shanghaibirding.com is an authority on migratory birds. Shanghai lies on the East Asian Australasian Migratory Flyway, a major pathway for migratory birds. One of the best-known migratory birds that passes through Shanghai is Spoon-billed Sandpiper (above). That critically endangered species has been found at Shanghai’s major migratory bird hotspot, Cape Nanhui.
Scroll below for coverage of migratory birds in Shanghai. Here are some of the highlights:
Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Cape Nanhui: A single Spoon-billed Sandpiper was associating with a flock of 2600 waders. I saw a bird that was one of a kind. The constant movement, like a wind-up toy, was characteristic of Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
Nordmann’s Greenshank in Shanghai: Nordmann’s GreenshankTringa guttifer is an endangered species. Only 500 to 1,000 of these birds are thought to remain. Development along the East Asian coast is the main reason for its decline. Nordmann’s breeds in Russia, passes through China, and winters in Southeast Asia. It is present in the Shanghai area for several months each year.
Editor’s note: In the photo above, a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler emits its characteristic “tink” call in Microforest 4, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, 27 Aug. 2017. The tink call of Pale-legged is appreciably higher-pitched than that of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Distinguishing the two calls is the subject of this post. — Craig Brelsford
Last September, in “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5,” I asserted that “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song.” I was wrong. Call as well as song is a reliable separator. In this post, I am going to tell you how I arrived at this insight, and I will show you how you too can achieve clear, indisputable ticks of these tricky species through call alone.
Experts since at least as far back as 1989 have been arguing that Pale-legged Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus tenellipes and Sakhalin Leaf WarblerP. borealoides are separable not only by their distinctive songs but also by their calls. Thailand-based birder and shanghaibirding.com contributor Phil Round is among those making that argument. Round and his co-authors write: “[T]he call of P. tenellipes is markedly higher in frequency than that of P. borealoides” (Round et al., “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” downloadable through shanghaibirding.com).
If your ear is good, or even if your ear is just average and you have a sound-recorder, then you too can appreciate the higher frequency of the call of Pale-legged. A sound-recorder is important, because if you upload your recordings to databases such as eBird and the Macaulay Library, then you will be able to “see” the sound in the audio spectrogram.
Our first exhibit is the spectrogram of a call I sound-recorded of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on 8 May 2016 in Cape Nanhui’s Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). The frequency is 4.8 kilohertz, a number that matches closely the frequency of Sakhalin calls on xeno-canto.org.
Now consider the spectrograms and sound-recordings of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler below. The spectrogram immediately below was recorded by me on 10 June 2016 in my wife Elaine Du’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang, part of the breeding range of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. The call (here a grace note) and song both clock in at about 6 kHz, a frequency a full 25 percent higher than the call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and, as with Sakhalin, consistent with the frequencies of Pale-legged calls on xeno-canto.org.
Here is the sound-recording:
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, call and song, Xidaquan National Forest (45.727751, 130.317316), Boli, Heilongjiang, 10 June 2016 (01:59; 6 MB)
The spectrogram below is of a brief sound-recording I made in Microforest 4 this past Sunday. The song element of this passage migrant is absent (though note that I have heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing in Shanghai in spring). The call has a frequency of 5.9 kHz and clearly belongs to Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.
Why should you care about all this? Because prepared birders have a chance to get solid ticks of “Pale-Saks” that are merely calling and not necessarily singing. If you hear a Pale-Sak calling and trust your ear (or better yet, sound-record the call and later analyze the spectrogram), then you may be able to go beyond the safe, boring record of “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler” to a more satisfying full tick.
Accurate, plentiful records from Shanghai will help researchers such as Round get a clearer picture of the movements and population of these understudied species. As Round et al. write: “Increased sampling of migrants may also resolve the differences in timing of passage between P. examinandus and P. borealis on the one hand, and P. borealoides and P. tenellipes on the other” (“Addition”; hyperlink mine).
What’s more, you do not need to spend much or even know much to record good audio. My Olympus DM-650 costs less than US$250. I have no microphone other than the one built into my pocket recorder, and I possess no parabola. I record in lossless 48kHz .wav. The very scientific-looking spectrograms displayed in this post are generated automatically by eBird and Macaulay.
In Shanghai and throughout China, important facts about common birds such as Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler remain unknown. This ornithological semi-wilderness is both difficult and exciting. If we rise to the challenge and become better birders, then we will make new discoveries and blaze a trail of knowledge for future birders to follow.
I birded 10-14 Aug. 2017 with visiting U.S. birder Bob Orenstein. We noted 107 species at coastal sites in Shanghai and southeastern Jiangsu. At Pudong’s Cape Nanhui on 13 Aug., Bob and I had a rare Shanghai record of Greater Painted-snipe (above) and an early record of Mandarin Duck. On 12 Aug. at Dongling (32.224520, 121.534355), an impressive site that I had never birded, we had critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 2605 endangered Great Knot. We saw 4 Nordmann’s Greenshank at Dongling and had 30 members of that endangered species 11 Aug. at the coastal birding area (32.757056, 120.952294) at Dongtai. We noted Himalayan Swiftlet at Dongling as well as on 10 Aug. at Cape Nanhui, where we also had Amur Paradise Flycatcher.
