Birding Western Shanghai

by Steven Bonta
for shanghaibirding.com

Steven Bonta
Steven Bonta

Western Shanghai, especially the Qingpu and Songjiang districts, offers a birding experience highly different from that of coastal Shanghai. Some of the species in western Shanghai are rarely seen on the coast and are more typical of interior southeast China. Here, in remnant wetlands and wooded areas, can be found Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Orange-bellied Leafbird, and Cotton Pygmy Goose. As a resident of Qingpu District living only a few kilometers from the borders of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, I have explored western Shanghai extensively. Read on to see what I have learned.

TIANMA MOUNTAIN

Tianma Mountain (31.058926, 121.141957) is part of a chain of low, forested hills in western Shanghai that includes nearby Sheshan (see below). Tianma has the best forest in Shanghai and, aside from Cape Nanhui, may be Shanghai’s most exciting birding locale. Unlike the wooded areas in the large urban parks, Tianma Mountain’s woods are pristine, with many large trees, heavy underbrush, and abundant habitat for birds. The mountain is about a kilometer from end to end, with a network of well-maintained trails, and is surrounded by a narrow road that is also very much worth birding. A couple of other smaller forested hills are adjacent to the main mountain, affording a nice wooded corridor for the birds to move about.

Because of its unique habitat and southwesterly location, Tianma has more potential than anywhere else in Shanghai for attracting birds typical of the forests of southeastern China. Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher (which may breed at Tianma), Orange-bellied Leafbird, and Chestnut Bulbul have been found there; others no doubt await discovery. Birding the rice fields, canals, and secondary woods surrounding Tianma can also be rewarding. In a few hours, a good birder can easily find 30 to 40 species at Tianma and the adjacent countryside.

The best birding is on the mountain. Tianma has Shanghai’s best numbers of Silver-throated Bushtit and Black-throated Bushtit, both of which can normally be found in flocks there. Swinhoe’s White-eye are also abundant any time of year, and along with tits, bushtits, and leaf warblers, predominate in bird waves. In winter large numbers of Yellow-bellied Tit congregate here, and Hawfinch seem to be more reliable here than elsewhere in Shanghai (except for nearby Sheshan). Large numbers of thrushes, especially Dusky Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, and White’s Thrush, also winter here, but, unlike at Century Park, they tend to congregate well off the main trails and may be hard to see. Tristram’s Bunting is another reliable winter resident. There is a small population of Red-billed Leiothrix. Another exciting and common bird at Tianma, especially in the wintertime, is Crested Goshawk. Both here and at Sheshan, these birds are often tame and approachable.

Early spring at Tianma Mountain can yield surprises, especially when the cherries are in bloom. At this time, significant numbers of Chestnut Bulbul, as well as a few Collared Finchbill, move into the area to feed. I have observed Orange-bellied Leafbird there at this time of year. The best place to find such birds is in the garden area inside the east gate and in the woods immediately surrounding it. Other birds present during migration are Ashy Minivet, Forest Wagtail, Speckled Piculet, and Grey-streaked Flycatcher.

The surrounding fields and canals can also be productive, since the entire area is comparatively rural. In the adjacent waterways and wetlands, I have found a surprising range of birds, among them Pied Kingfisher.

Tianma Mountain is best accessed by car or taxi. You will get the best results by hiking around and up the mountain. Exploring the small foot trails created to give access to the fire hydrants hidden among the trees will get you away from noisy groups on the main trails, and probably allow you to see birds too shy to be visible from well-trafficked areas.

SHESHAN

Sheshan (31.0954136, 121.1946608) is Tianma Mountain’s noisier, more touristy sibling. Located 6 km (4 mi.) northeast of Tianma, Sheshan (actually two separate mountains) is not as birdy as Tianma, but it can yield many nice birds, including Crested Goshawk (usually in the forests on the west side of the western hill, below the Catholic church and observatory; I have observed pairs of these birds at Sheshan, and they are frequently approachable). A large population of Red-billed Leiothrix makes this attractive species easy to spot on Sheshan, along with good numbers of Chinese Hwamei. The best birding is in the dense thickets around the Catholic shrine plaza and on the western side of the west hill. The east hill is also well-forested but seems to be less birdy. Sheshan is normally more crowded than Tianma, perhaps because it is more accessible and is free of charge.

DIANSHANHU SCENIC AREA

At the far western tip of Shanghai is a wooded peninsula jutting up along the western edge of Dianshan Lake. This is Dianshanhu Scenic Area (31.072524, 120.910850). The lake itself does not offer exceptional birdlife, except for large flocks of Whiskered Tern in the spring. But the wooded areas here, especially in the large garden and park area around the big pagoda (free admission), are worth a visit, especially in the spring. As at Tianma Mountain, Dianshanhu Scenic Area is usually buzzing with Swinhoe’s White-eye, and Black-throated Bushtit and Yellow-bellied Tit are common. Perhaps of greatest interest are the large numbers of Collared Finchbill that invade this spot from the west and south in the spring. When the cherries and other trees are in bloom, this bulbul, normally rare in Shanghai, can be found in appreciable numbers here. The heavily wooded islands nearby, accessible by a stepping-stone bridge, can yield other surprises. Like Tianma, Dianshanhu is not easily accessible. For birders living in downtown Shanghai without a car, the best route is to take Line 17 to Oriental Land (the last stop), and then go by taxi to Dianshanhu.

QINGXI COUNTRY PARK (DALIAN LAKE)

This is western Shanghai’s best wetland, but it is surprisingly difficult to access, and very crowded on weekends. Private vehicles are not allowed in the park, which means that birders must park outside and walk in (more than a kilometer to reach the lake). However, the park is clogged with beeping tour buses and tourist transport vehicles, as well as throngs of visitors. A large food concession area at the entrance caters to the park’s many visitors. Birders here should have a tolerance for noisy, distracting crowds. That said, Qingxi Country Park can be very rewarding. At the time of this writing, Dalian Lake is western Shanghai’s top eBird hotspot, and with good reason: the lake is relatively pristine and surrounded by some fairly well-protected wetlands. Cotton Pygmy Goose have been recorded here, as well as a nice range of waders, including Pheasant-tailed Jacana. Some daily tallies on eBird for this site exceed 50 species. But expect to do a lot of walking here! The best birding is often not on the lake itself but in the many wetlands surrounding it.

Western Shanghai is full of hidden surprises, pockets of wetland and woodland that have not yet been gobbled up by developers. For instance, only a few kilometers north of the bustling tourist town of Zhujiajiao in Qingpu District, the area around Shanhaiqiao Village features superb wetlands and remnant woodland patches that teem with birdlife, in a setting more reminiscent of rural interior China than urban Shanghai. A recent visit there by me netted 40 species, including several Eastern Buzzard, three Common Snipe, and a large variety of other waterbirds and passerines. Doubtless many more such spots await exploration in semi-rural western Shanghai.

PHOTOS

Tianma
Summit of Tianma Mountain. The hill in Songjiang District has the best forest in Shanghai. The rich habitat and southwesterly location attract birds typical of the forests of southeastern China, among them Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher and Chestnut Bulbul. (Steven Bonta)
Tianma
Densely wooded slope of Tianma Mountain. Unlike the wooded areas in Shanghai’s urban parks, the woods of Tianma are pristine, with many large trees, heavy underbrush, and abundant bird habitat. (Steven Bonta)
shrines
Plaza with Catholic shrines, Sheshan. The dense woods around the shrines harbor Red-billed Leiothrix and in winter thrushes and Hawfinch. (Steven Bonta)
wetland
Western Shanghai’s best wetland, Qingxi Country Park offers well-protected wetlands such as this. Here, birders have recorded Cotton Pygmy Goose and Pheasant-tailed Jacana. (Steven Bonta)

Featured image: Birds of western Shanghai. Clockwise from L: Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus, Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher Cyornis brunneatus, Speckled Piculet Picumnus innominatus, Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus, and Chestnut Bulbul Hemixos castanonotus. (Craig Brelsford)

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Cape Nanhui Through the Eyes of a First Time Shanghai Birder

by Brian “Fox” Ellis
for shanghaibirding.com

Fox Ellis
Brian ‘Fox’ Ellis

I arrived in Shanghai on a Monday night, expecting a full day of performances at a local school on Tuesday. Because Xi Jinping was in town, schools were closed at the last minute, and I had a day for birdwatching. I jumped online and found shanghaibirding.com, a truly wonderful website created and curated by Craig Brelsford, who now lives in Florida but still manages the site. They have great directions on where to go and what you might find there. My friend Alberto, who had never been birdwatching before, was along for the ride.

Shanghai is the largest city in the world, the size of Delaware, yet there is really good birdwatching just a few steps outside several subway stops. New York City is the only rival I can think of in the U.S., with Central Park, Brooklyn Park Zoo, and Jamaica Bay all good stops on the NYC Subway.

Granted, it is a long subway ride to Cape Nanhui, actually three subways, two transfers, and the third ride is an elevated train. But the last half hour is a visual smorgasbord, a beautiful mix of urban development, unusual architecture, recently planted parks, and historic farmland. There are traditional fishermen with seine nets in the creeks and waterways. And I saw my first Asian egrets in the trees above a small stream.

When we arrived at Dishui Lake and came up out of the subway station, the sun had come out. The faint scent of a sea breeze blew across the park that fronted Dishui Lake. Hopping along upon the pavement was a White Wagtail just a few feet from us. This bird is starkly black and white, robin-sized, and unafraid of fellow pedestrians. In a recently planted tree, right at eye level was a Goldcrest. This kinglet was so close I could almost reach out and touch it! As it rounded the branch it gave us a great series of views, top and bottom. The golden crown-stripe was obvious without binoculars. Though a new bird for me, it felt like home, reminding me of the close cousin we have back in Illinois, Golden Crowned Kinglet.

We started walking around Dishui Lake with great anticipation for more birds. Within a few hundred steps we had seen a shrike, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and a couple more wagtails. But then we encountered a large section of the lakefront that was closed off in preparation for future development. After a kilometer or more of pavement and few birds, we decided to abandon our effort to walk all the way out to the bay and back. Though we both liked to walk, it seemed foolish to spend the best hours of the morning just trying to get to the Magic Parking Lot and microforests. We called a cab.

The cab driver took us to what was the Holiday Inn, which appeared to be abandoned. Many of the doors along the balconies were open, yet there were very few cars in the parking lot. Thankfully, there were birds.

Though I consider myself an experienced birdwatcher with a good knowledge of bird families, I felt stumped again and again. And without internet access, my eBird app and Merlin were not much help. I had downloaded Merlin bird packs, but kept coming up cold on the IDs. I know that was a shorebird and this one was exhibiting flycatcher behavior, that was a shrike, and those were sparrows, but I was just making notes on identifying characteristics and hoping to ID them when I got back to my apartment, my bird book, and the internet. We walked a long stretch of recently planted trees on one side of the road and a long stretch of some sort of pampas grass and the mouth of the Yangtze River on the other side. The birds thinned out. There was a crew of about 20 men using hand scythes to cut down all the weeds under the recently planted trees.

I left my buddy to nap on the concrete embankment. I headed down a little dirt road between two mudflats. I saw a small cinnamon-colored bird that was fly-catching. There was a small flock of shorebirds, sleeping, their heads tucked into their wings. In the distance was an egret with three grebes diving near her. A kestrel came up out of the reed bed and hovered, helicoptering high overhead. It dove back down into the tall grass and disappeared. I got a really good look at another cinnamon-colored bird with a distinct gray cap, black face and neck, and white triangles on both wings. Within about 20 minutes I had added half a dozen new birds to my life list, if only I knew their names. I had notes and good mental images.

I headed back towards mi amigo and we headed towards the former Holiday Inn. There were lots of abandoned picnic tables and bbq grills out back. There are actually two hotels, one clearly abandoned, but the former Holiday Inn had a work crew out back putting up new signs, signaling a new owner and a second life. There were picnic tables that were being used and several cars parked in the backlot. We headed in to use the toilet. We decided to get coffee at the sixth floor restaurant. It offered a gorgeous view of the bay.

Shortly after we had ordered and sat down, a mother and daughter came in, both carrying nice binoculars. I said hello. They spoke very little English, and I speak no Mandarin. But using our bird apps we were able to share a few birds we had seen. More importantly, they helped me to ID a few of the mystery birds. Most importantly, they offered to take us to the magical microforests and show us more birds. After a quick lunch of fried rice and coffee, they whisked us off to better birding.

I thought the morning was good, and I was very happy with the birds I had seen, but the afternoon was great and I added 22 new species to my life list! Nora, the daughter, is a better birder than her mother, or so she said, quite proudly, in her self-described Chinglish. She has been birding for three years and her mother for one year. At first they were offering to take us to the spot, drop us off, and then head on their way. Then they asked if we wanted to see some shorebirds. I said yes. They stopped along the levee and Nora’s father pulled out a Swarovski spotting scope. We all got really good looks at a small flock of Dunlin feeding on a mudflat. There was also a smaller flock of grebes diving out in deeper water and a Great Egret feeding on the distant shore.

We climbed back in their car and drove along the levee to the microforest. There were several birders there with large-lensed cameras and a cacophony of birdsong, even though it was already a warm afternoon. The mother, Rong Zhao, started pointing out little songbirds left and right. She would look it up in her smartphone and find an English translation and I would add it to my bird list. In quick succession we saw Daurian Redstart, male and female, Yellow-throated Bunting, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Grey-backed Thrush, and Dusky Thrush.

They were very generous with their time and patient with my questions while we visited two more of the microforests, adding Brambling and Red-flanked Bluetail to the list. But a few things quickly became quite clear: Though the government has gone to great lengths and great expense to plant several rows of trees along mile after mile of these coastal roads, they are all the same two species, a larch and a pine, pretty, and pretty monotonous monoculture. It is only in the more diverse or weedy patches that have a variety of trees, vines, and berries that you find birds. And because these microforests are well-trafficked, the abundance of litter left this birdwatcher feeling a little blue.

Can an effort be made to add to the diversity of the well-manicured forests so that instead of a few small patches of bird-friendly habitat there are miles of possible parklands for birds to rest and refuel as they migrate along the coast? We saw a large work crew planting acre after acre of non-native trees. Can the birdwatchers reseed these areas with native vines and shrubs?

And instead of foot traffic everywhere, could a more well developed trail be built that parallels the road, allowing birders better access without causing so much disturbance to the birds? These are questions the members of Shanghai Birding are asking. Hopefully they can find the answers they seek. Their passion for birds and birdwatching was encouraging. Even more encouraging, after I typed these words on my laptop on the long subway ride back into the heart of the city (and an afternoon visit to the Buddhist temple), I saw the same questions were being asked in a group chat within Shanghai Birding. Let us hope this conversation leads to action.

If you are ever in Shanghai, visit shanghaibirding.com before you get here. Study up on the local birds so you do not feel as frustrated as I did. If your visit is more spontaneous, like mine, don’t worry, even a last-minute trip is well worth your time. Take their advice and take a cab from Dishui Lake to the furthest microforest, then walk back towards the former Holiday Inn. And maybe, just maybe, you just might be lucky enough to meet a kind family like the Zhaos that will take you under their wing to show you a bird or two—or maybe twenty-two!
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Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

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

wagtail
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)
wagtail
‘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)
wagtail
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

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)

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

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?

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

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

’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: 17 Jan 2020).

Brelsford, C. (2014). Wuyuan & Poyang Lake, November 2014 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/wuyuan-2014/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 14 Sept. 2016 (accessed: 17 Jan 2020).

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: 17 Jan 2020).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2016). Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/heilongjiang/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 17 Jan 2020).

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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