Summit for the Flyways

I’m writing this from Abu Dhabi at the opening of BirdLife International “Summit for the Flyways” which, from 23-26 April, brings together some of the world’s greatest bird scientists, conservationists, communicators and policy influencers to address one question: how do we best tackle the threats facing migratory birds?

Migratory birds have a hard life. To get to where they need to be – to breed and find food and shelter – they must run the gauntlet of illegal hunting/killing, insensitively placed wind turbines, pollution and a panoply of other threats. And these threats are only increasing.

The Beijing Cuckoo undertakes a phenomenal migration, linking China’s capital with Mozambique and southeastern Africa, but is facing threats including habitat loss, changes in agricultural practices and climate change. 

To underpin the Summit, BirdLife International has released a key publication: The State of the World’s Birds 2018.  This important and comprehensive report provides a snapshot of the health of not only the world’s birds, but the ecosystems they represent.  It’s described as “taking the pulse of the planet”.

State of the World’s Birds shows that many of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in dire straits. At least 40% of these species are in decline, and one in eight bird species is globally threatened with extinction.  It’s a wake-up call.

2011-09-05 Far Eastern Curlew
The Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) is one of several shorebird species in danger of extinction.

Many bird species known for being widespread and common are now at risk of extinction; the Snowy Owl, Atlantic Puffin, Grey Parrot and European Turtle-dove are among the instantly recognisable bird species that are now threatened with extinction due to human-driven factors such as climate change, illegal hunting and overfishing.  Overall, agriculture (the loss of habitat from agricultural expansion, as well as agricultural intensification) is the greatest driver of bird extinction worldwide.

The continued deterioration of the world’s birds is a major concern for the health of our planet; birds provide a wide variety of ecosystem services, such as controlling insect pest populations, and dispersing plant seeds. Vultures, one of the most threatened bird groups, provide crucial sanitary services across South Asia and Africa through the disposal of animal carcasses.

Here are some more of the publication’s key findings:

The Yellow-breasted Bunting could become the next Passenger Pigeon

Many people are familiar with the cautionary tale of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, a bird that once numbered billions in North America, and that was driven to extinction by 1914 through excessive hunting and habitat destruction. Sadly, history appears to be repeating itself.

Until recently, the Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola was one of Eurasia’s most abundant bird species, breeding across the northern Palaearctic from Finland to Japan. However, since 1980, its population has declined by 90%, while its range has contracted by 5,000 km, and BirdLife has now assessed the species as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List – meaning that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction. Although now officially banned, large-scale hunting of this bird, particularly in China, continues – in 2001, an estimated one million buntings, known colloquially as ‘the rice bird’, were consumed in China’s Guangdong province alone and, in November 2017 they were found for sale on China’s online shopping website, Taobao.

The European Turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur was once a familiar migrant to Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East from the Sahel zone of Africa. Because of habitat loss and hunting, the species is now declining across its range, especially in Western Europe, and its conservation status has recently been re-classified as Vulnerable to extinction.

The Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus is surely one of the most widely recognised birds in the world. It is also widespread, occurring throughout the Arctic tundra of the Northern Hemisphere and, in Asia, wintering as far south as northern China. Yet, the species is experiencing a rapid decline, most likely connected to climate change: changes to snowmelt and snow cover can affect the availability and distribution of prey. The species has recently been categorised as Vulnerable.

In the marine realm, the depletion of fish populations through overfishing and climate change has caused rapid declines in widespread and much-loved seabirds such as Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla—both are now considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Overall threats to the world’s birds

Human actions are responsible for most threats to birds. Foremost among these threats are: agricultural expansion and intensification, which impacts 1,091 globally threatened birds (74%); logging, affecting 734 species (50%); invasive alien species, which threaten 578 (39%) species; and hunting and trapping, which put 517 (35%) species at risk. Climate change represents an emerging and increasingly serious threat—currently affecting 33% of globally threatened species—and one that often exacerbates existing threats.

A powerful example of unsustainable agricultural practices, neurotoxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids are proving highly detrimental to birds. One recent study from the USA found that migrating White-crowned Sparrows Zonotrichia leucophrys exposed to neonicotinoids lost a quarter of their body mass and fat stores. The neurotoxin also impaired the birds’ migratory orientation.

Importantly, as well as the wake-up call about the decline in many bird species, the report also provides a message of hope, showing that conservation works and can change the fortunes of species in trouble.

