The Cuckoos of Shanghai

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

Large Hawk-Cuckoo breeds near Shanghai. I found this fledgling 25 June 2009 at Nanjing Botanical Garden. It was being raised by Masked Laughingthrush Garrulax perspicillatus. (Craig Brelsford)
Large Hawk-Cuckoo breeds near Shanghai. On 25 June 2009 at Nanjing Botanical Garden, I found this fledgling in the nest of Masked Laughingthrush. (Craig Brelsford)

The non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoo that one is most likely to see in Shanghai is Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx 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.

Hawk-cuckoos have bills quite unlike those of the sparrowhawks that they mimic. L: Japanese Sparrowhawk. R: Large Hawk-Cuckoo. (Craig Brelsford, Kai Pflug)
Hawk-cuckoos have bills quite unlike those of the sparrowhawks that they otherwise mimic. L: Japanese Sparrowhawk (Craig Brelsford). R: Large Hawk-Cuckoo (Kai Pflug).

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.

Large Hawk-Cuckoo. L: Kai Pflug. Top and bottom R: Craig Brelsford.
Large Hawk-Cuckoo shows heavy barring and streaking on the throat, breast, and belly and varying degrees of rufous on the upper breast. L: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April 2017 (Kai Pflug). Top R: Longcanggou (29.572367, 102.866492), Sichuan, 27 May 2013 (Craig Brelsford). Bottom R: Old Erlang Road (29.849565, 102.262012), Sichuan, 3 June 2014 (Craig Brelsford).

Another separation we Shanghai birders need to make is that between Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx 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.

L: Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo (Craig Brelsford). R: Large Hawk-Cuckoo (Kai Pflug)
Adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo (L) shows (1) white neck-sides and nape patch, (2) white scapular crescents, and (3) a rufous border to the black subterminal band on the tail. Large Hawk-Cuckoo (R) shows none of these. L: Original Magic Forest (32.567487, 120.996980), Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, 15 Sept. 2012 (Craig Brelsford). R: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April 2017 (Kai Pflug).

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.

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, 6 Oct. 2010. (Craig Brelsford)
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus. The lack of rufous wash on the breast and belly suggests that this is a juvenile. The grey streaking of the adult plumage has appeared. Also visible are the white nape patch and scapular crescents as well as the rufous bands on the tail. Original Magic Forest (32.567487, 120.996980), Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, 6 Oct. 2010. (Craig Brelsford)

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

L: Asian Koel, female, 2 June 2016, Nanhui, Shanghai (Kai Pflug). R: Asian Koel, male, 17 May 2015, Dongtai, Jiangsu (Craig Brelsford).
Asian Koel shows pronounced sexual dimorphism. L: female, 2 June 2016, Nanhui (Kai Pflug). R: male, 17 May 2015, tree plantation (32.855576, 120.896557) in Dongtai, Jiangsu (Craig Brelsford). Eudynamys scolopaceus chinensis is the northernmost-breeding race among the koels, a small, mainly tropical group.

The other non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoos of the Shanghai region are Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus and Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator 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.

The parasitic cuckoos are secretive and most conspicuous by sound. A poor, fleeting glimpse is all that one is likely to get. That was the case in the Tianmu Mountains with this Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. (Craig Brelsford)
The parasitic cuckoos are secretive and most conspicuous by sound. In the Tianmu Mountains (30.344148, 119.440201) on 10 May 2015, this poor, fleeting glimpse was all I could manage of this Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. Its presence was more than made known, however, by its piercing whistle and harsh cries. (Craig Brelsford)

I have yet to see Chestnut-winged Cuckoo in Shanghai. It has been noted at Tongshan Forest Park (32.348637, 119.106915) in Yangzhou, Jiangsu, and I have noted it at Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699) in Nanjing as well as in Zhejiang in the Tianmu Mountains (30.344148, 119.440201). With its glossy-black erectile crest, rufous wings, and long, black tail, the species is unmistakable–if you can manage to see it.

SHANGHAI-AREA CUCULUS CUCKOOS

Comparison of Indian Cuckoo and Common Cuckoo. Bottom-left cuckoo is Common; note yellow iris and compare to dark iris of Indian in bottom-right panel. Top two panels also Indian Cuckoo. All photos taken 17 May 2016 at Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
Comparison of yellow iris of Common Cuckoo (left-hand panels) with brown iris of Lesser Cuckoo (top right) and Indian Cuckoo (bottom right). Common and Indian: 17 May 2016, Nanhui. Lesser: 3 Oct. 2016, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu. (Craig Brelsford)

Five Cuculus cuckoos have been claimed for Shanghai: Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, Indian Cuckoo C. micropterus, Himalayan Cuckoo C. saturatus, Oriental Cuckoo C. optatus, and Common Cuckoo C. 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.

Common Cuckoo (L) is the size of a sparrowhawk and is appreciably larger than the thrush-sized Lesser Cuckoo (R). Himalayan Cuckoo is on average smaller than Common, but the size difference is more difficult to appreciate. L: Nanhui. M: Foping, Shaanxi. R: Old Erlang Road, Sichuan. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Cuckoo (L) is the size of a sparrowhawk and is appreciably larger than the thrush-sized Lesser Cuckoo (R). Himalayan Cuckoo (C) is on average smaller than Common, but the size difference between the two is difficult to see. L: Nanhui, 17 May 2016. C: Foping National Nature Reserve (33.688538, 107.852950), Shaanxi, 19 May 2013. R: Old Erlang Road (29.849565, 102.262012), Sichuan, 3 June 2014. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Juvenile <em>Cuculus</em> cuckoos are very difficult to ID to species. This is especially true in Shanghai, where almost all <em>Cuculus</em> cuckoos are passage migrants. If however you are on the breeding grounds and know a little about the host species, then you may be able to attempt an ID. In this photo, taken 22 July 2010 at Balangshan (<a href="https://www.google.com/maps/place/30%C2%B057'39.5%22N+102%C2%B052'42.2%22E/@30.960977,102.7383223,11z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x0!8m2!3d30.960977!4d102.878398" target="_blank">30.960977, 102.878398</a>) in <a href="https://www.google.com/maps/place/Sichuan,+China/@30.1028528,93.9726458,5z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x36e4e73368bdcdb3:0xde8f7ccf8f99feb9!8m2!3d30.651226!4d104.075881" target="_blank">Sichuan</a>, the juvenile cuckoo that the Rosy Pipit is feeding is most likely Common Cuckoo. The hugeness of the cuckoo is a clue, but the strongest indicator may be the foster parent. Common Cuckoo is known to parasitize the nests of pipits, while Himalayan Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo favor small warblers and Indian Cuckoo favors drongos and shrikes. (Craig Brelsford)
Juvenile Cuculus cuckoos are very difficult to ID. This is especially true in Shanghai, where almost all cuckoos are passage migrants. If however you are on the breeding grounds and know a little about the host species, then you may be able to attempt an ID. In this photo, taken 22 July 2010 at Balangshan (30.960977, 102.878398) in Sichuan, the juvenile cuckoo that the Rosy Pipit is feeding is most likely Common Cuckoo. The hugeness of the cuckoo is a clue, but the strongest indicator may be the foster parent. Whereas Himalayan Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo favor small warblers and Indian Cuckoo favors drongos and shrikes, Common Cuckoo is known to parasitize the nests of pipits. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

