Back in 2019, which almost seems a lifetime ago, I had the honour of working with a hero of mine – Ray Mears – and his team as part of a new series on China’s wild places. Entitled “Wild China with Ray Mears”, the seven-episode ITV series chronicles his journey across this vast and diverse country, exploring some of its special wildernesses.
The previous year, two of his researchers contacted me when they were scouting for locations. They were keen to visit the Valley of the Cats, the location of the community-based wildlife watching tourism project. I arranged for them to stay with a local family in one of the most spectacular locations and met them there on arrival. The idea was that we would have two days to explore potential filming opportunities and locations. The following morning, the local ShanShui staff and I drove to meet them at their homestay and there was quite a commotion. Several members of the family were chatting loudly and gesturing towards one of the rooms of their house which looked as if a bomb had hit it. The two researchers had been woken with a bang at 1am when the family started banging pots and pans, and were startled to learn that a brown bear had broken into the room adjacent to their sleeping quarters! Huge paw prints around the house and some muddy prints on the walls betrayed the bear’s shenanigans.
Unfazed by their experience, the first thing the researchers said to me when I arrived was “ok, we know already this is a good place for Ray!”
I won’t reveal how Ray fared in the Valley, except to say that this episode is not to be missed.
The series will be broadcast on ITV in the UK this summer, beginning with episode 1 from a very cold Beijing on Tuesday 13 July from 1930-2000. With visits to the country’s tropical rainforest, the bamboo forest home of giant pandas, bat caves in karst landscapes as well as the Tibetan Plateau, this series is a must-watch for anyone with an interest in China and its wild places.
Of the 2,153 species of butterfly recorded throughout China (壽 等, 2006), more than 170 have been recorded in Beijing. That is a large number by any standards, and indeed many more than the whole of the UK (59)*.
It includes the official list of species recorded in Beijing, including scientific names, Chinese names (with pinyin) and English names where given. Species are illustrated with images where available and contributions are welcome, especially for species not yet illustrated. Over time, it is hoped that this page can become a helpful resource for any visitor to Beijing interested in these beautiful insects.
For some time I have been wanting to record the dawn chorus at Lingshan, a fantastic wooded mountain on the western boundary of Beijing. In late Spring, when the breeding birds have arrived, the woodland comes alive and it’s a cacophony of birdsong.
On the morning of 31 May I set out to record at a series of elevations and stitch them together to provide a 30-minute compilation. The recording begins with the haunting whistle of a White’s Thrush at 0200am before moving to the dawn chorus proper at 0415am at an elevation of 1100m. From there, the recordings move up the mountain, some of which were recorded during light rain, until the final cut at 1550m. Each location provides a different mix of species and includes some of the signature birds of Beijing’s mountains such as Green-backed Flycatcher, Grey-sided Thrush, Himalayan Cuckoo, Large Hawk Cuckoo and many many more. At some point I will make a list of all the species involved but, in the meantime, I hope you enjoy listening!
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.
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.
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
Anyone who has studied Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) in Europe will know they can be hugely variable, with colouration from almost white to uniformly dark and almost everything in between. In East Asia, the Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) is, in my experience, less variable and perhaps that is why unusual Buteos stand out.
On Saturday 30 January 2021 I began my latest winter survey of my local stretch of the Wenyu River at 0800 and, at around 1100, reached the end of my transect at the so-called “upper weir”. As I scanned the area to count Grey Herons roosting in the trees, I picked up two Buteos in a tree at about 200m distance on the opposite (northern side) of the river. One was a typical japonicus Eastern Buzzard but the other was clearly smaller, more rufous overall and with barring on the underparts. I had never seen an Eastern that small, sporting those colours or with that underpart pattern, including a dark hood and barring on the breast. It got my attention and I recorded a short video and took a few record photos of the two together. The smaller bird then flew from its perch, with purpose, across the river to the southern side, where I was standing, caught a rat from the river bank and flew back up to the trees on the other side of the river.
Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) and the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)
Shortly after, an Upland Buzzard (Buteo hemilasius) drifted over, and both of the buzzards I had been watching flew up to intercept it and, over the next five minutes or so, the three Buteos interacted, with the Upland being mobbed until it drifted NE. This gave me an opportunity to capture some images in flight and I did my best to record both the underparts and upperparts. In flight, and in direct comparison with the Eastern Buzzard, the rufous bird was clearly smaller and with a more compact structure.
The images show the underparts, including the underwing, pretty well, and show:
– a lack of the usual strong, dark carpal patch of japonicus, with a more broken, speckled and muted carpal patch
– dark lesser underwing coverts
– striking pale bases to the primaries
– conspicuously pale crescent breast band
– lack of a dark upper belly band
– a prominent dark trailing edge to the underwing
– a pale tail, finely barred and with an obvious (more so on the upperparts) sub-terminal band
I have certainly never seen a japonicus with these features, and I began to think of the possibility of Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and the subspecies that was most likely to occur in Beijing – vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard).
For context, although there have been a couple of candidates, Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) has never been reliably recorded in Beijing, so it was important to document this bird as well as possible.
Back home, having looked at Forsman’s excellent “Flight Identification of Raptors”, the Beijing bird fits well the adult ‘fox-red’ vulpinus, as depicted in plates 605-609 on pages 323 and 324.
One unusual feature highlighted by Paul Holt is the dark area on the face and forehead. Is this within the range of variability for vulpinus or is it a sign of japonicus?
Having alerted local birders, a few people visited the site and more photos were taken, including these excellent series by 没着落 (Méi zhuóluò).
And yesterday I spent the last hour of daylight at the site and captured a little more and better quality video showing the upperparts and underparts.
Given the variability of Buteos, I am not sure whether this bird can be identified with certainty. With thanks to Colm Moore, the “file” is now with Dick Forsman and we hope to receive an opinion from him in due course. Any comments, especially from people with experience of vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard) very welcome. I’d like to thank Colm Moore, Paul Holt, Igor Felefov in Russia and Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok in Thailand for their helpful and instructive comments and 没着落 (Mei Zhuoluo) for the wonderful images of the Wenyu bird taken on 2 February.
Whatever this bird’s identity, it’s been a great learning curve and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed spending time watching this beautiful bird so close to my apartment in Beijing.
Update 22 February 2021:
I have received a reply from Dick Forsman. The bottom line is that he does not think it’s a vulpinus Common Buzzard, or at least not a pure one. He cites the dark malar stripe, dark forehead/face, rather uniform breast and flanks and the rather uniform uppertail as features not so consistent with vulpinus. He says despite the plumage differences, he would put more emphasis on structural differences, with japonicus (Eastern) having shorter and broader wings than vulpinus with a broader blunter wingtip. He says the size difference could be explained by the size difference between the sexes, the males being smaller than the females. Interestingly, he goes on to say that genetic studies have shown the genus Buteo to be fairly young and its species are poorly defined. One of the results of this poor differentiation is widespread interbreeding between the taxa. Hybridization is known to take place between Common x Rough-legged, Common x Long-legged and Long-legged x Upland. He says it appears that nobody knows what happens when vulpinus meets japonicus, which is very likely to happen. He recalls a trip to Mongolia where he found a breeding pair of buzzard including a male with mixed japonicus and vulpinus features paired with a female japonicus. He suspects that mixed pairs are likely to be quite common where the two taxa meet and that maybe the Wenyu bird was one of these, a bird with some vulpinus genes combined with a migratory habit inherited from japonicus. He hopes people will pay more attention to buzzards in the future and document them wherever possible, especially during the breeding season as this is the only way to tackle the issue.
A key lesson is that we cannot identify everything we see, no matter how well-documented, and sometimes it’s good to just enjoy watching birds for what they are and not try to label them..
Update: 3 March 2021
Two superb new images of the Wenyu buzzard have been submitted by Wang Yibin and reproduced here with permission.
Header image: Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) with the possible (Steppe) Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River. Photo by 没着落 (Méi zhuóluò).
A few weeks ago I was invited to contribute an article to China Dialogue, one of the most respected platforms on China issues relating to the environment. In the build up to what will be arguably the most important meeting ever on nature, due to take place in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in 2021, biodiversity is climbing the political agenda. However, it would be a mistake to think that national governments alone can solve the nature crisis. Home to the majority of the world’s population, cities have a vital role to play. My article focuses on how Beijing could help to show the way in designing and managing a city that is good for people and for nature. You can read it here (available in English and Chinese).
Featured image: an artist’s impression of the “wild ring road” that could help link habitats around Beijing, whilst at the same time providing a place for leisure and environmental education for Beijingers. By Madeleine Donahue.
The most recent published information about the status of the birds of Beijing was the 1987 book “Birds of Beijing” written by Cai Qikan and published by the Beijing Natural History Museum. Written in Chinese, it’s an important reference, providing information about the status of species found in the capital, including specific details about the occurrence of rarities and specimens collected for the museum.
A lot has happened since 1987, not least a significant increase in the number of birders and thus the number of birds recorded, all of which means that this book, although a hugely important historical record, is now out of date.
