A Minor Role in a Major Discovery

Now my involvement in the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was on this wise:

In June 2014, my partners and I drove 36 hours, including one stretch of 24 straight hours, covering 1500 km (930 mi.) to get from Emeishan in Sichuan to the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan. The reason? Per Alström was in the Dulong Gorge and was working on an exciting project, a project to which he said I might be able to make a small contribution.

Himalayan Thrush
Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii, Irrawaddy-Salween Divide, above Dulong Gorge, Yunnan, 20 June 2014. Elev. 3380 m (11,090 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

We finally met up with Per and his team on the road into the Dulong Gorge. There, Per transferred to me a recording of a species new to science, Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii.

Little did I know that I was on the cusp of something big.

At the time, I did not know that the species was Himalayan Thrush; like any normal birder, I took the species to be Plain-backed Thrush. Per could only divulge that he was working on possible splits to Plain-backed Thrush, and could I please try to get a shot of a free “Plain-backed”? All his images, he said, were of captured birds, and he wanted shots of birds living their natural life. “I’ll do everything I can to get those photos!” I said. Per then left the Dulong Gorge, and my team entered the valley.

Himalayan Thrush
Himalayan Thrush. Note the very slightly rufous-toned upper surface, dark lower lores and subocular/moustachial area, lack of distinct dark patch on rear ear-coverts, entirely dark lower mandible, hooked upper mandible, and pale, pinkish legs. (Craig Brelsford)

Rain rain rain for days. Finally, a 45-minute window of dry weather. I’m at the spot Per indicated, elev. 3380 m (11,090 ft.). I play Per’s recording. Attracted by the recording, a Himalayan Thrush appears within minutes, and I get photos as well as recordings of the thrush’s song. What a payoff!

Now my photos figure in the article Per and his co-authors have written on Himalayan Thrush, Sichuan Thrush Zoothera griseiceps, and Alpine Thrush Z. mollissima (Z. mollissima was formerly called “Plain-backed Thrush” in English but in the wake of the new discoveries takes the name Alpine Thrush). Himalayan Thrush is completely new to science, and Sichuan Thrush has been elevated to species status (having been considered a ssp. of Z. mollissima). A fourth putative taxon, “Yunnan Thrush,” requires further study.

I’m proud to have played a minor role in Per and co.’s major discovery!

Himalayan Thrush
Himalayan Thrush on a wet boulder in the rain above Dulong Gorge. A ‘forest’ thrush on a rocky outcrop? Yes, write the authors: ‘At Dulongjiang, Yunnan province, China, we found Himalayan Forest Thrush to be numerous in a very different habitat: on steep slopes with bamboo and rhododendron scrub and rocky outcrops and a few scattered conifers, at or just above the upper tree limit, at 3350–3500 m a.s.l. … Surprisingly, we did not observe any birds in the seemingly suitable forest immediately below despite active searching.’ (Craig Brelsford)

WHAT IS ‘NEW TO SCIENCE’?

In the case of Zoothera salimalii, when we say the species is “new to science,” we are not saying that no human being had ever seen the bird before. Himalayan Thrush is locally common in its range, which extends from Sikkim in India to northwest Yunnan; thousands of birders and non-birders have seen it. “New to science” means that those observers did not understand its true nature. We did not understand that it is a species; if we thought about it at all, we assumed that any Z. salimalii we were seeing was just another Plain-backed Thrush Z. mollissima.

Himalayan
From article: ‘Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar.’ Note our specimen’s buff throat and distinct malar. (Craig Brelsford)

Per and his team discovered that, hidden within what was considered to be a population of Z. mollissima was an entirely different bird, separated from Z. mollissima by time (3-5 million years of evolution), habitat (Z. mollissima Alpine Thrush breeds higher than Z. salimalii Himalayan Thrush), song, and morphology.

The latter two characteristics are particularly surprising and point to the difficulties of birding in the Himalayan region. Per and his team did not need a microscope to begin to see that Himalayan Thrush is different from the other species in the Plain-backed Thrush complex. All they needed to do was look and listen closely. Yet for generation after generation, this straightforward analysis was not performed. This is not surprising, considering the ruggedness of the area in which these thrushes live and its sparse population.

Himalayan Thrush
My Himalayan Thrush was fit and strong—as he needed to be, if he wanted to command his large, rocky territory. (Craig Brelsford)

Once Per had examined Plain-backed complex birds in the hand and through photos, he found a whole series of visible differences. Per et al. write:

Compared to Z. mollissima, Z. salimalii has a noticeably longer and deeper bill, with more arched culmen and longer hook, and the lower edge of the lower mandible is more arched (vs. straight); bill usually completely or almost completely dark including base of lower mandible, whereas the base of the lower mandible is usually pale pinkish or yellowish in Z. mollissima (though may appear mainly dark also in Z. mollissima).

Most individuals of Z. salimalii have a thin whitish supraloral stripe over thick blackish lores, and a very dark subocular/moustachial area, more or less connected to the dark lores, compared to more diffuse pale supraloral and weak “salt-and-pepper” lores and subocular/moustachial area of Z. mollissima. Also, Z. salimalii usually shows less extensively pale-mottled ear-coverts than in Z. mollissima, especially on the upper part, and lacks or has only a very ill-defined dark spot on the rear ear-coverts, while Z. mollissima usually shows a distinct dark rear ear-covert patch. Z. salimalii is usually ruddier in color above than Z. mollissima. Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar, while in Z. mollissima the throat is usually whiter and generally more heavily marked (often much more so) and less strongly bordered by more diffuse malar stripes. Z. salimalii has the claws paler than the toes, lacking dusky areas, while in Z. mollissima the claws are at least partly darker than or similar in color to the toes. The legs of Z. salimalii are pinkish, while those of Z. mollissima are usually brighter and more yellow- or orange-tinged.

Himalayan Thrush
Himalayan Thrush, Baihualing, Yunnan, 4 Feb. 2014. Baihualing is in the southern part of the Gaoligong Mountains. The elevation here is ca. 1800 m (5,900 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

So adept became Per at discerning the morphological differences of the various Plain-backed species, he was able to determine, by photos alone, that a “Plain-backed” I had found in Yunnan in February 2014 was also Himalayan Thrush. Per used my February 2014 photos along with my June 2014 photos in his article.

The song of Z. salimalii also contrasts markedly with that of Z. mollissima, Per et al. write. They note the “mainly rasping, grating, scratchy, cracked voice” of Alpine Thrush and the “more musical … ‘thrush-like'” song of Himalayan Thrush. Indeed, according to the article, the germ of the process that led to the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was Per standing in India and simply listening to Himalayan Thrush, remembering the similar song he’d earlier heard in Sichuan of what is now called Sichuan Thrush, and contrasting those sweeter songs with the scratchier song of Alpine Thrush. Here we see Per, the scientist famous for discovering new species according to complicated DNA research, relying not on microscopes but on good old-fashioned birding skills!

Himalayan Thrush
Himalayan Thrush powerfully shovels away dirt, leaves, and sticks as it searches for invertebrates on the forest floor. (Craig Brelsford)

Below, some of my recordings and videos of Himalayan Thrush.

Sound Recordings, by Craig Brelsford

Video (all taken by Craig Brelsford at Baihualing, Gaoligong Mountains, western Yunnan, 4-5 Feb. 2014)

Featured image: Craig Brelsford (L), Craig’s partner Jon Gallagher, and Per Alström (R), above the Dulong Gorge in remote northwestern Yunnan, 13 June 2014. The insets show Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii, which Per was there studying, and photos of which I later acquired. (Huáng Xiǎo Ān [黄小安])

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The Crane and the Owl: 2015 Year in Review

For Elaine and me, 2015 was the Year of the Crane and the Owl. This post is the story of our amazing year.

2015 was a year that saw us note 640 species of bird in Asia and North America. It was a year that saw us find 450 species in China, 305 species in the Shanghai region, and 227 species within the boundaries of Earth’s largest city.

It was a year in which, on 21 Jan., Elaine and I got married in the house in Heilongjiang in which she was born.

Days after our wedding, at my parents’ house in Florida in the United States, a pair of Sandhill Crane walked through my parents’ back yard. Throughout our weeks in Florida, they came again and again; the cranes are part of a non-migratory flock that is both fully wild and completely at home in suburban central Florida. No one disturbs them.

Florida Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis pratensis, DeBary, Florida, 31 Jan. 2015. These cranes are fully wild yet completely accustomed to life in suburbia. No one disturbs them.
Florida Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis pratensis, Debary, Florida. These cranes are fully wild yet completely accustomed to life in suburbia. No one disturbs them.

Elaine was astonished. To her, the cranes came to symbolize all that is good about birding in America.

In August, Elaine and I returned to her home in Heilongjiang. A pair of Eurasian Eagle-Owl came to her village night after night. They hooted from the rooftops of the farm buildings that Elaine’s father built. We saw the owls by day, at the nearby quarry where they had nested.

Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo at the quarry near Elaine's house in Dawucun, Heilongjiang. Night after night, the hoot of these owls was heard in Elaine's village.
Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo at the quarry near Elaine’s house in Dawucun, Heilongjiang. Night after night, the hoot of these owls was heard in Elaine’s village.

I was astonished. To me, the eagle-owls came to symbolize all that is good about birding in Asia.

In the year in which we were married, Elaine and I visited each other’s hometowns for the first time. At my home, cranes; at Elaine’s, eagle-owls. Forevermore, 2015 will be remembered for the powerful birds that visited our homes. In the Brelsford house, 2015 will go down as the Year of the Crane and the Owl.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, one of many species of bird using my parents' back yard in suburban central Florida, USA.
Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus, one of many species of bird using my parents’ back yard in suburban central Florida, USA.

WHERE DID WE GO IN 2015?

In China, Elaine and I stayed in the east, taking two major trips to Heilongjiang and neighboring Hulunbeier (Inner Mongolia), two trips to Emeifeng in Fujian, and an eventful five-day trip to Guangxi. We also spent a week in Beijing and Hebei. We birded with Jan-Erik Nilsén, Brian Ivon Jones, and Michael Grunwell, fine birders all.

Michael Grunwell at Nanhui, Shanghai, 31 Oct. 2015. A birder as enthusiastic as he is knowledgeable, Michael was our major birding partner in 2015. We went thousands of kilometers together, traveling by air, train, car, and foot to birding locations in five provinces. A teacher by profession, Michael freely distributes his bird knowledge, built up over four decades. Michael introduced us to Emeifeng and proposed the Nonggang Babbler trip. We, in turn, had the pleasure of showing Michael various sites in the Shanghai region after Michael and his family moved to Shanghai from Nanchang in August 2015.
Michael Grunwell at Nanhui, Shanghai, 31 Oct. 2015. A birder as enthusiastic as he is knowledgeable, Michael was our major birding partner in 2015. We went thousands of kilometers together, traveling by air, train, car, and foot to birding locations in five provinces. A teacher by profession, Michael freely distributes his bird knowledge, built up over four decades. Michael introduced us to Emeifeng and proposed the Nonggang Babbler trip. We, in turn, had the pleasure of showing Michael various sites in the Shanghai region after Michael and his family moved to Shanghai from Nanchang in August 2015.

In America, I am fortunate to be based in central Florida, one of the finest birding areas in one of the best states in the USA for birding. In Florida, the birding is so good, I take my binoculars even on a quick trip to the grocery store. My parents’ back yard alone attracted dozens of species, and we added more at local parks as well as major reserves such as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Elaine and I also took a 15-day birding honeymoon to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where we birded with noted American birder Chris Feeney.

Sunset, 10 March 2015, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Elaine and I hear a loud, sickening crunch. I wade into the pond and get these powerful images of an American Alligator devouring a Blue Crab.
Sunset, 10 March 2015, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Elaine and I hear a loud, sickening crunch. I wade into the pond and get these powerful images of an American Alligator devouring a Blue Crab.

2015 IN SHANGHAI

The bulk of our year was spent around Shanghai. Our 227 “city” species were noted while compiling two major reports, one covering the spring migration and the other covering the autumn and winter. Trips further afield to places in Jiangsu and Zhejiang brought our Shanghai regional list to 305 species. Accompanying us on many of those trips was Michael Grunwell as well as German birder Kai Pflug and the husband-and-wife team of Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Lesser Yangshan Island, 2 Jan. 2015. A few months after this photo was taken, Elaine and I noted this species in Yangkou, and in December 2015 we once again were noting the species on Lesser Yangshan. In Seoul, which I had the pleasure of visiting in May 2015, Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis is the 'default' bulbul, common and noisy, like Light-vented Bulbul in many Chinese cities. In Shanghai, Brown-eared Bulbul is a scarce passage migrant and winter visitor.
Brown-eared Bulbul, Lesser Yangshan Island, 2 Jan. 2015. A few months after this photo was taken, Elaine and I noted this species in Yangkou, and in December 2015 we once again were noting the species on Lesser Yangshan. In Seoul, which I had the pleasure of visiting in May 2015, Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis is the ‘default’ bulbul, common and noisy, like Light-vented Bulbul in many Chinese cities. In Shanghai, Brown-eared Bulbul is a scarce passage migrant and winter visitor.

Our springtime expedition in the Shanghai region saw us note 243 species. The autumn-winter report contained 259 species by 31 Dec. Here is what we discovered in 2015 around Shanghai:

— Amid the unremitting transformation of the Jiangsu and Shanghai coast, we found several shorebird species on the brink, among them the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, the endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank, and the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Other threatened waders noted by us were Grey-tailed Tattler, Black-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Far Eastern Curlew, and Great Knot. Other at-risk coastal species were Oriental Stork, Chinese Egret, Saunders’s Gull, and Reed Parrotbill, as well as the elegant passage migrant Japanese Paradise Flycatcher

Long-billed Dowitcher, Rudong County (S of Yangkou), Jiangsu, 24 April 2015.
Long-billed Dowitcher, Rudong County (S of Yangkou), Jiangsu, 24 April 2015.

— The most notable extralimitals were Long-billed Dowitcher south of Yangkou, Black Redstart on Hengsha Island, and Dalmatian Pelican at Dongtai and Nanhui. Other interesting finds were Himalayan Swiftlet and Brown-eared Bulbul at Yangkou, Chestnut-cheeked Starling on Lesser Yangshan Island, and at Nanhui Common Goldeneye, Horned Grebe, Black Bittern, White-bellied Green Pigeon, Japanese Scops Owl, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, Black-collared Starling, and Common Rosefinch

Himalayan Swiftlet, Yangkou, 13 Sept. 2015.
Himalayan Swiftlet, Yangkou, 13 Sept. 2015.

— We noted 14 Emberiza species, among them three threatened species (Yellow-breasted Bunting, Yellow Bunting, and Japanese Reed Bunting), the beautiful Crested Bunting, East Asian favorites Meadow Bunting, Tristram’s Bunting, Chestnut-eared Bunting, Chestnut Bunting, Yellow-browed Bunting, and Yellow-throated Bunting, and Little Bunting, Rustic Bunting, Black-faced Bunting, and Pallas’s Reed Bunting

Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanmincun (near Yangkou), Rudong County, Jiangsu, 12 April 2015. I reported this banded godwit to the Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG). A week later, AWSG told me that the godwit had been banded on 23 June 2009 (nearly 6 years prior!) in Victoria, Australia.
Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanmincun (near Yangkou), Rudong County, Jiangsu, 12 April 2015. I reported this banded godwit to the Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG). A week later, AWSG told me that the godwit had been banded on 23 June 2009 (nearly 6 years prior!) in Victoria, Australia.

— We noted dozens of East Asian migrants, breeders, and residents, among them Grey-headed Lapwing, Pacific Golden Plover, Oriental Pratincole, Black-tailed Gull, Lesser Cuckoo, Northern Boobook, Oriental Dollarbird, Speckled Piculet, Swinhoe’s Minivet, Bull-headed Shrike, Chinese Grey Shrike, Yellow-bellied Tit, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Thick-billed Warbler, Grey-backed Thrush, Japanese Thrush, Brown-headed Thrush, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Siberian Blue Robin, Rufous-tailed Robin, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Narcissus Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Forest Wagtail, and Red-throated Pipit

Thick-billed Warbler, Yangkou, 16 May 2015.
Thick-billed Warbler, Yangkou, 16 May 2015.

— During two trips to the Tianmu Mountains 250 km SW of Shanghai in Zhejiang, we watched a Crested Bunting sing, found a pair of Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, were encouraged by the many Buffy Laughingthrush, saw Crested Serpent Eagle and Black Eagle, came face-to-face with Koklass Pheasant, and noted more Russet Sparrow than Eurasian Tree Sparrow. We appreciated the strong Indo-Malayan character of the avifauna, as evidenced by classic southern Chinese species such as Grey-chinned Minivet, Grey Treepie, Indochinese Yuhina, Grey-headed Parrotbill, Rufous-capped Babbler, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Little Forktail, and White-crowned Forktail

— At Yangkou, we found a reliable site for the elusive Brown-cheeked Rail

Collared Owlet, Emeifeng, 30 April 2015.
Collared Owlet, Emeifeng, 30 April 2015.

