Tuesday 27 February 2024

A Plaintive Cuckoo devours caterpillars in Hong Kong

AJP spotted this Plaintive Cuckoo (Cacomantis merulinus) in the New Territories of Hong Kong on Christmas Eve last year—an unusual sighting at that time of year. It was devouring caterpillars of the Red-based Jezebel (Delias pasithoe), a very common butterfly during the winter months.


The Lowe-Waldron Expeditions to the Gold Coast in 1933-34 and 1934-35

One of Fannie Waldron's photographs of the expeditions

In following up my tracking down of Fannie Waldron (1876-1959) as the person after whom Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus was named, I have obtained a copy—the only one I could find on sale—of Willoughby Lowe’s final book The End of the Trail. The expeditions in 1933-34 and 1934-35 with Fannie Waldron were Lowe’s last collecting trips and his account is the final chapter of the limited edition of 400 copies published in Exeter by the printers, James Townsend & Sons, in 1947.

Frontispiece from
The End of the Trail

The strange thing about this chapter is that Lowe does not refer to Fannie Waldron; she is always ‘my companion’. Indeed, the only clue that she was there at all is in the caption to the photographs: ‘Photo by F. Waldron’. Having mentioned her by name (wrongly as Fanny) in his earlier account of the birds they collected, the omission does seem odd. Did Fannie wish to arrange anonymous and was annoyed by the earlier public acknowledgement of her presence and funding? Had there been gossip about their travelling together as, for the time, an elderly spinster and a married man?

What does emerge from Lowe’s account are some of the jobs which Fannie undertook. However, there is no indication whether she worked as a collector of specimens per se, or did any of the arduous jobs of skinning, curing, pickling and preparing the specimens for shipping with them to London. Lowe comments on the time needed to prepare a monkey skin (the collected numerous individuals of seven species Goaso) and it would appear that he alone did the preparation:

…I was fully occupied attending to the preservation of these creatures [monkeys], and no one knows the amount of labour required, until they have tried, to preserve a monkey properly. The hands and feet are particularly troublesome as every finger must be turned back to the nails, the the skin is coated with a tough muscular fat as far as the digits, every particle of which must be removed with scissors, or the specimen will be ruined.

Museum staff praised Fannie for the collection of fish (caught by the locals in a fish trap and by poisoning a stretch of river) and I suspect she took on the job of preserving specimens in spirit.

We do know from Lowe’s account some of things Fannie did: she took the photographs; she raised a young Woodford’s Owl (fate unknown) and in London (Lowe lived in Exmouth, Devon) she delivered a lungfish cocooned in dried mud to London Zoo and blood samples from what was to become her eponymous monkey and the other species to the Wellcome Bureau for Scientific Research. Those blood sample proved important in the study of yellow fever as I shall describe in a further article.

On Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus, and other monkeys,  it would seem from reading his  account that some were shot for Lowe by the local hunters, partly because his large supply of cartridges had been held up by muddle at customs and they used their own cartridges until he could repay them in kind. Lowe though noted:

Never shall I forget hunting my first specimen [of Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus], when I waded and struggled nearly up to my waist in filthy decayed vegetable matter, tormented with insects, but luckily getting what I was after.

Lowe was greatly alarmed by the rate of destruction of the forests:

But there is yet another sad and serious view of these forests and their hidden secrets, their destruction. It is obvious to every traveller that vast forests in different parts of the world have been, and still are being, destroyed, and West Africa is no exception. Man with even crude axes, aided by fire, has done more to destroy once fertile lands than most people conceive.

We have already enough desert and arid areas in the world and it is high time those in authority should exercise their persuasive powers to prevent further destruction. Probably the forest region of West Africa is already more than half destroyed. Fires rage yearly from the dry northern regions through the savannah to the edges of the forest, into which it gradually creeps. The interior of the forest is cut, burnt and cultivated, and Forestry Officers told me they are in many places fighting in their last trench. With the destruction of the trees go the fauna and flora; and a hideous country, once beautiful and yielding fruit and products for mankind, is all that remains.

The second trip, a year later, concentrated on the northern parts of the Gold Coast. Lowe explained:

Contrary to our intentions we decided to make a second journey to Ashanti, and also to visit the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast. This decision was made because, after a cursory examination of our zoological collections, it was found that there were many animals and birds not represented, and others which could not be properly determined without more material. This being the case arrangements were immediately made to have the same servants and lorry, plus a trailer, and to travel through the extensive dry northern part which we had left untouched.

Travelling by lorry was not comfortable.

West Africa was not a healthy place. Even thirty years ago with most of the benefits of modern medicine I was told by somebody who worked there as a wildlife consultant that visitors who stayed for more than short periods often became ill, not from any specific recognised disease but just generally debilitude. It would seem that was the case 60 years earlier because Lowe noted how the Gold Coast took its toll on the District Officers and other expatriates involved in administration and commerce:

I feel I cannot refrain from some remarks on the term these men have to do under such trying conditions. West Africa used to be a nine-months’ tour, then it was raised to a year, only to be altered again to 18 months, and now there is talk of making it two years!

I myself have seen a little of the world and of varying climates and, I repeat what I have stated before, that no one should do more than a year’s work in really bad climates.

Lowe does not describe the work needed to prepare specimens for the museum. For that we have to rely on the Museum’s own Handbook of Instruction for Collectors which appeared in various editions over the years. One, from 1902—shortly after the discovery of the Okapi—can be found here I had, and still may have, a copy I bought in the Museum’s shop in the late 1950s which dated  from the early decades of the century. He does, though, describe the hard and frustrating life of the collector in a tropical forest, expressing thoughts not dissimilar to those of wildlife watchers of the 21st century:

The reader may exclaim-what an interesting and exciting place for work! And yet, though these and many other animals and birds exist, a naturalist's work in dense evergreen forests can be deeply disappointing and trying. Anything may exist, but to find it, even after years of experience, is terribly difficult. Sharp eyes are required, keen ears, and the matured field-craft of a lifetime, as well as the patience of Job, for almost every day seems a failure to get what you want and to find what you know is there.

People who have never tried to make a collection of natural history objects in such a place as the Ashanti forests little realize the difficulty in a piece of unspoilt jungle. The sweat, labour, discomfort, exhaustion, and the daily disappointment of seeing an unknown creature for the fraction of a second that may not be seen again for a generation. Think what it would mean to find it again, and perhaps get familiar with its life history. No! naturalists have plenty of work ahead of them.

I have plotted the places visited in the Gold Coast (Ghana) in the two expeditions. The map shows the coverage of the country they achieved.

Willoughby Lowe and Fannie Waldron spent a few days in Accra with the Governor before their ship left port for home. While there they visited Achimota College, now the University of Ghana. It struck Lowe that ‘the buildings and general lay-out seemed excellent’ but ‘it was all several centuries ahead of the times’. But it was to Achimota College and a tragic death that the story of Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus continues. And, as a preview, incidentally it was not Lowe and Waldron who first sent this monkey to the Natural History Museum in London, as they thought to be the case.

A photograph of Lowe taken
by Fannie Waldron

Sunday 18 February 2024

Showing off in Hong Kong: a male Fork-tailed Sunbird displays his attributes

AJP spotted this Fork-tailed Sunbird (Aethopyga christinae) displaying to females and seeing off other males at Tai Po Kau last week.

It is difficult to believe that this common and widespread bird in Hong Kong was once uncommon. It was only first recorded in 1959, again at Tai Po Kau, which for years remained its stronghold. We were amazed when returning to Hong Kong on 1997 for the first time in 29 years to find a pair nesting outside our window at Robert Black College in the university compound. 

Monday 12 February 2024

Sooty-headed Bulbul in the hills of Hong Kong

AJP took this photograph of a Sooty-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus aurigaster) in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago. This is  the third most common bulbul in Hong Kong and noticeably much less common than when we lived there in the 1960s. I think the clue is in its habitat: ‘scrubland and thinly wooded hillsides’. The hills certainly fitted that description in the 1960s following the gathering of anything for firewood during the Japanese occupation but since then the trees have grown considerably, thus reducing the suitability of the hillsides for this species—and also cutting off former familiar views for walkers on Hong Kong island, for example. The common name that used to be used in Hong Kong was Red-vented Bulbul, a name that also applies to another species, P. cafer, largely confined to the Indian subcontinent.

Saturday 3 February 2024

What happens to moths and butterflies during very cold weather in Hong Kong?

AJP was up and about early last week after a very cold night (around 6°C at sea level). The butterflies and moths in the hills of the Tai Po Kau forest were lying on the road either recovering or dying from the overnight cold. This Tropical Swallowtail moth, Lyssa zampa, did not make it.

It can be difficult for visitors to imagine Hong Kong being cold if they are there in the summer with temperatures over 30°C and humdity at 90%.