Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

Found at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui on 1 May 2019: possible White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala. The discovery by Haiming Zhao provoked excitement and uncertainty among Shanghai birders. Certain aspects of the wagtail, notably the pale mottling on its mantle, cast doubt on an identification of White-headed. “Those pale/odd-looking feathers are unusual for leucocephala,” said Gomboo Sundev, a bird-tour leader in Mongolia, where leucocephala breeds. “I have never seen such an individual of the subspecies in Mongolia” (in litt., 2019).

Beijing-based British birder Paul Holt also noted the anomaly: “I was surprised … by the Shanghai bird’s mottled mantle” (in litt., 2019). Per Alström, co-author of Pipits and Wagtails, called the pale feathers on the mantle and scapulars “puzzling” (in litt., 2 May 2019). Both experts noted the pale base to the lower mandible of the Shanghai wagtail, also unexpected in leucocephala.

Students of Yellow Wagtail will not be surprised by the uncertainty. The Yellow Wagtail complex is a “systematic conundrum”; the various subspecies of the complex often “defy separation under the biological species concept” (Tyler 2004, 689). Interbreeding of the various subspecies occurs “freely at overlap zones, producing fertile hybrids” (689), often making it the case that “the direct parentage of Yellow Wagtails cannot be deciphered” (725). There is furthermore the prospect of partial albinism, a phenomenon that can make other subspecies of Yellow Wagtail appear white-headed (Alström & Mild 2003, 80, 269, 282).

In the case of leucocephala, another reason for the uncertainty is the sheer lack of knowledge about the race, even among elite ornithologists. Holt describes White-headed Yellow Wagtail as a “poorly known subspecies” (2019); Alström says his experience with the race is limited to “a few specimens and only one live bird” (in litt., 7 May 2019); Sundev told me he has seen the subspecies only about a dozen times (2019). The lack of information forces even great birders such as Holt to speculate: “The million-dollar question is whether [the mottled mantle and pale basal half of the lower mandible of the Shanghai bird] fit within the range of variation in leucocephala, or are they suggestive or even indicative of less than thoroughbred genes?” (2019).

Why is so little known about leucocephala? The biggest reason is the remoteness of its breeding range. White-headed Yellow Wagtail breeds in sparsely populated northwestern Mongolia, at places such as Khar-Us Lake (48.083328, 92.541368) and Durgun Lake (47.673106, 93.451188) (Sundev 2019). Alström and Mild say the race breeds also in areas adjacent to northwestern Mongolia, such as the Tuva Republic of Russia and “probably … northernmost Xinjiang” (2003, 281). Even the wintering range is uncertain; Alström and Mild say leucocephala “probably winters mainly in India but the exact wintering grounds are not known” (281).

The verdict on the Shanghai wagtail? “I would say it is leucocephala,” Sundev said. Holt agreed: “I would think that these [a White-headed Yellow Wagtail found in Hong Kong in April and the Shanghai wagtail] are the first two records of leucocephala for the whole of eastern China.” Alström, however, was less than fully convinced: “I’m not aware of a leucocephala with such a pale-mottled mantle as the Shanghai bird—although I can’t say they don’t occur” (7 May 2019).

PHOTOS

L: Haiming Zhao, R: Gombobaatar Sundev
L: The unusual Yellow Wagtail seen at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai on 1 May 2019. Note the pale mottling on the mantle. R: White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Mongolia. (L: Haiming Zhao; R: Gombobaatar Sundev)
Possible Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
‘The encounter with the Western Yellow Wagtail was totally unexpected,’ said Shanghai birder Haiming Zhao, who discovered and photographed the bird. ‘The location where I found the bird is in a big area in Nanhui which has many trees newly planted. I came across this Western Yellow Wagtail when I went by this area searching for buntings. I was in my car looking at the ground 10-15 meters away to the left when I saw this special bird. Its bright gray head and yellow lower body were so eye-catching and had made it easily distinguished out there from a flock of eastern yellow wagtails on the ground’ (Zhao in litt., 2019). (Haiming Zhao)
White-headed Yellow Wagtail (Gombobaatar Sundev)
White-headed Yellow Wagtail on the breeding grounds in northwestern Mongolia. (Gombobaatar Sundev)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 2 May.

Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 7 May.

Alström, P., Mild, K., & Zetterström, B. (2003). Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press.

Holt, P. (2019). Messages to WeChat group Shanghai Birding, 1 May.

Sundev, G. (2019). Emails to author, 3 May.

Tyler, S.J. (2004). Family Motacillidae (Pipits and Wagtails). Pp. 689, 725 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2004). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 9. Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Zhao, H. (2019). Text messages to author, 2 May.

Featured image: Mysterious Yellow Wagtail, possibly White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)

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Elon Musk, Please Help Save Cape Nanhui

Dear Mr. Musk:

Tesla Gigafactory 3, the facility that you are building in Pudong, is next door to Cape Nanhui, one of the best birdwatching areas in China. Visionary Shanghai residents have attempted to establish a nature reserve at the Cape and had little success. Can you help?

Shanghai by satellite (NASA/Craig Brelsford)
Tesla’s new Gigafactory 3 is just 3 km inland from one of the most overtaxed coastlines in the world. As the latest exploiter of the resources of the Chinese coast, Tesla has a duty to counterbalance the impact its factory will have by helping establish a nature reserve at Cape Nanhui. The only coastal wetland reserve in mainland Pudong, a Cape Nanhui Coastal Wetland Reserve would preserve a natural area of indisputable worth, open up the world of nature to millions of Shanghai residents, and help erase the ecological deficit of Shanghai, a chronic environmental underperformer. (NASA/Craig Brelsford)

That we call to you for help is only natural, inasmuch as you sited your factory so close to the coastline of Cape Nanhui, the headland between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay and the most southeasterly point of Shanghai. The shape and location of Cape Nanhui make it a particularly important point on the East Asian-Australasian Migratory Flyway. Nanhui is, however, completely unprotected; not a square inch of the environmentally valuable coastline there has been set aside for conservation.

Indeed, in recent years, as a result of the development of Pudong of which your Gigafactory is a major part, Cape Nanhui has been sliced, chopped, dredged, drained, and abused. The transformation has been great, but not so much as to have robbed Nanhui of all its environmental value. The site remains highly worthy of rehabilitation and protection.

With its new factory almost literally casting a shadow over one of Earth’s most important coastlines, and as a new corporate resident of Pudong and neighbor to Cape Nanhui, Tesla has a clear duty and opportunity to help save Cape Nanhui.

Tesla should help protect Cape Nanhui for the following reasons:

(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, critical to Reed Parrotbill and other species at risk.

Reed Parrotbill
A symbol of Shanghai, Reed Parrotbill is a highly charismatic and attractive bird. Nowhere do the people of Shanghai have a better chance of seeing this near-threatened species than at Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

Critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank use Cape Nanhui. Around 2 percent of the world’s endangered Black-faced Spoonbill are dependent on Cape Nanhui for several months each year. Large reed beds remain at Cape Nanhui and are the final strongholds on the Shanghai Peninsula of near-threatened Marsh Grassbird and near-threatened Reed Parrotbill. If the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed, then the latter two species will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai.

(2) When it comes to conservation, Shanghai is clearly underperforming. More must be done, and a good place to begin is Cape Nanhui.

Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province, which is larger than the U.S. state of Delaware. There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in the megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the dramatic East China Sea coast of Shanghai, where Asia’s largest river meets the world’s most important migratory flyway.

(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui would light a fire of conservation across all China.

Shanghai birders at Nanhui
Shanghai birders at Cape Nanhui. These people are the Johnny Appleseeds of birding and nature appreciation in China. Though still few in number, they are nonetheless laying the foundation for a future in which more Chinese cherish the natural environment. (Elaine Du)

Hundreds of thousands of children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Shanghai Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland Reserve.” A day at Cape Nanhui would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster appreciation of the natural world.

If Pudong New Area can be an economic powerhouse, if it can boast a Tesla factory along with its world-class airport and world-famous skyline, and if it can offer world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must ensure world-class preservation of its priceless coastline and migratory birds.

I hope you agree, Mr. Musk, that the case for a world-class, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui is truly clear-cut.

Mr. Musk, you have both a responsibility to understand the environmental degradation that is occurring in Pudong and especially at Cape Nanhui, and an opportunity to be a leader in marrying commerce and conservation. Please tell us how Tesla proposes to do its part to help conserve your new neighbor, Cape Nanhui. Comment below or write to me (craig at shanghaibirding.com). I’ll make sure that the right people read your message.

Kind regards,

Craig Brelsford
Executive Editor
shanghaibirding.com

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Season of the Stubtail

’Tis the season of the stubtail in Shanghai. Every year in April and May, and again in September and October, birders in Earth’s Greatest City record Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps. Migrant stubtails are no strangers to the inner city; the photo above, for example, was taken at Changfeng Park, deep in Shanghai’s urban jungle.

In Shanghai, most of my records of Asian Stubtail have come from the microforests that dot the sea wall at Cape Nanhui. Migrating stubtails can, however, turn up in any wooded area. In his apartment complex recently, in a wood of about 25 square meters, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Asian Stubtail. Hiko’s find bears out Kennerley and Pearson: Migrating Asian Stubtail, they write, is “opportunistic and likely to utilise any area of coastal or inland woodland or scrub offering shade and undisturbed areas for feeding” (2010, 557).

If Asian Stubtail is seen clearly or photographed well, then one can readily appreciate its distinctiveness. No other warbler in our region has its large-headed, bull-necked, stubby-tailed structure. The long, creamy supercilium is prominent, as is the contrastingly dark eye-line. The bill is fine and pointed, the legs are long and conspicuously pale, and the crown shows faint scaling.

Once on Lesser Yangshan, the island hotspot off the coast of Shanghai, I mistook Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi for a stubtail. A closer look at my photos revealed the longer tail and spikier bill of the Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus shares the dull, uniform plumage of Asian Stubtail and like the stubtail has a long supercilium, but it has a longer tail and shorter bill. Observers of Asian Stubtail in its winter range must separate it from shortwings and wren-babblers, while viewers of the species in its breeding range need to distinguish it from Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 556).

A common passage migrant in Shanghai, Asian Stubtail breeds in Beijing, Hebei, and Northeast China and adjacent Ussuriland as well as southern Sakhalin Island, the four main islands of Japan, and the Korean Peninsula. The winter range includes Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi and much of Southeast Asia (Holt in litt., 2019; Brazil 2009, 340; Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 557).

I have noted breeding Asian Stubtail in Heilongjiang and Hebei (10 June), migrating Asian Stubtail in Jiangsu and Shanghai, and a possibly wintering Asian Stubtail on 15 Nov. 2014 at Wuyuan, Jiangxi. Regarding the Jiangxi record, the presence of the species in mid-November at that latitude (29.2142, 117.5626) is surprising but not inconceivable; Brazil (2018, 290) reports that some Asian Stubtail winter in southern Kyushu, which is farther north than Jiangxi. The Wuyuan stubtail was singing intermittently; the best explanation may be that it was a first-winter bird.

Asian Stubtail, “sit” call and short song, Wuyuan, Jiangxi, 15 Nov. 2014 (16 MB; 01:37)

PHOTOS

Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, September. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps is a tiny, brown-backed, terrestrial warbler with a short, square tail, a prominent, creamy supercilium extending onto the nape, a proportionally large head giving a bull-necked appearance, a long, narrow bill, and conspicuously pink tarsi and toes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 558-9). The species breeds in temperate northeast Asia and winters in southern China, Indochina, and Burma. It is a common migrant through the Chinese coastal provinces. This photo of a migrating stubtail was taken in September at Yangkou, Jiangsu (32.560387, 121.039821). (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May 2009. (Craig Brelsford)
Though secretive, Asian Stubtail ‘is not a particularly shy species and will approach a stationary observer closely’ (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 557). In Heilongjiang, I once watched a stubtail emerge from the frenzy of a bird wave, perch on a branch higher than I was tall, and emit at full volume its insect-like song. (Craig Brelsford)
Urban wood providing habitat for migrating Asian Stubtail, Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
In April 2019 in this tiny wood in Pudong, surrounded by skyscrapers, alert birder Hiko found his Asian Stubtail. On migration, the ground-dwelling warbler needs only an approximation to the shady, secluded woodland in which it breeds. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtai , Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
This is the Asian Stubtail that was using Hiko’s tiny wood. ‘I have a habit of checking that place each time I bird,’ Hiko said. ‘And on that day I saw a buffy supercilium and was like, “Oh shoot, maybe stubtail.”’ Especially during migration season, experienced birders know that even marginal habitats can yield birding gold. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail in typical habitat, Xidaquan National Forest, Heilongjiang, August. Kennerley and Pearson describe Asian Stubtail as ‘skulking and elusive, frequenting the shady recesses of the forest floor. … It feeds almost exclusively on the ground, searching for small insects and spiders amongst fallen leaves and twigs.’ As here, however, ‘A bird will clamber higher into scrub or bushes occasionally’ (2010, 557). (Craig Brelsford)
Habitat of Asian Stubtail, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Lush undergrowth in deciduous forest predominated by Silver Birch Betula pendula, Xidaquan. This is the spot where I photographed the stubtail above. Breeding Asian Stubtail, write Kennerley and Pearson, requires ‘thick undergrowth with ample leaf litter and fallen logs, often along rock-strewn gullies and stream beds’ (2010, 557). Coordinates of this site: 45.706108, 130.303313. Elevation: 540 m (1,770 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Species similar to Asian Stubtail. Clockwise from top: Radde's Warbler, Lesser Shortwing Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler, Eurasian Wren. (Craig Brelsford)
If seen well, Asian Stubtail is easy to identify, but glimpses of the secretive bird often are fleeting, and confusion can arise. Like stubtail, Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi (top) passes through Shanghai on migration, breeds in Northeast China, and has a conspicuous supercilium. Note however the much longer tail and spikier bill of Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus (not pictured) also has a longer tail and like Radde’s spends much less time on the ground than Asian Stubtail. Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (center L) is tiny like Asian Stubtail and has a long, fine bill, but it lacks a supercilium, is much more likely to forage in full view at eye level, and cocks its tail straight upward (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 556). In Southern China, Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris (center R) and Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler Napothera epilepidota (bottom) are secretive, ground-dwelling birds with nubby tails, but they lack the prominent supercilium of Asian Stubtail. (Craig Brelsford)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, M. (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Brazil, M. (2018). Birds of Japan. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Brelsford, C. (2017). Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/gansu-bluetail/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 June 2017 (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2014). Wuyuan & Poyang Lake, November 2014 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/wuyuan-2014/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2015). Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015: Part 4: Second Trip to Elaine’s Hometown (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/inner-mongolia-heilongjiang/part4/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2016). Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/boli-may-june-2016/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Clement, P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 588 (Asian Stubtail) 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.

Holt, P. (2019). Series of text messages between Holt and author, 20 April.

Kennerley, P. & Pearson, D. (2010). Reed and Bush Warblers. London: Christopher Helm.

REVISIONS

1. On 22 April 2019, Beijing added to breeding range of Asian Stubtail, Paul Holt added to bibliography.

Featured image: Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May. (Craig Brelsford)

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Trip Report: Tianmushan, 1-3 April 2019

by Paul Hyde
for shanghaibirding.com

Wanting to swap the concrete jungle of Shanghai for a few days of fresh air and stunning scenery, a friend and I headed to the mountains of Zhejiang for some hiking and birding. We spent two and a half peaceful days at Tianmushan (天目山). As we visited outside of peak times, we barely saw another soul as we wandered around the mountain and inside the picturesque Scenic Area. Using the reports by Craig and Hiko as a guide, we were fortunate to encounter many of the area’s specialty birds. We recorded 61 species in total, with the main highlights being:

3 Koklass Pheasant
Silver Pheasant
Short-tailed Parrotbill

Other birds generally out of range in Shanghai included:

Black Eagle
Black Kite
Collared Owlet
Great Barbet
Crested Kingfisher
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker
Grey-headed Woodpecker
Orange-bellied Leafbird
Chestnut-crowned Warbler
Rufous-faced Warbler
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler
Indochinese Yuhina
Buffy Laughingthrush
Rufous-capped Babbler
Grey-headed Parrotbill
White-crowned Forktail
Little Forktail

Day 1, Mon. 1 April 2019

We hired a rather plush BYD car and drove the 270 km (170 mi.) from Shanghai to our inn, Hǎisēn Nóngzhuāng  (海森农庄; 135-0681-8151), as mentioned in Hiko’s report. We arrived at around 10:30 a.m. and once unpacked, we took the shuttle bus to the top of the mountain, Longfengjian (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201), and slowly walked the 14 km down the mountain. As was not the case with Hiko, our bus fortunately allowed us to continue past the checkpoint without entrance tickets to the Scenic Area, and so we avoided slogging up the mountain and instead enjoyed a leisurely walk downhill.

Around the top entrance to the Scenic Area, we noted skulking Chinese Hwamei, Yellow-throated Bunting, Brambling, and Eurasian Jay. Great Spotted Woodpecker were drumming noisily. The walk downhill began quietly, and often the mountain would be deathly silent, the silence only being pierced as we hit upon a small wave of birds. The first wave contained Hartert’s Leaf Warbler in full song, as it was throughout our visit. A group of Indochinese Yuhina brought me my second lifer in quick succession, with a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker mixed in amongst the group.

The pattern of alternating silence and quick, noisy action continued, with Huet’s Fulvetta, Rufous-faced Warbler, and Chestnut-crowned Warbler adding much interest to the walk. As we approached the bottom of the mountain, the day’s highlight arrived. My ears were on high alert following Hiko’s report of regular Short-tailed Parrotbill sightings in this area. Sure enough, I heard a trill and a group of 6 inquisitive individuals appeared in response to playback, hopping remarkably close to see what the fuss was all about. The day was rounded off when just a minute down the road, more activity revealed another highlight, a flock of Grey-headed Parrotbill.

Back around the hotel, Russet Sparrow were the common sparrow.

Day 2,  Tues. 2 April 2019

This morning we asked our hotel owner to drive us up to Longfengjian at 6 a.m., as the public shuttle bus doesn’t start operating until later on. Drawing on his guanxi, he got us into the park earlier than the advertised 8 a.m. opening time. This allowed us to explore the park, where we heard the familiar call of Collared Owlet. Actually seeing the birds is usually a struggle, but we were lucky enough to stumble across a pair duetting in the open. Our main hope first thing in the morning, however, was finding pheasants, as a group of friends had found Elliot’s Pheasant on the mountain a few weeks earlier. With this information in mind, we were listening out for any noise in the dense undergrowth. A little rustling noise caught our attention, and we glimpsed a Silver Pheasant scuttling away. Further on, the highlight of the trip occurred as we spotted a pheasant scurrying in the long grass. It kindly crossed the path ahead of us and paused for a few short seconds, allowing us to enjoy a resplendent male Koklass Pheasant! To our surprise, we encountered two further male Koklass Pheasants in similar situations. Other highlights inside the Scenic Area included Great Barbet, two Black Eagle soaring overhead, a large flock of Buffy Laughingthrush, and a Blue Whistling Thrush. An Orange-bellied Leafbird sang loudly near the entrance and posed obligingly.

We left the Scenic Area and walked down the mountain, enjoying many similar birds as yesterday and making for a total of 23 km of walking for the day.

Day 3, Wed. 3 April 2019

We again asked the hotel owner to drive us to the top of the mountain and again strolled down. One bird that we hoped to find but that had eluded us on days 1 and 2 was Little Forktail. We had seen several White-crowned Forktail near the many streams, but had no luck with Little Forktail.

The day started with some nice additions to the trip list: A pair of Grey-headed Woodpecker, several Red-billed Blue Magpie, good views of Brown Dipper and Mountain Bulbul, as well as the welcome sight of more Short-Tailed Parrotbills. Ready to admit defeat after checking every stream three times over, we finally found a pair of Little Forktails on the stream right next to the lower ticket entrance to the park. Contented, we headed back to the car and began the journey home.

About a kilometer into our journey, a Crested Kingfisher perched on a wire over a stream, a great ending to the trip.

PHOTOS

Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha (Paul Hyde)
Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha in bamboo undergrowth at Tianmu. The species is commonly recorded on the mountain, and it is likely that a well-established population exists there. Other gamebirds present in the nature reserve are Silver Pheasant Lophura nycthemera and Elliot’s Pheasant Syrmaticus ellioti. (Paul Hyde)
Short-tailed Parrotbill (Paul Hyde)
Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana. (Paul Hyde)

FURTHER READING

For more on Tianmushan and other birding hotspots in the mountains of southeast China, please see the following posts on shanghaibirding.com:

Tianmushan

Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)
Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 2)
Tianmushan in July
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip

Other

Emeifeng 2015, Part 1
Emeifeng 2015, Part 2
Home to Shanghai (Plus a Jaunt to Fujian)

Featured image: Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana, West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve, Zhejiang, April 2019. (Paul Hyde)

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Per Alström Interviewed on Radio Beijing International

Per Alström
Per Alström

Whether they know it or not, all birders, Chinese or foreign, operating in China have been influenced by Per Alström. Radio Beijing International interviewed Per in November 2018. In the interview, Per talks about speciation, taxonomy, his early interest in birds, and his difficult and ground-breaking initial expeditions to China in the 1980s. Get to know this friendly giant of birding by listening to the interview below (23:56; 13 MB).

The image above shows some of the species that the Swedish ornithologist has either discovered or redefined. Clockwise from top left: Emei Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus emeiensis, Spotted Elachura Elachura formosa, Sichuan Bush Warbler Locustella chengi, and Alström’s Warbler Phylloscopus soror (Per Alström).

I have known Per since 2013. In the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan in 2014, I played a small part in Per’s discovery of yet another species, Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii.  I wrote about the experience in a 2016 post, “A Minor Role in a Major Discovery.”

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‘You Could Be a Star Here’: Birds Common in Germany but Rare in China

by Kai Pflug
for shanghaibirding.com

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

I spent most of July 2018 in Germany, mostly to visit my mother, but of course I took my camera as well. As I only started birding once living in Shanghai, I am not very familiar with German birds and still feel excited about them.

Sending some of the photos I took to my friend Kaca back in Shanghai, a certain theme started to emerge, as you can see from his replies to my messages:

• I like the robin, the redstart and the woodpecker—quite similar to Xinjiang birds indeed …
• We have the linnet in Xinjiang too …
• Great to see the Red-backed Shrike—you don’t need to go to Xinjiang for it …

So let’s take a look at some of these birds (to be honest, I mostly write these blog posts to have an outlet for my photos, so don’t be surprised if this post is as photo-heavy as my previous few ones).

The linnet is a finch found in Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia—which includes Xinjiang but not Shanghai. The German name, Bluthänfling (“blood linnet”) refers to the most obvious feature of the male, the red breast. What is the function of the red breast? Well, presumably to attract a mate—see photo for details …

Common Linnet (Kai Pflug)
Common Linnet Linaria cannabina. (Kai Pflug)
Common Linnet (Kai Pflug)
Common Linnet mating. (Kai Pflug)

For the Red-backed Shrike, the situation is somewhat similar: not rare in Europe or Xinjiang, but only very few records in Eastern and Southern China (not sure how reliable these are). Again, the German language has a slightly more expressive name to offer, Neuntöter (“killer of nine”—it was once believed that this bird starts eating only after having killed nine prey items and impaled them on thorns). Of course, in Shanghai we have the Long-tailed Shrike as the main representative of this family.

Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio (Kai Pflug)
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio. (Kai Pflug)

The European Goldfinch—despite its name—can also be found in Xinjiang as well as in Europe and presumably on the far western border of Tibet. This is one of the most colorful small passerines commonly seen in Germany. As the photo shows, it is rather fond of thistles—which seems like a rather slow way of getting nutrition, but then maybe there is not too much competition for this.

European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis (Kai Pflug)
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis. (Kai Pflug)

I know it is not very cool to quote Wikipedia, but this bit is nice, though not particularly relevant to our topic: “If [caged] goldfinches are kept with canaries, they tend to lose their native song and call in favor of their cage-mates’ songs. This is considered undesirable as it detracts from the allure of keeping goldfinches.” Interesting.

The European Robin also makes its occasional appearance in Xinjiang, as well as extremely rare appearances further east (for example in Beijing at the Temple of Heaven in November 2013 and 2014). Much easier to see in Germany, of course …

European Robin Erithacus rubecula (Kai Pflug)
European Robin Erithacus rubecula. (Kai Pflug)

Of course, in July, juveniles are also well-represented.

European Robin juvenile. (Kai Pflug)
European Robin, juvenile. (Kai Pflug)

A bird that can occasionally be found in Eastern China is the Common Starling—though it is not really that common here (in fact, when I sent a starling photo to my friend Kaca, he replied, “Can you ask the bird here to come here—I can make it a star!”). The Common Starling is actually the bird of the year 2018 in Germany (nominated by some NGO), so it makes sense to feature it in this post.

Common StarlingSturnus vulgaris. (Kai Pflug)
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris. (Kai Pflug)

To see a Barn Owl in China, one has to both be lucky and travel to border areas of Yunnan. Fortunately, it is a bit easier for Germans, though it also took a bit of time to find some there. Some local naturalists support the owls by setting up nesting boxes. The farmers who accept these installations get some support in rodent control …

Western Barn Owl Tyto alba (Kai Pflug)
Western Barn Owl Tyto alba. (Kai Pflug)
Western Barn Owl with prey. (Kai Pflug)
Western Barn Owl with prey. (Kai Pflug)

Common Cranes are not particularly rare in China in winter—but they are becoming almost abundant in Germany. One place I visited boasts of hosting more than 10,000 Common Cranes in autumn. And I have seen (and heard: the sound of elephants trumpeting) them flying over my parents’ house.

Common Crane Grus grus. (Kai Pflug)
Common Crane Grus grus. (Kai Pflug)
Common Crane, flock in flight. (Kai Pflug)
Common Crane, flock in flight. (Kai Pflug)

With an estimated 10 million breeding pairs, the Common Chaffinch (male and female shown) is by far the most common bird in Germany. In China, the species is locally common in northern Xinjiang.

Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, male. (Kai Pflug)
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, male. (Kai Pflug)
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, female. (Kai Pflug)
Common Chaffinch, female. (Kai Pflug)

Lastly, a bird that you are not likely to ever see in China—the European Green Woodpecker. It is a bit like a wryneck in that it mainly feeds on ants and does not drum. It is an attractive but shy bird (photos: adult and juvenile).

European Green Woodpecker Picus viridis, adult female. (Kai Pflug)
European Green Woodpecker Picus viridis, adult female. (Kai Pflug)
European Green Woodpecker Picus viridis, juvenile female. (Kai Pflug)
European Green Woodpecker, juvenile female. (Kai Pflug)

So, if you want to see some exotic birds and do not feel like going to Xinjiang, why not consider a trip to Germany?

The photos shown here were taken in July 2018 in and around Visselhövede, Niedersachsen, Germany.

The photo book Birds of Nanhui, Shanghai (ISBN 978-7-202-12615-8) is still available from the author (kai.pflug@gmail.com), though obviously none of the photos in this post can be found in that book.

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Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Are you interested in a fuller appreciation of the birds of the Shanghai region? If so, then visiting Shanghai’s exciting coastal sites is not enough. You need to go inland, to the hilly interior. You need to visit the Tianmu Mountains. In this two-post series, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko and I introduce you to the mountain range in Zhejiang. This first post was written by me and describes the key birds and habitats at Tianmushan. I also discuss my first trip to Tianmu in May 2015. In the second post, Hiko describes his July 2018 trip to the mountain. — Craig Brelsford

WHAT IS TIANMUSHAN?

gingko-tianmu-brelsford
Some of the only wild Ginkgo biloba trees in the world grow in the dreamlike forest near Longfengjian (龙凤尖), part of West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. The ginkgos, with their distinctive leaves, share the slopes with stands of giant Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica. Among the bird species these rich forests hold are Black Eagle, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Buffy Laughingthrush, and Speckled Piculet. (Craig Brelsford)

Tianmushan is a mountain range 270 km (168 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. The thickly forested slopes are the place closest to the city where large numbers of south China species can be seen. Elliot’s Pheasant, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Moustached Laughingthrush, Hartert’s Leaf Warbler, and Spotted Elachura are just a few of the south China species recorded at Tianmushan and scarce or unrecorded in Shanghai. Silver Pheasant, Koklass PheasantSlaty Bunting, and Crested Bunting are also at Tianmu.

With elevations reaching 1506 m (4,941 ft.), Tianmushan offers a refreshing contrast to Shanghai’s coastal environments. Springtime is the best time to visit, but summer offers good birding and a respite from the lowland heat, and in autumn migrants and wintering birds can be seen.

The best-known birding area at Tianmushan is West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. The reserve boasts a forest worthy of a fairy tale. Below Xianren Ding (仙人顶), the highest peak in the area, a boardwalk trail leads through a land of giants—stands of Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica 25 m (82 ft.) high and a thousand years old. What is claimed to be the only wild Ginkgo biloba trees in the world are also in this magical garden. Look here for Black Eagle, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Buffy Laughingthrush, among many other species.

Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica
Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica, West Tianmu. (Craig Brelsford)

At West Tianmu you can bird the following areas:

— The 12.7 km (7.9 mi.) road between Longfengjian (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201) and the hotels on the floor of the valley. Longfengjian serves as the parking area for the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding.

Forest at point on road below Lóngfèngjiān, West Tianmu Mountain, 21 Nov. 2015. Elev. here: 1020 m. Koklass Pheasant have been noted in the area. Note the bamboo in foreground, the bare trees in mid-ground, and the southern-temperate forest in background. West Tianmu offers high-quality habitat at the place where north and south China meet.
Forest at point on road below Longfengjian, West Tianmu, November. Elev.: 1020 m (3,350 ft.). Note the bamboo in foreground, the bare trees in mid-ground, and the southern-temperate forest in background. West Tianmu offers high-quality habitat at the place where north and south China meet. (Craig Brelsford)

Take the bus to Longfengjian and walk the road back. You’ll descend about 700 m (2,300 ft.). Find Koklass Pheasant along the road, Little Forktail along the streams, and Short-tailed Parrotbill amid the bamboo. You could combine this walk with a visit to the Japanese Cedar forest and Xianren Ding and thereby cover in a single day an altitudinal range of more than 1000 m (3,280 ft.).

— Area around entrance to West Tianmu.

Densely vegetated area near entrance to West Tianmu Nature Reserve.
Densely vegetated area near entrance to West Tianmu, elev. 330 m (1,080 ft.). I took this picture during my November 2015 visit to Tianmu. (Craig Brelsford)

This is one of the broadest areas in the valley and offers streamside habitat as well as scrub, garden, and secondary forest. Asian House Martin breed in the eaves of the ticket office and other buildings, the forest holds Grey-chinned Minivet and Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and the streams are good for White-crowned Forktail.

KEY BIRDS OF TIANMUSHAN

Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha

Female Koklass Pheasant, Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, Sichuan, China, 20 May 2013. Pucrasia macrolopha ranges from the Himalaya to E and N China. (Craig Brelsford)
Koklasd Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha ranges from the Himalaya to eastern China. At Tianmushan the species may be common. I got this photo at Tangjiahe Nature Reserve in Sichuan in May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)

Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela

Crested Serpent Eagle with serpent, East Tianmu Mountain.
Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela with serpent, East Tianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis

At West Tianmu we had Black Eagle cruising low over the forest. (Craig Brelsford)
Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis is often seen cruising low over the forests at Tianmushan. (Craig Brelsford)

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Laoshan, Jiangsu, 3 July 2009. (Craig Brelsford)
In the forest below Xianren Ding in May 2015, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus flew straight at me, crying loudly in response to my whistled imitation of its call. I got this photo at Laoshan, Nanjing in July 2009. (Craig Brelsford)

Swinhoe’s Minivet Pericrocotus cantonensis

Swinhoe's Minivet, Nantianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
Swinhoe’s Minivet, Nantianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus

Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus, Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park, 7 May 2015.
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus, a common bird at Tianmushan. (Craig Brelsford)

Mountain Bulbul Ixos mcclellandii

Mountain Bulbul, East Tianmu, 8 May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
Mountain Bulbul, another south China bulbul common at Tianmushan. I found this one at East Tianmu in May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Lesser Yangshan, 9 April 2015.
At Tianmu, the piercing whistle of Brown-flanked Bush Warbler is often heard in spring. (Craig Brelsford)

Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni fokiensis

Hartert's Leaf Warbler, 3 May 2015.
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni fokiensis, Emeifeng, Fujian, May 2015. Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, and Zeng Qiongyu found Hartert’s at West Tianmu in July 2017, and Paul Hyde found it there in April 2019. (Craig Brelsford)

Moustached Laughingthrush Garrulax cineraceus

Moustached Laughingthrush, Baihualing, Yunnan, 12 Feb. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
Moustached Laughingthrush, Yunnan, 12 Feb. 2014. Noted by Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, and Zeng Qiongyu at West Tianmu in July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Buffy Laughingthrush Garrulax berthemyi

Vocal skulkers, Buffy Laughingthrush are more often heard before they're seen--if you can see them at all.
Vocal skulkers, Buffy Laughingthrush are more often heard than seen. At Tianmu, look for them in the forests below Xianren Ding, where I got this photo in May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri

Little Forktail, Nabang, Yunnan, China, 30 Jan. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
Look for Little Forktail along Tianmu’s many rushing streams. (Craig Brelsford)

White-crowned Forktail Enicurus leschenaulti

White-crowned Forktail, Nabang, Yunnan, China, 30 Jan. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
White-crowned Forktail sometimes venture away from rushing streams, but they still require damp forest with at least a trickle of water nearby. (Craig Brelsford)

Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans

Russet Sparrow (Craig Brelsford)
In the villages and countryside around Tianmushan, we found more Russet Sparrow than Eurasian Tree Sparrow. (Craig Brelsford)

Crested Bunting Emberiza lathami

Crested Bunting. (Craig Brelsford)
Crested Bunting sang for us at East Tianmu in May 2015. The photos here show adult males except female bottom right. All were taken near Longheng, Guangxi in December 2015, except top right, taken 8 May 2015 at East Tianmu. The Tianmu male was found at 30.338425, 119.514693, an area of bare, rock-studded cliffs and scattered bushes—ideal habitat for this species. (Craig Brelsford)

MY FIRST TRIP TO TIANMUSHAN

I have made two trips to Tianmushan, both in 2015. I spaced the trips six months apart in order to see the site at opposite ends of the year. Here is my account of the first trip, which took place in May. (Click here for our trip of November 2015.)

Thurs. 7 May 2015
Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park (Hángzhōu Nántiānmù Sēnlín Gōngyuán [杭州南天目森林公园]), 30.184555, 119.472668

Today my wife and partner Elaine Du and I scouted Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park, 255 km (159 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. We noted 21 species. We had Swinhoe’s Minivet, heard 11 Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, and saw 3 migrant Grey-streaked Flycatcher. We also found a pair of local poachers.

We entered and exited Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park by driving past an unmanned gate. I remarked to myself that a gate unmanned in the middle of the day is a strong indication that a park is being managed incorrectly. Elaine and I drove up the mountain, stopping at a gazebo where we found Russet Sparrow and the minivet. At the end of the road we met the poachers. They arrived on a moped. I saw their speaker and cages and told them that hunting wild birds is illegal in China. The younger poacher nodded as though he understood. The older man smiled nervously.

We drove back down the mountain. I said to Elaine that poaching must be pervasive around here if two guys can drive up a mountain with their poaching gear in full view.

Later, just outside the park gate, I told a villager that poaching was going on in the nearby park and asked him where I could report the crime. The villager said, in a friendly way, that the poachers take just “a few” (少) birds and that they do it just for fun (玩儿). The villager’s instinct to protect the lawbreakers shows how acceptable poaching is to him and presumably his fellow villagers.

The Russet Sparrow were able to make a living in the park because of the seeming absence of the more aggressive Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Today and on the ensuing three days in the Tianmu Mountains, Russet Sparrow was our default sparrow, commonly noted in town and country, and much more numerous than Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which in most places was absent.

Fri. 8 May 2015
East Tianmu Mountain Scenic Area (Dōng Tiānmùshān Jǐngqū [东天目山景区]), 30.342422, 119.509490

Elaine and I noted 30 species at East Tianmu. The highlight was finding one of our target species, a singing male Crested Bunting. Driving down the mountain road in the park, at an elevation of 600 m (1,970 ft.), we approached a bus stop, next to which was a quarry with steep walls. Immediately I was reminded of the roadside cliff in Yunnan where I had seen a female Crested Bunting in 2014. I stopped the car and spotted a Crested Bunting atop the highest conifer in the area. It sang a simple song over and over. A pair of Meadow Bunting were in the area.

Earlier, at the upper terminus of the cable car, Elaine and I saw a Crested Serpent Eagle carrying, you guessed it, a snake on the highest and last ride of its life. We walked from the upper terminus of the cable car to Zhaoming Temple (Zhàomíng Chánsì [昭明禅寺], 30.349009, 119.515961). I found a leech in the leaf litter and showed it to Elaine. The creature quickly attached itself to my glove. East and West Tianmu Mountain are the most leech-infested places I have ever birded.

Beautiful Zhaoming Temple, 1,500 years old, blends into the valley. We saw 2 Eurasian Jay, heard Yellow-bellied Tit and Collared Owlet, and on the way back down found 2 Grey Treepie and heard Great Barbet.

Our day began before dawn, when I ate breakfast on the patio of our room near the entrance to East Tianmu. I saw 4 Hair-crested Drongo and a Red-rumped Swallow nesting on the underside of the patio on which I was standing. We got past the gate at East Tianmu and drove to the end of the paved road and down the dirt road to its end, noting there Blue Whistling Thrush, White-crowned Forktail, and Brown Dipper as well as 2 Grey-headed Parrotbill and the first of many Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler.

Our plan was to bird the road and temple then walk to the top of the mountain, where a friend told me Short-tailed Parrotbill and Slaty Bunting may be found. Rain dashed those plans, and I have yet to find either of those species in the Tianmu area.

Sat. 9 May 2015 and Sun. 10 May 2015
West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve (Tiānmùshān Zìrán Bǎohùqū [天目山自然保护区], 30.344148, 119.440201)

On Saturday Elaine and I noted 28 species. We spent most of the day in the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding at West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. Fog and large, noisy crowds suppressed our total.

The next day we returned to the Xianren Ding area and enjoyed a banner day, noting 42 species. The highlight was a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo appearing out of nowhere and flying straight at my head. The cuckoo was responding to the most effective “phish” I ever did, a whistle imitating its call. 5 Buffy Laughingthrush gave rise to the hope that at Tianmu the species may be locally common. Black Eagle flew low over the forest, Speckled Piculet joined a bird wave, Eurasian Jay and Black Bulbul were visually conspicuous, and Indian Cuckoo, Great Barbet, Collared Owlet, and Rufous-faced Warbler were more often heard than seen. Mugimaki Flycatcher and Brambling were among the migrants noted, with Grey Wagtail a possible breeder and White Wagtail already feeding fledglings.

Elaine and I arrived at the Japanese Cedar forest at 5:55 a.m., well before the crowds. The cool, quiet forest was full of enchantment and buzzing with birds. Chinese Hwamei cut melodiously through the silence. A standard bird wave included Black-throated Bushtit, Huet’s Fulvetta, and Indochinese Yuhina. White-crowned Forktail zipped along the creek.

As the hours wore on and noisy hikers began to pass through, Elaine and I followed an abandoned trail a few hundred meters. The trail is leech-infested, but with regular inspections of our clothing and socks pulled high over our pant legs, we managed to pick off every leech before it found our flesh.

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo was a species I hadn’t noted in five years. The cuckoos were calling from deep cover near the trail. My phish caused them to call loudly and fly in a circle around us. The call and vivid colors of this beautiful cuckoo made for an impressive spectacle. Those thrilling moments gave me energy as I drove back to Shanghai.

This post is the first in a two-post series about birding in the Tianmu Mountains.

Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)
Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 2)

Other posts about Tianmushan:

Tianmushan in July (July 2017)
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip (November 2015)
Trip Report: Tianmushan, 1-3 April 2019 (April 2019)

Featured image: Birds and plants of Tianmushan. Clockwise from top L: Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Ginkgo Ginkgo biloba, Indochinese Yuhina, and Black Bulbul. (Craig Brelsford)

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