Tag Archives: Conservation

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.

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.

Jankowski’s Bunting: A Very Rare Bird Indeed

By Terry T

The Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii) is a very rare bird. So rare that, without immediate action, it could slip away before the end of this decade. Unfortunately this little bird isn’t big or furry and doesn’t have a spoon-shaped bill. Instead it falls into the “Little Brown Job” (LBJ) category of birds. Added to the fact that it lives in a rarely visited part of northeast China, this means that its rapid and accelerating journey towards extinction has been progressing with seemingly little effort to save it and even less public awareness. That, I hope, is about to change.

Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii). A male on the breeding grounds in northeast China. Image copyright Martin Hale.

This beautiful bunting, sometimes known by the more descriptive, but less endearing, name of Rufous-backed Bunting, was once described as locally common across its range including Far Eastern Russia, North-eastern China (Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia) and North Korea. But in the last couple of decades, in particular, it has suffered a calamitous population decline. It is now thought to be extinct in Russia, its status is unknown in the small historical range in North Korea and there are only a handful of known individuals hanging on at a few sites in northeast China.

Although there are probably some sites yet to be discovered, the total number of individuals seen in 2012 so far is, as far as I am aware, under 30.

Habitat destruction is almost certainly the main cause of the decline. Jankowski’s Buntings just love grassland peppered with Siberian Apricot (Prunus sibirica) bushes. Over-grazing and a devastating, long-term, drought in the region have decimated its habitat. This, combined (pun unintended) with the cutting of grassland for hay during the breeding season, is thought to have been responsible for the precipitous drop in numbers of Jankowski’s Buntings in recent years. And, on top of that, although northeast China regularly experiences cold winters with temperatures down to -30 degrees C, a particularly harsh winter in 2000-2001, during which unusually deep snow covered the region, is thought to have hit hard the already vulnerable population.

Hope.

Despite the alarm bells, all is not yet lost. BirdLife International, in partnership with local groups, has recently begun a project to raise awareness of this bird’s plight and establish a robust conservation action plan.  Following the first conservation workshop dedicated to the Jankowski’s Bunting in June 2012 in Jilin Province, there is now a glimmer of hope that some of the pieces of the jigsaw needed to help preserve this species are being put in place.  A growing number of local people are interested in doing what they can to protect the bird’s habitat through more sympathetic land management, an education and awareness programme is planned for local schools, and more widely via social media, and population surveys are being conducted by the Beijing Birdwatching Society at known, and potential new, sites to try to establish a more accurate picture of population levels.  The missing ingredient, to ensure this work is carried out and coordinated effectively, is funding.  That is why BirdLife has set up a JustGiving page to encourage donations from concerned individuals and corporations to help raise the cash required to make this project viable.  An initial target of £10,000 has been set to help fund this particular project in the first year.  To get the ball rolling Birding Beijing has made a three-year financial commitment and become a Species Champion under the BirdLife Preventing Extinction Programme to support Jankowski’s Bunting and other globally threatened species.

Despite being thought to be mostly sedentary and/or a partial migrant (even this is not fully known!), there are historic records of the Jankowski’s Bunting from Beijing and it is also the “Endangered” species with a population closest to the Chinese capital. Living in Beijing, I certainly feel a sense of responsibility to do something to help protect this bird before it slips into extinction.  I hope others will, too.  The resilience of nature is such that, given the right support, species can return from the brink.  If man shows the will, nature will find a way.

https://www.justgiving.com/Jankowskis-Bunting

Jankowski’s Bunting was first described by Polish zoologist Wladyslaw Taczanowski in 1888 from a specimen of an adult male collected by fellow Pole, Michal Jankowski during an expedition in 1886. Michal Jankowski (1840-1903) was a Polish exile sent to Siberia 1864 and worked with other prominent ornithologists Dybowski and Godlewski (of Godlewski’s Bunting and Blyth’s Pipit fame) on several expeditions to Far Eastern Russia, northeast China and Korea.

Many thanks to Jim Lawrence, Mike Crosby, Vivian Fu and Simba Chan from BirdLife International for their input to this blog post and to Martin Hale for use of the Jankowski’s Bunting image.  Exceptionally, this post has been simultaneously published on Birding Beijing and Birding Frontiers.