China’s Conservation Heroes: Gu Xuan

 

Illegal hunting is a major threat to wild birds in most parts of the world.  Even in so-called advanced countries, the problem persists.  My home country – the UK – is certainly not immune with the continued illegal persecution of raptors to protect commercial shooting interests.

In China, trapping birds both for the cage-bird trade and for food is an activity that, despite tougher laws and greater enforcement, remains a problem.  However, increasingly, people – especially young people – are standing up for wildlife.  For example, in Beijing during spring and autumn – peak times for bird migration – groups of volunteers go out every day looking for illegal nets and, through liaison with the local police and direct action, are working hard to accelerate the demise of illegal hunting in China’s capital city.  A few weeks ago I met with Beijing’s most active anti-poacher – Gu Xuan.  Through crowdsourcing he receives a small – and increasingly unsustainable – income that just about allows him to be a full-time bird protector.  Before our meeting, I thought I had a reasonably good understanding of poaching in Beijing but what he told me – both the scale of the illegal activity and the prices of some cage birds – shocked me.  He agreed to answer a few questions and, with his permission, I have reproduced his answers below.

Although the scale of the problem and the way many migratory birds suffer, may be heartbreaking, it is heartening to hear about the dedication of young people such as Xuan and the progress he and his fellow volunteers are making against incredible odds.  They deserve the respect and support of wildlife lovers the world over.

Beijing may be just one battleground in the war against illegal hunting in China but I strongly believe that if attitudes can be changed here, it will have a knock-on effect across the whole country.

 

Interview with Gu Xuan

1. Please tell me about yourself – how old are you? Where are you from? What is your background?

My name is Gu Xuan.  I also have a Spanish name – Silva. I was born into a normal family in a small village called Bakou in the northwest of Beijing.  I am 29 years old.

Before I began to protect wild birds, I used to teach life skills to orphaned children, for example, showing them how to take care of themselves and teaching blind children how to use a cane to navigate.

2. For how long have you been tackling poaching of wild birds in Beijing?

I began this work in December 2015, so it’s now three years.

3. What motivates you to do this work?

Ever since I was a little boy, I have had a desire to be with mother nature and the animals, to watch them and spend time with them.  One day I took home a stray dog; I could feel the energy, the connection between us and with mother nature, and this experience showed me my future.  When I was offered the chance to work on this bird protection project, I knew 100% for sure this was my duty and my dream to fight for nature.  I don’t think I need any other motivation.  This is the way I see and feel the world.

4. What is the scale of poaching in Beijing? E.g how many birds do you think are caught each year? Is it getting better or worse?

When I began three years ago, it was a very bad situation.  Even though this is the capital of my country, the need to do this work is very pressing.

Due to old traditions, there are a lot of local people who like to cage birds to watch them and listen to their sound.  So, in order to satisfy this demand, many people set nets during the migration season to catch wild birds.  We find very large numbers of illegal nets in the Beijing area.  And it is not only for the cage-bird trade.  We have often found people catching birds for food.

Nowadays, three years on, the areas where I patrol are a little better but we can always find new places with illegal nets.  The overall situation is out of my control and I cant tell the full scale, but i think it’s bad.

IMG_7190
Trapped migrant birds dangle helplessly in an illegal mist net in Beijing. Photo by Gu Xuan.

5. Who are the poachers? What’s their profile? Are they old or young, men or women?

The majority of poachers are unemployed men between 40-60 years old.  However, we do find a few young people and women.

6. Why are they catching wild birds? For the cagebird trade or for food or both? These aren’t hungry people, right? Not for survival?

Some are rich and some poor but they all have a good life and do not need to eat wildlife to live.

7. Who are the buyers of the birds for the cagebird trade?

At the market, many local people from many different backgrounds buy the wild birds.

8. Which species are the poachers particularly targeting and why?

The most popular cage birds are the Bluethroat, Siberian Rubythroat, Eurasian Siskin, Yellow-bellied, Marsh and Coal Tits, Yellow-breasted Bunting, white-eyes and larks.  A pristine male Siberian Rubythroat can sell for as much as 200,000 CNY (GBP 22,000) but most will change hands for a few hundred or few thousand CNY, depending on species and condition.

