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.
Black-throated Loon and Red-throated Loon have been found at a little-birded recreational area in Pudong, and Slaty-backed Gull has appeared on the Huangpu River across from the Bund. All three species are rare in Earth’s Greatest City, with Black-throated Loon the scarcest. All three were brought to light by Shanghai birders using social media.
The loons had been sighted numerous times before my partner Michael Grunwell and I arrived on Sat. 18 March 2017 at Sanjiagang Seaside Park (31.217928, 121.768172). The dilapidated recreation area is on the coast of the East China Sea, near the mouth of the Yangtze River, 9 km north of Pudong Airport. Chinese birders discovered the loons, and birder Larry Chen, his partners Komatsu Yasuhiko and Archie Jiang, and bird photographer Kai Pflug followed up, reporting back to our chat group, Shanghai Birding.
On Sun. 19 March, the Red-throated Loon was discovered dead at the park by local birder Suōyǔ Hè (蓑羽鹤). It is not clear what killed the bird, but it may have slowly poisoned itself by ingesting oil that had collected on its feathers. Larry said that during his encounters with the individual “The loon was constantly attempting to preen itself” and that he clearly saw oil on one of its flanks. Can you detect anything amiss in the video below?
Red-throated Loon breeds at latitudes above 50 degrees in Eurasia and North America. Wintering Gavia stellata is more common in Shanghai than Black-throated Loon, being recorded annually here. Michael, my wife Elaine Du, and I found Red-throated Loon at Cape Nanhui in January 2016.
Black-throated Loon is also known as Black-throated Diver and Arctic Loon. Gavia arctica breeds across northern Eurasia and into Alaska. It is an uncommon winter visitor all along the coast of China and is very rarely noted in Shanghai, with the last previous record in 2012. Before the encounter Saturday, I had seen Black-throated Loon only once, on 18 Sept. 2013 at Laotieshan (38.730483, 121.134018) in the northeastern province of Liaoning.
Here is video of Black-throated Loon at Sanjiagang Seaside Park.
“I think we’ve found Slaty-backed!” Michael cried.
With my iPhone I took photos of the gull through my scope and uploaded the photos to Shanghai Birding, the chat group I manage on the instant-messaging application WeChat. Within minutes the experts in my pocket started weighing in. Shenzhen birder Jonathan Martinez and Larry Chen, both strong gullers, confirmed Michael’s ID. Michael and I had a life bird!
Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus breeds on islands and cliffs on the coast of the Russian Far East (particularly the Kamchatka Peninsula) as well as Hokkaido. Wintering Slaty-backed are common in Japan, less common in northern coastal China, and rare in Shanghai.
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On 18 Dec. 2016, a quartet of teenage birders found an acrocephalid in the Magic Parking Lot at Cape Nanhui, the nubby promontory in Pudong and Shanghai’s best birding hotspot. The consensus is that the bird is either Paddyfield WarblerAcrocephalus agricola or Manchurian Reed WarblerA. tangorum.
In the images below, note the supercilium, which extends behind the eye; dark eye-line; bright white chin and throat; peach breast band and flanks; bill with black upper mandible and pink lower mandible; and peaked head. Those criteria most closely indicate Manchurian Reed Warbler and Paddyfield Warbler.
Paddyfield Warbler winters mainly in India and would be extralimital here; Manchurian Reed Warbler breeds in northeastern China, is listed as Vulnerable and is therefore scarce, and probably passes through Shanghai.
Congratulations to Andy Lee, Komatsu Yasuhiko, Larry Chen, and Archie Jiang for this great Shanghai record.
On Thurs. 15 Dec. 2016 at Cape Nanhui, my wife Elaine Du and I did an interview with Pudong TV in Chinese. The segment will last five minutes and be aired later this month. In the interview I lamented the losses at Nanhui and spoke glowingly of the possibilities.
Meanwhile, John MacKinnon, co-author of the most famous bird guide in the history of China and author of a recent post for shanghaibirding.com, has expressed interest in the establishment of an easily accessible, world-class wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui.
MacKinnon asked me for the reasoning behind a wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui. I wrote the following:
THE CASE FOR AN EASILY ACCESSIBLE, WORLD-CLASS WETLAND RESERVE AT CAPE NANHUI, PUDONG, SHANGHAI
(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, habitat critical to Reed Parrotbill, Marsh Grassbird, and other species at risk.
The largest component of the city-province of Shanghai is the Shanghai Peninsula, a projection of land between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the peninsula, is a critically important stop for migrating birds, and is completely unprotected. A nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a third stepping stone for birds crossing the mouth of the Yangtze, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha.
