A British birder in China

Oct. 19, 2015 09:01:00

tt birding at great wall (1)

Terry Townshend is birding at the Great Wall.

For Terry Townshend, the weekends mean an extra early start to the day.

The Briton rises as early as 4:30 a.m., has a quick breakfast and drives several hours to remote reservoirs in the outskirts of Beijing, carrying heavy binoculars, a telescope and a camera.

He begins the trip home after dark.

“The first few hours after sunrise are when birds are most active,” says Townshend, who has been a bird watcher in Beijing for four years, counting birds and documenting migration patterns.

Townshend began watching birds at the age of four in his parents’ garden. “I asked them what they were called and they didn’t know, so they bought me a book. From that, I taught myself,” Townshend recalls.

After arriving in Beijing in 2010 to work for an environmental organization specializing in environmental legislation, Townshend discovered the city was filled with bird life.

“More than 480 species of bird have been recorded in the Chinese capital, which beats London, Washington DC, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo.”


Townshend and other birders in Beijing

TT birding in Temple of Heaven Park

He is birding in the Temple of Heaven Park.

He describes Beijing as an ideal “service station” on bird migration routes, as it lies south of the vast, relatively sparsely populated forests and tundra of Siberia – the breeding ground of millions of birds. 

“Just as we humans need breaks when we take a long drive in our cars, these birds must also find places to stop, rest and find food and water. The reservoirs and parks of Beijing are like service stations on the expressway for birds.”

He has recorded hundreds of species so far and one of his favorite memories is finding a tree pipit in the UK Ambassador’s garden. It is a common bird in Europe, but its range usually extends only to the very west of Xinjiang.

Despite the advantages of location, China faces many problems that endanger bird populations.

Besides air and water pollution, Townshend says, the biggest threat to migratory birds in China is the current activity to reclaim land along the east coast.

“In the last few years, between 50 percent and 80 percent of the tidal mudflats and wetlands on which birds depend have disappeared due to the policy of land reclamation,” says Townshend.

These tidal mudflats are “lifelines” as for birds on long journeys.

“Once these birds disappear, they are gone forever.”

He also notes that illegal hunting and trapping of wild birds for food and for the caged bird trade are major threats.

A few weeks ago he reported illegal nets near his suburban home to the local forestry police, who caught the poachers half an hour later. 

“That is a brilliant response and, if they continue to act so promptly and efficiently, I am hopeful the illegal trapping of wild birds will soon be a thing of the past.”


He is giving a lecture at Dulwich School (An international school) in Beijing in Septmeber.


Townshend is leading a field visit to Yeyahu with Beijing's 94th Middle School.

Townshend is passionate about raising young people’s awareness of the environment. He frequently visits schools, gives lectures or leads school bird-watching trips.

“They ask thoughtful and deep questions that demonstrate a genuine appreciation for birds and the environment,” he says. “I think that is a very positive sign for the future of China and China’s birds.”

He started a website called Birding Beijing to publish details about the best places and species to be seen and to share latest sightings.

In May, after a year-long study, he and members of his Birding Beijing group, along with Chinese scientists, bird watchers and international experts, discovered that Beijing swifts travel more than 13,000 km to winter in southern Africa before returning to breed at imperial gardens in China’s capital in the spring and summer.


Terry Townshend releases a swift carrying a geolocator at the Summer Palace on May 24.

The success of tracking the migration route and the international teamwork inspired Townshend to start more projects to promote bird-watching in China.

He is now in talks with the British Trust for Ornithology and the China Birdwatching Society to explore whether they can use satellite technology to track Beijing’s cuckoos, a familiar bird in the city, but its winter home is unknown.

“That will be a very exciting project if we can make it happen.”  

All photos above are provided by Terry Townshend.


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