Birding the Jiangsu Coast in May

by Steven Bonta
for shanghaibirding.com

Steven Bonta
Steven Bonta

After months of coronavirus, quarantine, and restricted travel, spring 2020 arrived emphatically in eastern China, and with it, the spectacular annual surge of northbound migrants along the East Asian Flyway. Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui is less than convenient at the moment for those of us without cars; the closure of the Magic Hotel and its conversion to a quarantine facility for coronavirus patients have resulted in police cordons barring vehicular access to the shore road and the microforests after about 8 a.m., and no buses are available to convey birders back to the Dishui Lake Subway Station. Moreover, the crowds of day-trippers that, in saner times, congregated in the lawns and recreational areas around the hotel, have been forced to spread out along the coast road, with the result that several of the microforests have (temporarily, let us hope) been turned into picnic and barbecue areas, with noisy parties depositing trash and driving away birds and birders.

Accordingly, I decided, along with Andreas Goeckede, an excellent local bird photographer who has become a fixture at Nanhui, to leave Shanghai for the first time in months, and explore the coastal birding areas further north along the coast of Jiangsu. We decided to take advantage of the May Day holiday weekend to spend three days exploring Dongtai, in particular the UN World Heritage site near the village of Tiaozini, probably the best place on earth to find the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank. We hoped also to visit nearby Yangkou, once another popular spot, but neglected lately by birders because of the recent and rapid industrialization of the area.

We left on a sultry Sunday morning, 3 May, unsure of what we would find once we left Shanghai. We had been assured that the Green Tree Hotel in Tiaozini would accept us, as long as we could prove we had not left China recently, but we knew that the situation was still potentially unstable, with reports of new outbreaks of the virus in the northeast impeding the long-awaited return to national normalcy.

We drove straight to Dongtai, encountering virtually no traffic, and making the trip in a blistering two and a half hours.

At the entrance to the birding areas (32.761307, 120.952457), we received a shock: access to the shore road was blocked, and thousands of visitors were being directed to a large new parking area, where they were then boarding sightseeing buses and being taken to the coast. In effect, Dongtai had been transformed into a large tourist area since the last time we visited, in October of last year. We decided to make the best of the situation and bird the enormous expanse of inland fish ponds and other waterways, as well as the areas of planted woods that line the many access roads and, in some cases, the land between successive wetlands. After all, the tide along the coast was near the high-water mark, so it was unlikely that we would see many birds along the shore road. We resolved to return the next morning at the crack of dawn, when we hoped we could gain access to the shore road and the coastal mudflats at low tide—and perhaps find some rare shorebirds.

As we started off exploring the many dirt roads that give access to the fish ponds and other artificial wetlands, we quickly discovered that many of Dongtai’s shorebirds had indeed moved inland with the tide. We found many flocks of shorebirds gathered on the sand bars and mudflats of almost every pond with low water. We found Black-winged Stilt, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, and Black-tailed Godwit, while overhead wheeled Gull-billed Tern, Common Tern, and Little Tern. Also abundant were Chinese Grosbeak, which lined the electrical wires. Grey-headed Lapwing, which breed in the area, were noisy and conspicuous. We noted Common Kingfisher and Pied Kingfisher.

Relieved as we were to find shorebirds, the glory of our first day at Dongtai was in the planted forests along the roads and paths, which quivered with birds. Leaf warblers were so abundant that their calling produced a more or less permanent background white noise of twittering. They were massed by the thousands everywhere we went, feeding among the acacia blooms, but always difficult to see. We eventually saw Arctic Warbler, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, and Dusky Warbler. Manchurian Bush Warbler, with their explosive burble, were also common. We continued to note large flocks of Chinese Grosbeak—hundreds in all, almost everywhere we stopped. On one memorable stretch of path, we found a nice flock of Ashy Minivet. Grey-streaked Flycatcher were everywhere, as well as the occasional Asian Brown Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, and Narcissus Flycatcher. The most common bunting species was forest-loving Tristram’s Bunting. Black-faced Bunting were also numerous.

The biggest surprises in the wooded areas, however, were not songbirds. At the edge of one rib of trees following the road, we found an exquisite Black-capped Kingfisher, which proved to be extremely wary. After many attempts to get near the bird, only to have it dive off into the trees, Andreas finally managed to take a single serviceable picture.

An even bigger surprise was a single Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, a rare migrant in eastern China. This stunningly beautiful woodpecker—a lifer for both of us—allowed us a fairly close approach as it hitched its way up a tree beside the road. By contrast, a Great Spotted Woodpecker we found earlier in the day was extremely shy.

Despite the heat and the lack of access to the main shore road, we had a satisfying first day, logging 78 species in about six hours of birding. Toward the end of the afternoon, we managed to find our way to the entrance area by another route, and were flabbergasted to see thousands of people thronging around a brand new mall with various concession stores, and crowding on beaches and mudflats that used to be the domain of migrating shorebirds. Access to the shore road was now blocked by a guard house and barrier, and only noisy buses were being allowed to ply it. Along the shore, we saw tents, barbecues, Frisbees, kites, and massive crowds of people walking along the shore road—this, in a UN-designated World Heritage Site for bird conservation.

Glumly, we made our way to the Green Tree Hotel, hoping against hope that the shore road would be open the following morning.

The next day, we left at 5 a.m. and were surprised that the weather had turned much colder overnight. As we had hoped, the new recreation area was deserted, and the shore road was accessible. Instead of hordes of day-trippers, only a handful of local fishermen could be seen far out on the tidal flats. The line of the sea was at least a kilometer offshore, and we hoped that shorebird sightings would be forthcoming. Parking the car and donning our boots, we headed out amidst the hulls of beached fishing boats, many of which looked to be abandoned. A chill wind blew across the flats, bringing with it a welcome sight: Saunders’s Gull, a local specialty. We could see small groups of tiny shorebirds skittering about on the flats, and eventually began ticking them off: Kentish Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, and Red-necked Stint. Further out loomed groups of Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, along with a few Eurasian Curlew and Far Eastern Curlew. However, try as we might, we found no Spoon-billed Sandpiper, nor any Nordmann’s Greenshank.

After an hour or so in the stinging cold wind, we trudged back to the car and continued on up the coast road, now nearly deserted. We saw few shorebirds overall, but here and there, more curlews (including a number of Eurasian Whimbrel), Terek Sandpiper, and Grey-tailed Tattler kept things interesting.

Several miles up the road from the entrance, we found what turned out to be the bird of the trip. I noticed a large gull standing alone in the shallow surf just offshore, and Andreas was able to take some nice pictures. To our surprise, it turned out to be a Pallas’s Gull, the giant black-headed gull of interior Eurasia, very far from its habitual range.

As we followed the shore road away from the coast, we discovered a shallow lake covering several hectares that was covered with birds. Here we found our first large concentrations of Pied Avocet and Eurasian Oystercatcher, as well as a few lingering ducks—Eurasian Teal, Garganey, and Eurasian Wigeon. A number of smaller shorebirds—stints and Marsh Sandpiper prominent among them—mingled among the larger birds, and a single Common Snipe (our only snipe of the trip) flew off at our approach. In the dense reed beds chattered Black-browed Reed Warbler, and a single female Bluethroat flew into view. Overhead, Common Tern and Little Tern filled the skies. Several larger Caspian Tern rested on the mudflats beside the lake, in the company of large flocks of Saunders’s Gull.

A few miles farther on, we finally found a couple of Nordmann’s Greenshank in the company of some other shorebirds, on the muddy banks of a broad canal emptying onto a broad marshland. Nearby, in an area of mudflats and sandbars along a wide creek that had yielded nice results the previous October, we turned up another congeries of shorebirds that included several beautiful Curlew Sandpiper.

Despite the much colder weather, the woodlands continued to produce. We found again the shy Black-capped Kingfisher of the previous day, as well as more warblers and grosbeaks. To our great surprise, we turned up a second Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, this one even more cooperative than the first.

