The Loneliness of the Chinese Birdwatcher

A reporter for the Economist writes about being a bird-watcher in China:

In theory, China has lots of birds. To date, 1,329 species have been counted, out of a world total of 9,000-odd. China has a rich mix of habitats, from upland steppe and desert, to mountain fir and spruce forests, lowland tropical rainforest, and wetlands. China is the world centre for pheasants, boasting 62 out of 200 species worldwide: the tail feathers of the Reeve’s pheasant, 60 inches (150cm) long, are prized for headgear in Peking opera. The country has nine of 14 species of crane, a bird held in special affection for its fidelity; and a quarter of the world’s total of ducks, swans and geese. Many bird species are endemic (that is, found nowhere else), and China’s south-west is particularly rich in flora and fauna, birds included. Hainan, despite heavy logging, boasts two species unique to the island: a partridge, and a leaf warbler discovered only in 1992.

Spotting birds in thick forest is a tantalising business and, for a reporter with dull senses, it tips towards the frustrating. In Hainan’s high forest reserve of Bawangling, a nondescript bird (a common white-eye, or a bird unknown to science?) flits into view for a split second; before I have fumbled with the focusing knob on my binoculars, it has vanished back into the gloom. The reserve’s species list is long, but mine is grimly short, though I did see a magnificent male silver pheasant, 40 inches from bill to tail, crossing the forest track. And I heard a troupe of that rarest of mammals, the Hainan black-crested gibbon, hooting away high up along the mountain ridges. Yet my passions lie with the open coast: the intertidal flats, the salt marshes and the mangrove swamps that every autumn, winter and spring host (when you can find them) intoxicating numbers of shorebirds, waders and wildfowl driven down by instinctual urge from their breeding grounds in Asia’s far north.

Read also the abstract of an article in the New Yorker from earlier this year by author Jonathan Franzen about bird-watching in China.


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