Season of the Stubtail

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

’Tis the season of the stubtail in Shanghai. Every year in April and May, and again in September and October, birders in Earth’s Greatest City record Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps. Migrant stubtails are no strangers to the inner city; the photo above was taken at Changfeng Park, deep in Shanghai’s urban jungle.

In Shanghai, most of my records of Asian Stubtail have come from the microforests that dot the sea wall at Cape Nanhui. Migrating stubtails can, however, turn up in any wooded area. In his apartment complex recently, in a wood of about 25 square meters, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Asian Stubtail. Hiko’s find bears out Kennerley and Pearson: Migrating Asian Stubtail, they write, is “opportunistic and likely to utilise any area of coastal or inland woodland or scrub offering shade and undisturbed areas for feeding” (2010, 557).

If Asian Stubtail is seen clearly or photographed well, then one can readily appreciate its distinctiveness. No other warbler in our region has its large-headed, bull-necked, stubby-tailed structure. The long, creamy supercilium is prominent, as is the contrastingly dark eye-line. The bill is fine and pointed, the legs are long and conspicuously pale, and the crown shows faint scaling.

Once on Lesser Yangshan, the island hotspot off the coast of Shanghai, I mistook Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi for a stubtail. A closer look at my photos revealed the longer tail and spikier bill of the Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus shares the dull, uniform plumage of Asian Stubtail and like the stubtail has a long supercilium, but it has a longer tail and shorter bill. Observers of Asian Stubtail in its winter range must separate it from shortwings and wren-babblers, while viewers of the species in its breeding range need to distinguish it from Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 556).

A common passage migrant in Shanghai, Asian Stubtail breeds in Beijing, Hebei, and Northeast China and adjacent Ussuriland as well as southern Sakhalin Island, the four main islands of Japan, and the Korean Peninsula. The winter range includes Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi and much of Southeast Asia (Holt in litt., 2019; Brazil 2009, 340; Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 557).

I have noted breeding Asian Stubtail in Heilongjiang and Hebei (10 June), migrating Asian Stubtail in Jiangsu and Shanghai, and a possibly wintering Asian Stubtail on 15 Nov. 2014 at Wuyuan, Jiangxi. Regarding the Jiangxi record, the presence of the species in mid-November at that latitude (29.2142, 117.5626) is surprising but not inconceivable; Brazil (2018, 290) reports that some Asian Stubtail winter in southern Kyushu, which is farther north than Jiangxi. The Wuyuan stubtail was singing intermittently; the best explanation may be that it was a first-winter bird.

Asian Stubtail, “sit” call and short song, Wuyuan, Jiangxi, 15 Nov. 2014 (16 MB; 01:37)

PHOTOS

Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, September. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps is a tiny, brown-backed, terrestrial warbler with a short, square tail, a prominent, creamy supercilium extending onto the nape, a proportionally large head giving a bull-necked appearance, a long, narrow bill, and conspicuously pink tarsi and toes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 558-9). The species breeds in temperate northeast Asia and winters in southern China, Indochina, and Burma. It is a common migrant through the Chinese coastal provinces. This photo of a migrating stubtail was taken in September at Yangkou, Jiangsu (32.560387, 121.039821). (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May 2009. (Craig Brelsford)
Though secretive, Asian Stubtail ‘is not a particularly shy species and will approach a stationary observer closely’ (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 557). In Heilongjiang, I once watched a stubtail emerge from the frenzy of a bird wave, perch on a branch higher than I was tall, and emit at full volume its insect-like song. (Craig Brelsford)
Urban wood providing habitat for migrating Asian Stubtail, Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
In April 2019 in this tiny wood in Pudong, surrounded by skyscrapers, alert birder Hiko found his Asian Stubtail. On migration, the ground-dwelling warbler needs only an approximation to the shady, secluded woodland in which it breeds. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtai , Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
This is the Asian Stubtail that was using Hiko’s tiny wood. ‘I have a habit of checking that place each time I bird,’ Hiko said. ‘And on that day I saw a buffy supercilium and was like, “Oh shoot, maybe stubtail.”’ Especially during migration season, experienced birders know that even marginal habitats can yield birding gold. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail in typical habitat, Xidaquan National Forest, Heilongjiang, August. Kennerley and Pearson describe Asian Stubtail as ‘skulking and elusive, frequenting the shady recesses of the forest floor. … It feeds almost exclusively on the ground, searching for small insects and spiders amongst fallen leaves and twigs.’ As here, however, ‘A bird will clamber higher into scrub or bushes occasionally’ (2010, 557). (Craig Brelsford)
Habitat of Asian Stubtail, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Lush undergrowth in deciduous forest predominated by Silver Birch Betula pendula, Xidaquan. This is the spot where I photographed the stubtail above. Breeding Asian Stubtail, write Kennerley and Pearson, requires ‘thick undergrowth with ample leaf litter and fallen logs, often along rock-strewn gullies and stream beds’ (2010, 557). Coordinates of this site: 45.706108, 130.303313. Elevation: 540 m (1,770 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Species similar to Asian Stubtail. Clockwise from top: Radde's Warbler, Lesser Shortwing Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler, Eurasian Wren. (Craig Brelsford)
If seen well, Asian Stubtail is easy to identify, but glimpses of the secretive bird often are fleeting, and confusion can arise. Like stubtail, Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi (top) passes through Shanghai on migration, breeds in Northeast China, and has a conspicuous supercilium. Note however the much longer tail and spikier bill of Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus (not pictured) also has a longer tail and like Radde’s spends much less time on the ground than Asian Stubtail. Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (center L) is tiny like Asian Stubtail and has a long, fine bill, but it lacks a supercilium, is much more likely to forage in full view at eye level, and cocks its tail straight upward (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 556). In Southern China, Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris (center R) and Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler Napothera epilepidota (bottom) are secretive, ground-dwelling birds with nubby tails, but they lack the prominent supercilium of Asian Stubtail. (Craig Brelsford)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Brazil, M. (2018). Birds of Japan. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Brelsford, C. (2017). Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/gansu-bluetail/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 June 2017 (accessed: 5 Aug 2020).

Brelsford, C. (2014). Wuyuan & Poyang Lake, November 2014 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/wuyuan-2014/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 14 Sept. 2016 (accessed: 5 Aug 2020).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2015). Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015: Part 4: Second Trip to Elaine’s Hometown (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/inner-mongolia-heilongjiang/part4/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 5 Aug 2020).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2016). Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/heilongjiang/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 5 Aug 2020).

Clement, P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 588 (Asian Stubtail) 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.

Holt, P. (2019). Series of text messages between Holt and author, 20 April.

Kennerley, P. & Pearson, D. (2010). Reed and Bush Warblers. London: Christopher Helm.

REVISIONS

1. On 22 April 2019, Beijing added to breeding range of Asian Stubtail, Paul Holt added to bibliography.

Featured image: Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May. (Craig Brelsford)
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In 2012, Varied Tit Irrupted into Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

From September through December 2012, Varied Tit burst into Earth’s Greatest City. For those few months, the status of Sittiparus varius varius in Shanghai went from “unrecorded” to “locally common.” I noted Varied Tit on various occasions on Lesser Yangshan Island and in urban Shanghai at Zhongshan Park, Changfeng Park, and Binjiang Forest Park.

The mass movement saw incursions of Varied Tit up and down the Chinese coast, with reports from as far south as Hong Kong. Unusually high numbers of Varied Tit were reported in South Korea as well as Japan (Loghry & Moores 2012).

The episode captured many birders’ imaginations, not only because of its ornithological interest, but also because Varied Tit is a beautiful bird.

Five years later, the 2012 irruption remains remarkable. Despite the growing number of birders in the Shanghai region, no one here has managed to find Varied Tit, a species not especially prone to irruptions.

Harrap and Quinn describe Varied Tit as resident throughout its range, with “some evidence,” some of which is “contradictory,” of movements south and to lower altitudes in winter. The word “irruption” does not appear in the authors’ otherwise exhaustive account of Varied Tit (1995).

In China, the nominate form of Varied Tit is confined to Northeast China (Liaoning and southern Jilin). It is resident as well on the adjacent Korean Peninsula and the main Japanese islands.

In 2012 as now, I was using my Nikon D3S and 600 mm F/4 lens. Here are some of the photos I produced of Varied Tit.

Varied Tit
Varied Tit Sittiparus varius varius, Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. In the fall and winter of 2012, this colorful tit showed unusually high movements throughout its northeast Asian range, eventually spilling into the coastal provinces of China. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Lesser Yangshan Island, 30 Sept. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

REFERENCES

Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995. Varied Tit, pp. 70-1, 397-401.

Loghry, Jason & Moores, Nial. Varied Tit, Chinese Nuthatch and Yellow-bellied Tit: what else is on the move? birdskoreablog.org. (Accessed 15 September 2019)

Featured image: In autumn and winter 2012, Shanghai experienced an irruption of Varied Tit Sittiparus varius varius. (Craig Brelsford)
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I’m Skeptical About Claims of Green-backed Flycatcher in Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Does Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae migrate through Shanghai? Records exist of the species, but in my opinion they are mainly misidentifications of female Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina narcissina (above). In this post, I am going to unearth the roots of my skepticism about F. elisae in Shanghai and describe the differences between female F. elisae and female F. n. narcissina.

Narcissus Flycatcher, Green-backed Flycatcher (R).
I am skeptical about claims of Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae in Shanghai. One reason is that all the claims involve females, never the adult male (R), which is highly distinctive and readily separable from male Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina narcissina (L). If male elisae is unknown in this city, then the elisae we see in Shanghai would all be females, a curious and unlikely phenomenon. (Craig Brelsford)

Each spring and autumn, birders in Earth’s Greatest City claim records of elisae. Invariably, the bird in question is a female, not the very distinctive adult male. Here our first red flag pops up: How likely is it that elisae is the one species of passerine whose records in Shanghai never involve adult males?

For the sake of argument, let us admit the possibility of an all-female migration of elisae through Shanghai. Fine, I retort; then show me photos of these purported elisae. The photos are duly supplied, and again and again, as has been the case throughout my more than 10 years in Shanghai, the supposed F. elisae is revealed on closer scrutiny to be female F. n. narcissina.

Indeed, I have seen better documentation in Shanghai of Ryukyu Flycatcher F. (narcissina) owstoni than of F. elisae; on 17 April 2016 at Pudong’s Binjiang Forest Park, Shanghai birder Zhang Xiaolei got a very interesting picture of a possible adult-male owstoni.

Mistakes of the sort many Shanghai birders are making contribute to a distorted picture of the presence on the central Chinese coast of a little-known species. What’s more, the mistakes are avoidable. Separation of female F. elisae and F. n. narcissina is usually straightforward.

Narcissus Flycatcher, Blue-and-white Flycatcher
Female Narcissus Flycatcher (L) shows brownish-green upperpart coloration reminiscent of female Blue-and-white Flycatcher (R). (Craig Brelsford)

Female F. elisae has greenish upperparts with a yellowish or olive tint. Female F. n. narcissina is greenish with a brownish tint, like female Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana (above). On their underparts, female F. elisae is “dull yellow or yellowish-buff,” while F. n. narcissina is mainly off-white, with brownish-white flanks and a hint of yellow on the throat and belly (Brazil 2009, 436).

We can say, therefore, that unlike Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, female F. elisae and F. n. narcissina are distinguishable by plumage. A good look or good photo will likely lead to an accurate ID.

Accurate records in Shanghai, one of the most thoroughly birded areas on the Chinese coast, will lead to better understandings of both F. elisae and F. n. narcissina. Already, the growing body of knowledge about these East Asian breeding endemics has led to the separation of F. elisae and F. n. narcissina into separate species. Previously, elisae had been treated as a subspecies of Narcissus Flycatcher.

Narcissus Flycatcher
Narcissus Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, October. Note the brownish-green coloration of the mantle, back, and rump of the female. I included an image of the male because in this instance, and as is often the case in Shanghai, the male was associating with the female. The association suggests the birds are of the same species and bolsters the ID of the female as F. n. narcissina. (Craig Brelsford)

We know as well that the summer and winter ranges of the sister species are disjunct, with F. elisae breeding in a very compact range in Hebei (Wulingshan), Beijing, and Shanxi and wintering in southern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia. The breeding range of F. n. narcissina includes the main islands of Japan as well as the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin, and the coastal Russian Far East. The species winters in Hainan, the Philippines, and Borneo and passes through Shanghai each spring from about 15 April to 15 May.

Unlike other passage-migrant flycatchers in Shanghai, F. n. narcissina is much less common in autumn than in spring. That is a mystery, one of many surrounding the migration of the Narcissus Flycatcher group.

In light of the information deficit, it behooves us Shanghai birders to strive for accurate records (or non-records) of elisae in our region. Let us practice self-discipline, hone our skills, and give outside observers the clearest possible picture of bird migration in Shanghai.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark. 2009. Birds of East Asia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Entries for Narcissus Flycatcher and Chinese Flycatcher (Ficedula elisae), p. 436.

Below are links to photos of female elisae:

Oriental Bird Images (orientalbirdimages.org). “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” (Accessed 15 September 2019)

———. “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” (Accessed 15 September 2019)

———. “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” (Accessed 15 September 2019)

———. “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” (Accessed 15 September 2019)

Featured image: Adult female Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina narcissina, Jiangsu, May. (Craig Brelsford)
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