Last Friday I visited the International School of Beijing (ISB). On the back of their involvement with the Beijing Cuckoo Project, the three students elected as “Cuckoo Ambassadors” have set up a birding club. Meeting on Friday afternoons, the group is planning to invite external speakers to talk about various aspects of birds and to arrange field trips to birding sites in Beijing. I was invited to speak about the Beijing Swift. After a short talk about the Beijing Swift Project and a great Q&A session, we discussed how ISB could help the declining population of Swifts, caused by the demolition of traditional buildings, many of which host Swift nests, and their replacement with new, shiny buildings with no nooks and crannies for Swifts. Including ‘swift bricks’ in the designs of new buildings is one way to help and, for existing buildings, retrofitting nest boxes is another. The students were keen to explore the idea of making nest boxes in their woodwork classes and erecting them on campus with a view to trying to attract a colony to their school and they will be discussing with their teachers this week. If they go ahead, they’ll be the second school to commit to building and erecting swift boxes in Beijing after Harrow International School.
The first field trip, to Yeyahu, was scheduled for the following weekend.
Just two days later I was at the Olympic Forest Park helping to lead a group of students from Hepingli No4 Primary School. This school, too, has its own birding club and even has its own badge, proudly displayed on their backpacks! On a beautiful, but cold, morning we enjoyed good views of some of the park’s residents including Grey Herons, Little Grebes and Light-vented Bulbuls.
It’s heartening to see Beijing’s schools setting up birding clubs and hopefully these two leading lights represent just the beginning of a new trend.
Update: On Monday 6 November I was informed that Kevin O’Shea, one of the teachers at the Canadian International School of Beijing (CISB), has just set up a wildlife club for students, meeting every Wednesday. Congratulations, CISB!
Title image: the badge of Hepingli No4 Primary School’s Birdwatching Society.
It’s been an eventful ten days for the Beijing Cuckoo Project Team. After the elation of Flappy’s and Meng’s return to the breeding grounds, following monumental journeys of 32,000 and 26,000km respectively, there was little time to take a breath before beginning phase two of the Beijing Cuckoo Project. The plan for this year was based on two aims. First, to increase the sample of tagged cuckoos from Beijing and NE China to strengthen the dataset which would enable scientists to make more informed conclusions about the migration of cuckoos from East Asia. And second, to build on the public engagement to reach more people in China and overseas about the wonders of bird migration.
It’s fair to say that this year has been challenging. Over the last ten days or so the Beijing Cuckoo Team has been valiantly navigating all manner of unfortunate incidents including Chinese visa issues, the British Airways IT shutdown, a major forest fire in Inner Mongolia (where we had hoped to tag some of the larger ‘canorus‘ cuckoos) and a hospital visit for one team member, Dick Newell (thankfully, not serious)..
Despite this, three Common Cuckoos (two females and one male) were fitted with tags at Yeyahu in Beijing. They are all of the bakeri subspecies and all were fitted with the tiny new 2g tags from Microwave Telemetry.
The Beijing birds have been given names and are already famous..
The first, a female, was named by the students from the International School of Beijing (ISB). Three students from ISB, along with two teachers, came to Yeyahu and witnessed the setting up of the nets, the capture, tagging and release of the bird. After a vote at school last week involving the whole year, the bird has been named 玉琳 (Yu-Lin). This means “precious jade in the forest”.
The release of Yu-Lin was filmed by Chinese national television (CCTV) as part of a documentary on Beijing’s wildlife. The CCTV crew also managed to secure some fantastic footage of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan) calling close by..!
The documentary will be shown on national television later this year and we’ll publish a link as soon as the programme is available online.
The second cuckoo, a male, was named by staff at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve. The name given is 小松 (XiaoSong) which means “small pine tree”.
The third cuckoo, another female, was named by the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre after an online public vote. After thousands of votes from members of the public, the name chosen was 六月 (LiuYue) meaning “June”.
Of course, being at Yeyahu, we were all hoping to catch a glimpse of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan), one of the Beijing Cuckoos fitted with a tag in 2016. After his marathon journey of more than 26,000km to Mozambique and back, Meng was photographed at Yeyahu on 20 May. And, on 31st May, as we were catching the first Beijing Cuckoos of 2017, we were treated to several close encounters, including a magnificent fly-by just metres away in front of the students and teachers from ISB.
It was wonderful to see and hear so many Cuckoos on the reserve and Meng looked fit and healthy as he interacted aggressively with other males and chased females in all directions.
Each of the three members of the Class of 2017 has its own webpage and their journeys will be added to the map on the dedicated Beijing Cuckoo Project webpage.
What will the next 12 months bring? One thing is for sure – they will entertain, educate, surprise and inspire us…
Huge thanks to my fellow Beijing Cuckoo Project Team members, including Chris Hewson, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan and Robert and Robin Jolliffe. The Beijing Cuckoo Project Team is extremely grateful to all the staff at Yeyahu Nature Reserve and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, especially Shi Yang, Wu Mengwei, Aodan Zhula, Zhang Yaqiong and Wang Bojun for their fantastic support and wonderful hospitality.
On 20 May 2017 Gao Jingxin was visiting Yeyahu wetland in Beijing when she spotted a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) sitting atop a bush. It was the first time she had seen cuckoos this spring and, as an accomplished photographer, she quickly snapped some photos. After studying the photos carefully, Jingxin realised there was something special about this particular cuckoo; an antenna was clearly visible protruding from the bird’s back. Jingxin had been following the Beijing Cuckoo Project since the beginning and immediately thought the bird in her photos could be one of the Cuckoos fitted with a tag last spring. She sent the photos to me via WeChat and asked the question. When I opened the message I was elated and, I must admit, emotional. Having received a signal from Meng’s tag on 20 May showing he had arrived back at Yeyahu, I simply replied “It’s Meng” !
Gao Jingxin’s photographs are a joy to see. They show Meng (full name Meng Zhi Jian, 梦之鹃), seemingly in fantastic condition, back on the breeding grounds and claiming a territory. Incredibly, he was photographed just a few hundred metres from the place where he was fitted with a tag on 25 May 2016.
The signals show that, since being fitted with his tag, Meng has crossed 16 borders involving 10 countries (China – Vietnam – Laos – Myanmar – Bangladesh – India – Somalia – Kenya – Tanzania Mozambique – Tanzania – Kenya – Somalia – India – Bangladesh – Myanmar – China). All without a passport or visa. And along the journey he’s passed through 13 Chinese Provinces and crossed the Arabian Sea twice. In total, we calculate he has flown at least 26,990 kilometers in 12 months. That’s equivalent to more than half way around the world. Wow.
Meng has given us so much new data about the life cycle of cuckoos from East Asia, including information about migration routes, stopover sites, the relationship between the timing of migration and weather/climatic patterns, not to mention the location of, and habitat preferences at, the wintering grounds. This is all vital information if we are to ensure the continued survival of the cuckoo and birds like them. Over the next few weeks and months we’ll be analysing the data to ensure we make full use of the information he has provided.
Experience from Europe shows that cuckoos usually return to the same general area each year to breed so we had expected Meng to return to Beijing Municipality. However, to see him so close to the area where we caught him last May is testament to the incredible navigational ability of these birds, especially since they never even know their parents, let alone learn from them.
Gao Jingxin’s photos are the perfect way to celebrate the first anniversary of the Beijing Cuckoo Project and they’ve rightly gone viral on Chinese social media.
The Project Team is deeply grateful to Gao Jingxin for allowing the use of her wonderful photos on the Birding Beijing website and for helping to complete the cycle of Beijing Cuckoo migration in style. We’d also like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has supported the project over the last 12 months, including the partners – the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), especially Chris Hewson, and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), especially Shi Yang, Aodan Zhula, Wang Bojun and Wu Mengwei, the sponsors – Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Oriental Bird Club (OBC), British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International. Yeyahu Wetland Reserve, Cuihu Urban Wetland and Hanshiqiao Wetland for allowing us to tag birds at their reserves. To Wu Lan, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Gie Goris, Geert De Smet, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Mu Tong, Li Qingxin and Rob Jolliffe who have all played vital roles. And a special thanks to all the members of the public who have either donated to the JustGiving site or followed and helped to spread the word on social media in China and overseas, and to the many schools and schoolchildren across China who have been so engaged in the project.
As we await the return of Flappy, currently in Hubei Province, all that remains is to say “Welcome Home, Meng” and to wish him a successful breeding season in Beijing.
The reaction to the Beijing Cuckoo Project on social media has been wonderful. Below are some of the recent reactions to the journeys of the Beijing Cuckoos. Keep them coming! And follow @BirdingBeijing on Twitter for updates.
Seriously this project is the best. You’d never guess Meng just flew halfway around the world. https://t.co/cooP2t44Js
It’s almost a year since satellite tags were fitted to five Beijing Cuckoos. Imaginatively named by local schoolchildren, these pioneers charmed, enthralled and astonished us with their incredible journeys through China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. Then, after SKYBOMB BOLT’s non-stop 3,700km flight across the Arabian Sea from India to Somalia, followed by thousands in near real-time on social media, we were able to say with certainty that cuckoos from east Asia migrate to Africa for the northern winter, a journey of more than 12,000km from Beijing. And, with media coverage across China and in more than ten countries across the world, including the front page of the New York Times, these birds captured the imagination on a scale that was beyond our wildest dreams.
Subject to securing the necessary financial support, we’re planning to tag 3 more bakeri Common Cuckoos in Beijing, using some new ultra-lightweight tags, in late May and then travel to Heilongjiang in north China to fit tags to a further 7 birds of the larger canorus race. As with the current project, the birds will be named by local schoolchildren who will follow their progress, learning about migratory birds and the challenges they face. We’re proud to be working with the International School of Beijing, Hepingli No.4 Primary School and local schools in Heilongjiang.
The team will be attempting to tag cuckoos from 23 May into early June. You can follow our progress, and the return journeys of Flappy and Meng, by visiting the dedicated Beijing Cuckoo Project page and by following @BirdingBeijing on Twitter.
The Beijing Cuckoo Project is a partnership between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Liaoning University, facilitated by Birding Beijing. It involves members of the public and schools in genuine scientific discovery to help raise awareness in China of migratory birds and the environment. We consider every donor as part of the Project team. Please join us by donating to the JustGiving site. Thank you!
Title image: SKYBOMB BOLT, the Beijing Cuckoo tagged at Hanshiqiao Wetland, Beijing. Skybomb was the first of the Beijing Cuckoos to cross the Arabian Sea to Africa.
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.
What a moment! On the evening of 30 October 2016, a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) fitted with a satellite tag in Beijing in May 2016 made landfall in Africa, a journey of more than 9,000km, the most recent leg of which was a non-stop flight of over 3,700km from central India, across the Arabian Sea, to Somalia.
“Skybomb Bolt”, as he was named by schoolchildren in Beijing, is one of five Beijing Cuckoos fitted with transmitters as part of the Beijing Cuckoo Project. The project, a collaboration between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), the China Birdwatching Society (CBS), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing, was designed to bring together scientific discovery and public engagement with the primary aim of raising awareness of bird migration, conservation and the environment in China.
As in Europe, cuckoos are familiar and popular summer visitors to Beijing. Their well-known call, often heard for the first time in mid-May, is a traditional sign of spring. However, until this project, the wintering grounds and the routes they took to get there were unknown.
Thanks to technological advances, tracking devices are now small enough to be used on cuckoos and they are enabling scientists to gain an understanding of bird migration on a scale and depth as never before. Learning about the wintering grounds and the migration routes will inform conservationists as they seek to protect these special birds and many others like them. Importantly, using the BTO’s cuckoo tracking project as a model, this project has involved the participation of not only professional scientists but also volunteers from all walks of life. Through engaging schools to give names to the cuckoos, and providing updates on special webpages in English and Chinese, the impact of this project has been way beyond a traditional scientific endeavour.
After having tags fitted in May 2016, the “famous five” cuckoos spent the summer breeding season in Beijing, Mongolia and Russia and, in late July, they began their southward migration to unknown winter quarters.
The journeys of these amazing birds have captured the imagination of the general public both in China and overseas with hundreds of thousands of reactions on social media, including Twitter, Facebook and the Chinese social media equivalents of WeChat and Weibo.
The BTO’s Chris Hewson said:
“Watching how Skybomb has made ‘our’ world look small is a fantastic and humbling experience. Before leaving India, he had already travelled nearly as far as some UK cuckoos do on their entire migrations. This latest flight is the equivalent to the very longest desert crossings of UK birds, with no prospect of landing and consequently no margin for error. Given the rainfall patterns, we expect him to move gradually south, possibly as far again as this latest flight, through the winter. ‘Epic’ hardly seems to do justice to the travels of this small bird that has not previously been renowned for its powers of flight!”
Dr Ji Jianwei, Deputy Director of the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre said:
“We are delighted to work with international partners to track the migration of Beijing Cuckoos. We have welcomed these birds every spring and, until now, have wondered where they go and how they get there. Thanks to this project, now we know! Inspiring examples of bird migration, such as this, are powerful ways to help raise awareness amongst the general public about the environment, on which we all depend.”
Professor Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London, said:
“The Beijing Cuckoo Project is revealing, for the first time, the remarkable journeys of one of our most familiar birds. That a bird weighing around 100g can fly more than 3,700km non-stop over the Arabian Sea is astonishing and, through the engagement of schoolchildren in the world’s most populous country, this project is inspiring a new generation.”
Skybomb Bolt was fitted with his tag at Hanshiqiao Wetland Park in Shunyi District, close to Beijing Capital International Airport in the northeast of the city. The managers of the nature reserve are proud of “their” cuckoo and are planning to set up a special board at the reserve to showcase Skybomb and his epic journey, helping to explain to visitors why nature reserves are so important for wild birds.
We expect the other cuckoos to follow Skybomb’s lead and head to Africa but just how far they will go once in that huge continent is still a question mark. We think Skybomb will head south and follow the seasonal rains in eastern Africa. His route so far is remarkably similar to that of another long-distance migrant – the Amur Falcon. The journeys of these birds are simply staggering.
Big thanks to the sponsors of this project – the Zoological Society of London, the Oriental Bird Club and the British Birds Charitable Foundation – and to the partners, especially the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, the China Birdwatching Society and the British Trust for Ornithology.
At the end of May, with the BTO’s Chris Hewson’s arrival in Beijing, we began The Beijing Cuckoo Project. It’s an exciting initiative as it combines genuine scientific discovery with the participation of schools and the general public.
After catching 16 cuckoos, 11 of which were too small to carry a tag according to the BTO’s admirably strict ethical rules, we fitted tags to five Beijing Cuckoos at three locations – Cuihu Urban Wetland Park, Hanshiqiao Wetland Park and Yeyahu National Wetland Reserve. The five, three males and two females, were given names by local schools and birdwatching organisations. As expected, the three males were most likely of the subspecies bakeri, the ssp that breeds in Beijing. Interestingly, the two (larger) females appeared to be of the more northerly subspecies, canorus. This will hopefully be confirmed by DNA analysis in due course. We were excited to have potentially tagged two different subspecies as there is the possibility that the two races use different migration routes and wintering grounds.
Over the summer the project has gained wide exposure here in China and overseas with media articles, engagement with schools and events at the tagging locations to showcase the project. The most recent was a short article by BBC Wildlife Magazine.
The super-exciting news is that, after the breeding season, the first cuckoo – Flappy – has begun her autumn migration. Already she has crossed the Mongolian desert from her breeding grounds on the Mongolia/Russia border and is now south of Beijing in Hebei Province.
The other four are all doing well but remain at, or close to, their breeding grounds. We are expecting them to begin their migration very soon. There is a dedicated webpage on which updates are posted regularly and, for even more detail, there are individual sub-pages for each cuckoo. The next few weeks promises to be a really exciting time – all being well, we will find out, for the first time, where east Asian Cuckoos go for the winter and how they get there..!
I have just spent a week ‘in the field’ with “Team Cuckoo” and I am elated. After five days of exhausting 0300 starts, we’ve fitted satellite tags to a total of five Beijing Cuckoos, two females and three males, caught at three different sites – Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu Nature Reserve. All tags appear to be transmitting normally and we hope, very soon, to be able to receive data about their locations. All being well, in a few months we will know, for the first time, the location of the wintering grounds of Beijing Cuckoos and the route they take to get there. Exciting indeed!
Here is a short video giving a flavour of the last few days..
Next week we will begin the naming process with local schools who will follow the cuckoos’ progress and learn about their migration and habitat requirements as part of a special environmental curriculum.
Very soon we’ll have a website up and running that will enable the public to follow their progress, too. Watch this space! In the meantime, I have set up a dedicated page on the Birding Beijing website where regular updates will be posted in English. See here.
The project is a partnership between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), the China Birdwatching Society (CBWS), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing and kindly supported by the Zoological Society of London, the Oriental Bird Club and the British Birds Charitable Foundation.
It’s a project that has everything – scientific discovery, public engagement, enthusing young people, collaboration between organisations in China and Europe and cultural exchange. I am hugely grateful to Chris Hewson from the BTO for travelling to Beijing to share his expertise and oversee the catching operation. He is a superb ambassador for the BTO and for UK science in China.
We still need to raise funds to pay for the “satellite services” that will enable us to receive the data… A dedicated JustGiving page has been set up to receive any donations. All contributions, no matter how big or small, are very welcome!