A family holiday, with strong birding - and photography - elements, in Yunnan, sw China.

China is not a good place to be a bird

The Economist Xmas edition has a strong article on birdwatching in China, particularly waterbirds, inc search for Chinese crested tern.


China is not a good place to be a bird. I learnt this when I moved from Hong Kong, still a British colony, to Beijing. Though my home in Hong Kong was in the heart of the city, dense scrub tumbled down the slopes from the Peak. I was driven out of bed every morning by a raucous dawn chorus.

Birding in Hong Kong

I am an experienced birding guide, chiefly for visits to Mai Po in Hong Kong.

leopardAn adventure blending Sri Lanka’s wildlife, scenery, and rich cultural heritage.

When I first headed to China in 1985, the only guide to the country's birds was a (then) recently published volume by museum man Rudolphe Meyer de Schauensee, who reportedly figured he could learn all he needed about the country's birds from his specimens (in the US), without visiting China. This had a fine introductory chapter on the history of ornithology, including tales of derring-do by Russian ornithologists risking and occasionally succumbing to bandits and diseases to collect specimens including species new to science. Yet, the field descriptions were sadly wanting (honey buzzard has feathers on the head and throat "which are short, stiff, scalelike and very dense"!) The plates were poor, omitting many key Chinese species - presumably as the artist could only portray available specimens.

Against this, A Field Guide to the Birds of China by John MacKinnon, with illustrations by Karen Phillipps (Oxford University Press, 2000), is a major improvement - as it should be, given John MacKinnon has extensive field experience in China; Karen Philllipps lived in Hong Kong. Notably, most of the over 1300 species are illustrated in colour (some only in black and white, accompanying the text).

But here too, the descriptions are often casual and cursory. We're not quite at the level of having to touch the heads of passing raptors, but some of the tough birds like warblers might not be described with too much more than "medium-sized, brown": works for readily separated species, but when the identification gets tough, well, Birds of China doesn't get going.

red-crowned cranesBeidaihe is one of the world's migration hotspots.

Deep Bay wetland, Hong Kong - internationally important, especially for water birds

Birds at Wuliansuhai