Wednesday, February 23, 2011

China: Forty-five Views of Mount Huangshan

From Shanghai Zhang took Eileen and I westward to one of the great sights of natural China. Huangshan, the yellow mountain, has been a tourist attraction for centuries. The influence of its remarkable scenery on Chinese art is palpable; the best way I can describe the summit of Huangshan is to say that it is every Chinese landscape painting you have ever seen come to life - towering sheer cliffs, magnificent pines growing improbably out of vertical rock faces, the lot.

Thousands of Chinese tourists still visit Huangshan, either climbing the mountain or, like us, making the long ascent by cable car. Of course we went there in search of nature as well as scenery, but so overwhelming is the ever-changing landscape at the top of the mountain that I have decided, for this entry, to concentrate on the scenery alone.

Here, then, are views of Mount Huangshan, taken on the remarkable single day, last July 1, that we spent there, from the first cable car ascent in the morning over ten kilometers of increasingly steep, paved and stepped trails to our descent by another cable car, on a different route, in the late afternoon. I present them without comment except to note that the tall rocky spire with a pine perched, seemingly impossibly, at its tip is known (for obvious reasons) as the Paintbrush.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

China: The Reedbeds of Chongming Island

After our cruise on the Yangtze, Eileen and I found ourselves with time on our hands that was supposed to have been spent seeing Shanghai with my parents. With Mom and Dad unable to come, and with my dear wife's particular indulgence, I engaged the services of Zhang Lin, a well-known and highly recommended local guide, for a few days of birding.

We spent our first day (June 30, 2010) largely in pursuit of one of Shanghai's special birds (and one of the oddest-looking songbirds in the world), the highly local (and highly striking) Reed Parrotbill (Paradoxornis heudei). To find it, Zhang took us across the Yangtze to Chongming Island - a journey possible by car only in the last few months, thanks to a new bridge (scheduled to be followed, of course, by massive development, so we may have been only just in time). Chongming is lined with extensive reedbeds that not only support the parrotbill, but also some other birds of great interest and, not incidentally, people .

With development still to come, local people can still pursue a traditional way of life hunting in the reeds for fish and frogs, along the canals that penetrate the reedbeds.

Clouds of little pierid butterflies, of at least two species, clustered around patches of flowering weed along the roadside.

While I chased the butterflies, Zhang scanned the marshland for parrotbills.

Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) flew over the reed tops in surprising numbers, apparently engaging in aerial courtship).

Reed Parrotbills are often shy, but we were lucky. Thus one perched atop a reed, singing - only close enough for a record shot, alas. Even this is enough to show off it's principal feature: a truly massive bill, surely among the thickest and heaviest, in proportion to the bird that bears it, of any passerine. 

This photo fails to show the bill, but gives a better view of the bird's distinctive head pattern.

Here is another parrotbill, also distant but evocative (I think) against it's reedy background.

Not content with the roadside view, Zhang led me down a trail into the depths of the marsh.Unfortunately much of the grassy-looking vegetation here is an introduced cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, that is choking out much of the native vegetation, including Phragmites reeds, on which the parrotbill depends.

Herons flying back and forth around us included Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta)...

...and a Striated Heron or two (Butorides striatus).

Here we got much closer to another rare and local species, one that I had not even been thinking of as we headed out to the island: a Marsh Grassbird or Japanese Marsh Warbler (Megalurus, or Locustella, pryeri) -- the confusion about it's name matches scientific uncertainty as to whether this bird is a northern outlier of the Australasian grassbirds (Megalurus) or an eastern representative of the Eurasian Locustella. The two genera are reasonably closely related, so solving this dilemma will probably be of interest only to Old Wirld warbler enthusiasts. The bird in the photo is an immature, full of what appeared to be youthful curiosity about his binocular-clad visitors.

From the reedbeds we made a brief stop at a small reforested woodland for a further selection of warblers and other birds.   Eileen relaxed among the trees while the birders went to work.

Bird-catchers operate here, too: We found, and cut down, an illegal mistnet, apparently forgotten by the poachers that set it, that had already claimed a few birds - now, alas, long dead. Presumably a more recent victim (and the very devil to untangle) was this fine male stag beetle, still very much alive and quite capable if demonstrating that its massive mandibles, used for hoisting rival males into the air during courtship battles, can give an overinquisitive naturalist a nasty pinch!