Wednesday 29th November 2017

Into the frozen North

Last weekend was one of the highlights of my time in China to date. Friday afternoon saw me hurrying to Shanghai to meet a group of birdwatchers and to catch the bullet train for a 1000km journey north to Tianjin, a vast metropolis with 15.5 million inhabitants and apparently the sixth largest city on Earth. The journey took just 3 hours and 20 minutes, indicating that our average speed was well over 300kph.

The most noticeable difference was immediately apparent when we stepped out of the train: a dramatically lower temperature. Luckily we were able to find a taxi fairly quickly, and we were soon in the warmth of our hotel, where we spent the night before a really great day of birding.

We piled into our minibus in the morning, and headed out through the seemingly endless industrial outskirts of Tianjin, aiming for the renowned site of Beidagang, a reservoir to the south-east of the city with large areas of reed and a convenient causeway across the middle that facilitates watching on both sides.

An icy temperature greeted us when we stepped out of the vehicle, but once the sun started exerting its influence, the bright weather and large numbers of birds combined to lift our spirits. The Chinese members of the group (all but two) were excited by a group of Mute Swans, and a huge flock of Avocets attracted our attention in the far distance, along with large numbers of Goosanders and other ducks far away across the lake.

A huge flock of Avocets flies over the Beidagang lake, with Mute Swans in the foreground

Industry rarely seems to be out of sight while birdwatching in China

My attention was quickly drawn to a by now familiar call on the other side of the causeway, in the reeds. I immediately recognized this as perhaps the bird I most wanted to see here in eastern China, the enigmatic and endangered Reed Parrotbill. I had missed it on my two visits to Nanhui, a well-known site near Shanghai, and I was determined to see it this time. Searching for reed-loving birds can often be frustrating, but it was not long before a long-tailed bird with whirring wings flew across and landed in full view near the top of some reeds, and there was my first “lifer” of the weekend. We later went on to see at least twenty of these unusual-looking birds, with their stumpy yellowish bill, grey head with a bold, curving black eyestripe and long, graduated tail. This species is endangered due to the ongoing destruction of reedbeds, and I was delighted to acquaint myself with this very special bird.

Reed Parrotbill was a bird I had long hoped to see

The causeway provided excellent views over the lake on one side and reeds on the other

We then reached the far end of the lake, and headed on up a parallel road. A look away over the reeds revealed some very large but very distant white birds, and a telescope examination confirmed my second “lifer” of the trip, another endangered species and one that I had long dreamt of seeing, the stately Oriental White Stork. We finally managed to see up to 100 of these magnificent birds, a very significant proportion of the entire World population of perhaps 3000 birds. Larger than the European White Stork, and with a black rather than a red bill, and a piercing white eye, this bird is still on the decline. It breeds in north-eastern China and adjoining parts of Russia. It is apparently still illegally hunted, as well as suffering from the destruction of its nesting trees, collisions with power cables (one bird we saw had one of its legs dangling uselessly beneath it as it flew past), and poisoning. Apparently over thirty of these storks were found poisoned here in 2012, victims of the extraordinary method of poaching of ducks and geese that occurs frequently in China; surely eating birds that have been poisoned can hardly be a healthy option for humans, yet still it goes on.

The large white birds in the distance turned out to be Oriental Storks

The Oriental Stork is larger than its much commoner European cousin

The black flight feathers of the Oriental Stork show a whitish area on the upper side

A group of Eurasian Spoonbills, with a flock of Bean Geese beyond

While watching these storks, along with large numbers of Bean Geese, my third “lifer” of the day appeared, perched on top of a signpost: a Chinese Grey Shrike. Larger and with more extensive white on the wing than the similar Great Grey Shrike, this bird was distant but clearly identifiable, and I savoured my view of this attractive species.

A distant Chinese Grey Shrike posed on a signpost

A stately group of Great White Egrets and a Grey Heron provided a beautiful composition

After a photo stop with one of the staff members of this reservoir reserve, we headed off towards the coast of the Bohai Gulf, and we stopped at a scruffy area near the seawall. Unfortunately, the tide was way out, and other than a few Eurasian Curlews it seemed at first that we were not destined to see much here, but soon a small gull flew along, looking similar to the familiar Black-headed Gull, but smaller, and with a shorter, more stubby black bill, another vulnerable species, the Saunders’s Gull.

