In an age when tablets often seem to replace babysitters, many parents are making an effort to wean their kids off technology and plug them into nature instead. Many interests sparked during school years stay with us forever; that is why familiarizing your children with the great outdoors when they are young is vital. However, it is not always possible to get out of the city for the weekend. Luckily, bird watching is one of those activities that can be enjoyed wherever you live.
You might be surprised to learn that Beijing is a birding hotspot. Over 450 different species of birds can be seen here, beating out other capital cities like London and Paris. That is because Beijing is an avian crossroads of sorts; an important stop on the way to breeding grounds in northern China, Siberia, and other places. Though birding is currently confined to a small but active community, the popularity of the pastime is growing.
UK-born Terry Townshend has been bird watching since he was 4. He works at an environmental legislative group and has been interviewed by the BBC, Phoenix TV, the Wall Street Journal, and on Sinica. Recently, he took beijingkids on a field trip to Olympic Forest Park just north of Fourth Ring Road.
We met at the park’s south gate on a snowy Saturday morning. Olympic Forest Park – ten times the size of Beihai Park – is particularly well-suited to birding. Its bird-friendly features include large reed beds, lakes, wooded areas, and clearings. The park opens daily at 6am and admission is free.
Townshend explained that the best time to see birds is in the early morning, when they hunt for food – hence the idiom, “the early bird gets the worm.” When we visited, bird food was limited to dried berries, insects, and small fish from the parts of the artificial lake that were not frozen.
Our host brought a large backpack containing the bird watcher’s essentials: a pair of binoculars, a field guide, a pocket notebook, and a pen. Townshend also brought a camera with a long-focus lens for pictures. His impressive notebook held records of each species spotted and how many of each were seen at each of the birding sites he visited. We started the outing by jotting down “Saturday, February 8, 2014. Olympic Forest Park. Cold, snowy, -4°C.”
First, we walked clockwise around the large lake in front of the entrance to the park. After only a few steps, Townshend identified a magpie perched in the distance by its call alone. I could barely locate it. The relatively large black and white bird, which Townshend described as “aggressive” and “sociable,” is one the most common species in the park and can be observed with the naked eye. He recorded the sighting in his notebook: “common magpie, 3.”
When asked about bird watching’s educational value, Townshend said: “It is fun to take notes of the birds one sees and research them when you get home, find out where they live and what they eat, where they migrate, what sort of habits they have, and whether their population is increasing or falling.”
“It is also possible to make the trips more fun by having a healthy competition to see who can guess how many different birds will be seen that day,” he suggested.” For our own outing, Townshend set a goal of 20 species.
Every time we spotted a new bird, he opened his guidebook (the highly-recommended Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil) to show me a profile of the subject. For example, when we spotted our first yellow-bellied tit, I wrote in my notebook that they all had black heads, usually nested in mountains, and only ventured away from home to look for food.
As we made our way through the trees with just the sound of our boots crunching on the heavy snow, it became apparent that we were not the only ones who came out to admire the feathered creatures. We frequently bumped into Chinese bird watchers with big, serious camera lenses.
Surrounded by large group of photographers was a colorful kingfisher with a bright orange belly and blue plumage above a stream. It seemed to enjoy the spotlight. In the blink of an eye, it plucked a small fish from the water and swallowed it whole. Townshend managed to capture the moment when the fish was hanging from the kingfisher’s long beak. From the other photographers’ satisfied smiles, it was obvious they had too.
To observe the more timid birds, it is necessary to entice them to come closer. Townshend’s strategy of choice is to imitate bird calls. He showed me different recordings on his phone, some of which he recorded himself and others downloaded from the Internet.
“My favorite is the Chinese blackbird,” he said, playing a clear melody that evoked a spring morning. However, birders should never imitate calls during breeding season, which can create stress for nesting birds or mislead males into thinking they have a rival in the area.
After a fruitful morning in which we spotted and recorded a total of 19 species and 93 birds, we slipped between the large reed beds to look for Cygnus bewickii (or Bewick’s Swan) – the only swan to be spotted in the park by Townshend so far.
When we initially did not see the large white bird, he suggested we lay low and give her time. “Birding improves patience,” he explained. “Sometimes it is necessary to wait for a long time in one place to see a bird well enough to identify it. It also exercises concentration, fitness [because birdwatchers change location so much], and sharpens the senses.”
In the end, we did not catch sight of the swan. It was possible she flew somewhere else because of the frozen lake. However, by the time you read this, it will be the beginning of the migration and breeding season, which runs until June. Grab your binoculars, show up early at Olympic Forest Park, and you may be rewarded with sightings of our beautiful feathered friends.
Terry Townshend runs a blog called Birding Beijing (www.birdingbeijing.com) to spread awareness of birding in Beijing. He regularly blogs about the birds he sees (complete with Chinese names) and is working on a field guide to the city’s main birding sites. Visitors can find all the latest birding news on his website and Townshend is happy to answer any questions about birds or bird watching in Beijing.
Photos courtesy of Terry Townshend
This article originally appeared on p34-35 of the beijingkids March 2014 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com