Back in early June, five cuckoos were fitted with tags at Khurkh Ringing Station in Mongolia. The first one fitted with a tag was an Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus), believed to be the first ever individual of this species to be tracked. The other four were Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus). All five were given names by schoolchildren in the local community and in Ulan Bataar.
The next six weeks were fairly quiet for the four Common Cuckoos, all of which remained in the vicinity of Khurkh. However, the Oriental Cuckoo (named NOMAD) was clearly still on migration when he was caught in early June and continued north to breeding grounds on the central Siberian plane.
Now, into August, the cuckoos are already on the move. NOMAD, after only four weeks on his breeding grounds in central Siberia, has begun to move south and is currently close to the border of Irkutsk Province in Russia. Three of the four Common Cuckoos (NAMJAA, ONON and Captain KHURKH) have also begun their journey south with only BAYAN remaining in the vicinity of Khurkh. After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other, more than 2,800km now separates the five birds.
Over the next few weeks and months, following their progress is sure to be a roller-coaster ride. We expect the four Common Cuckoos to head into south Asia before crossing the Arabian Sea to Africa. However, the migration route and wintering grounds of NOMAD, the Oriental Cuckoo, will be new to science. From sight records we believe NOMAD’s most likely destination is southeast Asia or possibly Australia. However, nobody knows for sure, and one thing is for certain.. there will be some surprises along the way!
The schoolchildren in Mongolia are excited to follow ‘their’ birds and already the project has reached many who wouldn’t ordinarily take an interest in migratory birds.
If you enjoy following these birds, please consider making a donation, no matter how small, to the JustGiving site towards the ongoing satellite fees. All contributions will go directly to BTO and 100% of the funds will go towards the cost of the satellite fees only.
Big thanks to the project partners, the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and to the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) and Mr Dick Newell for their financial support.
Thanks also to you, the reader, for following the Mongolian Cuckoos. Isn’t migration amazing?
Followers of Birding Beijing’s Twitter feed (@BirdingBeijing) will know that Team Cuckoo (Chris Hewson of BTO, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley and Terry Townshend) has been in Mongolia, partnering with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) to begin a new cuckoo tracking project.
The Mongolia Cuckoo Project is a partnership between the WSCC and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), facilitated by Birding Beijing and supported by the Oriental Bird Club.
The project builds on the success of the Beijing Cuckoo Project and aims to discover more about the wintering grounds and migration routes of cuckoos in East Asia, as well as engaging the public through naming and following the birds.
From 5-8 June, the team was based at Khurkh Bird Banding Station in northern Mongolia, an 8-hour drive from the capital Ulan Bator. Here, Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, the manager of the ringing station, works with volunteers to ring migratory birds each spring and autumn. The site is stunning – a lush valley with a tributary of the river Onon at its heart, nestled between hills of rolling grassland just south of the Russian border.
On arrival, we were told by the ringers that they had just caught a probable ORIENTAL CUCKOO in the nets. Without hearing it sing, this species is tricky to separate from COMMON CUCKOO. However, using criteria relating to the number of pale spots on the underside of the primaries and the colour and markings on the innermost underwing coverts, it can be done. Sure enough, the bird the ringers had caught was an ORIENTAL CUCKOO and, being unaware of any of this species being tracked before, we fitted a transmitter to this individual and released it.
There are records of ORIENTAL CUCKOO from SE Asia and Australia in the northern winter and, intriguingly, according to HBW there is a record of a specimen from Zambia…! Assuming it stays healthy, it’ll be fascinating to see the movements of this bird.
The same day, after heavy rain for several hours in the afternoon, we caught and tagged a male COMMON CUCKOO in the early evening, just a couple of hundred metres from the camp.
On our second full day, the weather was cold, windy and wet for several hours but as soon as the rain stopped, we were out to set up the nets further along the valley.. and within five minutes had caught an incredible five cuckoos!
One was a beautiful female ‘hepatic’ (rufous morph) bird, unfortunately too small to carry a tag (there are strict guidelines about the relative weight of the tag and the bird’s body weight to ensure the tag effect is as small as possible), as well as another small ORIENTAL CUCKOO. The other three were good-sized male COMMON CUCKOOS; we fitted tags to two of them and released the third bird after fitting a metal ring (the tagging process can take 30-40 minutes, so we didn’t want the third bird to be waiting around for too long).
After processing these birds, we set off to the local town of Binder to participate in a crane festival. Here we met up with George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, and joined in the celebration. The art exhibition produced by the local children was magical. Despite encouragement, we couldn’t persuade BTO’s Chris Hewson to represent Team Cuckoo in the Mongolian wrestling competition…!
The visit to the town provided us with an opportunity to visit the local school to speak with the students about the cuckoo project and to invite them to name two of the birds. The students, who have recently set up an “Eco Club”, were impressively knowledgeable about their local birds and were excited to be part of the project.. They quickly put forward several names and, after a vote, decided on two – “нүүдэлчин” (English translation: Nomad) and “Онон” (English translation: Onon), after the local river that runs through the town. The students are looking forward to following “their” birds over the next few weeks, months and hopefully years.
Day three saw us travel around 30 minutes from the camp to a small copse on a hillside and no sooner had we arrived than we heard two male COMMON CUCKOOS singing. After setting up the nets, again we quickly caught one of the males. Cuckoo number five was ‘in the bag’ after only two and half days in the field.
And so, it is with much excitement and expectation that we can introduce the five Mongolian Cuckoos we’ll be tracking..
Names will be given to the currently un-named three cuckoos over the next few weeks.
As with the Beijing Cuckoo Project, we’ve created a special web page which will be updated regularly with the cuckoo’s movements. Already, there’s been a big move by one of the five! Check out the page to find out details. You can also follow their progress via Twitter (@BirdingBeijing).
“Team Cuckoo” would like to express huge thanks to the Mongolian team, especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Batmunkh Davaasuren and Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, to the British Trust for Ornithology and to the Oriental Bird Club and Mr Dick Newell for making the project possible.
We can be sure that these avian travellers will surprise, impress, enthral and, most of all, inspire us. We can’t wait to learn more about these incredible birds.
It’s been an eventful ten days for the Beijing Cuckoo Project Team. After the elation of Flappy’s and Meng’s return to the breeding grounds, following monumental journeys of 32,000 and 26,000km respectively, there was little time to take a breath before beginning phase two of the Beijing Cuckoo Project. The plan for this year was based on two aims. First, to increase the sample of tagged cuckoos from Beijing and NE China to strengthen the dataset which would enable scientists to make more informed conclusions about the migration of cuckoos from East Asia. And second, to build on the public engagement to reach more people in China and overseas about the wonders of bird migration.
It’s fair to say that this year has been challenging. Over the last ten days or so the Beijing Cuckoo Team has been valiantly navigating all manner of unfortunate incidents including Chinese visa issues, the British Airways IT shutdown, a major forest fire in Inner Mongolia (where we had hoped to tag some of the larger ‘canorus‘ cuckoos) and a hospital visit for one team member, Dick Newell (thankfully, not serious)..
Despite this, three Common Cuckoos (two females and one male) were fitted with tags at Yeyahu in Beijing. They are all of the bakeri subspecies and all were fitted with the tiny new 2g tags from Microwave Telemetry.
The Beijing birds have been given names and are already famous..
The first, a female, was named by the students from the International School of Beijing (ISB). Three students from ISB, along with two teachers, came to Yeyahu and witnessed the setting up of the nets, the capture, tagging and release of the bird. After a vote at school last week involving the whole year, the bird has been named 玉琳 (Yu-Lin). This means “precious jade in the forest”.
The release of Yu-Lin was filmed by Chinese national television (CCTV) as part of a documentary on Beijing’s wildlife. The CCTV crew also managed to secure some fantastic footage of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan) calling close by..!
The documentary will be shown on national television later this year and we’ll publish a link as soon as the programme is available online.
The second cuckoo, a male, was named by staff at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve. The name given is 小松 (XiaoSong) which means “small pine tree”.
The third cuckoo, another female, was named by the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre after an online public vote. After thousands of votes from members of the public, the name chosen was 六月 (LiuYue) meaning “June”.
Of course, being at Yeyahu, we were all hoping to catch a glimpse of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan), one of the Beijing Cuckoos fitted with a tag in 2016. After his marathon journey of more than 26,000km to Mozambique and back, Meng was photographed at Yeyahu on 20 May. And, on 31st May, as we were catching the first Beijing Cuckoos of 2017, we were treated to several close encounters, including a magnificent fly-by just metres away in front of the students and teachers from ISB.
It was wonderful to see and hear so many Cuckoos on the reserve and Meng looked fit and healthy as he interacted aggressively with other males and chased females in all directions.
Each of the three members of the Class of 2017 has its own webpage and their journeys will be added to the map on the dedicated Beijing Cuckoo Project webpage.
What will the next 12 months bring? One thing is for sure – they will entertain, educate, surprise and inspire us…
Huge thanks to my fellow Beijing Cuckoo Project Team members, including Chris Hewson, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan and Robert and Robin Jolliffe. The Beijing Cuckoo Project Team is extremely grateful to all the staff at Yeyahu Nature Reserve and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, especially Shi Yang, Wu Mengwei, Aodan Zhula, Zhang Yaqiong and Wang Bojun for their fantastic support and wonderful hospitality.
I have just spent a week ‘in the field’ with “Team Cuckoo” and I am elated. After five days of exhausting 0300 starts, we’ve fitted satellite tags to a total of five Beijing Cuckoos, two females and three males, caught at three different sites – Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu Nature Reserve. All tags appear to be transmitting normally and we hope, very soon, to be able to receive data about their locations. All being well, in a few months we will know, for the first time, the location of the wintering grounds of Beijing Cuckoos and the route they take to get there. Exciting indeed!
Here is a short video giving a flavour of the last few days..
Next week we will begin the naming process with local schools who will follow the cuckoos’ progress and learn about their migration and habitat requirements as part of a special environmental curriculum.
Very soon we’ll have a website up and running that will enable the public to follow their progress, too. Watch this space! In the meantime, I have set up a dedicated page on the Birding Beijing website where regular updates will be posted in English. See here.
The project is a partnership between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), the China Birdwatching Society (CBWS), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing and kindly supported by the Zoological Society of London, the Oriental Bird Club and the British Birds Charitable Foundation.
It’s a project that has everything – scientific discovery, public engagement, enthusing young people, collaboration between organisations in China and Europe and cultural exchange. I am hugely grateful to Chris Hewson from the BTO for travelling to Beijing to share his expertise and oversee the catching operation. He is a superb ambassador for the BTO and for UK science in China.
We still need to raise funds to pay for the “satellite services” that will enable us to receive the data… A dedicated JustGiving page has been set up to receive any donations. All contributions, no matter how big or small, are very welcome!
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!