Cape Nanhui Through the Eyes of a First Time Shanghai Birder

by Brian “Fox” Ellis
for shanghaibirding.com

Fox Ellis
Brian ‘Fox’ Ellis

I arrived in Shanghai on a Monday night, expecting a full day of performances at a local school on Tuesday. Because Xi Jinping was in town, schools were closed at the last minute, and I had a day for birdwatching. I jumped online and found shanghaibirding.com, a truly wonderful website created and curated by Craig Brelsford, who now lives in Florida but still manages the site. They have great directions on where to go and what you might find there. My friend Alberto, who had never been birdwatching before, was along for the ride.

Shanghai is the largest city in the world, the size of Delaware, yet there is really good birdwatching just a few steps outside several subway stops. New York City is the only rival I can think of in the U.S., with Central Park, Brooklyn Park Zoo, and Jamaica Bay all good stops on the NYC Subway.

Granted, it is a long subway ride to Cape Nanhui, actually three subways, two transfers, and the third ride is an elevated train. But the last half hour is a visual smorgasbord, a beautiful mix of urban development, unusual architecture, recently planted parks, and historic farmland. There are traditional fishermen with seine nets in the creeks and waterways. And I saw my first Asian egrets in the trees above a small stream.

When we arrived at Dishui Lake and came up out of the subway station, the sun had come out. The faint scent of a sea breeze blew across the park that fronted Dishui Lake. Hopping along upon the pavement was a White Wagtail just a few feet from us. This bird is starkly black and white, robin-sized, and unafraid of fellow pedestrians. In a recently planted tree, right at eye level was a Goldcrest. This kinglet was so close I could almost reach out and touch it! As it rounded the branch it gave us a great series of views, top and bottom. The golden crown-stripe was obvious without binoculars. Though a new bird for me, it felt like home, reminding me of the close cousin we have back in Illinois, Golden Crowned Kinglet.

We started walking around Dishui Lake with great anticipation for more birds. Within a few hundred steps we had seen a shrike, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and a couple more wagtails. But then we encountered a large section of the lakefront that was closed off in preparation for future development. After a kilometer or more of pavement and few birds, we decided to abandon our effort to walk all the way out to the bay and back. Though we both liked to walk, it seemed foolish to spend the best hours of the morning just trying to get to the Magic Parking Lot and microforests. We called a cab.

The cab driver took us to what was the Holiday Inn, which appeared to be abandoned. Many of the doors along the balconies were open, yet there were very few cars in the parking lot. Thankfully, there were birds.

Though I consider myself an experienced birdwatcher with a good knowledge of bird families, I felt stumped again and again. And without internet access, my eBird app and Merlin were not much help. I had downloaded Merlin bird packs, but kept coming up cold on the IDs. I know that was a shorebird and this one was exhibiting flycatcher behavior, that was a shrike, and those were sparrows, but I was just making notes on identifying characteristics and hoping to ID them when I got back to my apartment, my bird book, and the internet. We walked a long stretch of recently planted trees on one side of the road and a long stretch of some sort of pampas grass and the mouth of the Yangtze River on the other side. The birds thinned out. There was a crew of about 20 men using hand scythes to cut down all the weeds under the recently planted trees.

I left my buddy to nap on the concrete embankment. I headed down a little dirt road between two mudflats. I saw a small cinnamon-colored bird that was fly-catching. There was a small flock of shorebirds, sleeping, their heads tucked into their wings. In the distance was an egret with three grebes diving near her. A kestrel came up out of the reed bed and hovered, helicoptering high overhead. It dove back down into the tall grass and disappeared. I got a really good look at another cinnamon-colored bird with a distinct gray cap, black face and neck, and white triangles on both wings. Within about 20 minutes I had added half a dozen new birds to my life list, if only I knew their names. I had notes and good mental images.

I headed back towards mi amigo and we headed towards the former Holiday Inn. There were lots of abandoned picnic tables and bbq grills out back. There are actually two hotels, one clearly abandoned, but the former Holiday Inn had a work crew out back putting up new signs, signaling a new owner and a second life. There were picnic tables that were being used and several cars parked in the backlot. We headed in to use the toilet. We decided to get coffee at the sixth floor restaurant. It offered a gorgeous view of the bay.

Shortly after we had ordered and sat down, a mother and daughter came in, both carrying nice binoculars. I said hello. They spoke very little English, and I speak no Mandarin. But using our bird apps we were able to share a few birds we had seen. More importantly, they helped me to ID a few of the mystery birds. Most importantly, they offered to take us to the magical microforests and show us more birds. After a quick lunch of fried rice and coffee, they whisked us off to better birding.

