2016: What A Year!

Looking out of my apartment window on the first day of 2017, a blanket of toxic smog seems to drain all colour out of life and the perennial question question pops into my head – why do I live in such a polluted, congested place?

Header image: the view from my apartment at 1200 on 1 January 2017

The answer, of course, is the excitement and adventure of living in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.  And when one considers the positives – the stunning biodiversity, the opportunity for discovery, the potential to make a difference and the wonderful people – the negatives are seen in context and they become far more tolerable.

Looking back, 2016 has been an astonishing year with many highlights, thankfully few lowlights, and progress made in some key conservation issues.  Together, they give me a genuine sense of optimism for the future.

January began with the unexpected discovery, by two young Beijing birders, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of a small flock of the “Endangered” Jankowski’s Buntings at Miyun Reservoir.  This was the first record of Jankowski’s Bunting in Beijing since 1941 and, given the precipitous decline in the population of this poorly known species, a most unexpected find.  The fact they were found by young Chinese is testament to the growing community of talented young birders in Beijing.  There are now more than 200 members of the Birding Beijing WeChat group, in which sightings and other bird-related issues are discussed and shared. Huge credit must go to world-class birders such as Paul Holt and Per Alström who have been generous in sharing their knowledge of Chinese birds with the group. As well as the expanding WeChat group, there are now more than 400 members of the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society (up from 300 in the last 12 months).  So, although starting from a low baseline, the increasing membership, together with the increase in the number of local birdwatching societies, such as in Zigong in Sichuan, and the development of international birding festivals, such as in Lushun, Dalian, shows that there is the beginning of an upsurge in the number of young people interested in birdwatching.  That is a positive sign for the future of China’s rich and unique avifauna.

In tandem with the growth in birding is the emergence of a number of organisations dedicated to environmental education across China.  Given the relative lack of environment in the Chinese State Curriculum, there is high demand amongst many parents for their children to develop a connection with nature.  I’m fortunate to work with one such organisation – EcoAction – set up and run by dynamic Sichuan lady, Luo Peng.    With a birding club for Beijing school kids, a pilot ‘environmental curriculum’ in two of Beijing’s State Schools and bespoke sustainable ecotourism trips to nature reserves for families and schools, Peng deserves great credit for her energy and vision in helping to change the way people interact with the environment.  I am looking forward to working with her much more in 2017.

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Luo Peng in her element – with local children in Hainan

After the boon of seeing Jankowski’s Buntings in Beijing, a lowlight in late January was the desperately sad passing of a much-loved mentor and friend, the inspirational Martin Garner.  Martin fought a brave and typically dignified and open, battle with cancer.  I feel enormously lucky to have met Martin and to have corresponded with him on many birding-related issues.  His wisdom, positivity and selfless outlook on life will be missed for years to come and his influence continues to run through everything I do.

Much of the early part of the spring was spent making the arrangements for what has been, for me, the highlight of the year – The Beijing Cuckoo Project. Following the success of the Beijing Swift Project, the results of which proved for the first time that Swifts from Beijing winter in southern Africa, the obvious next step was to replicate the British Trust for Ornithology’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China.  We needed to find Chinese partners, secure the necessary permissions, raise funds to pay for the transmitters and satellite services, and make the logistical arrangements for the visit of “Team Cuckoo”.  At the end of May, everything was set and the international team arrived in Beijing.  Together with the local team, we caught and fitted transmitters to five Common Cuckoos, subsequently named by Beijing schoolchildren and followed via a dedicated webpage and on social media.  We could not have wished for a better result.  Three of the five are now in Africa,  after making incredible journeys of up to 12,500km since being fitted with their transmitters, including crossing the Arabian Sea.  As of 1 January, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan are in Tanzania and Skybomb Bolt is in Mozambique.

Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
Skybomb Bolt, the first Beijing Cuckoo to make landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
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The migration routes, and current positions, of the Beijing Cuckoos, 1 January 2017.
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Pupils at Dulwich International School broke into spontaneous applause after hearing that SKYBOMB BOLT had made it to Africa…

This Beijing Cuckoo Project has combined groundbreaking science with public engagement.  With articles in Xinhua (China’s largest news agency), Beijing Youth Daily, China Daily, Beijing Science and Technology Daily, India Times, African Times and even the front page of the New York Times, these amazing birds have become, undoubtedly, the most famous cuckoos ever!  Add the engagement with schools, not only in Beijing but also in other parts of China, and the reach and impact of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams.  I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, especially the Chinese partners – the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, China Birdwatching Society and the staff at the tagging locations (Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu) – who have all been brilliant, as well as the BTO’s Andy Clements and Chris Hewson for their vision and sharing of expertise and the sponsors – Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International.  Finally, a big thank you to “Team Cuckoo”: Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Geert De Smet, Gie Goris and Rob Jolliffe.  You can follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos here.  All being well, Flappy, Meng and Skybomb will return to Beijing by the end of May.

In 2017 we are planning to expand the Beijing Cuckoo Project to become the CHINA Cuckoo Project, which will involve tagging cuckoos in different locations across the country.  More on that soon.

As well as being privileged to have been part of such a groundbreaking project, I have been fortunate to be involved with some exciting progress on some of the highest priority conservation issues, working with so many brilliant people, including Vivian Fu and Simba Chan at Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife.  The plight of shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is well-known, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper the “poster species” of conservation efforts to try to save what remains of the globally important intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  More than 70% of these vital stopover sites have been destroyed already through land reclamations and much of the remaining area is slated for future reclamation projects.   Scientists, including an ever greater number of young Chinese such as Zhu Bingrun, now have the evidence to show that the population declines of many shorebird species, some of which are now classified as “Endangered”, can be attributed in large part to the destruction of the vital stopover sites in the Yellow Sea.  After meeting world-leading shorebird expert, Professor Theunis Piersma, in Beijing in May and arranging for him to address Beijing-based birders with a compelling lecture, it’s been a pleasure to support the efforts of international organisations such as BirdLife International, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), led by Spike Millington, IUCN, UNDP and The Paulson Institute as well as local NGOs such as Save Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 山水 (ShanShui) in their interactions with the Chinese government to try to encourage greater protection for, and sustainable management of, the remaining intertidal sites.  One of the pillars of the conservation strategy is to nominate the most important sites as a joint World Heritage Site (WHS) involving China and the Koreas (both North and South).  This would have the advantage of raising awareness of the importance of these sites to those in the highest levels of government and also requiring greater protection and management of the sites.  I am pleased to say that, due to the hard work of these organisations, much progress has been made and the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MoHURD), the ministry responsible for WHS nominations, is now positively taking forward the suggestion and working on the technical papers required to make a submission to the State Council for formal nomination.  Special mention should be made of John MacKinnon, whose expertise, network of contacts in China and enthusiasm has made a big difference, to Nicola Crockford of RSPB and Wang Songlin of BirdLife International for their diplomatic work to create the conditions for the WHS issue to come to the fore, to David Melville, who recently delivered a compelling presentation covering a lifetime of shorebird study, to MoHURD at a workshop convened by ShanShui, and to Hank Paulson who, through the publication of the Paulson Institute’s “Blueprint Project” and his personal engagement at a very senior level with Provincial governors, has secured a commitment from the Governor of Hebei Province to protect the sites in his Province highlighted in the Blueprint.  These are significant advances that, although far from securing the future of China’s intertidal mudflats, have significantly improved the odds of doing so.

2016-05-04 Theunis lecture1
Professor Theunis Piersma delivers his lecture to Beijing-based birders at The Bookworm, Beijing, in May 2016.

China’s east coast hosts the world’s most impressive bird migration, known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway.  That flyway consists of not only shorebirds but also many land birds and it is this concentration of migratory birds every spring and autumn that attracts not only birders but also poachers.  This year has seen several horrific media stories about the illegal trapping of birds on an industrial scale, primarily to supply the restaurant trade in southern China where wild birds are considered a delicacy.  Illegal trapping is thought to be the primary cause of the precipitous decline in the population of, among others, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially classified as Endangered.

A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting in a cage adjacent to some illegal nets, designed to act as a lure.  Now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

It would be easy to be depressed by such incidents but I believe there are two developments that provide optimism for the future.  First, although the legal framework is far from watertight, the authorities are now acting, the incidents are being reported in the media and the culprits are receiving, at least in the largest scale cases, heavy punishments.  And second, these cases are being uncovered by volunteers, groups of mostly young people that spend their free time – weekends and days off during weekdays – specifically looking for illegal nets and poachers at migration hotspots.  They work with law enforcement to catch the culprits and destroy their tools of the trade.  These people are heroes and, although at present it’s still easy for poachers to purchase online mist-nets and other tools used for poaching (there are ongoing efforts to change this), it’s a harder operating environment for them than in the past.  Big change doesn’t happen overnight but the combination of greater law enforcement, citizen action and media coverage are all helping to ensure that, with continued effort and strengthening of the legal framework, illegal trapping of migratory birds in China is on borrowed time.

Another conservation issue on which progress has been made is the plight of Baer’s Pochard.  The population of this Critically Endangered duck has declined dramatically in the last few decades, the reasons for which are largely unknown.  However, after 2016 there is much to be optimistic about.  First, there are now dedicated groups studying Baer’s Pochard in China, including population surveys, study of breeding ecology and contributing to an international action plan to save the species.  These groups are working with the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, EAAFP and others to build a knowledge base about the species, raise awareness and develop concrete steps to conserve the species at its remaining strongholds.  A record count of 293 birds in December at the most important known breeding site in Hebei Province (Paul Holt and Li Qingxin) is a brilliant end to a year that will, hopefully, be a turning point for this species.

On a personal level I was extremely lucky, alongside Marie, to experience a ‘once in a lifetime’ encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai and, just a few days later, two Snow Leopards.  Certainly two of my most cherished encounters with wildlife.

So, as I glance out of my window again, I realise that a few days of smog are a small price to pay to be part of the birding and conservation community in China.  As 2017 begins, I have a spring in my step.

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JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING: Good News From Inner Mongolia!

It’s May and for ornithologists that means only one thing – field season!  This year I was privileged to accompany the JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii) survey team to Inner Mongolia alongside China Birdwatching Society’s Fu Jianping, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society’s Vivian Fu and a team of local researchers from Northeast Normal University in Jilin, led by Dr Wang Haitao.

I’ve just arrived back in Beijing and I’m thrilled to bits…  Here’s why..

Under the guidance of Dr Wang, we visited some “new” sites in eastern Inner Mongolia and, although we were able to cover only a fraction of the total area of suitable habitat, we recorded more than 100 Jankowski’s Buntings.  If the density of the buntings we encountered is typical of the whole area, there should be many hundreds of pairs at the largest of these new sites.  Fantastic news!

2016-05-08 Jankowski's Bunting site, Inner Mongolia
The habitat at this major new site in Inner Mongolia is typical grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot shrubs. Here, the density of Jankowski’s Buntings was reassuringly high.

Encouragingly, we also found some Jankowski’s Buntings in an area of regenerated grassland, replanted only 3 years ago, suggesting that these birds can, and will, colonise areas where the grassland is allowed to recover.

However, amongst this heady cocktail of good news, there is a sobering thought – none of these sites has any form of official protection, meaning they are potentially vulnerable to the main threats to the species and its grassland habitat – overgrazing and the expansion of agriculture.

Nevertheless, it is uplifting to find out that there are, in the unique Inner Mongolian grassland, more of these beautiful “little brown jobs” than we had dared imagine.

The full results of the survey and the fascinating latest research from Dr Wang and his team will be published this summer.  A link will be publicised on Birding Beijing when it is available.  With the latest information, we are slowly developing a greater understanding of the range, and population, of this special bird, found nowhere else on the planet.  This information will form the basis of the next engagement with the local government in Inner Mongolia, during which we will be pushing for official protection for as many of these sites as possible.  And, in the meantime, Dr Wang and his team will be exploring new areas to further understand the boundaries of Jankowski’s Bunting’s range and considering the use of colour-ringing to better understand breeding ecology and seasonal movements.  Could Jankowski’s be extant in northern Hebei?  Or far southeastern Mongolia?   Time will tell…

I was impressed with Dr Wang Haitao and his researchers.  Dr Wang has been studying Jankowski’s Bunting since 1999 and has a wealth of knowledge about the species, built up by years of field observations.  I learned so much from our conversations over the duration of the survey..

2016-05-07 Dr Wang and team with Vivian, Inner Mongolia
Dr Wang Haitao (centre) organising the survey team, including Vivian Fu from Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (left).

Despite the almost omnipresent gales that sweep across this vast landscape in spring, I was able to record some video of the buntings, a compilation of which is below.  Such beautiful birds in their full breeding finery and they looked a real picture amongst the Siberian Apricot blossom.

We left Inner Mongolia  encouraged and, at the same time, determined not to let this special bird slip away.

Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Fu Jianping and Dr Wang and his team for the faultless logistics, thorough field work and great company during the trip.

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.
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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.