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 WarblerPhylloscopus emeiensis, Spotted ElachuraElachura formosa, Sichuan Bush WarblerLocustella chengi, and Alström’s WarblerPhylloscopus soror. (Per Alström)
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 …
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.
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.
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 …
Of course, in July, juveniles are also well-represented.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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).
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 (email@example.com), though obviously none of the photos in this post can be found in that book.
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
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 Pheasant, Slaty 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Short-tailed Parrotbill (above) is perhaps the most compelling of the south China specialties found at Tianmushan. In this second of our two-part series on the Tianmu Mountains, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko tells us of his July 2018 trip to the mountain in Zhejiang. — Craig Brelsford
by Komatsu Yasuhiko
Eight members of our school birding club, five experienced birders and three beginners, visited the Tianmu Mountains July 2-6, 2018—a week before the high season, so as to avoid the influx of tourists. Despite the high humidity that early on knocked my camera out of action, our club managed to find many species native to south China that are unattainable in Shanghai.
On the day of our arrival, we followed our routine from July 2017 and hiked between our inn, Haisen Nongzhuang (海森农庄), and another inn around 2 km uphill, Qinquan Shanzhuang (清泉山庄). The hike takes around 40 minutes one way and is famous in our club for its reliable Short-tailed Parrotbill, a species that in China occurs only in a small range in the southeast. The parrotbills are most readily found around dawn and evening.
At the abandoned inn Yulong Shanzhuang (玉龙山庄), located on the shore of the lake, we spotted nests of Asian House Martin forming dozens of rows on the dilapidated three-story building. Hundreds of adults were lined up on the edge of the roof, forming what seemed at first glance like a neat row of pebbles. The sky was filled with a swarm of adults circling around like a tornado.
On the side road that brought us down to the inn was a Huet’s Fulvetta, a nice addition to the day list. Continuing along the main road, we heard and saw a flock of Short-tailed Parrotbill, next to the bamboo forest just several hundred meters away from where we had them last year. Since we had some spare time, we continued uphill for another kilometer or so from the inn originally intended to be our destination, finding a Brown Dipper feeding in the stream along the way.
Since the walk does not require much time, we had many morning and evening walks between the two inns, during which we had more sightings of Short-tailed Parrotbill and visuals on Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Chinese Sparrowhawk, Rufous-faced Warbler, White-crowned Forktail, Meadow Bunting, and Common Kingfisher. We were further motivated to take the morning and evening walks here due to the presence of a staircase leading directly to the stream next to the inn at the destination, where we frequently sat on the rocks and soaked our tired legs in the clear, cool water.
On the second day, we were planning to take the hotel shuttle bus up to Longfengjian (龙凤尖), the entrance of the scenic area, so that we could hike back down the road. Upon finding that we did not have tickets for the scenic area, the bus driver dropped us off 7 km away from the destination, at a guard post beyond which only shuttle buses, authorized vehicles, and pedestrians are permitted access. We decided to bird the road 7 km up to Longfengjian.
It was an exceptionally humid day for an already humid place, and it showered regularly throughout our three-hour walk. During the hike, our ears were filled with the cat-like calls of Black Bulbul, the cricket-like trills of Rufous-faced Warbler, and the whistling song of Brown-flanked Bush Warbler. Every few minutes, trees beside the road were flooded with mixed flocks of Indochinese Yuhina, Black-throated Bushtit, Japanese White-eye, and Yellow-bellied Tit. Flocks of Black Bulbul, Light-vented Bulbul, Chestnut Bulbul, and Vinous-throated Parrotbill were also very common. Plumbeous Water Redstart marked every few meters of the stream, and Asian House Martin frequently flew over our heads.
Our first highlights came about 2 km up the road. On the hillside, we were able to spot Red-billed Leiothrix and Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler. After walking another hundred meters uphill along the road, we heard a Spotted Elachura from deep inside the vegetation. Using playback, we were able to draw it closer and make a recording, but we were not fortunate enough to obtain a visual on the secretive bird. Around halfway to the destination, a White-crowned Forktail hopped out of the ditch next to the road and came into full view. On the last several hundred meters of the road, we were able to spot 2 Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker mixed in a flock of Indochinese Yuhina, Japanese Tit, and Black-throated Bushtit.
On the third day, we declined to bird due to inclement weather. On the last day, the weather cleared enough for us to enter the scenic area. While fending off leeches hiding along the narrow mountain trails and fixing our eyes on the steep staircases, we managed to find a Little Forktail and a Blue Whistling Thrush at a pavilion next to a narrow stream. We also had a flock of Grey-chinned Minivet flying over our heads.
Upon reaching the bus stop, only a few of us had the stamina to continue up to Xianren Ding (仙人顶), the peak, so the club split up. The group climbing up the peak, which included me, had visuals on a Eurasian Jay, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and Great Spotted Woodpecker. At the very peak, we were rewarded with a Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush on the weather station tower—a lifer for many of us. The way down was nearly disastrous, however, as we were pounded by heavy rain. Meanwhile, the group resting at the temple close to the bus stop had a Eurasian Jay and a Great Barbet on a treetop.
West Tianmu is a great choice for us students, since we are on a budget and have little means of transportation available to ourselves. To do this trip, instead of taking the bullet train like last year, we took a bus running regularly between People’s Square in downtown Shanghai and our inn at Tianmu. Taking this bus greatly increased our birding time, as it saved us the trouble of transferring to different vehicles multiple times. We recommend West Tianmu without reservation to anyone wishing to get bonus lifers in addition to the regular coastal and city birds around Shanghai.
