In Memory of Karen Phillipps

By John MacKinnon.

Chinese birdwatchers will be saddened to learn of the death of bird artist Karen Phillipps. As co-author and chief artist of ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of China’ – the most widely used identification guide in China – there can be few Chinese birders who were not drawn to the beauty of birds through her work.

Karen died in London on February 6th after a long battle against cancer. But Karen was born in Sabah, Borneo and it is perhaps her books on the birds and mammals of Borneo for which she is most intimately recognised.  The ‘Phillipps Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo’, written with her brother Quentin has just moved into its 4th edition and includes some of Karen’s last paintings.

Having worked with Karen on two bird guides, I have many happy memories of her poring through dusty skins in Bogor Museum or sitting beside the mist nets of Hong Kong bird ringers, painting away with a bird in one hand, notebook and watercolour box on knee and brush in the other hand. She could capture a bird’s jizz in a couple of minutes before the anxious ringers needed to release their birds! She was also witness to my wedding to the field guide translator Lu Hefen (see title photo). Karen was so full of life, a kind, generous and cheerful personality.  She will be dearly missed in several countries but the legacy of the illustrations she completed will live on for many years.

John MacKinnon, co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China.

John is in touch with Karen’s family.  If you feel moved to leave a comment about how the book inspired you to be interested in birds, please leave a comment here or send to me on WeChat (“birdingbeijing”) and we will ensure they are passed on.  John feels that Karen’s family is not fully aware of how influential “A Field Guide to the Birds of China” was, and is, to igniting the birding scene in China and it may be comforting to hear just how much her work has been valued.  Thank you.

Title image: Karen Phillipps at the wedding of John MacKinnon and Lu Hefen.

34 thoughts on “In Memory of Karen Phillipps”

    1. I’ve been through a hard time because of health issue. I just found it is super relaxing to watch birds.

      One Saturday in July this year, I walked to one little suburb zoo near my home. And there I met the moorhen’s family. Of cause I didn’t know its name at that time. Luckily, I saw the little ones walked through the lotus leaves. The wobbly jubbly steps melt my heart.

      After that, I just can’t forget the happiness moment. I began to search birding online. One month later, I ordered the book, the famous recommended one, *A Field Guide to the Birds of China*. It is so beautiful and I finally know the bird family is common moorhen and find the sequences number 323 is my birthday number. I felt a link between the bird and me.

      It is so sad that I found this page. I will remember Karen and her gorgeous work. Hope there were no more illness and epidemics on earth and every natural lovers find peace in mind.

      1. Thank you so much for this comment. You have conveyed beautifully just what birds mean to people. I am sure Karen would be inspired to hear your story. Thank you for sharing. Terry

  1. Thank you for this lovely piece in memory of my aunt. She was a very special person who will be deeply missed. I am so glad to know that her legacy will live on through her work.

    1. Thank you, Serena. I posted this tribute on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, and within minutes I have received lots of comments from Chinese birdwatchers expressing sadness and saying how much Karen’s work inspired them to take an interest in nature. By one estimate, there are now 2 million birdwatchers in China and you can be sure that, as the first Chinese language field guide to the birds of China, all will have used Karen’s book to help them get started. There can be no better legacy than that!

  2. Very saddened about this. All the best and lots of strength to her family. I got in touch with her artwork in Borneo by using ” A field guide to the mammals of Borneo”.
    With deep condolences from Switzerland

  3. I’m so deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Karen Phillips. Her talent and skill as
    an illustrator have helped so many people learn about the unique and amazingly diverse avifauna of China. As a Chinese young birder and naturalist, I’ve been greatly inspired by the works of Karen. Her illustrations are certainly a great part of why I’m trying to draw and paint birds in my field journals and I’ve definitely improved my observation skills through studying the detailed paintings in “A Field Guide to the Birds of China”. Karen’s illustrations have been and will forever be an inspiration to me and many others. May she rest in peace.🙏🙏🙏

  4. I’ll just say what I’m sure so many feel: “A Field Guide to the Birds of China” was very important in starting my bird-watching in China – it was such a very foundational and important work! In the early years (before a lot of internet) it was vital to me and many others in learning about hundreds of birds we had never seen. Since it was the first work of its kind for China, it was extremely valuable. Karen’s work has surely influenced tens of thousands of people and helped to create the swelling interest in birds in a growing segment of Chinese society.

  5. Sorry to hear this, and thanks for the tribute. Karen’s illustrations for the ‘Birds of Hong Kong’ by Viney and Phillipps inspired many of us in Hong Kong too.

  6. I am sad to hear that Karen has passed away. My condolences to all of her family and friends. I had the pleasure of working directly with Karen in the 1980s in Malaysia where she made a beautiful poster for raising awareness on mangrove areas and the magnificent wildlife that inhibit such nature areas. I showed her around some of the mangrove beaches in Peninsular Malaysia. She was a lovely friend.We lost contact after a while, unfortunately, but I was happy to see some of the great and important fieldguides she helped to produce with her fantastic drawings and paintings.

  7. In deep memories of Lady Karen Phillips! My first birdwatching field guide was Birds of Hong Kong and South China when we were trained as WWF-HK wetland interpreter in Mai Po Nature Reserve of Hong Kong as early as in 1997. We heavily relying on this book during all educational activities on birds. And later I also keep a copy of the field guides to Birds of Borneo and Mammals of Borneo since I started Borneo study trips in 2012.
    Karen’s works on wildlife illustration were so important and influential. She will be remembered forever!

  8. Echoing the comments above, I became a birder in China and the field guide she illustrated was THE book that hooked me into this inspiring hobby. I’ve also used the guide she illustrated while in Borneo. A big loss for the birding community in Asia for sure.

  9. I never had the pleasure of meeting Karen, but I have been a silent admirer of her, and John MacKinnon, ever since 1993, when I bought the newly-released Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali (Oxford Press), the first ever bird guide to the whole of the Greater Sundas. Prior to that I cherished my Birds of Java and Bali, written by John. Now all of Karen’s guides adorn my bookshelves. I did meet Quentin once at a conference in Sulawesi, and to him, I send my sincerest sympathies. Karen will be missed by a great many birders, all over the world.

    Richard Noske

  10. I am sure that for many Karen’s name will not have instantly triggered recognition. However I’ve just discovered that she was the illustrator of both my main guidebook for China (Birds of China) and that I used on my numerous trips to Sabah (Birds of Borneo). Both being invaluable for my many years birding in China and on my Bornean trips. A very fine legacy indeed. RIP Karen.

  11. I first met Karen here in HK in the late 1980s. She was a really, really lovely lady – kind of ‘off-the-scale’, in fact – and produced all the plates in each of the successive editions of Viney et al’s HK guide. There are so many early HK birding memories associated with those plates. Oh dear, it is so sad to hear of her passing.

  12. Thank you Karen, a wonderful legacy and I have books to cherish and reasons to return to Sabah. My parents, Roland and Maggie Smith, started me on birdwatching in Sabah – they bought Karen’s books later.

  13. Finally, yes finally, to come to know Karen, the illustrator and author of my very first book on birding, The Birds of HK and Southern China (Chinese version) back in 2008.
    Even today, the book is still, and shall be in the future, the mostly used field guide to be unloaded off the rucksack in the birding field. Karen’s authoritative renditions of the species characteristics shall last on.
    Birders like I shall miss Karen.

  14. I knew Karen years ago, when she lived on same island as me, Cheung Chau in Hong Kong.
    A lovely lady.

    She illustrated the Birds of Hong Kong field guide; later Birds of Hong Kong and South China – still the best guide for Hong Kong; my copy much battered after so much use!

    I did hear – via senior chap in WWF China at the time – of the China guide she and John produced being instrumental in spurring birdwatching – and bird photography across China. This had seemed unimaginable just a few years before.
    What an achievement!

    RIP, Karen. RIP.

  15. I’ve met Karen when I was working for Dr John MacKinnon at WWF HK back in the early 90s. Her illustrations are amazingly beautiful indeed. I’d like to get in touch with John but have lost his contact. Would it be possible for Terry or someone else to pass on my email to John? Many thanks.

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