Clockwise from top L, the author of this post (L) with John MacKinnon at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 8 April 2017 (Craig Brelsford); using the spotting scope at Ga’er Monastery, Qinghai, 8 July 2016 (Craig Brelsford); with Craig Brelsford (R) at Nanhui, 4 April 2016 (Elaine Du); with old friend Mark Waters (R) in Huzhu County, Qinghai, 27 June 2016 (Craig Brelsford).

Let the Birding Gen Flow, by Michael Grunwell

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

by Michael Grunwell

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 It is not right that most of the birding days in various bird-rich parts of China are unpublished and unavailable.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 Gambia, Majorca, 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, 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 contributor John MacKinnon at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (Craig Brelsford); Michael using the spotting scope at Ga’er Monastery, Qinghai (Craig Brelsford); Michael with Craig Brelsford (R) at Cape Nanhui (Elaine Du); Michael with old friend Mark Waters (R) in Huzhu County, Qinghai. (Craig Brelsford)
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Michael Grunwell

Michael Grunwell is a British birder. He lives with his family in Kathmandu.

2 thoughts on “Let the Birding Gen Flow, by Michael Grunwell”

  1. I only partly agree with MG here. It’s important to remember that there are not as many birders as determined and self-sufficient as him, and most of us have relied upon the maligned tour companies for many, many memorable finds in the field. I have no problem with them not giving info out for free in some kind of utopian egalitarian gesture.

    However where he is right is the assertion that for those that do want a DIY approach in China there is scant gen available, at least in English. I think there are some deep-seated reasons for this.

    Firstly, information on just about anything is not easy to come by in China, by design.

    And secondly, the vast majority of people in the know in China are photographers, some of whom have a different mindset to birders and seem aggressively competitive.

    Also, at the risk of being controversial, sharing is not as automatic a concept in China as in Europe or North America.

    So I think MG is right, but the roots of this may be cultural. The Shanghai Birding WeChat group is a good example–lots of people showing off great photos, but often without any information like dates and exact location.

    I think this will change as China develops more birders and those birders meet others from different cultures.

    Many of the birders I’ve met in China have been generous with their opinions and info. I hope it catches on.

  2. I share Michael’s frustration. I also concur with all the views expressed in Russell’s comment.

    Birding independently in China presents a number of unique challenges, lack of information being just one of them. Nevertheless independent birdwatchers should be encouraged (reasons for this are not discussed here).

    In an ideal world I would like to see a website where either a Chinese birder or expat birder from each province or locality would volunteer to act as a bird recorder and who would be willing to provide information to prospective bona fide birdwatchers.

    But just a minute, surely, eBird satisfies my requirements? Not really. Some locations are incorrect (the actual location could be a half or 1 km away). This may have been done in some cases to protect a species, but in any case there is no information on the site, so you could end up as I did, going to Moershan near Guilin to see birds recorded there, only to find that the reserve is closed to foreigners (5-hour round-trip by bus from Guilin).

    With reference to Michael’s post, it seems likely that we will have to continue persevering with “crumbs” of information for a long time to come. In the meantime, any birder wanting to take on the challenge may contact me and I will happily help in any way I can with locations and logistics. This may be of particular interest to anyone wishing to travel cheaply and by public transport.

    You can write me at davidwoodford51 at

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