The Artistry of Karen Phillipps

phillipps-mackinnon-lu
Renowned animal artist Karen Phillipps (L) stands with team members John MacKinnon (R) and Hefen ‘Monica’ Lu on the wedding day of MacKinnon and Lu, Hong Kong, 1994. Phillipps and MacKinnon co-authored, and Lu translated into Chinese, the pioneering work A Field Guide to the Birds of China (2000), the most influential book ever written about the birds of China. On 6 Feb. 2020, cancer took the life of Phillipps. In this post, written exclusively for shanghaibirding.com, MacKinnon describes the qualities that made Phillipps a great wildlife artist. (John MacKinnon)

by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

On 6 February we lost to cancer the well-known and much-loved bird and animal artist Karen Phillipps. I was privileged to be her partner in our Field Guide to the Birds of China. Her loss is a huge one, not only for her family and friends, but also for the birding and conservation fraternity of Southeast Asia, East Asia, and especially China.

Karen was born in Sabah, Borneo and spent much of her life in countries she loved among the creatures she loved, and her love is starkly clear in the great legacy of her illustrations.

She had a unique, inimitable style. Her birds and animals are not a photographic likeness nor are they an exactly measured and scientifically accurate rendering. They simply present these creatures through Karen’s eyes. They capture the essentials, omit fussy, irrelevant details, and express the living soul and spirit before her. Her pictures are clean, vibrant, and beautiful.

She carried her sketchbook, a tiny watercolour palette, and bottle of water wherever she went, and she could complete a colour sketch with added notes in a couple of minutes. Later she referred to these field notes when laying out more formal plates for the many books she illustrated. I had the pleasure of working with her not only on the China guide but also on A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali.

Karen had the ability to conceive the layout of entire plates and would paint the birds in composite scenes, sometimes overlapping and always covering as much of the white paper as she could manage. I am now assembling a new field guide, but my new artists paint single birds, and it is up to me to juggle them around across the plate, trying to make sensible arrangements that keep close to taxonomic order but place comparable species close together. Karen did all that in her head before putting brush to paper. It was an enviable talent. Sometimes, I would have preferred to include many of her “done in the field sketches” which captured so much immediate jizz of her subjects. I hope her brother Quentin, who inherits her works, will do just that. Much of her best work lies unseen in old notebooks.

Many of Karen’s paintings will be reproduced in the forthcoming New Bird Field Guide for China (The Commercial Press), where they can continue to delight and inspire China’s fast-growing bird-loving community.

ILLUSTRATIONS

orioles-phillipps
Phillipps had the enviable talent of conceiving the layout of entire plates. An example of Phillipps’s technique is her plate for orioles and Asian Fairy Bluebird for the Field Guide to the Birds of China. (Karen Phillipps)
Karen Phillipps-technique
Even the best photographs can confuse for purposes of identification. Variance of lighting, shadows, too much detail of fine plumage—all these can draw from the essentials. Here are some examples of the contrast between photography and painting. Clockwise from top left: (a) a photo-like painting of Pine Grosbeak, (b) a clear photo of Ashy-throated Warbler, (c) a scientifically accurate illustration of Ashy-throated Warbler, and (d) Karen Phillipps’s quick and simple presentation of Ashy-throated Warbler. (a: Xiao Yao b: Craig Brelsford c: Yang Xiao Nong d: Karen Phillipps)

MORE ON JOHN MACKINNON AND KAREN PHILLIPPS

— Read about MacKinnon and Phillipps’s masterpiece A Field Guide to the Birds of China and its importance to Shanghai birders: Field Guides to the Birds of Shanghai

— Read the posts MacKinnon has authored for shanghaibirding.com: Author: John MacKinnon

— Read about MacKinnon’s historic visit to Shanghai and his day birding with the shanghaibirding.com team: John MacKinnon in Shanghai

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Well-spotted in the Bamboo, by John MacKinnon

Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about the birds of China. Herewith we present “Well-spotted in the Bamboo,” John’s third guest post for our site. In it, John introduces the bird community of Jinfoshan, the highest peak in the Dalou Mountains in the city-province of Chongqing. John’s bird of the trip was Spotted Laughingthrush (above), a “quiet, gentle bird” of mountain forests and one of seven species of laughingthrush at Jinfoshan. — Craig Brelsford

by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

I recently was invited to join a workshop of the China Bird Watching Association to review three years’ monitoring of wintering data on Scaly-sided Merganser. The attraction was that the meeting was to be held in Jinfoshan National Nature Reserve in Nanchuan District, Chongqing. So I added a day to my trip for birdwatching and ended up on the top of this spectacular mountain for three days. Whilst floods were raging in Hubei and Anhui, we 40 birdwatchers enjoyed beautiful weather—blue skies and only occasional quick showers of rain to liven up the bird life.

At an elevation of 2251 m (7,385 ft.), Jinfoshan is the highest peak in the Dalou Mountains. The reserve was recently added to the South China Karst World Heritage Site. It is also listed as an important bird area on account of its having Reeves’s Pheasant. Jinfoshan combines ease of access with great birding trails and pristine habitats. It deserves much more attention, but it is not well-known to most birders.

Jinfoshan offers a great chance to view vertical stratification of flora and fauna, since you rise quickly—at first by shuttle bus and then by cable car through the subtropical evergreen valleys, temperate mixed forests, and finally subalpine forest and meadows.

Birds of the lower country
Birds of the lower country and hotel gardens at Jinfoshan. Top: White-collared Yuhina Yuhina diademata. Bottom: Vinaceous Rosefinch Carpodacus vinaceus (L) and Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha. (John MacKinnon)

I did not have time to explore the lower levels, but even whilst waiting for the shuttle bus we could see Red-billed Blue Magpie, Hair-crested Drongo, Blue Whistling Thrush, Russet Sparrow, and Plumbeous Water Redstart. Overhead circled Crested Honey Buzzard.

Our meetings were in a fancy five-star hotel. My own room had a bath big enough to swim in! But the real attraction was to get out into the surrounding forest whenever the meeting schedule gave us a chance.

Not that the meeting was not interesting in itself! I was impressed to see so many motivated and very professional presentations by the various monitoring teams. More rivers and reservoirs get monitored each year, and more than 1,000 wintering Scaly-sided Merganser were recorded in the winter of 2016-17. The Association has also done a magnificent job in developing the species as a lovable and charismatic emblem of conservation in China.

Even from the hotel windows and gardens there were plenty of birds to see. Olive-backed Pipit and White Wagtail were nesting on the grassy flat roof, and Verditer Flycatcher perched temptingly on prominent perches (though proved skittish for photography). The woods echoed to the calls of Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Bianchi’s Warbler. Green-backed Tit were in full breeding plumage; White-collared Yuhina was the most visible bird. The most beautiful of the common birds was certainly Vinaceous Rosefinch, the males of which were gorgeous in their deep purple plumage.

The cable-car ride offered amazing views of the deep gorges and lush forests. Great flocks of swifts circled their nesting sites on the sheer limestone cliff faces. In fact, these were mixed flocks, with Pacific Swift, House Swift, Himalayan Swiftlet, and Asian House Martin all visible.

Enter the woods and you meet a different complex of birds. The undergrowth is thick with bamboo, and indeed this site was historically within the range of Giant Panda and may again be considered as a site for reintroduction.

Birds of Jinfoshan forests
Birds of the mountain forests. Top: Black-headed Sibia Heterophasia desgodinsi. Bottom: Red-tailed Minla Minla ignotincta (L) and White-bellied Green Pigeon Treron sieboldii. (John MacKinnon)

A rustling in the trees revealed feeding White-bellied Green Pigeon. Busily collecting moths and other insects were Red-tailed Minla, whilst the Blue-winged Minla were more leisurely preening each other after a morning bath. Black-headed Sibia sneaked in and out to collect small fruits. Flocks of Grey-hooded Fulvetta rattled alarm in the bamboo in mixed flocks with Rufous-capped Babbler and some very pretty Black-throated Parrotbill.

Whilst colleagues at the merganser meeting swarmed the site with an array of expensive cameras and optics, I stayed deep in the forests, looking for laughingthrushes. I was jealous of the others getting nice photos of Slaty Bunting and White-bellied Redstart, but I had my own rewards in the damp bamboo.

One of the most extraordinary bird calls consists of many dozens of high-pitched notes merging together into a prolonged whistle. The entire call lasts almost a minute, but the caller is elusive. Finally I nailed it down and photographed the caller in the act—an elusive Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler.

Another bird making loud and rather melodious calls was Red-billed Leiothrix working their way among the undergrowth collecting food for their nearby nestlings. Chinese Babax sneaked about on the forest floor.

Spotted Laughingthrush
‘For me,’ MacKinnon writes, ‘the highlight of the trip was meeting flocks of rather approachable Spotted Laughingthrush.’ A mainly Himalayan species, Ianthocincla ocellata ranges into China east to Jinfoshan and Shennongjia in Hubei. (John MacKinnon)

Jinfoshan boasts seven species of laughingthrush. The lower sectors are home to White-browed Laughingthrush, Moustached Laughingthrush, and White-throated Laughingthrush. Near the reserve summit in open scrub and in the forested limestone forests, the common Elliot’s Laughingthrush creeps about, making low, quiet glides and gentle calls.

For me the highlight of the trip was meeting flocks of rather approachable Spotted Laughingthrush—a species with a much more restricted China distribution, being a Himalayan species extending in mountain forests as far as Jinfoshan and Shennongjia. This is a quiet, gentle bird, hopping about on the forest floor searching under leaves and through the moss.

Spotted Laughingthrush
‘Whilst colleagues … swarmed the site with an array of expensive cameras and optics,’ MacKinnon writes, ‘I stayed deep in the forests, looking for laughingthrushes. … I had my own rewards in the damp bamboo.’ Here is MacKinnon’s biggest reward: close views of the gorgeously patterned Spotted Laughingthrush. (John MacKinnon)

I sat among fluffy rock squirrels and watched their antics. They took me back to my favoured sites with warm memories of being among the Giant Panda of Wolong in Sichuan and the hilly forests of Bhutan.

MORE ON JOHN MACKINNON

John MacKinnon has played a major role in the development of shanghaibirding.com. MacKinnon has authored posts for the site, he has visited Shanghai and birded with the shanghaibirding.com team, and he has served as a consultant and inspiration from the very beginning.

— Read the posts MacKinnon has authored for shanghaibirding.com: Author: John MacKinnon

— Read about John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps’s masterpiece A Field Guide to the Birds of China and its importance to Shanghai birders: Field Guides to the Birds of Shanghai

— Read about MacKinnon’s historic visit to Shanghai: John MacKinnon in Shanghai

Featured image: Spotted Laughingthrush Ianthocincla ocellata, Jinfoshan, Chongqing. (John MacKinnon)
Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

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John MacKinnon in Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

On Sat. 8 April I birded Cape Nanhui with John MacKinnon. John is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about China’s birds. On John’s first visit to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula, we noted 84 species. John and I were joined by veteran birders Michael Grunwell and Russell Boyman and the outstanding high-school birder Larry Chen.

We gave John the Grand Nanhui Tour, starting at Luchao to the south and ending 30 km north at Binhai. Heading back to the city, we made a brief stop at the sod farm just south of Pudong Airport, where we found a single Oriental Plover.

Oriental Plover
Russell Boyman (L) examines Oriental Plover 8 April at the sod farm south of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). Conditions at the sod farm were decidedly not favorable to a plover. The jets were noisy, the farmers were busy, and there was a whiff of pesticide in the air. Why would the plover choose such a subpar area? Because the sod farm roughly approximates the steppe habitat required by the East Asian specialty. Oriental Plover are long-distance athletes, marathon runners between Australia and Mongolia, and incredibly tough. Despite the poor habitat, our bird likely will survive its brief visit to Shanghai and muscle its way up to the breeding grounds. For more on Oriental Plover in Shanghai, see my post Rites of Spring. (Craig Brelsford)

Nanhui yielded 23 Marsh Grassbird performing the song flight at three locations, and we saw 10 Endangered Great Knot and 1 Near Threatened Curlew Sandpiper. We had a pair of Rufous-faced Warbler and a Common Starling.

