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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Sunday 18th March 2018

Luehdorfia at last!

Yesterday was one of those days that will stick in my mind for years to come. I had been put in touch with a team of volunteers who are working to raise awareness about a butterfly that I had longed to see ever since I lived in Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but which I had never managed to connect with all those years ago.

Although neither of the two Luehdorfia species that occur in Japan can be found here in China, a very similar and closely allied species can, the appropriately named Luehdorfia chinensis. These remarkable butterflies belong to the swallowtail family, but they are much daintier than the true swallowtails in the genus Papilio, and they only emerge in the early spring. Their habitat is open woodland, and I knew they must provide a striking sight in the leafless forests, with their bright yellow ground colour, boldly striped with black bars and enhanced by a row of scarlet and blue spots on the hindwings.

When I heard from one of my birdwatching friends about the team of volunteers who were working to protect these very special butterflies, and he offered to put me in touch with them, I jumped at the chance, and it was not long before I had received an invitation to join an excursion into the butterfly’s habitat with a bunch of children and their mothers, together with the volunteers, who gave what seemed to be an inspiring talk to the assembled group, and then handed them over to another team member.

The children certainly seemed to be interested in their introductory talk by Zhang Yanning

It was good to see so many interested people

Although the weather had been cold and overcast in the morning, the volunteers had already done one excursion in the morning. I met the team just as they were coming down the trail, and after our initial greetings, they told me that during a brief gleam of sunshine, they had just managed to see and photograph two Luehdorfias. We shot up the path, led by Cai Runzhi, the young son of one of the volunteers,Zhang Yanning, and almost at once we spotted one Luehdorfia sailing through the trees, and to my delight, it landed on the steep edge of the path. However, I was not to manage to get any shots, as by the time I had very precariously eased myself into position, and then struggled with the autofocus not focusing, the butterfly had gone!

Luehdorfia chinensis, by Zhang Yanning

A close-up of the Luehdorfia, photographed by Zhang Yanning just before I arrived

We went on to see another two individuals, neither of which settled, but in an open area at the end of the trail, I was treated to fine views of another new species for my life list, the dazzling Anthocharis bambusarum (which was named by my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s close friend René Oberthür in 1875). Similar to the familiar Orange-tip, Anthocharis cardamines, this one has entirely orange forewings, whereas the Orange-tip has only half the forewing orange. I absolutely reveled in the sight of the glowing orange on this gem of a butterfly.

Anthocharis bambusarum was a new species for me

The entirely orange forewing separates Anthocharis bambusarum from its more familiar relative, the Orange-tip, A. cardamines

Later we walked a short distance to another area where Luehdorfias occur, in a vain attempt to find more butterflies as well as the foodplant. It was a little eerie here as we were searching in an abandoned graveyard, and many of the graves had caved in, revealing deep pits and large earthenware urns in which the ashes of the deceased must have been interred.

An uncovered burial urn can be seen as we search for the foodplant

The team searching for the foodplant of the Luehdorfia

As we were unable to find anything much here, we returned to the original area, but the weather had turned cold again. However, we were informed by the leader of the children’s group that they had found a foodplant with 12 eggs on a leaf, so we were eager to see them, and after a little searching, he managed to relocate the plant.

On our way back to the earlier Luehdorfia site

The larval foodplant of the Luehdorfia is Wild Ginger, Asarum forbesii. This is perhaps its undoing: the plant is mercilessly harvested everywhere it is found by people who believe it has medicinal qualities….I wonder if there is any plant or creature that the Chinese do not exploit in the belief that it has medicinal value. Anyway, we did in fact find several of these inconspicuous plants, with their extraordinary stemless flowers hidden beneath the oval leaves, they themselves half-concealed by last year’s dry leaves.

The eggs of the Luehdorfia were concealed beneath a Wild Ginger leaf

Luehdorfia eggs are usually laid in batches

Luehdorfia chinensis foodplant, Asarum forbesii

The discreet flowers of Asarum forbesii are well concealed

And so ended a truly great day. I thank my new friends (especially to Hu Shuyi, to whom I extend my sincere thanks for inviting me and for looking after me so kindly, and to Zhang Yanning, for allowing me to use her wonderful Luehdorfia photographs). I wish them every success in their quest to protect that beautiful butterfly, Luehdorfia chinensis.

It was an honour for me to join the Luehdorfia protectors

Luehdorfia chinensis, by Zhang Yanning

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Friday 2nd February 2018

A quest in the mist

The weekend of 20th and 21st January involved an exciting trip north from Shanghai to look for Red-crowned Cranes, perhaps one of the most culturally significant birds in both China and Japan. The aim was to visit one of their principal wintering grounds near Yancheng, where between 600 and 1000 of these birds spend the colder months of the year. The total World population of this iconic species is estimated at just 2750 wild birds, so we were certainly keen to see them.

The weekend was organised by my friends at Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China, an organisation dedicated to saving that species, and was led by Zhang Lin, one of eastern China’s top birders, known by his followers as Master Zhang.

The group met on the Friday evening in Shanghai, and we then drove north to the small fishing port of Shuilonggang, where we checked into our slightly basic hotel for a short but surprisingly comfortable night followed by a delicious breakfast.

We then continued our journey northwards, eventually arriving at Xinyang, a small town near the renowned Yancheng Red-crowned Crane Reserve, and we checked our bags into our hotel for the coming night before heading out to start our search.

The group getting started on the Saturday morning

What we had not bargained for was thick fog. Cranes are not easy to see in fog, and neither are any birds! However, we did succeed in finding quite a number of interesting species even in spite of the adverse weather conditions, including large numbers of Common Cranes, Bean Geese, Pallas’ Reed Buntings and Chestnut-eared Buntings. But surely the best bird at our first stop was one that I had only seen once before, near Tianjin, and then only distantly, the extraordinary-looking and near threatened Reed Parrotbill.

Reed Parrotbill is a range-restricted eastern Chinese endemic species

With its strange, stubby bill, the Reed Parrotbill is an unusual-looking bird

This bird, which looks like a larger version of a Bearded Tit, but with a stubby, yellow bill, has a limited range in eastern China and is entirely restricted to reedbeds, a habitat type that is disappearing fast. It is very vocal, and has a wide variety of different calls, including a high-pitched piping trill. We were treated to outstanding views of these agile, long-tailed birds, and we were able to see why Parrotbills have such a powerful bill: they use it to tear into the reed stems, and they then eat the pithy interior. I had expected them to eat the reed seeds, but clearly they love the inside of the reed stalks.

Reed Parrotbills use their strong bills to rip into the reed stems

We spent most of the rest of the day cruising along tree-lined bunds between fields, and we scoured as much of the area as we possibly could, finding about four Hooded Cranes among their commoner cousins, but the magnificent white, majestic figure of the Red-crowned Crane was nowhere to be found. Other highlights included Naumann’s Thrush, Spoonbills and a few Oriental White Storks, which are almost as splendid and almost as rare as the mythical cranes.

Common Cranes were much in evidence

Naumann’s Thrush was a bird I had only encountered once before, In Japan

A large flock of Spoonbills could just be made out through the murk

We finally retired to our hotel for a dinner and an early night. I was unable to understand the Chinese instructions on the air conditioning remote control and must have pushed a button that blocked the heating off completely, so I had a freezing night!

Sunday dawned even foggier, but we were out early and the quest for the Red-crowned Cranes continued, with even less visibility. In spite of this, we had more close encounters with the Reed Parrotbills, which again were ripping the reed stems to get at the pithy interior.

It was chilly in the fog on the Sunday morning

Visibility was worse than the previous day

A Reed Parrotbill posing through the mist

The Reed Parrotbill was ripping its way into the reed stem

We could hear Common Cranes calling as they passed over us in the fog, and then a much deeper bugling alerted us to the fact that our quarry was there, just above us, but invisible in the fog. This happened on three occasions, and suddenly all members of the group except me had seen four Red-crowned Cranes through a slightly clearer patch of mist, but try as I might, I just could not see them. I was mortified!

Searching for cranes in fog is a discouraging activity

A Chestnut-eared Bunting showed through the fog

We continued our search throughout the morning, but to no avail. Our guide Zhang Lin suggested that we visit the main official tourist park, where at least we would see captive Red-crowned Cranes, so we drove to the main entrance and walked into the park. The main building features a tower themed on a crane’s head.

The Red-crowned Crane reserve at Yancheng

The main tower is shaped like a crane’s head

Beyond this is a large area of pools and reedbeds, but there was no sign of any crane activity at all. We then started walking along a long straight roadway, and we were treated to the rare sight of no fewer than twelve Oriental White Storks circling high overhead.

Oriental Storks are almost as rare as Red-crowned Cranes

And then, just as we were thinking of giving up, two magnificent, elegantly gliding white birds appeared low in the sky far ahead of us, and a quick look through the binoculars revealed them to be Red-crowned Cranes, with their black secondaries and necks contrasting with their pure white plumage. The mist had by this time cleared, and the sun illuminated these splendid birds beautifully.

Distant though they were, there was no mistaking this pair of Red-crowned Cranes; our objective at last

We then went on to see another three, this time on the ground against a reedbed on the far side of a large pool. Unusually, all three members of this family appeared to be adult birds. So finally, after so much effort, our quest was fulfilled and we had seen the Red-crowned Cranes, the birds we had so ardently pursued.

Three distant Red-crowned Cranes, apparently in a family party, yet all three adult birds

Just before departing, I briefly inspected the area in which the captive birds were kept. I was rather dismayed to find a strange semi-circular structure divided into small pens, in each of which was a captive Red-crowned Crane, each bird with hardly room to move. In one pen, there was a lone African Wattled Crane. What it was doing there I have no idea. Apparently these birds are let out in front of an audience to dance for the tourists. What an undignified destiny for the bird that symbolizes dignity.

Is it really necessary to keep Red-crowned Cranes like this?

And so this highly enjoyable trip came to an end. My thanks go to the entire group, especially Zhang Lin, the master birder, Lisa, his co-driver and the powerhouse of Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China, and to my dear friend Ziyou, who alerted me to these weekend birding trips and whose impressive winter hat makes a fine spectacle!

The team with Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China banner

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