Friday 30th November 2018

In the footsteps of J J Walker at Hangzhou and Haining

Passing out of the gate, an exceedingly beautiful scene burst upon our view: in front of us lay the Si-hu or Western Lake, a fine sheet of water three miles by two in extent, almost surrounded by high rugged hills of volcanic character, well wooded in most parts, on one of which to our right, we could see the sanatorium, and, somewhat nearer at hand, a fine pagoda (the “Pas-shuh-ta”), built on a remarkably small base; another pagoda of larger size and more massive construction stood on the lower slopes of the hills on the opposite side of the lake to us. Many fishing and pleasure boats were passing over the smooth water, which appeared to be very shallow; it is crossed by two causeways, one of which joins the large wooded island of Wan-lau-ko to the shore; several smaller islands, all prettily wooded, were scattered about the lake, adding greatly to the beauty of the view. We proceeded towards the large island along the causeway, which was well paved in the middle with stone, a row of well-grown willows on either side, and about 30 feet in width. A very pretty “tea-house”, sat the end of the causeway, furnished a subject for photographers, and we continued along the lake shore, passing several fine temples and elaborately carved memorial gateways.

“Many fishing and pleasure boats were passing over the smooth water” of Hangzhou’s beautiful Shi Hu

“An exceedingly beautiful scene burst upon our view” – the West Lake at Hangzhou

One of the two pagodas mentioned by JJW stands proudly, commanding one of the northern hills

Another pagoda of larger size and more massive construction stood on the lower slopes of the hills on the opposite side of the lake to us

The above description is taken from the entry for 4th October, 1893, in the journal of J J Walker, brother-in-law of my great grandfather, G C Champion. “Uncle Jim”, as Walker was later known to the family, was serving as Staff Engineer on HM Surveying Ship “Penguin”, which had just completed taking the soundings around the nearby Chusan (now Zhoushan) archipelago, off the eastern China coast near Ningbo. J J Walker then embarked on a river and canal journey from Shanghai, together with his commanding officer, Captain W U Moore and a British photographer resident in Shanghai, a Mr B Q Cooper, first to Hang-chau (now Hangzhou) and then to Hai-ning to observe the extraordinary tidal bore that sweeps up the Qiantang river (then known as the Tsien-tang Kiang) at certain stages of the moon’s cycle.

Last weekend, 24th and 25th November, 2018, I embarked on a journey with two friends to visit these locations for myself, using JJW’s writings as my guide, 125 years after his visit. As we approached the famed West Lake in Hangzhou, but as yet unable to see it as it is bounded by a thick belt of trees, we read the above description, and then walked towards the lake. Exactly as Walker describes, “an exceedingly beautiful scene burst upon our view”; the pleasure boats were there, as were the two pagodas he mentions, and we felt as if we had been transported back in time and were with Walker as we proceeded to retrace his footsteps around the beautiful West Lake, passing under many of the ancient trees that JJW had passed under 125 years before.

This venerable tree may have witnessed JJW sipping tea in this tea-room

J J Walker passed by these ancient trees in 1893

By now the larger pagoda was illuminated in the gloaming

Hangzhou’s West Lake is renowned for its sunsets

Two boats head home in the evening light

A panoramic map of the West Lake at Hangzhou

On the Sunday morning, we set off by car (unlike JJW and his team, who travelled by canal-boat) to the Haining Tidal Wave Observation Park, on the northern bank of the estuary of the Qiantang river. It was here that Captain Moore, J J Walker and the photographer Mr Cooper spent several days in October 1893, observing both the day and night bores that can best be seen here, although in fact they can even be seen as far inland as Hangzhou and sometimes even beyond. If only I could locate the photographs taken by Mr B Q Cooper; perhaps they still exist in an archive somewhere.

Despite extensive research on the Internet, I had found it almost impossible to obtain accurate information as to precisely on which days and at what times this remarkable tidal phenomenon could be expected, so our arrival on this day was something of a gamble, and as there appeared to be virtually no other people entering the riverside park, it seemed that the prospects for seeing anything spectacular were poor.

The tidal wave viewing park was tranquil in the morning gloom

The weather improved until we could sit in the sunshine close to the pagoda that JJW had viewed from

One advantage of the apparently low probability of seeing the bore that morning was the tranquility that we were able to enjoy. After a grey start, the weather was idyllic, a warm sun allowing us to sit peacefully basking near the pagoda from which J J Walker had observed the tidal bore all those years before. Although it was late November, I was able to enjoy perhaps my last observations of two species of butterfly mentioned by Walker in his journal, the Eastern Pale Clouded Yellow (Colias poliographus) and the Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus).

Both J J Walker and I observed the Eastern Pale Clouded Yellow while waiting for the tidal bore

Offshore the fast-flowing current of the Qiantang river was producing a variety of unusual wave effects, including several equally spaced waves in long lines, some of which eventually broke, producing a low roaring sound that waxed and waned according to the size of the waves.

Some of the wave movements were unusual and fascinating

We savoured these sights and basked in perhaps our last moments of warm sunshine in 2018, in my case dreaming of the scenes that J J Walker had witnessed in precisely this spot 125 years earlier, but it appeared less and less likely that we would be treated to the sight of the Bore itself, so eventually we made our way towards the exit of the park at about midday.

As we approached the entrance/exit gates, the man who had checked our tickets earlier made clear signs at us to stop, crossing his arms in front of his chest and pointing towards an illuminated neon sign on the wall, on which the time 13:10 had appeared. So there was going to be a wave that day after all. If he had not indicated this sign to us, we would never have known.

We went out for a quick bite to eat, and returned to the riverside park at around 12:50. By this time the weather had changed, and the first drops of light rain were starting to fall, but this had not deterred the considerable numbers of bore-viewers who had by now assembled on the sea-wall, and already the distant roar of the wave could be heard, even though it was still 20 minutes away.

Numbers of people had gathered to await the arrival of the Bore

As the appointed time approached, the volume increased, until at about 13:05 I had my first sight of the wave through my binoculars, just as JJW had through his telescope 125 years earlier. The wave advanced with considerable speed, until it swept past us, followed by turbulent, turbid water filled with churned up sand and mud.

The impressive wall of the Bore as it approached. Photograph by Uwe Brunn

The Bore approached at 13:09

The Bore as it passed us at 13.10

Behind the Bore the waters were filled with churned up sand

Although this bore was not the largest of this month, which in turn was not the largest of the year (that occurs in early October), and it was considerably smaller than the ones observed by JJW, I leave you with his description of this remarkable tidal phenomenon:

I got up into my station in the upper gallery of the Pagoda, with some little difficulty, as the entire building was crammed with people: the ‘lowdah’ of the boat and one of the men went up with me, and kept a little space at the corner of the gallery clear, so that I could use the telescope with freedom.

J J Walker observed the tidal bore from the top storey of this fine pagoda

At 12.34, the thunder of the Bore first became audible above the buzz of the multitude, and at the time of the junction of the two streams (12.44) it presented a most magnificent spectacle. A series of tremendous undulations were propagated rapidly outwards from the sea-wall as the breaker first met it, the crests being not less than eight feet in height, giving to the front of the Bore a beautifully crisped or curled appearance, while just behind the breaker, the tumult of waters was simply indescribable. No boat ever built could have lived in this turmoil for a moment, and the height of the advancing wave, added to the great speed with which it travels, would seriously endanger a vessel of the largest size; a small ship, say up to 1000 tons, would probably be over-ridden and swamped before it could rise to the breaker. As the great wall of water advanced, the crowd was exceedingly quiet; the two branches were rather later in coalescing, and I thought, at one time, that the rare phenomenon of a “double Bore” would be witnessed; they were, however, completely united at the eastern buttress, and the breaker passed my position at 12.55. It was at least 8 feet high at the embankment, and travelling with a speed of over 13 knots per hour. A subsidiary breaker four or five feet high, some 50 yards behind the front of the Bore, and 200 to 300 yards from the sea-wall, was very conspicuous, and had not been observed before. The after-rush was very violent, and the water, densely charged with the dark sand of the river-bed, had risen 16 feet by 1.16. As soon as the breaker had passed, the great crowd began quietly to disperse, and in half an hour, the sea-wall had resumed its normal aspect.

A page in JJW’s journal detailing his observations of the Bore, with a photograph by B Q Cooper

An image of the tidal bore shows its grandeur

Watching the Bore has been popular for centuries

An aerial view of the Haining Bore provides an idea of the grandeur of this remarkable tidal wave

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Monday 6th August 2018

Butterflies in Avatar

My website has been very silent recently, mainly because much of my free time has been spent typing up the journal entries of J J Walker, my great grandfather’s brother-in-law, from his journey on board HMS Kingfisher through French Polynesia in 1883 (more about that in a forthcoming post). However, I cannot resist recounting the story of my encounter with one of my dream butterflies, which finally took place on 8th July this year, on the famous “Glass Bridge” at Zhangjiajie, in Hunan Province, China.

The butterfly concerned is actually not rare, but I had missed seeing it when I lived in Japan, and I had dreamed of finally coming into contact with it ever since. It is the Giant Purple Emperor, Sasakia charonda, known in Japanese as Oo-murasaki, or “Big Purple”.

Sasakia charonda appears at the bottom of this page from The Macrolepidoptera of the World, by Prof Adalbert Seitz, published in 1912. Chitoria pallas appears top right.

This summer, in early July, I joined a non-birdwatching and non-butterfly-watching tour group with a Shanghai-based company called M2 Adventure to hike through the spectacular limestone mountains at Zhangjiajie, familiar to anyone who has watched the film “Avatar” (which I have not!).

Our hike into these extraordinary mountains began here

Our route took us along this valley

And then up endless flights of steps

When we reached the top, we were treated to spectacular views such as this

The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful

Here an extraordinary natural bridge spans a gap between two pinnacles

A small area of rice cultivation on a high terrace. The lift that takes non-hiking tourists up the mountains can be seen in the background

The M2 Adventure team with the spectacular landscape behind

This area, in Hunan Province, in south-central China, is famed for the extraordinary limestone pinnacles that dominate the landscape, and we hiked up on the first day, stayed overnight in a local village inn, and then visited the extraordinary “glass bridge” on the Sunday afternoon before hiking back down again.

The “Glass Bridge” stretches across a deep canyon

This bridge opened in 2016 and stretches 430 metres across a canyon 300 metres deep. There are all sorts of warnings saying that people with high blood pressure, heart conditions or other medical conditions should not cross, and no luggage may be taken, including any cameras other than mobile phones. In fact, although there are glass panels in the floor of the bridge, it is very far from being a glass bridge; in fact it is a metal suspension bridge, but with glass panels set into the floor. Tourists have to cover their shoes with cloth bags to protect the glass, but even so, it is already scratched, and of course it reflects the sky, so I at least did not find it frightening looking down through the panels, although there were some people who were clearly affected by the height.

Here the glass panels can be seen

Nobody in our team seemed to be affected by the height

Self admiring the spectacular view from the bridge

When I was about a quarter of the way across, suddenly I saw an enormous butterfly gliding past me at about waist-height; I immediately recognized as the prized Giant Purple Emperor, Sasakia charonda, which I had for so long waited to see.

The Giant Purple Emperor landed on the bridge, but would it fly off before I could photograph its upper side?

I crept round until I could photograph it over the parapet, and it had closed its wings

I thought I would only see it briefly, as it sailed over the parapet of the bridge, but then it came back, and to my utter delight, it settled on the protective fence, and I was able to admire it at leisure, and to take several photographs of this splendid creature, both with its wings open and with them closed. The only disappointment is that in none of the shots can one see the extraordinarily beautiful purple sheen, which only appears in certain lights. Finally, it sailed off, and then powered its way along the bridge towards the other side of the gorge.

But then it opened its wings again, revealing the beautiful upper side

Sasakia charonda, the long-awaited Giant Purple Emperor

A short distance further on, I spotted another interesting butterfly perched under the glass, and I managed to get a shot of this through the panel. I later identified this as another relative of the Purple Emperor, Chitoria pallas. Named after the Prussian naturalist Peter Simon Pallas (1741 – 1811), this species appears to be little known, and it does not feature in much literature or on many websites, so I felt privileged to see it, albeit through glass.

Chitoria pallas, another relative of the Purple Emperor, perched exhausted beneath the glass

Full of excitement at these two great finds, as I approached the far side of the bridge, I noticed more and more butterflies under the glass, some beating their wings desperately against the panels, and others sitting exhausted on the metal surrounds. Yet more were already lying dead on the flat metal bars a little further below. It became clear to me that this wonderful bridge, beautiful as it is, was proving lethal to large numbers of butterflies, which fly in underneath, and then get trapped. It is not that they could not escape, because in fact they could, but they do not know to fly downwards, away from the light. Consequently they beat themselves to death under the bridge.

Another Sasakia charonda stuck under a glass panel on the Zhangjiajie glass bridge

A sad unintended negative consequence of the construction of what is otherwise a beautiful and attractive structure. Luckily, this part of China is very well forested, so the number of butterflies affected in this way is probably insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Bunjee-jumping takes place from the Zhangjiajie bridge, people launching themselves from the two sections beneath the main span

Again, photographs do not convey the splendour of the scenery here

From the bottom, a short tourist train journey took us on down the valley

The final part of the journey takes place by boat

Zhangjiajie, a must-see location in China

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Friday 13th April 2018

Spring butterflies in the bamboo

Ever since my profound experience of searching for the Satyrid butterfly Drucina championi in Guatemala in 2011, which is entirely dependent on bamboo, I have felt a special affinity with the butterflies of this habitat.

Last weekend I joined a group of hikers who go out of Suzhou every weekend to hike in forested areas away from the city. Their destination this time was an area of forested hills far to the west of Suzhou, on the other side of the huge Taihu Lake, an area of that specializes in the production of bamboo shoots for consumption in restaurants. When we emerged from the bus after the nearly 2-hour journey, I spotted numerous racks of whitish somethings drying in the sun.

At first I was not sure what these white things drying in the sun were

At first I thought they might be some kind of fish, or even animal bones of some sort, but eventually it became clear that they were in fact pieces of bamboo shoot, cut up and laid out to become desiccated. When they are finally cooked, they need to be rehydrated, and then they return to their original shape and consistency.

I thought they might be fish or some kind of animal bones, but they were cut up bamboo shoots

The whole village apparently survives from this industry, and as we walked up the long street, on either side there were more and more racks, almost all of this bamboo, but with the occasional basket of tea leaves as well.

The hills above were covered with bamboo groves, and once we reached the car park at the road end, we climbed steeply up into these forests, stopping to catch our breath and to have a snack about halfway up. Eventually we reached a viewpoint on the ridge, and were treated to a fine view of the forested hills beyond.

The group setting off into the bamboo forest

The hills beyond were covered with beautiful forest

From here our route took us downhill, again through further groves of bamboo, and eventually we stopped by a riverbed, where our guide got out a camping gas stove and started to heat up some soup with sticky rice sticks in it, a welcome repast after the rigours of the morning’s hike.

Myself on the border between Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces

I took advantage of the break to check out some Spring butterflies that were flying around, and managed to photograph the beautiful Chinese Orange-tip, Anthocharis bambusarum (which despite its specific name, is not especially associated with bamboo) and a Short-tailed Blue, Everes argiades.

Unlike our familiar Orange-tip, Anthocharis bambusarum has the entire forewing orange

The Short-tailed Blue, Everes argiades, was a pleasant sight in the Spring sunshine

After lunch, we continued on our way, passing through a village that was full of quite attractive new hotels, and eventually we reached a dam, where various group photos were taken.

The lake we passed on our hike

A group photo on the dam

If we had thought that the morning walk was strenuous, what then followed made it seem like a walk in the park. Our guide led us up into the forest, and we climbed ever higher up an almost vertical slope, heaving ourselves up on trees and bamboo stems.

After a long time, our guide suddenly informed us that he was lost, and that we would have to go all the way back down again. Some members of the group were inexperienced walkers, and were clearly suffering somewhat. Still, it had to be done, and eventually we found the correct path, which then led us up again through some tea plantations and into the forest, which was adorned with colourful flowering Azaleas (as well as numerous discarded plastic bottles – littering is as much of a problem here as anywhere else).

The group toiling up through the tea plantations

Plastic litter is as much of a problem here as elsewhere

We finally reached the bus two hours after scheduled, and then found that the highway back to Suzhou was blocked, and it was not until 22.30 that we were finally dropped off … and no taxi was available. I had visions of a very long walk home indeed, but eventually, after at least 40 minutes of waiting, I managed to find one and arrived home exhausted!

The following day, Sunday, I set off on my own by subway to Mudu station, in the west of Suzhou, and then walked to one of my old haunts from last Autumn, Linyang Mountain. Here I almost immediately got into butterfly mode, starting off with several beautiful examples of another species of Orange-tip, Anthocharis scolymus.

The hooked wingtip of Anthocharis scolymus is very distinctive

I was familiar with this dainty butterfly from my time in Japan, and I was able to get very close to several individuals as they were nectaring and egg-laying on the cruciferous plants by the path.

I was delighted to reacquaint myself with Anthocharis scolymus

I also spotted my first Indian Fritillary, Argyreus hyperbius, of the year, as well as several newly-emerged Small Coppers, Lycaena phleas. Several Eastern Pale Clouded Yellows, Colias erate, were flying around here too, but none sat for long enough for me to photograph them.

The Small Copper, Lycaena phleas, is always a delight to see

The first Indian Fritillary, Argyreus hyperbius, of the year

From here I skirted the edge of the forested hill, and reached a Buddhist temple, from where I headed a short way along a track into the forest. Along here I was treated to some fine viewings of the beautiful Common Bluebottle, Graphium sarpedon, and a Blue Admiral, Kaniska canace, as well as a few Common Grass Yellows, Eurema hecabe. The trash dumped here had to be seen to be believed, which I found distressing.

The Common Bluebottle, Graphium sarpedon, is normally hard to photograph

The Blue Admiral, Kaniska canace, is closely related to our familiar Peacocks, Red Admirals and Tortoiseshells

A Common Grass Yellow, Eurema hecabe, camouflaged among the leaves

A beautifully located building on the way to Tianping Mountain

The temple here is beautifully situated

Dumping of rubbish is a major issue here

I then continued along the roadway, and eventually arrived at the entrance gate of Tianping Mountain, where an entrance fee had to be paid. It was well worth the money though, as it turned out to be easily the most attractive spot I have found in Suzhou so far, and the trees were looking pristine in their new Spring foliage.

The gate to Tianping Park is attractive in itself

Tianping Mountain with Spring foliage

Another pond near Tianping Mountain

After an initial look around the ponds and pavilions close to the entrance, I started to climb, without really intending to aim for the top of the mountain. However, I wandered on upwards, and eventually reached the ridge, from where I could see the temple that sits just below the summit.

A closer view of the temple

As well as being an attractive spot in itself, the views from here over the sprawling urban mass of Suzhou were impressive to see, and I lingered a while here, taking in the vistas in different directions.

Suzhou sprawls away into the distance below Tianping Mountain

Another part of Suzhou seen from Tianping Mountain

I finally made a push for the top, which I reached after a sharp pull up a well-trodden track. Quite a number of people had made the climb, and even a couple of ladies selling drinks were there in their kiosk. What interested me was a Japanese Swallowtail, Papilio xuthus, that was indulging in “hill-topping”, a habit of several butterflies, particularly members of the swallowtail family. The butterfly was patrolling its territory at considerable speed, and did not sit down to be photographed at all. Also here was another attractive, but much smaller, butterfly, Rapala micans, a member of the hairstreak group.

Rapala micans on Tianping Mountain

I then began my descent, pausing on the way to photograph anything interesting that I could find, including a cooperative Common Sailer, Neptis sappho, that posed on the ground.

The Common Sailer, Neptis sappho

Lower down, I was finally able to obtain a few shots of one individual of the large, dark swallowtail butterflies that I had seen quite a number of through the day, but which never settled. This one was nectaring in a garden area, and I was able to see that it was Papilio bianor, a butterfly that I had seen frequently in Japan when I lived there.

Papilio bianor rarely poses to be photographed

I finally retraced my steps past the beautiful ponds, where I witnessed a man with a child feeding fish from a plastic bag, and then throwing the plastic bag into the water when it was empty. I despair of humanity sometimes.

And so ended a thoroughly enjoyable, butterfly-filled weekend. I hope it will be the first of many in 2018.

Tianping Mountain in the late afternoon light

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