Does Green-backed FlycatcherFicedula elisae migrate through Shanghai? Records exist of the species, but in my opinion they are mainly misidentifications of female Narcissus FlycatcherF. narcissina narcissina (above). In this post, I am going to unearth the roots of my skepticism about F. elisae in Shanghai and describe the differences between female F. elisae and female F. n. narcissina.
Each spring and autumn, birders in Earth’s Greatest City claim records of elisae. Invariably, the bird in question is a female, not the very distinctive adult male. Here our first red flag pops up: How likely is it that elisae is the one species of passerine whose records in Shanghai never involve adult males?
For the sake of argument, let us admit the possibility of an all-female migration of elisae through Shanghai. Fine, I retort; then show me photos of these purported elisae. The photos are duly supplied, and again and again, as has been the case throughout my more than 10 years in Shanghai, the supposed F. elisae is revealed on closer scrutiny to be yet another female F. n. narcissina.
Indeed, I have seen better documentation in Shanghai of Ryukyu FlycatcherF. (narcissina) owstoni than of F. elisae; on 17 April 2016 at Pudong’s Binjiang Forest Park, Shanghai birder Zhang Xiaolei got a very interesting picture of a possible adult-male owstoni.
Mistakes of the sort many Shanghai birders are making contribute to a distorted picture of the presence on the central Chinese coast of a little-known species. What’s more, the mistakes are avoidable. Separation of female F. elisae and F. n. narcissina is usually straightforward.
Female F. elisae has greenish upperparts with a yellowish or olive tint. Female F. n. narcissina is greenish with a brownish tint, like female Blue-and-white FlycatcherCyanoptila cyanomelana (above). On their underparts, female F. elisae is “dull yellow or yellowish-buff,” while F. n. narcissina is mainly off-white, with brownish-white flanks and a hint of yellow on the throat and belly (Brazil).
Accurate records in Shanghai, one of the most thoroughly birded areas on the Chinese coast, will lead to better understandings of both F. elisae and F. n. narcissina. Already, the growing body of knowledge about these East Asian breeding endemics has led to the separation of F. elisae and F. n. narcissina into separate species. Previously, elisae had been treated as a subspecies of Narcissus Flycatcher.
We know as well that the summer and winter ranges of the sister species are disjunct, with F. elisae breeding in a very compact range in Hebei (Wulingshan), Beijing, and Shanxi and wintering in southern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia. The breeding range of F. n. narcissina includes the main islands of Japan as well as the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin, and the coastal Russian Far East. The species winters in Hainan, the Philippines, and Borneo and passes through Shanghai each spring from about 15 April to 15 May.
Unlike other passage-migrant flycatchers in Shanghai, F. n. narcissina is much less common in autumn than in spring. That is a mystery, one of many surrounding the migration of the Narcissus Flycatcher group.
In light of the information deficit, it behooves us Shanghai birders to strive for accurate records (or non-records) of elisae in our region. Let us practice self-discipline, hone our skills, and give outside observers the clearest possible picture of bird migration in Shanghai.
Brazil, Mark. 2009. Birds of East Asia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Entries for Narcissus Flycatcher and Chinese Flycatcher (Ficedula elisae), p. 436.
Gill, F & D Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3). shanghaibirding.com’s first reference for taxonomy as well as bird names in English.
As summer melts into fall, Pudong’s Cape Nanhui continues to prove to be one of the best birding locations in China. In the period 26 Aug. to 8 Sept. 2017, I birded four days at the most southeasterly point of Shanghai, as well as at other key locations in Earth’s Greatest City. I noted 106 species.
After nearly 10 years in Shanghai and countless visits to Cape Nanhui, I still occasionally score life birds there, a testament to the richness of the hot spot. Such was the case 4 Sept. with Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher. The bird, an adult, was in Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635).
Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher is a very scarce vagrant to Shanghai. Cyornis brunneatus breeds in southeast China and spends the winter in peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo. It is uncommon even in its core range and virtually unknown in the Shanghai region outside Cape Nanhui; the place closest to Shanghai where I have heard of it occurring is Emeifeng, 635 km southwest of Shanghai in Fujian.
The IUCN lists the species as Vulnerable because of the loss of mature primary lowland forest throughout its range.
Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher T. atrocaudata
3 Amur found 27 Aug. at Binhai Forest Park, the heavily wooded green space near Cape Nanhui, 4.5 km inland from the East China Sea. A stunning white-morph male and rufous-morph were continuously together, and we found a single rufous-morph in another part of the park. The white-morph as well as the rufous-morph accompanying it were calling. I have seen dozens of paradise flycatchers in Shanghai over the years and heard only one call (a Japanese for 1 or 2 seconds). Why were the Amur at Binhai Forest Park calling?
Binhai Forest Park is visited little and birded even less; could this quiet, thickly wooded park hold breeding Amur Paradise Flycatcher? As the white-morph male looks like something out of a fairy tale and is a bird even a non-birder would recognize, I asked park employees whether they had seen it. All said no.
The white-morph Amur that U.S. birder Tom Hurley and I saw was only the second I had ever beheld and a first for me in Shanghai. At Dongzhai National Nature Reserve, Henan, on 5 June 2010, I photographed the white-morph shown right. The Binhai white-morph lacked the long tail feathers of the bird I saw at Dongzhai but was still an unforgettable sight.
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher is the more common of the two paradise flycatchers in Shanghai. The photo above shows the differences in upperpart coloration between rufous-morph Amur Paradise Flycatcher and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.
Fairy PittaPitta nympha
On 4 Sept. at Nanhui, Elaine and I sneaked away from the action in Nanhui’s Microforest 1, where the photographers were set up. Microforest 4 was devoid of humans and peaceful. I tiptoed in. I scanned the undergrowth before me and, to my surprise, found a Fairy Pitta.
The pitta was standing on the ground, almost completely blanketed by a tangle of leaves, branches, and vines. Its big black eye was fixed on me. It didn’t move. I looked at the pitta, the pitta at me.
We stared at each other for 10 minutes.
Thus roosts the pitta during migration. It parks itself in thickets and waits. It bides its time, conserves its energy. Somewhere south of Shanghai, it will veer off the coast and fly non-stop across the South China Sea to Borneo, where it will spend the winter.
The pittas are mainly tropical species. Most are short-distance migrants. Not Fairy Pitta. No pitta invades the temperate world as deeply as Fairy Pitta; none makes so audacious an incursion into the north. None makes so long and daring a migration across hundreds of miles of sea.
My pitta was saving up its energy for its life-or-death run across the sea. Good luck, you explorer, you risk-taker! Good luck, Fairy Pitta.
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis
Viewed with my wife Elaine Du at dusk 3 Sept. then viewed again the next morning at dawn. For weeks, the painted-snipes have been found at a single spot (30.939534, 121.955370) in a trash-strewn canal. Earlier, when news of the painted-snipe at Cape Nanhui first broke, I wrote a post in which I regretted sharing the location where were found the painted-snipes, a rare species in Shanghai. As things stand now, I can breathe easier; the many photographers who have visited the location have had no ill effect. The birds I found 4 Sept. were aware of me but behaved normally. They fed, drank, and preened. I used my car as a blind and never got out. The painted-snipes at Nanhui tolerate photographers confined to their cars.
Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus
27 Aug., South Pond. Juvenile. Videoed by me using my iPhone 6, adapter by the U.S. company PhoneSkope, and my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope:
Chinese EgretEgretta eulophotes
Below, video of Chinese Egret 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui showing differences between Chinese Egret and Little Egret.
Yellow BitternIxobrychus sinensis
Photographed by me in gorgeous morning light 4 Sept. at Cape Nanhui.
Black BitternIxobrychus flavicollis
Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui.
Striated HeronButorides striata
Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 27 Aug. at Binhai Forest Park.
In high-tide roost 4 Sept. on South Beach (30.860673, 121.925113), just north of Donghai Bridge at Cape Nanhui.
Curlew SandpiperC. ferruginea
South Pond, Cape Nanhui, 26 Aug. Video:
Pin-tailed SnipeGallinago stenura
Party of 3 on 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui. When flushed, made loud, raspy, memorable call. I quickly compared the call I had just heard to calls of Pin-tailed Snipe downloaded from xeno-canto.org to my iPhone. The match was perfect. Lookalike Swinhoe’s Snipe rarely calls when flushed. Dark underwing clear in my many photographs of the trio. Flew high when flushed, then returned to land at point only 50 m from where originally flushed.
Gull-billed TernGelochelidon nilotica
The canals on the inland side of the sea wall were resounding with the characteristic yaps of this passage migrant. A clear photo is especially useful for discerning the thick bill.
Lesser CuckooCuculus poliocephalus
Non-hepatic adult 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui. See photo above. Reasoning behind ID of Lesser Cuckoo:
(1) No suggestion of brighter yellow iris that is characteristic of Eurasian Cuckoo as well as Oriental and Himalayan Cuckoo (darker iris more characteristic of Indian Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo)
(2) Dark rump and uppertail coverts contrast little with dark tail, while dark tail and rump contrast markedly with paler back, all pointing to Lesser Cuckoo
(3) On tail, very likely no subterminal black band (as in Indian Cuckoo), pointing again to Lesser Cuckoo
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides
Riparia riparia is an uncommon passage migrant in Shanghai. Note the well-defined breast band on my bird, distinguishing it from Pale Martin Riparia diluta, which has an ill-defined breast band.
Siberian Blue RobinLarvivora cyane
It’s worth stressing how good is our opportunity here in Shanghai to view Siberian Blue Robin for a few short weeks each spring and fall. On the breeding grounds up in northern China, the males sing loudly and beautifully but are very hard to see; no Siberian Blue Robin I experienced on the breeding grounds ever sang from anything like an exposed perch. The few I was able to see in Elaine’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang sang on or near the ground. Females are almost impossible to see; in fact, I saw not one in Heilongjiang in May-June 2016. Siberian Blue Robin are also apparently hard to see on their wintering grounds in south China and Southeast Asia. Places such as Cape Nanhui are probably among the best places in the world to view this common but shy species. We Shanghai birders have yet another reason to count ourselves lucky.
Also noted by me in Shanghai 27 Aug.-8 Sept. 2017:
Garganey Spatula querquedula Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis Grey HeronArdea cinerea Purple HeronA. purpurea Great EgretA. alba Intermediate EgretA. intermedia Little EgretEgretta garzetta Eastern Cattle EgretBubulcus coromandus Black-crowned Night HeronNycticorax nycticorax Chinese Pond HeronArdeola bacchus Common MoorhenGallinula chloropus Eurasian CootFulica atra Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus Pied AvocetRecurvirostra avosetta Kentish PloverCharadrius alexandrinus Lesser Sand PloverC. mongolus Greater Sand PloverC. leschenaultii Little Ringed PloverC. dubius WhimbrelNumenius phaeopus Far Eastern CurlewN. madagascariensis Eurasian CurlewN. arquata Black-tailed GodwitLimosa limosa Ruddy TurnstoneArenaria interpres Red KnotCalidris canutus Broad-billed SandpiperC. falcinellus Sharp-tailed SandpiperC. acuminata Long-toed StintC. subminuta Red-necked StintC. ruficollis SanderlingC. alba DunlinC. alpina Common SnipeGallinago gallinago Red-necked PhalaropePhalaropus lobatus Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos Grey-tailed TattlerTringa brevipes Spotted RedshankT. erythropus Common GreenshankT. nebularia Marsh SandpiperT. stagnatilis Wood SandpiperT. glareola Common RedshankT. totanus Oriental PratincoleGlareola maldivarum Black-tailed GullLarus crassirostris White-winged TernChlidonias leucopterus Whiskered TernC. hybrida Common TernSterna hirundo Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia Red Turtle DoveStreptopelia tranquebarica Spotted DoveS. chinensis Himalayan SwiftletAerodramus brevirostris Lesser CoucalCentropus bengalensis Oriental DollarbirdEurystomus orientalis Eurasian WryneckJynx torquilla Common KingfisherAlcedo atthis Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus Black-winged CuckooshrikeCoracina melaschistos Tiger ShrikeLanius tigrinus Brown ShrikeL. cristatus Long-tailed ShrikeL. schach Black-naped OrioleOriolus chinensis Japanese TitParus minor Black-throated BushtitAegithalos concinnus Japanese White-eyeZosterops japonicus Barn SwallowHirundo rustica Light-vented BulbulPycnonotus sinensis Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas Eastern Crowned WarblerP. coronatus Oriental Reed WarblerAcrocephalus orientalis Thick-billed WarblerIduna aedon Zitting CisticolaCisticola juncidis Plain PriniaPrinia inornata Reed ParrotbillParadoxornis heudei Vinous-throated ParrotbillSinosuthora webbiana Javan MynaAcridotheres javanicus Crested MynaA. cristatellus Chinese BlackbirdTurdus mandarinus Grey-streaked FlycatcherMuscicapa griseisticta Asian Brown FlycatcherM. dauurica Oriental Magpie-RobinCopsychus saularis Blue-and-white FlycatcherCyanoptila cyanomelana Yellow-rumped FlycatcherFicedula zanthopygia Chinese GrosbeakEophona migratoria Eurasian Tree SparrowPasser montanus Eastern Yellow WagtailMotacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis White WagtailM. alba
Featured image: All-star birds of late summer 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui: Clockwise from top left, Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Fairy Pitta, Greater Painted-snipe, and Great Knot. The Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher and Greater Painted-snipe were photographed 4 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. Fairy Pitta photographed 5 June 2010 in Dongzhai, Henan, and Great Knot photographed 11 Sept. 2014 at Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu. All by Craig Brelsford.
In the wake of my recent post on distinguishing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler by call, I have been hoping to find more members of this species pair in Shanghai. On 4 Sept. 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui, my hopes were fulfilled in a big way. At the Magic Parking Lot (30.884889, 121.968222), not one but both species were calling.
Below, the recordings I made with my Olympus DM-650 pocket recorder. The first Sakhalin recording was made at Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 7.7 km north of the Magic Parking Lot on the coastal road. The others were made at the Magic Parking Lot.
Note the higher frequency of the calls of Pale-legged–on average a full kilohertz higher. The difference is discernible by the keen listener, but nothing tells the story better than the spectrograms.
To summarize what I argued in the previous post: The calls, as well as the very distinctive songs, of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are diagnostic–that is, they differ markedly and consistently and are a reliable basis for an ID. The diagnosability of the calls of the two species has been affirmed by various researchers, among them Yap et al. (2014; Birding Asia 21: 76–81).
Featured image: Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 1 May 2014. Photo by Craig Brelsford. Some of the salient characteristics of Pale-Sak are pointed out. Separating Pale-legged from Sakhalin on the basis of plumage and bare parts is not possible; because this bird was neither singing nor calling, it cannot be determined to which of the two species it belongs.
Editor’s note: In the photo above, a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler emits its characteristic “tink” call in Microforest 4, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, 27 Aug. 2017. The tink call of Pale-legged is appreciably higher-pitched than that of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Distinguishing the two calls is the subject of this post. — Craig Brelsford
Last September, in “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5,” I asserted that “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song.” I was wrong. Call as well as song is a reliable separator. In this post, I am going to tell you how I arrived at this insight, and I will show you how you too can achieve clear, indisputable ticks of these tricky species through call alone.
Experts since at least as far back as 1989 have been arguing that Pale-legged Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus tenellipes and Sakhalin Leaf WarblerP. borealoides are separable not only by their distinctive songs but also by their calls. Thailand-based birder and shanghaibirding.com contributor Phil Round is among those making that argument. Round and his co-authors write: “[T]he call of P. tenellipes is markedly higher in frequency than that of P. borealoides” (Round et al., “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” downloadable through shanghaibirding.com).
If your ear is good, or even if your ear is just average and you have a sound-recorder, then you too can appreciate the higher frequency of the call of Pale-legged. A sound-recorder is very important, because if you upload your recordings to databases such as eBird and the Macaulay Library, then you will be able to “see” the sound in the audio spectrogram.
Now consider the spectrograms and sound-recordings of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler below. The spectrogram immediately below was recorded by me on 10 June 2016 in my wife Elaine Du’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang, part of the breeding range of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. The call (here a grace note) and song both clock in at about 6 kHz, a frequency a full 25 percent higher than the call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and, as with Sakhalin, consistent with the frequencies of Pale-legged calls on xeno-canto.org.
The spectrogram below is of a brief sound-recording I made in Microforest 4 this past Sunday. The song element of this passage migrant is absent (though note that I have heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing in Shanghai in spring). The call has a frequency of 5.9 kHz and clearly belongs to Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.
Why should you care about all this? Because prepared birders have a chance to get solid ticks of “Pale-Saks” that are merely calling and not necessarily singing. If you hear a Pale-Sak calling and trust your ear (or better yet, sound-record the call and later analyze the spectrogram), then you may be able to go beyond the safe, boring record of “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler” to a more satisfying full tick.
Accurate, plentiful records from Shanghai will help researchers such as Round get a clearer picture of the movements and population of these understudied species. As Round et al. write: “Increased sampling of migrants may also resolve the differences in timing of passage between P. examinandus and P. borealis on the one hand, and P. borealoides and P. tenellipes on the other” (“Addition”; hyperlink mine).
What’s more, you do not need to spend much or even know much to record good audio. My Olympus DM-650 costs less than US$250. I have no microphone other than the one built into my pocket recorder, I possess no parabola, and I use no editing software. My editing is limited to snipping off the unusable beginnings and endings of my sound-recordings, which I record in lossless 48kHz .wav. The very scientific-looking spectrograms displayed in this post are generated automatically by eBird and Macaulay.
In Shanghai in 2017, important facts about common birds such as Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler remain unknown. This ornithological semi-wilderness is both difficult and exciting. If we rise to the challenge and become better birders, then we will make new discoveries and blaze a trail of knowledge for future birders to follow.
* Audio spectrograms are available for every sound-recording on xeno-canto.org. On the unique page created for each recording, find the section “Actions” and click “Download full-length sonogram.”