This post is the second in a two-post series about birding in the Tianmu Mountains.
written & illustrated by Louis-Jean Germain
My first visit to Pudong’s Cape Nanhui came on a cold, cloudy day in January 2016. I was disappointed. How could this place, deserted and dull, be the favorite of Shanghai birders? How did this place become one of the hottest birding spots in China?
I arrived by public transport and birded mostly around the Magic Parking Lot (30.884988, 121.968091), the wooded area and migrant trap at the tip of the Cape. Back then I didn’t know it was magic, and I found few birds. I knew little about China and even less about Asian birds, and I had been painting only occasionally.
Seasons have come and gone, I have visited the Cape numerous times, I have broadened my knowledge of ornithology, I have taken Chinese painting lessons and resumed my work with watercolors, and I have honed my ability to draw and paint birds. Now, my vision of Cape Nanhui hardly could differ more from that initial impression.
Now, I love Cape Nanhui. Now, I paint Cape Nanhui.
Through my many visits over several seasons, my vision of Cape Nanhui evolved. I realized that the landscapes of Cape Nanhui are just the sort of landscapes that inspired those great masters, the Chinese painters of old.
I pictured those Chinese masters being deeply moved by the beauty of the vast reed beds, the reeds swaying gently in the breeze. Using traditional Chinese tools (rice paper, paint brush, and black ink), I attempted to reproduce the motions, forms, and shadows of the reeds of Nanhui, the way the Chinese masters would have done.
I painted in winter, with Eurasian Teal alongside a fishing boat.
I painted in autumn—two cranes exhausted from their migratory journey.
Again in summer I went, this time painting an egret among the reeds.
I went again and again, each time getting a new impression of Cape Nanhui.
MORE THAN JUST REEDS
Cape Nanhui is not only reed beds, but also mudflats, meadows, and eight tiny wooded areas that we Shanghai birders call the microforests. With my watercolors, I strove to paint each habitat of Cape Nanhui.
I painted a reed bed with the buildings of Lingang emerging in the mist above the reeds (as the mountains in the Chinese shanshui paintings); I painted the wind turbines rising like the mills of Cervantes in Don Quixote; I painted the mudflat and East China Sea crossed by the long Donghai Bridge; I painted a magical Japanese Paradise Flycatcher on the branch of a microforest tree.
CAPE NANHUI, SUSTAINER OF LIFE
A nubby promontory between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is the most southeasterly point of the city-province of Shanghai. Silt from the Yangtze River gave birth to Cape Nanhui, and even today Nanhui lives at the pace of Asia’s greatest river.
The silt is rich, allowing plant life to proliferate, and attracting animals—insects, fish, amphibians, and of course birds. Some, such as Reed Parrotbill, are residents; some, such as Yellow Bittern, breed there; some, such as the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, winter there; and still others, among them the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank, pass through Nanhui while making their astonishing long-distance migration along the East Asian-Australasian Migratory Flyway.
Month after month, season after season, I went to Nanhui with my binoculars, telescope, paper, and black pen (a Mitsubishi uni-ball). I observed carefully, trying to understand and capture with my eyes the distinctive motions and details of each bird, and to reproduce my visual impressions with my pen. It is essential for me to draw birds in the field, to actually see them, as it is moments in the field with birds when one’s experience is the most intense and intimate.
Once home, following the field notes I made, and occasionally referring to great photographs my fellow Shanghai birders have taken, I carefully applied watercolors to my drawings.
During the cold winter at Cape Nanhui, we can spot winter visitors coming from northern China, Korea, Japan, and Siberia, among them Eurasian Teal, Black-faced Spoonbill, and Dusky Thrush. There are also resident species such as Black-crowned Night Heron.
In spring, as temperatures rise and the days lengthen, and during autumn, as summer heat succumbs to the first cold winds, passage migrants can be observed at Cape Nanhui.
The waders arrive at Cape Nanhui after flights of thousands of kilometers on the Flyway. Birds such as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, and Far Eastern Curlew use Nanhui as a stopover. In autumn, these waders are en route to places as far south as Australia; in spring, they are headed north, many to Siberia.
Another group of migrants are the passerines, at Nanhui found often in the microforests. Among them are colorful beauties such as Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Fairy Pitta, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, and Black-naped Oriole.
CONCLUSION & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
It took me time to understand and appreciate Cape Nanhui. I look forward to continuing to explore this rich, unique, and beautiful place. May Cape Nanhui live forever, not only in the hearts of all Shanghainese, but also in the hearts of us foreign visitors.
I dedicate this post to Craig Brelsford, founder and editor of this superlative website, shanghaibirding.com. In a series of posts in 2016, Craig called for the conservation of Cape Nanhui and thereby initiated a new era of awareness about the conservationist value of the Cape. Craig is the birder who more than any other person illuminated my path to Cape Nanhui.
Thanks to Craig, Kai Pflug, plusQ, and Chloe for sharing photos with me, many of which served as visual aids for the paintings displayed here.
Featured image: Microforests dot the shoreline of Cape Nanhui, the most southeasterly point of the city-province of Shanghai and one of the most important birding hotspots in China. (Louis-Jean Germain)