A Bit of Lapland in Shanghai

On 30-31 Jan., Elaine and I noted 75 species at Nanhui, Hengsha, and Chongming. We had 6 Lapland Longspur on Chongming and 50 Mew Gull at Nanhui. The pair of Cinereous Vulture remain on Chongming, and we saw a good portion (65) of the Hooded Crane wintering on the great alluvial island. Red-throated Loon was still at Nanhui, and Dishui Lake once again held Greater Scaup (8), Common Goldeneye, and Horned Grebe (3). We had an impressive 350 Northern Pintail in the sea off Nanhui, and though numbers of Gadwall (590) and Falcated Duck (720) were lower than in November, the species maintain a sizable presence on Hengsha.

Lapland Longspur, Chongming, Shanghai, 31 Jan. 2016.
Lapland Longspur, Chongming, Shanghai, 31 Jan. 2016.

The longspurs appeared late Sunday, just as snow was starting to fall. The inclement weather must have upset the Buff-bellied Pipit, Eurasian Skylark, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow using the recently plowed fields. Suddenly birds were flying everywhere. The grey sky made visual ID difficult, but some of the birds were calling and identifiable by call. But not all; so I took a flurry of record shots. In one series of images was a bird I had never seen before. I sent some of the images to Jan-Erik Nilsén, who told me that the facial pattern was typical of Lapland Longspur. And so it was. MacKinnon says Calcarius lapponicus “winters in small numbers along bare meadows along E coast between 30° and 40° N and along Changjiang River”; that is a box into which our situation neatly fits.

This 3-species-in-1 image shows 2 Kamchatka Gull (bottom L, top R), Vega Gull (large gull in middle), and Black-headed Gull (bottom R). Note the 'kinder' look of Larus canus kamtschatschensis; its more rounded head, in contrast to the more gently sloping forehead of the Vega; and its smaller size in comparison to Vega. Nanhui, 30 Jan. 2016.
This 3-species-in-1 image shows 2 Kamchatka Gull (bottom L, top R), Vega Gull (large gull in middle), and Black-headed Gull (bottom R). Note the ‘kinder’ look of Larus canus kamtschatschensis; its more rounded head, in contrast to the more gently sloping forehead of the Vega; and its smaller size in comparison to Vega. Nanhui, 30 Jan. 2016.

The views of Mew Gull Larus canus came about because of preparation and luck. Ever since Michael Grunwell moved to Shanghai last year, he has been telling me to look for Mew Gull in Shanghai; he was sure it would show up here in winter. Bolstering that suspicion was a recent report from Jonathan Martinez of Mew Gull in Guangdong.

Kamchatka Gull Larus canus kamtschatschensis, Nanhui, 30 Jan. 2016. L. c. kamtschatschensis is larger and darker than the western forms L. c. canus and L. c. heinei. L. c. heinei is known to occur on the China coast and should be looked out for.
Kamchatka Gull Larus canus kamtschatschensis, Nanhui, 30 Jan. 2016. L. c. kamtschatschensis is larger and darker than the western forms L. c. canus and L. c. heinei. L. c. heinei is known to occur on the China coast and should be looked out for.

At Nanhui, gulls usually appear here and there. On Saturday, Elaine and I finally had a chance to view a large group. An afternoon tide was coming in just right, boxing about 300 gulls into a corner of the sea wall. Elaine and I were waiting with camera and spotting scope. “This is the day!” I said. Sure enough, among the dozens of Vega Gull and Black-headed Gull was a sizable element of Mew. We quickly distinguished them from the much larger Vega. The Mew we photographed seem to have a squarer head and beadier eye than would be the case with race heinei; we therefore believe our gulls are Kamchatka Gull Larus canus kamtschatschensis.

The Red-throated Loon was in the large pond behind the Holiday Inn and Magic Parking Lot. Elaine found it doing the scan. Six days earlier, we had 3 Red-throated Loon in a pond a few kilometers north. Around 500 of our Great Cormorant were perching on the giant ring in the middle of Dishui Lake. Driving along the sea wall, we saw a Red-throated Pipit eating seeds left over from the rice harvest, and in the mud below we found three bright-yellow taivana Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

Rather than drive back to the city, Elaine and I drove straight to Changxing Island and took the ferry to Hengsha. We spent Saturday night at Héngshā Bànrìxián Mínsù (横沙半日闲民宿; +86 135-0185-1814 and +86 150-2164-5467; 120 yuan).

Sunday brought 56 species on Hengsha and Chongming. Our stay of a little more than five hours on Hengsha revealed no extraordinary birds. Eurasian Bittern were unusually visible; 3 of the 5 we noted were standing more or less in the open.

We took the ferry back to Changxing Island, and there, sitting in traffic, I happened to look out the window of our Skoda Scout and saw 3 Goldcrest. We took the Shanghai-Changjiang Bridge across the Yangtze to Chongming.

After more than two weeks on Chongming, our Cinereous Vulture appear to be doing fine. Here they were yesterday.
After more than two weeks on Chongming, our Cinereous Vulture appear to be doing fine. Here they were yesterday.

The Cinereous Vulture were a few kilometers south of the place where we had found them eight days earlier. As before, the vultures were standing on an earthen bank along the first row of fields behind the canal at the base of the sea wall. Nearby were the Hooded Crane and 21 Common Crane. The cold, grey day was enlivened by a colorful flock of 55 Grey-capped Greenfinch.

Mew Gull and Lapland Longspur became the 267th and 268th species of bird Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept. 2015.

Elaine Du at pond behind Holiday Inn, Nanhui, Shanghai, 30 Jan. 2016. Elaine and I use the Swarovski ATX-95 telescope mounted atop our Manfrotto MVH502AH video head and Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon-fiber tripod.
Elaine Du at pond behind Holiday Inn, Nanhui, Shanghai, 30 Jan. 2016. Elaine and I use the Swarovski ATX-95 telescope mounted atop our Manfrotto MVH502AH video head and Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon-fiber tripod.

