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

Jon Hornbuckle, Tough As Nails

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 wouldn’t 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 Alcippe 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 shanghaibirding.com. 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.

PHOTOS

Jon Hornbuckle, Sichuan, May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)
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)
Jon Hornbuckle (C) with group at Foping. (Craig Brelsford)
Jon (C) stands with members of the team at Foping, Shaanxi after ticking Blackthroat. I’m the man with 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)
Jon Hornbuckle in Sichuan. (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)
Jon Hornbuckle's birds, 2013. (Craig Brelsford)
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 Alcippe 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 lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. When he departed China, Craig was the top-ranked eBirder in the country, having noted 933 species, as well as the top-ranked eBirder in Shanghai (323 species). A 1993 graduate of the University of Florida, Craig was an award-winning newspaper editor in the United States for 10 years. In 2002, Craig earned a master's in business administration from the University of Liege in Belgium. Craig lives in Debary, Florida with his wife, Elaine, and their son, Tiny.

7 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. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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

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

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