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Monday, November 22, 2010

The Chinese crested tern

RARE SIGHTING: An adult and juvenile Chinese crested tern are seen at the Min Jiang Estuary, China. — Photo by Zhang Hao (Fujian Birdwatching Society)

By Cheong Ah Kwan

“So, this is the place, eh?”, he half-murmured to himself.

When Adrian Long from BirdLife International visited Buntal last November, he could not be persuaded to get off the beach despite the searing mid-day heat.  It was low tide and the shorebirds were sitting too far out to be seen.  He scanned the coastline with his binoculars, now and then turning to our local guide to ask the same question, “and you have seen it; Chinese?” 

I did not catch the significance of his questions then.  A growling stomach did not help and playing over and over through my mind was …. “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Mid-day Sun”.

Last week, after a scrumptious steamboat dinner in honour of Simba Chan, Senior Conservation Officer of BirdLife International Asia Division, we gathered around a table to listen to the exciting news our guest had to share with the Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch.  That was when I put the two separate visits from our BirdLife partners together, and the penny dropped.

The Chinese Crested Tern (Thalasseus bernsteini) is a globally threatened seabird and has been designated by the IUCN Red Data Book as Critically Endangered.  In layman’s term, the bird is extremely rare and in grave danger of becoming extinct.  In fact the entire population in the world today is estimated to be not more than 50 birds!

The Chinese Crested Tern was first described in the early 1860s.  Very little is known about the species since sightings were few and far between.  Identification is made more difficult as there is another bird very similar to it in appearance. 

It is generally assumed that the bird breeds in north eastern China because of the breeding plumage it displayed during the sightings there.  However, breeding grounds have never been discovered.  In 1937, on the islands near Tsingtao on the Shandong Peninsula, 21 Chinese Crested Terns in breeding condition were collected for specimens.  After that insanely tragic massacre of 21 there was no more confirmed sighting of the bird and it was thought to be extinct. 

In the year 2000, a photographer made a chance re-discovery of the Chinese Crested Tern while carrying out a survey in the Matsu Islands.  These tiny islands, designated as nature reserves, are just a short distance off the coast of Fuzhou mainland China but are administered by Taiwan.  Politically, the islands are of strategic importance.  They are, hence, under military regulation and have been off limits to the public for many years.  Security measures put in place for political reasons appear to have offered the seabird protection from poaching.  The highest count of the species in the year 2000 was 12 birds consisting of 8 adults and 4 chicks.

Poaching and the collection of eggs continue to threaten the Chinese Crested Tern. The Taiwanese Government gives strong support to projects that increase public awareness on this rare tern.  Taiwanese Coast Guards intercept and inform fishermen that poaching and egg collections are not permitted.  Both the marine and agriculture departments work closely to protect the birds even though the two departments are known to have little communication.
DOING THEIR PART: Student volunteer groups increase public awareness in Huangqi Town, Fujian Province. The town is very close to the Matsu Islands.

Simba updated us on his work with the Chinese Crested Tern.  He talked about concentrating efforts on where it is most needed which is information on the distribution and population size of the birds. The BirdLife International China Programme together with local birding communities in China is organizing a series of educational student workshops in areas where breeding colonies have been sighted.  The focus is on students from fishing families. It is hoped that these children will take the urgent message home to their parents who are often out at sea and might come into contact with the Chinese Crested Tern.  Posters and booklets are printed for distribution in restaurants and parks to get people to familiarize with the bird so that chances of it being identified are increased.  It is akin to the milk carton campaign in search of missing children.

While the breeding grounds of these birds have never been confirmed, a greater enigma hung in the air.  Where do they go during the non-breeding season? 

Non-breeding range of the Chinese Crested Tern is thought to include southern China, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.  There are three winter records from Sarawak; in 1890, 1891 and 1913.  The last confirmed sighting in 1913 was from the Bako Buntal Bay.  Yes, here in our very own backyard!  Since then the Chinese Crested Tern has not been reliably recorded from Borneo.

“….and you are sure you have seen it, the Chinese Crested Tern?”

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