About a year ago, the BBC Natural History Unit was in contact about the feasibility of filming the Beijing Swift for a forthcoming series on urban wildlife. After introducing them to local experts, including Professors Gao and Zhao, the China Birdwatching Society and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, the BBC applied for permission to visit and film the Swifts in the Chinese capital. One of the locations was the Summer Palace, where the China Birdwatching Society has been studying the colony of 200+ birds for more than 10 years. It was here that, in 2014, the Society collaborated with experts from Europe on the Beijing Swift Project, tracking the migration of these avian wonders and discovering for the first time their migration route and wintering grounds in southern Africa.
The new series – “Cities: Nature’s New Wild” – is being shown on BBC2 and the Beijing Swifts are due to appear in episode three on Sunday 13 January (2000-2100). For those who can’t wait that long, a trailer about the Beijing Swift is available on the BBC website.
It’s fantastic exposure for Beijing’s Swifts and the people working to support them.
If you’re in the UK on the evening of Sunday 13th January, put the kettle on, settle into your favourite armchair and enjoy….
UPDATE 9 January: The BBC Natural History Unit has informed me that the Beijing Swifts will now NOT be shown in episode 3 of “Cities: Nature’s New Wild” on BBC2 on 13 January. Instead, episode 3 of the UK version of the series will include a segment on Indonesian Swiftlets. The Beijing Swifts will feature in the international version of the series. I’m awaiting broadcast details. Updates will appear here as more information is available.
I spent Saturday morning with Belgium-based Lyndon Kearsley and the Beijing team at the Summer Palace for the annual Swift banding project. Led by Professor Zhao Xinru of the China Birdwatching Society, in collaboration with scientists from the UK, including the BTO, Sweden and Belgium, the project has recently been responsible for discovering the Beijing Swift’s wintering grounds and migration route, proving for the first time that these incredible aviators travel to southern Africa and back every year.
This year, we are hoping to prove an even more incredible aspect of the Beijing Swift’s lifestyle. In 2016 selected birds were fitted with a new type of technology – accelerometers – which can, in short, establish whether the birds are moving or stationary. Having this morning recaptured seven birds fitted with accelerometers in 2016, and provided the data are good, we should be able to show whether these birds have spent the nine months away from Beijing in continuous flight, just as Susanne Åkesson and her team have recently proved with Swifts from Sweden. Wouldn’t that be something?
The analysis of the data will take some weeks and months to complete, so we don’t expect to have an answer quickly. In the meantime, here is a short video of the Beijing Swifts in slow motion, taken this morning at the Summer Palace. One striking aspect is the sound of the calls when slowed down… my advice is don’t play this video if alone at night or at Halloween – it’s almost creepy!
Huge credit to our Chinese colleagues, especially Professor Zhao Xinru, Wu Lan, Liu Yang and the army of volunteers who work so hard to make the project a success. And big thanks to Dick Newell, Chris Hewson, Lyndon Kearsley, Susanne Åkesson, Rob Jolliffe, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris who have all played a key role in the Beijing Swift Project over the last few years.
“Woohoo!” was the shout when the first geolocator-carrying Swift was caught early this morning at The Summer Palace.
After a wait of 12 months, we were finally going to find out, for the first time, where Beijing’s swifts spent the winter. In the end we re-captured 13 of the 31 birds fitted with geolocators last spring and, after downloading and processing the data (all worked perfectly – big kudos to Migrate Technology in England), we discovered that these magnificent birds travel an incredible 26,000km per year on migration to spend the winter in southern Africa. It’s astonishing to think that, over the lifetime of the average Beijing Swift, the distance travelled on migration is equivalent to half way from Earth to the Moon!
The map below shows a typical track of a Beijing Swift, based on preliminary analysis of the data from the 13 birds re-trapped today. A fuller analysis will be made in due course with a scientific paper planned for later this year.
These iconic birds – synonymous with Beijing since 1417 when they made their nests in the original city gatehouses – arrive in Beijing in April and, after breeding, begin their long journey to Africa in late July, taking a route that first leads them west-northwest into Mongolia, from where they pass north of the Tianshan mountains, then south through Iran and central Arabia into tropical Africa, before spending 3 months of the winter in Namibia and the Western Cape. They begin the return journey in February, retracing a similar route, arriving in Beijing in mid-April, a journey that sees them cross about 20 borders. Wow!
Again, I was hugely impressed with the professionalism of the China Birdwatching Society and its army of volunteers. Not only did they get up incredibly early to set up the nets at 0230 but, together with visiting swift ringer Lyndon Kearsley and Dick Newell, they captured, processed and released more than 80 birds in 2 hours, including downloading data from 13 birds with geolocators and fitting a further 25 geolocators to ‘new’ birds. Impressive stuff. And it was great to see Liu Yang, one of China’s top ornithological professors, making the trip from Guangdong to participate in the catch.
This was the scene at around 0600 on the day of the catch. A wonderful sight and sound.
I had the privilege of releasing a geolocator-tagged bird and Zhang Weimin took this photo. A special moment for me. I wish it well on its journey to southwest Africa..
Big thanks to Professor Zhou, Ms Fu Jianping and Wu Lan from the China Birdwatching Society for their incredible hard work in making this project possible. And big kudos to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley for their vision and expertise. I’d also like to thank Lyndon’s wife, Hilde and Rob Jolliffe (“JJ”) for their help and good company during these past few days..
This weekend I was involved in a very cool project to track the ‘pekinensis‘ Common Swifts at the Summer Palace. It all began with a conversation with Dick Newell, over a beer, in London in December. And on Saturday we fitted 31 geolocators to swifts at the Summer Palace in Beijing. We know almost nothing about the migration route or the wintering grounds of these magical birds that have a special significance to Beijing’s residents. Provided we can re-trap some next year, we’ll find out where they go… Exciting stuff! And the great thing is that this is a brilliant collaboration between Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, the Beijing Birdwatching Society, the Summer Palace, the University of Lund in Sweden and many volunteers, young and old. You can read the full story on Birding Frontiers.
It’s been a strange winter so far.. not so cold and no snow to speak of. It’s been the same up north in Liaoning Province. No Waxwings at all (contrasting strongly with last winter’s invasion of both Bohemian and Japanese Waxwings), very few Rosefinches (Long-tailed or Pallas’s) and a few so-called summer visitors have been lingering in the capital.
This week I have made short visits to both the Olympic Forest Park and the Summer Palace to see what was around.
I was surprised to see several Pallas’s Warblers, double figures of Red-flanked Bluetails, three Red-crested Pochard and singles of Black-faced Bunting and Ferruginous Duck (the duck were together on a tiny patch of open water at the summer palace). All of these birds should really be further south in the middle of winter but all seemed in good shape.
This Common Kingfisher looked much healthier than the last one I saw at Wild Duck Lake (which expired as we were watching it in late November).
Several Smew were accompanying the Ferruginous Duck and the Red-crested Pochard, adding a reassuring feel to the winter. I managed this image of one in flight.
After a tip-off from Jesper about some Japanese Waxwings in the Summer Palace, I spent a couple of hours there on Saturday afternoon. Eventually, after dodging the crowds to get to the north-west corner of the park, I discovered a mixed flock of Waxwings in a quiet corner. Unusually, Japanese outnumbered Bohemian by about 4 to 1. They were very loyal to a couple of ‘leylandii’-type trees, to which they frequently flew down to feed before flying up to some tall poplars to preen, rest and eat a little of the snow that had fallen overnight.
Despite the very overcast conditions, I was able to capture a few pleasing images.