Author Archives: Terry Townshend

About Terry Townshend

I am a British birder living and birding in Beijing from August 2010 until 2015. Through this blog I hope I can convey a sense of what it is like to live in this thriving, confident and contrasting city and the birdlife that can be found in its environs. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it! Terry Townshend, Beijing September 2010

steppe-whimbrel-comparison-landing

STEPPE WHIMBRELS in southern Africa

Title Image: Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable male, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Photo by Callan Cohen.

By Gary Allport (with photos and additional information from Callan Cohen)

In early February 2016, Ross Hughes (RH) and I found a group of 12 Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata in Maputo, only our second record of the species in more than five years of birding in Mozambique. They were of the East Asian race orientalis and most had huge bills, but of interest were two much smaller, shorter-billed birds amongst them. We were sure these smaller birds were Eurasian Curlews but we checked-in with staff of BirdLife Partners running the project to search for the Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris in order to make sure, and we also looked at Birding Frontiers remembering a discussion on a possible orientalis in the UK and Dave Gandy’s nice pics from Bangkok. Richard Porter sent me a copy of a recent paper on Slender-billed Curlew from BB by Corso et al. (2014), which had lots of details about short-billed, male orientalis European Curlews which made the identity of the birds in Maputo very clear; they were indeed male orientalis.

Part of a flock of 12 Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata of the eastern race orientalis. Note the clean white underwings and long bills. One of two smaller, relatively shorter-billed birds bottom left. Salina Zacharias, Matola, Mozambique. January 2016. Photo by Gary Allport.

Part of a flock of 12 Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata of the eastern race orientalis. Note the clean white underwings and long bills. One of two smaller, relatively shorter-billed birds bottom left. Salina Zacharias, Matola, Mozambique. January 2016. Photo by Gary Allport.

However, that BB paper also flagged other little known and potentially confusing forms of both Eurasian Curlew and Common Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus found in the Asian steppes. One bird I had never heard of was Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris nicely illustrated in the article by Szabolcs Kókay, showing pure white underwings and axillaries. It was clearly very little known and I was geekily picking through the references when I found to my great surprise that the type specimen of Steppe Whimbrel was collected in Mozambique! I did a quick post online, asking if anyone knew anything about this bird or had photos of flocks of Whimbrel from Mozambique that I could check; unsurprisingly I got nothing back. I decided to repost with a nice photo of a Whimbrel to attract more peoples’ attention but I found I had no good images of the species myself. Two days later I happened upon a group of about ten Whimbrel whilst on the way to the shops, so I stopped the car, ran onto the beach took some pictures without really looking at the birds (I had my camera but no binocs with me) jumped back in the car and went to the supermarket. That evening I got round to social media and idly put the memory card in the computer – and you can guess what’s coming next – there was a perfect Steppe Whimbrel. I couldn’t quite believe it but I went through the rest of the shots and all the others were of normal phaeopus race. This bird was outstanding with clean white underwings and rump, larger in size and with greyer, cleaner colouration. I posted it online and sent it to my Slender-billed Curlew colleagues, and in the next 24 hours my inbox exploded. When I was finally able to get back down to the beach two days later with Ross Hughes, to our amazement we found another one – two together.

Some quick research showed that Steppe Whimbrel has always been little known. It was described in 1921 based on four specimens from coastal East and South-eastern Africa (Lowe 1921) with a further three records in Africa since then, the last in southern Tanzania in 1965. In the 1960s it emerged (in the west) that there were records from the breeding areas of Kazakhstan and Russia going back to the mid-19th century (by Eversmann), but the last was seen in 1974, and it was declared extinct by a Russian expert in 1994. However, it was re-found in 1997, a tiny breeding population of six pairs in the Russian steppes at the south end of the Urals (Morozov 2000). There were also a small number of possible sightings in the Caspian Sea area but they’ve not been seen since. The Convention on Migratory Species estimated the global population at 100 birds or fewer (CMS 2014).

Identification

Key identification features were given by Lowe (1921) in the type description:

“axillaries, under-wing coverts and undertail coverts were pure white. The back and rump were also pure white with no hidden spots as in Numenius phaeopus phaeopus, while the fore neck and upper pectoral region were marked with thin streaks of brown, not so numerous nor extending so far down the breast and flanks as in typical N. phaeopus.”

Callan Cohen was the only birder to get on a plane and trek over to Maputo (from Cape Town) to see the birds and we spent three days looking at both of the Steppe Whimbrels, trying to figure out what these birds really are, looking at the variability in other Whimbrels and getting as much in-the-field information gleaned as possible. Callan got a series of fantastic photos which greatly aided the analyses and we were able to pin-down the feeding territory of one bird, a foundation for further ad hoc ecological studies.

We found that the two birds in Maputo were similar to N. p. phaeopus, with which they could be compared directly, but had a clean white belly and vent, lacking any dark lanceolate streaking or chevrons on the vent and undertail-coverts; the upperparts were colder and paler greyish brown. The first individual was larger, longer- and broader-winged than the second, and not vocal; it was tentatively sexed as a female. It was also less strikingly plumaged, with more brownish tones than the second bird, but had a primary extension well beyond the tail—a feature so far only found in this individual bird. The second individual was paler and greyer than most Whimbrels present, smaller and shorter winged than the female, and very vocal and aggressive, especially later in the time it was on the beach in Maputo; it was tentatively sexed as a male.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo Mozambique, February 2016. Note clean white underparts with no streaks or chevrons on the flanks behind the legs, clean cold greyish brown colouration and long primary projection beyond the tail. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo Mozambique, February 2016. Note clean white underparts with no streaks or chevrons on the flanks behind the legs, clean cold greyish brown colouration and long primary projection beyond the tail. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Male in group of phaeopus (third from right). Note greyer colouration and narrow breast streaking forming pectoral band higher up the breast. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Male in group of phaeopus (third from right). Note greyer colouration and narrow breast streaking forming pectoral band higher up the breast. Photo by Gary Allport

Based mostly on Callan’s photographs, and our observations in the field the following features were identified as separating the two alboaxillaris from nominate phaeopus (presumed adults in freshly moulted plumage):

1. Axillaries and underwing initially appeared pure white, but in photographs both birds had fine blackish shaft-streaks over the terminal 15% of the length of the axillaries. The underwing primary-coverts were finely barred grey. The axillaries in nominate phaeopus are barred blackish brown and white (see first photo).

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing with narrow shaft streaks towards the tips of the axillaries. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing with narrow shaft streaks towards the tips of the axillaries. Photo by Gary Allport

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing and clean grey colouration. Photo by Callan Cohen.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing and clean grey colouration. Photo by Callan Cohen.

2. Upper rump and lower back clean white, although there was a suggestion of darker centres at the base of the white back feathers in some photographs. The lower rump showed some narrow dark streak-centred feathers, which varied in visibility, but close examination of photographs showed up to three on the female and eight on the male. The uppertail-coverts were ‘laddered’ with clean black-and-white bars, and differed from the lower rump feathers (the two have been confused in some texts). The phaeopus showed shaft-streaks on the upper rump and many lanceolate shaft-streaks and chevrons on the lower rump, with broader black bars on the upper tail-coverts and normally with a brownish wash.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white rump with relatively fine streaking on lower rump and tail pattern with clean white and pale-greyish white outers laddered black with contrasting darker centre tail. There is evidence that the centre four tail feathers are of a different age to the rest of the tail, being less abraded than the adjacent tail tips on the right hand side of the bird and differently shaped. Photo by Ross Hughes.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white rump with relatively fine streaking on lower rump and tail pattern with clean white and pale-greyish white outers laddered black with contrasting darker centre tail. There is evidence that the centre four tail feathers are of a different age to the rest of the tail, being less abraded than the adjacent tail tips on the right hand side of the bird and differently shaped. Photo by Ross Hughes.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable female, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Note differences in size, structure, rump and tail patterns. Steppe Whimbrel shows ‘tubby’ shape (possibly carrying a greater fat load in order to depart earlier than phaeopus? But see pics of birds returning in August, below, presumably lean and some of which also show the tubby shape), pure white rump with minor streaking on lower rump, pale tail with slightly darker centres.

Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable female, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Note differences in size, structure, rump and tail patterns. Steppe Whimbrel shows ‘tubby’ shape (possibly carrying a greater fat load in order to depart earlier than phaeopus? But see pics of birds returning in August, below, presumably lean and some of which also show the tubby shape), pure white rump with minor streaking on lower rump, pale tail with slightly darker centres.

3. Outer tail feathers were clean white in the male and greyish white (with a buff wash in some lights) tipped white in the female; both were ‘laddered’ with narrow black bars on both webs over their entire length. The tail was very pale in both birds but showed contrast between the darker central rectrices (patterned with pale grey and black ‘laddering’) and paler outer feathers. In contrast, most phaeopus had pale- to mid-brown tails, barred black and relatively uniform across the tail span. Some phaeopus had a pale outer web to the basal third of the outermost tail feathers.

4. The outer web of the fifth primary (from the innermost) had five clean pale greyish-brown spots, which reached the outermost edge of the web. No phaeopus exhibited this feature, although a few had similar but very faint barring.

5. The breast was finely streaked blackish brown on a clean white or greyish-white background, the streaking ending in a pectoral band higher up the breast than in many, although not all, phaeopus.

6. Both alboaxillaris appeared more bulky – ‘tubby’ – than nominate phaeopus, and had noticeably broader and longer wings in flight, with longer secondaries and more paddle-shaped primaries. At rest, the primaries extended beyond the tail in the female.

Inspection of the type series in the Natural History Museum, Tring (NHMUK), which had been exhibited by Lowe in 1921, revealed that only one of the four specimens has a completely unstreaked rump, the other three exhibit minor streaking on the lower rump, similar to the birds in Maputo, which would probably be invisible in the field but is evident in good-quality digital images. C. S. Roselaar (in Cramp & Simmons 1983: 496) gave the most detailed description of the diagnostic features, which fit very well with the characters observed in the birds in Maputo. Both birds also matched illustrations of alboaxillaris in Corso et al. (2014). Note that Steppe Whimbrel identification will be covered in the new Chamberlain’s Waders guide to Southern Africa by the fabulous artist/author Faansie Peacock . An example of the plates, based on the birds in Maputo, is here. The full account of the finding is accepted for publication in the next issue of the Bulletin of the African Bird Club (Allport 2017). The birds were aged as adults based on their fresh plumage but the moult sequence of Whimbrel is very poorly known so this is a tentative conclusion. The female was last observed in Maputo on 28 February (by Ross Hughes) and the male on 24 March. They were seen by a small number of observers and well photographed.

Finding more

There are all sorts of questions about Steppe Whimbrel – species limits, taxonomy, distribution and numbers – which we won’t cover at length here but the bottom line is we need to find more of them if we are to understand this bird properly.

We have checked all the Whimbrels in the NHMUK and Durban Museum (including the only two known alboaxillaris from South Africa collected in Durban Bay, Dec. 1961 [Allport & Allan 2016]), finding no new birds. But a new record of alboaxillaris was ‘found’ in the public gallery of the Natural History Museum in Maputo (Allport et al. 2016), by climbing into the diorama when a piece of glass was removed for maintenance and lifting the wings of the dusty, old stuffed and mounted birds. There may well be others in museum collections.

The first article with details of the finding was published in ‘African Birdlife’ magazine and in September 2016 we published a second article outlining thoughts on finding Steppe Whimbrel in the boreal winter in southern Africa.

Searches for returning birds in Southern Africa began in August 2016 and quickly led to a series of ‘candidate’ alboaxillaris at the type locality in Inhambane, Mozambique (by GA, Gary Rowan, Maans Booysen and Niall Perrins – see the Birds Mozambique Facebook page and images below) involving a minimum of four and up to seven birds in August to October. One bird was seen on one day in August in Maputo. Two birds were found at Richard’s Bay, South Africa in October by Patrick Rollinson (see SA Rare Birds Facebook page and below). Unfortunately none of these was seen and photographed well enough to be certain of the identification, bearing in mind how poorly known the taxon is. Photos of some of these birds are below.

The first returning ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found in Inhambane, Mozambique 2nd August 2016. Note white axillaries/underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, narrow band of flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale but the image is not good enough to be certain. Photo by Gary Allport.

The first returning ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found in Inhambane, Mozambique 2nd August 2016. Note white axillaries/underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, narrow band of flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale but the image is not good enough to be certain. Photo by Gary Allport.

The second ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (centre) found by Gary Rowan and Maans Booysen, Inhambane, Mozambique 12th August 2016. Note white underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, much reduced flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale. Possibly same bird as 2nd August; but at least three other ‘candidate’ birds photographed around that date but this is the best image. Photo by Maans Booysen.

The second ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (centre) found by Gary Rowan and Maans Booysen, Inhambane, Mozambique 12th August 2016. Note white underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, much reduced flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale. Possibly same bird as 2nd August; but at least three other ‘candidate’ birds photographed around that date but this is the best image. Photo by Maans Booysen.

Third ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found by Gary Rowan, Inhambane, Mozambique, 15thAugust 2016. Note white underwings, white axillaries with fine terminal shaft streaks (the only ‘candidate’ returning Steppe Whimbrel photographed well-enough to see this feature), larger wings, much reduced flank barring and paler face. Photo by Gary Rowan.

Third ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found by Gary Rowan, Inhambane, Mozambique, 15thAugust 2016. Note white underwings, white axillaries with fine terminal shaft streaks (the only ‘candidate’ returning Steppe Whimbrel photographed well-enough to see this feature), larger wings, much reduced flank barring and paler face. Photo by Gary Rowan.

First of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (lower), Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016 (one day only). Note white axillaries and underwing. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. But noting apparent pale fringes to upperwing coverts, this bird might be a juvenile? Note white axillaries and reduced flank barring. Photo by Gary Allport.

First of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (lower), Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016 (one day only). Note white axillaries and underwing. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. But noting apparent pale fringes to upperwing coverts, this bird might be a juvenile? Note white axillaries and reduced flank barring. Photo by Gary Allport.

Second of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (upper bird) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Note pale rump and tail. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. This bird appears not to have barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary. Photo by Gary Allport.

Second of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (upper bird) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Note pale rump and tail. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. This bird appears not to have barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary. Photo by Gary Allport.

Last of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (second from right) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Several badly exposed shots of candidate Steppe Whimbrels (of which I have many) show apparent pale underside to the primaries and contrasting dark, blackish, primary tips, which is not apparent in close-up, well-focussed shots. The same is true when viewing birds with the naked eye and also through a camera viewfinder – sometimes they really stand out. Note that the contrasting underwing pattern is a very different shape to that of a Slender-billed Curlew, which has a darker panel on the full length of the outermost primaries forming a dark bar along the leading edge of the underwing. See Figure 2. By Szabolcs Kókay in Corso et al. (2014). Photo by Gary Allport.

Last of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (second from right) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Several badly exposed shots of candidate Steppe Whimbrels (of which I have many) show apparent pale underside to the primaries and contrasting dark, blackish, primary tips, which is not apparent in close-up, well-focussed shots. The same is true when viewing birds with the naked eye and also through a camera viewfinder – sometimes they really stand out. Note that the contrasting underwing pattern is a very different shape to that of a Slender-billed Curlew, which has a darker panel on the full length of the outermost primaries forming a dark bar along the leading edge of the underwing. See Figure 2. By Szabolcs Kókay in Corso et al. (2014). Photo by Gary Allport.

