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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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