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Siberian Rubythroat and Bluethroat are two of the species sought after by poachers. A pristine male of the former can fetch up to 200,000 CNY on the black market. Photo by Gu Xuan.

9. What if they catch other species such as buntings, shrikes, pipits?

If they catch birds not on their target list, for example a Brown Shrike, an Olive-backed Pipit or a warbler, some poachers will release them but others will take them for food.

10. Which areas are the worst in Beijing? 

Some places are particularly bad, such as Tongzhou, Chaoyang, Mentougou, Haidian and Fengtai.

IMG_7194
A map of Beijing showing the locations of illegal nets discovered by Gu Xuan and other volunteers.

11. What is the attitude of the police?

At the very beginning, the police did not care too much.  They would not allow us to see their work and they were afraid that someone will blame them.  However, in the last three years, I can see a real change in their attitude and action.  Now they respond quickly and efficiently when we report illegal nets and will do their best to catch the poachers.

12. What are the penalties if the police catch poachers?

We have the Wildlife Protection Law, and poachers will be punished according to the law.  Usually a fine or, if the offence is serious involving a large number of birds, they may receive a custodial sentence.

13. What do you think needs to be done to bring an end to the poaching?

I think if we want to end poaching, there are a number of things that must happen:

  • Police must strictly implement the law
  • We, as volunteers, must patrol frequently
  • We must raise awareness among the local population about the amazing birds we have in Beijing, the effect of poaching on these wild birds and how people can help through discouraging the keeping of cage birds and discouraging eating wild birds

We need to work together and we need more volunteers!

14. What can people do to help?

Obviously, we need money to carry on our frontline action.  We need to be able to support full-time volunteers.  I have many ideas to protect the birds but I can’t end poaching by myself.  I hope people will join us if they have time and chance.  Anyone who comes out with us will feel the energy on the front line.  Then, spread this energy to your family, your friends and your social media (Wechat) groups.  We need your help!

15. Anything else you want to say?

The persecution of wild birds is like other wild animals.  In order to satisfy their own needs, in order to satisfy a moment of happiness, in order to make more money, some people harm animals and destroy them. The habitat that protects this magical life also protects ourselves because we live together on this beautiful planet. Everyone has a responsibility!

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I was struck by Xuan’s passion and dedication for saving wild birds.  He told me that, in peak migration season, he rises around 3 or 4am every day in order to be on site at dawn when the poachers are most active.  He invited me to join him for a day next spring, an invitation I was only too pleased to accept.  I very much hope others will join him to accelerate the demise of illegal poaching in Beijing.

 

EDIT: Gu Xuan’s story has since been covered by Reuters and The Guardian, helping to spread the word about his heroic efforts in Beijing.

Reuters:

The Guardian:

 

 

 

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Beijing: could it be the capital of biodiversity?

When you think of Beijing, what image comes into your head?  The Great Wall? Maybe Tiananmen Square? Or maybe air pollution?  For those of a more mature generation, maybe even the picture of a city full of bicycles..?  Whatever the image, I suspect that for most people, birds or wildlife might not be front and centre.

That could be about to change.

In 2020, Beijing will host the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  This clumsily-named UN convention meets every two years and I suspect most people not directly involved with the process would be hard pressed to say much about any of the previous meetings or what has been achieved.  However, the 2020 meeting promises to be different.  It is the time when governments are due to conclude an agreement on targets and measures to slow, stop and eventually reverse the loss of wildlife on Earth.

The meeting will take place in the context of the most recent Living Planet index showing that, since 1970, we have lost more than 60% of the animals on our planet.  That is a shocking statistic and should be a wake-up call for governments and the public everywhere.

