Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

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

L: Haiming Zhao, R: Gombobaatar Sundev
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)
Possible Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
‘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)
White-headed Yellow Wagtail (Gombobaatar Sundev)
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, with red line tracing route taken by Jan-Erik Nilsén and Craig Brelsford. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
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, 21 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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 composed mainly of Northern Wolfberry Lycium barbarum, Tianshan, 21 July 2017. This scrub offered a feeding party of Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina, singing Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos, and singing Godlewski's Bunting E. godlewskii. The coordinates of the spot are 43.454783, 87.202597, and the elevation is 1940 m (6,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
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 Phoenicurus erythronotus.
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 mountain pastures and conifer forest. Among the species we found here were Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, Goldcrest Regulus regulus, and Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. The coordinates of this spot are 43.443733, 87.132903, and the elevation is 2440 m (8,000 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
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 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 base of the hill we heard the call of Common Quail Coturnix coturnix. Elev.: 1630 m (5,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
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)
We visited Baihu for 90 minutes late on the afternoon of 21 July 2017. We were looking for and found White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala as well as Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus. The semi-desert around the lake yielded Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar, Pallas's Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus, Pied Wheatear Oenanthe pleschanka, and House Sparrow Passer domesticus. The spot is in Urumqi, west of downtown at . Elevation 820 m (2,690 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
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 at Beishawo, 22 July 2017. This interesting site 65 km (40 mi.) N of Urumqi gave me my introduction to the southern Junggar Basin. Jan-Erik and I found here Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula. The site yielded four species in Passer: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri, House Sparrow P. domesticus, Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus. Roosting in a tamarisk was European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. We counted 20 Long-tailed Ground Squirrel Urocitellus undulatus. Coordinates: 44.374603, 87.881042. Elev.: 450 m (1,470 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
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, northern Xinjiang, July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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)
Typical habitat at Hongyanglin. In the poplars we had White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, while the tamarisks below held breeding Sykes's Warbler Iduna rama. Other birds found at this outstanding site were Shikra Accipiter badius, Stock Dove Columba oenas, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus, Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, and Common Blackbird Turdus merula. We visited the site 23 July and 24 July 2017. The coordinates are 46.120654, 85.654598, and the elevation is 310 m. (Craig Brelsford)
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 between Wu'erhe and Heshituoluogaizhen. This random stop in the arid Jungar Basin gave us our only trip records of two species adapted to the great arid steppes of Central Eurasia: Henderson's Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni and Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana. The random stop occurred 24 July 2017; on 28 July 2017 we drove slowly past, noting again here Henderson's Ground Jay. Coordinates: 46.326889, 85.918306. Elev.: 610 m (2,010 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
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 at Ahe'erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. Coordinates: 46.750637, 86.191788. Elev.: 1080 m (3,540 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
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)
The reservoir at Wutubulake, 24 July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
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 the NE quadrant of Ulungur Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. Coordinates: 47.339970, 87.553458. Elev.: 480 m (1580 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
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 on G216, 25 July 2017. The coordinates of this spot are 47.544827, 87.898782. (Craig Brelsford)
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 along G217 at Alahake. 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)
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, Xinjiang, 26 July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
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 on S229, the outskirts of Kaba in the background, 26 July 2017. A 40-minute visit to this site yielded a rare China record of Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. This site also gave us Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola and Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola, both species found singing. We had juvenile Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus and, in the distance, Black Stork Ciconia nigra. (Craig Brelsford)
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, 26 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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 and coniferous woodland in the Altai Mountains, Kanasi, 27 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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 near Kanasi River, 27 July 2017. This outcrop is the home of a most 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: . Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
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 and picnic grounds near entrance to Kanasi Park at Jiadengyu. (Craig Brelsford)
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)
Heart of the Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. This point lies 21 km (13 mi.) north of Altai City on an unpaved mountain road. Coordinates: 47.979670, 88.217800. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
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 Grus virgo, 10 May 2012, Altai, Xinjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)
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, Burqin Magic Forest, Xinjiang, 12 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianus, Burqin Magic Forest. (Craig Brelsford)
Red Deer, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 13 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
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, northern Jungar Basin, Xinjiang, 16 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
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, Xinjiang, 23 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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)
Wild Marijuana at the well-watered streamside site along the G216. 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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)
Thundering Kanas River, Altai Mountains, Northern Xinjiang, 27 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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 and accompanying building at Alahake, a village between Burqin and Altai on the G217 in Altai District, Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)
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, restaurant, Urumqi. (Craig Brelsford)
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, northern Xinjiang, July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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)
Ethnic Kazakh police officer. Burqin, Xinjiang, 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
This ethnic Kazakh police officer asked me to memorialize our brief acquaintance with a photo. Burqin, 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
The author with local ethnic Kazakh woman. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
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, self-portrait at Xiaodong Gulch, Altai Mountains, Xinjiang, 18 May 2012. (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)
Craig Brelsford (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsen, Xinjiang, July 2017. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
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 (far L) and Craig Brelsford. (Craig Brelsford)
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)
The team at Wu'erhe, 23 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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)
Jan-Erik Nilsen and Craig Brelsford with Han businessmen near Urumqi, 29 July 2017. (大师兄/Craig Brelsford)
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)
Our final moments with Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Yili Hotel, Urumqi, 29 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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!

