Andreas Späth

China in the Cape - the avian connection

2015-06-11 09:47

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Many people look sceptically at the growing Chinese presence in Africa. Last month, an innovative study revealed a previously poorly understood China-Africa link that has been in place for hundreds – probably thousands – of years. But it’s not what you think.

For the first time, European and Chinese scientists, aided by volunteers and local organisations, gathered detailed information about the migration patterns of a tiny bird – the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis) – which occupies an iconic status in China’s capital.

According to Ms Fu Jianping, the President of the China Birdwatching Society, “Swifts have a special place in the hearts of Beijingers and their screaming flights at dusk around many of our major landmarks are one of the most enchanting features of our summer. For years we have waved them goodbye at the end of July not knowing where they go. Thanks to this project, now we do.”

So where do Beijing Swifts spend their annual winter holidays? In the Cape, of course.

An East Asian subspecies of the Common Swift, the Beijing Swift has built its nests under the eaves and tiles of the old buildings of the city since at least 1417. The birds, which are small enough to fit into a person’s hand, do almost everything in the air. They drink, eat, mate and even sleep while flying, staying airborne for years at a time and only touching the ground to raise their young in nests. They feed on flying insects and have been clocked at speeds of over 110 km/h.

Last year, 31 individuals were caught in Beijing’s historic Summer Palace and fitted with minute, light-sensitive geolocators. These ingenious devices measure the length of day and local midday for extended periods of time. When retrieved, this data can be downloaded and analysed by special software to calculate the geographic location of the bird at any time during the recording stint. While not providing the accuracy of much heavier GPS instruments, these little “backpacks” don’t impede the flight of the swifts.

This year, 13 of the little migrants carrying geolocators where trapped when they arrived back at the Summer Palace, revealing the details of their annual migration route for the first time.

They began their journey at the end of July, starting out in a west-north-westerly direction, crossing southern Mongolia before passing north of the Tian Shan mountains. Heading south through Iran and dissecting the Arabian Peninsula, they hit African airspace over Eritrea and continued heading southwest until arriving in Namibia and the Western Cape by the end of October.

At the beginning of February, the swifts headed north again, returning to Beijing at the start of April. Remarkably, the birds would have spent the entire migration and wintering period, including the 26 000 kilometre round-trip, in the air without ever touching down. During a typical lifespan of seven years, a Beijing Swift is estimated to cover over 180 000 kilometres travelling to our neck of the woods and back again every year. Talk about frequent flyer miles!

Beijing’s swift population has been in decline and it’s hoped that this study will help to provide some answers to explain the drop in numbers.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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