Monday 6th April 2020

Orange-tips in China, and a link with my great grandfather

During the past two years or so, my website has been quiet, neglected in some ways, but this does not mean that my travels in the footsteps of my naturalist ancestors has stopped, or that I have somehow lost interest in my forefathers.

As many of my friends will know, I have been living and working in China since September 2017, and this has given me ample opportunities to enjoy the butterflies and birds of Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces, which my great grandfather’s brother-in-law J J Walker travelled extensively in while engaged in mapping the Chusan (now Zhoushan) archipelago in HM Surveying Ship Penguin in 1896. I wrote about his expedition to observe the tidal bore in the bay near Hangzhou in my post of 30th November 2018.

This post is a less direct link, but it concerns one of my favourite Spring butterflies in China, the beautiful orange-tip Anthocharis bambusarum. Many European readers will be familiar with our regular Orange-tip butterfly, Anthocharis cardamines, which occurs right across Eurasia from the British Isles to Japan, where it is only found in the Southern (Minami) Alps. In that species, only the outer half of the forewing of the male is orange, whereas in this Chinese species, almost the entire forewing is orange.

Anthocharis bambusarum, M, Zijishan, Nanjing, showing the entirely orange forewing

Anthocharis cardamines male, showing the half-orange forewing

I first encountered this springtime gem along the foot of Purple Mountain, or Zijinshan, a splendid forest-covered hill, or indeed mountain, in the city of Nanjing, in March 2018. I had travelled on the fast train from Suzhou, my home city in China, to the capital of Jiangsu Province, specifically to search for the very special Papilionid butterfly Luehdorfia chinensis (see post of 18th March 2018).

My rendezvous with the friends who were going to try to show me that species was at 12.00 noon, but I arrived too early and walked along the foot of the mountain, and almost immediately found a bright male of this delightful butterfly basking on one of its larval foodplants, the crucifer Orychophragmus violaceus, which is unusual in that it has both bluish-purple and white flowers, often appearing together. I was able to admire those bright, glowing orange forewings and familiarize myself with this butterfly, so similar in every other respect to our familiar Orange-tip of home.

Here a male Anthocharis bambusarum poses on one if the species’ larval foodplants

When both the underside and the orange can be seen, the butterfly reveals its full beauty

The orange forewings glow against the dead leaves

The underside pattern of Anthocharis bambusarum is beautifully subtle

A couple of weeks later, I encountered it again while on a hiking trip to the east of Taihu, the great round lake that sits to the west of Suzhou. The species apparently does not occur to the east of the lake, and I have never encountered one anywhere near that city (see post of 13th April 2018).

Anthocharis bambusarum seems easier to approach than its congener A. cardamines

Here a male Anthocharis bambusarum poses for a phone shot

The following year I was delighted to see it in considerable numbers on all of my three Springtime visits to the Nanjing area, which included trips to Zijinshan, Laoshan and Baohuashan, so it is clearly not rare in the Nanjing area. On one occasion I even managed to get two basking males in one camera shot, as well as a mating pair.

To find a mating pair of Anthocharis bambusarum was a stroke of luck

To get two male Anthocharis bambusarum butterflies in view at once was lucky

The female Anthocharis bambusarum lacks the orange altogether

But it is not only the beauty of this butterfly that attracts me to it. It is a link to my great grandfather that brings it alive for me. The butterfly was first described for science by his great entomologist friend Charles Oberthűr, of Rennes, France, in 1875. The Oberthűr brothers Charles (1845 – 1924) and René (1852 – 1944), as well as their father Francois-Charles Oberthűr (1818 – 1893), were renowned entomologists, and my great grandfather used to visit them at their home in Rennes, where their family printing business was one of the major industries, to exchange insect stories and material.

Charles Oberthűr

Charles Oberthűr did not visit China so could never have had the pleasure of seeing this orange-tip on the wing, but he described it and many other Chinese butterflies from specimens sent to him by collectors, in the case of this butterfly, the renowned naturalist and Catholic missionary Abbé Armand David (1826 – 1900), known today for the Père David’s Deer, or Milu in Chinese, which he first described for western science. So the link with my family is tenuous, but it is there nonetheless, and I could not help but feel a special bond with this attractive oriental creature. Sadly the Covid-19 lockdown means that I shall not have the pleasure of observing it this Spring, but I shall hope nonetheless to see its more familiar congener, Anthocharis cardamines.

A plate showing some Chinese butterflies sent to Charles Oberthűr by Abbé Armand David

Just as an aside, the other common orange-tip in eastern China and Japan, Anthocharis scolymus, with its hook-tipped wings, is another attractive species, and one which does occur in Suzhou, where I have even seen it on several occasions on my university campus, although the obsession that the city authorities have with constantly mowing or strimming every grassy area means that its foodplants are unable to grow tall, which limits its population, along with that of so many other insects.

The male Anthocharis scolymus has only a small patch of orange on his hooked wingtip

Anthocharis scolymus, female, showing the hooked wingtips

Anthocharis scolymus, F, laying an egg

My friend Susan took this photograph of the pupa of Anthocharis scolymus in August 2018 in Suzhou


Friday 3rd April 2020

Aspfjäril – quest for one of Europe’s largest and most splendid butterflies, the Poplar Admiral

My wish to see one of the most magnificent, largest and most elusive of Europe’s butterflies has led me to many wild and beautiful forests across the continent, and no doubt it will continue to do so, for it would be impossible to become blasé about such a splendid creature, no matter how often one saw it.

The Poplar Admiral, Limenitis populi, is as its name suggests entirely dependent on poplar trees, in particular aspens, on which its caterpillars feed. The adult butterflies only fly for a very short period, perhaps only two weeks in length, usually in late June and July, but sometimes earlier. The females tend to remain high among the branches of wayside trees, but the males will on occasion come down to feed along forest tracks, a habit which unfortunately leads to large numbers falling victim to road traffic, in particular trucks, cars and even mountain bikes.

Occurring sparsely across northern Europe, Russia and even to Korea and Japan, the Poplar Admiral should be relatively easy to find, but it is not, perhaps due to its elusive habits, short adult flight period and its sharp decline across the western part of its range, which has rendered it a rarity in France, Belgium and Germany, all of which used to harbour strong populations.

It has fared better in Scandinavia and Russia, but as its short flight season varies from year to year, timing a visit to a favourable Poplar Admiral haunt with a strong likelihood of seeing one is extremely difficult.

My early attempts were in northern France, where the butterfly used to occur, but in my usual stamping grounds in the Avesnois, it is long extinct. Apparently the large Fôret de Mormal used to be a reliable haunt, but the Office National des Fôrets removed all the roadside aspens some years ago, aspen not being a useful timber tree, and since then no Poplar Admirals have been seen. The extensive forests in the Belgian Ardennes also seemed suitable, but despite years of searching during the flight season, I never managed to connect with one there.

In the summer of 2004, we drove all the way to the far east of Hungary in our little red Nissan Micra, and there we checked into a butterfly haven called Farm Lator, run by Dutch butterfly expert Rob de Jong and his Hungarian wife Barbara. This earthly paradise is situated on the southern slopes of the heavily forested Bükk plateau, and here indeed one should be able to find both the Poplar Admiral and another great European rarity, the Scarce Fritillary, Euphydryas maturna. Rob confirmed that they are sometimes even seen within his property, but that was a very hot summer and both of these insect gems were already over.

The butterfly-rich garden at Farm Lator

The Micra in Hungary

A Purple Emperor on the Micra’s steering wheel

The Bűkk hills are a paradise for butterflies

The quest continued, without success, and by 2009 I had almost forgotten about the mythical Poplar Admiral, or Grand Sylvain as it is known in France, the Great Forester. But forestry is in my blood, my grandfather and great uncle both having served with great distinction with the Indian Forest Service, and not being able to eventually find this great butterfly would have been a disgrace. I even have a rather poor but still impressive specimen of a female caught by my grandfather’s great butterfly-collecting friend Meynell Hackney near Maribor, Slovenia, in the summer of 1937 when he took a trans-European route on his way home on leave from India. Whenever I looked at it, my heart would miss a beat as I thought how magnificent this creature must have looked alive.

That summer of 2009, we booked a butterfly tour of south eastern Sweden with the UK wildlife tour company Naturetrek. On arrival we were met by, as he was described in the Naturetrek brochure, “your Swedish nature guide Daniel Green”. Despite his name, Daniel Green really was Swedish, and the following six days were spent scouring the forests of his home county of Västmanland in search of the wealth of butterflies, dragonflies and birds of this delightful area. We were rewarded with sightings of many wonderful species, but I gained a bit of a reputation for being a little too focused on one butterfly, the Aspfjäril, or Aspen Butterfly, as the Poplar Admiral is appropriately named in Swedish!

One characteristic of the Poplar Admiral of which one needs to be aware when searching for it is that, unlike most butterflies, it does not normally visit flowers, gaining instead most of its sustenance by sucking up mineral-laden moisture from the forest tracks that cross its habitat, or rather less attractively by sucking the juices from half-rotten carrion or dung. Daniel was fully prepared for this, and he had brought along a couple of tins of a particularly pungent form of pickled, fermented herring.

Late that afternoon, we were taken to a beautiful, open forest track with some stands of aspen along the sides, and Daniel informed us that he had seen a Poplar Admiral here the previous summer. The moment of truth arrived when we opened the tins of foul-smelling fishy matter, and indeed the stench had to be smelled to be believed. The first of the tins caused gasps of disgust from some group members when opened in the minibus, and which made us wonder how Swedish people could possibly derive pleasure from consuming such a horrific concoction. We spooned out the mixture, spiced up with some old stout beer, onto the road verge and some tree stumps, and left for the night. The following morning, under bright sunshine and in perfect Aspfjäril conditions, we returned with our hearts pounding in anticipation of finding a veritable fleet of admirals feasting on the pungent provisions, but not an admiral was to be seen. The pickled herring was still there, its odour having dissipated overnight, and there was much joking among the British participants that even the local foxes must have turned up their noses at what one would have expected them to lap up with gusto.

Prime Poplar Admiral habitat in Sweden

The rest of the holiday progressed with no sign of the great butterfly, until the penultimate day, when we headed to a reserve where the target butterfly was the rare and endangered Woodland Brown, Lopinga achine. After a long hot afternoon of searching, with no sign of the brown, the patience of some of the tour group members was wearing thin, and Hélène had decided to amuse herself by trying to add some common bird species to her Swedish birdlist. Her attention was drawn to a Blue Tit that flew up into a low tree.

Suddenly, she uttered a piercing and far-carrying cry of “Poplaaaaaaar Admiraaaaal!” While following the Blue Tit, she had suddenly found herself looking up at a magnificent female Poplar Admiral that was gliding around the tree. I have rarely run so fast, and I managed to reach the spot in time to see the sunlight shining through the white patches on the huge wings of this long searched-for empress as she glided majestically around the tree before powering away over the treetops, not to be seen again. There was no time to even lift my camera, but at least all the members of the group saw the butterfly, and Hélène at once became the heroine of the group.

In subsequent years all my searches were in vain, until finally on 29th May 2011 (coincidentally my birthday), at the end of a long, tiring day of butterfly-watching in the Viroinval in the south of Belgium, I decided to make my way home by driving on some little-used backroads through the large and relatively unfrequented forests to the south of the picturesque river valley that I often visit.

As I slowly drove up the narrow road in the late afternoon, I suddenly saw a huge, apparently almost black butterfly wheeling and gliding over a patch of wet gravel by the side of the road. Thinking it must be a Camberwell Beauty, Nymphalis antiopa (also an extreme rarity in those parts), I brought the car to a rapid halt, scrambled out and ran to the spot. The butterfly was still sailing around at high speed, and I could not get a clear look at it until finally, with a flourish of its great wings, it landed and started sipping at the wet gravel.

I soon realised that I was not looking at a Camberwell Beauty, but rather at a magnificent male of the rare dark form of the Poplar Admiral, Limenitis populi f tremulae, named for the Latin name of the aspen, Populus tremula, whose leaves seem to tremble characteristically with only the slightest breath of wind.

Astonished, I rushed back to the car to grab my camera, but I was spoilt for choice on this account as I had three to choose from! Eventually, as the butterfly had settled down and was sipping the moisture calmly, and allowed me to approach and savour this unexpected birthday present, and photograph and film it with each of my three cameras.

Limenitis populi, southern Belgium

Since then, I have failed to find another Poplar Admiral at that spot, but I did manage to see two others flying at high speed along a forest drive on the Franco-Belgian border in the extensive forests on either side of the Botte de Givet, the strange finger of France that juts northwards into Belgium along the Meuse.

Perhaps this year, if the Covid restrictions are lifted in time, I may have a chance to check the aspens in Sweden again, and who knows, perhaps the splendid Aspfjäril will find its way onto my 2020 butterfly list!

Limenitis populi f tremulae, Belgium

Limenitis populi f tremulae in Belgium


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