Walking or driving at Cape Nanhui these days, you may hear an interesting sound coming from the reeds. HBW describes it as “a low-pitched, repeated djuk-djuk-djuk,” but I do not think that description does the sound justice. To me, the sound is reminiscent of some of the more obscure Cure songs, in particular, “Like Cockatoos”—the same swirling sound. This is the sound of Marsh Grassbird.
It is much more difficult to see than hear Marsh Grassbird. It took me a few days before I was successful (with the help of 吴世嘉 and David – thanks!). The bird usually hides deep in the reeds. Occasionally, and in particular this time of year, it flies up a few meters while singing before dropping quickly back into the reeds.
What does Locustella pryeri look like? Just look at the photos below, and consider the Chinese name, Banbei Daweiying (斑背大尾莺, “striped-back long-tailed warbler”). The mainland Asian breeder, sinensis, is 14 cm long and weighs 10 g. It feeds mainly on insects and breeds in wet, reedy swamps.
Its most remarkable feature is its song display. The grassbird begins singing on a reed, flies, still singing, in a high arc, then drops back quickly into the reeds (usually too quick to get a decent photo, at least for me).
The species is still a mystery to ornithologists, with uncertainties regarding its migration patterns, for example. Living a life hidden in the reeds does not facilitate ornithological studies.
The conservation status of Marsh Grassbird is Near Threatened. It is suffering from habitat loss as the reed beds it needs for breeding are being destroyed. At Cape Nanhui alone, my guess is that in the past year around a third of the habitat suitable for the species has been destroyed. With an estimated (declining) global population of 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, the last thing the species needs is further destruction of the reeds at Nanhui.
Is Marsh Grassbird a spectacular-looking bird? Perhaps not, but human standards of beauty are not a criterion for conservation. If however you need a reason to protect this bird, then just listen to its song:
Marsh Grassbird, 10 April 2016, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:07; 1 MB; Craig Brelsford)
Here are some of my recent photos of the threatened bird, all taken at Cape Nanhui:
Featured photo: Marsh Grassbird, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
“I have thought a lot about yesterday and can honestly say, it must be one of my all-time ornithological highlights.”
— Dr. Mike May, message to Craig Brelsford, 14 May 2017
Those are the words not of a new birder, but of a highly experienced visiting birder with thousands of birds on his life list who resides in bird-rich Extremadura, Spain.
Birding Pudong’s Cape Nanhui at the height of the spring migration left Mike May open-mouthed. Should anyone be surprised? The most southeasterly point of Shanghai is a world-class birding site.
Mike’s 92-species day, Sat. 13 May 2017, with Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and me included ultra-rarities such as Orange-headed Thrush as well as Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler. A pair of sub-adult Black-faced Spoonbill were getting by on the ever-shrinking pools at the beleaguered site.
Let me say that again: Of the thousands of birding spots in this vast, mega-diverse nation, the cape 60 km southeast of People’s Square is second only to Baihualing in Yunnan in species noted.
Sound unbelievable? Let me say something even more unbelievable: Not only is this rich spot completely unprotected, with not even a square meter preserved in any legal way; but it is, to the contrary, being actively destroyed, even as I tap out these words.
The backdrop to the work of Mike, Jan-Erik, and me was fleets of bulldozers and backhoes, busy throughout the weekend. They clattered and clanged, and the pumps transferring water into the newly dug canals whirred and chugged.
The pace of transformation is faster than ever now.
“Nanhui is gone,” my partners and I said.
A major ecological area, a place combining ease of access to millions of residents of Earth’s largest city and a favorable position on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway, is being utterly transformed.
While the Cape Nanhui that I have long known falls, huge tracts of adjacent tidal mudflat are being reclaimed, adding dozens of square kilometers to the land area of Cape Nanhui. Birding there in theory could have a future. A Cape Nanhui Nature Reserve could be set up in the new area.
But even as the Cape Nanhui we know falls, no one, to my knowledge, has hastened to reassure conservationists that areas in the newly reclaimed land will be set aside for birds.
In the city-province of Shanghai, which is the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, a few places have indeed been set aside, among them Chongming Dongtan. But those reserves are small, on remote islands far from mainland Shanghai, and practically unreachable by the millions of middle-class Shanghainese who lack a car.
Cape Nanhui, by contrast, is easily reachable from the city. And it is the one place where masses of bird lovers can conveniently get a taste of the grand spectacle that is spring migration along the east coast of the Eurasian supercontinent.
That opportunity is being taken away, not only from the birders alive today, but also from the birders of the future.
THE THRILL OF NANHUI IN MAY
Our agony over the fate of Nanhui was tempered by the joy of birding. Orange-headed Thrush showed up Saturday at the Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229). With the two vertical bars on its face, our specimen was either of race melli (breeds Guangdong, etc.) or courtoisi (Anhui).
On Sunday the Magic Parking Lot delivered singing Grey-crowned WarblerSeicercus tephrocephalus, and in Microforest 2 (30.926013, 121.970705) an appearance was made by Alström’s WarblerS. soror. Neither breeds in the region; both are very rare vagrants to Shanghai.
Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) gave us singing Yellow-breasted Bunting in full breeding finery and singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. I captured the latter’s song, rarely heard in Shanghai.
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola, 13 May 2017, Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) (00:13; 2.1 MB)
The Marshy Agricultural Land (30.850707, 121.863662) near Eiffel Tower was highly productive, yielding Lanceolated Warbler, Forest Wagtail, and Striated Heron.
Other highlights from Saturday along the 30-km stretch of coastline:
Shanghai Birding is the WeChat companion to this Web site. Our members include everyone from persons brand-new to birding to some of the most knowledgeable birders in China. We discuss everything from the most common species to the most arcane.
Here is an edited transcript of a recent conversation on Shanghai Birding about the Seicercus warblers at Cape Nanhui:
Paul Holt: Can you post your recording of yesterday’s [14 May 2017] Alström’s Warbler as well please, Craig?
Craig Brelsford: Will post after I get home. Meanwhile, have you assessed the recording I posted yesterday morning? Do you agree it’s Grey-crowned Warbler? Jonathan Martinez, I’d like your view, too!
Craig Brelsford had earlier posted these sound recordings:
Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus 1/3, 14 May 2017, Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229), Nanhui (00:36; 3 MB)
Grey-crowned Warbler 2/3 (00:49; 3.6 MB)
Grey-crowned Warbler 3/3 (01:08; 4.3 MB)
PH: Yes, Grey-crowned Warbler!
PH: For what it’s worth, while there are probably 30+ records of “golden-spectacled warblers” from coastal Hebei, very, very few have been as well documented as Craig’s and team’s recent Grey-crowned. Many have been photographed but far fewer sound-recorded. Alström’s is so far the only one so far known to breed north of the Qinling Shan (it’s a scarce and very local breeder at two, possibly three, sites in Beijing). Personally I’ve never seen soror in coastal Hebei (nor am I aware of any being sound-recorded there), but I have noted (and sound-recorded) 2 Bianchi’s S. valentini and 1 Martens’s S. omeiensis in coastal Hebei. I understand that the only (?) three coastal Hebei birds that have been captured and had their DNA compared have all been omeiensis. We’re very, very far from ascertaining the true statuses of these Seicercus in our area, but you perhaps should/might see more in Shanghai and coastal Zhejiang. As many of you already know, there are some excellent sound recordings of these on Per’s site.
CB: Great analysis, Paul, and great that you point out the resources on Per’s site. Jan-Erik and I got good sound recordings of the purported soror yesterday, and Charles Wu and I got some good shots, among them images of the outer tail feathers, which definitely had some white in them.
PH: Excellent, Craig. As you know they’ve all got white in their outer tails. Alström’s (aka Plain-tailed) doesn’t have much …
CB: Right, Paul; thanks. The discussion yesterday was one of comparison and degree. How little must the white be in the tail, we were asking ourselves, for a Seicercus to “qualify” as Alström’s/Plain-tailed? Was the white in our photos a little or a lot? We ended up thinking a little, and that and the song we recorded led us to a determination of soror. I’ll post my photos and recordings as soon as I’m home.
PH: Personally, Craig, I find it very difficult to judge the amount and distribution of white on the tails of these Seicercus in the field and think that a good photo with the tail splayed would really be necessary. Even then, the differences are small and subtle. Tricky group!
Jonathan Martinez: Regarding the ID of these Seicercus, I have found that call is by far the easiest way to ID them. They all have a characteristic call. Some of them, like Alström’s or Bianchi’s, are usually quite vocal; others not as much. It requires much more experience or use of sonogram to ID them by song, but a few of them (Alström’s especially) include their call in their song, and some of them (Grey-crowned, Martens’s) include a trill in their song. Others do not (Alström, Bianchi’s). ID-ing them on plumage is, of course, a level up.
Here is the voice of the Alström’s Warbler that I recorded with my Olympus DM-650 pocket recorder:
On Sat. 8 April 2017 I birded Cape Nanhui with John MacKinnon. John is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about China’s birds. On John’s first visit to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula, we noted 84 species. John and I were joined by veteran birders Michael Grunwell and Russell Boyman and the outstanding high-school birder Larry Chen.
We gave John the Grand Nanhui Tour, starting at Luchao to the south and ending 30 km north at Binhai. Heading back to the city, we made a brief stop at the sod farm just south of Pudong Airport, where we found a single Oriental Plover.
Nanhui yielded 23 Marsh Grassbird performing the song flight at three locations, and we saw 10 EndangeredGreat Knot and 1 Near ThreatenedCurlew Sandpiper. We had a pair of Rufous-faced Warbler and a Common Starling.
Also: Garganey 57, Greater Scaup 1 (Dishui Lake), Little Curlew 31 (flock), Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 11 (first of season), Red-necked Stint 1 (first of season), Wood Sandpiper 1 (first of season), Peregrine Falcon 1, Dusky Warbler 1 at Magic Parking Lot (possibly wintered there), and Reed Parrotbill 18.
GETTING TO KNOW JOHN MACKINNON
Our partner, John MacKinnon, co-authored A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Published in 2000, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies and remains the only bird guide in English covering all China. John also wrote the first and second guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com.
John is witty and a fine storyteller. He had us roaring with tales drawn from his six decades as a researcher in Asia. The funniest story was about the doctor back home in Britain. Every time John straggled in, the doc would call in his students, so that they could study the strange new tropical disease John had contracted.
“I never cared about my health, because I never expected to live this long!” John said.
John also talked about his masterpiece, A Field Guide to the Birds of China.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Field Guide. Had it merely been a window for Westerners to the birds of the world’s most populous country, then John’s work would have been important enough. The Field Guide, however, in translated form has introduced tens of thousands of Chinese to the birds of their own country. John’s Chinese name, Mǎjìngnéng (马敬能), is known by every birder in China.
John faced obstacles unknown to field-guide writers in North America and Western Europe, where birding has been practiced for 200 years. His sources were often thin, he said.
“For range maps, I had nearly nothing from Russia,” John said. “A Chinese book had ranges stopping at the Chinese border. Another book had no paintings, only descriptions.”
To critics who unfairly compare John’s Field Guide to field guides covering more developed parts of the world, John had this to say:
“You’ve got to finish something. We finished the book. We could have waited and said, ‘Oh, another species has been split, we must revise,’ but at a certain point you have to say, ‘We must go with what we’ve got.’”
To this day, no Westerner has repeated John’s feat. Others talked; John acted. One can imagine the feeling of accomplishment in John’s heart.
John is a handy photographer and got off some good shots, three of which are displayed in the Day List at the bottom of this post. Here are some photos I took of the pioneer birder and naturalist.
MARSH GRASSBIRD ON THE BRINK
Marsh Grassbird were singing in the large reed beds at Nanhui. They were most conspicuous at the reed bed south of the Holiday Inn (30.870711, 121.942976). The species, listed as Near Threatened by IUCN, was also noted in the pristine reed bed (30.931790, 121.949169) associated with the defunct wetland reserve.
The reed beds at Cape Nanhui may be the last stronghold of Locustella pryeri sinensis on the Shanghai Peninsula. The species is highly dependent on large reed beds. In areas where only strips of reeds remain, the song of Marsh Grassbird is never heard. Its partner species, Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for official bird of the city-province of Shanghai, is only slightly less dependent on large reed beds.
One of the areas where last year my partners and I noted Marsh Grassbird performing its song flight has been flattened. No song of Marsh Grassbird was heard there Saturday. A few Reed Parrotbill were calling in one of the strips of reeds left standing.
Much needs to be learned about Marsh Grassbird in Earth’s largest city. Birders, look for the fluttering song flight, and listen for this song:
Marsh Grassbird, 10 April 2016, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:07; 1 MB)
The plight of Marsh Grassbird brings to mind the series of posts I wrote last year on the precarious environmental situation at Cape Nanhui.
For birders in Earth’s greatest city, finding Oriental Plover is one of the rites of spring. Last Sun. 26 March 2017 on Shanghai’s Hengsha Island, our three-man birding team tracked down 25 of these passage migrants. The encounter was the latest in a series of interesting experiences I have had with the East Asian specialty.
Along with Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Komatsu Yasuhiko, I drove on Saturday night 25 March to Changxing Island, crossing to Hengsha on the ferry. We set up for the night at my accustomed bed and breakfast, Héngshā Bànrìxián Mínsù (横沙半日闲民宿, +86 150-2164-5467, no English).
At 05:40 the next morning we zipped through the gate (31.297333, 121.859434) to the vast reclaimed area of Hengsha Island. Formerly intertidal shoals at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the area, now walled in, offers some of the best birding in Shanghai.
Michael and Hiko had no experience with Oriental Plover. I have seen the species various times. One of the highlights of my early birding career occurred on 29 March 2010. On a cool, early-spring afternoon, I lay on my belly in the presence of 30 Oriental Plover at the old sod farm (31.205847, 121.777368) at Sanjiagang in Pudong. What an unforgettable experience that was.
The sod farm has long since been destroyed, but memories of those times, as well as my observations of the species on its breeding grounds near Hulun Lake in Inner Mongolia, still live in me, and they told me where to look for the bird. One needs to find habitat reminiscent of the dry, stony steppe on which it breeds.
On Hengsha, such habitat is abundant, and we scoured all the likely spots, among them the place where my wife Elaine Du and I found 3 Oriental Plover last April 9.
We were driving along the coastal road that skirts the southern edge of the reclaimed area. The morning was hazy, with air pollution giving me the sniffles, but even with the reduced visibility one could appreciate the power of the Yangtze looming behind.
Here, the longest river in Asia releases into the East China Sea the water collected along its course of 6,300 km (3,915 mi.). On clear days, one can see the famous skyline of Pudong, 38 km (24 mi.) away. At Hengsha Island, one stands on the eastern edge of Eurasia at the mouth of China’s greatest river in the shadow of Earth’s greatest city.
As we drove, the reed beds and marshy areas began to recede, and there opened up before us drier, grassier habitat, perfect for Oriental Plover. Stopping the car, I intoned, in a voice recalling Brigham Young, “This is the place.” (The coordinates are 31.301475, 121.917442.)
We broke out a forest of tripods and set upon them our spotting scopes. Michael, the seasoned veteran, saw the plovers first. Continuing our Wild West theme, Michael shouted, “Eureka!” His head was motionless, glued to the scope, but his arms were waving, and he was dancing a jig.
Michael and Hiko moved in for a closer look. I stayed above, scanning the scene through my Swarovski ATX-95. Males and females were in partial breeding plumage. They were running fast across the turf, picking off invertebrates. Twice they flew, and I appreciated their powerful, erratic flight and long wings.
We found 16 Oriental Plover there. We found another 9 on the north shore of the reclaimed area, on the mudflats.
NOTES ON ORIENTAL PLOVER
Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus is listed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN. A survey in 2010 came up with an estimated world population of 160,000, an encouraging number. The species is helped by the sparse human population both in the area where it breeds (mainly Mongolia) and where it winters (mainly Australia).
The species may be helped as well by its migration patterns. There is evidence that migrating Oriental Plover overfly much of Southeast Asia and possibly even China, areas where the hand of man is much heavier than in Mongolia and Australia.
In the entry for Oriental Plover in Handbook of the Birds of the World, T. Piersma mentions a “scarcity of records between China and the non-breeding grounds,” suggesting that migrating Oriental Plover make a “non-stop flight between these two zones.” Robson, in Birds of Southeast Asia, describes Oriental Plover as a “vagrant/rare passage migrant.”
Piersma says Oriental Plover is “very abundant” on migration in the Yangtze River Valley. That is doubtful. Oriental Plover is certainly not abundant in Shanghai; indeed, in autumn the species is virtually unrecorded here (as well as in much of eastern China). The city may nonetheless serve as a staging area for some portion of the species in spring.
My anecdotal evidence may lend credence to the idea that Oriental Plover fly mind-boggling distances between Australia and Mongolia. During my close encounter with the 30 Oriental Plover at Sanjiagang, the plovers were clearly exhausted. Some fell asleep right in front of me. How many kilometers had they just flown? Hundreds? Thousands?
Oriental Plover is most closely related to, and was once considered conspecific with, Caspian Plover Charadrius asiaticus. Breeding male Oriental Plover is readily distinguishable from Caspian by its purely white head. The thick black breast band on breeding Oriental male is also distinctive.
Non-breeding Greater Sand Plover and Lesser Sand Plover are smaller and more compact and have narrower breast bands than non-breeding Oriental Plover. In flight, Oriental Plover lacks the white wing bar seen on the sand plovers.
Featured image: On 29 March 2010, Craig Brelsford found 30 exhausted Oriental Plover at the old sod farm at Sanjiagang (31.205847, 121.777368), 6.5 km (4 mi.) north of Pudong Airport in Shanghai. I got the image here, as well as all my plover images in this post, with my old Nikon D300 plus Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens.