In this, the fifth in my five-post series on birding Northern Xinjiang, I offer you photos of the various habitats in which I birded. — Craig Brelsford
A semi-desert steppe called the Jungar Basin covers most of Northern Xinjiang. The basin is studded with oases, many of them near waterways such as the Irtysh River. In recent decades, as the human population has grown, runoff from the mountains has been channeled into reservoirs, important for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. The Jungar Basin is bounded on the south by the Tianshan Mountains and on the north by the Altai Mountains. Both ranges offer classic alpine habitats, and the Altai, parts of which are closer to Moscow than to Shanghai, holds many species of bird more common in Europe than in China.
The map below traces our 2017 itinerary through this vast, underbirded region. Noteworthy birding areas are marked.
The photos below show some of the habitats in which I have birded in Northern Xinjiang. Farther below, you can enjoy my other shots in “Scenes from Northern Xinjiang.” Still farther below are the references for this five-post series as well as my acknowledgements and dedication.
SCENES FROM NORTHERN XINJIANG
BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR THE FIVE-POST SERIES
Alström, Per, Mild, Krister, & Zetterström, Bill. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003.
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., & Christie, D.A. (eds.) (1992-2011). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vols. 1-16. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995.
Kennerley, Peter & Pearson, David. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm, 2010.
Leader, Paul J. to Brelsford, Craig. Email message about Blyth’s Reed Warbler, 17 Jan. 2017.
MacKinnon, John to Brelsford, Craig. Email message about Ulungur Lake, 15 July 2017.
Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009. Our second reference in Northern Xinjiang.
Despite being published back in 2000, the pioneering work co-authored by John MacKinnon, A Field Guide to the Birds of China, was my first reference in Northern Xinjiang. John also offered me tips about Northern Xinjiang drawn from his considerable experience in the region. I got many of my ideas for the trip from the meticulously detailed reports of Paul Holt. Jan-Erik’s and my 2017 itinerary was loosely based on the June 2015 trip of Hangzhou birder Qián Chéng (钱程). Josh Summers of farwestchina.com offered me pointers and assured me that traveling through Northern Xinjiang would be safe and fun.
I dedicate the Xinjiang report to my son, “Tiny” Craig Brelsford. Tiny, you were in Mummy’s belly when I made my final big trip in China, and you filled me with hope every day. I loved traveling around China finding birds—I love being your daddy even more. May the photos and stories here inspire your own big adventures someday!
This post is the fifth in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.
Featured image: Habitats of Northern Xinjiang. Clockwise from top L: oasis with sere mountains looming in background, Hongyanglin; Jungar Basin semi-desert at Fukang-Beishawo; alpine meadow, Altai Mountains; semi-desert, reeds, and reservoir at Baihu, Urumqi. All by Craig Brelsford, except bottom L, by Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东).
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. John also authored the first and second guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com, and he visited Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui with me in April 2017. 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
Well-spotted in the Bamboo
by John MacKinnon
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.
Featured image: Spotted LaughingthrushGarrulax ocellatus, Jinfoshan, Chongqing. (John MacKinnon)
On Sat. 8 April 2017 I birded Cape Nanhui with John MacKinnon. John is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about China’s birds. On John’s first visit to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula, we noted 84 species. John and I were joined by veteran birders Michael Grunwell and Russell Boyman and the outstanding high-school birder Larry Chen.
We gave John the Grand Nanhui Tour, starting at Luchao to the south and ending 30 km north at Binhai. Heading back to the city, we made a brief stop at the sod farm just south of Pudong Airport, where we found a single Oriental Plover.
Nanhui yielded 23 Marsh Grassbird performing the song flight at three locations, and we saw 10 EndangeredGreat Knot and 1 Near ThreatenedCurlew Sandpiper. We had a pair of Rufous-faced Warbler and a Common Starling.
Also: Garganey 57, Greater Scaup 1 (Dishui Lake), Little Curlew 31 (flock), Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 11 (first of season), Red-necked Stint 1 (first of season), Wood Sandpiper 1 (first of season), Peregrine Falcon 1, Dusky Warbler 1 at Magic Parking Lot (possibly wintered there), and Reed Parrotbill 18.
