Book Review: Birds of Japan & Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas

Shanghai birders should consider buying Birds of Japan and Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas. I served as proofreader of both books, published by Helm Field Guides. Keep Japan on your bookshelf or in your car as you bird the coast of China, and use Bhutan as your first reference in western Yunnan.

Authored by Mark Brazil, Birds of Japan follows Brazil’s 2009 opus, Birds of East Asia, the best field guide for the coastal provinces of China. Birds of Japan sees Brazil returning to his first love, Japan, where Brazil has been active since the 1980s.

Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas, by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, and Sherub, covers not just Bhutan but also the neighboring Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. All border Tibet, and Arunachal Pradesh extends east to a point only 80 km (50 mi.) from the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan.

Japan and Bhutan each come with introductions to their regions, richly illustrated with maps and photographs. With its detailed “Where to Bird” section, Grimmett et al.’s 38-page opener is as thorough an introduction as a birder is likely to find to the eastern Himalayas. Brazil’s is less extensive but still does justice to a biogeographically complex archipelago that stretches 3000 km (1,900 mi.) from subarctic Hokkaido to the subtropical Ryukyus.

Japan and Bhutan repurpose much artwork from earlier Helm works, Japan drawing from Birds of East Asia and Bhutan from Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. There is, however, much that is new. In Japan no less than 18 new illustrations of White Wagtail are offered, 12 covering the three ssp. (leucopsis, ocularis, lugens) most common on the Chinese coast. Illustrations better than those in Birds of East Asia are provided for Chinese Egret and several species of duck.

Published nearly a decade after East Asia, Japan incorporates many of the ornithological advances made since 2009. For example, in East Asia Brazil incorrectly writes that the calls of Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are indistinguishable, and the illustrations suggest that the morphological differences between the two species are appreciable. In Japan, Brazil describes the higher-pitched call of Pale-legged, and the new paintings convey more accurately the near indistinguishability of the species on plumage and bare parts.

To a China-based birder, Birds of Japan offers regional interest and usefulness in the coastal provinces, where it can serve as a backup and partial update to Birds of East Asia. Japan also provides a foretaste of a second edition of East Asia. “The publisher has expressed strong interest in a new edition,” Brazil wrote, “and I have the artist already lined up. I am just awaiting a contract” (in litt., 2019).

Bloomsbury touts Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas as “the one guide you’ll need on a visit to this incredible corner of Asia.” Including the neighboring Indian states along with Bhutan was an inspired decision, broadening the scope of the book without diminishing its coherence and increasing its usefulness in the Himalayan regions of China. For birders in the Dulong Gorge and at Baihualing, Ruili, and other hotspots in western Yunnan’s Gaoligong Mountains, Bhutan can replace Craig Robson’s Birds of Southeast Asia. Bhutan has better species descriptions than Robson’s sometimes cryptically concise work, and its illustrations excel those in Robson.

Birders in other parts of China will find Bhutan useful. In Himalayan south Tibet, in particular Yadong, wedged between Sikkim and Bhutan, birders will do just fine with Bhutan and only Bhutan in their backpack. Bhutan will prove useful in regions east of Himalayan China, notably Sichuan, as well as on the Tibetan Plateau. In southern Yunnan (Xishuangbanna), whose avifauna is more Southeast Asian than Himalayan, Bhutan can back up Robson.

Like Birds of Japan, Bhutan includes recent ornithological breakthroughs, among them Himalayan Thrush, a species described in 2016 by Alström et al., and Bugun Liocichla, discovered in 2006 in Arunachal Pradesh. Other Himalayan specialties sought after by China-based birders, such as Sclater’s Monal, Fire-tailed Myzornis, and Beautiful Nuthatch, receive ample coverage in the species accounts and introduction of Bhutan.

China sorely lacks good bird books. On the Helm Field Guides bookshelf, there are gaps where works such as Birds of Sichuan and Yunnan and Birds of the Tibetan Plateau should be. Birders in China have long had to cobble together field-guide strategies, using as a major component field guides covering regions of Asia bordering China. One welcome development has been the increasing quality of those guides. Nowhere are the improvements more evident than in Birds of Japan and Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas.

Do you own either of the books discussed in this article? Add your review in the comments below.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark. (2019). Email to author, 9 August.

Featured image: Covers of Birds of Japan (2018) and Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas (2019), published by Helm Field Guides/Bloomsbury. (Craig Brelsford)

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ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers

Each spring and autumn, two species of paradise flycatcher pass through Shanghai: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei. The two species can seem confusingly similar, especially in the poor light of a wood. With a little practice you can tell the males apart, and with a lot of practice you should be able to separate the females. Here is what you need to know:

If in Shanghai you see a white-morph paradise flycatcher, then by definition you are not looking at Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, and you are almost certainly looking at Amur Paradise Flycatcher.

paradise flycatchers
Two images of Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei, white morph. L: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May (Kai Pflug). R: Dongzhai National Nature Reserve, Henan, June (Craig Brelsford). Most Amur males are rufous, but a certain percentage are white. Japanese Paradise Flycatcher T. atrocaudata has no white morph.

No white morph exists in Japanese (Brazil). Regarding Amur, among my sources only Brazil expresses doubt about the existence of a white morph. shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon (A Field Guide to the Birds of China) and C.W. Moeliker (Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 11) assure us that Amur white morph does exist. MacKinnon says that Amur white morph accounts for less than half of adult males.

We know that Amur white morph exists because we have seen it ourselves. On 30 May 2016, Kai Pflug photographed an Amur white morph at Cape Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Shanghai. In May 2010 at Dongzhai, Henan, 680 km inland from Shanghai, I found an Amur white morph.

Could a white morph from a third species occur in Shanghai? Although the movements of paradise flycatchers are “complex and not fully understood” (Moeliker), I think we can presume that it is unlikely. The nearest third species is Oriental Paradise Flycatcher T. affinis saturatior, which according to MacKinnon winters no closer to Shanghai than Guangdong.

The mantle, wings, rump, and tail of rufous-morph male Amur are rufous-brown; in Japanese, the mantle, wings, and rump are purplish-brown, and the tail is black.

paradise flycatchers
In Amur male (top), the mantle, wings, rump and tail are rufous-brown. Japanese male has purplish-brown mantle, wings, and rump and a contrasting black tail. Amur: Nanhui, June (Kai Pflug). Japanese: Yangkou, Jiangsu, May (Craig Brelsford).

The pictures speak for themselves. In good light you should have little trouble telling the two apart. The cinnamon tones of Amur are often what Shanghai birders notice first.

Male Japanese has a black head and a black breast, forming a large hood. Amur rufous morph has black head and grey breast, forming a two-tone hood.

Comparisons
In Japanese (top two photos), the black head and throat seamlessly meet the black breast, forming an oversized hood. (Note however some grey feathers in the worn spring Japanese male top left.) By comparison, the black head of Amur (bottom photos) contrasts with its grey breast. Japanese: Yangkou, May (top left) and Nanhui, September (top right); both by Craig Brelsford. Amur: both Nanhui, June (Kai Pflug).

The hood of Amur has in addition more of a bluish tint than that of Japanese. Note the blue tint in the hood of Amur bottom left. Note also that the cobalt-blue eye ring of Japanese (top left) tends to be larger than the eye ring of Amur.

The females require more care to separate. Be persistent, get a good view, and try to get a photo. Note the following:

Compared to Amur female, Japanese female has darker, duller, and less rufous mantle, wings, rump, and tail. Japanese has much darker (nearly all-black) flight feathers and sooty primary coverts.

paradise flycatchers
As with the males, female Japanese (top) is darker and less rufous than female Amur (bottom). Japanese: Yangkou, September (Craig Brelsford). Amur: Nanhui, May (Kai Pflug).

For the bit about the sooty primary coverts, I am indebted to David Gandy of Bangkok City Birding.

In their head and breast coloring, female Japanese and Amur show a pattern similar to that of the males. Whereas Japanese is more concolorous (panels 3 and 4), Amur shows more of a contrast between head and breast (1a, 1b, 2). Both Japanese and Amur female have whitish bellies, but the darker breast of Japanese contrasts more with the whitish belly than is the case with Amur. The head is glossier in Amur than in Japanese, whose crown is dull (inset, Panel 3). Japanese has faint rufous flanks, unlike Amur.

paradise flycatchers
1a, 1b: Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Dongzhai, Henan, June (Craig Brelsford). This female is the mate of the Amur white-morph shown above. 2: Amur, Nanhui, May (Kai Pflug). 3, 4 and inset on 3: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Yangkou, Jiangsu, September (Craig Brelsford).

MAINLY SILENT IN SHANGHAI

In Shanghai, you will almost never hear a paradise flycatcher utter a sound. I have a single recording:

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, call, Nanhui, May (00:01; 848 KB)

BACKGROUND ON THE SPECIES

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei breed farther north than any other species in their mainly tropical genus. T. atrocaudata atrocaudata breeds in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and is highly migratory, wintering as far south as Sumatra. (Birds in Taiwan, however, are largely resident.) T. incei, a monotypic species, is also highly migratory, with a breeding range extending into the Russian Far East and wintering grounds as far south as Java (Moeliker). Japanese is listed by the IUCN as Near Threatened, mainly because of habitat loss on its wintering grounds.

UPDATE

Amur Paradise Flycatcher
Amur Paradise Flycatcher, female on the breeding grounds, Laoshan, Jiangsu, July. (Craig Brelsford)

I have discovered two more photos of female Amur Paradise Flycatcher. The photos above were taken in July at Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699), a site in Nanjing, Jiangsu 290 km inland from Shanghai. Note again in this Amur the contrast between bluish-black head and bluish-grey breast, the poorly defined border between the bluish-grey breast and the whitish belly, the lack of rufous coloration on the flanks, and the rufous-brown upperparts and tail, obviously brighter than in Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

Special thanks to Kai Pflug. Kai’s images of Amur Paradise Flycatcher, some of which are displayed above, are a valuable record of this poorly known species. I have published dozens of Kai’s photographs on shanghaibirding.com, and in September 2016 I wrote about his work cleaning up the litter at Nanhui. Kai is from Germany and lives in Shanghai. He is an active member of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Studied entries on Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, p. 302.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 11, “Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers.” Species accounts for Asian Paradise Flycatcher (p. 289) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (p. 290) written by C.W. Moeliker.

Gandy, David. Bangkok City Birding (http://bangkokcitybirding.blogspot.com/). Article “Hell in Paradise,” accessed 11 September 2019.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, pp. 284-5.

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press. Helpful insights on Terpsiphone atrocaudata, T. incei, and T. affinis saturatior on p. 180.

Featured image: The featured image above shows a stunning male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and serves to introduce our theme: How can birders tell apart the two species of the remarkable genus Terpsiphone that migrate through Shanghai? (Craig Brelsford)

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