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: Shanghai finally has its first record of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus. On 4 June 2017 at Cape Nanhui, birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford found the individual pictured here and 3 others. Photos by Craig Brelsford.

‘One of My All-time Ornithological Highlights’

“I have thought a lot about yesterday and can honestly say, it must be one of my all-time ornithological highlights.”

— Dr. Mike May, message to Craig Brelsford, 14 May 2017

Those are the words not of a new birder, but of a highly experienced visiting birder with thousands of birds on his life list who resides in bird-rich Extremadura, Spain.

Birding Cape Nanhui at the height of the spring migration left Mike May open-mouthed. Should anyone be surprised? The southeastern-most point of Shanghai is a world-class birding site.

Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina, Cape Nanhui, 13 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina made a thrilling appearance 13 May 2017 at the Photographers’ Corner at the Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229). (Craig Brelsford)

Mike’s 92-species day, Sat. 13 May 2017, with Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and me included ultra-rarities such as Orange-headed Thrush as well as Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler. A pair of sub-adult Black-faced Spoonbill were getting by on the ever-shrinking pools at the beleaguered site.

The eBird list for Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland.
The eBird list for Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland. Submit your own records! It’s fun!

These records brought the all-time list for Cape Nanhui to 288 species, according to eBird–making Cape Nanhui the second-hottest birding hot spot in China.

Let me say that again: Of the thousands of birding spots in this vast, mega-diverse nation, the cape 60 km southeast of People’s Square is second only to Baihualing in Yunnan in species noted.

Sound unbelievable? Let me say something even more unbelievable: Not only is this rich spot completely unprotected, with not even a square meter preserved in any legal way; but it is, to the contrary, being actively destroyed, even as I tap out these words.

The backdrop to the work of Mike, Jan-Erik, and me was fleets of bulldozers and backhoes, busy throughout the weekend. They clattered and clanged, and the pumps transferring water into the newly dug canals whirred and chugged.

Mike May (R) and Zhāng Dōngshēng (张东升) meet. Dōngshēng, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University, is leading an effort to conserve Cape Nanhui.
Mike May (R) and Zhāng Dōngshēng (张东升) meet. Dōngshēng, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University, is leading an effort to conserve Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

The pace of transformation is faster than ever now.

“Nanhui is gone,” my partners and I said.

A major ecological area, a place combining ease of access to millions of residents of Earth’s largest city and a favorable position on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway, is being utterly transformed.

While the Cape Nanhui that I have long known falls, huge tracts of adjacent tidal mudflat are being reclaimed, adding dozens of square kilometers to the land area of Cape Nanhui. Birding there in theory could have a future. A Cape Nanhui Nature Reserve could be set up in the new area.

Where Black-faced Spoonbill once foraged, digging machines now crawl, transforming critical reed-bed and marshland habitat into an artificial forest. Looming in the background is the brand-new satellite city, Lingang. Nanhui, Shanghai, 26 March 2015.
Where Black-faced Spoonbill once foraged, digging machines now crawl. Where once one savored the sound of Marsh Grassbird and Reed Parrotbill, now one cringes at the clanging of machines. No place in mainland Shanghai matches Cape Nanhui as a magnet to migrating birds. Cape Nanhui is one of the best birding hot spots in China, and it is not only completely unprotected, but it is being actively destroyed.

But even as the Cape Nanhui we know falls, no one, to my knowledge, has hastened to reassure conservationists that areas in the newly reclaimed land will be set aside for birds.

In the city-province of Shanghai, which is the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, a few places have indeed been set aside, among them Chongming Dongtan. But those reserves are small, on remote islands far from mainland Shanghai, and practically unreachable by the millions of middle-class Shanghainese who lack a car.

Cape Nanhui, by contrast, is easily reachable from the city. And it is the one place where masses of bird lovers can conveniently get a taste of the grand spectacle that is spring migration along the east coast of the Eurasian supercontinent.

That opportunity is being taken away, not only from the birders alive today, but also from the birders of the future.

THE THRILL OF NANHUI IN MAY

Lesser Coucal takes off. Cape Nanhui, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Coucal takes off. Centropus bengalensis breeds in Earth’s greatest city. Recently, shanghaibirding.com examined Lesser Coucal and the other Cuckoos of Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

Our agony over the fate of Nanhui was tempered by the joy of birding. Orange-headed Thrush showed up Saturday at the Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229). With the two vertical bars on its face, our specimen was either of race melli (breeds Guangdong, etc.) or courtoisi (Anhui).

On Sunday the Magic Parking Lot delivered singing Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus, and in Microforest 2 (30.926013, 121.970705) an appearance was made by Alström’s Warbler S. soror. Neither breeds in the region; both are very rare vagrants to Shanghai.

Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) gave us singing Yellow-breasted Bunting in full breeding finery and singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. I captured the latter’s song, rarely heard in Shanghai.

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola, 13 May 2017, Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) (00:13; 2.1 MB)

The Marshy Agricultural Land (30.850707, 121.863662) near Eiffel Tower was highly productive, yielding Lanceolated Warbler, Forest Wagtail, and Striated Heron.

Varities of Eastern Yellow Wagtail. L: 'Green-headed Wagtail' Motacilla tschutschensis taivana. R: 'Alaska Wagtail' Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis. Both photographed within a few meters of each other dry rice paddies at Cape Nanhui, 13 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Varieties of Eastern Yellow Wagtail. L: ‘Green-headed Wagtail’ Motacilla tschutschensis taivana. R: ‘Alaska Wagtail’ M. t. tschutschensis. Both photographed on dry rice paddies at Cape Nanhui, 13 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Other highlights from Saturday along the 30-km stretch of coastline:

Yellow Bittern 2
Chinese Egret 14
Pacific Golden Plover 1
Pheasant-tailed Jacana 1
Black-tailed Godwit 17
Grey-tailed Tattler 2
White-winged Tern 260
Lesser Coucal 1
Common Cuckoo 12 singing
Tiger Shrike 4
Sand Martin ca. 300
Collared Finchbill 2
Arctic Warbler 5 singing
Thick-billed Warbler 1
Marsh Grassbird 2 singing
Forest Wagtail 1

Complete checklist here.

Sunday saw Jan-Erik and me note 78 species.

L-R: Jan-Erik Nilsn, Charles Wu, and 12-year-old birder Young Jack Han view Tiger Shrike in Microforest 4, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
L-R: Jan-Erik Nilsén, Charles Wu, and 12-year-old birder Jack Han view Tiger Shrike in Microforest 4, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Highlights:

Japanese Sparrowhawk 1
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 350
Dunlin 350
Oriental Pratincole 3
Little Tern 5
Hair-crested Drongo 8
Dusky Warbler 1
Taiga Flycatcher 1
Pechora Pipit 17 singing

Complete checklist here.

A DISCUSSION ABOUT SEICERCUS

Per's PDF
Some of the more challenging Seicercus warblers. This graphic was created by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström for a presentation he made to the Beijing Birdwatching Society in 2012. The PDF is downloadable through shanghaibirding.com.

Shanghai Birding is the WeChat companion to this Web site. Our 126 members include everyone from persons brand-new to birding to some of the most knowledgeable birders in China. We discuss everything from the most common species to the most arcane.

You can join Shanghai Birding. Just friend me on WeChat (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). Let me know that you want to join Shanghai Birding. I will add you.

Here is an edited transcript of a recent conversation on Shanghai Birding about the Seicercus warblers at Cape Nanhui:

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

Paul Holt: Can you post your recording of yesterday’s [14 May 2017] Alström’s Warbler as well please, Craig?

Craig Brelsford: Will post after I get home. Meanwhile, have you assessed the recording I posted yesterday morning? Do you agree it’s Grey-crowned Warbler? Jonathan Martinez, I’d like your view, too!

Craig Brelsford had earlier posted these sound recordings:

Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus 1/3, 14 May 2017, Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229), Nanhui (00:36; 3 MB)

Grey-crowned Warbler 2/3 (00:49; 3.6 MB)

Grey-crowned Warbler 3/3 (01:08; 4.3 MB)

PH: Yes, Grey-crowned Warbler!

PH: For what it’s worth, while there are probably 30+ records of “golden-spectacled warblers” from coastal Hebei, very, very few have been as well documented as Craig’s and team’s recent Grey-crowned. Many have been photographed but far fewer sound-recorded. Alström’s is so far the only one so far known to breed north of the Qinling Shan (it’s a scarce and very local breeder at two, possibly three, sites in Beijing). Personally I’ve never seen soror in coastal Hebei (nor am I aware of any being sound-recorded there), but I have noted (and sound-recorded) 2 Bianchi’s S. valentini and 1 Martens’s S. omeiensis in coastal Hebei. I understand that the only (?) three coastal Hebei birds that have been captured and had their DNA compared have all been omeiensis. We’re very, very far from ascertaining the true statuses of these Seicercus in our area, but you perhaps should/might see more in Shanghai and coastal Zhejiang. As many of you already know, there are some excellent sound recordings of these on Per’s site.

CB: Great analysis, Paul, and great that you point out the resources on Per’s site. Jan-Erik and I got good sound recordings of the purported soror yesterday, and Charles Wu and I got some good shots, among them images of the outer tail feathers, which definitely had some white in them.

CB: Grey-crowned Warbler appeared in the microforests almost exactly a year ago: http://www.shanghaibirding.com/2016/05/20/great-records/

PH: Excellent, Craig. As you know they’ve all got white in their outer tails. Alström’s (aka Plain-tailed) doesn’t have much …

Alstrom's Warbler with splayed tail feathers. Craig Brelsford
Alström’s Warbler with splayed tail feathers. (Craig Brelsford)

CB: Right, Paul; thanks. The discussion yesterday was one of comparison and degree. How little must the white be in the tail, we were asking ourselves, for a Seicercus to “qualify” as Alström’s/Plain-tailed? Was the white in our photos a little or a lot? We ended up thinking a little, and that and the song we recorded led us to a determination of soror. I’ll post my photos and recordings as soon as I’m home.

PH: Personally, Craig, I find it very difficult to judge the amount and distribution of white on the tails of these Seicercus in the field and think that a good photo with the tail splayed would really be necessary. Even then, the differences are small and subtle. Tricky group!

Jonathan Martinez: Regarding the ID of these Seicercus, I have found that call is by far the easiest way to ID them. They all have a characteristic call. Some of them, like Alström’s or Bianchi’s, are usually quite vocal; others not as much. It requires much more experience or use of sonogram to ID them by song, but a few of them (Alström’s especially) include their call in their song, and some of them (Grey-crowned, Martens’s) include a trill in their song. Others do not (Alström, Bianchi’s). ID-ing them on plumage is, of course, a level up.

Alstrom's Warbler, Microforest 2, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Alström’s Warbler Seicercus soror, Microforest 2, 14 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Here is the voice of the Alström’s Warbler that I recorded with my Olympus DM-650 pocket recorder:

Alström’s Warbler Seicercus soror 1/4, 14 May 2017, Microforest 2 (30.926013, 121.970705), Nanhui (00:50; 3.6 MB)

Alström’s Warbler 2/4 (00:08; 1.9 MB)

Alström’s Warbler 3/4 (01:08; 4.3 MB)

Alström’s Warbler 4/4 (00:41; 3.2 MB)

Featured image: Visiting British birder Mike May uses Craig Brelsford’s spotting scope to scan for birds at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 13 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

GUEST POST: An Introduction to the Three Widespread Herring-type Gulls in East Asia

Editor’s note: Dr. Nial Moores is director of Birds Korea and an authority on gulls. In this guest post, written especially for shanghaibirding.com, Moores describes the three widespread Herring-type gulls of East Asia. One of these is Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis. Moores points to the photos above to support the recognition, contested by some, of Taimyr Gull as a separate taxon. The panels show two Herring-type gulls, both adults, photographed on the Huangpu River in downtown Shanghai on 18 March 2017. The panels at left show Mongolian Gull Larus mongolicus. The right-hand panels show Taimyr Gull. The Mongolian is in full breeding plumage, as evidenced by its spotless white head. The Taimyr, by contrast, still shows streaking on its head, an indication that it has not yet attained full breeding plumage. The Taimyr shows as well upperparts darker grey than those of the Mongolian. These differences, Moores writes, show that the birds in question are two species.

Experts agree that Taimyr Gull is distinctive; what they disagree on is how to classify it. The IOC does not even recognize taimyrensis as a taxon, let alone a full species. Moores laments this state of affairs. The disagreements, Moores maintains, would melt away if more were known about these gulls. Moores wrote the post, and I am proudly publishing it, with a view toward fostering new knowledge. Birders, fear not the Herring-type gulls! Learn here from Moores, arm yourself with knowledge, and record and spread your observations. — Craig Brelsford

An Introduction to the Three Widespread
Herring-type Gulls in East Asia
© 2017 by Nial Moores
for shanghaibirding.com

In his post “Loons Near Pudong Airport” (20 March 2017), Craig Brelsford posted an image of a Slaty-backed Gull and of a wing-tagged gull, referring to all the gulls in the background as Larus vegae vegae or Larus vegae mongolicus. In a public comment, I asked about Craig’s omission of Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis, leading to an exchange of e-mails between us and an invitation by Craig to post about this taxon. Below, therefore, are a few thoughts on Taimyr Gull, as depicted in Craig’s images taken 18 March 2017 on the Huangpu River in Shanghai, and a brief explanation of why many gullers no longer consider taimyrensis, vegae, and mongolicus to be the same species.

Taimyr, Mongolian, Slaty-backed. 18 March 2017. Craig Brelsford.
Three Larus gulls of East Asia. Moores calls the gull far L Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis. The middle gull Moores describes as Mongolian Gull L. mongolicus. The middle and left-hand gulls show clear differences, attributable, says Moores, not to individual variation within a single species but to the two gulls’ being members of two species. Note, for example, the differences in leg color (yellow in Taimyr, pink in Mongolian). Observe also that the Mongolian shows an all-white head because it is already in full breeding plumage; the Taimyr, by contrast, still shows streaking on the nape, because it is not yet in full breeding plumage. Mongolian assumes breeding plumage earlier than Taimyr because Mongolian breeds farther south and earlier in the year than Taimyr. Taimyr breeds on the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia, 5,000 km (3,100 mi.) from Shanghai, and it does not arrive on its breeding grounds until after the summer thaw in mid-May. The preening gull far right is second-winter Slaty-backed Gull L. schistisagus. Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), Huangpu River, Shanghai, 18 March 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Visit a local river mouth, coastal wetland, or beach in winter, and the chances are high that you will see gulls. Some of the species found in East Asia, such as the Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus and Mew (or Common) Gull Larus canus, have a very wide geographic range and should be as familiar to domestic birders as they are to visiting birders from Europe and parts of North America. There are also a few gulls which are much more likely to stand out as different in structure and plumage. These include Relict Gull Ichthyaetus relictus and Saunders’s Gull Chroicocephalus saundersi. Both are highly distinctive East Asian “specials”; both are dependent on tidal flats in winter; both are globally Vulnerable; and both are confined entirely to this region and lack any counterpart elsewhere in the world (compelling evidence of the importance of the East Asian tidal flats to biodiversity).

And then there is a group that seems to fit neither of these categories: the so-called “Herring-type” gulls. There are three main Herring-type taxa found in this region, which the IOC Checklist effectively treats as one and the Birds Korea Checklist (Moores & Kim 2014) treats as three species: the Mongolian Gull Larus mongolicus, the Vega Gull Larus vegae and the Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis. All three of these gulls are widespread in this region in winter and can even be locally abundant. Importantly too, all three also have some kind of counterpart in other, better-researched regions. The Mongolian Gull in many ways looks most similar to the Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans of western Eurasia–most especially in that adults can look almost white-headed in mid-winter (at a time of year when more northern-breeding Herring-type gulls usually have densely spotted or streaked heads) and in their first-winter plumage. The Vega Gull looks more similar to the European Herring Gull Larus argentatus or the American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus. As adults, all three have heavily streaked or mottled heads in non-breeding plumage, and all three are typically pink-legged at all ages (though with local exceptions–including in East Asia the paler-backed, yellow-legged individuals sometimes considered to be birulai, a subspecies of Vega Gull).

There are many similarities between Vega, European Herring, and American Herring Gulls in juvenile and immature plumages too, including, e.g., obvious notching on the tertials in the vast majority of juveniles and first-winters (first cycle), and in flight an obvious paler area on the inner primaries–often called a “window” by gullers–contrasting with a darker outer wing. The Taimyr Gull instead looks closest to the Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus of northern Europe in that adults are quite dark grey above and can have bright-yellow legs. The juvenile upper wing of both species also looks rather similar too, in that this pale area across the inner primaries is less obvious than in Vega or either of the Herring Gulls, while both Taimyr and Lesser Black-backed Gulls also have darker secondaries and a dark band across the greater coverts (though less striking in Taimyr than in Lesser Black-backed Gull).

