Baer’s Pochard breeds successfully at Hengshui Hu

At 1748 local time on 28 May 2018, Li Feng, a researcher and bird surveyor from Hengshui University found, photographed and videoed a female BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri) with ducklings at Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve in Hebei Province, China. This is the first confirmed breeding of the “Critically Endangered” diving duck anywhere in the world in 2018 and is almost certainly a direct result of conservation efforts by the local government and nature reserve staff, supported by the Sino-German Hengshui Lake Conservation and Management Project

The breeding success follows hot on the heels of the first international workshop of the Baer’s Pochard Task Force at Hengshui Hu in March 2018 and the subsequent commitments from the local government and local nature reserve to manage the lake for the benefit of this beautiful diving duck.

Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri) is a poorly known migratory diving duck that was formerly widespread in eastern Asia.  Since the 1980s it has suffered a precipitous decline throughout its range, estimated to be >90%, and fewer than 1,000 birds now survive in the wild, making it rarer than the Giant Panda.  Since 2012 it has been classified by the IUCN as “Critically Endangered”, meaning it is just one step away from extinction in the wild.  In the last five years it has become clear that Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province is the most important known site in the world for this species with more than 300 recorded during spring migration in 2017, several overwintering and a few pairs spending the summer.  However, due to a combination of fluctuating water levels during the breeding season, illegal egg collection and disturbance by electro-fishermen and tourist boats, there has been no recent evidence of breeding.

It was back in March 2017 that I visited Hengshui Hu, as part of the Sino-German Hengshui Hu Project run by German Development Bank, KfW, to to help train Hengshui University and nature reserve staff about waterbird monitoring and identification of Baer’s Pochard.  At that time I could not have dared dream that there would be breeding success a little over a year later.

Since then, the local groups have been systematically counting waterfowl, in particular Baer’s Pochard, on a weekly basis, helping to build up a better picture of how the lake is used by Baer’s Pochard and other waterbirds.  At the same time, a series of targeted conservation actions have been initiated, including declaring the likely favoured breeding area as a seasonal fully protected zone, compensating fishermen who could no longer fish in the protected zone, clamping down on illegal activity including illegal fishing and egg collection, stabilising the water level during the breeding season to avoid nests being flooded, and beginning a public information campaign to raise awareness about the global importance of Hengshui Hu for Baer’s Pochard.

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New interpretation boards focusing on Baer’s Pochard have been erected at Hengshui Hu
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Public information is crucial to help enthuse the local people and engender a sense of pride that they have such an endangered bird in their community

Just two months ago, the international spotlight shone on Hengshui Hu when, on 19-20 March 2018, delegates from ten countries gathered for the first international workshop on the conservation of the Baer’s Pochard under the auspices of the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP).  Delegates from Bangladesh, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Russia and Thailand heard from senior Chinese local and national government officials, academics and international experts, discussed urgent conservation priorities and agreed the “Hengshui Declaration”. 

The actions by the local nature reserve and Hengshui University, enabled and reinforced by the political will shown by the local government, have undoubtedly created the conditions for successful breeding in 2018 and, in another demonstration of local commitment, more than 40 volunteers from Hengshui University have already set up a group to monitor the progress of these, and hopefully more, Baer’s Pochard ducklings. 

The positive results from Hengshui, coming so quickly after the concerted actions to support Baer’s Pochard, are deeply heartening and demonstrate that local conservation actions can deliver results.  And although there is a very long way to go to secure the future of this endangered species in the wild, successful breeding represents a positive step forward for the conservation effort.

Big congratulations to the local government, the local nature reserve, especially Mr Yuan Bo and Ms Liu Zhenjie, and to Hengshui University, in particular Dr Wu Dayong and Li Feng, and to everyone else involved, including Professors Ding Changqing and Lei Guangchun and Dr Wu Lan at Beijing Forestry University, Guido Kuchelmeister, Matthias Bechtolsheim and John Howes from the KfW project, Rich Hearn at WWT, Hyeseon Do from EAAFP and many more.

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.