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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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: “Gansu” BluetailTarsiger (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.
The song of “Gansu” Bluetail is distinct from the songs of Red-flanked and Himalayan. Listen to “Gansu”:
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?
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 FlycatcherFicedula 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 FlycatcherCyanoptila 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
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!
“Gansu” Bluetail 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).
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 FlycatcherCyanoptila 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).
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
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.
— 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 (Beijing–Hebei), Xiaowutaishan (Hebei), and Wutaishan (Shanxi).
— Thanks also to Paul Holt for informing me about records of “Gansu” Bluetail in the Beijing area.
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.
Seen at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui on Sun. 4 June 2017: Kamchatka Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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).
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 WarblerSeicercus tephrocephalus, and in Microforest 2 (30.926013, 121.970705) an appearance was made by Alström’s WarblerS. 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.
Other highlights from Saturday along the 30-km stretch of coastline:
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:
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.
PH: Excellent, Craig. As you know they’ve all got white in their outer tails. Alström’s (aka Plain-tailed) doesn’t have much …
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.
Here is the voice of the Alström’s Warbler that I recorded with my Olympus DM-650 pocket recorder: