Eastern Crowned Warbler Singing in Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

In Shanghai, the best birding occurs on the coast, 80 km from the city center. Getting there can be a chore. Birding Pudong’s Century Park, by contrast, only requires a ride on Metro Line 2. Your day list from Century will only be about a third as long as a list from Cape Nanhui, but good birding can occur there, and at little cost.

On Sat. 15 April 2017, my partners Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko (“Hiko”), Hiko’s biology teacher Zeng Qiongyu, and I had a bout of good birding at Century Park.

I had never heard Eastern Crowned Warbler sing in Shanghai. I am however very familiar with the song, because in my wife Elaine Du’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang, the song of Eastern Crowned Warbler is one of the most common sounds in the remnant Manchurian forest.

We were in the heavily wooded area near Gate 7 when I heard the wheezy song. It sounded like this recording I made in Heilongjiang:

Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus, 2 June 2016, Xidaquan National Forest (45.727751, 130.317316), Boli, Heilongjiang (00:03; 922 KB)

It was just a snatch of song, and it occurred but once. I knew immediately that it was Eastern Crowned Warbler. The song was coming from the surprisingly high canopy of the wood.

The four of us strained to find the bird. The sun shone brightly through the canopy and into our eyes. Finally, Hiko saw movement. Through the glare we focused in and got a clear view of Eastern Crowned.

It was a shot of birding as good and satisfying as I get anywhere. And it just goes to show—good birding can occur anywhere, even in a busy city park.

Eastern Crowned Warbler, 30 Sept. 2014, Yangkou. Craig Brelsford.
Eastern Crowned Warbler, 30 Sept. 2014, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu. One of the Big 5 Leaf Warblers of Shanghai, Phylloscopus coronatus is a common autumn and spring passage migrant in Shanghai. It is usually silent in Shanghai, but on 15 April 2017, I heard one sing in Century Park. Migrating birds often sing snatches of song far from their breeding grounds. On 7 April 2016, also at Century Park, I heard White’s Thrush sing. (Craig Brelsford)
Eastern Crowned Warbler, Xidaquan National Forest, 29 May 2016.
Singing Eastern Crowned Warbler, Xidaquan National Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang. Elaine’s hometown is in the middle of the breeding range of Eastern Crowned Warbler, and the song of this species is one of the most common sounds in the remnant Manchurian forest. Elaine and I have birded Boli on three occasions, most recently in May-June 2016. I got these photos on the third trip, on 29 May 2016.

Featured image: Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, September. (Craig Brelsford)
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Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5

The illustration above shows Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers: Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (1), Arctic Warbler (2), Eastern Crowned Warbler (3), Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (4), and Yellow-browed Warbler (5). In this post, I tell you how to separate Pale-legged and its lookalike Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from the others.

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Recently at Cape Nanhui, the birding hotspot in Pudong, my object of observation was Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, one of the Big 5 Leaf Warblers in Shanghai. In both spring and autumn, Phylloscopus tenellipes passes through Earth’s Greatest City in considerable numbers. A lookalike species, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides, also passes through Shanghai.

In this post, I shall outline the difficulty of distinguishing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on anything but call and song, and I will show you some of the traits of “PaleSak” that set this species pair apart from other leaf warblers.


Per's PDF
‘Almost identical’: that’s the judgment of leaf-warbler expert Per Alström on Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (regarding their plumage and bare parts). The page shown here is No. 11 of a 40-page PDF on leaf warblers in China by Professor Alström. The PDF is a handy introduction to a difficult group and can be downloaded here (13 MB).

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song and call. Every other trait of each can occur in the other. Numerous authorities confirm this. Swedish ornithologist Per Alström calls the two species “almost identical” and “virtually indistinguishable except by song” (Alström 2012). Mark Brazil says field separation of PaleSak is “uncertain,” and he warns readers to “beware light conditions” (2009). Clement writes that Pale-legged and Sakhalin are “very similar” and claims, dubiously, that the latter is distinguishable from the former “mainly by greener upperparts and lack of wingbars” (2006). Clements goes on to describe juvenile Pale-legged as being “more greenish on upperparts,” which begs the question of whether the greenish PaleSak one is observing is an adult Sakhalin or a juvenile Pale-legged. Moreover, a quick look at Oriental Bird Images shows many Sakhalin Leaf Warbler with wing bars.

Thankfully for us birders, the songs of the two species are distinctive and provide the basis for a safe ID. The song of Pale-legged, occasionally heard in Shanghai in May, is a cricket-like trill, that of Sakhalin a high-pitched, three-note whistle.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Heilongjiang, China, June (02:00, 6.4 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Zhongshan Park, Shanghai, May (00:36; 2.2 MB; Craig Brelsford)

One day in May, I heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing together in Zhongshan Park—proof that Sakhalin passes through Shanghai. Usually, however, birders here are forced to perform the less than satisfying task of assigning the individuals they see to the category “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.”

Bottom line: In Shanghai, any PaleSak one sees is probably Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, the continental breeder, and not Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, the breeder from the eponymous Russian island plus Hokkaido and Honshu; but to claim certainty about any non-singing individual is the taxonomical version of Russian roulette.


The PaleSak species pair is readily distinguishable from other leaf warblers, in particular the other four members of Shanghai’s Big 5: Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus, Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus, Arctic Warbler P. borealis, and Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus.

Here are a few principles:

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are plain, mid-sized to large leaf warblers without even the hint of a coronal stripe.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler shows no trace of a crown stripe (Panel 1). Yellow-browed Warbler (2) usually shows a faint stripe. In Eastern Crowned Warbler (3) and Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (4), the stripe is prominent. (Craig Brelsford)

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler has distinctive pink legs and a short bill with a black smudge on the lower mandible, which is pink at the base and tip.

Like Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, species in the Arctic Warbler Complex lack a crown stripe and usually show one or two wing bars. One way to distinguish birds from the two groups is by the color of the legs and bill. The legs (Panel 1) of Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are distinctively pale and pink, in contrast to the brownish-yellow legs of the Arctic-type Warbler in 2. Likewise, the slightly shorter bill of Pale-legged/Sakhalin (3) shows a blackish upper mandible and pinkish lower mandible and cutting edge. The black smudge on the lower mandible does not reach the tip. The bill of Arctic-type Warbler (4) follows a similar pattern, but with brownish-yellow replacing pink. (Craig Brelsford)

Even on a fast-moving PaleSak in poor light, the pink of the bill and especially of the legs is readily seen. The distinctive pale color of these bare parts is a handy tool for distinguishing PaleSak from birds in the Arctic Warbler Complex, which like PaleSak lack a crown stripe and usually show one or two wing bars. (The Arctic Warbler Complex consists of Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, and Japanese Leaf Warbler P. xanthodryas. In Shanghai, Arctic Warbler is the most common of the three, migrating through Shanghai every spring and autumn.) The pink coloration also distinguishes PaleSak from Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus, an uncommon migrant and winter visitor in Shanghai, and the scarce passage migrant Two-barred Warbler P. plumbeitarsus.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler constantly pumps its tail.

The tail of Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler pumps independently of other muscular actions. In panels 1-2, note that the tail pumps even as the warbler devours an insect. Panels 3-4 show the warbler motionless except for the up-and-down movement of the tail. Photos here and immediately below are of a single individual and were taken in September at Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

The tail-pumping of Pale-legged/Sakhalin is one of the most distinctive behavioral traits of the species pair. The steady movement usually occurs independently of other muscular actions and is slow enough for the eye to see. The tail-flicking of Arctic Warbler, by contrast, is more spasmodic and is often accompanied by wing-flicking.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler is often found on the lower, thicker branches of trees.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on thick branch. More so than other leaf warblers, PaleSak is likely to be seen on leafless, thick branches low on the tree. (Craig Brelsford)

With its ability to forage along thick branches and not just glean from the underside of leaves, Pale-legged/Sakhalin can remind one of a nuthatch. Other species such as Arctic Warbler use the lower branches, but sustained observation shows PaleSak more often in those areas. Note: In May and June 2016, I studied Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on its breeding grounds in Heilongjiang. There, amid trees older and taller than one usually sees in Shanghai, I most often noted the species far above my head, in the mid-canopy.


