I spent most of July 2018 in Germany, mostly to visit my mother, but of course I took my camera as well. As I only started birding once living in Shanghai, I am not very familiar with German birds and still feel excited about them.
Sending some of the photos I took to my friend Kaca back in Shanghai, a certain theme started to emerge, as you can see from his replies to my messages:
• I like the robin, the redstart and the woodpecker—quite similar to Xinjiang birds indeed … • We have the linnet in Xinjiang too … • Great to see the Red-backed Shrike—you don’t need to go to Xinjiang for it …
So let’s take a look at some of these birds (to be honest, I mostly write these blog posts to have an outlet for my photos, so don’t be surprised if this post is as photo-heavy as my previous few ones).
The linnet is a finch found in Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia—which includes Xinjiang but not Shanghai. The German name, Bluthänfling (“blood linnet”) refers to the most obvious feature of the male, the red breast. What is the function of the red breast? Well, presumably to attract a mate—see photo for details …
For the Red-backed Shrike, the situation is somewhat similar: not rare in Europe or Xinjiang, but only very few records in Eastern and Southern China (not sure how reliable these are). Again, the German language has a slightly more expressive name to offer, Neuntöter (“killer of nine”—it was once believed that this bird starts eating only after having killed nine prey items and impaled them on thorns). Of course, in Shanghai we have the Long-tailed Shrike as the main representative of this family.
The European Goldfinch—despite its name—can also be found in Xinjiang as well as in Europe and presumably on the far western border of Tibet. This is one of the most colorful small passerines commonly seen in Germany. As the photo shows, it is rather fond of thistles—which seems like a rather slow way of getting nutrition, but then maybe there is not too much competition for this.
I know it is not very cool to quote Wikipedia, but this bit is nice, though not particularly relevant to our topic: “If [caged] goldfinches are kept with canaries, they tend to lose their native song and call in favor of their cage-mates’ songs. This is considered undesirable as it detracts from the allure of keeping goldfinches.” Interesting.
The European Robin also makes its occasional appearance in Xinjiang, as well as extremely rare appearances further east (for example in Beijing at the Temple of Heaven in November 2013 and 2014). Much easier to see in Germany, of course …
Of course, in July, juveniles are also well-represented.
A bird that can occasionally be found in Eastern China is the Common Starling—though it is not really that common here (in fact, when I sent a starling photo to my friend Kaca, he replied, “Can you ask the bird here to come here—I can make it a star!”). The Common Starling is actually the bird of the year 2018 in Germany (nominated by some NGO), so it makes sense to feature it in this post.
To see a Barn Owl in China, one has to both be lucky and travel to border areas of Yunnan. Fortunately, it is a bit easier for Germans, though it also took a bit of time to find some there. Some local naturalists support the owls by setting up nesting boxes. The farmers who accept these installations get some support in rodent control …
Common Cranes are not particularly rare in China in winter—but they are becoming almost abundant in Germany. One place I visited boasts of hosting more than 10,000 Common Cranes in autumn. And I have seen (and heard: the sound of elephants trumpeting) them flying over my parents’ house.
With an estimated 10 million breeding pairs, the Common Chaffinch (male and female shown) is by far the most common bird in Germany. In China, the species is locally common in northern Xinjiang.
Lastly, a bird that you are not likely to ever see in China—the European Green Woodpecker. It is a bit like a wryneck in that it mainly feeds on ants and does not drum. It is an attractive but shy bird (photos: adult and juvenile).
So, if you want to see some exotic birds and do not feel like going to Xinjiang, why not consider a trip to Germany?
The photos shown here were taken in July 2018 in and around Visselhövede, Niedersachsen, Germany.
The photo book Birds of Nanhui, Shanghai (ISBN 978-7-202-12615-8) is still available from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org), though obviously none of the photos in this post can be found in that book.
Walking or driving at Cape Nanhui these days, you may hear an interesting sound coming from the reeds. HBW describes it as “a low-pitched, repeated djuk-djuk-djuk,” but I do not think that description does the sound justice. To me, the sound is reminiscent of some of the more obscure Cure songs, in particular, “Like Cockatoos”—the same swirling sound. This is the sound of Marsh Grassbird.
It is much more difficult to see than hear Marsh Grassbird. It took me a few days before I was successful (with the help of 吴世嘉 and David – thanks!). The bird usually hides deep in the reeds. Occasionally, and in particular this time of year, it flies up a few meters while singing before dropping quickly back into the reeds.