THE TRIPS TO EMEIFENG

In spring 2015, Elaine and I made two trips to Emeifeng in the mountains of northwest Fujian. We noted 103 species. Highlights:

— Finding the five key game birds: Elliot’s Pheasant, Cabot’s Tragopan, Koklass Pheasant, Silver Pheasant, and White-necklaced Partridge, as well as the beautiful Chinese Bamboo Partridge

Cabot's Tragopan, Emeifeng, 1 May 2015.
Cabot’s Tragopan, Emeifeng, 1 May 2015.

— At Shuibu Reservoir, finding Blue-throated Bee-eater, a species unexpected around Emeifeng

— Closely studying three Phylloscopus warblers that breed in southern China: Buff-throated Warbler Phylloscopus subaffinis, Sulphur-breasted Warbler P. ricketti, and Hartert’s Leaf Warbler P. goodsoni fokiensis, as well as having close encounters with White-spectacled Warbler Seicercus affinis intermedius

Buff-throated Warbler, Emeifeng, 30 April 2015.
Buff-throated Warbler, Emeifeng, 30 April 2015.

— Finding 4 of China’s 5 species of forktail: Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri, Slaty-backed Forktail E. schistaceus, White-crowned Forktail E. leschenaulti sinensis, and Spotted Forktail E. maculatus bacatus

— Hearing the many calls and songs of the accomplished vocalist Buffy Laughingthrush

— Hearing Spotted Elachura singing along a rushing stream and seeing Pygmy Wren-Babbler along that same stream

Sulphur-breasted Warbler, Emeifeng, 1 May 2015.
Sulphur-breasted Warbler, Emeifeng, 1 May 2015.

— Noting other key south-China species, among them Black Bittern, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Black Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Besra, Collared Owlet, Asian Barred Owlet, Great Barbet, Speckled Piculet, Bay Woodpecker, Grey-chinned Minivet, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Sultan Tit, Rufous-faced Warbler, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Brown Bush Warbler, Small Niltava, Verditer Flycatcher, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, White-bellied Erpornis, Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler, Black-collared Starling, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Fork-tailed Sunbird, and Orange-bellied Leafbird

MAJOR DISCOVERIES IN HULUNBEIER & HEILONGJIANG

Our explorations in Heilongjiang and Hulunbeier were inspired by the words of John MacKinnon:

Instead of going to the familiar places in China to clock up new additions to life lists, why not get to some remote areas where you have a good chance of finding something new?

– John MacKinnon, A Field Guide to the Birds of China, p. 16

In Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, Elaine and I noted 228 species. We visited the region twice: once in January, a short trip with Brian Ivon Jones; and a longer trip in July with Jan-Erik Nilsén and later Brian. There were also two brief stops in Hohhot in south-central Inner Mongolia.

Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus, the first of many good birds I discovered near Elaine's home village. 20 Jan. 2015.
Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus, the first of many good birds I discovered near Elaine’s home village. 20 Jan. 2015.

The January trip to Hulunbeier, the U.K.-sized prefecture in northeast Inner Mongolia, was our introduction to the region. Elaine, Brian, and I experienced cold such as I had never felt before. The lowest temperature we had was -36°C (-33°F). Among our highlights were Northern Hawk-Owl, White-backed Woodpecker, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Great Tit, and Arctic Redpoll.

Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, Wuerqihan, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 15 Jan. 2015.
Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, Wuerqihan, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 15 Jan. 2015.

Elaine and I then traveled to Dawucun, her home village in southeastern Heilongjiang. There, on 21 January 2015, Elaine and I were married. (We worked in some birding that day, noting Common Kestrel behind her house.) I was pleasantly surprised by the good birding around Dawucun. Never walking more than 2 km from Elaine’s house, we noted Rough-legged Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tit, Siberian Accentor, and Eurasian Bullfinch.

Blyth's Pipit Anthus godlewskii near Manzhouli, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 20 July 2015.
Blyth’s Pipit Anthus godlewskii near Manzhouli, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 20 July 2015.

In the summer, Elaine and I returned to the region with Jan-Erik. The three of us spent 11-24 July exploring Hulunbeier. We drove our rented Honda CR-V 2533 km, covering the main habitats of Hulunbeier, among them the northern-temperate and taiga forests of the Greater Khingan Range and the arid grasslands around Hulun Lake.

Baikal Bush Warbler, 12 July 2015. Near Genhe, we were driving 60 km/h and in the middle of a conversation. Suddenly Jan-Erik said, 'I just heard Siberian Bush Warbler!' (IOC: Baikal Bush Warbler). I hit the brakes and parked. Within a few seconds, we had our bird. Jan-Erik has sharp ears!
Baikal Bush Warbler, 12 July 2015. Near Genhe, we were driving 60 km/h and in the middle of a conversation. Suddenly Jan-Erik said, ‘I just heard Siberian Bush Warbler!’ (IOC: Baikal Bush Warbler). I hit the brakes and parked. Within a few seconds, we had our bird. Jan-Erik has sharp ears!

Among the 170 species we noted were breeding Scaly-sided Merganser at Yikesama Forest and Swan Goose at the excellent Modamuji wetland. Other highlights: Great Grey Owl and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler at Wuerqihan; Demoiselle Crane, Oriental Plover, and Isabellline Shrike around Hulun Lake; breeding Arctic Warbler near Genhe and at Yikesama; Baikal Bush Warbler near Genhe and at Hanma Reserve; House Sparrow and Blyth’s Pipit at various locations; Hazel Grouse at various locations and Black Grouse at Hanma; nesting Common House Martin in Galaya; flocks of hundreds of Pacific Swift and Common Swift in the towns; banded Red-necked Stint near Modamuji; 5000 Sand Martin and Bearded Reedling at Modamuji; and Pallas’s Reed Bunting ssp. lydiae and Common Starling at Wulannuo’er.

Common Swift, Hulun Lake, Inner Mongolia, 21 July 2015.
Common Swift, Hulun Lake, Inner Mongolia, 21 July 2015.

Next came two weeks (26 July-8 Aug.) in eastern Heilongjiang with Brian Ivon Jones. The trip began and ended in Jiamusi and took us on a loop through areas along the border with Russia, principally along the Ussuri and Amur rivers. This part of the trip was somewhat of a disappointment, mainly because seas of maize have eaten up hundreds of square kilometers of habitat. Still, we managed to find Oriental Stork in unexpected places such as Tongjiang; at Qixing River we found breeding Red-necked Grebe and noted Red-crowned Crane, White-naped Crane, and Reed Parrotbill (ssp. polivanovi, “Northern Parrotbill”); and at Qindeli Farms we saw Black Woodpecker and Mountain Hare.

Eurasian Woodcock, Honghe Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang, 30 July 2015. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F/4, 1/80, ISO 10000.
Eurasian Woodcock, Honghe Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang, 30 July 2015. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F/4, 1/80, ISO 10000.

Elaine and I spent 9 Aug. to 8 Sept. at Dawucun. The month at Elaine’s parents’ house was a high point in my birding career and one of the most satisfying moments in my many years in China. The birding was excellent, even in late summer, and even better was combining birding with family. Elaine and I would bird in the morning and afternoon and in the evening have dinner with her parents, sisters, and nieces.

Elaine Du (L) birding with her nieces Lisa Li (C) and Jennifer Jiang, Dawucun, Heilongjiang, 13 Aug. 2015.
Elaine Du (L) birding with her nieces Lisa Li (C) and Jennifer Jiang, Dawucun, Heilongjiang, 13 Aug. 2015.

Elaine and I rediscovered the quiet hills 1.5 km south of her village, and we made a major discovery: Xidaquan National Forest, 9400 hectares of old-growth secondary woodland just 21 km from Dawucun. Xidaquan had never been properly birded before, and the park managers welcomed our research, giving us free admission in return for a list of the species we noted.

Lush vegetation at forest edge, with thickly forested low mountains typical of region in background. Xidaquan National Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 2 Sept. 2015.
Lush vegetation at forest edge, with thickly forested low mountains typical of region in background. Xidaquan National Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 2 Sept. 2015.

We made 12 visits to Xidaquan and submitted to the managers a list of 91 species noted around the park and Dawucun. Among the highlights were discovering the Eurasian Eagle-Owl while birding with Elaine’s young nieces at the quarry near Dawucun. We found Eurasian Eagle-Owl at two other locations, one of them in Xidaquan, where we also noted Ural Owl and Long-eared Owl. Eastern Crowned Warbler were singing loudly and defending territory deep into August, and Radde’s Warbler were behaving likewise into September.

Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea amurensis, Xidaquan, 17 Aug. 2015.
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea amurensis, Xidaquan, 17 Aug. 2015.

We regularly noted classic northeast China taxa such as Coal Tit ssp. ater, Eurasian Nuthatch ssp. amurensis, Eurasian Jay ssp. brandtii, Willow Tit ssp. baicalensis, and Marsh Tit ssp. brevirostris. At Xidaquan we saw Mandarin Duck, Asian Stubtail, Thick-billed Warbler, Eurasian Treecreeper, Siberian Thrush, Pale Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat, and Long-tailed Rosefinch; in the hills behind Dawucun we had breeding White-throated Rock Thrush, Asian Brown Flycatcher, and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher as well as Northern Goshawk, Chinese Grey Shrike, Grey-backed Thrush, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, and Eurasian Red Squirrel; and in Elaine’s parents’ back garden we had Daurian Starling as well as the regular nighttime visits by the eagle-owls.

Elaine Du and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan, 25 Aug. 2015.
Elaine Du and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan, 25 Aug. 2015.

The hills behind Elaine’s house became like a second home to us. A message I sent on 4 Sept. to the Shanghai Birding WeChat group sums up my mood:

“WISH-YOU-WERE-HERE MOMENT: If crisp fall weather could be bottled up and sold, then today would be the day to harvest it. Brilliant blue sky, cool qiufeng (秋风, ‘autumn breeze’), temp. about 17°C. Speaking of harvests, Elaine and her father are nearby picking Honey Mushroom Armillaria mellea. Elaine just radioed me; she and baba found a mother lode and expect to collect about 8 kg of the tasty fungus. I just now was writing almost literally in the shadow of a White-backed Woodpecker, the largest pied woodpecker and a very inquisitive creature, curious even about the weak playback coming from my iPhone speaker. Before settling down, I startled a Hazel Grouse and heard the laughter of Black Woodpecker. A Pale Thrush gave itself away with its tzzt contact call, then viewed me from a high branch before darting off. … Thank you for waiting me out while I drink my fill of these northern forests. It’s been one of my sweetest China experiences, doing great birding by day and being welcomed by Elaine’s warmhearted family at night. Birding and family! Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

Radde's Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi, a species commonly noted by Elaine and me at Xidaquan. They were singing and defending territory into September. This photo is from 24 Aug. 2015.
Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi, a species commonly noted by Elaine and me at Xidaquan. They were singing and defending territory into September. This photo is from 24 Aug. 2015.

BEIJING & HEBEI IN OCTOBER

Jan-Erik was an excellent tour guide at Nanpu, a coastal site in Hebei and the major wintering site for Relict Gull. Our Swedish friend also introduced us to Miyun, where we noted Greater Spotted Eagle and Long-billed Plover.

We found this wintering Japanese Thrush in Longheng on 20 Dec. 2015.
We found this wintering Japanese Thrush in Longheng on 20 Dec. 2015.

LONGHENG, GUANGXI, HOME OF NONGGANG BABBLER

From 16-21 Dec., Michael, Elaine, and I were in Longheng, Guangxi. We noted 76 species, chief among them Nonggang Babbler. We had White-winged Magpie, savored close nighttime views of Collared Scops Owl, enjoyed views of the elusive Lesser Shortwing, and delighted in southern China favorites Sultan Tit, Buff-breasted Babbler, Streaked Wren-Babbler, and Black-breasted Thrush. Farther afield, driving in our rented Mitsubishi Pajero, we found Large Woodshrike in the heavily wooded valley near Longheng, White-browed Piculet and Chestnut-capped Babbler in the cane fields near Longheng, Slaty-bellied Tesia in a thicket along a farm road, Siberian Rubythroat along a stream near Nonggang village, and Red-headed Trogon, Long-tailed Broadbill, Grey-throated Babbler, and Pale-footed Bush Warbler near Nonggang National Nature Reserve. Pin-striped Tit-Babbler and Rufescent Prinia were seen at various points, and Crested Bunting were locally abundant on the road between Chongzuo and Longheng.

Bird Species Noted in 2015 by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du

In 2015, the husband-and-wife team of Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du noted 305 species in the Shanghai region, 450 species in China, and 640 species worldwide.

Shanghai region: 305 (227 in Shanghai Shi)
China: 450
Asia: 451 (includes China list plus Varied Tit, noted by Craig in Seoul)
World: 640 (includes Asia list plus all American species not on Asia list)

Featured image: In 2015, my wife Elaine Du discovered Sandhill Crane (L) at my home in Florida; her husband, Craig, discovered Eurasian Eagle-Owl (R) at Elaine’s home in Heilongjiang. 2015 was our Year of the Crane and the Owl.

Nanhui on Foot

Elaine and I birded Nanhui on foot, noting 43 species. I had my first-ever visual record of Brown-cheeked Rail in Shanghai, and at Dishui Lake we noted Common Goldeneye, 6 Greater Scaup, and 4 Black-necked Grebe. We had an unusual winter record of Eastern Yellow Wagtail (ssp. tschutschensis).

Common Goldeneye with Falcated Duck, Dishui Lake, 16 Jan. 2016. Photo created with iPhone 6 and Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope mounted on Manfrotto head and carbon-fiber tripod.
Common Goldeneye with Falcated Duck, Dishui Lake, 16 Jan. 2016. Photo created with iPhone 6 and Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope mounted on Manfrotto head and carbon-fiber tripod.

The Brown-cheeked Rail was at 30.907690, 121.972372. Our discovery of the shy species came about because we were walking, not driving. On a sunny and unusually quiet day along Shijitang Road (the sea-wall road), Elaine and I were walking slowly, noting every sound and movement. Had we been driving, we might have missed the brief, piercing call of the rail.

The sound was coming from the reeds at the landward base of the sea wall. As it was time for lunch, and knowing how long rail vigils can take, Elaine and I sat down and ate our sandwiches in the warm sun, watching for movement in the reeds below and recording the calls the rail was intermittently making. Finally, the rail appeared atop the thin drainage canal connecting the wall to the marsh. I got a good enough look at the brownish flanks to affirm that the bird was not the extralimital Water Rail Rallus aquaticus but Brown-cheeked Rail R. indicus.

The valuable record was icing on the cake for us, because Elaine’s and my main goal today was not to acquire lifers but to get outside and exercise. If good birds appeared, we said, then fine, but nothing was more important to us than casting away the cooped-up feeling we get living in our apartment in the center city. We wanted sunshine, broad horizons, and the relatively clean air of Nanhui, and this time, for the first time, we wanted to bird Nanhui on foot.

We were able to do Nanhui without a car because of the recent opening of Metro Line 16, whose south terminus is at Dishui Lake. We needed only 90 minutes to go from our apartment near Zhongshan Park to Dishui Lake, taking Line 2 to Longyang Road and transferring to Line 16. After a quick taxi ride, by 08:15 we were at our favorite Dishui Lake viewpoint (30.908702, 121.945124). Having noted in addition to the aforementioned birds 350 Falcated Duck, 4 Tufted Duck, 1 of today’s 2 Richard’s Pipit, and surprisingly 0 Common Pochard, Elaine and I walked toward the coast. I had no camera with me, only my spotting scope and binoculars.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis, an unusual winter record for Shanghai.
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis, an unusual winter record for Shanghai.

At the sea wall, we turned north, finding many Buff-bellied Pipit, White Wagtail, and the misplaced Eastern Yellow Wagtail. We ID’d our 2 Pied Harrier on the basis of the combination of brown back, greyish secondaries, and white rump of both birds, which were together. We heard two more rails but in even thicker cover than the first; we did not wait around for a visual to nail the ID, but we presume that they too were Brown-cheeked. Walking on an unpaved road into the reeds, we startled Common Snipe and Eurasian Teal. We watched Reed Parrotbill pry open the reed stems, making a crunchy sound.

One snipe, a loner, made only a quick, low flight before dropping stonelike and silently into the reeds. There was no “sneeze” at takeoff, unlike Common Snipe, and I saw no white trailing edge to the wing (which is not to say it was not there). The snipe appeared smaller than Common. Because of the angle of the snipe’s head as it dropped, I could not see the bill. Was it Jack Snipe? I do not know, but I urge local birders not to chalk up every snipe they see to Common but to take a good, hard look.

We u-turned and walked south, reaching the bus stop behind the Magic Parking Lot at the Holiday Inn. It was 15:20 and we had walked 17 km. We took the bus back to the Dishui Lake Metro Station. The subway ride back to Zhongshan Park was just as smooth as the ride out.

Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du sleeping on Line 16. It's a long ride out to Dishui Lake, but birders are virtually guaranteed a seat on Line 16. That's because the stations one uses to access and exit Line 16 (Dishui Lake and Longyang Road) are the terminuses of Line 16. Note here that, even though I was fast asleep, I nonetheless retained the presence of mind to photographically record this moment for you.
Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du sleeping on Line 16. It’s a long ride out to Dishui Lake, but birders are virtually guaranteed a seat on Line 16. That’s because the stations one uses to access and exit Line 16 (Dishui Lake and Longyang Road) are the terminuses of Line 16.

List 1 of 1 for Sat. 16 Jan. 2016 (43 species). Around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]), Shanghai, China (30.920507, 121.973159). List includes birds found at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124). Thick morning haze then mostly sunny skies; low 0°C, high 10°C. Visibility 0-10 km. Wind E 6 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 189 (Shanghai). Sunrise 06:53, sunset 17:15. SAT 16 JAN 2016 08:15-15:10. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Falcated Duck Anas falcata 350
Gadwall A. strepera 9
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 50
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 50
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 70
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 4
Greater Scaup A. marila 6
Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 14
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 30
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 4
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 4
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 15
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 25
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 10
Pied Harrier Circus melanoleucos 2
Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus 1
Brown-cheeked/Water Rail R. indicus/R. aquaticus 2
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 150
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus 30
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 17
snipe sp. 1
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 1
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 8
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 12
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 2
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus ca. 50
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 9
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 30
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 5
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 5
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 12
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 8
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 100
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 1 tschutschensis
White Wagtail M. alba 18 (17 leucopsis, 1 ocularis)
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 2
Buff-Bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 16
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 40

Featured image: Craig Brelsford viewing Brown-cheeked Rail in a drainage ditch at Nanhui, Shanghai, China, Sat. 16 Jan. 2016. Photo by Elaine Du.

A Reliable Spot for Brown-cheeked Rail

On our first birding trip of 2016, Elaine and I noted 85 species at Yancheng, Dongtai, and Yangkou. We reunited with the Dream Team, which includes Senior Birder Michael Grunwell, husband-wife team Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp, my wife Elaine Du, and me. We added evidence that the point 32.557278 121.037111 is a reliable site for Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus, and at Dongtai we found a sub-adult Mute Swan. At Yancheng, we found 9 Red-crowned Crane, 10 Hooded Crane, 250 Common Crane, 2 Oriental Stork, 1250 Common Merganser, and 8 Reed Parrotbill. Among our big finds at Dongtai were 11 Red-breasted Merganser, 14 Greater Scaup, 80 Saunders’s Gull, and 610 Grey Plover. We recorded Pied Avocet, Black-winged Kite, and Smew at Dongtai and Yancheng, and we found Green Sandpiper at Yancheng and Yangkou.

Mute Swan
Mute Swan is a well-known ornamental bird, found in parks throughout Western Europe and North America. Wild Mute Swan are less commonly seen, and in the Shanghai region, Cygnus olor is a very scarce winter visitor. This sub-adult has a dull pink bill, unlike the deep orange-red bill of an adult. Dongtai, 10 Jan. (Craig Brelsford)

In May 2010, I found Brown-cheeked Rail at the point in Yangkou noted above. I forgot about the sighting and did not search again until last 15 Nov., when I found Brown-cheeked Rail after a 30-minute wait. On Sunday, I made my second of two tries at the site and was successful again.

Using the evidence I have presented here, you may believe, as I do, that the site is reliable for Rallus indicus. If you need the bird, then go with a few more birders if possible, stand in the area shown on the Google Map linked to above, spread out, and pay attention to the edge of the reeds. On Sunday, in contrast to 15 Nov., the rail never showed clearly; only Elaine’s sharp eye confirmed the presence of the scurrying rail. I got a look that first time, and about 30 minutes later, the bird showed again, and everyone got a quick view. The bird was calling softly from time to time and called loudly, but only briefly, when I first played back Water Rail R. aquaticus. (I played back R. aquaticus because the recordings I have of R. indicus are poor.) If you have qualms about playback, then you may still be able to see the bird, but be prepared to wait. If you are lucky, Reed Parrotbill will show; during our wait, we had Pallas’s Reed Bunting, Rustic Bunting, a Common Snipe that was hiding in plain sight, and an unusual winter view of Chinese Pond Heron.

Chinese Pond Heron
Unusual winter sighting of Chinese Pond Heron, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.

With last weekend’s work at Yancheng, Elaine and I completed a survey (which began last year) of the Jiangsu coast from just north of Yancheng down to the Yangtze River. Along that 300 km stretch of coast, the best place to bird is Dongtai, followed by Yangkou and Yancheng. Besides those three areas, there is little left. There may be pockets that I have overlooked, but I doubt they are substantial; I doubt there is some secret location holding 10,000 waders.

The coastal area of Dongtai city is under no environmental protection that I know of, and in fact is slated to be transformed for aquaculture. At Yancheng, the Red-crowned Crane we saw were shuttling back and forth between fields, with busy farmers, noisy farming machines, and farmhouses never far away. At Yangkou, the smell of chemicals grows ever stronger, just as birdable areas behind the coastal wall grow ever smaller and the invasive Smooth Cordgrass on the mudflats grows ever more extensive.

Rustic
We had little time for photography, but this cooperative Rustic Bunting offered me an opportunity too good to pass up. It is easy to distinguish a faded winter Rustic (as here) from the smarter breeding Rustic; it is harder to age and sex them. (Craig Brelsford)

Jiangsu packs 80 million people into an area less than a quarter the size of Sweden or California. If Sweden were as densely populated as Jiangsu, then its population would be about the same (320 million) as that of the United States. The GPP (Gross Provincial Product) of Jiangsu is one-third the GDP of India. A dense population of people with a culture that cares little for conservation and operates an economic powerhouse: That is Jiangsu. No wonder the Jiangsu coast is being chopped to pieces!

Thanks to Michael for teaching us birding, to Stephan for his excellent driving, to Xueping for her quick mind, and to Elaine for her cheery attitude.

Elaine Du
Elaine Du cheerfully hauls the spotting scope back to the car. The youngest member of the team, Elaine has an obvious enthusiasm for birding, is becoming handy with the telescope, and keeps accurate records. (Craig Brelsford)
Smew
Smew, Yancheng, 9 Jan. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Green Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Scaup
Greater Scaup, Dongtai, 10 Jan. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: L-R: Stephan Popp, Michael Grunwell, & Elaine Du view 1250 Common Merganser near Crane Paradise, Yancheng, Jiangsu, 9 January 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

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Lesser Shortwing and the Joy of Low-light Photography

On my recent trip to Guangxi, I rediscovered the joy of low-light photography.

Michael Grunwell, my wife Elaine Du, and I were at a blind. Well past sunset, long after the other photographers had left, we were still there. First the thrushes retired, then the White-tailed Robin.

Suddenly, Lesser Shortwing popped out.

This dorsal view provides plenty of detail. Note the short wings and stubby tail. F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.
This dorsal view provides plenty of detail. Note the short wings and stubby tail. F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)

Through the gloom we could just make out the form of a small bird. So dark was it by now that I could ID the bird only by the photos I was taking of it.

The shortwing helped itself to a few mealworms and took a bath. It had no competition. Its strategy was to wait out the bigger birds and use its tolerance for very low light as an advantage. We got sustained views and photos of a rarely seen bird.

The shortwing was the capstone on another successful project in low-light bird photography. Ever since a magical morning in June 2010, when I photographed Fairy Pitta in the pre-dawn light at Dongzhai, Henan, I have been drawn to photographing forest birds in low light.

This image of a Fairy Pitta got me hooked on low-light bird photography. I was using the old Nikon D300 and my current 600 mm F/4 lens. With that camera, I was afraid to go above ISO 250! But the pitta was a perfect model, standing motionless for seconds at a time. Dongzhai, Henan, 5 June 2010. F/8, 0.80, ISO 250.
This image of a Fairy Pitta got me hooked on low-light bird photography. I was using the old Nikon D300 and my current 600 mm F/4 lens. With that camera, I was afraid to go above ISO 250! But the pitta was a perfect model, standing motionless for seconds at a time. F/8, 0.80, ISO 250. Dongzhai, Henan, 5 June 2010. (Craig Brelsford)

My current setup is well-suited to this task. I place my Nikon D3S and Nikon 600 mm F/4 lens atop my Manfrotto MVH502AH video head and Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon-fiber tripod. The D3S is now a 6-year-old model; though superseded by newer models such as the D4S, the D3S remains one of the best low-light cameras ever made, easily creating usable photos at ISO 10000.

I put the D3S in mirror-up mode. I tighten the head to the firmest position and slowly follow the movement of the shortwing with my left hand, which holds the wand attached to the head. When the shortwing stops, I release my hand from the wand; because the head is tight and hard to move, the camera always rests in the position to which I guide it.

This beautiful male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was photographed on 2 May 2014 at a temporary photo blind that I set up near Yangkou, Jiangsu. This photo was taken at 15:42, and light was more plentiful. I added my 1.4x teleconverter to my 600 mm lens, set the aperture to F/11, the speed to 1/80, and the ISO to 1600. As always, I used my shutter-release cable.
This beautiful male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was photographed on 2 May 2014 at a temporary photo blind that I set up near Yangkou, Jiangsu. This photo was taken at 15:42, and light was more plentiful. I added my 1.4x teleconverter to my 600 mm lens, set the aperture to F/11, the speed to 1/80, and the ISO to 1600. As always, I used my shutter-release cable. (Craig Brelsford)

I press the button on my shutter-release cable, held in my right hand. The first press opens the mirror; I wait a second, then press the button again, opening the shutter and exposing the image.

Low light is not bad light. With patience, skill, and the right equipment, one can achieve lovely images of birds in near-darkness.

The shortwing seems to be looking at us, but actually it has no idea it is being watched. It is simply responding to the soft click of the camera. What an advantage blinds can give birders. Where else but in a blind can one view a Lesser Shortwing, among the shyest of birds, for 10 minutes? F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.
The shortwing seems to be looking at us, but actually it has no idea it is being watched. It is simply responding to the soft click of the camera. What an advantage blinds can give birders. Where else but in a blind can one view a Lesser Shortwing, among the shyest of birds, for 10 minutes? F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris just after its bath at photo blind in Longheng, Guangxi, China, 20 Dec. 2015. F/4, 1/8, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)

White-bellied Green Pigeon! (or, How We Slogged Our Way through the Shanghai Smog and Picked Up a Lifer)

Fresh from our trip to Guangxi, Elaine and I on Saturday noted 57 species at Lesser Yangshan and Nanhui. The highlight was White-bellied Green Pigeon at Nanhui. Nanhui also produced 3 Greater Scaup, an impressive 440 Tufted Duck and 470 Kentish Plover, and a single Reed Parrotbill. On Lesser Yangshan, Brown-eared Bulbul was noted once again, and I flushed 2 Eurasian Woodcock.

After the smoggiest, most pollution-filled beginning to a birding day I had ever seen, our respectable showing was a surprise to Elaine and our partners Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp. Starting in Puxi at 06:15, we crawled through thick haze, with visibility sometimes reduced to less than 50 meters. Many birders would have reasonably turned back, but we pressed on, cheerfully repeating the two mantras of birding: (1) you never know and (2) wait. Finally, driving across Donghai Bridge, after more than two hours in Stephan and Xueping’s Passat, we saw a hint of blue sky over Lesser Yangshan Island. Free at last!

In the animal world, the survivors are the athletes and the geniuses. This Richard's Pipit is in top condition. It has caught a katydid, and nicely dividing its attention between prey and predator, the bird assesses the danger, bashes its large prey once more, and safely makes off with the stunned insect.
In the animal world, the survivors are the athletes and the geniuses. This Richard’s Pipit is in top condition. It has caught a katydid, and nicely dividing its attention between prey and predator, the bird assesses the danger, bashes its large prey once more, and safely makes off with the stunned insect. (Craig Brelsford)

At that point, just breathing deeply was a bonus; we could have seen not a single bird and felt the trip to the island worthwhile. As it was, however, we generated interesting records such as the bulbul, the woodcocks, and Yellow-bellied Tit, all found in Garbage Dump Gully. Rustic Bunting was on the coastal plain, and among the common winter visitors were 14 Daurian Redstart, 2 Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and 3 Pale Thrush.

Looking back toward the mainland, we noticed that more and more of Donghai Bridge was becoming visible. We decided to chance it and return to Nanhui. Visibility had improved here, too, and at Dishui Lake, our first stop, we gazed hundreds of meters across the water. Using the spotting scopes, Elaine and Xueping picked through the birds. The search for Horned Grebe was fruitless, but 5 Black-necked Grebe were there, and 330 Falcated Duck, 15 Eurasian Wigeon, and 80 Great Crested Grebe were present in more or less their earlier proportions. In the first big pond north of the Magic Parking Lot, we found the large flock of Kentish Plover–surprising, but not unprecedented, as we had counted a mega-flock of 800 on 28 Nov.

Sleeping White-bellied Green Pigeon, Nanhui. After Stephan Popp and I got this image, we backed away slowly, so as not to disturb the tired migrant.
Sleeping White-bellied Green Pigeon, Nanhui. After Stephan Popp and I got this image, we backed away slowly, so as not to disturb the tired migrant. (Craig Brelsford)

We found the White-bellied Green Pigeon at Microforest 4. In the Shanghai region, I had last noted Treron sieboldii on 24 Nov. 2012 on Lesser Yangshan. The beautiful pigeon was a lifer for everyone but me and set off a series of high-fives, made even more meaningful by the inauspicious beginning of our day. White-bellied Green Pigeon became the 259th species Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept.

Development seems to be accelerating at Nanhui. Near the empty blue-roofed building, backhoes are moving great quantities of earth, and Microforest 8 has been destroyed. The line of reeds at the inner base of the sea wall has been mowed down.

Eastern Buzzard, Nanhui. Note the compact build, black carpal patches on underwings, black tips to primaries, and head that is paler than upperparts. Buteo japonicus is a common winter visitor to Shanghai.
Eastern Buzzard, Nanhui. Note the compact build, black carpal patches on underwings, black tips to primaries, and head that is paler than upperparts. Buteo japonicus is a common winter visitor to Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: White-bellied Green Pigeon Treron sieboldii, Cape Nanhui, 26 Dec.

Nonggang Babbler: From ‘Unknown to Science’ to ‘Automatic Tick’

At Longheng, a village near Nonggang National Nature Reserve in Guangxi, Nonggang Babbler has gone from “unknown to science” to “automatic tick.” This is thanks to enterprising individuals such as Lú Róng (卢荣). Mr. Lu created a setup that he maintains daily. His Nonggang Babbler make nearly guaranteed appearances between the hours of 8 and 11. What an amazing turn of events for a species that was not discovered until 2008.

From 16-21 Dec. 2015, Michael Grunwell, my wife Elaine Du, and I were in Guangxi. In Longheng, we stayed at Mr. Lu’s home, which doubles as a lodge. We noted 76 species. Within walking distance of Longheng we had, besides Nonggang Babbler, White-winged Magpie, close nighttime views of Collared Scops Owl, the elusive Lesser Shortwing, and southern China favorites Sultan Tit, Buff-breasted Babbler, Streaked Wren-Babbler, and Black-breasted Thrush. Farther afield, driving in our rented Mitsubishi Pajero, we found Large Woodshrike in the heavily wooded valley near Longheng, White-browed Piculet and Chestnut-capped Babbler in the cane fields near Longheng, Slaty-bellied Tesia in a thicket along a farm road, Siberian Rubythroat along a stream near Nonggang village, and Red-headed Trogon, Long-tailed Broadbill, Grey-throated Babbler, and Pale-footed Bush Warbler near Nonggang National Nature Reserve. Pin-striped Tit-Babbler and Rufescent Prinia were seen at various points, and Crested Bunting were locally abundant on the road between Chongzuo and Longheng. All of the many Fork-tailed Sunbird that we saw were male. Conspicuous by their absence or near-absence were laughingthrushes (0 species noted) and raptors (3 species noted).

Longheng and karst towers from balcony at Mr. Lu's lodge. Photo by Elaine Du.
Longheng and karst towers from balcony at Mr. Lu’s lodge. (Elaine Du)

Longheng involves a flight to Nanning and an easy, partly birdable three-hour drive south to the village. In the village, you can choose between easy activities such as photographing Nonggang Babbler at the setup and harder work such as owl-watching at night. The villagers are members of China’s largest minority group, the Zhuang. Even though sugar cane fills most flat areas, there is still much good habitat, and even the cane fields are somewhat birdable. In the surrounding forests you can get a good impression of tropical southeast China avifauna. The karst is a strange, romantic landscape. Thickly vegetated limestone towers rise like skyscrapers from the valley floor.

Reach Mr. Lu at any of the following numbers: +86 181-7815-7646, +86 (0) 771-8926541, and +86 181-7718-5027. Accommodation at Mr. Lu’s lodge was spartan, but his wife’s country cooking was just fine. For 150 yuan per person per day, we were getting a room, breakfast and supper, and access to the blinds.

Lu Rong (L), Craig Brelsford (C), and Michael Grunwell searching for White-winged Magpie at Longheng. Photo by Elaine Du.
Lu Rong (L), Craig Brelsford (C), and Michael Grunwell searching for White-winged Magpie at Longheng. (Elaine Du)

Mr. Lu is a good birder and will be happy to go birding with you if he has the time. Mr. Lu led us to the Chestnut-capped Babbler site, and he was with us when Elaine spotted the piculets in the sugar cane. He led the owl walk that got us views of Collared Scops Owl. Mr. Lu is in his 50s, was born in Longheng, knows every square inch of the territory within a 10 km radius, and is full of valuable info.

Around Longheng, one can choose between easy and difficult birding activities. Here is a tough one: finding out that the restless, skulking bird that refused to show was Grey-throated Babbler. By crawling into the bushes, I was able to get our only record of this species for our trip. Our partner Michael Grunwell is standing right. Photo by Elaine Du.
Around Longheng, one can choose between easy and difficult birding activities. Here is a tough one: finding out that the restless, skulking bird that refused to show was Grey-throated Babbler. By crawling into the bushes, I was able to get our only record of this species for our trip. Our partner Michael Grunwell is standing right. (Elaine Du)

Mr. Lu has competition: the young Huáng Yuǎn Chéng (黄远程, +86 133-1781-2383). Mr. Huang controls some of the land around the giant banyan tree just outside the village. In the wooded area near the tree, Mr. Huang has created a beautiful setup using the natural limestone as props. Mr. Huang also has a blind for viewing White-winged Magpie.

It’s possible that Mr. Lu and Mr. Huang gained their wealth of bird knowledge by hunting birds. Now, these men not only don’t hunt, but I am sure they would also stop anyone they found poaching. In tiny Longheng, a bird-photography industry has arisen, centered around Nonggang Babbler. At other places in China, notably Baihualing in Yunnan, the same thing is happening. Chinese bird photographers are the driving force behind this small industry. The lust for photos of these mainly well-off men is having a trickle-down effect, putting cash in the pockets of formerly poor farmers and creating a free-market rationale for protecting birds.

One of the easiest birding activities at Longheng is viewing Nonggang Babbler. Here I am at Mr. Lu's Nonggang Babbler setup. Photo by Elaine Du.
One of the easiest birding activities at Longheng is viewing Nonggang Babbler. Here I am at Mr. Lu’s Nonggang Babbler setup. (Elaine Du)

We did not look into getting permits for Nonggang National Nature Reserve. We had been warned that permits would be difficult to obtain, and I find demeaning the entire application process, in which extra scrutiny and double standards are applied to foreigners. We were happy with Longheng, and in any case the locked gate to the nature reserve lies several hundred meters deep within high-quality secondary forest, and one can bird to the gate without a permit.

Elaine Du was voted Most Valuable Birder of the trip. The election took place on the plane back to Shanghai. The democratic process evolved in this wise: Elaine cast her vote for me. Michael voted for Elaine. In a dramatic tie-breaking maneuver, I agreed with Michael and swung the election to Elaine. The engraving on Elaine’s citation reads: “For spotting and helping ID White-browed Piculet as well as for various & sundry excellent feats & good deeds, Elaine Du is voted Most Valuable Birder!”

Elaine Du, Most Valuable Birder of the Nonggang 2015 Birding Expedition.
Elaine Du, Most Valuable Birder of the Nonggang 2015 Birding Expedition. (Craig Brelsford)

THE TRIP

Wed. 16 Dec. 2015
Nanning

Elaine Du, Michael Grunwell, and I flew from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport to Nanning. We picked up our rented Mitsubishi Pajero. Spent night at hotel near airport.

Thurs. 17 Dec. 2015
Longheng

We counted 17 Crested Bunting on the road between Chongzuo and Longheng.
We counted 17 Crested Bunting on the road between Chongzuo and Longheng. (Craig Brelsford)

Bird of the day: White-winged Magpie

We left our hotel and drove 150 km southwest, taking the G7211 freeway to Chóngzuǒ (崇左). From there we took secondary roads through Xiǎngshuǐ (响水) to our destination, Lónghēng (陇亨). We found Crested Bunting between Chongzuo and Longheng. At a scrubby area near Xiangshui, we found Plain Flowerpecker and female Black-throated Sunbird.

At Longheng we met Mr. Lu, a local man who has set up blinds in the forests nearby. He took us to a blind. There, Michael had his first view ever of White-tailed Robin. Small Niltava and Snowy-browed Flycatcher also appeared. In the evening, Mr. Lu took us to an ancient banyan tree near the village. White-winged Magpie flew off as we arrived.

Fri. 18 Dec. 2015
Longheng

Bird of the day: Nonggang Babbler

After breakfast we were taken to a setup by Mr. Lu. Other bird photographers were there. A flock of 10 Nonggang Babbler arrived. The babblers are extremely tame, so much so that Mr. Lu has not even erected a blind. The photographers sit in the open. The Nonggang Babbler were totally without fear, at times foraging within inches of our feet. The mealworms set out by Mr. Lu are clearly a powerful attractant but are only a part of their diet. The setup also attracted Streaked Wren-Babbler, White-tailed Robin, a female Fujian Niltava, and Red-flanked Bluetail. After we were finished at the Nonggang Babbler setup, we visited another blind, where Michael picked up Black-crested Bulbul, and where I enjoyed another close view of Buff-breasted Babbler. We took a long drive on dirt roads. In one of the few places where forest reaches the road, we found Slaty-bellied Tesia. We drove back to Longheng and took a third road out of the village. This was the only road where the high clearance of our Pajero was necessary. This road led to a remote valley guarded by a skull and hound from hell. It took little imagination to see the rabid dog and scowling skull in the totally natural karst. We called this remote valley “the backcountry.”

Sat. 19 Dec. 2015
Longheng

It is nearly impossible for a single photographer to photograph owls at night. For the shot of this Collared Scops Owl, I am indebted to Michael Grunwell and Mr. Lu, the former for his deft use of the flashlight, the latter for his intelligent guiding.
It is nearly impossible for a single photographer to photograph owls at night. For the shot of this Collared Scops Owl, I am indebted to Michael Grunwell and Mr. Lu, the former for his deft use of the flashlight, the latter for his intelligent guiding. (Craig Brelsford)

Bird of the day: Collared Scops Owl

In the morning we stumbled upon a blind near the giant banyan tree. This well-designed site is the work of the artful Mr. Huang, whom we later met. Here we found Japanese Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, Black-breasted Thrush, and a stunning male Fujian Niltava. We drove slowly up the steep, overgrown road to the backcountry, where we picked up Large Woodshrike and Sultan Tit. We drove to the creek at Nonggang village, finding there a male Siberian Rubythroat. We drove as far as the locked gate at Nonggang National Nature Reserve. On the way to the gate we passed through very good primary or old secondary forest. We found 4 Red-headed Trogon and 12 Long-tailed Broadbill. We returned to Longheng. Mr. Lu wanted to look for Collared Scops Owl. Michael Grunwell and I followed Mr. Lu in the dark. We were accompanied by two Chinese bird photographers. Mr. Lu supplied the headlamps; I supplied the playback. We walked a few hundred meters down the dirt road. After a while we heard 2 Collared Scops Owl. We climbed through giant bamboo to the base of the cliff. We spotted the owl right above us on the bamboo. Five people were too many, and it soon left. We walked toward the other owl. The Chinese photographers half gave up and were walking back toward Mr. Lu’s house. Michael and I glimpsed a form flying through the treetops. It was the owl. We enjoyed a sustained view.

Sun. 20 Dec. 2015
Longheng

Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris just after its bath at photo blind in Longheng, Guangxi, 20 Dec. 2015. F/4, 1/8, ISO 10000.
Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris just after its bath at photo blind in Longheng, Guangxi, 20 Dec. 2015. F/4, 1/8, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)

Bird of the day: Lesser Shortwing

We began our day at Mr. Huang’s blind near the giant banyan tree. Mr. Huang came by and took us to another blind, set up to allow photographers to view White-winged Magpie. The magpies arrived, as expected, but only for a few seconds. We drove to Nonggang, where we found Pale-footed Bush Warbler. We drove back to Longheng and revisited Mr. Huang’s Banyan Blind. We waited until after sunset. The light was so low that I could hardly focus my camera. Our patience paid off with Lesser Shortwing.

