Tibetan Lynx, Kanda Mountain, Qinghai

Tibetan Lynx (Lynx lynx isabellinus), 14 July 2016, Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai, China. Sunset. With me at the wheel, my birding partners and I are driving up the Kanda Mountain road. I look left and see the lynx. It is motionless, looking at us. What luck! What a stunning sight!

The cat slinks away. The lynx gave us a few seconds of its time--and a memory to last forever.
The cat slinks away. The lynx gave us a few seconds of its time–and a memory to last forever.

“Wild cat!” I squeak to my partners, hitting the brakes and reaching for my camera. The lynx posed only a moment, and I got these images. Then it trotted away.

I waited nearly half a century to glimpse a lynx. My partners, wife Elaine Du and Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén, also had never seen a lynx. This is the Central Asian subspecies of Eurasian Lynx, also known as Himalayan Lynx and Turkestan Lynx. The elevation here is 4550 m (14,920 ft.).

Kanda Mountain is in Nangqian County, Yushu Prefecture, south-central Qinghai. Few places offer so enticing a combination of stunning scenery and good birding. I took this photo the morning after we saw the lynx near the place where the encounter occurred. Near this point one can find White Eared Pheasant, Tibetan Partridge, Tibetan Babax, and Tibetan Bunting. We found Blue Sheep on the slopes above. Some of the local Tibetans told us that Snow Leopard still roam the area.
Kanda Mountain is in Nangqian County, Yushu Prefecture, south-central Qinghai. Few places offer so enticing a combination of stunning scenery and good birding. I took this photo the morning after we saw the lynx near the place where the encounter occurred. Near this point one can find White Eared Pheasant, Tibetan Partridge, Tibetan Babax, and Tibetan Bunting. We found Blue Sheep on the slopes above. Some of the local Tibetans told us that Snow Leopard still roam the area.

My settings were off; I had just photographed a White-browed Tit-Warbler at close range in bright sunlight. Nikon D3S, 600 mm F/4, 1/20, F/10, ISO 640. “Shoot first, adjust later.” The lynx wasn’t going to wait. Photoshop can bail you out, to a point. I did manage to lower my shutter speed while shooting.

I’m writing you from Xining, capital of Qinghai. Elaine and I have been birding Qinghai since 26 June; we have just begun our fifth week in this province. Jan-Erik joined us for two weeks. On Sun. 24 July we dropped our partner off at Xining Airport. Along with goodbyes and thanks, the word “lynx” was on everyone’s lips.

Rare Breeding Record of Great Grey Owl in China

Last July, Elaine and I spent two weeks covering the vast Hulunbeier region of Inner Mongolia with Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. On our very first day (11 July 2015), we had a rare breeding record of Great Grey Owl. The story below comes from Elaine’s and my report, Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015:

“As we were driving, we saw, far in the distance atop a billboard, a Great Grey Owl. As I stepped out of the car to admire it, a car came from the opposite direction and scared it away. We sighed, drove to the billboard, and parked. Would the owl come back? No. But something interesting occurred. From somewhere in the forest came begging calls, which I recorded (00:08; 1.1 MB):

“Those are clearly the begging calls of a juvenile Great Grey Owl. A breeding record! That is good news, though not wholly unexpected. Though ‘very rare in China’ (MacKinnon), Strix nebulosa lapponica has one stronghold in this country, and that is the Greater Khingan Range of Hulunbeier–a fact known to the birders who find the species here each year (usually in winter). What’s more, next to us was ideal Great Grey Owl habitat, being ‘dense boreal or coniferous forest … with openings,’ as Handbook of the Birds of the World describes it–again, no surprise, as the forest next to which we were standing is known to hold Great Grey Owl and other owls. Why, then, is a breeding record important? A breeding record matters because it confirms that at least some of the Grey Grey Owl in the region are not simply wandering to Hulunbeier in the winter but are using the area year-round.”

Why am I posting this news now? For months, the recording of the begging calls lay in my computer, inert. Recently, reviewing the events of July 2015, I happened upon the recording. I remember Jan-Erik mentioning, way back in July, that we may have a breeding record of Strix nebulosa. But we got busy and never followed up, and so only now can we report this interesting record.

The report from which this post was derived, Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015, is just one of many richly illustrated, useful reports on the shanghaibirding.com Explorations page. Plan your big China trip, learn about birding, or just sit back and enjoy our accounts of our birding expeditions in China. We are adding more and more of my sound recordings to the reports for a true multimedia experience. You’ll love Explorations!