The lockdown of early 2020 and subsequent reduction in travel, has meant much more time spent at home, providing an opportunity to research the current status of the birds of Beijing. The result is a new page on this website providing a basic status of those species reliably recorded in the capital, including maximum counts where available. The intention is to maintain this page as “live” and it will be updated as and when new species or notable records are discovered, or when there is a greater understanding of a species’ status.
As of October 2020, the official list of species recorded in Beijing, last published in 2014, is under review by a team led by Professor Zhao Xinru of Beijing Normal University. We expect the revised list to be published later this year and the new page will be updated to reflect the latest list as soon as it is available.
Birding Beijing welcomes corrections, additions and updates in order to ensure the new page is, and remains, as accurate as possible. A big shout out to all the birders who have submitted records to the publicly available sources from which this new page was produced.
I hope this new resource will assist both visiting and resident birders alike.
Title image: a walk in the park by Madeleine Donahue.
Back in 2018 the Beijing government partnered with Peking University to develop ideas for how to Beijing better for wildlife. I was honoured to be invited to be an advisor and delivered a lecture to government officials with some specific ideas to enhance biodiversity in Beijing, as detailed in this post from December 2018.
Just last week I participated in a meeting to discuss one of the ideas – the potential for Miyun Reservoir to be managed for wildlife as well as water quality. Three days later, I was informed by the government that another suggestion – to leave 10% of parks “wild” – was to be piloted in a new park in Tongzhou District. Wonderful news!
This is a summary of the concept idea submitted in 2019:
Beijing’s parks are impressive and a huge positive feature of the city landscape, attracting millions of visitors each year. They are also important refuges for wildlife. However, almost all could be significantly better for wildlife if they were managed differently. Currently, nearly all undergrowth is cleared away. Fallen leaves are swept up. Trees are sprayed with insecticide. Very few areas are allowed to be wild, meaning that wildlife is restricted.
One suggestion is to leave 10% of each park to be ‘wild’, meaning that the grass and other plants would be allowed to grow without being cut, leaves allowed to drop and decompose, providing shelter for insects and a basis for other wildlife to thrive. This 10% would not affect the overall look of the parks and, if signs and other information were erected, the initiative would serve as a positive addition by educating the public about nature. Each park could partner with a local school or schools – citizen scientists – who could be responsible for monitoring the wildlife in the parks and comparing the ‘wild’ areas with those managed in the traditional way. Subject to the results, consideration could be given to expanding the percentage allowed to be “wild”.
– 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
It’s an idea that gained traction very quickly and I am delighted that the Beijing government has now decided to pilot it. I can’t wait to see how it works out. After the mid-autumn holiday we’ll be discussing the details with the park management authorities to help identify a suitable area and to develop a plan of engagement with a local school.
Combined with the ongoing discussions around Miyun Reservoir, these are positive developments and could help to form the basis for a “Blueprint on Biodiversity” in Beijing.
Next year will see governments meet in Kunming, China to agree on a “new deal for nature” aimed at slowing and halting the staggering global biodiversity loss we are witnessing. However it is clear that national governments, although arguably the most critical part of the jigsaw, cannot solve the biodiversity crisis alone. It’s vital that cities, communities, business and NGOs all step up. And it’s clear that cities that provide space for wildlife will be better places for people, too.
There’s a long way to go in Beijing but these developments offer genuine hope.
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.
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.
When I first moved to Beijing, ten years ago, I can remember clearly the reaction of most people on hearing I was a birder: “Why have you come to Beijing? There are no birds in Beijing!”
This was disappointing news… but I had trouble believing it. Although there was almost no English-language information about the birds of China’s capital city, I had heard about the fantastic migration at Beidaihe and the almost mythical “Happy Island”, just a few hours away in Hebei Province. Surely, Beijing couldn’t be that bad?
Of course, as I began to explore, I quickly realised that Beijing was a brilliant place for birds. Not only did I see some species I could only dream about in the UK (Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin, Brown Shrike and Thick-billed Warbler all graced the tiny green space around my central Beijing apartment block in the first few weeks), it was the sheer numbers of birds that impressed me. Flocks of buntings hundreds strong, invasions of wagtails, squadrons of honey buzzards and swarms of leaf warblers awed me in my first few months.
At that time, there were very few birders in Beijing and it felt as if I had more chance of finding a first for Beijing than seeing another birder. How times have changed. Today, any visit to a known birding spot, on any day of the week, will almost certainly result in meeting fellow birders and, as a result, more and more discoveries are being made, not only of vagrants but previously undiscovered or new breeding birds such as Grey-winged Blackbird, Swinhoe’s Minivet and Slaty-backed Flycatcher.
With the most recent update of the official ‘Beijing list’ – the list of species reliably recorded – completed as far back as 2014, and the subsequent explosion of birding, a review of the list has been long overdue and, in recent months, a team led by Professor Zhao Xinru at Beijing Normal University, has been thoroughly reviewing past records and adding recent new records with a view to publishing an up to date list. The number of species recorded up to 2014 was 456. As of 2020 it is over 500 (although the new list has yet to be published – watch this space – we expect the revision of the list to come out somewhere around 510). To save the mathematically challenged, that’s an increase of c54 in six years, an average of nine new species per year. A remarkable change.
So where does Beijing rank alongside other major capital cities? To gain a sense of where Beijing stands, I did some rather crude research online using data from eBird, Avibase and, where available, data from local birding societies. This is the result:
G20 Capitals and the number of bird species recorded
Source: eBird, Avibase and local birdwatching societies
*Beijing’s official list is under revision. This figure is an estimate and will be updated when the official figure is available.
Even though the figures are unlikely to be 100% accurate for some cities (I welcome contributions from birders in these cities to make the data more accurate), the relative position of Beijing is unlikely to change – second only to Brasilia in the capital cities of G20 countries.
So why is Beijing so good?
There are two main reasons. The first is Beijing’s size – according to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, the capital covers a relatively large area of 16,410.5 km2 encompassing a variety of habitats from mountains to the north and west, wetlands, grassland and a network of large parks.
The second is location. Looking at a map, to the north is the vast and relatively sparsely-populated (by humans) Siberia, home to taiga forests and tundra. In the northern summer, insect populations explode, meaning it is worth the investment for birds to migrate north to take advantage of the glut of food – they can reproduce faster, and raise more young, than if they stayed further south. Of course, in the winter, this vast area is incredibly cold, most insects die and, as a result, most birds must fly south to find food and shelter. This mass autumn exodus happens over several months, primarily from July to November, with different species leaving at different times. Some will stop in Beijing for the winter, some will continue to southern China or Southeast Asia, and some will go as far as Australia, New Zealand or, as we have seen with the cuckoos, swifts and Amur Falcons, to southern Africa.
As we enter autumn, East China turns into a bird superhighway with birds heading south from a broad swathe of Siberia, many of which funnel east to avoid crossing the Gobi Desert. Beijing, with its varied habitats of mountains, wetlands, forests, grassland and a network of parks, is an attractive service station. Just a small fraction of the tens of millions of birds that pass over Beijing during this season (most undetected at night) will take the opportunity to stop in the capital to rest, find food and water, offering us the chance to encounter them. And of course in spring, the reverse happens as these birds return north to Siberia to breed. So it is in spring and autumn, in particular, that Beijing – and indeed the whole of eastern China – bears witness to a world-class birding spectacle.
The sheer volume of birds was something that stunned me when I arrived here and there is no doubt that location is everything. Recalling my birding days at home in Norfolk, England, I would be delighted to see a single Common Redstart or a Wryneck on my local patch at Winterton-on-Sea, usually coinciding with easterly winds. One look at a map shows why the migration of land birds on my local patch was relatively small… with only a few hundred kilometres of land to the north and, after that, the Arctic Ocean; there is no Siberia to the north of the UK to supply the birds and we relied on birds ‘drifting’ from continental Europe.
Slowly, but surely, more and more people are learning about the rich birdlife in Beijing. As well as more people picking up binoculars for the first time, thanks to the media increasingly reporting on the natural world, more and more of the general public are understanding, to the surprise of many, that Beijing is a good place for birds and other wildlife. The projects to track Beijing’s iconic Swifts and Cuckoos have certainly helped, discovering for the first time the migration of these incredible travellers from Beijing to Africa, receiving significant mainstream media coverage. However, it is the grassroots awakening that has been most impressive. Young students setting up nature clubs at their schools, the countless local groups organising field trips and lectures to introduce people to nature and volunteers spending much of their free time educating people about wild birds and patrolling to catch the illegal bird hunters, a practice that still goes on in the capital but is certainly diminishing here, thanks also in part to increased enforcement by the local police.
So, as I celebrate ten years in Beijing, it’s encouraging to see that awareness about the birds of Beijing is growing… The next step is to turn that awareness into pride, building more support for policies and measures that work towards protecting and enhancing the environment for birds. I firmly believe that, with some small changes to how the environment is managed in Beijing, this brilliant city could overtake Brasilia as the best G20 capital for birding. Let’s make it happen!