Jon Hornbuckle, Sichuan, May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)

Jon Hornbuckle, Tough As Nails

by Craig Brelsford

Jon Hornbuckle saw 9,600 species of bird, more than anyone, ever. He was tough as nails. We were at Tangjiahe, Sichuan in May 2013. Our original five-man group was one short, but the park still wanted 10,000 yuan. Jon insisted on a prorated price of 8,000. The rep said no, and Jon said, “Tell her we’re leaving.” The rep gave in. Later, at the parking lot at the base of the mountain, the rep cheerfully announced that her boss had prepared a luncheon for us in a banquet hall nearby. “We’re not tourists,” Jon said.

We marched up the mountain, topping out at 2640 m (8,660 ft.). Jon matched us step for step. That night in the cabin, we were awakened by the hooting of Himalayan Owl Strix nivicolum. We searched with a flashlight but never saw the owl. Jon would not tick it; he had to see his birds. The next day, as I drove the team to Wolong, Jon said I was accelerating unnecessarily, and would I please stop wasting petrol?

At first, Jon’s intensity was intimidating; I had never met anyone so relentless in his pursuit of birds. As I got to know Jon, I discovered a softer side to the great lister. The world was his patch, and he explored it with the enthusiasm of a boy exploring the woods. To Jon, finding a new bird was like making a new friend.

In Xi’an I picked up Jon and his partners Dave Woodford and Phil Heath, the latter two world-class birders like Jon. We zoomed through Shaanxi and Sichuan on an itinerary that would have exhausted a much younger man. In the Qinling we ticked Blackthroat Calliope obscura, in Shaanxi we scored Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon, at Tangjiahe we found Przevalski’s Parrotbill Sinosuthora przewalskii, at Wolong we saw Wood Snipe Gallinago nemoricola, at Longcanggou we thrilled to Golden-fronted Fulvetta Schoeniparus variegaticeps, and at Xiningzhen we eked out Silver Oriole Oriolus mellianus.

After the trip, Jon and I maintained a friendly correspondence. He was among the first subscribers to On 6 July 2017, vacationing in the south of France, Jon was badly injured in a car accident. The accident damaged his memory, and he never recovered. Jon passed away on 19 Feb. 2018, age 74. He was a great birder, and he deserves to be remembered.

Did you know Jon? Tell your story by commenting below.


Jon Hornbuckle photographing Grandala Grandala coelicolor, Balangshan, Sichuan, 22 May 2013. This photo shows Jon’s characteristic intensity. Even though we had just arrived at an elevation of 4480 m (14,690 ft.) and had not yet grown accustomed to the altitude, Jon saw the Grandala and bore down. (Craig Brelsford)
Hornbuckle with group
Jon (C) stands with members of the team at Foping, Shaanxi after ticking Blackthroat. I’m the man in the black cap. I could hardly believe my good luck to be serving as interpreter and driver for the world’s champion lister. Blackthroat was our first of many triumphs on a whirlwind 14-day expedition that saw us range from Xi’an to Yibin in southern Sichuan. Throughout the trip, I observed Jon closely, discovering a man whose toughness was matched only by his tender love for birds. The men to Jon’s right are (L–R) Dave Woodford and Phil Heath. Our guide at Foping, Mr. Gong, stands at Jon’s left. (Craig Brelsford)
Clockwise from top L: Jon (L) and Dave Woodford at Balangshan, Jon searching for Przevalski’s Parrotbill, and our team with the park staff at Tangjiahe. (Craig Brelsford)
Hornbuckle's birds
A master trip planner, Jon along with his partners devised an itinerary that netted us some of China’s most coveted birds. Top row: Golden-fronted Fulvetta Schoeniparus variegaticeps. Row 2, L–R: Blackthroat Calliope obscura, Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon. Row 3: Grey-hooded Parrotbill Sinosuthora zappeyi, Przevalski’s Parrotbill S. przewalskii. Row 4: Silver Oriole Oriolus mellianus, Wood Snipe Gallinago nemoricola. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: No human being has seen more species of bird than Jon Hornbuckle, shown here at Balangshan, Sichuan in May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)
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Craig Brelsford

Craig Brelsford is the founder of Brelsford lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. Now back home in Florida, Brelsford maintains close ties to the Shanghai birding community and continues his enthusiastic development of this website. When Brelsford departed China, he was the top-ranked eBirder in that country, having noted more than 930 species. Brelsford was also the top-ranked eBirder in Shanghai, with more than 320 species. Brelsford’s photos of birds have won various awards and been published in books and periodicals and on websites all over the world. Brelsford’s Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China, published in its entirety on this website, is the most Shanghai-centric field guide ever written. Brelsford is a graduate of the University of Florida and earned a master's in business administration at the University of Liege, Belgium.

14 thoughts on “Jon Hornbuckle, Tough As Nails”

  1. What a great post, Craig—very human—all of us lesser birders could only imagine Jon as some sort of machine. You captured the intensity and subtlety very well.

  2. One of the few top listers who organized his trips and wrote trip reports… sharing is caring and Jon did more than his part! ?

  3. Hi Craig
    I enjoyed this post – we were in Szechuan enjoying the Grandalas this time last year. Sadly no Wood Snipe were heard at their usual locations. Later I joined the Birdquest tour to find Sillem’s Mountain Finch – a grand adventure! I enjoyed birding in China very much and would love to return.

    1. I should have said first of all, I am sorry for the loss of your friend Jon. He sounds like a formidable birder!

  4. I remember John when he showed up a my place when I was living in Port Moresby. He had just returned from a 3 weeks traverse going from Wau along the disused Bulldog track (that was used in WWII) and had descended down into the lowland swamp forest of the Laloki River. A dangerous place that no normal birder could cope with. He went there as there was no records for this area. “didn’t get mugged then” I said “no but they’re difficult people to get along with” He hadn’t taken his camera with him as a precaution. I said John you stink and showed him where the washing machine and shower was. He stayed a couple of days to rest up and then headed up to the Highlands. Nice chap pity he’s gone.

  5. What an amazing man! And a nice post, Craig. Must have been a memorable trip through China. The world is a more interesting place thanks to people like Jon Hornbuckle

  6. we had a bit in common as we both worked in the steel industry the last time i met john we were grubbing about in a wood waiting for it to come light and a lesser spotted pecker to start drumming always had time of day for you R.I.P

  7. From the top of my head: The only birder to have had a documented record of a Rufous-breasted Bush Robin from far west in Nainital, Uttarakhand, a significant range extension of this species to the far west. And many more such rare and significant contributions to Indian ornithology. Birders must look out for this spp in western Himalaya!

  8. Thanks for a lovely post, which captured Dad’s spirit brilliantly. We are very proud of him and miss him very much. Jo (daughter).

  9. I knew JH by reputation only – but this is a fine memorial piece. Jon’s birding enthusiasm is well-illuminated with the panel of stunning Chinese birds at the end of the post

  10. Jon’s determination to get lifers and his patience and tenacity made him one of the greatest birders, and Craig being an interpreter is truly unbelievable. It’s too bad that Jon had the accident and passed away, but his legacy lives on.

  11. Dear Craig,
    Thank you for this tribute; all the birders traveling around the world knew Jon at least by name, and must have been like us very sad to hear about his death. We won’t forget him.
    Noëlle and Hervé Jacob

  12. Jon got me in and then out of trouble whilst carrying out a waterways bird survey which ran through Millhouses Park in Sheffield. I concentrated on Dippers and Grey Wags. They sometimes used the RSJ sections of the railway bridges which crossed the watercourse. I was caught by a security guard shuffling round the chain-link fences. I had long hair, binoculars and he didn’t believe this youths story until Jon turned up. I showed Jon a Kingfishers nest in Ecclesall Woods his local patch. He couldn’t understand how I had found it until I owned up that myself and Stephen Donaghue were playing stream damming games with our wellingtons and sticks and it flew out. Jon sold me my first telescope (a Swift Telemaster) and took me to see breeding Hobbies at Beeley Moor. He was a very gentle, kind and inspirational man I have always admired and taken strength from. We lived very close to each other and it was a privilege to share the same local patch.

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