Yellow-breasted BuntingEmberiza aureola has a broad breeding range, extending from Finland across Eurasia to Kamchatka, with aureola breeding in the Altai Mountains in Xinjiang and ornata in Heilongjiang. Migrants are funneled through China en route to more compact wintering range in Southeast Asia, India, and southern China, including Hainan and Taiwan. Breeds in dry meadows and riparian grasslands, usually with thick undergrowth and scattered trees; winter habitat includes grass and scrub, reedbeds, and the bushy edges of cultivated land. Numbers declining dramatically because of increased trapping, mainly in China; thousands are caught in mist nets, cooked, and sold as “rice birds.” Stocky, mid-sized bunting, slightly larger than Chestnut Bunting. Breeding male ornata distinctive, with black face, unstreaked reddish-brown upperparts, conspicuous white patch on scapulars, bold white wingbar, and reddish-brown breast band contrasting with yellow underparts. Flanks streaked black; brown tail fringed white on outer rectrices. Nominate similar but shows less black on crown and is paler. Winter male loses much of black face and breast band and has narrower wing patch. Female larger than female Chestnut Bunting and has heavily streaked grey-brown rump. Has more strikingly patterned head, with a pale median crown-stripe contrasting with black lateral crown-stripes, a broad buffish-yellow supercilium, and a black postocular eyestripe and black border below yellow-brown cheek. Also shows two pale streaks on mantle and two white wingbars. Juvenile like female but paler and shows streaking on breast. Thin, sharp “tick” call. Song a clear, loud series of five to nine whistles, usually rising up the scale to the final two notes, which fall. — Craig Brelsford
Featured photo: Yellow-breasted Bunting, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, October. (Craig Brelsford)
On Saturday 12 Nov. 2016 and again the next day, our site near Luchao delivered Yellow-breasted Bunting. The site is at 30.850694, 121.863667. We are now five-for-five in sightings of Yellow-breasted Bunting since our Nov. 5 discovery of the species there.
It will be interesting to see how long into the winter the Yellow-breasted Bunting remain. I hope they stay awhile, because it is unlikely any of the locals will catch ’n’ roast ’em. (The greatest factor in the endangerment of Emberiza aureola is massive poaching of the species for snacks in south China.)
Recently the site has yielded Black-browed Reed Warbler and Chestnut-eared Bunting and a late record of Barn Swallow. An un-ID’d rail has been spotted twice in the area.
To get to the site, from Luchao drive 1.5 km north from the bend in the road north of the canal, where the road begins to run parallel with the sea. Pull onto the unpaved track and park on the bridge of white cement. The buntings seem to be concentrated a few dozen meters south, near the place where picnickers dumped a big load of trash. Be on the lookout for individuals flying into the narrow reed bed after foraging runs in the adjacent rice paddies.
Since last we posted, Elaine Du and I birded three days: Sat. 5 Nov., Tues. 8 Nov., and Wed. 9 Nov. 2016. We noted 115 species. At Cape Nanhui’s defunct nature reserve (30.920507, 121.973159) we had Long-billed Dowitcher and endangered Great Knot, and we noted the continued presence there of endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124) yielded Smew, Greater Scaup, Black-necked Grebe, and an uncommon Shanghai record of Black Kite. We had Reed Parrotbill and Brown-cheeked Rail at a new site called the Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883), and we went three-for-three with endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting at a point (30.850707, 121.863662) north of Luchao, where we also attained an autumn record of Black-browed Reed Warbler. Drives along the sea-wall road gave us Amur Falcon and Peregrine Falcon, and Japanese Sparrowhawk dove for cover into Microforest 7.
We found Tundra Swan (bewickii) on all three days, with a high count of 11 on 9 Nov. on the mudflats near Big Bend (31.000321, 121.938074). The previous evening near Big Bend we had a rare Shanghai record of Greater White-fronted Goose. In the mudflats north of South Lock (30.860073, 121.909997) we had Eurasian Curlew and a rare Shanghai record of Mew GullLarus canus.
Among shorebirds, Dunlin and Kentish Plover not surprisingly were the most numerous. Careful scanning allowed us to sift out more southerly winterers such as the Great Knot as well as small numbers of Black-tailed Godwit, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, and Sanderling. Vulnerable Saunders’s Gull were at the defunct nature reserve.
Microforest 4 yielded Japanese Robin on 7 Nov., seen and photographed by Shanghai birder kaca. A careful search by us the following two days failed to turn up the rare passage migrant. On 5 Nov. we had a late record of Arctic Warbler. Other interesting passerines were Hair-crested Drongo and Naumann’s Thrush. Scaly-breasted Munia was at the Iron Track, we had season’s first Rustic Bunting, and the skies gave us Red-rumped Swallow and Asian House Martin.
On 5 Nov. Elaine and I were joined by Michael Grunwell, the Shanghai-based veteran British birder. On 8 Nov. we welcomed U.K. birder Mike May, and on 9 Nov. we partnered with U.S. birder Erica Locke.
On 8 Nov. we found a bird photographer with a cage baited with mealworms. We asked him politely but firmly to put the cage away, and he complied. If you see persons trapping or otherwise abusing birds at Nanhui, call the forestry department at 21-51586246 or the Pudong New Area Wildlife Protection Station at 21-61872122.
Elaine and I noted 112 species over May Day weekend. We did island birding on Lesser Yangshan, coastal birding at Cape Nanhui, and inner-city birding at Zhongshan Park. Highlights were 26 Pechora Pipit, 6 of them singing, plus (Japanese) Yellow Bunting and 2 endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting at Nanhui. Nanhui also gave us 3 Chinese Egret, a rare view of Large Hawk-Cuckoo, endangered Far Eastern Curlew and 4 near-threatened Curlew Sandpiper, and high-value passage migrants such as Chinese Sparrowhawk, Asian Stubtail, Brown-headed Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, Narcissus Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, and Chestnut Bunting. Lesser Yangshan yielded 2 Rufous-tailed Robin singing from cover, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Greater Sand Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, 18 near-threatened Grey-tailed Tattler, 2 Broad-billed Sandpiper, and Taiga Flycatcher. Seasonal firsts were numerous and included Little Tern, Dusky Warbler, and Black-browed Reed Warbler at Nanhui and Grey-streaked Flycatcher on Lesser Yangshan. On Sat. 30 April and Sun. 1 May we birded with veteran English birder Michael Grunwell.
On Saturday near Microforest 2 at Nanhui, Michael enjoyed his first views of Pechora Pipit in 26 years while Elaine and I enjoyed our second view in a week of this scarce passage migrant. Those views were just a prelude to the excitement of Sunday. Again at Nanhui, driving along the sea-wall road, we began finding Pechoras. Some of them were singing; two of them were sparring. We decided to make a survey of this scarce passage migrant. Driving slowly from the Holiday Inn north, we scanned the thickly vegetated inner base of the sea wall. Thousands of trees have been planted there recently, giving the Pechoras perches and making them easier to see. We counted 26. Here is the song I recorded of Pechora Pipit (00:27; 1.9 MB):
Saturday began with a 4 a.m. pickup of Michael and 90-minute drive to Lesser Yangshan. We went first to Accidental Marsh (30.611902, 122.114873). Accidental Marsh is several hectares of newly formed wetland created by the construction of a causeway linking Lesser Yangshan and Dazhitou Island. Besides the waders noted above, we found singing Oriental Reed Warbler, and we rejoiced because for a change we had found a place where the reed-bed habitat of that species is expanding, rather than contracting, as is so often the case on the beleaguered Chinese coast. Another interesting record there was Black-collared Starling, uncommon in the Shanghai region. Moving to Garbage Dump Gully (30.641565, 122.062836), we found Black Drongo and the Rufous-tailed Robin singing from cover. On the half-destroyed Garbage Dump Coastal Plain next to the Gully, we met a lone Pacific Golden Plover.
We drove back to the mainland and remained at Nanhui the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday. We noticed once again that the Magic Parking Lot (30.882688, 121.972489) and nearby areas are turning into a circus, especially on holiday weekends. Upwards of 300 cars are parked there at midday, and though the Parking Lot is an effective migrant trap, on weekends in good weather birding the Lot is difficult after 9 a.m.
In light of the new popularity of the Lot as well as the continued flattening of the local reed beds, we are looking for new areas to bird. We found a place we are calling South Lock (30.857798, 121.914106). South Lock is the area around the place where the S2 expressway meets the mainland. A sluice gate is nearby, hence the name. On Saturday, trees at South Lock were holding Eastern Crowned Warbler, a species beloved by Michael, and the adjacent ponds and marshes held waders and buntings and gave us our only weekend record of Grey Wagtail. A stop there on Sunday morning gave us our Dusky Warbler. South Lock looks good and because so near the freeway may remain undeveloped. Another new area for us is South Lawn (midpoint at 30.849840, 121.897953), a stretch of grassy land at the inner base of the sea wall north of Luchao (Lúcháo Gǎng [芦潮港]). There we found flocks of Eastern Yellow Wagtail containing members of the nominate race as well as taivana.
All four of our views of Siberian Blue Robin occurred in the Nanhui microforests. In Shanghai, Sibe Blue offers a good example of how migrant traps work. This species will spend the summer in thick cover in the great forests of northeastern China, the Russian Far East, Sakhalin Island, and Japan. It is a master skulker. Flying up the Nanhui coast, with its dearth of forest cover, a Sibe Blue sees the microforests the same way a tired traveler sees a hotel after a long day on the road. In the Nanhui microforests, now thickly carpeted with daisies and grasses, watch your step! Tired migrants such as Asian Stubtail, Sibe Blue, Rufous-tailed Robin, and Pale Thrush will wait until your foot is inches away before exploding out.
May Day is arguably the height of migration season in the Shanghai region. On sunny, warm days such as Sunday, the stimulation is constant, and exciting moments are many. Here is just one of many anecdotes: Nanhui, Sunday morning. Through Michael’s spotting scope I am enjoying a view of an endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting that he and Elaine found. As I watch, a Pechora Pipit jumps into the circular view and drives the bunting away. An endangered bunting being chased away by a scarce passage migrant! Wow! Then Michael calls out that he has just seen a raptor. The bird disappears, and we get into our rented Buick and drive toward the trees into which it vanished. As we drive, out jumps Large Hawk-Cuckoo! Three rare Shanghai records in the space of five minutes!
The view of Yellow Bunting was team birding at its best. We were driving slowly on the semi-abandoned low road discovered a few months back by Michael. (The starting point of this road, which leads inland from a point behind the Magic Parking Lot, is 30.885592, 121.967369.) As we drove, we were kicking up foraging buntings, mainly Black-faced Bunting. Elaine and I, sitting up front, were the first to notice an anomaly: a yellow-shaded bunting with a mustache and goatee. It had to be Yellow Bunting! The bird disappeared. Michael and Elaine were going for a lifer, so we had to work carefully. We stopped the car and walked up and down the road, six eyeballs searching for the rare migrant. Elaine found it! Michael and I came running. Luckily for us, the bunting had found a feeding area it liked; it was loath to leave the road. Michael was ecstatic as he set up his spotting scope and watched the bunting feed.
On Thurs. 28 April, Elaine and I did a quick walk-through at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park. The park is more than a hundred years old, has many tall trees, and offers some of the best mid-sized urban-park birding in Earth’s largest city. Zhongshan holds sentimental value for me because it is where I ticked Elaine as a lifer (i.e., I met her there).
Our visit of less than two hours brought Elaine and me six passage migrants: Yellow-browed Warbler, Sakhalin/Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Narcissus Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, and Tristram’s Bunting. A seventh, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, was reported by another birder.
The focal point at Zhongshan is the little central pond (31.224111, 121.414194). On Thursday all 3 Narcissus Flycatcher were noted there, among them a female, as well as our Eastern Crowned Warbler and Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. A tiny island in the center of the pond is almost cat-free (some cats do make the jump) and contains several large trees. Thanks to the nearly daily presence there of bird photographer Wāng Jìn Róng (汪进荣), the central pond is an information clearinghouse; Mr. Wang and his buddies are always eager to tell you what they have been seeing lately.
Featured image: Pechora Pipit at Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
Spring has surged into Shanghai! Elaine Du and I noted 92 species on the Qingming weekend. We found 212 endangered Great Knot at Nanhui and Bluethroat and Brown-headed Thrush on Chongming. Other highlights were 2 Greater Scaup and Black-necked Grebe on Chongming and at Nanhui 2 endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting, “Swintail” Snipe, 10 Saunders’s Gull (rare in Shanghai), 3 endangered Far Eastern Curlew, 2 Eurasian Bittern booming amid the sound of traffic, and 10 Pacific Swift.
On Sun. 3 April 2016, fog once again kept Elaine and me off Hengsha Island, our original destination. Driving our rented Skoda Scout, we left the Hengsha ferry terminal on Changxing Island and took the Shanghai Changjiang Bridge across the Yangtze to Chongming Island. Visibility was less than 100 meters when we finally arrived at Chongming Dongtan National Bird Sanctuary and Nature Reserve. Rain, usually a drizzle, sometimes a shower, let up only briefly, around noon.
We stayed away from fee and permit areas. The northeast sea wall, with its well-protected mudflats beyond, is blocked off by guards wearing camouflage uniforms. A road running inside and parallel to the sea wall is not in a permit area and affords views of the canal-pond at the base of the wall. Reeds running along this inner road are the first tall, thick vegetation a bird flying along the coastline is likely to see and contained several migrants, among them the Brown-headed Thrush and a leaf warbler that may have been Chinese Leaf Warbler. The Phyllosc was soaking wet, and the characteristics I was noting, such as its seeming lack of a strong coronal stripe like Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, may have merely been the effect of the water. We noted the bright yellow rump, were starting to get hopeful–and then the bird disappeared.
On the eastern end of Chongming, we covered the farmland inside the sea wall and did not drive in the permit area atop the wall. We found the Bluethroat at the very good “snipe corner” (31.479537, 121.937001) south of Changjiang Lu. True to form, the skulker quickly hid away, refusing to flush or show. Still, the fleeting glimpse we got was Elaine’s best view ever of Bluethroat.
My walk through the reeds in pursuit of the Bluethroat scared up 2 Japanese Quail. Common Snipe were numerous, a pair of Oriental Skylark were hollowing out a tiny cup in the grass, and Water/Brown-cheeked Rail squealed once and fell silent. I recorded a fifth distinctive vocalization of Reed Parrotbill; I call this one the “siren.” (For the previous four calls, please visit “Amid the Din of the Diggers.”)
Reed Parrotbill, siren call (00:04; 954 KB)
On Mon. 4 April, Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell once again joined Elaine and me at Nanhui. We noted 73 species. Whereas outings in March gave us a “spring emerging from winter” impression, on Monday the transition to springtime felt complete. All that was missing were the flycatchers and the leaves on the trees in the microforests, those migrant traps dotting the sea wall.
We rented no car, instead relying on the Shanghai Metro, taxis, a ride from a pair of friendly tourists, and our legs. With sunny skies and temperatures reaching 18 degrees, the weather was nearly perfect, and the exercise put us in a good mood.
The birding area at Nanhui is steadily going from “half-forgotten, mostly empty, natural” to “popular, busy, recreational.” Cars were packed around Nanhuizui Park and the Holiday Inn, and Qingming tourists were streaming out of the buses. Amid the commotion we found our first-of-season singing Manchurian/Japanese Bush Warbler as well as a single Asian House Martin flying among the swifts, the suddenly numerous Barn Swallow, and a single Red-rumped Swallow. At the Magic GPS Point (30.880540, 121.964572), we climbed to the deck of the derelict building next to the Holiday Inn. There, we enjoyed the expansive views, noted more Pacific Swift, and wondered how on earth a building as huge as this could be built and then immediately abandoned.
North of the Nanhuizui area, photographers were working on 12 Black-winged Stilt that were using a pond close to Microforest 2 (30.926039, 121.970725). Around that pond we found Marsh Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. The quiet, half-fallow fields behind the pond evoked memories of old Nanhui. We found our Yellow-breasted Bunting here as well as Chestnut-eared Bunting and about 60 of our 90 Pallas’s Reed Bunting. We were looking for but failed to find Japanese Reed Bunting. We noted the absence of harriers, which normally would be hovering over the fields and reed beds.
Great Knot were seen in flight and on the mudflats as the tide receded.
Featured image: Western Osprey carries a fish while flying over Dishui Lake in Shanghai, Mon. 4 April 2016. Lingang, a satellite city that did not exist 10 years ago, looms in the background.
On Sat. 31 Oct. 2015, Elaine and I once again birded with Michael Grunwell, Stephan Popp, and Xueping Popp. We noted 83 species on one of the best days I have ever had birding in Shanghai. Japanese Scops Owl was in Microforest 1 at Nanhui and attracted a crowd of photographers. Long-eared Owl greeted us within seconds of our arrival at the Magic GPS Point in Nanhui. We had Jack Snipe, Greater Scaup, Dalmatian Pelican, and 62 Black-faced Spoonbill.
Our day began on Lesser Yangshan. Seeing little to stir us, we made an early break for Nanhui. Within seconds of our arrival at the Magic GPS Point, we saw Long-eared Owl flying our way. The migrating owl alighted in some reeds, invisible to us, but not to the Vinous-throated Parrotbill. Recognizing their ancient enemy, the parrotbills cried out manically.
We drove to Shanghai Binhai Forest Park but found little of interest; the action is clearly smack-dab on the coast; once one is even a kilometer inland, the intensity of the birding experience wanes. We quickly headed back. The fields near an empty blue-roofed building were covered with brush and were jumping with buntings. Here we found the Jack Snipe as well as Peregrine Falcon, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, Chestnut-eared Bunting, and the endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting.
Back at the microforests, we had season’s first Goldcrest plus an array of thrushes drawn in part by the precious cover these tiny stands of trees provided and also by the mealworms thrown liberally on the ground by the photographers. A female Japanese Thrush was a good catch by us, and we had Eyebrowed Thrush. The Japanese Scops Owl never budged while enterprising photographers carefully cut away a branch that had been denying them a full-body shot.
Ruddy Shelduck was a first-of-season for Elaine and me. Hair-crested Drongo appeared again on our list. A long scan of the sea just beyond the wall revealed the scaup as well as hundreds of Eastern Spot-billed Duck, a few hundred Eurasian Teal, plus Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, and Northern Pintail.
The laughs just kept on rolling as we enjoyed our camaraderie as well as the great birds. “This is the best Christmas of my life–and it’s only Halloween!” I joked.
Weather: Wind steady from NE. Cloudy, but visibility good; Nanhui visible from Lesser Yangshan, and vice versa. High 20°C.