Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5

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.

Recently at Cape Nanhui, the birding hotspot in Pudong, my object of observation was Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, one of the Big 5 Leaf Warblers in Shanghai. In both spring and autumn, Phylloscopus tenellipes passes through Earth’s greatest city in considerable numbers. A lookalike species, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. 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 call and 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

Per's PDF
‘Almost identical’: that’s the judgment of leaf-warbler expert Per Alström on Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (regarding their plumage and bare parts). The page shown here is No. 11 of a 40-page PDF on leaf warblers in China by Professor Alström. The PDF is a handy introduction to a difficult group and can be downloaded here (13 MB).

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.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Boli County, Heilongjiang, June (02:00, 6.4 MB)

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Zhongshan Park, Shanghai, May (00:36; 2.2 MB)

One day in 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 Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus, Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus, Arctic Warbler P. borealis, and Eastern Crowned Warbler P. 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
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler shows no trace of a crown stripe (Panel 1). Yellow-browed Warbler (2) usually shows a faint stripe. In Eastern Crowned Warbler (3) and Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (4), the stripe is prominent. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

warblers
Like Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, species in the Arctic Warbler Complex lack a crown stripe and usually show one or two wing bars. One way to distinguish birds from the two groups is by the color of the legs and bill. The legs (Panel 1) of Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are distinctively pale and pink, in contrast to the brownish-yellow legs of the Arctic-type Warbler in 2. Likewise, the slightly shorter bill of Pale-legged/Sakhalin (3) shows a blackish upper mandible and pinkish lower mandible and cutting edge. The black smudge on the lower mandible does not reach the tip. The bill of Arctic-type Warbler (4) follows a similar pattern, but with brownish-yellow replacing pink. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Warbler Phylloscopus borealis, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, and Japanese Leaf Warbler P. 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 Warbler P. fuscatus, an uncommon migrant and winter visitor in Shanghai, and the scarce passage migrant Two-barred Warbler P. plumbeitarsus.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler constantly pumps its tail.

tail
The tail of Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler pumps independently of other muscular actions. In panels 1-2, note that the tail pumps even as the warbler devours an insect. Panels 3-4 show the warbler motionless except for the up-and-down movement of the tail. Photos here and immediately below are of a single individual and were taken in September at Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on thick branch. More so than other leaf warblers, Pale-Sak is likely to be seen on leafless, thick branches low on the tree. (Craig Brelsford)

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 mainly 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.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May (00:15; 1.4 MB)

Arctic Warbler, Jiangsu, May (00:09; 1.9 MB)

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Jiangsu, May (00:05; 1.6 MB)

Yellow-browed Warbler, Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, April (00:07; 1.7 MB)

UPDATE

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 to me, 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.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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: 8 Dec 2019)

Brazil, M. (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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.

Featured image: Shanghai’s Big 5 leaf warblers. (Craig Brelsford)
Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

Be notified every time we post. Send an
email with “Subscribe” as the subject to
info@shanghaibirding.com

Donate to Shanghai Birding!




Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016: Introduction

WHAT THIS REPORT IS ABOUT

In this report, you will get an introduction to Boli County 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 Du and I combine birding with family. There are as well my sound-recordings of Boli birds and plenty of photos.

WHY SHOULD BIRDERS CARE ABOUT BOLI?

Silver Birch Grove
Silver Birch Grove (白桦林), one of the attractions of Xidaquan National Forest in Boli County, Heilongjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

INTRODUCTION

From 26 May to 12 June 2016, Elaine Du and I visited her home village of Dawucun (Dàwǔcūn [大五村], 45.732679, 130.589612) in Boli County, Heilongjiang, China. We birded 15 of those days, mainly around Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园], 45.727751, 130.317316). We 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 heard for the first time the songs of Siberian Blue Robin, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, White-throated Rock Thrush, Siberian Thrush, and many other species.

BACKGROUND

Boli County
Boli County lies within the Amur Basin of Northeast China. It is part of Qitaihe Prefecture in eastern Heilongjiang, not far from the Sino-Russian border. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

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 reserve in the Laoye Mountains covering 9,400 hectares (36 sq. mi.). 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.

Elaine and Family
Elaine Du (L) with parents and elder sisters. Dawucun, 12 June. In the background are the verdant foothills of the Laoye Mountains. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

For more information on places mentioned in the text, see “List of Place Names” in Part 3.

