Global Birding Weekend in Beijing

Earlier this month, on 17 & 18 October 2020, I was delighted to participate in the Global Birding Weekend, an initiative by Tim Appleton MBE in collaboration with eBird and Swarovski Optik.  The aim was a worldwide celebration of birds by encouraging people everywhere to go out locally and record the birds they see, with the hope that the combined total might constitute a world record for the highest number of species recorded in a single weekend.  It was the perfect excuse to set up a birding trip with the Chevening Scholars – young Chinese who have been sponsored to study in the UK by the British Embassy, many of whom now hold influential positions in the Chinese government.  

In conjunction with the British Embassy, we arranged an itinerary that took us to the mountains of Mentougou District in the west of the municipality, spending Saturday afternoon at the Youzhou Valley, followed by the Sunday morning at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain.  I had also been invited to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event, organised by Swarovski Optik, on the Sunday afternoon. To add to the excitement, Swarovski had kindly sent me the new 115mm telescope objective lens for us to try out for the weekend!  What a treat…

The new 115mm objective lens for the modular ATX/STX set-up was a revelation.  With its impressive light-gathering capability, it was a big hit with the Chevening Scholars both for observing birds and for planet-watching, including looking at Saturn’s rings.   

With the oppressive heat of the summer a distant memory, a nip in the air early mornings and in the evenings, combined with the tress displaying a kaleidoscope of colour, October is a wonderful time to be outside in Beijing.  And we were blessed with beautiful weather as we made our way to the first site, the Youzhou Valley.

Almost the first bird we saw was Wallcreeper – a rare bird to see away from the regular winter haunt of Shidu in Fangshan District.  This was soon followed by a Golden Eagle and a Siberian Accentor before we added Red-billed Chough, Eurasian Crag Martin, Hill Pigeon, Larg-billed Crow and Grey-headed Woodpecker.  

Record image of the Wallcreeper at the Youzhou Valley.
“Wow.. They seem so close!” One of our younger participants watching more than 30 Eurasian Crag Martins congregating on a sunny cliffside – one of the highlights of our Saturday afternoon..
Beibei checking out the Swarovski ATX 115mm

After a long walk through the gorge, taking in the magnificent views and adding a few more species such as Japanese Tit, Little Bunting, Red-billed Blue Magpie and Mandarin, we headed back to the minibus for the drive to Lingshan, our overnight accommodation and focus for the following morning.

The drive up to Lingshan was stunning, with the autumn colours in their full glory.

The wooded hillsides on the drive up to Lingshan were spectacular in their autumn dress.

We arrived at our accommodation just as it was getting dark and, after a wholesome home-cooked meal from our hosts, including locally-harvested herbs, we took advantage of the clear skies and tested the 115mm telescope to look for the planets on show – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  With the extra light gathering capability of the 115mm versus the 95mm, Saturn’s rings were obvious and clear, even at 30x (using the 30-70x zoom eyepiece) to the astonishment and joy of the group!

The following day we were up for sunrise and were rewarded with a spectacular early morning, including brief sightings of three Siberian Roe Deer and a hunting Short-eared Owl, as well as a few migrating passerines – Buff-bellied Pipits, Pine Buntings, and a handful of Eurasian Skylarks.

Watching the sunrise at Lingshan..

After a quick breakfast back at the guesthouse, we walked a few of the valleys looking for birds and quickly encountered Beijing Babbler, Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Red-throated Thrush, White-winged Redstarts, Silver-throated and Willow Tits, a single Pallas’s Rosefinch, a superb Eastern Buzzard and a Northern Goshawk.  

A pair of Hill Pigeons posed nicely for the group.

At around 1030am the group split into two, with one following Chris and Rhys from the embassy hiking up to the peak (2,303m asl) and the other joining me to set up an infrared camera in the woods targeting mammals. 

After exploring for a while, we found a good narrow animal trail with fresh deer tracks so we set up the camera with the help of the younger members of the group pretending to be deer to make sure we had placed the camera at the right angle…

Setting up the infrared camera at Lingshan with the children.

We’ll leave the camera there for a couple of months and, on collection, will send any images to the group.  After setting up the camera, we headed back to the guesthouse for lunch, meeting up with the others who had big appetites after their exertion!

Looking very proud of themselves…. !

After lunch the Chevening team left for the three-hour journey back to the city whilst I stayed on to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event..  You can watch a recording of that event here.

The relative quiet of the afternoon also allowed me to put the 115mm through its paces..  As one would expect of Swarovski the image quality was outstanding but I wanted to see how it performed in low light conditions..  I stayed on site until dusk and, although it’s hard to believe, I recorded this video of a Red-throated Thrush after the sun had disappeared behind the mountain.  The video has not been altered in any way, except for a little cropping, and I was shocked at the brightness of the image.  

Red-throated Thrush recorded with Swarovski ATX 115 plus iPhone 6S and adaptor.


Although I was able to test the 115mm objective lens for only a limited time, I can say with confidence that it sets the standard for birding telescopes.  The brightness of the image, especially in low light conditions, is simply incredible and I hope I am allowed a longer experience with it very soon to experiment with some more digiscoping..! 

In the days following the trip, we were delighted to see the number of species recorded over the weekend creep up as lists were submitted from around the world.  At the time of writing, the total number of species recorded over the weekend was an astonishing 7,243 with 7,098 recorded on the Saturday alone, a new world record for the number of species recorded in a single day.  You can see the latest news from the Global Birding Weekend here.

Big congratulations to Tim Appleton on the huge success of the event which, as well as beating world records, also raised tens of thousands of pounds for BirdLife International’s appeal to tackle the illegal bird trade.  And big thanks to Swarovski Optik for allowing us the use of the brilliant new 115mm objective lens…  the only problem now is going back to the 95mm!  

For us in Beijing, inspired by the weekend, we now have a group of new birders, enchanted by the birds and other wildlife that can be found in the capital.  Some of the participants have already bought their first binoculars (Swarovski of course!) and field guides, and we are now working on plans for the next trip…

Huge thanks to Chris, Rhys and Beibei from the British Embassy for the flawless arrangements and for their great company.  Can’t wait until the next one!



Swarovski’s NL Pure – the best binocular yet?

In my opinion, the binocular, or binoculars as they are commonly known, is one of humankind’s greatest inventions.  Whether it’s birds, mammals or even insects, a good pair of binoculars transforms our engagement with the natural world, allowing us to observe, from a distance that minimises disturbance, details way beyond the natural capabilities of the human eye.  They help us to determine whether that movement on the edge of the forest 100m away was a wild cat or just branches moving in the wind, and whether the Phylloscopus warbler that moved through the canopy overhead had two wing-bars or only one, thus helping us to identify it with certainty.  In short, they add another dimension to our experience in the outdoors.

Since the first attempts at fixing two telescopes side by side in the 17th century, many advances have been made in binocular manufacturing.  Modern binoculars are lightweight, use high-precision glass and cutting-edge machine technology to make the image we see as clear, bright and sharp as possible, even in low light conditions.

The law of diminishing returns tells us that, over time, efforts to improve binoculars will gradually lead to fewer and less significant advances.  However, just occasionally, there are breakthroughs that prove the exception, leading to a noticeable step forward.  Having just spent a few days testing the new Swarovski Optik NL Pure, I can say with confidence that this new flagship binocular represents one such advance!

Over the last few days, since I opened the package from Swarovski in my front room, I have tested the NL Pure 8×42 in dull, almost dark, conditions when caught in a deluge during a thunderstorm in the mountains while watching dragonflies and on a hot, bright and sunny day on my local patch in urban Beijing watching breeding Zitting Cisticolas, newly-fledged Red-rumped Swallows and migrant Yellow-breasted Buntings.  Am I impressed?  You bet.

Opening the NL Pure for the first time..

Having been spoiled by the flagship EL 8×32, I was intrigued, and to be honest a little sceptical, that the new NL Pure could improve on the EL.  I am no longer sceptical.

There are two big things that make the NL Pure so good.

The first – and the thing that jumps out at you as soon as you pick them up – is the new ergonomic design of the barrels.  They simply fit perfectly into the hand and, in a direct comparison test with the EL, I found the NL easier to hold for long periods.  As I am often out in the field for hours at a time, comfort has always been an important factor, which is why I tend to prefer the lighter 8x rather than the more powerful, but heavier, models of binocular.  The ergonomics of the NL Pure are a big plus for me and, if you invest in the revolutionary forehead rest, the comfort level increases again, acting like an image stabiliser.  

