The EcoAction Young Birders

Over the last two years I’ve worked with Luo Peng to develop EcoAction’s Youth Birding Club, helping to lead birding trips to some of Beijing’s best birding spots and supporting the development of the children’s birding skills.  It’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of my time in Beijing.

The Club was set up to help young people to connect with nature through birding and so far more than 30 children, often accompanied by their parents, have participated, most of them joining several trips.  With thanks to Swarovski Optik, we provide binoculars and encourage the young birders to observe closely, write notes about what they have seen and learn about the lifestyles of the species and the habitats they need.  Some have set up their own microblogs to share their experiences.

Through this post I wanted to introduce readers to three of the young birders.  Each has answered some questions about themselves and birds.  I hope you enjoy reading their answers as much as I enjoyed going birding with them.  These brilliant young people are the future of conservation in China.

Young Birder 1 – Chen Yanzhi, 12 years old

陈雁之 (Chen Yanzhi),  12 years old

How long have you been interested in birding?

I have loved wildlife and nature observation since I was little, including birding. I started birding regularly when I went to Borneo last year. Since then I have participated in several birding activities, including birding in Africa and Borneo again.

Which bird is your favourite?

I love all birds except ducks, but the pochard is OK.  At the beginning of my birding, I liked White-crowned Hornbills, when I saw them in Borneo.  The most lovely and graceful bird as far as I see is the Marabou Stork (秃鹳) and, among all the birds I saw in Beijing, I like the Pied Harrier (鹊鹞) and Black Stork (黑鹳) the most.  The most peculiar bird is the Great Barbet (大拟啄木鸟), which I saw in Borneo. It is very funny that I saw Great Barbet for the first time during the evening, just beside the insect lamp-trap.  Now Chestnut-breasted Malkoha is my favourite bird. I was so excited when I first saw such a big bird jumping on a small tree just one metre from me in Borneo. Its beautiful feathers were shining in the sunshine. I was happy for a long time.

Why do you feel it is important to protect birds and their habitats?

Birds live in their specific habitats and they only perform naturally when they are at home, which is quite different from those living in the zoo. So the birding is more interesting.

What do you want to say to other children with no birding experience?

What I would like to tell other youth in China is, there are many bird species which only live in China, and birding can be very easy.  We can easily see 30 to 40 different birds on the outskirts of Beijing.  Birds are everywhere, on the lakes, on the beach, in the forests, on the mountains and everywhere else. They are all very beautiful. Come birding with me!

 

Young Birder 2 – Gao Zijun, 6 years old

高子隽 (Gao Zijun), 6 years old

How long have you been interested in birding?

I started birding when I was 5 years old, for more than 1 year now.

Which bird is your favourite?

My favourite bird is the Common Kingfisher.

Why do you feel it is important to protect birds and their habitats?

I love nature and want to protect it.  If we only seek money, have lots of money, buy many toys, and throw them in the ocean when they are broken, there will be tons of rubbish.  Birds may eat these small pieces at food, and that is harmful for them.  And batteries, even only one, can pollute important water sources and wild plants.  Without a healthy environment, plants will die, and birds will have no place to nest, animals will lose their food, and we cannot live either.

What do you want to say to other children with no birding experience?

I want my little friends to love the nature as I do. We can play with our family in nature and can make friends with animals and birds. I love and enjoy this kind of life, which has taught me a lot.  If we only play with iPad, our eyes will be damaged and the money we earn in games is fake, means nothing. Birding is good for the eyes.

 

Young Birder 3 – Li Haoming, 12 years old

李浩铭 (Li Haoming) 12 years old

How long have you been interested in birding?

I have been birding for more than one year, since February 2016.

Which bird is your favourite?

I have seen over 400 different birds since I started, but I don’t favour any particular bird species. Each of them is special.

Why do you feel it is important to protect birds and their habitats?

The most important part of bird protection is habitat. They can only breed well in suitable habitat, so that the population can increase and we can carry out better study of them, introduce them to many more people.  This is the most important thing to protect biodiversity.

What do you want to say to other children with no birding experience?

