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!
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).
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.