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.

 

“Turning over a stone and seeing a slug…”

When asked by US President, Barack Obama, how he became fascinated by natural history, Sir David Attenborough replied:

“Well I’ve never met a child….. who is not interested in natural history.  I mean just the simplest thing, a 5 year old turning over a stone and seeing a slug, you know, what a treasure! How does it live and what are those things on the front?’ Kids love it. Kids understand the natural world…”

Of course, as he is about everything, Sir David is right.  And there is something about experiencing the fascination of children with nature that is deeply inspiring and heartening.  That’s why there’s a spring in my step.  I’ve just returned from the latest EcoAction environmental education trip to Hainan with some wonderful families from Beijing and Dalian.

We visited Yinggeling nature reserve and stayed with a Miao minority village deep in the forest to learn how they co-exist with their natural surroundings.  The sustainability of their living means that, within a stone’s throw of their traditional homes, many of which are made of mud and grass, there is an abundance of life.  From freshwater crabs in the nearby stream and the spectacular mantis to beautiful dragonflies, outrageously coloured moths, darting kingfishers and even the rare and endemic Hainan Partridge, there is wildlife all around.  It’s the perfect place to spark a child’s fascination with nature.

After meeting in Haikou, in the north of Hainan island, the trip began with a visit to nearby Dongzhaigang Mangrove Nature Reserve.  Here we introduced the children to birding and, in just a couple of hours, we had seen more than 30 species, including the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Asian Dowitcher, White-throated Kingfisher, Chinese Pond Heron and, a real favourite, the spectacular Fork-tailed Sunbird.

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I am, perhaps, not the best teacher when it comes to sketching birds!

The following day we made the 4-hour drive to Yinggeling Nature Reserve, our base for the next few days.  Here we met with nature reserve personnel, participated in day and night walks to explore the reserve and its wildlife, and learned how to make bird feeders from used plastic bottles…

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This mantis was a big hit with the children during a night safari..
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After a brainstorming session about the bird feeder, the children came up with an ingenious design!

After hearing a lecture about the wildlife of Yinggeling from nature reserve staff, we walked to a nearby lake where we spent the night and cooked dinner on an open fire..  great fun for the children (and parents!).

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The scenery was spectacular with a sense of peace not easy to find in mainland China!
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Cooking dinner using hand-made bamboo ‘spears’ was a lot of fun.. and boy did that chicken taste good!
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Our campsite was idyllic and, with no light pollution,it offered a stunning view of the night sky.

Soon it was time to make the journey into the forest to stay with a Miao village.

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Arriving at the village…
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We were greeted by villagers offering traditional rice wine
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We learned about the Miao crafts, including how to make their traditional clothes
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And making birds from leaves.. not just for decoration but for holding sticky rice as a packed lunch..

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The Miao celebrate special occasions with “three colours rice”
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The rice was as delicious as it was beautiful

Of course we took the opportunity to introduce the local children to birding.. and they were in awe of the capacity of the telescope and binoculars to bring distant birds so close..

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Watching Black Bulbuls in the village
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The villagers loved the telescope and binoculars

In the heat of the day we cooled ourselves with the delicious water from the local coconuts..

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This child was very protective of his treasured coconut!

And later in the afternoon, the local ladies wore their traditional dress in preparation for an evening of entertainment..

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The local ladies in traditional dress..
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In the evening they put on a special dance performance.

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The villagers were wonderful hosts and were patient with questions from the families’ and the inquisitive children..  Although, by modern standards, their lives are simple and lacking in many of the modern comforts we take for granted, these villagers are among the happiest and most generous people I have met.

After our stay, each child was asked to explain what they had learned from the trip and to highlight their favourite moments.  Bo Han, one of the children, wrote a fabulous summary of lessons learned – here are my favourites:

  1. Don’t be afraid of bugs
  2. Unite to succeed.  When my design for the bird feeder was not accepted, I ran away in disgust.  When I came back I saw everyone had brainstormed and their design was better than mine.  I realised that the wisdom of the collective is likely to be higher than the individual.
  3. Don’t put wet trousers too close to the fire!
  4. Don’t use flash to photograph birds, insects and other wild creatures.  Birds may spend the day searching for a safe perch; the flash frightens them and, at their next stop in panic, there may be hidden enemies, so the flash might be killing them.
  5. Air and water can spread sound differently.  I put my phone in a waterproof case and recorded the sounds.
  6. Three colour rice is characteristic of Hainan Miao diet.  It’s dyed by grass (black), flowers (red) and wild ginger (yellow).  It has taste of ginger but smell of pizza.
  7. Wild bamboo is integrated into the natural environment and not easy to find.
  8. The branches of the Banyan tree absorb nutrients and then take root.. it looks like a lot of trees together but actually it’s one big tree.

 

Before leaving, we exchanged gifts and said our goodbyes.. having made some wonderful new friends, learned a lot and sparked an interest in the natural world that will hopefully stay with the children, and their families, for the rest of their lives.

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Big thanks to Luo Peng for her vision in designing the itinerary and for making the arrangements, to the wonderful staff at Yinggeling nature reserve and Kadoorie Farm and to my fellow leaders, Chen Lijun and Hu Yunbiao.  Most of all, a big thank you to the families, especially the children, for providing me with a very special gift – a genuine sense of optimism for the future!

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EcoAction runs environmental education trips for schools and families.  Recognising that the most effective learning is through participation and experience, the trips are designed to provide opportunities for the children to explore, discover, participate and learn. 

 

Wallcreeper on ice

The WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria,  红翅旋壁雀) has always been a special bird for me.  I remember, as a young boy, looking longingly at the plate in my Hamlyn Guide To The Birds of Britain and Europe and wondering if I would ever see one.  So rare in the UK, I knew I’d probably need to go overseas to have a chance.  I remember my first encounter – at Les Baux in the south of France – and being surprised at just how small and delicate is this bird as it fluttered and probed on the town walls.

In Beijing, Wallcreeper is a scarce bird.  Although almost all records are in winter from one site, it probably breeds somewhere in the mountains.  Up to 3 can be seen reliably from November to March at Shidu, Fangshan District.  The most reliable spot is the cliff just to the northeast of bridge 6.  Here, photographers put out meal worms and it’s astonishing to see these birds gradually make their way down the vertical cliff face to eye-level as they grab one of the irresistible snacks on offer.

 2013-11-23 Wallcreeper, Shidu 2014-01-12 Wallcreeper

On my most recent visit to Shidu this winter with Marie, we were lucky to see one of the two Wallcreepers present fly down to the ice on the nearby river…  Although the sun was behind, making the light far from ideal, I was able to capture it on video..  Now that is something – a Wallcreeper on ice!

 

Jankowski’s Bunting video

As of Sunday 31 January, the small flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS Emberiza jankowskii remains at Miyun Reservoir, faithful to a relatively small area of appropriate habitat.  Their presence is providing a unique opportunity to study these little-known birds and the knowledge gained will undoubtedly add to our understanding of this endangered species and what it needs to survive.  During my most recent visit, as well as examining diet and habits, I took the opportunity to record some video.  Some of the plumages shown had never been photographed, or even described, before these birds arrived in Beijing.

In terms of sexing and ageing I believe there is an adult male and two females (unsure of age) in the first clip, and first-winter females in the second and third clips (the shape of the tail feathers is visible in some of the frames).

A Tribute To Martin Garner

In the last 24 hours, the world lost one its brightest stars.  Not just a brilliant birder, at the vanguard of our understanding of bird identification but, as has been demonstrated by the overwhelming outpouring of emotion on social media, a wonderful husband to Sharon, father to his two daughters Abi and Emily, and life-inspiration to so many people.

My first contact with Martin Garner was in July 2012 when he invited me to be part of the Birding Frontiers team, a group of birders and ornithologists from around the world assembled to publish exciting and innovative posts about birding.  My first thought was “wow..  why me?”  I didn’t know Martin, had never even met him and I certainly wasn’t in the same league as a birder as most of the other names he had assembled.  I soon realised that, to ask that question, I was misunderstanding Martin the man.  His raison d’etre was to help others, support them, coach them, to ‘big them up’.  There was no selfishness behind his offer.. he wasn’t thinking that I could give him something in return, it was simply an act of pure generosity and belief in me.  I cannot overestimate how much that inspired me, not only in terms of my birding and the evolution of Birding Beijing, but in life.  Martin’s mantra “Always Discovering” was a phrase with which I felt an immediate affinity as I began to explore the birding in and around China’s capital city.. and his encouragement drove me on.

When I heard that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was devastated.  How cruel is life and how fragile our existence?  Martin reacted to the news in a way that was, knowing his character, completely expected.  He embraced it, used it to spur himself on and to inspire others.  His most recent work – The Challenge Series – is at the cutting edge of bird identification and show just how much he offered to the birding community.

I was determined to meet Martin during one of my infrequent visits to the UK and, last January, I was back for a series of work-related meetings.  I hopped on a train to Hartlepool and after a bracing walk to Flamborough, spent the day with Martin, Sharon and friends.  Martin was everything I expected and more.  We enjoyed an early morning seawatch, alongside the legendary Brett Richards, during which he explained to me how to tell argentatus and argenteus in flight at distance, something I had never read in the guide books.  A tour around the area followed, with visits to the local RSPB offices, a hunt for a Rough-legged Buzzard, viewing a day-feeding Woodcock and close scrutiny the local Rock Pipits at South Landing.  A cup of tea, biscuits and great conversation with Martin and Sharon that ranged from birding, China and a host of other subjects, was a fitting end to a wonderful day and I left Flamborough more inspired than ever.  He was that kind of man.

Checking out the local Rock Pipits at Flamborough South Landing, January 2015.
Checking out the local Rock Pipits at Flamborough South Landing, January 2015.

Martin opened my, and many others’, eyes to the world of opportunities all around us and, everywhere we look, whether it’s in Beijing or Birmingham, we now see there is still so much to discover.

Martin’s encouragement has given me the drive and determination to make a difference.  And if I can be half the man he was, I will be very happy.

Martin’s spirit lives on, running through everything I do.  And I am sure I am only one of hundreds, thousands, maybe even tens of thousands to whom that applies.

Today is a sad day. The birding world has lost one of its brightest stars.  However, instead of mourning the loss of one of the greatest people I have ever had the privilege to know, I am sure Martin would have preferred us to celebrate – celebrate his life and take on the mantle.  To continue the journey and to continue discovering.  That is the best way to pay tribute to Martin.  A colossus of a man.

JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing

On Saturday 9 January I was leaving the RSPB Headquarters at Sandy after participating in the Oriental Bird Club’s council meeting when I received a message from Xing Chao, a young Beijing-based birder. Chao had visited Miyun Reservoir that day with friend Huang Mujiao, both of whom are members of the Swarovski-sponsored group of young birders called “北京飞羽” (Beijing Feathers).  The message simply said “Jankowski’s?” and was accompanied by a photo.

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Xing Chao’s original photo of the find at Miyun Reservoir

My heart raced.  Could there really be a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) in Beijing?  The bird in the photo sure seemed to show a dark belly patch – diagnostic of JANKOWSKI’S – and the face pattern looked ok with a strongly dark malar stripe, dark lores and a prominent white supercilium….  But could that dark belly patch be due to missing feathers?

For context, JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING is a very rare bird indeed.  After a serious and precipitous decline over much of its traditional range in NE China, Russia and N Korea, the known population is in the low 100s.  Little is known about its winter range.  Most literature suggests that they remain on the breeding grounds or, perhaps, move south a little if heavy snow prevents these ground feeders from finding food.  Indeed, although few people are looking, there are several winter records from the breeding sites in Inner Mongolia.  There is only one previous record of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing – two specimens collected from The Summer Palace in February and March 1941 (now in the Natural History Museum at Tring).   Of course, in 1941, the population of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING was very likely considerably larger so I think it’s fair to say that Beijing birders had given up all hope of another JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING turning up in the capital.

As I sat in my car about to drive from Sandy to Norfolk, I contemplated the magnitude of a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing.  I replied to Xing Chao saying that I thought it probably was one but asking whether he had more photos.  Thoughts then jumped to when I would be back in Beijing..  With my return flight from London planned on Monday, I would arrive in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon and could potentially visit the site on Wednesday.  Would it still be there?

Xing Chao responded the following day with two more photos, also sent to Paul Holt.

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JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING, Miyun Reservoir, 9 January 2016. Photo by Xing Chao.
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JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING, Miyun Reservoir, 9 January 2016. Photo by Xing Chao.

These additional photos clearly showed two very pale and prominent wing-bars, a good feature of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING vs the main confusion species, MEADOW BUNTING.  Gulp.  Paul replied that he also thought it was a JANKOWSKI’S! I encouraged Xing Chao to put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and, rightly so, there followed plaudit after plaudit.  Not only was there a JANKWOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing but it had been found by young Chinese birders – brilliant!

And so, fast forward 3 days and I had arrived back in Beijing and immediately arranged to visit the site on Wednesday in the company of the two finders and Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.

After leaving central Beijing at 0600 we arrived on site around 0800.  It was a beautiful, but cold, morning with the temperature around -15 degrees Celsius thankfully accompanied by almost no wind.  The first hour or so produced several PALLAS’S BUNTINGS, 2 JAPANESE REED BUNTINGS, SIBERIAN ACCENTOR, COMMON CRANE, JAPANESE QUAIL, MONGOLIAN LARK, 2 LONG-EARED OWLS, ROUGH-LEGGED and UPLAND BUZZARDS, SAKER, MERLIN and HEN HARRIER but no JANKOWSKI’S.

We split into two groups to cover more ground and, shortly after that, I could see Ben waving frantically.  He had just seen – very well – a male JANKOWSKI’S!  Unfortunately, by the time I reached him, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, the bird had disappeared.  After a vigil of an hour or so at this spot, we began to widen our search.  Soon we happened upon a small flock of largish, long-tailed buntings.  As they occasionally sat up in the bare branches of some nearby shrubs, we could see that at least two had dark belly markings, although not as substantial as seen on adult males.  Another feature stood out on these birds – strikingly pale double wingbars.  It slowly dawned on us that we were looking at not one JANKOWSKI’S but a small flock!

We spent the remainder of the day with these birds, observing them, listening to their distinctive calls (a single Meadow/Japanese Reed Bunting like “tsip” and a “chup” call most often uttered in flight) and trying to photograph as many as possible.  Some of the birds were in interesting plumages that had not been photographed, or even described, before.

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting female

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2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting 12-1

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting 3-1

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2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting 8-1

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting 6-1

We counted at least 7 individuals in the group and were elated.  What a privilege to see so many of these globally endangered birds together in one spot… and exhibiting such fascinating plumages.  As the light began to fade we reluctantly tore ourselves away and began the drive back to Beijing.  What a day!

Two days later, on Friday, Paul Holt visited the site with Gabriel David.  They, too, enjoyed a very special day and, fantastically, counted 9 JANKOWSKI’S!

It’s interesting to speculate about the status of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in under-watched Beijing.  Is it here every winter and been overlooked?  Or is this winter exceptional?  I suspect the latter.  Certainly the habitat around Miyun is much better for buntings this winter, caused by the prohibition of crops close to the water (driven by fears of pesticides seeping into Beijing’s drinking water supply).  The area around the reservoir has been left to nature and the resulting growth of wild, seed-producing, plants has provided excellent feeding for buntings (as witnessed by the record-breaking flock of more than 5,500 LAPLAND BUNTINGS earlier in the winter).  However, that said, the truth is we simply don’t know!

Huge kudos to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for the initial find.  Although it’s only mid-January, this will almost certainly be the best discovery in Beijing of 2016.

Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI'S BUNTING
Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING

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JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING is a species in serious trouble.  Martin Hale in Hong Kong and Jesper Hornskov in Beijing first rang the alarm bell and, in 2012, Birding Beijing became a Species Champion under the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.  In partnership with BirdLife, Beijing (China) Birdwatching Society, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, Oriental Bird Club and others, Birding Beijing has been involved with shaping, and participating in, an action plan to try to save the species from disappearing.  This has included surveys on the breeding grounds, workshops with the local government and public outreach.  BirdLife’s Simba Chan, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society’s Vivian Fu and China Birdwatching Society’s Fu Jianping, Wu Lan and many others have been tireless in their efforts.  The campaign received a boost in January 2013 when Sir David Attenborough lent his support and, later that year, the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of the National Peoples Congress committed to include JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING on the list of species with special protection.  There is a dedicated page on this website providing the latest information and a JustGiving page to receive contributions towards the conservation effort.

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Sir David joining the campaign to save JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING, January 2013.

 

Greater Flamingo In China: What’s Going On?

During the evening of 6 December I received a message from a friend to say that a GREATER FLAMINGO (大红鹳, Phoenicopterus roseus) had been photographed on the Wenyu River in Beijing.  The message was accompanied by a photo clearly showing a young (first-winter) bird.  Wow!  Although directions were vague and the Wenyu River long, I was out early the next morning with Wu Lan to check some likely sites.  Despite the smog, within 30 minutes we had located it amongst a congregation of more than 300 Mallard.  During our time with this extraordinary bird, it fed and rested in equal measure and appeared healthy.  It was un-ringed, fully-winged and wary, showing no obvious signs of captivity.

The bird stayed in the area until at least 15 December during which time it was enjoyed by many Beijing-based birders and photographers.

First winter GREATER FLAMINGO, Wenyu River, Beijing, 7 December 2015
First winter GREATER FLAMINGO (大红鹳, Phoenicopterus roseus), Wenyu River, Beijing, 7 December 2015

Although this flamingo was the first record of GREATER FLAMINGO for Beijing, the Wenyu bird fitted neatly with a remarkable pattern of recent occurrences of flamingos in China.

Greater Flamingo doesn’t breed in the wild in China.  The nearest known breeding grounds are in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.  The first record of Greater Flamingo in China was in the southern municipality of Macao as recently as 1994.  Next came one in the northwest province of Xinjiang in 1997.  Records were sporadic between 1997 and 2014, since when there has been a remarkable run of records.  Tianjin-based Mo Xunqiang (莫训强, English name “Nemo”), one of China’s brightest young ornithologists, has brilliantly collated all of the records of flamingo in China.  His excellent summary (PDF in English and Chinese), up to and including the Beijing record, can be downloaded here.

Below I list, by Province, the records of Greater Flamingo in China since 1 January 2014 (a remarkable 23 occurrences):

Guizhou 

19 Nov 2015: 1 juvenile was seen by villager by a river about 30km from Shiqian, Guizhou (via Zhu Lei)

Hebei 

23 Nov 2014: 1 juvenile in Yu County, Hebei Province, seen by villager Mr. Wei

4 Dec 2014: 1 juvenile in Yishui River, Baoding, seen by Miss Li.

Inner Mongolia

26 Oct 2015: 3 juveniles at East Juyan Lake (note that a later report said there were 10 present!)

28 Oct 2015: 2 juveniles seen by a photographer named Yang Huiyuan, at Shajin Taohai Sumu, Dengkou county, Bayinnuoer.

10 Dec 2015: 3 juveniles seen by Mr. Mu Jinsheng, at Hekou reservoir, Shengli village, Wulantaogai town, Wushen County.

Jiangsu 

22 Apr 2014: 2 at Ganyuqingkou River Mouth, Lianyungang (Chen Ying &
David Melville via China Birdwatch 96: April 2014).

11 Nov 2014: 2 adults or near adults at Jianggang, Dongtai District (Mr.
Huang & Mr. Yu et al.).

25 Jul 2015: 2 adults were seen at Linhongkou, Lianyungang (Shanque), staying until at least 29 Nov.

26 Dec 2015: 7 individuals were seen at Linhongkou, Lianyungang of Jiangsu by a birder named Shanque. Among them are two smaller and shorter individuals, resembling Lesser Flamingos. More details needed to confirm.

Jiangxi 

8 Dec 2014: 2 at Nanjishan, Poyang Hu, Jiangxi around the 8 December 2014 (Hannu Jannes pers. comm.)

16 May 2015: 2 adults at Poyang Lake Reserve, Jiangxi on May 16. Reported by workers from Team No. 4 of the reserve.

Shaanxi 

12 Feb 2015: 4 juveniles was seen at Caotan Balu, Xi’an, Shaanxi.

27 Oct 2015: 3 adults were photographed at a wetland in Yulin, Shaanxi.

Shandong 

22 Nov 2014: 1 juvenile in the Yellow River Delta Nature Reserve, Dongyingon, Shandong, seen by workers at the site.

29 Apr 2015: 3 adults at the Haibin National Park, Rizhao, Shandong

29 Nov 2015: 2 adults at Rizhao of Shandong (per Shan Que).

19 Dec 2015: 7 seen at Taibai Lake, Jining, Shandong.

Taiwan

5 Jan 2014: 2 immatures at the Linbian River mouth, Pingtung (num. obs). The first record for Taiwan.

Tianjin 

1 Dec 2014: 6 juveniles at Beidagang, Tianjin on the 1 December with five still there the following day (Wang Jianming et al).

Tibet

30 Oct 2014: 3 were seen At Lake Manasarovar, Pulan, Ngari, Tibet

Xinjiang 

mid-Nov 2014: 3 at Heishantou Reservoir, Mori Kazakh Autonomous County, Xinjiang, seen by Wen Shichun, a worker at that site.

Zhejiang 

19 Nov 2014: 1 in a coastal wetland near Shangyu and Yuyao, Zhejiang Prov (Mr. Xu)

==========

The Beijing bird was the 34th record of a Phoenicopterus sp in China and, given the recent run of records, it was perhaps not too much of a surprise that one should turn up in the capital.  Of course it’s impossible to say for sure that the Beijing bird was wild and, in fact, at least one of the Chinese records definitely refers to an escapee – the record of an American (Caribbean) Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) in Shaanxi in January 2011 (see the PDF).  Although comprehensive information is hard to find, investigations so far suggest there are few captive flamingos in China and those collections of which we are aware (e.g. in Hong Kong) have clipped wings and are ringed.

Remarkably, on 30 December 2015, Colm Moore found a first winter Greater Flamingo at Shahe Reservoir.  Given Shahe’s proximity to the Wenyu River (the Wenyu flows out from Shahe Reservoir), it is almost certainly the Wenyu bird relocating but, nevertheless, it’s a fantastic find and the latest in a remarkable run of flamingo records in China.

We can only speculate as to the reasons behind the recent surge in records of flamingo in China.  Is there a captive collection somewhere in China that is allowing its young birds to fly freely?  Or are there issues with traditional breeding sites in Kazakhstan or further afield that are causing these birds to wander widely?  We’d welcome insights from anyone who can shed light on the causes of this phenomenon.

Whatever the provenance of these birds, the flamingos in China have not only provided the growing birding community with an opportunity to experience this charismatic species but many of the birds have also attracted the attention of the local media and raised awareness among the general public of migrant birds.  That can only be a good thing!

Huge thanks to Mo Xunqiang (“Nemo”) for his great work in collating the China records of flamingo and for allowing me to draw on that information for this post.  Thank you also to Colm Moore and Zhao Qi for allowing me to use the photo of the Shahe bird and to Zhu Lei, Lu Jianshu, Paul Holt, Richard Lewthwaite and everyone else who has provided information about flamingo records in China.

Title photo of the Greater Flamingo (大红鹳, Phoenicopterus roseus) at Shahe Reservoir on 30 December 2015 by Zhao Qi.