I would like to tell my friends who do not go birding that birds are our closest friends; we can hear them sing everywhere –  in our yard, in the street and in nature.  As long as you look carefully, you will find them. They not only have colourful feathers, but also perform interesting behaviours, the same as us.  For example, many birds will dance during courtship, and many bird parents will sacrifice themselves to protect their babies, just as human beings do. They are also awesome architects. It is so interesting to observe and understand them.

 

About the EcoAction Youth Birding Club

The EcoAction Youth Birding Club was set up to introduce children and their families to nature through birding.  Led by experienced birders and conservationists, the trips visit a variety of birding hotspots around Beijing and encourage children to learn about the species they see, the habitats they need and the importance of conservation.  The next trip will take place on 14th May to Yeyahu Wetland Reserve, when we will be participating in the Global Big Day, a project set up by eBird to record as many species as possible across the world on a single day.  For more information about the club, the forward programme and for reports about previous trips, please add “EcoAction” on WeChat or contact Luo Peng on peng.luo@ecoactionnow.com.

 

Thank you so much to Chen Yanzhi, Gao Zijun and Li Haoming for being great company on the birding trips and for taking the time to answer these questions.  Thanks also to Luo Peng and Wu Qian for their help with this post.

2016: What A Year!

Looking out of my apartment window on the first day of 2017, a blanket of toxic smog seems to drain all colour out of life and the perennial question question pops into my head – why do I live in such a polluted, congested place?

Header image: the view from my apartment at 1200 on 1 January 2017

The answer, of course, is the excitement and adventure of living in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.  And when one considers the positives – the stunning biodiversity, the opportunity for discovery, the potential to make a difference and the wonderful people – the negatives are seen in context and they become far more tolerable.

Looking back, 2016 has been an astonishing year with many highlights, thankfully few lowlights, and progress made in some key conservation issues.  Together, they give me a genuine sense of optimism for the future.

January began with the unexpected discovery, by two young Beijing birders, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of a small flock of the “Endangered” Jankowski’s Buntings at Miyun Reservoir.  This was the first record of Jankowski’s Bunting in Beijing since 1941 and, given the precipitous decline in the population of this poorly known species, a most unexpected find.  The fact they were found by young Chinese is testament to the growing community of talented young birders in Beijing.  There are now more than 200 members of the Birding Beijing WeChat group, in which sightings and other bird-related issues are discussed and shared. Huge credit must go to world-class birders such as Paul Holt and Per Alström who have been generous in sharing their knowledge of Chinese birds with the group. As well as the expanding WeChat group, there are now more than 400 members of the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society (up from 300 in the last 12 months).  So, although starting from a low baseline, the increasing membership, together with the increase in the number of local birdwatching societies, such as in Zigong in Sichuan, and the development of international birding festivals, such as in Lushun, Dalian, shows that there is the beginning of an upsurge in the number of young people interested in birdwatching.  That is a positive sign for the future of China’s rich and unique avifauna.

In tandem with the growth in birding is the emergence of a number of organisations dedicated to environmental education across China.  Given the relative lack of environment in the Chinese State Curriculum, there is high demand amongst many parents for their children to develop a connection with nature.  I’m fortunate to work with one such organisation – EcoAction – set up and run by dynamic Sichuan lady, Luo Peng.    With a birding club for Beijing school kids, a pilot ‘environmental curriculum’ in two of Beijing’s State Schools and bespoke sustainable ecotourism trips to nature reserves for families and schools, Peng deserves great credit for her energy and vision in helping to change the way people interact with the environment.  I am looking forward to working with her much more in 2017.

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Luo Peng in her element – with local children in Hainan

After the boon of seeing Jankowski’s Buntings in Beijing, a lowlight in late January was the desperately sad passing of a much-loved mentor and friend, the inspirational Martin Garner.  Martin fought a brave and typically dignified and open, battle with cancer.  I feel enormously lucky to have met Martin and to have corresponded with him on many birding-related issues.  His wisdom, positivity and selfless outlook on life will be missed for years to come and his influence continues to run through everything I do.

Much of the early part of the spring was spent making the arrangements for what has been, for me, the highlight of the year – The Beijing Cuckoo Project. Following the success of the Beijing Swift Project, the results of which proved for the first time that Swifts from Beijing winter in southern Africa, the obvious next step was to replicate the British Trust for Ornithology’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China.  We needed to find Chinese partners, secure the necessary permissions, raise funds to pay for the transmitters and satellite services, and make the logistical arrangements for the visit of “Team Cuckoo”.  At the end of May, everything was set and the international team arrived in Beijing.  Together with the local team, we caught and fitted transmitters to five Common Cuckoos, subsequently named by Beijing schoolchildren and followed via a dedicated webpage and on social media.  We could not have wished for a better result.  Three of the five are now in Africa,  after making incredible journeys of up to 12,500km since being fitted with their transmitters, including crossing the Arabian Sea.  As of 1 January, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan are in Tanzania and Skybomb Bolt is in Mozambique.

Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
Skybomb Bolt, the first Beijing Cuckoo to make landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
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The migration routes, and current positions, of the Beijing Cuckoos, 1 January 2017.
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Pupils at Dulwich International School broke into spontaneous applause after hearing that SKYBOMB BOLT had made it to Africa…

This Beijing Cuckoo Project has combined groundbreaking science with public engagement.  With articles in Xinhua (China’s largest news agency), Beijing Youth Daily, China Daily, Beijing Science and Technology Daily, India Times, African Times and even the front page of the New York Times, these amazing birds have become, undoubtedly, the most famous cuckoos ever!  Add the engagement with schools, not only in Beijing but also in other parts of China, and the reach and impact of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams.  I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, especially the Chinese partners – the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, China Birdwatching Society and the staff at the tagging locations (Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu) – who have all been brilliant, as well as the BTO’s Andy Clements and Chris Hewson for their vision and sharing of expertise and the sponsors – Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International.  Finally, a big thank you to “Team Cuckoo”: Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Geert De Smet, Gie Goris and Rob Jolliffe.  You can follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos here.  All being well, Flappy, Meng and Skybomb will return to Beijing by the end of May.

In 2017 we are planning to expand the Beijing Cuckoo Project to become the CHINA Cuckoo Project, which will involve tagging cuckoos in different locations across the country.  More on that soon.

As well as being privileged to have been part of such a groundbreaking project, I have been fortunate to be involved with some exciting progress on some of the highest priority conservation issues, working with so many brilliant people, including Vivian Fu and Simba Chan at Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife.  The plight of shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is well-known, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper the “poster species” of conservation efforts to try to save what remains of the globally important intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  More than 70% of these vital stopover sites have been destroyed already through land reclamations and much of the remaining area is slated for future reclamation projects.   Scientists, including an ever greater number of young Chinese such as Zhu Bingrun, now have the evidence to show that the population declines of many shorebird species, some of which are now classified as “Endangered”, can be attributed in large part to the destruction of the vital stopover sites in the Yellow Sea.  After meeting world-leading shorebird expert, Professor Theunis Piersma, in Beijing in May and arranging for him to address Beijing-based birders with a compelling lecture, it’s been a pleasure to support the efforts of international organisations such as BirdLife International, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), led by Spike Millington, IUCN, UNDP and The Paulson Institute as well as local NGOs such as Save Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 山水 (ShanShui) in their interactions with the Chinese government to try to encourage greater protection for, and sustainable management of, the remaining intertidal sites.  One of the pillars of the conservation strategy is to nominate the most important sites as a joint World Heritage Site (WHS) involving China and the Koreas (both North and South).  This would have the advantage of raising awareness of the importance of these sites to those in the highest levels of government and also requiring greater protection and management of the sites.  I am pleased to say that, due to the hard work of these organisations, much progress has been made and the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MoHURD), the ministry responsible for WHS nominations, is now positively taking forward the suggestion and working on the technical papers required to make a submission to the State Council for formal nomination.  Special mention should be made of John MacKinnon, whose expertise, network of contacts in China and enthusiasm has made a big difference, to Nicola Crockford of RSPB and Wang Songlin of BirdLife International for their diplomatic work to create the conditions for the WHS issue to come to the fore, to David Melville, who recently delivered a compelling presentation covering a lifetime of shorebird study, to MoHURD at a workshop convened by ShanShui, and to Hank Paulson who, through the publication of the Paulson Institute’s “Blueprint Project” and his personal engagement at a very senior level with Provincial governors, has secured a commitment from the Governor of Hebei Province to protect the sites in his Province highlighted in the Blueprint.  These are significant advances that, although far from securing the future of China’s intertidal mudflats, have significantly improved the odds of doing so.

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Professor Theunis Piersma delivers his lecture to Beijing-based birders at The Bookworm, Beijing, in May 2016.

China’s east coast hosts the world’s most impressive bird migration, known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway.  That flyway consists of not only shorebirds but also many land birds and it is this concentration of migratory birds every spring and autumn that attracts not only birders but also poachers.  This year has seen several horrific media stories about the illegal trapping of birds on an industrial scale, primarily to supply the restaurant trade in southern China where wild birds are considered a delicacy.  Illegal trapping is thought to be the primary cause of the precipitous decline in the population of, among others, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially classified as Endangered.

A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting in a cage adjacent to some illegal nets, designed to act as a lure.  Now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

It would be easy to be depressed by such incidents but I believe there are two developments that provide optimism for the future.  First, although the legal framework is far from watertight, the authorities are now acting, the incidents are being reported in the media and the culprits are receiving, at least in the largest scale cases, heavy punishments.  And second, these cases are being uncovered by volunteers, groups of mostly young people that spend their free time – weekends and days off during weekdays – specifically looking for illegal nets and poachers at migration hotspots.  They work with law enforcement to catch the culprits and destroy their tools of the trade.  These people are heroes and, although at present it’s still easy for poachers to purchase online mist-nets and other tools used for poaching (there are ongoing efforts to change this), it’s a harder operating environment for them than in the past.  Big change doesn’t happen overnight but the combination of greater law enforcement, citizen action and media coverage are all helping to ensure that, with continued effort and strengthening of the legal framework, illegal trapping of migratory birds in China is on borrowed time.

Another conservation issue on which progress has been made is the plight of Baer’s Pochard.  The population of this Critically Endangered duck has declined dramatically in the last few decades, the reasons for which are largely unknown.  However, after 2016 there is much to be optimistic about.  First, there are now dedicated groups studying Baer’s Pochard in China, including population surveys, study of breeding ecology and contributing to an international action plan to save the species.  These groups are working with the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, EAAFP and others to build a knowledge base about the species, raise awareness and develop concrete steps to conserve the species at its remaining strongholds.  A record count of 293 birds in December at the most important known breeding site in Hebei Province (Paul Holt and Li Qingxin) is a brilliant end to a year that will, hopefully, be a turning point for this species.

On a personal level I was extremely lucky, alongside Marie, to experience a ‘once in a lifetime’ encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai and, just a few days later, two Snow Leopards.  Certainly two of my most cherished encounters with wildlife.

So, as I glance out of my window again, I realise that a few days of smog are a small price to pay to be part of the birding and conservation community in China.  As 2017 begins, I have a spring in my step.

“Turning over a stone and seeing a slug…”

When asked by US President, Barack Obama, how he became fascinated by natural history, Sir David Attenborough replied:

“Well I’ve never met a child….. who is not interested in natural history.  I mean just the simplest thing, a 5 year old turning over a stone and seeing a slug, you know, what a treasure! How does it live and what are those things on the front?’ Kids love it. Kids understand the natural world…”

Of course, as he is about everything, Sir David is right.  And there is something about experiencing the fascination of children with nature that is deeply inspiring and heartening.  That’s why there’s a spring in my step.  I’ve just returned from the latest EcoAction environmental education trip to Hainan with some wonderful families from Beijing and Dalian.

We visited Yinggeling nature reserve and stayed with a Miao minority village deep in the forest to learn how they co-exist with their natural surroundings.  The sustainability of their living means that, within a stone’s throw of their traditional homes, many of which are made of mud and grass, there is an abundance of life.  From freshwater crabs in the nearby stream and the spectacular mantis to beautiful dragonflies, outrageously coloured moths, darting kingfishers and even the rare and endemic Hainan Partridge, there is wildlife all around.  It’s the perfect place to spark a child’s fascination with nature.

After meeting in Haikou, in the north of Hainan island, the trip began with a visit to nearby Dongzhaigang Mangrove Nature Reserve.  Here we introduced the children to birding and, in just a couple of hours, we had seen more than 30 species, including the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Asian Dowitcher, White-throated Kingfisher, Chinese Pond Heron and, a real favourite, the spectacular Fork-tailed Sunbird.

