Tag Archives: China

GREENISH WARBLER: new for Beijing and the missing link?

The discovery of breeding GREENISH-type WARBLERS in Beijing could represent part of the missing link between the central Chinese form obscuratus and what is now known as TWO-BARRED (plumbeitarus) from NE China and Siberia  

All my life I have found nature fascinating, usually amazing and often surprising.  But every now and again something happens that just blows me away.

In July, when Paul Holt and I found a small population of Greenish-type Warblers (Phylloscopus trochiloides) at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, I had no idea that the discovery could represent a missing link in the distribution of what is thought be one of few examples of a “ring species”.

The Greenish Warblers are widespread leaf warblers whose breeding range extends from temperate northeastern Europe to subtropical continental Asia. They are strongly migratory and most winter from India east to Thailand.

According to a theory first put forward by Ticehurst in 1938, Greenish Warblers were once confined to the southern portion of their range and then expanded northward along two pathways, evolving differences as they pushed north. When the two expanding fronts met in central Siberia (W Europe’s viridanus and Siberia’s plumbeitarus), they were different enough not to interbreed.  Hence plumbeitarus is now considered a separate species – TWO-BARRED WARBLER.

This unusual situation has been termed a ‘circular overlap’ or ‘ring species’, of which there are very few known examples.

greenish warbler map

“Map of Asia showing the six subspecies of the greenish warbler described by Ticehurst in 1938. The crosshatched blue and red area in central Siberia shows the contact zone between viridanus and plumbeitarsus, which do not interbreed. Colours grade together where Ticehurst described gradual morphological change. The gap in northern China is most likely the result of habitat destruction.” (emphasis added)

Source: http://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~irwin/GreenishWarblers.html

As one might expect when looking at the map, in Beijing we are used to seeing TWO-BARRED WARBLERS (P. plumbeitarus) on migration as they make their way to and from their breeding grounds in NE China and Siberia.  However, until a few weeks ago, there were no records in the capital of any of the races of GREENISH (P. trochiloides).

Fast forward to 22 June 2015 and Paul Holt and I were in the middle of a 3-day trip to explore Beijing’s highest mountain – Lingshan.  We had already encountered the albocoeruleus form of RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL, until very recently thought to be confined to a handful of sites in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces, more than 1,000 km to the southwest.

 In a relatively small piece of woodland on a northeastern facing slope Paul suddenly heard the distant song of a Greenish-type warbler.

 Fortunately the path we were following led us towards the sound and, after walking a little further, we could soon hear, and later see, the songster.  It was clear that it wasn’t alone and, during the next couple of hours we encountered at least four singing birds.  Paul focused on recording the song (see below) as I tried to snatch a photo or two as it flitted almost non-stop amongst the thick foliage in the canopy of the birch trees.

2015-06-22-greenish-warbler-lingshan

GREENISH WARBLER, Lingshan, 22 June 2015.  The only decent photo I was able to capture!

Paul was confident that these birds were not TWO-BARRED WARBLERS and most likely belonged to the obscuratus form of GREENISH WARBLER.

At this point it’s worth outlining the key plumage differences between GREENISH and TWO-BARRED:

  • Two-barred is fractionally stronger billed than the viridanus Greenish we see in W. Europe but these figures probably don’t hold up too well when comparing it with the more poorly known obscuratus of Qinghai and Gansu.
  • A typical Two-barred should have a broader greater covert wing bar that extends on to more inner greater coverts than viridanus – a greater covert bar that doesn’t taper towards the inner wing as conspicuously as it does on viridanus.
  • Two-barred usually also has a second (median covert) wing-bar & this is often whitish or even white – this second bar is rare on viridanus (& when present is indistinct & typically not white).
  • A median covert wing-bar is commonly seen on obscuratus (Paul Holt, pers. obs).
  • Two-barred is also slightly darker above & whiter below than viridanus – but again that’s difficult/impossible to discern on a lone bird & in any case obscuratus has the darkest upperparts of any subspecies of Greenish Warbler (& is often contrastingly darker on the crown then inviting confusion with Large-billed Leaf Warbler P. magnirostris).
  • Two-barred often (‘but not always’ sic Svensson 1992) has a pale yellowish supercilium while obscuratus is ‘apparently on average’ whiter here.

