GUEST POST: Birds of Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula

written & illustrated by Louis-Jean Germain
for shanghaibirding.com

Louis-Jean Germain
Louis-Jean Germain

In spring and summer 2017, I spent two months in the Siberian Arctic on the Yamal Peninsula, 5300 km northwest of Shanghai. shanghaibirding.com has given me this opportunity to tell you about my experience birding that remote land.

The place I visited on the Yamal Peninsula lies well north of the Arctic Circle. My first stay was in May and June. I saw the snow melting and waves of birds hurrying to find the best breeding spots. My second stay lasted from the third week of July to the third week of August, during which time I watched parents caring for their young and the first sign of the migration back to the southern latitudes.

THE YAMAL PENINSULA

The Yamal Peninsula (red) is in north-central Russia (green), 5,300 km from Shanghai. Future Trillionaire-Wikimedia/Craig Brelsford.
The Yamal Peninsula (red) is in north-central Russia (green), 5300 km (3,290 mi.) from Shanghai. (Future Trillionaire-Wikimedia/Craig Brelsford)

From September to May, the Yamal Peninsula is covered in thick snow and ice. Temperatures fall below -40°C. The natural habitat is tundra, the circumpolar treeless belt that lies between the Arctic ice and the tree line (taiga). Tundra is characterized by permafrost, low temperatures, and low precipitation. The growing season is short–two to three months.

From the beginning of May to late August, the sun is above the horizon 24 hours a day, its heat melting the ice and snow. The upper layers of the permafrost thaw quickly, producing seasonal lakes and rivers and an intense growth of vegetation and water insects. The warm sun also melts the sea ice, leading to an intense phytoplankton bloom.

The vegetation of the tundra is dominated by cotton-grass (genus Eriophorum), Water Sedge Carex aquatilis, lichens, and a great variety of dwarf shrubs (Vaccinium). The latter produces berries, an important food for birds. Plants and insects, the latter mostly aquatic at this latitude, have developed strategies to resist the extreme cold. They spring back to life as soon as the thaw begins.

Throughout June, July, and August, the tundra is an environment rich in food and, except for Arctic Fox Vulpes lagopus, absent of predators. To take advantage of this remarkable environment, birds migrate here in their thousands, flying thousands of kilometers. As each bird fits into its unique ecological niche, it prepares to reproduce–reproduction being the main purpose of its flight to this harsh land.

INITIAL DISCOVERIES: SHOREBIRDS

Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus, Yamal Peninsula, Russia, 5 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus, 5 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

I arrived at the end of May, equipped with my Nikon Monarch binoculars (10 x 42) and Nikon ProStaff 5 telescope (30x-60x). I had no camera, as I only draw and paint birds. To my amazement, the snow had not yet melted, despite the air temperature’s hovering around freezing. In this white landscape, almost no birds could be seen. An exception was Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus, attracted by human activity.

My disappointment did not last long. Two days after my arrival, the first rain of the year fell on the tundra, creating small ponds. Almost immediately, as if by magic, birds appeared: Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula, White Wagtail Motacilla alba, and the magnificent Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis. My excitement was intense. What could motivate those birds to come to that place, still so inhospitable, with almost all the land covered by snow and the temperature around freezing?

The next few days were even more exciting. As temperatures rose and lakes formed, I witnessed a massive arrival of birds. There were waterfowl (Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri, King Eider Somateria spectabilis) and passerines (Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus, Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus, Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris). The first calidrids to arrive were Little Stint Calidris minuta and Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii. The next day, I had Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula and Ruff Calidris pugnax, and the day after Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea, Dunlin C. alpina, Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres, Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola, and Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus.

After 10 days, I also observed a single Pintail Snipe Gallinago stenura, Grey Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius, and Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola.

These birds had started their trips two months earlier from places as distant as Africa and Australia. Some may have even passed through Shanghai. What a journey!

MATING DISPLAYS

Ruff in breeding plumage. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Ruff Calidris pugnax, 2 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

By the beginning of June, the birds were restless. Male calidrids, which arrive before the females to compete for the best breeding territories, were displaying aggressively. As the females arrived, the males switched to a mating display.

Male Temminck’s Stint were hovering and calling noisily to the females. When a female was spotted, the male would chase her, running with his wings upward until she stopped. The male hovered delicately before mounting the female. The cloacal kiss lasted but an instant.

Common Ringed Plover were comical, fluffing their feathers and constantly running around.

The most astonishing behavior was that of Ruff, the only calidrid showing sexual dimorphism. Males are split into three plumage types, using various strategies to obtain mating opportunities at the lek. It was a magnificent sight to see more than 20 Ruff males fluffing their collar feathers and competing for the females.

LOONS

Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, 14 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, 14 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

After 15 days, with the snow almost completely melted, I thought that the migration was over. Imagine my surprise when I noticed three huge birds on a large lake, low on the water, long necks straight up above the water and with bills curved upward. They were Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata. A pair and a single bird, probably a young male, had just arrived after the long trip up. The pair was looking for a place to nest, inspecting the bed of Water Sedge ringing the lake. The young tried to conceal the female but quickly yielded after an aggressive display by the other male.

The next day, while scanning the other side of the same lake, I saw another large bird swimming low on the water. The neck was stocky and the throat black with a deep purple sheen, brilliant in the sunlight. It was Black-throated Loon Gavia arctica. I was pleased to see this bird in breeding plumage after having seen it in winter plumage in Shanghai in March 2017.

BREEDING PLUMAGE

Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea in winter plumage (top), assuming breeding plumage (middle) and in full breeding plumage (bottom). (Louis-Jean Germain)
Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea in winter plumage (top), assuming breeding plumage (middle), and in full breeding plumage (bottom). Top: Thailand, 9 Nov. 2016. Middle: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 5 May 2017. Bottom: Yamal Peninsula, 3 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

As a birder used to operating in temperate Shanghai, I was amazed by the extremely bright colors of the calidrids in June. Calidrids and plovers usually molt into their breeding plumage while migrating to the breeding grounds. It is always a great pleasure for Shanghai birders to observe shorebirds during the spring migration showing their pre-breeding plumage.

On the Yamal Peninsula in June, I beheld a pageant of the most fashionable plumages. I was rediscovering birds that I had previously observed in their duller winter plumage further south.

The English name of Phalaropus lobatus, “Red-necked Phalarope,” suits well the bird I was watching. Also, the Latin name of Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea (ferruginous, rust-colored) described perfectly one of my favorite sandpipers.

A LUXURIANT GREEN LANDSCAPE

Tundra after snowmelt (June) and at height of summer (August). (Louis-Jean Germain)
Tundra of Yamal Peninsula after snowmelt in June (top) and in August (bottom). (Louis-Jean Germain)

During my second stay, from the third week of July to the third week of August, I discovered a different tundra. The yellowish-buff vegetation had been replaced by luxuriant green plants, cotton-grass, and flowers. I was amazed by this proof of the power of nature. How is it that this place, covered by snow and ice nine months of the year, during which time temperatures regularly fall to -30°C, could show such a remarkably green landscape during the summer? Gazing at the green tundra, I understood more deeply than ever why birds migrate.

Most of the chicks had hatched by that time, and most birds were inconspicuous, trying to hide their offspring from Arctic Fox and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Many drakes had left the area to molt. With patience and perseverance, I managed to spot the nests and offspring of several species.

I also noticed the parental behavior of some species. I was shocked by the devotion of the pair of Black-throated Loon, tirelessly diving for hours to feed their sole, frail offspring. Would this tiny bird be able to undertake a long migration in less than two weeks?

At the end of my stay, I noticed that the loons, both Red-throated and Black-throated, were gathering in groups of seven to nine individuals, showing obviously social displays such as powerful, simultaneous calls, diving, and water-splashing with their wings. The extraordinarily narrow window of time for breeding on the tundra was closing. The loons knew it.

TIME TO HEAD SOUTH

Black-throated Loon Gavia arctica. Breeding plumage. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-throated Loon in winter plumage (top) and breeding plumage (bottom). Top: Sanjiagang, Shanghai, 23 March 2017. Bottom: Yamal Peninsula, 15 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

The birds with their offspring were about to perform another feat, the long migration south. The same wings that had carried them to this brief but rich northern feast would power them away as the killing cold set in.

My observation of the migratory birds on their breeding grounds was a learning experience that far exceeded my expectations. I hope that through my writing and paintings you have achieved a deeper appreciation of their amazing journey.

LIST OF BIRDS

Temminck's Stint in breeding display. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii, breeding display, 8 June 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

During my stay on the Yamal Peninsula in the summer of 2017, I noted the following 40 species.

Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons
Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis
King Eider Somateria spectabilis
Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri
Smew Mergellus albellus
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Greater Scaup A. marila
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Eurasian Teal A. crecca
Willow Grouse Lagopus lagopus
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata
Black-throated Loon G. arctica
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Ruff Calidris pugnax
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea
Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii
Dunlin C. alpina
Little Stint C. minuta
Pintail Snipe Gallinago stenura
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Grey Phalarope P. fulicarius
Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua) Stercorarius parasiticus
Pomarine Jaeger S. pomarinus
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea
White-tailed Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus
Meadow Pipit A. pratensis
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla
Common Redpoll Acanthis flammea
Arctic Redpoll A. hornemanni
Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus
Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis

Featured image: Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata, Yamal Peninsula, Russia, 2017. (Louis-Jean Germain)

Asian Dowitcher in Shanghai

On Sat. 5 Aug. 2017, I resumed birding at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui after a two-month hiatus. Battling apparent temperatures of 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit), partner Ian Reid (above) and I noted 74 species. The haul was good, but even better was the insight it afforded me. Once again, I learned that when it comes to birding, the most southeasterly point of Earth’s Greatest City delivers month after month, season after season.

