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    A Briton, birds and Beidaihe

2005-05-28 07:43

Few People know birds and their habitats in Beidaihe better than Dr Martin Williams.

Since the Englishman, at 44, first visited the seaside resort on China's east coast in the spring of 1985, he has been returning ever since. Most visitors to Beidehe come for the beaches and to holiday, not to watch birds.

Lying near a confluence of flyways, sort of seasonal rivers of birds linking Northeast Asia with South China, Southeast Asia, Australia and even East Africa, Beidaihe is one of the world's finest migration watchpoints.

There Williams, who obtained his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Cambridge has spent thousands of hours scanning the skies from hilltops, and scouring surrounding local woods, gardens, gullies, fields, estuaries and marshes. The cumulative days he has spent at Beidaihe total over two years. During that time he has recorded and catalogued a bird list of nearly 400 species, including over 300 Asian migrants, and "experienced superb spells of birding," he wrote in an article entitled "Migration Hub of the Orient."

Mainly because of Williams' efforts - leading and co-leading surveys and birding tours and writing - Beidaihe has become a magnet for birdwatchers from around the world and attracts over 100 amateur and expert ornithologists every year.

In the first half of this month, the Beidaihe International Birdwatching Race was held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of birdwatching in the region. Over 300 birders from home and abroad participated. The checklist of birds used in the race is based on Williams Beidaihe list.

As a result, few people are more aware of changes to the ecological environment in the region than him.

As the pioneer of birdwatching in Beidaihe, Williams was invited by the China Wildlife Conservation Society and the Beijing Birdwatching Society to Beidaihe as one of adjudicators of the race from May 10 to 16.

Williams first learnt about birds at Beidaihe after reading two detailed papers by Danish ornithologist Axel Hemmingsen written in the 1940s.

His first trip in five years gave him the opportunity to revisit those birding spots in and around the town of Beidaihe, many of which were found, explored and even named by him and his fellows. His findings were to turn up some disturbing results.

Lighthouse Point

Williams flew in from Hong Kong on May 10 and checked into Beidaihe's Jinshan Hotel.

Mainly because of his passion for birdwatching, Williams gave up chemistry and since 1986 he has made a living leading birdwatching tours and freelance writing in Hong Kong.

In most of his trips to Beidaihe, he stays at the Jinshan, which has become something of a haunt for birdwatchers from overseas.

"It's not because sometimes you can find such birds as night jars in the hotel's woods and gardens in migrating seasons," he told China Daily. "It's mainly because it is close to Lighthouse Point and Jinshan Field."

They are two of the best known birding spots in Beidaihe identified by the first birdwatchers, including Williams.

On May 11, Williams was up at 6 o'clock in the morning and heading for Lighthouse Point, his binoculars hanging round his neck and a telescope over his shoulder.

There is, in fact, no lighthouse on the site. Known as Jinshan Cape by the locals and facing Bohai Bay, it only looks like a good place for a lighthouse.

Most of the cape is occupied by a sanatorium owned by the Chinese Navy, while without the forested rear of the compound is a small stretch of woodland.

The eastern most headland of Beidaihe, says Williams, is an important habitat for migrating songbirds. "Over the years, I have found songbirds arriving from over the seas in the spring. They can take shelter in the woods during their long exhausting migration. Given certain conditions - which in the spring can include wind, rain, or the threat of rain, there will be an influx, or a fall-out as birders say, of songbirds."

At a fall-out in June, 1991, he saw hundreds of warblers, reed warblers, buntings and several other species in the woods. "Several species of birds were seen by the dozens on a single tree. It was a mind-blowing scene."

The cape is also a good place to observe migrating large birds like ducks, geese, harriers and cranes.

In April, 1985, Williams spotted an immature male Harlequin duck in the sea off the rocky coast. It was a first for Beidaihe and one of the few recorded in the country, "an unexpected and thrilling sight."

Probably because it is close to the navy's property, said Williams, the place looks not much different from 20 years ago. That first morning of his May trip, he spotted over 20 species of birds in an hour, including a flock of Chinese Penduline tits coming from the sea.

Jinshan Field was his next stop before breakfast.

It turned out to be a protected historic site. Overgrown with weeds, it looks like a deserted construction site instead of a suitable place for birds.

Williams had not gone far before he startled a Mongolian lark, a rare bird in the region and a blue throat. "Though it is small, the meadow can provide a temporary sanctuary for certain migrating birds," he said.

In fact, the variety of habitat is an important reason why over 400 species of birds - one third of all those found in the country - can be seen in Beidaihe.

"Although the resort has mushroomed since my first visit, the estuaries remain, along with wooded hills, gullies, and coastal plantations." One of the two areas of freshwater marsh has, however, vanished. "Friends tell me Radar Marsh has gone."

Degraded marshes

After breakfast Williams went off to explore the marsh areas.

