Comparing Blyth’s Pipit & Richard’s Pipit

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

With more and more birders operating in Shanghai, more and more vagrant birds are bound to be discovered. One possibility is Blyth’s Pipit Anthus godlewskii (photo above, L), a species similar to our familiar Richard’s Pipit A. richardi (R). Blyth’s breeds mainly in Mongolia, occurs on passage in central China, and winters mainly in India, so any records here would be of extralimitals. Let’s examine here how to separate the two pipits.

Comparison of pipits
Comparison of adult-type Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardisinensis‘ (1) and adult Blyth’s Pipit A. godlewskii (4). The population group A. r. ‘sinensis’ occurs in southeast China south of the Yangtze River. Structurally, ‘sinensis‘ is the smallest group in Richard’s, with proportions recalling Blyth’s. Note however the blackish centers to the median coverts (2, 3). In adult-type Richard’s (2), the centers are triangular and tinged rufous at the edges. In adult Blyth’s (3), the centers are squarish, less rufous-tinged, and more clear-cut. 1, 2: Cape Nanhui, December. 3, 4: Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, July. (Craig Brelsford)

The key to getting a Blyth’s in Shanghai is paying attention to the many Richard’s Pipit that we see in the area. Anthus richardi is more or less a passage migrant in the Shanghai area and is recorded here regularly in spring and autumn. Some are present in winter; Elaine Du and I had a “sinensis” last week, the ID’ing of which led to this post.

flight song
More views of Blyth’s Pipit performing flight song, Inner Mongolia, July. In Pipits and Wagtails, Shanghai Birding member Per Alström et al. write that in flight, Blyth’s Pipit ‘often recalls one of the smaller pipits rather than Richard’s’ (237). Note however that Anthus richardi ‘sinensis,’ a population group within Richard’s Pipit often found in Shanghai, is structurally similar to Blyth’s. (Craig Brelsford)

Richard’s “sinensis” is very similar to Blyth’s, being best told by song, which is rarely heard in the Shanghai area. According to Per Alström et al., whose book Pipits and Wagtails is the authority on Palearctic and Nearctic pipits, the song of Blyth’s is “very characteristic and completely different from [that] of Richard’s” (242). During a trip in July 2015 to the Inner Mongolian prefecture of Hulunbeier, one of the few places in China where Blyth’s breeds, I recorded the song.

Blyth’s Pipit, flight song, recorded 22 July 2015 at a point (48.767866, 116.834183) near Hulun Lake, Inner Mongolia (2.1 MB; 00:32)

The calls of the two species also differ, but less markedly. The flight call of Richard’s is a common bird sound in Shanghai during migration season. The call of Blyth’s is similar enough to “cause problems even for some veteran observers” (Alström et al. 244). For Shanghai birders, even those unfamiliar with Blyth’s, a “Richard’s” with a strange flight call is worth your attention. Listen for what Alström et al. describe as a call “less harsh, softer and more nasal” than Richard’s (244). For reference, review the flight call of Richard’s:

Richard’s Pipit, flight call, Dishui Lake, Shanghai, February (00:01; 852 KB)

Regarding plumage, the most reliable differentiator of Richard’s and Blyth’s is the pattern of the median coverts. In Blyth’s, a typical adult-type median covert will show well-defined, squarish black centers. In Richard’s, the adult-type median coverts are less clear-cut, rufous-tinged, and triangular. Note that the fresher the plumage, the more reliable this differentiator is.

Another less reliable criterion is structure. Shanghai birders will agree that the first impression a non-“sinensis” Richard’s usually gives is “large pipit.” Other pipits, such as Buff-bellied Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, and Olive-backed Pipit, give a “small pipit” impression.

Richard's Pipit
Richard’s Pipit, Jiangsu, September. Alström et al. urge care in ID’ing Blyth’s and Richard’s. Here, the median coverts of this Richard’s appear squarish, like Blyth’s (bottom R, inset). But note the date of the photo: September, a time of year when most Richard’s show worn plumage. ‘In worn plumage,’ the authors write, ‘the shape of the dark centres to the secondary coverts is generally less obviously different, and the pale tips can be much the same colour in both species’ (237). The ID of this Richard’s was derived from its call, a more constant characteristic, and not from the appearance of its median coverts, a more variable characteristic. (Craig Brelsford)

Alström et al. say, and I having seen Blyth’s can concur, that a birder viewing Blyth’s will get a “small pipit” impression: “The smaller size, lighter build and shorter tail,” the authors write, “are often most apparent in flight, when [Blyth’s] often recalls one of the smaller pipits rather than Richard’s.” Note also that the smaller size and shorter bill, tail, and hind claw of Blyth’s give that species a “better proportioned” look than the larger and heavier Richard’s (237).

The directions above should be seen as guidelines; individual Richard’s and Blyth’s may defy easy categorization, “sinensis” Richard’s even more so. Alström et al. caution against jumping the gun with your ID: “It is crucial to realise that in both species (especially Richard’s) appearance can vary considerably in one and the same individual depending on mood, weather, etc.,” they write. “Also, some Richard’s are structurally very like Blyth’s; this is especially true of southern Chinese Richard’s (‘sinensis’)” (237).

A record of Blyth’s Pipit in Shanghai would shoot to the top of the “Year’s Best” list. The stakes are high, so look diligently, and use caution. Good luck!

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alström, Per, Krister Mild & Bill Zetterström. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003. This landmark book, co-authored by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström, is my first reference on all things Motacillidae.

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, 2009. Serviceable descriptions of Blyth’s Pipit and Richard’s Pipit. Illustration of “sinensis.”

Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Outstanding illustrations of Richard’s Pipit and Blyth’s Pipit by Mullarney.
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Messengers

Editor’s note: In recent weeks, Shanghai has had extraordinary visits by three species of crane. Since 12 Nov., 3 Siberian Crane, a Critically Endangered species, have been recorded regularly in a reclaimed area of Hengsha Island (photo above, left). On 10 Dec., Endangered Red-crowned Crane made the first recorded visit by that species to Cape Nanhui (top right). Also since 12 Nov., Vulnerable Hooded Crane has been recorded regularly at Cape Nanhui (bottom right). Before 12 Nov., Hooded Crane had never been recorded on the Shanghai Peninsula. (Craig Brelsford)

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

The appearance on 10 Dec. of 2 Red-crowned Crane at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui was more than just a historic, first-ever sighting. It was a message. The endangered cranes, as well as the Siberian Crane on Hengsha Island and Hooded Crane at Cape Nanhui, are telling us that habitat is steadily disappearing elsewhere along the Chinese coast, particularly in Jiangsu; that the habitats in Shanghai are some of the best that remain; and that those habitats require world-class protection. The most pressing need is the creation of a world-class, small to mid-sized wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui.

Siberian Crane, Hengsha, 7 Dec. 2016. Craig Brelsford.
Siberian Crane in flight, Hengsha Island. (Craig Brelsford)

Errant cranes migrating along the Chinese coast may once have settled for a while somewhere in Jiangsu. Every year, however, cranes migrating along the coast of that densely populated province find fewer and fewer places suitable to them. My wife Elaine Du and I have surveyed the Jiangsu coastline from Qidong on the Yangtze River 250 km north to Yancheng National Nature Reserve. We have seen with our own eyes the dramatic transformation of the Jiangsu coast. Even areas in Jiangsu receiving considerable international attention, such as Yangkou and the coastal areas of Dongtai, are under threat.

Cape Nanhui may not seem like a first-rate natural area, but it is in better condition than almost any place I have seen between Qidong and Yancheng. I say, therefore, that the recent crane sightings in Shanghai have come about in large part because elsewhere so much has been lost. The cranes have nowhere else to go.

Shanghai birders search for the Hooded Crane sojourning at Cape Nanhui, 10 Dec. 2016. Craig Brelsford.
Shanghai birders search for the Hooded Crane sojourning at Cape Nanhui, 10 Dec. The new city of Lingang, which did not exist 10 years ago, looms in the background. (Craig Brelsford)

And that is why conserving Cape Nanhui is so important. Shanghai is facing a crisis, a “danger-opportunity” (危机). The 危 or danger is that amid the wholesale destruction of so much coastal habitat elsewhere, Shanghai will follow suit and destroy its remaining good habitat. The 机 or opportunity is for Shanghai to gather into its bosom the birds ejected from Jiangsu—to be not only the economic but also the conservationist leader on the Chinese coast. The creation at Cape Nanhui of an easily accessible, world-class, small to mid-sized wetland reserve along the lines of Sungei Buloh in Singapore would be a way of avoiding the 危 and seizing the 机.

The case for an easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could scarcely be more clear-cut:

(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, habitat critical to Reed Parrotbill and other species at risk.

The largest component of the city-province of Shanghai is the Shanghai Peninsula, a projection of land between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the peninsula, is a critically important stop for migrating birds, and is completely unprotected. A nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a third ‘stepping stone’ for birds crossing the Yangtze Delta, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha. Photo by NASA, customized by Craig Brelsford.
Cape Nanhui is the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula, a headland between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. As the satellite image above illustrates, a nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a ‘stepping stone’ for birds crossing the Yangtze Delta, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha as well as the largely undeveloped reclaimed land on Hengsha. (Newly reclaimed land on Hengsha not shown in this 2005 image.) (NASA/Craig Brelsford)

The 2 Red-crowned Crane this past Saturday were the latest in a parade of endangered birds that I and other birders have noted at the Cape over the years. Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses Cape Nanhui, as does Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. Around 2 percent of the world’s Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill are dependent on Cape Nanhui for several months each year. Large reed beds remain at Cape Nanhui and are the final strongholds on the Shanghai Peninsula of Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird and Near Threatened Reed Parrotbill. The latter species, a candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird, will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai if the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed.

(2) Shanghai is clearly under-performing on the conservationist front. More must be done, and a good place to begin is Cape Nanhui.

Hen Harrier (top) and Eastern Marsh Harrier, Cape Nanhui, 10 Dec. 2016. These photos show both the threats to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula and the environmental opportunities still there. On the one hand, buildings and roads continue to encroach on the reed beds; the large farm building in the bottom photo was completed only in the past year. Further encroachments will erode the quality still further and deprive species such as Reed Parrotbill of even more habitat. On the other hand, habitat good enough to attract harriers remains. In the bottom photo, the harrier is flying directly over the reed bed (<a href="https://www.google.com/maps/place/30%C2%B055'46.2%22N+121%C2%B057'37.1%22E/@30.929492,121.9581253,872m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x0!8m2!3d30.929492!4d121.960314" target="_blank">30.929492, 121.960314</a>) adjacent to the defunct wetland reserve. This reed bed covers a square kilometer, is untouched, and provides habitat critical to species dependent on reeds, such as Near Threatened <a href="http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22715480/0" target="_blank">Marsh Grassbird</a> and <a href="http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22721016/0" target="_blank">Japanese Reed Bunting</a>. In the top photo, the untouched reed bed is visible in the mid-ground, with the harrier making use of adjacent rice fields. Even small reserves can be effective, especially if bordered by agricultural areas. If managed correctly, a small to mid-sized reserve at Cape Nanhui would cost little, deliver much, and give environmental face to Shanghai. Photos by Craig Brelsford.
Hen Harrier (top) and Eastern Marsh Harrier, Cape Nanhui. These photos show both the threats to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula and the environmental opportunities still there. On the one hand, buildings and roads continue to encroach on the reed beds; the large farm building in the bottom photo was completed only in the past year. Further encroachments will erode the quality still further and deprive species such as Reed Parrotbill of even more habitat. On the other hand, habitat good enough to attract harriers remains. In the bottom photo, the harrier is flying directly over the reed bed (30.929492, 121.960314) adjacent to the defunct wetland reserve. This reed bed covers a square kilometer, is untouched, and provides habitat critical to species dependent on reeds, such as Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird and Japanese Reed Bunting. In the top photo, the untouched reed bed is visible in the mid-ground, with the harrier making use of adjacent rice fields. Even small reserves can be effective, especially if bordered by agricultural areas. If managed correctly, a small to mid-sized reserve at Cape Nanhui would cost little, deliver much, and give environmental face to Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province (which is a third the size of Wales). There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in this megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the natural side of Shanghai, a city with an extraordinarily rich natural heritage. There is no known plan to conserve any of the dozens of square kilometers of reclaimed land on Hengsha.

(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could be the match to light the fire of conservation across all China.

