A Black Skimmer demonstrates its unusual feeding technique at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida, 3 Feb. 2017. In this second of a two-post series, I describe to you my recent experiences birding in my home state of Florida. (Click here for Part 1.)
On Tues. 28 Feb. 2017, Elaine Du and I returned to Shanghai, having spent most of the previous six weeks in the United States. Amid family reunions and other business, my wife and I noted 151 bird species.
We birded mainly in Volusia County in central Florida. We took a five-day trip to southwest Florida and birded a day in Nassau, capital of The Bahamas. We deepened our understanding of Nearctic avifauna and noted its many similarities to and differences from the birds of China.
BIRDING AND FAMILY
We seamlessly mixed in birding with daily life, something easy to do in Florida. The very subdivision in which my parents live holds endemic Florida Scrub Jay as well as Florida Sandhill CraneGrus canadensis pratensis. Ponds, even those along busy highways, hold Wood StorkMycteria americana. A fixture in coastal towns are Brown PelicanPelecanus occidentalis and Ring-billed GullLarus delawarensis.
BIRDING BOTH COASTS
We enjoyed great coastal birding at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Atlantic coast and J. N. “Ding” Darling NWR on the Gulf of Mexico coast. Among the most beautiful birds was Roseate SpoonbillPlatalea ajaja, cousin of Shanghai’s Black-faced Spoonbill P. minor. We also found American White Pelican and Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
10 LIFE BIRDS IN BAHAMAS
During a cruise to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, Elaine and I had 10 life birds in Nassau. Although close to the North American mainland, The Bahamas holds various taxa rarely noted in Florida, among them Red-legged ThrushTurdus plumbeus and the endemic hummingbird Bahama Woodstar. We had visible migration in the form of a Northern Parula that appeared on our cruise ship while the vessel was far out at sea.
FOCUS ON PHOTOGRAPHY
In the United States poaching is rare, and the unwary as well as the secretive birds survive. Elaine and I were able to get close to various species and with little trouble achieve excellent photos. Because the air in Florida is clean, the light is often exquisite, and the photos, especially those taken early and late in the day, really pop. Here is Eastern Meadowlark from Osceola County and Cooper’s HawkAccipiter cooperii from Sanibel Island. In Nassau I got close to wintering Ovenbird.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker is one of the few birds endemic to the United States. Northern Crested Caracara is a New World member of the falcon family. Its diet includes carrion, and here it was feeding on a dead raccoon.
Sedge Wren is a winter visitor to Florida; White-eyed Vireo breeds in the Sunshine State. Black-and-white Warbler moves up and down tree trunks like a nuthatch.
A cosmopolitan species, Glossy IbisPlegadis falcinellus inhabits the coastal eastern United States and has been recorded in southeast China. Neither heron nor rail, Limpkin is most closely related to cranes.
American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus and Barred OwlStrix varia represent genera well-known to Shanghai birders.
I use a Nikon D3S and Nikkor 600 mm F/4. I mount my lens and camera atop a Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod and MVH502AH video head. I use my iPhone 6 for landscape shots.
Editor’s note: In the photo above, Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus pauses while feeding in a “hammock” or stand of trees. American Robin Turdus migratorius is visible in the background. The photo is from Gemini Springs Park in Volusia County, Florida and was taken on 22 Jan. 2017. This post is the first in a two-part series about my recent experiences birding in Florida. For Part 2, click here.
Greetings from the United States! On 19 Jan. Elaine Du and I arrived at my parents’ home in Florida. Birding began immediately, with good records such as Sandhill Crane coming from my parents’ very own front yard. The Sunshine State may be the best state in the USA for birding, and it is particularly good in winter. In this post, I will give you an introduction to birding in central Florida.
Where Are We?
Elaine and I are in Debary, a town in Volusia County, near Orlando, 50 km (30 miles) inland from the Atlantic Ocean. We are at about 29 degrees north latitude at a point 262 km (163 miles) south of the parallel that runs through People’s Square in Shanghai.
Because Elaine and I have not seen my parents in two years, much of my time has been spent with family. We have visited only two nature reserves, but they are good ones: Gemini Springs Park and Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The former is 7 km from my parents’ home; the latter, 31 km.
What Can a non-American Birder Learn in Florida?