NOTES ON TAIMYR GULL

Mongolian Gull (wing-tagged) and Taimyr Gull (directly behind Mongolian). Moores: 'The adult to the rear has extremely bright yellow legs and a vividly coloured bill, with the red on the gonys unusually bleeding up onto the upper mandible. The bird in the foreground, known by that wing tag to be from the breeding grounds of Mongolian Gull, has much weaker yellow-pink tones to the legs and the red confined to the lower mandible.' Binjiang Park (<a href="https://www.google.com/maps/place/Binjiang+Park,+2967+Bin+Jiang+Da+Dao,+LuJiaZui,+Pudong+Xinqu,+Shanghai+Shi,+China/@31.236388,121.4936352,17z/data=!4m13!1m7!3m6!1s0x0:0x0!2zMzHCsDE0JzI0LjciTiAxMjHCsDI5JzI2LjYiRQ!3b1!8m2!3d31.240195!4d121.490717!3m4!1s0x35b270fbc62c4551:0x53c55321491a699b!8m2!3d31.2356935!4d121.4973863" target="_blank">31.2356935, 121.4973863</a>), <a href="http://www.shanghaibirding.com/2017/03/20/loons/" target="_blank">18 March 2017</a>. (Craig Brelsford)
Mongolian Gull (wing-tagged) and Taimyr Gull (directly behind Mongolian). Moores: ‘The adult to the rear has extremely bright yellow legs and a vividly coloured bill, with the red on the gonys unusually bleeding up onto the upper mandible. The bird in the foreground, known by that wing tag to be from the breeding grounds of Mongolian Gull, has much weaker yellow-pink tones to the legs and the red confined to the lower mandible.’ Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), 18 March 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

In Craig’s image above from the Huangpu River in Shanghai, it is easy to see that at more or less the same angle, the upperpart grey of the adult to the rear is darker and a little slatier-looking than that of the wing-tagged gull in the foreground. A few other differences should be easy to pick out. One is the colour of the bare parts. The adult to the rear has extremely bright yellow legs and a vividly coloured bill, with the red on the gonys unusually bleeding up onto the upper mandible. The bird in the foreground, known by that wing tag to be from the breeding grounds of Mongolian Gull, has much weaker yellow-pink tones to the legs and the red confined to the lower mandible.

Leg colour can change seasonally, and bill markings change with age and apparently season too, but structure is more constant. The rear bird has a thicker-based bill and thicker-looking legs and also longer-looking wings, with at rest a rather more obvious extension of the primaries beyond the tail than shown by the Mongolian Gull in the foreground. There is another obvious difference: the streaking on the nape of the bird to the rear. Extent and density of head streaking is also a feature that changes seasonally and individually in gulls. What is important here is that on the same date, two apparently similarly aged gulls show several marked differences from each other, including that one of them still has a lot of streaking on the hind-nape and some grey wash near the eye; while the other, the Mongolian Gull, is already unstreaked and white-headed.

Taimyr Gull (L) and Mongolian Gull. Heads and legs. 18 March 2017, Craig Brelsford.
Head and legs of Taimyr Gull (L) and Mongolian Gull. ‘The rear bird has a thicker-based bill and thicker-looking legs,’ Moores writes. ‘There is another obvious difference: the streaking on the nape of the bird to the rear. Extent and density of head streaking is also a feature that changes seasonally and individually in gulls. What is important here is that on the same date, two apparently similarly aged gulls show several marked differences from each other, including that one of them still has a lot of streaking on the hind-nape and some grey wash near the eye; while the other, the Mongolian Gull, is already unstreaked and white-headed. … The adult bird standing next to the Mongolian Gull is what an increasing number of birders now call Taimyr Gull.’ (Craig Brelsford)

The combination of these differences (in structure, plumage tone, coloration of the bare parts, and head streaking) gives me confidence that these are adults of two species. And to be sure, while the adult Mongolian Gull in the foreground could perhaps be overlooked as a dark-looking American Herring Gull if seen in North America (where leg colour is more variable than in much of Europe: see here) or a big Caspian Gull if seen in Europe, an adult like the one just behind, with such yellow legs and such grey upperparts, would never be identified by any serious birder in Europe or North America as a Herring Gull. This bird would much more likely be identified as a Lesser Black-backed Gull instead–even if an odd-looking one. Notably, although the Lesser Black-backed Gull is largely restricted to breeding and wintering in Europe (with small numbers occurring in North America), the kind of gull in the image is quite common in East Asia. Here in Korea, I have seen several “pure” flocks of 40 to 50 birds looking just like this in March and April, and I counted a single flock of several hundred in Rudong a couple of Septembers ago. And often adults like these are accompanied by immatures of different ages–almost all of which after years of observation similarly fit neatly into an expected pattern of structure and plumage. Yes: The adult bird standing next to the Mongolian Gull is what an increasing number of birders now call Taimyr Gull.

Another look at 'Taimyr Gull.' Craig Brelsford.
Another look at Taimyr Gull. Note grey back, long wings, and strong, yellow legs. (Craig Brelsford)

The Taimyr Gull is a far northern-breeding species (confined, as far as we know, to breeding only on the Taimyr Peninsula: see van Dijk et al. 2011). Most adults do not attain full breeding plumage with gleaming white heads and bright bare parts until the middle or end of April. The most direct route from the Yellow Sea to their breeding grounds entails a flight of about 4,500 km (2,800 mi.) across land and environments which are hostile to gulls all the way. These gulls should not reach their breeding grounds too early, of course, either, because much of the Taimyr Peninsula will still be under snow and ice until the middle of May–a cold and deadly place for a gull until the summer thaw begins. Therefore, many adult Taimyr Gulls remain in the Yellow Sea until late April and early May, acquiring their full breeding plumage late before migrating rapidly, perhaps more or less non-stop, up to the northwest.

Wing projection of mongolicus (top) and 'taimyrenesis' (bottom). Craig Brelsford.
Wing projection of mongolicus (top) is shorter than that of taimyrensis (bottom). Moores: ‘It is at least in part the huge distance that Taimyr Gulls need to fly over land between their breeding grounds and the rich fishing grounds of the Yellow Sea and south China coast that requires them to be so long-winged.’ (Craig Brelsford)

It is at least in part the huge distance that Taimyr Gulls need to fly over land between their breeding grounds and the rich fishing grounds of the Yellow Sea and south China coast that requires them to be so long-winged; and the brevity of the Arctic summer also determines when juveniles can start to moult into their next plumage and how much of their plumage they then need to moult. As in Lesser Black-backed Gull and Heuglin’s Gull Larus heuglini (the latter for now listed by the IOC as Larus fuscus heuglini, i.e., a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed), it appears that this moult is much more extensive in Taimyr Gull than in Vega, American Herring, or European Herring Gull.

Juvenile Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis, October 25th, Pohang, Republic of Korea. In October, all Taimyr Gulls (and Vega Gulls) are in a rather unremarkable, brown juvenile plumage making separation from Vega Gull L. vegae of the same age rather challenging. This is the plumage both species retain until December or January, several months later than Mongolian Gull L. mongolicus. Note however the rather confident, flat-backed structure of this individual; the rather dark greater coverts; the contrastingly dark centres to the scapulars (making the bird look scaly); and the contrast in the head, with the ear coverts obviously darkest - all features suggesting the otherwise slimmer, more attenuated-looking Lesser Black-backed Gull L.fuscus from Europe.
Juvenile Taimyr Gull Larus (heuglini) taimyrensis, 25 Oct. 2015, Pohang, Republic of Korea. In October, all Taimyr Gulls (and Vega Gulls) are in a rather unremarkable brown juvenile plumage, making separation from Vega Gull L. vegae of the same age rather challenging. This is the plumage both species retain until December or January, several months later than Mongolian Gull L. mongolicus. Note, however, the rather confident, flat-backed structure of this individual; the rather dark greater coverts; the contrastingly dark centres to the scapulars (making the bird look scaly); and the contrast in the head, with the ear coverts obviously darkest–all features suggesting the otherwise slimmer, more attenuated-looking Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus of Europe. Caption and photo by Nial Moores.

Their first great transformation–from brown juvenile into a grey, white, and black first-winter–starts quite late, however. Most Taimyr Gulls, like Vega Gulls, are in juvenile plumage through December. Sometime in January or February of their second calendar year, Taimyr Gulls begin a rapid moult, with many by the end of February starting to look white-headed, and some showing patches of dark adult-type grey plumage in the scapulars and mantle by March and especially by April. For one or two months (from mid-February to mid-April), these young Taimyr Gulls can then start to look quite similar to young Mongolian Gulls, a few of which also seem to start to show some adult grey in their upperparts. The upper wing still looks different, though (especially the pattern on the inner primaries), and among the other differences visible on birds on the ground is that the base grey on the scapulars is quite dark; and the anchors and barring that overlie this grey area are much coarser than in Mongolian Gull. Most Taimyr Gulls have very coarse streaking on the nape, too. And all this new plumage, being so new, looks really fresh. They therefore do not have worn-out looking tertials like most Mongolians, especially locally bred birds. Of interest perhaps to those who enjoy studying gulls, in my 25 years in this region, and although both second-calendar-year Taimyr (regularly) and second-calendar-year Mongolian (sometimes) can show adult-type grey, I have not yet seen a single second-calendar-year Vega Gull in March or April with obvious adult grey in the plumage.

MONGOLIAN GULL, A MORE SOUTHERLY BREEDER

Mongolian Gull, Binjiang Park (31.2356935, 121.4973863), 18 March. This gull was tagged on 27 May 2013 in Mongolia.
Mongolian Gull at Binjiang Park, Shanghai, 18 March 2017. This gull was wing-tagged at Telmen Lake, Mongolia, 2,820 km from Shanghai. Telmen Lake is a bit more than half the distance between Shanghai and the Taimyr Peninsula, where Taimyr Gull breeds. Moores says that because of the shorter distance between its breeding grounds and winter range, Mongolian Gull attains breeding plumage earlier than Taimyr Gull, and it is shorter-winged. (Craig Brelsford)

The Mongolian Gull (as far as we know) has a rather wider breeding distribution than Taimyr Gull and probably than Vega Gull. Mongolian is the species that breeds, or used to breed, north to Lake Khanka on the Sino-Russian border, northwest at least to Lake Baikal, and southeast to our region. This, after all, is the Herring-type gull that nests alongside Black-faced Spoonbills and Chinese Egrets on Yellow Sea islands in Korea and presumably very locally in China too. Breeding further south, their breeding grounds thaw earlier than those of the Taimyr Gull, which in turn means that Mongolian Gulls have to progress into breeding plumage much earlier than either Taimyr or Vega Gull.

By mid-February many adults are white-headed, and many are already prospecting nest sites. Here in Korea, by March many are paired up, giving their distinctive nasal braying courtship calls; birds can be sitting on eggs in April; and many of the young will have fledged by early June–this is before many Taimyr and Vega Gulls will have even started egg-laying! Mongolian Gulls (at least those born and raised in Korea) retain their dark brown juvenile plumage only until August or early September, before they start to moult rapidly into a quite pale-looking first-winter plumage. And by January, because this plumage is already several months old, young Mongolian Gulls already show a lot of wear, with extensive pale areas across the inner primaries contrasting with darker internal markings, which sometimes suggest black golf clubs.

First-winter Mongolian Gull Larus mongolicus, October 25th, Pohang, Republic of Korea. By October this bird, like probably all Mongolian Gulls, has moulted out of the brown juvenile plumage into a much more contrasting First-winter plumage. Note that the head is already almost white, and the bill is already developing a paler base. If you look closely at the tertials you can see that the edges are already very worn with ragged edges (i.e. they are already ol feathers). This fraying is not shown by Vega or Taimyr Gulls until March or April at the earliest, as they hatch much later than (locally-raised) Mongolian Gull. Nial Moores.
First-winter Mongolian Gull Larus mongolicus, 25 Oct. 2015, Pohang, Republic of Korea. By October this bird, like probably all Mongolian Gulls, has moulted out of the brown juvenile plumage into a much more contrasting first-winter plumage. Note that the head is already almost white, and the bill is already developing a paler base. If you look closely at the tertials, you can see that the edges are already very worn with ragged edges (i.e., they are already old feathers). This fraying is not shown by Vega or Taimyr Gulls until March or April at the earliest, as they hatch much later than (locally raised) Mongolian Gull. Caption and photo by Nial Moores.

