A message from Баян (BAYAN) on International Biodiversity Day

It is with a heavy heart that I must report the loss of Баян (BAYAN), one of the Mongolian Cuckoos. 

The last signals received from his tag were at 1035 local time on 12 May 2020 and showed him almost exactly 100km north of Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province.  Since then, there has been radio silence.  The following analysis of the data from BAYAN’s tag was provided by Dr Chris Hewson of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) who fitted the tag to BAYAN in Mongolia in June 2019:

“…there were some slightly unusually high temps around 1000 local time on 9/5 – reaching 40-41 C on the scale of the PTTs, compared to a normal max in the high c 35 C even in Africa (it does rise to around 37-38 C on occasion though). The tag temperature was also pretty cool the next morning, probably cooler than it should be – down to about 26 C, which is probably indicative of lack of regulation of tag temp due to behaviour / absence of body temp buffering of temp.  My best guess, all things considered, is that Bayan died between 1000 8/5 and 1000 9/5.  The circumstances of disappearance are similar to Flappy who died in Myanmar on spring migration. These birds are really racing on spring migration, which might leave them vulnerable to not finding good stopovers / predation etc.”
 

In the small hope that the tag’s temperature sensor was malfunctioning or there was an alternative explanation, we waited a few days for further signals.  None were forthcoming, strongly suggesting that BAYAN had indeed died on 8 or 9 May 2020.

It is always sad when we lose a tracked bird but we should celebrate his life and the impact he has had on people around the world. 

BAYAN’s journey took him from Mongolia to Mozambique and back to China, crossing 31 borders involving 18 countries and a total distance of c24,000km.  Outward journey from Mongolia to Mozambique in yellow, return in orange. Block dot shows location of last signals, 100km north of Kunming, Yunnan Province on 12 May 2020.

After crossing the Arabian Sea to India, hot on the heels of ONON, he captivated a country with an incredible surge of interest among people in India, most of whom were previously unaware of the distances travelled by some of the most familiar migratory birds.  Below are just a few of the reactions to BAYAN’s crossing of the Arabian Sea:

One of the main purposes of the project was to reach and inspire more people about the wonders of bird migration.  Judging from the reaction on social media, BAYAN certainly did that.

Being able to follow the incredible journeys of these cuckoos opens our eyes to the phenomenal endurance of these birds and the mind-boggling distances they travel.  It also reminds us that migratory birds live life on the edge with little margin for error.  

If there is one message BAYAN, whose name translates as “prosper”, could carry with him, I am sure it would be something like this: 

“Migratory birds like me don’t recognise human borders.  We travel around the Earth, crossing oceans and deserts, powered sustainably by caterpillars, just to survive and breed.  As humans, you are changing the planet in profound ways.  Please ensure there are places for us to rest and refuel along the way so that we all may prosper.”

The fact that we last heard from BAYAN close to Kunming, Yunnan Province in China is fitting.  Next year, this city is due to host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, at which governments are due to agree a “new deal for nature” including targets to slow and reverse the loss of biodiversity.  In many ways it is the most important meeting ever on nature. 

Wouldn’t it be good to think that BAYAN’s legacy is to send his message to delegates to the UN meeting in Kunming?

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Thank you to everyone who has supported, followed and engaged with Баян (BAYAN) and the other Mongolian Cuckoos during this project.  You have all helped to raise awareness about migratory birds and the places they need.       

BAYAN’s journey at a glance:

7 June 2019: fitted with a tag (number 170437) at Khurkh in northern Mongolia.  

11 June 2019: named by schoolchildren at Khurkh Village School

7 June 2019 to 9 May 2020: Mongolia – China – Myanmar – India – Bangladesh – India – Oman – Saudi Arabia – Yemen – Saudi Arabia – Eritrea – Ethiopia – South Sudan – Kenya – Uganda – Kenya – Tanzania – Mozambique – Malawi – Mozambique – Malawi – Mozambique – Zambia – Malawi – Tanzania – Kenya – Somalia – India – Bangladesh – India – Myanmar – China (31 border crossings involving 18 countries)

Total distance: c24,000km

Rest In Peace Баян (BAYAN) 🙏

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Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey

I have been meaning to post a few photos from a trip to see the “Endangered” Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey (Rhinopithecus bieti) during a short break to Yunnan Province in November.  Situated a few hours north of Lijiang, in the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau, is a wonderful small reserve set in beautiful original forest where a troupe of these rare primates roam.  The reserve staff put out food – fresh lichen – every morning, so the monkeys have become habituated and, with a bit of luck, it’s possible to secure some stunning views.

The Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey is the rarest of 3 species of snub-nosed monkey in China and inhabits the highest range of any primate except man.  It exists only in small fragments of original coniferous forest at 3,000-4,500m above sea level in northwest Yunnan and southeast Tibet, a habitat that experiences frost on around 280 days of the year.  Unusually, their diet consists entirely of lichen and, although this food source is abundant and easy to digest, it is relatively poor nutritionally.  And given that lichen can take up to 15 years to regenerate, the territory of this monkey can be large, with their home range covering as much as 25 square kilometres.

Enjoy…!

A young Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey, north of Lijiang, Yunnan Province.
A young Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey, north of Lijiang, Yunnan Province.  Check out those human-like teeth!
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Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey.. their nose reminds me of Michael Jackson!
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A young Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey on the lookout for fresh lichen
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The snub-nosed monkeys (of which there are 3 species in China) are so-called because of their upturned noses, caused by a lack of nasal bones. They are said to sneeze loudly during rain, a characteristic that can betray their presence.
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In profile, the nose is even more striking.
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Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey. Another youngster already displaying those characteristic thick lips.
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A very young individual. The coat gradually darkens as they age.

On return, I came across this wonderful article about the Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey on Dr Martin Williams’s website.  See here.

Guest Post 1: John Holmes – “Birding The Hump”

As trailed, here is the first in a series of ‘guest posts’ from people living and/or with long experience of birding in this vast country.   I hope the series, to be published occasionally over the next few months, gives the reader an insight into the diversity of the birdlife, the challenges faced in squaring China’s development with environment protection and, most of all, a taste of what it’s like to go birding in this wonderful country.

The first guest post comes from John Holmes and covers an area called the Gaoligongshan in Yunnan Province, south-west China.   The Gaoligongshan is located in the western Yunnan highlands very near border of China and Burma. It was declared a Nature Reserve in 1983 and, in 1992, the World Wildlife Fund, designated it a level A grade protected area. The reserve is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, established in 2003, and as such a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Enjoy…

Birding “The Hump” – birds and history in Gaoligongshan

Imaw Bum, over the border in Burma

The himalayas curl eastwards from India around the northern tip of Burma, and then extend southwards as the Hengduanshan in north-south ranges divided by three of asia’s great rivers – the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween.  These forbidding peaks were known as “The Hump” to the World War Two allied cargo plane crews, who supplied the Chinese army in Yunnan province from airbases in Assam, northeast India. Long distances, high mountains and unpredictable weather – as well as threat of Japanese air attacks – all contributed to a high loss of life.
Gaoligongshan – featured in the BBC’s “Wild China” TV series – is the most westerly of these high ranges, over two hundred kilometres of mountain ridge rising to 5,000 metres in places.  In fact, much of the Gaoligongshan ridgeline marks the borders of Burma and Yunnan Province. The would-be traveller is advised to buy the Nelles map of Southern China for an introduction to the geography of the area. The best field guide, as for most of western Yunnan, is Craig Robson’s “Birds of South East Asia”.

Baihualing, headquarters of Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, is a justly famous birding site, and has been known to modern birders for a few years now.  In this post I want to highlight a slightly more northerly section of the reserve, which can be birded from a public road between Lushui and the border town of Pianma. We birded the area in April and again in October 2009.

More info here : http://johnjemi.hk/jj_cn/index.html

Getting there:

To get to Lushui from the Baihualing turnoff you first go 60 km north along route       S 230 to Liuku.  12 km north of Liuku is the hotspring village of Lushui and the Pianma road turns left, uphill to the west.  It is 84 km to Pianma.

On public transport, there are regular seven-seater minibuses plying the route from Liuku’s eastern bus station.  A 14-seater minibus leaves the western bus station (acroos the river) at 12:30.  Usual journey time is 2 ½ to 3 hours.

Gold-naped Finch


The first 40km or so takes you through much-cultivated hillsides but then you enter the Gaoligongshan reserve area through a red metal archway near an abandoned hill resort.  Nearby is a government centre concerned with breeding Red Pandas but it is not open to the public.  Just up the road from the reserve boundary we found a small party of Gold-naped Finches, feeding on wild raspberries. In both April and October the finches were pretty much at the same spot.  Generally, though, the edible-sized birds were very shy.  The reason for this became obvious when we came upon a turbanned Lisu hunter, complete with crossbow and small retriever dog.