Ian and I had 3 juvenile Asian Dowitcher, the most notable among an all-star team of shorebirds that included 8 Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, 12 Broad-billed Sandpiper, and 3 Curlew Sandpiper still mainly in brick-red breeding plumage. A Red-necked Phalarope was making use of fallow rice paddies, and 6 Grey-tailed Tattler were on the mudflats near Donghai Bridge. We had unusual Nanhui records of Pied Kingfisher and Ruddy Shelduck.

The microforests were quiet, but a very early record of Eastern Crowned Warbler and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher offered a preview of the passerine party coming in September. We had four species of bittern: Eurasian Bittern, Yellow Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, and Black Bittern.

In my nearly 10 years in Shanghai, I had never birded Cape Nanhui in the first week of August. During Shanghai’s hottest month of the year, I am almost always birding in cooler climes–in Qinghai last year, for example, and in 2015 in my wife Elaine’s hometown in Heilongjiang.

Ian’s and my day both reminded me of the good reasons for vacating Shanghai this time of year and showed me the treasures I have been missing. Through the oppressive heat, which ensured that you would never stop sweating, and the 81-percent humidity, which ensured that the perspiration wouldn’t do much good, the Australian birder and I steadily built up an impressive list.

For all 74 species, see our eBird list. Below, our highlights.

Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus

Asian Dowitcher through the spotting scope and recorded by my iPhone 6. 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Dowitcher at South Pond, 5 Aug. 2017. Photo taken with iPhone 6 and PhoneSkope adapter attached to my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope. (Craig Brelsford)

Our trio were juveniles, with their dark-brown crowns and buff-fringed, dark-brown upperparts. They were feeding together at South Pond (30.873934, 121.953180). The tide had hit the nearby sea wall and driven in small numbers of shorebirds of various species, among them Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata, Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea, Long-toed Stint C. subminuta, and Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus.

An East Asian specialty, Asian Dowitcher breeds in a disjointed set of ranges from western Siberia to Heilongjiang. The IUCN lists it as Near Threatened.

Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus

We found a single individual in the Cathedral of Birding, the broad, spacious northern end of Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). This is a very early record of a species that, like so many other passerines on passage through the Shanghai region, does not begin to show up in impressive numbers until September. As with the dowitchers, when I saw this warbler, my initial reaction was, “What else have you been missing over the years for failing to bird Nanhui in early August?”

Nearby we had female Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia, a less surprising record, as the species breeds in Jiangsu.

Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea

Ruddy Shelduck, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Ruddy Shelduck, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Ruddy Shelduck in August is yet another unexpected record. We found a single individual associating with domestic waterfowl near the entrance to the defunct wetland reserve (30.920507, 121.973159). The species is uncommon in Shanghai at any time of year, with most records coming in winter.

Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this record is that it is surprising at all. Pied Kingfisher breeds throughout southern China, yet this record was my first of the species in Shanghai. A pair has been present at Cape Nanhui since at least July.

Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris

Eurasian Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
The boom of Eurasian Bittern is heard in Shanghai in spring. An August record is surprising. (Craig Brelsford)

Our first of the four species of bittern. We found 2.

Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis

Yellow Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Yellow Bittern breeds in our area. (Craig Brelsford)

We found 24 of this local breeder along the length of the 30-km coastal road.

Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus

Cinammon Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Cinnamon Bittern is another species that in Shanghai probably has been under-recorded over the years. (Craig Brelsford)

Found in habitats similar to Yellow Bittern, but in much smaller numbers (4).

Black Bittern Ixobrychus flavicollis

Black Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Black Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 5 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

One was seen flying just north of Eiffel Tower (30.850531, 121.878047). This species has an affinity for swamps in forests and is uncommon in Shanghai. Saturday’s record was only my second in the city.

Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus being mobbed by Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 5 Aug. 2017. Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China.
Juvenile Common Kestrel blundered into a confrontation with Black-winged Stilt. The youngster soon realized its error and went looking for littler prey. (Craig Brelsford)

A species common in Shanghai, noted here only because of the circumstances under which Ian and I found it. The first impression of “juvenile falcon” that I received came not from the plumage but from the blunders of the kestrel. The falcon got too close to some juvenile Black-winged Stilt–and found itself being chased off by an adult, a giant in comparison. This was clearly a rookie’s error and betrayed the inexperience of the attacker.

In the photo above, note the lightly streaked ear coverts, the lack of scythe-like wings (as in Eurasian Hobby), black remiges, and long tail with rounded tip. The strong black streaking on the underparts will grow thinner as the kestrel matures.

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus

A welcome addition to any Nanhui list, Falco peregrinus is usually recorded in Shanghai in autumn and winter. Sharp-eyed Ian spotted the falcon roosting in an area that used to contain reed beds but has since been flattened by the backhoes into a savanna-like landscape. I got video on my iPhone through the spotting scope.

Featured image: Australian birder Ian Reid scans the mudflats at Cape Nanhui, Pudong, 5 Aug. 2017. In the background is Donghai Bridge. (Craig Brelsford)

Fairy Pitta at Nanhui

The autumn migration season here in Shanghai has kicked off in style. Leading the parade of migrants is Fairy Pitta, seen in Microforest 2 at Cape Nanhui on Sat. 3 Sept. 2016 and still there as of Sunday afternoon. Another notable sighting on Saturday was Common Ringed Plover at the sod farm south of Pudong International Airport.

Partnering yet again with Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell, Elaine Du and I were out Sat. 27 Aug. and again the following Saturday, 3 Sept. On both days we found Asian Dowitcher and endangered Great Knot. On 3 Sept. a group of 135 Great Knot and 3 Asian Dowitcher were part of a wader roost of ca. 400 individuals in the canal between microforests 1 and 2. The roost also contained a single endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank, 30 Red Knot, and 3 Curlew Sandpiper. On the mudflats nearby, we had a flyby of 3 endangered Far Eastern Curlew. On 27 Aug. a smaller roost at the same location had some of the species noted above as well as Grey-tailed Tattler. 27 Aug. also yielded a single Red-necked Phalarope.

Other highlights from 3 Sept.:

26 Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe at sod farm near Pudong Airport

ca. 200 near-threatened Black-tailed Godwit in that wader roost at Nanhui

230 Oriental Pratincole at Nanhui and sod farm

Oriental Pratincole at sod farm S of Pudong Airport, Sat. 3 Sept. 2016.
Oriental Pratincole at sod farm S of Pudong Airport, Sat. 3 Sept. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

1 Lesser Coucal (juv.) in reed bed at Nanhui

8 paradise flycatchers, all likely Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, in microforests at Nanhui

3 Siberian Blue Robin, 1 on Temple Mount on Lesser Yangshan Island and 2 at Magic Parking Lot, Nanhui

I met this Siberian Blue Robin on Saturday on Temple Mount, Lesser Yangshan Island. The robin displayed nicely for me. <a href="https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/boli-may-june-2016/" target="_blank">This past spring in Elaine's hometown of Boli in Heilongjiang</a>, I studied the songs of male Sibe Blues just like this one. What a song they sing.
I met this Siberian Blue Robin on Saturday on Temple Mount, Lesser Yangshan Island. The robin displayed nicely for me. This past spring in Elaine’s hometown of Boli in Heilongjiang, I studied the songs of male Sibe Blues just like this one. What a song they sing. (Craig Brelsford)

8 Arctic-type Warbler on Lesser Yangshan and at Nanhui, plus records of Eastern Crowned Warbler and the tricky species pair Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. The Eastern Crowned Warbler were silent, but the Arctic-types and Pale-Saks were calling.

516 Eastern Yellow Wagtail, most of this impressive number from Pudong Airport sod farm and the Nanhui sod farm on Ganlan Road (30.890865, 121.902011)

Notes

On 27 Aug. 2016 an international team of birders visited Nanhui. L-R: Michael Grunwell (U.K.), Mikkel Thorup (Denmark), Komatsu Yasuhiko (Japan), and Elaine Du (China). Photo by Craig Brelsford (USA).
On 27 Aug. 2016 an international team of birders visited Nanhui. L-R: Michael Grunwell (U.K.), Mikkel Thorup (Denmark), Komatsu Yasuhiko (Japan), and Elaine Du (China). (Craig Brelsford).

— On Sat. 27 Aug. we added to our trio special guest Mikkel Thorup, a mathematician from Denmark. This was not Mikkel’s first birding trip in China, but he is still fresh enough that he was picking off lifers left and right. Later, we were joined by the international high-school birding team of Komatsu Yasuhiko (Japan), Larry Chen (Canada), and Chi Shu (Shanghai).

— The decline of Lesser Yangshan as a birding spot is accelerating. Garbage Dump Coastal Plain has been lost to birding, with earth-moving machines all around and new buildings going up. Garbage Dump Gully is intact, but the increased activity on the coastal plain means that security, already tight now, may be even tighter in the future, and it may soon prove impossible to reach the gully. A migrant trap par excellence, Garbage Dump Gully is crucial to Shanghai birders. Over the years the gully has given birders Japanese Robin, Verditer Flycatcher, Varied Tit, White-bellied Green Pigeon, and scores of other good records. Garbage Dump Gully must be preserved; access to it must be sustained.

— On 27 Aug. we found a banded Black-tailed Godwit. As is my habit, I filled out and submitted the Leg Flag Report Form on the Web site of the Australasian Wader Studies Group. Our godwit, it turns out, received its bands on 19 June 2016 on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia (at 57.08, 156.64), 4000 km from Shanghai. UPDATE: On 9 Sept. 2016 a godwit with the E7 band was found by Chinese photographer kaca at virtually the same location as the 27 Aug. sighting.

