Late Summer Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford

As summer melts into fall, Pudong’s Cape Nanhui continues to prove to be one of the best birding locations in China. In the period 26 Aug. to 8 Sept., I birded four days at the most southeasterly point of Shanghai, as well as at other key locations in Earth’s Greatest City. I noted 106 species.

Highlights were Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher at Microforest 1, beautiful white-morph Amur Paradise Flycatcher at Binhai Forest Park, Fairy Pitta in the Cape Nanhui microforests, Greater Painted-snipe holding on in a canal near the coast, Asian Dowitcher at South Pond, Chinese Egret at North Pond and on South Beach, and Pacific Golden Plover at the sod farm south of Pudong Airport. Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler were calling in the Magic Parking Lot, and endangered Far Eastern Curlew and Great Knot were recorded at Nanhui. Crested Goshawk appeared in inner-city Zhongshan Park.

Here are some of the best birds:

Amur Paradise Flycatcher
Terpsiphone incei

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher
T. atrocaudata

Amur Paradise Flycatcher
Amur, Dongzhai, 2010. (C. Brelsford)

3 Amur found 27 Aug. at Binhai Forest Park, the heavily wooded green space near Cape Nanhui, 4.5 km inland from the East China Sea. A stunning white-morph male and rufous-morph were continuously together, and we found a single rufous-morph in another part of the park. The white-morph as well as the rufous-morph accompanying it were calling. I have seen dozens of paradise flycatchers in Shanghai over the years and heard only one call (a Japanese for 1 or 2 seconds). Why were the Amur at Binhai Forest Park calling?

Binhai Forest Park is visited little and birded even less; could this quiet, thickly wooded park hold breeding Amur Paradise Flycatcher? As the white-morph male looks like something out of a fairy tale and is a bird even a non-birder would recognize, I asked park employees whether they had seen it. All said no.

The white-morph Amur that U.S. birder Tom Hurley and I saw was only the second I had ever beheld and a first for me in Shanghai. At Dongzhai National Nature Reserve, Henan, on 5 June 2010, I photographed the white-morph shown right. The Binhai white-morph lacked the long tail feathers of the bird I saw at Dongzhai but was still an unforgettable sight.

Amur (top) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher
Dorsal views of Amur (top) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher. ​If the mantle, back, and tail have a purplish-brown hue, then you are likely looking at Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, known helpfully in Chinese as ‘Purple Paradise Flycatcher.’ If the upperparts are cinnamon-brown, then it is likely Amur. White-morph males are never Japanese, as the white morph does not occur in that species. 26-27 Aug., Cape Nanhui. For more on Amur-Japanese ID, see my post ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers. (Craig Brelsford)

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher is the more common of the two paradise flycatchers in Shanghai. The photo above shows the differences in upperpart coloration between rufous-morph Amur Paradise Flycatcher and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.

Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha

Fairy Pitta
Fairy Pitta, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. The first week of September seems to be peak season for these passage migrants in Shanghai. The pitta shown here is a juvenile, discernible as such by the pinkish tip to its bill. The IUCN lists Fairy Pitta as Vulnerable. (Craig Brelsford)

On 4 Sept. at Nanhui, my wife, Elaine Du, and I sneaked away from the action in Nanhui’s Microforest 1, where the photographers were set up. Microforest 4 was devoid of humans and peaceful. I tiptoed in. I scanned the undergrowth before me and, to my surprise, found a Fairy Pitta.

The pitta was standing on the ground, almost completely blanketed by a tangle of leaves, branches, and vines. Its big black eye was fixed on me. It didn’t move. I looked at the pitta, the pitta at me.

We stared at each other for 10 minutes.

Thus roosts the pitta during migration. It parks itself in thickets and waits. It bides its time, conserves its energy. Somewhere south of Shanghai, it will veer off the coast and fly non-stop across the South China Sea to Borneo, where it will spend the winter.

The pittas are mainly tropical species. Most are short-distance migrants. Not Fairy Pitta. No pitta invades the temperate world as deeply as Fairy Pitta; none makes so audacious an incursion into the north. None makes so long and daring a migration across hundreds of miles of sea.

My pitta was saving up its energy for its life-or-death run across the sea. Good luck, you explorer, you risk-taker! Good luck, Fairy Pitta.

Greater Painted-snipe
Rostratula benghalensis

Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Nikon D3S, 600 mm f/4, 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 1000, hand-held (steadied on door of car). (Craig Brelsford)

Viewed with Elaine at dusk 3 Sept. then viewed again the next morning at dawn. For weeks, the painted-snipes have been found at a single spot (30.939534, 121.955370) in a trash-strewn canal. Earlier, when news of the painted-snipe at Cape Nanhui first broke, I wrote a post in which I regretted sharing the location where were found the painted-snipes, a rare species in Shanghai. As things stand now, I can breathe easier; the many photographers who have visited the location have had no ill effect. The birds I found 4 Sept. were aware of me but behaved normally. They fed, drank, and preened. I used my car as a blind and never got out. The painted-snipes at Nanhui tolerate photographers confined to their cars.

Greater Painted-snipe
1/400, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/250, f/10, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/500, f/7.1, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/400, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/250, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/320, f/10, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/200, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/200, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/250, f/9, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)

Asian Dowitcher
Limnodromus semipalmatus

27 Aug., South Pond. Juvenile. Videoed by me using my iPhone 6, adapter by the U.S. company PhoneSkope, and my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope:

Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes

Below, video of Chinese Egret 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui showing differences between Chinese Egret and Little Egret.

Other highlights:

Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis

Photographed by me in gorgeous morning light 4 Sept. at Cape Nanhui.

Yellow Bittern
Yellow Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Bittern Ixobrychus flavicollis

Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui.

Striated Heron Butorides striata

Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 27 Aug. at Binhai Forest Park.

Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus

Adult plus another goshawk calling unseen at inner-city Zhongshan Park on 8 Sept.

I videoed the goshawks:

Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus

27 Aug. at sod farm south of Pudong Airport.

Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris

In high-tide roost 4 Sept. on South Beach (30.860673, 121.925113), just north of Donghai Bridge at Cape Nanhui.

Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea

South Pond, Cape Nanhui, 26 Aug. Video:

Pin-tailed Snipe Gallinago stenura

Pin-tailed Snipe
Pin-tailed Snipe, 3 Sept. 2017, Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

Party of 3 on 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui. When flushed, made loud, raspy, memorable call. I quickly compared the call I had just heard to calls of Pin-tailed Snipe downloaded from to my iPhone. The match was perfect. Lookalike Swinhoe’s Snipe rarely calls when flushed. Dark underwing clear in my many photographs of the trio. Flew high when flushed, then returned to land at point only 50 m from where originally flushed.

Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica

Gull-billed Tern
Gull-billed Tern, 4 Sept., Cape Nanhui. Note the thick bill. (Craig Brelsford)

The canals on the inland side of the sea wall were resounding with the characteristic yaps of this passage migrant. A clear photo is especially useful for discerning the thick bill.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Phylloscopus tenellipes

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler

P. borealoides

In the wake of my post of 31 Aug. 2017 about distinguishing Pale-legged from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler by call, I was hoping to find more members of this species pair. On 4 Sept. 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui, I was richly rewarded. For more, see my 10 Sept. 2017 post, “Pale-Sak Calls: An Addendum.”

Sand Martin Riparia riparia

Sand Martin
Sand Martin, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Riparia riparia is an uncommon passage migrant in Shanghai. Note the well-defined breast band on my bird, distinguishing it from Pale Martin Riparia diluta, which has an ill-defined breast band.

Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane

It’s worth stressing how good is our opportunity here in Shanghai to view Siberian Blue Robin for a few short weeks each spring and fall. On the breeding grounds up in northern China, the males sing loudly and beautifully but are very hard to see; no Siberian Blue Robin I experienced on the breeding grounds ever sang from anything like an exposed perch. The few I was able to see in Elaine’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang sang on or near the ground. Females are almost impossible to see; in fact, I saw not one in Heilongjiang in May-June 2016. Siberian Blue Robin are also apparently hard to see on their wintering grounds in south China and Southeast Asia. Places such as Cape Nanhui are probably among the best places in the world to view this common but shy species. We Shanghai birders have yet another reason to count ourselves lucky.

Also noted by me in Shanghai 27 Aug.-8 Sept.:

Garganey Spatula querquedula
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron A. purpurea
Great Egret A. alba
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Lesser Sand Plover C. mongolus
Greater Sand Plover C. leschenaultii
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Far Eastern Curlew N. madagascariensis
Eurasian Curlew N. arquata
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Red Knot Calidris canutus
Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata
Long-toed Stint C. subminuta
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis
Sanderling C. alba
Dunlin C. alpina
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus
Common Greenshank T. nebularia
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola
Common Redshank T. totanus
Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum
Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus
Whiskered Tern C. hybrida
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Red Turtle Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Spotted Dove S. chinensis
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Black-winged Cuckooshrike Coracina melaschistos
Tiger Shrike Lanius tigrinus
Brown Shrike L. cristatus
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis
Japanese Tit Parus minor
Black-throated Bushtit Aegithalos concinnus
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis
Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana
Javan Myna Acridotheres javanicus
Crested Myna A. cristatellus
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. dauurica
Oriental Magpie-Robin Copsychus saularis
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis
White Wagtail M. alba

Featured image: All-star birds of late summer at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui: Clockwise from top left, Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Fairy Pitta, Greater Painted-snipe, and Great Knot. (Craig Brelsford)
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Meet Kai Pflug, Nanhui’s Mr. Clean

by Craig Brelsford

Let’s hear it for Kai Pflug! The Shanghai-based German birder has taken it upon himself to clean up Cape Nanhui, Shanghai’s best-known birding area. On Sun. 11 Sept., Kai hauled out two bagfuls of trash from Nanhui’s Microforest 2 (30.926138, 121.970795), and I’m proud to say my wife Elaine Du helped Kai out on Microforest 1. Kai has long been cleaning the microforests, and his work has had a big effect on those precious migrant traps.

In his car, Kai keeps six pairs of tongs as well as a roll of plastic bags. Kai told me he uses tongs “to show others that it’s possible to clean up trash without getting your hands dirty!” He keeps six pairs so that others can join him in his quest to keep the microforests clean.

Photographers await Fairy Pitta in Microforest 2. (Craig Brelsford)

As if his work on the trash weren’t enough, Kai further burnished his eco-credentials Sunday morning at Microforest 2. There, about 30 photographers have set up camp to photograph Fairy Pitta, a species that has been present in the tiny wood since early September. Someone had speared mealworms onto a metal hook. The hook could rip the mouth of a hungry pitta. Kai spied the hook, marched into the setup, and tore it down. In his good Chinese, the product of 12 years living in this country, Kai explained to the surprised photographers, “This isn’t good! It can kill birds.”

A Fairy Pitta leaps toward a food item at the photography setup in Microforest 2, 11 Sept. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Kai’s actions Sunday were the backdrop to an eventful birding day. Partnering yet again with veteran British birder Michael Grunwell, Elaine and I noted 75 species. We birded the well-known coastal sites at Nanhui as well as the sod farm south of Pudong Airport. We had our first migrant bunting of the season, endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting; Himalayan Swiftlet in the skies above the Magic Parking Lot (30.882784, 121.972782); and Pechora Pipit in the wet agricultural land north of Lúcháo (芦潮; 30.851111, 121.848528).

Other goodies were Lesser Coucal catching a frog, Asian Stubtail joining Fairy Pitta at the photography setup, and season’s first Yellow-browed Warbler, Siberian Thrush, and Blue-and-white Flycatcher. We had Green Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, and a migrating flock of Red Turtle Dove near the Pechoras and Eurasian Wryneck in the recently planted trees on the inner base of the sea wall. The microforests yielded a second Fairy Pitta, 8 Black-naped Oriole, 7 Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, and a good count of 12 Siberian Blue Robin.

Black-naped Oriole
This Black-naped Oriole, one of eight we found Sunday at Nanhui, was in full migration mode and very hungry. A forest dweller, Black-naped Oriole is usually among the shyest of birds, but this juvenile was foraging in the open and allowed us to approach while it searched frantically for food. It even sampled a flower petal. (Craig Brelsford)

Our trip to the sod farm was cut short by rain. Before the shower we noted ca. 800 Oriental Pratincole. Obviously this grassy area is important to the species, which breeds in the Shanghai region and which with the development of Pudong has seen a dramatic shrinkage of its territory.

On Mon. 5 Sept. Elaine and I did our first urban birding of the season at Shanghai’s Century Park. Among the 24 species we noted were passage migrants Oriental Dollarbird, Asian Brown Flycatcher, and Grey-streaked Flycatcher.


Siberian Blue Robin
Siberian Blue Robin, among the 12 we found Sun. 11 Sept. 2016 in the microforests of Cape Nanhui. At Nanhui one usually views these secretive birds from a distance and obscured by branches and leaves, as shown in the two left-hand panels. On their breeding grounds in Heilongjiang, where this past spring Elaine and I studied Siberian Blue Robin and other northeast China breeders, one is lucky to get even this good a view. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Coucal
Lesser Coucal with prey. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Kai Pflug picks up litter at Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, 11 Sept. (Craig Brelsford)
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Fairy Pitta at Cape Nanhui

by Craig Brelsford

The autumn migration season 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. 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
Oriental Pratincole at sod farm south of Pudong Airport. (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

Siberian Blue Robin
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)


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 is no longer a birding site. Where birders once ranged, earth-moving machines now sit, 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
Black-tailed Godwit, Nanhui. On left 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. A Common Greenshank that appeared next to the Nordmann’s was helpful. 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.


Fairy Pitta
Fairy Pitta, Cape Nanhui, Microforest 2. 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, then 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)
Meadow Bunting
A juvenile Meadow Bunting stands at attention in Garbage Dump Gully, Lesser Yangshan Island. A Lesser Yangshan specialty, Meadow Bunting breed on the island. They are rarely found in Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)
Pin-tailed/Swinhoe's Snipe
Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe, sod farm south of Pudong Airport. 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 Pitta nympha, Microforest 2, Cape Nanhui, Sun. 4 Sept. 2016. Photo by Komatsu Yasuhiko using Nikon D7100 + Tamron 150-600 F/5.6, F/6, 1/100, ISO 640.
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Lesser Shortwing and the Joy of Low-light Photography

by Craig Brelsford

On my recent trip to Guangxi, I rediscovered the joy of low-light photography.

Michael Grunwell, my wife Elaine Du, and I were at a blind. Well past sunset, long after the other photographers had left, we were still there. First the thrushes retired, then the White-tailed Robin.

Suddenly, Lesser Shortwing popped out.

dorsal view
This dorsal view provides plenty of detail. Note the short wings and stubby tail. F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)

Through the gloom we could just make out the form of a small bird. So dark was it by now that I could ID the bird only by the photos I was taking of it.

The shortwing helped itself to a few mealworms and took a bath. It had no competition. Its strategy was to wait out the bigger birds and use its tolerance for very low light as an advantage. We got sustained views and photos of a rarely seen bird.

The shortwing was the capstone on another successful project in low-light bird photography. Ever since a magical morning when I photographed Fairy Pitta in the pre-dawn light at Dongzhai, Henan, I have been drawn to photographing forest birds in low light.

Fairy Pitta
This image of a Fairy Pitta got me hooked on low-light bird photography. I was using the old Nikon D300 and my current 600 mm F/4 lens. With that camera, I was afraid to go above ISO 250! But the pitta was a perfect model, standing motionless for seconds at a time. F/8, 0.80, ISO 250. Dongzhai, Henan. (Craig Brelsford)

My current setup is well-suited to this task. I place my Nikon D3S and Nikon 600 mm F/4 lens atop my Manfrotto MVH502AH video head and Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon-fiber tripod. The D3S is now a 6-year-old model; though superseded by newer models such as the D4S, the D3S remains one of the best low-light cameras ever made, easily creating usable photos at ISO 10000.

I put the D3S in mirror-up mode. I tighten the head to the firmest position and slowly follow the movement of the shortwing with my left hand, which holds the wand attached to the head. When the shortwing stops, I release my hand from the wand; because the head is tight and hard to move, the camera always rests in the position to which I guide it.

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher
This beautiful male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was photographed at a temporary photo blind that I set up near Yangkou, Jiangsu. This photo was taken at 15:42, and light was more plentiful. I added my 1.4x teleconverter to my 600 mm lens, set the aperture to F/11, the speed to 1/80, and the ISO to 1600. As always, I used my shutter-release cable. (Craig Brelsford)

I press the button on my shutter-release cable, held in my right hand. The first press opens the mirror; I wait a second, then press the button again, opening the shutter and exposing the image.

Low light is not bad light. With patience, skill, and the right equipment, one can achieve lovely images of birds in near-darkness.

Lesser Shortwing
The shortwing seems to be looking at us, but actually it has no idea it is being watched. It is simply responding to the soft click of the camera. What an advantage blinds can give birders. Where else but in a blind can one view a Lesser Shortwing, among the shyest of birds, for 10 minutes? F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris just after its bath at photo blind in Longheng, Guangxi, China. F/4, 1/8, ISO 10000. (Craig Brelsford)
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