Look carefully at the edges of the tertials, too: These often have uniquely frayed edges in mid-winter and early spring. These pale young Mongolian Gulls are the birds that look a lot like young Caspian Gulls, and are presumably much of the reason why Malling Olsen and Larsson (2004) treated Mongolian Gull as a subspecies of Caspian rather than lumping the taxon with Vega. They just look so different. In this region, we also get to see these young Mongolians accompanying adults on the tide-line and also often in freshwater habitats–along rivers and in lakes. This is an ecological niche they occupy which is largely avoided by both Taimyr and Vega Gulls. This is therefore the large gull of the Han River in Seoul and the Taedong in Pyongyang; and presumably of floodplain wetlands of the Yangtze River (and possibly of the Huangpu River in downtown Shanghai). As early as January, many of these young birds are already largely white-headed, with beautifully patterned scapulars (pale grey bases with dark rows of anchors), and often pale breasts and bellies: beautiful and strikingly different from either Taimyr or Vega Gulls at this time of year–both of which in January (as described above) are still mostly washed brown above and below, with heavily patterned heads and all-dark bills.

Structurally too, most Mongolian Gulls can be pretty obvious, being rather bulkier and more powerful-looking than Vega or Taimyr Gulls: a modest counterpart to the Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus of the North Atlantic. And just like Great Black-backeds, Mongolians are often aggressive too. They sit in wait near to eagles on the Han River, and on multiple occasions I have seen them try to rob fish from Common Mergansers and harass groups of dabbling ducks. Here in Korea, they are often found patrolling rivers near flocks of roosting Baikal Teal, and at least a half-dozen times I have watched one swoop down to whack a hapless duck on the back of the head. I have seen this kind of aggressive behaviour only by birds that show multiple features of Mongolian Gull and never by birds showing multiple features of Vega or Taimyr Gull. And if you live and bird in eastern China, you have probably seen similar behaviour too, right?

VEGA GULL: NORTHEAST ASIAN BREEDER

Adult Vega Gull Larus vegae, March 6th 2017, Kosong County, DPR Korea. Even in March, this individual is far from acquiring breeding plumage. Note the heavily marked head, with this dense brown-grey hood extending down to the breast; the pale-based bill; and the tiny white tips to some of the primaries, suggesting that this individual is still undergoing primary moult.
Adult Vega Gull Larus vegae, 6 March 2017, Kosong County, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Even in March, this individual is far from acquiring breeding plumage. Note the heavily marked head, with this dense brown-grey hood extending down to the breast; the pale-based bill; and the tiny white tips to some of the primaries, suggesting that this individual is still undergoing primary moult. Caption and photo by Nial Moores.

The third of these Herring-type gulls is Vega Gull. From experience in Korea and southwestern Japan, I would be surprised if birders could find many Vega in a muddy river-mouth in Shanghai–especially on a date as late as mid-March. For at least on this side of the Yellow Sea, the Vega Gull is much more a species of fishing harbours, mariculture platforms, and sandy beaches. They do occasionally show up on rivers, but they are primarily a coastal species, strongly associated with, and perhaps now even dependent on, human fisheries when away from the breeding grounds. Much of their breeding range lies to the far northeast of Asia, not to the west or northwest. As a result, their migration and moult appear to be more staggered than that of Taimyr or Mongolian Gulls. After all, they have the option of remaining close to the coast and to fishing harbours along most of their migration route, with the potential to stop off en route to feed when they need to. This is presumably one reason why there are not so many Vega left in the Yellow Sea by mid-March. Many have already migrated out of the Yellow Sea and through the Korean Strait past Busan in early March, with much of the return migration back into the Yellow Sea in November (when thousands can be seen around fishing boats) and in December.

It is not only habitat and behaviour that helps in the identification of Vega Gull. Most adults are easy to pick out from Taimyr and Mongolian in mid-winter: sloping-backed and rather weaker looking than Mongolian; pink-legged and with pale yellow bill bases; dirty grey upperparts lacking slate tones; often heavily streaked and mottled on the head and down the breast sides. The ones easiest to ID also have a nice and distinctive primary pattern–showing a weak string of pearls and a more jagged edge of grey, black, and white than in Slaty-backed Gull. If you find a juvenile or immature gull in this region that looks pretty much like an American or European Herring Gull, then the chances are very high that it is a Vega.

Much is still to be learned, of course. But from what we can see in this region Taimyr, Mongolian, and Vega Gulls have their own preferred ecological niches; their own migration phenology and moult timing; and their own plumage characters and distinctive bare-part coloration. It also seems very likely that they have their own distinctive vocalisations, too. They also have distinct, separate breeding areas. And yet despite this, all three remain stuck in taxonomic controversy. The IOC does not list taimyrensis, for example, and UK-based BirdLife International (2017) recently even went the extra step and lumped Mongolian, Taimyr, Vega, and American Herring Gull into a single species, which they then named Arctic Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus (this seems worth repeating: a species that nests as far south as the Yellow Sea is now called Arctic Herring Gull by the world’s premier bird-conservation organisation).

A PAUCITY OF RESEARCH

The lack of understanding of these Asian gulls in Europe and North America is in large part owing to a paucity of research. Most of these gulls migrate huge distances between areas that are very hard to travel to for logistical and geopolitical reasons, and most of the research that has been done on them is not published in English or in peer-reviewed journals. Some of the problem also likely comes from gull experts based in Europe and North America then trying to make what little evidence they can access on these taxa to conform neatly to perceived counterpart European and North American species– taxa that are now pretty well-known after decades of study. This to me seems to be a major reason for the IOC’s inconsistency as well as BirdLife’s peculiar decision. By this I mean, this is why the IOC currently recognises the European Herring Gull, the American Herring Gull, and the Caspian Gull as three separate species, while not recognizing Taimyr Gull at all, and while also treating heuglini as a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull and mongolicus as a subspecies of Vega. A more consistent approach might perhaps be instead to lump all Herring-types together; or to split all of the Herring-types apart when there is evidence to support it. All Birds Korea materials depend on the excellent recommendations of Gill and Donsker (2017) and the IOC Checklist–but not in the case of these gulls. To do so would require ignoring what appear to be consistent differences shown by these three taxa which are easily observable within this region.

Much still does need to be learned about these gulls, of course, whatever list you decide to follow and however you choose to organise your observations. Without doubt though, Mongolian, Vega, and Taimyr Gulls are a major part of the coastal birding experience in East Asia, and they offer great potential for pushing the frontiers of ID. It would therefore be very helpful for more birders to spend time on these and other gulls–looking for wing tags and bands, documenting moult progression with photographs, and generating ever-better information on this group of fascinating and under-appreciated birds.

REFERENCES

BirdLife International. Species factsheet: Larus smithsonianus. Available at http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/62030590.

Gill, F. & D Donsker, eds. IOC World Bird List. Available at http://www.worldbirdnames.org/.

Cover to Malling Olsen, K. & Larsson H. 2004. Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America. Helm Identification Guides.
Cover of Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America

Malling Olsen, Klaus, and Hans Larsson. Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America. Helm Identification Guides, 2004.

Moores, N., Kim, A. & Kim R. 2014. Status of Birds, 2014. Birds Korea Report on Bird Population Trends and Conservation Status in the Republic of
Korea. Published by Birds Korea, September 2014. Available at http://www.birdskorea.or.kr/Habitats/Yellow-Sea/YSBR/Downloads/Birds-Korea-Status-of-Birds-2014.pdf.

van Dijk, Klaas, Sergei Kharitonov, Holmer Vonk, and Bart Ebbinge. “Taimyr Gulls: evidence for Pacific winter range, with notes on morphology and breeding.” Dutch Birding 33: 9-21. Downloaded 5 April 2017 from http://gull-research.org/papers/gullpapers1/Taimyr_Gulls_Dutch_Birding33_2011_pag9_21.pdf.

John MacKinnon in Shanghai

On Sat. 8 April 2017 I birded Cape Nanhui with John MacKinnon. John is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about China’s birds. On John’s first visit to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula, we noted 84 species. John and I were joined by veteran birders Michael Grunwell and Russell Boyman and the outstanding high-school birder Larry Chen.

We gave John the Grand Nanhui Tour, starting at Luchao to the south and ending 30 km north at Binhai. Heading back to the city, we made a brief stop at the sod farm just south of Pudong Airport, where we found a single Oriental Plover.

Oriental Plover at sod farm S of Pudong Airport, 8 Apirl 2017 (Craig Brelsford).
Russell Boyman (L) examines Oriental Plover 8 April 2017 at the sod farm south of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). Conditions at the sod farm were decidedly not favorable to a plover. The jets were noisy, the farmers were busy, and there was a whiff of pesticide in the air. Why would the plover choose such a subpar area? Because the sod farm roughly approximates the steppe habitat required by the East Asian specialty. Oriental Plover are long-distance athletes, marathon runners between Australia and Mongolia, and incredibly tough. Despite the poor habitat, our bird likely will survive its brief visit to Shanghai and muscle its way up to the breeding grounds. For more on Oriental Plover in Shanghai, see my post Rites of Spring. (Craig Brelsford)

Nanhui yielded 23 Marsh Grassbird performing the song flight at three locations, and we saw 10 Endangered Great Knot and 1 Near Threatened Curlew Sandpiper. We had a pair of Rufous-faced Warbler and a Common Starling.

Also: Garganey 57, Greater Scaup 1 (Dishui Lake), Little Curlew 31 (flock), Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 11 (first of season), Red-necked Stint 1 (first of season), Wood Sandpiper 1 (first of season), Peregrine Falcon 1, Dusky Warbler 1 at Magic Parking Lot (possibly wintered there), and Reed Parrotbill 18.

Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Top: Rufous-faced Warbler. Bottom L: European Starling with White-cheeked Starling. Middle R: Curlew Sandpiper assuming breeding plumage. Bottom R: Male Red-flanked Bluetail. (Craig Brelsford)
Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Top: Rufous-faced Warbler Abroscopus albogularis is common in much of south China and a vagrant to Shanghai. Bottom L: A vagrant to Shanghai, Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris is often seen associating with White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus. Middle R: Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea assuming breeding plumage. Bottom R: Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus. In Shanghai stunning adult males such as this one are less often seen than the less-colorful females. Red-flanked Bluetail breeds from Japan west to Finland. (Craig Brelsford)

GETTING TO KNOW JOHN MACKINNON

John MacKinnon wrote the most influential field guide ever published about China's birds.
John MacKinnon co-authored the most influential field guide ever published about China’s birds.

Our partner, John MacKinnon, co-authored A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Published in 2000, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies and remains the only bird guide in English covering all China. John also wrote the first and second guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com.

John is witty and a fine storyteller. He had us roaring with tales drawn from his six decades as a researcher in Asia. The funniest story was about the doctor back home in Britain. Every time John straggled in, the doc would call in his students, so that they could study the strange new tropical disease John had contracted.

“I never cared about my health, because I never expected to live this long!” John said.

John also talked about his masterpiece, A Field Guide to the Birds of China.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Field Guide. Had it merely been a window for Westerners to the birds of the world’s most populous country, then John’s work would have been important enough. The Field Guide, however, in translated form has introduced tens of thousands of Chinese to the birds of their own country. John’s Chinese name, Mǎjìngnéng (马敬能), is known by every birder in China.

John faced obstacles unknown to field-guide writers in North America and Western Europe, where birding has been practiced for 200 years. His sources were often thin, he said.

“For range maps, I had nearly nothing from Russia,” John said. “A Chinese book had ranges stopping at the Chinese border. Another book had no paintings, only descriptions.”

To critics who unfairly compare John’s Field Guide to field guides covering more developed parts of the world, John had this to say:

“You’ve got to finish something. We finished the book. We could have waited and said, ‘Oh, another species has been split, we must revise,’ but at a certain point you have to say, ‘We must go with what we’ve got.’”

To this day, no Westerner has repeated John’s feat. Others talked; John acted. One can imagine the feeling of accomplishment in John’s heart.

John is a handy photographer and got off some good shots, three of which are displayed in the Day List at the bottom of this post. Here are some photos I took of the pioneer birder and naturalist.