By day’s end, we had racked up a very respectable 95 species, with a two-day total of well over a hundred. With the weather for Day 3 forecast to be more of the same, we decided to drive down the coast 30 kilometers to the Yangkou area, to see whether the place still has good birding after years of unchecked development.

Coming from the north, we first entered Yangkou via the “Magic Wood” area (32.577320, 121.004202), and were immediately impressed by large numbers of Azure-winged Magpie, a new species for the trip. Here too leaf warblers and Chinese Grosbeak were abundant, and here too we found Manchurian Bush Warbler and Grey-streaked Flycatcher. Because our primary objective was shorebirds and whatever microforests might still be found around the town, we continued south along the shore road, watching the deteriorating weather with apprehension.

The Haiyinsi Temple Wood (32.560361, 121.039806) was off limits, the temple grounds still being closed to the public because of lingering coronavirus concerns. But we found plenty of other microforests as we began driving south along the coast road, many of which harbored a nice array of passerines in the cold, drizzly weather. Among the migrants we found were Meadow Bunting, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Grey-backed Thrush, Dusky Thrush, Grey-streaked Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Robin, and Swinhoe’s White-eye. In an extensive marshy area behind one stretch of microforest, a flock of around 50 White-winged Tern swooped in to join Common Tern and Little Tern.

However, our real interest was in ascertaining the status of the shorebird migration at Yangkou. As we had feared, the seacoast side of the road was mostly off-limits, with side roads out the various levees now guarded by watchmen and gates. Industrialization was everywhere, with new plants on both sides of the road, and ubiquitous wind turbines with their Aeolian whine a distraction at every turn. However, as we got several miles out of town, the shore road emptied out, and the cordgrass that had overgrown most of the mudflats closer to town disappeared. A green mesh fence surmounting the seawall appeared, but locals appeared to pay it no mind, as several of them were out on the marshes gathering driftwood.

And then we saw the shorebirds, a broad black belt of birdlife only a few hundred meters offshore, feeding near the edge of the incoming tide. From the seawall I put my scope on the flock, and saw tens of thousands of birds, with the flock stretching off down the coast as far as I could make out, a kilometer or more.

We found a partly open gate in the fence, fortuitously located right near where the thickest part of the immense flock was feeding, and decided simply to position ourselves at the base of the seawall, and wait for the incoming tide to push the birds to us.

Sure enough, the flock drifted closer and closer, with large portions lifting off, wheeling overhead, and landing ever nearer to the wall. There were so many birds that some of the larger flocks seemed to darken the sky itself, a spectacle seldom observable anywhere on the earth in the 21st century. We saw thousands of Bar-tailed Godwit, Lesser Sand Plover, Red-necked Stint, and Grey Plover and tens of thousands of Dunlin (the most abundant species). Here and there were smaller groupings of Kentish Plover and Terek Sandpiper. As the flock was pushed to within 15 meters of us, we could finally make out several Spoon-billed Sandpiper skittering about among the stints. We waited until the tidewater was swirling near our boots before returning to the car, cold and damp, but exuberant. We drove on down the coast for another couple of kilometers before the huge shorebird flock finally petered out.

With the weather continuing to deteriorate and facing a long drive back to Shanghai, we decided to wrap up our expedition. We had seen a respectable 60 species in only a few hours of birding in less than optimal conditions. The shorebird flock at Yangkou was by far the largest we encountered on this trip. We can report that Yangkou is still birdable, though quite different from Dongtai. However, birders should not have unrealistic expectations. Yangkou is an industrial area, and finding the big shorebird flocks is not as easy as it once was. Dongtai, while not undergoing industrialization along the shoreline, is being transformed into just another beach resort, and, for now, access to the shore road by vehicle is possible only early in the morning.

The future of both of these world-class migratory bird hotspots is very much in doubt. But on this outing, we logged over 120 species, and returned to the urban sprawl of Shanghai well-satisfied.

