Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Are you interested in a fuller appreciation of the birds of the Shanghai region? If so, then visiting Shanghai’s exciting coastal sites is not enough. You need to go inland, to the hilly interior. You need to visit the Tianmu Mountains. In this two-post series, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko and I introduce you to the mountain range in Zhejiang. This first post was written by me and describes the key birds and habitats at Tianmushan. I also discuss my first trip to Tianmu in May 2015. In the second post, Hiko describes his July 2018 trip to the mountain. — Craig Brelsford

WHAT IS TIANMUSHAN?

gingko-tianmu-brelsford
Some of the only wild Ginkgo biloba trees in the world grow in the dreamlike forest near Longfengjian (龙凤尖), part of West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. The ginkgos, with their distinctive leaves, share the slopes with stands of giant Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica. Among the bird species these rich forests hold are Black Eagle, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Buffy Laughingthrush, and Speckled Piculet. (Craig Brelsford)

Tianmushan is a mountain range 270 km (168 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. The thickly forested slopes are the place closest to the city where large numbers of south China species can be seen. Short-tailed Parrotbill, Moustached Laughingthrush, Hartert’s Leaf Warbler, and Spotted Elachura are just a few of the south China species recorded at Tianmushan and scarce or unrecorded in Shanghai. Koklass PheasantSlaty Bunting, and Crested Bunting are also at Tianmu.

With elevations reaching 1506 m (4,941 ft.), Tianmushan offers a refreshing contrast to Shanghai’s coastal environments. Springtime is the best time to visit, but summer offers good birding and a respite from the lowland heat, and in autumn migrants and wintering birds can be seen.

The best-known birding area at Tianmushan is West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. The reserve boasts a forest worthy of a fairy tale. Below Xianren Ding (仙人顶), the highest peak in the area, a boardwalk trail leads through a land of giants—stands of Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica 25 m (82 ft.) high and a thousand years old. What is claimed to be the only wild Ginkgo biloba trees in the world are also in this magical garden. Look here for Black Eagle, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Buffy Laughingthrush, among many other species.

Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica
Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica, West Tianmu. (Craig Brelsford)

At West Tianmu you can bird the following areas:

— The 12.7 km (7.9 mi.) road between Longfengjian (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201) and the hotels on the floor of the valley. Longfengjian serves as the parking area for the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding.

Forest at point on road below Lóngfèngjiān, West Tianmu Mountain, 21 Nov. 2015. Elev. here: 1020 m. Koklass Pheasant have been noted in the area. Note the bamboo in foreground, the bare trees in mid-ground, and the southern-temperate forest in background. West Tianmu offers high-quality habitat at the place where north and south China meet.
Forest at point on road below Longfengjian, West Tianmu, November. Elev.: 1020 m (3,350 ft.). Note the bamboo in foreground, the bare trees in mid-ground, and the southern-temperate forest in background. West Tianmu offers high-quality habitat at the place where north and south China meet. (Craig Brelsford)

Take the bus to Longfengjian and walk the road back. You’ll descend about 700 m (2,300 ft.). Find Koklass Pheasant along the road, Little Forktail along the streams, and Short-tailed Parrotbill amid the bamboo. You could combine this walk with a visit to the Japanese Cedar forest and Xianren Ding and thereby cover in a single day an altitudinal range of more than 1000 m (3,280 ft.).

— Area around entrance to West Tianmu.

Densely vegetated area near entrance to West Tianmu Nature Reserve.
Densely vegetated area near entrance to West Tianmu, elev. 330 m (1,080 ft.). I took this picture during my November 2015 visit to Tianmu. (Craig Brelsford)

This is one of the broadest areas in the valley and offers streamside habitat as well as scrub, garden, and secondary forest. Asian House Martin breed in the eaves of the ticket office and other buildings, the forest holds Grey-chinned Minivet and Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and the streams are good for White-crowned Forktail.