List 1 of 1 for Sat. 30 Jan. 2016 (50 species). Around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]), Shanghai, China (30.920507, 121.973159). List includes birds found at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124) and along Shijitang Road from 31.000204, 121.938145 S to Magic Parking Lot (30.882784, 121.972782). Cloudy; low 2°C, high 7°C. Visibility 10 km. Wind N 23 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 78. Sunrise 06:48, sunset 17:28. SAT 30 JAN 2016 08:00-16:40. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 50
Falcated Duck Anas falcata 380
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 90
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 210
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 11
Northern Pintail A. acuta 350
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 10
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 170
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 45
Greater Scaup A. marila 8
Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula 1
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 40
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 80
Horned Grebe P. auritus 3
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 78
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 23
Great Egret A. alba 11
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 36
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo ca. 600
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus 1
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus 1
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 5
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 350
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 1
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 5
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus ca. 90
Mew Gull Larus canus ca. 50
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus ca. 150
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 11
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 2
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 20
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 8
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 14
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 1
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 50
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 3 taivana
White Wagtail M. alba 16 (12 leucopsis, 4 ocularis)
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 3
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus 1
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 57
Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans 2
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 8

Red-throated Pipit eating grain, Nanhui, 30 Jan. 2016.
Red-throated Pipit eating grain, Nanhui, 30 Jan. 2016.

List 1 of 2 for Sun. 31 Jan. 2016 (42 species). Hengsha Island (Héngshā Dǎo [横沙岛]), a small alluvial island at mouth of Yangtze River in Shanghai, China. S gate to birding area at 31.297333, 121.859434. Cloudy and windy, snow flurries in afternoon; low 0°C, high 5°C. Wind NNE 18 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 151. Sunrise 06:47, sunset 17:29. SUN 31 JAN 2016 07:10-12:20. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 1
Gadwall Anas strepera 590
Falcated Duck A. falcata 720
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 1
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 6
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 5
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 4
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 40
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 2
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 5
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 30
Great Egret Ardea alba 6
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 25
Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus 1
Hen Harrier C. cyaneus 3
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus 2
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra ca. 1300
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus 40 (flock)
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 6
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 2
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 55
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 3
Merlin F. columbarius 1
Peregrine Falcon F. peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 18
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 10
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis 12
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 10
Goldcrest Regulus regulus 3 on Changxing Is.
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 8
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 1
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 2
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 3 (2 taivana, 1 tschutschensis)
White Wagtail M. alba 15 (11 leucopsis, 4 ocularis)
Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens japonicus 12
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 4
Rustic Bunting E. rustica 2
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans 3
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 17

List 2 of 2 for Sun. 31 Jan. 2016 (31 species). Around Chongming Dongtan National Bird Sanctuary and Nature Reserve (Chóngmíng Dōngtān Niǎolèi Guójiājí Zìrán Bǎohùqū [崇明东滩鸟类国家级自然保护区]), Chongming Island, Shanghai, China (31.510109, 121.961955). Cloudy and windy, snow flurries in afternoon; low 0°C, high 5°C. Wind NNE 18 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 151. Sunrise 06:47, sunset 17:29. SUN 31 JAN 2016 14:10-17:00. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Tundra Bean Goose Anser serrirostris 11 (flock)
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 15
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 3
Great Egret A. alba 1
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 10
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1
Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus 2
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus 1
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 4
Common Crane Grus grus 21
Hooded Crane G. monacha 65
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 2
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 1
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 1
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 2
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Merlin F. columbarius 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 1
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 8
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis 8
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 300
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 3 leucopsis
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni 10
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 9
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica 55 (flock)
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 9
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 13
Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus 6

Featured image: Its cover blown, this Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris emerges from hiding on Hengsha Island, Shanghai, China, 31 Jan. 2015. Photo by Craig Brelsford using Nikon D3S, 600 mm + 1.4x TC, F/7.1, 1/400, ISO 1600.

Cinereous Vulture in Shanghai

On 23-24 Jan. Elaine and I noted 68 species on one of the coldest weekends in Shanghai in recent memory. We birded Chongming, the great alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and Nanhui. With strong northwesterly winds making temperatures feel as cold as -16°C, many birds lay low, but the strange weather probably played a role in two extraordinary records: 2 Cinereous Vulture (Chongming) and 3 Red-throated Loon (Nanhui). Other notable records were 2 Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake and a winter record of Wood Sandpiper at Nanhui as well as Eastern Yellow Wagtail (taivana) and Red-throated Thrush on Chongming. On Chongming and at Nanhui, we had Red-throated Pipit and Water Pipit mixed in with Buff-bellied Pipit.

Listed as near threatened by IUCN, Cinereous Vulture breeds across Eurasia, from Spain to China. In China, Aegypius monachus breeds mainly in the west as well as in Hulunbeier in northeastern Inner Mongolia. It is a “sporadic” (MacKinnon) or “rare” (Brazil) winter visitor to the southeast China coast. The largest Old World vulture, it has a wing span of about 260 cm (8.5 ft).

From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs. They usually stayed close together.
From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs. They usually stayed close together.

From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs as they rested on the ground. The pair was approachable. They usually stayed close together. Their plumage was shiny, and they appeared healthy. I doubt, however, that the eastern end of Chongming Island is a place that can support a pair of these huge birds for long. A Chinese photographer we met said the Chongming pair was probably the same pair that had been reported recently in Nantong. As of Saturday, the vultures had been on Chongming for a week to 10 days.

According to the IUCN, only about 50 Red-throated Loon winter along the Chinese coast.
According to the IUCN, only about 50 Red-throated Loon winter along the Chinese coast.

Red-throated Loon is also known as Red-throated Diver. Gavia stellata breeds in tundra bogs and taiga pools above 50° N latitude in Eurasia and North America. It winters along the coasts of Europe, Asia, and North America. Though the species faces no global threat, it is rare in China, with IUCN estimating that less than 50 spend the winter on the Chinese coast. Two of our three birds were feeding in one of the few unfrozen fish ponds inside the sea wall. A third was not feeding, and our partner Michael Grunwell feared it had been contaminated by oil.

