A Reliable Spot for Brown-cheeked Rail

On our first birding trip of 2016, Elaine and I noted 85 species at Yancheng, Dongtai, and Yangkou. We reunited with the Dream Team, which includes Senior Birder Michael Grunwell, husband-wife team Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp, my wife Elaine Du, and me. We added evidence that the point 32.557278 121.037111 is a reliable site for Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus, and at Dongtai we found a sub-adult Mute Swan. At Yancheng, we found 9 Red-crowned Crane, 10 Hooded Crane, 250 Common Crane, 2 Oriental Stork, 1250 Common Merganser, and 8 Reed Parrotbill. Among our big finds at Dongtai were 11 Red-breasted Merganser, 14 Greater Scaup, 80 Saunders’s Gull, and 610 Grey Plover. We recorded Pied Avocet, Black-winged Kite, and Smew at Dongtai and Yancheng, and we found Green Sandpiper at Yancheng and Yangkou.

Mute Swan is a well-known ornamental bird, found in parks throughout Western Europe and North America. Wild Mute Swan are less commonly seen, and in the Shanghai region, Cygnus olor is a very scarce winter visitor. This sub-adult has a dull pink bill, unlike the deep orange-red bill of an adult. Dongtai, 10 Jan.
Mute Swan is a well-known ornamental bird, found in parks throughout Western Europe and North America. Wild Mute Swan are less commonly seen, and in the Shanghai region, Cygnus olor is a very scarce winter visitor. This sub-adult has a dull pink bill, unlike the deep orange-red bill of an adult. Dongtai, 10 Jan. (Craig Brelsford)

In May 2010, I found Brown-cheeked Rail at the point in Yangkou noted above. I forgot about the sighting and did not search again until last 15 Nov., when I found Brown-cheeked Rail after a 30-minute wait. On Sunday, I made my second of two tries at the site and was successful again.

Using the evidence I have presented here, you may believe, as I do, that the site is reliable for Rallus indicus. If you need the bird, then go with a few more birders if possible, stand in the area shown on the Google Map linked to above, spread out, and pay attention to the edge of the reeds. On Sunday, in contrast to 15 Nov., the rail never showed clearly; only Elaine’s sharp eye confirmed the presence of the scurrying rail. I got a look that first time, and about 30 minutes later, the bird showed again, and everyone got a quick view. The bird was calling softly from time to time and called loudly, but only briefly, when I first played back Water Rail R. aquaticus. (I played back R. aquaticus because the recordings I have of R. indicus are poor.) If you have qualms about playback, then you may still be able to see the bird, but be prepared to wait. If you are lucky, Reed Parrotbill will show; during our wait, we had Pallas’s Reed Bunting, Rustic Bunting, a Common Snipe that was hiding in plain sight, and an unusual winter view of Chinese Pond Heron.

Unusual winter sighting of Chinese Pond Heron, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.
Unusual winter sighting of Chinese Pond Heron, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.

With last weekend’s work at Yancheng, Elaine and I completed a survey (which began last year) of the Jiangsu coast from just north of Yancheng down to the Yangtze River. Along that 300 km stretch of coast, the best place to bird is Dongtai, followed by Yangkou and Yancheng. Besides those three areas, there is little left. There may be pockets that I have overlooked, but I doubt they are substantial; I doubt there is some secret location holding 10,000 waders.

The coastal area of Dongtai city is under no environmental protection that I know of, and in fact is slated to be transformed for aquaculture. At Yancheng, the Red-crowned Crane we saw were shuttling back and forth between fields, with busy farmers, noisy farming machines, and farmhouses never far away. At Yangkou, the smell of chemicals grows ever stronger, just as birdable areas behind the coastal wall grow ever smaller and the invasive Smooth Cordgrass on the mudflats grows ever more extensive.

We had little time for photography, but this cooperative Rustic Bunting offered me an opportunity too good to pass up. It is easy to distinguish a faded winter Rustic (as here) from the smarter breeding Rustic; it is harder to age and sex them.
We had little time for photography, but this cooperative Rustic Bunting offered me an opportunity too good to pass up. It is easy to distinguish a faded winter Rustic (as here) from the smarter breeding Rustic; it is harder to age and sex them. (Craig Brelsford)

Jiangsu packs 80 million people into an area less than a quarter the size of Sweden or California. If Sweden were as densely populated as Jiangsu, then its population would be about the same (320 million) as that of the United States. The GPP (Gross Provincial Product) of Jiangsu is one-third the GDP of India. A dense population of people with a culture that cares little for conservation and operates an economic powerhouse: That is Jiangsu. No wonder the Jiangsu coast is being chopped to pieces!

Thanks to Michael for teaching us birding, to Stephan for his excellent driving, to Xueping for her quick mind, and to Elaine for her cheery attitude.

Elaine Du
Elaine Du cheerfully hauls the spotting scope back to the car. The youngest member of the team, Elaine has an obvious enthusiasm for birding, is becoming handy with the telescope, and keeps accurate records. (Craig Brelsford)
Smew, Yancheng, 9 Jan. 2016.
Smew, Yancheng, 9 Jan. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Green Sandpiper, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016.
Green Sandpiper, Yangkou, 10 Jan. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Scaup, Dongtai, 10 Jan. 2016.
Greater Scaup, Dongtai, 10 Jan. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: L-R: Stephan Popp, Michael Grunwell, & Elaine Du view 1250 Common Merganser near Crane Paradise, Yancheng, Jiangsu, 9 January 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

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Brown-cheeked Rail at Yangkou

On Sun. 15 Nov. 2015, Elaine and I found Brown-cheeked Rail and Black-winged Kite at Yangkou and at Chongming saw 23 Hooded Crane and Chinese Grey Shrike. We added Scaly-breasted Munia to our fall-winter list.

I found the rail in the reed beds near Haiyin Temple. On 8 May 2010, I found a Brown-cheeked Rail at the same site. Today I was hoping to see Water Rail Rallus aquaticus, a bird known to overwinter in Yancheng up the coast. After 30 minutes, a Brown-cheeked appeared at the edge of the reeds, right under a small flock of Reed Parrotbill.

Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus, Yangkou, 15 Nov. 2015. Formerly considered conspecific with Water Rail R. aquaticus, Brown-cheeked Rail is a poorly understood species.
Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus, Yangkou, 15 Nov. 2015. Formerly considered conspecific with Water Rail R. aquaticus, Brown-cheeked Rail is a poorly understood species.

Much is not known about the movements and distribution of Brown-cheeked Rail. The spot at Yangkou may be worth checking regularly for this species.

At Yangkou the great rush of passage migrants has slowed, and the area is settling into its winter phase. The forest at Haiyin Temple is quiet, and the trees are shedding leaves.

List 1 of 2 for Sun. 15 Nov. 2015 (43 species)

Yangkou (Yángkǒu [洋口]), fishing town in Rudong County (Rúdōng Xiàn [如东县]), Jiangsu, China (32.537730, 121.017746). Among areas visited: Haiyin Temple (Hǎiyìn Sì [海印寺], 32.558756, 121.044740), unpaved road N of Haiyin Temple (32.570807, 121.015638), reed beds near Haiyin Temple (32.557387, 121.037381), & microforest near Haiyin Temple (32.558400, 121.038250). Thick morning haze giving way to mostly sunny skies; high 14°C. Wind ENE 3 km/h. Sunrise 06:24, sunset 16:57. SUN 15 NOV 2015 08:15-11:30.

Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 8
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 65
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 1
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 2
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 5
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 2
Black-winged Kite Elanus caeruleus 1
Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus 1
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra ca. 100
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 3
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 2
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia 3
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 1
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 8
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 3
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 4
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 17
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus 8
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 20
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus ca. 50
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 20
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 8
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 5
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 25
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 7
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 3
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 10
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 7
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 4
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 14
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 50
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 4
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla 22
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami 1
Little Bunting E. pusilla 6
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans 4
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 6
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 7

Juvenile Scaly-breasted Munia browsing seed heads on Chongming Island, Shanghai, 15 Nov. 2015.
Juvenile Scaly-breasted Munia browsing seed heads on Chongming Island, Shanghai, 15 Nov. 2015.

List 2 of 2 for Sun. 15 Nov. 2015 (24 species)

Around Chongming Dongtan National Bird Sanctuary and Nature Reserve (Chóngmíng Dōngtān Niǎolèi Guójiājí Zìrán Bǎohùqū [崇明东滩鸟类国家级自然保护区]), Chongming Island, Shanghai, China (31.510109, 121.961955). Thick morning haze giving way to mostly sunny skies; high 14°C. Wind ENE 3 km/h. Sunrise 06:24, sunset 16:57. SUN 15 NOV 2015 16:00-17:05.

Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha ca. 500
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 6
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 3
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 13
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 2
Great Egret A. alba 17
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 22
Hooded Crane Grus monacha 23
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 1
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia 1
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 1
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 6
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 6
Chinese Grey Shrike L. sphenocercus sphenocercus 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 10
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 5
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 100
Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata 2
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 3
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 3
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 1

Featured image: Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 15 Nov. 2015.