Birding While Daddy

The birth of my son ended my birding career in China and catapulted me back to the United States. I returned to Florida on 31 Jan. 2018 and accepted my new status of Birder While Daddy. Here’s how I have adjusted.

Despite the daily dose of joy my son brings, my addiction to birding remains. Fortunately for me, in Florida, getting one’s birding fix is easy. On Fri. 2 March, for example, I was on my back porch, proofreading for Bloomsbury a draft of a field guide. A feeding party of woodland birds arrived in the back yard.

I stepped into a wave of wood warblers (Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler) vireos (Blue-headed Vireo, White-eyed Vireo), and woodpeckers (Downy Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker). A diminutive Common Ground Dove was associating with the wave, as was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, cousin of Eurasia’s Goldcrest. A House Wren emerged briefly from the bushes; Snakebirds, also known as Anhinga, were soaring high above; and U.S. endemic Fish Crow was making its low-pitched caw.

My birding fix satisfied, I returned joyfully to work.

Walking with Elaine and Tiny along the suburban streets of Volusia County, I regularly find interesting species such as Sandhill Crane and Florida Scrub Jay, the latter the only species of bird endemic to the state of Florida. Nature reserves are plentiful in central Florida, and at one of the best, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, Tiny recently added Bald Eagle to his infancy bird list.

Always I am looking for little snatches of time in which to bird. My local patch is Gemini Springs Park, where last month I noted Painted Bunting as well as overwintering skulkers Ovenbird and Hermit Thrush. I recently ticked Wood Duck, American analogue to Mandarin Duck.

I currently am not taking bird photos. With a four-month-old in the house, photography adds to birding a layer of complexity that I must shed. I carry a sound-recorder, and my ears are always open. Recent strolls with Tiny have led to a heard-only tick of Barn Owl and a mysterious night-time flyover of Black-bellied Whistling Duck.

On Monday I start a new career with RedChip, a company owned by my best friend from college and a leader in financial media and investor relations. I’ll be birding less, but getting out as much as I can, as I continue to take on my new role of Birder While Daddy.

Despite my move to America, my expertise on Asian birds remains in demand. Here I am proofreading a forthcoming title from Bloomsbury, A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Japan and Northeast Asia. (Elaine Du)
Despite my move to America, my expertise on Asian birds remains in demand. Here I am on the back porch proofreading a forthcoming title from Bloomsbury, A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Japan and Northeast Asia. (Elaine Du)
My mother (L) is ecstatic over the return of her son and arrival of her newest grandson. I told her, 'This time you got me. I'll never live abroad again.' With Tiny in tow, we were birding 3 March 2018 near my parents' house in Debary, Florida. (Elaine Du)
My mother, Susan (L), is ecstatic over the return of her son and arrival of her daughter-in-law and grandson. I told her, ‘This time you got me. I’ll never live abroad again.’ With Tiny in tow, we were birding 3 March 2018 near my parents’ house in Debary, Florida. (Elaine Du)
Craig "Tiny" Brelsford (R) birding with his mother Elaine Du at Gemini Springs Park, Debary, Florida, 11 Feb. 2018. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine Du birding with her son, Craig ‘Tiny’ Brelsford, at Gemini Springs Park, Debary, 11 Feb. 2018. When Elaine left China last month, she was the highest-ranked woman eBirder in the history of that country, with 735 species on her China list. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine and Tiny in the observation tower at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The top eBird hot spot in Volusia County, Woodruff is known as a breeding site of Swallow-tailed Kite. Sandhill Crane also breed here, and Bald Eagle are regularly noted. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine and Tiny in the observation tower (29.113998, -81.377611) at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The top eBird hot spot in Volusia County, Woodruff is a reliable site for Swallow-tailed Kite. Sandhill Crane breed in the refuge, Bald Eagle are regularly noted, and American Alligator bask on the creek banks. (Craig Brelsford)
Our four-month-old baby boy at Woodruff. A human baby is a natural phenomenon and a thing of beauty--beautiful in the way a sunset or waterfall is beautiful. I got into birding because my eyes hungered for natural beauty. Now, my son satisfies some of that longing. (Elaine Du)
Our four-month-old baby boy at Woodruff. The young of Homo sapiens is an object of great beauty–beautiful in the way a sunset or waterfall is beautiful, or the bugling of a crane, or the glide of an eagle. I got into birding because my eyes hungered for natural beauty. Now, my son satisfies some of that longing. (Elaine Du)

Featured image: Craig Brelsford birding with his son, Craig “Tiny” Brelsford. L: Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, Volusia County, Florida, 25 Feb. 2018. R: Gemini Springs Park, Debary, Florida, 22 Feb. 2018. (Elaine Du)

Elaine, Tiny, and I Are Returning to America

Elaine, Tiny, and I are returning to the United States. Our final day in China will be 30 January 2018.

The main reason for moving to America is our infant son, Tiny. Tiny’s birth changed Elaine and me forever. We want the best for Tiny, and we believe that the best for Tiny is to grow up in America.

Why are we leaving so suddenly? Elaine and I would have preferred a long goodbye to China and then departure in the summer or fall of 2018. But last month, with only 33 days before my current visa ran out, I was strongly advised not to apply for another student visa. The Chinese government has made a sudden change in policy. Old Chinese-language students are no longer welcome. (I’m 50 years old.)

I accept the reasoning behind the policy regarding old students. What is questionable is the suddenness of the change. Elaine and I have been considerably inconvenienced.

I have been studying Chinese for two reasons. One was that I sincerely wanted to learn Mandarin, and my Chinese friends can attest to my constant improvement these past few years, all owing to my work at the Chinese-language program at the Shanghai University of Engineering Sciences.

The other reason for studying Chinese was, here in Shanghai Elaine has no hukou or right of abode, and so I am ineligible for a family visa as long as we remain in this great city. By studying Chinese, I have been able to remain in Shanghai.

As Tiny’s birth approached last year, Elaine and I discussed opening a business in Shanghai and securing a business visa for me. In the end, we decided against it. We were afraid–not that I would fail, but that I would succeed, and that our family would live in China for the rest of our lives.

Living the rest of my life in China, and especially in Shanghai, is certainly not a bad thing, but it never was my plan, even before Tiny was born. My plan always has been to return to the land of my birth, and that is what my family and I are doing now.

Elaine, Tiny, and I will return to Florida, where my parents live and where I attended the University of Florida and began my previous career in journalism. In Florida I will manage my translation agency, develop new conservationist projects, bird in America’s premier birding state, and raise Tiny. Never again, I hope, will I spend another Christmas far from my kin.

When that plane takes off later this month, I will be ending a journey abroad that has lasted 17 years–since a few months before 9-11. Seven of those years were spent in Europe. The past 10 years have been in China.

I arrived in China in 2007 fascinated by Light-vented Bulbul and with almost no birding experience. I leave China having noted 932 species in the People’s Republic, making me the highest-ranked eBirder in China. (Elaine, at 735 species, leaves China the highest-ranked woman eBirder in this country.)

I stayed so long in China in part because of a naive but heartfelt wish to write a field guide to the birds of China. That book proved impossible to do. The dream to write a field guide did come true in a way, though, through shanghaibirding.com, a project that has proved to be far more interesting than a field guide.

shanghaibirding.com has allowed me to develop my talents as photographer, writer, editor, and publisher. Through this Web site, I have lived out my birding motto, which is, “No hobby combines science, art, culture, and physical fitness better than the great hobby called Birding.” shanghaibirding.com has been a labor of love, and it now stands tall, a monument representing my accomplishments in China.

Even though I’m going home, shanghaibirding.com will very much continue to exist. I have much unpublished material that I will run in the coming months. I will continue to update the site later this year and beyond, and I will keep the site online for years to come, no matter whether I am updating it or not, and even after I have moved on to other projects.

Featured image: Our baby boy, Craig Eugene “Tiny” Brelsford II, with his parents, Craig Eugene Brelsford and Elaine Du. Shanghai, China, 25 Jan. 2018. Photo by Mǎruìshā Értóng Shèyǐng (玛瑞莎儿童摄影).

Marsh Tit, First for Shanghai

Happy New Year 2018 to you from shanghaibirding.com!

On this New Year’s Day, I bring you glad tidings: a historic first Shanghai record of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris!

The sighting occurred on Christmas Eve at Century Park in Pudong. A pair was foraging in trees and bushes at the edge of a wooded area. (The exact point is by the boardwalk on the western side of the park at 31.215832, 121.541303.) The tits did not appear sluggish or overly tame, as might have been the case had they escaped from a cage.

