I got up at 5.30am and drove down to the Wenyu river, which
forms the border between the Chaoyang district of “central” Beijing and the Shunyi district of “outer”
Beijing. On my regular morning excursions there, I never cross over from the Chaoyang side, as I prefer to record anything
of interest as “seen in central Beijing”. It was a glorious morning: The sky was cobalt blue, there
wasn’t a breath of wind, and many newly-arrived Oriental Reed Warblers, hidden away in the lush paddyfields by the river,
were in fine voice. A beautiful Yellow Bittern, my first sighting of this species this year, flew out of the rice-bed
just in front of me and treated me to an wonderful flypast before it dived back down to – no doubt – continue
its hunt for breakfast.
I’ve been watching and photographing birds in Beijing for 16 years and it still continues to amaze me how rich “central”
Beijing’s birdlife really is. Since the beginning of last year, I have seen more than 100 species at this one
site, including two male Red-Crested Pochards, a species that usually gets no further east than central Asia; a Bewick’s
Swan on its way south after spending the summer on the Russian shores of the Arctic Ocean; a small flock of Swan Geese probably
on their way to Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province; and several Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers taking a breather on their
long journey from south-east Asia to places perhaps more than a thousand miles north-east of here.
Visits to other places in “central”
Beijing this year have been equally rewarding: On one early-spring morning, at Yiheyuan (the Summer Palace) –
one of Beijing’s biggest tourist attractions – I (and numerous passers by) took photographs of some of the 144
swans of three species that had rested on the lake there (133 Whoopers, 10 Bewick’s, and a single Mute Swan, a very
rare visitor this far east). Chaoyang Park, Beijing’s biggest and busiest park, has continued to delight, with
a Siberian Rubythroat, several Red-flanked Bluetails, and a flock of Siberian Accentors high on the list of memorable birds.
Birding in Beijing doesn’t
get much better, though, than the morning I enjoyed in January this year a few miles south of the Marco Polo bridge, where
I managed to get some quite reasonable photographs of a flock of Mongolian Larks and half-a-dozen Pallas’s Sandgrouse,
which are usually denizens of the central Asian deserts (Many thanks to Xiaoming, one of the growing band of very keen and
skilled local birders, for inviting me to join him and his friends on what turned out to be a successful search for these
two usually very difficult to see species).
But on the minus side: The loss of habitat continues at a frightening pace. My local patch is hanging on against the
odds while, just south of there, land-usage “transfers” have resulted in bulldozers moving within earshot of the
paddyfields. Beijing’s migrant and breeding birds face other perils too: A few weeks ago, also on the Chaoyang
side of the Wenyu River, my wife and I confiscated two boys’ catapults after we saw them trying to shoot birds out of
This morning, in just about
the same place, I saw someone doing something that turned my positive impression of the morning on its head. I watched
through binoculars as a man waded into the paddyfields near to where the Yellow Bittern had landed and proceeded to erect
a long “mist” net, using bamboo poles to support it. Over many years in China I’ve witnessed many
instances of these contraptions causing death and injury. Usually I see the aftermath – the less marketable birds
(the ones that don’t sing, aren’t brightly coloured, or can’t be eaten) are often left to hang there because
the bird-catcher doesn’t want to waste time untangling them from the fine mesh that ensnares them. This time,
I was there before any damage could be done and I was determined to tell the man what I thought of him and his type.
I approached him from the east, with the low morning sun at my back. Eventually he saw me.
"Hand me the net... now!!" I demanded.
Although not as scary as a
gun, the spade he was holding did look a bit menacing. My demand had clearly fallen on deaf ears because the bird-catcher
lifted up the spade and started walking towards me. Time for either a sharp exit or to stand firm (or at least to pretend
to be standing firm):
"If you don't give me the net immediately, I'm going to call the police," I shouted out
in my gruffest, no-nonsense voice. This was a bluff of course. I could imagine the (short) phone call to the emergency
911 number: "Hello, I'm at the Wenyu River, and I've caught someone trying to catch birds in a mist net... and I need
you to be here... hello... er... hello..."
"Now!!" I repeated. The spade-wielding man continued walking towards me,
and then to my great surprise, not to mention even greater relief, he put up his hands. "Please don't call the police,"
he pleaded. With that he ran back to the poles in the middle of the paddyfield, tore down the net, and ran to hand it
I was on a
roll, so I thought I’d chance my arm at some Lock, stock and two smoking barrels lines: "I have your photograph,"
I told him darkly. "If I ever see you in the area again, then it's all over. Tell your mates that the same goes for them.
I come here every day. And no one catches birds in my manor." With more apologies, and something about
he'll become a reformed character from now on, he jumped on his cycle and rode off.