The Invisible Miracle Happening Over Our Heads As We Sleep

On Tuesday 27 September 2022, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) hosted a special seminar to publicise the results of the pilot Beijing Nocturnal Bird Migration Project.  

Hosted by AIIB’s Vice President for Policy and Strategy, Sir Danny Alexander, and moderated by Tian Hua, the seminar included speakers from Peking University, the Beijing Municipal Government, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and embassies along the flyway, including Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia.  It was a wonderful opportunity to raise awareness of the miracle of bird migration that happens over Beijing as its residents sleep at night.  

AIIB’s Vice President for Policy and Operations, Sir Danny Alexander, opened the seminar.
AIIB’s Tian Hua was the moderator for the morning.
Dr Wang Xiaoping from Beijing’s Forest and Parks Bureau said Beijing was moving towards an ‘ecosystem approach’ to land management, recognising the value of wetlands, grassland and scrubland as well as trees.

Every spring and autumn millions of birds fly over China’s capital city between breeding grounds in Siberia, Mongolia and north China and non-breeding grounds in south China, S & SE Asia, Australasia and even, in the case of Beijing’s Swifts and Common Cuckoos, to Africa.  Some of these birds migrate during the day – for example, the larger soaring birds, such as birds of prey, cranes, storks etc that rely on thermals to assist their flight.  However, the majority of birds (around 80%) – especially the smaller species – migrate at night.  This is because there are fewer predators active during the dark hours, the weather tends to be cooler and more stable and some birds navigate using the night sky.

Many of these birds vocalise as they migrate – to keep in touch with each other as they fly and, towards the end of the night, attempting to initiate responses from their own kind on the ground, which could indicate a safe place to stop for the day.  Using a simple sound recorder, it’s possible to gain an insight into the volume and diversity of birds flying over at night.

In autumn 2021, Birding Beijing, in collaboration with AIIB and Peking University, began a pilot project to record bird sounds at night from the roof of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.  AIIB’s building is ideal – it’s 15 storeys high, not close to any major roads, free from aircraft noise and close to one of Beijing’s largest urban green spaces, the Olympic Forest Park.  During the period 25 August to 2 November 2021 we programmed the recorder to record every night from sunset to sunrise, resulting in over 700 hours of recordings.

The digital sound recorder from Wildlife Acoustics fixed to the roof of AIIB’s headquarters in Beijing, close to the Olympic Forest Park.

Key findings:

  • 34,713 bird calls recorded
  • Around 95% of calls identified to species or, in the case of buntings, flycatchers and thrushes, to family, with more than 60 species identified so far
  • Most common calls were Olive-backed Pipit (12,411), Black-crowned Night Heron (5,358) and Eurasian Skylark (2,611).
  • Five nights recorded over 2,000 calls (in order of volume`)
    • 27/28 September (2,703 calls)
    • 28/29 September (2,405 calls)
    • 14/15 October (2,270 calls)
    • 9/10 September (2,233 calls)
    • 22/23 September (2,025 calls)
  • The busiest hour-long file was 0502-0602 on 29 September with 1,012 calls

Rarities included possibly only Beijing’s 8th Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes 灰尾漂鹬 Huī wěi (piào) yù and at least two Little Curlew Numenius minutus 小杓鹬 Xiǎo biāo yù (not annually recorded in Beijing). 

The graph below shows the volume of bird calls recorded by date.

More detail about the results, including the species recorded, volume per species and date ranges, as well as example calls, can be found here.

Terry briefed the seminar on the key findings of the Autumn 2021 pilot nocturnal bird migration project.

Liu Shuangqi from Peking University briefed how the project is now expanding to six recording locations across the city in spring 2022 covering areas with varying light pollution to gain a insight into whether artificial light affects the calling rate of migratory birds. 

Liu Shuangqi of Peking University spoke about the impact of artificial light on migratory birds and how the project is expanding to cover more recording sites.

Assistant Professor Hua Fangyuan provided some important context about the loss of 3 billion birds in North America since 1970, something scientists can estimate with some confidence given the strong datasets in the continent (13 datasets were used for the North American study, some of which stretch back more than 50 years).  Those data are lacking in East Asia – in particular for migratory land birds – but what we do know, for example about shorebirds, is that bird populations here are likely to be on a similar trend.  Long-term, standardised, monitoring is key.

Assistant Professor Hua Fangyuan provided important context about the decline or birds in N America and the lack of data in East Asia, emphasising the value of continuing the nocturnal migration project.

So, what do the results of Beijing’s pilot project tell us?

First, that there is a high volume and diversity of birds migrating over Beijing, confirming that it is on a major ‘flyway’ or expressway for birds. 

Second, that most of these migratory birds are species that pass through several countries, reinforcing that migratory birds do not belong to any single country – they are shared natural heritage and, with that, comes a shared responsibility to protect them and the places they need.

