Late Summer Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford

As summer melts into fall, Pudong’s Cape Nanhui continues to prove to be one of the best birding locations in China. In the period 26 Aug. to 8 Sept., I birded four days at the most southeasterly point of Shanghai, as well as at other key locations in Earth’s Greatest City. I noted 106 species.

Highlights were Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher at Microforest 1, beautiful white-morph Amur Paradise Flycatcher at Binhai Forest Park, Fairy Pitta in the Cape Nanhui microforests, Greater Painted-snipe holding on in a canal near the coast, Asian Dowitcher at South Pond, Chinese Egret at North Pond and on South Beach, and Pacific Golden Plover at the sod farm south of Pudong Airport. Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler were calling in the Magic Parking Lot, and endangered Far Eastern Curlew and Great Knot were recorded at Nanhui. Crested Goshawk appeared in inner-city Zhongshan Park.

Here are some of the best birds:

Amur Paradise Flycatcher
Terpsiphone incei

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher
T. atrocaudata

Amur Paradise Flycatcher
Amur, Dongzhai, 2010. (C. Brelsford)

3 Amur found 27 Aug. at Binhai Forest Park, the heavily wooded green space near Cape Nanhui, 4.5 km inland from the East China Sea. A stunning white-morph male and rufous-morph were continuously together, and we found a single rufous-morph in another part of the park. The white-morph as well as the rufous-morph accompanying it were calling. I have seen dozens of paradise flycatchers in Shanghai over the years and heard only one call (a Japanese for 1 or 2 seconds). Why were the Amur at Binhai Forest Park calling?

Binhai Forest Park is visited little and birded even less; could this quiet, thickly wooded park hold breeding Amur Paradise Flycatcher? As the white-morph male looks like something out of a fairy tale and is a bird even a non-birder would recognize, I asked park employees whether they had seen it. All said no.

The white-morph Amur that U.S. birder Tom Hurley and I saw was only the second I had ever beheld and a first for me in Shanghai. At Dongzhai National Nature Reserve, Henan, on 5 June 2010, I photographed the white-morph shown right. The Binhai white-morph lacked the long tail feathers of the bird I saw at Dongzhai but was still an unforgettable sight.

Amur (top) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher
Dorsal views of Amur (top) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher. ​If the mantle, back, and tail have a purplish-brown hue, then you are likely looking at Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, known helpfully in Chinese as ‘Purple Paradise Flycatcher.’ If the upperparts are cinnamon-brown, then it is likely Amur. White-morph males are never Japanese, as the white morph does not occur in that species. 26-27 Aug., Cape Nanhui. For more on Amur-Japanese ID, see my post ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers. (Craig Brelsford)

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher is the more common of the two paradise flycatchers in Shanghai. The photo above shows the differences in upperpart coloration between rufous-morph Amur Paradise Flycatcher and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.

Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha

Fairy Pitta
Fairy Pitta, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. The first week of September seems to be peak season for these passage migrants in Shanghai. The pitta shown here is a juvenile, discernible as such by the pinkish tip to its bill. The IUCN lists Fairy Pitta as Vulnerable. (Craig Brelsford)

On 4 Sept. at Nanhui, my wife, Elaine Du, and I sneaked away from the action in Nanhui’s Microforest 1, where the photographers were set up. Microforest 4 was devoid of humans and peaceful. I tiptoed in. I scanned the undergrowth before me and, to my surprise, found a Fairy Pitta.

The pitta was standing on the ground, almost completely blanketed by a tangle of leaves, branches, and vines. Its big black eye was fixed on me. It didn’t move. I looked at the pitta, the pitta at me.

We stared at each other for 10 minutes.

Thus roosts the pitta during migration. It parks itself in thickets and waits. It bides its time, conserves its energy. Somewhere south of Shanghai, it will veer off the coast and fly non-stop across the South China Sea to Borneo, where it will spend the winter.

The pittas are mainly tropical species. Most are short-distance migrants. Not Fairy Pitta. No pitta invades the temperate world as deeply as Fairy Pitta; none makes so audacious an incursion into the north. None makes so long and daring a migration across hundreds of miles of sea.

My pitta was saving up its energy for its life-or-death run across the sea. Good luck, you explorer, you risk-taker! Good luck, Fairy Pitta.