As host of the CBD, the Chinese government will want a successful outcome and, with recent progress towards President Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘ecological civilisation’ including a ban on further reclamation of intertidal mudflats and nomination of key coastal wetland sites for World Heritage status, the creation of a national park system, species-specific conservation work, e.g. on Baer’s Pochard and Scaly-sided Merganser, the country is creating the foundation for a positive story to tell.

But what about the host city?  Could hosting the CBD be an opportunity to change the global image of Beijing from one of a crowded, polluted, grid-locked city to one of the world’s best capital cities for wildlife?

Beijing is already one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds, with around 500 species recorded.  And in case the Mayor of Beijing is reading, here are some ideas that would require very limited resources but which could have a major impact on Beijing’s image:

Idea 1: A world-class wetland reserve in Beijing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Beijing had a large waterbody that could be an important stopover site for migratory birds, including cranes, geese, ducks, shorebirds and others?  Well, just 75km from Tiananmen Square lies Miyun Reservoir.  It is Beijing’s largest drinking water reservoir and, until public access was prohibited in April 2016, it was the best birding site in the capital attracting flocks of cranes, bustards and large numbers of waterfowl, not to mention huge numbers of buntings in winter.   However, after a large fire in the area and concerns about water quality, much of the land around the reservoir – ideal habitat for shorebirds, cranes, bustards, birds of prey, buntings and pipits – has been cleared and planted with mostly non-native trees in monocultures.  This policy has undoubtedly had a negative impact on birds.  Whilst it is understandable to prioritise water quality, this need not be at the expense of wildlife.  Internationally, there are examples of reservoirs being managed for both water quality and wildlife.  One example is Rutland Water, England’s largest drinking water reservoir.  In fact, Rutland Water is managed for three objectives – water quality, birds and recreation.  If we can share this experience and demonstrate that a large water body can be managed as a place for wildlife as well as water quality, there would be an opportunity to develop a management plan for Miyun Reservoir that maintained a high standard of water quality whilst attracting world-class numbers of cranes and other waterbirds and providing limited public access, attracting millions of visitors each year and an associated boost to the local economy.  Given the CBD conference will likely be in the last quarter of the year, the Beijing government could even invite international media to see the large flocks of cranes that would almost certainly be present if the area was managed sympathetically.

Potential benefits:

– High standard of water quality

– Providing a refuge for thousands of waterbirds, including threatened and endangered species such as cranes and bustards

– Providing opportunities for the urban population to connect with nature

– Through the visiting public staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants, bringing income to the local people in relatively poor Miyun county

 

Idea 2: 10% Wild

The Summer Palace, Beijing..

Beijing enjoys some large and expansive green spaces.  Parks such as the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) and the Olympic Forest Park are all hugely popular places providing urban Beijingers with opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.  Anyone who has visited these parks will know that they are heavily manicured with an army of staff ready to collect any leaf that falls or any blade of grass that grows in one of the cultivated flower beds.  These parks are over-managed to the extent that they are not as friendly for wildlife as they could be.  One idea is for the management of these spaces to leave “10% wild”.  This would mean no significant active management of an allocated part of the park – no use of insecticides, no removal of native plants and no cutting of grass or removal of fallen leaves.  Each park could partner with a local school, the students of which would be invited to undertake surveys of biodiversity – insects, birds and plants – and compare the “10% wild” with other managed parts of the park.  Interpretation signs around the allocated area could promote this experiment to visitors, publishing the results of the student surveys and helping to engage the public about wildlife.  After two years there could be a review to assess the results and to explore whether the experiment should be expanded.

Potential benefits:

– More and better habitat for wildlife in urban Beijing

– Students at local schools become citizen scientists

– Public engagement on the role of parks in providing homes for wildlife in cities

– Fewer resources needed for park management

 

Idea 3: Urban wildlife oases

An urban oasis in Shunyi District

Beijing lies on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and, every spring and autumn, millions of birds pass the Chinese capital on their way to and from breeding grounds to the north and wintering grounds to the south.  To make these remarkable journeys, birds require places to rest and refuel along the way. The trans-continental journeys, such as those of the Beijing Swift and Beijing Cuckoo, are challenging for the hardiest of birds, and the challenges are only increased as vast areas of natural habitat along migration pathways are altered or eliminated, making it difficult for exhausted birds to find suitable places to rest and refuel.

