Saturday, March 12, 2011

China: Wuyuan - Rare Birds and Ancient Trees

An ancient camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) is a magnificent thing - a view that has been shared by generations of Chinese, who have planted them outside their houses and around their villages, and protected them as they grew old. Not long ago, ornithologists discovered an unsuspected beneficiary of this practice. Groves of ancient camphor trees around villages near the city of Wuyuan in Jiangxi Province are apparently the only habitat left (except for an equally tiny area in southwest Yunnan) for one of the rarest birds in the world, the Blue-crowned or Courtois's Laughingthrush (Dryonastes courtoisi). 

The laughingthrush, only recently recognized as a full species, was the chief reason Zhang took me to Wuyuan, and certainly the reason we began our birding day - July 2, 2010 - in a camphor grove, across a river flowing behind a tiny traditional village.

As we crossed the river, we were eyed with curiosity by women washing their clothes on the bank -- about as far removed from the almost crazed bustle of Shanghai as one could imagine.

There were a number of more or less common birds in the grove; this is one of them, a Grey Treepie (Dendrocitta formosae), a species widespread in southern and southeastern Asia.

And then there were, as advertised, the laughingthrushes.  It was hard for me to believe that these birds, bold and noisy in their family groups, were not simply another common species, adapted to human-modified landscapes, and that there were not equally-bold parties of them behind every village for hundreds of miles around.  But, as far as we know now, there are only between 150 and 160 Courtois's Laughingthrushes left in the world, in perhaps 20 loose colonies.

Why are they so rare?  I don't know, and I'm not sure anybody else does either.  The bird actually went unseen by ornithologists between 1919 and 2000.  It seems, though, that the camphor groves protected by Wuyuan villagers have preserved a combination of habitat elements - low elevation, large trees, a nearby river - gone everywhere else in the region, but essential to the birds' strict requirements.  The Oriental Bird Club Bulletin article I have linked to at the beginning of this post pretty much sums up what we know (though it was written before courtoisi was recognized as a distinct species); I recommend reading it.

In the meantime, I will leave the bird as the hero of this short post.  It is sobering to think that Courtois's Laughingthrush may owe its continued existence to the Chinese people - as does, for instance, Père David's Deer (Elaphurus davidianus), a much more famous endangered species that survives only because a herd was kept in the Imperial Hunting Park, the private property of the Emperor of China.  Given what is happening to the environment in much of the rest of China, it would be nice to think that Chinese conservationists will yet prevail, and that the ancient traditions that have preserved the laughingthrush might one day reassert themselves more widely and save still more of China's considerable wildlife heritage.

Friday, March 11, 2011

China: Huangshan - Crouching Laughingthrush, Hidden Flycatcher

A naturalist visiting Mount Huangshan, no matter how tuned in he is to the fine points of plant and animal life, might be forgiven for failing to tear his eyes away from its magnificent and ever-changing scenery (yes, the final scene of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed here). I had that difficulty myself, and have therefore spared my readers the same temptation by relegating my views of the mountain to a separate, earlier post. Hopefully, you have all, by now, had time to absorb these (and make plans, real or virtual, to see this great natural wonder for yourselves), and are ready to turn your attention to the life, animal and human, you can find along the trail.  Meanwhile, take note of the sage advice posted above.

Just as a reminder, though, here is one last view of the ascent. Any visitor can follow in the paths of centuries of Huangshan tourists and climb the mountain from the bottom, but today most people (including your out-of-shape correspondent, his long-suffering wife and faithful guide) use the cable car.

That doesn't mean that we non-climbers are treated to a literal walk in the park once we arrive. The trails around the summit cover a vast distance, much if which you reach by climbing endless sets of stairs. Zhang suggested that we should descend, eventually, by a different cable route than the one we had taken to the top, and we didn't realize until we were well past the point of no return that this meant ten kilometers of ever-steeper staircases (past, of course, one magnificent view after another, so I am glad we did it).

Eileen observed afterwards that it was a good thing that we had tackled Huangshan at our age (or, at least, at mine); who knows how much longer we will be up to such a feat -- although the hordes of Chinese tourists crowding the trails included some very elderly climbers indeed.

