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.
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.
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.