Shanghai birders in defunct wetland reserve, Nanhui, 10 Dec. 2016. As China becomes a middle-income country, Chinese people will find themselves with more and more disposable income and leisure time. This is especially the case in Shanghai, whose living standards are rapidly approaching those of advanced Western countries. Middle-class Chinese will increasingly demand places for rest, relaxation, and nature appreciation. Shanghai currently has such places, and one of them is Cape Nanhui. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula already has beautiful reed beds and amazing migratory birds, the inheritance of natural Shanghai. With proper management, Shanghai could preserve and showcase those wonders, giving future generations of Shanghainese a gift that will never stop giving. L-R: Zhāng Huá (张华), Zhāng Xuěhán (张雪寒), Lán Bāngxiàn (蓝邦宪), Lán Xī (兰溪), Craig Brelsford, Cài Jiàndōng (蔡见东), Zhāng Xiǎoyàn (张小艳), Hǎo Zhàokuān (郝兆宽), Chéng Yīxuān (程一轩), Xú Yáng (徐扬). Photo by Elaine Du.
Shanghai birders in defunct wetland reserve, Nanhui, 10 Dec. The people you see in this picture are the Johnny Appleseeds of birding and nature appreciation in China. Though still few in number, people such as they are laying the foundation for a future in which more Chinese cherish the natural environment. In Shanghai living standards have attained those of Western countries. Shanghainese such as these birders now possess disposable income and leisure time. Increasingly, these middle-class people will demand places for rest, relaxation, and nature appreciation. Shanghai, a city-province half as large as Northern Ireland, currently has such places, and the most easily accessible of them is Cape Nanhui. In the face of unremitting development, and despite being under no environmental protection, the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula still holds considerable reed beds and attracts many endangered migratory birds. With proper management, Shanghai could preserve and showcase the wonders of Cape Nanhui, giving future generations of Shanghainese a gift that will never stop giving. L-R: Zhāng Huá (张华), Zhāng Xuěhán (张雪寒), Lán Bāngxiàn (蓝邦宪), Lán Xī (兰溪), Craig Brelsford, Cài Jiàndōng (蔡见东), Zhāng Xiǎoyàn (张小艳), Hǎo Zhàokuān (郝兆宽), Chéng Yīxuān (程一轩), Xú Yáng (徐扬). (Elaine Du)

Hundreds of thousands of children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland.” A day at a Cape Nanhui Wetland would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster an appreciation of the natural world.

If Shanghai can be a world economic center and have world-class airports and a world-class skyline and world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must have world-class preservation of its priceless coastline and migratory birds.

I repeat: The case for a world-class, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could scarce;u be more clear-cut.

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The Case for Conserving Cape Nanhui

Editor’s note: This tranquil scene is from Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883), home of Reed Parrotbill and dozens of other species, and part of the large reed beds on the Dazhi River at Cape Nanhui. In the face of manic development, and in spite of being under no protection, Cape Nanhui conserves the best reed beds on the Shanghai Peninsula as well as mudflats critical to tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds. To save these treasures, Shanghai people must act now.

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Who will save Cape Nanhui? Not foreigners like me, but the people of Shanghai. We foreigners are numerous in Shanghai and are disproportionately represented among the birders here. We can offer valuable perspectives. But if the people of Shanghai themselves do not wish to ensure a bright natural future for Cape Nanhui, then there is little that anyone can do.

I think that the people of Shanghai are ready for real conservation on the Shanghai mainland. Basic conservationist ideas have broad appeal, and an easily accessible, world-class, “people’s wetland reserve” at Cape Nanhui is a basic conservationist idea.

If I were Chinese and were arguing for a people’s wetland reserve for Cape Nanhui, then I would bring to light the following points.

SHANGHAI IS NOT A CITY IN THE CONVENTIONAL SENSE

Shanghai Peninsula
The largest component of the city-province of Shanghai is the Shanghai Peninsula, a projection of land between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the peninsula, is a critically important stop for migrating birds, and is completely unprotected. A nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a third ‘stepping stone’ for birds crossing the mouth of the Yangtze, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha. (NASA/Craig Brelsford)

Shanghai “市” isn’t really a city or a “municipality,” as 市 is often translated. It is a city-province, accountable to no government but the national government. The city-province is vast, covering an area greater than the U.S. states of Delaware and Rhode Island. Shanghai is twice as big as Luxembourg, half as large as Northern Ireland, and a third the size of Wales.

From a conservationist’s perspective, it is important to view Shanghai as a province and not a city, because cities are not usually thought of as being responsible for maintaining large nature reserves within their borders. Provinces, by contrast, are large enough to accommodate nature reserves.

I propose that, where workable, we stop referring to Shanghai as a city or municipality and start applying to it the more accurate label of city-province.

