Summit for the Flyways

I’m writing this from Abu Dhabi at the opening of BirdLife International “Summit for the Flyways” which, from 23-26 April, brings together some of the world’s greatest bird scientists, conservationists, communicators and policy influencers to address one question: how do we best tackle the threats facing migratory birds?

Migratory birds have a hard life. To get to where they need to be – to breed and find food and shelter – they must run the gauntlet of illegal hunting/killing, insensitively placed wind turbines, pollution and a panoply of other threats. And these threats are only increasing.

The Beijing Cuckoo undertakes a phenomenal migration, linking China’s capital with Mozambique and southeastern Africa, but is facing threats including habitat loss, changes in agricultural practices and climate change. 

To underpin the Summit, BirdLife International has released a key publication: The State of the World’s Birds 2018.  This important and comprehensive report provides a snapshot of the health of not only the world’s birds, but the ecosystems they represent.  It’s described as “taking the pulse of the planet”.

State of the World’s Birds shows that many of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in dire straits. At least 40% of these species are in decline, and one in eight bird species is globally threatened with extinction.  It’s a wake-up call.

2011-09-05 Far Eastern Curlew
The Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) is one of several shorebird species in danger of extinction.

Many bird species known for being widespread and common are now at risk of extinction; the Snowy Owl, Atlantic Puffin, Grey Parrot and European Turtle-dove are among the instantly recognisable bird species that are now threatened with extinction due to human-driven factors such as climate change, illegal hunting and overfishing.  Overall, agriculture (the loss of habitat from agricultural expansion, as well as agricultural intensification) is the greatest driver of bird extinction worldwide.

The continued deterioration of the world’s birds is a major concern for the health of our planet; birds provide a wide variety of ecosystem services, such as controlling insect pest populations, and dispersing plant seeds. Vultures, one of the most threatened bird groups, provide crucial sanitary services across South Asia and Africa through the disposal of animal carcasses.

Here are some more of the publication’s key findings:

The Yellow-breasted Bunting could become the next Passenger Pigeon

Many people are familiar with the cautionary tale of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, a bird that once numbered billions in North America, and that was driven to extinction by 1914 through excessive hunting and habitat destruction. Sadly, history appears to be repeating itself.

Until recently, the Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola was one of Eurasia’s most abundant bird species, breeding across the northern Palaearctic from Finland to Japan. However, since 1980, its population has declined by 90%, while its range has contracted by 5,000 km, and BirdLife has now assessed the species as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List – meaning that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction. Although now officially banned, large-scale hunting of this bird, particularly in China, continues – in 2001, an estimated one million buntings, known colloquially as ‘the rice bird’, were consumed in China’s Guangdong province alone and, in November 2017 they were found for sale on China’s online shopping website, Taobao.

The European Turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur was once a familiar migrant to Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East from the Sahel zone of Africa. Because of habitat loss and hunting, the species is now declining across its range, especially in Western Europe, and its conservation status has recently been re-classified as Vulnerable to extinction.

The Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus is surely one of the most widely recognised birds in the world. It is also widespread, occurring throughout the Arctic tundra of the Northern Hemisphere and, in Asia, wintering as far south as northern China. Yet, the species is experiencing a rapid decline, most likely connected to climate change: changes to snowmelt and snow cover can affect the availability and distribution of prey. The species has recently been categorised as Vulnerable.

In the marine realm, the depletion of fish populations through overfishing and climate change has caused rapid declines in widespread and much-loved seabirds such as Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla—both are now considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Overall threats to the world’s birds

Human actions are responsible for most threats to birds. Foremost among these threats are: agricultural expansion and intensification, which impacts 1,091 globally threatened birds (74%); logging, affecting 734 species (50%); invasive alien species, which threaten 578 (39%) species; and hunting and trapping, which put 517 (35%) species at risk. Climate change represents an emerging and increasingly serious threat—currently affecting 33% of globally threatened species—and one that often exacerbates existing threats.

A powerful example of unsustainable agricultural practices, neurotoxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids are proving highly detrimental to birds. One recent study from the USA found that migrating White-crowned Sparrows Zonotrichia leucophrys exposed to neonicotinoids lost a quarter of their body mass and fat stores. The neurotoxin also impaired the birds’ migratory orientation.