I originally misidentified the Century Park tits as Willow Tit Poecile montanus stoetzneri. I was thrown off by the large black patch on the chin and throat of the birds, which I took to be strongly suggestive of Willow. In field guides pre-dating the research of Richard K. Broughton, the bibs of Marsh and Willow Tits, in particular their size and shape, are characterized as being important separators of the two species, which are notoriously hard to tell apart.

After my triumphant announcement to the Shanghai Birding WeChat group, member Paul Holt responded, disagreeing with my diagnosis of Willow Tit and cautioning me on an over-reliance on bib, which, Holt wrote, “[doesn’t] hold much water” as a criterion for Marsh-Willow ID. The Century tit, Holt said, “looks like a classic Marsh Tit” (Holt, in litt., 2017). Intrigued, I searched the Web for authorities backing up Holt’s assertions, and I came across the two studies by Broughton.

Broughton’s papers shake the foundations of Marsh-Willow research. Of the several challenges Broughton makes to the received wisdom about Marsh-Willow ID, bib is among the most salient. Books renowned and much relied on, such as the Collins Bird Guide (2009), admit only of “some overlap” in the size and shape of the bibs. Broughton finds “substantial overlap.” Harrap and Quinn state unequivocally that compared to Willow Tit, Marsh has “a smaller and neater black bib” (1995). Broughton says that bib is “variable within both species,” prone to “high subjectivity” on the part of the observer, and greatly dependent on the sex, social rank, and age of the bird. “The bib,” Broughton states flatly, “is not a particularly useful identification feature” (2009).

Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris, Xidaquan Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 24 Aug. 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris showing classic whitish bill mark. In good light, as here, the bill mark is noticeable even at mid-range. Xidaquan, Heilongjiang, 24 Aug. 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

What, then, is a useful identification feature? In the British and European birds Broughton and his co-authors studied, the most reliable criterion separating non-singing and non-calling Marsh and Willow was a special mark on the bill. The authors found that 98.7% of Marsh Tit and 94.2% of Willow Tit could be identified to species according to the presence (Marsh) or absence (Willow) of a whitish spot on the proximal area of the upper mandible (Broughton et al. 2008).

Here in China, how applicable are Broughton’s findings on the whitish mark? To the best of my knowledge, the applicability of the bill criterion on the East Asian subspecies of Marsh and Willow has not been formally tested. It presumably is highly applicable, and the photos here of Marsh and Willow from the Eastern Palearctic comport with Broughton’s findings from the Western Palearctic.

Marsh Tit (top) and Willow Tit (bottom). (Craig Brelsford)
Comparison of whitish marks on proximal area of upper mandible of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris (top) and Willow Tit Poecile montanus (bottom).  (Craig Brelsford/Steven Lin)

Examine the four-panel photo above. At top left is Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris, photographed at Xidaquan, Heilongjiang on 17 Aug. 2015. The whitish bill mark is clearly visible, as it is in Steven Lin’s photo top right of the Century Park Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom left of Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, taken in Dawucun, Heilongjiang on 23 Jan. 2015, abrasions and reflected light create asymmetrical whitish marks that only an inexperienced observer would take to be the bill mark of a Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom right of “Songar” Tit Poecile montanus affinis, taken in northern Qinghai on 1 Aug. 2016, the bill is unmarked; it is a classic Willow Tit bill.

Broughton’s papers explore other criteria for Marsh-Willow ID, among them the song, “chick-a-dee” call, and juvenile begging call, which have long been known to be distinctive and which Broughton rates as even better indicators of species than bill mark. Broughton also discusses the contrast between the cheek and neck sides in the two species, which like bill mark Broughton calls a highly reliable feature. Both papers are required reading for anyone wanting to get a handle on Marsh-Willow ID, even those of us here on the eastern end of the Palearctic. Indeed, a study using the methods of Broughton on the East Asian forms of Marsh Tit and Willow Tit would be a welcome complement to Broughton’s work and could yield exciting results.

ADDENDUM

On 22 Jan. 2018 at Century Park, local birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Marsh Tit. Hiko got these photos.

Marsh Tit, Century Park, Shanghai, 22 Jan. 2018. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
On 22 Jan. 2018 at Shanghai’s Century Park, local birder Hiko found Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Marsh Tit, Century Park, Shanghai, 22 Jan. 2018. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Conspicuous in Hiko’s photo is the whitish mark on the proximal area of the upper mandible, a very strong indicator of Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

REFERENCES

Bengtsson, Daniel, Brelsford, Craig, and Du, Elaine. Birds Recorded at Century Park (a page on shanghaibirding.com). Available at http://www.shanghaibirding.com/sites/urban-shanghai/century-bird-records/ (accessed 1 Jan. 2018). Marsh Tit becomes the 142nd species recorded at Century Park, the premier park for urban birding in Shanghai.

Broughton, Richard K. 2008. Separation of Willow Tit and Marsh Tit in Britain: a review. British Birds 102 (November 2009), pp. 604–616. Available at https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Willow-Marsh-Tits.pdf (accessed 1 Jan. 2018).

Broughton, Richard K., Hinsley, Shelley A., & Bellamy, Paul E. (2008) Separation of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris from Willow Tit Poecile montana using a bill criterion. Ringing & Migration, 24:2, pp. 101-103. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/03078698.2008.9674382 (accessed 1 Jan. 2018).

Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995. Willow Tit, p. 238.

Holt, Paul. Message to Craig Brelsford through Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group, 24 Dec. 2017. To join Shanghai Birding, on WeChat send a friend request to Craig Brelsford (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). Please say that you wish to join Shanghai Birding.

Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009.

Featured image: Marsh Tit Poecile palustris, historic first sighting in Shanghai. Century Park, Shanghai, Christmas Eve 2017. (Steven Lin)

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in Shanghai: A Clearer Picture

On Sun. 17 Sept. 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui, I achieved a personal first: photos of an unmistakable Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides. As expected, the photos show a leaf warbler whose plumage and bare parts are virtually indistinguishable from those of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes. Coupled, however, as they are with sound-recordings of the same individual, ensuring the ID, the photos constitute a rare visual record of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in Shanghai.

The leaf warbler I found was easily identifiable as a member of the Pale-Sak species pair. It had strikingly pale pink tarsi, an olive-brown crown contrasting with olive-green mantle and wings, a long and creamy supercilium, and faint wing bars on the median and greater coverts.

The bird, which was in Microforest 1, behaved in a way typical of the Pale-Saks I have observed in the Cape Nanhui microforests, eight tiny woodlands that dot the coastline of the cape. Rarely venturing more than 2 m off the ground, the leaf warbler favored low branches and vines for browsing and sturdy low branches for perching. It pumped its tail steadily, called spontaneously, and upon hearing playback of its own call moved in to investigate the source.

Without recording the call of the leaf warbler (call as well as song being a diagnostic separator of Sakhalin and Pale-legged), would I have been able to get an ID? Almost certainly not, said leaf-warbler expert Phil Round:

“I am a bit less sanguine on finding means (other than call frequency or song) to separate all [Pale-Saks]. Even in the hand, it is by no means clear. We can pick out long-winged male Sakhalin, and short-winged female Pale-legged. But there is more overlap than previously realized, and most are in between. There don’t appear to be any 100% consistent wing-formula differences, and plumage and bare-part features, while somewhat indicative, are again less than 100% reliable–especially under field conditions.” (Round, in litt., 2016; emphasis mine)

The most convenient separator of Pale-Sak is song, the cricket-like trill of Pale-legged being easily separable from the metallic whistle of Sakhalin. As Shanghai is not in the breeding range of either species, Pale-Sak songs are not often heard in Earth’s Greatest City. I have heard Sakhalin sing only once, on 5 May 2016 at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park (Brelsford 2016). The song of Pale-legged I have heard at various locations in Shanghai as well as on its breeding grounds in Heilongjiang (Brelsford & Du 2017).

Although not as readily distinguishable as the songs, the “tink” calls of Pale-Sak differ markedly and consistently and are a reliable basis for an ID (Yap et al. 2014; Round et al. 2016; Weprincew et al. 1989). Yap et al. say the call of Pale-legged is of a “consistently higher frequency” than the call of Sakhalin. The calls that I have recorded of the two species show a difference in frequency of about 1 kHz, very much in line with others’ findings (Brelsford, August 2017; Brelsford, September 2017).

For birders unaccustomed to Pale-Sak calls, the difference may be hard to detect, especially at windy Cape Nanhui. A sound-recorder (which may be a smartphone) will pick up the difference, and an audio spectrogram will show it graphically. Solid, indisputable ticks, in some cases life ticks, await enterprising birders who sound-record.

In recent months, my work with sound-recordings has helped give Shanghai birders a clearer picture not only of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler but also of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus, like Sakhalin a poorly known passage migrant through Shanghai (Brelsford, June 2017). In the case of Pale-Sak in Shanghai, a picture is emerging of overlapping migratory pathways. This finding comports with the findings of Yap et al. at Beidaihe, a thousand kilometers to the north. After analyzing calls obtained at Beidaihe of both Pale-legged and Sakhalin, Yap hypothesizes that in coastal Hebei “the migratory pathways of the two sister species may largely overlap” (2014).

How extensive is the Pale-Sak migratory overlap in Shanghai? How many of the Pale-Saks that we find in Shanghai each spring and autumn are Pale-legged, and how many are Sakhalin? Is there a peak passage time in Shanghai for each species, and if so, when is it?

Answers to these questions are currently unknown, but they are probably knowable, and it is very much possible for the citizen-scientists of Shanghai to be the producers of that knowledge. We only need to change our habits. When it comes to identifying lookalike species such as Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, birders need to understand that photos do nothing to cut through the muddle. Only sound-recordings lead to indisputable records and a clearer picture of the species in Shanghai.

A clearer picture will add to our knowledge of the movement of leaf warblers along the central Chinese coast, focus attention on little-known East Asian species, and heighten the allure of Shanghai as a world-class birding location.

RESOURCES

The sound-recordings and audio spectrograms below show clearly the difference in frequency between the calls of Sakhalin and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides, Microforest 1 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 17 Sept. 2017 (01:03; 12.2 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes, Magic Parking LotCape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017 (00:19; 3.7 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Here are photos of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler of 17 Sept. 2017. The bird below is the same individual whose voice I sound-recorded.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 17 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler shows the classic features of the Pale-Sak species pair, among them an olive-brown crown contrasting with olive-green mantle and wings, a long and creamy supercilium, and faint wing bars on the median and greater coverts. (Craig Brelsford)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 17 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Like its sister species Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler has an affinity for sturdy, leafless branches. Here, the leaf warbler, drawn by playback of its own voice, is using the perch to investigate the source of the sound. (Craig Brelsford)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 17 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Like Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler pumps its tail steadily, often remaining otherwise motionless. (Craig Brelsford)

REFERENCES

Brelsford, Craig. Sakhalin & Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Singing Together. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 5 May 2016.

———. Kamchatka Leaf Warbler in Shanghai. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 6 June 2017.

———. Separating Pale-legged & Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on Call. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 31 Aug. 2017.

———. Pale-Sak Calls: An Addendum. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 10 Sept. 2017.

Brelsford, Craig, & Du, Elaine. Boli County, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016: Part 1. Page on shanghaibirding.com last updated 1 Sept. 2017.

Round, Philip D. E-mail message to Craig Brelsford, 18 Oct. 2016. Round’s e-mail message was originally cited in the shanghaibirding.com post “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5,” published 26 Sept. 2016.

Round, Philip D., Pierce, Andrew J., Saitoh, Takema, & Shigeta, Yoshimitsu. 2016. Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna. Bulletin of the Japan Bird Banding Association 28: 9–21. Available here for download (708 KB) through shanghaibirding.com.

Weprincew, B. N., Leonowitsch, W. W. & Netschajew, W. A. 1989. Zur Lebensweise von Phylloscopus borealoides Portenko und Phylloscopus tenellipes Swinhoe. Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Museum in Berlin 65 (Suppl.): 71–80. (German only)

Yap, F., Yong, D. L., Low, B., Cros, E., Foley, C., Lim, K. K. & Rheindt, F. E. 2014. First wintering record of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in South East Asia, with notes on vocalisations. BirdingASIA 21: 76–81. Downloadable here (accessed: 28 Sept. 2017).

Featured image: Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 17 Sept. 2017. Craig Brelsford photographed and sound-recorded this individual, getting a rare record of the poorly known species in Earth’s Greatest City.