GETTING TO KNOW JOHN MACKINNON
Our partner, John MacKinnon, co-authored A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Published in 2000, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies and remains the only bird guide in English covering all China. John also wrote the first and second guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com.
John is witty and a fine storyteller. He had us roaring with tales drawn from his six decades as a researcher in Asia. The funniest story was about the doctor back home in Britain. Every time John straggled in, the doc would call in his students, so that they could study the strange new tropical disease John had contracted.
“I never cared about my health, because I never expected to live this long!” John said.
John also talked about his masterpiece, A Field Guide to the Birds of China.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Field Guide. Had it merely been a window for Westerners to the birds of the world’s most populous country, then John’s work would have been important enough. The Field Guide, however, in translated form has introduced tens of thousands of Chinese to the birds of their own country. John’s Chinese name, Mǎjìngnéng (马敬能), is known by every birder in China.
John faced obstacles unknown to field-guide writers in North America and Western Europe, where birding has been practiced for 200 years. His sources were often thin, he said.
“For range maps, I had nearly nothing from Russia,” John said. “A Chinese book had ranges stopping at the Chinese border. Another book had no paintings, only descriptions.”
To critics who unfairly compare John’s Field Guide to field guides covering more developed parts of the world, John had this to say:
“You’ve got to finish something. We finished the book. We could have waited and said, ‘Oh, another species has been split, we must revise,’ but at a certain point you have to say, ‘We must go with what we’ve got.’”
To this day, no Westerner has repeated John’s feat. Others talked; John acted. One can imagine the feeling of accomplishment in John’s heart.
John is a handy photographer and got off some good shots, three of which are displayed in the Day List at the bottom of this post. Here are some photos I took of the pioneer birder and naturalist.
MARSH GRASSBIRD ON THE BRINK
Marsh Grassbird were singing in the large reed beds at Nanhui. They were most conspicuous at the reed bed south of the Holiday Inn (30.870711, 121.942976). The species, listed as Near Threatened by IUCN, was also noted in the pristine reed bed (30.931790, 121.949169) associated with the defunct wetland reserve.
The reed beds at Cape Nanhui may be the last stronghold of Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis on the Shanghai Peninsula. The species is highly dependent on large reed beds. In areas where only strips of reeds remain, the song of Marsh Grassbird is never heard. Its partner species, Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for official bird of the city-province of Shanghai, is only slightly less dependent on large reed beds.
One of the areas where last year my partners and I noted Marsh Grassbird performing its song flight has been flattened. No song of Marsh Grassbird was heard there Saturday. A few Reed Parrotbill were calling in one of the strips of reeds left standing.
Much needs to be learned about Marsh Grassbird in Earth’s largest city. Birders, look for the fluttering song flight, and listen for this song:
Marsh Grassbird, 10 April 2016, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:07; 1 MB)
The plight of Marsh Grassbird brings to mind the series of posts I wrote last year on the precarious environmental situation at Cape Nanhui.
Editor’s note: With more and more birders operating in Shanghai, more and more vagrant birds are bound to be discovered. One possibility is Blyth’s Pipit (photo above, L), a species similar to our familiar Richard’s Pipit (R). In this post, I will teach you how to separate the two.
2016 has been an outstanding birding year in Earth’s largest city. Paddyfield Warbler/Manchurian Reed Warbler, seen at Cape Nanhui on 18 Dec., was the latest in a parade of rare visitors seen in Shanghai in 2016.
The reason for the surge in good records, I am convinced, is more birders with better skills communicating more effectively. I am proud to say that shanghaibirding.com and the Shanghai Birding WeChat group have played a role.
In the Shanghai area, one species that has not yet been reported is Blyth’s Pipit. Anthus godlewskii breeds mainly in Mongolia, occurs on passage in central China, and winters mainly in India, so any records here would be of extralimitals. It is just the sort of vagrant that a bigger and better birding community could discover here in Shanghai.
The key to getting a Blyth’s in Shanghai is paying attention to the many Richard’s Pipit that we see in the area. Anthus richardi is more or less a passage migrant in the Shanghai area and is recorded here regularly in spring and autumn. Some are present in winter; Elaine Du and I had a “sinensis” last week, the ID’ing of which led to this post.
Richard’s “sinensis” is very similar to Blyth’s, being best told by song, which is rarely heard in the Shanghai area. According to Per Alström et al., whose book Pipits and Wagtails is the authority on Palearctic and Nearctic pipits, the song of Blyth’s is “very characteristic and completely different from [that] of Richard’s” (242). During a trip in July 2015 to the Inner Mongolian prefecture of Hulunbeier, one of the few places in China where Blyth’s breeds, I recorded the song.
Blyth’s Pipit, flight song, recorded 22 July 2015 at a point (48.767866, 116.834183) near Hulun Lake, Inner Mongolia (2.1 MB; 00:32)
The calls of the two species also differ, but less markedly. The flight call of Richard’s is a common bird sound in Shanghai during migration season. The call of Blyth’s is similar enough to “cause problems even for some veteran observers” (Alström et al. 244). For Shanghai birders, even those unfamiliar with Blyth’s, a “Richard’s” with a strange flight call is worth your attention. Listen for what Alström et al. describe as a call “less harsh, softer and more nasal” than Richard’s (244). For reference, review the flight call of Richard’s:
Regarding plumage, the most reliable differentiator of Richard’s and Blyth’s is the pattern of the median coverts. In Blyth’s, a typical adult-type median covert will show well-defined, squarish black centers. In Richard’s, the adult-type median coverts are less clear-cut, rufous-tinged, and triangular. Note that the fresher the plumage, the more reliable this differentiator is.
Another less reliable criterion is structure. Shanghai birders will agree that the first impression a non-“sinensis” Richard’s usually gives is “large pipit.” Other pipits, such as Buff-bellied Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, and Olive-backed Pipit, give a “small pipit” impression.
Alström et al. say, and I having seen Blyth’s can concur, that a birder viewing Blyth’s will get a “small pipit” impression: “The smaller size, lighter build and shorter tail,” the authors write, “are often most apparent in flight, when [Blyth’s] often recalls one of the smaller pipits rather than Richard’s.” Note also that the smaller size and shorter bill, tail, and hind claw of Blyth’s give that species a “better proportioned” look than the larger and heavier Richard’s (237).
The directions above should be seen as guidelines; individual Richard’s and Blyth’s may defy easy categorization, “sinensis” Richard’s even more so. Alström et al. caution against jumping the gun with your ID: “It is crucial to realise that in both species (especially Richard’s) appearance can vary considerably in one and the same individual depending on mood, weather, etc.,” they write. “Also, some Richard’s are structurally very like Blyth’s; this is especially true of southern Chinese Richard’s (‘sinensis’)” (237).
A record of Blyth’s Pipit in Shanghai would shoot to the top of the “Year’s Best” list. The stakes are high, so look diligently, and use caution. Good luck!
PADDYFIELD WARBLER/MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER
On 18 Dec. 2016, a quartet of teenage birders found an acrocephalid in the Magic Parking Lot at Cape Nanhui. The photos by Komatsu Yasuhiko provoked discussion on the WeChat group Shanghai Birding. The consensus is that the bird is either Paddyfield WarblerAcrocephalus agricola or Manchurian Reed WarblerA. tangorum.
In the images above, note the supercilium, which extends behind the eye; dark eye-line; bright white chin and throat; peach breast band and flanks; bill with black upper mandible and pink lower mandible; and peaked head. Those criteria most closely indicate Manchurian Reed Warbler and Paddyfield Warbler.
Paddyfield Warbler winters mainly in India and would be extralimital here; Manchurian Reed Warbler breeds in northeastern China, is listed as Vulnerable and is therefore scarce, and probably passes through Shanghai.
Congratulations to Andy Lee, Komatsu Yasuhiko, Larry Chen, and Archie Jiang for this great Shanghai record.
INTERVIEW WITH PUDONG TV
On Thurs. 15 Dec. at Cape Nanhui my wife Elaine Du and I did an interview with Pudong TV in Chinese. The segment will last five minutes and be aired later this month. In the interview I lamented the losses at Nanhui and spoke glowingly of the possibilities.
Meanwhile, John MacKinnon, co-author of the most famous bird guide in the history of China and author of a recent post for shanghaibirding.com, has expressed interest in the establishment of an easily accessible, world-class wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui.
MacKinnon asked me for the reasoning behind a wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui. I wrote the following:
THE CASE FOR AN EASILY ACCESSIBLE, WORLD-CLASS WETLAND RESERVE AT CAPE NANHUI, PUDONG, SHANGHAI
(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, habitat critical to Reed Parrotbill, Marsh Grassbird, and other species at risk.
The largest component of the city-province of Shanghai is the Shanghai Peninsula, a projection of land between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the peninsula, is a critically important stop for migrating birds, and is completely unprotected. A nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a third stepping stone for birds crossing the mouth of the Yangtze, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha.
The 2 Red-crowned Crane seen on Sat. 10 Dec. 2016 were the latest in a parade of endangered birds that I and other birders have noted at the Cape over the years. Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses Cape Nanhui, as does Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. 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. The latter species, a candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird, will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai if the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed.
(2) Shanghai is clearly under-performing on the conservationist front. 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 a third the size of Wales). There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in this megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the natural side of Shanghai, a city with an extraordinarily rich natural heritage. There is no known plan to conserve any of the dozens of square kilometers of reclaimed land on Hengsha.
(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 could be the match to light the fire of conservation across all China.
Hundreds of thousands of middle-class children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the 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.” A day at a Cape Nanhui Wetland would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster an appreciation of the natural world.
If Shanghai can be a world economic center and have world-class airports and a world-class skyline and world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must have an easily accessible, world-class reserve protecting its priceless coastline, reed beds, and migratory birds.
A world-class, easily accessible, wetland nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would become a mecca for birders and achieve world renown, as has been the case with similar reserves such as Mai Po at Hong Kong and Sungei Buloh in Singapore.
Alström, Per, Krister Mild & Bill Zetterström. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003. This landmark book, co-authored by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström, is my first reference on all things Motacillidae.
Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, 2009. Serviceable descriptions of Blyth’s Pipit and Richard’s Pipit. Illustration of “sinensis.” Good coverage of Paddyfield Warbler, Manchurian Reed Warbler.
Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. Pipits and reed warblers discussed in detail.
Kennerley, Peter & David Pearson. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm, 2010. The world standard on Acrocephalidae, Cettiidae, and Locustellidae.
Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Outstanding illustrations of Richard’s Pipit and Blyth’s Pipit by Mullarney.
Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is the co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Since its publication in 2000, this pioneering work has been the standard guide to the birds of China for foreign and Chinese birders alike. MacKinnon is a pioneer in another, smaller way—he is the author of the first, and now the second, guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com. Herewith we present “Daxing’anling: Kingdom of the Great Owls.” It is about MacKinnon’s experiences with the owls of the Daxing’anling (大兴安岭) or Greater Khingan Range in northern Inner Mongolia. The photo above, taken by Li Jixiang, is of Ural Owl, one of the great owls of that remote and wild region. — Craig Brelsford
Daxing’anling: Kingdom of the Great Owls
by John MacKinnon
She is big. Wow, she is big. But she is beautiful and she knows it. She watches me with a disdain that most beautiful ladies seem to acquire. She is a hunter—a killer, but she has every right to be so. She is the Great Grey Owl, and I have been her admirer, hoping to meet her for many years.
She is perched only 2 metres off the ground in a flimsy larch bush that looks too weak to support her great size. But in fact she is lighter than she looks. Most of her bulk is feathers. The Great Grey Owl is marginally the longest owl in the world from head to tail, and the only two or three species that may be able to outweigh her are also here in the forests of Genhe Wetland Park of Daxing’anling: Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Blakiston’s Fish Owl and Snowy Owl.
Suddenly she hears a movement below her and pounces. A few moments scrabbling in the grass and she rises up again on silent, slow wing beats to settle on another small bush a few metres away. But now she has a large lemming in her beak. She transfers the lemming to the safer grasp of her foot then launches off on wide wings low over the ground, through a small clump of trees then out of sight into the larch forest beyond. I know she must have young to feed, and I want to see them also.
