Thursday, February 13, 2014

Abroad in China: Beijing - Introduction and Magpies

Birding in Beijing - City Magpies and Magpie Taxonomy On the morning of October 24th, we flew from Shanghai north to Beijing.  This was only an approximately 2-hour flight, and we arrived in time to eat lunch at a hotpot restaurant across the street from our hotel.

However, there was not really enough time that day to make a specific trip to anywhere new, and I was coming down with a cold.  Other than a flock of about 10 unidentifiable larks or pipits at the Beijing airport, I only saw feral "Rock" Pigeons and magpies on the day, near the street where our hotel was located.

Far from being "just a city bird" for me, though, the semi-familiar species of true magpie present in eastern China is an interesting subject.  Here I'll expand a bit on that.

Generally, perhaps even stereotypically, there are different schools of thought about magpie classification.  Traditionally, all "true magpies" in the genus Pica were lumped under one Holarctic umbrella as the species Pica pica, the familiar Common (or Eurasian) Magpie of Europe.  However, North American taxa have usually been split by North American authorities in recent years - these two would be Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) and Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), the latter a species endemic to California that was isolated in, and began to diverge during, glacial times.

Given that Common, Black-billed, and Yellow-billed Magpies are fairly sedentary and live completely isolated from each other, it seems straightforward to split these dissimilar taxa.  But the remaining "Common Magpie" complex itself, as usually defined, has a vast range and multiple (sub)clades (and traditional subspecies).  Since these often-lumped taxa are different enough to warrant historically subspecific status, is it possible the birds in these populations are actually specifically distinct?

As it turns out, the magpies in Beijing are part of the most commonly split group, specifically being in the traditionally-retained subspecies Pica pica sericea.  When considered a full species (along with two or three other subspecies under Pica pica), these magpies in China become Pica sericea, called Korean, Oriental, or Eastern Magpie.  You will find this proposed taxon referred to as Korean Magpie, for instance by Wikipedia and any sites that are based off of it, but I personally disfavor this name as it is geographically misleading (and it's not an inevitable name for this often-unsplit taxon).  Whatever you call it, these magpies are found throughout continental east-central Asia, including an introduced population in southern Japan.

Pica [pica] sericea is generally considered basal within Pica, and is the largest true magpie.  Though some authorities already split it from Common, the "Oriental" Magpie (comprising two or three races traditionally considered subspecies of Common) is generally provisionally retained within Common at best.  It is my opinion that given any further in-depth work on Pica, either Oriental Magpie must be split or all current species must be reconsidered; I of course hope that Oriental Magpie will be recognized as separate, but it remains to be seen if that's completely accurate.

What then is goin' on with the rest of the world's Pica spp.?  All the rest of the divergence, including between currently recognized P. pica, P. hudsonia, and P. nuttalli, happened more recently than between the ancestor of those species and the ancestor of P. [pica] sericea.  (You can begin to see why even my relatively casual reading of the literature leads me to think Oriental Magpies merit specific status.)

Lee et al argued in 2003 that "[c]urrently, we do not have reliable evidence of either reproductive isolation or hybridization between New World and Old World magpies, or between the two New World magpies", noting that there may have been a small amount of gene flow across the Bering land bridge and that we do not know if the differing behavior and morphologies of pica, hudsonia and nuttalli already served as barriers to interbreeding.  The ranges of the three taxa don't overlap today, so obviously there is no way to see if morphology and behavior are barriers to interbreeding in the wild.

But I would argue - again, not as a scholar of Pica, but just from reading - that it's disingenuous to suggest there isn't reproductive isolation.  The simple fact of the three currently-recognized magpie species' distributions being entirely separate is a present-day reproductive barrier, regardless of other features.  Differences in morphology and behavior already exist, and will likely persist in the isolated taxa as long as they do survive.  Taking the long view of their isolation from each other, one must ask: if these magpies are not separate species now, when will they be?

For the purposes of this blog and throughout my travels, I consider Pica to contain at least four species: Oriental Magpie (Pica sericea), Common Magpie (Pica pica), Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia), and Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli).  I await any more definitive taxonomic decision on these taxa.  So if you're reading this and something more recent has come out, let me know!

Next time we'll be back to birding site-by-site in Beijing, where many more species await.