Elaine and I birded Chongming alone. On Sunday at Nanhui, Michael joined us. We car-birded both days, driving a Skoda Scout rented from Avis.

Cinereous Vulture and Red-throated Loon became the 265th and 266th species of bird that Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept. 2015.

Michael Grunwell searching for Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 24 Jan. 2016.
Michael Grunwell searching for Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 24 Jan. 2016.

List 1 of 1 for Sat. 23 Jan. 2016 (51 species). Around Chongming Dongtan National Bird Sanctuary and Nature Reserve (Chóngmíng Dōngtān Niǎolèi Guójiājí Zìrán Bǎohùqū [崇明东滩鸟类国家级自然保护区]), Chongming Island, Shanghai, China (31.510109, 121.961955). Breezy and clear; low -8°C, high -1°C. Wind NW 32 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 70. Sunrise 06:51, sunset 17:22. SAT 23 JAN 2016 10:15-17:30. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope 30
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 4
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 30
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 20
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 64
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 4
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 10
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 3
Great Egret A. alba 2
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 1
Little Egret E. garzetta 10
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 42
Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus 2
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus 1
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 420
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta ca. 200
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus 6
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 340
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 13
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 2
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 445
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 2
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 1
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 2
Dunlin Calidris alpina 53
Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris 9
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 4
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 1
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 4
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 1
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 5
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 3
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 20
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 15
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 6
Red-throated Thrush T. ruficollis 1
Naumann’s Thrush T. naumanni 1
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 2
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 6
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 600
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 1 taivana
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 5 leucopsis
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni 13
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus 2
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 65
Water Pipit A. spinoletta blakistoni 1
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala 4

Mixed in with the Buff-bellied Pipit were Red-throated Pipit (above) and Water Pipit.
Mixed in with the Buff-bellied Pipit were Red-throated Pipit (above) and Water Pipit.

List 1 of 1 for Sun. 24 Jan. 2016 (50 species). Around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]), Shanghai, China (30.920507, 121.973159). List includes birds found at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124) and along Shijitang Road from 31.000204, 121.938145 S to 30.851114, 121.848527. Blustery, cold, and sunny; low -8°C, high -6°C. Visibility 10 km. Wind NW 40 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 68. Sunrise 06:51, sunset 17:23. SUN 24 JAN 2016 07:15-16:30. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.

Falcated Duck Anas falcata 60
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 20
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 2
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 45
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 32
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 20
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata 3
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 80
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 55
Horned Grebe P. auritus 2
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 60
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 2
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 80
Great Egret A. alba 3
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 1
Little Egret E. garzetta 12
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo ca. 300
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 3
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra ca. 300
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus 3
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 15
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 7
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus 4
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola 1
Dunlin Calidris alpina ca. 300
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 25
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 10
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia 1
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 6
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 2
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 10
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 1
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/A. gulgula 1
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 20
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 6
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 7
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 1
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 2
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 10
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 200
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 12 (9 leucopsis, 3 lugens)
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 2
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus 6
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus ca. 200
Water Pipit A. spinoletta blakistoni 1
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 15
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 1

Blustery winds made for tough birding. Here, Dishui Lake looks like a surging Arctic sea. Note Black-headed Gull flying in background.
Blustery winds made for tough birding. Here, Dishui Lake looks like a surging Arctic sea. Note Black-headed Gull flying in background.

Featured image: Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus, Chongming Island, Shanghai, 23 Jan. 2016. Photographed using Nikon D3S and Nikkor VR 600mm F/4G lens mounted atop Manfrotto 055 carbon-fiber tripod and MVH502AH video head. F/9, 1/1250, ISO 2000.

A Minor Role in a Major Discovery

Now my involvement in the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was on this wise:

In June 2014, my partners Jon Gallagher and Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安) and I drove 36 hours, including one stretch of 24 straight hours, covering 1500 km (930 mi.) to get from Emeishan in Sichuan to the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan. The reason? Per Alström was in the Dulong Gorge and was working on an exciting project, a project to which he said I might be able to make a small contribution.

Himalayan Forest Thrush Zoothera salimalii, Irrawaddy-Salween Divide, above Dulong Valley, Yunnan, China, 20 June 2014. Elev. 3375 m.
Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii, Irrawaddy-Salween Divide, above Dulong Gorge, Yunnan, 20 June 2014. Elev. 3375 m (11,070 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

We finally met up with Per and his team on the road into the Dulong Gorge. There, Per transferred to me a recording of a species new to science, Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii.

Little did I know that I was on the cusp of something big.

At the time, I did not know that the species was Himalayan Thrush; like any normal birder, I took the species to be Plain-backed Thrush. Per could only divulge that he was working on possible splits to Plain-backed Thrush, and could I please try to get a shot of a free “Plain-backed”? All his images, he said, were of captured birds, and he wanted shots of birds living their natural life. “I’ll do everything I can to get those photos!” I said. Per then left the Dulong Gorge, and my team entered the Valley.

Himalayan Forest Thrush, above Dulong Valley, 20 June 2014. Note the very slightly rufous-toned upper surface, dark lower lores and subocular/moustachial area, lack of distinct dark patch on rear ear-coverts, entirely dark lower mandible, hooked upper mandible, and pale pinkish legs.
Himalayan Thrush above Dulong Gorge, 20 June 2014. Note the very slightly rufous-toned upper surface, dark lower lores and subocular/moustachial area, lack of distinct dark patch on rear ear-coverts, entirely dark lower mandible, hooked upper mandible, and pale pinkish legs. (Craig Brelsford)

Rain rain rain for days. Finally, a 45-minute window of dry weather. I’m at the spot Per indicated, elev. 3375 m (11,070 ft.). I play Per’s recording. Attracted by the recording, a Himalayan Thrush appears within minutes, and I get photos as well as recordings of the thrush’s song. What a payoff!

