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Old 07-10-2019, 07:29 AM
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Default A few Chinese snakes (and other animals)

Just returned from another short trip to China, this time we honeymooned in Wuyishan, Fujian. Somewhere near the south east of China, a region renowned for its tea, pleasant weather and quite beautiful scenery.

Of course me being me 'honeymoon' meant 'be out all night every night looking for snakes and other animals.'

Here is a short account of some of the more memorable parts of the trip and the snakes I found.

So as usual our trip began in Beijing where my wife and mother-in-law are from. After eleven hours on the plane, the first thing I always like to do after getting to our home away from home, showering and getting changed out of rumpled, sweaty clothes is take a walk to stretch those legs (and also because it is a good way of staying awake - jetlag can seriously screw me over when flying to China so we have developed a system affectionately known as 'keep Francis awake until nightfall' so I can sleep at the appropriate time and avoid the worst of the jetlag. This involves letting me walk the wild areas I have come to know and love near Beijing, and taking me to my favourite hot pot restaurant).

So, around midday we were already walking in Huairou and - not even four hours after landing in China - I came upon this:



Elaphe carinata, the King rat snake - one of the species of snake I was most keen of seeing in China!

This is a rat snake I have been keeping for over a decade now and they have grown to be one of my favourite species. They are widespread and quite common in China but in five years of trips I had still not come across one, so to say I was thrilled was an understatement. Such a big, bright specimen too!

Fortunately the snake was quite docile and did not put up much of a fight (it did unleash its legendary skunk-like smell from which it gets its OTHER common name 'Stinking Goddess' though - so I coaxed it into the convenient box left seemingly for just such a purpose on the path.







What a great start to the trip! I was elated. I have not done any China trips this late in the year up until now, but it seemed I had come at a good time.

With this find, the list of Elaphe I have left to find in China is down to three:

E. bimaculata (Twin Spotted rat snake), which is common near Shanghai and central China and I am sure I will encounter sooner or later.

E. davidi (Pere David's rat snake) which has been to my knowledge found in the wild by only two westerners since 1935 but has been seen an hour's drive away from my mother-in-law's house, so hopefully will only be a matter of time.

E. zoigeensis (Zoige rat snake) an extremely rare species known only from one hot spring in the Zoige region of the south of China, which will require a specialised trip (and rather a lot of luck) to ever find.

After that walk and a brilliant start to the trip, we met up with Jenny's two best friends (they all call each other 'sisters') and headed out for Korean BBQ.



For those that have not experienced this wonderful method of eating, you basically order platters of extremely fine-cut meat (beef, lamb, pork), prawns, veggies and cook it on the table in front of you. You dip it in a choice of sauces. It is a really fun, interactive and social way of eating out. There are some really good places in the UK to try this kind of cooking but some of the ingredients and vegetables that make it unique are only found in China and Korea.


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Old 07-10-2019, 08:06 AM
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There are plenty of snakes coming but I thought I would show a little more about life in China whilst I am doing this write up as it is a country people seem to not know much about other than what they are told on the news... plus it is a good chance to show all the incredible food!

Our trip coincided with National Week, so we had a week to ourselves at the end of September in Wuyishan and then we would head back to Beijing to spend a week with Jenny's mum as she is off for that week and watch the festivities.

More on which later.

So the next morning I woke (vaguely) refreshed. Jenny (my wife) took me down for some breakfast at a noodle shop and I was furnished with a huge soup bowl full of noodles and meat.



Eating in China can hold some surprises for the uninitiated, mainly in that it is often a far noisier affair than us self-effacing Brits are used to. The idea is that you slurp down the noodles noisily and with great relish to show appreciation.

Much like this.



You are then free to finish the soup in the more conventional manner using the spoon.

It is a fun and delicious way to start the day, I have to admit, and really fills you up for the day... but I still am a long way from getting used to all the slurping noises!

The other thing we ate that day (for dinner) was hot pot.

Now, in the UK hot pot means one thing. In China it means another. In the UK it is like a casserole. Pleasant but you wouldn't really think twice hearing the word. To the Chinese (and other Asians) just mentioning 'hot pot'
will send them into paroxysms of saying 'mmmmmm' and complaining at how they miss home and good food.

All it is, is a big bowl of soup base of whatever flavour you choose, which is set to simmer in front of you and into which you dip all manner of raw meat, vegetables, fish, prawns etc to cook and then eat. It is another supremely social and interactive way of eating reserved for families and very close friends due to its rather intimate nature. Really, it is a way of talking and conversing whilst you eat.

Here you can see the basic layout. Two soup bases (tomato for the wife and mother-in-law, mushroom for me) and the first of an almost endless procession of uncooked meats and veggies that will be put into the soup to cook in front of you. Once done, it is picked out with chopsticks and dipped into your choice of sauce.





It is a really really enjoyable way to eat and socialise! Proficiency with chopsticks is required though!

OK, so that rest day out of the way, the following morning we departed from Beijing to Wuyishan, a train journey of about eight hours (which is gruelling when you consider the eleven hour flight not two days before).

I love train travel, especially in foreign countries. You see all kinds of sights and scenery going by. None of which I captured on camera. So here's the station at Wuyishan, after eight hours of cool scenery:



The place certainly lives up to its reputation. After the bustle and city life of Beijing, it is quiet, peaceful and scenic. In fact this is the area of China I have visited the most fits my preconceptions of what China would be like as a westerner, before I ever travelled there. In other words, tranquillity, crazy mountains, and tea plantations.


Of course the first stop after dropping off the bags at the hotel was MORE FOOD.



Seriously, one thing I have noticed about the Chinese (being married to one) is that tourism equates to food. China has 23 provinces, 4 major cities, 5 self-autonomous regions, 2 special administrations, each with their own special kinds of food and unique dishes... and the FIRST thing a Chinese traveller will do when first reaching a new place is sample the local cuisine.

Which I am fine with, in my opinion China has the best food in the world (it is a bit of an unfair competition, China is as big as Europe and more diverse in terms of food, so there is something for everyone!).

Nevertheless, after refuelling, our bottoms were sore from sitting on a train for eight hours, so as the sun began to set we headed out over the bridge from Wuyishan City into Wuyishan Nature reserve for our first nightly excursion there.



I promise there will be snakes in the next post!
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Old 07-10-2019, 08:51 AM
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So we entered the jungle of Wuyishan for the first time.

Before I go on, I should probably be insufferable mention two things that you already know, but which explain much of the rest of the trip description.

Firstly, in the tropics, the best time to find snakes is at night. By day they are either well hidden or basking in dense vegetation and very difficult to see. They ARE around, of course, they are just usually much harder to find, and it is often so hot and humid that searching for them is a chore. By night on the other hand is when they are actively foraging and moving around, and it is thus much easier to find them.

Secondly, stepping into the jungle at night is an invitation to excitement and adventure for a naturalist. You literally never know what you are going to see. There is so much LIFE all around you that it becomes maddening trying to decide what to look at, which rustles and sounds to home in on. A whole orchestra of cicadas, crickets and other insects is buzzing all around you. Small rodents are everywhere, rustling in the leaves and forest floor, squeaking and chasing one another. Moths and other flying insects are batting your face constantly trying to get at your headlight. Bats flit by sometimes inches in front of you, catching those moths in front of your eyes. It is an amazing thing to walk into, and you are always guaranteed to come across SOMETHING interesting.



That out of the way, I will show a selection of photos of some of the things we saw during our night walks in Wuyishan.

One of the first things I became aware of were these magnificent tree frogs, Rhacophorus dennysi (Chinese Flying frogs). The largest of these were easily 5-6" SVL and outmassed a White's tree frog or UK Common frog.





These guys are big, cute, and have a fun habit of launching themselves into space trailing a jet of water from their cloaca when disturbed. They could be seen everywhere, from sitting in the water of small pools and the banks of streams, on piles of rocks, and way up in the canopy on branches. I am sure they are preyed on by a great many species of local snake.














There were also plenty of Black-Spined toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) on the forest floor.





Some other sightings from the first night.

A giant cricket of some kind. Chinese often have small bamboo cages with large hoppers like this on buzzing and chirping their little hearts out.



A big caterpillar. The place was absolutely heaving with butterflies by day, many very large (bigger than small bats) and large moths at night - more on which later). So naturally there were plenty of caterpillars, some quite big.



A large moth that camouflages as a dead leaf, one of several types of butterfly and moth we saw that use this defensive technique.



Of course the main thing I remember about that first night is finding the first two of these dead on the road:





Trimeresurus stejnegeri (Stejneger's Bamboo viper). One of the species I most wanted to see and a contender for one of the most beautiful snakes of China in my opinion. Over five nights we would see five killed on the road, all freshly run over, all on the same 100 metres of road, all killed minutes before we got there. It became frustrating to the point of madness. I will just show photos of all the specimens here rather than rehash the dead viper photos every night.

I will just show all the photos of dead vipers here, I am sure none of you reading wants to see pictures of dead snakes any more than I enjoyed finding them. I got video of the last two, both killed moments before I got there on the fourth and fifth nights. Needless to say, we patrolled that section of road like hawks the rest of the trip. (We did get to see live specimens but they are on my camera so I will upload them later on).



We also found two large Chinese skinks (Plestiodon chinensis) flattened on the road. These are chunky little lizards in life, about 8-10" long and very personable and glossy, so seeing dead ones was not pleasant.





So, enthused that there were obviously lots of reptiles about but also somewhat dejected at only finding dead ones, we walked back to the hotel, which was lit up like a beacon across the river.

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Old 07-10-2019, 09:08 AM
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The following morning we awoke to quite a view from the hotel window:



We went out for breakfast.





(Slurp!)



We then spent the morning exploring the hotel grounds of Wuyi Mountain Villa, which are extensive and feature a series of interconnected ponds and streams full of fish, water insects and dragonflies (no snakes though).



















Not to plug the place, but it really is a beautiful hotel surrounded by lovely scenery. On the grounds we spotted a White pheasant that sadly I could not get a photo of, and several Chinese skinks (Plestiodon chinensis)



Walking among the tea plantations I also came across another target species for the trip - a Chinese cobra! (Naja atra)



This one was rooting around at the base of the tea bushes. I was half tempted to try and grab it for better photos, but I was dressed in shorts and sandals and only had my 60cm snake hook in case of Bamboo vipers so decided that in this instance discretion was the better part of valour - plus I will always be traumatised by my encounters with various African cobras (although I am told N. atra are far more tractable).

Still, it was nice to see! Here's a view of the habitat we saw it in.

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Old 07-10-2019, 09:15 AM
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During the day there were just as many large and attractive insects as at night, including many brightly coloured butterflies and dragonflies, none of which I managed to get particularly good photos of:

















These pictures simply don't do justice to the sheer variety and size of the butterflies circling non-stop everywhere you look.

There were also multitudes of ever-more bizarre grasshoppers and crickets making the place as noisy by day as it was at night.











As evening drew on we retired for an afternoon nap (in preparation for being walking at night) then had yet another delicious meal before setting off for the second night's walking.





One of the local specialities was goose, which was delicious!





Finally though, evening became night, the sun set, and we made ready to head out again.


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Old 07-10-2019, 09:28 AM
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...and of course the very first thing we saw was yet another dead Trimeresurus.



Not a great start, but at least we reasoned the snakes must be moving around despite the fact it was very dry and had not rained for some time before we arrived.

The next sighting was one of the more memorable animals of the trip, not least because it put me in the unusual situation of not having the foggiest idea what it was.



It stayed watching us and randomly snuffling about for a good fifteen minutes, allowing us to film it and take photos at our leisure (I have much better pics on the camera, these are only mobile phone pictures so far).

It turns out this enthralling little creature was a Chinese ferret badger (Melogale moschata).

After from that mysterious masked stranger, we saw no reptiles that night but the usual procession of weird and wonderful invertebrates.













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Old 07-10-2019, 09:42 AM
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The following morning we had street food of 18 fried dumplings and two bowls of noodles for the equivalent of £1.50 (a big part of why I adore rural China. Food is cheap even in Beijing but out in the country it comes almost free and it is possible to go on a 'street food safari' for the price of a Happy Meal, eaten on the pavement as the town wakes up).





Our destination that day was Xiamei Village, an ancient tea village where the tea that is grown in the surrounding countryside is turned into, well, the tea we all know and love.









It gave the wife to chance to pose for the usual tourist shots:





And it gave me the chance to turn over stones in the stream searching hopefully for some of the local newts and salamanders (didn't find any as you can see by my expression haha).





We stopped for a quick bite.





And then ventured beyond the village itself out into the fields, so I could investigate the drains, field margins and streams for herps.













You search all day for one, and then two come along at the same time!

Xenochrophis/ Fowlea piscator (Fishing Snake or Chequered Keelback). A very common semi-aquatic snake found throughout southern China and south east Asia.





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Old 07-10-2019, 09:58 AM
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After Xiamei Village we returned to the hotel as the afternoon was getting hot, so decided to make use of the bathtub thoughtfully built on the balcony and went for a bit of skinny dipping to escape the heat.





We then had a delicious dinner of more local delicacies - young bamboo shoots and cat's paw mushrooms.











That afternoon I noticed a reasonably large snake sitting on top of a bush. It was a Ptyas korros (Indo-Chinese rat snake). I have seen several of these in southern China in previous trips, but always fleeting glimpses as they zoom away at three hundred miles an hour. This one was unaware of our presence for some time so we were able to get some decent shots of it.












Setting off that evening, we encountered one of the best sightings of the trip for me - a huge and unworldly Moon moth (Actias selene)







There were lots of other large moths and butterflies around as usual.







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Old 07-10-2019, 10:22 AM
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The following day we decided to hike to a place called Tian You Peak inside the Wuyishan reserve. It was to be a long walk and we would wait at the peak then walk back in the darkness keeping an eye out for snakes.

Not long after we started out I found three separate snake skins within about fifty metres of one another.



One of them I was pretty sure I could identify... small, rounded head... tiny eyes... this most likely came from a krait.





We also came across a dead Amphiesma stolatum (Buff Striped Keelback) on the road.



And a little further on, a dead Habu (Protobothrops mucrosquamatus).



Jenny gets rather squicked out whenever we find a roadkill and I start prodding it with my finger, but it is important to know how recent they are!

Crossing a bridge over a wide but clear river, I looked down to see a large Sinonatrix aequifasciata (Chinese Diamond-backed water snake) fishing in the water below.







It made a few half-hearted lunges at fish that came near but seemed happy to remain perched on the rocks it was sitting on. Quite a lazy fisherman!

Along the way I took several detours (because who wants to stay on the designated paths?) which bit me in the ass as a few seconds after this photo was taken I found out the hard way that what I was walking on was a pond, and it was not quite dry. Both feet ended up down to my knees in mud.



The long hike was worth it though as the scenery and river were beautiful!













We wandered around beside the river until darkness fell, hoping that night would bring out the amphibians and reptiles we were looking for.

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Old 07-10-2019, 10:38 AM
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(Still at Tian You Peak, there were too many photos for one post!).

So another snake we saw was this large Xenochrophis/ Fowlea piscator (Chequered Keelback) that had decided it was no longer a water snake but wanted to become a tree viper. It was basking just underneath the foliage of a tea bush.





There were also large numbers of Odorrana schmackeri (Piebald Odorous frog) among the pebbles at the river's edge.









There was another species of Odorrana as well, O. livida. Don't ask me why frogs of this genus are called 'Odorous Frogs' they don't smell any different to normal frogs to me, I tried.





We also found what I think was Hylarana guentheri.



The last species of amphibian that really had me stumped was this little tree frog. I could not figure out what it was, nor could Dr Kevin Messenger or Amael Borzee, who I sent the images to and are familiar with the amphibians of the area.





From the sound of it, both were prepared to come and investigate the area as I could not get a specimen to them this trip. However it turns out that they are probably just young Rhacophorus dennysi, the Flying frogs I showed above. Certainly had us all going though for a while!

The final herp along that river was Ateuchosaurus chinensis, the Chinese Short-Limbed skink, which is supposedly quite hard to find on the mainland. This one was crawling around the stones alongside the river at night and even swam in the water whilst we watched. Pretty cool find!

Next to an Odorrana schmackeri:







The walk back down the mountain was no less interesting and revealed more large insects, including stick insects! Which my wife was absolutely enthralled by, she had never seen them before! Might have to get her some as a gift.








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