(Here are a couple of articles I found helpful when writing this post.)

Lee, S. I., C. S. Parr, Y. Hwang, D. P. Mindell, and J. C. Choe. "Phylogeny of magpies (genus Pica) inferred from mtDNA data." Molecular phylogenetics and evolution 29, no. 2 (2003): 250.

Haring, E., Gamauf, A., & Kryukov, A. (2007). "Phylogeographic patterns in widespread corvid birds." Molecular phylogenetics and evolution, 45(3), 840-862.
A Birding Visit to the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Monday, January 6, 2014

Abroad in China: Shanghai - Zhabei Park

A Birding Visit to Shanghai's Zhabei Park
On our final afternoon in Shanghai, I took the Metro Line 1 to Zhabei Park with my father and brother, hoping to find more birds in this large and slightly more out-of-the-way public space. Plenty of people of all ages were out in the park, many playing loud music in the occasional open plaza, but I found a nice handful of species scattered throughout.

Despite not being able to spend a large amount of time birding, I even found a small flock of migrating Old World warblers. In fact, this warbler flock was the first group of birds I encountered in the park after the typical sightings of Light-vented Bulbuls in the trees.

By a bridge over a canal, a large elm was full of noise and activity. Immediately apparent and visible were the small Yellow-browed Warblers (Phylloscopus inornatus) flitting in and out of the foliage. All were overhead, frequently upside-down, and hard to photograph (as warblers often are!).

Among them was an even brighter-browed Pallas's Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus), which at the park I only identified by its voice, lower-pitched than the Yellow-broweds.

Although I found these two species to be difficult choices from among eastern China's many Old World warblers, they seemed the most likely candidates, and I would encounter what seemed to be the same two species later elsewhere. I had also found a probable Yellow-browed Warbler previously in Shanghai, at Buyecheng Park. In any case, my only picture of this likely Pallas's in Zhabei Park is quite blurry!

But easier to find even than the warblers was a Japanese Tit (Parus minor) that was associating with them - I heard this bird before reaching the canal, past which was the warbler flock. Though obtaining only one picture of it, I was happy to hear and observe a parid in China for the first time.

Farther down the creek, across from one of the open plazas where people were playing badminton and music, a male Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) sat serenely above the canal's waters in a Chinese Parasoltree (Firmiana simplex).  After we had watched it for a few minutes, it dropped into flight from its perch and headed east, flying under a bridge and following the canal.

Past the plaza, however, we encountered a species out of its setting: multiple captive Chinese Hwameis (Garrulax canorus).  There had been a few cagebirds in trees along the Shanghai streets, but Zhabei Park was the first time I saw the common practice of bringing "songbirds" in their cages to public parks to sing.  Throughout our trip I would see Chinese Hwameis in these kinds of cages, but I never found a wild hwamei.

The southern edge of the park was comparatively bird-poor, partly due to the presence of a busy east-west pedestrian thoroughfare that followed the southern border.  Though Eurasian Blackbirds lurked in the canopy, it was also shady there by midafternoon - the low light was blocked by the homes and buildings bordering the park there.  We eventually headed diagonally through the park again toward the west side, towards the major monument there.

Outside of birding, Zhabei Park is notable primarily for this monument in its northwest quarter: the tomb of Song Jiaoren, the Republic of China's Prime-Minister-elect in 1912. Usually described as an arrogant but singularly democratic revolutionary, he was Dr. Sun Yat-sen's major ally in the founding of the Nationalist Party and the writing of the republic's Constitution, and was the favorite for Prime Minister in the first governmental election of 20th-century China. Ultimately, he was assassinated before reaching his expected office, by a former soldier likely acting on the order of corrupt President Yuan Shikai (who later attempted to declare himself emperor).

Unfortunately I don't have a picture of the stone memorial by the tomb itself; this is the statue on the path leading to that area.  The stairs in the back left lead up to the tomb courtyard.

But by the tomb, we encountered our second Rufous-backed Shrike in Shanghai!  As soon as we walked up to the memorial yard, this individual was perched serenely in the top of a juniper, watching over the area.  It stayed long enough for great views and acceptable pictures, before departing eastward to somewhere else in the park.

Though far from natural (what do you expect from a city park?), Zhabei Park seems to be a fairly diverse place for birds.  I would have liked to spend more time there, given its large area, and it is surely worth doing so.  But even if you have just half an hour to walk around, you'll probably find something here, even if you're not birding.  Zhabei Park has not just habitat, but jogging paths, a historical monument, waterways, and small sports facilities.  There will inevitably be something worth checking out.

No separate lunch entry here...  We ate at Orange House this day , and visited Zhabei Park in the afternoon (see Buyecheng Park for more about the morning).

List - 10/23/13

Rock Pigeon - x (flyovers)
Common Kingfisher - 1 (male, perched over canal before flying away)
Rufous-backed Shrike - 1 (in top of juniper by tomb of Song Jiaoren)
Japanese Tit - 1 (by canal, calling and moving rapidly through canopy)
Light-vented Bulbul - x
Pallas's Leaf-warbler - 1 (with Yellow-broweds, often chasing them; ID at-scene based on lower voice)
Yellow-browed Warbler - 4 (possible undercount, small migrating flock in elm by canal)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Abroad in China: Shanghai - the Bund / Huangpu Park

A Birding Visit to Shanghai's Bund and Huangpu Park The Bund is one of Shanghai’s famous landmarks, a riverfront area lined with ostentatious European stone building facades. A major pedestrian path in front of it, right on the riverbank, is popular with tourists. Of course, I visited there hoping to take the pedestrian walk up to a greenspace northeast of the main Bund area – Huangpu Park.

It was a moderately busy October day on the waterfront, though warmer times are generally much busier. While looking out over the river, I noticed for the first time that there were no waterbirds whatsoever. No ducks were out on the river, and no gulls soared over or perched on the lightposts. In fact, this would come to be the case throughout our trip: ducks were exceedingly rare, and I never saw a single gull in China.

However, clear across the river, there was an area of mudflats, where a small group of what appeared to be Intermediate Egrets (Mesophoyx intermedia) were foraging spastically. In a little while, another Intermediate Egret flew over the river to join them, along with a lone Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea). I was not able to photograph them, nor would I see either species again in China.

A ways along the waterfront to the north, we reached Huangpu Park. The usual complement of pigeons & doves, bulbuls, and sparrows were present, along with a couple of Eurasian Blackbirds among the branches. A Mugimaki Flycatcher among the treetops was also nice to see.

But as it turned out, the best finds were out of the park at its northern edge. On a concrete lock spanning a water outlet were 3 Little Egrets, preening and stretching in the sunshine.

They were perhaps the easiest birds to photograph that I encountered in Shanghai, not reacting at all to the large amounts of pedestrian traffic on the main river wall.

And far out in the water, 2 Eastern White Wagtails (Motacilla [alba] ocularis) were walking around on a concrete pier -- difficult to see even in photos.

Although the main portion of the Bund gets heavy foot traffic and is devoid of any birds but Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Huangpu Park has the good fortune of being an isolated semi-wooded strip on a northeast-facing corner of land. Migrants probably make brief stopovers here, no doubt especially in spring, and though small, the park seems worth checking.

We eventually went for a small restaurant with an even smaller front in an alley off the Bund (unfortunately we did not make note of the name or exact location). Though the food was good and well-seasoned in general, including some very spicy dishes, the restaurant itself was smoky and a bit dark inside.

List - 10/22/13

Gray Heron - 1 (flyover with single Intermediate Egret)
Intermediate Egret - 9 (1 flyover, others feeding jerkily on mudflats across river)
Little Egret - 3 (perched on concrete lock, preening)
Rock Pigeon - x (flyovers)
Spotted Dove - 1
Light-vented Bulbul - x
Eurasian Blackbird - 2
Mugimaki Flycatcher - 1 (immature male flycatching in trees)
White Wagtail - 2 (out on edge of concrete pier in water)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow - x

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Abroad in China: Shanghai - Buyecheng Park

A Birding Visit to Shanghai's Buyecheng Park While staying in Shanghai, I was fortunate to be able to walk to quiet Buyecheng Park from my hotel. Despite its odd shape, lobed and narrow and straddling a traffic-heavy road, it harbored a few birds of interest, and was relatively peaceful for the parks we visited in China.

