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.
In late January I set off with my wife to Yunnan, intending to spend a couple of weeks in sunny, subtropical Xishuangbanna, birding and touring. No sooner had we arrived in Kunming, than the vague unease over the coronavirus afflicting Wuhan crystalized into full-fledged panic. Overnight, stores, parks, and public places shut down, airports, streets, and train stations emptied, and breath masks came out. Not just Wuhan and neighboring cities, but virtually all of China went into lockdown, with more than a billion people hiding indoors.
At the first opportunity, we returned to Chengdu and the relative security of my wife’s apartment. On my first day in Chengdu, I resolved to go forth and visit some familiar local parks and bird habitat, curious about the effects of the lockdown on China’s birdlife. Following is my account of that day, and the birds.
Chengdu, like Kunming (and, I imagine, the rest of China), is a virtual ghost town, with the hysteria over the coronavirus keeping nearly everyone indoors, hoarding food and only venturing forth furtively to buy food at the one or two stores still open, faces covered with masks. The fear is palpable, and the only thing missing are cinematic zombies. The avenues and streets of this enormous metropolis, usually choked with noisy, chaotic traffic, are nearly empty, and most of the jetliners are gone from the sky. Nothing like this has ever happened in world history—a vast country, holding roughly one fifth of the world’s population, paralyzed with fear.
So I did the only rational thing: I strapped on my backpack and binoculars, and headed out with my wife to see how the birds were faring during the apocalypse. After all, birds across China have become accustomed to the obnoxious behavior of the Chinese, many of whom regard them as fit only to be chased, harassed, trapped, eaten, and otherwise stressed; this is why birds here are, for the most part, remarkably wary. I have assumed that this state of affairs has been the norm in China for at least a thousand years; now it was time to see if, in the sudden absence of people, bird behavior would change accordingly (a few years ago, the History Channel produced a fascinating miniseries called Life After People in which it was speculated how the world would change if people suddenly disappeared; never did I imagine I would get to witness something akin, even if temporary).
With the weather overcast and intermittently drizzly, we decided to limit our walk to the park and riverfront near my wife’s apartment building, where on a typical walk, I can find 18-20 species. I noticed that the big heron rookery on the river island nearby was not as clogged with birds as it usually was. Roughly 50 Grey Heron and one or two Little Egret were hanging out there—far less than the usual number. The reason soon became apparent as we walked along the river—the birds were feeding all up and down the river in much larger numbers than usual. With none of the usual noisy pedestrians and throngs of fishermen to harass them, they were enjoying unfettered access to all the fish, in some cases squabbling like seagulls over their catches.
In the park itself—almost devoid of people except for a few elderly, some of whom weren’t wearing masks and didn’t seem to care about all the craziness (after all, they’ve seen much worse)—the birds were everywhere. White-browed Laughingthrush, usually shy habitués of dense thickets and foliage, were foraging openly on the deserted lawns in large flocks. Chinese Grosbeak, normally perched high in trees away from stone-throwing children, unleashed dogs, and other harassers, were mixing with flocks of Eurasian tree sparrows on the ground. And birds that I seldom or never find in this urban setting were also about: Rosy Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit, and Plumbeous Redstart. On this part of the river, Mallard flocked, along with a small group of Chinese Pond Heron, another bird relatively scarce in this area. Further downstream, I saw Common Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover. After a walk of only a little over an hour, covering a mile at most, I had 29 species and had noted a lot of new behavior patterns.
On the other hand, some birds did not appear to notice that anything was amiss. One of my favorite Chinese birds, the endearing and intricately-patterned Black-throated Bushtit, is friendly and curious in normal times, and today they were no different. These diminutive, energetic birds came flocking to my phishing wherever I walked, perching close by in sizable flocks, curious and unafraid.
Unfortunately, on the way back, I noted some activity that served to remind why the birds of China are so remarkably skittish: a middle-aged man with a slingshot stood shooting at sparrows and bulbuls, shouting angrily at them all the while, doubtless under the illusion that the birds are somehow responsible for this disaster. After all, China has embarked on bird pogroms before, scapegoating them for disease outbreaks and other calamities.
