Found at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui on 1 May 2019: possible White-headed Yellow WagtailMotacilla 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).
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 WagtailMotacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
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.
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.
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.
My Cape Nanhui
written & illustrated by 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.
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.
I painted in autumn—two cranes exhausted from their migratory journey.
Again in summer I went, this time painting an egret among the reeds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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).
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.
This Blue-and-white Flycatcher has just had a good moment. This photographer has just had a good moment (April).
A Common Sandpiper was inspecting his fishing nets (April).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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).
On the ground, the Eurasian Wryneck is very easy to overlook (September).
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).
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).
Another “seen together with Craig” bird, this Common Redpoll (October).
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).
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).
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 email@example.com.
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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.
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.
Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher T. atrocaudata
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.
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 PittaPitta nympha
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
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.
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 EgretEgretta eulophotes
Below, video of Chinese Egret 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui showing differences between Chinese Egret and Little Egret.
Yellow BitternIxobrychus sinensis
Photographed by me in gorgeous morning light 4 Sept. at Cape Nanhui.
Black BitternIxobrychus flavicollis
Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui.
Striated HeronButorides striata
Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 27 Aug. at Binhai Forest Park.
Adult plus another goshawk calling unseen at inner-city Zhongshan Park on 8 Sept.
I videoed the goshawks:
Pacific Golden PloverPluvialis fulva Grey-headed LapwingVanellus cinereus
27 Aug. at sod farm south of Pudong Airport.
Great KnotCalidris tenuirostris
In high-tide roost 4 Sept. on South Beach (30.860673, 121.925113), just north of Donghai Bridge at Cape Nanhui.
Curlew SandpiperC. ferruginea
South Pond, Cape Nanhui, 26 Aug. Video:
Pin-tailed SnipeGallinago stenura
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 TernGelochelidon nilotica
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.
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 RobinLarvivora 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 HeronArdea cinerea Purple HeronA. purpurea Great EgretA. alba Intermediate EgretA. intermedia Little EgretEgretta garzetta Eastern Cattle EgretBubulcus coromandus Black-crowned Night HeronNycticorax nycticorax Chinese Pond HeronArdeola bacchus Common MoorhenGallinula chloropus Eurasian CootFulica atra Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus Pied AvocetRecurvirostra avosetta Kentish PloverCharadrius alexandrinus Lesser Sand PloverC. mongolus Greater Sand PloverC. leschenaultii Little Ringed PloverC. dubius WhimbrelNumenius phaeopus Far Eastern CurlewN. madagascariensis Eurasian CurlewN. arquata Black-tailed GodwitLimosa limosa Ruddy TurnstoneArenaria interpres Red KnotCalidris canutus Broad-billed SandpiperC. falcinellus Sharp-tailed SandpiperC. acuminata Long-toed StintC. subminuta Red-necked StintC. ruficollis SanderlingC. alba DunlinC. alpina Common SnipeGallinago gallinago Red-necked PhalaropePhalaropus lobatus Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos Grey-tailed TattlerTringa brevipes Spotted RedshankT. erythropus Common GreenshankT. nebularia Marsh SandpiperT. stagnatilis Wood SandpiperT. glareola Common RedshankT. totanus Oriental PratincoleGlareola maldivarum Black-tailed GullLarus crassirostris White-winged TernChlidonias leucopterus Whiskered TernC. hybrida Common TernSterna hirundo Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia Red Turtle DoveStreptopelia tranquebarica Spotted DoveS. chinensis Himalayan SwiftletAerodramus brevirostris Lesser CoucalCentropus bengalensis Oriental DollarbirdEurystomus orientalis Eurasian WryneckJynx torquilla Common KingfisherAlcedo atthis Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus Black-winged CuckooshrikeCoracina melaschistos Tiger ShrikeLanius tigrinus Brown ShrikeL. cristatus Long-tailed ShrikeL. schach Black-naped OrioleOriolus chinensis Japanese TitParus minor Black-throated BushtitAegithalos concinnus Japanese White-eyeZosterops japonicus Barn SwallowHirundo rustica Light-vented BulbulPycnonotus sinensis Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas Eastern Crowned WarblerP. coronatus Oriental Reed WarblerAcrocephalus orientalis Thick-billed WarblerIduna aedon Zitting CisticolaCisticola juncidis Plain PriniaPrinia inornata Reed ParrotbillParadoxornis heudei Vinous-throated ParrotbillSinosuthora webbiana Javan MynaAcridotheres javanicus Crested MynaA. cristatellus Chinese BlackbirdTurdus mandarinus Grey-streaked FlycatcherMuscicapa griseisticta Asian Brown FlycatcherM. dauurica Oriental Magpie-RobinCopsychus saularis Blue-and-white FlycatcherCyanoptila cyanomelana Yellow-rumped FlycatcherFicedula zanthopygia Chinese GrosbeakEophona migratoria Eurasian Tree SparrowPasser montanus Eastern Yellow WagtailMotacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis White WagtailM. 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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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).
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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Editor’s note: In the photo above, a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler emits its characteristic “tink” call in Microforest 4, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, 27 Aug. 2017. The tink call of Pale-legged is appreciably higher-pitched than that of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Distinguishing the two calls is the subject of this post. — Craig Brelsford
Last September, in “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5,” I asserted that “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song.” I was wrong. Call as well as song is a reliable separator. In this post, I am going to tell you how I arrived at this insight, and I will show you how you too can achieve clear, indisputable ticks of these tricky species through call alone.
Experts since at least as far back as 1989 have been arguing that Pale-legged Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus tenellipes and Sakhalin Leaf WarblerP. borealoides are separable not only by their distinctive songs but also by their calls. Thailand-based birder and shanghaibirding.com contributor Phil Round is among those making that argument. Round and his co-authors write: “[T]he call of P. tenellipes is markedly higher in frequency than that of P. borealoides” (Round et al., “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” downloadable through shanghaibirding.com).
If your ear is good, or even if your ear is just average and you have a sound-recorder, then you too can appreciate the higher frequency of the call of Pale-legged. A sound-recorder is very important, because if you upload your recordings to databases such as eBird and the Macaulay Library, then you will be able to “see” the sound in the audio spectrogram.
Our first exhibit is the spectrogram of a call I sound-recorded of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on 8 May 2016 in Cape Nanhui’s Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). The frequency is 4.8 kilohertz, a number that matches closely the frequency of Sakhalin calls on xeno-canto.org.
Now consider the spectrograms and sound-recordings of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler below. The spectrogram immediately below was recorded by me on 10 June 2016 in my wife Elaine Du’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang, part of the breeding range of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. The call (here a grace note) and song both clock in at about 6 kHz, a frequency a full 25 percent higher than the call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and, as with Sakhalin, consistent with the frequencies of Pale-legged calls on xeno-canto.org.
Here is the sound-recording:
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, call and song, Xidaquan National Forest (45.727751, 130.317316), Boli, Heilongjiang, 10 June 2016 (01:59; 6 MB)
The spectrogram below is of a brief sound-recording I made in Microforest 4 this past Sunday. The song element of this passage migrant is absent (though note that I have heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing in Shanghai in spring). The call has a frequency of 5.9 kHz and clearly belongs to Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.
Why should you care about all this? Because prepared birders have a chance to get solid ticks of “Pale-Saks” that are merely calling and not necessarily singing. If you hear a Pale-Sak calling and trust your ear (or better yet, sound-record the call and later analyze the spectrogram), then you may be able to go beyond the safe, boring record of “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler” to a more satisfying full tick.
Accurate, plentiful records from Shanghai will help researchers such as Round get a clearer picture of the movements and population of these understudied species. As Round et al. write: “Increased sampling of migrants may also resolve the differences in timing of passage between P. examinandus and P. borealis on the one hand, and P. borealoides and P. tenellipes on the other” (“Addition”; hyperlink mine).
What’s more, you do not need to spend much or even know much to record good audio. My Olympus DM-650 costs less than US$250. I have no microphone other than the one built into my pocket recorder, and I possess no parabola. I record in lossless 48kHz .wav. The very scientific-looking spectrograms displayed in this post are generated automatically by eBird and Macaulay.
In Shanghai and throughout China, important facts about common birds such as Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler remain unknown. This ornithological semi-wilderness is both difficult and exciting. If we rise to the challenge and become better birders, then we will make new discoveries and blaze a trail of knowledge for future birders to follow.
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