I first visited the park with my father and brother just to scout out its southern end. A stroll along the main path in the wooded portion quickly yielded the commonest birds: Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Spotted Dove, Light-vented Bulbul, and “Rock” Pigeons overhead. However, we were amazed when we spotted a Rufous-backed Shrike (Lanius schach) in plain view along the trailside, perched in the top of a yucca! I had certainly never seen a shrike in a city park before. Unfortunately the individual stayed put only briefly, and flew off to parts unknown before we could take a photo of it.

Two days later, we returned to Buyecheng Park (along with my mother and grandfather) to spend the majority of our morning there. With more time to spare, I was able to find a few East Asian migrants scattered in the park.

The shady grove of Schneider’s Zelkovas at the northwest corner of the park harbored an active female Mugimaki Flycatcher (Ficedula mugimaki) at their edge, flycatching along the sidewalk.

In the canopy of these trees was an extremely quiet, difficult-to-see female Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) in the midst of their canopy.

The very last bird I identified there was a highly mobile and vocal Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus) that I eventually ended up tracking from the park’s northwest corner to its south-central end. Despite its continual presence, I was unable to photograph it - too quick a flyer for me.

Although my time there was somewhat limited, I would guess that Buyecheng Park is generally a good quiet park to find migrant species. Despite its city-park appearance, species like Rufous-backed Shrike and Mugimaki Flycatcher were easy to find there even given as little as 15 minutes. I would gladly revisit the park at any time of year, if only to see what changing avifauna it harbors.

A department store just a block or two west of Buyecheng Park's west end has at least a few options for food, including a South Asian-style food court in the basement. We opted for a restaurant on the third floor, Orange House. They offered a range of upscale semi-fast-food from American-style to generalized (but tasty) Chinese. Very bright and clean.

List - 10/21/13

Rock Pigeon – x (flyovers)
Spotted Dove – 1
Rufous-backed Shrike – 1 (great views of individual in top of yucca bloomstalk)
Light-vented Bulbul – 1 (innumerable)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – x
List - 10/23/13

Spotted Dove – 2 (possible undercount)
Light-vented Bulbul – x (innumerable, easy to photograph)
Yellow-browed Warbler – 1 (calling constantly and highly active, if hard to see)
Mugimaki Flycatcher – 1 (female flycatching at NW edge of park)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – x
Brambling – 1 (female sitting motionless in shady canopy of zelkovas)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Abroad in China: Shanghai - People's Park

A Birding Visit to Shanghai's People's Park Just as the name implies, People’s Park is a crowded and bustling place. The throngs choking the wooded paths, many of them attending to large personal-advertisement boards, were probably even greater than usual on my visit (a Sunday). As the very first place in China that I visited in the daytime (having arrived in Shanghai the previous night), I could see as we disembarked from the Metro station that People's Park really was far more full of people than birds.

Common birds were around, though. Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) were everywhere from the Metro station to the pond in the park’s center. As we headed south along one of the paths, I found Light-vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus sinensis) and Spotted Doves (Streptopelia chinensis) in the bushes. Eventually I would find that these three species – sparrow, bulbul, and dove – would be the only wild birds common to every Chinese city I visited.

Eurasian Blackbirds (Turdus merula) were also noisy and conspicuous in the trees nearer the pond, if difficult to photograph.

Other than feral “Rock” Pigeons overhead, the final species I found in People’s Park was a flock of about 5 Vinous-throated Parrotbills (Sinusthorus webbianus), small chattering brown birds with exceedingly stubby bills. They were too active to photograph well and quickly moved off, though I was able to see them well due to their close approach. I would only see parrotbills again in Xi’an, and again briefly.

Although People’s Park was a good way to start with birding in China for a first-timer like me, I would probably only revisit it (given the chance) during spring migration, or at least during a weekday. The crowds made maneuvering to find birds difficult, and Vinous-throated Parrotbills were the only highlight among 6 species on the morning.

In the center of People's Park, situated right on the pond, there's a Western-style restaurant, the "Barbarossa". Food is pricey for China in general, and plates are small and quite Westernized. Convenient and well-done but perhaps not the best option in the area.

List - 10/20/13

Rock Pigeon – x (flyovers)
Spotted Dove – 2 (on top of utility box in bushes)
Light-vented Bulbul – x (innumerable in treetops)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 5 (single flock)
Eurasian Blackbird – 6 (noisy squabbling group)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – x