In Celebration of Shorebirds

In June 2017 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.

That agreement was one of a series of recent positive announcements from China about the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  In early 2017, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay 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.

More recently, in January 2018, the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on all ‘business-related’ land reclamation along China’s coast and issued an order to restore illegally-reclaimed land.  Already, at Yancheng, sea-walls are being removed to allow the tide once again to feed the mudflats.  In March 2018, a major government reorganisation saw environment and biodiversity elevated as government priorities and management of all protected areas being brought under one ministry.  These developments are enough to put a smile on even the most pessimistic conservationist’s face!

And so it was with a spring in my step that last weekend I was fortunate to participate in a visit to Nanpu with a delegation that consisted of the mightily impressive, and growing, group of scientists – both Chinese and international – working to study shorebirds along the flyway and some VIPs including Hank and Wendy Paulson of The Paulson Institute and Pulitizer-nominated writer Scott Weidensaul.

It was such a joy to see so many young and extremely capable Chinese scientists – Zhu Bingrun, Lei Ming, Mu Tong to name a few – contributing such a huge amount to our knowledge about the importance to migratory birds of the intertidal mudflats and salt ponds and, being led by Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, they are in great hands.

As much as the scientific data is necessary to help make the case for conservation, it is not sufficient.  Also needed is a champion who can make the case at senior levels of government and that’s where Hank and Wendy Paulson come into their own.  With Hank’s unrivalled experience and access in China, underpinned by the work of his institute, including the Coastal Wetlands Blueprint Project, they have been instrumental in engaging with local governors and the Chinese leadership about the importance of the intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and convincing them of their value.  Together, it’s a formidable team.

2016-04-29 Asian Dowitchers, Nanpu
Asian Dowitcher is one of the species for which Nanpu is an important staging site.

We enjoyed so many stimulating discussions about the latest research, the progress of the work to create Nanpu Nature Reserve and, of course, shorebirds!  And thanks to the advice of the Aussie shorebird researchers (Chris Hassall, Adrian Boyle and Matt Slaymaker are back for their 10th year to monitor the Australian-banded birds!), we were on site in perfect time to witness the most amazing spectacle of RED and GREAT KNOTS commuting from their roosting sites in the ponds to the newly-exposed mud on the falling tide.  Seeing these shorebirds, most of which were in full breeding plumage, was something to behold and there were gasps of awe as the flocks, sometimes numbering thousands of birds, wheeled around before settling just a few metres in front of us in stunning early morning light.  It was the perfect reminder of just why protecting these mudflats is so important – the world would be a much poorer place without these incredible travellers.

There is no doubt that the intertidal mudflats are a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and they have 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.  With national level policy seemingly moving in the right direction, let’s hope the local progress at Nanpu will act as an example for other sites along the Flyway.  Huge thanks to Hank and Wendy Paulson, Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, Scott Weidensaul, Zhu Bingrun, Mu Tong, Lei Ming, Wang Jianmin, Dietmar Grimm, Shi Jianbin, Rose Niu, Adrian Boyle, Chris Hassell, Matt Slaymaker and Kathrine Leung for making it such an enjoyable trip!

Video: RED and GREAT KNOTS at Nanpu, May 2018.

 

Title image: (l-r) Scott Wiedensaul, Professor Zhang Zhengwang, Professor Theunis Piersma, Wendy Paulson, Hank Paulson, Terry Townshend.  Photo by Zhu Bingrun.

 

About Nanpu

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 it 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 twenty-two 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.

 

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.

Hunting in Russia: The “Under The Radar” Threat To The East Asian Australasian Flyway?

Zhu Bingrun (Drew) is one of a new generation of brilliant Chinese ornithologists.  These young scientists are adding a great deal to our knowledge about migratory birds in China, keen to collaborate with international experts and part of a growing network of young people in this vast country who want to study, and protect, wild birds.

Zhu Bingrun, at home on the mudflats at Nanpu, coastal Hebei Province.
Zhu Bingrun, at home on the mudflats at Nanpu, coastal Hebei Province.

I first met Drew when we worked together on the 2013 survey of Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia.  Since then he has been working on his PhD in the Bohai Bay, focusing on the BLACK-TAILED GODWIT.  As well as painstaking observations, Drew’s research has involved fitting satellite tags to learn more about the migration, breeding grounds and the most important stopover sites where these godwits rest and refuel.  This information is vital to inform conservation efforts.

This year, Drew has spent all spring at Nanpu in coastal Hebei Province, studying the Black-tailed Godwits.  One part of Drew’s studies was to catch, measure and fit rings to several Black-tailed Godwits to help gain data not available from viewing alone.  Not surprisingly, they are difficult to catch.  After much effort, and many attempts,  three godwits were caught and tagged by Drew this spring.  Resting on the shoulders of these three birds were not only satellite tags but also Drew’s hopes of finding out where they bred and the routes they took to reach the breeding sites.

On 1 May 2016 Drew captured and banded a single male Black-tailed Godwit.  The usual metal ring was supplemented with colour flags (blue over yellow) with the individual engraving “H03” which would enable scientists and birders to identify this individual in the field.  The bird was also fitted with a GPS transmitter, allowing Drew to monitor its location on a near real-time basis and potentially showing, for the first time, the migration route and breeding grounds.

Drew with black-tailed godwit2
Drew’s “H03” Black-tailed Godwit shortly after being fitted with its colour rings, 1 May 2016.
Drew with black-tailed godwit
Another view of “H03” in Nanpu, 1 May 2016.

After tagging, the bird was released and the satellite data showed that, just like hundreds of thousands of other shorebirds, it spent the next two weeks feeding up in the Nanpu area, preparing for its northward migration.  On 17 May it began its journey north.  On 18 May the last signal was received, on the border of Inner Mongolia.  Three days later, on 21 May, two photos were uploaded to Facebook showing a Black-tailed Godwit with blue and yellow flags and a satellite transmitter.  The bird had been shot, killed and proudly shown off by a hunter in Sakha, Russia.

hunter with black-tailed godwit
This hunter published photo of himself with “H03”, a Black-tailed Godwit satellite-tagged in China by Drew. Copyright Facebook. 
hunter with black-tailed godwit3
Another image of H03 showing the satellite tag and colour rings.  Copyright Facebook.

Not surprisingly, Drew was devastated when Russian researcher, Inga Bystykatova, alerted him to the photos.  “H03”, one of only three birds tagged this Spring, was gunned down for sport almost as soon as it left China.

Recently, much has been written about the threats faced by shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway (EAAF), most of which has rightly focused on habitat loss in the Yellow Sea ecoregion.  At least one-fifth of the waterbird populations of the EAAF are threatened, the highest proportion among the global flyways.  The most endangered, and most well-known, is the Spoon-billed Sandpiper but this species is far from alone.  In the last decade 12 species of shorebird have been moved onto the lists of global conservation concern, and strong declines are suspected in others in the region. In past 50 years, 51% of intertidal habitat in China has been converted to urban, industrial and agricultural land.  The remaining areas are affected by numerous on-going and planned land conversion projects. The conversion of an estimated 578,000 hectares of coastal wetlands has recently been approved.  On the positive side, there is a huge conservation effort, involving the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, BirdLife International and many others, focused on trying to protect the remaining areas of intertidal mudflats and there are signs that this effort is making progress.

However, there are other threats.  And what is much less well-known is the scale of hunting in Russia.  There are apparently 2 million hunters in Russia.  There is a tradition of hunting Whimbrel – they taste good and hunting this species is a special focus of hunters on coastal spits, particularly in autumn.  However, hunters don’t just stick to Whimbrel and often other shorebirds, such as sandpipers, curlews and godwits, are taken when they have the opportunity, even though some of these species are officially protected.  Enforcement of the law in remote eastern Siberia is almost non-existent.

When I asked Drew about this, his reply was honest, thoughtful and hard-hitting:

“China takes the blame for a long time for the population decline of migratory birds.  That is fine – we have a problem and we are changing.  But conservation of migratory birds is never a single country’s duty.  As the major breeding ground, Russia keeps a very low profile but slaughters God knows how many birds each year.”

It is clear that there is an urgent need, in parallel to the efforts to save the remaining habitat along the Yellow Sea ecoregion, for more awareness and more constructive communication with hunters in Russia.  It is, of course, impossible to stop hunting of wild birds altogether, at least in the short term.  However, with better communication, it should be possible to ensure the hunters are aware of those species that are endangered and to encourage restraint when these species are encountered.

As Drew says, protecting migratory birds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is the responsibility of all nations in the region, from New Zealand and Australia in the south to southeast Asia, China and Russia.  It is only by protecting birds on the wintering grounds, the breeding grounds and the key stopover sites that the health and viability of the East Asian Australasian Flyway will be maintained.

As for “H03”, contact with the hunter in Russia has been established and he has agreed to send back the bird, complete with transmitter, to Drew.  Let’s hope “H03” did not die in vain and that he is the catalyst for a new conservation effort focusing on dialogue with hunters in Russia.