I was already familiar with this attractive little gull, which I used to see in small numbers in Japan, but here we were treated to views of perhaps twenty individuals, a privilege considering that the total population of this bird probably does not exceed 15,000 to 20,000 individuals.

More exciting still was a line of more distant gulls, the species that we had really come here to see, the Relict Gull. This species breeds around high-altitude salt lakes in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and adjacent parts of China and Russia, with an estimated population of around 10,000 birds. Until recently, it was not really known where the majority of these birds spend the winter. I saw it in Korea in the winter of 1990, at a most beautifully peaceful site at the mouth of the Naktong River, near Pusan; that place is now totally destroyed and converted into a huge container port. Now, however, it has been revealed that up to 7,000 of these delightful birds winter on the mudflats of the Haibin coast.

Relict Gulls can be recognised by the white eyelids that make their eyes look half closed, and the feathers that come a long way down their bills

From here, we headed along the heavily developed coast on a major road, and at one point I was very surprised to find myself looking at the former Soviet aircraft carrier Kiev, which was bought by a Chinese company after the collapse of the Soviet Union and is now the centrepiece of the Tianjin Aircraft Carrier World theme park.

The ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Kiev. Photo courtesy Binhai Aircraft Carrier Themepark

We finally checked another series of coastal pools, where we enjoyed a spectacular sunset and large numbers of Common Shelducks, before driving 120kms or so northwards to our hotel for the Saturday night, in Tangshan.

Even industrial landscapes can have a surprising beauty

Shelducks were numerous here

Evening near Tangshan

The nets here attracted large numbers of gulls

The evening light was spectacular

A tranquil scene in the sunset

Shelducks against the evening sun

The sun slipped down beyond the reeds

A vast new skyscraper thrusts its way upwards into the evening sky

Sunday morning saw us leaving our hotel, with its spectacular mural of Napoleon, at around 6.00AM, and a short drive took us towards the Bohai coast, where we found that it was colder than the previous morning, with a bitter wind, and it was with some reluctance that we emerged from our minibus on the windswept expanse of the Caofeidian marshes, a peninsula that juts out into the Bohai Gulf.

An impressive mural of Napoleon graced the lobby of our hotel

Large numbers of both White-naped and Red-crowned Cranes are supposed to winter here, but all we found was one distant Common Crane, that flew off long before we could approach it. A digger in the distance was an ill omen, and it later emerged that even though this is a Provincial Nature Reserve, it has recently been designated as the site of a future petrochemical plant. What are we humans doing? I find it utterly extraordinary that one of the last areas of relatively natural marshland on the whole of this coast, home to some of the rarest and most culturally significant birds, should be earmarked for destruction. A road is already under construction through the middle of this “reserve”, and the theory is that this disturbance has already frightened the cranes away. But where can they go when almost everywhere else is wrecked?

An icy sunrise over the Bohai Gulf

Only one Common Crane was to be seen, where White-naped Cranes should have been

Site of a future petrochemical plant. What are we doing?

These pools will soon be gone

Disappointed, we headed back towards Tianjin, and stopped for lunch in an almost deserted motorway rest area. Very few birds were visible from the road, and I was becoming despondent, thinking that we were destined to see nothing for the rest of the day. However, little did I know that we would be stopping at the Tuanbowa reservoir, and the bright sunshine and large numbers of birds here soon improved my mood.

The commonest species here was the Eurasian Coot, with Mute Swans and Great Crested Grebes adding to the homely feel. More interesting to me, however, were considerable numbers of Falcated Teal, a delightful bird that I used to see frequently on the lakes around Tokyo. Wigeon, Common Teal, Gadwall, Goosander, Goldeneye and large numbers of Smew were also here, and we spent some time scoping out across the lake in search of rarer species.

Tuanbowa Reservoir attracts numerous waterbirds

A telescope was necessary to identify the more distant birds

It was near the end of our time here, after we had moved to the northern end of the lake, that Nemo, our local guide, spotted a small group of Ferruginous Ducks close to the reeds on the far shore, and with them, two similar birds with whitish flanks. Unfortunately, they were asleep, and we could not see their heads, but we were almost certain that these were another drastically endangered species, the Baer’s Pochard. BirdLife International’s factsheet on this duck states: This species is classified as Critically Endangered as it is apparently undergoing an extremely rapid population decline, as measured by numbers on both the breeding and wintering grounds. It is now absent or occurs in extremely reduced numbers over the majority of its former breeding and wintering grounds and is common nowhere. It is thought that hunting and wetland destruction are the key reasons for its decline. Population size: 150-700.

By this time, excitement was high, but time was low, as we still had to reach Tianjin station in time to catch our trains home. However, just as we were about to leave, Nemo spotted another very special bird which swam through his telescope view as he was hoping that one of the almost-certain Baer’s Pochards would raise its head to clinch its identification: a splendid male Baikal Teal. This delightful little duck, with its green head and complicated yellow face pattern, was thought to be highly endangered until the late 1980s, when a number of vast flocks were discovered in South Korea, where over 95% of the global population overwinters. I had visited two of those lakes in the winter of 1990, and marveled at the vast concentration of these birds, which has been estimated at 400,000 individuals. Even to see one was a fitting end to this excellent weekend, and I look forward to birding again with this group at some future date.

Ferruginous Duck, probable Baer’s Pochard and definite Baikal Teal were a fine ending to a great weekend


Monday 20th November 2017

Another little coincidence

One of things I enjoy is the little coincidences that seem to pepper my life, and there are plenty of them. The most recent one concerns a butterfly that I found in the Hangzhou Botanic Gardens back on 5th November. It was a new species for me, but I recognised it as a Tree Brown, a member of the genus Lethe. Just out of interest, in classical Greek mythology Lethe was a river in the Underworld whose water would induce forgetfulness in those who drank it.

I knew this butterfly belonged to the genus Lethe, but I could not narrow it down to species level

Narrowing it down to a species was not easy, as I do not (yet) possess a complete book of Chinese butterflies. The only one available is a four-volume masterpiece, Butterflies of China, by Wu Chunseng and Xu Yufeng, in Chinese, and costing around £600. I may well invest in this set at some future date, but for the moment I am forced to resort to books on the butterflies of Japan, Nepal and India, and this particular Lethe does not appear in any of them.

However, while searching the internet for images of any cheaper books on Chinese butterflies that might exist, I was astonished to find the image below, on the website of China Scientific Book Services, It depicts a plate from a totally different book, Atlas of Butterflies of Mount Qinling-Bashan (a mountain area in Shaanxi Province, in mid-western China), by Xu Jiazhu and Wei Huanzhi. By an extraordinary stroke of luck, among the approximately 1700 butterfly species that have been recorded to date in China, one of the two species that feature on the page selected to appear on the internet to represent that book depicts “my” Lethe….and there is absolutely no doubt that it was Lethe syrcis.

The lower of the two butterfly species on this page is Lethe syrcis, “my” butterfly!


Sunday 19th November 2017

Winter kicks in but butterflies linger on

This weekend was mostly taken up with essay marking and writing feedback, but a visit to the doctor yesterday morning gave me an excuse to explore another part of Suzhou, this time at the northern end of Jinji Lake, where I was able to wonder at the mammoth 450m, 98-storey Suzhou IFS Tower, which is still under construction (although nothing appeared to be happening at the top).

Construction of the 450m skyscraper appears to have come to a (temporary?) halt

Nothing seemed to be happening at the top of the tower

From here I was able to look across the lake at the 74-storey “Gateway to the East”, which soon after its completion came under attack from critics, who compared it to a pair of “giant underpants”. The 270m-high skyscraper was the work of British architecture practice RMJM, founded in Edinburgh in 1956 by Sir Robert Matthew and Stirrat Johnson-Marshall.

A view across Jinji Lake towards another famous landmark, the building nicknamed “the Trousers”

A strange modern pagoda on an island contrasts with the Trouser building

An interesting robed figure turns his back on the Trousers

The autumn leaves were still spectacular, despite the icy wind

A tranquil but cold view across Jinji Lake

Looking towards the Trousers past the restaurant area of Moon Harbour

Suzhou’s equivalent of the London Eye

The weather was quite different to the other days I have experienced so far here in Suzhou, with an icy chill in the wind, and not a hint of a butterfly anywhere. I wandered through the Giant Ferris-wheel Park and on into Moon Harbour, a complex of restaurants, before taking the metro back home and continuing my marking marathon.

This morning I continued with the marking, but by midday my eyes were protesting at staring at the screen, so I decided it was time to head out. Rather than wasting a lot of time on public transport, I came to the conclusion that it might be interesting to spend some time looking for birds along the route I normally take on my walk to work.

I am not a keen bird photographer, but in the absence of butterflies, I thought I’d try to obtain some shots of the birds that I usually see in the trees on the university campus, and spend some time on a vacant plot that I believe was originally destined to be the site of a new campus for the China branch of Staffordshire University, but is now temporarily occupied by a small garden centre and some domestic geese, ducks and chickens. Such areas of “wasteland” are havens for wildlife in densely populated areas like Suzhou.

I walk along this pathway on my way to work every morning

The vacant Staffordshire University plot is a haven for wildlife and hosts a small garden centre

In the wooded area, it was not long before I heard a quiet rustling in the fallen leaves under a hedge, and after a short while, I spotted a beautiful Grey-backed Thrush, a relatively common but shy species that is restricted to continental North-east Asia. It was hard to obtain a satisfactory shot as the bird was in a very dark area of shade, but I enjoyed astonishingly close views, and in fact each time I walked past that hedge during the following hour and a half, the bird was still there, quietly foraging under the fallen leaves.

The Grey-backed Thrush appeared unperturbed by my presence

There were a lot of birds around, and I was pleased to find a flock of about ten splendid-looking Chinese Grosbeaks feeding on small fruits, their huge bills being used to crack the kernels of the stones inside. These birds are closely related to our Hawfinch, and I savoured my close views of these brightly coloured and boldly patterned finches. They did not pose well for photographs, but I did manage to obtain a few record shots.

The Chinese Grosbeak has an enormous bill that helps it crack open the stones of small fruits

I then ventured out onto an area of more open grassland with scattered trees, where I was treated to a magnificent view of a Hoopoe. I normally see two or three of these dramatic-looking birds on my way to work, but this was the best view I have had as yet.

This was the best view of a Hoopoe that I’ve had so far

Hoopoes seem to be regular birds around the university campus

Also here was a Long-tailed Shrike, a bird which I also see every day around the campus, and in the nearby trees, a beautiful male Daurian Redstart, another lovely bird which I used to be very familiar with when I lived in Japan.

Long-tailed Shrikes are also frequent in this area

Male Daurian Redstarts are very attractive birds

A male Daurian Redstart posing in a tree

I then headed into the vacant plot, where to my great surprise, a gleam of sunshine suddenly brought a few butterflies out. I had assumed that the last two days of cold weather would have brought my butterfly-watching to a halt until next Spring, but no, a number of Small Whites, Pieris rapae, started flying around, and I even saw a Common Grass Yellow, Eurema hecabe, a species that I normally associate with steamy tropical areas.

The sun was shining on the vacant plot

A Small White soaking up the sun’s warmth on this chilly day

I was surprised to see a Common Grass Yellow, a species I associate with warm and humid weather

The vacant lot has its very own lotus pond, where I once spotted a Kingfisher

After a while in this open area, observing Magpies, White Wagtails, Crested Mynas, White-cheeked Starlings and Tree Sparrows, I moved back towards the trees, where I found the Grey-backed Thrush still under its hedge, a female Oriental Magpie-Robin, and a pair of Red-flanked Bluetails foraging discreetly in the bushes.

A female Red-flanked Bluetail perched briefly in the open

The Red-flanked Bluetail was very hard to photograph

The grassy area was now soaking up some of the warmth of the afternoon sun, and a lone male Pale Grass Blue, Zizeeria maha, was basking on a dead leaf.

The grassy area was sheltered from the wind

The Pale Grass Blue was trying to warm in the sunshine

Violets were flowering, and it was not long before I spotted a larger butterfly flapping around, looking rather chilly and clearly seeking out a really warm spot to soak up the sun’s rays: a male Indian Fritillary, Argyreus hyperbius. The larvae of this attractive butterfly feed on those violets, and I have seen them on all of my excursions since I arrived here in late September. Was this male the last of the season?

Violets are the foodplant of the Indian Fritillary

Will this be my last Indian Fritillary of the season?

I finally decided that I had better get back to my marking, but my two hours or so away from the computer had proved to be very enjoyable and productive, and it was a pleasure to be away from the marking! Since then, I am glad to say that I have completed it!

Long-tailed Shrikes like to perch in prominent positions

A splendid show of flowers in the vacant lot