The Day Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Appeared at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

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 Warbler H. pleskei and the more contrasting Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola. Nor is it the heavily streaked Marsh Grassbird H. 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-map
Map showing major migration patterns of Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler in spring. From its wintering areas mainly in the Philippines, Middendorf’s moves north into Taiwan (Arrow 1), where winter records of the species also are numerous (eBird 2020). Some Middendorf’s may bypass Taiwan and head northeastward through the Ryukyus to the main Japanese islands (2). From Taiwan many Middendorf’s head northeast to Japan (3), while some continue northward and reach mainland Asia near Shanghai (4). Middendorf’s that reach the Shanghai region presumably migrate northeastward, crossing the East China Sea to Japan (5). In Japan they traverse Honshu (6, 7) en route to the breeding grounds in Hokkaido and the Russian Far East. Red dots indicate areas in the Shanghai region where Middendorf’s has been recorded on eBird (includes autumn records). Data for this illustration from Kennerley and Pearson 2010, pp. 260-1; Brazil 2018, p. 304; and eBird. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler
On 21 May 2015, this Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler appeared at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui. Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and Craig Brelsford found the warbler at the edge of a reedbed in the defunct nature reserve. The coordinates of the spot are 30.915306, 121.967074. The encounter with the elusive migrant remains the sole record on eBird of Middendorf’s at Shanghai’s top birding spot. (Craig Brelsford)
Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler
Migrating Middendorf’s are often found ‘in reedbeds and along riverbanks’ (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 259). This individual was treading carefully along the edge of a canal, in conformity with the authors’ description. In spring Middendorf’s departs the winter quarters late and performs ‘a rapid northward migration with a limited number of stopover points’ (261). This individual may have flown nonstop from Taiwan, crossing the East China Sea and making landfall around Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

SOUND-RECORDING

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.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus
Marsh Grassbird H. pryeri
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola
Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata
Brown Bush Warbler L. luteoventris
Baikal Bush Warbler L. davidi
Spotted Bush Warbler L. thoracica

OTHER LATE SPRING MIGRANTS IN SHANGHAI

In addition to Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, late spring brings passage migrants such as these to Shanghai:

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler recorded at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui in June

Pechora Pipit singing at Cape Nanhui in May

— 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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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 Sep 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: 25 Sep 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: 25 Sep 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.

REVISIONS

1. Sound-recording of Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler by Christoph Zöckler added 28 April 2020.

Featured image: Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes ochotensis, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)
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Marsh Grassbird at Cape Nanhui

by Kai Pflug
for shanghaibirding.com

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

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:

Marsh Grassbird Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
Another look at Cape Nanhui’s Marsh Grassbird. The reed beds at Cape Nanhui may be the last stronghold of the species on the Shanghai Peninsula. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird singing at Cape Nanhui. If no action is taken to preserve Cape Nanhui, then the song of this species could fall silent on the Shanghai Peninsula. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis, Cape Nanhui, April 2018. (Kai Pflug)
Sing on, Marsh Grassbird. Time may not be on your side, but many birders are. (Kai Pflug)
Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Nanhui, Shanghai, 10 April 2016.
Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Cape Nanhui, April. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured photo: Marsh Grassbird, Cape Nanhui, April. (Kai Pflug)
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