Workers on the mountain don't have the luxury of the cable car. Every suitcase, box of food (for the hotels up top) and bag of trash has to be carried up or down the mountain on foot.

Tourists, though, have the additional option of hiring a sedan chair...

...creating an exhausting job opportunity for the chair carriers.

The forest on the heights of Huangshan is dominated by magnificent pine trees, many of them shaped by the wind into elegant natural works of art (and thereby providing the inspiration for many a human-created landscape painting). The dominant species is the  Huangshan Pine (Pinus hwangshanensis), found in several provinces of central China but first described from the mountain.

Besides the pines, we passed a number of fine stands of  deciduous trees as we toiled along the summit trails. These are the leaves of Huangshan oak (Quercus stewardii).

This is a Huangshan sorbus (Sorbus amabilis).

We particularly enjoyed these lovely flowering dogwoods (Cornus sp.). Of course all dogwoods flower, but species like this one surround their otherwise inconspicuous inflorescences with graceful, petal-like bracts.

I am not sure what this flowering tree is, but its flowers were particularly beautiful.

So were other flowers we found along the way: wild roses...

I believe this to be a viburnum of some kind...

This may be a viburnum too, clinging to a pocket of soil in the rock face.

This little jumping spider looks as though it had been carved out of Chinese jade.

Zhang, as usual, kept his eye out for birds, even among the often noisy crowds of mountain-watchers.

The most noticeable bird on Huangshan must be the Buffy Laughingthrush (Dryonastes berthemyi). Bold, sociable and jaylike, it appears to have little fear of humans.  It stays mostly at or below eye level, and we were able to get close to a number of what I presume were extended family groups.

I found this Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) was considerably harder to track down, though this is not usually a shy species. Its cumbersome English name reflects the fact that taxonomists have been a bit unsure about what to do with it; molecular studies have revealed that it's closest relatives are, rather surprisingly, in Africa, and both it and its kin have now been included in a 'new' bird family, the Stenostiridae or fairy-flycatchers.

Few countries besides China can boast, as one if its commoner birds, a creature as magnificent as the Red-billed Blue Magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha). This one only let its head show out of the foliage, so you can't see its long and splendid tail.

The hotels on the mountain provided nesting sites for Asian House Martins (Delichon dasypus).

Refuse tips along the trail provided exploring opportunities for this little squirrel, a ground-dweller despite it's impressively bushy tail. It is (I believe) a Perny's long-nosed squirrel (Dremomys pernyi).

Butterflies included this danaid, which I believe to be a Chestnut Tiger (Parantica sita).

This is Araschnia doris, a specialty of China's central mountains.

To get to the second cable car station, we had to follow what turned out to be an increasingly steep spur trail leading, at times, through narrow passages between towering columns of rock.

Just before our final descent to the cable car, we had a close look at this fine male Asian Verditer Flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus).
This attractive little bird busily hopping about in a clump of low bushes was certainly the find of the day -- one of a small group of young Slaty Buntings (Latoucheornis siemsseni), an obscure central Chinese endemic often thought to be different enough from the more typical buntings (Emberiza) of the Old World to deserve its own genus.

The Slaty Bunting reminds me more of some of the New World "buntings" in the Cardinalidae than of its actual nearest relatives. We saw the birds quite late in the day, on the spur road to the second cable car -- justifying, for me (as if the scenery weren't justification enough) the extra effort we took to reach it.

At the end of our long day we descended, footsore and weary, via the last cable car to the mountain's foot. The woods at the bottom were decorated with clumps of immense bamboo. 

Here I found a remarkable tree. There are only two species of tuliptree in the world, one -- the yellow-poplar or American tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in eastern North America -- and the other in China, a distribution matched by a number of plants (including the tuliptree's near relatives the magnolias) and by such peculiar and ancient animals as paddlefish, giant salamanders and alligators. This is the Chinese tuliptree (Liriodendron chinense), its oddly truncate leaves immediately recognizable, though they are larger and more dramatically lobed than those of its American cousin. 

Finally, just before we drove back to town for an exceedingly well-earned rest, I was able to get my closest view yet of a Collared Finchbill (Spizixos semitorques), one of China's most distinctive and handsome bulbuls.