Birding the Jiangsu Coast in May

by Steven Bonta
for shanghaibirding.com

Steven Bonta
Steven Bonta

After months of coronavirus, quarantine, and restricted travel, spring 2020 arrived emphatically in eastern China, and with it, the spectacular annual surge of northbound migrants along the East Asian Flyway. Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui is less than convenient at the moment for those of us without cars; the closure of the Magic Hotel and its conversion to a quarantine facility for coronavirus patients have resulted in police cordons barring vehicular access to the shore road and the microforests after about 8 a.m., and no buses are available to convey birders back to the Dishui Lake Subway Station. Moreover, the crowds of day-trippers that, in saner times, congregated in the lawns and recreational areas around the hotel, have been forced to spread out along the coast road, with the result that several of the microforests have (temporarily, let us hope) been turned into picnic and barbecue areas, with noisy parties depositing trash and driving away birds and birders.

Accordingly, I decided, along with Andreas Goeckede, an excellent local bird photographer who has become a fixture at Nanhui, to leave Shanghai for the first time in months, and explore the coastal birding areas further north along the coast of Jiangsu. We decided to take advantage of the May Day holiday weekend to spend three days exploring Dongtai, in particular the UN World Heritage site near the village of Tiaozini, probably the best place on earth to find the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank. We hoped also to visit nearby Yangkou, once another popular spot, but neglected lately by birders because of the recent and rapid industrialization of the area.

We left on a sultry Sunday morning, 3 May, unsure of what we would find once we left Shanghai. We had been assured that the Green Tree Hotel in Tiaozini would accept us, as long as we could prove we had not left China recently, but we knew that the situation was still potentially unstable, with reports of new outbreaks of the virus in the northeast impeding the long-awaited return to national normalcy.

We drove straight to Dongtai, encountering virtually no traffic, and making the trip in a blistering two and a half hours.

At the entrance to the birding areas (32.761307, 120.952457), we received a shock: access to the shore road was blocked, and thousands of visitors were being directed to a large new parking area, where they were then boarding sightseeing buses and being taken to the coast. In effect, Dongtai had been transformed into a large tourist area since the last time we visited, in October of last year. We decided to make the best of the situation and bird the enormous expanse of inland fish ponds and other waterways, as well as the areas of planted woods that line the many access roads and, in some cases, the land between successive wetlands. After all, the tide along the coast was near the high-water mark, so it was unlikely that we would see many birds along the shore road. We resolved to return the next morning at the crack of dawn, when we hoped we could gain access to the shore road and the coastal mudflats at low tide—and perhaps find some rare shorebirds.

As we started off exploring the many dirt roads that give access to the fish ponds and other artificial wetlands, we quickly discovered that many of Dongtai’s shorebirds had indeed moved inland with the tide. We found many flocks of shorebirds gathered on the sand bars and mudflats of almost every pond with low water. We found Black-winged Stilt, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, and Black-tailed Godwit, while overhead wheeled Gull-billed Tern, Common Tern, and Little Tern. Also abundant were Chinese Grosbeak, which lined the electrical wires. Grey-headed Lapwing, which breed in the area, were noisy and conspicuous. We noted Common Kingfisher and Pied Kingfisher.

Relieved as we were to find shorebirds, the glory of our first day at Dongtai was in the planted forests along the roads and paths, which quivered with birds. Leaf warblers were so abundant that their calling produced a more or less permanent background white noise of twittering. They were massed by the thousands everywhere we went, feeding among the acacia blooms, but always difficult to see. We eventually saw Arctic Warbler, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, and Dusky Warbler. Manchurian Bush Warbler, with their explosive burble, were also common. We continued to note large flocks of Chinese Grosbeak—hundreds in all, almost everywhere we stopped. On one memorable stretch of path, we found a nice flock of Ashy Minivet. Grey-streaked Flycatcher were everywhere, as well as the occasional Asian Brown Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, and Narcissus Flycatcher. The most common bunting species was forest-loving Tristram’s Bunting. Black-faced Bunting were also numerous.

The biggest surprises in the wooded areas, however, were not songbirds. At the edge of one rib of trees following the road, we found an exquisite Black-capped Kingfisher, which proved to be extremely wary. After many attempts to get near the bird, only to have it dive off into the trees, Andreas finally managed to take a single serviceable picture.

An even bigger surprise was a single Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, a rare migrant in eastern China. This stunningly beautiful woodpecker—a lifer for both of us—allowed us a fairly close approach as it hitched its way up a tree beside the road. By contrast, a Great Spotted Woodpecker we found earlier in the day was extremely shy.

Despite the heat and the lack of access to the main shore road, we had a satisfying first day, logging 78 species in about six hours of birding. Toward the end of the afternoon, we managed to find our way to the entrance area by another route, and were flabbergasted to see thousands of people thronging around a brand new mall with various concession stores, and crowding on beaches and mudflats that used to be the domain of migrating shorebirds. Access to the shore road was now blocked by a guard house and barrier, and only noisy buses were being allowed to ply it. Along the shore, we saw tents, barbecues, Frisbees, kites, and massive crowds of people walking along the shore road—this, in a UN-designated World Heritage Site for bird conservation.

Glumly, we made our way to the Green Tree Hotel, hoping against hope that the shore road would be open the following morning.

The next day, we left at 5 a.m. and were surprised that the weather had turned much colder overnight. As we had hoped, the new recreation area was deserted, and the shore road was accessible. Instead of hordes of day-trippers, only a handful of local fishermen could be seen far out on the tidal flats. The line of the sea was at least a kilometer offshore, and we hoped that shorebird sightings would be forthcoming. Parking the car and donning our boots, we headed out amidst the hulls of beached fishing boats, many of which looked to be abandoned. A chill wind blew across the flats, bringing with it a welcome sight: Saunders’s Gull, a local specialty. We could see small groups of tiny shorebirds skittering about on the flats, and eventually began ticking them off: Kentish Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, and Red-necked Stint. Further out loomed groups of Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, along with a few Eurasian Curlew and Far Eastern Curlew. However, try as we might, we found no Spoon-billed Sandpiper, nor any Nordmann’s Greenshank.

After an hour or so in the stinging cold wind, we trudged back to the car and continued on up the coast road, now nearly deserted. We saw few shorebirds overall, but here and there, more curlews (including a number of Eurasian Whimbrel), Terek Sandpiper, and Grey-tailed Tattler kept things interesting.

Several miles up the road from the entrance, we found what turned out to be the bird of the trip. I noticed a large gull standing alone in the shallow surf just offshore, and Andreas was able to take some nice pictures. To our surprise, it turned out to be a Pallas’s Gull, the giant black-headed gull of interior Eurasia, very far from its habitual range.

As we followed the shore road away from the coast, we discovered a shallow lake covering several hectares that was covered with birds. Here we found our first large concentrations of Pied Avocet and Eurasian Oystercatcher, as well as a few lingering ducks—Eurasian Teal, Garganey, and Eurasian Wigeon. A number of smaller shorebirds—stints and Marsh Sandpiper prominent among them—mingled among the larger birds, and a single Common Snipe (our only snipe of the trip) flew off at our approach. In the dense reed beds chattered Black-browed Reed Warbler, and a single female Bluethroat flew into view. Overhead, Common Tern and Little Tern filled the skies. Several larger Caspian Tern rested on the mudflats beside the lake, in the company of large flocks of Saunders’s Gull.

A few miles farther on, we finally found a couple of Nordmann’s Greenshank in the company of some other shorebirds, on the muddy banks of a broad canal emptying onto a broad marshland. Nearby, in an area of mudflats and sandbars along a wide creek that had yielded nice results the previous October, we turned up another congeries of shorebirds that included several beautiful Curlew Sandpiper.

Despite the much colder weather, the woodlands continued to produce. We found again the shy Black-capped Kingfisher of the previous day, as well as more warblers and grosbeaks. To our great surprise, we turned up a second Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, this one even more cooperative than the first.

By day’s end, we had racked up a very respectable 95 species, with a two-day total of well over a hundred. With the weather for Day 3 forecast to be more of the same, we decided to drive down the coast 30 kilometers to the Yangkou area, to see whether the place still has good birding after years of unchecked development.

Coming from the north, we first entered Yangkou via the “Magic Wood” area (32.577320, 121.004202), and were immediately impressed by large numbers of Azure-winged Magpie, a new species for the trip. Here too leaf warblers and Chinese Grosbeak were abundant, and here too we found Manchurian Bush Warbler and Grey-streaked Flycatcher. Because our primary objective was shorebirds and whatever microforests might still be found around the town, we continued south along the shore road, watching the deteriorating weather with apprehension.

The Haiyinsi Temple Wood (32.560361, 121.039806) was off limits, the temple grounds still being closed to the public because of lingering coronavirus concerns. But we found plenty of other microforests as we began driving south along the coast road, many of which harbored a nice array of passerines in the cold, drizzly weather. Among the migrants we found were Meadow Bunting, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Grey-backed Thrush, Dusky Thrush, Grey-streaked Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Robin, and Swinhoe’s White-eye. In an extensive marshy area behind one stretch of microforest, a flock of around 50 White-winged Tern swooped in to join Common Tern and Little Tern.

However, our real interest was in ascertaining the status of the shorebird migration at Yangkou. As we had feared, the seacoast side of the road was mostly off-limits, with side roads out the various levees now guarded by watchmen and gates. Industrialization was everywhere, with new plants on both sides of the road, and ubiquitous wind turbines with their Aeolian whine a distraction at every turn. However, as we got several miles out of town, the shore road emptied out, and the cordgrass that had overgrown most of the mudflats closer to town disappeared. A green mesh fence surmounting the seawall appeared, but locals appeared to pay it no mind, as several of them were out on the marshes gathering driftwood.

And then we saw the shorebirds, a broad black belt of birdlife only a few hundred meters offshore, feeding near the edge of the incoming tide. From the seawall I put my scope on the flock, and saw tens of thousands of birds, with the flock stretching off down the coast as far as I could make out, a kilometer or more.

We found a partly open gate in the fence, fortuitously located right near where the thickest part of the immense flock was feeding, and decided simply to position ourselves at the base of the seawall, and wait for the incoming tide to push the birds to us.

Sure enough, the flock drifted closer and closer, with large portions lifting off, wheeling overhead, and landing ever nearer to the wall. There were so many birds that some of the larger flocks seemed to darken the sky itself, a spectacle seldom observable anywhere on the earth in the 21st century. We saw thousands of Bar-tailed Godwit, Lesser Sand Plover, Red-necked Stint, and Grey Plover and tens of thousands of Dunlin (the most abundant species). Here and there were smaller groupings of Kentish Plover and Terek Sandpiper. As the flock was pushed to within 15 meters of us, we could finally make out several Spoon-billed Sandpiper skittering about among the stints. We waited until the tidewater was swirling near our boots before returning to the car, cold and damp, but exuberant. We drove on down the coast for another couple of kilometers before the huge shorebird flock finally petered out.

With the weather continuing to deteriorate and facing a long drive back to Shanghai, we decided to wrap up our expedition. We had seen a respectable 60 species in only a few hours of birding in less than optimal conditions. The shorebird flock at Yangkou was by far the largest we encountered on this trip. We can report that Yangkou is still birdable, though quite different from Dongtai. However, birders should not have unrealistic expectations. Yangkou is an industrial area, and finding the big shorebird flocks is not as easy as it once was. Dongtai, while not undergoing industrialization along the shoreline, is being transformed into just another beach resort, and, for now, access to the shore road by vehicle is possible only early in the morning.

The future of both of these world-class migratory bird hotspots is very much in doubt. But on this outing, we logged over 120 species, and returned to the urban sprawl of Shanghai well-satisfied.

PHOTOS BY ANDREAS GOECKEDE

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker
Rufous-bellied Woodpecker Dendrocopos hyperythrus. Bonta writes, ‘This stunningly beautiful woodpecker—a lifer for both of us—allowed us a fairly close approach as it hitched its way up a tree.’ (Andreas Goeckede)
Mugimaki Flycatcher
Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki is a common passage migrant in the Shanghai region. The male is exquisite. (Andreas Goeckede)
Rufous-tailed Robin
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans sometimes sings on migration in the Shanghai region. Its breeding range includes northeast China. (Andreas Goeckede)
Grey-headed Lapwing
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus breeds in the undeveloped reclaimed areas on the coast of Dongtai County, Jiangsu. (Andreas Goeckede)
Dunlin
The most numerous shorebird recorded by Bonta and Goeckede was Dunlin Calidris alpina. Bonta: ‘And then we saw the shorebirds, a broad black belt of birdlife … I put my scope on the flock, and saw tens of thousands of birds, with the flock stretching off down the coast as far as I could make out.’ (Andreas Goeckede)
Eurasian Whimbrel
Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus breeds across much of subarctic Asia and Europe. (Andreas Goeckede)
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus with Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta. (Andreas Goeckede)
Black-tailed Godwit
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa melanuroides. (Andreas Goeckede)
Ruddy Turnstone
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres. (Andreas Goeckede)

Featured image: In May, the coastal areas of Jiangsu, the densely populated province north of Shanghai, abound with migrating shorebirds, songbirds, and even woodpeckers. Among them are, clockwise from L, Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus, Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki, Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus, and Rufous-bellied Woodpecker Dendrocopos hyperythrus. All by Andreas Goeckede, except Ashy Minivet (Craig Brelsford).

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Greater Painted-snipe at Nanhui, Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Jiangsu

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

I birded 10-14 Aug. 2017 with visiting U.S. birder Bob Orenstein. We noted 107 species at coastal sites in Shanghai and southeastern Jiangsu. At Pudong’s Cape Nanhui on 13 Aug., Bob and I had a rare Shanghai record of Greater Painted-snipe (above) and an early record of Mandarin Duck. On 12 Aug. at Dongling (32.224520, 121.534355), an impressive site that I had never birded, we had critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 2605 endangered Great Knot. We saw 4 Nordmann’s Greenshank at Dongling and had 30 members of that endangered species 11 Aug. at the coastal birding area (32.757056, 120.952294) at Dongtai. We noted Himalayan Swiftlet at Dongling as well as on 10 Aug. at Cape Nanhui, where we also had Amur Paradise Flycatcher.

Dongling is only 185 km north of People’s Square in Shanghai, closer than the declining old hot spot of Yangkou (“Rudong”) and the Dongtai coastal areas. Through a steady rain 12 Aug., Bob and I found high-tide roosts containing seas of Great Knot plus a single lonely Spoon-billed Sandpiper in complete winter plumage.

Seeing so many Great Knot was extremely heartening. In stark contrast, however, was endangered Far Eastern Curlew, of which only 5 were noted. Unlike near-threatened Eurasian Curlew (130), which though not abundant at Dongling numbered in the thousands at coastal Dongtai, Far Eastern Curlew were abundant nowhere.

On 11 Aug. Bob and I birded the reclaimed area of eastern Hengsha Island. The place was a bustle of activity, even at 5:15 in the morning, with 18-wheelers and dump trucks rumbling by. Security was tight. Guards were stationed at every intersection and in roving vans, one of which stopped us. We told them our purpose was birding; they told us to leave.

Before getting kicked out, Bob and I enjoyed one of my best moments ever with near-threatened Reed Parrotbill. A mega-flock of about 50 birds, much larger than the flocks one sees in the smaller, and ever-shrinking, reedy areas at Cape Nanhui, was making a loud noise during a morning feed. The flock contained juveniles and adults and proved that, provided it has habitat in which to flourish, Reed Parrotbill is a common, even dominant, reed-bed specialist.

I sound-recorded the raucous parrotbills:

Reed Parrotbill, 31.307498, 121.895095, 11 Aug. 2017 (02:39; 30.7 MB)

Let’s look more closely at some of our birds.

Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis

Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 13 Aug. 2017. Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China.
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis. We found the birds in a canal at Cape Nanhui, where they likely are breeding.

​With the help of local Chinese birders, Bob and I found a pair of Greater Painted-snipe in a thickly vegetated, trash-strewn canal. The shy birds were aware of our presence and nervous, but they held their ground. That behavior, in combination with a photo another Chinese birder took suggesting that the male is brooding, persuaded us that the pair has a nest. We moved quickly away and did not return.

Nordmann’s Greenshank Tringa guttifer

Footage I got 11 Aug. at Dongtai figures prominently in this video I made comparing Nordmann’s Greenshank to Common Greenshank.

To further hone your Nordmann’s Greenshank ID skills, and to relive the exciting appearance in 2016 of Nordmann’s Greenshank in Shanghai, see my post, Your Handy-Dandy Nordmann’s Greenshank ID Primer!

Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris

Great Knot was the star of this four-wader movie I made at Dongling.

Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe Gallinago stenura/megala

The video below records one of my closest encounters ever with “Swintail” Snipe. I found this individual 14 Aug. at the sod farm (31.103100, 121.829300) south of Pudong International Airport.

The video shows some of the characters distinguishing this species pair from Common Snipe. (The two species themselves are, except in extraordinary circumstances, indistinguishable from one another.)

As the autumn migration season progresses, the sod farm bears checking; on 3 Sept. 2016 at the farm, my partners and I had a rare Shanghai record of Common Ringed Plover.

​The video of the snipe as well as the other two videos embedded into this post were made with my combination of iPhone 6 plus PhoneSkope adapter plus Swarovski ATX-95. This powerful combination allows the videographer to shoot usable video from a great distance, allowing even a shy snipe to act naturally. (I never got closer than 40 m to the snipe.)

Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei

Amur Para Fly
Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635), 10 Aug. Among the indicators of Amur are the rufous upperparts and tail as well as the indistinct border between breast and belly. (Craig Brelsford)

It was an exciting moment 10 Aug. when Amur Paradise Flycatcher appeared in Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635). In the photo above, note the indistinct border between the bluish hood and white belly and the two-tone coloration of the hood–darker blue head, lighter blue breast. In Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, the hood tends to be uniformly colored and the border between the hood and white breast more distinct.

With this year’s fall migration season getting into full swing, paradise flycatchers are going to be moving through Shanghai, and you may wish to improve your skills. For more on separating Amur Paradise Flycatcher from Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, see my post “ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers.”

Cuculus sp.

Adults and some juveniles are now moving through Shanghai. In a few weeks, nearly all adult Cuculus cuckoos will be gone, and we will be left with the juveniles. Cuckoos do not sing in autumn, and song of course is by far the best way of distinguishing among the Cuculus cuckoos of our region. I therefore almost invariably mark these silent birds “Cuculus sp.”

Let us say I assigned these silent cuckoos to Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus. Perhaps they were the size of a sparrowhawk (ruling out thrush-sized Lesser Cuckoo C. poliocephalus), and perhaps they even had yellow irides (ruling out dark-eyed Indian Cuckoo C. micropterus and providing yet more evidence against dark-eyed Lesser Cuckoo).

Even if my cuckoos passed these tests, unless they were singing the classic song (virtually unheard this time of year), how could I justify ID-ing them as Common? It is, of course, likely that some of them are Common, but how can one be sure that any given silent Cuculus cuckoo one is seeing is Common?

I refrain from making speculative species assignments. I refrain because we still do not know enough about the migration patterns in Shanghai of Oriental Cuckoo C. optatus and Himalayan Cuckoo C. saturatus.

Like so many of the woodland passerines that pass through Shanghai on migration, Oriental Cuckoo breeds in northeastern China. Like those woodland passerines, Oriental Cuckoo also may pass through Shanghai on migration. Oriental, of course, is very similar to Common, the two species having so many overlapping characters that a firm ID of non-photographed, non-singing birds is all but impossible; and Himalayan, which theoretically may be present in or near our region, is even more similar to Oriental (“virtually identical”—Mark Brazil, Birds of East Asia, p. 256).

In Shanghai it may be tempting to assign silent Cuculus cuckoos, particularly yellow-eyed adults, to Common Cuckoo. Before I ever started doing that, though, I would want to know more about Oriental Cuckoo and Himalayan Cuckoo in the Shanghai region. Maybe future studies, using captured cuckoos whose DNA has been analyzed, will reveal a surprising pattern of Cuculus migration in Shanghai. Maybe those studies will show that considerable numbers of Cuculus passage migrants are Oriental Cuckoo.

Until that day comes, I usually hold back from ID-ing non-singing Cuculus cuckoos.

For more information on Shanghai-area cuckoos, see my post, “The Cuckoos of Shanghai.”

Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris

Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 10 Aug. 2017. Near Cathedral of Birding at N end of Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, Pudong, Shanghai, China.
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris near Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083). (Craig Brelsford)

​After being nearly unheard of in Shanghai as recently as a few years ago, Himalayan Swiftlet is now more and more regularly recorded in Shanghai in both spring and autumn.

Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.
Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.

The question arises of whether Himalayan Swiftlet has always been a scarce passage migrant and overlooked or whether its numbers are increasing in our area. It is of course also possible that both its numbers are increasing in our area and local birders’ skills and communication methods are improving.

That communication methods are improving is indisputable. One of the main causes of the improved communication is the WeChat group I founded, Shanghai Birding. The members of that group, who range from the newest of newbies to some of the most expert birders in China, regularly exchange sightings in real-time.

To join Shanghai Birding, friend me on WeChat (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). Tell me that you wish to join Shanghai Birding. I’ll add you.

Here is the complete list of the birds noted by Bob Orenstein and me 10-14 Aug. 2017:

Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis
Cinnamon Bittern I. cinnamomeus
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron A. purpurea
Great Egret A. alba
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus
Striated Heron Butorides striata
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Pacific Golden Plover P. fulva
Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus
Greater Sand Plover C. leschenaultii
Kentish Plover C. alexandrinus
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Far Eastern Curlew N. madagascariensis
Eurasian Curlew N. arquata
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica
Black-tailed Godwit L. limosa
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris
Red Knot C. canutus
Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata
Long-toed Stint C. subminuta
Spoon-billed Sandpiper C. pygmea
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis
Sanderling C. alba
Dunlin C. alpina
Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe Gallinago stenura/megala
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus
Common Greenshank T. nebularia
Nordmann’s Greenshank T. guttifer
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola
Common Redshank T. totanus
Saunders’s Gull Chroicocephalus saundersi
Black-headed Gull C. ridibundus
Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris
Little Tern Sternula albifrons
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus
Whiskered Tern C. hybrida
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Red Turtle Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Spotted Dove S. chinensis
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
Cuculus sp.
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Peregrine Falcon F. peregrinus
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach
Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula
Pale Martin Riparia diluta
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus
Japanese Tit Parus minor
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealis/examinandus
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus
White-cheeked Starling S. cineraceus
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus
Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica
Oriental Magpie-Robin Copsychus saularis
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria
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Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Cape Nanhui

Editor’s note: The photos above record the moment when I first beheld Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The date was 23 Aug. 2011; the place was Yangkou, a major stopover point for Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Jiangsu; and the bird was this adult, still with a considerable amount of its rufous breeding plumage. Since then I have had numerous encounters with the critically endangered species. The most recent was 3 Nov., when I achieved one of my most sustained views (nearly 30 minutes) and first view in Shanghai of one of the rarest vertebrates on the planet. — Craig Brelsford

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

On 3 Nov. Elaine Du and I found Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Cape Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Pudong. A single SBS was associating with a flock of 2600 waders in mud near the entrance to the defunct nature reserve. The SBS site is 4.3 km north of the Holiday Inn, and its coordinates are 30.921616, 121.969776.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper
Spoon-billed Sandpiper in flight. (Craig Brelsford)

I have been viewing Spoon-billed Sandpiper a few times each year since 2011. Since 2013, Elaine has been with me. We know what to look for, and at this time of year when we see a large flock of small waders, the possibility of finding Spoon-billed Sandpiper is always on our mind.

Seated, as is my wont, on the access road, my Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope atop my tripod in front of me, I was scanning the flock of 2600 waders, looking for anomalies. The great majority (1920) of the birds were Dunlin, with Kentish Plover (620) the other major component.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper
At Yangkou, this Spoon-billed Sandpiper was a lonely fellow in a dry roost containing hundreds of waders. (Craig Brelsford)

I saw a bird that was one of a kind. It was not associating with Kentish Plover or Dunlin. Unlike the plovers and Dunlin, which were resting and preening, the bird I was viewing was feeding. It was moving quickly and covering much ground.

The constant movement, like a wind-up toy, reminded me of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper I have viewed at Yangkou and Dongtai. The speed at which the bird ran fit the pattern, as did the average length of sprint. The bird would occasionally take a short flight. When it flew, the bird showed the white sides to its uppertail coverts.

SBS
Spoon-billed Sandpiper in non-breeding plumage. (Craig Brelsford)

The foregoing did not prove Spoon-billed Sandpiper—other species such as Red-necked Stint share some of those characters. What I needed was a close view. Unfortunately, the galaxy of shorebirds was spread out between me and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and the SBS was obviously shying away. Finally the bird moved to within 150 meters of the road. Even through the heat haze, the scope brought home the trademark spatulate bill.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper
On the mudflats at Yangkou, Elaine and I found this Spoon-billed Sandpiper. It is an adult, with traces of the rufous breeding plumage still visible on the face and throat. (Craig Brelsford)

It is only somewhat surprising that Spoon-billed Sandpiper should be at Nanhui in early November. First, Spoon-billed Sandpiper quit the stopover sites in Jiangsu around the end of October and early November. The Nanhui bird may have been one of them, and it may have stopped off in Shanghai for a quick refueling break as it heads south.

Second, as more and more of the Chinese coast is gobbled up by development, places such as the wetland at Nanhui, abandoned and gravely threatened as it is, take on greater and greater importance to migrating shorebirds. With so few places left for them, migrating waders pool in whatever hospitable area they can find. Small wonder, then, that in recent weeks the abandoned reserve has yielded Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank and ultra-rarities such as Pomarine Jaeger and that the site is depended on by about 2 percent of the world’s Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper
Spoon-billed Sandpiper has a highly distinctive spatulate bill. (Craig Brelsford)

IUCN lists Spoon-billed Sandpiper as Critically Endangered. Only 500 to 800 of these birds are thought to exist. Excessive development along the Chinese coast is one of the main causes of its decline. Last month, in Will the Spoon Survive?, I discussed coastal development and the future of Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
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