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

Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction
Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Notes
Birds of Northern Xinjiang I
Birds of Northern Xinjiang II
Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

Other shanghaibirding.com posts on Xinjiang:

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon

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).

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Marsh Tit, First for Shanghai

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 Poecile palustris brevirostris, Xidaquan Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 24 Aug. 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
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 Tit (top) and Willow Tit (bottom). (Craig Brelsford)
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, Century Park, Shanghai, 22 Jan. 2018. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
On 22 Jan. 2018 at Shanghai’s Century Park, local birder Hiko found Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Marsh Tit, Century Park, Shanghai, 22 Jan. 2018. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
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 (2019). Birds Recorded at Century Park (a page on shanghaibirding.com). Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sites/urban-shanghai/century-bird-records/ (accessed 23 May 2019). Marsh Tit becomes the 142nd species recorded at Century Park, the premier park for urban birding in Shanghai.

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 23 May 2019).

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 23 May 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.

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

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

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Crested Goshawk Invades Shanghai

Crested Goshawk has sunk its talons into Shanghai. In the past year, records of the species have come from various locations throughout the city, in all four seasons. This past spring, a pair may have bred at Gongqing Forest Park.

It is remarkable that Crested Goshawk, a species of tropical and subtropical Asia, is even as far north as the Yangtze River. Most field guides show Accipiter trivirgatus indicus, the mainland form, occurring no farther north than Hangzhou. However, members of Shanghai Birding, the WeChat companion to this Web site, have reported Crested Goshawk in Nanjing and Nantong (Jiangsu). Other authorities record Crested Goshawk in Anhui, Henan, and even Beijing.

If the forest-loving goshawk has invaded the coastal, little-wooded, highly urbanized world of Shanghai, then it is not surprising that it would be using urban parks. Some of the parks of Shanghai, such as 102-year-old Zhongshan Park, where I found a pair of Crested Goshawk on 8 Sept., have massive trees and resemble old-growth forests.

Like the avifauna of islands, the birds of urban Shanghai’s green islands live in isolation. Except for stray cats and an occasional Siberian Weasel, urban residents Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Light-vented Bulbul, and Chinese Blackbird have few predators and are abundant.

With the imbalance comes an opportunity for raptors that can tolerate the noise and bustle of Earth’s Largest City. For Crested Goshawk, the pluses of urban living are apparently outweighing the minuses. It has come to feed on the rich store of passerines as well as mammals such as Pallas’s Squirrel.

On 16 May 2017 at Pudong’s Century Park, Shanghai Birding member Xueping Popp captured a Crested Goshawk exploiting the imbalance.

Crested Goshawk attacking Chinese Blackbird. Century Park, Shanghai, 17 May 2017. © 2017 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp
Crested Goshawk devouring Chinese Blackbird, Century Park, 17 May 2017. About this incident, photographer Xueping Popp wrote: ‘I went to Century Park early in the morning to look for Black Bittern. Nothing happened, so I decided to walk a little in the park. Suddenly I heard the cries of Chinese Blackbird. I looked up and saw a Crested Goshawk standing in the nest and eating a chick piece by piece. The scene was brutal, but Crested Goshawk was doing what raptors are supposed to do. I observed the whole process silently until the goshawk finished its meal.’ © 2017 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.

