Rites of Spring

For birders in Earth’s greatest city, finding Oriental Plover is one of the rites of spring. On Sun. 26 March 2017 on Shanghai’s Hengsha Island, our three-man birding team tracked down 25 of these passage migrants. The encounter was the latest in a series of interesting experiences I have had with the East Asian specialty.

Along with Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Komatsu Yasuhiko, I drove on Saturday night 25 March to Changxing Island, crossing to Hengsha on the ferry. We set up for the night at my accustomed bed and breakfast, Héngshā Bànrìxián Mínsù (横沙半日闲民宿, +86 150-2164-5467, no English).

At 05:40 the next morning we zipped through the gate (31.297333, 121.859434) to the vast reclaimed area of Hengsha Island. Formerly intertidal shoals at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the area, now walled in, offers some of the best birding in Shanghai.

Michael and Hiko had no experience with Oriental Plover. I have seen the species various times. One of the highlights of my early birding career occurred on 29 March 2010. On a cool, early-spring afternoon at the old sod farm (31.205847, 121.777368) at Sanjiagang in Pudong, I lay on my belly in the presence of 30 Oriental Plover. What an unforgettable experience that was.

The sod farm has long since been destroyed, but memories of those times, as well as my observations of the species on its breeding grounds near Hulun Lake in Inner Mongolia, still live in me, and they told me where to look for the bird. One needs to find habitat reminiscent of the dry, stony steppe on which the species breeds.

On Hengsha, such habitat is abundant, and we scoured all the likely spots, among them the place where my wife Elaine Du and I found 3 Oriental Plover last April 9.

Oriental Plover habitat at Hengsha (top) and Inner Mongolia (bottom). Top: Hiko. Bottom: Craig Brelsford
Oriental Plover habitat on Hengsha Island (top) and in Inner Mongolia (bottom). Note the similarities between the flat, grassy area on Hengsha Island and the steppe near Hulun Lake. A migrating Oriental Plover, especially one that may have flown virtually non-stop from Australia, sees the scene at top and thinks of home. Top: Komatsu Yasuhiko, 26 March 2017, 31.301475, 121.917442. Bottom: Craig Brelsford, 24 July 2015, 48.254637, 118.338622.

We were driving along the coastal road that skirts the southern edge of the reclaimed area. The morning was hazy, with air pollution giving me the sniffles, but even with the reduced visibility one could appreciate the power of the Yangtze looming behind.

Here, the longest river in Asia releases into the East China Sea the water collected along its course of 6,300 km (3,915 mi.). On clear days, one can see the famous skyline of Pudong, 38 km (24 mi.) away. At Hengsha Island, one stands on the eastern edge of Eurasia at the mouth of China’s greatest river in the shadow of Earth’s greatest city.

As we drove, the reed beds and marshy areas began to recede, and there opened up before us drier, grassier habitat, perfect for Oriental Plover. Stopping the car, I intoned, in a voice recalling Brigham Young, “This is the place.” (The coordinates are 31.301475, 121.917442.)

Michael Grunwell views Oriental Plover on Hengsha Island, 26 March 2017 (Komatsu Yasuhiko).
Michael Grunwell views Oriental Plover in steppe-like habitat on Hengsha Island. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

We broke out a forest of tripods and set upon them our spotting scopes. Michael, the seasoned veteran, saw the plovers first. Continuing our Wild West theme, Michael shouted, “Eureka!” His head was motionless, glued to the scope, but his arms were waving, and he was dancing a jig.

Michael and Hiko moved in for a closer look. I stayed above, scanning the scene through my Swarovski ATX-95. Males and females were in partial breeding plumage. They were running fast across the turf, picking off invertebrates. Twice they flew, and I appreciated their powerful, erratic flight and long wings.

We found 16 Oriental Plover there. We found another 9 on the north shore of the reclaimed area, on the mudflats.

NOTES ON ORIENTAL PLOVER

Oriental Plover breeds mainly in Mongolia. The breeding range extends into China in Hulunbeier, the northernmost portion of Inner Mongolia. In Shanghai, Charadrius veredus is an uncommon springtime passage migrant.
Oriental Plover breeds mainly in Mongolia. The range extends into China in Hulunbeier, the northernmost prefecture of Inner Mongolia. In Shanghai and at various places along the Chinese coast, Charadrius veredus is an uncommon springtime passage migrant. Autumn records are scanty, and the migration route of Oriental Plover south through China is not entirely clear. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus is listed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN. A survey in 2010 came up with an estimated world population of 160,000, an encouraging number. The species is helped by the sparse human population both in the area where it breeds (mainly Mongolia) and where it winters (mainly Australia).

The species may be helped as well by its migration patterns. There is evidence that migrating Oriental Plover overfly much of Southeast Asia and possibly even China, areas where the hand of man is much heavier than in Mongolia and Australia.

In the entry for Oriental Plover in Handbook of the Birds of the World, T. Piersma mentions a “scarcity of records between China and the non-breeding grounds,” suggesting that migrating Oriental Plover make a “non-stop flight between these two zones.” Robson, in Birds of Southeast Asia, describes Oriental Plover as a “vagrant/rare passage migrant.”

Piersma says Oriental Plover is “very abundant” on migration in the Yangtze River Valley. That is doubtful. Oriental Plover is certainly not abundant in Shanghai; indeed, in autumn the species is virtually unrecorded here (as well as in much of eastern China). The city may nonetheless serve as a staging area for some portion of the species in spring.

My anecdotal evidence may lend credence to the idea that Oriental Plover fly mind-boggling distances between Australia and Mongolia. During my close encounter with the 30 Oriental Plover at Sanjiagang, the plovers were clearly exhausted. Some fell asleep right in front of me. How many kilometers had they just flown? Hundreds? Thousands?

Oriental Plover is most closely related to, and was once considered conspecific with, Caspian Plover Charadrius asiaticus. Breeding male Oriental Plover is readily distinguishable from Caspian by its purely white head. The thick black breast band on breeding Oriental male is also distinctive.

Non-breeding Greater Sand Plover and Lesser Sand Plover are smaller and more compact and have narrower breast bands than non-breeding Oriental Plover. In flight, Oriental Plover lacks the white wing bar seen on the sand plovers.

PHOTOS OF ORIENTAL PLOVER

A male Oriental Plover in partial breeding stands at Sanjiagang, 29 March 2010. Every year from about the third week of March until the middle of April, Charadrius veredus passes through Shanghai en route to its breeding grounds in Mongolia. For Shanghai birders, seizing the opportunity to view this East Asian specialty is an annual rite of spring. Craig Brelsford.
A male Oriental Plover in partial breeding plumage stands at the old sod farm (31.205847, 121.777368) at Sanjiagang, Pudong, 29 March 2010. Every year from the third week of March until the middle of April, Charadrius veredus passes through Shanghai en route to its breeding grounds in Mongolia. For Shanghai birders, seizing the brief opportunity to view this East Asian specialty is a rite of spring. (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Plover, 29 March 2010, Sanjiagang (Craig Brelsford).
Oriental Plover, 29 March 2010, sod farm, Sanjiagang. Lying on the cool grass in the presence of those serene long-distance travelers, I felt I had entered birding heaven. (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Plover doze just meters away from the photographer at Sanjiagang, 29 March 2010. It is probable that these plovers had just completed a very long flight, possibly all the way from Australia, before landing here. Craig Brelsford.
Exhausted Oriental Plover doze just meters away from the photographer at Sanjiagang, 29 March 2010. These plovers had probably just completed a very long leg of the journey from Australia to Mongolia. (Craig Brelsford)
The pure white head of breeding male Oriental Plover is diagnostic. Sanjiagang, 2 April 2010. Craig Brelsford.
This male Oriental Plover has nearly attained full breeding plumage. Note the diagnostic white head, still showing some of the darker non-breeding feathers. Sanjiagang, 2 April 2010. (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Plover, 23 April 2010, Sanjiagang. (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Plover, 23 April 2010. This photo was taken at a place once reliable for Charadrius veredus: the old sod farm at Sanjiagang, 6.5 km (4 mi.) north of Pudong Airport (31.205847, 121.777368). The farm has been destroyed, but on Shanghai’s Hengsha Island, steppe-like habitat required by Oriental Plover remains. (Craig Brelsford)

WORKS CONSULTED

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Oriental Plover, p. 164.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 3, “Hoatzin to Auks.” Species accounts for Oriental Plover and Caspian Plover (p. 438) by T. Piersma.

John MacKinnon wrote the most influential field guide ever published about China's birds.
In December 2016, John MacKinnon published his second guest post for shanghaibirding.com.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press. Oriental Plover, p. 178. Authors mention Hulun Lake as breeding area for species. Curiously, Liaoning is also mentioned.

Message, Stephen & Don Taylor. Waders of Europe, Asia and North America. Oriental Plover, pp. 66 & 152.

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Oriental Plover, p. 106. Consulted to get a better idea of the rarity of Oriental Plover in Southeast Asia.

Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Caspian Plover, p. 142.

Featured image: On 29 March 2010, Craig Brelsford found 30 exhausted Oriental Plover at the old sod farm at Sanjiagang (31.205847, 121.777368), 6.5 km (4 mi.) north of Pudong Airport in Shanghai. I got the image here, as well as all my plover images in this post, with my old Nikon D300 plus Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens.
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Oriental Plover Highlight 103-Species Weekend

On Sat. 9 April and Sun. 10 April 2016, Elaine Du and I noted 103 species at three Shanghai-area birding hot spots. We had Oriental Plover and Black-faced Spoonbill on Hengsha, the latter present also at Cape Nanhui, where we found in addition Brown Crake, Greater Sand Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Marsh Grassbird, Bluethroat, and Citrine Wagtail. Lesser Yangshan yielded out-of-range Rufous-faced Warbler and our season’s first flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher. Other season’s firsts were Eurasian Wryneck and Oriental Reed Warbler on Hengsha, Oriental Pratincole, Japanese Thrush, Tristram’s Bunting, and Meadow Bunting on Lesser Yangshan, and Broad-billed Sandpiper at Nanhui. Garganey and singing Brown-flanked Bush Warbler were on Hengsha and Temminck’s Stint and Grey-backed Thrush were noted at Nanhui. Red-throated Pipit were on Hengsha and Nanhui, as were Intermediate Egret, “SwintailSnipe, Reed Parrotbill, and Chestnut-eared Bunting.

