Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler

The Day Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Appeared at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler at Cape Nanhui is one of the best sightings of my birding career. Ours is the only record on eBird of the species at Shanghai’s top birding spot. Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and I were in the defunct wetland reserve. The Middendorf’s was at the base of reeds along a canal. We observed the bird for several minutes. The date was 21 May 2015.

The specimen above is clearly a Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes ochotensis and not either of its two most similar congeners: the less contrastingly patterned Styan’s Grasshopper Warbler H. pleskei and the more contrasting Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola. Nor is it the heavily streaked Marsh Grassbird H. pryeri.

Our team was delighted with the find, for Middendorf’s on migration is an elusive tick. There is, however, evidence that Shanghai is a place of some importance on the migration route and that enterprising birders can find the species here. La Touche in 1912 reported Middendorf’s as being common in late May and early June on Shaweishan, near Chongming Island (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 261). On its spring migration, Middendorf’s follows a north to northeast heading from the Philippines, its main wintering grounds, to the breeding areas in Hokkaido, the Kurils, Sakhalin, and the mainland Russian Far East. Many go due north from Luzon to Taiwan before making the northeastward turn toward Japan. Some continue still farther due north from Taiwan, crossing the East China Sea and making landfall at the first part of mainland Asia they hit, namely the eastern bulge of China around Shanghai (261).

Shanghai not only is a likely part of the migration route of Middendorf’s; it is possibly also the very best place on the Chinese coast where migrating Middendorf’s may be found. As springtime records of Middendorf’s in north China are scarce, experts presume that most Middendorf’s that reach the central Chinese coast migrate not northward but northeastward, again crossing the East China Sea to Japan. Note too that south of Shanghai, for example in Guangdong and Hong Kong, records of Middendorf’s also are few (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 261; eBird 2020).

Our Middendorf’s was silent, but some call, and Shanghai birders hoping to tick the species should be listening carefully in late May. “[The call of Middendorf’s] is often the only indication of presence away from the breeding areas,” write Kennerley and Pearson (2010, 259). Care needs to be taken to distinguish the “kit” or “chit” call of Middendorf’s from the similar call of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, which is known to call and even sing on migration in Shanghai (Brelsford 2017). Distinguishing the call and song of Middendorf’s and Pallas’s can be difficult, even for expert birders (Moores 2018).

In summary, I believe that the records of La Touche from more than a century ago were accurate and that in certain coastal areas in Shanghai, Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler was a common late-spring migrant. I believe furthermore that despite the massive transformation of the Shanghai coast since the time of La Touche, Middendorf’s may still be common in late May and early June at places such as Cape Nanhui and Chongming Dongtan. Birders should be on the lookout for Middendorf’s in Shanghai.

MAP & PHOTOS

middendorf-map
Map showing major migration patterns of Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler in spring. From its wintering areas mainly in the Philippines, Middendorf’s moves north into Taiwan (Arrow 1), where winter records of the species also are numerous (eBird 2020). Some Middendorf’s may bypass Taiwan and head northeastward through the Ryukyus to the main Japanese islands (2). From Taiwan many Middendorf’s head northeast to Japan (3), while some continue northward and reach mainland Asia near Shanghai (4). Middendorf’s that reach the Shanghai region presumably migrate northeastward, crossing the East China Sea to Japan (5). In Japan they traverse Honshu (6, 7) en route to the breeding grounds in Hokkaido and the Russian Far East. Red dots indicate areas in the Shanghai region where Middendorf’s has been recorded on eBird (includes autumn records). Data for this illustration from Kennerley and Pearson 2010, pp. 260-1; Brazil 2018, p. 304; and eBird. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler
On 21 May 2015, this Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler appeared at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui. Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and Craig Brelsford found the warbler at the edge of a reedbed in the defunct nature reserve. The coordinates of the spot are 30.915306, 121.967074. The encounter with the elusive migrant remains the sole record on eBird of Middendorf’s at Shanghai’s top birding spot. (Craig Brelsford)
Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler
Migrating Middendorf’s are often found ‘in reedbeds and along riverbanks’ (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 259). This individual was treading carefully along the edge of a canal, in conformity with the authors’ description. In spring Middendorf’s departs the winter quarters late and performs ‘a rapid northward migration with a limited number of stopover points’ (261). This individual may have flown nonstop from Taiwan, crossing the East China Sea and making landfall around Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

SOUND-RECORDING

Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, Verkhoturova Island, Russia (59.593602, 164.674460). Song with element of call at beginning. Recorded 27 June in lowland grassland/tussocky tundra near northernmost extension of breeding range. (0:29; 683 KB; Christoph Zöckler)

RESOURCES ON HELOPSALTES AND LOCUSTELLA WARBLERS

Click the links below for coverage on shanghaibirding.com of locustellid warblers.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus
Marsh Grassbird H. pryeri
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola
Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata
Brown Bush Warbler L. luteoventris
Baikal Bush Warbler L. davidi
Spotted Bush Warbler L. thoracica

OTHER LATE SPRING MIGRANTS IN SHANGHAI

In addition to Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, late spring brings passage migrants such as these to Shanghai:

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler recorded at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui in June

Pechora Pipit singing at Cape Nanhui in May

— Scarce migrant and regional breeder Asian Koel recorded in May and June, singing Common Cuckoo breeding at Cape Nanhui, and singing Lesser Cuckoo in Jiangsu: The Cuckoos of Shanghai

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Brazil, Mark (2018). Birds of Japan. Helm Field Guides, London.

Brelsford, C. (2017). “One of My All-time Ornithological Highlights” (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/all-time-high/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 May 2017; scroll down for report and sound-recording of singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (accessed: 25 May 2020).

eBird (2020). eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler in China (https://ebird.org/species/migwar/CN) and Taiwan (https://ebird.org/species/migwar/TW). Accessed: 27 Apr 2020.

Kennerley, P. & Pearson, D. (2010). Reed and Bush Warblers. London: Christopher Helm.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps (2000). A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Moores, N. (2018). eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53240665. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. See note under entry for Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler: “Heard only – listed as Possible as confusion with Pallas’s Grasshopper a decent possibilty” (sic). (Accessed: 27 Apr 2020)

Pearson, D.P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 615 (Middendorf’s Warbler) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

REVISIONS

1. Sound-recording of Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler by Christoph Zöckler added 28 April 2020.

Featured image: Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes ochotensis, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)
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Craig Brelsford

Craig Brelsford is the founder of shanghaibirding.com. Brelsford lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. When he left China, Brelsford was the top-ranked eBirder in China (930+ species) and Shanghai (320+ species). Now back home in Florida, Brelsford maintains close ties to the Shanghai birding community and continues to make shanghaibirding.com better than ever. Brelsford is a graduate of the University of Florida and earned a master's in business administration at the University of Liege, Belgium.

3 thoughts on “The Day Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Appeared at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai”

  1. Nice article, Craig! Would you be interested in a sound file to link up at your site? I have several in song from Kamchatka!

  2. Great pictures! Definitely agree that Middendorf’s must occur more frequently in the SH area. But, like all Locustella, so difficult to find unless they sing. I guess there are not that many Pallas’s Grasshoppers either? FWIW the in Europe common Locustella is Common Grasshopper Warbler and it reaches into Xinjiang, could potentially occur as vagrant in SH. It’s also streaked on the back but has a shorter eyebrow (and your bird is not that species).

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