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.

 

10,000 Relict Gulls

It was as recently as 1970 that RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) was confirmed as a valid species.  Before that it was thought to be either an eastern race of Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) or a hybrid between Brown-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and Pallas’s Gull (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus)!  Since its rather late acceptance into the global ornithological fold much has been discovered about this beautiful gull.  Breeding sites have been found in China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia and it appears that, although a few spend the winter in Korea, almost the entire world population winters on the northeast China coast, around the Bohai Bay.

And just before their spring migration, gatherings on the coast of birds in stunning breeding plumage, are simply spectacular.

Last week, local Tianjin birder Mo Xunqian (“Nemo”) and friend Zhu Bingrun (“Drew”) counted 10,652 Relict Gulls from 3 sites around Hangu, Tianjin.  This is a world record count and was simply too much to resist.  So, together with Paul Holt and members of Beijing Birdwatching Society, including President Fu Jianping, I headed to the coast to try to catch a glimpse of these awesome birds before they left for the breeding grounds.

With the help of Nemo and local bird photographer and conservationist Mr Wang Jianmin, we arrived on site at the perfect time – just as the tide was beginning to fall.  And we were greeted with a sea of Relict Gulls, the adults resplendent in their hooded breeding plumage and with hormones raging.  Many were engaging in courtship display, throwing back their heads and holding open their wings as they called loudly.  Superb!

image3
Relict Gulls pairing up ahead of the breeding season, Hangu, Tianjin. Photo by Wang Jianmin.

After a few minutes of simply admiring this breathtaking spectacle, Paul was quick to get to work counting the flock.  His tally was an outstanding 10,405, a record for a single site.  I focused on capturing some video footage and, as the wind began to increase, making the conditions difficult for video, I began to scan the flock, observing their behaviour and enjoying the birds.

It wasn’t long before I found a leg-flagged adult sporting an orange flag on its right tibia and then, incredibly, another with an orange flag engraved with the number “1”.

Relict Gull with orange flag.  Another bird sported a similar flag with the engraving "1".
Relict Gull with orange flag. Another bird sported a similar flag with the engraving “1”.

We enjoyed several hours with these birds until, as the tide receded, the birds began to move out onto the mud to feed.  Every few minutes, as more mud became exposed, the whole flock would rise into the air, wheeling around before settling a few metres closer to the retreating sea. It was an awesome sight.  All against the unlikely backdrop of an aircraft carrier, moored to the north…

10,000 RELICT GULLS and an aircraft carrier, Hangu, Tianjin.
10,000 RELICT GULLS and an aircraft carrier, Hangu, Tianjin.
2015-03-25 Relict Gull flock in flight, Tianjin
Relict Gulls, Hangu, Tianjin, 26 March 2015
2015-03-25 Relict Gull flock, Tianjin
Relict Gulls, Hangu, Tianjin, 26 March 2015. Occasionally the flock would take to the air, following the retreating sea.
2015-03-26 Relict Gull flock4, Tianjin
At 10,405 birds, this flock was the largest ever seen at a single site.

As the birds moved away we made our way back to the car, still buzzing from witnessing one of the most impressive birding sights during my time in China.

Mr Wang took us to a local restaurant for lunch where we reflected on the status of Relict Gull.  It was then that a hint of sadness hit us.  As impressive as this spectacle was, the fact that so many are concentrated in one spot is not a good sign.  It’s a symptom of shrinking habitat.  And the concentration into such a small area makes the population extremely vulnerable to shocks.. A serious oil spill, for example, could devastate these birds.

Anyone familiar with east Asia won’t be surprised that the cause of the shrinking habitat is land reclamation.  Mr Wang told us that, so far, around 80% of Tianjin’s tidal mudflats have been reclaimed, with just over 30km of coastal mudflat remaining of an original 140+km.  And then the news got worse; the site where we had just recorded a world record count of this special gull was due to be reclaimed and turned into housing.  My heart sank.

Much has been made of the breathtaking pace of ‘development’ along China’s east coast, in particular in the context of Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  And whilst the disappearance of tidal mudflats will undoubtedly affect many shorebird species, the Relict Gull is perhaps the most vulnerable species of all.  With almost the entire global population dependent on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay, this bird is being squeezed into ever-decreasing pockets of viable habitat.  At the present rate of land reclamation it is questionable for how long the remaining areas of tidal mudflats will be able to sustain the wintering population.  And with human disturbance, unsustainable water use and climate change, there are significant threats to the breeding grounds, too.  The Relict Gull fully deserves its “Vulnerable” status.

Development is clearly necessary for the government to continue to bring millions of Chinese out of poverty.  That includes expanding ports, improving infrastructure and building homes and businesses.  The key question is whether or not this development can be more sensitive to the natural world.  Unfortunately, it is still the case that ecosystems and biodiversity have zero value in our economic model.  That’s not unique to China, it’s a global phenomenon.  To protect sites and species often requires monumental efforts from passionate individuals and groups.  It should be the default.

Mr Wang has been championing the need to protect the remaining tidal mudflats around Tianjin.  He has exhibited his excellent photographs to raise awareness among the local community and, importantly, he has met with local government officials to highlight the global importance of this habitat.  He is committed to doing everything he can to help Relict Gull, a species that is clearly very close to his heart.  With the vast majority of the population breeding in China and wintering along the Bohai Bay, Relict Gull is a Chinese treasure, just like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven or the Terracotta Warriors.   I hope that, one day, it will be given the same protection.

Big thanks to Nemo, Zhu Bingrun, Wang Jianmin, Paul Holt, Wang Qingyu, Fu Jianping and the Beijing Birdwatching Society for ensuring our trip to see Relict Gulls was successful, for the use of photographs and for their fun company in Tianjin.

Birders at Hangu, Tianjin, on a high from seeing 10,000 Relict Gulls!
Birders at Hangu, Tianjin, on a high from seeing 10,000 Relict Gulls!  Mr Wang is fourth from the right.