Citrine Wagtail, Nanhui, 10 April 2016. Perhaps the most beautiful of wagtails, Motacilla citreola is a scarce passage migrant in Shanghai.
Citrine Wagtail, Nanhui, 10 April 2016. Perhaps the most beautiful of wagtails, Motacilla citreola is a scarce passage migrant in Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

On Sat. 9 April Elaine and I birded Hengsha, the alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze. Our target was Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus, which we found after a short search. Oriental Plover breeds in deserts and steppes mainly in Mongolia, and in China in Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia. For Elaine, Ori Pluv was a virtual lifer, as her only previous experience with the species was our quick, long-distance look at an individual near Hulun Lake last July.

It is spring and Meadow Bunting are staking out territories on Lesser Yangshan. This aggressive little fellow had attracted the attention of a female, which kept to the undergrowth while he roared. Common on Lesser Yangshan, Emberiza cioides is almost never recorded on the nearby coast.
It is spring and Meadow Bunting are staking out territories on Lesser Yangshan. This aggressive little fellow had attracted the attention of a female, which kept to the undergrowth while he roared. Common on Lesser Yangshan, Emberiza cioides is almost never recorded on the nearby coast. (Craig Brelsford)

On Sun. 10 April Elaine and I were joined by Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell. We noted 90 species on Lesser Yangshan Island and at Nanhui.

The three of us found 30 singing Marsh Grassbird in the large reed bed at 30.866006, 121.939614, a point 2.8 km south of the lock at Nanhui and 4.1 km south of the Magic Parking Lot/Holiday Inn (30.882784, 121.972782). An unpaved road leads into the marsh. The grassbirds were noted only in that reed bed and not in other seemingly suitable reed beds elsewhere at Nanhui. The grassbirds were using only those parts of the reed bed far from the road. They were making their curving display flight.

Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Nanhui, Shanghai, 10 April 2016.
Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Cape Nanhui, 10 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Marsh Grassbird is also known as Japanese Swamp Warbler and Japanese Marsh Warbler. It is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN. The IUCN notes that Marsh Grassbird is “very sensitive to habitat structure and does not tolerate vegetation that is too short or too tall.” It is threatened mainly by the conversion of its wetland habitat to other uses.

Speaking of conversions, new construction is changing all three of the birding spots we visited last weekend. The transformation at Nanhui has been noted by me here and here. Lesser Yangshan Island is being converted from an island to an even bigger megaport, and Garbage Dump Coastal Plain (30.638860, 122.060089) is steadily growing unbirdable. A bright spot on Lesser Yangshan is the new wetland (30.611902, 122.114873) on reclaimed land between Lesser Yangshan and Dazhitou Island.

Will this 100-hectare plantation of trees add a new dimension to birding on Hengsha?
Will this 100-hectare plantation of trees add a new dimension to birding on Hengsha? (Craig Brelsford)

In the reclaimed area on Hengsha, a 100-hectare area at 31.299495, 121.893845 is being converted from savanna to forest. That is an area about two-thirds the size of Century Park in Pudong. This may be good news, as the tree plantation may attract forest species such as flycatchers and leaf warblers, families that on the formerly treeless reclaimed area at Hengsha have always been scarce.

The springtime birding season in Shanghai is really picking up steam. On the Web site of the Shanghai Wild Bird Society, shwbs.org, birders have recently reported Long-billed Dowitcher, Asian Dowitcher, and Ruff on Chongming and Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Black Redstart on Hengsha.

Intermediate Egret with prey, Hengsha, 9 April 2016.
Intermediate Egret with prey, Hengsha, 9 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Green Sandpiper in gully below Guanyin Temple, Lesser Yangshan Island, 10 April 2016.
Green Sandpiper in gully below Guanyin Temple, Lesser Yangshan Island, 10 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Around sunset, this Brown Crake emerged onto the grassy base of the sea wall to forage. I had never noted Brown Crake in Shanghai. Nanhui, 10 April 2016.
Around sunset, this Brown Crake emerged onto the grassy base of the sea wall to forage. I had never noted Brown Crake in Shanghai. Nanhui, 10 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Craig Brelsford in Garbage Dump Gully, Lesser Yangshan Island, 10 April 2016. Photo by Elaine Du.
Craig Brelsford in Garbage Dump Gully, Lesser Yangshan Island, 10 April 2016. (Elaine Du)

Featured image: Oriental Plover, Hengsha Island, Shanghai, 9 April 2016.
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