Streaked Reed Warbler on the local patch?

This autumn has been so busy that I have hardly had time to visit my local patch, an area of 0.5km square wilderness surrounded by tower blocks, roads and Beijing Metro’s line 15. It’s a shame as the habitat is superb. After the late summer rain, there are several pools of standing water and some areas of wet grass, in addition to the small areas of shrubs and trees. And it’s clear that almost nobody visits as there are no paths and it’s hard work to wrestle one’s way through the tangleweed.

On Sunday I finally had a whole morning free and planned to give the patch a good going over.. After a cold front came through Beijing on Thursday, it was now much cooler and it was clear from visible migration over the city on Saturday that birds were moving.. I was confident it would be good birding and, if I was lucky, I might add to the 162 species I have recorded here in 102 visits.

I arrived on site at 0700 with the temperature around 6 degs C. There was a hint of ground frost and a heavy dew. Light cloud cover and almost no wind made conditions perfect. Immediately I could hear several Black-browed Reed Warblers calling from a small patch of long grass. I stopped to enjoy these charismatic warblers and attempted to count exactly how many there were. Little Buntings called overhead as they circled, before dropping into the weedy field and some harsher bunting calls gave away the presence of Black-faced Buntings in the thicker cover. A Bluethroat scrambled away as I walked through the grass, showing it’s contrasting orange and dark brown tail before it dived into deep cover. It was ‘birdy’..!

Olive-backed Pipits, the occasional Eurasian Skylark and small groups of Little Buntings filled the air as I traced my usual route around the patch. Three Chestnut Buntings were a nice surprise, only the third time I have recorded this species on the patch. Two Tristram’s Buntings in a thicket added to the buntings tally before I reached one of the pools. A Common Snipe lifted as soon as I somewhat heavy-footedly reached the edge, my boots sinking into the soft mud making for slow progress and concentration temporarily having to focus on the feet more than the birds. More Black-faced Buntings, with a few Pallas’s Buntings, were feeding around the edges and a Pallas’s Warbler, the first of many, called from a willow close by. I accidentally interrupted an adult male Red-flanked Bluetail taking a bath and it quickly flew up to an open branch and shook itself, preening in the soft sunlight.

A little further on I disturbed a Woodcock, only my second in Beijing and just 5 days after my first. More Pallas’s Warblers were obvious as I reached a small stand of willows and Little Buntings continued to fly around overhead.

As I left the stand of trees, I entered an area of long grass. There was no path here, so I was creating one as I went, each step forcing down a narrow line of grass to make my passage easier. After a few steps, I disturbed a small bird and it flew fast and low for about ten metres before dropping into deep cover. I could almost feel the cogs going round in my brain trying to process what my eyes had seen. With the naked eye – there was no time to raise my binoculars, let alone get them onto the bird – I could see it was a small warbler, similar in size to the Black-browed Reed Warblers I had just seen. But this bird was significantly paler in colour and with obvious streaking on the upperparts. The colouration was a good match for the colour of the seed heads on the grass. The rump looked slightly darker than the mantle. And that was all I saw. It called as it flew.. a soft note similar in pitch to the Black-broweds but more a singular note without sounding as if ‘two stones banged together’.

I started to go through the list of possibilities. It was too pale for a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated or a Black-browed and the obvious streaking also ruled out the latter. It was certainly not a Zitting Cisticola. My mind kept returning to one outrageous possibility – could it have been a Streaked Reed Warbler? But on my local patch in Beijing? Don’t be ridiculous. I kept dismissing that suggestion over and over again as if to say to my brain – “wrong answer” and asking it to re-process the information.

Streaked Reed Warbler is now an almost mythical species not seen anywhere for several years, whose breeding grounds have yet to be discovered and whose song has never been recorded. This photo by Martin Williams taken at Beidaihe in the 1980s.

With my brain refusing to comply, I waited patiently to see whether I could relocate the bird. There was no movement where it went down and no more vocalisations. A Black-browed called from the opposite direction and brief views revealed it to be nothing like the bird I saw. After around 45-50 minutes, as the sun came out, I moved a few steps to my right, towards the east, so that the sun was directly behind me, giving me the best lighting should the bird show again. As I moved, the same bird flew again, from slightly behind me, over my shoulder and, again, dropped into deep cover about 10 metres in front of me, to the north. This view was slightly longer, and even closer than the first. Again, I saw a small, pale warbler with obvious streaking on the upperparts and a slightly darker rump.

This time, I could see movement where it dived into cover. The grass was twitching as it moved along the base of the stems. The cover was so thick that I couldn’t see anything of the bird, just the quiver of a stem as it hopped from one to another. It was heading towards a small gap in the grass and I grabbed my camera so that I was ready to press the shutter as soon as it showed. To my disappointment, it never reached the gap… stopping just short before heading back from where it came. However, it was now calling.. possibly prompted by a Black-browed Reed Warbler that had also started to vocalise. The two calls were quite different with Black-browed sounding like two stones striking together and this bird quieter and more monotone. I did not have my recording equipment with me so I grabbed my iPhone and started recording, knowing that it would be almost impossible to pick up the sound. After a few seconds, I saw movement again and try as I might, I just could not see the bird. A couple of minutes later, the movement and the vocalisations stopped. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Nothing.

After another hour or so had passed, I knew I had to leave soon as I had a lunch appointment. I edged towards the area where I had last seen movement, camera at the ready just in case it showed. There was nothing. I crept slowly around the whole area but only the Black-browed Reed showed disapproval at my presence.

It was frustrating but I had to leave. The only consolation was that I felt as if I could have stayed there all day and not seen it. It was THAT elusive.

So, what was it? Given the rarity and magnitude of a record of Streaked Reed Warbler, without seeing the whole bird through binoculars I am reluctant to claim it as a certain record. However, I have trouble believing that it could have been anything else.

One positive thing to take from this experience is that, if this bird is so elusive, there must be hope that there are many more out there!

Header photo: the habitat where the probable Streaked Reed Warbler was seen and heard.

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Yancheng planning to become a world-leader on coastal wetland conservation

Just three years ago, Taozini, the recently-discovered and most important known staging site for the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, was under grave threat from land reclamation projects. At that time, already around 70% of the Yellow Sea’s intertidal mudflats had been lost and much of the remaining 30% was under threat of a similar fate.

It is astonishing, and illustrative of how fast things can change, that today it is a World Heritage Site (WHS) with hard commitments for protection and management.

Readers of Birding Beijing will know it was on 5 July that saw Phase I of China’s two-phase, serial nomination “Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea/Bohai Gulf of China” inscribed on the list of natural World Heritage Sites in recognition of its critical importance to migratory waterbirds. The Phase I inscription comprises Jiangsu Dafeng National Nature Reserve (NNR), the experimental zone of Jiangsu Yancheng NNR including Dongsha Radial Sands, Jiangsu Yancheng Tiaozini Wetland Park, Jiangsu Dongtai Gaoni Wetland Nature Reserve Plots and Jiangsu Dongtai Tiaozini Wetland Nature Reserve Plots.  At least 14 additional sites will be included in the Phase II nomination, scheduled for 2022.

Last weekend I participated in the 2019 Yellow and Bohai Sea Wetlands International Conference: Natural World Heritage, Conservation, Management and Sustainable Development to celebrate the inscription of this special part of the coast as a WHS and to help develop ambitious plans for management and public engagement.

Terry making the case for Yancheng to become the “mission control” for tracking shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway as a way of engaging the public, especially schools, about the wonders of migratory birds and the importance of China’s coastal wetlands.

The thing that struck me most was the language and tone of the senior officials, including the Mayor of Yancheng and representatives of the national and local Forestry and Grassland Bureau, who spoke clearly and passionately about the importance of protecting coastal wetlands in line with President Xi’s “ecological civilisation” and “beautiful China”. This kind of language would have been unthinkable from such officials three years ago.

The commitment of the local government was illustrated by the lengths to which they had gone to secure the participation of international experts in the fields of science, policy, management and communications. There is no doubt they are serious about making Yancheng, including Taozini, a world-class natural World Heritage Site and to become a leader in coastal wetland conservation.

Chinese and international experts gather to celebrate the inscription of Phase I of China’s serial World Heritage Site and to develop plans for effective protection, management, research and outreach.

Whilst there is a long way to go to secure the long-term future of these coastal wetlands and many challenges to overcome, it is important to acknowledge this progress. And it is testament to the scientists, especially Professor Theunis Piersma and his team of Chinese and international scientists, who have provided robust evidence about just how important these coastal wetlands are for migratory waterbirds, to the local birders, including Zhang Lin and the local NGO Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China led by Li Jing, who first discovered the importance of Taozini for the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, to the academics and policy makers in China, especially those led by Professor Lei Guangchun at Beijing Forestry University, who have been building and promoting the case for coastal wetland protection, to the Paulson Institute who developed a hard-nosed economic analysis of the value of coastal wetlands, to the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership for promoting cooperation along the Flyway, to the international conservation community, including BirdLife International, offering support and expertise along the way. And most importantly, to all the individuals who have supported and provided encouragement to all of the above. To get this far has been a remarkable national, international and multi-disciplinary team effort that has changed the fate of the most threatened Flyway in the world.

Seeing the huge sign at the header of this post towering over the main road to the coast, somehow made it feel real.

Where is NOMAD going? Poll results

Earlier this month we began a poll to see where readers think NOMAD, the first Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus) to be tracked, would spend the northern winter. The poll closed on 10 September and here are the results:

Indonesia/Malaysia – 39%

Africa – 27%

Australia – 13%

India – 8 %

New Zealand – 5%

Other – 8%

Perhaps not surprisingly, SE Asia is the most popular suggestion. However, with one specimen from Zambia (per Handbook of the Birds of the World), and eBird records from Australia and New Zealand, there remains a large element of mystery about where NOMAD will go.

Having spent the breeding season on the Central Siberian Plateau, NOMAD is now well on his way south and is currently in China’s Shanxi Province.

The migration tracks of the Mongolian Cuckoos. NOMAD’s migration is represented by the dark blue line. Zoom into the map using + and – to see more detail.

NOMAD’s migration so far isn’t giving much away but if he remains healthy for the next month or so, we should finally discover his destination. You can follow the progress of NOMAD, and all of the cuckoos tagged in Mongolia, by regularly visiting this dedicated page or the map on the BTO’s website. For Twitter users, follow @BirdingBeijing for near real-time updates of significant moves.

Thank you to everyone who voted and, if you enjoy following this project, please do consider a donation via JustGiving towards the cost of the satellite time which, at this time, remains unfunded. Thank you!

National Parks are coming to China

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the community in the Valley of the Cats being awarded the first concession for community-based tourism in a Chinese (pilot) national park. In late August, I was invited to China’s first National Parks Forum in Xining, to see for myself how the community’s efforts are influencing national policy.

From the stunning mountain ecosystems of the Tibetan Plateau to the pristine forests of Heilongjiang there is no doubt that China has world-class natural heritage. Historically, China’s preserved land, covering one fifth of its land surface – an area the size of Mexico – has been protected by a complex patchwork of more than 12,000 protected areas made up of nature reserves, world natural and cultural heritage sites, scenic zones, wetland parks, forest parks, geological parks, and water conservancy scenic locations, each with varying levels of legal protection and opaque administrative procedures.

Back in 2015, the Chinese government announced plans to streamline the system of protected areas and pilot national parks in nine selected provinces (expanded to thirteen today). After much research, earlier this year the government announced an intention to rationalise the existing mosaic of protected areas into just three categories – national parks, nature reserves and natural parks.

Work to create national parks is now well advanced and, to take stock of progress and learn from international experience, China’s first national parks forum took place in Xining, Qinghai Province, on 19-20 August, bringing together over 400 participants from government, academia, international organisations and NGOs.

The high-level forum was opened by Liu Ning, the Governor of Qinghai Province, and began with a congratulatory letter from President Xi Jinping. The letter set out the importance of national parks in delivering the President’s vision of “eco-civilisation” and “Beautiful China”.

“China has adopted the vision that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets, pursued a holistic approach to conserving its mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, and grasslands, and implemented a national park system. By implementing the system, China aims to maintain the primitiveness and integrity of natural ecology, protect biodiversity and ecological security, and preserve precious natural assets for future generations.”

President Xi Jinping

Jonathan Jarvis, former Director of the US’s National Parks Service and now Executive Director of the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley, offered perspectives from his 40-year career in the National Parks Service and summarised the key findings from his recent visit to, and evaluation of, Sanjiangyuan pilot national park. This included recommendations relating to the legal framework, management policies, the role of science and Chinese universities, funding models, payment for ecosystem services, law enforcement, visitor facilities and branding and marketing.

“Through this new national park system, China has the opportunity to contribute to world biodiversity conservation and to show leadership in ecosystem services and the relationship between humans and environment.”

Jonathan Jarvis, former Director of the National Parks Service, USA
Liu Ning, Governor of Qinghai Province, opens the National Parks Forum

Sessions and sub-forums addressed issues as wide-ranging as biodiversity protection, community participation, climate change, environmental education and public access. Together with ShanShui Conservation Center, I was honoured to represent the community project in the Valley of the Cats and there was much interest in how the project, soon to pass the 1 million Chinese Yuan mark in terms of funds raised for the local community, is providing sustainable benefits to multiple stakeholders – government (informing policy on tourism for national parks, promoting national parks domestically and internationally and improving China’s image overseas), community, (financially and in terms of reducing the risk of human-wildlife conflict), visitors (a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ authentic experience), research institutes (benefiting from the community’s involvement in collecting data) and conservation NGOs (financial contribution to conservation projects in the community). It was heartening to see how the community-based tourism project in the Valley of the Cats had caught the attention of policymakers and was in their thoughts as they developed plans for how to manage tourism in the new national parks.

Presenting the Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife watching tourism project to the forum.
The Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife-watching tourism project is helping to shape China’s policy on tourism for its National Parks.

Throughout the forum there was a palpable sense of excitement, pride and, with that, responsibility about the potential of China to develop a world-class system of national parks, not only in terms of their natural heritage but also in terms of how they are managed.

The participants learned about the importance of wild places for human well-being. For example, the rivers that originate in Sanjiangyuan pilot national park in Qinghai Province, provide fresh water for more than 900 million people. And how personal connections to wild places and wildlife can be inspiring and even life-changing. As if to illustrate this, at the opening dinner I was seated next to a representative of WWF China. He told me how, on a visit to an African national park, he was so moved by his encounter with elephants that, on learning how this species is threatened with extinction by illegal hunting for ivory, he quit his job with the government and joined an environmental NGO focusing on the illegal wildlife trade and has worked in that sector ever since.