NON-CUCULINAE CUCKOOS

Top L: Greater Coucal (Kai Pflug). R: Lesser Coucal (Kai Pflug). Bottom L, bottom C: Lesser Coucal (Craig Brelsford)
Top L: Greater Coucal, Nabang, Yunnan, March 2017 (Kai Pflug). R: Lesser Coucal (adult), Nanhui, May 2015 (Kai Pflug). Bottom L: Lesser Coucal (adult), Nanhui, 11 Sept. 2016 (Craig Brelsford). Bottom C: Lesser Coucal (juvenile), Nanhui, 19 Nov. 2016 (Craig Brelsford).

Lesser Coucal Centropus 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 Coucal Centropus 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

Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo <em>Surniculus dicruroides</em> (L) and Plaintive Cuckoo <em>Cacomantis merulinus</em> occur in south China. Neither is likely to stray to the Shanghai region, but may be found as close to Shanghai as the mountains of Zhejiang. L: Skytree Nature Reserve (21.62801, 101.58878), Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China, 18 March 2012 (Craig Brelsford). R: Yingjiang, Yunnan, March 2017 (Kai Pflug).</em></em>
Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus dicruroides (L) and Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus, brood-parasitic cuckoos from south China. Both occur just south of our region, to Zhejiang. In drongo-cuckoos, independently from but in the same manner as in hawk-cuckoos, evolution created birds that bear an astonishingly close resemblance to species in a distantly related family. L: Skytree Nature Reserve (21.62801, 101.58878), Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, 18 March 2012 (Craig Brelsford). R: Yingjiang, Yunnan, March 2017 (Kai Pflug).

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.

Lesser Coucal, Centropus bengalensis, 22 June 2015, reedy area (32.855576, 120.896557) at Dongtai, Jiangsu (00:06; 1.1 MB)

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus, 10 May 2015, West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve, Zhejiang. On hiking trail between Lóngfèngjiān (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201) and Xiānrén Dǐng (仙人顶) (00:43; 3.3 MB)

Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus, 17 May 2015, tree plantation (32.855576, 120.896557), at Dongtai, Jiangsu (00:39; 2.4 MB)

Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides, 3 June 2014, Old Erlang Road (29.849565, 102.262012), Sichuan (03:21; 4 MB)

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus, 2 June 2016, Xidaquan National Forest (45.727751, 130.317316), Boli, Heilongjiang (01:06; 3.4 MB)

Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, 3 June 2014, Old Erlang Road (29.849565, 102.262012), Sichuan (00:16; 1 MB)

Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus, classic four-note song plus bubbly flourish, 9 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang (00:02; 901 KB)

Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, singing and quarreling, 6 June 2014, Longcanggou (29.621996, 102.885471), Sichuan (00:28; 1.2 MB)

Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus, classic double note “boop boop” faintly from a distance, 30 May 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang (00:03; 926 KB)

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, classic song plus cough, 21 May 2015, Nanhui, Shanghai (00:03; 913 KB)

EASTERN CROWNED WARBLER SINGING IN SHANGHAI

Eastern Crowned Warbler, 30 Sept. 2014, Yangkou. Craig Brelsford.
Eastern Crowned Warbler, 30 Sept. 2014, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu. One of the Big 5 Leaf Warblers of ShanghaiPhylloscopus coronatus is a common autumn and spring passage migrant in Shanghai. It is usually silent in Shanghai, but on 15 April 2017, I heard one sing in Century Park. Migrating birds often sing snatches of song far from their breeding grounds. On 7 April 2016, also at Century Park, I heard White’s Thrush sing. (Craig Brelsford)

In Shanghai, the best birding occurs on the coast, 80 km from the city center. Getting there can be a chore. Birding Pudong’s Century Park, by contrast, only requires a ride on Metro Line 2. Your day list from Century will only be about a third as long as a list from Cape Nanhui, but good birding can occur there, and at little cost.

On Sat. 15 April 2017, my partners Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko (“Hiko”), Hiko’s biology teacher Zeng Qiongyu, and I had a bout of good birding at Century Park.

I had never heard Eastern Crowned Warbler sing in Shanghai. I am however very familiar with the song, because in my wife Elaine Du’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang, the song of Eastern Crowned Warbler is one of the most common sounds in the remnant Manchurian forest. Elaine and I have birded Boli on three occasions, most recently in May-June 2016.

Eastern Crowned Warbler, 14 May 2014, Yangkou. Craig Brelsford.
Eastern Crowned Warbler, 14 May 2014, Yangkou. (Craig Brelsford)

We were in the heavily wooded area near Gate 7 when I heard the wheezy song. It sounded just like this recording I made in Heilongjiang:

Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus, 2 June 2016, Xidaquan National Forest (45.727751, 130.317316), Boli, Heilongjiang (00:03; 922 KB)

It was just a snatch of song, and it occurred but once. I knew immediately that it was Eastern Crowned Warbler. The song was coming from the surprisingly high canopy of the wood.

All four of us strained to find the bird. The sun shone brightly through the canopy and into our eyes. Finally, Hiko saw movement. Through the glare we focused in and got a clear view of Eastern Crowned.

It was a shot of birding as good and satisfying as I get anywhere. And it just goes to show–good birding can occur anywhere, even in a busy city park.

THANKS AGAIN TO KAI PFLUG

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

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’s work is regularly on view on our Sightings page, and 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.

