Eulogy for a loon: How a rare bird died in a city park

Li Qian Yang Jian
Marine oil and bird life are a deadly combination. More needs to be done to protect our wild migratory friends.
Li Qian Yang Jian

Shot by Jiang Xiaowei and Li Qian. Edited by Li Qian. Subtitles by Li Qian.

(Some video clips are courtesy of He Xin, Shunzuiyehua, Shanghai Natural History Museum and Xinhua News Agency)

A rare visitor to Shanghai was found dead in a park several weeks ago, the apparent victim of oil poisoning.

The black-throated loon, also known as the Arctic diver, normally wouldn't venture into Shanghai. Experts surmise it may have landed in Century Park because of the irritation caused by oil stains on its feathers.

Its first sightings back in January sent hordes of birdwatchers and photographers to the park. They were greeted with the sad sight of a desperate bird using its beak to try to remove oil coated on its abdomen.

Forestry authorities and ornithologists tried in vain to save the bird. By the time He Xin, a deputy researcher at Shanghai Natural History Museum, arrived at the scene, the loon had died.

"The body was floating meters from the shore," he said. "Other wild fowl were swimming around it, trying to figure out what happened to this friend from afar."

Eulogy for a loon: How a rare bird died in a city park
He Xin

He Xin, a deputy researcher at Shanghai Natural History Museum, helped retrieve the dead black-throated loon from its watery grave.

The black-throated loon primarily breeds in northern Europe and Asia, usually migrating north in February and March by way of East China. However, actual sightings in Shanghai have been in the single digits over the past century.

Researcher He guessed it was oil that killed the bird, based on eyewitness accounts of its last days.

Lu Yang, a local bird photographer, said he observed the bird diving up and down in the lake, pecking at its feathers.

"It might have been doing that for a long enough time for the accumulated intake of oil to poison it," He said. "It's a pity because the bird was a rare guest to the city."

Source of the oil is unknown, though it was likely marine oil from vessel discharge in and around the ports.

He explained that lubricating oil, engine oil and ship fuel will float on the sea and stick to the feathers of aquatic birds, which can cripple their ability to fly and eventually poison them. They cannot remove the sticky goo by themselves, he added.

"Such pollution is the inevitable result of ocean commerce," He said. "It seems an insoluble dilemma. The tragedy of this bird may tell us something about how we humans have been impacting Earth."

Eulogy for a loon: How a rare bird died in a city park

A photo of the loon before its death shows the extent of the oily contamination.

He recalled a happier visit from a black-throated loon in 2018, when a healthier specimen spent 68 days in the same park lake before leaving.

Normally, loons wouldn't cross the coastline to come inland unless they felt uncomfortable or were contaminated by oil, he said.

In 2017, a red-throated loon died after spending nine days at Sanjiagang Seaside Park in Pudong. Members of a Shanghai birdwatching club monitored its demise.

Writing on the website, founder Craig Brelsford wrote that one of the group observed the loon constantly attempting to preen itself, with oil spotted on one of its flanks.

"It is not clear what killed the bird, but it may have slowly poisoned itself by ingesting oil that had collected on its feathers," Brelsford wrote.

Only last month, another red-throated loon contaminated by oil was found at Dishui Lake in Pudong's Lingang area. Forestry station staff unsuccessfully tried twice to rescue the bird.

Eulogy for a loon: How a rare bird died in a city park
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Taxidermist Ma Mingyi is turning the dead loon into a museum specimen, creating a lifelike pose.

Zhang Tai, deputy director of Pudong's forestry station, said it was simply too difficult to catch the loon, which can not only fly but also dive.

Oil and wildlife are a toxic combination the world over, and rescue attempts are often futile. A large oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico killed at least 80,000 birds of over 100 species. Experience shows that even when birds are rescued from oil slicks, they often die in the end, He said.

"It requires highly professional rescue work, like warming the birds immediately and using eco-friendly detergent to remove oil," He said. "There have been a few successful cases abroad, but there are hardly any in China."

Shanghai, he added, doesn't have enough professional wildlife rescue expertise, in contrast to Beijing, where professional rescuers, including veterinarians, are dispatched to scenes immediately.

"We do have researchers and forestry officials to provide advice here in Shanghai, but they are not professional wildlife rescuers. Sometimes we have to rely on Shanghai Zoo to lend a helping hand," he explained.

The development of clean energy will help mitigate risks for migratory birds, He said.

China is amending its ocean environment protection laws to increase supervision of pollutant emissions and monitoring of the sea environment.

Three HY series satellites have been launched to provide all-weather, round-the-clock observation of China's ocean environment.

Eulogy for a loon: How a rare bird died in a city park

Visitors taking in the sites: East Siberian herring gulls fly over Shanghai's iconic Waibaidu Bridge.

Shanghai, a major stopover on the Asian-Australasian migratory route, is also making more efforts to provide ideal winter environments for birds.

By the end of 2022, 519 wild bird species, including 40 listed as "threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, were registered in the city.

Shanghai currently operates 4,655 square kilometers of wetlands, according to Sun Xiaohong, an inspector with the city's ecology and environment bureau.

Notably, Chongming Dongtan National Natural Reserve, one of the two top-ranked wetlands in the city, has recorded the presence of 2,900 Tundra swans this winter – a breed that was nearly extinct in the city. That's the largest number in the past two decades.

The number peaked at about 3,000 in the 1980s, before alien cordgrass began destroying some of the habitat, authorities said on World Wetland Day on February 2. A campaign to eradicate the cordgrass has improved the situation.

Eulogy for a loon: How a rare bird died in a city park

Two egrets find a welcoming environment in a wetland located in Shanghai's Nanhui area.

Bird photographer Lu said he loved taking pictures of birds in the city.

"We hope more healthy migratory birds will visit the city," he said.

Meanwhile, the unfortunate black-throated loon who died will be preserved as a specimen after it was retrieved by taxidermists from Shanghai Natural History Museum.

"It's hard to remove oil from its feather.," said taxidermist Shan Kun. "We have had to clean its feathers more than 10 times, but some yellow and brown stains persist."

The museum will exhibit the bird in the backdrop of a native habitat.

Eulogy for a loon: How a rare bird died in a city park
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Taxidermists use a pre-death photo to recreate the loon with outstretched wings.

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