Shanghai Early Spring Subway Birding

It’s spring in Shanghai! The equinox hasn’t arrived yet, but Chinese New Year has passed, and in the parks the flowers are blooming. In recent days in Shanghai, Elaine and I have noted Black-necked Grebe in breeding plumage, seen Greater Scaup lingering at Dishui Lake, and found Red-throated Thrush amid lawn-loving Dusky Thrush at Century Park.

We reached all our destinations on foot or by subway, with two short taxi rides thrown in. Development continues in Shanghai, and it’s a double-edged sword; the ever-more efficient transportation system allows one to bird Nanhui cheaply, but development is also threatening Nanhui, as more and more reed beds fall to the bulldozer and backhoe.

On Mon. 7 March 2016, fresh from our big trip to Dulong Gorge in Yunnan, Elaine and I did our first birding of the season at Zhongshan Park. We ran into Wāng Jìn Róng (汪进荣), a delightful local man who loves to photograph birds. He never tires of watching the Red-flanked Bluetail and Common Kingfisher that use the wooded area around the little central pond. When we heard the thin calls of Yellow-bellied Tit and discovered them on a bare branch across from where we were standing, Mr. Wang said we had brought him good luck. We heard Eurasian Siskin and Chinese Grosbeak in the trees above. Japanese Tit are singing, and Chinese Blackbird have begun to breed. Pale Thrush are a reminder of winter. Mr. Wang proudly showed us the Indochinese Yuhina he photographed recently at Yangpu Park, and he told us that he has seen Silver-throated Bushtit at Zhongshan.

On Fri. 11 March, Elaine and I made Elaine’s first visit ever and my first since Christmas Day 2011 to Shanghai Botanical Garden. We noted 23 species. 2 Collared Finchbill raised the old question of whether they are really wild, and 2 Yellow-browed Warbler may be a sign that the spring migration is beginning or may merely signify that Yellow-browed remains in Shanghai throughout the winter; Shanghai definitely teeters on the northern edge of this species’ winter range.

We searched in vain for White’s Thrush, and we found only 1 Grey-backed Thrush. Among our 9 Pale Thrush was one completely tamed by the photographers, whose latest innovation is to spear mealworms on a thin, stiff wire and induce the Daurian Redstart to hover to reach them. The redstart was uninjured by this tactic, which is an ethical step up from fastening mealworms with tiny, ingestible nails (as I have previously found Shanghai-area photographers doing). The photographers were chasing the Pale Thrush off, but so hooked was the thrush on the free protein that it refused to go away and made occasional dives at the baited wire. Elsewhere, we heard in this most urban of settings the same “tseep, tseep” contact call that Pale Thrush make in the much wilder country near Elaine’s hometown in Heilongjiang—Pale Thrush breeding ground.

A search for buntings in the nursery area turned up 4 Black-faced Bunting, and an old memory of finding small waders floating on garbage in the river was revived when we saw 5 Common Snipe on Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河). Just as four and a half years ago, these poor snipe were on mats formed by garbage that coalesces in the stagnant water. The snipe were only roosting there, of course, and presumably at dusk they jump onto the nearby muddy ground of the nursery to feed; in any case, the canal, completely walled in, offers zero mud on which to forage.

Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河), Shanghai Botanical Garden, 11 March 2016. Look for Common Snipe floating on mats of garbage in the narrow canal.
Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河), Shanghai Botanical Garden, 11 March 2016. Look for Common Snipe floating on mats of garbage in the narrow canal. (Craig Brelsford)

Shanghai Botanical Garden Gate 4 lies 700 m from Shilong Road Station, Metro Line 3. It is the first place I ever birded in China, two weeks after my arrival in Shanghai in October 2007. I relived with Elaine the thrilling moment when I beheld White’s Thrush for the first time; a moment that at that time and at my level of experience with Asian birds was just as breathtaking as finding Rufous-breasted Bush Robin last month in Dulong Gorge.

On Sat. 12 March, Elaine, Michael Grunwell, and I found 40 species at Nanhui and Huangpu Park on the Bund. We covered Nanhui and the Bund on foot and walked about 16 km. At Nanhui we met a worker in a digging machine carving ditches through which to drain large areas of reed bed, which he said when dry will be leveled and replanted with trees. The operation was well under way; water was running through the newly cut channels as fast as a mountain stream.

This distressing transformation is going to spell disaster for the Reed Parrotbill that are still fairly common at Nanhui. It will mean the end of habitat much relied on by Pallas’s Reed Bunting and Chinese Penduline Tit for winter habitat, it will take away breeding habitat for Oriental Reed Warbler, and it will add to the troubles faced by Oriental Stork and Black-faced Spoonbill, already under pressure at Nanhui.

Digging machines at work at Nanhui, 12 March 2016. A scheme is under way to replace dozens of acres of reed-bed habitat with tree plantations. The loss of the reed beds will be yet another disaster for the Reed Parrotbill, Brown-cheeked Rail, Pallas's Reed Bunting, and other species dependent on reed beds, just as the drying up of nearby ponds and marshes has been bad news for species such as Black-faced Spoonbill and Oriental Stork. It is amazing to me that the city planners fail to see the value of the Nanhui wetlands and reed beds. Everywhere there is this desire to change, to alter, to transform. Photos by Elaine Du.
Digging machines at work at Nanhui, 12 March 2016. A scheme is under way to replace dozens of acres of reed-bed habitat with tree plantations. The loss of the reed beds will be yet another disaster for the Reed Parrotbill, Brown-cheeked Rail, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, and other species dependent on reed beds, just as the drying up of nearby ponds and marshes has been bad news for species such as Black-faced Spoonbill and Oriental Stork. It is amazing to me that the city planners fail to see the value of the Nanhui wetlands and reed beds. Everywhere there is this desire to change, to alter, to transform. (Elaine Du)

I have to wonder, when these huge transformative schemes are discussed in the corridors of power, are environmental experts even present? Have the planners even heard of Reed Parrotbill? Has anyone ever shown them a picture of Black-faced Spoonbill?

The only good news is that the artificial forests that will replace the historical reed-bed habitat will attract migrating passerines, which could use some help as they make their way up and down the Chinese coast. But that was cold comfort for us. “Pale Thrush will tseep where Reed Parrotbill used to chirr,” I sighed to my companions.

The bird scene at Nanhui was more wintry than spring-y, but we found tschutschensis Eastern Yellow Wagtail assuming breeding plumage and at Dishui Lake found Black-necked Grebe in breeding plumage. Dishui also yielded 7 Greater Scaup as well as Falcated Duck and Tufted Duck. Pied Avocet, Common Snipe, Dunlin, and Common Greenshank winter in the area; we saw no early evidence of spring migration among shorebirds.

Michael and Craig birding Wài Tān. Note the light, arms-free birding method of Senior Birder Michael Grunwell and the load being shouldered by Porter Craig Brelsford. The Swarovski scope is heavy, but when dealing with a birder of Michael's acumen, it's a burden cheerfully borne. Photo by Elaine Du.
Michael and Craig birding Wài Tān. Note the light, arms-free birding method of Senior Birder Michael Grunwell and the load being shouldered by Porter Craig Brelsford. The Swarovski scope is heavy, but when dealing with a birder of Michael’s acumen, it’s a burden cheerfully borne. (Elaine Du)

Continuing our theme of birding-by-subway, we moved our party via Metro Line 16 and Line 2 to the Bund. There, Michael carefully picked through the ca. 150 Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae/mongolicus) in a fruitless search for a rarity such as Kamchatka Gull or even Heuglin’s. Black-headed Gull were there.

The problem with gulling at Shanghai’s most famous landmark is that one is simultaneously examining some of the trickiest birds known to birding and dealing with dozens of onlookers interested in the laowai with the big lens. However, this most international of meeting points also sends interesting people your way, birders such as Shelley Rutkin, who noticed our activities and introduced herself. It’s a grand place to make friends, there on the Bund with the Pudong skyline as your backdrop.

Shelley told us that a birder reported Slaty-backed Gull on the Huangpu River. This birder was near Shangri-La Hotel on the Pudong side. I have yet to bird Huangpu River from the Pudong side and will be interested to hear how others fare there. Shelley also sent us an interesting image of Red-flanked Bluetail attacking a centipede. Thanks, Shelley!

Red-flanked Bluetail attacks centipede at Century Park, 13 March 2016. Subscriber Shelley Rutkin, who contributed this photo, said that passers-by scared off the bluetail before it could finish off the centipede.
Red-flanked Bluetail attacks centipede at Century Park, 13 March 2016. Subscriber Shelley Rutkin, who contributed this photo, said that passers-by scared off the bluetail before it could finish off the centipede. (Shelley Rutkin)

On Tues. 15 March Elaine and I noted the Red-throated Thrush at Century. Elaine spotted the thrush at sunset at the spacious lawn that on park maps is labeled “Amenity Grass” (疏林草坪区). The thrush was in the company of 60 Dusky Thrush and 1 Naumann’s Thrush that had descended onto the lawn to feed. Turdus ruficollis is scarce in Shanghai; Elaine and I note it two or three times each spring and autumn.

The thrushes were among 28 species we noted on our first trip to Century in 2016. Except for the Red-throated Thrush, the lineup was typical of the place and season. We noted a personal record high of 54 Pale Thrush, and large numbers of White-cheeked Starling and Red-billed Starling were assembling in trees around the very effective Bird Island in the middle of the park. Chinese Blackbird, Chinese Grosbeak, and Japanese Tit were singing.

When we arrived at 15:00, the park was crowded with photographers taking pictures of the cherry trees in bloom. Elaine and I know the park well and retreated to the quietest corners, where we found shy species such as Yellow-throated Bunting and Grey-backed Thrush. As the sun was setting, Elaine found White’s Thrush on the edge of the spacious lawn, which 90 minutes before had been full of people and which now, with all the visitors gone, was turning into a thrush feeding ground.

Featured image: With the Pudong skyscrapers as their backdrop, Craig Brelsford (L) and Michael Grunwell scan the Huangpu River for gulls. Bund, Shanghai, Sat. 12 March 2016. (Elaine Du)

Come Walk with Us at Nanhui

On Fri. 5 Feb. and Mon. 8 Feb., Elaine Du, Kai Pflug, and I noted 64 species on a two-day “Nanhui on Foot” tour. Horned Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, and Greater Scaup maintained their presence on Dishui Lake, and on Friday we picked out a single Black-faced Spoonbill among the Eurasian Spoonbill. On Monday we noted Water/Brown-cheeked Rail, saw a flock of 240 Kentish Plover and 900 Dunlin, and enjoyed an early morning moment with four bunting species (mainly Pallas’s Reed Bunting and Little Bunting with cameos by Chestnut-eared Bunting and Black-faced Bunting). We struggled to ID our Pallas’s Reed Bunting to ssp. level. Were the mysterious lydiae mixed in?

The interval of 72 hours between Friday and Monday saw changes to the composition of birds on Dishui Lake. Counts of Falcated Duck went from 230 on Friday to 0 on Monday. Horned Grebe and Greater Scaup also fell off our Monday list. Numbers of Tufted Duck, meanwhile, increased from 22 to 140. Common Pochard saw a jump from 0 on Friday to 300 on Monday, but they were found on the pond behind the Magic Parking Lot, which we were unable to check Friday.

Kai Pflug (L) and Elaine Du finishing up a successful birding day at Nanhui, 5 Feb. 2016. With Kai capably handling the photographic side, my skills in that field were rendered irrelevant; I put on my birdwatcher's hat and was content. My wife, as is her wont, kept records and did much scanning with the spotting scope.
Kai Pflug (L) and Elaine Du finishing up a successful birding day at Nanhui, 5 Feb. 2016. With Kai capably handling the photographic side, my skills in that field were rendered irrelevant; I put on my birdwatcher’s hat and was content. My wife, as is her wont, kept records and did much scanning with the spotting scope. (Craig Brelsford)

For maximum efficiency, we distributed duties among our trio. Elaine kept records and scanned the ponds with our Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope. Kai handled photography, lovingly wielding his Nikon D810 and 400 mm F2.8 lens with 2x teleconverter. I served as chief ornithologist and scope-bearer. We walked 19 km each day.

Hen Harrier (L) and Pied Harrier, Nanhui, Monday. Both are adult females. A conspicuous white rump is a feature of both Circus cyaneus and C. melanoleucos. Note however the more evenly banded tail of the former and the more contrasting upperparts of the latter. Both by Kai Pflug.
Hen Harrier (L) and Pied Harrier, Nanhui, Monday. Both are adult females. A conspicuous white rump is a feature of both Circus cyaneus and C. melanoleucos. Note however the more evenly banded tail of the former and the more contrasting upperparts of the latter. (Kai Pflug)

From Puxi we took Metro Line 2 to Longyang Road, where we transferred to Line 16. We exited Line 16 at Dishui Lake station and took a taxi to Microforest 2 (30.926051, 121.970781), where we began birding. On Friday, we walked all the way back to the Dishui Lake station, and on Monday, we took the bus to Dishui Lake station from the stop behind the Magic Parking Lot.

Reed Parrotbill were noted both days around Microforest 2. We had Naumann’s Thrush on Friday. As was the case last year, Eastern Yellow Wagtail (tschutschensis and taivana) have been present in Shanghai in small numbers throughout the winter.

Horned Grebe has had a sustained presence on Dishui Lake for at least the past 60 days. Also known as Slavonian Grebe, Podiceps auritus is thought to be a rare winter visitor to our area, but it may be overlooked.

Horned Grebe, 1 of 3 seen on Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 5 Feb. 2016. Small numbers of this species have been noted on Dishui Lake since December 2015. Also known as Slavonian Grebe, Podiceps auritus is a rare winter visitor to the Shanghai region. Photo by Kai Pflug for shanghaibirding.com.
Horned Grebe, 1 of 3 seen on Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 5 Feb. 2016. Small numbers of this species have been noted on Dishui Lake since December 2015. Also known as Slavonian Grebe, Podiceps auritus is a rare winter visitor to the Shanghai region. (Kai Pflug)

List 1 of 1 for Fri. 5 Feb. 2016 (49 species). Around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]), Shanghai, China (30.920507, 121.973159). List includes birds found at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124) and along Shijitang Road. Mostly sunny, hazy; low -2°C, high 9°C. Visibility 10 km. Wind NNW 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 184. Sunrise 06:44, sunset 17:33. FRI 05 FEB 2016 08:15-15:30. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Kai Pflug.

Tundra Bean Goose Anser serrirostris 1
Falcated Duck Anas falcata 230
Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope 185
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 36
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 20
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 22
Greater Scaup A. marila 2
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 4
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 40
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 35
Horned Grebe P. auritus 3
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 2
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 143
Black-faced Spoonbill P. minor 1
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 5
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 70
Great Egret A. alba 40
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 90
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo ca. 600
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus 1
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 320
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 29
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia 18
Dunlin Calidris alpina 60 (flock)
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 1
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 15
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia 8
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 5
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 8
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus ca. 50
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis 9
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 2
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 2
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 30
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 9
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 6
Naumann’s Thrush T. naumanni 1
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 5
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 100
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 10 (8 taivana, 2 tschutschensis)
White Wagtail M. alba 16 (14 leucopsis, 2 lugens/ocularis)
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 15
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 30
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla 2
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 4
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi ca. 60

With the polluted Shanghai air acting as a filter, the morning sunlight kisses this Little Bunting ever so softly, helping photographer Kai Pflug achieve this masterful image.
With the polluted Shanghai air acting as a filter, the morning sunlight kisses this Little Bunting ever so softly, helping photographer Kai Pflug achieve this masterful image. (Kai Pflug)

List 1 of 1 for Mon. 8 Feb. 2016 (56 species). Around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]), Shanghai, China (30.920507, 121.973159). List includes birds found at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124) and along Shijitang Road from Microforest 2 to Magic Parking Lot (30.882784, 121.972782). Sunny; low 2°C, high 14°C. Visibility 10 km. Wind NNW 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 171. Sunrise 06:41, sunset 17:36. MON 08 FEB 2016 08:00-16:00. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Kai Pflug.

goose sp. 2
Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope 45
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 1
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 130
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 2
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 300
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 140
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 3
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 25
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 60
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 2
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 148
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris 2
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 30
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 40
Great Egret A. alba 35
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 25
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo ca. 550
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus 1
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus 1
Pied Harrier C. melanoleucos 1
Brown-cheeked/Water Rail Rallus indicus/R. aquaticus 4
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 450
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 240
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 13
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia 34
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 1
Dunlin Calidris alpina ca. 900 (flock)
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae or L. v. mongolicus 26
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia 3
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis 1
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 12
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 2
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 10
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis 3
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 3
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 45
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 6
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 3
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus 3
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 1
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 2
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 50
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 5 (4 taivana, 1 tschutschensis)
White Wagtail M. alba 22 (20 leucopsis, 2 lugens/ocularis)
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 3
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 26
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 2
Little Bunting E. pusilla 27
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans 1
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi ca. 60

Featured image: Pallas’s Reed Bunting Emberiza pallasi, Microforest 2, Nanhui, 8 Feb. 2016. Photo by Kai Pflug for shanghaibirding.com. The thinness of the upper mandible of this specimen raises the question: Could this be E. p. lydiae?