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, south-western China, where Judy’s brother, Horng-i, and his colleague, Miss Li, are running a school for mechanics.

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 (’Sea of Grass’), a large marsh area, covering some 60 km2.

On the hotel reception 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, situated among 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 in Suicheng (‘Water Village’) is on his way home, carrying a pig, which he has bought at a market, in a basket. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The meaning of the text on this sign on the reception counter in the Black Necked Crane Hotel is not quite obvious, but, as it turned out, 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 the marshes are now slowly 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, including 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, mostly in pairs. We also observe many citrine wagtails (Motacilla citreola) and moorhens (Gallinula chloropus), while great white egrets (Ardea alba) 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, the name means ’Sea of Grass’. (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 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)



A pot of hot noodles
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.

This forest is quite young, as it is regenerating after being completely cleared. The supply of wood was exhausted, mainly due to a former common belief in this area, stating that if your kitchen fire was extinguished, a member of your family would die. This meant that an immense amount of wood was burned for absolutely no use. The forest is now protected, and collecting firewood is banned.

Many other trees and shrubs grow here, including three species of rhododendron, Photinia, spicebush (Lindera), and wintergreen (Gaultheria). Bird life is scarce, but I manage to 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 huge specimen of Magnolia liliflora, which displays large, white flowers with a pinkish tinge. Late afternoon is spent 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, when 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!



Several rhododendron species were blooming in the Wumeng Shan Mountains. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Mother and son with rhododendron flowers. (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! In this picture, we are seated around a table outside the old Daoist temple on Fung Shan, from left Mrs. Li, Li Ching, Uh Tao, Judy, and me. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



An elderly tribal woman outside the Daoist temple. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Rime-covered rhododendrons
The following day, we pay a visit to the same area, and our experience is as different from yesterday’s, as can possibly be. The night has been very cold, and the landscape is covered in a thin layer of snow. The terraced fields now stand out clearly against the brownish landscape, and each tile on the village roofs is framed by a bit of snow.

Trees and bushes are powdered with snow, and flowers of rhododendron and Prinsepia utilis are covered in a thick layer of rime. 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.



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. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




(Uploaded February 2016)


(Latest update September 2019)