Swinhoe’s (White-faced) Plovers

When Dave Bakewell and Peter Kennerley published an article on Surfbirds called “Malaysia’s Mystery Plover” back in December 2007, it caused quite a stir in the birding community.  Was it really possible that a small plover, not described in any modern literature, was living on the beaches of southeast Asia?

The so-called “White-faced Plover” (Charadrius alexandrinus dealbatus) was first described as distinct from Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) by the great ornithologist, Robert Swinhoe, in 1870, hence the preferred usage of the name “Swinhoe’s Plover” (used in this post).

The great Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877). This photo was taken in 1863.

However, despite Swinhoe’s observations, dealbatus seems to have been ‘lost’ due to confusion about the characteristics of this form, and it has not been represented in modern field guides.  Here is an extract from a paper published in November 2011 (see reference at end of post):

“Over the past few decades, most authorities have followed Hartert & Jackson in recognizing dealbatus as a wide-ranging but morphologically indistinct East Asian subspecies of the Kentish Plover. Only recently, field observations of unusual, distinctly pale-colored plovers in the wintering grounds of the Malayan Peninsula led to the recognition that the original description of dealbatus referred to a distinctly different plover that has been overlooked for more than a century. Its name has been misapplied to birds that largely fall within the range of variation of nominate alexandrinus. True dealbatus are now known to differ not only in their much paler overall plumage, but also in important details of facial coloration in breeding plumage and a range of other traits.”

Considering this form had been ‘lost’ for many decades, Dave and Peter did an exceptional job in picking out these birds, studying them and communicating their findings to the wider birding community, causing much renewed interest in these charismatic birds and speculation that they may deserve full species status.  At the time, only wintering birds had been seen and, although some of these birds attained breeding plumage on the study grounds in Singapore and Malaysia, they soon disappeared in Spring and there was only speculation as to where the breeding grounds might be.

Following publication of Dave and Peter’s article, Chinese/HK birders reported breeding Swinhoe’s Plovers on the beaches of Fujian Province in 2008.  Later, one of my friends and fellow China-based British birder, Brian Jones, moved from Beijing to Shenzhen in 2011 and soon began to explore the coast nearby.  It wasn’t long before Brian discovered some ‘strange Kentish Plovers’ breeding on sandy beaches at Dahu, Haifeng.  Having taken some images, Dave and Peter soon confirmed that Brian had stumbled on a breeding site for Swinhoe’s Plover on China’s southern coast.. On just two beaches, Brian found around 270 of these ‘rediscovered’ birds, many with young.  They have since been found at several sites in southern and southeastern China, and are now known to breed from Hainan to Fujian Province.

One fortunate coincidence for any birders going to see Chinese Crested Terns near Fuzhou is that several pairs of these plovers breed on the beaches nearby. During my visit last week we counted 5 pairs along a small stretch of beach..  the real number breeding there is surely much higher.  This was my first opportunity to see this distinctive bird and I was pleased to see the presence of advanced juveniles, as well as males and females.  Here are a few images:

Swinhoe’s Plover (male), near Fuzhou, Fujian Province, July 2012.  Note the pale lores, pale legs and the ‘milky tea’ colour of the upperparts.
Swinhoe’s Plover (male), near Fuzhou, Fujian Province, July 2012
Swinhoe’s Plover (worn male). Note the extensive white on the inner primaries.
Swinhoe’s Plover (worn male). Note the extensive white in the tail and the relatively prominent wingbar.
Swinhoe’s Plover (female), near Fuzhou, Fujian Province, July 2012

Of course, there is a question as to whether or not these birds are a separate species.  They are certainly distinct – longer, paler legs, more white on the face, more white in the wing etc (see Dave and Peter’s article for the full suite of features) – but initial studies of DNA (taken from museum specimens) have shown that they are not distinct enough to warrant separate species status.  This is the relevant passage from the recent study:

“The most likely conclusion of our data is that the White-faced Plover is probably a young lineage whose phenotypic traits are encoded by a limited number of genes, whereas few additional genomic differences have so far accumulated. Its diagnostic plumage traits may additionally be governed by differences in gene expression that would be undetectable by sequence analysis.”

In short, initial research suggests that “Swinhoe’s Plover” is probably a subspecies of Kentish Plover.  However, further research is ongoing.  This spring and summer Jonathan Martinez, in collaboration with Professor Fasheng Zou from the South China Endangered Animals Institute, has been ringing, colour-flagging and taking blood samples from birds on China’s southern coast.  Analysis of the DNA taken from these live birds is expected soon, although it is unlikely to return different results.  Here are some images of one of the birds being colour-flagged.  If you see any of these birds this autumn/winter, Jonathan would be delighted to hear from you and can be contacted via this blog.

One of the Swinhoe’s Plovers colour-flagged by Jonathan Martinez and Professor Fasheng Zou. If you are in East/Southeast Asia this autumn/winter, look out for flagged birds!
The same bird in the field, Guangdong Province, China.

To me, it matters little whether or not the Swinhoe’s Plover is a species or a subspecies..  it is a beautiful and charismatic bird that is a joy to watch.  It is clearly very limited in its distribution and it must, therefore, be (another!) priority for conservation.

Many thanks to Dave Bakewell, Peter Kennerley, Jonathan Martinez and Brian Jones for providing information and images included in this blog post.

Quotations above taken from:

Rheindt FE, Székely T, Edwards SV, Lee PLM, Burke T, et al. (2011) Conflict between Genetic and Phenotypic Differentiation: The Evolutionary History of a ‘Lost and Rediscovered’ Shorebird. PLoS ONE 6(11): e26995. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026995

Chinese Crested Tern

The Chinese Crested Tern has a fascinating history… first described in 1863, it was probably locally relatively common on the eastern coast of China in the early 1900s where more than 20 were ‘collected’ at a site in Shandong Province in 1937.  However, it has since suffered a massive decline, probably due to a combination of egg-collection, disturbance and the loss of coastal wetlands.  Its decline was so dramatic that it was even thought by many to be extinct, with only two records – Hebei Province in 1978 and Shandong in 1991 – between 1937 and 2000, when four adults and four young were discovered on an island in the Matsu Archipeligo off the east coast of mainland China.

Today its population is perilously low, very likely below 50 individuals and possibly as low as 10 pairs and it is known to breed at just two sites – the Matsu Archipeligo off Fujian Province and some small islands of Zhejiang Province to the north.

It is classified as “Critically Endangered”.  The fact it is here at all is in no small part due to the conservation efforts of local ornithologists supported by Birdlife International.  The Matsu colony and the surrounding islands were declared a national nature reserve in 2000 and nobody is allowed to land on eight of the islets during the breeding season.  Taiwanese patrols apparently seize the nets of fishermen caught egg-collecting, the deterrent effect of which appears to have much reduced this activity.  Talks and exhibitions in local schools and communities have also helped to increase awareness of the special bird they have on their doorstep.

For the moment, at least, it is relatively easy to see Chinese Crested Terns during the summer at a high-tide roosting/resting site on the Minjiang Estuary in Fujian Province.  Even so, it still requires a short boat trip to reach the island from which these birds can be viewed, so the site remains relatively undisturbed. That said, as with many places along China’s coast, the threat of ‘development’ is looming large and, even though this site is officially a nature reserve, a large channel has just been dug through the middle to divert water to a proposed fish farm.  Thankfully, this site is not a breeding site and there are almost certainly alternative sites nearby to which the birds could relocate to rest if the current site becomes unattractive.  Whether they will be accessible or not is a question.

I visited Minjiang with local birder and friend, Tong Menxiu, who I first met in September 2010 at Rudong when I went to see the Spoon-billed Sandpipers.  Menxiu is from Fujian so knows the area, and its birds, intimately.  After a short boat ride out to the island at high tide we scanned through the mixed flock of terns.  Most were Greater Crested with superb large yellow bills and dark mantles.  Menxiu soon picked out the first Chinese Crested and a scan of the rest of the flock produced at least 4.

Local transport at the Minjiang Estuary
Tong Menxiu (foreground) scans for Chinese Crested Terns as his friend (a former illegal hunter turned birder!) practises his photography skills.
The sandbanks at the Minjiang Estuary at high tide.  The terns congregate on the distant sandbar

After enjoying good, albeit distant, views of the terns, we walked along the island to look for Swinhoe’s (White-faced) Plovers.  They will be the subject of my next post.

As the water began to drop, we walked back towards the sandbar and, given the lower water levels, we were able to make a closer approach, at all times being very careful not to flush the terns.

It didn’t take long before we were enjoying spectacular views and I was extremely fortunate when two Chinese Crested Terns took off from the group and dropped down on the shore just a few metres away…   allowing me to capture a few images.

Chinese Crested Tern, Minjiang Estuary. What a stunner.
Chinese Crested Tern in flight.  Note the very pale plumage and the contrasting dark tips to the outer primaries.
Chinese Crested Tern in flight.

Sitting on the sand watching these terns was a real privilege and I enjoyed every moment.  The Greater Crested Terns also put on a show.

Greater Crested Tern. Note the all yellow bill and darker upperparts.
Greater Crested Tern preening. They have an almost comical appearance with their crests…
Greater Crested Tern in flight.
Greater Crested Tern.
Greater Crested Tern with fish. Some were still courting with presumably males bringing offerings of fish to their partners.

With overcast conditions, the light was pretty good for photography.  Menxiu even managed to take a photo of a Chinese Crested Tern with me in the background (thankfully he focused on the tern – much better looking!).

Me and the Chinese Crested Tern…  Photo by Tong Menxiu.

At one point, a pair flew in and began to display.. the male strutting around the presumed female and occasionally calling.  I noticed the slightly darker mantle of one of the birds and, on looking at the photographs later, the bill appears a slightly different shape (the upper mandible appears more curved, like a Greater Crested) and colour.  We speculated that this could be a hybrid of some sort… possibly a second generation?  Or maybe it’s just natural variation.  With the population size so small, I am not sure we will ever know..

Chinese Crested Tern and possible hybrid. Note the darker mantle, more curved upper mandible and more yellowish bill.

After about 3 hours on site and enjoying the spectacle of these birds until they gradually drifted off as the tide fell, we headed back to the boat.  I was elated and privileged to have spent so much time with these incredibly rare and endangered birds.  We counted a minimum of 5 Chinese Crested Terns, a significant proportion of the known global population.  The Minjiang Estuary is a fantastic site and I hope, that with the ongoing efforts to try to save this species, it will be a place where one can see Chinese Crested Tern for many years to come..

Huge thanks to Tong Menxiu for making the arrangements and his excellent company during the visit..