Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler at Cape Nanhui is one of the best sightings of my birding career. Ours is the only record on eBird of the species at Shanghai’s top birding spot. Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and I were in the defunct wetland reserve. The Middendorf’s was at the base of reeds along a canal. We observed the bird for several minutes. The date was 21 May 2015.
The specimen above is clearly a Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes ochotensis and not either of its two most similar congeners: the less contrastingly patterned Styan’s Grasshopper WarblerH. pleskei and the more contrasting Pallas’s Grasshopper WarblerH. certhiola. Nor is it the heavily streaked Marsh GrassbirdH. pryeri.
Our team was delighted with the find, for Middendorf’s on migration is an elusive tick. There is, however, evidence that Shanghai is a place of some importance on the migration route and that enterprising birders can find the species here. La Touche in 1912 reported Middendorf’s as being common in late May and early June on Shaweishan, near Chongming Island (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 261). On its spring migration, Middendorf’s follows a north to northeast heading from the Philippines, its main wintering grounds, to the breeding areas in Hokkaido, the Kurils, Sakhalin, and the mainland Russian Far East. Many go due north from Luzon to Taiwan before making the northeastward turn toward Japan. Some continue still farther due north from Taiwan, crossing the East China Sea and making landfall at the first part of mainland Asia they hit, namely the eastern bulge of China around Shanghai (261).
Shanghai not only is a likely part of the migration route of Middendorf’s; it is possibly also the very best place on the Chinese coast where migrating Middendorf’s may be found. As springtime records of Middendorf’s in north China are scarce, experts presume that most Middendorf’s that reach the central Chinese coast migrate not northward but northeastward, again crossing the East China Sea to Japan. Note too that south of Shanghai, for example in Guangdong and Hong Kong, records of Middendorf’s also are few (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 261; eBird 2020).
Our Middendorf’s was silent, but some call, and Shanghai birders hoping to tick the species should be listening carefully in late May. “[The call of Middendorf’s] is often the only indication of presence away from the breeding areas,” write Kennerley and Pearson (2010, 259). Care needs to be taken to distinguish the “kit” or “chit” call of Middendorf’s from the similar call of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, which is known to call and even sing on migration in Shanghai (Brelsford 2017). Distinguishing the call and song of Middendorf’s and Pallas’s can be difficult, even for expert birders (Moores 2018).
In summary, I believe that the records of La Touche from more than a century ago were accurate and that in certain coastal areas in Shanghai, Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler was a common late-spring migrant. I believe furthermore that despite the massive transformation of the Shanghai coast since the time of La Touche, Middendorf’s may still be common in late May and early June at places such as Cape Nanhui and Chongming Dongtan. Birders should be on the lookout for Middendorf’s in Shanghai.
MAP & PHOTOS
Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, Verkhoturova Island, Russia (59.593602, 164.674460). Song with element of call at beginning. Recorded 27 June in lowland grassland/tussocky tundra near northernmost extension of breeding range. (0:29; 683 KB; Christoph Zöckler)
RESOURCES ON HELOPSALTES AND LOCUSTELLA WARBLERS
Click the links below for coverage on shanghaibirding.com of locustellid warblers.
— Scarce migrant and regional breeder Asian Koel recorded in May and June, singing Common Cuckoo breeding at Cape Nanhui, and singing Lesser Cuckoo in Jiangsu: The Cuckoos of Shanghai
Brazil, Mark (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Brazil, Mark (2018). Birds of Japan. Helm Field Guides, London.
Brelsford, C. (2017). “One of My All-time Ornithological Highlights” (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/all-time-high/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 May 2017; scroll down for report and sound-recording of singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (accessed: 25 May 2020).
eBird (2020). eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler in China (https://ebird.org/species/migwar/CN) and Taiwan (https://ebird.org/species/migwar/TW). Accessed: 27 Apr 2020.
Kennerley, P. & Pearson, D. (2010). Reed and Bush Warblers. London: Christopher Helm.
MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps (2000). A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.