Dongling is only 185 km north of People’s Square in Shanghai, closer than the declining old hot spot of Yangkou (“Rudong”) and the Dongtai coastal areas. Through a steady rain 12 Aug., Bob and I found high-tide roosts containing seas of Great Knot plus a single lonely Spoon-billed Sandpiper in complete winter plumage.
Seeing so many Great Knot was extremely heartening. In stark contrast, however, was endangered Far Eastern Curlew, of which only 5 were noted. Unlike near-threatened Eurasian Curlew (130), which though not abundant at Dongling numbered in the thousands at coastal Dongtai, Far Eastern Curlew were abundant nowhere.
On 11 Aug. Bob and I birded the reclaimed area of eastern Hengsha Island. The place was a bustle of activity, even at 5:15 in the morning, with 18-wheelers and dump trucks rumbling by. Security was tight. Guards were stationed at every intersection and in roving vans, one of which stopped us. We told them our purpose was birding; they told us to leave.
Before getting kicked out, Bob and I enjoyed one of my best moments ever with near-threatened Reed Parrotbill. A mega-flock of about 50 birds, much larger than the flocks one sees in the smaller, and ever-shrinking, reedy areas at Cape Nanhui, was making a loud noise during a morning feed. The flock contained juveniles and adults and proved that, provided it has habitat in which to flourish, Reed Parrotbill is a common, even dominant, reed-bed specialist.
With the help of local Chinese birders, Bob and I found a pair of Greater Painted-snipe in a thickly vegetated, trash-strewn canal. The shy birds were aware of our presence and nervous, but they held their ground. That behavior, in combination with a photo another Chinese birder took suggesting that the male is brooding, persuaded us that the pair has a nest. We moved quickly away and did not return.
Nordmann’s GreenshankTringa guttifer
Footage I got 11 Aug. at Dongtai figures prominently in this video I made comparing Nordmann’s Greenshank to Common Greenshank.
The video below records one of my closest encounters ever with “Swintail” Snipe. I found this individual 14 Aug. at the sod farm (31.103100, 121.829300) south of Pudong International Airport.
The video shows some of the characters distinguishing this species pair from Common Snipe. (The two species themselves are, except in extraordinary circumstances, indistinguishable from one another.)
As the autumn migration season progresses, the sod farm bears checking; on 3 Sept. 2016 at the farm, my partners and I had a rare Shanghai record of Common Ringed Plover.
The video of the snipe as well as the other two videos embedded into this post were made with my combination of iPhone 6 plus PhoneSkope adapter plus Swarovski ATX-95. This powerful combination allows the videographer to shoot usable video from a great distance, allowing even a shy snipe to act naturally. (I never got closer than 40 m to the snipe.)
Amur Paradise FlycatcherTerpsiphone incei
It was an exciting moment 10 Aug. when Amur Paradise Flycatcher appeared in Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635). In the photo above, note the indistinct border between the bluish hood and white belly and the two-tone coloration of the hood–darker blue head, lighter blue breast. In Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, the hood tends to be uniformly colored and the border between the hood and white breast more distinct.
With this year’s fall migration season getting into full swing, paradise flycatchers are going to be moving through Shanghai, and you may wish to improve your skills. For more on separating Amur Paradise Flycatcher from Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, see my post “ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers.”
Adults and some juveniles are now moving through Shanghai. In a few weeks, nearly all adult Cuculus cuckoos will be gone, and we will be left with the juveniles. Cuckoos do not sing in autumn, and song of course is by far the best way of distinguishing among the Cuculus cuckoos of our region. I therefore almost invariably mark these silent birds “Cuculus sp.”
Let us say I assigned these silent cuckoos to Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus. Perhaps they were the size of a sparrowhawk (ruling out thrush-sized Lesser Cuckoo C. poliocephalus), and perhaps they even had yellow irides (ruling out dark-eyed Indian Cuckoo C. micropterus and providing yet more evidence against dark-eyed Lesser Cuckoo).
Even if my cuckoos passed these tests, unless they were singing the classic song (virtually unheard this time of year), how could I justify ID-ing them as Common? It is, of course, likely that some of them are Common, but how can one be sure that any given silent Cuculus cuckoo one is seeing is Common?
I refrain from making speculative species assignments. I refrain because we still do not know enough about the migration patterns in Shanghai of Oriental Cuckoo C. optatus and Himalayan Cuckoo C. saturatus.
