GUEST POST: Cape Nanhui Impressions 2017

by Kai Pflug
for shanghaibirding.com

Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

I spent about 50 days at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui in 2017–sometimes with friends, but mostly on my own. Here are some of my favorite photos from Nanhui 2017.

Coming back from a trip to Australia, where I saw many interesting birds, I was afraid I was going to be disappointed by Nanhui. I was, however, far from disappointed by this Short-eared Owl (January).

Short-eared Owl, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, January 2017. (Kai Pflug)

In April, Craig and I took a trip to Nanhui. I think we more or less both took the same photo of this Common Kingfisher and Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

Common Kingfisher and Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

This Blue-and-white Flycatcher has just had a good moment. This photographer has just had a good moment (April).

Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

A Common Sandpiper was inspecting his fishing nets (April).

Common Sandpiper, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

In May, I was already on my way back home from a somewhat disappointing day at Nanhui when Craig called. “Orange-headed Trush at the parking lot!” Of course, I turned back. It was worth it.

Orange-headed Thrush, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

I like the way this male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher seems to rest his long tail on the tree. Probably no females around to impress at this point, I guess (May).

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Personally, I think of this photo as having the subtitle “The joys of parenthood.” Congratulations, Craig–with only one son, it should be a bit more relaxed than for this Long-tailed Shrike (May).

Long-tailed Shrike, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Going to Nanhui in July is a somewhat lonely experience, as the heat deters most birders. Still, seeing a Eurasian Bittern sort of kneeling on a farm road can make it worth it.

Eurasian Bittern, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

This still fluffy young Yellow Bittern came so close to the place where I was hiding that eventually I could not capture it with my long lens any more. Hope it has learnt a bit more and survived (August).

Yellow Bittern, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

For a few months in 2017, a place with the nicely descriptive name “Trash Canal” was a good place to bird. This Striated Heron makes full use of the location’s characteristics (September).

Striated Heron, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

On the ground, the Eurasian Wryneck is very easy to overlook (September).

Eurasian Wryneck, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

While 2017 did not have a Fairy Pitta quite as compliant as the one at Nanhui in the autumn of 2016, there were still a few of them around. Always makes a birding day worthwhile (September).

Fairy Pitta, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

The autumn of 2017 was also very good for seeing owls such as this Oriental Scops Owl. Hard to ever get tired of owls (September).

Oriental Scops Owl, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Another “seen together with Craig” bird, this Common Redpoll (October).

Common Redpoll, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

The idea of a sand bath always seemed a bit strange to me. But obviously it is not a strange idea to this Eurasian Hoopoe (November).

Eurasian Hoopoe, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

The Japanese Robin was maybe my most-anticipated bird of the year, as I had missed it the year before, despite waiting for it for quite some time. Of course, this is the kind of delayed gratification which makes a bird extra-special (November).

Japanese Robin, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 2017. (Kai Pflug)

Note: Some of these photos–and many more–will soon be published in the book Birds of Nanhui, Shanghai, ISBN 978-7-202-12615-8. I hope that it will be available at every bookstore in China. If not, you can get it from me directly. Contact me at kai.pflug@gmail.com.

Elaine, Tiny, and I Are Returning to America

Elaine, Tiny, and I are returning to the United States. Our final day in China will be 30 January 2018.

The main reason for moving to America is our infant son, Tiny. Tiny’s birth changed Elaine and me forever. We want the best for Tiny, and we believe that the best for Tiny is to grow up in America.

Why are we leaving so suddenly? Elaine and I would have preferred a long goodbye to China and then departure in the summer or fall of 2018. But last month, with only 33 days before my current visa ran out, I was strongly advised not to apply for another student visa. The Chinese government has made a sudden change in policy. Old Chinese-language students are no longer welcome. (I’m 50 years old.)

I accept the reasoning behind the policy regarding old students. What is questionable is the suddenness of the change. Elaine and I have been considerably inconvenienced.

I have been studying Chinese for two reasons. One was that I sincerely wanted to learn Mandarin, and my Chinese friends can attest to my constant improvement these past few years, all owing to my work at the Chinese-language program at the Shanghai University of Engineering Sciences.

The other reason for studying Chinese was, here in Shanghai Elaine has no hukou or right of abode, and so I am ineligible for a family visa as long as we remain in this great city. By studying Chinese, I have been able to remain in Shanghai.

As Tiny’s birth approached last year, Elaine and I discussed opening a business in Shanghai and securing a business visa for me. In the end, we decided against it. We were afraid–not that I would fail, but that I would succeed, and that our family would live in China for the rest of our lives.

Living the rest of my life in China, and especially in Shanghai, is certainly not a bad thing, but it never was my plan, even before Tiny was born. My plan always has been to return to the land of my birth, and that is what my family and I are doing now.

Elaine, Tiny, and I will return to Florida, where my parents live and where I attended the University of Florida and began my previous career in journalism. In Florida I will manage my translation agency, develop new conservationist projects, bird in America’s premier birding state, and raise Tiny. Never again, I hope, will I spend another Christmas far from my kin.

When that plane takes off later this month, I will be ending a journey abroad that has lasted 17 years–since a few months before 9-11. Seven of those years were spent in Europe. The past 10 years have been in China.

I arrived in China in 2007 fascinated by Light-vented Bulbul and with almost no birding experience. I leave China having noted 932 species in the People’s Republic, making me the highest-ranked eBirder in China. (Elaine, at 735 species, leaves China the highest-ranked woman eBirder in this country.)

I stayed so long in China in part because of a naive but heartfelt wish to write a field guide to the birds of China. That book proved impossible to do. The dream to write a field guide did come true in a way, though, through shanghaibirding.com, a project that has proved to be far more interesting than a field guide.

shanghaibirding.com has allowed me to develop my talents as photographer, writer, editor, and publisher. Through this Web site, I have lived out my birding motto, which is, “No hobby combines science, art, culture, and physical fitness better than the great hobby called Birding.” shanghaibirding.com has been a labor of love, and it now stands tall, a monument representing my accomplishments in China.

Even though I’m going home, shanghaibirding.com will very much continue to exist. I have much unpublished material that I will run in the coming months. I will continue to update the site later this year and beyond, and I will keep the site online for years to come, no matter whether I am updating it or not, and even after I have moved on to other projects.

Featured image: Our baby boy, Craig Eugene “Tiny” Brelsford II, with his parents, Craig Eugene Brelsford and Elaine Du. Shanghai, China, 25 Jan. 2018. Photo by Mǎruìshā Értóng Shèyǐng (玛瑞莎儿童摄影).

Marsh Tit, First for Shanghai

Happy New Year 2018 to you from shanghaibirding.com!

On this New Year’s Day, I bring you glad tidings: a historic first Shanghai record of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris!

The sighting occurred on Christmas Eve at Century Park in Pudong. A pair was foraging in trees and bushes at the edge of a wooded area. (The exact point is by the boardwalk on the western side of the park at 31.215832, 121.541303.) The tits did not appear sluggish or overly tame, as might have been the case had they escaped from a cage.

I originally misidentified the Century Park tits as Willow Tit Poecile montanus stoetzneri. I was thrown off by the large black patch on the chin and throat of the birds, which I took to be strongly suggestive of Willow. In field guides pre-dating the research of Richard K. Broughton, the bibs of Marsh and Willow Tits, in particular their size and shape, are characterized as being important separators of the two species, which are notoriously hard to tell apart.

After my triumphant announcement to the Shanghai Birding WeChat group, member Paul Holt responded, disagreeing with my diagnosis of Willow Tit and cautioning me on an over-reliance on bib, which, Holt wrote, “[doesn’t] hold much water” as a criterion for Marsh-Willow ID. The Century tit, Holt said, “looks like a classic Marsh Tit” (Holt, in litt., 2017). Intrigued, I searched the Web for authorities backing up Holt’s assertions, and I came across the two studies by Broughton.

Broughton’s papers shake the foundations of Marsh-Willow research. Of the several challenges Broughton makes to the received wisdom about Marsh-Willow ID, bib is among the most salient. Books renowned and much relied on, such as the Collins Bird Guide (2009), admit only of “some overlap” in the size and shape of the bibs. Broughton finds “substantial overlap.” Harrap and Quinn state unequivocally that compared to Willow Tit, Marsh has “a smaller and neater black bib” (1995). Broughton says that bib is “variable within both species,” prone to “high subjectivity” on the part of the observer, and greatly dependent on the sex, social rank, and age of the bird. “The bib,” Broughton states flatly, “is not a particularly useful identification feature” (2009).

Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris, Xidaquan Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 24 Aug. 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris showing classic whitish bill mark. In good light, as here, the bill mark is noticeable even at mid-range. Xidaquan, Heilongjiang, 24 Aug. 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

What, then, is a useful identification feature? In the British and European birds Broughton and his co-authors studied, the most reliable criterion separating non-singing and non-calling Marsh and Willow was a special mark on the bill. The authors found that 98.7% of Marsh Tit and 94.2% of Willow Tit could be identified to species according to the presence (Marsh) or absence (Willow) of a whitish spot on the proximal area of the upper mandible (Broughton et al. 2008).

Here in China, how applicable are Broughton’s findings on the whitish mark? To the best of my knowledge, the applicability of the bill criterion on the East Asian subspecies of Marsh and Willow has not been formally tested. It presumably is highly applicable, and the photos here of Marsh and Willow from the Eastern Palearctic comport with Broughton’s findings from the Western Palearctic.

Marsh Tit (top) and Willow Tit (bottom). (Craig Brelsford)
Comparison of whitish marks on proximal area of upper mandible of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris (top) and Willow Tit Poecile montanus (bottom).  (Craig Brelsford/Steven Lin)

Examine the four-panel photo above. At top left is Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris, photographed at Xidaquan, Heilongjiang on 17 Aug. 2015. The whitish bill mark is clearly visible, as it is in Steven Lin’s photo top right of the Century Park Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom left of Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, taken in Dawucun, Heilongjiang on 23 Jan. 2015, abrasions and reflected light create asymmetrical whitish marks that only an inexperienced observer would take to be the bill mark of a Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom right of “Songar” Tit Poecile montanus affinis, taken in northern Qinghai on 1 Aug. 2016, the bill is unmarked; it is a classic Willow Tit bill.

Broughton’s papers explore other criteria for Marsh-Willow ID, among them the song, “chick-a-dee” call, and juvenile begging call, which have long been known to be distinctive and which Broughton rates as even better indicators of species than bill mark. Broughton also discusses the contrast between the cheek and neck sides in the two species, which like bill mark Broughton calls a highly reliable feature. Both papers are required reading for anyone wanting to get a handle on Marsh-Willow ID, even those of us here on the eastern end of the Palearctic. Indeed, a study using the methods of Broughton on the East Asian forms of Marsh Tit and Willow Tit would be a welcome complement to Broughton’s work and could yield exciting results.

ADDENDUM

On 22 Jan. 2018 at Century Park, local birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Marsh Tit. Hiko got these photos.

Marsh Tit, Century Park, Shanghai, 22 Jan. 2018. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
On 22 Jan. 2018 at Shanghai’s Century Park, local birder Hiko found Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Marsh Tit, Century Park, Shanghai, 22 Jan. 2018. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Conspicuous in Hiko’s photo is the whitish mark on the proximal area of the upper mandible, a very strong indicator of Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

REFERENCES

Bengtsson, Daniel, Brelsford, Craig, and Du, Elaine. Birds Recorded at Century Park (a page on shanghaibirding.com). Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sites/urban-shanghai/century-bird-records/ (accessed 1 Jan. 2018). Marsh Tit becomes the 142nd species recorded at Century Park, the premier park for urban birding in Shanghai.

Broughton, Richard K. 2008. Separation of Willow Tit and Marsh Tit in Britain: a review. British Birds 102 (November 2009), pp. 604–616. Available at https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Willow-Marsh-Tits.pdf (accessed 1 Jan. 2018).

Broughton, Richard K., Hinsley, Shelley A., & Bellamy, Paul E. (2008) Separation of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris from Willow Tit Poecile montana using a bill criterion. Ringing & Migration, 24:2, pp. 101-103. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/03078698.2008.9674382 (accessed 1 Jan. 2018).

Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995. Willow Tit, p. 238.

Holt, Paul. Message to Craig Brelsford through Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group, 24 Dec. 2017. To join Shanghai Birding, on WeChat send a friend request to Craig Brelsford (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). Please say that you wish to join Shanghai Birding.

Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009.

Featured image: Marsh Tit Poecile palustris, historic first sighting in Shanghai. Century Park, Shanghai, Christmas Eve 2017. (Steven Lin)

Five Years Ago, Varied Tit Irrupted into Shanghai

Five years ago, from September through December 2012, Varied Tit burst into Earth’s Greatest City. For those few months, the status of Sittiparus varius varius in Shanghai went from “unrecorded” to “locally common.” I noted Varied Tit on various occasions on Lesser Yangshan Island and in urban Shanghai at Zhongshan Park, Changfeng Park, and Binjiang Forest Park.

The mass movement saw incursions of Varied Tit up and down the Chinese coast, with reports from as far south as Hong Kong. Unusually high numbers of Varied Tit were reported in South Korea as well as Japan (Loghry & Moores 2012).

The episode captured many birders’ imaginations, not only because of its ornithological interest, but also because Varied Tit is a beautiful bird.

Five years later, the 2012 irruption remains remarkable. Despite the growing number of birders in the Shanghai region, no one here has managed to find Varied Tit, a species not especially prone to irruptions.

Harrap and Quinn describe Varied Tit as resident throughout its range, with “some evidence,” some of which is “contradictory,” of movements south and to lower altitudes in winter. The word “irruption” does not appear in the authors’ otherwise exhaustive account of Varied Tit (1995).

In China, the nominate form of Varied Tit is confined to Northeast China (Liaoning and southern Jilin). It is resident as well on the adjacent Korean Peninsula and the main Japanese islands.

In 2012 as now, I was using my Nikon D3S and 600 mm F/4 lens. Here are some of the photos I produced of Varied Tit.

Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit Sittiparus varius varius, Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. In the fall and winter of 2012, this colorful tit showed unusually high movements throughout its northeast Asian range, eventually spilling into the coastal provinces of China. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, 30 Sept. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Yangshan Island, 30 Sept. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit, Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

REFERENCES

Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995. Varied Tit, pp. 70-1, 397-401.

Loghry, Jason & Moores, Nial. Varied Tit, Chinese Nuthatch and Yellow-bellied Tit: what else is on the move? birdskoreablog.org, published 9 Oct. 2012, accessed 17 Dec. 2017.

Featured image: In autumn and winter 2012, Shanghai experienced an irruption of Varied Tit Sittiparus varius varius. Top 2, from L: Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, 5 Dec. 2012 and Changfeng Park, Shanghai, 17 Nov. 2012. Bottom 2: Lesser Yangshan, 30 Sept. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Crested Goshawk at Century Park

​At Pudong’s Century Park on Sun. 26 Nov. 2017, I recorded Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus. It was my first record at Century of Crested Goshawk, a species whose presence in urban Shanghai is growing ever more noticeable.

Li Qiu (李秋), her husband Qiao Ying (乔颖), Paul Hyde, and I were standing in Woodcock Forest (31.213235, 121.551704), a heavily wooded part of Century Park. We were watching Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major, itself rare in urban Shanghai.

We saw an Accipiter flying over the treetops. We ran out of the forest into a grassy area and saw the goshawk soaring 100 m above the park. Qiu got the photo above left.

The goshawk seemed not to be passing through Century but to be using the park; the combination of low flight over the treetops followed by soaring flight over the park gave me an impression of a raptor that knows the area.

Why is Sunday’s goshawk Crested Goshawk?

1. Wings short and broad and “pinched” at base–the narrow wing base is obvious in Qiu’s photo, as well as in my photo above right of a Crested Goshawk from Emeifeng, Fujian. Crested Goshawk is well-known for its narrow wing base and bulging secondaries. By contrast, regional sparrowhawks such as Besra Accipiter virgatus and Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus have less-rounded wings.

Comparison of bulge of secondaries of regional Accipiter. Crested Goshawk A. trivirgatus shows a 'pinched' wing base and bulging secondaries. The wings of Chinese Sparrowhawk A. soloensis (top R) and Japanese Sparrowhawk A. gularis are much straighter, while the bulge in the wing of Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus (bottom L) is less pronounced. (Craig Brelsford)
Comparison of bulge of secondaries of regional sparrowhawks. Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus (top L) shows a ‘pinched’ wing base and bulging secondaries. Much straighter are the wings of Chinese Sparrowhawk A. soloensis (top R) and Japanese Sparrowhawk A. gularis (bottom R). The secondaries of Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus (bottom L) show more of a bulge than the previous two species but less than Crested Goshawk. (Craig Brelsford)

2. When I saw the raptor close, soaring over the treetops, the impression I got was not of a large, buzzard-sized Accipiter (as might have been the impression if the raptor had been Northern Goshawk A. gentilis). Instead, I got the impression of a smaller raptor. An impression of a large, Buteo-sized raptor would weigh against a diagnosis of Crested Goshawk, but an impression of a smaller raptor weighs in favor of an Accipiter the size of Crested Goshawk.

3. Besra is less likely to be seen soaring than is Crested Goshawk.

4. As I note in my recent post, “Crested Goshawk Invades Shanghai,” Crested Goshawk is known to occur in urban Shanghai, including Century Park. Knowledge that Crested Goshawk is in this city does not weigh against a diagnosis of the Accipiter Sunday as Crested Goshawk. Indeed, if my impression of a more or less resident Accipiter is correct, then it lends support to the idea.

P.S. In addition to the goshawk, our 38 species Sunday included a first-ever Century Park record of Eurasian Coot Fulica atra. View Sunday’s list here, and for a list of all 139 species recorded at the premier birding park in urban Shanghai, see our page Birds Recorded at Century Park.

Featured image: Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus. Left: Century Park, Shanghai, 26 Nov. 2017 (Li Qiu). Right: Emeifeng, Fujian, 30 April 2015 (Craig Brelsford).