Now my photos figure in the article Per and his co-authors have written on Himalayan Thrush, Sichuan Thrush Zoothera griseiceps, and Alpine Thrush Z. mollissima (Z. mollissima was formerly called “Plain-backed Thrush” in English but in the wake of the new discoveries takes the name Alpine Thrush). Himalayan Thrush is completely new to science, and Sichuan Thrush has been elevated to species status (having been considered a ssp. of Z. mollissima). A fourth putative taxon, “Yunnan Thrush,” requires further study.

I’m proud to have played a minor role in Per and co.’s major discovery!

Himalayan Forest Thrush Zoothera salimalii on a wet boulder in the rain, above Dulong Valley, 20 June 2014. A 'forest' thrush on a rocky outcrop? Yes, write the authors: 'At Dulongjiang, Yunnan province, China, we found Himalayan Forest Thrush to be numerous in a very different habitat: on steep slopes with bamboo and rhododendron scrub and rocky outcrops and a few scattered conifers, at or just above the upper tree limit, at 3350–3500 m a.s.l. … Surprisingly, we did not observe any birds in the seemingly suitable forest immediately below despite active searching.'
Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii on a wet boulder in the rain, above Dulong Gorge, 20 June 2014. A ‘forest’ thrush on a rocky outcrop? Yes, write the authors: ‘At Dulongjiang, Yunnan province, China, we found Himalayan Forest Thrush to be numerous in a very different habitat: on steep slopes with bamboo and rhododendron scrub and rocky outcrops and a few scattered conifers, at or just above the upper tree limit, at 3350–3500 m a.s.l. … Surprisingly, we did not observe any birds in the seemingly suitable forest immediately below despite active searching.’ (Craig Brelsford)

WHAT IS ‘NEW TO SCIENCE’?

In the case of Zoothera salimalii, when we say the species is “new to science,” we are not saying that no human being had ever seen the bird before. Himalayan Thrush is locally common in its range, which extends from Sikkim in India to northwest Yunnan; thousands of birders and non-birders have seen it. “New to science” means that those observers did not understand its true nature. We did not understand that it is a species; if we thought about it at all, we assumed that any Z. salimalii we were seeing was just another Plain-backed Thrush Z. mollissima.

From article: 'Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar.' Note our specimen's buff throat and distinct malar.
From article: ‘Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar.’ Note our specimen’s buff throat and distinct malar. (Craig Brelsford)

Per and his team discovered that, hidden within what was considered to be a population of Z. mollissima was an entirely different bird, separated from Z. mollissima by time (3-5 million years of evolution), habitat (Z. mollissima Alpine Thrush breeds higher than Z. salimalii Himalayan Thrush), song, and morphology.

The latter two characteristics are particularly surprising and point to the difficulties of birding in the Himalaya region. Per and his team did not need a microscope to begin to see that Himalayan Thrush is different from the other species in the Plain-backed Thrush complex. All they needed to do was look and listen closely. Yet for generation after generation, this straightforward analysis was not performed. This is not surprising, considering the ruggedness of the area in which these thrushes live and its sparse population.

My bird was fit and strong--as he needed to be, if he wanted to command his large, rocky territory.
My Himalayan Thrush was fit and strong–as he needed to be, if he wanted to command his large, rocky territory. (Craig Brelsford)

Once Per had examined Plain-backed complex birds in the hand and through photos, he found a whole series of visible differences. Per et al. write:

Compared to Z. mollissima, Z. salimalii has a noticeably longer and deeper bill, with more arched culmen and longer hook, and the lower edge of the lower mandible is more arched (vs. straight); bill usually completely or almost completely dark including base of lower mandible, whereas the base of the lower mandible is usually pale pinkish or yellowish in Z. mollissima (though may appear mainly dark also in Z. mollissima). … 

Most individuals of Z. salimalii have a thin whitish supraloral stripe over thick blackish lores, and a very dark subocular/moustachial area, more or less connected to the dark lores, compared to more diffuse pale supraloral and weak “salt-and-pepper” lores and subocular/moustachial area of Z. mollissima. Also, Z. salimalii usually shows less extensively pale-mottled ear-coverts than in Z. mollissima, especially on the upper part, and lacks or has only a very ill-defined dark spot on the rear ear-coverts, while Z. mollissima usually shows a distinct dark rear ear-covert patch. Z. salimalii is usually ruddier in color above than Z. mollissima. Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar, while in Z. mollissima the throat is usually whiter and generally more heavily marked (often much more so) and less strongly bordered by more diffuse malar stripes. Z. salimalii has the claws paler than the toes, lacking dusky areas, while in Z. mollissima the claws are at least partly darker than or similar in color to the toes. The legs of Z. salimalii are pinkish, while those of Z. mollissima are usually brighter and more yellow- or orange-tinged.

Himalayan Forest Thrush, Baihualing, Yunnan. Baihualing is in the southern part of the Gaoligong Mountains. The elevation here is ca. 1800 m. 4 Feb. 2014.
Himalayan Thrush, Baihualing, Yunnan, 4 Feb. 2014. Baihualing is in the southern part of the Gaoligong Mountains. The elevation here is ca. 1800 m (5,900 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

So adept became Per at discerning the morphological differences of the various Plain-backed species, he was able to determine, by photos alone, that a “Plain-backed” I had found in Yunnan in February 2014 was also Himalayan Thrush. Per used my February 2014 photos along with my June 2014 photos in his article.

The song of Z. salimalii also contrasts markedly with that of Z. mollissima, Per et al. write. They note the “mainly rasping, grating, scratchy, cracked voice” of Alpine Thrush and the “more musical … ‘thrush-like'” song of Himalayan Thrush. Indeed, according to the article, the germ of the process that led to the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was Per standing in India and simply listening to Himalayan Thrush, remembering the similar song he’d earlier heard in Sichuan of what is now called Sichuan Thrush, and contrasting those sweeter songs with the scratchier song of Alpine Thrush. Here we see Per, the scientist famous for discovering new species according to complicated DNA research, relying not on microscopes but on good old-fashioned birding skills!

