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.

 

 

Baer’s Pochard: Cause For Optimism?

Last week I was invited to Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province by officials from the German government-owned development bank, KfW.  In partnership with the Hengshui Hu nature reserve and Hengshui University, KfW is beginning a project to support the sustainable management of this impressive wetland which, as well as supporting breeding populations of Reed Parrotbill, Blunt-winged Warbler and Schrenck’s Bittern, happens to be the most important known site for the ‘Critically Endangered’ BAER’S POCHARD (BP).

A map of Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province.

I arrived at Hengshui Hu on the afternoon of 7 March and spent the last two hours of daylight checking the southern part of the lake.  I recorded a minimum of 42 BPs as well as 21 Ferruginous Duck, at least 2,300 Coot, a handful of Smew and 2 Common Mergansers.  However, as the light faded, I could see distant rafts of birds on the water in the more northerly part of the lake and I wondered what the morning would bring.  On the short drive back to the hotel I was pleasantly surprised to see a banner with a large photograph of Baer’s Pochard draped over the road on the western side of the lake – public awareness!

I’d arranged to meet Guido and Matthias from KfW and Dr Wu Dayong of Hengshui University the following morning at 0630 for a survey.  As we began our walk along the causeway, we were treated to a wonderful morning with little wind, a temperature hovering around freezing and beautiful clear blue skies.  Perfect conditions.  It wasn’t long before we were encountering small groups of BP and, in the ideal conditions, we enjoyed some superb views of males and females.

As we walked further we began to see some larger groups and, before we had even walked half of the causeway, our count was well over 200.  Soon after a stunning encounter with some of the local Reed Parrotbills, Guido and Matthias reluctantly had to leave to attend a meeting as I continued my walk.

The charismatic, and curious, REED PARROTBILL is one of Hengshui Hu’s star birds that should benefit from an effective management plan.

About an hour and a half later I met Dr Wu at the southern end of the causeway having counted 308 BPs, a new record for the site, eclipsing the 293 recorded by Paul Holt and Dr Li Qingxin on 9 December 2016.  An additional 5 birds were presumed BP x Ferruginous Duck hybrids (some video of females and presumed hybrids can be seen here).

After lunch with KfW and the nature reserve staff I held a short identification workshop with the nature reserve staff focusing on how to distinguish BP from the superficially similar, at least in female, immature and eclipse plumages, Ferruginous Duck.  I hope to be able to provide some more support over the next few weeks to help the staff begin regular monitoring of the birds at this important site.

On the 4-hour journey home I began to think about the future of BP.  With two groups of Beijing-based scientists and conservationists, led by Dr Wu Lan and Dr Li Qingxin, already researching BP’s ecology and population dynamics, the creation of an international Baer’s Pochard Task Force, a new project at Hengshui Hu involving both local and international experts that will help take into account biodiversity in the management of the reserve, a clear understanding by the nature reserve staff and local academics of the importance of Hengshui Hu to BP, their willingness to begin regular bird monitoring, signs of public engagement and a record site count of BPs, I began to smile.  Of course there is a long way to go to slow, halt and reverse the decline in the population of Baer’s Pochard but it appears some of the key building blocks are beginning to be put in place.