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


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


Monday 4th December 2017

Another weekend of extraordinary contrasts

This weekend has been quite a rollercoaster of visual contrasts. I had been invited to participate in a group excursion of the Shanghai Birding Group, so I left Suzhou on Friday evening and stayed over in a hotel in Shanghai with a couple of my new birding friends, and we were duly picked up at 05.30 on Saturday morning for the drive to Nanhui, the fabulous but gravely endangered birding area out on the coast beyond Pudong International Airport.

We arrived at the northern end of this highly important wildlife area just as it was getting light, and within a few minutes, we were treated to a wonderful sighting of a Brown-cheeked Rail, which appeared on the edge of a pool, skulking in and out of the waterside vegetation and every now and then rewarding us with outstanding views of what is normally a highly elusive species. A great start.

We worked our way southwards along the seawall road, meeting up with various other car-loads of Chinese birders who had also been invited along, and eventually we arrived at what is known as “the magic parking lot”, and it lived up to its magical reputation for turning up some marvelous birds again on this occasion.

The car park is favoured by Chinese bird photographers, who place live mealworms on a couple of hunks of wood, and this bait lures the birds in, and it was not long before we were treated to outstanding views of an extraordinarily beautiful male Japanese Robin. Unlike the familiar European Robin, this species has a fiery orange face and breast, bordered below by a deep slaty-grey band. It is not common at all on the China coast, least of all this late in the year, and we savoured this splendid viewing for quite some time.

The Japanese Robin put on a splendid show

The photographers in the Magic Parking Lot are almost as much of a sight as the birds they photograph

Hair-crested Drongo was a nice bird to see; the hair crest can just be seen sticking up from its forehead

A Blue Rock Thrush of the race philippensis posed nicely on the seawall

An Osprey sat on a post offshore

The Shanghai birding group team

The rest of the day was spent birding along the coast and at the nearby Dishui Lake, and by the end of the day we had notched up a respectable list of 72 species. We then headed back towards the city, and ended what had been a great day with some German beer and food in the newly opened Paulaner Bräuhaus, which was well worth a visit.

Sunday morning saw the three of us who were staying in the hotel meeting again at 06.00AM, and heading on the metro to Century Park, a sort of Shanghainese equivalent of Central Park in New York. We birded that park intensively between around 7.00 and 11.00AM, when the crowds began to build up, and reached 32 species of bird, not a bad total for a park in the centre of a huge city (by some measures, Earth’s largest metropolis). The total included some quite interesting birds, including Red-billed Starling (a lifer for me), Pallas’s and Yellow-browed Warblers, Chinese Grosbeak, Azure-winged Magpies, Dusky, Pale and White’s Thrush, and Hoopoe.

Century Park is an oasis of calm in the teeming city of Shanghai

Looking north across the lake in the park

These flats have a good view of the park

The lotus plants have died back for the winter now

Night Herons are not rare in Shanghai

A splendid gingko tree in all its autumn finery

A charming bridge in Century Park

There are some quite wild parts in the corners of the park

Little did I know that I would be near the top of the tallest building later that day

We then headed to the metro station, and I split from the others as I had arranged to meet my ex-boss and friend Brian in the skyscraper zone of Pudong for lunch, and when I emerged from the underground station, I was confronted by a plethora of stupendous buildings towering into the sky above me.

Completed in 1994, the Pearl Oriental TV Tower was the tallest building in Shanghai until 2007

Futuristic skyscape in Pudong

The Shanghai Tower stands proudly above all its neighbours

We first wandered down to the waterfront, directly opposite the stately buildings of the Bund, symbols of western power during the early half of the 20th century. These are utterly dwarfed by the immense structures on the Pudong side.

The stately buildings along the Bund as seen from Pudong

After lunch, we headed for the tallest of all, the unimaginatively named Shanghai Tower. Designed with a unique curve that twists all the way up the 632 metres to the top, this structure is currently the second tallest building in the World.

The Shanghai Towers towers over its neighbour, the 492m World Financial Center, nicknamed “The Bottle-opener”

After some difficulty in finding the entrance, we were surprised at having to go down two floors in order to then go up, but then we shot up in what are apparently the fastest lifts on Earth, travelling at 18 metres/second. I was surprised that I did not feel dizzy rising at this pace, but it was a smooth ride, and despite the air pollution and haze that obscured the view from the viewing platform on the 118th floor, the vistas in all directions were quite simply stupendous. All the other skyscrapers nearby were like toys in comparison to this monster, and I found myself almost at a loss for words. The pictures say it all.

The Huangpu River curves its way through Shanghai

The other buildings in Pudong look like toys from this extraordinary viewpoint

The Jinmao Tower looks tiny in comparison

“The Bottle-opener” is an appropriate nickname for the second highest building in Shanghai

These blocks of flats are not small in themselves, yet they look insignificant from this height

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