Sunday 12th November 2017

The Emperors of Yinshan Lake

Following my frightening experience of nearly being hit by a car yesterday, I made my way with some trepidation to the subway station, keeping a wary eye open for any unexpected vehicle movements.

A short journey of just five stops took me to Yinshan Hu station, and I emerged into one of the new residential areas that China seems to be able to erect in the space of just a few months. Huge blocks of flats were going up almost visibly, and the pounding of pile-drivers and the clanking of cranes could be heard in all directions.

The pace of development here is astounding

A short walk brought me to the shores of Yinshan Lake, which my map calls Yinshan River, but it looked more like a lake to me. First impressions indicated that it would be sterile in terms of aquatic birds, but I immediately spotted a Great Crested Grebe, a new species for my Chinese list. It turned out that there were perhaps 50 of these birds on the lake, along with several Little Grebes, Moorhens and two rafts of Mallard which, given the Chinese human population’s liking for eating duck, were wisely floating well out on the water.

Yinshan Lake with apartment blocks beyond it

It was not long before the characteristic squeaky call of one of my favourite East Asian birds drew my attention to a resplendent male Daurian Redstart, a common winter visitor from Russia (Dauria is an old name for Ussuriland, in the Russian Far East). These lovely, confiding birds can be found in any small patch of greenery, even in the city.

A splendid male Daurian Redstart atop a Gingko tree

Olive-backed Pipits were much in evidence too, their nasal, buzzy calls giving them away. These birds used to be known as Indian Tree Pipits, and they are also relatively common in any parkland area. Chinese Bulbuls were also very conspicuous. The local form here is now known as the White-vented Bulbul, and there is talk of making this species the City Bird of Shanghai, as it endemic to the Shanghai/Suzhou/Hangzhou area.

An Olive-backed Pipit against a vast billboard

The White-vented Bulbul has recently been taxonomically split from the Chinese Bulbul

I continued on around the lake, which is surrounded by landscaped parkland all the way round, admiring some interesting modern architecture and wondering at the speed of China’s development.

Many modern urban Chinese live in vast blocks like those in the background, or in flats in condominiums like those in the foreground

A small flock of Mallard can just be made out in this picture, keeping well out of harm’s way for fear of ending up on a restaurant menu!

The lakeside park has been attractively landscaped

The neighbourhood sports and cultural centre looked quite impressive

Chinese modern street architecture can be quite bold and striking

An attractive boardwalk led along the lake

At one point, I was attracted to investigate a rather American-looking house close to the shore. It was strangely derelict, the slats falling off the side walls and the garden fence collapsing. But what was more interesting for me was that two or three largish butterflies were skimming around the tree-tops in its vicinity. These were Lesser Purple Emperors, Apatura ilia, a butterfly that I have seen a lot of since arriving in Suzhou, and one that I am very surprised should still be flying this late in the season. Flying they certainly were, and one point they were joined by a larger, more boldly striped butterfly, which I was not able to identify at all.

The strangely abandoned western-style house

Planks were falling off the side wall and the garden fence had toppled over

The Lesser Purple Emperors would not come down to be photographed, although I did manage to watch one female for a long period through my binoculars as she searched for a place to lay her eggs, feeling with her abdomen and occasionally pausing to lay. I had expected that the willows along the lake shore would be the chosen foodplant of this species, but this female was laying on what I think may have been the Chinese Hackberry, Celtis sinensis, a tree that plays host to many species of Nymphalid butterfly. In total I must have seen perhaps eight of these marvelous flyers.

Please come down, Lesser Purple Emperor!

I can see you up there in that willow, Lesser Purple Emperor

At least a little closer, but I’d love to see your beautiful purple upperside, Lesser Purple Emperor!

At one point, while I was scanning out across the lake in search of any further water birds, a couple approached me and asked if I would mind saying a few words in English to their nine-year-old son as he had never spoken English to a real foreigner before, so I obliged and then they asked if I would object to having my photograph taken with him, which I agreed to. In general, most Chinese I have come across so far have been friendly and helpful, and a surprising number of young ones, at least here in Suzhou, can speak at least a little English.

Chinese people like to pose for photographs with foreigners

I paid special attention to patches of reed and lotus, as these seemed likely to harbour the most birds, but apart from several roving bands of the diminutive, long-tailed Vinous-throated Parrotbill and a small party of Black-faced Buntings, there was little to be found.

Patches of reed and lotus seemed likely to host some birds

The lotus plants are dying back for the winter now

Groups of workers were busy clearing the reeds along the lakeshore, and I fear that within a few weeks there will be no reeds left until they re-grow next Spring. With such an abundance of cheap labour, China can afford to employ teams of gardeners to maintain the public areas, collecting litter (which I thoroughly applaud) and chopping vegetation (which I am less keen on, as it deprives wildlife of habitats and hiding places). Still, there were a number of butterflies around, and I enjoyed them as well as the beautiful autumn leaves as I continued my walk.

Moorhens and Little Grebes were here, as well as Great Crested Grebes further out

I shall never tire of seeing these lovely Indian Fritillaries

These unseasonal violets are the larval foodplant of the Indian Fritillary

A cast snake skin served to remind me not to plunge too deeply into the bushes

A Chinese Comma, showing the comma-shaped white mark on its underside

A Small Copper always brightens any day

A Common Grass Yellow taking nectar in the sunshine

A female Small White poses nicely

Still teasing me, you Lesser Purple Emperor!

A reddening maple against the blue afternoon sky

My last look at the lake before venturing back into the maelstrom

Eventually, I had completed my circumnavigation of the lake, and I ventured back into the vast building site, where I was approached by a smartly dressed young man on a motorbike, who asked me “You want see house?” I declined the offer, although perhaps I should have at least gone for a look, if only out of curiosity. Investing in one of these newly built areas might be worthwhile, although I believe it is hard for foreigners to own property in China, and I do not intend to settle here for very long…but at least a look might have been interesting.

I was asked if I would like to visit a show flat in one of these buildings

An enterprising “farmer” watering his vegetables next to this building site

The standard of the buildings looks good…better than the grim brutalist blocks one sees in Glasgow anyway


Saturday 11th November 2017

A near miss in Suzhou

Today I ventured out early en route for one of Suzhou’s “mountains”, but on my way to the subway station, I spontaneously decided to explore an area of trees and hedges that looked slightly promising for birds. A friendly team of city gardeners shouted instructions to me when I found myself confronted by a wide ditch, indicating that I should jump a little further along, where it became narrower.

There was not much to be seen in the way of birds, so I rejoined the road and was just approaching a major intersection, walking on the pavement, when suddenly, as if from nowhere, a car careered round the corner, clearly out of control, and headed straight for me. The vehicle crashed into the curb, which was luckily high, but the car still had sufficient momentum to mount the curb, breaking its front bumper and making a terrific clonking sound as the bottom of the engine hit the concrete, and continue onto the pavement, lurching to a stop literally only perhaps a metre from me, its windscreen wipers scraping eerily. The airbag popped out, and the driver remained in his seat, motionless. Another vehicle driver stopped to help, and I walked away in considerable shock. Had that man tried to kill me? If I had been perhaps two seconds ahead of where I was, he would undoubtedly have succeeded. Was he on drugs? Unlikely here in Suzhou. He did not look drunk. Had he had a heart attack? He looked healthy. Perhaps he had fallen asleep at the wheel. Anyhow, whatever the explanation, I had had a narrow escape.

A view of the car that had just nearly hit me after mounting the high curb at speed, totally out of control

I recovered on the subway ride to Mudu, from where I walked towards the hills, retracing my footsteps of a few weeks ago, and eventually reached the entrance of the natural park, where I was greeted by a cheery policeman who seemed to recognise me from my previous visit.

It was, as always, an enormous relief to walk into a peaceful, natural area, and it was not long before I was enjoying the autumn colours and a reasonable number of late butterflies, which were taking advantage of the pleasantly warm sunshine.

A welcome scene near the entrance of the park

Autumn leaves brightened up the scene

There were fewer butterfly species than I had found here back in late September, but it was good to see a number of Pale Grass Blues, Zizeeria maha, a lone, tattered Long-tailed Blue, Lampides boeticus, numerous Chinese Commas, Polygonia c-aureum, a couple of Common Grass Yellows, Eurema hecabe, and Small Whites, Pieris rapae, and several splendid Indian Fritillaries, Argyreus hyperbius.

A Chinese Comma basks in the autumn sunshine

Three Chinese Commas seemed to be drinking sap from this tree

A female Indian Fritillary still looks fresh although it is late in the season

One butterfly that was clearly on its last legs was a Common Mormon, Papilio polytes, a black and white species of Swallowtail, that had lost so much of its wings that it was surprising that it could still fly. I did later see another much fresher-looking individual, but that one did not allow me to obtain any photographs.

This Common Mormon managed to fly although it had lost much of its wings

It is astonishing that such a severely damaged butterfly can still keep going

I decided not to tackle the steep hike up Lingyan mountain, and instead ambled along the pathways that flank the hilly area, stopping whenever I heard a flock of birds or saw an interesting butterfly. On one occasion I found myself in a semi-derelict cemetery, a slightly spooky place. A little further along, I came to the attractive Tianling Buddhist temple, a much more cheerful place, and I admired an almost Stonehenge-like natural rock formation on the hillside above me.

A relatively modern grave in an otherwise derelict cemetery

The imposing gateway to the Tianling temple was a much more cheerful sight than the cemetery

The Tianling temple looked attractive and welcoming

The Tianling temple’s roof looked attractive through the trees

A close-up of the Tianling roof

Extraordinary rock formations reminded me of Stonehenge

On the way back, I left the main path and wandered along a grassy track along the edge of the wooded hill. Some strange rectangular cavities had been exposed by erosion, and I eventually decided that they must be ancient graves. After my near-death experience in the morning, finding myself unexpectedly in a cemetery, and then seeing these open graves, I felt that I had had enough of macabre scenes, and I headed back towards the main route.

These strange rectangular holes may have been ancient graves, exposed by erosion

How I love this kind of woodland track, a paradise for butterflies

Before I got there, however, some gentle calls and flitting birds attracted my attention, and I was delighted to find a small flock of one of my very favourite Oriental birds, the delightful Yellow-throated, or Elegant, Bunting. This little gem, with its perky crest and jet black mask and bib, set off by a bright yellow eyebrow and throat, took my mind back my first ever sighting of this species in the winter of 1986/1987, in a forest in Kyoto, when my friend Guy Walker and I were house-sitting in a freezing, ancient, paper-walled house with no indoor toilet over Christmas and New Year, and had recently arrived in Japan after our epic Trans-Siberian journey.

The male Yellow-throated Bunting is a delightful little bird

The autumn leaves were looking lovely in the afternoon sunshine, and I savoured the peaceful scenery of this attractive area.

The autumn colours are approaching their best

Red leaves against a blue sky near Tianling temple

Japanese maple leaves in all their autumn glory

A final flurry of butterflies included a beautiful Small Copper, Lycaena phleas, which posed attractively in the afternoon sunshine, and then I left the forest and returned to the maelstrom of traffic and noise that is modern Suzhou.

The Small Copper is always a pleasure to see, whether in Europe or China

The Lingyan pagoda peeping over the hill


Wednesday 8th November 2017

Hiking in Hangzhou

This last weekend saw me departing my flat at 06.30 on Saturday morning, travelling for nearly an hour on the Suzhou metro and then for almost an hour and a half on one of China’s impressive bullet trains. My intention was to join up with one of the birding friends I had made a month or so ago through the Shanghai Birding group, and we had agreed to meet at our destination, Hangzhou East railway station. However, by one of those extraordinary coincidences that seem to pepper my life, it turned out that her pre-booked seat on the almost full train was right across the aisle from mine, so we in fact started chatting immediately after she boarded at Jiaxing, where she lives.

As always, my wish was to head away from the crowds, an aim which is not easy to achieve in China. We had been advised that it might be worth visiting some forested hills behind the Liuhe Pagoda, which towers over a hill on the banks of the Qiantang river. The taxi ride through the vast, modern metropolis of Hangzhou hinted at nothing of the ancient history of this former capital, and it was with some relief that we entered the forest on foot, and almost at once the peace of the forest embraced us.

Although the weather has cooled down delightfully over the past few weeks, there has not yet been a frost, and a number of butterflies are still flying. As well as the ubiquitous Chinese Comma, I was pleased to see a couple of Indian Red Admirals and a few of those marvelously delicate fliers, the Common Sailer, Neptis hylas, although none posed in a suitable position for photography.

Indian Red Admiral, Vanessa indica

Searching for birds in Chinese forests seems not be easy, and at first we found very little, although a Crested Goshawk circled high above us, showing its prominent “gular” stripe (a stripe along its throat) very clearly.

A bleeping and speaking effigy of a friendly policeman motioned us towards a flight of steps leading up steeply into the forest, and we powered our way up to the ancient tomb of Gong Zuiyu (1622 – 1685), a prominent official during the Qing Dynasty. The statues of guards and their horses flanking the approach to the circular tomb itself looked genuinely ancient, although it is often hard to tell what is authentically old and what is a recent reconstruction.

The policeman saluted us on our way to the tomb

The steps leading up to the tomb were but a taster of what was to come!

Sometime it is hard to know what is genuinely ancient here

Had we known what lay ahead of us, we might not have made the effort to climb up to that tomb; the flight of steps leading up to it was nothing compared to the stairway to Heaven that we now found ourselves faced with. We struggled up, stopping to catch our breath every now and then, and it was a considerable relief to arrive at the top of the hill, where a chilly wind was whistling across the ridge, and a fine panorama of wooded hills stretched out ahead of us, contrasting with the blue waters of the renowned beauty spot of Xi Hu, or West Lake, with the modern skyline of downtown Hangzhou beyond.

Little did we know that these steps were the first of many

….many many many!

A view back over the river towards a southern part of Hangzhou

Once we reached the top, West Lake and downtown Hangzhou were visible in the distance

Our route now took us down a narrow pathway, on which we had to make way for numerous groups of hikers on their way up. We asked what they were doing, and we were told that they were on an organized hike from the nearby Zhejiang University.

It was not long before we emerged into a beautiful area of tea plantations, the rows of neatly clipped tea bushes stretching up the valleysides. The whole of this range of hills is now protected as the home of the renowned Longjing tea, and we enjoyed the warm sunshine and a few birds on the woodland edges next to the tea plantations. Japanese White-eyes, Black-throated Tits and a small group of Tristram’s Buntings were a pleasant find, and I was pleased to see a spectacular butterfly, the Common Jay (not a bird, but a member of the Swallowtail family), Graphium doson, flitting over the tea bushes, but it did not pose for a photograph.

Walking down through the tea plantations was a delight

The tea grown around Hangzhou is apparently quite renowned throughout China

We finally emerged on a roadway at the bottom of the valley, and it was clear that this a popular weekend destination as there were large numbers of people enjoying the woodland, including an extraordinarily dressed group of girls dressed up in weird costumes. We asked them what they were doing, and apparently they were celebrating their graduation. Their costumes made up for the lack of ornithological interest, and nobody could claim that we had seen nothing of note!

There may not have been many birds to see, but this lot provided considerable interest!

An extraordinary sight

Meeting couples in wedding garb is common in China, wherever beautiful photos can be taken

It certainly is a picturesque area

A beautiful pool in the forest

After a delicious, late lunch at a restaurant, we wandered back towards the main road, where one of the difficulties of travelling in China manifested itself. We needed a taxi to take us to our hotel, which was situated across the wide river, and which it would not have been possible to reach on foot. In the gathering darkness, there was no taxi to be seen at all. There is a mobile phone app here called Didi, which shows all available taxis nearby, but it said “No taxis are available”. Hmmm, what does one do? Luckily, finally an occupied taxi arrived, and we nabbed it quickly.

The following day emphasized these difficulties even more. We had arranged to meet up with a British birder who lives in Hangzhou and his son, and they arrived without trouble, but again when we tried to find a taxi none were to be found. It took perhaps half an hour or more before we finally got one, by the same method….but our troubles were not over: almost all roads and, crucially, the bridges over the Qiantang river were closed to make way for the Hangzhou Marathon, which we had not reckoned with.

After a lot of telephoning to his head office, the taxi driver did eventually manage to understand that we were suggesting that he look for an alternative bridge rather than driving round in circles, and we did finally make it to the Botanic Gardens, where we were intending to do some further birding. Even here we were initially blocked by temporary fences along the marathon route, but a bit of insistence persuaded the officials to let us through.

The gardens were splendid, and we were soon away from the crowds, and surrounded instead by birds. A patch of fruiting trees had attracted numerous White-vented and Black Bulbuls, Chinese Grosbeaks, Red-billed Blue Magpies, Chinese Blackbirds and a lone female Mugimaki Flycatcher (I love that name!).

Hangzhou Botanic Garden is certainly worth a visit

We ventured further into more forested areas, away from people, and were rewarded with sightings of Rufous-capped Babbler, Yellow-bellied Tit, Red-flanked Bluetail and Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, as well as a few faded individuals of an attractive species of Tree Brown butterfly, Lethe syrcis, that were floating around in a clearing next to an ancient commemorative stone.

Lethe syrcis was a new butterfly species for me

By this time it was approaching the time when Shelley would need to start making a move towards the station if she wanted to catch her train at 14.20, and we walked out of the gardens towards a major road. However, as before, no taxi was available. Eventually, we decided the only option was to head on foot towards the nearest metro station, which was some considerable distance away, and we started trudging in that direction.

Suddenly we saw a taxi, and flagged it down, and rather than asking the driver to simply take us to the metro station, we asked him to head straight for Hangzhou East railway station…a bad move, as the traffic was soon almost at a standstill, and we eventually reached the station after her train had departed.

Normally missing a train in China is apparently not a problem as it is possible to go to a specific window and request a ticket for a later train, but there was to be no possibility of that on this occasion. All remaining trains that day were fully booked out, and standing is not permitted. Oh dear! It looked as if a night in a Hangzhou hotel was on the cards for Shelley, but eventually we decided to find out how much a taxi ride back to her home in Jiaxing would cost (there were plenty of taxis free here). After some communication difficulties, she received a quote for about 250RMB, which was certainly less than a hotel and a further train ticket would have come to, so off she went.

I still had two hours to kill before my train was due to depart, so I headed upstairs to the restaurant area and had a meal, and then wandered around in awe at the vastness of the station and the hoards of people waiting for their trains. For someone who is far more at home in the countryside, I must say that urban China is a daunting experience for me.

Everything is on such a huge scale here

The vast numbers of people in Hangzhou East station were quite a sight