Found at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui on 1 May 2019: possible White-headed Yellow WagtailMotacilla flava leucocephala. The discovery by Haiming Zhao provoked excitement and uncertainty among Shanghai birders. Certain aspects of the wagtail, notably the pale mottling on its mantle, cast doubt on an identification of White-headed. “Those pale/odd-looking feathers are unusual for leucocephala,” said Gomboo Sundev, a bird-tour leader in Mongolia, where leucocephala breeds. “I have never seen such an individual of the subspecies in Mongolia” (in litt., 2019).
Beijing-based British birder Paul Holt also noted the anomaly: “I was surprised … by the Shanghai bird’s mottled mantle” (in litt., 2019). Per Alström, co-author of Pipits and Wagtails, called the pale feathers on the mantle and scapulars “puzzling” (in litt., 2 May 2019). Both experts noted the pale base to the lower mandible of the Shanghai wagtail, also unexpected in leucocephala.
Students of Yellow Wagtail will not be surprised by the uncertainty. The Yellow Wagtail complex is a “systematic conundrum”; the various subspecies of the complex often “defy separation under the biological species concept” (Tyler 2004, 689). Interbreeding of the various subspecies occurs “freely at overlap zones, producing fertile hybrids” (689), often making it the case that “the direct parentage of Yellow Wagtails cannot be deciphered” (725). There is furthermore the prospect of partial albinism, a phenomenon that can make other subspecies of Yellow Wagtail appear white-headed (Alström & Mild 2003, 80, 269, 282).
In the case of leucocephala, another reason for the uncertainty is the sheer lack of knowledge about the race, even among elite ornithologists. Holt describes White-headed Yellow Wagtail as a “poorly known subspecies” (2019); Alström says his experience with the race is limited to “a few specimens and only one live bird” (in litt., 7 May 2019); Sundev told me he has seen the subspecies only about a dozen times (2019). The lack of information forces even great birders such as Holt to speculate: “The million-dollar question is whether [the mottled mantle and pale basal half of the lower mandible of the Shanghai bird] fit within the range of variation in leucocephala, or are they suggestive or even indicative of less than thoroughbred genes?” (2019)
Why is so little known about leucocephala? The biggest reason is the remoteness of its breeding range. White-headed Yellow Wagtail breeds in sparsely populated northwestern Mongolia, at places such as Khar-Us Lake (48.083328, 92.541368) and Durgun Lake (47.673106, 93.451188) (Sundev 2019). Alström and Mild say the race breeds also in areas adjacent to northwestern Mongolia, such as the Tuva Republic of Russia and “probably … northernmost Xinjiang” (2003, 281). Even the wintering range is uncertain; Alström and Mild say leucocephala “probably winters mainly in India but the exact wintering grounds are not known” (281).
The verdict on the Shanghai wagtail? “I would say it is leucocephala,” Sundev said. Holt agreed: “I would think that these [a White-headed Yellow Wagtail found in Hong Kong in April and the Shanghai wagtail] are the first two records of leucocephala for the whole of eastern China.” Alström, however, was less than fully convinced: “I’m not aware of a leucocephala with such a pale-mottled mantle as the Shanghai bird—although I can’t say they don’t occur” (7 May 2019).
Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 2 May.
Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 7 May.
Alström, P., Mild, K., & Zetterström, B. (2003). Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press.
Holt, P. (2019). Messages to WeChat group Shanghai Birding, 1 May.
Sundev, G. (2019). Emails to author, 3 May.
Tyler, S.J. (2004). Family Motacillidae (Pipits and Wagtails). Pp. 689, 725 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2004). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 9. Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Zhao, H. (2019). Text messages to author, 2 May.
Featured image: Mysterious Yellow Wagtail, possibly White-headed Yellow WagtailMotacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
In this, the fifth in my five-post series on birding Northern Xinjiang, I offer you photos of the various habitats in which I birded. — Craig Brelsford
A semi-desert steppe called the Jungar Basin covers most of Northern Xinjiang. The basin is studded with oases, many of them near waterways such as the Irtysh River. In recent decades, as the human population has grown, runoff from the mountains has been channeled into reservoirs, important for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. The Jungar Basin is bounded on the south by the Tianshan Mountains and on the north by the Altai Mountains. Both ranges offer classic alpine habitats, and the Altai, parts of which are closer to Moscow than to Shanghai, holds many species of bird more common in Europe than in China.
