Five Years Ago, Varied Tit Irrupted into Shanghai

Five years ago, from September through December 2012, Varied Tit burst into Earth’s Greatest City. For those few months, the status of Sittiparus varius varius in Shanghai went from “unrecorded” to “locally common.” I noted Varied Tit on various occasions on Lesser Yangshan Island and in urban Shanghai at Zhongshan Park, Changfeng Park, and Binjiang Forest Park.

The mass movement saw incursions of Varied Tit up and down the Chinese coast, with reports from as far south as Hong Kong. Unusually high numbers of Varied Tit were reported in South Korea as well as Japan (Loghry & Moores 2012).

The episode captured many birders’ imaginations, not only because of its ornithological interest, but also because Varied Tit is a beautiful bird.

Five years later, the 2012 irruption remains remarkable. Despite the growing number of birders in the Shanghai region, no one here has managed to find Varied Tit, a species not especially prone to irruptions.

Harrap and Quinn describe Varied Tit as resident throughout its range, with “some evidence,” some of which is “contradictory,” of movements south and to lower altitudes in winter. The word “irruption” does not appear in the authors’ otherwise exhaustive account of Varied Tit (1995).

In China, the nominate form of Varied Tit is confined to Liaoning and possibly a small part of southern Jilin. It is resident as well on the Korean Peninsula and the main Japanese islands.

In 2012 as now, I was using my Nikon D3S and 600 mm F/4 lens. Here are some of the photos I produced of Varied Tit.

Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit Sittiparus varius varius, Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. In the fall and winter of 2012, this colorful tit underwent unusually high movements throughout its northeast China range, eventually spilling into the coastal provinces of China. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, 30 Sept. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Yangshan Island, 30 Sept. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

REFERENCES

Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995. Varied Tit, pp. 70-1, 397-401.

Loghry, Jason & Moores, Nial. Varied Tit, Chinese Nuthatch and Yellow-bellied Tit: what else is on the move? birdskoreablog.org, published 9 Oct. 2012, accessed 17 Dec. 2017.

Featured image: In autumn and winter 2012, Shanghai experienced an irruption of Varied Tit Sittiparus varius varius. Top 2, from L: Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, 5 Dec. 2012 and Changfeng Park, Shanghai, 17 Nov. 2012. Bottom 2: Lesser Yangshan, 30 Sept. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Say Hello to Tiny, Our Beautiful Baby Boy

Our chick has hatched. Our son, Tiny, was born at 10:08 a.m. 26 Oct. 2017 at Changning Maternity Hospital (长妇幼) in Shanghai.

At birth Tiny weighed 4080 grams (9 lbs., 8 斤 1 两). His length was 52 cm (20.47 inches).

Tiny’s beautiful mother, my wife Elaine Du, is doing well, having completed her 月子 or month of post-partum recuperation. Elaine’s sister Regina flew down from their home province of Heilongjiang and helped us.

Tiny is the nickname of Craig Eugene Brelsford II. We say “Tiny” instead of “Junior.”

Tiny’s Chinese name is 杜泰宁 (Dù Tàiníng). 杜 is Elaine’s family name. 泰宁 sounds like “Tiny” and is the name of the county in Fujian where the bird-rich mountain Emeifeng is located. Our 2015 Emeifeng trip is one of Elaine’s and my best birding memories.

Tiny’s first life bird was Japanese Tit, calling below our window at the hospital.

Elaine and I are happy beyond expression and deeply grateful.

Here are some photos from the first month of Tiny’s life. Wish Tiny well by leaving a comment below.