With veteran conservationist George Schaller (left) and Jonathan Jarvis (right), former Director of the US National Parks Service at the opening of the forum.

I left Xining with a better understanding of the enormity and complexity of establishing national parks in China and some of the key issues being grappled with by policymakers. These include balancing protection and public access, the legal framework, including enforcement, clarity on land rights, long-term funding models and the role of local communities.

There is much still to do before China launches its first tranche of national parks in 2020. However, I am confident that, with the clear political will, the collective talents across China’s government, academic and NGO sectors, combined with international experience facilitated by partners such as the Paulson Institute, China is well on the way to developing a system of national parks that will provide robust protection for its most important natural heritage as well as being a major source of national pride, respected and enjoyed by people the world over for generations to come.

The outcome of the forum, the “Xining Declaration”, is available here (Chinese only).

Where is NOMAD going?

Back in June, in partnership with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center in Mongolia and BTO and kindly supported by the Oriental Bird Club and Dick Newell, ‘Team Cuckoo’ visited Khurkh ringing station to catch and fit tags to five cuckoos as part of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project. Incredibly, the first cuckoo to be caught was an Oriental Cuckoo and the BTO’s Chris Hewson duly fitted a tag. As fas as we know, this is the first ever Oriental Cuckoo to be tracked.

After spending the summer on the Central Siberian Plateau in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, NOMAD – as he was called by local schoolchildren – is now well on his way south. As of 3rd September 2019 he has re-crossed the Russia-Mongolia border and is now just 80km north of Ulaanbaatar.

Assuming he stays healthy, the next few weeks and months will reveal, for the first time, the wintering grounds and migration route of Oriental Cuckoo.

So, just for fun.. it’s time to place your bets!

Where is NOMAD going?

The poll will be open until Tuesday 10 September, after which the results will be revealed. Thank you for voting!

Red-necked Stint vs Little Stint

I have always struggled to separate Little Stint (Calidris minuta) and Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis). One of the reasons is that the former is rarely seen (or at least rarely identified) in Beijing, meaning that the opportunities to study Little Stint are few. But perhaps the main reason is that, without excellent views, they are hard to separate!

Last week I was fortunate to enjoy prolonged views of a group of juvenile stints at Ma Chang, on the shores of Guanting Reservoir, Yanqing County in the northwest of the capital. In the early morning light, everything looked good.. and, as I was scanning the shoreline for migrants, picking up a juvenile Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), a first calendar year Relict Gull (Ichthyaetus relictus), several Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) and 13 Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), a small group of stints flew in and landed just a few metres in front of me. Through binoculars I could see that the group consisted of mostly juvenile Red-necked Stints and one Temminck’s Stint (Calidris temminckii). Scanning carefully I saw two individuals that appeared brighter than the majority of the Red-necked Stints, more contrasting and with apparently slightly longer legs. Having my telescope with me, I lowered it, crouched down and began to look closely at these two brighter birds. I could see obvious ‘tramlines’ down the back, a more contrasting head pattern with a dark central crown and very dark centres to the lower scapulars and coverts. Could these be Little Stints? Shortly after, I took some video using my iPhone attached to my Swarovski ATX telescope, and some still photographs. As I was watching, one of the brighter birds joined a lone Red-necked Stint and, remarkably, the pair stood side by side for several seconds, allowing me to capture some video and still photographs of the two together in the same pose.

Juvenile RED-NECKED (Calidris ruficollis, left) and LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta), Ma Chang, 27 August 2019. Note the more elongated profile of Red-necked, slightly blunter bill, less contrasting crown, slightly shorter legs and less contrasting ‘tramlines’.

It seemed like several minutes that I was able to enjoy these birds at close quarters before a juvenile Peregrine flew along the shoreline, flushing the whole group.

After I returned home and looked at the images on my laptop, I was hopeful but cautious that I may have seen two juvenile Little Stints, potentially the first I have seen in Beijing. However, I was far from sure and wanted a second opinion. I sent a selection of images to Dave Bakewell in Malaysia who is an authority on shorebirds and has written extensively about identifying this tricky pair.

Dave responded very quickly to say that all of the images I had sent were of Little Stint and gave a detailed explanation as to why. These are the features of juvenile Little Stint:

  • Overall less elongated profile
  • Dark centres to the lower scapulars and coverts with clearly demarcated fringes;
  • Well-streaked neck sides;
  • Dark central crown;
  • Fine-tipped bill;
  • Relatively contrasting ‘tramlines’ on mantle
  • Long tibia and tarsi;
  • “Ball-shaped” body and small head

I’ve edited the video clips and compiled the short video below, showing the two side by side. I hope it’s instructive.

RED-NECKED (Calidris ruficollis) and LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta) together at Ma Chang, Beijing, 27 August 2019. Note Little Stint is on the right in the first segment and on the left in the second.

