In Celebration of an Urban Oasis

It’s a sound dreaded by conservationists the world over.

And it’s a feature of human nature that when heard on TV in a pristine rainforest thousands of kilometres away, the sound of a chainsaw can seem remote and it’s relatively easy to detach oneself from the destruction.. and yet when it happens in a place far less globally important, yet so familiar, it elicits an altogether different reaction.

That’s what I experienced on Sunday on my local patch.

To most people I am sure, the ‘Shunyi patch’, as it has come to be known, looks like a scruffy piece of waste land. To me, it is a beautiful oasis in a concrete desert.

Scruffy or beautiful?

From my first visit in April 2015, I always knew this 0.5km x 0.5km patch of ‘wilderness’ in Shunyi District was on borrowed time.

Surrounded by new apartment blocks, Beijing metro’s line 15 and the new International Exhibition Centre, and just a stone’s throw from Beijing Capital International airport, the city was closing in and it was surely only a matter of when, not if, this place would be ‘developed’. There have been some false starts in the past with occasional clearances of the undergrowth but, with trees being felled and bulldozers moving in, it seems that moment has finally come…

The ‘Shunyi patch’ inset onto map of Beijing, showing the location adjacent to Beijing Capital International Airport

With chainsaws roaring and bulldozers belching out dark smoke as they demolished trees and shrubs, what I had planned to be a relaxing walk around the local patch on Sunday afternoon instead turned into a time for sober reflection about what this tiny space had given me over the past four years.

In 106 visits, 164 species of bird, five species of mammal and ten species of butterfly have been recorded, remarkable for such a small area of shrubs, trees and scrub. The majority of the birds recorded have been migratory, using the site as a temporary refuge to find food and shelter on their way to and from breeding grounds in north China, Mongolia or as far away as northern Siberia. Highlights have included species rarely recorded in the capital, such as Band-bellied Crake, Himalayan Swiftlet and, just a few weeks ago, a probable sighting of the poorly-known Streaked Reed Warbler. In winter it was not uncommon to see Long-eared Owls hunting over the scrub and roosting in the junipers, the sentinel-like Chinese Grey Shrike perched atop a maize stem or leafless sapling and tens of buntings – Little, Pallas’s Reed and Japanese Reed – as well as stunning Siberian Accentors feeding on the dropped seed heads. In summer, breeding species included Light-vented Bulbul, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Brown Shrike and Spotted Dove. Occasionally, an Amur Hedgehog, Tolai Hare or Siberian Weasel showed themselves and, on warm summer evenings, it was common to see at least two species of bat patrolling the patch to feed on the flying insects.

Just ten minutes away from my apartment, this place was a refuge for me and was like my own secret study site. I spent many hours wandering around, enjoying the relative tranquility, observing how the harsh Beijing seasons quickly changed the character of the site from the desperately dry and seemingly barren place in late winter to a wet and lush landscape teeming with insects in late summer.

Rather than mourn the loss of this special place, it seems fitting to celebrate its life and so, in that spirit, here is a gallery of photos taken over the last four years including some of the species that have been found there.

The list of species recorded shows just how important urban oases can be for wildlife. Sites like the ‘Shunyi patch’ can provide ‘stepping stones’ for migratory birds, helping them to cross ever-expanding urban areas by providing places for food, water and shelter. My hope is that, by demonstrating the value to wildlife of such oases, we may learn to see ‘beauty in scruffy’ and persuade government officials that places like the Shunyi patch are an essential element of enlightened urban planning.

The list of species and the concept of ‘urban oases’ have been shared with the Beijing municipal government as part of a project to ‘rewild’ Beijing and have been met with an enthusiastic initial response. So the likely death of the Shunyi patch may not be in vain. Whatever the future, I am immensely grateful to this small patch of land for providing me with an education about the rich biodiversity of China’s capital city.