Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

Found at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui on 1 May 2019: possible White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala. The discovery by Haiming Zhao provoked excitement and uncertainty among Shanghai birders. Certain aspects of the wagtail, notably the pale mottling on its mantle, cast doubt on an identification of White-headed. “Those pale/odd-looking feathers are unusual for leucocephala,” said Gomboo Sundev, a bird-tour leader in Mongolia, where leucocephala breeds. “I have never seen such an individual of the subspecies in Mongolia” (in litt., 2019).

Beijing-based British birder Paul Holt also noted the anomaly: “I was surprised … by the Shanghai bird’s mottled mantle” (in litt., 2019). Per Alström, co-author of Pipits and Wagtails, called the pale feathers on the mantle and scapulars “puzzling” (in litt., 2 May 2019). Both experts noted the pale base to the lower mandible of the Shanghai wagtail, also unexpected in leucocephala.

Students of Yellow Wagtail will not be surprised by the uncertainty. The Yellow Wagtail complex is a “systematic conundrum”; the various subspecies of the complex often “defy separation under the biological species concept” (Tyler 2004, 689). Interbreeding of the various subspecies occurs “freely at overlap zones, producing fertile hybrids” (689), often making it the case that “the direct parentage of Yellow Wagtails cannot be deciphered” (725). There is furthermore the prospect of partial albinism, a phenomenon that can make other subspecies of Yellow Wagtail appear white-headed (Alström & Mild 2003, 80, 269, 282).

In the case of leucocephala, another reason for the uncertainty is the sheer lack of knowledge about the race, even among elite ornithologists. Holt describes White-headed Yellow Wagtail as a “poorly known subspecies” (2019); Alström says his experience with the race is limited to “a few specimens and only one live bird” (in litt., 7 May 2019); Sundev told me he has seen the subspecies only about a dozen times (2019). The lack of information forces even great birders such as Holt to speculate: “The million-dollar question is whether [the mottled mantle and pale basal half of the lower mandible of the Shanghai bird] fit within the range of variation in leucocephala, or are they suggestive or even indicative of less than thoroughbred genes?” (2019)

Why is so little known about leucocephala? The biggest reason is the remoteness of its breeding range. White-headed Yellow Wagtail breeds in sparsely populated northwestern Mongolia, at places such as Khar-Us Lake (48.083328, 92.541368) and Durgun Lake (47.673106, 93.451188) (Sundev 2019). Alström and Mild say the race breeds also in areas adjacent to northwestern Mongolia, such as the Tuva Republic of Russia and “probably … northernmost Xinjiang” (2003, 281). Even the wintering range is uncertain; Alström and Mild say leucocephala “probably winters mainly in India but the exact wintering grounds are not known” (281).

The verdict on the Shanghai wagtail? “I would say it is leucocephala,” Sundev said. Holt agreed: “I would think that these [a White-headed Yellow Wagtail found in Hong Kong in April and the Shanghai wagtail] are the first two records of leucocephala for the whole of eastern China.” Alström, however, was less than fully convinced: “I’m not aware of a leucocephala with such a pale-mottled mantle as the Shanghai bird—although I can’t say they don’t occur” (7 May 2019).


L: The unusual Yellow Wagtail seen at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai on 1 May 2019. Note the pale mottling on the mantle. R: White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Mongolia. (L: Haiming Zhao; R: Gombobaatar Sundev)
‘The encounter with the Western Yellow Wagtail was totally unexpected,’ said Shanghai birder Haiming Zhao, who discovered and photographed the bird. ‘The location where I found the bird is in a big area in Nanhui which has many trees newly planted. I came across this Western Yellow Wagtail when I went by this area searching for buntings. I was in my car looking at the ground 10-15 meters away to the left when I saw this special bird. Its bright gray head and yellow lower body were so eye-catching and had made it easily distinguished out there from a flock of eastern yellow wagtails on the ground’ (Zhao in litt., 2019). (Haiming Zhao)
White-headed Yellow Wagtail on the breeding grounds in northwestern Mongolia. (Gombobaatar Sundev)


Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 2 May.

Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 7 May.

Alström, P., Mild, K., & Zetterström, B. (2003). Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press.

Holt, P. (2019). Messages to WeChat group Shanghai Birding, 1 May.

Sundev, G. (2019). Emails to author, 3 May.

Tyler, S.J. (2004). Family Motacillidae (Pipits and Wagtails). Pp. 689, 725 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2004). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 9. Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Zhao, H. (2019). Text messages to author, 2 May.

Featured image: Mysterious Yellow Wagtail, possibly White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
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Elon Musk, Please Help Save Cape Nanhui

Shanghai by satellite (NASA/Craig Brelsford)
Tesla’s new Gigafactory 3 is just 3 km inland from one of the most overtaxed coastlines in the world. As the latest exploiter of the resources of the Chinese coast, Tesla has a duty to counterbalance the impact its factory will have by helping establish a nature reserve at Cape Nanhui. The only coastal wetland reserve in mainland Pudong, a Cape Nanhui Coastal Wetland Reserve would preserve a natural area of indisputable worth, open up the world of nature to millions of Shanghai residents, and help erase the ecological deficit of Shanghai, a chronic environmental underperformer. (NASA/Craig Brelsford)

Dear Mr. Musk:

Tesla Gigafactory 3, the facility that you are building in Pudong, is next door to Cape Nanhui, one of the best birdwatching areas in China. Visionary Shanghai residents have attempted to establish a nature reserve at the Cape and had little success. Can you help?

That we call to you for help is only natural, inasmuch as you sited your factory so close to the coastline of Cape Nanhui, the headland between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay and the most southeasterly point of Shanghai. The shape and location of Cape Nanhui make it a particularly important point on the East Asian-Australasian Migratory Flyway. Nanhui is, however, completely unprotected; not a square inch of the environmentally valuable coastline there has been set aside for conservation.

Indeed, in recent years, as a result of the development of Pudong of which your Gigafactory is a major part, Cape Nanhui has been sliced, chopped, dredged, drained, and abused. The transformation has been great, but not so much as to have robbed Nanhui of all its environmental value. The site remains highly worthy of rehabilitation and protection.

With its new factory almost literally casting a shadow over one of Earth’s most important coastlines, and as a new corporate resident of Pudong and neighbor to Cape Nanhui, Tesla has a clear duty and opportunity to help save Cape Nanhui.

Tesla should help protect Cape Nanhui for the following reasons:

(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, critical to Reed Parrotbill and other species at risk.

Reed Parrotbill
A symbol of Shanghai, Reed Parrotbill is a highly charismatic and attractive bird. Nowhere do the people of Shanghai have a better chance of seeing this near-threatened species than at Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

Critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank use Cape Nanhui. Around 2 percent of the world’s endangered Black-faced Spoonbill are dependent on Cape Nanhui for several months each year. Large reed beds remain at Cape Nanhui and are the final strongholds on the Shanghai Peninsula of near-threatened Marsh Grassbird and near-threatened Reed Parrotbill. If the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed, then the latter two species will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai.