PHOTOS BY ANDREAS GOECKEDE

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker
Rufous-bellied Woodpecker Dendrocopos hyperythrus. Bonta writes, ‘This stunningly beautiful woodpecker—a lifer for both of us—allowed us a fairly close approach as it hitched its way up a tree.’ (Andreas Goeckede)
Mugimaki Flycatcher
Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki is a common passage migrant in the Shanghai region. The male is exquisite. (Andreas Goeckede)
Rufous-tailed Robin
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans sometimes sings on migration in the Shanghai region. Its breeding range includes northeast China. (Andreas Goeckede)
Grey-headed Lapwing
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus breeds in the undeveloped reclaimed areas on the coast of Dongtai County, Jiangsu. (Andreas Goeckede)
Dunlin
The most numerous shorebird recorded by Bonta and Goeckede was Dunlin Calidris alpina. Bonta: ‘And then we saw the shorebirds, a broad black belt of birdlife … I put my scope on the flock, and saw tens of thousands of birds, with the flock stretching off down the coast as far as I could make out.’ (Andreas Goeckede)
Eurasian Whimbrel
Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus breeds across much of subarctic Asia and Europe. (Andreas Goeckede)
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus with Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta. (Andreas Goeckede)
Black-tailed Godwit
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa melanuroides. (Andreas Goeckede)
Ruddy Turnstone
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres. (Andreas Goeckede)

Featured image: In May, the coastal areas of Jiangsu, the densely populated province north of Shanghai, abound with migrating shorebirds, songbirds, and even woodpeckers. Among them are, clockwise from L, Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus, Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki, Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus, and Rufous-bellied Woodpecker Dendrocopos hyperythrus. All by Andreas Goeckede, except Ashy Minivet (Craig Brelsford).

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The Waxwings of Shanghai

Japanese Waxwing
For many birders in Shanghai, Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica is an unexpected and welcome tick. The species is recorded most frequently at Pudong’s Binjiang Forest Park, where I photographed this individual. Gain familiarity with waxwings by reading this post. (Craig Brelsford)

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Shanghai birders record Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica and Bohemian Waxwing B. garrulus centralasiae irregularly in the urban parks, on the coast, and in suburban western Shanghai. Japanese Waxwing is reported nearly three times as often in Shanghai as Bohemian. Binjiang Forest Park in Pudong has both the most records and the largest recorded flocks, with counts as high as 40. Century Park is second to Binjiang in the number of records. Cape Nanhui has records of both species, all of individuals and small groups. Nearly all waxwing sightings in Shanghai occur between November and February. There are a handful of records from March, April, and May (eBird 2020).

I have noted Japanese Waxwing in November, December, and January at Binjiang and in January on Chongming Island. Bohemian Waxwing were mixed in with the flocks I saw of Japanese at Binjiang. I also have a record of a single Bohemian Waxwing on Lesser Yangshan Island in November.

Improve your chances of ticking waxwings in Shanghai by reading the species descriptions below and studying the photos.

JAPANESE WAXWING

Japanese Waxwing
Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica devouring a berry, Binjiang Forest Park, December. In winter, waxwings subsist almost entirely on berries. The fruit is usually swallowed whole, but occasionally, as above, the waxwing fails to loosen the berry from the stem and must peck it. (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Tails
The color of the tail-tip is the readiest differentiator between Bohemian Waxwing (top) and Japanese Waxwing (bottom). Note also the black subterminal bands, narrower in Japanese. (Craig Brelsford)

Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica is an irregular winter visitor and passage migrant in Shanghai. Breeds nearly exclusively in Russian Far East (E Yakutia, Amur, Khabarovsk, N Sakhalin). In China is irregular breeder in Lesser Khingan Mountains in Heilongjiang. Does not breed in Japan. Winters mainly eastern China, also Korea and Japan. More irregular south of Yangtze, but reported as far south as Fujian and Yunnan and as far west as Qinghai. BEHAVIOR In winter almost entirely frugivorous and almost always in flocks. Mixed flocks often contain Bohemian Waxwing. DESCRIPTION Thick neck and short tail give plump appearance. Has narrow black mask, from eye extending upward below crest, giving angry facial expression; eyeline meets on forehead and (unlike in Bohemian) connects at rear of crest. Black bib (clear-cut in male, more diffuse in female); white at lower base of bill and part of eye-ring (below rear part of eye). Forehead and malar cinnamon-brown, rest of head buff, turning greyish-brown on nape, mantle, and wing coverts; lower back, rump and uppertail coverts grey. Tail grey at base, with black subterminal band and red tip. Underparts pale greyish-brown, with varying amount of pale yellow on belly. White between and behind legs; vent and undertail coverts dull orange, but sometimes remarkably crimson. Has red band on greater coverts that in flight appears as small wing bar. Primary coverts blue-grey with broad black tips; secondaries grey with black subterminal band and red tips (but no red appendages, as on Bohemian). Primaries edged blue-grey on sides; the edging together with blue-grey on primary coverts and secondaries make wing look more blue-grey than black. Adult primaries tipped white (with red dots on a few outer webs), making “V” markings on closed wing (markings on outer web longer in Bohemian, making a connected line). Females have thinner V’s, and juveniles lack white on inner webs, having instead of “V” markings a white line along edge of folded wing. COMPARISON Easily distinguished from Bohemian by red terminal band on tail. Smaller and slimmer than Bohemian, and swept-back, pointed crest shorter than Bohemian. Wing pattern also different; Japanese lacks white and yellow in secondaries and wing coverts, instead having red band on median coverts, and broad black tips to grey greater coverts and primary coverts. Bohemian lacks yellow belly spot. BARE PARTS Bill short, black; strong feet black; iris brown. VOICE Pleasant trills, often delivered in flight, shorter, higher-pitched and less ringing than Bohemian. — Craig Brelsford

BOHEMIAN WAXWING

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus, Binjiang Forest Park, November. Bohemian Waxwing is the widest-ranging of the world’s three waxwing species, with a distribution encompassing northern Eurasia and North America. (Craig Brelsford)
waxwing heads
The black masks of Japanese Waxwing (top) and Bohemian Waxwing (bottom) lend both species an ‘angry’ expression. Bohemian has a longer crest and a shorter eyeline that does not extend to the hindcrown. (Craig Brelsford)

Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus centralasiae is an unpredictable and irruptive winter visitor to most of China north of the Yangtze and as far west as Qinghai and Xinjiang; sporadically to southern China and Taiwan. In Shanghai, reported about a third as often as Japanese Waxwing. BEHAVIOR In winter among most frugivorous of birds. Mostly insectivorous in summer, catching insects in aerial flights. Non-breeding usually in flocks, flying quickly and in tight formation, like starlings. DESCRIPTION Starling-sized, mainly buffy and greyish-brown, with long, swept-back, pointed crest and distinctive markings on wing. Thick neck and short tail give plump appearance. Has narrow black mask, from eye extending upwards below crest, giving angry facial expression; black meets on forehead but, unlike in Japanese, not on hindcrown. Black bib (clear cut in male, slightly more diffuse in female); white at lower base of bill and part of eye-ring. Forehead and malar cinnamon-brown, rest of head buff, turning greyish-brown on nape, mantle, and wing coverts; lower back, rump and uppertail coverts grey; tail grey at base, then black with broad yellow terminal band (narrower and paler in first-winter female). Underparts pale buffish-grey (palest on belly); deep rusty vent and undertail coverts. Primaries, primary coverts, and secondaries black with broad white tips to primary coverts and secondaries forming two bars; inner secondaries tipped with wax-like red appendages, most extensive in adult males and faint in first-winter females. Adult primaries tipped white on inner webs and yellow on outer webs (whiter towards wing tip), making “V” markings on closed wing; females have thinner V’s; juveniles lack white on inner webs and have less yellow, so instead of “V” markings have a mostly white line along edge of folded wing. COMPARISON Easily distinguished from smaller and more slender Japanese by yellow terminal band on tail (red on Japanese). Bohemian has longer crest and deeper chestnut vent and undertail coverts and lacks yellow spot on belly. BARE PARTS Bill short, black; strong feet black; iris brown. VOICE In winter, soft, ringing trills, often given in flight. — Craig Brelsford

PHOTOS

Waxwing Bellies
Japanese Waxwing (L) has a yellow spot on the central belly. In Bohemian (R) the belly is a more uniform buffish-grey. (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Wings
The secondaries of Bohemian Waxwing (R) have elongated and flattened red tips. These appendages resemble hardened droplets of wax and give the family its English name. In Japanese Waxwing (L) the secondaries are tipped bright red or pink. (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Flight
On fast-flying waxwings, note the yellow-and-white pattern on the wing of Bohemian (L) and the red scapular line and red-tipped secondaries of Japanese (R). (Craig Brelsford)
bohemian and japanese waxwing
Here is a scene typical of waxwings in Shanghai. A lone Bohemian Waxwing (C) is treated as one of the gang by the more numerous Japanese Waxwing. Smart birders in Shanghai scan closely each member of a flock of Japanese Waxwing, knowing that often a Bohemian will be mixed in. (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Waxwing
Waxwings nearly always swallow berries whole, as here (Japanese) …
Bohemian Waxwing
… and here (Bohemian). (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Eating Berries
Waxwings go to great lengths to remove a berry from the stem. A Bohemian Waxwing twists its head powerfully to wrest the berry away (top). The unwanted parts fall (bottom L), and the berry is ready to eat (bottom R). (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Waxwing
In winter waxwings alternate between feeding on berries, as here on Shanghai’s Chongming Island in January …
Japanese Waxwing
… and roosting on a nearby tree to digest their meal. (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Waxwing
Of the world’s three species of waxwing, Japanese Waxwing has the most compact breeding range. The species breeds almost exclusively in the Russian Far East north of the 50th parallel and south of the tree line. The main wintering range of Japanese Waxwing is eastern China north of the Yangtze. (Craig Brelsford)
Bohemian Waxwing
This Bohemian Waxwing, photographed in November at Binjiang Forest Park, likely spent the summer in a boreal forest in Russia somewhere between the Ural Mountains and Kamchatka. The species is not known to breed in China. (Craig Brelsford)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Daniel Bengtsson served as chief ornithological consultant for my Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China, which I am publishing in bits and pieces on this website, and from which the species descriptions above are drawn.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Brazil, Mark (2018). Birds of Japan. Helm Field Guides, London.

eBird (2020). eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Waxwings in Shanghai (Japanese: https://ebird.org/species/japwax1/CN-31; Bohemian: https://ebird.org/species/bohwax/CN-31). Waxwings in China (Japanese: https://ebird.org/species/japwax1/CN; Bohemian: https://ebird.org/species/bohwax/CN). Accessed: 31 Mar 2020.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps (2000). A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Mountjoy, D.J. (2005). Family Bombycillidae (Waxwings). Pp. 316-7 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 10. Cuckooshrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Svensson, Lars, Killian Mullarney, & Dan Zetterström (2009). Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. 2nd ed. HarperCollins, London.

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Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Found at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui on 1 May 2019: possible White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala. The discovery by Haiming Zhao provoked excitement and uncertainty among Shanghai birders. Certain aspects of the wagtail, notably the pale mottling on its mantle, cast doubt on an identification of White-headed. “Those pale/odd-looking feathers are unusual for leucocephala,” said Gomboo Sundev, a bird-tour leader in Mongolia, where leucocephala breeds. “I have never seen such an individual of the subspecies in Mongolia” (in litt., 2019).