Like so many of the woodland passerines that pass through Shanghai on migration, Oriental Cuckoo breeds in northeastern China. Like those woodland passerines, Oriental Cuckoo also may pass through Shanghai on migration. Oriental, of course, is very similar to Common, the two species having so many overlapping characters that a firm ID of non-photographed, non-singing birds is all but impossible; and Himalayan, which theoretically may be present in or near our region, is even more similar to Oriental (“virtually identical”—Mark Brazil, Birds of East Asia, p. 256).
In Shanghai it may be tempting to assign silent Cuculus cuckoos, particularly yellow-eyed adults, to Common Cuckoo. Before I ever started doing that, though, I would want to know more about Oriental Cuckoo and Himalayan Cuckoo in the Shanghai region. Maybe future studies, using captured cuckoos whose DNA has been analyzed, will reveal a surprising pattern of Cuculus migration in Shanghai. Maybe those studies will show that considerable numbers of Cuculus passage migrants are Oriental Cuckoo.
Until that day comes, I usually hold back from ID-ing non-singing Cuculus cuckoos.
After being nearly unheard of in Shanghai as recently as a few years ago, Himalayan Swiftlet is now more and more regularly recorded in Shanghai in both spring and autumn.
The question arises of whether Himalayan Swiftlet has always been a scarce passage migrant and overlooked or whether its numbers are increasing in our area. It is of course also possible that both its numbers are increasing in our area and local birders’ skills and communication methods are improving.
That communication methods are improving is indisputable. One of the main causes of the improved communication is the WeChat group I founded, Shanghai Birding. The members of that group, who range from the newest of newbies to some of the most expert birders in China, regularly exchange sightings in real-time.
To join Shanghai Birding, friend me on WeChat (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). Tell me that you wish to join Shanghai Birding. I’ll add you.
Here is the complete list of the birds noted by Bob Orenstein and me 10-14 Aug. 2017:
Ruddy ShelduckTadorna ferruginea Mandarin DuckAix galericulata Eastern Spot-billed DuckAnas zonorhyncha Common PheasantPhasianus colchicus Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollis Great Crested GrebePodiceps cristatus Great CormorantPhalacrocorax carbo Yellow BitternIxobrychus sinensis Cinnamon BitternI. cinnamomeus Grey HeronArdea cinerea Purple HeronA. purpurea Great EgretA. alba Intermediate EgretA. intermedia Little EgretEgretta garzetta Eastern Cattle EgretBubulcus coromandus Chinese Pond HeronArdeola bacchus Striated HeronButorides striata Black-crowned Night HeronNycticorax nycticorax Eastern Marsh HarrierCircus spilonotus White-breasted WaterhenAmaurornis phoenicurus Common MoorhenGallinula chloropus Eurasian CootFulica atra Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus Eurasian OystercatcherHaematopus ostralegus Grey PloverPluvialis squatarola Pacific Golden PloverP. fulva Grey-headed LapwingVanellus cinereus Lesser Sand PloverCharadrius mongolus Greater Sand PloverC. leschenaultii Kentish PloverC. alexandrinus Little Ringed PloverC. dubius Greater Painted-snipeRostratula benghalensis WhimbrelNumenius phaeopus Far Eastern CurlewN. madagascariensis Eurasian CurlewN. arquata Bar-tailed GodwitLimosa lapponica Black-tailed GodwitL. limosa Ruddy TurnstoneArenaria interpres Great KnotCalidris tenuirostris Red KnotC. canutus Broad-billed SandpiperC. falcinellus Sharp-tailed SandpiperC. acuminata Long-toed StintC. subminuta Spoon-billed SandpiperC. pygmea Red-necked StintC. ruficollis SanderlingC. alba DunlinC. alpina Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s SnipeGallinago stenura/megala Terek SandpiperXenus cinereus Red-necked PhalaropePhalaropus lobatus Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos Grey-tailed TattlerTringa brevipes Spotted RedshankT. erythropus Common GreenshankT. nebularia Nordmann’s GreenshankT. guttifer Marsh SandpiperT. stagnatilis Wood SandpiperT. glareola Common RedshankT. totanus Saunders’s GullChroicocephalus saundersi Black-headed GullC. ridibundus Black-tailed GullLarus crassirostris Little TernSternula albifrons Gull-billed TernGelochelidon nilotica Caspian TernHydroprogne caspia White-winged TernChlidonias leucopterus Whiskered TernC. hybrida Common TernSterna hirundo Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia Red Turtle DoveStreptopelia tranquebarica Spotted DoveS. chinensis Lesser CoucalCentropus bengalensis Cuculus sp. Himalayan SwiftletAerodramus brevirostris Eurasian HoopoeUpupa epops Common KingfisherAlcedo atthis Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus Peregrine FalconF. peregrinus Brown ShrikeLanius cristatus Long-tailed ShrikeL. schach Amur Paradise FlycatcherTerpsiphone incei Eurasian MagpiePica pica Oriental SkylarkAlauda gulgula Pale MartinRiparia diluta Barn SwallowHirundo rustica Red-rumped SwallowCecropis daurica Asian House MartinDelichon dasypus Japanese TitParus minor Light-vented BulbulPycnonotus sinensis Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus borealis/examinandus Eastern Crowned WarblerP. coronatus Oriental Reed WarblerAcrocephalus orientalis Zitting CisticolaCisticola juncidis Plain PriniaPrinia inornata Reed ParrotbillParadoxornis heudei Vinous-throated ParrotbillSinosuthora webbiana Red-billed StarlingSpodiopsar sericeus White-cheeked StarlingS. cineraceus Crested MynaAcridotheres cristatellus Chinese BlackbirdTurdus mandarinus Asian Brown FlycatcherMuscicapa dauurica Oriental Magpie-RobinCopsychus saularis Yellow-rumped FlycatcherFicedula zanthopygia Blue Rock ThrushMonticola solitarius Eurasian Tree SparrowPasser montanus Scaly-breasted MuniaLonchura punctulata White WagtailMotacilla alba Chinese GrosbeakEophona migratoria
On Sat. 5 Aug., I resumed birding at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui after a two-month hiatus. Battling apparent temperatures of 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit), partner Ian Reid (above) and I noted 74 species. The haul was good, but even better was the insight it afforded me. Once again, I learned that when it comes to birding, the most southeasterly point of Earth’s Greatest City delivers month after month, season after season.