A recording of the Lingshan Greenish Warbler is below.  Note that the interval between strophes has been shortened for convenience.

 

We thought that this newly discovered population was most likely the obscuratus form of GREENISH WARBLER rather than plumbeitarsus (TWO-BARRED WARBLER).  Or is it an intermediate form between obscuratus and plumbeitarus?

We are keen to hear the views of others with experience of these species.  If it is obscuratus, the find represents the first record for Beijing of GREENISH WARBLER.

Perhaps supporting the identification as obscuratus, it’s worth noting that there are two other species from Gansu/Qinghai that have recently been discovered breeding on mountains in or nearby Beijing  – “Gansu” Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanus albocoeruleus) at Haituoshan (a forested mountain in Hebei immediately to the north of Beijing) and Lingshan and Large-billed Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus magnirostris) at Wulingshan (a forested mountain in Hebei immediately to the northeast of the Chinese capital).  It seems likely that small pockets of forest on some of Beijing’s higher mountains are supporting small disjunct populations of these relatively high elevation species, helping to fill in the gap in the map above (attributed to habitat loss).

The finding begs the question: are there other species from the Gansu/Qinghai area that could yet be discovered in the capital?  Grey-headed Bullfinch, Chestnut Thrush and Chinese White-browed Rosefinch are possible candidates…  In any case the Lingshan Greenish-type Warblers provide yet more evidence that there is still so much to be discovered in Beijing, the most well-watched part of China, let alone the rest of this vast country.

 

The New Garden: Full Of Eastern Promise

By Terry

OK so it’s not, strictly speaking, my “garden”.. but I am claiming the area of scrub next to my new apartment block in suburban Beijing as my new patch.   And in just 10 days since I moved in, and only three visits, I have racked up a list of species that would do Fair Isle proud.  
Shunyi patch5

The new local patch.

Shunyi patch3

My new apartment block viewed from the patch

Shunyi patch2

This area of poplars has already produced Taiga Flycatcher and Little Bunting.

At the beginning of May I moved apartments to a suburb in northeast Beijing.  It’s close to the metro, a new shopping centre, a good mix of Chinese and western restaurants and, importantly, it provides easy access to some of Beijing’s best birding spots such as Miyun Reservoir and Wild Duck Lake.  A bonus was discovering a relatively wild area of scrub close by and, in just three short visits, it has produced some quality birds.  Yet more evidence that the migration through China’s capital is on a scale that is hard to beat.  At this time of year, almost any green patch will attract birds.  Birding in Beijing continues to surprise and delight.

My first visit to the new local patch was when I was simply walking to the closest metro station, without binoculars.  I stumbled across an Oriental Scops Owl roosting close to the path.  Astonishingly I managed to photograph it using only my iPhone.

Taken using only an iPhone, this ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL was the first species I recorded on the new local patch!

Taken using only an iPhone, this ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL was the first species I recorded on the new local patch!

Not surprisingly, this chance occurrence prompted a more dedicated birding visit and so, during an early morning hour before breakfast the following day, I logged Oriental Turtle Dove, Dusky Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler, Eye-browed Thrush, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Taiga Flycatcher, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Olive-backed Pipit and Little and Yellow-throated Buntings.  Not bad!

2015-05-05 Olive-backed Pipit, Wenyu He

Olive-backed Pipits have so far been a common migrant at the local patch with up to 10 present at any one time.

 

2015-05-07 Taiga Flycatcher, Shunyi2

Taiga Flycatcher is a common migrant through Beijing in spring and autumn. Their ‘rattle’ is a frequent accompaniment to a walk through any green space in early May.

