GUEST POST: Review of Nikon P900S

Editor’s note: Shanghai birders Kane Xu (L) and Michael Grunwell share a laugh after discovering that they both own the same model of camera, the Nikon Coolpix P900S. In this guest post, written exclusively for shanghaibirding.com, Kane tells us why he uses this versatile little imaging machine.

Review of Nikon Coolpix P900S
© 2017 by Kane Xu (徐时开)
for shanghaibirding.com

I’m a birder, not a photographer. I’ve played around with compact digital cameras, DSLRs, and even, in my early years, SLR cameras with film. But I have no interest in the vast amount of DSLR bodies and lenses. What I need is a tool to record targets, especially birds I do not recognize.

My requirements are simple. First, my camera must be affordable; second, my camera must give me a realistic ability to shoot birds (in particular, it must have a long focal length); and third, my camera must be non-DSLR.

I have studied many brands, among them some types by Sony that are very compact in size and offer high magnification. But my experience with binoculars and field telescopes has taught me a fundamental physical rule: When you need high magnification, you must have a lens with a big diameter in order to allow more light to get through. Therefore, I finally gave up on those pocket digital cameras and bought the Nikon Coolpix P900S.

Let us look at the P900S as it relates to bird photography.

ADVANTAGES OF THE P900S

Birding mode. I love it! Most people set their camera to P, A, S, or even M mode when taking photos, ignoring the auto or preset modes. I always use birding mode.

Normally, when you power on your camera, the zooming position is at 24 mm (the widest view). In birding mode, you just press the OK button, and the camera automatically zooms to 800 mm.

With the automatic zoom to 800 mm, there is no need to hold the zooming trigger for seconds. And of course you can always continue zooming to the max value, 2000 mm, by turning the zooming trigger. Auto-zoom is a fast and convenient way to get your camera from power-on to ready-to-shoot.

Birding mode, notice the little gray square at the center of the display, this is where it will be framed once you press the OK button and zooming to 800mm. The focusing mode is also set to “center” by default, indicated by white [ ] mark at center. (Kane Xu).
In birding mode, a little grey square appears at the center of the display. This is where the P900S will frame the image once you press OK and the camera auto-zooms to 800 mm. Note also that the focusing mode is set by default to ‘center,’ as indicated by the white brackets ([ ]). (Kane Xu)
The shooting parameters (ISO, aperture, and shutter speed) are set automatically. The goal of birding mode is to get you the photo no matter the light conditions. There is not much of a problem in bright light, but when it’s dark, even in P, S, A, or M mode, you would need to manually raise the ISO. In birding mode, by contrast, the P900S adjusts ISO automatically. All you need to do is take the shot.

Manual focusing. This is also a very important feature, especially for birders. There are situations in which your bird is in a bush with branches and leaves all around it. Your lens is desperate, always focusing on the leaf; your target jumps away before you take a shot. Under such circumstances, manual focus is a must. The P900S has a side trigger on the lens. See photo below.

There’s white marker on edge of the focused targets so you can know if that bird is really get focused, rather than judge by the target is blur or not in the LCD display. (Kane Xu)
The default function of the side trigger (above) is zooming, but you can change it to focusing. When you hold your camera with both hands, you can zoom with the index finger of your right hand and do the manual focusing with the thumb of your left hand. (Kane Xu)

Sometimes manual focus makes the difference between a blown opportunity and a useful record shot. When Fairy Pitta, a notoriously shy species, appeared in Shanghai in September 2016, I was happy to get the record shot below. Without manual focusing, even this image would have been impossible.

Fairy Pitta, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, September 2016. (Kane Xu)
Fairy Pitta, Cape Nanhui, September 2016, photographed using manual focus on the P900S. (Kane Xu)

VR. Nikon claims a vibration-reduction level of 5 for the P900S. The VR on this model is really good. To see how good, watch the video below, in which I hand-hold the camera:

Great video quality. Even in low light, the P900S delivers super video. Here’s a sample:

DISADVANTAGES OF THE P900S

Portability. The P900S is big–as large as a DSLR. It definitely takes up space in a bag.

