In the wake of my recent post on distinguishing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler by call, I have been hoping to find more members of this species pair in Shanghai. On 4 Sept. 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui, my hopes were fulfilled in a big way. At the Magic Parking Lot (30.884889, 121.968222), not one but both species were calling.
Below, the recordings I made with my Olympus DM-650 pocket recorder. The first Sakhalin recording was made at Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 7.7 km north of the Magic Parking Lot on the coastal road. The others were made at the Magic Parking Lot.
Note the higher frequency of the calls of Pale-legged–on average a full kilohertz higher. The difference is discernible by the keen listener, but nothing tells the story better than the spectrograms.
To summarize what I argued in the previous post: The calls, as well as the very distinctive songs, of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are diagnostic–that is, they differ markedly and consistently and are a reliable basis for an ID. The diagnosability of the calls of the two species has been affirmed by various researchers, among them Yap et al. (2014; Birding Asia 21: 76–81).
Featured image: Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 1 May 2014. Photo by Craig Brelsford. Some of the salient characteristics of Pale-Sak are pointed out. Separating Pale-legged from Sakhalin on the basis of plumage and bare parts is not possible; because this bird was neither singing nor calling, it cannot be determined to which of the two species it belongs.
Editor’s note: In the photo above, a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler emits its characteristic “tink” call in Microforest 4, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, 27 Aug. 2017. The tink call of Pale-legged is appreciably higher-pitched than that of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Distinguishing the two calls is the subject of this post. — Craig Brelsford
Last September, in “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5,” I asserted that “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song.” I was wrong. Call as well as song is a reliable separator. In this post, I am going to tell you how I arrived at this insight, and I will show you how you too can achieve clear, indisputable ticks of these tricky species through call alone.
Experts since at least as far back as 1989 have been arguing that Pale-legged Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus tenellipes and Sakhalin Leaf WarblerP. borealoides are separable not only by their distinctive songs but also by their calls. Thailand-based birder and shanghaibirding.com contributor Phil Round is among those making that argument. Round and his co-authors write: “[T]he call of P. tenellipes is markedly higher in frequency than that of P. borealoides” (Round et al., “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” downloadable through shanghaibirding.com).
If your ear is good, or even if your ear is just average and you have a sound-recorder, then you too can appreciate the higher frequency of the call of Pale-legged. A sound-recorder is very important, because if you upload your recordings to databases such as eBird and the Macaulay Library, then you will be able to “see” the sound in the audio spectrogram.
Now consider the spectrograms and sound-recordings of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler below. The spectrogram immediately below was recorded by me on 10 June 2016 in my wife Elaine Du’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang, part of the breeding range of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. The call (here a grace note) and song both clock in at about 6 kHz, a frequency a full 25 percent higher than the call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and, as with Sakhalin, consistent with the frequencies of Pale-legged calls on xeno-canto.org.
The spectrogram below is of a brief sound-recording I made in Microforest 4 this past Sunday. The song element of this passage migrant is absent (though note that I have heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing in Shanghai in spring). The call has a frequency of 5.9 kHz and clearly belongs to Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.
Why should you care about all this? Because prepared birders have a chance to get solid ticks of “Pale-Saks” that are merely calling and not necessarily singing. If you hear a Pale-Sak calling and trust your ear (or better yet, sound-record the call and later analyze the spectrogram), then you may be able to go beyond the safe, boring record of “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler” to a more satisfying full tick.
Accurate, plentiful records from Shanghai will help researchers such as Round get a clearer picture of the movements and population of these understudied species. As Round et al. write: “Increased sampling of migrants may also resolve the differences in timing of passage between P. examinandus and P. borealis on the one hand, and P. borealoides and P. tenellipes on the other” (“Addition”; hyperlink mine).
What’s more, you do not need to spend much or even know much to record good audio. My Olympus DM-650 costs less than US$250. I have no microphone other than the one built into my pocket recorder, I possess no parabola, and I use no editing software. My editing is limited to snipping off the unusable beginnings and endings of my sound-recordings, which I record in lossless 48kHz .wav. The very scientific-looking spectrograms displayed in this post are generated automatically by eBird and Macaulay.
In Shanghai in 2017, important facts about common birds such as Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler remain unknown. This ornithological semi-wilderness is both difficult and exciting. If we rise to the challenge and become better birders, then we will make new discoveries and blaze a trail of knowledge for future birders to follow.
* Audio spectrograms are available for every sound-recording on xeno-canto.org. On the unique page created for each recording, find the section “Actions” and click “Download full-length sonogram.”
Editor’s note: The photo above shows Hooded Crane flying above fields at Nanhui on 12 Nov. 2016. Before our sighting, Grus monacha had never been recorded on the Shanghai Peninsula. Each year, about 100 Hooded Crane overwinter on eastern Chongming Island, 60 km north of Nanhui at the mouth of the Yangtze River.
Elaine Du and I birded three of the four days between Sat. 12 Nov. and Tues. 15 Nov. 2016. We noted 105 species. On Saturday we had the first-ever record in Nanhui of Hooded Crane. We also found Baikal Teal on Saturday as well as Greater White-fronted Goose, Tundra Swan, and Jack Snipe. Sunday was also spent at the coastal site in Pudong and gave us calling Brown-cheeked Rail as well as Hair-crested Drongo and late Rufous-tailed Robin. Other weekend Nanhui records were EndangeredBlack-faced Spoonbill holding steady at the defunct nature reserve (30.920500, 121.973167), Amur Falcon feasting on gnats small enough for leaf warblers, an uncommon Shanghai record of Water Pipit, and two more sightings of EndangeredYellow-breasted Bunting at its increasingly reliable site (30.850707, 121.863662). On Tuesday at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park (31.221888, 121.420066) we had a very late Narcissus Flycatcher.
ELAINE’S FEAT OF BIRDING
The flyby sighting of Hooded Crane was Elaine’s finest hour. Michael Grunwell was in the back seat and, blinded by the roof, would have never seen the crane. I was busy driving along a very uncertain dirt track. We see so many Grey Heron at Nanhui, and it is so easy to disregard them, and sure enough two of the three birds flying together were Grey Heron. But one was not, and Elaine caught it.
Elaine got her first pair of binoculars in 2013 and is now making big discoveries. “You’ve come a long way, baby!”
Thanks to Shanghai birder Xiao Cao for his knowledge of species histories in Shanghai. It was he who told us that our Hooded Crane was a first record for mainland Shanghai.
JACK SNIPE AT IRON TRACK
The experience with Jack Snipe occurred Saturday near dark at Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883). Our partner Michael Grunwell, Elaine, and I were looking for Brown-cheeked Rail. The snipe sneezed when flushed, flew to a towering height in a tighter formation than is typical in Common Snipe, and after all the fuss ended up landing only 150 m from where they had started.
When the snipe began their flight, I figured they were Common and continued looking for rails. Then I heard Michael cry out, “Possible Jack!” The snipe flew directly over us. The bill was noticeably shorter than the bill of the Common I have come to know. Elaine too saw the short bill.
The three of us feel confident in our record of Jack Snipe and urge others to be on the lookout for this species. Get pictures if you can.
Iron Track is part of the extensive reed-bed habitat lining the Dazhi River (大治河). It provides excellent habitat for Chinese Pond Heron, White-breasted Waterhen, Brown-cheeked Rail (and possibly Water Rail), wintering Bluethroat, and wintering Jack Snipe. Reed Parrotbill is resident.
The beds are on either side of the river, are unlikely to be developed, and are in good condition. They are a remnant of the habitat that used to cover the entire area.
YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTING IN SHANGHAI
As reported above, on Saturday with Michael and yet again on Sunday our site near Luchao delivered Yellow-breasted Bunting. The site is at 30.850694, 121.863667. We are now five-for-five in sightings of Yellow-breasted Bunting since our Nov. 5 discovery of the species there.
It will be interesting to see how long into the winter the Yellow-breasted Bunting remain. I hope they stay awhile, because it is unlikely any of the locals will catch ’n’ roast ’em. (The greatest factor in the endangerment of Emberiza aureola is massive poaching of the species for snacks in south China.)
Recently the site has yielded Black-browed Reed Warbler and Chestnut-eared Bunting and a late record of Barn Swallow. An un-ID’d rail has been spotted twice in the area.
To get to the site, from Luchao drive 1.5 km north from the bend in the road north of the canal, where the road begins to run parallel with the sea. Pull onto the unpaved track and park on the bridge of white cement. The buntings seem to be concentrated a few dozen meters south, near the place where picnickers dumped a big load of trash. Be on the lookout for individuals flying into the narrow reed bed after foraging runs in the adjacent rice paddies.
ID’ING BROWN-CHEEKED RAIL ON CALL
On Sunday at Nanhui we positively identified 2 Brown-cheeked Rail on call. Here is the recording I made (00:28; 2.7 MB):
The pitch matches closely the pitch in the recordings by Anon Torimi of rails assigned to Rallus indicus. I downloaded Torimi’s recordings from xeno-canto.org. I invite Shanghai birders to do the same. Get to know the sounds of both R. indicus and the extralimital R. aquaticus and start adding these species to your own Shanghai lists.
AMUR FALCON CATCHING GNATS
On Saturday we were amazed to see Amur Falcon catching flies with their talons. We had five near Big Bend (31.000321, 121.938074). In top left of the three-panel photo above, the falcon has spotted its prey and is accelerating toward it. In bottom left, the gnat is visible as the falcon zeroes in. At right, the falcon raises its talons for its tiny prey.
The instinct to use its talons is inefficient in this case and shows that Amur Falcon has evolved to hunt larger game. Smaller aerialists such as swifts, nightjars, swallows, and flycatchers snatch up their prey directly with the mouth.
PREACHING THE GOSPEL OF CONSERVATIONISM
I saw the car with lettering saying “Pudong TV” and waved the journalists over. I told them I had something they might want to hear. Echoing my recent post Save Nanhui, I told the pair that Shanghai can have it all. It can be a world financial hub and China’s greatest metropolis and be a green city. It can follow Hong Kong and Singapore and develop a world-class urban wetland reserve easily accessible to nature lovers without their own car. Nanhui’s old wetland, I said, pointing to the defunct reserve behind us, could be the site of such a reserve.
As I talked, a small crowd gathered. Most seemed supportive of my ideas. I was not surprised. A world-class wetland at Nanhui is a basic conservationist idea, and basic conservationist ideas have broad appeal.
The flycatcher was attracted by mealworms speared by photographers onto a soft steel wire. The wire was hung from a branch, enticing the flycatcher to hover to snatch the bait. The bird was appearing every 10 minutes.
I expressed concern but did not feel the need to be critical or intervene. The photographers obviously liked the flycatcher, did not think that they were harming it, and were enjoying themselves immensely.
I watched the flycatcher attack the mealworms. I think it unlikely that the wire would harm the bird. The bigger problem may be that the free protein will keep the bird here an unnaturally long time. A passage migrant through Earth’s largest city, Narcissus Flycatcher should be in Borneo by now.
INTERESTING WECHAT EXCHANGE ON ARCTIC WARBLER
Shanghai Birding is the WeChat companion to shanghaibirding.com. In it, we exchange real-time reports and engage in discussions about birding in Shanghai and all China.
A discussion on 10 Nov. about Arctic Warbler showed the utility to birders of social media in general and Shanghai Birding in particular. Members Jonathan Martinez (based in Shenzhen) and Paul Holt (based in Beijing) shared their knowledge about Arctic Warbler and its sister species. In so doing, they shed light on the situation, still very imperfectly understood, of the Arctic-type complex in Shanghai.
Holt led off:
Paul Holt (PH): I see from a recent posting that @李伟 photographed an Arctic Warbler at Nanhui on the 28 October. Great images! Isn’t that extremely late? The latest ever Beijing record’s over two weeks earlier than that.
I then posted a long list of my Arctic-type records from autumn 2014 and autumn 2015. In the list, I bunched together all members of the Arctic Warbler Complex (Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis borealis and P. b. kennicotti, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, and Japanese Leaf Warbler P. xanthodryas). I list all three species because, although it is presumed that the vast majority of spring and autumn records in Shanghai pertain to borealis, it is far from certain what the proportions are. (Arctic Warbler and its sister species are nearly impossible to separate on morphology but are distinguishable by voice.)
The latest autumn record I had of an Arctic-type warbler was 24 Oct. (2015).
Holt wrote back:
PH: Thanks @Craig (大山雀) Unless I’m missing something 28 October is later than any of the records you cite (but just by four days). Could it be that the Nanhui sighting is Shanghai’s latest ever? Also it’s interesting that you mention all three species. Have any of your region’s Arctic-types been identified to a species other than borealis?
Craig Brelsford (CB): @Paul Holt I have not recorded anything other than borealis around Shanghai. (All confirmed borealis records are of individuals singing in spring.) I also suspect that a record of xanthodryas is next to impossible in Shanghai. I am aware that citing all three names is not a perfect solution. I list all three species because I believe information is insufficient. No one knows how many Arctic-type in Shanghai are borealis and how many examinandus. Very basic facts about the species in east-central China are unclear. Maybe someday studies will confirm that an Arctic-type in east-central China is borealis, with a probability of 99%. In that case, I would probably assign any silent Arctic-type I saw to borealis. Do you have any suggestions?
A few minutes later, I added:
CB: Just remembered that Michael Grunwell, Elaine Du, and I had Arctic-type this past Sat. 5 Nov. We got a good look at the bird, too. October was a warm, wet month in Shanghai, and the entire fall migration season seems to be late a week or two. Would others here agree?
PH: I’ve never seen xanthodryas in mainland China, have only ever encountered two examinandus (which were the first records for Liaoning & Hebei. Both sound recorded) here & have too little to go on I’m afraid @Craig (大山雀). Personally I log everything as Arctic Warbler by default, though that’s far from perfect. Until more of us work on this awkward group & make an effort to sound-record them, it’ll be a long time yet before a truer picture of their patterns of occurrence emerges. Cracking late record last weekend @Craig (大山雀). Surely that must be a good candidate for being the latest ever.
CB: @Paul Holt Maybe for simplicity’s sake I should log everything as Arctic. I have hesitated because I dislike speculation, and besides your very reliable records from up north I have little else to go on.
At this Martinez came in with his south-China perspective:
Jonathan Martinez (JM): I’ve heard xanthodryas on Fujian coast in early May and had a bird caught in October at Xitou identified as xanthodryas by DNA on tail feathers among about 15 borealis. I found an examinandus in central Guangxi in September, first suspected by call on a bird wave and clearly identified with call a few days later. I suspect examinandus is not a coastal migrant and probably goes through mainland China. I think still the only species recorded in Hong Kong is borealis, despite many looking for these.
CB: Thanks! With a confirmed xanthodryas in Fujian and examinandus only “suspected” not to use the Chinese coast, I’ll keep my clunky three-species listing. Arctic-type Warbler in China is a subject crying out for more research.
Did you know that the birding area at Nanhui is a cape? This is an aspect of Nanhui that perhaps requires more discussion. The 30-km stretch of coastline is the southeastern-most point of Pudong as well as of the entire city-province of Shanghai.
Cape Nanhui (I like the ring of that) juts out between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. The cape aspect of Nanhui makes it even more valuable to migrating birds than regular coastline. Nanhui is a stepping stone, catching birds that have just made a non-stop crossing of the mouth of the Yangtze River (in fall) or a non-stop crossing of Hangzhou Bay (in spring).
I also find it interesting that one never hears of the “Shanghai Peninsula.” It’s a term with explanatory power. Although rather nubby, the Shanghai Peninsula is clearly a promontory between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the promontory.
If conservationists talk about a nature reserve for “Cape Nanhui,” the tip of the “Shanghai Peninsula,” then maybe they will have a stronger case.
A NOTE FROM TOMMY PEDERSEN
Tommy Pedersen is a pilot with Emirates. He is Norwegian and has been based in Dubai for many years. An accomplished birder, Tommy created uaebirding.com. This outstanding site is the best introduction to birding in the United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Peninsula.
Tommy recently sent a message to shanghaibirding.com:
I had a work flight to Shanghai 9-11 November 2016, and following Craig’s excellent site, I decided to visit Nanhui.
I booked a room at Holiday Inn Express (no English spoken, cold and drafty rooms), close to the Magic Parking Lot and Nanhui Nature Reserve. Two targets: Saunders’s Gull and Reed Parrotbill.
On Day 1, 9 November, I was extremely lucky and bumped into Craig and Elaine with Erica, who took me to the nature reserve. We had a jolly good time (at least I was), and Saunders’s Gulls were soon spotted (http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32503941).
Gadwall Anas strepera 8
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 30
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 8
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 150
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 2
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 1
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 4
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 25
Great Cormorant Eurasian Phalacrocorax carbo 40
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 100
Great Egret A. alba 30
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 60
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 1
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 17
Black-faced Spoonbill P. minor 15
Eurasian/Black-faced Spoonbill P. leucorodia/minor 30
Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus 2
Water/Brown-cheeked Rail R. aquaticus/indicus 3
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus 1
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 3
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 4
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 3
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 1
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 14
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 1
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus 2
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus 80
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 5
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia 1
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 3
Spotted Dove S. chinensis 3
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 3
Amur Falcon F. amurensis 1
Peregrine Falcon F. peregrinus 1 Falco sp. 2
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 40
Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus 1
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/gulgula 1 singing
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 8
Yellow-bellied Tit Periparus venustulus 4
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 20
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 25
Brown-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes 1
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 18
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 4
Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 4
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 35
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus 2
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 10
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 7
Japanese Thrush Turdus cardis 5
Eyebrowed Thrush T. obscurus 2
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 6
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 4
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans 1
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 19
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 18
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 150
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis taivana 8
White Wagtail M. alba 14
Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens 80
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 7
Rustic Bunting E. rustica 2
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans 3
Yellow-breasted Bunting E. aureola 3
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 14
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 16
List 1 of 1 for Tues. 15 Nov. 2016 (16 species). Zhongshan Park (Zhōngshān Gōngyuán [中山公园]; 31.221888, 121.420066), urban green space in Changning District, Shanghai. Partly cloudy. Low 12° C, high 17° C. Humidity 62%. Visibility 10 km. Wind NE 23 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 93 (moderate). Sunrise 06:22, sunset 16:55. TUE 15 NOV 2016 13:00-15:00. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 5
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 2
Japanese Tit Parus minor 2
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 30
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 4
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 1
Chinese Hwamei Garrulax canorus 3
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum 1
Chinese Blackbird T. mandarinus 4
Eyebrowed Thrush T. obscurus 3
Oriental Magpie-Robin Copsychus saularis 3
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 4
Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 20
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis 2