Editor’s note: The illustration above shows Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers: Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (1), Arctic Warbler (2), Eastern Crowned Warbler (3), Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (4), and Yellow-browed Warbler (5). In this post, I tell you how to separate Pale-legged and its lookalike Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from the others.
Last Sat. 24 Sept. 2016 at Nanhui, my object of observation was Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, one of the Big 5 Leaf Warblers in the Shanghai region. In both spring and autumn, Phylloscopus tenellipes passes through Earth’s greatest city in considerable numbers, giving Shanghai birders ample opportunity to study it. A lookalike species, Sakhalin Leaf WarblerP. borealoides, also has been noted in Shanghai.
In this post, I shall outline the difficulty of distinguishing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on anything but song, and I will show you some of the traits of “Pale-Sak” that set this species pair apart from other leaf warblers.
SONG CAN SAFELY SEPARATE PALE-LEGGED FROM SAKHALIN
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song and call. Every other trait of each can occur in the other. Numerous authorities confirm this. Swedish ornithologist Per Alström calls the two species “almost identical” and “virtually indistinguishable except by song” (Alström 2012). Mark Brazil says field separation of Pale-Sak is “uncertain,” and he warns readers to “beware light conditions” (2009). Clement writes that Pale-legged and Sakhalin are “very similar” and claims, dubiously, that the latter is distinguishable from the former “mainly by greener upperparts and lack of wingbars” (2006). Clements goes on to describe juvenile Pale-legged as being “more greenish on upperparts,” which begs the question of whether the greenish Pale-Sak one is observing is an adult Sakhalin or a juvenile Pale-legged. Moreover, a quick look at Oriental Bird Images shows many Sakhalin Leaf Warbler with wing bars.
Thankfully for us birders, the songs of the two species are distinctive and provide the basis for a safe ID. The song of Pale-legged, occasionally heard in Shanghai in May, is a cricket-like trill, that of Sakhalin a high-pitched, three-note whistle.
One day last May, I heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing together in Zhongshan Park—proof that Sakhalin passes through Shanghai. Usually, however, birders here are forced to perform the less than satisfying task of assigning the individuals they see to the category “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.”
Bottom line: In Shanghai, any Pale-Sak one sees is probably Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, the continental breeder, and not Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, the breeder from the eponymous Russian island plus Hokkaido and Honshu; but to claim certainty about any non-singing individual is the taxonomical version of Russian roulette.
DISTINGUISHING PALE-SAK FROM OTHER LEAF WARBLERS
The Pale-Sak species pair is readily distinguishable from other leaf warblers, in particular the other four members of Shanghai’s Big 5: Pallas’s Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus proregulus, Yellow-browed WarblerP. inornatus, Arctic WarblerP. borealis, and Eastern Crowned WarblerP. coronatus.
Here are a few principles:
— Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are plain, mid-sized to large leaf warblers without even the hint of a coronal stripe.
— Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler has distinctive pink legs and a short bill with a black smudge on the lower mandible, which is pink at the base and tip.
Even on a fast-moving Pale-Sak in poor light, the pink of the bill and especially of the legs is readily seen. The distinctive pale color of these bare parts is a handy tool for distinguishing Pale-Sak from birds in the Arctic Warbler Complex, which like Pale-Sak lack a crown stripe and usually show one or two wing bars. (The Arctic Warbler Complex consists of Arctic WarblerPhylloscopus borealis, Kamchatka Leaf WarblerP. examinandus, and Japanese Leaf WarblerP. xanthodryas. In Shanghai, Arctic Warbler is the most common of the three, migrating through Shanghai every spring and autumn.) The pink coloration also distinguishes Pale-Sak from Dusky WarblerP. fuscatus, an uncommon migrant and winter visitor in Shanghai, and the scarce passage migrant Two-barred WarblerP. plumbeitarsus.
— Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler constantly pumps its tail.
The tail-pumping of Pale-legged/Sakhalin is one of the most distinctive behavioral traits of the species pair. The steady movement usually occurs independently of other muscular actions and is slow enough for the eye to see. The tail-flicking of Arctic Warbler, by contrast, is more spasmodic and is often accompanied by wing-flicking.
— Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler is often found on the lower, thicker branches of trees.
With its ability to forage along thick branches and not just glean from the underside of leaves, Pale-legged/Sakhalin can remind one of a nuthatch. Other species such as Arctic Warbler use the lower branches, but sustained observation shows Pale-Sak more often in those areas. Note: In May and June 2016, I studied Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on its breeding grounds in Heilongjiang. There, amid trees older and taller than one usually sees in Shanghai, I most often noted the species far above my head, in the mid-canopy.
A NOTE ON CALLS
Except for the silent migrant Eastern Crowned Warbler, Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers all call in both spring and autumn. The calls are distinctive. The metallic “tink” of Pale-Sak contrasts markedly with the “tzit” of Arctic Warbler, the “dweet” of Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and the “sweet” of Yellow-browed Warbler.
Note that, according to Brazil, the call of Pale-Sak only can separate the pair from other species. It cannot be used to separate Pale-legged from Sakhalin. The tink of Pale-legged, Brazil writes, “is probably indistinguishable from Sakhalin Leaf” (2).
UPDATE: 19 OCT. 2016
Editor’s note: This post caught the attention of Philip D. Round, a professor at Mahidol University in Bangkok and an expert on leaf warblers. In an e-mail written 18 Oct. 2016, Round writes that as discoveries are made and papers published, separating Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on call may become more widespread. Separation on morphology, by contrast, will be much more difficult, though it may eventually turn out to be possible in the hand.
The following paragraphs are from Round’s e-mail to me:
“I enclose a paper that details the first records of both Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from Thailand. [Editor’s note: the paper, “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” is available for download through shanghaibirding.com (708 KB).] This has been rather overtaken by events, as we have now caught into the hundreds of Sakhalin LW, mostly on spring passage, and quite a few more Kamchatka. I have an undergraduate student who has carried out DNA assay on about ten percent of all the Pale-legged and Sakhalin LW caught. For many of these we have also recorded call notes on release. When she comes back from overseas study in January 2017 I hope we’ll get a paper out which publishes details of call-note frequency and DNA results for this large sample, which should show the correlation between species and call-note frequency clearly. (Actually this is moderately and anecdotally well-known already. I think either Frank Lambert or Jonathan Martinez was the first to draw my attention to the difference, and it is mentioned by Yap et al. in BirdingASIA with reference to an overwintering Singapore bird.) [Note: Round is referring to Yap, Francis et al., “First wintering record of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides in South-East Asia, with notes on vocalisations,” BirdingASIA 21 (2014): 76–81.]
“I am a bit less sanguine on finding means (other than by call frequency or song) to separate all birds. Even in the hand, it is by no means clear. We can pick out long-winged male Sakhalin, and short-winged female Pale-legged. But there is more overlap than previously realized, and most are in between. There don’t appear to be any 100% consistent wing-formula differences, and plumage and bare-part features, while somewhat indicative, are again less than 100% reliable—especially under field conditions. But probably we are missing something. The next thing to do is to apply PCA or some other multivariate analysis to figure out reliable means of separation of birds in the hand from our large sample, and also to use the information we have to figure out differences in the timing of passage of the two spp.”
Alström, P. (2012). Identification of Phylloscopus & Seicercus Warblers in China. Notes from presentation given to Beijing Birdwatching Society in November 2012. PDF downloadable here (13 MB). Click here for a 5 MB zip archive containing all 40 pages of the report in JPEG form. Those pages can be synced to your smartphone like photographs and consulted in the field. (Accessed: 1 May 2019.)
Clement, P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). Pp. 663-4 (Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
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Let’s hear it for Kai Pflug! The Shanghai-based German birder has taken it upon himself to clean up Cape Nanhui, Shanghai’s best-known birding area. On Sun. 11 Sept. 2016, Kai hauled out two bagfuls of trash from Nanhui’s Microforest 2 (30.926138, 121.970795), and I’m proud to say my wife Elaine Du helped Kai out on Microforest 1. Kai has long been cleaning the microforests, and his work has had a big effect on those precious migrant traps.
