Beijing: could it be the capital of biodiversity?

When you think of Beijing, what image comes into your head?  The Great Wall? Maybe Tiananmen Square? Or maybe air pollution?  For those of a more mature generation, maybe even the picture of a city full of bicycles..?  Whatever the image, I suspect that for most people, birds or wildlife might not be front and centre.

That could be about to change.

In 2020, Beijing will host the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  This clumsily-named UN convention meets every two years and I suspect most people not directly involved with the process would be hard pressed to say much about any of the previous meetings or what has been achieved.  However, the 2020 meeting promises to be different.  It is the time when governments are due to conclude an agreement on targets and measures to slow, stop and eventually reverse the loss of wildlife on Earth.

The meeting will take place in the context of the most recent Living Planet index showing that, since 1970, we have lost more than 60% of the animals on our planet.  That is a shocking statistic and should be a wake-up call for governments and the public everywhere.

As host of the CBD, the Chinese government will want a successful outcome and, with recent progress towards President Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘ecological civilisation’ including a ban on further reclamation of intertidal mudflats and nomination of key coastal wetland sites for World Heritage status, the creation of a national park system, species-specific conservation work, e.g. on Baer’s Pochard and Scaly-sided Merganser, the country is creating the foundation for a positive story to tell.

But what about the host city?  Could hosting the CBD be an opportunity to change the global image of Beijing from one of a crowded, polluted, grid-locked city to one of the world’s best capital cities for wildlife?

Beijing is already one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds, with around 500 species recorded.  And in case the Mayor of Beijing is reading, here are some ideas that would require very limited resources but which could have a major impact on Beijing’s image:

Idea 1: A world-class wetland reserve in Beijing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Beijing had a large waterbody that could be an important stopover site for migratory birds, including cranes, geese, ducks, shorebirds and others?  Well, just 75km from Tiananmen Square lies Miyun Reservoir.  It is Beijing’s largest drinking water reservoir and, until public access was prohibited in April 2016, it was the best birding site in the capital attracting flocks of cranes, bustards and large numbers of waterfowl, not to mention huge numbers of buntings in winter.   However, after a large fire in the area and concerns about water quality, much of the land around the reservoir – ideal habitat for shorebirds, cranes, bustards, birds of prey, buntings and pipits – has been cleared and planted with mostly non-native trees in monocultures.  This policy has undoubtedly had a negative impact on birds.  Whilst it is understandable to prioritise water quality, this need not be at the expense of wildlife.  Internationally, there are examples of reservoirs being managed for both water quality and wildlife.  One example is Rutland Water, England’s largest drinking water reservoir.  In fact, Rutland Water is managed for three objectives – water quality, birds and recreation.  If we can share this experience and demonstrate that a large water body can be managed as a place for wildlife as well as water quality, there would be an opportunity to develop a management plan for Miyun Reservoir that maintained a high standard of water quality whilst attracting world-class numbers of cranes and other waterbirds and providing limited public access, attracting millions of visitors each year and an associated boost to the local economy.  Given the CBD conference will likely be in the last quarter of the year, the Beijing government could even invite international media to see the large flocks of cranes that would almost certainly be present if the area was managed sympathetically.

Potential benefits:

– High standard of water quality

– Providing a refuge for thousands of waterbirds, including threatened and endangered species such as cranes and bustards

– Providing opportunities for the urban population to connect with nature

– Through the visiting public staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants, bringing income to the local people in relatively poor Miyun county

 

Idea 2: 10% Wild

The Summer Palace, Beijing..

Beijing enjoys some large and expansive green spaces.  Parks such as the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) and the Olympic Forest Park are all hugely popular places providing urban Beijingers with opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.  Anyone who has visited these parks will know that they are heavily manicured with an army of staff ready to collect any leaf that falls or any blade of grass that grows in one of the cultivated flower beds.  These parks are over-managed to the extent that they are not as friendly for wildlife as they could be.  One idea is for the management of these spaces to leave “10% wild”.  This would mean no significant active management of an allocated part of the park – no use of insecticides, no removal of native plants and no cutting of grass or removal of fallen leaves.  Each park could partner with a local school, the students of which would be invited to undertake surveys of biodiversity – insects, birds and plants – and compare the “10% wild” with other managed parts of the park.  Interpretation signs around the allocated area could promote this experiment to visitors, publishing the results of the student surveys and helping to engage the public about wildlife.  After two years there could be a review to assess the results and to explore whether the experiment should be expanded.

