Mongolian Cuckoos Cross The Arabian Sea, Enchanting A Nation

Thanks to modern technology, we are beginning to unlock the secrets of our migratory birds.  And, although removing some of the mystery, gaining knowledge of these journeys in no way diminishes our awe at what these birds achieve in terms of endurance and navigation.  Every year, a new generation of birds following in their predecessors wing-flaps, inspires a new group of people. 

When it all began in June 2019, one of the aims of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project was to engage the public about migratory birds and the places they need.  Knowledge and experience are the first steps towards falling in love with nature and, as Baba Dioum, the Senegalese conservationist famously said: 

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”  

Thus, connecting more people to nature is crucial if conservationists are to build support for more, and better, protection of species and the wild places they need.  With biodiversity in crisis (according to The Living Planet Index, compiled by several leading wildlife science organisations, the populations of vertebrates have fallen, on average, by around 60% since 1970), there can be no more important task.

That is why the engagement inspired by ONON and BAYAN, two Common Cuckoos fitted with transmitters in Mongolia in June 2019, has been so up-lifting.  Over the last seven days these cuckoos, named by schoolchildren in northern Mongolia, have crossed the Arabian Sea from Africa (Kenya and Somalia, respectively).  As I write, ONON is in Bangladesh and BAYAN just 30km northwest of Kolkata in West Bengal, India.  That means that, since 29 April, ONON has flown >6,300km, and BAYAN >5,800km in just under seven days.

Tracks show data from 29 April to 6 May 2020. ONON in red and BAYAN in green.
As of late on 6 May 2020, ONON was in Rajshahi Division, Bangladesh and BAYAN just northwest of Kolkata in West Bengal, India.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, each step of the journey has been published in near real time, allowing followers to track the progress of the birds as they headed out over the open ocean towards India.  And, as they did so, interest in India soared…  With huge thanks to Parveen Kaswan of the Indian Forest Service, ONON and BAYAN now have thousands of new followers in India.  Parveen has more than 130,000 followers on Twitter and, when he sent out a message about ONON making landfall in India, interest exploded.  

Many people were stunned that a cuckoo could make such a flight and asked questions, which I did my best to answer!  See the end of this post for a selection.  Parveen’s tweet also inspired an article in the Bangla version of the Indian Times, under the title “Migrants from Kenya to Madhya Pradesh in a Week”.

One follower, Rajesh Ghotikar, who lives close to Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh, even went out to check on ONON’s location, taking precautions and respecting local rules on mask wearing and social distancing as he did so.

I’ve been so impressed by the interest and, most of all, by the warmth, politeness and friendly nature of the Indian people who have engaged with these birds.  It is moments like this that make the project so worthwhile.  Having never had the pleasure to visit the country, I am beginning to see why it is known as Incredible India.

Once again, huge thanks to the Mongolian Cuckoo Project team, especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, Batmunkh Davaasuren, to Chris Hewson from BTO and to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley.  And big thanks, too, to the Oriental Bird Club for generously sponsoring the project.

You can follow the exploits of ONON and BAYAN as they continue their journeys to Mongolia on Twitter (@birdingbeijing) or at this dedicated webpage.

Title image: map showing the positions of ONON (red) and BAYAN (green) over the last seven days. As of 7 May 2020, ONON is in Bangladesh and BAYAN is in West Bengal, India.

A selection of reactions from India on social media to ONON’s and BAYAN’s astonishing journeys:

Agitated Lemons

As the passage of White Wagtails begins to slow, the passage of the closely related Citrine Wagtail is hitting its peak in the capital.  One silver lining to the ongoing restrictions on leisure activities in Beijing is that places that would usually be busy with tourists are currently much quieter.  One such place is Ma Chang, on the margins of Guanting Reservoir in Yanqing District.  At this time of year, especially at weekends, this area of land would, in normal times, be busy with horse riders and motorised buggy drivers, meaning that from around 0730 many of the migrant birds that had stopped at this site would be pushed off. 

This spring, with the absence of human activity beyond a handful of local fishermen, the site is a paradise for migrant birds, attracting large numbers of many different species.  On Sunday, perhaps the biggest highlight, among many, was the large flocks of Citrine Wagtail feeding along the edge of the reservoir.  The short video below shows a fraction of the 250+ birds on site.  

Wagtails are busy birds, pursuing insects as they fatten up for the next leg of their journey to breeding grounds further north, and in perfectly still and sunny conditions, it was quite a sight to behold.  

How to describe this group of  bright yellow birds? “A bunch of agitated Lemons” was what we came up with… 

How would you describe them?

 

Beijing: The Capital Of White Wagtails?

April is THE month for seeing White Wagtails in Beijing and, with six of the nine recognised subspecies recorded in the capital, Beijing has a strong claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”.  

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise nine subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.  See map below to see the breeding ranges of the nine currently recognised subspecies.

The breeding ranges of the nine recognised subspecies of White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Reproduced from “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Alström, Mild and Zetterström and published by Helm.

Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).  Since moving to Beijing, it’s been a joy to become familiar with a few more subspecies.  Here, in order of abundance, are the subspecies that have been recorded in Beijing:

1 – “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba leucopsis)

On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, a familiar bird from late March until October and an abundant migrant in spring and autumn.

2014-04-15 White Wagtail ssp leucopsis male, Miyun
Amur Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis), the most common race of White Wagtail in Beijing, and the only breeder.  Note clean white face and black upperparts.
Presumed female White Wagtail ssp leucopsis, Beijing, 10 April 2020. Note more greyish upperparts.

2 – “Eye-striped White” or “Swinhoe’s White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba ocularis)

The striking ssp ocularis is very common on migration in spring (late March-April) and autumn (Sep-Oct).  With the prominent eyestripe and contrasting grey mantle, these birds are relatively easy to identify.  

White Wagtail (Motacialla alba ocularis), a common migrant in Spring and Autumn. Breeds in northern and eastern Siberia. Note the black eye-stripe and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape.  16 April 2016, Ma Chang, Beijing (Terry Townshend)

3 – “Transbaikalan Wagtail” (Motacilla alba baicalensis)

A regular, but much scarcer, migrant than ocularis, a few of the more subtle ssp baicalensis are often mixed with flocks of the more common subspecies.  With the clean white face, white chin and throat and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape, baicalensis is, to me at least, one of the more elegant White Wagtails.  The greyish wash to the flanks is also a good feature.  

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba baicalensis). A scarce migrant in Beijing. Breeds in central Siberia, N Mongolia.  Note pale throat, compared with alba, and the greyish wash on the flanks (Terry Townshend)

4 – “Black-backed” Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

The next most frequently encountered is the “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital (October to April).  A few can often be found in winter along the Tonghui River in Tongzhou and it has also been recorded on passage at reservoirs in Beijing.

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens), male. A scarce winter visitor to Beijing (Terry Townshend).
Male 'lugens' White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.
Male ‘lugens’ White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.  The eyestripe combined with the black upperparts make this ssp distinctive (c.f. ocularis).  The significant white in the wing is also a very good feature if seen in flight.

5 – “Siberian White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba alba)

The fifth subspecies to have appeared in Beijing is the ‘eastern’ alba.  The first record of this subspecies in Beijing was found by local birder, Luo Qingqing, on 29 March 2015. Before that date ‘eastern’ alba had been recorded in northwest China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and was considered a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai.  It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm).  Luo Qingqing’s sighting from 29 March 2015 was not only a first for Beijing but a first that we are aware of in all of east China!

IMG_4401 (1)
The first record of M.a.alba in Beijing and, we think, eastern China, 29 March 2015. Note black chin compared with the similar baicalensis.  Photo by Luo Qingqing.

Since 2015, no doubt due to greater observer awareness and more coverage, alba has proved to be annual in small numbers in Spring. 

‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003).  This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.

6 – “Masked Wagtail” (Motacilla alba personata)

In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in the capital.

2012-04-14 White Wagtain ssp personata, Ma Chang, Beijing

M.a.personata at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 14 April 2012. The first record of this subspecies for the capital.  Up to March 2020 there have been a further six records of this Central Asian race in Beijing.

It wasn’t long before the second personata appeared, a stunning adult male found by Steve Bale in April 2015 along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring.

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The second “Masked Wagtail” (M.a.personata) for Beijing, found by Steve Bale on the Wenyu River.

Following a recent sighting at Miyun Reservoir on 26 and 30 March 2020, there are now at least seven records of personata in the capital.

White Wagtail ssp personata at Miyun Reservoir on 26 March 2020 (Terry Townshend)

To summarise, Beijing is a brilliant place to see White Wagtails.  Thanks to greater observer awareness and significantly increased coverage by a growing number of birders, the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing is six and at least five have been recorded every year since 2015.  And, of course, there is still the potential for alboides to occur, which could bring the total to seven. With statistics like that, Beijing has a justifiable claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”!  

 

Ref: “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Per Alström, Krister Mild and Dan Zetterström, published by Helm (2003).

This post was originally published in April 2015.  It has been updated to take into account post-2015 records in order to better reflect the status of each subspecies in Beijing.

Cuckoos Connecting Schools in Mongolia and Socotra, Yemen

Unburdened by responsibility and blessed with a natural sense of wonder, children can be incredibly up-lifting!  This week, I was delighted to receive news of an exchange of letters between schoolchildren in Mongolia and on Socotra Island, Yemen, about the Mongolian Cuckoos….

Back in June 2019, a team from the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) in Mongolia, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing visited Khurkh in northeastern Mongolia to fit transmitters to five cuckoos.  A key part of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project was to visit local schools to raise awareness about migratory birds and invite the students to provide names for the cuckoos.

Since then, at least three of the five cuckoos have made it to Africa, crossing the Arabian Sea and, in the case of two, the Saudi Arabian desert, before settling in Zambia and Malawi for the winter (you can see the latest positions here).  On 27 November, one of the cuckoos named NAMJAA (Mongolian for “storyteller”), briefly stopped on Socotra, a Yemeni island in the Arabian Sea, some 240 kilometres east of the coast of Somalia and 380 kilometres south of the Arabian Peninsula.

Socotra is an isolated island and, as a result, home to a high number of species found nowhere else; up to a third of its plant life is endemic.  In recognition of its unique flora and fauna, it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2008.  Socotra’s isolation also means that it is a magnet for migratory birds, in particular those crossing the Arabian Sea from India to Africa in autumn and we can be sure that NAMJAA was just one of many cuckoos crossing Socotra on that day.