But before I find her young, I meet her two boyfriends a few hundred metres apart along the same trail leading deeper into the tall larch forest. Like Madame, they are relatively tame, and I can approach quite close to take photos. One has got wet in the night rain and looks rather miserable with straggly wet feathers. They are smaller than the female, but still pretty large. I am gradually getting to understand their habits. They are more diurnal than I expected, and they hunt in clearings rather than in the dense forests.
But her nest is in the forest, and I still try to find out where, so I return to her favourite hunting area and watch her a few more times to see exactly where she flies each time she catches another lemming or vole.
As chief technical advisor of the Daxing’anling wetlands conservation project funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, I have other duties to attend to. I can only steal occasional moments and weekends for treks in the woods looking for birds! I have to wait two weeks before I get the chance to return and find where she hides her young.
Meanwhile, Deputy Director Li Ye of the nearby Hanma Nature Reserve has found another nest of Great Grey Owl and has taken great shots and video of the male bringing food for his mate, who sits on a large platform of sticks—probably an old crow’s nest—where she tends to two small chicks.
When I return to Genhe in July, I find Madame hunting in the same area as previously, but this time she flies less far into the forest between catches, and this time I can hear the weak, hoarse calls of a youngster. I find the young fledgling clumsily clambering about in the larch trees and making short flights from tree to tree. But I find only one baby—a fluffy fellow—already quite large but lacking the great broad face disk of the parents. It pours with rain, and I have to move on back to Hanma, where I have another owl family to monitor. By August I return to find there are indeed two chicks—and looking very much mature, with clear concentric facial disk rings.
At Hanma it is the Ural Owl that lures me out into the dark forest at night. Ural Owl is a true wood owl and unlike Great Grey it nests in tree holes. It is smaller than the Great Grey, but at 54 cm it is still an impressively large bird. It looks, sounds, and behaves like a giant Himalayan Owl, which is a common species across much of China.
On a visit the previous year I had found and photographed two fully flying young fledglings, so I headed to the same spot, hoping to find they had bred in the same area. I was rewarded by finding an adult Ural Owl perched on the stump of a dead tree. I got some pictures in the dark. I had to use a flash, so the owl’s eyes reflect back spookily.
But this year I find and hear no young. It has been a very cold winter, and the season is two to three weeks later than the previous year. I think the young are still in their nest hole, and I am pretty sure I know which tree they are in: a tall dead larch with three potentially good holes or an open chimney top to choose from.
I head back to the cabin I stay in, seeing several Grey Nightjar on my way. Sometimes the nightjars perch on the road, sometimes in trees, and sometimes they give their strange clonking calls as they fly around catching mosquitoes. Did I not mention the mosquitoes? Wow, how can I forget. There were hundreds of them, and they settled all over me whenever I stopped to take pictures. Their swollen bites still itch a week later. But I am happy to have seen these wonderful owls and cannot wait to find them again in the winter, when the snow lies on the ground.
It is in the snow time that the owls of Daxing’anling really show what they can do. The great Snowy Owl is perfectly coloured to creep up on unsuspecting white Mountain Hare. Snowy Owl is large, with a lazy yellow-iris stare. It is pure white and variously speckled with black spots, which break up its shape and make it almost invisible in the snowy landscape.
Another owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, is also largely white but with black ear muffs and thin stripes across its belly. The Northern Hawk-Owl catches birds and smaller prey in the woods. It is totally diurnal.
Other woodland owls such as the bulky Eurasian Eagle-Owl and its smaller cousin the Long-eared Owl are brown with black streaky plumage, long ear tufts, and fearsome orange eyes. In summer these two owls hunt chipmunks and pikas in dense forest, but in winter they move south or take up residence only in the most sheltered valleys. The smaller Boreal Owl lives in the tundra forests and is strictly nocturnal and rather solitary. Short-eared Owl is a grassland species that also moves to warmer locations in winter.
But the Great Grey stays put, hunting in the forest clearings from its low perches. This owl has amazing hearing and can detect voles and lemmings moving in their burrows underneath half a metre of snow. Like a polar bear catching seals beneath the Arctic ice, the owl can plunge to its own depth in snow and drag out these unsuspecting rodents.
In winter the larch trees lose their needle leaves. But the forest is not silent. Moose rummage in the frozen wetlands and find food beneath the snow. Lynx compete with Snowy Owl to catch Mountain Hare, which have also gone white for the winter.
Willow Grouse, stoat, and weasel also turn white for the winter. Bears are hibernating, but the huge spotted capercaillies are active in the larch trees, eating the buds and shoots for the next year’s leaves and already starting to fight for females with their load croaking calls, fanning their tails like turkeys and eyeing the world fiercely under their red eyelids.
Daxing’anling is all about winter. The winter lasts for nine months, and summer is short. And there she rules–ice queen of China’s most northerly forests–the Great Grey Owl.
Mountain range NE China (Inner Mongolia) dividing Greater Manchurian Plain & Mongolian Plateau. Range runs ca. 1200 km (744 mi.) S from Amur River, is broad in N & narrow in S, & is heavily forested throughout. Elevation of highest peak: 2035 m (6,675 ft.). In Inner Mongolia most of Daxing’anling lies within Hulunbeier Prefecture. Also called Greater Khingan Range, Greater Khingan Mountains.
Hulunbeier (Hūlúnbèi’ěr Shì [呼伦贝尔市]): sub-provincial administrative area NE Inner Mongolia. Area: 263,953 sq. km. (101,913 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): larger than United Kingdom; slightly smaller than Colorado. Pop.: 2.6 million. Much of Greater Khingan Range lies in Hulunbeier. Officially Hulunbeier “city” (市).
Editor’s note: The image above shows Crow-billed Drongo (left) and Black Drongo. The former was noted in Shanghai on Tues. 11 Oct. 2016, a first for the city. The latter is a common passage migrant in Shanghai. In this post, I show you how to separate the two species.
On Tues. 11 Oct. 2016 at Nanhui, Shanghai’s major birding spot on the East China Sea, Shanghai Birding member kaca found a first-winter Crow-billed DrongoDicrurus annectans. kaca’s record was the first for Crow-billed Drongo in Shanghai.
Is kaca’s historic discovery a one-off, or is it the result of more birders with greater skills more thoroughly covering Shanghai’s hot spots and communicating more readily with one another? If the answer is the latter, then there may be a Crow-billed Drongo in your future! To sift out Crow-billed from the many Black Drongo in our area, note the following:
— All drongos have a strong, black bill. Crow-billed (Panel 2a, above) may have the stoutest, as deep at its base as it is wide.
The swollen look of its bill may be Crow-billed’s most striking feature. The bill of Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus cathoecus is broad and short but noticeably less thick-based than that of Crow-billed. Compare bills of the two species in the image at the top of this post. (Race cathoecus is the form of Black Drongo birders are most likely to see in Shanghai.)
— The iris in kaca’s first-winter Crow-billed is reddish-brown (2a). Adult Crow-billed has a blood-red iris.
Compare brown iris of adult Black at top of post.
— Black Drongo often shows white spot at gape, never present in Crow-billed.
Note again the photo leading off this post.
— First-winter Crow-billed shows white spotting from breast to undertail coverts (2b, 3).
First-winter Black, by contrast, shows more patchily white underparts (panels 1a, 1b in photo below).
— The tail of Crow-billed shows a less shallow fork than the tail of Black. On average, the tail of Black is forked about twice as deeply as that of Crow-billed.
Compare Panel 4 in photo above to Panel 2 in photo below. Adult Crow-billed and Black have deeper forks, but the proportions are the same as in the sub-adults. In addition, the outer rectrices of Crow-billed’s tail are more likely to curl upward.
BACKGROUND ON THE SPECIES
A monotypic species, Crow-billed Drongo Dicrurus annectans breeds from the Himalayan foothills in India east to Hainan. In winter some birds go as far south as Sumatra and Java. Shenzhen-based French birder Jonathan Martinez, an expert on southeast China birds, reports breeding populations of Crow-billed in northern Guangdong and southwest Hunan. There are coastal records, most likely of migrants, from Hong Kong and Guangxi. Shanghai Birding member Paul Holt writes that Crow-billed is “undoubtedly overlooked” in southern China and “is probably quite rare or at least very localized.” Martinez agrees, calling Crow-billed “scarce” even at the Guangdong and Hunan sites.
ALSO TUESDAY …
On Tuesday I arrived in Nanhui too late to see Crow-billed Drongo. My partners Kai Pflug and Elaine Du and I made the fateful decision to cover Hengsha Island in the morning. The alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze was decidedly humdrum, with Far Eastern Curlew out on the mud along with 2 Sanderling and a Ruddy Turnstone. The huge new tree plantation on the island failed to deliver any forest birds beyond a single Asian Brown Flycatcher. There was a good count (17) of Richard’s Pipit.
We arrived in Nanhui and found kaca, who mentioned an unusual drongo he had seen that morning. We kept our eyes peeled for dark drongos, finding none. Our Nanhui harvest was limited to expected October birds such as Grey-backed Thrush (6) and Eyebrowed Thrush (2). Asian Brown Flycatcher (26) seemed to be on every tree.
All of Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers were present: Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (1), Yellow-browed Warbler (1), Arctic-type Warbler (2), Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (7), and Eastern Crowned Warbler (2).
I’m trying to get over missing the Crow-billed Drongo. I tell myself, “That’s birding,” but those words can’t fully dispel the empty feeling.
I am however happy for kaca, and I am encouraged, because the growing fluidity in reporting is leading to ever more astounding new bird records for Shanghai.
List 1 of 2 for Tues. 11 Oct. 2016 (29 species)
Birds noted on Hengsha Island (Héngshā Dǎo [横沙岛]), a small alluvial island at mouth of Yangtze River in Shanghai, China. S gate to reclaimed area at 31.297333, 121.859434. Partly cloudy. Low 17° C, high 19° C. Humidity 64%. Visibility: large buildings visible from distance of 38 km. Wind NE 18 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 42 (good). Sunrise 05:55, sunset 17:25. TUE 11 OCT 2016 07:15-10:15. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Kai Pflug.
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 18
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 7
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 9
Great Egret A. alba 2
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia 1
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 18
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 40
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus 15
Kentish Plover C. alexandrinus ca. 500
Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis 1
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres 1
Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis 12
Sanderling C. alba 2
Dunlin C. alpina 310
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 1
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 50
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola 1
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 6
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/gulgula 25
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 40
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 5
Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 50
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 50
White Wagtail M. alba 2
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 17
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni 1
List 2 of 2 for Tues. 11 Oct. 2016 (35 species)
Birds noted around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]; 30.920507, 121.973159), Pudong, Shanghai, China. Partly cloudy. Low 17° C, high 19° C. Humidity 64%. Visibility: large buildings visible from distance of 38 km. Wind NE 18 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 42 (good). Sunrise 05:55, sunset 17:25. TUE 11 OCT 2016 13:00-18:05. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Kai Pflug.
Garganey Spatula querquedula 9
Northern Shoveler S. clypeata 7
Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope 15
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 30
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 3
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 42
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 3
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 20
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 1
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 8
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia 6
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 7
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 20
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata 3
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 2
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 1
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps 1
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 1
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 1
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler P. borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas 2
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes/borealoides 7
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus 2
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 7
Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica 2
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. dauurica 26
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana 8
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans 1
Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki 3
Taiga Flycatcher F. albicilla 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 2
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 8
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum 6
Chinese Blackbird T. mandarinus 1
Eyebrowed Thrush T. obscurus 2
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 11
Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. Quotations in post from Paul Holt and Jonathan Martinez taken from this chat group. News about kaca’s discovery of Crow-billed Drongo was first disseminated in this chat group.
del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 14, “Bush-shrikes to Old World Sparrows.” Highly detailed species accounts for Crow-billed Drongo (p. 212) and Black Drongo (p. 222) written by G.J. Rocamora and D. Yeatman-Berthelot.
Editor’s note: The featured image above shows the stunning male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and serves to introduce this week’s theme: How can birders tell apart the two species of the remarkable genus Terpsiphone that migrate through Shanghai?
Each spring and autumn, two species of paradise flycatcher pass through Earth’s greatest city: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei. The two species can seem confusingly similar, especially in the poor light of a wood. With a little practice you can tell the males apart, and with a lot of practice you should be able to separate the females. Here is what you need to know:
— If in Shanghai you see a white-morph paradise flycatcher, then by definition you are not looking at Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, and you are almost certainly looking at Amur Paradise Flycatcher.
No white morph exists in Japanese (Mark Brazil, Birds of East Asia). Regarding Amur, among my sources only Brazil expresses doubt about the existence of a white morph. shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon (A Field Guide to the Birds of China) and C.W. Moeliker (Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 11) assure us that Amur white morph does exist. MacKinnon says that Amur white morph accounts for less than half of adult males.
We know that Amur white morph exists because we have seen it ourselves. On 30 May 2016, Kai Pflug photographed an Amur white morph at Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Shanghai. In May 2010 at Dongzhai, Henan, 680 km inland from Shanghai, I found an Amur white morph.
Could a white morph from a third species occur in Shanghai? Although the movements of paradise flycatchers are “complex and not fully understood” (Moeliker), I think we can presume that it is unlikely. The nearest third species is Oriental Paradise Flycatcher T. affinis saturatior, which according to MacKinnon winters no closer to Shanghai than Guangdong.
— The mantle, wings, rump, and tail of rufous-morph male Amur are rufous-brown; in Japanese, the mantle, wings, and rump are purplish-brown, and the tail is black.
The pictures speak for themselves. In good light you should have little trouble telling the two apart. The cinnamon tones of Amur are often what Shanghai birders notice first.
— Male Japanese has a black head and a black breast, forming a large hood. Amur rufous morph has black head and grey breast, forming a two-tone hood.
The hood of Amur has in addition more of a bluish tint than that of Japanese. Note the blue tint in the hood of Amur bottom left. Note also that the cobalt-blue eye ring of Japanese (top left) tends to be larger than the eye ring of Amur.
The females require more care to separate. Be persistent, get a good view, and try to get a photo. Note the following:
— Compared to Amur female, Japanese female has darker, duller, and less rufous mantle, wings, rump, and tail. Japanese has much darker (nearly all-black) flight feathers and sooty primary coverts.
— In their head and breast coloring, female Japanese and Amur show a pattern similar to that of the males. Whereas Japanese is more concolorous (panels 3 and 4), Amur shows more of a contrast between head and breast (1a, 1b, 2). Both Japanese and Amur female have whitish bellies, but the darker breast of Japanese contrasts more with the whitish belly than is the case with Amur. The head is glossier in Amur than in Japanese, whose crown is dull (inset, Panel 3). Japanese has faint rufous flanks, unlike Amur.
MAINLY SILENT IN SHANGHAI
In Shanghai, you will almost never hear a paradise flycatcher utter a sound. I have a single recording:
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, call, Nanhui, 24 May 2016 (00:01; 848 KB)
BACKGROUND ON THE SPECIES
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei breed farther north than any other species in their mainly tropical genus. T. atrocaudata atrocaudata breeds in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and is highly migratory, wintering as far south as Sumatra. (Birds in Taiwan, however, are largely resident.) T. incei, a monotypic species, is also highly migratory, with a breeding range extending into the Russian Far East and wintering grounds as far south as Java (Moeliker). Japanese is listed by the IUCN as Near Threatened, mainly because of habitat loss on its wintering grounds.
UPDATE: 18 OCT 2016
While researching drongos, on 18 Oct. 2016 I discovered two more photos of female Amur Paradise Flycatcher. The photos above were taken 4 July 2009 at Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699), a site in Nanjing, Jiangsu 290 km inland from Shanghai. Note again in this Amur the contrast between bluish-black head and bluish-grey breast, the poorly defined border between the bluish-grey breast and the whitish belly, the lack of rufous coloration on the flanks, and the rufous-brown upperparts and tail, obviously brighter than in Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.
Special thanks to Kai Pflug, who collaborated with me on this post, and without whose photos this post would not have been possible. Kai’s images of Amur Paradise Flycatcher, some of which are displayed above, are a valuable record of this poorly known species. I have published dozens of Kai’s photographs on shanghaibirding.com, and in September 2016 I wrote about his work cleaning up the litter at Nanhui. Kai is from Germany and lives in Shanghai. He is an active member of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group.
Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Studied entries on Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, p. 302.
del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 11, “Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers.” Species accounts for Asian Paradise Flycatcher (p. 289) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (p. 290) written by C.W. Moeliker.