A bird gets blown off course and inspires a young researcher to spread her own wings — in Siberia.
In the first episode of this new season of Threatened, we go on a life-changing journey with Sunny Tseng, a PhD student at the University of Northern British Columbia and a researcher at the Endemic Species Research Institute in Taiwan, where she’s based. The story starts in 2014 with a Siberian Crane that got blown off course, ending up in Taiwan. It’s a bird that usually migrates from the Siberian tundra — an ecosystem that’s currently undergoing a dramatic transformation as our climate changes — to southeast China. The appearance of a Siberian Crane was unexpected, and it set off a chain of events that put Sunny on the path that led her to where she is today.
Ari Daniel: Birdnote Presents.
Sunny Tseng: I was looking through the window and seeing the storm with the strong wind, lots of rain, and the temperature kept dropping. So it was like typhoon, but typhoon with zero degree temperature, it’s like freezing. So it’s cold and windy. It feels like, “Oh, why I’m here?” And I started to cry. I was only 23 at the time, very young, a young girl, and I traveled so far to this place from my beloved country. I traveled so far to Arctic. There is no Internet connection. There’s no cell phone connection. And I am just left alone. Just waiting for the day I can step on the tundra and to record some bird sounds.
Ari Daniel: This is Sunny.
Sunny Tseng: My name is Sunny Tseng in Mandarin, and you can also call me Sunny.
Ari Daniel: She’s a PhD student at the University of Northern British Columbia and a researcher at the Endemic Species Research Institute in Taiwan, which is where she’s based. The story of how Sunny got to the Arctic starts in 2014 with a Siberian Crane that got blown off course, ending up in Taiwan.
Sunny Tseng: And that crane was a missing bird, a lost bird separated from other members in the group.
Ari Daniel: This event was a big deal. Coverage ricocheted across the national news.
Ari Daniel: Today on Threatened, we go on a life-changing journey with Sunny. I’m your host, Ari Daniel. And let me just welcome you to our new season of the podcast. This is the first of 8 new episodes, and it starts with this stray Siberian crane. A bird that usually migrates from the Siberian tundra — an ecosystem that’s currently undergoing a dramatic transformation as our climate changes — to southeast China. So having it show up in Taiwan was unexpected.
Sunny Tseng: That bird come to Taiwan mistakenly. Siberian crane is special species because it’s very endangered species, so it’s quite rare. Such a special guest.
Taiwanese people are very friendly, and we want to send that crane back to Russia, back to wild again.
Ari Daniel: So Taiwan’s conservation agency connected with their Russian counterparts, and everyone decided it was in the best interest of the crane not to interfere. To not do anything.
Sunny Tseng: We just let the crane fly back to Siberia by itself.
Ari Daniel: This bird was the catalyst for Taiwan to send a small group of young scientists to the Siberian Arctic tundra to visit the breeding ground of the crane, and learn more about how these two very different places are connected. And Sunny thought that sounded like something she’d like to do.
Sunny Tseng: The world is so big, but I haven’t really had the chance to explore the world. So I see this as a very precious opportunity for me to explore the place that I have never seen, I have never been.
Ari Daniel: There was an application process and Sunny decided to throw her hat in the ring. She thought she could propose recording the sounds of the birds in the wild. But there was a hitch. She didn’t have any experience. Like, none.
Sunny Tseng: And funnily enough, at that time I haven’t started birding at all. So I know zero birds and zero skills in recording. I just want to try it and to see how far I can go.
Ari Daniel: So she tracked down a few field recordists to teach her.
Sunny Tseng: And another thing I did is I want to demonstrate I have the physical ability to work in tundra. So winter time, I spent like 10 days ride my bicycle from the north point to the south point of Taiwan. I want to record my trip using sounds. I want to practice how to use soundscapes to tell a story.
Ari Daniel: And after all her training...
Sunny Tseng: I got it! I was so happy and I want to run like three kilometers to celebrate the moment. It was already March at that time. And our field trip is going to be in early summer, so it means we only have three months to prepare.