Except for the mainly silent migrant Eastern Crowned Warbler, Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers all call in both spring and autumn. The calls are distinctive. The metallic “tink” of PaleSak contrasts markedly with the “tzit” of Arctic Warbler, the “dweet” of Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and the “sweet” of Yellow-browed Warbler.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May (00:15; 1.4 MB)

Arctic Warbler, Jiangsu, May (00:09; 1.9 MB)

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Jiangsu, May (00:05; 1.6 MB)

Yellow-browed Warbler, Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, April (00:07; 1.7 MB)


Editor’s note: This post caught the attention of Philip D. Round, a professor at Mahidol University in Bangkok and an expert on leaf warblers. In an e-mail to me, Round writes that as discoveries are made and papers published, separating Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on call may become more widespread. Separation on morphology, by contrast, will be much more difficult, though it may eventually turn out to be possible in the hand.

The following paragraphs are from Round’s e-mail to me:

“I enclose a paper that details the first records of both Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from Thailand. [Editor’s note: the paper, “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” is available for download through shanghaibirding.com (708 KB).] This has been rather overtaken by events, as we have now caught into the hundreds of Sakhalin LW, mostly on spring passage, and quite a few more Kamchatka. I have an undergraduate student who has carried out DNA assay on about ten percent of all the Pale-legged and Sakhalin LW caught. For many of these we have also recorded call notes on release. When she comes back from overseas study in January 2017 I hope we’ll get a paper out which publishes details of call-note frequency and DNA results for this large sample, which should show the correlation between species and call-note frequency clearly. (Actually this is moderately and anecdotally well-known already. I think either Frank Lambert or Jonathan Martinez was the first to draw my attention to the difference, and it is mentioned by Yap et al. in BirdingASIA with reference to an overwintering Singapore bird.) [Note: Round is referring to Yap, Francis et al., “First wintering record of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides in South-East Asia, with notes on vocalisations,” BirdingASIA 21 (2014): 76–81.]

“I am a bit less sanguine on finding means (other than by call frequency or song) to separate all birds. Even in the hand, it is by no means clear. We can pick out long-winged male Sakhalin, and short-winged female Pale-legged. But there is more overlap than previously realized, and most are in between. There don’t appear to be any 100% consistent wing-formula differences, and plumage and bare-part features, while somewhat indicative, are again less than 100% reliable—especially under field conditions. But probably we are missing something. The next thing to do is to apply PCA or some other multivariate analysis to figure out reliable means of separation of birds in the hand from our large sample, and also to use the information we have to figure out differences in the timing of passage of the two spp.”


Alström, P. (2012). Identification of Phylloscopus & Seicercus Warblers in China. Notes from presentation given to Beijing Birdwatching Society in November 2012. PDF downloadable here (13 MB). Click here for a 5 MB zip archive containing all 40 pages of the report in JPEG form. Those pages can be synced to your smartphone like photographs and consulted in the field. (Accessed: 8 Aug 2020)

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

Clement, P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). Pp. 663-4 (Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Featured image: Shanghai’s Big 5 leaf warblers. (Craig Brelsford)
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Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016: Introduction

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com


In this report, you will get an introduction to Boli County and eastern Heilongjiang, you will discover the birds we met up there at the height of the breeding season, you will learn about the birds we missed, and you will find out how Elaine Du and I combine birding with family. There are as well my sound-recordings of Boli birds and plenty of photos.


Silver Birch Grove
Silver Birch Grove (白桦林), one of the attractions of Xidaquan National Forest in Boli County, Heilongjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Boli County is a good place to study the woodland birds of the eastern Palearctic. Its forests, remnants of the ancient northern temperate forest that once stretched unbroken across the region, hold northern species absent further south in China. In springtime, Boli County is the breeding home of birds that in the more densely populated southern regions of China appear only as passage migrants or winter visitors.


From 26 May to 12 June 2016, Elaine Du and I visited her home village of Dawucun (Dàwǔcūn [大五村], 45.732679, 130.589612) in Boli County, Heilongjiang, China. We birded 15 of those days, mainly around Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园], 45.727751, 130.317316). We noted 84 species. Our bird of the trip was Band-bellied Crake, and we found breeding Eurasian Eagle-Owl. We noted in full breeding mode many birds that we had previously known only as passage migrants in Shanghai; we heard for the first time the songs of Siberian Blue Robin, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, White-throated Rock Thrush, Siberian Thrush, and many other species.


Boli County
Boli County lies within the Amur Basin of Northeast China. It is part of Qitaihe Prefecture in eastern Heilongjiang, not far from the Sino-Russian border. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

In January 2015 Elaine and I were married in Dawucun, where Elaine was born. During breaks in the festivities, I explored the frozen country. Expecting to find only magpies and sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised to find forested hills near the village and good birds such as Rough-legged Buzzard. I vowed to return and bird the area thoroughly.

In August and September 2015, Elaine and I fulfilled that goal. During a 32-day visit to her hometown, Elaine and I discovered Xidaquan National Forest, a reserve in the Laoye Mountains covering 9,400 hectares (36 sq. mi.). Xidaquan preserves a remnant of the northern temperate forest that once covered the region. We were thoroughly impressed and made plans to bird the area yet again, this time during breeding season. The trip described here is the realization of that plan.

For Elaine and me, birding trips to Boli are special because they combine Northeast China birding with family. Elaine is never happier than when she is with her parents and two elder sisters, and I not only like her family but also appreciate the opportunity they give me to learn about Chinese culture.

Elaine and Family
Elaine Du (L) with parents and elder sisters. Dawucun, 12 June. In the background are the verdant foothills of the Laoye Mountains. (Craig Brelsford)

Like many residents of the Northeast, Elaine is descended from migrants who chuǎng Guāndōng (闯关东)—“leapt” north, mainly from Hebei and Shandong, to farm areas of Guandong (Manchuria) formerly closed to Han Chinese settlement. In Elaine’s case, the settlers were her parents, who left Shandong in the 1970s.

The settlement of the Northeast by Han farmers is a major event in Chinese history, like the settling of the West is to Americans. The transformation the migration has wrought on the land has been profound. In eastern Heilongjiang, the toil of thousands of farmers has converted the land from an endless forest into a vast maize field. Where tigers once roared, magpies now caw.

Amid the sea of grain fields are islands of the old Manchurian forest. One of the best is Xidaquan National Forest, just 25 km from Boli Town. After our discovery of Xidaquan in the summer of 2015, we turned it into our laboratory in which to study the birds of the eastern Palearctic woodlands. We have now spent 20 days birding in the reserve—12 days in summer 2015 and eight days in spring 2016.

For more information on places mentioned in the text, see “List of Place Names” in Part 3.


Streamside habitat
Streamside habitat at Xidaquan. Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler use the thick vegetation along the unseen stream. Siberian Rubythroat and Thick-billed Warbler forage among the scrubby plants in the foreground. Common Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo call, and Dusky Warbler sing. Eastern Buzzard soar overhead. (Craig Brelsford)

A birder led blindfolded through southwestern Boli County in spring would be able to tell the quality of the forest by the birds he heard. The pine plantations are nearly silent. In recently cut areas where the forest has just begun to regenerate, one may hear a few Eastern Crowned Warbler, Radde’s Warbler, and Black-faced Bunting. If a layer of undergrowth has formed, then one may hear in addition to those species Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat. In places where most of the trees are hardwoods and have reached about 10 m in height, the sound of birdsong is constant throughout the day. Pale Thrush sing powerfully from perches hidden in the canopy, Yellow-throated Bunting sing from treetops and defend territory, Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and Japanese Tit sing their lively Parid songs, and White-throated Rock Thrush whistle in a minor key. The best places at Xidaquan are yet another cut above, being able to support the aforementioned species as well as more habitat-sensitive birds such as Mandarin Duck, Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Lanceolated Warbler, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, and White’s Thrush.

The following is a list of the key birds noted by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du in spring 2016 in Boli County.

Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii

Band-bellied Crake
Band-bellied Crake stunned Elaine and me with its beauty. (Craig Brelsford)

Our bird of the trip, found 8-9 June 2016 in a creek bottom in the Hongwei Linchang area 12 km south of Boli Town. A rare and little-known species, Band-bellied Crake is listed as near-threatened by the IUCN. Band-bellied Crake breeds in Northeast China and the Russian Far East. It is threatened by habitat loss in its Southeast Asia wintering grounds as well as in Northeast China.

Band-bellied Crake, Hongwei Linchang, Boli, 9 June 2016 (00:26; 2.6 MB)

Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo

We found a breeding pair with two owlets nesting at the high, inaccessible reaches of the big quarry at Jiulong Reservoir, where we also spotted the species in summer 2015. The giant owls are tolerant of the traffic from the road, and at a second, smaller quarry nearby, they tolerate noise from a busy poultry farm below. The owls perch conspicuously by day and are active in the villages at night. In summer 2015, eagle-owls would perch at night on the buildings of Elaine’s parents’ farm.

Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata

Mandarin Duck
Mandarin Duck, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

Deep in the forests of Xidaquan, we found Mandarin Duck in ponds no larger than a kiddie pool. This shy species was also found on the large pond near the entrance to Xidaquan, in rice paddies in the villages, and in flocks in Jiulong Reservoir. In spring 2016 we recorded this species on eight of our 15 birding days and in summer 2015 on seven of our 27 birding days. Boli County is the heart of the Northeast China breeding range of this most beautiful of ducks.

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius

A graceful woodpecker and one of the stars of the Northeast Chinese forest, noted by us on three days in spring 2016 and on 11 days in summer 2015.

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos

White-backed Woodpecker
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos. Female in wooded area off Road Z004 near Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

The most commonly noted Dendrocopos woodpecker, noted on 10 days in summer 2015 and six days in spring 2016.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor

Trans-Eurasian species, in China present only in Xinjiang and the Northeast. Noted by us just once in spring 2016. More conspicuous in summer 2015 (seen on six days) and winter 2015 (three days).

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus

Noted on nine of our birding days, exclusively in the better forests around Xidaquan. Has softer version of the “Brain fever!” call of Large Hawk-Cuckoo.

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:06; 3.4 MB)

Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus

Noted on eight days in Boli County in spring 2016. None of our records came from the higher-quality, higher-elevation forest deep in Xidaquan park but from the lower-quality, newer forests closer to the villages.

Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus

In contrast to Indian Cuckoo, in spring 2016 most of our records of Oriental Cuckoo, spanning 13 days, came from the deep forests of Xidaquan.

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus

We heard the famous call of Common Cuckoo on 13 days. Most records came from open areas or from forested places near open areas.

Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus jotaka

We enjoyed pre-dawn views of this species roosting on County Road Z002 and heard its clattering call both at dawn and dusk.

Grey Nightjar calling at dawn, Blue-and-white Flycatcher in background, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (00:31; 2 MB)

Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius brandtii

Cinnamon-headed ssp. brandtii is a treat for birders in Northeast China (also occurs in Xinjiang). Resident and conspicuous in all seasons.

Coal Tit Periparus ater ater

Coal Tit
If this bird looks familiar to European birders, it’s because it’s the same nominate race of Coal Tit found in Continental Europe. Photo taken in hills S of Boli Town on 7 June. (Craig Brelsford)

The trans-Eurasian, small-crested, nominate race (ater) is the representative of Coal Tit in Northeast China. Resident, regularly noted in small numbers, often in conifers.

Coal Tit 1/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:15; 2.2 MB)

Coal Tit 2/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:05; 1.7 MB)

Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis

Versatile Willow Tit, resident in Boli County, flourishes in habitats ranging from scrubby new forest growth to primary forest. Noted on three days in winter 2015, 21 in summer 2015, and 11 in spring 2016.

Willow Tit, territorial call, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:14; 2.1 MB)

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus

The snowball-headed nominate ssp. ranges from Scandinavia east through Heilongjiang to Jilin. It lives year-round in Boli County. We noted it on seven days in spring 2016, on two days in winter 2015, and on 14 days in summer 2015. In late summer and winter it is often the main component of bird waves.

Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus

Eastern Crowned Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

The most conspicuous leaf warbler in Boli. Noted by us on 10 days in summer 2015 and on 14 of our 15 birding days in spring 2016. Sings a diverse array of songs from dawn to dusk. In 2015 was singing and defending territory into mid-August, and non-singing individuals were noted as late as 3 Sept. Found in habitats mediocre as well as pristine.

Eastern Crowned Warbler 1/2, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:04; 1.7 MB)

Eastern Crowned Warbler 2/2, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:40, 2.4 MB)

Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi

Radde's Warbler
Radde’s Warbler is a powerful singer and among the most conspicuous birds at Xidaquan National Forest. (Craig Brelsford)

Second only to Eastern Crowned Warbler as the most conspicuous leaf warbler, with a powerful song that belies its small size. Noted regularly in summer 2015 (10 days) and spring 2016 (12 days), mostly in the better forest and forest-edge habitat at Xidaquan.

Radde’s Warbler, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (02:51; 7.6 MB)

Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus

Noted on 10 days in spring 2016 and nine in summer 2015. Has less powerful song than Radde’s, lacking trills, and unlike Radde’s avoids deep forest. Often sings from conspicuous perch in high tree.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes

Recorded on nine days in spring 2016. Heard singing and seen defending territory. Usually found in the high canopy or middle canopy in the better sections of forest at Xidaquan. Elaine and I did not note this species in Boli in summer 2015.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Xidaquan, 10 June 2016 (02:00, 6.4 MB)

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus

Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 12 days in summer 2015. In both seasons was usually noted singing loudly from the top of the tallest tree in the vicinity.

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, hills S of Dawucun, 4 June 2016 (01:47; 5.1 MB)

Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis

Oriental Reed Warbler is known to be able to use marshy habitat with woody plants rather than reeds. As reeds are rare in the areas we bird in Boli County, our Oriental Reed Warbler were found among woody plants. Found on four days in spring 2016, mainly on the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.

Oriental Reed Warbler, Jiulong Reservoir, 10 June 2016 (00:06; 1.8 MB)

Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps

Noted on three days in spring 2016, with a high of 28 singing individuals being found 11 June along County Road Z002. Noted once in summer 2015.

Black-browed Reed Warbler, creek along County Road Z002, 11 June 2016 (01:40; 4.8 MB)

Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon

Thick-billed Warbler
Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

Noted on six days in spring 2016, in very good habitat at Xidaquan as well as more disturbed areas along the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.

Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:32; 2.1 MB)

Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata

Noted on six days in spring 2016, singing from thick cover in heavily wooded habitat along creeks at Xidaquan.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus

Gray's Grasshopper Warbler
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus on rare foray out of undergrowth. (Craig Brelsford)

In spring 2016 we heard the bulbul-like call of this undergrowth skulker on seven days, exclusively in the high-quality habitat at Xidaquan.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:05; 3.4 MB)

Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica

Siberian Thrush
Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

Noted by us on five days in spring 2016, each time in high-quality forest at Xidaquan. Noted twice in summer 2015. Sings from conspicuous perch at top of tall tree.

Below is a recording of Siberian Thrush on a typical morning at Xidaquan. In the background you can hear Oriental Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, Radde’s Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler.

Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:51; 2.8 MB)

White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea

One of the rewards for waking early was hearing the monotonous, ventriloquial song of White’s Thrush. It normally calls unseen from deep within the forest and goes silent about an hour after sunrise. One morning Elaine and I saw this most secretive bird climb a tall tree and utter its mysterious call. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. At a location nearby I witnessed the ventriloquy. The low note seemed to be coming from a place to my right, while the high note seemed to be coming from a place in front of me. Only after a few minutes did I realize that a single unseen White’s Thrush was uttering both notes.

White’s Thrush, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:43; 4.9 MB)

Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum

This East Asian endemic was noted on nine days in spring 2016, singing and defending territory. Also noted on two days in summer 2015.

Grey-backed Thrush, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (08:17; 21.4 MB)

Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus

Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and five days in summer 2015. Shy. Sings powerfully from unseen perches deep in the forest. At dawn and dusk sometimes seen foraging on the roadside.

Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana

We found Mark Brazil’s description of the breeding habitat to be apt: “ … in forested mountains, generally in mature mixed broadleaf forest with dense undergrowth, often near streams … ” (Birds of East Asia). Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and on two days in summer 2015.

Blue-and-white Flycatcher, broadleaf forest near Xidaquan, 27 May 2016 (01:30; 4.4 MB)

Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane

Noted on 12 days in spring 2016, with a high of 21 individuals on 2 June. Its song, delivered from deep cover, consists of a burst of sound followed by a pause and buildup then another burst, each burst distinct from the other.

Siberian Blue Robin, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (02:42; 7.2 MB)

Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans

Noted on seven days in spring 2016, all records except one coming from deep cover along thickly vegetated creeks at Xidaquan. Song a descending trill.

Rufous-tailed Robin, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (01:01; 3.2 MB)

Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope

Siberian Rubythroat
Siberian Rubythroat singing on utility wire, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

Noted on four days in spring 2016 and on one day in summer 2015. Usually hides in undergrowth, but at dawn and for a few hours thereafter may be seen singing from an exposed perch.

Siberian Rubythroat, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (02:20; 6.4 MB)

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia

Sings a long, slow, deliberate, and loud song somewhat like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher. Noted on 12 days in spring 2016.

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)

White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis

I learned the call of this East Asian specialty by doggedly following a bird that was singing and moving unseen in the canopy above me. Finally the secretive singer allowed me to glimpse him, and only then could I confirm that he was White-throated Rock Thrush. Noted on three days in spring 2016 and once in summer 2015.

White-throated Rock Thrush, Hongwei Linchang, 7 June 2016 (01:04; 4.1 MB)

Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis

Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and four days each in winter and summer 2015.

Meadow Bunting
Emberiza cioides weigoldi

Resident, recorded by us in winter, summer, and spring (five days in spring 2016). Seen at edges of farmland and in open areas near forests. Never in deep forests.

Meadow Bunting, forest edge at Dawucun, 31 May 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)

Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami

Forest bunting, with some association with conifers, commonly seen along the forest roads. Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and six days in summer 2015.

Tristram’s Bunting, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:11; 1.2 MB)

Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans

Forest bunting with a preference for deciduous habitats. Sings loudly and aggressively defends territory. Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 16 days in summer 2015.

Yellow-throated Bunting 1/2, song, hills S of Boli Town, 5 June 2016 (00:12; 1.3 MB)

Yellow-throated Bunting 2/2, alarm call, hills S of Dawucun, 7 June 2016 (00:50; 3.6 MB)

Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala

Black-faced Bunting
Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan. In spring, the song of this bunting is one of the most common bird sounds in the region. (Craig Brelsford)

One of the most commonly noted birds in Boli, found on 14 days in spring 2016 and 12 days in summer 2015. Versatile, often at forest edge but also in areas with fewer trees.

Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (00:44; 2.5 MB)


Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Oriental Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus orientalis
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus
Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Hill Pigeon Columba rupestris
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus
Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus
Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo
Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus jotaka
White-throated Needletail Hirundapus caudacutus
Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo
Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus
Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius brandtii
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus
Oriental Magpie Pica serica
Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Carrion Crow Corvus corone orientalis
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
Coal Tit Periparus ater ater
Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis
Japanese Tit Parus minor
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus
Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus
Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes
Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis
Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps
Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon
Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus
Chestnut-flanked White-eye Zosterops erythropleurus
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea baicalensis
Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus
Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans
Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus
White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Siberian Accentor Prunella montanella
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides weigoldi
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata
Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala


The deep forest at Xidaquan. This seemingly stable environment shows a very different set of birds according to the season. In the area where this photo was taken, in August and September 2015 Elaine and I found Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest, and Yellow-browed Warbler. We saw none of those species in May and June 2016. Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, White’s Thrush, and Lanceolated Warbler were in the same area in spring 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

The forests of Boli County change markedly from season to season. On our brief initial trip in January 2015, winter visitors such as Common Redpoll, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Pallas’s Rosefinch were scraping out a living in the snowy, barren forests. In late summer bird waves are common, in springtime virtually non-existent. Late summer shows few birds in breeding mode but offers passage migrants. In springtime the songs of breeding birds resound.

Birds seen in one season may not be seen in another. In some cases, as with Hazel Grouse, it is easy to understand why. In other cases, the reason is less clear. Other birds, such as Red-flanked Bluetail, that one would expect in the region have yet to appear on any of our lists. Here are some of the birds we missed on our spring 2016 trip.

Hazel Grouse: On our summer 2015 expedition, Elaine and I noted this species on 10 days, both in the excellent habitat of Xidaquan and in the lower-quality forest in the hills south of Dawucun. We noted no Hazel Grouse in spring 2016. The grouse were breeding and had retired to the quiet recesses of the forest with their young.

Great Spotted Woodpecker: Common in much of China, noted just once by Elaine and me in summer 2015 and not at all in spring 2016. Its congener White-backed Woodpecker is common in the area.

Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker: Scarce species noted by us once at Xidaquan in summer 2015. Missed in spring 2016.

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker: Rufous-bellied Woodpecker ssp. subrufinus is reported in eastern Heilongjiang, as is Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. Neither has been found by us around Boli.

Black-naped Oriole: A species yet to be noted by us in Boli.

Azure Tit: This unmistakable tit has been reported around Lake Khanka, on the Sino-Russian border east of Boli County. We have yet to see the species in Boli.

Marsh Tit: Race brevirostris noted by us on 13 days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Manchurian Bush Warbler, Baikal Bush Warbler, Chinese Bush Warbler: Yet to be noted by us in Boli.

Asian Stubtail: Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Manchurian Reed Warbler: We made a point to look for this bird, paying careful attention to the Black-browed Reed Warbler we were finding. No luck.

Yellow-browed Warbler: In spring 2016 we were expecting big counts of this species, having noted it on nine days in summer 2015. We noted it not once in spring 2016. It most likely does not breed in the area and was passing through the region in August and September 2015.

Arctic Warbler: Also apparently a passage migrant at Xidaquan. In spring 2016 we had but one record of a singing individual at Xidaquan. In summer 2015 we had two records.

Two-barred Warbler: Yet another apparent passage migrant. Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Red-flanked Bluetail: Surprise! We have yet to record this species in Boli County.

Eurasian Treecreeper: Noted by us four times in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Du and Brelsford
The husband-and-wife birding team of Elaine Du (L) and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)


“Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016” is a three-part report. This is Part 1.

Part 1: Introduction and Discussion
Part 2: Daily Reports
Part 3: Comprehensive Bird List

This post is part of a series on birding in Manchuria and the Russian Far East. See also:

Northeast China

Birding Northern Inner Mongolia and Eastern Heilongjiang
Birding Northeast China in April and May

Russian Far East

Sikhote-Alin: A Place Unparalleled for Experiencing the Birds of East Asia

Featured image: Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii, 8 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)
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