As a Brit, I feel a sense of pride when foreigners tell me how much they admire the BBC and, especially, the documentaries produced by the Natural History Unit. The influence of Sir David and the Bristol-based team is often cited by young birders in China when we speak about what sparked their interest in birds and nature. And so, when the BBC contacted me about arranging interviews with young Chinese birders for a forthcoming World Service Radio series about the East Asian Australasian Flyway, it was an easy job to recruit willing volunteers.
The series of 4 programmes, a joint production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is following the migration of shorebirds from the southern tip of the flyway in Tasmania to their breeding grounds in Siberia, and the reporters are stopping off in China along the way, just as the birds do.
We arranged to meet the BBC/ABC team on Saturday morning at the Wenyu River, a birding site on the northeast of the city between the 5th and 6th ring roads and convenient for the airport (the team was due to fly to Dandong that afternoon).
Members of two local groups participated – the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society and the Swarovski Optik-sposored 北京飞羽 (“Beijing Feathers”). The latter is a group of university students who volunteer to introduce birding to members of the public in Beijing with activities at the Beijing Zoo and the Olympic Forest Park.
They excelled – with impressive English-language skills – at answering questions about why they are interested in birding, why Beijing is so good for birds, how birding is expanding in China and their hopes for the future…
I can’t wait to hear them on the radio in June!
The ABC/BBC World Service radio series about the East Asian Australasian Flyway are now online.
When a British friend recently asked me what it’s like to live in Beijing, my instinctive reaction was to say “I love it”. Professionally speaking it is one of the most exciting and interesting places on the planet. And, of course, the birding is epic.
Then, after thinking for a few seconds, I qualified that statement with a “But” and described Beijing as “schizophrenic”. On nice days, when the air is clear and the weather good, Beijing is stunningly beautiful, cradled by mountains that run from the southwest to the northeast, providing a spectacular backdrop to what must be one of the most exciting cities in the world. However, on bad days, the air pollution renders invisible the tops of even the nearest tower blocks and, after just a few minutes outside, your clothes can smell as if you’ve spent an hour or two in the smoking room at Beijing Capital International Airport.
For visitors, Beijing’s air pollution is usually a relatively minor inconvenience that can affect the views when visiting the Great Wall. It’s very unlikely to have a lasting impact. For residents, given the serious, albeit unquantified, risks it’s something we really should take seriously.
On waking, my first act is to check the air quality index on my iPhone. It dictates my mood. If the pollution is low and classified as “suitable for outdoor activities”, I rejoice and it puts a spring in my step for the whole day. Conversely, if the pollution level is high, I sigh and just want to snuggle under the duvet.. It’s THAT important to my quality of life.
Most ex-pats, and an increasing number of Chinese, invest in air purifiers for their apartments and wear masks to protect themselves when air quality is poor. For those of us who like outdoor activities, such as birding or hiking, Beijing’s air can be particularly frustrating.
Often, before I decide when to go birding, I take into account the likely pollution levels, bearing in mind key factors such as wind direction and speed in the preceding days. Residents know that a northerly or westerly wind generally clears the air, as the airflow originates from relatively pollution-free Mongolia and Siberia, whereas a southwesterly or southerly airflow brings up pollution from some of China’s most polluted towns and cities in neighbouring Hebei Province.
I am fortunate in the sense that, much of the time, I can arrange my work and birding according to the pollution levels and weather. If it’s smoggy at the weekend, I will work and then take a day off during the week to get my birding fix when the air is better. Most people are not that lucky. Even so, there are times – for example when friends are visiting – when I arrange to go birding on specific days, and take a gamble on the air quality.
If we are unlucky, we take a deep breath, don our masks and go birding in the smog. That’s exactly what Marie and I did yesterday and Marie’s photo of me birding along the Wenyu River is what prompted me to write this post.
Wearing a mask for several hours can be uncomfortable and of course, to eat and drink, one must remove it, at least temporarily. Perhaps the most obvious effect of the air pollution when birding is the reduced visibility. When the pollution is bad, even on a supposedly cloudless day, visibility can be reduced to a few hundred metres and, when visiting birding sites like Miyun Reservoir or Yeyahu – vast areas overlooking large areas of water – that can seriously impact the number of birds one is likely to see. On bad days, it’s best to visit sites where one doesn’t need to look too far into the distance – parks and the local river are ideal candidates.
People often ask me how the pollution affects birds. It’s a question I can only speculate about; as far as I know there have been no scientific studies examining the effects (if you know of any, please get in touch!). My sense is that the air pollution may impact the journeys of some migrants – particularly birds of prey? – that rely on sight and landmarks for navigation, causing them to delay their migration if the visibility is low. However, most of the health impacts of air pollution are related to long-term exposure and I suspect that most birds are not long-lived enough to be affected by these. I am sure water pollution – also chronic over much of China – is a much bigger threat.
In Marie’s photo, I think I cut a sorry figure on the banks of the (heavily polluted) Wenyu River, close to Beijing’s 5th ring road and airport. However, it’s a sign of just how good the birding is in Beijing that days like this are accepted and tolerated. When it’s good, there is nowhere I would rather be…
EDIT: BBC World Service interviewed Terry on 8 December about the smog in Beijing and how it affects residents and birds. You can hear the interview here.
Twice in the last few days, inspired by the reports from this site by Shi Jin on Birdforum, I visited the Wenyu River in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. It is a fantastic area of paddies, weedy fields and even a disused golf course. Brian Jones and Spike Millington, both former Beijing residents, used to visit this site regularly and I can see why.
On my first visit, late one evening, I arrived at the paddies just half an hour before dusk and yet I saw 4 new birds for me in Beijing – Chestnut-eared Bunting, White-breasted Waterhen, Yellow-legged Buttonquail and Little Owl.. Not bad. My second visit, early morning on Thursday, was just as rewarding. A singing David’s Bush Warbler was a nice start, soon followed by the White-breasted Waterhen, singing Lanceolated Warbler, several Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, two Schrenck’s Bitterns, Yellow Bittern, Pechora Pipit on the deck and a Black-naped Oriole calling from the willows. Wow. I walked the narrow pathways between the paddies and enjoyed several encounters, albeit brief, with Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Black-browed Reed Warblers and the odd Zitting Cisticola. A couple of Oriental Reed Warblers were much more obliging, singing purposefully from prominent perches in the reeds. It was a cacophony of birdsong.
After reaching the western end of the paddies, I decided to head back and return across the maze of paths. It was along one such narrow weedy path between two paddies that I experienced one of those moments in birding that makes it such an exciting (and sometimes frustrating!) hobby. I knew that Shi Jin had seen a large locustella warbler, possibly Middendorff’s, a day or two before and so I was on the lookout for large locustellas. I had also listened to the songs of the three possible large locustellas – Gray’s, Pleske’s and Middendorff’s – on Xeno Canto Asia just in case. Suddenly, I flushed a bird from the path that zipped into the paddy and down into the vegetation before I even had a chance to lift my binoculars. It was clearly interesting – my sense was that it looked larger than the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers I had been seeing, but still looked like a locustella in shape and structure.. ..it was plain looking, greyish, without much, if any, contrast on the upperparts… Hmmm… could it be one of the large locustellas I had been thinking about? I knew that there was a very good chance that I would never see it again… they are notorious skulkers and it was a large paddy. However, I decided to wait to see whether anything emerged from the area in which it had gone down. To my surprise, just a few seconds later, a bird began to sing and the sound appeared to be coming from the same area… I remembered the songs from Xeno Canto and immediately ruled out Gray’s and Middendorff’s. It reminded me of the Pleske’s song… I put two and two together – large locustella, song like a Pleske’s – and in my mind a big neon sign lit up flashing “Pleske’s Warbler!!”. But could it really be a Pleske’s Warbler? In Beijing?? The bird sang for a few minutes and I quickly took out my handheld video camera to record the song, knowing that I would need that to have any chance of identifying this bird for certain in the absence of a good sight view. I recorded a few seconds of the song and then concentrated on trying to see it. Only once in the next 20-30 mins did I see a bird in that area, an incredibly brief view as a largish bird flitted across a small gap in the vegetation. Again, I got nothing on it other than it was largish and plain looking.. Frustrating to say the least.
At this point, I was excited.. I really thought that there was a singing Pleske’s Warbler just a few metres away from me. I sent a SMS to Shi Jin to tell him. A few minutes later, after no sign of the bird, I began to walk back to the metro station as I didn’t want to be too late back in town. And I wanted to download that sound file and check it against Xeno Canto! I then received a reply from Shi Jin to say he was on his way. He only lives 10 minutes away by car, so I headed back to the site to meet him and show him the precise spot. There was no song now and no sign of the bird. We waited a few minutes and after providing sustenance for the local mosquito population and with the day heating up fast, we decided that probably the best chance of seeing/hearing the bird would be to come back in the evening or the next morning. Neither of us could make it that evening but Shi Jin was hoping to try for it the next day. After a brief stop at the Little Owl nest site I discovered a few days before, Shi Jin kindly dropped me at the metro station for the return journey home.
On arriving home, the first thing I did was download the sound file from the video camera and check out Xeno Canto. There is one recording on Xeno Canto of Pleske’s. For comparison, my recording can be heard below:
Hmm… on listening to them both, now I wasn’t so sure.. there were elements of the song that were similar but there were also differences… Doubt began to creep into my mind. Was the singing bird a Pleske’s? And, in any case, could I say that the singing bird was definitely the large locustella I saw? I began to think that maybe the song was a different species. I listened to Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (the other locustella species seen that morning in the same area) on Xeno Canto but the few recordings of this species on the site sounded different).
So, the bottom line is I don’t know. I have a recording that I can’t identify and a brief sighting of a largish locustella that isn’t necessarily the same bird that I recorded singing anyway…! Arrggghhhh….
If anyone can help with the recording, please let me know. I have sent it to Paul Holt (who is currently away) and to Peter Kennerley, so hopefully the mystery will be resolved soon. In my head, I am expecting my song to be identified as a variation of Pallas’s Grashopper Warbler but my heart is hoping that it’s a Pleske’s. Watch this space!
Whatever the outcome of this experience, one of the highlights of the day was meeting Shi Jin, a top birder with a lot of China experience!