The Beijing Cuckoo Project 2017

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.

Pupils at Dulwich International School vote for their favourite cuckoo names, June 2016.

As Flappy McFlapperson and 梦之鹃 (Mèng zhī juān), currently in Somalia, head ‘home’, the Beijing Cuckoo Project team is excited to announce plans for 2017.

The tracks and positions of the Beijing Cuckoos as at 3 May 2017. Flappy McFlapperson is shown by the red (and pink for the return journey) tracks, Meng Zhi Juan by the dark (and light blue for the return journey) tracks. As of 3 May they are less than 100km apart in Somalia on their return journey to China.

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.

2016: What A Year!

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.

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Luo Peng in her element – with local children in Hainan

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.

Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
Skybomb Bolt, the first Beijing Cuckoo to make landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
beijing-cuckoos-as-at-1-january-2017
The migration routes, and current positions, of the Beijing Cuckoos, 1 January 2017.
dulwich-applause
Pupils at Dulwich International School broke into spontaneous applause after hearing that SKYBOMB BOLT had made it to Africa…

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.

2016-05-04 Theunis lecture1
Professor Theunis Piersma delivers his lecture to Beijing-based birders at The Bookworm, Beijing, in May 2016.

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.

A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting in a cage adjacent to some illegal nets, designed to act as a lure.  Now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

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.

Bolt Takes Gold In Marathon!

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, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.

 

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.

Don’t forget, you can follow the latest updates about the cuckoos on the special Beijing Cuckoo Project page.

Beijing Cuckoo Project Shifts Up A Gear

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.

Dulwich naming2
Pupils at Dulwich International School voting for their favourite Beijing Cuckoo names.

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.

Flappy as at 1 August 2016
Flappy’s position, as of 1 August 2016. She’s on her way to, as yet unknown, wintering quarters…

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..!

The Famous Five: The Beijing Cuckoo Project Off To A Flyer!

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!

2016-05-24 Fitting tag to 1st cuckoo, Cuihu
Chris Hewson and Lyndon Kearsley demonstrating how to fit a satellite tag to the first cuckoo at Cuihu
Tagged Cuckoo 1, Cuihu, 24 May 2016 close up
Cuckoo 1 (female) tagged at Cuihu
Tagged Cuckoo 2, Hanshiqiao, 25 May 2016 close up
Cuckoo 2 (male) tagged at Hanshiqiao.
Tagged Cuckoo 3, Yeyahu, 26 May 2016 close up
Cuckoo 3 (male) tagged at Yeyahu
Tagged Cuckoo 4, Yeyahu, 26 May 2016 close up
Cuckoo 4 (male) tagged at Yeyahu
Tagged Cuckoo 5, Yeyahu, 26 May 2016 close up
Cuckoo 5 (female) tagged at Yeyahu

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.

Chris Hewson (BTO) and Shi Yang (BWRRC) sign agreement to cooperate with the Beijing Cuckoo Project, share the data and work on joint scientific papers.
Chris Hewson (BTO) and Shi Yang (BWRRC) sign an agreement at Beijing airport to cooperate with the Beijing Cuckoo Project, share the data and work on joint scientific papers.

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!