Book Review: Birds of Japan & Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Shanghai birders should use Birds of Japan and Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas. I served as proofreader of both books, published by Helm Field Guides. Keep Japan on your bookshelf or in your car as you bird the coast of China, and use Bhutan as your first reference in western Yunnan.

Authored by Mark Brazil, Birds of Japan follows Brazil’s 2009 opus, Birds of East Asia, the best field guide for the coastal provinces of China. Birds of Japan sees Brazil returning to his first love, Japan, where Brazil has been active since the 1980s.

Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas, by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, and Sherub, covers not just Bhutan but also the neighboring Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. All border Tibet, and Arunachal Pradesh extends east to a point only 80 km (50 mi.) from the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan.

Japan and Bhutan each come with introductions to their regions, richly illustrated with maps and photographs. With its detailed “Where to Bird” section, Grimmett et al.’s 38-page opener is as thorough an introduction as a birder is likely to find to the eastern Himalayas. Brazil’s is less extensive but still does justice to a biogeographically complex archipelago that stretches 3000 km (1,900 mi.) from subarctic Hokkaido to the subtropical Ryukyus.

Japan and Bhutan repurpose much artwork from earlier Helm works, Japan drawing from Birds of East Asia and Bhutan from Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. There is, however, much that is new. In Japan no less than 18 new illustrations of White Wagtail are offered, 12 covering the three ssp. (leucopsis, ocularis, lugens) most common on the Chinese coast. Illustrations better than those in Birds of East Asia are provided for Chinese Egret and several species of duck.

Published nearly a decade after East Asia, Japan incorporates many of the ornithological advances made since 2009. For example, in East Asia Brazil incorrectly writes that the calls of Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are indistinguishable, and the illustrations suggest that the morphological differences between the two species are appreciable. In Japan, Brazil describes the higher-pitched call of Pale-legged, and the new paintings convey more accurately the near indistinguishability of the species on plumage and bare parts.

To a China-based birder, Birds of Japan offers regional interest and usefulness in the coastal provinces, where it can serve as a backup and partial update to Birds of East Asia. Japan also provides a foretaste of a second edition of East Asia. “The publisher has expressed strong interest in a new edition,” Brazil wrote, “and I have the artist already lined up. I am just awaiting a contract” (in litt., 2019).

Bloomsbury touts Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas as “the one guide you’ll need on a visit to this incredible corner of Asia.” Including the neighboring Indian states along with Bhutan was an inspired decision, broadening the scope of the book without diminishing its coherence and increasing its usefulness in the Himalayan regions of China. For birders in the Dulong Gorge and at Baihualing, Ruili, and other hotspots in western Yunnan’s Gaoligong Mountains, Bhutan can replace Craig Robson’s Birds of Southeast Asia. Bhutan has better species descriptions than Robson’s sometimes cryptically concise work, and its illustrations excel those in Robson.

Birders in other parts of China will find Bhutan useful. In Himalayan south Tibet, in particular Yadong, wedged between Sikkim and Bhutan, birders will do just fine with Bhutan and only Bhutan in their backpack. Bhutan will prove useful in regions east of Himalayan China, notably Sichuan, as well as on the Tibetan Plateau. In southern Yunnan (Xishuangbanna), whose avifauna is more Southeast Asian than Himalayan, Bhutan can back up Robson.

Like Birds of Japan, Bhutan includes recent ornithological breakthroughs, among them Himalayan Thrush, a species described in 2016 by Alström et al., and Bugun Liocichla, discovered in 2006 in Arunachal Pradesh. Other Himalayan specialties sought after by China-based birders, such as Sclater’s Monal, Fire-tailed Myzornis, and Beautiful Nuthatch, receive ample coverage in the species accounts and introduction of Bhutan.

China sorely lacks good bird books. On the Helm Field Guides bookshelf, there are gaps where works such as Birds of Sichuan and Yunnan and Birds of the Tibetan Plateau should be. Birders in China have long had to cobble together field-guide strategies, using as a major component field guides covering regions of Asia bordering China. One welcome development has been the increasing quality of those guides. Nowhere are the improvements more evident than in Birds of Japan and Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas.

Do you own either of the books discussed in this article? Add your review in the comments below.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark. (2019). Email to author, 9 August.

Featured image: Covers of Birds of Japan (2018) and Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas (2019), published by Helm Field Guides/Bloomsbury. (Craig Brelsford)
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Sakhalin Leaf Warbler at Century Park

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

​Century Park, Pudong, Thurs. 5 Oct., Komatsu Yasuhiko and Craig Brelsford, 39 species. Hiko and I blew past our target of 35 species and added three species to the shanghaibirding.com Century Park all-time bird list.

The new entries on the shanghaibirding.com list are Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Dusky Warbler, and White-throated Rock Thrush. The new entries on the eBird list are those three plus Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and Taiga Flycatcher.

White-throated Rock Thrush
White-throated Rock Thrush, a new record for Pudong’s Century Park. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

See our day list here: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39560484

“Century Park is getting better,” Hiko said. My young friend is right. Century Park is an island of stability amid the sea of change (mainly degradation) that is the natural environment of Shanghai. Ten years ago this month, when Hiko was a tyke of 6, I made my first visit to urban Shanghai’s best birding area. Little has changed. The biggest difference between October 2007 and October 2017 is, the trees are taller. The wooded areas at Century have an ever-stronger woodsy feel.

Notes:

— Century yielded yet another regional record of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Evidence is growing that in the Shanghai area this passage migrant has been neglected and is more common than previously thought. I recently wrote a series of posts, the latest being this one, on distinguishing Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from its sister species Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Here is the recording I made of the calling Sakhalin on Thurs. 5 Oct. Apart from a DNA assay, call as well as song is the only reliable way to separate Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. At 4.9 kHz, the “tink” recorded below is a full kilohertz deeper than the call of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides, Century Park (31.219361, 121.551900), Pudong, 5 Oct. 2017 (00:20; 3.9 MB)

Audio spectrogram of call of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Eurasian Woodcock whizzed overhead on its way to Bird Island (31.217405, 121.554936). The woodcock was going to the one best place for it in the urban park. Bird Island, Century’s sanctuary-within-a-sanctuary, is a bird-friendly, cat-free parcel of woodland cut off from the rest of the park by a moat.

Great Spotted Woodpecker used to be found mainly on Bird Island. On Thursday we found 2 in other sectors of the park. With the steadily improving woodland in the park, expect Great Spotted Woodpecker to be seen in more and more areas. Century Park is one of the few areas in urban Shanghai where woodpeckers are commonly found.

Arctic Warbler 9 calling. No evidence Thursday of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler.

Rufous-tailed Robin in undergrowth, ID’d quickly and accurately by Hiko.

Rufous-tailed Robin
Rufous-tailed Robin made a rare foray out of the undergrowth to look at us. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

Red-flanked Bluetail, Grey-backed Thrush: common winter visitors to Shanghai and seasonal firsts for Hiko and me.

White’s Thrush: a healthy 11 taking advantage of the high-quality woodland in the park.

The shanghaibirding.com Century Park all-time list was started in 2006 by former Shanghai resident and shanghaibirding.com contributor Daniel Bengtsson. I have managed the list since 2015. The list is searchable in English, Latin, and Chinese. As an index of the birds of urban Shanghai, the list is unmatched. Again, the link: https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sites/urban-shanghai/century-bird-records/

Featured image: Komatsu Yasuhiko shows off his image of adult-male Mugimaki Flycatcher at Century Park, Shanghai, 5 Oct. 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in Shanghai: A Clearer Picture

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

On 17 Sept. 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 woods 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, May 2016). The song of Pale-legged I have heard at various locations in Shanghai as well as on its breeding grounds in Heilongjiang (Brelsford, June 2016).

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.  (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. (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. 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
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
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: 14 Jul 2020).

———. Kamchatka Leaf Warbler in Shanghai. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 6 June 2017 (accessed: 14 Jul 2020).

———. Separating Pale-legged & Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on Call. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 31 Aug. 2017 (accessed: 14 Jul 2020).

———. Pale-Sak Calls: An Addendum. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 10 Sept. 2017 (accessed: 14 Jul 2020).

———. Boli County, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016: Introduction. Post to shanghaibirding.com published 15 June 2016 (accessed: 14 Jul 2020).

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: 14 Jul 2020).

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: 14 Jul 2020).

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. 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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