Birders who do most of their birding in China will find many differences in the avifauna of Florida. Entire families, such as the wood warblers (Parulidae), would be new to the first-time birder in the New World. Other families such as Troglodytidae (wrens) and Vireonidae (vireos) would be vaguely familiar. Still other families such as Accipitridae (hawks) and Strigidae (owls) are well-represented in both the Old World and New.
Here are some of the families I have noted recently in Volusia County:
Wood Stork is the only stork that breeds in the United States. I note it regularly around Debary.
Cathartidae (New World Vultures)
One of the most widespread of New World vultures is Black VultureCoragyps atratus. Like Old World vultures, Black Vulture finds carrion by sight, and it lacks feathers on its face, crown, and throat. The birds are very tame and approached me when I lay on the ground for these closeups.
In some cases, China and America share birds not only of the same family or genus, but also of the same species. Western OspreyPandion haliaetus is common in Shanghai as well as in the wetlands of Volusia County.
Accipitridae (Kites, Hawks, and Eagles)
A common forest hawk of the eastern United States, Red-shouldered HawkButeo lineatus is in the same genus as Shanghai’s Eastern Buzzard B. japonicus. On 27 Jan. at Gemini Springs Park, I photographed a pair mating.
America’s Northern HarrierCircus hudsonius is immediately familiar to China-based birders. It is similar to, and was once considered conspecific with, Hen Harrier C. cyaneus.
Shanghai has Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus; Florida offers King RailR. elegans. I found a pair at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. All rails are hard, and a good view such as this one is an experience to be treasured.
Volusia County is home to Florida Sandhill CraneGrus canadensis pratensis. The cranes are a non-migratory population, and as suburbia has grown up around them, the cranes have not only adapted, but flourished. Here is a group outside my parents’ home in Debary, photographed through the window of my car.
LimpkinAramus guarauna is the sole member of Aramidae. It looks like a large rail or heron but is most closely related to cranes. The species ranges from Florida to Argentina. At Gemini Springs I found a Limpkin feeding with American White IbisEudocimus albus.
Barred OwlStrix varia is an owl of dense forests. It is common, and its hoot is well-known. Strix is a large genus and includes China’s Himalayan Owl S. nivicolum.
Pileated WoodpeckerDryocopus pileatus is part of a genus of large, powerful woodpeckers that includes Eurasia’s Black Woodpecker D. martius. Pileated Woodpecker flourishes in dense forests with large trees, of which there are many in central Florida.
This is Red-bellied WoodpeckerMelanerpes carolinus. Melanerpes contains 24 species, all in the Americas.
Vireonidae is a group of small to mid-sized passerines. Most live in the New World. White-bellied Erpornis and the shrike-babblers occur in China. In recent days in Florida I have found White-eyed VireoVireo griseus and Blue-headed VireoV. solitarius.
Regulidae (Goldcrests, Kinglets)
All six members of Regulidae are in a single genus, Regulus. Goldcrest Regulus regulus can be found in winter and on migration in Shanghai. North America has the very similar Ruby-crowned KingletR. calendula.
The sole Old World representative of Troglodytidae is Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes. In Florida I have had House WrenT. aedon, Marsh WrenCistothorus palustris, and the accomplished songster Carolina WrenThryothorus ludovicianus.
Parulidae (New World Warblers)
The New World warblers are an important passerine family confined to the New World. Most species are arboreal and insectivorous and fill niches similar to those filled in the Old World by leaf warblers. Black-and-white WarblerMniotilta varia is the sole member of its genus. It is the only New World warbler to move up and down tree trunks in the manner of a nuthatch.
Icterids are a strictly New World family. Boat-tailed GrackleQuiscalus major lives along the U.S. coast from New York to Texas. In Florida it also occurs inland.
Emberizidae (Buntings and New World Sparrows)
American “sparrows” are more closely related to Old World buntings. Both groups are in Emberizidae. Savannah SparrowPasserculus sandwichensis is a bird of open country. It breeds from Alaska through Canada and the northern Lower 48 states and is a winter visitor to Florida. Swamp SparrowMelospiza georgiana is most at home in wetland habitats. It too is a winter visitor to Florida. It breeds in the northern U.S. and Canada.
Cardinalidae is a family of finch-like seed-eating birds endemic to the New World. Painted BuntingPasserina ciris is often described as the most beautiful bird in North America.
