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 guest post in the history of shanghaibirding.com. Herewith we present “Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic,” an account of an afternoon MacKinnon recently spent in the Altai Mountains in Northern Xinjiang. MacKinnon’s photos illustrate this post, and I have added two of mine, from my May 2012 Altai trip. — Craig Brelsford
Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic
by John MacKinnon
My father was raised on Scotland’s Isle of Skye—a wild youth who could throw a cricket ball a hundred yards. And when I was 8 years old he delighted in taking me on walks up Blaven and the Red Hills to tell me of his own wild childhood exploits. I was much impressed by his story of once killing a ptarmigan with a stone until a few years later I visited the Cairngorms and discovered how incredibly tame that species is—a sitting duck (uggh!) at 10 metres. But those bleak alpine landscapes remain in my blood, and so it was a great delight on 5 June 2016 to join a few fellow birdwatchers of the Altai Bird Lovers Society to head up into the hills above Altai Town for a few hours bird-watching.
I had given the Society a talk in the morning, so our time was limited. It became even more shortened as the military guard at the only barrier we had to pass held us up for two hours insisting no foreigners were allowed beyond his post. Many phone calls later, we were allowed to advance. The delay was a pity, as we had to bypass several fellow birders who were stalking a rare Snowy Owl sighted earlier in the valley.
These woods echo to the calls of familiar European birds—Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Blackbird, Great Tit, Common Nightingale, and Rock Bunting. The undergrowth was abloom with wild peonies, but we were heading for higher ground. We would have only four hours more of daylight.
The road was rough—sometimes rocky, sometimes deeply rutted in mud. It had been raining, and the mountain streams were flooding out of their banks, and we had to ford them many times. We passed out of the forests and into the open meadows. These were gloriously green with new spring grass before the Kazakh herdsmen could bring their flocks up for the summer grazing. Thousands of Purple Fawn Lilies (Erythronium sibiricum) and Cowslips (Primula denticulata) glistened in the sunlight, fluttering in the wind. Grey, Yellow, and White Wagtail skittered out of the way of our 4-wheel vehicle as it laboured up the trail. Black Kites and a lone Common Kestrel glided over the valley. Large sleepy marmots gazed at us as we drove on higher towards the snowline, and a large eagle flew just over our heads without giving us a second glance.
The road twisted about between great walls of snow where a digger had cut a way through, and eventually we emerged on top of the world, with views way into the distance across the Mongolian border. It was indeed very similar to the landscapes of the Scottish Cairngorms, and I felt quite at home as we came to a halt and started on foot to clamber across the loose rocks and patches of shallow snow that covered the rolling hilltops. But the air was thin, and I could already feel the altitude at nearly 3000 m as I trudged ahead in a slightly desperate search to find Rock Ptarmigan.
I spotted the first one—a cock in full white winter plumage. I crept up gradually, taking pictures as I went. I did not want to alarm or disturb the bird but it seemed quite unconcerned and went about its business feeding and wandering across the snow only a few metres away. Gradually the three other birders caught up with me and took their fill of pictures. I withdrew to give the bird some peace, but the other birders were more persistent, and eventually the cock flew off with a dark female whom I had not spotted at all.
Vegetation was sparse, and there were few other birds on this bleak windswept hill, but we did see Northern Wheatear, Grey-necked Bunting, and Altai Accentor. Across a valley of deeper snow I spotted another white cock ptarmigan standing out boldly against the dark rocks, and then, in amazement, I noticed our leader Tang Liming sitting quietly no more than 5 metres away from the bird.
It would be a long walk down to the road and back up the other side, so I headed straight across the snow. Walking gently, I found I could stay on top of the snow crust, but a couple of times I sank deeply down to my waist. Two other birders followed my trail, and soon we were creeping up the other side towards Mr. Tang and the splendid cock ptarmigan. So well-hidden was his mate that I might have walked on her had Mr. Tang not whistled a warning. Mr. Tang had already got great pictures of the pair mating, but we were content to get close ups of the two birds, again as tame as can be.
The clever cock had found a wonderful rock to shelter behind from the bitter wind, but he let his partner squat out in the open. Both birds fed for a while, and we got excellent stills and video of them showing no concern at our presence. One of the birders had nothing less than a 600 mm, and he had to hover about 30 metres back whilst we could sit with 10 m!
With light falling, we started the climb back to the car. It was a steep, wet, slippery climb, and at one point I fell sharply on my rear end. But we were elated with our ptarmigan success, and the sunset was very beautiful. We got back in the car and headed home, thinking the day was done—but far from it.
I spotted a movement on the hillside. We stopped and myself and a Mr. Wang crept up to where I had seen another bird. We were rewarded with great views of a cock Willow Ptarmigan and his mate. They were not as tame as the Rock Ptarmigan but did let us get within 20 m or so, and somehow, despite quite dim light, my camera managed to take bright and glorious pictures as the cock strutted his stuff and gave his famous gobbling calls. Unlike the cock Rock Ptarmigan that were still in full winter plumage, the Willow Ptarmigan was in the half-white, half-brown plumage of summer. It was getting really late now, so we hurried back to the car.