KEY BIRDS

Streamside habitat
Streamside habitat at Xidaquan. Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler use the thick vegetation along the unseen stream. Siberian Rubythroat and Thick-billed Warbler forage among the scrubby plants in the foreground. Common Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo call, and Dusky Warbler sing. Eastern Buzzard soar overhead. (Craig Brelsford)

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 aforementioned species as well as more habitat-sensitive birds 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 Crake Porzana paykullii

Band-bellied Crake
Band-bellied Crake stunned Elaine and me with its beauty. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Band-bellied Crake, Hongwei Linchang, Boli, 9 June 2016 (00:26; 2.6 MB)

Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo

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 Duck Aix galericulata

Mandarin Duck
Mandarin Duck, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Woodpecker Dryocopus 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.

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos

White-backed Woodpecker
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos. Female in wooded area off Road Z004 near Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

The most commonly noted Dendrocopos woodpecker, noted on 10 days in summer 2015 and six days in spring 2016.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates 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-Cuckoo Hierococcyx 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 Cuckoo Cuculus 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 Cuckoo Cuculus 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 Cuckoo Cuculus 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 Nightjar Caprimulgus 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 Jay Garrulus 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 Tit Periparus ater ater

Coal Tit
If this bird looks familiar to European birders, it’s because it’s the same nominate race of Coal Tit found in Continental Europe. Photo taken in hills S of Boli Town on 7 June. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Tit Poecile 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 Tit Aegithalos 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 Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus

Eastern Crowned Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

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)

Eastern Crowned Warbler 2/2, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:40, 2.4 MB)

Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi

Radde's Warbler
Radde’s Warbler is a powerful singer and among the most conspicuous birds at Xidaquan National Forest. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Warbler Phylloscopus 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 Warbler Phylloscopus 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 Warbler Phylloscopus 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 Warbler Acrocephalus 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.

Oriental Reed Warbler, Jiulong Reservoir, 10 June 2016 (00:06; 1.8 MB)

Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps

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 Warbler Arundinax aedon

Thick-billed Warbler
Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Warbler Locustella lanceolata

Noted on six days in spring 2016, singing from thick cover in heavily wooded habitat along creeks at Xidaquan.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus

Gray's Grasshopper Warbler
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus on rare foray out of undergrowth. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Thrush Geokichla sibirica

Siberian Thrush
Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Thrush Zoothera 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 Thrush Turdus 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 Flycatcher Cyanoptila 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 Robin Larvivora 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 Robin Larvivora 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 Rubythroat Calliope calliope

Siberian Rubythroat
Siberian Rubythroat singing on utility wire, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Flycatcher Ficedula 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 Thrush Monticola 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)

Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis

Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and four days each in winter and summer 2015.

Meadow Bunting
Emberiza cioides weigoldi

Resident, recorded by us in winter, summer, and spring (five days in spring 2016). Seen at edges of farmland and in open areas near forests. Never in deep forests.

Meadow Bunting, forest edge at Dawucun, 31 May 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)

Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami

Forest bunting, with some association with conifers, commonly seen along the forest roads. Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and six days in summer 2015.

Tristram’s Bunting, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:11; 1.2 MB)

Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans

Forest bunting with a preference for deciduous habitats. Sings loudly and aggressively defends territory. Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 16 days in summer 2015.

Yellow-throated Bunting 1/2, song, hills S of Boli Town, 5 June 2016 (00:12; 1.3 MB)

Yellow-throated Bunting 2/2, alarm call, hills S of Dawucun, 7 June 2016 (00:50; 3.6 MB)

Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala

Black-faced Bunting
Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan. In spring, the song of this bunting is one of the most common bird sounds in the region. (Craig Brelsford)

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)

Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Oriental Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus orientalis
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus
Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Hill Pigeon Columba rupestris
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus
Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus
Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo
Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus jotaka
White-throated Needletail Hirundapus caudacutus
Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo
Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus
Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius brandtii
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus
Oriental Magpie Pica serica
Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Carrion Crow Corvus corone orientalis
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
Coal Tit Periparus ater ater
Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis
Japanese Tit Parus minor
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus
Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus
Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes
Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis
Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps
Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon
Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus
Chestnut-flanked White-eye Zosterops erythropleurus
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea baicalensis
Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus
Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans
Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus
White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Siberian Accentor Prunella montanella
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides weigoldi
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata
Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala

BIRDS WE MISSED

Xidaquan
The deep forest at Xidaquan. This seemingly stable environment shows a very different set of birds according to the season. In the area where this photo was taken, in August and September 2015 Elaine and I found Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest, and Yellow-browed Warbler. We saw none of those species in May and June 2016. Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, White’s Thrush, and Lanceolated Warbler were in the same area in spring 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Du and Brelsford
The husband-and-wife birding team of Elaine Du (L) and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

EDITOR’S NOTE

“Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016” is a three-part report. This is Part 1.