The road then proceeds through some bare and damaged hillsides until the highest point of the road (around 3,000 metres elevation) at km 58.5.  In the 1920s this was known to British explorers as the “Hpimaw Pass”.  But the best habitat is further over, on the western side of the mountain.  Descending towards Pianma, roughly  between km 64 and km 76 is a stretch of road with damaged remnants of primary forest, but enough secondary growth, bamboo and rhododendrons to harbour a fine variety of birds.

Pianma Road Km 64
Wallcreeper

Spotted Nutcracker, Fire-tailed Sunbird and Wallcreeper were seen near km 64. Fire-tailed Myzornis in a bamboo-lined gully was a bonus and other birds noted were Black-throated Parrotbill, Brown-winged Parrotbill and five species of Laughingthrush, including White-throated, Grey-sided and Scaly.  As at Baihualing, Yellow-browed Tit and Black-eared Shrike Babbler were very common.  A small pool near a bend in the road at km 75 was very active, and we finally got good views of Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler there. Pygmy Blue Flycatcher and Brown-throated Treecreeper made brief appearances.

Black-throated Tit

The good woodland ends at another red metal arch denoting the edge of GLGS reserve and Pianma town is about 9 kms beyond. Pianma has one bingguan (Hotel) licenced to accept foreigners.  It is on the right of the main street.  It is too far to walk to the birdable woodland from town, so birders would have to negotiate a Taxi or motor tricycle to take them back up to the woodland in the morning.

The Museum

An interesting feature in the town is a museum containing a reconstructed DC3 cargo aircraft that crashed in the area in 1943, although the wreckage was not brought to the attention of the authorities until 1996. There is a memorial to the young plane crew, an American and two Chinese. Display boards describing the routes taken and historical reasons for the “Hump” airlift operation are mostly in Chinese, but the maps and photos are clear enough.

After the British annexed upper Burma in the 1880s Army surveyors arrived in the Pianma area and – with the arrogance of the late-Victorian era – told the locals where they considered that the boundaries of the Britsh Empire ended and China began.  For almost sixty years Pianma and the nearby hill sides were “Burmese” Territory, and references to “Hpimaw Valley” in British accounts of the period are referring to the area around present-day Pianma. 1949 was a year of change for both China and Burma, and around that time China re-asserted control of the Pianma area.

The Plant Hunters

Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler

In the early 20th century a number of foreign adventurers., attracted by the flora (and sometimes the fauna) of Gaoligongshan explored the region. Frank Kingdon Ward passed through Hpimaw in 1914 and 1919, when he climbed a mountain called Imaw Bum (in Burma) to the west of Pianma.  Ward , mostly known for his  plant discoveries, was to secure the first specimen for science of Ward’s Trogon in northern Burma in 1926.  According to his book “Plant Hunting on the Edge of the World” the bird – a female – was actually shot by one of his Lisu porters with a crossbow.

Golden-breasted Fulvetta

Gaoligongshan  was also “worked” by local collectors employed by the Scottish plant hunter George Forrest.  Forrest based himself at various times at Dali and at Tengchong, both towns familiar to present-day birders doing a “circuit” of  western Yunnan.  Forrest and his staff collected plants on a grand scale for commercial nurseries and, in the early 1920s, also collected birds for Lord Rothschild, whose bird and animal specimens later formed the basis of the Natural History Museum collection at Tring. Forrest (who died near Tengchong in 1932) did not knowingly discover any new bird species, but the west Yunnan races of Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler and Golden-breasted Fulvetta are named after him.  History, however, has been waiting in the wings. After nearly a century of DNA analysis and “splitting”,  a full species – Phylloscopus forresti – Sichuan Leaf Warbler now bears his name.

Black Eagle
Rhododendron

Thanks

My thanks to the reader for getting this far, and my thanks to Terry for allowing me to ramble on about some of my interests on his blog.  A discussion of local history may seem irrelevant to some hardcore “listers”, but for me much of the fun in birding is seeing the local wildlife in a geographical and cultural context.

I hope this inspires more people to go and check out birding in Gaoligongshan !

About the author:
John Holmes has lived and worked in Hong Kong since 1978. He was lured into birding by some of Hong Kong’s more spectacular species, encountered on walks in the New Territories. He made his first birding trip to China in 1986. Since then, together with his wife Jemi, he has travelled and photographed birds in many parts of China, as well as neighbouring Asian countries. John and Jemi’s photos have appeared in numerous magazines and books, including Handbook of the Birds of the World.