Big thanks to Dave Bakewell for sharing his knowledge of this tricky pair. Anyone interested in the identification of stints should see his excellent website and videos on YouTube.

Title image: Red-necked (left) and Little Stint side by side at Ma Chang, 27 August 2019 (Terry Townshend)

Mongolian Cuckoos on the move

Back in early June, five cuckoos were fitted with tags at Khurkh Ringing Station in Mongolia. The first one fitted with a tag was an Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus), believed to be the first ever individual of this species to be tracked. The other four were Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus). All five were given names by schoolchildren in the local community and in Ulan Bataar.

The next six weeks were fairly quiet for the four Common Cuckoos, all of which remained in the vicinity of Khurkh. However, the Oriental Cuckoo (named NOMAD) was clearly still on migration when he was caught in early June and continued north to breeding grounds on the central Siberian plane.

Now, into August, the cuckoos are already on the move. NOMAD, after only four weeks on his breeding grounds in central Siberia, has begun to move south and is currently close to the border of Irkutsk Province in Russia. Three of the four Common Cuckoos (NAMJAA, ONON and Captain KHURKH) have also begun their journey south with only BAYAN remaining in the vicinity of Khurkh. After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other, more than 2,800km now separates the five birds.

After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other in June, more than 2,800km separates NOMAD and NAMJAA in early August.

Over the next few weeks and months, following their progress is sure to be a roller-coaster ride. We expect the four Common Cuckoos to head into south Asia before crossing the Arabian Sea to Africa. However, the migration route and wintering grounds of NOMAD, the Oriental Cuckoo, will be new to science. From sight records we believe NOMAD’s most likely destination is southeast Asia or possibly Australia. However, nobody knows for sure, and one thing is for certain.. there will be some surprises along the way!

The schoolchildren in Mongolia are excited to follow ‘their’ birds and already the project has reached many who wouldn’t ordinarily take an interest in migratory birds.

Local schoolchildren gave names to the cuckoos and will be following them as they flee the cold of the Mongolian winter until their return the following spring.

You, too, can follow the progress of NOMAD, Captain KHURKH (will he boldly go where no cuckoo has gone before?), NAMJAA, ONON and BAYAN at the dedicated Mongolian Cuckoo Project page or via the BTO’s international projects page and on Twitter @BirdingBeijing or WeChat “BirdingBeijing”.

If you enjoy following these birds, please consider making a donation, no matter how small, to the JustGiving site towards the ongoing satellite fees. All contributions will go directly to BTO and 100% of the funds will go towards the cost of the satellite fees only.

Big thanks to the project partners, the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and to the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) and Mr Dick Newell for their financial support.

Thanks also to you, the reader, for following the Mongolian Cuckoos. Isn’t migration amazing?

Valley of the Cats awarded first franchise for wildlife tourism in China’s national parks

Some great news from the Tibetan Plateau. The community cooperative in The Valley of the Cats has been awarded the first ever franchise for community-based tourism inside a Chinese National Park.

The franchise was awarded at a special meeting in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, involving the central and local governments, representatives of the local community and ShanShui Conservation Center.

The franchise recognises the community-based wildlife watching project as a way to facilitate public access to a national park whilst respecting the local community and the fragile environment.

The local community participated in several training courses in 2017 before opening their homes to tourists.

This recognition comes at an important time for China’s National Parks. Currently there are 11 pilot National Parks across the country, including Sanjiangyuan (literal translation “three rivers park”, recognising it as the source of the three great rivers – the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow), in which the Valley of the Cats resides. Next year, based on the experience of the pilots and ongoing research, including learning from overseas, the Chinese government is due to announce its first tranche of National Parks and how they will be managed. Tourism will be a major element of the policy and the Valley of the Cats community-based project is now formally recognised as a model for tourism that could be appropriate for environmentally sensitive areas.

Having received local government approval in 2017 and after intensive training with 22 families in the Valley, the community-based wildlife watching tourism project was open to visitors in 2018 and, in its first full year, received 61 groups of visitors raising 460,000 CNY for the local community. Demand is up in 2019 and we expect the revenue to pass 1 million CNY sometime this autumn. Importantly, 100% of the revenue stays in the community with 45% from each visit going directly to the host family, 45% to a community fund run by a locally-appointed committee and 10% to community-based conservation projects.

The project is still in its infancy and, not unexpectedly, challenges remain. For example:

i) The standard of accommodation, basic food and lack of dedicated toilets mean that this type of tourism is only for the adventurous traveller;

ii) Language can be a barrier for foreign visitors; with very few herder families having any english language capability, visitors with no Tibetan or Mandarin proficiency can struggle to communicate; and although much can be achieved with modern translation APPs, this is no substitute for direct communication;

iii) Illegal visitors – some households and visitors didn’t follow the rules and received tourists privately; this is against the regulations and can cause ill feeling in the community. With the Valley covering a large area, it is hard to police effectively. Any illegal visitors will be ejected and banned from re-entry and, from 2020, manned gates will be active at each entry point.