No continuous shooting. Despite the big size (mainly big lens), birding mode, and manual focusing, at its core the P900S is still a compact digital camera. Among other things, that means you cannot do continuous shooting, as in a DSLR. (A DSLR is like a machine gun; the P900S is like a sniper rifle.)

The view finder is not optical. There is a mini-LCD screen in the view finder, and it shows the very same elements as the big LCD on the body. The non-optical view finder makes finding a bird difficult in thick vegetation.

There is a solution, however: an extra finder. The video above, “Goldcrest at GuCun park,” was made with the help of the extra finder.

With the extra finder, there’s no problem to find the target anymore! (Kane Xu)
With the extra finder, there’s no problem finding the target anymore! (Kane Xu)

SUMMARY

Consider the following before you buy your own P900S:

Budget. A big lens and DSLR will get you better pictures, but never at a price as low as the P900S.

Goals. Do you want photos that could grace the cover of a magazine? If so, then the P900S may not be your camera. Are you content merely to make a very good visual record of the birds you see? If so, then the P900S may be right for you.

Size. Thought not a “cannon,” the P900S is also not a pocket camera.

Thanks for reading my review, and thanks to Craig for publishing it on shanghaibirding.com!

Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei

Editor’s note: Our featured image above shows the bluetails of the world: Himalayan (left panels), Red-flanked (right panels), and in the middle the inscrutable “Gansu” Bluetail. In this post, I report a new eastern record of “Gansu” and discuss the current taxonomic limbo of the form.

Found at Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017: “GansuBluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus.” Our record is the first for the mountain northeast of Beijing, the first for Chengde Prefecture in Hebei, and the easternmost in history for the form. Until recently, “Gansu” Bluetail was thought to breed only in Qinghai and Gansu, 1200 km (745 miles) to the southwest.

In Beijing, Hebei, and Shanxi, “albocoeruleus” has now been found on at least six mountains. Before our discovery, the easternmost of those mountains was Haituoshan, 140 air-km (87 air-miles) west of Wulingshan. Our record pushes the eastern edge of the range of “albocoeruleus” from the western side of Beijing to the mountains northeast of the metropolis.

The taxonomy of “Gansu” Bluetail is uncertain. It is currently recognized neither as a species in its own right nor as a subspecies of Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus or Himalayan Bluetail T. rufilatus. Adult-male “albocoeruleus” have a white supercilium as in cyanurus, and “albocoeruleus” are said to be closer genetically to cyanurus, but the legs of “albocoeruleus” are long, as in rufilatus.

'Gansu' Bluetail. This second-calendar-year male had not attained breeding plumage but was singing powerfully. Craig Brelsford.
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Wulingshan. Though it had not acquired adult plumage, this second-calendar-year male was singing powerfully and defending territory. We found the bluetail near the road to Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰) at 40.598801, 117.476280, elev. 2020 m. (Craig Brelsford)

The song of “Gansu” Bluetail is distinct from the songs of Red-flanked and Himalayan. Listen to “Gansu”:

“Gansu” Bluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June 2017 (00:06; 1.3 MB)

Compare my very different song of Red-flanked Bluetail:

Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, Cow’s Ear River (51.548528, 121.880737), Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 14 July 2015 (00:03; 913 KB)

Now compare the song of Himalayan Bluetail, by Mike Nelson via xeno-canto.org:

Listen to this other recording by Mike Nelson, also labeled “Himalayan Bluetail”:

The second recording by Nelson is of “albocoeruleus.” It was made in Haidong Prefecture in eastern Qinghai, a place known as a breeding site for “albocoeruleus.” Note the similarity between Nelson’s recording from Haidong and mine from Wulingshan.

Usually, a bird with a song as distinctive as that of “albocoeruleus” would rise to at least the subspecies level. Why, then, is “albocoeruleus” languishing in taxonomic limbo?

Adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher bear little resemblance to one another but were long classified as a single species. The situation was owing more to a dearth of research than to any intrinsic ID difficulties among the two species. Craig Brelsford.
Although adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher (R) bear little resemblance to one another, the two species were long classified as one. The situation was owing not to difficulties in ID but to a lack of research. L: Yangkou-Rudong, Jiangsu, 29 April 2012. R: Wulingshan, 10 June 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

The reason may be a simple lack of research. Many species endemic or nearly endemic to China have only recently begun to be fine-tuned taxonomically. Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae, another bird we noted at Wulingshan, was long considered conspecific with Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina, despite the two species having widely separated breeding areas, highly distinctive plumage (especially males), and songs so different that playback of one species elicits no interest from individuals of the other (Clement 2006).

Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis is another species that was long overlooked. It differs subtly but consistently from Blue-and-white Flycatcher C. cyanomelana but was not recognized as a new species until 2012 (Leader & Carey 2012). Zappey’s also breeds on Wulingshan.

Will “Gansu” Bluetail get the same love and attention as Green-backed and Zappey’s Flycatcher? Researchers surely must be aware of the taxonomic uncertainty surrounding “Gansu.” Its distinctive song is a cry in the wilderness, a plea for a more accurate assessment of its place in the animal kingdom.

BIRDING REPORT: WULINGSHAN

L-R: Jan-Erik Nilsén, Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford. Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017.
Birding partners Jan-Erik Nilsén (L), Michael Grunwell (C), and Craig Brelsford on Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰), elev. 2118 m, the highest peak at Wulingshan. 11 June 2017. Our trio really clicks, but alas, it is breaking up. Michael is moving 30 June from Shanghai to Penang, Malaysia and was on his final birding trip in China. Beijing-based Jan-Erik has noted ‘Gansu’ Bluetail on six mountains and was instrumental in our discovery of the form at Wulingshan. No two birders have taught me more about birds than Michael and Jan-Erik.

Who: Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford guided by Beijing-based ace birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. Our driver was Mr. Wang (+86 189-1129-3689).

Where: Wulingshan (雾灵山, 40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, near Beijing-Hebei border northeast of Beijing. Highest elevation: 2118 m (6,949 ft.). Birding from elev. 950 m to summit. Nights and meals at Fúlíng Kuàijié Jiǔdiàn (伏凌快捷酒店), +86 314-7631888, +86 187-3147-7899.

When: Sat.-Sun. 10-11 June 2017

How: Eschewing undependable air travel, Michael and I took the bullet train from Shanghai. What a ride! 305 kph and arrival in Beijing within a minute of the time scheduled. Then a driver hired by Jan-Erik picked us up for the three-hour drive to Wulingshan. The driver accompanied us there and drove us back to Beijing.

Why: See Highlights. ’Nuff said!

Highlights

GansuBluetail 1 2cy male singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male “Gansu” Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai. Eaton related his experience with the form:

“I’ve seen [‘Gansu’ Bluetail] north of Xining, Qinghai Province, as well as at Huzhu Beishan and Dong Xia. Though they superficially look similar to Red-flanked/Siberian Bluetail, they differ significantly vocally–as they do from Himalayan Bluetail, which is found breeding to the southeast and south in nearby Sichuan and eastern Qinghai” (Eaton, in litt., 2017).

James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male 'Gansu' Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Huzhu Beishan, Qinghai, June 2011. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)

Zappey’s Flycatcher 1 singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: After an e-mail exchange with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed my record of Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. The bird we found at Wulingshan is a male in its second calendar year that has not attained full adult plumage.

Of this flycatcher, photos and sound-recordings of which Leader examined, Leader writes, “[T]he darkness of the throat on your bird is not correct for first-year Zappey’s. … Morphology fits intermedia. It certainly doesn’t fit cumatilis, and I don’t see any plumage features that indicate it’s a hybrid. I think it’s just a first-year intermedia, which accounts for plumage and perhaps the variation in song” (Leader et al., in litt., 2017).

For the song as well as for more photos of this individual, please see our eBird list for 11 June 2017.

