Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in Shanghai: A Clearer Picture

On Sun. 17 Sept. 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui, I achieved a personal first: photos of an unmistakable Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides. As expected, the photos show a leaf warbler whose plumage and bare parts are virtually indistinguishable from those of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes. Coupled, however, as they are with sound-recordings of the same individual, ensuring the ID, the photos constitute a rare visual record of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in Shanghai.

The leaf warbler I found was easily identifiable as a member of the Pale-Sak species pair. It had strikingly pale pink tarsi, an olive-brown crown contrasting with olive-green mantle and wings, a long and creamy supercilium, and faint wing bars on the median and greater coverts.

The bird, which was in Microforest 1, behaved in a way typical of the Pale-Saks I have observed in the Cape Nanhui microforests, eight tiny woodlands that dot the coastline of the cape. Rarely venturing more than 2 m off the ground, the leaf warbler favored low branches and vines for browsing and sturdy low branches for perching. It pumped its tail steadily, called spontaneously, and upon hearing playback of its own call moved in to investigate the source.

Without recording the call of the leaf warbler (call as well as song being a diagnostic separator of Sakhalin and Pale-legged), would I have been able to get an ID? Almost certainly not, said leaf-warbler expert Phil Round:

“I am a bit less sanguine on finding means (other than call frequency or song) to separate all [Pale-Saks]. Even in the hand, it is by no means clear. We can pick out long-winged male Sakhalin, and short-winged female Pale-legged. But there is more overlap than previously realized, and most are in between. There don’t appear to be any 100% consistent wing-formula differences, and plumage and bare-part features, while somewhat indicative, are again less than 100% reliable–especially under field conditions” (Round, in litt., 2016; emphasis mine).

The most convenient separator of Pale-Sak is song, the cricket-like trill of Pale-legged being easily separable from the metallic whistle of Sakhalin. As Shanghai is not in the breeding range of either species, Pale-Sak songs are not often heard in Earth’s Greatest City. I have heard Sakhalin sing only once, on 5 May 2016 at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park (Brelsford 2016). The song of Pale-legged I have heard at various locations in Shanghai as well as on its breeding grounds in Heilongjiang (Brelsford & Du 2017).

Although not as readily distinguishable as the songs, the “tink” calls of Pale-Sak differ markedly and consistently and are a reliable basis for an ID (Yap et al. 2014; Round et al. 2016; Weprincew et al. 1989). Yap et al. say the call of Pale-legged is of a “consistently higher frequency” than the call of Sakhalin. The calls that I have recorded of the two species show a difference in frequency of about 1 kHz, very much in line with others’ findings (Brelsford, August 2017; Brelsford, September 2017).

For birders unaccustomed to Pale-Sak calls, the difference may be hard to detect, especially at windy Cape Nanhui. A sound-recorder (which may be a smartphone) will pick up the difference, and an audio spectrogram will show it graphically. Solid, indisputable ticks, in some cases life ticks, await enterprising birders who sound-record.

In recent months, my work with sound-recordings has helped give Shanghai birders a clearer picture not only of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler but also of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus, like Sakhalin a poorly known passage migrant through Shanghai (Brelsford, June 2017). In the case of Pale-Sak in Shanghai, a picture is emerging of overlapping migratory pathways. This finding comports with the findings of Yap et al. at Beidaihe, a thousand kilometers to the north. After analyzing calls obtained at Beidaihe of both Pale-legged and Sakhalin, Yap hypothesizes that in coastal Hebei “the migratory pathways of the two sister species may largely overlap” (2014).

How extensive is the Pale-Sak migratory overlap in Shanghai? How many of the Pale-Saks that we find in Shanghai each spring and autumn are Pale-legged, and how many are Sakhalin? Is there a peak passage time in Shanghai for each species, and if so, when is it?

Answers to these questions are currently unknown, but they are probably knowable, and it is very much possible for the citizen-scientists of Shanghai to be the producers of that knowledge. We only need to change our habits. When it comes to identifying lookalike species such as Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, birders need to understand that photos do nothing to cut through the muddle. Only sound-recordings lead to indisputable records and a clearer picture of the species in Shanghai.

RESOURCES

The sound-recordings and audio spectrograms below show clearly the difference in frequency between the calls of Sakhalin and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides, Microforest 1 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 17 Sept. 2017 (01:03; 12.2 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes, Magic Parking LotCape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017 (00:19; 3.7 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Here are photos of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler of 17 Sept. 2017. The bird below is the same individual whose voice I sound-recorded.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 17 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler shows the classic features of the Pale-Sak species pair, among them an olive-brown crown contrasting with olive-green mantle and wings, a long and creamy supercilium, and faint wing bars on the median and greater coverts. (Craig Brelsford)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 17 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Like its sister species Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler has an affinity for sturdy, leafless branches. Here, the leaf warbler, drawn by playback of its own voice, is using the perch to investigate the source of the sound. (Craig Brelsford)
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Microforest 1, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 17 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Like Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler pumps its tail steadily, often remaining otherwise motionless. (Craig Brelsford)

REFERENCES

Brelsford, Craig. Sakhalin & Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Singing Together. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 5 May 2016 (accessed: 7 Sept. 2019).

———. Kamchatka Leaf Warbler in Shanghai. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 6 June 2017 (accessed: 7 Sept. 2019).

———. Separating Pale-legged & Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on Call. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 31 Aug. 2017 (accessed: 7 Sept. 2019).

———. Pale-Sak Calls: An Addendum. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 10 Sept. 2017 (accessed: 7 Sept. 2019).

Brelsford, Craig, & Du, Elaine. Boli County, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016: Part 1. Page on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 7 Sept. 2019).

Round, Philip D. E-mail message to Craig Brelsford, 18 Oct. 2016. Round’s e-mail message was originally cited in the shanghaibirding.com post “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5,” published 26 Sept. 2016 (accessed: 7 Sept. 2019).

Round, Philip D., Pierce, Andrew J., Saitoh, Takema, & Shigeta, Yoshimitsu. 2016. Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna. Bulletin of the Japan Bird Banding Association 28: 9–21. Available here for download (708 KB) through shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 7 Sept. 2019).

Weprincew, B. N., Leonowitsch, W. W. & Netschajew, W. A. 1989. Zur Lebensweise von Phylloscopus borealoides Portenko und Phylloscopus tenellipes Swinhoe. Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Museum in Berlin 65 (Suppl.): 71–80. (German only)

Yap, F., Yong, D. L., Low, B., Cros, E., Foley, C., Lim, K. K. & Rheindt, F. E. 2014. First wintering record of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in South East Asia, with notes on vocalisations. BirdingASIA 21: 76–81.

Featured image: Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 17 Sept. 2017. Craig Brelsford photographed and sound-recorded this individual, getting a rare record of the poorly known species in Earth’s Greatest City.

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Separating Pale-legged & Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on Call

Editor’s note: In the photo above, a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler emits its characteristic “tink” call in Microforest 4, Cape Nanhui, Pudong, 27 Aug. 2017. The tink call of Pale-legged is appreciably higher-pitched than that of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Distinguishing the two calls is the subject of this post. — Craig Brelsford

Last September, in “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler & the Shanghai Big 5,” I asserted that “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song.” I was wrong. Call as well as song is a reliable separator. In this post, I am going to tell you how I arrived at this insight, and I will show you how you too can achieve clear, indisputable ticks of these tricky species through call alone.

Experts since at least as far back as 1989 have been arguing that Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides are separable not only by their distinctive songs but also by their calls. Thailand-based birder and shanghaibirding.com contributor Phil Round is among those making that argument. Round and his co-authors write: “[T]he call of P. tenellipes is markedly higher in frequency than that of P. borealoides” (Round et al., “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” downloadable through shanghaibirding.com).

If your ear is good, or even if your ear is just average and you have a sound-recorder, then you too can appreciate the higher frequency of the call of Pale-legged. A sound-recorder is very important, because if you upload your recordings to databases such as eBird and the Macaulay Library, then you will be able to “see” the sound in the audio spectrogram.

Our first exhibit is the spectrogram of a call I sound-recorded of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on 8 May 2016 in Cape Nanhui’s Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). The frequency is 4.8 kilohertz, a number that matches closely the frequency of Sakhalin calls on xeno-canto.org.

Audio spectrogram of call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Here is the sound-recording:

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, call, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 8 May 2016 (00:15; 1 MB)

Now consider the spectrograms and sound-recordings of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler below. The spectrogram immediately below was recorded by me on 10 June 2016 in my wife Elaine Du’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang, part of the breeding range of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. The call (here a grace note) and song both clock in at about 6 kHz, a frequency a full 25 percent higher than the call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and, as with Sakhalin, consistent with the frequencies of Pale-legged calls on xeno-canto.org.

Audio spectrogram of call plus song of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Here is the sound-recording:

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, call and song, Xidaquan National Forest (45.727751, 130.317316), Boli, Heilongjiang, 10 June 2016 (01:59; 6 MB)

The spectrogram below is of a brief sound-recording I made in Microforest 4 this past Sunday. The song element of this passage migrant is absent (though note that I have heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing in Shanghai in spring). The call has a frequency of 5.9 kHz and clearly belongs to Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Audio spectrogram of call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

The sound-recording:

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, call, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 27 Aug. 2017 (00:01; 193 KB)

Why should you care about all this? Because prepared birders have a chance to get solid ticks of “Pale-Saks” that are merely calling and not necessarily singing. If you hear a Pale-Sak calling and trust your ear (or better yet, sound-record the call and later analyze the spectrogram), then you may be able to go beyond the safe, boring record of “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler” to a more satisfying full tick.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes pumping its tail vigorously while remaining otherwise motionless and while standing (as is its wont) on a thick branch (top panels); and a second individual making its high-pitched "tink" call (bottom panels). Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083, top panels) and Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635, bottom panels), Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 27 Aug. 2017.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes performing typical behaviors. Top panels: pumping tail vigorously while remaining otherwise motionless on a sturdy branch. Bottom panels: making the high-pitched ‘tink’ call, again on a thick branch. Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083, top panels) and Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635, bottom panels), Cape Nanhui, 27 Aug. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Accurate, plentiful records from Shanghai will help researchers such as Round get a clearer picture of the movements and population of these understudied species. As Round et al. write: “Increased sampling of migrants may also resolve the differences in timing of passage between P. examinandus and P. borealis on the one hand, and P. borealoides and P. tenellipes on the other” (“Addition”; hyperlink mine).

My trusty Olympus DM-650 sound recorder. In May, the height of migration season, my sound recorder is like the American Express card: 'Don't Leave Home Without It!'
My Olympus DM-650

What’s more, you do not need to spend much or even know much to record good audio. My Olympus DM-650 costs less than US$250. I have no microphone other than the one built into my pocket recorder, and I possess no parabola. I record in lossless 48kHz .wav. The very scientific-looking spectrograms displayed in this post are generated automatically by eBird and Macaulay.

In Shanghai and throughout China, important facts about common birds such as Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler remain unknown. This ornithological semi-wilderness is both difficult and exciting. If we rise to the challenge and become better birders, then we will make new discoveries and blaze a trail of knowledge for future birders to follow.

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