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Bird Watchers on the Alert for Avian Flu
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The faithfulness of certain people can never be doubted, and birds are willing to provide the proof.

Although some who used to enjoy the birds' beauty and sweet songs now regard them as feathered rats, their most loyal devotees are volunteering to help protect them from deadly viruses.

Tian Zhu, who works for a real estate company in Beijing, has been getting up at 5 AM on Saturdays or Sundays since bird flu broke out. She travels into the wild to observe signs of potential dangers for the birds and also for people living around their habitats.

"In a woman's eyes, it is unfair to ignore the benefits of birds when they are under threats and in need of help," Tian said. "The creatures have brought so much happiness to people, including me."

Helping the birds also helps the well-being of people in the city, according to Li Haitao, a senior birdwatcher who is well known among his people as B.M. Lee.

It's because more than 100 species of migratory birds are choosing Beijing as one of the stops on their way from the cold air of Siberia or farther away to the warmth of southern China and Southeast Asia.

"Birds from Siberia won't disappear from Beijing's lakes and rivers until their water gets frozen," Li said.

Since bird-flu infection cases were reported in China last June, Beijing birdwatchers have made dozens of reports a week to the local forestry administration, mainly about the farmers' dangerous practice of allowing their poultry to interact with the migratory birds in their habitat and illegal bird catching.

Forestry administration officials in northwest China's Gansu and Qinghai provinces and in Beijing have also sought the birdwatchers' expertise on websites - www.wwfchina.org/bbs/guanniao.htm and www.guanniao.com.

At present, experienced hands in birdwatching are badly needed, Li said.

"There are more than 100 frequent birdwatchers in Beijing, but the number proves to be far from enough when the people are scattered at wild bird habitats around the city," he said.

A large percentage of migratory birds choose the approximately 20 reservoirs and lakes in the suburbs as their habitats when they stop at Beijing. Yeya (wild duck) Lake and the Guanting Reservoir in Yanqing District seem to be the most popular.

Li says he has appreciated the beauty and singing of more than 300 species at those locations since he started birdwatching in 2001.

Tian said: "When I first saw the birds through telescopes, it was as if the magic box of nature was suddenly opened before me. There were so many colours, so much music and activity in it."

In urban Beijing, the situation is far different. Aside from the parrots and songbirds that can be seen in cages and those in zoos, the only evidence of birds is the sight of grey magpies jumping among the branches and the sound of crows making a fuss.

But in the wild, this is the most exciting time for birdwatchers.

The great bustard, a migrant from Siberia, has been the shining star in the past two weeks.

It has the look and size of an ostrich but boasts more colourful feathers and is able to fly smoothly for long distances.

"We learned from other birdwatchers at the website that the great bustards are coming but didn't see any when we were at Yeya Lake last weekend," Tian said.

"Suddenly a horde of horses ran across the nearby grassland, and one such bird was frightened, gave a cry and flew into the sky. We followed it and discovered among some tall weeds about 20 birds having a leisurely walk around."

Afterwards, the devotees fixed telescopes on tripods and observed them from a distance.

Besides knowledge about birds and a telescope worth anywhere from 150 yuan (US$18.50) to 10,000 yuan (US$1,200), one has to have the dedication to getting up at 4 am in the summer and 5 am in the winter at weekends because the creatures are most active before sunrise.

"Surely it is painful at first," Li said. "Now I am still finding it difficult to climb out of the bed on weekdays, but on weekends I will definitely get up early."

"A bird, like a person, can be nervous at times," she said. "But in one blink, it becomes totally relaxed with the slightest sound of 'pu.' All its feathers get loose, and the creature looks like a colourfully feathered little ball," she said.

"The creature can so easily arouse affections of people like me who have worked for a whole week under pressure and want the bliss of nature."

Tian began her "addiction" in 1998 when she met a group of birdwatchers in the suburbs and was invited to have a look at them through a telescope.

"Since falling in love with birds, I don't care so much about the scenery of a particular place," she said. "First I have to know which birds are there. Fortunately, places with wonderful birds are often scarcely populated and thus have beautiful views."

Once the first bird flu cases were reported, her devotion increased. She has been going out every weekend and staying in the wild for more than nine hours at a stretch.

"My family members understand my love for birds," she said. "My husband will go with me whenever he has the time."

And her interest goes beyond the birds to the community of bird lovers from which she cannot separate herself.

Information flows among the more than 100 frequent birdwatchers in Beijing and also those in other parts of China at the two websites.

Researchers in the field and government officials participate in the www.wwfchina.org site, and its webmaster is a senior birdwatcher called "CCCP."

The www.guanniao.com site is fun for amateurs. Its webmaster is a birdwatcher and photographer known as "mao chong," or "worm."

Other sizeable birdwatchers' communities are in Shenzhen of Guangdong Province, Chengdu of Sichuan Province, Xiamen of Fujian Province and Dongying of Shandong Province.

The different communities keep in contact through the Internet. Occasionally events are held, and people from all over the country get a chance to meet one another.

The largest one happened about two years ago, when hundreds of people from around China gathered in Dongzhai of Henan Province to watch birds there.

"It was a most thrilling experience," Li said. "We have shared joys and sorrows for long, though we only know one another by our Net names."

Birdwatchers are co-operating to publish annual reports about the more than 1,300 species of birds in the country.

The 2003 report was widely acclaimed when it was released last year, and the one for 2004 is due out soon.

In Beijing, bird lovers also host free lectures at Beijing Normal University every Wednesday evening.

"It seems that people of various ages and with different levels of incomes are able to find fun here," Tian said. "We share vehicles and telescopes, and some bird lovers even go by bus or on foot when they can't find a car."

And as they get together more often, they are starting to discover that they have organizational strength to speak out about certain issues.

Members of bird-watching clubs in Xiamen and Shenzhen are giving lectures in neighbourhoods to share their knowledge about bird flu and the dangers they have observed.

"We really worry about the fate of certain species," Li said. "It's time to act."

He cited the examples of the Siberian crane and the lesser white-fronted goose. There are only several thousand of the cranes in East Asia, and they are spending the winter around Poyang Lake in Jiangxi Province. The geese number about 20,000 in the whole world, most of which are spending the winter around Dongting Lake in Hunan Province.

Li said he observed more than a year ago that poultry living near the habitat around Dongting Lake were allowed to socialize with the wild birds.

"Certain species might be wiped out if their members were infected with the viruses in the coming winter," he noted.

In Beijing, at some smaller reservoirs, birdwatchers are finding poultry feeding on the wild birds' habitats, according to Li Xin.

Around farmlands and forests, they see people putting up nets and waiting to catch the wild birds, he added.

"We talk with the owners of the poultry and of the nets if we can find them," Tian said. "If not, we dismantle the nets. Such practices can cause danger both to birds on a migration and also to those people themselves."

Birdwatchers are also discussing some of the dangers they see in the wild on the Internet and reporting to experts with the local forestry administrations when they return to the city.

"An official telephone number for emergency reports is badly needed," Li Haitao said. "Often we can only find local forestry administration officials through personal relationships, and there is a lag in the time before they come to the site."

But the community's time together is not always about issues. They've come to enjoy their common interest, and although the socializing is fun, Tian appreciates the fact that members never probe into each other's private lives.

"We call each other by our Net names," she said. "Some are willing to share their lives, and others aren't. Who cares? We are happy together, and birds are the primary concern."

(China Daily January 18, 2006)

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