Rites of Spring

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).

A male Oriental Plover in partial breeding stands at Sanjiagang, 29 March 2010. Every year from about the third week of March until the middle of April, Charadrius veredus passes through Shanghai en route to its breeding grounds in Mongolia. For Shanghai birders, seizing the opportunity to view this East Asian specialty is an annual rite of spring. Craig Brelsford.
A male Oriental Plover in partial breeding plumage stands at the old sod farm (31.205847, 121.777368) at Sanjiagang, Pudong, 29 March 2010. Every year from the third week of March until the middle of April, Charadrius veredus passes through Shanghai en route to its breeding grounds in Mongolia. For Shanghai birders, seizing the brief opportunity to view this East Asian specialty is a rite of spring. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Oriental Plover, 29 March 2010, Sanjiagang (Craig Brelsford).
Oriental Plover, 29 March 2010, sod farm, Sanjiagang. Lying on the cool grass in the presence of those serene long-distance travelers, I felt I had entered birding heaven.  (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Oriental Plover habitat at Hengsha (top) and Inner Mongolia (bottom). Top: Hiko. Bottom: Craig Brelsford
Oriental Plover habitat on Hengsha Island (top) and in Inner Mongolia (bottom). Note the similarities between the flat, grassy area on Hengsha Island and the steppe near Hulun Lake. A migrating Oriental Plover, especially one that may have flown virtually non-stop from Australia, sees the scene at top and thinks of home. Top: Komatsu Yasuhiko, 26 March 2017, 31.301475, 121.917442. Bottom: Craig Brelsford, 24 July 2015, 48.254637, 118.338622.

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.)

Michael Grunwell views Oriental Plover on Hengsha Island, 26 March 2017 (Komatsu Yasuhiko).
Michael Grunwell views Oriental Plover in steppe-like habitat, Hengsha, 26 March. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

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. The 49er had just struck gold.

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 breeds mainly in Mongolia. The breeding range extends into China in Hulunbeier, the northernmost portion of Inner Mongolia. In Shanghai, Charadrius veredus is an uncommon springtime passage migrant.
Oriental Plover breeds mainly in Mongolia. The range extends into China in Hulunbeier, the northernmost prefecture of Inner Mongolia. In Shanghai and at various places along the Chinese coast, Charadrius veredus is an uncommon springtime passage migrant. Autumn records are scanty, and the migration route of Oriental Plover south through China is not entirely clear. Map by Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford.

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.”

Oriental Plover doze just meters away from the photographer at Sanjiagang, 29 March 2010. It is probable that these plovers had just completed a very long flight, possibly all the way from Australia, before landing here. Craig Brelsford.
Exhausted Oriental Plover doze just meters away from the photographer at Sanjiagang, 29 March 2010. These plovers had probably just completed a very long leg of the journey from Australia to Mongolia. (Craig Brelsford)

Piersma says Oriental Plover is “very abundant” on migration in the Yangtze River Valley. That is doubtful. Oriental Plover are certainly not abundant in Shanghai; indeed, in autumn they are 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?

The pure white head of breeding male Oriental Plover is diagnostic. Sanjiagang, 2 April 2010. Craig Brelsford.
This male Oriental Plover has nearly attained full breeding plumage. Note the diagnostic white head, still showing some of the darker non-breeding feathers. Charadrius veredus is the Ghost Rider of plovers. Sanjiagang, 2 April 2010. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Birds of Hengsha Island, 26 March 2017. Clockwise from top L: Bar-tailed Godwit, showing (top R) band and ring combination indicative of processing on Chongming Island; Common Reed Bunting; and Eurasian Curlew. (Craig Brelsford)
Birds of Hengsha Island, 26 March 2017. Clockwise from top L: Bar-tailed Godwit, showing (top R) band and ring combination indicative of processing on Chongming Island; Common Reed Bunting; and Eurasian Curlew. (Craig Brelsford)

Michael, Hiko, and I noted 64 species on Sun. 26 March 2017. Besides the plovers, we had 10 Marsh Grassbird singing from deep cover, Common Reed Bunting feeding alone on the ground, and 4 Bar-tailed Godwit, 1 of which had been banded on Chongming Island.