(2) When it comes to conservation, Shanghai is clearly underperforming. More must be done, and a good place to begin is Cape Nanhui.

Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province, which is larger than the U.S. state of Delaware. There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in the megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the dramatic East China Sea coast of Shanghai, where Asia’s largest river meets the world’s most important migratory flyway.

(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui would light a fire of conservation across all China.

Shanghai birders at Nanhui
Shanghai birders at Cape Nanhui. These people are the Johnny Appleseeds of birding and nature appreciation in China. Though still few in number, they are nonetheless laying the foundation for a future in which more Chinese cherish the natural environment. (Elaine Du)

Hundreds of thousands of children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Shanghai Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland Reserve.” A day at Cape Nanhui would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster appreciation of the natural world.

If Pudong New Area can be an economic powerhouse, if it can boast a Tesla factory along with its world-class airport and world-famous skyline, and if it can offer world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must ensure world-class preservation of its priceless coastline and migratory birds.

I hope you agree, Mr. Musk, that the case for a world-class, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui is truly clear-cut.

Mr. Musk, you have both a responsibility to understand the environmental degradation that is occurring in Pudong and especially at Cape Nanhui, and an opportunity to be a leader in marrying commerce and conservation. Please tell us how Tesla proposes to do its part to help conserve your new neighbor, Cape Nanhui. Comment below or write to me (craig at I’ll make sure that the right people read your message.

Kind regards,

Craig Brelsford
Executive Editor
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Season of the Stubtail

’Tis the season of the stubtail in Shanghai. Every year in April and May, and again in September and October, birders in Earth’s Greatest City record Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps. Migrant stubtails are no strangers to the inner city; the photo above, for example, was taken at Changfeng Park, deep in Shanghai’s urban jungle.

In Shanghai, most of my records of Asian Stubtail have come from the microforests that dot the sea wall at Cape Nanhui. Migrating stubtails can, however, turn up in any wooded area. In his apartment complex recently, in a wood of about 25 square meters, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Asian Stubtail. Hiko’s find bears out Kennerley and Pearson: Migrating Asian Stubtail, they write, is “opportunistic and likely to utilise any area of coastal or inland woodland or scrub offering shade and undisturbed areas for feeding” (2010, 557).

If Asian Stubtail is seen clearly or photographed well, then one can readily appreciate its distinctiveness. No other warbler in our region has its large-headed, bull-necked, stubby-tailed structure. The long, creamy supercilium is prominent, as is the contrastingly dark eye-line. The bill is fine and pointed, the legs are long and conspicuously pale, and the crown shows faint scaling.

Once on Lesser Yangshan, the island hotspot off the coast of Shanghai, I mistook Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi for a stubtail. A closer look at my photos revealed the longer tail and spikier bill of the Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus shares the dull, uniform plumage of Asian Stubtail and like the stubtail has a long supercilium, but it has a longer tail and shorter bill. Observers of Asian Stubtail in its winter range must separate it from shortwings and wren-babblers, while viewers of the species in its breeding range need to distinguish it from Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 556).

A common passage migrant in Shanghai, Asian Stubtail breeds in Beijing, Hebei, and Northeast China and adjacent Ussuriland as well as southern Sakhalin Island, the four main islands of Japan, and the Korean Peninsula. The winter range includes Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi and much of Southeast Asia (Holt in litt., 2019; Brazil 2009, 340; Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 557).

I have noted breeding Asian Stubtail in Heilongjiang and Hebei (10 June), migrating Asian Stubtail in Jiangsu and Shanghai, and a possibly wintering Asian Stubtail on 15 Nov. 2014 at Wuyuan, Jiangxi. Regarding the Jiangxi record, the presence of the species in mid-November at that latitude (29.2142, 117.5626) is surprising but not inconceivable; Brazil (2018, 290) reports that some Asian Stubtail winter in southern Kyushu, which is farther north than Jiangxi. The Wuyuan stubtail was singing intermittently; the best explanation may be that it was a first-winter bird.

Asian Stubtail, “sit” call and short song, Wuyuan, Jiangxi, 15 Nov. 2014 (16 MB; 01:37)


Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, September. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps is a tiny, brown-backed, terrestrial warbler with a short, square tail, a prominent, creamy supercilium extending onto the nape, a proportionally large head giving a bull-necked appearance, a long, narrow bill, and conspicuously pink tarsi and toes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 558-9). The species breeds in temperate northeast Asia and winters in southern China, Indochina, and Burma. It is a common migrant through the Chinese coastal provinces. This photo of a migrating stubtail was taken in September at Yangkou, Jiangsu (32.560387, 121.039821). (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May 2009. (Craig Brelsford)
Though secretive, Asian Stubtail ‘is not a particularly shy species and will approach a stationary observer closely’ (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 557). In Heilongjiang, I once watched a stubtail emerge from the frenzy of a bird wave, perch on a branch higher than I was tall, and emit at full volume its insect-like song. (Craig Brelsford)
Urban wood providing habitat for migrating Asian Stubtail, Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
In April 2019 in this tiny wood in Pudong, surrounded by skyscrapers, alert birder Hiko found his Asian Stubtail. On migration, the ground-dwelling warbler needs only an approximation to the shady, secluded woodland in which it breeds. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtai , Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
This is the Asian Stubtail that was using Hiko’s tiny wood. ‘I have a habit of checking that place each time I bird,’ Hiko said. ‘And on that day I saw a buffy supercilium and was like, “Oh shoot, maybe stubtail.”’ Especially during migration season, experienced birders know that even marginal habitats can yield birding gold. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail in typical habitat, Xidaquan National Forest, Heilongjiang, August. Kennerley and Pearson describe Asian Stubtail as ‘skulking and elusive, frequenting the shady recesses of the forest floor. … It feeds almost exclusively on the ground, searching for small insects and spiders amongst fallen leaves and twigs.’ As here, however, ‘A bird will clamber higher into scrub or bushes occasionally’ (2010, 557). (Craig Brelsford)
Habitat of Asian Stubtail, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Lush undergrowth in deciduous forest predominated by Silver Birch Betula pendula, Xidaquan. This is the spot where I photographed the stubtail above. Breeding Asian Stubtail, write Kennerley and Pearson, requires ‘thick undergrowth with ample leaf litter and fallen logs, often along rock-strewn gullies and stream beds’ (2010, 557). Coordinates of this site: 45.706108, 130.303313. Elevation: 540 m (1,770 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Species similar to Asian Stubtail. Clockwise from top: Radde's Warbler, Lesser Shortwing Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler, Eurasian Wren. (Craig Brelsford)
If seen well, Asian Stubtail is easy to identify, but glimpses of the secretive bird often are fleeting, and confusion can arise. Like stubtail, Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi (top) passes through Shanghai on migration, breeds in Northeast China, and has a conspicuous supercilium. Note however the much longer tail and spikier bill of Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus (not pictured) also has a longer tail and like Radde’s spends much less time on the ground than Asian Stubtail. Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (center L) is tiny like Asian Stubtail and has a long, fine bill, but it lacks a supercilium, is much more likely to forage in full view at eye level, and cocks its tail straight upward (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 556). In Southern China, Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris (center R) and Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler Napothera epilepidota (bottom) are secretive, ground-dwelling birds with nubby tails, but they lack the prominent supercilium of Asian Stubtail. (Craig Brelsford)


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

Brazil, M. (2018). Birds of Japan. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Brelsford, C. (2017). Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei ( Post to, published 17 June 2017 (accessed: 8 Dec 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2014). Wuyuan & Poyang Lake, November 2014 ( Post to, published 14 Sept. 2016 (accessed: 8 Dec 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2015). Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015: Part 4: Second Trip to Elaine’s Hometown ( Report on (accessed: 8 Dec 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2016). Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 ( Report on (accessed: 8 Dec 2019).

