Walking or driving at Cape Nanhui these days, you may hear an interesting sound coming from the reeds. HBW describes it as “a low-pitched, repeated djuk-djuk-djuk,” but I do not think that description does the sound justice. To me, the sound is reminiscent of some of the more obscure Cure songs, in particular, “Like Cockatoos”—the same swirling sound. This is the sound of Marsh Grassbird.
It is much more difficult to see than hear Marsh Grassbird. It took me a few days before I was successful (with the help of 吴世嘉 and David—thanks!). The bird usually hides deep in the reeds. Occasionally, and in particular this time of year, it flies up a few meters while singing before dropping quickly back into the reeds.
What does Helopsaltes pryeri look like? Just look at the photos below, and consider the Chinese name, Banbei Daweiying (斑背大尾莺, “striped-back long-tailed warbler”). The mainland Asian breeder, sinensis, is 14 cm long and weighs 10 g. It feeds mainly on insects and breeds in wet, reedy swamps.
Its most remarkable feature is its song display. The grassbird begins singing on a reed, flies, still singing, in a high arc, then drops back quickly into the reeds (usually too quick to get a decent photo, at least for me).
The species is still a mystery to ornithologists, with uncertainties regarding its migration patterns, for example. Living a life hidden in the reeds does not facilitate ornithological studies.
The conservation status of Marsh Grassbird is Near Threatened. It is suffering from habitat loss as the reed beds it needs for breeding are being destroyed. At Cape Nanhui alone, my guess is that in the past year around a third of the habitat suitable for the species has been destroyed. With an estimated (declining) global population of 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, the last thing the species needs is further destruction of the reeds at Nanhui.
Is Marsh Grassbird a spectacular-looking bird? Perhaps not, but human standards of beauty are not a criterion for conservation. If however you need a reason to protect this bird, then just listen to its song:
Marsh Grassbird, 10 April 2016, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:07; 1 MB; Craig Brelsford)
Here are some of my recent photos of the threatened bird, all taken at Cape Nanhui:
Featured photo: Marsh Grassbird, Cape Nanhui, April. (Kai Pflug)
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Our featured image above shows the bluetails of the world: Himalayan (left panels), Red-flanked (right panels), and in the middle the inscrutable “Gansu” Bluetail. In this post, I report a new eastern record of “Gansu” and discuss the current taxonomic limbo of the form. — Craig Brelsford
Found at Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017: “Gansu” BluetailTarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus.” Our record is the first for the mountain northeast of Beijing, the first for Chengde Prefecture in Hebei, and the easternmost in history for the form. Until recently, “Gansu” Bluetail was thought to breed only in Qinghai and Gansu, 1200 km (745 miles) to the southwest.
In Beijing, Hebei, and Shanxi, “albocoeruleus” has now been found on at least six mountains. Before our discovery, the easternmost of those mountains was Haituoshan, 140 air-km (87 air-miles) west of Wulingshan. Our record pushes the eastern edge of the range of “albocoeruleus” from the western side of Beijing to the mountains northeast of the metropolis.
The taxonomy of “Gansu” Bluetail is uncertain. It is currently recognized neither as a species in its own right nor as a subspecies of Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus or Himalayan Bluetail T. rufilatus. Adult-male “albocoeruleus” have a white supercilium as in cyanurus, and “albocoeruleus” are said to be closer genetically to cyanurus, but the legs of “albocoeruleus” are long, as in rufilatus.
The song of “Gansu” Bluetail is distinct from the songs of Red-flanked and Himalayan. Listen to “Gansu”:
Now compare the song of Himalayan Bluetail, by Mike Nelson via xeno-canto.org:
Listen to this other recording by Mike Nelson, also labeled “Himalayan Bluetail”:
The second recording by Nelson is of “albocoeruleus.” It was made in Haidong Prefecture in eastern Qinghai, a place known as a breeding site for “albocoeruleus.” Note the similarity between Nelson’s recording from Haidong and mine from Wulingshan.
Usually, a bird with a song as distinctive as that of “albocoeruleus” would rise to at least the subspecies level. Why, then, is “albocoeruleus” languishing in taxonomic limbo?
The reason may be a simple lack of research. Many species endemic or nearly endemic to China have only recently begun to be fine-tuned taxonomically. Green-backed FlycatcherFicedula elisae, another bird we noted at Wulingshan, was long considered conspecific with Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina, despite the two species having widely separated breeding areas, highly distinctive plumage (especially males), and songs so different that playback of one species elicits no interest from individuals of the other (Clement 2006).
Zappey’s FlycatcherCyanoptila cumatilis is another species that was long overlooked. It differs subtly but consistently from Blue-and-white Flycatcher C. cyanomelana but was not recognized as a new species until 2012 (Leader & Carey 2012). Zappey’s also breeds on Wulingshan.
Will “Gansu” Bluetail get the same love and attention as Green-backed and Zappey’s Flycatcher? Researchers surely must be aware of the taxonomic uncertainty surrounding “Gansu.” Its distinctive song is a cry in the wilderness, a plea for a more accurate assessment of its place in the animal kingdom.
BIRDING REPORT: WULINGSHAN
Who: Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford guided by Beijing-based ace birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. Our driver was Mr. Wang (+86 189-1129-3689).
Where: Wulingshan (雾灵山, 40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, near Beijing-Hebei border northeast of Beijing. Highest elevation: 2118 m (6,949 ft.). Birding from elev. 950 m (3,120 ft.) to summit.
When: Sat.-Sun. 10-11 June 2017
How: Eschewing undependable air travel, Michael and I took the bullet train from Shanghai. What a ride! 305 kph (190 mph) and arrival in Beijing within a minute of the time scheduled. Then a driver hired by Jan-Erik picked us up for the three-hour drive to Wulingshan. The driver accompanied us there and drove us back to Beijing.
“Gansu” Bluetail 1 2cy male singing
UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male “Gansu” Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai.
Zappey’s Flycatcher 1 singing
UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: After an e-mail exchange with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed my record of Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white FlycatcherCyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. The bird we found at Wulingshan is a male in its second calendar year that has not attained full adult plumage.
Of this flycatcher, photos and sound-recordings of which Leader examined, Leader writes, “[T]he darkness of the throat on your bird is not correct for first-year Zappey’s. … Morphology fits intermedia. It certainly doesn’t fit cumatilis, and I don’t see any plumage features that indicate it’s a hybrid. I think it’s just a first-year intermedia, which accounts for plumage and perhaps the variation in song” (Leader et al., in litt., 2017).
Koklass Pheasant 2 Himalayan Cuckoo 3 Large Hawk-Cuckoo 1 Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker 1 White-backed Woodpecker 3 White-throated Rock Thrush 1 Asian Stubtail 1 Thick-billed Warbler 1
Grey Nightjar, White-bellied Redstart, Chinese Thrush, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, and Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Chinese Leaf Warbler, and Yellow-streaked Warbler.
— We got impressive results in only a day and a half birding—albeit with perfect weather. Wulingshan can be done from Shanghai in a weekend!
— Special thanks to my partner Jan-Erik Nilsén. Jan-Erik heard the song of the bluetail, recognized it, and called me over. Jan-Erik is highly experienced with “Gansu” Bluetail, having seen and sound-recorded the form on Haituoshan as well as at Lingshan and Baicaopan (Beijing-Hebei), Xiaowutaishan (Hebei), and Wutaishan (Shanxi).
— Thanks also to Paul Holt for informing me about records of “Gansu” Bluetail in the Beijing area.
Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37503446. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: https://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Note: This is the Wulingshan list for 10 June 2017.
———. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519385. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: https://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Note: Wulingshan list for 11 June 2017.
Clement, P. (2006). Family Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers). Pp. 131-2 (Narcissus Flycatcher) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Leader, Paul J. & Carey, Geoff J. Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, a forgotten Chinese breeding endemic. Forktail 28 (2012): 121-128.
Leader, Paul J., Carey, Geoff J., Brelsford, Craig, Grunwell, Michael, and Nilsén, Jan-Erik. Series of e-mail messages, 18-20 June 2017.
On 18 Dec. 2016, a quartet of teenage birders found an acrocephalid in the Magic Parking Lot at Cape Nanhui, the nubby promontory in Pudong and Shanghai’s best birding hotspot. The consensus is that the bird is either Paddyfield WarblerAcrocephalus agricola or Manchurian Reed WarblerA. tangorum.
In the images below, note the supercilium, which extends behind the eye; dark eye-line; bright white chin and throat; peach breast band and flanks; bill with black upper mandible and pink lower mandible; and peaked head. Those criteria most closely indicate Manchurian Reed Warbler and Paddyfield Warbler.
Paddyfield Warbler winters mainly in India and would be extralimital here; Manchurian Reed Warbler breeds in northeastern China, is listed as Vulnerable and is therefore scarce, and probably passes through Shanghai.
Congratulations to Andy Lee, Komatsu Yasuhiko, Larry Chen, and Archie Jiang for this great Shanghai record.
Editor’s note: The photos above record the moment when I first beheld Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The date was 23 Aug. 2011; the place was Yangkou, a major stopover point for Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Jiangsu; and the bird was this adult, still with a considerable amount of its rufous breeding plumage. Since then I have had numerous encounters with the critically endangered species. The most recent was 3 Nov. 2016, when I achieved one of my most sustained views (nearly 30 minutes) and first view in Shanghai of one of the rarest vertebrates on the planet. — Craig Brelsford
On 3 Nov. 2016 Elaine Du and I found Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Cape Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Pudong. A single SBS was associating with a flock of 2600 waders in mud near the entrance to the defunct nature reserve. The SBS site is 4.3 km north of the Holiday Inn, and its coordinates are 30.921616, 121.969776.
I have been viewing Spoon-billed Sandpiper a few times each year since 2011. Since 2013, Elaine has been with me. We know what to look for, and at this time of year when we see a large flock of small waders, the possibility of finding Spoon-billed Sandpiper is always on our mind.
Seated, as is my wont, on the access road, my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope atop my tripod in front of me, I was scanning the flock of 2600 waders, looking for anomalies. The great majority (1920) of the birds were Dunlin, with Kentish Plover (620) the other major component.
I saw a bird that was one of a kind. It was not associating with Kentish Plover or Dunlin. Unlike the plovers and Dunlin, which were resting and preening, the bird I was viewing was feeding. It was moving quickly and covering much ground.
The constant movement, like a wind-up toy, reminded me of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper I have viewed at Yangkou and Dongtai. The speed at which the bird ran fit the pattern, as did the average length of sprint. The bird would occasionally take a short flight. When it flew, the bird showed the white sides to its uppertail coverts.
The foregoing did not prove Spoon-billed Sandpiper—other species such as Red-necked Stint share some of those characters. What I needed was a close view. Unfortunately, the galaxy of shorebirds was spread out between me and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and the SBS was obviously shying away. Finally the bird moved to within 150 meters of the road. Even through the heat haze, the scope brought home the trademark spatulate bill.
It is only somewhat surprising that Spoon-billed Sandpiper should be at Nanhui in early November. First, Spoon-billed Sandpiper quit the stopover sites in Jiangsu around the end of October and early November. The Nanhui bird may have been one of them, and it may have stopped off in Shanghai for a quick refueling break as it heads south.
Second, as more and more of the Chinese coast is gobbled up by development, places such as the wetland at Nanhui, abandoned and gravely threatened as it is, take on greater and greater importance to migrating shorebirds. With so few places left for them, migrating waders pool in whatever hospitable area they can find. Small wonder, then, that in recent weeks the abandoned reserve has yielded Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank and ultra-rarities such as Pomarine Jaeger and that the site is depended on by about 2 percent of the world’s Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill.
IUCN lists Spoon-billed Sandpiper as Critically Endangered. Only 500 to 800 of these birds are thought to exist. Excessive development along the Chinese coast is one of the main causes of its decline. Last month, in Will the Spoon Survive?, I discussed coastal development and the future of Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
Earlier this week I published Save the Nanhui Wetland Reserve! On Thursday at the defunct reserve, I saw yet again more than 50 Black-faced Spoonbill—by some measures, 2 percent of the world population of that endangered species. And I got to thinking again.
In many countries, once it was established that 2 percent of the world population of an endangered bird was relying on a site, then it would be game over, proclaim the site a nature reserve—no matter how valuable the land was. The rhetorical question would be, “To what better use could the land possibly be put?”
The local people would forgo the cash that would have been generated by the development of the land. They would say, “We can’t develop every last square meter, after all.” They would cradle Black-faced Spoonbill to their bosom.
At the site, further discoveries would be made. Nordmann’s Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper, two critically endangered species, also use the site. Great Knot, yet another endangered species, was there Thursday. Rarities like Pomarine Jaeger sometimes appear.
Those species would find refuge in Earth’s largest city. They would have a permanent base in mainland Pudong. They would be the pride of Nanhui.
The easily accessible site would become internationally known, like Mai Po in Hong Kong and Sungei Buloh in Singapore. Tourists would make trips to Shanghai—and on their visa application, under “purpose of visit,” write, “birdwatching.” Elementary schools would take field trips there. The kids would love it!
The current reality is this. When I first started going to Nanhui back in 2008, Black-faced Spoonbill almost always were hundreds of meters away. They would occasionally appear in the canal at the base of the sea wall. If you so much as stopped your car, they would stop feeding. If you opened your door, they would fly a long way away.
Now, in the defunct nature reserve, many of them are feeding right next to the access road. When you stop your car, they keep feeding. When you open your door, they fly 30 m back and start feeding again.
Have spoonbills lost their fear of man? Or, amid the shrinking of the local habitat, are they so desperate for a feed that they have lost their instinct to flee?
The rarities just keep on coming here in Shanghai. The latest is Swinhoe’s Rail, seen at the Magic Parking Lot in Nanhui on Sat. 29 Oct. 2016 by a trio of Shanghai bird photographers. The photo above was taken by one of the three, Chén Qí (陈骐).
This amazing find comes on the heels of Shanghai’s first record of Crow-billed Drongo on 11 Oct. and Pomarine Skua on 19 Oct. What a birding month October 2016 was in Earth’s largest city!
I got the news about the rail from Chén Qí’s wife, Wāng Yàjīng (汪亚菁). Near dark, as I was returning home after my own eventful day at Nanhui, Wāng Yàjīng called me to report that she had just seen a strange bird. The bird, Yàjīng said, popped its head out of the bushes at the well-known photographers’ setup at the edge of the lot. It showed half its body and disappeared. The episode lasted a few seconds, Yàjīng said.
One look at the photo Yàjīng sent me, and there was no doubt: Swinhoe’s Rail.
The smallest rail in the world, Swinhoe’s Rail is also one of the least-known. The IUCN lists it as vulnerable.
On Sun. 30 Oct. 2016, photographers maintaining a long vigil saw the rail again.
ANOTHER UNUSUAL SIGHTING: BLACK-NAPED MONARCH
The next day, Sun. 30 Oct. 2016, Kai Pflug found Black-naped Monarch at Wusong-Paotaiwan Wetland Park in Shanghai. Kai was acting on information from Chinese bird photographers who had discovered the bird earlier. The monarch is almost certainly wild. It is a first-winter bird, not the more beautiful adult male that presumably would be of greater interest to collectors, and in Kai’s photos one sees none of the damage common to birds kept in a cage.
Black-naped Monarch has been noted in Shanghai before, most recently on 2 Nov. 2014 by Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp. In China, H. a. styani usually ventures no further north than Guangdong. H. a. oberholseri is resident in Taiwan.
88 SPECIES FOR US
You know your birding area is rich when Nordmann’s Greenshank fails to capture the headline. On Sat. 29 Oct. 2016, the day the Swinhoe’s Rail electrified Shanghai birders, my partners Michael Grunwell, Elaine Du, and I spotted the endangered Nordmann’s in the defunct nature reserve (30.920500, 121.973167) at Nanhui, near the skua site at 30.923915, 121.954738. We speculate that Saturday’s adult-winter Nordmann’s is the same individual we saw in the area on 15 Oct. and 20 Oct. and possibly as far back as 17 Sept. and 3 Sept.
Other highlights Saturday were 54 Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill found exclusively in the defunct nature reserve, further underscoring the critical importance of that highly threatened parcel of land. Joining Nordmann’s in the high-tide roost were 2 Ruff, a near-threatened Red Knot, and 2 of our day’s 4 Saunders’s Gull, a vulnerable species uncommon in Shanghai.
We had Japanese Grosbeak in Microforest 8 and Long-eared Owl at the Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551). Among our season’s firsts were 2 Tundra Bean Goose, Black-necked Grebe, 5 Goldcrest, Manchurian/Japanese Bush Warbler, 3 Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and 2 Dusky Thrush. Buntings finally are arriving in numbers, with Yellow-throated Bunting (16) and Chestnut Bunting (3) debuting on our Autumn 2016 list. We had a lucky 88 species in all.
Throughout the day, the effectiveness of the Nanhui microforests was on display at Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635). The tiny wood, which we visited off and on, was hopping with hungry migrants, grounded on a breezy day. Brambling, Daurian Redstart, and Yellow-bellied Tit were the tamest, but as the day wore on even shy species such as Japanese Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, and Black-winged Cuckooshrike were coming out into the open. Photographers were present, but no one was using mealworms; the forest birds were attracted solely to the habitat offered by a stand of trees no bigger than a tennis court.
We netted season’s first Buff-bellied Pipit during a 35-minute stop at the sod farm near Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). Red-throated Pipit were present in smaller numbers (3) than six days earlier.
Alström, Per, Krister Mild & Bill Zetterström. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003. This landmark book, co-authored by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström, is my first reference on all things Motacillidae. Of particular use was p. 56, “Water Pipit and Allies (in fresh winter plumage).”
Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. Rough drafts for parts of this post were written by Craig on Shanghai Birding. News about the rail was first circulated on Shanghai Birding.
Found today, 8 June 2016, in Boli, Heilongjiang, China: Incredible Band-bellied Crake. A Near Threatened species, Band-bellied Crake (斑胁田鸡, bānxié tiánjī, Porzana paykullii) breeds in the Russian Far East, where it apparently is still locally common, and in Northeast China, where it is almost surely declining. It winters south to Indonesia.
This graceful and little-known rail is far and away Elaine’s and my Bird of the Heilongjiang 2016 Trip and a lifer for both of us.
Elaine and I scouted out new birding sites yesterday, and Band-bellied was the payoff today. The crake called spontaneously at 06:00 as Elaine and I were breakfasting near a stream at a site we discovered yesterday. Here is the call I recorded (00:10, 2 MB):
Elaine and I searched up- and downstream for four hours, finding no other crakes. We returned to the breakfast spot at 10:10 and found our crake again. Was he really the only one?
Almost totally given over to agriculture, eastern Heilongjiang offers less and less habitat suitable for crakes and dozens of other environmentally sensitive birds. A trip through farming areas such as those we passed through yesterday shows dramatically what has been lost. Miles and miles of the formerly endless northern temperate forest here have been torn down and plowed under, in places down to the very last square inch.
Amazingly, Elaine happens to be from one of the best areas left for forest birding in this part of Heilongjiang. The place where we found the crake is an area of poor to good habitat just 15 km south of Elaine’s home village. Xidaquan, the large forest reserve with much good to excellent habitat, is just 21 km away.
My wife Elaine Du and I are on a 17-day trip to her hometown of Boli in eastern Heilongjiang. Our trip started 26 May 2016. We birded the area twice in 2015, and I wrote this report.
Elaine filmed me photographing the crake. The crake is highly sensitive to playback and mistook my speaker for a rival.
Featured image: Band-bellied CrakePorzana paykullii, 8 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)
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