More Good News For Yellow Sea Conservation And How You Can Help!

Protecting the Yellow Sea is the highest conservation priority in East Asia.  Coastal wetlands in China are facing massive pressure from economic development and, over the past 50 years, the country has lost more than 60 percent of its natural coastal wetlands.

As readers of this website will know from articles here, here and here, there has been a huge national and international effort to try to conserve what remains of the incredibly rich intertidal mudflats on which millions of shorebirds, including the charismatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, depend.

Earlier this year, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites 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.

Just a few months later, in mid-June, came another step forward.  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.

Under the terms of the MoU, the four parties will work closely to conserve and manage the site, and will establish a provincial nature reserve (PNR) at Nanpu wetland within the 12 months.

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 Nanpu Wetland 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 22 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.

According to the MoU, The Paulson Institute and WWF will provide best domestic and international nature reserve construction and management practices in the process of planning, approving, building, and managing Nanpu Wetland Nature Reserve, so as to build, protect and manage it in an effective and efficient manner.

Let’s hope this initiative is the first of many and that more Provincial and local governments along the Yellow Sea coast will follow this example and work to protect the remaining intertidal mudflats in their regions.  There is no doubt that the Yellow Sea is a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and it has 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.

Finally, if you would like to experience the astonishing Yellow Sea migration for yourself, contribute to the conservation effort and you’re free this November, you’re in luck! One of the most hard-working and impressive domestic organisations working to protect the Yellow Sea intertidal mudflats – local NGO, Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBS in China) – is running the second of its special birding tours to the Yellow Sea coast this autumn.  Showcasing the global importance of this coastline, the tour will focus on some of the most endangered and unique birds of the region, including Spoonie.  It will be led by some of China’s finest young conservationists and bird guides and 10 per cent of the participation fee will go directly to support local conservation NGOs in China.  Background about the first trip, this spring, can be found here.  And here’s a summary of the November trip:

Dates: November 2 to November 17 (16 days)

Sites: Shanghai, Jiangsu coast, Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces, Poyang Lake Nature Reserve, Dongzhai Nature Reserve, Yancheng Nature Reserve.

Highlights:

Yellow Sea coast: Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Red Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Saunders’s Gull, Relict Gull, Black- faced Spoonbill, Reed Parrotbill and over 200 migratory shorebirds and forest birds.

Wuyuan: Scaly-sided Merganser, Scimitar Babblers, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Dusky Fulvetta, Chinese Bamboo Partridge, and other forest birds including Pied Falconet, Red-billed Leiothrix, Red-billed Starling, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Chestnut Bulbul, Grey-headed Parrotbill etc.

Poyang Lake NR: Siberian Crane, Baer’s Pochard and Geese of all kinds

Dongzhai NR: Reeves’s Pheasant and the reintroduced Crested Ibis.

Yancheng NR: Red-crowned Crane, Japanese Reed Bunting and Baikal Teal

The tour will be led by China Coastal Waterbird Census Team surveyors who have been working as volunteers for over 10 years.

For more details on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there is a downloadable PDF and, for further questions, you can contact Li Jing, leader of SBS in China, on info@sbsinchina.com.

I wish I could join!

 

Cover photo of Spoon-billed Sandpiper by Chen Tengyi, one of the guides for the November Yellow Sea tour.

China Takes Important Step Towards Protecting Remaining Intertidal Mudflats

This is big news.  The Chinese government has just taken an important step to protect some of the key remaining intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  A total of fourteen sites have been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government. And, if these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

The fourteen sites listed as “tentative” World Heritage Site nominations by the Chinese government. Credit: EAAFP

The extensive mudflats, sandflats and associated habitats of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Bay, represent one of the largest areas of intertidal wetlands on Earth and are shared by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (RoK). It is the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF).  And yet, in the last few decades, around 70% of the intertidal habitat has been lost to land reclamation projects, causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline dramatically.

Species such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot are highly dependent on the area for food and rest during their long migrations from as far as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.  And of course, this area is not only important as a stopover site.  Almost the entire world population of Relict Gull winters in the Bohai Bay, and the whole population of Saunders’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill breed in the area.

RELICT GULLS in Tianjin. One of the species entirely dependent on the intertidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay.

The tentative nomination has not happened out of thin air.  It’s the result of many years of hard work by domestic Chinese organisations, supported by the international community.

Back in September 2012, concern about habitat loss and the plight of migratory waterbirds led to a call to ensure a suitable framework for the conservation and management of the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Gulf, and associated bird species at the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Jeju, Republic of Korea.  A resolution on the ‘Conservation of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and its threatened waterbirds, with particular reference to the Yellow Sea’ was adopted by 100% of voting governments.

Subsequently, national workshops were held in Beijing in 2014, and Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 2016 to implement this resolution nationally.  Then, in August 2016, I was fortunate to participate in a joint meeting in Beijing, where representatives of the government authorities of China and the Republic of Korea responsible for World Heritage implementation discussed the nomination of Yellow Sea coastal wetlands.

Negotiating text at the August 2016 IUCN meeting in Beijing, involving officials from China and the Republic of Korea.

A further resolution “Conservation of intertidal habitats and migratory waterbirds of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, especially the Yellow Sea, in a global context” was adopted at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), responsible for World Heritage nomination in China has been active in identifying key sites and involving stakeholders to promote the current tentative list, with technical assistance from ShanShui, a Chinese conservation NGO.  Whilst the list is not comprehensive – there are other key sites that many conservationists feel should be included – it is a strong foundation and it is possible to add further sites in due course. Importantly, at the same time, the Republic of Korea has been working on a nomination for the tidal flats of the southwest region including the most important site for migratory waterbirds in the country, Yubu Island.

With these proposed nominations by China and the Republic of Korea, the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea are being increasingly recognized by governments for their outstanding global importance and it is hoped that this will result in stronger protection and effective management for the continued survival of migratory waterbirds.

There is a long way to go to secure formal nomination and inscription onto the list of World Heritage Sites – that process can take many years – but it’s a vital step and an important statement of intent that provides a renewed sense of optimism about the potential to save what remains of these unique sites.  Huge kudos, in particular to MOHURD and to ShanShui, and to everyone who has been working so hard to make this happen, including the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute, IUCN, John MacKinnon and many more.

The long-term vision is that there will be a joint China/Republic of Korea and maybe even DPRK World Heritage Site covering the key locations along the Yellow Sea/Bohai Bay.  Now, wouldn’t that be something?!

 

Links:

The formal listing of the sites can be found here: UNESCO: The Coast of the Bohai Gulf and the Yellow Sea of China

For the EAAFP press release, see here.

Title Image:

Far Eastern Curlew, Nanpu, August 2014.  One of the species heavily dependent on the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.

Experience World Class Yellow Sea Migration And Support The Local Conservation Effort

Are you free in mid-April, want to experience the world-class migration along the Yellow Sea coast AND support the local conservation effort?  If so, keep reading…

A local NGO called Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBSC) is organising a special eleven-day tour for birders to showcase the spectacular migration of the Yellow Sea, connecting with some very special birds, including Spooner, whilst contributing to the effort to preserve this globally important habitat.

For background, the East Asian Australasian Flyway is the greatest flyway on the planet, stretching from the Taimyr Peninsula and Alaska in the north through China, Japan and the Koreas to Australia and New Zealand in the south.  In total, the flyway passes through 22 countries and is used by more than 50 migratory species.  The Yellow Sea is of vital importance to these birds, comprising a series of stopover sites where they can refuel, rest and moult their flight feathers during these mind-boggling journeys.

shorebird-flock

As most readers will know, much of the important intertidal mudflats along this stretch of coast have been reclaimed, causing the populations of many shorebirds to decline, most prominently the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  Thankfully, there is a large conservation effort dedicated to saving what remains of the intertidal mudflats and, importantly, there are an increasing number of local organisations and NGOs leading this effort.  One such organisation is “Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBSC)”, a Jiangsu-based NGO led by the impressive Li Jing.  Established in 2008, SBSC focus on conserving the biodiversity along the Jiangsu coast. The team conducts regular waterbird surveys, promotes birding and nature observation activities, introduces people to the unique marine culture and improves conservation awareness among local communities, including schools, fishermen unions and business.

SBSC is a key partner of the China Coastal Waterbird Census Group (CCWCG).  The Census Group was established in 2005, training birdwatchers in bird identification and counting methods.  Surveys have been conducted by volunteers every month since September 2005, and it is widely recognised as the most successful example of citizen science in China.

To help promote the area to international birders and raise money to support the conservation effort, Li Jing and her colleagues have arranged a special tour for birders this April.  Running from 11-21 April, the tour will start and finish in Shanghai and will take in Rudong, the most important site in the world for Spooner, as well as a day’s pelagic trip and visits to nearby sites in Wuyuan, Nanjing hills and Huangshan.  The mouthwatering list of species likely to be encountered includes Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Little Curlew, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Saunders’s Gull, Black-faced Spoonbill, Reed Parrotbill, Blue-crowned Laughingthrush, Masked Laughingthrush, Hwamei, Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Dusky Fulvetta, Chinese Bamboo Partridge and many others including Pied Falconet.

magic-wood-rudong
The “Magic Wood” at Rudong can be buzzing with migrants in spring and autumn.

Participants will have the added bonus of being guided by the best – Li Jing, Chen Tengyi, Han Yongxiang and Shanghai’s finest, Zhang Lin.  These birders have been surveying this part of the coast for more than 10 years and discovered the importance of Rudong for Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  Birders could not be in better hands!

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Li Jing, leader of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China NGO
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Zhang Lin, Shanghai’s leading birder and discoverer of Rudong as the most important stopover site for Spoon-billed Sandpiper
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Chen Tengyi, from Chongming Island and an accomplished bird-whistler, skills learned from former hunters.
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Han Yongxiang, a wildlife illustrator from Lianyungang

At the time of writing there are 6 places available on the trip and interested birders are invited to contact Li Jing via email at info@sbsinchina.com for more information.

It promises to be a wonderful experience and, as well as seeing some special birds, participants will be helping the local effort to save these globally important sites.

Cover photo of Spoon-billed Sandpiper by Chen Tengyi.

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.

lp-with-local-boys
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.
beijing-cuckoos-as-at-1-january-2017
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.

The Yellow Sea: The Highest Conservation Priority In East Asia

In the fun company of Paul Holt and Marie Louise, I have just made my 15th visit to Nanpu, a small town situated on the coast of the Bohai Bay in Hebei Province, China.  At this time of year the outskirts of this unassuming settlement play host to one of nature’s most incredible spectacles – the migration of millions of shorebirds from their Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere, many travelling as far as Australia and New Zealand.  It is truly awe-inspiring to see, and hear, flocks of shorebirds excitedly arriving on the newly exposed mud on the falling tide and there’s nowhere better  in the world than China’s east coast to witness this stunning scene…. Just listen to ABC presenter Ann Jones and Chinese birder and good friend, Bai Qingquan, describe this phenomenon in this short clip from the excellent BBC World Service/ABC radio series.

A Google Earth image showing the location of Nanpu, in the Bohai Bay.
A Google Earth image showing the location of Nanpu, in the Bohai Bay.

We enjoyed a brilliant two days with 33 species of shorebird logged, including flocks of long-distance migrants, many of which were still in fine breeding plumage, including GREAT KNOT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, GREY PLOVER, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, the ‘Near Threatened’ ASIAN DOWITCHER and even a single ‘Endangered’ NORDMANN’S GREENSHANK.  My poor quality video and photos simply don’t do justice to these birds.

2016-07-28 Asian Dowitcher juvenile, Nanpu
Juvenile ASIAN DOWITCHER, Nanpu, 28 July 2016

As we were travelling back to Beijing, I checked the news on my smartphone.  The headline was about the Rio Olympics, a forward look to two weeks of celebrating the astonishing physical feats of the world’s best athletes – from 100m sprinters to marathon runners.  The parallel with the shorebirds was striking.  Take the Bar-tailed Godwit.  One population of this species winters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes the return journey directly, a gob-smacking non-stop 11,000 km over the Pacific Ocean.  According to scientists, this journey is the equivalent of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more then seven days!  Along the way, the birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain in Alaska. And before they embark on this epic journey, they even shrink their digestive organs, superfluous weight for a non-stop 7-day flight. Try that, Usain!

Bolt v BT Godwit
The best athlete in the world: Bar-tailed Godwit or Usain Bolt?  Bolt reaches speeds of around 48km/h, with an average of 38km/h, for under 10 seconds in the 100m sprint.  The Godwit’s effort is the equivalent of running at 70km/h non-stop for 7 days!

Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has fallen sharply, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today.  And the Bar-tailed Godwit is only one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the so-called Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea).  The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

So what is the reason for the decline?  Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team have, through years of painstaking studies, proved what many birders have long suspected – that the main cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea.  Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat.  If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.

The problem, in China at least, is a combination of local economics and national regulations.  The coastal region of China is home to 40% of the country’s population, and produces roughly 60% of national GDP.  Local governments receive much of their revenue through land sales and the land that demands the highest price is agricultural land close to major cities.  However, to ensure China’s food security is preserved, there is a national regulation (the Law of Land Management) stipulating that there must be no net loss of agricultural land.  So any farmland sold for development must be offset by land elsewhere being allocated for agriculture.  The relatively cheap reclamation of mudflats is, therefore, a profitable way for Provinces to be able to sell high-value land for development whilst conforming with the “no net loss” rule by allocating much of the reclaimed land for aquaculture.  In the absence of a law protecting nationally-important ecosystems, local priorities rule.  And, although large-scale land reclamation projects, at least in theory, require national level approval, these rules are easily circumvented by splitting large projects into several, smaller, constituent parts.  With a booming economy over the last few decades, resulting in high demand for land, the tidal mudflats are suffering death by a thousand cuts.

In South Korea, it’s a similar story.  Perhaps surprisingly, it’s North Korea’s relatively undeveloped coastline that could provide the last refuge for the dwindling populations of these birds.

So, what can be done?  Ultimately, what’s needed is greater protection for, and more effective management of, nationally important ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, not only for migratory birds but also to avoid undermining China’s basic ecological security, such as providing fishery products, fresh water and flood control.  That will require a combination of new laws, amendments to existing laws, regulations and greater public awareness.  There is some great work on this, initiated by the Paulson Institute in partnership with China’s State Forestry Administration and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that makes some compelling recommendations.

In parallel to these recommendations, one idea is to secure nomination of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion as a shared World Heritage Site between China and North and South Korea.  The concept is based on the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site, a so-called ‘serial’ nomination of linked sites across three countries.  Initiated by The Netherlands and Germany in 2009, with Denmark joining in 2014, this World Heritage Site is based in large part on its unique importance for migratory waterbirds.  Whilst World Heritage Site status wouldn’t mean automatic protection for the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, it would give it greater national and international recognition based on its significance for migratory shorebirds along the world’s largest and most important flyway.  That must be a good thing.

More immediately there is much that must be done to raise awareness about the importance of these areas for migratory shorebirds, as well as local livelihoods – vital work if the conservation community is to have a chance of influencing local governments.   Whenever I speak about migratory shorebirds in China, without exception, people are amazed by the journeys these birds undertake and they are enthused to do something to help.  Most are simply unaware that the Yellow Sea coast lies at the heart of the flyway.  The good news is that there is now an increasing number of local birdwatching and conservation groups in many of China’s coastal provinces engaging local governments and doing what they can to save their local sites. There are grassroots organisations in China working hard to promote environmental education, not only with schools but also the general public.  And there is a growing band of young Chinese scientists studying shorebird migration along the Yellow Sea.  These groups fill me with great optimism about China’s future conservation community.

Internationally, organisations such as BirdLife, including their superb China Programme team – Simba Chan and Vivian Fu – are working with groups such as the Global Flyway Network, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, as well as Professor Theunis Piersma and his dedicated team.  Together, they are advancing the concept of the World Heritage Site with the UN, governments and local groups.  At the same time, I believe it is incumbent on us all to be Ambassadors for these birds, to celebrate their lives and to do what we can to promote awareness about their incredible journeys.

The tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are one of China’s treasures, alongside the Great Wall, but they are in peril.  Affording them robust protection and effective management is the highest conservation priority in east Asia and it’s a race against time.

Wouldn’t it be something if, alongside the rolling coverage of the Olympics, state TV and radio profiled the most impressive athletes of all – the shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway?

 

References and resources:

BIRDS OF THE YELLOW SEA – datavisualization of migration routes by 422 South on Vimeo.  See URL: https://vimeo.com/150776396

BBC World Service/ABC Radio series on the East Asian Flyway, 2016.  See URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wpkd8

Saemangeum on Birds Korea.  See URL: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-Mainpage.shtml

Why North Korea Is A Safe Haven For Birds, BBC, 2016.  See URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36533469

The Paulson Institute Blueprint of Coastal Wetland Conservation and Management in China, 2015.  See URL: http://www.paulsoninstitute.org/news/2015/10/19/paulson-institute-and-chinese-partners-publish-blueprint-of-coastal-wetland-conservation-and-management-in-china/

Global Flyway Network: see URL: http://globalflywaynetwork.com.au/

East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP): See URL: http://www.eaaflyway.net/

Photo of Usain Bolt “Bolt celebrating at the 2013 London Anniversary Games” by J Brichto used under license from Creative Commons.

