At the end of May, I reported on the successful breeding of Baer’s Pochard at Hengshui Hu, just 300km south of Beijing. It’s remarkable progress in the conservation of this diving duck which, with fewer than 1,000 remaining, is classified as critically endangered, just one step away from extinction.
This week I paid my latest visit to Hengshui Hu to help deliver more training of the local nature reserve staff including the ‘enforcement team’ on waterbird monitoring and identification. During the three-hour train journey to Hengshui, I wondered whether the measures taken by the local government and nature reserve to clamp down on illegal fishing, egg collection and to manage the water levels during the breeding season would be sustained.
I needn’t have worried. Early morning on my first full day, we enjoyed a ‘field visit’ along the causeway to check for Baer’s Pochard and other waterbirds and there wasn’t a fishing boat or net in sight.. There were good numbers of young Great Crested and Little Grebes, Coots, a few groups of juvenile Ferruginous Ducks, tens each of Black-crowned Night, Purple and Grey Herons, Yellow Bitterns were flying back and forth with food and, in contrast to their British counterparts already well on their way to Africa, the Common Cuckoos were still very obvious, calling and chasing each other over the reed beds, much to the annoyance of the local Oriental Reed Warblers. The colony, 100s strong, of Whiskered Terns on one of the disused fishponds with a Pheasant-tailed Jacana pottering on the lotus leaves showed just how habitat, and its associated biodiversity, can recover if given the chance.
After the training, the nature reserve staff arranged for me to be taken out on a boat patrol with the enforcement team and we found a group of at least four juvenile aythyas, tentatively identified as Baer’s Pochards based on head shape and bill size compared with juvenile Ferruginious seen earlier. And my hosts quickly sent packing two groups of fishermen who had sneaked to the shore close to the main Baer’s Pochard breeding area.
On arrival at my hotel along the east bank of Hengshui Hu, I was pleasantly surprised to receive my room card, complete with a picture of Baer’s Pochard.. and in my room was a leaflet with information about the Baer’s Pochard and the importance of Hengshui Hu for the species. Great public engagement!
The bird monitoring team at Hengshui University, led by Dr Wu Dayong and Li Feng, now have an impressive full year of waterbird data, collected at least weekly, for and they’ve even added some new species to the official list for the site.
The future of Baer’s Pochard at this site now looks bright and huge credit must go to the local government, local nature reserve, Hengshui University and the local people who now see Baer’s Pochard as a key part of their identity.
Hengshui Hu is undoubtedly the “Home of Baer’s Pochard”.
At 1748 local time on 28 May 2018, Li Feng, a researcher and bird surveyor from Hengshui University found, photographed and videoed a female BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri) with ducklings at Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve in Hebei Province, China. This is the first confirmed breeding of the “Critically Endangered” diving duck anywhere in the world in 2018 and is almost certainly a direct result of conservation efforts by the local government and nature reserve staff, supported by the Sino-German Hengshui Lake Conservation and Management Project
The breeding success follows hot on the heels of the first international workshop of the Baer’s Pochard Task Force at Hengshui Hu in March 2018 and the subsequent commitments from the local government and local nature reserve to manage the lake for the benefit of this beautiful diving duck.
Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri) is a poorly known migratory diving duck that was formerly widespread in eastern Asia.Since the 1980s it has suffered a precipitous decline throughout its range, estimated to be >90%, and fewer than 1,000 birds now survive in the wild, making it rarer than the Giant Panda.Since 2012 it has been classified by the IUCN as “Critically Endangered”, meaning it is just one step away from extinction in the wild.In the last five years it has become clear that Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province is the most important known site in the world for this species with more than 300 recorded during spring migration in 2017, several overwintering and a few pairs spending the summer.However, due to a combination of fluctuating water levels during the breeding season, illegal egg collection and disturbance by electro-fishermen and tourist boats, there has been no recent evidence of breeding.
It was back in March 2017 that I visited Hengshui Hu, as part of the Sino-German Hengshui Hu Project run by German Development Bank, KfW, to to help train Hengshui University and nature reserve staff about waterbird monitoring and identification of Baer’s Pochard. At that time I could not have dared dream that there would be breeding success a little over a year later.
Since then, the local groups have been systematically counting waterfowl, in particular Baer’s Pochard, on a weekly basis, helping to build up a better picture of how the lake is used by Baer’s Pochard and other waterbirds. At the same time, a series of targeted conservation actions have been initiated, including declaring the likely favoured breeding area as a seasonal fully protected zone, compensating fishermen who could no longer fish in the protected zone, clamping down on illegal activity including illegal fishing and egg collection, stabilising the water level during the breeding season to avoid nests being flooded, and beginning a public information campaign to raise awareness about the global importance of Hengshui Hu for Baer’s Pochard.
Just two months ago, the international spotlight shone on Hengshui Hu when, on 19-20 March 2018, delegates from ten countries gathered for the first international workshop on the conservation of the Baer’s Pochard under the auspices of the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP).Delegates from Bangladesh, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Russia and Thailand heard from senior Chinese local and national government officials, academics and international experts, discussed urgent conservation priorities and agreed the “Hengshui Declaration”.
The actions by the local nature reserve and Hengshui University, enabled and reinforced by the political will shown by the local government, have undoubtedly created the conditions for successful breeding in 2018 and, in another demonstration of local commitment, more than 40 volunteers from Hengshui University have already set up a group to monitor the progress of these, and hopefully more, Baer’s Pochard ducklings.
The positive results from Hengshui, coming so quickly after the concerted actions to support Baer’s Pochard, are deeply heartening and demonstrate that local conservation actions can deliver results. And although there is a very long way to go to secure the future of this endangered species in the wild, successful breeding represents a positive step forward for the conservation effort.
Big congratulations to the local government, the local nature reserve, especially Mr Yuan Bo and Ms Liu Zhenjie, and to Hengshui University, in particular Dr Wu Dayong and Li Feng, and to everyone else involved, including Professors Ding Changqing and Lei Guangchun and Dr Wu Lan at Beijing Forestry University, Guido Kuchelmeister, Matthias Bechtolsheim and John Howes from the KfW project, Rich Hearn at WWT, Hyeseon Do from EAAFP and many more.
Good news on conservation seems to be coming thick and fast from China. With the recent ban on land reclamation along China’s coast – a massive boost to the tens of millions of migratory shorebirds that rely on the food-rich intertidal mudflats to fuel their marathon journeys – and the listing of a series of coastal sites on the tentative list for World Heritage Site status, there has been significant progress in the last 12 months for migratory shorebirds.
And this week there was major progress for the ‘Critically Endangered’ Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri). From 19-21 March I participated in a workshop at Hengshui Hu, around 300km south of Beijing. Convened by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP)’s Baer’s Pochard Task Force, an international coalition of partner organisations dedicated to saving this endangered duck, the workshop was designed to promote its conservation. And Hengshui Hu was a fitting location – as an important stopover site, a breeding site and with a handful spending the winter, this lake is the most important known location for this species in the world.
The workshop, hosted by Beijing Forestry University and Hengshui Municipal Government and organised by Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve, the School of Nature Conservation at Beijing Forestry University and Hengshui University, was opened by the Deputy Mayor of Hengshui and included participants from ten countries – Bangladesh, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Russia and Thailand.
It’s fair to say the workshop was nothing short of inspirational. The huge sense of local pride in Hengshui about being the most important (known) place in the world for this species was palpable and the research presented by Chinese academics, including Dr Wu Lan and a team of volunteers from across the Provinces (part of which showcased the results of a 2017/2018 winter survey with more than 800 birds counted) – was impressive.
In the opening session, the State Forestry Administration announced that Baer’s Pochard has been recommended to be added to the list of species with “Class 1 protection” in China, meaning that anyone killing or endangering it will face severe penalties. And, together with the contributions from all the range countries in east and south Asia, the workshop was a major step forward in consolidating knowledge, identifying research gaps and priority actions as well as significantly raising the profile of Baer’s Pochard locally and nationally. Huge kudos to the organisers, especially Professor Ding Changqing and his team from Beijing Forestry University, Dr Wu Dayong and his team from Hengshui University, the Hengshui Municipal Government, Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve, EAAFP and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. It was a privilege to be there.
