The 2nd China International Birding Festival in Lushun, Dalian

Last week I was honoured to represent BirdLife International and the Oriental Bird Club at the 2nd China International Birding Festival in Lushun, near Dalian in Liaoning Province. The centrepiece was a one-day ‘bird race’ in which teams of three to four people attempted to record as many species as possible at four pre-selected sites around the district. This year I was delighted to be joined by two friends from the UK – Brian Egan, who manages the UK’s Rare Bird Alert, and Rob Holmes, for whom the best title we came up with was “ex-YOC member from Suffolk”. Together with Marie, we formed the “Foreign Flappers”, one of 21 teams to take part.

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Google map showing the location of Laotieshan, Lushun, in southern Liaoning Province

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The Festival was again supported by the local government and organised by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) and the China Birdwatching Society. The aim was to raise the profile of birding in China and to celebrate the world-class migration hosted by Lushun every spring and autumn on the East Asian Flyway. For more about this magnificent place, see this post.

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Terry signing in for BirdLife International

The professionalism of the opening ceremony demonstrated the importance the local government places on wild birds. The Lushun Party Secretary, Mr Yi opened the event and spent time meeting all of the participants over the opening dinner.

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Lushun Part Secretary, Mr Yi, toasting the Foreign Flappers at the opening ceremony.

Educated at Coventry in the UK, he was fluent in English and relatively western in his outlook. He told us how he had been clamping down on poaching and strengthening the management of the Laotieshan National Nature Reserve, including the famous Snake Island, an offshore rock islet where every spring and autumn the resident Pallas’s Pit Vipers climb the trees and await tired migrants. He was proud to say that poaching incidents were down by 90% this year.

On Snake Island, Pallas's Pit Vipers feed twice a year on migratory birds.
On Snake Island, Pallas’s Pit Vipers feed twice a year on migratory birds. Photo by Wang Xiaoping.

Mr Yi, who committed to hosting the event next year, asked us for advice about how to expand the birding festival to attract more participants, particularly from overseas. We told him about similar events and places overseas, for example the annual BirdFair at Rutland Water, the largest of its kind in the world, the Champions Of The Flyway bird race in Israel and other migration hotspots such as Falsterbo in Sweden and Cape May on the east coast of the United States. We promised to write to him with ideas and advice and we very much hope he will be able to visit the UK in 2017 to experience the BirdFair for himself.

The bird race was exceptionally well-organised. Each team was provided with a vehicle and driver and a local forestry administration official who acted as a guide. Judges were allocated to each site and assisted with identifications and helped to engage the public. It was a slick operation and our team recorded a respectable 81 species, with favourites including Baikal Teal, Oriental White Stork, Chinese Egret (colour ringed with the inscription “T03”), Oriental Honey Buzzard, Red-necked Stint, Lanceolated Warbler and Pallas’s Bunting.

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Back of the camera photo of one of 4 ORIENTAL STORKS we were lucky to see during the bird race.  Photo by Brian Egan.

After the event, we took the opportunity to visit Professor Ma Li who leads a team of volunteers focused on finding and dismantling illegal nets at Laotieshan Nature Reserve. She works with the local police and nature reserve staff and she confirmed what Mr Yi had told us – that poaching was well down this year. Prof Ma took us to some sites around Laotieshan and introduced us to a former poacher who had been ‘converted’ into a bird protection volunteer. Now he helps Ma Li’s team to find illegal nets and to catch other poachers. When we visited, he had a Japanese Scops Owl in a cage, brought to him by a local boy. It was unclear how the boy came to have the owl but it was in good condition and he gave it to us to release.

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Professor Ma Li going over owl identification with former poacher, Mr Wang.

After an extra day of birding around Laotieshan, which included finding a rare Red-breasted Flycatcher and being fortunate to have stunning close-up views of the resident Finless Porpoises, it was time to leave. With so many young people participating in the festival from all parts of China, generous media coverage, the engagement of local residents and the commitment outlined by the local government leaders, we came away feeling optimistic about the future of Laotieshan and about birding in China.

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The local media covered the bird festival for their main news bulletin.

And the spectacle of hundreds of Common Buzzards circling above us at the lighthouse on our final day is something that will stay with us for a very long time. Big thanks to the Lushun government, especially Mr Yi and his deputy Mr Li, the CBCGDF and China Birdwatching Society and to all of the participants who made it such a fun and inspirational event. Looking forward to the 3rd festival in 2017!

Poachers Waste No Time After 1st China International Birding Festival

After the success of the 1st China International Birding Festival, it was with some sadness that I received a call from the Dalian Lushun Wild Bird Protection Association on Thursday evening.  Volunteers had been out that day and found more than 800 metres of illegal mist nets at Laotieshan, the site of the festival.  They sent me these shocking images.

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Volunteers from the Dalian Lushun Wild Bird Protection Association, Laotieshan Nature Reserve staff and Forestry Police taking down illegal nets at Laotieshan on Thursday.
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The removal of the illegal nets came too late for this Woodcock.
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However, this NORTHERN BOOBOOK was lucky. After untangling this beautiful bird from the net, the volunteers released it unharmed.
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Stressed but unharmed. Hopefully this NORTHERN BOOBOOK will have an uneventful migration to south-east Asia.

The group’s leader explained that, when the festival was in progress, the poachers had lain low, knowing that the discovery of mist nets during the event would have embarrassed the local government and almost certainly led to severe punishment.  However, now, with the spotlight turned away, the poachers were back in force.  Apparently 7-8 poachers regularly haunt the Laotieshan area and every autumn there is a running battle between the criminals and the local wild bird society, Laotieshan nature reserve staff and forestry police.

One piece of good news is that the local bird group has been engaging with the poachers to try to persuade them away from catching birds to becoming bird protectors.  One of them has already given up his nets and is now paid a small amount to look for, and take down, illegal nets.  Discussions with a second poacher are ongoing.

As is well-known, poachers make the best gamekeepers, so I have my fingers crossed that they are successful.  Whatever the result, it’s important to highlight the brilliant work of the Dalian Lushun Wild Bird Protection Group.  Heroes.

The 1st China International Birding Festival: A Major Success

After a whirlwind 48 hours, and the participation of almost 200 birders from all over China and overseas, the 1st China International Birding Festival has officially closed.  And what a success it was.

The centrepiece was a 24-hour “bird race” during which 49 teams of 4 (age range 10 to 71) competed to record as many species of bird as possible by visiting 5 pre-determined sites in the Laotieshan area.  Each team was allocated a volunteer student from the Dalian University of Foreign Languages, a local State Forestry Fire Prevention officer and provided with a car and driver.  And, after the opening ceremony in which the Vice Mayor of Dalian and other senior government officials participated, the race began at 4pm on Friday.

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The formal opening ceremony of the 1st China International Birding Festival. A grand affair!
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However, some were briefly distracted from the speeches when an ORIENTAL HONEY BUZZARD drifted overhead..
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The map of the birding locations for the 24-hour “bird race”. The birding sites are marked in red, A to E. The accommodation and event sites marked in green, F to H.

With China birding guru, Paul Holt, honourably serving as one of the team of judges, suddenly everyone else was in with a chance of victory!

Our team, including Marie Louise and two fabulous and enthusiastic young birders, Zhao Tianhao and Cheng Xi, decided to spend the first two hours of the race, and the last two hours of daylight, visiting the “Tiger Tail mudflats” where we connected with, among others, Chinese Egret, Osprey, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gull as well as Red-throated Pipit, Lanceolated Warbler and a stunning adult male Yellow-breasted Bunting in the scrub.

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The “Ibisbill” team (from left to right): Zhao Tianhao, our forestry minder, TT, Marie Louise and Cheng Xi)

After the formal dinner in the evening, we arranged to meet at 0500 (half an our before dawn and the earliest the driver and forestry officer could start) to continue the race..

We first visited the saltpans from where we hoped to be lucky with Streaked Shearwater (possible, with luck, from the sea wall).  We did not see one but we did connect with some shorebirds, including Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Dunlin, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Pacific Golden Plover.  It was shortly after sifting through the waders that we finally saw something ‘streaked’, only it was not ‘shearing’ over the sea but hiding in a small reedbed.  Astonishingly, we connected with a STREAKED REED WARBLER, an almost mythical and now almost certainly extremely rare bird.  See here for some background about this species and the story of this observation.

After the excitement of the Streaked Reed Warbler sighting, we continued to increase our species list as we visited the other sites, including a wooded mountainside and a tidal estuary.  An encounter with two NORTHERN HOUSE MARTINS (scarce in NE China) was a nice bonus during our last hour.

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Zhao Tianhao suffered from an allergic reaction to the local scrub and took an emergency soaking to calm the itchiness!

As time wore on, our ‘guide’ slowly increased the pressure on us to get back to base – any team that was late, even by a minute, would be disqualified.  So, at 1520 we left the last site and headed back for the 20 minute journey to hand in our scoresheet.  In the car we made a final count – 71 species.  Not bad.  At the beginning of the race I had thought that 70 species would be a good score, so we were pretty pleased, even though we had, alarmingly, missed some common birds; we had seen no woodpeckers, no owls, no harriers, no Little Bunting (how did that happen?), no pheasant or quail and ‘Japanese’ was the only Tit species!

After handing in the entries the judges got to work and, following a late evening, the results were ready to be announced at the closing ceremony the following morning.

On arrival, we were ushered to a row of seats close to the front so we knew we had won an award.  We were delighted to receive two – “The Black-faced Spoonbill Award” for the rarest bird seen (the Streaked Reed Warbler was always going to be a shoe-in for that) and also the 3rd place team award (our 71 species was just 3 behind the winners – Tong Menxiu’s “China Wild Tour” team.

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The “Ibisbills” team receiving the 3rd place award.
The China Wild Tour team receiving their award for 1st place.
The China Wild Tour team receiving their award for 1st place.

In addition, I was humbled and honoured to receive the judges’ “Birding Master” award…

It was a big surprise, and a huge honour, to be presented with the
It was a big surprise, and a huge honour, to be presented with the “Birding Master” award.

It was hugely encouraging to see big numbers of young Chinese birders participating and, during the 24-hour race we met with teams from as far afield as Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian, as well as several teams from host province, Liaoning and the capital, Beijing.  Even better was the gender balance – there were just as many young women as men (it was never like that in the UK when I was a young birder!).

Huge thanks to the organisers, including the China Birdwatching Society, the Dalian local government, the Dalian University of Foreign Languages and all of the other volunteers… And a special thanks to my team mates – Marie Louise, Zhao Tianhao and Cheng Xi.

With participation from the highest levels of the Dalian government, including generous financial support for the event, I sensed a genuine enthusiasm for birding and an appreciation for wild birds, the scale of which I have never before witnessed in China. All around were banners stating “Protect our birds” and “Dalian – honoured to be hosting the 1st China International Birding Festival”.  During the race, many of the 49 teams took the time to explain to interested passers-by what they were doing and to show them wild birds..  And the bird race was covered by national and local TV as well as print media, including the most popular Chinese language newspaper, the People’s Daily.  So the event has helped to raise awareness among the general public, as well as enthusing a new generation of Chinese birders.  I was heartened when one young Chinese student volunteer approached me at the closing ceremony and said “This event has made me want to be a birder”.

Forget all the trophies handed out, the most important winner of all was Birding in China.

A Right Old Bird…

Mongolian Gull "AC82", Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, March 2013.  Photograph by Bai Qingquan.
Mongolian Gull (Larus mongolicus) with wing-tag “AC82” (top), Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, March 2013. A “right old bird” at almost 24 years old…  Photograph by Bai Qingquan.

Not long after I arrived in China, I visited Liaoning Province to see my good friend, Dalian-based Tom Beeke.  He very kindly showed me some of his local birding sites, including what must be the best gull-watching site in north-eastern China, Jinzhou Bay.  Attracted by the nearby landfill site, thousands of gulls congregate in the area to spend the winter.  Most are Mongolian Gulls but there is always a good selection with Vega Gull, Heuglin’s Gull, Common Gull, Black-tailed Gull, Black-headed Gull and occasionally something rarer like a Glaucous Gull, Slaty-backed Gull or, as I was lucky enough to see on my first visit, a Pallas’s Gull.

Before I visited, friend and co-author of the excellent Birding Mongolia blog, Andreas Buchheim, asked me to look out for wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls and, sure enough, among the large flocks of Mongolian Gull loafing on the ice in the bay, I was able to pick out several wing-tagged birds.  These birds had been tagged by Andreas at various sites in Mongolia and Russia and showed that these birds, as expected, moved to the east coast of Asia in winter.

This site was so good that I went back in winter 2011/12 with Beijing-based Paul Holt, during which time we found several more wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls.

I haven’t been able to visit Jinzhou Bay this winter but another good friend, and fellow birder, Bai Qingquan from Dandong, visited there on 23 and 24 March.  Qingquan estimated that there were around 6,000 gulls of 7 different species on site.  Excitingly, he found two wing-tagged gulls that I had seen, together with Paul Holt, in winter 2011/12.

Even more excitingly he saw “AC82”.  This bird was originally ringed as a “pullus” (nestling) on 25 June 1989 at Lake Baikal in Russia.  It was subsequently caught again as an adult bird on 20 May 2005 at Airchan Nuur, Mongolia, when the metal leg ring was replaced and a wing tag (“AC82”) attached.  Qingquan’s sighting is the first since the tag was fixed in 2005 and, with the original ringing data from Russia, proves that this bird is almost 24 years old!  (almost as old as me.. cough).  Wow.. what a record!  If anyone has any information about the longevity of large gulls, I would love to know…

Another of Qingquan’s sightings was of “AF63”.  I saw this bird at the same site in February 2011 and Paul Holt and I saw it again in January 2012, showing that at least some of these gulls are site-faithful in winter..  again, another valuable piece of data.

I simply love the information that can be gained through tagging programmes like this.  Looking for marked birds adds another dimension to birding and it’s so rewarding to hear back from the project leaders about the history of individual birds.  I urge every birder to look out for, and report, any wing-tagged, colour-ringed or any other birds marked in any way.

For more information about Andreas Buccheim’s Mongolian Gull wing-tagging programme, see here.

For information about how to report a wing-tagged or colour-ringed bird, see here for Europe and here for Asia.

 

 

 

 

 

Illegal Mist Nets in China

Sadly, it is still relatively common to find illegal mist nets in China.  Most appear to be erected by poor people who will likely either eat the birds caught or sell them as cagebirds, if they are popular species.  For me, it is always with a heavy heart that I try to render the nets unusable, knowing on the one hand that they are illegal under Chinese law but, at the same time, that for some people, bird trapping may form an important part of their income.

Encouragingly, the practice of trapping birds seems to be declining, with the market for cagebirds predominantly being driven by a slowly shrinking older generation, so hopefully in the not too distant future illegal mist nets will be a thing of the past in China.

Whilst at Laotieshan for several days last week we bumped into a few members of the Panjin Birdwatching Society (from northern Liaoning).  The group, led by the famous Mr Zhang Ming (a very talented photographer) was predominantly interested in bird photography and were visiting to take advantage of the raptor migration at Laotieshan.  Mr Zhang told us about the sighting of a Band-bellied Crake on a very small pool near to Dalian city..  Having never seen this species, Mr Zhang and his friends offered to take us there..  so off we went in a small convoy of 4x4s for the short journey to the site.  After stopping for a delicious lunch, during which Mr Zhang showed us some stunning images of rare and difficult to see Chinese birds, including Jankowski’s Bunting, we arrived at the site and began to look for the specific pond.  It wasn’t long before we found it but, despite observing the weedy fringes for close on 2 hours, there were no signs of any crakes and we were forced to assume that the bird had moved on.  Whilst exploring the site we came across several illegal mist nets, some of which held live birds.  It was pleasing to see the Panjin Birdwatching Society members rescue the birds, take down the nets and destroy them.  And much better that they were taken down by Chinese birders and not ‘interfering foreigners’..!