KEY BIRDS OF TIANMUSHAN

Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha

Female Koklass Pheasant, Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, Sichuan, China, 20 May 2013. Pucrasia macrolopha ranges from the Himalaya to E and N China. (Craig Brelsford)
Female Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha. This monotypic species ranges from the Himalaya to eastern China. At Tianmushan the species may be common. I got this photo at Tangjiahe Nature Reserve in Sichuan in May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)

Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela

Crested Serpent Eagle with serpent, East Tianmu Mountain.
Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela with serpent, East Tianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis

At West Tianmu we had Black Eagle cruising low over the forest. (Craig Brelsford)
Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis is often seen cruising low over the forests at Tianmushan. (Craig Brelsford)

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Laoshan, Jiangsu, 3 July 2009. (Craig Brelsford)
In the forest below Xianren Ding in May 2015, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus flew straight at me, crying loudly in response to my whistled imitation of its call. I got this photo at Laoshan, Nanjing in July 2009. (Craig Brelsford)

Swinhoe’s Minivet Pericrocotus cantonensis

Swinhoe's Minivet, Nantianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
Swinhoe’s Minivet, Nantianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus

Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus, Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park, 7 May 2015.
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus, a common bird at Tianmushan. (Craig Brelsford)

Mountain Bulbul Ixos mcclellandii

Mountain Bulbul, East Tianmu, 8 May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
Mountain Bulbul, another south China bulbul common at Tianmushan. I found this one at East Tianmu in May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Lesser Yangshan, 9 April 2015.
At Tianmu, the piercing whistle of Brown-flanked Bush Warbler is often heard in spring. (Craig Brelsford)

Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni fokiensis

Hartert's Leaf Warbler, 3 May 2015.
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni fokiensis, Emeifeng, Fujian, May 2015. Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, and Zeng Qiongyu found Hartert’s at West Tianmu in July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Moustached Laughingthrush Garrulax cineraceus

Moustached Laughingthrush, Baihualing, Yunnan, 12 Feb. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
Moustached Laughingthrush, Yunnan, 12 Feb. 2014. Noted by Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, and Zeng Qiongyu at West Tianmu in July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Buffy Laughingthrush Garrulax berthemyi

Vocal skulkers, Buffy Laughingthrush are more often heard before they're seen--if you can see them at all.
Vocal skulkers, Buffy Laughingthrush are more often heard than seen. At Tianmu, look for them in the forests below Xianren Ding, where I got this photo in May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri

Little Forktail, Nabang, Yunnan, China, 30 Jan. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
Look for Little Forktail along Tianmu’s many rushing streams. (Craig Brelsford)

White-crowned Forktail Enicurus leschenaulti

White-crowned Forktail, Nabang, Yunnan, China, 30 Jan. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
White-crowned Forktail sometimes venture away from rushing streams, but they still require damp forest with at least a trickle of water nearby. (Craig Brelsford)

Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans

Russet Sparrow (Craig Brelsford)
In the villages and countryside around Tianmushan, we found more Russet Sparrow than Eurasian Tree Sparrow. (Craig Brelsford)

Crested Bunting Emberiza lathami

Crested Bunting. (Craig Brelsford)
Crested Bunting sang for us at East Tianmu in May 2015. The photos here show adult males except female bottom right. All were taken near Longheng, Guangxi in December 2015, except top right, taken 8 May 2015 at East Tianmu. The Tianmu male was found at 30.338425, 119.514693, an area of bare, rock-studded cliffs and scattered bushes—ideal habitat for this species. (Craig Brelsford)

MY FIRST TRIP TO TIANMUSHAN

I have made two trips to Tianmushan, both in 2015. I spaced the trips six months apart in order to see the site at opposite ends of the year. Here is my account of the first trip, which took place in May. (Click here for our trip of November 2015.)

Thurs. 7 May 2015
Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park (Hángzhōu Nántiānmù Sēnlín Gōngyuán [杭州南天目森林公园]), 30.184555, 119.472668

Today my wife and partner Elaine Du and I scouted Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park, 255 km (159 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. We noted 21 species. We had Swinhoe’s Minivet, heard 11 Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, and saw 3 migrant Grey-streaked Flycatcher. We also found a pair of local poachers.

We entered and exited Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park by driving past an unmanned gate. I remarked to myself that a gate unmanned in the middle of the day is a strong indication that a park is being managed incorrectly. Elaine and I drove up the mountain, stopping at a gazebo where we found Russet Sparrow and the minivet. At the end of the road we met the poachers. They arrived on a moped. I saw their speaker and cages and told them that hunting wild birds is illegal in China. The younger poacher nodded as though he understood. The older man smiled nervously.

We drove back down the mountain. I said to Elaine that poaching must be pervasive around here if two guys can drive up a mountain with their poaching gear in full view.

Later, just outside the park gate, I told a villager that poaching was going on in the nearby park and asked him where I could report the crime. The villager said, in a friendly way, that the poachers take just “a few” (少) birds and that they do it just for fun (玩儿). The villager’s instinct to protect the lawbreakers shows how acceptable poaching is to him and presumably his fellow villagers.

The Russet Sparrow were able to make a living in the park because of the seeming absence of the more aggressive Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Today and on the ensuing three days in the Tianmu Mountains, Russet Sparrow was our default sparrow, commonly noted in town and country, and much more numerous than Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which in most places was absent.

Fri. 8 May 2015
East Tianmu Mountain Scenic Area (Dōng Tiānmùshān Jǐngqū [东天目山景区]), 30.342422, 119.509490

Elaine and I noted 30 species at East Tianmu. The highlight was finding one of our target species, a singing male Crested Bunting. Driving down the mountain road in the park, at an elevation of 600 m (1,970 ft.), we approached a bus stop, next to which was a quarry with steep walls. Immediately I was reminded of the roadside cliff in Yunnan where I had seen a female Crested Bunting in 2014. I stopped the car and spotted a Crested Bunting atop the highest conifer in the area. It sang a simple song over and over. A pair of Meadow Bunting were in the area.

Earlier, at the upper terminus of the cable car, Elaine and I saw a Crested Serpent Eagle carrying, you guessed it, a snake on the highest and last ride of its life. We walked from the upper terminus of the cable car to Zhaoming Temple (Zhàomíng Chánsì [昭明禅寺], 30.349009, 119.515961). I found a leech in the leaf litter and showed it to Elaine. The creature quickly attached itself to my glove. East and West Tianmu Mountain are the most leech-infested places I have ever birded.

Beautiful Zhaoming Temple, 1,500 years old, blends into the valley. We saw 2 Eurasian Jay, heard Yellow-bellied Tit and Collared Owlet, and on the way back down found 2 Grey Treepie and heard Great Barbet.

Our day began before dawn, when I ate breakfast on the patio of our room near the entrance to East Tianmu. I saw 4 Hair-crested Drongo and a Red-rumped Swallow nesting on the underside of the patio on which I was standing. We got past the gate at East Tianmu and drove to the end of the paved road and down the dirt road to its end, noting there Blue Whistling Thrush, White-crowned Forktail, and Brown Dipper as well as 2 Grey-headed Parrotbill and the first of many Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler.

Our plan was to bird the road and temple then walk to the top of the mountain, where a friend told me Short-tailed Parrotbill and Slaty Bunting may be found. Rain dashed those plans, and I have yet to find either of those species in the Tianmu area.

Sat. 9 May 2015 and Sun. 10 May 2015
West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve (Tiānmùshān Zìrán Bǎohùqū [天目山自然保护区], 30.344148, 119.440201)

On Saturday Elaine and I noted 28 species. We spent most of the day in the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding at West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. Fog and large, noisy crowds suppressed our total.

The next day we returned to the Xianren Ding area and enjoyed a banner day, noting 42 species. The highlight was a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo appearing out of nowhere and flying straight at my head. The cuckoo was responding to the most effective “phish” I ever did, a whistle imitating its call. 5 Buffy Laughingthrush gave rise to the hope that at Tianmu the species may be locally common. Black Eagle flew low over the forest, Speckled Piculet joined a bird wave, Eurasian Jay and Black Bulbul were visually conspicuous, and Indian Cuckoo, Great Barbet, Collared Owlet, and Rufous-faced Warbler were more often heard than seen. Mugimaki Flycatcher and Brambling were among the migrants noted, with Grey Wagtail a possible breeder and White Wagtail already feeding fledglings.

Elaine and I arrived at the Japanese Cedar forest at 5:55 a.m., well before the crowds. The cool, quiet forest was full of enchantment and buzzing with birds. Chinese Hwamei cut melodiously through the silence. A standard bird wave included Black-throated Bushtit, Huet’s Fulvetta, and Indochinese Yuhina. White-crowned Forktail zipped along the creek.

As the hours wore on and noisy hikers began to pass through, Elaine and I followed an abandoned trail a few hundred meters. The trail is leech-infested, but with regular inspections of our clothing and socks pulled high over our pant legs, we managed to pick off every leech before it found our flesh.

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo was a species I hadn’t noted in five years. The cuckoos were calling from deep cover near the trail. My phish caused them to call loudly and fly in a circle around us. The call and vivid colors of this beautiful cuckoo made for an impressive spectacle. Those thrilling moments gave me energy as I drove back to Shanghai.

