As the introduction of the paper says, some birders and conservationists will feel offended when asked to explain why we should care about wild birds. This community already values them highly for the pleasure they obtain from seeing and hearing them and simply being around them. However, this value is felt only by those already steeped in birds and their environments. The vast majority of decision-makers, politicians and policymakers aren’t convinced by this view and, in this age of growing pressure on our environment, decisions are increasingly being made based on a judgement about the impact on the economy. This means that it is vital for conservationists to communicate the value of birds, and other wildlife, in terms that are recognised, and respected, by people that make important decisions about development.
This paper examines three areas where birds make significant contributions to the economy – seeddispersal and pollination, pest control, and scavenging and sanitary services.
Here are just a few examples from the paper:
According to Diana Tomback, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Colorado at Denver, the estimated cost of replacing CLARK’S NUTCRACKERS’ seed dispersal of white-bark pine is USD 1,980 to USD 2,405 per hectare and USD 11.4 to USD 13.9 billion across the range of whitebark pines in the U.S.
In Malaysia, oil palm farmers put up BARN OWL nest boxes when local rodents developed resistance to the rodenticide warfarin. The switch to owls had the added benefit of population increases of other species that were being poisoned by warfarin, including mammalian predators, such as common palm civets and leopard cats.
And in India, the crash in the population of vultures in the 1990s, caused by the administering of the veterinary drug diclofenac (which causes kidney failure in vultures when they feed on the carcasses), has been devastating. The paper explains that, as vultures disappeared, there were increases in rotting animal carcasses which resulted in a 20-fold increase in the number of feral dogs at just one Indian rubbish dump. Economist Anil Markandya and colleagues calculated that from 1992 to 2006 alone, the disappearance of vultures led to approximately 48,000 additional human deaths from rabies and cost USD 34 billion to the Indian economy.
As researchers focus on this issue, I am certain there will be many more examples of “hidden benefits” of wild birds from across the world. As Cagan says in the paper:
“Only a small fraction of bird ecosystem services have been evaluated economically, but even these few examples show how birds are critical for the healthy functioning of ecosystems and contribute billions of dollars to the world’s GDP.”
As much as some in the conservation community may find it offensive to need to set out the economic value of wildlife, this type of analysis will be an essential, and increasingly necessary, part of the argument to protect and conserve wild birds and their habitats and one that is written in language that policymakers, politicians, the public and even hard-nosed economists will understand. The paper is recommended reading for all politicians in all countries!
After reading, as in the Monty Python film, some sceptics might well say “Ok, APART from the seed dispersal, pollination, pest control AND the sanitary services, what have birds ever done for us?” but it might just convince some that wild birds and their habitats are worth saving and, for that reason, it’s a hugely important paper that deserves wide dissemination.
Huge credit to Cagan for setting out the economic value of birds so clearly and succinctly. The full paper can be accessed here. A Chinese version is available here. And more on this subject can be found in Cagan’s book entitled “Why Birds Matter“.
Thank you to Professor Per Alström for flagging up the paper to Birding Beijing and to Li Siqi for the excellent Chinese translation.
Two years ago, after an agonising 12 months wait, the Beijing Swift Project proved, for the first time, that the capital’s Swifts migrate to southern Africa for the northern winter. The astonishing journey, which sees them fly more than 26,000km per year (and, by the way, many of them probably don’t land at all!), has inspired not only scientists but also everyday Beijingers. As well as the national mainstream media coverage reaching millions of Chinese, the story of the Beijing Swift has been the subject of science lessons by forward-thinking teachers and features in magazines. One of the most important aspects of the coverage has been to shine a spotlight on the population decline of the Beijing Swift. Although hard data is sketchy, it is clear from speaking with local ornithologists that the number of Swifts circling in the skies over Beijing has fallen dramatically. The main culprit is the loss of nest sites caused by the destruction of traditional buildings, complete with lots of nooks and crannies, which have been replaced by modern, high-rise developments with their straight lines and smooth surfaces – not so good for the Beijing Swift.
I’ve lost count of the number of schools I’ve visited to tell the story of the Beijing Swift and, almost without exception, the schoolchildren are very concerned when they hear about the decline and want to do something about it. One group is planning to write to the CEO of China Soho, the largest real estate developer in Beijing, to ask that they will consider designing in Swift boxes to their new buildings to provide replacement nest sites. And now, one school is going a step further!