Black-tailed Godwit, Nanhui, 27 Aug. 2016. On L tibia note black band above yellow band. Yellow band says E7. On R tibia (Panel 4), can you see the metal band? Recording data like these helps researchers at the Australasian Wader Studies Group determine where your bird was banded. Whenever possible, they will report back to you with a history of the bird. Be on the lookout for banded birds, <a href="http://awsg.org.au/wp-content/themes/AWSG/reportform.php" target="_blank">make your report</a>, and enjoy the treat of a response from AWSG. Thanks to Komatsu Yasuhiko, who used my iPhone 6 and his spotting scope to get these images.
Black-tailed Godwit, Nanhui, 27 Aug. 2016. On L tibia note black band above yellow band. Yellow band says E7. On R tibia (Panel 4), can you see the metal band? Recording data like these helps researchers at the Australasian Wader Studies Group determine where your bird was banded. Whenever possible, they will report back to you with a history of the bird. Be on the lookout for banded birds, make your report, and enjoy the treat of a response from AWSG. Thanks to Komatsu Yasuhiko, who used my iPhone 6 and his spotting scope to get these images. (Komatsu Yasuhiko/Craig Brelsford)

— The task of ID-ing the Nordmann’s was clear-cut and was helped along by a Common Greenshank that appeared next to the Nordmann’s. The head of the Nordmann’s was proportionally larger than that of the Common, and it had a higher knee with shorter legs–an obviously stockier bird, a rugby player compared to a ballerina. The Nordmann’s stretched out its wing, revealing clean white plumage underneath. Common has a greyer underwing.

PHOTOS

A juvenile Meadow Bunting stands at attention at the mouth of Garbage Dump Gully, Lesser Yangshan Island, 3 Sept. 2016. A Lesser Yangshan specialty, Meadow Bunting breed on the island but are rarely found on the Shanghai mainland.
A juvenile Meadow Bunting stands at attention at the mouth of Garbage Dump Gully, Lesser Yangshan Island, 3 Sept. 2016. A Lesser Yangshan specialty, Meadow Bunting breed on the island but are rarely found on the Shanghai mainland. (Craig Brelsford)
Fairy Pitta, Nanhui Microforest 2, Saturday. This pitta may have come from Jiangsu, or it may have come from Japan. Who knows the story it could tell. If all goes well, in the coming weeks the pitta will arrive in Borneo to spend the winter. It is thought that migrating Fairy Pitta fly directly across the South China Sea from south China to Borneo. Our pitta is currently hugging the coast (Microforest 2 is literally a stone's throw from the East China Sea). Our pitta will likely continue hugging the China coast until at some point a mysterious instinct will kick in, and it will set off across the open sea. What a flight that will be! Most pittas stay in the tropics and are sedentary. Fairy Pitta breeds in subtropical and temperate Asia and makes the longest migration of any pitta. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Fairy Pitta, Nanhui Microforest 2, Saturday. This pitta may have come from Jiangsu, or it may have come from Japan. Who knows the story it could tell. If all goes well, in the coming weeks the pitta will arrive in Borneo to spend the winter. It is thought that migrating Fairy Pitta fly directly across the South China Sea from south China to Borneo. Our pitta is currently hugging the coast (Microforest 2 is literally a stone’s throw from the East China Sea). Our pitta will likely continue hugging the coast until at some point a mysterious instinct will kick in, and it will set off across the open sea. What a flight that will be! Most pittas stay in the tropics and are sedentary. Fairy Pitta breeds in subtropical and temperate Asia and makes the longest migration of any pitta. (Craig Brelsford)
Pin-tailed/Swinhoe's Snipe, sod farm S of Pudong Airport, Saturday. The shorter bill, dark underwings, and faint trailing edge to wing clearly distinguish these from Common Snipe. But to go beyond 'Swintail' requires skills beyond my ken.
Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe, sod farm south of Pudong Airport, Saturday. The shorter bill, dark underwings, and faint trailing edge to wing clearly distinguish these from Common Snipe. But to go beyond ‘Swintail’ requires skills beyond my ken. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Fairy Pitta, Nanhui Microforest 2, Sun. 4 Sept. 2016. Photo by Komatsu Yasuhiko using Nikon D7100 + Tamron 150-600 F/5.6, F/6, 1/100, ISO 640.

Where the World’s Greatest Flyway Meets the World’s Greatest City

Finally, it is ready: Elaine’s and my report on the doings of this past spring in Shanghai. We’re calling it “Shanghai-area Springtime Birding, 2016.”

The report is the latest in a growing list of resources available on shanghaibirding.com. Everything we do here is geared toward showing you what birding is like at the point on the Earth where the world’s greatest migratory flyway meets the world’s greatest city.