Through the gloom we could just make out the form of a small bird. So dark was it by now that I could ID the bird only by the photos I was taking of it.

The shortwing helped itself to a few mealworms and took a bath. It had no competition. Its strategy was to wait out the bigger birds and use its tolerance for very low light as an advantage. We got sustained views and photos of a rarely seen bird.

The shortwing was the capstone on another successful project in low-light bird photography. Ever since a magical morning in June 2010, when I photographed Fairy Pitta in the pre-dawn light at Dongzhai, Henan, I have been drawn to photographing forest birds in low light.

The shortwing seems to be looking at us, but actually it has no idea it is being watched. It is simply responding to the soft click of the camera. What an advantage blinds can give birders. Where else but in a blind can one view a Lesser Shortwing, among the shyest of birds, for 10 minutes? F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.
The shortwing seems to be looking at us, but actually it has no idea it is being watched. It is simply responding to the soft click of the camera. What an advantage blinds can give birders. Where else but in a blind can one view a Lesser Shortwing, among the shyest of birds, for 10 minutes? F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)

My current setup is well-suited to this task. I place my Nikon D3S and Nikon 600 mm F/4 lens atop my Manfrotto MVH502AH video head and Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon-fiber tripod. The D3S is now a 6-year-old model; though superseded by newer models such as the D4S, the D3S remains one of the best low-light cameras ever made, easily creating usable photos at ISO 10000.

I put the D3S in mirror-up mode. I tighten the head to the firmest position and slowly follow the movement of the shortwing with my left hand, which holds the wand attached to the head. When the shortwing stops, I release my hand from the wand; because the head is tight and hard to move, the camera always rests in the position to which I guide it.

This dorsal view provides plenty of detail. Note the short wings and stubby tail. F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.
This dorsal view provides plenty of detail. Note the short wings and stubby tail. F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)

I press the button on my shutter-release cable, held in my right hand. The first press opens the mirror; I wait a second, then press the button again, opening the shutter and exposing the image.

Low light is not bad light. With patience, skill, and the right equipment, one can achieve lovely images of birds in near-darkness.

Mon. 21 Dec. 2015
Longheng-Nanning-Shanghai

Bird of the day: White-browed Piculet

In the morning, Michael, Elaine, and I were led by Mr. Lu to a site (22.525578, 107.012304) 7 km from Longheng known to hold Chestnut-capped Babbler. We found 4 amid streamside vegetation and sugar cane. We next looked for Yellow-eyed Babbler at several sites at the edges of sugar-cane fields. We found none but got a fine consolation prize: 3 White-browed Piculet. The piculets were found in the sugar cane at 22.478903, 107.000033 and according to Mr. Lu breed in the heavily wooded village near that point. April is the best time to view the breeding piculets, he said. Our team had spread out and was alerted to the piculets by Elaine’s shouts. She didn’t recognize the piculets, but her vivid description led Mr. Lu to surmise that White-browed Piculet was a possibility. Playback attracted them back, and we all got good views. Michael was ecstatic; his last bird of the trip was a lifer.

We dropped Mr. Lu off at Longheng and enjoyed a smooth ride back to Nanning airport and an uneventful plane ride back to Shanghai.

PHOTO GALLERY

The pale-blue iris and a white crescent behind the ear are among the features distinguishing Stachyris nonggangensis from Sooty Babbler S. herberti, which occurs in Laos and Vietnam and is the species to which Nonggang Babbler is most often compared.
The pale-blue iris and a white crescent behind the ear are among the features distinguishing Stachyris nonggangensis from Sooty Babbler S. herberti, which occurs in Laos and Vietnam and is the species to which Nonggang Babbler is most often compared.
Buff-breasted Babbler Pellorneum tickelli was one of several south-China specialties we enjoyed in Longheng.
Buff-breasted Babbler Pellorneum tickelli was one of several south-China specialties we enjoyed in Longheng. (Craig Brelsford)
Hides are great equalizers. Under normal conditions, birders would struggle to tick Streaked Wren-Babbler. At Mr. Lu's hide, this fellow lingered for minutes at a time, and even scolded us!
Hides are great equalizers. Under normal conditions, birders would struggle to tick Streaked Wren-Babbler. At Mr. Lu’s hide, this fellow lingered for minutes at a time, and even scolded us! (Craig Brelsford)
Noisy, gregarious, and flamboyantly colored, Long-tailed Broadbill provide unforgettable moments to the birder.
Noisy, gregarious, and flamboyantly colored, Long-tailed Broadbill provide unforgettable moments to the birder. (Craig Brelsford)
Sitting patiently in Mr. Huang's hide paid off with this serviceable shot of White-winged Magpie.
Sitting patiently in Mr. Huang’s hide paid off with this serviceable shot of White-winged Magpie. (Craig Brelsford)
Turdus is an easy genus to love. Turdus is powerful, with representatives on all the habitable continents and even Oceania; consistent, with the same basic size and rounded shape common to all species; and beautiful, as in the case of south China's Black-breasted Thrush Turdus dissimilis.
Turdus is an easy genus to love. Turdus is powerful, with representatives on all the habitable continents and even Oceania; consistent, with the same basic size and rounded shape common to all species; and beautiful, as in the case of south China’s Black-breasted Thrush T. dissimilis. (Craig Brelsford)

Simple List of Species of Bird Noted Around Longheng and Nonggang National Nature Reserve, Guangxi, China, 16-21 Dec. 2015 (76 species)

Greater Coucal
Collared Scops Owl
Red-headed Trogon
Common Kingfisher
White-browed Piculet
Bay Woodpecker
Common Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Long-tailed Broadbill
Large Woodshrike
Long-tailed Shrike
White-bellied Erpornis
Ashy Drongo
White-throated Fantail
Red-billed Blue Magpie
White-winged Magpie
Large-billed Crow
Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher
Sultan Tit
Japanese Tit
Black-crested Bulbul
Red-whiskered Bulbul
Light-vented Bulbul
Sooty-headed Bulbul
Puff-throated Bulbul
Black Bulbul
Red-rumped Swallow
Yellow-bellied Warbler
Brown-flanked Bush Warbler
Slaty-bellied Tesia
Pale-footed Bush Warbler
Dusky Warbler
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler
Two-barred Warbler
Bianchi’s Warbler
Rufescent Prinia
Plain Prinia
Common Tailorbird
Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler
Nonggang Babbler
Grey-throated Babbler
Rufous-capped Babbler
Pin-striped Tit-Babbler
Chestnut-capped Babbler
David’s Fulvetta
Streaked Wren-Babbler
Buff-breasted Babbler
Japanese White-eye
Crested Myna
Grey-backed Thrush
Black-breasted Thrush
Japanese Thrush
Chinese Blackbird
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Fujian Niltava
Small Niltava
Lesser Shortwing
Daurian Redstart
White-tailed Robin
Siberian Rubythroat
Red-flanked Bluetail
Snowy-browed Flycatcher
Stejneger’s Stonechat
Grey Bush Chat
Plain Flowerpecker
Fork-tailed Sunbird
Black-throated Sunbird
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
White-rumped Munia
Scaly-breasted Munia
Grey Wagtail
White Wagtail
Olive-backed Pipit
Crested Bunting
Black-faced Bunting

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Does not cover Guangxi province. Consulted in Shanghai.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions.

Lynx Edicions. The Internet Bird Collection. ibc.lynxeds.com

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press. We had a copy of MacKinnon at our lodge and consulted it at night.

Oriental Bird Club. Oriental Bird Images. orientalbirdimages.org.

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press. Our first reference. “E Tonkin” (Vietnam) is the region closest to Nonggang.

Smith, Andrew T. & Yan Xie, eds. Mammals of China. Princeton University Press.

Xeno-Canto Foundation. Xeno-Canto: Bird Sounds from Around the World. xeno-canto.org. Craig has downloaded hundreds of calls from this Web site.

EQUIPMENT

Cameras: Nikon D3S; for landscapes, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone 4S, and Apple iPhone 6
Lens: Nikon VR 600mm F/4G
Sound recorder: Olympus DM-650
Binoculars: Swarovski EL 8 x 32 (Craig), Zeiss Conquest HD 8 x 42 (Elaine)
Spotting scope: Swarovski ATX-95

Featured image: It may seem incredible that a vertebrate species in China remained unknown to science until the 21st century. That however is the case with Nonggang Babbler Stachyris nonggangensis, discovered by Chinese researchers in 2008. (Craig Brelsford)

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