Monthly Archives: November 2012

Strange Great Tit calls – invasion from the east?

Although some pairs of Great Tits breed annually on Helgoland, the majority of birds occurs during migration. Every few years, numbers are much larger than in other years, usually corresponding with large numbers in southern Sweden. However, most ringing recoveries are from the southern Baltic Sea coast. Most Tits (Great & Blue) arrive on Helgoland during easterly winds, often, when there is fog at the coast.

Since mid of October, large number of Great Tits are present on Helgoland, as often in invasion years. However, this autumn they are calling different. Most birds have a call, which is similar to a much discussed Chiffchaff-call, it sounds even a bit similar to Hume’s Warbler. It’s a “wieh-wieh” call, sometimes a single , usually a double and sometimes a triple-call, often included in a series of other calls. When you hear it the first time, you don’t think it’s a Great Tit, but more a strange Phylloscopus warbler! Now I am used to the call and adrenalin-level keeps low, but I never heard this call before, and now the majority of Great Tits utter this call!

Listen here to the calls (recorded by Matthias Feuersenger and Ralph Martin on Helgoland in October 2012).

You can see some sonagrams and listen to some more samples here (although the text is mainly in German):

When I discussed the calls with other birders, none of them claimed to have heard the call ever before, although it seems likely that a single bird would have been noticed as one of many variations of Great Tit calls. Now they seem to be all over Germany, from the south to the north.

Are we experiencing an influx of breeding areas which have not been source of invasions before, like the Bullfinches in 2004? This autumn there are many recoveries from the Baltic states, but there they are ringed on migration, so the origin of these birds must be further east or northeast. Searching on, Matthias Feuersenger found 2 calls from Russia which sounded similar. They were recorded at Cheboksary, Chuvashskaya Respublika, Russia (56,0° N, 47,3°E, 700 km east of Moskau).

So is this the origin of the birds? Are they all over Europe now or just in the central part? Will they appear now annually in Europe?

Even in common and well known species like Great Tits there are mysteries which are not yet solved!

Thanks Matthias & Ralph for allowing me to use your recordings and for discussions!

A Turning Point in China?

Something astonishing is happening in China.  An unfolding story that one Chinese friend told me, “could be a turning point in conservation and wild bird protection in China.”

On Sunday 11 November local people discovered many sick and dying ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana) at Beidagang Reservoir, Tianjin (just 30 mins from Beijing by train).  These globally endangered birds  – with a restricted range in East Asia – had been poisoned illegally by poachers using a chemical called carbofuran that, although banned in the EU, Canada and many other countries, is commonly available and used, legitimately, as a pesticide all over China.

Tragic: An “Endangered” Oriental Stork poisoned by poachers at Beidagang. The population of these majestic birds is estimated to be fewer than 2,500 individuals.

The storks were possibly unintended victims of well-organised and, sadly, all-too common poaching activity intended to catch swans, ducks and geese for the restaurant trade.

Carbofuran is mixed with cereal, or given to fish in small man-made pools.  Birds lose consciousness after eating the bait, are caught by hand and injected with an antidote.  The victims are then shipped – usually alive – to restaurants, primarily in southern China.  The demand for wild birds is high and they are sold as a delicacy, with many consumers, particularly in southern cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, believing that wild birds taste better than farmed produce, and they are prepared to pay a premium.  A wild goose or swan can fetch several hundred Yuan (100 Yuan = 10 GBP).  The business is highly profitable.

The scale of this activity in China, and the range of methods used by poachers to catch wild birds, are covered in an excellent, but sobering, article in the most recent issue of Goose Bulletin.  The authors estimate that between 80,000 and 120,000 ducks, swans and geese are caught illegally in China for the restaurant trade every year.

So what makes the recent case involving Oriental Storks at Beidagang such a big deal?

The answer is the incredible public reaction, led by local people and driven by social media.