 

A second dedicated visit produced singing Two-barred Greenish Warbler, more Olive-backed Pipits, Richard’s Pipit, Common Rosefinch and a flyover Oriental Honey Buzzard.

2015-05-05 Richard's Pipit, Wenyu He

A flight call is usually the first sign that a Richard’s Pipit is on the patch.

 

And on my way to the metro station this morning I encountered a stunning Radde’s Warbler, singing its heart out next to the path.

So far I have recorded 38 species and I am certain I am only scratching the surface.  My target for the end of May is 50 species…  and my (ambitious?) target for the end of the year is 75. Will I make it? Watch this space!

 

Mystery Shrike from Inner Mongolia, China

By Terry

Every once in a while, a birder comes across something that baffles.. It happens to me more often than I’m happy to admit. During a recent trip to northern Hebei and southern Inner Mongolia in China to check out the breeding location of satellite-tagged Amur Falcons (more on that later), Paul Holt and I found an unusual shrike. We never saw it particularly well – it was very skittish – and, given time constraints, we had to leave the site before we could secure the views that we would have liked and the quality of photos that would have helped..

Nevertheless, given that we were puzzled by this bird, I am publishing here our photos and a short video in the hope that someone can help us ID this strange-looking creature.

Shrike sp. (Nanhaoqian reservoir near Shangyi, Nei Mongol)(2)

Shrike sp, near Shangyi, Inner Mongolia, 10 October 2014. Note the scaling on the underparts.  Photo by Paul Holt.

2014-10-09 shrike sp

Shrike sp, near Shangyi, Inner Mongolia, 10 October 2014. The dark wings and pale wing bar are consistent with Long-tailed Shrike.

A short video can be seen here – Shrike sp, Nei Mongol

The video is a little over-exposed, making the bird appear paler than it actually was. Neither the video nor our (few) photographs really do justice to the following:

– overall coffee brown colour, slightly ‘greyer’ on the back of the head and very subtly more rufous on the scapulars

– tail mostly and conspicuously black with white on the outer-tail feathers. When alighting rather small, white, crescentic tips to the bird’s three outermost tail feathers were clearly visible

– narrow and rather faint scaling on the underparts (just visible in Paul’s photo)

On the first, very brief view, I instinctively thought it was a Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius scach). The black tail and wing pattern fitted this species. However we soon had some issues with this ID.

First, the overall colouration seemed wrong. Second, the scaling of the underparts didn’t seem to fit this species. Third, the white in the tail didn’t fit either. And finally, the range of Long-tailed Shrike – this would almost certainly be the most northerly ever record of Long-tailed Shrike in China (it is still a rarity, albeit one that’s increasing, in Beijing but it does breed in southern Hebei).

Personally, I also thought that the bird wasn’t big enough for Long-tailed (it’s a large shrike) and the tail didn’t appear long enough either but, in the absence of a direct comparison, this view is subjective.

So we are baffled. Is it just an aberrant Long-tailed Shrike? We think not. A hybrid? Or something else? Answers on a postcard, please…

 

Baer’s on the brink

BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri), 2 males (upper left and lower right) and a female (lower left), with drake FERRUGINOUS DUCK (Aythya nyroca) on the breeding grounds in Hebei Province, May 2013.

BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri), 2 males (upper left and lower right) and a female (lower left), with drake FERRUGINOUS DUCK (Aythya nyroca) on the breeding grounds in Hebei Province, May 2013.

Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri) hit the mainstream birding headlines in Europe when British birder, Alan Lewis, famously ‘twitched’ one in Japan in February 2012.  The fact that Alan was prepared to fly half way around the world to see a single overwintering drake a few hours from Tokyo was testament not only to the rarity of this once abundant duck from East Asia but also that, at the time, there were no reliable sites to see it in the wild anywhere on the planet.

In the early 1900s Baer’s Pochard was described by La Touche as “extremely abundant” in eastern China during spring and autumn migration as it made its way to and from its breeding grounds in northeast China and southeast Russia.  Some recently circulated notes from Beijing-based Jesper Hornskov described a flock of 114 on the lake at the Summer Palace as recently as March 1989.  Many birders who visited the Chinese east coast migration hotspot of Beidaihe in the 1980s and 1990s probably saw reasonable numbers, too.  Historically, it was reliable in winter at Poyang Hu in Jiangxi Province, with flocks numbering 100s of birds being reported there as recently as the 1990s and 2000s.

However, its decline since then has been dramatic and near catastrophic.  In 2012 a (partial) summer survey of what was thought to be its breeding stronghold – Lake Khanka on the China-Russian border – produced not a single confirmed sighting during the core breeding season, although two were seen in August.  Similarly, a 2012/2013 survey of its known core wintering grounds, coordinated by WWT and WWF China, produced just 45 individuals thinly spread across the Provinces of Anhui, Henan, Hubei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Sichuan and Hong Kong, an apparently calamitous drop in numbers that explains why the status of Baer’s Pochard was rightly upgraded to “Critically Endangered” by BirdLife International.

The reasons for the dramatic decline are not well understood but are likely to include habitat destruction and degradation (partly natural, caused by a long-term drought in northeast China, but predominantly human-related), and hunting pressure at stopover sites and on the wintering grounds.  However, it is an interesting contrast that the Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca), a species with which Baer’s Pochard often associates and that shares similar habitat preferences, appears to be increasing in numbers and spreading north and east.

In fact, the expansion of the range of Ferruginous Duck could be an additional threat to an already vulnerable Baer’s Pochard due to the spectre of hybridisation.  The threat of hybridisation is not just theoretical; it’s real.  I have personally seen drake Baer’s Pochards displaying to female (and male!) Ferruginous Ducks at Wild Duck Lake in Beijing and one bird I observed on the breeding grounds in May showed characteristics of both species.  The image below shows a bird that, superficially, looks like a Ferruginous Duck but the heavier bill and the green sheen to the nape may indicate Baer’s influence. And, according to Nial Moores, Director of Birds Korea, “obvious” (probably Baer’s Pochard x Ferruginous Duck) hybrids are reported to be commoner than pure Baer’s in Korea and Japan.

Possible Baer’s Pochard x Ferruginous Duck hybrid, Hebei Province, May 2013.  Note the more Baer’s-like structure and the green sheen to the back of the head/nape.

Possible BAER’S POCHARD x FERRUGINOUS DUCK hybrid, Hebei Province, May 2013. A poor record image but note the more Baer’s-like structure with large, less peaked head and heavy bill. The bird also exhibited a green sheen to the back of the head/nape.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Baer’s Pochard was top of my “most-wanted” list when I arrived in Beijing and I will never forget the elation of self-finding my first drake in March 2012 on a central Beijing reservoir.

My first BAER’S POCHARD, a drake at Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, on 25 March 2012.

My first BAER’S POCHARD, a drake at Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, on 25 March 2012.

However, among all the doom and gloom for Baer’s Pochard is a glimmer of hope.  In 2012 a breeding site – the only confirmed breeding site currently in existence – was discovered in Hebei Province – well south of Baer’s Pochard’s traditional northeast Chinese and Siberian breeding range.  According to local birders, at least four pairs attempted to breed last year and young were seen in July.  Breeding has also been suspected or reported (but as yet unconfirmed) at two other sites in Shandong and Henan Provinces, again well south of the traditional breeding range and involving just 1-4 pairs.  Whether these sites have always held Baer’s Pochard and have simply been overlooked in the past, or whether Baer’s Pochard is a recent colonist at these more southerly sites is a question to which we don’t yet have the answer.  If it is a recent colonist, could it be an adaptation to the deteriorating conditions on its traditional breeding grounds?  And given that Ferruginous Duck is also a breeder at these sites, is hybridisation now the most immediate and pressing threat to this species in the wild in the same way Ruddy was a threat to White-headed Duck in Spain?

