On 30-31 Jan., Elaine and I noted 75 species at Nanhui, Hengsha, and Chongming. We had 6 Lapland Longspur on Chongming and 50 Mew Gull at Nanhui. The pair of Cinereous Vulture remain on Chongming, and we saw a good portion (65) of the Hooded Crane wintering on the great alluvial island. Red-throated Loon was still at Nanhui, and Dishui Lake once again held Greater Scaup (8), Common Goldeneye, and Horned Grebe (3). We had an impressive 350 Northern Pintail in the sea off Nanhui, and though numbers of Gadwall (590) and Falcated Duck (720) were lower than in November, the species maintain a sizable presence on Hengsha.
The longspurs appeared late Sunday, just as snow was starting to fall. The inclement weather must have upset the Buff-bellied Pipit, Eurasian Skylark, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow using the recently plowed fields. Suddenly birds were flying everywhere. The grey sky made visual ID difficult, but some of the birds were calling and identifiable by call. But not all; so I took a flurry of record shots. In one series of images was a bird I had never seen before. I sent some of the images to Jan-Erik Nilsén, who told me that the facial pattern was typical of Lapland Longspur. And so it was. MacKinnon says Calcarius lapponicus “winters in small numbers along bare meadows along E coast between 30° and 40° N and along Changjiang River”; that is a box into which our situation neatly fits.
The views of Mew Gull Larus canus came about because of preparation and luck. Ever since Michael Grunwell moved to Shanghai last year, he has been telling me to look for Mew Gull in Shanghai; he was sure it would show up here in winter. Bolstering that suspicion was a recent report from Jonathan Martinez of Mew Gull in Guangdong.
At Nanhui, gulls usually appear here and there. On Saturday, Elaine and I finally had a chance to view a large group. An afternoon tide was coming in just right, boxing about 300 gulls into a corner of the sea wall. Elaine and I were waiting with camera and spotting scope. “This is the day!” I said. Sure enough, among the dozens of Vega Gull and Black-headed Gull was a sizable element of Mew. We quickly distinguished them from the much larger Vega. The Mew we photographed seem to have a squarer head and beadier eye than would be the case with race heinei; we therefore believe our gulls are Kamchatka Gull Larus canus kamtschatschensis.
The Red-throated Loon was in the large pond behind the Holiday Inn and Magic Parking Lot. Elaine found it doing the scan. Six days earlier, we had 3 Red-throated Loon in a pond a few kilometers north. Around 500 of our Great Cormorant were perching on the giant ring in the middle of Dishui Lake. Driving along the sea wall, we saw a Red-throated Pipit eating seeds left over from the rice harvest, and in the mud below we found three bright-yellow taivanaEastern Yellow Wagtail.
Rather than drive back to the city, Elaine and I drove straight to Changxing Island and took the ferry to Hengsha. We spent Saturday night at Héngshā Bànrìxián Mínsù (横沙半日闲民宿; +86 135-0185-1814 and +86 150-2164-5467; 120 yuan).
Sunday brought 56 species on Hengsha and Chongming. Our stay of a little more than five hours on Hengsha revealed no extraordinary birds. Eurasian Bittern were unusually visible; 3 of the 5 we noted were standing more or less in the open.
We took the ferry back to Changxing Island, and there, sitting in traffic, I looked out the window of our Skoda Scout and saw 3 Goldcrest. We took the Shanghai-Changjiang Bridge across the Yangtze to Chongming.
The Cinereous Vulture were a few kilometers south of the place where we had found them eight days earlier. As before, the vultures were standing on an earthen bank along the first row of fields behind the canal at the base of the sea wall. Nearby were the Hooded Crane and 21 Common Crane. The cold, grey day was enlivened by a colorful flock of 55 Grey-capped Greenfinch.
Mew Gull and Lapland Longspur became the 267th and 268th species of bird Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept. 2015.
