China Thanks India For Protecting Amur Falcons

As we track the Beijing Cuckoos from the Chinese capital all the way to Africa, we are learning that they take a remarkably similar route to another long-distance avian migrant, the Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis).

The Amur Falcon is one of the most beautiful and agile of all birds of prey.  It’s a spectacular aerial hunter that often causes one to gasp when seeing it wheeling in the sky as it hunts dragonflies and other flying insects.

A few years ago it came to light that Amur Falcons, on their way to Africa each autumn, congregated in Nagaland in northeast India.  The size of the gathering was on a staggering scale, estimated to be around 1 million birds.

The sight of up to a million Amur Falcons at a stopover site in Nagaland, India. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.
The sight of up to a million Amur Falcons at a stopover site in Nagaland, India. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.

Unfortunately, in 2012, it was revealed that hunting of Amur Falcons by the local people was also on a huge scale.  Staff at Conservation India had discovered that tens of thousands of migrating Amur Falcons were being illegally trapped on the roost at a reservoir at Doyang in Nagaland and then being taken to local markets alive, or killed and smoked, for sale as food.  What happened next is a major conservation success story.

In 2013, Dr Asad Rahmani, Director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) said: “From an estimated 100,000 falcons killed last year, none have been trapped in nets this year. The transformation is extraordinary and the change has come very quickly. But we also have to guard against this rapid change getting reversed. We needed to also set up solutions which are sustainable and of practical use to the community.”

As conservationists will know very well, it’s one thing to put a stop to illegal hunting in a single year, it’s another to sustain it.  That is why there has been so much work to engage the local communities, including providing alternative livelihoods.  One of the key elements of the public awareness campaign has been the project to track Amur Falcons, with individual birds named after local villages in Nagaland.

Just a few days ago, I received a note from Suresh Kumar of the Wildlife Institute of India who has just spent a few weeks in Nagaland.  He writes:

“This season was the initiation of a “New Chapter” in our efforts to further our understanding of this species and continue with the conservation efforts that appears to have rooted deep in the remote villages of not only in Nagaland but in many parts of the Northeastern hill States.  No Amur falcons were hunted this season – “ZERO”. I received a number of requests from administrators and villagers to come visit their area and acknowledge their efforts in protecting falcons, and also tag and release a bird there with the name of the village. A lot more sites in the whole of NE appears to host sizeable number of falcons during October-November, which was previously unknown.

As part of the “Amur Falcon Conservation Initiative” this season we satellite tagged five more Amur falcons across four roosting sites in Nagaland. A special grant for undertaking this study has been provided by MoEF & CC to WII. This comes at a perfect time with India becoming a signatory of the Convention on Migratory Species – Raptors MoU from March 2016.”

You can follow the progress of the tagged birds here.

Two of the Amur Falcons originally tagged in 2013 have been visiting an area just a few hundred kilometres north of Beijing to breed and, although it breeds in the capital in small numbers, it is in spring and autumn when we are fortunate to see flocks of Amur Falcons at suitable stopover sites such as Yeyahu or Miyun Reservoir.  So here in Beijing we have a strong affinity with this bird.

Recognising that it is this conservation effort that enables us in northeastern China to enjoy these wonderful birds, birders wanted to thank the Indian government and, most importantly, the local people for protecting Amur Falcons.  Birding Beijing facilitated the letter below, which has been signed by Ms Fu Jianping, President of China Birdwatching Society, on behalf of their members and also by many individual birders in Beijing and around the country.

As we collected signatures, it was wonderful to receive a message from the “Wind Child” young birding group in Hunan Province who, on their very first field trip, saw some Amur Falcons and adopted it as their favourite species.  They were keen to add their voices to the letter and, thanks to the efforts of Suresh Kumar at the Wildlife Institute of India, the letter was made into a poster, framed and handed over to the local community leaders (see header photo) during the annual gathering of Amur Falcons earlier this month.

amur-falcon-letter-final

Just as with the Beijing Cuckoos, the Amur Falcon reminds us that birds have no borders and they are shared by all the countries they grace.  It is only by working together that these incredible travellers, and the habitats they need, can be protected.

Huge thanks to Suresh Kumar for arranging the design, framing and the handover of the letter, thank you to Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International for supporting the initiative, and thank you to all of the signatories of the letter.  Most of all, a big thank you to the local people in Nagaland for their wonderful work.

Maybe the Amur Falcons from Nagaland will mingle with the Beijing Cuckoos somewhere in Africa this winter!

Amur Falcons are back!

The journey of the AMUR FALCON is one of the most remarkable in the avian world, migrating from the Amur region in NE China and SE Russia across China, India and, eventually, to East Africa.  An incredible journey fuelled by an even more amazing migration – of dragonflies – across the Indian Ocean.

Many of these beautiful falcons pass through Beijing each spring and autumn and a few even breed in the capital.  Whenever I encounter them for the first time each spring, I feel in awe of the almost unbelievable journeys these birds take and I feel reassured that, despite all the pressures on our wildlife, the Amur Falcons are back!

On Saturday, in the company of Paul Holt and David Mansfield, I visited Huairou and Miyun Reservoirs and, at the latter site, we enjoyed a mixed flock of AMUR FALCONS and LESSER KESTRELS giving a magnificent display as they hunted over some freshly ploughed fields…  simply stunning.

AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014
AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014
One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014
One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014
LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014.  Beautiful.
LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014. Beautiful.
Adult male LESSER KESTREL.  Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.
Adult male LESSER KESTREL. Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.

Here is a short video compilation of a few of the Amur Falcons.

 

For a time, in the afternoon, it was very windy… and dark clouds gathered over Miyun.  Just as the weather was its most threatening, in dropped a DALMATIAN PELICAN..!  As it battled against the wind, I was able to capture it on video….

This is the 7th DALMATIAN PELICAN in Beijing this spring and my personal first this year.  Always a delight to see.

We ended the day on 104 species – a pretty good total but missing some usually easy to see birds such as Spotted Dove.  In Beijing in May, it should be possible to see 120-130 species in a day with a bit of effort and luck!

A day that will live long in the memory!

Amur Falcon migration

The AMUR FALCON (Falco amurensis, 阿穆尔隼) performs one of the most amazing migrations of any bird of prey.  Breeding in the Amur region (southeastern Russia and northeastern China) and wintering in southern Africa, this species is a great traveller.

But how do Amur Falcons survive the long sea crossings from India to southeastern Africa?  The answer is here – a great talk from scientist Charles Anderson about an even more incredible migration – of dragonflies!

Eagles and more..

In the sweltering heat (it’s hit 39 degrees C this week), I visited Wild Duck Lake on Saturday.  I was hoping for some bitterns (There has been a Cinnamon Bittern in the Olympic Forest Park for the last week or so and Schrenck’s Bitterns have been seen along the Wenyu River in Beijing) and maybe some locustella warblers.  I saw very few of the former and none of the latter!  But I did see an unexpected variety of raptors with Short-toed and Great Spotted Eagles, Saker, Amur Falcons and spectacular views of Eastern Marsh Harriers.  A probable Blunt-winged Warbler was another highlight, singing frustratingly distantly from the boardwalk (dodgy photo below).

Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. This species has traditionally been considered a vagrant in north-eastern China but I have seen more than 10 individuals at Yeyahu and Miyun, almost all in April/May and September/October suggesting it is a regular passage migrant (and possibly a breeder nearby?)
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. A regular passage migrant in Beijing.
Amur Falcon (1st summer male), Yeyahu NR. This beautiful falcon migrates through Beijing in large numbers in Spring and Autumn (part of an incredible journey from Manchuria to Africa and back each year) and a few breed in the Beijing area.
Amur Falcon (female), Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.
Eastern Marsh Harrier (adult male), Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. This guy is breeding in the extensive reedbeds inside the reserve.

As I was watching the spectacular Eastern Marsh Harriers, this Indian Cuckoo flew over my head calling incessantly…

Indian Cuckoo, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.  Looks strikingly long-billed and long-tailed in this image.

And this is the ‘acro’ that was singing in the shrubby part of the reedbed..  Blunt-winged?  The supercilium ends very soon behind the eye…  but can I be sure from this image?  Unfortunately it was always distant.

Probable Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.

Finally, just for fun, here is a phylloscopus warbler in an unusual pose..  anyone want to have a go at identifying it?

A ‘pylloscopus’ warbler at Yeyahu NR. This image shows enough features for identification.. or does it? Any ideas? Answer later this week.

I also recorded a calling crake/rail that I think could be my first Ruddy-breasted Crake..  a little research needed on Xeno-Canto Asia!

Full species list to follow.

Wild Duck Lake, 9 October 2011

I visited Wild Duck Lake on Sunday with Peter Cawley.  The weather was far from ideal and we endured thick fog, with visibility down to around 20-25 metres, for the first few hours.  The fog gradually dispersed from around 1000am and, by 3pm, it was a glorious day..  nevertheless, we definitely missed out at what felt like a very ‘birdy’ Ma Chang and, rather unnervingly, almost got lost in the ‘desert’ area… (thanks to the GPS on my phone, we found the right path).

Temp around 15 degrees C at 0600 with thick fog and no wind.  From 1000am a very light NE breeze.  Temp around 22 degrees C mid-afternoon.

Highlights: a single Short-toed Eagle, Pied, Eastern Marsh and Hen Harriers, 30 Common Buzzards, Goshawk, 2 Mongolian Larks and a Wren (only my second at Wild Duck Lake).

Long Eared Owl, Wild Duck Lake, 9 October 2011

Full species list:

Japanese Quail – 1

Common Pheasant – 6

Bean Goose – 3

Mandarin – 1

Gadwall – 1

Mallard – 26

Spot-billed Duck – 5

Eurasian Teal – 4

Little Grebe – 15

Great Crested Grebe – 7

Black-crowned Night Heron – 45

Grey Heron – 2

Purple Heron – 1

Short-toed Eagle – 1

Eastern Marsh Harrier – 1

Hen Harrier – 2

Pied Harrier – 1 adult male

Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1

Northern Goshawk – 1

Common Buzzard – 30 (including 28 migrating in one 10-minute spell late morning)

Common Moorhen – 1

Common Coot – 5

Northern Lapwing – 1

Common Snipe – 3

Green Sandpiper – 1

Oriental Turtle Dove – 2

Collared Dove – 8

Long-eared Owl – 1

Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1

Chinese Grey Shrike – 3 (2 heard only in the fog)

Azure-winged Magpie – 1

Common Magpie – 24

Daurian Jackdaw – 1 adult flew east

Carrion Crow – 8

Great Tit – 3

Marsh Tit – 1

Mongolian Lark – 2.  An early date and hopefully the precursor to a good winter for this species.

Eurasian Skylark – 8

Lark sp (possibly Greater Short-toed) – 4

Zitting Cisticola – 2

Chinese Hill Warbler – 3

Chinese Bulbul – 13

Black-browed Reed Warbler – 9

Oriental Reed Warbler – 1 probable chattering at Ma Chang in thick fog.

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 1

Dusky Warbler – 1

Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 60

White-eye sp – 1

Wren – 1.  A very dark individual.

Thrush sp – 1

Bluethroat – 1

Red-flanked Bluetail – 1

Daurian Redstart – 5

Siberian Stonechat – 1

Tree Sparrow – 80+

White Wagtail – 17 (ssps ocularis, leucopsis and baicalensis)

Buff-bellied Pipit – 5

Water Pipit – 1 probable

Chestnut-eared Bunting – 1

Little Bunting – 77

Yellow-throated Bunting – 5

Black-faced Bunting – 14

Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 7

Meanwhile, at Laotieshan, Paul Holt continues to see huge numbers of Amur Falcons (over 1,800 yesterday evening in a pre-roost gathering – the highest autumn count anywhere in China), good numbers of Greater Spotted Eagles (at least 7 and up to 17 yesterday) and Goshawk (64), over 250 Common (Eastern) Buzzards and has also added Japanese Reed Bunting to the species list.

Summer lovin’

With summer upon us, Beijing is now hot and humid.  As well as the heat, July and August are also the months that see the highest rainfall in the capital, mostly from the frequent spectacular thunderstorms.  Air conditioning units are humming all over the city and one can sense the pace of life slowing, just a little, as its people cope with the energy-sapping heat.   It is uncomfortable to be in the field for any length of time now and this, coupled with the relative quiet birding around the capital at this time of year, has meant that I have not been out as much as normal.

On Sunday, I decided to change that by checking out Yeyahu to see how the breeding birds were doing and to look for butterflies and dragonflies.  It was a murky day but as the bus from Beijing made its way over the mountains near Badaling Great Wall, it began to clear a little..  Liyan, my trusty driver, met me at Yanqing and, 15 minutes later, I was at Yeyahu Nature Reserve.  My plan was to spend the afternoon and evening on site and catch the last bus back to Beijing..  but that was immediately scuppered when I discovered that the last bus back was at the very early time of 1830.  Instead I decided to catch the last train at 2130, so I arranged for Liyan to pick me up at 8.30pm, giving me 5 hours on site.

There was a constant threat of thunderstorms – distant rumbles were a feature of the day – but thankfully I managed to avoid the main storms that seemed to keep to the mountains.  And, despite the heat and humidity, I enjoyed the walk around the reserve.  As usual, there were a lot of Beijing’s city-dwellers enjoying the boardwalk on the lake but, true to form, none of them took the trails around the wider reserve, leaving me to enjoy the greater part of the reserve on my own.  Activity was generally slow, as expected, but it was very cool to see evidence of breeding Amur Falcons and Eastern Marsh Harriers.  I saw two adult male Amurs taking food to a small copse to the north of the reserve and there were two recently-fledged juvenile Eastern Marsh Harriers wheeling around waiting for the parents to bring food.  I watched two food passes by the adult male harrier; both juveniles became very excited, calling constantly as the male approached, before the male rose, waited for the juveniles to take up position below and then dropped the catch.  The first, possibly a small rodent, was expertly caught in mid-air by one of the young birds but the second, what looked like a young Moorhen, was missed and fell into the reedbed, whereby both juveniles swooped in, squabbling over their evening meal.  Fun to watch.  Chinese Penduline Tits were feeding young in their spectacular nest and young Great Crested and Little Grebes were begging from their parents on the lake.  A pair of Common Terns (of the subspecies longipennis) patrolled the ponds and they were joined briefly by a Whiskered Tern and then a White-winged Tern, before the latter disappeared off to the west towards the reservoir.

The reedbeds were noticeably quieter than in June with just a handful of Oriental Reed Warblers making half-hearted efforts at singing; the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the adults carrying food was clearly the priority now.  At least 4 pairs of Purple Herons appeared to be feeding young in the large reedbed to the west and I encountered a family party of Chinese Hill Warblers to the north.  Several pairs of Richard’s Pipits were feeding young in the grassland to the north of the lake and a few Zitting Cisticolas called frequently.  A pair of Black Drongos chirped and made forays to catch flying insects from their base in a willow hedgerow and both Night and Chinese Pond Herons busied themselves carrying food back and forth.

There were good numbers of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies on the wing.  I had deliberately taken my macro lens to try to photograph some of them but, being a complete novice with these insects, I cannot identify any of them!  There isn’t a field guide for this part of the world, so putting a name to these beasts isn’t easy.  There is a good website – Asia Dragonfly – with a comprehensive library of photographs.  But it’s still very difficult!

Here are a few photos of the local specialties…  any help with identification much appreciated…

Photo 1: possibly Orthetrum albistylum specisum
Photo 2: same as above
Photo 3: a beautiful dragonfly... Possibly Crocothemis servilia?
Photo 4: probably a Sympetrum sp?
Photo 5: Cercion plagiosum
Photo 6: probably a female Cercion plagiosum?
Photo 7: some sort of chaser.. maybe Deilia phaon?
Photo 8: Antlion sp
Photo 9: beetle sp. I couldn't resist taking a photo of this impressive little bug. You can even see my reflection is his shiny body armour!

I hung around until dusk, hoping for a calling crake or watercock but no luck…  probably a bit late in the season for them to be calling frequently.  My last birds of the day were a calling Eurasian Cuckoo and a Grey-headed Woodpecker that I flushed from the path.  As the mosquitos began to bite, I made my way to the entrance of the reserve to rendez-vous with Liyan.  The last train was delayed so I did not get back to Beijing until after midnight but for only 7 Yuan (70 pence), I couldn’t really complain too much about the journey!

Dalian – Day Eight

Another quiet day.  The showers didn’t materialise and the wind persisted in being a moderate to strong South-South-Easterly.  After taxi driver number 3 dropped us at the point, we enjoyed a trickle of early migration involving at least 9 Black-naped Orioles, 7 White-throated Needletails and 9 Forest Wagtails (our first of this trip).  But after that, it quietened down considerably and, by 9.30am, the skies were quiet.  We tried the woods and trails but these were equally dead with even fewer birds than yesterday – there really has been a major clearout in the last few days.

The highlight has to be the White-throated Needletails (again!).  After two hanging around high over the lighthouse at 5am, a group of 5 bombed past at head height at 0905am allowing excellent views of the rarely seen upperside of these beasts.  I rattled off a few images in the few seconds they were on view before they powered past the lighthouse and out to sea.  Whoosh!

Tomorrow is our final day at Laotieshan and we have high hopes.  The forecast is for the wind to switch to northerly overnight with light rain and drizzle from 3am through to 10am.  That might not sound like the recipe for a pleasant morning on a clifftop but, for a birder on the Chinese coast in May, that forecast could mean a stack of migrants on the peninsula.  The forecasters, so far, have not covered themselves in glory so we are not holding our collective breath but, if they are right, we could be in for a treat.  It would certainly be a nice way to end what has been a very memorable and fun trip.

Edit: a quick count up of the species seen so far shows that the total is on 149 species with a day to go! 

This immature male Amur Falcon was one of the highlights of an otherwise disappointing day.
Immature male Amur Falcon. Note the reddish 'trousers' and the grey feathers beginning to emerge on the breast.
One of 7 White-throated Needletails today. This image shows the less often seen upperparts, including the distinctive pale oval on the back and the greenish sheen to the inner wing.

Species List (in chronological order, not including Tree Sparrow or Common Magpie):

Ashy Minivet (3)

White-throated Needletail (7) – 2 at 0500 and 5 at 0905.

Chinese Grosbeak (16)

Spotted Dove (1)

Forest Wagtail (9)

Oriental Greenfinch (9)

White-cheeked Starling (5)

Barn Swallow (70)

Red-rumped Swallow (25)

Olive-backed Pipit (7)

Crested Myna (5)

Great Tit (6)

Black-naped Oriole (9)

Tristram’s Bunting (1)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (4)

Common Pheasant (5)

Pallas’s Warbler (1)

Amur Falcon (4)

Daurian Starling (6)

Peregrine (1)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2)

Fork-tailed Swift (9)

Black-tailed Gull (heavy passage east with 236 counted between 1345-1355 and 393 between 1505-1515)

Chinese Bulbul (2)

Egret sp (2) – too distant to be sure of identification but probably Chinese

Blue Rock Thrush (1)

Chinese Pond Heron (2)

Oriental Honey Buzzard (2) – one in off the sea at 0805 and one soaring at 1100

Large pipit sp (2) – possibly Blyth’s

Radde’s Warbler (1)

Hobby (2)

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1)

Black-browed Reed Warbler (1)

Eastern Crowned Warbler (1)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (6)

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (1)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (1)

Yellow-browed Warbler (2)

Dark-sided Flycatcher (1)

White Wagtail (1) – ssp leucopsis

Common Rosefinch (1) – immature male singing

Dusky Warbler (1)

Streaked Shearwater (10) – all between 1345-1400.  In the evening, Jesper reported a passage rate of 900 per hour (!)