In Celebration of Shorebirds

In June 2017 the Hebei Provincial Forestry Department, Hebei Luannan County Government, the Paulson Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the aim of protecting one of the most important sites along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – Nanpu coastal wetland, near Tangshan in Hebei Province.  Nanpu is a site Beijing-based birders know well.  The spectacular concentrations of shorebirds, not to mention the world-class visible migration of passerines, makes it one of the best birding sites within easy reach of the capital.

Red Knot is one of the species for which Nanpu is a vital stopover site.

That agreement was one of a series of recent positive announcements from China about the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  In early 2017, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  I reported at the time that, although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government.  And, should these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

More recently, in January 2018, the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on all ‘business-related’ land reclamation along China’s coast and issued an order to restore illegally-reclaimed land.  Already, at Yancheng, sea-walls are being removed to allow the tide once again to feed the mudflats.  In March 2018, a major government reorganisation saw environment and biodiversity elevated as government priorities and management of all protected areas being brought under one ministry.  These developments are enough to put a smile on even the most pessimistic conservationist’s face!

And so it was with a spring in my step that last weekend I was fortunate to participate in a visit to Nanpu with a delegation that consisted of the mightily impressive, and growing, group of scientists – both Chinese and international – working to study shorebirds along the flyway and some VIPs including Hank and Wendy Paulson of The Paulson Institute and Pulitizer-nominated writer Scott Weidensaul.

It was such a joy to see so many young and extremely capable Chinese scientists – Zhu Bingrun, Lei Ming, Mu Tong to name a few – contributing such a huge amount to our knowledge about the importance to migratory birds of the intertidal mudflats and salt ponds and, being led by Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, they are in great hands.

As much as the scientific data is necessary to help make the case for conservation, it is not sufficient.  Also needed is a champion who can make the case at senior levels of government and that’s where Hank and Wendy Paulson come into their own.  With Hank’s unrivalled experience and access in China, underpinned by the work of his institute, including the Coastal Wetlands Blueprint Project, they have been instrumental in engaging with local governors and the Chinese leadership about the importance of the intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and convincing them of their value.  Together, it’s a formidable team.

2016-04-29 Asian Dowitchers, Nanpu
Asian Dowitcher is one of the species for which Nanpu is an important staging site.

We enjoyed so many stimulating discussions about the latest research, the progress of the work to create Nanpu Nature Reserve and, of course, shorebirds!  And thanks to the advice of the Aussie shorebird researchers (Chris Hassall, Adrian Boyle and Matt Slaymaker are back for their 10th year to monitor the Australian-banded birds!), we were on site in perfect time to witness the most amazing spectacle of RED and GREAT KNOTS commuting from their roosting sites in the ponds to the newly-exposed mud on the falling tide.  Seeing these shorebirds, most of which were in full breeding plumage, was something to behold and there were gasps of awe as the flocks, sometimes numbering thousands of birds, wheeled around before settling just a few metres in front of us in stunning early morning light.  It was the perfect reminder of just why protecting these mudflats is so important – the world would be a much poorer place without these incredible travellers.

There is no doubt that the intertidal mudflats are a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and they have the potential to attract thousands of visitors each year, as well as endearing a sense of pride for local people and, indeed, the whole country.  With national level policy seemingly moving in the right direction, let’s hope the local progress at Nanpu will act as an example for other sites along the Flyway.  Huge thanks to Hank and Wendy Paulson, Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, Scott Weidensaul, Zhu Bingrun, Mu Tong, Lei Ming, Wang Jianmin, Dietmar Grimm, Shi Jianbin, Rose Niu, Adrian Boyle, Chris Hassell, Matt Slaymaker and Kathrine Leung for making it such an enjoyable trip!

Video: RED and GREAT KNOTS at Nanpu, May 2018.

 

Title image: (l-r) Scott Wiedensaul, Professor Zhang Zhengwang, Professor Theunis Piersma, Wendy Paulson, Hank Paulson, Terry Townshend.  Photo by Zhu Bingrun.

 

About Nanpu

Located in Luannan County of Hebei Province, Nanpu wetland consists of natural intertidal mudflats, aquaculture ponds, and salt pans. Its unique geographic location and wetland resources make it one of the most important stopover sites for migratory water birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), including rare and endangered species such as Red Knot, Great Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and Nordmann’s Greenshank.  Each year, as many as 350,000 water birds stage and refuel here.  Among the water birds at the Nanpu wetland, the population of twenty-two species exceeds one percent of their global population sizes or their population sizes along the EAAF, making it a wetland of international importance according to criteria determined by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation of wetlands and their resources.