Map-of-the-North-Western-Indian-Ocean-and-localization-of-Socotra-Archipelago-Source_W640
Map showing the location of Socotra. Source: ReefGIS

Learning that NAMJAA visited Socotra, schoolchildren in Mongolia decided to write letters to their counterparts on the island to thank them for the safe passage of “their” cuckoos and to tell them how important their island is, not only for the resident birds, but also for the millions of migratory birds that cross the Arabian Sea during their intercontinental journeys.

Children
Schoolchildren from Binder school, near Khurkh in northeast Mongolia, writing letters to their counterparts in Socotra. Photo by Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg.

 

Letters from Mongolia

 

Letter 1 from Dulguun B

1.

 

Dear Socotran school friends
My name is Dulguun B. I study in the 7th grade at the general education school of the Binder village of Khentii province. Thank you for visiting us and expanding our knowledge. Thank you for teaching us the names and their character of some birds. I hope you will protect many more birds in the future.

 

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Letter 2 from Khishigdelger

Dear Socotran school friends,
Hello friends, my name is Khishigdelger. I study in the 7th grade at the general education school of the Binder village, Khentii province. The researchers who came to study the cuckoo in our area visited us in our classroom and had a great talk about the cuckoo, a bird which we don’t know much. We learned a lot from our teacher and the researchers. It was very interesting to know the migration route of the cuckoos, to whom we gave their names and tagged by the researchers with satellite tags. We gave the name Nomad, because we Mongolians are nomadic and move every season of a year. We gave the name Onon, because of our village is located next to Onon river. The researchers said that the cuckoo is a very interesting bird and they eat caterpillars and protect forest. We believe they are also protecting forests in your country now. Mongolia has 4 seasons. At this moment it is snowing and cold outside, the temperature is somewhere between -20 and -30 Celsius. Because it is winter season here. I hope the cuckoos will be back in the summer. I’m looking forward to the moment when cuckoos returns to Mongolia.

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Letter 3 from Shinekhuu

3.

Dear Socotran friends
Hello my friends. My name is Shinekhuu. I live in the countryside and was born in a herder family. When I was a child, cuckoos used to sing almost every morning. But I have never seen a cuckoo! One day, researchers who study cuckoos visited us and they told a lot about cuckoos and their migration. I’m so glad to hear that the three cuckoos that we named have crossed the ocean and an island and then finally arrived a site where many birds gather, and they have survived to their wintering destination. I could not imagine how those birds traveled so far, having heard that they had traveled 13,000 km. I really want this bird to return to Mongolia. You should please take care of the birds and wildlife on the island of Socotra.
Best regard Shinekhuu, Binder village, Mongolia

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Letter 4 from Nomingoo

4.

 

Dear Socotran school friends
How are you? My name is Nomingoo. We are delighted to know that Namjaa, the cuckoo, flew over your special island in the Arabian Sea. We also learned that the Bayan crossed many countries to reach Malawi and Onon is now in Tanzania. It is just amazing, to imagine how these little birds went that far. As you may know those birds were caught in Mongolia, where we live and fitted with a satellite tag, so we could track their long migration. We look forward to seeing these 3 cuckoos back in Mongolia.
We send our good wishes for 2020
Highschool, Binder village, Mongolia

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Letter 5 from Goomaral

5

 

 

Dear Socotran school friends
Hello my friends. My name is Goomaral. I study in Binder village. Thank you to our researchers for coming to us. If they hadn’t come then we would not know about the birds, especially the cuckoo. Thank you so much for letting us know about the cuckoo’s migration. I liked how the satellite tag is used for studying migration. Good luck with your work. I’m looking forward to the moment when cuckoos returns to Mongolia.

 

 

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Letter 6 from Semuun

6

 

Dear Socotran school friends
I am Semuun. There are many species of birds and animals in Mongolia. I and my classmates are very pleased to give the name to the cuckoo that has come a long way to East Africa. Namjaa, Onon and Bayan cuckoos are probably having a great winter vacation. As you all may know, Namjaa cuckoo flew to your your beautiful island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea. I have heard that the island where you live is an important place for thousands of birds. I am writing a letter for the first time to my friends abroad. I heard about you and researchers are trying to protect this island. Good luck with your work and everything. We expect the Namjaa, Bayan and Onon cuckoos return to Mongolia soon from East Africa.
We wish you all the best for 2020
School children from Khurkh village, Mongolia

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Just a few days later, schoolchildren on Socotra received the letters, read out by their teachers, and replied with their own letters and drawings.

Karim and co
Ashraf (left) and Nawwaf writing their replies to Mongolia.  Photo by Karim Nasher.

 

Replies from Socotra

 

Letter 1 from Ashraf Saeed

Ashraf Egyptian Vulture

 

To our friends at Binder and Khurkh villages schools.

My name is Ashraf Saeed. I am studying in the second year at Khaled Ibn Al Waleed High School. Thank you for writing to us, we are amazed by the small bird “Namjaa” for travelling such long distances.  We hope “Namjaa” will return safely and fly over Socotra on his way back home to Mongolia. I wish you can manage to visit Socotra one day and see its rare bird and plant species.  Below is one of the interesting birds, Egyptian Vulture, called locally “Su’aidoo”.

 

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Letter 2 from Nawwaf

Nawwaf tree

To our friends, school children in the villages of Binder and Khurkh.
My name is Nawwaf. I study at 30th November School in Hadibo, Socotra. Thank you for your letter, we are also proud of Namjaa who visited us in Socotra. The teacher read your letter from Mongolia. We hope Namjaa will return again and fly over Socotra on his way back to Mongolia. I hope you can visit Socotra and enjoy the unique biodiversity of trees and birds, such as the dragon blood tree.  Drawing by Assim Mohammed Saeed

 

 

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Letter 3 from Sa’adiyah

Saadiyah2

Saadiyah1

To our Friends students of Mongolia schools
My name is Sa’adiyah. I am a student at Al Zahra” secondary school for girls, Hadibo, Socotra.  I would like to inform you that we have many species of rare birds and animals in our Island. Thank you for writing to us, we are also proud of the bird “Namjaa” who visited Socotra. We have a very special tree “Dragon Blood Tree” which one of the rare plants. We have also rare birds like the Egyptian Vulture, “Su’aidoo”. We hope you can visit Socotra and see the unique biodiversity of rare trees and birds.

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Letter 4 from Yu’adah

Yuadah

My Name is Yu’adah. I am in the first year at Al Zahra’a Secondary School for girls in Socotra Island.  To our friends at Binder and Khurkh villages. How are you? I thank you for your letters to us.  We are proud of the bird “Namjaa” who visited us in Socotra and we hope “Namjaa” will come back and fly over Socotra on his way back home in Mongolia.  There are many species of birds on Socotra, about 141 bird species are found here.  We hope you can visit Socotra and see all kinds of birds and animals and landscape.

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Although Socotra is a World Heritage Site, conservation is understandably not high on the agenda given the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the resulting complete collapse of tourism, and it is hoped that these letters from far away Mongolia will help to raise awareness about the importance of the island to migratory birds and to support those working hard in difficult circumstances to try to protect the island’s key habitats.  At the same time, the Mongolian children are learning about a part of the world with which they previously didn’t realise they were connected..

Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East and Advisor to BirdLife International’s Middle East Programme, said:

The Mongolian Cuckoos are connecting countries, continents and people!

 

The Mongolian Cuckoo Project team is grateful to the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Society (WSCC), especially Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, for facilitating the letters from Mongolia and to Richard Porter and Karim Nasher, one of Yemen’s leading conservationists, for arranging their delivery to schools on Socotra and for sending their replies.

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Birds

As COVID-19 begins to take hold in many countries around the world, it is perhaps of no consolation to most people that the situation in Beijing appears to be stabilising. Life in the capital is slowly taking small steps towards normality, treading the fine line between continuing to contain the spread of this seemingly incredibly infectious virus and minimising the disruption to the economy and people’s lives.  More shops and restaurants are open, albeit with restrictions on numbers and temperature checks on entry, and office workers are being allowed to return, with limits on the maximum number of people in an office at any one time and regular checks by the government.

However, as a reminder that things remain far from normal, housing compounds still forbid entry to non-residents and residents are checked for symptoms each time they enter, with everyone required to wear a mask when in public places.  Admirably, the local staff in my compound have been religiously disinfecting the lifts, door handles and any other potential sources of transmission at least twice per day.  And, given many people rely on deliveries for groceries and other essentials, these are now contactless – the couriers leave packages at the security gate for residents to collect, avoiding any direct contact.

The lockdown must be a gold mine of information for social scientists.  The psychological effects of severe restrictions on human interaction beyond immediate family must be significant and there are already articles doing the rounds about an increase in the divorce rate, and also pregnancies, during these strange times.

For me, as someone who has always found solace and inspiration in nature, and particularly with birds, this time has been a reminder of their positive power.  I’ve taken the opportunity to read more, something I have certainly neglected in recent years, and one book, in particular, made me realise what I have been missing… I lost myself for hours in “The Seabird’s Cry” by Adam Nicholson, a captivating book celebrating the incredible lives of seabirds, following ten species around the coasts and islands of Scotland, Ireland, the Americas and across the vast ocean in between.  For a taste, here is Adam’s description of the Kittiwake:

“a sprung and beautiful thing, dawn grey, black eyes, black tips to the wings . . . its whole being like a singer’s held note, not flickering or rag-like, nor blown about like a tern, but elastic, vibrant, investigative, delicate . . . ”

Invigorated by nature writing, the self-quarantine has also allowed me time to research historical records of birds in Beijing, going through books and journals from the likes of Cai Qikan, Robert Swinhoe, J D D La Touche, Père Armand David and other early ornithologists in China.  The result will be a new online resource, coming soon, which will provide the status of every species recorded in Beijing.  Watch this space!

And in the last few days, as the situation stabilises, birders have been venturing out, in many ways the perfect activity in these times – small numbers of people in large, open spaces, always following the local regulations to wear a mask.  And some of the young local birders have been handsomely rewarded with some special sightings.  On Thursday, Wang Xue visited Ming Tombs Reservoir and found Beijing’s first ever AMERICAN WIGEON (绿眉鸭, Lǜ méi yā).  The stunning drake lingered for the rest of the day, loosely associating with some MALLARD (绿头鸭 Lǜ tóu yā), a COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭 Hóng tóu qián yā) and a drake BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭 Huā liǎn yā).

A summer-plumaged PALLAS’S GULL (渔鸥, Yú ōu) at the same site would normally be the star of the show but that day it was relegated to the role of supporting actor.

An adult PALLAS’S GULL in breeding plumage at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Terry Townshend)

After putting out the news of her find on WeChat, Wang Xue stayed around to help the 60 or so birders who made the short journey to experience this rare visitor.  I am grateful to Steve and Zhou Xi Bale who collected me on the way, allowing me to share the moment.  The sense of elation, and even release, among the group was palpable… a rare moment of joy and celebration in what has been a tough beginning to the year.

Beijing birders enjoying a rare day out, catalysed by the presence of a drake American Wigeon, the first record of this species in Beijing.
Local birders watching the American Wigeon at Ming Tombs Reservoir, 5 March 2020.

On the same day, two male BAER’S POCHARD (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) were found at DaShiHe in Fangshan District (Xi’ao’pai Yuren), associating with some COOT (骨顶鸡 Gǔ dǐng jī), a few GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) and a single FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭 Bái yǎn qián yā).  Fortunately, they stayed around and were still present at the weekend, allowing many people to catch up with this critically endangered duck.

Of course, it’s not only rare birds that provide joy.  The flocks of DAURIAN JACKDAW (达乌里寒鸦 Dá wū lǐ hán yā) migrating north, the REED PARROTBILL (震旦鸦雀 Zhèn dàn yā què) calling incessantly from a reedbed and the sight of GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) beginning their courtship displays, were all wonderful to behold.

Daurian Jackdaws at dusk, Beijing (Terry Townshend)

The positive feelings were reinforced when we met with two groups of local forestry police, both of whom asked us if we had seen anyone setting up nets.  They were actively patrolling and clearly getting ready to crack down on poaching in the forthcoming migration season.  A few years ago, an encounter like that would have been just a dream!

The experience of the last few days has been uplifting and has reminded me just how positive birds can be to our every day lives, including our mental health.  I am optimistic that the joy provided by these rare visitors and the inspiration they have provided to get out into nature, represent the beginning of a change in fortune for Beijing and its inhabitants.  Spring, with all its optimism and anticipation, is here at last.

 

Title image: the drake AMERICAN WIGEON at Ming Tombs Reservoir (photo by Wang Xue)

COVID-19 and China’s Announcement on Wildlife Trade – What Does It Mean?

Much has been written in recent days and weeks about China’s “ban on the illegal wildlife trade” in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, Hubei Province.  Due to cultural and language barriers, some of the English language articles in the media have not been fully accurate.  The article below, written by Li Yuhan, helps to navigate this complex issue.

Li Yuhan (left) with Shi Xiangying of ShanShui Conservation Center in Qinghai, July 2017.

Li Yuhan is one of China’s brightest young conservationists, formerly of ShanShui Conservation Center at Peking University and now studying conservation management at Oxford University.  I was fortunate to work alongside Yuhan in Qinghai Province, where she headed ShanShui’s workstation in Sanjiagyuan (aka The Valley of the Cats).  Drawing on contacts with Chinese academics and conservationists as well as colleagues at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, the article below explains what has happened and what it means.  With her permission, I am delighted to be able to post Yuhan’s article here in full.  The original is on the website of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at Oxford University website – see here.

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The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused more than 2700 deaths in China and has spread to 50 countries [1,2]. The evidence currently suggests the virus was first transmitted to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, as many early confirmed cases involved individuals that had contact with this market, and 93.9%(31/33) of environmental samples taken from the western region of the market were found to have COVID-19 [3]. In addition to seafood, fresh meat and live wild animals were being sold and slaughtered in this market, and coronaviruses are known to jump from some species (e.g., bat, camel, civet) to people [4]. These indicate that the virus might have stemmed from wild animals on sale at the market [3]. However, we should be cautious as the intermediate host of COVID-19 remains unconfirmed at this stage.  Following the outbreak, the market was shut down by the government on January 1st, 2020.  The consumption of wildlife in China has drawn unprecedented public attention ever since, both within China and internationally, given the severe public health implications of the outbreak.

On February 24th 2020, China’s top legislature adopted a decision to “thoroughly ban the illegal trading of wildlife and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.” The decision has binding force and it took effect on the same day as its promulgation, i.e., February 24th [5,6].

This article provides a detailed explanation of this decision and is based on discussions within the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade at the University of Oxford and consultations with Shanshui Conservation Center, based at Peking University in China.

Consumption of terrestrial wild animals for edible uses prohibited

As COVID-19 is assumed to have close links with the consumption of wild animals, the new decision prohibits the eating of terrestrial wild animals, including those that are bred or reared in captivity. Hunting, trading and transporting terrestrial wild animals for the purposes of food consumption is also prohibited [6].

This is a big move. Previously in China, only those 402 species on the List of Wild Animals Under State Priority Conservation were banned from consumption as wild meat [7]. However, this list is outdated and does not correspond to the conservation status of some species [8]. Consumption of other wild terrestrial animals was permitted, subject to obtaining appropriate certificates (e.g., hunting, breeding, quarantine, trade) from the government. However, this certification system was sometimes poorly implemented. Buying a certificate and using it for “laundering” of wild-caught animals was possible [9].

Which species which are currently consumed are not included in these new measures?

Although this new ban was quickly celebrated by the media and some in the international conservation community, there are several nuances and exceptions that must be clarified.

Aquatic wildlife is exempt, because the National People’s Congress (NPC) views “fishing as a natural resource and an important agricultural product, as well as a common international practise” [5]. This means, for example, that sea horses, turtles, sea cucumbers and other widely consumed species will continue to be traded under the same rules as before.

It is unclear whether the ban includes amphibians and reptiles, for example snakes.  Wild plants are not included in the ban.  Only farmed, terrestrial animals on the List of Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry can now be traded for food consumption. A publicly available version of this list can be found in a report to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and includes various breeds of pig, chicken, duck, goose, special poultry (e.g., ostrich), cattle, sheep, goat, horse, donkey, rabbit and deer [10]. Mink and raccoon dog are also on the list, possibly due to demand for their pelts. Previously, some species not in the list could be farmed (e.g., civets and bamboo rats) but farming these species is now illegal, if they are to be consumed as food. The Chinese government plans to revise this list and it is very important to discuss what will be added.

What about non-edible uses?

Saiga horns are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Photo credit: the Saiga Resource Centre

Non-edible use of wild terrestrial animals, such as scientific research, medicinal use, and display, are still regulated by existing laws, such as the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Law (2016) [5]. For example, it remains legal to use processed pangolin scales from a certificated source, or bear bile from legal farms for medical purposes, or stockpiled saiga horn. This means that a substantial number of species of conservation concern are unaffected by the ban.

What about the illegal trade?

Some wildlife trade is already illegal (e.g., tiger, ivory) in China, and the Chinese government has announced it will clamp down further on such trade with “aggravated punishment”, suggesting stronger penalties will be used for illegal wildlife trade. In the existing Criminal Law and its interpretation (2014), if the circumstances are especially serious, life imprisonment or death shall be sentenced [11].

Further details are not currently available but should become clear in forthcoming legislation. Since the rise of COVID-19, the Chinese government has investigated over 600 cases of wildlife crime [12], and hopefully, this greater focus on law enforcement will become the norm.

What about the Chinese public’s views?

“Say No to Wild Meat Consumption”, a poster from Shanshui Conservation Center

Since the outbreak of the virus, several Chinese conservation organisations have organised a questionnaire to understand public attitudes and circulated it on Chinese social media (e.g., wechat, weibo), receiving over 100,000 responses. Among the respondents, 88% of whom resided in urban areas, 32% have seen people eating wild animals in the past year, while 96.4% said they supported a ban on consumption of all wild animals. Those against the ban believed that “the industry of some wildlife farming is very mature”, and that “some wildlife farming can bring income.” In terms of banning all trade in wild animals, including food consumption, medicinal use and others, more than 90% of the respondents expressed a willingness to support this [13]. Whether this is a short-term attitude because of the current situation, and whether it is shared by more rural, less internet-savvy people, remains to be seen.

Winners and losers

A wild civet. Photo credit: Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance

Certain species will definitely gain from this decision, assuming that it is well enforced. These are terrestrial wild mammal species which are legal to hunt and consume, and which are currently potentially under threat as a result of this consumption. Species which fall into this category include civets and bats (both of which, by the way, have been implicated in previous epidemics). Others (particularly aquatic species and those used legally in Traditional Chinese Medicine) will not benefit from this legislation. The crack-down on breaches of existing laws may help species traded illegally. However, the markets have not been permanently closed as yet, and so the public health, animal welfare and conservation concerns which they produce remain.

People in the farmed wild animal industry could face severe economic losses as a result of this new legislation. Previously, the farming of certain wildlife species was encouraged by the government to help alleviate poverty [14]. The wildlife farming industry is estimated to have created employment for more than 14 million people and worth over £56 billion, with pelt production (e.g., mink, raccoon dog, fox) representing 74.8% and food consumption involving species such as the giant salamander, frog and blue peacock, 24% [15]. The National People’s Congress spokesman stated that local governments should guide these farmers towards other industries and provide compensation for their losses [5]. Meanwhile, what happens to the captive-bred animals remains uncertain, with potential implications for animal welfare.

What next?

Using pangolin scales is still legal in China. Photo credit: Gregg Yan, wikimedia commons

This decision may be just the start of a series of new pieces of legislation, which authorise provincial and city-level governments to implement their own measures.  For example, one day after the national announcement, the Shenzhen government released a draft proposal for regional management, suggesting that the ban on animal consumption might extend to pet animals, such as cats and dogs [16].  The National People’s Congress also plans to revise the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and other wildlife-related laws this year. These forthcoming legislative changes will need continued attention and efforts by Chinese NGOs and the public to make sure that the changes are as effective as possible.

It has taken so much human suffering to bring attention to this issue. However, the speed with which this new decision has been taken offers hope that the lessons of COVID-19 will be learned.

Special thanks to Melissa Arias, Dan Challender, E.J. Milner-Gulland, Xuesong Han, Amy Hinsley, Xilin Jiang, Xiao Mao, Terry Townshend, Lingyun Xiao, for their valuable comments and edits to this blog.

Header photo: Menu of a wild meat restaurant in Wuhan Huanan seafood market, where civet, bamboo rat and other animals were sold. Photo credit: weibo

References:

[1] 新冠肺炎病例实时地图 Live map of COVID-19 in China. The Paper. /2020-02-28. https://projects.thepaper.cn/thepaper-cases/839studio/feiyan/.

[2] The world gets ready – Covid-19 is now in 50 countries, and things will get worse. The Economist. 2020/2020-02-28. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/02/29/covid-19-is-now-in-50-countries-and-things-will-get-worse

[3] China detects large quantity of novel coronavirus at Wuhan seafood market. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-01/27/c_138735677.htm

[4] Cohen J. Mining coronavirus genomes for clues to the outbreak’s origins. Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2020.

[5] 全面禁止非法野生动物交易 革除滥食野生动物陋习——全国人大常委会法工委有关部门负责人答记者问Interview with the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2020-02/24/c_1125620750.htm

[6] China’s legislature adopts decision on banning illegal trade, consumption of wildlife. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-25. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-02/24/c_138814139.htm

[7] 那些没有且无法被检疫的肉,你真的敢吃吗?Meat without quarantine certificate, you dare to eat? Shanshui Conservation Center. 2020/2020-02-25. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1961/

[8] 野生动物保护名录,一把刻度模糊的卡尺 Wild animal protection list, a ruler with blurred numbers. Shanshui Conservation Center. /2020-02-28. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1906/

[9] 养殖技术成熟,就可以开放市场了吗?Can the market be opened if farming techniques are mature? Shanshui Conservation Center. /2020-02-28. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/HuguwEKlm35qO80sWpCCwg

[10] 中华人民共和国农业部 Ministry of Agriculture P R of C. 中国畜禽遗传资源状况Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry of China. 2003.

[11] 最高人民法院最高人民检察院关于办理走私刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释 Interpretations of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on several issues concerning the application of law in handling criminal cases of smuggling. 2014/2020-02-28. http://www.court.gov.cn/shenpan-xiangqing-7081.html

[12] 新华时评:用法治革除吃“野味”的陋习 Xinhua commentary: use the rule of law to remove the bad habits of eating wild animals. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2020-02/24/c_1125620829.htm

[13] 野生动物修法调查 | 22天,10万份问卷,聊聊这些民间的声音 Survey on the revision of laws on wildlife: 22 days, 100,000 responses, voices from the public. Shanshui Conservation Center. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1926/

[14] 野生动植物产业助力江西省林业精准扶贫 Wildlife industries help poverty alleviation in Jiangxi. 2018/2020-02-28. http://www.forestry.gov.cn/main/5383/20180111/1066442.html

[15] 中国工程院 Chinese Academy of Engineering. 中国野生动物养殖产业可持续发展战略研究Research on Sustainable Development Strategy of Chinese Wild Animal Farming Industry. 2017.

[16] 关于《深圳经济特区全面禁止食用野生动物条例(草案征求意见稿)》公开征求意见的公告Announcement on the public consultation on the 《Shenzhen Special Economic Zone Regulations on the Comprehensive Ban on Eating Wild Animals (Consultation Draft)》. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.szrd.gov.cn/szrd_zyfb/szrd_zyfb_tzgg/202002/t20200225_19026852.htm

In Memory of Karen Phillipps

By John MacKinnon.

Chinese birdwatchers will be saddened to learn of the death of bird artist Karen Phillipps. As co-author and chief artist of ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of China’ – the most widely used identification guide in China – there can be few Chinese birders who were not drawn to the beauty of birds through her work.

Karen died in London on February 6th after a long battle against cancer. But Karen was born in Sabah, Borneo and it is perhaps her books on the birds and mammals of Borneo for which she is most intimately recognised.  The ‘Phillipps Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo’, written with her brother Quentin has just moved into its 4th edition and includes some of Karen’s last paintings.

Having worked with Karen on two bird guides, I have many happy memories of her poring through dusty skins in Bogor Museum or sitting beside the mist nets of Hong Kong bird ringers, painting away with a bird in one hand, notebook and watercolour box on knee and brush in the other hand. She could capture a bird’s jizz in a couple of minutes before the anxious ringers needed to release their birds! She was also witness to my wedding to the field guide translator Lu Hefen (see title photo). Karen was so full of life, a kind, generous and cheerful personality.  She will be dearly missed in several countries but the legacy of the illustrations she completed will live on for many years.

John MacKinnon, co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China.

John is in touch with Karen’s family.  If you feel moved to leave a comment about how the book inspired you to be interested in birds, please leave a comment here or send to me on WeChat (“birdingbeijing”) and we will ensure they are passed on.  John feels that Karen’s family is not fully aware of how influential “A Field Guide to the Birds of China” was, and is, to igniting the birding scene in China and it may be comforting to hear just how much her work has been valued.  Thank you.

Title image: Karen Phillipps at the wedding of John MacKinnon and Lu Hefen.

An Extraordinary Lunar New Year

This lunar new year has been like no other I have experienced.  With the emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan and the subsequent lockdown of most of Hubei, including the shutdown of flights and trains to and from the stricken Province, people everywhere – including Beijing – are fearing to venture to public places and, on the rare occasions they do head beyond their own four walls, for example to stock up on groceries, face masks are worn, tasks are completed in a hurry and every sneeze or cough is greeted by fellow shoppers with looks of horror.

As I write this post, there are 7,736 confirmed cases nationwide and a further 12,167 suspected, with 124 recoveries and 170 deaths so far.  In Beijing alone, there are 111 confirmed cases, 4 recoveries and 1 death.  Given the rapid increase in cases and the likelihood that many millions of people will be returning to their workplaces at some point over the next few days and weeks, it seems as if this could be just the beginning.

In this context, birding seems trivial and inconsequential.  However, in some ways, it’s a good distraction to have..

Having fortuitously arranged the rental of a car before the start of the lunar new year, I have been able to get out and about for a few days over the past week or so without relying on public transport, of which most people are, quite sensibly, steering well clear.  It was refreshing to get outside, enjoy some exercise and, of course, see some good birds, with almost nobody else around.

The main destination was a classic winter site in Beijing called Shidu (十渡), literally “ten crossings”, a small village on the Juma River in southwest Beijing’s Fangshan District, just 4km from the border with Hebei Province.  Here, a series of bridges offer great vantage points from which to scan the winding river, which almost never freezes due to its relatively fast flow.

The location of Shidu(十渡) in Beijing Municipality.
The minor road running northwest of Zhangfangzhen follows the Juma River and a series of bridges offer excellent vantage points from which to scan for the area’s special birds.

It is a spectacular place, winding through stunning canyons and gorges, and is well-known for its Black Storks.  But it’s much more than that.. ..species that are local or hard to find in Beijing but that can be found here include Wallcreeper (regular in winter near bridge 6), Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Long-billed Plover, Plumbeous Water Redstart and White-capped Water Redstart. And, if you look up, you can often see the impressive Cinereous Vultures soaring overhead, scanning for carrion.  Grey Herons breed on the steep cliffs and, if you are really lucky, you may encounter a Solitary Snipe or even an Ibisbill, although it’s a few years since either have been seen here.

Shidu is a site I once had the pleasure of birding with none other than former UK Chancellor, the Right Hon Kenneth Clarke and his late wife, Gillian, during one of his official visits to Beijing.  It was that special day that we recorded not only Wallcreeper but my first ever Solitary Snipe.

Taking notes at the Wallcreeper site. The Rt Hon gentleman is a true birder…

And on this latest visit to Shidu, the Wallcreeper didn’t disappoint, coming down to head height to take advantage of the meal worms put out by photographers.

We were also fortunate to enjoy the company of a spectacular Crested Kingfisher, a scarce resident in the capital.

Having dropped off the hire car and returned home, it’s been fascinating to see the online conversation about China’s wildlife trade, thought to be responsible for the current outbreak of novel coronavirus in Wuhan.  With the government announcement of a temporary ban, many citizens are calling for it to be made permanent.  For a summary of the situation, there is an excellent article by Natasha Daly from National Geographic.

Seizing the moment, Peking University is running an online questionnaire (Chinese only) to gauge public opinion on the wildlife trade with a view to submitting the results to policymakers.  With China due to host the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in October, what better time to announce a permanent ban!

The next few days – and likely weeks – will involve voluntary ‘self-quarantine’ with trips out only to buy essentials.  It’s going to be a strange start to the year of the rat.

Goodbye 2019 and Hello 2020!

Living and working in China is challenging and rewarding. It is a vast country of rich culture and diverse habitats, from some of Earth’s most populated cities in the east to the deserts of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia in the north, from the taiga forests of Helongjiang to the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau supplying hundreds of millions of people with fresh water. It is a privilege to be here and, as a guest, I have been extremely fortunate to work on some incredibly rewarding projects with some brilliant people and organisations. As a new decade begins and we reflect on 2019, here are a few of my personal highlights from the last twelve months and a look ahead to what promises to be a busy and important year for nature, not only in Beijing and China but the world over.

2019 Highlights

I will begin with the “Valley of the Cats“, a ground-breaking community-based wildlife tourism project in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau. 2019 was the second full year of operation for the project, which involves 22 families in three villages around Angsai Township in Yushu Prefecture. Under the project, tourists are allowed to visit this sensitive area, lodge in a herder family home and be guided around to look for wildlife. The jewel in the crown is, of course, the Snow Leopard, but it’s clear from the feedback received that experiencing the unique Tibetan hospitality and culture is a major highlight for visitors.

A local herder with a young yak calf in the Valley of the Cats

There were four major milestones for the project this year. First, in March, the project was formally recognised by the Chinese government and awarded the first ever franchise for community-based tourism inside a (pilot) national park in China. Second, the project was showcased at the first ever National Parks forum in Xining, China as an example of how tourism can work in environmentally sensitive places, benefiting the community and supporting conservation. Third, the Valley was visited by two TV crews from the UK. The BBC’s flagship Natural History Unit spent six weeks filming as part of a major new series, Frozen Planet II, focusing on wildlife at the three poles – the North Pole, South Pole and the third pole – the Tibetan Plateau. And ITV’s Ray Mears visited to film an episode for a forthcoming series about Wild China. It was a dream come true to work with the BBC Natural History Unit and a real treat to meet Ray Mears, a major influence on me. These two productions, both likely to be broadcast around the world, will undoubtedly help to raise awareness about China’s wonderful wildlife and wild places. Finally, in November, the project passed 1 million CNY (GBP 108,000) in revenue, 100% of which has stayed in the community.

Terry with Ray Mears in the Valley of the Cats, October 2019.

The Valley of the Cats has been, without doubt, the most rewarding project with which I have ever been involved. I feel privileged to have been part of it, working with the local community, ShanShui Conservation Center and the Qinghai Provincial and Angsai local governments. And I am immensely grateful to all who have visited to support the project. Two memories from this year that will stay with me forever are the sheer joy and emotion on the faces of Graeme and Moira Wallace, who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary by visiting the Valley and seeing two Snow Leopards, and the two young local men who told me that the tourism project had given them a reason to resist the bright lights of the city and stay in their community to continue their traditional way of life.

Graeme and Moira Wallace with Abao, their local guide, in the Valley of the Cats. The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary by visiting the Valley and seeing two Snow Leopards. In 2019 more than 75% of visitors were successful in seeing Snow Leopard.