First, as stated above, the State Forestry Administration announced that they have recommended BAER’S POCHARD be added to the list of species with special (Class 1) protection in China. This is significant as, if approved, it would mean severe penalties for anyone killing or endangering this species or its habitats. That is a serious deterrent to any would-be poachers and egg collectors.
Second, Hengshui Hu was urged to apply for status as a wetland of international significance under the Ramsar Convention and, importantly for building local pride, Hengshu Hu was designated as “The Home of Baer’s Pochard”.
As well as the formal outcomes detailed in the Declaration, local officials committed to strengthening enforcement of laws and regulations about illegal fishing, egg collecting and habitat disturbance. Having seen many examples of electric fishing (illegal in all of China, not only in nature reserves), reed cutting and egg collection during my many visits to Hengshui Hu over the past few years, this is heartening to hear and I very much hope these wonderful words will be backed up by action on the ground. Our field visit to the site on the second day of the workshop has given me optimism – it was clear that nearly all of the fishing nets have been removed and, according to the local officials, more than 200 boats have been confiscated. Powerful stuff.
One outcome not recorded in the official Declaration but nevertheless will be welcomed by many, I am sure, is the idea that the local beer will be re-branded as “Baer’s Pochard beer” with a percentage of sales going to Baer’s Pochard conservation. If any locals needed an incentive to drink more beer, this must surely be it!
It’s striking how much progress has been made in the last five years. It was only in 2012 that there were very few sightings of Baer’s Pochard anywhere in the world and in February of that year a British birder famously travelled to Japan from the UK just for the weekend to see one. The fact that he was prepared to fly half way around the world to see a single overwintering drake a few hours from Tokyo was testament not only to the rarity of this once abundant duck from eastern Asia but also that, at the time, there were no reliable sites to see it in the wild anywhere on Earth and it was thought to be on the verge of slipping away. Later that year, Chinese birders reported up to four breeding pairs of Baer’s Pochard at Hengshui Hu and, since then, this site has become THE place to see this species. More than 300 were counted there in March 2017 during spring migration.
On Wednesday evening I returned to Beijing with many of the delegates and the atmosphere among the group was joyous, so much so that even a 20-minute detention at a police checkpoint failed to dampen the spirits.
Whilst Baer’s Pochard is a species that remains at serious risk of extinction in the wild, the prognosis today is such a contrast to 2012. Along with the announcement of the ban on land reclamation, it’s been a dream-like beginning to 2018 for conservationists in China. I could get used to this feeling!
Header photo: a drake BAER’S POCHARD by Luo Jianhong.
Background about the Baer’s Pochard
In the early 1900s Baer’s Pochard was described by La Touche as “extremely abundant” in eastern China during spring and autumn migration as it made its way to and from its breeding grounds in northeast China and southeast Russia. Some notes from formerly Beijing-based Jesper Hornskov described a flock of 114 on the lake at the Summer Palace as recently as March 1989. Many birders who visited the Chinese east coast migration hotspot of Beidaihe in the 1980s and 1990s probably saw reasonable numbers, too. Historically, it was reliable in winter at Poyang Hu in Jiangxi Province, with flocks numbering 100s of birds being reported there as recently as the 1990s and 2000s.
However, its decline since then has been dramatic and near catastrophic. In 2012 a (partial) summer survey of what was thought to be its breeding stronghold – Lake Khanka on the China-Russian border – produced not a single confirmed sighting during the core breeding season, although two were seen in August. Similarly, a 2012/2013 survey of its known core wintering grounds, coordinated by WWT and WWF China, produced just 45 individuals thinly spread across the Provinces of Anhui, Henan, Hubei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Sichuan and Hong Kong, an apparently calamitous drop in numbers that explains why the status of Baer’s Pochard was upgraded to “Critically Endangered” by BirdLife International.
