The Shanghai Skua

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Found at Cape Nanhui on Wed. 19 Oct. 2016: Pomarine Skua (called Pomarine Jaeger in North America). This first record for Shanghai was discovered by local birder Hé Xīn (何鑫) in the defunct nature reserve 1.4 km inland from the East China Sea. Kai Pflug was also on hand. Hé Xīn and Kai spread the news through our Shanghai Birding WeChat group, and the next day Elaine Du and I found the skua at the same spot (30.921625, 121.958940). The skua stayed four days, until Sat. 22 Oct.

The seabird appeared healthy, alternately feeding, preening, and roosting. Its plumage was shiny, and I saw no evidence of injury. It was a healthy refugee blown west by Typhoon Haima.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger
Look into the eyes of a predator. For many a lemming on the Arctic breeding grounds, this cold stare is the last sight they will ever see. National Geographic calls Pomarine Skua a ‘bulky brute with a commanding presence … a Rottweiler among the jaegers.’ (Craig Brelsford)

As sightings of skuas on the Chinese coast are rare, and because skuas have a bewildering array of plumages, at first there was some confusion about the species of our bird. It soon became clear that the vagrant was either Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus or Arctic Skua (IOC: Parasitic Jaeger) S. parasiticus. But which?

POMARINE ID BASICS

To answer that question, we needed photos, and so on Thurs. 20 Oct. Elaine and I drove to Cape Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Pudong.

We quickly found and photographed the bird. After examining our images, talking to other birders, and studying the books, we determined that it is a pale-morph adult pomarinus in non-breeding plumage. Here’s why:

— S. pomarinus is larger and bulkier than the other jaegers (small skuas), in particular the jaeger that it most resembles, S. parasiticus. The jaeger we found was large and bulky.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger
Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus. This heavy-set jaeger appears bulkier before the legs than behind. Note its bull neck, barrel chest, and short tail. Size is about equal to Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris (Brazil). S. parasiticus is equally bulky before and behind the legs, is longer-necked and less pot-bellied, and has a longer tail. (Craig Brelsford)

National Geographic describes pomarinus as a “bulky brute with a commanding presence [and a] thick bull-neck—a Rottweiler among the jaegers.” S. pomarinus, Geographic adds, “is the bulkiest [jaeger] and appears pot-bellied and very deep at the chest. … Often it appears there is more body before the wing than behind the wing.”

The image above is in line with that description. Below, another image illustrating the bulky shape and barrel chest.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger
The skua family (Stercorariidae) is monogeneric; all seven species are in the genus Stercorarius. In the United States and Canada, the smallest three Stercorarius are called jaegers, a convention followed by the IOC. The largest of the jaegers is Pomarine, the next-largest is Arctic Skua/Parasitic Jaeger, and the smallest is Long-tailed Skua/Long-tailed Jaeger S. longicaudus. All three jaegers breed on Arctic tundra in Eurasia and North America and winter at sea. All are kleptoparasitic—they steal food from other birds. This habit gives rise to the Chinese name for the family: ‘thief-gull’ (贼鸥). (Craig Brelsford)

In adult pale-morph pomarinus, the black helmet reaches below the gape, and black plumage surrounds the base of the bill. Most pale-morph parasiticus show a white spot at the base of the upper mandible and a less-extensive helmet that does not reach below the gape.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 20 Oct. 2016.
The Shanghai pomarinus is a pale-morph adult in non-breeding plumage. (Traces of the yellow breeding plumage can be seen here on the cheeks and throat.) Its helmet reaches below the gape, and it lacks a pale spot at the base of the upper mandible. (Craig Brelsford)

Below, another close-up of the head. Note here and above that, unusually for pomarinus, the bill appears almost all-black.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger
The Shanghai pomarinus has an unusually dark bill. (Craig Brelsford)

Adult pale-morph pomarinus is more heavily barred than parasiticus. Most adult pale-morph pomarinus show a coarse breast band and dark barring on the flanks. Most adult pale-morph parasiticus show a diffuse greyish-brown breast band and lack barring on the flanks.

skua-pomarine008
Our pomarinus shows broad, coarse barring across the breast and on the flanks. (Craig Brelsford)

There are several other ID points, some of them, such as tail streamers, not visible in The Shanghai Skua. The points discussed above, however, are enough, we think, to clinch the ID.