Other, more long-term risks to consider include:

Will the economic benefits of this kind of tourism break the balanced structure of the community and, if so, will it lead to negative behaviour?

Will the arrival of more visitors accelerate the change of traditional culture here? And will these changes affect the herders’ attitude towards wildlife? After all, it is their culture and harmonious attitude towards nature that has made it possible for this pristine environment to be preserved to this day.

Whilst recognising these risks, the experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive and invaluable knowledge is being gained that will have an influence on the way tourism is managed in China’s national parks from 2020. On behalf of the local community, a big thank you to everyone who has supported the project!

2019 began with several groups braving the cold and unusually heavy snow in February and March to experience the Valley in stunningly beautiful wintery conditions.

Carpeted with snow, the Valley takes on a new look.

I made my first visit of the year in early May, coinciding with the visit of a Scottish couple, Graeme and Moira Wallace, who had flown 10,000km to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in the Valley of the Cats. It was very special, and emotional, to see Graeme and Moira encountering their first Snow Leopard. They were extremely lucky, viewing a sleepy male just 160m from the vehicle!

A sleepy male Snow Leopard just 160m from the vehicle in the Valley of the Cats. A wonderful 40th wedding anniversary present for Graeme and Moira Wallace.

The next day they saw another Snow Leopard, probably a female, at a different location. The experience of seeing these wild cats on the stunning Tibetan Plateau, enjoying the incredible scenery and staying in the home of a local herder made their 40th wedding anniversary hard to beat. See you back here for your 50th?

Graeme and Moira Wallace on top of the world!
Graeme and Moira Wallace with Abao, their herder host and guide.

On their return to Scotland, Graeme and Moira kindly made a donation towards the community-based conservation project in the Valley of the Cats. Thank you, Graeme and Moira!

I was back in July, accompanying the visiting Panthera scientist, Imogene Cancellare, and helping a joint UK-China TV production company with a recce ahead of planned filming in October. Imogene was collecting Snow Leopard scat, in partnership with ShanShui Conservation Center, as part of her PhD studying Snow Leopard genetics.

Imogene Cancellare (left) with Emilie (Wang Yiliao) of ShanShui Conservation Center, collecting Snow Leopard scat at 4,500m

On their first night, the TV producers had some excitement when a Brown Bear broke into their family homestay. Fortunately, the bear didn’t get into their sleeping quarters and was scared off by the family banging pots and pans without any lasting damage but it was a stark reminder that living in this area is not without risk!

Inspecting the break-in by a Brown Bear. Can you see the paw prints?

The summer nights in the Valley of the Cats are perfect for viewing the core of the Milky Way and, for the first time, I attempted to photograph the night sky. I was pleased with the results but, given the elevation and light pollution-free skies, I am sure anyone with experience and a better camera would be able to capture some stunning images.

The Milky Way over the ShanShui workstation in the Valley of the Cats.

The Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife tourism project has been, without doubt, the most rewarding project with which I have been involved. Together, we are learning by doing. A big thank you to the local government, the herder families and to the brilliant ShanShui Conservation Center for making it possible. And a special thank you to everyone who has supported the project by visiting.

If you haven’t yet visited but are interested, check out the website to learn more and make an inquiry!

Chinese coastal sites secure World Heritage status

Only three years ago there were fears that China’s east coast could become an epicentre of extinction, such was the rate and extent of loss of intertidal mudflats, vital to millions of migratory shorebirds including many species whose populations are in sharp decline. However, in the last three years things have moved fast, even by China standards, and the emotions of shorebird researchers and conservationists have swung from depression and despair to hope and celebration.

In early July 2019, the future of migratory shorebirds in Asia and Australasia became a little more secure due to the addition by the United Nations of two of the most important locations – Taozini and Yancheng – onto the list of World Heritage sites. Whilst not a silver bullet for saving these migratory shorebirds, shared by at least 22 countries in East Asia and Australasia, it’s a big step forward and reflects significant recent progress by China on a range of conservation issues.

The Yellow Sea is critically important as a staging site for millions of shorebirds in the region

The Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay are at the heart of one of the world’s largest, and most threatened, flyways known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), a bird ‘superhighway’ that connects the Arctic with the southern hemisphere. Millions of shorebirds rely on the intertidal mudflats of China’s coast as a ‘service station’ to refuel and rest on their incredible journeys from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle to non-breeding grounds as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Their journeys, which scientists have only recently begun to understand, are stories of life on the edge; incredible endurance, specialism, beauty and awe. Just one example is the ‘baueri‘ Bar-tailed Godwit that migrates from New Zealand to Alaska via the Yellow Sea to breed, before flying non-stop from Alaska back to New Zealand after the breeding season. In the last ten years it has become clear that the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper relies on the Yellow Sea in both spring and autumn for food, rest and moulting.

The critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper is just one step away from extinction. Around 10 years ago, local Chinese birders first discovered the importance of the Yellow Sea to this charismatic species. Photo by Chen Tengyi.

One of the most effective ways to secure protection for the remaining intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea coast would be to secure nomination as World Heritage sites. This would not only require detailed evaluations and management plans but would also help promote the importance of the area both nationally and internationally. At the same time, inscription as World Heritage site would come with hard protection obligations.

And so the process, and all the hard work that comes with such a complex nomination, including liaison between the local and national governments, academics, NGOs and China’s World Heritage team, began.

As a first step, in February 2017 a total of 14 sites were added to China’s “tentative” list for World Heritage status, a pre-requisite to a formal nomination. The early efforts were given a significant boost in January 2018 when the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on further ‘commercial-related’ land reclamation along its coast. This was reinforced by a circular from the State Council (China’s Cabinet) in July of that year. Momentum was building.

The process of securing nomination as a World Heritage site is not easy. Vast amounts of technical data are required and the nomination must address detailed questions about why the sites are important, how the sites will be protected and managed, as well as addressing the interests of various stakeholders. As a complex ‘serial’ nomination, involving more than one site, the process was even more demanding.

Eventually, after much work and collaboration, the formal nomination documents were submitted. The next part of the process for ‘natural heritage’ sites is for the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to conduct a technical review of the submission in order to make a recommendation to governments on the World Heritage Committee, the body that approves nominations.

In this case, the IUCN recommended deferral of the Yellow Sea application, pointing out some weaknesses in the application.

Whilst the IUCN report was unquestionably thorough and correct in its assessment, the recommendation to defer was greeted with gasps of horror from the conservation community in China and overseas. The reality was that, should the application be deferred, there were so many other sites in China on the waiting list for World Heritage nomination that it could be years before the Yellow Sea sites could be put forward again and, such was the urgency of the conservation issue related to this nomination, there simply wasn’t time. The Chinese team, supported by an incredible effort from the international conservation NGOs, orchestrated by BirdLife International, quickly put together a business case as to why, in this case, the global importance and urgency of the nomination was such that the recommendation from IUCN should be noted but that the sites should be inscribed in any case. The Australian government, encouraged by BirdLife Australia, put forward a motion to this effect.

In early July, the World Heritage Committee met in Baku, Azerbaijan, to decide whether to accept the latest series of nominations for World Heritage status from all over the world. The conservation community held its breath.

On 5 July, it was the turn of China’s Yellow Sea nomination to be discussed. The proceedings can be seen here but the most relevant part of the World Heritage Congress’s decision is simply this:

“The World Heritage Committee, Having examined Documents WHC/19/43.COM/8B and WHC/19/43.COM/INF.8B2,

Inscribes the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf of China (Phase I), China, on the World Heritage List on the basis of criterion (x);”

In short, the nomination was accepted subject to China complying with certain conditions to address the weaknesses outlined in the IUCN technical report. An excellent and sensible resolution. I think it’s fair to say that the conservation community breathed a huge collective sigh of relief.

China’s World Heritage team after the decision in Baku. Photo credit: CEAAF

As referenced by the official decision, this is just the beginning involving two of the most important sites. By 2020, phase II will be prepared, under which additional sites are expected to be added to this ‘serial’ World Heritage Site and, ideally, given the Yellow Sea region is shared by China, the Republic of Korea (RoK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a joint three-way World Heritage Site would better reflect the shared natural heritage of this area and would illustrate the importance of countries working together to conserve migratory birds.

There is still an enormous amount of work to do to secure the future of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. However, it is hard to overstate the change from three years ago.

So, for now, big congratulations to China and to everyone who has worked so hard to support the nomination, including the scientists and think-tanks who have proven the importance of the Yellow Sea to migratory birds and the economic value of coastal wetlands, to the national and local governments for creating an enabling policy framework, to academics, domestic NGOs and conservationists for the advocacy and technical support for the nomination, to international NGOs for rallying international support and to every individual who has expressed support, providing day to day encouragement to everyone working on this issue… today, you are all conservation heroes!

The depression and despair has turned into genuine hope.

Title image: Greater Sand Plover, Bohai Bay

China’s leading property developer commits to “Swift-friendly” buildings

“We have designed and built buildings for over 20 years. Our focus has always been on humans and how to make our lives better. In the future, we need to consider biodiversity and to create a better living environment for both citizens and wildlife, such as the Beijing Swift.”

– Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China

On Thursday 27 June 2019, Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, the leading property development and management company in China, met with four student “Beijing Swift Ambassadors” from Beijing schools. In response to their presentations about the Beijing Swift – its lifestyle, its migration, the falling population and what schools were doing to help – and a video message of support from Hank Paulson, former Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute, Mr Pan made three major commitments:

First, to trial the retrofitting of swift boxes on two of its buildings in Beijing

Second, to consider incorporating of biodiversity criteria into new building design

And third, to promote biodiversity among the building sector in China.

That’s quite a statement. And, as a prominent figure in Chinese industry and a national celebrity with more than 19 million followers on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), this big announcement by Mr Pan will reach far and wide and, we hope, influence the business community not only in China but overseas.