Shanghai Birding member Wāng Jìn Róng (汪进荣) was one of the first birders to record Crested Goshawk in Shanghai. Jìn Róng has seen the species at Zhongshan Park and Gongqing Forest Park as well as on the grounds of the Shanghai Zoo. Jìn Róng took the photo at the top of this post as well as the photos immediately below. All were taken at Zhongshan Park–the photo above this past May, the photos below last December.

In December 2016 this Crested Goshawk made a very rare appearance in Zhongshan Park, Shanghai. Photo by Wāng Jìn Róng (汪进荣).
Crested Goshawk, Zhongshan Park, 18 Dec. 2016. Note the dark mesial stripe on white throat, heavy brownish to rufous streaking on the breast, and heavy rufous barring on the belly. The small nuchal crest is not seen here, being most obvious when the goshawk is in profile. (Wāng Jìn Róng).

The Crested Goshawk below, photographed by Shanghai Birding member Kai Pflug at Cape Nanhui, may have been in transit. Cape Nanhui has little tree cover beyond its famous microforests (where Kai got this photo), and Crested Goshawk is rarely recorded there.

Crested Goshawk, Cape Nanhui, April 2017. (Kai Pflug)
Crested Goshawk, Cape Nanhui, April 2017. Note large size but slim build and wings whose tips barely exceed the base of the tail. The short, rounded wings and long tail are adaptions to maneuvering through thick forest. (Kai Pflug)

Have you seen Crested Goshawk or other raptors in your city? Tell us your story in the comments below.

RESOURCES ON CRESTED GOSHAWK

Most field guides to Shanghai birds show outdated range maps for Accipiter trivirgatus indicus. Among them are Birds of East Asia (Brazil), A Field Guide to the Birds of China (MacKinnon & Phillipps), Handbook of the Birds of the World Vol. 2, and Raptors of the World (Ferguson-Lees & Christie).

The media below offer a clearer picture of the current status in China of Crested Goshawk.

Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.
Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.

Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat group. The subject of Crested Goshawk generated discussions with various birders, among them Jiangsu birders Scoter and maidong, who had information about Crested Goshawk in Nanjing and Nantong. Hangzhou birder Cheng Qian reported on the distribution of Crested Goshawk in Zhejiang. Beijing-based member Paul Holt alerted us to scholarship on the changing distribution of Crested Goshawk and shared records of the species from Anhui and Beijing. Guangdong-based member Jonathan Martinez wrote about breeding Crested Goshawk in Hunan.

eBird. 2019. eBird Range Map–Crested Goshawk. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. (Accessed: 23 May 2019).

The eBird Range Map shows points on the Earth where checklists with Crested Goshawk have been submitted. The map shows Crested Goshawk in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Henan as well as Shanghai.

Fei, Y.-L., Lei, M., Zhang, Y. and Lu, C.-H. Geographic Distribution Change of Crested Goshawk (Accipiter trivirgatus). Chinese Journal of Zoology 45 (2010): 174–175.

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Interesting WeChat Exchange on Arctic Warbler

Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.
To join Shanghai Birding, friend craigbrelsford on WeChat.

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 Warbler P. 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?

Shanghai's Big 5 Leaf Warblers: Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (1), Arctic Warbler (2), Eastern Crowned Warbler (3), Pallas's Leaf Warbler (4), and Yellow-browed Warbler (5).
Leaf warblers are a tough group and are a perennial source of discussion in the Shanghai Birding WeChat group as well as on shanghaibirding.com. On 26 Sept. 2016, shanghaibirding.com published a study of Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers: (1) Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, (2) Arctic Warbler, (3) Eastern Crowned Warbler, (4) Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and (5) Yellow-browed Warbler. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

A Rare Look at salangensis Ashy Drongo

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. All photos by Craig Brelsford except 3a (by Kai Pflug ).
Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus. 1, 2b: D. l. leucogenis, Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699), 4 July 2009. Laoshan, a site in Nanjing, Jiangsu 290 km inland from Shanghai, is a breeding area for D. l. leucogenis. 2a, 4: D. l. salangensis, Nanhui, Shanghai, 15 Oct. 2016. 3a: likely D. l. salangensis, Nanhui, September 2016. 3b: D. l. leucogenis, Dongzhai National Nature Reserve, Henan, 1 June 2010. All photos by Craig Brelsford except 3a (by Kai Pflug).

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.

Ashy Drongo not only has many races but also shows color variation within each race. The photos here were taken 1 June 2010 at Dongzhai, Henan. The drongo in Panel 1 is a classic pale leucogenis, and the drongo in panels 2 and 3 shows a slaty tone to the upperparts and underparts--though it too is most likely leucogenis.
Ashy Drongo not only has many races but also can show considerable color variation within each race. The drongos shown here were photographed within a few hundred meters of each other on 1 June 2010 at Dongzhai. The drongo in Panel 1 is a classic pale leucogenis. The drongo in panels 2 and 3 is a very different-looking bird, with a noticeable greyish-blue tone. (Craig Brelsford)

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

Long-tailed Shrike dusky morph, Hengsha, 16 Oct. 2016.
Dusky Long-tailed Shrike, Hengsha, 16 Oct. 2016. Note that Dusky is not a subspecies but a color morph within Lanius schach schach, the same taxon found in Shanghai. The melanistic morph, however, is rare in Shanghai. Shanghai Birding member Jonathan Martinez reports that the form is ‘common’ in Guangdong, where the French birder resides. Martinez writes, ‘I’ve seen them in Jiangxi, Fujian, and coastal Guangxi. A bird turning up in Shanghai could be evidence of short-distance movements.’ (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Black-faced Spoonbill (L) and Eurasian Spoonbill, Nanhui, 15 Oct. 2016. In the Shanghai region, the two species often are found together.
Black-faced Spoonbill (L) and Eurasian Spoonbill, Nanhui, 15 Oct. 2016. In the Shanghai region, the two species often are found together. Though not under quite as much pressure as Nordmann’s Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Platalea minor is nonetheless listed by the IUCN as endangered. Throughout the winter, Black-faced Spoonbill are consistently seen at Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

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 taivana Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

Japanese Quail with ever-present backhoes in the background. Nanhui, 15 Oct. 2016.
Japanese Quail with ever-present backhoes in background. Nanhui, 15 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

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

This post has made waves among lovers of leaf warblers.This post has made waves among lovers of leaf warblers.
This post is making waves among leaf-warbler lovers.

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.”

These photos are of a confirmed Amur female.
Amur female, Laoshan. (Craig Brelsford)

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.”

PHOTOS

Bull-headed Shrike, Nanhui, 15 Oct. 2016.
Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus bucephalus, Nanhui. Outside the breeding season, the pale base to the lower mandible (inset) is present on both sexes of the nominate subspecies. This is an adult female. Note the lack of a black facial mask and the striking rusty-orange coloration. The nominate race breeds in northeast China, the Russian Far East and adjacent islands, Korea, and Japan and is a passage migrant in Shanghai. A little-known western subspecies, sicarius, breeds in Gansu and lacks the pale base to the lower mandible. (Craig Brelsford)
Pied Harrier, Hengsha, 16 Oct. 2016.
Pied Harrier, Hengsha, 16 Oct. 2016. This is an adult female. (Craig Brelsford)
Eurasian Hobby eating on the wing, Chongming Island, 16 Oct. 2016.
Juvenile Eurasian Hobby dining on the wing, Chongming Island, 16 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
This line of trees wedged between two housing complexes holds many wild birds. On 17 Oct. 2016, I found Oriental Magpie-Robin and Japanese Tit, and on 14 Oct. I found a flock of Japanese White-eye.
This line of trees (31.216753, 121.408195) is wedged between two housing complexes near my apartment in Changning District, Shanghai. Deep in the bowels of Earth’s largest city, this spot is as urban as urban can be. The trees, however, are tall and provide a large surface area for wild birds. On 17 Oct. 2016, I found Oriental Magpie-Robin and Japanese Tit there, and on 14 Oct. I found a fast-moving flock of Japanese White-eye. Chinese Blackbird breed in the area, and Siberian Weasel have been noted in the vicinity. (Craig Brelsford)

WORKS CONSULTED

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Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. Quotations from Jonathan Martinez and Paul Holt taken from this chat group.

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.”

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press. Ashy Drongo, p. 176.