About a year ago, the BBC Natural History Unit was in contact about the feasibility of filming the Beijing Swift for a forthcoming series on urban wildlife. After introducing them to local experts, including Professors Gao and Zhao, the China Birdwatching Society and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, the BBC applied for permission to visit and film the Swifts in the Chinese capital. One of the locations was the Summer Palace, where the China Birdwatching Society has been studying the colony of 200+ birds for more than 10 years. It was here that, in 2014, the Society collaborated with experts from Europe on the Beijing Swift Project, tracking the migration of these avian wonders and discovering for the first time their migration route and wintering grounds in southern Africa.
The new series – “Cities: Nature’s New Wild” – is being shown on BBC2 and the Beijing Swifts are due to appear in episode three on Sunday 13 January (2000-2100). For those who can’t wait that long, a trailer about the Beijing Swift is available on the BBC website.
It’s fantastic exposure for Beijing’s Swifts and the people working to support them.
If you’re in the UK on the evening of Sunday 13th January, put the kettle on, settle into your favourite armchair and enjoy….
UPDATE 9 January: The BBC Natural History Unit has informed me that the Beijing Swifts will now NOT be shown in episode 3 of “Cities: Nature’s New Wild” on BBC2 on 13 January. Instead, episode 3 of the UK version of the series will include a segment on Indonesian Swiftlets. The Beijing Swifts will feature in the international version of the series. I’m awaiting broadcast details. Updates will appear here as more information is available.
When you think of Beijing, what image comes into your head? The Great Wall? Maybe Tiananmen Square? Or maybe air pollution? For those of a more mature generation, maybe even the picture of a city full of bicycles..? Whatever the image, I suspect that for most people, birds or wildlife might not be front and centre.
That could be about to change.
In 2020, Beijing will host the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This clumsily-named UN convention meets every two years and I suspect most people not directly involved with the process would be hard pressed to say much about any of the previous meetings or what has been achieved. However, the 2020 meeting promises to be different. It is the time when governments are due to conclude an agreement on targets and measures to slow, stop and eventually reverse the loss of wildlife on Earth.
The meeting will take place in the context of the most recent Living Planet index showing that, since 1970, we have lost more than 60% of the animals on our planet. That is a shocking statistic and should be a wake-up call for governments and the public everywhere.
As host of the CBD, the Chinese government will want a successful outcome and, with recent progress towards President Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘ecological civilisation’ including a ban on further reclamation of intertidal mudflats and nomination of key coastal wetland sites for World Heritage status, the creation of a national park system, species-specific conservation work, e.g. on Baer’s Pochard and Scaly-sided Merganser, the country is creating the foundation for a positive story to tell.
But what about the host city? Could hosting the CBD be an opportunity to change the global image of Beijing from one of a crowded, polluted, grid-locked city to one of the world’s best capital cities for wildlife?
Beijing is already one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds, with around 500 species recorded. And in case the Mayor of Beijing is reading, here are some ideas that would require very limited resources but which could have a major impact on Beijing’s image:
Idea 1: A world-class wetland reserve in Beijing
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Beijing had a large waterbody that could be an important stopover site for migratory birds, including cranes, geese, ducks, shorebirds and others? Well, just 75km from Tiananmen Square lies Miyun Reservoir. It is Beijing’s largest drinking water reservoir and, until public access was prohibited in April 2016, it was the best birding site in the capital attracting flocks of cranes, bustards and large numbers of waterfowl, not to mention huge numbers of buntings in winter. However, after a large fire in the area and concerns about water quality, much of the land around the reservoir – ideal habitat for shorebirds, cranes, bustards, birds of prey, buntings and pipits – has been cleared and planted with mostly non-native trees in monocultures. This policy has undoubtedly had a negative impact on birds. Whilst it is understandable to prioritise water quality, this need not be at the expense of wildlife. Internationally, there are examples of reservoirs being managed for both water quality and wildlife. One example is Rutland Water, England’s largest drinking water reservoir. In fact, Rutland Water is managed for three objectives – water quality, birds and recreation. If we can share this experience and demonstrate that a large water body can be managed as a place for wildlife as well as water quality, there would be an opportunity to develop a management plan for Miyun Reservoir that maintained a high standard of water quality whilst attracting world-class numbers of cranes and other waterbirds and providing limited public access, attracting millions of visitors each year and an associated boost to the local economy. Given the CBD conference will likely be in the last quarter of the year, the Beijing government could even invite international media to see the large flocks of cranes that would almost certainly be present if the area was managed sympathetically.
– High standard of water quality
– Providing a refuge for thousands of waterbirds, including threatened and endangered species such as cranes and bustards
– Providing opportunities for the urban population to connect with nature
– Through the visiting public staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants, bringing income to the local people in relatively poor Miyun county
Idea 2: 10% Wild
Beijing enjoys some large and expansive green spaces. Parks such as the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) and the Olympic Forest Park are all hugely popular places providing urban Beijingers with opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Anyone who has visited these parks will know that they are heavily manicured with an army of staff ready to collect any leaf that falls or any blade of grass that grows in one of the cultivated flower beds. These parks are over-managed to the extent that they are not as friendly for wildlife as they could be. One idea is for the management of these spaces to leave “10% wild”. This would mean no significant active management of an allocated part of the park – no use of insecticides, no removal of native plants and no cutting of grass or removal of fallen leaves. Each park could partner with a local school, the students of which would be invited to undertake surveys of biodiversity – insects, birds and plants – and compare the “10% wild” with other managed parts of the park. Interpretation signs around the allocated area could promote this experiment to visitors, publishing the results of the student surveys and helping to engage the public about wildlife. After two years there could be a review to assess the results and to explore whether the experiment should be expanded.
– More and better habitat for wildlife in urban Beijing
– Students at local schools become citizen scientists
– Public engagement on the role of parks in providing homes for wildlife in cities
– Fewer resources needed for park management
Idea 3: Urban wildlife oases
Beijing lies on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and, every spring and autumn, millions of birds pass the Chinese capital on their way to and from breeding grounds to the north and wintering grounds to the south. To make these remarkable journeys, birds require places to rest and refuel along the way. The trans-continental journeys, such as those of the Beijing Swift and Beijing Cuckoo, are challenging for the hardiest of birds, and the challenges are only increased as vast areas of natural habitat along migration pathways are altered or eliminated, making it difficult for exhausted birds to find suitable places to rest and refuel.
“Urban wildlife oases” could provide ‘stepping stones’ for migrating birds to cross urban areas where there is limited quality habitat. Each community has the potential to provide important habitat for native birds – and a richer, more beautiful place to live for people.
To illustrate the potential, I’d like to convey my experience with a patch of land close to my apartment in Shunyi District. Surrounded by new developments, including apartments and shopping malls, this 1km x 1km patch of land, very close to the airport, has yet to be developed and, in the two years since I moved to the area and in almost 100 visits, I have recorded 156 species of bird, five species of mammal and nine species of butterfly. Highlights have included Band-bellied Crake, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Siberian Thrush and Rough-legged Buzzard, demonstrating the importance of the site to migratory birds.
Maintaining a patchwork of urban oases across the city, potentially with some limited public access, would cost little – beyond the opportunity cost of the land – and provide significant benefits to both wildlife and people.
– providing shelter and food for some of the millions of migratory birds that pass through the capital each spring and autumn; plus important areas for breeding and wintering species
– with limited public access, these sites could provide the public with access to wild spaces and places for students from local schools to become citizen scientists
– interpretation would mean that these urban oases could act as outdoor classrooms for Beijing’s urban population
Idea 4: Adopting the Beijing Swift
In 2015, a project involving Beijing Birdwatching Society and international experts discovered, for the first time, the migration route and wintering grounds of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis). It was a hugely popular story, covered by mainstream media – both print and broadcast – and engaged millions of people, most of whom would never ordinarily take an interest in birds. The Beijing Swift is the perfect symbol for modern Beijing. One of the old names for Beijing is Yanjing, which, in Chinese, breaks down to “燕” (Yan) and “京” (Jing). The first character, “燕” means “swift” or “swallow”, so the name Yanjing could be interpreted as “Swift capital”. This bird also links China with Central Asia, the Gulf and Africa, aligned with the much-touted “One Belt, One Road” initiative to revive old trade routes. Why not formally adopt the Beijing Swift as the official bird of the Chinese capital? There can be no more appropriate candidate.
– Associating Beijing with a bird of endurance, elegance and global reach
– Greater public awareness about the wildlife of Beijing
– Encouragement to businesses and communities to help stem the decline of the Beijing Swift – caused by the demolition of traditional buildings – by erecting artificial nest boxes at suitable sites and encouraging the inclusion of Swift-friendly designs in new buildings
Idea 5: Removing the invisible killer: mist nets at China’s airports
When thousands of environmentally-minded people arrive in Beijing for the UN Conference on Biological Diversity, the first thing they will see is lines and lines of mist nets alongside the runway at Beijing Capital International Airport, many of which will hold bird corpses dangling in the wind. China’s policy to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes is to line each runway with several kilometres of mist nets. This method is only effective against small birds which, unless in large flocks, represent almost no risk to aircraft. Nets at ground level are ineffective against the more significant risks associated with flocks of large birds such as geese, swans or herons. In fact, guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) makes no mention of mist nets as a way to mitigate the risk of bird strikes. Recommended good practice is to undertake a risk assessment at each airport to identify the unique risks from wildlife and take appropriate measures to address these specific risks. Non-lethal methods such as managing habitat, playing distress calls, using birds of prey etc are the most effective methods. China, with more than 300 airports, takes a general approach of simply erecting lines of mist nets. It’s lazy and ineffective. Could CBD be the catalyst for a review of this policy?
– stopping the unnecessary killing of millions of birds each year
– more effective management of the risk of bird strikes
– a better international image for China and Beijing
With two years to go until Beijing hosts what will probably be the world’s largest governmental conference on biodiversity, there is ample time to develop a strategic plan that would make Beijing one of the world’s most wildlife-friendly cities. Instead of “smoggy Beijing”, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to label Beijing as the capital of ecological civilisation? These are just five ideas. If you have more, please comment and let us know.. you never know who might be reading.
For a helpful general overview of the CBD process and the current status, read this article by Jonathan Watts.
Last week I was excited to receive an invitation to meet with Mr Guan Zhanxiu, the Director of Zhengyangmen Gate (the southern gate of Tiananmen Square) and to view the exhibition about the Beijing Swift currently on show to the public. Mr Guan made arrangements for me to visit on Tuesday afternoon and so, at around 1400 I made my way to Zhengyangmen via Qianmen, at the southern end of Tiananmen Square.
Zhengyangmen gate, right at the heart of Beijing, is certainly one of the best places in the capital to view the Beijing Swift with several hundred pairs breeding amongst the beams of this historic building. On warm summer evenings from mid-April until late July, the Beijing Swifts’ spectacular sociable and noisy flights, wheeling around the rafters, are a sight to behold and an example of how wildlife can thrive even in the heart of our capital cities. From now until September this historic venue is hosting a stunning public exhibition dedicated to the Beijing Swift.
The exhibition is a wonderful mix of science, culture and history. There is a 25-minute video, including the history of the Beijing Swift in China, spectacular footage of the birds in flight and at their nests, and an animation of their migration.
Did you know, for example, that the first known visual representation of the Beijing Swift (see below) dates back more than 3,000 years to artefacts found in an ancient royal tomb? At that time, Chinese people believed their ancestors were transformed into Swifts after death, and these birds have had a special place in their culture ever since.
The video follows a pair of Beijing Swifts being studied by local academics. Incredibly, and shockingly, one of the nests contains a significant amount of plastic, a reflection of the omnipresence of this manmade material in our environment today.
Of course, the story of the Beijing Swift would not be complete without showcasing the Beijing Swift Project and the tracking of birds from the Summer Palace. Their incredible migration to southern Africa for the northern winter is depicted by a magnificent map showing the countries through which they pass on their way to and from southern Africa.
The exhibition will run until September and is open daily from 1000 to 1600. If you’re going to be in Beijing during this time, don’t miss it!
We’re hopeful that, after September, the exhibition will be available to schools and public spaces around the capital and beyond.
A big thanks to Director Guan Zhanxiu and his wonderful staff – Yuan Xuejun, Zhao Penghua, Li Lianshun, Jiang Junyi and Wang Jichao – for showing me around and explaining their personal connections with, and commitment to protecting, the Beijing Swift.
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.
I spent Saturday morning with Belgium-based Lyndon Kearsley and the Beijing team at the Summer Palace for the annual Swift banding project. Led by Professor Zhao Xinru of the China Birdwatching Society, in collaboration with scientists from the UK, including the BTO, Sweden and Belgium, the project has recently been responsible for discovering the Beijing Swift’s wintering grounds and migration route, proving for the first time that these incredible aviators travel to southern Africa and back every year.
This year, we are hoping to prove an even more incredible aspect of the Beijing Swift’s lifestyle. In 2016 selected birds were fitted with a new type of technology – accelerometers – which can, in short, establish whether the birds are moving or stationary. Having this morning recaptured seven birds fitted with accelerometers in 2016, and provided the data are good, we should be able to show whether these birds have spent the nine months away from Beijing in continuous flight, just as Susanne Åkesson and her team have recently proved with Swifts from Sweden. Wouldn’t that be something?
The analysis of the data will take some weeks and months to complete, so we don’t expect to have an answer quickly. In the meantime, here is a short video of the Beijing Swifts in slow motion, taken this morning at the Summer Palace. One striking aspect is the sound of the calls when slowed down… my advice is don’t play this video if alone at night or at Halloween – it’s almost creepy!
Huge credit to our Chinese colleagues, especially Professor Zhao Xinru, Wu Lan, Liu Yang and the army of volunteers who work so hard to make the project a success. And big thanks to Dick Newell, Chris Hewson, Lyndon Kearsley, Susanne Åkesson, Rob Jolliffe, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris who have all played a key role in the Beijing Swift Project over the last few years.
This is a very cool animation showing the locations of the Beijing Swifts fitted with loggers during 2014-2015. Each coloured dot is an individual Swift from the Summer Palace. The gaps in coverage are due to “noisy” data during the spring and autumn equinoxes. Credit to Lyndon Kearsley.
On Saturday “Team Swift” undertook the next stage of the Beijing Swift Project at the Summer Palace, here in Beijing. The Chinese “catching team”, led by Professor Zhao Xinru, was on site at the inhuman hour of 0230 to set up the nets and, by the time I arrived at 0400 with the Europeans, there were already a couple of birds waiting to be tagged.
This year was another hugely successful operation involving more than 60 people, all volunteers, organised into highly efficient teams by the China Birdwatching Society. From Europe there was Chris Hewson (BTO), Dick Newell and Rob Jolliffe (Action For Swifts), Lyndon Kearsley, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris (Belgium) and Susanne Åkesson and Aron Hejdstrom from Lund University.
We succeeded in catching 10 birds with geolocators fitted in the previous 2 years. Nine of these had good data, six from birds tagged in 2015 and three from birds tagged in 2014. Two of these we had caught in 2015, but one was a new bird carrying 2 years worth of data. So we now have 23 complete tracks, 14 of the 2014/15 migration and 9 of the 2015/16 migration.
Preliminary analysis shows the birds doing similar things in the 2 migrations – ie migrating to and from southern Africa using a route north of the Himalayas. It’s one of the most incredible migrations of any bird and to think they do it without landing is awe-inspiring…
We also succeeded in fitting 46 new loggers of various types: GPS loggers, loggers with accelerometers and pressure sensors, as well as some more light level geolocators. These should give us more valuable information in 2017.
Once again, it was a real privilege to be part of this incredible project… a project that is not only contributing to scientific discovery and facilitating superb collaboration between scientists and volunteers from China and Europe but also engaging the public about these amazing birds and their incredible migrations.
Huge thanks to Wu Lan for, again, being the spider at the centre of the web, to Dick, Lyndon, Chris, Rob, Geert, Gie, Susanne and Aron for their valuable contributions to this project and, most of all, to the many young Chinese volunteers who worked so well together to make this year’s catching such a success.