The events unfolding at Beidagang, although desperately sad, could have been much worse were it not for some dedicated and brave individuals.  Local birders, together with volunteers, officials from the Forestry Administration, police and even firemen have been working together to help catch, treat and care for these birds.  They have set up 24/7 patrols to deter the poachers.  All of this has been transmitted on social media and the coverage has gone viral.  The Chinese micro-blogging service, Weibo, has over 500 million users (on a par with the global membership on Twitter) and activists have been providing regular updates that have been ‘re-tweeted’ by a growing band of followers.  As I write this post, the latest update has been ‘re-tweeted’ over 900 times to more than a million users in less than one hour.

This is leading the traditional print and visual media.  Already, we are seeing articles relating to this poisoning incident in Chinese and English language media, both local and national.

All of this follows a recent outcry against the illegal trapping and hunting of wild birds in China, also led by social media.  Three weeks ago a brave undercover journalist released a shocking video about hunters using spotlights to confuse migrants in Hunan Province before gunning them out of the sky.  The Chinese public was outraged and Weibo was alive with condemnation of the hunters and also criticism of the authorities for being slow to act.  Shortly after this major outcry, local birders discovered over 2km of illegal mist nets at Beidagang, the site of the current Oriental Stork tragedy.  Local activists, many of whom are now on site trying to save the storks, led a ‘day of action’ involving over 60 volunteers, and even the Chinese army, to take down illegal mist nets in the reedbed.  This was covered by local and national TV as well as print media.  Due to these two events, the number of articles relating to illegal bird trapping and hunting nationwide has exploded.

Heroes: volunteers taking down illegal nets at Beidagang on 29 October 2012.

The campaign to eradicate the illegal hunting of birds is gaining momentum.  And the scale of the reaction by ordinary Chinese people all over the country has been overwhelming, demonstrating clearly that the vast majority of Chinese people care deeply about their wild birds.  It will be very hard for the authorities to ignore.

None of this would be happening without the incredible dedication, passion and energy of a small number of volunteers at Beidagang.  There are many people involved but a special mention must go to Xunqiang Mo (aka “Nemo”), a local student, and Jingsheng Ma, who have personally led the effort to cut down the illegal nets and are now leading the ongoing operation to save the Oriental Storks.  They are heroes in every respect.

Here is a personal account from yesterday evening, provided by Zhu Lei, a Beijing-based birder monitoring the situation:

“There is heart-breaking news. 8 more dead storks been found today, which raise the total number up to 21 ! 

The ground team located 3 evidently man-made small water pools (around diameter of 1m, depth of 0.3m), one of them contained a big empty packing bag (900 g × 20 packets – although the scene is absolutely terrible, it does not necessarily mean the whole bag of poison has been used there) of pesticide. We suspect that the poachers have put the toxic chemical directly into the water in these pools or used the same methods as those 2 Jilin guys (filled the fish with toxic, then put into the pools) to poison the birds.

According to signs on the bag, the pesticide used in this massacre is nothing but Carbofuran. The bags were already taken by the police as potential evidence. Some tissue also been taken from the dead birds for further forensic tests. The cause of death will only be revealed as the test report is released (although everything points to it being poisoning with carbofuran).

The volunteer team (mostly from the local community and nearby Tianjin city) should be applauded for their hard work.  Among them, a bicycle enthusiasts team is worthy of mention for they’ve taken the duty to patrol the dam which surrounds the wetland in daytime, and at least 3 of them have tried hard to wade into the muddy wetland searching for sick birds.  Several local rich bird photographers (I think the guys who can afford the big Canon or Nikon big lenses and expensive cameras could be called ‘rich’) have provided financial support to cover spending such as other volunteers’ accommodation and food, etc.

People from government agencies also contributed to the action. Today, even a team of firemen was called to the spot, due to lack of proper equipment (e.g. waders, boats) to deal with the situation faced in the wetland.  They just try to do what they can over there.

24h ground patrolling has been launched last night, and the patrol has been equipped with night-vision goggles donated by a businessman from Tianjin.

