The Beijing Swift Project 2016

On Saturday “Team Swift” undertook the next stage of the Beijing Swift Project at the Summer Palace, here in Beijing.  The Chinese “catching team”, led by Professor Zhao Xinru, was on site at the inhuman hour of 0230 to set up the nets and, by the time I arrived at 0400 with the Europeans, there were already a couple of birds waiting to be tagged.

Setting up the nets at 0230 at The Summer Palace.
Setting up the nets at 0230 at The Summer Palace.  All photos by Zhang Weimin.

This year was another hugely successful operation involving more than 60 people, all volunteers, organised into highly efficient teams by the China Birdwatching Society.  From Europe there was Chris Hewson (BTO), Dick Newell and Rob Jolliffe (Action For Swifts), Lyndon Kearsley, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris (Belgium) and Susanne Åkesson and Aron Hejdstrom from Lund University.

Ms Fu Jianping, President of the China Birdwatching Society retrieves a Swift from the net.
Ms Fu Jianping, President of the China Birdwatching Society retrieves a Swift from the net.
The "management" team, logging and distributing the Swifts to the various banding teams
The “management” team, logging and distributing the Swifts to the various banding teams
Susanne and her team of Chinese volunteers fitted an incredible 25 loggers to Swifts.
Susanne and her team of Chinese volunteers fitted an incredible 25 loggers to Swifts.
The BTO's Chris Hewson preparing the harnesses for the Swifts' "backpacks"
The BTO’s Chris Hewson preparing the harnesses for the Swifts’ “backpacks”
The "biometrics team" weighed and measured the Swifts.
The “biometrics team” weighed and measured the Swifts.
Professor Liu Yang oversaw the blood sampling, which will enable analysis of DNA.
Professor Liu Yang oversaw the blood sampling, which will enable analysis of DNA.
Wu Lan (left) led the "data downloading team", capturing the data from birds fitted with loggers in previous years.
Wu Lan (left) led the “data downloading team”, capturing the data from birds fitted with loggers in previous years.
2016-05-21 Swifts at summer palace ms fu
Fu Jianping releases a swift fitted with a data logger.
2016-05-21 Swifts at summer palace release2
It was brilliant to see so many young volunteers involved..
2016-05-21 Swifts at summer palace Dick release
Action For Swift’s Dick Newell, whose generosity enabled the project to get off the ground, releases one of the Swifts.
2016-05-21 Swifts at summer palace release4
A great moment. Leighton (right) was recently engaged to his partner and, together, they released two of the Swifts..

We succeeded in catching 10 birds with geolocators fitted in the previous 2 years. Nine of these had good data, six from birds tagged in 2015 and three from birds tagged in 2014.  Two of these we had caught in 2015, but one was a new bird carrying 2 years worth of data.  So we now have 23 complete tracks, 14 of the 2014/15 migration and 9 of the 2015/16 migration.

Preliminary analysis shows the birds doing similar things in the 2 migrations – ie migrating to and from southern Africa using a route north of the Himalayas.  It’s one of the most incredible migrations of any bird and to think they do it without landing is awe-inspiring…
A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.
A typical track of a Beijing Swift.
We also succeeded in fitting 46 new loggers of various types: GPS loggers, loggers with accelerometers and pressure sensors, as well as some more light level geolocators.  These should give us more valuable information in 2017.
Once again, it was a real privilege to be part of this incredible project… a project that is not only contributing to scientific discovery and facilitating superb collaboration between scientists and volunteers from China and Europe but also engaging the public about these amazing birds and their incredible migrations.
Huge thanks to Wu Lan for, again, being the spider at the centre of the web, to Dick, Lyndon, Chris, Rob, Geert, Gie, Susanne and Aron for their valuable contributions to this project and, most of all, to the many young Chinese volunteers who worked so well together to make this year’s catching such a success.
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JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING: Good News From Inner Mongolia!

It’s May and for ornithologists that means only one thing – field season!  This year I was privileged to accompany the JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii) survey team to Inner Mongolia alongside China Birdwatching Society’s Fu Jianping, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society’s Vivian Fu and a team of local researchers from Northeast Normal University in Jilin, led by Dr Wang Haitao.

I’ve just arrived back in Beijing and I’m thrilled to bits…  Here’s why..

Under the guidance of Dr Wang, we visited some “new” sites in eastern Inner Mongolia and, although we were able to cover only a fraction of the total area of suitable habitat, we recorded more than 100 Jankowski’s Buntings.  If the density of the buntings we encountered is typical of the whole area, there should be many hundreds of pairs at the largest of these new sites.  Fantastic news!

2016-05-08 Jankowski's Bunting site, Inner Mongolia
The habitat at this major new site in Inner Mongolia is typical grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot shrubs. Here, the density of Jankowski’s Buntings was reassuringly high.

Encouragingly, we also found some Jankowski’s Buntings in an area of regenerated grassland, replanted only 3 years ago, suggesting that these birds can, and will, colonise areas where the grassland is allowed to recover.

However, amongst this heady cocktail of good news, there is a sobering thought – none of these sites has any form of official protection, meaning they are potentially vulnerable to the main threats to the species and its grassland habitat – overgrazing and the expansion of agriculture.

Nevertheless, it is uplifting to find out that there are, in the unique Inner Mongolian grassland, more of these beautiful “little brown jobs” than we had dared imagine.

The full results of the survey and the fascinating latest research from Dr Wang and his team will be published this summer.  A link will be publicised on Birding Beijing when it is available.  With the latest information, we are slowly developing a greater understanding of the range, and population, of this special bird, found nowhere else on the planet.  This information will form the basis of the next engagement with the local government in Inner Mongolia, during which we will be pushing for official protection for as many of these sites as possible.  And, in the meantime, Dr Wang and his team will be exploring new areas to further understand the boundaries of Jankowski’s Bunting’s range and considering the use of colour-ringing to better understand breeding ecology and seasonal movements.  Could Jankowski’s be extant in northern Hebei?  Or far southeastern Mongolia?   Time will tell…

I was impressed with Dr Wang Haitao and his researchers.  Dr Wang has been studying Jankowski’s Bunting since 1999 and has a wealth of knowledge about the species, built up by years of field observations.  I learned so much from our conversations over the duration of the survey..

2016-05-07 Dr Wang and team with Vivian, Inner Mongolia
Dr Wang Haitao (centre) organising the survey team, including Vivian Fu from Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (left).

Despite the almost omnipresent gales that sweep across this vast landscape in spring, I was able to record some video of the buntings, a compilation of which is below.  Such beautiful birds in their full breeding finery and they looked a real picture amongst the Siberian Apricot blossom.

We left Inner Mongolia  encouraged and, at the same time, determined not to let this special bird slip away.

Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Fu Jianping and Dr Wang and his team for the faultless logistics, thorough field work and great company during the trip.

Jankowski’s Bunting – an update

Jankowski's Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii), Inner Mongolia, 19 May 2013
Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii), Inner Mongolia, 19 May 2013

This week I spent five days in Inner Mongolia and Jilin Province helping the team led by Beijing Birdwatching Society to survey known, and potential new, sites for Jankowski’s Bunting.  The aim was to try to establish a better understanding of the existing population, to identify threats to its habitat and to study its behaviour.  The survey is still ongoing as I write – and I will report the full results as soon as they are available – but the good news is that, so far, two new sites – holding at least 12 birds – have been found and, in addition, more than 30 individuals have been found at a single established site.  However, to temper this positive news, it is also clear that almost all of the sites are under threat… predominantly from encroaching agriculture and/or over-grazing.

As well as searching for new sites (of which I suspect there are several more, albeit small and fragmented), there is an urgent need to establish protection for the remaining areas of habitat by erecting fencing and engaging with local farmers and landowners.

==

Here’s the story..

On Saturday morning I met up with Mrs Fu Jianping from the Beijing Birdwatching Society for the short flight from Beijing to Wulanhaote in Inner Mongolia.  Here we met up with Zhu Bing Run, a student from Harbin University in Heilongjiang Province, and the three of us proceeded to our first destination – Tumuji National Nature Reserve.  Tumuji is a known site for Jankowski’s Bunting and many visiting birders will probably have seen the bunting at this site.  We were given a very warm welcome by the Reserve Director, Mr Han and his staff.   After a convivial lunch we drove straight to the “core area”, an area of fenced off grassland with scattered Siberian Apricot bushes – just a few hundred metres square – surrounded by well-grazed land (supporting at least 6 pairs of Great Bustards).

The fenced off area at Tumuji NNR.
The fenced off area at Tumuji NNR.

It was very windy on our first afternoon and, in a survey of the area we found only a Daurian Partridge, three Japanese Quails, a few Stonechats and several Richard’s Pipits.  We would try again the next day and, sure enough, despite it still being fairly windy, we discovered two singing males and a female here – my first ever sighting of Jankowski’s Bunting!

The team: Fu Jianping and Zhu Bing Run at a windy Tumuji NNR.
The team: Fu Jianping and Zhu Bing Run at a windy Tumuji NNR.

We proceeded to check other areas of the reserve, in particular areas with similar habitat.  However, despite searching thoroughly, we failed to see any more Jankowski’s Buntings at Tumuji.  We did, however, come across this “chicken snake” which has a talent for doing a remarkable impression of a cobra!

The so-called "Chicken Snake"..  apparently venomous.
The so-called “Chicken Snake”.. apparently venomous.  Eek..
2013-05-19 Mrs Fu photographing plants
Mrs Fu photograping plants during the Jankowski’s Bunting survey at Tumuji NNR.

After two nights and two days at Tumuji we moved on to an area called Xi Er Gen.  Here, the enlightened local landowner, Mr Wang Tie Jun, with the support of the nearby Xi Er Gen Nature Reserve, has fenced off an impressively large area of grassland specifically for the bunting.  It’s proving to be a very successful initiative; the first visit by the survey team, just a few weeks ago, found more than 30 birds at this site.  We didn’t survey the whole area during this visit but, just by walking the road through the area, we counted at least 5 males.  It was interesting that, at this site, Jankowski’s Bunting was seen alongside Meadow Bunting – the only site where we saw both species together.

2013-05-20 fenced off J Bunting habitat at XiErGen
The fenced off area at Xi Er Gen. A great example of local landowners and nature reserve staff working together to protect an endangered species.

After breakfast with the Xi Er Gen Nature Reserve staff we moved on again to explore potential new sites around Wulanhaote.  We stopped whenever we saw suitable habitat.  Most of these interludes produced a blank but, during one fruitless stop, through my telescope I could see an area on the horizon that looked as if it had potential…  and there appeared to be a track winding its way towards the area..  We made our way there and, sure enough, almost as soon as we stopped the car, we heard and saw a male Jankowski’s Bunting.  Result!  This sighting buoyed us considerably and we prepared to survey the area.  Almost immediately we saw another male… then another..  wow, this was clearly a very good area..  And as we moved over the brow of the hill, it was clear that there were more areas of similar habitat.  In the stunning late afternoon light we surveyed three of these ‘patches’ of habitat and found at least 6 singing males.  There were several more ‘patches’ of habitat close by that could easily hold more birds and the whole area warrants a more thorough survey.  The still conditions enabled me to make a recording of the Jankowski’s Bunting song using my Canon EOS 7D..

There were two obvious threats to the habitat at this new site.  The first was encroaching agriculture.  The grassland was not fenced off or protected in any way and it was clear that local farmers were gradually ploughing up more and more of this grassland to provide a greater area for their crops.

The second was the presence of Eurasian Cuckoos.  We saw several cuckoos in this area perched on Siberian Apricot bushes and clearly watching the Jankowski’s Buntings.  One was even seen to drop to the base of a Siberian Apricot bush for a few minutes before reappearing looking distinctly guilty..   Apparently cuckoos like Jankowski’s Buntings as hosts and our guide – Mr Zhao Zhun – told us a story about finding a Jankowski’s Bunting nest with two birds inside – a young cuckoo and a young Jankowski’s Bunting – face to face.  He returned a day later with his camera but there was just a young cuckoo with the remains of a young Jankowski’s Bunting.  Clearly, this is a natural occurrence and, of course, ordinarily with a strong population the losses would not be significant, but with such a small and declining population, predation by cuckoos is a worrying threat.

2013-05-21 new site with encroaching agriculture
One of the new sites discovered near Wulanhaote with encroaching agriculture in the background.
2013-05-21 surveying new site
Surveying the new site near Wulanhaote.
2013-05-21 Jankowski's Bunting portrait
Singing male Jankowski’s Bunting at the newly discovered site.  We counted at least 6 males here.

We left the site at sunset for the drive back to Wulanhaote.  We were elated at finding a new breeding site and celebrated with a few bottles of the local beer over dinner.  Unfortunately I had to return to Beijing the following morning and, after saying my goodbyes at the airport and wishing the team well for the remainder of the survey, I caught my return flight back to Beijing.  During the journey, I reflected on my trip.  What an experience.  And a real privilege to be part of the team to discover a new site for this bird on the brink.  However, the elation was tempered by the knowledge that almost all of the sites we visited were under threat in some way from the expansion of intensive agriculture.  Fencing appears to be a very effective way to protect the remaining habitat. A priority – in addition to further survey work to identify new sites – must be to engage with local landowners and farmers to try to build support for more fenced off areas.  Without this, I fear that almost all of the sites will disappear within a few years and the result will be the loss of this beautiful and unique bird.

I wanted to put on record my thanks to Mrs Fu from Beijing Birdwatching Society and Zhu Bing Run from Harbin University for their company and expertise during the survey and to Mr Zhao Zhun for his local knowledge about existing and potential new sites for Jankowski’s Bunting.  I would like to thank all the reserve staff at Tumuji and Xi Er Gen for their generous hospitality and assistance during our visits to their reserves.

I would also like to thank the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, in particular Vivian Fu, BirdLife International, the Oriental Bird Club and everyone else who has been working to conserve this species.

Finally, I wanted to thank everyone who has donated to the Jankowski’s Bunting JustGiving appeal.  Although I – quite rightly – paid my own costs to participate in the survey, some of the money raised during the appeal went towards supporting the participation of the Chinese team in this survey.  Without that support, this survey would not have been possible.

There is clearly a long way to go to secure the future survival of this species, and I await the full survey report and the resulting discussion about how to proceed, but I am optimistic that, with greater awareness and further financial support (please donate more if you can!), much can be done to slow and halt the decline in this species to ensure that future generations can enjoy this bird in its natural habitat in a special part of China.  If we can achieve that, what a legacy it will be for everyone involved.