Friday 6th October 2017

Into the “wilderness”

A little frustrated by urban life here in Suzhou, I decided to aim for the hills today. A subway journey of just under an hour took me to the terminus of Line 1 at Mudu, and I then walked along a busy highway towards some low hills that did not look too far away. The temperature was pleasant, and it was not long before I started spotting butterflies, and at one point I had to venture into a bushy area to try to gain a better view of a huge black and white Nymphalid species, but unfortunately it disappeared before I could see it well.

A left turn and a short further walk brought me to the entrance of a country park, where I was greeted by a friendly security guard. I headed away from the road, and almost at once I found myself in my natural habitat: open forest with plenty of butterflies to enjoy. A series of high-pitched bird calls alerted me to a flock of delightful Black-throated Tits. Clearly closely related to our Long-tailed Tit, this colourful, dapper little gem roves through the forest in flocks, making a similar sound to the Long-tailed Tit, whose call I well remember my birding friend Jon Robbins accurately describing in Japan as a ‘spluttering twitter”.

My kind of place: wooded hills and a butterfly haven

Easily the commonest large butterfly here was the Chinese Comma, Polygonia c-aureum, which I was already familiar with from my days in Japan. These were everywhere, gliding around and perching cooperatively, for once.

The Chinese Comma is a little less angular than its European cousin

Blues were also a feature here, the Long-tailed Blue, Lampides boeticus, appearing wherever its larval foodplant, a climbing bean, was growing. The Short-tailed Blue, Everes argiades, was also in evidence, as was a pugnacious Small Copper, Lycaena phleas, that kept chasing away a Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, that tried to settle on the same patch of Aster flowers. I could have been forgiven for thinking I was back in Brittany, as I had enjoyed seeing all of these species there this past summer, but one other blue, the Forget-me-not, Catochrysops strabo, took me off to India in my thoughts, as I was familiar with that species from there, while a mating pair of Pale Grass Blues, Zizeeria maha, and a number of Eastern Pale Clouded Yellows, Colias erate, transported me to Japan, where I used to observe them.

Long-tailed Blues were everywhere

A tattered Short-tailed Blue added to the European feeling

The Small Copper would not accept competition from other butterflies

Even a Painted Lady was not allowed to sit for long

A mating pair of Pale Grass Blues was a pleasant sight

One of several Eastern Pale Clouded Yellows that were nectaring here

The Indian theme was continued by the presence of numerous splendid Indian Fritillaries, Argyreus hyperbius. The male looks much like the fritillaries we see in Europe, entirely spotted with black on an orangey-brown background, but the female mimics the poisonous Danaus chrysippus, having black and white wing-tips like that species, and even fluttering in a Danaid-like way.

The male Indian Fritillary looks like a typical fritillary, tawny all over with black spots

But the female Indian Fritillary is spectacularly different, with black and white wing-tips

A little further on I came to a series of temples, complete with chanting monks and clanging bells. From here I ventured up into the hills, which were covered with low pines between the rocky sandstone outcrops. A running race was going on, and every now and then some copiously sweating runners, of both sexes, would come puffing past, some race officials cheering them on. Just over the crest of the ridge, I spotted a large butterfly skimming around a tree, and a closer look revealed it to be a late and very damaged Lesser, or possibly Freyer’s Purple Emperor, Apatura ilia or metis, which I only just managed to photograph as it flew out of shot!

The Purple Emperor is just visible as it flies off

The hills were in fact rather over-run with people, hardly surprising I guess as these are among the closest natural areas to downtown Suzhou, and they must constitute the city’s lungs as well. In fact, looking down on the city from the wooded hills brought home just how much air pollution there is here, as the hazy air demonstrated. I had hoped to be able to see the giant Taihu lake in the distance, but it was invisible in the murk.

Monks were chanting in the tranquil temple

A rustic scene close to Suzhou

I approved of the mottos on this bull’s plinth

I reached the top of the ridge, only to find huge numbers of people around the Lingyan temple with its impressive pagoda, but the queues for tickets put me off the idea of going in, and I continued my walk.