“Urban wildlife oases” could provide ‘stepping stones’ for migrating birds to cross urban areas where there is limited quality habitat.  Each community has the potential to provide important habitat for native birds – and a richer, more beautiful place to live for people.

To illustrate the potential, I’d like to convey my experience with a patch of land close to my apartment in Shunyi District.  Surrounded by new developments, including apartments and shopping malls, this 1km x 1km patch of land, very close to the airport, has yet to be developed and, in the two years since I moved to the area and in almost 100 visits, I have recorded 156 species of bird, five species of mammal and nine species of butterfly.  Highlights have included Band-bellied Crake, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Siberian Thrush and Rough-legged Buzzard, demonstrating the importance of the site to migratory birds.

The Shunyi patch is a small area (1km x 1km) of undisturbed land close to Beijing Capital International Airport. The 156 bird species recorded (of which at least 140 are migrants) in just over 2 years shows how important such areas are for migratory birds.

Maintaining a patchwork of urban oases across the city, potentially with some limited public access, would cost little – beyond the opportunity cost of the land – and provide significant benefits to both wildlife and people.

Potential benefits:

– providing shelter and food for some of the millions of migratory birds that pass through the capital each spring and autumn; plus important areas for breeding and wintering species

– with limited public access, these sites could provide the public with access to wild spaces and places for students from local schools to become citizen scientists

– interpretation would mean that these urban oases could act as outdoor classrooms for Beijing’s urban population

 

Idea 4: Adopting the Beijing Swift

A typical track of a Beijing Swift.

In 2015, a project involving Beijing Birdwatching Society and international experts discovered, for the first time, the migration route and wintering grounds of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis).  It was a hugely popular story, covered by mainstream media – both print and broadcast – and engaged millions of people, most of whom would never ordinarily take an interest in birds.  The Beijing Swift is the perfect symbol for modern Beijing.  One of the old names for Beijing is Yanjing, which, in Chinese, breaks down to “燕” (Yan) and “京” (Jing).  The first character, “燕” means “swift” or “swallow”, so the name Yanjing could be interpreted as “Swift capital”.  This bird also links China with Central Asia, the Gulf and Africa, aligned with the much-touted “One Belt, One Road” initiative to revive old trade routes.  Why not formally adopt the Beijing Swift as the official bird of the Chinese capital?  There can be no more appropriate candidate.

Potential benefits:

– Associating Beijing with a bird of endurance, elegance and global reach

– Greater public awareness about the wildlife of Beijing

– Encouragement to businesses and communities to help stem the decline of the Beijing Swift – caused by the demolition of traditional buildings – by erecting artificial nest boxes at suitable sites and encouraging the inclusion of Swift-friendly designs in new buildings

 

Idea 5: Removing the invisible killer: mist nets at China’s airports

When thousands of environmentally-minded people arrive in Beijing for the UN Conference on Biological Diversity, the first thing they will see is lines and lines of mist nets alongside the runway at Beijing Capital International Airport, many of which will hold bird corpses dangling in the wind.  China’s policy to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes is to line each runway with several kilometres of mist nets.  This method is only effective against small birds which, unless in large flocks, represent almost no risk to aircraft.  Nets at ground level are ineffective against the more significant risks associated with flocks of large birds such as geese, swans or herons.  In fact, guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) makes no mention of mist nets as a way to mitigate the risk of bird strikes.  Recommended good practice is to undertake a risk assessment at each airport to identify the unique risks from wildlife and take appropriate measures to address these specific risks.  Non-lethal methods such as managing habitat, playing distress calls, using birds of prey etc are the most effective methods.  China, with more than 300 airports, takes a general approach of simply erecting lines of mist nets.  It’s lazy and ineffective.  Could CBD be the catalyst for a review of this policy?

