Volunteers Protect Beijing’s Harlequin Duck

Beijing’s first ever HARLEQUIN (丑鸭) was discovered on 9 February 2017, when it was photographed by a local bird photographer at the unexpected location of Anzhenmen in central Beijing.  Not surprisingly, this first for the capital has proved extremely popular with birders and photographers and has attracted the attention of the local media.

The first-winter female HARLEQUIN took up residence in the unlikely location of central Beijing.

The vast majority of people have been very well-behaved and kept their distance, especially since the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC) erected a banner on site with information about the species and asking people not to feed it or get too close.

Wu Qi explaining the significance of the Harlequin to a group of local children.

However, last week the bird suddenly lost the majority of its tail feathers and there was speculation that it had attracted the attention of some people with ill intentions.  Shortly afterwards, someone was spotted on site after dark with a powerful spotlight and a fishing net acting suspiciously.

Local birder, 武其 (Wu Qi), was determined not to let the criminals catch the Harlequin and, with some friends, organised patrols after dark to ensure the bird’s safety and recruited young volunteers to speak to local people and passers by.  As of today, those patrols are ongoing and the bird remains on site.

Some of the young volunteers helping to engage passers by at Anzhenmen.
Journalists from Beijing TV and Beijing Evening News visited the site to interview Wu Qi and some of the young volunteers.

On Monday, with the help of 钟婕 (Zhong Jie), I conducted a short interview with Wu Qi to discuss his actions, including his views on wild bird conservation in China.  Wu Qi’s answers are below:

Q: What are the threats to the Harlequin at Anzhenmen?

A: The threats to the Anzhenmen Harlequin are: illegal catching for food, inappropriate feeding and water quality (pollution).  According to witnesses on-site, some people have tried to catch it for eating.

Q: What motivated you to try to protect this bird?

A: We understand that worldwide, the Harlequin Duck is not rare and is not classified as an endangered species.  However, Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China, and this is the first record of this species in Beijing.  As birders, we want something good for this Harlequin, which is to see it safely survive the winter and migrate back to its breeding grounds in Spring.  At the same time, we want to take this opportunity to raise the awareness and knowledge of the public about how to protect wildlife correctly.  We believe that the energy and efforts of a few of us are limited, so we decided to arrange volunteers to help to protect the Harlequin.

Q: Do you think the bird is safe now?

A: We have been protecting the bird for a week and, so far, there has been no catching behaviour, and inappropriate feeding has also been substantially reduced.  However, we believe the water quality at the weir is not so good and we are concerned that it may contain toxic substances which may accumulate in the Harlequin’s body and affect its health and breading potential.

Q: What do your friends and family think about your actions to protect this bird?

A: My family is supportive about what I have done.  And they felt very proud when they saw me on the Beijing TV news about our Harlequin protection.  My friends are all nature enthusiasts or professionals engaged in nature education and wildlife conservation.  So they understood very well my actions.  Many of my friends have been directly involved in protecting the Harlequin.  They call me “a guy of action”.

Q: Every country has a minority of people who want to harm wild birds. What do you think can be done to help protect wild birds in China?

A: In China, I feel the most critical thing is not to protect a specific bird or a species of birds, but to change the mindset and attitude of the public and government sectors towards wildlife.  For example, we should let people know that wild birds do not a provide higher nutritional value than poultry.  On the contrary, wild birds may have the risk of carrying parasites and contagious disease.  As for the government sectors, we expect them to understand the meaning of biological function and diversity.  Investing a huge amount of money to create an artificial “wetland park” is not as good as providing a lake or natural wetland that is left wild and has reduced human disturbance.  I think public campaigns and communication are very important. It’s also important to promote birding activities, especially involving young kids, to help communicate and spread appreciation, knowledge and awareness about wildlife protection.

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Hear hear!

武其 (Wu Qi), “a guy of action”, works for an environmental NGO called “The Nature Library”, dedicated to promoting nature and environmental education in schools, among communities and in public parks.  He’s a great example of the growing number of people passionate about protecting biodiversity in Beijing.  Thank you Wu Qi and friends!

Big thanks to 钟婕 (Zhong Jie), English name Michelle, for assistance with the translations.

Title image: Wu Qi (right) with Shi Yang of the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC).

Harlequin Duck in Beijing

 

Urban birding often springs surprises.   Given Beijing’s geographic position, the spectacle of migration is particularly impressive and many unusual species can turn up in the city’s parks and gardens.  The Swinhoe’s Rail in the Temple of Heaven Park and Beijing’s first Tree Pipit in the UK Ambassador’s garden are examples of rare and scarce species appearing at unexpected locations.

