Asian Stubtail, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May 2009. (Craig Brelsford)

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)

PHOTOS

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)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/gansu-bluetail/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 June 2017 (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2014). Wuyuan & Poyang Lake, November 2014 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/wuyuan-2014/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2015). Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015: Part 4: Second Trip to Elaine’s Hometown (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/inner-mongolia-heilongjiang/part4/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2016). Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/boli-may-june-2016/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 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.

REVISIONS

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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Craig Brelsford

Craig Brelsford lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. When he departed China, Craig was the top-ranked eBirder in the country, having noted 933 species, as well as the top-ranked eBirder in Shanghai (323 species). A 1993 graduate of the University of Florida, Craig was an award-winning newspaper editor in the United States for 10 years. In 2002, Craig earned a master's in business administration from the University of Liege in Belgium. Craig lives in Debary, Florida with his wife, Elaine, and their son, Tiny.

8 thoughts on “Season of the Stubtail”

  1. I enjoyed reading this article and would like to add some comments.

    Asian Stubtail is a regular in the migrating season during Apr-May and Sep-Oct at Nanhui Cape, Shanghai. Usually one stops for a short while (one day or two) and move. Sometimes there is a chance to observe its behavior in a car from distance. Once I saw a Stubtail feeding with a Pale-legged Warbler/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on the ground of a grassy area together and I captured a clip of video. I saw the Stubtail feeding on small insects hiding under the leaf of grass and showing no interests in vegetable, jumping frequently very short distance which is shorter than the PLW/SLW nearby did. In addition, I know it is certain that Asian Stubtail winters in Taiwan too. Birders in Taiwan see the bird in the whole winter time so they are sure about some Stubtails are wintering there while most people think Stubtail is a migrant in Taiwan.

    1. Thanks for the comment and especially for the remark about Taiwan. My sources were surprisingly unclear and contradictory about Asian Stubtail in Taiwan. Brazil (Birds of East Asia) says only “migrant Taiwan” in the text, but his map of Taiwan is colored blue, the winter-range color. Clement’s (HBW 11) map represents Taiwan as part of Asian Stubtail’s winter range, but his text suggests it’s a migrant in Taiwan. Kennerley and Pearson have it the other way around: text says winter visitor, map showing winter range has big blank space over Taiwan. I was surprised by the lack of clarity, especially inasmuch as the area in question is Taiwan, a well-birded island.

  2. Asian Stubtail’s been known to breed around Beijing for almost 40 years and possibly much longer. Cai (1987) Birds of Beijing noted then that specimens had been collected at Baihuashan on the 20 and 30 June 1980. Unfortunately Peter Kennerley overlooked that. It currently breeds at a handful of forested sites, including several that are frequently visited (Lingshan, Xiangshan, Badaling National Forest Park, Xiaolongmen). All of my recent breeding season reports come from between 480-1710 metres. It’s also known to breed at a modest number of sites in Hebei, e.g., Haituoshan, Wulingshan, Xinglong, and more commonly at Zushan Forest Park, Qinhuangdao.

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