Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Found at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui on 1 May 2019: possible White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla 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).

PHOTOS

wagtail
L: The unusual Yellow Wagtail seen at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai on 1 May 2019. Note the pale mottling on the mantle. R: White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Mongolia. (L: Haiming Zhao; R: Gombobaatar Sundev)
wagtail
‘The encounter with the Western Yellow Wagtail was totally unexpected,’ said Shanghai birder Haiming Zhao, who discovered and photographed the bird. ‘The location where I found the bird is in a big area in Nanhui which has many trees newly planted. I came across this Western Yellow Wagtail when I went by this area searching for buntings. I was in my car looking at the ground 10-15 meters away to the left when I saw this special bird. Its bright gray head and yellow lower body were so eye-catching and had made it easily distinguished out there from a flock of eastern yellow wagtails on the ground’ (Zhao in litt., 2019). (Haiming Zhao)
wagtail
White-headed Yellow Wagtail on the breeding grounds in northwestern Mongolia. (Gombobaatar Sundev)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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 Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
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Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

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.

Northern Xinjiang
Map of Northern Xinjiang, with red line tracing route taken in July 2017 by birders Jan-Erik Nilsén and Craig Brelsford. We birded from Baiyanggou in the Tianshan Mountains to Lake Kanas in the Altai Mountains. In between we discovered areas in the northern, central, and southern Jungar Basin, the vast semi-desert steppe covering most of Northern Xinjiang. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

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.

Baiyanggou
Foot of Tianshan Mountains at Baiyanggou Scenic Area, 21 July 2017. Using our spotting scopes, Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and I found on the ridgeline, 2000 m distant, Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis himalayensis. The area around the car yielded Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus and Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis. Coordinates of this site: 43.424675, 87.163545. Elevation: 2040 m (6,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrub
Scrub composed mainly of Northern Wolfberry Lycium barbarum, 21 July 2017. This site at Baiyanggou, 52 km (32 mi.) south of Urumqi, yielded a feeding party of Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina, singing Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos, and singing Godlewski’s Bunting E. godlewskii. Coordinates: 43.454783, 87.202597. Elev.: 1940 m (6,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Habitat in which we found Eversmann's Redstart
Habitat at Baiyanggou in which we found Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus, 21 July 2017. The redstart, a male, was using the pastures and edge of the coniferous forest and was defending territory. Here also were Coal Tit Periparus ater rufipectus and Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei humei. Coordinates: 43.474525, 87.191575. Elev.: 2080 m (6,820 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Tianshan
Ethnic Kazakh herders spend the summer in the Tianshan mountain pastures at Baiyanggou. On 21 July 2017 we found here and in the adjacent conifer forests Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, Goldcrest Regulus regulus, and Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. Coordinates: 43.443733, 87.132903. Elev.: 2440 m (8,000 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Loess habitat
Loess hill south of Urumqi, 21 July 2017, Jan-Erik in midground. Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe were breeding near the red-roofed farm building below, and from the green vegetation at the base of the hill we heard Common Quail Coturnix coturnix. We drove through mile after mile of beautiful loess country at the foot of the Tianshan Mountains. Coordinates: 43.561508, 87.206833. Elev.: 1630 m (5,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
baihu
Jan-Erik and I visited Baihu on 21 July 2017. The reservoir and surrounding reeds yielded White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala and Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus, while the surrounding semi-desert gave us breeding Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar and Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus. As settlement continues in Northern Xinjiang, reservoirs and irrigation canals are becoming an increasingly important habitat for birds. Baihu lies 13 km (8 mi.) west of downtown Urumqi. Coordinates: 43.816992, 87.435352. Elev.: 820 m (2,690 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrubby semi-desert
Scrubby semi-desert at Beishawo, 22 July 2017. This site 65 km (40 mi.) north of Urumqi gave me my re-introduction to the Jungar Basin, the vast, arid steppe that makes up most of Northern Xinjiang. The site yielded four species of sparrow: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri, House Sparrow P. domesticus, Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus. Among the other species we found were Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, and Desert Whitethroat S. minula. Roosting in a tamarisk was European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, and we counted 20 Long-tailed Ground Squirrel Urocitellus undulatus. Coordinates: 44.374603, 87.881042. Elev.: 450 m (1,470 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Stony desert
Stony semi-desert in Jungar Basin. Searching for Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Jan-Erik and I spent an hour here on 23 July 2017. We came up short on the sandgrouse but managed to find Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis and Crested Lark Galerida cristata. Coordinates: 45.291384, 84.781396 (junction of G217 and S221). Elev.: 330 m (1,080 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Hongyanglin
In the poplars at Hongyanglin we had White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, while the tamarisks held breeding Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama. Other birds found at this outstanding Jungar Basin oasis were Shikra Accipiter badius, Stock Dove Columba oenas, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus, singing Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, and Common Blackbird Turdus merula. Jan-Erik and I visited the site 23 July and 24 July 2017. Coordinates: 46.120654, 85.654598. Elev.: 310 m (1,020 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Arid country
Arid country between Wu’erhe and Heshituoluogaizhen, 24 July 2017. Our random stop here paid off handsomely, as we got our only trip records of two arid-country specialists: Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni and Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana. The site lies 23 km (14 mi.) south of Heshituoluogaizhen on the G217. Coordinates: 46.326889, 85.918306. Elev.: 610 m (2,010 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Puddles
Roadside ponds at Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. Puddles such as these were numerous along the many miles of highway we traveled, and they often were productive. The ponds here were especially good, yielding Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus, Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii, Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos, Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus, and Common Redshank T. totanus. A small woodland next to the hamlet adds to the attraction of this site, which is on the G217, 31 km (19 mi.) north of Heshituoluogaizhen. Coordinates: 46.750637, 86.191788. Elev.: 1080 m (3,540 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Wutubulake
The reservoir at Wutubulake, 24 July 2017. We stopped here mid-afternoon and had a flyby of Saker Falcon Falco cherrug. Sharing the skies with the falcon were Common Swift Apus apus and Pale Martin Riparia diluta. The scrubby area around the reservoir was productive, giving us Common Quail Coturnix coturnix, Bluethroat Luscinia svecica, and Common Linnet Linaria cannabina. Coordinates: 46.892338, 86.386340. Elev.: 1260 m (4,130 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Jan-Erik scanning Ulungur
