Taking first steps in birdwatching

Birdwatching is nothing like having pets or visiting a zoo. For many people the emotional attachment is more a homage to nature and respect for its spirit.

It's not easy for some people to understand the appeal of birdwatching: spending hours in the cold wind by the water waiting for gulls to arrive, or sitting by a small pond for a whole morning hoping for a vivid glimpse of a kingfisher.

Of course, birdwatching is nothing like having pets or visiting a zoo. For many people the emotional attachment is more a homage to nature and respect for its spirit.

Birds have always fascinated, their often exotic appearance and the magic of flight making them the subject of many myths and tales.

And birdwatching is reported to be one of the fastest growing outdoor activities around the world. It can be a recreational pursuit for people of all ages to enjoy together or a solitary pastime to calm the mind and embrace nature.

The satisfaction comes from observing wild birds in their natural habitat, as well as fulfilling the hunting instincts humans possess without harming any creatures. Serious birders — professional and amateur alike — invest considerable time, money and energy observing and listing birds.

Shi Minliang

An Asian paradise flycatcher Shi Minliang photographed in Fengxian District.

Shi Minliang is a devoted birder from Shanghai with five years’ experience who has been spotting and documenting birds at Wusongkou Paotaiwan Wetland Park in Baoshan District since 2011.

“Actually, it all started with sparrows,” he said. “I never gave up the dream that one day I would see a sparrow walk!”

It all sounds a little ridiculous, and Shi explains that sparrows — according to science — only hop, before telling a story from his childhood.

“I heard a lot of tales about sparrows, how they ended up not being able to walk because they were punished by the Jade Emperor for stealing grain,” he says.

“Then the grandma of a childhood friend told us that whoever sees a sparrow walking will have good things happen to them.”

And that’s what got Shi into watching birds in the first place. At the age of eight, he and other neighborhood children started to observe birds in the yard, hoping to find a strolling sparrow that would bring them good fortune.

“I once believed we were more focused than most bird experts,” he laughs. “But it was a good wish from my childhood that I never forgot.”

So when he started photographing birds, Shi made sure to snap a few shots of that most everyday species, the house sparrow.

“For some reason, I believed the tale,” Shi said.

“Then the day after Christmas last year I went to the wetland park and paid close attention to the sparrows again. And then the miracle happened!”

Shi insists that saw two sparrows actually walking on the wooden walkway.

“I was stunned and my brain almost had a short circuit,” he laughs. “I was clumsy because of the excitement and having to quickly change the camera lens, but I took a few photos before they took off.”

Shi had a good Christmas, and good things did happen afterward.

“You’ll never get a miracle if you give up,” Shi says.

Shi Minliang

A house sparrow photographed walking by Shi Minliang at Paotaiwan Wetland Park. A boyhood search for “a lucky walking sparrow” — according to science they only hop — began Shi’s fascination with birds.

He spends a lot of time watching birds, not only in China, but abroad. His job is related to travel, and wherever Shi goes, birdwatching is a must.

As he grew up near Paotaiwan wetland, the park is like a home for him. Shi knows where the only two magpie nests are and where to find kingfishers. While birdwatching started as a casual hobby, now he’s meticulously documenting and listing the species he spots, keeping a log of the birds that are resident and those passing through.

“Birdwatching is something you’ll never let go once you become addicted,” Shi says.

What he gets from watching the birds is more than just tallying up species and numbers, but also happiness and confidence, said Shi.

He’s also keen to share this as he posts regularly on the Wild Bird Society of Shanghai discussion board and updates a post on the birds in Paotaiwan.

Click here to read Shi's post.

Shi Minliang

Shi Minliang has been birdwatching since 2009.

Poignant stories behind some of the photographs

As an avid birdwatcher, Shi Minliang often has stories related to some of his photographs taken at Paotaiwan. Here he recounts the sad tales of a fearless kingfisher named Xiaocui who trusted humans too much, and a pair of migrating mandarin ducks who were cruelly separated.

Death of a kingfisher

The common kingfisher is a beautiful bird, with its vivid wings of green and blue, round, alert eyes, a long beak and bright red feet.

Xiaocui — Chinese for little kingfisher — lived in Paotaiwan and was not afraid of humans, unlike most other birds.

A real star in Paotaiwan Wetland Park, numerous photographers and birdwatchers came and spent hours waiting to see the bold little creature.

Baoshan District birdwatchers were proud of “kingfisher pond” in the park, and some bird lovers started caring for the kingfishers, feeding them fresh little fish in winter when food was scarce. Over time it became a paradise for kingfishers.

These birds have short life span and only live for two years. One generation after another, kingfishers eventually settled there and could be seen every day.

Xiaocui was the sixth generation of kingfishers in the pond and grew up listening to the shutter sound of cameras — like a superstar in the spotlight.

This was also the reason why he never feared people, and why a photographer could take a good picture just steps away.

He gained fame, not only in Shanghai, but people from other provinces and even abroad came to the park just to see this star kingfisher.

The last time I photographed Xiaocui was November 13, 2012. As usual, I went to search for other birds after I took some photos of the kingfisher. I visited the park twice a week but didn’t stop by the pond every time.

On December 9 when I came to the pond, I was told Xiaocui was dead; someone had killed him with a slingshot.

I’ve seen photographs of Xiaocui’s dead body and I don’t want to show them here. I’d much rather show a picture of Xiaocui at his stunning best, and only want people to keep the memory of his beauty.

It’s hard to imagine what kind of people would do such thing to a beautiful creature like this. After he died, there was only a female kingfisher left in the pond and she became more cautious of humans.

It still hurts to see this single kingfisher coming and going without Xiaocui.

I’ve asked myself if our love for Xiaocui blinded the bird into thinking that all people meant no harm; that he became too trusting and that this cost Xiaocui his life.

Shi Minliang

Unafraid of humans, Xiaocui was the star kingfisher

attraction at Paotaiwan but was killed by a slingshot.

Lonesome mandarin duck

On November 11, 2013 — so called “Singles’ Day” in China — I spotted a pair of mandarin ducks and two pairs of mallards on a brief stop as they migrated south.

I sat on a rock watching the mandarin ducks jostling among other ducks. Brightly colored with beautiful feathers, the male mandarin duck was especially beautiful.

Mandarin duck pairs are always very affectionate, making people envy their happiness.

The next day I went to Paotaiwan wetland in the early morning and waited for the ducks. I stayed for a whole day and when the tide came in ducks returned, but only the female mandarin duck. The male was gone, and so were two male mallards.

I knew they were migrating birds who were just passing through, with no intention of staying for winter. But what had happened to separate them?

I saw the lone female mandarin duck looking forlorn in the water. The mallards had company, but she was alone. I heard that a fishing boat had been there earlier and that someone from it was seen going into the reed marshes.

The male mandarin duck and mallards are far more beautiful than the females and draw more attention from humans.

I don’t know if fishermen caught the ducks — though in the past I’ve seen them throw away the bloodied wings of herring gulls. The female mandarin duck didn’t eat for a whole day and waited on a rock by the shore, looking and waiting in vain for her mate.

For her, the bitter cold of winter had already arrived.

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