What does Locustella pryeri look like? Just look at the photos below, and consider the Chinese name, Banbei Daweiying (斑背大尾莺, “striped-back long-tailed warbler”). The mainland Asian breeder, sinensis, is 14 cm long and weighs 10 g. It feeds mainly on insects and breeds in wet, reedy swamps.
Its most remarkable feature is its song display. The grassbird begins singing on a reed, flies, still singing, in a high arc, then drops back quickly into the reeds (usually too quick to get a decent photo, at least for me).
The species is still a mystery to ornithologists, with uncertainties regarding its migration patterns, for example. Living a life hidden in the reeds does not facilitate ornithological studies.
The conservation status of Marsh Grassbird is Near Threatened. It is suffering from habitat loss as the reed beds it needs for breeding are being destroyed. At Cape Nanhui alone, my guess is that in the past year around a third of the habitat suitable for the species has been destroyed. With an estimated (declining) global population of 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, the last thing the species needs is further destruction of the reeds at Nanhui.
Is Marsh Grassbird a spectacular-looking bird? Perhaps not, but human standards of beauty are not a criterion for conservation. If however you need a reason to protect this bird, then just listen to its song:
Marsh Grassbird, 10 April 2016, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:07; 1 MB; Craig Brelsford)
Here are some of my recent photos of the threatened bird, all taken at Cape Nanhui:
Featured photo: Marsh Grassbird, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
I spent about 50 days at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui in 2017–sometimes with friends, but mostly on my own. Here are some of my favorite photos from Nanhui 2017.
Coming back from a trip to Australia, where I saw many interesting birds, I was afraid I was going to be disappointed by Nanhui. I was, however, far from disappointed by this Short-eared Owl (January).
In April, Craig and I took a trip to Nanhui. I think we more or less both took the same photo of this Common Kingfisher and Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
This Blue-and-white Flycatcher has just had a good moment. This photographer has just had a good moment (April).
A Common Sandpiper was inspecting his fishing nets (April).
In May, I was already on my way back home from a somewhat disappointing day at Nanhui when Craig called. “Orange-headed Trush at the parking lot!” Of course, I turned back. It was worth it.
I like the way this male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher seems to rest his long tail on the tree. Probably no females around to impress at this point, I guess (May).
Personally, I think of this photo as having the subtitle “The joys of parenthood.” Congratulations, Craig–with only one son, it should be a bit more relaxed than for this Long-tailed Shrike (May).
Going to Nanhui in July is a somewhat lonely experience, as the heat deters most birders. Still, seeing a Eurasian Bittern sort of kneeling on a farm road can make it worth it.
This still fluffy young Yellow Bittern came so close to the place where I was hiding that eventually I could not capture it with my long lens any more. Hope it has learnt a bit more and survived (August).
For a few months in 2017, a place with the nicely descriptive name “Trash Canal” was a good place to bird. This Striated Heron makes full use of the location’s characteristics (September).
On the ground, the Eurasian Wryneck is very easy to overlook (September).
While 2017 did not have a Fairy Pitta quite as compliant as the one at Nanhui in the autumn of 2016, there were still a few of them around. Always makes a birding day worthwhile (September).
The autumn of 2017 was also very good for seeing owls such as this Oriental Scops Owl. Hard to ever get tired of owls (September).
Another “seen together with Craig” bird, this Common Redpoll (October).
The idea of a sand bath always seemed a bit strange to me. But obviously it is not a strange idea to this Eurasian Hoopoe (November).
The Japanese Robin was maybe my most-anticipated bird of the year, as I had missed it the year before, despite waiting for it for quite some time. Of course, this is the kind of delayed gratification which makes a bird extra-special (November).
Note: Some of these photos–and many more–will soon be published in the book Birds of Nanhui, Shanghai, ISBN 978-7-202-12615-8. I hope that it will be available at every bookstore in China. If not, you can get it from me directly. Contact me at email@example.com.
Crested Goshawk has sunk its talons into Shanghai. In the past year, records of the species have come from various locations throughout the city, in all four seasons. This past spring, a pair may have bred at Gongqing Forest Park.
It is remarkable that Crested Goshawk, a species of tropical and subtropical Asia, is even as far north as the Yangtze River. Most field guides show Accipiter trivirgatus indicus, the mainland form, occurring no farther north than Hangzhou. However, members of Shanghai Birding, the WeChat companion to this Web site, have reported Crested Goshawk in Nanjing and Nantong (Jiangsu). Other authorities record Crested Goshawk in Anhui, Henan, and even Beijing.
