I’m Skeptical About Claims of Green-backed Flycatcher in Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Does Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae migrate through Shanghai? Records exist of the species, but in my opinion they are mainly misidentifications of female Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina narcissina (above). In this post, I am going to unearth the roots of my skepticism about F. elisae in Shanghai and describe the differences between female F. elisae and female F. n. narcissina.

Narcissus Flycatcher, Green-backed Flycatcher (R).
I am skeptical about claims of Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae in Shanghai. One reason is that all the claims involve females, never the adult male (R), which is highly distinctive and readily separable from male Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina narcissina (L). If male elisae is unknown in this city, then the elisae we see in Shanghai would all be females, a curious and unlikely phenomenon. (Craig Brelsford)

Each spring and autumn, birders in Earth’s Greatest City claim records of elisae. Invariably, the bird in question is a female, not the very distinctive adult male. Here our first red flag pops up: How likely is it that elisae is the one species of passerine whose records in Shanghai never involve adult males?

For the sake of argument, let us admit the possibility of an all-female migration of elisae through Shanghai. Fine, I retort; then show me photos of these purported elisae. The photos are duly supplied, and again and again, as has been the case throughout my more than 10 years in Shanghai, the supposed F. elisae is revealed on closer scrutiny to be female F. n. narcissina.

Indeed, I have seen better documentation in Shanghai of Ryukyu Flycatcher F. (narcissina) owstoni than of F. elisae; on 17 April 2016 at Pudong’s Binjiang Forest Park, Shanghai birder Zhang Xiaolei got a very interesting picture of a possible adult-male owstoni.

Mistakes of the sort many Shanghai birders are making contribute to a distorted picture of the presence on the central Chinese coast of a little-known species. What’s more, the mistakes are avoidable. Separation of female F. elisae and F. n. narcissina is usually straightforward.

Narcissus Flycatcher, Blue-and-white Flycatcher
Female Narcissus Flycatcher (L) shows brownish-green upperpart coloration reminiscent of female Blue-and-white Flycatcher (R). (Craig Brelsford)

Female F. elisae has greenish upperparts with a yellowish or olive tint. Female F. n. narcissina is greenish with a brownish tint, like female Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana (above). On their underparts, female F. elisae is “dull yellow or yellowish-buff,” while F. n. narcissina is mainly off-white, with brownish-white flanks and a hint of yellow on the throat and belly (Brazil 2009, 436).

We can say, therefore, that unlike Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, female F. elisae and F. n. narcissina are distinguishable by plumage. A good look or good photo will likely lead to an accurate ID.

Accurate records in Shanghai, one of the most thoroughly birded areas on the Chinese coast, will lead to better understandings of both F. elisae and F. n. narcissina. Already, the growing body of knowledge about these East Asian breeding endemics has led to the separation of F. elisae and F. n. narcissina into separate species. Previously, elisae had been treated as a subspecies of Narcissus Flycatcher.

Narcissus Flycatcher
Narcissus Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, October. Note the brownish-green coloration of the mantle, back, and rump of the female. I included an image of the male because in this instance, and as is often the case in Shanghai, the male was associating with the female. The association suggests the birds are of the same species and bolsters the ID of the female as F. n. narcissina. (Craig Brelsford)

We know as well that the summer and winter ranges of the sister species are disjunct, with F. elisae breeding in a very compact range in Hebei (Wulingshan), Beijing, and Shanxi and wintering in southern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia. The breeding range of F. n. narcissina includes the main islands of Japan as well as the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin, and the coastal Russian Far East. The species winters in Hainan, the Philippines, and Borneo and passes through Shanghai each spring from about 15 April to 15 May.

Unlike other passage-migrant flycatchers in Shanghai, F. n. narcissina is much less common in autumn than in spring. That is a mystery, one of many surrounding the migration of the Narcissus Flycatcher group.

In light of the information deficit, it behooves us Shanghai birders to strive for accurate records (or non-records) of elisae in our region. Let us practice self-discipline, hone our skills, and give outside observers the clearest possible picture of bird migration in Shanghai.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark. 2009. Birds of East Asia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Entries for Narcissus Flycatcher and Chinese Flycatcher (Ficedula elisae), p. 436.

Below are links to photos of female elisae:

Oriental Bird Images (orientalbirdimages.org). “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” (Accessed 15 September 2019)

———. “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” (Accessed 15 September 2019)

———. “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” (Accessed 15 September 2019)

———. “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” (Accessed 15 September 2019)

Featured image: Adult female Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina narcissina, Jiangsu, May. (Craig Brelsford)
Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

Be notified every time we post. Send an
email with “Subscribe” as the subject to
info@shanghaibirding.com

Donate to Shanghai Birding!




Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei

Our featured image above shows the bluetails of the world: Himalayan (left panels), Red-flanked (right panels), and in the middle the inscrutable “Gansu” Bluetail. In this post, I report a new eastern record of “Gansu” and discuss the current taxonomic limbo of the form. — Craig Brelsford

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Found at Wulingshan, Hebei, on 11 June: “GansuBluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus.” Our record is the first for the mountain northeast of Beijing, the first for Chengde Prefecture in Hebei, and the easternmost in history for the form. Until recently, “Gansu” Bluetail was thought to breed only in Qinghai and Gansu, 1200 km (745 miles) to the southwest.

In Beijing, Hebei, and Shanxi, “albocoeruleus” has now been found on at least six mountains. Before our discovery, the easternmost of those mountains was Haituoshan, 140 air-km (87 air-miles) west of Wulingshan. Our record pushes the eastern edge of the range of “albocoeruleus” from the western side of Beijing to the mountains northeast of the metropolis.

The taxonomy of “Gansu” Bluetail is uncertain. It is currently recognized neither as a species in its own right nor as a subspecies of Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus or Himalayan Bluetail T. rufilatus. Adult-male “albocoeruleus” have a white supercilium as in cyanurus, and “albocoeruleus” are said to be closer genetically to cyanurus, but the legs of “albocoeruleus” are long, as in rufilatus.

Gansu Bluetail
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Wulingshan. Though it had not acquired adult plumage, this second-calendar-year male was singing powerfully and defending territory. We found the bluetail near the road to Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰) at 40.598801, 117.476280, elev. 2020 m (6,630 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

The song of “Gansu” Bluetail is distinct from the songs of Red-flanked and Himalayan. Listen to “Gansu”:

“Gansu” Bluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June (00:06; 1.3 MB)

Compare my very different song of Red-flanked Bluetail:

Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, Cow’s Ear River (51.548528, 121.880737), Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 14 July 2015 (00:03; 913 KB)

Now compare the song of Himalayan Bluetail, by Mike Nelson via xeno-canto.org:

Listen to this other recording by Mike Nelson, also labeled “Himalayan Bluetail”:

The second recording by Nelson is of “albocoeruleus.” It was made in Haidong Prefecture in eastern Qinghai, a place known as a breeding site for “albocoeruleus.” Note the similarity between Nelson’s recording from Haidong and mine from Wulingshan.

Usually, a bird with a song as distinctive as that of “albocoeruleus” would rise to at least the subspecies level. Why, then, is “albocoeruleus” languishing in taxonomic limbo?

Narcissus, Green-backed Flycatcher
Although adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher (R) bear little resemblance to one another, the two species were long classified as one. The situation was owing not to difficulties in ID but to a lack of research. L: Jiangsu, April. R: Wulingshan, 10 June. (Craig Brelsford)

The reason may be a simple lack of research. Many species endemic or nearly endemic to China have only recently begun to be fine-tuned taxonomically. Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae, another bird we noted at Wulingshan, was long considered conspecific with Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina, despite the two species having widely separated breeding areas, highly distinctive plumage (especially males), and songs so different that playback of one species elicits no interest from individuals of the other (Clement 2006).

Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis is another species that was long overlooked. It differs subtly but consistently from Blue-and-white Flycatcher C. cyanomelana but was not recognized as a new species until 2012 (Leader & Carey 2012). Zappey’s also breeds on Wulingshan.

Will “Gansu” Bluetail get the same love and attention as Green-backed and Zappey’s Flycatcher? Researchers surely must be aware of the taxonomic uncertainty surrounding “Gansu.” Its distinctive song is a cry in the wilderness, a plea for a more accurate assessment of its place in the animal kingdom.

BIRDING REPORT: WULINGSHAN

Nilsén, Grunwell, Brelsford
Birding partners Jan-Erik Nilsén (L), Michael Grunwell (C), and Craig Brelsford on Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰), elev. 2118 m (6,949 ft.), the highest peak at Wulingshan. 11 June. Our trio really clicks, but alas, it is breaking up. Michael is moving 30 June from Shanghai to Penang, Malaysia and was on his final birding trip in China. Beijing-based Jan-Erik has noted ‘Gansu’ Bluetail on six mountains and was instrumental in our discovery of the form at Wulingshan. No two birders have taught me more than Michael and Jan-Erik. (Craig Brelsford)

Who: Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford guided by Beijing-based ace birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. Our driver was Mr. Wang (+86 189-1129-3689).

Where: Wulingshan (雾灵山, 40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, near Beijing-Hebei border northeast of Beijing. Highest elevation: 2118 m (6,949 ft.). Birding from elev. 950 m (3,120 ft.) to summit.

When: Sat.-Sun. 10-11 June

How: Eschewing undependable air travel, Michael and I took the bullet train from Shanghai. What a ride! 305 kph (190 mph) and arrival in Beijing within a minute of the time scheduled. Then a driver hired by Jan-Erik picked us up for the three-hour drive to Wulingshan. The driver accompanied us there and drove us back to Beijing.

Highlights

GansuBluetail 1 2cy male singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE: James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male “Gansu” Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai.

'Gansu' Bluetail
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Huzhu Beishan, Qinghai, June 2011. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)

Zappey’s Flycatcher 1 singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE: After an e-mail exchange with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed my record of Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. The bird we found at Wulingshan is a male in its second calendar year that has not attained full adult plumage.

Of this flycatcher, photos and sound-recordings of which Leader examined, Leader writes, “[T]he darkness of the throat on your bird is not correct for first-year Zappey’s. … Morphology fits intermedia. It certainly doesn’t fit cumatilis, and I don’t see any plumage features that indicate it’s a hybrid. I think it’s just a first-year intermedia, which accounts for plumage and perhaps the variation in song” (Leader et al., in litt., 2017).

For the song as well as for more photos of this individual, please see our eBird list for 11 June.

Flycatcher
Blue-and-white Flycatcher found 11 June at 40.565367, 117.472742, elev. 1330 m (4,360 ft.). Enjoy sound-recordings of this individual on our eBird checklist for 11 June. After corresponding by e-mail with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed this record from Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. (Craig Brelsford)

Green-backed Flycatcher 3 singing

Grey-sided Thrush 12 singing

Grey-sided Thrush
Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae, Wulingshan, 10 June. Found at elev. 1610 m (5,280 ft.) on road above ‘Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot’ (40.569817, 117.474469). Grey-sided Thrush breeds at a few scattered sites in Hebei, Beijing, and Shanxi. The IUCN classifies it as Vulnerable. To hear my recordings of its song, see our eBird checklist for 10 June. (Craig Brelsford)

Also

Koklass Pheasant 2
Himalayan Cuckoo 3
Large Hawk-Cuckoo 1
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker 1
White-backed Woodpecker 3
White-throated Rock Thrush 1
Asian Stubtail 1
Thick-billed Warbler 1

Others

Grey Nightjar, White-bellied Redstart, Chinese Thrush, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, and Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Chinese Leaf Warbler, and Yellow-streaked Warbler.

Notes

— We got impressive results in only a day and a half birding—albeit with perfect weather. Wulingshan can be done from Shanghai in a weekend!

— Special thanks to my partner ​Jan-Erik Nilsén. Jan-Erik heard the song of the bluetail, recognized it, and called me over. Jan-Erik is highly experienced with “Gansu” Bluetail, having seen and sound-recorded the form on Haituoshan as well as at Lingshan and Baicaopan (Beijing-Hebei), Xiaowutaishan (Hebei), and Wutaishan (Shanxi).

— Thanks also to Paul Holt for informing me about records of “Gansu” Bluetail in the Beijing area.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37503446. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: https://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: 25 Sep 2020). Note: This is the Wulingshan list for 10 June 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519385. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: https://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: 25 Sep 2020). Note: Wulingshan list for 11 June 2017.

Clement, P. (2006). Family Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers). Pp. 131-2 (Narcissus Flycatcher) 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.

Leader, Paul J. & Carey, Geoff J. Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, a forgotten Chinese breeding endemic. Forktail 28 (2012): 121-128.

Leader, Paul J., Carey, Geoff J., Brelsford, Craig, Grunwell, Michael, and Nilsén, Jan-Erik. Series of e-mail messages, 18-20 June 2017.

Featured image: Left-hand panels: Himalayan Bluetail Tarsiger rufilatus. C: “GansuBluetail T. (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei. Right-hand panels: Red-flanked Bluetail T. cyanurus. (Craig Brelsford)
Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

Be notified every time we post. Send an
email with “Subscribe” as the subject to
info@shanghaibirding.com

Donate to Shanghai Birding!