The Yellow Sea And Shorebirds: An Evening With Professor Theunis Piersma

On Wednesday evening, birders in Beijing were treated to a brilliant lecture by Dutch Professor Theunis Piersma, the world-leading shorebird expert.

China’s east coast hosts one of the world’s most amazing natural spectacles every spring and autumn – the migration of millions of shorebirds from their wintering grounds in Australia and New Zealand to breeding grounds in the Arctic.  It’s a journey that requires sustained physical exertion on a scale that is way beyond the best human athletes in the world.  For many of these birds, the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay on China’s east coast are vital stopover sites on this awe-inspiring journey.  And yet, as we know, the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Chinese coast is advancing at a rapid rate.  Already, around 70% of the intertidal mudflats have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat.

A colour-flagged GREAT KNOT.  Photo by Global Flyway Network.

Professor Piersma has been studying shorebird migration for decades and, working with a brilliant team of researchers from China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea, among others, his research, using colour-ringing and satellite tagging, is showing two clear findings.

First, that populations of many shorebird species, in particular the study species of Red Knot, Great Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, are declining rapidly.  And second, that the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay is the problem.

To birders familiar with China’s east coast, these two findings won’t come as a surprise but of course, if there is to be any chance of convincing policymakers to adjust their plans, the most important thing is to provide evidence.

That is why Professor Piersma’s work is so important.  He and his team have been able to provide several key pieces of compelling scientific evidence.

First, their research shows that the three study species, each of which uses a different habitat in the Arctic, are showing similar increasing mortality rates.  To find out what is causing this rising mortality rate, each part of their life-cycle must be studied.  Monitoring on the wintering grounds in Australia and New Zealand shows that mortality there is normal, demonstrating that the problem lies elsewhere.  The main reason for mortality on the Arctic breeding grounds that could affect all three locations simultaneously is when the ice is slow to retreat, meaning that birds arrive on the breeding grounds when they are still frozen and there is a lack of food, leading to high mortality.  Weather data from the last 7-8 years during the study period shows that, if anything, the melt has been earlier than usual, meaning that cold springs are not the reason for high mortality.  This strongly suggests that the problem is not in the Arctic but instead along the migration route.

Second, different subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit that use different migration routes are experiencing different mortality rates.  Birds that winter in Australia use the Yellow Sea twice every year, during their spring and autumn migrations to and from their breeding grounds.  Birds that winter in New Zealand use the Yellow Sea only once – in spring – making an incredible non-stop journey of more than 10,000km from Alaska to New Zealand.  If the problem was the Yellow Sea, one would expect the two subspecies to show different mortality rates.  Sure enough, satellite tracking by scientists has shown that birds that use the Yellow Sea twice are experiencing a mortality rate twice as high as birds that use the Yellow Sea only once per year.  That’s pretty telling.

This information, together with other supporting evidence, strongly supports the hypothesis that the reclamation of tidal mudflats in the Yellow Sea is causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline fast.

The challenge is to inject this scientific evidence into the Chinese policymaking circles.  That is why Theunis met with officials from the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) during his visit to Beijing.  This group is a government-sponsored “NGO” (is that an oxymoron?) that has the authority to make submissions to the State Council (China’s cabinet) about issues relating to wildlife conservation and biodiversity.  The meeting was positive with a keen interest from the officials in Professor Piersma’s work and an appetite to use the scientific data to develop proposals to the State Council.  There is a lot of work to do to influence decision-makers about the importance of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay for migratory shorebirds but, as someone important once said, “every great journey starts with a single step.”

Professor Piersma explaining his research findings to officials at the CBCGDF.
Professor Piersma explaining his research findings to officials at the CBCGDF.
2016-05-04 Theunis lecture2
Professor Piersma chats to young Beijing birders after his lecture.
2016-05-04 Theunis lecture3
One question was about how to ensure this scientific data is seen by top leaders…

2016-05-04 Theunis lecture4

Big thanks to Professor Piersma for taking the time to meet with young Chinese birders during his visit and we wish him good luck as he continues his research and begins the task of convincing policymakers to take into account the importance of China’s east coast to so many amazing shorebird species.  Any birders visiting the coast should look out for and report any colour-ringed or tagged birds they see, recording the species, location, position of the colour-flags and any other interesting information.  Observations from amateur birders play a vital role in contributing to the research.  See here for details about how to report a flagged bird.  And here for a visual guide to the flags used and their places of origin.






Birding with the BBC

As a Brit, I feel a sense of pride when foreigners tell me how much they admire the BBC and, especially, the documentaries produced by the Natural History Unit.  The influence of Sir David and the Bristol-based team is often cited by young birders in China when we speak about what sparked their interest in birds and nature.  And so, when the BBC contacted me about arranging interviews with young Chinese birders for a forthcoming World Service Radio series about the East Asian Australasian Flyway,  it was an easy job to recruit willing volunteers.

The series of 4 programmes, a joint production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is following the migration of shorebirds from the southern tip of the flyway in Tasmania to their breeding grounds in Siberia, and the reporters are stopping off in China along the way, just as the birds do.

We arranged to meet the BBC/ABC team on Saturday morning at the Wenyu River, a birding site on the northeast of the city between the 5th and 6th ring roads and convenient for the airport (the team was due to fly to Dandong that afternoon).

Members of two local groups participated – the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society and the Swarovski Optik-sposored 北京飞羽 (“Beijing Feathers”).  The latter is a group of university students who volunteer to introduce birding to members of the public in Beijing with activities at the Beijing Zoo and the Olympic Forest Park.

They excelled – with impressive English-language skills – at answering questions about why they are interested in birding, why Beijing is so good for birds, how birding is expanding in China and their hopes for the future…

I can’t wait to hear them on the radio in June!

2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu
The BBC/ABC team interviewed each birder against a backdrop of singing Chinese Bulbul, Yellow-browed and Pallas’s Warblers. Here with Wang Yan.
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Xing Chao, Wenyu
Xing Chao describes finding the first record of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing for 75 years!  A talented birder, he also found Beijing’s first JAPANESE THRUSH and has only been birding for 3 years!
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu2
Zhang Runchao explains how he developed an interest in birding..
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu3
Yan Xiaoyu described how her passion for birds will stay with her “forever”.
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu4
Zhang Guoming is studying Traditional Chinese Medicine and says his parents fear that birding will distract him from his studies!
2016-04-30 BBC and ABC with Beijing 飞羽, Wenyu5
Wang Yan is optimistic about China’s birds, citing the “explosion” of interest in birding as evidence of a growing awareness about nature amongst the Chinese public.


The ABC/BBC World Service radio series about the East Asian Australasian Flyway are now online.

For the ABC versions, click here.

For the BBC versions, click here.

There is also this article on Birding in China by Ann Jones on the ABC website and related articles on a hunter turned gamekeeper in China and how North Korea could be an unlikely saviour of East Asia’s migratory birds.



Tianjin State Grid Company Saves Oriental Stork Nest

Conservationists are used to bad news.  It comes with the territory.  Which means celebrating good news is even sweeter than usual!  Last week something incredible happened in Tianjin, just a few hours from Beijing.  A pair of Endangered ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳) was breeding on an electricity pylon.  The local grid company was concerned about transmission safety and wanted to remove the nest.  Local birders and conservation groups protested and appealed for help from international conservationists who had experience of this issue overseas, hence a plea on Twitter.  Several people responded (thank you Eddie Myers, Keith Duncan and Anne Sytske Keijser), and we received some fantastic information from José Luis Copete in Spain and Guy Dutson in Australia.  Local volunteers were able to use all of this information to persuade the company to erect a special platform adjacent to the original nest, allowing the storks to continue to breed whilst minimising the risk to grid safety.  Happily the storks accepted the minor inconvenience!  The full story (in Chinese), with photos, can be seen here.  Big thanks to José Luis and Guy and, in particular, to the local volunteers, including our good friend Mo Xunqiang (Nemo), who, along with friends Yang Jiwen from Binhai Wild Protection Centre and Wang Jianmin from Tianjin Binhai Wetland and Bird Conservation Society, persuaded the company to take this action.  As we understand it, it’s the first time in China that such action has been taken to preserve a nest considered to be a risk to electricity transmission security.  Let’s hope it sets a precedent.

Featured photo by Mo Xunqiang.


The Beijing Cuckoo Project

Birding Beijing is excited to announce the launch of The Beijing Cuckoo Project, a new initiative that has the potential to make a huge difference to conservation in China whilst, at the same time, making ground breaking scientific discoveries.

Following the hugely successful, and ongoing, citizen science project to track the Beijing Swift, over the last few months we have been working with partners in the UK and China to replicate the BTO’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China’s capital.

The Cuckoo – famous for laying its eggs in the nests of other, often smaller, birds – is a popular and well-known bird in Beijing.  The life of the Cuckoo, including a wonderful account of the ongoing evolutionary battle between the Cuckoo and its hosts, was covered eloquently by Nick Davies in his award-winning book – Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature.

Cuckoo and Reed Parrotbill
In China, one of the host species of Common Cuckoo is Reed Parrotbill!

The Beijing Cuckoo Project, led by China Birdwatching Society, will deliver two incredibly exciting outcomes. The first is to engage the public in China, on an unprecedented scale, about the wonders of bird migration. The second is to discover the currently unknown wintering grounds, and migration routes, of Common Cuckoos breeding in East Asia – vital if conservationists are to understand how best to protect the Cuckoo and similar migratory species.

As in the UK, we plan to deploy ultra-lightweight satellite tags onto as many as 10 cuckoos in the Beijing area. Drawing on the BTO’s expertise and experience, Chris Hewson, a leading scientist from the UK, will travel to Beijing to train local volunteers and lead the catching and fitting of the tags.

Local schoolchildren will name the cuckoos and follow their progress as part of EcoAction’s specially designed “environmental curriculum”.

13th middle school
Students from Beijing’s 13th Middle School recently received their certificates as the first graduates of the “Environmental Curriculum” and will follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos as part of their ongoing studies.

National and local media will cover the project via their print and online publications. A special APP will allow members of the public to follow their progress, too, providing information about cuckoos, maps showing their latest positions and the routes taken, as well as background about the project.

We are delighted that around 75% of the funding has been raised through generous donations from the Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, the British Birds Charitable Trust and Beijing Forestry University. We are also fortunate to enjoy in kind support from the British Trust for Ornithology, the China Birdwatching Society and the many volunteers who will be involved.

However, given the costs of “satellite services”, the costs associated with accessing the data transmitted by the tags, and the costs of maintaining the dedicated APP, we still need to raise another GBP 10,000 over the next 12 months.

That is why we have set up a new, dedicated JustGiving page to allow anyone wishing to be part of this project to contribute. The page can be found here:

Everyone involved with the Beijing Cuckoo project is excited about the potential and all donors, with their permission, will be recognised on the interpretation material that will be erected at the catching sites in Beijing.

Please join us in being part of an incredible and worthwhile project!

First Graduates Of Environmental Curriculum In Beijing

This is the start…

Everyone knows that China is one of the most important and biodiverse countries on the planet.  It is blessed with stunning wildlife, much of it found nowhere else in the world.  China has, according to one measure, 7,516 species of vertebrates including 4,936 fish, 1,269 bird, 562 mammal, 403 reptile and 346 amphibian species.  In terms of the number of species, China ranks third in the world in mammals, eighth in birds, seventh in reptiles and seventh in amphibians. In each category, China is the most biodiverse country outside of the tropics.  Many species are endemic to China, including the country’s most famous wildlife species, the Giant Panda. In all, about one-sixth of mammal species and two-thirds of amphibian species in China are endemic to the country.

However, not surprisingly, with rapid economic development and a human population of 1.3 billion, the environment in China is coming under huge pressure and, in addition to the obvious and well-publicised air pollution, China’s water and soil are both in a desperate state, not to mention the ongoing destruction of valuable and biodiverse habitats, not least along the Yellow Sea coast where tidal mudflats – so important for millions of long-distance migratory shorebirds – are being lost at an alarming rate.  In fact, at least 840 animal species are threatened, vulnerable or in danger of local extinction in China, due mainly to human activity such as habitat destruction, pollution and poaching for food, fur and ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine.

Despite the recent high-level political rhetoric about the importance of “ecological civilisation” and “green development”, decision-making, particularly at the local level, is still not effectively taking into account the environmental cost.  One reason for this disconnect is the low level of environmental awareness among the general population, in turn caused by an almost complete lack of environmental issues in the Chinese State Curriculum.

That is why education on the environment is so important and it’s the main reason why EcoAction has developed an “Environmental Curriculum”.  The curriculum, focusing on migratory birds, has been piloted in two Beijing schools during the 2015-2016 academic year.  Given the pressures on students in China, there was no room to fit in the lessons during normal school time, so these classes have been an optional extra for the participating students.  It is testament to the thirst for knowledge of the children involved that they have committed to participate and seen it through to the end.

The curriculum has involved classroom-based lectures, field studies (including birding trips to Miyun Reservoir and Yeyahu Nature Reserve) and lectures by national and international experts, including leading ornithologist Professor Per Alström.

IMG_0011 2
Professor Per Alström provides an introduction to taxonomy – the classification of birds.
IMG_0010 2
Per’s Chinese skills have come a long way!
IMG_0009 2
The class is gripped by Per’s lecture!

The students have also been encouraged to carry out an “investigation”, for example visiting Beijing’s wild bird markets to find out who are the buyers and sellers, where the birds come from and what can be done to accelerate their demise.

94th middle school
Students from Beijing’s 94th Middle School receiving their certificates.

This week it was time for the participants to receive their certificates for completing the course.

13th middle school
Students from Beijing’s 13th Middle School received their certificates this week.
Certificate for Saving Migratory Birds from Class
The certificate. Big thanks to BirdLife and ZSL for supporting the programme.

Our hope is that we can expand the pilots to involve more schools in Beijing later this year and, if we can secure the resources, to train teachers to be able to deliver the course in other parts of China.  Eventually, our aim is to do ourselves out of a job by having the Chinese government incorporate this course into the State Curriculum!

I’d like to pay tribute to EcoAction’s Luo Peng for driving the development and delivery of the course and to BirdLife International and Zoological Society of London for their support.  Can’t wait for the 2016 course to begin!


Access To Miyun Reservoir Prohibited

It was only in May last year that I wrote about Miyun Reservoir, describing it as a world-class birding site little known by birders.  Sadly, as of last week, it appears the government has decided to prohibit access and birders have been turned away by officials.

Ever since I came to Beijing, visting Miyun Reservoir has always felt a little like trespassing..  There is an old, rusting fence that runs alongside the northern boundary of the reservoir, through which one must traverse in order to view the water.  Many panels of the fence are missing, probably the work of local fishermen and goat herders, allowing easy entry to the reservoir and the whole area is criss-crossed with vehicle tracks, testament to the traffic it has seen over the years.

Since terrorism has become a global risk, it’s always felt a little strange to be able to walk, or even drive, to the edge of Beijing’s main source of drinking water. For anyone with evil intentions, it would be relatively easy to cause havoc through contamination.  There aren’t many capital cities in the world that would allow such open access.

2013-09-01 paul and tom at miyun
Paul Holt (left) and Tom Beeke birding at Miyun Reservoir, a world-class birding site.

Birders in Beijing have been spoiled.  We have become used to visiting the shores of this vast reservoir and the top quality birding it has to offer.  Highlights in the last 3 years have included Beijing’s first Sandhill Crane, Slender-billed Gull, Bar-tailed Godwit, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and the second record of Red-throated Diver, to name a few..   And then, of course, there is the flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS that have graced the northern shores of the reservoir this winter.  With regular migrants such as Baer’s Pochard, Baikal Teal, Relict Gull, Great Bustard, White-naped Crane, Saker, Greater Spotted Eagle and Yellow-breasted Bunting, it is undoubtedly a world-class birding site.

Given that decision-making in China is opaque, it is unclear at this time whether the prohibition of access is temporary or permanent.  Time will tell.  One thing is for sure: a lack of human access to the reservoir, whilst a blow to local birders, is great news for the birds!

The Invisible Killer: Mist Nets At Chinese Airports

Any eagle-eyed birder or nature-lover arriving in Beijing by air during daylight hours will be shocked to see lines of mist nets alongside the runway.  Entangled bodies of birds, bats and flying insects dangle pathetically in the breeze, lifeless after having suffered a horrible, prolonged death.  I remember the first time I visited China and, as my plane turned onto the runway and accelerated for take off for the return flight to London, I couldn’t help feeling sad that so many birds would die to allow me to travel in a machine that is essentially a poor imitation of nature’s perfect design.
2015-09-10 Siberian Rubythroat in illegal mist net
Birds, bats and flying insects suffer a prolonged, terrible death in mist nets at China’s airports.  This photo of a Siberian Rubythroat caught in a typical mist net in China.

What puzzled me was that I hadn’t seen anything like this at airports in other countries..  There were questions in my head.  First, what was the risk of bird-strikes in Beijing?  As I could see, there were very few gulls, geese or other large birds close to the airport..  Second, even if the risk was high, was it really necessary to use mist-nets – an indiscriminate killer of mostly small birds – to mitigate that risk?  And finally, how did other countries tackle the risk of bird strikes?

After living in China for 5 years, I now realise that it is not only in Beijing where these nets are deployed but at almost every airport I have visited in mainland China (there are now more than 300 of them!).  A rough calculation of just how damaging these nets are to wild birds provides some alarming results.  Nets are typically 20m long and set about 5m apart.  If we consider 300+ airports with an average 3km of runway each, protected by strings of nets down one or both sides, we can estimate there are at least 900 x 40 = 36,000 mist nets operating 365 days a year.  This computes to more than 13 million net days.  If each net catches only one bird per day (a rather conservative estimate – some will catch many more, especially during the spring and autumn migration seasons) this would mean a minimum of 13 million birds killed each year!

It’s an issue I have been meaning to look into for some time and, prompted by the discussion in a recent Sinica podcast and conversations with John Mackinnon and Patrick Haverman at UNDP in the last few weeks, I have taken some time to research the issue.

The Risks

It is clear that bird-strikes are a serious risk to aircraft and passenger safety.  According to the Airports Council International, in the USA alone, there have been 119,917 strikes involving wildlife reported between 1990 and 2011, with damage costing approximately USD 480 million (Federal Aviation Administration 2012).  And since 1988, 231 people have been killed as a result of bird strikes and over 220 aircraft have been destroyed. It is no surprise, therefore, that airport authorities take very seriously the risk to aircraft from bird-strikes.

The danger of small birds causing serious damage to aircraft is very low. Single small birds weighing less than 50 g (e.g. a skylark or pipit) – species most likely to be caught in mist nets – pass right through jet turbines with usually no damage to the aircraft or passengers.  The risk is with heavier birds.  As a guide, birds that tend to flock and weigh more than 1.8 kg can cause the most severe damage to aircraft.  Hitting unusually large flocks of migrating birds, especially large geese, swans, ducks, gulls, eagles and vultures can cause serious damage.  Lines of mist nets at ground level will be ineffective at mitigating this risk.

The precise nature of the risk will be different for each individual airport according to the species recorded in and around the airport.  This, in turn, will depend on the location of the airfield, the proximity of habitat attracting large birds and how the habitat within the airport perimeter is managed.

Assessing the risk

Fortunately, after some basic research, I found out that there is help out there for airport authorities.  The Airports Council International has published a Wildlife Hazard Management Handbook that outlines the recommended approach to assessing and managing the risk of wildlife strikes at airports.  Interestingly, the handbook DOES NOT mention mist nets as a recommended form of bird control.

The Handbook recommends that every airport produces a risk assessment.  This involves identifying the species present and their potential damage should they be struck by an aeroplane.  Once this list is compiled, there should be a review of past wildlife strikes to assess the likelihood of each species being involved in a collision. The product of these two steps gives the risk for each species.   The Risk Assessment ranks the risk of each species and highlights those that should be prioritized for risk mitigation.

Next comes a habitat management plan to reduce the attractiveness of the airport and the surrounding area to the species identified as the greatest risk.

Finally, the airport authorities should develop a Wildlife Hazard Management Plan (WHMP).  The WHMP sets out the actions required to reduce wildlife hazards in and around critical aircraft operating areas, and therefore decrease the risk of a strike, based on the risk assessment.

The Wildlife Hazard Management Handbook recommends the following (in priority order):

Location: Position airports and align runways away from known bird concentrations, nature reserves and known migration pathways

On-site habitat management: For example, keep grass short so as to provide little cover or food for birds and cover any water collection/run-off to avoid attracting large water birds.

Off-site habitat: As far as possible, ensure land-uses around airports are not major attractions for birds such as attractive wetlands, fruit orchards, bird attractive agricultural crops or bird roosts, rubbish tips and nesting trees or beaches.

Patrols:  Regular surveillance of the airfield is necessary to spot hazardous wildlife.  The use of binoculars, spotting scopes and possibly night vision equipment by trained staff allows for optimum observation.

Intervention techniques: Most intervention techniques rely on scaring wildlife with an audible or visual threat.  According to the Handbook, these can include the following:

  • Movement of the patrol vehicle to the vicinity of the target species
  • Noise to scare wildlife such as sound generators, pistol or gun shots, and pyrotechnics or firecrackers.
  • Noise to deter wildlife such as recorded distress or alarm calls.
  • Visual repellents including lasers, kites, balloons, scarecrows and small models.
  • Trained predators such as falcons and dogs used to chase wildlife.
  • Trapping, tagging and relocation, especially for larger animals and protected species.
  • Culling or killing (this is a last resort, as a dead animal is not a trained animal.)
  • In some situations chemical repellents and pesticides might have a role to play, although the use of poisons and environmental pollutants should be discouraged.

The Wildlife Hazard Managament Handbook clearly states that “It is the responsibility of the aerodrome operator to deliver solutions that maintain aviation safety whilst conserving the species in question” 

The Situation In Beijing

Unfortunately, at present, the Chinese authorities use a rather blunt (and likely ineffective) technique to reduce the risk of bird-strikes – lines and lines of mist nets.  These nets may reduce numbers of certain smaller species such as pipits, larks and wagtails  – all representing a very low risk to aircraft safety –  but they do very little to impact the species that provide the highest risk, for example swans, geese, gulls etc.   In fact, in the case of Beijing, large birds are very scarce near to the airport.. there are no flocks of feral geese, large gulls, ducks or any other large bird in the vicinity.  It seems so unnecessary to erect kilometres of mist nets.

Perhaps appearances can be deceptive and a robust risk assessment has been made and the nets are a product of the specific risks that Beijing, and other Chinese airports, face.  If so, the airport authorities should publish that information and explain why this cruel practice is necessary.  It is, perhaps, significant that the airport in Hong Kong, a part of China that enjoys greater transparency, does not employ mist nets but instead uses non-lethal intervention measures such as flares and sound-based techniques.

I’ll be discussing this issue with the China Birdwatching Society to explore whether they would be willing to approach the airport authorities.  As well as setting a terrible example which surely makes it more difficult to tackle illegal poaching, the practice of using mist nets at airports appears inconsistent with President Xi Jinping’s more environmentally-friendly rhetoric and a stronger focus on environmental issues expected in the next Five Year Plan.  Using mist nets seems to be a risk mitigation method that is unnecessary, out of touch and inconsistent with the new, modern China.