Editor’s note: With more and more birders operating in Shanghai, more and more vagrant birds are bound to be discovered. One possibility is Blyth’s Pipit (photo above, L), a species similar to our familiar Richard’s Pipit (R). In this post, I will teach you how to separate the two.
2016 has been an outstanding birding year in Earth’s largest city. Paddyfield Warbler/Manchurian Reed Warbler, seen at Cape Nanhui on 18 Dec., was the latest in a parade of rare visitors seen in Shanghai in 2016.
The reason for the surge in good records, I am convinced, is more birders with better skills communicating more effectively. I am proud to say that shanghaibirding.com and the Shanghai Birding WeChat group have played a role.
In the Shanghai area, one species that has not yet been reported is Blyth’s Pipit. Anthus godlewskii breeds mainly in Mongolia, occurs on passage in central China, and winters mainly in India, so any records here would be of extralimitals. It is just the sort of vagrant that a bigger and better birding community could discover here in Shanghai.
The key to getting a Blyth’s in Shanghai is paying attention to the many Richard’s Pipit that we see in the area. Anthus richardi is more or less a passage migrant in the Shanghai area and is recorded here regularly in spring and autumn. Some are present in winter; Elaine Du and I had a “sinensis” last week, the ID’ing of which led to this post.
Richard’s “sinensis” is very similar to Blyth’s, being best told by song, which is rarely heard in the Shanghai area. According to Per Alström et al., whose book Pipits and Wagtails is the authority on Palearctic and Nearctic pipits, the song of Blyth’s is “very characteristic and completely different from [that] of Richard’s” (242). During a trip in July 2015 to the Inner Mongolian prefecture of Hulunbeier, one of the few places in China where Blyth’s breeds, I recorded the song.
Blyth’s Pipit, flight song, recorded 22 July 2015 at a point (48.767866, 116.834183) near Hulun Lake, Inner Mongolia (2.1 MB; 00:32)
The calls of the two species also differ, but less markedly. The flight call of Richard’s is a common bird sound in Shanghai during migration season. The call of Blyth’s is similar enough to “cause problems even for some veteran observers” (Alström et al. 244). For Shanghai birders, even those unfamiliar with Blyth’s, a “Richard’s” with a strange flight call is worth your attention. Listen for what Alström et al. describe as a call “less harsh, softer and more nasal” than Richard’s (244). For reference, review the flight call of Richard’s:
Regarding plumage, the most reliable differentiator of Richard’s and Blyth’s is the pattern of the median coverts. In Blyth’s, a typical adult-type median covert will show well-defined, squarish black centers. In Richard’s, the adult-type median coverts are less clear-cut, rufous-tinged, and triangular. Note that the fresher the plumage, the more reliable this differentiator is.
Another less reliable criterion is structure. Shanghai birders will agree that the first impression a non-“sinensis” Richard’s usually gives is “large pipit.” Other pipits, such as Buff-bellied Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, and Olive-backed Pipit, give a “small pipit” impression.
Alström et al. say, and I having seen Blyth’s can concur, that a birder viewing Blyth’s will get a “small pipit” impression: “The smaller size, lighter build and shorter tail,” the authors write, “are often most apparent in flight, when [Blyth’s] often recalls one of the smaller pipits rather than Richard’s.” Note also that the smaller size and shorter bill, tail, and hind claw of Blyth’s give that species a “better proportioned” look than the larger and heavier Richard’s (237).
The directions above should be seen as guidelines; individual Richard’s and Blyth’s may defy easy categorization, “sinensis” Richard’s even more so. Alström et al. caution against jumping the gun with your ID: “It is crucial to realise that in both species (especially Richard’s) appearance can vary considerably in one and the same individual depending on mood, weather, etc.,” they write. “Also, some Richard’s are structurally very like Blyth’s; this is especially true of southern Chinese Richard’s (‘sinensis’)” (237).
A record of Blyth’s Pipit in Shanghai would shoot to the top of the “Year’s Best” list. The stakes are high, so look diligently, and use caution. Good luck!
PADDYFIELD WARBLER/MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER
On 18 Dec. 2016, a quartet of teenage birders found an acrocephalid in the Magic Parking Lot at Cape Nanhui. The photos by Komatsu Yasuhiko provoked discussion on the WeChat group Shanghai Birding. The consensus is that the bird is either Paddyfield WarblerAcrocephalus agricola or Manchurian Reed WarblerA. tangorum.
In the images above, note the supercilium, which extends behind the eye; dark eye-line; bright white chin and throat; peach breast band and flanks; bill with black upper mandible and pink lower mandible; and peaked head. Those criteria most closely indicate Manchurian Reed Warbler and Paddyfield Warbler.
Paddyfield Warbler winters mainly in India and would be extralimital here; Manchurian Reed Warbler breeds in northeastern China, is listed as Vulnerable and is therefore scarce, and probably passes through Shanghai.
Congratulations to Andy Lee, Komatsu Yasuhiko, Larry Chen, and Archie Jiang for this great Shanghai record.
INTERVIEW WITH PUDONG TV
On Thurs. 15 Dec. at Cape Nanhui my wife Elaine Du and I did an interview with Pudong TV in Chinese. The segment will last five minutes and be aired later this month. In the interview I lamented the losses at Nanhui and spoke glowingly of the possibilities.
Meanwhile, John MacKinnon, co-author of the most famous bird guide in the history of China and author of a recent post for shanghaibirding.com, has expressed interest in the establishment of an easily accessible, world-class wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui.
MacKinnon asked me for the reasoning behind a wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui. I wrote the following:
THE CASE FOR AN EASILY ACCESSIBLE, WORLD-CLASS WETLAND RESERVE AT CAPE NANHUI, PUDONG, SHANGHAI
(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, habitat critical to Reed Parrotbill, Marsh Grassbird, and other species at risk.
The largest component of the city-province of Shanghai is the Shanghai Peninsula, a projection of land between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the peninsula, is a critically important stop for migrating birds, and is completely unprotected. A nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a third stepping stone for birds crossing the mouth of the Yangtze, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha.
The 2 Red-crowned Crane seen on Sat. 10 Dec. 2016 were the latest in a parade of endangered birds that I and other birders have noted at the Cape over the years. Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses Cape Nanhui, as does Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. Around 2 percent of the world’s Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill are dependent on Cape Nanhui for several months each year. Large reed beds remain at Cape Nanhui and are the final strongholds on the Shanghai Peninsula of Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird and Near Threatened Reed Parrotbill. The latter species, a candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird, will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai if the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed.
(2) Shanghai is clearly under-performing on the conservationist front. More must be done, and a good place to begin is Cape Nanhui.
Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province (which is a third the size of Wales). There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in this megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the natural side of Shanghai, a city with an extraordinarily rich natural heritage. There is no known plan to conserve any of the dozens of square kilometers of reclaimed land on Hengsha.
(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could be the match to light the fire of conservation across all China.
Hundreds of thousands of middle-class children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland.” A day at a Cape Nanhui Wetland would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster an appreciation of the natural world.
If Shanghai can be a world economic center and have world-class airports and a world-class skyline and world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must have an easily accessible, world-class reserve protecting its priceless coastline, reed beds, and migratory birds.
A world-class, easily accessible, wetland nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would become a mecca for birders and achieve world renown, as has been the case with similar reserves such as Mai Po at Hong Kong and Sungei Buloh in Singapore.
Alström, Per, Krister Mild & Bill Zetterström. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003. This landmark book, co-authored by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström, is my first reference on all things Motacillidae.
Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, 2009. Serviceable descriptions of Blyth’s Pipit and Richard’s Pipit. Illustration of “sinensis.” Good coverage of Paddyfield Warbler, Manchurian Reed Warbler.
Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. Pipits and reed warblers discussed in detail.
Kennerley, Peter & David Pearson. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm, 2010. The world standard on Acrocephalidae, Cettiidae, and Locustellidae.
Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Outstanding illustrations of Richard’s Pipit and Blyth’s Pipit by Mullarney.
Editor’s note: The featured image above shows the stunning male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and serves to introduce this week’s theme: How can birders tell apart the two species of the remarkable genus Terpsiphone that migrate through Shanghai?
Each spring and autumn, two species of paradise flycatcher pass through Earth’s greatest city: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei. The two species can seem confusingly similar, especially in the poor light of a wood. With a little practice you can tell the males apart, and with a lot of practice you should be able to separate the females. Here is what you need to know:
— If in Shanghai you see a white-morph paradise flycatcher, then by definition you are not looking at Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, and you are almost certainly looking at Amur Paradise Flycatcher.
No white morph exists in Japanese (Mark Brazil, Birds of East Asia). Regarding Amur, among my sources only Brazil expresses doubt about the existence of a white morph. shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon (A Field Guide to the Birds of China) and C.W. Moeliker (Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 11) assure us that Amur white morph does exist. MacKinnon says that Amur white morph accounts for less than half of adult males.
We know that Amur white morph exists because we have seen it ourselves. On 30 May 2016, Kai Pflug photographed an Amur white morph at Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Shanghai. In May 2010 at Dongzhai, Henan, 680 km inland from Shanghai, I found an Amur white morph.
Could a white morph from a third species occur in Shanghai? Although the movements of paradise flycatchers are “complex and not fully understood” (Moeliker), I think we can presume that it is unlikely. The nearest third species is Oriental Paradise Flycatcher T. affinis saturatior, which according to MacKinnon winters no closer to Shanghai than Guangdong.
— The mantle, wings, rump, and tail of rufous-morph male Amur are rufous-brown; in Japanese, the mantle, wings, and rump are purplish-brown, and the tail is black.
The pictures speak for themselves. In good light you should have little trouble telling the two apart. The cinnamon tones of Amur are often what Shanghai birders notice first.
— Male Japanese has a black head and a black breast, forming a large hood. Amur rufous morph has black head and grey breast, forming a two-tone hood.
The hood of Amur has in addition more of a bluish tint than that of Japanese. Note the blue tint in the hood of Amur bottom left. Note also that the cobalt-blue eye ring of Japanese (top left) tends to be larger than the eye ring of Amur.
The females require more care to separate. Be persistent, get a good view, and try to get a photo. Note the following:
— Compared to Amur female, Japanese female has darker, duller, and less rufous mantle, wings, rump, and tail. Japanese has much darker (nearly all-black) flight feathers and sooty primary coverts.
— In their head and breast coloring, female Japanese and Amur show a pattern similar to that of the males. Whereas Japanese is more concolorous (panels 3 and 4), Amur shows more of a contrast between head and breast (1a, 1b, 2). Both Japanese and Amur female have whitish bellies, but the darker breast of Japanese contrasts more with the whitish belly than is the case with Amur. The head is glossier in Amur than in Japanese, whose crown is dull (inset, Panel 3). Japanese has faint rufous flanks, unlike Amur.
MAINLY SILENT IN SHANGHAI
In Shanghai, you will almost never hear a paradise flycatcher utter a sound. I have a single recording:
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, call, Nanhui, 24 May 2016 (00:01; 848 KB)
BACKGROUND ON THE SPECIES
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei breed farther north than any other species in their mainly tropical genus. T. atrocaudata atrocaudata breeds in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and is highly migratory, wintering as far south as Sumatra. (Birds in Taiwan, however, are largely resident.) T. incei, a monotypic species, is also highly migratory, with a breeding range extending into the Russian Far East and wintering grounds as far south as Java (Moeliker). Japanese is listed by the IUCN as Near Threatened, mainly because of habitat loss on its wintering grounds.
UPDATE: 18 OCT 2016
While researching drongos, on 18 Oct. 2016 I discovered two more photos of female Amur Paradise Flycatcher. The photos above were taken 4 July 2009 at Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699), a site in Nanjing, Jiangsu 290 km inland from Shanghai. Note again in this Amur the contrast between bluish-black head and bluish-grey breast, the poorly defined border between the bluish-grey breast and the whitish belly, the lack of rufous coloration on the flanks, and the rufous-brown upperparts and tail, obviously brighter than in Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.
Special thanks to Kai Pflug, who collaborated with me on this post, and without whose photos this post would not have been possible. Kai’s images of Amur Paradise Flycatcher, some of which are displayed above, are a valuable record of this poorly known species. I have published dozens of Kai’s photographs on shanghaibirding.com, and in September 2016 I wrote about his work cleaning up the litter at Nanhui. Kai is from Germany and lives in Shanghai. He is an active member of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group.
Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Studied entries on Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, p. 302.
del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 11, “Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers.” Species accounts for Asian Paradise Flycatcher (p. 289) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (p. 290) written by C.W. Moeliker.
Editor’s note: The illustration above shows Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers: Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (1), Arctic Warbler (2), Eastern Crowned Warbler (3), Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (4), and Yellow-browed Warbler (5). In this post, I tell you how to separate Pale-legged and its lookalike Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from the others.
Last Sat. 24 Sept. 2016 at Nanhui, my object of observation was Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, one of the Big 5 Leaf Warblers in the Shanghai region. In both spring and autumn, Phylloscopus tenellipes passes through Earth’s greatest city in considerable numbers, giving Shanghai birders ample opportunity to study it. A lookalike species, Sakhalin Leaf WarblerP. borealoides, also has been noted in Shanghai.
In this post, I shall outline the difficulty of distinguishing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on anything but song, and I will show you some of the traits of “Pale-Sak” that set this species pair apart from other leaf warblers. I also have a roundup of the other birds I noted this past Saturday.
ONLY SONG CAN SAFELY SEPARATE PALE-LEGGED FROM SAKHALIN
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song. Every other trait of each can occur in the other. Numerous authorities confirm this. Swedish ornithologist Per Alström calls the two species “almost identical” and “virtually indistinguishable except by song” (1). Mark Brazil says field separation of Pale-Sak is “uncertain,” and he warns readers to “beware light conditions” (2). P. Clement writes that Pale-legged and Sakhalin are “very similar” and claims, dubiously, that the latter is distinguishable from the former “mainly by greener upperparts and lack of wingbars” (3). Clements goes on to describe juvenile Pale-legged as being “more greenish on upperparts,” which begs the question of whether the greenish Pale-Sak one is observing is an adult Sakhalin or a juvenile Pale-legged. Moreover, a quick look at Oriental Bird Images shows many Sakhalin Leaf Warbler with wing bars.
Thankfully for us birders, the songs of the two species are distinctive and provide the basis for a safe ID. The song of Pale-legged, occasionally heard in Shanghai in May, is a cricket-like trill, that of Sakhalin a high-pitched, three-note whistle.
One day last May, I heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing together in Zhongshan Park—proof that Sakhalin passes through Shanghai. Usually, however, birders here are forced to perform the less than satisfying task of assigning the individuals they see to the category “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.”
