Monday 20th November 2017

Another little coincidence

One of things I enjoy is the little coincidences that seem to pepper my life, and there are plenty of them. The most recent one concerns a butterfly that I found in the Hangzhou Botanic Gardens back on 5th November. It was a new species for me, but I recognised it as a Tree Brown, a member of the genus Lethe. Just out of interest, in classical Greek mythology Lethe was a river in the Underworld whose water would induce forgetfulness in those who drank it.

I knew this butterfly belonged to the genus Lethe, but I could not narrow it down to species level

Narrowing it down to a species was not easy, as I do not (yet) possess a complete book of Chinese butterflies. The only one available is a four-volume masterpiece, Butterflies of China, by Wu Chunseng and Xu Yufeng, in Chinese, and costing around £600. I may well invest in this set at some future date, but for the moment I am forced to resort to books on the butterflies of Japan, Nepal and India, and this particular Lethe does not appear in any of them.

However, while searching the internet for images of any cheaper books on Chinese butterflies that might exist, I was astonished to find the image below, on the website of China Scientific Book Services, It depicts a plate from a totally different book, Atlas of Butterflies of Mount Qinling-Bashan (a mountain area in Shaanxi Province, in mid-western China), by Xu Jiazhu and Wei Huanzhi. By an extraordinary stroke of luck, among the approximately 1700 butterfly species that have been recorded to date in China, one of the two species that feature on the page selected to appear on the internet to represent that book depicts “my” Lethe….and there is absolutely no doubt that it was Lethe syrcis.

The lower of the two butterfly species on this page is Lethe syrcis, “my” butterfly!


Sunday 19th November 2017

Winter kicks in but butterflies linger on

This weekend was mostly taken up with essay marking and writing feedback, but a visit to the doctor yesterday morning gave me an excuse to explore another part of Suzhou, this time at the northern end of Jinji Lake, where I was able to wonder at the mammoth 450m, 98-storey Suzhou IFS Tower, which is still under construction (although nothing appeared to be happening at the top).

Construction of the 450m skyscraper appears to have come to a (temporary?) halt

Nothing seemed to be happening at the top of the tower

From here I was able to look across the lake at the 74-storey “Gateway to the East”, which soon after its completion came under attack from critics, who compared it to a pair of “giant underpants”. The 270m-high skyscraper was the work of British architecture practice RMJM, founded in Edinburgh in 1956 by Sir Robert Matthew and Stirrat Johnson-Marshall.

A view across Jinji Lake towards another famous landmark, the building nicknamed “the Trousers”

A strange modern pagoda on an island contrasts with the Trouser building

An interesting robed figure turns his back on the Trousers

The autumn leaves were still spectacular, despite the icy wind

A tranquil but cold view across Jinji Lake

Looking towards the Trousers past the restaurant area of Moon Harbour

Suzhou’s equivalent of the London Eye

The weather was quite different to the other days I have experienced so far here in Suzhou, with an icy chill in the wind, and not a hint of a butterfly anywhere. I wandered through the Giant Ferris-wheel Park and on into Moon Harbour, a complex of restaurants, before taking the metro back home and continuing my marking marathon.

This morning I continued with the marking, but by midday my eyes were protesting at staring at the screen, so I decided it was time to head out. Rather than wasting a lot of time on public transport, I came to the conclusion that it might be interesting to spend some time looking for birds along the route I normally take on my walk to work.

I am not a keen bird photographer, but in the absence of butterflies, I thought I’d try to obtain some shots of the birds that I usually see in the trees on the university campus, and spend some time on a vacant plot that I believe was originally destined to be the site of a new campus for the China branch of Staffordshire University, but is now temporarily occupied by a small garden centre and some domestic geese, ducks and chickens. Such areas of “wasteland” are havens for wildlife in densely populated areas like Suzhou.

I walk along this pathway on my way to work every morning

The vacant Staffordshire University plot is a haven for wildlife and hosts a small garden centre

In the wooded area, it was not long before I heard a quiet rustling in the fallen leaves under a hedge, and after a short while, I spotted a beautiful Grey-backed Thrush, a relatively common but shy species that is restricted to continental North-east Asia. It was hard to obtain a satisfactory shot as the bird was in a very dark area of shade, but I enjoyed astonishingly close views, and in fact each time I walked past that hedge during the following hour and a half, the bird was still there, quietly foraging under the fallen leaves.

The Grey-backed Thrush appeared unperturbed by my presence

There were a lot of birds around, and I was pleased to find a flock of about ten splendid-looking Chinese Grosbeaks feeding on small fruits, their huge bills being used to crack the kernels of the stones inside. These birds are closely related to our Hawfinch, and I savoured my close views of these brightly coloured and boldly patterned finches. They did not pose well for photographs, but I did manage to obtain a few record shots.

The Chinese Grosbeak has an enormous bill that helps it crack open the stones of small fruits

I then ventured out onto an area of more open grassland with scattered trees, where I was treated to a magnificent view of a Hoopoe. I normally see two or three of these dramatic-looking birds on my way to work, but this was the best view I have had as yet.

This was the best view of a Hoopoe that I’ve had so far

Hoopoes seem to be regular birds around the university campus

Also here was a Long-tailed Shrike, a bird which I also see every day around the campus, and in the nearby trees, a beautiful male Daurian Redstart, another lovely bird which I used to be very familiar with when I lived in Japan.

Long-tailed Shrikes are also frequent in this area

Male Daurian Redstarts are very attractive birds

A male Daurian Redstart posing in a tree

I then headed into the vacant plot, where to my great surprise, a gleam of sunshine suddenly brought a few butterflies out. I had assumed that the last two days of cold weather would have brought my butterfly-watching to a halt until next Spring, but no, a number of Small Whites, Pieris rapae, started flying around, and I even saw a Common Grass Yellow, Eurema hecabe, a species that I normally associate with steamy tropical areas.

The sun was shining on the vacant plot

A Small White soaking up the sun’s warmth on this chilly day

I was surprised to see a Common Grass Yellow, a species I associate with warm and humid weather

The vacant lot has its very own lotus pond, where I once spotted a Kingfisher

After a while in this open area, observing Magpies, White Wagtails, Crested Mynas, White-cheeked Starlings and Tree Sparrows, I moved back towards the trees, where I found the Grey-backed Thrush still under its hedge, a female Oriental Magpie-Robin, and a pair of Red-flanked Bluetails foraging discreetly in the bushes.

A female Red-flanked Bluetail perched briefly in the open

The Red-flanked Bluetail was very hard to photograph

The grassy area was now soaking up some of the warmth of the afternoon sun, and a lone male Pale Grass Blue, Zizeeria maha, was basking on a dead leaf.

The grassy area was sheltered from the wind

The Pale Grass Blue was trying to warm in the sunshine

Violets were flowering, and it was not long before I spotted a larger butterfly flapping around, looking rather chilly and clearly seeking out a really warm spot to soak up the sun’s rays: a male Indian Fritillary, Argyreus hyperbius. The larvae of this attractive butterfly feed on those violets, and I have seen them on all of my excursions since I arrived here in late September. Was this male the last of the season?

Violets are the foodplant of the Indian Fritillary

Will this be my last Indian Fritillary of the season?

I finally decided that I had better get back to my marking, but my two hours or so away from the computer had proved to be very enjoyable and productive, and it was a pleasure to be away from the marking! Since then, I am glad to say that I have completed it!

Long-tailed Shrikes like to perch in prominent positions

A splendid show of flowers in the vacant lot


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