Will the Spoon Survive?

Editor’s note: Our featured image above, which shows a Spoon-billed Sandpiper and question mark, sets the theme for this post, in which we raise this question: In the face of manic coastal development in China, what will become of Spoon-billed Sandpiper, among the most highly endangered shorebirds in the world? The unique “spoon,” or spatulate bill—will future generations look on in wonder at it?

In Yangkou, the famous birding location in Rudong County, Jiangsu, my partners and I on Mon. 3 Oct. 2016 found a roost of 10,300 waders. We encountered this stunning spectacle on a reclaimed parcel of mudflat that will soon be transformed into a kite-flying ground for the tourists. Have you ever wondered why species such as Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank are on the brink? This picture will help answer your question:

On Mon. 3 Oct. 2016 at Yangkou, at this strange and unlikely spot, with trucks roaring, windmills whirring, and earth-moving machines clanging, we found 10,300 shorebirds.
On Mon. 3 Oct. 2016 at Yangkou, at this unlikely spot (32.550563, 121.079042), with trucks roaring, windmills whirring, and earth-moving machines clanging, our birding team found 10,300 shorebirds. (Elaine Du)

If other nearby areas are suitable, then why would so many shorebirds choose to roost literally in the shadow of the clanging backhoes and roaring dump trucks?

Simple. Because there are no better areas.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, and dozens of other shorebird species are being squeezed by coastal development, precisely of the sort shown in the photo above.

Surveying the strange scene, my partner Jan-Erik Nilsén said, “I feel the way I felt with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper yesterday—that I’m saying goodbye.”

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Dongtai, Jiangsu, China, 2 Oct. 2016.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Dongtai, 2 Oct. 2016. Bird 29, a male, was flagged in July 2015. This past breeding season, 29 and his mate, 34, produced two successful clutches. (Craig Brelsford)

Jan-Erik was referring to the events of Sun. 2 Oct. 2016 on the coast of Dongtai County, 35 km (22 miles) north of Yangkou. There we found 13 Spoon-billed Sandpiper foraging at the base of the sea wall at low tide. We watched as the sandpipers casually made their way to within 20 meters of our front-row seat on the wall.

Tempering our delight was this dark thought: Every last square inch of the area on which those endangered birds were foraging is slated for yet more reclamation. The disaster unfolding now at Yangkou may well strike Dongtai.

For now, Dongtai is still magical, with unbroken vistas from sea wall to horizon. For this reason, Dongtai has replaced Yangkou as the world’s best place to observe Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank.

But if Dongtai goes the way of Rudong County, then yet another step will have been taken in locking up the Chinese coast—and throwing away the key.

If you care about Spoon-billed Sandpiper and would like to help, then the RSPB would like to hear from you.

A BUSY NATIONAL DAY WEEKEND

L-R: Elaine Du, Michael Grunwell, and Jan-Erik Nilsén, Magic Forest, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 3 Oct. 2016.
L-R: Elaine Du, Michael Grunwell, and Jan-Erik Nilsén, Magic Forest, Yangkou, 3 Oct. Michael and Jan-Erik are the two birders who have taught Elaine and me the most. A British birder based in Shanghai, Michael introduced us to Emeifeng, the bird-rich mountain in Fujian, and he joined us on a trip to find Nonggang Babbler in Guangxi last December. Beijing-based Jan-Erik visited us in Shanghai last April and May, on the latter trip helping us become the first birders to report Blue Whistling Thrush in Shanghai since 1987. (Craig Brelsford)

Our long look at Spoon-billed Sandpiper highlighted a three-day birding trip over Chinese National Day. My wife Elaine Du and I birded with Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell and Jan-Erik, a Swede working in Beijing. The big roost at Yangkou plus a day and a half at Dongtai helped take our three-day coastal-birding total to 125 species. We had 29 Nordmann’s Greenshank and 35 Black-faced Spoonbill on Sunday at Dongtai, 6 Chinese Egret at the big roost at Yangkou and at Dongtai, and Little Curlew at the big roost.

Also notable were 230 Eurasian Oystercatcher at Dongtai; 19 Whimbrel at Dongtai as well as at our third site, Chongming Island in Shanghai; just 34 endangered Far Eastern Curlew at Dongtai; 573 Eurasian Curlew at Dongtai, including a big count of 570 on Sunday; plus 71 Great Knot, 144 Red Knot, an unusual view of Temminck’s Stint on the mudflats, Grey-tailed Tattler, and Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Comparison of non-breeding Chinese Egret to non-breeding Little Egret.
Comparison of non-breeding Chinese Egret and Little Egret. Chinese (1a) has thicker legs than Little (1b), and Chinese has a thicker, more dagger-like bill (2a) than Little (2b). The bill of non-breeding Chinese has a yellow base to the lower mandible, whereas the bill of Little is all-black, or, as here, black with pinkish base. Chinese (3) often appears hunched and more thick-set than the longer-legged and longer-necked Little (4). Chinese is also more likely to show greenish tibiae and tarsi (1a, 3). 1a, 3: Dongtai, 2 Oct. 2016. (Elaine Du) 1b: Nanhui, Shanghai, November. 2a: Laotieshan, Liaoning, September. 2b, 4: Gongqing Forest Park, Shanghai, September. (Craig Brelsford)

Finally, passerines: at Dongtai, Chinese Grey Shrike, Hair-crested Drongo, Red-rumped Swallow and Asian House Martin as well as a lone Yellow-bellied Tit migrating south along the sea wall. Also season’s first Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Taiga Flycatcher, White-throated Rock Thrush, Red-throated Pipit, and Little Bunting. We found Siberian Thrush and many other passerines at a wooded area around a sluice gate (32.722313, 120.942883). Still missing from our autumn 2016 Shanghai-area list: Bull-headed Shrike, Red-flanked Bluetail, Daurian Redstart, and all Turdus thrushes except Chinese Blackbird.

The big wader roost at Yangkou was made up mainly of Kentish Plover (6500) and Dunlin (2800). Inland we found Chinese Bamboo Partridge (a new Yangkou record for me) and Black-winged Kite.

Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 3 Oct. 2016.
Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, Yangkou, 3 Oct. 2016. The dark iris rules out all regional Cuculus cuckoos except Indian Cuckoo C. micropterus. The thrush-like size of these birds eliminates Indian, which is one-third larger than Lesser. For more on the cuckoos of the Shanghai region, see my post, The Cuckoos of Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

At Yangkou, in our van we followed 3 Lesser Cuckoo along a line of trees paralleling the road. The sustained view plus photos clearly indicated Cuculus cuckoos of a thrush’s size, not a falcon’s size. Credit goes to Michael for quickly noting the small size of the cuckoo and encouraging me to take the leap beyond “Cuculus sp.” Jan-Erik supported Michael, and after viewing the dozens of photos we took, it was obvious they were right.

NOTES

— The “Temple Forest” (32.560253, 121.039793), the famous migrant trap at Haiyin Temple in Yangkou, has lost much of its value to birders. The Temple Forest was unparalleled as a migrant trap, routinely offering up a stunning array of species drawn to the cover of the leaves. A mini-zoo set up earlier this year in the unwooded areas has since expanded into the wood itself, with cages, mini-cottages, and fences throughout. As the trees are still standing, flycatchers and leaf warblers may continue to use the area.

— One bright note is the small wood next to the lighthouse at Haiyin Temple (32.561881, 121.040619). Fishermen who had been squatting there have moved out, and the area has been cleaned up. A sidewalk now runs past the wood. It is probably too small an area to be developed, and as it has the very best location right at the tip of the headland, it will continue to attract migrating birds.

