In December, during a BirdLife drinks reception coinciding with a work visit to London, I had a chance encounter with Dick Newell who, as anyone who knows him will testify, is passionate about Swifts. He coordinates the Action For Swifts website and helped to organise the International Swift Conference in April this year, as well as being involved in all manner of swift conservation projects.
During our conversation, covering a range of Chinese birds, we spoke about ‘pekinensis‘ Swifts, the subspecies of Common Swift that breeds in China. Dick waxed lyrical about how cool it would be to develop a project to fit geolocators to the ‘pekinensis‘ Swifts in Beijing to find out where they spent the winter (thought to be southern Africa), and what route they took to and from China. I briefed him on the annual swift ringing programme that took place at the Summer Palace, Beijing, arranged by the Beijing Birdwatching Society (BBWS) and straight away his eyes lit up…. “Perfect. Leave it with me” he said… If I could speak to the BBWS about their willingness to participate in a geolocator project for their swifts, Dick would investigate sourcing some geolocators and arrange a visit to Beijing with Lyndon Kearsley from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, a very experienced ringer and a veteran of projects to fit geolocators to Common and Pallid Swifts in Europe.
A few short weeks later, with the generous help of Susanne Åkesson from Lund University in Sweden, Dick had sourced a total of 31 geolocators and we were arranging dates for Dick and Lyndon to visit Beijing to work with, and train, the BBWS folks to fit this amazing technology to the resident swifts.
Saturday 24 May was the big day and, after rising at 0400, I met Dick and Lyndon, together with Wu Lan from the BBWS (who has worked miracles to ensure the Chinese authorities were comfortable with the project) and by 0515 we were in the pavilion at the Summer Palace where the very efficient BBWS team had already erected the nets and had started to catch swifts.
Lyndon set to work and, having trained several teams from the BBWS the previous evening about how to fit the geolocators, the first pioneering birds began to be fitted with their ultra-lightweight backpacks.
These geolocators do not allow the birds to be satellite-tracked – that still requires technology too heavy for a swift – instead, to collect the data, the birds must be re-trapped at a later date. That is why it was so fortunate that almost all of the birds fitted with geolocators today had been ringed at the same site in previous years, proving that the individuals to whom the backpacks have been fitted are site-loyal. This gives us all hope that there will be a significant re-capture rate next year, allowing us to find out for the first time where these birds spend the winter and what route they take on migration. Exciting stuff!
It was heartening to see the interest shown by the BBWS and, despite the rain that persisted throughout, it was a real family occasion with many young children, students, parents and grandparents turning out to volunteer. There were huge smiles all around when the swift carrying the first geolocator was released… It powered into the air, seemingly oblivious to both the special package it was carrying and the excitement among the group that, very soon, we will know much more about the famous Summer Palace swifts of Beijing.
Having come directly from working with Common Swifts in Europe, it was interesting that both Dick and Lyndon said very early on how ‘brown’ these pekinensis birds are compared with Common Swift in Europe and also how the call was closer to Pallid Swift than Common… We hope to record some calls over the next few weeks to enable some analysis and comparisons with nominate Common and Pallid to be made.
A huge thank you to Dick and Lyndon for sourcing the geolocators and visiting Beijing to fit them, as well as training the BBWS team and spreading the word about swifts at universities here; to Wu Lan and the team at BBWS, especially Ms Fu Jianping and Mr Zhao, who have been instrumental in making everything happen at this end, and to the authorities at The Summer Palace for allowing this project to go ahead and for taking so much interest in these special birds that have chosen this most famous of Beijing landmarks as their home.
Seeing this project set up from nothing in less than 6 months, the lesson that I draw from all this is that I should drink more beer!
Some more photos from the day below.