Dr. Nial Moores, Birds Korea, September 30th 2015
The Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus is both exquisitely-plumaged and globally Endangered. It breeds only along forest-sided rivers in some of the wildest country in Far East Asia. Shy and elusive, its often remote summer home is shared with the magnificent Amur Tiger Panthera tigris altaica in Primorye in the Russian Far East, and in the Changbaishan/ Baekdu Massif of China and (it is presumed) northern DPR Korea.
As northern rivers freeze in autumn, the merganser carries the spirit of this wilderness with it southwards, to central and eastern China and the ROK, former habitat of the now extirpated Amur Tiger. Both here and in China, the Scaly-sided Merganser then spends the winter on some of the cleanest, and in parts most natural, stretches of river that still remain. This bird is a living, wild indicator of healthy rivers, unlike the tiger surviving even now in largely heavily-altered landscapes.
It was therefore entirely fitting that the second Task Force meeting for the Scaly-sided Merganser (SSM), held in Vladivostok on September 24th and 25th, was then followed by a couple of days of fieldwork in the “Tiger and Merganser Country” of Primorye. We saw no live tigers: but we did find mergansers!
The Task Forces are groups of experts within the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership itself a voluntary partnership of many of the Flyway’s governments and government agencies, specialist research institutions and NGOs. The SSM Task Force is no different, and is at present comprised of thirty or more active conservation scientists, led by the Task Force Coordinator Dr. Diana Solovyeva, of The Institute of Biological Problems of the North and the Russian Academy of Sciences; and the Task Force Chair, Professor Lei Guangchun, Dean of the School of Nature Conservation in Beijing Forestry University.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of many of those in attendance, and of hundreds of others who could not attend, there was much good to report since the first SSM meeting in 2010.
In Russia, Dr. Solovyeva and her colleagues have now mapped much of the breeding range. Thanks to continued funding support from the Rufford and Maurice Laing Foundation and from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), they have also constructed more SSM nest boxes (and tubes) along a core breeding river, testing and improving on design parameters. So far, already more than 1,000 SSM ducklings have hatched from these artificial nests.
Dr. Diana Solovyeva presenting at the SSM Task Force Meeting, September 2015 © Nial Moores …And below, surveying the river for mergansers with Dr. Sergey Vartanyan (one of the world’s leading experts on mammoths…and Scaly-sided Mergansers!) back in 2008; below that, taking biometric data © D. Solovyeva
The funding support has also enabled Dr. Solovyeva’s team to construct a small visitor centre for use in coordinating research and in public awareness-raising activities: much-needed if remaining threats posed by disturbance, accidental drowning in fishing-nets and illegal hunting are to be further reduced.
News from China was in many ways equally encouraging. The workshop was attended by passionate staff from Bishui and Changbaishan Nature Reserves (where artificial nests will also be employed) and from Yuanshui National Wetland Park; Dr. Zeng Qing reported on her doctoral research into the species’ ecological requirements on Chinese rivers; Professor Lei Guangchun spoke briefly about new ecological guidance relavant to dam-construction; and Ms. Jing Li (of both the wonderful SBS in China and also the newly-formed China Birdwatching Association) provided details of last winter’s national Scaly-sided Merganser survey, involving more than three hundred people in 80+ survey teams!
Dr. Zeng Qing presenting on Scaly-sided Mergansers in China: survey work and GIS-based research has allowed the development of an evidence-based national population estimate of 3,561 (+/- 478) © Nial Moores
Professor Lei Guangchun: formerly Senior Advisor for the Asia-Pacific to the Ramsar Secretariat and more recently Chair of the SSM Task Force and Dean of the School of Nature Conservation in Beijing Forestry University © Nial Moores.
Much less positive to report, however, was the news from Korea. I was the sole representative from Korea, with my attendance kindly supported both by the SSM Task Force and by the Hanns Seidel Foundation, Korea (HSF). Although the HSF also offered funding support to Mr Ha Jeong Mun (Birds Korea) and two representatives from the DPRK, various last-minute factors sadly got in the way of their attendance…next time!
I gave two short presentations. The first was on Birds Korea’s SSM survey work (thanks to our supporters we were able to conduct national surveys in both 2012 and 2014, helping to confirm the ROK’s importance to the species in mid-winter and identifying several landscape elements prefered by the species, including river-width) and also on the many negative changes to rivers caused by the ecologically-disastrous Four Rivers project and subsequent “river-works”. An abridged version of the ppt still retains many of the key messages…
Much still needs to be done in the ROK for the SSM: all of which would most likely be achievable if Russian or Chinese level-funding was made available to us here.
There is a need to conduct more counts on those rivers which have already been surveyed, to improve our understanding of numbers, to identify age-classes (to help improve understanding of breeding success and over time to see if there is any strong population trend); to identify additional rivers used by the species; and to identify and measure turnover of SSM during migration. Tracking of the species by Russian scientists suggests that many of Primorye’s Scaly-sided Merganser stage here, on Korean rivers, during migration. It would also not be difficult, again only if funding was made available, to test simple approaches to reduce disturbance at key sites and to raise national awareness of the species as a symbol of clean rivers.
