GUEST POST: An Introduction to the Three Widespread Herring-type Gulls in East Asia

Editor’s note: Dr. Nial Moores is director of Birds Korea and an authority on gulls. In this guest post, written especially for shanghaibirding.com, Moores describes the three widespread Herring-type gulls of East Asia. One of these is Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis. Moores points to the photos above to support the recognition, contested by some, of Taimyr Gull as a separate taxon. The panels show two Herring-type gulls, both adults, photographed on the Huangpu River in downtown Shanghai on 18 March 2017. The panels at left show Mongolian Gull Larus mongolicus. The right-hand panels show Taimyr Gull. The Mongolian is in full breeding plumage, as evidenced by its spotless white head. The Taimyr, by contrast, still shows streaking on its head, an indication that it has not yet attained full breeding plumage. The Taimyr shows as well upperparts darker grey than those of the Mongolian. These differences, Moores writes, show that the birds in question are two species.

Experts agree that Taimyr Gull is distinctive; what they disagree on is how to classify it. The IOC does not even recognize taimyrensis as a taxon, let alone a full species. Moores laments this state of affairs. The disagreements, Moores maintains, would melt away if more were known about these gulls. Moores wrote the post, and I am proudly publishing it, with a view toward fostering new knowledge. Birders, fear not the Herring-type gulls! Learn here from Moores, arm yourself with knowledge, and record and spread your observations. — Craig Brelsford

An Introduction to the Three Widespread
Herring-type Gulls in East Asia
© 2017 by Nial Moores
for shanghaibirding.com

In his post “Loons Near Pudong Airport” (20 March 2017), Craig Brelsford posted an image of a Slaty-backed Gull and of a wing-tagged gull, referring to all the gulls in the background as Larus vegae vegae or Larus vegae mongolicus. In a public comment, I asked about Craig’s omission of Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis, leading to an exchange of e-mails between us and an invitation by Craig to post about this taxon. Below, therefore, are a few thoughts on Taimyr Gull, as depicted in Craig’s images taken 18 March 2017 on the Huangpu River in Shanghai, and a brief explanation of why many gullers no longer consider taimyrensis, vegae, and mongolicus to be the same species.

Taimyr, Mongolian, Slaty-backed. 18 March 2017. Craig Brelsford.
Three Larus gulls of East Asia. Moores calls the gull far L Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis. The middle gull Moores describes as Mongolian Gull L. mongolicus. The middle and left-hand gulls show clear differences, attributable, says Moores, not to individual variation within a single species but to the two gulls’ being members of two species. Note, for example, the differences in leg color (yellow in Taimyr, pink in Mongolian). Observe also that the Mongolian shows an all-white head because it is already in full breeding plumage; the Taimyr, by contrast, still shows streaking on the nape, because it is not yet in full breeding plumage. Mongolian assumes breeding plumage earlier than Taimyr because Mongolian breeds farther south and earlier in the year than Taimyr. Taimyr breeds on the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia, 5,000 km (3,100 mi.) from Shanghai, and it does not arrive on its breeding grounds until after the summer thaw in mid-May. The preening gull far right is second-winter Slaty-backed Gull L. schistisagus. Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), Huangpu River, Shanghai, 18 March 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Visit a local river mouth, coastal wetland, or beach in winter, and the chances are high that you will see gulls. Some of the species found in East Asia, such as the Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus and Mew (or Common) Gull Larus canus, have a very wide geographic range and should be as familiar to domestic birders as they are to visiting birders from Europe and parts of North America. There are also a few gulls which are much more likely to stand out as different in structure and plumage. These include Relict Gull Ichthyaetus relictus and Saunders’s Gull Chroicocephalus saundersi. Both are highly distinctive East Asian “specials”; both are dependent on tidal flats in winter; both are globally Vulnerable; and both are confined entirely to this region and lack any counterpart elsewhere in the world (compelling evidence of the importance of the East Asian tidal flats to biodiversity).

And then there is a group that seems to fit neither of these categories: the so-called “Herring-type” gulls. There are three main Herring-type taxa found in this region, which the IOC Checklist effectively treats as one and the Birds Korea Checklist (Moores & Kim 2014) treats as three species: the Mongolian Gull Larus mongolicus, the Vega Gull Larus vegae and the Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis. All three of these gulls are widespread in this region in winter and can even be locally abundant. Importantly too, all three also have some kind of counterpart in other, better-researched regions. The Mongolian Gull in many ways looks most similar to the Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans of western Eurasia–most especially in that adults can look almost white-headed in mid-winter (at a time of year when more northern-breeding Herring-type gulls usually have densely spotted or streaked heads) and in their first-winter plumage. The Vega Gull looks more similar to the European Herring Gull Larus argentatus or the American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus. As adults, all three have heavily streaked or mottled heads in non-breeding plumage, and all three are typically pink-legged at all ages (though with local exceptions–including in East Asia the paler-backed, yellow-legged individuals sometimes considered to be birulai, a subspecies of Vega Gull).

There are many similarities between Vega, European Herring, and American Herring Gulls in juvenile and immature plumages too, including, e.g., obvious notching on the tertials in the vast majority of juveniles and first-winters (first cycle), and in flight an obvious paler area on the inner primaries–often called a “window” by gullers–contrasting with a darker outer wing. The Taimyr Gull instead looks closest to the Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus of northern Europe in that adults are quite dark grey above and can have bright-yellow legs. The juvenile upper wing of both species also looks rather similar too, in that this pale area across the inner primaries is less obvious than in Vega or either of the Herring Gulls, while both Taimyr and Lesser Black-backed Gulls also have darker secondaries and a dark band across the greater coverts (though less striking in Taimyr than in Lesser Black-backed Gull).

NOTES ON TAIMYR GULL

Mongolian Gull (wing-tagged) and Taimyr Gull (directly behind Mongolian). Moores: 'The adult to the rear has extremely bright yellow legs and a vividly coloured bill, with the red on the gonys unusually bleeding up onto the upper mandible. The bird in the foreground, known by that wing tag to be from the breeding grounds of Mongolian Gull, has much weaker yellow-pink tones to the legs and the red confined to the lower mandible.' Binjiang Park (<a href="https://www.google.com/maps/place/Binjiang+Park,+2967+Bin+Jiang+Da+Dao,+LuJiaZui,+Pudong+Xinqu,+Shanghai+Shi,+China/@31.236388,121.4936352,17z/data=!4m13!1m7!3m6!1s0x0:0x0!2zMzHCsDE0JzI0LjciTiAxMjHCsDI5JzI2LjYiRQ!3b1!8m2!3d31.240195!4d121.490717!3m4!1s0x35b270fbc62c4551:0x53c55321491a699b!8m2!3d31.2356935!4d121.4973863" target="_blank">31.2356935, 121.4973863</a>), <a href="http://www.shanghaibirding.com/2017/03/20/loons/" target="_blank">18 March 2017</a>. (Craig Brelsford)
Mongolian Gull (wing-tagged) and Taimyr Gull (directly behind Mongolian). Moores: ‘The adult to the rear has extremely bright yellow legs and a vividly coloured bill, with the red on the gonys unusually bleeding up onto the upper mandible. The bird in the foreground, known by that wing tag to be from the breeding grounds of Mongolian Gull, has much weaker yellow-pink tones to the legs and the red confined to the lower mandible.’ Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), 18 March 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

In Craig’s image above from the Huangpu River in Shanghai, it is easy to see that at more or less the same angle, the upperpart grey of the adult to the rear is darker and a little slatier-looking than that of the wing-tagged gull in the foreground. A few other differences should be easy to pick out. One is the colour of the bare parts. The adult to the rear has extremely bright yellow legs and a vividly coloured bill, with the red on the gonys unusually bleeding up onto the upper mandible. The bird in the foreground, known by that wing tag to be from the breeding grounds of Mongolian Gull, has much weaker yellow-pink tones to the legs and the red confined to the lower mandible.

Leg colour can change seasonally, and bill markings change with age and apparently season too, but structure is more constant. The rear bird has a thicker-based bill and thicker-looking legs and also longer-looking wings, with at rest a rather more obvious extension of the primaries beyond the tail than shown by the Mongolian Gull in the foreground. There is another obvious difference: the streaking on the nape of the bird to the rear. Extent and density of head streaking is also a feature that changes seasonally and individually in gulls. What is important here is that on the same date, two apparently similarly aged gulls show several marked differences from each other, including that one of them still has a lot of streaking on the hind-nape and some grey wash near the eye; while the other, the Mongolian Gull, is already unstreaked and white-headed.

Taimyr Gull (L) and Mongolian Gull. Heads and legs. 18 March 2017, Craig Brelsford.
Head and legs of Taimyr Gull (L) and Mongolian Gull. ‘The rear bird has a thicker-based bill and thicker-looking legs,’ Moores writes. ‘There is another obvious difference: the streaking on the nape of the bird to the rear. Extent and density of head streaking is also a feature that changes seasonally and individually in gulls. What is important here is that on the same date, two apparently similarly aged gulls show several marked differences from each other, including that one of them still has a lot of streaking on the hind-nape and some grey wash near the eye; while the other, the Mongolian Gull, is already unstreaked and white-headed. … The adult bird standing next to the Mongolian Gull is what an increasing number of birders now call Taimyr Gull.’ (Craig Brelsford)

The combination of these differences (in structure, plumage tone, coloration of the bare parts, and head streaking) gives me confidence that these are adults of two species. And to be sure, while the adult Mongolian Gull in the foreground could perhaps be overlooked as a dark-looking American Herring Gull if seen in North America (where leg colour is more variable than in much of Europe: see here) or a big Caspian Gull if seen in Europe, an adult like the one just behind, with such yellow legs and such grey upperparts, would never be identified by any serious birder in Europe or North America as a Herring Gull. This bird would much more likely be identified as a Lesser Black-backed Gull instead–even if an odd-looking one. Notably, although the Lesser Black-backed Gull is largely restricted to breeding and wintering in Europe (with small numbers occurring in North America), the kind of gull in the image is quite common in East Asia. Here in Korea, I have seen several “pure” flocks of 40 to 50 birds looking just like this in March and April, and I counted a single flock of several hundred in Rudong a couple of Septembers ago. And often adults like these are accompanied by immatures of different ages–almost all of which after years of observation similarly fit neatly into an expected pattern of structure and plumage. Yes: The adult bird standing next to the Mongolian Gull is what an increasing number of birders now call Taimyr Gull.

Another look at 'Taimyr Gull.' Craig Brelsford.
Another look at Taimyr Gull. Note grey back, long wings, and strong, yellow legs. (Craig Brelsford)

The Taimyr Gull is a far northern-breeding species (confined, as far as we know, to breeding only on the Taimyr Peninsula: see van Dijk et al. 2011). Most adults do not attain full breeding plumage with gleaming white heads and bright bare parts until the middle or end of April. The most direct route from the Yellow Sea to their breeding grounds entails a flight of about 4,500 km (2,800 mi.) across land and environments which are hostile to gulls all the way. These gulls should not reach their breeding grounds too early, of course, either, because much of the Taimyr Peninsula will still be under snow and ice until the middle of May–a cold and deadly place for a gull until the summer thaw begins. Therefore, many adult Taimyr Gulls remain in the Yellow Sea until late April and early May, acquiring their full breeding plumage late before migrating rapidly, perhaps more or less non-stop, up to the northwest.

Wing projection of mongolicus (top) and 'taimyrenesis' (bottom). Craig Brelsford.
Wing projection of mongolicus (top) is shorter than that of taimyrensis (bottom). Moores: ‘It is at least in part the huge distance that Taimyr Gulls need to fly over land between their breeding grounds and the rich fishing grounds of the Yellow Sea and south China coast that requires them to be so long-winged.’ (Craig Brelsford)

It is at least in part the huge distance that Taimyr Gulls need to fly over land between their breeding grounds and the rich fishing grounds of the Yellow Sea and south China coast that requires them to be so long-winged; and the brevity of the Arctic summer also determines when juveniles can start to moult into their next plumage and how much of their plumage they then need to moult. As in Lesser Black-backed Gull and Heuglin’s Gull Larus heuglini (the latter for now listed by the IOC as Larus fuscus heuglini, i.e., a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed), it appears that this moult is much more extensive in Taimyr Gull than in Vega, American Herring, or European Herring Gull.

Juvenile Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis, October 25th, Pohang, Republic of Korea. In October, all Taimyr Gulls (and Vega Gulls) are in a rather unremarkable, brown juvenile plumage making separation from Vega Gull L. vegae of the same age rather challenging. This is the plumage both species retain until December or January, several months later than Mongolian Gull L. mongolicus. Note however the rather confident, flat-backed structure of this individual; the rather dark greater coverts; the contrastingly dark centres to the scapulars (making the bird look scaly); and the contrast in the head, with the ear coverts obviously darkest - all features suggesting the otherwise slimmer, more attenuated-looking Lesser Black-backed Gull L.fuscus from Europe.
Juvenile Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis, 25 Oct. 2015, Pohang, Republic of Korea. In October, all Taimyr Gulls (and Vega Gulls) are in a rather unremarkable brown juvenile plumage, making separation from Vega Gull L. vegae of the same age rather challenging. This is the plumage both species retain until December or January, several months later than Mongolian Gull L. mongolicus. Note, however, the rather confident, flat-backed structure of this individual; the rather dark greater coverts; the contrastingly dark centres to the scapulars (making the bird look scaly); and the contrast in the head, with the ear coverts obviously darkest–all features suggesting the otherwise slimmer, more attenuated-looking Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus of Europe. Caption and photo by Nial Moores.