We got less than 1 km when we saw a wolf trotting along not far off the road. We halted and stumbled out of the car, fumbling to reassemble cameras, but the wolf moved on quite fast, and we ended up getting back in the car, turning round and following back up the road. We now saw there were two wolves. We parked where we had seen the Willow Ptarmigan earlier, got out and looked everywhere for the wolves, but they were nowhere to be seen. Only when we turned back towards the parked car we saw them sitting watching us from further up the road. Again we followed in the car, but they were soon far away, on the other side of the stream. Again they stopped to have a good look at the strange car and humans before heading back into the snowy hills. They were both quite skinny, but they had made it through the winter, and soon there would be baby hares, marmots, rock squirrels, grouse, red deer, ibex and all sorts of potential prey to fatten on and rear their own litter of new cubs through the summer.
Now it was really dark, and all we saw on the rest of our trip down the mountain was one pipit and a small mouse trapped in the headlights.
I wanted more, and my project had indeed planned a trip of several days into the Liangheyuan Nature Reserve, but just two days after my trip into the Arctic, the army ruled that no foreigners could be permitted into the border areas, be they from the United Nations or even the royal family! And so I had to sadly abort my plans and head prematurely back to Beijing. But my few hours in the hills will remain a happy memory.
LIST OF PLACE NAMES
Altai City (Ālètài Shì [阿勒泰市]): county-level city Altai District
Skye, Isle of: largest island in Inner Hebrides archipelago off W coast of Scotland
Featured image: Pass in Altai Mountains, Altai District, Xinjiang. This is the place of which John MacKinnon wrote, “Eventually we emerged on top of the world, with views way into the distance across the Mongolian border.” On 5 June 2016, the pioneering naturalist and author made a visit to this remote high country, finding amazing riches there despite a stay of only four hours. (John MacKinnon)
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Found today, 8 June 2016, in Boli, Heilongjiang, China: Incredible Band-bellied Crake. A Near Threatened species, Band-bellied Crake (斑胁田鸡, bānxié tiánjī, Porzana paykullii) breeds in the Russian Far East, where it apparently is still locally common, and in Northeast China, where it is almost surely declining. It winters south to Indonesia.
This graceful and little-known rail is far and away Elaine’s and my Bird of the Heilongjiang 2016 Trip and a lifer for both of us.
Elaine and I scouted out new birding sites yesterday, and Band-bellied was the payoff today. The crake called spontaneously at 06:00 as Elaine and I were breakfasting near a stream at a site we discovered yesterday. Here is the call I recorded (00:10, 2 MB):
Elaine and I searched up- and downstream for four hours, finding no other crakes. We returned to the breakfast spot at 10:10 and found our crake again. Was he really the only one?
Almost totally given over to agriculture, eastern Heilongjiang offers less and less habitat suitable for crakes and dozens of other environmentally sensitive birds. A trip through farming areas such as those we passed through yesterday shows dramatically what has been lost. Miles and miles of the formerly endless northern temperate forest here have been torn down and plowed under, in places down to the very last square inch.
Amazingly, Elaine happens to be from one of the best areas left for forest birding in this part of Heilongjiang. The place where we found the crake is an area of poor to good habitat just 15 km south of Elaine’s home village. Xidaquan, the large forest reserve with much good to excellent habitat, is just 21 km away.
My wife Elaine Du and I are on a 17-day trip to her hometown of Boli in eastern Heilongjiang. Our trip started 26 May 2016. We birded the area twice in 2015, and I wrote this report.
Elaine filmed me photographing the crake. The crake is highly sensitive to playback and mistook my speaker for a rival.
Featured image: Band-bellied CrakePorzana paykullii, 8 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)
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The past 10 days have seen a parade of migrants passing through Shanghai. Grey-crowned Warbler and Blue Whistling Thrush shocked birders at Cape Nanhui. The birding site in southeast Pudong also yielded Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Pacific Golden Plover, Red Knot, Grey-tailed Tattler, Amur Paradise Flycatcher, singing Arctic Warbler, calling Two-barred Warbler, Radde’s Warbler, White-throated Rock Thrush, and still more Pechora Pipit. Tiger Shrike and Black Bulbul have been noted at Nanhui and on Lesser Yangshan, with the latter location yielding Peregrine Falcon and Rufous-tailed Robin singing from deep cover. Other interesting records were Red Turtle Dove, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Hair-crested Drongo, Ashy Drongo, day counts as high as 21 of Black Drongo, a trio of Siberians (Siberian Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, Siberian Rubythroat), plus Chestnut Bunting and endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting. Zhongshan Park yielded our season’s first singing Black-naped Oriole. My friend Kai Pflug was one of a group of birders who found Fujian Niltava at Nanhui, a first for Shanghai.
At this time of year, considering the richness of the Shanghai coast and the lack of birder coverage over the years, I go out not hoping, but expecting to get interesting records. Recently, I have rarely been disappointed.
GREY-CROWNED WARBLER, RARE IN SHANGHAI
Though I missed Kai’s niltava, the German birder brought me good luck in another way. On a spectacular Tues. morning 17 May at Nanhui, exploring the lush microforests, he and I found Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus.
The bird was singing, an amazing incongruity, the bright, sharp south-Chinese Seicercus sound here in a tiny wood on the muddy Chinese coast. The golden warbler alighted on a branch for several seconds. I got photos and a sound recording. Grey-crowned Warbler is rarely seen this far east and is not covered in Mark Brazil’s Birds of East Asia. However the very good Handbook of the Birds of the World Vol. 11, which I can’t recommend enough to lovers of leaf warblers and golden spectacled warblers, has the info we need.
A monotypic species, S. tephrocephalus is said by HBW 11 to breed closest to us in Hubei. It is very simliar in plumage and song to Martens’s Warbler S. omeiensis but unlike Martens’s has eye-ring broken at rear. S. tephrocephalus is common to abundant in its normal range of south China and Southeast Asia, but it has rarely if ever been recorded in Shanghai. The lack of records is owing not only to its scarcity but also to its difficulty in identification, particularly for birders unfamiliar with HBW 11.
