In Celebration of Shorebirds

In June 2017 the Hebei Provincial Forestry Department, Hebei Luannan County Government, the Paulson Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the aim of protecting one of the most important sites along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – Nanpu coastal wetland, near Tangshan in Hebei Province.  Nanpu is a site Beijing-based birders know well.  The spectacular concentrations of shorebirds, not to mention the world-class visible migration of passerines, makes it one of the best birding sites within easy reach of the capital.

Red Knot is one of the species for which Nanpu is a vital stopover site.

That agreement was one of a series of recent positive announcements from China about the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  In early 2017, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  I reported at the time that, although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government.  And, should these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

More recently, in January 2018, the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on all ‘business-related’ land reclamation along China’s coast and issued an order to restore illegally-reclaimed land.  Already, at Yancheng, sea-walls are being removed to allow the tide once again to feed the mudflats.  In March 2018, a major government reorganisation saw environment and biodiversity elevated as government priorities and management of all protected areas being brought under one ministry.  These developments are enough to put a smile on even the most pessimistic conservationist’s face!

And so it was with a spring in my step that last weekend I was fortunate to participate in a visit to Nanpu with a delegation that consisted of the mightily impressive, and growing, group of scientists – both Chinese and international – working to study shorebirds along the flyway and some VIPs including Hank and Wendy Paulson of The Paulson Institute and Pulitizer-nominated writer Scott Weidensaul.

It was such a joy to see so many young and extremely capable Chinese scientists – Zhu Bingrun, Lei Ming, Mu Tong to name a few – contributing such a huge amount to our knowledge about the importance to migratory birds of the intertidal mudflats and salt ponds and, being led by Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, they are in great hands.

As much as the scientific data is necessary to help make the case for conservation, it is not sufficient.  Also needed is a champion who can make the case at senior levels of government and that’s where Hank and Wendy Paulson come into their own.  With Hank’s unrivalled experience and access in China, underpinned by the work of his institute, including the Coastal Wetlands Blueprint Project, they have been instrumental in engaging with local governors and the Chinese leadership about the importance of the intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and convincing them of their value.  Together, it’s a formidable team.

2016-04-29 Asian Dowitchers, Nanpu
Asian Dowitcher is one of the species for which Nanpu is an important staging site.

We enjoyed so many stimulating discussions about the latest research, the progress of the work to create Nanpu Nature Reserve and, of course, shorebirds!  And thanks to the advice of the Aussie shorebird researchers (Chris Hassall, Adrian Boyle and Matt Slaymaker are back for their 10th year to monitor the Australian-banded birds!), we were on site in perfect time to witness the most amazing spectacle of RED and GREAT KNOTS commuting from their roosting sites in the ponds to the newly-exposed mud on the falling tide.  Seeing these shorebirds, most of which were in full breeding plumage, was something to behold and there were gasps of awe as the flocks, sometimes numbering thousands of birds, wheeled around before settling just a few metres in front of us in stunning early morning light.  It was the perfect reminder of just why protecting these mudflats is so important – the world would be a much poorer place without these incredible travellers.

There is no doubt that the intertidal mudflats are a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and they have the potential to attract thousands of visitors each year, as well as endearing a sense of pride for local people and, indeed, the whole country.  With national level policy seemingly moving in the right direction, let’s hope the local progress at Nanpu will act as an example for other sites along the Flyway.  Huge thanks to Hank and Wendy Paulson, Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, Scott Weidensaul, Zhu Bingrun, Mu Tong, Lei Ming, Wang Jianmin, Dietmar Grimm, Shi Jianbin, Rose Niu, Adrian Boyle, Chris Hassell, Matt Slaymaker and Kathrine Leung for making it such an enjoyable trip!

Video: RED and GREAT KNOTS at Nanpu, May 2018.

 

Title image: (l-r) Scott Wiedensaul, Professor Zhang Zhengwang, Professor Theunis Piersma, Wendy Paulson, Hank Paulson, Terry Townshend.  Photo by Zhu Bingrun.

 

About Nanpu

Located in Luannan County of Hebei Province, Nanpu wetland consists of natural intertidal mudflats, aquaculture ponds, and salt pans. Its unique geographic location and wetland resources make it one of the most important stopover sites for migratory water birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), including rare and endangered species such as Red Knot, Great Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and Nordmann’s Greenshank.  Each year, as many as 350,000 water birds stage and refuel here.  Among the water birds at the Nanpu wetland, the population of twenty-two species exceeds one percent of their global population sizes or their population sizes along the EAAF, making it a wetland of international importance according to criteria determined by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation of wetlands and their resources.

Nanpu wetland is facing many threats, such as reclamation, over-fishing and invasion of spartina, a rapidly spreading grass that suffocates intertidal ecosystems.  Studies show that there has been a steady decrease in population of some migratory water birds that depend highly on Nanpu wetland for refueling. For instance, over the past decade, the population of Red Knots that overwinter in New Zealand and Australia along the EAAF has been declining at an annual rate of nine percent. IUCN claims that if no further conservation measures are taken, few Red Knots might remain ten years from now.

 

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The Yellow Sea: The Highest Conservation Priority In East Asia

In the fun company of Paul Holt and Marie Louise, I have just made my 15th visit to Nanpu, a small town situated on the coast of the Bohai Bay in Hebei Province, China.  At this time of year the outskirts of this unassuming settlement play host to one of nature’s most incredible spectacles – the migration of millions of shorebirds from their Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere, many travelling as far as Australia and New Zealand.  It is truly awe-inspiring to see, and hear, flocks of shorebirds excitedly arriving on the newly exposed mud on the falling tide and there’s nowhere better  in the world than China’s east coast to witness this stunning scene…. Just listen to ABC presenter Ann Jones and Chinese birder and good friend, Bai Qingquan, describe this phenomenon in this short clip from the excellent BBC World Service/ABC radio series.

