Behind the Scenes: Updating the Checklist of the Birds of Hainan Island

China Eco Tales

As one of the authors of the 2021 paper “An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Hainan Island, China”, I certainly did not make the greatest contribution, but I surely learnt a great deal along the way. Here I would like to offer a glimpse behind our research process and show appreciation to the people who helped make our work possible.

The powerhouse behind the project

When I first met the paper’s first author Richard Lewthwaite at the inauguration ceremony of the wintering bird survey of Hainan Island in late 2013, he struck me as an affable grandfather figure with a generous laugh, unlike the stern man that I imagined. I remember very little about our first conversation, but one detail about Lewthwaite left a strong impression.

After the inauguration ceremony, I found Lewthwaite flipping through several issues of the magazine “China Bird Watch” which he discovered on a bookshelf at the venue. When he reached the section on notable sightings, he immediately retrieved his laptop from his backpack and logged the information into his database. It is typical of birders to always have a pair of binoculars at the ready so they won’t miss any opportunity, but it is the first time I have seen one travelling with a laptop, so he can update his database on the spot.

From then onwards, I would send questions to and discuss issues about the birds of Hainan Island with Lewthwaite via e-mail. And I would soon discover that he has a talent for compiling and scrutinising data critically and meticulously.

Lewthwaite (top left) while on a birdwatching trip to Hainan Island

Verifying Dubious Bird Records

Since British naturalist Robert Swinhoe created the first bird checklist for the Hainan Island in 1870, the checklist has been updated by multiple local and foreign researchers. Reviewing the fruit of their work is an important yet painstaking feat because it involves going through piles and piles of literature from different periods and written in different languages. Our updated checklist is not about simply putting historical records together, but also verifying the credibility of each and every record.

Some of the historic literature that we reviewed in the process

People who have undertaken similar projects would understand how grueling it can be to track down sources and verify records. And here are three such cases that required some serious detective work.

The case of the mythical Crested Ibis

朱䴉, by Brendan Ryan, licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Many references claim that Hainan Island is one of the wintering sites of the Crested Ibis. Even the well-respected website Birds of the World says it was “once widespread in NE Asia and Japan, wintering S to Hainan”.

If this is true, where and when did this iconic species make an appearance on Hainan Island?

I once asked Lewthwaite what he made of this and all he said was “Crested Ibis on Hainan is a puzzler” until he found some clues within a paper one day.

The first record of the Crested Ibis can be traced back to Robert Swinhoe’s “A revised catalogue of the birds of China and its islands” published in 1871, but it did not cite the source of the record. And what is more baffling is that there was no mention of the bird at all in his 1870 paper. Could Swinhoe have made a mistake?

Lewthwaite found that a plausible explanation hidden within the information on the Little Egret in Robert Swinhoe’s 1870 paper “On the ornithology of Hainan”:

Lewthwaite suspected that for reasons unknown Swinhoe decided the flock of large white birds that he saw must be Crested Ibises, and that was why the species made it in his 1871 paper.

That said, Swinhoe’s description did not perfectly fit the Crested Ibis for he failed to describe distinctive features like a long and downward-curving bill, and red legs. So after much deliberation, we decided to keep it on our list but put it under category C alongside other dubious and unsubstantiated records.

A victim of collateral damage

Red Avadavat

It is a given that Chestnut Munia and Red Avadavat is distributed on Hainan Island. Almost all the information found today says so. Both records stem from specimens collected by Japanese businessman and collector Zensaku Katsumata on Mount Qizhiling in January 1901.

The problem is Hainan Island is far from their range; both species are known as resident birds or only capable short-distance migrations; and both are common pets. Furthermore, after Mr Katsumata’s records, neither were seen in the wild in Hainan again. Thus Mr Lewthwaite questioned the credibility of the record and decided to remove them from the checklist.

However, Katsumata’s specimens are still preserved in the American Museum of Natural History, and popular references including “A Field Guide to the Birds of China” and “A Checklist on the Classification and Distribution of the Birds of China” all accept Katsumata’s records. I believe without further evidence we should not dismiss the record, thus I persuaded Mr Lewthwaite to put Chestnut Munia and Red Avadavat back on the checklist.

But that was not the end of the story.

One day I was reading the entry on Chestnut Munia in the second edition of “On the geographical distribution of birds in China” written by Zuoxin Zheng. In the footnote, Zheng remarked that American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes considered the species to be cage birds due to the conditions of their claws in his 1958 paper. And thus Red Avadavat, which was collected by Katsumata at the same time and at the same location, was also classified as cage birds.

Information about Chestnut Munia in the second edition of “On the geographical distribution of birds in China

Armed with this new evidence, I apologised to Mr Lewthwaite and we agreed to take both species off the checklist.

Jack Snipe and the importance of a well-designed table

“Jack Snipe”, by Dûrzan Cîrano, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Although the third edition of “A Checklist on the Classification and Distribution of the Birds of China” wrote that Hainan is part of the range of the Jack Snipe – a rare species in China – I cannot find the source of the information after flipping through all the literature on hand. After speaking to Zhijun Ma, who was responsible for the section on Plovers and Sandpipers in “A Checklist on the Classification and Distribution of the Birds of China”, I was told to consult Ming Ma, the author of “Fauna Sinica: Aves”, who then said he referred to an English paper written by Yuren Gao.

Following this important clue, I pinpointed the 1991 paper “The Distribution of Charadriiformes in the Guangdong Region, China” as Ma’s reference. Although it wrote that Jack Snipe and other 55 shorebirds are distributed in Guangdong, Hainan Island and South China Sea Islands, it did not specify that Jack Snipe was found on Hainan Island. Could researchers have misread the table which has no internal borders or shading alternate rows? Fearful of offending one of the most respected bird experts, I brought this up with Ma and he admitted the oversight. Without his guidance and honesty, the occurrence of Jack Snipe in Hainan could have remained a mystery.

The horizontal lines did not exist in the original table, so it was understandably hard to read. (Note: Hainan was considered part of Guangdong Province until 1988)

This was only one of several such cases. One should bear in mind that removing dubious records is just as important as adding new ones.

Birdwatching: Propelling bird research into a new era

Since the 1980s, birdwatchers equipped with binoculars began to flock to Hainan Island, turning a new chapter in bird research. From then onwards, sightings, photos, drawings and recordings have replaced specimens to become the basis of new records, distribution, status of birds of Hainan Island. During this period, the number of bird species recorded on Hainan Island increased by almost a third, with more than 100 new records. Many of these new records are contributed by birders. Birders have been indispensable in improving our understanding of birds of Hainan Island.

On March 24, 1987, Urban Olsson and Per Alström observed, sketched and recorded the call of an Australasian Bushlark, the first and only record for Hainan Island. The duo also named the Hainan endemic species Hainan Leaf Warbler and they travelled to Hainan Island back then on a mission to understand this mysterious new-to-science bird.

During the recent decade, more people took up birdwatching and the new records skyrocketed. In 2015, Hainan Birdwatching Society established a record committee to compile the records systematically. Up till the end of 2021, more than 6000 records have been made, including new records and sightings of rare species.

Two types of people played an important role in this period.

The first was photographers. They like revisiting the same locations and are willing to put in the hours. One of their favourite birdwatching sites is Baishamen Park in Haikou. Many new discoveries have been made there and it quickly became a birdwatching hotspot in Hainan. Photographers did not only help make new sighting records like Northern Hawk-Cuckoo and Small Niltava, they also helped provide regular long-term monitoring data to better understand the migration pattern of forest birds on Hainan Island. I would like to thank birdwatchers including Tangtangma and Dima for their help in reporting bird sightings made by photographers.

Small Niltava – A new record for Hainan Island. This photo was taken at Baishamen Park in Haikou. © Yutian

The second group was rangers tasked to monitor coastal wetland including Lili Luo from Xinying, Zhengping Chen from Danzhouwan, Shiyang Lv from Huiwen and Linfen Wan from Sanya. Their commitment helped us understand water birds and fill the knowledge gap of birds of lowland Hainan. For instance, Zhengping Chen found that a desolate grassland in Danzhouwan was an important breeding site for Australasian Grass-Owl, Barn Owl and Barred Buttonquail. I would also like to express my gratitude for Duotan Wetland Research Institute and Hainan Birdwatching Society for their effort in nurturing a new generation of birdwatching rangers.

Barred Buttonquail © Chen Zhengping

In Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou where birdwatching has long been a popular activity, there are more and more people like Mr Lewthwaite dedicated to collating records, and there are already well-established record committees to collect records and update checklists regularly.

We hope the publication of an updated checklist is only the beginning of a new era of bird research on Hainan Island.

At last, I would like to thank birders who have contributed their records and photos, helped identify species and provided invaluable advice during our project. I am also indebted to my friends who diligently report bird sightings to the record committee of Hainan Birdwatching Society.


Author: Li Fei
English Translation: Joyee Chan