Birding Beijing is excited to announce the launch of The Beijing Cuckoo Project, a new initiative that has the potential to make a huge difference to conservation in China whilst, at the same time, making ground breaking scientific discoveries.
Following the hugely successful, and ongoing, citizen science project to track the Beijing Swift, over the last few months we have been working with partners in the UK and China to replicate the BTO’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China’s capital.
The Cuckoo – famous for laying its eggs in the nests of other, often smaller, birds – is a popular and well-known bird in Beijing. The life of the Cuckoo, including a wonderful account of the ongoing evolutionary battle between the Cuckoo and its hosts, was covered eloquently by Nick Davies in his award-winning book – Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature.
The Beijing Cuckoo Project, led by China Birdwatching Society, will deliver two incredibly exciting outcomes. The first is to engage the public in China, on an unprecedented scale, about the wonders of bird migration. The second is to discover the currently unknown wintering grounds, and migration routes, of Common Cuckoos breeding in East Asia – vital if conservationists are to understand how best to protect the Cuckoo and similar migratory species.
As in the UK, we plan to deploy ultra-lightweight satellite tags onto as many as 10 cuckoos in the Beijing area. Drawing on the BTO’s expertise and experience, Chris Hewson, a leading scientist from the UK, will travel to Beijing to train local volunteers and lead the catching and fitting of the tags.
Local schoolchildren will name the cuckoos and follow their progress as part of EcoAction’s specially designed “environmental curriculum”.
National and local media will cover the project via their print and online publications. A special APP will allow members of the public to follow their progress, too, providing information about cuckoos, maps showing their latest positions and the routes taken, as well as background about the project.
We are delighted that around 75% of the funding has been raised through generous donations from the Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, the British Birds Charitable Trust and Beijing Forestry University. We are also fortunate to enjoy in kind support from the British Trust for Ornithology, the China Birdwatching Society and the many volunteers who will be involved.
However, given the costs of “satellite services”, the costs associated with accessing the data transmitted by the tags, and the costs of maintaining the dedicated APP, we still need to raise another GBP 10,000 over the next 12 months.
Everyone involved with the Beijing Cuckoo project is excited about the potential and all donors, with their permission, will be recognised on the interpretation material that will be erected at the catching sites in Beijing.
Please join us in being part of an incredible and worthwhile project!
On Saturday 9 January I was leaving the RSPB Headquarters at Sandy after participating in the Oriental Bird Club’s council meeting when I received a message from Xing Chao, a young Beijing-based birder. Chao had visited Miyun Reservoir that day with friend Huang Mujiao, both of whom are members of the Swarovski-sponsored group of young birders called “北京飞羽” (Beijing Feathers). The message simply said “Jankowski’s?” and was accompanied by a photo.
My heart raced. Could there really be a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) in Beijing? The bird in the photo sure seemed to show a dark belly patch – diagnostic of JANKOWSKI’S – and the face pattern looked ok with a strongly dark malar stripe, dark lores and a prominent white supercilium…. But could that dark belly patch be due to missing feathers?
For context, JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING is a very rare bird indeed. After a serious and precipitous decline over much of its traditional range in NE China, Russia and N Korea, the known population is in the low 100s. Little is known about its winter range. Most literature suggests that they remain on the breeding grounds or, perhaps, move south a little if heavy snow prevents these ground feeders from finding food. Indeed, although few people are looking, there are several winter records from the breeding sites in Inner Mongolia. There is only one previous record of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing – two specimens collected from The Summer Palace in February and March 1941 (now in the Natural History Museum at Tring). Of course, in 1941, the population of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING was very likely considerably larger so I think it’s fair to say that Beijing birders had given up all hope of another JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING turning up in the capital.
As I sat in my car about to drive from Sandy to Norfolk, I contemplated the magnitude of a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing. I replied to Xing Chao saying that I thought it probably was one but asking whether he had more photos. Thoughts then jumped to when I would be back in Beijing.. With my return flight from London planned on Monday, I would arrive in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon and could potentially visit the site on Wednesday. Would it still be there?