The ergonomic design of the NL Pure is a joy.

The second thing is the field of view.  At the online launch presentation by Swarovski, Wolfgang Schwarz, Deputy Head of Product Management said:

“In the past, we have talked about edge-to-edge sharpness.  But there is one thing that’s even better – no edges at all.”

Of course, in reality, there are edges to the image but I can see what he means.  The model I tested (NL Pure 8×42) has a field of view of 159m/1000m compared with 133m/1000m for the EL 8.5×42. There is no doubt that a wider field of view increases the chances of detecting more, whether it’s birds, mammals or any other wildlife.  In a direct comparison between the NL Pure and the EL, the difference is startling.

The NL Pure is simply the best binocular I have ever experienced.  

Today, 1 September, the NL Pure goes on general release.  To celebrate, together with 7 colleagues across Asia, from Borneo to India, I participated in a live birding webcast as part of Swarovski Optik’s continental birding series.  You can see the recording here.   Enjoy!


Swarovski Ushers In New Era Of Birding

Whether it’s scanning through flocks of shorebirds along the Yellow Sea looking for a Spoon-billed Sandpiper or searching the barren rocky slopes of the Tibetan Plateau in the hope of glimpsing the elusive Snow Leopard, anyone who has used a telescope for hours on end will testify to the fact that squinting with one eye for any length of time can cause considerable discomfort.  Regular breaks to ‘recalibrate’ the eyes and relax the muscles are required, interrupting the concentration and potentially causing the observer to miss what he/she is looking for.

This longstanding problem for regular telescope users now has a solution – the Swarovski BTX.  The BTX is a new module for the ATX/STX modular set-up and essentially offers a binocular eyepiece whilst maintaining the single objective lens.  Not only do the two (adjustable) eyepieces make for much more comfortable, and balanced, scanning, the addition of the adjustable forehead rest means that the biggest risk of use is falling asleep!


Alongside many prominent birders from around the world, I was privileged to be invited to Swarovski Optik’s headquarters in Tyrol, Austria, in February to be introduced to, and to road-test, the BTX.  As Swarovski Optik CEO, Carina Schiestl-Swarovski, and Dale Forbes, Head of Strategic Business Development, unveiled the BTX there were audible gasps around the room, then a spontaneous round of applause.  And that was before any of us had even looked through one.  It simply looked the business.  Minutes later, several BTXs were set up outside and we were soon trying out this masterpiece of engineering in the stunning mountains of Austria.

Biotope’s Tormod Amundsen – what a guy! – testing the new BTX.

So, how was it?

My first reaction was that the BTX will revolutionise scanning.  Anyone who uses a telescope for prolonged periods, whether its a waterbird surveyor, a tour guide in Ladakh or a sea-watcher at the coast, the BTX will be a God-send.  The comfort is striking when compared with a traditional telescope and, additionally, seeing with two eyes certainly adds a good deal to the quality of the viewing.  It seemed to me that I was seeing more, and more quickly, when using the BTX compared with the traditional ATX.  It’s simply a more pleasurable, and more natural, viewing experience.

Over the following two days we took the new kit to Lake Constance where we scanned the flocks of waterfowl.  After only a couple of minutes, adjusting the (removable) forehead rest and getting used to using two eyes, I found the BTX a delight.  We enjoyed superb views of a range of waterfowl including Whooper Swan, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Common Pochard, Goldeneye, Common Merganser and even a few Red-throated and Black-throated Divers before there were whoops of joy from the Americans when a much-coveted ‘redhead’ Smew flew in and landed in front of us.

Visiting more locations around Lake Constance, we put the BTX through its paces in varying light conditions, paired with different objective lenses and using the new ME 1.7x extender (compatible with the ATX/STX and BTX), all of which displayed the optical quality one would expect from Swarovski.  With two representatives from Cornell Lab, Jessie Barry and Chris Wood, we were of course religiously recording our sightings using the eBird APP and were racking up an impressive list including White Stork, Short-toed Treecreeper and Red Kite.

As with many brilliant innovations, it begs the question – why hasn’t the BTX been developed before?  Well, the answer is, of course, that similar designs that incorporate a binocular eyepiece with a telescope (usually involving two objective lenses) have been produced before but most are bulky and impractical for use in the field.  As the engineers explained to us during our ‘behind the scenes’ tour, technically it’s been a challenging project and this is the first time such a design, with the optical quality and practicality we have come to expect from Swarovski, has been produced for birders.

Jonathan Meyrav, of Champions Of The Flyway fame, testing the BTX at Lake Constance.

Are there any downsides?  Well, the fixed magnification of 30x (or 35x on the ATX/STX 95) is a limiting factor.  Producing a zoom would have, according to the engineers, made the BTX bulkier, heavier and a lot more expensive.  And there is a little extra weight.  For me, the lack of zoom is a minor limitation – when I use my telescope for scanning I generally prefer a relatively low magnification to maximise field of view and the brightness of the image.  And, of course, the modular system means that it’s straightforward to swap the BTX for an ATX zoom eyepiece once the target has been found or, if you prefer to stay with the BTX eyepiece, add the ME 1.7x magnification extender, small enough to easily fit into a pocket.  In the context of the whole set-up (telescope and tripod), the extra weight is marginal. In summary, the benefits of the binocular view far outweigh the downsides.

The price tag of Euro 2,490 including 20% VAT is not cheap, reflecting the expertise that has gone into the design and the quality of the manufacturing.  For existing ATX/STX users, the BTX will be an attractive addition to expand the performance of, and comfort of using, the modular set-up.  I expect it to be popular..

Personally, I know the BTX will make a big difference when I go to Qinghai looking for Snow Leopards or scanning the local reservoir counting the ducks and geese whilst looking for Baer’s Pochards and I can’t wait to get my hands on one!

Terry testing the new BTX at Swarovski HQ in Tyrol, Austria.

Swarovski is to be congratulated on an innovative and stylish product that cements their place as the pioneer at the forefront of the optics manufacturing.  The BTX will be available from May and interested potential customers should know that, from 30 April until 12 May, this revolutionary scope can be tried out in some of Europe’s best birding areas in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.  See here for more details.

Huge thanks to the Swarovski ‘family’ for providing us with wonderful hospitality in Tyrol and for allowing a rare insight ‘behind the scenes’.  As well as being at the forefront of their industry, it was heartening to see how much Swarovski Optik invests in corporate and social responsibility, in particular sustainability.  Their energy and waste management programmes are hugely impressive meaning that their environmental ‘footprint’ is minimal.  Combined with the facilities made available to staff, including a kindergarten for employees’ children, a superb cafeteria and impressive working conditions, it’s clearly a great company that is a model for how a company can not only be at the forefront of their industry but also make a positive contribution to the community.  Another reason to choose Swarovski!

The Birds of Dalian

When I first moved to China it wasn’t long before I discovered Tom Beeke’s excellent BirdForum thread about his sightings in and around Dalian, located in China’s northeast Liaoning Province.  Tom’s superb sightings, enthusiastically documented for all to see, were a big inspiration to me.  As a teacher at the Maple Leaf School in Jinshitan, he developed groundbreaking environmental education classes for his students and, somehow, found the time to write a bird book.

 “The Birds of Dalian” was first published in 2010 and the 2nd edition, in both English and Chinese, is now available, thanks to the support of Swarovski Optik and Zhu Lei for the Chinese translation.  The book covers 326 species and includes Tom’s photos of the various plumages of each species.

Tom writes:

“The Birds of Dalian was put together for the purpose of introducing local wildlife.  The goal of the project is to stir up conservation mindedness by showing the remarkable species that can be found in this area of Mainland China.  When people are aware of how many species live in and/or move through an area, they can then be aided in making informed decisions about the future of that area.  Why preserve this wetland?  Because there are over 200 species of birds that rely on it in one calendar year.  Why save this tidal mudflat?  Because there are over 200 species of birds that rely on it in one calendar year.  Why save this forested area?  Because there are over 200 species of birds that rely on it in one calendar year.  During my 12 years in China, I was surprised by how few people knew about the wonderful world of birds in their area.  China is remarkably rich, as far as birds are concerned.  Hopefully this book will help to prove this and help in some way to protect what is there.”
Hear hear, Tom.  To read more about the book, and to purchase a copy for only 150 Chinese Yuan (under GBP 20), follow this link.  Thoroughly recommended!