Sunday, November 5, 2017

West Malaysia: Birds, Birdwings and Other Things

On our return from Sichuan we spent a weekend in Kuala Lumpur (October 25-26, 2014) before heading back to Singapore, where our grandson Royce was due to be operated on to remove his cancerous tumour.  We stayed with our friends Chips and Shirley, and on October 25 we joined them for their usual Saturday morning constitutional at Bukit Gasing.  Or rather, Eileen did; I preferred, as usual, to avoid the uphill climb in favour of a slow explore along the little stream that runs down to the entrance. 

Little Spiderhunter (Arachnothera longirostra)
Little Spiderhunter (Arachnothera longirostra)
Little Spiderhunter (Arachnothera longirostra)
You can see any number of interesting things if you don't rush; shortly after the rest took off to do some hiking, a Little Spiderhunter (Arachnothera longirostra) dropped in to give me a close look. Though it is the commonest of the spiderhunters, I haven't had many opportunities to photograph one, so I was grateful for this bird's apparent interest in me. For those unfamiliar with them, spiderhunters are glorified, usually oversized sunbirds - or, I should say, deglorified, because in all but the Purple-naped Spiderhunter (Hypogrammica hypogrammicum) they have lost all hints of iridescent colour (and because that one retained a bit of iridescent colour at the back of its neck, it was long considered to be a 'typical' sunbird until its DNA proved otherwise). 

Birds aside, keeping your eyes on the ground (or at least the lower vegetation levels) is usually the best way to spot something - perhaps a spray of tiny yellow flowers arching over a bank.  I've seen this plant many times, but this is the first time I've been able to put a name to it: Globba pendula, a common plant along Malaysian forest trails.  Though it doesn't really look it, it is a miniature member of the ginger family.  The flowers are not much bigger than the bees that pollinate them, and the whole plant is only about a metre tall.  

ant sp
You may spot an orange and black ant making its way over a leaf...

wasp sp
wasp sp
...with a nearby wasp sporting much the same colour pattern.  Is mimicry involved?  They are certainly very different in size!

Copera marginipes
Along the little stream you can find two common damselflies.  This one is Copera marginipesNotice the large, bright yellow legs, which the insects use to display to rivals or prospective mates.  Damselflies have apparently been doing this for a long time - a related damselfly trapped in amber in the mid-Cretaceous, almost 100 million years ago, had greatly expanded, patterned tibiae seemingly adapted to do much the same thing.

Coeliccia albicauda
This is Coeliccia albicauda, a particularly graceful little insect.  The two species seem to have the stream to themselves - I scoured the place for additional damselflies, but never found them.

Banded Demon (Notocrypta paralysos varians)
Skipper butterflies of the genus Notocrypta, found from India to Australia, are called 'demons' in English.   I haven't the faintest idea why.  There are six quite similar-looking species in Malaysia; this is probably the commonest, the Banded Demon (Notocrypta paralysos varians).  For those confused by English butterfly names: the name "Banded Demon" is also used for the single species to reach tropical Australia, Notocrypta waigensis, which also happens to be the only Australian butterfly whose larvae feed on plants in the ginger family (Zingiberaceae).  The Malaysian species feeds, instead, on members of a related plant family, the Costaceae.

Skink sp
Skink sp
Finding a skink peeping out from the undergrowth is easy - in fact, in Malaysian forests skinks can be hard to avoid.  Identifying them is another matter, and I'm not even going to try with this one (well, I did try, but got nowhere).  It is probably one of the sun skinks (Eutropis sp.).

I found this little bird sitting at the bottom of the steep muddy slope. It appeared to be unwell, but I was not able to reach it. The thing is, I haven't the faintest idea what this bird is, and other Malaysian birders I have shown it to can't identify it either. It may be a flycatcher, or if that yellow coloring on its belly is not just a stain from the mud, perhaps a flowerpecker of sorts. I doubt that it's anything rare or unusual – probably it is just a young bird freshly out of the nest, in a plumage that birders don't normally see.

Common Four-Ring (Yphthima huebneri)
Common Four-Ring (Yphthima huebneri)
Eileen, Chips, and Shirley were expecting to meet me by our car at the end of their walk, so I couldn't linger very long in the forest. Coming back out to the road, though, did give me a chance to photograph this Common Four-Ring (Yphthima huebneri), a widespread roadside butterfly.

Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus)
The insect of the day, though, was far more spectacular: while I waited for the others, I found a highly cooperative male Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus) searching for nectar at a hibiscus bush (you can tell it is a male because females have a row of large black spots on the underwing). 

Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus)
Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus)
Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus)
I usually just see these huge butterflies - they are, I believe, the largest butterflies in Malaysia - sailing overhead, so being able to spend time at close range with this one was an unusual treat.

Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus)
Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus)
I indulged myself (and my camera) accordingly.

Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus)
Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus)
Birdwings are primarily forest butterflies, but this one - like me - had a reason to leave the forest in he heat of the day.  Waiting around is rarely as exciting as this!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

China: In Chengdu

Our last day in Sichuan (October 23, 2014), after the end of our tour, found us waiting at our hotel in Chengdu before heading back to Singapore on a mid-afternoon flight. Eileen and our companions decided to stay around our hotel, so that left me to spend our final morning exploring a bit of the city on my own. A check of a map showed me that there was a likely-looking park a short distance from the hotel, so I decided to head off towards it. 

The park proved to be a very pleasant place, built around an attractive, tree-lined lake.

It was obviously a popular place for the local community - a placid spot where you could get together for a board game...

...or where a local ensemble could find a quiet spot to rehearse. 

It was a chance for me to have a last look at some common city birds: charming and ubiquitous Black-throated Bushtits (Aegithalos concinnus)...


... and plenty of Chinese (or Light-vented) Bulbuls (Pycnonotus sinensis).


A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), a bird I normally associate with clear mountain streams, seemed quite at home in an environment that was, shall we say, less than pristine.


In a shady corner I found a White-browed Laughingthrush (Garrulax sannio), seemingly the most urban of the laughingthrushes. Nearby, over the stream, I even found - as a sort of farewell present - a Rufous-faced Warbler (Abroscopus albogularis), a species new to me, flitting about in a treetop with a gang of bushtits. No photograph, though; if you want to see what one looks like check here.  It's a very pretty bird.

By now it was time to head back to the hotel.  Enjoyable as the park was, the walk home was an unexpected pleasure on its own. For once, free from the strictures of an organized bus tour, I was able to stroll through a real Chinese neighbourhood full of people going about their business for themselves rather than to impress a tourist. 


At long last, after a week of visiting Disneyfied villages and closed-in factory shops, here was the real thing.


I would still like to do a proper naturalists' visit here.  This time around, though, I don't think I could have found a nicer way to end my trip to Sichuan.

Friday, November 3, 2017

China: Butterflies, Babblers and Bears

Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
Back in Chengdu, it was time (well, specifically, it was October 22, 2014) for our tour buses to whisk us off to see Sichuan's greatest wildlife attraction - in captivity, of course.  The Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is a creature of mountain bamboo forests, and no self-respecting one would normally venture anywhere near Chengdu on its own.  I have seen pandas in zoos before, in Toronto, Singapore and Washington, DC, but never a half-dozen at a time.

If you want to see pandas in bunches, though, the place to go is the quaintly-named Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.  It  rather lavishly praises itself as a "world-class research facility, conservation education center, and international educational tourism destination", and portrays itself less as a panda zoo than a centre for restoring (with very limited success) captive-bred pandas to their rapidly diminishing wild habitat.

Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
It is, of course, a major tourist attraction, and the question arises of how important it is to what ought to be the chief goal of panda conservation: making sure pandas survive as wild animals rather than as captive exhibits.  It's a question without an easy answer (here is a visitor's quite even-handed impression from an ethical point of view), but even if you do see this place as a zoo it seems to be a pretty good one (especially considering the reportedly ghastly conditions of some other zoos and 'wildlife parks' in China).

Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
Besides, pandas are cuter than the average bear...

Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
...even if much of their cuteness is really an adaptation to chewing tough bamboo stalks (that's why they have those lovely broad faces - they need room for the teeth, jaws and muscles to do the job).

Delightful as pandas are, they were not (as I said) the chief attraction of the centre for me.  I have seem caged pandas before, but what I had not seen were the centre's quite lovely grounds.  As soon as I could, I got away from the crowds to do a bit of exploring on my own.

In honour of its star attraction's chief diet, the centre is criss-crossed with pathways between tall, arching stands of bamboo.

As always, I was hampered by my lack of botanical knowledge. The upper plant, though, is surely a Japanese false Aralia (Fatsia japonica) while the lower certainly looks like another maple to me.  Fatsia, a Japanese native, belongs in Chengdu even less than the panda does.

White-cheeked Starling (Sturnus cineraceus), Red-billed Starling (Sturnus sericeus)
I was, however, mostly looking for birds.  They were certainly there, though sometimes, like this treeful of White-cheeked and Red-billed Starlings (Sturnus cineraceus and Sturnus sericeus), frustratingly hard to see.

Red-billed Leothrix (Leiothrix lutea)
Red-billed Leothrix (Leiothrix lutea)
The star of the show, though, was another species that I was already used to seeing in cages: the Red-billed Leothrix (Leiothrix lutea), invariably known in the avicultural world - despite being a babbler of sorts rather than a chat or a thrush - as the Pekin Robin.

Red-billed Leothrix (Leiothrix lutea)
Red-billed Leothrix (Leiothrix lutea)
Red-billed Leothrix (Leiothrix lutea)
Though I had seen - rather poorly - Pekin Robins in Hawaii (where they have been introduced), and countless times in cages - this is one of the world's most heavily-traded cage birds, alas - this was my first really memorable encounter with the species.  Like its even more gorgeous southern cousin the Silver-eared Mesia (Leiothrix argentauris), which I knew from Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, this is a social bird, and watching numbers of these glowing, and remarkably tame, little gems flit through the shady undergrowth was an unforgettable experience.  Who needs to look at caged pandas when you can watch these little guys in the wild?

Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia)
After lunch it was time for more enforced shopping opportunities, this time at a pearl emporium (perhaps an odd thing to find so far from the sea). This time, though, I was allowed - after successfully arguing that I (as a non-Chinese) had paid a surcharge to come on this tour because it was assumed that I would not be interested in shopping - to spend most of our time there outside, exploring an overgrown weedy field that proved to be popular with the local butterflies.

Black Throated Tit (Aegithalos concinnus)
It was also popular with  Black-throated Bushtits (Aegithalos concinnus). 

Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia
Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia)
As might be expected from an open field in front of a government-operated factory store, none of the butterflies I found were particularly rare or local.  The Indian Cabbage White (Pieris canidia indica), for example, ranges from Pakistan to China. 

Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia) Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia)
Notice, by the way, how the butterfly almost completely changes its appearance, in the lower photo, by simply hiding the black spot on the underside of the forewing.


Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia)
The butterflies were engrossed not only in not only feeding, but in mating.


Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia)
Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia)
Adult butterflies may live for only a couple of weeks, and males are in a race against time to find a receptive female.  Female Indian Cabbage Whites are, seemingly, unsympathetic about this, and make a point of fending off courting males before finally becoming receptive.  Males, for their part, indulge in elaborate courtship displays involving, according to a Japanese study, "caressing" (whatever that means; I can only read the abstract).

Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia)
Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia)
Once mating is underway, the male seems to enfold the female with his wings.  It all looks quite tender (though it probably isn't - he may simply be trying to hide her from other males).

Dark Clouded Yellow (Colias fieldii chinensis)
Dark Clouded Yellow (Colias fieldii chinensis)
Dark Clouded Yellow (Colias fieldii chinensis)
The Dark Clouded Yellow (Colias fieldii chinensis), a widespread, migratory species ranging from Iran to China, was almost as common in the field as the Cabbage White.  Notice the lovely pink fringe around the yellow wings.

Dark Clouded Yellow (Colias fieldii chinensis)
Dark Clouded Yellow (Colias fieldii chinensis)
Males, according to Adrian Hoskins,  intersperse patrolling flights in search of females with rest periods and feeding breaks.

Dark Clouded Yellow (Colias fieldii chinensis)
Dark Clouded Yellow (Colias fieldii chinensis)
This can go on all morning, or at least until he finds and, after a "brief chase", mate with a receptive female.  These two still seem to be thinking the matter over.

The Pea Blue or Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus), the only member of its genus, is one of the most widespread butterflies in the Old World.  It has even colonized Hawaii (in 1882), and not many butterflies have managed that.  Like its cousins the hairstreaks, it has tails and eyespots on its wings that form a false "head" to mislead predators into attacking the wrong end.

Short-tailed Blue (Everes argiades)
Short-tailed Blue (Everes argiades)
The Short-tailed Blue (Everes argiades) is another widespread species - not as much so, admittedly, as the Long-tailed Blue, but it does range right across Eurasia from the British Isles to Japan.

Short-tailed Blue (Everes argiades)
Short-tailed Blue (Everes argiades)
According to Adrian Hoskins, they spend a lot of time at each flower when they feed - a habit certainly of use to photographers.  Their proboscis is quite short, forcing them to confine themselves to flowers, like this clover, whose nectar is easy to reach.

The flowers, of course, attracted other nectar-feeding insects too, including a bee (Sichuan has some pretty remarkable bees, actually) and a little, day-flying arctiid moth (Nyctemera adversata).

Our day ended at a little restaurant in town, with a tiny stream behind it that attracted a few more common city birds...


Chinese Bulbul (Pycnonotus sinensis)
...the ubiquitous Chinese Bulbul (Pycnonotus sinensis)...

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)
...and this Himalayan White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alboides), proof that even in a huge city nature still has its beauties.