And third, if Beijing is to fulfil its responsibility to the flyway – to facilitate safe passage, the city must manage urban spaces in a way that helps birds to cross the hostile urban environment.  Given the diversity of species migrating over Beijing (the top three by volume are a woodland bird, a wetland bird and a grassland bird), that means providing a diversity of habitats including natural forest, wetland and grassland. 

After interventions from Peking University’s Professor Lu Zhi, embassies from flyway countries, a video message from Dr. Andrew Farnsworth of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and a lively Q&A with AIIB staff and invited guests, the event was wrapped up by AIIB’s General Counsel, Alberto Ninio, and culminated in the signing of a ‘letter of intent’ between AIIB and the Beijing Municipal Government. 

Peking University’s Professor Lu Zhi, China’s most well-known conservationist, delivered some wonderful and inspiring remarks to the audience.
Cornell’s Dr. Andrew Farnsworth recorded an inspirational video message about the North American experience, providing food for thought for the Q&A session.
Svar Barrington from the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing gave a perspective from the southern end of the flyway and spoke eloquently about how biodiversity, in particular migratory birds, was now high up New Zealand’s list of foreign policy priorities.
The audience was captivated by the sound of a flock of Bean Geese (Anser serrirostris 短嘴豆雁 Duǎn zuǐ dòu yàn) that flew over the AIIB building at 0354hrs on 16 March 2022.
AIIB’s General Counsel and environmental lawyer, Alberto Ninio, closed the seminar ahead of the signing of the letter of intent.

AIIB and the Beijing Municipal Government agreed to cooperate on the nocturnal migration project and biodiversity conservation more broadly, including a commitment to use the data about the diversity and volume of migratory birds flying over China’s capital to inform land management policies in Beijing.  This would ensure they help the city fulfil its role in the flyway – to facilitate safe passage of these migratory birds that are shared by so many countries.

AIIB and the Beijing Municipal Government signing the letter of intent at the end of the seminar.

After having trawled through 700 hours of recordings, to see the energy and commitment of the participants at this special seminar made it all worthwhile!

I was struck by the openness and willingness of the Beijing Municipal Government to take into account the data from this project in their land management policies.  This is a big deal when one considers that the Beijing Forest and Parks Bureau manages around 75% of the capital’s landmass.

Huge thanks to AIIB, in particular Sir Danny Alexander, Alberto Ninio, Erik Berglof, Tian Hua, Li Zeyu and Yan Bo for allowing use of their roof and for their incredible support since the beginning of the project.  It has been a delight to work with friends and colleagues from Peking University, especially Assistant Professor Hua Fangyuan, Professor Lu Zhi, Liu Shuangqi, Zhang Shen, Ren Xiaotong and Yang Xiaotong.  The team at the Beijing Forest and Parks Bureau are a joy to work with and wonderful advocates for biodiversity in Beijing.  Dr. Andrew Farnsworth and Benjamin Van Doren from Cornell Lab of Ornithology have been a great source of inspiration and encouragement. Finally, a thank you to the many birders who have helped with identifications of some of the calls, including Jonas Buddemeier, Geoff Carey, David Darrell-Lambert, James Eaton, Paul Holt, James Lidster, Magnus Robb, Seán Ronayne and Joost Van Bruggen, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.

More detail on the Beijing Nocturnal Migration Project, including results of the spring 2022 and the ongoing autumn 2022 projects, can be found here.


All photos here provided by AIIB.



Local communities in Beijing write to government to promote nature in new park design

Nearly 400 individuals, along with three schools representing more than 2,500 students have written a letter to the Beijing government to ask for a new park to be designed not only for people, but also for nature.  A wonderful initiative that has the potential to change attitudes about the design, and purpose, of urban parks.

What do people want from a park?  The conventional wisdom in Beijing is that local residents want somewhere “beautiful to look at, neat and tidy”.  Anyone who has enjoyed one or more of the city’s parks will have noticed that they are certainly neat, tidy and well-maintained, with an army of workers collecting litter, tidying up dropped leaves, spraying insecticide and strimming any vegetation more than a few centimetres high.  But what does this meticulous management mean for wildlife?  In most cases, although many parks provide temporary shelter for migrant birds during spring and autumn, Beijing’s parks are generally wildlife-deprived.  There are signs that this may be about to change.

As reported earlier, the government is planning to pilot the idea of leaving “10% wild” in some existing parks.  If successful, this pilot could be expanded to cover more of the capital’s green spaces.

And, as part of Beijing’s ‘greening’, the government is planning  a series of new parks on the outskirts of Beijing.  One such park is being planned along part of the Wenyu River, a well-known birding spot, an important habitat for wintering waterbirds, and a corridor for migrants in spring and autumn.  In total, more than 300 species of bird have been recorded along the river, including endangered species with Class I protection in China, such as Scaly-sided Merganser and Yellow-breasted Bunting.   Parks in the capital are traditionally designed by landscaping companies with little understanding of the needs of wildlife.  Fortunately, in the case of the Wenyu River park, the local government has invited Peking University and Beijing Forestry University to provide advice on how to make the new park better for wildlife.  Several suggestions have been made, including using a ‘zoning’ system for activities such as fishing and recreation in order to ensure some areas are relatively undisturbed. 

The academics working on these proposals suggested that a letter from local residents to make it known that they would like their park to be designed not only for human leisure but also for wildlife, would strengthen their case. 

A few weeks later, the letter below has been submitted to the Director General of the Beijing Forest and Parks Bureau and the local governments of Shunyi and Chaoyang Districts (the river marks the border of these two districts and the park will include land on both sides of the river).  The letter has been signed by three local schools, representing more than 2,500 students, and nearly 400 individuals.

2021-03-30 Letter to Beijing Municipal Goverrnment

The hope is that the letter will demonstrate to government that the traditional view that people want parks to be places solely for human recreation is out of date and that, in a modern global city, people want their parks to deliver multiple benefits, including supporting and nurturing wildlife.  

Changing attitudes takes time but, with 190 countries due to meet in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in October to thrash out a new international framework to tackle the global biodiversity crisis (the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, commonly known as COP15), it is clear that governments – both national and subnational – business, and indeed all of society will need to integrate biodiversity considerations into their operations if the world is to be successful in slowing and halting biodiversity loss.  The role of cities, home to more than 50% of the world population (expected to increase to 66% by 2050), is vital not only in terms of supporting urban wildlife and providing safe spaces for migrant birds to navigate large urban areas, but also to allow the increasingly disconnected urban population to connect with nature.  

We await the response of the Beijing Municipal government with interest. A huge thank you to everyone who signed and promoted the letter.  It is wonderful to see the overwhelming support from local residents for Beijing’s public parks to put the interests of wildlife at the heart of their design and management.


Title image: a river providing space for people and wildlife by Madeleine Donahue

New hope for Miyun Reservoir

Miyun Reservoir is Beijing’s largest and most important drinking water reservoir.  Until public access was forbidden in 2016, this site was the premier birding site in the capital, providing wonderful habitat for a range of waterbirds, including important numbers of cranes (incredibly, seven species – Common, Demoiselle, Hooded, Red-crowned, Sandhill, Siberian, and White-naped – have been recorded here) and the surrounding scrub attracted thousands of passerines in winter, including the first records of the endangered Jankowski’s Bunting in the capital for 75 years in the winters of 2015/2016 and 2016/2017. 

Miyun Reservoir is a spectacular site and an important stopover for many waterbirds.
Miyun Reservoir has the potential to be a world-class wetland reserve, including for many species of crane, such as these White-naped Cranes.
A small wintering population of the endangered Jankowski’s Bunting was found by young birders Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao in January 2016 and they returned the following winter. Unfortunately the area they favoured was cleared and replaced with trees.

Sadly, after a fire in the area, the vegetation was ripped out and replaced with trees, a disaster for wintering passerines and making the area no longer suitable for cranes and other large birds such as Great Bustard.  

After some conversations with the government about England’s experience of managing its largest reservoir for water quality and wildlife, in 2019 the Beijing government invited Tim Appleton, former manager of the Rutland Water Nature Reserve, to Beijing to meet officials and share his experience.  That visit took place almost exactly a year ago.  

We knew that change would not happen overnight but it is heartening that, a year on, I can report some progress. 

September 2020 marked the 60th anniversary of the reservoir’s creation, prompting President Xi Jinping to write a letter to local residents to thank them for protecting the capital’s most important water source.  Sparked by that letter, the Beijing government convened a meeting to discuss how the reservoir should be managed in future.  I was honoured to be invited and to present my ideas about how the reservoir could be managed for wildlife as well as water, explaining how important the site is for migratory and wintering birds, including the occurrence of important numbers of cranes and other waterbirds, as well as the records of the Jankowski’s Bunting (of which they were unaware).  Miyun Reservoir had the potential to become a world-class wetland reserve, boosting the local economy and improving Beijing’s image in the process… and with China hosting the important meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2021, what better time to show how Beijing was making its contribution towards stemming biodiversity loss?

I was one of eight people in the meeting with government officials, with most of the others promoting forestry-related ideas.  Although there is surely a role for forests and tree-planting, it would not be appropriate, and in fact would be detrimental to many migratory birds, to manage the site solely for this purpose.

The result of the meeting was the formation of a “Working Group” to develop proposals.  I was honoured to be invited to join and we are planning our first field visit to the reservoir in late October.  

We are still a long long way from securing any management changes that may be beneficial to wildlife but it is heartening to see an openness to ideas and I feel there is a genuine chance to influence the way ahead, especially with China hosting the UN conference on biological diversity, meaning biodiversity issues are probably higher on the agenda than ever.

I want to put on record my thanks to Tim Appleton for visiting Beijing in 2019 and for encouraging those first steps.  I’d also like to thank Madeleine Donahue for providing the wonderful illustration at the top of this post, showing how the reservoir could be managed in future – for water, for birds and for people.

Watch this space!



Title image: an artist’s impression of how Miyun Reservoir could be managed in future – for water, for birds and for people.  By Madeleine Donahue.