Moores, N. (2018). eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53240665. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. See note under entry for Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler: “Heard only – listed as Possible as confusion with Pallas’s Grasshopper a decent possibilty” (sic). (Accessed: 27 Apr 2020)
Pearson, D.P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 615 (Middendorf’s Warbler) 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.
1. Sound-recording of Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler by Christoph Zöckler added 28 April 2020.
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 Helopsaltes 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, April. (Kai Pflug)
On Sat. 8 April I birded Cape Nanhui with John MacKinnon. John is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about China’s birds. On John’s first visit to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula, we noted 84 species. John and I were joined by veteran birders Michael Grunwell and Russell Boyman and the outstanding high-school birder Larry Chen.
We gave John the Grand Nanhui Tour, starting at Luchao to the south and ending 30 km north at Binhai. Heading back to the city, we made a brief stop at the sod farm just south of Pudong Airport, where we found a single Oriental Plover.
Nanhui yielded 23 Marsh Grassbird performing the song flight at three locations, and we saw 10 Endangered Great Knot and 1 Near Threatened Curlew Sandpiper. We had a pair of Rufous-faced Warbler and a Common Starling.
Also: Garganey 57, Greater Scaup 1 (Dishui Lake), Little Curlew 31 (flock), Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 11 (first of season), Red-necked Stint 1 (first of season), Wood Sandpiper 1 (first of season), Peregrine Falcon 1, Dusky Warbler 1 at Magic Parking Lot (possibly wintered there), and Reed Parrotbill 18.
John is witty and a fine storyteller. He had us roaring with tales drawn from his six decades as a researcher in Asia. The funniest story was about the doctor back home in Britain. Every time John straggled in, the doc would call in his students, so that they could study the strange new tropical disease John had contracted.
“I never cared about my health, because I never expected to live this long!” John said.
John also talked about his masterpiece, A Field Guide to the Birds of China.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Field Guide. Had it merely been a window for Westerners to the birds of the world’s most populous country, then John’s work would have been important enough. The Field Guide, however, in translated form has introduced tens of thousands of Chinese to the birds of their own country. John’s Chinese name, Mǎjìngnéng (马敬能), is known by every birder in China.
John faced obstacles unknown to field-guide writers in North America and Western Europe, where birding has been practiced for 200 years. His sources were often thin, he said.
“For range maps, I had nearly nothing from Russia,” John said. “A Chinese book had ranges stopping at the Chinese border. Another book had no paintings, only descriptions.”
To critics who unfairly compare John’s Field Guide to field guides covering more developed parts of the world, John had this to say:
“You’ve got to finish something. We finished the book. We could have waited and said, ‘Oh, another species has been split, we must revise,’ but at a certain point you have to say, ‘We must go with what we’ve got.’”
To this day, no Westerner has repeated John’s feat. Others talked; John acted.
John is a handy photographer and got off some good shots, three of which are displayed in the Day List at the bottom of this post. Here are some photos I took of the pioneer birder and naturalist.
MARSH GRASSBIRD ON THE BRINK
Marsh Grassbird were singing in the large reed beds at Nanhui. They were most conspicuous at the reed bed south of the Holiday Inn (30.870711, 121.942976). The species, listed as Near Threatened by IUCN, was also noted in the pristine reed bed (30.931790, 121.949169) associated with the defunct wetland reserve.
The reed beds at Cape Nanhui may be the last stronghold of Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis on the Shanghai Peninsula. The species is highly dependent on large reed beds. In areas where only strips of reeds remain, the song of Marsh Grassbird is never heard. Its partner species, Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for official bird of the city-province of Shanghai, is only slightly less dependent on large reed beds.
One of the areas where last year my partners and I noted Marsh Grassbird performing its song flight has been flattened. No song of Marsh Grassbird was heard there Saturday. A few Reed Parrotbill were calling in one of the strips of reeds left standing.
Much needs to be learned about Marsh Grassbird in Earth’s largest city. Birders, look for the fluttering song flight, and listen for this song: