Wanted: Your Sound Recordings of Leaf Warblers

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Per Alström, Trevor Price, and Pratap Singh are studying song evolution in the leaf warbler family (Phylloscopidae). To understand how different song traits have evolved, the scientists plan to analyze vocalizations of all the species of leaf warbler and map their song parameters and calls on their molecular phylogeny.

The team is analyzing whole songs of all the species for size of song repertoire and singing variety. They need long song recordings, particularly for species having large repertoires.

For each species, Alström, Price, and Singh need 10 long recordings. They lack material for the following species:

Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus
Ijima’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus ijimae
Kolombangara Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus amoenus
Smoky Warbler Phylloscopus fuligiventer
Black-capped Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus herberti
Red-faced Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus laetus
Laura’s Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus laurae
Makira Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus makirensis
Plain Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus neglectus
Alpine Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus occisinensis
Timor Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus presbytes
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus
Sulawesi Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus sarasinorum
Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus (collybita) tristis
Yellow-breasted Warbler Phylloscopus montis
Brooks’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus subviridis
Hainan Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus hainanus
Two-barred Warbler Phylloscopus plumbeitarsus

Can you share your recordings of the species above?

Alström et al. prefer uncompressed WAV files but will accept mp3’s. Please make clear the species in your recording. Your contribution will be acknowledged in the publication the team is preparing.

Attach your sound-recordings to an email and send it to Alström, Price, and Singh:

Per Alström
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Per.Alstrom@slu.se

Trevor Price
Department of Ecology and Evolution
University of Chicago, USA
pricet@uchicago.edu

Pratap Singh
Wildlife Institute of India
Dehradun, India
pratapsingh6019@gmail.com

Featured image: An international team of scientists is calling on birders to provide sound-recordings of leaf warblers. Pictured here are five of the species for which recordings are needed. Clockwise from top L: Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus, Alpine Leaf Warbler P. occisinensis, Smoky Warbler P. fuligiventer weigoldi, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler P. proregulus, and Hainan Leaf Warbler P. hainanus. (Craig Brelsford)
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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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Per Alström Interviewed on Radio Beijing International

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Per Alström
Per Alström

Whether they know it or not, all birders, Chinese or foreign, operating in China have been influenced by Per Alström. Radio Beijing International interviewed Per in November 2018. In the interview, Per talks about speciation, taxonomy, his early interest in birds, and his difficult and ground-breaking initial expeditions to China in the 1980s. Get to know this friendly giant of birding by listening to the interview below (23:56; 13 MB).

The image above shows some of the species that the Swedish ornithologist has either discovered or redefined. Clockwise from top left: Emei Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus emeiensis, Spotted Elachura Elachura formosa, Sichuan Bush Warbler Locustella chengi, and Alström’s Warbler Phylloscopus soror. (Per Alström)
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