The report covers 7 March to 24 May 2016. Elaine and I birded 38 of those 79 days and noted 240 species. We partnered with members of our network of subscribers and contributors to shanghaibirding.com. Special thanks to Michael Grunwell and Jan-Erik Nilsén as well as to Xueping Popp, Stephan Popp, Kai Pflug, and Ian Davies.

Why should you read “Shanghai-area Springtime Birding, 2016”? Read it to plan your own explorations and to get an idea of what birds you can expect to see in this city in March, April, and May. You’ll find no more complete a report on that subject, anywhere.

From the intro:

“We deepened our knowledge of the birds of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway and increased our understanding of the pressures these birds face in the Shanghai region. One of the most densely populated areas in the world and an economic dynamo, the Shanghai tri-province area encompasses Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, is the size of the U.S. state of Kansas, and has a population of 160 million–half that of the United States.”

From the highlights:

“ — We continued to monitor species under threat by the uncontrolled coastal development afflicting the region, among them the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Great Knot, and Yellow-breasted Bunting; near-threatened Eurasian Oystercatcher, Asian Dowitcher, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Marsh Grassbird, and Reed Parrotbill; and vulnerable Chinese Egret, Saunders’s Gull, and Yellow Bunting. We led a group one of whose members found the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

“ — We recorded the first Blue Whistling Thrush in Shanghai since 1987. Other interesting finds were Horned Grebe on Chongming, Oriental Plover on Hengsha Island, Ruddy Kingfisher at Yangkou, Red-throated Thrush at Century Park, singing Sakhalin Leaf Warbler at Zhongshan Park, Grey-crowned Warbler, Two-barred Warbler, Pechora Pipit, and Citrine Wagtail at Nanhui, White-shouldered Starling on Lesser Yangshan, Rufous-faced Warbler at Nanhui and on Lesser Yangshan, and Bluethroat at Nanhui and on Chongming.”

Featured image: Screenshot of our newly published report, “Shanghai-area Springtime Birding, 2016,” now available in the Reports section of shanghaibirding.com.

Rainy, Quiet Nanhui

Elaine Du and I noted 86 species over the rainy weekend of 7-8 May 2016. We had White-shouldered Starling, Siberian Blue Robin, and Chestnut Bunting on Lesser Yangshan Island and Chinese Egret, Black-faced Spoonbill, and Curlew Sandpiper at Nanhui. I got my best view of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler at Nanhui, and on Yangshan our partner Michael Grunwell got his best view of Yellow-rumped Flycatcher. Other passage migrants were Brown Shrike, Eyebrowed Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat, and season’s first Dark-sided Flycatcher at Nanhui and Blue-and-white Flycatcher on Lesser Yangshan.

9 endangered Black-faced Spoonbill make use of a pond a stone's throw from the sea-wall road at Nanhui. The rainy day depressed the numbers of tourists and made Nanhui quieter, giving these sub-adults a much-needed opportunity to chill out.
9 endangered Black-faced Spoonbill make use of a pond a stone’s throw from the sea-wall road at Nanhui. The rainy day depressed the numbers of tourists and made Nanhui quieter, giving these sub-adults a much-needed opportunity to chill out.

The nearly constant rain made birding challenging but had its good points. While depressing our bird count, especially on Sunday (just 62 species), the rain also depressed the number of visitors, giving Nanhui its former wild feel. The lack of tourists and their vehicles on Sunday allowed 9 Black-faced Spoonbill to exploit a good pond just a stone’s throw from the usually busy sea-wall road. The spoonbills, all sub-adults in non-breeding plumage, noted our car and went back to feeding. On that same pond on Saturday, we captured in a single photograph 6 birds representing five species: 2 Black-faced Spoonbill plus Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Great Egret, and Chinese Egret.

6 Birds, 5 Species, 1 Photo: Top: Black-faced Spoonbill. Bottom, L-R: Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Great Egret, Chinese Egret.
6 Birds, 5 Species, 1 Photo: Top: Black-faced Spoonbill. Bottom, L-R: Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Great Egret, Chinese Egret.

Though rainy, the weather Sunday was not windy; the lack of wind plus lack of cars made Nanhui quiet and good for sound-recording. I got a particularly good recording of Black-browed Reed Warbler and Oriental Reed Warbler. Note the more slowly delivered, more powerful song of the much larger Oriental Reed Warbler.

Black-browed Reed Warbler, Song (01:19; 3.9 MB)

Oriental Reed Warbler, Song (01:00; 3.2 MB)

I also made a recording of a bird that may be Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (00:15; 1.4 MB):

Phylloscopus borealoides was one of my hot topics over the weekend, after the excitement caused by my encounter on 5 May with a Sakhalin Leaf Warbler at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park. The tink sound I recorded on Saturday at Nanhui was delivered faster than and at a slightly different pitch from the majority of tink calls assigned to Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and currently available on xeno-canto.org. The call more closely matches the quickly delivered, higher-pitched tink calls assigned to Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

I got a good look at the leaf warbler I recorded. It was obviously a Pale-legged or Sakhalin, but the crown was greyer than in a normal Pale/Sak and it contrasted more with the olive-brown mantle. Mark Brazil in Birds of East Asia notes the “strong contrast between greyish-toned crown/nape, and greenish (or brownish) mantle” of Sak. However, these characters are only more likely to be found in Sak; they may also be found in Pale. Because the features of the two species overlap, only song or a DNA test is diagnostic.

