GUEST POST: My Cape Nanhui

My Cape Nanhui
written & illustrated by Louis-Jean Germain
for shanghaibirding.com

Louis-Jean Germain
Louis-Jean Germain

My first visit to Pudong’s Cape Nanhui came on a cold, cloudy day in January 2016. I was disappointed. How could this place, deserted and dull, be the favorite of Shanghai birders? How did this place become one of the hottest birding spots in China?

I arrived by public transport and birded mostly around the Magic Parking Lot (30.884988, 121.968091), the wooded area and migrant trap at the tip of the Cape. Back then I didn’t know it was magic, and I found few birds. I knew little about China and even less about Asian birds, and I had been painting only occasionally.

Seasons have come and gone, I have visited the Cape numerous times, I have broadened my knowledge of ornithology, I have taken Chinese painting lessons and resumed my work with watercolors, and I have honed my ability to draw and paint birds. Now, my vision of Cape Nanhui hardly could differ more from that initial impression.

Now, I love Cape Nanhui. Now, I paint Cape Nanhui.

CHINESE PAINTING

Through my many visits over several seasons, my vision of Cape Nanhui evolved. I realized that the landscapes of Cape Nanhui are just the sort of landscapes that inspired those great masters, the Chinese painters of old.

I pictured those Chinese masters being deeply moved by the beauty of the vast reed beds, the reeds swaying  gently in the breeze. Using traditional Chinese tools (rice paper, paint brush, and black ink), I attempted to reproduce the motions, forms, and shadows of the reeds of Nanhui, the way the Chinese masters would have done.

I painted in winter, with Eurasian Teal alongside a fishing boat.

Teal and boat, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Ducks and boat, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)

I painted in autumn—two cranes exhausted from their migratory journey.

Cranes, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Cranes. (Louis-Jean Germain)

Again in summer I went, this time painting an egret among the reeds.

Reeds and egret, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Reeds and egret. (Louis-Jean Germain)

I went again and again, each time getting a new impression of Cape Nanhui.

MORE THAN JUST REEDS

Cape Nanhui is not only reed beds, but also mudflats, meadows, and eight tiny wooded areas that we Shanghai birders call the microforests. With my watercolors, I strove to paint each habitat of Cape Nanhui.

I painted a reed bed with the buildings of Lingang emerging in the mist above the reeds (as the mountains in the Chinese shanshui paintings); I painted the wind turbines rising like the mills of Cervantes in Don Quixote; I painted the mudflat and East China Sea crossed by the long Donghai Bridge; I painted a magical Japanese Paradise Flycatcher on the branch of a microforest tree.

Reeds, windmills, and distant skyscrapers. Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Reeds, windmills, and distant skyscrapers of the new city of Lingang, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
East China Sea, Donghai Bridge, and Lesser Yangshan Island from sea wall at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
East China Sea, Donghai Bridge, and Lesser Yangshan Island from sea wall at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
South Pond (30.873934, 121.953180), an important area of open water just inside the sea wall at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
South Pond (30.873934, 121.953180), an area of open water just inside the sea wall at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
A Cape Nanhui microforest. The eight tiny woodlands at Cape Nanhui are astonishingly effective migrant traps. Thanks to Craig Brelsford for his photo of this scene, which served as a visual aid for this painting. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). The microforests, eight tiny woodlands at Cape Nanhui, are astonishingly effective migrant traps. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Magical Japanese Paradise Flycatcher in a microforest at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)

CAPE NANHUI, SUSTAINER OF LIFE

A nubby promontory between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is the most southeasterly point of the city-province of Shanghai. Silt from the Yangtze River gave birth to Cape Nanhui, and even today Nanhui lives at the pace of Asia’s greatest river.

The silt is rich, allowing plant life to proliferate, and attracting animals—insects, fish, amphibians, and of course birds. Some, such as Reed Parrotbill, are residents; some, such as Yellow Bittern, breed there; some, such as the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, winter there; and still others, among them the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank, pass through Nanhui while making their astonishing long-distance migration along the East Asian-Australasian Migratory Flyway.

Month after month, season after season, I went to Nanhui with my binoculars, telescope, paper, and black pen (a Mitsubishi uni-ball). I observed carefully, trying to understand and capture with my eyes the distinctive motions and details of each bird, and to reproduce my visual impressions with my pen. It is essential for me to draw birds in the field, to actually see them, as it is moments in the field with birds when one’s experience is the most intense and intimate.

Once home, following the field notes I made, and occasionally referring to great photographs my fellow Shanghai birders have taken, I carefully applied watercolors to my drawings.

During the cold winter at Cape Nanhui, we can spot winter visitors coming from northern China, Korea, Japan, and Siberia, among them Eurasian Teal, Black-faced Spoonbill, and Dusky Thrush. There are also resident species such as Black-crowned Night Heron.

Eurasian Teal, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Eurasian Teal Anas crecca, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 7 Feb. 2018 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 21 March 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax. (Louis-Jean Germain)

In spring, as temperatures rise and the days lengthen, and during autumn, as summer heat succumbs to the first cold winds, passage migrants can be observed at Cape Nanhui.

The waders arrive at Cape Nanhui after flights of thousands of kilometers on the Flyway. Birds such as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, and Far Eastern Curlew use Nanhui as a stopover. In autumn, these waders are en route to places as far south as Australia; in spring, they are headed north, many to Siberia.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 5 May 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 31 Aug. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis. (Louis-Jean Germain)

Another group of migrants are the passerines, at Nanhui found often in the microforests. Among them are colorful beauties such as Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Fairy Pitta, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, and Black-naped Oriole.

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 8 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Pitta nympha, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 8 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 8 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis, juvenile, aquarelle and black ink. Observed by 12 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. Special thanks to Kai Pflug for the picture that served as a visual aid for the painting. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis, juvenile. (Louis-Jean Germain)

CONCLUSION & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

It took me time to understand and appreciate Cape Nanhui. I look forward to continuing to explore this rich, unique, and beautiful place. May Cape Nanhui live forever, not only in the hearts of all Shanghainese, but also in the hearts of us foreign visitors.

Brelsford-mug
Brelsford

I dedicate this post to Craig Brelsford, founder and editor of this superlative website, shanghaibirding.com. In a series of posts in 2016, Craig called for the conservation of Cape Nanhui and thereby initiated a new era of awareness about the conservationist value of the Cape. Craig is the birder who more than any other person illuminated my path to Cape Nanhui.

Thanks to Craig, Kai Pflug, plusQ, and Chloe for sharing photos with me, many of which served as visual aids for the paintings displayed here.

Featured image: Microforests dot the shoreline of Cape Nanhui, the most southeasterly point of the city-province of Shanghai and one of the most important birding hotspots in China. (Louis-Jean Germain)

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, 5300 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), 5300 km (3,290 mi.) 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)