Also Garganey 59, Eurasian Teal 625, Eurasian Bittern 8 booming, Hen Harrier 1 male, Pied Harrier 1 female, Eurasian Curlew 2, Great Knot 2, Ruff 6, Sanderling 1, Dunlin 350, and Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler 3 singing.

At Nanhui, we had skittish Short-eared Owl and breeding Black-necked Grebe (Dishui Lake). We found no Hooded Crane, our well-known individual most likely having departed after its historic winter sojourn on the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula.

COLLECTING RECORDS ON WECHAT

Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.
Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.

On 28 March 2017 on Chongming, Shanghai birder Fàn Jūn (范钧) found 7 Long-billed Dowitcher feeding together. The flock of 7 may be the largest ever recorded of the species in Shanghai.

Fàn Jūn reported the finding on the Shanghai Birding WeChat group, and I published the report and his photo on the Sightings page of shanghaibirding.com.

To become a member of Shanghai Birding, friend me on WeChat (ID: craigbrelsford). I’ll then add you to Shanghai’s best birding chat group.

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DAY LISTS
Lists are generated on eBird then adjusted to comport with my first reference, the IOC World Bird List.

List 1 of 2 for Sunday 26 March 2017 (50 species)

Oriental Plover, 23 April 2010, Sanjiagang. (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Plover, 23 April 2010. This photo was taken at a place once reliable for Charadrius veredus: the old sod farm at Sanjiagang, 6.5 km N of Pudong Airport (31.205847, 121.777368). The farm has been destroyed, but steppe-like habitat required by Oriental Plover remains on Hengsha Island. There, on 26 March 2017, a trio of foreign birdwatchers noted 25 Oriental Plover. (Craig Brelsford)

Birds noted on Hengsha Island (Héngshā Dǎo [横沙岛]), small alluvial island at mouth of Yangtze River in Shanghai, China. S gate to reclaimed area at 31.297333, 121.859434. Cloudy; low 7° C, high 17° C. Wind WNW 16 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 177 (unhealthful). Visibility 10 km. Sunrise 05:50, sunset 18:10. SUN 26 MAR 2017 05:40-10:40. Craig Brelsford, Michael Grunwell, & Komatsu Yasuhiko.

Garganey Spatula querquedula 59
Northern Shoveler S. clypeata 8
Gadwall Mareca strepera 28
Eurasian Teal Anas crecca 625
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 20
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 1
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 8
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 40
Great Egret A. alba 10
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia 15
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 30
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 1
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 28
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus 1
Pied Harrier C. melanoleucos 1
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 20
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 70
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 3
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 4
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 8
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus 1
Kentish Plover C. alexandrinus 220
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius 1
Oriental Plover C. veredus 25
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 2
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica 4
Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris 2
Ruff C. pugnax 6
Sanderling C. alba 1
Dunlin C. alpina 350
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 6
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 65
Common Redshank T. totanus 6
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae/mongolicus 1
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 5
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 7
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 12
Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis 3
Marsh Grassbird Locustella pryeri 10
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 15
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 3
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 10
Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus 8
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea 1
White Wagtail M. alba 75
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 4
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 5
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 40
Common Reed Bunting E. schoeniclus 1

List 2 of 2 for Sunday 26 March 2017 (22 species)

Japanese birder Komatsu Yasuhiko ('Hiko') stands with his beloved scope and tripod at Dishui Lake, 26 March 2017 (Craig Brelsford).
Shanghai-based Japanese birder Komatsu Yasuhiko with his beloved scope and tripod, Dishui Lake, 26 March 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Birds noted around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]; 30.920507, 121.973159), Pudong, Shanghai, China. We covered the coastal road between Binhai (Bīnhǎi Zhèn [滨海镇]; 31.006250, 121.885558) and Luchao (Lúcháo Gǎng [芦潮港]; 30.851109, 121.848455). Among the points along this 30 km stretch are Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883), a site providing access to the reed beds at the mouth of the Dazhi River (Dàzhì Hé [大治河]); Big Bend (31.000321, 121.938074); Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083); Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635); Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229); Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551); South Lock (30.860073, 121.909997); Eiffel Tower (30.850531, 121.878047); & the Marshy Agricultural Land (30.850707, 121.863662). List includes birds noted at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124). Cloudy; low 7° C, high 17° C. Wind WNW 16 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 177 (unhealthful). Visibility 10 km. Sunrise 05:50, sunset 18:10. SUN 26 MAR 2017 12:50-15:50. Craig Brelsford, Michael Grunwell, & Komatsu Yasuhiko.