On Friday evening, news broke of another urban surprise in the shape of a female Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭, Chǒu yā) that had been photographed near Anzhenmen, close to the north 3rd ring road in central Beijing.  The photo, by local bird photographer 侯金生 (Hou Jinsheng), circulated fast on Chinese social media and very soon my Saturday plans, to accompany Paul Holt to a forested area in northern Beijing, changed to take in an early stop to look for the Harlequin.

We arrived around 30 minutes before dawn and quickly found the site, a tiny weir along a concrete-sided canal just a stone’s throw from the busy 3rd ring road at Anzhenmen.  It seemed an odd place for a largely coastal (at least in winter) duck but there was running water which, together with the weir, provided an artificial micro-habitat not completely unlike the Harlequin’s preferred breeding habitat of fast-flowing streams.

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The site of Beijing’s first HARLEQUIN, a first-winter female, near Anzhenmen.

In the darkness, a few Mallards took to the air as local early risers began their morning walks along the canal and a few White-cheeked Starlings and Azure-winged Magpies announced their departure from roosts with raucous calls.  Even though the sun was not yet up it was possible to see that the Harlequin was not at the weir.  We waited close by, using the time to speculate whether the bird had just arrived and had used this site as a temporary stopover before moving on, or had it been here all winter undetected?  Given the location, and lack of observer coverage, the latter was certainly a possibility.  We agreed to give it until around 0730 before heading north to the Labagou Forest Park, as we had originally planned.

Within a few minutes we were joined by some local birders, including Huang Hanchen, Zhao Min, Shen Yan, Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao.  Their arrival delayed our departure as we caught up to chat about birds and all manner of issues, including the significance of the day – Lantern Festival, officially the last day of Chinese New Year.  The Lantern Festival is a family celebration, so most of the Chinese birders had limited time as they needed to visit relatives later in the day, some travelling to other Provinces.  Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao were on their way to the train station to visit relatives at Hengshui, and reluctantly had to leave with the bird not having shown itself..

Just a few minutes later, at around 0730, Paul and I were renewing our discussion about when to leave the site. Hanchen and Paul suddenly spotted something floating on the water, emerging from the tunnel and heading towards the weir.  They initially thought it was a piece of litter but very quickly realised it was the Harlequin!  It had seemingly roosted deep inside the dark tunnel and had emerged to feed around 20 minutes after sunrise.  We watched in awe as it swam and fed amongst the weed for several minutes, often at extremely close quarters and seemingly oblivious to its growing fan base.  Amused locals stopped to see what the fuss was about and, on seeing the Harlequin, one commented “Oh, that small brown duck has been there for at least 20 days”!

Several times the Harlequin stopped to preen on the edge of the weir and, as the sun rose, it looked splendid in the early morning light.

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Beijing’s first HARLEQUIN showed extremely well in its surprisingly urban setting.

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If it’s true, and we have no reason to suspect it isn’t, the Harlequin’s lengthy stay of “at least 20 days” means that the unfortunate Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao, who had to leave just minutes before the Harlequin’s emergence, will hopefully connect when they return to Beijing next week.

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The first birders on the scene. In the foreground, He Wenbo (left) and Zhao Min with the Harlequin on the water.

Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China.  There are a few records from well-watched Beidaihe in neighbouring Hebei Province, and several in the northeast Provinces of Jilin, Inner Mongolia and Liaoning, so it was on the radar as a potential visitor to Beijing.  However, the urban location was a complete surprise.  As well as being the first record for Beijing, the Anzhenmen Harlequin is the 482nd species to be reliably recorded in the capital.  In a personal milestone for Paul Holt, the Harlequin was his 400th species in the Chinese capital since he first birded there around 28 years ago.  Congratulations to Paul!

In Chinese, Harlequin is  丑鸭 (pronounced “chǒu yā”).  The second character “鸭” is pronounced “yā”, meaning duck.  The first character “丑”, pronounced “chǒu” has several meanings..  one is “clown”, the intended meaning in the case of the Harlequin, but another is “ugly”, hence Harlequin is known as “the ugly duck”!  Despite its ugliness, it’s proving to be probably the most-photographed Harlequin in China.

What will be next?

Big thanks to Hou Jinsheng for circulating his original photo of the Harlequin and to Huang Hanchen for passing on the news.  Thanks also to Paul Holt for driving on Saturday morning.

Note on diet: according to HBW, the Harlequin’s diet consists of “molluscs (e.g. gastropods such as Littorina sitkana), crustaceans and, in spring and summer, insects and their larvae/pupae (e.g. blackflies Simulium); also other invertebrates (worms) and small fish; very little plant material recorded.”  The Beijing bird appeared to be feeding on weed but it’s possible it was sifting this material for tiny molluscs or invertebrates.