First stop was the Longxing Agricultural Garden, which birdwatchers call the "Reservoir," as it has a small reservoir upstream of Xinkai River running through the marsh.

This area was once the first nature reserve in Beidaihe. It was established in the spring of 1990, in part at Williams' urging.

"Free of charge, my friend Michael Ounsted, a wetland management expert from Britain helped to design a bird park for the reserve," said Williams. "But, nothing came of it. Even the sign of the reserve is long gone."

Fortunately the garden never proved a successful tourist attraction and its fish ponds, shrubbery and a small patch of rice paddy, remain a world of birds. Herons, egrets, snipes and gulls... They are all still there.

Radar Marsh has fared not so well. Today it is little more than a dump for garbage and construction waste. A foul smelling stream of greenish water the only clue that it was once a marsh.

On the left bank of the stream and beyond the radar station, Martin recalls, there used to be rice paddies, a good habitat for such grassland birds as cranes and big bustards. And on the right bank were flats overgrown with reeds and bushes, in which birdwatchers had recorded painted snipe, a rare bird for the area.

Today the paddy field is planted with poplar trees and the flats are "the Radar wasteland" or "the Radar brick landfill."

"Now I know what my friends meant when they spoke of their sadness when visiting Radar Marsh nowadays," said Williams. "To me, it's ridiculous to replace the paddy field with a man-made forest and destroy a wetland for any development project."

That same afternoon Williams went to the Daihe and Yanghe estuaries, about 30 kilometres south of the town. Although fish ponds and shrimp ponds have "spread like wildfire along the coast," he still saw quite a lot of shorebirds in the estuaries.

Fragmented Lagoon

He visited Qilihai Lagoon the next day.

With only a narrow channel to the sea, the lagoon, as a part of a national nature reserve, actually comes within the jurisdiction of Tianjin Municipality. But because it is closer to Beidaihe, (only 60 kilometres south) than to the city of Tianjin, it is considered one of Beidaihe's birding spots.

But again closer examination revealed the reserve is not functioning well.

Williams arrived on the eastern bank of the lake, and found the lagoon to be smaller than the one he saw five years ago. Between the bank and the lagoon are fish and shrimp ponds one after another.

To reach the waterfront, he had to walk nearly a kilometre along the muddy embankment of the ponds. Along the way, he met local fishermen digging new ponds.

Water birds were still feeding in the lagoon. Curlews, sandpipers, plovers, godwits and terns, all in big flocks. He even spotted two Chinese egrets, very rare birds for the area through his telescope.

"The place is better than Beidaihe for coastal shorebirds - for although Beidaihe attracts an excellent variety of shorebirds, its mudflats and marshes are too small to hold large numbers,"said Williams. "It can be ranked as an internationally important wetland."

He saw a Whimbrel, a chicken-sized shorebird with long curved bill, desperately struggling in a crab trap near the bank and from time to time, heard the crack of firecrackers, as fish farmers tried to drive birds away from their territories.

"It's such a pity to find the lagoon being fragmented and degrading," remarked Williams, as he packed for Happy Island in Laoting, Hebei Province.

He spent two nights on the island, where he was relieved to find a great habitat for migrating birds. But the bad news for Beidaihe is that a specialist birdwatching tour operator in the UK is considering removing Beidaihe from its itinerary and replacing it with Happy Island.

Positive aspects

But Williams explorations were not all bad news and he discovered a few positive things.

"I have not seen people trapping birds to sell and youngsters shooting songbirds with their sling shots purely for fun this time," he said. "It was quite common here 20 years ago. It's certainly a sign of people's rising environmental awareness."

The growing number of Chinese birdwatchers also impressed him. And he was encouraged by the over 100 who attended the bird race and when a Chinese team won with a record of 152 species of birds within 24 hours.

"Back 20 years ago, no one, including me, would have believed that birdwatching could grow so fast in China," said Williams.

A similar bird race held in Beidaihe in 1999 had no Chinese participants.

"I think they can become a growing factor to promote conservation in this area," he said.

The best news for Williams came from his meeting with Cao Ziyu, director of the local government.

Cao told him the authorities had spent about 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) in terminating the contract with the agricultural garden, buying some land from local people, and knocking down 11 illegal built "temporary buildings" put up by pig and fish farmers, all measures aimed at really protecting the reserve.

At present, about 40 people are employed by the reserve, which still needs a detailed conservation plan.

When Williams mentioned the plan drawn up by his friend years before the director asked for a copy. "Under the plan, the reserve can become a perfect bird park. It can be attractive to not only birdwatchers, but also ordinary people."

"I will dust off the plan, photocopy it and send a copy to Beidaihe when I get back to Hong Kong," said Williams, somewhat buoyed. "It's a good thing. But well, let's see."

(China Daily 05/28/2005 page9)


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