PHOTOS

Elaine Du surveys a pond inside the sea wall on eastern Chongming Island, 1 Oct. 2016.
Elaine Du surveys a pond inside the sea wall on eastern Chongming Island, 1 Oct. 2016. The point is 31.554712, 121.939863 and in winter contains various species of duck. The sea wall and mudflats beyond are part of a nature reserve, are off-limits to the public, and are nearly impossible to access. (Craig Brelsford)
Comparison of Far Eastern Curlew and Eurasian Curlew.
Far Eastern Curlew and Eurasian Curlew are most easily separated in flight. Then one can see the barred brown underwing of Far Eastern (1) as well as its entirely brown upperparts (3). The underwing coverts and axillaries of Eurasian Curlew (ssp. orientalis) are, by contrast, mainly white (2). The back and rump are also white (4). 1 and 3 taken September 2012 in Yangkou. 2 and 4 taken 2 Oct. 2016 at Dongtai. (Craig Brelsford)
Chinese Grey Shrike, Dongtai, 3 Oct. 2016.
Chinese Grey Shrike, Dongtai, 3 Oct. The prominent white bar on the primaries is readily visible, especially in flight, and sets this species apart. Lanius sphenocercus sphenocercus is a scarce passage migrant and winter visitor in the Shanghai area, appearing most frequently on Chongming and Hengsha islands and at Dongtai. (Craig Brelsford)
Panorama of Temple Forest, as it used to look.
Panorama of Temple Forest as it used to look, 15 Nov. 2015. Now, a mini-zoo occupies the open land around the forest proper and has invaded the wood itself. As with the big roost site mentioned at the outset of this article, in which mudflats critical to shorebirds are being sacrificed so that day-trippers can fly kites, here too an area of interest to birders has been taken away. Birders and international conservationists have been active in Yangkou for around a decade. When they sat down with the government and put their cards on the table, the government apparently saw a losing hand, and gave all the chips to the developers. (Craig Brelsford)
Another look at the unlikely wader roost.
Another look at the unlikely wader roost at 32.550563, 121.079042 in Yangkou. The speckling of white in the mid-ground is mostly Kentish Plover, of which there were 6500 roosting among 10,300 shorebirds. (Elaine Du)
Michael Grunwell (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsén seek new ticks in the Magic Forest, Yangkou, 3 Oct. 2016.
Michael Grunwell (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsén seek new ticks in the Magic Forest, Yangkou, 3 Oct. 2016. See you soon! (Craig Brelsford)

Shanghai Keeps On Poppin’

Elaine and I are in Heilongjiang and using the Shanghai Birding WeChat group to keep tabs on this eventful spring migration season. In recent days birders at Nanhui have reported

Crested Goshawk (29 May)
Asian Koel (3 June)
Fairy Pitta (2-5 June)
Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher (30 May-1 June)
Slaty Bunting (29 May)

Amazing records all.

Before Elaine and I left for this extended visit with her family, we had the pleasure of birding with Ian Davies from eBird and his buddies Nick Bonomo and Luke Seitz:

Sat. 21 May 2016
Dongtai and Yangkou

Yangkou-Dongtai today, Elaine and I with Ian Davies from eBird/Cornell and his buddies Nick Bonomo and Luke Seitz. Rain non-stop all day, extremely difficult conditions, missed Nordmann’s Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper but covered most other major waders, among them Great Knot, Red Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, and Eurasian Oystercatcher. We had a fun encounter with Grey Nightjar roosting on road in forested part of Dongtai Surf ’n’ Turf birding loop. Lifers were piling up for our three young American partners, all on their first trip to China.

Fri. 21 May 2016. As darkness was falling, Elaine Du, Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, Luke Seitz, and I were driving through the coastal forest in Dongtai, Jiangsu. I saw a log on the road and braked. The log was Grey Nightjar roosting on the wet road. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F5.6, 1/20, ISO 10000 (yes, ten thousand), mirror-up + cable.
Fri. 21 May 2016. As darkness was falling, Elaine Du, Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, Luke Seitz, and I were driving through the coastal forest in Dongtai, Jiangsu. I saw a log on the road and braked. The log was Grey Nightjar roosting on the wet road. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F5.6, 1/20, ISO 10000 (yes, ten thousand), mirror-up + cable.

Yangkou is still good for waders but continues to lose its appeal. Haiyin Temple Forest has been turned into a menagerie, with the obligatory captive Black Swan as well as Blue Eared Pheasant and—get this—a pair of ostriches! The trees remain but the undergrowth has been pared back, limiting the attraction of the migrant trap to thrushes, robins, and bush warblers. Entrance to the menagerie requires payment, but we got around it by saying we were birders. Entrance to the entire temple-seawall area requires ticket costing 60 yuan per person. The entire sea wall around Yangkou is now fenced off and access to mudflats is in some places denied, notably at the well-known point ca. 10 km south of town where we have seen Spoon-billed Sandpiper so many times. Dongtai meanwhile continues its own transformation, particularly in the southern parts of the reclaimed area.

Sun. 22 May 2016
Yangkou

Yangkou again today with Elaine and American birders Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, and Luke Seitz. Spoon-billed Sandpiper photographed in flight by Ian after our 4-man group split up on mudflats to cover more ground. Despite relentless search could not find it again. While searching we saw thousands of Red-necked Stint and hundreds of other waders and got soaked in the misty rain. At long-disused Magic Forest we found 33 species in 79 minutes, with Northern Boobook, Lesser Cuckoo, Tiger Shrike, Narcissus Flycatcher, and Forest Wagtail leading the way. The Magic Forest has been locked since 2013, but a guard let us use the area today. It was wonderful to bird the old place again. Our partners were wide-eyed at the richness of the Magic Forest and impressed by the mudflats. Ian trained Elaine and me on the eBird reporting system.

Mon. 23 May 2016
Yangkou and Nanhui

Yangkou and Nanhui today, Elaine, U.S. birders Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, and Luke Seitz, and I (Yangkou), then Elaine and I (Nanhui).

At Yangkou mostly around Magic Forest north of Haiyin Temple. Ruddy Kingfisher, Purple Heron, Lesser Cuckoo 2, Asian Koel, Lesser Coucal 3, Arctic Warbler 3 singing, Chestnut-flanked White-eye. Ruddy Kingfisher seen by Ian and Elaine (life bird for both), tragically missed by me! (My view in Nanhui in Oct. 2013 remains my sole sighting of Ruddy King.) Temple Wood still productive (Eyebrowed Thrush, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher).

After dropping off Ian, Nick, and Luke at Pudong Airport, Elaine and I continued on to Nanhui. Black-capped Kingfisher, Japanese Para Fly 5, Thick-billed Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Richard’s Pipit.

Tues. 24 May 2016
Nanhui

Elaine and I again covered Nanhui, the coastal birding site in southeast Pudong, Shanghai. Highlights: Eurasian Bittern 1 booming, Yellow Bittern 6, Common Tern 1 minussensis, Common Cuckoo 18 + 8 Cuculus sp. that were probably all Common, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Black Drongo 28, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher 2 (1 calling), Arctic Warbler 3 singing, Arctic-type Warbler 30 (vast majority likely Arctic), Thick-billed Warbler 2 (1 singing), Narcissus Flycatcher 1 male, Richard’s Pipit.

— I had never heard Thick-billed sing before. This forest Acro was hidden in the crown of one of the locust trees in Microforest 1. The sound I recorded is below. The wind was blowing, lowering the quality of the recording, but the essentials are there. Note the typical raspy Acro sound, and note the much faster delivery of Thick-billed than that of its fellow Acro Oriental Reed Warbler:

Thick-billed Warbler, Shanghai, 24 May 2016 (01:53, 5.3 MB)

— The cuckoos were in full breeding mode, chasing each other and calling constantly.

— Elaine and I spent the better part of an hour walking along the muddy bank of a canal looking for Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler. On 21 May 2015 at Nanhui, Kai Pflug, Elaine, and I found this species. Was that encounter a one-off, or is Middendorf’s Gropper a bird that would be recorded more in Shanghai were more birders looking for it? I still don’t have an answer to that question.

Featured image: L-R, American birders Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, Luke Seitz, Craig Brelsford, Magic Forest, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 22 May 2016. (Elaine Du)