GUEST POST: Birds of Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula

Birds of Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula
written & illustrated by Louis-Jean Germain
for shanghaibirding.com

Louis-Jean Germain
Louis-Jean Germain

In spring and summer 2017, I spent two months in the Siberian Arctic on the Yamal Peninsula, 5,300 km northwest of Shanghai. shanghaibirding.com has given me this opportunity to tell you about my experience birding that remote land.

The place I visited on the Yamal Peninsula lies well north of the Arctic Circle. My first stay was in May and June. I saw the snow melting and waves of birds hurrying to find the best breeding spots. My second stay lasted from the third week of July to the third week of August, during which time I watched parents caring for their young and the first sign of the migration back to the southern latitudes.

THE YAMAL PENINSULA

The Yamal Peninsula (red) is in north-central Russia (green), 5,300 km from Shanghai. Future Trillionaire-Wikimedia/Craig Brelsford.
The Yamal Peninsula (red) is in north-central Russia (green), 5,300 km from Shanghai. (Future Trillionaire-Wikimedia/Craig Brelsford)

From September to May, the Yamal Peninsula is covered in thick snow and ice. Temperatures fall below -40°C. The natural habitat is tundra, the circumpolar treeless belt that lies between the Arctic ice and the tree line (taiga). Tundra is characterized by permafrost, low temperatures, and low precipitation. The growing season is short–two to three months.

From the beginning of May to late August, the sun is above the horizon 24 hours a day, its heat melting the ice and snow. The upper layers of the permafrost thaw quickly, producing seasonal lakes and rivers and an intense growth of vegetation and water insects. The warm sun also melts the sea ice, leading to an intense phytoplankton bloom.

The vegetation of the tundra is dominated by cotton-grass (genus Eriophorum), Water Sedge Carex aquatilis, lichens, and a great variety of dwarf shrubs (Vaccinium). The latter produces berries, an important food for birds. Plants and insects, the latter mostly aquatic at this latitude, have developed strategies to resist the extreme cold. They spring back to life as soon as the thaw begins.

Throughout June, July, and August, the tundra is an environment rich in food and, except for Arctic Fox Vulpes lagopus, absent of predators. To take advantage of this remarkable environment, birds migrate here in their thousands, flying thousands of kilometers. As each bird fits into its unique ecological niche, it prepares to reproduce–reproduction being the main purpose of its flight to this harsh land.

INITIAL DISCOVERIES: SHOREBIRDS

Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus, Yamal Peninsula, Russia, 5 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus, 5 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

I arrived at the end of May, equipped with my Nikon Monarch binoculars (10 x 42) and Nikon ProStaff 5 telescope (30x-60x). I had no camera, as I only draw and paint birds. To my amazement, the snow had not yet melted, despite the air temperature’s hovering around freezing. In this white landscape, almost no birds could be seen. An exception was Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus, attracted by human activity.

My disappointment did not last long. Two days after my arrival, the first rain of the year fell on the tundra, creating small ponds. Almost immediately, as if by magic, birds appeared: Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula, White Wagtail Motacilla alba, and the magnificent Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis. My excitement was intense. What could motivate those birds to come to that place, still so inhospitable, with almost all the land covered by snow and the temperature around freezing?

The next few days were even more exciting. As temperatures rose and lakes formed, I witnessed a massive arrival of birds. There were waterfowl (Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri, King Eider Somateria spectabilis) and passerines (Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus, Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus, Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris). The first calidrids to arrive were Little Stint Calidris minuta and Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii. The next day, I had Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula and Ruff Calidris pugnax, and the day after Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea, Dunlin C. alpina, Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres, Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola, and Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus.

After 10 days, I also observed a single Pintail Snipe Gallinago stenura, Grey Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius, and Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola.

These birds had started their trips two months earlier from places as distant as Africa and Australia. Some may have even passed through Shanghai. What a journey!

MATING DISPLAYS

Ruff in breeding plumage. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Ruff Calidris pugnax, 2 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

By the beginning of June, the birds were restless. Male calidrids, which arrive before the females to compete for the best breeding territories, were displaying aggressively. As the females arrived, the males switched to a mating display.

Male Temminck’s Stint were hovering and calling noisily to the females. When a female was spotted, the male would chase her, running with his wings upward until she stopped. The male hovered delicately before mounting the female. The cloacal kiss lasted but an instant.

Common Ringed Plover were comical, fluffing their feathers and constantly running around.

The most astonishing behavior was that of Ruff, the only calidrid showing sexual dimorphism. Males are split into three plumage types, using various strategies to obtain mating opportunities at the lek. It was a magnificent sight to see more than 20 Ruff males fluffing their collar feathers and competing for the females.

LOONS

Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, 14 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, 14 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

After 15 days, with the snow almost completely melted, I thought that the migration was over. Imagine my surprise when I noticed three huge birds on a large lake, low on the water, long necks straight up above the water and with bills curved upward. They were Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata. A pair and a single bird, probably a young male, had just arrived after the long trip up. The pair was looking for a place to nest, inspecting the bed of Water Sedge ringing the lake. The young tried to conceal the female but quickly yielded after an aggressive display by the other male.