The reasons for the dramatic decline are not well understood but are likely to include habitat destruction and degradation (partly natural, caused by a long-term drought in northeast China, but predominantly human-related), and hunting pressure at stopover sites and on the wintering grounds. However, it is an interesting contrast that the Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca), a species with which Baer’s Pochard often associates and that shares similar habitat preferences, appears to be increasing in numbers and spreading north and east.
In fact, the expansion of the range of Ferruginous Duck could be an additional threat to an already vulnerable Baer’s Pochard due to the spectre of hybridisation. I have personally seen drake Baer’s Pochards displaying to female (and male!) Ferruginous Ducks in Beijing and at Hengshui Hu, and several birds during our field trip on Tuesday 20 March 2018 showed characteristics of both species.
The most recent winter survey in China produced a relatively high total of a little over 800 birds and I think it’s fair to say that probably constitutes the majority of the global population. With the location of only a handful of breeding pairs known, there’s still so much to learn about the breeding areas, distribution and ecology of Baer’s Pochard.
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.
Last week I was invited to Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province by officials from the German government-owned development bank, KfW. In partnership with the Hengshui Hu nature reserve and Hengshui University, KfW is beginning a project to support the sustainable management of this impressive wetland which, as well as supporting breeding populations of Reed Parrotbill, Blunt-winged Warbler and Schrenck’s Bittern, happens to be the most important known site for the ‘Critically Endangered’ BAER’S POCHARD (BP).
I arrived at Hengshui Hu on the afternoon of 7 March and spent the last two hours of daylight checking the southern part of the lake. I recorded a minimum of 42 BPs as well as 21 Ferruginous Duck, at least 2,300 Coot, a handful of Smew and 2 Common Mergansers. However, as the light faded, I could see distant rafts of birds on the water in the more northerly part of the lake and I wondered what the morning would bring. On the short drive back to the hotel I was pleasantly surprised to see a banner with a large photograph of Baer’s Pochard draped over the road on the western side of the lake – public awareness!
I’d arranged to meet Guido and Matthias from KfW and Dr Wu Dayong of Hengshui University the following morning at 0630 for a survey. As we began our walk along the causeway, we were treated to a wonderful morning with little wind, a temperature hovering around freezing and beautiful clear blue skies. Perfect conditions. It wasn’t long before we were encountering small groups of BP and, in the ideal conditions, we enjoyed some superb views of males and females.
As we walked further we began to see some larger groups and, before we had even walked half of the causeway, our count was well over 200. Soon after a stunning encounter with some of the local Reed Parrotbills, Guido and Matthias reluctantly had to leave to attend a meeting as I continued my walk.
About an hour and a half later I met Dr Wu at the southern end of the causeway having counted 308 BPs, a new record for the site, eclipsing the 293 recorded by Paul Holt and Dr Li Qingxin on 9 December 2016. An additional 5 birds were presumed BP x Ferruginous Duck hybrids (some video of females and presumed hybrids can be seen here).
After lunch with KfW and the nature reserve staff I held a short identification workshop with the nature reserve staff focusing on how to distinguish BP from the superficially similar, at least in female, immature and eclipse plumages, Ferruginous Duck. I hope to be able to provide some more support over the next few weeks to help the staff begin regular monitoring of the birds at this important site.
On the 4-hour journey home I began to think about the future of BP. With two groups of Beijing-based scientists and conservationists, led by Dr Wu Lan and Dr Li Qingxin, already researching BP’s ecology and population dynamics, the creation of an international Baer’s Pochard Task Force, a new project at Hengshui Hu involving both local and international experts that will help take into account biodiversity in the management of the reserve, a clear understanding by the nature reserve staff and local academics of the importance of Hengshui Hu to BP, their willingness to begin regular bird monitoring, signs of public engagement and a record site count of BPs, I began to smile. Of course there is a long way to go to slow, halt and reverse the decline in the population of Baer’s Pochard but it appears some of the key building blocks are beginning to be put in place.
Looking out of my apartment window on the first day of 2017, a blanket of toxic smog seems to drain all colour out of life and the perennial question question pops into my head – why do I live in such a polluted, congested place?
Header image: the view from my apartment at 1200 on 1 January 2017
The answer, of course, is the excitement and adventure of living in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation. And when one considers the positives – the stunning biodiversity, the opportunity for discovery, the potential to make a difference and the wonderful people – the negatives are seen in context and they become far more tolerable.
Looking back, 2016 has been an astonishing year with many highlights, thankfully few lowlights, and progress made in some key conservation issues. Together, they give me a genuine sense of optimism for the future.
January began with the unexpected discovery, by two young Beijing birders, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of a small flock of the “Endangered” Jankowski’s Buntings at Miyun Reservoir. This was the first record of Jankowski’s Bunting in Beijing since 1941 and, given the precipitous decline in the population of this poorly known species, a most unexpected find. The fact they were found by young Chinese is testament to the growing community of talented young birders in Beijing. There are now more than 200 members of the Birding Beijing WeChat group, in which sightings and other bird-related issues are discussed and shared. Huge credit must go to world-class birders such as Paul Holt and Per Alström who have been generous in sharing their knowledge of Chinese birds with the group. As well as the expanding WeChat group, there are now more than 400 members of the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society (up from 300 in the last 12 months). So, although starting from a low baseline, the increasing membership, together with the increase in the number of local birdwatching societies, such as in Zigong in Sichuan, and the development of international birding festivals, such as in Lushun, Dalian, shows that there is the beginning of an upsurge in the number of young people interested in birdwatching. That is a positive sign for the future of China’s rich and unique avifauna.
In tandem with the growth in birding is the emergence of a number of organisations dedicated to environmental education across China. Given the relative lack of environment in the Chinese State Curriculum, there is high demand amongst many parents for their children to develop a connection with nature. I’m fortunate to work with one such organisation – EcoAction – set up and run by dynamic Sichuan lady, Luo Peng. With a birding club for Beijing school kids, a pilot ‘environmental curriculum’ in two of Beijing’s State Schools and bespoke sustainable ecotourism trips to nature reserves for families and schools, Peng deserves great credit for her energy and vision in helping to change the way people interact with the environment. I am looking forward to working with her much more in 2017.
After the boon of seeing Jankowski’s Buntings in Beijing, a lowlight in late January was the desperately sad passing of a much-loved mentor and friend, the inspirational Martin Garner. Martin fought a brave and typically dignified and open, battle with cancer. I feel enormously lucky to have met Martin and to have corresponded with him on many birding-related issues. His wisdom, positivity and selfless outlook on life will be missed for years to come and his influence continues to run through everything I do.
Much of the early part of the spring was spent making the arrangements for what has been, for me, the highlight of the year – The Beijing Cuckoo Project. Following the success of the Beijing Swift Project, the results of which proved for the first time that Swifts from Beijing winter in southern Africa, the obvious next step was to replicate the British Trust for Ornithology’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China. We needed to find Chinese partners, secure the necessary permissions, raise funds to pay for the transmitters and satellite services, and make the logistical arrangements for the visit of “Team Cuckoo”. At the end of May, everything was set and the international team arrived in Beijing. Together with the local team, we caught and fitted transmitters to five Common Cuckoos, subsequently named by Beijing schoolchildren and followed via a dedicated webpage and on social media. We could not have wished for a better result. Three of the five are now in Africa, after making incredible journeys of up to 12,500km since being fitted with their transmitters, including crossing the Arabian Sea. As of 1 January, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan are in Tanzania and Skybomb Bolt is in Mozambique.
This Beijing Cuckoo Project has combined groundbreaking science with public engagement. With articles in Xinhua (China’s largest news agency), Beijing Youth Daily, China Daily, Beijing Science and Technology Daily, India Times, African Times and even the front page of the New York Times, these amazing birds have become, undoubtedly, the most famous cuckoos ever! Add the engagement with schools, not only in Beijing but also in other parts of China, and the reach and impact of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams. I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, especially the Chinese partners – the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, China Birdwatching Society and the staff at the tagging locations (Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu) – who have all been brilliant, as well as the BTO’s Andy Clements and Chris Hewson for their vision and sharing of expertise and the sponsors – Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International. Finally, a big thank you to “Team Cuckoo”: Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Geert De Smet, Gie Goris and Rob Jolliffe. You can follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos here. All being well, Flappy, Meng and Skybomb will return to Beijing by the end of May.
