Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei

Editor’s note: Our featured image above shows the bluetails of the world: Himalayan (left panels), Red-flanked (right panels), and in the middle the inscrutable “Gansu” Bluetail. In this post, I report a new eastern record of “Gansu” and discuss the current taxonomic limbo of the form.

Found at Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017: “GansuBluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus.” Our record is the first for the mountain northeast of Beijing, the first for Chengde Prefecture in Hebei, and the easternmost in history for the form. Until recently, “Gansu” Bluetail was thought to breed only in Qinghai and Gansu, 1200 km (745 miles) to the southwest.

In Beijing, Hebei, and Shanxi, “albocoeruleus” has now been found on at least six mountains. Before our discovery, the easternmost of those mountains was Haituoshan, 140 air-km (87 air-miles) west of Wulingshan. Our record pushes the eastern edge of the range of “albocoeruleus” from the western side of Beijing to the mountains northeast of the metropolis.

The taxonomy of “Gansu” Bluetail is uncertain. It is currently recognized neither as a species in its own right nor as a subspecies of Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus or Himalayan Bluetail T. rufilatus. Adult-male “albocoeruleus” have a white supercilium as in cyanurus, and “albocoeruleus” are said to be closer genetically to cyanurus, but the legs of “albocoeruleus” are long, as in rufilatus.

'Gansu' Bluetail. This second-calendar-year male had not attained breeding plumage but was singing powerfully. Craig Brelsford.
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Wulingshan. Though it had not acquired adult plumage, this second-calendar-year male was singing powerfully and defending territory. We found the bluetail near the road to Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰) at 40.598801, 117.476280, elev. 2020 m. (Craig Brelsford)

The song of “Gansu” Bluetail is distinct from the songs of Red-flanked and Himalayan. Listen to “Gansu”:

“Gansu” Bluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June 2017 (00:06; 1.3 MB)

Compare my very different song of Red-flanked Bluetail:

Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, Cow’s Ear River (51.548528, 121.880737), Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 14 July 2015 (00:03; 913 KB)

Now compare the song of Himalayan Bluetail, by Mike Nelson via xeno-canto.org:

Listen to this other recording by Mike Nelson, also labeled “Himalayan Bluetail”:

The second recording by Nelson is of “albocoeruleus.” It was made in Haidong Prefecture in eastern Qinghai, a place known as a breeding site for “albocoeruleus.” Note the similarity between Nelson’s recording from Haidong and mine from Wulingshan.

Usually, a bird with a song as distinctive as that of “albocoeruleus” would rise to at least the subspecies level. Why, then, is “albocoeruleus” languishing in taxonomic limbo?

Adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher bear little resemblance to one another but were long classified as a single species. The situation was owing more to a dearth of research than to any intrinsic ID difficulties among the two species. Craig Brelsford.
Although adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher (R) bear little resemblance to one another, the two species were long classified as one. The situation was owing not to difficulties in ID but to a lack of research. L: Yangkou-Rudong, Jiangsu, 29 April 2012. R: Wulingshan, 10 June 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

The reason may be a simple lack of research. Many species endemic or nearly endemic to China have only recently begun to be fine-tuned taxonomically. Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae, another bird we noted at Wulingshan, was long considered conspecific with Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina, despite the two species having widely separated breeding areas, highly distinctive plumage (especially males), and songs so different that playback of one species elicits no interest from individuals of the other (Clement 2006).

Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis is another species that was long overlooked. It differs subtly but consistently from Blue-and-white Flycatcher C. cyanomelana but was not recognized as a new species until 2012 (Leader & Carey 2012). Zappey’s also breeds on Wulingshan.

Will “Gansu” Bluetail get the same love and attention as Green-backed and Zappey’s Flycatcher? Researchers surely must be aware of the taxonomic uncertainty surrounding “Gansu.” Its distinctive song is a cry in the wilderness, a plea for a more accurate assessment of its place in the animal kingdom.

BIRDING REPORT: WULINGSHAN

L-R: Jan-Erik Nilsén, Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford. Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017.
Birding partners Jan-Erik Nilsén (L), Michael Grunwell (C), and Craig Brelsford on Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰), elev. 2118 m, the highest peak at Wulingshan. 11 June 2017. Our trio really clicks, but alas, it is breaking up. Michael is moving 30 June from Shanghai to Penang, Malaysia and was on his final birding trip in China. Beijing-based Jan-Erik has noted ‘Gansu’ Bluetail on six mountains and was instrumental in our discovery of the form at Wulingshan. No two birders have taught me more about birds than Michael and Jan-Erik.

Who: Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford guided by Beijing-based ace birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. Our driver was Mr. Wang (+86 189-1129-3689).

Where: Wulingshan (雾灵山, 40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, near Beijing-Hebei border northeast of Beijing. Highest elevation: 2118 m (6,949 ft.). Birding from elev. 950 m to summit. Nights and meals at Fúlíng Kuàijié Jiǔdiàn (伏凌快捷酒店), +86 314-7631888, +86 187-3147-7899.

When: Sat.-Sun. 10-11 June 2017

How: Eschewing undependable air travel, Michael and I took the bullet train from Shanghai. What a ride! 305 kph and arrival in Beijing within a minute of the time scheduled. Then a driver hired by Jan-Erik picked us up for the three-hour drive to Wulingshan. The driver accompanied us there and drove us back to Beijing.

Why: See Highlights. ’Nuff said!

Highlights

GansuBluetail 1 2cy male singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male “Gansu” Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai. Eaton related his experience with the form:

“I’ve seen [‘Gansu’ Bluetail] north of Xining, Qinghai Province, as well as at Huzhu Beishan and Dong Xia. Though they superficially look similar to Red-flanked/Siberian Bluetail, they differ significantly vocally–as they do from Himalayan Bluetail, which is found breeding to the southeast and south in nearby Sichuan and eastern Qinghai” (Eaton, in litt., 2017).

James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male 'Gansu' Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Huzhu Beishan, Qinghai, June 2011. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)

Zappey’s Flycatcher 1 singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: After an e-mail exchange with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed my record of Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. The bird we found at Wulingshan is a male in its second calendar year that has not attained full adult plumage.

Of this flycatcher, photos and sound-recordings of which Leader examined, Leader writes, “[T]he darkness of the throat on your bird is not correct for first-year Zappey’s. … Morphology fits intermedia. It certainly doesn’t fit cumatilis, and I don’t see any plumage features that indicate it’s a hybrid. I think it’s just a first-year intermedia, which accounts for plumage and perhaps the variation in song” (Leader et al., in litt., 2017).

For the song as well as for more photos of this individual, please see our eBird list for 11 June 2017.

Zappey's Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 11 June 2017. Wulingshan (雾灵山), Hebei, China. Photo taken at 40.565367, 117.472742 (elev. 1330 m). Craig Brelsford.
Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, Wulingshan. Found 11 June at 40.565367, 117.472742, elev. 1330 m. Enjoy sound-recordings of this individual on our eBird checklist for 11 June. UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: After corresponding by e-mail with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed this record to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. (Craig Brelsford)

Green-backed Flycatcher 3 singing

Grey-sided Thrush 12 singing

Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae. Wulingshan (雾灵山), Hebei, China. Elev. 1610 m, on road above "Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot," 40.569817, 117.474469. Craig Brelsford.
Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae, Wulingshan, 10 June. Found at elev. 1610 m on road above ‘Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot’ (40.569817, 117.474469). Grey-sided Thrush breeds at a few scattered sites in Hebei, Beijing, and Shanxi. The IUCN classifies it as Vulnerable. To hear my recordings of its song, see our eBird checklist for 10 June. (Craig Brelsford)

Also

Koklass Pheasant 2
Himalayan Cuckoo 3
Large Hawk-Cuckoo 1
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker 1
White-backed Woodpecker 3
White-throated Rock Thrush 1
Asian Stubtail 1
Thick-billed Warbler 1

Others

Grey Nightjar, White-bellied Redstart, Chinese Thrush, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, and Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Chinese Leaf Warbler, and Yellow-streaked Warbler.

Notes

— We got impressive results in only a day and a half birding–albeit with perfect weather. Wulingshan can be done from Shanghai in a weekend!

— Special thanks to my partner ​Jan-Erik Nilsén. Jan-Erik heard the song of the bluetail, recognized it, and called me over. Jan-Erik is highly experienced with “Gansu” Bluetail, having seen and sound-recorded the form on Haituoshan as well as at Lingshan and Baicaopan (BeijingHebei), Xiaowutaishan (Hebei), and Wutaishan (Shanxi).

— Thanks also to Paul Holt for informing me about records of “Gansu” Bluetail in the Beijing area.

References

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37503446. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Editor’s note: This is the Wulingshan list for 10 June 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519385. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Editor’s note: This is the Wulingshan list for 11 June 2017.

Clement, P. (2006). Family Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers). Pp. 131-2 (Narcissus Flycatcher) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Eaton, James. E-mail message to author, 18 June 2017.

Leader, Paul J. & Carey, Geoff J. Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, a forgotten Chinese breeding endemic. Forktail 28 (2012): 121-128.

Leader, Paul J., Carey, Geoff J., Brelsford, Craig, Grunwell, Michael, and Nilsén, Jan-Erik. Series of e-mail messages, 18-20 June 2017.

Featured image: Left-hand panels: Himalayan Bluetail Tarsiger rufilatus. Top: Baihualing, Yunnan, 10 Feb. 2014. Bottom: Rongshu Wang, Yunnan, 26 Jan. 2014. C: “GansuBluetail T. (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June 2017. Right-hand panels: Red-flanked Bluetail T. cyanurus, Botanical Gardens, Shanghai. Top: 25 Dec. 2011. Bottom: 24 Dec. 2011. All by Craig Brelsford.

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler in Shanghai

Seen at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui on Sun. 4 June 2017: Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus. Veteran British birder Michael Grunwell and I found our 4 Kamchatkas in Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), the largest of the tree plantations on the landward side of the sea wall. The species is an all-time first for the Shanghai eBird list.

Just after sunrise, Michael and I, as is our wont, were doing “drive-by birding”–creeping along the edge of the road, listening out for birds. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar sound.

My gut said, “Hard, loud–Taiga Flycatcher?”

Taiga was not even close, of course. Note, however, what my gut was not saying: “Arctic Warbler,” a bird whose call I know well. This call was decidedly not an Arctic’s, though it soon dawned on us that we were hearing some type of leaf warbler.

To see why my gut did not say Arctic, compare my recordings of the tight “tzit” call of Arctic Warbler with the looser call of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler:

Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis, Yangkou-Rudong, Jiangsu (32.560095, 121.041956), 16 May 2015 (00:09; 1.9 MB)

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 4 June 2017 (00:25; 4.9 MB)

Michael and I skidded to a stop and poked our heads into the green tangle of locust trees. The call was being followed by a song. Only upon hearing the song did I think of Arctic Warbler. But here too, the song, though similar, was distinctive–wavier than the straight trill of Arctic. Look at the spectrograms below.

Spectrogram of Craig Brelsford's recording of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus.

The spectrogram above is of my recording 4 June 2017 of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Note the pattern: downward sweeps followed by an upward sweep. No one would liken that song to an insect’s. Below, the spectrogram of my 2015 recording of the song of Arctic Warbler. Note the straight, cricket-like trill.

Spectrogram of Craig Brelsford's recording of Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis.

Here are the recordings whose spectrograms are shown above:

Arctic Warbler, Yikesama National Forest, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia (52.150833, 121.465639), 16 July 2015 (01:00; 3.2 MB)

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Microforest 4, 4 June 2017 (00:48; 9.3 MB)

After hearing several song-call cycles, Michael, my more experienced partner and the man who has taught me more than anyone about birding, first said the words “Kamchatka Leaf Warbler.”

Michael has birded the Indonesian islands of Flores and Komodo, where Kamchatka Leaf Warbler winters. Michael said that, last winter, walking through the forests there, he heard dozens of times the call of P. examinandus.

“I know that call,” Michael said.

I whipped out my Olympus DM-650 voice recorder and recorded the calling and singing warbler. Meanwhile, we caught our first glimpse of the individual. It was clearly an “Arctic-type” leaf warbler.

What is an “Arctic-type” leaf warbler? An Arctic-type leaf warbler is a member of one of four closely related taxa divided among three species: Japanese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus xanthodryas, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, and Arctic Warbler P. borealis borealis and P. b. kennicotti.

Per's map of Arctic-type warblers.
Leaf-warbler expert and Shanghai Birding member Per Alström is the person most responsible for our current understanding of Arctic-type leaf warblers. Alström’s PDF, from which this page is taken, is a handy introduction to leaf warblers in China and is downloadable through shanghaibirding.com.

Arctic Warbler is by far the most widespread breeder in the complex. P. b. borealis breeds across northern Eurasia, from Scandinavia to northeast China and the Russian Far East. P. b. kennicotti breeds in western Alaska.

As their names suggest, Japanese Leaf Warbler breeds mainly in Japan (Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu), Kamchatka Leaf Warbler mainly in the southern Kamchatka Peninsula (as well as on Hokkaido and Sakhalin and in the Kuril Islands).

In 2010 Shanghai Birding member Per Alström et al. proposed the current way of viewing the Arctic-type warblers. Previously, the taxon examinandus was putative, not even reaching the subspecies level; Alström and his team showed that examinandus, with its distinctive song and call, merits recognition not as a subspecies of Arctic Warbler but as a species in its own right.

Of the three Arctic-type species, Japanese Leaf Warbler most stands out, being on average yellower than the two others. Arctic and Kamchatka look much more alike.

There are, however, some slight differences. Kamchatka is said to have a “marginally longer bill, tarsi and tail” than Arctic (del Hoyo & Collar). Sure enough, the Kamchatka I photographed is long-billed. Take a look below.

Arctic Warbler (top) and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Both by Craig Brelsford.
Arctic Warbler (top) and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Both birds show the classic features of Arctic-type warblers, among them a long supercilium that does not reach bill base, a dark smudge on the lower mandible, and mottled ear coverts. Kamchatka is said to be slightly greener on average than Arctic, a description that these photos do not contradict. The bill of Kamchatka is also marginally longer than Arctic’s, and in these profile shots one notes the longer bill of the Kamchatka and the stouter bill of the Arctic. I would not suggest basing an Arctic-Kamchatka ID on plumage and bare parts. Plumage and bare parts can, however, enhance the quality of a song- or call-based ID. Top: South Lock (30.860073, 121.909997), Cape Nanhui, 13 May 2017. Bottom: Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 4 June 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Michael and I heard our loudest song and calls during that first, early morning encounter. However, we heard Kamchatka calling throughout the day.

Our new Shanghai record, combined with late-May and early-June records from nearby Zhejiang, suggests that in this region, once the wave of Arctics passes through around 15 May, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler may be the Arctic-type to look out for.

Bibliography

Alström P., T. Saitoh, D. Williams, I. Nishiumi, Y. Shigeta, K. Ueda, M. Irestedt, M. Björklund & U. Olsson. 2011. The Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis — three anciently separated cryptic species revealed. Ibis 153:395-410.

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37369822. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 6, 2017).

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

Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat group. Discussions with various birders, chief among them Hangzhou birder Cheng Qian, who had information about sightings of P. examinandus in Zhejiang. Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén also provided timely advice. To join Shanghai Birding, fill out the form on the shanghaibirding.com Sightings page. Please state that you wish to join Shanghai Birding. You may also friend Craig Brelsford (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). In your friend request, please make it clear that you wish to join Shanghai Birding.

del Hoyo, J. & Collar, N. (2017). Kamchatka Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/1343935 on 6 June 2017).

Jackett, N. 25 Feb. 2016. First Kamchatka Leaf Warbler recorded for Australian Mainland. eBird Australia: http://ebird.org/content/australia/news/first-recorded-kamchatka-leaf-warbler-for-australian-mainland/. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 6, 2017).

Featured image: Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus. On 4 June 2017 at Cape Nanhui, birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford found the individual pictured here and three others. Photos by Craig Brelsford.

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 an annual 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.

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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.

Gadwall Anas strepera 28
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 8
Garganey A. querquedula 59
Eurasian Teal A. 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 Anas falcata 30
Eurasian Wigeon A. 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.

Loons Near Pudong Airport

Black-throated Loon and Red-throated Loon have been found at a little-birded recreational area in Pudong, and Slaty-backed Gull has appeared on the Huangpu River across from the Bund. All three species are rare in Earth’s Greatest City, with Black-throated Loon the scarcest. All three were brought to light by Shanghai birders using social media.

Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, Sanjiagang Water Park, March 2017. Photo by Kai Pflug.
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, Sanjiagang Seaside Park (31.217928, 121.768172). Photo by Kai Pflug. On Sun. 19 March 2017, a day after Michael Grunwell and I viewed it, this loon was discovered dead at the water park. It may have been a victim of poisoning through the ingestion of oil that had collected on its feathers.