Importantly, as well as the wake-up call about the decline in many bird species, the report also provides a message of hope, showing that conservation works and can change the fortunes of species in trouble.

At least 25 bird species would have gone extinct without conservation action over recent decades. These include the Seychelles White-eye Zosterops modestus, the Echo Parakeet Psittacula eques and the Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina – all species confined to oceanic islands.

These messages are providing the backdrop to the Summit for the Flyways and the challenge now is to design a coordinated response across the flyways including governments, international organisations, NGOs, civil society and business.

In that context, it’s heartening to see so many people representing countries along all the major flyways, from China, Mongolia and Australia in the East Asian Australasian Flyway to the Netherlands, UK, North Africa in the Eurasian-African Flyway and the Americas in the west.  From China specifically, Professor Lei Guangchun from Beijing Forestry University is here and will be speaking about the recent positive changes in policy in China.

It promises to be an inspirational few days and, I hope, a catalyst for scaling up both awareness and conservation action to protect these great avian travellers and the ecosystems to which they belong.

 

 

 

Baer’s Pochard: The Hengshui Declaration

Good news on conservation seems to be coming thick and fast from China.  With the recent ban on land reclamation along China’s coast – a massive boost to the tens of millions of migratory shorebirds that rely on the food-rich intertidal mudflats to fuel their marathon journeys – and the listing of a series of coastal sites on the tentative list for World Heritage Site status, there has been significant progress in the last 12 months for migratory shorebirds.

And this week there was major progress for the ‘Critically Endangered’ Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri).  From 19-21 March I participated in a workshop at Hengshui Hu, around 300km south of Beijing.  Convened by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP)’s Baer’s Pochard Task Force, an international coalition of partner organisations dedicated to saving this endangered duck, the workshop was designed to promote its conservation.  And Hengshui Hu was a fitting location – as an important stopover site, a breeding site and with a handful spending the winter, this lake is the most important known location for this species in the world.

WWT’s Richard Hearn addresses the opening session at Hengshu Hu. With their outstanding experience with waterbirds, WWT is a key partner in the effort to save Baer’s Pochard from extinction.

The workshop, hosted by Beijing Forestry University and Hengshui Municipal Government and organised by Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve, the School of Nature Conservation at Beijing Forestry University and Hengshui University, was opened by the Deputy Mayor of Hengshui and included participants from ten countries – Bangladesh, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Russia and Thailand.  

Delegates from Mongolia and Russia formed part of the international delegation to Hengshui Hu.

It’s fair to say the workshop was nothing short of inspirational.  The huge sense of local pride in Hengshui about being the most important (known) place in the world for this species was palpable and the research presented by Chinese academics, including Dr Wu Lan and a team of volunteers from across the Provinces (part of which showcased the results of a 2017/2018 winter survey with more than 800 birds counted) – was impressive.

In the opening session, the State Forestry Administration announced that Baer’s Pochard has been recommended to be added to the list of species with “Class 1 protection” in China, meaning that anyone killing or endangering it will face severe penalties.  And, together with the contributions from all the range countries in east and south Asia, the workshop was a major step forward in consolidating knowledge, identifying research gaps and priority actions as well as significantly raising the profile of Baer’s Pochard locally and nationally.  Huge kudos to the organisers, especially Professor Ding Changqing and his team from Beijing Forestry University, Dr Wu Dayong and his team from Hengshui University, the Hengshui Municipal Government, Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve, EAAFP and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.  It was a privilege to be there.

The delegates agreed “The Hengshui Declaration“.

For me, the two most notable outcomes were:

  • First, as stated above, the State Forestry Administration announced that they have recommended BAER’S POCHARD be added to the list of species with special (Class 1) protection in China.  This is significant as, if approved, it would mean severe penalties for anyone killing or endangering this species or its habitats.  That is a serious deterrent to any would-be poachers and egg collectors.
  • Second, Hengshui Hu was urged to apply for status as a wetland of international significance under the Ramsar Convention and, importantly for building local pride, Hengshu Hu was designated as “The Home of Baer’s Pochard”.
EAAFP’s Hyeseon Do presents Mr Bo Yuan, the Director of Hengshui Lakeside New City Area, with a plaque to commemorate the workshop.