With such a small wild population, birds in wildfowl collections and the quality of their genes become more important, especially if a captive breeding programme forms part of the action plan to save this species.  Fortunately, in the context of captive birds, there was some recent good news from Martin Mere.

The recently discovered breeding site in Hebei Province is a Provincial-level nature reserve and, despite it being a popular tourist destination in summer due to the extensive lotus ponds, disturbance on the lake itself is relatively low.  It is therefore an ideal place to study Baer’s Pochard’s habitat and feeding requirements in order to develop and put in place measures to conserve this species before it’s too late.

At the East Asian-Australiasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) Meeting of Parties in Alaska in June there was agreement to develop an International Species Action Plan for Baer’s Pochard, and a Task Force to lead its implementation.  The Action Plan will now be compiled by experts from the main range states of the species, and will identify the priority conservation actions needed at the key breeding and wintering sites and research to fill the most important gaps in knowledge.

As is often the case, one of the barriers is a lack of funding.  Surprisingly, Baer’s Pochard is still looking for a Species Champion under BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme…  Any takers out there?

In the meantime a JustGiving page, set up by BirdLife International, is open to accept donations.  Individuals can make an enormous difference to the chances of saving Baer’s Pochard from extinction in the wild.

BAER’S POCHARD in flight (male), Hebei Province, May 2013

BAER’S POCHARD in flight (male), Hebei Province, May 2013

You can read more about the plight of Baer’s Pochard on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership website and a comprehensive article by WWT and WWF China will appear in the forthcoming issue of Birding Asia, published by the Oriental Bird Club.

It goes without saying that any records of Baer’s Pochard, or suspected hybrids, are valuable.  I urge all birders either based in, or visiting, the region to report any sightings, with photos where available, to monitoring@wwt.org.uk

Many thanks to Richard Hearn, Head of Species Monitoring at WWT, Spike Millington, Chief Executive of the EAAFP, Jim Lawrence and Mike Crosby of BirdLife International, Nial Moores, Director of Birds Korea, and Paul Holt for input to this blog post.

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Baer’s Pochard was named in 1863 by Gustav Radde after Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), an Estonian Russian scientist who specialized in biology, embryology, geology, meteorology and geography.  Interestingly, von Baer was one of Darwin’s most vocal critics.

Karl Ernst von Baer, the Estonian-Russian scientist after whom Baer’s Pochard is named.

Karl Ernst von Baer, the Estonian-Russian scientist after whom Baer’s Pochard is named.

Merganser Bonanza

Red-breasted, Common (Goosander) and Scaly-sided Mergansers, Yalu River, Liaoning Province, China.  Photo by Liu Mingyu

Red-breasted, Common (Goosander) and Scaly-sided Mergansers, Yalu River, Liaoning Province, China. Photo by Liu Mingyu

By Terry

This special photo was taken by Liu Mingyu on the Yalu River, Liaoning Province in China during a birding trip with good friend, Bai Qingquan from Dandong.  And what a photo it is…  it features three species of merganser – Red-breasted, Common (Goosander) and Scaly-sided.  There cannot be many places in the world where this image is possible!

The Scaly-sided Merganser (Mergus squamatus) is an East Asia speciality.  It is classified as “Endangered” by BirdLife International as it has a restricted range and is thought to be declining fast.  The Yalu River, running along the border between North Korea and China, is a reliable place for this species in spring and autumn as these birds make their way to and from their breeding grounds in far northeast China and eastern Russia (and possibly DPRK).

There are ongoing efforts to help this species with the formation of the Scaly-sided Merganser task force and Birds Korea has been working hard to survey the small population of Scaly-sided Mergansers in South Korea in winter.  You can see more images of Scaly-sided Merganser, including some stunning males, here.  Let’s hope this species recovers so that we can see more images like this!

Is this a Whistling Swan?