Potential benefits:

– More and better habitat for wildlife in urban Beijing

– Students at local schools become citizen scientists

– Public engagement on the role of parks in providing homes for wildlife in cities

– Fewer resources needed for park management

 

Idea 3: Urban wildlife oases

An urban oasis in Shunyi District

Beijing lies on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and, every spring and autumn, millions of birds pass the Chinese capital on their way to and from breeding grounds to the north and wintering grounds to the south.  To make these remarkable journeys, birds require places to rest and refuel along the way. The trans-continental journeys, such as those of the Beijing Swift and Beijing Cuckoo, are challenging for the hardiest of birds, and the challenges are only increased as vast areas of natural habitat along migration pathways are altered or eliminated, making it difficult for exhausted birds to find suitable places to rest and refuel.

“Urban wildlife oases” could provide ‘stepping stones’ for migrating birds to cross urban areas where there is limited quality habitat.  Each community has the potential to provide important habitat for native birds – and a richer, more beautiful place to live for people.

To illustrate the potential, I’d like to convey my experience with a patch of land close to my apartment in Shunyi District.  Surrounded by new developments, including apartments and shopping malls, this 1km x 1km patch of land, very close to the airport, has yet to be developed and, in the two years since I moved to the area and in almost 100 visits, I have recorded 156 species of bird, five species of mammal and nine species of butterfly.  Highlights have included Band-bellied Crake, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Siberian Thrush and Rough-legged Buzzard, demonstrating the importance of the site to migratory birds.

The Shunyi patch is a small area (1km x 1km) of undisturbed land close to Beijing Capital International Airport. The 156 bird species recorded (of which at least 140 are migrants) in just over 2 years shows how important such areas are for migratory birds.

Maintaining a patchwork of urban oases across the city, potentially with some limited public access, would cost little – beyond the opportunity cost of the land – and provide significant benefits to both wildlife and people.

Potential benefits:

– providing shelter and food for some of the millions of migratory birds that pass through the capital each spring and autumn; plus important areas for breeding and wintering species

– with limited public access, these sites could provide the public with access to wild spaces and places for students from local schools to become citizen scientists

– interpretation would mean that these urban oases could act as outdoor classrooms for Beijing’s urban population

 

Idea 4: Adopting the Beijing Swift

A typical track of a Beijing Swift.

In 2015, a project involving Beijing Birdwatching Society and international experts discovered, for the first time, the migration route and wintering grounds of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis).  It was a hugely popular story, covered by mainstream media – both print and broadcast – and engaged millions of people, most of whom would never ordinarily take an interest in birds.  The Beijing Swift is the perfect symbol for modern Beijing.  One of the old names for Beijing is Yanjing, which, in Chinese, breaks down to “燕” (Yan) and “京” (Jing).  The first character, “燕” means “swift” or “swallow”, so the name Yanjing could be interpreted as “Swift capital”.  This bird also links China with Central Asia, the Gulf and Africa, aligned with the much-touted “One Belt, One Road” initiative to revive old trade routes.  Why not formally adopt the Beijing Swift as the official bird of the Chinese capital?  There can be no more appropriate candidate.

Potential benefits:

– Associating Beijing with a bird of endurance, elegance and global reach

– Greater public awareness about the wildlife of Beijing

– Encouragement to businesses and communities to help stem the decline of the Beijing Swift – caused by the demolition of traditional buildings – by erecting artificial nest boxes at suitable sites and encouraging the inclusion of Swift-friendly designs in new buildings

 

Idea 5: Removing the invisible killer: mist nets at China’s airports

When thousands of environmentally-minded people arrive in Beijing for the UN Conference on Biological Diversity, the first thing they will see is lines and lines of mist nets alongside the runway at Beijing Capital International Airport, many of which will hold bird corpses dangling in the wind.  China’s policy to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes is to line each runway with several kilometres of mist nets.  This method is only effective against small birds which, unless in large flocks, represent almost no risk to aircraft.  Nets at ground level are ineffective against the more significant risks associated with flocks of large birds such as geese, swans or herons.  In fact, guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) makes no mention of mist nets as a way to mitigate the risk of bird strikes.  Recommended good practice is to undertake a risk assessment at each airport to identify the unique risks from wildlife and take appropriate measures to address these specific risks.  Non-lethal methods such as managing habitat, playing distress calls, using birds of prey etc are the most effective methods.  China, with more than 300 airports, takes a general approach of simply erecting lines of mist nets.  It’s lazy and ineffective.  Could CBD be the catalyst for a review of this policy?

