Wednesday, April 20, 2011

China: Wuyuan - In the Paddyfields

Away from the villages whose camphor groves shelter Courtois's Laughingthrush (see my previous post), much of the country around Wuyuan is given over to rice paddies bordered with deciduous woodlands.

The woods around the paddies are thick with bamboo. 

Zhang and I continued our birding day threading our way among the paddies and hoping for a sight of woodland birds. The birds proved hard to come by - the day was hot and we were past the peak of territorial display - though we were teased by the songs of unseen scimitar-babblers in the undergrowth. Of course, we had a fascinating day nonetheless.

Our trek was livened by a number of attractive flowering plants.  Any knowledgeable botanists out there?

On this plant, possibly a Mussaenda, the colour is provided not by the flowers but by the surrounding white bracts.

Rice paddies are a sort of man-made wetland, a fact that is not lost on the local amphibian fauna. I would love to know what species these are...

In many parts of southern Asia, fish, freshwater crabs and frogs are a valuable protein by-product of growing paddy rice.  China has an immense diversity of freshwater crabs (243 species in 37 genera and 2 families!), and I'm not even going to try to identify this one.

Buffalo, of course, require a bit more water.

Here is a particularly handsome orb weaver spider, presumably the east Asian species Argiope amoena.

Here is another orb weaver in her web. The zig-zag white structures, a feature of Argioe webs, are stabilimenta.  Despite its name, the stabilimentum appears to have no role in stabilizing the web.  There are a number of hypotheses speculating exactly what it is for.  One, based on the fact that the silk in the stabilimentum reflects ultraviolet light, is that it attracts insects to the web - perhaps a visual version of the old Victorian poem (by one Mary Howitt), "Will you walk into my parlour? said the spider to the fly / 'Tis the prettiest little parlour. That ever you did spy"!

We found this slender little lizard, with an impressive tail much longer than the rest of its body, clambering about in a low bush. I am pretty sure that it is a member of the genus Takydromus (Lacertidae), the Asian grass lizards, but I do not know which species.  

These are the remains of what appears to be a rat snake (Elaphe or Ptyas?). 

Among the few forest birds to actually show themselves were a party of Grey-cheeked Fulvettas (Alcippe morrisonia).

More open-country birds were, of course, in evidence.  Black Bitterns (Ixobrychus flavicollis) appear common in Chinese wetlands, rather to my surprise as I had found them difficult to find, many years ago, at the other end of their range in Australia.

Red-billed Starlings (Sturnus sericeus) are common (and attractive) in both town and country, and I had numerous good looks at them.  "Sericeus" means "silky", a good description of their plumage.

A favourite bird of mine is the Plumbeous Water-Redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosus), a bird pretty much confined to the banks of fast-flowing rivers.  Like many birds living in similar situations, it has a distinctive high-pitched call note that can carry over the noise of the waters, and a stereotyped visual display (in this case, repeatedly fanning and flicking the tail downwards).  This is a male; the females have a very distinctive plumage that may be secondarily derived from the juvenile.  I wrote all this up in The Ibis once...

While Zhang and I concentrated on natural history, village life went on all around us - workers in the paddy fields...

Parents and grandparents walking their children to school...

And, more disturbingly, people spraying their fields with who knows what pesticide, with no protective gear in sight - something I first saw (and had been upset by) in Vietnam ten years before.

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