I use a Nikon D3S that I purchased in October 2010. The camera has been a steady performer, and I have seen no need to replace it. My lens is the Nikkor 600 mm F/4. I mount my lens and camera atop a Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod and MVH502AH video head. I use my iPhone 6 for landscape shots.
My Day Lists
Visit my eBird profile page for access to my day lists from Florida as well as China. You will need an eBird account to view the profile.
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.
Editor’s note: With more and more birders operating in Shanghai, more and more vagrant birds are bound to be discovered. One possibility is Blyth’s Pipit (photo above, L), a species similar to our familiar Richard’s Pipit (R). In this post, I will teach you how to separate the two.
2016 has been an outstanding birding year in Earth’s largest city. Paddyfield Warbler/Manchurian Reed Warbler, seen at Cape Nanhui on 18 Dec., was the latest in a parade of rare visitors seen in Shanghai in 2016. Our Sightings page has documented the discoveries.
The reason for the surge in good records, I am convinced, is more birders with better skills communicating more effectively. I am proud to say that shanghaibirding.com and the Shanghai Birding WeChat group have played a role.
In the Shanghai area, one species that has not yet been reported is Blyth’s Pipit. Anthus godlewskii breeds mainly in Mongolia, occurs on passage in central China, and winters mainly in India, so any records here would be of extralimitals. It is just the sort of vagrant that a bigger and better birding community could discover here in Shanghai.
The key to getting a Blyth’s in Shanghai is paying attention to the many Richard’s Pipit that we see in the area. Anthus richardi is more or less a passage migrant in the Shanghai area and is recorded here regularly in spring and autumn. Some are present in winter; Elaine Du and I had a “sinensis” last week, the ID’ing of which led to this post.
Richard’s “sinensis” is very similar to Blyth’s, being best told by song, which is rarely heard in the Shanghai area. According to Per Alström et al., whose book Pipits and Wagtails is the authority on Palearctic and Nearctic pipits, the song of Blyth’s is “very characteristic and completely different from [that] of Richard’s” (242). During a trip in July 2015 to the Inner Mongolian prefecture of Hulunbeier, one of the few places in China where Blyth’s breeds, I recorded the song.
Blyth’s Pipit, flight song, recorded 22 July 2015 at a point (48.767866, 116.834183) near Hulun Lake, Inner Mongolia (2.1 MB; 00:32)
The calls of the two species also differ, but less markedly. The flight call of Richard’s is a common bird sound in Shanghai during migration season. The call of Blyth’s is similar enough to “cause problems even for some veteran observers” (Alström et al. 244). For Shanghai birders, even those unfamiliar with Blyth’s, a “Richard’s” with a strange flight call is worth your attention. Listen for what Alström et al. describe as a call “less harsh, softer and more nasal” than Richard’s (244). For reference, review the flight call of Richard’s:
Regarding plumage, the most reliable differentiator of Richard’s and Blyth’s is the pattern of the median coverts. In Blyth’s, a typical adult-type median covert will show well-defined, squarish black centers. In Richard’s, the adult-type median coverts are less clear-cut, rufous-tinged, and triangular. Note that the fresher the plumage, the more reliable this differentiator is.
Another less reliable criterion is structure. Shanghai birders will agree that the first impression a non-“sinensis” Richard’s usually gives is “large pipit.” Other pipits, such as Buff-bellied Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, and Olive-backed Pipit, give a “small pipit” impression.
Alström et al. say, and I having seen Blyth’s can concur, that a birder viewing Blyth’s will get a “small pipit” impression: “The smaller size, lighter build and shorter tail,” the authors write, “are often most apparent in flight, when [Blyth’s] often recalls one of the smaller pipits rather than Richard’s.” Note also that the smaller size and shorter bill, tail, and hind claw of Blyth’s give that species a “better proportioned” look than the larger and heavier Richard’s (237).
The directions above should be seen as guidelines; individual Richard’s and Blyth’s may defy easy categorization, “sinensis” Richard’s even more so. Alström et al. caution against jumping the gun with your ID: “It is crucial to realise that in both species (especially Richard’s) appearance can vary considerably in one and the same individual depending on mood, weather, etc.,” they write. “Also, some Richard’s are structurally very like Blyth’s; this is especially true of southern Chinese Richard’s (‘sinensis’)” (237).