Potential benefits:

– stopping the unnecessary killing of millions of birds each year

– more effective management of the risk of bird strikes

– a better international image for China and Beijing

 

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With two years to go until Beijing hosts what will probably be the world’s largest governmental conference on biodiversity, there is ample time to develop a strategic plan that would make Beijing one of the world’s most wildlife-friendly cities.  Instead of “smoggy Beijing”, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to label Beijing as the capital of ecological civilisation?  These are just five ideas.  If you have more, please comment and let us know.. you never know who might be reading.

 

For a helpful general overview of the CBD process and the current status, read this article by Jonathan Watts.

 

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Snow Bunting – new for Beijing

After ten new species were added to Beijing’s avifauna in 2016, it’s getting harder and harder to find new records for China’s capital city.  However, it took only a week of 2017 before the latest addition was discovered.  On 7 January, photographer 曲利军 (Qu Lijun) snapped a group of birds at Bulaotun that he hadn’t seen before and posted the photographs to the China Birdwatching Society’s WeChat group.  The photos caused much excitement, showing the first documented record for Beijing of SNOW BUNTING.  And it wasn’t, as is so often in the case of new birds, a single vagrant but instead a flock of at least 10 birds!

2017-01-07-snow-buntings-bulaotun-qu-lijun2

Unfortunately, the birds were not seen by visiting birders the following weekend, so they have most likely moved on.  But have they gone far?  Bulaotun is on the northern edge of Miyun Reservoir, much of which is now inaccessible.. so they could easily still be in the vicinity.  Fingers crossed they are seen by more birders before the winter is out.  In the meantime, congratulations to Lijun!

Thanks to Huang Hanchen for the tip-off and to Qu Lijun for permission to post the photos on Birding Beijing.

Access To Miyun Reservoir Prohibited

It was only in May last year that I wrote about Miyun Reservoir, describing it as a world-class birding site little known by birders.  Sadly, as of last week, it appears the government has decided to prohibit access and birders have been turned away by officials.

Ever since I came to Beijing, visting Miyun Reservoir has always felt a little like trespassing..  There is an old, rusting fence that runs alongside the northern boundary of the reservoir, through which one must traverse in order to view the water.  Many panels of the fence are missing, probably the work of local fishermen and goat herders, allowing easy entry to the reservoir and the whole area is criss-crossed with vehicle tracks, testament to the traffic it has seen over the years.

Since terrorism has become a global risk, it’s always felt a little strange to be able to walk, or even drive, to the edge of Beijing’s main source of drinking water. For anyone with evil intentions, it would be relatively easy to cause havoc through contamination.  There aren’t many capital cities in the world that would allow such open access.

2013-09-01 paul and tom at miyun
Paul Holt (left) and Tom Beeke birding at Miyun Reservoir, a world-class birding site.

Birders in Beijing have been spoiled.  We have become used to visiting the shores of this vast reservoir and the top quality birding it has to offer.  Highlights in the last 3 years have included Beijing’s first Sandhill Crane, Slender-billed Gull, Bar-tailed Godwit, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and the second record of Red-throated Diver, to name a few..   And then, of course, there is the flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS that have graced the northern shores of the reservoir this winter.  With regular migrants such as Baer’s Pochard, Baikal Teal, Relict Gull, Great Bustard, White-naped Crane, Saker, Greater Spotted Eagle and Yellow-breasted Bunting, it is undoubtedly a world-class birding site.

Given that decision-making in China is opaque, it is unclear at this time whether the prohibition of access is temporary or permanent.  Time will tell.  One thing is for sure: a lack of human access to the reservoir, whilst a blow to local birders, is great news for the birds!

Jankowski’s Bunting video

As of Sunday 31 January, the small flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS Emberiza jankowskii remains at Miyun Reservoir, faithful to a relatively small area of appropriate habitat.  Their presence is providing a unique opportunity to study these little-known birds and the knowledge gained will undoubtedly add to our understanding of this endangered species and what it needs to survive.  During my most recent visit, as well as examining diet and habits, I took the opportunity to record some video.  Some of the plumages shown had never been photographed, or even described, before these birds arrived in Beijing.

In terms of sexing and ageing I believe there is an adult male and two females (unsure of age) in the first clip, and first-winter females in the second and third clips (the shape of the tail feathers is visible in some of the frames).

Yellow-breasted Bunting bucks the trend in Beijing!

If you care about birds and conservation, you will be used to bad news.  As a wise man once said, “environmental victories are temporary and the losses are permanent“.   We are losing our biodiversity at a lightning speed with some estimates putting the extinction rate at around 10,000 times the natural rate.  And it was in June this year that a scientific paper was published about the dramatic decline of up to 95% in the once super-abundant Yellow-breasted Bunting.

This quote is from the BirdLife article published at the time:

“The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting”, said Dr Johannes Kamp from the University of Münster, the lead author of the paper.

Although there is a lack of hard data about the population of Yellow-breasted Bunting, there is much anecdotal evidence of its decline, as outlined in the paper, and there can be no doubt that the contraction in its range and the reduction in numbers recorded at communal wintering sites are very real.

And it was in September 2013 that we found a bird trapper at Nanpu, on the Hebei coast, using a caged Yellow-breasted Bunting as a lure alongside some mist-nets.

2013-09-07 YBBunting and mist nets

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.
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.

So it has been with some surprise and delight that, this autumn, there have been record numbers of Yellow-breasted Buntings seen in Beijing. Definitely something to celebrate!

Here are a few recent counts:

44 on 26 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend).  Exactly double the previous Beijing record count!

14 on 29 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Jan-Erik Nilsen)

29 on 30 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend)

15 on 1 September 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Terry Townshend and Jeff Hollobaugh)

Although data are sparse, the records we have from Birdtalker (the Chinese bird record database) show no change in the species’ status in Beijing in last 10 years.   The important caveat here is that there has been much more observer coverage of good habitat this year, especially in late August (the peak period for autumn migration of this species).

Whatever the reason, we are very happy to see good numbers of this most beautiful of buntings.

Here is a photo from this autumn in Beijing and two short videos – the first of adult male singing on the breeding grounds (in Mongolia) and the second of autumn birds in Beijing.

2015-09-01 Yellow-breasted Bunting, Miyun3

Thanks to Paul Holt and Jan-Erik Nilsen for sharing thoughts and sightings of Yellow-breasted Bunting via the Birding Beijing WeChat group which contributed to this article.

The Secret Is Out!

It’s time to reveal a secret.

There is a world-class birding site, visited by very few birders, just an hour from downtown Beijing.

Its name is Miyun Reservoir.

Historically, most birders visiting Beijing have headed to the coast to visit the well-known birding spots of Beidaihe and Kuaile Dao (Happy Island).  This is understandable when one considers the observations made there between 1910-1917 by British Consul John D D La Touche, by Dane Axel Hemmingsen in the 1940s and by Dr Martin Williams, among others, in the mid-1980s.  These pioneers put northern China, and in particular the coastal town of Beidaihe, on the birding map.

And these locations have dominated the northern China birding scene ever since, with international tour companies visiting annually in May to offer their clients “up close and personal” experience of some of East Asia’s specialities, including the sought after ‘Sibes’ that cause so much excitement when they turn up as vagrants in western Europe or North America.

However, it is increasingly clear that the phenomenal migration along the East Asian flyway is not only concentrated on the coast.  It is happening on a broad front and Beijing, China’s bustling capital, is slap bang in the middle of this birding superhighway.

Until recently, coverage of Beijing’s birds can most generously be described as ‘sparse’.  Even now, with a growing young Chinese birding community, it is no more than partial.  And yet, when one considers the diversity of species (more than 460 species have been recorded in the capital), together with the numbers, it is clear that Beijing is up there with the best birding sites in China.  And, within Beijing, there is one location that stands out right now – Miyun Reservoir.  The evidence?  How about this:

– More than 50,000 Little Buntings in one morning on 26 September 2014

– More than 8,000 Horned Larks on 15 October 2014

7 species of goose: Bar-headed, (Taiga and Tundra) Bean, Greater and Lesser White-fronted, Greylag and Swan

7 species of crane recorded in the last two years: Common, Demoiselle, Hooded, Red-crowned, Sandhill, Siberian and White-naped.

– A raptor list that includes Amur Falcon, Lesser and Common Kestrels, Hobby, Saker, Peregrine, Chinese, Eurasian and Japanese Sparrowhawks, Goshawk, Booted, Golden, Greater Spotted, Eastern Imperial, Short-toed and White-tailed Eagles, Osprey, Grey-faced, ‘Eastern’, Oriental Honey and Rough-legged Buzzards, Cinereous Vulture, Black and Black-winged Kites, Eastern Marsh, Hen and Pied Harriers.

– Red-throated and Black-throated Loon, Baikal and Eurasian Teal, Baer’s and Common Pochards, Falcated, Ferruginous, Spot-billed and Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, Mallard, Pintail and Wigeon, Greater Scaup and White-winged (Stejneger’s) Scoter.

For an inland location, the shorebird list is impressive, too. Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings, Jack, Common and “Swintail” Snipe, Asian Dowitcher, Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits, Eurasian, Far Eastern and Little Curlews, Whimbrel, Common and Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Common, Curlew, Green, Marsh, Pectoral, Sharp-tailed, Terek and Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed, Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Ruff, Dunlin, Grey, Kentish, Little Ringed, Oriental and Pacific Golden Plovers, Greater Sandplover, Turnstone, Red Knot, Grey and Red-necked Phalarope and Oriental Pratincole have all been recorded.

And how about this for a bunting list:  Black-faced, Chestnut, Chestnut-eared, Common Reed, Godlewski’s, Japanese Reed, Lapland, Little, Meadow, Pallas’s Reed, Pine, Rustic, Tristram’s, Yellow-breasted, Yellow-browed and Yellow-throated.

Not to mention the cuckoos, shrikes, gulls, terns, pipits, wagtails etc

The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir.  Photo by Marie.
The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir. Photo by Marie.

 

It is not unusual in spring, especially in May, to record more than 100 species in a day.  This year Paul Holt achieved that in March!  And Jan-Erik Nilsen, a Beijing-based Swedish birder, recorded 123 species last week.

As a general birding location, it is probably THE best in the capital.

It’s so good, we can’t keep it a secret any longer.  There is now a downloadable PDF guide to Miyun Reservoir, including travel directions and a species list.

OK, that’s enough..  It’s mid-May and I have to be somewhere..  no prizes for guessing where!

 

 

 

Buff-bellied Pipits

“It’s a pity that the pipits have

No diagnostic features,

Specifically they are the least

Distinctive of God’s creatures.”

So opens a 1961 poem by British ornithologist, Beryl Patricia Hall.

Thankfully, our appreciation of pipits has matured a little since then and, in Beijing, we have 10 species on the official list: Blyth’s, Buff-belliedMeadow, Olive-backedPechora, Red-throated, Richard’s, Rosy, Tree and Water.   Rosy and Richard’s are scarce breeders and passage migrants; Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Olive-backed, Pechora and Red-throated are all passage birds; Water Pipit is a winter visitor; and Meadow (three records) and Tree Pipit (one record, photographed in the UK Ambassador’s garden in May 2013!) are vagrants.

In mid-April the passage of pipits is in full swing and, last weekend, I encountered large flocks of Buff-bellied Pipits (ssp japonicus) at Miyun Reservoir.  With a few late Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni) mixed in, it was an ideal opportunity to get to grips with this subtle and underrated species.

Here are some photos that show typical japonicus Buff-bellied Pipits in breeding plumage.

2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun8
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015. Note the buffy colour of the underparts, lacking a contrasting white belly, wing bars, complete eye-ring and relatively pale legs (compared with Water Pipit).
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun6
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus. Note the dark spotting, not streaking, on the mantle.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun4
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015. On this bird the streaking on the underparts extends onto the flanks. Also note the fine bill.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun3
Fine crown streaking is also a feature of Buff-bellied.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun
The eye-ring is at least as prominent as the supercilium, a good feature of Buff-bellied vs Water Pipit.
2014-11-30 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus2, Shidu
Buff-bellied is scarce in winter in Beijing. This one was at Shidu in late November. At this season, more heavily streaked and lacking the buff underparts but eye-ring still prominent.
2012-10-17 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Ma Chang
This is a bird from October. Note, in particular, the prominence of the eye-ring compared with the supercilium.

And here are a few Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni), the most likely confusion species.

2012-02-11 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni
Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Shidu, February 2012. Note the relative prominence of the supercilium vs the eye-ring. Also much less streaked underparts and dark legs.
2012-04-21 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Ma Chang7
This bird from 21 April 2012. Relatively unstreaked underparts, greyish head, relatively prominent supercilium and dark legs all point to Water Pipit.
2012-04-21 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Ma Chang
A very clean breeding plumage Water Pipit from April 2012. Even without taking into account the very clean underparts (almost never shown on japonicus Buff-bellied), it shows a greyish-tinged head, prominent supercilium and dark legs.

Of course, another good indicator of ID is call.  The calls of Water and Buff-bellied Pipits are similar but with practice can be differentiated.  To my ears Buff-bellied sounds slightly down-slurred compared with Water Pipit’s slightly up-slurred call note.  You can hear the calls of Buff-bellied Pipit here and Water Pipit here.  What do YOU think?