A Chinese Crested Tern returns to the nest after a successful hunt at sea, the fish it caught at the ready to feed to its chick. Morgan Heim

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Inside the Race to Save China's Mysterious ‘Bird of Legend’

The Chinese Crested Tern was written off as extinct decades ago. Since its rediscovery in 2000, scientists have been working to ensure that Asia’s rarest seabird keeps a firm foothold in reality.

At barely 5:30 in the morning Tiedun Island is already buzzing with action. The rocky islet off the coast of Zhejiang Province is steeped in mist, but the rain that has smothered eastern China for days has finally stopped. More downpour is imminent, providing only a brief window for a covert operation that’s been stalled for days. “We should do it now,” says Don Lyons. “There’s no time to lose.”

Crowding around a computer screen in a cramped hut, Lyons, director of conservation science for Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, and his Chinese colleagues are trying to pick out their target via a live stream. They swivel the mouse to scan the nearby bustling seabird colony and then zoom in on a single bird incubating an egg. The black-and-white speckled oval it’s sitting on looks like any of the thousands of tern eggs laid on Tiedun this spring, but it’s a singular life hiding in plain sight. It belongs to one of the 69 critically endangered Chinese Crested Terns among the island’s more than 4,600 Greater Crested Terns.

With only 100 or so individuals globally, the Chinese Crested Tern is one of the rarest avian species on Earth. Asian birdwatchers call it the “bird of legend,” a moniker inspired by the tern’s return from oblivion. The sleek seabirds were thought to have gone extinct nearly a century ago, only to be rediscovered serendipitously in 2000. Despite renewed interest since then, little is known about the life cycle of these feathered seafarers, especially where they go outside of breeding season, where they overwinter, and their migratory routes between those places.

The team staking out the egg is hoping to fill in some of those gaps by attaching, for the first time ever, a satellite tag to an adult Chinese Crested Tern. “Satellite tracking could provide the urgently needed, vital information to help save the species,” says Fan Zhongyong, an ecologist at the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History in Hangzhou, who has been trying to conserve their breeding colonies in eastern China for 16 years.

Concealed in a hut abutting the nesting grounds, Fan, Lyons, and Lu Yiwei, another Zhejiang museum ecologist, survey the colony with binoculars. The relatively few Chinese Crested Terns here depend on their close relatives—greater in both size and abundance—for protection from predators. As a human visitor quickly observes, safety in numbers makes for a deafening, squabble-filled existence. Terns guard their territories fiercely, stretching their necks to peck at neighbors that wander too close. Hundreds more circle overhead, their long, pointed wings slicing rhythmically through the misty summer sky.

From top: Volunteer Cheng Qian (right) searches the skies for signs of Chinese Crested Terns as the team approaches the islet of Tiedun; the team unloads supplies. Photos: Morgan Heim

The trio gets eyes on the target nest. “Let’s go,” Fan says briskly. The terns take flight as the scientists approach, hovering in midair like miniature helicopters, flapping their wings and emitting hard wep wep calls. White liquid splats Lu’s forehead and drips down it. “They love pooping at intruders,” he says, wiping his face. Undeterred, the researchers run straight for a lone egg sitting in a shallow pit. They look around for the markers—a boulder, solar panels, other nests—that they had noted on the computer monitor. Confident they have the right egg, Lu places a wire trap over it. He opens the cage door and double-checks the trigger. The researchers race out of the colony.

Back in the blind, they wait for an adult to return to the egg; tern parents share nest duties, and it’s impossible to determine the sex without a DNA test. Fan spots one of the parents overhead, and everyone watches it circle a few times before landing. It walks around the trap in seeming confusion, its eyes fixated on its egg. It pauses at the open door, then walks around the cage again. Its neighbors squawk in protest when it crosses invisible territorial lines. The Chinese Crested Tern is too focused on the egg to notice.

The researchers watch with nervous tension. There’s a lot at stake. And to tag the bird, they need to get it safely in hand. The primal drive to attend to its egg is so strong that the tern would risk almost anything. But will it?

G

erman naturalist Heinrich Bernstein discovered the species now known as the Chinese Crested Tern in 1861 on Indonesia’s Halmahera Island. At the turn of the century birders reported breeding colonies on islands off eastern China, thus endowing the bird its name, and wintering populations in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. A Chinese zoologist collected 21 specimens along his country’s northern coast in 1937, and that was the last anyone saw of the species for decades. Chinese Crested Terns, scientists surmised, had blinked out.

Then, in 2000, Taiwanese wildlife photographer Chieh-Te Liang stunned the bird world when he photographed four Chinese Crested Tern pairs nesting amid Greater Crested Terns on China’s Matsu Archipelago.

Two years later, Chung-Wei Yen, an ornithologist at Taiwan’s National Museum of Natural Science, visited the Zhejiang museum and mentioned the discovery to its deputy director Chen Shuihua. Though the news had made international headlines, Chen—an urban bird expert—had missed it. He became intrigued as he listened to Yen muse about whether the terns might breed on any of the thousands of islands off the coast of Zhejiang, in the species’ historic range.  So much so that in 2003 Chen embarked on a four-year expedition to find the elusive tern.

Chen and colleagues scoured 1,301 islets in the Zhoushan Archipelago. They found Bridled Terns. Roseate Terns. Black-naped Terns. But islet after islet turned up not a single Chinese Crested Tern.

In the summer of 2004 they moved 60 miles south to the Jiushan Archipelago. The 70-plus islets had been designated a provincial nature reserve for protecting the common Chinese cuttlefish, large yellow croaker, finless porpoise, and Black-tailed Gull. Chen’s team was tasked with conducting a survey of flora and fauna, and all the while they kept an eye out for the bird of legend.

Map: Lucy Reading-Ikkanda

On August 1 the team was supposed to visit the last islands. “It was extremely foggy. We couldn’t see anything tens of meters away,” says Chen, who convinced the reluctant boat captain to go out. “It’d be a shame if we didn’t get to complete the survey,” Chen recalls thinking. “What if something unusual were there?”

Nothing unusual transpired until the boat approached Jiangjunmao, or “General’s Hat,” so called because its steep sides and vegetation-covered flat top resemble a military cap. Loud cries reverberated in the air. Little black dots sliced through the thick fog. “We couldn’t believe our eyes! There were thousands of Greater Crested Terns,” says Chen. It was the largest seabird flock they’d encountered. What’s more, they knew that Chinese Crested Terns tend to breed among their close kin. Searching with binoculars, they spotted around two dozen of the rare birds amid 4,000 Greater Crested Terns.

A visual ID, however, isn’t solid evidence. Chen was itching to go back to Jiangjunmao with a long camera lens to get proof. But two weeks later Typhoon Rananim struck, and as soon as it dissipated Typhoon Megi began to form. “I knew even if the colony could survive Rananim, Megi would deliver the fatal blow,” says Chen. “I wanted to get there before Megi did.”

Boat captains laughed at Chen. Nobody wanted to sail into an impending typhoon. A villager called the plan “suicidal.” Chen didn’t waiver. “I was determined to get there,” he says. “Nothing else seemed to matter.” A fisherman finally agreed. The little wooden boat was pushed around by waves several meters high, and the crew scooped out endless buckets of water to stay afloat. “It seemed we would never make it,” says Chen.

Eventually they did. As Chen climbed the General’s Hat, he saw the havoc wreaked by Rananim. Broken egg shells littered the colony. A few chicks wandered around in a state of confusion, apparently abandoned. Some adults, including a few Chinese Crested Terns, had stayed to incubate eggs, and Chen managed to snap a few close-ups of the legendary birds. He returned a few days later, after Megi subsided. The colony was totally deserted.

Chinese Crested Terns didn’t return until three years later, in 2007, when eight individuals bred among 2,000 or so Greater Crested Terns. The nature reserve sent staff members to guard the colony around the clock. When food and water stores ran out, they left for one night to restock. In their absence, fishermen landed and poached all of the eggs. They had decimated one of the two known breeding sites of a species struggling on the brink of extinction.

Chen Shuihua is renowned for his role in conserving the Chinese Crested Tern. Morgan Heim

“It was utterly devastating. The sense of doom and gloom was indescribable,” says Chen, his voice shaky, tears filling his eyes. The birds left. They never returned. It was the lowest point of the Chinese Crested Tern story. “I remember asking myself: What was wrong with China?” he says. “What was wrong with the Chinese?”

T

he Chinese are hardly alone in hunting birds for their eggs, meat, and feathers. People have been doing so across the globe for eons. Feather hats, for instance, propelled the precipitous decline of Snowy Egrets and other North American wading birds in the late 19th century. Public outcry led to the formation of Audubon Societies that contributed to the passage of protective laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

In China, avian conservation is still in its infancy, especially for seabirds. The forestry bureau oversees birds but has no experience in extending their duties to the sea, whereas the oceanography bureau is responsible for only marine life. Terns, then, fall in a regulatory loophole. Consequently, a 1989 law banning bird hunting and egg poaching was poorly enforced.

“Lack of awareness was much to blame,” says Zhang Ankang, a Xiangshan oceanography bureau official. Bird eggs were popular in local restaurants, and fishermen collected them to eat or sell. Overfishing has caused catches to plummet in recent decades, and eggs provided supplemental income. Villagers harvested eggs right in front of Chen on the Zhoushan Archipelago and other areas of the Zhejiang coast. “To them, it’s as natural as accepting a present from heaven,” he says.

For terns, the loss of eggs upsets their natural cycle. Instead of heading south in late summer before peak typhoon season begins, they’ll stay and lay a second clutch. In 2004, when Chen discovered the terns on Jiangjunmao, a reported egg-harvesting incident in the region may have prompted the birds to breed anew on the islet in July, only to be pummeled by typhoons Rananim and Megi. “It’s a double whammy,” says Chen.

A turning point came in 2010. In response to the 2007 incident, the Xiangshan government and Zhejiang Museum of Natural History organized an international seabird-conservation conference. For the first time, representatives from the two regulatory bureaus met and agreed to work together to create policies to protect seabirds and dedicate resources for better monitoring and management. Local authorities publicized the existing law on billboards at major traffic junctions, drawing attention to the fact that bird hunting and egg poaching were criminal offenses. They distributed leaflets to restaurants and fishing villages. They mobilized police spot checks at local markets and restaurants. “After a few fishermen were arrested for violating the law, villagers realized that the governments took it seriously,” says Zhang, then the Jiushan reserve’s manager. “The situation gradually improved.”

Zhang and others, meanwhile, wondered if they could lure terns back to Jiangjunmao. The desire was driven by concern for the species, but it was also a matter of pride. The Chinese Crested Terns’ presence there had helped elevate the Jiushan reserve to national prominence. “But the birds never returned to Jiushan after the 2007 incident,” says Chen. “It was sort of embarrassing.”

The Japanese and American ornithologists they turned to for advice suggested they try social attraction—using decoys and audio playbacks of calls to entice birds to nest. These techniques, pioneered by Steve Kress, the founding director of Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, have convinced dozens of seabird species to colonize nearly 100 locations worldwide. “Terns are particularly responsive,” says Kress. 

By that time, Chen and his colleagues had learned more about the bird’s behavior by studying a small colony discovered in 2008 on Wuzhishan Archipelago—an area Chen explored in 2003—60 miles north of Jiangjunmao. The researchers knew the terns’ arrival and departure windows, incubation and fledging periods, and the characteristics of successful nesting grounds.

Armed with that insight, Chen convinced the Xiangshan government to try social attraction. It chose Tiedun, an islet in the Jiushan reserve that is much less steep than Jiangjunmao and thus more accessible for researchers. Still, Tiedun needed work. “A bit of ecological engineering was necessary to make Tiedun suitable,” says Fan.

Don Lyons, director of conservation science for Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, observes the tern colony. Morgan Heim

In April 2013, aided by seabird experts, including Lyons, Kress, and Daniel Roby, a tern expert at Oregon State University, Chen and colleagues sprinkled gravel to imitate natural nesting sites, pruned shrubs so terns could spot predators, and deployed rat and snake traps. Then they placed 300 tern decoys and installed a solar-powered system to broadcast tern calls recorded on Wuzhishan.

To minimize disturbance, Ding Peng of the Jiushan nature reserve and Stefanie Collar, an Oregon State University graduate student, monitored the would-be colony from a neighboring islet with binoculars. In early May, when terns normally arrive, a few passed through. “They were rather curious about the decoys. Some offered them fish, others even tried to mate with them,” says Ding, laughing. “But none stayed.”

It was a long wait, exacerbated by language barriers. Collar didn’t speak Chinese. Ding’s English was limited, and he couldn’t understand the Xiangshan dialect of the local cook who helped them make camp. “We mostly used body language to communicate,” says Ding. “It can go a surprisingly long way.”

By late July the team was ready to give up. “We thought we didn’t get the breeding site right. We thought they didn’t like it,” says Ding. When they reached Tiedun to collect the gear, they realized the audio playback system was broken. They fixed it and decided to leave it on for a few more days.

The following morning—a glorious day, Ding recalls, the sky a cloudless, crystal blue—hundreds of Greater Crested Terns and a few Chinese Crested Terns gathered on Tied