Himalayan Forest Thrush powerfully shovels away dirt, leaves, and sticks as it searches for invertebrates on the forest floor. Baihualing, Yunnan, 4 Feb. 2014.
Himalayan Thrush powerfully shovels away dirt, leaves, and sticks as it searches for invertebrates on the forest floor. Baihualing, Yunnan, 4 Feb. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)

Below, I offer you some of my recordings and videos of Himalayan Thrush.

Sound Recordings

Video (all taken by Craig Brelsford at Baihualing, Gaoligong Mountains, western Yunnan, 4-5 Feb. 2014)

Featured image: Craig Brelsford (L), Jon Gallagher, and Per Alström (R), above the Dulong Gorge in remote northwestern Yunnan, 13 June 2014. The insets show Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii, which Per was there studying, and photos of which I later acquired. Photo by Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安).

The Crane and the Owl: 2015 Year in Review

For Elaine and me, 2015 was the Year of the Crane and the Owl. This post is the story of our amazing year.

2015 was a year that saw us note 640 species of bird in Asia and North America. It was a year that saw us find 450 species in China, 305 species in the Shanghai region, and 227 species within the boundaries of Earth’s largest city.

It was a year in which, on 21 Jan., Elaine and I got married in the house in Heilongjiang in which she was born.

Days after our wedding, at my parents’ house in Florida in the United States, a pair of Sandhill Crane walked through my parents’ back yard. Throughout our weeks in Florida, they came again and again; the cranes are part of a non-migratory flock that is both fully wild and completely at home in suburban central Florida. No one disturbs them.

Florida Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis pratensis, DeBary, Florida, 31 Jan. 2015. These cranes are fully wild yet completely accustomed to life in suburbia. No one disturbs them.
Florida Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis pratensis, DeBary, Florida, 31 Jan. 2015. These cranes are fully wild yet completely accustomed to life in suburbia. No one disturbs them.

Elaine was astonished. To her, the cranes came to symbolize all that is good about birding in America.

In August, Elaine and I returned to her home in Heilongjiang. A pair of Eurasian Eagle-Owl came to her village night after night. They hooted from the rooftops of the farm buildings that Elaine’s father built. We saw the owls by day, at the nearby quarry where they had nested.

Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo at the quarry near Elaine's house in Dawucun, Heilongjiang. Night after night, the hoot of these owls was heard in Elaine's village.
Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo at the quarry near Elaine’s house in Dawucun, Heilongjiang. Night after night, the hoot of these owls was heard in Elaine’s village.

I was astonished. To me, the eagle-owls came to symbolize all that is good about birding in Asia.

In the year in which we were married, Elaine and I visited each other’s hometowns for the first time. At my home, cranes; at Elaine’s, eagle-owls. Forevermore, 2015 will be remembered for the powerful birds that visited our homes. In the Brelsford house, 2015 will go down as the Year of the Crane and the Owl.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, one of many species of bird using my parents' back yard in suburban central Florida, USA.
Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, one of many species of bird using my parents’ back yard in suburban central Florida, USA.

WHERE DID WE GO IN 2015?

In China, Elaine and I stayed in the east, taking two major trips to Heilongjiang and neighboring Hulunbeier (Inner Mongolia), two trips to Emeifeng in Fujian, and an eventful five-day trip to Guangxi. We also spent a week in Beijing and Hebei. We birded with Jan-Erik Nilsén, Brian Ivon Jones, and Michael Grunwell, fine birders all.

Michael Grunwell at Nanhui, Shanghai, 31 Oct. 2015. A birder as enthusiastic as he is knowledgeable, Michael was our major birding partner in 2015. We went thousands of kilometers together, traveling by air, train, car, and foot to birding locations in five provinces. A teacher by profession, Michael freely distributes his bird knowledge, built up over four decades. Michael introduced us to Emeifeng and proposed the Nonggang Babbler trip. We, in turn, had the pleasure of showing Michael various sites in the Shanghai region after Michael and his family moved to Shanghai from Nanchang in August 2015.
Michael Grunwell at Nanhui, Shanghai, 31 Oct. 2015. A birder as enthusiastic as he is knowledgeable, Michael was our major birding partner in 2015. We went thousands of kilometers together, traveling by air, train, car, and foot to birding locations in five provinces. A teacher by profession, Michael freely distributes his bird knowledge, built up over four decades. Michael introduced us to Emeifeng and proposed the Nonggang Babbler trip. We, in turn, had the pleasure of showing Michael various sites in the Shanghai region after Michael and his family moved to Shanghai from Nanchang in August 2015.

In America, I am fortunate to be based in central Florida, one of the finest birding areas in one of the best states in the USA for birding. In Florida, the birding is so good, I take my binoculars even on a quick trip to the grocery store. My parents’ back yard alone attracted dozens of species, and we added more at local parks as well as major reserves such as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Elaine and I also took a 15-day birding honeymoon to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where we birded with noted American birder Chris Feeney.

Sunset, 10 March 2015, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Elaine and I hear a loud, sickening crunch. I wade into the pond and get these powerful images of an American Alligator devouring a Blue Crab.
Sunset, 10 March 2015, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Elaine and I hear a loud, sickening crunch. I wade into the pond and get these powerful images of an American Alligator devouring a Blue Crab.

2015 IN SHANGHAI

The bulk of our year was spent around Shanghai. Our 227 “city” species were noted while compiling two major reports, one covering the spring migration and the other covering the autumn and winter. Trips further afield to places in Jiangsu and Zhejiang brought our Shanghai regional list to 305 species. Accompanying us on many of those trips was Michael Grunwell as well as German birder Kai Pflug and the husband-and-wife team of Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Lesser Yangshan Island, 2 Jan. 2015. A few months after this photo was taken, Elaine and I noted this species in Yangkou, and in December 2015 we once again were noting the species on Lesser Yangshan. In Seoul, which I had the pleasure of visiting in May 2015, Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis is the 'default' bulbul, common and noisy, like Light-vented Bulbul in many Chinese cities. In Shanghai, Brown-eared Bulbul is a scarce passage migrant and winter visitor.
Brown-eared Bulbul, Lesser Yangshan Island, 2 Jan. 2015. A few months after this photo was taken, Elaine and I noted this species in Yangkou, and in December 2015 we once again were noting the species on Lesser Yangshan. In Seoul, which I had the pleasure of visiting in May 2015, Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis is the ‘default’ bulbul, common and noisy, like Light-vented Bulbul in many Chinese cities. In Shanghai, Brown-eared Bulbul is a scarce passage migrant and winter visitor.

Our springtime expedition in the Shanghai region saw us note 243 species. The autumn-winter report contained 259 species by 31 Dec. Here is what we discovered in 2015 around Shanghai:

— Amid the unremitting transformation of the Jiangsu and Shanghai coast, we found several shorebird species on the brink, among them the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, the endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank, and the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Other threatened waders noted by us were Grey-tailed Tattler, Black-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Far Eastern Curlew, and Great Knot. Other at-risk coastal species were Oriental Stork, Chinese Egret, Saunders’s Gull, and Reed Parrotbill, as well as the elegant passage migrant Japanese Paradise Flycatcher

Long-billed Dowitcher, Rudong County (S of Yangkou), Jiangsu, 24 April 2015.
Long-billed Dowitcher, Rudong County (S of Yangkou), Jiangsu, 24 April 2015.

— The most notable extralimitals were Long-billed Dowitcher south of Yangkou, Black Redstart on Hengsha Island, and Dalmatian Pelican at Dongtai and Nanhui. Other interesting finds were Himalayan Swiftlet and Brown-eared Bulbul at Yangkou, Chestnut-cheeked Starling on Lesser Yangshan Island, and at Nanhui Common Goldeneye, Horned Grebe, Black Bittern, White-bellied Green Pigeon, Japanese Scops Owl, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, Black-collared Starling, and Common Rosefinch

Himalayan Swiftlet, Yangkou, 13 Sept. 2015.
Himalayan Swiftlet, Yangkou, 13 Sept. 2015.

— We noted 14 Emberiza species, among them three threatened species (Yellow-breasted Bunting, Yellow Bunting, and Japanese Reed Bunting), the beautiful Crested Bunting, East Asian favorites Meadow Bunting, Tristram’s Bunting, Chestnut-eared Bunting, Chestnut Bunting, Yellow-browed Bunting, and Yellow-throated Bunting, and Little Bunting, Rustic Bunting, Black-faced Bunting, and Pallas’s Reed Bunting

Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanmincun (near Yangkou), Rudong County, Jiangsu, 12 April 2015. I reported this banded godwit to the Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG). A week later, AWSG told me that the godwit had been banded on 23 June 2009 (nearly 6 years prior!) in Victoria, Australia.
Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanmincun (near Yangkou), Rudong County, Jiangsu, 12 April 2015. I reported this banded godwit to the Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG). A week later, AWSG told me that the godwit had been banded on 23 June 2009 (nearly 6 years prior!) in Victoria, Australia.

— We noted dozens of East Asian migrants, breeders, and residents, among them Grey-headed Lapwing, Pacific Golden Plover, Oriental Pratincole, Black-tailed Gull, Lesser Cuckoo, Northern Boobook, Oriental Dollarbird, Speckled Piculet, Swinhoe’s Minivet, Bull-headed Shrike, Chinese Grey Shrike, Yellow-bellied Tit, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Thick-billed Warbler, Grey-backed Thrush, Japanese Thrush, Brown-headed Thrush, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Siberian Blue Robin, Rufous-tailed Robin, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Narcissus Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Forest Wagtail, and Red-throated Pipit

Thick-billed Warbler, Yangkou, 16 May 2015.
Thick-billed Warbler, Yangkou, 16 May 2015.

— During two trips to the Tianmu Mountains 250 km SW of Shanghai in Zhejiang, we watched a Crested Bunting sing, found a pair of Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, were encouraged by the many Buffy Laughingthrush, saw Crested Serpent Eagle and Black Eagle, came face-to-face with Koklass Pheasant, and noted more Russet Sparrow than Eurasian Tree Sparrow. We appreciated the strong Indo-Malayan character of the avifauna, as evidenced by classic southern Chinese species such as Grey-chinned Minivet, Grey Treepie, Indochinese Yuhina, Grey-headed Parrotbill, Rufous-capped Babbler, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Little Forktail, and White-crowned Forktail

— At Yangkou, we found a reliable site for the elusive Brown-cheeked Rail

Collared Owlet, Emeifeng, 30 April 2015.
Collared Owlet, Emeifeng, 30 April 2015.

THE TRIPS TO EMEIFENG

In spring 2015, Elaine and I made two trips to Emeifeng in the mountains of northwest Fujian. We noted 103 species. Highlights:

— Finding the five key game birds: Elliot’s Pheasant, Cabot’s Tragopan, Koklass Pheasant, Silver Pheasant, and White-necklaced Partridge, as well as the beautiful Chinese Bamboo Partridge

Cabot's Tragopan, Emeifeng, 1 May 2015.
Cabot’s Tragopan, Emeifeng, 1 May 2015.

— At Shuibu Reservoir, finding Blue-throated Bee-eater, a species unexpected around Emeifeng

— Closely studying three Phylloscopus warblers that breed in southern China: Buff-throated Warbler Phylloscopus subaffinis, Sulphur-breasted Warbler P. ricketti, and Hartert’s Leaf Warbler P. goodsoni fokiensis, as well as having close encounters with White-spectacled Warbler Seicercus affinis intermedius

Buff-throated Warbler, Emeifeng, 30 April 2015.
Buff-throated Warbler, Emeifeng, 30 April 2015.

