On a misty September night, a flock of egrets swoop silently through the Luoxiao Mountains. They pass low over Hunan province's Guidong county into the glare of dozens of LED lights pointing skyward from a valley.
Gunfire erupts and birds tumble to the ground amid squawks. Men laugh as they pluck dead egrets from the grass and stuff them into sacks.
The scene, part of a 12-minute documentary by the Changsha Evening News, has helped expose a growing problem of poaching in mainland rural areas and sparked new calls for the government to better protect migratory birds that cross its territory.
In one "good harvest", poachers might expect to bag as much as a tonne of wild birds, including the threatened egrets, said Li Feng, a photographer who was one of three journalists who worked on the documentary.
"There were at least 200 lights on the hill and behind each light was a group of hunters," Li told The Beijing News. "You can imagine how many people were poaching."
Each autumn, millions of birds pass over Hunan's mountains and lakes on their way to warmer climes in the south. Tens of thousands never finish the trip. They are shot, sold, cooked and consumed in remote villages - despite strict laws on poaching and gun possession.
With mountains on its western and eastern borders and Dongting Lake - China's second largest - in the middle, Hunan provides a crucial pathway for the birds, some travelling all the way from Siberia.
At least 44 species spend spring and early autumn in the province, including some, like swans, great white egrets and the Chinese merganser, a wild duck, that are protected by national law, according to Professor Deng Xuejian from Hunan Normal University.
The hunting and eating of wild birds has long been a tradition in Hunan, as well as in neighbouring Jiangxi and Guangdong. Many locals believe that wild birds are more nourishing than farmed poultry.
The trade is now so big that experts say it has begun to threaten the existence of some species.
Li said his paper's investigation found that some poachers were well organised and travelled from north to south along migration routes to bag as many birds as possible.
Some hunters can expect to make more than 10,000 yuan (HK$12,400) a month during a migration.
The journalists witnessed several restaurants and farm markets selling wild birds, both live and dead, in Guidong county villages. Depending on the species, the price of a single bird ranges from several yuan to several hundred yuan.
"The urban management staff seemed to not care about bird sellers," Li said. "And calling the police was in vain as these dealers had already vanished before police officers arrived."
Bird hunting is also common in the Hunan cities of Shaoyang, Yiyang, Loudi and Chenzhou, Li said.
Public outrage over the exposé prompted the State Forestry to issue an emergency ban on wild bird hunting, save for a few select purposes, such as research, aviation safety and epidemic control.
Xinhua reported yesterday that two wild bird traders were arrested in Xiangtan , Hunan, and Sanshui , Guangdong, respectively, and confiscated over six hundred birds consigned to Guangdong. State radio reported yesterday that Guangdong authorities arrested 12 and confiscated 9,800 wildlife animals, including migratory birds.
Liu Huili, of the Beijing-based environmental group Green Beagle, said bird poaching stretches far beyond Hunan. She said she saw similar practices during a research trip in Jiangxi province. "The video singled out Hunan, but in other places bird poaching is equally crazy," Liu said.
The eating of ricebirds has long been popular in Guangdong. Some Dongguan residents call the small birds that feed on rice paddies "flying ginseng", since they believe eating them invigorates the body.
The provincial government listed the birds as a protected species in 2001. But the Nanfang Daily reports that Dongguan farm markets sell the birds.