China 2009: Among black-necked cranes
From their breeding grounds in Tibet, a large number of the threatened black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis) arrive every autumn at the Cao Hai Marshes to spend the winter here. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
From Taiwan, Judy and I fly to Guiyang, capital of the state of Guizhou, China, where Judy’s brother, Horng-i, runs a school for mechanics together with his colleague, Miss Li.
A few days later, together with Horng-i, Miss Li, and driver Uh Tao, we head west across the mountains of Guizhou. It is early spring, and the Mei Shan (’Plum Mountains’) are hidden in fog.
A caretaker at the school for mechanics in Guiyang serves tea for us. From left driver Uh Tao, Miss Li, Horng-I, and the school’s cook, Liu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Food stall with fried tofu, Guiyang. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Various types of chili for sale, Guiyang. Guizhou Province is famous for its numerous ways of preparing chilies. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Guiyang, this man makes popcorn the old-fashioned way, by using a ‘pressure cooker’. During this process, a lot of steam is produced. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
”Expensive anything keep”
Our goal is the small town of Weining, where we board at the Black Necked Crane Hotel. In this area, people are justly proud of a large flock of the threatened black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis), which arrives every autumn from their breeding grounds in Tibet to spend the winter in the nearby Cao Hai (’Grass Sea’), a large marsh area, covering some 60 square kilometres.
On the hotel counter, I notice a sign, written in English: ”Expensive anything keep”. At first sight, the meaning of this sentence is not quite obvious, but some light is thrown on it with Judy’s help: Guests are requested not to leave any valuables in their room.
Weining is a small, sleepy town, distributed over the barren hills east of Cao Hai. Small yellow motor taxis zoom about in the streets, and, together with horse carts, pulled by very small horses, they are the means of local transportation. As everywhere in China, people have a very relaxed attitude towards garbage, and the streets are littered with plastic bags and paper, flying about in the wind together with the ubiquitous dust.
Mustard field and steep limestone hill near Anshun, west of Guiyang. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This man is on his way home, carrying a pig, which he has bought at a market, in a basket. – Suicheng (‘Water Village’), Guizhou. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
On the counter of the Black Necked Crane Hotel, I noticed this sign. At first sight, the meaning of this sentence was not quite obvious, but some light was thrown on it with Judy’s help: Guests are requested not to leave any valuables in their room. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Small yellow motor taxis zoom about in the streets of Weining. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Cao Hai marshlands
In Weining, an acquaintance of Miss Li, biologist Li Ching, is making a great effort to protect the cranes. Among other initiatives, he has succeeded in eliminating many of the draining canals along the shores of Cao Hai, and slowly the marshes are reclaiming a number of former fields. Accompanied by Li Ching, we drive along the shores of the marshland, and soon we spot the first flock of black-necked cranes, feeding in a field.
”You can go into the field”, says Li Ching. ”The cranes are used to people.” This fact is clearly demonstrated by several men, who are angling in draining ditches near the birds, which are busy feeding, oblivious of the men. I succeed in getting very close to the cranes, which by now are somewhat alert. After a bit of trumpeting they take off, landing a moment later in a nearby field. I am somewhat subdued that I disturbed the birds too much, but Li Ching assures me that they often fly about anyway, without any obvious reason.
Several places along the marshes, we observe small flocks of feeding cranes, often accompanied by other bird species, e.g. bar-headed goose (Anser indicus), ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), and common crane (Grus grus). Li Ching is of the opinion that c. 400 black-necked cranes spend the winter in these marshes. The species has declined in later years. Some years ago, up to 800 could be counted in the area. In the neighbouring province, Yunnan, a larger flock of cranes are wintering, and possibly some of the Cao Hai birds have moved there.
In the afternoon, we hire a boat, with a local woman to punt it into the marshes. Initially, we pass through large stands of club-rushes, among which ruddy shelducks swim about, in pairs. We also observe many citrine wagtails (Motacilla citreola) and moorhens (Gallinula chloropus), while great white egrets (Chasmerodius albus) and grey herons (Ardea cinerea) are wading about, looking for fish. In an open expanse of water, hundreds of ducks are gathered, mostly wigeon (Anas penelope) and ferruginous ducks (Aythya nyroca), besides a few common pochards (Aythya ferina) and tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula).
The huge Cao Hai Marshes. In Chinese, Cao Hai means ’Grass Sea’. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Black-necked cranes, feeding in a field near the Cao Hai Marshes. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
We hired a boat and a local woman to punt it into the marshes. From left Judy, Horng-i, Miss Li, and Uh Tao. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea) takes off in front of our boat. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A grimy little girl, enjoying a bottle of water. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Accompanied by Li Ching and his wife, we explore Wumeng Shan, a low mountain range east of Weining, which is covered in low pine forests, comprising two species, Pinus yunnanensis and P. armandii. The forest is quite young, as it is regenerating after being completely cleared. This felling took place because of a former common belief in this area, stating that if your kitchen fire was extinguished, a member of your family would die. Naturally, this caused immense amounts of wood to be burned for absolutely no use. The forest is now protected, and collecting firewood is banned. I notice several other tree species here, e.g. three rhododendron species, besides Photinia, spicebush (Lindera), and wintergreen (Gaultheria). Birds are scarce, but I do observe Elliot’s laughing-thrush (Garrulax elliotii).
We continue towards the highest mountain in Guizhou, Suei Gau Fong (’Highest Peak’), where Li Ching wants to show me a large specimen of Magnolia liliflora, which has large, white flowers with a pinkish tinge. We end the day at an old Daoist temple, situated on a mountain named Fung Shan (’Phoenix Mountain’). This temple dates back from the 1300s, but was somewhat damaged during The Cultural Revolution, as it was utilized as a stable. Several old stone slabs with inscriptions were fired at with guns. How barbaric!
Next to the temple is a small restaurant. We eat outside, and on this cool spring day, a pot of hot noodles, served with fried potatoes, peanuts, spring onions, stems of heart-leaved fishwort (Houttuynia), and chili sauce does a lot of good!
The following day, we visit the same area, but our experience is as different from yesterday’s, as it can possibly be. The night has been very cold, and the landscape is covered in a thin layer of snow. Suddenly the patterns on the village roofs are clearly seen, and the terraced fields stand out against the brownish landscape. Trees and bushes are powdered with snow, and flowers of rhododendron and Prinsepia utilis are covered in a thick rime layer. Out in the open, an icy wind is blowing, and blankets of fog come and go. In the afternoon, sunshine manages to pierce the fog, and the rime must yield.
Several rhododendron species were blooming in the Wumeng Shan Mountains. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Mother and son with rhododendron flowers, Wumeng Shan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Chinese biologist Li Ching, showing a flower of Magnolia liliflora, Suei Gau Fong. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
On a cold spring day, a large pot of hot noodles does a lot of good! Here we are seated around a table outside an old Daoist temple on Fung Shan (‘Phoenix Mountain’), from left Mrs. Li, Li Ching, Uh Tao, Judy, and me. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An elderly tribal woman outside the Daoist temple, Fung Shan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
During our second visit to Wumeng Shan, the terraced fields were covered in a thin layer of newly fallen snow. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhododendron flowers, covered in rime, Wumeng Shan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded February 2016)
(Revised October 2017)