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I am, perhaps, not the best teacher when it comes to sketching birds!

The following day we made the 4-hour drive to Yinggeling Nature Reserve, our base for the next few days.  Here we met with nature reserve personnel, participated in day and night walks to explore the reserve and its wildlife, and learned how to make bird feeders from used plastic bottles…

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This mantis was a big hit with the children during a night safari..
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After a brainstorming session about the bird feeder, the children came up with an ingenious design!

After hearing a lecture about the wildlife of Yinggeling from nature reserve staff, we walked to a nearby lake where we spent the night and cooked dinner on an open fire..  great fun for the children (and parents!).

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The scenery was spectacular with a sense of peace not easy to find in mainland China!
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Cooking dinner using hand-made bamboo ‘spears’ was a lot of fun.. and boy did that chicken taste good!
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Our campsite was idyllic and, with no light pollution,it offered a stunning view of the night sky.

Soon it was time to make the journey into the forest to stay with a Miao village.

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Arriving at the village…
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We were greeted by villagers offering traditional rice wine
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We learned about the Miao crafts, including how to make their traditional clothes
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And making birds from leaves.. not just for decoration but for holding sticky rice as a packed lunch..

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The Miao celebrate special occasions with “three colours rice”
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The rice was as delicious as it was beautiful

Of course we took the opportunity to introduce the local children to birding.. and they were in awe of the capacity of the telescope and binoculars to bring distant birds so close..

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Watching Black Bulbuls in the village
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The villagers loved the telescope and binoculars

In the heat of the day we cooled ourselves with the delicious water from the local coconuts..

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This child was very protective of his treasured coconut!

And later in the afternoon, the local ladies wore their traditional dress in preparation for an evening of entertainment..

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The local ladies in traditional dress..
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In the evening they put on a special dance performance.

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The villagers were wonderful hosts and were patient with questions from the families’ and the inquisitive children..  Although, by modern standards, their lives are simple and lacking in many of the modern comforts we take for granted, these villagers are among the happiest and most generous people I have met.

After our stay, each child was asked to explain what they had learned from the trip and to highlight their favourite moments.  Bo Han, one of the children, wrote a fabulous summary of lessons learned – here are my favourites:

  1. Don’t be afraid of bugs
  2. Unite to succeed.  When my design for the bird feeder was not accepted, I ran away in disgust.  When I came back I saw everyone had brainstormed and their design was better than mine.  I realised that the wisdom of the collective is likely to be higher than the individual.
  3. Don’t put wet trousers too close to the fire!
  4. Don’t use flash to photograph birds, insects and other wild creatures.  Birds may spend the day searching for a safe perch; the flash frightens them and, at their next stop in panic, there may be hidden enemies, so the flash might be killing them.
  5. Air and water can spread sound differently.  I put my phone in a waterproof case and recorded the sounds.
  6. Three colour rice is characteristic of Hainan Miao diet.  It’s dyed by grass (black), flowers (red) and wild ginger (yellow).  It has taste of ginger but smell of pizza.
  7. Wild bamboo is integrated into the natural environment and not easy to find.
  8. The branches of the Banyan tree absorb nutrients and then take root.. it looks like a lot of trees together but actually it’s one big tree.

 

Before leaving, we exchanged gifts and said our goodbyes.. having made some wonderful new friends, learned a lot and sparked an interest in the natural world that will hopefully stay with the children, and their families, for the rest of their lives.

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Big thanks to Luo Peng for her vision in designing the itinerary and for making the arrangements, to the wonderful staff at Yinggeling nature reserve and Kadoorie Farm and to my fellow leaders, Chen Lijun and Hu Yunbiao.  Most of all, a big thank you to the families, especially the children, for providing me with a very special gift – a genuine sense of optimism for the future!

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EcoAction runs environmental education trips for schools and families.  Recognising that the most effective learning is through participation and experience, the trips are designed to provide opportunities for the children to explore, discover, participate and learn. 

 

Yinggeling

“Life-changing”, “Eye-opening”, “Amazing” and “Inspirational” were some of the words used (or, rather, their Chinese equivalents!) by students and teachers to describe their trip to Yinggeling.

As trailed in the previous post, last week I spent 7 days at Yinggeling Nature Reserve, nestled in the mountains of central Hainan, a tropical island off the south coast of China, with 14 students and two teachers from Beijing’s 94th Middle School .  The trip was organised by Luo Peng of Eco Action, a new Chinese company dedicated to raising awareness of sustainability and environmental issues in China, in particular with young people.

The aims were twofold: first, to introduce the students to a forest ecosystem so that they could understand the benefits provided by a forest and the importance of a sustainable relationship between nature and people; and second, to provide income to the village to support an agreement not to hunt wild animals or plant more rubber trees (their main source of income) and to help pay some of the villagers to act as “rangers” (to patrol the forests, remove illegal traps and snares and, if possible, apprehend any poachers).

I was invited to lead the birdwatching activities and, in partnership with officials from the Kadoorie Farm and nature reserve staff from the Yinggeling National Nature Reserve, we put together an itinerary that included conducting a biodiversity survey, birdwatching, night safaris to observe fish and amphibians, learning about local practices, including harvesting honey and basket-weaving, and helping the villagers to plant their rice crop.

The trip started with a flight to Haikou, a city on the northern coast of Hainan.  After a short birding session around Haikou on the first day, where we met with staff from Kadoorie Farm, the local Mangrove Nature Reserve (and some visiting Beijing birders!), we met the students at the airport and set off for the 3-4 hours drive to Yinggeling Nature Reserve.  Here we spent two nights learning about Yinggeling, its wildlife, hiking, birding and even playing football!

Introducing some of the younger members of th group to birding near Haikou
Introducing some of the younger members of the group to birding near Haikou before travelling to Yinggeling
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Introductions and initial briefing at Yinggeling
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An impromptu game of football (in walking boots!) between the students and reserve staff was a good pre-lunch workout at our base in Yinggeling.

After familiarising ourselves with the local area, including a beautiful hike to a stunning waterfall, we prepared for what was to be the highlight of the trip – three days and two nights at Daoyin, a remote village deep inside the nature reserve.

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The students take a breather during the hike to the waterfall in Yinggeling Nature Reserve
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The hike took us through some beautiful forest and alongside a narrow stream..
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The students collected 6 bags of litter over the day!

Daoyin, with a population of 90 ethnic Li people, has no roads to link it with the outside world, no phone signal, no hot water (a revitalising dip in the river is the nearest thing to a shower) and, of course, no WiFi (hard for those of us addicted to smart phones!).  It was only recently that the fitting of solar panels provided limited electricity (for lighting) for the first time.

Getting to Daoyin required a 3.5 hour drive from our base at the nature reserve, mostly along rough dirt tracks, followed by a stunning, but demanding, 5-6 hour hike along the river, crossing the river three times… it was a real adventure and wonderful to see the students pushing themselves and helping each other to reach the village.

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Preparing for the hike to Daoyin
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Students making one of the river crossings on the way to Daoyin
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A spectacular old tree on the way to Daoyin

On arrival we were met by the local villagers, including Mr Fu Guohua, the current village leader, and Mr Fu Jinhai, the former leader (the villagers have a system whereby the leadership is rotated).  Although the villagers lived a very basic life with mud-huts and chickens and pigs wandering around, we were struck by just how happy everyone looked…  the children were having a ball exploring the forest, climbing trees and playing badminton.. as the villagers busied themselves with their daily tasks – fishing, preparing food, washing clothes and building or repairing houses.  Surrounded by bird, insect and frog song, with none of the noise and stresses of the city, life seemed idyllic.

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Local children
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One of the new houses in Daoyin. On the orders of the government, any new buildings must have metal roofs as traditional grass roofs are considered a fire hazard.
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A more traditional house, made from mud and bamboo, with a roof of dried leaves.

At this point, feeling adventurous and slightly proud of myself for making it to this remote place, I asked Mr Fu if I was the first British person to visit the village…  He thought for a moment and then said “no!”  A scientist – an expert from Kadoorie Farm – had visited several years previously.  My slight disappointment soon melted away when he told me that this British scientist was well-remembered for having given the then leader a gift of a wind-up head torch, something the leader cherished…  and now almost everyone in the village owned one.  I felt proud to be British and offered the leader my own gift – a Swiss Army Knife – which he looked at with some confusion before I showed him what it could do!

The villagers were fantastic hosts.  Over the two full days that we spent in the village they helped us to arrange a host of activities for the students, including early morning bird walks, a survey of the “fish sanctuary”, an area where fishing is prohibited to ensure fish stocks remain healthy, the release back into the wild of a Hainan Partridge that had been found in an illegal trap several weeks before, a hike to collect footage from some of the camera traps that have been placed inside the forest (the rare and endemic Hainan Peacock Pheasant has been caught on film!), harvesting honey from the village hives, making baskets and cups from bamboo and helping the villagers to plant their rice crop.

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Harvesting honey from one of the villages’ hives

 

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Eating the grubs from the beehive was not to everyone’s taste!

 

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Local children released a Hainan Partridge back into the wild after it had recovered from being injured in an illegal trap (see more on the video at the end of this post!)

On the second day a group of villagers returned from a 3-day expedition into the mountains to look for poachers and traps…  After great work by Kadoorie and the local nature reserve staff, these villagers had agreed to become “rangers”, paid to sacrifice hunting and, instead, help to protect the forest’s wildlife.  They told us that, with the rubber price very low this year and the forthcoming Chinese New Year (a traditional time to eat exotic food), some of the people in other local villages had been tempted to try to make money through hunting and selling of wild animals..  The head of the nature reserve told me that demand for exotic meat was such that a hunter could receive as much as Yuan 1,000 (GBP 100) for 1.5 kilos of wild animal meat..  With prices like that, it’s no wonder that some people are tempted to break the law…  and it’s an indicator of just how important it is to tackle demand..

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The rangers enjoying a well-earned cup of tea after three days patrolling the forest.

The rangers had found an injured Yellow-bellied Weasel in an illegal trap and, the day we returned to the nature reserve HQ, they found an endemic Hainan Flying Squirrel that had been shot.  Hunting is clearly still an issue but the villagers say that it is much reduced, largely thanks to the hard work and of the nature reserve officials and Kadoorie Farm, together with the positive engagement of the local villagers.

yellow-bellied weasel caught in illegal trap
This Yellow-bellied Weasel was caught in an illegal trap. After recuperating, it will be released back into the wild in the area where it was found.

On our second and last night, the local villagers not only provided us with a tasty meal of fish, vegetables and rice, but also put on an impromptu talent contest…  one of the villagers was famed for his ability to “play” the leaf…  and we were treated to renditions of some traditional Li songs before the nature reserve staff and village leaders together sang the “Yinggeling Song” (the soundtrack to the video at the end of this post).

After enjoying our time in the village, all too quickly we had to leave, and after hiking a different route back to the road, over the mountains instead of along the river, we met our 4wd vehicles and headed back to the nature reserve HQ.

farewell toast
As we left the village, I just had time for a farewell toast with village leader, Mr Fu Guohua, using the bamboo cups he had made for me as a gift..
saying goodbyes
Farewells at Daoyin

Back at HQ, the students were divided into teams and were invited to make a presentation about what they had learned, their ideas about how to protect the forest and the livelihoods of the local people, and how their experience would affect them.

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One of the student groups explaining what they had learned and their ideas for the future
receiving certificates
All 14 students received a certificate from the head of the Yinggeling nature reserve

After receiving their certificates for volunteering in Daoyin we made our way back to Haikou where we enjoyed a delicious meal at the local seafood market before resting ahead of our early morning flight back to Beijing.

