The Birding Trip that Never Was

Except for the odd hike in the local park (Dafushan) and some very casual birding around the estate gardens, I can’t say I have done any real birding since arriving in China. 

The Chinese New Year holiday presented me with the perfect opportunity to get out of Guangzhou, and head to one of China’s premium birding destinations. The timing was perfect not simply because I had the time off from work, but largely because my mother in law was coming over and would be available to cover some of my parenting duties! 🙂

I had mentioned my birding intentions to my friend Daniel back in November, and he was also very keen to do some exploring of China. Luckily he also has more than a passing interest in birds. 

We talked about heading to Yunnan, or the Sichuan provinces as these regions appear to have an abundance of species, and specials. But they would require at least one flight, and time was limited.

So I turned to Facebook and Google and managed to contact a few local Chinese bird guides. By “local” I mean from Beijing or Shanghai! I have yet to find any bird guides in the Guangdong area*. 

After some back and forth with a Beijing guide, and some research, I decided to head to Poyang Lake in Jiangxi Province (the largest freshwater lake in China and a premium birding spot in China) to try for the critically endangered Siberian crane and the three other species of crane that over winter there: Hooded, White-naped and common Cranes.

Winter is apparently the best time to bird there, as there is an abundance of waterfowl and migratory birds that head down from the north to escape the freezing temperatures over the winter period. 

Plans were made. We would catch the train to Nanchang, and transfer to a small village, called Yongxiu, just to the north, so that we could be within striking distance of the good birding areas in the northern section of the lake. Our time would be limited to 2 nights and 2.5 days of birding as we could not neglect our parenting duties for too long.

A bird guide and driver was arranged, a deposit paid, and we prepared ourselves for two days of birding, and one crazy-early morning train ride back to Guangzhou.

When I laid out the plans to Daniel in the first week of January he was still very keen. But, with some trepidation, he mentioned that there had been a recent outbreak of a virus in Wuhan.
Wuhan? Where is Wuhan? I thought.
I looked it up on Google and Google Maps.

I laughed. Wuhan is over 300 km away from Nanchang!! Miles away!

What the hell was wrong with Daniel? What is there to worry about! Pfffttt! A virus? C’mon man, I thought!

I spent the week building up to Chinese New Year doing some more research on the birds, and planning for the trip.

Then suddenly on Thursday 23rd January Wuhan was shut down. And the province of Hubei was shut down soon after.

The 23rd also happened to be the last day of work before the CNY holiday. There was a little warning at the bottom of our emails from HR on that Thursday. 

It read:
Warm tip: As the viral infection which started in Wuhan please take the health precautions we recommend you wearing a mask and washing your hand. Thanks!

Should I still be worried?

Daniel was. He had already asked for a refund on his train tickets before the Wuhan shut down. No way was he going. The risk was too high!

Despite signs that things were getting worse as infection rates started to sky-rocket, restaurants extended their CNY holidays; and friends looked at booking the next holiday out of China, I held on to the idea of going on the birding trip until the day before I was due to head out to Nanchang on the 29th January. 

I messaged the bird guide that I was supposed to meet, and his reply was clear:

And that was that. 

With the virus affecting >80,000 people in China, and the numbers of infections worldwide climbing over the 380,000 mark as I write this [update: over 700,000 as I publish this], my little birding trip is but one of the many millions of excursions, activities, celebrations, parties, get-togethers, graduations, reunions, holidays, flights, projects, business plans, gatherings, sports fixtures, events, conferences, and meet-ups that have had to be cancelled. An unprecedented time in our lives. I can only say that my family and I have been lucky so far not to have been directly affected by the virus. Fingers crossed and thoughts to the most vulnerable out there!

I will not forget this time, and the birding trip that never was!

*Note:
I am aware that the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society is very active. But that is in Hong Kong, not Guangdong. It requires a border crossing and customs clearance just to get there.

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