Featured image: Its cover blown, this Eurasian BitternBotaurus stellaris emerges from hiding on Hengsha Island, Shanghai, China, 31 Jan. (Craig Brelsford)
On 23-24 Jan. Elaine and I noted 68 species on one of the coldest weekends in Shanghai in recent memory. We birded Chongming, the great alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and Nanhui. With strong northwesterly winds making temperatures feel as cold as -16°C, many birds lay low, but the strange weather probably played a role in two extraordinary records: 2 Cinereous Vulture (Chongming) and 3 Red-throated Loon (Nanhui). Other notable records were 2 Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake and a winter record of Wood Sandpiper at Nanhui as well as Eastern Yellow Wagtail (taivana) and Red-throated Thrush on Chongming. On Chongming and at Nanhui, we had Red-throated Pipit and Water Pipit mixed in with Buff-bellied Pipit.
Listed as near threatened by IUCN, Cinereous Vulture breeds across Eurasia, from Spain to China. In China, Aegypius monachus breeds mainly in the west as well as in Hulunbeier in northeastern Inner Mongolia. It is a “sporadic” (MacKinnon) or “rare” (Brazil) winter visitor to the southeast China coast. The largest Old World vulture, it has a wing span of about 260 cm (8.5 ft).
From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs as they rested on the ground. The pair was approachable. They usually stayed close together. Their plumage was shiny, and they appeared healthy. I doubt, however, that the eastern end of Chongming Island is a place that can support a pair of these huge birds for long. A Chinese photographer we met said the Chongming pair was probably the same pair that had been reported recently in Nantong. As of Saturday, the vultures had been on Chongming for a week to 10 days.
Red-throated Loon is also known as Red-throated Diver. Gavia stellata breeds in tundra bogs and taiga pools above 50° N latitude in Eurasia and North America. It winters along the coasts of Europe, Asia, and North America. Though the species faces no global threat, it is rare in China, with IUCN estimating that less than 50 spend the winter on the Chinese coast. Two of our three birds were feeding in one of the few unfrozen fish ponds inside the sea wall. A third was not feeding, and our partner Michael Grunwell feared it had been contaminated by oil.
Elaine and I birded Chongming alone. On Sunday at Nanhui, Michael joined us. We car-birded both days, driving a Skoda Scout rented from Avis.
Cinereous Vulture and Red-throated Loon became the 265th and 266th species of bird that Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept. 2015.
Featured image: Cinereous VultureAegypius monachus, Chongming Island, Shanghai, 23 Jan. Photographed using Nikon D3S and Nikkor VR 600mm F/4G lens mounted atop Manfrotto 055 carbon-fiber tripod and MVH502AH video head. F/9, 1/1250, ISO 2000. (Craig Brelsford)
Now my involvement in the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was on this wise:
In June 2014, my partners Jon Gallagher and Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安) 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.
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.
Rain rain rain for days. Finally, a 45-minute window of dry weather. I’m at the spot Per indicated, elev. 3375 m (11,070 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 ThrushZoothera griseiceps, and Alpine ThrushZ. 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!
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.
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. mollissimaAlpine 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 Himalaya 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.
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.
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!
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), Jon Gallagher, and Per Alström (R), above the Dulong Gorge in remote northwestern Yunnan, 13 June 2014. The insets show Himalayan ThrushZoothera salimalii, which Per was there studying, and photos of which I later acquired. (Huáng Xiǎo Ān [黄小安])
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
— 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
— 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
— 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
— 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
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
— 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 WarblerPhylloscopus subaffinis, Sulphur-breasted WarblerP. ricketti, and Hartert’s Leaf WarblerP. goodsoni fokiensis, as well as having close encounters with White-spectacled WarblerSeicercus affinis intermedius
— Finding 4 of China’s 5 species of forktail: Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri, Slaty-backed ForktailE. schistaceus, White-crowned Forktail E. leschenaulti sinensis, and Spotted ForktailE. 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
— 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 RailRallus 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
Featured image: Lesser ShortwingBrachypteryx leucophris just after its bath at photo blind in Longheng, Guangxi, China, 20 Dec. 2015. F/4, 1/8, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)