Take a peek at this week’s photo and while the robin looks very much like your common-orgarden favourite, the way it was pictured in all its flame-toned glory has become the talk of the birdwatching world.
However this delightful individual has been holding court in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park, creating the kind of scenes reminiscent of a rarity arrival on the Isles of Scilly or the north Norfolk coast.
How this robin arrived in the Chinese capital thousands of miles from its European home is open to conjecture. There is increasing evidence that small populations of migratory birds often take a “left-hand turn” and fly in the reverse direction in autumn as a survival technique against a possible disaster on their normal wintering ranges.
Whatever the reason for the robin’s arrival in Beijing, its presence has been headline news and the talk among China’s burgeoning birding community or, to be more accurate, bird photographers who have turned up in huge numbers to get the kind of close up that epitomises the festive season in the UK.
Beijing-based British birder Terry Townshend says that besides providing a fascinating subject for the photographers, the robin has also proven to be an exceptional diplomat for advancing the cause of bird conservation. “It’s been a great chance to raise awareness among Beijingers about the importance of the city’s parks for wild birds as well as highlighting the dangers they face from poachers,” Terry tells me.
“Bird trappers are commonly encountered in the Temple of Heaven, even though taking any bird from the wild is illegal without a permit.”
Terry, an independent consultant on environmental law who is aiding the development of Chinese legislation, also gave an exciting account of how a bird so common back home in Britain got his pulse thumping.
News of the robin broke when a Beijing photographer posted pictures of a “mystery bird” on a Chinese internet forum.
Sharp-eyed birders Huang Hanchen and Li Xiaomai raised the alarm and the following morning Terry and three young Chinese birdwatchers were in the Temple of Heaven Park.
“After a three-hour search, there was no sign of the robin until… I decided to walk one more circuit around an area of shrubs that looked the most likely spot for a robin,” explained Terry.
“Along the last line of shrubs I suddenly heard a call, one that I immediately recognised. It was hard to believe and I almost felt embarrassed but my heart leapt.
“Little did we know what a fuss this bird would cause. On a single day that week there were more than 150 photographers.”