Tuesday 27 May 2014


Back in the 80's and 90's I regularly went to China, especially in May where I led trips to Beidaihe with Tony Marr for Wildwings. These trips invariably included a trip to the Summer Palace in Beijing where one of the enduring memories was the fabulous swift colony in the Kuoru Ting pavilion by the lake. This is one of many beautiful buildings at the Summer Palace housing a swift colony, with about 100 pairs of swifts. 

by Dick Newell

Kuoru Ting pavillion, Summer Palace, Beijing. Photo Lyndon Kearsley
On a previous trip to Cape Town in January 2005, I had seen rather pale Common Swifts on Table Mountain, so I wondered, had these birds come from Beijing? 

Pekinensis Common Swift, in the sun, showing a contrasting
dark back.The underparts are also darker than the wings and tail.
Photo Dick Newell
So, when, by chance, I ran into Terry Townshend, a European bird watcher living in Beijing, at a Birdlife International event in London in December 2013, it was not long before we hatched a scheme to put geolocators on the Summer Palace swifts.

Pekinensis swifts are a bit special, they are different from our Swifts, paler, more like Pallid Swifts and their call is softer, also resembling Pallid Swift to our ear. Beijing is not far from the eastern extreme of the species' range.

After Terry's return to Beijing, and a few weeks, and a few emails later,  we had ourselves a project. By now Lyndon Kearsley, ringer and geolocator fitter extraordinaire, was signed up, as was the Beijing Birdwatching Society. BBWS has been running a project to ring the Summer Palace swifts since 2007, taking over from Beijing Capital Normal University who started this survival study in 1992.

We originally planned to take just 10 geolocators, then Susanne Ã…kesson, director of the Centre for Animal Movement Research (CAnMove) at Lund University gave us 20 more. The 10 turned out to be 11, so we arrived in Beijing with 31 geolocators to fit.

So, on 23rd May, we arrived in Beijing, planning up to 3 days to catch enough birds to fit 31 geolocators. The evening of 23rd was spent giving a workshop to members of Beijing Capital Normal University and the Beijing Birdwatching Society on how to fit geolocators. They all picked it up very quickly.

Lyndon holding the attention of the Chinese geolocator team Photo Dick Newell

On 24th May, at 5:00am we arrived at the Summer Palace to find the pavilion enclosed in mistnets, Swifts were already being caught on their way out. Two and a half hours later, we had deployed all 31 geolocators. This is testament to the meticulous planning, organisation and competence of the Chinese team.

Pekinensis Common Swift, with geolocator fitted, awaiting release. Photo Dick Newell

We would like to thank, first of all, Terry for making all the right contacts in Beijing and Wu Lan, from the BBWS, who has worked miracles to ensure the Chinese authorities were comfortable with the project.

For a further account, with more pictures see Terry's blogpost on birdingbeijing.com and a more complete account on Birding Frontiers also written by Terry, For an interesting account of Beijing Swifts see this film, featuring Professor Gao, who we met at the Summer Palace.

One bird of the ~50 pairs nesting inside the dome of the pavilion. Most of the birds fitted with
 geolocators were nesting here, with another ~50 pairs in the outside rim. Photo Dick Newell


  1. do they nest on the ledges?
    N Ireland

  2. They seem to nest on top of the beams, not in an enclosed space with a small entrance. It is as if they are nesting in a cave.