I thought the morning was good, and I was very happy with the birds I had seen, but the afternoon was great and I added 22 new species to my life list! Nora, the daughter, is a better birder than her mother, or so she said, quite proudly, in her self-described Chinglish. She has been birding for three years and her mother for one year. At first they were offering to take us to the spot, drop us off, and then head on their way. Then they asked if we wanted to see some shorebirds. I said yes. They stopped along the levee and Nora’s father pulled out a Swarovski spotting scope. We all got really good looks at a small flock of Dunlin feeding on a mudflat. There was also a smaller flock of grebes diving out in deeper water and a Great Egret feeding on the distant shore.

We climbed back in their car and drove along the levee to the microforest. There were several birders there with large-lensed cameras and a cacophony of birdsong, even though it was already a warm afternoon. The mother, Rong Zhao, started pointing out little songbirds left and right. She would look it up in her smartphone and find an English translation and I would add it to my bird list. In quick succession we saw Daurian Redstart, male and female, Yellow-throated Bunting, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Grey-backed Thrush, and Dusky Thrush.

They were very generous with their time and patient with my questions while we visited two more of the microforests, adding Brambling and Red-flanked Bluetail to the list. But a few things quickly became quite clear: Though the government has gone to great lengths and great expense to plant several rows of trees along mile after mile of these coastal roads, they are all the same two species, a larch and a pine, pretty, and pretty monotonous monoculture. It is only in the more diverse or weedy patches that have a variety of trees, vines, and berries that you find birds. And because these microforests are well-trafficked, the abundance of litter left this birdwatcher feeling a little blue.

Can an effort be made to add to the diversity of the well-manicured forests so that instead of a few small patches of bird-friendly habitat there are miles of possible parklands for birds to rest and refuel as they migrate along the coast? We saw a large work crew planting acre after acre of non-native trees. Can the birdwatchers reseed these areas with native vines and shrubs?

And instead of foot traffic everywhere, could a more well developed trail be built that parallels the road, allowing birders better access without causing so much disturbance to the birds? These are questions the members of Shanghai Birding are asking. Hopefully they can find the answers they seek. Their passion for birds and birdwatching was encouraging. Even more encouraging, after I typed these words on my laptop on the long subway ride back into the heart of the city (and an afternoon visit to the Buddhist temple), I saw the same questions were being asked in a group chat within Shanghai Birding. Let us hope this conversation leads to action.

If you are ever in Shanghai, visit shanghaibirding.com before you get here. Study up on the local birds so you do not feel as frustrated as I did. If your visit is more spontaneous, like mine, don’t worry, even a last-minute trip is well worth your time. Take their advice and take a cab from Dishui Lake to the furthest microforest, then walk back towards the former Holiday Inn. And maybe, just maybe, you just might be lucky enough to meet a kind family like the Zhaos that will take you under their wing to show you a bird or two—or maybe twenty-two!
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Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

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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Elon Musk, Please Help Save Cape Nanhui

Shanghai by satellite (NASA/Craig Brelsford)
Tesla’s new Gigafactory 3 is just 3 km inland from one of the most overtaxed coastlines in the world. As the latest exploiter of the resources of the Chinese coast, Tesla has a duty to counterbalance the impact its factory will have by helping establish a nature reserve at Cape Nanhui. The only coastal wetland reserve in mainland Pudong, a Cape Nanhui Coastal Wetland Reserve would preserve a natural area of indisputable worth, open up the world of nature to millions of Shanghai residents, and help erase the ecological deficit of Shanghai, a chronic environmental underperformer. (NASA/Craig Brelsford)

Dear Mr. Musk:

Tesla Gigafactory 3, the facility that you are building in Pudong, is next door to Cape Nanhui, one of the best birdwatching areas in China. Visionary Shanghai residents have attempted to establish a nature reserve at the Cape and had little success. Can you help?

That we call to you for help is only natural, inasmuch as you sited your factory so close to the coastline of Cape Nanhui, the headland between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay and the most southeasterly point of Shanghai. The shape and location of Cape Nanhui make it a particularly important point on the East Asian-Australasian Migratory Flyway. Nanhui is, however, completely unprotected; not a square inch of the environmentally valuable coastline there has been set aside for conservation.

Indeed, in recent years, as a result of the development of Pudong of which your Gigafactory is a major part, Cape Nanhui has been sliced, chopped, dredged, drained, and abused. The transformation has been great, but not so much as to have robbed Nanhui of all its environmental value. The site remains highly worthy of rehabilitation and protection.

With its new factory almost literally casting a shadow over one of Earth’s most important coastlines, and as a new corporate resident of Pudong and neighbor to Cape Nanhui, Tesla has a clear duty and opportunity to help save Cape Nanhui.

Tesla should help protect Cape Nanhui for the following reasons:

(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, critical to Reed Parrotbill and other species at risk.

Reed Parrotbill
A symbol of Shanghai, Reed Parrotbill is a highly charismatic and attractive bird. Nowhere do the people of Shanghai have a better chance of seeing this near-threatened species than at Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

Critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank use Cape Nanhui. 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. If the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed, then the latter two species will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai.

(2) When it comes to conservation, Shanghai is clearly underperforming. 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 larger than the U.S. state of Delaware. There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in the megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the dramatic East China Sea coast of Shanghai, where Asia’s largest river meets the world’s most important migratory flyway.

(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 would light a fire of conservation across all China.

Shanghai birders at Nanhui
Shanghai birders at Cape Nanhui. These people are the Johnny Appleseeds of birding and nature appreciation in China. Though still few in number, they are nonetheless laying the foundation for a future in which more Chinese cherish the natural environment. (Elaine Du)

Hundreds of thousands of children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Shanghai 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 Reserve.” A day at Cape Nanhui would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster appreciation of the natural world.

If Pudong New Area can be an economic powerhouse, if it can boast a Tesla factory along with its world-class airport and world-famous skyline, and if it can offer world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must ensure world-class preservation of its priceless coastline and migratory birds.

I hope you agree, Mr. Musk, that the case for a world-class, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui is truly clear-cut.

Mr. Musk, you have both a responsibility to understand the environmental degradation that is occurring in Pudong and especially at Cape Nanhui, and an opportunity to be a leader in marrying commerce and conservation. Please tell us how Tesla proposes to do its part to help conserve your new neighbor, Cape Nanhui. Comment below or write to me (craig at shanghaibirding.com). I’ll make sure that the right people read your message.

Kind regards,

Craig Brelsford
Executive Editor
shanghaibirding.com
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My Cape Nanhui

written & illustrated by Louis-Jean Germain
for shanghaibirding.com

Louis-Jean Germain
Louis-Jean Germain

My first visit to Pudong’s Cape Nanhui came on a cold, cloudy day in January 2016. I was disappointed. How could this place, deserted and dull, be the favorite of Shanghai birders? How did this place become one of the hottest birding spots in China?

I arrived by public transport and birded mostly around the Magic Parking Lot (30.884988, 121.968091), the wooded area and migrant trap at the tip of the Cape. Back then I didn’t know it was magic, and I found few birds. I knew little about China and even less about Asian birds, and I had been painting only occasionally.

Seasons have come and gone, I have visited the Cape numerous times, I have broadened my knowledge of ornithology, I have taken Chinese painting lessons and resumed my work with watercolors, and I have honed my ability to draw and paint birds. Now, my vision of Cape Nanhui hardly could differ more from that initial impression.

Now, I love Cape Nanhui. Now, I paint Cape Nanhui.

CHINESE PAINTING

Through my many visits over several seasons, my vision of Cape Nanhui evolved. I realized that the landscapes of Cape Nanhui are just the sort of landscapes that inspired those great masters, the Chinese painters of old.

I pictured those Chinese masters being deeply moved by the beauty of the vast reed beds, the reeds swaying  gently in the breeze. Using traditional Chinese tools (rice paper, paint brush, and black ink), I attempted to reproduce the motions, forms, and shadows of the reeds of Nanhui, the way the Chinese masters would have done.

I painted in winter, with Eurasian Teal alongside a fishing boat.

Teal and boat, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Ducks and boat, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)

I painted in autumn—two cranes exhausted from their migratory journey.

Cranes, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Cranes. (Louis-Jean Germain)

Again in summer I went, this time painting an egret among the reeds.

Reeds and egret, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Reeds and egret. (Louis-Jean Germain)

I went again and again, each time getting a new impression of Cape Nanhui.

MORE THAN JUST REEDS

Cape Nanhui is not only reed beds, but also mudflats, meadows, and eight tiny wooded areas that we Shanghai birders call the microforests. With my watercolors, I strove to paint each habitat of Cape Nanhui.

I painted a reed bed with the buildings of Lingang emerging in the mist above the reeds (as the mountains in the Chinese shanshui paintings); I painted the wind turbines rising like the mills of Cervantes in Don Quixote; I painted the mudflat and East China Sea crossed by the long Donghai Bridge; I painted a magical Japanese Paradise Flycatcher on the branch of a microforest tree.

Reeds, windmills, and distant skyscrapers. Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Reeds, windmills, and distant skyscrapers of the new city of Lingang, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
East China Sea, Donghai Bridge, and Lesser Yangshan Island from sea wall at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
East China Sea, Donghai Bridge, and Lesser Yangshan Island from sea wall at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
South Pond (30.873934, 121.953180), an important area of open water just inside the sea wall at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
South Pond (30.873934, 121.953180), an area of open water just inside the sea wall at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
A Cape Nanhui microforest. The eight tiny woodlands at Cape Nanhui are astonishingly effective migrant traps. Thanks to Craig Brelsford for his photo of this scene, which served as a visual aid for this painting. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). The microforests, eight tiny woodlands at Cape Nanhui, are astonishingly effective migrant traps. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Magical Japanese Paradise Flycatcher in a microforest at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)

CAPE NANHUI, SUSTAINER OF LIFE

A nubby promontory between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is the most southeasterly point of the city-province of Shanghai. Silt from the Yangtze River gave birth to Cape Nanhui, and even today Nanhui lives at the pace of Asia’s greatest river.

The silt is rich, allowing plant life to proliferate, and attracting animals—insects, fish, amphibians, and of course birds. Some, such as Reed Parrotbill, are residents; some, such as Yellow Bittern, breed there; some, such as the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, winter there; and still others, among them the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank, pass through Nanhui while making their astonishing long-distance migration along the East Asian-Australasian Migratory Flyway.

Month after month, season after season, I went to Nanhui with my binoculars, telescope, paper, and black pen (a Mitsubishi uni-ball). I observed carefully, trying to understand and capture with my eyes the distinctive motions and details of each bird, and to reproduce my visual impressions with my pen. It is essential for me to draw birds in the field, to actually see them, as it is moments in the field with birds when one’s experience is the most intense and intimate.

Once home, following the field notes I made, and occasionally referring to great photographs my fellow Shanghai birders have taken, I carefully applied watercolors to my drawings.

During the cold winter at Cape Nanhui, we can spot winter visitors coming from northern China, Korea, Japan, and Siberia, among them Eurasian Teal, Black-faced Spoonbill, and Dusky Thrush. There are also resident species such as Black-crowned Night Heron.

Eurasian Teal, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Eurasian Teal Anas crecca, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 7 Feb. 2018 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 21 March 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax. (Louis-Jean Germain)

In spring, as temperatures rise and the days lengthen, and during autumn, as summer heat succumbs to the first cold winds, passage migrants can be observed at Cape Nanhui.

The waders arrive at Cape Nanhui after flights of thousands of kilometers on the Flyway. Birds such as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, and Far Eastern Curlew use Nanhui as a stopover. In autumn, these waders are en route to places as far south as Australia; in spring, they are headed north, many to Siberia.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 5 May 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Far Eastern Curlew
Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis. (Louis-Jean Germain)

Another group of migrants are the passerines, at Nanhui found often in the microforests. Among them are colorful beauties such as Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Fairy Pitta, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, and Black-naped Oriole.

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 8 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata, Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Pitta nympha, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 8 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana, aquarelle and black ink. Observed 8 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis, juvenile, aquarelle and black ink. Observed by 12 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. Special thanks to Kai Pflug for the picture that served as a visual aid for the painting. (Louis-Jean Germain)
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis, juvenile. (Louis-Jean Germain)

CONCLUSION & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

It took me time to understand and appreciate Cape Nanhui. I look forward to continuing to explore this rich, unique, and beautiful place. May Cape Nanhui live forever, not only in the hearts of all Shanghainese, but also in the hearts of us foreign visitors.

Brelsford-mug
Brelsford

I dedicate this post to Craig Brelsford, founder and editor of this superlative website, shanghaibirding.com. In a series of posts in 2016, Craig called for the conservation of Cape Nanhui and thereby initiated a new era of awareness about the conservationist value of the Cape. Craig is the birder who more than any other person illuminated my path to Cape Nanhui.

Thanks to Craig, Kai Pflug, plusQ, and Chloe for sharing photos with me, many of which served as visual aids for the paintings displayed here.

Featured image: Microforests dot the shoreline of Cape Nanhui, the most southeasterly point of the city-province of Shanghai and one of the most important birding hotspots in China. (Louis-Jean Germain)
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Cape Nanhui Impressions 2017

by Kai Pflug
for shanghaibirding.com

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

I spent about 50 days at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui in 2017—sometimes with friends, but mostly on my own. Here are some of my favorite photos from Nanhui 2017.

Coming back from a trip to Australia, where I saw many interesting birds, I was afraid I was going to be disappointed by Nanhui. I was, however, far from disappointed by this Short-eared Owl (January).

Short-eared Owl, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, January 2017. (Kai Pflug)

In April, Craig and I took a trip to Nanhui. I think we more or less both took the same photo of this Common Kingfisher and Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

Common Kingfisher and Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

This Blue-and-white Flycatcher has just had a good moment. This photographer has just had a good moment (April).

Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

A Common Sandpiper was inspecting his fishing nets (April).

Common Sandpiper, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

In May, I was already on my way back home from a somewhat disappointing day at Nanhui when Craig called. “Orange-headed Trush at the parking lot!” Of course, I turned back. It was worth it.

Orange-headed Thrush, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

I like the way this male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher seems to rest his long tail on the tree. Probably no females around to impress at this point, I guess (May).

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Personally, I think of this photo as having the subtitle “The joys of parenthood.” Congratulations, Craig—with only one son, it should be a bit more relaxed than for this Long-tailed Shrike (May).

Long-tailed Shrike, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Going to Nanhui in July is a somewhat lonely experience, as the heat deters most birders. Still, seeing a Eurasian Bittern sort of kneeling on a farm road can make it worth it.

Eurasian Bittern, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

This still fluffy young Yellow Bittern came so close to the place where I was hiding that eventually I could not capture it with my long lens any more. Hope it has learnt a bit more and survived (August).

Yellow Bittern, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

For a few months in 2017, a place with the nicely descriptive name “Trash Canal” was a good place to bird. This Striated Heron makes full use of the location’s characteristics (September).

Striated Heron, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

On the ground, the Eurasian Wryneck is very easy to overlook (September).

Eurasian Wryneck, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

While 2017 did not have a Fairy Pitta quite as compliant as the one at Nanhui in the autumn of 2016, there were still a few of them around. Always makes a birding day worthwhile (September).

Fairy Pitta, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

The autumn of 2017 was also very good for seeing owls such as this Oriental Scops Owl. Hard to ever get tired of owls (September).

Oriental Scops Owl, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Another “seen together with Craig” bird, this Common Redpoll (October).

Common Redpoll, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

The idea of a sand bath always seemed a bit strange to me. But obviously it is not a strange idea to this Eurasian Hoopoe (November).

Eurasian Hoopoe, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

The Japanese Robin was maybe my most-anticipated bird of the year, as I had missed it the year before, despite waiting for it for quite some time. Of course, this is the kind of delayed gratification which makes a bird extra-special (November).

Japanese Robin, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Note: Some of these photos—and many more—will soon be published in the book Birds of Nanhui, Shanghai, ISBN 978-7-202-12615-8. I hope that it will be available at every bookstore in China. If not, you can get it from me directly. Contact me at kai.pflug@gmail.com.
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Late Summer Shanghai

As summer melts into fall, Pudong’s Cape Nanhui continues to prove to be one of the best birding locations in China. In the period 26 Aug. to 8 Sept. 2017, I birded four days at the most southeasterly point of Shanghai, as well as at other key locations in Earth’s Greatest City. I noted 106 species.

Highlights were Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher at Microforest 1, beautiful white-morph Amur Paradise Flycatcher at Binhai Forest Park, Fairy Pitta in the Cape Nanhui microforests, Greater Painted-snipe holding on in a canal near the coast, Asian Dowitcher at South Pond, Chinese Egret at North Pond and on South Beach, and Pacific Golden Plover at the sod farm south of Pudong Airport. Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler were calling in the Magic Parking Lot, and endangered Far Eastern Curlew and Great Knot were recorded at Nanhui. Crested Goshawk appeared in inner-city Zhongshan Park.

Here are some of the best birds:

Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher
Cyornis brunneatus

Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635), 4 Sept. 2017. Cyornis brunneatus is a very scarce vagrant to Shanghai. The species breeds in southeast China and spends the winter in Malaysia and Indonesia. (Craig Brelsford)

After nearly 10 years in Shanghai and countless visits to Cape Nanhui, I still occasionally score life birds there, a testament to the richness of the hot spot. Such was the case 4 Sept. with Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher. The bird, an adult, was in Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635).

Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher is a very scarce vagrant to Shanghai. Cyornis brunneatus breeds in southeast China and spends the winter in peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo. It is uncommon even in its core range and virtually unknown in the Shanghai region outside Cape Nanhui; the place closest to Shanghai where I have heard of it occurring is Emeifeng, 635 km southwest of Shanghai in Fujian.

The IUCN lists the species as Vulnerable because of the loss of mature primary lowland forest throughout its range.

Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
I shoot in manual mode for fuller control. Here, using my seven-year old Nikon D3S and eight-year old Nikon 600 mm f/4, I chose the following settings: 1/160, f/11, ISO 1250. I used no tripod; instead, I steadied my rig on my knee. (Craig Brelsford)

Amur Paradise Flycatcher
Terpsiphone incei

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher
T. atrocaudata

Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Dongzhai, Henan, 2010. (Craig Brelsford)
Amur, Dongzhai, 2010. (C. Brelsford)

3 Amur found 27 Aug. at Binhai Forest Park, the heavily wooded green space near Cape Nanhui, 4.5 km inland from the East China Sea. A stunning white-morph male and rufous-morph were continuously together, and we found a single rufous-morph in another part of the park. The white-morph as well as the rufous-morph accompanying it were calling. I have seen dozens of paradise flycatchers in Shanghai over the years and heard only one call (a Japanese for 1 or 2 seconds). Why were the Amur at Binhai Forest Park calling?

Binhai Forest Park is visited little and birded even less; could this quiet, thickly wooded park hold breeding Amur Paradise Flycatcher? As the white-morph male looks like something out of a fairy tale and is a bird even a non-birder would recognize, I asked park employees whether they had seen it. All said no.

The white-morph Amur that U.S. birder Tom Hurley and I saw was only the second I had ever beheld and a first for me in Shanghai. At Dongzhai National Nature Reserve, Henan, on 5 June 2010, I photographed the white-morph shown right. The Binhai white-morph lacked the long tail feathers of the bird I saw at Dongzhai but was still an unforgettable sight.

Amur (top) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Aug. 2017, Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
Dorsal views of Amur (top) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher. ​If the mantle, back, and tail have a purplish-brown hue, then you are likely looking at Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, known helpfully in Chinese as ‘Purple Paradise Flycatcher.’ If the upperparts are cinnamon-brown, then it is likely Amur. White-morph males are never Japanese, as the white morph does not occur in that species. 26-27 Aug. 2017, Cape Nanhui. For more on Amur-Japanese ID, see my post ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers. (Craig Brelsford)

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher is the more common of the two paradise flycatchers in Shanghai. The photo above shows the differences in upperpart coloration between rufous-morph Amur Paradise Flycatcher and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.

Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha

Fairy Pitta, Microforest 4, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai. 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Fairy Pitta, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. The first week of September seems to be peak season for these passage migrants in Shanghai. The pitta shown here is a juvenile, discernible as such by the pinkish tip to its bill. The IUCN lists Fairy Pitta as Vulnerable. (Craig Brelsford)

On 4 Sept. at Nanhui, my wife, Elaine Du, and I sneaked away from the action in Nanhui’s Microforest 1, where the photographers were set up. Microforest 4 was devoid of humans and peaceful. I tiptoed in. I scanned the undergrowth before me and, to my surprise, found a Fairy Pitta.

The pitta was standing on the ground, almost completely blanketed by a tangle of leaves, branches, and vines. Its big black eye was fixed on me. It didn’t move. I looked at the pitta, the pitta at me.

We stared at each other for 10 minutes.

Thus roosts the pitta during migration. It parks itself in thickets and waits. It bides its time, conserves its energy. Somewhere south of Shanghai, it will veer off the coast and fly non-stop across the South China Sea to Borneo, where it will spend the winter.

The pittas are mainly tropical species. Most are short-distance migrants. Not Fairy Pitta. No pitta invades the temperate world as deeply as Fairy Pitta; none makes so audacious an incursion into the north. None makes so long and daring a migration across hundreds of miles of sea.

My pitta was saving up its energy for its life-or-death run across the sea. Good luck, you explorer, you risk-taker! Good luck, Fairy Pitta.

Greater Painted-snipe
Rostratula benghalensis

Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Nikon D3S, 600 mm f/4, 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 1000, hand-held (steadied on door of car). (Craig Brelsford)

Viewed with Elaine at dusk 3 Sept. then viewed again the next morning at dawn. For weeks, the painted-snipes have been found at a single spot (30.939534, 121.955370) in a trash-strewn canal. Earlier, when news of the painted-snipe at Cape Nanhui first broke, I wrote a post in which I regretted sharing the location where were found the painted-snipes, a rare species in Shanghai. As things stand now, I can breathe easier; the many photographers who have visited the location have had no ill effect. The birds I found 4 Sept. were aware of me but behaved normally. They fed, drank, and preened. I used my car as a blind and never got out. The painted-snipes at Nanhui tolerate photographers confined to their cars.

Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
1/400, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
1/250, f/10, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
1/500, f/7.1, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
1/400, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
1/250, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
1/320, f/10, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
1/200, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
1/200, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
1/250, f/9, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)

Asian Dowitcher
Limnodromus semipalmatus

27 Aug., South Pond. Juvenile. Videoed by me using my iPhone 6, adapter by the U.S. company PhoneSkope, and my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope:

Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes

Below, video of Chinese Egret 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui showing differences between Chinese Egret and Little Egret.

Other highlights:

Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis

Photographed by me in gorgeous morning light 4 Sept. at Cape Nanhui.

Yellow Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Yellow Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Bittern Ixobrychus flavicollis

Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui.

Striated Heron Butorides striata

Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 27 Aug. at Binhai Forest Park.

Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus

Adult plus another goshawk calling unseen at inner-city Zhongshan Park on 8 Sept.

I videoed the goshawks:

Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus

27 Aug. at sod farm south of Pudong Airport.

Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris

In high-tide roost 4 Sept. on South Beach (30.860673, 121.925113), just north of Donghai Bridge at Cape Nanhui.

Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea

South Pond, Cape Nanhui, 26 Aug. Video:

Pin-tailed Snipe Gallinago stenura

Pin-tailed Snipe, 3 Sept. 2017, Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
Pin-tailed Snipe, 3 Sept. 2017, Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

Party of 3 on 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui. When flushed, made loud, raspy, memorable call. I quickly compared the call I had just heard to calls of Pin-tailed Snipe downloaded from xeno-canto.org to my iPhone. The match was perfect. Lookalike Swinhoe’s Snipe rarely calls when flushed. Dark underwing clear in my many photographs of the trio. Flew high when flushed, then returned to land at point only 50 m from where originally flushed.

Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica

Gull-billed Tern, 4 Sept. 2017, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)
Gull-billed Tern, 4 Sept., Cape Nanhui. Note the thick bill. (Craig Brelsford)

The canals on the inland side of the sea wall were resounding with the characteristic yaps of this passage migrant. A clear photo is especially useful for discerning the thick bill.

Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus

Lesser Cuckoo, 26 Aug. 2017, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Cuckoo, 26 Aug., Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

Non-hepatic adult 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui. See photo above. Reasoning behind ID of Lesser Cuckoo:

(1) No suggestion of brighter yellow iris that is characteristic of Eurasian Cuckoo as well as Oriental and Himalayan Cuckoo (darker iris more characteristic of Indian Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo)

(2) Dark rump and uppertail coverts contrast little with dark tail, while dark tail and rump contrast markedly with paler back, all pointing to Lesser Cuckoo

(3) On tail, very likely no subterminal black band (as in Indian Cuckoo), pointing again to Lesser Cuckoo

Cuculus sp., 4 Sept. 2017, Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
This cuckoo, seen 4 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui, has the dark eye, well-defined and widely spaced barring, and small size suggestive of Lesser Cuckoo. (Craig Brelsford)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Phylloscopus tenellipes

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler

P. borealoides

In the wake of my post of 31 Aug. 2017 about distinguishing Pale-legged from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler by call, I was hoping to find more members of this species pair. On 4 Sept. 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui, I was richly rewarded. For more, see my 10 Sept. 2017 post, “Pale-Sak Calls: An Addendum.”

Sand Martin Riparia riparia

Sand Martin, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. (Craig Brelsford)
Sand Martin, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Riparia riparia is an uncommon passage migrant in Shanghai. Note the well-defined breast band on my bird, distinguishing it from Pale Martin Riparia diluta, which has an ill-defined breast band.

Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane

It’s worth stressing how good is our opportunity here in Shanghai to view Siberian Blue Robin for a few short weeks each spring and fall. On the breeding grounds up in northern China, the males sing loudly and beautifully but are very hard to see; no Siberian Blue Robin I experienced on the breeding grounds ever sang from anything like an exposed perch. The few I was able to see in Elaine’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang sang on or near the ground. Females are almost impossible to see; in fact, I saw not one in Heilongjiang in May-June 2016. Siberian Blue Robin are also apparently hard to see on their wintering grounds in south China and Southeast Asia. Places such as Cape Nanhui are probably among the best places in the world to view this common but shy species. We Shanghai birders have yet another reason to count ourselves lucky.

Also noted by me in Shanghai 27 Aug.-8 Sept. 2017:

Garganey Spatula querquedula
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron A. purpurea
Great Egret A. alba
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Lesser Sand Plover C. mongolus
Greater Sand Plover C. leschenaultii
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Far Eastern Curlew N. madagascariensis
Eurasian Curlew N. arquata
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Red Knot Calidris canutus
Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata
Long-toed Stint C. subminuta
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis
Sanderling C. alba
Dunlin C. alpina
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus
Common Greenshank T. nebularia
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola
Common Redshank T. totanus
Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum
Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus
Whiskered Tern C. hybrida
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Red Turtle Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Spotted Dove S. chinensis
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Black-winged Cuckooshrike Coracina melaschistos
Tiger Shrike Lanius tigrinus
Brown Shrike L. cristatus
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis
Japanese Tit Parus minor
Black-throated Bushtit Aegithalos concinnus
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis
Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana
Javan Myna Acridotheres javanicus
Crested Myna A. cristatellus
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. dauurica
Oriental Magpie-Robin Copsychus saularis
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis
White Wagtail M. alba

Featured image: All-star birds of late summer 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui: Clockwise from top left, Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Fairy Pitta, Greater Painted-snipe, and Great Knot. The Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher and Greater Painted-snipe were photographed 4 Sept. 2017 at Cape Nanhui. Fairy Pitta photographed 5 June 2010 in Dongzhai, Henan, and Great Knot photographed 11 Sept. 2014 at Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu. (Craig Brelsford)
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Pale-Sak Calls: An Addendum

In the wake of my recent post on distinguishing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler by call, I have been hoping to find more members of this species pair in Shanghai. On 4 Sept. 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui, my hopes were fulfilled in a big way. At the Magic Parking Lot (30.884889, 121.968222), not one but both species were calling.

Below, the recordings I made with my Olympus DM-650 pocket recorder. The first Sakhalin recording was made at Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 7.7 km north of the Magic Parking Lot on the coastal road. The others were made at the Magic Parking Lot.

Note the higher frequency of the calls of Pale-legged—on average a full kilohertz higher. The difference is discernible by the keen listener, but nothing tells the story better than the spectrograms.

To summarize what I argued in the previous post: The calls, as well as the very distinctive songs, of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are diagnostic—that is, they differ markedly and consistently and are a reliable basis for an ID. The diagnosability of the calls of the two species has been affirmed by various researchers, among them Yap et al. (2014; Birding Asia 21: 76–81).

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides, call, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, 4 Sept. 2017 (00:02; 528 KB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, call, Magic Parking Lot (30.884889, 121.968222), Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, 4 Sept. 2017 (00:07; 1.4 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes, call, Magic Parking Lot, 4 Sept. 2017 (00:19; 3.7 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, call, Magic Parking Lot, 4 Sept. 2017 (00:41; 7.9 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, call, Magic Parking Lot, 4 Sept. 2017 (00:10; 2 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, call, Magic Parking Lot, 4 Sept. 2017 (00:01; 332 KB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Featured image: Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Jiangsu, May. Some of the salient characteristics of Pale-Sak are pointed out. Separating Pale-legged from Sakhalin on the basis of plumage and bare parts is not possible; because this bird was neither singing nor calling, it cannot be determined to which of the two species it belongs. (Craig Brelsford)
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Separating Pale-legged & Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on Call

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 Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. 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.

Audio spectrogram of call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Here is the sound-recording:

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, call, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 8 May 2016 (00:15; 1 MB)

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.

Audio spectrogram of call plus song of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

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.

Audio spectrogram of call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

The sound-recording:

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, call, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 27 Aug. 2017 (00:01; 193 KB)

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.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes performing typical behaviors. Top panels: pumping tail vigorously while remaining otherwise motionless on a sturdy branch. Bottom panels: making the high-pitched ‘tink’ call, again on a thick branch. Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083, top panels) and Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635, bottom panels), Cape Nanhui, 27 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

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).

Olympus DM-650
My Olympus DM-650

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.
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