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.
If I was asked to name just one person who had been the biggest inspiration to me over my lifetime, I would have no hesitation. Sir David Attenborough. Vivid in my memory from a child to the present day are series such as Life on Earth, Living Planet, Life in the Freezer, The Life of Birds and, more recently, The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. The significant percentage of my DVD collection that is made up of natural history documentaries narrated by Sir David is testament to the influence he has had on me. In my view he is simply the greatest broadcaster and communicator of conservation that has ever lived.
As well as teaching me an immense amount about the natural world and nurturing my sense of wonder and awe at the incredible diversity and complexity of life on our planet, Sir David has also imprinted on my DNA the importance of conservation. The message he delivered at the end of State of the Planet in 2000 has stayed with me:
“The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there’s a change in our societies and our economics and in our politics. I’ve been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy, inhabitable by all species.”
So, as you can imagine, it was with huge excitement that I learned Sir David was to visit Beijing as part of a trip to China to film a new series on the origins of vertebrates. At the age of 86, he maintains an enthusiasm and passion for the natural world that is impossible not to admire. His visit was a golden opportunity to discuss the plight of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING and, of course, he was only too happy to lend his weight to the campaign. Sir David is already a Species Champion for the Araripe Manakin under the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme, so he knows how vital it is to protect our biodiversity and also, importantly, what is needed to save a species from extinction.
Thank you, Sir David.
You too can support the campaign to save Jankowski’s Bunting by donating here. We have so far raised over GBP 1,200 towards a target of GBP 10,000. We are confident that, with modest resources, this bird can be saved. How cool would it be to think that you were one of only a handful of people in the world that helped save a species from extinction?
2012 was my second full year living in China’s capital. Thanks to Libby, my understanding wife, I have been fortunate enough to make regular visits to some of the capital’s most productive birding sites and to see some stunning birds. It is a joy to spend time in the outdoors observing familiar, and some not so familiar, species whilst at the same time adding a little to the knowledge, and status, of Beijing’s avifauna. Through the growing network of Beijing-based birders, both Chinese and ex-pats, and my expanding contacts among Chinese birdwatchers, many of whom I now consider good friends, I have learned a great deal over the last 12 months.
The end of the year is traditionally a time to take stock and look forward to the opportunities ahead. As in most parts of the world, it would be easy to feel depressed about the state of wild birds in China. Jankowski’s Bunting is in desperate trouble. The prospects are also grim for Baer’s Pochard. More well-known is the Chinese Crested Tern, which is in a precarious situation but hanging on, and of course Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In total there are 9 species classified as “Critically Endangered” in China. And, although only officially classified as “Vulnerable”, there is another species that I am very concerned about, a species whose song has never been recorded. Hands up if you have seen a Streaked Reed Warbler anywhere in the world in the last few years. The status of these species, almost certainly all moving in the wrong direction primarily due to habitat destruction, together with the ongoing battle against illegal poaching and bird-trapping, make it easy to paint a grim picture.
However, as we welcome 2013 and despite the growing pressures faced by the natural world, I am more optimistic about the future of China’s birds. Why? Who had expected the inspirational efforts by birders, volunteers and local authorities to take down over 2km of illegal mist nets and, later, save the poisoned Oriental Storks at Beidagang? Or the brave journalist, Li Feng, who secretly recorded and exposed the illegal shooting of migratory birds in Hunan Province? These events and many others like them, publicised through social media, sparked a huge response from ordinary Chinese people, demonstrating that there is a deep and widespread concern for the welfare of wild birds in China. This, in turn, has resulted in a new government initiative to strengthen the enforcement of laws relating to illegal poaching. On 29th November, shortly after the crackdown was announced, it was reported that in October and November the local authorities in Guangdong had seized 51,622 wild animals and 9,497 bird nets, following investigations spanning 584 markets and 1,320 restaurants. According to the report, 102 people have been sentenced as a result of the crackdown.
As one Chinese friend told me, the events in Hunan and at Beidagang could mark a turning point in the future of wild birds in China.
So, as we enter a new year with optimism and a renewed belief that, collectively, we can make a difference, it is an appropriate time to say a big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to comment and contribute through this blog, via the associated Birding Beijing Facebook page, the Twitter feed or directly to me via email. Birding Beijing would be a shadow of itself, and less fun to write, without all of you joining in!
And I am sure that I speak for all readers as I pay tribute to the hundreds of volunteers across China who have bravely taken a stand to protect their wild birds. I wish them every success in 2013 as they seek to consign to history wild bird persecution.
I wish everyone a happy, healthy and bird-filled 2013.
You can now listen to my interview about Jankowski’s Bunting with Charlie Moores on the Talking Naturally website. Click here. Thanks to Charlie for giving me a platform to help raise further awareness about the plight of this unique bird.
The Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii) is a very rare bird. So rare that, without immediate action, it could slip away before the end of this decade. Unfortunately this little bird isn’t big or furry and doesn’t have a spoon-shaped bill. Instead it falls into the “Little Brown Job” (LBJ) category of birds. Added to the fact that it lives in a rarely visited part of northeast China, this means that its rapid and accelerating journey towards extinction has been progressing with seemingly little effort to save it and even less public awareness. That, I hope, is about to change.
This beautiful bunting, sometimes known by the more descriptive, but less endearing, name of Rufous-backed Bunting, was once described as locally common across its range including Far Eastern Russia, North-eastern China (Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia) and North Korea. But in the last couple of decades, in particular, it has suffered a calamitous population decline. It is now thought to be extinct in Russia, its status is unknown in the small historical range in North Korea and there are only a handful of known individuals hanging on at a few sites in northeast China. Although there are probably some sites yet to be discovered, the total number of individuals seen in 2012 so far is, as far as I am aware, under 30.
Habitat destruction is almost certainly the main cause of the decline. Jankowski’s Buntings just love grassland peppered with Siberian Apricot (Prunus sibirica) bushes. Over-grazing and a devastating, long-term, drought in the region have decimated its habitat. This, combined (pun unintended) with the cutting of grassland for hay during the breeding season, is thought to have been responsible for the precipitous drop in numbers of Jankowski’s Buntings in recent years. And, on top of that, although northeast China regularly experiences cold winters with temperatures down to -30 degrees C, a particularly harsh winter in 2000-2001, during which unusually deep snow covered the region, is thought to have hit hard the already vulnerable population.
Despite the alarm bells, all is not yet lost. BirdLife International, in partnership with local groups, has recently begun a project to raise awareness of this bird’s plight and establish a robust conservation action plan. Following the first conservation workshop dedicated to the Jankowski’s Bunting in June 2012 in Jilin Province, there is now a glimmer of hope that some of the pieces of the jigsaw needed to help preserve this species are being put in place. A growing number of local people are interested in doing what they can to protect the bird’s habitat through more sympathetic land management, an education and awareness programme is planned for local schools, and more widely via social media, and population surveys are being conducted by the Beijing Birdwatching Society at known, and potential new, sites to try to establish a more accurate picture of population levels.
Despite being thought to be mostly sedentary and/or a partial migrant (even this is not fully known!), there are historic records of the Jankowski’s Bunting from Beijing and it is also the “Endangered” species with a population closest to the Chinese capital. Living in Beijing, I certainly feel a sense of responsibility to do something to help protect this bird before it slips into extinction. I hope others will, too. The resilience of nature is such that, given the right support, species can return from the brink. If man shows the will, nature will find a way.
Jankowski’s Bunting was first described by Polish zoologist Wladyslaw Taczanowski in 1888 from a specimen of an adult male collected by fellow Pole, Michal Jankowski during an expedition in 1886. Michal Jankowski (1840-1903) was a Polish exile sent to Siberia 1864 and worked with other prominent ornithologists Dybowski and Godlewski (of Godlewski’s Bunting and Blyth’s Pipit fame) on several expeditions to Far Eastern Russia, northeast China and Korea.
Many thanks to Jim Lawrence, Mike Crosby, Vivian Fu and Simba Chan from BirdLife International for their input to this blog post and to Martin Hale for use of the Jankowski’s Bunting image. Exceptionally, this post has been simultaneously published on Birding Beijing and Birding Frontiers.