It’s been an eventful ten days for the Beijing Cuckoo Project Team. After the elation of Flappy’s and Meng’s return to the breeding grounds, following monumental journeys of 32,000 and 26,000km respectively, there was little time to take a breath before beginning phase two of the Beijing Cuckoo Project. The plan for this year was based on two aims. First, to increase the sample of tagged cuckoos from Beijing and NE China to strengthen the dataset which would enable scientists to make more informed conclusions about the migration of cuckoos from East Asia. And second, to build on the public engagement to reach more people in China and overseas about the wonders of bird migration.
It’s fair to say that this year has been challenging. Over the last ten days or so the Beijing Cuckoo Team has been valiantly navigating all manner of unfortunate incidents including Chinese visa issues, the British Airways IT shutdown, a major forest fire in Inner Mongolia (where we had hoped to tag some of the larger ‘canorus‘ cuckoos) and a hospital visit for one team member, Dick Newell (thankfully, not serious)..
Despite this, three Common Cuckoos (two females and one male) were fitted with tags at Yeyahu in Beijing. They are all of the bakeri subspecies and all were fitted with the tiny new 2g tags from Microwave Telemetry.
The Beijing birds have been given names and are already famous..
The first, a female, was named by the students from the International School of Beijing (ISB). Three students from ISB, along with two teachers, came to Yeyahu and witnessed the setting up of the nets, the capture, tagging and release of the bird. After a vote at school last week involving the whole year, the bird has been named 玉琳 (Yu-Lin). This means “precious jade in the forest”.
The release of Yu-Lin was filmed by Chinese national television (CCTV) as part of a documentary on Beijing’s wildlife. The CCTV crew also managed to secure some fantastic footage of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan) calling close by..!
The documentary will be shown on national television later this year and we’ll publish a link as soon as the programme is available online.
The second cuckoo, a male, was named by staff at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve. The name given is 小松 (XiaoSong) which means “small pine tree”.
The third cuckoo, another female, was named by the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre after an online public vote. After thousands of votes from members of the public, the name chosen was 六月 (LiuYue) meaning “June”.
Of course, being at Yeyahu, we were all hoping to catch a glimpse of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan), one of the Beijing Cuckoos fitted with a tag in 2016. After his marathon journey of more than 26,000km to Mozambique and back, Meng was photographed at Yeyahu on 20 May. And, on 31st May, as we were catching the first Beijing Cuckoos of 2017, we were treated to several close encounters, including a magnificent fly-by just metres away in front of the students and teachers from ISB.
It was wonderful to see and hear so many Cuckoos on the reserve and Meng looked fit and healthy as he interacted aggressively with other males and chased females in all directions.
Each of the three members of the Class of 2017 has its own webpage and their journeys will be added to the map on the dedicated Beijing Cuckoo Project webpage.
What will the next 12 months bring? One thing is for sure – they will entertain, educate, surprise and inspire us…
Huge thanks to my fellow Beijing Cuckoo Project Team members, including Chris Hewson, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan and Robert and Robin Jolliffe. The Beijing Cuckoo Project Team is extremely grateful to all the staff at Yeyahu Nature Reserve and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, especially Shi Yang, Wu Mengwei, Aodan Zhula, Zhang Yaqiong and Wang Bojun for their fantastic support and wonderful hospitality.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Saturday “Team Swift” undertook the next stage of the Beijing Swift Project at the Summer Palace, here in Beijing. The Chinese “catching team”, led by Professor Zhao Xinru, was on site at the inhuman hour of 0230 to set up the nets and, by the time I arrived at 0400 with the Europeans, there were already a couple of birds waiting to be tagged.
This year was another hugely successful operation involving more than 60 people, all volunteers, organised into highly efficient teams by the China Birdwatching Society. From Europe there was Chris Hewson (BTO), Dick Newell and Rob Jolliffe (Action For Swifts), Lyndon Kearsley, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris (Belgium) and Susanne Åkesson and Aron Hejdstrom from Lund University.
We succeeded in catching 10 birds with geolocators fitted in the previous 2 years. Nine of these had good data, six from birds tagged in 2015 and three from birds tagged in 2014. Two of these we had caught in 2015, but one was a new bird carrying 2 years worth of data. So we now have 23 complete tracks, 14 of the 2014/15 migration and 9 of the 2015/16 migration.
Preliminary analysis shows the birds doing similar things in the 2 migrations – ie migrating to and from southern Africa using a route north of the Himalayas. It’s one of the most incredible migrations of any bird and to think they do it without landing is awe-inspiring…
We also succeeded in fitting 46 new loggers of various types: GPS loggers, loggers with accelerometers and pressure sensors, as well as some more light level geolocators. These should give us more valuable information in 2017.
Once again, it was a real privilege to be part of this incredible project… a project that is not only contributing to scientific discovery and facilitating superb collaboration between scientists and volunteers from China and Europe but also engaging the public about these amazing birds and their incredible migrations.
Huge thanks to Wu Lan for, again, being the spider at the centre of the web, to Dick, Lyndon, Chris, Rob, Geert, Gie, Susanne and Aron for their valuable contributions to this project and, most of all, to the many young Chinese volunteers who worked so well together to make this year’s catching such a success.
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).
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.
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.
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.
On Saturday I visited Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, with 吴岚 (Wu Lan). It’s a long drive – around 100km – but straightforward as it’s all along the G109. Lingshan was the location of GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter and looking for this species was one of the aims of the visit. Leaving well before dawn to miss the traffic, it was stunning to see the colours on the mountains change from a dark pink to a bright orange as the sun rose in the southeast.. Beijing’s mountains really are beautiful.
On the way we were fortunate to see a flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS (小太平鸟) by the roadside at Qingshui…
On arrival at Lingshan we quickly spotted a few GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) on the sea buckthorn bushes near the peak. Stunning birds, especially in flight, there were at least 10 present in the area.
As well as the redstarts, there are also good numbers of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀) and DARK-THROATED THRUSHES (mostly RED-THROATED 赤颈鸫).
We had only been on the mountain a short time when we saw a distressing sight – a CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) that was clearly injured.. It was hobbling uphill dragging its right wing along the ground.
The vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires of this nearby communications tower.
Having previously visited the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre, they were the obvious people to call for advice and 张率 (Zhang Shuai), the head of the centre, said “please catch it and bring it in for treatment – if not, it will die tonight with an open wound in these temperatures.” She ended the call with “Don’t worry – you will be able to out-run it.”
It sounded easy. We just catch it, put it in the boot of the car and drive the 100km back to Beijing to the rescue centre.
At this point I regretted not carrying a large box in the back of the car and, with no prospect of finding one on top of a remote mountain, we decided that covering the bird with my thick down winter coat would be the best way to capture it and cover it for the journey back to Beijing.
We began the walk up the hill to where the we last saw the bird and, sure enough, we soon found it. It was laying on its back with its legs kicking in the air.. clearly in some distress.
At this point, 吴岚 (Wu Lan) was brilliant. She ran towards it and covered it with my coat before it had a chance to right itself and scramble away.
Wrapping it in my fleece and covering its head with Wu Lan’s hat, we were able to calm it and, after a couple of minutes, we lifted it (7kg as it turns out) and began to walk to the car. It was heavy and we both took shifts in carrying it down the hill to the car.
We wrapped it gently in my coat and placed it in the boot of the car… It was big enough to sit upright in the backseat with a seatbelt on but, with a broken wing, it was clearly best to be in a dark place to minimise the stress. And so we began the journey back to Beijing, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. The injury was clearly very bad, with part of the wing bone protruding and lots of blood.
It took around 2.5 hours to reach the raptor centre and, on arrival, the impressive 张率 (Zhang Shuai) was ready – she had already prepared the operating theatre – and the bird was immediately put under anaesthetic to allow a thorough inspection of the wound.
张率 (Zhang Shuai) got to work immediately and cleaned up the wound before taking an x-ray to assess the damage.
张率 (Zhang Shuai) looked at us with tears in her eyes. We knew immediately what she was going to say. The injuries were too bad to fix and, with a bird this size, a life in captivity would be miserable for a majestic bird that is used to ruling the skies over the mountains of northern China and Mongolia. It was emotional for us all. This poor bird had been doing exactly what it was meant to do – patrolling the skies over the mountains looking for food – when it had collided, badly, with an alien, and almost invisible, structure. There was no option. This magnificent bird had to be euthanised.
I can’t help thinking that if the support wires had been marked with flags or even painted a contrasting colour instead of the almost unnoticeable silver grey, this bird might have seen them and taken evasive action. It seemed such an unnecessary, and desperately sad, death.