Jan-Erik scans the northeastern quadrant of Ulungur Lake, at 1035 sq. km (400 sq. mi.) one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. The advice of shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon put Ulungur Lake on our itinerary: ‘If you have time,’ John wrote, ‘you should look at the small saline ponds and reed beds along the NE shores of Lake Ulungur. They are packed full of breeding waterfowl’ (MacKinnon, in litt., 2017). John’s words proved abundantly true. Jan-Erik and I spent the morning of 25 July 2017 at Ulungur Lake and had a pair of Mute Swan Cygnus olor, 19 juv. Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, 80 Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina, 180 Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, 240 Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis, 1 Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus, and 2 Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. Walking through the scrub, we lifted a roosting European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. Reeds along the shore held Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus. Coordinates: 47.339970, 87.553458. Elev.: 480 m (1,580 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Open woodlands
Open woodland on G216, 23 km (14 mi.) north of Beitun, 25 July 2017. Large trees and rank undergrowth (including wild cannabis) characterize this outstanding site. A visit of less than two hours in the midday heat yielded a who’s who of ‘European’ species, among them European Roller Coracias garrulus, Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, and European Greenfinch Chloris chloris. Coordinates: 47.544827, 87.898782. Elev.: 520 m (1,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Pond and marsh
Marsh and pond along G217 at Alahake, between Burqin and Altai City. A visit of just under an hour on 25 July 2017 gave us Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides, breeding Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi, and House Sparrow Passer domesticus. Coordinates: 47.742478, 87.523087. Elev.: 510 m (1,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
White Birch Forest Scenic Area
An outstanding birding site, White Birch Forest Scenic Area is on the Kaba River, a tributary of the mighty Irtysh River. I have made five visits to the site, four in May 2012 and one on 26 July 2017. Among the birds I have found here are Great Tit Parus major kapustini, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, and Fieldfare Turdus pilaris. Our visit in 2017 yielded a rare China record of Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella. The avifauna, verdant glades, and vast birch forest are strongly reminiscent of Northern Europe. Coordinates: 48.076867, 86.342950. Elev.: 490 m (1,610 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Wetlands
Wetlands on S229, outskirts of Kaba in background, 26 July 2017. A 40-minute visit to this site yielded a rare China record of singing Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. This site also gave us Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola, both singing. We had juvenile Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus and, in the distance, Black Stork Ciconia nigra. Coordinates: 48.060168, 86.395527. Elev.: 520 m (1,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Burqin Magic Forest
Burqin Magic Forest is a riverine woodland at the confluence of the Burqin and Irytsh rivers. The birch forest and corresponding avifauna are similar to those of White Birch Forest Scenic Area 59 km (37 mi.) northwest. Burqin Magic Forest is a breeding site for Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius. Other woodpeckers found here are Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor, White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, and Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus. I visited Burqin Magic Forest in May 2012 and again on 26 July 2017. Coordinates: 47.724565, 86.840598. Elev.: 460 m (1,500 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Alpine meadow
Altai Mountain meadow and coniferous woodland at Kanasi, 27 July 2017. These highlands are in the extreme north of Xinjiang, near the borders of Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. The site, which is closer to Moscow (3370 km [2,090 mi.]) than Shanghai (3500 km [2,180 mi.]), holds many species better known in Europe than in China, among them Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana. Other species we found here were Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni, Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, and European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis. Coordinates: 48.712367, 86.982445. Elev.: 1720 m (5,630 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Rocky outcrop
Rocky outcrop near Kanasi River in the Altai Mountains, 27 July 2017. This natural wall is the home of an unusual leaf warbler, the wallcreeper-like Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus. Also in the vicinity was a family of Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis. Coordinates: 48.702008, 86.997155. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Wooded pasture
Wooded pasture near entrance to Kanasi Park at Jiadengyu, 27 July 2017. Here and in the gardens around the hotels we picked up Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis, the white-foreheaded Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides, and an unexpected Xinjiang record of Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus. Coordinates: 48.492609, 87.147366. Elev.: 1490 m (4,890 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Altai Mountains
Heart of the Altai Mountains near Xiaodong Gulch. On 18 May 2012 I managed to briefly enter this enchanted world and get this photo. Even though I was unable to reach the highest country, I still found many good birds, among them Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis and Rock Bunting Emberiza cia. In June 2016 John MacKinnon managed to go higher, reaching the snowy passes and finding Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus, Rock Ptarmigan L. muta, Altai Accentor Prunella himalayana, Grey-necked Bunting Emberiza buchanani, and Mongolian Wolf Canis lupus chanco. John wrote a guest post for shanghaibirding.com about his trek into these mountains. The point photographed here lies 21 km (13 mi.) north of Altai City. Coordinates: 47.979670, 88.217800. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Demoiselle Crane
With Altai Mountains in the background, Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo stand on the shore of Aweitan Reservoir, 10 May 2012. At this outstanding reservoir site I found Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans cachinnans, Red-tailed Shrike Lanius phoenicuroides, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis. Among the migrating ducks were Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope and Gadwall M. strepera. The site lies 28 km (17 mi.) south of Altai City on the G216. Coordinates: 47.642361, 88.020278. Elev.: 650 m (2,150 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

SCENES FROM NORTHERN XINJIANG

Bactrian Camel
Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianus, Burqin Magic Forest. (Craig Brelsford)
Red Deer
Yarkand Deer Cervus elaphus yarkandensis. Members of this endangered subspecies of Red Deer appeared at dusk at White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 13 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Ruddy Shelduck and Pied Avocet
Ruddy Shelduck and Pied Avocet, arid country north of Burqin (47.920242, 86.835243). To create this image, I lay on my belly to get the birds as low in the frame as possible. I then narrowed my aperture on my 600 mm f/4 lens to f/22, allowing me to capture the mountainous background and convey a sense of the vastness of the sparsely populated northern tip of Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)
Hongyanglin
As the sun set at the beautiful Jungar Basin oasis Hongyanglin on 23 July 2017, I used my iPhone 6 to create this photo of the dying light caressing a poplar. (Craig Brelsford)
cannabis
Wild cannabis is one of the many plant species making up the rank vegetation at the well-watered open woodland along the G216. (Craig Brelsford)
Kanas River
Thundering Kanasi River, Altai Mountains. These turquoise waters flow south from Kanas Lake, eventually finding the mighty Irtysh River and flowing north across Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. (Craig Brelsford)
Islamic graveyard
Islamic graveyard and accompanying building at Alahake, a village between Burqin and Altai on the G217. The Islamic presence in Northern Xinjiang is relatively recent, being a direct consequence of the Dzungar genocide of the 1750s. The campaign wiped out the native Dzungar people, who were Buddhist, and replaced them with various groups, among them the Hui and the Kazakhs, who are Muslim. The atrocity was orchestrated by the Qianlong emperor, a member of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. (Craig Brelsford)
Mao Zedong
Dinner plate bearing likeness of Mao Zedong, restaurant, Urumqi. In parts of China where the Han do not make up the ethnic majority, portraits of the founder of Communist China are often on prominent display. The displays are not so much an expression of support for Communism as they are a reminder of Han supremacy. (Craig Brelsford)
Wusu Beer
Condiments for noodles, Wusu Beer, and tea, with plate of plain noodles just visible behind the beer. Wusu Beer is a surprisingly good local brand with a taste similar to that of Tsingtao. With afternoon temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), a Wusu and plate of noodles were a fitting reward after a long birding day. (Craig Brelsford)
police officer
This ethnic Kazakh police officer asked me to memorialize our brief acquaintance with a photo. Burqin, 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Brelsford and local woman
The author with local ethnic Kazakh woman, Wutubulake, 28 July 2017. With my movie-star looks and monster camera, many people in Xinjiang took me for a superstar photographer. I did nothing to disabuse them of this notion. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Craig Brelsford
Craig Brelsford, self-portrait at Xiaodong Gulch, Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. I took this picture in the final hours of my final day of my first trip to Northern Xinjiang. I was smitten with the region and sorry to leave, and I swore I’d be back. (Craig Brelsford)
Brelsford and Nilsen
American birder Craig Brelsford (L) and Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén return cheerfully to base camp after an unsuccessful search for sandgrouse, central Jungar Basin, 23 July 2017. A birder with decades of experience and blessed with an extremely sensitive ear, Jan-Erik is one of the best foreign birders ever to operate in China. I never tire of telling the story of Jan-Erik and the Siberian Bush Warbler. Near Genhe, Inner Mongolia in July 2015, my wife Elaine, Jan-Erik, and I were speeding down the highway in the middle of a conversation with the wind roaring through the open windows. Suddenly Jan-Erik said, ‘I just heard Siberian Bush Warbler!’ I hit the brakes and backed up, and there it was. I said to Jan-Erik, ‘I didn’t know you had so much experience with Siberian Bush Warbler.’ ‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘That was only the second time in my life that I’ve found the species.’ (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Police officers with Jan-Erik and Craig
In Xinjiang Jan-Erik and I drove 2866 km (1,781 mi.), passing through dozens of checkpoints along our route. We made it through each time without incident. Indeed, the police can be friendly, as those here, at a checkpoint near Burqin; the photo was their idea, not ours. At the checkpoints, being a Western foreigner was at most a minor hindrance. Our driver explained why: ‘They’re not looking for people like you.’ The checkpoints are for internal security, with young Uighur men being the main target. (Craig Brelsford)
team at Wu'erhe
The team at Wuerhe, 23 July 2017. L-R: Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Jan-Erik Nilsén, Craig Brelsford. We had just returned from beautiful Hongyanglin, our Wusu beer was cold, and our noodles were hitting the spot. We were tired and sweaty and very happy, for we were giving Xinjiang our all. (Craig Brelsford)
Nilsen and Brelsford with Han businessmen
Birders Jan-Erik Nilsén (second from L) and Craig Brelsford (second from R) feast with Han businessmen near Urumqi, 29 July 2017. Like many of the Han settlers we met in Xinjiang, these men were brimming with civilizational confidence and optimism. They believe deeply, and told me frankly, that as good as things are now in China, they are sure to get better, especially in Xinjiang. These gritty, practical men are nationalists, and their mission is to Make China Great Again. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东]/Craig Brelsford)
final moments with Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东)
Our final moments with our driver, Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Yili Hotel, Urumqi, after midnight on 30 July 2017. Later that day, Jan-Erik and I flew home, Jan-Erik to Beijing, I to Shanghai. Eighty-eight days after this photo was taken, my son was born, and a further three months later, I returned to America, ending my 10-year sojourn in the Middle Kingdom. After traveling tens of thousands of kilometers in China as explorer, student of ornithology, and bird guide, Xinjiang 2017 was my swan song, my final expedition in China. With Jan-Erik at my side, my time in China could scarcely have ended on a higher note. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, 2000. Our first reference in Northern Xinjiang.

Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009. Our second reference in Northern Xinjiang.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

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.

DEDICATION

Tiny
Elaine and Tiny

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!

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).

This post is the fifth in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.

Police officers Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction: In this first post, Craig Brelsford gives you an introduction to Northern Xinjiang and an overview of the expedition of July 2017. Bounded by the Tianshan to the south and the Altai to the north, and with the Jungar Basin at its heart, Northern Xinjiang is one of the premier birding areas in China.

Northern Xinjiang

Notes on Birding in Northern Xinjiang: Read Craig Brelsford’s notes on the “European” birds of Xinjiang as well as other observations recorded during the 2017 expedition. In Xinjiang, birders are saiwai (塞外), “beyond the (Great) Wall”—in China, but not in East Asia.

Ruddy ShelduckPhoto Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Non-Passerines): This is the first of two photo galleries of the birds of Northern Xinjiang. This post covers non-passerines. Each photo in the gallery was taken by Craig Brelsford in Xinjiang.

Mistle Thrush

Photo Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Passerines): This portion of the photo gallery covers the passerines of Northern Xinjiang. Many birds well-known to Europeans, such as Mistle Thrush, were photographed by Brelsford using his state-of-the-art Nikon setup.

The Landscapes and People of Northern Xinjiang (you are here)

Other shanghaibirding.com posts on Xinjiang:

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon
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Marsh Tit, First for Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

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 Tit Poecile 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).

Marsh Tit
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris showing classic whitish bill mark. In good light, as here, the bill mark is noticeable even at mid-range. Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Marsh and Willow Tit
Comparison of whitish marks on proximal area of upper mandible of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris (top) and Willow Tit Poecile montanus (bottom).  (Craig Brelsford/Steven Lin)

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.

ADDENDUM

On 22 Jan. 2018 at Century Park, local birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Marsh Tit. Hiko got these photos.

Marsh Tit
On 22 Jan. 2018 at Shanghai’s Century Park, local birder Hiko found Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Marsh Tit
Conspicuous in Hiko’s photo is the whitish mark on the proximal area of the upper mandible, an indicator of Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

REFERENCES

Bengtsson, Daniel, Brelsford, Craig, and Du, Elaine (2020). Birds Recorded at Century Park (a page on shanghaibirding.com). Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sites/urban-shanghai/century-bird-records/ (accessed: 24 May 2020).

Broughton, Richard K. 2008. Separation of Willow Tit and Marsh Tit in Britain: a review. British Birds 102 (November 2009), pp. 604–616. Available at https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Willow-Marsh-Tits.pdf (accessed: 24 Jan 2020).

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: 24 Jan 2020).

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.

Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009.

Featured image: Marsh Tit Poecile palustris, historic first record in Shanghai. Century Park, Shanghai, 24 Dec. 2017. (Steven Lin)
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