The next day, while scanning the other side of the same lake, I saw another large bird swimming low on the water. The neck was stocky and the throat black with a deep purple sheen, brilliant in the sunlight. It was Black-throated Loon Gavia arctica. I was pleased to see this bird in breeding plumage after having seen it in winter plumage in Shanghai in March 2017.

BREEDING PLUMAGE

Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea in winter plumage (top), assuming breeding plumage (middle) and in full breeding plumage (bottom). (Louis-Jean Germain)
Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea in winter plumage (top), assuming breeding plumage (middle), and in full breeding plumage (bottom). Top: Thailand, 9 Nov. 2016. Middle: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 5 May 2017. Bottom: Yamal Peninsula, 3 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

As a birder used to operating in temperate Shanghai, I was amazed by the extremely bright colors of the calidrids in June. Calidrids and plovers usually molt into their breeding plumage while migrating to the breeding grounds. It is always a great pleasure for Shanghai birders to observe shorebirds during the spring migration showing their pre-breeding plumage.

On the Yamal Peninsula in June, I beheld a pageant of the most fashionable plumages. I was rediscovering birds that I had previously observed in their duller winter plumage further south.

The English name of Phalaropus lobatus, “Red-necked Phalarope,” suits well the bird I was watching. Also, the Latin name of Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea (ferruginous, rust-colored) described perfectly one of my favorite sandpipers.

A LUXURIANT GREEN LANDSCAPE

Tundra after snowmelt (June) and at height of summer (August). (Louis-Jean Germain)
Tundra of Yamal Peninsula after snowmelt in June (top) and in August (bottom). (Louis-Jean Germain)

During my second stay, from the third week of July to the third week of August, I discovered a different tundra. The yellowish-buff vegetation had been replaced by luxuriant green plants, cotton-grass, and flowers. I was amazed by this proof of the power of nature. How is it that this place, covered by snow and ice nine months of the year, during which time temperatures regularly fall to -30°C, could show such a remarkably green landscape during the summer? Gazing at the green tundra, I understood more deeply than ever why birds migrate.

Most of the chicks had hatched by that time, and most birds were inconspicuous, trying to hide their offspring from Arctic Fox and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Many drakes had left the area to molt. With patience and perseverance, I managed to spot the nests and offspring of several species.

I also noticed the parental behavior of some species. I was shocked by the devotion of the pair of Black-throated Loon, tirelessly diving for hours to feed their sole, frail offspring. Would this tiny bird be able to undertake a long migration in less than two weeks?

At the end of my stay, I noticed that the loons, both Red-throated and Black-throated, were gathering in groups of seven to nine individuals, showing obviously social displays such as powerful, simultaneous calls, diving, and water-splashing with their wings. The extraordinarily narrow window of time for breeding on the tundra was closing. The loons knew it.

TIME TO HEAD SOUTH

Black-throated Loon Gavia arctica. Breeding plumage. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-throated Loon in winter plumage (top) and breeding plumage (bottom). Top: Sanjiagang, Shanghai, 23 March 2017. Bottom: Yamal Peninsula, 15 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

The birds with their offspring were about to perform another feat, the long migration south. The same wings that had carried them to this brief but rich northern feast would power them away as the killing cold set in.

My observation of the migratory birds on their breeding grounds was a learning experience that far exceeded my expectations. I hope that through my writing and paintings you have achieved a deeper appreciation of their amazing journey.

LIST OF BIRDS

Temminck's Stint in breeding display. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii, breeding display, 8 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

During my stay on the Yamal Peninsula in the summer of 2017, I noted the following 40 species.

Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons
Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis
King Eider Somateria spectabilis
Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri
Smew Mergellus albellus
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Greater Scaup A. marila
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Eurasian Teal A. crecca
Willow Grouse Lagopus lagopus
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata
Black-throated Loon G. arctica
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Ruff Calidris pugnax
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea
Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii
Dunlin C. alpina
Little Stint C. minuta
Pintail Snipe Gallinago stenura
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Grey Phalarope P. fulicarius
Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua) Stercorarius parasiticus
Pomarine Jaeger S. pomarinus
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea
White-tailed Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus
Meadow Pipit A. pratensis
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla
Common Redpoll Acanthis flammea
Arctic Redpoll A. hornemanni
Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus
Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis

Featured image: Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, Yamal Peninsula, Russia, 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

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

JOIN US ON SHANGHAI BIRDING

You too can join Shanghai Birding. In WeChat, search in New Friends for  “craigbrelsford.” I’ll accept your friend request and add you to the group.

Also, don’t forget to subscribe to this Web site. Just fill out the form in the sidebar. You will be notified every time I post, and you can opt out at any time.

With these two absolutely free resources, you will have the equivalent of a daily newspaper (Shanghai Birding) and weekly news-magazine (shanghaibirding.com) dedicated to birding in the great city of Shanghai.

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.