Greater Painted-snipe at Nanhui

I birded 10-14 Aug. 2017 with visiting U.S. birder Bob Orenstein. We noted 107 species at coastal sites in Shanghai and southeastern Jiangsu. At Pudong’s Cape Nanhui on 13 Aug., Bob and I had a rare Shanghai record of Greater Painted-snipe (above) and an early record of Mandarin Duck. On 12 Aug. at Dongling (32.224520, 121.534355), an impressive site that I had never birded, we had critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 2605 endangered Great Knot. We saw 4 Nordmann’s Greenshank at Dongling and had 30 members of that endangered species 11 Aug. at the coastal birding area (32.757056, 120.952294) at Dongtai. We noted Himalayan Swiftlet at Dongling as well as on 10 Aug. at Cape Nanhui, where we also had Amur Paradise Flycatcher.

Dongling is only 185 km north of People’s Square in Shanghai, closer than the declining old hot spot of Yangkou (“Rudong”) and the Dongtai coastal areas. Through a steady rain 12 Aug., Bob and I found high-tide roosts containing seas of Great Knot plus a single lonely Spoon-billed Sandpiper in complete winter plumage.

Seeing so many Great Knot was extremely heartening. In stark contrast, however, was endangered Far Eastern Curlew, of which only 5 were noted. Unlike near-threatened Eurasian Curlew (130), which though not abundant at Dongling numbered in the thousands at coastal Dongtai, Far Eastern Curlew were abundant nowhere.

On 11 Aug. Bob and I birded the reclaimed area of eastern Hengsha Island. The place was a bustle of activity, even at 5:15 in the morning, with 18-wheelers and dump trucks rumbling by. Security was tight. Guards were stationed at every intersection and in roving vans, one of which stopped us. We told them our purpose was birding; they told us to leave.

Before getting kicked out, Bob and I enjoyed one of my best moments ever with near-threatened Reed Parrotbill. A mega-flock of about 50 birds, much larger than the flocks one sees in the smaller, and ever-shrinking, reedy areas at Cape Nanhui, was making a loud noise during a morning feed. The flock contained juveniles and adults and proved that, provided it has habitat in which to flourish, Reed Parrotbill is a common, even dominant, reed-bed specialist.

I sound-recorded the raucous parrotbills:

Reed Parrotbill, 31.307498, 121.895095, 11 Aug. 2017 (02:39; 30.7 MB)

Let’s look more closely at some of our birds.

Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis

Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 13 Aug. 2017. Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China.
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis. We found the birds in a canal at Cape Nanhui, where they likely are breeding.

​With the help of local Chinese birders, Bob and I found a pair of Greater Painted-snipe in a thickly vegetated, trash-strewn canal. The shy birds were aware of our presence and nervous, but they held their ground. That behavior, in combination with a photo another Chinese birder took suggesting that the male is brooding, persuaded us that the pair has a nest. We moved quickly away and did not return.

Nordmann’s Greenshank Tringa guttifer

Footage I got 11 Aug. at Dongtai figures prominently in this video I made comparing Nordmann’s Greenshank to Common Greenshank.

To further hone your Nordmann’s Greenshank ID skills, and to relive the exciting appearance in 2016 of Nordmann’s Greenshank in Shanghai, see my post, Your Handy-Dandy Nordmann’s Greenshank ID Primer!

Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris

Great Knot was the star of this four-wader movie I made at Dongling.

Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe Gallinago stenura/megala

The video below records one of my closest encounters ever with “Swintail” Snipe. I found this individual 14 Aug. at the sod farm (31.103100, 121.829300) south of Pudong International Airport.

The video shows some of the characters distinguishing this species pair from Common Snipe. (The two species themselves are, except in extraordinary circumstances, indistinguishable from one another.)

As the autumn migration season progresses, the sod farm bears checking; on 3 Sept. 2016 at the farm, my partners and I had a rare Shanghai record of Common Ringed Plover.

​The video of the snipe as well as the other two videos embedded into this post were made with my combination of iPhone 6 plus PhoneSkope adapter plus Swarovski ATX-95. This powerful combination allows the videographer to shoot usable video from a great distance, allowing even a shy snipe to act naturally. (I never got closer than 40 m to the snipe.)

Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei

Amur Para Fly
Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635), 10 Aug. Among the indicators of Amur are the rufous upperparts and tail as well as the indistinct border between breast and belly. (Craig Brelsford)

It was an exciting moment 10 Aug. when Amur Paradise Flycatcher appeared in Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635). In the photo above, note the indistinct border between the bluish hood and white belly and the two-tone coloration of the hood–darker blue head, lighter blue breast. In Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, the hood tends to be uniformly colored and the border between the hood and white breast more distinct.

With this year’s fall migration season getting into full swing, paradise flycatchers are going to be moving through Shanghai, and you may wish to improve your skills. For more on separating Amur Paradise Flycatcher from Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, see my post from 2016, “ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers.”

Cuculus sp.

Adults and some juveniles are now moving through Shanghai. In a few weeks, nearly all adult Cuculus cuckoos will be gone, and we will be left with the juveniles. Cuckoos do not sing in autumn, and song of course is by far the best way of distinguishing among the Cuculus cuckoos of our region. I therefore almost invariably mark these silent birds “Cuculus sp.”

Let us say I assigned these silent cuckoos to Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus. Perhaps they were the size of a sparrowhawk (ruling out thrush-sized Lesser Cuckoo C. poliocephalus), and perhaps they even had yellow irides (ruling out dark-eyed Indian Cuckoo C. micropterus and providing yet more evidence against dark-eyed Lesser Cuckoo).

Even if my cuckoos passed these tests, unless they were singing the classic song (virtually unheard this time of year), how could I justify ID-ing them as Common? It is, of course, likely that some of them are Common, but how can one be sure that any given silent Cuculus cuckoo one is seeing is Common?

I refrain from making speculative species assignments. I refrain because we still do not know enough about the migration patterns in Shanghai of Oriental Cuckoo C. optatus and Himalayan Cuckoo C. saturatus.

Like so many of the woodland passerines that pass through Shanghai on migration, Oriental Cuckoo breeds in northeastern China. Like those woodland passerines, Oriental Cuckoo also may pass through Shanghai on migration. Oriental, of course, is very similar to Common, the two species having so many overlapping characters that a firm ID of non-photographed, non-singing birds is all but impossible; and Himalayan, which theoretically may be present in or near our region, is even more similar to Oriental (“virtually identical”–Mark Brazil, Birds of East Asia, p. 256).

In Shanghai it may be tempting to assign silent Cuculus cuckoos, particularly yellow-eyed adults, to Common Cuckoo. Before I ever started doing that, though, I would want to know more about Oriental Cuckoo and Himalayan Cuckoo in the Shanghai region. Maybe future studies, using captured cuckoos whose DNA has been analyzed, will reveal a surprising pattern of Cuculus migration in Shanghai. Maybe those studies will show that considerable numbers of Cuculus passage migrants are Oriental Cuckoo.

Until that day comes, I usually hold back from ID-ing non-singing Cuculus cuckoos.

For more information on Shanghai-area cuckoos, see my post, “The Cuckoos of Shanghai.”

Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris

Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 10 Aug. 2017. Near Cathedral of Birding at N end of Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China.
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris. Near Cathedral of Birding at north end of Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 10 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

​After being nearly unheard of in Shanghai as recently as a few years ago, Himalayan Swiftlet is now more and more regularly recorded in Shanghai in both spring and autumn.

Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.
Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.

The question arises of whether Himalayan Swiftlet has always been a scarce passage migrant and overlooked or whether its numbers are increasing in our area. It is of course also possible that both its numbers are increasing in our area and local birders’ skills and communication methods are improving.

That communication methods are improving is indisputable. One of the main causes of the improved communication is the WeChat group I founded, Shanghai Birding. The members of that group, who range from the newest of newbies to some of the most expert birders in China, regularly exchange sightings in real-time.

To join Shanghai Birding, friend me on WeChat (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). Tell me that you wish to join Shanghai Birding. I’ll add you.

Here is the complete list of the birds noted by Bob Orenstein and me 10-14 Aug. 2017:

Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis
Cinnamon Bittern I. cinnamomeus
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron A. purpurea
Great Egret A. alba
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus
Striated Heron Butorides striata
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Pacific Golden Plover P. fulva
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus
Greater Sand Plover C. leschenaultii
Kentish Plover C. alexandrinus
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Far Eastern Curlew N. madagascariensis
Eurasian Curlew N. arquata
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica
Black-tailed Godwit L. limosa
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris
Red Knot C. canutus
Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata
Long-toed Stint C. subminuta
Spoon-billed Sandpiper C. pygmea
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis
Sanderling C. alba
Dunlin C. alpina
Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe Gallinago stenura/megala
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus
Common Greenshank T. nebularia
Nordmann’s Greenshank T. guttifer
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola
Common Redshank T. totanus
Saunders’s Gull Chroicocephalus saundersi
Black-headed Gull C. ridibundus
Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris
Little Tern Sternula albifrons
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus
Whiskered Tern C. hybrida
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Red Turtle Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Spotted Dove S. chinensis
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
Cuculus sp.
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Peregrine Falcon F. peregrinus
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach
Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula
Pale Martin Riparia diluta
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus
Japanese Tit Parus minor
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealis/examinandus
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus
White-cheeked Starling S. cineraceus
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus
Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica
Oriental Magpie-Robin Copsychus saularis
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria

Asian Dowitcher in Shanghai

On Sat. 5 Aug. 2017, I resumed birding at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui after a two-month hiatus. Battling apparent temperatures of 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit), partner Ian Reid (above) and I noted 74 species. The haul was good, but even better was the insight it afforded me. Once again, I learned that when it comes to birding, the most southeasterly point of Earth’s Greatest City delivers month after month, season after season.

Ian and I had 3 juvenile Asian Dowitcher, the most notable among an all-star team of shorebirds that included 8 Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, 12 Broad-billed Sandpiper, and 3 Curlew Sandpiper still mainly in brick-red breeding plumage. A Red-necked Phalarope was making use of fallow rice paddies, and 6 Grey-tailed Tattler were on the mudflats near Donghai Bridge. We had unusual Nanhui records of Pied Kingfisher and Ruddy Shelduck.

The microforests were quiet, but a very early record of Eastern Crowned Warbler and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher offered a preview of the passerine party coming in September. We had four species of bittern: Eurasian Bittern, Yellow Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, and Black Bittern.

In my nearly 10 years in Shanghai, I had never birded Cape Nanhui in the first week of August. During Shanghai’s hottest month of the year, I am almost always birding in cooler climes–in Qinghai last year, for example, and in 2015 in my wife Elaine’s hometown in Heilongjiang.

Ian’s and my day both reminded me of the good reasons for vacating Shanghai this time of year and showed me the treasures I have been missing. Through the oppressive heat, which ensured that you would never stop sweating, and the 81-percent humidity, which ensured that the perspiration wouldn’t do much good, the Australian birder and I steadily built up an impressive list.

For all 74 species, see our eBird list. Below, our highlights.

Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus

Asian Dowitcher through the spotting scope and recorded by my iPhone 6. 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Dowitcher at South Pond, 5 Aug. 2017. Photo taken with iPhone 6 and PhoneSkope adapter attached to my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope. (Craig Brelsford)

Our trio were juveniles, with their dark-brown crowns and buff-fringed, dark-brown upperparts. They were feeding together at South Pond (30.873934, 121.953180). The tide had hit the nearby sea wall and driven in small numbers of shorebirds of various species, among them Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata, Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea, Long-toed Stint C. subminuta, and Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus.

An East Asian specialty, Asian Dowitcher breeds in a disjointed set of ranges from western Siberia to Heilongjiang. The IUCN lists it as Near Threatened.

Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus

We found a single individual in the Cathedral of Birding, the broad, spacious northern end of Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). This is a very early record of a species that, like so many other passerines on passage through the Shanghai region, does not begin to show up in impressive numbers until September. As with the dowitchers, when I saw this warbler, my initial reaction was, “What else have you been missing over the years for failing to bird Nanhui in early August?”

Nearby we had female Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia, a less surprising record, as the species breeds in Jiangsu.

Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea

Ruddy Shelduck, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Ruddy Shelduck, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Ruddy Shelduck in August is yet another unexpected record. We found a single individual associating with domestic waterfowl near the entrance to the defunct wetland reserve (30.920507, 121.973159). The species is uncommon in Shanghai at any time of year, with most records coming from winter.

Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this record is that it is surprising at all. Pied Kingfisher breeds throughout southern China, yet this record was my first of the species in Shanghai. A pair has been present at Cape Nanhui since at least July.

Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris

Eurasian Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
The boom of Eurasian Bittern is heard in Shanghai in spring. An August record is surprising. (Craig Brelsford)

Our first of the four species of bittern. We found 2.

Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis

Yellow Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Yellow Bittern breeds in our area. (Craig Brelsford)

We found 24 of this local breeder along the entire length of the 30-km coastal road.

Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus

Cinammon Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Cinnamon Bittern is another species that in Shanghai probably has gone under-recorded over the years. (Craig Brelsford)

Found in habitats similar to Yellow Bittern, but in much smaller numbers (4).

Black Bittern Ixobrychus flavicollis

Black Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Black Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

One was seen flying just north of Eiffel Tower (30.850531, 121.878047). This species has an affinity for swamps in forests and is uncommon in Shanghai. Saturday’s record was only my second in the city.

Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus being mobbed by Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 5 Aug. 2017. Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China.
Juvenile Common Kestrel blundered into a confrontation with Black-winged Stilt. The youngster soon realized its error and went looking for littler prey. (Craig Brelsford)

A species common in Shanghai, noted here only because of the circumstances under which Ian and I found it. The first impression of “juvenile falcon” that I received came not from the plumage but from the blunders of the kestrel. The falcon got too close to some juvenile Black-winged Stilt–and found itself being chased off by an adult, a giant in comparison. This was clearly a rookie’s error and betrayed the inexperience of the attacker.

In the photo above, note the lightly streaked ear coverts, the lack of scythe-like wings (as in Eurasian Hobby), black remiges, and long tail with rounded tip. The strong black streaking on the underparts will grow thinner as the kestrel matures.

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus

A welcome addition to any Nanhui list, Falco peregrinus is usually recorded in Shanghai in autumn and winter. Sharp-eyed Ian spotted the falcon roosting in an area that used to contain reed beds but has since been flattened by the backhoes into a savanna-like landscape. I got video on my iPhone through the spotting scope.

Featured image: Australian birder Ian Reid scans the mudflats at Cape Nanhui, Pudong, 5 Aug. 2017. In the background is Donghai Bridge. (Craig Brelsford)

GUEST POST: Tianmushan in July

Editor’s note: Hangzhou Botanical Gardens and the Tianmu Mountains are must-see destinations for Shanghai birders, especially those of us new to birding in southeast China. Hangzhou Botanical combines ease of access (it can be visited in a day on the bullet train) with the chance to see southeast China birds whose ranges do not reach Shanghai. Visiting the Tianmu Mountains or Tianmushan is more of a project than visiting Hangzhou Botanical, but the rewards are greater. No place so close to Shanghai offers as much high-quality mountain forest as Tianmu.

In this guest post, Shanghai birder Larry Chen tells us about his recent trip to Hangzhou Botanical and Tianmu. As Larry makes clear, a trip to those locations, even at the height of summer, is worth the Shanghai birder’s time.

If Larry’s report whets your appetite and you want to know more, then take a look at these resources:

The shanghaibirding.com site page for the Tianmu Mountains
My trip to Tianmu in November 2015
My trip to Tianmu in May 2015 (scroll down to entries for 7-10 May)

— Craig Brelsford

Tianmushan in July
© 2017 by Larry Chen
for shanghaibirding.com

Komatsu Yasuhiko, Zeng Qiongyu, and I covered Tianmushan 6-8 July 2017. We hiked up to around 1500 meters above sea level and explored some beautiful top-quality mixed forest, including stands of the magnificent Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica and Huangshan Pine Pinus hwangshanensis, as well as roadside mixed deciduous, conifer, and bamboo forest.

Some of the avian highlights from our three-day trip were the diminutive and bamboo-loving Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana, Moustached Laughingthrush Garrulax cineraceus, and the regal Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis.

The weather at Tianmu, unlike hot and humid Shanghai, was humid but relatively cool, and plenty of shade was provided by the extensive foliage.

Tianmu highlights: Short-tailed Parrotbill (top) and Black Eagle, (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Tianmu highlights: Short-tailed Parrotbill (top) and Black Eagle. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

Hiko and I visited Hangzhou Botanical on 5 July, managing to find, despite the heat, several species whose ranges do not quite reach Shanghai, among them Asian Barred Owlet Glaucidium cuculoides, Grey Treepie Dendrocitta formosae, and Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha.

I recommend Tianmu and Hangzhou Botanical to anyone seeking a few days’ trip out of Shanghai. Tianmushan has some beautiful habitat, comfortable but cheap accommodations, and a truly under-watched avian diversity.

We had 65 species at Hangzhou Botanical and Tianmu. Highlights:

Botanical

Asian Barred Owlet, Hangzhou Botanitcal Gardens, July 2017. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Barred Owlet, Hangzhou Botanical Gardens, 5 July 2017. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

Striated Heron Butorides striata
Swinhoe’s Minivet Pericrocotus cantonensis
Asian Barred Owlet Glaucidium cuculoides
Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus
Grey Treepie Dendrocitta formosae

West Tianmu Mountain

Rufous-capped Babbler, one of several species common at Tianmu and absent in Shanghai. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Rufous-capped Babbler, one of several species common at Tianmu and absent in Shanghai. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana
Moustached Laughingthrush Garrulax cineraceus
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni
Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis
Chinese Sparrowhawk Accipiter soloensis
Rufous-capped Babbler Stachyridopsis ruficeps

You can view our complete lists on eBird:

West Tianmushan Nature Reserve, Zhejiang, CN (20170708)
West Tianmushan Nature Reserve, Zhejiang, CN (20170707)
West Tianmushan Nature Reserve, Zhejiang, CN (20170706)
Hangzhou Botanical Gardens, Zhejiang, CN (20170705)

Featured image: Habitats of Tianmushan. Clockwise from L: roaring stream, mixed deciduous-conifer forest, roadside bamboo, and vast tracts of mountain forest. (Larry Chen)

The Cuckoos of Shanghai

Editor’s note: The image above shows three cuckoos of the Shanghai region. Clockwise from L: Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Large Hawk-Cuckoo. Join us as we study the rich array of cuckoos that passes through Earth’s greatest city.

It is spring, and one of the most thrilling moments of the bird migration in Shanghai is upon us–the passage of the Cuculinae, the Old World brood-parasitic cuckoos. Nowhere in the world is the diversity of this group greater than in eastern Eurasia, and here in Shanghai we get an enviable selection. Let us examine our Shanghai-area parasitic cuckoos and learn how to tell them apart.

We can divide the Shanghai-area brood-parasitic cuckoos into two categories: the mainly grey, slender-bodied Cuculus cuckoos and the non-Cuculus cuckoos. We will look at the non-Cuculus cuckoos first.

MASTER MIMICS: THE HAWK-CUCKOOS

Large Hawk-Cuckoo breeds near Shanghai. I found this fledgling 25 June 2009 at Nanjing Botanical Garden. It was being raised by Masked Laughingthrush Garrulax perspicillatus. (Craig Brelsford)
Large Hawk-Cuckoo breeds near Shanghai. On 25 June 2009 at Nanjing Botanical Garden, I found this fledgling in the nest of Masked Laughingthrush. (Craig Brelsford)

The non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoo that one is most likely to see in Shanghai is Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides. In the microforests at Cape Nanhui and once, to my surprise, in inner-city Zhongshan Park, I have heard the scream of “Brain fever!” The species breeds in nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

The hawk-cuckoos mimic sparrowhawks, an amazing feat of evolution. The resemblance serves, scientists say, not to increase stealth but to decrease it. Passerines, mistaking the intruder for a sparrowhawk, mob it, thereby giving away the location of their nest. After the tumult dies down, the hawk-cuckoo quietly swoops in and lays her egg.

Hawk-cuckoos have bills quite unlike those of the sparrowhawks that they mimic. L: Japanese Sparrowhawk. R: Large Hawk-Cuckoo. (Craig Brelsford, Kai Pflug)
Hawk-cuckoos have bills quite unlike those of the sparrowhawks that they otherwise mimic. L: Japanese Sparrowhawk (Craig Brelsford). R: Large Hawk-Cuckoo (Kai Pflug).

When it comes to the business of eating, however, the masquerade ends. The hooked bill of a sparrowhawk is a butcher’s tool, made for stripping the flesh of vertebrates from bone. The bill of a hawk-cuckoo is blunt, the utensil of a caterpillar-eater. Need a quick differentiator between “sprock” and hawk-cuckoo? Look to the bill.

Large Hawk-Cuckoo. L: Kai Pflug. Top and bottom R: Craig Brelsford.
Large Hawk-Cuckoo shows heavy barring and streaking on the throat, breast, and belly and varying degrees of rufous on the upper breast. L: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April 2017 (Kai Pflug). Top R: Longcanggou (29.572367, 102.866492), Sichuan, 27 May 2013 (Craig Brelsford). Bottom R: Old Erlang Road (29.849565, 102.262012), Sichuan, 3 June 2014 (Craig Brelsford).

Another separation we Shanghai birders need to make is that between Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus. If seen clearly, adult Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo are readily separable. Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo shows a belly washed rufous with faint streaks. Large Hawk-Cuckoo is heavily barred and streaked and has the rufous coloring confined to the upper breast.

L: Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo (Craig Brelsford). R: Large Hawk-Cuckoo (Kai Pflug)
Adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo (L) shows (1) white neck-sides and nape patch, (2) white scapular crescents, and (3) a rufous border to the black subterminal band on the tail. Large Hawk-Cuckoo (R) shows none of these. L: Original Magic Forest (32.567487, 120.996980), Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, 15 Sept. 2012 (Craig Brelsford). R: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April 2017 (Kai Pflug).

Adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo shows a white spot on the nape, white neck-sides, and white scapular crescents. These features may also be visible in sub-adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. Large Hawk-Cuckoo shows none of these in any plumage.

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, 6 Oct. 2010. (Craig Brelsford)
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus. The lack of rufous wash on the breast and belly suggests that this is a juvenile. The grey streaking of the adult plumage has appeared. Also visible are the white nape patch and scapular crescents as well as the rufous bands on the tail. Original Magic Forest (32.567487, 120.996980), Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, 6 Oct. 2010. (Craig Brelsford)

Size differences may be appreciable. An average Large Hawk-Cuckoo is 15 percent larger than Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. The tails differ, with the black subterminal band of Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo being bordered by a rufous line above and by the rufous tail-tip below. These rufous areas may be visible in immature cuckoos.

ASIAN KOEL AND CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO

L: Asian Koel, female, 2 June 2016, Nanhui, Shanghai (Kai Pflug). R: Asian Koel, male, 17 May 2015, Dongtai, Jiangsu (Craig Brelsford).
Asian Koel shows pronounced sexual dimorphism. L: female, 2 June 2016, Nanhui (Kai Pflug). R: male, 17 May 2015, tree plantation (32.855576, 120.896557) in Dongtai, Jiangsu (Craig Brelsford). Eudynamys scolopaceus chinensis is the northernmost-breeding race among the koels, a small, mainly tropical group.

The other non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoos of the Shanghai region are Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus and Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus. Neither poses great ID challenges.

In China, Asian Koel ssp. chinensis breeds mainly south of the Yangtze River. With its familiar “koh-EL” song, Asian Koel is as easy to hear as it is hard to see in the dense forests where it is almost invariably found. It shows strong sexual dimorphism, with the male entirely glossy bluish-black and the female brown with whitish streaks, bars, and spots.

The parasitic cuckoos are secretive and most conspicuous by sound. A poor, fleeting glimpse is all that one is likely to get. That was the case in the Tianmu Mountains with this Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. (Craig Brelsford)
The parasitic cuckoos are secretive and most conspicuous by sound. In the Tianmu Mountains (30.344148, 119.440201) on 10 May 2015, this poor, fleeting glimpse was all I could manage of this Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. Its presence was more than made known, however, by its piercing whistle and harsh cries. (Craig Brelsford)

I have yet to see Chestnut-winged Cuckoo in Shanghai. It has been noted at Tongshan Forest Park (32.348637, 119.106915) in Yangzhou, Jiangsu, and I have noted it at Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699) in Nanjing as well as in Zhejiang in the Tianmu Mountains (30.344148, 119.440201). With its glossy-black erectile crest, rufous wings, and long, black tail, the species is unmistakable–if you can manage to see it.

SHANGHAI-AREA CUCULUS CUCKOOS

Comparison of Indian Cuckoo and Common Cuckoo. Bottom-left cuckoo is Common; note yellow iris and compare to dark iris of Indian in bottom-right panel. Top two panels also Indian Cuckoo. All photos taken 17 May 2016 at Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
Comparison of yellow iris of Common Cuckoo (left-hand panels) with brown iris of Lesser Cuckoo (top right) and Indian Cuckoo (bottom right). Common and Indian: 17 May 2016, Nanhui. Lesser: 3 Oct. 2016, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu. (Craig Brelsford)

Five Cuculus cuckoos have been claimed for Shanghai: Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, Indian Cuckoo C. micropterus, Himalayan Cuckoo C. saturatus, Oriental Cuckoo C. optatus, and Common Cuckoo C. canorus.

The latter breeds in the area, parasitizing the nests of Oriental Reed Warbler in the reed beds at Cape Nanhui. Its famous song, perhaps the best-known bird sound in the world, is hard to miss at Nanhui in May.

Lesser Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo breed in the region and are recorded on passage in Shanghai. Himalayan Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo may pass through Shanghai, but inasmuch as in size, plumage, and bare parts they are nearly identical to each other and very close to Common Cuckoo, and because they rarely (if ever) sing in our region, it is impossible to know how common they are.

Common Cuckoo (L) is the size of a sparrowhawk and is appreciably larger than the thrush-sized Lesser Cuckoo (R). Himalayan Cuckoo is on average smaller than Common, but the size difference is more difficult to appreciate. L: Nanhui. M: Foping, Shaanxi. R: Old Erlang Road, Sichuan. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Cuckoo (L) is the size of a sparrowhawk and is appreciably larger than the thrush-sized Lesser Cuckoo (R). Himalayan Cuckoo (C) is on average smaller than Common, but the size difference between the two is difficult to see. L: Nanhui, 17 May 2016. C: Foping National Nature Reserve (33.688538, 107.852950), Shaanxi, 19 May 2013. R: Old Erlang Road (29.849565, 102.262012), Sichuan, 3 June 2014. (Craig Brelsford)

Hear the song of any of these Cuculus, and you will have your ID; even the similar songs of Himalayan and Oriental are readily separable. If your cuckoo is silent, however, then you will need a closer look. Lesser Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo have a brown iris, Common a bright-yellow iris. Lesser Cuckoo is the size of a thrush; Indian Cuckoo is a third larger; Common Cuckoo is larger still, approaching the size of a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk.

Juvenile <em>Cuculus</em> cuckoos are very difficult to ID to species. This is especially true in Shanghai, where almost all <em>Cuculus</em> cuckoos are passage migrants. If however you are on the breeding grounds and know a little about the host species, then you may be able to attempt an ID. In this photo, taken 22 July 2010 at Balangshan (<a href="https://www.google.com/maps/place/30%C2%B057'39.5%22N+102%C2%B052'42.2%22E/@30.960977,102.7383223,11z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x0!8m2!3d30.960977!4d102.878398" target="_blank">30.960977, 102.878398</a>) in <a href="https://www.google.com/maps/place/Sichuan,+China/@30.1028528,93.9726458,5z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x36e4e73368bdcdb3:0xde8f7ccf8f99feb9!8m2!3d30.651226!4d104.075881" target="_blank">Sichuan</a>, the juvenile cuckoo that the Rosy Pipit is feeding is most likely Common Cuckoo. The hugeness of the cuckoo is a clue, but the strongest indicator may be the foster parent. Common Cuckoo is known to parasitize the nests of pipits, while Himalayan Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo favor small warblers and Indian Cuckoo favors drongos and shrikes. (Craig Brelsford)
Juvenile Cuculus cuckoos are very difficult to ID. This is especially true in Shanghai, where almost all cuckoos are passage migrants. If however you are on the breeding grounds and know a little about the host species, then you may be able to attempt an ID. In this photo, taken 22 July 2010 at Balangshan (30.960977, 102.878398) in Sichuan, the juvenile cuckoo that the Rosy Pipit is feeding is most likely Common Cuckoo. The hugeness of the cuckoo is a clue, but the strongest indicator may be the foster parent. Whereas Himalayan Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo favor small warblers and Indian Cuckoo favors drongos and shrikes, Common Cuckoo is known to parasitize the nests of pipits. (Craig Brelsford)

In autumn, juveniles pass through Shanghai. They are silent and nearly impossible to identify to species. If one gets a close look at juvenile Lesser Cuckoo, however, one may appreciate its thrush-like size. If you happen to be on the breeding grounds, then you can attempt an ID according to the species of the foster parent.

NON-CUCULINAE CUCKOOS

Top L: Greater Coucal (Kai Pflug). R: Lesser Coucal (Kai Pflug). Bottom L, bottom C: Lesser Coucal (Craig Brelsford)
Top L: Greater Coucal, Nabang, Yunnan, March 2017 (Kai Pflug). R: Lesser Coucal (adult), Nanhui, May 2015 (Kai Pflug). Bottom L: Lesser Coucal (adult), Nanhui, 11 Sept. 2016 (Craig Brelsford). Bottom C: Lesser Coucal (juvenile), Nanhui, 19 Nov. 2016 (Craig Brelsford).

Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis is the good guy of the Shanghai cuckoo world. Unlike all the other cuckoos recorded in Shanghai, but like most of the cuckoos in the world, the coucals are not brood parasites. Lesser Coucal, resident in Shanghai, builds a dome nest on the ground.

Lesser Coucal may be the only non-Cuculinae cuckoo in Shanghai, but it shares at least one trait with the brood parasites: It is very unobtrusive. Look for Lesser Coucal in areas of thick vegetation near water, such as the strips of reed bed along the canals at Cape Nanhui. If you find one, count yourself lucky.

Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis occurs south of our region. It is nearly half again as large as Lesser Coucal and has a cleaner and glossier mantle, a thicker bill, and a redder iris.

RESOURCES ON CUCKOOS

Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo <em>Surniculus dicruroides</em> (L) and Plaintive Cuckoo <em>Cacomantis merulinus</em> occur in south China. Neither is likely to stray to the Shanghai region, but may be found as close to Shanghai as the mountains of Zhejiang. L: Skytree Nature Reserve (21.62801, 101.58878), Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China, 18 March 2012 (Craig Brelsford). R: Yingjiang, Yunnan, March 2017 (Kai Pflug).</em></em>
Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus dicruroides (L) and Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus, brood-parasitic cuckoos from south China. Both occur just south of our region, to Zhejiang. In drongo-cuckoos, independently from but in the same manner as in hawk-cuckoos, evolution created birds that bear an astonishingly close resemblance to species in a distantly related family. L: Skytree Nature Reserve (21.62801, 101.58878), Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, 18 March 2012 (Craig Brelsford). R: Yingjiang, Yunnan, March 2017 (Kai Pflug).

The Sounds of Shanghai’s Cuckoos, by Craig Brelsford

All cuckoos from the Shanghai area are covered here. I make my recordings with my handy little Olympus DM-650.

Lesser Coucal, Centropus bengalensis, 22 June 2015, reedy area (32.855576, 120.896557) at Dongtai, Jiangsu (00:06; 1.1 MB)

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus, 10 May 2015, West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve, Zhejiang. On hiking trail between Lóngfèngjiān (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201) and Xiānrén Dǐng (仙人顶) (00:43; 3.3 MB)

Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus, 17 May 2015, tree plantation (32.855576, 120.896557), at Dongtai, Jiangsu (00:39; 2.4 MB)

Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides, 3 June 2014, Old Erlang Road (29.849565, 102.262012), Sichuan (03:21; 4 MB)

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus, 2 June 2016, Xidaquan National Forest (45.727751, 130.317316), Boli, Heilongjiang (01:06; 3.4 MB)

Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, 3 June 2014, Old Erlang Road (29.849565, 102.262012), Sichuan (00:16; 1 MB)

Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus, classic four-note song plus bubbly flourish, 9 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang (00:02; 901 KB)

Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, singing and quarreling, 6 June 2014, Longcanggou (29.621996, 102.885471), Sichuan (00:28; 1.2 MB)

Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus, classic double note “boop boop” faintly from a distance, 30 May 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang (00:03; 926 KB)

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, classic song plus cough, 21 May 2015, Nanhui, Shanghai (00:03; 913 KB)

EASTERN CROWNED WARBLER SINGING IN SHANGHAI

Eastern Crowned Warbler, 30 Sept. 2014, Yangkou. Craig Brelsford.
Eastern Crowned Warbler, 30 Sept. 2014, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu. One of the Big 5 Leaf Warblers of ShanghaiPhylloscopus coronatus is a common autumn and spring passage migrant in Shanghai. It is usually silent in Shanghai, but on 15 April 2017, I heard one sing in Century Park. Migrating birds often sing snatches of song far from their breeding grounds. On 7 April 2016, also at Century Park, I heard White’s Thrush sing. (Craig Brelsford)

In Shanghai, the best birding occurs on the coast, 80 km from the city center. Getting there can be a chore. Birding Pudong’s Century Park, by contrast, only requires a ride on Metro Line 2. Your day list from Century will only be about a third as long as a list from Cape Nanhui, but good birding can occur there, and at little cost.

On Sat. 15 April 2017, my partners Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko (“Hiko”), Hiko’s biology teacher Zeng Qiongyu, and I had a bout of good birding at Century Park.

I had never heard Eastern Crowned Warbler sing in Shanghai. I am however very familiar with the song, because in my wife Elaine Du’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang, the song of Eastern Crowned Warbler is one of the most common sounds in the remnant Manchurian forest. Elaine and I have birded Boli on three occasions, most recently in May-June 2016.

Eastern Crowned Warbler, 14 May 2014, Yangkou. Craig Brelsford.
Eastern Crowned Warbler, 14 May 2014, Yangkou. (Craig Brelsford)

We were in the heavily wooded area near Gate 7 when I heard the wheezy song. It sounded just like this recording I made in Heilongjiang:

Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus, 2 June 2016, Xidaquan National Forest (45.727751, 130.317316), Boli, Heilongjiang (00:03; 922 KB)

It was just a snatch of song, and it occurred but once. I knew immediately that it was Eastern Crowned Warbler. The song was coming from the surprisingly high canopy of the wood.

All four of us strained to find the bird. The sun shone brightly through the canopy and into our eyes. Finally, Hiko saw movement. Through the glare we focused in and got a clear view of Eastern Crowned.

It was a shot of birding as good and satisfying as I get anywhere. And it just goes to show–good birding can occur anywhere, even in a busy city park.

THANKS AGAIN TO KAI PFLUG

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

In this post I used several of Kai Pflug’s bird images. Kai and I have worked together from the earliest days of shanghaibirding.com, and I have published dozens of Kai’s photographs on this site. Kai’s work is regularly on view on our Sightings page, and Kai made a notable contribution to my October 2016 post “ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers.” In September 2016 I wrote about Kai’s work cleaning up the litter at Nanhui.

Kai is from Germany, lives in Shanghai, and is an active member of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group.

Thanks also to Shanghai Birding member Jonathan Martinez for his advice on Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo and Plaintive Cuckoo.

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 Sat. 15 April 2017 (23 species)

Thinking fast, Hiko trained his spotting scope on this singing Olive-backed Pipit and using his adapter and iPhone got this superb portrait. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Thinking fast, Hiko trained his spotting scope on this singing Olive-backed Pipit and, using his adapter and iPhone, got this superb portrait. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

Century Park (Shìjì Gōngyuán [世纪公园]; 31.219361, 121.551900), Pudong New Area (Pǔdōng Xīn Qū [浦东新区]), Shanghai, China. Includes records from Bird Island (31.217405, 121.554936). Mostly sunny; low 14° C, high 25° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind SSE 18 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 112 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:26, sunset 18:23. SAT 15 APR 2017 06:20-10:10. Craig Brelsford, Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, & Zeng Qiongyu.

Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 7
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 3
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 4
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 12
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 4
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus 35
Japanese Tit Parus minor 9
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 40
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 3 (2 singing)
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 1
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus 1 singing
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 12
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus 5
Chinese Hwamei Garrulax canorus 1
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 5
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 50
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 4
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 10
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis 3
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni 16 (some singing)
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria 10
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami 1
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 6

WORKS CONSULTED

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Cuckoos, pp. 254-9.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 4, “Sandgrouse to Cuckoos.” Cuculidae (pp. 508-607) by R. B. Payne.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Featured image: Clockwise from L, Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, October 2010; Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus, Nanjing, Jiangsu, July 2009; and Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides, Nanhui, Shanghai, May 2016. All by Craig Brelsford.