OTHER PHOTOS

Enjoy these other photos of the rarity.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger
When Elaine and I arrived Thursday morning, a Grey Heron was harassing the strange intruder. (Craig Brelsford)

The skua was very tame and performed various functions in its unaccustomed surroundings. It scratched itself (below), bathed, scavenged dead fish, and occasionally took short flights.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 20 Oct. 2016.
(Craig Brelsford)

Its most common activity was roosting on the mud bank.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger
(Craig Brelsford)

Kai Pflug got the photo below of the skua with wings upraised. Note the unbarred underwing and pale flash at the base of the primaries, further evidence that the skua is an adult.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger
Photo taken 19 Oct. 2016 by Kai Pflug.
Pomarine Skua
Compare the images of our non-breeding Pomarine with this shot of an individual in breeding plumage. Alaska, June. (Daniel Pettersson)

Hé Xīn (below) found The Shanghai Skua on Wed. 19 Oct. 2016, a historic first record for Shanghai. The next day I met Hé Xīn at the site.

Craig Brelsford (L), Hé Xīn (何鑫)
shanghaibirding.com editor Craig Brelsford (L) and Shanghai Skua discoverer Hé Xīn (何鑫), Cape Nanhui, 20 Oct. (Elaine Du)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Note: Nearly every major field guide covers skuas, a cosmopolitan family. This is a partial list showing the main works I consulted as I researched Stercorariidae.

Alderfer, Jonathan, ed. National Geographic Complete Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, 2006. Section “Skuas, Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers” by N.G. Howell and Alvaro Jaramillo. Jaegers, pp. 237-9.

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Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. News about the sighting of Pomarine Skua was disseminated by Hé Xīn and Kai Pflug through this chat group.

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, 2009. Skuas, pp. 230-3.

Grimmet, Richard & Carol Inskipp & Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Christopher Helm, 2011. Pomarine Skua and Arctic Skua, p. 182.

Peterson, Roger Tory & Virginia Marie Peterson. Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Jaegers, p. 168.

Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Skuas, pp. 174-7.
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A Rare Look at salangensis Ashy Drongo

Each spring and autumn, Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus migrates through Shanghai. Race leucogenis breeds close to the Shanghai region and is the subspecies most commonly seen in Shanghai. The appearance at Nanhui of ssp. salangensis (pictured above) raises the question of exactly how numerous that central Chinese subspecies is on the Shanghai coast.

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

How dark was that migrating Ashy Drongo you just saw? You may want to pay attention, because the dark-grey central Chinese ssp. salangensis has been spotted at Cape Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Shanghai. In this post, I lay out the identification criteria for salangensis and the paler, more common ssp. leucogenis. My theory is that salangensis appears at some higher rate in Shanghai than has historically been recorded, which until recently has been not at all. An opportunity to fine-tune our understanding awaits us!

SEPARATING THE SUBSPECIES

Ashy Drongo
Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus. 1, 2b: D. l. leucogenis, Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699), July (Craig Brelsford). Laoshan, a site in Nanjing, Jiangsu 290 km (180 mi.) inland from Shanghai, is a breeding area for D. l. leucogenis. 2a, 4: D. l. salangensis, Cape Nanhui, October (Craig Brelsford). 3a: likely D. l. salangensis, Cape Nanhui, September (Kai Pflug). 3b: D. l. leucogenis, Henan, June. (Craig Brelsford).

Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus comprises 15 races, of which two are known in the Shanghai region: D. l. leucogenis and D. l. salangensis. D. l. leucogenis, the pale eastern race, is the more common migrant. D. l. salangensis is the darker race and is a vagrant to Shanghai.

A classic leucogenis (panels 1, 2b, 3b) is easy to distinguish from salangensis (2a, 4). A typical leucogenis is pale grey and shows a large white oval patch around the eye. D. l. salangensis is much darker, and its facial patch is reduced and less well defined. Both have a red iris.