— Finding 4 of China’s 5 species of forktail: Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri, Slaty-backed Forktail E. schistaceus, White-crowned Forktail E. leschenaulti sinensis, and Spotted Forktail E. maculatus bacatus

— Hearing the many calls and songs of the accomplished vocalist Buffy Laughingthrush

— Hearing Spotted Elachura singing along a rushing stream and seeing Pygmy Wren-Babbler along that same stream

Sulphur-breasted Warbler, Emeifeng, 1 May 2015.
Sulphur-breasted Warbler, Emeifeng, 1 May 2015.

— Noting other key south-China species, among them Black Bittern, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Black Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Besra, Collared Owlet, Asian Barred Owlet, Great Barbet, Speckled Piculet, Bay Woodpecker, Grey-chinned Minivet, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Sultan Tit, Rufous-faced Warbler, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Brown Bush Warbler, Small Niltava, Verditer Flycatcher, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, White-bellied Erpornis, Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler, Black-collared Starling, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Fork-tailed Sunbird, and Orange-bellied Leafbird

MAJOR DISCOVERIES IN HULUNBEIER & HEILONGJIANG

Our explorations in Heilongjiang and Hulunbeier were inspired by the words of John MacKinnon:

Instead of going to the familiar places in China to clock up new additions to life lists, why not get to some remote areas where you have a good chance of finding something new?

– John MacKinnon, A Field Guide to the Birds of China, p. 16

In Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, Elaine and I noted 228 species. We visited the region twice: once in January, a short trip with Brian Ivon Jones; and a longer trip in July with Jan-Erik Nilsén and later Brian. There were also two brief stops in Hohhot in south-central Inner Mongolia.

Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus, the first of many good birds I discovered near Elaine's home village. 20 Jan. 2015.
Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus, the first of many good birds I discovered near Elaine’s home village. 20 Jan. 2015.

The January trip to Hulunbeier, the U.K.-sized prefecture in northeast Inner Mongolia, was our introduction to the region. Elaine, Brian, and I experienced cold such as I had never felt before. The lowest temperature we had was -36°C (-33°F). Among our highlights were Northern Hawk-Owl, White-backed Woodpecker, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Great Tit, and Arctic Redpoll.

Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, Wuerqihan, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 15 Jan. 2015.
Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, Wuerqihan, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 15 Jan. 2015.

Elaine and I then traveled to Dawucun, her home village in southeastern Heilongjiang. There, on 21 January 2015, Elaine and I were married. (We worked in some birding that day, noting Common Kestrel behind her house.) I was pleasantly surprised by the good birding around Dawucun. Never walking more than 2 km from Elaine’s house, we noted Rough-legged Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tit, Siberian Accentor, and Eurasian Bullfinch.

Blyth's Pipit Anthus godlewskii near Manzhouli, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 20 July 2015.
Blyth’s Pipit Anthus godlewskii near Manzhouli, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 20 July 2015.

In the summer, Elaine and I returned to the region with Jan-Erik. The three of us spent 11-24 July exploring Hulunbeier. We drove our rented Honda CR-V 2533 km, covering the main habitats of Hulunbeier, among them the northern-temperate and taiga forests of the Greater Khingan Range and the arid grasslands around Hulun Lake.

Baikal Bush Warbler, 12 July 2015. Near Genhe, we were driving 60 km/h and in the middle of a conversation. Suddenly Jan-Erik said, 'I just heard Siberian Bush Warbler!' (IOC: Baikal Bush Warbler). I hit the brakes and parked. Within a few seconds, we had our bird. Jan-Erik has sharp ears!
Baikal Bush Warbler, 12 July 2015. Near Genhe, we were driving 60 km/h and in the middle of a conversation. Suddenly Jan-Erik said, ‘I just heard Siberian Bush Warbler!’ (IOC: Baikal Bush Warbler). I hit the brakes and parked. Within a few seconds, we had our bird. Jan-Erik has sharp ears!

Among the 170 species we noted were breeding Scaly-sided Merganser at Yikesama Forest and Swan Goose at the excellent Modamuji wetland. Other highlights: Great Grey Owl and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler at Wuerqihan; Demoiselle Crane, Oriental Plover, and Isabellline Shrike around Hulun Lake; breeding Arctic Warbler near Genhe and at Yikesama; Baikal Bush Warbler near Genhe and at Hanma Reserve; House Sparrow and Blyth’s Pipit at various locations; Hazel Grouse at various locations and Black Grouse at Hanma; nesting Common House Martin in Galaya; flocks of hundreds of Pacific Swift and Common Swift in the towns; banded Red-necked Stint near Modamuji; 5000 Sand Martin and Bearded Reedling at Modamuji; and Pallas’s Reed Bunting ssp. lydiae and Common Starling at Wulannuo’er.

Common Swift, Hulun Lake, Inner Mongolia, 21 July 2015.
Common Swift, Hulun Lake, Inner Mongolia, 21 July 2015.

Next came two weeks (26 July-8 Aug.) in eastern Heilongjiang with Brian Ivon Jones. The trip began and ended in Jiamusi and took us on a loop through areas along the border with Russia, principally along the Ussuri and Amur rivers. This part of the trip was somewhat of a disappointment, mainly because seas of maize have eaten up hundreds of square kilometers of habitat. Still, we managed to find Oriental Stork in unexpected places such as Tongjiang; at Qixing River we found breeding Red-necked Grebe and noted Red-crowned Crane, White-naped Crane, and Reed Parrotbill (ssp. polivanovi, “Northern Parrotbill”); and at Qindeli Farms we saw Black Woodpecker and Mountain Hare.

Eurasian Woodcock, Honghe Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang, 30 July 2015. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F/4, 1/80, ISO 10000.
Eurasian Woodcock, Honghe Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang, 30 July 2015. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F/4, 1/80, ISO 10000.

Elaine and I spent 9 Aug. to 8 Sept. at Dawucun. The month at Elaine’s parents’ house was a high point in my birding career and one of the most satisfying moments in my many years in China. The birding was excellent, even in late summer, and even better was combining birding with family. Elaine and I would bird in the morning and afternoon and in the evening have dinner with her parents, sisters, and nieces.