At least 25 bird species would have gone extinct without conservation action over recent decades. These include the Seychelles White-eye Zosterops modestus, the Echo Parakeet Psittacula eques and the Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina – all species confined to oceanic islands.

These messages are providing the backdrop to the Summit for the Flyways and the challenge now is to design a coordinated response across the flyways including governments, international organisations, NGOs, civil society and business.

In that context, it’s heartening to see so many people representing countries along all the major flyways, from China, Mongolia and Australia in the East Asian Australasian Flyway to the Netherlands, UK, North Africa in the Eurasian-African Flyway and the Americas in the west.  From China specifically, Professor Lei Guangchun from Beijing Forestry University is here and will be speaking about the recent positive changes in policy in China.

It promises to be an inspirational few days and, I hope, a catalyst for scaling up both awareness and conservation action to protect these great avian travellers and the ecosystems to which they belong.

 

 

 

Ambassador, you’re spoiling us!

Continuing the theme of birds in city centre locations (see the previous post on my ‘garden’), this blog post is about a recent survey of the UK Ambassador’s garden.

In May this year the UK Ambassador invited me to survey his garden for birds.  Although not a birder, he is interested in the birds in his garden and has been known to interrupt internal meetings with the occasional – “Oh look, there’s a Woodpecker outside the window”.

After making arrangements with security, I planned to visit the garden each day for an hour to log the birds present during the height of Spring migration.  The May survey produced a few highlights and one major surprise – Beijing’s first TREE PIPIT (see “First for Beijing: Tree Pipit”).  It was always going to be fascinating to repeat the exercise in Autumn and so, in mid-September, I arranged to visit the garden each day for a week.

In total, 30 species were seen and the highlights included:

  • At least 4 RUFOUS-BELLIED WOODPECKERS (棕腹啄木鸟) on 10th (a record number seen together in Beijing)
  • 3 SIBERIAN THRUSHES (白眉地鸫) on 16th
  • Single WHITE’S THRUSHES (虎斑地鸫) on 11th, 12th and 16th
  • A single DAURIAN STARLING (北椋鸟) on 10th
  • ASHY MINIVET (灰山椒鸟) heard on 16th
  • BLACK DRONGO (黑卷尾) on 11th
  • Single SIBERIAN RUBYTHROATS (红喉歌鸲 [红点颏]) on 12th, 13th and 16th
WHITE'S THRUSHES were seen on three dates during the mid-September survey.
WHITE’S THRUSHES were seen on three dates during the mid-September survey.

A total of 47 species have now been recorded in the Ambassador’s garden in Spring and Autumn, including some difficult-to-see species.  You can download the full report (including a systematic list of the species seen).  It just goes to show that Beijing is a great location during migration season.

Neck-collared Whooper Swan

Building knowledge about the movements of migratory birds is vital if we are to put in place effective conservation measures.  Traditionally, in an attempt to understand better migration, birds have been trapped by ornithologists using mist nets and ‘ringed’ or ‘banded’ with small light-weight metal rings.  This means that if they are re-trapped by another ornithologist in another location, re-trapped the following year in the same or a different place, or found dead by a member of the public, information can be gained about the migration routes, wintering and breeding grounds and the importance of specific stopover sites.  The recovery rate varies but roughly one in a thousand small birds are recovered in this way.  In recent years a number of new methods have been used (e.g. wing tags, combinations of coloured leg rings on shorebirds or neck collars on swans and geese), all designed to allow birders in the field to identify individual birds and thus increase the likelihood of a given bird being ‘tracked’.

Looking for colour rings, wing tags or collars adds a new dimension to birding and it is rewarding to see a marked bird, note the colour and letter/number combination, report it to the relevant authority – see here for East Asia and here for Europe – and then receive the “life history” of the bird you saw.

On 15 November at Wild Duck Lake I encountered a Whooper Swan with a neck collar amongst a flock of over 30 swans.  The flock consisted of mostly Whoopers but with a few Mutes mixed in (Mute Swans are rare in Beijing and these were my first in the capital).  The flock was distant but, with my telescope, I was able to read the number/letter combination on the collar.  It was dark blue with white letters/numbers reading “1T86”.  I contacted the ringer directly by email and, a few weeks later, I received the following information about this bird:

“1T86″ was captured and marked on 14 July 2012 at Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake (N48° 9’20.98″,   E99°40’16.39”), Arkhangai Province, Mongolia. We did not check its sex, but the weight was 9.95 kg at the time of capture.