Featured image: L-R: Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, and Jan-Erik Nilsén, on the S301 between Genhe and Labudalin, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, China, 19 July 2015.

Covering Shanghai Birding as It Has Never Been Covered Before

110,000 words. Months of research. Weeks in the field.

The result: Shanghai birding as it has never been covered before.

Our Reports page is up. It is an index to the book-length reports that Elaine Du and I have been writing about birding in Earth’s largest city.

The latest report, just completed, is called Shanghai-area Autumn & Winter Birding, 2015-16. It covers the birding season from 11 Sept. 2015 through last week. This 40,000-word report lists the 268 bird species we noted and has heretofore unpublished photos and sound recordings. To our knowledge, never in a single document has birding in Shanghai been covered so thoroughly.

The latest report joins Shanghai-area Springtime Birding, 2015 (31,000 words, 243 species) and Shanghai-area Autumn & Winter Birding, 2014-15 (39,000 words, 216 species). The reports contain highlights, two versions of our species list, our itineraries, GPS coordinates of birding sites, recommended hotels, interesting anecdotes, lamentations on the state of the Chinese coast, and paeans to the amazing birds we witness.

Are you planning a trip to Shanghai and curious about the birds you could find at that time of year? The blog will give you current news, and Reports will show you what has been found in previous years. Do you live in Shanghai and want to know what birding is like throughout the year? Start your research on our blog; dig deeper with Reports.

In the coming weeks, Elaine and I will start the spring 2016 report.

Featured image: Craig Brelsford puts the finishing touches on Shanghai-area Autumn & Winter Birding, 2015-16, one of three reports featured on the new Reports page on shanghaibirding.com. Photo by Elaine Du.

Cinereous Vulture in Shanghai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Minor Role in a Major Discovery

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

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

Himalayan Forest Thrush Zoothera salimalii, Irrawaddy-Salween Divide, above Dulong Valley, Yunnan, China, 20 June 2014. Elev. 3375 m.
Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii, Irrawaddy-Salween Divide, above Dulong Valley, Yunnan, China, 20 June 2014. Elev. 3375 m.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT IS ‘NEW TO SCIENCE’?

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

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

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

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

My bird was fit and strong--as he needed to be, if he wanted to command his large, rocky territory.
My bird was fit and strong–as he needed to be, if he wanted to command his large, rocky territory.

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

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

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

Himalayan Forest Thrush, Baihualing, Yunnan. Baihualing is in the southern part of the Gaoligong Mountains. The elevation here is ca. 1800 m. 4 Feb. 2014.
Himalayan Thrush, Baihualing, Yunnan. Baihualing is in the southern part of the Gaoligong Mountains. The elevation here is ca. 1800 m. 4 Feb. 2014.

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

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

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

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

Sound Recordings

Video (all taken at Baihualing, western Yunnan, in the Gaoligong Mountains, 4 Feb. 2014)

Himalayan Thrush 1/3
Himalayan Thrush 2/3
Himalayan Thrush 3/3

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

The Crane and the Owl: 2015 Year in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE DID WE GO IN 2015?

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

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

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

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

2015 IN SHANGHAI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TRIPS TO EMEIFENG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAJOR DISCOVERIES IN HULUNBEIER & HEILONGJIANG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEIJING & HEBEI IN OCTOBER

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

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

LONGHENG, GUANGXI, HOME OF NONGGANG BABBLER

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

Bird Species Noted in 2015 by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du

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

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

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

Nanhui on Foot

Elaine and I birded Nanhui on foot, noting 43 species. I had my first-ever visual record of Brown-cheeked Rail in Shanghai, and at Dishui Lake we noted Common Goldeneye, 6 Greater Scaup, and 4 Black-necked Grebe. We had an unusual winter record of Eastern Yellow Wagtail (ssp. tschutschensis).

Common Goldeneye with Falcated Duck, Dishui Lake, 16 Jan. 2016. Photo created with iPhone 6 and Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope mounted on Manfrotto head and carbon-fiber tripod.
Common Goldeneye with Falcated Duck, Dishui Lake, 16 Jan. 2016. Photo created with iPhone 6 and Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope mounted on Manfrotto head and carbon-fiber tripod.

The Brown-cheeked Rail was at 30.907690, 121.972372. Our discovery of the shy species came about because we were walking, not driving. On a sunny and unusually quiet day along Shijitang Road (the sea-wall road), Elaine and I were walking slowly, noting every sound and movement. Had we been driving, we might have missed the brief, piercing call of the rail.

