As of Sunday 31 January, the small flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS Emberiza jankowskii remains at Miyun Reservoir, faithful to a relatively small area of appropriate habitat. Their presence is providing a unique opportunity to study these little-known birds and the knowledge gained will undoubtedly add to our understanding of this endangered species and what it needs to survive. During my most recent visit, as well as examining diet and habits, I took the opportunity to record some video. Some of the plumages shown had never been photographed, or even described, before these birds arrived in Beijing.
In terms of sexing and ageing I believe there is an adult male and two females (unsure of age) in the first clip, and first-winter females in the second and third clips (the shape of the tail feathers is visible in some of the frames).
On Saturday 9 January I was leaving the RSPB Headquarters at Sandy after participating in the Oriental Bird Club’s council meeting when I received a message from Xing Chao, a young Beijing-based birder. Chao had visited Miyun Reservoir that day with friend Huang Mujiao, both of whom are members of the Swarovski-sponsored group of young birders called “北京飞羽” (Beijing Feathers). The message simply said “Jankowski’s?” and was accompanied by a photo.
My heart raced. Could there really be a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) in Beijing? The bird in the photo sure seemed to show a dark belly patch – diagnostic of JANKOWSKI’S – and the face pattern looked ok with a strongly dark malar stripe, dark lores and a prominent white supercilium…. But could that dark belly patch be due to missing feathers?
For context, JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING is a very rare bird indeed. After a serious and precipitous decline over much of its traditional range in NE China, Russia and N Korea, the known population is in the low 100s. Little is known about its winter range. Most literature suggests that they remain on the breeding grounds or, perhaps, move south a little if heavy snow prevents these ground feeders from finding food. Indeed, although few people are looking, there are several winter records from the breeding sites in Inner Mongolia. There is only one previous record of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing – two specimens collected from The Summer Palace in February and March 1941 (now in the Natural History Museum at Tring). Of course, in 1941, the population of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING was very likely considerably larger so I think it’s fair to say that Beijing birders had given up all hope of another JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING turning up in the capital.
As I sat in my car about to drive from Sandy to Norfolk, I contemplated the magnitude of a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing. I replied to Xing Chao saying that I thought it probably was one but asking whether he had more photos. Thoughts then jumped to when I would be back in Beijing.. With my return flight from London planned on Monday, I would arrive in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon and could potentially visit the site on Wednesday. Would it still be there?
Xing Chao responded the following day with two more photos, also sent to Paul Holt.
These additional photos clearly showed two very pale and prominent wing-bars, a good feature of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING vs the main confusion species, MEADOW BUNTING. Gulp. Paul replied that he also thought it was a JANKOWSKI’S! I encouraged Xing Chao to put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and, rightly so, there followed plaudit after plaudit. Not only was there a JANKWOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing but it had been found by young Chinese birders – brilliant!
And so, fast forward 3 days and I had arrived back in Beijing and immediately arranged to visit the site on Wednesday in the company of the two finders and Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.
After leaving central Beijing at 0600 we arrived on site around 0800. It was a beautiful, but cold, morning with the temperature around -15 degrees Celsius thankfully accompanied by almost no wind. The first hour or so produced several PALLAS’S BUNTINGS, 2 JAPANESE REED BUNTINGS, SIBERIAN ACCENTOR, COMMON CRANE, JAPANESE QUAIL, MONGOLIAN LARK, 2 LONG-EARED OWLS, ROUGH-LEGGED and UPLAND BUZZARDS, SAKER, MERLIN and HEN HARRIER but no JANKOWSKI’S.
We split into two groups to cover more ground and, shortly after that, I could see Ben waving frantically. He had just seen – very well – a male JANKOWSKI’S! Unfortunately, by the time I reached him, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, the bird had disappeared. After a vigil of an hour or so at this spot, we began to widen our search. Soon we happened upon a small flock of largish, long-tailed buntings. As they occasionally sat up in the bare branches of some nearby shrubs, we could see that at least two had dark belly markings, although not as substantial as seen on adult males. Another feature stood out on these birds – strikingly pale double wingbars. It slowly dawned on us that we were looking at not one JANKOWSKI’S but a small flock!
We spent the remainder of the day with these birds, observing them, listening to their distinctive calls (a single Meadow/Japanese Reed Bunting like “tsip” and a “chup” call most often uttered in flight) and trying to photograph as many as possible. Some of the birds were in interesting plumages that had not been photographed, or even described, before.
We counted at least 7 individuals in the group and were elated. What a privilege to see so many of these globally endangered birds together in one spot… and exhibiting such fascinating plumages. As the light began to fade we reluctantly tore ourselves away and began the drive back to Beijing. What a day!
Two days later, on Friday, Paul Holt visited the site with Gabriel David. They, too, enjoyed a very special day and, fantastically, counted 9 JANKOWSKI’S!
It’s interesting to speculate about the status of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in under-watched Beijing. Is it here every winter and been overlooked? Or is this winter exceptional? I suspect the latter. Certainly the habitat around Miyun is much better for buntings this winter, caused by the prohibition of crops close to the water (driven by fears of pesticides seeping into Beijing’s drinking water supply). The area around the reservoir has been left to nature and the resulting growth of wild, seed-producing, plants has provided excellent feeding for buntings (as witnessed by the record-breaking flock of more than 5,500 LAPLAND BUNTINGS earlier in the winter). However, that said, the truth is we simply don’t know!
Huge kudos to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for the initial find. Although it’s only mid-January, this will almost certainly be the best discovery in Beijing of 2016.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks. After the incredibly successful project to track the migration route of Beijing’s Swifts, and the unprecedented media coverage including articles in the UK’s Guardian and Xinhua (one of China’s largest media agencies), there was barely time to catch up on sleep before I boarded a plane to Ulaanbaatar to participate in a survey of remote southeastern Mongolia to look for Jankowski’s Bunting (栗斑腹鹀, Emberiza jankowskii).
The status of Jankowski’s Bunting is precarious. It is clinging on at just a handful of sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and Jilin Province. However, the sighting of a single bird in southeastern Mongolia in September 2013 raised hopes that there could be a previously undiscovered population in this remote and under-birded part of the country and a plan was devised to put together a team to survey this area in early June. Hopes were high. The area was close to the known sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and would likely contain areas of similar habitat – grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot bushes – preferred by Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia.
The team, consisting of representatives of the China Birdwatching Society, the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences plus Yann Muzika (of Sillem’s Mountain Finch rediscovery fame) and myself arrived in Ulaanbaatar full of optimism.
With the invaluable help of Nyambayar Batbayar, Director of the Wildlife Science And Conservation Center of Mongolia, we had planned a circular route first taking us southeast from Ulaanbaatar to some remote protected areas in the south close to the Chinese border, from where we would head east and then north to another section of the Chinese border, rarely visited by anyone let alone birders. We were to camp wild and drive more than 2,500 kilometres in search of our target bird.
The journey was an adventure that took us through some stunning Mongolian landscapes with the grassland varying in character every day and the spectacular light at sunset and sunrise creating dynamic landscapes that changed in form every few seconds.
And the birds were brilliant… We recorded 180 species including some spectacular encounters with breeding Oriental Plovers and Saker Falcons, displaying Great Bustards and Pied Harriers, singing Yellow-breasted Buntings and Chinese Bush Warblers and a gezillion larks – Mongolian Larks were omnipresent with Greater Short-toed, Asian Short-toed and Horned Larks also in plentiful supply.
Sadly, despite our best efforts, we drew a blank with Jankowski’s Bunting and, even taking into account the impact of a destructive fire that ripped through the area in April, we found very few suitable sites, all of which were small and fragmented. Due to a current fire in the far southeast, we were unable to reach potentially the best habitat and it is just possible that some Jankowski’s Buntings may exist here.
Despite our disappointment at not finding Jankowski’s Bunting in Mongolia, negative results are just as important and positive results and the existing known sites in Inner Mongolia now take on even greater importance. If Jankowski’s Bunting is to survive we must re-double our efforts to protect these birds by continuing our engagement with the local government, farmers and communities. That work begins now.
Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Yu Yat-tung, Yann Muzika and Wu Lan for their great company on the adventure and a special thanks to our Mongolian hosts, Nyambayar, Dr Tseveen, Oggy and Huiga, all of whom put in an enormous amount of work to make our survey possible.
After accompanying the Conservative Minister, Rt Hon Ken Clarke MP, on a birding trip during his visit to Beijing last winter, it seemed only right to balance Birding Beijing’s political affiliation! And so, on Sunday, I took visiting (Labour) Baroness Bryony Worthington on a trip to Yeyahu Nature Reserve as part of her visit to China.
Bryony is Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change and, if the elections go Labour’s way in May 2015, she could be part of the ministerial team in charge of the UK’s energy and climate change policies.
Among her many talents, Bryony is an expert in emissions trading and the main purpose of her visit was to engage with officials from the seven pilot emissions trading schemes in China to help develop advice to the Chinese government about the design of their national emissions trading scheme, due to be implemented sometime before 2020 and a key pillar of China’s climate change policy.
Her busy programme involved meetings in Beijing and Shanghai and, with just one ‘free’ day on Sunday and knowing I was a keen birder, she asked if I would take her birding… Of course, I was only too happy to say yes! The obvious choice of location was Yeyahu Nature Reserve – one of my favourite Beijing birding sites and, in Spring, host to a diverse range of China’s birds. In the company of friend and colleague Wu Qian and her husband, Calvin, we set off at 0600 from central Beijing and arrived at a sunny, warm and clear Yeyahu just before 0800.
To add a bit of extra fun to the day we had a sweepstake on the number of species we would see.. Guesses ranged from a conservative 40 (Wu Qian) to an over-optimistic 65 (Terry) with Bryony guessing 49 and Calvin 60.
On a beautiful spring morning we started off well with several Chinese Penduline Tits, Pallas’s Reed Buntings and displaying Eastern Marsh Harriers. A booming Bittern and a flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbills provided more entertainment as we made our way around the reserve…. After the 3,000 (!) visitors present the last time I was there (during Qing Ming Festival), the reserve seemed strangely quiet for a sunday but that was no bad thing!
We made our way to the new watchtower and, as the day warmed up, we enjoyed more raptors including 2 Greater Spotted Eagles, a single Short-toed Eagle, Eastern Buzzard, Goshawk and several Black Kites before we tucked into our picnic..
Bryony was impressed with the reserve and the number of birds it was possible to see in the capital.
By the time we made it back to the car, it was time to count up the species seen. The final total was 54 so, rather embarrassingly for me, the Baroness as a first-time China birder, won the sweepstake..!
On Tuesday morning I accompanied the Baroness to a meeting with Lu Hao, Chairman of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee in the National Peoples Congress.. This is the committee responsible for drafting and passing China’s environmental legislation. It’s a busy time for the committee, with much environmental legislation under development. See here for analysis of the strengthening of China’s Environment Protection Law just last week. Included in their legislative programme for this year is a review of the protected species list.. The current list is more than 20 years old and woefully out of date. For example, it doesn’t include Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Jankowski’s Bunting or Baer’s Pochard, species that are in desperate trouble and at risk of extinction.
I took the opportunity to brief Lu Hao on the work being carried out by BirdLife, the Beijing Birdwatching Society and local groups to try to save Jankowski’s Bunting and presented him with the BirdLife special edition newsletter. He confirmed that Jankowski’s Bunting would be added to the revised list and invited me to submit views on which other species should be on the list.
Extra legal protection by itself will not save Jankowski’s Bunting from extinction. However, it’s an important step and, as China works to strengthen enforcement of its environmental legislation (the amendments last week to China’s environmental law made huge progress in that regard), ensuring that the legal protection of China’s birds is as strong and unambiguous as possible will help to create the foundation for a stronger conservation movement in China.
Many thanks to Baroness Worthington for her support for the Jankowski’s Bunting campaign and also to Chairman Lu Hao for his work to strengthen China’s environmental laws and their enforcement. He is a very important man!
Great news! The Environment Protection and Resources Conservation (EPRC) Committee of the National Peoples Congress (the lawmaking body in China) has pledged to protect Jankowski’s Bunting under a new law it is developing on biodiversity.
Last week I co-organised a conference in Beijing involving 35 countries to share experiences on climate change laws, at which the National Peoples Congress gave an update on the progress with China’s national climate change legislation. In the margins I met with the key staff of the EPRC and discussed their current work programme which, in addition to the climate law, includes a new law on biodiversity. The staff had heard about my campaign to help save Jankowski’s Bunting from extinction and wanted to find out more… Of course, I was only too happy to oblige and after showing them pictures and video, playing sound recordings of the bird and explaining about the perilous status of the population and my recent visit to Inner Mongolia and Jilin to survey the bird, they were enthused about helping… After about an hour of conversation, they pledged to ensure that Jankowski’s Bunting was given special protection under the new law and even went so far as to say that they should set a target to double the population…
Details are still to be worked out, and it’s likely to be some time before the law is complete and approved, but extra legal protection for this bird will certainly help to ensure the local authorities prioritise the conservation of this species and will hopefully help them to secure the necessary resources from central government to implement conservation measures.
I took the opportunity to brief the Committee staff on two other birds in desperate trouble – Baer’s Pochard and Streaked Reed Warbler – and I will follow up with another meeting soon to explain more about the plight of these birds.
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.