Looking down into Suzhou’s murky atmosphere

Some very loud bird calls alerted me to a party of Masked Laughing-thrushes, a species that may well be a “lifer” for me, but I have not got my World list here with me in China. Laughing-thrushes are engaging birds that hop through the forest and undergrowth, making short flights on rounded wings and then disappearing into thick brush. A Hoopoe also made an appearance on a dead branch, seemingly unconcerned by the people close by.

A confiding Hoopoe was an unexpected sighting

The Indian theme was emphasized again by two brief sightings of Indian Red Admirals, Vanessa indica, that I glimpsed as they shot by, and the day was brought to a close by a beautiful, tawny Peacock Pansy, Precis almana, which I was unable to photograph as it was chased off by a male Indian Fritillary. All in all, though, a therapeutic day of nature close to the great Suzhou conurbation.

I did my best!


Thursday 5th October 2017

Duck gut on a stick and other delights

Yesterday I ventured into old Suzhou with a team of university colleagues, and it was not long before we were confronted with China during a holiday week: the place was absolutely packed with people.

The main shopping street was absolutely packed, although the other streets were almost empty

We meandered our way along Pingjiang Lu, a narrow pedestrian street by the side of a canal, literally surrounded by a sea of people, almost all carrying some kind of local delicacy and chomping away on something as they walked along. A bowl of fiery red objects turned out to be chicken’s feet, one of the dishes that I had sampled on my visit to China back in 2004 (and not one that I shall be rushing to reacquaint myself with).

Chicken’s feet, a delectable morsel for the locals here

While waiting for one of our colleagues who had to queue for a long while for the public toilets, we noticed a girl in front of us nibbling on some stringy objects impaled lengthwise on wooden sticks. I commented to one of the group that they looked like a type of worm, but he then asked her what she was eating, and her matter-of-fact answer was, “Duck gut”. Apparently, duck intestine grilled with chilli sauce and strung on a stick is a popular dish here. None of us rushed to buy some.

Eventually we turned out of this human river into a quieter side-street, again by a canal. A sudden splashing sound revealed an aged man swimming along through the distinctly dingy brown water, obviously doing his daily exercise routine. How anyone could survive the pollution in what may well have little better than an open sewer is an interesting question. Perhaps he is now immune to everything after extended exposure to every possible form of microbe.

The quieter side street

An old man swam past through the dingy water

Our final destination here was the Couples’ Garden, one of Suzhou’s renowned ancient yuanlin, or ancient private compounds that were originally designed to balance Confucian ideas of urban social duty and Tao concepts of worldly retreats in nature. The clever use of the limited space makes these gardens extraordinary, with their ponds, ornate bridges, pavilions and artificial rocky hillocks, all crammed into a tiny area.

The Couples’ Garden is a visual delight

A Chinese opera was being performed in this pavilion

All in all, the day provided a fascinating glimpse of ancient China with a full in-the-face introduction to the teeming masses of the modern Middle Kingdom.

We avoided the Starbucks coffee outlet

But ended up going to the Beast Master coffee shop instead!


Tuesday 3rd October 2017

Into the Unknown

Most of my blog posts to date have been based around my explorations in the footsteps of my ancestors, but this time I am venturing into areas not previously visited by relatives, at least to my knowledge. I am here on a teaching contract with Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University, a Sino-British joint venture in Suzhou, China, and as yet I am unsure of what awaits me.

A week has passed since I reached this place, and what a week of contrasting experiences it has been. I arrived at 02.30AM on Sunday 23rd September, in torrential rain, and struggled to find the entrance to my apartment, the rain drenching my luggage in the process.

Suzhou is a city of extraordinary contrasts, ranging from ancient streets and gardens in the old centre, through soaring skyscrapers in the new commercial districts, to willow-lined canals and tranquil lakes.

Old Suzhou is bounded by substantial walls

Ancient buildings in old Suzhou

The Temple of Mystery, originally laid out between 275 and 279 AD

In contrast, much of the modern city looks like this

The Dushu Lake is an attractive spot in modern Suzhou

As always, I was anxious to discover the birds and butterflies of the area, but so far I have not had a great deal of luck here in the city. A Hoopoe on a lawn in the university was an unexpected highlight, and a number of interesting butterflies next to an electricity sub-station close to my accommodation provided some entertainment, especially as none of them would settle to allow me to photograph them (this is a characteristic I have noticed in many warm countries: unlike in northern Europe, where butterflies need to bask with their wings open in order to get going, here they just keep going and rarely sit).

A pleasant pathway where I have seen a number of butterflies

Yesterday I ventured away from Suzhou to check out Cape Nanhui, the easternmost point of land on the section of coast beyond Shanghai, and I was reminded of just how time-consuming birding by public transport can be. I left my accommodation at 05.30 and caught a bus to Suzhou station, arriving there just in time to catch the 07.04 bullet train to Shanghai. Here I met up with a South African birder, Shelley, and we then tackled the metro (but got on the wrong train initially), and four changes and over an hour’s journey later, we finally arrived at the terminus of the line at Dishui Lake. Here a taxi was supposed to be waiting for us, but it wasn’t, so we took another one. Birding with a taxi when one does not speak Chinese is also a challenge, but eventually, around four hours after leaving my accommodation, we finally started birding.

My first sight of the East China Sea, at Cape Nanhui

Cape Nanhui is strategically located right on the East Asian flyway, the migration route that huge numbers of migratory birds use between their breeding grounds in the high Arctic and their wintering grounds in South-east Asia or Australia. The bulk of the area is reedbeds, muddy fields and pools, but with rampant development going on, the habitats are being altered incredibly fast. One apparently particularly important reedbed, formerly home to such special birds as Reed Parrotbill and Chinese Penduline Tit, has just been drained and converted into a young forestry plantation.

A view of the birding areas at Nanhui

An astonishing feature of Cape Nanhui is the series of seven “micro-forests”. I had read about these before arriving, but I might have missed them if Shelley had not asked our lady taxi-driver to stop next to the first one. It was literally a tiny patch of acacia and other trees on the landward side of the seawall, with some scrubby undergrowth. This unprepossessing patch of vegetation, and its six companions that are ranged at short intervals as one heads northwards, provide shelter to an astonishing range of migrant birds on their way south from Siberia. We spent several hours scouring these patches of vegetation, turning up such magical birds as White’s and Siberian Thrushes, a White-throated Rock Thrush, a Swinhoe’s Red-tailed Robin, Sakhalin and Yellow-browed Warblers, as well as Asian Brown, Grey-streaked and the sublime Blue-and-White Flycatchers.

Large numbers of Chinese bird photographers are attracted to these micro-forests, and they set themselves up on small stools among the trees, hoping to catch the best shots of the tired birds as they travel through. Most are well behaved, but some leave plastic trash behind them, and a few even apparently bait hooks with wriggling mealworms to lure the birds closer. Some birds have reportedly been hooked themselves, a truly awful fate.

Other highlights here were a muddy sandbank in the channel just behind one of the “micro-forests”, hosting Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Red-necked Stint, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers and a Greenshank, and a muddy construction site that produced flocks of Oriental Pratincoles, those elegant aerial masters that seem more like swallows than waders. I’m sure I shall become a regular visitor to this ornithological mecca, even though it takes more than four hours to reach!

We met up with some wonderful Chinese birders at Nanhui

Today was mainly taken up with admin and trying to work out what I am supposed to teach when I start my classes next Monday, but I did head out on foot in the afternoon in the hope of seeing a few birds down by Dushu Lake, a beauty spot not far from the university. Instead I found myself literally surrounded by brides and grooms posing for photographs, the brides’ beautiful white dresses becoming horribly soiled on the muddy grass! The lengths people will go to for a wedding photo!

Weddings seem to be big business around here

Another happy couple!

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