On Sat. 5 Aug., I resumed birding at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui after a two-month hiatus. Battling apparent temperatures of 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit), partner Ian Reid (above) and I noted 74 species. The haul was good, but even better was the insight it afforded me. Once again, I learned that when it comes to birding, the most southeasterly point of Earth’s Greatest City delivers month after month, season after season.
Ian and I had 3 juvenile Asian Dowitcher, the most notable among an all-star team of shorebirds that included 8 Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, 12 Broad-billed Sandpiper, and 3 Curlew Sandpiper still mainly in brick-red breeding plumage. A Red-necked Phalarope was making use of fallow rice paddies, and 6 Grey-tailed Tattler were on the mudflats near Donghai Bridge. We had unusual Nanhui records of Pied Kingfisher and Ruddy Shelduck.
The microforests were quiet, but a very early record of Eastern Crowned Warbler and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher offered a preview of the passerine party coming in September. We had four species of bittern: Eurasian Bittern, Yellow Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, and Black Bittern.
In my nearly 10 years in Shanghai, I had never birded Cape Nanhui in the first week of August. During Shanghai’s hottest month of the year, I am almost always birding in cooler climes—in Qinghai last year, for example, and in 2015 in my wife Elaine’s hometown in Heilongjiang.
Ian’s and my day both reminded me of the good reasons for vacating Shanghai this time of year and showed me the treasures I have been missing. Through the oppressive heat, which ensured that you would never stop sweating, and the 81-percent humidity, which ensured that the perspiration wouldn’t do much good, the Australian birder and I steadily built up an impressive list.
Our trio were juveniles, with their dark-brown crowns and buff-fringed, dark-brown upperparts. They were feeding together at South Pond (30.873934, 121.953180). The tide had hit the nearby sea wall and driven in small numbers of shorebirds of various species, among them Sharp-tailed SandpiperCalidris acuminata, Curlew SandpiperC. ferruginea, Long-toed StintC. subminuta, and Broad-billed SandpiperC. falcinellus.
An East Asian specialty, Asian Dowitcher breeds in a disjointed set of ranges from western Siberia to Heilongjiang. The IUCN lists it as Near Threatened.
Eastern Crowned WarblerPhylloscopus coronatus
We found a single individual in the Cathedral of Birding, the broad, spacious northern end of Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). This is a very early record of a species that, like so many other passerines on passage through the Shanghai region, does not begin to show up in impressive numbers until September. As with the dowitchers, when I saw this warbler, my initial reaction was, “What else have you been missing over the years for failing to bird Nanhui in early August?”
Nearby we had female Yellow-rumped FlycatcherFicedula zanthopygia, a less surprising record, as the species breeds in Jiangsu.
Ruddy ShelduckTadorna ferruginea
Ruddy Shelduck in August is yet another unexpected record. We found a single individual associating with domestic waterfowl near the entrance to the defunct wetland reserve (30.920507, 121.973159). The species is uncommon in Shanghai at any time of year, with most records coming in winter.
Pied KingfisherCeryle rudis
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this record is that it is surprising at all. Pied Kingfisher breeds throughout southern China, yet this record was my first of the species in Shanghai. A pair has been present at Cape Nanhui since at least July.
Eurasian BitternBotaurus stellaris
Our first of the four species of bittern. We found 2.
Yellow BitternIxobrychus sinensis
We found 24 of this local breeder along the length of the 30-km coastal road.
Cinnamon BitternIxobrychus cinnamomeus
Found in habitats similar to Yellow Bittern, but in much smaller numbers (4).
Black BitternIxobrychus flavicollis
One was seen flying just north of Eiffel Tower (30.850531, 121.878047). This species has an affinity for swamps in forests and is uncommon in Shanghai. Saturday’s record was only my second in the city.
Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus
A species common in Shanghai, noted here only because of the circumstances under which Ian and I found it. The first impression of “juvenile falcon” that I received came not from the plumage but from the blunders of the kestrel. The falcon got too close to some juvenile Black-winged Stilt–and found itself being chased off by an adult, a giant in comparison. This was clearly a rookie’s error and betrayed the inexperience of the attacker.
In the photo above, note the lightly streaked ear coverts, the lack of scythe-like wings (as in Eurasian Hobby), black remiges, and long tail with rounded tip. The strong black streaking on the underparts will grow thinner as the kestrel matures.
Peregrine FalconFalco peregrinus
A welcome addition to any Nanhui list, Falco peregrinus is usually recorded in Shanghai in autumn and winter. Sharp-eyed Ian spotted the falcon roosting in an area that used to contain reed beds but has since been flattened by the backhoes into a savanna-like landscape. I got video on my iPhone through the spotting scope.
Featured image: Australian birder Ian Reid scans the mudflats at Cape Nanhui, Pudong, 5 Aug. In the background is Donghai Bridge. (Craig Brelsford)
Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about the birds of China. Herewith we present “Well-spotted in the Bamboo,” John’s third guest post for our site. In it, John introduces the bird community of Jinfoshan, the highest peak in the Dalou Mountains in the city-province of Chongqing. John’s bird of the trip was Spotted Laughingthrush (above), a “quiet, gentle bird” of mountain forests and one of seven species of laughingthrush at Jinfoshan. — Craig Brelsford
I recently was invited to join a workshop of the China Bird Watching Association to review three years’ monitoring of wintering data on Scaly-sided Merganser. The attraction was that the meeting was to be held in Jinfoshan National Nature Reserve in Nanchuan District, Chongqing. So I added a day to my trip for birdwatching and ended up on the top of this spectacular mountain for three days. Whilst floods were raging in Hubei and Anhui, we 40 birdwatchers enjoyed beautiful weather—blue skies and only occasional quick showers of rain to liven up the bird life.
At an elevation of 2251 m (7,385 ft.), Jinfoshan is the highest peak in the Dalou Mountains. The reserve was recently added to the South China Karst World Heritage Site. It is also listed as an important bird area on account of its having Reeves’s Pheasant. Jinfoshan combines ease of access with great birding trails and pristine habitats. It deserves much more attention, but it is not well-known to most birders.
Jinfoshan offers a great chance to view vertical stratification of flora and fauna, since you rise quickly—at first by shuttle bus and then by cable car through the subtropical evergreen valleys, temperate mixed forests, and finally subalpine forest and meadows.
I did not have time to explore the lower levels, but even whilst waiting for the shuttle bus we could see Red-billed Blue Magpie, Hair-crested Drongo, Blue Whistling Thrush, Russet Sparrow, and Plumbeous Water Redstart. Overhead circled Crested Honey Buzzard.
Our meetings were in a fancy five-star hotel. My own room had a bath big enough to swim in! But the real attraction was to get out into the surrounding forest whenever the meeting schedule gave us a chance.
Not that the meeting was not interesting in itself! I was impressed to see so many motivated and very professional presentations by the various monitoring teams. More rivers and reservoirs get monitored each year, and more than 1,000 wintering Scaly-sided Merganser were recorded in the winter of 2016-17. The Association has also done a magnificent job in developing the species as a lovable and charismatic emblem of conservation in China.
Even from the hotel windows and gardens there were plenty of birds to see. Olive-backed Pipit and White Wagtail were nesting on the grassy flat roof, and Verditer Flycatcher perched temptingly on prominent perches (though proved skittish for photography). The woods echoed to the calls of Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Bianchi’s Warbler. Green-backed Tit were in full breeding plumage; White-collared Yuhina was the most visible bird. The most beautiful of the common birds was certainly Vinaceous Rosefinch, the males of which were gorgeous in their deep purple plumage.
The cable-car ride offered amazing views of the deep gorges and lush forests. Great flocks of swifts circled their nesting sites on the sheer limestone cliff faces. In fact, these were mixed flocks, with Pacific Swift, House Swift, Himalayan Swiftlet, and Asian House Martin all visible.
Enter the woods and you meet a different complex of birds. The undergrowth is thick with bamboo, and indeed this site was historically within the range of Giant Panda and may again be considered as a site for reintroduction.
A rustling in the trees revealed feeding White-bellied Green Pigeon. Busily collecting moths and other insects were Red-tailed Minla, whilst the Blue-winged Minla were more leisurely preening each other after a morning bath. Black-headed Sibia sneaked in and out to collect small fruits. Flocks of Grey-hooded Fulvetta rattled alarm in the bamboo in mixed flocks with Rufous-capped Babbler and some very pretty Black-throated Parrotbill.
Whilst colleagues at the merganser meeting swarmed the site with an array of expensive cameras and optics, I stayed deep in the forests, looking for laughingthrushes. I was jealous of the others getting nice photos of Slaty Bunting and White-bellied Redstart, but I had my own rewards in the damp bamboo.
One of the most extraordinary bird calls consists of many dozens of high-pitched notes merging together into a prolonged whistle. The entire call lasts almost a minute, but the caller is elusive. Finally I nailed it down and photographed the caller in the act—an elusive Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler.
Another bird making loud and rather melodious calls was Red-billed Leiothrix working their way among the undergrowth collecting food for their nearby nestlings. Chinese Babax sneaked about on the forest floor.
Jinfoshan boasts seven species of laughingthrush. The lower sectors are home to White-browed Laughingthrush, Moustached Laughingthrush, and White-throated Laughingthrush. Near the reserve summit in open scrub and in the forested limestone forests, the common Elliot’s Laughingthrush creeps about, making low, quiet glides and gentle calls.
For me the highlight of the trip was meeting flocks of rather approachable Spotted Laughingthrush—a species with a much more restricted China distribution, being a Himalayan species extending in mountain forests as far as Jinfoshan and Shennongjia. This is a quiet, gentle bird, hopping about on the forest floor searching under leaves and through the moss.
I sat among fluffy rock squirrels and watched their antics. They took me back to my favoured sites with warm memories of being among the Giant Panda of Wolong in Sichuan and the hilly forests of Bhutan.
MORE ON JOHN MACKINNON
John MacKinnon has played a major role in the development of shanghaibirding.com. MacKinnon has authored posts for the site, he has visited Shanghai and birded with the shanghaibirding.com team, and he has served as a consultant and inspiration from the very beginning.
Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station is one of the best birding sites in China. Set in thick forest 550 m (1,800 ft.) above the Shaotang River Valley at an elevation of 2570 m (8,430 ft.), the abandoned panda research station near Wolong, Sichuan is reachable only by foot. The steep climb and complex avifauna intimidate the young birder—but challenge and fulfill the experienced birder.
I know, for I have been both. In July 2010 I made my first visit to Wuyipeng. I was a new birder, alone and untrained. Wuyipeng overwhelmed me. When I returned in 2017, I had seven years of study under my belt, I was with my mentor Michael Grunwell, and we hardly missed a bird.
In 2010 I was hooked on bird photography. I carried to the top my equipment, all 10.5 kg (23 lbs.) of it. At the time, I had only one way of intensely experiencing a bird—by photographing it. Photography was my sole pathway to intensity because, at the time, I knew little about birds.
The more I learned about birds, the less obsessed I became with photographing them. I developed new ways of relating to birds—observing them closely, studying their habitats, recording their voices, and writing about them.
And crucially, by 2017 I had made friends with birders who know more than I about birds. Michael Grunwell is one of them. Michael has been building his life list since he was a teen-ager in the 1970s. Michael not only knows birds, but he also knows how to know birds.
Like your mother at the grocery store, Michael arrives at a site with a shopping list—his target species. He has read up on the species he wants and knows what to look for.
For example: Michael and I arrive at a creek deep in the forest. “Creekside habo!” I say to Michael. “What’s your target?”
“Play Chinese Wren-babbler,” Michael says.
I pull out my iPhone and find a recording of Chinese Cupwing that I downloaded from xeno-canto.org. I Bluetooth it through my speaker, and within seconds I get a response.
Chinese Cupwing Pnoepyga mutica, along stream (30.991680, 103.160400) near Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station, Wolong, Sichuan. Elev. 2570 m (8,430 ft.). 20 May (00:03; 1.7 MB)
Had my birding skills remained at the level of 2010, and had I not partly assimilated Michael’s birding style, then I would have missed Chinese Cupwing and many other species. I would have been bored, for in the dark, lush forest, photo opportunities are few (and in any case, this time I wisely decided not to lug my camera up the hill). Because I had progressed beyond photography, I was highly stimulated and had a sense of control. It was a great feeling.
Even a non-birder would feel good up there. Wuyipeng achieves a perfect balance: It is developed just enough to allow access, being one of the few places in the area with a good hiking trail; yet it remains a wilderness, for the steep climb is a formidable barrier, and visitors are few. In 2010 and again in 2017, we saw no one.
Making Wuyipeng even more interesting is the greater region of which it is a part. Sichuan and neighboring Yunnan are, ornithologically speaking, the Center of Asia. Himalaya, Indo-Malaya, Palearctica—like tectonic plates, the great eco-regions collide here. Various groups of birds, most notably the parrotbills, have their center of distribution in or near Sichuan (Robson).
The avian diversity here is unmatched in the temperate world. During a bird wave at the station, a single tree held six species of tit: Fire-capped TitCephalopyrus flammiceps, Yellow-browed TitSylviparus modestus, Coal TitPeriparus ater, Yellow-bellied TitPardaliparus venustulus, Pere David’s TitPoecile davidi, and Green-backed TitParus monticolus. That is half as many species of parid in a single tree as are found in the United States and Canada.
The mountain also yielded six members of a single genus, Phylloscopus: Chinese Leaf WarblerP. yunnanensis, Greenish WarblerP. trochiloides, Large-billed Leaf WarblerP. magnirostris, Claudia’s Leaf WarblerP. claudiae, Emei Leaf WarblerP. emeiensis, and Sichuan Leaf WarblerP. forresti.
We had Firethroat singing in thick undergrowth on the hillside, and just a few meters away a heart-stopping encounter with male Temminck’s Tragopan tiptoeing across the trail. Golden Pheasant called unseen, exquisite Indian Blue Robin and Chestnut-headed Tesia were singing, and Golden-breasted Fulvetta added color. We had a migrating flock of 40 Tibetan Serin.
We noted 49 species in all. Michael called 20 May one of his best birding days in his four years in China. I called it one of my best birding days, period.
Wuyipeng was the biggest but certainly not the only highlight of our four days, 18-21 May, in the Wolong-Balangshan area. Michael and I covered altitudes between 2000 m (6,560 ft.) and 4500 m (14,760 ft.) on the 79-km (49-mi.) stretch of the S303 between Wolong and Rilong. We noted 110 species.
Gamebirds were richly represented. We noted eight species: Snow PartridgeLerwa lerwa, Verreaux’s Monal-PartridgeTetraophasis obscurus, Blood PheasantIthaginis cruentus, Temminck’s TragopanTragopan temminckii, Koklass PheasantPucrasia macrolopha, White Eared PheasantCrossoptilon crossoptilon, Golden PheasantChrysolophus pictus, and Lady Amherst’s PheasantC. amherstiae.
At the famous tunnel area (30.877921, 102.966226) we made only a half-hearted effort to see Chinese Monal, which Michael had seen before. Higher up, we looked for but missed Tibetan Snowcock.
To the list of the six leaf-warbler species from Wuyipeng we added Alpine Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus occisinensis, Buff-barred WarblerP. pulcher, and Hume’s Leaf WarblerP. humei, giving us a total of nine over the four days.
We found Collared Grosbeak and Sichuan Thrush along the S303, we spotted Grandala on the slopes at high altitude, and in the alpine scrub we found Sichuan Tit, Chinese Rubythroat, and Chinese Fulvetta.
The route from Wolong over the Balangshan Pass to Rilong is a marvel, one of the great drives of China. The new Balangshan Tunnel reduces the driving distance between Wolong and Rilong from 96 km to 79 km.
A series of tunnels linking Wolong to the G213 and Chengdu has been completed, a monumental feat of engineering.
With the improvements in infrastructure, and with the continued expansion of the rental-car industry in China, Wuyipeng and Balangshan are now open to Shanghai birders with only a few days to spare, as was the case with Michael and me.
After a full workday 17 May, we flew that night from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport to Chengdu. We picked up our car from Shenzhou, covered in three hours the 125 km (78 mi.) to Wolong, and at daylight on 18 May were taking in the dawn chorus at Lama Temple.
We stayed at the clean Lín Huì Fàndiàn (临惠饭店, +86 153-5143-1887, +86 152-8151-1256). For our night on the Rilong side, I once again used Kāi Fù Shān Zhuāng (开富山庄, +86 150-8250-0382).
We birded half a day on 21 May before calling it a trip.
As Michael and I departed the mountains for Chengdu, zipping through the world-class tunnels, we reviewed the eventful past four days. I thought further back to 2010, when the road to Wolong was bumpy, dusty, and dangerous, and when I knew little about birds.
I have become a better birder. Wuyipeng and Balangshan have become easier places to bird. Progress is occurring, and on more front than one.
Quiet moments in the forest near Wuyipeng.
In 2010, I carried my heavy equipment to the top. I was laughing even then.
Below, a selection of my sound-recordings from the Sichuan trip. For even more sound-recordings and photos, and for our day lists from Sichuan, please see the eBird citations in the Bibliography below.
Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, Wuyipeng, 20 May (00:16; 1.5 MB)
Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station (Zhōngguó Bǎohù Dàxióngmāo Yánjiū Zhōngxīn, Wǔyīpéng Yěwài Guāncházhàn [中国保护大熊猫研究中心, 五一棚野外观察站]): research center in thick forest near Wolong. Damaged & abandoned after Wenchuan Earthquake of 12 May 2008. Elev. 2570 m (8,430 ft.). 30.994128, 103.159845. Begin your walk at Jīnjiāpō (金家坡, 31.004395, 103.151987). Park your car at any of the local folks’ homes.
Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36952551. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. (Accessed: 23 Dec. 2019). Note: This is the first of five lists we made for 18 May 2017. This list covers Lama Monastery.
Collar, N.J. (2005). Family Turdidae (Thrushes). P. 748 (Indian Blue Robin) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2005). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 10. Cuckoo-shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
eBird. 2017. eBird hotspot: Wuyipeng Research Station, Sichuan, CN: https://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L947367. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. (Accessed: 23 Dec. 2019).
Robson, C. (2006). Family Paradoxornithidae (Parrotbills). P. 292 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 12. Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
BIRDS NOTED IN SICHUAN, 18-21 MAY 2017 (110 SPECIES)
Featured image: Themes from Wuyipeng, 20 May. Clockwise from top L: Craig Brelsford in sea of bamboo; male FirethroatCalliope pectardens; sign at Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station; rich forest near station. (Craig Brelsford)