Zappey's Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 11 June 2017. Wulingshan (雾灵山), Hebei, China. Photo taken at 40.565367, 117.472742 (elev. 1330 m). Craig Brelsford.
Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, Wulingshan. Found 11 June at 40.565367, 117.472742, elev. 1330 m. Enjoy sound-recordings of this individual on our eBird checklist for 11 June. UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: After corresponding by e-mail with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed this record to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. (Craig Brelsford)

Green-backed Flycatcher 3 singing

Grey-sided Thrush 12 singing

Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae. Wulingshan (雾灵山), Hebei, China. Elev. 1610 m, on road above "Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot," 40.569817, 117.474469. Craig Brelsford.
Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae, Wulingshan, 10 June. Found at elev. 1610 m on road above ‘Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot’ (40.569817, 117.474469). Grey-sided Thrush breeds at a few scattered sites in Hebei, Beijing, and Shanxi. The IUCN classifies it as Vulnerable. To hear my recordings of its song, see our eBird checklist for 10 June. (Craig Brelsford)

Also

Koklass Pheasant 2
Himalayan Cuckoo 3
Large Hawk-Cuckoo 1
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker 1
White-backed Woodpecker 3
White-throated Rock Thrush 1
Asian Stubtail 1
Thick-billed Warbler 1

Others

Grey Nightjar, White-bellied Redstart, Chinese Thrush, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, and Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Chinese Leaf Warbler, and Yellow-streaked Warbler.

Notes

— We got impressive results in only a day and a half birding–albeit with perfect weather. Wulingshan can be done from Shanghai in a weekend!

— Special thanks to my partner ​Jan-Erik Nilsén. Jan-Erik heard the song of the bluetail, recognized it, and called me over. Jan-Erik is highly experienced with “Gansu” Bluetail, having seen and sound-recorded the form on Haituoshan as well as at Lingshan and Baicaopan (BeijingHebei), Xiaowutaishan (Hebei), and Wutaishan (Shanxi).

— Thanks also to Paul Holt for informing me about records of “Gansu” Bluetail in the Beijing area.

References

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37503446. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Editor’s note: This is the Wulingshan list for 10 June 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519385. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Editor’s note: This is the Wulingshan list for 11 June 2017.

Clement, P. (2006). Family Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers). Pp. 131-2 (Narcissus Flycatcher) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Eaton, James. E-mail message to author, 18 June 2017.

Leader, Paul J. & Carey, Geoff J. Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, a forgotten Chinese breeding endemic. Forktail 28 (2012): 121-128.

Leader, Paul J., Carey, Geoff J., Brelsford, Craig, Grunwell, Michael, and Nilsén, Jan-Erik. Series of e-mail messages, 18-20 June 2017.

Featured image: Left-hand panels: Himalayan Bluetail Tarsiger rufilatus. Top: Baihualing, Yunnan, 10 Feb. 2014. Bottom: Rongshu Wang, Yunnan, 26 Jan. 2014. C: “GansuBluetail T. (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June 2017. Right-hand panels: Red-flanked Bluetail T. cyanurus, Botanical Gardens, Shanghai. Top: 25 Dec. 2011. Bottom: 24 Dec. 2011. All by Craig Brelsford.

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler in Shanghai

Seen at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui on Sun. 4 June 2017: Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus. Veteran British birder Michael Grunwell and I found our 4 Kamchatkas in Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), the largest of the tree plantations on the landward side of the sea wall. The species is an all-time first for the Shanghai eBird list.

Just after sunrise, Michael and I, as is our wont, were doing “drive-by birding”–creeping along the edge of the road, listening out for birds. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar sound.

My gut said, “Hard, loud–Taiga Flycatcher?”

Taiga was not even close, of course. Note, however, what my gut was not saying: “Arctic Warbler,” a bird whose call I know well. This call was decidedly not an Arctic’s, though it soon dawned on us that we were hearing some type of leaf warbler.

To see why my gut did not say Arctic, compare my recordings of the tight “tzit” call of Arctic Warbler with the looser call of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler:

Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis, Yangkou-Rudong, Jiangsu (32.560095, 121.041956), 16 May 2015 (00:09; 1.9 MB)

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 4 June 2017 (00:25; 4.9 MB)

Michael and I skidded to a stop and poked our heads into the green tangle of locust trees. The call was being followed by a song. Only upon hearing the song did I think of Arctic Warbler. But here too, the song, though similar, was distinctive–wavier than the straight trill of Arctic. Look at the spectrograms below.

Spectrogram of Craig Brelsford's recording of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus.

The spectrogram above is of my recording 4 June 2017 of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Note the pattern: downward sweeps followed by an upward sweep. No one would liken that song to an insect’s. Below, the spectrogram of my 2015 recording of the song of Arctic Warbler. Note the straight, cricket-like trill.

Spectrogram of Craig Brelsford's recording of Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis.

Here are the recordings whose spectrograms are shown above:

Arctic Warbler, Yikesama National Forest, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia (52.150833, 121.465639), 16 July 2015 (01:00; 3.2 MB)

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Microforest 4, 4 June 2017 (00:48; 9.3 MB)

After hearing several song-call cycles, Michael, my more experienced partner and the man who has taught me more than anyone about birding, first said the words “Kamchatka Leaf Warbler.”

Michael has birded the Indonesian islands of Flores and Komodo, where Kamchatka Leaf Warbler winters. Michael said that, last winter, walking through the forests there, he heard dozens of times the call of P. examinandus.

“I know that call,” Michael said.

I whipped out my Olympus DM-650 voice recorder and recorded the calling and singing warbler. Meanwhile, we caught our first glimpse of the individual. It was clearly an “Arctic-type” leaf warbler.

What is an “Arctic-type” leaf warbler? An Arctic-type leaf warbler is a member of one of four closely related taxa divided among three species: Japanese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus xanthodryas, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, and Arctic Warbler P. borealis borealis and P. b. kennicotti.

Per's map of Arctic-type warblers.
Leaf-warbler expert and Shanghai Birding member Per Alström is the person most responsible for our current understanding of Arctic-type leaf warblers. Alström’s PDF, from which this page is taken, is a handy introduction to leaf warblers in China and is downloadable through shanghaibirding.com.

Arctic Warbler is by far the most widespread breeder in the complex. P. b. borealis breeds across northern Eurasia, from Scandinavia to northeast China and the Russian Far East. P. b. kennicotti breeds in western Alaska.

As their names suggest, Japanese Leaf Warbler breeds mainly in Japan (Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu), Kamchatka Leaf Warbler mainly in the southern Kamchatka Peninsula (as well as on Hokkaido and Sakhalin and in the Kuril Islands).

In 2010 Shanghai Birding member Per Alström et al. proposed the current way of viewing the Arctic-type warblers. Previously, the taxon examinandus was putative, not even reaching the subspecies level; Alström and his team showed that examinandus, with its distinctive song and call, merits recognition not as a subspecies of Arctic Warbler but as a species in its own right.

Of the three Arctic-type species, Japanese Leaf Warbler most stands out, being on average yellower than the two others. Arctic and Kamchatka look much more alike.

There are, however, some slight differences. Kamchatka is said to have a “marginally longer bill, tarsi and tail” than Arctic (del Hoyo & Collar). Sure enough, the Kamchatka I photographed is long-billed. Take a look below.

Arctic Warbler (top) and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Both by Craig Brelsford.
Arctic Warbler (top) and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Both birds show the classic features of Arctic-type warblers, among them a long supercilium that does not reach bill base, a dark smudge on the lower mandible, and mottled ear coverts. Kamchatka is said to be slightly greener on average than Arctic, a description that these photos do not contradict. The bill of Kamchatka is also marginally longer than Arctic’s, and in these profile shots one notes the longer bill of the Kamchatka and the stouter bill of the Arctic. I would not suggest basing an Arctic-Kamchatka ID on plumage and bare parts. Plumage and bare parts can, however, enhance the quality of a song- or call-based ID. Top: South Lock (30.860073, 121.909997), Cape Nanhui, 13 May 2017. Bottom: Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 4 June 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Michael and I heard our loudest song and calls during that first, early morning encounter. However, we heard Kamchatka calling throughout the day.

Our new Shanghai record, combined with late-May and early-June records from nearby Zhejiang, suggests that in this region, once the wave of Arctics passes through around 15 May, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler may be the Arctic-type to look out for.

Bibliography

Alström P., T. Saitoh, D. Williams, I. Nishiumi, Y. Shigeta, K. Ueda, M. Irestedt, M. Björklund & U. Olsson. 2011. The Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis — three anciently separated cryptic species revealed. Ibis 153:395-410.

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37369822. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 6, 2017).

Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.
Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.

Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat group. Discussions with various birders, chief among them Hangzhou birder Cheng Qian, who had information about sightings of P. examinandus in Zhejiang. Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén also provided timely advice. To join Shanghai Birding, fill out the form on the shanghaibirding.com Sightings page. Please state that you wish to join Shanghai Birding. You may also friend Craig Brelsford (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). In your friend request, please make it clear that you wish to join Shanghai Birding.

del Hoyo, J. & Collar, N. (2017). Kamchatka Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/1343935 on 6 June 2017).

Jackett, N. 25 Feb. 2016. First Kamchatka Leaf Warbler recorded for Australian Mainland. eBird Australia: http://ebird.org/content/australia/news/first-recorded-kamchatka-leaf-warbler-for-australian-mainland/. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 6, 2017).

Featured image: Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus. On 4 June 2017 at Cape Nanhui, birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford found the individual pictured here and three others. Photos by Craig Brelsford.

‘One of My All-time Ornithological Highlights’

“I have thought a lot about yesterday and can honestly say, it must be one of my all-time ornithological highlights.”

— Dr. Mike May, message to Craig Brelsford, 14 May 2017

Those are the words not of a new birder, but of a highly experienced visiting birder with thousands of birds on his life list who resides in bird-rich Extremadura, Spain.

Birding Cape Nanhui at the height of the spring migration left Mike May open-mouthed. Should anyone be surprised? The southeastern-most point of Shanghai is a world-class birding site.

Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina, Cape Nanhui, 13 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina made a thrilling appearance 13 May 2017 at the Photographers’ Corner at the Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229). (Craig Brelsford)

Mike’s 92-species day, Sat. 13 May 2017, with Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and me included ultra-rarities such as Orange-headed Thrush as well as Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler. A pair of sub-adult Black-faced Spoonbill were getting by on the ever-shrinking pools at the beleaguered site.

The eBird list for Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland.
The eBird list for Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland. Submit your own records! It’s fun!

These records brought the all-time list for Cape Nanhui to 288 species, according to eBird–making Cape Nanhui the second-hottest birding hot spot in China.

Let me say that again: Of the thousands of birding spots in this vast, mega-diverse nation, the cape 60 km southeast of People’s Square is second only to Baihualing in Yunnan in species noted.

Sound unbelievable? Let me say something even more unbelievable: Not only is this rich spot completely unprotected, with not even a square meter preserved in any legal way; but it is, to the contrary, being actively destroyed, even as I tap out these words.

The backdrop to the work of Mike, Jan-Erik, and me was fleets of bulldozers and backhoes, busy throughout the weekend. They clattered and clanged, and the pumps transferring water into the newly dug canals whirred and chugged.

Mike May (R) and Zhāng Dōngshēng (张东升) meet. Dōngshēng, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University, is leading an effort to conserve Cape Nanhui.
Mike May (R) and Zhāng Dōngshēng (张东升) meet. Dōngshēng, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University, is leading an effort to conserve Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

The pace of transformation is faster than ever now.

“Nanhui is gone,” my partners and I said.

A major ecological area, a place combining ease of access to millions of residents of Earth’s largest city and a favorable position on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway, is being utterly transformed.

While the Cape Nanhui that I have long known falls, huge tracts of adjacent tidal mudflat are being reclaimed, adding dozens of square kilometers to the land area of Cape Nanhui. Birding there in theory could have a future. A Cape Nanhui Nature Reserve could be set up in the new area.

Where Black-faced Spoonbill once foraged, digging machines now crawl, transforming critical reed-bed and marshland habitat into an artificial forest. Looming in the background is the brand-new satellite city, Lingang. Nanhui, Shanghai, 26 March 2015.
Where Black-faced Spoonbill once foraged, digging machines now crawl. Where once one savored the sound of Marsh Grassbird and Reed Parrotbill, now one cringes at the clanging of machines. No place in mainland Shanghai matches Cape Nanhui as a magnet to migrating birds. Cape Nanhui is one of the best birding hot spots in China, and it is not only completely unprotected, but it is being actively destroyed.

But even as the Cape Nanhui we know falls, no one, to my knowledge, has hastened to reassure conservationists that areas in the newly reclaimed land will be set aside for birds.

In the city-province of Shanghai, which is the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, a few places have indeed been set aside, among them Chongming Dongtan. But those reserves are small, on remote islands far from mainland Shanghai, and practically unreachable by the millions of middle-class Shanghainese who lack a car.

Cape Nanhui, by contrast, is easily reachable from the city. And it is the one place where masses of bird lovers can conveniently get a taste of the grand spectacle that is spring migration along the east coast of the Eurasian supercontinent.

That opportunity is being taken away, not only from the birders alive today, but also from the birders of the future.

THE THRILL OF NANHUI IN MAY

Lesser Coucal takes off. Cape Nanhui, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Coucal takes off. Centropus bengalensis breeds in Earth’s greatest city. Recently, shanghaibirding.com examined Lesser Coucal and the other Cuckoos of Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

Our agony over the fate of Nanhui was tempered by the joy of birding. Orange-headed Thrush showed up Saturday at the Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229). With the two vertical bars on its face, our specimen was either of race melli (breeds Guangdong, etc.) or courtoisi (Anhui).

On Sunday the Magic Parking Lot delivered singing Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus, and in Microforest 2 (30.926013, 121.970705) an appearance was made by Alström’s Warbler S. soror. Neither breeds in the region; both are very rare vagrants to Shanghai.

Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) gave us singing Yellow-breasted Bunting in full breeding finery and singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. I captured the latter’s song, rarely heard in Shanghai.

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola, 13 May 2017, Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) (00:13; 2.1 MB)

The Marshy Agricultural Land (30.850707, 121.863662) near Eiffel Tower was highly productive, yielding Lanceolated Warbler, Forest Wagtail, and Striated Heron.

Varities of Eastern Yellow Wagtail. L: 'Green-headed Wagtail' Motacilla tschutschensis taivana. R: 'Alaska Wagtail' Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis. Both photographed within a few meters of each other dry rice paddies at Cape Nanhui, 13 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Varieties of Eastern Yellow Wagtail. L: ‘Green-headed Wagtail’ Motacilla tschutschensis taivana. R: ‘Alaska Wagtail’ M. t. tschutschensis. Both photographed on dry rice paddies at Cape Nanhui, 13 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Other highlights from Saturday along the 30-km stretch of coastline:

Yellow Bittern 2
Chinese Egret 14
Pacific Golden Plover 1
Pheasant-tailed Jacana 1
Black-tailed Godwit 17
Grey-tailed Tattler 2
White-winged Tern 260
Lesser Coucal 1
Common Cuckoo 12 singing
Tiger Shrike 4
Sand Martin ca. 300
Collared Finchbill 2
Arctic Warbler 5 singing
Thick-billed Warbler 1
Marsh Grassbird 2 singing
Forest Wagtail 1

Complete checklist here.

Sunday saw Jan-Erik and me note 78 species.

L-R: Jan-Erik Nilsn, Charles Wu, and 12-year-old birder Young Jack Han view Tiger Shrike in Microforest 4, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
L-R: Jan-Erik Nilsén, Charles Wu, and 12-year-old birder Jack Han view Tiger Shrike in Microforest 4, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Highlights:

Japanese Sparrowhawk 1
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 350
Dunlin 350
Oriental Pratincole 3
Little Tern 5
Hair-crested Drongo 8
Dusky Warbler 1
Taiga Flycatcher 1
Pechora Pipit 17 singing

Complete checklist here.

A DISCUSSION ABOUT SEICERCUS

Per's PDF
Some of the more challenging Seicercus warblers. This graphic was created by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström for a presentation he made to the Beijing Birdwatching Society in 2012. The PDF is downloadable through shanghaibirding.com.

Shanghai Birding is the WeChat companion to this Web site. Our 126 members include everyone from persons brand-new to birding to some of the most knowledgeable birders in China. We discuss everything from the most common species to the most arcane.

You can join Shanghai Birding. Just friend me on WeChat (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). Let me know that you want to join Shanghai Birding. I will add you.

Here is an edited transcript of a recent conversation on Shanghai Birding about the Seicercus warblers at Cape Nanhui:

Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.
Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.

Paul Holt: Can you post your recording of yesterday’s [14 May 2017] Alström’s Warbler as well please, Craig?

Craig Brelsford: Will post after I get home. Meanwhile, have you assessed the recording I posted yesterday morning? Do you agree it’s Grey-crowned Warbler? Jonathan Martinez, I’d like your view, too!

Craig Brelsford had earlier posted these sound recordings:

Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus 1/3, 14 May 2017, Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229), Nanhui (00:36; 3 MB)

Grey-crowned Warbler 2/3 (00:49; 3.6 MB)

Grey-crowned Warbler 3/3 (01:08; 4.3 MB)

PH: Yes, Grey-crowned Warbler!

PH: For what it’s worth, while there are probably 30+ records of “golden-spectacled warblers” from coastal Hebei, very, very few have been as well documented as Craig’s and team’s recent Grey-crowned. Many have been photographed but far fewer sound-recorded. Alström’s is so far the only one so far known to breed north of the Qinling Shan (it’s a scarce and very local breeder at two, possibly three, sites in Beijing). Personally I’ve never seen soror in coastal Hebei (nor am I aware of any being sound-recorded there), but I have noted (and sound-recorded) 2 Bianchi’s S. valentini and 1 Martens’s S. omeiensis in coastal Hebei. I understand that the only (?) three coastal Hebei birds that have been captured and had their DNA compared have all been omeiensis. We’re very, very far from ascertaining the true statuses of these Seicercus in our area, but you perhaps should/might see more in Shanghai and coastal Zhejiang. As many of you already know, there are some excellent sound recordings of these on Per’s site.

CB: Great analysis, Paul, and great that you point out the resources on Per’s site. Jan-Erik and I got good sound recordings of the purported soror yesterday, and Charles Wu and I got some good shots, among them images of the outer tail feathers, which definitely had some white in them.

CB: Grey-crowned Warbler appeared in the microforests almost exactly a year ago: http://www.shanghaibirding.com/2016/05/20/great-records/

PH: Excellent, Craig. As you know they’ve all got white in their outer tails. Alström’s (aka Plain-tailed) doesn’t have much …

Alstrom's Warbler with splayed tail feathers. Craig Brelsford
Alström’s Warbler with splayed tail feathers. (Craig Brelsford)

CB: Right, Paul; thanks. The discussion yesterday was one of comparison and degree. How little must the white be in the tail, we were asking ourselves, for a Seicercus to “qualify” as Alström’s/Plain-tailed? Was the white in our photos a little or a lot? We ended up thinking a little, and that and the song we recorded led us to a determination of soror. I’ll post my photos and recordings as soon as I’m home.

PH: Personally, Craig, I find it very difficult to judge the amount and distribution of white on the tails of these Seicercus in the field and think that a good photo with the tail splayed would really be necessary. Even then, the differences are small and subtle. Tricky group!

Jonathan Martinez: Regarding the ID of these Seicercus, I have found that call is by far the easiest way to ID them. They all have a characteristic call. Some of them, like Alström’s or Bianchi’s, are usually quite vocal; others not as much. It requires much more experience or use of sonogram to ID them by song, but a few of them (Alström’s especially) include their call in their song, and some of them (Grey-crowned, Martens’s) include a trill in their song. Others do not (Alström, Bianchi’s). ID-ing them on plumage is, of course, a level up.

Alstrom's Warbler, Microforest 2, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Alström’s Warbler Seicercus soror, Microforest 2, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Here is the voice of the Alström’s Warbler that I recorded with my Olympus DM-650 pocket recorder:

Alström’s Warbler Seicercus soror 1/4, 14 May 2017, Microforest 2 (30.926013, 121.970705), Nanhui (00:50; 3.6 MB)

Alström’s Warbler 2/4 (00:08; 1.9 MB)

Alström’s Warbler 3/4 (01:08; 4.3 MB)

Alström’s Warbler 4/4 (00:41; 3.2 MB)

Featured image: Visiting British birder Mike May uses Craig Brelsford’s spotting scope to scan for birds at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 13 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)