Everyone in China is very proud of their long history and enduring civilization. Fortunately for the rest of us younger civilizations, despite 5,000 years of civilizing themselves they still have a tremendous amount of bad habits… like dumping trash wherever the fuck they feel like it.
I went birding at Huanzidong Reservoir a couple of weeks ago and found the water level way, way down. Hundreds of meters of mudflats were exposed. This attracts all sorts of birdlife, but leaves the hopeful birder no place to hide. Even with a spotting scope, trying to identify sandpipers at 300m totally sucks.
Rubbing salt in the wound, over the summer some local government genius spent who knows how much money building this fucking awesome bird-watching tower:
But they forget to put it anywhere remotely near the reservoir so now it’s a fucking awesome corn-watching tower.
Looking ahead to the upcoming arrival of the Siberian Cranes, I decided to take drastic action: I would build a duck blind.
I spent last weekend in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam. While an all-around awesome trip, it proved to be the last dying breath of my trusty Nikon Monarch binoculars. With the threads on both eyepieces jammed solid and the focus differential knob out of sync, they were done. Saturday morning I dropped them off at the Nikon Shenyang Authorized Service office (“We don’t really do binoculars, we’ll have to ask Shanghai next week…”) and this morning took Spider down to the Hun River to do some scoping.
It was only 15C when Spider and I set out. Shenyang embraces Autumn without hesitation! Migratory species are already beginning to pass through Liaoning province in fits and starts, within another two weeks they will become a torrent.
My daily commute takes place almost entirely upon the Third Ring Road of Shenyang. If you overlay the ring road on a clock face, our home is at 3 o’clock, my son’s preschool at 12 o’clock, and my workplace at 9 o’clock.
So it happened that on Monday morning after dropping off my son, I was somewhere between 12 and 11 on the clock face speeding SW on the ring road when I noticed a towering black column of smoke arching up into the otherwise blue Shenyang sky.
Your first instinct is always to wonder what it could be? What’s around that area that would be capable of producing so much smoke?
Unfortunately, what immediately came to mind was the military airfield located in that part of town. The PLA airforce runs training flights into and out of that airfield every day. Given the quantity and acridity of the smoke I figured either a jet had gone down with lots of fuel on-board or an entire apartment building was going up.
Contrary to popular perception, China has modern and strict environmental laws. What is lacking, and I mean seriously lacking, is enforcement. A most vivid example was on display during my most recent visit to Huanzidong.
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.