Elaine Du (L) birding with her nieces Lisa Li (C) and Jennifer Jiang, Dawucun, Heilongjiang, 13 Aug. 2015.
Elaine Du (L) birding with her nieces Lisa Li (C) and Jennifer Jiang, Dawucun, Heilongjiang, 13 Aug. 2015.

Elaine and I rediscovered the quiet hills 1.5 km south of her village, and we made a major discovery: Xidaquan National Forest, 9400 hectares of old-growth secondary woodland just 21 km from Dawucun. Xidaquan had never been properly birded before, and the park managers welcomed our research, giving us free admission in return for a list of the species we noted.

Lush vegetation at forest edge, with thickly forested low mountains typical of region in background. Xidaquan National Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 2 Sept. 2015.
Lush vegetation at forest edge, with thickly forested low mountains typical of region in background. Xidaquan National Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 2 Sept. 2015.

We made 12 visits to Xidaquan and submitted to the managers a list of 91 species noted around the park and Dawucun. Among the highlights were discovering the Eurasian Eagle-Owl while birding with Elaine’s young nieces at the quarry near Dawucun. We found Eurasian Eagle-Owl at two other locations, one of them in Xidaquan, where we also noted Ural Owl and Long-eared Owl. Eastern Crowned Warbler were singing loudly and defending territory deep into August, and Radde’s Warbler were behaving likewise into September.

Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea amurensis, Xidaquan, 17 Aug. 2015.
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea amurensis, Xidaquan, 17 Aug. 2015.

We regularly noted classic northeast China taxa such as Coal Tit ssp. ater, Eurasian Nuthatch ssp. amurensis, Eurasian Jay ssp. brandtii, Willow Tit ssp. baicalensis, and Marsh Tit ssp. brevirostris. At Xidaquan we saw Mandarin Duck, Asian Stubtail, Thick-billed Warbler, Eurasian Treecreeper, Siberian Thrush, Pale Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat, and Long-tailed Rosefinch; in the hills behind Dawucun we had breeding White-throated Rock Thrush, Asian Brown Flycatcher, and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher as well as Northern Goshawk, Chinese Grey Shrike, Grey-backed Thrush, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, and Eurasian Red Squirrel; and in Elaine’s parents’ back garden we had Daurian Starling as well as the regular nighttime visits by the eagle-owls.

Elaine Du and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan, 25 Aug. 2015.
Elaine Du and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan, 25 Aug. 2015.

The hills behind Elaine’s house became like a second home to us. A message I sent on 4 Sept. to the Shanghai Birding WeChat group sums up my mood:

“WISH-YOU-WERE-HERE MOMENT: If crisp fall weather could be bottled up and sold, then today would be the day to harvest it. Brilliant blue sky, cool qiufeng (秋风, ‘autumn breeze’), temp. about 17°C. Speaking of harvests, Elaine and her father are nearby picking Honey Mushroom Armillaria mellea. Elaine just radioed me; she and baba found a mother lode and expect to collect about 8 kg of the tasty fungus. I just now was writing almost literally in the shadow of a White-backed Woodpecker, the largest pied woodpecker and a very inquisitive creature, curious even about the weak playback coming from my iPhone speaker. Before settling down, I startled a Hazel Grouse and heard the laughter of Black Woodpecker. A Pale Thrush gave itself away with its tzzt contact call, then viewed me from a high branch before darting off. … Thank you for waiting me out while I drink my fill of these northern forests. It’s been one of my sweetest China experiences, doing great birding by day and being welcomed by Elaine’s warmhearted family at night. Birding and family! Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

Radde's Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi, a species commonly noted by Elaine and me at Xidaquan. They were singing and defending territory into September. This photo is from 24 Aug. 2015.
Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi, a species commonly noted by Elaine and me at Xidaquan. They were singing and defending territory into September. This photo is from 24 Aug. 2015.

BEIJING & HEBEI IN OCTOBER

Jan-Erik was an excellent tour guide at Nanpu, a coastal site in Hebei and the major wintering site for Relict Gull. Our Swedish friend also introduced us to Miyun, where we noted Greater Spotted Eagle and Long-billed Plover.

We found this wintering Japanese Thrush in Longheng on 20 Dec. 2015.
We found this wintering Japanese Thrush in Longheng on 20 Dec. 2015.

LONGHENG, GUANGXI, HOME OF NONGGANG BABBLER

From 16-21 Dec., Michael, Elaine, and I were in Longheng, Guangxi. We noted 76 species, chief among them Nonggang Babbler. We had White-winged Magpie, savored close nighttime views of Collared Scops Owl, enjoyed views of the elusive Lesser Shortwing, and delighted in southern China favorites Sultan Tit, Buff-breasted Babbler, Streaked Wren-Babbler, and Black-breasted Thrush. Farther afield, driving in our rented Mitsubishi Pajero, we found Large Woodshrike in the heavily wooded valley near Longheng, White-browed Piculet and Chestnut-capped Babbler in the cane fields near Longheng, Slaty-bellied Tesia in a thicket along a farm road, Siberian Rubythroat along a stream near Nonggang village, and Red-headed Trogon, Long-tailed Broadbill, Grey-throated Babbler, and Pale-footed Bush Warbler near Nonggang National Nature Reserve. Pin-striped Tit-Babbler and Rufescent Prinia were seen at various points, and Crested Bunting were locally abundant on the road between Chongzuo and Longheng.

Bird Species Noted in 2015 by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du

In 2015, the husband-and-wife team of Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du noted 305 species in the Shanghai region, 450 species in China, and 640 species worldwide.

Shanghai region: 305 (227 in Shanghai Shi)
China: 450
Asia: 451 (includes China list plus Varied Tit, noted by Craig in Seoul)
World: 640 (includes Asia list plus all American species not on Asia list)

Featured image: In 2015, my wife Elaine Du discovered Sandhill Crane (L) at my home in Florida; her new husband, Craig, discovered Eurasian Eagle-Owl (R) at Elaine’s home in Heilongjiang. 2015 was our Year of the Crane and the Owl.