Falcated Duck Mareca falcata 30
Eurasian Wigeon M. penelope 50
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 28
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 13
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 1
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus 1
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 3
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida 1
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 3
Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus 1
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 2
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 19
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 10
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 1
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 2
Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 40
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 5
White Wagtail M. alba 12
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 1

WORKS CONSULTED

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Oriental Plover, p. 164.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 3, “Hoatzin to Auks.” Species accounts for Oriental Plover and Caspian Plover (p. 438) by T. Piersma.

John MacKinnon wrote the most influential field guide ever published about China's birds.
In December 2016, John MacKinnon published his second guest post for shanghaibirding.com.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press. Oriental Plover, p. 178. Authors mention Hulun Lake as breeding area for species. Curiously, Liaoning is also mentioned.

Message, Stephen & Don Taylor. Waders of Europe, Asia and North America. Oriental Plover, pp. 66 & 152.

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Oriental Plover, p. 106. Consulted to get a better idea of the rarity of Oriental Plover in Southeast Asia.

Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Caspian Plover, p. 142.

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.

89 Species at Chongming, Dongtai, & Yangkou

On 18-20 March 2016, Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and I noted 89 species at Chongming, Dongtai, and Yangkou. We found a dowitcher at Dongtai, and at Chongming we had 90 cranes so far away and in such thick fog that we were unable to determine how many were the expected Hooded Crane. The canal at the base of the northeast Chongming sea wall gave us Common Goldeneye, Garganey, and Horned Grebe assuming breeding plumage and Black-necked Grebe in breeding plumage. In addition to the dowitcher, Dongtai produced Greater Scaup, Common Merganser, and endangered Far Eastern Curlew and near-threatened Eurasian Oystercatcher as well as early Bar-tailed Godwit, Barn Swallow, and Bull-headed Shrike and singing Chinese Grey Shrike. Yangkou gave us early Black Drongo.

Garganey, Chongming, 18 March 2016, through the spotting scope. Anas querquedula is uncommon in Shanghai region.
Garganey, Chongming, 18 March 2016, through the spotting scope. Anas querquedula is uncommon in Shanghai region.

On Fri. 18 March Elaine and I left our apartment near Zhongshan Park in a Skoda Scout rented from Avis. We picked up Kai at his home in Jiading, Shanghai and drove to the ferry terminal on Changxing Island in the Yangtze River. Our plan was to take the ferry to Hengsha Island. The ferry was fogged out until at least 07:25, at which time we gave up and drove to Chongming. We noted 49 species there, our chief stops being a place rich in Common Snipe near the base of the eastern sea wall and the aforementioned canal where we found the goldeneye and grebes.

Black-necked Grebe, Chongming, Shanghai, 18 March 2016. Photo taken with iPhone 6 and Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope. Middle bird still shows considerable winter plumage.
Black-necked Grebe, Chongming, Shanghai, 18 March 2016. Photo taken with iPhone 6 and Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope. Middle bird still shows considerable winter plumage.

After dark we drove 236 km north on the G40 and G15 to Dongtai. There, we set up for two nights 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).

Sat. 19 March saw us note 60 species around what Elaine and I call the Great Dongtai Surf ’n’ Turf Birding Trail. We had a neap tide that crested around 10:00, leaving the shorebirds far out. The godwit showed the slightly upturned bill and was associating with Eurasian Curlew, as was our lone Far Eastern Curlew. The dowitcher was far inside the sea wall and visible only through the spotting scope. It was showing more brown than grey and no orange. It had a long, seemingly straight bill like a snipe but unlike a typical snipe was alone in an area far from cover. We observed a clear sewing-machine feeding motion.

Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus sphenocercus at NE corner of Great Dongtai Surf ’n’ Turf Birding Trail, 19 March 2016.
Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus sphenocercus at NE corner of Great Dongtai Surf ’n’ Turf Birding Trail, 19 March 2016.