A Google Earth image showing the location of Nanpu, in the Bohai Bay.
A Google Earth image showing the location of Nanpu, in the Bohai Bay.

We enjoyed a brilliant two days with 33 species of shorebird logged, including flocks of long-distance migrants, many of which were still in fine breeding plumage, including GREAT KNOT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, GREY PLOVER, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, the ‘Near Threatened’ ASIAN DOWITCHER and even a single ‘Endangered’ NORDMANN’S GREENSHANK.  My poor quality video and photos simply don’t do justice to these birds.

2016-07-28 Asian Dowitcher juvenile, Nanpu
Juvenile ASIAN DOWITCHER, Nanpu, 28 July 2016

As we were travelling back to Beijing, I checked the news on my smartphone.  The headline was about the Rio Olympics, a forward look to two weeks of celebrating the astonishing physical feats of the world’s best athletes – from 100m sprinters to marathon runners.  The parallel with the shorebirds was striking.  Take the Bar-tailed Godwit.  One population of this species winters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes the return journey directly, a gob-smacking non-stop 11,000 km over the Pacific Ocean.  According to scientists, this journey is the equivalent of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more then seven days!  Along the way, the birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain in Alaska. And before they embark on this epic journey, they even shrink their digestive organs, superfluous weight for a non-stop 7-day flight. Try that, Usain!

Bolt v BT Godwit
The best athlete in the world: Bar-tailed Godwit or Usain Bolt?  Bolt reaches speeds of around 48km/h, with an average of 38km/h, for under 10 seconds in the 100m sprint.  The Godwit’s effort is the equivalent of running at 70km/h non-stop for 7 days!

Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has fallen sharply, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today.  And the Bar-tailed Godwit is only one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the so-called Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea).  The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

So what is the reason for the decline?  Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team have, through years of painstaking studies, proved what many birders have long suspected – that the main cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea.  Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat.  If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.

The problem, in China at least, is a combination of local economics and national regulations.  The coastal region of China is home to 40% of the country’s population, and produces roughly 60% of national GDP.  Local governments receive much of their revenue through land sales and the land that demands the highest price is agricultural land close to major cities.  However, to ensure China’s food security is preserved, there is a national regulation (the Law of Land Management) stipulating that there must be no net loss of agricultural land.  So any farmland sold for development must be offset by land elsewhere being allocated for agriculture.  The relatively cheap reclamation of mudflats is, therefore, a profitable way for Provinces to be able to sell high-value land for development whilst conforming with the “no net loss” rule by allocating much of the reclaimed land for aquaculture.  In the absence of a law protecting nationally-important ecosystems, local priorities rule.  And, although large-scale land reclamation projects, at least in theory, require national level approval, these rules are easily circumvented by splitting large projects into several, smaller, constituent parts.  With a booming economy over the last few decades, resulting in high demand for land, the tidal mudflats are suffering death by a thousand cuts.

In South Korea, it’s a similar story.  Perhaps surprisingly, it’s North Korea’s relatively undeveloped coastline that could provide the last refuge for the dwindling populations of these birds.

So, what can be done?  Ultimately, what’s needed is greater protection for, and more effective management of, nationally important ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, not only for migratory birds but also to avoid undermining China’s basic ecological security, such as providing fishery products, fresh water and flood control.  That will require a combination of new laws, amendments to existing laws, regulations and greater public awareness.  There is some great work on this, initiated by the Paulson Institute in partnership with China’s State Forestry Administration and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that makes some compelling recommendations.

In parallel to these recommendations, one idea is to secure nomination of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion as a shared World Heritage Site between China and North and South Korea.  The concept is based on the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site, a so-called ‘serial’ nomination of linked sites across three countries.  Initiated by The Netherlands and Germany in 2009, with Denmark joining in 2014, this World Heritage Site is based in large part on its unique importance for migratory waterbirds.  Whilst World Heritage Site status wouldn’t mean automatic protection for the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, it would give it greater national and international recognition based on its significance for migratory shorebirds along the world’s largest and most important flyway.  That must be a good thing.

More immediately there is much that must be done to raise awareness about the importance of these areas for migratory shorebirds, as well as local livelihoods – vital work if the conservation community is to have a chance of influencing local governments.   Whenever I speak about migratory shorebirds in China, without exception, people are amazed by the journeys these birds undertake and they are enthused to do something to help.  Most are simply unaware that the Yellow Sea coast lies at the heart of the flyway.  The good news is that there is now an increasing number of local birdwatching and conservation groups in many of China’s coastal provinces engaging local governments and doing what they can to save their local sites. There are grassroots organisations in China working hard to promote environmental education, not only with schools but also the general public.  And there is a growing band of young Chinese scientists studying shorebird migration along the Yellow Sea.  These groups fill me with great optimism about China’s future conservation community.

Internationally, organisations such as BirdLife, including their superb China Programme team – Simba Chan and Vivian Fu – are working with groups such as the Global Flyway Network, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, as well as Professor Theunis Piersma and his dedicated team.  Together, they are advancing the concept of the World Heritage Site with the UN, governments and local groups.  At the same time, I believe it is incumbent on us all to be Ambassadors for these birds, to celebrate their lives and to do what we can to promote awareness about their incredible journeys.

The tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are one of China’s treasures, alongside the Great Wall, but they are in peril.  Affording them robust protection and effective management is the highest conservation priority in east Asia and it’s a race against time.

Wouldn’t it be something if, alongside the rolling coverage of the Olympics, state TV and radio profiled the most impressive athletes of all – the shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway?

 

References and resources:

BIRDS OF THE YELLOW SEA – datavisualization of migration routes by 422 South on Vimeo.  See URL: https://vimeo.com/150776396

BBC World Service/ABC Radio series on the East Asian Flyway, 2016.  See URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wpkd8

Saemangeum on Birds Korea.  See URL: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-Mainpage.shtml

Why North Korea Is A Safe Haven For Birds, BBC, 2016.  See URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36533469

The Paulson Institute Blueprint of Coastal Wetland Conservation and Management in China, 2015.  See URL: http://www.paulsoninstitute.org/news/2015/10/19/paulson-institute-and-chinese-partners-publish-blueprint-of-coastal-wetland-conservation-and-management-in-china/

Global Flyway Network: see URL: http://globalflywaynetwork.com.au/

East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP): See URL: http://www.eaaflyway.net/

Photo of Usain Bolt “Bolt celebrating at the 2013 London Anniversary Games” by J Brichto used under license from Creative Commons.

Bolt’s speed: see URL: http://running.competitor.com/2014/02/junk-miles/6-animals-faster-than-usain-bolt_95078

Shorebirding at Nanpu, 13-15 August 2014

This week I visited Nanpu with Jennifer Leung and Ben Wielstra.  This site, on the Hebei coast just 2.5 hours from Beijing, offers world class shorebirding.  With tens of thousands of waders, thousands of marsh terns and some rare East Asian specialities such as RELICT and SAUNDERS’S GULLS and ASIAN DOWITCHER, this site is hard to beat.  Throw in some visible migration and the passerine migrant magnet of the tiny “Magic Wood” and it’s a wonderful place to spend a few days birding.

Here is a sample of just how many birds are on show here at this time of the year…

One of the most abundant shorebirds is the SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER which can be found on the settling pools, the banks of tidal creeks and on the mudflats themselves.  Of the 1000s seen over the visit, we saw only two juveniles.  This one is an adult.

Adult SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, Nanpu, 14 August 2014
Adult SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, Nanpu, 14 August 2014

The spectacle of 1000s of waders arriving at the mudflats, as the mud becomes exposed on the falling tide, is superb…  I counted 834 GREAT KNOT on the 14th and, at a different site, over 700 on 15th.. including a couple of colour-flagged birds with individual engravings.

Here is a short video of some of the GREAT KNOT shortly after they arrived at the first exposed mud.  The sharp-eyed will notice one of the birds is colour-flagged with a combination of black over white on the upper right leg.

One of the GREAT KNOT sported a yellow flag with the letters “UWE”.  On return to Beijing I reported it to the Aussie shorebirders and, within minutes, I had received a reply with the individual history of this bird.  Our sighting was the first of this individual outside Australia…

Banding of “UWE”

06/03/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (-18.00, 122.37)  Australia  06313620  (UWE) Aged 2+ 

Resighting UWE

03/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

12/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

13/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

01/11/2011 Minton’s Straight  (-17.98, 122.35)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

16/12/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell

18/12/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell

19/02/2013 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell

20/12/2013 Minton’s Straight  (-17.98, 122.35)  Australia  Chris Hassell

14/08/2014 Nan Pu, Bohai Bay  (39.04, 118.36)  China (mainland)  Terry Townshend, Jennifer Leung & Ben Wielstra

Among the large numbers of GREAT KNOT were some RED KNOT and this photo shows the two species together, allowing a direct comparison.  Note the size difference plus the difference in underpart markings, bill length and shape.

Great Knot with Red Knot, Nanpu, 15 August 2014
Great Knot with Red Knot, Nanpu, 15 August 2014

One of Nanpu’s specialities is the RELICT GULL.  Although it’s primarily a wintering location, a few non-breeders remain all year round and it’s possible to see this species at any time of the year.  Right now, the breeding birds are returning to the coast, along with a few first year juveniles.  We saw at least three of this year’s young amongst more than 100 of these beautiful gulls.  Here is an adult just beginning to moult out of breeding plumage:

Although Nanpu is primarily a shorebird site, its location on the east China coast means it is also an excellent place to witness visible migration.  Even though our visit was in mid-August, we witnessed a nice passage of RICHARD’S PIPITS and YELLOW WAGTAILS and the “Magic Wood” – a tiny patch of trees and shrubs in the middle of the vast open area of ponds – hosted at least 8 EASTERN CROWNED and 6 ARCTIC WARBLERS as well as YELLOW-RUMPED, ASIAN BROWN, GREY-STREAKED and DARK-SIDED FLYCATCHERS.  I can only imagine what this newly discovered ‘oasis’ will be like in September and October.

A nice surprise was this adult male DAURIAN STARLING, a scarce passage migrant in the Beijing/Hebei area.

And an even bigger surprise was an unseasonal PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE that flew backwards and forwards just inland from the sea wall and settled on some rough ground between some ‘nodding donkeys’.  Bizarre.

All in all it was a brilliant few days.  The full species list is below.  Big thanks to Jennifer and Ben for their great company…  itching to get back already!

