The Mongolia Cuckoo Project

Followers of Birding Beijing’s Twitter feed (@BirdingBeijing) will know that Team Cuckoo (Chris Hewson of BTO, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley and Terry Townshend) has been in Mongolia, partnering with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) to begin a new cuckoo tracking project.

The Mongolia Cuckoo Project is a partnership between the WSCC and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), facilitated by Birding Beijing and supported by the Oriental Bird Club.

The project builds on the success of the Beijing Cuckoo Project and aims to discover more about the wintering grounds and migration routes of cuckoos in East Asia, as well as engaging the public through naming and following the birds.

From 5-8 June, the team was based at Khurkh Bird Banding Station in northern Mongolia, an 8-hour drive from the capital Ulan Bator. Here, Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, the manager of the ringing station, works with volunteers to ring migratory birds each spring and autumn. The site is stunning – a lush valley with a tributary of the river Onon at its heart, nestled between hills of rolling grassland just south of the Russian border.

The Khurkh Bird Ringing Station seen from adjacent hills
The ger at Khurkh Bird Ringing Station alongside our trusty “go anywhere” Russian vehicle.
Young volunteers from Sweden and Singapore were manning the ringing station during our visit.

On arrival, we were told by the ringers that they had just caught a probable ORIENTAL CUCKOO in the nets. Without hearing it sing, this species is tricky to separate from COMMON CUCKOO. However, using criteria relating to the number of pale spots on the underside of the primaries and the colour and markings on the innermost underwing coverts, it can be done. Sure enough, the bird the ringers had caught was an ORIENTAL CUCKOO and, being unaware of any of this species being tracked before, we fitted a transmitter to this individual and released it.

The BTO’s cuckoo expert, Chris Hewson, with the ORIENTAL CUCKOO immediately before release

There are records of ORIENTAL CUCKOO from SE Asia and Australia in the northern winter and, intriguingly, according to HBW there is a record of a specimen from Zambia…! Assuming it stays healthy, it’ll be fascinating to see the movements of this bird.

The same day, after heavy rain for several hours in the afternoon, we caught and tagged a male COMMON CUCKOO in the early evening, just a couple of hundred metres from the camp.

On our second full day, the weather was cold, windy and wet for several hours but as soon as the rain stopped, we were out to set up the nets further along the valley.. and within five minutes had caught an incredible five cuckoos!

Setting up the nets

One was a beautiful female ‘hepatic’ (rufous morph) bird, unfortunately too small to carry a tag (there are strict guidelines about the relative weight of the tag and the bird’s body weight to ensure the tag effect is as small as possible), as well as another small ORIENTAL CUCKOO. The other three were good-sized male COMMON CUCKOOS; we fitted tags to two of them and released the third bird after fitting a metal ring (the tagging process can take 30-40 minutes, so we didn’t want the third bird to be waiting around for too long).

This hepatic female was released after being fitted with a metal ring.

After processing these birds, we set off to the local town of Binder to participate in a crane festival. Here we met up with George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, and joined in the celebration. The art exhibition produced by the local children was magical. Despite encouragement, we couldn’t persuade BTO’s Chris Hewson to represent Team Cuckoo in the Mongolian wrestling competition…!

The visit to the town provided us with an opportunity to visit the local school to speak with the students about the cuckoo project and to invite them to name two of the birds. The students, who have recently set up an “Eco Club”, were impressively knowledgeable about their local birds and were excited to be part of the project.. They quickly put forward several names and, after a vote, decided on two – “нүүдэлчин” (English translation: Nomad) and “Онон” (English translation: Onon), after the local river that runs through the town. The students are looking forward to following “their” birds over the next few weeks, months and hopefully years.

Students put forward ten names
Putting the suggested names to the vote
The two most popular names

Day three saw us travel around 30 minutes from the camp to a small copse on a hillside and no sooner had we arrived than we heard two male COMMON CUCKOOS singing. After setting up the nets, again we quickly caught one of the males. Cuckoo number five was ‘in the bag’ after only two and half days in the field.

Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg releasing the fifth cuckoo to be fitted with a tag at Khurkh

And so, it is with much excitement and expectation that we can introduce the five Mongolian Cuckoos we’ll be tracking..

Names will be given to the currently un-named three cuckoos over the next few weeks.

As with the Beijing Cuckoo Project, we’ve created a special web page which will be updated regularly with the cuckoo’s movements. Already, there’s been a big move by one of the five! Check out the page to find out details. You can also follow their progress via Twitter (@BirdingBeijing).

