Friday 14th February 2014 (2)

A missed Spring jewel

On this wild, stormy winter’s night, with the rain lashing down and the wind whistling around my roof, the last thing I would normally think of would be butterflies, those jewels of the summer meadows. Yet I am now returning to my original plan of presenting those butterfly species which I did NOT manage to see last year, but which I would normally have expected to be able to find on my usual stamping grounds in the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France and westernmost Germany.

My final total for 2013 within this area, plus a short spell in Scotland, came to 77 species. I then started this project of discussing the extra species I should have seen, and by the time I wrote my last post on 13th January, I had “added” Large Tortoiseshell (78), Mallow Skipper (79) and Woodland Ringlet (80) to my imaginary list!

The next species I failed to see, chronologically speaking, was the Green-underside Blue, Glaucopsyche alexis. The only place I know within my regular area is the wonderful military camps in the northern Champagne region of France, an absolute oasis of biodiversity amid a sea of intensive agriculture in which hardly a butterfly can survive. Long may the French Army continue to require these chalky areas, preventing the cereal farmers from ploughing up the flower-rich natural grasslands and converting them into vast swathes of rapeseed or grain.

Green-underside Blue, Glaucopsyche alexis

The Green-underside Blue has a short flight season, from late April till mid-June, and as the weather was cold and grey through much of this period, and the few warm, sunny days did not coincide with any weekends when I could possibly have visited, it is perhaps hardly surprising that I missed this beautiful butterfly, which can easily be identified by the fact that the black spots on the underside are far larger on the forewing than those on the hindwing.

Green-underside Blue, Glaucopsyche alexis Green-underside Blue, Glaucopsyche alexis

Had I seen Large Tortoiseshell, Mallow Skipper, Woodland Ringlet and Green-underside Blue, my 2013 total would have been: 81 species

nextpost

Friday 14th February 2014

An amazing “new” Champion link!

Recently, a new and exciting Champion-related story has materialised. It all started some time ago, when a friend of mine forwarded the picture here below:

Rhodoleia championi (i)

Naturally, my curiosity was aroused, and a preliminary investigation revealed that Rhodoleia championii (sometimes written as championi) is a beautiful tree belonging to the Hamamelidaceae family, found in China, Malaysia, Burma, Vietnam and neighboring countries, and enjoying the English name of Hong Kong Rose, although in fact it has no link with the rose family.

I was intrigued as to the origin of its specific name, but never got around to investigating further, and the photograph remained on my mobile phone, semi-forgotten.

Recently, however, while visiting the Visitor Centre of the Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, in the highlands of southern Vietnam, I lifted an interactive interpretation board to read about certain key species of the Park, and to my astonishment, the very first species to be revealed was Rhodoleia championii.

Information board about R. championii

To have this species appearing in my life twice within a few months was just too much to ignore, and this time I began to investigate much more thoroughly, leading to a truly fascinating new thread in the history of the Champions.

I found that Rhodoleia championii was named by the renowned naturalist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, close friend and associate of Charles Darwin, in 1850. By another amazing coincidence, I happen to be reading an extraordinarily beautiful biography of Hooker, by Ray Desmond (pub: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2006), at this very moment!

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker

But still the question remained: Who was that Champion after whom the tree was named? I wondered for a while if it could possibly be my great great grandfather, George Champion (1817 – 1892), who was an active amateur botanist, but I quickly found that the illustrious subject of Hooker’s naming of this tree was in fact a truly inspiring Victorian soldier/naturalist, Lt John George Champion, whose Wikipedia entry reads as follows:

CHAMPION, JOHN GEORGE (1815?–1854), botanist, was gazetted ensign in the 95th regiment in 1831, and embarked for foreign service in 1838, having then attained the rank of captain. After a stay in the Ionian Isles, his duties took him to Ceylon, and thence in 1847 to Hongkong. He brought his collection of dried plants to England in 1850; most of his novelties were described by Mr. Bentham in Hooker’s ‘Journals,’ and afterwards served as part material for the ‘Flora Hongkongensis.’ Before leaving England for the Crimea he placed the last set of his plants in the Kew herbarium. He was wounded at Inkermann, 5 Nov. 1854, and gazetted lieutenant-colonel for his conduct in that battle, but he only enjoyed the rank a short time, dying in hospital at Scutari 30 Nov. following, aged 38. His name is commemorated in the genus Championia, and among other plants by the splendid Rhodoleia championi.

The beautiful Hong Kong Rose, by Lemaire

So, although as far as I know, this soldier-naturalist Champion was not a direct ancestor of mine, the similarities between his early life and that of so many of my own branch of the family are almost too uncanny to be pure coincidence. As is stated in a biography of him that I managed to locate on the internet: “Letters written in his childhood, and still preserved, show that when only nine years old he had already shown indications of a love for natural history, by his knowledge of which he eventually became greatly distinguished. At that early age he was raising caterpillars, and watching their transformations with all the interest of a man of science” (A Sketch of the Life of Lieut-Col Champion, of the 95th Regiment”, privately published, c1856). Such a description of a young Champion’s activities and interests could have applied to my great-grandfather G C Champion, to any one of his three sons, to my father, or even to me. How tragic that his life should have been cut short at the age of 38.

“Where the melee was thickest and the slaughter greatest, where his men most required encouragement, and most danger of being broken was perceived by his quick and quiet military eye, there rode Major Champion, urging, cheering, restraining, forcing his way through crowds of enemies that had half surrounded his exhausted troops, then closing the ranks and rushing on again, charging with his gallant “Derbies” over the weak redoubt that should have guarded the position, and finally dashing the enemy headlong down the hill.
It was then he fell.
A musket ball passed through his body, and struck to the earth the gentlest heart that ever was disguised by the fierce excitement of battle. He was taken on board a transport at Balaclava, and conveyed to Scutari, where he lingered till the 30th of the month, when his gallant spirit ascended to the presence of his Maker.”

nextpost

Monday 20th January 2014

Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Vietnam

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, is a critically endangered wader with a uniquely shaped bill. It breeds in Chukotka, a remote region in the far north-east of Russia, and migrates along the east-Asian flyway, wintering in scattered groups in Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh and north-eastern India. Recently a small group of perhaps five birds was found wintering in Vietnam, and two of these feature in this short video clip. Threats to this species include large-scale draining of their mudflat habitat, particularly at Saemangeum, South Korea, but also all along the coast of China, and hunting for food in Burma and Bangladesh. The bird is now the subject of a last-ditch attempt at captive breeding, coordinated by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, UK. My thanks go to Nguyen Van Thang, of Wildtour/www.birdwatchingvietnam.net, for showing me these very special birds.