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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Monday 14th August 2017

Another extraordinary link with my great grandfather G C Champion

Following on from my last post, in which I described my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s friendship with Dr. T A Chapman, today I will describe another of his collaborations, this time inspired by an encounter yesterday with a butterfly on the coastal dunes in southern Brittany. After a lengthy search, I finally located a single individual of Oberthür’s Grizzled Skipper, Pyrgus armoricanus, which was named in 1910 by one of my great grandfather’s closest entomological friends, René Oberthür (1852 – 1944). There are numerous species of grizzled skipper across Europe, and they are extremely hard to separate, but here in Brittany there are only two, one of which only flies in the Spring. Therefore, when I came across a small black-and-white skipper darting across the short dune vegetation, I knew at once that I had found a species that brought me into close contact with my great-grandfather. Although I had forgotten my rucksack containing both of the cameras I normally use for butterfly photography, I did nonetheless manage to obtain a photographic record of this flighty little creature using my Samsung mobile phone.

The diminutive Oberthür’s Grizzled Skipper, which brought me into contact with my great grandfather

Not only was the Oberthür’s Grizzled Skipper in evidence, but several individuals of the rare dune subspecies of the Silver-studded Blue, Plebejus argus plouharnelensis, were also present. This rare butterfly was also first described in 1910 by René Oberthür, using two specimens caught on 4th and 6th June 1909 on the dunes near Plouharnel.

The dune subspecies of the Silver-studded Blue was described by Oberthür in 1910

The bleak-looking dunes near Plouharnel are in fact rich in insect life

René and his brother Charles (1845 – 1924) were the sons of François-Charles Oberthür, a printer from Alsace who moved to Brittany, and founded the renowned Imprimerie Oberthür in the Rue de Paris, Rennes, together with Aloys Senefelder, inventer of lithography. All three men were passionate entomologists, René specializing in butterflies and Charles in beetles. They amassed impressive collections during their lifetimes, Charles eventually having the second largest privately held collection in the world. More than 750,000 of these specimens ended up in the Natural History Museum in London, while others went to the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and some remained in Rennes, in the university collection there.

René Oberthür

Charles Oberthür

My great grandfather worked extensively with both of the Oberthür brothers, and visited their homes in Rennes on numerous occasions. They exchanged specimens and both he and Charles were Fellows of the Entomological Society of London, later the Royal Entomological Society.

An encounter earlier this year in southern Spain with another species of butterfly, the Iberian Scarce Swallowtail, Iphiclides (podalirius) feisthamelii, had also brought me into contact with the Oberthürs, this time in a charmingly humorous way (although perhaps not for the individual butterfly that perished in this extraordinary incident in Rennes in 1923).

An Iberian Scarce Swallowtail that I photographed in southern Spain earlier this year

The Iberian Scarce Swallowtail is paler than its northern cousin

The incident involved three eminent Breton lepidopterists. One day in 1923, Jean Cherel was wandering along the Rue de Paris in Rennes, net in hand, when to his astonishment a specimen of the Iberian Scarce Swallowtail sailed towards him. A quick swish of the net allowed him to capture the butterfly, which he took immediately to Charles Oberthür, who lived in the Rue de Paris, and he identified it. After a short enquiry, it turned out that René Oberthür had just returned to Rennes after an insect-hunting trip to Vernet-les-Bains, in the French Pyrenees, and he had brought a number of chrysalises back with him. Once the butterfly had emerged and dried its wings, René let it go in his garden in the Rue de Paris. What he had not reckoned on was that the ever-vigilant Jean Cherel should happen to be passing with his net, and the butterfly fell victim to this passionate collector, “chasseur passionné à qui rien n’échappe”. (Source: Atlas des Papillons Diurnes de Bretagne, Locus Solus, 2017).

And what brings this whole story to a delightful close is that I myself had photographed a beautiful pair of Iberian Scarce Swallowtails way back in 2001….just above Vernet-les-Bains!

Two wonderful Iberian Scarce Swallowtails that I found by a stream in 2001, near Vernet-les-Bains


Monday 24th July 2017

An extraordinary and unpleasant experience had by my great grandfather G C Champion and his great entomologist friend T A Chapman in northern Spain in 1906

My blog has been quiet of late, but a recent visit to Spain, during which I saw the butterfly Chapman’s Blue, Polyommatus thersites, inspired me to write a piece about a visit made by my great grandfather G C Champion and his great friend Dr. T A Chapman to northern Spain in 1906. During that journey, while hunting for insects in a remote part of northwestern Spain, the two of them had an unpleasant experience based on a delusion. Chapman’s Blue, named after T A Chapman, is similar to the Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus, except for the fact that it is lacking two small black spots near the base of the forewing.

Chapman’s Blue, showing the lack of a black spot near the base of the forewing that distinguishes it from the Common Blue

The Common Blue has a black spot near the base of the forewing, separating it from the similar Chapman’s Blue

At El Barco we had an experience that was quite new to us in Spain, one which though not altogether pleasant, was of considerable interest entomologically, anthropologically and probably in several other directions. We made a short excursion on the afternoon of our arrival and on the next day tried a rather longer one to the river at the top of a side valley, with very similar country to that which we afterwards more fully examined some 20 miles off (as the crow flies) at Casayo. We thought several of the people we met were less civil and friendly than had been our universal experience previously, and at our evening meal one of the other guests asked us pointedly as to how we found the people disposed towards us. This seemed a very curious and unusual question, but that evening and the following day we had no difficulty in ascertaining from our landlord and from visitors at the inn what was alluded to, a remarkable delusion of a great majority of the inhabitants, a delusion of whose existence we had abundant evidence in the virulent abuse one lady bestowed on Mr. Champion on our excursion the next morning, which we purposely made a short one, and which was elucidated and explained to us in detail by Mr. Edward Jones, an English gentleman long settled in El Barco, of whose kindness to us we have the most genial recollections, as well as by his brother, Mr. H Jones, whom we remember with pleasure. It appears that 25 to 30 years ago, the Phylloxera reached El Barco and caused widespread damage among the vine-growers, more or less the whole population. Incidentally, it may be noted that Mr. E Jones was one of the largest of these and that he made further sacrifices as a pioneer in ascertaining what remedies were available, and introducing American vine stocks and otherwise restoring the vine culture of the district to prosperity. The natives, it appears, were convinced that the Phylloxera had been willfully introduced by some Frenchmen with a view to their ruin, and to destroy Spanish competition in the wine trade. No doubt we did not hear all the history of this delusion, and what we did hear was too long to repeat here. The delusion was, however, very firmly established, and persists strongly to the present time. About 10 years ago, some Italian workmen in search of employment passed through the district, and were taken by the natives to be Frenchmen [all foreigners are supposed to be Frenchmen] with a similar sinister exploit in view, and several of them were beaten and one or two seriously injured. Our position in their view was that we also were Frenchmen come to El Barco with an identical purpose, an idea possibly suggested, certainly confirmed, by our manipulation of nets, satchels, pill-boxes, etc. As vineyards were everywhere, except on the high ground, it seemed self-evident that we took out of our satchels Phylloxera spawn and by means of our nets scattered it broadcast over the country.

It must be remembered that our real objects are wholly incomprehensible to the country people, and even when, as we have always before found them, most friendly and polite, it was always clear that they regarded our accounts of our proceedings as being obviously insincere. Their usual belief was that we were gathering materials for some potent and valuable medicine, at other times they seemed to think that we were mining engineers unwilling to avow our explorations.

Unfortunately, at El Barco, another explanation fell in at once with their prejudices, and there was no doubt much sincerity in the threats of what would happen to us, that we heard of a man going so far as to say he would certainly use a gun if he found us near his vines. Our informants, being more educated, regarded these popular views as nonsense, but had no doubt they were strongly held, and would be acted on by the small cultivators. Others of the peasant class with whom we talked clearly held the popular view, and found their innate politeness under an extreme strain when desiring to show their belief in our honesty. A very curious point was, that within 36 hours of our arrival not only were these opinions of us adopted, but everybody apparently for miles around was aware of our presence, and knew, and I fear usually accepted, this extraordinary view of the object of our visit. We could no doubt have claimed official protection and got some persons to go with us as guards, but as the immediate locality was not attractive, and the friendly bearing towards us of the inhabitants was always an indisputable item in our enjoyment of our excursions in Spain, we decided to move on at once, proceeding to Casayo.

T A Chapman, my great grandfather’s entomologist friend and travel companion