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

List 1 of 1 for Sat. 15 April 2017 (23 species)

Thinking fast, Hiko trained his spotting scope on this singing Olive-backed Pipit and using his adapter and iPhone got this superb portrait. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Thinking fast, Hiko trained his spotting scope on this singing Olive-backed Pipit and, using his adapter and iPhone, got this superb portrait. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

Century Park (Shìjì Gōngyuán [世纪公园]; 31.219361, 121.551900), Pudong New Area (Pǔdōng Xīn Qū [浦东新区]), Shanghai, China. Includes records from Bird Island (31.217405, 121.554936). Mostly sunny; low 14° C, high 25° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind SSE 18 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 112 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:26, sunset 18:23. SAT 15 APR 2017 06:20-10:10. Craig Brelsford, Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, & Zeng Qiongyu.

Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 7
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 3
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 4
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 12
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 4
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus 35
Japanese Tit Parus minor 9
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 40
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 3 (2 singing)
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 1
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus 1 singing
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 12
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus 5
Chinese Hwamei Garrulax canorus 1
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 5
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 50
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 4
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 10
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis 3
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni 16 (some singing)
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria 10
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami 1
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 6

WORKS CONSULTED

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Cuckoos, pp. 254-9.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 4, “Sandgrouse to Cuckoos.” Cuculidae (pp. 508-607) by R. B. Payne.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Featured image: Clockwise from L, Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, October 2010; Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus, Nanjing, Jiangsu, July 2009; and Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides, Nanhui, Shanghai, May 2016. All by Craig Brelsford.

Comparing Richard’s and Blyth’s Pipit

Editor’s note: With more and more birders operating in Shanghai, more and more vagrant birds are bound to be discovered. One possibility is Blyth’s Pipit (photo above, L), a species similar to our familiar Richard’s Pipit (R). In this post, I will teach you how to separate the two.

2016 has been an outstanding birding year in Earth’s largest city. Paddyfield Warbler/Manchurian Reed Warbler, seen at Cape Nanhui on 18 Dec., was the latest in a parade of rare visitors seen in Shanghai in 2016. Our Sightings page has documented the discoveries.

The reason for the surge in good records, I am convinced, is more birders with better skills communicating more effectively. I am proud to say that shanghaibirding.com and the Shanghai Birding WeChat group have played a role.

In the Shanghai area, one species that has not yet been reported is Blyth’s Pipit. Anthus godlewskii breeds mainly in Mongolia, occurs on passage in central China, and winters mainly in India, so any records here would be of extralimitals. It is just the sort of vagrant that a bigger and better birding community could discover here in Shanghai.

Comparison of Richard's Pipit Anthus richardi "sinensis" (1) and Blyth's Pipit A. godlewskii (4). The putative taxon sinensis occurs in SE China S of the Yangtze and is the smallest population group within Richard's Pipit. Structurally it is similar to Blyth's Pipit. Note however the blackish centers to the median coverts (2, 3). In Richard's (2), the blackish centers are (a) diamond-shaped and (b) a bit fuzzy at the edges. In Blyth's (3), the blackish centers are squarish and more clearly defined. For years, Shanghai birders have been looking out for extralimital Blyth's Pipit. They are extremely rare or non-existent in the area. 1, 2: Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 15 Dec. 2016. 3, 4: Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, China, 22 July 2015. Craig Brelsford.
Comparison of adult-type Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardisinensis‘ (1) and adult Blyth’s Pipit A. godlewskii (4). The population group A. r. ‘sinensis’ occurs in southeast China south of the Yangtze River. Structurally, ‘sinensis‘ is the smallest group in Richard’s, with proportions recalling Blyth’s. Note however the blackish centers to the median coverts (2, 3). In adult-type Richard’s (2), the centers are triangular and tinged rufous at the edges. In adult Blyth’s (3), the centers are squarish, less rufous-tinged, and more clear-cut. 1, 2: Nanhui, 15 Dec. 2016. 3, 4: Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 22 July 2015. Craig Brelsford.

The key to getting a Blyth’s in Shanghai is paying attention to the many Richard’s Pipit that we see in the area. Anthus richardi is more or less a passage migrant in the Shanghai area and is recorded here regularly in spring and autumn. Some are present in winter; Elaine Du and I had a “sinensis” last week, the ID’ing of which led to this post.

More views of Blyth's Pipit performing flight song. Alström writes that in flight, Blyth's Pipit 'often recalls one of the smaller pipits rather than Richard's' (237). 22 July 2015, Hulunbeier. Craig Brelsford.
More views of Blyth’s Pipit performing flight song, Inner Mongolia, July 2015. In Pipits and Wagtails, Shanghai Birding member Per Alström et al. write that in flight, Blyth’s Pipit ‘often recalls one of the smaller pipits rather than Richard’s’ (237). Note however that Anthus richardi ‘sinensis,’ a population group within Richard’s Pipit often found in Shanghai, is structurally similar to Blyth’s. Craig Brelsford.

Richard’s “sinensis” is very similar to Blyth’s, being best told by song, which is rarely heard in the Shanghai area. According to Per Alström et al., whose book Pipits and Wagtails is the authority on Palearctic and Nearctic pipits, the song of Blyth’s is “very characteristic and completely different from [that] of Richard’s” (242). During a trip in July 2015 to the Inner Mongolian prefecture of Hulunbeier, one of the few places in China where Blyth’s breeds, I recorded the song.

Blyth’s Pipit, flight song, recorded 22 July 2015 at a point (48.767866, 116.834183) near Hulun Lake, Inner Mongolia (2.1 MB; 00:32)

The calls of the two species also differ, but less markedly. The flight call of Richard’s is a common bird sound in Shanghai during migration season. The call of Blyth’s is similar enough to “cause problems even for some veteran observers” (Alström et al. 244). For Shanghai birders, even those unfamiliar with Blyth’s, a “Richard’s” with a strange flight call is worth your attention. Listen for what Alström et al. describe as a call “less harsh, softer and more nasal” than Richard’s (244). For reference, review the flight call of Richard’s:

Richard’s Pipit, flight call, Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 5 Feb. 2016 (00:01; 852 KB)

Regarding plumage, the most reliable differentiator of Richard’s and Blyth’s is the pattern of the median coverts. In Blyth’s, a typical adult-type median covert will show well-defined, squarish black centers. In Richard’s, the adult-type median coverts are less clear-cut, rufous-tinged, and triangular. Note that the fresher the plumage, the more reliable this differentiator is.

Another less reliable criterion is structure. Shanghai birders will agree that the first impression a non-“sinensis” Richard’s usually gives is “large pipit.” Other pipits, such as Buff-bellied Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, and Olive-backed Pipit, give a “small pipit” impression.

Richard's Pipit, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 5 Sept. 2014. Alström et al. urge birders to use care in ID'ing Blyth's and Richard's. Here, the median coverts of this Richard's appear squarish, like Blyth's (bottom R, inset). But note the date of the photo: 5 Sept., a time of year when most Richard's show worn plumage. The authors write: 'In worn plumage the shape of the dark centres to the secondary coverts is generally less obviously different, and the pale tips can be much the same colour in both species' (237). The ID of this Richard's was derived from its call, a more constant feature, and not from the appearance of its worn median coverts. Craig Brelsford.
Richard’s Pipit, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 5 Sept. 2014. Alström et al. urge care in ID’ing Blyth’s and Richard’s. Here, the median coverts of this Richard’s appear squarish, like Blyth’s (bottom R, inset). But note the date of the photo: 5 Sept., a time of year when most Richard’s show worn plumage. ‘In worn plumage,’ the authors write, ‘the shape of the dark centres to the secondary coverts is generally less obviously different, and the pale tips can be much the same colour in both species’ (237). The ID of this Richard’s was derived from its call, a more constant characteristic, and not from the appearance of its median coverts, a more variable characteristic. Craig Brelsford.

Alström et al. say, and I having seen Blyth’s can concur, that a birder viewing Blyth’s will get a “small pipit” impression: “The smaller size, lighter build and shorter tail,” the authors write, “are often most apparent in flight, when [Blyth’s] often recalls one of the smaller pipits rather than Richard’s.” Note also that the smaller size and shorter bill, tail, and hind claw of Blyth’s give that species a “better proportioned” look than the larger and heavier Richard’s (237).

The directions above should be seen as guidelines; individual Richard’s and Blyth’s may defy easy categorization, “sinensis” Richard’s even more so. Alström et al. caution against jumping the gun with your ID: “It is crucial to realise that in both species (especially Richard’s) appearance can vary considerably in one and the same individual depending on mood, weather, etc.,” they write. “Also, some Richard’s are structurally very like Blyth’s; this is especially true of southern Chinese Richard’s (‘sinensis’)” (237).

A record of Blyth’s Pipit in Shanghai would shoot to the top of the “Year’s Best” list. The stakes are high, so look diligently, and use caution. Good luck!

PADDYFIELD WARBLER/MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER

This Acrocephalus warbler was found at the Magic Parking Lot at Nanhui on 18 Dec. 2016. Photo by Komatsu Yasuhiko.
This acrocephalid warbler, most likely Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola or Manchurian Reed Warbler A. tangorum, was found at the Magic Parking Lot at Nanhui on 18 Dec. 2016 by Andy Lee, Komatsu Yasuhiko, Larry Chen, and Archie Jiang. Photos by Komatsu Yasuhiko.

On 18 Dec. 2016, a quartet of teenage birders found an acrocephalid in the Magic Parking Lot at Cape Nanhui. The photos by Komatsu Yasuhiko provoked discussion on the WeChat group Shanghai Birding. The consensus is that the bird is either Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola or Manchurian Reed Warbler A. tangorum.

In the images above, note the supercilium, which extends behind the eye; dark eye-line; bright white chin and throat; peach breast band and flanks; bill with black upper mandible and pink lower mandible; and peaked head. Those criteria most closely indicate Manchurian Reed Warbler and Paddyfield Warbler.

Paddyfield Warbler winters mainly in India and would be extralimital here; Manchurian Reed Warbler breeds in northeastern China, is listed as Vulnerable and is therefore scarce, and probably passes through Shanghai.

Congratulations to Andy Lee, Komatsu Yasuhiko, Larry Chen, and Archie Jiang for this great Shanghai record.

INTERVIEW WITH PUDONG TV

On Thurs. 15 Dec. at Cape Nanhui my wife Elaine Du and I did an interview with Pudong TV in Chinese. The segment will last five minutes and be aired later this month. (UPDATE, 24 DEC 2016: Segment available here.) In the interview I lamented the losses at Nanhui and spoke glowingly of the possibilities.

Meanwhile, John MacKinnon, co-author of the most famous bird guide in the history of China and author of a recent post for shanghaibirding.com, has expressed interest in the establishment of an easily accessible, world-class wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui.

MacKinnon asked me for the reasoning behind a wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui. I wrote the following:

THE CASE FOR AN EASILY ACCESSIBLE, WORLD-CLASS WETLAND RESERVE AT CAPE NANHUI, PUDONG, SHANGHAI

I created four images to bolster the case for a wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui. Here is the first. Satellite map © Google and customized by Craig Brelsford.
I created four images to bolster the case for a wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui. Here is the first. Satellite image © 2016 Google. Customized by Craig Brelsford.

(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, habitat critical to Reed Parrotbill, Marsh Grassbird, and other species at risk.

The largest component of the city-province of Shanghai is the Shanghai Peninsula, a projection of land between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the peninsula, is a critically important stop for migrating birds, and is completely unprotected. A nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a third stepping stone for birds crossing the mouth of the Yangtze, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha.

The Red Sector encompasses the defunct wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui. Despite being completely unmanaged and unprotected, the site still attracts many important migratory birds, among them Black-faced Spoonbill. Satellite map © Google and customized by Craig Brelsford.
The Red Sector encompasses the defunct wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui. Despite being completely unmanaged and unprotected, the site still attracts many important migratory birds, among them Black-faced Spoonbill. Satellite image © 2016 Google. Customized by Craig Brelsford.

The 2 Red-crowned Crane seen on Sat. 10 Dec. 2016 were the latest in a parade of endangered birds that I and other birders have noted at the Cape over the years. Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses Cape Nanhui, as does Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. Around 2 percent of the world’s Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill are dependent on Cape Nanhui for several months each year. Large reed beds remain at Cape Nanhui and are the final strongholds on the Shanghai Peninsula of Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird and Near Threatened Reed Parrotbill. The latter species, a candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird, will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai if the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed.

(2) Shanghai is clearly under-performing on the conservationist front. More must be done, and a good place to begin is Cape Nanhui.

Marsh Grassbird still sing in the Yellow Sector. Satellite map © Google and customized by Craig Brelsford.
Marsh Grassbird still sing in the Yellow Sector. Satellite image © 2016 Google. Customized by Craig Brelsford.

Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province (which is a third the size of Wales). There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in this megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the natural side of Shanghai, a city with an extraordinarily rich natural heritage. There is no known plan to conserve any of the dozens of square kilometers of reclaimed land on Hengsha.

(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could be the match to light the fire of conservation across all China.

Hundreds of thousands of middle-class children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland.” A day at a Cape Nanhui Wetland would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster an appreciation of the natural world.

Fourth of four images showing the possible ways of preserving Cape Nanhui. Satellite map © Google and customized by Craig Brelsford.
Continued land reclamation could spell trouble at Nanhui. Satellite image © 2016 Google. Customized by Craig Brelsford.

If Shanghai can be a world economic center and have world-class airports and a world-class skyline and world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must have an easily accessible, world-class reserve protecting its priceless coastline, reed beds, and migratory birds.

A world-class, easily accessible, wetland nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would become a mecca for birders and achieve world renown, as has been the case with similar reserves such as Mai Po at Hong Kong and Sungei Buloh in Singapore.

INDEX TO POSTS ON SAVING NANHUI

Messengers (recent records of endangered cranes in Shanghai show the need to protect more land in the city-province)
The Case for Conserving Nanhui (foreigners can’t do all the work; local Chinese need to step up, too)
Save the Nanhui Wetland Reserve! (cri de coeur plus call to action)
Remnants (preparation for probable demise of Cape Nanhui)
Reed Parrotbill, Symbol of Shanghai (naming Reed Parrotbill Provincial Bird of Shanghai will send a message about the importance of the reed beds such as those at Cape Nanhui)
Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Nanhui (proof of yet another endangered species using the defunct wetland reserve at Nanhui)

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

List 1 of 1 for Thurs. 15 Dec. 2016 (53 species)

Lumbering flight of Eurasian Bittern. Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, 15 Dec. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Lumbering flight of Eurasian Bittern. Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, 15 Dec. 2016. (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 from Binhai (Bīnhǎi Zhèn [滨海镇]; 31.006250, 121.885558) to 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). Sunny, breezy. Low 2° C, high 7° C. Humidity 66%. Visibility: 10 km. Wind NW 18 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 160 (unhealthful). Sunrise 06:46, sunset 16:54. SAT 03 DEC 2016 08:20-17:00. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Tundra Bean Goose Anser serrirostris 20
Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus bewickii 19
Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 550
Falcated Duck Anas falcata 400
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 80
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 250
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 300
Northern Pintail A. acuta 120
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 40
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 10
Greater Scaup A. marila 3
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 2
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 40
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 2
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 7
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 80
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 60
Great Egret A. alba 8
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 50
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 7
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 72
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus 1
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 50
Hooded Crane Grus monacha 1
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 8
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 30
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 1
Dunlin Calidris alpina 70
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 22
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 1
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae/L. v. mongolicus 21
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 8
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 10
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 20
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 7
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 10
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 50
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 2
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 50
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 6
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 15
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 7
Little Bunting E. pusilla 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 1

WORKS CONSULTED

Alström, Per, Krister Mild & Bill Zetterström. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003. This landmark book, co-authored by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström, is my first reference on all things Motacillidae.

Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.
For the latest bird sightings in Shanghai, join Shanghai Birding!

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, 2009. Serviceable descriptions of Blyth’s Pipit and Richard’s Pipit. Illustration of “sinensis.” Good coverage of Paddyfield Warbler, Manchurian Reed Warbler.

Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. Pipits and reed warblers discussed in detail. To join Shanghai Birding, fill out the form on our Sightings page.

Kennerley, Peter & David Pearson. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm, 2010. The world standard on Acrocephalidae, Cettiidae, and Locustellidae.

Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Outstanding illustrations of Richard’s Pipit and Blyth’s Pipit by Mullarney.

 

ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers

Editor’s note: The featured image above shows the stunning male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and serves to introduce this week’s theme: How can birders tell apart the two species of the remarkable genus Terpsiphone that migrate through Shanghai?

Each spring and autumn, two species of paradise flycatcher pass through Earth’s greatest city: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei. The two species can seem confusingly similar, especially in the poor light of a wood. With a little practice you can tell the males apart, and with a lot of practice you should be able to separate the females. Here is what you need to know:

If in Shanghai you see a white-morph paradise flycatcher, then by definition you are not looking at Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, and you are almost certainly looking at Amur Paradise Flycatcher.

L: Amur Paradise Flycatcher, white morph, Nanhui. By Kai Pflug. R: same, Dongzhai, by Craig Brelsford.
Two images of Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei, white morph. L: Nanhui, Shanghai, 30 May 2016 (Kai Pflug). R: Dongzhai National Nature Reserve, Henan, 5 June 2010 (Craig Brelsford). Most Amur males are rufous, but a certain percentage are white. Japanese Paradise Flycatcher T. atrocaudata has no white morph.

No white morph exists in Japanese (Mark Brazil, Birds of East Asia). Regarding Amur, among my sources only Brazil expresses doubt about the existence of a white morph. shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon (A Field Guide to the Birds of China) and C.W. Moeliker (Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 11) assure us that Amur white morph does exist. MacKinnon says that Amur white morph accounts for less than half of adult males.

We know that Amur white morph exists because we have seen it ourselves. On 30 May 2016, Kai Pflug photographed an Amur white morph at Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Shanghai. In May 2010 at Dongzhai, Henan, 680 km inland from Shanghai, I found an Amur white morph.

Could a white morph from a third species occur in Shanghai? Although the movements of paradise flycatchers are “complex and not fully understood” (Moeliker), I think we can presume that it is unlikely. The nearest third species is Oriental Paradise Flycatcher T. affinis saturatior, which according to MacKinnon winters no closer to Shanghai than Guangdong.

The mantle, wings, rump, and tail of rufous-morph male Amur are rufous-brown; in Japanese, the mantle, wings, and rump are purplish-brown, and the tail is black.

Top: Amur (Kai Pflug). Bottom: Japanese (Craig Brelsford).
In Amur male (top), the mantle, wings, rump and tail are rufous-brown. Japanese male has purplish-brown mantle, wings, and rump and a contrasting black tail. Amur: Nanhui, June 2016 (Kai Pflug). Japanese: Yangkou, Jiangsu, 2 May 2012 (Craig Brelsford).

The pictures speak for themselves. In good light you should have little trouble telling the two apart. The cinnamon tones of Amur are often what Shanghai birders notice first.

Male Japanese has a black head and a black breast, forming a large hood. Amur rufous morph has black head and grey breast, forming a two-tone hood.

Comparison of hoods of Japanaese Paradise Flycatcher and Amur Paradise Flycatcher. Top 2: Craig Brelsford. Bottom 2: Kai Pflug.
In Japanese (top two photos), the black head and throat seamlessly meet the black breast, forming an oversized hood. (Note however some grey feathers in the worn spring Japanese male top left.) By comparison, the black head of Amur (bottom photos) contrasts with its grey breast. Japanese: Yangkou, 2 May 2012 (top left) and Nanhui, 17 Sept. 2016 (top right); both by Craig Brelsford. Amur: both Nanhui, June 2016 (Kai Pflug).

The hood of Amur has in addition more of a bluish tint than that of Japanese. Note the blue tint in the hood of Amur bottom left. Note also that the cobalt-blue eye ring of Japanese (top left) tends to be larger than the eye ring of Amur.

The females require more care to separate. Be persistent, get a good view, and try to get a photo. Note the following:

Compared to Amur female, Japanese female has darker, duller, and less rufous mantle, wings, rump, and tail. Japanese has much darker (nearly all-black) flight feathers and sooty primary coverts.

Top: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (Craig Brelsford). Bottom: Amur Paradise Flycatcher (Kai Pflug).
As with the males, female Japanese (top) is darker and less rufous than female Amur (bottom). Japanese: Yangkou, 30 Sept. 2013 (Craig Brelsford). Amur: Nanhui, May 2016 (Kai Pflug).

For the bit about the sooty primary coverts, I am indebted to David Gandy of Bangkok City Birding.

In their head and breast coloring, female Japanese and Amur show a pattern similar to that of the males. Whereas Japanese is more concolorous (panels 3 and 4), Amur shows more of a contrast between head and breast (1a, 1b, 2). Both Japanese and Amur female have whitish bellies, but the darker breast of Japanese contrasts more with the whitish belly than is the case with Amur. The head is glossier in Amur than in Japanese, whose crown is dull (inset, Panel 3). Japanese has faint rufous flanks, unlike Amur.

1a, 1b: Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Dongzhai, Henan, June 2010 (Craig Brelsford). 2: Amur, Nanhui, May 2016 (Kai Pflug). 3, 4 and inset on 3: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 30 Sept. 2013 (Craig Brelsford).
1a, 1b: Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Dongzhai, Henan, 5 June 2010 (Craig Brelsford). This female is the mate of the Amur white-morph shown above. 2: Amur, Nanhui, May 2016 (Kai Pflug). 3, 4 and inset on 3: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 30 Sept. 2013 (Craig Brelsford).

MAINLY SILENT IN SHANGHAI

In Shanghai, you will almost never hear a paradise flycatcher utter a sound. I have a single recording:

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, call, Nanhui, 24 May 2016 (00:01; 848 KB)

BACKGROUND ON THE SPECIES

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei breed farther north than any other species in their mainly tropical genus. T. atrocaudata atrocaudata breeds in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and is highly migratory, wintering as far south as Sumatra. (Birds in Taiwan, however, are largely resident.) T. incei, a monotypic species, is also highly migratory, with a breeding range extending into the Russian Far East and wintering grounds as far south as Java (Moeliker). Japanese is listed by the IUCN as Near Threatened, mainly because of habitat loss on its wintering grounds.

UPDATE: 18 OCT 2016

Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Laoshan, Jiangsu, 4 July 2009. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Amur Paradise Flycatcher, female on the breeding grounds, Laoshan, Jiangsu, 4 July 2009 (Craig Brelsford).

While researching drongos, on 18 Oct. 2016 I discovered two more photos of female Amur Paradise Flycatcher. The photos above were taken 4 July 2009 at Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699), a site in Nanjing, Jiangsu 290 km inland from Shanghai. Note again in this Amur the contrast between bluish-black head and bluish-grey breast, the poorly defined border between the bluish-grey breast and the whitish belly, the lack of rufous coloration on the flanks, and the rufous-brown upperparts and tail, obviously brighter than in Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

Special thanks to Kai Pflug, who collaborated with me on this post, and without whose photos this post would not have been possible. Kai’s images of Amur Paradise Flycatcher, some of which are displayed above, are a valuable record of this poorly known species. I have published dozens of Kai’s photographs on shanghaibirding.com, and in September 2016 I wrote about his work cleaning up the litter at Nanhui. Kai is from Germany and lives in Shanghai. He is an active member of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group.

WORKS CONSULTED

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Studied entries on Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, p. 302.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 11, “Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers.” Species accounts for Asian Paradise Flycatcher (p. 289) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (p. 290) written by C.W. Moeliker.

Gandy, David. Bangkok City Birding (http://bangkokcitybirding.blogspot.com/). Used article “Hell in Paradise,” published 28 May 2016.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, pp. 284-5.

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press. Helpful insights on Terpsiphone atrocaudata, T. incei, and T. affinis saturatior on p. 180.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5

Editor’s note: The illustration above shows Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers: Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (1), Arctic Warbler (2), Eastern Crowned Warbler (3), Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (4), and Yellow-browed Warbler (5). In this post, I tell you how to separate Pale-legged and its lookalike Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from the others.

Last Sat. 24 Sept. 2016 at Nanhui, my object of observation was Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, one of the Big 5 Leaf Warblers in the Shanghai region. In both spring and autumn, Phylloscopus tenellipes passes through Earth’s greatest city in considerable numbers, giving Shanghai birders ample opportunity to study it. A lookalike species, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides, also has been noted in Shanghai.

In this post, I shall outline the near-impossibility of distinguishing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on anything but song, and I will show you some of the traits of “Pale-Sak” that set this species pair apart from other leaf warblers. I also have a roundup of the other birds I noted this past Saturday.

ONLY SONG CAN SAFELY SEPARATE PALE-LEGGED FROM SAKHALIN

Per's PDF, page 11
‘Almost identical’: that’s the judgment of leaf-warbler expert Per Alström on Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. The page shown here is No. 11 of a 40-page PDF on leaf warblers in China that Professor Alström wrote in 2012. The PDF is a handy introduction to a difficult group and can be downloaded here (13 MB).

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song. Every other trait of each can occur in the other. Numerous authorities confirm this. Swedish ornithologist Per Alström calls the two species “almost identical” and “virtually indistinguishable except by song” (1). Mark Brazil says field separation of Pale-Sak is “uncertain,” and he warns readers to “beware light conditions” (2). P. Clement writes that Pale-legged and Sakhalin are “very similar” and claims, dubiously, that the latter is distinguishable from the former “mainly by greener upperparts and lack of wingbars” (3). Clements goes on to describe juvenile Pale-legged as being “more greenish on upperparts,” which begs the question of whether the greenish Pale-Sak one is observing is an adult Sakhalin or a juvenile Pale-legged. Moreover, a quick look at Oriental Bird Images shows many Sakhalin Leaf Warbler with wing bars.

Thankfully for us birders, the songs of the two species are distinctive and provide the basis for a safe ID. The song of Pale-legged, occasionally heard in Shanghai in May, is a cricket-like trill, that of Sakhalin a high-pitched, three-note whistle.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Boli County, Heilongjiang, 10 June 2016 (02:00, 6.4 MB)

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Zhongshan Park, Shanghai, 5 May 2016 (00:36; 2.2 MB)

One day last May, I heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing together in Zhongshan Park–proof that Sakhalin passes through Shanghai. Usually, however, birders here are forced to perform the less than satisfying task of assigning the individuals they see to the category “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.”

Bottom line: In Shanghai, any Pale-Sak one sees is probably Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, the continental breeder, and not Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, the breeder from the eponymous Russian island plus Hokkaido and Honshu; but to claim certainty about any non-singing individual is the taxonomical version of Russian roulette.

DISTINGUISHING PALE-SAK FROM OTHER LEAF WARBLERS

The Pale-Sak species pair is readily distinguishable from other leaf warblers, in particular the other four members of Shanghai’s Big 5: Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus, Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus, Arctic Warbler P. borealis, and Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus.

Here are a few principles:

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are plain, mid-sized to large leaf warblers without even the hint of a coronal stripe.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin has no crown stripe.
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler shows no trace of a crown stripe (Panel 1). Yellow-browed Warbler usually shows a faint stripe (2). In Eastern Crowned Warbler (3) and Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (4), the stripe is prominent. (Craig Brelsford)

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler has distinctive pink legs and a short bill with a black smudge on the lower mandible, which is pink at the base and tip.

Bill and legs of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler compared to those of Arctic Leaf Warbler.
Like Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, species in the Arctic Warbler Complex lack a crown stripe and usually show one or two wing bars. One way to distinguish birds from the two groups is by the color of the legs and bill. The legs (Panel 1) of Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are distinctively pale and pink, in contrast to the brownish-yellow legs of the Arctic-type Warbler in 2. Likewise, the slightly shorter bill of Pale-legged/Sakhalin (3) shows a blackish upper mandible and pinkish lower mandible and cutting edge. The black smudge on the lower mandible does not reach the tip. The bill of Arctic-type Warbler (4) follows a similar pattern, but with brownish-yellow replacing pink. (Craig Brelsford)

Even on a fast-moving Pale-Sak in poor light, the pink of the bill and especially of the legs is readily seen. The distinctive pale color of these bare parts is a handy tool for distinguishing Pale-Sak from birds in the Arctic Warbler Complex, which like Pale-Sak lack a crown stripe and usually show one or two wing bars. (The Arctic Warbler Complex consists of Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, and Japanese Leaf Warbler P. xanthodryas. In Shanghai, Arctic Warbler is the most common of the three, migrating through Shanghai every spring and autumn.) The pink coloration also distinguishes Pale-Sak from Dusky Warbler P.  fuscatus, an uncommon migrant and winter visitor in Shanghai, and the scarce passage migrant Two-barred Warbler P. plumbeitarsus.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler constantly pumps its tail.

The tail of Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler pumps independently of other muscular actions.
The tail of Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler pumps independently of other muscular actions. In panels 1-2, note that the tail pumps even as the warbler devours an insect. Panels 3-4 show the warbler motionless except for the up-and-down movement of the tail. Photos here and immediately below are of a single individual and were taken at Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Nanhui, 24 Sept. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

The tail-pumping of Pale-legged/Sakhalin is one of the most distinctive behavioral traits of the species pair. The steady movement usually occurs independently of other muscular actions and is slow enough for the eye to see. The tail-flicking of Arctic Warbler, by contrast, is more spasmodic and is often accompanied by wing-flicking.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler is often found on the lower, thicker branches of trees.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on thick branch.
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on thick branch. More so than other leaf warblers, Pale-Sak is likely to be seen on leafless, thick branches low on the tree.

With its ability to forage along thick branches and not just glean from the underside of leaves, Pale-legged/Sakhalin can remind one of a nuthatch. Other species such as Arctic Warbler use the lower branches, but sustained observation shows Pale-Sak more often in those areas. Note: In May and June 2016, I studied Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on its breeding grounds in Heilongjiang. There, amid trees older and taller than one usually sees in Shanghai, I most often noted the species far above my head, in the mid-canopy.

A NOTE ON CALLS

Except for the silent migrant Eastern Crowned Warbler, Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers all call in both spring and autumn. The calls are distinctive. The metallic “tink” of Pale-Sak contrasts markedly with the “tzit” of Arctic Warbler, the “dweet” of Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and the “sweet” of Yellow-browed Warbler.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Nanhui, Shanghai, 8 May 2016 (00:15; 1.4 MB)

Arctic Warbler, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 16 May 2015 (00:09; 1.9 MB)

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 9 May 2014 (00:05; 1.6 MB)

Yellow-browed Warbler, Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, 24 April 2014 (00:07; 1.7 MB)

Note that, according to Brazil, the call of Pale-Sak only can separate the pair from other species. It cannot be used to separate Pale-legged from Sakhalin. The tink of Pale-legged, Brazil writes, “is probably indistinguishable from Sakhalin Leaf” (2).

UPDATE: 19 OCT. 2016

Editor’s note: This post caught the attention of Dr. Philip D. Round, a professor at Mahidol University in Bangkok and an expert on leaf warblers. In an e-mail written 18 Oct. 2016, Round writes that as discoveries are made and papers published, separating Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on call may become more widespread. Separation on morphology, by contrast, will be much more difficult, though it may eventually turn out to be possible in the hand.

The following paragraphs are from Round’s e-mail to me:

“I enclose a paper that details the first records of both Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from Thailand. [Editor’s note: the paper, “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” is available for download through shanghaibirding.com (708 KB).] This has been rather overtaken by events, as we have now caught into the hundreds of Sakhalin LW, mostly on spring passage, and quite a few more Kamchatka. I have an undergraduate student who has carried out DNA assay on about ten percent of all the Pale-legged and Sakhalin LW caught. For many of these we have also recorded call notes on release. When she comes back from overseas study in January 2017 I hope we’ll get a paper out which publishes details of call-note frequency and DNA results for this large sample, which should show the correlation between species and call-note frequency clearly. (Actually this is moderately and anecdotally well-known already. I think either Frank Lambert or Jonathan Martinez was the first to draw my attention to the difference, and it is mentioned by Yap et al. in BirdingASIA with reference to an overwintering Singapore bird.) [Note: Round is referring to Yap, Francis et al., “First wintering record of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides in South-East Asia, with notes on vocalisations,” BirdingASIA  21 (2014): 76–81.]

“I am a bit less sanguine on finding means (other than by call frequency or song) to separate all birds. Even in the hand, it is by no means clear. We can pick out long-winged male Sakhalin, and short winged female Pale-legged. But there is more overlap than previously realized, and most are in between. There don’t appear to be any 100% consistent wing-formula differences, and plumage and bare-part features, while somewhat indicative, are again less then 100% reliable–especially under field conditions. But probably we are missing something. The next thing to do is to apply PCA or some other multivariate analysis to figure out reliable means of separation of birds in the hand from our large sample, and also to use the information we have to figure out differences in the timing of passage of the two spp.”

ROUNDUP FOR SATURDAY 24 SEPT. 2016

Stimulating discussions about leaf warblers enlivened the lulls on a day in which my wife Elaine Du and I once again partnered with veteran British birder Michael Grunwell. We noted 69 species, starting at the sod farm south of Pudong airport then spending the rest of the day at Nanhui. We reunited briefly with the Sino-German birding duo of Xueping and Stephan Popp, and we met Dutch birder Benjamin Muis. Highlights:

Ruff

Ruff, by Elaine Du.
Note the scaly upperparts and buffy head of this juvenile Ruff, as well as the white sides to its tail. Elaine got these shots with my iPhone 6 plus Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope mounted atop our Manfrotto head and Gitzo tripod.

Juvenile spotted on mudflats at high tide. A far-northern, trans-Eurasian breeder, Philomachus pugnax is a scarce passage migrant in Shanghai. Amid the greenshanks and godwits, the Ruff stood out with its buff-washed head and scaly upperparts. Juvenile Ruff resembles Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a much smaller American bird that we quickly ruled out.

Eurasian Hobby

Peregrine Falcon, Nanhui, 24 Sept. 2016.
Eurasian Hobby, Nanhui, 24 Sept. 2016.

1 juv. Earlier mis’ID as Peregrine Falcon; corrected 3 Oct. 2016. Thanks to the commenters below for pointing out the error.

White-winged Tern

A week ago ca. 2500, on Saturday only 10. Coastal birding is a parade of change, especially in migration season.

Other goodies: Eurasian Wryneck 2, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher 6, Amur Paradise Flycatcher 1, Richard’s Pipit 5, White’s Thrush 5 first-of-season, Rufous-tailed Robin 1 first-of-season. We introduced Benjamin to Reed Parrotbill calling unseen from the reeds below, we had a strong count of 16 Blue-and-white Flycatcher, and we noted two endangered species: Far Eastern Curlew and Yellow-breasted Bunting.

Day Lists
My first reference is IOC World Bird List.

List 1 of 2 for Sat. 24 Sept. 2016 (10 species). Birds noted at sod farm south of Pudong International Airport (31.112586, 121.824742), Pudong, Shanghai, China. Sunny. Low 18° C, high 26° C. Humidity 71%. Visibility 10 km. Wind ESE 11 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 98 (moderate). Sunrise 05:44, sunset 17:46. SAT 24 SEP 2016 06:05-06:20. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.

Little Egret Egretta garzetta 2
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 3
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius 50
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 3
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola 1
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 2
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 2
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis ca. 50
White Wagtail M. alba leucopsis 6
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 4

List 2 of 2 for Sat. 24 Sept. 2016 (66 species)

Microforest 4
Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Saturday. This is the largest of the eight microforests at Nanhui and an astonishingly effective migrant trap. With woodland birds migrating through and trees all around, one almost begins to forget that this speck of woodland is just a stone’s throw from the mudflats and the East China Sea. German birder Kai Pflug recently carted out trash from the wood, enhancing its allure. (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. Includes birds found along coastal road between 31.000204, 121.938145 & 30.851114, 121.848527, in particular Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). Sunny. Low 18° C, high 26° C. Humidity 71%. Visibility 10 km. Wind ESE 11 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 98 (moderate). Sunrise 05:44, sunset 17:46. SAT 24 SEP 2016 06:40-17:35. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.

Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope 5
Eurasian Teal A. crecca ca. 300
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 5
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 40
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 1
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 30
Great Egret A. alba 13
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia 2
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 12
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 20
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 4
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 10
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 8
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 5
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 5
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 1
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 100
Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis 1
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa melanuroides 14
Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis 20
Dunlin C. alpina 30
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus 4
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus 4
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 30
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis 8
Common Redshank T. totanus 5
Ruff Philomachus pugnax 1
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus 10
Whiskered Tern C. hybrida 5
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia 5
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 6
Cuculus sp. 4
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla 2
Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo 1 juv.
Black-winged Cuckooshrike Coracina melaschistos 1
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 3
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach 28
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis 1
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus 1
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata 6
Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei 1
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 3
Sand/Pale Martin Riparia riparia/diluta 1
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica ca. 200
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 4
Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus 1
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes/borealoides 10
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus 5
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 2
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 1
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 2
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 5
Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica 1
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. dauurica 8
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana 16
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans 1
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 100
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 4
White Wagtail M. alba 4
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola 1

WORKS CITED

(1) Alström, Per. Identification of Phylloscopus & Seicercus Warblers in China. Notes from presentation given to Beijing Birdwatching Society in November 2012. PDF downloadable here (13 MB). Click here for a 5 MB zip archive containing all 40 pages of the report in JPEG form. Those pages can be synced to your smartphone like photographs and consulted in the field.

(2) Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, p. 358.

(3) del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 11, “Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers,” species accounts for Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (p. 663) and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (p. 664) written by P. Clement.