The map below traces our 2017 itinerary through this vast, underbirded region. Noteworthy birding areas are marked.
The photos below show some of the habitats in which I have birded in Northern Xinjiang. Farther below, you can enjoy my other shots in “Scenes from Northern Xinjiang.” Still farther below are the references for this five-post series as well as my acknowledgements and dedication.
SCENES FROM NORTHERN XINJIANG
BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR THE FIVE-POST SERIES
Alström, Per, Mild, Krister, & Zetterström, Bill. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003.
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., & Christie, D.A. (eds.) (1992-2011). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vols. 1-16. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995.
Kennerley, Peter & Pearson, David. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm, 2010.
Leader, Paul J. to Brelsford, Craig. Email message about Blyth’s Reed Warbler, 17 Jan. 2017.
MacKinnon, John to Brelsford, Craig. Email message about Ulungur Lake, 15 July 2017.
Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009. Our second reference in Northern Xinjiang.
Despite being published back in 2000, the pioneering work co-authored by John MacKinnon, A Field Guide to the Birds of China, was my first reference in Northern Xinjiang. John also offered me tips about Northern Xinjiang drawn from his considerable experience in the region. I got many of my ideas for the trip from the meticulously detailed reports of Paul Holt. Jan-Erik’s and my 2017 itinerary was loosely based on the June 2015 trip of Hangzhou birder Qián Chéng (钱程). Josh Summers of farwestchina.com offered me pointers and assured me that traveling through Northern Xinjiang would be safe and fun.
I dedicate the Xinjiang report to my son, “Tiny” Craig Brelsford. Tiny, you were in Mummy’s belly when I made my final big trip in China, and you filled me with hope every day. I loved traveling around China finding birds—I love being your daddy even more. May the photos and stories here inspire your own big adventures someday!
This post is the fifth in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.
Featured image: Habitats of Northern Xinjiang. Clockwise from top L: oasis with sere mountains looming in background, Hongyanglin; Jungar Basin semi-desert at Fukang-Beishawo; alpine meadow, Altai Mountains; semi-desert, reeds, and reservoir at Baihu, Urumqi. All by Craig Brelsford, except bottom L, by Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东).
Happy New Year 2018 to you from shanghaibirding.com!
On this New Year’s Day, I bring you glad tidings: a historic first Shanghai record of Marsh TitPoecile palustris!
The sighting occurred on Christmas Eve at Century Park in Pudong. A pair was foraging in trees and bushes at the edge of a wooded area. (The exact point is by the boardwalk on the western side of the park at 31.215832, 121.541303.) The tits did not appear sluggish or overly tame, as might have been the case had they escaped from a cage.
I originally misidentified the Century Park tits as Willow Tit Poecile montanus stoetzneri. I was thrown off by the large black patch on the chin and throat of the birds, which I took to be strongly suggestive of Willow. In field guides pre-dating the research of Richard K. Broughton, the bibs of Marsh and Willow Tits, in particular their size and shape, are characterized as being important separators of the two species, which are notoriously hard to tell apart.
After my triumphant announcement to the Shanghai Birding WeChat group, member Paul Holt responded, disagreeing with my diagnosis of Willow Tit and cautioning me on an over-reliance on bib, which, Holt wrote, “[doesn’t] hold much water” as a criterion for Marsh-Willow ID. The Century tit, Holt said, “looks like a classic Marsh Tit” (in litt., 2017). Intrigued, I searched the Web for authorities backing up Holt’s assertions, and I came across the two studies by Broughton.
Broughton’s papers shake the foundations of Marsh-Willow research. Of the several challenges Broughton makes to the received wisdom about Marsh-Willow ID, bib is among the most salient. Books renowned and much relied on, such as the Collins Bird Guide (2009), admit only of “some overlap” in the size and shape of the bibs. Broughton finds “substantial overlap.” Harrap and Quinn state unequivocally that compared to Willow Tit, Marsh has “a smaller and neater black bib” (1995). Broughton says that bib is “variable within both species,” prone to “high subjectivity” on the part of the observer, and greatly dependent on the sex, social rank, and age of the bird. “The bib,” Broughton states flatly, “is not a particularly useful identification feature” (2009).