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The group photo at the reserve HQ just before departure to Haikou
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The seafood market in Haokou was a visual treat!
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Some strange-looking fish were on sale in Haikou market
coconut drink
Enjoying a coconut was a great way to end the trip for most of the students

I felt privileged to be part of such a rewarding and meaningful trip.  The students clearly gained a lot and it was easy to see that several were truly inspired by their experience.  The head teacher told us that, when they had spoken about the village of Daoyin in the classroom, the students did not believe that such places existed…  …and yet, here they were at the end of the trip, devising lots of positive ideas about how to support the villagers and to protect the forest.  It was great to see.  And, of course, it wasn’t just the students who benefitted.  For each guest, a payment was made to the local village that will help to ensure they do not need to hunt wild animals to sustain a living and also providing the resources to make some improvements to the village…

My heartfelt thanks go to Luo Peng , of EcoAction, for devising the initiative, to Mr Fu Guohua and Fu Jinhai and all the villagers at Daoyin who made us feel so welcome, to the Yinggeling Nature Reserve staff, especially Mi Hongxu and Liao Gaofeng, and to the officials at Kadoorie Farm, in particular Li Fei, who accompanied us throughout.  Finally, a big thank you to the students and teachers from Beijing’s 94th Middle School for engaging so positively and for making the trip so much fun.

EcoAction hopes to plan similar trips to Daoyin in the future, not only for schools but, potentially, for small parties of tourists, ideally families.  If you are interested in a truly authentic Chinese experience that will benefit the local community as well as providing you with an unforgettable encounter, feel free to contact me..

I’ll finish the post with a short video that captures some of the activities during the trip.. all to the backdrop of the “Yinggeling Song”, as sung by the nature reserve staff and local villagers..!

PS I almost forgot the birds!  In total, we saw 105 species, including 2 of the 3 endemic species, Hainan Leaf Warbler and Hainan Partridge.  A full species list is available here.

Birding Beijing: The Next Generation

I love this quote from one of the most progressive Senators in the US Congress, Ed Markey – “Although children are only 24% of the population, they’re 100% of our future”.  In China, a country that is growing fast in terms of economic power and global influence, the children here will perhaps have a disproportionate influence on the world this century.  And with the environment relatively absent in the Chinese curriculum, it’s of utmost importance to engage with young people if China’s wildlife is to prosper in this rapidly urbanising and developing country.

Luo Peng, a young Chinese environmentalist and entrepreneur, has set up a company called Eco Action Now to promote environmental education and sustainable tourism, focusing on benefiting local communities and working with scientists, nature reserves and ordinary people.

One aspect of their work is to develop educational programmes for schoolchildren in Beijing.  It’s a great initiative that aims to connect urban children to their environment.  I was honoured to be invited to help lead a birding trip for Beijing’s 13th Middle School to the Botanical Gardens this weekend and what fun we had!

On a beautiful, crisp and pollution-free Saturday morning we arrived at the entrance gate at 0730 and, after a short briefing to hand out the binoculars, the tailor-made birdwatching guide and the election of ‘scribes’, we split into four groups and began to explore…   The first birds we saw were Magpies (Common and Azure-winged) and they were soon followed by Tree Sparrow, Naumann’s Thrush, Japanese and Marsh Tits, Spotted Dove (“they look fat!“) and Chinese Nuthatch….  and later we were to enjoy stunning views of Plain Laughingthrushes (“they really do laugh!“) and Siberian Accentors, the headmistress’s favourite bird!  It was great to see these young people so enthused during their first ever birdwatching trip and enjoying the sight and sound of their local birds.   Inevitably, as the groups met up periodically to compare notes, a little competitiveness crept in and we even had a mini ‘twitch’ at the end to ensure all of the groups saw the Little Grebes on the main lake..

It was fantastic to meet the students of Beijing’s 13th Middle School and I can’t wait to do more…  Even if none of them become birders, their appreciation and understanding of wild birds has been increased and, in a country home to around 1/6th of the world’s bird species, that’s a wonderful reward in itself.  Big thanks to Luo Peng for making the arrangements and for inviting me along…

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The class, and the group leaders, from Beijing’s 13th Middle School outside the gate to the Botanical Gardens.
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Me with one of the groups and the headmistress (far right).
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The Botanical Gardens were looking good in the early winter sunshine.
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Showing the headmistress the plate of Siberian Accentor in Mark Brazil’s “Birds of East Asia” just after enjoying 4 of these beautiful birds in the scrub…
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Taking notes about a sighting of Great Spotted Woodpecker, one of the birds we enjoyed during our Saturday at the Botanical Gardens
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One of the groups focusing on a Dusky Thrush.
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For some reason, I was asked to sign some bird postcards at the end.. Here is me feeling uncomfortable…

All photos by Luo Peng.