In May I was honoured to be invited by the Beijing Municipal government to be an advisor for a major new programme to make the capital better for wildlife. This programme, to be conducted in collaboration with Peking University, includes pilot habitat restoration projects around the capital – including grassland, mountains and wetlands – and major public awareness campaigns. Ideas on the table include a “wild ring road”, “urban oases” for migratory birds, altering the management of parks to leave “10% wild” and many more.. As part of this programme, Tim Appleton visited Beijing in September to share the UK’s experience of managing a major reservoir for water quality, wildlife and leisure. As the recently-retired manager of Rutland Water Nature Reserve and, of course, the founder of the UK’s BirdFair, Tim’s experience was well-received and will, I hope, influence how Beijing manages its reservoirs, including Miyun Reservoir, potentially a world-class nature reserve that could bring in revenue to one of the poorest counties of the capital.

Tim Appleton being interviewed by local TV about how reservoirs can be managed for wildlife and water.

We are now planning for a major new bird-related public engagement initiative that I hope will be announced early in 2020. Watch this space! With more than 500 species of bird recorded in the capital and mammals such as wild cats (Leopard Cats) and the potential return of Common Leopard, Beijing is well-placed to become a ‘capital of biodiversity’.

June saw me travel to Ulan Bataar, the capital of Mongolia, with colleagues from the British Trust for Ornithology to join forces with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) to begin the Mongolia Cuckoo Project. Together, we travelled to Khurkh in the northeast, close to the border with Russia. Five cuckoos (four Common Cuckoos and an Oriental Cuckoo) were fitted with transmitters, named by local schoolchildren and followed via a special webpage. The aims of the project are twofold – first, scientific discovery, to find out the winter destination and migration route of cuckoos from Mongolia and, second, to enthuse and inspire the public about the wonders of bird migration and the habitats they need. So far, three of the cuckoos have made it to Africa, crossing the Arabian Sea and, in the case of ONON and BAYAN, also the Rub’ al-Khali desert of Saudi Arabia, before heading south to East Africa. As of the end of 2019, NAMJAA is in Kenya, ONON is in Tanzania and BAYAN is in Malawi. To follow the progress of these intrepid travellers, see this dedicated page.

Tuvshi of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center releasing a hepatic Common Cuckoo at Khurkh ringing station in Mongolia.

June also saw the launch of a major new project to support one of Beijing’s most iconic birds, the so-called “Beijing Swift” (Apus apus pekinensis). Four student “Swift Ambassadors” from Beijing schools wrote a letter to China’s leading property developer, SOHO China, led by celebrity couple PAN Shiyi and ZHANG Xin. The students requested a meeting with Mr Pan and Ms Zhang to ask China SOHO to make their buildings more friendly for the Beijing Swift. On receipt of the letter, Mr Pan, the Chairman of the company, invited the students to meet with him and, at a special meeting, each student Ambassador explained something about the Beijing Swift – its aerial lifestyle, the incredible migration to southern Africa, the fact the population has declined due to the loss of nest sites on old buildings and what the students were doing to help by making and putting up homemade boxes for the Swifts.

The four student swift ambassadors addressing Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, about the Beijing Swift.
Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, responding to the student swift ambassadors.

Mr Pan responded by making three commitments: first, to retrofit 200 special nest boxes onto two of SOHO’s existing buildings in Beijing, second to commit to making new buildings “Swift-friendly” by including in the design appropriate spaces for Swifts, and third to promote biodiversity among the building sector in China. The project demonstrated that, with a little thought and almost no extra cost, business can make a big difference to support biodiversity. I hope that, as the focus on biodiversity increases in 2020, the leadership by China SOHO will inspire other companies to explore similar initiatives to support biodiversity.

The beginning of July saw a major milestone in the protection of the remaining intertidal mudflats of China’s Yellow Sea coast when two of the most important sites were formally inscribed as World Heritage Sites. The journey to Baku, the location of the World Heritage Committee meeting in July, was dramatic, with many twists and turns, and the conservation community almost scored a spectacular own-goal… but the end result means that, just four years from a seemingly desperate situation, the future of millions of migratory shorebirds that depend on the Yellow Sea, including the iconic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, is a little brighter. The inscription was the result of a monumental effort by a cross-national multidisciplinary team of scientists, NGOs, advocacy groups, think-tanks, politicians and members of the public and, although not a silver bullet, it is a giant leap forward and the effort now switches to Phase II, under which additional sites are due to be inscribed as World Heritage Sites.

In September, as if to remind conservationists that there is a long way to go, it was sickening to hear of industrial-scale trapping of buntings, including the critically endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting, in coastal Hebei Province. Organised criminal gangs catch thousands of buntings and finches using kilometres of mist nets, keep the birds in ‘fattening centres’ before transporting them live to south China, where the demand for ‘exotic’ food remains strong.

Industrial-scale trapping of wild birds, especially buntings and finches, is a continuing problem on China’s east coast, particularly in autumn. Video via Gu Xuan.

Although law enforcement authorities are becoming more proactive and incidents are now routinely reported by the media, it is a sobering reminder of the threats faced by migratory song birds.

Looking ahead

As we look forward, 2020 promises to be a busy and important year. In October, China will host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In simple terms, it is the point at which governments are due to agree new targets to 2030 and beyond to reduce the loss of biodiversity.

The meeting, due to take place in Kunming, Yunnan Province, will see delegates from more than 180 countries coming together to thrash out a new deal. With China due to name its first tranche of national parks this year, progress on the protection of the Yellow Sea, strengthening of the Environment Protection Law and greater public awareness, the host country has the foundations of a positive story to tell. However, to bend the curve on global biodiversity loss is going to take a monumental effort not only from governments but by parliaments, business, NGOs, cities and, indeed, every one of us.

A crucial piece of work to support COP15 will be a major new report outlining recommendations for how to finance biodiversity protection. Estimates suggest that governments are able to provide only around 10% of the funding needed to effectively protect key global biodiversity. Hank Paulson, Chairman of the Paulson Institute, former US Treasury Secretary and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, has been asked by the Chinese government to convene a high level group to develop recommendations for how to bridge the gap by leveraging funding from the private sector. With Hank’s unrivalled experience in finance and his commitment to conservation, he is well-placed to deliver what could be a game-changing contribution to the future of global biodiversity. I am honoured to be part of the team working on this important initiative.

Other plans include a cuckoo tagging project on the Tibetan Plateau, to celebrate the launch of China’s national parks, potentially twinning Sanjiangyuan, one of China’s first national parks, with national parks in Africa via migratory birds, and more biodiversity projects with businesses in China, building on the SOHO China project. I will also continue to work with universities, schools and youth groups to connect as many people as possible to nature.

I am extremely fortunate, and immensely grateful, to have the opportunity to work on so many interesting and important projects and with such wonderful colleagues and organisations, both inside China and overseas. I’d like to recognise Hank and Wendy Paulson, who are both a major influence and source of support, and colleagues at the Paulson Institute in Beijing and Chicago, especially Rose Niu, Tina Ren and Wang Jing, ShanShui Conservation Center, in particular Professor Lu Zhi, Zhao Xiang, Shi Xiangying, Xinnong, Yiliao, Peiyun, Xuesong and the Yushu team, the Beijing Municipal government, especially Wang Xiaoping and his team at the Department for Forest and Parks, Nyambayar Batbayar and the crew at the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center, to Chris Hewson at the British Trust for Ornithology and to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley for their hard work and companionship in making the Mongolia Cuckoo Project possible. And a huge thank you to everyone who works hard to protect biodiversity and/or supports those so doing.

2020 is going to be a big year. BRING IT ON!

Title image: introducing children to nature in Gaoligong Mountains in Yunnan Province (Photo by Koko Tang)

Rare and Scarce Birds in Beijing 2019

2019 was another excellent year of birding in China’s capital city. As of the end of the year, although there is uncertainty about some historical records, it is now likely that more than 500 species have been recorded in the Municipality, cementing Beijing as one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds. With a growing number of active birders, most of whom are young Chinese, the number of sightings of all birds – common, scarce and rare – is increasing year on year. Given the greater coverage, it is not surprising that more unusual birds have been found. In 2019, three new species were added to the Beijing list and a further three were documented for the first time. In addition, at least three species were recorded for only the second time and another five for the third time.

New records included PLAIN PRINIA, NORTHERN GREAT TIT and ASHY-THROATED WARBLER, with records of BIANCHI’S WARBLER, NORTHERN WHEATEAR and BROWN-BREASTED FLYCATCHER the first documented records. Second records included POMARINE JAEGER, BLYTH’S REED WARBLER, WHITE-THROATED REDSTART and GREY BUSHCHAT (the latter the 2nd record since 1987). Third records included a popular EUROPEAN ROBIN, dubbed a “Brexit refugee” that caused possibly the biggest ‘twitch’ ever seen in China and attracting media coverage both in China and overseas, as well as SANDERLING, PECTORAL SANDPIPER, COMMON RINGED PLOVER and SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER.

A summary of the birding highlights from Beijing is below, in chronological order. Although I have included all information to which I have access, it is certainly not comprehensive. If you know of any errors or additions, please comment at the end of this post or contact me via email/WeChat.

I’d like to take the opportunity to say THANK YOU to everyone who has shared news of sightings throughout the year, whether via WeChat, email, eBird or any other means. There is no doubt that sharing bird news has helped many people to see new and unusual species for the first time, helping to build the knowledge base among birders in Beijing and, importantly, enthusing more people about the natural world.

To keep up to date with the latest bird and wildlife news in Beijing, check the Latest Sightings page on Birding Beijing.

Here’s wishing everyone a bird-filled 2020!

2019 highlights

January

The year began with a few lingering rarities from 2018. Beijing’s ninth MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨, Cǎodì liù), first discovered on 30 December 2018, remained at Shidu, Fangshan District and was seen on 5 January (Niao Pan), 21st (Terry Townshend and John MacKinnon), 27th (Steve Bale and David Mansfield), 3rd February (Qian Cheng) and on 15th February (Zang Shaoping), along with the regular WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀, Hóng chì xuán bì què) that was seen throughout the winter at the same site. On 6th a RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula parva, 红胸姬鹟, Hóng xiōng jī wēng) was seen in Chaoyang Park (Zhen Niu), probably the bird originally seen in the Temple of Heaven Park earlier in the winter (Beijing’s sixth record); it remained until at least 7 February. Similarly, Beijing’s second REDWING (Turdus iliacus, 白眉歌鸫, Báiméi gē dōng), first found on 5 December 2018 by Steve Bale, was seen on 6th January at Tsinghua University (Vincent Wang).