Greater Painted-snipe
Rostratula benghalensis

Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Nikon D3S, 600 mm f/4, 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 1000, hand-held (steadied on door of car). (Craig Brelsford)

Viewed with Elaine at dusk 3 Sept. then viewed again the next morning at dawn. For weeks, the painted-snipes have been found at a single spot (30.939534, 121.955370) in a trash-strewn canal. Earlier, when news of the painted-snipe at Cape Nanhui first broke, I wrote a post in which I regretted sharing the location where were found the painted-snipes, a rare species in Shanghai. As things stand now, I can breathe easier; the many photographers who have visited the location have had no ill effect. The birds I found 4 Sept. were aware of me but behaved normally. They fed, drank, and preened. I used my car as a blind and never got out. The painted-snipes at Nanhui tolerate photographers confined to their cars.

Greater Painted-snipe
1/400, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/250, f/10, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/500, f/7.1, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/400, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/250, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/320, f/10, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/200, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/200, f/5.6, ISO 6400. (Craig Brelsford)
Greater Painted-snipe
1/250, f/9, ISO 1000. (Craig Brelsford)

Asian Dowitcher
Limnodromus semipalmatus

27 Aug., South Pond. Juvenile. Videoed by me using my iPhone 6, adapter by the U.S. company PhoneSkope, and my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope:

Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes

Below, video of Chinese Egret 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui showing differences between Chinese Egret and Little Egret.

Other highlights:

Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis

Photographed by me in gorgeous morning light 4 Sept. at Cape Nanhui.

Yellow Bittern
Yellow Bittern, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Bittern Ixobrychus flavicollis

Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui.

Striated Heron Butorides striata

Uncommon in Shanghai. Found 27 Aug. at Binhai Forest Park.

Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus

Adult plus another goshawk calling unseen at inner-city Zhongshan Park on 8 Sept.

I videoed the goshawks:

Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus

27 Aug. at sod farm south of Pudong Airport.

Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris

In high-tide roost 4 Sept. on South Beach (30.860673, 121.925113), just north of Donghai Bridge at Cape Nanhui.

Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea

South Pond, Cape Nanhui, 26 Aug. Video:

Pin-tailed Snipe Gallinago stenura

Pin-tailed Snipe
Pin-tailed Snipe, 3 Sept. 2017, Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

Party of 3 on 26 Aug. at Cape Nanhui. When flushed, made loud, raspy, memorable call. I quickly compared the call I had just heard to calls of Pin-tailed Snipe downloaded from to my iPhone. The match was perfect. Lookalike Swinhoe’s Snipe rarely calls when flushed. Dark underwing clear in my many photographs of the trio. Flew high when flushed, then returned to land at point only 50 m from where originally flushed.

Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica

Gull-billed Tern
Gull-billed Tern, 4 Sept., Cape Nanhui. Note the thick bill. (Craig Brelsford)

The canals on the inland side of the sea wall were resounding with the characteristic yaps of this passage migrant. A clear photo is especially useful for discerning the thick bill.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Phylloscopus tenellipes

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler

P. borealoides

In the wake of my post of 31 Aug. 2017 about distinguishing Pale-legged from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler by call, I was hoping to find more members of this species pair. On 4 Sept. 2017 at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui, I was richly rewarded. For more, see my 10 Sept. 2017 post, “Pale-Sak Calls: An Addendum.”

Sand Martin Riparia riparia

Sand Martin
Sand Martin, Cape Nanhui, 4 Sept. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Riparia riparia is an uncommon passage migrant in Shanghai. Note the well-defined breast band on my bird, distinguishing it from Pale Martin Riparia diluta, which has an ill-defined breast band.

Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane

It’s worth stressing how good is our opportunity here in Shanghai to view Siberian Blue Robin for a few short weeks each spring and fall. On the breeding grounds up in northern China, the males sing loudly and beautifully but are very hard to see; no Siberian Blue Robin I experienced on the breeding grounds ever sang from anything like an exposed perch. The few I was able to see in Elaine’s hometown of Boli, Heilongjiang sang on or near the ground. Females are almost impossible to see; in fact, I saw not one in Heilongjiang in May-June 2016. Siberian Blue Robin are also apparently hard to see on their wintering grounds in south China and Southeast Asia. Places such as Cape Nanhui are probably among the best places in the world to view this common but shy species. We Shanghai birders have yet another reason to count ourselves lucky.

Also noted by me in Shanghai 27 Aug.-8 Sept.:

Garganey Spatula querquedula
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron A. purpurea
Great Egret A. alba
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Lesser Sand Plover C. mongolus
Greater Sand Plover C. leschenaultii
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Far Eastern Curlew N. madagascariensis
Eurasian Curlew N. arquata
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Red Knot Calidris canutus
Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata
Long-toed Stint C. subminuta
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis
Sanderling C. alba
Dunlin C. alpina
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus
Common Greenshank T. nebularia
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola
Common Redshank T. totanus
Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum
Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus
Whiskered Tern C. hybrida
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Red Turtle Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Spotted Dove S. chinensis
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Black-winged Cuckooshrike Coracina melaschistos
Tiger Shrike Lanius tigrinus
Brown Shrike L. cristatus
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis
Japanese Tit Parus minor
Black-throated Bushtit Aegithalos concinnus
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis
Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana
Javan Myna Acridotheres javanicus
Crested Myna A. cristatellus
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. dauurica
Oriental Magpie-Robin Copsychus saularis
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis
White Wagtail M. alba

Featured image: All-star birds of late summer at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui: Clockwise from top left, Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Fairy Pitta, Greater Painted-snipe, and Great Knot. (Craig Brelsford)
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The Surge

Spring has surged into Shanghai! Elaine Du and I noted 92 species on the Qingming weekend. We found 212 endangered Great Knot at Nanhui and Bluethroat and Brown-headed Thrush on Chongming. Other highlights were 2 Greater Scaup and Black-necked Grebe on Chongming and at Nanhui 2 endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting, “Swintail” Snipe, 10 Saunders’s Gull (rare in Shanghai), 3 endangered Far Eastern Curlew, 2 Eurasian Bittern booming amid the sound of traffic, and 10 Pacific Swift.

‘Swintail’ Snipe, Nanhui, 4 April 2016. Note the bill, shorter than the very long bill of Common Snipe, and the underwing, with ‘Swintail’ showing a uniformly dark, banded underwing and Common usually showing white underwing coverts. Note the pale, diffuse trailing edge to the wing of ‘Swintail,’ in contrast to the bright-white trailing edge of Common. ‘Swintail’ is birder’s jargon meaning Swinhoe’s Snipe or Pin-tailed Snipe, two species that are nearly impossible to separate in the field. The snipe pictured here could be either. (Craig Brelsford)

On Sun. 3 April 2016, fog once again kept Elaine and me off Hengsha Island, our original destination. Driving our rented Skoda Scout, we left the Hengsha ferry terminal on Changxing Island and took the Shanghai Changjiang Bridge across the Yangtze to Chongming Island. Visibility was less than 100 meters when we finally arrived at Chongming Dongtan National Bird Sanctuary and Nature Reserve. Rain, usually a drizzle, sometimes a shower, let up only briefly, around noon.

This ‘Swintail’ was photographed 13 Sept. 2014 in Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu. Yes, sigh, it is nearly impossible to distinguish Swinhoe’s from Pin-tailed in the field. But it is possible, and much fun, to pick out ‘Swintail’ from Common! Note here the pale panels on the wings of ‘Swintail’ (visible in 1a, 2, and 3), note the lighter streaking on the back of this ‘Swintail’ than would be the case in a typical Common, and observe the lack of white trailing edge to the wings. (Craig Brelsford)

We stayed away from fee and permit areas. The northeast sea wall, with its well-protected mudflats beyond, is blocked off by guards wearing camouflage uniforms. A road running inside and parallel to the sea wall is not in a permit area and affords views of the canal-pond at the base of the wall. Reeds running along this inner road are the first tall, thick vegetation a bird flying along the coastline is likely to see and contained several migrants, among them the Brown-headed Thrush and a leaf warbler that may have been Chinese Leaf Warbler. The Phyllosc was soaking wet, and the characteristics I was noting, such as its seeming lack of a strong coronal stripe like Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, may have merely been the effect of the water. We noted the bright yellow rump, were starting to get hopeful–and then the bird disappeared.

On the eastern end of Chongming, we covered the farmland inside the sea wall and did not drive in the permit area atop the wall. We found the Bluethroat at the very good “snipe corner” (31.479537, 121.937001) south of Changjiang Lu. True to form, the skulker quickly hid away, refusing to flush or show. Still, the fleeting glimpse we got was Elaine’s best view ever of Bluethroat.

Common Snipe
Common Snipe, Chongming Island, Shanghai, 3 April 2016. Can you see the three main differences between this bird and the ‘Swintail’ above? To wit: longer bill, whiter underwings, and whiter trailing edge to the wings (visible, as here, even from below). (Craig Brelsford)

My walk through the reeds in pursuit of the Bluethroat scared up 2 Japanese Quail. Common Snipe were numerous, a pair of Oriental Skylark were hollowing out a tiny cup in the grass, and Water/Brown-cheeked Rail squealed once and fell silent. I recorded a fifth distinctive vocalization of Reed Parrotbill; I call this one the “siren.” (For the previous four calls, please visit “Amid the Din of the Diggers.”)

Reed Parrotbill, siren call (00:04; 954 KB)

On Mon. 4 April, Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell once again joined Elaine and me at Nanhui. We noted 73 species. Whereas outings in March gave us a “spring emerging from winter” impression, on Monday the transition to springtime felt complete. All that was missing were the flycatchers and the leaves on the trees in the microforests, those migrant traps dotting the sea wall.

Yellow-breasted Bunting
Yellow-breasted Bunting, Nanhui, 4 April 2016. Changes to wintering sites, loss of reed-bed habitat for roosting sites, and especially trapping for meat in southern China have reduced the population of this once-abundant species to a fraction of its former strength. (Craig Brelsford)

We rented no car, instead relying on the Shanghai Metro, taxis, a ride from a pair of friendly tourists, and our legs. With sunny skies and temperatures reaching 18 degrees, the weather was nearly perfect, and the exercise put us in a good mood.

The birding area at Nanhui is steadily going from “half-forgotten, mostly empty, natural” to “popular, busy, recreational.” Cars were packed around Nanhuizui Park and the Holiday Inn, and Qingming tourists were streaming out of the buses. Amid the commotion we found our first-of-season singing Manchurian/Japanese Bush Warbler as well as a single Asian House Martin flying among the swifts, the suddenly numerous Barn Swallow, and a single Red-rumped Swallow. At the Magic GPS Point (30.880540, 121.964572), we climbed to the deck of the derelict building next to the Holiday Inn. There, we enjoyed the expansive views, noted more Pacific Swift, and wondered how on earth a building as huge as this could be built and then immediately abandoned.

Asian House Martin
Asian House Martin, 4 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

North of the Nanhuizui area, photographers were working on 12 Black-winged Stilt that were using a pond close to Microforest 2  (30.926039, 121.970725). Around that pond we found Marsh Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. The quiet, half-fallow fields behind the pond evoked memories of old Nanhui. We found our Yellow-breasted Bunting here as well as Chestnut-eared Bunting and about 60 of our 90 Pallas’s Reed Bunting. We were looking for but failed to find Japanese Reed Bunting. We noted the absence of harriers, which normally would be hovering over the fields and reed beds.

Great Knot were seen in flight and on the mudflats as the tide receded.


Oriental Skylark
Oriental Skylark, Chongming, 3 April 2016. This bird, one of the pair whose nest I saw being constructed, shows a pale-buff trailing edge to the wing, not the noticeably brighter white trailing edge characteristic of Eurasian. The tail is shorter than is typically the case in Eurasian. (Craig Brelsford)
Pacific Swift
Pacific Swift, Nanhui, Shanghai, 4 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Grunwell and Brelsford
Michael Grunwell (L) checking Mark Brazil’s Birds of East Asia, Craig Brelsford checking Collins Bird Guide, Nanhui, 4 April 2016. (Elaine Du)

Featured image: Western Osprey carries a fish while flying over Dishui Lake in Shanghai, Mon. 4 April 2016. Lingang, a satellite city that did not exist 10 years ago, looms in the background.
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