I’m Skeptical About Claims of Green-backed Flycatcher in Shanghai

Does Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae migrate through Shanghai? Records exist of the species, but in my opinion they are mainly misidentifications of female Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina narcissina (above). In this post, I am going to unearth the roots of my skepticism about F. elisae in Shanghai and describe the differences between female F. elisae and female F. n. narcissina.

Adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher (R).
I am skeptical about claims of Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae in Shanghai. One reason is that all the claims involve females, never the adult male (R), which is highly distinctive and readily separable from male Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina narcissina (L). If male elisae is unknown in this city, then the elisae we see in Shanghai would all be females, a curious and unlikely phenomenon. L: Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, May. R: Wulingshan, Hebei, June. (Craig Brelsford)

Each spring and autumn, birders in Earth’s Greatest City claim records of elisae. Invariably, the bird in question is a female, not the very distinctive adult male. Here our first red flag pops up: How likely is it that elisae is the one species of passerine whose records in Shanghai never involve adult males?

For the sake of argument, let us admit the possibility of an all-female migration of elisae through Shanghai. Fine, I retort; then show me photos of these purported elisae. The photos are duly supplied, and again and again, as has been the case throughout my more than 10 years in Shanghai, the supposed F. elisae is revealed on closer scrutiny to be yet another female F. n. narcissina.

Indeed, I have seen better documentation in Shanghai of Ryukyu Flycatcher F. (narcissina) owstoni than of F. elisae; on 17 April 2016 at Pudong’s Binjiang Forest Park, Shanghai birder Zhang Xiaolei got a very interesting picture of a possible adult-male owstoni.

Mistakes of the sort many Shanghai birders are making contribute to a distorted picture of the presence on the central Chinese coast of a little-known species. What’s more, the mistakes are avoidable. Separation of female F. elisae and F. n. narcissina is usually straightforward.

Female Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and female Blue-and-white Flycatcher (R). (Craig Brelsford)
Female Narcissus Flycatcher (L) shows brownish-green upperpart coloration reminiscent of female Blue-and-white Flycatcher (R). (Craig Brelsford)

Female F. elisae has greenish upperparts with a yellowish or olive tint. Female F. n. narcissina is greenish with a brownish tint, like female Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana (above). On their underparts, female F. elisae is “dull yellow or yellowish-buff,” while F. n. narcissina is mainly off-white, with brownish-white flanks and a hint of yellow on the throat and belly (Brazil 2009, 436).

We can say, therefore, that unlike Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, female F. elisae and F. n. narcissina are distinguishable by plumage. A good look or good photo will likely lead to an accurate ID.

Accurate records in Shanghai, one of the most thoroughly birded areas on the Chinese coast, will lead to better understandings of both F. elisae and F. n. narcissina. Already, the growing body of knowledge about these East Asian breeding endemics has led to the separation of F. elisae and F. n. narcissina into separate species. Previously, elisae had been treated as a subspecies of Narcissus Flycatcher.

Narcissus Flycatcher, Nanhui, 23 Oct. 2016.
Narcissus Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, October. Note the brownish-green coloration of the mantle, back, and rump of the female. I included an image of the male because in this instance, and as is often the case in Shanghai, the male was associating with the female. The association suggests the birds are of the same species and bolsters the ID of the female as F. n. narcissina. (Craig Brelsford)

We know as well that the summer and winter ranges of the sister species are disjunct, with F. elisae breeding in a very compact range in Hebei (Wulingshan), Beijing, and Shanxi and wintering in southern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia. The breeding range of F. n. narcissina includes the main islands of Japan as well as the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin, and the coastal Russian Far East. The species winters in Hainan, the Philippines, and Borneo and passes through Shanghai each spring from about 15 April to 15 May.

Unlike other passage-migrant flycatchers in Shanghai, F. n. narcissina is much less common in autumn than in spring. That is a mystery, one of many surrounding the migration of the Narcissus Flycatcher group.

In light of the information deficit, it behooves us Shanghai birders to strive for accurate records (or non-records) of elisae in our region. Let us practice self-discipline, hone our skills, and give outside observers the clearest possible picture of bird migration in Shanghai.


Brazil, Mark. 2009. Birds of East Asia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Entries for Narcissus Flycatcher and Chinese Flycatcher (Ficedula elisae), p. 436.

Gill, F & D Donsker (Eds). 2019. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3). shanghaibirding.com’s first reference for taxonomy as well as bird names in English. Accessed 23 May 2019.

Below are links to photos of female elisae:

Oriental Bird Images (orientalbirdimages.org). “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” Accessed 23 April 2019.

———. “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” Accessed 23 April 2019.

———. “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” Accessed 23 April 2019.

———. “Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina elisae – Female.” Accessed 23 April 2019.

Featured image: Adult female Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina narcissina, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, May. (Craig Brelsford)

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Unusual Autumn Appearance of Narcissus Flycatcher in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park

A male Narcissus Flycatcher made a rare late-autumn Shanghai appearance in Zhongshan Park (31.221888, 121.420066). On Tues. 15 Nov. 2016, the spectacle attracted 30 photographers.

The flycatcher was attracted by mealworms speared by photographers onto a soft steel wire. The wire was hung from a branch, enticing the flycatcher to hover to snatch the bait. The bird was appearing every 10 minutes.

I expressed concern but did not feel the need to be critical or intervene. The photographers obviously liked the flycatcher, did not think that they were harming it, and were enjoying themselves immensely.

I watched the flycatcher attack the mealworms. I think it unlikely that the wire would harm the bird. The bigger problem may be that the free protein will keep the bird here an unnaturally long time. A passage migrant through Earth’s largest city, Narcissus Flycatcher should be in Borneo by now.

Photographers assemble before a setup designed to attract a male Naricissus Flycatcher at Zhongshan Park, 15 Nov. 2016.
Photographers assemble before a setup designed to attract a male Narcissus Flycatcher at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park, 15 Nov. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Chinese Egret & Singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on Yangshan

From Thurs. 14 April to Tues. 19 April 2016, Elaine and I combined inner-city birding (Century Park, Shanghai Botanical Garden) with suburban-coastal birding (Nanhui, Lesser Yangshan). We noted 102 species. Sun. 17 April was the big day, with 95 species noted. Among them were 2 Chinese Egret and 3 singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on Lesser Yangshan and Rufous-faced Warbler, Swinhoe’s Minivet, and near-threatened Curlew Sandpiper at Nanhui. Among our many firsts-of-season were 10 Narcissus Flycatcher, 4 Eastern Crowned Warbler, 2 members of the Arctic Warbler Complex, and Yellow-browed Bunting. With the spring migration rolling on strong, even the city parks gave us seasonal firsts, with Eurasian Woodcock and Blue-and-white Flycatcher at Century on Thursday and Eyebrowed Thrush Tuesday at the Botanical Garden. During the 6-day period, we noted 0 raptors, whether Accipitriform, Strigiform, or Falconiform.

When silent, as is most often the case in Shanghai even in spring, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are indistinguishable, and a typical bird list this time of year includes the entry “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides.” The songs of these lookalikes are, however, distinct, and on Sunday in the wooded areas of Garbage Dump Valley on Lesser Yangshan we heard the cricket-like song of P. tenellipes. I made a recording (00:22; 1.7 MB):

On Tuesday, Elaine and I found a silent pair; they were moving along thick branches in the manner of a nuthatch and pumping their tail, but because they were not singing we could not ID them beyond Pale-legged/Sakhalin.

Garbage Dump Valley also yielded Meadow Bunting, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and Manchurian/Japanese Bush Warbler, and Temple Mount gave us a single Goldcrest as well as Swinhoe’s/Pin-tailed Snipe.