Ari Daniel: In those 3 months, Sunny met with the other grant recipients that would accompany her, including an ornithologist named Daniel.
Daniel Lu: You can also call me Li-Chung Lu in Mandarin.
Sunny Tseng: He has experience in birding, so very good at field work.
Daniel Lu: Now I have a job of the research assistant in Endemic Species Research Institute of Taiwan.
Sunny Tseng: And he knows his birds very well.
Finally, I was able to fly to Yakutsk, the capital city of Siberia.
My flight land, it was like 2 a.m. in the morning. It should be very dark, right. But it was like all bright in the city. And I remember, “Oh, because the latitude is so high.” But I can feel, “I can get along with the people there easily.” Even though I don’t know their language, I feel like people are very kind to me. It’s like aboriginal people in the Siberian area. Probably smiling is one of the best language to communicate with people. We are very different in background, but we all have a very kind heart.
And after three days, we took a very small plane from Yakutsk to a village in the north called Chokurdakh. The latitude of it is around 70 degree, so it’s already inside the Arctic circle. So this is the final stopover before entering the place that we would do our research work. So after arriving Chokurdakh, I feel like I arrived the end of the world.
And the next day, the boat that we are going to take was canceled because there is a big storm coming so we cannot travel on the river. It’s like a typhoon, quite windy and cold. It’s almost freezing. I’m a little bit afraid that I won’t be able to finish the thing that I really want to accomplish. I cannot accept to lose a day working in tundra. It’s like I’m trapped here in this village, very lonely. So the feeling is like, I’m lost. So I started to cry. So it’s like, you are forgotten by the world at that moment.
Fortunately, after two days, the storm settled down. So we have to grab that short period of time and just get on the boat, traveling on the river. The place we are going to is a place called Kytalyk Natural Reserve. There are only 40 people can enter the place per year for doing research. So this is a very precious place.
By the time I arrived, I only have a total of seven days to work in the tundra.
So Arctic tundra by definition, it is the place where much of the soil, especially deep down, is permanently frozen. Which means it is impossible for trees to grow in that area. The tundra vegetation is composed of shrubs, grasses, and lichens.
Sergei Sleptsov: I like tundra.
Sunny Tseng: Sergei, he has spent 27 years working in the tundra.
Sergei Sleptsov: Yes, my name is Sergei Sleptsov. I am ornithologist of Siberian branch of the Russian Academy for Sciences. If you begin to work in the tundra, you want to visit the tundra again, again and again. Tundra is open place. You can see from long distance.
Sunny Tseng: One of the strongest feeling when I was there is that human being is so minimal in front of Mother Nature. And just one big storm or one small mistake, you can lose your life.
Sunny Tseng: In summer, the top layer of the soil can melt, making the ground very soggy, covered in marshes, lakes and bogs. So in summertime, wet areas are ideal habitat for many species of insects. Many birds that feed on insects — they have feast. So because of this kind of food chain, the tundra is the ideal breeding ground for many bird species: 40 to 60 migratory bird species each summer.
Daniel Lu: Like red phalarope, and the red-necked phalarope...
Sunny Tseng: This is Daniel again.
Daniel Lu: ...pectoral sandpiper, and some Arctic terns, willow warbler, common redpoll, and red-throated pipit.
Sergei Sleptsov: Tundra birds, many rare species.
Daniel Lu: They will lay eggs, hatching their offspring.
Sunny Tseng: When birds are into the breeding season, they sing loudly because they want to defend their territory and also they need to attract their partners. So they sing like crazy. For parent birds, they feel charged because of the 24 hours daylight.
Sunny Tseng: So they keep trying to capture food for their young and to feed them and to breed and non-stop for the whole breeding season. They don’t even feel tired when they really need rest.
During my trip, one of my target species is the Siberian crane. But the Siberian crane is relatively shy.
Daniel Lu: Sergei told us not to walk too close to the place where the Siberian crane will put their nest because he don’t want us to scare them.