In his car, Kai keeps six pairs of tongs as well as a roll of plastic bags. Kai told me he uses tongs “to show others that it’s possible to clean up trash without getting your hands dirty!” He keeps six pairs so that others can join him in his quest to keep the microforests clean.
As if his work on the trash weren’t enough, Kai further burnished his eco-credentials Sunday morning at Microforest 2. There, about 30 photographers have set up camp to photograph Fairy Pitta, a species that has been present in the tiny wood since early September. Someone had speared mealworms onto a metal hook. The hook could rip the mouth of a hungry pitta. Kai spied the hook, marched into the setup, and tore it down. In his good Chinese, the product of 12 years living in this country, Kai explained to the surprised photographers, “This isn’t good! It can kill birds.”
Kai’s actions Sunday were the backdrop to an eventful birding day. Partnering yet again with veteran British birder Michael Grunwell, Elaine and I noted 75 species. We birded the well-known coastal sites at Nanhui as well as the sod farm south of Pudong Airport. We had our first migrant bunting of the season, endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting; Himalayan Swiftlet in the skies above the Magic Parking Lot (30.882784, 121.972782); and Pechora Pipit in the wet agricultural land north of Lúcháo (芦潮; 30.851111, 121.848528).
Other goodies were Lesser Coucal catching a frog, Asian Stubtail joining Fairy Pitta at the photography setup, and season’s first Yellow-browed Warbler, Siberian Thrush, and Blue-and-white Flycatcher. We had Green Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, and a migrating flock of Red Turtle Dove near the Pechoras and Eurasian Wryneck in the recently planted trees on the inner base of the sea wall. The microforests yielded a second Fairy Pitta, 8 Black-naped Oriole, 7 Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, and a good count of 12 Siberian Blue Robin.
Our trip to the sod farm was cut short by rain. Before the shower we noted ca. 800 Oriental Pratincole. Obviously this grassy area is important to the species, which breeds in the Shanghai region and which with the development of Pudong has seen a dramatic shrinkage of its territory.
On Mon. 5 Sept. Elaine and I did our first urban birding of the season at Shanghai’s Century Park. Among the 24 species we noted were passage migrants Oriental Dollarbird, Asian Brown Flycatcher, and Grey-streaked Flycatcher.
Featured image: Kai Pflug picks up litter at Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, 11 Sept. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
From 26 May 2016 to last Sunday (12 June), Elaine Du and I were in her home village of Dawucun in Boli County, Heilongjiang. We birded 15 of those days, mainly around Xidaquan National Forest, and noted 84 species. Our bird of the trip was Band-bellied Crake, and we found breeding Eurasian Eagle-Owl. We noted in full breeding mode many birds that we had previously known only as passage migrants in Shanghai; we enjoyed for the first time the songs of Siberian Blue Robin, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, White-throated Rock Thrush, Siberian Thrush, and many other species.
In this post, you will get an introduction to Boli and eastern Heilongjiang, you will discover the birds we met up there at the height of the breeding season, you will learn about the birds we missed, and you will find out how Elaine and I combine birding with family. There are as well 31 of my sound-recordings of Boli birds and plenty of photos.
For the full report on our spring 2016 trip, including daily lists and a master list detailing where and when we encountered each species, click here. For the report on Elaine’s and my first two trips together to her hometown, click here.
Why Should Birders Care about Boli?
Boli County is a good place to study the woodland birds of the eastern Palearctic. Its forests, remnants of the ancient northern temperate forest that once stretched unbroken across the region, hold northern species absent further south in China. In springtime, Boli County is the breeding home of birds that in the more densely populated southern regions of China appear only as passage migrants or winter visitors.
In January 2015 Elaine and I were married in Dawucun, where Elaine was born. During breaks in the festivities, I explored the frozen country. Expecting to find only magpies and sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised to find forested hills near the village and good birds such as Rough-legged Buzzard. I vowed to return and bird the area thoroughly.
In August and September 2015, Elaine and I fulfilled that goal. During a 32-day visit to her hometown, Elaine and I discovered Xidaquan National Forest, a 9,400-hectare reserve in the Laoye Mountains. Xidaquan preserves a remnant of the northern temperate forest that once covered the region. We were thoroughly impressed and made plans to bird the area yet again, this time during breeding season. The trip described here is the realization of that plan.