I put these coordinates into Google Earth and created the map below showing the distance and direction this bird has travelled.  Wild Duck Lake was only a stopover site – the swans had moved on when I visited again in December – so I can only guess where this individual is now – very likely somewhere further south where at least some water bodies remain unfrozen.

The journey of Whooper Swan "1T86" between 12 July 2012 and 15 November 2012.  A distance of just over 1,500km.
The journey of Whooper Swan “1T86” between 14 July 2012 and 15 November 2012. A distance of just over 1,500km.

Data like this helps ornithologists to understand migratory movements and is invaluable in informing conservation planning.  So reporting birds like this makes a genuine difference to our collective knowledge of birds and directly supports those trying to conserve our birds.  For me, as a mere birder, it also reinforces a sense of wonder at the journeys our birds undertake each spring and autumn and is a reminder that Wild Duck Lake is a vital stopover site for many migratory birds.

 

Laotieshan: The Trip Report

Paul Holt has just completed his detailed trip report for the autumn migration trip to Laotieshan in Liaoning Province, China.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows him (and me!) that Paul is responsible for the incredibly detailed daily counts of the species included in the report.

It was an awesome trip with some stunning counts (including some China records).

 

Highlights:

  • We recorded 202 species in total
  • High counts included 2155 bird-days of Oriental Honey-buzzard with 1035 on our very first day on site, the 24 September;
  • 1150 bird-days of Black Kite with birds being seen almost every day with a peak count of 209 on the 7 October;
  • 1255 Eurasian Sparrowhawks and a peak count of 283 on the 10 October;
  • 248 bird-days of Northern Goshawk with a peak of 64 also on the 10 October;
  • 6944 bird-days of Eastern Buzzard with a peak of 3490 on the 12 October;
  • 7971 bird-days of Amur Falcon with a peak of 1830 on the 10 October;
  • Over 20,000 bird-days of Ashy Minivet with a peak of 7549 on the 28 September;
  • 456 bird-days of Yellow-bellied Tit with birds being noted on 20 of the 23 days we were in Liaoning and a peak of 160 on the 5 October;
  • Nearly 60,000 bird-days of Red-rumped Swallow with 10,000 being estimated on the 27 September;
  • Over 14,000 white-eyes with up to 4500 birds being noted daily while we were in the province;
  • Over 1600 bird-days of Black-faced Bunting with a peak of 700 on the 8 October.

Local rarities included:

  • 14-bird-days of Black Stork with between 1 and 4 birds on five dates;
  • A juvenile Steppe Eagle on the 2 October;
  • 2 juvenile Golden Eagles on the 11 October;
  • An adult male Lesser Kestrel on the 6 October;
  • 70 osculans Eurasian Oystercatchers, a moulting juvenile Pallas’s Gull (only the third for Liaoning) and a first year Glaucous Gull at the Biliu river, Pulandian and a single Little Curlew near Pikou, Pulandian all on the 3 October;
  • Surprising numbers of both Northern and Asian House Martins;
  • Two and one Red-billed Starlings on the 7th & 14 October respectively
  • Several early Alpine Accentors with sightings on three dates after the 11 October.
The full report can be downloaded by clicking on this link:  Birding in Liaoning 24 Sept. – 16 Oct. 2011 

Laotieshan – Wednesday update

After the disappointment of being kicked off one of the prime raptor migration watchpoints on Tuesday, we took up the invitation from the local reserve officials, introduced to us by the Beijing Birdwatching Society, to visit a ringing station at Laotieshan.  Our hosts, Mr Wang (Head of Research) and Mr Zhang (a researcher and ringer) met us near the lighthouse car park at 0630 and drove us to the ringing station where we met with two more staff.  At this site (one of 8 ringing stations in the area), they operate four mist nets, three of which are targeted at passerines and one at raptors.  It wasn’t long before the resident bird-catcher, Mr Sun, appeared with some birds and we were pleased to see Grey-backed Thrush and Tristram’s Bunting in the hand.

Grey-backed Thrush, Laotieshan, 5 October 2011

These birds were ringed and released promptly and soon we were discussing the birds of Laotieshan and the various species they had ringed.  They gave us each a book that covered the birds of the Laotieshan peninsula and the nearby Snake Island (the island featured in the BBC series, Wild China, where the Pallas’s Pit Vipers have evolved to climb trees to wait for unsuspecting migrant birds).  The list makes for very interesting reading, giving the status of each bird at Laotieshan – resident, summer visitor, winter visitor or passage migrant.  I’ll post a translation of it on here at some point.

During this discussion Mr Sun disappeared, then reappeared with a Mugimaki Flycatcher..  a nice trick!  Unfortunately this bird had lost its tail, either in the net or in the bag, but nevertheless, it was a smart bird.

Mugimaki Flycatcher, Laotieshan, 5 October 2011

We asked about access to Snake Island.  Officially there was no access unless one had a permit (a familiar story in China!).  Mr Wang was due to go out there later that day and stay for a week, part of the rolling wardening duties on the island.  Mr Zhang told us that Mr Wang was once bitten on the finger by a Pallas’s Pit Viper and spent the next three months recovering in hospital.. ouch.

Mr Sun appeared again, accompanied by gasps from the audience..  this time he held single Tristram’s and Black-faced Buntings.

Black-faced Bunting, Laotieshan, 5 October 2011
Mr Sun proudly showing off a very smart Tristram's Bunting. I was impressed with the professionalism of these ringers, especially after some of the horror stories I had heard about ringing stations at other locations in China.

The volume of birds being caught here was not high – they said that, on average at this time of year, about 30 birds were caught each day – but the quality and variety was good.  We accompanied Mr Zhang on a walk around the nets and discovered over 20 Chestnut-flanked White-eyes together with a single Radde’s Warbler and another Tristram’s Bunting.  It took us some time to help retrieve these birds from the nets but they were promptly ringed and released.  White-eyes have been a big feature of our time at Laotieshan with thousands passing through… they are full of character and it was interesting to see some in the hand.

Chestnut-flanked White-eye. One of over 20 caught and ringed on 5 October at Laotieshan.
Radde's Warbler, Laotieshan, 5 October 2011

A major part of the work of the ringing station is to try to stop illegal bird trapping.  This is a traditional activity at Laotieshan that has been ongoing for many years and, therefore, is not easy to eradicate.  Every day the staff explore the ridges for illegal nets, cut down any they find and also report any individuals they see to the police.  One guy told us that the illegal bird trappers used to catch around 4,000 raptors each year at Laotieshan (!).  This has significantly decreased due to the work of the reserve staff but they told us that it is still common to find illegal mist nets.  One event that they are proud of ,and that they hope will act as a major deterrent to others, is the fact that, last year, one guy was apprehended with a haul of Oriental Scops Owls and was given a 10-year custodial sentence!  I had read about this story in the China Daily last autumn and it seems as if this has acted as a warning to the locals..  Mr Zhang said that the illegal bird catchers were now extremely nervous and, if they saw anyone near their nets, they would run away quickly..  I am not surprised with punishments like that!

Mr Sun returned and his latest bit of magic produced a Red-flanked Bluetail..

Red-flanked Bluetail, Laotieshan, 5 October 2011. These birds are just beginning to arrive at Laotieshan.
Paul Holt photographs the Red-flanked Bluetail being held by Peter Cawley immediately prior to release.

Shortly after, Mr Wang drove up in his 4×4 and opened the boot to reveal a Short-eared Owl he had found in an illegal net.. Unfortunately it had a broken wing, so could not be released.. very sad to see the fate of such a beautiful bird.  No doubt many more birds or prey and passerines suffer a similar fate every autumn in the hills around this special site.

Short-eared Owl. This bird was recovered from an illegal mist net. The net was destroyed by the wardens but it was too late for this particular bird.

As the early morning migration slowed, Peter and I took the opportunity to hike up the hill to a raptor watchpoint above the ringing station.  Mr Zhang showed us the way and, after a steep ascent lasting around 40 minutes, we emerged on the ridge to a spectacular view of the hills.  The lighthouse could be seen to the south-west and, to the east, there was a stunning view of a valley and hills stretching north towards Lushun.  In a 90-minute count from here we saw a flock of 28 Black-eared Kites, 4 Goshawks, a Peregrine, at least 30 Amur Falcons, 9 Common Buzzards, 2 Hobbies, a single House Martin sp (probably Northern) and a good passage of around 350 Swallows (75 per cent Red-rumped and 25 per cent Barn).  On the walk down we encountered a spectacular spider whose web was reminiscent of one of the mist nets!  If I was a small bird I’d be wary of this particular spider..

A stunning spider (unidentified), Laotieshan, 5 October 2011.

We did a further round of the nets and birded the woods around the station before saying our goodbyes to the crew.  They had made us feel very welcome and we are exremely grateful to Mr Wang, Mr Zhang and Mr Sun for their hospitality, including the fantastic lunch of fried fish and rice – delicious!

The visit to the ringing station represented the end of my stay in Laotieshan this autumn.  To see in the hand some of the migrant birds we had been seeing over the last few days was a fitting end to my stay at this special place.  Mr Wang kindly drove us back to our hotel in Lushun and, after a typically delicious meal at a local restaurant, I picked up my bags, said my goodbyes to Paul and Peter and made my way to the airport for the short flight back to Beijing.  It was a real wrench to tear myself away from this globally significant site and, in particular, the company of Paul Holt and Peter Cawley.  It was a real privilege for me to spend 10 days birding with these guys.  Paul is simply one of the best birders I have ever met – his knowledge of China’s birds and his identification skills are second to none.  I know I would have missed many birds – such as the flyover Pechora Pipits and Pine Bunting – if I was on my own.  So, a big thanks Paul!  I owe you a few beers when you are back in Beijing…

Peter Cawley, a friend from my old local patch at Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk, is staying on for a couple of days and will return to Beijing on Friday.  I’ll be taking him to Wild Duck Lake at the weekend and he’ll spend a couple of days doing the tourist sites of Beijing before returning to the UK.

Paul is going to stay on at Laotieshan for a while yet, building yet more knowledge about this important site.  I suspect he will see good numbers of the large eagles in the next few weeks – mostly Greater Spotted but hopefully with more Steppe and possibly an Imperial thrown in.  During my short time there we think we have recorded some record numbers of birds in the Chinese context.  The counts of Ashy Minivets, Amur Falcons and many other birds have been simply outstanding and, in many cases, are much higher than those recorded at the traditional well-watched migration site at Beidaihe.  It is clear that Laotieshan is globally significant and the good news is that, due to the proximity of the military and the geographic make-up, it is likely to remain undeveloped.  Clearly, access to the best areas is still sensitive but hopefully, in time, this will improve as birding becomes more popular in China and there is a better understanding of the contribution birders can make to the increase in knowledge about China’s birds.  Even so, there are still many areas that are accessible now and the birding is simply spectacular.  I am sure I will be back!

I’ll post some detailed species accounts and a full report soon, once we have collated all the data.  There is so much to put down on paper that it may take a while.  In the meantime, if I hear about more significant counts from Paul, I will post them here.

Finally, I’d like to say a massive thank you to Tom Beeke whose reports from Laotieshan last year were the inspiration for our visit.  Tom has been birding Liaoning Province, largely on his own, for the last few years and has made a major contribution to the knowledge of the birds to be found in and around Dalian.  His book – “The Birds of Dalian” – is an excellent piece of work for which he deserves enormous credit.  I am sure it will inspire a new generation of Chinese birdwatchers…

Next stop Wild Duck Lake at the weekend!  In the meantime, here are a few more images from the last few days…

Mr Zhang (left) and Mr Sun ringing and logging a Black-faced Bunting.
A motley crew... Paul and I with some members of the Beijing Birdwatching Society and some of the local bird photographers. Taken on the 'helipad' at Laotieshan shortly before Paul and I were asked to leave by the military.
Checking the gulls at Lushun with the Beijing Birdwatching Society
Paul and Peter discussing the possibility of visiting the ringing station at Laotieshan with Mr Wang and Tian Yang (in the light blue top) of the Beijing Birdwatching Society
Tom Beeke (Dong Bei) at the wader site north of Pikou.. A top man!
Friendly local fishermen at Pikou..
A local couple having their wedding photographs taken along the promenade at Lushun while we watched the local gulls.
A page from the log at one of the ringing stations at Laotieshan.
Amur Falcon (female); one of thousands seen over the last 10 days at Laotieshan, including a flock of over 600 and a count of over 1,100 migrating birds on Wednesday morning in just 90 minutes.
Amur Falcon (juvenile), Laotieshan, 5 October 2011. The passage of these birds was a highlight of our stay.

Another looker..

Now I know many people in the UK have had their fill of Red-flanked Bluetails in the last few months, with the unprecedented influx last autumn. But I bet none of them looked like this…!

Red-flanked Bluetail - smart, eh?

RFBs are beginning to arrive in the Beijing area now and the adult males are absolute stunners. Forgive me for posting a few more images….

STOP PRESS: Jesper Hornskov just sent me a SMS to say he has just seen a GREAT BUSTARD flying over the Summer Palace.. A great record. Spring is here.. let the big migration commence…

A newly arrived RFB
Note the white brow (which the Himalayan form lacks)