By Terry

China doesn’t yet have a rarities committee.  That will come as birding becomes more popular.  And so, for the time being, there is no formal way to assess reports of unusual birds.  I am therefore inviting readers of Birding Frontiers to informally assess a record of a putative WHISTLING SWAN (Cygnus columbianus columbianus) in central Beijing this winter.

This is the story.

For context, any wild swan in central Beijing (inside the 6th ring road) is notable.  So when local birder Shi Jin discovered a swan on 25 November on his local patch – the Wenyu He, between the 5th and 6th ring roads – he was very happy.  He was even happier when he noted that the bill showed a very small amount of yellow as it led him to believe that it just might be a Whistling Swan.   The significance of this sighting is that, if confirmed as a Whistling Swan, it would be the first time this North American form of Tundra Swan has been seen anywhere in China.

Although originally alone, the bird was soon joined by a standard Bewick’s Swan (the Eurasian race of Tundra Swan commonly encountered in China) and the two birds remained in the area for several days.  Shi Jin reported his sighting to Beijing birders on the day of discovery and circulated a photo, pointing out that it appeared to be of the North American race and asking for views.

The putative Whistling Swan in Beijing (with Bewick's Swan).  Photo by Shi Jin.

The putative Whistling Swan in Beijing (with Bewick’s Swan). Photo by Shi Jin.

On paper, separating the races of Tundra Swan – Whistling (columbianus) and Bewick’s (bewickii) – is relatively straightforward.  The most reliable feature is said to be the amount of yellow on the bill.  In his excellent Advanced Bird ID Handbook, Nils Van Duivendijk says that, in adults, “at most 1/8th of the bill is yellow in columbianus and that a large majority have less than 8% yellow on the bill.”  And that “the yellow is often positioned as a ‘teardrop’ on or just below the lores.”

Peter Pyle, in his Identification Guide to North American Birds, says that the yellow on the bill ranges from 0-16% and includes a helpful diagram showing the maximum extent (p.76 of Part II – Anatidae to Alcidae).

And David Sibley in The North American Bird Guide provides a similar diagram (p.73) of bill patterns, including an example of Whistling Swan “with maximum yellow”.

Of course, this is most relevant if the bird in question is an adult… (more about that in a minute).

As is evident, the extent of yellow on the bill of the Beijing bird is much less than one would expect on a standard Bewick’s.  The left-side of the bill even shows a classic ‘teardrop’ shape.    Initially the right side of the bill was not seen or photographed, although from a head-on view it seemed to exhibit only marginal differences.

In early December Beijing-based birder Jennifer Leung and I went to see the bird and we took a series of photographs (see below), including of the bill pattern and comparing the putative Whistling Swan with the accompanying Bewick’s.   These photos show that the bill is asymmetrical with a little more colour on the bird’s right side.  I use the word “colour” here as opposed to “yellow” as close examination of the images reveals that part of the coloured area on the right side of the bill is more pink-grey in colour and that the extent of yellow is limited and roughly the same on both sides of the bill.

Ageing

Now, back to that guidance about identifying adults.  As always, an important first step when attempting the identification of a potential vagrant is to age the bird.  On the Beijing swan, the general plumage – white body and wing feathers – appears to be adult.  However, there are a couple of aberrations that might suggest immaturity (I very much welcome views on these).  First, the crown has some dark feathering (viewable on several images over several days, suggesting that it is probably not staining).  Second, the area of colour on the right side of the bill is largely pink rather than yellow.  Is the latter evidence of an immature bird maturing and slowly developing its adult bill?  And, if so, is the amount of colour on the bill likely to reduce over time to leave the small patch of yellow, currently broadly similar in size and shape on both sides of the bill?

Once this question has been answered, the next obvious question is – “Does the amount of colour, and specifically the yellow, on the bill enable a secure identification?”

A cautionary note in British Birds (June 2006, BB 99, p307) on this issue stated:

“The two subspecies of Bewick’s Swan, C. c. columbianus and C. c. bewickii, have been proposed as potential splits because they differ in the amount of yellow on the bill (summarised in Sangster et al. 1997). However, it is not clear whether there is any overlap, and although hybridisation occurs there is virtually no information on the relationships between the two taxa in that part of eastern Siberia where they come in contact.”

And to muddy the waters further, it seems that Bewick’s from eastern Siberia (the most likely to turn up in Beijing) may have less yellow on the bill than standard Bewick’s.  Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds states “Populations [of bewickii] of eastern Siberia (“jankowskii”) may have bills averaging larger and with less amount of yellow but differences, if present, are insufficient and variable, and may indicate intergradation with columbianus.”

Aside from the yellow on the bill, other features have been suggested as helpful in separating columbianus from bewickii.

Cleaner white plumage

An article in Birding World (Vol 12, Number 3) reported that a Whistling Swan in Northern Ireland “stood out from its companions by virtue of being snowy white (A. McGeehan, pers. comm.)…”

Now, the Beijing putative Whistler did look, to me, marginally ‘cleaner’ white than the Bewick’s with which it was associating but how far this goes as a supporting feature is unclear.

Size and Structure

On average, Whistling Swans are slightly larger than Bewick’s but there is significant overlap so, for most birds not at the extreme end of the range, size will not be helpful.  Certainly with the Beijing bird, there is no significant size differential between it and the accompanying Bewick’s.

Some people have suggested that Whistling Swan exhibits a different head shape.  Birding World (Vol 12, Number 3) suggested that “While Bewick’s Swan tends to be rather dome-headed (with a smoothly rounded rear crown), Whistling Swan may show a different profile: a sloping crown ending in a high rear peak, and a steeply angled nape.”

To my eyes there is little, if any, difference in head shape between the Beijing birds.

Finally, the Birding World article referenced above asked the question directly:

“Can an out of range Whistling Swan be positively identified in the field?”

John Kemp, the author of the article, answered:

“Given adequate views, it seems likely that one of the 85% of classic Whistling Swans (ie those with less than 6% yellow) would be sufficiently distinct to be certainly identifiable, especially if it also showed good supportive structural features.  Photographs of reasonable quality may enable the percentage of yellow to be assessed.  The problem lies with the very small number of extreme individuals which cannot be convincingly identified, bearing in mind the existence of intergrades/hybrids….  ..Possibly only those individuals showing less than maybe 10% yellow on the bill should be regarded as true identifiable Whistling Swans.” 

For me, the right hand side of the Beijing bird shows more than 10% colour (with a smaller amount as yellow) but it is not straightforward to assess this accurately.  And, if it is more than 10%, does that rule out safe identification as a Whistling Swan?  Or should we only assess the amount of yellow?

Neither Shi Jin, Jennifer nor I have any experience with the North American form and we are far from experts on ageing swans, so we would welcome views from anyone with relevant experience.  But no pressure – it’s only a potential first for China!

Putative Whistling Swan, Beijing, 11 December.

Putative Whistling Swan, Beijing, 11 December.

2012-12-11 Whistling Swan right side

Putative Whistling Swan, Beijing, 11 December. Note the more extensive colour on the right side of the bill.

2012-12-11 Whistling Swan

Putative Whistling Swan (right) with Bewick’s Swan (left), Beijing, 11 December 2012. To my eyes, the putative ‘whistler’ looks slightly ‘cleaner white’ than the Bewick’s – a feature in support of Whistling as an id?

Note the dark markings on the crown - is this a sign of immaturity?

Note the dark markings on the crown – is this a sign of immaturity?  Photo by Shi Jin.

2012-12-11 Whistling Swan close up left side

A close-up of the left-hand side of the bill.

2012-12-11 Whistling Swan close up right side

A close-up of the right-hand side of the bill. Note the difference in extent and shape of the colour on the bill and also that the upper part of the coloured area is more pinky-grey. Is this a sign of immaturity?  Will that pink area turn black with age?

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.