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 TitPoecile 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).
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.
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.
On 22 Jan. 2018 at Century Park, local birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Marsh Tit. Hiko got these photos.
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.
The new entries on the shanghaibirding.com list are Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Dusky Warbler, and White-throated Rock Thrush. The new entries on the eBird list are those three plus Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and Taiga Flycatcher.
“Century Park is getting better,” Hiko said. My young friend is right. Century Park is an island of stability amid the sea of change (mainly degradation) that is the natural environment of Shanghai. Ten years ago this month, when Hiko was a tyke of 6, I made my first visit to urban Shanghai’s best birding area. Little has changed. The biggest difference between October 2007 and October 2017 is, the trees are taller. The wooded areas at Century have an ever-stronger woodsy feel.
— Century yielded yet another regional record of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Evidence is growing that in the Shanghai area this passage migrant has been neglected and is more common than previously thought. I recently wrote a series of posts, the latest being this one, on distinguishing Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from its sister species Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.
Here is the recording I made of the calling Sakhalin on Thurs. 5 Oct. Apart from a DNA assay, call as well as song is the only reliable way to separate Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. At 4.9 kHz, the “tink” recorded below is a full kilohertz deeper than the call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.
— Eurasian Woodcock whizzed overhead on its way to Bird Island (31.217405, 121.554936). The woodcock was going to the one best place for it in the urban park. Bird Island, Century’s sanctuary-within-a-sanctuary, is a bird-friendly, cat-free parcel of woodland cut off from the rest of the park by a moat.
— Great Spotted Woodpecker used to be found mainly on Bird Island. On Thursday we found 2 in other sectors of the park. With the steadily improving woodland in the park, expect Great Spotted Woodpecker to be seen in more and more areas. Century Park is one of the few areas in urban Shanghai where woodpeckers are commonly found.
Editor’s note: Hangzhou Botanical Gardens and the Tianmu Mountains are must-see destinations for Shanghai birders, especially those of us new to birding in southeast China. Hangzhou Botanical combines ease of access (it can be visited in a day on the bullet train) with the chance to see southeast China birds whose ranges do not reach Shanghai. Visiting the Tianmu Mountains or Tianmushan is more of a project than visiting Hangzhou Botanical, but the rewards are greater. No place so close to Shanghai offers as much high-quality mountain forest as Tianmu.
In this guest post, Shanghai birder Larry Chen tells us about his recent trip to Hangzhou Botanical and Tianmu. — Craig Brelsford
Komatsu Yasuhiko, Zeng Qiongyu, and I covered Tianmushan 6-8 July 2017. We hiked up to around 1500 meters above sea level and explored some beautiful top-quality mixed forest, including stands of the magnificent Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica and Huangshan Pine Pinus hwangshanensis, as well as roadside mixed deciduous, conifer, and bamboo forest.
Some of the avian highlights from our three-day trip were the diminutive and bamboo-loving Short-tailed ParrotbillNeosuthora davidiana, Moustached LaughingthrushGarrulax cineraceus, and the regal Black EagleIctinaetus malaiensis.
The weather at Tianmu, unlike hot and humid Shanghai, was humid but relatively cool, and plenty of shade was provided by the extensive foliage.
Hiko and I visited Hangzhou Botanical on 5 July, managing to find, despite the heat, several species whose ranges do not quite reach Shanghai, among them Asian Barred OwletGlaucidium cuculoides, Grey TreepieDendrocitta formosae, and Red-billed Blue MagpieUrocissa erythroryncha.
I recommend Tianmu and Hangzhou Botanical to anyone seeking a few days’ trip out of Shanghai. Tianmushan has some beautiful habitat, comfortable but cheap accommodations, and a truly under-watched avian diversity.
We had 65 species at Hangzhou Botanical and Tianmu. Highlights:
Editor’s note: The image above shows three cuckoos of the Shanghai region. Clockwise from L: Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Large Hawk-Cuckoo. Join us as we study the rich array of cuckoos that passes through Earth’s greatest city.
It is spring, and one of the most thrilling moments of the bird migration in Shanghai is upon us–the passage of the Cuculinae, the Old World brood-parasitic cuckoos. Nowhere in the world is the diversity of this group greater than in eastern Eurasia, and here in Shanghai we get an enviable selection. Let us examine our Shanghai-area parasitic cuckoos and learn how to tell them apart.
We can divide the Shanghai-area brood-parasitic cuckoos into two categories: the mainly grey, slender-bodied Cuculus cuckoos and the non-Cuculus cuckoos. We will look at the non-Cuculus cuckoos first.
MASTER MIMICS: THE HAWK-CUCKOOS
The non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoo that one is most likely to see in Shanghai is Large Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx sparverioides. In the microforests at Cape Nanhui and once, to my surprise, in inner-city Zhongshan Park, I have heard the scream of “Brain fever!” The species breeds in nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
The hawk-cuckoos mimic sparrowhawks, an amazing feat of evolution. The resemblance serves, scientists say, not to increase stealth but to decrease it. Passerines, mistaking the intruder for a sparrowhawk, mob it, thereby giving away the location of their nest. After the tumult dies down, the hawk-cuckoo quietly swoops in and lays her egg.