The Brelsford family. Left are my parents, and next to me are my little sister and Elaine. Debary, Florida, 12 Feb. 2017. For Elaine and me, a trip to Florida is an opportunity to engage in world-class birding and see the family.
When my parents, sister, Elaine, and I posed for this picture in Debary, Florida on 12 Feb. 2017, little did we know that Elaine was already pregnant. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine had a smooth pregnancy. She birded little and only once strayed more than 10 km from our apartment in Changning District, Shanghai. Here we are on 21 Aug. 2017 We were about to have Elaine's pregnancy pictures done at Mǎruìshā Értóng Shèyǐng (玛瑞莎儿童摄影). (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine had a smooth pregnancy. Here we are on 21 Aug. 2017. We were about to have Elaine’s pregnancy pictures done at Mǎruìshā Értóng Shèyǐng (玛瑞莎儿童摄影). (Craig Brelsford)
tiny at birth
Tiny moments after birth, 26 Oct. 2017. Watching the birth of any child is moving; witnessing the birth of one’s own child is moving beyond words. (Craig Brelsford)
Daddy holding Tiny the day after Tiny's birth. (Elaine Du)
Daddy holding Tiny the day after Tiny’s birth. (Elaine Du)
Tiny the thinker loses himself in contemplation while Mummy beams with happiness. (Craig Brelsford)
Tiny the thinker ponders while Elaine his mummy beams. (Craig Brelsford)
Tiny the holy man raises his hand to bless Mummy and Daddy. (Craig Brelsford)
Tiny the holy man raises his hand to bless the world. (Craig Brelsford)
For the moment at least, Tiny has blue eyes, like Daddy. (Craig Brelsford)
For the moment at least, Tiny has blue eyes, like Daddy. (Craig Brelsford)
Tiny the little citizen poses for his U.S. passport photo. (Elaine Du)
Tiny the little citizen poses for his U.S. passport photo. (Elaine Du)
Tiny in his crib, 9 Nov. 2017. (Elaine Du)
Tiny in his crib, 9 Nov. 2017. (Elaine Du)
The crew came on Day 8 and turned our guest room into a photo studio. They were very professional and did a great job. (Craig Brelsford)
The crew from Mǎruìshā came on Day 8 and turned our guest room into a photo studio. They were very professional and did a great job. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine showing Tiny cards with simple designs. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine showing Tiny cards with simple designs. (Craig Brelsford)
When Tiny is well-rested and well-fed and has a clean diaper, then he is ready to learn, even at his very young age. (Craig Brelsford)
When Tiny is well-rested and well-fed and has a clean diaper, then he is ready to learn, even at his young age. (Craig Brelsford)
Craig Eugene Brelsford holding his baby son, Craig Eugene Brelsford II. (Elaine Du)
Craig Eugene Brelsford holding his baby son, Craig Eugene Brelsford II. (Elaine Du)
Sleep now, Baby Tiny, Mummy and Daddy will take good care of you. (Craig Brelsford)
Sleep now, Baby Tiny, Mummy and Daddy will take good care of you. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Craig Eugene Brelsford II, known affectionately as Tiny, 8 days old. Photo by Mǎruìshā Értóng Shèyǐng (玛瑞莎儿童摄影).

Crested Goshawk at Century Park

​At Pudong’s Century Park on Sun. 26 Nov. 2017, I recorded Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus. It was my first record at Century of Crested Goshawk, a species whose presence in urban Shanghai is growing ever more noticeable.

Li Qiu (李秋), her husband Qiao Ying (乔颖), Paul Hyde, and I were standing in Woodcock Forest (31.213235, 121.551704), a heavily wooded part of Century Park. We were watching Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major, itself rare in urban Shanghai.

We saw an Accipiter flying over the treetops. We ran out of the forest into a grassy area and saw the goshawk soaring 100 m above the park. Qiu got the photo above left.

The goshawk seemed not to be passing through Century but to be using the park; the combination of low flight over the treetops followed by soaring flight over the park gave me an impression of a raptor that knows the area.

Why is Sunday’s goshawk Crested Goshawk?

1. Wings short and broad and “pinched” at base–the narrow wing base is obvious in Qiu’s photo, as well as in my photo above right of a Crested Goshawk from Emeifeng, Fujian. Crested Goshawk is well-known for its narrow wing base and bulging secondaries. By contrast, regional sparrowhawks such as Besra Accipiter virgatus and Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus have less-rounded wings.

Comparison of bulge of secondaries of regional Accipiter. Crested Goshawk A. trivirgatus shows a 'pinched' wing base and bulging secondaries. The wings of Chinese Sparrowhawk A. soloensis (top R) and Japanese Sparrowhawk A. gularis are much straighter, while the bulge in the wing of Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus (bottom L) is less pronounced. (Craig Brelsford)
Comparison of bulge of secondaries of regional sparrowhawks. Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus (top L) shows a ‘pinched’ wing base and bulging secondaries. Much straighter are the wings of Chinese Sparrowhawk A. soloensis (top R) and Japanese Sparrowhawk A. gularis (bottom R). The secondaries of Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus (bottom L) show more of a bulge than the previous two species but less than Crested Goshawk. (Craig Brelsford)

2. When I saw the raptor close, soaring over the treetops, the impression I got was not of a large, buzzard-sized Accipiter (as might have been the impression if the raptor had been Northern Goshawk A. gentilis). Instead, I got the impression of a smaller raptor. An impression of a large, Buteo-sized raptor would weigh against a diagnosis of Crested Goshawk, but an impression of a smaller raptor weighs in favor of an Accipiter the size of Crested Goshawk.

3. Besra is less likely to be seen soaring than is Crested Goshawk.

4. As I note in my recent post, “Crested Goshawk Invades Shanghai,” Crested Goshawk is known to occur in urban Shanghai, including Century Park. Knowledge that Crested Goshawk is in this city does not weigh against a diagnosis of the Accipiter Sunday as Crested Goshawk. Indeed, if my impression of a more or less resident Accipiter is correct, then it lends support to the idea.

P.S. In addition to the goshawk, our 38 species Sunday included a first-ever Century Park record of Eurasian Coot Fulica atra. View Sunday’s list here, and for a list of all 139 species recorded at the premier birding park in urban Shanghai, see our page Birds Recorded at Century Park.

Featured image: Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus. Left: Century Park, Shanghai, 26 Nov. 2017 (Li Qiu). Right: Emeifeng, Fujian, 30 April 2015 (Craig Brelsford).

GUEST POST: Birds of Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula

Birds of Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula
written & illustrated by Louis-Jean Germain
for shanghaibirding.com

Louis-Jean Germain
Louis-Jean Germain

In spring and summer 2017, I spent two months in the Siberian Arctic on the Yamal Peninsula, 5,300 km northwest of Shanghai. shanghaibirding.com has given me this opportunity to tell you about my experience birding that remote land.

The place I visited on the Yamal Peninsula lies well north of the Arctic Circle. My first stay was in May and June. I saw the snow melting and waves of birds hurrying to find the best breeding spots. My second stay lasted from the third week of July to the third week of August, during which time I watched parents caring for their young and the first sign of the migration back to the southern latitudes.

THE YAMAL PENINSULA

The Yamal Peninsula (red) is in north-central Russia (green), 5,300 km from Shanghai. Future Trillionaire-Wikimedia/Craig Brelsford.
The Yamal Peninsula (red) is in north-central Russia (green), 5,300 km from Shanghai. (Future Trillionaire-Wikimedia/Craig Brelsford)

From September to May, the Yamal Peninsula is covered in thick snow and ice. Temperatures fall below -40°C. The natural habitat is tundra, the circumpolar treeless belt that lies between the Arctic ice and the tree line (taiga). Tundra is characterized by permafrost, low temperatures, and low precipitation. The growing season is short–two to three months.

From the beginning of May to late August, the sun is above the horizon 24 hours a day, its heat melting the ice and snow. The upper layers of the permafrost thaw quickly, producing seasonal lakes and rivers and an intense growth of vegetation and water insects. The warm sun also melts the sea ice, leading to an intense phytoplankton bloom.

The vegetation of the tundra is dominated by cotton-grass (genus Eriophorum), Water Sedge Carex aquatilis, lichens, and a great variety of dwarf shrubs (Vaccinium). The latter produces berries, an important food for birds. Plants and insects, the latter mostly aquatic at this latitude, have developed strategies to resist the extreme cold. They spring back to life as soon as the thaw begins.

Throughout June, July, and August, the tundra is an environment rich in food and, except for Arctic Fox Vulpes lagopus, absent of predators. To take advantage of this remarkable environment, birds migrate here in their thousands, flying thousands of kilometers. As each bird fits into its unique ecological niche, it prepares to reproduce–reproduction being the main purpose of its flight to this harsh land.

INITIAL DISCOVERIES: SHOREBIRDS

Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus, Yamal Peninsula, Russia, 5 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus, 5 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

I arrived at the end of May, equipped with my Nikon Monarch binoculars (10 x 42) and Nikon ProStaff 5 telescope (30x-60x). I had no camera, as I only draw and paint birds. To my amazement, the snow had not yet melted, despite the air temperature’s hovering around freezing. In this white landscape, almost no birds could be seen. An exception was Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus, attracted by human activity.

My disappointment did not last long. Two days after my arrival, the first rain of the year fell on the tundra, creating small ponds. Almost immediately, as if by magic, birds appeared: Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula, White Wagtail Motacilla alba, and the magnificent Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis. My excitement was intense. What could motivate those birds to come to that place, still so inhospitable, with almost all the land covered by snow and the temperature around freezing?

The next few days were even more exciting. As temperatures rose and lakes formed, I witnessed a massive arrival of birds. There were waterfowl (Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri, King Eider Somateria spectabilis) and passerines (Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus, Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus, Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris). The first calidrids to arrive were Little Stint Calidris minuta and Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii. The next day, I had Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula and Ruff Calidris pugnax, and the day after Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea, Dunlin C. alpina, Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres, Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola, and Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus.

After 10 days, I also observed a single Pintail Snipe Gallinago stenura, Grey Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius, and Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola.

These birds had started their trips two months earlier from places as distant as Africa and Australia. Some may have even passed through Shanghai. What a journey!

MATING DISPLAYS

Ruff in breeding plumage. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Ruff Calidris pugnax, 2 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

By the beginning of June, the birds were restless. Male calidrids, which arrive before the females to compete for the best breeding territories, were displaying aggressively. As the females arrived, the males switched to a mating display.

Male Temminck’s Stint were hovering and calling noisily to the females. When a female was spotted, the male would chase her, running with his wings upward until she stopped. The male hovered delicately before mounting the female. The cloacal kiss lasted but an instant.

Common Ringed Plover were comical, fluffing their feathers and constantly running around.

The most astonishing behavior was that of Ruff, the only calidrid showing sexual dimorphism. Males are split into three plumage types, using various strategies to obtain mating opportunities at the lek. It was a magnificent sight to see more than 20 Ruff males fluffing their collar feathers and competing for the females.

LOONS

Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, 14 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, 14 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

After 15 days, with the snow almost completely melted, I thought that the migration was over. Imagine my surprise when I noticed three huge birds on a large lake, low on the water, long necks straight up above the water and with bills curved upward. They were Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata. A pair and a single bird, probably a young male, had just arrived after the long trip up. The pair was looking for a place to nest, inspecting the bed of Water Sedge ringing the lake. The young tried to conceal the female but quickly yielded after an aggressive display by the other male.

The next day, while scanning the other side of the same lake, I saw another large bird swimming low on the water. The neck was stocky and the throat black with a deep purple sheen, brilliant in the sunlight. It was Black-throated Loon Gavia arctica. I was pleased to see this bird in breeding plumage after having seen it in winter plumage in Shanghai in March 2017.

BREEDING PLUMAGE

Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea in winter plumage (top), assuming breeding plumage (middle) and in full breeding plumage (bottom). (Louis-Jean Germain)
Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea in winter plumage (top), assuming breeding plumage (middle), and in full breeding plumage (bottom). Top: Thailand, 9 Nov. 2016. Middle: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 5 May 2017. Bottom: Yamal Peninsula, 3 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

As a birder used to operating in temperate Shanghai, I was amazed by the extremely bright colors of the calidrids in June. Calidrids and plovers usually molt into their breeding plumage while migrating to the breeding grounds. It is always a great pleasure for Shanghai birders to observe shorebirds during the spring migration showing their pre-breeding plumage.

On the Yamal Peninsula in June, I beheld a pageant of the most fashionable plumages. I was rediscovering birds that I had previously observed in their duller winter plumage further south.

The English name of Phalaropus lobatus, “Red-necked Phalarope,” suits well the bird I was watching. Also, the Latin name of Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea (ferruginous, rust-colored) described perfectly one of my favorite sandpipers.

A LUXURIANT GREEN LANDSCAPE

Tundra after snowmelt (June) and at height of summer (August). (Louis-Jean Germain)
Tundra of Yamal Peninsula after snowmelt in June (top) and in August (bottom). (Louis-Jean Germain)

During my second stay, from the third week of July to the third week of August, I discovered a different tundra. The yellowish-buff vegetation had been replaced by luxuriant green plants, cotton-grass, and flowers. I was amazed by this proof of the power of nature. How is it that this place, covered by snow and ice nine months of the year, during which time temperatures regularly fall to -30°C, could show such a remarkably green landscape during the summer? Gazing at the green tundra, I understood more deeply than ever why birds migrate.

Most of the chicks had hatched by that time, and most birds were inconspicuous, trying to hide their offspring from Arctic Fox and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Many drakes had left the area to molt. With patience and perseverance, I managed to spot the nests and offspring of several species.

I also noticed the parental behavior of some species. I was shocked by the devotion of the pair of Black-throated Loon, tirelessly diving for hours to feed their sole, frail offspring. Would this tiny bird be able to undertake a long migration in less than two weeks?

At the end of my stay, I noticed that the loons, both Red-throated and Black-throated, were gathering in groups of seven to nine individuals, showing obviously social displays such as powerful, simultaneous calls, diving, and water-splashing with their wings. The extraordinarily narrow window of time for breeding on the tundra was closing. The loons knew it.

TIME TO HEAD SOUTH

Black-throated Loon Gavia arctica. Breeding plumage. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-throated Loon in winter plumage (top) and breeding plumage (bottom). Top: Sanjiagang, Shanghai, 23 March 2017. Bottom: Yamal Peninsula, 15 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

The birds with their offspring were about to perform another feat, the long migration south. The same wings that had carried them to this brief but rich northern feast would power them away as the killing cold set in.

My observation of the migratory birds on their breeding grounds was a learning experience that far exceeded my expectations. I hope that through my writing and paintings you have achieved a deeper appreciation of their amazing journey.

LIST OF BIRDS

Temminck's Stint in breeding display. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii, breeding display, 8 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

During my stay on the Yamal Peninsula in the summer of 2017, I noted the following 40 species.

Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons
Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis
King Eider Somateria spectabilis
Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri
Smew Mergellus albellus
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Greater Scaup A. marila
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Eurasian Teal A. crecca
Willow Grouse Lagopus lagopus
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata
Black-throated Loon G. arctica
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Ruff Calidris pugnax
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea
Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii
Dunlin C. alpina
Little Stint C. minuta
Pintail Snipe Gallinago stenura
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Grey Phalarope P. fulicarius
Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua) Stercorarius parasiticus
Pomarine Jaeger S. pomarinus
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea
White-tailed Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus
Meadow Pipit A. pratensis
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla
Common Redpoll Acanthis flammea
Arctic Redpoll A. hornemanni
Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus
Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis

Featured image: Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, Yamal Peninsula, Russia, 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)