Groppers Galore!

I have just spent three days in Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, in the company of Shanghai-based British birder, Nick Green.  It was my third visit to this stunning part of northeastern China and, after two previous trips in winter, it was a delight to see it so green and leafy, without needing to wear six layers in -30 degrees Celsius!

2016-07-10 forest and river at wuerqihan
The Dayan River, a constant companion along the track northeast of Wu’erqihan.
2016-07-10 forest at wuerqihan
Typical forest habitat at Wu’erqihan

Whilst in winter the main attractions here are undoubtedly the owls (Snowy, Great Grey, Ural, Hawk, Eagle, Boreal and Little) our main target during this visit was to try to see the three breeding locustella warblers – Lanceolated Warbler, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and the sought-after Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler.  I thought we wouldn’t have too much difficulty in finding all three but I hadn’t expected the numbers we encountered.  Pallas’s were seemingly in every inch of suitable habitat and, particularly early morning and evening, were singing constantly, even though it was mid-July.  We recorded 53 (surely a considerable under-count) on our first full day.  Lanceolated were less common, but still frequent, with 22 recorded and, the following morning, we counted 17 singing Gray’s from the moving car during a 45-minute drive.

Renowned for their skulking habits, locustella warblers are usually tough to see.  However, on the breeding grounds, despite most preferring to sing from deep cover, we were fortunate to see several examples of each species singing from exposed perches.

2016-07-09 Lanceolated Warbler, Wuerqihan
Lanceolated Warbler (Locustella lanceolata), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 9 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.
2016-07-09 Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Wuerqihan
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella certhia), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 9 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.
2016-07-10 Gray's Grasshopper Warbler Nick, Wuerqihan
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella fasciolata), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 10 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.
Gray's Grasshopper Warbler, Wu'erqihan, 9 July 2016
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Wu’erqihan, 9 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.

Wu’erqihan in July isn’t only locustella heaven.  The supporting cast includes White-throated Needletail, Great Grey, Ural and Eagle Owls, Siberian Rubythroat, Mugimaki Flycatcher, David’s and Chinese Bush Warblers, Pale-legged, Two-barred, Pallas’s, Thick-billed, Radde’s and Dusky Warblers and a host of other ‘sibes’.

2016-07-09 David's Bush Warbler, Wuerqihan
David’s Bush Warbler (Bradypterus davidi), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 9 July 2016. This species is common in the damp forest.
2016-07-09 Azure Tit, Wuerqihan
Azure Tit, a scarce breeder at Wu’erqihan.
2016-07-10 houses at wuerqihan
Typical buildings in Wu’erqihan.. the town has a Russian feel about it, not surprising given the proximity of the Russian border.
2016-07-09 sunset at wuerqihan
Sunset in the boggy grassland, northeast of Wu’erqihan.
2016-07-10 Zhang Wu and Nick Green at Wuerqihan
Nick Green (left) with local guide, Zhang Wu, just after seeing a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler singing from an exposed perch!

A full trip list can be downloaded here: 2016-07 Wu’erqihan with Nick Green, 7-10 July 2016.

 

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.

Northern Inner Mongolia In Winter – Trip Report

I have finally completed my report of our Christmas trip to northern Inner Mongolia, close to the Russian border. It covers our time in two locations – Wuerqihan and XiQi. There is a focus on owls but we were rewarded with a host of good birds including, among others, Arctic Redpoll, Siberian Jay, Pere David’s Snowfinch and Asian Rosy Finch. You can download the full report here.

Hawk Owl

Introducing the last of the “most-wanted 3” owls we saw in Inner Mongolia this Christmas. This is the unmistakeable HAWK OWL, a bird that blew me away when I first saw it in Sweden in the 1990s. It often sits, sentinel-like, on the top of a tree from where it monitors the surrounding activity with razor-sharp vision and incredibly sensitive hearing. Such a different character to the more deliberate and almost “royal” Great Grey Owl….

Wishing everyone a very happy, healthy and bird-filled 2015!

For interest, here are some pictures of the superb habitat in which we found two of these special owls.

2014-12-22 Hawk Owl habitat2, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

2014-12-22 Hawk Owl habitat, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

2014-12-22 Hawk Owl habitat3, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

Great Grey Owl

To me, seeing a GREAT GREY OWL (Strix nebulosa) ranks as one of the most magical sights of the bird world. With its human-like face and haunting stare, any encounter with the “Phantom of the North” in a snow-blanketed spruce forest makes for an eerie experience. In China, this magnificent owl can be found in the forests of the northern Provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia and it was a much-wanted bird during our recent visit to Wuerqihan and XiQi. Fortunately, after a long search, we finally caught up with this silent assassin. We enjoyed a spectacular encounter with this bird, watching as it surveyed the immediate area with slow, deliberate turns of its head. Typically it was not unduly bothered by our presence and, with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX I was able to take this video which captures the spirit of this most majestic of owls.

Christmas With Snowy Owls

I have just returned from a few days in northern Inner Mongolia, near the Russian border, where I spent Christmas with Marie and SoSo from Hong Kong looking for owls.  Highlights were many, including 6 species of owl – Eagle, Great Grey, Hawk, Little, Ural and Snowy.  Spending Christmas morning watching 6 of the latter on the sparkling snow-covered grassland, was an experience that will stay with me for a very long time….

Wishing everyone a belated Merry Christmas, here is a glimpse of one of the magnificent Snowy Owls that we were fortunate enough to encounter on our trip.  More details on this adventure very soon!

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.