Ian and I had 3 juvenile Asian Dowitcher, the most notable among an all-star team of shorebirds that included 8 Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, 12 Broad-billed Sandpiper, and 3 Curlew Sandpiper still mainly in brick-red breeding plumage. A Red-necked Phalarope was making use of fallow rice paddies, and 6 Grey-tailed Tattler were on the mudflats near Donghai Bridge. We had unusual Nanhui records of Pied Kingfisher and Ruddy Shelduck.
The microforests were quiet, but a very early record of Eastern Crowned Warbler and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher offered a preview of the passerine party coming in September. We had four species of bittern: Eurasian Bittern, Yellow Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, and Black Bittern.
In my nearly 10 years in Shanghai, I had never birded Cape Nanhui in the first week of August. During Shanghai’s hottest month of the year, I am almost always birding in cooler climes—in Qinghai last year, for example, and in 2015 in my wife Elaine’s hometown in Heilongjiang.
Ian’s and my day both reminded me of the good reasons for vacating Shanghai this time of year and showed me the treasures I have been missing. Through the oppressive heat, which ensured that you would never stop sweating, and the 81-percent humidity, which ensured that the perspiration wouldn’t do much good, the Australian birder and I steadily built up an impressive list.
Our trio were juveniles, with their dark-brown crowns and buff-fringed, dark-brown upperparts. They were feeding together at South Pond (30.873934, 121.953180). The tide had hit the nearby sea wall and driven in small numbers of shorebirds of various species, among them Sharp-tailed SandpiperCalidris acuminata, Curlew SandpiperC. ferruginea, Long-toed StintC. subminuta, and Broad-billed SandpiperC. falcinellus.
An East Asian specialty, Asian Dowitcher breeds in a disjointed set of ranges from western Siberia to Heilongjiang. The IUCN lists it as Near Threatened.
Eastern Crowned WarblerPhylloscopus coronatus
We found a single individual in the Cathedral of Birding, the broad, spacious northern end of Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). This is a very early record of a species that, like so many other passerines on passage through the Shanghai region, does not begin to show up in impressive numbers until September. As with the dowitchers, when I saw this warbler, my initial reaction was, “What else have you been missing over the years for failing to bird Nanhui in early August?”
Nearby we had female Yellow-rumped FlycatcherFicedula zanthopygia, a less surprising record, as the species breeds in Jiangsu.
Ruddy ShelduckTadorna ferruginea
Ruddy Shelduck in August is yet another unexpected record. We found a single individual associating with domestic waterfowl near the entrance to the defunct wetland reserve (30.920507, 121.973159). The species is uncommon in Shanghai at any time of year, with most records coming in winter.
Pied KingfisherCeryle rudis
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this record is that it is surprising at all. Pied Kingfisher breeds throughout southern China, yet this record was my first of the species in Shanghai. A pair has been present at Cape Nanhui since at least July.
Eurasian BitternBotaurus stellaris
Our first of the four species of bittern. We found 2.
Yellow BitternIxobrychus sinensis
We found 24 of this local breeder along the length of the 30-km coastal road.
Cinnamon BitternIxobrychus cinnamomeus
Found in habitats similar to Yellow Bittern, but in much smaller numbers (4).
Black BitternIxobrychus flavicollis
One was seen flying just north of Eiffel Tower (30.850531, 121.878047). This species has an affinity for swamps in forests and is uncommon in Shanghai. Saturday’s record was only my second in the city.
Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus
A species common in Shanghai, noted here only because of the circumstances under which Ian and I found it. The first impression of “juvenile falcon” that I received came not from the plumage but from the blunders of the kestrel. The falcon got too close to some juvenile Black-winged Stilt–and found itself being chased off by an adult, a giant in comparison. This was clearly a rookie’s error and betrayed the inexperience of the attacker.
In the photo above, note the lightly streaked ear coverts, the lack of scythe-like wings (as in Eurasian Hobby), black remiges, and long tail with rounded tip. The strong black streaking on the underparts will grow thinner as the kestrel matures.
Peregrine FalconFalco peregrinus
A welcome addition to any Nanhui list, Falco peregrinus is usually recorded in Shanghai in autumn and winter. Sharp-eyed Ian spotted the falcon roosting in an area that used to contain reed beds but has since been flattened by the backhoes into a savanna-like landscape. I got video on my iPhone through the spotting scope.
Featured image: Australian birder Ian Reid scans the mudflats at Cape Nanhui, Pudong, 5 Aug. In the background is Donghai Bridge. (Craig Brelsford)
Regarding the comment by Dr. Nial Moores in the shanghaibirding.com post Kamchatka Leaf Warbler in Shanghai: I would agree that both Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus may come through late, alongside each other, even in mid- to late May.
Here in Thailand, I think our earliest Kamchatka (diagnosed on wing length, greater than 70 mm) was 14 April, caught on Man Nai Island (12.015924, 102.283475) at the same time (so far) as our only undoubted Japanese Leaf Warbler P. xanthodryas.
While on average Kamchatka may be slightly larger-billed, and the respective sexes larger and longer-winged than Arctics, there is not much in it. Anybody who expects to be able to call birds one or the other in the field on anything other than voice is stretching credibility, I feel. Plumage overlap seems total. And of course on body size and wing length there is overlap between male Arctic and female Kamchatka.
The featured image above shows two individuals, with two photos each. Both were freshly moulted birds caught on northwards spring passage at Laem Phak Bia (13.050000, 100.083333), Phetchaburi, Thailand. Both were picked out as being slightly more brightly yellowish on underparts and on supercilium than typical spring borealis (caught on the same day), and brighter green above.
The bird in panels 1 and 2 was caught 14 May 2011. Measurements were wing 66 mm, bill 14.5 mm. On mt DNA (COI) we determined that it was examinandus. The identically bright-coloured individual in panels 3 and 4 was caught on the same day. Measurements were wing 62 mm, bill 14.5 mm. It was borealis on DNA.
The paper of which this comparison was a part is titled “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna.” It was published by the Japan Bird Banding Journal and is downloadable (708 KB) through shanghaibirding.com.
We record Kamchatka annually in Thailand, with most records in May. On average it is a later migrant than Arctic with (old specimen) records from Thailand and Malaysia even into the last days of May. Based on birds handled (and DNA assayed), I would re-emphasise that there is total overlap on the range of plumage characters with borealis.
Though we selected our first, unusually bright-plumaged “Arctic Warblers” in mid-May for assay specifically because they were a bit more yellow-green than usual, note that, just as in the panels above, some turned out to be examinandus and some seemingly identically bright birds were borealis.
Takema Saitoh at the Yamashina Institute has a little module that uses a canonical discriminant function that will separate most birds on biometrics. But of course, this is only good for birds that are handled. The key parameters are wing length, total head length (head plus bill), length of outermost primary, and length of tarsus.
As Craig Brelsford notes in his 6 June post, Kamchatka on average are a bit longer-billed. But even this did not reliably separate all birds unless one knew the sex (problems of overlap between female Kamchatka and male Arctic).
Call and song—so important!
Editor’s note: shanghaibirding.com has a growing library of resources on leaf warblers. In addition to the paper Phil Round directs us to above, we have the excellent presentation by Per Alström, “Identification of Phylloscopus & Seicercus warblers in China,” downloadable here (13 MB).
For even more of our posts in which Phylloscopus is mentioned, type “leaf warbler” in the search box nearby.
Seen at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui on 4 June: Kamchatka Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus examinandus. Veteran British birder Michael Grunwell and I found our 4 Kamchatkas in Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), the largest of the tree plantations on the landward side of the sea wall. The species is an all-time first for the Shanghai eBird list.
Just after sunrise, Michael and I, as is our wont, were doing “drive-by birding”—creeping along the edge of the road, listening out for birds. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar sound.
My gut said, “Hard, loud—Taiga Flycatcher?”
Taiga was not even close, of course. Note, however, what my gut was not saying: “Arctic Warbler,” a bird whose call I know well. This call was decidedly not an Arctic’s, though it soon dawned on us that we were hearing some type of leaf warbler.
To see why my gut did not say Arctic, compare my recordings of the tight “tzit” call of Arctic Warbler with the looser call of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler:
Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 4 June (00:25; 4.9 MB)
Michael and I skidded to a stop and poked our heads into the green tangle of locust trees. The call was being followed by a song. Only upon hearing the song did I think of Arctic Warbler. But here too, the song, though similar, was distinctive—wavier than the straight trill of Arctic. Look at the spectrograms below.
