by Steven Bonta
Western Shanghai, especially the Qingpu and Songjiang districts, offers a birding experience highly different from that of coastal Shanghai. Some of the species in western Shanghai are rarely seen on the coast and are more typical of interior southeast China. Here, in remnant wetlands and wooded areas, can be found Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Orange-bellied Leafbird, and Cotton Pygmy Goose. As a resident of Qingpu District living only a few kilometers from the borders of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, I have explored western Shanghai extensively. Read on to see what I have learned.
Tianma Mountain (31.058926, 121.141957) is part of a chain of low, forested hills in western Shanghai that includes nearby Sheshan (see below). Tianma has the best forest in Shanghai and, aside from Cape Nanhui, may be Shanghai’s most exciting birding locale. Unlike the wooded areas in the large urban parks, Tianma Mountain’s woods are pristine, with many large trees, heavy underbrush, and abundant habitat for birds. The mountain is about a kilometer from end to end, with a network of well-maintained trails, and is surrounded by a narrow road that is also very much worth birding. A couple of other smaller forested hills are adjacent to the main mountain, affording a nice wooded corridor for the birds to move about.
Because of its unique habitat and southwesterly location, Tianma has more potential than anywhere else in Shanghai for attracting birds typical of the forests of southeastern China. Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher (which may breed at Tianma), Orange-bellied Leafbird, and Chestnut Bulbul have been found there; others no doubt await discovery. Birding the rice fields, canals, and secondary woods surrounding Tianma can also be rewarding. In a few hours, a good birder can easily find 30 to 40 species at Tianma and the adjacent countryside.
The best birding is on the mountain. Tianma has Shanghai’s best numbers of Silver-throated Bushtit and Black-throated Bushtit, both of which can normally be found in flocks there. Swinhoe’s White-eye are also abundant any time of year, and along with tits, bushtits, and leaf warblers, predominate in bird waves. In winter large numbers of Yellow-bellied Tit congregate here, and Hawfinch seem to be more reliable here than elsewhere in Shanghai (except for nearby Sheshan). Large numbers of thrushes, especially Dusky Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, and White’s Thrush, also winter here, but, unlike at Century Park, they tend to congregate well off the main trails and may be hard to see. Tristram’s Bunting is another reliable winter resident. There is a small population of Red-billed Leiothrix. Another exciting and common bird at Tianma, especially in the wintertime, is Crested Goshawk. Both here and at Sheshan, these birds are often tame and approachable.
Early spring at Tianma Mountain can yield surprises, especially when the cherries are in bloom. At this time, significant numbers of Chestnut Bulbul, as well as a few Collared Finchbill, move into the area to feed. I have observed Orange-bellied Leafbird there at this time of year. The best place to find such birds is in the garden area inside the east gate and in the woods immediately surrounding it. Other birds present during migration are Ashy Minivet, Forest Wagtail, Speckled Piculet, and Grey-streaked Flycatcher.
The surrounding fields and canals can also be productive, since the entire area is comparatively rural. In the adjacent waterways and wetlands, I have found a surprising range of birds, among them Pied Kingfisher.
Tianma Mountain is best accessed by car or taxi. You will get the best results by hiking around and up the mountain. Exploring the small foot trails created to give access to the fire hydrants hidden among the trees will get you away from noisy groups on the main trails, and probably allow you to see birds too shy to be visible from well-trafficked areas.
Sheshan (31.0954136, 121.1946608) is Tianma Mountain’s noisier, more touristy sibling. Located 6 km (4 mi.) northeast of Tianma, Sheshan (actually two separate mountains) is not as birdy as Tianma, but it can yield many nice birds, including Crested Goshawk (usually in the forests on the west side of the western hill, below the Catholic church and observatory; I have observed pairs of these birds at Sheshan, and they are frequently approachable). A large population of Red-billed Leiothrix makes this attractive species easy to spot on Sheshan, along with good numbers of Chinese Hwamei. The best birding is in the dense thickets around the Catholic shrine plaza and on the western side of the west hill. The east hill is also well-forested but seems to be less birdy. Sheshan is normally more crowded than Tianma, perhaps because it is more accessible and is free of charge.
DIANSHANHU SCENIC AREA
At the far western tip of Shanghai is a wooded peninsula jutting up along the western edge of Dianshan Lake. This is Dianshanhu Scenic Area (31.072524, 120.910850). The lake itself does not offer exceptional birdlife, except for large flocks of Whiskered Tern in the spring. But the wooded areas here, especially in the large garden and park area around the big pagoda (free admission), are worth a visit, especially in the spring. As at Tianma Mountain, Dianshanhu Scenic Area is usually buzzing with Swinhoe’s White-eye, and Black-throated Bushtit and Yellow-bellied Tit are common. Perhaps of greatest interest are the large numbers of Collared Finchbill that invade this spot from the west and south in the spring. When the cherries and other trees are in bloom, this bulbul, normally rare in Shanghai, can be found in appreciable numbers here. The heavily wooded islands nearby, accessible by a stepping-stone bridge, can yield other surprises. Like Tianma, Dianshanhu is not easily accessible. For birders living in downtown Shanghai without a car, the best route is to take Line 17 to Oriental Land (the last stop), and then go by taxi to Dianshanhu.
QINGXI COUNTRY PARK (DALIAN LAKE)
This is western Shanghai’s best wetland, but it is surprisingly difficult to access, and very crowded on weekends. Private vehicles are not allowed in the park, which means that birders must park outside and walk in (more than a kilometer to reach the lake). However, the park is clogged with beeping tour buses and tourist transport vehicles, as well as throngs of visitors. A large food concession area at the entrance caters to the park’s many visitors. Birders here should have a tolerance for noisy, distracting crowds. That said, Qingxi Country Park can be very rewarding. At the time of this writing, Dalian Lake is western Shanghai’s top eBird hotspot, and with good reason: the lake is relatively pristine and surrounded by some fairly well-protected wetlands. Cotton Pygmy Goose have been recorded here, as well as a nice range of waders, including Pheasant-tailed Jacana. Some daily tallies on eBird for this site exceed 50 species. But expect to do a lot of walking here! The best birding is often not on the lake itself but in the many wetlands surrounding it.
Western Shanghai is full of hidden surprises, pockets of wetland and woodland that have not yet been gobbled up by developers. For instance, only a few kilometers north of the bustling tourist town of Zhujiajiao in Qingpu District, the area around Shanhaiqiao Village features superb wetlands and remnant woodland patches that teem with birdlife, in a setting more reminiscent of rural interior China than urban Shanghai. A recent visit there by me netted 40 species, including several Eastern Buzzard, three Common Snipe, and a large variety of other waterbirds and passerines. Doubtless many more such spots await exploration in semi-rural western Shanghai.
Featured image: Birds of western Shanghai. Clockwise from L: Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus, Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher Cyornis brunneatus, Speckled Piculet Picumnus innominatus, Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus, and Chestnut Bulbul Hemixos castanonotus. (Craig Brelsford)