For Elaine and me, birding trips to Boli are special because they combine Northeast China birding with family. Elaine is never happier than when she is with her parents and two elder sisters, and I not only like her family but also appreciate the opportunity they give me to learn about Chinese culture.
Like many residents of the Northeast, Elaine is descended from migrants who chuǎng Guāndōng (闯关东)–“leapt” north, mainly from Hebei and Shandong, to farm areas of Guandong (Manchuria) formerly closed to Han Chinese settlement. In Elaine’s case, the settlers were her parents, who left Shandong in the 1970s.
The settlement of the Northeast by Han farmers is a major event in Chinese history, like the settling of the West is to Americans. The transformation the migration has wrought on the land has been profound. In eastern Heilongjiang, the toil of thousands of farmers has converted the land from an endless forest into a vast maize field. Where tigers once roared, magpies now caw.
Amid the sea of grain fields are islands of the old Manchurian forest. One of the best is Xidaquan National Forest, just 25 km from Boli Town. After our discovery of Xidaquan in the summer of 2015, we turned it into our laboratory in which to study the birds of the eastern Palearctic woodlands. We have now spent 20 days birding in the reserve–12 days in summer 2015 and eight days in spring 2016.
A birder led blindfolded through southwestern Boli County in spring would be able to tell the quality of the forest by the birds he heard. The pine plantations are nearly silent. In recently cut areas where the forest has just begun to regenerate, one may hear a few Eastern Crowned Warbler, Radde’s Warbler, and Black-faced Bunting. If a layer of undergrowth has formed, then one may hear in addition to those species Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat. In places where most of the trees are hardwoods and have reached about 10 m in height, the sound of birdsong is constant throughout the day. Pale Thrush sing powerfully from perches hidden in the canopy, Yellow-throated Bunting sing from treetops and defend territory, Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and Japanese Tit sing their lively Parid songs, and White-throated Rock Thrush whistle in a minor key. The best places at Xidaquan are yet another cut above, being able to support the species mentioned above as well as more habitat-sensitive species such as Mandarin Duck, Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Lanceolated Warbler, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, and White’s Thrush.
The following is a list of the key birds noted by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du in spring 2016 in Boli County.
Band-bellied CrakePorzana paykullii
Our bird of the trip, found 8-9 June 2016 in a creek bottom in the Hongwei Linchang area 12 km south of Boli Town. A rare and little-known species, Band-bellied Crake is listed as near threatened by the IUCN. Band-bellied Crake breeds in Northeast China and the Russian Far East. It is threatened by habitat loss in its Southeast Asia wintering grounds as well as in Northeast China.
We found a breeding pair with two owlets nesting at the high, inaccessible reaches of the big quarry at Jiulong Reservoir, where we also spotted the species in summer 2015. The giant owls are tolerant of the traffic from the road, and at a second, smaller quarry nearby, they tolerate noise from a busy poultry farm below. The owls perch conspicuously by day and are active in the villages at night. In summer 2015, eagle-owls would perch at night on the buildings of Elaine’s parents’ farm.
Mandarin DuckAix galericulata
Deep in the forests of Xidaquan, we found Mandarin Duck in ponds no larger than a kiddie pool. This shy species was also found on the large pond near the entrance to Xidaquan, in rice paddies in the villages, and in flocks in Jiulong Reservoir. In spring 2016 we recorded this species on eight of our 15 birding days and in summer 2015 on seven of our 27 birding days. Boli County is the heart of the Northeast China breeding range of this most beautiful of ducks.
Black WoodpeckerDryocopus martius
A graceful woodpecker and one of the stars of the Northeast Chinese forest, noted by us on three days in spring 2016 and on 11 days in summer 2015.
The most commonly noted Dendrocopos woodpecker, noted on 10 days in summer 2015 and six days in spring 2016.
Lesser Spotted WoodpeckerDryobates minor
Trans-Eurasian species, in China present only in Xinjiang and the Northeast. Noted by us just once in spring 2016. More conspicuous in summer 2015 (seen on six days) and winter 2015 (three days).
Rufous Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx hyperythrus
Noted on nine of our birding days, exclusively in the better forests around Xidaquan. Has softer version of the “Brain fever!” call of Large Hawk-Cuckoo.
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:06; 3.4 MB)
Indian CuckooCuculus micropterus
Noted on eight days in Boli County in spring 2016. None of our records came from the higher-quality, higher-elevation forest deep in Xidaquan park but from the lower-quality, newer forests closer to the villages.
Oriental CuckooCuculus optatus
In contrast to Indian Cuckoo, in spring 2016 most of our records of Oriental Cuckoo, spanning 13 days, came from the deep forests of Xidaquan.
Common CuckooCuculus canorus
We heard the famous call of Common Cuckoo on 13 days. Most records came from open areas or from forested places near open areas.
Grey NightjarCaprimulgus jotaka
We enjoyed pre-dawn views of this species roosting on County Road Z002 and heard its clattering call both at dawn and dusk.
Grey Nightjar calling at dawn, Blue-and-white Flycatcher in background, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (00:31; 2 MB)
Eurasian JayGarrulus glandarius brandtii
Cinnamon-headed ssp. brandtii is a treat for birders in Northeast China (also occurs in Xinjiang). Resident and conspicuous in all seasons.
Coal TitPeriparus ater ater
The trans-Eurasian, small-crested, nominate race (ater) is the representative of Coal Tit in Northeast China. Resident, regularly noted in small numbers, often in conifers.
Coal Tit 1/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:15; 2.2 MB)
Coal Tit 2/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:05; 1.7 MB)
Willow TitPoecile montanus baicalensis
Versatile Willow Tit, resident in Boli County, flourishes in habitats ranging from scrubby new forest growth to primary forest. Noted on three days in winter 2015, 21 in summer 2015, and 11 in spring 2016.
Willow Tit, territorial call, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:14; 2.1 MB)
Long-tailed TitAegithalos caudatus caudatus
The snowball-headed nominate ssp. ranges from Scandinavia east through Heilongjiang to Jilin. It lives year-round in Boli County. We noted it on seven days in spring 2016, on two days in winter 2015, and on 14 days in summer 2015. In late summer and winter it is often the main component of bird waves.
Eastern Crowned WarblerPhylloscopus coronatus
The most conspicuous leaf warbler in Boli. Noted by us on 10 days in summer 2015 and on 14 of our 15 birding days in spring 2016. Sings a diverse array of songs from dawn to dusk. In 2015 was singing and defending territory into mid-August, and non-singing individuals were noted as late as 3 Sept. Found in habitats mediocre as well as pristine.
Eastern Crowned Warbler 1/2, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:04; 1.7 MB)
Second only to Eastern Crowned Warbler as the most conspicuous leaf warbler, with a powerful song that belies its small size. Noted regularly in summer 2015 (10 days) and spring 2016 (12 days), mostly in the better forest and forest-edge habitat at Xidaquan.
Radde’s Warbler, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (02:51; 7.6 MB)
Dusky WarblerPhylloscopus fuscatus
Noted on 10 days in spring 2016 and nine in summer 2015. Has less powerful song than Radde’s, lacking trills, and unlike Radde’s avoids deep forest. Often sings from conspicuous perch in high tree.
Pale-legged Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus tenellipes
Recorded on nine days in spring 2016. Heard singing and seen defending territory. Usually found in the high canopy or middle canopy in the better sections of forest at Xidaquan. Elaine and I did not note this species in Boli in summer 2015.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Xidaquan, 10 June 2016 (02:00, 6.4 MB)
Pallas’s Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus proregulus
Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 12 days in summer 2015. In both seasons was usually noted singing loudly from the top of the tallest tree in the vicinity.
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, hills S of Dawucun, 4 June 2016 (01:47; 5.1 MB)
Oriental Reed WarblerAcrocephalus orientalis
Oriental Reed Warbler is known to be able to use marshy habitat with woody plants rather than reeds. As reeds are rare in the areas we bird in Boli County, our Oriental Reed Warbler were found among woody plants. Found on four days in spring 2016, mainly on the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.
Noted on three days in spring 2016, with a high of 28 singing individuals being found 11 June along County Road Z002. Noted once in summer 2015.
Black-browed Reed Warbler, creek along County Road Z002, 11 June 2016 (01:40; 4.8 MB)
Thick-billed WarblerIduna aedon
Noted on six days in spring 2016, in very good habitat at Xidaquan as well as more disturbed areas along the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.
Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:32; 2.1 MB)
Lanceolated WarblerLocustella lanceolata
Noted on six days in spring 2016, singing from thick cover in heavily wooded habitat along creeks at Xidaquan.
Gray’s Grasshopper WarblerHelopsaltes fasciolata
In spring 2016 we heard the bulbul-like call of this undergrowth skulker on seven days, exclusively in the high-quality habitat at Xidaquan.
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:05; 3.4 MB)
Siberian ThrushGeokichla sibirica
Noted by us on five days in spring 2016, each time in high-quality forest at Xidaquan. Noted twice in summer 2015. Sings from conspicuous perch at top of tall tree.
Below is a recording of Siberian Thrush on a typical morning at Xidaquan. In the background you can hear Oriental Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, Radde’s Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler.
Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:51; 2.8 MB)
White’s ThrushZoothera aurea
One of the rewards for waking early was hearing the monotonous, ventriloquial song of White’s Thrush. It normally calls unseen from deep within the forest and goes silent about an hour after sunrise. One morning Elaine and I saw this most secretive bird climb a tall tree and utter its mysterious call. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. At a location nearby I witnessed the ventriloquy. The low note seemed to be coming from a place to my right, while the high note seemed to be coming from a place in front of me. Only after a few minutes did I realize that a single unseen White’s Thrush was uttering both notes.
White’s Thrush, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:43; 4.9 MB)
Grey-backed ThrushTurdus hortulorum
This East Asian endemic was noted on nine days in spring 2016, singing and defending territory. Also noted on two days in summer 2015.
Grey-backed Thrush, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (08:17; 21.4 MB)
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus
Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and five days in summer 2015. Shy. Sings powerfully from unseen perches deep in the forest. At dawn and dusk sometimes seen foraging on the roadside.
Blue-and-white FlycatcherCyanoptila cyanomelana
We found Mark Brazil’s description of the breeding habitat to be apt: “ … in forested mountains, generally in mature mixed broadleaf forest with dense undergrowth, often near streams … ” (Birds of East Asia). Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and on two days in summer 2015.
Blue-and-white Flycatcher, broadleaf forest near Xidaquan, 27 May 2016 (01:30; 4.4 MB)
Siberian Blue RobinLarvivora cyane
Noted on 12 days in spring 2016, with a high of 21 individuals on 2 June. Its song, delivered from deep cover, consists of a burst of sound followed by a pause and buildup then another burst, each burst distinct from the other.
Siberian Blue Robin, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (02:42; 7.2 MB)
Rufous-tailed RobinLarvivora sibilans
Noted on seven days in spring 2016, all records except one coming from deep cover along thickly vegetated creeks at Xidaquan. Song a descending trill.
Rufous-tailed Robin, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (01:01; 3.2 MB)
Siberian RubythroatCalliope calliope
Noted on four days in spring 2016 and on one day in summer 2015. Usually hides in undergrowth, but at dawn and for a few hours thereafter may be seen singing from an exposed perch.
Siberian Rubythroat, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (02:20; 6.4 MB)
Yellow-rumped FlycatcherFicedula zanthopygia
Sings a long, slow, deliberate, and loud song somewhat like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher. Noted on 12 days in spring 2016.
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)
White-throated Rock ThrushMonticola gularis
I learned the call of this East Asian specialty by doggedly following a bird that was singing and moving unseen in the canopy above me. Finally the secretive singer allowed me to glimpse him, and only then could I confirm that he was White-throated Rock Thrush. Noted on three days in spring 2016 and once in summer 2015.
White-throated Rock Thrush, Hongwei Linchang, 7 June 2016 (01:04; 4.1 MB)
One of the most commonly noted birds in Boli, found on 14 days in spring 2016 and 12 days in summer 2015. Versatile, often at forest edge but also in areas with fewer trees.
Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (00:44; 2.5 MB)
Species of Bird Noted in Boli County, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 (84 species)
Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Great Crested Grebe
Crested Honey Buzzard
Little Ringed Plover
Oriental Turtle Dove
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Chinese Grey Shrike
Asian House Martin
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler
Oriental Reed Warbler
Black-browed Reed Warbler
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Siberian Blue Robin
White-throated Rock Thrush
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Birds We Missed
The forests of Boli County change markedly from season to season. On our brief initial trip in January 2015, winter visitors such as Common Redpoll, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Pallas’s Rosefinch were scraping out a living in the snowy, barren forests. In late summer bird waves are common, in springtime virtually non-existent. Late summer shows few birds in breeding mode but offers passage migrants. In springtime the songs of breeding birds resound.
Birds seen in one season may not be seen in another. In some cases, as with Hazel Grouse, it is easy to understand why. In other cases, the reason is less clear. Other birds, such as Red-flanked Bluetail, that one would expect in the region have yet to appear on any of our lists. Here are some of the birds we missed on our spring 2016 trip.
Hazel Grouse: On our summer 2015 expedition, Elaine and I noted this species on 10 days, both in the excellent habitat of Xidaquan and in the lower-quality forest in the hills south of Dawucun. We noted no Hazel Grouse in spring 2016. The grouse were breeding and had retired to the quiet recesses of the forest with their young.
Great Spotted Woodpecker: Common in much of China, noted just once by Elaine and me in summer 2015 and not at all in spring 2016. Its congener White-backed Woodpecker is common in the area.
Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker: Scarce species noted by us once at Xidaquan in summer 2015. Missed in spring 2016.
Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker: Rufous-bellied Woodpecker ssp. subrufinus is reported in eastern Heilongjiang, as is Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. Neither has been found by us around Boli.
Black-naped Oriole: A species yet to be noted by us in Boli.
Azure Tit: This unmistakable tit has been reported around Lake Khanka, on the Sino-Russian border east of Boli County. We have yet to see the species in Boli.
Marsh Tit: Race brevirostris noted by us on 13 days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
Manchurian Bush Warbler, Baikal Bush Warbler, Chinese Bush Warbler: Yet to be noted by us in Boli.
Asian Stubtail: Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
Manchurian Reed Warbler: We made a point to look for this bird, paying careful attention to the Black-browed Reed Warbler we were finding. No luck.
Yellow-browed Warbler: In spring 2016 we were expecting big counts of this species, having noted it on nine days in summer 2015. We noted it not once in spring 2016. It most likely does not breed in the area and was passing through the region in August and September 2015.
Arctic Warbler: Also apparently a passage migrant at Xidaquan. In spring 2016 we had but one record of a singing individual at Xidaquan. In summer 2015 we had two records.
Two-barred Warbler: Yet another apparent passage migrant. Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
Red-flanked Bluetail: Surprise! We have yet to record this species in Boli County.
Eurasian Treecreeper: Noted by us four times in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
List of Place Names
Boli: name that may refer to either Boli County or Boli Town.
Xeno-Canto Foundation. Xeno-Canto: Bird Sounds from Around the World. xeno-canto.org. Craig has downloaded hundreds of calls from this Web site.
Cameras: Nikon D3S; for landscapes, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone 4S, and Apple iPhone 6
Lens: Nikon VR 600mm F/4G
Sound recorder: Olympus DM-650
Binoculars: Swarovski EL 8 x 32 (Craig), Zeiss Conquest HD 8 x 42 (Elaine)
Spotting scope: Swarovski ATX-95
Featured image: Drake Mandarin Duck, found in a small pool deep in the forest at Xidaquan National Forest on 1 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
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Elaine Du and I noted 86 species over the rainy weekend of 7-8 May 2016. We had White-shouldered Starling, Siberian Blue Robin, and Chestnut Bunting on Lesser Yangshan Island and Chinese Egret, Black-faced Spoonbill, and Curlew Sandpiper at Nanhui. I got my best view of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler at Nanhui, and on Yangshan our partner Michael Grunwell got his best view of Yellow-rumped Flycatcher. Other passage migrants were Brown Shrike, Eyebrowed Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat, and season’s first Dark-sided Flycatcher at Nanhui and Blue-and-white Flycatcher on Lesser Yangshan.
The nearly constant rain made birding challenging but had its good points. While depressing our bird count, especially on Sunday (just 62 species), the rain also depressed the number of visitors, giving Nanhui its former wild feel. The lack of tourists and their vehicles on Sunday allowed 9 Black-faced Spoonbill to exploit a good pond just a stone’s throw from the usually busy sea-wall road. The spoonbills, all sub-adults in non-breeding plumage, noted our car and went back to feeding. On that same pond on Saturday, we captured in a single photograph 6 birds representing five species: 2 Black-faced Spoonbill plus Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Great Egret, and Chinese Egret.
Though rainy, the weather Sunday was not windy; the lack of wind plus lack of cars made Nanhui quiet and good for sound-recording. I got a particularly good recording of Black-browed Reed Warbler and Oriental Reed Warbler. Note the more slowly delivered, more powerful song of the much larger Oriental Reed Warbler.
Black-browed Reed Warbler, Song (01:19; 3.9 MB)
Oriental Reed Warbler, Song (01:00; 3.2 MB)
I also made a recording of a bird that may be Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (00:15; 1.4 MB):
Phylloscopus borealoides was one of my hot topics over the weekend, after the excitement caused by my encounter on 5 May with a Sakhalin Leaf Warbler at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park. The tink sound I recorded on Saturday at Nanhui was delivered faster than and at a slightly different pitch from the majority of tink calls assigned to Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and currently available on xeno-canto.org. The call more closely matches the quickly delivered, higher-pitched tink calls assigned to Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.
I got a good look at the leaf warbler I recorded. It was obviously a Pale-legged or Sakhalin, but the crown was greyer than in a normal Pale/Sak and it contrasted more with the olive-brown mantle. Mark Brazil in Birds of East Asia notes the “strong contrast between greyish-toned crown/nape, and greenish (or brownish) mantle” of Sak. However, these characters are only more likely to be found in Sak; they may also be found in Pale. Because the features of the two species overlap, only song or a DNA test is diagnostic.
Elaine and I came upon three other birds that are hard to ID to species level. The question of Pale or Sand Martin is nettlesome, as is separating Japanese Bush WarblerHorornis diphone canturians from Manchurian Bush Warbler H. borealis borealis. I know that the Shanghai region falls within the breeding range of canturians, but borealis very likely passes through this region, and Kennerley and Pearson suggest that migrating borealis may sing. Certainly some of the canturians/borealis that we see here are breeding canturians; the problem is singling one out with any certainty.
Another problem is the non-calling Cuculus cuckoos one encounters in Shanghai. On size one can often distinguish a well-viewed Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, and if the eye is seen well one can distinguish the dark iris of Indian Cuckoo C. micropterus. Common Cuckoo C. canorus, Oriental Cuckoo C. optatus, and Himalayan Cuckoo C. saturatus are larger than C. poliocephalus, and unlike C. micropterus have yellow irides. C. optatus and C. saturatus are virtually indistinguishable, but this pair and C. canorus have some differences, among them the often unbarred yellow undertail coverts of C. optatus/saturatus and the thicker barring of those species on the breast and belly.
Common Cuckoo almost certainly breeds in Nanhui, and very soon we should be hearing its famous call. I have recorded neither C. optatus nor C. saturatus in the Shanghai region, I have witnessed C. micropterus in Shanghai, in the Tianmu Mountains, and at Dongtai in Jiangsu, and I have found C. poliocephalus at Dongtai.
In springtime, one encounters Cuculus adults, which if not calling are hard enough to ID; but just wait, come autumn we will be seeing the juveniles coming through. Juveniles never call, and the various Cuculus species in juvenile form resemble each other even more than Cuculus adults.
On Saturday, Elaine and I birded once again with Shanghai-based English birder Michael Grunwell. On Sunday, we birded briefly with Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp, and later Kai Pflug and his wife Jing dropped by.
Featured image: Black-faced Spoonbill in sub-adult plumage, Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 7 May 2016. The spoonbills were taking advantage of the rainy weather, using pools just below the sea wall road. The road is busy when the weather is good but on rainy days is quiet. (Craig Brelsford)
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.
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.
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)