A record of Blyth’s Pipit in Shanghai would shoot to the top of the “Year’s Best” list. The stakes are high, so look diligently, and use caution. Good luck!
PADDYFIELD WARBLER/MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER
On 18 Dec. 2016, a quartet of teenage birders found an acrocephalid in the Magic Parking Lot at Cape Nanhui. The photos by Komatsu Yasuhiko provoked discussion on the WeChat group Shanghai Birding. The consensus is that the bird is either Paddyfield WarblerAcrocephalus agricola or Manchurian Reed WarblerA. tangorum.
In the images above, note the supercilium, which extends behind the eye; dark eye-line; bright white chin and throat; peach breast band and flanks; bill with black upper mandible and pink lower mandible; and peaked head. Those criteria most closely indicate Manchurian Reed Warbler and Paddyfield Warbler.
Paddyfield Warbler winters mainly in India and would be extralimital here; Manchurian Reed Warbler breeds in northeastern China, is listed as Vulnerable and is therefore scarce, and probably passes through Shanghai.
Congratulations to Andy Lee, Komatsu Yasuhiko, Larry Chen, and Archie Jiang for this great Shanghai record.
INTERVIEW WITH PUDONG TV
On Thurs. 15 Dec. at Cape Nanhui my wife Elaine Du and I did an interview with Pudong TV in Chinese. The segment will last five minutes and be aired later this month. (UPDATE, 24 DEC 2016: Segment available here.) In the interview I lamented the losses at Nanhui and spoke glowingly of the possibilities.
MacKinnon asked me for the reasoning behind a wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui. I wrote the following:
THE CASE FOR AN EASILY ACCESSIBLE, WORLD-CLASS WETLAND RESERVE AT CAPE NANHUI, PUDONG, SHANGHAI
(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, habitat critical to Reed Parrotbill, Marsh Grassbird, and other species at risk.
The largest component of the city-province of Shanghai is the Shanghai Peninsula, a projection of land between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the peninsula, is a critically important stop for migrating birds, and is completely unprotected. A nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a third stepping stone for birds crossing the mouth of the Yangtze, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha.
(2) Shanghai is clearly under-performing on the conservationist front. More must be done, and a good place to begin is Cape Nanhui.
Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province (which is a third the size of Wales). There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in this megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the natural side of Shanghai, a city with an extraordinarily rich natural heritage. There is no known plan to conserve any of the dozens of square kilometers of reclaimed land on Hengsha.
(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could be the match to light the fire of conservation across all China.
Hundreds of thousands of middle-class children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland.” A day at a Cape Nanhui Wetland would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster an appreciation of the natural world.
If Shanghai can be a world economic center and have world-class airports and a world-class skyline and world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must have an easily accessible, world-class reserve protecting its priceless coastline, reed beds, and migratory birds.
A world-class, easily accessible, wetland nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would become a mecca for birders and achieve world renown, as has been the case with similar reserves such as Mai Po at Hong Kong and Sungei Buloh in Singapore.
Tundra Bean Goose Anser serrirostris 20
Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus bewickii 19
Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 550
Falcated Duck Anas falcata 400
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 80
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 250
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 300
Northern Pintail A. acuta 120
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 40
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 10
Greater Scaup A. marila 3
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 2
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 40
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 2
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 7
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 80
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 60
Great Egret A. alba 8
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 50
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 7
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 72
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus 1
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 50
Hooded Crane Grus monacha 1
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 8
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 30
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 1
Dunlin Calidris alpina 70
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 22
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 1
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae/L. v. mongolicus 21
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 8
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 10
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 20
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 7
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 10
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 50
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 2
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 50
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 6
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 15
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 7
Little Bunting E. pusilla 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 1
Alström, Per, Krister Mild & Bill Zetterström. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003. This landmark book, co-authored by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström, is my first reference on all things Motacillidae.
Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, 2009. Serviceable descriptions of Blyth’s Pipit and Richard’s Pipit. Illustration of “sinensis.” Good coverage of Paddyfield Warbler, Manchurian Reed Warbler.
Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. Pipits and reed warblers discussed in detail. To join Shanghai Birding, fill out the form on our Sightings page.
Kennerley, Peter & David Pearson. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm, 2010. The world standard on Acrocephalidae, Cettiidae, and Locustellidae.
Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Outstanding illustrations of Richard’s Pipit and Blyth’s Pipit by Mullarney.