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.

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.

Hello from Florida, Part 2

A Black Skimmer demonstrates its unusual feeding technique at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida, 3 Feb. 2017. In this second of a two-post series, I describe to you my recent experiences birding in my home state of Florida. (Click here for Part 1.)

On Tues. 28 Feb. 2017, ​Elaine Du and I returned to Shanghai, having spent most of the previous six weeks in the United States. Amid family reunions and other business, my wife and I noted 151 bird species.

We birded mainly in Volusia County in central Florida. We took a five-day trip to southwest Florida and birded a day in Nassau, capital of The Bahamas. We deepened our understanding of Nearctic avifauna and noted its many similarities to and differences from the birds of China.

BIRDING AND FAMILY

The Brelsford family. Left are my parents, and next to me are my little sister and Elaine. Debary, Florida, 12 Feb. 2017. For Elaine and me, a trip to Florida is an opportunity to engage in world-class birding and see the family.
The Brelsfords. At left are my parents Gene and Susan, and next to me are my sister Tracey and wife Elaine. Debary, Florida, USA, 12 Feb. 2017. For Elaine and me, a trip to Florida is an opportunity to engage in world-class birding while reconnecting with family.

We seamlessly mixed in birding with daily life, something easy to do in Florida. The very subdivision in which my parents live holds endemic Florida Scrub Jay as well as Florida Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis pratensis. Ponds, even those along busy highways, hold Wood Stork Mycteria americana. A fixture in coastal towns are Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis and Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis.

Adult Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis, Cape Canaveral Lock, Brevard County, Florida, USA, 13 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Adult Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis, Cape Canaveral Lock, Brevard County, Florida (28.408987, -80.611110), 13 Feb. 2017.
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis, Cape Canaveral Lock, Brevard County, Florida, USA, 13 February 2017.
Immature Brown Pelican, Cape Canaveral Lock, 13 Feb.
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis, Cape Canaveral Lock, Brevard County, Florida, 14 Feb. 2017.
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis, Cape Canaveral Lock, 14 Feb.

BIRDING BOTH COASTS

We enjoyed great coastal birding at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Atlantic coast and J. N. “Ding” Darling NWR on the Gulf of Mexico coast. Among the most beautiful birds was Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja, cousin of Shanghai’s Black-faced Spoonbill P. minor. We also found American White Pelican and Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Brevard County, Florida, USA, 3 Feb. 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Brevard County, 3 Feb. 2017.
Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Brevard County, Florida, USA, 3 Feb. 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Roseate Spoonbill, Merritt Island.
"Council of Pelicans." American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Lee County, Florida, USA, 9 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford • www.craigbrelsford.com • www.shanghaibirding.com.
American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, J. N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Lee County, 9 Feb.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron Nyctanassa violacea, J. N. Ding Darling NWR--Wildlife Drive, Lee County, Florida, USA, 9 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Yellow-crowned Night Heron Nyctanassa violacea, ‘Ding’ Darling NWR, 9 Feb.

10 LIFE BIRDS IN BAHAMAS

During a cruise to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, Elaine and I had 10 life birds in Nassau. Although close to the North American mainland, The Bahamas holds various taxa rarely noted in Florida, among them Red-legged Thrush Turdus plumbeus and the endemic hummingbird Bahama Woodstar. We had visible migration in the form of a Northern Parula that appeared on our cruise ship while the vessel was far out at sea.

Red-legged Thrush Turdus plumbeus plumbeus, The Retreat, Bahamas National Trust, Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas (25.0638312, -77.3111343). 15 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Red-legged Thrush Turdus plumbeus plumbeus, The Retreat, Nassau, Bahamas (25.0638312, -77.3111343). 15 Feb. 2017.
Bahama Woodstar Calliphlox evelynae, The Retreat, Bahamas National Trust, Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas (25.0638312, -77.3111343). 15 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Bahama Woodstar Calliphlox evelynae, The Retreat, 15 Feb.
Northern Parula <em>Setophaga americana</em>, Deck 11 of cruise ship Majesty of the Seas, anchored off Little Stirrup Cay, Bahamas (25.8165814, -77.9390717), 16 Feb.
Northern Parula Setophaga americana on cruise ship Majesty of the Seas, anchored off Little Stirrup Cay, Bahamas, 16 Feb.

FOCUS ON PHOTOGRAPHY

In the United States poaching is rare, and the unwary as well as the secretive birds survive. Elaine and I were able to get close to various species and with little trouble achieve excellent photos. Because the air in Florida is clean, the light is often exquisite, and the photos, especially those taken early and late in the day, really pop. Here is Eastern Meadowlark from Osceola County and Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii from Sanibel Island. In Nassau I got close to wintering Ovenbird.

Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna, Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, Osceola County, Florida, 10 February 2017, © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna, Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, Osceola County, 10 Feb.
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna, Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, Osceola County, Florida, 10 February 2017, © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Eastern Meadowlark, Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, 10 Feb.
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 31 Jan. 2017. Joe Overstreet Road, Osceola County, Florida, USA (27.942510, -81.205295).
Eastern Meadowlark, Joe Overstreet Road, Osceola County (27.942510, -81.205295), 31 Jan.
Cooper's Hawk Accipiter cooperii, J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Lee County, Florida, USA, 9 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii, J. N. ‘Ding’ Darling NWR, 9 Feb.
Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapilla, The Retreat, Bahamas National Trust, Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas (25.0638312, -77.3111343). 15 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapilla, The Retreat, Nassau, 15 Feb.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Red-cockaded Woodpecker is one of the few birds endemic to the United States. Northern Crested Caracara is a New World member of the falcon family. Its diet includes carrion, and here it was feeding on a dead raccoon.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Leuconotopicus borealis, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 31 Jan. 2017. Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, Osceola County, Florida, USA (27.949104, -81.143137).
Red-cockaded Woodpecker Leuconotopicus borealis, Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, Osceola County, 31 Jan.
Northern Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway, by Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). Joe Overstreet Road, Osceola County, Florida, USA (27.944660, -81.203199).
Northern Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway, Joe Overstreet Road, Osceola County, 31 Jan.

Sedge Wren is a winter visitor to Florida; White-eyed Vireo breeds in the Sunshine State. Black-and-white Warbler moves up and down tree trunks like a nuthatch.

Sedge Wren Cistothorus stellaris, Audubon Park, Volusia County, Florida, USA, 24 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Sedge Wren Cistothorus stellaris, Audubon Park, Volusia County, 24 Feb.
White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus, Gemini Springs Park, Volusia County, Florida, USA, 21 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus, Gemini Springs Park, Volusia County, 21 Feb.
Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, Florida, USA, 7 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford • www.craigbrelsford.com • www.shanghaibirding.com.
Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, 7 Feb.

A cosmopolitan species, Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus inhabits the coastal eastern United States and has been recorded in southeast China. Neither heron nor rail, Limpkin is most closely related to cranes.

Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, Merritt Island Nat'l Wildlife Refuge, Brevard County, Florida, USA, 3 Feb. 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, Merritt Island NWR, 3 Feb.
Limpkin Aramus guarauna, Joe Overstreet Landing, Osceola County, Florida, USA (27.937265, -81.225983), 31 January 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
Limpkin Aramus guarauna, Joe Overstreet Landing, Osceola County, 31 Jan.

American Bittern Botaurus lentiginosus and Barred Owl Strix varia represent genera well-known to Shanghai birders.

American Bittern Botaurus lentiginosus, Gemini Springs Park, Volusia County, Florida, USA, 21 February 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com).
American Bittern Botaurus lentiginosus, Gemini Springs Park, 21 Feb.
Barred Owl
Barred Owl Strix varia, Gemini Springs Park, 1 Feb.

My Equipment

I use a Nikon D3S and Nikkor 600 mm F/4. I mount my lens and camera atop a ​Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod and ​MVH502AH video head. I use my iPhone 6 for landscape shots.

My Day Lists

Visit my eBird profile page for access to my day lists from Florida as well as China.

Hello from Florida!

Editor’s note: In the photo above, Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus pauses while feeding in a “hammock” or stand of trees. American Robin Turdus migratorius is visible in the background. The photo is from Gemini Springs Park in Volusia County, Florida and was taken on 22 Jan. 2017. This post is the first in a two-part series about my recent experiences birding in Florida. For Part 2, click here.

Greetings from the United States! On 19 Jan. Elaine Du and I arrived at my parents’ home in Florida. Birding began immediately, with good records such as Sandhill Crane coming from my parents’ very own front yard. The Sunshine State may be the best state in the USA for birding, and it is particularly good in winter. In this post, I will give you an introduction to birding in central Florida.

Where Are We?

In Debary, as in many other places in the United States, wild birds can be quite tame. Here at Gemini Springs Park, an American White Ibis (L) and a pair of Boat-tailed Grackle are attracted by the activities of fishermen and birdwatchers.
In Debary, as in many other places in the United States, wild birds can be quite tame. Here at Gemini Springs Park, an American White Ibis (L) and a pair of Boat-tailed Grackle are attracted by the activities of human visitors on the pier.

Elaine and I are in Debary, a town in Volusia County, near Orlando, 50 km (30 miles) inland from the Atlantic Ocean. We are at about 29 degrees north latitude at a point 262 km (163 miles) south of the parallel that runs through People’s Square in Shanghai.

Because Elaine and I have not seen my parents in two years, much of my time has been spent with family. We have visited only two nature reserves, but they are good ones: Gemini Springs Park and Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The former is 7 km from my parents’ home; the latter, 31 km.

What Can a non-American Birder Learn in Florida?

Forest habitat, Gemini Springs Park, Volusia County, Florida, 28 Jan. 2017.
The edge of dense forest in Gemini Springs Park. Spanish Moss Tillandsia usneoides hangs from live oaks. Ovenbird forages on the forest floor, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and White-eyed Vireo browse in the mid-canopy, and Common Grackle perch atop the high branches.

Birders who do most of their birding in China will find many differences in the avifauna of Florida. Entire families, such as the wood warblers (Parulidae), would be new to the first-time birder in the New World. Other families such as Troglodytidae (wrens) and Vireonidae (vireos) would be vaguely familiar. Still other families such as Accipitridae (hawks) and Strigidae (owls) are well-represented in both the Old World and New.

Here are some of the families I have noted recently in Volusia County:

Ciconiidae (Storks)

Wood Stork is the only stork that breeds in the United States. I note it regularly around Debary.

Wood Stork Mycteria americana at a pond at the entrance to my parents' subdivision in Debary, Florida, 24 Jan. 2017.
Wood Stork Mycteria americana at pond at entrance to my parents’ subdivision in Debary, Florida, 24 Jan. 2017.
Wood Stork sparring at Gemini Springs Park, 27 Jan. 2017. Next to them is Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias, analogue to the Old World's Grey Heron A. cinerea. In foreground is Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor.
Wood Stork sparring at Gemini Springs Park, 27 Jan. 2017. Next to them is Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias, American analogue to Eurasia’s Grey Heron A. cinerea. In foreground is Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor.

Cathartidae (New World Vultures)

One of the most widespread of New World vultures is Black Vulture Coragyps atratus. Like Old World vultures, Black Vulture finds carrion by sight, and it lacks feathers on its face, crown, and throat. The birds are very tame and approached me when I lay on the ground for these closeups.

Black Vulture (adult), Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan. 2017.
Black Vulture (adult), Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan. 2017.
Black Vulture (adult), Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan. 2017.
Black Vulture, adult. The bare face is unsightly but helps keep the bird clean.
Black Vulture (juv.), Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan. 2017.
Juvenile Black Vulture.
Black Vultures mill around, Lake Woodruff, 26 Jan. 2017.
Black Vulture approached my camera as I lay on the ground.

Pandionidae (Ospreys)

In some cases, China and America share birds not only of the same family or genus, but also of the same species. Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus is common in Shanghai as well as in the wetlands of Volusia County.

Western Osprey carrying half a fish, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan. 2017.
Western Osprey carrying half a fish, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan.

Accipitridae (Kites, Hawks, and Eagles)

A common forest hawk of the eastern United States, Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus is in the same genus as Shanghai’s Eastern Buzzard B. japonicus. On 27 Jan. at Gemini Springs Park, I photographed a pair mating.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 27 Jan. 2017. Gemini Springs Park. Debary, Florida, USA. Action in this photo occurred at 28.861771, -81.309276.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 27 Jan. 2017. Gemini Springs Park. Debary, Florida, USA. Action in this photo occurred at 28.861771, -81.309276.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 27 Jan. 2017. Gemini Springs Park. Debary, Florida, USA. Action in this photo occurred at 28.861771, -81.309276.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 27 Jan. 2017. Gemini Springs Park. Debary, Florida, USA. Action in this photo occurred at 28.861771, -81.309276.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 27 Jan. 2017. Gemini Springs Park. Debary, Florida, USA. Action in this photo occurred at 28.861771, -81.309276.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 27 Jan. 2017. Gemini Springs Park. Debary, Florida, USA. Action in this photo occurred at 28.861771, -81.309276.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 27 Jan. 2017. Gemini Springs Park. Debary, Florida, USA. Action in this photo occurred at 28.861771, -81.309276.

America’s Northern Harrier Circus hudsonius is immediately familiar to China-based birders. It is similar to, and was once considered conspecific with, Hen Harrier C. cyaneus.

Northern Harrier, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 28 Jan. 2017.
Northern Harrier, Lake Woodruff, 26 Jan.

Rallidae (Rails)

Shanghai has Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus; Florida offers King Rail R. elegans. I found a pair at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. All rails are hard, and a good view such as this one is an experience to be treasured.

King Rail Rallus elegans, © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 26 Jan. 2017. Lake Woodruff Nat'l Wildlife Refuge, Volusia County, Florida, USA. 29.106747, -81.372567.
King Rail Rallus elegans, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan.

Gruidae (Cranes)

Volusia County is home to Florida Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis pratensis. The cranes are a non-migratory population, and as suburbia has grown up around them, the cranes have not only adapted, but flourished. Here is a group outside my parents’ home in Debary, photographed through the window of my car.

Sandhill Crane, Debary, Florida, 27 Jan. 2017.
Sandhill Crane, Debary, 27 Jan. 2017.

Aramidae (Limpkin)

Limpkin Aramus guarauna is the sole member of Aramidae. It looks like a large rail or heron but is most closely related to cranes. The species ranges from Florida to Argentina. At Gemini Springs I found a Limpkin feeding with American White Ibis Eudocimus albus.

Limpkin (R) with American White Ibis, Gemini Springs Park, 27 Jan. 2017.
Limpkin (R) with American White Ibis, Gemini Springs Park, 27 Jan.

Strigidae (Owls)

Barred Owl Strix varia is an owl of dense forests. It is common, and its hoot is well-known. Strix is a large genus and includes China’s Himalayan Owl S. nivicolum.

Pair at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan.
Pair at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan.
Sleepy Barred Owl at Gemini Springs, 28 Jan.
Sleepy Barred Owl at Gemini Springs, 28 Jan.
The Barred Owl was perching on a palm tree near a well-traveled bicycle path. No one noticed it.
The sleepy Barred Owl was perching on a palm tree near a well-traveled bicycle path.

Picidae (Woodpeckers)

Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus is part of a genus of large, powerful woodpeckers that includes Eurasia’s Black Woodpecker D. martius. Pileated Woodpecker flourishes in dense forests with large trees, of which there are many in central Florida.

Pileated Woodpecker, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 25 Jan.
Pileated Woodpecker, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, 25 Jan.

This is Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus. Melanerpes contains 24 species, all in the Americas.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, 27 Jan.
Red-bellied Woodpecker, 27 Jan.

Vireonidae (Vireos)

Vireonidae is a group of small to mid-sized passerines. Most live in the New World. White-bellied Erpornis and the shrike-babblers occur in China. In recent days in Florida I have found White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus and Blue-headed Vireo V. solitarius.

White-eyed Vireo with ladybug, Gemini, 24 Jan.
White-eyed Vireo with ladybug, Gemini, 24 Jan.

Regulidae (Goldcrests, Kinglets)

All six members of Regulidae are in a single genus, Regulus. Goldcrest Regulus regulus can be found in winter and on migration in Shanghai. North America has the very similar Ruby-crowned Kinglet R. calendula.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet searches for tiny arthropods very much in the manner of its Eurasian cousin Goldcrest.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet searches for tiny arthropods very much in the manner of its Eurasian cousin Goldcrest. Females, such as this one photographed 24 Jan. at Gemini, lack the ruby crown.

Troglodytidae (Wrens)

The sole Old World representative of Troglodytidae is Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes. In Florida I have had House Wren T. aedon, Marsh Wren Cistothorus palustris, and the accomplished songster Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus.

Carolina Wren, Gemini, 24 Jan.
Carolina Wren, Gemini, 24 Jan.

Parulidae (New World Warblers)

The New World warblers are an important passerine family confined to the New World. Most species are arboreal and insectivorous and fill niches similar to those filled in the Old World by leaf warblers. Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia is the sole member of its genus. It is the only New World warbler to move up and down tree trunks in the manner of a nuthatch.

Black-and-white Warbler, Gemini, 28 Jan.
Black-and-white Warbler, Gemini, 28 Jan.

Icteridae (Icterids)

Icterids are a strictly New World family. Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major lives along the U.S. coast from New York to Texas. In Florida it also occurs inland.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Gemini, 28 Jan.
Boat-tailed Grackle, Gemini, 28 Jan.

Emberizidae (Buntings and New World Sparrows)

American “sparrows” are more closely related to Old World buntings. Both groups are in Emberizidae. Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis is a bird of open country. It breeds from Alaska through Canada and the northern Lower 48 states and is a winter visitor to Florida. Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana is most at home in wetland habitats. It too is a winter visitor to Florida. It breeds in the northern U.S. and Canada.

Savannah Sparrow, 26 Jan. 2017, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
Savannah Sparrow, 26 Jan. 2017, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
Swamp Sparrow, 25 Jan. 2017, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
Swamp Sparrow, 25 Jan. 2017, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.

Cardinalidae (Cardinals)

Cardinalidae is a family of finch-like seed-eating birds endemic to the New World. Painted Bunting Passerina ciris is often described as the most beautiful bird in North America.

Painted Bunting, Gemini Springs Park, 28 Jan. 2017.
Painted Bunting, Gemini Springs Park, 28 Jan. 2017.

My Equipment

I use a Nikon D3S that I purchased in October 2010. The camera has been a steady performer, and I have seen no need to replace it. My lens is the Nikkor 600 mm F/4. I mount my lens and camera atop a ​Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod and ​MVH502AH video head. I use my iPhone 6 for landscape shots.

My Day Lists

Visit my eBird profile page for access to my day lists from Florida as well as China. You will need an eBird account to view the profile.