Fifth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found Inhambane, Mozambique, 30th August 2016; one of four photographed that day. Note white axillaries, reduced flank barring and greyer/paler face. Photo by Gary Allport.

Fifth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found Inhambane, Mozambique, 30th August 2016; one of four photographed that day. Note white axillaries, reduced flank barring and greyer/paler face. Photo by Gary Allport.

13-oct-inhambane1

Two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels, Inhambane, Mozambique 13th October 2016. These two birds accompanied each other. Note tubby shape and big wings. Possibly the first bird from early August (top)? Photos by Gary Allport.

Two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels, Inhambane, Mozambique 13th October 2016. These two birds accompanied each other. Note tubby shape and big wings. Possibly the first bird from early August (top)? Photos by Gary Allport.

One of two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels found by Patrick Rollinson at Richard’s Bay, South Africa, 22nd October 2016. Note clean greyish tone, white axillaries and underwing (partly visible), pale tail with darker centres, apparently pure white rump, pale barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary, greyish breast and contrastingly paler face. This is a very strong candidate Steppe Whimbrel. There are only two previous records in SA, both collected on the same day in December 1961 in Durban Bay (skins in Durban Museum DNSM). Photo by Patrick Rollinson.

One of two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels found by Patrick Rollinson at Richard’s Bay, South Africa, 22nd October 2016. Note clean greyish tone, white axillaries and underwing (partly visible), pale tail with darker centres, apparently pure white rump, pale barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary, greyish breast and contrastingly paler face. This is a very strong candidate Steppe Whimbrel. There are only two previous records in SA, both collected on the same day in December 1961 in Durban Bay (skins in Durban Museum DNSM). Photo by Patrick Rollinson.

The sequence of photos of candidate Steppe Whimbrels returning to southern Africa in August-October 2016 show that abraded birds do look quite different. In particular the flank bar is less distinct than both the two birds in Maputo in February and nominate phaeopus Whimbrel alongside. They all show a greyish face, contrasting with the mostly browner breast, in some cases markedly so. Some nominate phaeopus Whimbrel also show this feature so the extent to which it is a distinctive character is yet to be sorted out.

Anyone reading this is encouraged to check their photos and/or look for Steppe Whimbrels, especially in the range from central Asia, through the Middle East and throughout Eastern and Southern Africa.

This work is ongoing and I am trying to keep all the publications up to date on my Research Gate page and sightings are posted to the Birds Mozambique and SA Rare Birds Facebook pages.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Callan Cohen for considerable expert discussion and to Gary Rowan, Maans Booysen, Niall Perrins and Patrick Rollinson for their enthusiasm for finding new birds and for use of their photos herein.

References

Allport, G. 2017. Steppe Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris at Maputo, Mozambique, in February–March 2016, with a review of the status of the taxon. Bull. Afr. Bird Club 24(1): xx-xx

Allport, G. 2016. A step back in time. African Birdlife 4(4): 10-11

Allport, G. A. & Allan, D. 2016. A re-examination of two specimens of Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris Lowe, 1921 in the Durban Natural Science Museum. Durban Nat. Sci. Mus. Novit. 39: 41-45

Allport, G. A., Bento, C., Carvalho, M. & Guissamulo, A. 2016. Specimen of Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris (Lowe, 1921) in the collection of the Museu de Historia Natural, Maputo. Biodiversity Observations 7.24: 1-5.

Allport, G. & Cohen, C. 2016. Finding Steppe Whimbrel: discovery and identification in southern Africa. African Birdlife 4(6):48-54

Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). 2014. Conservation statements for Numeniini species. UNEP/CMS/COP11 information documents (28 October 2014). www.cms.int/en/document/conservation-statements-numeniini-species.

Corso, A., Jansen, J. J. F. J. & Kókay, S. 2014. A review of the identification criteria and variability of the Slender-billed Curlew. Br. Birds 107: 339–370.

Cramp, S. & Simmons, K. E. L. (eds.) 1983. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 3. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Lowe, P. R. 1921. [Exhibition and description of a new subspecies of Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris) from Portuguese East Africa.] Bull. Br. Ornithol. Cl. 41: 110.

Morozov, V. V. 2000. Current status of the southern subspecies of the Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris (Lowe 1921) in Russia and Kazakhstan. Wader Study Group Bull. 92: 30–37.

Title Image: Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable male, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Photo by Callan Cohen.

 

2013-07-17 Eurasian Cuckoo2

The Beijing Cuckoo Project

By Terry

We are excited to announce the launch of The Beijing Cuckoo Project, a new initiative that has the potential to make a huge difference to conservation in China whilst, at the same time, making ground breaking scientific discoveries.

Following the hugely successful, and ongoing, citizen science project to track the Beijing Swift, over the last few months we have been working with partners in the UK and China to replicate the BTO’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China’s capital.

The Cuckoo – famous for laying its eggs in the nests of other, often smaller, birds – is a popular and well-known bird in Beijing.  The life of the Cuckoo, including a wonderful account of the ongoing evolutionary battle between the Cuckoo and its hosts, was covered eloquently by Nick Davies in his award-winning book – Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature.

Cuckoo and Reed Parrotbill

In China, one of the host species of Eurasian Cuckoo is Reed Parrotbill!

The Beijing Cuckoo Project has the potential to deliver two incredibly exciting outcomes. The first is to engage the public in China, on an unprecedented scale, about the wonders of bird migration. The second is to discover the currently unknown wintering grounds, and migration routes, of Eurasian Cuckoos breeding in East Asia – vital if conservationists are to understand how best to protect the Cuckoo and similar migratory species.

As in the UK, we plan to deploy ultra-lightweight satellite tags onto as many as 10 cuckoos in the Beijing area. Drawing on the BTO’s expertise and experience, Chris Hewson, a leading scientist from the UK, will travel to Beijing to train local volunteers and lead the catching and fitting of the tags.

Local schoolchildren will name the cuckoos and follow their progress as part of a specially designed “environmental curriculum”.

13th middle school

Students from Beijing’s 13th Middle School recently received their certificates as the first graduates of the “Environmental Curriculum” and will follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos as part of their ongoing studies.

National and local media will cover the project via their print and online publications. A special APP will allow members of the public to follow their progress, too, providing information about cuckoos, maps showing their latest positions and the routes taken, as well as background about the project.

We are delighted that around 75% of the funding has been raised through generous donations from the Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, the British Birds Charitable Trust and Beijing Forestry University. We are also fortunate to enjoy in kind support from the British Trust for Ornithology, the China Birdwatching Society and the many volunteers who will be involved.

However, given the costs of “satellite services”, the costs associated with accessing the data transmitted by the tags, and the costs of maintaining the dedicated APP, we still need to raise another GBP 10,000 over the next 12 months.

That is why we have set up a new, dedicated JustGiving page to allow anyone wishing to be part of this project to contribute. The page can be found here: https://www.justgiving.com/BeijingCuckooProject

Everyone involved with the Beijing Cuckoo project is excited about the potential and all donors, with their permission, will be recognised on the interpretation material that will be erected at the catching sites in Beijing.

Please join us in being part of an incredible and worthwhile project!

GREENISH WARBLER: new for Beijing and the missing link?

The discovery of breeding GREENISH-type WARBLERS in Beijing could represent part of the missing link between the central Chinese form obscuratus and what is now known as TWO-BARRED (plumbeitarus) from NE China and Siberia  

All my life I have found nature fascinating, usually amazing and often surprising.  But every now and again something happens that just blows me away.

In July, when Paul Holt and I found a small population of Greenish-type Warblers (Phylloscopus trochiloides) at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, I had no idea that the discovery could represent a missing link in the distribution of what is thought be one of few examples of a “ring species”.

The Greenish Warblers are widespread leaf warblers whose breeding range extends from temperate northeastern Europe to subtropical continental Asia. They are strongly migratory and most winter from India east to Thailand.

According to a theory first put forward by Ticehurst in 1938, Greenish Warblers were once confined to the southern portion of their range and then expanded northward along two pathways, evolving differences as they pushed north. When the two expanding fronts met in central Siberia (W Europe’s viridanus and Siberia’s plumbeitarus), they were different enough not to interbreed.  Hence plumbeitarus is now considered a separate species – TWO-BARRED WARBLER.

This unusual situation has been termed a ‘circular overlap’ or ‘ring species’, of which there are very few known examples.

greenish warbler map

“Map of Asia showing the six subspecies of the greenish warbler described by Ticehurst in 1938. The crosshatched blue and red area in central Siberia shows the contact zone between viridanus and plumbeitarsus, which do not interbreed. Colours grade together where Ticehurst described gradual morphological change. The gap in northern China is most likely the result of habitat destruction.” (emphasis added)

Source: http://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~irwin/GreenishWarblers.html

As one might expect when looking at the map, in Beijing we are used to seeing TWO-BARRED WARBLERS (P. plumbeitarus) on migration as they make their way to and from their breeding grounds in NE China and Siberia.  However, until a few weeks ago, there were no records in the capital of any of the races of GREENISH (P. trochiloides).

Fast forward to 22 June 2015 and Paul Holt and I were in the middle of a 3-day trip to explore Beijing’s highest mountain – Lingshan.  We had already encountered the albocoeruleus form of RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL, until very recently thought to be confined to a handful of sites in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces, more than 1,000 km to the southwest.

 In a relatively small piece of woodland on a northeastern facing slope Paul suddenly heard the distant song of a Greenish-type warbler.

 Fortunately the path we were following led us towards the sound and, after walking a little further, we could soon hear, and later see, the songster.  It was clear that it wasn’t alone and, during the next couple of hours we encountered at least four singing birds.  Paul focused on recording the song (see below) as I tried to snatch a photo or two as it flitted almost non-stop amongst the thick foliage in the canopy of the birch trees.

2015-06-22-greenish-warbler-lingshan

GREENISH WARBLER, Lingshan, 22 June 2015.  The only decent photo I was able to capture!

Paul was confident that these birds were not TWO-BARRED WARBLERS and most likely belonged to the obscuratus form of GREENISH WARBLER.

At this point it’s worth outlining the key plumage differences between GREENISH and TWO-BARRED:

  • Two-barred is fractionally stronger billed than the viridanus Greenish we see in W. Europe but these figures probably don’t hold up too well when comparing it with the more poorly known obscuratus of Qinghai and Gansu.
  • A typical Two-barred should have a broader greater covert wing bar that extends on to more inner greater coverts than viridanus – a greater covert bar that doesn’t taper towards the inner wing as conspicuously as it does on viridanus.
  • Two-barred usually also has a second (median covert) wing-bar & this is often whitish or even white – this second bar is rare on viridanus (& when present is indistinct & typically not white).
  • A median covert wing-bar is commonly seen on obscuratus (Paul Holt, pers. obs).
  • Two-barred is also slightly darker above & whiter below than viridanus – but again that’s difficult/impossible to discern on a lone bird & in any case obscuratus has the darkest upperparts of any subspecies of Greenish Warbler (& is often contrastingly darker on the crown then inviting confusion with Large-billed Leaf Warbler P. magnirostris).
  • Two-barred often (‘but not always’ sic Svensson 1992) has a pale yellowish supercilium while obscuratus is ‘apparently on average’ whiter here.

A recording of the Lingshan Greenish Warbler is below.  Note that the interval between strophes has been shortened for convenience.

 

We thought that this newly discovered population was most likely the obscuratus form of GREENISH WARBLER rather than plumbeitarsus (TWO-BARRED WARBLER).  Or is it an intermediate form between obscuratus and plumbeitarus?

We are keen to hear the views of others with experience of these species.  If it is obscuratus, the find represents the first record for Beijing of GREENISH WARBLER.

Perhaps supporting the identification as obscuratus, it’s worth noting that there are two other species from Gansu/Qinghai that have recently been discovered breeding on mountains in or nearby Beijing  – “Gansu” Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanus albocoeruleus) at Haituoshan (a forested mountain in Hebei immediately to the north of Beijing) and Lingshan and Large-billed Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus magnirostris) at Wulingshan (a forested mountain in Hebei immediately to the northeast of the Chinese capital).  It seems likely that small pockets of forest on some of Beijing’s higher mountains are supporting small disjunct populations of these relatively high elevation species, helping to fill in the gap in the map above (attributed to habitat loss).

The finding begs the question: are there other species from the Gansu/Qinghai area that could yet be discovered in the capital?  Grey-headed Bullfinch, Chestnut Thrush and Chinese White-browed Rosefinch are possible candidates…  In any case the Lingshan Greenish-type Warblers provide yet more evidence that there is still so much to be discovered in Beijing, the most well-watched part of China, let alone the rest of this vast country.

 

The New Garden: Full Of Eastern Promise

By Terry

OK so it’s not, strictly speaking, my “garden”.. but I am claiming the area of scrub next to my new apartment block in suburban Beijing as my new patch.   And in just 10 days since I moved in, and only three visits, I have racked up a list of species that would do Fair Isle proud.  
Shunyi patch5

The new local patch.

Shunyi patch3

My new apartment block viewed from the patch

Shunyi patch2

This area of poplars has already produced Taiga Flycatcher and Little Bunting.

At the beginning of May I moved apartments to a suburb in northeast Beijing.  It’s close to the metro, a new shopping centre, a good mix of Chinese and western restaurants and, importantly, it provides easy access to some of Beijing’s best birding spots such as Miyun Reservoir and Wild Duck Lake.  A bonus was discovering a relatively wild area of scrub close by and, in just three short visits, it has produced some quality birds.  Yet more evidence that the migration through China’s capital is on a scale that is hard to beat.  At this time of year, almost any green patch will attract birds.  Birding in Beijing continues to surprise and delight.

My first visit to the new local patch was when I was simply walking to the closest metro station, without binoculars.  I stumbled across an Oriental Scops Owl roosting close to the path.  Astonishingly I managed to photograph it using only my iPhone.

Taken using only an iPhone, this ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL was the first species I recorded on the new local patch!

Taken using only an iPhone, this ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL was the first species I recorded on the new local patch!

Not surprisingly, this chance occurrence prompted a more dedicated birding visit and so, during an early morning hour before breakfast the following day, I logged Oriental Turtle Dove, Dusky Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler, Eye-browed Thrush, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Taiga Flycatcher, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Olive-backed Pipit and Little and Yellow-throated Buntings.  Not bad!

2015-05-05 Olive-backed Pipit, Wenyu He

Olive-backed Pipits have so far been a common migrant at the local patch with up to 10 present at any one time.

 

2015-05-07 Taiga Flycatcher, Shunyi2

Taiga Flycatcher is a common migrant through Beijing in spring and autumn. Their ‘rattle’ is a frequent accompaniment to a walk through any green space in early May.

 

A second dedicated visit produced singing Two-barred Greenish Warbler, more Olive-backed Pipits, Richard’s Pipit, Common Rosefinch and a flyover Oriental Honey Buzzard.

2015-05-05 Richard's Pipit, Wenyu He

A flight call is usually the first sign that a Richard’s Pipit is on the patch.

 

And on my way to the metro station this morning I encountered a stunning Radde’s Warbler, singing its heart out next to the path.

So far I have recorded 38 species and I am certain I am only scratching the surface.  My target for the end of May is 50 species…  and my (ambitious?) target for the end of the year is 75. Will I make it? Watch this space!

 

Isn’t Evolution Brilliant?

By Terry

 “One of the most exciting discoveries I have been involved with” – Professor Per Alström  

This was how Per described the results of his latest research, released last week.

Coming from the man who, among other things, discovered the breeding grounds of the enigmatic Blackthroat in China, not to mention several species of bird new to science, this was quite a statement.

And so, unusually for me, I read a scientific report from front to back. And it reminded me – as if I needed reminding – just how brilliant are nature and evolution.

Per’s report – based on DNA analysis – reveals that two little-known forest-dwelling birds are actually members of the pipits and wagtails family, evolving very different appearance and behavior after colonizing tropical-forested islands.

The Madanga Madanga ruficollis, occurring exclusively on the island of Buru, Indonesia, is actually a pipit (Anthus) and the São Tomé Shorttail Amaurocichla bocagi is a wagtail (Motacilla). The strikingly different appearance of these birds, compared with their closest relatives, has totally obscured their true relationships.

Madanga ruficollis © Rob Hutchinson

The Madanga, formerly considered an aberrant-looking white-eye (!) is actually a pipit, displaying plumage not resembling any of the world’s 40 species of Anthus. Photo by Rob Hutchinson/Birdtour Asia

Tree Pipit Israel April © Göran Ekström

A more ‘traditional’ pipit – a Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis). Photo by Göran Ekström.

 

Adult-Sao-Tome-short-tail-on-the-ground

The Sao Tome Shorttail (Amaurocichla bocagi) is actually a wagtail. Photo by Fabio Olmos (www.arkive.org).

2014-04-06 White Wagtail ssp baicalensis2, Ma Chang

A more ‘traditional’ wagtail – a White Wagtail (ssp baicalensis).

As well as plumage, the Madanga and São Tomé Shorttail have different habitat choice and feeding style from pipits and wagtails. Both inhabit primary forest, where the former feeds like a nuthatch on epiphyte-covered branches and tree-trunks, while the latter feeds both on the ground and on tree trunks and branches. In contrast, nearly all pipits and wagtails occur in open habitats, and all forage exclusively on the ground.

The suggestion is that the radically different appearances of these birds were triggered by the fundamental shifts in habitat and feeding behaviour following their colonisation of forest-covered tropical islands. This is estimated to have happened around 4 and 3.3 million years ago, respectively.

The presumption is that the birds’ ancestors were long distance migratory species that landed on the islands and became established, despite the alien habitat.

These islands were probably totally covered by forest when these birds’ ancestors first arrived, which is a very unfamiliar habitat to pipits and wagtails,” Professor Alström said.

Two of the closest relatives to the Madanga are the European Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis) and the Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni), which, although breeding in forested areas, nest and feed on the ground.

“Although the Madanga’s plumage is very different, interestingly, the structure of the bird is quite similar to the Tree Pipit and we believe that the ancestor of the Madanga was pre-adapted to this new niche it became established within.” – Professor Per Alström 

 

Tree Pipits are very good at creeping through dense vegetation on the ground. When they are startled and flushed from the vegetation, they often fly up into a tree and they will sit there or they are able to walk quite effortlessly along bigger branches. But they never feed up in the trees, so the hypothesis here is that the ancestor of the Madanga would come to the island of Buru, which was completely covered in forest, and it might have fed on the ground between the trees but then would fly up into the canopy when it was scared by something. It would have then discovered that there was plenty of food on these epiphyte-covered branches and, as it was pre-adapted to walking along branches and in thick ground cover, it could probably have managed fairly well in that new habitat.”

Prof Alström said that this would have meant that there was no evolutionary pressure for it to evolve a new structure.

For example, if you look at the bill, it is very similar to a Tree Pipit’s, and so are the legs and claws. This means the actual shape of the bird has not changed very much.”

Wow!

 

For the full report, see: Alström P, Jønsson KA, Fjeldså J, Ödeen A, Ericson PGP, Irestedt M. 2015 Dramatic niche shifts and morphological change in two insular bird species.R. Soc. open sci.2: 140364. See URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.140364

And Per Alström’s research page can be accessed here.

An Exotic Robin in China

By Terry

When most birders think of exotic robins in China, it’s images of Blackthroat, Rufous-headed Robin or Siberian Rubythroat that come to mind.  However, at a 15th century World Heritage Site in the heart of Beijing, it’s a different species that has captured the imagination of local birders and photographers on an unprecedented scale.

On 10 November 2014 a local bird photographer posted onto a Chinese photography forum some photos he had taken in the Temple of Heaven Park.  It was a bird he had not seen before.  Sharp-eyed local birders Huang Hanchen and Li Xiaomai quickly spotted the images, posting them onto the Birding Beijing WeChat group, where they caused quite a stir.  It was a EUROPEAN ROBIN!  WOW!! (“BOOM” hasn’t yet caught on in Chinese birding circles).

The following day I was on site at dawn, together with 3 young Chinese birders.  The only directions we had were vague at best – “the northwest section“.  Temple of Heaven Park is a huge site and, after a 3-hour search, there was no sign of the exotic visitor.  My 3 companions decided to leave to look for a Brown-eared Bulbul (another Beijing rarity) that had been reported in Jingshan Park.  I decided to walk one more circuit around an area of shrubs that looked the most likely spot for a Robin.  Along the last line of shrubs I suddenly heard a call – one that I immediately recognised from home.  It was hard to believe, and I almost felt embarrassed, but my heart leapt!  Immediately afterwards, a blurred shape made a dart from a bush, across the path in front of me, deep into the base of another thick shrub.  It was a full 5 minutes before I was able to secure a clear view.  It was still here – a European Robin!!  I hurriedly sent out a message to the group and, just a few minutes later, the original 3 birders were back and we all enjoyed intermittent views of what was, at that time, a very elusive bird.

Little did we know what a fuss this bird would cause.  Over the next few days the local bird photographers flocked to the site and, on a single day that week, there were over 150 photographers present (see below).  It was a scene reminiscent of a “first for Britain” and, despite a similar but much smaller scale twitch two years ago for another robin – Japanese Robin – this was something I had not seen in China before….

Bird photographers at the Temple of Heaven Park a few days after the initial sighting.  Photo by China Youth Daily

Bird photographers at the Temple of Heaven Park a few days after the initial sighting. Photo by China Youth Daily

As is often the case in China (as well as large parts of Asia), some of the photographers immediately began putting out mealworms and created artificial perches for the bird to try to create the conditions for the most aesthetically pleasing photos possible.  It wasn’t long before the robin became habituated and performed spectacularly for the assembled masses.

And the interest in this bird has not dwindled.  As I write this, on 6 December, there are still many photographers on site, almost four weeks after the initial sighting.  Incredible.  It must be the most photographed EUROPEAN ROBIN ever.

6th December: still a good crowd of bird photographers almost 4 weeks after the Robin was first seen.

6th December: still a good crowd of bird photographers almost 4 weeks after the Robin was first seen.

During its stay, as well as bird photographers, this bird has attracted unprecedented attention from the Chinese media, with articles published in The China Daily (in English) and China Youth Daily (in Chinese), the latter reporting that this individual has come all the way from England!  There is no doubt that this vagrant – an ambassador for wild birds – has raised awareness among many people in Beijing about the importance of Beijing’s parks for wild birds and generated an appreciation for the birds that can be found in the capital.

A species that we take for granted in Europe, this bird’s presence is a reminder both that the European Robin is a stunningly beautiful bird and that watching rare birds is all relative.  In Europe birders dream of finding a SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT or visiting China to see the enigmatic BLACKTHROAT.  In Beijing, it’s a EUROPEAN ROBIN that gets the juices flowing….  and rightly so….!

The world's most photographed EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula), Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, 3 December 2014

The world’s most photographed EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula), Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, 3 December 2014

Status of EUROPEAN ROBIN in China.

The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) has recently been discovered as a regular winter visitor, in small numbers, to western Xinjiang, in the far northwest of China.  It is very rare further east, with just one previous record in Beijing, a bird that spent the winter in the grounds of Peking University in 2007-2008.  

 

Mystery Shrike from Inner Mongolia, China

By Terry

Every once in a while, a birder comes across something that baffles.. It happens to me more often than I’m happy to admit. During a recent trip to northern Hebei and southern Inner Mongolia in China to check out the breeding location of satellite-tagged Amur Falcons (more on that later), Paul Holt and I found an unusual shrike. We never saw it particularly well – it was very skittish – and, given time constraints, we had to leave the site before we could secure the views that we would have liked and the quality of photos that would have helped..

Nevertheless, given that we were puzzled by this bird, I am publishing here our photos and a short video in the hope that someone can help us ID this strange-looking creature.

Shrike sp. (Nanhaoqian reservoir near Shangyi, Nei Mongol)(2)

Shrike sp, near Shangyi, Inner Mongolia, 10 October 2014. Note the scaling on the underparts.  Photo by Paul Holt.

2014-10-09 shrike sp

Shrike sp, near Shangyi, Inner Mongolia, 10 October 2014. The dark wings and pale wing bar are consistent with Long-tailed Shrike.

A short video can be seen here – Shrike sp, Nei Mongol

The video is a little over-exposed, making the bird appear paler than it actually was. Neither the video nor our (few) photographs really do justice to the following:

– overall coffee brown colour, slightly ‘greyer’ on the back of the head and very subtly more rufous on the scapulars

– tail mostly and conspicuously black with white on the outer-tail feathers. When alighting rather small, white, crescentic tips to the bird’s three outermost tail feathers were clearly visible

– narrow and rather faint scaling on the underparts (just visible in Paul’s photo)

On the first, very brief view, I instinctively thought it was a Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius scach). The black tail and wing pattern fitted this species. However we soon had some issues with this ID.

First, the overall colouration seemed wrong. Second, the scaling of the underparts didn’t seem to fit this species. Third, the white in the tail didn’t fit either. And finally, the range of Long-tailed Shrike – this would almost certainly be the most northerly ever record of Long-tailed Shrike in China (it is still a rarity, albeit one that’s increasing, in Beijing but it does breed in southern Hebei).

Personally, I also thought that the bird wasn’t big enough for Long-tailed (it’s a large shrike) and the tail didn’t appear long enough either but, in the absence of a direct comparison, this view is subjective.

So we are baffled. Is it just an aberrant Long-tailed Shrike? We think not. A hybrid? Or something else? Answers on a postcard, please…