Jennifer scanning waders at Nanpu.
Jennifer scanning waders on one of the pools at Nanpu.
Ben watching GREAT KNOT from the bridge at Nanpu
Ben watching GREAT KNOT from the bridge at Nanpu

Species List

 
Common Pheasant – 1 juvenile near the seawall on 15th
Common Shelduck – 1 juvenile on 14th
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Little Grebe – 3 on the pond at the sea wall by the police building
Black-crowned Night Heron – 4 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Chinese Pond Heron – 1 in flight on 13th and 1 on 15th
Grey Heron – 6
Little Egret – 14
Chinese Egret – 2 on 14th near the bridge where the tidal channel runs into the sea and one on 15th
Great Cormorant – 287 flew in to roost on the ponds at 1745 on 14th
Common Kestrel – 2 (both females)
Amur Falcon – 2 (both adult females)
Black-winged Stilt – not counted but 1000s
Pied Avocet – not counted but 1000s
Grey Plover – 27 on 15th
Little Ringed Plover – c75
Kentish Plover – c500
Lesser Sand Plover – 1 in summer plumage from the bridge at the seawall
Greater Sand Plover – 2 adults in winter plumage on the ponds
Asian Dowitcher – at least 15, including 5 feeding on the falling tide on 15th
Black-tailed Godwit – c700 on 14th
Bar-tailed Godwit – c80
Whimbrel – 23
Eurasian Curlew – 14
Far Eastern Curlew – 29
Spotted Redshank – not counted but estimate of several hundred
Common Redshank – much less common than Spotted bt still 50+
Marsh Sandpiper – 1000s
Common Greenshank – 18
Green Sandpiper – 2
Wood Sandpiper –
Grey-tailed Tattler – 3
Terek Sandpiper – 8
Common Sandpiper – 16
Ruddy Turnstone – 14
Great Knot – 832 counted on 14th from the bridge.  700+ counted on morning of 15th from east of the oil terminal causeway…
Red Knot – at least 30 in total
Red-necked Stint – c40 (never found a substantial concentration of stints)
Temminck’s Stint – 1
Long-toed Stint – 5
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper – 1000s
Curlew Sandpiper – 20
Dunlin – 8
Broad-billed Sandpiper – 3
Ruff – 1 ad male
Red-necked Phalarope – 1 adult (male?)
Black-tailed Gull – 160
Mongolian Gull – 2 adults
Relict Gull – 105 counted on 14th
Black-headed Gull – c300-400
Saunders’s Gull – 6
Common Tern –
Little Tern – 38
Gull-billed Tern – 18
White-winged Tern – 1000s
Pallas’s Sandgrouse – 1 flew back and forth over the marshy area adjacent to the sea wall (viewed from the dirt track).  Landed on the rough ground amongst the ‘nodding donkeys’ but not seen on the deck.
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3 around Nanpu
Spotted Dove – 1 in Nanpu
Pacific Swift – 11 flew west along the sea wall on 15th
Common Kingfisher – 1 heard at “Magic Wood”
Brown Shrike – 17 along the roadside
Black Drongo – 1 at the “ice cream” village
Azure-winged Magpie – 4 around Nanpu
Common Magpie – 12 along the roadside
Sand Martin – 12 along the seawall on 15th
Barn Swallow – 1000s
Red-rumped Swallow – 46 counted but many more present
Zitting Cisticola – 6 along the sea wall on 15th
Chinese Bulbul – 3
Thick-billed Warbler – 2 (one in “Magic Wood” on 14th and one along the seawall on 15th)
Arctic Warbler –  at least 6 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Eastern Crowned Warbler – at least 8 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Reed Parrotbill – 6
White-eye sp – one migrated along the sea wall, seen from the bridge, on 14th
Daurian Starling – one adult male along the roadside with White-cheeked Starlings on 14th
White-cheeked Starling – 8
Dark-sided Flycatcher – 1 adult and 1 juvenile probably this species at “Magic Wood”
Grey-streaked Flycatcher – 1 adult at “Magic Wood”
Asian Brown Flycatcher – 1 adult at “Magic Wood”
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – an adult male and an adult female at “Magic Wood” on 15th
Tree Sparrow – not counted but numerous
Yellow Wagtail – 12 on 14th and 15 on 15th
Grey Wagtail – 2 by the sea wall seen from the bridge on 14th
White Wagtail – 2
Richard’s Pipit – 28 on 14th from the bridge and 41 on 15th from the dirt track – all migrating
Blyth’s Pipit – 2 possibly this species migrating (a call similar to Richard’s plus an extra “chip”)
Yellow-breasted Bunting – two possibly this species (yellowish buntings) migrating on 14th

An Educational Sandplover

During my aborted trip to the Hebei coast last week, one of the birds with which I enjoyed a close encounter was this juvenile sandplover.  The recovery from my appendectomy gave me some time to examine the photos and video to try to work out the identification.  I found this bird tricky.  It wasn’t particularly long-legged, the ‘bulge’ on the culmen wasn’t very pronounced (suggesting Lesser) but the overall gait – including the horizontal stance – suggested Greater.  I was confused.  So I sent this image to Dave Bakewell who has lots of experience with sandplovers and has written extensively about them on his excellent Dig Deep blog.

A juvenile Sandplover at Nanpu, Hebei Province, 2 August 2014.  But which species?
A juvenile Sandplover at Nanpu, Hebei Province, 2 August 2014. But which species?

