The Beijing Swift Project 2016

On Saturday “Team Swift” undertook the next stage of the Beijing Swift Project at the Summer Palace, here in Beijing.  The Chinese “catching team”, led by Professor Zhao Xinru, was on site at the inhuman hour of 0230 to set up the nets and, by the time I arrived at 0400 with the Europeans, there were already a couple of birds waiting to be tagged.

Setting up the nets at 0230 at The Summer Palace.
Setting up the nets at 0230 at The Summer Palace.  All photos by Zhang Weimin.

This year was another hugely successful operation involving more than 60 people, all volunteers, organised into highly efficient teams by the China Birdwatching Society.  From Europe there was Chris Hewson (BTO), Dick Newell and Rob Jolliffe (Action For Swifts), Lyndon Kearsley, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris (Belgium) and Susanne Åkesson and Aron Hejdstrom from Lund University.

Ms Fu Jianping, President of the China Birdwatching Society retrieves a Swift from the net.
Ms Fu Jianping, President of the China Birdwatching Society retrieves a Swift from the net.
The "management" team, logging and distributing the Swifts to the various banding teams
The “management” team, logging and distributing the Swifts to the various banding teams
Susanne and her team of Chinese volunteers fitted an incredible 25 loggers to Swifts.
Susanne and her team of Chinese volunteers fitted an incredible 25 loggers to Swifts.
The BTO's Chris Hewson preparing the harnesses for the Swifts' "backpacks"
The BTO’s Chris Hewson preparing the harnesses for the Swifts’ “backpacks”
The "biometrics team" weighed and measured the Swifts.
The “biometrics team” weighed and measured the Swifts.
Professor Liu Yang oversaw the blood sampling, which will enable analysis of DNA.
Professor Liu Yang oversaw the blood sampling, which will enable analysis of DNA.
Wu Lan (left) led the "data downloading team", capturing the data from birds fitted with loggers in previous years.
Wu Lan (left) led the “data downloading team”, capturing the data from birds fitted with loggers in previous years.
2016-05-21 Swifts at summer palace ms fu
Fu Jianping releases a swift fitted with a data logger.
2016-05-21 Swifts at summer palace release2
It was brilliant to see so many young volunteers involved..
2016-05-21 Swifts at summer palace Dick release
Action For Swift’s Dick Newell, whose generosity enabled the project to get off the ground, releases one of the Swifts.
2016-05-21 Swifts at summer palace release4
A great moment. Leighton (right) was recently engaged to his partner and, together, they released two of the Swifts..

We succeeded in catching 10 birds with geolocators fitted in the previous 2 years. Nine of these had good data, six from birds tagged in 2015 and three from birds tagged in 2014.  Two of these we had caught in 2015, but one was a new bird carrying 2 years worth of data.  So we now have 23 complete tracks, 14 of the 2014/15 migration and 9 of the 2015/16 migration.

Preliminary analysis shows the birds doing similar things in the 2 migrations – ie migrating to and from southern Africa using a route north of the Himalayas.  It’s one of the most incredible migrations of any bird and to think they do it without landing is awe-inspiring…
A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.
A typical track of a Beijing Swift.
We also succeeded in fitting 46 new loggers of various types: GPS loggers, loggers with accelerometers and pressure sensors, as well as some more light level geolocators.  These should give us more valuable information in 2017.
Once again, it was a real privilege to be part of this incredible project… a project that is not only contributing to scientific discovery and facilitating superb collaboration between scientists and volunteers from China and Europe but also engaging the public about these amazing birds and their incredible migrations.
Huge thanks to Wu Lan for, again, being the spider at the centre of the web, to Dick, Lyndon, Chris, Rob, Geert, Gie, Susanne and Aron for their valuable contributions to this project and, most of all, to the many young Chinese volunteers who worked so well together to make this year’s catching such a success.

JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING: Good News From Inner Mongolia!

It’s May and for ornithologists that means only one thing – field season!  This year I was privileged to accompany the JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii) survey team to Inner Mongolia alongside China Birdwatching Society’s Fu Jianping, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society’s Vivian Fu and a team of local researchers from Northeast Normal University in Jilin, led by Dr Wang Haitao.

I’ve just arrived back in Beijing and I’m thrilled to bits…  Here’s why..

Under the guidance of Dr Wang, we visited some “new” sites in eastern Inner Mongolia and, although we were able to cover only a fraction of the total area of suitable habitat, we recorded more than 100 Jankowski’s Buntings.  If the density of the buntings we encountered is typical of the whole area, there should be many hundreds of pairs at the largest of these new sites.  Fantastic news!

2016-05-08 Jankowski's Bunting site, Inner Mongolia
The habitat at this major new site in Inner Mongolia is typical grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot shrubs. Here, the density of Jankowski’s Buntings was reassuringly high.

Encouragingly, we also found some Jankowski’s Buntings in an area of regenerated grassland, replanted only 3 years ago, suggesting that these birds can, and will, colonise areas where the grassland is allowed to recover.

However, amongst this heady cocktail of good news, there is a sobering thought – none of these sites has any form of official protection, meaning they are potentially vulnerable to the main threats to the species and its grassland habitat – overgrazing and the expansion of agriculture.

Nevertheless, it is uplifting to find out that there are, in the unique Inner Mongolian grassland, more of these beautiful “little brown jobs” than we had dared imagine.

The full results of the survey and the fascinating latest research from Dr Wang and his team will be published this summer.  A link will be publicised on Birding Beijing when it is available.  With the latest information, we are slowly developing a greater understanding of the range, and population, of this special bird, found nowhere else on the planet.  This information will form the basis of the next engagement with the local government in Inner Mongolia, during which we will be pushing for official protection for as many of these sites as possible.  And, in the meantime, Dr Wang and his team will be exploring new areas to further understand the boundaries of Jankowski’s Bunting’s range and considering the use of colour-ringing to better understand breeding ecology and seasonal movements.  Could Jankowski’s be extant in northern Hebei?  Or far southeastern Mongolia?   Time will tell…

I was impressed with Dr Wang Haitao and his researchers.  Dr Wang has been studying Jankowski’s Bunting since 1999 and has a wealth of knowledge about the species, built up by years of field observations.  I learned so much from our conversations over the duration of the survey..

2016-05-07 Dr Wang and team with Vivian, Inner Mongolia
Dr Wang Haitao (centre) organising the survey team, including Vivian Fu from Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (left).

Despite the almost omnipresent gales that sweep across this vast landscape in spring, I was able to record some video of the buntings, a compilation of which is below.  Such beautiful birds in their full breeding finery and they looked a real picture amongst the Siberian Apricot blossom.

We left Inner Mongolia  encouraged and, at the same time, determined not to let this special bird slip away.

Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Fu Jianping and Dr Wang and his team for the faultless logistics, thorough field work and great company during the trip.

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.

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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.

Update:

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: https://www.justgiving.com/BeijingCuckooProject

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!