Beijing-based British birder Paul Holt also noted the anomaly: “I was surprised … by the Shanghai bird’s mottled mantle” (in litt., 2019). Per Alström, co-author of Pipits and Wagtails, called the pale feathers on the mantle and scapulars “puzzling” (in litt., 2 May 2019). Both experts noted the pale base to the lower mandible of the Shanghai wagtail, also unexpected in leucocephala.

Students of Yellow Wagtail will not be surprised by the uncertainty. The Yellow Wagtail complex is a “systematic conundrum”; the various subspecies of the complex often “defy separation under the biological species concept” (Tyler 2004, 689). Interbreeding of the various subspecies occurs “freely at overlap zones, producing fertile hybrids” (689), often making it the case that “the direct parentage of Yellow Wagtails cannot be deciphered” (725). There is furthermore the prospect of partial albinism, a phenomenon that can make other subspecies of Yellow Wagtail appear white-headed (Alström & Mild 2003, 80, 269, 282).

In the case of leucocephala, another reason for the uncertainty is the sheer lack of knowledge about the race, even among elite ornithologists. Holt describes White-headed Yellow Wagtail as a “poorly known subspecies” (2019); Alström says his experience with the race is limited to “a few specimens and only one live bird” (in litt., 7 May 2019); Sundev told me he has seen the subspecies only about a dozen times (2019). The lack of information forces even great birders such as Holt to speculate: “The million-dollar question is whether [the mottled mantle and pale basal half of the lower mandible of the Shanghai bird] fit within the range of variation in leucocephala, or are they suggestive or even indicative of less than thoroughbred genes?” (2019)

Why is so little known about leucocephala? The biggest reason is the remoteness of its breeding range. White-headed Yellow Wagtail breeds in sparsely populated northwestern Mongolia, at places such as Khar-Us Lake (48.083328, 92.541368) and Durgun Lake (47.673106, 93.451188) (Sundev 2019). Alström and Mild say the race breeds also in areas adjacent to northwestern Mongolia, such as the Tuva Republic of Russia and “probably … northernmost Xinjiang” (2003, 281). Even the wintering range is uncertain; Alström and Mild say leucocephala “probably winters mainly in India but the exact wintering grounds are not known” (281).

The verdict on the Shanghai wagtail? “I would say it is leucocephala,” Sundev said. Holt agreed: “I would think that these [a White-headed Yellow Wagtail found in Hong Kong in April and the Shanghai wagtail] are the first two records of leucocephala for the whole of eastern China.” Alström, however, was less than fully convinced: “I’m not aware of a leucocephala with such a pale-mottled mantle as the Shanghai bird—although I can’t say they don’t occur” (7 May 2019).

PHOTOS

wagtail
L: The unusual Yellow Wagtail seen at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai on 1 May 2019. Note the pale mottling on the mantle. R: White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Mongolia. (L: Haiming Zhao; R: Gombobaatar Sundev)
wagtail
‘The encounter with the Western Yellow Wagtail was totally unexpected,’ said Shanghai birder Haiming Zhao, who discovered and photographed the bird. ‘The location where I found the bird is in a big area in Nanhui which has many trees newly planted. I came across this Western Yellow Wagtail when I went by this area searching for buntings. I was in my car looking at the ground 10-15 meters away to the left when I saw this special bird. Its bright gray head and yellow lower body were so eye-catching and had made it easily distinguished out there from a flock of eastern yellow wagtails on the ground’ (Zhao in litt., 2019). (Haiming Zhao)
wagtail
White-headed Yellow Wagtail on the breeding grounds in northwestern Mongolia. (Gombobaatar Sundev)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 2 May.

Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 7 May.

Alström, P., Mild, K., & Zetterström, B. (2003). Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press.

Holt, P. (2019). Messages to WeChat group Shanghai Birding, 1 May.

Sundev, G. (2019). Emails to author, 3 May.

Tyler, S.J. (2004). Family Motacillidae (Pipits and Wagtails). Pp. 689, 725 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2004). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 9. Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Zhao, H. (2019). Text messages to author, 2 May.

Featured image: Mysterious Yellow Wagtail, possibly White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
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