“Team Cuckoo” would like to express huge thanks to the Mongolian team, especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Batmunkh Davaasuren and Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, to the British Trust for Ornithology and to the Oriental Bird Club and Mr Dick Newell for making the project possible.

We can be sure that these avian travellers will surprise, impress, enthral and, most of all, inspire us. We can’t wait to learn more about these incredible birds.

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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.

Jankowski’s Bunting Survey In Mongolia Draws A Blank

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  After the incredibly successful project to track the migration route of Beijing’s Swifts, and the unprecedented media coverage including articles in the UK’s Guardian and Xinhua (one of China’s largest media agencies), there was barely time to catch up on sleep before I boarded a plane to Ulaanbaatar to participate in a survey of remote southeastern Mongolia to look for Jankowski’s Bunting (栗斑腹鹀, Emberiza jankowskii).

2015-05-30 Mongolia survey team
The survey team (from left to right): Baatargal Otgonbayar “Oggy” (driver, spotter, photographer and all round good guy), Yann Muzika (The Wilderness Alternative), Yu Yat-tung (Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, Huiga (driver and excellent chef!), Vivian Fu (Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, Wu Lan (China Birdwatching Society), Terry and Dr Tseveenmydag Natsagdorj from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.

The status of Jankowski’s Bunting is precarious.  It is clinging on at just a handful of sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and Jilin Province.  However, the sighting of a single bird in southeastern Mongolia in September 2013 raised hopes that there could be a previously undiscovered population in this remote and under-birded part of the country and a plan was devised to put together a team to survey this area in early June.  Hopes were high.  The area was close to the known sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and would likely contain areas of similar habitat – grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot bushes –  preferred by Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia.

The team, consisting of representatives of the China Birdwatching Society, the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences plus Yann Muzika (of Sillem’s Mountain Finch rediscovery fame) and myself arrived in Ulaanbaatar full of optimism.

With the invaluable help of Nyambayar Batbayar, Director of the Wildlife Science And Conservation Center of Mongolia, we had planned a circular route first taking us southeast from Ulaanbaatar to some remote protected areas in the south close to the Chinese border, from where we would head east and then north to another section of the Chinese border, rarely visited by anyone let alone birders.  We were to camp wild and drive more than 2,500 kilometres in search of our target bird.

The journey was an adventure that took us through some stunning Mongolian landscapes with the grassland varying in character every day and the spectacular light at sunset and sunrise creating dynamic landscapes that changed in form every few seconds.

Mongolian Grasslands at sunset2
Sunset at our camp… image taken with an iPhone and unaltered.

tents at sunset on Mongolian grassland
Here we woke to singing Siberian Rubythroats, Asian Short-toed Larks and Pallas’s Buntings.

Happy Vivian
Vivian wanted to live in this place forever…

And the birds were brilliant…  We recorded 180 species including some spectacular encounters with breeding Oriental Plovers and Saker Falcons, displaying Great Bustards and Pied Harriers, singing Yellow-breasted Buntings and Chinese Bush Warblers and a gezillion larks – Mongolian Larks were omnipresent with Greater Short-toed, Asian Short-toed and Horned Larks also in plentiful supply.

2015-06-04 Oriental Plover with chick, Mongolia
Oriental Plover with chick by the roadside.

At one of our camping sites, given the recent publicity surrounding the calamitous decline of the Yellow-breasted Bunting, it was poignant to wake up to the song of this beautiful but now endangered bird.

The Moon
Views of the moon, planets and stars were superb in the crystal clear air. We enjoyed ‘scoping the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Venus.  This photo taken with iPhone through the Swarovski ATX95 telescope (with adaptor).

Sadly, despite our best efforts, we drew a blank with Jankowski’s Bunting and, even taking into account the impact of a destructive fire that ripped through the area in April, we found very few suitable sites, all of which were small and fragmented.  Due to a current fire in the far southeast, we were unable to reach potentially the best habitat and it is just possible that some Jankowski’s Buntings may exist here.

Despite our disappointment at not finding Jankowski’s Bunting in Mongolia, negative results are just as important and positive results and the existing known sites in Inner Mongolia now take on even greater importance. If Jankowski’s Bunting is to survive we must re-double our efforts to protect these birds by continuing our engagement with the local government, farmers and communities.  That work begins now.

Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Yu Yat-tung, Yann Muzika and Wu Lan for their great company on the adventure and a special thanks to our Mongolian hosts, Nyambayar, Dr Tseveen, Oggy and Huiga, all of whom put in an enormous amount of work to make our survey possible.

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.