‘You Could Be a Star Here’: Birds Common in Germany but Rare in China

by Kai Pflug
for shanghaibirding.com

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

I spent most of July 2018 in Germany, mostly to visit my mother, but of course I took my camera as well. As I only started birding once living in Shanghai, I am not very familiar with German birds and still feel excited about them.

Sending some of the photos I took to my friend Kaca back in Shanghai, a certain theme started to emerge, as you can see from his replies to my messages:

• I like the robin, the redstart and the woodpecker—quite similar to Xinjiang birds indeed …
• We have the linnet in Xinjiang too …
• Great to see the Red-backed Shrike—you don’t need to go to Xinjiang for it …

So let’s take a look at some of these birds (to be honest, I mostly write these blog posts to have an outlet for my photos, so don’t be surprised if this post is as photo-heavy as my previous few ones).

The linnet is a finch found in Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia—which includes Xinjiang but not Shanghai. The German name, Bluthänfling (“blood linnet”) refers to the most obvious feature of the male, the red breast. What is the function of the red breast? Well, presumably to attract a mate—see photo for details …

Common Linnet (Kai Pflug)
Common Linnet Linaria cannabina. (Kai Pflug)
Common Linnet (Kai Pflug)
Common Linnet mating. (Kai Pflug)

For the Red-backed Shrike, the situation is somewhat similar: not rare in Europe or Xinjiang, but only very few records in Eastern and Southern China (not sure how reliable these are). Again, the German language has a slightly more expressive name to offer, Neuntöter (“killer of nine”—it was once believed that this bird starts eating only after having killed nine prey items and impaled them on thorns). Of course, in Shanghai we have the Long-tailed Shrike as the main representative of this family.

Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio (Kai Pflug)
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio. (Kai Pflug)

The European Goldfinch—despite its name—can also be found in Xinjiang as well as in Europe and presumably on the far western border of Tibet. This is one of the most colorful small passerines commonly seen in Germany. As the photo shows, it is rather fond of thistles—which seems like a rather slow way of getting nutrition, but then maybe there is not too much competition for this.

European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis (Kai Pflug)
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis. (Kai Pflug)

I know it is not very cool to quote Wikipedia, but this bit is nice, though not particularly relevant to our topic: “If [caged] goldfinches are kept with canaries, they tend to lose their native song and call in favor of their cage-mates’ songs. This is considered undesirable as it detracts from the allure of keeping goldfinches.” Interesting.

The European Robin also makes its occasional appearance in Xinjiang, as well as extremely rare appearances further east (for example in Beijing at the Temple of Heaven in November 2013 and 2014). Much easier to see in Germany, of course …

European Robin Erithacus rubecula (Kai Pflug)
European Robin Erithacus rubecula. (Kai Pflug)

Of course, in July, juveniles are also well-represented.

European Robin juvenile. (Kai Pflug)
European Robin, juvenile. (Kai Pflug)

A bird that can occasionally be found in Eastern China is the Common Starling—though it is not really that common here (in fact, when I sent a starling photo to my friend Kaca, he replied, “Can you ask the bird here to come here—I can make it a star!”). The Common Starling is actually the bird of the year 2018 in Germany (nominated by some NGO), so it makes sense to feature it in this post.

Common StarlingSturnus vulgaris. (Kai Pflug)
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris. (Kai Pflug)

To see a Barn Owl in China, one has to both be lucky and travel to border areas of Yunnan. Fortunately, it is a bit easier for Germans, though it also took a bit of time to find some there. Some local naturalists support the owls by setting up nesting boxes. The farmers who accept these installations get some support in rodent control …

Western Barn Owl Tyto alba (Kai Pflug)
Western Barn Owl Tyto alba. (Kai Pflug)
Western Barn Owl with prey. (Kai Pflug)
Western Barn Owl with prey. (Kai Pflug)

Common Cranes are not particularly rare in China in winter—but they are becoming almost abundant in Germany. One place I visited boasts of hosting more than 10,000 Common Cranes in autumn. And I have seen (and heard: the sound of elephants trumpeting) them flying over my parents’ house.

Common Crane Grus grus. (Kai Pflug)
Common Crane Grus grus. (Kai Pflug)
Common Crane, flock in flight. (Kai Pflug)
Common Crane, flock in flight. (Kai Pflug)

With an estimated 10 million breeding pairs, the Common Chaffinch (male and female shown) is by far the most common bird in Germany. In China, the species is locally common in northern Xinjiang.

Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, male. (Kai Pflug)
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, male. (Kai Pflug)
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, female. (Kai Pflug)
Common Chaffinch, female. (Kai Pflug)

Lastly, a bird that you are not likely to ever see in China—the European Green Woodpecker. It is a bit like a wryneck in that it mainly feeds on ants and does not drum. It is an attractive but shy bird (photos: adult and juvenile).

European Green Woodpecker Picus viridis, adult female. (Kai Pflug)
European Green Woodpecker Picus viridis, adult female. (Kai Pflug)
European Green Woodpecker Picus viridis, juvenile female. (Kai Pflug)
European Green Woodpecker, juvenile female. (Kai Pflug)

So, if you want to see some exotic birds and do not feel like going to Xinjiang, why not consider a trip to Germany?

The photos shown here were taken in July 2018 in and around Visselhövede, Niedersachsen, Germany.

The photo book Birds of Nanhui, Shanghai (ISBN 978-7-202-12615-8) is still available from the author (kai.pflug@gmail.com), though obviously none of the photos in this post can be found in that book.

GUEST POST: Marsh Grassbird at Cape Nanhui

by Kai Pflug
for shanghaibirding.com

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

Walking or driving at Cape Nanhui these days, you may hear an interesting sound coming from the reeds. HBW describes it as “a low-pitched, repeated djuk-djuk-djuk,” but I do not think that description does the sound justice. To me, the sound is reminiscent of some of the more obscure Cure songs, in particular, “Like Cockatoos”—the same swirling sound. This is the sound of Marsh Grassbird.

It is much more difficult to see than hear Marsh Grassbird. It took me a few days before I was successful (with the help of 吴世嘉 and David – thanks!). The bird usually hides deep in the reeds. Occasionally, and in particular this time of year, it flies up a few meters while singing before dropping quickly back into the reeds.

What does Locustella pryeri look like? Just look at the photos below, and consider the Chinese name, Banbei Daweiying (斑背大尾莺, “striped-back long-tailed warbler”). The mainland Asian breeder, sinensis, is 14 cm long and weighs 10 g. It feeds mainly on insects and breeds in wet, reedy swamps.

Its most remarkable feature is its song display. The grassbird begins singing on a reed, flies, still singing, in a high arc, then drops back quickly into the reeds (usually too quick to get a decent photo, at least for me).

The species is still a mystery to ornithologists, with uncertainties regarding its migration patterns, for example. Living a life hidden in the reeds does not facilitate ornithological studies.

The conservation status of Marsh Grassbird is Near Threatened. It is suffering from habitat loss as the reed beds it needs for breeding are being destroyed. At Cape Nanhui alone, my guess is that in the past year around a third of the habitat suitable for the species has been destroyed. With an estimated (declining) global population of 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, the last thing the species needs is further destruction of the reeds at Nanhui.

Is Marsh Grassbird a spectacular-looking bird? Perhaps not, but human standards of beauty are not a criterion for conservation. If however you need a reason to protect this bird, then just listen to its song:

Marsh Grassbird, 10 April 2016, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:07; 1 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Here are some of my recent photos of the threatened bird, all taken at Cape Nanhui:

Marsh Grassbird Locustella pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
Locustella pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April 2018. Also known as Japanese Swamp Warbler, Marsh Grassbird is among the least-known members of Locustella. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird Locustella pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
Another look at Cape Nanhui’s Marsh Grassbird. The reed beds at Cape Nanhui may be the last stronghold of the species on the Shanghai Peninsula. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird Locustella pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird singing at Cape Nanhui. If no action is taken to preserve Cape Nanhui, then the song of this species could fall silent on the Shanghai Peninsula. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird Locustella pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
Sing on, Marsh Grassbird. Time may not be on your side, but many birders are. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Nanhui, Shanghai, 10 April 2016.
Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Cape Nanhui, 10 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured photo: Marsh Grassbird, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)

GUEST POST: Cape Nanhui Impressions 2017

by Kai Pflug
for shanghaibirding.com

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

I spent about 50 days at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui in 2017–sometimes with friends, but mostly on my own. Here are some of my favorite photos from Nanhui 2017.

Coming back from a trip to Australia, where I saw many interesting birds, I was afraid I was going to be disappointed by Nanhui. I was, however, far from disappointed by this Short-eared Owl (January).

Short-eared Owl, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, January 2017. (Kai Pflug)

In April, Craig and I took a trip to Nanhui. I think we more or less both took the same photo of this Common Kingfisher and Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

Common Kingfisher and Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

This Blue-and-white Flycatcher has just had a good moment. This photographer has just had a good moment (April).

Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

A Common Sandpiper was inspecting his fishing nets (April).

Common Sandpiper, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

In May, I was already on my way back home from a somewhat disappointing day at Nanhui when Craig called. “Orange-headed Trush at the parking lot!” Of course, I turned back. It was worth it.

Orange-headed Thrush, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

I like the way this male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher seems to rest his long tail on the tree. Probably no females around to impress at this point, I guess (May).

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Personally, I think of this photo as having the subtitle “The joys of parenthood.” Congratulations, Craig–with only one son, it should be a bit more relaxed than for this Long-tailed Shrike (May).

Long-tailed Shrike, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Going to Nanhui in July is a somewhat lonely experience, as the heat deters most birders. Still, seeing a Eurasian Bittern sort of kneeling on a farm road can make it worth it.

Eurasian Bittern, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

This still fluffy young Yellow Bittern came so close to the place where I was hiding that eventually I could not capture it with my long lens any more. Hope it has learnt a bit more and survived (August).

Yellow Bittern, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

For a few months in 2017, a place with the nicely descriptive name “Trash Canal” was a good place to bird. This Striated Heron makes full use of the location’s characteristics (September).

Striated Heron, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

On the ground, the Eurasian Wryneck is very easy to overlook (September).

Eurasian Wryneck, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

While 2017 did not have a Fairy Pitta quite as compliant as the one at Nanhui in the autumn of 2016, there were still a few of them around. Always makes a birding day worthwhile (September).

Fairy Pitta, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

The autumn of 2017 was also very good for seeing owls such as this Oriental Scops Owl. Hard to ever get tired of owls (September).

Oriental Scops Owl, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Another “seen together with Craig” bird, this Common Redpoll (October).

Common Redpoll, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

The idea of a sand bath always seemed a bit strange to me. But obviously it is not a strange idea to this Eurasian Hoopoe (November).

Eurasian Hoopoe, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

The Japanese Robin was maybe my most-anticipated bird of the year, as I had missed it the year before, despite waiting for it for quite some time. Of course, this is the kind of delayed gratification which makes a bird extra-special (November).

Japanese Robin, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Note: Some of these photos–and many more–will soon be published in the book Birds of Nanhui, Shanghai, ISBN 978-7-202-12615-8. I hope that it will be available at every bookstore in China. If not, you can get it from me directly. Contact me at kai.pflug@gmail.com.