Part 1: Introduction and Discussion
Part 2: Daily Reports
Part 3: Comprehensive Bird List

This post is part of a series on birding in Manchuria and the Russian Far East. See also:

Northeast China

Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, 2015
Northeast China, April-May 2013

Russian Far East

Sikhote-Alin: A Place Unparalleled for Experiencing the Birds of East Asia

Featured image: Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii, 8 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)
Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

Be notified every time we post. Send an
email with “Subscribe” as the subject to
info@shanghaibirding.com

Donate to Shanghai Birding!




Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016: Daily Reports

THE TRIP

Thurs. 26 May 2016

Elaine and I flew from Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai to Jiamusi, Heilongjiang. We drove to Elaine’s home village of Dawucun (Dàwǔcūn [大五村], 45.732679, 130.589612) in Boli County, Qitaihe. Elaine’s parents’ home became our base of operations for the next 17 days.

Fri. 27 May 2016

Today Elaine and I birded the northern temperate forest preserved in Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园], 45.727751, 130.317316). We saw in a completely new way birds that we thought we knew from Shanghai. For the first time in my life I heard singing Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Pale Thrush, and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. The latter is rarely seen on migration in Shanghai. The former two are well-known to Shanghai birders. In Shanghai, meeting these species on migration is like meeting someone for coffee; hearing them sing today was like meeting someone for dinner.

The basic facts about Boli County are two. First, the area is rich in birds. Second, no one birds here.

We are in the heart of the breeding range of Eastern Crowned Warbler (20 today). Most birders “down south” know Eastern Crowned Warbler well but have never heard it sing; today, its song resounded through the forest. Radde’s Warbler (24 today) is another species common here. Mandarin Duck (20) breed in the forest-ringed lakes and ponds around Boli. We also had singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

We spotted a family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl at a quarry near Jiulong Reservoir just outside Boli. A parent was standing guard with two owlets. Elaine scoped them herself with our Swarovski ATX-95.

Sat. 28 May 2016

Crested Honey Buzzard
Crested Honey Buzzard ssp. orientalis (‘Oriental Honey Buzzard’), Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

Today Elaine and I started birding at 03:40, 9 minutes after sunrise. Singing Daurian Redstart was Bird 1 of our list, which grew to 53 species.

By 09:30, we had already spent several hours at Xidaquan National Forest and were at the end of our tether. We parked on the forest road and napped. While sleeping I heard a sound I vaguely remembered—or was I dreaming? No, I was hearing Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. I first heard this extreme skulker last July with Elaine and Jan-Erik Nilsén in Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia.

Also on that road we had male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and found Mandarin Duck in a pond deep in the forest.

We had a Siberian trifecta today with Siberian Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat, all singing. We once again found Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo as well as Indian Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, and Oriental Cuckoo. We found Black-browed Reed Warbler in a brushy area far from reeds; the bushes also contained Thick-billed Warbler. Above the scene soared Crested Honey Buzzard.

We are deep in the heart of the Chinese Palearctic. In places, the lush greenery in the northern temperate forest here is as thick and impenetrable as that found in Yunnan’s near-tropical Dulong Gorge, which Elaine and I visited earlier this year. I almost expect to make out a wren-babbler in the gloomy undergrowth, but there are no wren-babblers, no laughingthrushes, and no fulvettas in the Palearctic heartland. Here, the robins and bush warblers are the undergrowth specialists.

We once again found the family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl. Owlets were feeding. A parent was looking on. All seemed well. We scoped them from the other side of the valley; the owls are at the rim of a cliff made by a massive quarry.

Sun. 29 May 2016

Today around Xidaquan National Forest Elaine and I found yet more Shanghai passage migrants on their breeding grounds. The most I had ever heard from White-throated Rock Thrush and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was a click or tseep; today, I recorded them in full-throated song. And what songs! White-throated’s was especially moving, melodic and slow. Recording conditions were perfect—a still, quiet morning before the rain.

We found 6 Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler and got best-ever views of this shyest of species. We recorded yet more songs and calls of Eastern Crowned Warbler, a species with a surprisingly rich musical repertoire.

Peering through the undergrowth, Elaine found a Siberian Blue Robin singing, its tiny perch a small stage for a one-bird play. Siberian’s song is like a soliloquy, a series of statements punctuated by long pauses.

Mon. 30 May 2016

Red-rumped Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica. (Craig Brelsford)

We explored Xidaquan proper then drove down County Road Z004. (The junction of County Road Z003 and Z004 is at 45.713830, 130.359459.) In an area of hardwoods I recorded dueling songs of Blue-and-white Flycatcher and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and found a pair of White-backed Woodpecker.

Tues. 31 May 2016

Elaine and Lisa
Elaine Du (L) showing her niece Lisa Li a quartet of Little Ringed Plover in the fields behind Dawucun, 31 May 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Elaine and I rested at home on a rainy day. In the afternoon the rain let up and we walked into the fields, still barren. We were with Elaine’s niece Lisa Li. We showed Lisa 4 Little Ringed Plover, and I sound-recorded 2 Meadow Bunting.

Wed. 1 June 2016

If you want to hear White’s Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, and Pale Thrush, then come to places such as Boli County, Elaine’s hometown in eastern Heilongjiang. If you want to see these species, then you will have a better chance in Shanghai, where all three spend the winter, and where they are commonly seen in inner-city parks. Today’s dawn chorus (at the wee hour of 03:00) featured spirited performances by all three of these species, plus Siberian Thrush. Their performances however were given mostly offstage. White’s never appeared at all, but its mournful one-note whistle was heard everywhere until about an hour after sunrise. Pale and Grey-backed sing powerfully but well back from the road, deep in the thickly vegetated and currently tick-infested forest. Siberian was atop his accustomed high tree near the entrance to Xidaquan National Forest.

Migrants keep arriving, with Asian Brown Flycatcher appearing for the first time on this trip. Its song, a subdued twitter which I enjoyed for the first time today, is unexciting, like its drab plumage. The more colorfully plumaged Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, by contrast, has a much more colorful song, long, slow, deliberate, and loud, like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher.

Thurs. 2 June 2016

xidaquan
Early morning at the lake near the entrance to Xidaquan National Forest. (Craig Brelsford)

This morning a 01:45 wakeup call got us calling Grey Nightjar, yet another Shanghai-area passage migrant we have rediscovered here. Standing at the glorious Silver Birch Grove (白桦林) at Xidaquan National Forest, Elaine and I spotted movement in the crown. It was White’s Thrush, hopping to the top to sing. In amazement we watched this normally secretive, nay invisible, species sing a two-note song. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. In Shanghai, I have seen White’s countless times and heard it sing exactly once, in Century Park this past April. Here in eastern Heilongjiang, the situation is reversed, with the early-morning song being heard throughout the forest, and views nearly impossible.

Another big highlight today occurred when I was alone in the vast forest. By sheer luck I happened to stop just below the well-concealed nest of Northern Goshawk. I had heard the bird calling distantly and hit “record,” just in case. The forest Accipitriform swooped in, crying as it arrived. Elaine, meanwhile, 3 km (2 mi.) away with the car, witnessed Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo being chased away by Large-billed Crow.

Other highlights were a high count of 21 singing Siberian Blue Robin, a forlorn-looking tytleri Barn Swallow resting all alone in the dusty parking lot of the visitors’ area, and the rediscovery at another quarry of the local family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl.

Fri. 3 June 2016

Xidaquan
Early-morning scene, Xidaquan. Siberian Rubythroat, Long-tailed Rosefinch, and Dusky Warbler use the scrubby area in the foreground. (Craig Brelsford)

Rain cut short our day, but not before an early start bought us a ticket to the dawn chorus. What a show it was.

Sat. 4 June 2016

Elaine and I returned to the hills south of Dawucun. We found Oriental Dollarbird flying overhead, noted Siberian Accentor, and saw Asian Brown Flycatcher.

Sun. 5 June 2016

For the second straight day we birded the hills south of Elaine’s home village. An Eastern Buzzard caught a snake, and we stumbled on nesting Yellow-throated Bunting.

Mon. 6 June 2016

On a rainy day we rested and visited family.

Tues. 7 June 2016

Today Elaine and I added Eurasian Wryneck, Chinese Grey Shrike, and Hawfinch to our trip list. We went exploring for new habitats and found two good new areas.

Driving south rather than southwest (toward Xidaquan), Elaine and I drove into hills reaching elevations of 450 m (1,480 ft.). We made an eight-minute sound-recording of Grey-backed Thrush and did photo and voice studies of Willow Tit (local ssp. baicalensis) and Coal Tit (ater). The latter is the same small-crested nominate ssp. known to birders in Continental Europe. Another taxon here in Heilongjiang and known to European birders is the snowball-headed Long-tailed Tit (caudatus), also noted today.

We continued driving south, leaving Boli County and Qitaihe Prefecture and briefly entering Linkou County, Mudanjiang Prefecture. Here we were dismayed, despite the stunningly beautiful agricultural scenery. Nearly every square inch of the land is taken up either by farming or forestry (conifer plantations). We turned back and found more good habitat on a forest road in the Hongwei Linchang area (45.638703, 130.547478). There, we found singing White-throated Rock Thrush.

Wed. 8 June 2016

Band-bellied Crake
Band-bellied Crake. The crake called spontaneously at 06:00 as Elaine and I were breakfasting near a stream at 45.638703, 130.547478. (Craig Brelsford)

Found today near Boli: incredible Band-bellied Crake. A near-threatened species, Porzana paykullii breeds in the Russian Far East, where it apparently is still locally common, and in Northeast China, where it is almost surely declining. It winters south to Indonesia.

This graceful and little-known rail is far and away Elaine’s and my Bird of the Heilongjiang Trip and a life bird for both of us.

Elaine and I scouted out new birding sites yesterday, and Band-bellied Crake was the payoff today. The crake called spontaneously at 06:00 as Elaine and I were breakfasting near the stream at 45.638703, 130.547478. Elaine and I searched upstream and downstream for hours, finding no other crakes. We returned to the breakfast spot at 10:10 and found our crake again. Was he really the only one?

Elaine filmed me photographing the crake. The crake is highly sensitive to playback and mistook my speaker for a rival.

Almost totally given over to agriculture, eastern Heilongjiang offers less and less habitat suitable for crakes and dozens of other environmentally sensitive birds. A trip through farming areas such as those we passed through yesterday shows dramatically what has been lost. Miles and miles of the formerly endless northern temperate forest here have been torn down and plowed under, in places down to the very last square inch.

Fortunately for us, Elaine happens to be from one of the best areas left for forest birding in this part of Heilongjiang. The place where we found the crake is an area of poor to good habitat just 15 km (9 mi.) south of Elaine’s home village. Xidaquan, the large forest reserve with much good to excellent habitat, is just 21 km (13 mi.) away.

Thurs. 9 June 2016

Today Elaine and I checked on our Band-bellied Crake and obtained even better sound-recordings of the rare rail. Another careful search of the creek bottom failed to turn up any more crakes. We continued exploring the area around Hongwei Linchang. We found some areas that if left untouched in a generation or two may be majestic forests again, but we have yet to find a single place on par with Xidaquan National Forest, our core research area. Today we added Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Olive-backed Pipit to our trip list.

Fri. 10 June 2016

We made our final trip to Xidaquan. Rain kept us in the car for three hours. We birded the forest then drove to Jiulong Reservoir, where we added to our trip list White-throated Needletail.

Sat. 11 June 2016

Driving on the road to Xidaquan, Elaine and I turned off at the junction at 45.700923, 130.483932 and birded that road. We found 28 singing Black-browed Reed Warbler.

Sun. 12 June 2016

We awoke at Elaine’s parents’ house, said goodbye to the family, drove to Jiamusi, and flew from Jiamusi to Pudong Airport in Shanghai.

EDITOR’S NOTE

“Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016” is a three-part report. This is Part 2.

Part 1: Introduction and Discussion
Part 2: Daily Reports
Part 3: Comprehensive Bird List

This post is part of a series on birding in Manchuria and the Russian Far East. See also:

Northeast China

Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, 2015
Northeast China, April-May 2013

Russian Far East

Sikhote-Alin: A Place Unparalleled for Experiencing the Birds of East Asia

Featured image: Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii, 8 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)
Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

Be notified every time we post. Send an
email with “Subscribe” as the subject to
info@shanghaibirding.com

Donate to Shanghai Birding!




Sakhalin & Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Singing Together

Today, 5 May 2016, I got my first-ever record of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. The bird was singing on the tiny island at the little central pond (31.224111, 121.414194) at Zhongshan Park, Shanghai. Singing nearby was Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

I saw a Pale-legged or Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, pulled out my iPhone, and played back a recording of Pale-legged. I got no response. I played Sakhalin for a while, got no response, then stopped. I knew not to walk away, but wait. As Shanghai is outside the breeding range of both species, their urge to sing may not be strong, but it is May and the testosterone is flowing. A response may come after a lag.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 1 May 2014. As is usually the case, because the bird in this photo was not singing, I was unable to identify it beyond the level of Pale-legged/Sakhalin. On 5 May 2016, I had the good luck of finding not one, but both members of the Pale/Sak species pair singing, and thus identifiable to species level. I was able to make the double ID of these poorly known East Asian species in a busy park in the middle of Shanghai. Photo taken from archives of craigbrelsford.com.
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 1 May 2014. As is usually the case, because the bird in this photo was not singing, I was unable to identify it beyond the level of Pale-Sak. On 5 May 2016, I had the good luck of finding not one, but both members of the Pale-Sak species pair singing, and thus identifiable to species level. I was able to make the double ID of these poorly known East Asian species in a busy park in the middle of Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

I was standing at the edge of the little pond, admiring Narcissus Flycatcher. My brain was barely registering the normal background noise being made by Japanese Tit, Light-vented Bulbul, Chinese Blackbird, Chinese Grosbeak, caged Chinese Hwamei, and old folks practicing qigong. Suddenly from the din came an anomalous sound. I trained my attention to the high-pitched whistle. Sakhalin! My playback had apparently been heard and had attracted a Sakhalin to the tree on the island closest to me on the “mainland.” I glimpsed the bird but saw nothing in its plumage or bare parts to tell it from Pale-legged. In the field, the only reliable element separating the two species is song. Sakhalin makes a three-note whistle, very different from the cricket-like trill of Pale-legged. The three-note whistle is exactly what I was hearing.

After a few minutes, the singing stopped, and then, as if on cue, the trill of Pale-legged surged out from the foliage. I again played back Pale-legged recordings and this time got an immediate and very strong response. Making the “tink” call, a Pale-legged flew to my side of the pond and lingered in trees near me. The tink is apparently similar to that of Sakhalin and therefore not a reliable separator. But soon the tink was followed by another trill, and I knew I was looking at Pale-legged.

What luck! There I was, in the middle of Earth’s largest city, hearing the songs of two East Asian leaf warblers, one of them (Sakhalin) little-known. Does urban birding get any better than this?

My trusty Olympus DM-650 sound recorder, the device I used to record Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. In May, the height of migration season, my sound recorder is like the American Express card: 'Don't Leave Home Without It!'
My trusty Olympus DM-650 sound recorder, the device I used to record Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. In May, the height of migration season, my sound recorder is like the American Express card: ‘Don’t Leave Home Without It!’ (Craig Brelsford)

I sound-recorded both species. In all the recordings, one can hear the din from a busy inner-city park. In the first of the two song fragments of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, among the species heard in the background is Ashy Minivet.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Song Fragments 1/2 (00:51; 2.8 MB)

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Song Fragments 2/2 (00:36; 2.2 MB)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Trill (00:03; 922 KB)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Tink (00:15; 1.4 MB)

Thanks to Jan-Erik Nilsén, Jonathan Martinez, and Jason Loghry for their help in today’s project.

Featured image: Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 1 May 2014. Some authors note subtle differences in plumage and structure, but the features overlap, making non-singing Pale-legged and Sakhalin virtually indistinguishable in the field. The species pair is distinguishable from other leaf warblers by their very pale, pink legs. The species pump the tail steadily and often cling to tree trunks, somewhat like a nuthatch. Pale-legged breeds in the Russian Far East and northeast China; Sakhalin breeds on Sakhalin Island and in Japan. (Craig Brelsford)
Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

Be notified every time we post. Send an
email with “Subscribe” as the subject to
info@shanghaibirding.com

Donate to Shanghai Birding!




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
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.

PHOTOS

Purple Heron
Purple Heron, Lesser Yangshan Island, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.
Rufous-faced Warbler
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)
Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

Be notified every time we post. Send an
email with “Subscribe” as the subject to
info@shanghaibirding.com

Donate to Shanghai Birding!