Tomorrow, the team will focus on locating more poisoned lure pools and will destroy them. A plan to provide safe food (mainly small fish) to the storks still at the wetland will be carried out tomorrow.

Special thanks to Nemo for his great devotion and efforts in saving those birds on-site, and kindly receiving my interview tonight. He is a real hero and deserves our highest respect.”

Respect indeed.

Dead Oriental Storks at Beidagang (left) and “Nemo” saving one of the lucky ones (right).

You can follow the latest developments with the Oriental Storks at Beidagang and the broader campaign to eradicate illegal mist-netting at this website.  Already, many people  have expressed their support for these brave and committed individuals and their comments are making a real difference to the volunteers.  Knowing that there are people all over the world supporting their efforts is a real boon for them.  If you haven’t already, please take a moment to comment to show your support.  This could just be the decisive battle in the war against illegal trapping and hunting of wild birds in China.

Stejneger’s Stonechat in the Netherlands?

is it the same?

by Nils, Martin and Diederik Kok

Above: ‘Siberian Stonechat’, Texel, Netherlands, October 2012 by Diederik Kok. This bird appears very similar to or same as confirmed ‘Stejneger’s Stonechat’ at Portland Bill, UK seen the day after the Texel bird was last seen.

Stejneger’s Stonechat at Portland (left by Martin Cade) compared with Texel Stonechat on right by Diederik Kok.

We have been having a lively discussion on ‘Siberian Stonechats’, following this maurus type on Shetland and this variegatus on Vleiland. We were knocked out with the news that a bird at Portland Bill, Dorset in late October was a Stejneger’s Stonechat, taxon ‘stejnegeri’ (confirmed by DNA). A similarly dark ‘Siberian Stonechat’ on Texel, Netherlands earlier on October was quickly recalled. We then asked the question:

“Could this be the same bird?”

It seems to all our eyes the answer may well be YES!

The bird was found by Diederik who writes:

When I found this bird on Oct 8, I realized it had to be a Siberian Stonechat, albeit a relatively dark one. Especially its upperparts were darker than usual for typical maurus, rump was strong orange buff rather than pale buff and the lack of supercilium was also a bit strange. During its (long) stay till Oct 23 this ‘maurus’ was seen by many birders, especially during the Dutch Birding weekend. During this time, I followed the topic on the Shetland Siberian Stonechat on Birding Frontiers with interest – especially the question raised regarding the separation stejnegeri as I knew very little about how to identify this taxon. The news of the Portland stejnegeri and its DNA analysis is of course very interesting! And extra interesting because the Texel bird looks so similar to the Portland bird. What a striking resemblance, as also noted by Tom van der Have, Jan Hein van Steenis and others on the Dutch Birding website. Credits to Nils for the initial photo analysis showing that it looks to be the very same individual?…. It surely makes one wonder…

Stejneger’s Stonechat at Portland (left by Martin Cade) compared with Texel Stonechat on right by Ipe Weeber.

Regarding dates:

Texel bird: 8th -23rd October

After my first observation on Oct 8, it was last seen with certainty at Oct 23 at de Robbernjager, N Texel (and also photographed at that date): a surprisingly long stay! No reports for Oct 24.
Interestingly, on Oct 25 a ‘Siberian Stonechat’ was reported at a very nearby location (de Tuintjes, N Texel). For the Oct 25 observation the short description available might suggest another individual but no photos of this observation are available: so hard to tell whether the Robbenjager or another individual was involved.

Portland bird: 24th -26th October

Discovered Oct 24, present till Oct 26.
Lots more great photos of the Dutch bird can be found here, here and here and below:

Thanks especially  to Martin Cade and Jos van den Berg

Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Be Inspired!

The Expedition Video

a Review by MG

JUST one hour long.  I was enthralled all the way through. No kidding.