A few weeks ago I met with Paul Shelley, Head of Design and Technology at Harrow Beijing, one of the capital’s international schools. Paul is keen for students to link their woodwork classes to conservation and, after sharing designs of Swift boxes, the woodwork students at Harrow will, this autumn, build and then erect swift boxes to the campus in Beijing with the hope of attracting Swifts to begin a new colony on site.
Of course, there is no guarantee that they can attract Swifts and it will take some time, and some encouragement by way of playing Swift calls at the right time of year, to maximise the chances of success… but what a brilliant initiative!
It’s something I think could catch on… school campuses offer perfect sites for Swift colonies – often they are large buildings with eaves and with large open spaces to the front, providing Swifts with plenty of access. It’s certainly something that I’ll include in my briefings on the project in the hope that other schools follow suit. Who knows – this could be the start of a new initiative – “Schools For Swifts”..!?
Kudos to Harrow, and Paul in particular, for making this happen and I wish Paul and his students the best of luck when the autumn term begins in September. Watch this space for updates!
The China Birdwatching Society has just announced that the 3rd China International Birding Festival will take place around Laotieshan in Lushun District, Dalian, from 20-22 October 2017. Sponsored by the State Forestry Administration and Dalian Municipal People’s Government, the festival aims to promote birding and wildlife conservation as well as celebrating the world-class migration hosted by Lushun every spring and autumn along the East Asian Flyway. The centrepiece will be a 24-hr “bird race” involving teams of up to four people.
It’s a fabulous way to promote birding. The local government, especially the local governor, Mr Yi, deserves great credit for supporting the establishment of what has become the premier annual birding event in China. You can read about the 1st and 2nd festivals here and here. This year’s event will be covered by local and national media and it promises to be the biggest yet..
With a mouth-watering array of species possible, including Baikal Teal, Oriental Stork, Streaked Shearwater, Japanese Sparrowhawk, White’s Thrush, Mugimaki Flycatcher and Yellow-breasted Bunting, the festival will produce some top quality birding. For those interested in participating, the local government will cover transfers to and from the airport in Dalian, the accommodation cost and most meals. Participants must pay their own travel costs to Dalian.
Teams from outside China are welcome to participate and registration is now open. There are a limited number of spaces so, if you are interested, please contact Rita on email: email@example.com or on telephone +86 18600686862 before the deadline of 12 August.
To register, simply provide the following information: Organisation (if any), Team Name and then, for each participant, the full name, gender, age, WeChat ID (if any), Telephone number, ID or passport number and flight/train arrival/departure times.
Good luck to everyone participating and see you there!
Every once in a while in life, something happens to make us feel good, that reinforces our faith in human nature and gives us a renewed sense of purpose. Whether it’s meeting someone who inspires, gaining a privileged glimpse into the natural world or simply reading wise words, these are important moments that can encourage and inspire for years.
Having been back in Beijing for 24 hours, I know that the 2017 Nangqen International Wildlife Watch Festival was one of these special moments.
The Festival, arranged by the local government in Nangqen and the brilliant NGO, 山水(ShanShui), was designed to celebrate the biodiversity of this unique part of China. Seventeen teams from across China and overseas competed to photograph as many birds, mammals and plants as possible over three days. I was invited to be on the judging panel alongside Professors Lu Zhi (Peking University, Beijing) and Liu Yang (Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou), Lama Tashi Sangpo and wildlife photgrapher Xi Zhinong.
Members of the local community were hired as drivers, guides and to run the campsite at which all the participants stayed during the festival. We ‘enjoyed’ (yes, really!) 5 days without a phone signal or wi-fi.
Nangqen is a stunningly beautiful place. Located 3-4 hrs from Yushu in Qinghai Province, the habitat is a mixture of grassland, wooded hillsides and high, desolate mountains. The elevation spanned from 3,800m at the camp up to in excess of 5,000m. It’s home to some unique plants, mammals and birds, including the endemic Tibetan Bunting and Tibetan Babax, as well as some of the highest densities of large predators in China, including Asian Brown Bear, Lynx, Wolf, Leopard and, of course, the King of the Mountains, the magnificent 雪豹 (XueBao), the elusive Snow Leopard.
Overall, the teams recorded 17 species of mammal, 94 species of bird and 230 species of plant, providing a wonderful snapshot of the biodiversity at this special site – citizen science at its best.
Highlights included 2 separate sightings of SNOW LEOPARD (possibly the same individual), 2 sightings of EURASIAN LYNX (one of which was photographed), 1 sighting each of PALLAS’S CAT (at the campsite at night!) and WOLF, as well as the sought-after endemic birds, TIBETAN BUNTING and TIBETAN BABAX plus some scarce and local plants including the wonderful Lamiophlomis rotata (see below) a plant used as a painkiller by local communities.
There were so many things that inspired me about this festival. The involvement of the local Tibetan communities and their relationship with, and respect for, the wildlife. The spirit among the teams of sharing information and helping each other to see as much as possible. The enthusiasm and stamina of the participants – often starting before dawn, returning after dark and climbing steep mountains and walking kilometres through the forests to seek out special plants and animals. The energy and passion of the ShanShui team, led by Professor Lu Zhi and including Zhao Xiang, Shi Xiangying, Li Yuhan, Gao Xiangyu and Yu Lu, ably assisted by the girls from Wild Xinjiang, Yaya (Huang Yahui) and Da Xiang. The enlightening talks by Lama Tashi Sangpo, Xi Zhinong, Shi Xiangying and Prof Lu Zhi about the wildlife and conservation of the Tibetan Plateau. I could go on. Put simply, it was the best wildlife watching event in which I have participated.
There are many great stories from the event but I’d like to tell just one involving 12-year old Wujing Dingzen, son of one of the Chinese Communist Party leaders in Xining. Armed with a small pair of binoculars and a SLR camera, he told me at the beginning of the festival that he wanted to see a Snow Leopard. Not wanting to discourage him by saying how tough they are to see, I told him there was a chance but that it would require a lot of luck and he’d need to spend a lot of time looking in the right places. On the afternoon of day three, I had just sat down in my tent to relax after a long day in the field. I opened my sketchbook and attempted to (poorly) sketch a Lammergeier, several of which we had seen that day. A few minutes later, Dingzen appeared at the entrance to my tent with a local Tibetan guide. He asked if I was going out that evening and, if so, could he join. The local guide offered to drive us anywhere we wanted. A few minutes later, together with Da Xiang, we were on our way up the mountain at 4,700m to search for Snow Leopard in the early evening sun. Despite scanning the mountainsides for more than two hours, we drew a blank, but enjoyed wonderful views of more than 100 Blue Sheep and singing Tibetan Buntings. As we returned to camp, Dingzen asked if I could join him the next day at 0500 to search again. I told him that I couldn’t as I had judging duties but Da Xiang said she would join.
The next morning as the judges were going through the photographs submitted by the teams, Da Xiang came running into the tent exclaiming that she had seen a Snow Leopard at the place we had visited the evening before.. the sighting was brief, and she didn’t have a photograph, but nevertheless she was, as one might expect, deliriously happy at seeing her first Snow Leopard!
Da Xiang explained that she was the only one to see it but that Dingzen had climbed up the mountainside to try to get a glimpse. As he walked over the ridge, he was not seen again for more than three hours. What happened between then and arriving on the back of a motorbike with a local yak herder, is something he will never forget. On his return, Dingzen explained that he had walked up the mountain and had climbed over two or three ridges and, as he emerged over the final ridge, he came face to face with a Snow Leopard. The animal, just 5 metres away, was looking at him, growling. He was petrified and simply froze. After a few seconds, the Snow Leopard ran into a small cave, still growling. Dingzen grabbed his camera, quickly took a photo of the cave and then ran for 2-3 minutes until he was so out of breath he had to stop. By this time he wasn’t sure exactly where he was, so he headed down and found the nearest track, from where he hitched a lift with a local motorbike rider. On arrival at the camp, his heart was still pounding and he was visibly exhilarated as he recounted his story. He must be one of very few people in the world to have been growled at by a Snow Leopard in the wild..!
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dingzen was given the “Young Citizen Scientist With Most Potential” award at the last evening’s ceremony.
Among the many well-deserved awards, the biggest congratulations must go to Yinjiang Oriental Hobby, the team from Yunnan Province, made up of Zeng Xiangle, Ban Dingying and He Haiyan, who came top overall. Their all-round knowledge of the biodiversity of this region was hugely impressive (by the way, Zeng is an excellent Yunnan-based bird guide and can be contacted on email at: firstname.lastname@example.org).
A special mention to the superb young artists – Saoba and Xigua – who painted this cool ‘field guide’ to the birds of the area.
Other countries were represented, including Australia, France, the UK (me) and the US. Among the foreign participants, American photographer Kyle Obermann, on a photographic tour through China’s western mountains, took some stunning images of the area.
Tom Stidham, a Beijing-based paleontologist was part of team “T & Y” with his wife, Wang Ying.
Sacha Dench from the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, who was in China after visiting relatives in Australia, took the opportunity to participate. Sacha is best known for the “Flight of the Swans” during which she flew a paramotor from Russia to the UK to follow the migration of Bewick’s Swans and to highlight the risks they face.
But best of all, it was brilliant to see so many young Chinese, from all over the country, participating with such great spirit. With amazing wildlife, and talented young naturalists, the future of China’s conservation movement is bright.
I’d like to put on record my huge thanks to the Yushu and Nangqen governments, the local community, ShanShui and to everyone who participated for making the festival such an inspiring and fun event. Can’t wait for the third festival in 2018!
Here is a compilation of video clips, set to the background of local Tibetan group ENU’s “Fly”. I hope it gives a sense of the location and its wildlife.
For more information about the ShanShui Conservation Centre, see:
Founded in 2007, ShanShui Conservation Centre is a Chinese NGO dedicated to conservation practices. Together with their partners – communities, academic institutions, governments, companies and media – they support local initiatives to defend the land we depend on. They focus on the most biodiverse areas: Sanjiangyuan, the Southwestern Mountain Areas and the Lancang Mekong River Basin. They launched the Nature Watch Programme in 2014 with the following goals: examine local biodiversity data and evaluate conservation outcomes to build a conservation database (http://chinanaturewatch.org), interpret and propose conservation policies, and promote public participation in observing and preserving nature.
Did you know that one in eight of the world’s 10,000 bird species are threatened with extinction, of which more than 200 are classified as Critically Endangered, the highest category of threat of extinction? Anyone interested in conservation will be getting used to hearing statistics like these and, although many people feel sad, even angry, that this is happening, it’s often hard to know what can be done to help.
Fortunately, there are practical things we can do right now that can make a difference. One of them is to become a Species Champion under BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme.
BirdLife International is the world’s largest nature conservation partnership, working with local partners in more than 120 countries. Since 2007 they have been running the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme (PEP), specifically designed to target conservation efforts where they are most needed. The PEP creates two ‘communities’ – BirdLife Species Guardians, experts who take the lead in conserving globally threatened species in their country, and BirdLife Species Champions, individuals or organisations who raise awareness, and funding, for the vital conservation that is so urgently required. And it works. There are many examples of how conservation, driven by the Species Champions and Guardians, is making a difference. But instead of listing them (you can see some examples here on the BirdLife website), I want to convey my personal experience of being a Species Champion.
Shortly after I moved to China in 2010, I realised that several species were in real trouble. Some, such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Black-faced Spoonbill, were well-known and major conservation actions were already underway. However, when I spoke with Chinese scientists and birders, they all told me that the species in most imminent danger of extinction was the Jankowski’s Bunting, a little-known small brown bird whose tiny remaining range was in a remote part of Inner Mongolia.
I researched the status of Jankowski’s Bunting and, the more I found out, the more I became concerned for its future. I knew I wanted to do something. But what could an ordinary birder like me really do? After speaking to a few friends, I heard about BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme and I was soon having a conversation with Jim Lawrence, the Director of the programme, about what was required to become a Species Champion and what it would involve. I was quickly convinced that this was the best way I could help Jankowski’s Bunting and, within days, I had donated a modest amount of money (less than the cost of a foreign holiday), pledged to raise a little more, and became a Species Champion.
Jim had explained to me what BirdLife could do to help Jankowski’s Bunting with the funding. Given there was no BirdLife partner in Mainland China, work on species there was coordinated through the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (HKBWS). I was soon in touch with BirdLife’s China Programme Manager, Vivian Fu (now a good friend and a real hero of conservation in Asia), and we discussed plans for a survey of Jankowski’s Bunting in partnership with the Beijing Birdwatching Society (BBWS). The next thing I knew, I was walking slowly through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia alongside Vivian and volunteers from the BBWS looking for populations of this small brown bird. The surveys reinforced the anecdotal evidence that historic populations of Jankowski’s Bunting were declining fast and, in some cases, disappearing altogether.
After the survey, the next step was to begin a conversation with the local government and local people to see what could be done. At the invitation of the HKBWS and BBWS, I was soon participating in a workshop with local government officials and representatives of the local community to raise awareness of the plight of this small brown bird and to try to encourage some simple actions to try to support the remaining population. That first meeting was hugely important in terms of simply putting Jankowski’s Bunting into the consciousness of the local government. Subsequent meetings involved local scientists, one of whom had been studying Jankowski’s Bunting for several years. His funding was increased, enabling him to recruit a small team dedicated to surveying and studying the bunting and they’ve been working tirelessly to survey this vast area and discover the main reasons for the bunting’s decline. Without stealing the thunder of his work, there will be a paper published very soon with some welcome good news. Another major highlight for me was meeting with the Chairman of the Environment Protection Committee in the National Peoples Congress in Beijing and securing a commitment to include Jankowski’s Bunting in the updated list of “Species with Special Protection” under the Wildlife Protection Act.
In short, my experience as a BirdLife Species Champion has been overwhelmingly positive. I moved from a sense of alarm and helplessness about the status of the Jankowski’s Bunting to understanding that something could be done… I grew a sense of ownership and, with that, a responsibility to do something. Although the heavy lifting has been done by BirdLife, the HKBWS, BBWS and local scientists, I have been been able to contribute, albeit in a small way, to practical conservation efforts, engage with the local government and local people and gain an understanding of the local dynamics and politics.
Of course, I have been fortunate to live relatively close to the range of Jankowski’s Bunting and I’ve been able to manage my time so that I can participate in the surveys and workshops. Not everyone is so fortunate. However, that is the beauty of being a Species Champion – you can be involved as little or as much as you want. Becoming a Species Champion isn’t just about donating some funds with a couple of clicks and feeling good for a few days.. it’s about developing partnerships with organisations that are best-placed to help, gaining a better understanding of the factors determining the future of your chosen species and, best of all, developing a real bond with the species. For me, being involved in the conservation efforts so far has been hugely rewarding and, with a long way to go to ensure the survival of Jankowski’s Bunting, I am looking forward to playing my part in the months and years to come.
Given the hugely positive experience of being a Species Champion, I am surprised that there are still many threatened species out there without a Champion. Wouldn’t it be cool to be Species Champion for Nordmann’s Greenshank? Or how about Chinese Crested Tern, a bird with which BirdLife is working hard with some recent success? Most of us donate to, and/or raise funding for, causes important to us but how many donate AND are involved in putting that donation to work?
For more details of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme, please see the dedicated pages on the BirdLife website and, if you would like more information or if you’ve already made up your mind to become a Species Champion, please contact Jim Lawrence on email: Jim.Lawrence@birdlife.org or via Facebook.
Cover image: Sir David Attenborough shows his support for the Jankowski’s Bunting conservation effort.
Protecting the Yellow Sea is the highest conservation priority in East Asia. Coastal wetlands in China are facing massive pressure from economic development and, over the past 50 years, the country has lost more than 60 percent of its natural coastal wetlands.
As readers of this website will know from articles here, here and here, there has been a huge national and international effort to try to conserve what remains of the incredibly rich intertidal mudflats on which millions of shorebirds, including the charismatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, depend.
Earlier this year, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination. I reported at the time that, although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government. And, should these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.
Just a few months later, in mid-June, came another step forward. The Hebei Provincial Forestry Department, Hebei Luannan County Government, the Paulson Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the aim of protecting one of the most important sites along the East Asian Australasian Flyway – Nanpu coastal wetland, near Tangshan in Hebei Province. Nanpu is a site Beijing-based birders know well. The spectacular concentrations of shorebirds, not to mention the world-class visible migration of passerines, makes it one of the best birding sites within easy reach of the capital.
Under the terms of the MoU, the four parties will work closely to conserve and manage the site, and will establish a provincial nature reserve (PNR) at Nanpu wetland within the 12 months.
Located in Luannan County of Hebei Province, Nanpu wetland consists of natural intertidal mudflats, aquaculture ponds, and salt pans. Its unique geographic location and wetland resources make Nanpu Wetland one of the most important stopover sites for migratory water birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), including rare and endangered species such as Red Knot, Great Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and Nordmann’s Greenshank. Each year, as many as 350,000 water birds stage and refuel here. Among the water birds at the Nanpu wetland, the population of 22 species exceeds one percent of their global population sizes or their population sizes along the EAAF, making it a wetland of international importance according to criteria determined by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation of wetlands and their resources.
Nanpu wetland is facing many threats, such as reclamation, over-fishing and invasion of spartina, a rapidly spreading grass that suffocates intertidal ecosystems. Studies show that there has been a steady decrease in population of some migratory water birds that depend highly on Nanpu wetland for refueling. For instance, over the past decade, the population of Red Knots that overwinter in New Zealand and Australia along the EAAF has been declining at an annual rate of nine percent. IUCN claims that if no further conservation measures are taken, few Red Knots might remain ten years from now.
According to the MoU, The Paulson Institute and WWF will provide best domestic and international nature reserve construction and management practices in the process of planning, approving, building, and managing Nanpu Wetland Nature Reserve, so as to build, protect and manage it in an effective and efficient manner.
Let’s hope this initiative is the first of many and that more Provincial and local governments along the Yellow Sea coast will follow this example and work to protect the remaining intertidal mudflats in their regions. There is no doubt that the Yellow Sea is a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and it has the potential to attract thousands of visitors each year, as well as endearing a sense of pride for local people and, indeed, the whole country.
Finally, if you would like to experience the astonishing Yellow Sea migration for yourself, contribute to the conservation effort and you’re free this November, you’re in luck! One of the most hard-working and impressive domestic organisations working to protect the Yellow Sea intertidal mudflats – local NGO, Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBS in China) – is running the second of its special birding tours to the Yellow Sea coast this autumn. Showcasing the global importance of this coastline, the tour will focus on some of the most endangered and unique birds of the region, including Spoonie. It will be led by some of China’s finest young conservationists and bird guides and 10 per cent of the participation fee will go directly to support local conservation NGOs in China. Background about the first trip, this spring, can be found here. And here’s a summary of the November trip:
Dates: November 2 to November 17 (16 days)
Sites: Shanghai, Jiangsu coast, Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces, Poyang Lake Nature Reserve, Dongzhai Nature Reserve, Yancheng Nature Reserve.
Yellow Sea coast: Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Red Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Saunders’s Gull, Relict Gull, Black- faced Spoonbill, Reed Parrotbill and over 200 migratory shorebirds and forest birds.
Wuyuan: Scaly-sided Merganser, Scimitar Babblers, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Dusky Fulvetta, Chinese Bamboo Partridge, and other forest birds including Pied Falconet, Red-billed Leiothrix, Red-billed Starling, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Chestnut Bulbul, Grey-headed Parrotbill etc.
Poyang Lake NR: Siberian Crane, Baer’s Pochard and Geese of all kinds
Dongzhai NR: Reeves’s Pheasant and the reintroduced Crested Ibis.
Yancheng NR: Red-crowned Crane, Japanese Reed Bunting and Baikal Teal
The tour will be led by China Coastal Waterbird Census Team surveyors who have been working as volunteers for over 10 years.
For more details on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there is a downloadable PDF and, for further questions, you can contact Li Jing, leader of SBS in China, on email@example.com.
I wish I could join!
Cover photo of Spoon-billed Sandpiper by Chen Tengyi, one of the guides for the November Yellow Sea tour.
When South African world-lister, Derrick Wilby, invited me to accompany him to Inner Mongolia in search of some skulking grasshopper warblers, I was delighted to accept.
Wuerqihan, in the far north of the province, east of Hailar, is well-known as a special winter birding destination. With up to 8 species of owl (Eagle, Great Grey, Little, Northern Hawk, Eurasian Pygmy, Tengmalm’s, Ural and Snowy) possible in that season, not to mention special birds such as Siberian Jay, Black-billed Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Hazel Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinch, it’s a must-visit for any China-based birders.
What’s much less well-known is that Wuerqihan is also a brilliant birding destination in summer. On the edge of the magnificent, and vast, taiga forest, the habitat is a mixture of deciduous forest, wet meadows and damp scrub. This was only my second visit during this season but already it’s becoming clear that it’s a reliable place to see some of China’s most-wanted species such as GRAY’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, BAND-BELLIED CRAKE and CHINESE BUSH WARBLER as well as providing a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with some breeding birds that are much sought-after vagrants back in the UK, such as PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, LANCEOLATED WARBLER, THICK-BILLED WARBLER, BROWN SHRIKE, SIBERIAN THRUSH, WHITE-THROATED NEEDLETAIL and many more.
Derrick had a list of warblers he wanted to see – Chinese Bush, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Gray’s Grasshopper and Lanceolated – as well as two owls – Great Grey and Ural – plus Japanese Quail and Band-bellied Crake. I was reasonably confident about all except the crake, which I had heard once last year but not yet seen.
On arrival in Wuerqihan in the afternoon, we met local guide, Zhang Wu, checked into the hotel and immediately headed out east from the town along the old logging road. We started well with good views of several singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers along the first few kms of the road, singing Japanese Quail in the meadows, watchful Brown Shrikes seemingly atop every bush and Common Rosefinches whistling from their songposts before a superb encounter with a stunning GREAT GREY OWL just a few metres from the road. As we enjoyed more than 30 minutes with this most magnificent owl, a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler sang from deep in the forest.
As we headed back to town for dinner, a spectacular thunderstorm swept past to the west..
The morning of day two added singing Lanceolated Warbler (see header image by Nick Green), a handful of White-throated Needletails, Azure Tit, singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Thrush, Chestnut and Black-faced Buntings.
We decided to rest in the afternoon and head back out in the evening for a night drive in the hope of finding Ural Owl and, perhaps, Band-bellied Crake. The evening shift started well when we heard the latter calling briefly at dusk from the edge of a small pool. However, despite waiting patiently for more than 30 minutes, frustratingly there was no further sign. We headed into the forest to look for owls and, after only a few minutes, had a sighting of an owl by the side of the track.. it was large and pale. We turned around and approached slowly. We could see large orange eyes staring back at us and it was obvious this was an Eagle Owl, not the hoped-for Ural.
Heading east along the main track, we drove slowly with the windows down, listening. We stopped at several promising-looking areas, turned off the engine and waited for something to penetrate the silence. A few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers and a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler chuntered away in the darkness.. and then a Chinese Bush Warbler sang from some scrub. Driving further, we picked out a Band-bellied Crake and, once we had stopped, it was clear that several were singing in the wet scrub alongside the road. One, two, three.. at least four birds competing for attention. In the darkness, there was no chance of seeing them, so we took a note of the location and would return in the morning.
By now it was after midnight and our hopes for a Ural Owl were fading. Zhang Wu turned off the main track onto a rutted, obviously rarely travelled track into the forest. After around 100m, he stopped. He had heard something. Cutting the engine, we listened intently. And there it was – a deep, low ‘hoot’. Zhang Wu smiled. It was a Ural Owl. Our guide played the call of Ural Owl in answer to the bird. Immediately it responded and flew in to a tree right above us to check us out.
We returned to the hotel at around 0130, the adrenaline still rushing after a special encounter.
A tougher than usual early start the next morning saw us at the site where we had heard Band-bellied Crake during the previous night. Even in the early morning, the birds were not singing.. suggesting they might be predominantly nocturnal vocalisers. We carefully walked into the marsh, trying to avoid the deep pools of water in between the grassy tufts. We heard a short call and froze. It was a crake. As we stood motionless, as if to “warm up”, the short note gradually morphed into a full song.. and before long, we could see the grass ‘twitching’ as the crake made its way through the bog.
All that was left was to try to secure a decent view of Chinese Bush Warbler. Thanks to Zhang Wu’s local knowledge, we were able to find a spot with one singing and, with patience, we were able to secure a “jigsaw” of views.. at first the bill, then the tail, then the legs… then the supercilium.. and piecing them together we were able to get a good impression of this skulker.
We headed back to the hotel in the late morning, packed our things and set off for the airport all too quickly. It had been a superb 3 days and, in total, we had recorded 102 species. I can’t wait to go back… with a bit more time, I think there could be some more special birds waiting to be discovered. It wouldn’t surprise me if Swinhoe’s Rail is there and, who knows, maybe the enigmatic Streaked Reed Warbler is lurking in the vicinity.
One thing to bear in mind if visiting in summer; the insects can be a nuisance, especially the horseflies. Most active in the heat of the day, the worst can be avoided by being out early and late in the day. This video gives a sense of their menace!