Also: Garganey 57, Greater Scaup 1 (Dishui Lake), Little Curlew 31 (flock), Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 11 (first of season), Red-necked Stint 1 (first of season), Wood Sandpiper 1 (first of season), Peregrine Falcon 1, Dusky Warbler 1 at Magic Parking Lot (possibly wintered there), and Reed Parrotbill 18.

Birds of Cape Nanhui
Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April. Top: Rufous-faced Warbler Abroscopus albogularis is common in much of south China and a vagrant to coastal Shanghai. Bottom L: A vagrant to Shanghai, Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris is often seen associating with White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus. Middle R: Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea assuming breeding plumage. Bottom R: Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus. In Shanghai stunning adult males such as this one are less often seen than the less-colorful females. Red-flanked Bluetail breeds from Japan west to Finland. (Craig Brelsford)

GETTING TO KNOW JOHN MACKINNON

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon co-authored the most influential field guide ever published about China’s birds.

Our partner, John MacKinnon, co-authored A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Published in 2000, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies and remains the only bird guide in English covering all China. John also wrote the first and second guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com.

John is witty and a fine storyteller. He had us roaring with tales drawn from his six decades as a researcher in Asia. The funniest story was about the doctor back home in Britain. Every time John straggled in, the doc would call in his students, so that they could study the strange new tropical disease John had contracted.

“I never cared about my health, because I never expected to live this long!” John said.

John also talked about his masterpiece, A Field Guide to the Birds of China.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Field Guide. Had it merely been a window for Westerners to the birds of the world’s most populous country, then John’s work would have been important enough. The Field Guide, however, in translated form has introduced tens of thousands of Chinese to the birds of their own country. John’s Chinese name, Mǎjìngnéng (马敬能), is known by every birder in China.

John faced obstacles unknown to field-guide writers in North America and Western Europe, where birding has been practiced for 200 years. His sources were often thin, he said.

“For range maps, I had nearly nothing from Russia,” John said. “A Chinese book had ranges stopping at the Chinese border. Another book had no paintings, only descriptions.”

To critics who unfairly compare John’s Field Guide to field guides covering more developed parts of the world, John had this to say:

“You’ve got to finish something. We finished the book. We could have waited and said, ‘Oh, another species has been split, we must revise,’ but at a certain point you have to say, ‘We must go with what we’ve got.’”

To this day, no Westerner has repeated John’s feat. Others talked; John acted.

John is a handy photographer and got off some good shots, three of which are displayed in the Day List at the bottom of this post. Here are some photos I took of the pioneer birder and naturalist.

John MacKinnon, Michael Grunwell
John MacKinnon (R) and Michael Grunwell examine one of John’s photos at Cape Nanhui, 8 April. (Craig Brelsford)
birders
The team at Nanhui. L-R: Michael Grunwell, John MacKinnon, Russell Boyman, Larry Chen. (Craig Brelsford)
MacKinnon and birders
Everyone wanted a turn with the distinguished author. Top panels: John MacKinnon with Larry Chen (L) and Russell Boyman. Bottom: Michael Grunwell poses and gets an autograph. (Craig Brelsford)

MARSH GRASSBIRD ON THE BRINK

Marsh Grassbird were singing in the large reed beds at Nanhui. They were most conspicuous at the reed bed south of the Holiday Inn (30.870711, 121.942976). The species, listed as Near Threatened by IUCN, was also noted in the pristine reed bed (30.931790, 121.949169) associated with the defunct wetland reserve.

Marsh Grassbird
Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis at the large reed bed (30.870711, 121.942976), Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 8 April. Marsh Grassbird is among the least-known members of Helopsaltes. The populations at Cape Nanhui went unmentioned by Kennerley and Pearson in their landmark book Reed and Bush Warblers (Christopher Helm 2010). Kennerley and Pearson were aware of the breeding population on Shanghai’s Chongming Island but even there could not say for certain whether the grassbirds were residents or summer visitors. Part of the reason for the lack of knowledge is the extreme shyness of the bird. Outside breeding season, when it undertakes song flights, Marsh Grassbird remains hidden deep within the Phragmites reed beds that are its preferred habitat. The other reason is the extremely fast rate at which its reed-bed home is being destroyed. At Cape Nanhui and other places in China, this Near Threatened species could disappear before researchers get a chance to study it. (Craig Brelsford)

The reed beds at Cape Nanhui may be the last stronghold of Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis on the Shanghai Peninsula. The species is highly dependent on large reed beds. In areas where only strips of reeds remain, the song of Marsh Grassbird is never heard. Its partner species, Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for official bird of the city-province of Shanghai, is only slightly less dependent on large reed beds.

One of the areas where last year my partners and I noted Marsh Grassbird performing its song flight has been flattened. No song of Marsh Grassbird was heard there Saturday. A few Reed Parrotbill were calling in one of the strips of reeds left standing.

Much needs to be learned about Marsh Grassbird in Earth’s largest city. Birders, look for the fluttering song flight, and listen for this song:

Marsh Grassbird, April, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:07; 1 MB)

DAY LIST

List 1 of 1 for Saturday 8 April (84 species)

Photos by John MacKinnon
Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April. Clockwise from top L: Red-flanked Bluetail, Rufous-faced Warbler, Little Curlew. (John MacKinnon)

Birds noted around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]; 30.920507, 121.973159), Pudong, Shanghai, China. We covered the coastal road between Binhai (Bīnhǎi Zhèn [滨海镇]; 31.006250, 121.885558) and Luchao (Lúcháo Gǎng [芦潮港]; 30.851109, 121.848455). Among the points along this 30 km stretch are Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883), a site providing access to the reed beds at the mouth of the Dazhi River (Dàzhì Hé [大治河]); Big Bend (31.000321, 121.938074); Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083); Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635); Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229); Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551); South Lock (30.860073, 121.909997); Eiffel Tower (30.850531, 121.878047); & the Marshy Agricultural Land (30.850707, 121.863662). List includes birds noted at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124). Cloudy, hazy; low 13° C, high 18° C. Wind E 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 147 (unhealthful). Visibility 5 km. Sunrise 05:34, sunset 18:18. SAT 08 APR 2017 07:00-16:55. Russell Boyman, Craig Brelsford, Larry Chen, Michael Grunwell, & John MacKinnon.

Garganey Spatula querquedula 57
Northern Shoveler S. clypeata 4
Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope 2
Falcated Duck M. falcata 25
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha 35
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 2
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 25
Greater Scaup A. marila 1
Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica 3
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 3
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 8
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 20
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 31
Great Egret A. alba 3
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 1
Little Egret E. garzetta 95
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 9
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 40
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 20
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 13
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 27
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius 7
Oriental Plover C. veredus 1 at sod farm S of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742)
Little Curlew Numenius minutus 31
Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris 10
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata 11
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea 1
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis 1
Dunlin C. alpina 30
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 8
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 3
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus 1
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus 4
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 20
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola 1
Common Redshank T. totanus 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 25
Little Tern Sternula albifrons 1
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 13
Spotted Dove S. chinensis 2
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 2
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 2
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 20 singing
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 200
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 35
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 13
Rufous-faced Warbler Abroscopus albogularis 2 (pair)
Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis 4 singing
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus 1
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler P. proregulus 1
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 1
Marsh Grassbird Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis 23
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 6
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 8
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 100
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris 1
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 42
White-cheeked Starling S. cineraceus 17
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 18
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 2
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum 1
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 11
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 55
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 1
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 75
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata 3
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 8
White Wagtail M. alba 28
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni 8
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 7
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica 1
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 23
Little Bunting E. pusilla 16
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 13
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 8

Featured image: John MacKinnon (R), co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, with Craig Brelsford, executive editor of shanghaibirding.com. (Larry Chen)
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