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 OwlStrix 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 BlackthroatCalliope obscura, in Shaanxi we scored Crested IbisNipponia nippon, at Tangjiahe we found Przevalski’s ParrotbillSinosuthora przewalskii, at Wolong we saw Wood SnipeGallinago nemoricola, at Longcanggou we thrilled to Golden-fronted FulvettaAlcippe variegaticeps, and at Xiningzhen we eked out Silver OrioleOriolus 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.
Featured image: No human being has seen more species of bird than Jon Hornbuckle, shown here at Balangshan, Sichuan in May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)
On 5 June 2014 on the Old Erlang Road in Sichuan, I photographed female FirethroatCalliope pectardens. One of the least-known chats in the world, Firethroat is shy, the female particularly so, and photos of the female are rare.
The photo above shows an adult female and not a first-summer male, as a first-summer male would have white flashes at the base of the tail (Round & Clement 2015, 86). We eliminate Firethroat’s sister species, BlackthroatCalliope obscura, on the basis of range (Blackthroat breeds farther north) and by the presence at the height of breeding season of male Firethroat in the area where I photographed the female. Note the legs, darker than the pale-legged female Indian Blue RobinLarvivora brunnea (Collar 2005, 747).
To acquire my shots, I spent parts of four days in a tent, my portable photo blind. The female first appeared on Day 2, but the definitive images came only in the final minutes of the final day. My partners, Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安) and Jon Gallagher, commiserated with me at first and rejoiced with me at last, and for their cooperation I am grateful.
I embargoed the photos nearly five years before publishing them today. I held back because I was hoping to write a photographic field guide to the birds of China, and I was saving my most valuable photos for the guide.
The Old Erlang Road is an ideal birding location. The road, which used to be part of the Sichuan-Tibet highway but has been superseded by a tunnel, remains in serviceable condition. The lush forests are a stronghold not just for Firethroat but also for many other sought-after birds, among them Lady Amherst’s PheasantChrysolophus amherstiae and Streaked BarwingActinodura souliei.
MAP & PHOTOS
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China Dreams Tour (www.chinadreamstour.com) runs trips to Old Erlang Road and other hotspots in Sichuan. Book your trip by clicking on the image below.
Collar, N.J. (2005). Family Turdidae (Thrushes). Pp. 747-9 (Firethroat, Indian Blue Robin, Black-throated Blue Robin) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2005). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 10. Cuckoo-shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station is one of the best birding sites in China. Set in thick forest 550 m (1,800 ft.) above the Shaotang River Valley at an elevation of 2570 m (8,430 ft.), the abandoned panda research station near Wolong, Sichuan is reachable only by foot. The steep climb and complex avifauna intimidate the young birder—but challenge and fulfill the experienced birder.
I know, for I have been both. In July 2010 I made my first visit to Wuyipeng. I was a new birder, alone and untrained. Wuyipeng overwhelmed me. When I returned in 2017, I had seven years of study under my belt, I was with my mentor Michael Grunwell, and we hardly missed a bird.
In 2010 I was hooked on bird photography. I carried to the top my equipment, all 10.5 kg (23 lbs.) of it. At the time, I had only one way of intensely experiencing a bird—by photographing it. Photography was my sole pathway to intensity because, at the time, I knew little about birds.
The more I learned about birds, the less obsessed I became with photographing them. I developed new ways of relating to birds—observing them closely, studying their habitats, recording their voices, and writing about them.
And crucially, by 2017 I had made friends with birders who know more than I about birds. Michael Grunwell is one of them. Michael has been building his life list since he was a teen-ager in the 1970s. Michael not only knows birds, but he also knows how to know birds.
Like your mother at the grocery store, Michael arrives at a site with a shopping list—his target species. He has read up on the species he wants and knows what to look for.
For example: Michael and I arrive at a creek deep in the forest. “Creekside habo!” I say to Michael. “What’s your target?”
“Play Chinese Wren-babbler,” Michael says.
I pull out my iPhone and find a recording of Chinese Cupwing that I downloaded from xeno-canto.org. I Bluetooth it through my speaker, and within seconds I get a response.
Chinese Cupwing Pnoepyga mutica, along stream (30.991680, 103.160400) near Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station, Wolong, Sichuan. Elev. 2570 m (8,430 ft.). 20 May 2017 (00:03; 1.7 MB)
Had my birding skills remained at the level of 2010, and had I not partly assimilated Michael’s birding style, then I would have missed Chinese Cupwing and many other species. I would have been bored, for in the dark, lush forest, photo opportunities are few (and in any case, this time I wisely decided not to lug my camera up the hill). Because I had progressed beyond photography, I was highly stimulated and had a sense of control. It was a great feeling.
Even a non-birder would feel good up there. Wuyipeng achieves a perfect balance: It is developed just enough to allow access, being one of the few places in the area with a good hiking trail; yet it remains a wilderness, for the steep climb is a formidable barrier, and visitors are few. In 2010 and again in 2017, we saw no one.
Making Wuyipeng even more interesting is the greater region of which it is a part. Sichuan and neighboring Yunnan are, ornithologically speaking, the Center of Asia. Himalaya, Indo-Malaya, Palearctica—like tectonic plates, the great eco-regions collide here. Various groups of birds, most notably the parrotbills, have their center of distribution in or near Sichuan (Robson).
The avian diversity here is unmatched in the temperate world. During a bird wave at the station, a single tree held six species of tit: Fire-capped TitCephalopyrus flammiceps, Yellow-browed TitSylviparus modestus, Coal TitPeriparus ater, Yellow-bellied TitPardaliparus venustulus, Pere David’s TitPoecile davidi, and Green-backed TitParus monticolus. That is half as many species of parid in a single tree as are found in the United States and Canada.
The mountain also yielded six members of a single genus, Phylloscopus: Chinese Leaf WarblerP. yunnanensis, Greenish WarblerP. trochiloides, Large-billed Leaf WarblerP. magnirostris, Claudia’s Leaf WarblerP. claudiae, Emei Leaf WarblerP. emeiensis, and Sichuan Leaf WarblerP. forresti.
We had Firethroat singing in thick undergrowth on the hillside, and just a few meters away a heart-stopping encounter with male Temminck’s Tragopan tiptoeing across the trail. Golden Pheasant called unseen, exquisite Indian Blue Robin and Chestnut-headed Tesia were singing, and Golden-breasted Fulvetta added color. We had a migrating flock of 40 Tibetan Serin.
We noted 49 species in all. Michael called 20 May 2017 one of his best birding days in his four years in China. I called it one of my best birding days, period.
Wuyipeng was the biggest but certainly not the only highlight of our four days, 18-21 May 2017, in the Wolong-Balangshan area. Michael and I covered altitudes between 2000 m and 4500 m on the 79-km stretch of the S303 between Wolong and Rilong. We noted 110 species.
Gamebirds were richly represented. We noted eight species: Snow PartridgeLerwa lerwa, Verreaux’s Monal-PartridgeTetraophasis obscurus, Blood PheasantIthaginis cruentus, Temminck’s TragopanTragopan temminckii, Koklass PheasantPucrasia macrolopha, White Eared PheasantCrossoptilon crossoptilon, Golden PheasantChrysolophus pictus, and Lady Amherst’s PheasantC. amherstiae.
At the famous tunnel area (30.877921, 102.966226) we made only a half-hearted effort to see Chinese Monal, which Michael had seen before. Higher up, we looked for but missed Tibetan Snowcock.
To the list of the six leaf-warbler species from Wuyipeng we added Alpine Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus occisinensis, Buff-barred WarblerP. pulcher, and Hume’s Leaf WarblerP. humei, giving us a total of nine over the four days.
We found Collared Grosbeak and Sichuan Thrush along the S303, we spotted Grandala on the slopes at high altitude, and in the alpine scrub we found Sichuan Tit, Chinese Rubythroat, and Chinese Fulvetta.
The route from Wolong over the Balangshan Pass to Rilong is a marvel, one of the great drives of China. The new Balangshan Tunnel reduces the driving distance between Wolong and Rilong from 96 km to 79 km.
A series of tunnels linking Wolong to the G213 and Chengdu has been completed, a monumental feat of engineering.
With the improvements in infrastructure, and with the continued expansion of the rental-car industry in China, Wuyipeng and Balangshan are now open to Shanghai birders with only a few days to spare, as was the case with Michael and me.
After a full workday 17 May, we flew that night from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport to Chengdu. We picked up our car from Shenzhou, drove 125 km (three hours) to Wolong, and at daylight on 18 May were taking in the dawn chorus at Lama Temple.
We stayed at the clean Lín Huì Fàndiàn (临惠饭店, +86 153-5143-1887, +86 152-8151-1256). For our night on the Rilong side, I once again used Kāi Fù Shān Zhuāng (开富山庄, +86 150-8250-0382).
We birded half a day on 21 May before calling it a trip.
As Michael and I departed the mountains for Chengdu, zipping through the world-class tunnels, we reviewed the eventful past four days. I thought further back to 2010, when the road to Wolong was bumpy, dusty, and dangerous, and when I knew little about birds.
I have become a better birder. Wuyipeng and Balangshan have become easier places to bird. Progress is occurring, and on more front than one.
Quiet moments in the forest near Wuyipeng.
In 2010, I carried my heavy equipment to the top. I was laughing even then.
Below, a selection of my sound-recordings from the Sichuan trip. For even more sound-recordings and photos, and for our day lists from Sichuan, please see the eBird citations in the Bibliography below.
Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station (Zhōngguó Bǎohù Dàxióngmāo Yánjiū Zhōngxīn, Wǔyīpéng Yěwài Guāncházhàn [中国保护大熊猫研究中心, 五一棚野外观察站]): research center in thick forest near Wolong. Damaged & abandoned after Wenchuan Earthquake of 12 May 2008. Elev. 2570 m (8,430 ft.). 30.994128, 103.159845. Begin your walk at Jīnjiāpō (金家坡, 31.004395, 103.151987). Park your car at any of the local folks’ homes.
Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36952551. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. (Accessed: July 15, 2017). Note: This is the first of five lists we made for 18 May 2017. This list covers Lama Monastery.
Collar, N.J. (2005). Family Turdidae (Thrushes). P. 748 (Indian Blue Robin) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2005). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 10. Cuckoo-shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
eBird. 2017. eBird hotspot: Wuyipeng Research Station, Sichuan, CN: https://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L947367. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. (Accessed: July 15, 2017).
Robson, C. (2006). Family Paradoxornithidae (Parrotbills). P. 292 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 12. Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
BIRDS NOTED IN SICHUAN, 18-21 MAY 2017 (110 SPECIES)
Featured image: Themes from Wuyipeng, 20 May 2017. Clockwise from top L: Craig Brelsford in sea of bamboo; male FirethroatCalliope pectardens (photo from Old Erlang Road, Sichuan, 5 June 2014); sign at Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station; rich forest near station. (Craig Brelsford)