As well as the formal outcomes detailed in the Declaration, local officials committed to strengthening enforcement of laws and regulations about illegal fishing, egg collecting and habitat disturbance.  Having seen many examples of electric fishing (illegal in all of China, not only in nature reserves), reed cutting and egg collection during my many visits to Hengshui Hu over the past few years, this is heartening to hear and I very much hope these wonderful words will be backed up by action on the ground.  Our field visit to the site on the second day of the workshop has given me optimism – it was clear that nearly all of the fishing nets have been removed and, according to the local officials, more than 200 boats have been confiscated.  Powerful stuff.

Delegates enjoyed good views of BAER’S POCHARD during the field visit to Hengshui on the second day.

One outcome not recorded in the official Declaration but nevertheless will be welcomed by many, I am sure, is the idea that the local beer will be re-branded as “Baer’s Pochard beer” with a percentage of sales going to Baer’s Pochard conservation.  If any locals needed an incentive to drink more beer, this must surely be it!

It’s striking how much progress has been made in the last five years.  It was only in 2012 that there were very few sightings of Baer’s Pochard anywhere in the world and in February of that year a British birder famously travelled to Japan from the UK just for the weekend to see one. The fact that he was prepared to fly half way around the world to see a single overwintering drake a few hours from Tokyo was testament not only to the rarity of this once abundant duck from eastern Asia but also that, at the time, there were no reliable sites to see it in the wild anywhere on Earth and it was thought to be on the verge of slipping away.  Later that year, Chinese birders reported up to four breeding pairs of Baer’s Pochard at Hengshui Hu and, since then, this site has become THE place to see this species.  More than 300 were counted there in March 2017 during spring migration.

On Wednesday evening I returned to Beijing with many of the delegates and the atmosphere among the group was joyous, so much so that even a 20-minute detention at a police checkpoint failed to dampen the spirits.

Lining up at the Hebei-Beijing border check whilst waiting for our passports to be checked.

Whilst Baer’s Pochard is a species that remains at serious risk of extinction in the wild, the prognosis today is such a contrast to 2012.  Along with the announcement of the ban on land reclamation, it’s been a dream-like beginning to 2018 for conservationists in China.  I could get used to this feeling!

 

Header photo: a drake BAER’S POCHARD by Luo Jianhong.

 

Background about the Baer’s Pochard 

In the early 1900s Baer’s Pochard was described by La Touche as “extremely abundant” in eastern China during spring and autumn migration as it made its way to and from its breeding grounds in northeast China and southeast Russia.  Some notes from formerly Beijing-based Jesper Hornskov described a flock of 114 on the lake at the Summer Palace as recently as March 1989.  Many birders who visited the Chinese east coast migration hotspot of Beidaihe in the 1980s and 1990s probably saw reasonable numbers, too.  Historically, it was reliable in winter at Poyang Hu in Jiangxi Province, with flocks numbering 100s of birds being reported there as recently as the 1990s and 2000s.

However, its decline since then has been dramatic and near catastrophic.  In 2012 a (partial) summer survey of what was thought to be its breeding stronghold – Lake Khanka on the China-Russian border – produced not a single confirmed sighting during the core breeding season, although two were seen in August.  Similarly, a 2012/2013 survey of its known core wintering grounds, coordinated by WWT and WWF China, produced just 45 individuals thinly spread across the Provinces of Anhui, Henan, Hubei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Sichuan and Hong Kong, an apparently calamitous drop in numbers that explains why the status of Baer’s Pochard was upgraded to “Critically Endangered” by BirdLife International.

The reasons for the dramatic decline are not well understood but are likely to include habitat destruction and degradation (partly natural, caused by a long-term drought in northeast China, but predominantly human-related), and hunting pressure at stopover sites and on the wintering grounds.  However, it is an interesting contrast that the Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca), a species with which Baer’s Pochard often associates and that shares similar habitat preferences, appears to be increasing in numbers and spreading north and east.

In fact, the expansion of the range of Ferruginous Duck could be an additional threat to an already vulnerable Baer’s Pochard due to the spectre of hybridisation.  I have personally seen drake Baer’s Pochards displaying to female (and male!) Ferruginous Ducks in Beijing and at Hengshui Hu, and several birds during our field trip on Tuesday 20 March 2018 showed characteristics of both species.

The most recent winter survey in China produced a relatively high total of a little over 800 birds and I think it’s fair to say that probably constitutes the majority of the global population.  With the location of only a handful of breeding pairs known, there’s still so much to learn about the breeding areas, distribution and ecology of Baer’s Pochard.

 

 

China Takes Important Step Towards Protecting Remaining Intertidal Mudflats

This is big news.  The Chinese government has just taken an important step to protect some of the key remaining intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  A total of fourteen sites have been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government. And, if these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

The fourteen sites listed as “tentative” World Heritage Site nominations by the Chinese government. Credit: EAAFP

The extensive mudflats, sandflats and associated habitats of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Bay, represent one of the largest areas of intertidal wetlands on Earth and are shared by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (RoK). It is the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF).  And yet, in the last few decades, around 70% of the intertidal habitat has been lost to land reclamation projects, causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline dramatically.

Species such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot are highly dependent on the area for food and rest during their long migrations from as far as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.  And of course, this area is not only important as a stopover site.  Almost the entire world population of Relict Gull winters in the Bohai Bay, and the whole population of Saunders’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill breed in the area.

RELICT GULLS in Tianjin. One of the species entirely dependent on the intertidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay.

The tentative nomination has not happened out of thin air.  It’s the result of many years of hard work by domestic Chinese organisations, supported by the international community.

Back in September 2012, concern about habitat loss and the plight of migratory waterbirds led to a call to ensure a suitable framework for the conservation and management of the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Gulf, and associated bird species at the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Jeju, Republic of Korea.  A resolution on the ‘Conservation of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and its threatened waterbirds, with particular reference to the Yellow Sea’ was adopted by 100% of voting governments.

Subsequently, national workshops were held in Beijing in 2014, and Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 2016 to implement this resolution nationally.  Then, in August 2016, I was fortunate to participate in a joint meeting in Beijing, where representatives of the government authorities of China and the Republic of Korea responsible for World Heritage implementation discussed the nomination of Yellow Sea coastal wetlands.

Negotiating text at the August 2016 IUCN meeting in Beijing, involving officials from China and the Republic of Korea.

A further resolution “Conservation of intertidal habitats and migratory waterbirds of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, especially the Yellow Sea, in a global context” was adopted at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), responsible for World Heritage nomination in China has been active in identifying key sites and involving stakeholders to promote the current tentative list, with technical assistance from ShanShui, a Chinese conservation NGO.  Whilst the list is not comprehensive – there are other key sites that many conservationists feel should be included – it is a strong foundation and it is possible to add further sites in due course. Importantly, at the same time, the Republic of Korea has been working on a nomination for the tidal flats of the southwest region including the most important site for migratory waterbirds in the country, Yubu Island.

With these proposed nominations by China and the Republic of Korea, the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea are being increasingly recognized by governments for their outstanding global importance and it is hoped that this will result in stronger protection and effective management for the continued survival of migratory waterbirds.

There is a long way to go to secure formal nomination and inscription onto the list of World Heritage Sites – that process can take many years – but it’s a vital step and an important statement of intent that provides a renewed sense of optimism about the potential to save what remains of these unique sites.  Huge kudos, in particular to MOHURD and to ShanShui, and to everyone who has been working so hard to make this happen, including the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute, IUCN, John MacKinnon and many more.

The long-term vision is that there will be a joint China/Republic of Korea and maybe even DPRK World Heritage Site covering the key locations along the Yellow Sea/Bohai Bay.  Now, wouldn’t that be something?!

 

Links:

The formal listing of the sites can be found here: UNESCO: The Coast of the Bohai Gulf and the Yellow Sea of China

For the EAAFP press release, see here.

Title Image:

Far Eastern Curlew, Nanpu, August 2014.  One of the species heavily dependent on the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.