Bolt’s speed: see URL: http://running.competitor.com/2014/02/junk-miles/6-animals-faster-than-usain-bolt_95078

The Yellow Sea And Shorebirds: An Evening With Professor Theunis Piersma

On Wednesday evening, birders in Beijing were treated to a brilliant lecture by Dutch Professor Theunis Piersma, the world-leading shorebird expert.

China’s east coast hosts one of the world’s most amazing natural spectacles every spring and autumn – the migration of millions of shorebirds from their wintering grounds in Australia and New Zealand to breeding grounds in the Arctic.  It’s a journey that requires sustained physical exertion on a scale that is way beyond the best human athletes in the world.  For many of these birds, the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay on China’s east coast are vital stopover sites on this awe-inspiring journey.  And yet, as we know, the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Chinese coast is advancing at a rapid rate.  Already, around 70% of the intertidal mudflats have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat.

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A colour-flagged GREAT KNOT.  Photo by Global Flyway Network.

Professor Piersma has been studying shorebird migration for decades and, working with a brilliant team of researchers from China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea, among others, his research, using colour-ringing and satellite tagging, is showing two clear findings.

First, that populations of many shorebird species, in particular the study species of Red Knot, Great Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, are declining rapidly.  And second, that the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay is the problem.

To birders familiar with China’s east coast, these two findings won’t come as a surprise but of course, if there is to be any chance of convincing policymakers to adjust their plans, the most important thing is to provide evidence.

That is why Professor Piersma’s work is so important.  He and his team have been able to provide several key pieces of compelling scientific evidence.

First, their research shows that the three study species, each of which uses a different habitat in the Arctic, are showing similar increasing mortality rates.  To find out what is causing this rising mortality rate, each part of their life-cycle must be studied.  Monitoring on the wintering grounds in Australia and New Zealand shows that mortality there is normal, demonstrating that the problem lies elsewhere.  The main reason for mortality on the Arctic breeding grounds that could affect all three locations simultaneously is when the ice is slow to retreat, meaning that birds arrive on the breeding grounds when they are still frozen and there is a lack of food, leading to high mortality.  Weather data from the last 7-8 years during the study period shows that, if anything, the melt has been earlier than usual, meaning that cold springs are not the reason for high mortality.  This strongly suggests that the problem is not in the Arctic but instead along the migration route.

Second, different subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit that use different migration routes are experiencing different mortality rates.  Birds that winter in Australia use the Yellow Sea twice every year, during their spring and autumn migrations to and from their breeding grounds.  Birds that winter in New Zealand use the Yellow Sea only once – in spring – making an incredible non-stop journey of more than 10,000km from Alaska to New Zealand.  If the problem was the Yellow Sea, one would expect the two subspecies to show different mortality rates.  Sure enough, satellite tracking by scientists has shown that birds that use the Yellow Sea twice are experiencing a mortality rate twice as high as birds that use the Yellow Sea only once per year.  That’s pretty telling.

This information, together with other supporting evidence, strongly supports the hypothesis that the reclamation of tidal mudflats in the Yellow Sea is causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline fast.

The challenge is to inject this scientific evidence into the Chinese policymaking circles.  That is why Theunis met with officials from the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) during his visit to Beijing.  This group is a government-sponsored “NGO” (is that an oxymoron?) that has the authority to make submissions to the State Council (China’s cabinet) about issues relating to wildlife conservation and biodiversity.  The meeting was positive with a keen interest from the officials in Professor Piersma’s work and an appetite to use the scientific data to develop proposals to the State Council.  There is a lot of work to do to influence decision-makers about the importance of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay for migratory shorebirds but, as someone important once said, “every great journey starts with a single step.”

Professor Piersma explaining his research findings to officials at the CBCGDF.
Professor Piersma explaining his research findings to officials at the CBCGDF.
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Professor Piersma chats to young Beijing birders after his lecture.
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One question was about how to ensure this scientific data is seen by top leaders…

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Big thanks to Professor Piersma for taking the time to meet with young Chinese birders during his visit and we wish him good luck as he continues his research and begins the task of convincing policymakers to take into account the importance of China’s east coast to so many amazing shorebird species.  Any birders visiting the coast should look out for and report any colour-ringed or tagged birds they see, recording the species, location, position of the colour-flags and any other interesting information.  Observations from amateur birders play a vital role in contributing to the research.  See here for details about how to report a flagged bird.  And here for a visual guide to the flags used and their places of origin.