LIVING in downtown Shanghai, most of the wildlife I see consists of sparrows and insects.
But many may be surprised to learn the metropolis is home to hundreds of species of wild birds like herons, ducks and shorebirds.
A guide from Shanghai Wildlife Conservation Management Station gave me a tour of Hengsha Island in Chongming County. Hengsha is the smallest of the county’s three islands and many migratory birds stop here in the autumn as they head south for the winter.
The station has been surveying birds on the island since August 2010. Thus far, more than 250 different species of birds have been recorded, representing 58 percent of all species found in Shanghai.
Our first surprise is spotting two juvenile great crested grebes by a shallow pond. Unlike adult great crested grebes, which have a distinct head and neck decorations, the young ones are black and white. They feed on fish mostly and are one of the most common species of grebes.
Little grebes, horned grebes and black-necked grebes can also be found in Shanghai.
Herons are probably the easiest to spot because they are much larger and often nest in colonies. These long-legged, elegant creatures have long and broad wings, soft plumage and long bills. Common species include grey heron, great egret, little egret, intermediate egret, Chinese pond heron and black-crowned night heron.
When bird watching look for some cows. Some species of egrets like to stay close to large mammals to catch insects and small prey. Attle egrets are typically around 50 centimeters long, have short necks, white plumage, a yellow bill and grey legs.
Belonging to the same Ardeidae family as herons, bitterns are smaller, have shorter necks and are much more difficult to find. These feathered friends tend to hide in reed beds.
The guide seems pleased when he spots a Von Schrenck’s bittern by the roadside. Although not rare in China, they are somewhat hard to find in Shanghai. Vice station master Yuan Xiao says it’s the second time he has seen one.
The bittern remains motionless for minutes as its chestnut colored plumage provides good camouflage. When in reed beds, bitterns often remain motionless to avoid predators. After leaving, we went back a little bit later and our guide found it again, hiding under a big pipe and it didn’t move for quite some time.
Our third surprise of the day is spotting a Japanese quail resting on a rusty pipe and it doesn’t seem fazed as we stop just meters away to take photographs.
As an domestic species, quails are common. Their eggs are also considered a delicacy in many countries around the world.
Few people, however, have seen quails in the wild. Quails scare easily and they tend to fly away at the slightest movement. They feed on seeds and insects, and belong to the pheasant family.
We saw quite a few different species of sandpipers, a shorebird with long legs, narrow wings and narrow bills. They usually feed along water line or mudflat and are relatively easy to find in the wetlands.
There were also raptors. These large and more powerful predators usually soar in the sky, and can be seen with binoculars.
Most of the species found on Hengsha can also be seen at Dongtan National Nature Reserve in Chongming. Its science education museum is open to the public.
Avid birders enjoy observing sparrows and swallows in their own neighborhood, finding magpies in a nearby park and spending hours at places like Hengsha Island peering through binoculars to find rare species.
Bring a good telephoto lens of at least 300mm to ensure you can take excellent photos of birds off in the distance.
For those who wants to go on a birdwatching trip, you can find information of birdwatching in Shanghai at the Wild Bird Society of Shanghai’s online discussion board: http://www.shwbs.org/swb/.
There are sections on wild bird rescue and conservation, photography, knowledge of different species of board and more.