If decision-makers and the relevant authorities allow, there is also of course the need to survey rivers in the DPRK, to identify rivers used for breeding (although there are perhaps no recent records of the species there, coarse modelling suggests that perhaps ~155 pairs might breed in the DPRK); and numbers supported during migration and in winter. As SSM depend on mature trees along rivers for nesting (or at least on artificial nests in less mature trees), research would help to improve understanding of forest structure and to identify whether reforestation would be suitable in some areas – in order to help restore parts of the presumed historical breeding range.
The second presentation (provided by the HSF Korea) introduced the important green diplomacy work of the Hanns Seidel Foundation in the DPRK. Such work, focused on biodiversity conservation as part of genuinely sustainable development with relevance to potential future work for the Scaly-sided Merganser, has already included survey at Rason (in 2014); reforestation projects; and rice-field enhancement at Anbyon: this designed to increase benefits for local stakeholders (farmers) while also improving the habitat of staging Red-crowned Cranes.
The SSM Task Force meeting shows clearly that people of different cultures and backgrounds can cooperate and work together well, for the benefit of the merganser, its riverine habitat and some of the last great wilderness in East Asia.
The workshop, facilitated skillfully by the WWT’s Head of Species Recovery Dr. Peter Cranswick (who at all times encouraged participation and open discussion), and the fieldwork which followed, including a visit to the Tiger reserve’s museum and the merganser’s visitor centre, in combination provided an important opportunity to share multiple expert insights and to fill in many of the blanks in the Scaly-sided Merganser Single Species Action Plan (more on this later).
Indeed, meetings such as these have the potential to help protect and restore not only the habitat of wonderful species like the Scaly-sided Merganser, the Amur Tiger and other threatened species of the great Ussuri Wilderness, but also the spirit of some of those who choose to dedicate their lives to conservation: a truly noble profession that is in the interest of each and every nation and of every human being on Earth. With proper funding support – and without turf-wars and politicking, either with a small or large “p” – much great work can be done, even by the few.
So knowing this, why is the ROK as a nation still not conducting or supporting the kind of research that is needed? Why is it not yet helping to support conservation actions for the Scaly-sided Merganser in the ROK or in the wider region and instead is still pursuing yet more destructive infrastructure work in the nation’s rivers? Would anyone argue that the lack of attendance at this SSM workshop by anyone from the Ministry of Environment or any of the agencies connected to conservation or river management in the ROK is not deeply concerning? It is a lack of attendance that in truth follows on from the inexplicable recent absence of any formal government-level ROK involvement in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force too.
The nation thus continues to miss great opportunities to import and export best information directly relevant to national and regional biodiversity conservation aims. There seems to be no good reason for this. The ROK is one of the four main range states of the Scaly-sided Merganser; and is also believed at present to be the eleventh biggest economy in the world. In recent years, the ROK has even hosted all three of the big international meetings for global biodiversity conservation (the Ramsar COP in 2008; the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2012; and the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2014). Simply, the ROK can and needs to do more for in situ biodiversity conservation.
In addition to work focused on the SSM, the meeting also provided a small opportunity to improve (personal) understanding of the distribution of some bird species across our region, as Vladivostok is only 150km northeast from the border with the DPRK.
During the five days, we saw no larks or starlings, and few thrushes. More widespread and / or numerous bird species instead included: Eurasian Magpie (with some birds showing white primary tips, and many birds looking longer-tailed than typical birds in the ROK), Large-billed Crow, Marsh Tit, Red-rumped Swallow, Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch (abundant, with several high-flying birds heading south also seen), Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (including many still in song), Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Meadow and Yellow-throated Buntings.
More interesting records for birders from Korea (made mostly along a river used by breeding Scaly-sided Merganser, in adjacent “tiger forest” and more open habitats) included: multiple encounters with Scaly-sided Merganser (perhaps 40+ seen by some in the group on the 27th); three White-throated Needletails seen drinking from the river, with pink gapes held astonishingly wide as iridescent wings shone with green and blue; several Japanese Pygmy, Great Spotted, White-backed, Grey-headed and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers (the last, rather more white-backed than depicted in Brazil’s field-guide); two or three Northern Raven (probably two heard distantly over Vladivostok on the 24th; and one seen over forest near Lazo on the 26th); Varied Tit (at least one or two in Vladivostok on the 24th and 25th; and one probable heard in forest near the Merganser Visitor Centre on 27th); several Willow Tit (remarkably easy to identify on call, and pretty distinctive-looking in the field too, appearing somewhat shorter-tailed than any of the more abundant Marsh Tits; with much colder grey tones to the upperpart brown and a more obvious whiteish wing panel, extending across the tertials and contrasting with an all-dark looking outer wing); two or three lagopodum Northern House Martin mixed in with 200+ Asian House Martin (on 28th); fairly widespread Siberian Rubythroat and Long-tailed Rosefinch; several flocks of Chestnut-flanked White-eye and Chestnut Bunting apparently migrating south; one “yellow” extremiorientis Black-faced Bunting; and several “early for Korea” groups of Brambling, Hawfinch, and a single Dusky Thrush (on 28th).
We only saw a few live mammals, though these included numerous Siberian Chipmunk and dark morph Red Squirrel, one much larger “Black Squirrel”, a Red Fox and an all dark badger-like species (immature Asian Badger?).