The Case for Conserving Cape Nanhui

Editor’s note: This tranquil scene is from Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883), home of Reed Parrotbill and dozens of other species, and part of the large reed beds on the Dazhi River at Cape Nanhui. In the face of manic development, and in spite of being under no protection, Cape Nanhui conserves the best reed beds on the Shanghai Peninsula as well as mudflats critical to tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds. To save these treasures, Shanghai people must act now.

by Craig Brelsford

Who will save Cape Nanhui? Not foreigners like me, but the people of Shanghai. We foreigners are numerous in Shanghai and are disproportionately represented among the birders here. We can offer valuable perspectives. But if the people of Shanghai themselves do not wish to ensure a bright natural future for Cape Nanhui, then there is little that anyone can do.

I think that the people of Shanghai are ready for real conservation on the Shanghai mainland. Basic conservationist ideas have broad appeal, and an easily accessible, world-class, “people’s wetland reserve” at Cape Nanhui is a basic conservationist idea.

If I were Chinese and were arguing for a people’s wetland reserve for Cape Nanhui, then I would bring to light the following points.


Shanghai Peninsula
The largest component of the city-province of Shanghai is the Shanghai Peninsula, a projection of land between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the peninsula, is a critically important stop for migrating birds, and is completely unprotected. A nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a third ‘stepping stone’ for birds crossing the mouth of the Yangtze, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha. (NASA/Craig Brelsford)

Shanghai “市” isn’t really a city or a “municipality,” as 市 is often translated. It is a city-province, accountable to no government but the national government. The city-province is vast, covering an area greater than the U.S. states of Delaware and Rhode Island. Shanghai is twice as big as Luxembourg, half as large as Northern Ireland, and a third the size of Wales.

From a conservationist’s perspective, it is important to view Shanghai as a province and not a city, because cities are not usually thought of as being responsible for maintaining large nature reserves within their borders. Provinces, by contrast, are large enough to accommodate nature reserves.

I propose that, where workable, we stop referring to Shanghai as a city or municipality and start applying to it the more accurate label of city-province.


Reed Parrotbill
Reed Parrotbill is a a symbol of Shanghai and candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird. Nowhere do the people of Shanghai have a better chance of seeing this Near Threatened species than in the reed beds at Cape Nanhui. Protection of the reed beds at Cape Nanhui would send a message to the world that Shanghai takes conservation seriously. (Craig Brelsford)

Any jurisdiction covering an area the size of a small country would be expected to conserve substantial amounts of its area. In the case of Shanghai, the call to conserve is even louder, because the area it occupies is unusually important for conservation. The Shanghai Peninsula is situated between the mouth of Asia’s greatest river and Hangzhou Bay. It is on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and attracts tens of thousands of passage migrants representing a few hundred species.

Cape Nanhui is the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula and attracts passage migrants and winter visitors such as the Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Its large reed beds are the final stronghold on the Shanghai Peninsula of Near Threatened Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird, as well as Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird.

At the defunct nature reserve at Cape Nanhui, an abandoned sign about Ruddy Turnstone has been turned into a wall for a fisherman’s shack. (Craig Brelsford)

Cape Nanhui is completely unprotected; indeed, an attempt at a small wetland reserve has been shut down. The boardwalks and signs of the defunct reserve are crumbling, and the backhoes are standing by, waiting for the green light to smash what remains.


No one is saying that Shanghai, a city-province of 26 million people, needs to create a Yellowstone. Any reasonable person understands the pressures the huge population of Shanghai puts on its natural resources.

Also, it must be pointed out that in the far-flung areas of the city-province, Shanghai has made an attempt at conservation. Chongming Dongtan preserves the eastern nub of Chongming Island, and Jiuduansha covers intertidal shoals near Pudong Airport.

Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Nanhui, Shanghai, 10 April 2016.
Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Cape Nanhui, April. The reed bed over which this grassbird was displaying is the largest at Cape Nanhui. It measures 1.4 sq. km and has its center at 30.876060, 121.945305. This reed bed is one of the last places on the Shanghai Peninsula where the song flight of Marsh Grassbird can be seen. (Craig Brelsford)

But Shanghai under-performs overall. Nowhere is the poor conservation performance more evident than in Pudong, the coastal city-within-a-city. Pudong is nearly double the size of Singapore and is half the size of Hong Kong. Yet the district contains zero wetland reserves on its mainland. Both Singapore and Hong Kong manage to hold in reserve significant portions of their territory.

The southeastern tip of Pudong is Cape Nanhui, a place that despite being under no protection still brims with natural treasures. No place on the Shanghai Peninsula has as many reed beds. The projection of land attracts birds making the long journey across Hangzhou Bay and the wide mouth of the Yangtze.

Moreover, Cape Nanhui is easily accessible to common people. It would be the perfect place for a world-class wetland reserve on the model of Sungei Buloh in Singapore and Yeyahu National Wetland Park in Beijing.


Craig talks to Pudong TV about the opportunities for conservation at Nanhui. Photo by Elaine Du.
I November I was interviewed by Pudong TV about the opportunities for conservation at Nanhui. (Elaine Du)

On I have addressed the issue of conserving Nanhui:

Save the Nanhui Wetland Reserve! (cri de coeur plus call to action)
Remnants (preparation for probable demise of Cape Nanhui)
Reed Parrotbill, Symbol of Shanghai (naming Reed Parrotbill Provincial Bird of Shanghai will send a message about the importance of the reed beds such as those at Cape Nanhui)
Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Nanhui (proof of yet another endangered species using the defunct wetland reserve at Nanhui)
Will the Spoon Survive? (Nanhui is not the only area under threat. You ought to see the mess at Yangkou, Jiangsu. Conserving Nanhui will offset the losses elsewhere on the Chinese coast and will put a conservationist feather in Shanghai’s cap)
Meet Kai Pflug, Nanhui’s Mr. Clean (tribute to a birder doing his small part)


We foreigners have had much to say about the future of Nanhui. I would like to hear more from Chinese. Is the case for a world-class wetland reserve at Nanhui convincing to you? If so, then what do you propose to do to bring it about?
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First Mainland Shanghai Record of Hooded Crane

Editor’s note: The photo above shows Hooded Crane flying above fields at Nanhui on 12 Nov. 2016. Before our sighting, Grus monacha had never been recorded on the Shanghai Peninsula. Each year, about 100 Hooded Crane overwinter on eastern Chongming Island, 60 km north of Nanhui at the mouth of the Yangtze River.

by Craig Brelsford

Elaine Du and I birded three of the four days between Sat. 12 Nov. and Tues. 15 Nov. 2016. We noted 105 species. On Saturday we had the first-ever record in Nanhui of Hooded Crane. We also found Baikal Teal on Saturday as well as Greater White-fronted Goose, Tundra Swan, and Jack Snipe. Sunday was also spent at the coastal site in Pudong and gave us calling Brown-cheeked Rail as well as Hair-crested Drongo and late Rufous-tailed Robin. Other weekend Nanhui records were endangered Black-faced Spoonbill holding steady at the defunct nature reserve (30.920500, 121.973167), Amur Falcon feasting on gnats small enough for leaf warblers, an uncommon Shanghai record of Water Pipit, and two more sightings of endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting at its increasingly reliable site (30.850707, 121.863662). On Tuesday at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park (31.221888, 121.420066) we had a very late Narcissus Flycatcher.

The flyby sighting of Hooded Crane was Elaine’s finest hour. Michael Grunwell was in the back seat and, blinded by the roof, would have never seen the crane. I was busy driving along a very uncertain dirt track. We see so many Grey Heron at Nanhui, and it is so easy to disregard them, and sure enough two of the three birds flying together were Grey Heron. But one was not, and Elaine caught it.

Elaine got her first pair of binoculars in 2013 and is now making big discoveries. “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Thanks to Shanghai birder Xiao Cao for his knowledge of species histories in Shanghai. It was he who told us that our Hooded Crane was a first record for mainland Shanghai.

Michael Grunwell, Iron Track, 5 Nov. 2016. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Michael Grunwell at Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883), 5 Nov. 2016. Muddy areas around Iron Track line the Dazhi River and are a remnant of the habitat that used to cover the area. The area provides excellent habitat for Reed Parrotbill and wintering Chestnut-eared Bunting and Jack Snipe. The latter species was found 12 Nov. 2016 by our group. (Craig Brelsford)

The experience with Jack Snipe occurred Saturday near dark at Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883). Our partner Michael Grunwell, Elaine, and I were looking for Brown-cheeked Rail. The snipe sneezed when flushed, flew to a towering height in a tighter formation than is typical in Common Snipe, and after all the fuss ended up landing only 150 m from where they had started.

When the snipe began their flight, I figured they were Common and continued looking for rails. Then I heard Michael cry out, “Possible Jack!” The snipe flew directly over us. The bill was noticeably shorter than the bill of the Common I have come to know. Elaine too saw the short bill.

The three of us feel confident in our record of Jack Snipe and urge others to be on the lookout for this species. Get pictures if you can.

Another look at Iron Track area, looking back toward the road.
Another view of Iron Track, looking back toward the road. (Craig Brelsford)

Iron Track is part of the extensive reed-bed habitat lining the Dazhi River (大治河). It provides excellent habitat for Chinese Pond Heron, White-breasted Waterhen, Brown-cheeked Rail (and possibly Water Rail), wintering Bluethroat, and wintering Jack Snipe. Reed Parrotbill is resident.

The beds are on either side of the river, are unlikely to be developed, and are in good condition. They are a remnant of the habitat that used to cover the entire area.


On Sunday at Nanhui we positively identified 2 Brown-cheeked Rail on call. Here is the recording I made (00:28; 2.7 MB):

The pitch matches closely the pitch in the recordings by Anon Torimi of rails assigned to Rallus indicus. I downloaded Torimi’s recordings from I invite Shanghai birders to do the same. Get to know the sounds of both R. indicus and the extralimital R. aquaticus and start adding these species to your own Shanghai lists.


Amur Falcon catching gnats at Nanhui, 12 Nov. 2016.
Amur Falcon catching gnats at Nanhui, 12 Nov. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

On Saturday we were amazed to see Amur Falcon catching flies with their talons. We had five near Big Bend (31.000321, 121.938074). In top left of the three-panel photo above, the falcon has spotted its prey and is accelerating toward it. In bottom left, the gnat is visible as the falcon zeroes in. At right, the falcon raises its talons for its tiny prey.

The instinct to use its talons is inefficient in this case and shows that Amur Falcon has evolved to hunt larger game. Smaller aerialists such as swifts, nightjars, swallows, and flycatchers snatch up their prey directly with the mouth.


Tommy Pedersen is a pilot with Emirates. He is Norwegian and has been based in Dubai for many years. An accomplished birder, Tommy created This outstanding site is the best introduction to birding in the United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Peninsula.

Tommy recently sent a message to

I had a work flight to Shanghai 9-11 November 2016, and following Craig’s excellent site, I decided to visit Nanhui.

I booked a room at Holiday Inn Express (no English spoken, cold and drafty rooms), close to the Magic Parking Lot and Nanhui Nature Reserve. Two targets: Saunders’s Gull and Reed Parrotbill.

On Day 1, 9 November, I was extremely lucky and bumped into Craig and Elaine with Erica, who took me to the nature reserve. We had a jolly good time (at least I was), and Saunders’s Gulls were soon spotted (

Day 2 saw me walking 16 km in total, enjoying a near windless morning with massive migration overhead. It was magic:

Hope to be back soon

Tommy Pedersen


Michael Grunwell and Elaine Du view Baikal Teal on the coastal road at Nanhui, 12 Nov. 2016.
Michael Grunwell and Elaine Du view Baikal Teal on coastal road at Nanhui, 12 Nov. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Rufous-tailed Robin <em>Larvivora sibilans</em>, record for Shanghai. 13 Nov. 2016, Microforest 4, Nanhui.
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans, late record for Shanghai. 13 Nov. 2016, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

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Reed Parrotbill, Symbol of Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford

Did you know that Shanghai is going to have a municipal bird? Guess what the two main candidates are: Light-vented Bulbul and Reed Parrotbill. Although I can understand why Light-vented Bulbul needs to be in the running, Reed Parrotbill is clearly the better choice. Let me tell you why.

Reed Parrotbill
Reed Parrotbill, lively sprite of the Shanghai reed beds. (Craig Brelsford)

The argument for Light-vented Bulbul is that it is a bird of the people. As the versatile little bird lives even in the deepest recesses of the urban jungle, many Shanghai residents are familiar with it. Reed Parrotbill, by contrast, is less well-known.

One reason Reed Parrotbill is less known, of course, is that the reeds that used to cover the coastline and line the banks of the Yangtze River are disappearing. The disappearance of those reeds is perhaps the best reason to make Reed Parrotbill the municipal bird.

Reed Parrotbill
Reed Parrotbill often shimmy up a reed to see what’s going on. (Craig Brelsford)

The choice of Reed Parrotbill would be a bold endorsement of Natural Shanghai, the city at the mouth of Asia’s greatest river and on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway. It would be a way of saying that Earth’s largest city values not only Reed Parrotbill but also the threatened habitat in which Reed Parrotbill lives.

The choice of Light-vented Bulbul, by contrast, would constitute a failure of imagination. It would be not a celebration of Natural Shanghai but a ratification of the environmental degradation afflicting this city. Light-vented Bulbul is a species that thrives in the degraded habitats that are all too common in Shanghai.

Reed Parrotbill
In breeding season Reed Parrotbill is more conspicuous than at other times of the year. (Craig Brelsford)

The choice of Reed Parrotbill for municipal bird is far more than a political statement. The bird is full of personality and is beautiful, with rusty flanks, a grey head with a long black eyebrow, and a big yellow bill. The latter it uses to pry open reeds to get the insect larvae inside.

Reed Parrotbill
Reed Parrotbill is not just a birder’s bird but is the people’s bird. Paradoxornis heudei is a species totally dependent on reeds, a plant that is part of the very fabric of Shanghai. Reed Parrotbill represents well the natural heritage of Earth’s greatest city. (Craig Brelsford)

Reed Parrotbill has a varied repertoire of calls, all lively and colorful. To this day the calls and song of this species are among the most common bird sounds heard at Nanhui and on Hengsha Island and Chongming Island.

The chirr sound is perhaps the best-known. I recorded all the sounds below at Nanhui, with the exception of “siren,” recorded on Chongming. Enjoy them and get to know Shanghai’s best choice for municipal bird, Reed Parrotbill.

chirr (00:03; 930 KB)

insistent (00:05; 1 MB)

plaintive (00:04; 958 KB)

merry (00:20; 1.6 MB)

siren (00:04; 954 KB)


Because of the continued degradation and reclamation of the reed-bed habitat on which it is totally dependent, Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei is listed by IUCN as Near Threatened. In Chinese it is known as “Chinese Parrotbill” (Zhèndàn Yāquè, 震旦鸦雀). Nearly its entire range is in China, from Heilongjiang south to Zhejiang. Small parts of its distribution spill over into Mongolia and the Russian Far East.


Do you agree that Reed Parrotbill should be the municipal bird of Shanghai? Would you prefer another species? Readers want to know what you think! Leave a comment below.

Featured image: Reed Parrotbill, a Chinese near-endemic, a species under threat, a bird of personality and beauty, and a symbol of Shanghai and the Chinese coast. Far left: Yangkou, Jiangsu, May. Middle, top: Jiangsu, October. Middle, bottom and far right: Cape Nanhui, May. (Craig Brelsford)
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