Nanpu wetland is facing many threats, such as reclamation, over-fishing and invasion of spartina, a rapidly spreading grass that suffocates intertidal ecosystems.  Studies show that there has been a steady decrease in population of some migratory water birds that depend highly on Nanpu wetland for refueling. For instance, over the past decade, the population of Red Knots that overwinter in New Zealand and Australia along the EAAF has been declining at an annual rate of nine percent. IUCN claims that if no further conservation measures are taken, few Red Knots might remain ten years from now.

 

Shorebirding at Nanpu, 13-15 August 2014

This week I visited Nanpu with Jennifer Leung and Ben Wielstra.  This site, on the Hebei coast just 2.5 hours from Beijing, offers world class shorebirding.  With tens of thousands of waders, thousands of marsh terns and some rare East Asian specialities such as RELICT and SAUNDERS’S GULLS and ASIAN DOWITCHER, this site is hard to beat.  Throw in some visible migration and the passerine migrant magnet of the tiny “Magic Wood” and it’s a wonderful place to spend a few days birding.

Here is a sample of just how many birds are on show here at this time of the year…

One of the most abundant shorebirds is the SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER which can be found on the settling pools, the banks of tidal creeks and on the mudflats themselves.  Of the 1000s seen over the visit, we saw only two juveniles.  This one is an adult.

Adult SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, Nanpu, 14 August 2014
Adult SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, Nanpu, 14 August 2014

The spectacle of 1000s of waders arriving at the mudflats, as the mud becomes exposed on the falling tide, is superb…  I counted 834 GREAT KNOT on the 14th and, at a different site, over 700 on 15th.. including a couple of colour-flagged birds with individual engravings.

Here is a short video of some of the GREAT KNOT shortly after they arrived at the first exposed mud.  The sharp-eyed will notice one of the birds is colour-flagged with a combination of black over white on the upper right leg.

One of the GREAT KNOT sported a yellow flag with the letters “UWE”.  On return to Beijing I reported it to the Aussie shorebirders and, within minutes, I had received a reply with the individual history of this bird.  Our sighting was the first of this individual outside Australia…

Banding of “UWE”

06/03/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (-18.00, 122.37)  Australia  06313620  (UWE) Aged 2+ 

Resighting UWE

03/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

12/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

13/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

01/11/2011 Minton’s Straight  (-17.98, 122.35)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

16/12/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell

18/12/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell

19/02/2013 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell

20/12/2013 Minton’s Straight  (-17.98, 122.35)  Australia  Chris Hassell

14/08/2014 Nan Pu, Bohai Bay  (39.04, 118.36)  China (mainland)  Terry Townshend, Jennifer Leung & Ben Wielstra

Among the large numbers of GREAT KNOT were some RED KNOT and this photo shows the two species together, allowing a direct comparison.  Note the size difference plus the difference in underpart markings, bill length and shape.

Great Knot with Red Knot, Nanpu, 15 August 2014
Great Knot with Red Knot, Nanpu, 15 August 2014

One of Nanpu’s specialities is the RELICT GULL.  Although it’s primarily a wintering location, a few non-breeders remain all year round and it’s possible to see this species at any time of the year.  Right now, the breeding birds are returning to the coast, along with a few first year juveniles.  We saw at least three of this year’s young amongst more than 100 of these beautiful gulls.  Here is an adult just beginning to moult out of breeding plumage:

Although Nanpu is primarily a shorebird site, its location on the east China coast means it is also an excellent place to witness visible migration.  Even though our visit was in mid-August, we witnessed a nice passage of RICHARD’S PIPITS and YELLOW WAGTAILS and the “Magic Wood” – a tiny patch of trees and shrubs in the middle of the vast open area of ponds – hosted at least 8 EASTERN CROWNED and 6 ARCTIC WARBLERS as well as YELLOW-RUMPED, ASIAN BROWN, GREY-STREAKED and DARK-SIDED FLYCATCHERS.  I can only imagine what this newly discovered ‘oasis’ will be like in September and October.

A nice surprise was this adult male DAURIAN STARLING, a scarce passage migrant in the Beijing/Hebei area.

And an even bigger surprise was an unseasonal PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE that flew backwards and forwards just inland from the sea wall and settled on some rough ground between some ‘nodding donkeys’.  Bizarre.

All in all it was a brilliant few days.  The full species list is below.  Big thanks to Jennifer and Ben for their great company…  itching to get back already!

Jennifer scanning waders at Nanpu.
Jennifer scanning waders on one of the pools at Nanpu.
Ben watching GREAT KNOT from the bridge at Nanpu
Ben watching GREAT KNOT from the bridge at Nanpu

Species List

 
Common Pheasant – 1 juvenile near the seawall on 15th
Common Shelduck – 1 juvenile on 14th
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Little Grebe – 3 on the pond at the sea wall by the police building
Black-crowned Night Heron – 4 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Chinese Pond Heron – 1 in flight on 13th and 1 on 15th
Grey Heron – 6
Little Egret – 14
Chinese Egret – 2 on 14th near the bridge where the tidal channel runs into the sea and one on 15th
Great Cormorant – 287 flew in to roost on the ponds at 1745 on 14th
Common Kestrel – 2 (both females)
Amur Falcon – 2 (both adult females)
Black-winged Stilt – not counted but 1000s
Pied Avocet – not counted but 1000s
Grey Plover – 27 on 15th
Little Ringed Plover – c75
Kentish Plover – c500
Lesser Sand Plover – 1 in summer plumage from the bridge at the seawall
Greater Sand Plover – 2 adults in winter plumage on the ponds
Asian Dowitcher – at least 15, including 5 feeding on the falling tide on 15th
Black-tailed Godwit – c700 on 14th
Bar-tailed Godwit – c80
Whimbrel – 23
Eurasian Curlew – 14
Far Eastern Curlew – 29
Spotted Redshank – not counted but estimate of several hundred
Common Redshank – much less common than Spotted bt still 50+
Marsh Sandpiper – 1000s
Common Greenshank – 18
Green Sandpiper – 2
Wood Sandpiper –
Grey-tailed Tattler – 3
Terek Sandpiper – 8
Common Sandpiper – 16
Ruddy Turnstone – 14
Great Knot – 832 counted on 14th from the bridge.  700+ counted on morning of 15th from east of the oil terminal causeway…
Red Knot – at least 30 in total
Red-necked Stint – c40 (never found a substantial concentration of stints)
Temminck’s Stint – 1
Long-toed Stint – 5
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper – 1000s
Curlew Sandpiper – 20
Dunlin – 8
Broad-billed Sandpiper – 3
Ruff – 1 ad male
Red-necked Phalarope – 1 adult (male?)
Black-tailed Gull – 160
Mongolian Gull – 2 adults
Relict Gull – 105 counted on 14th
Black-headed Gull – c300-400
Saunders’s Gull – 6
Common Tern –
Little Tern – 38
Gull-billed Tern – 18
White-winged Tern – 1000s
Pallas’s Sandgrouse – 1 flew back and forth over the marshy area adjacent to the sea wall (viewed from the dirt track).  Landed on the rough ground amongst the ‘nodding donkeys’ but not seen on the deck.
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3 around Nanpu
Spotted Dove – 1 in Nanpu
Pacific Swift – 11 flew west along the sea wall on 15th
Common Kingfisher – 1 heard at “Magic Wood”
Brown Shrike – 17 along the roadside
Black Drongo – 1 at the “ice cream” village
Azure-winged Magpie – 4 around Nanpu
Common Magpie – 12 along the roadside
Sand Martin – 12 along the seawall on 15th
Barn Swallow – 1000s
Red-rumped Swallow – 46 counted but many more present
Zitting Cisticola – 6 along the sea wall on 15th
Chinese Bulbul – 3
Thick-billed Warbler – 2 (one in “Magic Wood” on 14th and one along the seawall on 15th)
Arctic Warbler –  at least 6 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Eastern Crowned Warbler – at least 8 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Reed Parrotbill – 6
White-eye sp – one migrated along the sea wall, seen from the bridge, on 14th
Daurian Starling – one adult male along the roadside with White-cheeked Starlings on 14th
White-cheeked Starling – 8
Dark-sided Flycatcher – 1 adult and 1 juvenile probably this species at “Magic Wood”
Grey-streaked Flycatcher – 1 adult at “Magic Wood”
Asian Brown Flycatcher – 1 adult at “Magic Wood”
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – an adult male and an adult female at “Magic Wood” on 15th
Tree Sparrow – not counted but numerous
Yellow Wagtail – 12 on 14th and 15 on 15th
Grey Wagtail – 2 by the sea wall seen from the bridge on 14th
White Wagtail – 2
Richard’s Pipit – 28 on 14th from the bridge and 41 on 15th from the dirt track – all migrating
Blyth’s Pipit – 2 possibly this species migrating (a call similar to Richard’s plus an extra “chip”)
Yellow-breasted Bunting – two possibly this species (yellowish buntings) migrating on 14th

Dalian – Day Four

Today was wader day.  And after travelling to Jinshitan (just north of Dalian city) yesterday afternoon, we stayed overnight in a very cheap (but functional) hotel ahead of our 5am pick up.  Our destination was Pikou, a relatively small town (or so it appears on the map, but actually looks larger than many UK cities!) north of Dalian on the east coast of the peninsula.  The journey, which without stops should take less than an hour and a half, is peppered with good birding sites and there are lots of mudflats all the way up, providing good habitat for wading birds.  Tom showed us some fabulous sites and I am indebted to him for his guidance, expertise and company today – thanks Tom!!