The 2 Red-crowned Crane seen on Sat. 10 Dec. 2016 were the latest in a parade of endangered birds that I and other birders have noted at the Cape over the years. Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses Cape Nanhui, as does Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. Around 2 percent of the world’s Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill are dependent on Cape Nanhui for several months each year. Large reed beds remain at Cape Nanhui and are the final strongholds on the Shanghai Peninsula of Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird and Near Threatened Reed Parrotbill. The latter species, a candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird, will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai if the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed.
(2) Shanghai is clearly under-performing on the conservationist front. More must be done, and a good place to begin is Cape Nanhui.
Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province (which is a third the size of Wales). There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in this megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the natural side of Shanghai, a city with an extraordinarily rich natural heritage. There is no known plan to conserve any of the dozens of square kilometers of reclaimed land on Hengsha.
(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could be the match to light the fire of conservation across all China.
Hundreds of thousands of middle-class children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland.” A day at a Cape Nanhui Wetland would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster an appreciation of the natural world.
If Shanghai can be a world economic center and have world-class airports and a world-class skyline and world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must have an easily accessible, world-class reserve protecting its priceless coastline, reed beds, and migratory birds.
A world-class, easily accessible, wetland nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would become a mecca for birders and achieve world renown, as has been the case with similar reserves such as Mai Po at Hong Kong and Sungei Buloh in Singapore.
A male Narcissus Flycatcher made a rare late-autumn Shanghai appearance in Zhongshan Park (31.221888, 121.420066). On Tues. 15 Nov. 2016, the spectacle attracted 30 photographers.
The flycatcher was attracted by mealworms speared by photographers onto a soft steel wire. The wire was hung from a branch, enticing the flycatcher to hover to snatch the bait. The bird was appearing every 10 minutes.
I expressed concern but did not feel the need to be critical or intervene. The photographers obviously liked the flycatcher, did not think that they were harming it, and were enjoying themselves immensely.
I watched the flycatcher attack the mealworms. I think it unlikely that the wire would harm the bird. The bigger problem may be that the free protein will keep the bird here an unnaturally long time. A passage migrant through Earth’s largest city, Narcissus Flycatcher should be in Borneo by now.
Found at Cape Nanhui on Wed. 19 Oct. 2016: Pomarine Skua (called Pomarine Jaeger in North America). This first record for Shanghai was discovered by local birder Hé Xīn (何鑫) in the defunct nature reserve 1.4 km inland from the East China Sea. Kai Pflug was also on hand. Hé Xīn and Kai spread the news through our Shanghai Birding WeChat group, and the next day Elaine Du and I found the skua at the same spot (30.921625, 121.958940). The skua stayed four days, until Sat. 22 Oct.
The seabird appeared healthy, alternately feeding, preening, and roosting. Its plumage was shiny, and I saw no evidence of injury. It was a healthy refugee blown west by Typhoon Haima.
As sightings of skuas on the Chinese coast are rare, and because skuas have a bewildering array of plumages, at first there was some confusion about the species of our bird. It soon became clear that the vagrant was either Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus or Arctic Skua (IOC: Parasitic Jaeger) S. parasiticus. But which?
POMARINE ID BASICS
To answer that question, we needed photos, and so on Thurs. 20 Oct. Elaine and I drove to Cape Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Pudong.
We quickly found and photographed the bird. After examining our images, talking to other birders, and studying the books, we determined that it is a pale-morph adult pomarinus in non-breeding plumage. Here’s why:
— S. pomarinus is larger and bulkier than the other jaegers (small skuas), in particular the jaeger that it most resembles, S. parasiticus. The jaeger we found was large and bulky.
National Geographic describes pomarinus as a “bulky brute with a commanding presence [and a] thick bull-neck—a Rottweiler among the jaegers.” S. pomarinus, Geographic adds, “is the bulkiest [jaeger] and appears pot-bellied and very deep at the chest. … Often it appears there is more body before the wing than behind the wing.”
The image above is in line with that description. Below, another image illustrating the bulky shape and barrel chest.
— In adult pale-morph pomarinus, the black helmet reaches below the gape, and black plumage surrounds the base of the bill. Most pale-morph parasiticus show a white spot at the base of the upper mandible and a less-extensive helmet that does not reach below the gape.
Below, another close-up of the head. Note here and above that, unusually for pomarinus, the bill appears almost all-black.
— Adult pale-morph pomarinus is more heavily barred than parasiticus. Most adult pale-morph pomarinus show a coarse breast band and dark barring on the flanks. Most adult pale-morph parasiticus show a diffuse greyish-brown breast band and lack barring on the flanks.
There are several other ID points, some of them, such as tail streamers, not visible in The Shanghai Skua. The points discussed above, however, are enough, we think, to clinch the ID.
Enjoy these other photos of the rarity.
The skua was very tame and performed various functions in its unaccustomed surroundings. It scratched itself (below), bathed, scavenged dead fish, and occasionally took short flights.
Its most common activity was roosting on the mud bank.
Kai Pflug got the photo below of the skua with wings upraised. Note the unbarred underwing and pale flash at the base of the primaries, further evidence that the skua is an adult.
Hé Xīn (below) found The Shanghai Skua on Wed. 19 Oct. 2016, a historic first record for Shanghai. The next day I met Hé Xīn at the site.
RARE AUTUMN RECORD OF NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER
On Thurs. 20 Oct. and Sun. 23 Oct. 2016, Elaine Du and I birded Nanhui and the sod farm south of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). On 23 Oct. Elaine and I were joined by British birder Michael Grunwell. The two days yielded 92 species. After the Pomarine Jaeger, the big news was rare autumn sightings of Narcissus Flycatcher, another record of Nordmann’s Greenshank, and still more evidence that the highly threatened Nanhui wetland is much depended on by Black-faced Spoonbill.
On 20 Oct. in the canal at the base of the sea wall at Nanhui, Elaine and I had 18 Mandarin Duck and 2 season’s first Greater Scaup. On 23 Oct., the Nanhui microforests yielded Eurasian Woodcock, Ashy Minivet, Siberian Thrush, Red-throated Thrush, and season’s first Pale Thrush. A male Siberian Rubythroat popped out of the undergrowth and a Northern Boobook dozed before a crowd of photographers. At the line of trees (30.859995, 121.910061) near South Lock, 6 km south of the Magic Parking Lot (30.882688, 121.972489), we had season’s first Tristram’s Bunting. Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124) is attracting ducks again, the most notable Sunday being season’s first Tufted Duck and Common Pochard.
The sod farm, which we visited Sunday morning, and which lies just off the S32 freeway, was worth the small investment of time required to get there. The grassy area gave us an unusually large (80) group of Red-throated Pipit. In Nanhui, we have been experiencing this species only in fly-by mode, but at the farm dozens of them were feeding on the ground. Michael and I studied the pipits carefully and concluded the group was pure Red-throated; we saw not a single Buff-bellied Pipit.
Ducks are once again gracing the canals and ponds of Nanhui. The most numerous were, as expected, Eastern Spot-billed Duck (285 over the two days) and Eurasian Teal (270 on 23 Oct.). Less numerous was Eurasian Wigeon, and there were sprinklings of Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Garganey.
— Uniquely among the Shanghai region’s passage-migrant flycatchers, most of which appear in roughly equal numbers on both the spring and autumn migrations, Narcissus Flycatcher appears almost exclusively on the spring migration. We were therefore pleasantly surprised Sunday to see the three males and three females. Did Typhoon Haima send them our way? What are the migration patterns of this beautiful flycatcher?
— The importance of the Nanhui wetlands—as well as the dangers they face—can hardly be overstated. On 20 Oct. at the skua site, Hé Xīn told me that the defunct wetland in which we were standing would already have been utterly transformed by now had it not been for the intervention of Chinese birders, who secured a one-year delay. Within a radius of a few hundred meters of the skua site stood 24 endangered Black-faced Spoonbill and an endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. The dependence of Black-faced Spoonbill on the defunct wetland reserve is obvious and could be demonstrated by a group of high-schoolers doing a science project. Shanghai lies at the mouth of one of Earth’s greatest waterways (the Yangtze River) and is a major point on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway—yet this wealthy city, a world financial center with a rich natural heritage, entirely lacks an easily accessible wetland reserve on its mainland. The one, weak attempt—the defunct Nanhui reserve, with its crumbling buildings, torn-up boardwalk, and rotting signs—stands near the gallows, in the nick of time being given a stay of execution. And yet, even now, the defunct reserve, mismanaged, unloved, and undervalued, even now the place still attracts Class A birds! When, oh when, will the Shanghai government and Shanghai people learn to value at their true worth their spoonbills, greenshanks, and vagrant skuas? When, I ask, will they see as an asset to be cherished, and not a burden to be cast away, the thousands of birds that migrate through Earth’s greatest city? When will the Shanghai people apply their renowned cleverness and skill to protecting, rather than dredging up the home of, the symbol of their city, Reed Parrotbill? When will Shanghai take a cue from Hong Kong and build its own Mai Po? When will it follow the example of Singapore and create its own Sungei Buloh?
Note: Nearly every major field guide covers skuas, a cosmopolitan family. This is a partial list showing the main works I consulted as I researched Stercorariidae.
Alderfer, Jonathan, ed. National Geographic Complete Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, 2006. Section “Skuas, Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers” by N.G. Howell and Alvaro Jaramillo. Jaegers, pp. 237-9.
Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. News about the sighting of Pomarine Skua was disseminated by Hé Xīn and Kai Pflug through this chat group.