Editor’s note: My photos of the year, 2016. Clockwise from top left: Cinereous Vulture on Chongming Island in January kicked off a year that saw a parade of interesting sightings in Shanghai; ultra-rare Band-bellied Crake was the highlight of my three-week trip to a never-birded area of Heilongjiang; on 10 Dec. members of Shanghai’s ever-growing birding community had a big day out at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui; in a two-month expedition to Qinghai, meeting this Tibetan Lynx was my biggest thrill.
Happy New Year! This post is a photographic summary of my birding year 2016.
Here are images of birds more commonly noted in the Shanghai region.
From 16 Feb. to 5 March, Elaine and I were in Yunnan, where we explored the Dulong Gorge, a remote valley in the northwestern corner of the province. Birding there is excellent, and the views are sublime.
After days of rain, we were rewarded with this moon-set at dawn on 26 Feb.
We noted 170 species of bird at Dulong. One of the best was Grandala.
For its combination of stunning beauty and strong Himalayan character, Rufous-breasted Bush Robin was Craig’s Bird of the Trip.
Birds have plenty of places to hide in the thickly vegetated Dulong Gorge. Sometimes we got lucky, as with this Chestnut-headed Tesia.
Elaine and I spent most of the summer in Qinghai. We noted 195 species of bird, but our most unforgettable moment was supplied by a mammal. This is Tibetan Lynx.
Tibetan Partridge was commonly noted in eastern Yushu Prefecture.
Another great chicken: White Eared Pheasant.
At desolate Hala Lake, elev. 4077 m, we found Tibetan Sandgrouse.
Brandt’s Mountain Finch is hardy. It thrives at high elevations.
Henderson’s Ground Jay is master of arid scrubland …
… while Isabelline Wheatear is master of the semi-deserts of Wulan County.
We had great partners in Qinghai. One of them was Michael Grunwell.
Landscapes in Qinghai are beyond beautiful. Here are my favorites.
A closer look at the dunes.
I used my iPhone 6 for this image of a Chinese Juniper gazing out at the Dulan Mountains. The tree clings to the slope at elev. 3960 m.
From 26 May to 12 June 2016, Elaine Du and I visited her home village of Dawucun in Boli County, Heilongjiang, China. The area was never properly birded before we arrived there, and our discoveries have been many. The biggest highlight was Band-bellied Crake.
Mandarin Duck breed in Boli County. We found this drake in a small pool deep in Xidaquan Forest.
In the Manchurian forest, woodpeckers abound. The most common species is White-backed Woodpecker.
Elaine Du is my wife and partner. The year 2016 was our third in a row of non-stop birding. Although she is happy birding and has put together an impressive life list, the Heilongjiang native is never happier than when she is in her hometown.
Through thick and thin we tough it out. Here we are smiling despite being confined to our tent during a rain shower at Hala Lake.
At Eling Lake in Qinghai, where the Yellow River and China are born, Elaine and I posed for this self-portrait.
Elaine is a little short, but she never gives up. In Dulong Gorge, she improvised a way to see Grandala, a life bird.
Elaine is proud of the remnant Manchurian forest near her home in Boli. Here we are in front of a stand of Silver Birch.
People like Elaine’s family put food on the table for the city folks.
The Shanghai Birding Community
In 2015 I started shanghaibirding.com and the Shanghai Birding WeChat group. In 2016, the number of readers of the Web site and members of the chat group steadily grew. On 10 Dec., the day of the Shanghai Birding Christmas party, I led a group of birders to Cape Nanhui. There we found a pair of Red-crowned Crane, a first for mainland Shanghai. Here is the group after the historic event.
Found at Nanhui on Wed. 19 Oct. 2016: Pomarine Skua (called Pomarine Jaeger in North America and by the IOC). This first record for Shanghai was discovered by local birder Hé Xīn (何鑫) in the defunct nature reserve 1.4 km inland from the East China Sea. Kai Pflug was also on hand. Hé Xīn and Kai spread the news through our Shanghai Birding WeChat group, and the next day Elaine Du and I found the skua at the same spot (30.921625, 121.958940). The skua stayed four days, until Sat. 22 Oct.
The seabird appeared healthy, alternately feeding, preening, and roosting. Its plumage was shiny, and I saw no evidence of injury. It was a healthy refugee blown west by Typhoon Haima.