The spectrogram above is of my recording 4 June of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Note the pattern: downward sweeps followed by an upward sweep. No one would liken that song to an insect’s. Below, the spectrogram of my recording of the song of Arctic Warbler. Note the straight, cricket-like trill.
Here are the recordings whose spectrograms are shown above:
Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Microforest 4, 4 June (00:48; 9.3 MB)
After hearing several song-call cycles, Michael, my more experienced partner, first said the words “Kamchatka Leaf Warbler.”
Michael has birded the Indonesian islands of Flores and Komodo, where Kamchatka Leaf Warbler winters. Michael said that, last winter, walking through the forests there, he heard dozens of times the call of P. examinandus.
“I know that call,” Michael said.
I whipped out my Olympus DM-650 voice recorder and recorded the calling and singing warbler. Meanwhile, we caught our first glimpse of the individual. It was clearly an “Arctic-type” leaf warbler.
What is an “Arctic-type” leaf warbler? An Arctic-type leaf warbler is a member of one of four closely related taxa divided among three species: Japanese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus xanthodryas, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, and Arctic Warbler P. borealis borealis and P. b. kennicotti.
Arctic Warbler is by far the most widespread breeder in the complex. P. b. borealis breeds across northern Eurasia, from Scandinavia to northeast China and the Russian Far East. P. b. kennicotti breeds in western Alaska.
As their names suggest, Japanese Leaf Warbler breeds mainly in Japan (Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu), Kamchatka Leaf Warbler mainly in the southern Kamchatka Peninsula (as well as on Hokkaido and Sakhalin and in the Kuril Islands).
In 2010 Shanghai Birding member Per Alström et al. proposed the current way of viewing the Arctic-type warblers. Previously, the taxon examinandus was putative, not even reaching the subspecies level; Alström and his team showed that examinandus, with its distinctive song and call, merits recognition not as a subspecies of Arctic Warbler but as a species in its own right.
Of the three Arctic-type species, Japanese Leaf Warbler most stands out, being on average yellower than the two others. Arctic and Kamchatka look much more alike.
There are, however, some slight differences. Kamchatka is said to have a “marginally longer bill, tarsi and tail” than Arctic (del Hoyo & Collar). Sure enough, the Kamchatka I photographed is long-billed. Take a look below.
Michael and I heard our loudest song and calls during that first, early morning encounter. However, we heard Kamchatka calling throughout the day.
Our new Shanghai record, combined with late-May and early-June records from nearby Zhejiang, suggests that in this region, once the wave of Arctics passes through around 15 May, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler may be the Arctic-type to look out for.
Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat group. Discussions with various birders, chief among them Hangzhou birder Cheng Qian, who had information about sightings of P. examinandus in Zhejiang. Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén also provided timely advice. To join Shanghai Birding, in WeChat, friend Craig Brelsford (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). In your friend request, please make it clear that you wish to join Shanghai Birding.
del Hoyo, J. & Collar, N. (2017). Kamchatka Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain (retrieved from https://www.hbw.com/node/1343935 on 24 Nov. 2019).
Jackett, N. (25 Feb. 2016). First Kamchatka Leaf Warbler recorded for Australian Mainland. eBird Australia: https://ebird.org/content/australia/news/first-recorded-kamchatka-leaf-warbler-for-australian-mainland/. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. ebird.org (accessed 24 Nov. 2019).
Featured image: Kamchatka Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus examinandus. At Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui, birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford found the individual pictured here and three others. (Craig Brelsford)
“I have thought a lot about yesterday and can honestly say, it must be one of my all-time ornithological highlights.”
— Dr. Mike May, message to Craig Brelsford, 14 May
Those are the words not of a new birder, but of a highly experienced visiting birder with thousands of birds on his life list who resides in bird-rich Extremadura, Spain.
Birding Pudong’s Cape Nanhui at the height of the spring migration left Mike May open-mouthed. Should anyone be surprised? The most southeasterly point of Shanghai is a world-class birding site.
Mike’s 92-species day with Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and me included ultra-rarity Orange-headed Thrush as well as Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler. A pair of sub-adult Black-faced Spoonbill were getting by on the ever-shrinking pools at the beleaguered site.
These records brought the all-time list for Cape Nanhui to 288 species, according to eBird—making Cape Nanhui the second-hottest birding hot spot in China.
Let me say that again: Of the thousands of birding spots in this vast, mega-diverse nation, the most southeasterly point of Pudong and Shanghai is second only to Baihualing in Yunnan in species noted.
Sound unbelievable? Let me say something even more unbelievable: Not only is this rich spot completely unprotected, with not even a square meter preserved in any legal way; but it is, to the contrary, being actively destroyed, even as I tap out these words.
The backdrop to the work of Mike, Jan-Erik, and me was fleets of bulldozers and backhoes, busy throughout the weekend. They clattered and clanged, and the pumps transferring water into the newly dug canals whirred and chugged.
The pace of transformation is faster than ever now.
“Nanhui is gone,” my partners and I said.
A major ecological area, a place combining ease of access to millions of residents of Earth’s largest city and a favorable position on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway, is being utterly transformed.
While the Cape Nanhui that I have long known falls, huge tracts of adjacent tidal mudflat are being reclaimed, adding dozens of square kilometers to the land area of Cape Nanhui. Birding there in theory could have a future. A Cape Nanhui Nature Reserve could be set up in the new area.
But even as the Cape Nanhui we know falls, no one, to my knowledge, has hastened to reassure conservationists that areas in the newly reclaimed land will be set aside for birds.
In the city-province of Shanghai, which is the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, a few places have indeed been set aside, among them Chongming Dongtan. But those reserves are small, on remote islands far from mainland Shanghai, and practically unreachable by the millions of middle-class Shanghainese who lack a car.
Cape Nanhui, by contrast, is easily reachable from the city. And it is the one place where masses of bird lovers can conveniently get a taste of the grand spectacle that is spring migration along the east coast of the Eurasian supercontinent.
That opportunity is being taken away, not only from the birders alive today, but also from the birders of the future.
THE THRILL OF CAPE NANHUI IN MAY
Our agony over the fate of Nanhui was tempered by the joy of birding. Orange-headed Thrush showed up Saturday at the Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229). With the two vertical bars on its face, our specimen was either of race melli (breeds Guangdong, etc.) or courtoisi (Anhui).
On Sunday the Magic Parking Lot delivered singing Grey-crowned WarblerSeicercus tephrocephalus, and in Microforest 2 (30.926013, 121.970705) an appearance was made by Alström’s WarblerS. soror. Neither breeds in the region; both are very rare vagrants to Shanghai.
Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) gave us singing Yellow-breasted Bunting in full breeding finery and singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. I captured the latter’s song, rarely heard in Shanghai.
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola, 13 May, Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) (00:13; 2.1 MB)
The Marshy Agricultural Land (30.850707, 121.863662) near Eiffel Tower was highly productive, yielding Lanceolated Warbler, Forest Wagtail, and Striated Heron.
Other highlights from Saturday along the 30-km stretch of coastline:
Featured image: Visiting British birder Mike May scans for birds at Cape Nanhui. An experienced birder, May was nonetheless overwhelmed by the variety of birds at Cape Nanhui at the height of spring migration. May described his day at Cape Nanhui as “one of my all-time ornithological highlights.” (Craig Brelsford)
In Shanghai, the best birding occurs on the coast, 80 km from the city center. Getting there can be a chore. Birding Pudong’s Century Park, by contrast, only requires a ride on Metro Line 2. Your day list from Century will only be about a third as long as a list from Cape Nanhui, but good birding can occur there, and at little cost.
On Sat. 15 April 2017, my partners Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko (“Hiko”), Hiko’s biology teacher Zeng Qiongyu, and I had a bout of good birding at Century Park.
I had never heard Eastern Crowned Warbler sing in Shanghai. I am however very familiar with the song, because in my wife Elaine Du’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang, the song of Eastern Crowned Warbler is one of the most common sounds in the remnant Manchurian forest.
We were in the heavily wooded area near Gate 7 when I heard the wheezy song. It sounded like this recording I made in Heilongjiang:
It was just a snatch of song, and it occurred but once. I knew immediately that it was Eastern Crowned Warbler. The song was coming from the surprisingly high canopy of the wood.
The four of us strained to find the bird. The sun shone brightly through the canopy and into our eyes. Finally, Hiko saw movement. Through the glare we focused in and got a clear view of Eastern Crowned.
It was a shot of birding as good and satisfying as I get anywhere. And it just goes to show—good birding can occur anywhere, even in a busy city park.
For birders in Earth’s greatest city, finding Oriental Plover is one of the rites of spring. On Sun. 26 March 2017 on Shanghai’s Hengsha Island, our three-man birding team tracked down 25 of these passage migrants. The encounter was the latest in a series of interesting experiences I have had with the East Asian specialty.
Along with Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Komatsu Yasuhiko, I drove on Saturday night 25 March to Changxing Island, crossing to Hengsha on the ferry. We set up for the night at my accustomed bed and breakfast, Héngshā Bànrìxián Mínsù (横沙半日闲民宿, +86 150-2164-5467, no English).
At 05:40 the next morning we zipped through the gate (31.297333, 121.859434) to the vast reclaimed area of Hengsha Island. Formerly intertidal shoals at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the area, now walled in, offers some of the best birding in Shanghai.