The sound was coming from the reeds at the landward base of the sea wall. As it was time for lunch, and knowing how long rail vigils can take, Elaine and I sat down and ate our sandwiches in the warm sun, watching for movement in the reeds below and recording the calls the rail was intermittently making. Finally, the rail appeared atop the thin drainage canal connecting the wall to the marsh. I got a good enough look at the brownish flanks to affirm that the bird was not the extralimital Water Rail Rallus aquaticus but Brown-cheeked Rail R. indicus.

The valuable record was icing on the cake for us, because Elaine’s and my main goal today was not to acquire lifers but to get outside and exercise. If good birds appeared, we said, then fine, but nothing was more important to us than casting away the cooped-up feeling we get living in our apartment in the center city. We wanted sunshine, broad horizons, and the relatively clean air of Nanhui, and this time, for the first time, we wanted to bird Nanhui on foot.

We were able to do Nanhui without a car because of the recent opening of Metro Line 16, whose south terminus is at Dishui Lake. We needed only 90 minutes to go from our apartment near Zhongshan Park to Dishui Lake, taking Line 2 to Longyang Road and transferring to Line 16. After a quick taxi ride, by 08:15 we were at our favorite Dishui Lake viewpoint (30.908702, 121.945124). Having noted in addition to the aforementioned birds 350 Falcated Duck, 4 Tufted Duck, 1 of today’s 2 Richard’s Pipit, and surprisingly 0 Common Pochard, Elaine and I walked toward the coast. I had no camera with me, only my spotting scope and binoculars.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis, an unusual winter record for Shanghai.
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis, an unusual winter record for Shanghai.

At the sea wall, we turned north, finding many Buff-bellied Pipit, White Wagtail, and the misplaced Eastern Yellow Wagtail. We ID’d our 2 Pied Harrier on the basis of the combination of brown back, greyish secondaries, and white rump of both birds, which were together. We heard two more rails but in even thicker cover than the first; we did not wait around for a visual to nail the ID, but we presume that they too were Brown-cheeked. Walking on an unpaved road into the reeds, we startled Common Snipe and Eurasian Teal. We watched Reed Parrotbill pry open the reed stems, making a crunchy sound.

One snipe, a loner, made only a quick, low flight before dropping stonelike and silently into the reeds. There was no “sneeze” at takeoff, unlike Common Snipe, and I saw no white trailing edge to the wing (which is not to say it was not there). The snipe appeared smaller than Common. Because of the angle of the snipe’s head as it dropped, I could not see the bill. Was it Jack Snipe? I do not know, but I urge local birders not to chalk up every snipe they see to Common but to take a good, hard look.

We u-turned and walked south, reaching the bus stop behind the Magic Parking Lot at the Holiday Inn. It was 15:20 and we had walked 17 km. We took the bus back to the Dishui Lake Metro Station. The subway ride back to Zhongshan Park was just as smooth as the ride out.

Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du sleeping on Line 16. It's a long ride out to Dishui Lake, but birders are virtually guaranteed a seat on Line 16. That's because the stations one uses to access and exit Line 16 (Dishui Lake and Longyang Road) are the terminuses of Line 16. Note here that, even though I was fast asleep, I nonetheless retained the presence of mind to photographically record this moment for you.
Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du sleeping on Line 16. It’s a long ride out to Dishui Lake, but birders are virtually guaranteed a seat on Line 16. That’s because the stations one uses to access and exit Line 16 (Dishui Lake and Longyang Road) are the terminuses of Line 16. Note here that, even though I was fast asleep, I nonetheless retained the presence of mind to photographically record this moment for you.

List 1 of 1 for Sat. 16 Jan. 2016 (43 species). Around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]), Shanghai, China (30.920507, 121.973159). List includes birds found at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124). Thick morning haze then mostly sunny skies; low 0°C, high 10°C. Visibility 0-10 km. Wind E 6 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 189 (Shanghai). Sunrise 06:53, sunset 17:15. SAT 16 JAN 2016 08:15-15:10. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Falcated Duck Anas falcata 350
Gadwall A. strepera 9
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 50
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 50
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 70
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 4
Greater Scaup A. marila 6
Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 14
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 30
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 4
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 4
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 15
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 25
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 10
Pied Harrier Circus melanoleucos 2
Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus 1
Brown-cheeked/Water Rail R. indicus/R. aquaticus 2
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 150
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus 30
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 17
snipe sp. 1
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 1
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 8
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 12
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 2
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus ca. 50
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 9
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 30
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 5
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 5
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 12
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 8
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 100
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 1 tschutschensis
White Wagtail M. alba 18 (17 leucopsis, 1 ocularis)
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 2
Buff-Bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 16
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 40

Featured image: Craig Brelsford viewing Brown-cheeked Rail in a drainage ditch at Nanhui, Shanghai, China, Sat. 16 Jan. 2016. Photo by Elaine Du.

A Reliable Spot for Brown-cheeked Rail

On our first birding trip of 2016, Elaine and I noted 85 species at Yancheng, Dongtai, and Yangkou. We reunited with the Dream Team, which includes Senior Birder Michael Grunwell, husband-wife team Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp, my wife Elaine Du, and me. We added evidence that the point 32.557278 121.037111 is a reliable site for Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus, and at Dongtai we found a sub-adult Mute Swan. At Yancheng, we found 9 Red-crowned Crane, 10 Hooded Crane, 250 Common Crane, 2 Oriental Stork, 1250 Common Merganser, and 8 Reed Parrotbill. Among our big finds at Dongtai were 11 Red-breasted Merganser, 14 Greater Scaup, 80 Saunders’s Gull, and 610 Grey Plover. We recorded Pied Avocet, Black-winged Kite, and Smew at Dongtai and Yancheng, and we found Green Sandpiper at Yancheng and Yangkou.

Mute Swan is a well-known ornamental bird, found in parks throughout Western Europe and North America. Wild Mute Swan are less commonly seen, and in the Shanghai region, Cygnus olor is a very scarce winter visitor. This sub-adult has a dull pink bill, unlike the deep orange-red bill of an adult. Dongtai, 10 Jan.
Mute Swan is a well-known ornamental bird, found in parks throughout Western Europe and North America. Wild Mute Swan are less commonly seen, and in the Shanghai region, Cygnus olor is a very scarce winter visitor. This sub-adult has a dull pink bill, unlike the deep orange-red bill of an adult. Dongtai, 10 Jan.

In May 2010, I found Brown-cheeked Rail at the point in Yangkou noted above. I forgot about the sighting and did not search again until last 15 Nov., when I found Brown-cheeked Rail after a 30-minute wait. On Sunday, I made my second of two tries at the site and was successful again.

Using the evidence I have presented here, you may believe, as I do, that the site is reliable for Rallus indicus. If you need the bird, then go with a few more birders if possible, stand in the area shown on the Google Map linked to above, spread out, and pay attention to the edge of the reeds. On Sunday, in contrast to 15 Nov., the rail never showed clearly; only Elaine’s sharp eye confirmed the presence of the scurrying rail. I got a look that first time, and about 30 minutes later, the bird showed again, and everyone got a quick view. The bird was calling softly from time to time and called loudly, but only briefly, when I first played back Water Rail R. aquaticus. (I played back R. aquaticus because the recordings I have of R. indicus are poor.) If you have qualms about playback, then you may still be able to see the bird, but be prepared to wait. If you are lucky, Reed Parrotbill will show; during our wait, we had Pallas’s Reed Bunting, Rustic Bunting, a Common Snipe that was hiding in plain sight, and an unusual winter view of Chinese Pond Heron.

Unusual winter sighting of Chinese Pond Heron, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.
Unusual winter sighting of Chinese Pond Heron, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.

With last weekend’s work at Yancheng, Elaine and I completed a survey (which began last year) of the Jiangsu coast from just north of Yancheng down to the Yangtze River. Along that 300 km stretch of coast, the best place to bird is Dongtai, followed by Yangkou and Yancheng. Besides those three areas, there is little left. There may be pockets that I have overlooked, but I doubt they are substantial; I doubt there is some secret location holding 10,000 waders.

The coastal area of Dongtai city is under no environmental protection that I know of, and in fact is slated to be transformed for aquaculture. At Yancheng, the Red-crowned Crane we saw were shuttling back and forth between fields, with busy farmers, noisy farming machines, and farmhouses never far away. At Yangkou, the smell of chemicals grows ever stronger, just as birdable areas behind the coastal wall grow ever smaller and the invasive Smooth Cordgrass on the mudflats grows ever more extensive.

We had little time for photography, but this cooperative Rustic Bunting offered me an opportunity too good to pass up. It is easy to distinguish a faded winter Rustic (as here) from the smarter breeding Rustic; it is harder to age and sex them.
We had little time for photography, but this cooperative Rustic Bunting offered me an opportunity too good to pass up. It is easy to distinguish a faded winter Rustic (as here) from the smarter breeding Rustic; it is harder to age and sex them.

Jiangsu packs 80 million people into an area less than a quarter the size of Sweden or California. If Sweden were as densely populated as Jiangsu, then its population would be about the same (320 million) as that of the United States. The GPP (Gross Provincial Product) of Jiangsu is one-third the GDP of India. A dense population of people with a culture that cares little for conservation and operates an economic powerhouse: That is Jiangsu. No wonder the Jiangsu coast is being chopped to pieces!

We spent a restful Saturday night at Greentree Inn (Gélín Háotài Jiǔdiàn [格林豪泰酒店], 160 yuan/night for clean, modern room with fast Internet and breakfast, +86 (0) 515-85820999; 32.749262, 120.850125). What a difference a good room makes!

Thanks to Michael for teaching us birding, to Stephan for his excellent driving, to Xueping for her quick mind, and to my dear Elaine for her constant positive attitude.

Elaine Du cheerfully hauls the spotting scope back to the car. The youngest member of the team, Elaine has an obvious enthusiasm for birding, is becoming handy with the telescope, and keeps accurate records.
Elaine Du cheerfully hauls the spotting scope back to the car. The youngest member of the team, Elaine has an obvious enthusiasm for birding, is becoming handy with the telescope, and keeps accurate records.

List 1 of 2 for Sat. 9 Jan. 2016 (65 species). Yancheng (Yánchéng [盐城]), a prefecture-level city in NE Jiangsu, China. Important points visited: area S of Crane Paradise (Hè Lèyuán [鹤乐园]; 33.600960, 120.507412), and points between Crane Paradise and the bend in the road on Dafeng Seawall (Dàfēng Hǎidī [大丰海堤]; 33.514056, 120.530951). Thick morning haze then mostly sunny skies; low -1°C, high 8°C. Visibility 0-10 km. Wind S/SSW 6 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 182 (Yancheng). Sunrise 07:04, sunset 17:10. SAT 09 JAN 2016 08:00-15:00. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, Michael Grunwell, Stephan Popp, & Xueping Popp.

Tundra Bean Goose Anser serrirostris 400
Greater White-fronted Goose A. albifrons 10
Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus bewickii 4
Gadwall Anas strepera 50
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 100
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 100
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 20
Northern Pintail A. acuta 20
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 70
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 300
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 2
Smew Mergellus albellus 16
Common Merganser Mergus merganser 1250
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 18
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 50
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 20
Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana 2
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 90
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 60
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 30
Great Egret A. alba 1
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 3
Little Egret E. garzetta 50
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 15
Black-winged Kite Elanus caeruleus 2
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus 1
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus 4
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 5
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 150
Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis 9
Common Crane G. grus 250
Hooded Crane G. monacha 10
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 2
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 320
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 2
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 3
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 2
Green Sandpiper T. ochropus 1
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 5
Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus heuglini 1
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 7
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 3
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 2
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 6
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 2
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 8
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus 10
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 30
Japanese Tit Parus minor 1
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 10
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 25
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 8
Goldcrest Regulus regulus 2
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 120
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 2
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 8
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 20
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni 3
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 10
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla 80
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 20
Rustic Bunting E. rustica 20
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 3
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 50

Smew, Yancheng, 9 Jan. 2016.
Smew, Yancheng, 9 Jan. 2016.

List 2 of 2 for Sat. 9 Jan. 2016 (21 species). Great Dongtai Surf ‘n’ Turf Birding Trail, a 40-km loop on coast of Dongtai (Dōngtái [东台]), a county-level city in Jiangsu, China. Important points on Trail are N entrance to new sea-wall road on Dongtai Levee Road (Dōngtái Hǎidī [东台海堤], 32.868218, 120.912340), T-junction on Dongtai Levee Road (32.855576, 120.896557), viewing area on W side of lagoons (32.850988, 120.958103), S entrance to new sea-wall road on Dongtai Levee Road (32.759765, 120.928722), SE corner of sea wall (32.759499, 120.962893), & NE corner of sea wall (32.872444, 120.951522). Thick morning haze then mostly sunny skies; low -1°C, high 8°C. Visibility 0-10 km. Wind S/SSW 6 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 182 (Yancheng). Sunrise 07:04, sunset 17:10. SAT 09 JAN 2016 16:20-17:40. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, Michael Grunwell, Stephan Popp, & Xueping Popp.

Mute Swan Cygnus olor 1
Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 200
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos 8
Northern Pintail A. acuta 2
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 150
Smew Mergellus albellus 1
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator 6
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 20
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 20
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 20
Great Egret A. alba 50
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 50
Little Egret E. garzetta 20
Black-winged Kite Elanus caeruleus 1
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 50
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 200
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 10
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 30
Saunders’s Gull C. saundersi 80
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 15
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 10

Green Sandpiper, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016.
Green Sandpiper, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016.

List 1 of 2 for Sun. 10 Jan. 2016 (33 species). Great Dongtai Surf ‘n’ Turf Birding Trail, a 40-km loop on coast of Dongtai (Dōngtái [东台]), a county-level city in Jiangsu, China. Important points on Trail are N entrance to new sea-wall road on Dongtai Levee Road (Dōngtái Hǎidī [东台海堤], 32.868218, 120.912340), T-junction on Dongtai Levee Road (32.855576, 120.896557), viewing area on W side of lagoons (32.850988, 120.958103), S entrance to new sea-wall road on Dongtai Levee Road (32.759765, 120.928722), SE corner of sea wall (32.759499, 120.962893), & NE corner of sea wall (32.872444, 120.951522). Thick morning haze giving way to mostly cloudy skies; high 9°C. Visibility 10 km. Wind E 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 174 (Nantong). Sunrise 06:59, sunset 17:09. SUN 10 JAN 2016 07:30-11:10. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, Michael Grunwell, Stephan Popp, & Xueping Popp.

Mute Swan Cygnus olor 1
Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 368
Falcated Duck Anas falcata 16
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 110
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 305
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 11
Northern Pintail A. acuta 17
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 200
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 15
Greater Scaup A. marila 14
Smew Mergellus albellus 3
Common Merganser Mergus merganser 26
Red-breasted Merganser M. serrator 5
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 72
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 13
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 27
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 10
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 217
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 200
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 610
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 11
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 57
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia 3
Dunlin Calidris alpina 40
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 16
Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus heuglini 2
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 3
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 1 leucopsis

Greater Scaup, Dongtai, 10 Jan. 2016.
Greater Scaup, Dongtai, 10 Jan. 2016.

List 2 of 2 for Sun. 10 Jan. 2016 (26 species). Yangkou (Yángkǒu [洋口]), fishing town in Rudong County (Rúdōng Xiàn [如东县]), Jiangsu, China (32.537730, 121.017746). Among areas visited: Haiyin Temple (Hǎiyìn Sì [海印寺], 32.558756, 121.044740) and reed beds near Haiyin Temple (32.557387, 121.037381). Thick morning haze giving way to mostly cloudy skies; high 9°C. Visibility 10 km. Wind E 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 174 (Nantong). Sunrise 06:59, sunset 17:09. SUN 10 JAN 2016 12:00-14:15. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, Michael Grunwell, Stephan Popp, & Xueping Popp.

Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 2
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 2
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 15
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 4
Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus 1
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 10
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 21
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 35
Green Sandpiper T. ochropus 1
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 20
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 2
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 5
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 3
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 10
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 10
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 10
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 2
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 5
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 2 leucopsis
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni 6
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria 50
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 10
Rustic Bunting E. rustica 3
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 3

Featured image: L-R: Stephan Popp, Michael Grunwell, & Elaine Du view 1250 Common Merganser near Crane Paradise, Yancheng, Jiangsu, China, 9 January 2016.

Lesser Shortwing and the Joy of Low-light Photography

On my recent trip to Longheng, Guangxi, I rediscovered the joy of low-light photography.

Michael Grunwell, my wife Elaine Du, and I were at a blind. Well past sunset, long after the other photographers had left, we were still there. First the thrushes retired, then the White-tailed Robin.

Suddenly, Lesser Shortwing popped out.

This dorsal view provides plenty of detail. Note the short wings and stubby tail. F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.
This dorsal view provides plenty of detail. Note the short wings and stubby tail. F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.

Through the gloom we could just make out the form of a small bird. So dark was it by now that I could ID the bird only by the photos I was taking of it.

The shortwing helped itself to a few mealworms and took a bath. It had no competition. Its strategy was to wait out the bigger birds and use its tolerance for very low light as an advantage. We got sustained views and photos of a rarely seen bird.

The shortwing was the capstone on another successful project in low-light bird photography. Ever since a magical morning in June 2010, when I photographed Fairy Pitta in the pre-dawn light at Dongzhai, Henan, I have been drawn to photographing forest birds in low light.

This image of a Fairy Pitta got me hooked on low-light bird photography. I was using the old Nikon D300 and my current 600 mm F/4 lens. With that camera, I was afraid to go above ISO 250! But the pitta was a perfect model, standing motionless for seconds at a time. Dongzhai, Henan, 5 June 2010. F/8, 0.80, ISO 250.
This image of a Fairy Pitta got me hooked on low-light bird photography. I was using the old Nikon D300 and my current 600 mm F/4 lens. With that camera, I was afraid to go above ISO 250! But the pitta was a perfect model, standing motionless for seconds at a time. Dongzhai, Henan, 5 June 2010. F/8, 0.80, ISO 250.

My current setup is well-suited to this task. I place my Nikon D3S and Nikon 600 mm F/4 lens atop my Manfrotto MVH502AH video head and Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon-fiber tripod. The D3S is now a 6-year-old model; though superseded by newer models such as the D4S, the D3S remains one of the best low-light cameras ever made, easily creating usable photos at ISO 10000.

I put the D3S in mirror-up mode. I tighten the head to the firmest position and slowly follow the movement of the shortwing with my left hand, which holds the wand attached to the head. When the shortwing stops, I release my hand from the wand; because the head is tight and hard to move, the camera always rests in the position to which I guide it.

This beautiful male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was photographed on 2 May 2014 at a temporary photo blind that I set up near Yangkou, Jiangsu. This photo was taken at 15:42, and light was more plentiful. I added my 1.4x teleconverter to my 600 mm lens, set the aperture to F/11, the speed to 1/80, and the ISO to 1600. As always, I used my shutter-release cable.
This beautiful male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was photographed on 2 May 2014 at a temporary photo blind that I set up near Yangkou, Jiangsu. This photo was taken at 15:42, and light was more plentiful. I added my 1.4x teleconverter to my 600 mm lens, set the aperture to F/11, the speed to 1/80, and the ISO to 1600. As always, I used my shutter-release cable.

I press the button on my shutter-release cable, held in my right hand. The first press opens the mirror; I wait a second, then press the button again, opening the shutter and exposing the image.

Low light is not bad light. With patience, skill, and the right equipment, one can achieve lovely images of birds in near-darkness.

The shortwing seems to be looking at us, but actually it has no idea it is being watched. It is simply responding to the soft click of the camera. What an advantage blinds can give birders. Where else but in a blind can one view a Lesser Shortwing, among the shyest of birds, for 10 minutes? F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.
The shortwing seems to be looking at us, but actually it has no idea it is being watched. It is simply responding to the soft click of the camera. What an advantage blinds can give birders. Where else but in a blind can one view a Lesser Shortwing, among the shyest of birds, for 10 minutes? F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.

Featured image: Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris just after its bath at photo blind in Longheng, Guangxi, China, 20 Dec. 2015. F/4, 1/8, ISO 10000.

White-bellied Green Pigeon! (or, How We Slogged Our Way through the Shanghai Smog and Picked Up a Lifer)

Fresh from our trip to Guangxi, Elaine and I on Saturday noted 57 species at Lesser Yangshan and Nanhui. The highlight was White-bellied Green Pigeon at Nanhui. Nanhui also produced 3 Greater Scaup, an impressive 440 Tufted Duck and 470 Kentish Plover, and a single Reed Parrotbill. On Lesser Yangshan, Brown-eared Bulbul was noted once again, and I flushed 2 Eurasian Woodcock.

After the smoggiest, most pollution-filled beginning to a birding day I had ever seen, our respectable showing was a surprise to Elaine and our partners Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp. Starting in Puxi at 06:15, we crawled through thick haze, with visibility sometimes reduced to less than 50 meters. Many birders would have reasonably turned back, but we pressed on, cheerfully repeating the two mantras of birding: (1) you never know and (2) wait. Finally, driving across Donghai Bridge, after more than two hours in Stephan and Xueping’s Passat, we saw a hint of blue sky over Lesser Yangshan Island. Free at last!

In the animal world, the survivors are the athletes and the geniuses. This Richard's Pipit is in top condition. It has caught a katydid, and nicely dividing its attention between prey and predator, the bird assesses the danger, bashes its large prey once more, and safely makes off with the stunned insect.
In the animal world, the survivors are the athletes and the geniuses. This Richard’s Pipit is in top condition. It has caught a katydid, and nicely dividing its attention between prey and predator, the bird assesses the danger, bashes its large prey once more, and safely makes off with the stunned insect.

At that point, just breathing deeply was a bonus; we could have seen not a single bird and felt the trip to the island worthwhile. As it was, however, we generated interesting records such as the bulbul, the woodcocks, and Yellow-bellied Tit, all found in Garbage Dump Gully. Rustic Bunting was on the coastal plain, and among the common winter visitors were 14 Daurian Redstart, 2 Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and 3 Pale Thrush.

Looking back toward the mainland, we noticed that more and more of Donghai Bridge was becoming visible. We decided to chance it and return to Nanhui. Visibility had improved here, too, and at Dishui Lake, our first stop, we gazed hundreds of meters across the water. Using the spotting scopes, Elaine and Xueping picked through the birds. The search for Horned Grebe was fruitless, but 5 Black-necked Grebe were there, and 330 Falcated Duck, 15 Eurasian Wigeon, and 80 Great Crested Grebe were present in more or less their earlier proportions. In the first big pond north of the Magic Parking Lot, we found the large flock of Kentish Plover–surprising, but not unprecedented, as we had counted a mega-flock of 800 on 28 Nov.

Sleeping White-bellied Green Pigeon, Nanhui. After Stephan Popp and I got this image, we backed away slowly, so as not to disturb the tired migrant.
Sleeping White-bellied Green Pigeon, Nanhui. After Stephan Popp and I got this image, we backed away slowly, so as not to disturb the tired migrant.

We found the White-bellied Green Pigeon at Microforest 4. In the Shanghai region, I had last noted Treron sieboldii on 24 Nov. 2012 on Lesser Yangshan. The beautiful pigeon was a lifer for everyone but me and set off a series of high-fives, made even more meaningful by the inauspicious beginning of our day. White-bellied Green Pigeon became the 259th species Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept.

Development seems to be accelerating at Nanhui. Near the empty blue-roofed building, backhoes are moving great quantities of earth, and Microforest 8 has been destroyed. The line of reeds at the inner base of the sea wall has been mowed down.

Eastern Buzzard, Nanhui. Note the compact build, black carpal patches on underwings, black tips to primaries, and head that is paler than upperparts. Buteo japonicus is a common winter visitor to Shanghai.
Eastern Buzzard, Nanhui. Note the compact build, black carpal patches on underwings, black tips to primaries, and head that is paler than upperparts. Buteo japonicus is a common winter visitor to Shanghai.

List 1 of 2 for SAT 26 DEC 2015 (23 species). Lesser Yangshan Island (Xiǎo Yángshān [小洋山]), island in Hangzhou Bay, Zhejiang, China. List includes birds noted at Garbage Dump Gully (30.641565, 122.062836), Garbage Dump Coastal Plain (30.638860, 122.060089), & Temple Mount (30.639866, 122.048327). Extremely smoggy in morning, clearing by midday. Visibility 0-10 km. Sunrise 06:46, sunset 16:53. Temp. 6°-12°C. 08:00-10:40. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, Stephan Popp, & Xueping Popp.

Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus 2
Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola 2
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 2
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 2
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 3
Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus 1
Japanese Tit Parus minor 8
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 30
Brown-eared Bulbul Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis 1
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 2
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 1
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 3
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 2
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 14
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 8
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 5
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni 12
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides 4
Rustic Bunting E. rustica 1
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans 6
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 1

List 2 of 2 for SAT 26 DEC 2015 (45 species). Around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]), Shanghai, China (30.920507, 121.973159); list includes birds found at Magic Parking Lot (30.882784, 121.972782), Magic GPS Point (30.880540, 121.964572), the empty blue-roofed building & nearby microforests (30.961368, 121.952136), and Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124). Extremely smoggy in morning, clearing by midday. Visibility 0-10 km. Sunrise 06:46, sunset 16:53. Temp. 6°-12°C. 11:30-16:20. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, Stephan Popp, & Xueping Popp.

Falcated Duck Anas falcata 330
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 15
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 8
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 20
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 60
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 440
Greater Scaup A. marila 3
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 20
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 80
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 5
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 10
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 3
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 30
Great Egret A. alba 1
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 120
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 22
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus 1
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus 1
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 1
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 250
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 470
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 2
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 12
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 4
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 3
White-bellied Green Pigeon Treron sieboldii 1
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 8
Japanese Tit Parus minor 1
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 5
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 15
Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus 1
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 3
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 20
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 1
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 3
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 150
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 12 (8 leucopsis, 4 ocluaris)
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 2
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 15
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 5

Featured image: White-bellied Green Pigeon Treron sieboldii, Nanhui, Shanghai, 26 Dec. 2015.