As sightings of skuas on the Chinese coast are rare, and because skuas have a bewildering array of plumages, at first there was some confusion about the species of our bird. It soon became clear that the vagrant was either Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus or Arctic Skua (IOC: Parasitic Jaeger) S. parasiticus. But which?
POMARINE ID BASICS
To answer that question, we needed photos, and so on Thurs. 20 Oct. Elaine and I drove to Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Pudong.
We quickly found and photographed the bird. After examining our images, talking to other birders, and studying the books, we determined that it is a pale-morph adult pomarinus in non-breeding plumage. Here’s why:
— S. pomarinus is larger and bulkier than the other jaegers (small skuas), in particular the jaeger that it most resembles, S. parasiticus. The jaeger we found was large and bulky.
National Geographic describes pomarinus as a “bulky brute with a commanding presence [and a] thick bull-neck–a Rottweiler among the jaegers.” S. pomarinus, Geographic adds, “is the bulkiest [jaeger] and appears pot-bellied and very deep at the chest. … Often it appears there is more body before the wing than behind the wing.”
The image above is in line with that description. Below, another image illustrating the bulky shape and barrel chest.
— In adult pale-morph pomarinus, the black helmet reaches below the gape, and black plumage surrounds the base of the bill. Most pale-morph parasiticus show a white spot at the base of the upper mandible and a less-extensive helmet that does not reach below the gape.
Below, another close-up of the head. Note here and above that, unusually for pomarinus, the bill appears almost all-black.
— Adult pale-morph pomarinus is more heavily barred than parasiticus. Most adult pale-morph pomarinus show a coarse breast band and dark barring on the flanks. Most adult pale-morph parasiticus show a diffuse greyish-brown breast band and lack barring on the flanks.
There are several other ID points, some of them, such as tail streamers, not visible in The Shanghai Skua. The points discussed above, however, are enough, we think, to clinch the ID.
Enjoy these other photos of the rarity.
The skua was very tame and performed various functions in its unaccustomed surroundings. It scratched itself (below), bathed, scavenged dead fish, and occasionally took short flights.
Its most common activity was roosting on the mud bank.
Kai Pflug got the photo below of the skua with wings upraised. Note the unbarred underwing and pale flash at the base of the primaries, further evidence that the skua is an adult.
Hé Xīn (below) found The Shanghai Skua on Wed. 19 Oct. 2016, a historic first record for Shanghai. The next day I met Hé Xīn at the site.
RARE AUTUMN RECORD OF NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER
On Thurs. 20 Oct. and Sun. 23 Oct. 2016, Elaine Du and I birded Nanhui and the sod farm south of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). On 23 Oct. Elaine and I were joined by British birder Michael Grunwell. The two days yielded 92 species. After the Pomarine Jaeger, the big news was rare autumn sightings of Narcissus Flycatcher, another record of Nordmann’s Greenshank, and still more evidence that the highly threatened Nanhui wetland is much depended on by Black-faced Spoonbill.
On 20 Oct. in the canal at the base of the sea wall at Nanhui, Elaine and I had 18 Mandarin Duck and 2 season’s first Greater Scaup. On 23 Oct., the Nanhui microforests yielded Eurasian Woodcock, Ashy Minivet, Siberian Thrush, Red-throated Thrush, and season’s first Pale Thrush. A male Siberian Rubythroat popped out of the undergrowth and a Northern Boobook dozed before a crowd of photographers. At the line of trees (30.859995, 121.910061) near South Lock, 6 km south of the Magic Parking Lot (30.882688, 121.972489), we had season’s first Tristram’s Bunting. Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124) is attracting ducks again, the most notable Sunday being season’s first Tufted Duck and Common Pochard.
The sod farm, which we visited Sunday morning, and which lies just off the S32 freeway, was worth the small investment of time required to get there. The grassy area gave us an unusually large (80) group of Red-throated Pipit. In Nanhui, we have been experiencing this species only in fly-by mode, but at the farm dozens of them were feeding on the ground. Michael and I studied the pipits carefully and concluded the group was pure Red-throated; we saw not a single Buff-bellied Pipit.
Ducks are once again gracing the canals and ponds of Nanhui. The most numerous were, as expected, Eastern Spot-billed Duck (285 over the two days) and Eurasian Teal (270 on 23 Oct.). Less numerous was Eurasian Wigeon, and there were sprinklings of Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Garganey.