Their first great transformation–from brown juvenile into a grey, white, and black first-winter–starts quite late, however. Most Taimyr Gulls, like Vega Gulls, are in juvenile plumage through December. Sometime in January or February of their second calendar year, Taimyr Gulls begin a rapid moult, with many by the end of February starting to look white-headed, and some showing patches of dark adult-type grey plumage in the scapulars and mantle by March and especially by April. For one or two months (from mid-February to mid-April), these young Taimyr Gulls can then start to look quite similar to young Mongolian Gulls, a few of which also seem to start to show some adult grey in their upperparts. The upper wing still looks different, though (especially the pattern on the inner primaries), and among the other differences visible on birds on the ground is that the base grey on the scapulars is quite dark; and the anchors and barring that overlie this grey area are much coarser than in Mongolian Gull. Most Taimyr Gulls have very coarse streaking on the nape, too. And all this new plumage, being so new, looks really fresh. They therefore do not have worn-out looking tertials like most Mongolians, especially locally bred birds. Of interest perhaps to those who enjoy studying gulls, in my 25 years in this region, and although both second-calendar-year Taimyr (regularly) and second-calendar-year Mongolian (sometimes) can show adult-type grey, I have not yet seen a single second-calendar-year Vega Gull in March or April with obvious adult grey in the plumage.

MONGOLIAN GULL, A MORE SOUTHERLY BREEDER

Mongolian Gull, Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), 18 March. This gull was tagged on 27 May 2013 in Mongolia.
Mongolian Gull at Binjiang Park, Shanghai, 18 March 2017. This gull was wing-tagged at Telmen Lake, Mongolia, 2,820 km from Shanghai. Telmen Lake is a bit more than half the distance between Shanghai and the Taimyr Peninsula, where Taimyr Gull breeds. Moores says that because of the shorter distance between its breeding grounds and winter range, Mongolian Gull attains breeding plumage earlier than Taimyr Gull, and it is shorter-winged. (Craig Brelsford)

The Mongolian Gull (as far as we know) has a rather wider breeding distribution than Taimyr Gull and probably than Vega Gull. Mongolian is the species that breeds, or used to breed, north to Lake Khanka on the Sino-Russian border, northwest at least to Lake Baikal, and southeast to our region. This, after all, is the Herring-type gull that nests alongside Black-faced Spoonbills and Chinese Egrets on Yellow Sea islands in Korea and presumably very locally in China too. Breeding further south, their breeding grounds thaw earlier than those of the Taimyr Gull, which in turn means that Mongolian Gulls have to progress into breeding plumage much earlier than either Taimyr or Vega Gull.

By mid-February many adults are white-headed, and many are already prospecting nest sites. Here in Korea, by March many are paired up, giving their distinctive nasal braying courtship calls; birds can be sitting on eggs in April; and many of the young will have fledged by early June–this is before many Taimyr and Vega Gulls will have even started egg-laying! Mongolian Gulls (at least those born and raised in Korea) retain their dark brown juvenile plumage only until August or early September, before they start to moult rapidly into a quite pale-looking first-winter plumage. And by January, because this plumage is already several months old, young Mongolian Gulls already show a lot of wear, with extensive pale areas across the inner primaries contrasting with darker internal markings, which sometimes suggest black golf clubs.

First-winter Mongolian Gull Larus mongolicus, October 25th, Pohang, Republic of Korea. By October this bird, like probably all Mongolian Gulls, has moulted out of the brown juvenile plumage into a much more contrasting First-winter plumage. Note that the head is already almost white, and the bill is already developing a paler base. If you look closely at the tertials you can see that the edges are already very worn with ragged edges (i.e. they are already ol feathers). This fraying is not shown by Vega or Taimyr Gulls until March or April at the earliest, as they hatch much later than (locally-raised) Mongolian Gull. Nial Moores.
First-winter Mongolian Gull Larus mongolicus, 25 Oct. 2015, Pohang, Republic of Korea. By October this bird, like probably all Mongolian Gulls, has moulted out of the brown juvenile plumage into a much more contrasting first-winter plumage. Note that the head is already almost white, and the bill is already developing a paler base. If you look closely at the tertials, you can see that the edges are already very worn with ragged edges (i.e., they are already old feathers). This fraying is not shown by Vega or Taimyr Gulls until March or April at the earliest, as they hatch much later than (locally raised) Mongolian Gull. Caption and photo by Nial Moores.

Look carefully at the edges of the tertials, too: These often have uniquely frayed edges in mid-winter and early spring. These pale young Mongolian Gulls are the birds that look a lot like young Caspian Gulls, and are presumably much of the reason why Malling Olsen and Larsson (2004) treated Mongolian Gull as a subspecies of Caspian rather than lumping the taxon with Vega. They just look so different. In this region, we also get to see these young Mongolians accompanying adults on the tide-line and also often in freshwater habitats–along rivers and in lakes. This is an ecological niche they occupy which is largely avoided by both Taimyr and Vega Gulls. This is therefore the large gull of the Han River in Seoul and the Taedong in Pyongyang; and presumably of floodplain wetlands of the Yangtze River (and possibly of the Huangpu River in downtown Shanghai). As early as January, many of these young birds are already largely white-headed, with beautifully patterned scapulars (pale grey bases with dark rows of anchors), and often pale breasts and bellies: beautiful and strikingly different from either Taimyr or Vega Gulls at this time of year–both of which in January (as described above) are still mostly washed brown above and below, with heavily patterned heads and all-dark bills.

Structurally too, most Mongolian Gulls can be pretty obvious, being rather bulkier and more powerful-looking than Vega or Taimyr Gulls: a modest counterpart to the Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus of the North Atlantic. And just like Great Black-backeds, Mongolians are often aggressive too. They sit in wait near to eagles on the Han River, and on multiple occasions I have seen them try to rob fish from Common Mergansers and harass groups of dabbling ducks. Here in Korea, they are often found patrolling rivers near flocks of roosting Baikal Teal, and at least a half-dozen times I have watched one swoop down to whack a hapless duck on the back of the head. I have seen this kind of aggressive behaviour only by birds that show multiple features of Mongolian Gull and never by birds showing multiple features of Vega or Taimyr Gull. And if you live and bird in eastern China, you have probably seen similar behaviour too, right?

VEGA GULL: NORTHEAST ASIAN BREEDER

Adult Vega Gull Larus vegae, March 6th 2017, Kosong County, DPR Korea. Even in March, this individual is far from acquiring breeding plumage. Note the heavily marked head, with this dense brown-grey hood extending down to the breast; the pale-based bill; and the tiny white tips to some of the primaries, suggesting that this individual is still undergoing primary moult.
Adult Vega Gull Larus vegae, 6 March 2017, Kosong County, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Even in March, this individual is far from acquiring breeding plumage. Note the heavily marked head, with this dense brown-grey hood extending down to the breast; the pale-based bill; and the tiny white tips to some of the primaries, suggesting that this individual is still undergoing primary moult. Caption and photo by Nial Moores.

The third of these Herring-type gulls is Vega Gull. From experience in Korea and southwestern Japan, I would be surprised if birders could find many Vega in a muddy river-mouth in Shanghai–especially on a date as late as mid-March. For at least on this side of the Yellow Sea, the Vega Gull is much more a species of fishing harbours, mariculture platforms, and sandy beaches. They do occasionally show up on rivers, but they are primarily a coastal species, strongly associated with, and perhaps now even dependent on, human fisheries when away from the breeding grounds. Much of their breeding range lies to the far northeast of Asia, not to the west or northwest. As a result, their migration and moult appear to be more staggered than that of Taimyr or Mongolian Gulls. After all, they have the option of remaining close to the coast and to fishing harbours along most of their migration route, with the potential to stop off en route to feed when they need to. This is presumably one reason why there are not so many Vega left in the Yellow Sea by mid-March. Many have already migrated out of the Yellow Sea and through the Korean Strait past Busan in early March, with much of the return migration back into the Yellow Sea in November (when thousands can be seen around fishing boats) and in December.

It is not only habitat and behaviour that helps in the identification of Vega Gull. Most adults are easy to pick out from Taimyr and Mongolian in mid-winter: sloping-backed and rather weaker looking than Mongolian; pink-legged and with pale yellow bill bases; dirty grey upperparts lacking slate tones; often heavily streaked and mottled on the head and down the breast sides. The ones easiest to ID also have a nice and distinctive primary pattern–showing a weak string of pearls and a more jagged edge of grey, black, and white than in Slaty-backed Gull. If you find a juvenile or immature gull in this region that looks pretty much like an American or European Herring Gull, then the chances are very high that it is a Vega.

Much is still to be learned, of course. But from what we can see in this region Taimyr, Mongolian, and Vega Gulls have their own preferred ecological niches; their own migration phenology and moult timing; and their own plumage characters and distinctive bare-part coloration. It also seems very likely that they have their own distinctive vocalisations, too. They also have distinct, separate breeding areas. And yet despite this, all three remain stuck in taxonomic controversy. The IOC does not list taimyrensis, for example, and UK-based BirdLife International (2017) recently even went the extra step and lumped Mongolian, Taimyr, Vega, and American Herring Gull into a single species, which they then named Arctic Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus (this seems worth repeating: a species that nests as far south as the Yellow Sea is now called Arctic Herring Gull by the world’s premier bird-conservation organisation).

A PAUCITY OF RESEARCH

The lack of understanding of these Asian gulls in Europe and North America is in large part owing to a paucity of research. Most of these gulls migrate huge distances between areas that are very hard to travel to for logistical and geopolitical reasons, and most of the research that has been done on them is not published in English or in peer-reviewed journals. Some of the problem also likely comes from gull experts based in Europe and North America then trying to make what little evidence they can access on these taxa to conform neatly to perceived counterpart European and North American species– taxa that are now pretty well-known after decades of study. This to me seems to be a major reason for the IOC’s inconsistency as well as BirdLife’s peculiar decision. By this I mean, this is why the IOC currently recognises the European Herring Gull, the American Herring Gull, and the Caspian Gull as three separate species, while not recognizing Taimyr Gull at all, and while also treating heuglini as a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull and mongolicus as a subspecies of Vega. A more consistent approach might perhaps be instead to lump all Herring-types together; or to split all of the Herring-types apart when there is evidence to support it. All Birds Korea materials depend on the excellent recommendations of Gill and Donsker (2017) and the IOC Checklist–but not in the case of these gulls. To do so would require ignoring what appear to be consistent differences shown by these three taxa which are easily observable within this region.

Much still does need to be learned about these gulls, of course, whatever list you decide to follow and however you choose to organise your observations. Without doubt though, Mongolian, Vega, and Taimyr Gulls are a major part of the coastal birding experience in East Asia, and they offer great potential for pushing the frontiers of ID. It would therefore be very helpful for more birders to spend time on these and other gulls–looking for wing tags and bands, documenting moult progression with photographs, and generating ever-better information on this group of fascinating and under-appreciated birds.

REFERENCES

BirdLife International. Species factsheet: Larus smithsonianus. Available at http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/62030590.

Gill, F. & D Donsker, eds. IOC World Bird List. Available at http://www.worldbirdnames.org/.

Cover to Malling Olsen, K. & Larsson H. 2004. Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America. Helm Identification Guides.
Cover of Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America

Malling Olsen, Klaus, and Hans Larsson. Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America. Helm Identification Guides, 2004.

Moores, N., Kim, A. & Kim R. 2014. Status of Birds, 2014. Birds Korea Report on Bird Population Trends and Conservation Status in the Republic of
Korea. Published by Birds Korea, September 2014. Available at http://www.birdskorea.or.kr/Habitats/Yellow-Sea/YSBR/Downloads/Birds-Korea-Status-of-Birds-2014.pdf.

van Dijk, Klaas, Sergei Kharitonov, Holmer Vonk, and Bart Ebbinge. “Taimyr Gulls: evidence for Pacific winter range, with notes on morphology and breeding.” Dutch Birding 33: 9-21. Downloaded 5 April 2017 from http://gull-research.org/papers/gullpapers1/Taimyr_Gulls_Dutch_Birding33_2011_pag9_21.pdf.

John MacKinnon in Shanghai

On Sat. 8 April 2017 I birded Cape Nanhui with John MacKinnon. John is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about China’s birds. On John’s first visit to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula, we noted 84 species. John and I were joined by veteran birders Michael Grunwell and Russell Boyman and the outstanding high-school birder Larry Chen.

We gave John the Grand Nanhui Tour, starting at Luchao to the south and ending 30 km north at Binhai. Heading back to the city, we made a brief stop at the sod farm just south of Pudong Airport, where we found a single Oriental Plover.

Oriental Plover at sod farm S of Pudong Airport, 8 Apirl 2017 (Craig Brelsford).
Russell Boyman (L) examines Oriental Plover 8 April 2017 at the sod farm south of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). Conditions at the sod farm were decidedly not favorable to a plover. The jets were noisy, the farmers were busy, and there was a whiff of pesticide in the air. Why would the plover choose such a subpar area? Because the sod farm roughly approximates the steppe habitat required by the East Asian specialty. Oriental Plover are long-distance athletes, marathon runners between Australia and Mongolia, and incredibly tough. Despite the poor habitat, our bird likely will survive its brief visit to Shanghai and muscle its way up to the breeding grounds. For more on Oriental Plover in Shanghai, see my post Rites of Spring. (Craig Brelsford)

Nanhui yielded 23 Marsh Grassbird performing the song flight at three locations, and we saw 10 Endangered Great Knot and 1 Near Threatened Curlew Sandpiper. We had a pair of Rufous-faced Warbler and a Common Starling.

Also: Garganey 57, Greater Scaup 1 (Dishui Lake), Little Curlew 31 (flock), Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 11 (first of season), Red-necked Stint 1 (first of season), Wood Sandpiper 1 (first of season), Peregrine Falcon 1, Dusky Warbler 1 at Magic Parking Lot (possibly wintered there), and Reed Parrotbill 18.

Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Top: Rufous-faced Warbler. Bottom L: European Starling with White-cheeked Starling. Middle R: Curlew Sandpiper assuming breeding plumage. Bottom R: Male Red-flanked Bluetail. (Craig Brelsford)
Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Top: Rufous-faced Warbler Abroscopus albogularis is common in much of south China and a vagrant to Shanghai. Bottom L: A vagrant to Shanghai, Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris is often seen associating with White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus. Middle R: Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea assuming breeding plumage. Bottom R: Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus. In Shanghai stunning adult males such as this one are less often seen than the less-colorful females. Red-flanked Bluetail breeds from Japan west to Finland. (Craig Brelsford)

GETTING TO KNOW JOHN MACKINNON

John MacKinnon wrote the most influential field guide ever published about China's birds.
John MacKinnon co-authored the most influential field guide ever published about China’s birds.

Our partner, John MacKinnon, co-authored A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Published in 2000, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies and remains the only bird guide in English covering all China. John also wrote the first and second guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com.

John is witty and a fine storyteller. He had us roaring with tales drawn from his six decades as a researcher in Asia. The funniest story was about the doctor back home in Britain. Every time John straggled in, the doc would call in his students, so that they could study the strange new tropical disease John had contracted.

“I never cared about my health, because I never expected to live this long!” John said.

John also talked about his masterpiece, A Field Guide to the Birds of China.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Field Guide. Had it merely been a window for Westerners to the birds of the world’s most populous country, then John’s work would have been important enough. The Field Guide, however, in translated form has introduced tens of thousands of Chinese to the birds of their own country. John’s Chinese name, Mǎjìngnéng (马敬能), is known by every birder in China.

John faced obstacles unknown to field-guide writers in North America and Western Europe, where birding has been practiced for 200 years. His sources were often thin, he said.

“For range maps, I had nearly nothing from Russia,” John said. “A Chinese book had ranges stopping at the Chinese border. Another book had no paintings, only descriptions.”

To critics who unfairly compare John’s Field Guide to field guides covering more developed parts of the world, John had this to say:

“You’ve got to finish something. We finished the book. We could have waited and said, ‘Oh, another species has been split, we must revise,’ but at a certain point you have to say, ‘We must go with what we’ve got.’”

To this day, no Westerner has repeated John’s feat. Others talked; John acted. One can imagine the feeling of accomplishment in John’s heart.

John is a handy photographer and got off some good shots, three of which are displayed in the Day List at the bottom of this post. Here are some photos I took of the pioneer birder and naturalist.

John MacKinnon (R) and Michael Grunwell examine one of John's photos at Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017 (Craig Brelsford).
John MacKinnon (R) and Michael Grunwell examine one of John’s photos at Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
L-R: Michael Grunwell, John MacKinnon, Russell Boyman, Larry Chen. Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Craig Brelsford.
The team at Nanhui. L-R: Michael Grunwell, John MacKinnon, Russell Boyman, Larry Chen. (Craig Brelsford)
Everyone wanted a turn with the distinguished man. Top: MacKinnon with Larry Chen (L) and Russell Boyman. Bottom: Michael Grunwell poses and gets an autograph for his copy of the Field Guide. (Craig Brelsford)
Everyone wanted a turn with the distinguished author. Top panels: John MacKinnon with Larry Chen (L) and Russell Boyman. Bottom: Michael Grunwell poses and gets an autograph. (Craig Brelsford)

MARSH GRASSBIRD ON THE BRINK

Marsh Grassbird were singing in the large reed beds at Nanhui. They were most conspicuous at the reed bed south of the Holiday Inn (30.870711, 121.942976). The species, listed as Near Threatened by IUCN, was also noted in the pristine reed bed (30.931790, 121.949169) associated with the defunct wetland reserve.

Marsh Grassbird at Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Craig Brelsford.
Locustella pryeri sinensis at the large reed bed (30.870711, 121.942976), Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 8 April 2017. Marsh Grassbird is among the least-known members of Locustella. The populations at Cape Nanhui went unmentioned by Kennerley and Pearson in their landmark book Reed and Bush Warblers (Christopher Helm 2010). Kennerley and Pearson were aware of the breeding population on Shanghai’s Chongming Island but even there could not say for certain whether the grassbirds were residents or summer visitors. Part of the reason for the lack of knowledge is the extreme shyness of the bird. Outside breeding season, when it undertakes song flights, Marsh Grassbird remains hidden deep within the Phragmites reed beds that are its preferred habitat. The other reason is the extremely fast rate at which its reed-bed home is being destroyed. At Cape Nanhui and other places in China, this Near Threatened species could disappear before researchers get a chance to study it. (Craig Brelsford)

The reed beds at Cape Nanhui may be the last stronghold of Locustella pryeri sinensis on the Shanghai Peninsula. The species is highly dependent on large reed beds. In areas where only strips of reeds remain, the song of Marsh Grassbird is never heard. Its partner species, Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for official bird of the city-province of Shanghai, is only slightly less dependent on large reed beds.

One of the areas where last year my partners and I noted Marsh Grassbird performing its song flight has been flattened. No song of Marsh Grassbird was heard there Saturday. A few Reed Parrotbill were calling in one of the strips of reeds left standing.

Much needs to be learned about Marsh Grassbird in Earth’s largest city. Birders, look for the fluttering song flight, and listen for this song:

Marsh Grassbird, 10 April 2016, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:07; 1 MB)

Marsh Grassbird still sing in the Yellow Sector. Satellite map © Google and customized by Craig Brelsford.
Marsh Grassbird still sings in the Yellow Sector, the largest reed bed at Cape Nanhui, located south of the Holiday Inn at 30.870711, 121.942976. Preservation of this and other reed beds would ensure the survival of Marsh Grassbird and Reed Parrotbill in mainland Shanghai. Satellite map © Google; customized by Craig Brelsford.

The plight of Marsh Grassbird brings to mind the series of posts I wrote last year on the precarious environmental situation at Cape Nanhui.

Comparing Richard’s and Blyth’s Pipit (along with description of pipits is news of my interview with Pudong TV as well as satellite maps of Cape Nanhui)
Messengers (recent records of endangered cranes in Shanghai show the need to protect more land in the city-province)
The Case for Conserving Nanhui (foreigners can’t do all the work; local Chinese need to step up, too)
Save the Nanhui Wetland Reserve! (cri de coeur plus call to action)
Remnants (preparation for probable demise of Cape Nanhui)
Reed Parrotbill, Symbol of Shanghai (naming Reed Parrotbill the bird of Shanghai will send a message about the importance of the Cape Nanhui reed beds)
Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Nanhui (proof of yet another endangered species using the defunct wetland reserve at Nanhui)

DAY LIST
My lists are generated on eBird then adjusted to comport with my first reference, the IOC World Bird List.

List 1 of 1 for Saturday 8 April 2017 (84 species)

Photos by John MacKinnon, 8 April 2017. Clockwise from top L: Red-flanked Bluetail, Rufous-faced Warbler, Little Curlew.
Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Clockwise from top L: Red-flanked Bluetail, Rufous-faced Warbler, Little Curlew. (John MacKinnon)

Birds noted around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]; 30.920507, 121.973159), Pudong, Shanghai, China. We covered the coastal road between Binhai (Bīnhǎi Zhèn [滨海镇]; 31.006250, 121.885558) and Luchao (Lúcháo Gǎng [芦潮港]; 30.851109, 121.848455). Among the points along this 30 km stretch are Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883), a site providing access to the reed beds at the mouth of the Dazhi River (Dàzhì Hé [大治河]); Big Bend (31.000321, 121.938074); Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083); Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635); Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229); Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551); South Lock (30.860073, 121.909997); Eiffel Tower (30.850531, 121.878047); & the Marshy Agricultural Land (30.850707, 121.863662). List includes birds noted at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124). Cloudy, hazy; low 13° C, high 18° C. Wind E 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 147 (unhealthful). Visibility 5 km. Sunrise 05:34, sunset 18:18. SAT 08 APR 2017 07:00-16:55. Russell Boyman, Craig Brelsford, Larry Chen, Michael Grunwell, & John MacKinnon.

Garganey Spatula querquedula 57
Northern Shoveler S. clypeata 4
Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope 2
Falcated Duck M. falcata 25
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha 35
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 2
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 25
Greater Scaup A. marila 1
Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica 3
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 3
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 8
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 20
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 31
Great Egret A. alba 3
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 1
Little Egret E. garzetta 95
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 9
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 40
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 20
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 13
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 27
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius 7
Oriental Plover C. veredus 1 at sod farm S of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742)
Little Curlew Numenius minutus 31
Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris 10
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata 11
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea 1
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis 1
Dunlin C. alpina 30
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 8
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 3
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus 1
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus 4
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 20
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola 1
Common Redshank T. totanus 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 25
Little Tern Sternula albifrons 1
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 13
Spotted Dove S. chinensis 2
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 2
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 2
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 20 singing
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 200
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 35
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 13
Rufous-faced Warbler Abroscopus albogularis 2 (pair)
Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis 4 singing
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus 1
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler P. proregulus 1
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 1
Marsh Grassbird Locustella pryeri sinensis 23
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 6
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 8
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 100
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris 1
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 42
White-cheeked Starling S. cineraceus 17
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 18
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 2
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum 1
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 11
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 55
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 1
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 75
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata 3
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 8
White Wagtail M. alba 28
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni 8
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 7
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica 1
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 23
Little Bunting E. pusilla 16
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 13
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 8

Featured image: John MacKinnon (R), co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, with Craig Brelsford, executive editor of shanghaibirding.com. Photo by Larry Chen.

Rites of Spring

For birders in Earth’s greatest city, finding Oriental Plover is one of the rites of spring. Last Sun. 26 March 2017 on Shanghai’s Hengsha Island, our three-man birding team tracked down 25 of these passage migrants. The encounter was the latest in a series of interesting experiences I have had with the East Asian specialty.

Along with Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Komatsu Yasuhiko, I drove on Saturday night 25 March to Changxing Island, crossing to Hengsha on the ferry. We set up for the night at my accustomed bed and breakfast, Héngshā Bànrìxián Mínsù (横沙半日闲民宿, +86 150-2164-5467, no English).

At 05:40 the next morning we zipped through the gate (31.297333, 121.859434) to the vast reclaimed area of Hengsha Island. Formerly intertidal shoals at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the area, now walled in, offers some of the best birding in Shanghai.

Michael and Hiko had no experience with Oriental Plover. I have seen the species various times. One of the highlights of my early birding career occurred on 29 March 2010. On a cool, early-spring afternoon, I lay on my belly in the presence of 30 Oriental Plover at the old sod farm (31.205847, 121.777368) at Sanjiagang in Pudong. What an unforgettable experience that was.

The sod farm has long since been destroyed, but memories of those times, as well as my observations of the species on its breeding grounds near Hulun Lake in Inner Mongolia, still live in me, and they told me where to look for the bird. One needs to find habitat reminiscent of the dry, stony steppe on which it breeds.

On Hengsha, such habitat is abundant, and we scoured all the likely spots, among them the place where my wife Elaine Du and I found 3 Oriental Plover last April 9.

Oriental Plover habitat at Hengsha (top) and Inner Mongolia (bottom). Top: Hiko. Bottom: Craig Brelsford
Oriental Plover habitat on Hengsha Island (top) and in Inner Mongolia (bottom). Note the similarities between the flat, grassy area on Hengsha Island and the steppe near Hulun Lake. A migrating Oriental Plover, especially one that may have flown virtually non-stop from Australia, sees the scene at top and thinks of home. Top: Komatsu Yasuhiko, 26 March 2017, 31.301475, 121.917442. Bottom: Craig Brelsford, 24 July 2015, 48.254637, 118.338622.

We were driving along the coastal road that skirts the southern edge of the reclaimed area. The morning was hazy, with air pollution giving me the sniffles, but even with the reduced visibility one could appreciate the power of the Yangtze looming behind.

Here, the longest river in Asia releases into the East China Sea the water collected along its course of 6,300 km (3,915 mi.). On clear days, one can see the famous skyline of Pudong, 38 km (24 mi.) away. At Hengsha Island, one stands on the eastern edge of Eurasia at the mouth of China’s greatest river in the shadow of Earth’s greatest city.

As we drove, the reed beds and marshy areas began to recede, and there opened up before us drier, grassier habitat, perfect for Oriental Plover. Stopping the car, I intoned, in a voice recalling Brigham Young, “This is the place.” (The coordinates are 31.301475, 121.917442.)

Michael Grunwell views Oriental Plover on Hengsha Island, 26 March 2017 (Komatsu Yasuhiko).
Michael Grunwell views Oriental Plover in steppe-like habitat, Hengsha, 26 March. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

We broke out a forest of tripods and set upon them our spotting scopes. Michael, the seasoned veteran, saw the plovers first. Continuing our Wild West theme, Michael shouted, “Eureka!” His head was motionless, glued to the scope, but his arms were waving, and he was dancing a jig.

Michael and Hiko moved in for a closer look. I stayed above, scanning the scene through my Swarovski ATX-95. Males and females were in partial breeding plumage. They were running fast across the turf, picking off invertebrates. Twice they flew, and I appreciated their powerful, erratic flight and long wings.

We found 16 Oriental Plover there. We found another 9 on the north shore of the reclaimed area, on the mudflats.

NOTES ON ORIENTAL PLOVER

Oriental Plover breeds mainly in Mongolia. The breeding range extends into China in Hulunbeier, the northernmost portion of Inner Mongolia. In Shanghai, Charadrius veredus is an uncommon springtime passage migrant.
Oriental Plover breeds mainly in Mongolia. The range extends into China in Hulunbeier, the northernmost prefecture of Inner Mongolia. In Shanghai and at various places along the Chinese coast, Charadrius veredus is an uncommon springtime passage migrant. Autumn records are scanty, and the migration route of Oriental Plover south through China is not entirely clear. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus is listed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN. A survey in 2010 came up with an estimated world population of 160,000, an encouraging number. The species is helped by the sparse human population both in the area where it breeds (mainly Mongolia) and where it winters (mainly Australia).

The species may be helped as well by its migration patterns. There is evidence that migrating Oriental Plover overfly much of Southeast Asia and possibly even China, areas where the hand of man is much heavier than in Mongolia and Australia.

In the entry for Oriental Plover in Handbook of the Birds of the World, T. Piersma mentions a “scarcity of records between China and the non-breeding grounds,” suggesting that migrating Oriental Plover make a “non-stop flight between these two zones.” Robson, in Birds of Southeast Asia, describes Oriental Plover as a “vagrant/rare passage migrant.”

Piersma says Oriental Plover is “very abundant” on migration in the Yangtze River Valley. That is doubtful. Oriental Plover is certainly not abundant in Shanghai; indeed, in autumn the species is virtually unrecorded here (as well as in much of eastern China). The city may nonetheless serve as a staging area for some portion of the species in spring.

My anecdotal evidence may lend credence to the idea that Oriental Plover fly mind-boggling distances between Australia and Mongolia. During my close encounter with the 30 Oriental Plover at Sanjiagang, the plovers were clearly exhausted. Some fell asleep right in front of me. How many kilometers had they just flown? Hundreds? Thousands?

Oriental Plover is most closely related to, and was once considered conspecific with, Caspian Plover Charadrius asiaticus. Breeding male Oriental Plover is readily distinguishable from Caspian by its purely white head. The thick black breast band on breeding Oriental male is also distinctive.

Non-breeding Greater Sand Plover and Lesser Sand Plover are smaller and more compact and have narrower breast bands than non-breeding Oriental Plover. In flight, Oriental Plover lacks the white wing bar seen on the sand plovers.

PHOTOS OF ORIENTAL PLOVER

A male Oriental Plover in partial breeding stands at Sanjiagang, 29 March 2010. Every year from about the third week of March until the middle of April, Charadrius veredus passes through Shanghai en route to its breeding grounds in Mongolia. For Shanghai birders, seizing the opportunity to view this East Asian specialty is an annual rite of spring. Craig Brelsford.
A male Oriental Plover in partial breeding plumage stands at the old sod farm (31.205847, 121.777368) at Sanjiagang, Pudong, 29 March 2010. Every year from the third week of March until the middle of April, Charadrius veredus passes through Shanghai en route to its breeding grounds in Mongolia. For Shanghai birders, seizing the brief opportunity to view this East Asian specialty is a rite of spring. (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Plover, 29 March 2010, Sanjiagang (Craig Brelsford).
Oriental Plover, 29 March 2010, sod farm, Sanjiagang. Lying on the cool grass in the presence of those serene long-distance travelers, I felt I had entered birding heaven.  (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Plover doze just meters away from the photographer at Sanjiagang, 29 March 2010. It is probable that these plovers had just completed a very long flight, possibly all the way from Australia, before landing here. Craig Brelsford.
Exhausted Oriental Plover doze just meters away from the photographer at Sanjiagang, 29 March 2010. These plovers had probably just completed a very long leg of the journey from Australia to Mongolia. (Craig Brelsford)
The pure white head of breeding male Oriental Plover is diagnostic. Sanjiagang, 2 April 2010. Craig Brelsford.
This male Oriental Plover has nearly attained full breeding plumage. Note the diagnostic white head, still showing some of the darker non-breeding feathers. Sanjiagang, 2 April 2010. (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Plover, 23 April 2010, Sanjiagang. (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Plover, 23 April 2010. This photo was taken at a place once reliable for Charadrius veredus: the old sod farm at Sanjiagang, 6.5 km N of Pudong Airport (31.205847, 121.777368). The farm has been destroyed, but on Hengsha Island, steppe-like habitat required by Oriental Plover remains. (Craig Brelsford)

WORKS CONSULTED

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Oriental Plover, p. 164.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 3, “Hoatzin to Auks.” Species accounts for Oriental Plover and Caspian Plover (p. 438) by T. Piersma.

John MacKinnon wrote the most influential field guide ever published about China's birds.
In December 2016, John MacKinnon published his second guest post for shanghaibirding.com.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press. Oriental Plover, p. 178. Authors mention Hulun Lake as breeding area for species. Curiously, Liaoning is also mentioned.

Message, Stephen & Don Taylor. Waders of Europe, Asia and North America. Oriental Plover, pp. 66 & 152.

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Oriental Plover, p. 106. Consulted to get a better idea of the rarity of Oriental Plover in Southeast Asia.

Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Caspian Plover, p. 142.

Featured image: On 29 March 2010, Craig Brelsford found 30 exhausted Oriental Plover at the old sod farm at Sanjiagang (31.205847, 121.777368), 6.5 km (4 mi.) north of Pudong Airport in Shanghai. I got the image here, as well as all my plover images in this post, with my old Nikon D300 plus Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens.

Loons Near Pudong Airport

Black-throated Loon and Red-throated Loon have been found at a little-birded recreational area in Pudong, and Slaty-backed Gull has appeared on the Huangpu River across from the Bund. All three species are rare in Earth’s Greatest City, with Black-throated Loon the scarcest. All three were brought to light by Shanghai birders using social media.

Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, Sanjiagang Water Park, March 2017. Photo by Kai Pflug.
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, Sanjiagang Seaside Park (31.217928, 121.768172). Photo by Kai Pflug. On Sun. 19 March 2017, a day after Michael Grunwell and I viewed it, this loon was discovered dead at the water park. It may have been a victim of poisoning through the ingestion of oil that had collected on its feathers.

The loons had been sighted numerous times before my partner Michael Grunwell and I arrived on Sat. 18 March 2017 at Sanjiagang Seaside Park (31.217928, 121.768172). The dilapidated recreation area is on the coast of the East China Sea, near the mouth of the Yangtze River, 9 km north of Pudong Airport. Chinese birders discovered the loons, and birder Larry Chen, his partners Komatsu Yasuhiko and Archie Jiang, and bird photographer Kai Pflug followed up, reporting back to our chat group, Shanghai Birding.

On Sun. 19 March, the Red-throated Loon was discovered dead at the park by local birder Suōyǔ Hè (蓑羽鹤). It is not clear what killed the bird, but it may have slowly poisoned itself by ingesting oil that had collected on its feathers. Larry said that during his encounters with the individual “The loon was constantly attempting to preen itself” and that he clearly saw oil on one of its flanks. Can you detect anything amiss in the video below?

Red-throated Loon breeds at latitudes above 50 degrees in Eurasia and North America. Wintering Gavia stellata is more common in Shanghai than Black-throated Loon, being recorded annually here. Michael, my wife Elaine Du, and I found Red-throated Loon at Cape Nanhui in January 2016.

The feet of loons are placed far back on their body. Their resulting ungainliness on land is obvious even on a resting loon, as here. Laotieshan, Liaoning, 18 Sept. 2013. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
The feet of loons are placed far back on the bulky body, making loons powerful divers and clumsy walkers. Note the dagger-like bill, elongated head, and thick neck, characteristic of all five species in the loon family Gaviidae. I found this Black-throated Loon on 18 Sept. 2013 at Laotieshan, Liaoning (38.730483, 121.134018).

Black-throated Loon is also known as Black-throated Diver and Arctic Loon. Gavia arctica breeds across northern Eurasia and into Alaska. It is an uncommon winter visitor all along the coast of China and is very rarely noted in Shanghai, with the last previous record in 2012. Before the encounter Saturday, I had seen Black-throated Loon only once, on 18 Sept. 2013 at Laotieshan (38.730483, 121.134018) in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Here is video of Black-throated Loon at Sanjiagang Seaside Park.

GULLING WITH BIRDERS IN MY POCKET

Michael Grunwell viewing gulls on Huangpu River, 18 March 2017. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Michael Grunwell views gulls Saturday at Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863). Craig Brelsford.

On Sat. 18 March at Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), with the Pudong skyline looming behind, Michael Grunwell and I scanned the gulls on the Huangpu River.

“I think we’ve found Slaty-backed!” Michael cried.

With my iPhone I took photos of the gull through my scope and uploaded the photos to Shanghai Birding, the chat group I manage on the instant-messaging application WeChat. Within minutes the experts in my pocket started weighing in. Shenzhen birder Jonathan Martinez and Larry Chen, both strong gullers, confirmed Michael’s ID. Michael and I had a life bird!

By its second winter, Slaty-backed Gull (C) shows a mantle darker than that of all other gulls in our region. Note the contrast in mantle color between Larus schistisagus and the adult Vega Gull L. vegae vegae/mongolicus surrounding it. Photo by Craig Brelsford using iPhone 6 and PhoneSkope adapter attached to my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope.
By its second winter, Slaty-backed Gull (C) shows a saddle a darker shade of grey than that of all other gulls in East Asia. Note here the contrast between the slate-grey of Larus schistisagus (top inset) and the lighter grey of the other gulls, all adult Vega Gull L. vegae vegae/mongolicus (bottom inset). UPDATE, 18 APR 2017: In a guest post for shanghaibirding.com about the Widespread Herring-type Gulls of East Asia, Nial Moores says the gull far L is Taimyr Gull L. (heuglini) taimyrensis. Photo by Craig Brelsford using iPhone 6 and PhoneSkope adapter attached to Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope.

Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus breeds on islands and cliffs on the coast of the Russian Far East (particularly the Kamchatka Peninsula) as well as Hokkaido. Wintering Slaty-backed are common in Japan, less common in northern coastal China, and rare in Shanghai.

Slaty-backed Gull, 2nd winter, Huangpu River, Shanghai 18 March 2017.
Slaty-backed Gull, Shanghai. Note the angular head, stout bill, and short, thick, bubblegum-pink legs. Craig Brelsford.
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Day Lists
Lists are generated on eBird then adjusted to comport with my first reference, the IOC World Bird List.

List 1 of 2 for Sat. 18 March 2017 (7 species)

Vega/Mongolian Gull Larus vegae vegae/mongolicus, Binjiang Park (31.240195, 121.490717), Shanghai, China, 18 March 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com)
Mongolian Gull Larus vegae mongolicus, Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), 18 March. Tag says ‘AL 62.’ I am looking into the origin of the tag and will update this post when I get more information. This is yet another photo taken with my iPhone 6 + PhoneSkope + Swarovski ATX-95. UPDATE, 22 MAR 2017: Thank you to Nial Moores from Birds Korea for showing me this page about a wing-tagging program for gulls from 2004 in northeastern Mongolia. It is highly possible that the gull above is part of that program. UPDATE, 24 MAR 2017: Gull researcher Andreas Buchheim has written me saying that he himself ringed gull AL 62 on 27 May 2013 at Telmen Lake (48.8, 97.25) in NW Mongolia. Telmen Lake is 2,820 km (1,752 miles) from Shanghai’s Binjiang Park. Buchheim said that when he ringed AL 62, it was already an adult. This means that AL 62 hatched no later than spring 2010 and that the youngest it could be is nearly 7 years old. All large, white-headed gulls breeding in Mongolia, Buchheim said, are mongolicus. Regarding our mongolicus, Nial Moores from Birds Korea said, ‘This individual shows more obvious yellowish tones to the legs than most/any we see here in Korea (where they are invariably pinkish-legged). It is known that some Mongolians on the breeding grounds have yellowish tones to the legs–so perhaps this difference between birds in Shanghai and Korea is to do with hormonal condition pre-migration. It tends to be several degrees colder in Korea than in Shanghai on the same dates, of course.’

Birds noted at Binjiang Park (Bīnjiāng Gōngyuán [滨江公园], (31.2356935, 121.4973863), small urban park on Huangpu River in Pudong New Area (Pǔdōng Xīn Qū [浦东新区]), Shanghai, China. Overcast; low 10° C, high 13° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind NE 11 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 91 (moderate). Sunrise 06:00, sunset 18:04. SAT 18 MAR 2017 11:00-12:45. Craig Brelsford & Michael Grunwell.

Little Egret Egretta garzetta 20
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 50
Mongolian Gull Larus vegae mongolicus 1 w. tags & band
Vega/Mongolian Gull L. vegae vegae/mongolicus 149
Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus heuglini 3
Slaty-backed Gull L. schistisagus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 1
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 15

List 2 of 2 for Sat. 18 March 2017 (22 species)

Shanghai Birder KaneXu (L), and Michael Grunwell share a laugh after discovering that they both own the same model of camera, the Nikon Coolpix P900S.
Shanghai birders KaneXu (L) and Michael Grunwell share a laugh after discovering that they own the same camera, the Nikon Coolpix P900S. The two were at Sanjiagang Seaside Park on 18 March. When it comes to compact cameras, Nikon and other manufacturers are feeling the heat from smartphones. They know that consumers are turning away from compact cameras because the cameras in smartphones are now so good. They are therefore loading up compact cameras such as the P900S with plenty of power and pricing them competitively. KaneXu and Michael are getting great stills as well as video with their new cameras. Photo by Craig Brelsford.

Birds noted at Sanjiagang Seaside Park (Sānjiǎgǎng Hǎibīn Lèyuán [三甲港海滨乐园]; 31.217928, 121.768172), Pudong New Area (Pǔdōng Xīn Qū [浦东新区]), Shanghai, China. Overcast; low 10° C, high 13° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind NE 11 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 91 (moderate). Sunrise 06:00, sunset 18:04. SAT 18 MAR 2017 14:15-16:45. Craig Brelsford & Michael Grunwell.

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 40
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata 1
Black-throated Loon G. arctica 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 50
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 5
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 3
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 75
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 60
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 7
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 3
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 25
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 15
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 2 (1 singing)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 40
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 50
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis 20
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 5
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans 1
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 7
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 7

Featured image: Black-throated Loon Gavia arctica, Laotieshan, Liaoning, China, 18 Sept. 2013. Photo by Craig Brelsford using Nikon D3S and Nikkor 600mm F/4 lens. 1/800, F/14, ISO 1600. I was just 7.1 m from the loon, lying on my belly on the rocky shore.