In Celebration of Shorebirds

In June 2017 the Hebei Provincial Forestry Department, Hebei Luannan County Government, the Paulson Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the aim of protecting one of the most important sites along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – Nanpu coastal wetland, near Tangshan in Hebei Province.  Nanpu is a site Beijing-based birders know well.  The spectacular concentrations of shorebirds, not to mention the world-class visible migration of passerines, makes it one of the best birding sites within easy reach of the capital.

Red Knot is one of the species for which Nanpu is a vital stopover site.

That agreement was one of a series of recent positive announcements from China about the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  In early 2017, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  I reported at the time that, although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government.  And, should these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

More recently, in January 2018, the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on all ‘business-related’ land reclamation along China’s coast and issued an order to restore illegally-reclaimed land.  Already, at Yancheng, sea-walls are being removed to allow the tide once again to feed the mudflats.  In March 2018, a major government reorganisation saw environment and biodiversity elevated as government priorities and management of all protected areas being brought under one ministry.  These developments are enough to put a smile on even the most pessimistic conservationist’s face!

And so it was with a spring in my step that last weekend I was fortunate to participate in a visit to Nanpu with a delegation that consisted of the mightily impressive, and growing, group of scientists – both Chinese and international – working to study shorebirds along the flyway and some VIPs including Hank and Wendy Paulson of The Paulson Institute and Pulitizer-nominated writer Scott Weidensaul.

It was such a joy to see so many young and extremely capable Chinese scientists – Zhu Bingrun, Lei Ming, Mu Tong to name a few – contributing such a huge amount to our knowledge about the importance to migratory birds of the intertidal mudflats and salt ponds and, being led by Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, they are in great hands.

As much as the scientific data is necessary to help make the case for conservation, it is not sufficient.  Also needed is a champion who can make the case at senior levels of government and that’s where Hank and Wendy Paulson come into their own.  With Hank’s unrivalled experience and access in China, underpinned by the work of his institute, including the Coastal Wetlands Blueprint Project, they have been instrumental in engaging with local governors and the Chinese leadership about the importance of the intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and convincing them of their value.  Together, it’s a formidable team.

2016-04-29 Asian Dowitchers, Nanpu
Asian Dowitcher is one of the species for which Nanpu is an important staging site.

We enjoyed so many simulating discussions about the latest research, the progress of the work to create Nanpu Nature Reserve and, of course, shorebirds!  And thanks to the advice of the Aussie shorebird researchers (Chris Hassall, Adrian Boyle and Matt Slaymaker are back for their 10th year to monitor the Australian-banded birds!), we were on site in perfect time to witness the most amazing spectacle of RED and GREAT KNOTS commuting from their roosting sites in the ponds to the newly-exposed mud on the falling tide.  Seeing these shorebirds, most of which were in full breeding plumage, was something to behold and there were gasps of awe as the flocks, sometimes numbering thousands of birds, wheeled around before settling just a few metres in front of us in stunning early morning light.  It was the perfect reminder of just why protecting these mudflats is so important – the world would be a much poorer place without these incredible travellers.

There is no doubt that the intertidal mudflats are a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and they have the potential to attract thousands of visitors each year, as well as endearing a sense of pride for local people and, indeed, the whole country.  With national level policy seemingly moving in the right direction, let’s hope the local progress at Nanpu will act as an example for other sites along the Flyway.  Huge thanks to Hank and Wendy Paulson, Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, Scott Weidensaul, Zhu Bingrun, Mu Tong, Lei Ming, Wang Jianmin, Dietmar Grimm, Shi Jianbin, Rose Niu, Adrian Boyle, Chris Hassell, Matt Slaymaker and Kathrine Leung for making it such an enjoyable trip!

Video: RED and GREAT KNOTS at Nanpu, May 2018.

 

Title image: (l-r) Scott Wiedensaul, Professor Zhang Zhengwang, Professor Theunis Piersma, Wendy Paulson, Hank Paulson, Terry Townshend.  Photo by Zhu Bingrun.

 

About Nanpu

Located in Luannan County of Hebei Province, Nanpu wetland consists of natural intertidal mudflats, aquaculture ponds, and salt pans. Its unique geographic location and wetland resources make it one of the most important stopover sites for migratory water birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), including rare and endangered species such as Red Knot, Great Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and Nordmann’s Greenshank.  Each year, as many as 350,000 water birds stage and refuel here.  Among the water birds at the Nanpu wetland, the population of twenty-two species exceeds one percent of their global population sizes or their population sizes along the EAAF, making it a wetland of international importance according to criteria determined by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation of wetlands and their resources.

Nanpu wetland is facing many threats, such as reclamation, over-fishing and invasion of spartina, a rapidly spreading grass that suffocates intertidal ecosystems.  Studies show that there has been a steady decrease in population of some migratory water birds that depend highly on Nanpu wetland for refueling. For instance, over the past decade, the population of Red Knots that overwinter in New Zealand and Australia along the EAAF has been declining at an annual rate of nine percent. IUCN claims that if no further conservation measures are taken, few Red Knots might remain ten years from now.

 

Shorebirding at Nanpu and more illegal trapping

At the Beijing birders meet-up we arranged for a group trip to Nanpu, near Tangshan in Hebei Province.  In total, 15 of us – both ex-pats and locals – spent the weekend at this world-class site and it was a superb trip – great fun with lots of birds!

2013-08-21 Birds
The backdrop may not be pretty but the birding is spectacular at Nanpu.

Perhaps the best single bird in terms of rarity was an ORIENTAL STORK that came in off the sea.  And amongst the other highlights were impressive numbers of shorebirds with 4,700 SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS and 2,325 DUNLIN, a single RUFF (rare here), five juvenile RED-NECKED PHALAROPES, at least six first-year SAUNDERS’S and up to 80 RELICT GULLS and decent numbers of passerines moving down the coast.  High counts included 54 BLACK-NAPED ORIOLES (including a single flock of 23 birds!), 100 DUSKY WARBLERS, 300 SIBERIAN STONECHATS, up to 150 RICHARD’S PIPITS, two BLYTH’S PIPITS, two PECHORA PIPITS and six YELLOW-BROWED BUNTINGS.

A typically thorough full report by Paul Holt can be downloaded here: Birding coastal Tangshan, Hebei 7 & 8 September 2013

Per shorebirding at Nanpu.
Per checking out the waders on a roadside pond at Nanpu.
This is "EVA" the Bar-tailed Godwit.  Colour-flagging of migratory shorebirds helps researchers to better understand the routes these birds take and the stopover sites they use which, in turn informs conservation measures.  You can read about EVA's history in the trip report.
This is “EVA” the Bar-tailed Godwit. Colour-flagging of migratory shorebirds helps researchers to better understand the routes these birds take and the stopover sites they use which, in turn informs conservation measures. You can read about EVA’s history in the trip report.
Juvenile Red-necked Stint.  Beautiful birds!
Juvenile Red-necked Stint. Beautiful birds!
Gull-billed Tern.
Gull-billed Tern.

It was hot at Nanpu and, fortunately, there is a small village where one can purchase ice creams!  I can thoroughly recommend the ‘traditional flavour’ ice lollies..  delicious (even though I am not sure of what exactly they taste!).  The locals here make their living from the mudflats, where they harvest the shellfish and shrimps.  Here are a few maintaining their nets.

Local ladies maintaining the shrimp nets
Local ladies maintaining the shrimp nets

And in the early mornings, our 0500 starts were made (slightly) easier by the delicious bao zi (steamed dumplings) that were on sale for the equivalent of 5p each…

Jan-Erik and Andrew browsing the local bao zi stall.
Jan-Erik and Andrew browsing the local bao zi stall.

At the coast, where passerine migration was most impressive, we unfortunately encountered more illegal bird trapping activity.  From the car, Paul heard a Yellow-breasted Bunting singing and we stopped to investigate.  We very quickly saw a line of mist nets in the grass close by.  The poacher had set up an elaborate line of nets accompanied by caged songbirds, clearly designed to lure in wild birds.  The caged birds included Common Rosefinch, Yellow-breasted and Yellow-browed Buntings – three species that were clearly moving at this time of year.

2013-09-07 YBBunting and mist nets

A male Common Rosefinch strategically placed to lure in wild birds.
A male Common Rosefinch strategically placed to lure in wild birds.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

In the nets we found alive 2 Common Rosefinches plus Yellow-browed, Arctic and Dusky Warblers, which we promptly released. But it was too late for 4 Brown Shrikes which had fallen victim to this cruel practice.

The poacher soon arrived (claiming that the nets were his friend’s and not his – yeah right).  We told him firmly that this was illegal and that we would be taking photos and reporting him to the Hebei Forestry Administration.  He did not protest and actually helped us to dismantle and destroy the nets, snap the poles, release the caged birds and destroy the cages.  On return to Beijing I posted the photos on Sina Weibo (Chinese “Twitter”) asking for help in reporting this illegal activity.  Within 10 minutes, users on the microblogging service had translated my report into mandarin and submitted it to the Hebei Forestry Administration…  wow!  The power of social media.  Thanks guys!

Ironically, the next day we were ejected from this area by local security guards from the nearby oil terminal and police who claimed that it was a “nature reserve”.  So it’s ok to drill for oil and trap wild birds in a nature reserve but birding is a step too far…!  A big thank you to Lei Ming and friends for following up on my behalf with the Hebei Forestry Administration.

The trapper was surprisingly cooperative as we dismantled the nets and freed the trapped birds.
The trapper was surprisingly cooperative as we dismantled the nets and freed the trapped birds.  Here he frees a first year/ female Common Rosefinch

Relict Gull

RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) is a relatively poorly known species.  Until the early 1970s it was thought to be a race of Mediterranean Gull and some even thought it a hybrid between Mediterranean Gull x Common Gull….

It breeds inland at colonies in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and winters almost exclusively on the mudflats of the Bohai Bay in eastern China.  It is classified as “Vulnerable” by BirdLife International, partly because of its susceptibility to changes in climate but also because almost the entire population is reliant on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay in winter, a habitat that is rapidly diminishing as land reclamation intensifies – threatening not just Relict Gull but a host of East Asian flyway species, including of course the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

Relict Gull is a bird I am always pleased to see and, occasionally, in late March and early April, these birds can be seen in Beijing – for example at Wild Duck Lake or Miyun Reservoir – as they begin their migration to the breeding grounds.  Autumn records in the capital are much scarcer which made Saturday’s sighting of an adult at Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh all the more pleasing.  However, it is a trip to the Hebei coast, particularly south of Tangshan at Nanpu, that will enable any birder to get to grips with good numbers of Relict Gull at almost any time of the year…  Numbers in winter can be in the 1000s, which makes for quite a spectacle, but even in summer a few immature birds and non-breeders remain.  There is still much to learn about this gull, including its distribution – in 2012 Paul Holt discovered a wintering population of over 1,000 near Zuanghe in Liaoning Province (see image below).

Last week, in the company of Per Alstrom and Lei Ming, I visited the coast at Nanpu and we were treated to more than 100, most probably recent arrivals from the breeding grounds, patrolling the mudflats amongst the local shellfish pickers..  They feed on the local crabs, a delicacy that seems to be in plentiful supply!  Below are some images of moulting adults, second calendar year and first year birds.

Local shellfish collectors
Local shellfish collectors
Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).
Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).
Adult and 2cy RELICT GULLS, Nanpu Hebei Province, August 2013
Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
Relict Gull (first calendar year).  Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.
Relict Gull (first calendar year). Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.
Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.
Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.

 And here is a short video of an adult at Nanpu in August.

 

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