Pale/Sand Martin Riparia diluta/riparia, Nanhui, 7 May 2016. Both species are possible in Shanghai this time of year. Of the two species, Brazil says, "[F]ield identification criteria remain uncertain."
Pale/Sand Martin Riparia diluta/riparia, Nanhui, 7 May 2016. Both species are possible in Shanghai this time of year. Of the two species, Brazil says, “[F]ield identification criteria remain uncertain.”
Elaine and I came upon three other birds that are hard to ID to species level. The question of Pale or Sand Martin is nettlesome, as is separating Japanese Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians from Manchurian Bush Warbler H. borealis borealis. I know that the Shanghai region falls within the breeding range of canturians, but borealis very likely passes through this region, and Kennerley and Pearson suggest that migrating borealis may sing. Certainly some of the canturians/borealis that we see here are breeding canturians; the problem is singling one out with any certainty.

Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis, Nanhui, 8 May. This bird was singing and is presumably a canturians.
Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis, Nanhui, 8 May. This bird was singing and is presumably a canturians.

Another problem is the non-calling Cuculus cuckoos one encounters in Shanghai. On size one can often distinguish a well-viewed Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, and if the eye is seen well one can distinguish the dark iris of Indian Cuckoo C. micropterus. Common Cuckoo C. canorus, Oriental Cuckoo C. optatus, and Himalayan Cuckoo C. saturatus are larger than C. poliocephalus, and unlike C. micropterus have yellow irides. C. optatus and C. saturatus are virtually indistinguishable, but this pair and C. canorus have some differences, among them the often unbarred yellow undertail coverts of C. optatus/saturatus and the thicker barring of those species on the breast and belly.

Common Cuckoo almost certainly breeds in Nanhui, and very soon we should be hearing its famous call. I have recorded neither C. optatus nor C. saturatus in the Shanghai region, I have witnessed C. micropterus in Shanghai, in the Tianmu Mountains, and at Dongtai in Jiangsu, and I have found C. poliocephalus at Dongtai.

Cuculus cuckoo, Nanhui, 8 May 2016. By size we know it's not Lesser Cuckoo, by iris color we know it's not Indian Cuckoo, and we can guess that it's probably Common Cuckoo. But Himalyan and Oriental can't be ruled out.
Cuculus cuckoo, Nanhui, 8 May 2016. By size we know it’s not Lesser Cuckoo, by iris color we know it’s not Indian Cuckoo, and we can guess that it’s probably Common Cuckoo. But Himalyan and Oriental can’t be ruled out.

In springtime, one encounters Cuculus adults, which if not calling are hard enough to ID; but just wait, come autumn we will be seeing the juveniles coming through. Juveniles never call, and the various Cuculus species in juvenile form resemble each other even more than Cuculus adults.

On Saturday, Elaine and I birded once again with Shanghai-based English birder Michael Grunwell. On Sunday, we birded briefly with Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp, and later Kai Pflug and his wife Jing dropped by.

List 1 of 2 for Sat. 7 May 2016 (38 species)

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Lesser Yangshan Island, 7 May 2016.
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Lesser Yangshan Island, 7 May 2016.

Birds noted on Lesser Yangshan Island (Xiǎo Yángshān [小洋山]), island in Hangzhou Bay, Zhejiang, China. List includes birds noted at Garbage Dump Gully (30.641565, 122.062836), Temple Mount (30.639866, 122.048327), & Accidental Marsh (30.611902, 122.114873), an area on reclaimed land between Lesser Yangshan & Dazhitou Island (Dà Zhǐtou Dǎo [大指头岛]). Mostly cloudy and rainy. Low 15° C, high 17° C. Wind ENE 29 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 134 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:03, sunset 18:39. SAT 07 MAY 2016 05:20-08:35. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.

Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 5
Phalacrocorax sp. 1
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus 1
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 3
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia 1
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 2
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 3
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus 1
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos 3
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 10
Pale/Sand Martin Riparia diluta/riparia 3
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 50
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica 3
Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis 7 singing
Brown-flanked Bush Warbler H. fortipes 1
Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus 1
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus 1
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 2
Zosterops sp. 20
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 2
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 5
White-shouldered Starling Sturnia sinensis 1
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta 4
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. latirostris 6
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana 1
Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane 2
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia 1
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 10
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 1 leucopsis
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni 3
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria 1
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides 1
Little Bunting E. pusilla 1
Chestnut Bunting E. rutila 2

List 2 of 2 for Sat. 7 May 2016 (71 species)

Tristram's Bunting, Nanhui, 7 May 2016. A passage migrant in Shanghai, Emberiza tristrami is a woodland bunting and is often found in the microforests at Nanhui. This is a female.
Tristram’s Bunting, Nanhui, 7 May 2016. A passage migrant in Shanghai, Emberiza tristrami is a woodland bunting and is often found in the microforests at Nanhui. This is a female.

Birds noted around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]), Shanghai, China (30.920507, 121.973159). List includes birds found along Shijitang Road between 31.000204, 121.938145 & 30.851114, 121.848527, in particular South Lock (30.857798, 121.914106) & South Lawn (midpoint of grassy area at 30.849840, 121.897953). Mostly cloudy and rainy. Low 15° C, high 17° C. Wind ENE 29 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 134 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:03, sunset 18:39. SAT 07 MAY 2016 09:30-17:30. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.

Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 3
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 3
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 11
Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor 4
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 1
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 2
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 11
Great Egret A. alba 2
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 8
Little Egret E. garzetta 38
Chinese Egret E. eulophotes 3
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 6
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 6
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 1
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius 6
Kentish Plover C. alexandrinus 3
Lesser Sand Plover C. mongolus 2
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 7
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 8
Common Redshank T. totanus 5
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis 30
Common Greenshank T. ochropus 5
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola 15
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus 21
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 20
Sanderling Calidris alba 2
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis ca. 200
Long-toed Stint C. subminuta 15
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata 40
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea 6
Dunlin C. alpina 1
Broad-billed Sandpiper Limicola falcinellus 5
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae/mongolicus 2
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus 2
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 2
Cuculus sp. 1
Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon pileata 2
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 8
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach 1
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus 2
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 7 singing
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 16
Pale/Sand Martin Riparia diluta/riparia ca. 500
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica ca. 100
Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus 4
Two-barred Warbler P. plumbeitarsus 1
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides 1 making tink call
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis 30
Marsh Grassbird Locustella pryeri 2
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 2
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 20
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 8
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 8
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 3
White-cheeked Starling S. cineraceus 3
Eyebrowed Thrush Turdus obscurus 10
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta 3
Dark-sided Flycatcher M. sibirica 1
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. latirostris 8
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans 1
Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope 2
Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki 2
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 20
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 15 (12 tschutschensis, 3 taivana)
Grey Wagtail M. cinerea 6
White Wagtail M. alba 4 leucopsis
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami 2
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 3

List 1 of 1 for Sun. 8 May 2016 (62 species)

Eyebrowed Thrush, Nanhui, 8 May 2016.
Eyebrowed Thrush, Nanhui, 8 May 2016.

Birds noted around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]), Shanghai, China (30.920507, 121.973159). List includes birds found along Shijitang Road between 31.000204, 121.938145 & 30.851114, 121.848527, in particular South Lock (30.857798, 121.914106) & South Lawn (midpoint of grassy area at 30.849840, 121.897953). Showers & drizzle with brief periods of no precipitation. Low 14° C, high 17° C. Wind E 18 km/h. Visibility 10 km. PM2.5 AQI: 70 (moderate). Sunrise 05:02, sunset 18:39. SUN 08 MAY 2016 06:30-17:25. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha 2
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 4
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 7
Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor 9
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 4
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 3
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 3
Great Egret A. alba 7
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 10
Little Egret E. garzetta 45
Chinese Egret E. eulophotes 2
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 17
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 13
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius 2
Kentish Plover C. alexandrinus 4
Lesser Sand Plover C. mongolus 2
Common Redshank Tringa totanus 2
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis 16
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 15
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola 13
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus 1
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 19
Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis 55
Long-toed Stint C. subminuta 9
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata 16
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea 1
Dunlin C. alpina 3
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus 3
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 3
Cuculus sp. 1 (not C. micropterus, not C. poliocephalus)
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 30
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach 2
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 15
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 7
Pale/Sand Martin Riparia diluta/riparia ca. 300
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica ca. 200
Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis 10 singing
Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus 5
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler P. borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas 1
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes/borealoides 2
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis ca. 80
Black-browed Reed Warbler A. bistrigiceps 2
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 1
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 4
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 25
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 8
Zosterops sp. 3
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 9
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 3
White-cheeked Starling S. cineraceus 1
Eyebrowed Thrush Turdus obscurus 19
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta 2
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. latirostris 7
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 30
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 11
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 1 leucopsis
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni 2
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami 2
Little Bunting E. pusilla 1
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 8

Grey-streaked Flycatcher in the rain, Nanhui, 7 May 2016.
Grey-streaked Flycatcher in the rain, Nanhui, 7 May 2016.

Featured image: Black-faced Spoonbill in sub-adult plumage, Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 7 May 2016. The spoonbills were taking advantage of the rainy weather, using pools just below the sea wall road. The road is busy when the weather is good but on rainy days is quiet.