This post is the first in a two-post series about birding in the Tianmu Mountains.

Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)
Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 2)

Other posts about Tianmushan:

Tianmushan in July (July 2017)
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip (November 2015)

Featured image: Birds and plants of Tianmushan. Clockwise from top L: Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Ginkgo Ginkgo biloba, Indochinese Yuhina, and Black Bulbul. (Craig Brelsford)

Birding While Daddy

The birth of my son ended my birding career in China and catapulted me back to the United States. I returned to Florida on 31 Jan. 2018 and accepted my new status of Birder While Daddy. Here’s how I have adjusted.

Despite the daily dose of joy my son brings, my addiction to birding remains. Fortunately for me, in Florida, getting one’s birding fix is easy. On Fri. 2 March, for example, I was on my back porch, proofreading for Bloomsbury a draft of a field guide. A feeding party of woodland birds arrived in the back yard.

I stepped into a wave of wood warblers (Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler) vireos (Blue-headed Vireo, White-eyed Vireo), and woodpeckers (Downy Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker). A diminutive Common Ground Dove was associating with the wave, as was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, cousin of Eurasia’s Goldcrest. A House Wren emerged briefly from the bushes; Snakebirds, also known as Anhinga, were soaring high above; and U.S. endemic Fish Crow was making its low-pitched caw.

My birding fix satisfied, I returned joyfully to work.

Walking with Elaine and Tiny along the suburban streets of Volusia County, I regularly find interesting species such as Sandhill Crane and Florida Scrub Jay, the latter the only species of bird endemic to the state of Florida. Nature reserves are plentiful in central Florida, and at one of the best, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, Tiny recently added Bald Eagle to his infancy bird list.

Always I am looking for little snatches of time in which to bird. My local patch is Gemini Springs Park, where last month I noted Painted Bunting as well as overwintering skulkers Ovenbird and Hermit Thrush. I recently ticked Wood Duck, American analogue to Mandarin Duck.

I currently am not taking bird photos. With a four-month-old in the house, photography adds to birding a layer of complexity that I must shed. I carry a sound-recorder, and my ears are always open. Recent strolls with Tiny have led to a heard-only tick of Barn Owl and a mysterious night-time flyover of Black-bellied Whistling Duck.

On Monday I start a new career with RedChip, a company owned by my best friend from college and a leader in financial media and investor relations. I’ll be birding less, but getting out as much as I can, as I continue to take on my new role of Birder While Daddy.

Despite my move to America, my expertise on Asian birds remains in demand. Here I am proofreading a forthcoming title from Bloomsbury, A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Japan and Northeast Asia. (Elaine Du)
Despite my move to America, my expertise on Asian birds remains in demand. Here I am on the back porch proofreading a forthcoming title from Bloomsbury, A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Japan and Northeast Asia. (Elaine Du)
My mother (L) is ecstatic over the return of her son and arrival of her newest grandson. I told her, 'This time you got me. I'll never live abroad again.' With Tiny in tow, we were birding 3 March 2018 near my parents' house in Debary, Florida. (Elaine Du)
My mother, Susan (L), is ecstatic over the return of her son and arrival of her daughter-in-law and grandson. I told her, ‘This time you got me. I’ll never live abroad again.’ With Tiny in tow, we were birding 3 March 2018 near my parents’ house in Debary, Florida. (Elaine Du)
Craig "Tiny" Brelsford (R) birding with his mother Elaine Du at Gemini Springs Park, Debary, Florida, 11 Feb. 2018. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine Du birding with her son, Craig ‘Tiny’ Brelsford, at Gemini Springs Park, Debary, 11 Feb. 2018. When Elaine left China last month, she was the highest-ranked woman eBirder in the history of that country, with 735 species on her China list. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine and Tiny in the observation tower at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The top eBird hot spot in Volusia County, Woodruff is known as a breeding site of Swallow-tailed Kite. Sandhill Crane also breed here, and Bald Eagle are regularly noted. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine and Tiny in the observation tower (29.113998, -81.377611) at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The top eBird hot spot in Volusia County, Woodruff is a reliable site for Swallow-tailed Kite. Sandhill Crane breed in the refuge, Bald Eagle are regularly noted, and American Alligator bask on the creek banks. (Craig Brelsford)
Our four-month-old baby boy at Woodruff. A human baby is a natural phenomenon and a thing of beauty--beautiful in the way a sunset or waterfall is beautiful. I got into birding because my eyes hungered for natural beauty. Now, my son satisfies some of that longing. (Elaine Du)
Our four-month-old baby boy at Woodruff. The young of Homo sapiens is an object of great beauty–beautiful in the way a sunset or waterfall is beautiful, or the bugling of a crane, or the glide of an eagle. I got into birding because my eyes hungered for natural beauty. Now, my son satisfies some of that longing. (Elaine Du)

Featured image: Craig Brelsford birding with his son, “Tiny” Craig Brelsford. L: Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, Volusia County, Florida, 25 Feb. 2018. R: Gemini Springs Park, Debary, Florida, 22 Feb. 2018. (Elaine Du)

Elaine, Tiny, and I Are Returning to America

Elaine, Tiny, and I are returning to the United States. Our final day in China will be 30 January 2018.

The main reason for moving to America is our infant son, Tiny. Tiny’s birth changed Elaine and me forever. We want the best for Tiny, and we believe that the best for Tiny is to grow up in America.

Why are we leaving so suddenly? Elaine and I would have preferred a long goodbye to China and then departure in the summer or fall of 2018. But last month, with only 33 days before my current visa ran out, I was strongly advised not to apply for another student visa. The Chinese government has made a sudden change in policy. Old Chinese-language students are no longer welcome. (I’m 50 years old.)

I accept the reasoning behind the policy regarding old students. What is questionable is the suddenness of the change. Elaine and I have been considerably inconvenienced.

I have been studying Chinese for two reasons. One was that I sincerely wanted to learn Mandarin, and my Chinese friends can attest to my constant improvement these past few years, all owing to my work at the Chinese-language program at the Shanghai University of Engineering Sciences.

The other reason for studying Chinese was, here in Shanghai Elaine has no hukou or right of abode, and so I am ineligible for a family visa as long as we remain in this great city. By studying Chinese, I have been able to remain in Shanghai.

As Tiny’s birth approached last year, Elaine and I discussed opening a business in Shanghai and securing a business visa for me. In the end, we decided against it. We were afraid–not that I would fail, but that I would succeed, and that our family would live in China for the rest of our lives.

Living the rest of my life in China, and especially in Shanghai, is certainly not a bad thing, but it never was my plan, even before Tiny was born. My plan always has been to return to the land of my birth, and that is what my family and I are doing now.

Elaine, Tiny, and I will return to Florida, where my parents live and where I attended the University of Florida and began my previous career in journalism. In Florida I will manage my translation agency, develop new conservationist projects, bird in America’s premier birding state, and raise Tiny. Never again, I hope, will I spend another Christmas far from my kin.

When that plane takes off later this month, I will be ending a journey abroad that has lasted 17 years–since a few months before 9-11. Seven of those years were spent in Europe. The past 10 years have been in China.

I arrived in China in 2007 fascinated by Light-vented Bulbul and with almost no birding experience. I leave China having noted 932 species in the People’s Republic, making me the highest-ranked eBirder in China. (Elaine, at 735 species, leaves China the highest-ranked woman eBirder in this country.)

I stayed so long in China in part because of a naive but heartfelt wish to write a field guide to the birds of China. That book proved impossible to do. The dream to write a field guide did come true in a way, though, through shanghaibirding.com, a project that has proved to be far more interesting than a field guide.

shanghaibirding.com has allowed me to develop my talents as photographer, writer, editor, and publisher. Through this Web site, I have lived out my birding motto, which is, “No hobby combines science, art, culture, and physical fitness better than the great hobby called Birding.” shanghaibirding.com has been a labor of love, and it now stands tall, a monument representing my accomplishments in China.

Even though I’m going home, shanghaibirding.com will very much continue to exist. I have much unpublished material that I will run in the coming months. I will continue to update the site later this year and beyond, and I will keep the site online for years to come, no matter whether I am updating it or not, and even after I have moved on to other projects.

Featured image: Our baby boy, Craig Eugene “Tiny” Brelsford II, with his parents, Craig Eugene Brelsford and Elaine Du. Shanghai, China, 25 Jan. 2018. Photo by Mǎruìshā Értóng Shèyǐng (玛瑞莎儿童摄影).

Marsh Tit, First for Shanghai

Happy New Year 2018 to you from shanghaibirding.com!

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

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

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

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

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

Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris, Xidaquan Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 24 Aug. 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris showing classic whitish bill mark. In good light, as here, the bill mark is noticeable even at mid-range. Xidaquan, Heilongjiang, 24 Aug. 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

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

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

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

Examine the four-panel photo above. At top left is Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris, photographed at Xidaquan, Heilongjiang on 17 Aug. 2015. The whitish bill mark is clearly visible, as it is in Steven Lin’s photo top right of the Century Park Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom left of Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, taken in Dawucun, Heilongjiang on 23 Jan. 2015, abrasions and reflected light create asymmetrical whitish marks that only an inexperienced observer would take to be the bill mark of a Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom right of “Songar” Tit Poecile montanus affinis, taken in northern Qinghai on 1 Aug. 2016, the bill is unmarked; it is a classic Willow Tit bill.

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

ADDENDUM

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

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

REFERENCES

Bengtsson, Daniel, Brelsford, Craig, and Du, Elaine. Birds Recorded at Century Park (a page on shanghaibirding.com). Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sites/urban-shanghai/century-bird-records/ (accessed 1 Jan. 2018). Marsh Tit becomes the 142nd species recorded at Century Park, the premier park for urban birding in Shanghai.

Broughton, Richard K. 2008. Separation of Willow Tit and Marsh Tit in Britain: a review. British Birds 102 (November 2009), pp. 604–616. Available at https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Willow-Marsh-Tits.pdf (accessed 1 Jan. 2018).

Broughton, Richard K., Hinsley, Shelley A., & Bellamy, Paul E. (2008) Separation of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris from Willow Tit Poecile montana using a bill criterion. Ringing & Migration, 24:2, pp. 101-103. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/03078698.2008.9674382 (accessed 1 Jan. 2018).

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

Holt, Paul. Message to Craig Brelsford through Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group, 24 Dec. 2017. To join Shanghai Birding, on WeChat send a friend request to Craig Brelsford (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). Please say that you wish to join Shanghai Birding.

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

Featured image: Marsh Tit Poecile palustris, historic first sighting in Shanghai. Century Park, Shanghai, Christmas Eve 2017. (Steven Lin)

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in Shanghai: A Clearer Picture

On Sun. 17 Sept. 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui, I achieved a personal first: photos of an unmistakable Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides. As expected, the photos show a leaf warbler whose plumage and bare parts are virtually indistinguishable from those of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes. Coupled, however, as they are with sound-recordings of the same individual, ensuring the ID, the photos constitute a rare visual record of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in Shanghai.

The leaf warbler I found was easily identifiable as a member of the Pale-Sak species pair. It had strikingly pale pink tarsi, an olive-brown crown contrasting with olive-green mantle and wings, a long and creamy supercilium, and faint wing bars on the median and greater coverts.

The bird, which was in Microforest 1, behaved in a way typical of the Pale-Saks I have observed in the Cape Nanhui microforests, eight tiny woodlands that dot the coastline of the cape. Rarely venturing more than 2 m off the ground, the leaf warbler favored low branches and vines for browsing and sturdy low branches for perching. It pumped its tail steadily, called spontaneously, and upon hearing playback of its own call moved in to investigate the source.

Without recording the call of the leaf warbler (call as well as song being a diagnostic separator of Sakhalin and Pale-legged), would I have been able to get an ID? Almost certainly not, said leaf-warbler expert Phil Round:

“I am a bit less sanguine on finding means (other than call frequency or song) to separate all [Pale-Saks]. 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.” (Round, in litt., 2016; emphasis mine)

The most convenient separator of Pale-Sak is song, the cricket-like trill of Pale-legged being easily separable from the metallic whistle of Sakhalin. As Shanghai is not in the breeding range of either species, Pale-Sak songs are not often heard in Earth’s Greatest City. I have heard Sakhalin sing only once, on 5 May 2016 at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park (Brelsford 2016). The song of Pale-legged I have heard at various locations in Shanghai as well as on its breeding grounds in Heilongjiang (Brelsford & Du 2017).

Although not as readily distinguishable as the songs, the “tink” calls of Pale-Sak differ markedly and consistently and are a reliable basis for an ID (Yap et al. 2014; Round et al. 2016; Weprincew et al. 1989). Yap et al. say the call of Pale-legged is of a “consistently higher frequency” than the call of Sakhalin. The calls that I have recorded of the two species show a difference in frequency of about 1 kHz, very much in line with others’ findings (Brelsford, August 2017; Brelsford, September 2017).

For birders unaccustomed to Pale-Sak calls, the difference may be hard to detect, especially at windy Cape Nanhui. A sound-recorder (which may be a smartphone) will pick up the difference, and an audio spectrogram will show it graphically. Solid, indisputable ticks, in some cases life ticks, await enterprising birders who sound-record.

In recent months, my work with sound-recordings has helped give Shanghai birders a clearer picture not only of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler but also of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus, like Sakhalin a poorly known passage migrant through Shanghai (Brelsford, June 2017). In the case of Pale-Sak in Shanghai, a picture is emerging of overlapping migratory pathways. This finding comports with the findings of Yap et al. at Beidaihe, a thousand kilometers to the north. After analyzing calls obtained at Beidaihe of both Pale-legged and Sakhalin, Yap hypothesizes that in coastal Hebei “the migratory pathways of the two sister species may largely overlap” (2014).

How extensive is the Pale-Sak migratory overlap in Shanghai? How many of the Pale-Saks that we find in Shanghai each spring and autumn are Pale-legged, and how many are Sakhalin? Is there a peak passage time in Shanghai for each species, and if so, when is it?

Answers to these questions are currently unknown, but they are probably knowable, and it is very much possible for the citizen-scientists of Shanghai to be the producers of that knowledge. We only need to change our habits. When it comes to identifying lookalike species such as Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, birders need to understand that photos do nothing to cut through the muddle. Only sound-recordings lead to indisputable records and a clearer picture of the species in Shanghai.

A clearer picture will add to our knowledge of the movement of leaf warblers along the central Chinese coast, focus attention on little-known East Asian species, and heighten the allure of Shanghai as a world-class birding location.

RESOURCES

The sound-recordings and audio spectrograms below show clearly the difference in frequency between the calls of Sakhalin and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides, Microforest 1 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 17 Sept. 2017 (01:03; 12.2 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes, Magic Parking LotCape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017 (00:19; 3.7 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Here are photos of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler of 17 Sept. 2017. The bird below is the same individual whose voice I sound-recorded.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 17 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler shows the classic features of the Pale-Sak species pair, among them an olive-brown crown contrasting with olive-green mantle and wings, a long and creamy supercilium, and faint wing bars on the median and greater coverts. (Craig Brelsford)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 17 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Like its sister species Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler has an affinity for sturdy, leafless branches. Here, the leaf warbler, drawn by playback of its own voice, is using the perch to investigate the source of the sound. (Craig Brelsford)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 17 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Like Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler pumps its tail steadily, often remaining otherwise motionless. (Craig Brelsford)

REFERENCES

Brelsford, Craig. Sakhalin & Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Singing Together. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 5 May 2016.

———. Kamchatka Leaf Warbler in Shanghai. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 6 June 2017.

———. Separating Pale-legged & Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on Call. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 31 Aug. 2017.

———. Pale-Sak Calls: An Addendum. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 10 Sept. 2017.

Brelsford, Craig, & Du, Elaine. Boli County, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016: Part 1. Page on shanghaibirding.com last updated 1 Sept. 2017.

Round, Philip D. E-mail message to Craig Brelsford, 18 Oct. 2016. Round’s e-mail message was originally cited in the shanghaibirding.com post “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5,” published 26 Sept. 2016.

Round, Philip D., Pierce, Andrew J., Saitoh, Takema, & Shigeta, Yoshimitsu. 2016. Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna. Bulletin of the Japan Bird Banding Association 28: 9–21. Available here for download (708 KB) through shanghaibirding.com.

Weprincew, B. N., Leonowitsch, W. W. & Netschajew, W. A. 1989. Zur Lebensweise von Phylloscopus borealoides Portenko und Phylloscopus tenellipes Swinhoe. Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Museum in Berlin 65 (Suppl.): 71–80. (German only)

Yap, F., Yong, D. L., Low, B., Cros, E., Foley, C., Lim, K. K. & Rheindt, F. E. 2014. First wintering record of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in South East Asia, with notes on vocalisations. BirdingASIA 21: 76–81. Downloadable here (accessed: 28 Sept. 2017).

Featured image: Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 17 Sept. 2017. Craig Brelsford photographed and sound-recorded this individual, getting a rare record of the poorly known species in Earth’s Greatest City.