What, then, is a useful identification feature? In the British and European birds Broughton and his co-authors studied, the most reliable criterion separating non-singing and non-calling Marsh and Willow was a special mark on the bill. The authors found that 98.7% of Marsh Tit and 94.2% of Willow Tit could be identified to species according to the presence (Marsh) or absence (Willow) of a whitish spot on the proximal area of the upper mandible (Broughton et al. 2008).
Here in China, how applicable are Broughton’s findings on the whitish mark? To the best of my knowledge, the applicability of the bill criterion on the East Asian subspecies of Marsh and Willow has not been formally tested. It presumably is highly applicable, and the photos here of Marsh and Willow from the Eastern Palearctic comport with Broughton’s findings from the Western Palearctic.
Examine the four-panel photo above. At top left is Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris, photographed in Heilongjiang in August. The whitish bill mark is clearly visible, as it is in Steven Lin’s photo top right of the Century Park Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom left of Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, taken in Heilongjiang in January, abrasions and reflected light create asymmetrical whitish marks that only an inexperienced observer would take to be the bill mark of a Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom right of “Songar” Tit Poecile montanus affinis, taken in Qinghai in August, the bill is unmarked; it is a classic Willow Tit bill.
Broughton’s papers explore other criteria for Marsh-Willow ID, among them the song, “chick-a-dee” call, and juvenile begging call, which have long been known to be distinctive and which Broughton rates as even better indicators of species than bill mark. Broughton also discusses the contrast between the cheek and neck sides in the two species, which like bill mark Broughton calls a highly reliable feature. Both papers are required reading for anyone wanting to get a handle on Marsh-Willow ID, even those of us here on the eastern end of the Palearctic. Indeed, a study using the methods of Broughton on the East Asian forms of Marsh Tit and Willow Tit would be a welcome complement to Broughton’s work and could yield exciting results.
On 22 Jan. 2018 at Century Park, local birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Marsh Tit. Hiko got these photos.
Broughton, Richard K., Hinsley, Shelley A., & Bellamy, Paul E. (2008) Separation of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris from Willow Tit Poecile montana using a bill criterion. Ringing & Migration, 24:2, pp. 101-103. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/03078698.2008.9674382 (accessed 18 Sept. 2019).
Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995. Willow Tit, p. 238.
Holt, Paul. Message to Craig Brelsford through Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group, 24 Dec. 2017.
Shanghai Birding is the WeChat companion to shanghaibirding.com. In it, we exchange real-time reports and engage in discussions about birding in Shanghai and all China.
A discussion on 10 Nov. 2016 about Arctic Warbler showed the utility to birders of social media in general and Shanghai Birding in particular. Members Jonathan Martinez (based in Shenzhen) and Paul Holt (based in Beijing) shared their knowledge about Arctic Warbler and its sister species. In so doing, they shed light on the situation, still very imperfectly understood, of the Arctic-type complex in Shanghai.
Holt led off:
Paul Holt (PH): I see from a recent posting that @李伟 photographed an Arctic Warbler at Nanhui on the 28 October. Great images! Isn’t that extremely late? The latest ever Beijing record’s over two weeks earlier than that.
I then posted a long list of my Arctic-type records from autumn 2014 and autumn 2015. In the list, I bunched together all members of the Arctic Warbler Complex (Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis borealis and P. b. kennicotti, Kamchatka Leaf WarblerP. examinandus, and Japanese Leaf Warbler P. xanthodryas). I list all three species because, although it is presumed that the vast majority of spring and autumn records in Shanghai pertain to borealis, it is far from certain what the proportions are. (Arctic Warbler and its sister species are nearly impossible to separate on morphology but are distinguishable by voice.)
The latest autumn record I had of an Arctic-type warbler was 24 Oct. (2015).
Holt wrote back:
PH: Thanks @Craig (大山雀) Unless I’m missing something 28 October is later than any of the records you cite (but just by four days). Could it be that the Nanhui sighting is Shanghai’s latest ever? Also it’s interesting that you mention all three species. Have any of your region’s Arctic-types been identified to a species other than borealis?
Craig Brelsford (CB): @Paul Holt I have not recorded anything other than borealis around Shanghai. (All confirmed borealis records are of individuals singing in spring.) I also suspect that a record of xanthodryas is next to impossible in Shanghai. I am aware that citing all three names is not a perfect solution. I list all three species because I believe information is insufficient. No one knows how many Arctic-type in Shanghai are borealis and how many examinandus. Very basic facts about the species in east-central China are unclear. Maybe someday studies will confirm that an Arctic-type in east-central China is borealis, with a probability of 99%. In that case, I would probably assign any silent Arctic-type I saw to borealis. Do you have any suggestions?
A few minutes later, I added:
CB: Just remembered that Michael Grunwell, Elaine Du, and I had Arctic-type this past Sat. 5 Nov. We got a good look at the bird, too. October was a warm, wet month in Shanghai, and the entire fall migration season seems to be late a week or two. Would others here agree?
PH: I’ve never seen xanthodryas in mainland China, have only ever encountered two examinandus (which were the first records for Liaoning & Hebei. Both sound recorded) here & have too little to go on I’m afraid @Craig (大山雀). Personally I log everything as Arctic Warbler by default, though that’s far from perfect. Until more of us work on this awkward group & make an effort to sound-record them, it’ll be a long time yet before a truer picture of their patterns of occurrence emerges. Cracking late record last weekend @Craig (大山雀). Surely that must be a good candidate for being the latest ever.
CB: @Paul Holt Maybe for simplicity’s sake I should log everything as Arctic. I have hesitated because I dislike speculation, and besides your very reliable records from up north I have little else to go on.
At this Martinez came in with his south-China perspective:
Jonathan Martinez (JM): I’ve heard xanthodryas on Fujian coast in early May and had a bird caught in October at Xitou identified as xanthodryas by DNA on tail feathers among about 15 borealis. I found an examinandus in central Guangxi in September, first suspected by call on a bird wave and clearly identified with call a few days later. I suspect examinandus is not a coastal migrant and probably goes through mainland China. I think still the only species recorded in Hong Kong is borealis, despite many looking for these.
CB: Thanks! With a confirmed xanthodryas in Fujian and examinandus only “suspected” not to use the Chinese coast, I’ll keep my clunky three-species listing. Arctic-type Warbler in China is a subject crying out for more research.
Each spring and autumn, Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus migrates through Shanghai. Race leucogenis breeds close to the Shanghai region and is the subspecies most commonly seen in Shanghai. The recent appearance at Nanhui of ssp. salangensis (pictured above) raises the question of exactly how numerous that central Chinese subspecies is on the Shanghai coast.
How dark was that migrating Ashy Drongo you just saw? You may want to pay attention, because the dark-grey central Chinese ssp. salangensis has been spotted at Cape Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Shanghai. In this post, I lay out the identification criteria for salangensis and the paler, more common ssp. leucogenis. My theory is that salangensis appears at some higher rate in Shanghai than has historically been recorded, which until recently has been not at all. An opportunity to fine-tune our understanding awaits us!
SEPARATING THE SUBSPECIES
Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus comprises 15 races, of which two are known in the Shanghai region: D. l. leucogenis and D. l. salangensis. D. l. leucogenis, the pale eastern race, is the more common migrant. D. l. salangensis is the darker race and is a vagrant to Shanghai.
A classic leucogenis (panels 1, 2b, 3b) is easy to distinguish from salangensis (2a, 4). A typical leucogenis is pale grey and shows a large white oval patch around the eye. D. l. salangensis is much darker, and its facial patch is reduced and less well defined. Both have a red iris.
Intermediate forms (3a) are trickier. They may be purebreds showing random color variation or hybrids. The breeding ranges of leucogenis and salangensis partly overlap, with salangensis breeding in south-central China (mainly or exclusively south of the Yangtze River) and leucogenis breeding over a broad swath of eastern and central China from Sichuan east to Shandong and as far south as Guangdong.
Many thanks to Shanghai Birding member Jonathan Martinez. Martinez lives in Shenzhen and is an expert on the birds of southeast China. He was the first to point out that the photos of Ashy Drongo being posted on the Shanghai Birding WeChat group were of salangensis. He also was instrumental in our identification of the melanistic form of Long-tailed Shrike, discussed below. Thanks also to Paul Holt, who offered his opinion on the breeding range of leucogenis, and to Kai Pflug, for yet another useful photo.
103 SPECIES ON 15-16 OCT. 2016
Partnering with visiting U.S. birder Bryce Harrison, Elaine Du and I noted 103 species over the weekend of Sat. 15 Oct. and Sun. 16 Oct. 2016. We covered the three main birding areas in Shanghai: Nanhui, eastern Chongming Island, and the reclaimed areas of Hengsha Island.
At Nanhui on Saturday we found Nordmann’s Greenshank, 24 Black-faced Spoonbill, 4 Mandarin Duck, and the Ashy Drongo. On Sunday on Hengsha we found a dark-morph Long-tailed Shrike, rare in Shanghai.
Nanhui also gave us Japanese Quail, Purple Heron, 6 Eurasian Spoonbill, 6 Black-tailed Godwit, and a Eurasian Woodcock at the Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551). We must have stumbled blindly past the well-camouflaged woodcock half a dozen times before finally flushing it. Also 4 Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, 2 Asian Stubtail, 2 first-of-season Red-flanked Bluetail, 2 Japanese Thrush, and 3 Eyebrowed Thrush.
Hengsha yielded Striated Heron, Pied Harrier, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Merlin, 9 Black-browed Reed Warbler, and our season’s first taivanaEastern Yellow Wagtail.
We found Eurasian Wryneck at Nanhui and on Hengsha and Bull-headed Shrike and Yellow-bellied Tit at Nanhui and on Chongming.
Nordmann’s Greenshank was roosting at nearly the same spot (30.920549, 121.963247) as a month ago. The endangered bird was among many Common Greenshank, allowing us to appreciate the former’s more obviously bi-colored bill, shorter legs, and more hunched appearance. The bird clearly stood out from among its Common cousins. For more on Nordmann’s ID, please see our Sept. 18 post, Your Handy-Dandy Nordmann’s Greenshank ID Primer.
The Black-faced Spoonbill were just a few hundred meters from the Nordmann’s in the defunct nature reserve. Poignantly, the spoonbills were roosting near the decrepit old sign introducing Platalea minor to the world.
UPDATES TO RECENT POSTS
My post of 26 Sept. 2016, “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5,” has attracted the attention of Philip Round, one of the world’s foremost experts on Asian leaf warblers. I have written an addendum with an excerpt from an illuminating e-mail sent to me by Dr. Round. In it, he talks about the difficulties, some insurmountable, some not, in distinguishing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. In the republished post, scroll down to the section headed “UPDATE: 19 OCT. 2016.”
I have added two photos to the post of 10 Oct. 2016, “ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers.” The photos show a female Amur Paradise Flycatcher on its breeding grounds in Nanjing, Jiangsu. You now have another opportunity to study the photos of a confirmed Amur female. Compare that Amur with the migrating paradise flycatchers you find in the Shanghai area for an airtight ID. Scroll down to “UPDATE: 18 OCT. 2016.”
Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Entry on Ashy Drongo, p. 300. Brazil’s opus grows weaker as the distance from Japan (his base) of the birds he is covering grows longer. Brazil offers no information on D. l. salangensis on the east coast of China.
del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 14, “Bush-shrikes to Old World Sparrows.” Entry for Ashy Drongo (p. 220) written by G.J. Rocamora and D. Yeatman-Berthelot. The authors have “N Gansu” as the northwestern limit of the breeding range of D. l. leucogenis. Is that likely? See also Paul Holt’s misgivings in MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps, below.
del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 13, “Penduline-tits to Shrikes.” Entry for Bull-headed Shrike (pp. 775-6) written by Masaoki Takagi. Long-tailed Shrike (p. 781) by Anton Krištín.
Ferguson-Lees, James & David A. Christie. Raptors of the World. Princeton Field Guides. Entries on Pied Harrier, Hen Harrier, and Eastern Marsh Harrier.
MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press. Entry on Ashy Drongo, pp. 281-2. MacKinnon has breeding range of D. l. leucogenis stretching to Heilongjiang. Paul Holt (Shanghai Birding WeChat group) disagrees, saying the northeastern limit is more likely Shandong. Holt writes: “I think that the weakest aspect of John MacKinnon’s ground-breaking field guide are the ranges, and again I don’t think HBW’s accurate on that front either. I’d discount Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, and Hebei from the breeding range of leucogenis Ashy Drongo and don’t believe that it can breed further north than Shandong (where it might not even occur) and southernmost Shanxi.”