This is one of the most inspiring, adventure- filled, bird related pieces of film I have seen in a long, long time. Here’s a preview:

It’s like some fantastic lads adventure (except there are lasses as well!).  At around £10 this is a no brainer.  Buy it, watch it, get someone a copy for Christmas and contribute to the cause.  The film charts the expedition to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, by travelling to the far reaches of NE Siberia to collect a few eggs and attempt to rear some young birds with a goal of supplementing the wild population in the future.


I first heard of the expedition from Jochen D. speak about it the evening lecture slot on Helgoland in October 2011.  Even though it was given in German of which I only know a handful of words, I was drawn-in!

The film begins with a BBC news feed and key input from spokespeople from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).  They helpfully set the scene on the need for this action and its justification.


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A wee slideshow of pics from the expedition

The expedition section soon begins on the film and lo- Jochen himself appears (regularly with big grin and thumbs up) as a volunteer ornithologist on the expedition.

Pause there –How the heck do you get to go on one of these things!!!

Nigel Jarrett and Martin McGill of the WWT are part of an international  team with volunteer ornithologists and especially a team of Russian fieldworkers.  After having arrived in Anadyr,  Chukotka they then have a protracted and unplanned wait of 12 days whilst the rest of their equipment arrives, before they can move on to Meinypil’gyno, where they set up their base camp.  The film is mostly shot by the field workers and not a professional camera crew.  This brings a real earthy dynamism to events.  They arrive in late May and begin to walk and walk and walk, drawing blanks day after day, until they finally see their first Spoon-billed Sandpipers.


A spectacular if remote and hostile land

One of the lowest points was finding a predated nest and dead adult bird. This was a turning point when key decisions needed to be made ‘on the hoof’.

Nigel Jarrett plays the role of ‘mother’ wonderfully and as the film rolls,  just like a human mother, looks  increasingly exhausted.

Tough ‘in the moment’ decisions needed to be made with uncertain outcomes.  Dodgy electricity in sub-standard accommodation was the only possible environment for incubating the precious eggs.  The guys sometimes look absolutely exhausted e.g. the last two eggs hatching at 3 and 3:30 am.

and they saw other good birds and wildlife too…



The film captures several hatching ‘Spoonies’. Again it wasn’t hard to feel the euphoria experienced by those on the expedition; these were remarkable moments never to be repeated. There is nothing romantic, easy or painless about this expedition, but the combination of working for a higher cause, in a stunningly remote and hostile environment, with one of the most remarkable looking bird species in the world, makes this a must-watch film.

 Really:  Get a copy, watch and don’t miss it.

Go Here for more info

Go Here to buy a copy.


  • The spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme is a collaboration between WWT, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo and the RSPB working with colleagues from the BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.
  • The project is supported by WWT, RSPB, the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative and SOS – Save our Species, with additional financial contributions and support from BirdLife International, the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Convention on Migratory Species, Heritage Expeditions, the Australasian Wader Study Group of Birds Australia, the BBC Wildlife Fund, Avios, the Olive Herbert Charitable Trust, the Oriental Bird Club, British Airways Communities & Conservation Scheme, Swarovski Optik, New Zealand Department of Conservation and many generous individuals.
  • WWT saves wetlands worldwide – a critical habitat which is disappearing at an alarming rate. We act to identify and save severely threatened wildlife, such as the Madagascar pochard, which has been given a more secure future thanks to our decades of experience in conservation breeding.
  • Our researchers have been monitoring wildlife in the UK for more than 60 years, observing changes and finding solutions.
  • We put people at the heart of all our work, because conservation needs support to succeed.
  • And we share what we learn with experts around the world and with our 200,000+ members, the 60,000 school children who come on an educational visit to our nine wetland visitor centres in the UK, and the million people who visit us each year to enjoy a wetland experience.
  • We manage over 2,600 hectares of wetlands across the UK which between them support over 200,000 waterbirds and other wildlife.
  • WWT members enjoy free access to all nine visitor centres and are kept up to date with developments through an award-winning quarterly magazine, Waterlife.