This Red-breasted Flycatcher was first seen in Temple of Heaven Park in late 2018 and later in Chaoyang Park in January 2019.

Also on 6th there was a BAR-HEADED GOOSE (Anser indicus, 斑头雁, Bān tóuyàn) of uncertain origin and an unseasonal ‘SWINTAIL’ SNIPE (Gallingago stenura/Gallinago megala) at DaShiHe (XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing and Lou Fangzhou) with a JAPANESE GROSBEAK (Eophona personata, 黑头蜡嘴雀, Hēitóu là zuǐ què) at Tsinghua University (Zhen Niu) the same day.

On 8th, Beijing’s third EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula, 欧亚鸲, Ōu yà qú) was reported from the Beijing Zoo (via XiaoPT), causing one of the biggest ‘twitches’ seen in the capital and attracting significant media coverage. It remained until at least 1 February.

Beijing’s 3rd EUROPEAN ROBIN was present in the grounds of the Beijing Zoo from 8th January until 1 February at least.
The “Brexit Refugee” attracted quite a following in the grounds of the Beijing Zoo

On 9th, birders visiting to see the Robin found a BLACK-THROATED TIT (Aegithalos concinnus, 红头长尾山雀, Hóngtóu cháng wěishān què), subsequently seen by many over the following days.

Two female CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) were at Xiaqingshuicun on 12th (Jan-Erik Nilsen) and a single NORTHERN GREY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor sibiricus, 灰伯劳, Huī bóláo) was along the G234 between Yunfengshan and Miyun Reservoir on 22nd. On 24th a wintering GREY-BACKED THRUSH (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫, Huī bèi dōng), first discovered in December 2018, was seen in the grounds of Tsinghua University and a drake BAIKAL TEAL (Anas formosa, 花脸鸭, Huāliǎn yā), an unusual urban mid-winter record, was photographed in the southern section of Olympic Forest Park (remaining until 10 February at least).

This drake BAIKAL TEAL was in a small area of open water at the Olympic Forest Park from 24 January to 10 February at least.

On 28th an impressive count of 510 COMMON MERGANSERS (Mergus merganser, 普通秋沙鸭, Pǔtōng qiū shā yā) was at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore).

February

On 1st a NORTHERN GREY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor sibiricus, 灰伯劳, Huī bóláo) was seen at Lingshan (Vincent Wang). On 4th a Beijing record count of 210 RUSTIC BUNTINGS (Emberiza rustica, 田鹀, Tián wú) was recorded in Tongzhou by Paul Holt. On 6th, Beijing’s thirteenth YELLOWHAMMER (Emberiza citrinella, 黄鹀, Huáng wú) was found in a flock of 150+ PINE BUNTINGS at Yanqing (Terry Townshend, Marie Louise Ng).

Beijing’s 13th YELLOWHAMMER was found in a flock of 150+ PINE BUNTINGS at Yanqing on 6 February 2019.

On 8th a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART (Phoenicurus schisticeps, 白喉红尾鸲, Bái hóu hóng wěi qú) was found and photographed at Lingshan. Remarkably, with no pre-2018 records, this was the third sighting of this species in the mountains around Beijing during the 2018/2019 winter. The first was of a male on 14 November 2018 at Lingshan, just over the border in Hebei Province (Terry Townshend and Steve Bale), and the second (the first record for Beijing), also a male, was on 5 December 2018 at Miaofengshan (Colm Moore), so the sighting on 8th February 2019 was the third overall and the second sighting within the boundary of Beijing Municipality (Terry Townshend, XiaoPT, DaHao). Just two days later, on 10th, DaHao counted two males and a female at the same site and a pair was also seen on 25th (Steve Bale, Terry Townshend and Ben Wielstra).

Incredibly, in between these records, presumably a different male was photographed in the Botanical Gardens on 24th (Jiang Wenyue).

The male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART in the Botanical Gardens, 24 February 2019 (Jiang Wenyue)

Back at Lingshan, a healthy flock of 150+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (Leucosticte arctoa, 粉红腹岭雀, Fěnhóng fù lǐng què) was seen by DaHao on 11th, with 100+ there on 12th (Li Peimeng).

An unseasonal COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos, 矶鹬, Jī yù) was along the Wenyu River on 20th (Steve Bale) and, on 23rd, a PALE THRUSH (Turdus pallidus, 白腹鸫, Bái fù dōng) was seen the Olympic Forest Park. On the same day, an immature MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was at Taishitun (XiaoPT). An adult SIBERIAN GULL (Larus fuscus heuglini, 西伯利亚银鸥, Xībólìyǎ yín ōu) was a nice winter find on 24th at Shahe Reservoir, remaining into March (Colm Moore).

March

March began with a BAR-HEADED GOOSE (Anser indicus, 斑头雁, Bān tóuyàn) of unknown origin at Chongqing Reservoir on 1st (XiaoPT and Fishing Cat). Singles were later seen on 7th at Nanhaizi (Zhong Zhenyu) and 8th at Shahe (Bill Bu). On 2nd a potential Beijing record count of 19 MUTE SWANS (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was at Nanhaizi (DaHe). An early EURASIAN SPOONBILL (Platalea leucorodia, 白琵鹭, Bái pí lù) was at Yizhuang Wetland on 3rd (XiaoPT and Fishing Cat). On 7th an excellent count of 310 MONGOLIAN GULLS (Larus mongolicus, 黄脚(银)鸥, Huáng jiǎo (yín) ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir (XiaoPT). The same site hosted a single ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) on 9th (Zhu Haoqiang) and 10th (Steve Bale), joined by a second bird on 16th (Catherine Dong), with both remaining on and off until 23rd (Zhu Haoqiang).

A single 2cy PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu) was at Shisanling on 11th (Colm Moore), followed by three at Shahe Reservoir on 13th (Lou Fangzhou et al). Two remained on 14th when a remarkable 745+ MONGOLIAN GULLS were logged passing through (XiaoPT, Song Jian and Niu Zhen). Presumably the same PALLAS’S GULLS were seen on 18th by Colm Moore, with one remaining until 23rd (Zhu Haoqiang).

On 21st two SHORT-TOED EAGLES (Circaetus gallicus, 短趾雕, Duǎn zhǐ diāo) were at Miyun Reservoir (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend). On 23rd single males of BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) and GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila, 斑背潜鸭, Bān bèi qián yā) were at Huairou Reservoir (Terry Townshend) and on 24th a colour-ringed WHITE-NAPED CRANE (Grus vipio, 白枕鹤, Bái zhěn hè), originally ringed near Khurkh, Mongolia, was at Yeyahu (Terry Townshend), joined by another two birds on 31st.

On 25th two male BAER’S POCHARDS were at the same site (Lou Fangzhou) and the same observer photographed a pale morph BOOTED EAGLE (Hieraaetus pennatus, 靴隼雕, Xuē sǔn diāo) at the traditional raptor watchpoint of Baiwangshan on 28th.

The pale morph BOOTED EAGLE at Baiwangshan on 28th March 2019 (Lou Fangzhou)

The month ended with a bang in the form of a NORTHERN GREAT TIT (Parus major, 北大山雀, Bei Dà shānquè) along the Wenyu River on 31st (Steve Bale), the first record of this species in the capital. On the same day a WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba, 白鹡鸰, Bái jí líng) of the alba subspecies was at Shahe Reserbvoir (Lou Fangzhou), two ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) were at Ma Chang (Xing Chao, James Phillips and Terry Townshend) and a single ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) and two PALLAS’S GULLS (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu), presumably new birds, were at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore).

April

Lou Fangzou was no fool on 1 April when he found Beijing’s fourth ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙䳭, Shā jī) at Ma Chang. On the same day, the first 2019 record of BEIJING SWIFT (Apus apus pekinensis, 北京雨燕, Běijing yǔyàn) was at Tongzhou (Yue XiaoXiao).

There were further records of ‘alba’ WHITE WAGTAILS on 2nd (three at Shahe Reservoir – Niu Zhen and DaHao), 3rd (three at Shisanling – XiaoPT),, 6th (four at Ma Chang – XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing and Zhang Shen – and two at Shahe Reservoir – Colm Moore) and three on 15th at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore). Note: since the first record of this subspecies was found in Beijing on 29 March 2015 (Luo Qingqing), this race appears to be annual in small numbers in spring.

The 6th produced Beijing’s tenth MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨, Cǎodì liù) at Ma Chang (Nick Green, David Mansfield and Terry Townshend) with eight ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) at nearby Kangxi Grassland (Lou Fangzhou, Niu Zhen et al).

7th April produced a GREY BUSHCHAT (Saxicola ferreus, 灰林唧, Huī lín jī) near Yeyahu, only the second record of this species since 1987 (Tian Shu) and a PIED WHEATEAR (Oenanthe pleschanka, 白顶唧, Bái dǐng jī) (DaHao) and three ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Zhang Weimin, Zhang Xiaoling) were at Ma Chang.

The GREY BUSHCHAT near Yeyahu on 7 April 2019 (Tian Shu)
Oriental Plover at Ma Chang, 7 April 2019 (Zhang Weimin)

On 8th a DALMATIAN PELICAN (Pelecanus crispus, 卷羽鹈鹕, Juǎn yǔ tí hú) was at Shahe Reservoir (XiaoPT), remaining the next day, with a single PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu) at the same site (ChaCha Wan).

The 14th produced 15 ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) at Ma Chang. On the same day, an active nest of WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos leucotos, 白背啄木鸟, Bái bèi zhuómùniǎo) , a species rarely recorded in Beijing, was discovered at Lingshan (Terry Townshend).

A female WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER drumming at Lingshan, 14 April 2019.

A singing SWINHOE’S RAIL (Coturnicops exquisitus, 花田鸡, Huā tián jī) at Ma Chang on 15th (Terry Townshend) was just the capital’s sixth record, and a female BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Shahe Reservoir on the same day (Colm Moore). An ASHY MINIVET (Pericrocotus divaricatus, 灰山椒鸟, Huī shānjiāo niǎo) was at Tsinghua University on 25th (Richard Davis et al). The 26th was something of a red-letter day with a female NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe, 穗唧, Suì jī) at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore).

The NORTHERN WHEATEAR at Shahe Reservoir on 26 April 2019 (Colm Moore)

It was certainly the first record of this species in Beijing since 1987 and possibly the first ever documented record for the capital. On the same day, Beijing’s seventh LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬, Xiǎo bīn yù) was found at the same site by Li Mengxuan, remaining until 28th at least, and Beijing’s eleventh MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨, Cǎodì liù) was at Ma Chang (Paul Holt).

The following day there was no sign of the NORTHERN WHEATEAR but Qin Xiaowei and Wei Chunzhi found Beijing’s fifth, and the second of 2019, ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙䳭, Shā jī) at the same site! A male BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Ma Chang on the same day (Paul Holt).

May

Three YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTINGS (Emberiza aureola, 黄胸鹀, Huáng xiōng wú) at Shahe Reservoir on 3rd (Colm Moore) was a nice start to the month. The next day, Ben Wielstra and Richard Davis found Beijing’s third PECTORAL SANDPIPER (Calidris melanotos, 斑胸滨鹬, Bān xiōng bīn yù) at Ma Chang, along with Beijing’s eighth LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬, Xiǎo bīn yù) and a TEREK SANDPIPER (Xenus cinereus, 翘嘴鹬, Qiào zuǐ yù).

7th produced a Beijing first in the form of a singing PLAIN PRINIA (Prinia inornata, 纯色山鹪莺, Huáng fù shān jiāo yīng) along the Wenyu River, a superb find by Steve Bale. The following day, whilst twitching the PLAIN PRINIA, Paul Holt found a singing BIANCHI’S WARBLER (Seicercus valentini, 比氏鹟莺, Bǐ shì wēng yīng), remarkably the first documented record for the capital! Two ASHY MINIVETS (Pericrocotus divaricatus, 灰山椒鸟, Huī shānjiāo niǎo) and a PECHORA PIPIT (Anthus gustavi, 北鹨, Běi liù) represented a strong supporting cast.

On 10th May, another first for the capital was found at Baihuashan – an ASHY-THROATED WARBLER (Phylloscopus maculipennis, 灰喉柳莺, Huī hóu liǔ yīng) (He Wenbo). A most unexpected record. Photos here. On the same day, Colm Moore found a TEREK SANDPIPER (Xenus cinereus, 翘嘴鹬, Qiào zuǐ yù) at Shahe.

13th May produced Beijing’s third SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER (Ficedula tricolor, 灰蓝姬鹟, Huī lán jī wēng), a female, at Tsinghua University campus (Ben Wielstra), astonishingly just 50m from the location of Beijing’s first record of this species found by the same observer in 2015. On the same day, a HILL BLUE FLYCATCHER (Cyornis banyumas, 山蓝仙鹟, Shān lán xiān wēng) was found in the grounds of Beijing Normal University, remaining for a week, but unusual feather wear meant most observers believed it to originate from captivity.

A male MUGIMAKI FLYCATCHER (Ficedula mugimaki, 鸲姬鹟, Qú jī wēng), Beijing’s thirteenth, was a nice find in urban Shuangjing (Andrew Morrissey) on 14th and Peking University was an unusual location for a SCHRENCK’S BITTERN (Ixobrychus eurhythmus, 紫背苇鳽, Zǐ bèi wěi jiān) on the same day.

On 16th a PALE-LEGGED LEAF WARBLER (Phylloscopus tenellipes, 淡脚柳莺, Dàn jiǎo liǔ yīng) was at Xiaolongmen (XiaoPT) with a singing bird at Shahe Reservoir on 19th (Colm Moore). On 17th a NORTHERN HAWK CUCKOO (Hierococcyx hyperythrus, 北鹰鹃, Běi yīng juān) was heard at Badaling Forest Park, possibly only Beijing’s seventh record (Paul Holt). On 19th, two PIN-TAILED SNIPE (Gallinago stenura, 针尾沙锥, Zhēn wěi shā zhuī) were displaying at Ma Chang pre-dawn (Paul Holt). Comment: although many “Swintail” (Swinhoe’s or Pin-tailed) Snipe pass through Beijing on migration, very few are identified to species, given the difficulty identifying them in the field.

23rd produced a singing MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) at Shahe Reservoir (XiaoPT and Fishing Cat)

On 26th Beijing’s second HIMALAYAN SWIFTLET (Aerodramus brevirostris, 短嘴金丝燕, Duǎn-zuǐ jīn-sī-yàn) was seen over the Shunyi Patch in the late afternoon after heavy rain (Terry Townshend). On the same day, a PHEASANT-TAILED JACANA (Hydrophasianus chirurgus, 水雉, Shuǐ zhì), very rare in Beijing in recent years, was at Nanhaizi (Wang Libin).

27th produced a BLACK-WINGED KITE (Elanus caeruleus, 黑翅鸢, Hēi chì yuān) at Shahe Reservoir and, as is becoming usual in late spring, three ASIAN KOELS (Eudynamys scolopacea, 噪鹃, Zào juān) were at the same site.

On 29th a BLUE AND WHITE FLYCATCHER (Cyanoptila cyanomelana, 白腹姬鹟, Bái fù jī wēng) was at Xiaolongmen (Xue Boning). Note: in Beijing most BLUE AND WHITE-type flycatchers, including those that breed, are the recently split ZAPPEY’S FLYCATCHER (Cyanoptila cumatilis). BLUE AND WHITE FLYCATCHERS (Cyanoptila cyanomelana) are rare.

Also on 29th, a BAILLON’S CRAKE (Porzana pusilla, 小田鸡, Xiǎo tiánjī) was at Shahe Reservoir (Zhen Niu) and two CHINESE BUSH WARBLERS (Bradypterus tacsanowskius, 中华短翅莺, Zhōnghuá duǎn chì yīng), the fifteenth record for Beijing, were at DaShiHe (XiaoPT et al) with one at Yuanmingyuan on 30th (Ben Wielstra) and another at Binhe Forest Park on 1st June (sixteenth and seventeenth records respectively). A BROWN-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus, 棕头鸥, Zōng tóu ōu) and a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) were at Shahe Reservoir (Jun Yang) on 30th. The month ended with a BLACK-TAILED GULL (Larus crassirostris, 黑尾鸥, Hēi wěi ōu) reported from Shahe Reservoir on 31st (Wang Xiaobo). Note: The status of Black-tailed Gull in Beijing is unclear. There have been reports of free-flying birds in the grounds of the zoo, which may account for at least some of the records in the capital.

June

On 1st, a CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO (Clamator coromandus, 红翅凤头鹃, Hóng chì fèng tóu juān) was at Baiwangshan (Lu Wei). On 3rd, a BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER (Acrocephalus concinens, 钝翅 (稻田) 苇莺, Dùn chì (dàotián) wěi yīng) was at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore). On 6th, a BROWN-BREASTED FLYCATCHER (Muscicapa muttui, 褐胸鹟, hè-xiōng wēng) was photographed at Xiaolongmen by Liang Zhijian, a member of the young birders’ group, “Beijing Feiyu”. This was the first documented record of this species for Beijing.

The Brown-breasted Flycatcher at Xiaolongmen on 6 June (Liang Zhijian)

The 9th produced a SWINHOE’S MINIVET (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟, Xiǎo huī shānjiāo niǎo) at Gubeikou (Fishing Cat), just the sixth Beijing record, and on 11th four LESSER CUCKOOS (Cuculus poliocephalus, 小杜鹃, Xiǎo dùjuān) were at Miaofengshan (Colm Moore) and another was at Laoyugou (XiaoPT). BROWN-FLANKED BUSH WARBLERS (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺, Qiáng jiǎo shù yīng) were at Xiaolongmen on 15th (Zhen Niu) and at Lingshan on 23rd (Luo Qingqing). A second CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO (Clamator coromandus, 红翅凤头鹃, Hóng chì fèng tóu juān) was at Lingshan on 25th (Steve Bale and Paul Holt) and a LESSER CUCKOO (Cuculus poliocephalus, 小杜鹃, Xiǎo dùjuān) at the same location continued this declining species’ good run of records in 2019. The month ended with a male SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hodgsonii, 锈胸蓝姬鹟, Xiù xiōng lán jī wēng) at Lingshan on 30th (Zhen Niu).

July

As expected, records of rare and scarce birds were few in July with just three notable records – a BROWN-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺, Qiáng jiǎo shù yīng) at Laoyugou on 1st (XiaoPT) and a single SWINHOE’S MINIVET (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟, Xiǎo huī shānjiāo niǎo) and three AMUR PARADISE FLYCATCHERS (Terpsiphone paradisi, 寿带, Shòu dài) at Gubeikou on 2nd (Fishing Cat).

August

On 3rd a GREATER PAINTED SNIPE (Rostratula benghalensis, 彩鹬, Cǎi yù) was at Ma Chang (XiaoPT and Liu Zhiheng) and it was still present on 10th (XiaoPT and Luo Qingqing) with an unseasonal group of 116 RELICT GULLS (Ichthyaetus relictus, 遗鸥, Yí ōu). On 8th a CINNAMON BITTERN (Ixobrychus cinnamomeus, 栗苇鳽, Lì wěi jiān) was at Nanhaizi (Wang Yishan). This species is not quite annual in Beijing.

On 18th a LITTLE CURLEW (Numenius minutus, 小杓鹬, Xiǎo biāo yù) was at Ma Chang (Lou Fangzhou) and two RED-NECKED PHALAROPES (Phalaropus lobatus, 红颈瓣蹼鹬, Hóng jǐng bàn pǔ yù) were at the same site (XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing, Mint Ren and Zhang Shen). A juvenile LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus, 小鸥, Xiǎo ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir on 21st (Ma Nan) and scarce shorebirds continued with a BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER (Limicola falcinellus, 阔嘴鹬, Kuò zuǐ yù) on 23rd at Ma Chang (Colm Moore), joined by a second bird on 25th (John MacKinnon, Terry Townshend et al) when Beijing’s third ever SANDERLING (Calidris alba, 三趾滨鹬, Sān zhǐ bīn yù) joined the party (remaining until 30th).

BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER, Ma Chang, 25 August 2019 (John MacKinnon)

Another LITTLE CURLEW (Numenius minutus, 小杓鹬, Xiǎo biāo yù) was at Ma Chang on 27th (Ma Nan and Terry Townshend) with a juvenile FAR EASTERN CURLEW (Numenius madagascariensis, 大杓鹬, Dà biāo yù), remaining until 31st, and two juvenile LITTLE STINTS (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬, Xiǎo bīn yù), the ninth record for Beijing.

