunyi District. Despite it still being the Chinese New Year holiday, to my delight the police responded immediately and, the following day, they had tracked down the owner of the vehicle, called him in to the police station, confiscated his catapult and ‘educated’ him about the law.
Given no ducks were seen to be killed (thankfully he had a poor aim!), the most the police could do was give him a stern warning and remind him that his actions were against the law. The police said he was very sorry and went home feeling repentant.
It is a good reminder to anyone who sees wildlife crime in Beijing (or anywhere) not to turn the other cheek or to think that the police won’t take it seriously. Please capture as much evidence as you can, note the location and call the police. At least in Beijing, they WILL act to enforce the law that protects all wild birds in China.
To help, I have published a list of the telephone numbers for the State Forestry Police in Beijing. Note the police are organised by District, so the numbers are different, depending on where you live or go birding. If you live in Beijing, or visit regularly, please save this image on your phone so you know who to call if you encounter any wildlife crime.
Huge thanks and kudos to the Shunyi District State Forestry Police for responding so fast and effectively, especially during the Chinese New Year festivities.
Beijing police: ridding the capital of wildlife crime, one offender at a time!
Back in December, with thanks to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, I participated in the Meeting of the Partners of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) on the island of Hainan, just off the southern coast of China. The EAAFP is an informal partnership of governments, international organisations, NGOs and companies dedicated to celebrating and conserving the world’s largest Flyway, supporting tens of millions of migratory birds.
The Partnership’s secretariat, based in Incheon in South Korea, works hard to “protect migratory waterbirds, their habitat and the livelihoods of people dependent upon them” by providing a flyway wide framework to promote dialogue, cooperation and collaboration. One example of this work is the creation of “Task Forces” to work on single species and/or single habitats, for example on Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Baer’s Pochard and the Yellow Sea.
For me, it was fascinating to meet with many international experts from the Partner countries, including Australia, China, Japan, Korea (North and South) Mongolia, New Zealand, Russia, Thailand and the US, and to participate in some of the workshops to help progress conservation of the Flyway’s special species and places. For one species close to my heart – Baer’s Pochard – it was heartening to hear from the Mayor of Hengshui about the outstanding work he, his colleagues and partners have been doing to protect and manage Hengshui Hu (Hengshui Lake), the most important known site for this critically endangered duck.
However, perhaps the most important outcome of the meeting was the official launch of a new “Science Unit” to underpin the work of the EAAFP. The Center for East Asian-Australasian Flyway Studies (known as CEAAF) sits in Beijing Forestry University under the leadership of Professor LEI Guangchun. It has been funded for an initial five years by two Chinese Foundations – the Mangrove Conservation Foundation and Qiaonv Foundation – and is officially part of the EAAFP Secretariat.
Under Professor LEI’s leadership, the CEAAF team includes some of China’s most talented young waterbird scientists – including JIA Yifei, LIU Yunzhu, LU Cai, WU Lan and ZENG Qing – and is already taking forward work to coordinate winter surveys of priority species such as Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Scaly-sided Merganser and Baer’s Pochard.
It’s more evidence of China stepping up to the plate in terms of the conservation of birds and their habitats, and I look forward to working with Professor LEI and his team to strengthen the work to protect and celebrate the world’s important Flyway.
Header photo: the CEAAF team with senior members of the EAAFP Secretariat. From left to right: JIA Yifei, ZENG Qing, LU Cai, Lew Young (Chief Executive of EAAFP), Professor LEI Guangchun, Hyeseon Do (EAAFP Secretariat), WU Lan and LIU Yunzhu.