John MacKinnon (R) and Michael Grunwell examine one of John's photos at Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017 (Craig Brelsford).
John MacKinnon (R) and Michael Grunwell examine one of John’s photos at Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
L-R: Michael Grunwell, John MacKinnon, Russell Boyman, Larry Chen. Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Craig Brelsford.
The team at Nanhui. L-R: Michael Grunwell, John MacKinnon, Russell Boyman, Larry Chen. (Craig Brelsford)
Everyone wanted a turn with the distinguished man. Top: MacKinnon with Larry Chen (L) and Russell Boyman. Bottom: Michael Grunwell poses and gets an autograph for his copy of the Field Guide. (Craig Brelsford)
Everyone wanted a turn with the distinguished author. Top panels: John MacKinnon with Larry Chen (L) and Russell Boyman. Bottom: Michael Grunwell poses and gets an autograph. (Craig Brelsford)

MARSH GRASSBIRD ON THE BRINK

Marsh Grassbird were singing in the large reed beds at Nanhui. They were most conspicuous at the reed bed south of the Holiday Inn (30.870711, 121.942976). The species, listed as Near Threatened by IUCN, was also noted in the pristine reed bed (30.931790, 121.949169) associated with the defunct wetland reserve.

Marsh Grassbird at Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Craig Brelsford.
Locustella pryeri sinensis at the large reed bed (30.870711, 121.942976), Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 8 April 2017. Marsh Grassbird is among the least-known members of Locustella. The populations at Cape Nanhui went unmentioned by Kennerley and Pearson in their landmark book Reed and Bush Warblers (Christopher Helm 2010). Kennerley and Pearson were aware of the breeding population on Shanghai’s Chongming Island but even there could not say for certain whether the grassbirds were residents or summer visitors. Part of the reason for the lack of knowledge is the extreme shyness of the bird. Outside breeding season, when it undertakes song flights, Marsh Grassbird remains hidden deep within the Phragmites reed beds that are its preferred habitat. The other reason is the extremely fast rate at which its reed-bed home is being destroyed. At Cape Nanhui and other places in China, this Near Threatened species could disappear before researchers get a chance to study it. (Craig Brelsford)

The reed beds at Cape Nanhui may be the last stronghold of Locustella pryeri sinensis on the Shanghai Peninsula. The species is highly dependent on large reed beds. In areas where only strips of reeds remain, the song of Marsh Grassbird is never heard. Its partner species, Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for official bird of the city-province of Shanghai, is only slightly less dependent on large reed beds.

One of the areas where last year my partners and I noted Marsh Grassbird performing its song flight has been flattened. No song of Marsh Grassbird was heard there Saturday. A few Reed Parrotbill were calling in one of the strips of reeds left standing.

Much needs to be learned about Marsh Grassbird in Earth’s largest city. Birders, look for the fluttering song flight, and listen for this song:

Marsh Grassbird, 10 April 2016, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:11; 1.2 MB)

Marsh Grassbird still sing in the Yellow Sector. Satellite map © Google and customized by Craig Brelsford.
Marsh Grassbird still sings in the Yellow Sector, the largest reed bed at Cape Nanhui, located south of the Holiday Inn at 30.870711, 121.942976. Preservation of this and other reed beds would ensure the survival of Marsh Grassbird and Reed Parrotbill in mainland Shanghai. Satellite map © Google; customized by Craig Brelsford.

The plight of Marsh Grassbird brings to mind the series of posts I wrote last year on the precarious environmental situation at Cape Nanhui.

Comparing Richard’s and Blyth’s Pipit (along with description of pipits is news of my interview with Pudong TV as well as satellite maps of Cape 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 the bird of Shanghai will send a message about the importance of the Cape Nanhui reed beds)
Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Nanhui (proof of yet another endangered species using the defunct wetland reserve at Nanhui)

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 Saturday 8 April 2017 (84 species)

Photos by John MacKinnon, 8 April 2017. Clockwise from top L: Red-flanked Bluetail, Rufous-faced Warbler, Little Curlew.
Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April 2017. Clockwise from top L: Red-flanked Bluetail, Rufous-faced Warbler, Little Curlew. (John MacKinnon)

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, hazy; low 13° C, high 18° C. Wind E 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 147 (unhealthful). Visibility 5 km. Sunrise 05:34, sunset 18:18. SAT 08 APR 2017 07:00-16:55. Russell Boyman, Craig Brelsford, Larry Chen, Michael Grunwell, & John MacKinnon.

Falcated Duck Anas falcata 25
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 2
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 35
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 4
Garganey A. querquedula 57
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 2
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 25
Greater Scaup A. marila 1
Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica 3
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 3
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 8
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 20
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 31
Great Egret A. alba 3
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 1
Little Egret E. garzetta 95
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 9
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 40
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 20
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 13
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 27
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius 7
Oriental Plover C. veredus 1 at sod farm S of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742)
Little Curlew Numenius minutus 31
Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris 10
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata 11
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea 1
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis 1
Dunlin C. alpina 30
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 8
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 3
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus 1
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus 4
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 20
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola 1
Common Redshank T. totanus 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 25
Little Tern Sternula albifrons 1
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 13
Spotted Dove S. chinensis 2
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 2
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 2
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 20 singing
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 200
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 35
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 13
Rufous-faced Warbler Abroscopus albogularis 2 (pair)
Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis 4 singing
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus 1
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler P. proregulus 1
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 1
Marsh Grassbird Locustella pryeri sinensis 23
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 6
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 8
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 100
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris 1
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 42
White-cheeked Starling S. cineraceus 17
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 18
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 2
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum 1
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 11
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 55
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 1
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 75
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata 3
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 8
White Wagtail M. alba 28
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni 8
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 7
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica 1
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 23
Little Bunting E. pusilla 16
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 13
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 8

Featured image: John MacKinnon (R), co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, with Craig Brelsford, executive editor of shanghaibirding.com. Photo by Larry Chen.