Clement, P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 588 (Asian Stubtail) 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.

Holt, P. (2019). Series of text messages between Holt and author, 20 April.

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


1. On 22 April 2019, Beijing added to breeding range of Asian Stubtail, Paul Holt added to bibliography.

Featured image: Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May. (Craig Brelsford)
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Trip Report: Tianmushan, 1-3 April 2019

by Paul Hyde

Wanting to swap the concrete jungle of Shanghai for a few days of fresh air and stunning scenery, a friend and I headed to the mountains of Zhejiang for some hiking and birding. We spent two and a half peaceful days at Tianmushan (天目山). As we visited outside of peak times, we barely saw another soul as we wandered around the mountain and inside the picturesque Scenic Area. Using the reports by Craig and Hiko as a guide, we were fortunate to encounter many of the area’s specialty birds. We recorded 61 species in total, with the main highlights being:

3 Koklass Pheasant
Silver Pheasant
Short-tailed Parrotbill

Other birds generally out of range in Shanghai included:

Black Eagle
Black Kite
Collared Owlet
Great Barbet
Crested Kingfisher
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker
Grey-headed Woodpecker
Orange-bellied Leafbird
Chestnut-crowned Warbler
Rufous-faced Warbler
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler
Indochinese Yuhina
Buffy Laughingthrush
Rufous-capped Babbler
Grey-headed Parrotbill
White-crowned Forktail
Little Forktail

Day 1, Mon. 1 April 2019

We hired a rather plush BYD car and drove the 270 km (170 mi.) from Shanghai to our inn, Hǎisēn Nóngzhuāng  (海森农庄; 135-0681-8151), as mentioned in Hiko’s report. We arrived at around 10:30 a.m. and once unpacked, we took the shuttle bus to the top of the mountain, Longfengjian (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201), and slowly walked the 14 km down the mountain. As was not the case with Hiko, our bus fortunately allowed us to continue past the checkpoint without entrance tickets to the Scenic Area, and so we avoided slogging up the mountain and instead enjoyed a leisurely walk downhill.

Around the top entrance to the Scenic Area, we noted skulking Chinese Hwamei, Yellow-throated Bunting, Brambling, and Eurasian Jay. Great Spotted Woodpecker were drumming noisily. The walk downhill began quietly, and often the mountain would be deathly silent, the silence only being pierced as we hit upon a small wave of birds. The first wave contained Hartert’s Leaf Warbler in full song, as it was throughout our visit. A group of Indochinese Yuhina brought me my second lifer in quick succession, with a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker mixed in amongst the group.

The pattern of alternating silence and quick, noisy action continued, with Huet’s Fulvetta, Rufous-faced Warbler, and Chestnut-crowned Warbler adding much interest to the walk. As we approached the bottom of the mountain, the day’s highlight arrived. My ears were on high alert following Hiko’s report of regular Short-tailed Parrotbill sightings in this area. Sure enough, I heard a trill and a group of 6 inquisitive individuals appeared in response to playback, hopping remarkably close to see what the fuss was all about. The day was rounded off when just a minute down the road, more activity revealed another highlight, a flock of Grey-headed Parrotbill.

Back around the hotel, Russet Sparrow were the common sparrow.

Day 2,  Tues. 2 April 2019

This morning we asked our hotel owner to drive us up to Longfengjian at 6 a.m., as the public shuttle bus doesn’t start operating until later on. Drawing on his guanxi, he got us into the park earlier than the advertised 8 a.m. opening time. This allowed us to explore the park, where we heard the familiar call of Collared Owlet. Actually seeing the birds is usually a struggle, but we were lucky enough to stumble across a pair duetting in the open. Our main hope first thing in the morning, however, was finding pheasants, as a group of friends had found Elliot’s Pheasant on the mountain a few weeks earlier. With this information in mind, we were listening out for any noise in the dense undergrowth. A little rustling noise caught our attention, and we glimpsed a Silver Pheasant scuttling away. Further on, the highlight of the trip occurred as we spotted a pheasant scurrying in the long grass. It kindly crossed the path ahead of us and paused for a few short seconds, allowing us to enjoy a resplendent male Koklass Pheasant! To our surprise, we encountered two further male Koklass Pheasants in similar situations. Other highlights inside the Scenic Area included Great Barbet, two Black Eagle soaring overhead, a large flock of Buffy Laughingthrush, and a Blue Whistling Thrush. An Orange-bellied Leafbird sang loudly near the entrance and posed obligingly.

We left the Scenic Area and walked down the mountain, enjoying many similar birds as yesterday and making for a total of 23 km of walking for the day.

Day 3, Wed. 3 April 2019

We again asked the hotel owner to drive us to the top of the mountain and again strolled down. One bird that we hoped to find but that had eluded us on days 1 and 2 was Little Forktail. We had seen several White-crowned Forktail near the many streams, but had no luck with Little Forktail.

The day started with some nice additions to the trip list: A pair of Grey-headed Woodpecker, several Red-billed Blue Magpie, good views of Brown Dipper and Mountain Bulbul, as well as the welcome sight of more Short-Tailed Parrotbills. Ready to admit defeat after checking every stream three times over, we finally found a pair of Little Forktails on the stream right next to the lower ticket entrance to the park. Contented, we headed back to the car and began the journey home.

About a kilometer into our journey, a Crested Kingfisher perched on a wire over a stream, a great ending to the trip.


Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha (Paul Hyde)
Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha in bamboo undergrowth at Tianmu. The species is commonly recorded on the mountain, and it is likely that a well-established population exists there. Other gamebirds present in the nature reserve are Silver Pheasant Lophura nycthemera and Elliot’s Pheasant Syrmaticus ellioti. (Paul Hyde)
Short-tailed Parrotbill (Paul Hyde)
Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana. (Paul Hyde)


For more on Tianmushan and other birding hotspots in the mountains of southeast China, please see the following posts on


Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)
Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 2)
Tianmushan in July
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip


Emeifeng 2015, Part 1
Emeifeng 2015, Part 2
Home to Shanghai (Plus a Jaunt to Fujian)

Featured image: Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana, West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve, Zhejiang, April 2019. (Paul Hyde)
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Per Alström Interviewed on Radio Beijing International

Per Alström
Per Alström

Whether they know it or not, all birders, Chinese or foreign, operating in China have been influenced by Per Alström. Radio Beijing International interviewed Per in November 2018. In the interview, Per talks about speciation, taxonomy, his early interest in birds, and his difficult and ground-breaking initial expeditions to China in the 1980s. Get to know this friendly giant of birding by listening to the interview below (23:56; 13 MB).

