The Shanghai Skua

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 Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 20 Oct. 2016.
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 Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 20 Oct. 2016.
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 Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 20 Oct. 2016.
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 Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 20 Oct. 2016.
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 Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 20 Oct. 2016.
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 Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 20 Oct. 2016.
(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 Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 19 Oct. 2016. Photo by Kai Pflug.
Photo taken 19 Oct. 2016 by Kai Pflug.
Compare the images of our non-breeding Pomarine with this shot of an individual in breeding plumage. Photo taken by Daniel Pettersson in Alaska in June 2016.
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) and Hé Xīn (何鑫), Nanhui, 20 Oct. 2016. Photo by Elaine Du.
shanghaibirding.com editor Craig Brelsford (L) and Shanghai Skua discoverer Hé Xīn (何鑫), Cape Nanhui, 20 Oct. 2016. (Elaine Du)

RARE AUTUMN RECORD OF NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER

On Thurs. 20 Oct. and Sun. 23 Oct. 2016, Elaine Du and I birded Nanhui and the sod farm south of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). On 23 Oct. Elaine and I were joined by British birder Michael Grunwell. The two days yielded 92 species. After the Pomarine Jaeger, the big news was rare autumn sightings of Narcissus Flycatcher, another record of Nordmann’s Greenshank, and still more evidence that the highly threatened Nanhui wetland is much depended on by Black-faced Spoonbill.

Siberian Thrush, Nanhui, 23 Oct. 2016.
Siberian Thrush is a very shy bird. I have noted Geokichla sibirica in Heilongjiang, its breeding grounds, and even in breeding season the bird is hard to see. In these photos, however, taken Sun. 23 Oct. 2016 at Nanhui, this female Siberian Thrush is conspicuous. Why? Hunger. The migrant is exhausted and must feed. In the top panel, the thrush checks on me, then, almost in spite of itself, it attacks the leaf litter (middle panel). In the bottom panel, we see that the thrush has come up short; only a speck of leaf is in its bill. The thrush spent hours in Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), recharging after the long flight south. Despite their tiny size, the microforests of Nanhui provide forest habitat critical to woodland species such as Siberian Thrush. (Craig Brelsford)

On 20 Oct. in the canal at the base of the sea wall at Nanhui, Elaine and I had 18 Mandarin Duck and 2 season’s first Greater Scaup. On 23 Oct., the Nanhui microforests yielded Eurasian Woodcock, Ashy Minivet, Siberian Thrush, Red-throated Thrush, and season’s first Pale Thrush. A male Siberian Rubythroat popped out of the undergrowth and a Northern Boobook dozed before a crowd of photographers. At the line of trees (30.859995, 121.910061) near South Lock, 6 km south of the Magic Parking Lot (30.882688, 121.972489), we had season’s first Tristram’s Bunting. Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124) is attracting ducks again, the most notable Sunday being season’s first Tufted Duck and Common Pochard.

Northern Boobook, one of four we saw on 23 Oct. 2016 at Nanhui.
Northern Boobook, one of four we saw 23 Oct. 2016 at Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

The sod farm, which we visited Sunday morning, and which lies just off the S32 freeway, was worth the small investment of time required to get there. The grassy area gave us an unusually large (80) group of Red-throated Pipit. In Nanhui, we have been experiencing this species only in fly-by mode, but at the farm dozens of them were feeding on the ground. Michael and I studied the pipits carefully and concluded the group was pure Red-throated; we saw not a single Buff-bellied Pipit.

Ducks are once again gracing the canals and ponds of Nanhui. The most numerous were, as expected, Eastern Spot-billed Duck (285 over the two days) and Eurasian Teal (270 on 23 Oct.). Less numerous was Eurasian Wigeon, and there were sprinklings of Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Garganey.

OTHER NOTES

Narcissus Flycatcher, Nanhui, 23 Oct. 2016.
Narcissus Flycatcher, male (top left) and three females, Nanhui, 23 Oct. 2016. Every year between about 15 April and 15 May, Narcissus Flycatcher passes through the Shanghai region. It is fairly common during that time but rarely recorded in autumn. One of the most beautiful of Asia’s colorful flycatchers, Ficedula narcissina breeds in Japan and on Sakhalin and the adjacent Russian mainland. It winters in Borneo. (Craig Brelsford)

— Uniquely among the Shanghai region’s passage-migrant flycatchers, most of which appear in roughly equal numbers on both the spring and autumn migrations, Narcissus Flycatcher appears almost exclusively on the spring migration. We were therefore pleasantly surprised Sunday to see the three males and three females. Did Typhoon Haima send them our way? What are the migration patterns of this beautiful flycatcher?

Pink-billed juvenile Black-faced Spoonbill feeds in the defunct nature reserve at Nanhui, 23 Oct. 2016.
Pink-billed sub-adult Black-faced Spoonbill feeds in Nanhui’s defunct nature reserve (30.920507, 121.973159), 23 Oct. 2016. The spoonbill was surprisingly close to the road, driven there by lack of habitat. Despite the disadvantages of the site, the abandoned reserve remains one of the most hospitable places on the Shanghai coast for spoonbills and many other species. (Craig Brelsford)

— The importance of the Nanhui wetlands—as well as the dangers they face—can hardly be overstated. On 20 Oct. at the skua site, Hé Xīn told me that the defunct wetland in which we were standing would already have been utterly transformed by now had it not been for the intervention of Chinese birders, who secured a one-year delay. Within a radius of a few hundred meters of the skua site stood 24 endangered Black-faced Spoonbill and an endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. The dependence of Black-faced Spoonbill on the defunct wetland reserve is obvious and could be demonstrated by a group of high-schoolers doing a science project. Shanghai lies at the mouth of one of Earth’s greatest waterways (the Yangtze River) and is a major point on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway—yet this wealthy city, a world financial center with a rich natural heritage, entirely lacks an easily accessible wetland reserve on its mainland. The one, weak attempt—the defunct Nanhui reserve, with its crumbling buildings, torn-up boardwalk, and rotting signs—stands near the gallows, in the nick of time being given a stay of execution. And yet, even now, the defunct reserve, mismanaged, unloved, and undervalued, even now the place still attracts Class A birds! When, oh when, will the Shanghai government and Shanghai people learn to value at their true worth their spoonbills, greenshanks, and vagrant skuas? When, I ask, will they see as an asset to be cherished, and not a burden to be cast away, the thousands of birds that migrate through Earth’s greatest city? When will the Shanghai people apply their renowned cleverness and skill to protecting, rather than dredging up the home of, the symbol of their city, Reed Parrotbill? When will Shanghai take a cue from Hong Kong and build its own Mai Po? When will it follow the example of Singapore and create its own Sungei Buloh?

PHOTOS

Mandarin Duck in the rain, Nanhui, 20 Oct. 2016.
Mandarin Duck in the rain, Nanhui, 20 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Red-throated Pipit, sod farm near Pudong Airport, 23 Oct. 2016.
Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus at the sod farm, 23 Oct. 2016. When the red throat is visible (Panel 1), the species is unmistakable. When it is not visible or lacking (2-4), Red-throated Pipit can be distinguished from Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus by the former’s better-defined black streaking on the back and crown and by its whitish mantle stripes. (Craig Brelsford)

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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You too can join Shanghai Birding.

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.

Your Handy-Dandy Nordmann’s Greenshank ID Primer!

Distinguishing non-breeding Nordmann’s Greenshank from Common Greenshank is a tricky task, but one that reaps rewards. With practice you too can feel the rush that comes when you realize that the greenshank you are viewing is not one of the most common shorebirds in Eurasia, but one of the rarest. On Sat. 17 Sept. 2016 at Cape Nanhui in Pudong, our team experienced that thrill, picking out a Nordmann’s in a roost holding a few hundred shorebirds.

We noted the following:

Tibiae of Nordmann’s Greenshank are noticeably shorter than those of Common Greenshank.

Nordmann's Greenshank (L) has an appreciably higher 'knee' than the longer- and thinner-legged Common Greenshank (R). Both photos taken by Craig Brelsford in Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu in October 2014 (Nordmann's) and May 2011 (Common).
Nordmann’s Greenshank (L) has an appreciably higher ‘knee’ than the longer- and thinner-legged Common Greenshank (R). Both photos taken at Yangkou, Nordmann’s in October, Common in May. (Craig Brelsford)

The picture above makes it clear. The biggest reason Nordmann’s is known as the stockier bird, the rugby player compared to the ballerina that is Common Greenshank, is tibia and leg length.

Nordmann’s has a thicker neck that it often holds closer to its body and has a pronounced ventral angle (protruding belly), giving Nordmann’s a more hunched appearance than Common.

The larger head and thicker neck of Nordmann's (top) give it a more hunched appearance than the more graceful Common (bottom).
The larger head and thicker neck of Nordmann’s (top) give it a more hunched appearance than the more graceful Common (bottom). Both photos taken at Yangkou, Nordmann’s in October, Common in May. (Craig Brelsford)

As with many of the characters of these species, the hunched stance of Nordmann’s is not always obvious, especially when the bird is active. Likewise, even a Common sometimes can appear stout. But as one’s observation time grows, the classic features of both species will emerge.

Nordmann’s has a thicker, more obviously bi-colored bill than Common.

As is the case with the legs, the bill of Nordmann's (top) is thicker than the bill of Common (bottom). The more obviously bi-colored bill of Nordmann's is yellow at the base.
As is the case with the legs, the bill of Nordmann’s (top) is thicker than the bill of Common (bottom). The more obviously bi-colored bill of Nordmann’s is yellow at the base. (Craig Brelsford)

Because the Nordmann’s at our Nanhui roost did not fly, we missed the following key characteristics:

The toes of Nordmann’s project just beyond the tail-tip; the toes of Common project farther.

With its shorter legs, Nordmann's Greenshank (top) shows just a bit of toe projection. The longer-legged Common Greenshank (bottom) shows more.
With its shorter legs, Nordmann’s (top) shows just a bit of toe projection. The longer-legged Common (bottom) shows more. Both photos taken at Yangkou, Nordmann’s in October, Common in May. (Craig Brelsford)

This difference can be subtle, and a good camera is sometimes needed to appreciate it. But it is consistent.

Nordmann’s has a cleaner tail and underwing than Common.

The tail and underwing of Nordmann's Greenshank are clean white (panels 1, 2). The tail and underwing of Common Greenshank are streakier (3, 4). All photos in this section taken by Craig Brelsford in <a href="https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sites/yangkou/" target="_blank">Yangkou</a>, Rudong, Jiangsu in May 2011, May 2014, and October 2014.
The tail and underwing of Nordmann’s are clean white (panels 1, 2). The tail and underwing of Common are browner (3, 4). (Craig Brelsford)

Even if your Nordmann’s is roosting, you can sometimes note the white underwing. Wait for the bird to stretch out its wing.

Other differences:

Nordmann's Greenshank stands among waders at a dry roost in Nanhui, Shanghai Sat. 16 Sept. 2016. Photo by Komatsu Yasuhiko.
Nordmann’s Greenshank stands among waders at a dry roost at Cape Nanhui, 17 Sept. 2016. We found the birds at 30.920549, 121.963247. Note the high ‘knee,’ obviously bi-colored bill, and hunched, ‘no-neck’ stance. Photo by Komatsu Yasuhiko using Kowa TSN 883 Prominar spotting scope and Kowa TSN IP6 adapter and Craig Brelsford’s iPhone 6.

The calls of Nordmann’s Greenshank and Common Greenshank are markedly different. The well-known “chew-chew-chew” call of Common is never made by Nordmann’s.

In breeding plumage the species are more readily distinguishable. Nordmann’s Greenshank is also known as Spotted Greenshank for good reason. The heavily spotted underparts of breeding Nordmann’s are diagnostic. Unfortunately for birders in Shanghai, however, Nordmann’s in full breeding plumage is rarely seen.

Nordmann’s Greenshank Tringa guttifer is an endangered species. Only 500 to 1,000 of these birds are thought to remain. Development along the East Asian coast is the main reason for its decline. Nordmann’s breeds in Russia, passes through China, and winters in Southeast Asia. It is present in the Shanghai area for several months each year.

OTHER GOOD STUFF

The Nordmann’s took top billing on a day that saw veteran British birder Michael Grunwell, my wife Elaine Du, and me note 71 species at Cape Nanhui, Lesser Yangshan Island, and the sod farm south of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). We were joined at the roost and Nanhui microforests by the crack high-school birding team of Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, Chi Shu, and Andy Lee.

Our Non-Nordmann highlights:

White-winged Tern

We noted 2500 at Nanhui, by far the highest number of White-winged Tern that I have seen. They made quite a spectacle, fluttering like snowflakes over the reed beds.

Common Tern

One of the three Common Tern at the roost that contained Nordmann's Greenshank. I massively overexposed the legs (inset) to reveal the red color and nail the ID of Common. Photo by Hiko for shanghaibirding.com.
One of the three Common Tern at the roost that contained Nordmann’s Greenshank. I massively overexposed the legs (inset) to reveal a hint of the red color, enough to clinch the ID of Common. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

Three at the roost. Michael and I discussed whether Aleutian Tern, similar to Common Tern in winter plumage, passes through Shanghai and has been overlooked. Check for the red legs of Common; if the legs appear black, then keep investigating; you may have an Aleutian.

Ruddy Shelduck

Ruddy Shelduck is uncommon in Shanghai; I have recorded flocks at Chongming but had never seen the species at Nanhui. We saw a single Ruddy in the marshy agricultural land north of Luchao (芦潮; 30.851111, 121.848528).

Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Great Knot, Red Knot, Grey-tailed Tattler

The godwits, knots, and tattlers were in the dry roost with the Nordmann’s. Every one of these species is at least near-threatened; Great Knot is endangered.

Black-winged Cuckooshrike

After the excitement with the Nordmann’s at the roost, the seven of us covered the microforests. Our teamwork paid off with a view of Black-winged Cuckooshrike, an uncommon passage migrant in Shanghai.

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata is the most numerous member of its genus to pass through the Shanghai region. Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei also passes through, but in smaller numbers.
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata is the most numerous member of its genus to pass through Shanghai. Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei also passes through, but in smaller numbers. I found this individual, a male, in Microforest 2 (30.926138, 121.970795). Like most male paradise flycatchers on passage in Shanghai, it was missing its spectacular elongated tail feathers. For more on distinguishing Japanese and Amur Paradise Flycatcher, see Craig’s post of 10 October 2016: ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers. (Craig Brelsford)

Yet another near-threatened species, Terpsiphone atrocaudata is common on migration in Shanghai. We noted 10 on Saturday. Care must be taken to separate this species from Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei, which passes through Shanghai in smaller numbers. Male and female Japanese have a more extensive dark hood, extending almost to the belly, whereas that of Amur extends only to the upper breast. For more help distinguishing these two species, see my post ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers.

On Lesser Yangshan we found Oriental Dollarbird. Our final stop was the sod farm south of Pudong International Airport, where we found 4 Pacific Golden Plover and 200 Oriental Pratincole.

Featured image: Nordmann’s Greenshank stands among wader roost at Cape Nanhui, 17 Sept. 2016. Using the principles described in this post, our team was able to ID this Nordmann’s. Photo by Komatsu Yasuhiko (“Hiko”) using his Kowa TSN 883 Prominar spotting scope and Kowa TSN IP6 adapter and Craig Brelsford’s iPhone 6.

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