Xing Chao responded the following day with two more photos, also sent to Paul Holt.
These additional photos clearly showed two very pale and prominent wing-bars, a good feature of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING vs the main confusion species, MEADOW BUNTING. Gulp. Paul replied that he also thought it was a JANKOWSKI’S! I encouraged Xing Chao to put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and, rightly so, there followed plaudit after plaudit. Not only was there a JANKWOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing but it had been found by young Chinese birders – brilliant!
And so, fast forward 3 days and I had arrived back in Beijing and immediately arranged to visit the site on Wednesday in the company of the two finders and Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.
After leaving central Beijing at 0600 we arrived on site around 0800. It was a beautiful, but cold, morning with the temperature around -15 degrees Celsius thankfully accompanied by almost no wind. The first hour or so produced several PALLAS’S BUNTINGS, 2 JAPANESE REED BUNTINGS, SIBERIAN ACCENTOR, COMMON CRANE, JAPANESE QUAIL, MONGOLIAN LARK, 2 LONG-EARED OWLS, ROUGH-LEGGED and UPLAND BUZZARDS, SAKER, MERLIN and HEN HARRIER but no JANKOWSKI’S.
We split into two groups to cover more ground and, shortly after that, I could see Ben waving frantically. He had just seen – very well – a male JANKOWSKI’S! Unfortunately, by the time I reached him, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, the bird had disappeared. After a vigil of an hour or so at this spot, we began to widen our search. Soon we happened upon a small flock of largish, long-tailed buntings. As they occasionally sat up in the bare branches of some nearby shrubs, we could see that at least two had dark belly markings, although not as substantial as seen on adult males. Another feature stood out on these birds – strikingly pale double wingbars. It slowly dawned on us that we were looking at not one JANKOWSKI’S but a small flock!
We spent the remainder of the day with these birds, observing them, listening to their distinctive calls (a single Meadow/Japanese Reed Bunting like “tsip” and a “chup” call most often uttered in flight) and trying to photograph as many as possible. Some of the birds were in interesting plumages that had not been photographed, or even described, before.
We counted at least 7 individuals in the group and were elated. What a privilege to see so many of these globally endangered birds together in one spot… and exhibiting such fascinating plumages. As the light began to fade we reluctantly tore ourselves away and began the drive back to Beijing. What a day!
Two days later, on Friday, Paul Holt visited the site with Gabriel David. They, too, enjoyed a very special day and, fantastically, counted 9 JANKOWSKI’S!
It’s interesting to speculate about the status of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in under-watched Beijing. Is it here every winter and been overlooked? Or is this winter exceptional? I suspect the latter. Certainly the habitat around Miyun is much better for buntings this winter, caused by the prohibition of crops close to the water (driven by fears of pesticides seeping into Beijing’s drinking water supply). The area around the reservoir has been left to nature and the resulting growth of wild, seed-producing, plants has provided excellent feeding for buntings (as witnessed by the record-breaking flock of more than 5,500 LAPLAND BUNTINGS earlier in the winter). However, that said, the truth is we simply don’t know!
Huge kudos to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for the initial find. Although it’s only mid-January, this will almost certainly be the best discovery in Beijing of 2016.
With autumn migration in full swing, poachers are out in force trying to trap species such as the Siberian Rubythroat or Bluethroat for the cage bird trade. Encouragingly, the local police are acting fast and doing what they can to stop them!
When I moved to the Shunyi District of Beijing this Spring, I was lucky enough to find, very close to my apartment block, an area of scrub. Scrub, as any birder will tell you, attracts birds and, during spring and autumn migration in Beijing, a LOT of birds. Since early May I have recorded exactly 70 species in this little wild patch on the outskirts of one of the most populous capital cities in the world. Right now it hosts Siberian Rubythroats, Thick-billed, Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Dusky and Yellow-browed Warblers, Stonechats and Brown Shrikes.
It is perhaps not a surprise that the area has also attracted the attention of poachers who illegally trap birds for the cage bird trade. The last few days – peak migration season for some of the most sought-after species, such as Siberian Rubythroat and Bluethroat – has seen the beginning of a battle… between me, the birder (and good guy, obviously), and the poachers (the bad guys).
Here are the events of the last few days:
First, three days ago, I discovered about 150m of mist nets with a MP3 player blaring out the song of Siberian Rubythroat. In fact it was the song – which I assumed was coming from a wild bird, unusually singing in autumn – that first drew me to the precise spot. As I climbed over a heavily weeded mound, there they were – mist nets, very carefully and professionally set up.
At this point I couldn’t see anyone, although I suspected the poacher was nearby. Without thinking, I immediately started to dismantle the nets, ripping them so they would be rendered useless and snapping the bamboo poles and chords.. After a few minutes the poacher appeared and shouted at me to leave the nets and to go. I think he knew by the look in my eye and the expression on my face, that wasn’t going to happen. I grabbed my camera and, despite him becoming incredibly camera-shy, I took a photo of him before continuing to dismantle the nets. I told him that he was breaking the law and that I would call the police. He suddenly became very cooperative, offered me a cigarette (refused) and even started to help me take down the nets. After about 10-15 minutes I had destroyed all of the nets and poles. I made it clear that if I saw him again, I would send his photo to the police.
The next morning, I was on site at first light to check the area. There were no nets and no poacher. I began to check the vicinity and immediately found a mist net, not far from the scene of the encounter the day before and, I suspect, abandoned by the same poacher. There were 6 birds caught up, their struggles to free themselves only causing them to become more entangled. There were 2 Siberian Rubythroats, a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, 2 Stonechats and a Richard’s Pipit. My first priority was to release the birds and it took me 30 minutes of careful and concentrated effort to free them all. One of the Rubythroats was particularly weak but, after resting on the ground for a few minutes, managed to fly into the scrub. One of the Stonechats had a wounded leg but nevertheless was able to fly strongly. The Richard’s Pipit flew up high, uttering it’s familiar “shreep” call before heading strongly southeast – a wonderful sight to see. The Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, as anyone who has seen one will be familiar with, darted into deep cover never to be seen again. After dismantling the net and breaking the poles and chords, I searched the rest of the area before heading home for breakfast.
Fast forward to this morning. I was due to have a Chinese lesson at 0900, which would mean leaving my apartment at around 0800. Before heading out, I decided to spend an hour or so on the roof of my apartment block to see whether there was any visible migration after the overnight rain. With a few Richard’s Pipits and Yellow Wagtails moving, there were enough birds to hold my interest but nothing spectacular. After about half an hour I realised that the height of the roof provided a great vantage point from which to scan the whole area for mist nets. It wasn’t long before I could see about 300m of mist nets with four guys standing around and occasionally retrieving unfortunate birds as they flew into the invisible traps. My heart sank. A friend had provided me with the number of the local police and, after calling them, I was surprised and delighted with their response – they would come immediately! My directions were not perfect (my Chinese is still not of a sufficient standard) so they asked me to meet them there to show them the spot. I cycled and waited by the roadside, the poachers and nets out of sight the other side of a wall adjacent to the road. It wasn’t long before one of the poachers appeared from behind the wall to fetch some water from his car.. As he walked past me, he looked at me suspiciously as I desperately tried to pretend (unsuccessfully, I think!) that the reason for me being there was that I had a problem with my bike..! A few minutes later, two of the poachers emerged and drove away… I suspected that they realised something was afoot. Just a few seconds later the police arrived… but on climbing through the hole in the wall, the poachers were now nowhere to be seen – they had almost certainly been spooked and, as two of the poachers drove their cars to the other side of the scrubby area, another had taken out all of the birds and the poachers’ belongings via another entrance (the movement of cars seemed to suggest this). Nevertheless, the police and I took down and destroyed all of the nets and the police took copies of the photos of the poachers’ vehicles I had taken with my iPhone. Although the police must catch the poachers red-handed if they are to secure a prosecution, the evidence helps to build up a supporting case.
So, although the poachers got away this morning, I feel hugely encouraged. The Shunyi police were superb. They responded quickly (on site within half an hour), they were supportive and the chief officer even gave me his personal mobile phone number and said to call him straight away if I find more nets or poachers. I suspect the poachers were given a good scare, too, and I would be surprised if they returned to this area. This was a model response by the police and they should be congratulated for taking wildlife crime seriously. I will certainly be saying lots of good things about them on Chinese social media.
If further motivation was needed to stamp out this cruel practice, I was shocked to find the head of a Dusky Warbler underneath one of the nets. The Dusky Warbler is insectivorous and is not a beautiful singer. It is “by-catch” for the poachers who are targeting Siberian Rubythroats and Bluethroats. To see the way they trapped, killed and discarded this tiny bird, on its already hazardous migration from Siberia to southern China, was heartbreaking. However, it makes me more determined to stand up for wild birds.
The Battle of Shunyi rages but, with the police onside and the poachers on the run, it’s only a matter of time before the good guys win!
“The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting”, said Dr Johannes Kamp from the University of Münster, the lead author of the paper.
Although there is a lack of hard data about the population of Yellow-breasted Bunting, there is much anecdotal evidence of its decline, as outlined in the paper, and there can be no doubt that the contraction in its range and the reduction in numbers recorded at communal wintering sites are very real.
And it was in September 2013 that we found a bird trapper at Nanpu, on the Hebei coast, using a caged Yellow-breasted Bunting as a lure alongside some mist-nets.
So it has been with some surprise and delight that, this autumn, there have been record numbers of Yellow-breasted Buntings seen in Beijing. Definitely something to celebrate!
Here are a few recent counts:
44 on 26 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend). Exactly double the previous Beijing record count!
14 on 29 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Jan-Erik Nilsen)
29 on 30 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend)
15 on 1 September 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Terry Townshend and Jeff Hollobaugh)
Although data are sparse, the records we have from Birdtalker (the Chinese bird record database) show no change in the species’ status in Beijing in last 10 years. The important caveat here is that there has been much more observer coverage of good habitat this year, especially in late August (the peak period for autumn migration of this species).
Whatever the reason, we are very happy to see good numbers of this most beautiful of buntings.
Here is a photo from this autumn in Beijing and two short videos – the first of adult male singing on the breeding grounds (in Mongolia) and the second of autumn birds in Beijing.
Thanks to Paul Holt and Jan-Erik Nilsen for sharing thoughts and sightings of Yellow-breasted Bunting via the Birding Beijing WeChat group which contributed to this article.
The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise 9 subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.
Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).
On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, and saw ssp ocularis and ssp baicalensis on migration in spring and autumn.
In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in Beijing. And in winter 2013/2014 I saw my first “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital.
Just last week, Shi Jin found a stunning, and Beijing’s second, “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring. It is probably no coincidence that, on Sunday, young local birder Luo Qingqing found the first record of eastern alba for the capital. In fact it seems that this latter sighting is not just a first for Beijing but for all of eastern China! An incredible record.
‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003). This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.
‘Eastern’ alba has been recorded in west China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and is a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai. It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm). Sunday’s sighting is the first that we are aware of in all of east China.
Having already recorded lugens, leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis, the sightings of personata and now alba bring the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing so far this year to 6! Is there anywhere in the world that can beat that?
STOP PRESS: On Friday 3 April Shi Jin found a second, and Beijing’s third, personata along the Wenyu River. And, incredibly, on 6 April, local bird photographer Cheng Dong shot this image of Beijing’s 2nd alba White Wagtail at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake!
(1) L. Shyamal, based on; Nakamura, Kazue (1985). “Historical change of the geographical distribution of two closely related species of the genus Motacilla in the Japanese Archipelago: a preliminary note”. Bulletin of the Kanagawa prefecture Museum of Natural Science No.16.
That’s the title of the most recent podcast from Sinica, in which I had the pleasure of participating alongside Jon Kaiman, writer for The Guardian, and host Jeremy Goldkorn. You can listen to the podcast – an enjoyable conversation about birds in Beijing and air pollution – by clicking here.
As is traditional, the participants make a recommendation at the end of the show and mine is “Birds and People“, a landmark book about the relationship between birds and people, including stories of cultural and from around the world. My apologies to author, Mark Cocker, for referring to him as Mark Golley at the end (revealing my Norfolk roots!).
A big thank you to Jeremy and Sinica for inviting me to help spread the word about Beijing’s birdlife and the importance of protecting it.
On Friday 22 November, I spent the day at Miyun Reservoir with visiting Marie Louise Ng from Hong Kong. It was a stunningly beautiful day – cold early on but spectacularly clear and with almost no wind. It was one of those days that, as a resident of Beijing where the air can often be toxic, I absolutely adore.
We visited two sites on the northern shore of the reservoir and, at the first, we were treated to spectacular flyovers of several hundred COMMON CRANES, with a handful of HOODED CRANES amongst them.. and skeins of BEAN GEESE flying from their roosting sites to the feeding grounds in the maize fields. At least 4 JAPANESE REED BUNTINGS kept us company at our observation point.
After a couple of hours we decided to take a walk to some weedy fields in which I had peviously seen PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE.
As we headed over the brow of a small hill, there was movement in the grass and, quickly training my binoculars, I could see a cat walking slowly from right to left, less than 100 metres away. My heart leapt. It looked big and, immediately, with that thick bushy tail and spotted markings on its fur, I thought it must be a LEOPARD CAT. Gripped by the presence of a very special mammal, we watched it as it made its way onto a dirt track. With the sun behind us, it was now in full view and we were enjoying spectacular views (I am sure the low sun also played a role in delaying this beautiful animal’s detection of us). We reached for our cameras and reeled off some photos as it suddenly broke into a trot and then melted into the vegetation to the north of the track. We watched, captivated, as it made its way towards a small lake, eventually vanishing into the long grass with the local magpies agitated and noisy.
I turned to Marie with what must have been the biggest grin I have ever sported and said immediately “that’s my best wildlife experience of the year!”
Although Leopard Cat is probably not rare in the mountains around Beijing, sightings certainly are. I am aware of just one other recent Beijing sighting – one seen at Yeyahu by Brian Jones on 11 October 2010. The information below about the status of LEOPARD CAT in China is from Zhu Lei, for which many thanks.
Gao (1987, in ‘Fauna Sinica. Mammalia. Vol. 8. Carnivora’) reports that there are 4 subspecies of Leopard Cat in China, euptilura (NE China, north of Yellow River), bengalensis (SW China), chinensis (N and S China) and hainana (endemic to Hainan Island). The ssp. euptilura has the largest body and lightest coat, also the very faint spot marking. The ssp. chinensis is darker, more distinctively spotted, and has 2 black dorsal stripes.
Chen et al. (2002, in ‘Mammals of Beijing’) points out that the ssp. of Leopard Cat in Beijing is euptilura, according to measurements and colour markings of specimens from Yanqing and Mentougou.
Xie and Smith (2008) recognise 5 ssp. in China, alleni (includes hainana, endemic to Hainan), bengalensis (SW Guangxi, SW Guizhou, Sichuan, S Xizang, Yunnan), chinensis (S Anhui, SW and E China, Taiwan), euptilura (north of Huaihe River, Beijing, NE China), scripta (N Yunnan, W Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi and SE Xizang, Chinese endemic ssp.).
Based on above reference and the pics you’ve sent, I think your cat definitely is ssp. euptilurus (light coat and very faint spotted).
The ssp euptilurus or “Amur Leopard Cat” looks very different to the southern China and SE Asian subspecies (see images here for comparison) and, I understand, it’s a potential split into a separate species in its own right. The taxonomy of Leopard Cat in China is poorly understood, so classification may be subject to change.
However man decides to classify this cat, it is a beautiful animal and we were privileged to spend a special minute or two in its company.. proving once again that Beijing is a superb place for birds and wildlife.