GUEST POST: Let the Birding Gen Flow, by Michael Grunwell

Editor’s note: Michael Grunwell (above) is a British birder who last month moved from Shanghai to Penang, Malaysia. Michael spent four years in China, two in Nanchang and two in Shanghai. During that time, amid a full-time career and while providing for his wife and three children, Michael noted more than 700 species of bird in the Middle Kingdom. As if his personal commitments were not challenging enough, Michael faced another obstacle: a lack of “gen,” or basic birding information. In this essay, Michael contends that in China, getting gen is too difficult. Among “people in the know,” writes Michael, a “cheery, clubbable atmosphere” stifles the free flow of information. “China needs a great deal more published articles on sites and species,” he maintains, and he looks forward to a day when birding info in China will be “logged by and accessible to all.” — Craig Brelsford

Let the Birding Gen Flow
© 2017 by Michael Grunwell
for shanghaibirding.com

Exactly 33 years ago, I went on an independent birding trip to Peru. We faced Maoist insurrection and genuine danger–and we had better gen on where to find birds than China has in 2017.

China needs a great deal more published articles on sites and species. It is not right that most of the birding days in various bird-rich parts of China are unpublished and unavailable.

There seems to be a cheery, clubbable atmosphere which stifles real gen.

Take Sichuan, for example. Most Western birders on a trip to that province are taken to major sites such as Labahe and Balangshan. Very little precise gen is ever published about where species are seen.

Glowing accounts of yet another glorious China trip are written up by the tour companies and uploaded to Cloudbirders. These so-called “reports” are devoid of precise gen and should be seen for what they really are, which is infomercials.

With the growing popularity of bird-observation sites such as eBird, it has never been easier to make records that are timely, accurate, and most important, public. I note that the vast majority of the eBird hotspots in Sichuan have lists posted by independent birders–and almost no tour companies.

I do not agree that freedom of information damages commercial guiding. Take Turkey, for example. Although the main birding sites in that country are well-known, birders still pay big money for tours, because most people who go on tours are not list-obsessed but just normal people who want a hassle-free trip. I published a report on sites around Istanbul 13 years ago; a few years ago, I saw an advert for a bird tour going to the same places for a handsome price.

Another example is Sri Lanka. All the sites for the endemics are well-known. I recorded all the endemics in only five and a half days in 2011, and I wrote a full report that did wonders for my guide’s business.

Other examples are Florida, Arizona, The GambiaMajorca, and even my home country, the United Kingdom. In all these cases, there is more than enough accurate, precise gen amid a thriving bird-tour industry.

In stark contrast to the foregoing stands China. It still astonishes me that, time and time again during my four years in China, I had to rely on a handful of trip reports for basic gen. China has a population of 1.4 billion, and there is no simple, clear Web site giving basic information on the Top 10 birding sites in western China!

I want every day’s birding in China to be logged by and accessible to all. Am I idealistic? Indeed I am. Knowledge about Chinese birds needs to grow, and fast. We must escape the current sclerotic situation, in which keen birders are waiting for crumbs to be thrown from the table of those in the know.

If you want an example of what the future could be like, then look no further than this Web site, shanghaibirding.com. Craig Brelsford is committed to cooperative birding, providing complete and precise details of bird sightings and birding locations. On Shanghai Birding, the companion WeChat group, Craig and other users regularly post news of and directions to sightings within minutes of discovery.

That’s the way it should be–a birding culture dedicated not to the profits of the commercial birder but to the enjoyment of the common birder. A healthy birding community is run by common birders and for common birders.

Featured image: Clockwise from top L, Michael Grunwell (L) with fellow shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 8 April 2017 (Craig Brelsford); Michael using the spotting scope at Ga’er Monastery, Qinghai, 8 July 2016 (Craig Brelsford); Michael with Craig Brelsford (R) at Cape Nanhui, 4 April 2016 (Elaine Du); Michael with old friend Mark Waters (R) in Huzhu County, Qinghai, 27 June 2016 (Craig Brelsford).

Shanghai Keeps On Poppin’

Elaine and I are in Heilongjiang and using the Shanghai Birding WeChat group to keep tabs on this eventful spring migration season. In recent days birders at Nanhui have reported

Crested Goshawk (29 May)
Asian Koel (3 June)
Fairy Pitta (2-5 June)
Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher (30 May-1 June)
Slaty Bunting (29 May)

Amazing records all.

Before Elaine and I left for this extended visit with her family, we had the pleasure of birding with Ian Davies from eBird and his buddies Nick Bonomo and Luke Seitz. Here’s how those days went down:

Sat. 21 May 2016
Dongtai and Yangkou

Yangkou-Dongtai today, Elaine and I with Ian Davies from eBird/Cornell and his buddies Nick Bonomo and Luke Seitz. Rain non-stop all day, extremely difficult conditions, missed Nordmann’s Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper but covered most other major waders, among them Great Knot, Red Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, and Eurasian Oystercatcher. We had a fun encounter with Grey Nightjar roosting on road in forested part of Dongtai Surf ’n’ Turf birding loop. Lifers were piling up for our three young American partners, all on their first trip to China.

Fri. 21 May 2016. As darkness was falling, Elaine Du, Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, Luke Seitz, and I were driving through the coastal forest in Dongtai, Jiangsu. I saw a log on the road and braked. The log was Grey Nightjar roosting on the wet road. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F5.6, 1/20, ISO 10000 (yes, ten thousand), mirror-up + cable.
Fri. 21 May 2016. As darkness was falling, Elaine Du, Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, Luke Seitz, and I were driving through the coastal forest in Dongtai, Jiangsu. I saw a log on the road and braked. The log was Grey Nightjar roosting on the wet road. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F5.6, 1/20, ISO 10000 (yes, ten thousand), mirror-up + cable.

Yangkou is still good for waders but continues to lose its appeal. Haiyin Temple Forest has been turned into a menagerie, with the obligatory captive Black Swan as well as Blue Eared Pheasant and–get this–a pair of ostrich! The trees remain but the undergrowth has been pared back, limiting the attraction of the migrant trap to thrushes, robins, and bush warblers. Entrance to the menagerie requires payment, but we got around it by saying we were birders. Entrance to the entire temple-seawall area requires ticket costing 60 yuan per person. The entire sea wall around Yangkou is now fenced off and access to mudflats is in some places denied, notably at the well-known point ca. 10 km south of town where we have seen Spoon-billed Sandpiper so many times. Dongtai meanwhile continues its own transformation, particularly in the southern parts of the reclaimed area.

Sun. 22 May 2016
Yangkou

Yangkou again today with Elaine and American birders Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, and Luke Seitz. Spoon-billed Sandpiper photographed in flight by Ian after our 4-man group split up on mudflats to cover more ground. Despite relentless search could not find it again. While searching we saw thousands of Red-necked Stint and hundreds of other waders and got soaked in the misty rain. At long-disused Magic Forest we found 33 species in 79 minutes, with Northern Boobook, Lesser Cuckoo, Tiger Shrike, Narcissus Flycatcher, and Forest Wagtail leading the way. The Magic Forest has been locked since 2013, but a guard let us use the area today. It was wonderful to bird the old place again. Our partners were wide-eyed at the richness of the Magic Forest and impressed by the mudflats. Ian trained Elaine and me on the eBird reporting system.

Mon. 23 May 2016
Yangkou and Nanhui

Yangkou and Nanhui today, Elaine, U.S. birders Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, and Luke Seitz, and I (Yangkou), then Elaine and I (Nanhui).

At Yangkou mostly around Magic Forest north of Haiyin Temple. Ruddy Kingfisher, Purple Heron, Lesser Cuckoo 2, Asian Koel, Lesser Coucal 3, Arctic Warbler 3 singing, Chestnut-flanked White-eye. Ruddy Kingfisher seen by Ian and Elaine (life bird for both), tragically missed by me! (My view in Nanhui in Oct. 2013 remains my sole sighting of Ruddy King.) Temple Wood still productive (Eyebrowed Thrush, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher).

After dropping off Ian, Nick, and Luke at Pudong Airport, Elaine and I continued on to Nanhui. Black-capped Kingfisher, Japanese Para Fly 5, Thick-billed Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Richard’s Pipit.

Tues. 24 May 2016
Nanhui

Elaine and I again covered Nanhui, the coastal birding site in southeast Pudong, Shanghai. Highlights: Eurasian Bittern 1 booming, Yellow Bittern 6, Common Tern 1 minussensis, Common Cuckoo 18 + 8 Cuculus sp. that were probably all Common, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Black Drongo 28, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher 2 (1 calling), Arctic Warbler 3 singing, Arctic-type Warbler 30 (vast majority likely Arctic), Thick-billed Warbler 2 (1 singing), Narcissus Flycatcher 1 male, Richard’s Pipit.

— I had never heard Thick-billed sing before. This forest Acro was hidden in the crown of one of the locust trees in Microforest 1. The sound I recorded is below. The wind was blowing, lowering the quality of the recording, but the essentials are there. Note the typical raspy Acro sound, and note the much faster delivery of Thick-billed than that of its fellow Acro Oriental Reed Warbler:

Thick-billed Warbler, Shanghai, 24 May 2016 (01:53, 5.3 MB)

— The cuckoos were in full breeding mode, chasing each other and calling constantly.

— Elaine and I spent the better part of an hour walking along the muddy bank of a canal looking for Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler. On 21 May 2015 at Nanhui, Kai Pflug, Elaine, and I found this species. Was that encounter a one-off, or is Middendorf’s Gropper a bird that would be recorded more in Shanghai were more birders looking for it? I still don’t have an answer to that question.

Featured image: L-R; Ian Davies, Nick Bonomo, Luke Seitz, Craig Brelsford, Magic Forest, Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, China. 22 May 2016. Photo by Elaine Du.