The Yellow Sea: The Highest Conservation Priority In East Asia

In the fun company of Paul Holt and Marie Louise, I have just made my 15th visit to Nanpu, a small town situated on the coast of the Bohai Bay in Hebei Province, China.  At this time of year the outskirts of this unassuming settlement play host to one of nature’s most incredible spectacles – the migration of millions of shorebirds from their Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere, many travelling as far as Australia and New Zealand.  It is truly awe-inspiring to see, and hear, flocks of shorebirds excitedly arriving on the newly exposed mud on the falling tide and there’s nowhere better  in the world than China’s east coast to witness this stunning scene…. Just listen to ABC presenter Ann Jones and Chinese birder and good friend, Bai Qingquan, describe this phenomenon in this short clip from the excellent BBC World Service/ABC radio series.

A Google Earth image showing the location of Nanpu, in the Bohai Bay.
A Google Earth image showing the location of Nanpu, in the Bohai Bay.

We enjoyed a brilliant two days with 33 species of shorebird logged, including flocks of long-distance migrants, many of which were still in fine breeding plumage, including GREAT KNOT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, GREY PLOVER, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, the ‘Near Threatened’ ASIAN DOWITCHER and even a single ‘Endangered’ NORDMANN’S GREENSHANK.  My poor quality video and photos simply don’t do justice to these birds.

2016-07-28 Asian Dowitcher juvenile, Nanpu
Juvenile ASIAN DOWITCHER, Nanpu, 28 July 2016

As we were travelling back to Beijing, I checked the news on my smartphone.  The headline was about the Rio Olympics, a forward look to two weeks of celebrating the astonishing physical feats of the world’s best athletes – from 100m sprinters to marathon runners.  The parallel with the shorebirds was striking.  Take the Bar-tailed Godwit.  One population of this species winters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes the return journey directly, a gob-smacking non-stop 11,000 km over the Pacific Ocean.  According to scientists, this journey is the equivalent of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more then seven days!  Along the way, the birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain in Alaska. And before they embark on this epic journey, they even shrink their digestive organs, superfluous weight for a non-stop 7-day flight. Try that, Usain!

Bolt v BT Godwit
The best athlete in the world: Bar-tailed Godwit or Usain Bolt?  Bolt reaches speeds of around 48km/h, with an average of 38km/h, for under 10 seconds in the 100m sprint.  The Godwit’s effort is the equivalent of running at 70km/h non-stop for 7 days!

Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has fallen sharply, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today.  And the Bar-tailed Godwit is only one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the so-called Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea).  The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

So what is the reason for the decline?  Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team have, through years of painstaking studies, proved what many birders have long suspected – that the main cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea.  Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat.  If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.

The problem, in China at least, is a combination of local economics and national regulations.  The coastal region of China is home to 40% of the country’s population, and produces roughly 60% of national GDP.  Local governments receive much of their revenue through land sales and the land that demands the highest price is agricultural land close to major cities.  However, to ensure China’s food security is preserved, there is a national regulation (the Law of Land Management) stipulating that there must be no net loss of agricultural land.  So any farmland sold for development must be offset by land elsewhere being allocated for agriculture.  The relatively cheap reclamation of mudflats is, therefore, a profitable way for Provinces to be able to sell high-value land for development whilst conforming with the “no net loss” rule by allocating much of the reclaimed land for aquaculture.  In the absence of a law protecting nationally-important ecosystems, local priorities rule.  And, although large-scale land reclamation projects, at least in theory, require national level approval, these rules are easily circumvented by splitting large projects into several, smaller, constituent parts.  With a booming economy over the last few decades, resulting in high demand for land, the tidal mudflats are suffering death by a thousand cuts.

In South Korea, it’s a similar story.  Perhaps surprisingly, it’s North Korea’s relatively undeveloped coastline that could provide the last refuge for the dwindling populations of these birds.

So, what can be done?  Ultimately, what’s needed is greater protection for, and more effective management of, nationally important ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, not only for migratory birds but also to avoid undermining China’s basic ecological security, such as providing fishery products, fresh water and flood control.  That will require a combination of new laws, amendments to existing laws, regulations and greater public awareness.  There is some great work on this, initiated by the Paulson Institute in partnership with China’s State Forestry Administration and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that makes some compelling recommendations.

In parallel to these recommendations, one idea is to secure nomination of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion as a shared World Heritage Site between China and North and South Korea.  The concept is based on the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site, a so-called ‘serial’ nomination of linked sites across three countries.  Initiated by The Netherlands and Germany in 2009, with Denmark joining in 2014, this World Heritage Site is based in large part on its unique importance for migratory waterbirds.  Whilst World Heritage Site status wouldn’t mean automatic protection for the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, it would give it greater national and international recognition based on its significance for migratory shorebirds along the world’s largest and most important flyway.  That must be a good thing.

More immediately there is much that must be done to raise awareness about the importance of these areas for migratory shorebirds, as well as local livelihoods – vital work if the conservation community is to have a chance of influencing local governments.   Whenever I speak about migratory shorebirds in China, without exception, people are amazed by the journeys these birds undertake and they are enthused to do something to help.  Most are simply unaware that the Yellow Sea coast lies at the heart of the flyway.  The good news is that there is now an increasing number of local birdwatching and conservation groups in many of China’s coastal provinces engaging local governments and doing what they can to save their local sites. There are grassroots organisations in China working hard to promote environmental education, not only with schools but also the general public.  And there is a growing band of young Chinese scientists studying shorebird migration along the Yellow Sea.  These groups fill me with great optimism about China’s future conservation community.

Internationally, organisations such as BirdLife, including their superb China Programme team – Simba Chan and Vivian Fu – are working with groups such as the Global Flyway Network, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, as well as Professor Theunis Piersma and his dedicated team.  Together, they are advancing the concept of the World Heritage Site with the UN, governments and local groups.  At the same time, I believe it is incumbent on us all to be Ambassadors for these birds, to celebrate their lives and to do what we can to promote awareness about their incredible journeys.

The tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are one of China’s treasures, alongside the Great Wall, but they are in peril.  Affording them robust protection and effective management is the highest conservation priority in east Asia and it’s a race against time.

Wouldn’t it be something if, alongside the rolling coverage of the Olympics, state TV and radio profiled the most impressive athletes of all – the shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway?

 

References and resources:

BIRDS OF THE YELLOW SEA – datavisualization of migration routes by 422 South on Vimeo.  See URL: https://vimeo.com/150776396

BBC World Service/ABC Radio series on the East Asian Flyway, 2016.  See URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wpkd8

Saemangeum on Birds Korea.  See URL: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-Mainpage.shtml

Why North Korea Is A Safe Haven For Birds, BBC, 2016.  See URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36533469

The Paulson Institute Blueprint of Coastal Wetland Conservation and Management in China, 2015.  See URL: http://www.paulsoninstitute.org/news/2015/10/19/paulson-institute-and-chinese-partners-publish-blueprint-of-coastal-wetland-conservation-and-management-in-china/

Global Flyway Network: see URL: http://globalflywaynetwork.com.au/

East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP): See URL: http://www.eaaflyway.net/

Photo of Usain Bolt “Bolt celebrating at the 2013 London Anniversary Games” by J Brichto used under license from Creative Commons.

Bolt’s speed: see URL: http://running.competitor.com/2014/02/junk-miles/6-animals-faster-than-usain-bolt_95078

Asian Dowitchers

Early August is a great time to see a range of east Asian shorebirds on the coast of China.  So last Saturday I planned to make a 2-day trip to check out Nanpu, a vast and featureless area of salt works and ponds to the south of Tangshan in Hebei Province that hosts hundreds of thousands of waders in spring and autumn.

I woke a little earlier than usual with mild abdominal pain.  I put it down to the particularly spicy curry I had consumed on the Friday evening, popped a couple of paracetamol and set off.  There was no way a little stomach pain was going to stop me driving the 2.5 hours to see 100,000+ waders on the coast…

As my journey progressed I was excited to see the air and cloud clearing – having started as a smoggy and cloudy day, Saturday turned into a beautifully clear, blue sky day.

On arrival I slowly drove the long road towards the coast, checking the roadside ponds.  I was buoyed by a beautiful BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER in amongst the many SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS, KENTISH PLOVERS and BLACK-WINGED STILTS.

I then found a superb pond filled with mostly BLACK-TAILED GODWITS, MARSH SANDPIPERS and SPOTTED REDSHANKS.  As I carefully scanned, I found a group of ASIAN DOWITCHERS, a regular but fairly scarce migrant.  I counted 22, 21 adults and one juvenile, in a small area.  By now my abdominal pain was worsening and I was considering whether to go to a local hotel to rest or to drive back to Beijing.  Whilst I was deciding what to do, I took the opportunity to record some video of the ASIAN DOWITCHERS.

After making this recording I decided to head back to Beijing; if I was going to be ill, I would much rather be in my apartment in Beijing than in a low-grade hotel in a small Chinese town.  I was glad I did.  When I reached my apartment late on Saturday evening, I could hardly stand up due to the pain.  I called a friend and he took me to the Emergency Room of my local hospital where, after a series of tests and a CT scan, I was diagnosed with acute appendicitis.  Just a few hours later I was in the recovery room after my appendectomy, feeling glad that my appendix didn’t decide to misbehave in some remote part of the developing world!

Waders at Nanpu, Tangshan

Last weekend I hired a car and drove to the Bohai coast south of Tangshan (唐山) – specifically to the Nanpu Development Zone – to look for waders.

It took me a little over two and a half hours to drive the 200km from Beijing to the coast, mostly along the excellent G1 highway, and it didn’t take me long to find a suitable hotel relatively close to the coast at which to base myself for 2 days.

The Nanpu Development Area is vast and the changes taking place, including land reclamation, are on a mesmerising scale.  There were heavy lorries and large machinery almost everywhere and, apart from the birds, it would be a very depressing place to spend a few days.  From the small town of Nanpu, south of Tangshan, it is still a 30km journey along relatively narrow roads, through a prison, to reach the mudflats.  The city of Tangshan, a little to the north, is famous for a huge earthquake that killed over 250,000 people in 1976 and there were signs for memorials and museums as I skirted the city on my way to the coast.

A Beijing-based PhD student, Yang Hong-yan, has been studying the waders in the Nanpu area – specifically the spring migration of the Red Knot – and has extensively covered the area from March to May in the last few Springs.  I am very grateful to her for sharing her knowledge (including maps and directions), without which I would have almost certainly got completely lost in the labyrinth of dirt tracks and roads that criss-cross the fish farms and salt works in this area.

Nanpu map

Typical pools at Nanpu

Once I had checked into the hotel, I began the journey to the coast to check out the area in preparation for a full day’s birding the following day.  I followed Hong-yan’s directions with a little trepidation as she advised me that the best route was to take a road that ran “directly through a huge prison” and that I “shouldn’t get out of the car or have any of my optics on view” when I was on this section of the road, no matter how tempting the flocks of waders looked!  Hmm, I thought..  this could be interesting – a foreigner on his own in a Beijing-plate car driving through a Chinese prison.

Still, she assured me that I would “probably be ok” and, with that encouragement I reached the entrance to the prison where I was met by a delegation of what looked like Chinese army officers.  They seemed to be operating a policy of stopping a random selection of vehicles, controlled by one officer standing on a box and waving either a red or a green flag, depending on whether that vehicle would be stopped.  Surprisingly, I was given a green flag and waved through.   There was a large and forbidding-looking fence on either side of the road, beyond which prisoners were working in the salt works.  It looked like extremely hard manual work and I began to wonder what crimes these people had committed and in what conditions they lived.  They looked desperate.

My mind was soon back on birds when I began to see flocks of Black-winged Stilts on some of the ponds..  hundreds turning into thousands.. they were everywhere (I estimated 3,000 along this stretch alone).  And amongst them I could see there were other waders – I could make out Godwits but many of the others were too distant to identify with the naked eye and, following Hong-yan’s advice, I had no intention of stopping the car along this road.

After several kilometers, I reached the other side of the prison and, again, was greeted by a group of soldiers.  They were stopping all vehicles leaving the prison, apparently checking for stowaway prisoners..  With a combination of my broken Chinese and innovative sign language (they were pointing at the boot!), I could sense that they wanted to look into the boot of the car.  Using mirrors on long poles, one guard checked the underside of the car while another looked with some concern at my tripod and telescope in the boot..  I explained that I was birdwatching and, with a warm smile, he indicated to the flag man that all was ok and I was given the green flag to continue.  Phew.

The drive from here to the coast was very ‘birdy’… there were pools on my right-hand side, many holding good numbers of waders and, on my left, there was a tidal creek hosting good numbers of Sharp-tailed, Marsh, Common and Wood Sandpipers.  Given the width of the road and my uneasiness at the proximity of the prison, I did not stop and drove on.  The next few kilometers were the same – lots of birds – and I soon found a couple of tracks off to the side that allowed me to pull off the road and scan..  I saw Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, hundreds of White-winged and Whiskered Terns, Gull-billed Terns, more Black-winged Stilts, Common Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Avocet, Kentish and Little Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, a few Black-tailed Gulls and a single Grey-tailed Tattler.  Wow..  Knowing that the high tide was due, I pressed on to the coast and, as I reached the mudflats, the road ended and a dirt track branched off to the right along the sea wall.  I parked up about 2 km along the track in an area that allowed me to scan the mudflats and also watch the waders fly over the seawall to an area of flooded pools that provided a good roost site for the birds until the mud was uncovered again on the falling tide.

Local accommodation along the tidal creek
Black-winged Stilt, Nanpu. Easily the most common bird at this site.

Despite it being late afternoon, it was hot and humid.  Around 35 degrees C without a breath of wind and, even with a hat and lots of water, it was not the most pleasant of conditions and I was constantly wiping my brow to stem the flow of sweat into my eyes..  Nevertheless, it was very good to be birding on the coast and seeing waders.  This area produced good numbers of Curlew – both Far Eastern (34) and Eurasian (29) – on the mudflats that gradually made their way closer to me as the tide pushed in.   Some Saunders’ Gulls (12) occasionally passed along the sea wall and a few Pacific Golden (4) and Grey Plovers (14) fed on the mud alongside many Kentish Plovers (c80) and a single Lesser Sand Plover.  On the inland side of the seawall, a party of 56 Great Knot, 2 Red-necked Stints, 23 Spotted Redshank, 48 Marsh Sandpiper, 7 Common Sandpiper, 29 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 4 Common Redshank, 3 Wood Sandpiper, 34 Avocet, 2 Terek Sandpiper and a single Grey-tailed Tattler all loafed on the edges of the lagoons.  A Long-tailed Shrike hunted from the wires along the sea wall and 2 Dark-sided Flycatchers fed on insects in the nearby shrubs.

Kentish Plover, Nanpu.

The visibility was poor on my first evening on site, so I wasn’t able to see the full extent of the mudflats or the birds that were using them but I left that evening having a good feel for the site and the areas that offered most promise.

The mudflats at Nanpu from the seawall. Visibility was poor on day one.

After a delicious meal in a small local restaurant, where I was treated as if I was the first foreigner many of the locals had ever seen, I retired early and made an early start the next day.  The day started out very foggy but, thankfully, by the time I had made my prison break, it had cleared a lot and on arrival at the mudflats I could see for around two miles.  It was at this point that I could appreciate the full scale of the area..  everywhere I looked out to sea, I could see local people digging for shellfish or checking nets on the mud.  Heavy machinery – cranes and earth-movers – punctured the skyline.  Despite this unnatural setting, there were birds.. not huge numbers but a good variety.  After a few minutes of scanning I looked up to see a gull fly overhead and land on the mud a few hundred metres away.  It had a black hood and, from the underwing pattern in flight and its structure I thought it could be a Relict Gull.  I trained my telescope onto it and, sure enough, there was a stunning Relict Gull, just beginning to moult from its breeding plumage.  I made some field notes and enjoyed watching this rare gull preen and feed.  Relict Gulls have a very distinctive front-heavy look and they patrol the mud looking for crabs in a manner reminiscent of plovers.  On another stretch of mudflats, in amongst some local crabbers, there were at least 50 of these gulls feeding at low tide..  a really great sight and, trumping my spring sighting of a few flyovers at Yeyahu in Spring, these were my best ever views of Relict Gull.

The mudflats on day two - much clearer
Juvenile Black-winged Stilts, Nanpu

Other birds on view included Bar-tailed Godwit, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, a few Black-headed Gulls, small numbers of Red-necked Stint and both Gull-billed and Little Terns.  On the roost were loafing Black-tailed Gulls, a few Black-headed Gulls, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Common, Gull-billed, Little, Whiskered and White-winged Terns and Wood and Common Sandpipers.

Marsh Sandpiper, Nanpu.
Crabs on the mud.

After waiting until the tide pushed off all of the birds from the flats I began to make my way back towards town, stopping to check the roadside pools.  More Black-winged Stilts, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Kentish Plovers…  Then I saw a much smaller pool with lots more birds and there was a track that went alongside, enabling me to view with the sun behind me.  There were lots of Bar-tailed and a few Black-tailed Godwits, Marsh, Wood and Common Sandpipers, two Red Knot, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Avocet and the omnipresent Black-winged Stilt.  Amongst the Bar-tailed Godwit I spotted a slightly smaller godwit-like bird with a straight all-dark bill and dark legs.  An Asian Dowitcher!  A new bird for me.  Soon I got onto a second bird – this time a juvenile (quite early?) – and I watched these two birds for some time as they fed with the godwits.  The ‘tramlines’ along the back, together with the straight bills,  helped me to pick out these birds quite easily in the group.

A local fisherman walked past and flushed all the waders and, after waiting a few minutes to see if they would return, I carried on when it was clear that the birds had dispersed.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Nanpu. A common bird during my visit, preferring the muddy edges of tidal creeks.

A single Kestrel was the only raptor I saw and the rest of the supporting cast included Black Drongo, Tree Sparrow, Grey and White Wagtails, Common Magpie, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Great Cormorant, Yellow and Great Bitterns, Grey Heron, Little and Great Egrets.

I spent the following morning at the same spots, enjoying a lovely encounter with a feeding flock of marsh terns, before heading back to Beijing around lunchtime in time to return the hire car for 5pm.

Moulting adult White-winged Tern, Nanpu. I enjoyed a flock of over 200 of these birds, together with Whiskered Terns, feeding low over the water on a roadside pool.

A thoroughly enjoyable couple of days in a challenging setting.  The development is relentless but, despite this, the birds are there and seemingly adapting to the ever-changing shape of the environment.  One can only hope that at least part of the mudflats of the Bohai Gulf are protected from land reclamation to ensure that this important stopover is not completely lost.