The Power of Birds

As COVID-19 begins to take hold in many countries around the world, it is perhaps of no consolation to most people that the situation in Beijing appears to be stabilising. Life in the capital is slowly taking small steps towards normality, treading the fine line between continuing to contain the spread of this seemingly incredibly infectious virus and minimising the disruption to the economy and people’s lives.  More shops and restaurants are open, albeit with restrictions on numbers and temperature checks on entry, and office workers are being allowed to return, with limits on the maximum number of people in an office at any one time and regular checks by the government.

However, as a reminder that things remain far from normal, housing compounds still forbid entry to non-residents and residents are checked for symptoms each time they enter, with everyone required to wear a mask when in public places.  Admirably, the local staff in my compound have been religiously disinfecting the lifts, door handles and any other potential sources of transmission at least twice per day.  And, given many people rely on deliveries for groceries and other essentials, these are now contactless – the couriers leave packages at the security gate for residents to collect, avoiding any direct contact.

The lockdown must be a gold mine of information for social scientists.  The psychological effects of severe restrictions on human interaction beyond immediate family must be significant and there are already articles doing the rounds about an increase in the divorce rate, and also pregnancies, during these strange times.

For me, as someone who has always found solace and inspiration in nature, and particularly with birds, this time has been a reminder of their positive power.  I’ve taken the opportunity to read more, something I have certainly neglected in recent years, and one book, in particular, made me realise what I have been missing… I lost myself for hours in “The Seabird’s Cry” by Adam Nicholson, a captivating book celebrating the incredible lives of seabirds, following ten species around the coasts and islands of Scotland, Ireland, the Americas and across the vast ocean in between.  For a taste, here is Adam’s description of the Kittiwake:

“a sprung and beautiful thing, dawn grey, black eyes, black tips to the wings . . . its whole being like a singer’s held note, not flickering or rag-like, nor blown about like a tern, but elastic, vibrant, investigative, delicate . . . ”

Invigorated by nature writing, the self-quarantine has also allowed me time to research historical records of birds in Beijing, going through books and journals from the likes of Cai Qikan, Robert Swinhoe, J D D La Touche, Père Armand David and other early ornithologists in China.  The result will be a new online resource, coming soon, which will provide the status of every species recorded in Beijing.  Watch this space!

And in the last few days, as the situation stabilises, birders have been venturing out, in many ways the perfect activity in these times – small numbers of people in large, open spaces, always following the local regulations to wear a mask.  And some of the young local birders have been handsomely rewarded with some special sightings.  On Thursday, Wang Xue visited Ming Tombs Reservoir and found Beijing’s first ever AMERICAN WIGEON (绿眉鸭, Lǜ méi yā).  The stunning drake lingered for the rest of the day, loosely associating with some MALLARD (绿头鸭 Lǜ tóu yā), a COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭 Hóng tóu qián yā) and a drake BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭 Huā liǎn yā).

A summer-plumaged PALLAS’S GULL (渔鸥, Yú ōu) at the same site would normally be the star of the show but that day it was relegated to the role of supporting actor.

An adult PALLAS’S GULL in breeding plumage at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Terry Townshend)

After putting out the news of her find on WeChat, Wang Xue stayed around to help the 60 or so birders who made the short journey to experience this rare visitor.  I am grateful to Steve and Zhou Xi Bale who collected me on the way, allowing me to share the moment.  The sense of elation, and even release, among the group was palpable… a rare moment of joy and celebration in what has been a tough beginning to the year.

Beijing birders enjoying a rare day out, catalysed by the presence of a drake American Wigeon, the first record of this species in Beijing.
Local birders watching the American Wigeon at Ming Tombs Reservoir, 5 March 2020.

On the same day, two male BAER’S POCHARD (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) were found at DaShiHe in Fangshan District (Xi’ao’pai Yuren), associating with some COOT (骨顶鸡 Gǔ dǐng jī), a few GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) and a single FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭 Bái yǎn qián yā).  Fortunately, they stayed around and were still present at the weekend, allowing many people to catch up with this critically endangered duck.

Of course, it’s not only rare birds that provide joy.  The flocks of DAURIAN JACKDAW (达乌里寒鸦 Dá wū lǐ hán yā) migrating north, the REED PARROTBILL (震旦鸦雀 Zhèn dàn yā què) calling incessantly from a reedbed and the sight of GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) beginning their courtship displays, were all wonderful to behold.

Daurian Jackdaws at dusk, Beijing (Terry Townshend)

The positive feelings were reinforced when we met with two groups of local forestry police, both of whom asked us if we had seen anyone setting up nets.  They were actively patrolling and clearly getting ready to crack down on poaching in the forthcoming migration season.  A few years ago, an encounter like that would have been just a dream!

The experience of the last few days has been uplifting and has reminded me just how positive birds can be to our every day lives, including our mental health.  I am optimistic that the joy provided by these rare visitors and the inspiration they have provided to get out into nature, represent the beginning of a change in fortune for Beijing and its inhabitants.  Spring, with all its optimism and anticipation, is here at last.

 

Title image: the drake AMERICAN WIGEON at Ming Tombs Reservoir (photo by Wang Xue)

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