A letter from Beijing on birding and COVID-19

Beijing
Birders in Beijing watch an American Wigeon, a vagrant in China, at Ming Tombs Reservoir, March 5, 2020. Photo by Terry Townshend

As COVID-19 begins to cause the most severe disruption to the global community since the World War II, it’s a worrying time for everyone. Suddenly, everyday things we took for granted — that weekend visit to the coast, the party with family and friends for an important birthday, or going to see your favorite band — are not possible as we all take personal responsibility to adjust our lives to minimize the risk to ourselves and to others, in particular those most vulnerable in society.

In this context, birding may seem unimportant. However, as long as we are responsible and follow local regulations, birding can be a positive release, with benefits to physical and mental health during these uncertain times.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, the whole of China has been effectively shut down with all but essential shops, manufacturing, and industry closing, public transport running a much-reduced schedule, strict restrictions on movement between cities and provinces and everyone encouraged to spend as much time as possible at home. Right now, as the number of new cases of COVID-19 in China has plateaued, with nearly all new cases in the last few days resulting from people arriving in the country from overseas, these restrictions are beginning to be lifted and life is returning to some form of normality.

The last seven weeks have reinforced to me just how powerful birds can be during tough times.

So, do Beijing birders have any tips during the lockdown?

Fortunately, in Beijing at least, we’ve not had a complete lockdown and excursions outside for exercise have been encouraged, provided we wear a mask and are alone or in a small group from the same household. It’s fair to say that, particularly in the first few weeks of the outbreak, very few people went birding. It was February — cold and dark with only a few lingering wintering birds to see. However, as we entered March and the virus stabilized in Beijing, we’ve seen an increase in the number of outings — mostly in ones and twos to local open areas. Coinciding with the start of spring migration, the number of birds being seen has increased, with some great sightings among them.

The highlight must be Beijing’s first American Wigeon, found at Ming Tombs Reservoir on March 5 by local birder Wang Xue (eBird checklist). Staying only one day, thanks to the news breaking quickly on WeChat (China’s version of WhatsApp), around 60-80 birders made the short trip to see it over the rest of the day. Thankfully, everyone respected the local regulations to wear masks and minimized contact.

American Wigeon (绿眉鸭, Lǜ méi yā) at Ming Tombs Reservoir, March 5, 2020. Photo by Wang Xue
A “crowd” of birders, all wearing masks, watching the American Wigeon at Ming Tombs reservoir, March 5, 2020. Photo by Terry Townshend

Since then, two critically endangered Baer’s Pochard were found at DaShiHe, a river on the west side of Beijing, and the capital’s fifth ever Red-necked Grebe took up temporary residence at the Summer Palace in the city center. Again, birders respected local regulations, wore masks, and kept a reasonable distance apart.

Two drake Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) at DaSheHe, March 6, 2020. Photo by Terry Townshend

Of course, birding is still relatively new in China and the number of birders wanting to see new birds is relatively low (there are around 400 members of the Beijing Birdwatching Society out of a population of 20+ million), so crowds were never going to be an issue here. Nevertheless, the experience has shown that, if done the right way, and respecting local rules, birding — even going to see rarities — can be a wonderful release during the lockdown.

Personally, during the seven weeks of self-quarantine, I’ve reconnected with a neglected local patch at the Wenyu River, where I’ve encountered Great Egrets, Smew, Baikal Teal, and an inquisitive Siberian weasel. I’ve enjoyed the relative quiet of the lockdown to listen with new ears to the cacophony of birdsong in early spring, and, with extra time on my hands at home, I’ve taken the chance to research historical bird records from Beijing and read some of the books that have been stacking up on my “must read” shelf.

As lockdowns begin to be enforced across Europe and the U.S., to name a few, here are a few tips for birders finding themselves with less freedom of movement:

  • If you are lucky enough to have a garden or yard, enjoy it and consider how you can make it better for birds and other wildlife. Some things you will be able to do now, such as digging a pond, and others, such as planting wildflowers or trees, you can plan for when things are back to normal.
  • If you don’t have a garden (I am on the fifth floor of an apartment block) but are allowed, and able, to get out, discover and adopt a local patch within walking distance of your home; it’s migration season and with fewer people around, you could be surprised at what turns up.
  • If you can’t get out, start a new bird list from your house (a COVID-19 list, perhaps?), sharing sightings on social media with the birding community. And check out the self-isolating bird club @SIBirdClub on Twitter for some uplifting reports from self-isolating birders around the world.
  • If you haven’t already been captivated by recording bird sounds, why not try it now? With much less aviation, motor traffic, and other human-related noise pollution, the birds sound louder and clearer than ever and the beauty of sound recording is that it can be done from the garden, a local patch or even from the open window of an apartment block.
  • And, as spring migration gets into swing, how about trying your hand at “nocmig,” recording the calls of nocturnal migrants flying over your house at night as you sleep? Going through the recordings the next day can provide a great distraction as well as helping to improve your knowledge of calls and to feel connected to the wonder of migration that is happening all around.

Of course, when considering whether and, if so, how to go birding at this time, it is vital to respect all local regulations and restrictions, if not for your own health, then for that of others, particularly those considered vulnerable groups. Avoid using public transport, and, if going out with others who live with you or close to you, please ensure you comply with social distancing measures. If you don’t feel comfortable going out alone, try to coordinate with another birder close by, respecting social distancing measures, of course.

Although the current situation can seem suffocating and grim, it’s important to know that the threat of COVID-19 will pass, and it will pass sooner and with minimal disruption if everyone behaves responsibly. The experience of Beijing shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and, when we emerge, we will appreciate the birds more than ever. And, who knows, a new perspective on our relationship with birds, and nature more broadly, may just inject new momentum into global conservation efforts. With the UN conference on biodiversity due to be held in China in October, fresh global impetus on conservation could be a silver-lining to what right now seems like an ominously large black cloud.

As I write this, I am hearing news of Oriental White Storks and Relict Gulls arriving at Shahe Reservoir, Oriental Plovers at Miyun, and a Black-winged Kite near Beijing Capital International Airport. That migrant birds are carrying on as normal as the human world is in turmoil is a comfort that only nature can provide.

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Terry Townshend

Terry Townshend

Originally from Norfolk, England, Terry Townshend is a Beijing-based consultant on wildlife conservation and environmental law, a Fellow of the Paulson Institute and an advisor to the Beijing government on “rewilding” the capital.  He runs the website Birding Beijing.

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