The highlight was undoubtedly the 6 Black-faced Spoonbills at Zhuange (north of Pikou) with a supporting cast of over 50 Chinese Egrets, 400 Great Knot, over 1,000 Dunlin of the very smart race sakhalina, 300+ Bar-tailed Godwit, 450+ Red-necked Stint, 150+ Terek Sandpiper, 40 Lesser Sand Plover, 2 Greater Sand Plover, 26 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 7 Grey-tailed Tattler and Saunders’ Gull.

After enjoying the Black-faced Spoonbills (almost all of the total breeding population in China!), we experienced a stunning encounter with a host of waders at a site just south of Zhuange where we sat and watched the waders come towards us as the tide came in, giving us fabulous views of Great Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Lesser Sand Plover etc all in superb breeding plumage.  A real bonus was finding 15 birds with coloured rings or flags on their legs.  These birds will have been ‘marked’ by ornithologists studying migration routes and I will report these birds (7 Bar-tailed Godwit, 5 Great Knot, 1 Red Knot and 1 Grey Plover) in the hope of discovering something about their history.  Many will almost certainly have been ringed in Australia, illustrating just how far these birds travel every year from their breeding grounds near the Arctic circle to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere..  truly remarkable.

The drive back ended with a Little Owl just outside Jinshitan – the first time I have seen this species in China – and we arrived back too late to catch the last train back to Dalian and from there to Lushun.  So we will begin tomorrow by travelling to Lushun, checking in to our hotel and probably won’t reach Laotieshan until late morning.  So we will miss the early hours of migration but it was worth it!

I was a bit lax on the species list today, simply because we stopped at so many sites and saw so many birds!  So the following species list is not comprehensive but hopefully gives a flavour of the day…

Chinese Egret (one of more than 50 seen today)
Black-faced Spoonbills, Zhuange
Black-tailed Godwits
Bar-tailed Godwits

Whimbrel (300+)

Kentish Plover (12)

Chinese Egret (56)

Chinese Pond Heron (1)

Oystercatcher (6)

Black-tailed Gull (150+)

Peregrine (1)

Grey-tailed Tattler (7)

Black-headed Gull (400+)

Little Egret (6)

Common Sandpiper (4)

Intermediate Egret (1)

Wood Sandpiper (16)

Black-crowned Night Heron (8)

Grey Heron (5)

Common Pheasant (8)

Barn Swallow (300+)

Red-rumped Swallow (25+)

Fork-tailed Swift (60+)

Kestrel (3)

Little Tern (8)

Pacific Golden Plover (57)

Richard’s Pipit (4)

Turnstone (43)

Red-necked Stint (428 including 385 just south of Zuanghe)

Bar-tailed Godwit (300+)

Eurasian Curlew (35+)

Far Eastern Curlew (40+)

Meadow Bunting (3)

Grey Plover (85+)

Terek Sandpiper (c160)

Lesser Sand Plover (34)

Black-tailed Godwit (43)

Saunders’ Gull (5)

Black-faced Bunting (4)

Red Knot (15)

Dunlin (1,000+)

House Martin sp (6)

Yellow Wagtail (14)

Sand Martin (14)

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (38)

Great Knot (c400)

Black-faced Spoonbill (6)

Caspian Tern (1)

Common Shelduck (240)

Chinese Penduline Tit (1)

Blue Rock Thrush (2)

Moorhen (1)

Coot (1)

Little Grebe (2)

Little Owl (1)

Spooners!

A brief update on my trip to Rudong with Shanghai birders Zhang Lin and Tong Mienxu.  Fuller account to follow.  First, I have to blurt it out – I saw SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER!!!  In fact, I had four sightings (2 on each day, involving at least 3 different individuals).  One was even self-found (a moulting adult still with some rufous on the throat).

Supporting cast of waders (there were probably around 7,000 waders on site) included 6 Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Common Greenshank, Redshank, Great Knot, Grey-tailed Tattler, Long-toed Stint, Far Eastern Curlew, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, Red-necked Stint, Black- and Bar-tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher (quite scarce), Kentish Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Turnstone.  Other highlights were many and included an adult male Pied Harrier (a stonking bird!), Northern Hawk Cuckoo, Reed Parrotbill, Pechora Pipit, etc etc.

No photos of Spooners (they were all seen at middle distance and, to be honest, I just enjoyed the sighting without trying to juggle camera and scope), but I have a few photos of some of the other birds (Asian Brown Flycatcher, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Reed Parrotbill etc) which I will post shortly.

More soon….