Mist Nets at Chinese Airports: Progress?

Readers of Birding Beijing will know about the unfortunate Chinese practice of using mist nets to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes at airports.  Some background is here.  In short, the blanket measure used at the now more than 300 Chinese airports, is to line the runways with kilometres of mist nets.  This lethal method is effective only with small birds, the vast majority of which represent a negligible risk to aircraft.  The nets do nothing to address the risk associated with larger birds such as waterbirds and birds of prey.

The international recommended best practice is for each airport to undertake a risk assessment to identify the specific risks faced by that facility and then to implement measures to manage that risk.  It goes without saying that a coastal airport on a major migratory flyway will face very different risks to an airport in the middle of the Inner Mongolian desert.  Currently, the two are treated the same.

A little over two years ago, I co-authored a report with Zhu Lei, commissioned by the Global Environment Facility, about the methods used to address the risk of bird strikes at Chinese airports, setting out international best practice and making recommendations for a review of the policy used in China.  The report, in both Chinese and English, was circulated to Chinese organisations.  Frustratingly, it was hard to find out just who was responsible for the policy, let alone to reach them.  Time and again we were told it was “too difficult” or that we were “wasting our time”.

John MacKinnon, who has helped to champion efforts to change the policy of using mist nets, used every opportunity he had to raise the issue in interactions with Chinese officials and media and we both sent the report to multiple officials and academics in the hope that someone would be able to help.

Persistence is key and sometimes opportunities present themselves in unexpected ways.

Last year, John and I were invited to survey the birds around a luxury ecotourism resort in Gaoligiong, Yunnan Province.  The CEO is well-connected and when she heard about the issue, she offered to help.  She is a family friend of Mu Hong, the Minister at the powerful planning ministry – the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Executive Deputy Director of the Office of Deepening Reform.

Last week, she spent half an hour with the minister discussing the issue and handed him a hard copy of our report on bird strikes and mist nets.  He was apparently engaged on the issue, especially in the context of China hosting the major UN Conference on Biological Diversity in 2020.  It would not look good if the world’s most influential environmental journalists arrive in China to be greeted by dead birds dangling in nets alongside the airport.  The Minister promised to look into the policy.  Although he is not directly responsible for aviation security, his seniority is such that if he suggests a policy review, it is likely to happen.

Whilst we are a long way from a change of policy, this is a major breakthrough after a frustrating couple of years of trying to reach senior policymakers and it gives us hope that the policy responsible for unnecessarily killing millions of small birds each year could yet be changed.



HeLanShan, Inner Mongolia in winter

Situated on the border of the provinces of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia is the small, isolated HeLanShan (Alashan) range of mountains.  The semi-desert area immediately to the west is one of few places to see one of Asia’s least-known birds – the Mongolian or Kozlov’s Accentor (Prunella kozlowi, 贺兰山岩鹨) .  Not much to look at, the Mongolian Accentor is unlikely to win any beauty contests and its low density in the vast habitat makes it a challenge to find.  However, when one combines the Accentor with another of the area’s specialities, the stunning Alashan (Przevalski’s) Redstart (Phoenicurus alaschanicus, 贺兰山红尾鸲), a winter visit HeLanShan can be very rewarding.

Alashan Redstart breeds in the He Lan Shan Mountains and, in winter, most of them descend to the foothills and even the local town parks, making this species more accessible.  Of course, it was only five years ago that a pair of these beautiful redstarts made it to Beijing.  Our hopes of them being annual visitors to the capital so far remain unfulfilled.  Hence the lure of the small town of Alxa in sub-zero temperatures.

We hired local guide, 王志芳 (Wang Zhifang) who was the first to ‘rediscover’ the wintering grounds of Mongolian Accentor back in 2009, many years after specimens were taken from the area.

Ms Wang first took us to a private site where we enjoyed two male Alashan Redstarts alongside Red-billed Chough, Plain Laughingthrush, Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, Brown and Siberian Accentors, Red-throated Thrush, Beijing Babbler, Hawfinch and Godlewski’s Bunting.  The redstarts appeared to have a routine involving eating, drinking and singing (not dissimilar to many Beijingers on a Saturday night).  In the arid semi-desert habitat, the berries they were feeding on were very dry, hence the need for regular forays to the edge of the stream, where the direct sun caused small amounts of ice to melt.  Often, the redstarts would pause above the stream, calling frequently, before dropping down to drink.  After drinking, they would often fly up to a perch and begin a weak, barely audible, song (subsong?), sometimes for several minutes at a time.

It was a joy to spend time with these birds and I recorded as much video and audio as I could.

Here is an audio recording of the calls and (sub) song:

In the afternoon we headed to a town park where we enjoyed another male Alashan Redstart as well as 85+ Red-throated Thrushes with just 2 Naumann’s Thrushes and 3 Black-throated Thrushes mixed in.  A male Chaffinch was a nice addition the day.

One of the thrushes appeared to be an intergrade between Red-throated and Black-throated, sporting reddish feather around the face and throat and much darker, blackish feathering around the mid- to lower chest.  This bird also had less rufous in the tail compared with a typical Red-throated.  Comments welcome!

On day two we focused on Mongolian Accentor and it wasn’t long before we saw our first one at a site close to the town.

This bird is poorly known with a limited distribution in Mongolia and, in winter, it’s regular in small numbers in Inner Mongolia near the HeLanShan mountains.  This individual spent most of its time feeding on the ground close to thick cover.. and its favourite food appeared to be the seeds of this thistle-like plant.  I’d love to identify the plant so if anyone knows the name, please let me know!

The Mongolian Accentor seemed to enjoy the seeds of this plant, commonly found in the semi-desert area around Alxa.

After enjoying prolonged views of the Accentor, we spent the remainder of the time checking out nearby sites for Mongolian Ground Jay.  We were fortunate to find two within a few kilometres of the town and found another site holding at least six more Mongolian Accentors before heading back to the airport for the return to Beijing, passing an original mud section of the Great Wall on the way.

The Great Wall on the Inner Mongolia/Ningxia border.

All in all, an enjoyable weekend in a fascinating part of China.

For anyone interested in visiting, the local guide, Ms Wang Zhifang, can be contacted on WeChat (“alscw2016”) or on +86 18604836422.

Ms Wang


Beijing police keeping up fight against wildlife crime

I have reported before – for example here and here – about the local police in Beijing responding to reports of wildlife crime.  I am pleased to say their good work appears to be a sustained effort.

On Thursday afternoon I paid a short visit to the Wenyu River.  It’s a reasonably fast-flowing river so, even in the depths of winter when most water bodies are frozen, it is often ice-free and attracts many water birds, including thousands of duck and occasionally swans and geese.  However, as well as providing good birding, this knowledge is not lost on wildlife criminals.

Thursday was not particularly birdy and the highlight was a party of four Whooper Swans which relaxed on the river with one eye on me as I scanned the duck from the river bank.  Suddenly, around 60 Mallard took flight and I wondered what had caused the disturbance..  Then I saw the culprit – a young man with a catapult who had been firing ball bearings at the flock, initially from his car and then from much closer as he hid behind a tree.

As a wildlife-lover, sights like this make me angry and sad.  In the modern world, wildlife is facing enough pressures from habitat destruction, pollution and the impacts of climate change without the actions of an ignorant few.  I took some photos and video, including a clear image of his car plate, and sent them to the local State Forestry Police in Shunyi District.  Despite it still being the Chinese New Year holiday, to my delight the police responded immediately and, the following day, they had tracked down the owner of the vehicle, called him in to the police station, confiscated his catapult and ‘educated’ him about the law.

This man was called in to the police station and educated about the law that protects all wild birds in China.
The weapon: a catapult and ball bearings used to try to kill duck on the Wenyu River

Given no ducks were seen to be killed (thankfully he had a poor aim!), the most the police could do was give him a stern warning and remind him that his actions were against the law.  The police said he was very sorry and went home feeling repentant.

The offender with his vehicle, showing the same plate as in my photos sent to the police.

It is a good reminder to anyone who sees wildlife crime in Beijing (or anywhere) not to turn the other cheek or to think that the police won’t take it seriously.  Please capture as much evidence as you can, note the location and call the police.  At least in Beijing, they WILL act to enforce the law that protects all wild birds in China.

To help, I have published a list of the telephone numbers for the State Forestry Police in Beijing.  Note the police are organised by District, so the numbers are different, depending on where you live or go birding.  If you live in Beijing, or visit regularly, please save this image on your phone so you know who to call if you encounter any wildlife crime.

Huge thanks and kudos to the Shunyi District State Forestry Police for responding so fast and effectively, especially during the Chinese New Year festivities.

Beijing police: ridding the capital of wildlife crime, one offender at a time!

China launches new science unit to support the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership

Back in December, with thanks to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, I participated in the Meeting of the Partners of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) on the island of Hainan, just off the southern coast of China.  The EAAFP is an informal partnership of governments, international organisations, NGOs and companies dedicated to celebrating and conserving the world’s largest Flyway, supporting tens of millions of migratory birds.

The Partnership’s secretariat, based in Incheon in South Korea, works hard to “protect migratory waterbirds, their habitat and the livelihoods of people dependent upon them”  by providing a flyway wide framework to promote dialogue, cooperation and collaboration.  One example of this work is the creation of “Task Forces” to work on single species and/or single habitats, for example on Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Baer’s Pochard and the Yellow Sea.

For me, it was fascinating to meet with many international experts from the Partner countries, including Australia, China, Japan, Korea (North and South) Mongolia, New Zealand, Russia, Thailand and the US, and to participate in some of the workshops to help progress conservation of the Flyway’s special species and places.  For one species close to my heart – Baer’s Pochard – it was heartening to hear from the Mayor of Hengshui about the outstanding work he, his colleagues and partners have been doing to protect and manage Hengshui Hu (Hengshui Lake), the most important known site for this critically endangered duck.

However, perhaps the most important outcome of the meeting was the official launch of a new “Science Unit” to underpin the work of the EAAFP.  The Center for East Asian-Australasian Flyway Studies (known as CEAAF) sits in Beijing Forestry University under the leadership of Professor LEI Guangchun.  It has been funded for an initial five years by two Chinese Foundations – the Mangrove Conservation Foundation and Qiaonv Foundation – and is officially part of the EAAFP Secretariat.

The official signing ceremony with the EAAFP Secretariat and Beijing Forestry University to establish the EAAFP Science Unit (CEAAF).

Under Professor LEI’s leadership, the CEAAF team includes some of China’s most talented young waterbird scientists – including JIA Yifei, LIU Yunzhu, LU Cai, WU Lan and ZENG Qing – and is already taking forward work to coordinate winter surveys of priority species such as Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Scaly-sided Merganser and Baer’s Pochard.

It’s more evidence of China stepping up to the plate in terms of the conservation of birds and their habitats, and I look forward to working with Professor LEI and his team to strengthen the work to protect and celebrate the world’s important Flyway.

Header photo: the CEAAF team with senior members of the EAAFP Secretariat.  From left to right: JIA Yifei, ZENG Qing, LU Cai, Lew Young (Chief Executive of EAAFP), Professor LEI Guangchun, Hyeseon Do (EAAFP Secretariat), WU Lan and LIU Yunzhu.

The Guardian covers the story of Gu Xuan “The Anti-poacher” in Beijing

I was delighted to see that, following the coverage by Sam Vadas of Reuters, the story of Gu Xuan (Beijing’s “anti-poacher”) has been covered by The Guardian with an excellent, and moving, 10-minute film by Sean Gallagher.  Some revealing footage showing the birds, the poachers, the illegal markets and the police.  It’s essential viewing for anyone who cares about wild birds.

As Xuan says, education is critical, and I am convinced that, thanks to his tireless efforts and the actions and influence of the growing birding community in China, the tide will change.

Books for birders: thank you, Wildsounds!

Whilst in north Norfolk, England, for Christmas and New Year, I met up with many local birding and conservation friends including Duncan Macdonald who runs Wildsounds and Books.  Last year, Duncan was kind enough to donate a selection of books for young birders in Beijing, including copies of the MacKinnon Guide, Birds of East Asia and the Collins Bird Guide.  This year, Duncan was again very generous by giving me eight copies of the Collins Bird Guide to take back (requiring a little jiggery-pokery with my luggage!).

Whilst focused on Britain and Europe, the Collins Bird Guide is of enormous value to birders in China.  For example, the avifauna of Xinjiang Province, in the far northwest of China, has a distinctly European feel with species such as European Bee-eater, Collared Pratincole, Red-footed Falcon and Red-backed Shrike, to name a few.  And, of course, vagrants to East Asia from Europe – such as the recent European Robin – do not feature in traditional bird guides for China.  In addition, the plates and text for difficult-to-identify species such as Yellow-browed and Hume’s Warblers, Red-breasted and Red-throated Flycatchers and Desert and Isabelline Wheatears are far superior in Collins when compared with local literature.

On return to Beijing, not surprisingly, there was strong demand for these books among local birders.  I’m delighted to say that all copies went to enthusiastic young birders: Zhang Lin (Shanghai), Huang Chenjing, Liu Chunhong, Lu Wei, Wang Cui, Xing Chao, Zhang Qianyi and Zhu Haoqiang (all Beijing).  Some photos of the happy birders are below.

Huge thanks to Duncan and WildSounds and Books!

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Beijing Swifts – the full sequence

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Beijing Swifts being filmed by the BBC Natural History Unit for a new series about urban wildlife.  “Cities: Nature’s New Wild”, a three-part series, was shown on BBC2 in late December and early January.  Unfortunately, at the last minute, the UK version was stripped of the Beijing Swift clip, which was replaced with a piece on Indonesian Swiftlets.  The Beijing Swifts will be part of the international version of the series that will be shown overseas.

I am pleased to say the full three-minute clip, including subtitles in Mandarin, can be seen here:


It’s great to see so many familiar local faces, many of whom were involved in the Beijing Swift Project to track these iconic birds from the Summer Palace to their wintering grounds in southern Africa and back, an astonishing 26,000km round-trip!