Sunny Tseng: It’s very hard to record them from very far distance, some small white spot. Another field partner, Ruslin, he will tell me, “Oh, Siberian crane’s there, but it’s impossible to record their sound from this kind of distance.”
Ari Daniel: When we come back, Sunny wrestles the tundra to get what she came for.
Ari Daniel: Welcome back. Before the break, we left Sunny Tseng out in the Siberian tundra, full of dedication to find and record the different kinds of birds there. There’s one, the Siberian Crane, that sparked the whole adventure. But there are other rare and fascinating birds to observe on the tundra, too. And Sunny still has a lot to overcome to get those recordings. Here’s Sunny.
Sunny Tseng: The wind is very strong in the tundra area. Sometimes you cannot even stand still. When the wind is super strong, it’s very hard to do sound recording.
Daniel Lu: And it’s quite noisy, so it’s hard to hear the birds singing.
Sunny Tseng: But when the wind settle down and you think you can start to work, the mosquito comes like a black storm.
Daniel Lu: The mosquitos there are really, really big. It is a nightmare to avoid the mosquitos and so I hate mosquitos.
Sunny Tseng: So we have to wear the net covering all parts of our body.
Sergei Sleptsov: It’s impossible to work without mosquitos net.
Sunny Tseng: Another difficult thing I found is walking.
Sergei Sleptsov: Yes, walking is very difficult.
Sunny Tseng: Now, walking sounds very easy for us, but walking in tundra is a totally different thing.
Sergei Sleptsov: Everywhere bumpy, no flat place. Very hard condition.
Sunny Tseng: It’s like walking in a marsh. Your feet sink down into the mud, to your knee. So it’s very deep. And every time you need to walk, you have to pull out your feet out of the soil. You have to step far and make your step as few as possible. But I am short leg. It is very hard! You have to have lots of physical strength to do that. Actually, I hurt myself. I hurt my knee, my left knee. I think it’s more like a twist. The feeling of hurt got more and more severe. I cannot even bend my knee. My left leg have to be straight all the time. But I still continue walking after hurting my knee because I mean, I have to do my work every day. And the nest of the birds is far away from each other.
Daniel Lu: Sunny have really great passion so she still keep walking and recording the sounds of birds.
Sunny Tseng: It’s very tough on my body. Yeah, so I remember at that time I just wrap it with a cloth and try not to move it too much. There was one day I want to record the sound of a gull called Ross’s Gull.
Daniel Lu: They are totally pink, so they look really beautiful. They are pink because they will eat the shrimp there.
Sunny Tseng: It’s very different from other species of gulls so it’s very easy to recognize. It’s a very rare species. And it’s hard to see in other places of the world. So that is one of my target species. So I really want to visit the nest. And I remember Sergei, so he asked me, “Sunny, are you okay to walk?” At that time I cannot bend my knee. I can only walk on one foot.
So Yuri was another Russian who went to the expedition with us. Yuri said, “Oh, the nest, it’s around like five kilometers away. And if we need to rest, you just take a rest.” I walk slowly. So one hour, two hours, three hours. Finally, we arrived at the nest.
It is a little bit magical. Yuri is amazing. How can he find a small nest after five hours of walking? The local people, their ability in finding birds and places is really, really good. They are, like, hunters in their blood.
And this is the bird I walked so far to record. And when I arrived there, I saw the parent bird fly to the sky and make this kind of alarm call. The parent birds try to attack me. So I just put my parabolic microphone up in the sky, pointing to the birds. And the birds just flew directly to my microphone, calling loudly. I put my headphones up so I can hear the sounds — so vivid. This feels so good. I mean, after a day of walking with the hurt knee, I finally finished my goal.
After, I walk slowly to the nest. I just want to see the nest they built. So it’s on the ground, and a very, very small nest. And inside is an egg and a little bird. Another juvenile, just hatched, brownish with black spot, and very fluffy. And the bird was shaking because of the cold. And the parent birds, they flew out of nest because they are scared by us. That means we have to leave the nest as quick as possible because it’s very dangerous for the egg, also for the bird. So I step back and leave the place.