On Sunday, Blue-and-white Flycatcher were noted in Garbage Dump Valley, on Temple Mount, and at Nanhui and on Thursday at Century. Each male was studied carefully so as not to miss Zappey’s Flycatcher, a recently recognized species that has been recorded in Shanghai (by Swedish birder Jocko Hammar in 2014). This spring, we Shanghai birders will do well to study each Blue-and-white Flycatcher carefully, in particular adult males, lest we miss Zappey’s. In Forktail No. 28, August 2012, Paul Leader and Geoff Carey write: “Males from populations that breed in central China [i.e., Zappey’s] are distinct from other populations in being blue or blue-green across the breast, throat and ear-coverts, and in having black or blackish restricted to the lores. … The upperparts are typically blue-green.” There are various other distinctions, not noted here.

For the first time we noted Marsh Grassbird north of the Magic Parking Lot/Holiday Inn at Nanhui. This new location is on the road leading into the reed bed and lined with street lamps. Another, larger location is 30.866006, 121.939614, a point 2.8 km S of the lock at Nanhui and 4.1 km S of the Magic Parking Lot/Holiday Inn. We discovered Helopsaltes pryeri at the southern location on 10 April and found them there again Sunday. 3 Reed Parrotbill were in the area, and Pallas’s Reed Bunting, so numerous just a few weeks ago, were nearly absent, most of them having departed for breeding areas north.

The Chinese Egret were our reward for never failing to scrutinize groups of Little Egret. Sure enough, our Egretta eulophotes were associating with 3 E. garzetta on a taut anchor line tethering a boat to the bottom of a little bay along Gangchi Road (30.612507, 122.105993). We are not sure whether our view is a one-off or whether something about that bay is attractive to that species.

Little Curlew, Lesser Yangshan Island, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.
Little Curlew, Lesser Yangshan Island, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.

At the Accidental (and probably Temporary) Wetland on Lesser Yangshan, we found the 2 Little Curlew, 1 of our 2 Garganey, Purple Heron, Black-tailed Godwit, 1 of our 6 Pacific Swift, 18 of our 80 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 2 Red-rumped Swallow, and Oriental Reed Warbler. Accidental Marsh sits on land reclaimed when a causeway was built linking Lesser Yangshan and Dazhitou Island. The coordinates of this spot are 30.611902, 122.114873. Bird this spot while the birding is good!

On Thurs. 14 April, Elaine and I birded Century Park, noting 31 species. 2 Eurasian Woodcock were seen in the forested area near Gate 7 known as “Woodcock Forest” (31.215413, 121.547678). There were impressive flocks of Brambling, 72 in all. Other highlights: Eurasian Hoopoe 1, Pale Thrush 23, White’s Thrush 2, and Chinese Blackbird 40, among them 2 fledglings.

The encounter with the woodcocks occurred just a few meters from the point where Elaine and I found this species last 30 Oct. Woodcock Forest is usually devoid of humans, and forest species tend to pool there. For best results, tiptoe in and scan silently. Do not forget to look into the canopy; I have seen sparrowhawks there.

We found no Yellow-bellied Tit, the only leaf warbler we found was a single Yellow-browed Warbler, and we thought low our count of just 1 Grey-backed Thrush. There were no other flycatchers besides the Blue-and-white.

As I have noted many times before, thieves are active at Century. On Thursday I had the unusual experience of thief-watching. Two folks were sitting on a park bench looking out over the lake. Elaine and I were standing far behind and noticed an ugly man in ratty clothing approach the couple from the forest behind them. He was moving in a catlike manner and was either casing the couple or was about to snatch something. I moved in noisily, and he slunk off.

This thief and others in his gang must be skillful, otherwise they wouldn’t have operated in the park so long. Their booty is phones, wallets, and purses, their victims distracted persons relaxing in the park. To avoid falling prey, keep your phone zipped in your pocket, leave nothing lying around, and use your powers of observation honed through birding to assess the people around you.

On Tues. 19 April, a walk through the Shanghai Botanical Garden netted Elaine and me 28 species. 2 Japanese Tit fledglings were following their parents and making begging calls, 4 Common Sandpiper were in Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河), and White’s Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, Pale Thrush, and Eyebrowed Thrush were found in a quiet wooded area (31.147780, 121.438917) along the stream.

Sunday marked the reunion of the five-member Dream Team after a winter hiatus. Husband-wife members Stephan and Xueping Popp took many fine shots, and Stephan once again performed skillfully behind the wheel. Senior Birder Michael Grunwell combined sober experience with boyish enthusiasm, the latter particularly in evidence when he beheld Narcissus Flycatcher, a lifer for him. Elaine Du did her usual fine job keeping the list. Though I’m making a quick recovery from my intercostal muscle strain suffered 10 April, still I traveled light, eschewing photography and using only binoculars.


Purple Heron, Lesser Yangshan Island, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.
Purple Heron, Lesser Yangshan Island, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.
Rufous-faced Warbler, Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.
Rufous-faced Warbler, Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.

Featured image: Elaine Du (L) and Xueping Popp scan for leaf warblers in Garbage Dump Valley on Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, China, Sun. 17 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

It’s April! Here’s What to Expect

It’s April now and the sweet spot of migration season is about to be hit. In the Shanghai region, April and May are the two very best months, with the four weeks between 15 April and 15 May being the best time of all.

Here is a list of interesting birds that Elaine Du and I were finding last year around this time.

Japanese Reed Bunting seen on Chongming on 29 March 2015.

Japanese Reed Bunting, Chongming, 29 March 2015.
Japanese Reed Bunting, Chongming, 29 March 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler was singing and defending territory on Lesser Yangshan Island last 9 April.

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Lesser Yangshan, 9 April 2015.
Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Lesser Yangshan, 9 April 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Bar-tailed Godwit found south of Yangkou on 12 April 2015. The godwit had been flagged in 2009 in Victoria, Australia. Endangered Great Knot found near godwit on 12 April.

I submitted a report of the sighting of this banded godwit to the Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG). On 19 April 2015, I received word back from AWSG. This godwit had been banded on 23 June 2009 (nearly 6 years ago!) off Mann's Beach, Corner Inlet in Victoria, Australia.
I submitted a report of the sighting of this banded godwit to the Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG). On 19 April 2015, I received word back from AWSG. This godwit had been banded on 23 June 2009 (nearly 6 years earlier!) in Victoria, Australia. (Craig Brelsford)

Brown-headed Thrush, a scarce passage migrant in Shanghai that breeds in Japan and on Sakhalin, found 9 April 2015 at Nanhui.

Brown-headed Thrush, Nanhui, 9 April 2015.
Brown-headed Thrush, Nanhui, 9 April 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Japanese Thrush was singing and defending territory at Yangkou on 9 April 2015.

Narcissus Flycatcher was recorded by Elaine and me on 5 occasions in spring 2015 between 16 April and 16 May

Black Redstart: vagrant recorded 18 April 2015 on Hengsha Island.

Black Redstart, very uncommon vagrant to Shanghai. Hengsha, 18 April 2015.
Black Redstart, very uncommon vagrant to Shanghai. Hengsha, 18 April 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher: curiously, recorded only once by Elaine and me last spring (19 April, Nanhui)

Siberian Blue Robin: 9 April, Lesser Yangshan

Blue-and-white Flycatcher: recorded on 10 occasions between 12 April and 16 May 2015

Asian Brown Flycatcher had a sustained springtime presence, being recorded on 9 occasions from 9 April to 21 May 2015

Eastern Crowned Warbler: 9 April, Lesser Yangshan

Cuculus sp.: Lesser Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, and Indian Cuckoo more commonly noted in May; we had an early bird, not singing, on Hengsha on 18 April

Grey-headed Lapwing: aggressively defending territory on Chongming on 29 March. Hear their manic cries (01:33; 4.5 MB):

Curlew Sandpiper: near-threatened species first noted by us last year on 23 April at Yangkou

Red-necked Stint: 10 April, Chongming

Terek Sandpiper: 11 April, Yangkou

Last year in the Shanghai region, Elaine and I birded 32 of the 86 days between 29 March and 22 June, noting 243 species. The report we wrote about the experience is called Shanghai-area Springtime Birding, 2015. Feel free to use our report to get an indication of the birds you can find in springtime in the Shanghai area.