Intensive work is under way around the southeast corner of the reclaimed area. Digging machines were working throughout the weekend dredging up canals, changing forevermore areas where only last year Elaine and I found breeding Common Tern and territorial and possibly breeding Pied Avocet. The plan, clearly spelled out on the billboards near the tourist facilities, is to give nearly the entire reclaimed area over to aquaculture. The Great Dongtai Surf ’n’ Turf Birding Trail offers the best coastal birding within 500 km of Shanghai, it is a critical staging area for Nordmann’s Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper, it is relied upon by Black-faced Spoonbill, Great Knot, and Far Eastern Curlew–and it is being transformed, utterly. How interesting it is to be birding at this moment in history on the Chinese coast, scene of an ecological disaster like few ever seen before.

On Sunday morning 20 March we again covered the Surf ’n’ Turf Trail. We moved down to Yangkou in the afternoon, and we sneaked in an hour’s worth of birding at Chongming on the way back to the city. At Yangkou we failed to note Brown-cheeked Rail at the spot where I have seen the species three times before. We used playback off and on for about 45 minutes and got no response. Reed Parrotbill were in the area. At the snipe spot on Chongming, I photographed as many of the flushed snipe as possible, trying to find Jack, Pin-tailed, or Swinhoe’s. The photos I got show only Common Snipe.

List 1 of 1 for Fri. 18 March 2016 (49 species)

Common Goldeneye, Chongming, Shanghai, 18 March 2016. Photo taken with iPhone 6 and Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope.
Common Goldeneye, Chongming, Shanghai, 18 March 2016. Photo taken with iPhone 6 and Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope.

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). Cloudy; low 11° C, high 18° C. Wind N 6 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 231 (very unhealthful). Sunrise 05:59, sunset 18:05. FRI 18 MAR 2016 08:30-17:05. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Kai Pflug.

Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha 10
Garganey A. querquedula 4
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 270
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 50
Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula 1
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 10
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 18
Horned Grebe Podiceps auritus 3
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 3
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 12
Great Egret A. alba 5
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 13
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 22
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus 2
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 7
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 120
Grus sp. 90
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus 3
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 52
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 3
Common Redshank T. totanus 1
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 5
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae/L. v. mongolicus 2
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia 20
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 14
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 5
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 14
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 50
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 16
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/A. gulgula 40
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 2
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 40
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 20
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 2
White-cheeked Starling S. cineraceus 13
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 1
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 4
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 320
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 12 leucopsis
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus 3
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 15
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica 12
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 9
Little Bunting E. pusilla 28
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 12
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 10

Mammals

Siberian Weasel Mustela sibirica 1

List 1 of 1 for Sat. 19 March 2016 (60 species)

Eurasian Oystercatcher photographed by Kai Pflug on mudflats at Dongtai, Jiangsu, 19 March 2016. Haematopus ostralegus is listed as near-threatened by the IUCN. It is fairly easy to see throughout the year at Dongtai. Kai got this image with his Nikon D810 attached to his new 800 mm F/5.6 lens. F/7.1, 1/640, ISO 640.
Eurasian Oystercatcher photographed by Kai Pflug on mudflats at Dongtai, Jiangsu, 19 March 2016. Haematopus ostralegus is listed as near-threatened by the IUCN. It is fairly easy to see throughout the year at Dongtai. Kai got this image with his Nikon D810 attached to his new 800 mm F/5.6 lens. F/7.1, 1/640, ISO 640.

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), SE corner of sea wall (32.759499, 120.962893), & NE corner of sea wall (32.872444, 120.951522). Sunny, hazy; low 4° C, high 17° C. Wind NE 11 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 142 (unhealthful). Sunrise 06:02, sunset 18:11. SAT 19 MAR 2016 06:40-17:00. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Kai Pflug.

Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 64
Falcated Duck Anas falcata 5
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 40
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 7
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 18
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 4
Northern Pintail A. acuta 60
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 55
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 9
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 2
Common Merganser Mergus merganser 1
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 5
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 185
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 44
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 8
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1200
Black-winged Kite Elanus caeruleus 1
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 11
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 140
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 45
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 100
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 125
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 112
Long-billed/Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus/L. semipalmatus 1
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica 1
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 255
Far Eastern Curlew N. madagascariensis 1
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 7
Common Redshank T. totanus 1
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 10
Green Sandpiper T. ochropus 2
Dunlin Calidris alpina 325
Saunders’s Gull Chroicocephalus saundersi 22
Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris 2
Vega Gull L. vegae vegae/L. v. mongolicus 16
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 2
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 6
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 3
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus 1
Merlin Falco columbarius 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 8
Chinese Grey Shrike L. sphenocercus sphenocercus 1
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 15
Japanese Tit Parus minor 5
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 50
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 5
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 13
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 7
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 4
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 100
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea 1
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni 6
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria 5
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica 15
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 20
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 4
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 7

List 1 of 3 for Sun. 20 March 2016 (46 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), SE corner of sea wall (32.759499, 120.962893), & NE corner of sea wall (32.872444, 120.951522). Cloudy; low 7° C, high 12° C. Wind NE 18 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 112 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:57, sunset 18:06. SUN 20 MAR 2016 08:10-12:10. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Kai Pflug.

Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 45
Falcated Duck Anas falcata 5
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 25
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 2
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 3
Northern Pintail A. acuta 31
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 6
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 6
Greater Scaup A. marila 8
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 7
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 58
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 25
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 7
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 153
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 138
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 34
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 120
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus 2
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 250
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 160
Far Eastern Curlew N. madagascariensis 1
Dunlin Calidris alpina 50
Saunders’s Gull Chroicocephalus saundersi 8
Vega Gull L. vegae vegae/L. v. mongolicus 13
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 4
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus 2
Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus 1
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach 1
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 2
Japanese Tit Parus minor 2
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/A. gulgula 15
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 10
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 8
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 2
Naumann’s Thrush T. naumanni 1
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 6
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 50
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria 5
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica 4
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 25
Rustic Bunting E. rustica 2
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 2

List 2 of 3 for Sun. 20 March 2016 (18 species)

Elaine Du waiting for Brown-cheeked Rail, which did not show this time, at the reed beds near Haiyin Temple, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 20 March 2016. Area is at 32.557387, 121.037381 and is reliable for Reed Parrotbill and often reliable for Brown-cheeked Rail.
Elaine Du waiting for Brown-cheeked Rail, which did not show this time, at the reed beds near Haiyin Temple, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 20 March 2016. Area is at 32.557387, 121.037381 and is reliable for Reed Parrotbill and often reliable for Brown-cheeked Rail.

Yangkou (Yángkǒu [洋口]), fishing town in Rudong County (Rúdōng Xiàn [如东县]), Jiangsu, China (32.537730, 121.017746). Area visited: reed beds near Haiyin Temple (32.557387, 121.037381). Cloudy; low 7° C, high 12° C. Wind NE 18 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 112 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:57, sunset 18:06. SUN 20 MAR 2016 13:20-14:30. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Kai Pflug.

Eurasian Teal Anas crecca 16
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 4
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 6
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 1
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus 3
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 3
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae/L. v. mongolicus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 1
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus 1
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 3
Japanese Tit Parus minor 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 2
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 10
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 8
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 7
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala 1

List 3 of 3 for Sun. 20 March 2016 (14 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). Cloudy; low 7° C, high 12° C. Wind NE 18 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 112 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:57, sunset 18:06. SUN 20 MAR 2016 17:00-18:00. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Kai Pflug.

Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 3
Great Egret Ardea alba 1
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 2
Pied Harrier Circus melanoleucos 1
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 30
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 4
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 3
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 1
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 8
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 4
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 100

Elaine Du behind the wheel at Chongming, 18 March 2016. As well as keeping the list, my wife, proud holder of a Chinese driver's license, occasionally performs driving duties during our birding trips.
Elaine Du behind the wheel at Chongming, 18 March 2016. As well as keeping the list, my wife, proud holder of a Chinese driver’s license, occasionally performs driving duties during our birding trips.

Featured image: German photographer Kai Pflug (L) and Craig Brelsford viewing Black-necked Grebe, Chongming Island, Shanghai, 18 March 2016. Photo shows our arrangement well. Kai emphasizes photography, using his incredible new 800 mm F/5.6 lens. Craig is still in the photo game (see camera to his left) but is focusing more these days on bird ID, as evidenced by his use of his Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope. Photo by Elaine Du.

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.