The Day Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Appeared at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler at Cape Nanhui is one of the best sightings of my birding career. Ours is the only record on eBird of the species at Shanghai’s top birding spot. Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and I were in the defunct wetland reserve. The Middendorf’s was at the base of reeds along a canal. We observed the bird for several minutes. The date was 21 May 2015.

The specimen above is clearly a Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes ochotensis and not either of its two most similar congeners: the less contrastingly patterned Styan’s Grasshopper Warbler H. pleskei and the more contrasting Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola. Nor is it the heavily streaked Marsh Grassbird H. pryeri.

Our team was delighted with the find, for Middendorf’s on migration is an elusive tick. There is, however, evidence that Shanghai is a place of some importance on the migration route and that enterprising birders can find the species here. La Touche in 1912 reported Middendorf’s as being common in late May and early June on Shaweishan, near Chongming Island (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 261). On its spring migration, Middendorf’s follows a north to northeast heading from the Philippines, its main wintering grounds, to the breeding areas in Hokkaido, the Kurils, Sakhalin, and the mainland Russian Far East. Many go due north from Luzon to Taiwan before making the northeastward turn toward Japan. Some continue still farther due north from Taiwan, crossing the East China Sea and making landfall at the first part of mainland Asia they hit, namely the eastern bulge of China around Shanghai (261).

Shanghai not only is a likely part of the migration route of Middendorf’s; it is possibly also the very best place on the Chinese coast where migrating Middendorf’s may be found. As springtime records of Middendorf’s in north China are scarce, experts presume that most Middendorf’s that reach the central Chinese coast migrate not northward but northeastward, again crossing the East China Sea to Japan. Note too that south of Shanghai, for example in Guangdong and Hong Kong, records of Middendorf’s also are few (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 261; eBird 2020).

Our Middendorf’s was silent, but some call, and Shanghai birders hoping to tick the species should be listening carefully in late May. “[The call of Middendorf’s] is often the only indication of presence away from the breeding areas,” write Kennerley and Pearson (2010, 259). Care needs to be taken to distinguish the “kit” or “chit” call of Middendorf’s from the similar call of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, which is known to call and even sing on migration in Shanghai (Brelsford 2017). Distinguishing the call and song of Middendorf’s and Pallas’s can be difficult, even for expert birders (Moores 2018).

In summary, I believe that the records of La Touche from more than a century ago were accurate and that in certain coastal areas in Shanghai, Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler was a common late-spring migrant. I believe furthermore that despite the massive transformation of the Shanghai coast since the time of La Touche, Middendorf’s may still be common in late May and early June at places such as Cape Nanhui and Chongming Dongtan. Birders should be on the lookout for Middendorf’s in Shanghai.

MAP & PHOTOS

middendorf-map
Map showing major migration patterns of Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler in spring. From its wintering areas mainly in the Philippines, Middendorf’s moves north into Taiwan (Arrow 1), where winter records of the species also are numerous (eBird 2020). Some Middendorf’s may bypass Taiwan and head northeastward through the Ryukyus to the main Japanese islands (2). From Taiwan many Middendorf’s head northeast to Japan (3), while some continue northward and reach mainland Asia near Shanghai (4). Middendorf’s that reach the Shanghai region presumably migrate northeastward, crossing the East China Sea to Japan (5). In Japan they traverse Honshu (6, 7) en route to the breeding grounds in Hokkaido and the Russian Far East. Red dots indicate areas in the Shanghai region where Middendorf’s has been recorded on eBird (includes autumn records). Data for this illustration from Kennerley and Pearson 2010, pp. 260-1; Brazil 2018, p. 304; and eBird. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler
On 21 May 2015, this Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler appeared at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui. Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and Craig Brelsford found the warbler at the edge of a reedbed in the defunct nature reserve. The coordinates of the spot are 30.915306, 121.967074. The encounter with the elusive migrant remains the sole record on eBird of Middendorf’s at Shanghai’s top birding spot. (Craig Brelsford)
Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler
Migrating Middendorf’s are often found ‘in reedbeds and along riverbanks’ (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 259). This individual was treading carefully along the edge of a canal, in conformity with the authors’ description. In spring Middendorf’s departs the winter quarters late and performs ‘a rapid northward migration with a limited number of stopover points’ (261). This individual may have flown nonstop from Taiwan, crossing the East China Sea and making landfall around Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

SOUND-RECORDING

Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, Verkhoturova Island, Russia (59.593602, 164.674460). Song with element of call at beginning. Recorded 27 June in lowland grassland/tussocky tundra near northernmost extension of breeding range. (0:29; 683 KB; Christoph Zöckler)

RESOURCES ON HELOPSALTES AND LOCUSTELLA WARBLERS

Click the links below for coverage on shanghaibirding.com of locustellid warblers.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus
Marsh Grassbird H. pryeri
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola
Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata
Brown Bush Warbler L. luteoventris
Baikal Bush Warbler L. davidi
Spotted Bush Warbler L. thoracica

OTHER LATE SPRING MIGRANTS IN SHANGHAI

In addition to Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, late spring brings passage migrants such as these to Shanghai:

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler recorded at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui in June

Pechora Pipit singing at Cape Nanhui in May

— Scarce migrant and regional breeder Asian Koel recorded in May and June, singing Common Cuckoo breeding at Cape Nanhui, and singing Lesser Cuckoo in Jiangsu: The Cuckoos of Shanghai

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

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

Brelsford, C. (2017). “One of My All-time Ornithological Highlights” (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/all-time-high/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 May 2017; scroll down for report and sound-recording of singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (accessed: 29 May 2020).

eBird (2020). eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler in China (https://ebird.org/species/migwar/CN) and Taiwan (https://ebird.org/species/migwar/TW). Accessed: 27 Apr 2020.

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

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

Moores, N. (2018). eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53240665. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. See note under entry for Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler: “Heard only – listed as Possible as confusion with Pallas’s Grasshopper a decent possibilty” (sic). (Accessed: 27 Apr 2020)

Pearson, D.P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 615 (Middendorf’s Warbler) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

REVISIONS

1. Sound-recording of Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler by Christoph Zöckler added 28 April 2020.

Featured image: Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes ochotensis, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)
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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

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTOS

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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