The outstanding bird, among many highlights of a trip to Donggang, Dandong in Liaoning Province, was a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus). This bird is one of the newly recognised Arctic Warbler splits. See here for the paper by Per Alström et al that presents the rationale behind the taxonomic decision. The conclusion of the paper states that:
“..the species from continental Eurasia and Alaska should be called Phylloscopus borealis (Arctic Warbler), the one from Kamchatka, Sakhalin and Hokkaido Phylloscopus examinandus (Kamchatka Leaf Warbler) and the one from the rest of Japan Phylloscopus xanthodryas (Japanese Leaf Warbler).”
It appears that this is only the 2nd record of examinandus for China, the first being a specimen collected from Fujian Province, referred to in an article in the Journal of The Asiatic Society of Bengal (29: 265) by Swinhoe in 1860.
The bird was discovered along a relatively new sea wall lined with young trees (a result of recent reclamation work). Paul Holt and I were checking the shorebirds on the mudflats along a 2-3 km stretch of the coast road (Binhai Lu) alongside the Yalu River, right on the border between China and North Korea. Every few minutes we would walk upstream and begin to check the next group of birds. We were enjoying splendid views of Red-necked Stint, Terek Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Far Eastern Curlew, Saunders’ Gulls and many more species – a real spectacle on the falling tide. As we were walking between watchpoints, we heard an unfamiliar call… I thought it sounded a little like a flycatcher – a series of rapid low to mid-pitched notes – and thought nothing else of it (we had been seeing several Asian Brown, Yellow-rumped and Red-throated Flycatchers along that stretch of road). However, Paul knew immediately it was different and might be something interesting. We scanned the area of trees from where the call came from and soon picked up an ‘Arctic Warbler’.. it called repeatedly for about 20 seconds but no sooner as I had grabbed my video camera to record the call, the bird fell silent and did not call again. We watched the bird for a few minutes as it flitted from tree to tree. It appeared quite yellow and buff for a standard Arctic Warbler with a yellowish wash on the throat and upper breast and a buffy supercilium. Neither of us had seen an Arctic Warbler like this before. Luckily, our driver was parked nearby and Paul’s laptop was in the car, on which were the calls of the three ‘Arctic Warbler’ species. We listened to the calls and immediately knew that the call we had heard was of Phylloscopus examinandus (Kamchatka Leaf Warbler). We quickly walked back to where the bird had been and, after a few minutes of searching, we relocated it along a roadside bank, just inland from the original location. With a bit of patience it showed quite well, even though the light was bad (heavily overcast). We took some images that captured the features of the bird as we were seeing it in the field. After about an hour, and with the light fading, we eventually left the site having secured lots of images but, unfortunately, without a sound recording of the call; it didn’t call a single time after that initial burst when we first saw it.
Paul knew it would be a good record and certainly a first record for Liaoning Province. What we didn’t know was that it would be the first record (that we are aware of) for China since that 19th century specimen referred to by Swinhoe!
Of course, this species has almost certainly been overlooked and birders will only have been looking for these new species since Per Alström’s paper was published in 2010, so I am sure there will be more records to come… As a bird that breeds in Kamchatka, it must pass through eastern China on migration. Even so, it’s pretty cool to be involved with a first record for China for over 100 years! It’s a fantastic tribute to Paul’s birding skill that he picked up the unusual call and nailed the record..
The calls and songs of the three species of “Arctic Warbler” can be found here. It should be noted that, at present, vocalisations are the only way to definitively identify these three species. However, given the plumage features noted on this bird, it may not be too long before a suite of features allows non-calling/singing birds to be separated in the field.
Now you know what to look for, I hope you find one for yourself…!