Ashy Drongo
Ashy Drongo not only has many races but also can show considerable color variation within each race. The drongos shown here were photographed within a few hundred meters of each other in June in Henan. The drongo in Panel 1 is a classic pale leucogenis. The drongo in panels 2 and 3 is a very different-looking bird, with a noticeable greyish-blue tone. (Craig Brelsford)

Intermediate forms (3a) are trickier. They may be purebreds showing random color variation or hybrids. The breeding ranges of leucogenis and salangensis partly overlap, with salangensis breeding in south-central China (mainly or exclusively south of the Yangtze River) and leucogenis breeding over a broad swath of eastern and central China from Sichuan east to Shandong and as far south as Guangdong.

Many thanks to Shanghai Birding member Jonathan Martinez. Martinez lives in Shenzhen and is an expert on the birds of southeast China. He was the first to point out that the photos of Ashy Drongo being posted on the Shanghai Birding WeChat group were of salangensis. Thanks also to Paul Holt, who offered his opinion on the breeding range of leucogenis, and to Kai Pflug, for yet another useful photo.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Entry on Ashy Drongo, p. 300. Brazil’s opus grows weaker as the distance from Japan (his base) of the birds he is covering grows longer. Brazil offers no information on D. l. salangensis on the east coast of China.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 14, “Bush-shrikes to Old World Sparrows.” Entry for Ashy Drongo (p. 220) written by G.J. Rocamora and D. Yeatman-Berthelot. The authors have “N Gansu” as the northwestern limit of the breeding range of D. l. leucogenis. Is that likely? See also Paul Holt’s misgivings in MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps, below.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 13, “Penduline-tits to Shrikes.” Entry for Bull-headed Shrike (pp. 775-6) written by Masaoki Takagi. Long-tailed Shrike (p. 781) by Anton Krištín.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press. Entry on Ashy Drongo, pp. 281-2. MacKinnon has breeding range of D. l. leucogenis stretching to Heilongjiang. Paul Holt (Shanghai Birding WeChat group) disagrees, saying the northeastern limit is more likely Shandong. Holt writes: “I think that the weakest aspect of John MacKinnon’s ground-breaking field guide are the ranges, and again I don’t think HBW’s accurate on that front either. I’d discount Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, and Hebei from the breeding range of leucogenis Ashy Drongo and don’t believe that it can breed further north than Shandong (where it might not even occur) and southernmost Shanxi.”

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press. Ashy Drongo, p. 176.
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Melanistic Long-tailed Shrike in Shanghai

Long-tailed Shrike
Dusky Long-tailed Shrike, Hengsha Island, Shanghai. Note that Dusky is not a subspecies but a color morph within Lanius schach schach, the same taxon found in Shanghai. The melanistic morph, however, is rare in Shanghai. Shanghai Birding member Jonathan Martinez reports that the form is ‘common’ in Guangdong, where the French birder resides. Martinez writes, ‘I’ve seen them in Jiangxi, Fujian, and coastal Guangxi. A bird turning up in Shanghai could be evidence of short-distance movements.’ (Craig Brelsford)

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Partnering with visiting U.S. birder Bryce Harrison, Elaine Du and I noted 103 species over the weekend of Sat. 15 Oct. and Sun. 16 Oct. We covered the three main birding areas in Shanghai: Cape Nanhui, eastern Chongming Island, and the reclaimed areas of Hengsha Island. The highlight was a Dusky Long-tailed Shrike on Hengsha.

At Cape Nanhui on Saturday we found Nordmann’s Greenshank, 24 Black-faced Spoonbill, 4 Mandarin Duck, and Ashy Drongo. On Sunday on Hengsha we found a dark-morph Long-tailed Shrike, rare in Shanghai.

Cape Nanhui also gave us Japanese Quail, Purple Heron, 6 Eurasian Spoonbill, 6 Black-tailed Godwit, and a Eurasian Woodcock at the Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551). We must have stumbled blindly past the well-camouflaged woodcock half a dozen times before finally flushing it. Also 4 Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, 2 Asian Stubtail, 2 first-of-season Red-flanked Bluetail, 2 Japanese Thrush, and 3 Eyebrowed Thrush.

Hengsha yielded Striated Heron, Pied Harrier, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Merlin, 9 Black-browed Reed Warbler, and our season’s first taivana Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

We found Eurasian Wryneck at Nanhui and on Hengsha and Bull-headed Shrike and Yellow-bellied Tit at Nanhui and on Chongming.

Nordmann’s Greenshank was roosting at nearly the same spot (30.920549, 121.963247) as a month ago. The endangered bird was among many Common Greenshank, allowing us to appreciate the former’s more obviously bi-colored bill, shorter legs, and more hunched appearance. The bird clearly stood out from among its Common cousins. For more on Nordmann’s ID, please see our post, Your Handy-Dandy Nordmann’s Greenshank ID Primer.

The Black-faced Spoonbill were just a few hundred meters from the Nordmann’s in the defunct nature reserve. Poignantly, the spoonbills were roosting near the decrepit old sign introducing Platalea minor to the world.

PHOTOS

spoonbills
Black-faced Spoonbill (L) and Eurasian Spoonbill, Nanhui, 15 Oct. 2016. In the Shanghai region, the two species often are found together. Though not under quite as much pressure as Nordmann’s Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Platalea minor is nonetheless listed by the IUCN as endangered. Throughout the winter, Black-faced Spoonbill are consistently seen at Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Quail
Japanese Quail with ever-present backhoes in background. Nanhui, 15 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Bull-headed Shrike
Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus bucephalus, Nanhui. Outside the breeding season, the pale base to the lower mandible (inset) is present on both sexes of the nominate subspecies. This is an adult female. Note the lack of a black facial mask and the striking rusty-orange coloration. The nominate race breeds in northeast China, the Russian Far East and adjacent islands, Korea, and Japan and is a passage migrant in Shanghai. A little-known western subspecies, sicarius, breeds in Gansu and lacks the pale base to the lower mandible. (Craig Brelsford)
Pied Harrier
Pied Harrier, Hengsha, 16 Oct. 2016. This is an adult female. (Craig Brelsford)
Eurasian Hobby
Juvenile Eurasian Hobby dining on the wing, Chongming Island, 16 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

trees
This line of trees (31.216753, 121.408195) is wedged between two housing complexes near my apartment in Changning District, Shanghai. Deep in the bowels of Earth’s largest city, this spot is as urban as urban can be. The trees, however, are tall and provide a large surface area for wild birds. On 17 Oct. 2016, I found Oriental Magpie-Robin and Japanese Tit there, and on 14 Oct. I found a fast-moving flock of Japanese White-eye. Chinese Blackbird breed in the area, and Siberian Weasel have been noted in the vicinity. (Craig Brelsford)

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Crow-billed Drongo, First Record for Shanghai

Editor’s note: The image above shows Crow-billed Drongo (left) and Black Drongo. The former was noted in Shanghai on 11 Oct., a first for the city. The latter is a common passage migrant in Shanghai. In this post, I show you how to separate the two species.

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

On 11 Oct. at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai’s major birding spot on the East China Sea, Shanghai Birding member kaca found a first-winter Crow-billed Drongo Dicrurus annectans. kaca’s record was the first for Crow-billed Drongo in Shanghai.

Is kaca’s historic discovery a one-off, or is it the result of more birders with greater skills more thoroughly covering Shanghai’s hot spots and communicating more readily with one another? If the answer is the latter, then there may be a Crow-billed Drongo in your future! To sift out Crow-billed from the many Black Drongo in our area, note the following:

Crow-billed Drongo
Crow-billed Drongo Dicrurus annectans, Nanhui, 11 Oct. First record for Shanghai. Photos by kaca. Used with permission—and gratitude.

All drongos have a strong, black bill. Crow-billed (Panel 2a, above) may have the stoutest, as deep at its base as it is wide.

The swollen look of its bill may be Crow-billed’s most striking feature. The bill of Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus cathoecus is broad and short but noticeably less thick-based than that of Crow-billed. Compare bills of the two species in the image at the top of this post. (Race cathoecus is the form of Black Drongo birders are most likely to see in Shanghai.)

The iris in kaca’s first-winter Crow-billed is reddish-brown (2a). Adult Crow-billed has a blood-red iris.

Compare brown iris of adult Black at top of post.

Black Drongo often shows white spot at gape, never present in Crow-billed.

Note again the photo leading off this post.

First-winter Crow-billed shows white spotting from breast to undertail coverts (2b, 3).

First-winter Black, by contrast, shows more patchily white underparts (panels 1a, 1b in photo below).

The tail of Crow-billed shows a less shallow fork than the tail of Black. On average, the tail of Black is forked about twice as deeply as that of Crow-billed.

Compare Panel 4 in photo above to Panel 2 in photo below. Adult Crow-billed and Black have deeper forks, but the proportions are the same as in the sub-adults. In addition, the outer rectrices of Crow-billed’s tail are more likely to curl upward.

Black Drongo
First-winter Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus cathoecus, September, Jiangsu. (Craig Brelsford)

BACKGROUND ON THE SPECIES

A monotypic species, Crow-billed Drongo Dicrurus annectans breeds from the Himalayan foothills in India east to Hainan. In winter some birds go as far south as Sumatra and Java. Shenzhen-based French birder Jonathan Martinez, an expert on southeast China birds, reports breeding populations of Crow-billed in northern Guangdong and southwest Hunan. There are coastal records, most likely of migrants, from Hong Kong and Guangxi. Shanghai Birding member Paul Holt writes that Crow-billed is “undoubtedly overlooked” in southern China and “is probably quite rare or at least very localized.” Martinez agrees, calling Crow-billed “scarce” even at the Guangdong and Hunan sites.

I’m trying to get over missing the Crow-billed Drongo. I tell myself, “That’s birding,” but those words can’t fully dispel the empty feeling.

I am however happy for kaca, and I am encouraged, because the growing fluidity in reporting is leading to ever more astounding new bird records for Shanghai.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Join Shanghai Birding
Screen shot from Shanghai Birding.

Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. Quotations in post from Paul Holt and Jonathan Martinez taken from this chat group. News about kaca’s discovery of Crow-billed Drongo was first disseminated in this chat group.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 14, “Bush-shrikes to Old World Sparrows.” Highly detailed species accounts for Crow-billed Drongo (p. 212) and Black Drongo (p. 222) written by G.J. Rocamora and D. Yeatman-Berthelot.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press. Entry on Crow-billed Drongo, p. 282.

Message, Stephen & Don Taylor. Waders of Europe, Asia and North America.

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press. Crow-billed Drongo and Black Drongo, p. 176.
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Birding Hengsha and Cape Nanhui

Hengsha highlights
Highlights from Hengsha Island, 11 Oct.: Common Kestrel (Panel 1), Lesser Sand Plover (2), Red-necked Stint (3), and Lesser Sand Plover, Kentish Plover, and Sanderling (4). (Craig Brelsford)

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

On Tuesday I arrived at Cape Nanhui too late to see Crow-billed Drongo. My partners Kai Pflug and Elaine Du and I made the fateful decision to cover Hengsha Island in the morning. The alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze was decidedly humdrum, with Far Eastern Curlew out on the mud along with 2 Sanderling and a Ruddy Turnstone. The huge new tree plantation on the island failed to deliver any forest birds beyond a single Asian Brown Flycatcher. There was a good count (17) of Richard’s Pipit.

We arrived at Cape Nanhui and found kaca, who mentioned an unusual drongo he had seen that morning. We kept our eyes peeled for dark drongos, finding none. Our Nanhui harvest was limited to expected October birds such as Grey-backed Thrush (6) and Eyebrowed Thrush (2). Asian Brown Flycatcher (26) seemed to be on every tree.

All of Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers were present: Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (1), Yellow-browed Warbler (1), Arctic-type Warbler (2), Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (7), and Eastern Crowned Warbler (2).

We had 3 Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Elaine’s and my season’s first Daurian Redstart, Asian Stubtail, and Rufous-tailed Robin.

PHOTOS

Pudong
On Tuesday, while kaca was discovering Crow-billed Drongo at Cape Nanhui, I was getting this photo on Hengsha, the alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtze River. From the island we could see the Yangtze in front of us and the Pudong skyline at a distance of 38 km (24 mi.). (Craig Brelsford)
Pallas's Leaf Warbler
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler preening after completing another leg of its long migratory flight. Magic Parking Lot (30.884992, 121.968317), Cape Nanhui, 11 Oct. (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551), Cape Nanhui, Tuesday. This is a female showing a clear demarcation between dark breast and white belly, faint rufous flanks, a dark mantle, and sooty primary coverts. For more on identifying paradise flycatchers in Shanghai, see our recent post, ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers. (Craig Brelsford)

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