Anyway, I plan to make further forays, to Bailuwan Wetland, a major eBird hotspot only a few miles from my wife’s apartment, and other less urban areas, in the coming days, to see how the wildlife in such places is faring. During my last visit to Bailuwan little more than a week ago, I was watching the large flock of Ferruginous Duck that winters there, along with several other species of waterfowl, when along came a Chinese family. The father immediately began urging his children to scare up all the ducks so they could watch them fly, completely indifferent to the foreigner who was trying to observe them. They proceeded to shout and scream and thoroughly scare up hundreds of waterfowl. I expect that the coronavirus has purchased those birds a temporary reprieve from that kind of harassment.
Postscript: My wife and I did indeed visit Bailuwan Wetland Park the following day, and found it empty. As anticipated, the Ferruginous Duck, along with Eurasian Coot and Common Moorhen, were enjoying the unwonted tranquility. The surrounding woods were also birdier than usual, with even a shy Chinese Hwamei making an appearance alongside a flock of laughingthrushes.
At the time of this writing, the initial hysteria seems to be subsiding, with more and more people coming out of hiding, but the parks are still empty and the birds are still enjoying this interlude of relative freedom from harassment. This morning’s walk along the river yielded a very robust 34 species.
P Benstead (Greentours), P Annesley, L Fitch, B and M Griffin, N Haggart, H Kloser, K Little, P Pilbeam, D Spencer and I visited NE Tibet, China’s Qinghai province, 7-23 Oct 2019.
It was the 6th Greentours mammal-watching trip in this area; the first was in October 2012. Our trip aimed to see as many of the unique mammals of the Tibetan highlands as we could, but in the field searching for mammals typically allows one plenty of time to record birds as well, and it is hopefully of interest what we saw at a time of the year when few dedicated birdwatchers visit this unique land. Predictably, the relatively late dates meant that some breeders had already departed for their winter quarters, and the bulk of the Siberian passage migrants, notably waders, had gone through. No matter: pretty much all the key birds are residents, and the lateness of the season has its potential advantages—we saw some of the specialities better and/or in far greater numbers than we would have in summer, and as a bonus turned up a few surprises. We recorded 178 spp of bird and no fewer than 27 species of mammal, incl Tsingling PikaOchotona huangensis, Pallas’s CatFelis manul, LynxLynx lynx, Snow LeopardUncia uncial, WolfCanis lupus (21 individuals!), Tibetan FoxVulpes ferrilata, Mountain WeaselMustela altaica, Kiang (= Tibetan Wild Ass) Equus kiang, Wild BoarSus scrofa (a range extension!), Alpine Musk DeerMoschus chrysogaster, White-lipped DeerPrzewalskium albirostris in full rut, the ultra-rare Przevalski’s GazelleProcapra przewalskii, Wild YakBos grunniens, ArgaliOvis ammon, Tibetan AntelopePanthalops hodgsonii, and Blue SheepPseudois nayaur.
Among the highlights/my personal favourites/most interesting records were:
Szechenyi’s Monal-PartridgeTetraophasis szechenyi
18+ bird-days. Noted on three dates near Nangqian—undeterred by a thin layer of new snow on the ground, five gave the full territorial call as they left roost and started feeding under a juniper as we kept our scopes on them …
Tibetan SnowcockTetraogallus tibetanus
19 bird-days. Noted on two dates near Nangqian—three swooped down landing next to a large herd of Blue Sheep, slightly startling some of them: eventually there were five, but soon they became very hard to keep track of as the snow melted fast.
Tibetan PartridgePerdix hodgsoniae
c100 bird-days. Noted on at least three dates—photographed at absurdly close range as some subtle driving turned our trusty 4WDs into mobile hides …
Blood PheasantIthaginis cruentus
A covey of no fewer than 24 scoped out on a bare slope near Nangqian on 16th.
White Eared PheasantCrossoptilon crossoptilon
470 bird-days. Noted near Nangqian on three dates, incl a shocking 355 in a day!
Blue Eared PheasantCrossoptilon auritum
A languidly feeding covey of 16 did their best to distract us from the sight of a full stag Siberian Roe Deer Capreolus pygargus near Xining on 8th.
63 bird-days. Noted on eight dates. For most of us a welcome opportunity to familiarize ourselves with a species which is declining globally: not many two-week trips allow you to take such giant strides towards full Saker Expert status!
35 bird-days. We recorded this “flying dragon” on 11 dates—eh, hang on, “recorded”? We were just BLOWN AWAY by some the views we got: TINGALING!!
Northern GoshawkAccipiter gentilis
Seven bird-days. Noted on four dates—not a local speciality, granted, but typically a species hard to get prolonged looks at …
Steppe EagleAquila nipalensis
Just three bird-days! At what was in the very recent past a perfect time of the year for it, only single individuals of this suddenly “Endangered”-listed species were noted on no more than three dates.
Black-necked CraneGrus nigricollis
46 bird-days. Noted on six dates. Widespread overgrazing—of hills and wetlands alike—is bound to be spelling trouble for this emblematic species, and as in 2018 we were dismayed to find only around 10 present at a large wetland near Yushu on 17th: we’d counted 40 there on 11 Oct 2014, and 26 on 11 Oct 2015. Nonetheless our repeated sightings—incl two adults giving their single juvenile a dance lesson on 9th, pretty much as soon as we set foot on the Plateau—was a cheering sight … and of course delighted our photographers!
24 bird-days. Noted on three dates—although our trip prioritized mammals, all present enjoyed taking time to watch a gathering of no fewer than nine of this enigmatic, monotypic family creature en route on 12th.
Solitary SnipeGallinago solitaria
A single individual was seen up close at Nine Ibisbills Spot on 12th!
Pallas’s SandgrouseSyrrhaptes paradoxus
A single distant flock of 38 was all we managed …
Eurasian Eagle-OwlBubo bubo ssp
One scoped in desert poplars on 22nd—its presence outraged the resident pair of Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus.
Grey NightjarCaprimulgus jokata
One along the Mekong on 16th.
Tibetan Grey ShrikeLanius giganteus
Singles were noted on two dates. IOC (2019) is finally poised to join the rest of us in accepting giganteus as a full species: “Tibetan Grey (or Giant) Shrike” L. giganteus may be split from Chinese Grey Shrike (Svensson et al. 2009, Olsson et al. 2010, Panov et al. 2011); await improved resolution of this complex. Zheng et al. (2011) list this taxon only for “E Qinghai, NE Xizang, N and W Sichuan.”
White-browed TitPoecile superciliosus
14 bird-days. Noted on six dates—superb views of this highly specialized and very pretty species. Zheng et al. (2011) listed the species for only “S Gansu, S Xizang, E Qinghai, and N and W Sichuan.”
Bearded TitPanurus biarmicus
69+ bird-days. A monotypic family species, these supremely attractive birds were very much in evidence at Koko Nor and in the Qaidam, with groups taking off suggesting an irruption in progress—42 in a morning near Golmud!
Mongolian LarkMelanocorypha mongolica
11 were noted on 22nd. Listed as “Least Concern” (https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22717295/94526964), but a popular cage bird in China, and juveniles are collected from nests, very likely at least locally in unsustainable numbers.
Tarim BabblerRhopophilus albosuperciliaris
Eight near Golmud on 20th—a sunny, calm morning (one of many we enjoyed) encouraged pairs of these often skulky birds to sit right out atop desert thornbushes, allowing scope viewing.
Kozlov’s BabaxBabax koslowi
26+ bird-days. Recorded only near Nangqian—best of all was a presumed family of six … “[The species] is known by just a few scattered records in this inaccessible and poorly known area, but it appears to be genuinely rather scarce and localised” (https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22716515/94497919#geographic-range).
Chinese FulvettaAlcippe striaticollis
No fewer than 18—many of them seen extremely well—in forest S of Nangqian on 14th. Now listed as a sylviid babbler by IOC (https://www.worldbirdnames.org/bow/sylvias/), away from the Alcippe fulvettas (https://www.worldbirdnames.org/bow/babblers/). Zheng et al. (2011) listed its range as “S Gansu, SE and E Xizang, SE Qinghai, NW Yunnan and W Sichuan,” and the commonly accepted English name is thus somewhat misleading.
Przevalski’s RedstartPhoenicurus alashanicus
Five bird-days. Noted on two dates—three fairly obliging males w/ a female in a plantation on the S edge of the Qiadam on 20th did not quite do the photo op posing that we’d hoped for but did allow long scope views as they fed out in the afternoon sun.
Henri’s SnowfinchMontifringilla henrici
A feeding flock of 550 strung out across the slope at Er La: a very fine sight, and possibly the largest gathering ever recorded …
Alpine AccentorPrunella collaris
Seven bird-days. Noted on two dates near Nangqian—unexpected due to the lateness of the season: the extended scope views we had were enjoyed all the more.
Przevalski’s FinchUrocynchramus pylzowi
A flighty gathering of 15-20 found on 11th (once we’d finished watching and photographing a lone wolf!) incl several males sitting up for photos. Przevalski’s Finch is a not-to-be-taken-for-granted bird which has something to offer no matter what subspecies of birder you are: beauty, interesting behavior (notably its parachute type song-flight), odd song, as well as taxonomic interest (it has for some years now been known to represent a monotypic family). We have noted this species at no fewer than 12 sites!
Red-fronted RosefinchCarpodacus punicea
Four bird-days. Unexpectedly—due to the lateness of the season—noted near Nangqian on three dates.
Pine BuntingEmberiza leucocephalos
26+ leaving roost, squabbling and flighty, taking turns to sit up nicely (but rarely for long!), near Dulan on 21st—at this season you’d normally be delighted to see one or two!
The supporting cast included Severtov’s GrouseTetrastes severtzovi, Przevalski’s Alectoris magna and Daurian PartridgePerdix dauurica, Bar-headed GooseAnser indicus, Chinese SpotbillAnas zonorhyncha, Black StorkCiconia nigra, Chinese Pond HeronArdeola bacchus, MerlinFalco columbarius, Oriental Honey BuzzardPernis ptilorhynchus, Black VultureAegypius monachus, Western Marsh HarrierCircus aeruginosus, Himalayan and Upland BuzzardButeo burmanicus and B. hemilasius, Eastern Imperial EagleAquila heliaca, Demoiselle CraneAnthropoides virgo, Eurasian WoodcockScolopax rusticola, Great Black-headed (= Pallas’s) and Brown-headed GullLarus ichtyaetus and L. brunnicephalus, Snow PigeonColumba leuconota, Chinese Pied WoodpeckerDendrocopus cabanisi, Chinese Grey ShrikeLanius sphenocercus, Henderson’s Ground JayPodoces hendersoni, Hume’s GroundpeckerPseudopodoces humilis, Sichuan TitPoecile weigoldicus, Asian House MartinDelichon dasypus, Stoliczka’s Tit-warblerLeptopoecile sophiae, Elwe’s Horned LarkEremophila elwesi, Gansu Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus kansuensis, Giant LaughingthrushGarrulax maximus, Chinese NuthatchSitta villosa, Hodgson’s TreecreeperCerthia hodgsoni, Kessler’s ThrushTurdus kessleri, Northern Red-Flanked BluetailTarsiger cyanurus, White-throated RedstartPhoenicurus schisticeps, TibetanMontifringilla adamsi, White-rumpedOnychostruthus taczanowskii, and Rufous-necked and Blanford’s SnowfinchPyrgilauda ruficollis and P. blanfordi, Robin, Rufous-browed, and Brown AccentorPrunella rubeculoides, P. strophiata and P. fulvescens, Citrine WagtailMotacilla citreola, Brandt’s Mountain FinchLeucosticte brandti, Pink-rumped, Chinese White-browed, Eastern Great and Caucasian Great RosefinchCarpodacus waltoni, C. dubius, C. rubicilloides and C. rubicilla, White-winged GrosbeakMycerobas carniceps, and Godlewski’s and Little BuntingEmberiza godlewskii and E. pusilla.
This post is the latest addition to shanghaibirding.com’s extensive coverage of Qinghai. For the complete index to our posts, please see our page Birding in Qinghai. A list of our most prominent posts on Qinghai is below.