The image above shows some of the species that the Swedish ornithologist has either discovered or redefined. Clockwise from top left: Emei Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus emeiensis, Spotted Elachura Elachura formosa, Sichuan Bush Warbler Locustella chengi, and Alström’s Warbler Phylloscopus soror. (Per Alström)
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Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction

This post is the first in a five-post series about my birding expedition of July 2017 to Northern Xinjiang. In the northern half of China’s largest and most northwesterly province, the birds, natural scenery, and people, including people wearing the uniforms of the state, are intensely interesting. In the photo above, top left, my longtime birding partner Jan-Erik Nilsén scans Ulungur Lake, a gleaming jewel in the arid Jungar Basin and an important stop on the Central Asian-Indian Migratory Flyway. Bottom right, friendly ethnic Kazakh police officers pose with Jan-Erik and me at one of the hundreds of checkpoints dotting Northern Xinjiang. The two birds symbolize the uniqueness of the avifauna of Xinjiang. Top right is Ortolan Bunting, representing the many species in Northern Xinjiang more closely associated with Europe than China. Bottom left is Sulphur-bellied Warbler, an unusual leaf warbler adapted to rocky habitats, and one of many Central Asian species that in China occur mainly or exclusively in Xinjiang.

In this first post, I give you an overview of my 12-day expedition and an introduction to Northern Xinjiang. In the second post, I offer you the notes I took while on the ground. The third and fourth posts are a gallery of my photos of the most interesting birds I saw, both in 2017 and during my first trip to Northern Xinjiang in May 2012. The fifth and final post is a collection of habitat shots as well as pictures of the scenery, mammals, and people of Northern Xinjiang. To read in order the five posts, simply keep scrolling down this page. You may also go to the bottom of any of the five posts and find there an index to the series.

Bounded by the mighty Tianshan Mountains to the south and the Altai Mountains to the north, and with the Jungar Basin at its heart, Northern Xinjiang is one of the premier birding areas in China. The area is still little-known to birders, and many discoveries remain to be made there. May this series convey to you the enthusiasm I have for the region, and may it aid you as you plan your own trip to Northern Xinjiang. — Craig Brelsford

The largest provincial-level entity in China, Xinjiang or ‘New Frontier’ is larger than Germany, France, and Spain combined and is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Alaska. From 19-30 July 2017, I made my second trip to the ‘autonomous region,’ exploring the Tianshan and Altai mountains and Jungar Basin in Northern Xinjiang. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

When in February 2017 my wife, Elaine Du, informed me that she was expecting our baby, I knew that my 10-year sojourn in China was coming to an end. Elaine and I agreed that I would do a final big birding trip before the birth of Tiny. I chose Northern Xinjiang.

I had visited Northern Xinjiang once before, in May 2012. I was captivated by the beauty of the region, its remote position in the heart of the Eurasian supercontinent, and the underbirdedness of the area. I vowed to return.

For the 2017 trip, I chose as my partner my friend and mentor Jan-Erik Nilsén. No birder has taught me more about birding than the Beijing-based Swedish birder, who like me arrived in China in 2007. Xinjiang would be my ninth birding expedition with Jan-Erik. We chose the dates 19-30 July 2017.

Jan-Erik, our Chinese driver, and I drove 2866 km (1,781 mi.), covering an area from the provincial capital Urumqi and the Tianshan Mountains in the south to Kanas Lake and the Altai Mountains in the north and visiting a score of Jungar Basin sites in between. We noted 160 species of bird. (For our complete list, please scroll to the bottom of this post.)

We recorded China rarities Siberian Chiffchaff, Yellowhammer, and Sedge Warbler and Xinjiang rarity Eurasian Siskin in the Altai. We scoped Himalayan Snowcock in the Tianshan, found four species of Passer at Fukang-Beishawo, ticked White-headed Duck at a bird-rich reservoir in Urumqi, saw Asian Desert Warbler and Henderson’s Ground Jay at a random stop in the semi-desert, and at beautiful Hongyanglin oasis found Common Nightingale, White-winged Woodpecker, and Sykes’s Warbler.

The latter two species were among the many Central Asian specialties we enjoyed. Others were Red-fronted Serin and Eversmann’s Redstart in the Tianshan, Eastern Imperial Eagle at Daquangou Reservoir, Sulphur-bellied Warbler in the Altai, and, at various sites in the Jungar Basin, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus.

We recorded well-known European birds that in China are found mainly or exclusively in Xinjiang. We had Common Quail and European Turtle Dove in the Jungar Basin and daytime views of European Nightjar roosting in the scrub. European Goldfinch and Common Linnet were found at both the northern and southern ends of our route, while Spotted Flycatcher, European Greenfinch, and Ortolan Bunting were recorded only in or near the Altai Mountains. European Bee-eater and European Roller were commonly seen along power lines in the Jungar Basin, and in the riparian woodlands along the Irtysh River and its tributaries, we recorded impressive numbers of Common Chaffinch and Great Tit Parus major kapustini.

July 2017 was a beautiful moment in my life. Elaine was going strong in the fifth month of her pregnancy, and I was looking forward to the birth of my son. Knowing Northern Xinjiang would be my last big trip, I savored every moment. During the long drives across Jungaria, Jan-Erik and I recalled our rich history as birding partners, which included trips to Qinghai in 2016 and 2014 and Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia in 2015.

Northern Xinjiang was the culmination not only of my birding career in China but also of my decade-long study of Chinese language and culture. I had arrived in 2007 not knowing enough Chinese to take a taxi. By 2017, I was a fluent speaker of Mandarin. I had arrived in China convinced that the Western-style liberalization of China was at hand and that events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics would transform the People’s Republic into a giant Taiwan. By 2017, I was viewing the Middle Kingdom much more soberly.

Northern Xinjiang was a good place to let go of my final illusions about China. Gazing at the gleaming new highways of Northern Xinjiang, noting the ubiquitous police presence and multitudes of checkpoints, and witnessing the steady influx of Han settlers, I felt the ruthlessness, growing efficiency, and grim seriousness of the Communist state. After passing through yet another security checkpoint, I said to our driver, “That was easy.” He replied, “They’re not looking for people like you.” The target, our driver said, is Uighurs.

Whereas minorities such as the Uighur face persecution and the possible extinction of their culture, the Han people I met in Xinjiang were full of civilizational confidence. In the towns and cities through which we passed, the average Han seemed happier and more polite than the Han I would meet in the crowded provinces back east. Was it the dry, sunny climate that kept them cheerful? Was it the Lebensraum that Han people enjoy living in the sparsely populated province, larger than Spain, France, and Germany combined?

To birders who may be scared off by the word “Xinjiang,” my message is, fear not; Northern Xinjiang was very much birdable in 2017. The vast region is far different from Southern Xinjiang, where most Uighurs live, and where persecution is greatest and security tightest. Indeed, the large police presence in Northern Xinjiang impedes crime of all kinds, making the region safe. As for the quality of the birding in Northern Xinjiang, let the list below and my photo galleries in posts 3 and 4 speak for themselves.

Birds Noted in Northern Xinjiang, China, July 2017 (160 species)

Greylag Goose Anser anser
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Whooper Swan C. cygnus
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Common Shelduck T. tadorna
Garganey Spatula querquedula
Northern Shoveler S. clypeata
Gadwall Anas strepera
Mallard A. platyrhynchos
Northern Pintail A. acuta
Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina
Common Pochard Aythya ferina
Tufted Duck A. fuligula
Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Common Merganser Mergus merganser
White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala
Common Quail Coturnix coturnix
Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar
Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis
Black Stork Ciconia nigra
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Great Egret A. alba
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus
Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis
Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis
Eastern Imperial Eagle A. heliaca
Shikra Accipiter badius
Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus
Black Kite Milvus migrans
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus
Upland Buzzard B. hemilasius
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
Ruff Calidris pugnax
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea
Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
Common Greenshank T. nebularia
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola
Common Redshank T. totanus
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
Pallas’s Gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus
Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans
Little Tern Sternula albifrons
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus
Black Tern C. niger
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Hill Pigeon C. rupestris
Stock Dove C. oenas
European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur
Oriental Turtle Dove S. orientalis
Eurasian Collared Dove S. decaocto
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus
Common Swift Apus apus
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
European Roller Coracias garrulus
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
European Bee-eater Merops apiaster
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos
White-winged Woodpecker D. leucopterus
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus
Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni
Common Kestrel F. tinnunculus
Eurasian Hobby F. subbuteo
Saker Falcon F. cherrug
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio
Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides
Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni
Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Carrion Crow Corvus corone
Pale Martin Riparia diluta
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Common House Martin Delichon urbicum
Coal Tit Periparus ater
Willow Tit Poecile montanus
Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus
Great Tit Parus major
White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis
Eurasian Skylark A. arvensis
Crested Lark Galerida cristata
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea
Goldcrest Regulus regulus
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
Sulphur-bellied Warbler P. griseolus
Hume’s Leaf Warbler P. humei
Greenish Warbler P. trochiloides
Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola
Great Reed Warbler A. arundinaceus
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola
Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana
Barred Warbler S. nisoria
Desert Whitethroat S. minula
Lesser Whitethroat S. curruca
Common Whitethroat S. communis
Common Blackbird Turdus merula
Mistle Thrush T. viscivorus
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata
Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos
Bluethroat L. svecica
Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus
Black Redstart P. ochruros
Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis
Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Pied Wheatear O. pleschanka
Desert Wheatear O. deserti
Isabelline Wheatear O. isabellina
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
Citrine Wagtail M. citreola
Grey Wagtail M. cinerea
White Wagtail M. alba
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi
Tree Pipit A. trivialis
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus
European Greenfinch Chloris chloris
Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra
Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Twite Linaria flavirostris
Common Linnet L. cannabina
Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus
Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri
House Sparrow P. domesticus
Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis
Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
Pine Bunting E. leucocephalos
Godlewski’s Bunting E. godlewskii
Ortolan Bunting E. hortulana
Common Reed Bunting E. schoeniclus

This post is the first in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.

Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction
Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Notes
Birds of Northern Xinjiang I
Birds of Northern Xinjiang II
Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

Other posts on Xinjiang:

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon
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Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Notes

In the image above, Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén scans the rocks for Northern Wheatear near Kanasi Airport, 28 July 2017. The point where Jan-Erik is standing is in the Altai Mountains, at the extreme northern tip of Xinjiang, an area closer to Moscow than to Shanghai. In this post, the second in my five-part series on Northern Xinjiang, you will read my notes on the “European” birds of Xinjiang as well as other observations recorded during my expedition of July 2017. — Craig Brelsford

WED 19 JULY 2017
THU 20 JULY 2017
FRI 21 JULY 2017

Baiyanggou Scenic Area
Baiyanggou Scenic Area lies 65 km (40 mi.) southwest of Urumqi. We took the G216 out of the city and entered the scenic area on the S109. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

On Fri. 21 July 2017, my Beijing-based Swedish partner Jan-Erik Nilsén and I were at Baiyanggou (43.424675, 87.163545), 65 km (40 mi.) southwest of Urumqi in the Tianshan Mountains.

Among our highlights were spotting-scope views of Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis, central Palearctic specialties Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus, Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus, and Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, and species familiar to Western Europeans such as Common Quail Coturnix coturnix, singing Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina, and European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis. I missed Blue-capped Redstart Phoenicurus coeruleocephala, and Red-headed Bunting Emberiza bruniceps and Grey-necked Bunting E. buchanani have been recorded at Baiyanggou.

Not all our activity has been in the Tianshan. A quick trip to Baihu (43.816992, 87.435352), a reservoir in the western suburbs of Urumqi, got us views of White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala, an encounter with a family of Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar, and a heard-only tick of Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus.

In Xinjiang, Jan-Erik and I are (and the Han settlers here like to say we are) saiwai (塞外), “beyond the (Great) Wall,” in China, but not in East Asia. We are in Central Asia, thousands of kilometers from the sea, near the center of Eurasia, as the birds we have noted show. Today, with the Tianshan as our backdrop, Jan-Erik and I stood on wavy loess hills made from the buildup over eons of dust borne by wind from distant places on the supercontinent.

The people we have met so far are mostly Han, settlers or descendants of settlers from the east, mainly the northern provinces. As I have noted in other areas of China where Han settlement is recent, everyone here speaks standard Mandarin. There is no local Chinese dialect. As I have been trained in standard Mandarin, my ability to communicate with the locals is greater here than in other areas of China where the vernacular is a non-standard form of Chinese.

I arrived from Shanghai late on Wed. 19 July 2017 and spent Thurs. 20 July alone at Baiyanggou. Jan-Erik arrived late on Thurs. 20 July from Beijing.

Our driver today and throughout the trip was Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), +86 180-9964-0966. Yong Dong is a Han who was born in Urumqi, knows Xinjiang, dabbles in photography, and drives well. We recommend him.


Brelsford and Nilsen
Birders Craig Brelsford (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsén scramble down a hill at Baihu, the reservoir in the western suburbs of Urumqi. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Where We Stayed

Yili Hotel (伊犁大酒店), +86 (0) 991-5198060
Address: 沙依巴克区长江路339号
Coordinates: 43.787162, 87.593397

Convenient location in downtown Urumqi, near several excellent Xinjiang-style restaurants and fruit stores selling dried Xinjiang fruit. Clean room, friendly staff. Restaurant and tea bar downstairs. We also stayed here our final night.

Selected eBird Lists

Baiyanggou, 20 July
Baiyanggou, 21 July
Baihu, 21 July

SAT 22 JULY 2017
Beishawo, Daquangou Reservoir, Mushroom Lake

Mushroom Lake
Daquangou Reservoir and Mushroom Lake lie north of the G312 on the S204. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

On Sat. 22 July 2017, Jan-Erik and I left Urumqi and began our journey north. Our first stop was Beishawo (44.374603, 87.881042), an outstanding semi-desert site 85 km (53 mi.) north of Urumqi. Later, we birded Daquangou Reservoir (44.424510, 85.989695), a compact wetland 170 km (106 mi.) northwest of the provincial capital.

Beishawo delivered four species of sparrow: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri, House Sparrow P. domesticus, Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus. We also had here our only trip record of Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria.

At Beishawo I jumped out of the car into the scrub—and came face to face with a European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. The goatsucker was roosting on a tamarisk. Soaring overhead was Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus rufinus. We missed Eurasian Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin Cercotrichas galactotes.

After a long drive west through new towns and farming communities populated by Han settlers, we arrived at Beihu, also known as Daquangou Reservoir, north of Shihezi. Here I had my first-ever look at Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus, yet another Central Palearctic breeder confined in China to Xinjiang.

At Daquangou Jan-Erik and I counted 2500 Pale Martin Riparia diluta, 400 Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, 120 Pallas’s Gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, and a lone Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca roosting on a spit amid hundreds of wary gulls and shorebirds. We had 2 Ruff Calidris pugnax in breeding plumage, 20 Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea, and 130 Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii.

Our 35-minute visit to nearby Mushroom Lake yielded Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava thunbergi.

On the long drive west to Daquangou, we passed through several checkpoints without incident. It is good to have a firm itinerary so that you can tell the police exactly where you intend to go. The procedure is uniform—a quick noting of passport numbers and sometimes questions about purpose of trip and destinations.


Nilsén, Brelsford
Jan-Erik Nilsén (L) and Craig Brelsford, breakfast at Beishawo, 22 July 2017. My partner and I had left Urumqi and entered the Jungar Basin and had a week of birding ahead of us. With Jan-Erik as my partner, I could look back on my many birding trips with him in various regions of China, while in my heart I looked forward to the birth of my child. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Selected eBird Lists

Beishawo, 22 July
Daquangou Reservoir, 22 July
Mushroom Lake, 22 July

SUN 23 JULY 2017
MON 24 JULY 2017
Hongyanglin, Beitun

Hongyanglin is in Wuerhe, in the central Jungar Basin. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

On Monday night, 24 July 2017, our team was 700 km (435 mi.) north of Urumqi in Beitun, near Ulungur Lake. For the past two days we had been birding top-notch locations along the highways.

Our greatest highlights were at the amazing poplar forest at Hongyanglin (46.120667, 85.654611), where we had White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama, Shikra Accipiter badius cenchroides, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus, and singing Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos. Earlier, at the excellent Kuitun Reservoir (44.770533, 84.608984), we had Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, and singing Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola.

A random stop in the semi-desert (46.326889, 85.918306) yielded Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana and Henderson’s (Mongolian) Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni. A wood near a village (46.750637, 86.191788) got us Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata plus Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni mobbing the ubiquitous Black Kite Milvus migrans.

At Kuitun and at various places along the road we have had European Roller Coracias garrulus.


Craig Brelsford (L), Jan-Erik Nilsen Kuitun Reservoir, Xinjiang, 23 July 2017. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Craig Brelsford (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsén study Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus at Kuitun Reservoir. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])

Brelsford and Nilsen
Reeds surround many of the newly formed reservoirs and canals in Northern Xinjiang, providing habitat for species such as Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola. We found that species in these reeds at Kuitun Reservoir. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Selected eBird Lists

Kuitun Reservoir (North Side), 23 July
Kuitun Reservoir (East Side), 23 July
G217-S221 Junction, 23 July
Hongyanglin, 23 July
Hongyanglin, 24 July
Arid Country S of Heshituoluogaizhen, 24 July
Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July
Wutubulake, 24 July

TUE 25 JULY 2017
WED 26 JULY 2017
Ulungur Lake, riverine woodlands, Altai

On Tuesday 25 July and Wednesday 26 July, Jan-Erik and I birded Ulungur Lake and wetlands and riverine woodlands in the Jungar Basin. We were powering ever northward, and by the night of 26 July we were in the Altai Mountains, the northern tip of Xinjiang.

Among the highlights were a rare China record of Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. The wetland west of Kaba where the Sedge Warbler was found also gave us Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola, both singing, as well as juvenile Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Black Stork Ciconia nigra. We looked for but could not find Corn Crake Crex crex.

Riparian woodlands line many of the streams feeding the mighty Irtysh River. These delightful, park-like poplar forests yielded many Palearctic passerines, among them Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus, snowball-headed Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus, breeding Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus, Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, European Greenfinch Chloris chloris, and European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis.

The birds most numerous in these riverine woodlands are Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs and the bright-yellow Great Tit Parus major kapustini. Among the common non-passerines are Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor and White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos.

The survey of lagoons at the northeastern corner of Ulungur Lake (47.339970, 87.553458) gave us a pair of Mute Swan Cygnus olor and Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. Anatids were well-represented; besides the Mute Swan, we also found Greylag Goose Anser anser, Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, and Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula. Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus were present, and I once again stumbled on European Nightjar roosting in the scrub.

Drives in China’s largest province are long but we bird as we go. From the car we have seen European Roller and Saker Falcon Falco cherrug and heard singing Common Quail.


Jan-Erik Nilsen scans NE sector of Ulungur Lake. (Craig Brelsford)
Jan-Erik Nilsén scans lagoons at the northeast sector of Ulungur Lake. The scrub and shoreline yielded European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus and Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus, while the lagoons held Mute Swan Cygnus olor and Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. The point where I got this photo is at 47.339970, 87.553458 and was a good base of explorations of the lake. (Craig Brelsford)
Craig Brelsford (L), Jan-Erik Nilsén, wetlands west of Kaba, 26 July 2017. Here we achieved a rare China record of Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. The boardwalk we are using here (48.060168, 86.395527) provides easy access to the marsh. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Plate of noddles and mutton, Beitun, Xinjiang, 125 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Whenever Jan-Erik and I would enter a town, we would ask where the best place for noodles was. This dish was one of the best of the trip. The smell of the fried mutton was mouthwatering, and the colorful red and green peppers and bright orange bowl further enhanced the appetite. The restaurant where we enjoyed these noodles is called Sàiwài Cǎoyuán Kuàicāntīng (塞外草原快餐厅; +86 150 9752 6222). The restaurant is in Beitun, in the Tengyun Hotel building at the intersection of North Fuxing Road and Xibei Road (47.359580, 87.803222). (Craig Brelsford)

Selected eBird Lists

NE Ulungur Lake, 25 July
G216 42 KM S of Altai, 25 July
Alahake, 25 July
White Birch Forest Scenic Area, 26 July
Wetlands on S229 W of Kaba, 26 July
Biesikuduke Cun, 26 July
Burqin Magic Forest, 26 July

THU 27 JULY 2017
FRI 28 JULY 2017
SAT 29 JULY 2017
Altai, Urumqi

Jan-Erik and I wrapped up Xinjiang 2017 with two days in the Altai Mountains at Kanasi Park followed by a long drive south across the Jungar Basin to Urumqi.

Kanasi yielded “European” species whose ranges in China extend only into Altai. Among them were breeding Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis near our hotel and breeding Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana found along our long mountain walk. Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis also made here its only appearance on our trip list, and we had an unexpected encounter with Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus.

The highlight of our walk was however supplied by a Central Asian species: Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus, a wallcreeper-like bird and one of the most interesting leaf warblers in the world.

As Jan-Erik and I walked under a blazing sun, the heat intense, we admired, high on the cliff above, Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis and Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides.

Near the base, a nearly vertical rock face, I noticed movement. Sulphur-bellied Warbler were browsing the rocky surface the way their congeners browse the crowns of trees. In arid Central Asia, a leaf warbler has evolved that exploits a locally common but decidedly un-leafy habitat.

The drive of 760 km (472 mi.) back to Urumqi took two days. We broke up the trip with stops at promising habitat. Among the species we noted were Long-legged Buzzard, Henderson’s Ground Jay, and handsome Saxaul Sparrow.

We ended our birding Saturday at Qinggeda Lake near the provincial capital. The 160th and final species of our 10-day trip was Black Tern Chlidonias niger.


European-style log cabin near Kanasi Airport, Xinjiang, July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsen)
European-style log cabin in the ethnic Russian village (48.253677, 87.016230) near Kanasi Airport. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Not far from the Russian-style cabin, we found these yurts of Kazakh herders. The solar panels next to the yurts are a recent addition to the ancient dwelling of Central Asian nomads. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Traffic was backed up for miles on the narrow road leading to Kanasi Park. We used the time to get our only trip record of Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Kanas Lake
Kanas Lake, jewel of the Altai Mountains. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)

Selected eBird Lists

Guanyu Tai-Kanasi River, 27 July
Jiadengyu, 27 July
Jiadengyu, 28 July
Suwuke Basitao-Kanasi Airport, 28 July
Wutubulake Toll Station, 28 July
Arid Country S of Wuerhe, 29 July
Shengli Road-G217, 29 July
Qinggeda Lake, 29 July

This post is the second in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.

Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction
Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Notes
Birds of Northern Xinjiang I
Birds of Northern Xinjiang II
Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

Other posts on Xinjiang:

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon
Reach us:

Be notified every time we post. Send an
email with “Subscribe” as the subject to

Donate to Shanghai Birding!

Birds of Northern Xinjiang I

In this and the next post, posts 3 and 4 of our five-part series, I offer you an illustrated list of the interesting birds that I have recorded in Northern Xinjiang. The posts are divided into passerines and non-passerines, with this post showcasing the latter. The image above shows three of our key birds of Xinjiang 2017: clockwise from left, Long-legged Buzzard, Red-fronted Serin, and Eversmann’s Redstart. — Craig Brelsford

Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea

Ruddy Shelduck
In 2017 we recorded small numbers of Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea on lakes and in reservoirs in the Jungar Basin. I found this shelduck north of Burqin during my first trip to Xinjiang on 16 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

A common component of our wetland lists was Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. We had a high count of 300 at Daquangou Reservoir on 22 July 2017. I got these photos on the Kaba River in White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 14 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina

Red-crested Pochard
I have found Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina at four locations in the Jungar Basin, one of them the Kekesu Wetlands, where I took this photo on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala

On 21 June 2017 we scoped 2 at Baihu, the reservoir in the hills west of downtown Urumqi. We considered ourselves lucky to get the distant view, as there have been only a handful of records of this rare duck in Northern Xinjiang.

Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis himalayensis

In the Tianshan Mountains (Baiyanggou) on 21 July 2017, I used my Swarovski ATX-95 scope to find, on the ridge 2000 m distant, 2 Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis himalayensis. (Craig Brelsford)

Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar

Chukar Partridge
The arid hills around Baihu, the reservoir in Urumqi, offer habitat for Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar. We met this adult and its fledglings there on 21 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Stork Ciconia nigra

Black Stork
In 2017 we had Black Stork Ciconia nigra only once, in the wetlands west of Kaba on 26 July 2017. White Birch Forest Scenic Area is just 3 km (2 mi.) down the road from the wetlands, and it was there, hiking along the Kaba River in May 2012, that I photographed these individuals. (Craig Brelsford)

Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus

Little Bittern is yet another species whose range across Eurasia is checked by the deserts of western China. The species occurs no further east than Xinjiang, where in 2017 we recorded it in reservoirs and lakes in the Jungar Basin.

Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca

On 22 July 2017 at Daquangou Reservoir, we found, distant but unmistakable through our scopes, an adult or sub-adult Eastern Imperial Eagle. The raptor was standing on a spit amid hundreds of wary gulls.

Shikra Accipiter badius cenchroides

At Hongyanglin on 23 July and 24 July 2017, we heard Shikra calling unseen from the dense poplar forest. Race cenchroides is a summer visitor to Xinjiang.

Shikra, Hongyanglin (46.123909, 85.652300), 23 July 2017 (00:04; 705 KB; Craig Brelsford)

Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis nipalensis

UPDATE, 16 Dec. 2018: I originally published here a set of three photos of a dark morph Buteo that I mistakenly ID’d as a Steppe Eagle. The photos have since been removed. The misidentified Buteo was photographed by me at Baiyanggou on 20 July 2017. Later, we noted but did not photograph Steppe Eagle at two locations in the Altai Mountains.

Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus

Western Marsh Harrier
Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, arid country north of Burqin, 16 May 2012. This is a male showing the characteristic grey wings with black tips and brown coverts. The shoulders are buff, there is some white on the rump, and the tail is grey. Western Marsh Harrier is the Western and Central Palearctic counterpart of Eastern Marsh Harrier C. spilonotus. The point where this harrier was found is in the northern Jungar Basin at 47.764563, 86.782345, elev. 470 m (1,540 ft.). The Phragmites reed habitat is near the Irtysh River on the Burqin-Kaba road (S227). (Craig Brelsford)

Black Kite Milvus migrans

Black Kite
The raptor I have noted most in Northern Xinjiang is Black Kite Milvus migrans. I have found it in nearly every sort of habitat, from the Tianshan and across the Jungar Basin to the Altai. In 2017 my Swedish partner Jan-Erik Nilsén and I had high counts of 180 21 July at Baiyanggou in the Tianshan and 120 on 28 July in the arid country north of Burqin. I found this one 18 May 2012 at Xiaodong Gulch in the Altai Mountains. (Craig Brelsford)

White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla

White-tailed Eagle
On my initial trip to Xinjiang, one of my most interesting records was this White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. I found the giant 10 May 2012 flying over the semi-desert near Ulungur Lake. Among the largest of raptors, White-tailed Eagle is closely related to America’s Bald Eagle H. leucocephalus. (Craig Brelsford)

Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus rufinus

Long-legged Buzzard, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus rufinus shows considerable color variation, from a light morph to a reddish morph (L) and dark morph (R). The nominate race inhabits steppes and semi-deserts in a range extending from southeastern Europe to western Mongolia. In 2017 we noted the species on five occasions, four in the Jungar Basin and one in the Altai Mountains. We found the two individuals shown here at Wutubulake Toll Station (46.931100, 86.457300) on 28 July. (Craig Brelsford)
Long-legged Buzzard
We had this reddish-morph Long-legged Buzzard at Beishawo on 22 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo

Demoiselle Crane
In 2017 we missed Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo, but on my initial trip in 2012 I found it at three sites in the northern Jungar Basin. One of those sites was the arid country north of Burqin, where I got this photo on 16 May 2012. The steppe where I found this individual is classic Demoiselle Crane habitat—semi-desert with water nearby. (Craig Brelsford)

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus

Eurasian Oystercatcher
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus in flight (top) and with drake Common Merganser Mergus merganser, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, May 2012. Commonly associated with coasts, Eurasian Oystercatcher has a large breeding range in the center of the Eurasian supercontinent, which includes Northern Xinjiang. In 2017, we found 2 Eurasian Oystercatcher at NE Ulungur Lake on 25 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus

Mainly a coastal migrant, Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus can sometimes be seen migrating overland. I found this flock 16 May 2012 in the arid country north of Burqin. (Craig Brelsford)

Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata

Eurasian Curlew
This individual is my only Xinjiang record of Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata. I was in the Kekesu Wetlands on 18 May 2012. The bird was likely a passage migrant, as Eurasian Curlew is not expected to breed in Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa

Black-tailed Godwit, Kekesu Wetlands, Xinjiang, 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
On 22 July 2017 at Daquangou Reservoir we counted 400 Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa. Most of those late-July birds were passage migrants, but the species breeds in Xinjiang. The individual above, found 18 May 2012 in the Kekesu Wetlands near Burqin, may have bred in the area. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos

Common Sandpiper
The coast is where Shanghai birders commonly encounter Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos, but at latitudes farther north one can view the species on its breeding grounds. Common Sandpiper breeds near water in forested areas, habitat that Xiaodong Gulch in the Altai Mountains, where I found this specimen on 18 May 2012, offers in abundance. (Craig Brelsford)

Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans cachinnans

Caspian Gull
At Qinggegda Lake on 29 July 2017 we had 2240 Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans cachinnans. This was by far our highest count, though we recorded the gull in lower numbers at various other reservoirs and lakes in the Jungar Basin. I had this individual at Aweitan Reservoir on 8 May 2012. Larus cachinnans cachinnans is the default Herring-type gull in Xinjiang and is characterized by its small, pear-shaped head, beady eye set high on the forehead, and long, yellowish legs. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Tern Chlidonias niger

On 29 July 2017 we recorded 2 Black Tern at Qinggeda Lake, a reservoir in the northern suburbs of Urumqi. This marsh tern is common in Europe but rare in China, breeding only in Xinjiang. Vagrants sometimes reach the coast.

Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus

My only sandgrouse record in Xinjiang came 21 July 2017 at Baihu. The sandgrouse were calling unseen around sunset.

Stock Dove Columba oenas

Stock Dove Columba oenas. Hongyanglin (红杨林), Xinjiang, China. Photos taken at 46.120000, 85.655800, elev. 300 m.
The light-tipped, reddish bill, black trailing edge to primaries, and complete lack of white coloration are some of the features distinguishing Stock Dove Columba oenas from Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) C. livia. Stock Dove was numerous at Hongyanglin, the poplar oasis in the central Jungar Basin. We had counts there of 8 on 23 July 2017 and 15 on 24 July. Well-known in Europe, Stock Dove in China is found only in Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur arenicola
Oriental Turtle Dove S. orientalis meena

A reliable criterion separating Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis meena (L panels) and European Turtle Dove S. turtur arenicola (R panels) is the reddish bare skin around the eye of the latter. We had Oriental only in the Tianshan Mountains (Baiyanggou) on 20 July and 21 July 2017, and it was at Baiyanggou that I got the photos of Oriental above. We had European at four locations, among them Beishawo (where the photos above were taken) on 22 July and far to the north at White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 26 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus. © Craig Brelsford. 20 July 2017. Baiyanggou, Xinjiang.
In contrast to other regions of China, where cuckoo diversity is rich, in Xinjiang cuckoo species are few. The Tianshan Mountains hold only one: Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus. We found this individual at Baiyanggou on 21 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus

European Nightjar
European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, Ulungur Lake, 25 July 2017. We found another at Beishawo on 22 July. In both cases, we happened upon an individual roosting in the semi-desert. In China, European Nightjar occurs in Xinjiang, western Gansu, and western and northern Inner Mongolia. (Craig Brelsford)

European Roller Coracias garrulus

European Roller, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Yet another species in China seen only in Xinjiang is European Roller Coracias garrulus. In 2017 we noted the species at seven locations in the Jungar Basin, among them Ulungur Lake (25 July) and the wooded area on the G216 (25 July). I took the photos above near Burqin during my initial trip to Northern Xinjiang in May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

European Bee-eater Merops apiaster

European Bee-eater
European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Kuitun Reservoir (east side), 23 July 2017. Xinjiang is the eastern extremity of the breeding range of this species. We found European Bee-eater at various places in the Jungar Basin, among them Kuitun Reservoir (north side) (23 July) and Beishawo (22 July). The poplar oasis of Hongyanglin was a particularly rich area, with a flock of 40 on 23 July and 17 on 24 July. (Craig Brelsford)

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos

White-backed Woodpecker, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
We found White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos at three sites, all of them riverine woodlands in the northern Jungar Basin. One of those sites is White Birch Forest Scenic Area, where I found this individual on 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus

White-winged Woodpecker
At the poplar oasis Hongyanglin on 23 July 2017 we achieved one of the highlights of Xinjiang 2017: meeting White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus. In China, this Central Asian species is found only in Xinjiang, mainly in forested areas in the Jungar Basin. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, Burqin Magic Forest, 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
During my May 2012 trip to Northern Xinjiang, a pair of Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius were nesting at Burqin Magic Forest. On 9 May 2012 I photographed this adult anting. (Craig Brelsford)

Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus

Grey-headed Woodpecker
Bucking the Xinjiang trend of ‘European birds in China’ is Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus, a mainly East Asian species whose range extends through Transbaikalia and the Altai Mountains to Northern Xinjiang. I recorded the species in the Burqin Magic Forest and at White Birch Forest Scenic Area, where I got this photo on 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni

Lesser Kestrel
We noted Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni in both the Tianshan and Altai and at various spots in the Jungar Basin. Among the characters distinguishing male Lesser Kestrel (L) from Common Kestrel F. tinnunculus are the sparse, rounded spots on the flanks of male Lesser as well as the lack of a submoustachial stripe on the grey head. Female Lesser (R) has fewer marks on underparts and underwings than female Common and has more black on the outer primaries. L: Wooded area on G216, 8 May 2012. R: Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Saker Falcon Falco cherrug

Saker Falcon
Saker Falcon Falco cherrug, Wutubulake, 24 July 2017. We had the species here and at two other Jungar Basin sites. (Craig Brelsford)

This post is the third in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.

Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction
Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Notes
Birds of Northern Xinjiang I
Birds of Northern Xinjiang II
Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

Other posts on Xinjiang:

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon
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