When it comes to the business of eating, however, the masquerade ends. The hooked bill of a sparrowhawk is a butcher’s tool, made for stripping the flesh of vertebrates from bone. The bill of a hawk-cuckoo is blunt, the utensil of a caterpillar-eater. Need a quick differentiator between “sprock” and hawk-cuckoo? Look to the bill.
Another separation we Shanghai birders need to make is that between Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Rufous Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx hyperythrus. If seen clearly, adult Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo are readily separable. Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo shows a belly washed rufous with faint streaks. Large Hawk-Cuckoo is heavily barred and streaked and has the rufous coloring confined to the upper breast.
Adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo shows a white spot on the nape, white neck-sides, and white scapular crescents. These features may also be visible in sub-adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. Large Hawk-Cuckoo shows none of these in any plumage.
Size differences may be appreciable. An average Large Hawk-Cuckoo is 15 percent larger than Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. The tails differ, with the black subterminal band of Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo being bordered by a rufous line above and by the rufous tail-tip below. These rufous areas may be visible in immature cuckoos.
ASIAN KOEL AND CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO
The other non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoos of the Shanghai region are Asian KoelEudynamys scolopaceus and Chestnut-winged CuckooClamator coromandus. Neither poses great ID challenges.
In China, Asian Koel ssp. chinensis breeds mainly south of the Yangtze River. With its familiar “koh-EL” song, Asian Koel is as easy to hear as it is hard to see in the dense forests where it is almost invariably found. It shows strong sexual dimorphism, with the male entirely glossy bluish-black and the female brown with whitish streaks, bars, and spots.
Five Cuculus cuckoos have been claimed for Shanghai: Lesser CuckooCuculus poliocephalus, Indian CuckooC. micropterus, Himalayan CuckooC. saturatus, Oriental CuckooC. optatus, and Common CuckooC. canorus.
The latter breeds in the area, parasitizing the nests of Oriental Reed Warbler in the reed beds at Cape Nanhui. Its famous song, perhaps the best-known bird sound in the world, is hard to miss at Nanhui in May.
Lesser Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo breed in the region and are recorded on passage in Shanghai. Himalayan Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo may pass through Shanghai, but inasmuch as in size, plumage, and bare parts they are nearly identical to each other and very close to Common Cuckoo, and because they rarely (if ever) sing in our region, it is impossible to know how common they are.
Hear the song of any of these Cuculus, and you will have your ID; even the similar songs of Himalayan and Oriental are readily separable. If your cuckoo is silent, however, then you will need a closer look. Lesser Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo have a brown iris, Common a bright-yellow iris. Lesser Cuckoo is the size of a thrush; Indian Cuckoo is a third larger; Common Cuckoo is larger still, approaching the size of a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk.
In autumn, juveniles pass through Shanghai. They are silent and nearly impossible to identify to species. If one gets a close look at juvenile Lesser Cuckoo, however, one may appreciate its thrush-like size. If you happen to be on the breeding grounds, then you can attempt an ID according to the species of the foster parent.
Lesser CoucalCentropus bengalensis is the good guy of the Shanghai cuckoo world. Unlike all the other cuckoos recorded in Shanghai, but like most of the cuckoos in the world, the coucals are not brood parasites. Lesser Coucal, resident in Shanghai, builds a dome nest on the ground.
Lesser Coucal may be the only non-Cuculinae cuckoo in Shanghai, but it shares at least one trait with the brood parasites: It is very unobtrusive. Look for Lesser Coucal in areas of thick vegetation near water, such as the strips of reed bed along the canals at Cape Nanhui. If you find one, count yourself lucky.
Greater CoucalCentropus sinensis occurs south of our region. It is nearly half again as large as Lesser Coucal and has a cleaner and glossier mantle, a thicker bill, and a redder iris.
RESOURCES ON CUCKOOS
The Sounds of Shanghai’s Cuckoos, by Craig Brelsford
All cuckoos from the Shanghai area are covered here. I make my recordings with my handy little Olympus DM-650.
In this post I used several of Kai Pflug’s bird images. Kai and I have worked together from the earliest days of shanghaibirding.com, and I have published dozens of Kai’s photographs on this site. Kai made a notable contribution to my October 2016 post “ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers.” In September 2016 I wrote about Kai’s work cleaning up the litter at Nanhui.
Kai is from Germany, lives in Shanghai, and is an active member of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group.
Thanks also to Shanghai Birding member Jonathan Martinez for his advice on Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo and Plaintive Cuckoo.
Featured image: Clockwise from L, Rufous Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx hyperythrus, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, October 2010; Chestnut-winged CuckooClamator coromandus, Laoshan, Nanjing, Jiangsu, July 2009; and Large Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx sparverioides, Nanhui, Shanghai, May 2016. (Craig Brelsford)