If the forest-loving goshawk has invaded the coastal, little-wooded, highly urbanized world of Shanghai, then it is not surprising that it would be using urban parks. Some of the parks of Shanghai, such as 102-year-old Zhongshan Park, where I found a pair of Crested Goshawk on 8 Sept., have massive trees and resemble old-growth forests.
Like the avifauna of islands, the birds of urban Shanghai’s green islands live in isolation. Except for stray cats and an occasional Siberian Weasel, urban residents Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Light-vented Bulbul, and Chinese Blackbird have few predators and are abundant.
With the imbalance comes an opportunity for raptors that can tolerate the noise and bustle of Earth’s Largest City. For Crested Goshawk, the pluses of urban living are apparently outweighing the minuses. It has come to feed on the rich store of passerines as well as mammals such as Pallas’s Squirrel.
On 16 May 2017 at Pudong’s Century Park, Shanghai Birding member Xueping Popp captured a Crested Goshawk exploiting the imbalance.
Shanghai Birding member Wāng Jìn Róng (汪进荣) was one of the first birders to record Crested Goshawk in Shanghai. Jìn Róng has seen the species at Zhongshan Park and Gongqing Forest Park as well as on the grounds of the Shanghai Zoo. Jìn Róng took the photo at the top of this post as well as the photos immediately below. All were taken at Zhongshan Park–the photo above this past May, the photos below last December.
The Crested Goshawk below, photographed by Shanghai Birding member Kai Pflug at Cape Nanhui, may have been in transit. Cape Nanhui has little tree cover beyond its famous microforests (where Kai got this photo), and Crested Goshawk is rarely recorded there.
Have you seen Crested Goshawk or other raptors in your city? Tell us your story in the comments below.
The media below offer a clearer picture of the current status in China of Crested Goshawk.
Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat group. The subject of Crested Goshawk generated discussions with various birders, among them Jiangsu birders Scoter and maidong, who had information about Crested Goshawk in Nanjing and Nantong. Hangzhou birder Cheng Qian reported on the distribution of Crested Goshawk in Zhejiang. Beijing-based member Paul Holt alerted us to scholarship on the changing distribution of Crested Goshawk and shared records of the species from Anhui and Beijing. Guangdong-based member Jonathan Martinez wrote about breeding Crested Goshawk in Hunan.
There are two ways to join Shanghai Birding. First, you need WeChat, the platform on which Shanghai Birding runs. Once you have installed WeChat, friend Craig Brelsford on WeChat (ID: craigbrelsford). State that you wish to join the group.
eBird. 2017. eBird Range Map–Crested Goshawk. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. (Accessed: Sept. 14, 2017).
The eBird Range Map shows points on the Earth where checklists with Crested Goshawk have been submitted. The map shows Crested Goshawk in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Henan as well as Shanghai.
Fei, Y.-L., Lei, M., Zhang, Y. and Lu, C.-H. Geographic Distribution Change of Crested Goshawk (Accipiter trivirgatus). Chinese Journal of Zoology 45 (2010): 174–175.
Editor’s note: The image above shows three cuckoos of the Shanghai region. Clockwise from L: Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Large Hawk-Cuckoo. Join us as we study the rich array of cuckoos that passes through Earth’s greatest city.
It is spring, and one of the most thrilling moments of the bird migration in Shanghai is upon us–the passage of the Cuculinae, the Old World brood-parasitic cuckoos. Nowhere in the world is the diversity of this group greater than in eastern Eurasia, and here in Shanghai we get an enviable selection. Let us examine our Shanghai-area parasitic cuckoos and learn how to tell them apart.
We can divide the Shanghai-area brood-parasitic cuckoos into two categories: the mainly grey, slender-bodied Cuculus cuckoos and the non-Cuculus cuckoos. We will look at the non-Cuculus cuckoos first.
MASTER MIMICS: THE HAWK-CUCKOOS
The non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoo that one is most likely to see in Shanghai is Large Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx sparverioides. In the microforests at Cape Nanhui and once, to my surprise, in inner-city Zhongshan Park, I have heard the scream of “Brain fever!” The species breeds in nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
The hawk-cuckoos mimic sparrowhawks, an amazing feat of evolution. The resemblance serves, scientists say, not to increase stealth but to decrease it. Passerines, mistaking the intruder for a sparrowhawk, mob it, thereby giving away the location of their nest. After the tumult dies down, the hawk-cuckoo quietly swoops in and lays her egg.
When it comes to the business of eating, however, the masquerade ends. The hooked bill of a sparrowhawk is a butcher’s tool, made for stripping the flesh of vertebrates from bone. The bill of a hawk-cuckoo is blunt, the utensil of a caterpillar-eater. Need a quick differentiator between “sprock” and hawk-cuckoo? Look to the bill.
