The Waxwings of Shanghai

Japanese Waxwing
For many birders in Shanghai, Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica is an unexpected and welcome tick. The species is recorded most frequently at Pudong’s Binjiang Forest Park, where I photographed this individual. Gain familiarity with waxwings by reading this post. (Craig Brelsford)

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Shanghai birders record Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica and Bohemian Waxwing B. garrulus centralasiae irregularly in the urban parks, on the coast, and in suburban western Shanghai. Japanese Waxwing is reported nearly three times as often in Shanghai as Bohemian. Binjiang Forest Park in Pudong has both the most records and the largest recorded flocks, with counts as high as 40. Century Park is second to Binjiang in the number of records. Cape Nanhui has records of both species, all of individuals and small groups. Nearly all waxwing sightings in Shanghai occur between November and February. There are a handful of records from March, April, and May (eBird 2020).

I have noted Japanese Waxwing in November, December, and January at Binjiang and in January on Chongming Island. Bohemian Waxwing were mixed in with the flocks I saw of Japanese at Binjiang. I also have a record of a single Bohemian Waxwing on Lesser Yangshan Island in November.

Improve your chances of ticking waxwings in Shanghai by reading the species descriptions below and studying the photos.

JAPANESE WAXWING

Japanese Waxwing
Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica devouring a berry, Binjiang Forest Park, December. In winter, waxwings subsist almost entirely on berries. The fruit is usually swallowed whole, but occasionally, as above, the waxwing fails to loosen the berry from the stem and must peck it. (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Tails
The color of the tail-tip is the readiest differentiator between Bohemian Waxwing (top) and Japanese Waxwing (bottom). Note also the black subterminal bands, narrower in Japanese. (Craig Brelsford)

Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica is an irregular winter visitor and passage migrant in Shanghai. Breeds nearly exclusively in Russian Far East (E Yakutia, Amur, Khabarovsk, N Sakhalin). In China is irregular breeder in Lesser Khingan Mountains in Heilongjiang. Does not breed in Japan. Winters mainly eastern China, also Korea and Japan. More irregular south of Yangtze, but reported as far south as Fujian and Yunnan and as far west as Qinghai. BEHAVIOR In winter almost entirely frugivorous and almost always in flocks. Mixed flocks often contain Bohemian Waxwing. DESCRIPTION Thick neck and short tail give plump appearance. Has narrow black mask, from eye extending upward below crest, giving angry facial expression; eyeline meets on forehead and (unlike in Bohemian) connects at rear of crest. Black bib (clear-cut in male, more diffuse in female); white at lower base of bill and part of eye-ring (below rear part of eye). Forehead and malar cinnamon-brown, rest of head buff, turning greyish-brown on nape, mantle, and wing coverts; lower back, rump and uppertail coverts grey. Tail grey at base, with black subterminal band and red tip. Underparts pale greyish-brown, with varying amount of pale yellow on belly. White between and behind legs; vent and undertail coverts dull orange, but sometimes remarkably crimson. Has red band on greater coverts that in flight appears as small wing bar. Primary coverts blue-grey with broad black tips; secondaries grey with black subterminal band and red tips (but no red appendages, as on Bohemian). Primaries edged blue-grey on sides; the edging together with blue-grey on primary coverts and secondaries make wing look more blue-grey than black. Adult primaries tipped white (with red dots on a few outer webs), making “V” markings on closed wing (markings on outer web longer in Bohemian, making a connected line). Females have thinner V’s, and juveniles lack white on inner webs, having instead of “V” markings a white line along edge of folded wing. COMPARISON Easily distinguished from Bohemian by red terminal band on tail. Smaller and slimmer than Bohemian, and swept-back, pointed crest shorter than Bohemian. Wing pattern also different; Japanese lacks white and yellow in secondaries and wing coverts, instead having red band on median coverts, and broad black tips to grey greater coverts and primary coverts. Bohemian lacks yellow belly spot. BARE PARTS Bill short, black; strong feet black; iris brown. VOICE Pleasant trills, often delivered in flight, shorter, higher-pitched and less ringing than Bohemian. — Craig Brelsford

BOHEMIAN WAXWING

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus, Binjiang Forest Park, November. Bohemian Waxwing is the widest-ranging of the world’s three waxwing species, with a distribution encompassing northern Eurasia and North America. (Craig Brelsford)
waxwing heads
The black masks of Japanese Waxwing (top) and Bohemian Waxwing (bottom) lend both species an ‘angry’ expression. Bohemian has a longer crest and a shorter eyeline that does not extend to the hindcrown. (Craig Brelsford)

Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus centralasiae is an unpredictable and irruptive winter visitor to most of China north of the Yangtze and as far west as Qinghai and Xinjiang; sporadically to southern China and Taiwan. In Shanghai, reported about a third as often as Japanese Waxwing. BEHAVIOR In winter among most frugivorous of birds. Mostly insectivorous in summer, catching insects in aerial flights. Non-breeding usually in flocks, flying quickly and in tight formation, like starlings. DESCRIPTION Starling-sized, mainly buffy and greyish-brown, with long, swept-back, pointed crest and distinctive markings on wing. Thick neck and short tail give plump appearance. Has narrow black mask, from eye extending upwards below crest, giving angry facial expression; black meets on forehead but, unlike in Japanese, not on hindcrown. Black bib (clear cut in male, slightly more diffuse in female); white at lower base of bill and part of eye-ring. Forehead and malar cinnamon-brown, rest of head buff, turning greyish-brown on nape, mantle, and wing coverts; lower back, rump and uppertail coverts grey; tail grey at base, then black with broad yellow terminal band (narrower and paler in first-winter female). Underparts pale buffish-grey (palest on belly); deep rusty vent and undertail coverts. Primaries, primary coverts, and secondaries black with broad white tips to primary coverts and secondaries forming two bars; inner secondaries tipped with wax-like red appendages, most extensive in adult males and faint in first-winter females. Adult primaries tipped white on inner webs and yellow on outer webs (whiter towards wing tip), making “V” markings on closed wing; females have thinner V’s; juveniles lack white on inner webs and have less yellow, so instead of “V” markings have a mostly white line along edge of folded wing. COMPARISON Easily distinguished from smaller and more slender Japanese by yellow terminal band on tail (red on Japanese). Bohemian has longer crest and deeper chestnut vent and undertail coverts and lacks yellow spot on belly. BARE PARTS Bill short, black; strong feet black; iris brown. VOICE In winter, soft, ringing trills, often given in flight. — Craig Brelsford

PHOTOS

Waxwing Bellies
Japanese Waxwing (L) has a yellow spot on the central belly. In Bohemian (R) the belly is a more uniform buffish-grey. (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Wings
The secondaries of Bohemian Waxwing (R) have elongated and flattened red tips. These appendages resemble hardened droplets of wax and give the family its English name. In Japanese Waxwing (L) the secondaries are tipped bright red or pink. (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Flight
On fast-flying waxwings, note the yellow-and-white pattern on the wing of Bohemian (L) and the red scapular line and red-tipped secondaries of Japanese (R). (Craig Brelsford)
bohemian and japanese waxwing
Here is a scene typical of waxwings in Shanghai. A lone Bohemian Waxwing (C) is treated as one of the gang by the more numerous Japanese Waxwing. Smart birders in Shanghai scan closely each member of a flock of Japanese Waxwing, knowing that often a Bohemian will be mixed in. (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Waxwing
Waxwings nearly always swallow berries whole, as here (Japanese) …
Bohemian Waxwing
… and here (Bohemian). (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Eating Berries
Waxwings go to great lengths to remove a berry from the stem. A Bohemian Waxwing twists its head powerfully to wrest the berry away (top). The unwanted parts fall (bottom L), and the berry is ready to eat (bottom R). (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Waxwing
In winter waxwings alternate between feeding on berries, as here on Shanghai’s Chongming Island in January …
Japanese Waxwing
… and roosting on a nearby tree to digest their meal. (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Waxwing
Of the world’s three species of waxwing, Japanese Waxwing has the most compact breeding range. The species breeds almost exclusively in the Russian Far East north of the 50th parallel and south of the tree line. The main wintering range of Japanese Waxwing is eastern China north of the Yangtze. In Shanghai, Japanese Waxwing is reported nearly three times as often as Bohemian (eBird 2020). (Craig Brelsford)
Bohemian Waxwing
This Bohemian Waxwing, photographed in November at Binjiang Forest Park, likely spent the summer in a boreal forest in Russia somewhere between the Ural Mountains and Kamchatka. The species is not known to breed in China. (Craig Brelsford)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Daniel Bengtsson served as chief ornithological consultant for my Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China, which I am publishing in bits and pieces on this website, and from which the species descriptions above are drawn.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Brazil, Mark (2018). Birds of Japan. Helm Field Guides, London.

eBird (2020). eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Waxwings in Shanghai (Japanese: https://ebird.org/species/japwax1/CN-31; Bohemian: https://ebird.org/species/bohwax/CN-31). Waxwings in China (Japanese: https://ebird.org/species/japwax1/CN; Bohemian: https://ebird.org/species/bohwax/CN). Accessed: 31 Mar 2020.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps (2000). A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Mountjoy, D.J. (2005). Family Bombycillidae (Waxwings). Pp. 316-7 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 10. Cuckooshrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Svensson, Lars, Killian Mullarney, & Dan Zetterström (2009). Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. 2nd ed. HarperCollins, London.

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Marsh Tit, First for Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Happy New Year 2018 to you from shanghaibirding.com!

On this New Year’s Day, I bring you glad tidings: a historic first Shanghai record of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris!

The sighting occurred on Christmas Eve at Century Park in Pudong. A pair was foraging in trees and bushes at the edge of a wooded area. (The exact point is by the boardwalk on the western side of the park at 31.215832, 121.541303.) The tits did not appear sluggish or overly tame, as might have been the case had they escaped from a cage.

I originally misidentified the Century Park tits as Willow Tit Poecile montanus stoetzneri. I was thrown off by the large black patch on the chin and throat of the birds, which I took to be strongly suggestive of Willow. In field guides pre-dating the research of Richard K. Broughton, the bibs of Marsh and Willow Tits, in particular their size and shape, are characterized as being important separators of the two species, which are notoriously hard to tell apart.

After my triumphant announcement to the Shanghai Birding WeChat group, member Paul Holt responded, disagreeing with my diagnosis of Willow Tit and cautioning me on an over-reliance on bib, which, Holt wrote, “[doesn’t] hold much water” as a criterion for Marsh-Willow ID. The Century tit, Holt said, “looks like a classic Marsh Tit” (in litt., 2017). Intrigued, I searched the Web for authorities backing up Holt’s assertions, and I came across the two studies by Broughton.

Broughton’s papers shake the foundations of Marsh-Willow research. Of the several challenges Broughton makes to the received wisdom about Marsh-Willow ID, bib is among the most salient. Books renowned and much relied on, such as the Collins Bird Guide (2009), admit only of “some overlap” in the size and shape of the bibs. Broughton finds “substantial overlap.” Harrap and Quinn state unequivocally that compared to Willow Tit, Marsh has “a smaller and neater black bib” (1995). Broughton says that bib is “variable within both species,” prone to “high subjectivity” on the part of the observer, and greatly dependent on the sex, social rank, and age of the bird. “The bib,” Broughton states flatly, “is not a particularly useful identification feature” (2009).

Marsh Tit
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris showing classic whitish bill mark. In good light, as here, the bill mark is noticeable even at mid-range. Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)

What, then, is a useful identification feature? In the British and European birds Broughton and his co-authors studied, the most reliable criterion separating non-singing and non-calling Marsh and Willow was a special mark on the bill. The authors found that 98.7% of Marsh Tit and 94.2% of Willow Tit could be identified to species according to the presence (Marsh) or absence (Willow) of a whitish spot on the proximal area of the upper mandible (Broughton et al. 2008).

Here in China, how applicable are Broughton’s findings on the whitish mark? To the best of my knowledge, the applicability of the bill criterion on the East Asian subspecies of Marsh and Willow has not been formally tested. It presumably is highly applicable, and the photos here of Marsh and Willow from the Eastern Palearctic comport with Broughton’s findings from the Western Palearctic.

Marsh and Willow Tit
Comparison of whitish marks on proximal area of upper mandible of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris (top) and Willow Tit Poecile montanus (bottom).  (Craig Brelsford/Steven Lin)

Examine the four-panel photo above. At top left is Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris, photographed in Heilongjiang in August. The whitish bill mark is clearly visible, as it is in Steven Lin’s photo top right of the Century Park Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom left of Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, taken in Heilongjiang  in January, abrasions and reflected light create asymmetrical whitish marks that only an inexperienced observer would take to be the bill mark of a Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom right of “Songar” Tit Poecile montanus affinis, taken in Qinghai in August, the bill is unmarked; it is a classic Willow Tit bill.

Broughton’s papers explore other criteria for Marsh-Willow ID, among them the song, “chick-a-dee” call, and juvenile begging call, which have long been known to be distinctive and which Broughton rates as even better indicators of species than bill mark. Broughton also discusses the contrast between the cheek and neck sides in the two species, which like bill mark Broughton calls a highly reliable feature. Both papers are required reading for anyone wanting to get a handle on Marsh-Willow ID, even those of us here on the eastern end of the Palearctic. Indeed, a study using the methods of Broughton on the East Asian forms of Marsh Tit and Willow Tit would be a welcome complement to Broughton’s work and could yield exciting results.

ADDENDUM

On 22 Jan. 2018 at Century Park, local birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Marsh Tit. Hiko got these photos.

Marsh Tit
On 22 Jan. 2018 at Shanghai’s Century Park, local birder Hiko found Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Marsh Tit
Conspicuous in Hiko’s photo is the whitish mark on the proximal area of the upper mandible, an indicator of Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

REFERENCES

Bengtsson, Daniel, Brelsford, Craig, and Du, Elaine (2020). Birds Recorded at Century Park (a page on shanghaibirding.com). Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sites/urban-shanghai/century-bird-records/ (accessed: 29 May 2020).

Broughton, Richard K. 2008. Separation of Willow Tit and Marsh Tit in Britain: a review. British Birds 102 (November 2009), pp. 604–616. Available at https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Willow-Marsh-Tits.pdf (accessed: 24 Jan 2020).

Broughton, Richard K., Hinsley, Shelley A., & Bellamy, Paul E. (2008) Separation of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris from Willow Tit Poecile montana using a bill criterion. Ringing & Migration, 24:2, pp. 101-103. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/03078698.2008.9674382 (accessed: 24 Jan 2020).

Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995. Willow Tit, p. 238.

Holt, Paul. Message to Craig Brelsford through Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group, 24 Dec 2017.

Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009.

Featured image: Marsh Tit Poecile palustris, historic first record in Shanghai. Century Park, Shanghai, 24 Dec. 2017. (Steven Lin)
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Crested Goshawk at Century Park

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

​At Pudong’s Century Park on 26 Nov., I recorded Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus. It was my first record at Century of Crested Goshawk, a species whose presence in urban Shanghai is growing ever more noticeable.

Li Qiu (李秋), her husband Qiao Ying (乔颖), Paul Hyde, and I were standing in Woodcock Forest (31.213235, 121.551704), a heavily wooded part of Century Park. We were watching Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major, itself rare in urban Shanghai.

We saw an Accipiter flying over the treetops. We ran out of the forest into a grassy area and saw the goshawk soaring 100 m above the park. Qiu got the photo above left.

The goshawk seemed not to be passing through Century but to be using the park; the combination of low flight over the treetops followed by soaring flight over the park gave me an impression of a raptor that knows the area.

Why is Sunday’s goshawk Crested Goshawk?

1. Wings short and broad and “pinched” at base—the narrow wing base is obvious in Qiu’s photo, as well as in my photo above right of a Crested Goshawk from Emeifeng, Fujian. Crested Goshawk is well-known for its narrow wing base and bulging secondaries. By contrast, regional sparrowhawks such as Besra Accipiter virgatus and Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus have less-rounded wings.

Accipiter
Comparison of bulge of secondaries of regional sparrowhawks. Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus (top L) shows a ‘pinched’ wing base and bulging secondaries. Much straighter are the wings of Chinese Sparrowhawk A. soloensis (top R) and Japanese Sparrowhawk A. gularis (bottom R). The secondaries of Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus (bottom L) show more of a bulge than the previous two species but less than Crested Goshawk. (Craig Brelsford)

2. When I saw the raptor close, soaring over the treetops, the impression I got was not of a large, buzzard-sized Accipiter (as might have been the impression if the raptor had been Northern Goshawk A. gentilis). Instead, I got the impression of a smaller raptor. An impression of a large, Buteo-sized raptor would weigh against a diagnosis of Crested Goshawk, but an impression of a smaller raptor weighs in favor of an Accipiter the size of Crested Goshawk.

3. Besra is less likely to be seen soaring than is Crested Goshawk.

4. As I note in my recent post, “Crested Goshawk Invades Shanghai,” Crested Goshawk is known to occur in urban Shanghai, including Century Park. Knowledge that Crested Goshawk is in this city does not weigh against a diagnosis of the Accipiter Sunday as Crested Goshawk. Indeed, if my impression of a more or less resident Accipiter is correct, then it lends support to the idea.

P.S. In addition to the goshawk, our 38 species Sunday included a first-ever Century Park record of Eurasian Coot Fulica atra. For a list of all the species recorded at the premier birding park in urban Shanghai, see our page Birds Recorded at Century Park.

Featured image: Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus. Left: Century Park, Shanghai, 26 Nov. (Li Qiu). Right: Emeifeng, Fujian. (Craig Brelsford)
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