What I learned about China by searching for the world’s rarest bird
The story of the Chinese crested tern is bound up with that of China itself
“The fields are few, but the sea is vast. So men have made fields from the sea.”
- Qing dynasty gazetteer
They are there as night falls, and your car lights pick them up as you speed along the coast on a new and excitingly empty motorway: clusters of ragged people who have clambered up through the barriers from the patchwork of ancient paddy fields which this new road paved with glorious intentions has sundered. This is Hainan, an island nearly the size of Sri Lanka which for centuries the Chinese considered to be a place of exile and disease but which the Communist state and its construction mafia is rebranding as a tropical paradise. The people are not ethnic Chinese at all, but from the Li minority — the original settlers of Hainan.
The early Chinese conquerors called them barbarians, for they drilled their teeth and went barefoot; a poet, despising their sharp voices, dubbed them shrike-tongued. Today the Chinese still look down on the Li but esteem them as hunters. “Bow and knife never leave their hands,” wrote a Song dynasty chronicler; or mist nets, a modern chronicler might add. By the side of the road, Li men, young and old, hold clusters of wild birds by the legs, waving them as we roar past. We skid to a halt and I get out for a closer look.
The Li men jostle to sell me supper, all of it live: white-breasted waterhens, little egrets, a black-crowned night heron and a spot-billed duck, the only duck where male and female look alike. Upright, herons and their egret cousins have the gaunt, hunched air of sharp-eyed spinsters dressed for an Edwardian salon. Hung upside down, they turn limp, resigned to their fate except for the occasional mild jab at their captor’s hand. I have not eaten of the family. But I did once (in a Guangzhou restaurant that kept herons, civet cats and a live donkey in the store room) accept a bite of cormorant, which must be similar, and it is nothing to write home about. As I turn back to the shiny car, one of the old vendors in a torn T-shirt and shorts is disdainful. “Ta kan ye bu mai!” he spits. “He looks and doesn’t even buy anything.”
The war on feathers
China is not a good place to be a bird. I learnt this when I moved from Hong Kong, still a British colony, to Beijing. Though my home in Hong Kong was in the heart of the city, dense scrub tumbled down the slopes from the Peak. I was driven out of bed every morning by a raucous dawn chorus. The violet whistling thrush was among the first to start up, and the hwamei (“beautiful eyebrow”), with white eyestripe and rich territorial song. The koel, a tropical cuckoo that lurks in thick cover, has a rising bisyllabic wolf-whistle. The grey treepie, a corvid, was a late riser, but hoodlum gangs soon made up for it. Layered over the top of all this came the screeches of sulphur-crested cockatoos. These aerial zoomers were a feral flock. The oldest had short lengths of chain on their legs and were released in 1941 from the aviary at Flagstaff House as the Japanese army closed in.
In my hutong neighbourhood in Beijing, by contrast, the mornings were strangely silent. In 1958 Mao Zedong had declared war on songbirds, sparrows in particular: he claimed they consumed scarce grain. For three days and nights my neighbourhood, gripped like much of northern China by hysteria, had beaten pots and pans to keep birds on the move until they collapsed in exhaustion on the roofs and pavements of the courtyard houses. The consequence was a plague of locusts the next year that helped bring on a famine. “Suan le,” Mao had said when told that the anti-sparrow campaign was not working. “Forget it then.”
Four decades after the campaign, sparrows remained scarcer in Beijing than they should have been (though they could reliably be found being grilled on bamboo skewers in the night markets, along with yellow-breasted buntings, meltingly sweet, in autumn). The most common bird-sound I used to hear was the clack of a handsome azure-winged magpie as it rummaged through my crab-apple tree. The occasional croak drifted down from on high as a raven returned to the Temple of Heaven. But the most memorable, and haunting, bird-sound was man-made. An old monk in a temple down my lane had inserted tiny bamboo flutes into the tail-feathers of his flock of pigeons. As they wheeled over my roof, they trailed an aeolian music behind them. The old man is gone now. So, too, are the courtyard houses and the hutong neighbourhoods, flattened in an orgy of destruction that was supposed to make Beijing more presentable for the Olympics.
In theory, China has lots of birds. To date, 1,329 species have been counted, out of a world total of 9,000-odd. China has a rich mix of habitats, from upland steppe and desert, to mountain fir and spruce forests, lowland tropical rainforest, and wetlands. China is the world centre for pheasants, boasting 62 out of 200 species worldwide: the tail feathers of the Reeve’s pheasant, 60 inches (150cm) long, are prized for headgear in Peking opera. The country has nine of 14 species of crane, a bird held in special affection for its fidelity; and a quarter of the world’s total of ducks, swans and geese. Many bird species are endemic (that is, found nowhere else), and China’s south-west is particularly rich in flora and fauna, birds included. Hainan, despite heavy logging, boasts two species unique to the island: a partridge, and a leaf warbler discovered only in 1992.
A bird flits into view for a split second; before I have fumbled with the focusing knob on my binoculars, it has vanished back into the gloom
Spotting birds in thick forest is a tantalising business and, for a reporter with dull senses, it tips towards the frustrating. In Hainan’s high forest reserve of Bawangling, a nondescript bird (a common white-eye, or a bird unknown to science?) flits into view for a split second; before I have fumbled with the focusing knob on my binoculars, it has vanished back into the gloom. The reserve’s species list is long, but mine is grimly short, though I did see a magnificent male silver pheasant, 40 inches from bill to tail, crossing the forest track. And I heard a troupe of that rarest of mammals, the Hainan black-crested gibbon, hooting away high up along the mountain ridges. Yet my passions lie with the open coast: the intertidal flats, the salt marshes and the mangrove swamps that every autumn, winter and spring host (when you can find them) intoxicating numbers of shorebirds, waders and wildfowl driven down by instinctual urge from their breeding grounds in Asia’s far north.
In search of shorebirds, I cross by crowded ferry from Hainan to Beihai, mainland China’s southernmost port near the border with Vietnam. Aboard, a large box of passerines and mynah birds, heading for death in exquisite cages, keeps up a cheerful chorus while the rest of the passengers succumb to a dumb seasickness.
China’s coast is long and indented. It abuts relatively shallow seas, rendered turbid by the sediment of China’s east-flowing rivers — 1 billion tonnes of sediment a year dumped by the Yangzi and Yellow rivers alone. Hainan and Taiwan farther north provide something of an outer boundary for the South China Sea and East China Sea respectively — comparisons are often made between these semi-enclosed seas and the Mediterranean. The warm monsoonal waters are rich spawning grounds for fish and other marine species. But even more than the Mediterranean littoral, China’s is a busy coast. That is a problem for a great diversity of wild things trying to thrive alongside humans.
Beihai sits in a tight-lipped bay on the Gulf of Tonkin, where the rich silt of estuaries is swept and trapped by turbid currents — a paradise for molluscs and those that hunt them. Winter dawn is leaden, no line between sky and sea. A flotilla of low craft chuff from left to right, man and wife hunched at the stern. One by one, the boats break off to settle by withies that mark the pearl-oyster beds. On each deck is a wooden shed and all the paraphernalia of oyster cultivation: tongs and rakes, mesh-bags of oyster spat, wire trays. Within minutes the scattered boats lay still, and the seascape takes on an air of quiet industry, a watery allotment land.
On shore, clams and cockles sit in heaps before a long brick row of low fisherman’s homes, the doorposts pasted with bright paper charms. Out front, families are ankle-deep in bivalves, shovelling them into soybean sacks and stacking these in piles. The haul, says a woman with a grin, is on its way to the tables of Beijing.
This sea-harvest crawls up the pavements and covers the slopes of the town. On a hill, a former glassworks with a high redbrick chimney is now home to foreshore families who have moved in to squat. With the screech of packing tape run off the reel, polystyrene boxes of shellfish are sealed and piled high on to the back of motorised rickshaws. Inside the buildings, not a soul. The light from the high windows is dappled, as if in a church, and the padded silence is broken only by a gentle bubbling. All around, low pools are filled with clear water, salty to the taste. Here lie molluscs in their thousands, half-burrowed in the sand: whelks and winkles, turbans, clams and cockles, their patterned shells matching the mottled light. Most have put out snout-like siphons to feed, or rather to purge what impurities they had ingested in their adolescence on the city’s tideflats.
Along the strand, there are too few shorebirds: some solitary sandpipers, least timid of the waders, but that is it. The ranching of the mudflats has left little for them to eat, or created too much commotion. Farther out, there are too few seabirds. In Beihai’s port, and in the harbours up the coast, a vivid tableau hints at why.
Old men scull open boats with a single tethered oar twisted from side to side at the sterne — the yuloh, as ancient as China itself
Here is a throng of vessels and a harbour life that in the West you see only in turn-of-the-last-century photogravures of San Francisco, Marseille or Brixham. Hundreds of big wooden fishing boats — pair-trawlers, beam-trawlers, draggers, longliners and squid boats — are rafted up in rows across nearly the whole breadth of the harbour, leaving only a narrow cut for smaller vessels moving chaotically about the port: man-and-wife fishing boats, driven forward in a series of regular explosions, old men sculling open boats with a single tethered oar twisted from side to side at the stern — the yuloh, as ancient as China itself. Everywhere is shouting, greetings, in-jokes. Ashore, groups of women on the ground gut fish and throw them in salt tubs. But one thing is striking: the skate, yellow croaker and pomfret are baby-sized, some smaller than your hand. These astoundingly productive waters are being overfished.
The history of birding in China, especially along its coast, is bound up with the story of Western imperialism, and the missionaries that arrived on its coat-tails. Père Armand David is best known for discovering the giant panda and introducing Père David’s deer to stately parks in Europe. But he also noted 772 bird species, collecting 470 of them. Robert Swinhoe, China’s finest early birder, was the British consul in Amoy (modern-day Xiamen) and the first British representative on Formosa (Taiwan). He did not think his arrival there auspicious, for on the waterlogged crossing he recorded losing ten shirts and six nightshirts. But over two decades from 1854, Swinhoe collected and described 650 Chinese species. He is immortalised in the stunning Swinhoe’s pheasant, endemic to Taiwan, as well as a rail, a snipe, an egret and a storm-petrel that breeds off the rocky coasts of Japan. On a naval expedition to Hainan to hunt out pirates, Swinhoe found time to head into the interior, discovering 19 unrecorded species. The Chinese mandarin accompanying him on his rambles thought it the strangest of occupations, but kept him refreshed with tea, cakes, a pipe and a stool to sit on.
Until a decade ago, Hong Kong was the undisputed centre for birders: as a pastime, bird-watching was almost unknown on the Chinese mainland, and locals still ask visitors peering through binoculars whether the bird they are looking at is worth a lot. Hong Kong’s bird-watching society, the first in greater China, is now a half-century old. British diplomats continued Swinhoe’s passion: the leader of the Sino-British talks arranging Hong Kong’s return in 1997, later ambassador in Beijing, is a leading authority on China’s birds (and an even greater one on its moths). Hong Kong’s current chief executive lists birding as his chief passion.
At peak migrations times, the sky over Mai Po is dark with ducks and waders, harried by the eagles and hawks that hunt them
The first reserve on the China coast properly to protect migrating shorebirds and waterfowl was set up in 1975 in Hong Kong, at Mai Po, and is now run by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Its mudflats, mangroves and shrimp ponds are a crucial staging post on the East Asian-Australasian flyway, along which several million birds barrel each spring and autumn. At peak migrations times, the sky over Mai Po is dark with ducks and waders, harried by the eagles and hawks that hunt them. Farthest travelled is the red knot, which breeds on the high Arctic tundra and winters as far away as South Island, New Zealand. Rarest are the Nordmann’s greenshank, whose 1,000 surviving pairs breed on Sakhalin; the tiny but striking spoon-billed sandpiper from north-east Siberia; and the much larger black-faced spoonbill, whose population has doubled to over 2,000, thanks to better protection of its wintering sites. Up to a quarter of all black-faced spoonbills winter in Hong Kong, returning to breed on islets in the Korean peninsula’s demilitarised zone. Mai Po is Hong Kong’s best kept secret.
In recent years the annual number of waders stopping at Mai Po has steadily increased, to around 60,000. Yet this rise causes the reserve’s managers more concern than joy. Staging posts along the flyway, used by migrating birds for millennia, are being over-exploited for shellfish. At least, says Wen Xianji of the WWF, work with foreshoremen in Guangdong and Fujian provinces to minimise bird disturbances is paying off.
Worse, rich mudflats are being “reclaimed” for development. The most notorious example, in South Korea, is a 20-mile (33km) seawall built to enclose a huge estuary and mudflats at Saemangeum, an area two-thirds the size of Singapore where 400,000 birds, including the spoon-billed sandpiper and Nordmann’s greenshank, had fed. But reclamation down the Chinese coast is happening at breakneck pace, with few controls: not even official reserves are safe from developers. More birds are pushed down to Mai Po as a result. They arrive exhausted and Mai Po, however well protected from fishermen and foreshoremen, lacks the food resources to allow so many birds to build up reserves of fat for their onward migration.
“As a biologist,” says Mr Morton, “I know that ecosystems can be restored. Still, the waters of China are virtually beyond redemption.”
And then there is pollution. The press of several hundred million people along the coast threatens marine organisms at risk from river discharges, heavy metals and pesticides from farmed shrimp ponds, oil spills, antifouling paint on boats and other chemical contaminants. Brian Morton, an expert on China’s seashore ecology recently retired from the University of Hong Kong, points out that only one-tenth of Chinese sewage is treated, leading to eutrophication and algal blooms in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea. In addition, several tens of thousands of seabirds are reckoned to be killed every year by an entangling mass of flotsam — fishing gear, grocery bags and the like. “As a biologist,” says Mr Morton, “I know that ecosystems can be restored. Still, the waters of China are virtually beyond redemption.”
But the rise of an entirely new species in China brings hope to conservationists: the mainland birdwatcher. First sightings came from the boom city of Shenzhen, across the bay from Mai Po. Since 2004 the Shenzhen Birdwatching Society has fought to keep developers away from the Futien reserve that acts as a complement to Mai Po. Now, two dozen such societies have sprung up in China, mainly along the coast whose development has brought prosperity (you need money to be a birdwatcher: for binoculars, spotting scope and camera equipment). This growing band is trying to halt the destruction that development has brought, teaching youngsters about the joy of birds and holding local governments and businesses to account when they trash wild places. “Let’s hear it”, says Mr Morton, “for the birdwatchers.”
Rumours of its extinction have been greatly exaggerated
Eight years ago another species came suddenly back from the dead. In 1937 a Chinese ornithologist, T.H. Shaw, in the days of innocence when the scientific approach to the study of birds was to blast them out of the sky, had killed 21 Chinese crested terns at their breeding colony on an island off the Shandong coast, near where the sailing Olympics were held this year. The specimens were stuffed into a museum drawer in Beijing. The Chinese crested tern was not seen again and was presumed extinct.
Until 2000, that is. That summer, a group of Taiwanese twitchers were on an islet just off the Fujian coast, part of the disputed Mazu archipelago that has been controlled by Taiwan since the end of China’s civil war in 1949. They were admiring a colony of greater crested terns when, to their amazement, they counted four pairs of an unusual crested tern among them which sported a diagnostic black tip to their orange bills: the Chinese crested tern.
The news electrified an irrepressible young mainland ornithologist, Chen Shuihua, from Zhejiang province’s natural history museum in Hangzhou. Mr Chen had started his career studying the ecology of city birds, before switching to seabirds “because to my amazement no one in China was studying them.” Knowing for sure that the Chinese crested tern was extinct on its northern former breeding grounds in Shandong, he figured that the main hope of finding other breeding birds was in the Zhoushan chain, a rocky group of 200 islands strung out, equidistant between Mazu and Shandong, across the mouth of Hangzhou bay.
Over the course of two summers, Mr Chen slept aboard a fishing boat, travelling from island to island over the whole chain. In August of the second year, he found a handful of Chinese crested terns nesting among a colony of greater crested terns. For two further years, he searched the rocky coastal islets south of the Zhoushan group and found a few more. He was able to hazard at the time that perhaps 50 terns survived.
Soon, however, disaster. In 2005 no birds bred successfully, their chicks carried away from barren rocks by two August typhoons. In 2005 and 2006 not a single Chinese crested tern was to be seen. In 2007 Mr Chen found four breeding pairs among a 1,000-strong colony of greater crested terns. Then one summer night a fisherman came out and took away 1,000 of the colony’s eggs, including all from the Chinese crested terns. The haul would have earned him 35,000 yuan ($5,000) from coastal restaurants where seabirds’ eggs have become a delicacy — a good night’s work for someone who could not make that much in a year of fishing.
So we bird on, boats against the current
Mr Chen has begged and pleaded with the authorities in Zhejiang province for more protection — boats and wardens — for breeding colonies, and tried to persuade local fishing communities of their special value. One humid dawn last August, I joined Mr Chen and his Zhoushan warden aboard a decrepit craft that served well enough as a safe patrol vessel — so long, I thought, as the sea remained flat. The boat shook and shuddered as it steamed out to a cluster of four islets some way out from the main island.
Around the islets, a brown riptide; above, as we approached, a swirling ball of greater-crested terns and black-tailed gulls, with Swinhoe’s egrets orbiting around the outside. As the skipper landed us on the first of the rocks, the cries of the crested terns became deafening. Indignant parents charged us at eye level before rising over our heads and turning back for another run. One of them, I noticed as it skimmed my head, had a bright orange bill with a black tip: an exhilarating moment.
I now understand better the force of the term “treading on eggshells”, for speckled eggs lay everywhere, easily overlooked on the guano-spattered rocks
With nets and bags of leg rings, we spread out over the rocks. Everywhere were flightless chicks, some scurrying to hide in hollows, others heading for the sea. I now understand better the force of the term “treading on eggshells”, for greyish chicks and speckled eggs lay everywhere, easily overlooked on the guano-spattered rocks. I began to wonder whether my oafishness would do more harm to the Chinese crested tern than T.H. Shaw did.
In a stench of ammonia, we ringed the hundreds of chicks as quickly as we could. And there, not far from each other, two chicks were sitting that were whiter than the mottled grey offspring of the greater crested terns. They were the first Chinese crested terns ever to be ringed, and the only offspring of the species in 2008.
By Mr Chen’s calculation, that brings the population of what is possibly the world’s rarest bird up to 32, surviving in colonies near some of the densest human populations on earth. The ringing is just the first step in trying to understand a bird about which almost nothing is known. It is not clear whether the breeding population around the Zhoushan islands mixes with the one on Mazu. Nor is the birds’ wintering range known — possibly the Philippines, Borneo and perhaps Myanmar. Recent funding for a conservation plan, through Birdlife Asia, a conservation group, is a start. But protecting colonies from egg-hunters is the immediate challenge, and not only in Zhejiang province. For much of the past half-century, the Taiwanese military presence on Mazu has been a deterrent to mainland poachers. Now peace is breaking out across the Taiwan Strait and Taiwanese soldiers are loth to create a political incident by arresting Chinese fishermen.
Mr Chen has been lobbying the authorities vociferously. “If I were a government official,” he says, “maybe I’d be more prudent. But it’s my duty to speak out, and as a scientist, I’m listened to.” He’s getting somewhere. As well as providing the rickety patrol vessel and its crew, local authorities even take pride that something so rare falls within their jurisdiction. Mr Chen and fellow birdwatchers spread their passions in local schools, holding school “bird fairs” and celebrating wetlands and wildness that most Chinese people regard as a waste of space or food.
Let’s hear it for the twitchers
Western environmentalists brought up on direct action and confrontation might view the China’s attempts to save the environment as wet and weak-kneed. Others search in vain in China’s environmental movement for a democratic vanguard, in evidence during the last days of the Soviet Union. Mass protests, such as successful demonstrations in 2007 by residents of Xiamen against a planned chemical plant on the coast, are localised.
Yet in protean China, one constant is that opposing the Communist state brings down a mailed fist. If protecting habitats and species is the aim, Mr Chen and his kind are better at the job than outsiders give them credit for. As Mr Chen points out, influencing government policy was unthinkable two decades ago. So even as they scan the woodlands, rocky islets or mudflats, China’s environmentalists, ever so slowly, are giving a boost not just to other species but also to citizens, for they are becoming a social force. Another reason, then, to hear it for the birdwatchers.
This article originally appeared in the 2008 Christmas double issue of The Economist