For more than eight months, I have been patiently waiting for one special moment to arrive.
Around the beginning of October, when people across China celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, they slowly begin to approach, first in small numbers, later in hundreds or even thousands, following a smooth, cool ocean breeze. Winter is coming and with it, the great migration of birds.
The south coastal line of China, including the Greater Bay Area of Shenzhen, hosts one of the most amazing phenomena in nature, where dozens of species of birds come to spend the winter in warmer spots that will provide them a desirable environment that can accommodate all their needs for a nice and cozy holiday.
It’s around five in the morning when I prepare to go to the Shenzhen Bay Park area to catch the very first rays of light and see if I can spot some of these fantastic animals feeding on the abundant fish and crustaceans that the low tides bring to the shore. Even from a distance, I can see that there is already a lot of movement about.
My first reaction is excitement, I have been waiting for so long to be able to spot some of the amazing species that usually visit our shores, like the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), the Eurasian wigeon (Anas penelope), and the black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa).
I hurry up toward the path that surrounds the bay and start my search. To my great surprise, not too far from the shore, I see something so astonishing it made my jaw drop: a couple of black-faced spoonbills (Platalea minor), with their characteristic zigzag movement, looking for some fish to eat.
This particular spoonbill species is very special for birders and naturalists in general not only due to their striking beauty but also due to their sadly special status as an endangered species. Only a couple thousand are left in the world, and they are not breeding enough offspring to even think about a chance to change their current situation.
Migratory birds play a very important role in the dynamics of ecosystems by controlling other animals’ populations, like the mudskippers in the case of Shenzhen’s bay area, and by preventing some pests from overpopulating. Some migratory birds also help in the process of pollination, spreading the seeds of certain plants over kilometers from their places of origin. They can even provide new nutrients for the soil where they arrive. For example, some of these species of birds will act as a bridge between land and water for the transference of nutrients that can easily assist the survival of hundreds of species among bacteria, fungi, plants, or animals.
The number of these essential animals is being affected dramatically by human presence; the fast development of cities, the reduction of their preferred arrival locations, pollution, and many other types of human activities, are directly impacting the abundance and diversity of migratory birds in such a dramatic way that in most of the cases, this process is almost impossible to reverse.
Therefore, we must do our part to protect migratory species. As citizens, it is our responsibility to raise awareness about the existence of the species and the need to generate nationwide interest in their protection. Small acts coming from us can make a huge difference on the ability of these animals to survive.
Not leaving trash or traces of food along the bay areas, avoiding big gatherings in places frequented by birds, never feeding the birds, and generally trying not to disturb them while they are visiting us, are just some examples of things we can do to help protect these wondrous species that visit once a year.
Locally and nationally there is a lot more people can do, by promoting laws that will protect and preserve certain areas in cities and by lowering the levels of pollution. Fortunately, China is going in the right direction on this issue, showing great interest in the conservation and preservation of native and foreign species.
So, always remember these amazing creatures are our guests for only a couple of months, and they will only visit us once a year. Let’s do everything within our power to protect them and to contribute to their preservation, so that future generations can enjoy their presence as much as I do right now and hopefully save them from total extinction.
Isaac Cohen holds a BS in Biology, Ed.S Pedagogy and M.S Continental Hydrobiological Resources and is based in Shenzhen. Follow him on Instagram at @cohenwildlife.
[All images courtesy of Isaac Cohen]