The loons had been sighted numerous times before my partner Michael Grunwell and I arrived on Sat. 18 March 2017 at Sanjiagang Seaside Park (31.217928, 121.768172). The dilapidated recreation area is on the coast of the East China Sea, near the mouth of the Yangtze River, 9 km north of Pudong Airport. Chinese birders discovered the loons, and birder Larry Chen, his partners Komatsu Yasuhiko and Archie Jiang, and bird photographer Kai Pflug followed up, reporting back to our chat group, Shanghai Birding.

On Sun. 19 March, the Red-throated Loon was discovered dead at the park by local birder Suōyǔ Hè (蓑羽鹤). It is not clear what killed the bird, but it may have slowly poisoned itself by ingesting oil that had collected on its feathers. Larry said that during his encounters with the individual “The loon was constantly attempting to preen itself” and that he clearly saw oil on one of its flanks. Can you detect anything amiss in the video below?

Red-throated Loon breeds at latitudes above 50 degrees in Eurasia and North America. Wintering Gavia stellata is more common in Shanghai than Black-throated Loon, being recorded annually here. Michael, my wife Elaine Du, and I found Red-throated Loon at Cape Nanhui in January 2016.

The feet of loons are placed far back on their body. Their resulting ungainliness on land is obvious even on a resting loon, as here. Laotieshan, Liaoning, 18 Sept. 2013. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
The feet of loons are placed far back on the bulky body, making loons powerful divers and clumsy walkers. Note the dagger-like bill, elongated head, and thick neck, characteristic of all five species in the loon family Gaviidae. I found this Black-throated Loon on 18 Sept. 2013 at Laotieshan, Liaoning (38.730483, 121.134018).

Black-throated Loon is also known as Black-throated Diver and Arctic Loon. Gavia arctica breeds across northern Eurasia and into Alaska. It is an uncommon winter visitor all along the coast of China and is very rarely noted in Shanghai, with the last previous record in 2012. Before the encounter Saturday, I had seen Black-throated Loon only once, on 18 Sept. 2013 at Laotieshan (38.730483, 121.134018) in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Here is video of Black-throated Loon at Sanjiagang Seaside Park.

GULLING WITH BIRDERS IN MY POCKET

Michael Grunwell viewing gulls on Huangpu River, 18 March 2017. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Michael Grunwell views gulls Saturday at Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863). Craig Brelsford.

On Sat. 18 March at Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), with the Pudong skyline looming behind, Michael Grunwell and I scanned the gulls on the Huangpu River.

“I think we’ve found Slaty-backed!” Michael cried.

With my iPhone I took photos of the gull through my scope and uploaded the photos to Shanghai Birding, the chat group I manage on the instant-messaging application WeChat. Within minutes the experts in my pocket started weighing in. Shenzhen birder Jonathan Martinez and Larry Chen, both strong gullers, confirmed Michael’s ID. Michael and I had a life bird!

By its second winter, Slaty-backed Gull (C) shows a mantle darker than that of all other gulls in our region. Note the contrast in mantle color between Larus schistisagus and the adult Vega Gull L. vegae vegae/mongolicus surrounding it. Photo by Craig Brelsford using iPhone 6 and PhoneSkope adapter attached to my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope.
By its second winter, Slaty-backed Gull (C) shows a saddle a darker shade of grey than that of all other gulls in East Asia. Note here the contrast between the slate-grey of Larus schistisagus (top inset) and the lighter grey of the other gulls, all adult Vega Gull L. vegae vegae/mongolicus (bottom inset). UPDATE, 18 APR 2017: In a guest post for shanghaibirding.com about the Widespread Herring-type Gulls of East Asia, Nial Moores says the gull far L is Taimyr Gull L. (heuglini) taimyrensis. Photo by Craig Brelsford using iPhone 6 and PhoneSkope adapter attached to Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope.

Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus breeds on islands and cliffs on the coast of the Russian Far East (particularly the Kamchatka Peninsula) as well as Hokkaido. Wintering Slaty-backed are common in Japan, less common in northern coastal China, and rare in Shanghai.

Slaty-backed Gull, 2nd winter, Huangpu River, Shanghai 18 March 2017.
Slaty-backed Gull, Shanghai. Note the angular head, stout bill, and short, thick, bubblegum-pink legs. Craig Brelsford.
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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 Sat. 18 March 2017 (7 species)

Vega/Mongolian Gull Larus vegae vegae/mongolicus, Binjiang Park (31.240195, 121.490717), Shanghai, China, 18 March 2017. © 2017 by Craig Brelsford (www.craigbrelsford.com, www.shanghaibirding.com)
Mongolian Gull Larus vegae mongolicus, Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), 18 March. Tag says ‘AL 62.’ I am looking into the origin of the tag and will update this post when I get more information. This is yet another photo taken with my iPhone 6 + PhoneSkope + Swarovski ATX-95. UPDATE, 22 MAR 2017: Thank you to Nial Moores from Birds Korea for showing me this page about a wing-tagging program for gulls from 2004 in northeastern Mongolia. It is highly possible that the gull above is part of that program. UPDATE, 24 MAR 2017: Gull researcher Andreas Buchheim has written me saying that he himself ringed gull AL 62 on 27 May 2013 at Telmen Lake (48.8, 97.25) in NW Mongolia. Telmen Lake is 2,820 km (1,752 miles) from Shanghai’s Binjiang Park. Buchheim said that when he ringed AL 62, it was already an adult. This means that AL 62 hatched no later than spring 2010 and that the youngest it could be is nearly 7 years old. All large, white-headed gulls breeding in Mongolia, Buchheim said, are mongolicus. Regarding our mongolicus, Nial Moores from Birds Korea said, ‘This individual shows more obvious yellowish tones to the legs than most/any we see here in Korea (where they are invariably pinkish-legged). It is known that some Mongolians on the breeding grounds have yellowish tones to the legs–so perhaps this difference between birds in Shanghai and Korea is to do with hormonal condition pre-migration. It tends to be several degrees colder in Korea than in Shanghai on the same dates, of course.’

Birds noted at Binjiang Park (Bīnjiāng Gōngyuán [滨江公园], (31.2356935, 121.4973863), small urban park on Huangpu River in Pudong New Area (Pǔdōng Xīn Qū [浦东新区]), Shanghai, China. Overcast; low 10° C, high 13° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind NE 11 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 91 (moderate). Sunrise 06:00, sunset 18:04. SAT 18 MAR 2017 11:00-12:45. Craig Brelsford & Michael Grunwell.

Little Egret Egretta garzetta 20
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 50
Mongolian Gull Larus vegae mongolicus 1 w. tags & band
Vega/Mongolian Gull L. vegae vegae/mongolicus 149
Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus heuglini 3
Slaty-backed Gull L. schistisagus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 1
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 15

List 2 of 2 for Sat. 18 March 2017 (22 species)

Shanghai Birder KaneXu (L), and Michael Grunwell share a laugh after discovering that they both own the same model of camera, the Nikon Coolpix P900S.
Shanghai birders KaneXu (L) and Michael Grunwell share a laugh after discovering that they own the same camera, the Nikon Coolpix P900S. The two were at Sanjiagang Seaside Park on 18 March. When it comes to compact cameras, Nikon and other manufacturers are feeling the heat from smartphones. They know that consumers are turning away from compact cameras because the cameras in smartphones are now so good. They are therefore loading up compact cameras such as the P900S with plenty of power and pricing them competitively. KaneXu and Michael are getting great stills as well as video with their new cameras. Photo by Craig Brelsford.

Birds noted at Sanjiagang Seaside Park (Sānjiǎgǎng Hǎibīn Lèyuán [三甲港海滨乐园]; 31.217928, 121.768172), Pudong New Area (Pǔdōng Xīn Qū [浦东新区]), Shanghai, China. Overcast; low 10° C, high 13° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind NE 11 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 91 (moderate). Sunrise 06:00, sunset 18:04. SAT 18 MAR 2017 14:15-16:45. Craig Brelsford & Michael Grunwell.

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 40
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata 1
Black-throated Loon G. arctica 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 50
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 5
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 3
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 75
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 60
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 7
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 3
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 25
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 15
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 2 (1 singing)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 40
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 50
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis 20
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 5
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans 1
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 7
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 7

Featured image: Black-throated Loon Gavia arctica, Laotieshan, Liaoning, China, 18 Sept. 2013. Photo by Craig Brelsford using Nikon D3S and Nikkor 600mm F/4 lens. 1/800, F/14, ISO 1600. I was just 7.1 m from the loon, lying on my belly on the rocky shore.