Another separation we Shanghai birders need to make is that between Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Rufous Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx hyperythrus. If seen clearly, adult Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo are readily separable. Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo shows a belly washed rufous with faint streaks. Large Hawk-Cuckoo is heavily barred and streaked and has the rufous coloring confined to the upper breast.
Adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo shows a white spot on the nape, white neck-sides, and white scapular crescents. These features may also be visible in sub-adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. Large Hawk-Cuckoo shows none of these in any plumage.
Size differences may be appreciable. An average Large Hawk-Cuckoo is 15 percent larger than Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. The tails differ, with the black subterminal band of Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo being bordered by a rufous line above and by the rufous tail-tip below. These rufous areas may be visible in immature cuckoos.
ASIAN KOEL AND CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO
The other non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoos of the Shanghai region are Asian KoelEudynamys scolopaceus and Chestnut-winged CuckooClamator coromandus. Neither poses great ID challenges.
In China, Asian Koel ssp. chinensis breeds mainly south of the Yangtze River. With its familiar “koh-EL” song, Asian Koel is as easy to hear as it is hard to see in the dense forests where it is almost invariably found. It shows strong sexual dimorphism, with the male entirely glossy bluish-black and the female brown with whitish streaks, bars, and spots.
Five Cuculus cuckoos have been claimed for Shanghai: Lesser CuckooCuculus poliocephalus, Indian CuckooC. micropterus, Himalayan CuckooC. saturatus, Oriental CuckooC. optatus, and Common CuckooC. canorus.
The latter breeds in the area, parasitizing the nests of Oriental Reed Warbler in the reed beds at Cape Nanhui. Its famous song, perhaps the best-known bird sound in the world, is hard to miss at Nanhui in May.
Lesser Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo breed in the region and are recorded on passage in Shanghai. Himalayan Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo may pass through Shanghai, but inasmuch as in size, plumage, and bare parts they are nearly identical to each other and very close to Common Cuckoo, and because they rarely (if ever) sing in our region, it is impossible to know how common they are.
Hear the song of any of these Cuculus, and you will have your ID; even the similar songs of Himalayan and Oriental are readily separable. If your cuckoo is silent, however, then you will need a closer look. Lesser Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo have a brown iris, Common a bright-yellow iris. Lesser Cuckoo is the size of a thrush; Indian Cuckoo is a third larger; Common Cuckoo is larger still, approaching the size of a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk.
In autumn, juveniles pass through Shanghai. They are silent and nearly impossible to identify to species. If one gets a close look at juvenile Lesser Cuckoo, however, one may appreciate its thrush-like size. If you happen to be on the breeding grounds, then you can attempt an ID according to the species of the foster parent.
Lesser CoucalCentropus bengalensis is the good guy of the Shanghai cuckoo world. Unlike all the other cuckoos recorded in Shanghai, but like most of the cuckoos in the world, the coucals are not brood parasites. Lesser Coucal, resident in Shanghai, builds a dome nest on the ground.
Lesser Coucal may be the only non-Cuculinae cuckoo in Shanghai, but it shares at least one trait with the brood parasites: It is very unobtrusive. Look for Lesser Coucal in areas of thick vegetation near water, such as the strips of reed bed along the canals at Cape Nanhui. If you find one, count yourself lucky.
Greater CoucalCentropus sinensis occurs south of our region. It is nearly half again as large as Lesser Coucal and has a cleaner and glossier mantle, a thicker bill, and a redder iris.
RESOURCES ON CUCKOOS
The Sounds of Shanghai’s Cuckoos, by Craig Brelsford
All cuckoos from the Shanghai area are covered here. I make my recordings with my handy little Olympus DM-650.
In this post I used several of Kai Pflug’s bird images. Kai and I have worked together from the earliest days of shanghaibirding.com, and I have published dozens of Kai’s photographs on this site. Kai made a notable contribution to my October 2016 post “ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers.” In September 2016 I wrote about Kai’s work cleaning up the litter at Nanhui.
Kai is from Germany, lives in Shanghai, and is an active member of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group.
Thanks also to Shanghai Birding member Jonathan Martinez for his advice on Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo and Plaintive Cuckoo.
Featured image: Clockwise from L, Rufous Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx hyperythrus, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, October 2010; Chestnut-winged CuckooClamator coromandus, Laoshan, Nanjing, Jiangsu, July 2009; and Large Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx sparverioides, Nanhui, Shanghai, May 2016. (Craig Brelsford)