One of the juvenile LITTLE STINTS at Ma Chang, 27 August 2019.
Juvenile Little and Red-necked Stints, Ma Chang, 27 August 2019

The 28th produced a rare autumn record of ORIENTAL PLOVER (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) at Ma Chang (Zhang Xiaoling and He Fangbei). On 30th there were two ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) and Beijing’s tenth LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺, Báihóu lín yīng) at Ma Chang and Beijing’s seventh record of LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata ariel, 白斑军舰鸟, Báibān jūnjiàn niǎo) was at Yeyahu (Paul Holt, Paul Hyde and Phil Hyde), with the latter being seen the next day at Shahe Reservoir (Lou Fangzhou, Zhang Xiaoling et al). The month ended with a heard-only COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula, 剑鸻, Jiàn héng) at Ma Chang on 31st, the third Beijing record. (Paul Holt et al).

September

On 1st, a juvenile LITTLE CURLEW (Numenius minutus, 小杓鹬, Xiǎo biāo yù) and 2 INTERMEDIATE EGRETS (Mesophoyx intermedia, 中白鹭, Zhōng báilù) were at Ma Chang (Paul Holt et al) and a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) was reported from the same site (Zheng Qiyuan and Yan Shen). On the same day, a single male BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Yeyahu (Xing Chao). On 2nd a COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula, 剑鸻, Jiàn héng) was seen at Ma Chang (Vincent Wang), presumably the same bird from 31 August. On 3rd a SIBERIAN THRUSH (Zoothera sibirica, 白眉地鸫, Báiméi de dōng) was at Beijing Normal University campus (Xue Boning) and two BLACK-WINGED KITES (Elanus caeruleus, 黑翅鸢, Hēi chì yuān) were at Ma Chang, with one or two birds reported until 14th at least. A single BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Yeyahu on 4th (XiaoPT et al). On 7th a remaining or new BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER (Limicola falcinellus, 阔嘴鹬, Kuò zuǐ yù) was at Ma Chang (Liu Chunhong et al) and a juvenile RUFF (Philomachus pugnax, 流苏鹬, Liúsū yù) was there on 11th (Tim Appleton, Gao Xiang and Terry Townshend) with a juvenile FAR EASTERN CURLEW (Numenius madagascariensis, 大杓鹬, Dà biāo yù) seen by the same observers at Yeyahu on the same day. Also on 11th, a BLACK-WINGED CUCKOOSHRIKE was at Beijing Normal University.

The juvenile RUFF at Ma Chang on 7 September 2019
Juvenile FAR EASTERN CURLEW, Ma Chang

A MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) was at Tongzhou (Paul Holt), first seen on 4th. The juvenile RUFF was seen again on 14th (Zhang Shen, Luo Qingqing, XiaoPT et al). An INTERMEDIATE EGRET (Mesophoyx intermedia, 中白鹭, Zhōng báilù) was at Shahe Reservoir on 21st (Colm Moore).

October

Beijing’s second BLYTH’S REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus dumetorum, 布氏苇莺, Bù shì wěi yīng) was found and sound-recorded by Colm Moore at Shahe Reservoir on 5th and on 6th a frustratingly elusive Acrocephalus warbler on the Shunyi Patch was probably a STREAKED REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus sorghophilus, 细纹苇莺, Xì wén wěi yīng) (Terry Townshend). On 10th there were two first-winter MUGUMAKI FLYCATCHERS (Ficedula mugimaki, 鸲姬鹟, Qú jī wēng), the fourteenth record in Beijing, in the Agricultural Exhibition Park (Zhen Niu et al), with one remaining until at least 16th (Ren Lipeng). There were two GREY-BACKED THRUSHES (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫, Huī bèi dōng) in the Temple of Heaven Park on 20th (Jun Yang) and a male LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis, 长尾鸭, Cháng wěi yā) was at the Summer Palace on 26th (Zhu Haoqiang et al). The 27th saw an arrival of MUTE SWANS (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) with one at Ma Chang (Zhu Haoqiang, Tao Liu et al) and four in Chaoyang Park (Stefan Andrew). On 31st, Beijing’s second POMARINE JAEGER (Stercorarius pomarinus, 中贼鸥, Zhōng zéi ōu) was found along the Wenyu River (Steve Bale).

November

A late MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) was at Binhe Park on 2nd (Zhong Zhenyu). On the same day, a first-winter MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was at Ma Chang with a first-winter PALLAS’S GULL ((Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu). The first JAPANESE WAXWINGS (Bombycilla japonica, 小太平鸟, Xiǎo tàipíngniǎo) of the winter were found on 4th with a single in Tongzhou (Paul Holt) and five at Nanhaizi (Guo Geng).

After the first JAPANESE WAXWINGS of the winter were discovered on 4 November, they’ve been seen in reasonable numbers at several sites in the capital. These from Lingshan.

A first-winter LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus, 小鸥, Xiǎo ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir on 5th (Colm Moore) and two BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) were at Yeyahu on 7th alongside a first-winter PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu) (Frank Hawkins). A juvenile STEPPE EAGLE (Aquila nipalensis, 草原雕, Cǎoyuán diāo) was at Lingshan on 8th (Frank Hawkins) and a ‘white-headed’ LONG-TAILED TIT (Aegithalos caudatus, 北长尾山雀, Běi Cháng wěishān què) was at Laoyugou on 9th (XiaoPT). An unseasonal ZITTING CISTICOLA (Cisticola juncidis, 棕扇尾莺, Zōng shàn wěi yīng) was at Lingshan on 10th.

A late ZITTING CISTICOLA was at Lingshan on 10th November.

What turned out to be a significant irruption of PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE (Syrrhaptes paradoxus, 毛腿沙鸡, Máo tuǐ shā jī) began on 11 November with more than 280 over Shahe Reservoir (Jun Yang). Over the next two days, there was a trickle with more than 30 seen the next day at Shisanling (Colm Moore), 50+ at Yuanmingyuan on 13th (Wang Xiaobo) and four at Ma Chang the same day (Zhao NanLi). Then, on 14th, there was a big movement with 300+ over Tongzhou Pear Garden (Dahao), 230+ over Shahe Reservoir (Wang Xiaobo), 100+ over HongLingJin Park (Chen Jingyun), 60+ past Peking University (unknown observer via Chen Jingyun), 200 over Shahe Reservoir in the afternoon (Jun Wang) and c400 at Yeyahu (Ren Lipeng). Most impressive of all was an additional count of 1,050 logged by Wang Xiaobo over his house in Changping District that morning. Numbers dropped off rapidly with 7 at Ma Chang on 16th (Paul Holt) and 26 on 30th at the same site (Richard Fuller and Mint Ren).

The area around Guanting Reservoir in Yanqing County, including Ma Chang, is a traditional site for PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE during irruption years. This one was recorded on 27 November 2019

Other notable November records included a EURASIAN TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris, 旋木雀, Xuán mù què) in Chaoyang Park on 12th (Jun Yang), possibly only the seventh Beijing record. This bird remained into December.

This EURASIAN TREECREEPER in Chaoyang Park was only Beijing’s 7th record.

On the same day there was a late HAIR-CRESTED DRONGO (Dicrurus hottentottus, 发冠卷尾, Fā guān juàn wěi) at the same site (Jun Yang) and 30+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (Leucosticte arctoa, 粉红腹岭雀, Fěnhóng fù lǐng què) at Lingshan (“大牙齿 458”). On 15th there were two STEPPE EAGLES (Aquila nipalensis, 草原雕, Cǎoyuán diāo) at Lingshan (Wang Xiaobo, XiaoPT, DaHe et al) and what appeared to be an influx of LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀, Cháng wěi què) with 15 (3 ssp lepidus and 12 ssp ussuriensis) at Lingshan (Paul Holt). The moulting juvenile MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was still at Ma Chang on 16th (Paul Holt) and two CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) were at Lingshan the next day (Paul Holt). A single STEPPE EAGLE (Aquila nipalensis, 草原雕, Cǎoyuán diāo) was at Nanhaizi on 18th (Zhong Zhenyu). On 19th three BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎, Lì ěr duǎn jiǎo bēi) were at Nanhaizi (ChaCha Wan), increasing to five on 23rd (Jun Yang) and eight on 1 December (XiaoPT et al). Three lugens WHITE WAGTAILS (Motacilla alba lugens, 白鹡鸰, Bái jí líng) were along the Tonghuihe between Baliqiao and Shuangqiao on 20th (Paul Holt). On 21st a late WHISKERED TERN (Chlidonias hybrida, 须浮鸥, Xū fú ōu) was at Yeyahu (Thomas Brooks).

On 24th there were six BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) at Huairou Reservoir (DaHe) and a WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (Haliaeetus albicilla, 白尾海雕, Báiwěi hǎi diāo) flew over the Summer Palace (Huang Mingpan). A single CRESTED LARK (Galerida cristata, 凤头百灵, Fèng tóu bǎilíng) was a nice find at Shisanling by Colm Moore on 26th. This species has declined markedly and is rare away from the very few remaining breeding sites in the capital.

On 27th two ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) were at Shahe Reservoir (信天翁” via WeChat) and an unseasonal LONG-TAILED MINIVET (Pericrocotus ethologus, 长尾山椒鸟, Cháng wěi shānjiāo niǎo) was near Nanhaizi on 30th (Ren Lipeng). The month ended with a COLLARED CROW (Corvus torquatus, 白颈鸦, Bái jǐng yā) in Sunhe (Tao Liu) that remained until 16 December at least.

December

Four BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) remained at Huairou Reservoir on 1st (Wang Xiaobo) with at least one showing signs of hybridisation.

On 8th an unseasonal RUSSET SPARROW (Passer rutilans, 山麻雀, Shān máquè) was reported at Baihe Bay with five CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) at the same site (Karen Wei). Eight BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎, Lì ěr duǎn jiǎo bēi) were still at Nanhaizi on the same day (Tao Liu). On 14th an ASIAN HOUSE MARTIN (Delichon dasypus, 烟腹毛脚燕, Yān fù máo jiǎo yàn) was photographed in Jingshan Park by Yue Yisong, an unusual winter record.

A rare winter record of Asian House Martin, photographed in Jingshan Park on 14th December by Yue Yisong.

And on 27th an unseasonal COMMON SANDPIPER, (Actitis hypoleucos, 矶鹬, Jī yù) was on the Wenyu River (Steve Bale).

The year ended with three unseasonal records – a male SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT (Luscinia calliope, 红喉歌鸲, Hóng hóu gē qú) at Nanhaizi, 4 BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica, 家燕, Jiāyàn) along the Wenyu River (Steve Bale) and another COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos, 矶鹬, Jī yù) at Peking University (Mint Ren, Zhang Shen), all on 31st.

Title photo: Beijing’s third EUROPEAN ROBIN in the grounds of Beijing Zoo, February 2019.

Photos/videos by Terry Townshend unless otherwise stated.

For summaries of rare and scarce birds in Beijing in previous years, click on the links below:

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2018

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2017

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2016