Much of the wealth of info on Seicercus warblers in HBW 11 is the fruit of the research of Swedish ornithologist Per Alström, who wrote nearly all the Seicercus entries. Guangdong-based French birder Jonathan Martinez has also researched S. tephrocephalus and helped me with the ID of the Grey-crowned Warbler. Both are members of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group and are readers of shanghaibirding.com. Thanks to both of you for your contributions.
Here are the sound-recordings I made of Grey-crowned Warbler. The recordings and photos are of the same individual.
After viewing the photos and listening to the recordings, Per wrote the following to the Shanghai Birding chat group:
“Hi Craig. … I agree with your id of Grey-crowned Warbler, mainly based on the song recording (songs and calls are by far the best ways to id Seicercus warblers). The photos look a bit off (e.g., eye-ring broken in front, which isn’t normally the case in any Seicercus, seemingly poorly marked lateral crown-stripes, no clear grey on crown [though that could be a photo effect], and dark-tipped lower mandible [only in Grey-cheeked W]). Simple id tips, paintings and a few photos can be found on my research web page. In a PDF on leaf warblers from a talk for Beijing Birdwatching Society, there are also sound recordings of … Seicercus warblers on the same page.” (That very useful PDF is now available for download through shanghaibirding.com [13 MB]: Phylloscopidae-Beijing-Birdwatching-Society-nov-2012 English)
To sum up:
My research indicates, and Per Alström concurs: Grey-crowned Warbler (Seicercus tephrocephalus)
Grey-crowned has eye-ring broken at rear; my photos show eye-ring broken at rear. The songs I recorded most closely match the song of S. tephrocephalus.
Next-closest possibility: Martens’s Warbler (S. omeiensis)
Very similar to Grey-crowned Warbler but doesn’t have eye-ring broken at rear.
Also: Alström’s Warbler (S. soror); my recording has trills; distinctive song of Alström’s lacks trills. Bianchi’s Warbler (S. valentini) does not trill. White-spectacled Warbler (S. affinis intermedius) has eye-ring broken above eye, not behind.
BLUE WHISTLING THRUSH, ANOTHER RARITY IN SHANGHAI
A coastal record of Blue Whistling Thrush is rare; the species had not been recorded in Shanghai since 1987. The places closest to Shanghai where I’ve seen the species are Tianmu Mountains in Zhejiang and in Nanjing Zhongshan Botanical Garden. When on Sun. 15 May we first saw the glossy blue-black bird, my partners Jan-Erik Nilsén and Elaine Du and I were flummoxed. We lingered around microforests 3-8 at Nanhui, waiting to get another look. We finally got a second look and realized it was whistler.
Birders tend to think of Blue Whistling Thrush as the ultimate resident, a fixture along fast-flowing mountain streams. The bird is however at least partly migratory, as our record and observations of other birders prove. In a text message to the Shanghai Birding WeChat group, Jonathan Martinez wrote: “BWT are migrants; I used to have them annually in northern Hunan at a site not suitable for breeding.”
CUCKOOS ARE CALLING IN SHANGHAI!
One of the many reasons I love spring is that during this time cuckoos call and are easier to identify. On Tues. 17 May at Nanhui Kai Pflug and I had two calling cuckoos: Common and Indian. I got photos of both. Can you see differences in the appearance of Common and Indian? One is eye color. See four-panel photo for comparison. The other is the thickness of the barring on the underparts. Indian also is smaller than Common, but the size difference is harder to see.
Here is one of the best-known bird calls in the world, that of Common Cuckoo, recorded by me at Nanhui on 17 May (00:31; 2 MB):
— More Nanhui notes from Tues. 17 May: 0 ducks, 0 raptors, and Dishui Lake contained a grand total of 3 birds, all Great Crested Grebe. Also, on a weekday, even though weather superb, tourists were few; Kai Pflug and I enjoyed blessed peace and quiet. It was as quiet as a rainy Saturday or Sunday. We were lovin’ that!
— On Tues. 17 May Kai and I found bird netting at “Dowitcher Pond” (30.877779, 121.955465) in Nanhui. Area is fenced in and netting was tied to posts in deep water, so removing it will be a challenge.
— Here is a recording I made of Arctic Warbler at Nanhui.
— Here is the sound of Rufous-tailed Robin singing on Lesser Yangshan. The robins were singing unseen on the thickly vegetated hillside above the tunnel entrance at Xiǎoyánglíng Cove (30.642243, 122.066940).
Rufous-tailed Robin singing from thick cover, Lesser Yangshan Island, 14 May 2016 (00:08; 1.1 MB):
— Thanks to our birding partners Michael Grunwell, Jan-Erik Nilsén, and Kai Pflug.
Featured image: Here’s a handy rule for bird photographers: When you have light conditions as good as those we had Tues. morning 17 May 2016, then shoot anything, even a sparrow. It’ll look good. Luckily I had this more interesting Common CuckooCuculus canorus. I was at Cape Nanhui in Shanghai. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F6.3, 1/5000, ISO 6400.
Today, 5 May 2016, I got my first-ever record of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. The bird was singing on the tiny island at the little central pond (31.224111, 121.414194) at Zhongshan Park, Shanghai. Singing nearby was Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.
I saw a Pale-legged or Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, pulled out my iPhone, and played back a recording of Pale-legged. I got no response. I played Sakhalin for a while, got no response, then stopped. I knew not to walk away, but wait. As Shanghai is outside the breeding range of both species, their urge to sing may not be strong, but it is May and the testosterone is flowing. A response may come after a lag.
I was standing at the edge of the little pond, admiring Narcissus Flycatcher. My brain was barely registering the normal background noise being made by Japanese Tit, Light-vented Bulbul, Chinese Blackbird, Chinese Grosbeak, caged Chinese Hwamei, and old folks practicing qigong. Suddenly from the din came an anomalous sound. I trained my attention to the high-pitched whistle. Sakhalin! My playback had apparently been heard and had attracted a Sakhalin to the tree on the island closest to me on the “mainland.” I glimpsed the bird but saw nothing in its plumage or bare parts to tell it from Pale-legged. In the field, the only reliable element separating the two species is song. Sakhalin makes a three-note whistle, very different from the cricket-like trill of Pale-legged. The three-note whistle is exactly what I was hearing.
After a few minutes, the singing stopped, and then, as if on cue, the trill of Pale-legged surged out from the foliage. I again played back Pale-legged recordings and this time got an immediate and very strong response. Making the “tink” call, a Pale-legged flew to my side of the pond and lingered in trees near me. The tink is apparently similar to that of Sakhalin and therefore not a reliable separator. But soon the tink was followed by another trill, and I knew I was looking at Pale-legged.
What luck! There I was, in the middle of Earth’s largest city, hearing the songs of two East Asian leaf warblers, one of them (Sakhalin) little-known. Does urban birding get any better than this?
I sound-recorded both species. In all the recordings, one can hear the din from a busy inner-city park. In the first of the two song fragments of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, among the species heard in the background is Ashy Minivet.
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Song Fragments 1/2 (00:51; 2.8 MB)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Song Fragments 2/2 (00:36; 2.2 MB)
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Trill (00:03; 922 KB)
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Tink (00:15; 1.4 MB)
Thanks to Jan-Erik Nilsén, Jonathan Martinez, and Jason Loghry for their help in today’s project.
Featured image: Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 1 May 2014. Some authors note subtle differences in plumage and structure, but the features overlap, making non-singing Pale-legged and Sakhalin virtually indistinguishable in the field. The species pair is distinguishable from other leaf warblers by their very pale, pink legs. The species pump the tail steadily and often cling to tree trunks, somewhat like a nuthatch. Pale-legged breeds in the Russian Far East and northeast China; Sakhalin breeds on Sakhalin Island and in Japan. (Craig Brelsford)
From Thurs. 14 April to Tues. 19 April 2016, Elaine and I combined inner-city birding (Century Park, Shanghai Botanical Garden) with suburban-coastal birding (Nanhui, Lesser Yangshan). We noted 102 species. Sun. 17 April was the big day, with 95 species noted. Among them were 2 Chinese Egret and 3 singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on Lesser Yangshan and Rufous-faced Warbler, Swinhoe’s Minivet, and near-threatened Curlew Sandpiper at Nanhui. Among our many firsts-of-season were 10 Narcissus Flycatcher, 4 Eastern Crowned Warbler, 2 members of the Arctic Warbler Complex, and Yellow-browed Bunting. With the spring migration rolling on strong, even the city parks gave us seasonal firsts, with Eurasian Woodcock and Blue-and-white Flycatcher at Century on Thursday and Eyebrowed Thrush Tuesday at the Botanical Garden. During the 6-day period, we noted 0 raptors, whether Accipitriform, Strigiform, or Falconiform.
When silent, as is most often the case in Shanghai even in spring, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are indistinguishable, and a typical bird list this time of year includes the entry “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides.” The songs of these lookalikes are, however, distinct, and on Sunday in the wooded areas of Garbage Dump Valley on Lesser Yangshan we heard the cricket-like song of P. tenellipes. I made a recording (00:22; 1.7 MB):
On Tuesday, Elaine and I found a silent pair; they were moving along thick branches in the manner of a nuthatch and pumping their tail, but because they were not singing we could not ID them beyond Pale-legged/Sakhalin.
Garbage Dump Valley also yielded Meadow Bunting, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and Manchurian/Japanese Bush Warbler, and Temple Mount gave us a single Goldcrest as well as Swinhoe’s/Pin-tailed Snipe.
On Sunday, Blue-and-white Flycatcher were noted in Garbage Dump Valley, on Temple Mount, and at Nanhui and on Thursday at Century. Each male was studied carefully so as not to miss Zappey’s Flycatcher, a recently recognized species that has been recorded in Shanghai (by Swedish birder Jocko Hammar in 2014). This spring, we Shanghai birders will do well to study each Blue-and-white Flycatcher carefully, in particular adult males, lest we miss Zappey’s. In Forktail No. 28, August 2012, Paul Leader and Geoff Carey write: “Males from populations that breed in central China [i.e., Zappey’s] are distinct from other populations in being blue or blue-green across the breast, throat and ear-coverts, and in having black or blackish restricted to the lores. … The upperparts are typically blue-green.” There are various other distinctions, not noted here.
For the first time we noted Marsh Grassbird north of the Magic Parking Lot/Holiday Inn at Nanhui. This new location is on the road leading into the reed bed and lined with street lamps. Another, larger location is 30.866006, 121.939614, a point 2.8 km S of the lock at Nanhui and 4.1 km S of the Magic Parking Lot/Holiday Inn. We discovered Helopsaltes pryeri at the southern location on 10 April and found them there again Sunday. 3 Reed Parrotbill were in the area, and Pallas’s Reed Bunting, so numerous just a few weeks ago, were nearly absent, most of them having departed for breeding areas north.
The Chinese Egret were our reward for never failing to scrutinize groups of Little Egret. Sure enough, our Egretta eulophotes were associating with 3 E. garzetta on a taut anchor line tethering a boat to the bottom of a little bay along Gangchi Road (30.612507, 122.105993). We are not sure whether our view is a one-off or whether something about that bay is attractive to that species.
At the Accidental (and probably Temporary) Wetland on Lesser Yangshan, we found the 2 Little Curlew, 1 of our 2 Garganey, Purple Heron, Black-tailed Godwit, 1 of our 6 Pacific Swift, 18 of our 80 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 2 Red-rumped Swallow, and Oriental Reed Warbler. Accidental Marsh sits on land reclaimed when a causeway was built linking Lesser Yangshan and Dazhitou Island. The coordinates of this spot are 30.611902, 122.114873. Bird this spot while the birding is good!
On Thurs. 14 April, Elaine and I birded Century Park, noting 31 species. 2 Eurasian Woodcock were seen in the forested area near Gate 7 known as “Woodcock Forest” (31.215413, 121.547678). There were impressive flocks of Brambling, 72 in all. Other highlights: Eurasian Hoopoe 1, Pale Thrush 23, White’s Thrush 2, and Chinese Blackbird 40, among them 2 fledglings.
The encounter with the woodcocks occurred just a few meters from the point where Elaine and I found this species last 30 Oct. Woodcock Forest is usually devoid of humans, and forest species tend to pool there. For best results, tiptoe in and scan silently. Do not forget to look into the canopy; I have seen sparrowhawks there.
We found no Yellow-bellied Tit, the only leaf warbler we found was a single Yellow-browed Warbler, and we thought low our count of just 1 Grey-backed Thrush. There were no other flycatchers besides the Blue-and-white.
As I have noted many times before, thieves are active at Century. On Thursday I had the unusual experience of thief-watching. Two folks were sitting on a park bench looking out over the lake. Elaine and I were standing far behind and noticed an ugly man in ratty clothing approach the couple from the forest behind them. He was moving in a catlike manner and was either casing the couple or was about to snatch something. I moved in noisily, and he slunk off.
This thief and others in his gang must be skillful, otherwise they wouldn’t have operated in the park so long. Their booty is phones, wallets, and purses, their victims distracted persons relaxing in the park. To avoid falling prey, keep your phone zipped in your pocket, leave nothing lying around, and use your powers of observation honed through birding to assess the people around you.
On Tues. 19 April, a walk through the Shanghai Botanical Garden netted Elaine and me 28 species. 2 Japanese Tit fledglings were following their parents and making begging calls, 4 Common Sandpiper were in Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河), and White’s Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, Pale Thrush, and Eyebrowed Thrush were found in a quiet wooded area (31.147780, 121.438917) along the stream.
Sunday marked the reunion of the five-member Dream Team after a winter hiatus. Husband-wife members Stephan and Xueping Popp took many fine shots, and Stephan once again performed skillfully behind the wheel. Senior Birder Michael Grunwell combined sober experience with boyish enthusiasm, the latter particularly in evidence when he beheld Narcissus Flycatcher, a lifer for him. Elaine Du did her usual fine job keeping the list. Though I’m making a quick recovery from my intercostal muscle strain suffered 10 April, still I traveled light, eschewing photography and using only binoculars.
Featured image: Elaine Du (L) and Xueping Popp scan for leaf warblers in Garbage Dump Valley on Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, China, Sun. 17 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
On Sat. 9 April and Sun. 10 April 2016, Elaine Du and I noted 103 species at three Shanghai-area birding hot spots. We had Oriental Plover and Black-faced Spoonbill on Hengsha, the latter present also at Cape Nanhui, where we found in addition Brown Crake, Greater Sand Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Marsh Grassbird, Bluethroat, and Citrine Wagtail. Lesser Yangshan yielded out-of-range Rufous-faced Warbler and our season’s first flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher. Other season’s firsts were Eurasian Wryneck and Oriental Reed Warbler on Hengsha, Oriental Pratincole, Japanese Thrush, Tristram’s Bunting, and Meadow Bunting on Lesser Yangshan, and Broad-billed Sandpiper at Nanhui. Garganey and singing Brown-flanked Bush Warbler were on Hengsha and Temminck’s Stint and Grey-backed Thrush were noted at Nanhui. Red-throated Pipit were on Hengsha and Nanhui, as were Intermediate Egret, “Swintail” Snipe, Reed Parrotbill, and Chestnut-eared Bunting.
On Sat. 9 April Elaine and I birded Hengsha, the alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze. Our target was Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus, which we found after a short search. Oriental Plover breeds in deserts and steppes mainly in Mongolia, and in China in Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia. For Elaine, Ori Pluv was a virtual lifer, as her only previous experience with the species was our quick, long-distance look at an individual near Hulun Lake last July.
On Sun. 10 April Elaine and I were joined by Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell. We noted 90 species on Lesser Yangshan Island and at Nanhui.
The three of us found 30 singing Marsh Grassbird in the large reed bed at 30.866006, 121.939614, a point 2.8 km south of the lock at Nanhui and 4.1 km south of the Magic Parking Lot/Holiday Inn (30.882784, 121.972782). An unpaved road leads into the marsh. The grassbirds were noted only in that reed bed and not in other seemingly suitable reed beds elsewhere at Nanhui. The grassbirds were using only those parts of the reed bed far from the road. They were making their curving display flight.
Marsh Grassbird is also known as Japanese Swamp Warbler and Japanese Marsh Warbler. It is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN. The IUCN notes that Marsh Grassbird is “very sensitive to habitat structure and does not tolerate vegetation that is too short or too tall.” It is threatened mainly by the conversion of its wetland habitat to other uses.
Speaking of conversions, new construction is changing all three of the birding spots we visited last weekend. The transformation at Nanhui has been noted by me here and here. Lesser Yangshan Island is being converted from an island to an even bigger megaport, and Garbage Dump Coastal Plain (30.638860, 122.060089) is steadily growing unbirdable. A bright spot on Lesser Yangshan is the new wetland (30.611902, 122.114873) on reclaimed land between Lesser Yangshan and Dazhitou Island.
In the reclaimed area on Hengsha, a 100-hectare area at 31.299495, 121.893845 is being converted from savanna to forest. That is an area about two-thirds the size of Century Park in Pudong. This may be good news, as the tree plantation may attract forest species such as flycatchers and leaf warblers, families that on the formerly treeless reclaimed area at Hengsha have always been scarce.
The springtime birding season in Shanghai is really picking up steam. On the Web site of the Shanghai Wild Bird Society, shwbs.org, birders have recently reported Long-billed Dowitcher, Asian Dowitcher, and Ruff on Chongming and Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Black Redstart on Hengsha.
Featured image: Oriental Plover, Hengsha Island, Shanghai, 9 April 2016.
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Editor’s note: For “Dulong Gorge, Yunnan: The First Week,” the first in this two-part series on birding Dulong Gorge, please click here.
The second half of our Dulong trip lasted 13 days, from 23 Feb. to 6 March 2016. Brian Ivon Jones, my wife Elaine Du, and I saw drier weather and a rich procession of birds, taking our species count to 170. We found Golden-naped Finch at bird-rich Sibia Lane, we noted Fire-tailed Myzornis at various locations, we marveled at Ibisbill on the Dulong River, and we witnessed a spectacular flock of 300 Grandala. With the clearing of mudslides that had blocked access to the southern end of the gorge, we spent five days around Qinlangdang. There, Brian noted Beautiful Nuthatch, and we found Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, Red-billed Scimitar Babbler, Himalayan Cutia, and Scaly-breasted Cupwing. Driving and walking along the twisting roads, we noted Black-headed Shrike-babbler, Gould’s Shortwing, Long-billed Wren-Babbler, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, and the newly described Himalayan Thrush and Alpine/“Yunnan” Thrush. Rufous-breasted Bush Robin made several appearances at various elevations, Himalayan Bluetail was noted in smaller numbers, and White-naped Yuhina and Yellow-throated Fulvetta often were in large flocks. Heading back to Kunming, we found Banded Bay Cuckoo near Wayaozhen.
RAIN, RAIN, RAIN … AND A REPRIEVE
The rain from the first week of the trip was still with us on Tues. 23 Feb. and Wed. 24 Feb., causing a mudslide near Bapo that blocked access to Qinlangdang. Even on Thurs. 25 Feb., skies were still grey, and despite the excellent weather on Fri. 26 Feb., the road to Qinlangdang was still blocked. We grit our teeth and birded on.
23 Feb. saw us note just 28 species, but among them were choice birds such as Black-headed Shrike-babbler, Golden-naped Finch, Blue-winged Laughingthrush, and Dark-rumped Rosefinch. We found Golden-naped Finch, the rosefinches, a few of our Fire-tailed Myzornis, and White-browed Fulvetta around Sibia Lane. This bird-rich spot on the Gongshan-Dulong Road has tall trees, rich undergrowth, and many birds, among them the Beautiful Sibia which are a constant presence there and for which the place is named. (For more information on Sibia Lane and other birding spots in Dulong Gorge, see List of Place Names near the bottom of this report.)
On 24 Feb. we noted 51 species despite the rain and despite doing all our birding within 12.5 km of Kongdang, our home base. One reason for our success was my re-discovery of Dulong Beach, a place I remembered from my 2014 visit and one of the few broad areas in that part of the Dulong Gorge. At Dulong Beach, one can park in a spacious parking area well off the narrow road, and it is possible to walk around. Great Cormorant roost on boulders studding the Dulong River, and occasionally a Mallard flies by; Himalayan Swiftlet can be seen in the corridor of sky framed by the gorge; Ashy Drongo and Striated Bulbul hawk insects high in the trees; White-naped Yuhina and Grey-cheeked Warbler browse in the trees; Golden Babbler join bird waves with Yellow-browed Tit, Rufous-capped Babbler, and Yellow-throated Fulvetta; and Chestnut-headed Tesia, Slaty-bellied Tesia, and Pygmy Cupwing call from the undergrowth.
We also birded an even broader area, Pukawang, the resort 8 km north of Dulong Beach and 4.5 km south of Kongdang. There we found Rufous-breasted Bush Robin, Large Niltava, Rufous-breasted Accentor, and Little Bunting using the now-barren gardens and fields. Little Forktail was in the Dandangwang River. We found Elliot’s Laughingthrush.
25 Feb. saw us stymied in our quest for Qinlangdang by a mudslide at Bapo. We retraced our steps to Dulong Beach, where in a bird wave we found Black-throated Parrotbill. We had our first record of Grey-chinned Minivet, and at Pukawang we had our only record of Pied Bush Chat and only Dulong record of Eurasian Hoopoe. The next day saw splendid blue skies, but the still-blocked road meant we had to work the Gongshan-Dulong Road once again. There, we achieved stunning photos of the moon setting over the mountains, fresh with new snow. In the afternoon, we returned to Dulong Beach, where Brian spotted Black-crested Bulbul high on the ridge on the opposite side of the river.
RETURN TO QINLANGDANG
Once the weather improved and the road crews cleared the road, we headed straight for Qinlangdang and the southern end of the gorge. We spent five of the next six days here: Sat. 27 Feb. through Mon. 29 Feb. and Wed. and Thurs. 2-3 March.
On 27 Feb., during the 43 km drive from Kongdang to Qinlangdang, we stopped at Dulong Beach. There we met Ān Kǎi Xiáng (安凯祥, “Steven An”), a tour guide whom I have met on several occasions, and Hóu Tǐ Guó (侯体国), the man famous for running the photo blinds at Baihualing. They were guiding Erik and Henning, two Danes and friends of Jesper Hornskov. Erik and Henning paid this writer a nice compliment: They had read my post on Week 1 of the Dulong trip! We chatted awhile and admired a Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher. Also at Dulong Beach, we saw Crested Kingfisher flying rapidly up the river and found Scaly Laughingthrush.
Further down, we yet again heard Long-billed Wren-Babbler calling from thick undergrowth on the side of the road; try as I might, I could not coax the bird out, but I recorded its call (00:03; 922 KB):
Driving back, nearing dark we got a lifer for Brian and Elaine: Rufous-backed Sibia. I captured sound and an image of this impressive bird (00:35; 2.2 MB):
On the morning of 28 Feb., again near Qinlangdang, and after hours spent searching for Beautiful Nuthatch with no success, I heard dueling Spotted Elachura singing from either side of the Dulong River. Dilemma: (1) Study elachura, a sure thing, or (2) invest still more time in searching for Beaut Nut? Brian opted for Choice 2 and walked ahead. Elaine and I chose Option 1 and achieved an excellent recording of the strange song of Spotted Elachura plus my closest views ever of the species. Here is what I captured (01:17; 3.9 MB):
Brian, meanwhile, found Beaut Nut! He radioed us, but we arrived too late. Congrats, Brian! We also got Himalayan Cutia, a lifer for Brian.
Other great birds from 28 Feb.: Black-headed Shrike-babbler and Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, another encounter with that Long-billed Wren-Babbler on the side of the road, Scaly-breasted Cupwing, good views of Striated Laughingthrush, and new looks at Blue-winged Laughingthrush and Scaly Laughingthrush. We found 4 Zoothera birds, most likely Alpine/“Yunnan”/Himalayan Thrush, feeding along the pre-dawn road and looking like nightjars (Brian’s apt description) as they fled our car.
29 Feb. saw us once again working the area around Qinlangdang. The terraced fields at the north entrance to the village are a good place for birds, yielding our only Dulong records of Hill Prinia, Slaty-backed Forktail, and Black Redstart as well as Blue-fronted Redstart and Olive-backed Pipit. At Brian’s nuthatch spot just north of town, relaxing in our parked car I got our only owl record of the trip: Asian Barred Owlet, calling unseen from the ravine on the opposite side of the river. In the morning, as we were driving to Qinlangdang we heard Brown-flanked Bush Warbler singing at Maku and at another place farther south.
On 1 March we changed direction, heading north 31 km on the paved road to Dizhengdang. There, we revisited the extensive farmland north of town. Within a large flock of Little Bunting, Elaine and I picked out 3 Godlewski’s Bunting. Blue-winged Laughingthrush were using trees between two abandoned farmhouses, and we found Snow Pigeon and a smart male Hodgson’s Redstart. Brian went off on his own, finding White-throated Dipper. We drove through Xiongdang to the road being constructed north of that village. We took it to a point 9 km north of town, where a rockslide stopped us. We noted Mountain Hawk-Eagle here.
Heading back, just north of Xiongdang, Brian, once again walking ahead, radioed us: “Ibisbill, flying downstream!” Brian deserves credit for insisting that this most unusual of waders would be on the Dulong. “The habitat is right; they must be here,” he said repeatedly. Now Brian had his reward, but what about Elaine and me? Would it be possible for us to get a view? It was up to me to guess where the Ibisbill had flown to. Zipping past Brian’s position, Elaine and I sped south in the Mitsubishi Pajero, splashing over a creek along the way. We approached the church in Xiongdang, and I said, “Let’s try here.” Elaine and I got out and, lo and behold, there were 4 Ibisbill along the rumbling stream below. Whew! Got ’em! Brian arrived, and we savored the view together.
On our two final full days in the gorge, 2-3 March, we dove back into the Qinlangdang area. We met Himalayan Thrush and Alpine/“Yunnan” Thrush on the road, we had a strange encounter with an apparently lost Northern Lapwing, and we added Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, Red-billed Scimitar Babbler, and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike to our trip list. I achieved an excellent recording of the powerful song of tiny Scaly-breasted Cupwing (00:24; 1.7 MB):
We found several common birds that we had not noted before, among them Japanese Tit, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, White-bellied Erpornis, and Chestnut Thrush. These late additions are an indication of the vastness of the forests and the long time it takes to get an accurate impression of the avifauna of this rich gorge.
BACK TO KUNMING
We took two full days to cover the 900 km between Kongdang and Kunming. On Fri. 4 March we spent the daylight hours driving the 90 km to Gongshan. We saw a massive flock of 300 Grandala, added Great Barbet to the trip list, heard Hill Partridge calling unseen, and noted Fire-tailed Myzornis and Golden-naped Finch. After refueling, we departed Gongshan at 17:15 and drove south on the S228. Along this amazing, narrow road, the lifeline for the dozens of communities along the Salween River, we saw folks taking sponge baths under the spigots along the road, saw people getting haircuts at open-air barber shops just inches from passing cars, and watched a drunken man nearly walk into the path of our car. Few roads are more interesting, or more dangerous, than the S228. Long after dark, we made it to Nujiang and pressed on, arriving exhausted at 01:15 in Wayaozhen, a town just a few kilometers north of the G56 freeway. Once again, we had made it through the Salween Gorge in good time, as before by driving mainly at night when traffic is less.
New birds came to us immediately the next morning: Red-vented Bulbul and Grey-breasted Prinia in the farm-garden area just across from Bababa Hotel, Grey Wagtail in a stream running between rows of houses, and White-browed Laughingthrush and Yellow-browed Warbler on the scrubby, partly forested hillside behind the hotel.
The grand finale, the fitting end to our profitable expedition, came later in the morning, less than a kilometer north of the G56. Driving on the G320 toward the freeway, I was scanning the hillside to our right and admiring the Mekong River to our left. I noticed a forested ravine that looked promising. Brian was game for a final hunt, and we set off into the unknown. Elaine stayed at the car, scanning the treetops with the spotting scope. Brian and I walked up the ravine until we could walk no more, then doubled back. Along the way we heard Slaty-bellied Tesia and saw Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike. Brian picked up Grey-throated Babbler, a species we had noted in Dulong Gorge but that Brian had not seen well.
Brian went on ahead, and I stayed behind in the forest. Suddenly a Banded Bay Cuckoo appeared on a branch just 3 m from me, calling. This species is hard to find in China, has long been among my most desired of cuckoos, and was a lifer for me. I was without my camera, but I had my recorder and used it. In the recording, one notes the similarities and differences between the four-note call of Banded Bay and the well-known four-note call of Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus. The call of Banded Bay is a high-pitched whistle, whereas the call of Indian is fuller and throatier. Examine these recordings:
Banded Bay Cuckoo 1 (four-note whistle; 00:07, 1.1 MB)
Banded Bay Cuckoo 2 (rising call plus four-note whistle; 01:18, 3.9 MB)
I hustled down the hill to the car, roused Elaine and Brian, and took them up the hill. They both heard the call of Banded Bay Cuckoo. What a great addition to our list!
We took the G56 to Kunming Changshui International Airport, driving the last of the 2856 km that we logged on this trip. We spent the night in the strangely named but very clean Rainbow Interstellar Hotel (+86 871-65301666). On Sun. 6 March we flew home, Brian to Shenzhen, Elaine and I to Shanghai.
In Kongdang we checked into Dúlóng Jiāng Dàjiǔdiàn (独龙江大酒店; +86 886-3066888, +86 139-8868-5660, 168 yuan/night). The hotel is new and clean. Electric power is intermittent throughout the village, and because of the uncertain electricity it is prohibited to run the air-conditioning unit; our room was usually chilly as a result. Hot water is not guaranteed. In 2014 I stayed in Dàpíng Bīnguǎn (大平宾馆; +86 139-8869-6984; 100 yuan); it’s still there, but we decided to stay at Dúlóng Jiāng Dàjiǔdiàn because it is newer.
We flew into and out of Kunming rather than Baoshan or Dali because of the wider selection of rental cars. We worked with the rental-car company Héxié Zūchē (和谐租车; +86 871-67085834, www.zuche01.com). Héxié rented us a brand-new, four-wheel drive Mitsubishi Pajero, the perfect car for our trip.
Simple List of Species of Bird Noted in Yunnan, China, 16 Feb. to 5 March 2016 (170 species)
Pukawang (Pǔkǎwàng [普卡旺]; 27.839581, 98.327779), resort in Dulong Gorge 4.5 km S of Kongdang. Site of confluence of Dandangwang River & Dulong River. Elev. 1480 m.
Qinlangdang (Qīnlángdāng [钦郎当]; 27.686833, 98.283097): village Dulong Gorge 43 km S of Kongdang. Elev. 1220 m.
Salween-Irrawaddy Drainage Divide: the ridgeline of the Gaoligong Mountains separates the Salween & Irrawaddy basins.
Salween River (Nùjiāng [怒江]): river rising on Tibetan Plateau, flowing through W Yunnan & into Burma, & emptying into Andaman Sea.
Sibia Lane (27.909517, 98.410674): birding area on Gongshan-Dulong Road with many tall trees. So named because Beautiful Sibia are abundant there. Area extends ca. 1.5 km from bridge crossing large stream E toward Dulongjiang Tunnel.
Robson, C. 2005. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA. Our first reference in Dulong Gorge and western Yunnan.
Smith, Andrew T. and Yan Xie, eds. Mammals of China. Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA. Our first reference for mammals in China.
Xeno-Canto Foundation. Xeno-Canto: Bird Sounds from Around the World. xeno-canto.org. Craig has downloaded hundreds of calls from this Web site.
Featured image: The sublime spectacle of the moon setting over the Gaoligong Mountains at dawn was our reward for enduring days and days of rain. Photo taken on Gongshan-Dulong Road near Kongdang on 26 Feb. 2016. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F/9, 1/320, ISO 640. (Craig Brelsford)
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