— Uniquely among the Shanghai region’s passage-migrant flycatchers, most of which appear in roughly equal numbers on both the spring and autumn migrations, Narcissus Flycatcher appears almost exclusively on the spring migration. We were therefore pleasantly surprised Sunday to see the three males and three females. Did Typhoon Haima send them our way? What are the migration patterns of this beautiful flycatcher?
— The importance of the Nanhui wetlands–as well as the dangers they face–can hardly be overstated. On 20 Oct. at the skua site, Hé Xīn told me that the defunct wetland in which we were standing would already have been utterly transformed by now had it not been for the intervention of Chinese birders, who secured a one-year delay. Within a radius of a few hundred meters of the skua site stood 24 endangered Black-faced Spoonbill and an endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. The dependence of Black-faced Spoonbill on the defunct wetland reserve is obvious and could be demonstrated by a group of high-schoolers doing a science project. Shanghai lies at the mouth of one of Earth’s greatest waterways (the Yangtze River) and is a major point on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway–yet this wealthy city, a world financial center with a rich natural heritage, entirely lacks an easily accessible wetland reserve on its mainland. The one, weak attempt–the defunct Nanhui reserve, with its crumbling buildings, torn-up boardwalk, and rotting signs–stands near the gallows, in the nick of time being given a stay of execution. And yet, even now, the defunct reserve, mismanaged, unloved, and undervalued, even now the place still attracts Class A birds! When, oh when, will the Shanghai government and Shanghai people learn to value at their true worth their spoonbills, greenshanks, and vagrant skuas? When, I ask, will they see as an asset to be cherished, and not a burden to be cast away, the thousands of birds that migrate through Earth’s greatest city? When will the Shanghai people apply their renowned cleverness and skill to protecting, rather than dredging up the home of, the symbol of their city, Reed Parrotbill? When will Shanghai take a cue from Hong Kong and build its own Mai Po? When will it follow the example of Singapore and create its own Sungei Buloh?
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 1
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 1
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/gulgula 15
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 3 tschutschensis
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 10 leucopsis
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 6
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus 80
List 2 of 2 for Sun. 23 Oct. 2016 (73 species). 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. List includes birds found at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124). Morning drizzle, turning partly cloudy. Low 19° C, high 23° C. Humidity 75%. Visibility: 10 km. Wind NNE 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 76 (moderate). Sunrise 06:04, sunset 17:12. SUN 23 OCT 2016 08:05-16:40. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.
Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope 50
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 22
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 160
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 16
Northern Pintail A. acuta 3
Garganey A. querquedula 2
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 270
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 21
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 58
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 40
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 20
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 60
Great Egret A. alba 20
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia 10
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 150
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 2
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 10
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 8
Black-faced Spoonbill P. minor 28
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 15
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 36
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 15
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus 20
Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola 1
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 1
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 40
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 60
Vega Gull Larus vegae vagae/L. v. mongolicus 1
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida 1
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia 10
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 1
Spotted Dove S. chinensis 12
Northern Boobook Ninox japonica 2
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla 1
Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus 1
Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus 1
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach 8
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/gulgula 10
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 30
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 8
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps 1
Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus 2
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler P. borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas 7
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 3
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 12
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 22
Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica 1
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 6
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum 2
Japanese Thrush T. cardis 2
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 2
Red-throated Thrush T. ruficollis 1
Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica 6
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans 5
Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope 1
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 5
Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina 6
Mugimaki Flycatcher F. mugimaki 8
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 11
White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 150
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 13
White Wagtail M. alba 16
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 8
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni 2
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus 2
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla 3
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami 1
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 6
WORKS CONSULTED Note: Nearly every major field guide covers skuas, a cosmopolitan family. This is a partial list showing the main works I consulted as I researched Stercorariidae.
Alderfer, Jonathan, ed. National Geographic Complete Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, 2006. Section “Skuas, Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers” by N.G. Howell and Alvaro Jaramillo. Jaegers, pp. 237-9.
Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. News about the sighting of Pomarine Skua was disseminated by Hé Xīn and Kai Pflug through this chat group. To join Shanghai Birding, fill out the form on our Sightings page.