Potential benefits:

– stopping the unnecessary killing of millions of birds each year

– more effective management of the risk of bird strikes

– a better international image for China and Beijing

 

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With two years to go until Beijing hosts what will probably be the world’s largest governmental conference on biodiversity, there is ample time to develop a strategic plan that would make Beijing one of the world’s most wildlife-friendly cities.  Instead of “smoggy Beijing”, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to label Beijing as the capital of ecological civilisation?  These are just five ideas.  If you have more, please comment and let us know.. you never know who might be reading.

 

For a helpful general overview of the CBD process and the current status, read this article by Jonathan Watts.

 

REDWING in Beijing

On 5 December 2018, Beijing-based Steve Bale visited Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus for the first time.  He found Beijing’s second ever Redwing.  Here’s Steve’s account of that unforgettable find…

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By Steve Bale

For me, one of the highlights of Beijing-birding is the arrival of the ‘winter thrushes’.  There are two species-groups that make the long journey from their Siberian breeding grounds to spend the cold winter-months here – Naumann’s/Dusky and Red/Black-throated.

So far this winter, I have seen very few thrushes of any description by the Wenyu River, my local patch.  Concerns that Beijing had somehow been removed from their winter travel itinerary were allayed when I recieved news from Ben Wielstra, via the Qinghua University birders’ WeChat group, that all of the above-mentioned thrushes could be seen on the university’s ‘Patch 6’. What’s more, they were there in good numbers, and in various guises.

Ben had kindly posted a video of a bird at the edge of Patch 6’s pond, whose gene-line seemed to have Black, Red-throated and Naumann’s branches. Not to be outdone, the thrush next to it appeared to be the progeny of a male Naumann’s and a male Dusky.

Clearly, Qinghua University’s ‘Patch 6’ was the place to have a close look at some of the wonders of thrush evolution (which is very much work-in-progress in this part of the world).

I must admit, though, that the factor that tipped the ‘go or don’t go’ decision, was that Ben had also seen a Grey-backed Thrush that morning – a Beijing rarity no less.  It had been found by Bu Xinchen – one of the band of very active Qinghua birders – more than a week earlier, but was proving hard to pin down.

Decision made, I grabbed my bins and camera, and set off for ‘Thrushtopia’.  15 minutes later I was at the Guo Zhan subway station.  50 minutes after that I had reached the station at the end of Line 15, which is 30 minutes’ walk away from Patch 6.  By 1.30pm I was pond-side watching and hearing  ‘winter thrushes’ – lots of them, and much more besides.

The pond at Patch 6 had frozen overnight, but there was still enough water at the edges to attract more than a dozen species of birds. Within an hour of my arrival, as well as seeing Hawfinch (2), Chinese Grosbeak (c15), Oriental Greenfinch (c10), Chinese Bulbul (6), Great Spotted Woodpecker (1), Brambling (c40), Silky Starling (c10), White-Cheeked Starling (c10) I had enjoyed excellent views of close to 50 thrushes – Chinese Blackbird (c10), Dusky (8), Naumann’s (c10), Red-throated (8), Black-throated (2), Dusky/Naumann’s (6),  Red/Black-throated (2), and a possible Naumann’s/Red-throated.  I had also managed to get a glimpse of the Grey-backed, before it was scared away by someone sweeping up leaves from the water’s edge.

A male GREY-BACKED THRUSH – the reason for Steve’s first birding trip to Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus, 5 December 2018 (Steve Bale)

What an amazing hour’s birding – and certainly well worth the trek across Beijing to get there.

I then realised that my head was painfully cold.  In my haste, I had forgotten to bring a hat.  A bad mistake when it’s minus four, but a potentially life-threatening one when it’s minus four and you are bald.

Before making a hasty exit to find a coffee shop on the way back to the subway station, I decided to have one final look at the bushes by the pool.  There were quite a few thrushes there… a very brick-red Naumann’s, a Dusky, a Redwing, another Naumann’s…

Obviously, my brain had started to freeze.

Redwing?!?!

…It dawned on me that I wasn’t in Norfolk, where flocks of Redwing can be seen on most winter days. I was in Beijing, where there has only been one previous record.

I looked again. It was still there. Instinctively, I put my bins down and picked my camera up. I watched the bird – seemingly an adult – for a few minutes as it dropped down from the bush to the pond-side rocks, and back to the bush. Then it was gone.  Bizarrely, happy memories of the first time I had ever seen a Redwing – when I was 11 – popped in to my head.  I remembered thinking, what a brilliant bird it was, and marvelling at its night-migration across the North Sea on its way to eat apples in my back garden.

The first photo of the REDWING at Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus, 5 December 2018 (Steve Bale)

Pushing nostalgia aside, I immediately sent a WeChat message to Ben, attaching a record shot (phone-photo of the camera’s review-sceen).  Within a few minutes of finding the bird, I had also sent the photo and directions to the Qinghua WeChat birding group’s 38 other members.

Ben was the first to arrrive; then XiaoPT, who I thanked again for inviting me to join the WeChat group.  Within 30 minutes there were ten people waiting for the Redwing’s return.  Only problem was that there had been no sign of it since my initial sighting. It would be almost an increasingly tense hour before the bird decided to show itself to its waiting admirers. By then, the crowd had swelled to about 15 people (a major twitch by Chinese standards).

It was of course wonderful to find the bird, but the real pleasure came from sharing the joy with so many enthusiastic young birders. The Qinghua birding group is one of the many local groups that have popped up all over China in recent years. Many of the people in these groups are not just active birders, they are passionate conservationists also.  These young people are at the forefront of the drive to make China’s environment a better place for the birds and other animals that depend on it. I take my hat off to them.

Talking of hats, many thanks to Ben – not just for inspiring me to visit Qinghua University for the first time – but also for lending me a life-saving woolly hat.

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Title photo of Tsinghua University campus by Steve Bale.

Valley of the Cats 2018

As the sun will soon set on 2018, it’s a good time to review the results of the community-based wildlife watching tourism project in the Valley of the Cats.

I am delighted to announce that, in 2018, 61 groups of visitors stayed in the Valley of the Cats as part of the community-based wildlife tourism project (with the last visitors of 2018 arriving today!).  These trips have generated revenue of CNY 432,400 (almost GBP 50,000) for the community.  That’s just under CNY 20,000 (GBP 2,200) of benefit for each of the 22 families involved in the project.  At the same time, many visitors have enjoyed the trip of a lifetime, including special encounters with some of the resident wildlife such as Snow Leopard, Common Leopard, Wolf, Asian Brown Bear, Lynx, Tibetan and Red Fox and much more.

One of the year’s more high-profile visitors was Professor Per Alström. His 30+ year quest to record Snow Leopard on camera was finally rewarded in the Valley of the Cats with the video below.

 

We’ve received some excellent – and importantly, honest – feedback from visitors to the Valley this year and from the host families. This feedback will be instrumental in guiding a meeting with the local community in January to review progress and discuss plans for 2019.

We can expect a few minor changes to the way the project operates, based on the experience of 2018, but we will ensure the project retains its strong sense of authenticity.

On behalf of the local community, I’d like to say a big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported the project in 2018 either by visiting or helping to promote the Valley of the Cats and, if you haven’t yet visited, please take a look at the website and consider a trip in 2019!

Schools for Snow Leopards

This week will see the start of an exciting new initiative involving schools and scientists from the ShanShui Conservation Center at Peking University with the aim of supporting Snow Leopard conservation.

In recent years, ShanShui Conservation Center has been running a community-based conservation project in the Valley of the Cats, whereby local yak herder families are involved in collecting data for the scientists based at Peking University in Beijing.  The local people set up, and monitor, a series of camera traps, the data from which is contributing a huge amount of knowledge about the distribution, population and ecology of apex predators including Snow Leopard, Common Leopard, Asian Brown Bear, Wolf and Lynx.

Here is a short video showing some of the local people setting up a camera trap.

Earlier this year, two teachers from the International School of Beijing (ISB) – Wayne and Jenny Winkelman – visited the Valley of the Cats, experiencing the local culture, hearing about the conservation project and even enjoying their very own Snow Leopard sighting.  We discussed how schools might be able to contribute and quickly came up with the idea of schools ‘sponsoring’ camera traps.  The idea was that schools would raise money for ShanShui Conservation Center to pay for camera traps.  The schools would then receive the photos from ‘their’ cameras and learn about the wildlife and people of the Tibetan Plateau.

Fast forward a few months and the students at ISB, inspired by Wayne and Jenny, have been raising money by selling cuddly Snow Leopards and thanks to their efforts they now have enough to purchase their first camera trap!

On Friday this week, a scientist from ShanShui Conservation Center will visit ISB to explain about the project, show some pictures and videos, answer questions from the students and take receipt of the donation from ISB.  A camera, allocated to ISB, will then be placed on the Tibetan Plateau as part of the ongoing conservation programme.  A local family will be responsible for deciding the location and for monitoring the camera.  Every two to three months the school will receive the photos from ‘their’ camera, which will form the basis for learning about the Tibetan Plateau ecosystem.

Schools will thus be contributing to community-based scientific and conservation projects whilst gaining great material to support learning about the Tibetan Plateau and the animals and people that live there.

If successful, we hope this programme can be expanded with other schools sponsoring their own cameras.

Huge thanks to Wayne and Jenny Winkelman for their initiative in starting this exciting new programme, to ShanShui Conservation Center for engaging schools and especially to the students at ISB for so enthusiastically raising money to support Snow Leopard conservation.  I can’t wait to see the first photos from their camera and to see how this initiative develops.

If you are a teacher at a school in Beijing interested in sponsoring a camera trap or two, please get in touch!

The Chinese Mountain Cats are Growing Up!

I couldn’t resist posting this short video of a family of Chinese Mountain Cats.  Taken from the same camera trap as the original footage, this clip shows a now well-grown kitten beginning to take an interest in its surroundings, including the camera trap!  It’s adorable.  Chinese Mountain Cat is one of the world’s most poorly-known felids with a small range centred on the eastern Tibetan Plateau.  It’s the only cat endemic to China.

As with the previous post, this footage is published courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center.

White-throated Redstart at Lingshan

Wednesday was a shocker of a day in Beijing.  In the last two years, the air quality has improved significantly through a combination of government efforts to shut down coal-fired power stations and old heavy industry, in particular steel production, and favourable winds.  However, after a few days of gentle southerly winds, bringing pollution from industrial Hebei Province, the air quality was the worst for many months.  If there’s one place to be in those circumstances, it’s the mountains; even the relatively modest 2,303m elevation of Beijing’s highest peak at Lingshan is usually above the smog and enjoys blue skies while the majority of the capital suffocates in a blanket of toxic pollution.

It wasn’t the pollution forecast but instead a happy coincidence that I had arranged to visit Lingshan with good friend and fellow Beijinger, Steve Bale.  It would be my first visit to this special site since summer and the first visit of the winter invariably evokes memories of the special birds I’ve been lucky to encounter there, not least the male PRZEVALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART from February 2014.

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (Phoenicurus alaschanicus) at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.

The morning started brightly with the expected blue skies and clean air, enabling us to look towards downtown Beijing cloaked in a horrible grey-brown murk.

As usual, our first stop was ‘Przewalski’s Gully”, the site of that memorable 2014 find.  A group of six PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSHES, a single RED-THROATED THRUSH and a pair of BEIJING BABBLERS greeted us we made our way up the gully, shortly followed by three male and two female WHITE-WINGED (GULDENSTADT’S) REDSTARTS and a pair of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.

After birding the gully we headed up to the ‘old road’ and, with the sun behind us, started to walk up the valley.  It was fairly quiet with a few RED-THROATED THRUSHES, a handful of GODLEWSKI’S and MEADOW BUNTINGS and a trickle of WHITE-WINGED REDSTARTS.

After reaching the top, I headed back down the valley to collect the car while Steve made his way on foot along the road, passing the formerly derelict, now shiny and renovated, buildings.  Collecting Steve as I drove up, we stopped briefly at the ‘saddle’ to check the rocky slopes for ASIAN ROSY FINCHES or ALPINE ACCENTORS (sadly absent) before continuing along the road as it began to descend.  With windows open and almost no wind we were listening for birds and almost immediately we heard the familiar call of CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH.  Two males were sitting up in some dwarf birches, showing off their stunning pink plumage.  A resident breeder, these birds are always a delight to see.

Male CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCHES, Lingshan (Steve Bale)

Continuing on we stopped after only a few metres when I thought I heard a PINE BUNTING.  We stopped the car at a shallow gully, dotted with silver birch trees.

The lightly wooded gully (c1550m asl) where we stopped to look for a Pine Bunting.

Steve began to walk up the gully as I checked the top close to the road.  As Steve made his way up we saw a few MEADOW BUNTINGS, a GODLEWSKI’S BUNTING and a couple of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.  It was at this point that I heard a harsh ‘tick’ call that I thought could be a redstart.  Suddenly, a bird flew past me at head height at such speed that I was unable to lift my binoculars in time..  My first reaction, on seeing the striking orange underparts, was “that was a really bright stonechat”!  However, a split second later as it headed down the gully, I could see the dark wings with a white wing-bar and immediately knew it was a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, a species with which I am familiar from the Valley of the Cats on the Tibetan Plateau.  Wow!

I could see that the bird dropped and appeared to land in bushes at the bottom the gully, from where Steve had walked in.  I shouted to Steve and he quickly joined me at the top of the gully.  Steve agreed to head back down the road to the bottom of the gully while I stayed at the top to ensure I could see it if it relocated.  I spotted it deep in a bush and, as Steve made his way down, it made two brief forays onto the grassy slope to catch insects, before heading back to the bushes.  After a couple of minutes, Steve was at the base of the gully and secured a few record images as it foraged for insects.  Relieved that we had some documentation of the record, I headed down with the car and we both viewed from the road as the redstart caught insects and, occasionally, delivered a relatively quiet subsong.  After enjoying the bird for around half an hour and securing some photos and video from a safe distance, we decided to move on, feeling elated at such an unexpected find.

Male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, Lingshan, 14 November 2018. Photo by Terry Townshend.

Lingshan lies on the boundary of Beijing Municipality and Hebei Province and, whilst the peak is in Beijing, the border snakes erratically and some of the areas to the north and west are in Hebei.  On checking the specific location on Google Maps, we found that the White-winged Redstart was in Hebei Province, around 250m outside Beijing, so technically it can’t be counted as a Beijing record, although I suspect it would be possible to view from inside the capital!

White-throated Redstart is, I believe, the 5th species of Phoenicurus redstart to be encountered at Lingshan after Black, Daurian, Przevalski’s and White-winged, and adds to the growing number of Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau species found in the mountains around Beijing.  With the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau linked, albeit loosely, to the capital via the severely under-birded Qinling, Luliang and Taihang ranges, it’s entirely possible that more Plateau species occasionally make their way to the mountains around Beijing.  What price a Blue-fronted or Hodgson’s Redstart?

Big thanks to Steve Bale for his great company and use of his photos from the trip.

According to HBW, White-throated Redstart (Phoenicurus schisticeps) is a high-altitude breeder (2400-4500m) in Central and Eastern Himalayas East from West Central Nepal, and Central China (East and Southeast Qinghai, South Gansu and Southwest Shaanxi, South to South and Southeast Tibet and North Yunnan).  It is mostly sedentary with some elevational movements in winter, down to 1,400m.  The Lingshan bird is >1,000km to the east of its normal range and, with only one historical record from a park in coastal Hebei (PH via WeChat), this is possibly only the second record for Eastern China.  We’d both be very interested to hear about other extralimital records of this species in eastern China.

 

Title photo: White-throated Redstart, Lingshan by Steve Bale.