And I remember I did one thing. I waved my hands to the birds. I said in Mandarin, 真抱歉打擾了，你們要加油噢, which means, “I’m sorry I disturb you, but I wish you the best of luck to be successful in this breeding season.” Yeah, at that time, I feel like, “Oh, I really connected with the nature, with the birds, even though the birds probably don’t understand what I’m saying.” But I don’t know, I feel touched just by doing this.
Daniel Lu: In this place, I can see something is changing. I can strongly feel the effect of the global warming.
Sunny Tseng: The spring came relatively late, and this late spring is causing the breeding season to start a little bit late compared to other years. And it’s probably because of climate change. We need more scientific research to confirm this finding. But one thing we can confirm is that the tundra environment is changing.
One of the threat is the melting permafrost. When the permafrost melts, it can release carbon in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. And both are greenhouse gases, which will make the climate change even worse. This is a very big threat in the tundra area. We need to try to preserve it and try to protect the habitat and protect the birds over there. It is a very fragile environment.
So I remember there was another day when I walked with Ruslin for about 8 or 10 hours. And I said, “Oh, I’m so tired. I need to take a rest.” So we just sit down. We were chatting to each other and saying, “Oh, maybe we should go home. The dinner is waiting for us.” And suddenly, Ruslin, he just looked up to the sky and say, “Sunny, Sunny, turn on your recorder!” And I said, “What, what, what happened?” So Ruslin just grabbed my microphone, pointing to the sky and asked me to start recording. And three Siberian Cranes flew toward us.
[Siberian Crane calls]
So the distance is from two kilometers, one kilometers, 500 meters. And they just flew over our head.
[Siberian Crane calls]
I was so astonished. Sounds like they are talking to each other when they are flying. And another reason I really, really love that recording is because it is two of us who experienced the beautiful moment together. It’s like the achievement, it’s not belong to me. It belong to all the team, it belong to us.
In that evening, I showed Sergei the recording. And Sergei listened quietly. He took down the headphone and he told me that, “Sunny, you are very lucky. It is very rare for the cranes to make this kind of call.”
Sergei Sleptsov: She record the voice of Siberian crane. It’s very rare sounds.
Sunny Tseng: It’s like getting a very, very big present by nature.
Siberian crane is the species who started the whole story. It is the species who brought me to Siberian tundra. It is also the species that connect me with the people, with the environment. It connect everyone together.
Sergei Sleptsov: Siberian crane establish that connection from Siberia and Taiwan peoples. We love birds. We love nature and birds.
Sunny Tseng: So Taiwan and Siberian tundra, they are two place very far away but we are connected because of birds flying to these two places.
Ari Daniel: Sunny's story is a somewhat extreme example of how a fascination with a bird can lead to remarkable experiences. Scientific study is just one way to answer the call to protect the birds and places we love. In this season of Threatened, we'll hear from scientists for sure. But also traditional healers, private landowners, and even a bird whisperer.
In our next episode, we hear about a bird that’s been through some tough times.
Jeff Walters: When I began working on them, there were no known populations that were increasing, many had gone extinct, most were declining. The future did not look good for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.
Ari Daniel: Things are looking up for this woodpecker today, thanks to a surprising conservation ally. But the bird, and in fact the entire Endangered Species Act, may still be hanging in the balance.
That's next week on Threatened.
This episode was produced by me, Ari Daniel, and edited by Caitlin Pierce of the Rough Cut Collective. Audio mix by Rob Byers, Johnny Vince Evans, and Michael Raphael of Final Final V2. Our theme song and original music were composed by Ian Coss, with additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Sunny Tseng for providing many of the recordings for this episode. Threatened is a production of BirdNote and overseen by Content Director Allison Wilson with production assistance from Sam Johnson. You can find our show notes with additional resources, BirdNote’s other podcasts, and much more at BirdNote dot org. Thanks for listening, I’ll see you next week.