The Day Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Appeared at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler at Cape Nanhui is one of the best sightings of my birding career. Ours is the only record on eBird of the species at Shanghai’s top birding spot. Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and I were in the defunct wetland reserve. The Middendorf’s was at the base of reeds along a canal. We observed the bird for several minutes. The date was 21 May 2015.

The specimen above is clearly a Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes ochotensis and not either of its two most similar congeners: the less contrastingly patterned Styan’s Grasshopper Warbler H. pleskei and the more contrasting Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola. Nor is it the heavily streaked Marsh Grassbird H. pryeri.

Our team was delighted with the find, for Middendorf’s on migration is an elusive tick. There is, however, evidence that Shanghai is a place of some importance on the migration route and that enterprising birders can find the species here. La Touche in 1912 reported Middendorf’s as being common in late May and early June on Shaweishan, near Chongming Island (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 261). On its spring migration, Middendorf’s follows a north to northeast heading from the Philippines, its main wintering grounds, to the breeding areas in Hokkaido, the Kurils, Sakhalin, and the mainland Russian Far East. Many go due north from Luzon to Taiwan before making the northeastward turn toward Japan. Some continue still farther due north from Taiwan, crossing the East China Sea and making landfall at the first part of mainland Asia they hit, namely the eastern bulge of China around Shanghai (261).

Shanghai not only is a likely part of the migration route of Middendorf’s; it is possibly also the very best place on the Chinese coast where migrating Middendorf’s may be found. As springtime records of Middendorf’s in north China are scarce, experts presume that most Middendorf’s that reach the central Chinese coast migrate not northward but northeastward, again crossing the East China Sea to Japan. Note too that south of Shanghai, for example in Guangdong and Hong Kong, records of Middendorf’s also are few (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 261; eBird 2020).

Our Middendorf’s was silent, but some call, and Shanghai birders hoping to tick the species should be listening carefully in late May. “[The call of Middendorf’s] is often the only indication of presence away from the breeding areas,” write Kennerley and Pearson (2010, 259). Care needs to be taken to distinguish the “kit” or “chit” call of Middendorf’s from the similar call of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, which is known to call and even sing on migration in Shanghai (Brelsford 2017). Distinguishing the call and song of Middendorf’s and Pallas’s can be difficult, even for expert birders (Moores 2018).

In summary, I believe that the records of La Touche from more than a century ago were accurate and that in certain coastal areas in Shanghai, Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler was a common late-spring migrant. I believe furthermore that despite the massive transformation of the Shanghai coast since the time of La Touche, Middendorf’s may still be common in late May and early June at places such as Cape Nanhui and Chongming Dongtan. Birders should be on the lookout for Middendorf’s in Shanghai.

MAP & PHOTOS

middendorf-map
Map showing major migration patterns of Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler in spring. From its wintering areas mainly in the Philippines, Middendorf’s moves north into Taiwan (Arrow 1), where winter records of the species also are numerous (eBird 2020). Some Middendorf’s may bypass Taiwan and head northeastward through the Ryukyus to the main Japanese islands (2). From Taiwan many Middendorf’s head northeast to Japan (3), while some continue northward and reach mainland Asia near Shanghai (4). Middendorf’s that reach the Shanghai region presumably migrate northeastward, crossing the East China Sea to Japan (5). In Japan they traverse Honshu (6, 7) en route to the breeding grounds in Hokkaido and the Russian Far East. Red dots indicate areas in the Shanghai region where Middendorf’s has been recorded on eBird (includes autumn records). Data for this illustration from Kennerley and Pearson 2010, pp. 260-1; Brazil 2018, p. 304; and eBird. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler
On 21 May 2015, this Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler appeared at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui. Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and Craig Brelsford found the warbler at the edge of a reedbed in the defunct nature reserve. The coordinates of the spot are 30.915306, 121.967074. The encounter with the elusive migrant remains the sole record on eBird of Middendorf’s at Shanghai’s top birding spot. (Craig Brelsford)
Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler
Migrating Middendorf’s are often found ‘in reedbeds and along riverbanks’ (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 259). This individual was treading carefully along the edge of a canal, in conformity with the authors’ description. In spring Middendorf’s departs the winter quarters late and performs ‘a rapid northward migration with a limited number of stopover points’ (261). This individual may have flown nonstop from Taiwan, crossing the East China Sea and making landfall around Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

SOUND-RECORDING

Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, Verkhoturova Island, Russia (59.593602, 164.674460). Song with element of call at beginning. Recorded 27 June in lowland grassland/tussocky tundra near northernmost extension of breeding range. (0:29; 683 KB; Christoph Zöckler)

RESOURCES ON HELOPSALTES AND LOCUSTELLA WARBLERS

Click the links below for coverage on shanghaibirding.com of locustellid warblers.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus
Marsh Grassbird H. pryeri
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola
Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata
Brown Bush Warbler L. luteoventris
Baikal Bush Warbler L. davidi
Spotted Bush Warbler L. thoracica

OTHER LATE SPRING MIGRANTS IN SHANGHAI

In addition to Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, late spring brings passage migrants such as these to Shanghai:

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler recorded at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui in June

Pechora Pipit singing at Cape Nanhui in May

— Scarce migrant and regional breeder Asian Koel recorded in May and June, singing Common Cuckoo breeding at Cape Nanhui, and singing Lesser Cuckoo in Jiangsu: The Cuckoos of Shanghai

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Brazil, Mark (2018). Birds of Japan. Helm Field Guides, London.

Brelsford, C. (2017). “One of My All-time Ornithological Highlights” (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/all-time-high/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 May 2017; scroll down for report and sound-recording of singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (accessed: 25 May 2020).

eBird (2020). eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler in China (https://ebird.org/species/migwar/CN) and Taiwan (https://ebird.org/species/migwar/TW). Accessed: 27 Apr 2020.

Kennerley, P. & Pearson, D. (2010). Reed and Bush Warblers. London: Christopher Helm.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps (2000). A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Moores, N. (2018). eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53240665. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. See note under entry for Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler: “Heard only – listed as Possible as confusion with Pallas’s Grasshopper a decent possibilty” (sic). (Accessed: 27 Apr 2020)

Pearson, D.P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 615 (Middendorf’s 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.

REVISIONS

1. Sound-recording of Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler by Christoph Zöckler added 28 April 2020.

Featured image: Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes ochotensis, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)
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‘One of My All-time Ornithological Highlights’

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

“I have thought a lot about yesterday and can honestly say, it must be one of my all-time ornithological highlights.”

— Dr. Mike May, message to Craig Brelsford, 14 May

Those are the words not of a new birder, but of a highly experienced visiting birder with thousands of birds on his life list who resides in bird-rich Extremadura, Spain.

Birding Pudong’s Cape Nanhui at the height of the spring migration left Mike May open-mouthed. Should anyone be surprised? The most southeasterly point of Shanghai is a world-class birding site.

Orange-headed Thrush
Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina made a thrilling appearance 13 May at the Photographers’ Corner at Cape Nanhui’s Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229). (Craig Brelsford)

Mike’s 92-species day with Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and me included ultra-rarity Orange-headed Thrush as well as Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler. A pair of sub-adult Black-faced Spoonbill were getting by on the ever-shrinking pools at the beleaguered site.

list
The eBird list for Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland. Submit your records! It’s fun!

These records brought the all-time list for Cape Nanhui to 288 species, according to eBird—making Cape Nanhui the second-hottest birding hot spot in China.

Let me say that again: Of the thousands of birding spots in this vast, mega-diverse nation, the most southeasterly point of Pudong and Shanghai is second only to Baihualing in Yunnan in species noted.

Sound unbelievable? Let me say something even more unbelievable: Not only is this rich spot completely unprotected, with not even a square meter preserved in any legal way; but it is, to the contrary, being actively destroyed, even as I tap out these words.

The backdrop to the work of Mike, Jan-Erik, and me was fleets of bulldozers and backhoes, busy throughout the weekend. They clattered and clanged, and the pumps transferring water into the newly dug canals whirred and chugged.

Mike May (R), Zhāng Dōngshēng (张东升)
Mike May (R) and Zhāng Dōngshēng (张东升) meet. Dōngshēng, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University, is leading an effort to conserve Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

The pace of transformation is faster than ever now.

“Nanhui is gone,” my partners and I said.

A major ecological area, a place combining ease of access to millions of residents of Earth’s largest city and a favorable position on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway, is being utterly transformed.

While the Cape Nanhui that I have long known falls, huge tracts of adjacent tidal mudflat are being reclaimed, adding dozens of square kilometers to the land area of Cape Nanhui. Birding there in theory could have a future. A Cape Nanhui Nature Reserve could be set up in the new area.

digging machines
Where Black-faced Spoonbill once foraged, digging machines now crawl. Where once one savored the sound of Marsh Grassbird and Reed Parrotbill, now one cringes at the clanging of machines. No place in mainland Shanghai matches Cape Nanhui as a magnet to migrating birds. Cape Nanhui is one of the best birding spots in China, and it is not only completely unprotected, but it is also being actively destroyed. (Craig Brelsford)

But even as the Cape Nanhui we know falls, no one, to my knowledge, has hastened to reassure conservationists that areas in the newly reclaimed land will be set aside for birds.

In the city-province of Shanghai, which is the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, a few places have indeed been set aside, among them Chongming Dongtan. But those reserves are small, on remote islands far from mainland Shanghai, and practically unreachable by the millions of middle-class Shanghainese who lack a car.

Cape Nanhui, by contrast, is easily reachable from the city. And it is the one place where masses of bird lovers can conveniently get a taste of the grand spectacle that is spring migration along the east coast of the Eurasian supercontinent.

That opportunity is being taken away, not only from the birders alive today, but also from the birders of the future.

THE THRILL OF CAPE NANHUI IN MAY

Lesser Coucal
Lesser Coucal takes off. Centropus bengalensis breeds in Earth’s greatest city. shanghaibirding.com has examined Lesser Coucal and the other Cuckoos of Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

Our agony over the fate of Nanhui was tempered by the joy of birding. Orange-headed Thrush showed up Saturday at the Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229). With the two vertical bars on its face, our specimen was either of race melli (breeds Guangdong, etc.) or courtoisi (Anhui).

On Sunday the Magic Parking Lot delivered singing Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus, and in Microforest 2 (30.926013, 121.970705) an appearance was made by Alström’s Warbler S. soror. Neither breeds in the region; both are very rare vagrants to Shanghai.

Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) gave us singing Yellow-breasted Bunting in full breeding finery and singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. I captured the latter’s song, rarely heard in Shanghai.

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola, 13 May, Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883) (00:13; 2.1 MB)

The Marshy Agricultural Land (30.850707, 121.863662) near Eiffel Tower was highly productive, yielding Lanceolated Warbler, Forest Wagtail, and Striated Heron.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail
Varieties of Eastern Yellow Wagtail. L: ‘Green-headed Wagtail’ Motacilla tschutschensis taivana. R: ‘Alaska Wagtail’ M. t. tschutschensis. Both photographed on dry rice paddies at Cape Nanhui, 13 May. (Craig Brelsford)

Other highlights from Saturday along the 30-km stretch of coastline:

Yellow Bittern 2
Chinese Egret 14
Pacific Golden Plover 1
Pheasant-tailed Jacana 1
Black-tailed Godwit 17
Grey-tailed Tattler 2
White-winged Tern 260
Lesser Coucal 1
Common Cuckoo 12 singing
Tiger Shrike 4
Sand Martin ca. 300
Collared Finchbill 2
Arctic Warbler 5 singing
Thick-billed Warbler 1
Marsh Grassbird 2 singing
Forest Wagtail 1

Complete checklist here.

Sunday saw Jan-Erik and me note 78 species.

birders in microforest
L-R: Jan-Erik Nilsén, Charles Wu, and 12-year-old birder Jack Han view Tiger Shrike in Microforest 4, 14 May. (Craig Brelsford)

Highlights:

Japanese Sparrowhawk 1
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 350
Dunlin 350
Oriental Pratincole 3
Little Tern 5
Hair-crested Drongo 8
Dusky Warbler 1
Taiga Flycatcher 1
Pechora Pipit 17 singing

Complete checklist here.

Featured image: Visiting British birder Mike May scans for birds at Cape Nanhui. An experienced birder, May was nonetheless overwhelmed by the variety of birds at Cape Nanhui at the height of spring migration. May described his day at Cape Nanhui as “one of my all-time ornithological highlights.” (Craig Brelsford)
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