In 2017 we are planning to expand the Beijing Cuckoo Project to become the CHINA Cuckoo Project, which will involve tagging cuckoos in different locations across the country. More on that soon.
As well as being privileged to have been part of such a groundbreaking project, I have been fortunate to be involved with some exciting progress on some of the highest priority conservation issues, working with so many brilliant people, including Vivian Fu and Simba Chan at Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife. The plight of shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is well-known, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper the “poster species” of conservation efforts to try to save what remains of the globally important intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. More than 70% of these vital stopover sites have been destroyed already through land reclamations and much of the remaining area is slated for future reclamation projects. Scientists, including an ever greater number of young Chinese such as Zhu Bingrun, now have the evidence to show that the population declines of many shorebird species, some of which are now classified as “Endangered”, can be attributed in large part to the destruction of the vital stopover sites in the Yellow Sea. After meeting world-leading shorebird expert, Professor Theunis Piersma, in Beijing in May and arranging for him to address Beijing-based birders with a compelling lecture, it’s been a pleasure to support the efforts of international organisations such as BirdLife International, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), led by Spike Millington, IUCN, UNDP and The Paulson Institute as well as local NGOs such as Save Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 山水 (ShanShui) in their interactions with the Chinese government to try to encourage greater protection for, and sustainable management of, the remaining intertidal sites. One of the pillars of the conservation strategy is to nominate the most important sites as a joint World Heritage Site (WHS) involving China and the Koreas (both North and South). This would have the advantage of raising awareness of the importance of these sites to those in the highest levels of government and also requiring greater protection and management of the sites. I am pleased to say that, due to the hard work of these organisations, much progress has been made and the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MoHURD), the ministry responsible for WHS nominations, is now positively taking forward the suggestion and working on the technical papers required to make a submission to the State Council for formal nomination. Special mention should be made of John MacKinnon, whose expertise, network of contacts in China and enthusiasm has made a big difference, to Nicola Crockford of RSPB and Wang Songlin of BirdLife International for their diplomatic work to create the conditions for the WHS issue to come to the fore, to David Melville, who recently delivered a compelling presentation covering a lifetime of shorebird study, to MoHURD at a workshop convened by ShanShui, and to Hank Paulson who, through the publication of the Paulson Institute’s “Blueprint Project” and his personal engagement at a very senior level with Provincial governors, has secured a commitment from the Governor of Hebei Province to protect the sites in his Province highlighted in the Blueprint. These are significant advances that, although far from securing the future of China’s intertidal mudflats, have significantly improved the odds of doing so.
China’s east coast hosts the world’s most impressive bird migration, known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway. That flyway consists of not only shorebirds but also many land birds and it is this concentration of migratory birds every spring and autumn that attracts not only birders but also poachers. This year has seen several horrific media stories about the illegal trapping of birds on an industrial scale, primarily to supply the restaurant trade in southern China where wild birds are considered a delicacy. Illegal trapping is thought to be the primary cause of the precipitous decline in the population of, among others, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially classified as Endangered.
It would be easy to be depressed by such incidents but I believe there are two developments that provide optimism for the future. First, although the legal framework is far from watertight, the authorities are now acting, the incidents are being reported in the media and the culprits are receiving, at least in the largest scale cases, heavy punishments. And second, these cases are being uncovered by volunteers, groups of mostly young people that spend their free time – weekends and days off during weekdays – specifically looking for illegal nets and poachers at migration hotspots. They work with law enforcement to catch the culprits and destroy their tools of the trade. These people are heroes and, although at present it’s still easy for poachers to purchase online mist-nets and other tools used for poaching (there are ongoing efforts to change this), it’s a harder operating environment for them than in the past. Big change doesn’t happen overnight but the combination of greater law enforcement, citizen action and media coverage are all helping to ensure that, with continued effort and strengthening of the legal framework, illegal trapping of migratory birds in China is on borrowed time.
Another conservation issue on which progress has been made is the plight of Baer’s Pochard. The population of this Critically Endangered duck has declined dramatically in the last few decades, the reasons for which are largely unknown. However, after 2016 there is much to be optimistic about. First, there are now dedicated groups studying Baer’s Pochard in China, including population surveys, study of breeding ecology and contributing to an international action plan to save the species. These groups are working with the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, EAAFP and others to build a knowledge base about the species, raise awareness and develop concrete steps to conserve the species at its remaining strongholds. A record count of 293 birds in December at the most important known breeding site in Hebei Province (Paul Holt and Li Qingxin) is a brilliant end to a year that will, hopefully, be a turning point for this species.
On a personal level I was extremely lucky, alongside Marie, to experience a ‘once in a lifetime’ encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai and, just a few days later, two Snow Leopards. Certainly two of my most cherished encounters with wildlife.
So, as I glance out of my window again, I realise that a few days of smog are a small price to pay to be part of the birding and conservation community in China. As 2017 begins, I have a spring in my step.
On 26-27 July I visited the BAER’S POCHARD breeding site in Hebei Province with visiting British birders, Mike Hoit and Andrew Whitehouse, plus Beijing-based Paul Holt and Jennifer Leung. Mike and Andrew had just arrived in China ahead of a trip to Qinghai and, with a couple of days spare, were keen to see BAER’S POCHARD. I had warned them in advance that they are difficult to see in July – the birds are much more secretive once they begin breeding and, in summer, the vegetation is higher. Nevertheless, I was also keen to visit the site to see whether we could find proof of breeding. In addition to the BAER’s, the lake offers superb general birding and is probably the best place in the world to see SCHRENCK’S BITTERN, another difficult world bird. Late July is actually a good time to see the latter, usually secretive, species as the parents make constant flights to collect food for their young.
After the long drive in 35 degrees Celsius heat, we headed straight for the most reliable spot – a series of lotus ponds with areas of open water that, from my previous visits, appear to be a favourite ‘loafing’ location for both BAER’S POCHARD and FERRUGINOUS DUCK.
We were in luck. Almost immediately a stunning male SCHRENCK’S BITTERN made a fly-by at eye level in the lovely late afternoon light and, on one of the lotus pools, was a female BAER’S POCHARD. Result!
After checking out different sites around the lake and enjoying good views of 2 male BAER’S on the open water, we returned to the original spot and, this time, a different BAER’S POCHARD was present. With pale tips to the scapulars and spiky tail feathers, we believed it was a juvenile. I took some video – see below. Clearly, as a ‘Critically Endangered’ species, proof of breeding is significant. And although breeding is likely to have occurred, this would be the first confirmed breeding at this site since 2012. I therefore welcome comments from any ‘aythya‘ experts who might be able to confirm that this is indeed a juvenile BAER’S.
A few volunteers from the Beijing Birdwatching Society have been making occasional visits to this site this spring and summer to survey the BAER’S POCHARDS and so, together, we are slowly building up a picture of the status of this very rare duck. We still lack some basic information such as when they arrive in spring and when they leave in autumn. Given the site freezes over in winter, it’s very likely they move on but there is at least one photo of a BAER’S POCHARD from this site in January, so it’s possible that some remain if there are open patches of water.
The site is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. With vast lotus pools and shallow water at the northern end, it’s attracting swimmers, fishermen and general tourists who like to pick and take home a lotus flower or two. And, although it has status as a Provincial Level Nature Reserve, there are apparently plans for ‘development’. Several sets of plans have been drawn up, including proposals for a “water sports” centre, hovercrafts and an artificial ‘beach’. Thankfully, for the time being, none of these proposals have been given the go-ahead. However, the fact that the management is apparently resisting a proposal for the site to be added to the list of important wetlands (which would mean tighter restrictions on development) is a sign that commercial development of this site is clearly a possibility. Gathering data on the importance of this site for BAER’S POCHARD and other birds and wildlife will be critical in order to make the best case possible against commercial development, or at least to persuade the authorities to retain the most important part of the site as a properly-managed nature reserve. Watch this space.