His view is that this bird is a juvenile Greater.  Why?  This is what he said:

“Not surprised you are struggling with this one! I do find that leg colour is more reliable as a feature for juvs than adults. And, although the bill may not be fully grown (affecting the proportion of the swollen culmen), I do find the tip shape very helpful – slender and more pointed on GSP and blunter on LSP. By now you will know what I think it is! Despite the apparent dumpy, short-legged, round-headed shape, I think this is a very young juv GSP.”

Just when I thought I was getting to grips with sandplovers, I encounter a bird that makes me think again…  and that’s what makes birding such a brilliant hobby – always so much to learn!

Here is some video of the same bird, just edited from footage I took last week.

Please let me know what YOU think!

EDIT: Dave Bakewell kindly sent me a link to a similar-aged juvenile Lesser Sandplover (of the atrifons group).  You can see it here.  It’s a darker plumaged bird overall with noticeably darker legs, darker centres to the coverts and showing a subtly different bill shape.

Asian Dowitchers

Early August is a great time to see a range of east Asian shorebirds on the coast of China.  So last Saturday I planned to make a 2-day trip to check out Nanpu, a vast and featureless area of salt works and ponds to the south of Tangshan in Hebei Province that hosts hundreds of thousands of waders in spring and autumn.

I woke a little earlier than usual with mild abdominal pain.  I put it down to the particularly spicy curry I had consumed on the Friday evening, popped a couple of paracetamol and set off.  There was no way a little stomach pain was going to stop me driving the 2.5 hours to see 100,000+ waders on the coast…

As my journey progressed I was excited to see the air and cloud clearing – having started as a smoggy and cloudy day, Saturday turned into a beautifully clear, blue sky day.

On arrival I slowly drove the long road towards the coast, checking the roadside ponds.  I was buoyed by a beautiful BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER in amongst the many SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS, KENTISH PLOVERS and BLACK-WINGED STILTS.

I then found a superb pond filled with mostly BLACK-TAILED GODWITS, MARSH SANDPIPERS and SPOTTED REDSHANKS.  As I carefully scanned, I found a group of ASIAN DOWITCHERS, a regular but fairly scarce migrant.  I counted 22, 21 adults and one juvenile, in a small area.  By now my abdominal pain was worsening and I was considering whether to go to a local hotel to rest or to drive back to Beijing.  Whilst I was deciding what to do, I took the opportunity to record some video of the ASIAN DOWITCHERS.

After making this recording I decided to head back to Beijing; if I was going to be ill, I would much rather be in my apartment in Beijing than in a low-grade hotel in a small Chinese town.  I was glad I did.  When I reached my apartment late on Saturday evening, I could hardly stand up due to the pain.  I called a friend and he took me to the Emergency Room of my local hospital where, after a series of tests and a CT scan, I was diagnosed with acute appendicitis.  Just a few hours later I was in the recovery room after my appendectomy, feeling glad that my appendix didn’t decide to misbehave in some remote part of the developing world!

Shorebirding at Nanpu and more illegal trapping

At the Beijing birders meet-up we arranged for a group trip to Nanpu, near Tangshan in Hebei Province.  In total, 15 of us – both ex-pats and locals – spent the weekend at this world-class site and it was a superb trip – great fun with lots of birds!

2013-08-21 Birds
The backdrop may not be pretty but the birding is spectacular at Nanpu.

Perhaps the best single bird in terms of rarity was an ORIENTAL STORK that came in off the sea.  And amongst the other highlights were impressive numbers of shorebirds with 4,700 SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS and 2,325 DUNLIN, a single RUFF (rare here), five juvenile RED-NECKED PHALAROPES, at least six first-year SAUNDERS’S and up to 80 RELICT GULLS and decent numbers of passerines moving down the coast.  High counts included 54 BLACK-NAPED ORIOLES (including a single flock of 23 birds!), 100 DUSKY WARBLERS, 300 SIBERIAN STONECHATS, up to 150 RICHARD’S PIPITS, two BLYTH’S PIPITS, two PECHORA PIPITS and six YELLOW-BROWED BUNTINGS.

A typically thorough full report by Paul Holt can be downloaded here: Birding coastal Tangshan, Hebei 7 & 8 September 2013

Per shorebirding at Nanpu.
Per checking out the waders on a roadside pond at Nanpu.
This is "EVA" the Bar-tailed Godwit.  Colour-flagging of migratory shorebirds helps researchers to better understand the routes these birds take and the stopover sites they use which, in turn informs conservation measures.  You can read about EVA's history in the trip report.
This is “EVA” the Bar-tailed Godwit. Colour-flagging of migratory shorebirds helps researchers to better understand the routes these birds take and the stopover sites they use which, in turn informs conservation measures. You can read about EVA’s history in the trip report.
Juvenile Red-necked Stint.  Beautiful birds!
Juvenile Red-necked Stint. Beautiful birds!
Gull-billed Tern.
Gull-billed Tern.

It was hot at Nanpu and, fortunately, there is a small village where one can purchase ice creams!  I can thoroughly recommend the ‘traditional flavour’ ice lollies..  delicious (even though I am not sure of what exactly they taste!).  The locals here make their living from the mudflats, where they harvest the shellfish and shrimps.  Here are a few maintaining their nets.

Local ladies maintaining the shrimp nets
Local ladies maintaining the shrimp nets

And in the early mornings, our 0500 starts were made (slightly) easier by the delicious bao zi (steamed dumplings) that were on sale for the equivalent of 5p each…

Jan-Erik and Andrew browsing the local bao zi stall.
Jan-Erik and Andrew browsing the local bao zi stall.

At the coast, where passerine migration was most impressive, we unfortunately encountered more illegal bird trapping activity.  From the car, Paul heard a Yellow-breasted Bunting singing and we stopped to investigate.  We very quickly saw a line of mist nets in the grass close by.  The poacher had set up an elaborate line of nets accompanied by caged songbirds, clearly designed to lure in wild birds.  The caged birds included Common Rosefinch, Yellow-breasted and Yellow-browed Buntings – three species that were clearly moving at this time of year.

2013-09-07 YBBunting and mist nets

A male Common Rosefinch strategically placed to lure in wild birds.
A male Common Rosefinch strategically placed to lure in wild 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.

In the nets we found alive 2 Common Rosefinches plus Yellow-browed, Arctic and Dusky Warblers, which we promptly released. But it was too late for 4 Brown Shrikes which had fallen victim to this cruel practice.

The poacher soon arrived (claiming that the nets were his friend’s and not his – yeah right).  We told him firmly that this was illegal and that we would be taking photos and reporting him to the Hebei Forestry Administration.  He did not protest and actually helped us to dismantle and destroy the nets, snap the poles, release the caged birds and destroy the cages.  On return to Beijing I posted the photos on Sina Weibo (Chinese “Twitter”) asking for help in reporting this illegal activity.  Within 10 minutes, users on the microblogging service had translated my report into mandarin and submitted it to the Hebei Forestry Administration…  wow!  The power of social media.  Thanks guys!

Ironically, the next day we were ejected from this area by local security guards from the nearby oil terminal and police who claimed that it was a “nature reserve”.  So it’s ok to drill for oil and trap wild birds in a nature reserve but birding is a step too far…!  A big thank you to Lei Ming and friends for following up on my behalf with the Hebei Forestry Administration.

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.  Here he frees a first year/ female Common Rosefinch

Relict Gull

RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) is a relatively poorly known species.  Until the early 1970s it was thought to be a race of Mediterranean Gull and some even thought it a hybrid between Mediterranean Gull x Common Gull….

It breeds inland at colonies in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and winters almost exclusively on the mudflats of the Bohai Bay in eastern China.  It is classified as “Vulnerable” by BirdLife International, partly because of its susceptibility to changes in climate but also because almost the entire population is reliant on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay in winter, a habitat that is rapidly diminishing as land reclamation intensifies – threatening not just Relict Gull but a host of East Asian flyway species, including of course the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

Relict Gull is a bird I am always pleased to see and, occasionally, in late March and early April, these birds can be seen in Beijing – for example at Wild Duck Lake or Miyun Reservoir – as they begin their migration to the breeding grounds.  Autumn records in the capital are much scarcer which made Saturday’s sighting of an adult at Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh all the more pleasing.  However, it is a trip to the Hebei coast, particularly south of Tangshan at Nanpu, that will enable any birder to get to grips with good numbers of Relict Gull at almost any time of the year…  Numbers in winter can be in the 1000s, which makes for quite a spectacle, but even in summer a few immature birds and non-breeders remain.  There is still much to learn about this gull, including its distribution – in 2012 Paul Holt discovered a wintering population of over 1,000 near Zuanghe in Liaoning Province (see image below).

Last week, in the company of Per Alstrom and Lei Ming, I visited the coast at Nanpu and we were treated to more than 100, most probably recent arrivals from the breeding grounds, patrolling the mudflats amongst the local shellfish pickers..  They feed on the local crabs, a delicacy that seems to be in plentiful supply!  Below are some images of moulting adults, second calendar year and first year birds.

Local shellfish collectors
Local shellfish collectors
Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).
Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).
Adult and 2cy RELICT GULLS, Nanpu Hebei Province, August 2013
Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
Relict Gull (first calendar year).  Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.
Relict Gull (first calendar year). Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.
Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.
Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.

 And here is a short video of an adult at Nanpu in August.

 

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Birding Coastal Hebei Province: Trip Report

The trip report from our visit to Nanpu, Tangshan, Hebei Province, is now available for download here:  Birding coastal Tangshan, Hebei 24-27 Aug 2012

Big hat tip to Paul Holt, not only for finding the star bird of the trip – a Common Ringed Plover – but also for somehow recording every single bird we saw or heard.  Phenomenal.

 

Common Ringed Plover

Paul Holt and I have just returned from a weekend at Nanpu, near Tangshan, in Hebei Province.  Nanpu is a vast area of fish ponds, salt works, reclaimed mudflats and even a prison.  During migration season the area hosts tens of thousands of shorebirds.  Being on the Hebei coastline, not so far from the migration hot-spot of Beidaihe, it is also on the flyway for birds hugging the coast on their journey south.  So, in addition to the waders, visible migration can be superb.

I’ll post fuller details of the trip in due course, including about the resident Reed Parrotbills, the visible migration and the astonishing numbers of Brown Shrikes but this post is about the star bird of the trip – a Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula).

Common Ringed Plover, Hebei Province, 26 August 2012

Picked out by Paul, this wader is rarer than Spoon-billed Sandpiper in eastern China.  With fewer than 30 records away from Xinjiang in the far west, it was a great find.  Of course, when finding a ‘Common Ringed Plover’-type, it’s important to rule out the very similar North American species, Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus).  Call is a great way to separate the two (Semipalmated Plover has a more Spotted Redshank-like call) but, in the absence of a calling bird, there are some subtle plumage differences that allow identification if views are sufficient.

First, one of the most reliable features on Semipalmated Plover (SPP) is that the lower dark mask in the loral area meets the bill above the gape line, whereas in Common Ringed Plover (CRP) it meets at the gapeline, or slightly below.  This seems to be a trustworthy feature, provided that the birds are not in active moult.

Second, the eye-ring.  SPP usually shows a clearly visible pale-yellow eye-ring.

Third, the breast-band.  SPP usually shows a relatively narrow breast band compared with CRP.

Additionally, SPP usually shows a slightly shorter bill and a very small (sometimes absent) white patch to the rear of the eye.

As its name suggests, SPP has some webbing between the toes but this is extremely difficult to see in the field, especially when clinging mud or wet sand can create a similar appearance.

We were fortunate with this bird in that it called several times before we were able to sneak close enough to confirm the plumage features.  Incredibly, the next day, we saw and heard a flying Common Ringed Plover some 7km from the site of the original sighting.   It was probably the same bird but who knows whether this species is under-recorded in this under-watched part of the world…?

Common Ringed Plover, Nanpu, near Tangshan, Hebei Province, 26 August 2012.

Common Ringed Plover breeds on the beach close to my parents’ home in Norfolk, England, and it is a bird with which I am very familiar.  Seeing one as a “rarity” was a little weird…  but that’s birding!

 

Waders at Nanpu, Tangshan

Last weekend I hired a car and drove to the Bohai coast south of Tangshan (唐山) – specifically to the Nanpu Development Zone – to look for waders.

It took me a little over two and a half hours to drive the 200km from Beijing to the coast, mostly along the excellent G1 highway, and it didn’t take me long to find a suitable hotel relatively close to the coast at which to base myself for 2 days.

The Nanpu Development Area is vast and the changes taking place, including land reclamation, are on a mesmerising scale.  There were heavy lorries and large machinery almost everywhere and, apart from the birds, it would be a very depressing place to spend a few days.  From the small town of Nanpu, south of Tangshan, it is still a 30km journey along relatively narrow roads, through a prison, to reach the mudflats.  The city of Tangshan, a little to the north, is famous for a huge earthquake that killed over 250,000 people in 1976 and there were signs for memorials and museums as I skirted the city on my way to the coast.

A Beijing-based PhD student, Yang Hong-yan, has been studying the waders in the Nanpu area – specifically the spring migration of the Red Knot – and has extensively covered the area from March to May in the last few Springs.  I am very grateful to her for sharing her knowledge (including maps and directions), without which I would have almost certainly got completely lost in the labyrinth of dirt tracks and roads that criss-cross the fish farms and salt works in this area.

Nanpu map

Typical pools at Nanpu

Once I had checked into the hotel, I began the journey to the coast to check out the area in preparation for a full day’s birding the following day.  I followed Hong-yan’s directions with a little trepidation as she advised me that the best route was to take a road that ran “directly through a huge prison” and that I “shouldn’t get out of the car or have any of my optics on view” when I was on this section of the road, no matter how tempting the flocks of waders looked!  Hmm, I thought..  this could be interesting – a foreigner on his own in a Beijing-plate car driving through a Chinese prison.

Still, she assured me that I would “probably be ok” and, with that encouragement I reached the entrance to the prison where I was met by a delegation of what looked like Chinese army officers.  They seemed to be operating a policy of stopping a random selection of vehicles, controlled by one officer standing on a box and waving either a red or a green flag, depending on whether that vehicle would be stopped.  Surprisingly, I was given a green flag and waved through.   There was a large and forbidding-looking fence on either side of the road, beyond which prisoners were working in the salt works.  It looked like extremely hard manual work and I began to wonder what crimes these people had committed and in what conditions they lived.  They looked desperate.

My mind was soon back on birds when I began to see flocks of Black-winged Stilts on some of the ponds..  hundreds turning into thousands.. they were everywhere (I estimated 3,000 along this stretch alone).  And amongst them I could see there were other waders – I could make out Godwits but many of the others were too distant to identify with the naked eye and, following Hong-yan’s advice, I had no intention of stopping the car along this road.

After several kilometers, I reached the other side of the prison and, again, was greeted by a group of soldiers.  They were stopping all vehicles leaving the prison, apparently checking for stowaway prisoners..  With a combination of my broken Chinese and innovative sign language (they were pointing at the boot!), I could sense that they wanted to look into the boot of the car.  Using mirrors on long poles, one guard checked the underside of the car while another looked with some concern at my tripod and telescope in the boot..  I explained that I was birdwatching and, with a warm smile, he indicated to the flag man that all was ok and I was given the green flag to continue.  Phew.

The drive from here to the coast was very ‘birdy’… there were pools on my right-hand side, many holding good numbers of waders and, on my left, there was a tidal creek hosting good numbers of Sharp-tailed, Marsh, Common and Wood Sandpipers.  Given the width of the road and my uneasiness at the proximity of the prison, I did not stop and drove on.  The next few kilometers were the same – lots of birds – and I soon found a couple of tracks off to the side that allowed me to pull off the road and scan..  I saw Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, hundreds of White-winged and Whiskered Terns, Gull-billed Terns, more Black-winged Stilts, Common Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Avocet, Kentish and Little Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, a few Black-tailed Gulls and a single Grey-tailed Tattler.  Wow..  Knowing that the high tide was due, I pressed on to the coast and, as I reached the mudflats, the road ended and a dirt track branched off to the right along the sea wall.  I parked up about 2 km along the track in an area that allowed me to scan the mudflats and also watch the waders fly over the seawall to an area of flooded pools that provided a good roost site for the birds until the mud was uncovered again on the falling tide.

Local accommodation along the tidal creek
Black-winged Stilt, Nanpu. Easily the most common bird at this site.

Despite it being late afternoon, it was hot and humid.  Around 35 degrees C without a breath of wind and, even with a hat and lots of water, it was not the most pleasant of conditions and I was constantly wiping my brow to stem the flow of sweat into my eyes..  Nevertheless, it was very good to be birding on the coast and seeing waders.  This area produced good numbers of Curlew – both Far Eastern (34) and Eurasian (29) – on the mudflats that gradually made their way closer to me as the tide pushed in.   Some Saunders’ Gulls (12) occasionally passed along the sea wall and a few Pacific Golden (4) and Grey Plovers (14) fed on the mud alongside many Kentish Plovers (c80) and a single Lesser Sand Plover.  On the inland side of the seawall, a party of 56 Great Knot, 2 Red-necked Stints, 23 Spotted Redshank, 48 Marsh Sandpiper, 7 Common Sandpiper, 29 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 4 Common Redshank, 3 Wood Sandpiper, 34 Avocet, 2 Terek Sandpiper and a single Grey-tailed Tattler all loafed on the edges of the lagoons.  A Long-tailed Shrike hunted from the wires along the sea wall and 2 Dark-sided Flycatchers fed on insects in the nearby shrubs.

Kentish Plover, Nanpu.

The visibility was poor on my first evening on site, so I wasn’t able to see the full extent of the mudflats or the birds that were using them but I left that evening having a good feel for the site and the areas that offered most promise.

The mudflats at Nanpu from the seawall. Visibility was poor on day one.

After a delicious meal in a small local restaurant, where I was treated as if I was the first foreigner many of the locals had ever seen, I retired early and made an early start the next day.  The day started out very foggy but, thankfully, by the time I had made my prison break, it had cleared a lot and on arrival at the mudflats I could see for around two miles.  It was at this point that I could appreciate the full scale of the area..  everywhere I looked out to sea, I could see local people digging for shellfish or checking nets on the mud.  Heavy machinery – cranes and earth-movers – punctured the skyline.  Despite this unnatural setting, there were birds.. not huge numbers but a good variety.  After a few minutes of scanning I looked up to see a gull fly overhead and land on the mud a few hundred metres away.  It had a black hood and, from the underwing pattern in flight and its structure I thought it could be a Relict Gull.  I trained my telescope onto it and, sure enough, there was a stunning Relict Gull, just beginning to moult from its breeding plumage.  I made some field notes and enjoyed watching this rare gull preen and feed.  Relict Gulls have a very distinctive front-heavy look and they patrol the mud looking for crabs in a manner reminiscent of plovers.  On another stretch of mudflats, in amongst some local crabbers, there were at least 50 of these gulls feeding at low tide..  a really great sight and, trumping my spring sighting of a few flyovers at Yeyahu in Spring, these were my best ever views of Relict Gull.

The mudflats on day two - much clearer
Juvenile Black-winged Stilts, Nanpu

Other birds on view included Bar-tailed Godwit, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, a few Black-headed Gulls, small numbers of Red-necked Stint and both Gull-billed and Little Terns.  On the roost were loafing Black-tailed Gulls, a few Black-headed Gulls, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Common, Gull-billed, Little, Whiskered and White-winged Terns and Wood and Common Sandpipers.

Marsh Sandpiper, Nanpu.
Crabs on the mud.

After waiting until the tide pushed off all of the birds from the flats I began to make my way back towards town, stopping to check the roadside pools.  More Black-winged Stilts, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Kentish Plovers…  Then I saw a much smaller pool with lots more birds and there was a track that went alongside, enabling me to view with the sun behind me.  There were lots of Bar-tailed and a few Black-tailed Godwits, Marsh, Wood and Common Sandpipers, two Red Knot, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Avocet and the omnipresent Black-winged Stilt.  Amongst the Bar-tailed Godwit I spotted a slightly smaller godwit-like bird with a straight all-dark bill and dark legs.  An Asian Dowitcher!  A new bird for me.  Soon I got onto a second bird – this time a juvenile (quite early?) – and I watched these two birds for some time as they fed with the godwits.  The ‘tramlines’ along the back, together with the straight bills,  helped me to pick out these birds quite easily in the group.

A local fisherman walked past and flushed all the waders and, after waiting a few minutes to see if they would return, I carried on when it was clear that the birds had dispersed.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Nanpu. A common bird during my visit, preferring the muddy edges of tidal creeks.

A single Kestrel was the only raptor I saw and the rest of the supporting cast included Black Drongo, Tree Sparrow, Grey and White Wagtails, Common Magpie, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Great Cormorant, Yellow and Great Bitterns, Grey Heron, Little and Great Egrets.

I spent the following morning at the same spots, enjoying a lovely encounter with a feeding flock of marsh terns, before heading back to Beijing around lunchtime in time to return the hire car for 5pm.

Moulting adult White-winged Tern, Nanpu. I enjoyed a flock of over 200 of these birds, together with Whiskered Terns, feeding low over the water on a roadside pool.

A thoroughly enjoyable couple of days in a challenging setting.  The development is relentless but, despite this, the birds are there and seemingly adapting to the ever-changing shape of the environment.  One can only hope that at least part of the mudflats of the Bohai Gulf are protected from land reclamation to ensure that this important stopover is not completely lost.