Michael and Hiko had no experience with Oriental Plover. I have seen the species various times. One of the highlights of my early birding career occurred on 29 March 2010. On a cool, early-spring afternoon at the old sod farm (31.205847, 121.777368) at Sanjiagang in Pudong, I lay on my belly in the presence of 30 Oriental Plover. What an unforgettable experience that was.
The sod farm has long since been destroyed, but memories of those times, as well as my observations of the species on its breeding grounds near Hulun Lake in Inner Mongolia, still live in me, and they told me where to look for the bird. One needs to find habitat reminiscent of the dry, stony steppe on which the species breeds.
On Hengsha, such habitat is abundant, and we scoured all the likely spots, among them the place where my wife Elaine Du and I found 3 Oriental Plover last April 9.
We were driving along the coastal road that skirts the southern edge of the reclaimed area. The morning was hazy, with air pollution giving me the sniffles, but even with the reduced visibility one could appreciate the power of the Yangtze looming behind.
Here, the longest river in Asia releases into the East China Sea the water collected along its course of 6,300 km (3,915 mi.). On clear days, one can see the famous skyline of Pudong, 38 km (24 mi.) away. At Hengsha Island, one stands on the eastern edge of Eurasia at the mouth of China’s greatest river in the shadow of Earth’s greatest city.
As we drove, the reed beds and marshy areas began to recede, and there opened up before us drier, grassier habitat, perfect for Oriental Plover. Stopping the car, I intoned, in a voice recalling Brigham Young, “This is the place.” (The coordinates are 31.301475, 121.917442.)
We broke out a forest of tripods and set upon them our spotting scopes. Michael, the seasoned veteran, saw the plovers first. Continuing our Wild West theme, Michael shouted, “Eureka!” His head was motionless, glued to the scope, but his arms were waving, and he was dancing a jig.
Michael and Hiko moved in for a closer look. I stayed above, scanning the scene through my Swarovski ATX-95. Males and females were in partial breeding plumage. They were running fast across the turf, picking off invertebrates. Twice they flew, and I appreciated their powerful, erratic flight and long wings.
We found 16 Oriental Plover there. We found another 9 on the north shore of the reclaimed area, on the mudflats.
NOTES ON ORIENTAL PLOVER
Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus is listed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN. A survey in 2010 came up with an estimated world population of 160,000, an encouraging number. The species is helped by the sparse human population both in the area where it breeds (mainly Mongolia) and where it winters (mainly Australia).
The species may be helped as well by its migration patterns. There is evidence that migrating Oriental Plover overfly much of Southeast Asia and possibly even China, areas where the hand of man is much heavier than in Mongolia and Australia.
In the entry for Oriental Plover in Handbook of the Birds of the World, T. Piersma mentions a “scarcity of records between China and the non-breeding grounds,” suggesting that migrating Oriental Plover make a “non-stop flight between these two zones.” Robson, in Birds of Southeast Asia, describes Oriental Plover as a “vagrant/rare passage migrant.”
Piersma says Oriental Plover is “very abundant” on migration in the Yangtze River Valley. That is doubtful. Oriental Plover is certainly not abundant in Shanghai; indeed, in autumn the species is virtually unrecorded here (as well as in much of eastern China). The city may nonetheless serve as a staging area for some portion of the species in spring.
My anecdotal evidence may lend credence to the idea that Oriental Plover fly mind-boggling distances between Australia and Mongolia. During my close encounter with the 30 Oriental Plover at Sanjiagang, the plovers were clearly exhausted. Some fell asleep right in front of me. How many kilometers had they just flown? Hundreds? Thousands?
Oriental Plover is most closely related to, and was once considered conspecific with, Caspian Plover Charadrius asiaticus. Breeding male Oriental Plover is readily distinguishable from Caspian by its purely white head. The thick black breast band on breeding Oriental male is also distinctive.
Non-breeding Greater Sand Plover and Lesser Sand Plover are smaller and more compact and have narrower breast bands than non-breeding Oriental Plover. In flight, Oriental Plover lacks the white wing bar seen on the sand plovers.
PHOTOS OF ORIENTAL PLOVER
Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Oriental Plover, p. 164.
del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 3, “Hoatzin to Auks.” Species accounts for Oriental Plover and Caspian Plover (p. 438) by T. Piersma.
MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press. Oriental Plover, p. 178. Authors mention Hulun Lake as breeding area for species. Curiously, Liaoning is also mentioned.
Message, Stephen & Don Taylor. Waders of Europe, Asia and North America. Oriental Plover, pp. 66 & 152.
Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Oriental Plover, p. 106. Consulted to get a better idea of the rarity of Oriental Plover in Southeast Asia.
Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Caspian Plover, p. 142.
Featured image: On 29 March 2010, Craig Brelsford found 30 exhausted Oriental Plover at the old sod farm at Sanjiagang (31.205847, 121.777368), 6.5 km (4 mi.) north of Pudong Airport in Shanghai. I got the image here, as well as all my plover images in this post, with my old Nikon D300 plus Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens.