The Surge

Spring has surged into Shanghai! Elaine Du and I noted 92 species on the Qingming weekend. We found 212 endangered Great Knot at Nanhui and Bluethroat and Brown-headed Thrush on Chongming. Other highlights were 2 Greater Scaup and Black-necked Grebe on Chongming and at Nanhui 2 endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting, “Swintail” Snipe, 10 Saunders’s Gull (rare in Shanghai), 3 endangered Far Eastern Curlew, 2 Eurasian Bittern booming amid the sound of traffic, and 10 Pacific Swift.

‘Swintail’ Snipe, Nanhui, 4 April 2016. Note the bill, shorter than the very long bill of Common Snipe, and the underwing, with ‘Swintail’ showing a uniformly dark, banded underwing and Common usually showing white underwing coverts. Note the pale, diffuse trailing edge to the wing of ‘Swintail,’ in contrast to the bright-white trailing edge of Common. ‘Swintail’ is birder’s jargon meaning Swinhoe’s Snipe or Pin-tailed Snipe, two species that are nearly impossible to separate in the field. The snipe pictured here could be either. (Craig Brelsford)

On Sun. 3 April 2016, fog once again kept Elaine and me off Hengsha Island, our original destination. Driving our rented Skoda Scout, we left the Hengsha ferry terminal on Changxing Island and took the Shanghai Changjiang Bridge across the Yangtze to Chongming Island. Visibility was less than 100 meters when we finally arrived at Chongming Dongtan National Bird Sanctuary and Nature Reserve. Rain, usually a drizzle, sometimes a shower, let up only briefly, around noon.

This ‘Swintail’ was photographed 13 Sept. 2014 in Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu. Yes, sigh, it is nearly impossible to distinguish Swinhoe’s from Pin-tailed in the field. But it is possible, and much fun, to pick out ‘Swintail’ from Common! Note here the pale panels on the wings of ‘Swintail’ (visible in 1a, 2, and 3), note the lighter streaking on the back of this ‘Swintail’ than would be the case in a typical Common, and observe the lack of white trailing edge to the wings. (Craig Brelsford)

We stayed away from fee and permit areas. The northeast sea wall, with its well-protected mudflats beyond, is blocked off by guards wearing camouflage uniforms. A road running inside and parallel to the sea wall is not in a permit area and affords views of the canal-pond at the base of the wall. Reeds running along this inner road are the first tall, thick vegetation a bird flying along the coastline is likely to see and contained several migrants, among them the Brown-headed Thrush and a leaf warbler that may have been Chinese Leaf Warbler. The Phyllosc was soaking wet, and the characteristics I was noting, such as its seeming lack of a strong coronal stripe like Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, may have merely been the effect of the water. We noted the bright yellow rump, were starting to get hopeful–and then the bird disappeared.

On the eastern end of Chongming, we covered the farmland inside the sea wall and did not drive in the permit area atop the wall. We found the Bluethroat at the very good “snipe corner” (31.479537, 121.937001) south of Changjiang Lu. True to form, the skulker quickly hid away, refusing to flush or show. Still, the fleeting glimpse we got was Elaine’s best view ever of Bluethroat.

Common Snipe
Common Snipe, Chongming Island, Shanghai, 3 April 2016. Can you see the three main differences between this bird and the ‘Swintail’ above? To wit: longer bill, whiter underwings, and whiter trailing edge to the wings (visible, as here, even from below). (Craig Brelsford)

My walk through the reeds in pursuit of the Bluethroat scared up 2 Japanese Quail. Common Snipe were numerous, a pair of Oriental Skylark were hollowing out a tiny cup in the grass, and Water/Brown-cheeked Rail squealed once and fell silent. I recorded a fifth distinctive vocalization of Reed Parrotbill; I call this one the “siren.” (For the previous four calls, please visit “Amid the Din of the Diggers.”)

Reed Parrotbill, siren call (00:04; 954 KB)

On Mon. 4 April, Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell once again joined Elaine and me at Nanhui. We noted 73 species. Whereas outings in March gave us a “spring emerging from winter” impression, on Monday the transition to springtime felt complete. All that was missing were the flycatchers and the leaves on the trees in the microforests, those migrant traps dotting the sea wall.

Yellow-breasted Bunting
Yellow-breasted Bunting, Nanhui, 4 April 2016. Changes to wintering sites, loss of reed-bed habitat for roosting sites, and especially trapping for meat in southern China have reduced the population of this once-abundant species to a fraction of its former strength. (Craig Brelsford)

We rented no car, instead relying on the Shanghai Metro, taxis, a ride from a pair of friendly tourists, and our legs. With sunny skies and temperatures reaching 18 degrees, the weather was nearly perfect, and the exercise put us in a good mood.

The birding area at Nanhui is steadily going from “half-forgotten, mostly empty, natural” to “popular, busy, recreational.” Cars were packed around Nanhuizui Park and the Holiday Inn, and Qingming tourists were streaming out of the buses. Amid the commotion we found our first-of-season singing Manchurian/Japanese Bush Warbler as well as a single Asian House Martin flying among the swifts, the suddenly numerous Barn Swallow, and a single Red-rumped Swallow. At the Magic GPS Point (30.880540, 121.964572), we climbed to the deck of the derelict building next to the Holiday Inn. There, we enjoyed the expansive views, noted more Pacific Swift, and wondered how on earth a building as huge as this could be built and then immediately abandoned.

Asian House Martin
Asian House Martin, 4 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

North of the Nanhuizui area, photographers were working on 12 Black-winged Stilt that were using a pond close to Microforest 2  (30.926039, 121.970725). Around that pond we found Marsh Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. The quiet, half-fallow fields behind the pond evoked memories of old Nanhui. We found our Yellow-breasted Bunting here as well as Chestnut-eared Bunting and about 60 of our 90 Pallas’s Reed Bunting. We were looking for but failed to find Japanese Reed Bunting. We noted the absence of harriers, which normally would be hovering over the fields and reed beds.

Great Knot were seen in flight and on the mudflats as the tide receded.


Oriental Skylark
Oriental Skylark, Chongming, 3 April 2016. This bird, one of the pair whose nest I saw being constructed, shows a pale-buff trailing edge to the wing, not the noticeably brighter white trailing edge characteristic of Eurasian. The tail is shorter than is typically the case in Eurasian. (Craig Brelsford)
Pacific Swift
Pacific Swift, Nanhui, Shanghai, 4 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Grunwell and Brelsford
Michael Grunwell (L) checking Mark Brazil’s Birds of East Asia, Craig Brelsford checking Collins Bird Guide, Nanhui, 4 April 2016. (Elaine Du)

Featured image: Western Osprey carries a fish while flying over Dishui Lake in Shanghai, Mon. 4 April 2016. Lingang, a satellite city that did not exist 10 years ago, looms in the background.
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A Bit of Lapland in Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford

On 30-31 Jan., Elaine and I noted 75 species at Cape Nanhui, Hengsha, and Chongming. We had 6 Lapland Longspur on Chongming and 50 Mew Gull at Nanhui. The pair of Cinereous Vulture remain on Chongming, and we saw a good portion (65) of the Hooded Crane wintering on the great alluvial island. Red-throated Loon was still at Nanhui, and Dishui Lake once again held Greater Scaup (8), Common Goldeneye, and Horned Grebe (3). We had an impressive 350 Northern Pintail in the sea off Nanhui, and though numbers of Gadwall (590) and Falcated Duck (720) were lower than in November, the species maintain a sizable presence on Hengsha.

Lapland Longspur
Lapland Longspur, Chongming. (Craig Brelsford)

The longspurs appeared late Sunday, just as snow was starting to fall. The inclement weather must have upset the Buff-bellied Pipit, Eurasian Skylark, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow using the recently plowed fields. Suddenly birds were flying everywhere. The grey sky made visual ID difficult, but some of the birds were calling and identifiable by call. But not all; so I took a flurry of record shots. In one series of images was a bird I had never seen before. I sent some of the images to Jan-Erik Nilsén, who told me that the facial pattern was typical of Lapland Longspur. And so it was. MacKinnon says Calcarius lapponicus “winters in small numbers along bare meadows along E coast between 30° and 40° N and along Changjiang River”; that is a box into which our situation neatly fits.

This 3-species-in-1 image shows 2 Kamchatka Gull (bottom L, top R), Vega Gull (large gull in middle), and Black-headed Gull (bottom R). Note the ‘kinder’ look of Larus canus kamtschatschensis; its more rounded head, in contrast to the more gently sloping forehead of the Vega; and its smaller size in comparison to Vega. (Craig Brelsford)

The views of Mew Gull Larus canus came about because of preparation and luck. Ever since Michael Grunwell moved to Shanghai last year, he has been telling me to look for Mew Gull in Shanghai; he was sure it would show up here in winter. Bolstering that suspicion was a recent report from Jonathan Martinez of Mew Gull in Guangdong.

Kamchatka Gull
Kamchatka Gull Larus canus kamtschatschensis. L. c. kamtschatschensis is larger and darker than the western forms L. c. canus and L. c. heinei. L. c. heinei is known to occur on the China coast and should be looked out for. (Craig Brelsford)

At Nanhui, gulls usually appear here and there. On Saturday, Elaine and I finally had a chance to view a large group. An afternoon tide was coming in just right, boxing about 300 gulls into a corner of the sea wall. Elaine and I were waiting with camera and spotting scope. “This is the day!” I said. Sure enough, among the dozens of Vega Gull and Black-headed Gull was a sizable element of Mew. We quickly distinguished them from the much larger Vega. The Mew we photographed seem to have a squarer head and beadier eye than would be the case with race heinei; we therefore believe our gulls are Kamchatka Gull Larus canus kamtschatschensis.

The Red-throated Loon was in the large pond behind the Holiday Inn and Magic Parking Lot. Elaine found it doing the scan. Six days earlier, we had 3 Red-throated Loon in a pond a few kilometers north. Around 500 of our Great Cormorant were perching on the giant ring in the middle of Dishui Lake. Driving along the sea wall, we saw a Red-throated Pipit eating seeds left over from the rice harvest, and in the mud below we found three bright-yellow taivana Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

Rather than drive back to the city, Elaine and I drove straight to Changxing Island and took the ferry to Hengsha. We spent Saturday night at Héngshā Bànrìxián Mínsù (横沙半日闲民宿; +86 135-0185-1814 and +86 150-2164-5467; 120 yuan).

Sunday brought 56 species on Hengsha and Chongming. Our stay of a little more than five hours on Hengsha revealed no extraordinary birds. Eurasian Bittern were unusually visible; 3 of the 5 we noted were standing more or less in the open.

We took the ferry back to Changxing Island, and there, sitting in traffic, I looked out the window of our Skoda Scout and saw 3 Goldcrest. We took the Shanghai-Changjiang Bridge across the Yangtze to Chongming.

Cinereous Vulture
After more than two weeks on Chongming, our Cinereous Vulture appear to be doing fine. (Craig Brelsford)

The Cinereous Vulture were a few kilometers south of the place where we had found them eight days earlier. As before, the vultures were standing on an earthen bank along the first row of fields behind the canal at the base of the sea wall. Nearby were the Hooded Crane and 21 Common Crane. The cold, grey day was enlivened by a colorful flock of 55 Grey-capped Greenfinch.

Mew Gull and Lapland Longspur became the 267th and 268th species of bird Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept. 2015.


Red-throated Pipit
Red-throated Pipit eating grain at Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine Du
Elaine Du at pond behind Holiday Inn, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai. Elaine and I use the Swarovski ATX-95 telescope mounted atop our Manfrotto MVH502AH video head and Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon-fiber tripod. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Its cover blown, this Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris emerges from hiding on Hengsha Island, Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)
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Cinereous Vulture in Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford

On 23-24 Jan. Elaine and I noted 68 species on one of the coldest weekends in Shanghai in recent memory. We birded Chongming, the great alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and Nanhui. With strong northwesterly winds making temperatures feel as cold as -16°C, many birds lay low, but the strange weather probably played a role in two extraordinary records: 2 Cinereous Vulture (Chongming) and 3 Red-throated Loon (Nanhui). Other notable records were 2 Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake and a winter record of Wood Sandpiper at Nanhui as well as Eastern Yellow Wagtail (taivana) and Red-throated Thrush on Chongming. On Chongming and at Nanhui, we had Red-throated Pipit and Water Pipit mixed in with Buff-bellied Pipit.

Listed as near threatened by IUCN, Cinereous Vulture breeds across Eurasia, from Spain to China. In China, Aegypius monachus breeds mainly in the west as well as in Hulunbeier in northeastern Inner Mongolia. It is a “sporadic” (MacKinnon) or “rare” (Brazil) winter visitor to the southeast China coast. The largest Old World vulture, it has a wing span of about 260 cm (8.5 ft).

From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs. They usually stayed close together.
From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs. They usually stayed close together. (Craig Brelsford)

From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs as they rested on the ground. The pair was approachable. They usually stayed close together. Their plumage was shiny, and they appeared healthy. I doubt, however, that the eastern end of Chongming Island is a place that can support a pair of these huge birds for long. A Chinese photographer we met said the Chongming pair was probably the same pair that had been reported recently in Nantong. As of Saturday, the vultures had been on Chongming for a week to 10 days.

According to the IUCN, only about 50 Red-throated Loon winter along the Chinese coast.
According to the IUCN, only about 50 Red-throated Loon winter along the Chinese coast. (Craig Brelsford)

Red-throated Loon is also known as Red-throated Diver. Gavia stellata breeds in tundra bogs and taiga pools above 50° N latitude in Eurasia and North America. It winters along the coasts of Europe, Asia, and North America. Though the species faces no global threat, it is rare in China, with IUCN estimating that less than 50 spend the winter on the Chinese coast. Two of our three birds were feeding in one of the few unfrozen fish ponds inside the sea wall. A third was not feeding, and our partner Michael Grunwell feared it had been contaminated by oil.

Elaine and I birded Chongming alone. On Sunday at Nanhui, Michael joined us. We car-birded both days, driving a Skoda Scout rented from Avis.

Cinereous Vulture and Red-throated Loon became the 265th and 266th species of bird that Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept. 2015.


Michael Grunwell searching for Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 24 Jan. 2016.
Michael Grunwell searching for Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake. (Craig Brelsford)
Mixed in with the Buff-bellied Pipit were Red-throated Pipit (above) and Water Pipit.
Mixed in with the Buff-bellied Pipit were Red-throated Pipit (above) and Water Pipit. (Craig Brelsford)
Blustery winds made for tough birding. Here, Dishui Lake looks like a surging Arctic sea. Note Black-headed Gull flying in background.
Blustery winds made for tough birding. Here, Dishui Lake looks like an Arctic sea. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus, Chongming Island, Shanghai, 23 Jan. Photographed using Nikon D3S and Nikkor VR 600mm F/4G lens mounted atop Manfrotto 055 carbon-fiber tripod and MVH502AH video head. F/9, 1/1250, ISO 2000. (Craig Brelsford)
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