Bottom line: In Shanghai, any Pale-Sak one sees is probably Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, the continental breeder, and not Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, the breeder from the eponymous Russian island plus Hokkaido and Honshu; but to claim certainty about any non-singing individual is the taxonomical version of Russian roulette.
DISTINGUISHING PALE-SAK FROM OTHER LEAF WARBLERS
The Pale-Sak species pair is readily distinguishable from other leaf warblers, in particular the other four members of Shanghai’s Big 5: Pallas’s Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus proregulus, Yellow-browed WarblerP. inornatus, Arctic WarblerP. borealis, and Eastern Crowned WarblerP. coronatus.
Here are a few principles:
— Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are plain, mid-sized to large leaf warblers without even the hint of a coronal stripe.
— Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler has distinctive pink legs and a short bill with a black smudge on the lower mandible, which is pink at the base and tip.
Even on a fast-moving Pale-Sak in poor light, the pink of the bill and especially of the legs is readily seen. The distinctive pale color of these bare parts is a handy tool for distinguishing Pale-Sak from birds in the Arctic Warbler Complex, which like Pale-Sak lack a crown stripe and usually show one or two wing bars. (The Arctic Warbler Complex consists of Arctic WarblerPhylloscopus borealis, Kamchatka Leaf WarblerP. examinandus, and Japanese Leaf WarblerP. xanthodryas. In Shanghai, Arctic Warbler is the most common of the three, migrating through Shanghai every spring and autumn.) The pink coloration also distinguishes Pale-Sak from Dusky WarblerP. fuscatus, an uncommon migrant and winter visitor in Shanghai, and the scarce passage migrant Two-barred WarblerP. plumbeitarsus.
— Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler constantly pumps its tail.
The tail-pumping of Pale-legged/Sakhalin is one of the most distinctive behavioral traits of the species pair. The steady movement usually occurs independently of other muscular actions and is slow enough for the eye to see. The tail-flicking of Arctic Warbler, by contrast, is more spasmodic and is often accompanied by wing-flicking.
— Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler is often found on the lower, thicker branches of trees.
With its ability to forage along thick branches and not just glean from the underside of leaves, Pale-legged/Sakhalin can remind one of a nuthatch. Other species such as Arctic Warbler use the lower branches, but sustained observation shows Pale-Sak more often in those areas. Note: In May and June 2016, I studied Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on its breeding grounds in Heilongjiang. There, amid trees older and taller than one usually sees in Shanghai, I most often noted the species far above my head, in the mid-canopy.
A NOTE ON CALLS
Except for the silent migrant Eastern Crowned Warbler, Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers all call in both spring and autumn. The calls are distinctive. The metallic “tink” of Pale-Sak contrasts markedly with the “tzit” of Arctic Warbler, the “dweet” of Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and the “sweet” of Yellow-browed Warbler.
Note that, according to Brazil, the call of Pale-Sak only can separate the pair from other species. It cannot be used to separate Pale-legged from Sakhalin. The tink of Pale-legged, Brazil writes, “is probably indistinguishable from Sakhalin Leaf” (2).
UPDATE: 19 OCT. 2016
Editor’s note: This post caught the attention of Philip D. Round, a professor at Mahidol University in Bangkok and an expert on leaf warblers. In an e-mail written 18 Oct. 2016, Round writes that as discoveries are made and papers published, separating Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on call may become more widespread. Separation on morphology, by contrast, will be much more difficult, though it may eventually turn out to be possible in the hand.
The following paragraphs are from Round’s e-mail to me:
“I enclose a paper that details the first records of both Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from Thailand. [Editor’s note: the paper, “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” is available for download through shanghaibirding.com (708 KB).] This has been rather overtaken by events, as we have now caught into the hundreds of Sakhalin LW, mostly on spring passage, and quite a few more Kamchatka. I have an undergraduate student who has carried out DNA assay on about ten percent of all the Pale-legged and Sakhalin LW caught. For many of these we have also recorded call notes on release. When she comes back from overseas study in January 2017 I hope we’ll get a paper out which publishes details of call-note frequency and DNA results for this large sample, which should show the correlation between species and call-note frequency clearly. (Actually this is moderately and anecdotally well-known already. I think either Frank Lambert or Jonathan Martinez was the first to draw my attention to the difference, and it is mentioned by Yap et al. in BirdingASIA with reference to an overwintering Singapore bird.) [Note: Round is referring to Yap, Francis et al., “First wintering record of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides in South-East Asia, with notes on vocalisations,” BirdingASIA 21 (2014): 76–81.]
“I am a bit less sanguine on finding means (other than by call frequency or song) to separate all birds. Even in the hand, it is by no means clear. We can pick out long-winged male Sakhalin, and short-winged female Pale-legged. But there is more overlap than previously realized, and most are in between. There don’t appear to be any 100% consistent wing-formula differences, and plumage and bare-part features, while somewhat indicative, are again less than 100% reliable—especially under field conditions. But probably we are missing something. The next thing to do is to apply PCA or some other multivariate analysis to figure out reliable means of separation of birds in the hand from our large sample, and also to use the information we have to figure out differences in the timing of passage of the two spp.”
ROUNDUP FOR SATURDAY 24 SEPT. 2016
Stimulating discussions about leaf warblers enlivened the lulls on a day in which my wife Elaine Du and I once again partnered with veteran British birder Michael Grunwell. We noted 69 species, starting at the sod farm south of Pudong airport then spending the rest of the day at Nanhui. We reunited briefly with the Sino-German birding duo of Xueping and Stephan Popp, and we met Dutch birder Benjamin Muis. Highlights:
Juvenile spotted on mudflats at high tide. A far-northern, trans-Eurasian breeder, Philomachus pugnax is a scarce passage migrant in Shanghai. Amid the greenshanks and godwits, the Ruff stood out with its buff-washed head and scaly upperparts. Juvenile Ruff resembles Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a much smaller American bird that we quickly ruled out.
A week ago ca. 2500, on Saturday only 10. Coastal birding is a parade of change, especially in migration season.
Other goodies: Eurasian Wryneck 2, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher 6, Amur Paradise Flycatcher 1, Richard’s Pipit 5, White’s Thrush 5 first-of-season, Rufous-tailed Robin 1 first-of-season. We introduced Benjamin to Reed Parrotbill calling unseen from the reeds below, we had a strong count of 16 Blue-and-white Flycatcher, and we noted two endangered species: Far Eastern Curlew and Yellow-breasted Bunting.
(1) Alström, Per. Identification of Phylloscopus & Seicercus Warblers in China. Notes from presentation given to Beijing Birdwatching Society in November 2012. PDF downloadable here (13 MB). Click here for a 5 MB zip archive containing all 40 pages of the report in JPEG form. Those pages can be synced to your smartphone like photographs and consulted in the field.
(3) del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 11, “Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers,” species accounts for Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (p. 663) and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (p. 664) written by P. Clement.
From 26 May 2016 to last Sunday (12 June), Elaine Du and I were in her home village of Dawucun in Boli County, Heilongjiang. We birded 15 of those days, mainly around Xidaquan National Forest, and noted 84 species. Our bird of the trip was Band-bellied Crake, and we found breeding Eurasian Eagle-Owl. We noted in full breeding mode many birds that we had previously known only as passage migrants in Shanghai; we enjoyed for the first time the songs of Siberian Blue Robin, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, White-throated Rock Thrush, Siberian Thrush, and many other species.
In this post, you will get an introduction to Boli and eastern Heilongjiang, you will discover the birds we met up there at the height of the breeding season, you will learn about the birds we missed, and you will find out how Elaine and I combine birding with family. There are as well 31 of my sound-recordings of Boli birds and plenty of photos.
For the full report on our spring 2016 trip, including daily lists and a master list detailing where and when we encountered each species, click here. For the report on Elaine’s and my first two trips together to her hometown, click here.
Why Should Birders Care about Boli?
Boli County is a good place to study the woodland birds of the eastern Palearctic. Its forests, remnants of the ancient northern temperate forest that once stretched unbroken across the region, hold northern species absent further south in China. In springtime, Boli County is the breeding home of birds that in the more densely populated southern regions of China appear only as passage migrants or winter visitors.
In January 2015 Elaine and I were married in Dawucun, where Elaine was born. During breaks in the festivities, I explored the frozen country. Expecting to find only magpies and sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised to find forested hills near the village and good birds such as Rough-legged Buzzard. I vowed to return and bird the area thoroughly.
In August and September 2015, Elaine and I fulfilled that goal. During a 32-day visit to her hometown, Elaine and I discovered Xidaquan National Forest, a 9,400-hectare reserve in the Laoye Mountains. Xidaquan preserves a remnant of the northern temperate forest that once covered the region. We were thoroughly impressed and made plans to bird the area yet again, this time during breeding season. The trip described here is the realization of that plan.
For Elaine and me, birding trips to Boli are special because they combine Northeast China birding with family. Elaine is never happier than when she is with her parents and two elder sisters, and I not only like her family but also appreciate the opportunity they give me to learn about Chinese culture.
Like many residents of the Northeast, Elaine is descended from migrants who chuǎng Guāndōng (闯关东)–“leapt” north, mainly from Hebei and Shandong, to farm areas of Guandong (Manchuria) formerly closed to Han Chinese settlement. In Elaine’s case, the settlers were her parents, who left Shandong in the 1970s.
The settlement of the Northeast by Han farmers is a major event in Chinese history, like the settling of the West is to Americans. The transformation the migration has wrought on the land has been profound. In eastern Heilongjiang, the toil of thousands of farmers has converted the land from an endless forest into a vast maize field. Where tigers once roared, magpies now caw.
Amid the sea of grain fields are islands of the old Manchurian forest. One of the best is Xidaquan National Forest, just 25 km from Boli Town. After our discovery of Xidaquan in the summer of 2015, we turned it into our laboratory in which to study the birds of the eastern Palearctic woodlands. We have now spent 20 days birding in the reserve–12 days in summer 2015 and eight days in spring 2016.
A birder led blindfolded through southwestern Boli County in spring would be able to tell the quality of the forest by the birds he heard. The pine plantations are nearly silent. In recently cut areas where the forest has just begun to regenerate, one may hear a few Eastern Crowned Warbler, Radde’s Warbler, and Black-faced Bunting. If a layer of undergrowth has formed, then one may hear in addition to those species Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat. In places where most of the trees are hardwoods and have reached about 10 m in height, the sound of birdsong is constant throughout the day. Pale Thrush sing powerfully from perches hidden in the canopy, Yellow-throated Bunting sing from treetops and defend territory, Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and Japanese Tit sing their lively Parid songs, and White-throated Rock Thrush whistle in a minor key. The best places at Xidaquan are yet another cut above, being able to support the species mentioned above as well as more habitat-sensitive species such as Mandarin Duck, Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Lanceolated Warbler, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, and White’s Thrush.
The following is a list of the key birds noted by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du in spring 2016 in Boli County.
Band-bellied CrakePorzana paykullii
Our bird of the trip, found 8-9 June 2016 in a creek bottom in the Hongwei Linchang area 12 km south of Boli Town. A rare and little-known species, Band-bellied Crake is listed as near threatened by the IUCN. Band-bellied Crake breeds in Northeast China and the Russian Far East. It is threatened by habitat loss in its Southeast Asia wintering grounds as well as in Northeast China.
We found a breeding pair with two owlets nesting at the high, inaccessible reaches of the big quarry at Jiulong Reservoir, where we also spotted the species in summer 2015. The giant owls are tolerant of the traffic from the road, and at a second, smaller quarry nearby, they tolerate noise from a busy poultry farm below. The owls perch conspicuously by day and are active in the villages at night. In summer 2015, eagle-owls would perch at night on the buildings of Elaine’s parents’ farm.
Mandarin DuckAix galericulata
Deep in the forests of Xidaquan, we found Mandarin Duck in ponds no larger than a kiddie pool. This shy species was also found on the large pond near the entrance to Xidaquan, in rice paddies in the villages, and in flocks in Jiulong Reservoir. In spring 2016 we recorded this species on eight of our 15 birding days and in summer 2015 on seven of our 27 birding days. Boli County is the heart of the Northeast China breeding range of this most beautiful of ducks.
Black WoodpeckerDryocopus martius
A graceful woodpecker and one of the stars of the Northeast Chinese forest, noted by us on three days in spring 2016 and on 11 days in summer 2015.
The most commonly noted Dendrocopos woodpecker, noted on 10 days in summer 2015 and six days in spring 2016.
Lesser Spotted WoodpeckerDryobates minor
Trans-Eurasian species, in China present only in Xinjiang and the Northeast. Noted by us just once in spring 2016. More conspicuous in summer 2015 (seen on six days) and winter 2015 (three days).
Rufous Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx hyperythrus
Noted on nine of our birding days, exclusively in the better forests around Xidaquan. Has softer version of the “Brain fever!” call of Large Hawk-Cuckoo.
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:06; 3.4 MB)
Indian CuckooCuculus micropterus
Noted on eight days in Boli County in spring 2016. None of our records came from the higher-quality, higher-elevation forest deep in Xidaquan park but from the lower-quality, newer forests closer to the villages.
Oriental CuckooCuculus optatus
In contrast to Indian Cuckoo, in spring 2016 most of our records of Oriental Cuckoo, spanning 13 days, came from the deep forests of Xidaquan.
Common CuckooCuculus canorus
We heard the famous call of Common Cuckoo on 13 days. Most records came from open areas or from forested places near open areas.
Grey NightjarCaprimulgus jotaka
We enjoyed pre-dawn views of this species roosting on County Road Z002 and heard its clattering call both at dawn and dusk.
Grey Nightjar calling at dawn, Blue-and-white Flycatcher in background, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (00:31; 2 MB)
Eurasian JayGarrulus glandarius brandtii
Cinnamon-headed ssp. brandtii is a treat for birders in Northeast China (also occurs in Xinjiang). Resident and conspicuous in all seasons.
Coal TitPeriparus ater ater
The trans-Eurasian, small-crested, nominate race (ater) is the representative of Coal Tit in Northeast China. Resident, regularly noted in small numbers, often in conifers.
Coal Tit 1/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:15; 2.2 MB)
Coal Tit 2/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:05; 1.7 MB)
Willow TitPoecile montanus baicalensis
Versatile Willow Tit, resident in Boli County, flourishes in habitats ranging from scrubby new forest growth to primary forest. Noted on three days in winter 2015, 21 in summer 2015, and 11 in spring 2016.
Willow Tit, territorial call, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:14; 2.1 MB)
Long-tailed TitAegithalos caudatus caudatus
The snowball-headed nominate ssp. ranges from Scandinavia east through Heilongjiang to Jilin. It lives year-round in Boli County. We noted it on seven days in spring 2016, on two days in winter 2015, and on 14 days in summer 2015. In late summer and winter it is often the main component of bird waves.
Eastern Crowned WarblerPhylloscopus coronatus
The most conspicuous leaf warbler in Boli. Noted by us on 10 days in summer 2015 and on 14 of our 15 birding days in spring 2016. Sings a diverse array of songs from dawn to dusk. In 2015 was singing and defending territory into mid-August, and non-singing individuals were noted as late as 3 Sept. Found in habitats mediocre as well as pristine.
Eastern Crowned Warbler 1/2, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:04; 1.7 MB)
Second only to Eastern Crowned Warbler as the most conspicuous leaf warbler, with a powerful song that belies its small size. Noted regularly in summer 2015 (10 days) and spring 2016 (12 days), mostly in the better forest and forest-edge habitat at Xidaquan.
Radde’s Warbler, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (02:51; 7.6 MB)
Dusky WarblerPhylloscopus fuscatus
Noted on 10 days in spring 2016 and nine in summer 2015. Has less powerful song than Radde’s, lacking trills, and unlike Radde’s avoids deep forest. Often sings from conspicuous perch in high tree.
Pale-legged Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus tenellipes
Recorded on nine days in spring 2016. Heard singing and seen defending territory. Usually found in the high canopy or middle canopy in the better sections of forest at Xidaquan. Elaine and I did not note this species in Boli in summer 2015.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Xidaquan, 10 June 2016 (02:00, 6.4 MB)
Pallas’s Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus proregulus
Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 12 days in summer 2015. In both seasons was usually noted singing loudly from the top of the tallest tree in the vicinity.
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, hills S of Dawucun, 4 June 2016 (01:47; 5.1 MB)
Oriental Reed WarblerAcrocephalus orientalis
Oriental Reed Warbler is known to be able to use marshy habitat with woody plants rather than reeds. As reeds are rare in the areas we bird in Boli County, our Oriental Reed Warbler were found among woody plants. Found on four days in spring 2016, mainly on the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.
Noted on three days in spring 2016, with a high of 28 singing individuals being found 11 June along County Road Z002. Noted once in summer 2015.
Black-browed Reed Warbler, creek along County Road Z002, 11 June 2016 (01:40; 4.8 MB)
Thick-billed WarblerIduna aedon
Noted on six days in spring 2016, in very good habitat at Xidaquan as well as more disturbed areas along the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.
Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:32; 2.1 MB)
Lanceolated WarblerLocustella lanceolata
Noted on six days in spring 2016, singing from thick cover in heavily wooded habitat along creeks at Xidaquan.
Gray’s Grasshopper WarblerHelopsaltes fasciolata
In spring 2016 we heard the bulbul-like call of this undergrowth skulker on seven days, exclusively in the high-quality habitat at Xidaquan.
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:05; 3.4 MB)
Siberian ThrushGeokichla sibirica
Noted by us on five days in spring 2016, each time in high-quality forest at Xidaquan. Noted twice in summer 2015. Sings from conspicuous perch at top of tall tree.
Below is a recording of Siberian Thrush on a typical morning at Xidaquan. In the background you can hear Oriental Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, Radde’s Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler.
Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:51; 2.8 MB)
White’s ThrushZoothera aurea
One of the rewards for waking early was hearing the monotonous, ventriloquial song of White’s Thrush. It normally calls unseen from deep within the forest and goes silent about an hour after sunrise. One morning Elaine and I saw this most secretive bird climb a tall tree and utter its mysterious call. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. At a location nearby I witnessed the ventriloquy. The low note seemed to be coming from a place to my right, while the high note seemed to be coming from a place in front of me. Only after a few minutes did I realize that a single unseen White’s Thrush was uttering both notes.
White’s Thrush, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:43; 4.9 MB)
Grey-backed ThrushTurdus hortulorum
This East Asian endemic was noted on nine days in spring 2016, singing and defending territory. Also noted on two days in summer 2015.
Grey-backed Thrush, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (08:17; 21.4 MB)
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus
Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and five days in summer 2015. Shy. Sings powerfully from unseen perches deep in the forest. At dawn and dusk sometimes seen foraging on the roadside.
Blue-and-white FlycatcherCyanoptila cyanomelana
We found Mark Brazil’s description of the breeding habitat to be apt: “ … in forested mountains, generally in mature mixed broadleaf forest with dense undergrowth, often near streams … ” (Birds of East Asia). Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and on two days in summer 2015.
Blue-and-white Flycatcher, broadleaf forest near Xidaquan, 27 May 2016 (01:30; 4.4 MB)
Siberian Blue RobinLarvivora cyane
Noted on 12 days in spring 2016, with a high of 21 individuals on 2 June. Its song, delivered from deep cover, consists of a burst of sound followed by a pause and buildup then another burst, each burst distinct from the other.
Siberian Blue Robin, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (02:42; 7.2 MB)
Rufous-tailed RobinLarvivora sibilans
Noted on seven days in spring 2016, all records except one coming from deep cover along thickly vegetated creeks at Xidaquan. Song a descending trill.
Rufous-tailed Robin, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (01:01; 3.2 MB)
Siberian RubythroatCalliope calliope
Noted on four days in spring 2016 and on one day in summer 2015. Usually hides in undergrowth, but at dawn and for a few hours thereafter may be seen singing from an exposed perch.
Siberian Rubythroat, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (02:20; 6.4 MB)
Yellow-rumped FlycatcherFicedula zanthopygia
Sings a long, slow, deliberate, and loud song somewhat like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher. Noted on 12 days in spring 2016.
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)
White-throated Rock ThrushMonticola gularis
I learned the call of this East Asian specialty by doggedly following a bird that was singing and moving unseen in the canopy above me. Finally the secretive singer allowed me to glimpse him, and only then could I confirm that he was White-throated Rock Thrush. Noted on three days in spring 2016 and once in summer 2015.
White-throated Rock Thrush, Hongwei Linchang, 7 June 2016 (01:04; 4.1 MB)
One of the most commonly noted birds in Boli, found on 14 days in spring 2016 and 12 days in summer 2015. Versatile, often at forest edge but also in areas with fewer trees.
Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (00:44; 2.5 MB)
Species of Bird Noted in Boli County, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 (84 species)
Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Great Crested Grebe
Crested Honey Buzzard
Little Ringed Plover
Oriental Turtle Dove
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Chinese Grey Shrike
Asian House Martin
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler
Oriental Reed Warbler
Black-browed Reed Warbler
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Siberian Blue Robin
White-throated Rock Thrush
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Birds We Missed
The forests of Boli County change markedly from season to season. On our brief initial trip in January 2015, winter visitors such as Common Redpoll, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Pallas’s Rosefinch were scraping out a living in the snowy, barren forests. In late summer bird waves are common, in springtime virtually non-existent. Late summer shows few birds in breeding mode but offers passage migrants. In springtime the songs of breeding birds resound.
Birds seen in one season may not be seen in another. In some cases, as with Hazel Grouse, it is easy to understand why. In other cases, the reason is less clear. Other birds, such as Red-flanked Bluetail, that one would expect in the region have yet to appear on any of our lists. Here are some of the birds we missed on our spring 2016 trip.
Hazel Grouse: On our summer 2015 expedition, Elaine and I noted this species on 10 days, both in the excellent habitat of Xidaquan and in the lower-quality forest in the hills south of Dawucun. We noted no Hazel Grouse in spring 2016. The grouse were breeding and had retired to the quiet recesses of the forest with their young.
Great Spotted Woodpecker: Common in much of China, noted just once by Elaine and me in summer 2015 and not at all in spring 2016. Its congener White-backed Woodpecker is common in the area.
Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker: Scarce species noted by us once at Xidaquan in summer 2015. Missed in spring 2016.
Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker: Rufous-bellied Woodpecker ssp. subrufinus is reported in eastern Heilongjiang, as is Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. Neither has been found by us around Boli.
Black-naped Oriole: A species yet to be noted by us in Boli.
Azure Tit: This unmistakable tit has been reported around Lake Khanka, on the Sino-Russian border east of Boli County. We have yet to see the species in Boli.
Marsh Tit: Race brevirostris noted by us on 13 days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
Manchurian Bush Warbler, Baikal Bush Warbler, Chinese Bush Warbler: Yet to be noted by us in Boli.
Asian Stubtail: Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
Manchurian Reed Warbler: We made a point to look for this bird, paying careful attention to the Black-browed Reed Warbler we were finding. No luck.
Yellow-browed Warbler: In spring 2016 we were expecting big counts of this species, having noted it on nine days in summer 2015. We noted it not once in spring 2016. It most likely does not breed in the area and was passing through the region in August and September 2015.
Arctic Warbler: Also apparently a passage migrant at Xidaquan. In spring 2016 we had but one record of a singing individual at Xidaquan. In summer 2015 we had two records.
Two-barred Warbler: Yet another apparent passage migrant. Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
Red-flanked Bluetail: Surprise! We have yet to record this species in Boli County.
Eurasian Treecreeper: Noted by us four times in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
List of Place Names
Boli: name that may refer to either Boli County or Boli Town.
Xeno-Canto Foundation. Xeno-Canto: Bird Sounds from Around the World. xeno-canto.org. Craig has downloaded hundreds of calls from this Web site.
Cameras: Nikon D3S; for landscapes, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone 4S, and Apple iPhone 6
Lens: Nikon VR 600mm F/4G
Sound recorder: Olympus DM-650
Binoculars: Swarovski EL 8 x 32 (Craig), Zeiss Conquest HD 8 x 42 (Elaine)
Spotting scope: Swarovski ATX-95
Featured image: Drake Mandarin Duck, found in a small pool deep in the forest at Xidaquan National Forest on 1 June 2016. Photo by Craig Brelsford.