BEI Zhilei explaining the difference between Swallows and Swifts
CHEN Yanzhi explaining the incredible migration of the Beijing Swift
JING Sicheng spoke about how the number of nest sites had fallen in the city due to the loss of traditional buildings
GAO Chuxuan briefing about school’s efforts to make and erect nest boxes for the Beijing Swift.
Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute, recorded a special message of support for the SOHO China Beijing Swift Project
Pan Shiyi setting out SOHO China’s commitments following the Beijing Swift Ambassadors’ presentation and the message from Hank Paulson.

The roots of this initiative go back to December 2013 when, by chance, I had a conversation with Dick Newell at a BirdLife International reception in London about the potential to track the Beijing Swift’s migration, until then a mystery. Back in Beijing, after a few conversations, a project was born and, in May 2014, a team of volunteers from the China Birdwatching Society, the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and the Summer Palace joined Dick, Lyndon Kearsley and I to fit geolocators to 31 Beijing Swifts. A year later, after re-trapping 13 of the original 31 birds, we were able to prove for the first time that these special birds migrated to southern Africa for the northern winter.

Since then, I have visited more than 20 schools to tell the story of the Beijing Swift and, invariably, when the students hear about the population decline caused by the loss of nest sites due to the demolition of traditional style buildings, they want to help. Many schools have set up projects to make and erect artificial nest boxes on their school campuses (just this spring, we received exciting news from ISB – the International School of Beijing – that they had been successful in attracting swifts). Then, at one school, a young girl put up her hand and asked if we could write to the bosses of the building companies to ask them to make new buildings friendlier for swifts.

What a fabulous idea!

And so, student “Beijing Swift Ambassadors” wrote a letter to Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, asking him to help and yesterday they were invited to meet him to make the case.

After a scene-setting clip from the BBC Natural History Unit about the Beijing Swift, recorded in the capital last year as part of the “Wild Metropolis” series, the meeting began with a short introduction by Terry, followed by a video message of support from Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute. The floor was then given to the student Beijing Swift Ambassadors to set out their case. They were eloquent, passionate and very persuasive.

The Beijing Swift Ambassadors (from left to right): Chen Yanzhi, Keystone Academy, GAO Chuxuan, No.13 Middle School, BEI Zhilei, The High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China and JING Sicheng, No.2 Middle School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University.

Mr Pan listened carefully and responded with his groundbreaking commitments, including presenting the students with signed, handmade swift boxes made by Mr Pan personally from recycled wood reclaimed from SOHO China’s building sites. In return, the students presented Mr Pan with a signed certificate, awarding him the title “Beijing Swift Ambassador”.

Mr Pan signed a handmade box for each Swift Ambassador
Mr Pan receiving his “Beijing Swift Ambassador” certificate from his fellow Ambassadors

After the presentations, guests were invited to the roof to watch the Beijing Swifts wheeling around Zhengyangmen Gate at the southern end of Tiananmen Square. This must be one of the best places in the world to view the Beijing Swift!

The SOHO China Beijing Swift Project logo
The view across Tiananmen Square is made even more impressive by the sight and sound of screaming Beijing Swifts
Mr Pan pointing out Beijing Swifts from the rooftop overlooking Tiananmen Square

This initiative could not be better timed. Next year, governments will meet in Kunming, China, to agree new targets to slow and stop the decline in wildlife at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. This meeting happens in the context of a biodiversity crisis – according to best estimates, we have lost around 60% of wildlife on Earth in the last 50 years. But whilst the governmental meeting is crucial, it is clear that governments alone cannot tackle the biodiversity crisis. All sectors of society including cities, regions, communities, NGOs and business must find ways to incorporate biodiversity criteria into their daily activities.

That is why this initiative by SOHO China and Mr Pan is so important. It shows that we can develop, we can have cutting-edge design and functionality and, at the same time, make a positive contribution to biodiversity. It is leadership of the highest order and will send a strong signal to business in China and overseas.

With the world’s spotlight on biodiversity next October, if you were a CEO, wouldn’t you want your company to have a good story to tell about how its supporting wildlife?

Huge thanks to the Beijing Swift Ambassadors, without whom this project would not have been possible. Their professional and slick presentation was exceptional. And a big thank you to Hank Paulson for his strong message of support; it was very special for the Swift Ambassadors and for SOHO China to hear these words of encouragement from a person of his stature. We are, of course, indebted to SOHO China, especially Pan Shiyi and Charlie (Tang Yin), who not only put on a special event but ensured it was backed up by lasting, meaningful commitments. Thank you to Dick Newell for providing technical advice to SOHO China about swift boxes and for being so encouraging. We are grateful to the BBC Natural History Unit for providing the clip of the Beijing Swift and to my colleague, Luo Peng, at EcoAction who worked hard to help prepare the students and to the SEE Foundation for their support for the project. Finally, I’d like to say a huge thank you to Wendy Paulson for initially connecting me to Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin and for her unstinting support.