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.”

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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.

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Friday 13th December 2013

Another absentee from the 2013 list

Following my recent blog posts detailing two species of butterfly that I should have managed to find in my normal haunts in the Netherlands, Belgium, part of western Germany and northern France (the Large Tortoiseshell, Nymphalis polychloros, and the Mallow Skipper, Carcharodus alceae), the next absentee, chronologically speaking, was the Woodland Ringlet, Erebia medusa.

The Woodland Ringlet posing cooperatively – normally they are hard to photograph without grass blocking the view

Unlike most of its congeners in the genus Erebia, this is a spring rather than a high summer butterfly, and I normally see it either in the Hautes Fagnes, a high plateau in eastern Belgium, where it is usually to be found in my favourite Bistort-filled valley flying together with the Violet Copper, Lycaena helle, and the Bog Fritillary, Proclossiana eunomia, or in the nearby Eifel region just across the border in Germany, where I usually find it on chalk/limestone grassland flying with the Duke of Burgundy, Hamearis lucina. In neither locality is it numerous, and I would never expect to see more than two or three individuals at a time.

Woodland Ringlet habitat in the Hautes Fagnes

Woodland Ringlet habitat in the Eifel, where the temperature was just 3 degrees on 24th June

Although I visited both areas at the correct time of the year, on 23rd and 24th June, the extraordinarily cold weather meant that butterflies were mostly inactive, and whilst I did find a very few Violet Coppers and several Bog Fritillaries in sheltered clearings during the brief gleams of sunshine, I did not manage to find any Woodland Ringlets. I can only hope that next year a few warm, sunny days will coincide with weekends when I am able to make the long journey to these beautiful areas.

A Woodland Ringlet, this time with the usual grass in front of it

Had I seen Large Tortoiseshell, Mallow Skipper and Woodland Ringlet, my 2013 total would have been: 80 species.