Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured image: Mysterious Yellow Wagtail, possibly White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
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Season of the Stubtail

by Craig Brelsford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Brelsford, C. (2017). Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei ( Post to, published 17 June 2017 (accessed: 26 Feb 2020).

Brelsford, C. (2014). Wuyuan & Poyang Lake, November 2014 ( Post to, published 14 Sept. 2016 (accessed: 26 Feb 2020).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2015). Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015: Part 4: Second Trip to Elaine’s Hometown ( Report on (accessed: 26 Feb 2020).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2016). Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 ( Report on (accessed: 26 Feb 2020).

Clement, P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 588 (Asian Stubtail) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

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

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


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

Featured image: Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May. (Craig Brelsford)
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Per Alström Interviewed on Radio Beijing International

by Craig Brelsford

Per Alström
Per Alström

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

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

by Craig Brelsford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction (you are here)

Northern Xinjiang

Notes on Birding in Northern Xinjiang: Read Craig Brelsford’s notes on the “European” birds of Xinjiang as well as other observations recorded during the 2017 expedition. In Xinjiang, birders are saiwai (塞外), “beyond the (Great) Wall”—in China, but not in East Asia.

Ruddy ShelduckPhoto Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Non-Passerines): This is the first of two photo galleries of the birds of Northern Xinjiang. This post covers non-passerines. Each photo in the gallery was taken by Craig Brelsford in Xinjiang.

Mistle Thrush

Photo Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Passerines): This portion of the photo gallery covers the passerines of Northern Xinjiang. Many birds well-known to Europeans, such as Mistle Thrush, were photographed by Brelsford using his state-of-the-art Nikon setup.

police officer

The Landscapes and People of Northern Xinjiang: Photos and detailed captions by Craig Brelsford offer a window into the habitats and people of Northern Xinjiang.

Other posts on Xinjiang:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Selected eBird Lists

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

SAT 22 JULY 2017
Beishawo, Daquangou Reservoir, Mushroom Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

SUN 23 JULY 2017
MON 24 JULY 2017
Hongyanglin, Beitun

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Selected eBird Lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Selected eBird Lists

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

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

Police officers Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction: Craig Brelsford gives you an introduction to Northern Xinjiang and an overview of the expedition of July 2017. Bounded by the Tianshan to the south and the Altai to the north, and with the Jungar Basin at its heart, Northern Xinjiang is one of the premier birding areas in China.

Notes on Birding in Northern Xinjiang (you are here)

Ruddy ShelduckPhoto Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Non-Passerines): This is the first of two photo galleries of the birds of Northern Xinjiang. This post covers non-passerines. Each photo in the gallery was taken by Craig Brelsford in Xinjiang.

Mistle Thrush

Photo Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Passerines): This portion of the photo gallery covers the passerines of Northern Xinjiang. Many birds well-known to Europeans, such as Mistle Thrush, were photographed by Brelsford using his state-of-the-art Nikon setup.

police officer

The Landscapes and People of Northern Xinjiang: Photos and detailed captions by Craig Brelsford offer a window into the habitats and people of Northern Xinjiang.

Other posts on Xinjiang:

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