Where the World’s Greatest Flyway Meets the World’s Greatest City

Finally, it is ready: Elaine’s and my report on the doings of this past spring in Shanghai. We’re calling it “Shanghai-area Springtime Birding, 2016.”

The report is the latest in a growing list of resources available on shanghaibirding.com. Everything we do here is geared toward showing you what birding is like at the point on the Earth where the world’s greatest migratory flyway meets the world’s greatest city.

The report covers 7 March to 24 May 2016. Elaine and I birded 38 of those 79 days and noted 240 species. We partnered with members of our network of subscribers and contributors to shanghaibirding.com. Special thanks to Michael Grunwell and Jan-Erik Nilsén as well as to Xueping Popp, Stephan Popp, Kai Pflug, and Ian Davies.

Why should you read “Shanghai-area Springtime Birding, 2016”? Read it to plan your own explorations and to get an idea of what birds you can expect to see in this city in March, April, and May. You’ll find no more complete a report on that subject, anywhere.

From the intro:

“We deepened our knowledge of the birds of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway and increased our understanding of the pressures these birds face in the Shanghai region. One of the most densely populated areas in the world and an economic dynamo, the Shanghai tri-province area encompasses Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, is the size of the U.S. state of Kansas, and has a population of 160 million–half that of the United States.”

From the highlights:

“ — We continued to monitor species under threat by the uncontrolled coastal development afflicting the region, among them the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Great Knot, and Yellow-breasted Bunting; near-threatened Eurasian Oystercatcher, Asian Dowitcher, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Marsh Grassbird, and Reed Parrotbill; and vulnerable Chinese Egret, Saunders’s Gull, and Yellow Bunting. We led a group one of whose members found the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

“ — We recorded the first Blue Whistling Thrush in Shanghai since 1987. Other interesting finds were Horned Grebe on Chongming, Oriental Plover on Hengsha Island, Ruddy Kingfisher at Yangkou, Red-throated Thrush at Century Park, singing Sakhalin Leaf Warbler at Zhongshan Park, Grey-crowned Warbler, Two-barred Warbler, Pechora Pipit, and Citrine Wagtail at Nanhui, White-shouldered Starling on Lesser Yangshan, Rufous-faced Warbler at Nanhui and on Lesser Yangshan, and Bluethroat at Nanhui and on Chongming.”

Featured image: Screenshot of our newly published report, “Shanghai-area Springtime Birding, 2016,” now available in the Reports section of shanghaibirding.com.

Shanghai Early Spring Subway Birding

It’s spring in Shanghai! The equinox hasn’t arrived yet, but Chinese New Year has passed, and in the parks the flowers are blooming. In recent days in Shanghai, Elaine and I have noted Black-necked Grebe in breeding plumage, seen Greater Scaup lingering at Dishui Lake, and found Red-throated Thrush amid lawn-loving Dusky Thrush at Century Park.

We reached all our destinations on foot or by subway, with two short taxi rides thrown in. Development continues in Shanghai, and it’s a double-edged sword; the ever-more efficient transportation system allows one to bird Nanhui cheaply, but development is also threatening Nanhui, as more and more reed beds fall to the bulldozer and backhoe.

On Mon. 7 March 2016, fresh from our big trip to Dulong Gorge in Yunnan, Elaine and I did our first birding of the season at Zhongshan Park. We ran into Wāng Jìn Róng (汪进荣), a delightful local man who loves to photograph birds. He never tires of watching the Red-flanked Bluetail and Common Kingfisher that use the wooded area around the little central pond. When we heard the thin calls of Yellow-bellied Tit and discovered them on a bare branch across from where we were standing, Mr. Wang said we had brought him good luck. We heard Eurasian Siskin and Chinese Grosbeak in the trees above. Japanese Tit are singing, and Chinese Blackbird have begun to breed. Pale Thrush are a reminder of winter. Mr. Wang proudly showed us the Indochinese Yuhina he photographed recently at Yangpu Park, and he told us that he has seen Silver-throated Bushtit at Zhongshan.

On Fri. 11 March, Elaine and I made Elaine’s first visit ever and my first since Christmas Day 2011 to Shanghai Botanical Garden. We noted 23 species. 2 Collared Finchbill raised the old question of whether they are really wild, and 2 Yellow-browed Warbler may be a sign that the spring migration is beginning or may merely signify that Yellow-browed remains in Shanghai throughout the winter; Shanghai definitely teeters on the northern edge of this species’ winter range.

We searched in vain for White’s Thrush, and we found only 1 Grey-backed Thrush. Among our 9 Pale Thrush was one completely tamed by the photographers, whose latest innovation is to spear mealworms on a thin, stiff wire and induce the Daurian Redstart to hover to reach them. The redstart was uninjured by this tactic, which is an ethical step up from fastening mealworms with tiny, ingestible nails (as I have previously found Shanghai-area photographers doing). The photographers were chasing the Pale Thrush off, but so hooked was the thrush on the free protein that it refused to go away and made occasional dives at the baited wire. Elsewhere, we heard in this most urban of settings the same “tseep, tseep” contact call that Pale Thrush make in the much wilder country near Elaine’s hometown in Heilongjiang—Pale Thrush breeding ground.

A search for buntings in the nursery area turned up 4 Black-faced Bunting, and an old memory of finding small waders floating on garbage in the river was revived when we saw 5 Common Snipe on Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河). Just as four and a half years ago, these poor snipe were on mats formed by garbage that coalesces in the stagnant water. The snipe were only roosting there, of course, and presumably at dusk they jump onto the nearby muddy ground of the nursery to feed; in any case, the canal, completely walled in, offers zero mud on which to forage.

Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河), Shanghai Botanical Garden, 11 March 2016. Look for Common Snipe floating on mats of garbage in the narrow canal.
Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河), Shanghai Botanical Garden, 11 March 2016. Look for Common Snipe floating on mats of garbage in the narrow canal. (Craig Brelsford)

Shanghai Botanical Garden Gate 4 lies 700 m from Shilong Road Station, Metro Line 3. It is the first place I ever birded in China, two weeks after my arrival in Shanghai in October 2007. I relived with Elaine the thrilling moment when I beheld White’s Thrush for the first time; a moment that at that time and at my level of experience with Asian birds was just as breathtaking as finding Rufous-breasted Bush Robin last month in Dulong Gorge.

On Sat. 12 March, Elaine, Michael Grunwell, and I found 40 species at Nanhui and Huangpu Park on the Bund. We covered Nanhui and the Bund on foot and walked about 16 km. At Nanhui we met a worker in a digging machine carving ditches through which to drain large areas of reed bed, which he said when dry will be leveled and replanted with trees. The operation was well under way; water was running through the newly cut channels as fast as a mountain stream.

This distressing transformation is going to spell disaster for the Reed Parrotbill that are still fairly common at Nanhui. It will mean the end of habitat much relied on by Pallas’s Reed Bunting and Chinese Penduline Tit for winter habitat, it will take away breeding habitat for Oriental Reed Warbler, and it will add to the troubles faced by Oriental Stork and Black-faced Spoonbill, already under pressure at Nanhui.

Digging machines at work at Nanhui, 12 March 2016. A scheme is under way to replace dozens of acres of reed-bed habitat with tree plantations. The loss of the reed beds will be yet another disaster for the Reed Parrotbill, Brown-cheeked Rail, Pallas's Reed Bunting, and other species dependent on reed beds, just as the drying up of nearby ponds and marshes has been bad news for species such as Black-faced Spoonbill and Oriental Stork. It is amazing to me that the city planners fail to see the value of the Nanhui wetlands and reed beds. Everywhere there is this desire to change, to alter, to transform. Photos by Elaine Du.
Digging machines at work at Nanhui, 12 March 2016. A scheme is under way to replace dozens of acres of reed-bed habitat with tree plantations. The loss of the reed beds will be yet another disaster for the Reed Parrotbill, Brown-cheeked Rail, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, and other species dependent on reed beds, just as the drying up of nearby ponds and marshes has been bad news for species such as Black-faced Spoonbill and Oriental Stork. It is amazing to me that the city planners fail to see the value of the Nanhui wetlands and reed beds. Everywhere there is this desire to change, to alter, to transform. (Elaine Du)

I have to wonder, when these huge transformative schemes are discussed in the corridors of power, are environmental experts even present? Have the planners even heard of Reed Parrotbill? Has anyone ever shown them a picture of Black-faced Spoonbill?

The only good news is that the artificial forests that will replace the historical reed-bed habitat will attract migrating passerines, which could use some help as they make their way up and down the Chinese coast. But that was cold comfort for us. “Pale Thrush will tseep where Reed Parrotbill used to chirr,” I sighed to my companions.

The bird scene at Nanhui was more wintry than spring-y, but we found tschutschensis Eastern Yellow Wagtail assuming breeding plumage and at Dishui Lake found Black-necked Grebe in breeding plumage. Dishui also yielded 7 Greater Scaup as well as Falcated Duck and Tufted Duck. Pied Avocet, Common Snipe, Dunlin, and Common Greenshank winter in the area; we saw no early evidence of spring migration among shorebirds.

Michael and Craig birding Wài Tān. Note the light, arms-free birding method of Senior Birder Michael Grunwell and the load being shouldered by Porter Craig Brelsford. The Swarovski scope is heavy, but when dealing with a birder of Michael's acumen, it's a burden cheerfully borne. Photo by Elaine Du.
Michael and Craig birding Wài Tān. Note the light, arms-free birding method of Senior Birder Michael Grunwell and the load being shouldered by Porter Craig Brelsford. The Swarovski scope is heavy, but when dealing with a birder of Michael’s acumen, it’s a burden cheerfully borne. (Elaine Du)

Continuing our theme of birding-by-subway, we moved our party via Metro Line 16 and Line 2 to the Bund. There, Michael carefully picked through the ca. 150 Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae/mongolicus) in a fruitless search for a rarity such as Kamchatka Gull or even Heuglin’s. Black-headed Gull were there.

The problem with gulling at Shanghai’s most famous landmark is that one is simultaneously examining some of the trickiest birds known to birding and dealing with dozens of onlookers interested in the laowai with the big lens. However, this most international of meeting points also sends interesting people your way, birders such as Shelley Rutkin, who noticed our activities and introduced herself. It’s a grand place to make friends, there on the Bund with the Pudong skyline as your backdrop.

Shelley told us that a birder reported Slaty-backed Gull on the Huangpu River. This birder was near Shangri-La Hotel on the Pudong side. I have yet to bird Huangpu River from the Pudong side and will be interested to hear how others fare there. Shelley also sent us an interesting image of Red-flanked Bluetail attacking a centipede. Thanks, Shelley!

Red-flanked Bluetail attacks centipede at Century Park, 13 March 2016. Subscriber Shelley Rutkin, who contributed this photo, said that passers-by scared off the bluetail before it could finish off the centipede.
Red-flanked Bluetail attacks centipede at Century Park, 13 March 2016. Subscriber Shelley Rutkin, who contributed this photo, said that passers-by scared off the bluetail before it could finish off the centipede. (Shelley Rutkin)

On Tues. 15 March Elaine and I noted the Red-throated Thrush at Century. Elaine spotted the thrush at sunset at the spacious lawn that on park maps is labeled “Amenity Grass” (疏林草坪区). The thrush was in the company of 60 Dusky Thrush and 1 Naumann’s Thrush that had descended onto the lawn to feed. Turdus ruficollis is scarce in Shanghai; Elaine and I note it two or three times each spring and autumn.

The thrushes were among 28 species we noted on our first trip to Century in 2016. Except for the Red-throated Thrush, the lineup was typical of the place and season. We noted a personal record high of 54 Pale Thrush, and large numbers of White-cheeked Starling and Red-billed Starling were assembling in trees around the very effective Bird Island in the middle of the park. Chinese Blackbird, Chinese Grosbeak, and Japanese Tit were singing.

When we arrived at 15:00, the park was crowded with photographers taking pictures of the cherry trees in bloom. Elaine and I know the park well and retreated to the quietest corners, where we found shy species such as Yellow-throated Bunting and Grey-backed Thrush. As the sun was setting, Elaine found White’s Thrush on the edge of the spacious lawn, which 90 minutes before had been full of people and which now, with all the visitors gone, was turning into a thrush feeding ground.

Featured image: With the Pudong skyscrapers as their backdrop, Craig Brelsford (L) and Michael Grunwell scan the Huangpu River for gulls. Bund, Shanghai, Sat. 12 March 2016. (Elaine Du)

Cinereous Vulture in Shanghai

On 23-24 Jan. Elaine and I noted 68 species on one of the coldest weekends in Shanghai in recent memory. We birded Chongming, the great alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and Nanhui. With strong northwesterly winds making temperatures feel as cold as -16°C, many birds lay low, but the strange weather probably played a role in two extraordinary records: 2 Cinereous Vulture (Chongming) and 3 Red-throated Loon (Nanhui). Other notable records were 2 Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake and a winter record of Wood Sandpiper at Nanhui as well as Eastern Yellow Wagtail (taivana) and Red-throated Thrush on Chongming. On Chongming and at Nanhui, we had Red-throated Pipit and Water Pipit mixed in with Buff-bellied Pipit.

Listed as near threatened by IUCN, Cinereous Vulture breeds across Eurasia, from Spain to China. In China, Aegypius monachus breeds mainly in the west as well as in Hulunbeier in northeastern Inner Mongolia. It is a “sporadic” (MacKinnon) or “rare” (Brazil) winter visitor to the southeast China coast. The largest Old World vulture, it has a wing span of about 260 cm (8.5 ft).

From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs. They usually stayed close together.
From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs. They usually stayed close together. (Craig Brelsford)

From a distance, the huge vultures looked like dogs as they rested on the ground. The pair was approachable. They usually stayed close together. Their plumage was shiny, and they appeared healthy. I doubt, however, that the eastern end of Chongming Island is a place that can support a pair of these huge birds for long. A Chinese photographer we met said the Chongming pair was probably the same pair that had been reported recently in Nantong. As of Saturday, the vultures had been on Chongming for a week to 10 days.

According to the IUCN, only about 50 Red-throated Loon winter along the Chinese coast.
According to the IUCN, only about 50 Red-throated Loon winter along the Chinese coast. (Craig Brelsford)

Red-throated Loon is also known as Red-throated Diver. Gavia stellata breeds in tundra bogs and taiga pools above 50° N latitude in Eurasia and North America. It winters along the coasts of Europe, Asia, and North America. Though the species faces no global threat, it is rare in China, with IUCN estimating that less than 50 spend the winter on the Chinese coast. Two of our three birds were feeding in one of the few unfrozen fish ponds inside the sea wall. A third was not feeding, and our partner Michael Grunwell feared it had been contaminated by oil.

Elaine and I birded Chongming alone. On Sunday at Nanhui, Michael joined us. We car-birded both days, driving a Skoda Scout rented from Avis.

Cinereous Vulture and Red-throated Loon became the 265th and 266th species of bird that Elaine and I have noted in the Shanghai region since 11 Sept. 2015.

PHOTOS

Michael Grunwell searching for Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 24 Jan. 2016.
Michael Grunwell searching for Horned Grebe at Dishui Lake, Shanghai, 24 Jan. (Craig Brelsford)
Mixed in with the Buff-bellied Pipit were Red-throated Pipit (above) and Water Pipit.
Mixed in with the Buff-bellied Pipit were Red-throated Pipit (above) and Water Pipit. (Craig Brelsford)
Blustery winds made for tough birding. Here, Dishui Lake looks like a surging Arctic sea. Note Black-headed Gull flying in background.
Blustery winds made for tough birding. Here, Dishui Lake looks like an Arctic sea. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus, Chongming Island, Shanghai, 23 Jan. Photographed using Nikon D3S and Nikkor VR 600mm F/4G lens mounted atop Manfrotto 055 carbon-fiber tripod and MVH502AH video head. F/9, 1/1250, ISO 2000. (Craig Brelsford)