Members of the Panjin Birdwatching Society proudly displaying their society’s flag, alongside Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu, Dalian, Liaoning Province.
Mr Zhang, who must be one of China’s most talented bird photographers (and a very nice guy).
Mr Zhang junior saved this Common Kingfisher from one of the illegal mist nets
This Brown Shrike was also released from the illegal mist nets.
This Yellow-browed Warbler, although released, was very poorly and, sadly, probably didn’t make it.

‘taimyrensis’ Gulls

I have been meaning to post these images for a while.  In late January, when I was in Dalian, I made two visits to Jinzhou Bay, a fantastic winter gull site (and also a great site for White-tailed Eagles).  By far the most common gull was Mongolian (3-4,000) with Vega Gull also well represented alongside a sprinkling of Common, Black-tailed, Black-headed and Glaucous.  Among them were a few dark-mantled and yellow-legged large gulls.  These are presumed to be the ‘taimyrensis‘ subspecies of Heuglin’s Gull, considered by some to be a hybrid between Vega Gull and nominate Heuglin’s Gull.

Whatever they are, they are smart gulls.  In late January most were sporting significant head streaking, including the typical East Asian ‘shawl’ of patterning on the lower nape.  They were relatively large, on a par with Vega in terms of size with mantle shade in between nominate Heuglin’s and Vega Gull.  I estimated that there were around 30-40 of these gulls on site.  All images taken in late January.  Comments very welcome!

Presumed 'taimyrensis' gull. Note mantle shade, yellow legs and head streaking.

 

Note heavy head streaking.

 

This individual has reduced head streaking. Iris pale yellow. Note shade of mantle compared with Vega Gull behind.
Reduced streaking on head, limited to lower nape. Extensive red gonys spot but not leaking onto upper mandible.
This image shows white 'mirrors' on p10 and p9.

 

This individual is still moulting its primaries. Looks as if there is a 'mirror' on the new p10.

Common Gulls at Jinzhou Bay, Dalian

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Liaoning Province was the opportunity to see so many gulls at Jinzhou Bay (we estimated over 4,000).  This number must make Jinzhou Bay one of the premier gull-watching sites in northern China (if you know of a comparable site, please let me know!).  The channel of running water alongside the landfill tip was a favoured haunt of Common Gulls (Larus canus) and, over the two days I spent at this site, I saw several young birds, presumably of both the subspecies found in this area – kamtschatschensis and heinei.  Here are a few images and personal comments.  Please let me know if you disagree with my identification or if you have more to add.

The kamtschatschensis bird, in particular, would certainly stand out if it turned up in the Western Europe!

First winter Common Gull of the subspecies kamtschatschensis, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, Liaoning Province. Note the dark, well marked underparts and strongly barred undertail coverts.
First winter Common Gull subspecies heinei, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, Liaoning Province, 25 January 2012. Note the very clean, white underparts.
First winter Common Gull ssp kamtschatschensis, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, Liaoning Province, 25 January 2012. The upperparts are well-marked and the moult of juvenile feathers seems to be later than the heinei ssp below.
First winter Common Gull ssp heinei, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, Liaoning Province. Much cleaner, especially the uppertail, and more advanced moult, notably on the scapulars.

It’s difficult to tell from these images but, in the field, the kamtschatschensis bird appeared to be stockier with a slightly longer bill.

Second winter Common Gull, Zhuanghe, Liaoning Province, 28 January 2012. I suspect this individual is of the subspecies kamtschatschensis. Aged as a second winter due to the presence of some adult-type wing feathers, the small white 'mirror' on the outer primary (P10) and the relatively clean tail. Note the brownish fringes to some of the coverts, a good feature of second winter kamtschatschensis.
Second Winter Common Gull, Zhuanghe, Liaoning Province, 28 January 2012. Probably of the ssp kamtschatschensis. Same bird as above.