During my recent trip to Germany I achieved three major milestones in my life all within two hours:
I drove a Mercedes for the first time
I drove 200 KPH on the Autobahn
I received a sarcastic parking note from an unknown German
The Autobahn was lots of fun. It felt quite strange to be blowing past cars in the slow lane without needing to worry about the po-po. It was also disconcerting to never see a posted speed limit. What a wondrous country!
We went to an outlet mall and I might have parked the Mercedes with a tire or two over the line… but we got there early and I didn’t want to risk dinking a coworker’s car! Well, when we left several hours later there wasn’t an empty spot in the lot and I had the post-it under my wiper. This is way better than a parking ticket though, which is what I thought it was at first glance! I love the competing smilie/frownie faces…
Early May found me in Frankfurt for three days of meetings. As luck would have it, my hotel was only one kilometer away from a nice pastoral area and adjacent nature preserve. I brought my binoculars and field guide and rose before dawn each day to walk the area before breakfast. Strenuous morning exercise does wonders to offset all the meat, cheese, and weizenbier I was consuming in Deutschland!
Despite being a fixture of classical Chinese art, I saw my first wild Mandarin Duck when I took a business trip to Frankfurt, Germany. They were introduced to Western Europe a century before and are now self-sustaining on peaceful lakes and slow-moving rivers across the landscape.
I was birdwatching in a quiet, dark forest at the center of which was a small pond. I can clearly recall my excitement as the first drake paddled out from behind a bend in the bank and into the light. Mandarin Ducks are stunning to behold. Soon more and more appeared. The hens stuck close to the overgrown banks while the drakes proudly swam about shining in the sun like the Spanish Armada.
I lived in China almost seven years before seeing my first truly Mandarin Mandarin Duck. I spotted the pair photographed below in the early morning of an unseasonably cold day in the first week of May.
As I watched them dabble for breakfast surrounded by garbage, my mind wandered back to that sighting in Germany and the two radically different lives lead by the same species. There is a lot of modern China in this photo: beauty, loyalty, struggle and the will to survive set amongst a raft of refuse and waste spoiling a once pristine place.
There are a lot of different birds in China – more than 1,200 species though the exact number isn’t yet agreed upon.
There are also lots of Chinese people in China – more than 1,300,000,000 individuals though the exact number changes by the minute.
What might surprise you though, and this is something any expat birder will readily attest to, is that by and large Chinese people are wholly oblivious to the myriad birds around them.
Oh of course they know the Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Crows, and Pigeons. But once you get beyond that ultra-common four species group the awareness drops off precipitously.
This is a critical problem! China’s birds are under constant and ever-increasing pressure from development, pollution, consumption, and other anthropogenic factors. Yet if your general public thinks there are no birds here how could you possibly rally support for conservation programs?
Those of us who can “see” the birds are duty-bound to find ways to make them visible to everyone else as well!
And so it was on the afternoon of May 1st holiday that I found myself birding a rubbish-strewn creek next to my uncle-in-law’s apartment with his son.
There were a good many songbirds in the brush up and down the cliff across from us, but they were extraordinarily difficult to see. Instead, I focused his attention on the creek below us where I quickly spotted a Grey Wagtail.
Wagtails are great introductory birds. A male in breeding plumage at close range is a spectacular sight. The field marks are particularly easy to see and their namesake tail-wagging behavior is quite charming. I’ve only ever seen Gray Wagtails out in the countryside, though their White brethren are common in Shenyang. I explained what separated the two species and what made this spot a likely wagtail location, then we were rewarded by the appearance of a pair of White Wagtails as well!
This allowed him to compare the two species side-by-side. It was a great learning moment.
My final trick was to help him zero in on a lone warbler’s song. The warbler was far too deep inside the brush to be seen, but we heard the call many times and both agreed to its description: chika-chika-CHEEE. After that we went back inside and identified it based on the call using the fantastic xeno-canto website.
Three species in one outing is not going to get you on the cover of any magazines, but it was a great success when you consider that this person has lived adjacent to this creek for 5 years and before that day had no idea whatsoever that those birds existed!
Is this person going to magically become a birder now? Probably not. But he does look at that creek with different eyes now. And perhaps he begins to think a bit more about the appropriateness of the garbage scattered around and through it.