SHANGHAI OCCUPIES LAND UNUSUALLY IMPORTANT TO CONSERVATION

Reed Parrotbill
Reed Parrotbill is a a symbol of Shanghai and candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird. Nowhere do the people of Shanghai have a better chance of seeing this Near Threatened species than in the reed beds at Cape Nanhui. Protection of the reed beds at Cape Nanhui would send a message to the world that Shanghai takes conservation seriously. (Craig Brelsford)

Any jurisdiction covering an area the size of a small country would be expected to conserve substantial amounts of its area. In the case of Shanghai, the call to conserve is even louder, because the area it occupies is unusually important for conservation. The Shanghai Peninsula is situated between the mouth of Asia’s greatest river and Hangzhou Bay. It is on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and attracts tens of thousands of passage migrants representing a few hundred species.

Cape Nanhui is the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula and attracts passage migrants and winter visitors such as the Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Its large reed beds are the final stronghold on the Shanghai Peninsula of Near Threatened Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird, as well as Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird.

sign
At the defunct nature reserve at Cape Nanhui, an abandoned sign about Ruddy Turnstone has been turned into a wall for a fisherman’s shack. (Craig Brelsford)

Cape Nanhui is completely unprotected; indeed, an attempt at a small wetland reserve has been shut down. The boardwalks and signs of the defunct reserve are crumbling, and the backhoes are standing by, waiting for the green light to smash what remains.

SHANGHAI, AN ENVIRONMENTAL UNDER-PERFORMER

No one is saying that Shanghai, a city-province of 26 million people, needs to create a Yellowstone. Any reasonable person understands the pressures the huge population of Shanghai puts on its natural resources.

Also, it must be pointed out that in the far-flung areas of the city-province, Shanghai has made an attempt at conservation. Chongming Dongtan preserves the eastern nub of Chongming Island, and Jiuduansha covers intertidal shoals near Pudong Airport.

Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Nanhui, Shanghai, 10 April 2016.
Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Cape Nanhui, April. The reed bed over which this grassbird was displaying is the largest at Cape Nanhui. It measures 1.4 sq. km and has its center at 30.876060, 121.945305. This reed bed is one of the last places on the Shanghai Peninsula where the song flight of Marsh Grassbird can be seen. (Craig Brelsford)

But Shanghai under-performs overall. Nowhere is the poor conservation performance more evident than in Pudong, the coastal city-within-a-city. Pudong is nearly double the size of Singapore and is half the size of Hong Kong. Yet the district contains zero wetland reserves on its mainland. Both Singapore and Hong Kong manage to hold in reserve significant portions of their territory.

The southeastern tip of Pudong is Cape Nanhui, a place that despite being under no protection still brims with natural treasures. No place on the Shanghai Peninsula has as many reed beds. The projection of land attracts birds making the long journey across Hangzhou Bay and the wide mouth of the Yangtze.

Moreover, Cape Nanhui is easily accessible to common people. It would be the perfect place for a world-class wetland reserve on the model of Sungei Buloh in Singapore and Yeyahu National Wetland Park in Beijing.

MORE INFORMATION

Craig talks to Pudong TV about the opportunities for conservation at Nanhui. Photo by Elaine Du.
I November I was interviewed by Pudong TV about the opportunities for conservation at Nanhui. (Elaine Du)

On shanghaibirding.com I have addressed the issue of conserving Nanhui:

Save the Nanhui Wetland Reserve! (cri de coeur plus call to action)
Remnants (preparation for probable demise of Cape Nanhui)
Reed Parrotbill, Symbol of Shanghai (naming Reed Parrotbill Provincial Bird of Shanghai will send a message about the importance of the reed beds such as those at Cape Nanhui)
Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Nanhui (proof of yet another endangered species using the defunct wetland reserve at Nanhui)
Will the Spoon Survive? (Nanhui is not the only area under threat. You ought to see the mess at Yangkou, Jiangsu. Conserving Nanhui will offset the losses elsewhere on the Chinese coast and will put a conservationist feather in Shanghai’s cap)
Meet Kai Pflug, Nanhui’s Mr. Clean (tribute to a birder doing his small part)

NEXT STEPS

We foreigners have had much to say about the future of Nanhui. I would like to hear more from Chinese. Is the case for a world-class wetland reserve at Nanhui convincing to you? If so, then what do you propose to do to bring it about?
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