In 2012, Varied Tit Irrupted into Shanghai

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
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)
Varied Tit
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Lesser Yangshan Island, 30 Sept. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Changfeng Park, 17 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Lesser Yangshan Island, 19 Nov. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
Lesser Yangshan Island, 5 Dec. 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Varied Tit
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. (Accessed 15 September 2019)

Featured image: In autumn and winter 2012, Shanghai experienced an irruption of Varied Tit Sittiparus varius varius. (Craig Brelsford)
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Crested Goshawk Invades Shanghai

Crested Goshawk has sunk its talons into Shanghai. In the past year, records of the species have come from various locations throughout the city, in all four seasons. This past spring, a pair may have bred at Gongqing Forest Park.

It is remarkable that Crested Goshawk, a species of tropical and subtropical Asia, is even as far north as the Yangtze River. Most field guides show Accipiter trivirgatus indicus, the mainland form, occurring no farther north than Hangzhou. However, members of Shanghai Birding, the WeChat companion to this Web site, have reported Crested Goshawk in Nanjing and Nantong (Jiangsu). Other authorities record Crested Goshawk in Anhui, Henan, and even Beijing.

If the forest-loving goshawk has invaded the coastal, little-wooded, highly urbanized world of Shanghai, then it is not surprising that it would be using urban parks. Some of the parks of Shanghai, such as 102-year-old Zhongshan Park, where I found a pair of Crested Goshawk on 8 Sept., have massive trees and resemble old-growth forests.

Like the avifauna of islands, the birds of urban Shanghai’s green islands live in isolation. Except for stray cats and an occasional Siberian Weasel, urban residents Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Light-vented Bulbul, and Chinese Blackbird have few predators and are abundant.

With the imbalance comes an opportunity for raptors that can tolerate the noise and bustle of Earth’s Largest City. For Crested Goshawk, the pluses of urban living are apparently outweighing the minuses. It has come to feed on the rich store of passerines as well as mammals such as Pallas’s Squirrel.

On 16 May 2017 at Pudong’s Century Park, Shanghai Birding member Xueping Popp captured a Crested Goshawk exploiting the imbalance.

Crested Goshawk
Crested Goshawk devouring Chinese Blackbird, Century Park, 17 May 2017. About this incident, photographer Xueping Popp wrote: ‘I went to Century Park early in the morning to look for Black Bittern. Nothing happened, so I decided to walk a little in the park. Suddenly I heard the cries of Chinese Blackbird. I looked up and saw a Crested Goshawk standing in the nest and eating a chick piece by piece. The scene was brutal, but Crested Goshawk was doing what raptors are supposed to do. I observed the whole process silently until the goshawk finished its meal.’ © 2017 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.

Shanghai Birding member Wāng Jìn Róng (汪进荣) was one of the first birders to record Crested Goshawk in Shanghai. Jìn Róng has seen the species at Zhongshan Park and Gongqing Forest Park as well as on the grounds of the Shanghai Zoo. Jìn Róng took the photo at the top of this post as well as the photos immediately below. All were taken at Zhongshan Park–the photo above this past May, the photos below last December.

Crested Goshawk
Crested Goshawk, Zhongshan Park, 18 Dec. 2016. Note the dark mesial stripe on white throat, heavy brownish to rufous streaking on the breast, and heavy rufous barring on the belly. The small nuchal crest is not seen here, being most obvious when the goshawk is in profile. (Wāng Jìn Róng).

The Crested Goshawk below, photographed by Shanghai Birding member Kai Pflug at Cape Nanhui, may have been in transit. Cape Nanhui has little tree cover beyond its famous microforests (where Kai got this photo), and Crested Goshawk is rarely recorded there.

Crested Goshawk
Crested Goshawk, Cape Nanhui, April 2017. Note large size but slim build and wings whose tips barely exceed the base of the tail. The short, rounded wings and long tail are adaptions to maneuvering through thick forest. (Kai Pflug)

Have you seen Crested Goshawk or other raptors in your city? Tell us your story in the comments below.

RESOURCES ON CRESTED GOSHAWK

Most field guides to Shanghai birds show outdated range maps for Accipiter trivirgatus indicus. Among them are Birds of East Asia (Brazil), A Field Guide to the Birds of China (MacKinnon & Phillipps), Handbook of the Birds of the World Vol. 2, and Raptors of the World (Ferguson-Lees & Christie).

The media below offer a clearer picture of the current status in China of Crested Goshawk.

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

Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat group. The subject of Crested Goshawk generated discussions with various birders, among them Jiangsu birders Scoter and maidong, who had information about Crested Goshawk in Nanjing and Nantong. Hangzhou birder Cheng Qian reported on the distribution of Crested Goshawk in Zhejiang. Beijing-based member Paul Holt alerted us to scholarship on the changing distribution of Crested Goshawk and shared records of the species from Anhui and Beijing. Guangdong-based member Jonathan Martinez wrote about breeding Crested Goshawk in Hunan.

eBird. 2019. eBird Range Map–Crested Goshawk. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. (Accessed: 2 November 2019).

The eBird Range Map shows points on the Earth where checklists with Crested Goshawk have been submitted. The map shows Crested Goshawk in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Henan as well as Shanghai.

Fei, Y.-L., Lei, M., Zhang, Y. and Lu, C.-H. Geographic Distribution Change of Crested Goshawk (Accipiter trivirgatus). Chinese Journal of Zoology 45 (2010): 174–175.
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Birding Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park in the Rain

On the afternoon of 28 Sept. 2016, I saw in the drizzle an opportunity. In urban parks, light rain has little effect on the birds but a big effect on the humans. The parks are nearly empty. Elaine and I made the short walk from our apartment to Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park (31.221888, 121.420066). We had 15 species, 5 of them migrants: Yellow-browed Warbler 1, Arctic-type Warbler 2, Eastern Crowned Warbler 1, Grey-streaked Flycatcher 2, Dark-sided Flycatcher 2. To our Shanghai-area autumn 2016 list we added Black-throated Bushtit and Oriental Magpie-Robin.

The area around the little central pond (31.224447, 121.413963) is the must-see place in the park. Again and again the little central pond has been the place where the most birds are found. This past May, I found singing Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler at that spot.

When nearly empty, Zhongshan Park shows its natural side. The park is more than a century old, and some of the trees qualify as old-growth secondary. The many trees absorb the city’s sounds. The decibel level is low; one feels one has left the city. When a drizzle keeps the crowds out, this effect is magnified.

Wooded area near little central pond at Shanghai's Zhongshan Park.
Wooded area near little central pond at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park. Stand atop the rocky bridge (center) to get a glare-free view into the mid-canopy. (Craig Brelsford)

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Sakhalin & Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Singing Together

Today, 5 May 2016, I got my first-ever record of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. The bird was singing on the tiny island at the little central pond (31.224111, 121.414194) at Zhongshan Park, Shanghai. Singing nearby was Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

I saw a Pale-legged or Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, pulled out my iPhone, and played back a recording of Pale-legged. I got no response. I played Sakhalin for a while, got no response, then stopped. I knew not to walk away, but wait. As Shanghai is outside the breeding range of both species, their urge to sing may not be strong, but it is May and the testosterone is flowing. A response may come after a lag.

Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 1 May 2014. As is usually the case, because the bird in this photo was not singing, I was unable to identify it beyond the level of Pale-legged/Sakhalin. On 5 May 2016, I had the good luck of finding not one, but both members of the Pale/Sak species pair singing, and thus identifiable to species level. I was able to make the double ID of these poorly known East Asian species in a busy park in the middle of Shanghai. Photo taken from archives of craigbrelsford.com.
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 1 May 2014. As is usually the case, because the bird in this photo was not singing, I was unable to identify it beyond the level of Pale-Sak. On 5 May 2016, I had the good luck of finding not one, but both members of the Pale-Sak species pair singing, and thus identifiable to species level. I was able to make the double ID of these poorly known East Asian species in a busy park in the middle of Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

I was standing at the edge of the little pond, admiring Narcissus Flycatcher. My brain was barely registering the normal background noise being made by Japanese Tit, Light-vented Bulbul, Chinese Blackbird, Chinese Grosbeak, caged Chinese Hwamei, and old folks practicing qigong. Suddenly from the din came an anomalous sound. I trained my attention to the high-pitched whistle. Sakhalin! My playback had apparently been heard and had attracted a Sakhalin to the tree on the island closest to me on the “mainland.” I glimpsed the bird but saw nothing in its plumage or bare parts to tell it from Pale-legged. In the field, the only reliable element separating the two species is song. Sakhalin makes a three-note whistle, very different from the cricket-like trill of Pale-legged. The three-note whistle is exactly what I was hearing.

After a few minutes, the singing stopped, and then, as if on cue, the trill of Pale-legged surged out from the foliage. I again played back Pale-legged recordings and this time got an immediate and very strong response. Making the “tink” call, a Pale-legged flew to my side of the pond and lingered in trees near me. The tink is apparently similar to that of Sakhalin and therefore not a reliable separator. But soon the tink was followed by another trill, and I knew I was looking at Pale-legged.

What luck! There I was, in the middle of Earth’s largest city, hearing the songs of two East Asian leaf warblers, one of them (Sakhalin) little-known. Does urban birding get any better than this?

My trusty Olympus DM-650 sound recorder, the device I used to record Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. In May, the height of migration season, my sound recorder is like the American Express card: 'Don't Leave Home Without It!'
My trusty Olympus DM-650 sound recorder, the device I used to record Sakhalin Leaf Warbler and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. In May, the height of migration season, my sound recorder is like the American Express card: ‘Don’t Leave Home Without It!’ (Craig Brelsford)

I sound-recorded both species. In all the recordings, one can hear the din from a busy inner-city park. In the first of the two song fragments of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, among the species heard in the background is Ashy Minivet.

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Song Fragments 1/2 (00:51; 2.8 MB)

Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Song Fragments 2/2 (00:36; 2.2 MB)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Trill (00:03; 922 KB)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Tink (00:15; 1.4 MB)

Thanks to Jan-Erik Nilsén, Jonathan Martinez, and Jason Loghry for their help in today’s project.

Featured image: Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, 1 May 2014. Some authors note subtle differences in plumage and structure, but the features overlap, making non-singing Pale-legged and Sakhalin virtually indistinguishable in the field. The species pair is distinguishable from other leaf warblers by their very pale, pink legs. The species pump the tail steadily and often cling to tree trunks, somewhat like a nuthatch. Pale-legged breeds in the Russian Far East and northeast China; Sakhalin breeds on Sakhalin Island and in Japan. (Craig Brelsford)
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Shanghai Early Spring Subway Birding

It’s spring in Shanghai! The equinox hasn’t arrived yet, but Chinese New Year has passed, and in the parks the flowers are blooming. In recent days in Shanghai, Elaine and I have noted Black-necked Grebe in breeding plumage, seen Greater Scaup lingering at Dishui Lake, and found Red-throated Thrush amid lawn-loving Dusky Thrush at Century Park.

We reached all our destinations on foot or by subway, with two short taxi rides thrown in. Development continues in Shanghai, and it’s a double-edged sword; the ever-more efficient transportation system allows one to bird Nanhui cheaply, but development is also threatening Nanhui, as more and more reed beds fall to the bulldozer and backhoe.

On Mon. 7 March 2016, fresh from our big trip to Dulong Gorge in Yunnan, Elaine and I did our first birding of the season at Zhongshan Park. We ran into Wāng Jìn Róng (汪进荣), a delightful local man who loves to photograph birds. He never tires of watching the Red-flanked Bluetail and Common Kingfisher that use the wooded area around the little central pond. When we heard the thin calls of Yellow-bellied Tit and discovered them on a bare branch across from where we were standing, Mr. Wang said we had brought him good luck. We heard Eurasian Siskin and Chinese Grosbeak in the trees above. Japanese Tit are singing, and Chinese Blackbird have begun to breed. Pale Thrush are a reminder of winter. Mr. Wang proudly showed us the Indochinese Yuhina he photographed recently at Yangpu Park, and he told us that he has seen Silver-throated Bushtit at Zhongshan.

On Fri. 11 March, Elaine and I made Elaine’s first visit ever and my first since Christmas Day 2011 to Shanghai Botanical Garden. We noted 23 species. 2 Collared Finchbill raised the old question of whether they are really wild, and 2 Yellow-browed Warbler may be a sign that the spring migration is beginning or may merely signify that Yellow-browed remains in Shanghai throughout the winter; Shanghai definitely teeters on the northern edge of this species’ winter range.

We searched in vain for White’s Thrush, and we found only 1 Grey-backed Thrush. Among our 9 Pale Thrush was one completely tamed by the photographers, whose latest innovation is to spear mealworms on a thin, stiff wire and induce the Daurian Redstart to hover to reach them. The redstart was uninjured by this tactic, which is an ethical step up from fastening mealworms with tiny, ingestible nails (as I have previously found Shanghai-area photographers doing). The photographers were chasing the Pale Thrush off, but so hooked was the thrush on the free protein that it refused to go away and made occasional dives at the baited wire. Elsewhere, we heard in this most urban of settings the same “tseep, tseep” contact call that Pale Thrush make in the much wilder country near Elaine’s hometown in Heilongjiang—Pale Thrush breeding ground.

A search for buntings in the nursery area turned up 4 Black-faced Bunting, and an old memory of finding small waders floating on garbage in the river was revived when we saw 5 Common Snipe on Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河). Just as four and a half years ago, these poor snipe were on mats formed by garbage that coalesces in the stagnant water. The snipe were only roosting there, of course, and presumably at dusk they jump onto the nearby muddy ground of the nursery to feed; in any case, the canal, completely walled in, offers zero mud on which to forage.

Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河), Shanghai Botanical Garden, 11 March 2016. Look for Common Snipe floating on mats of garbage in the narrow canal.
Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河), Shanghai Botanical Garden, 11 March 2016. Look for Common Snipe floating on mats of garbage in the narrow canal. (Craig Brelsford)

Shanghai Botanical Garden Gate 4 lies 700 m from Shilong Road Station, Metro Line 3. It is the first place I ever birded in China, two weeks after my arrival in Shanghai in October 2007. I relived with Elaine the thrilling moment when I beheld White’s Thrush for the first time; a moment that at that time and at my level of experience with Asian birds was just as breathtaking as finding Rufous-breasted Bush Robin last month in Dulong Gorge.

On Sat. 12 March, Elaine, Michael Grunwell, and I found 40 species at Nanhui and Huangpu Park on the Bund. We covered Nanhui and the Bund on foot and walked about 16 km. At Nanhui we met a worker in a digging machine carving ditches through which to drain large areas of reed bed, which he said when dry will be leveled and replanted with trees. The operation was well under way; water was running through the newly cut channels as fast as a mountain stream.

This distressing transformation is going to spell disaster for the Reed Parrotbill that are still fairly common at Nanhui. It will mean the end of habitat much relied on by Pallas’s Reed Bunting and Chinese Penduline Tit for winter habitat, it will take away breeding habitat for Oriental Reed Warbler, and it will add to the troubles faced by Oriental Stork and Black-faced Spoonbill, already under pressure at Nanhui.

Digging machines at work at Nanhui, 12 March 2016. A scheme is under way to replace dozens of acres of reed-bed habitat with tree plantations. The loss of the reed beds will be yet another disaster for the Reed Parrotbill, Brown-cheeked Rail, Pallas's Reed Bunting, and other species dependent on reed beds, just as the drying up of nearby ponds and marshes has been bad news for species such as Black-faced Spoonbill and Oriental Stork. It is amazing to me that the city planners fail to see the value of the Nanhui wetlands and reed beds. Everywhere there is this desire to change, to alter, to transform. Photos by Elaine Du.
Digging machines at work at Nanhui, 12 March 2016. A scheme is under way to replace dozens of acres of reed-bed habitat with tree plantations. The loss of the reed beds will be yet another disaster for the Reed Parrotbill, Brown-cheeked Rail, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, and other species dependent on reed beds, just as the drying up of nearby ponds and marshes has been bad news for species such as Black-faced Spoonbill and Oriental Stork. It is amazing to me that the city planners fail to see the value of the Nanhui wetlands and reed beds. Everywhere there is this desire to change, to alter, to transform. (Elaine Du)

I have to wonder, when these huge transformative schemes are discussed in the corridors of power, are environmental experts even present? Have the planners even heard of Reed Parrotbill? Has anyone ever shown them a picture of Black-faced Spoonbill?

The only good news is that the artificial forests that will replace the historical reed-bed habitat will attract migrating passerines, which could use some help as they make their way up and down the Chinese coast. But that was cold comfort for us. “Pale Thrush will tseep where Reed Parrotbill used to chirr,” I sighed to my companions.

The bird scene at Nanhui was more wintry than spring-y, but we found tschutschensis Eastern Yellow Wagtail assuming breeding plumage and at Dishui Lake found Black-necked Grebe in breeding plumage. Dishui also yielded 7 Greater Scaup as well as Falcated Duck and Tufted Duck. Pied Avocet, Common Snipe, Dunlin, and Common Greenshank winter in the area; we saw no early evidence of spring migration among shorebirds.

Michael and Craig birding Wài Tān. Note the light, arms-free birding method of Senior Birder Michael Grunwell and the load being shouldered by Porter Craig Brelsford. The Swarovski scope is heavy, but when dealing with a birder of Michael's acumen, it's a burden cheerfully borne. Photo by Elaine Du.
Michael and Craig birding Wài Tān. Note the light, arms-free birding method of Senior Birder Michael Grunwell and the load being shouldered by Porter Craig Brelsford. The Swarovski scope is heavy, but when dealing with a birder of Michael’s acumen, it’s a burden cheerfully borne. (Elaine Du)

Continuing our theme of birding-by-subway, we moved our party via Metro Line 16 and Line 2 to the Bund. There, Michael carefully picked through the ca. 150 Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae/mongolicus) in a fruitless search for a rarity such as Kamchatka Gull or even Heuglin’s. Black-headed Gull were there.

The problem with gulling at Shanghai’s most famous landmark is that one is simultaneously examining some of the trickiest birds known to birding and dealing with dozens of onlookers interested in the laowai with the big lens. However, this most international of meeting points also sends interesting people your way, birders such as Shelley Rutkin, who noticed our activities and introduced herself. It’s a grand place to make friends, there on the Bund with the Pudong skyline as your backdrop.

Shelley told us that a birder reported Slaty-backed Gull on the Huangpu River. This birder was near Shangri-La Hotel on the Pudong side. I have yet to bird Huangpu River from the Pudong side and will be interested to hear how others fare there. Shelley also sent us an interesting image of Red-flanked Bluetail attacking a centipede. Thanks, Shelley!

Red-flanked Bluetail attacks centipede at Century Park, 13 March 2016. Subscriber Shelley Rutkin, who contributed this photo, said that passers-by scared off the bluetail before it could finish off the centipede.
Red-flanked Bluetail attacks centipede at Century Park, 13 March 2016. Subscriber Shelley Rutkin, who contributed this photo, said that passers-by scared off the bluetail before it could finish off the centipede. (Shelley Rutkin)

On Tues. 15 March Elaine and I noted the Red-throated Thrush at Century. Elaine spotted the thrush at sunset at the spacious lawn that on park maps is labeled “Amenity Grass” (疏林草坪区). The thrush was in the company of 60 Dusky Thrush and 1 Naumann’s Thrush that had descended onto the lawn to feed. Turdus ruficollis is scarce in Shanghai; Elaine and I note it two or three times each spring and autumn.

The thrushes were among 28 species we noted on our first trip to Century in 2016. Except for the Red-throated Thrush, the lineup was typical of the place and season. We noted a personal record high of 54 Pale Thrush, and large numbers of White-cheeked Starling and Red-billed Starling were assembling in trees around the very effective Bird Island in the middle of the park. Chinese Blackbird, Chinese Grosbeak, and Japanese Tit were singing.

When we arrived at 15:00, the park was crowded with photographers taking pictures of the cherry trees in bloom. Elaine and I know the park well and retreated to the quietest corners, where we found shy species such as Yellow-throated Bunting and Grey-backed Thrush. As the sun was setting, Elaine found White’s Thrush on the edge of the spacious lawn, which 90 minutes before had been full of people and which now, with all the visitors gone, was turning into a thrush feeding ground.

Featured image: With the Pudong skyscrapers as their backdrop, Craig Brelsford (L) and Michael Grunwell scan the Huangpu River for gulls. Bund, Shanghai, Sat. 12 March 2016. (Elaine Du)
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