Nature's Hidden Treasures — Journeys of Flowers,Birds, and Butterflies


2016 / December

Su Hui-chao /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Robert Green

Think of the Chinese calendar’s 24 “solar terms” as a clock’s perpetually revolving hands, marking time throughout the year. Over the span of a thousand years, their regular motion has become part of Chinese culture’s genetic makeup. With this clock as a guide, we can explore the natural world, for it knows the movements of the sun, the direction of the wind, and the currents of the seas. And there are even stranger natural forces afoot that sync the rhythms of the blooming flowers, the emergence of the cicadas, and the nesting of birds with life’s pursuits. These forces become part and parcel of our daily lives and set the tempo for an individual’s footsteps.



When it comes to explaining the relationship between the solar terms and changes in the natural world, no one does it better than ­Laila Fan, Yezi, and An­fer­nee Shih.

Thus ­Laila Fan, chronicler of wild places, has authored Traveling with the Solar Terms. Yezi, a plant expert who avoids the spotlight and whose penname means “leaf,” has given us Photographing Flowers According to the Solar Terms. And An­fer­nee Shih, who left behind a background in industrial technology to become a commentator on the world of insects and amphibians (his online nickname is “Little Butterfly”), published A Seasonal Eco-tourism Guide of Butterfly-Watching in Taiwan.

Early spring treasure map

Anfernee Shih began chasing butterflies in the third grade. He was guided by an “Early Spring Treasure Map” that introduced butterflies appearing from the third solar term (Awakening of Insects), which falls in early March, to the fifth solar term (Clear and Bright), which ends in mid-April. These butterflies included Celastrina sugitanii; the Chinese hairstreak (Amblopala avidiena); the freak (Calinaga buddha); the lesser mime (Papilio epycides); Graphium timur; the sixbar swordtail (Graphium eurous); and the tawny mime (Papilio agestor). And the best place to collect these seven treasures is the river valley in the village of Fu­shan, in New Tai­pei City’s Wu­lai District.

Early spring butterflies appear only fleetingly, and as soon as summer begins they are nowhere to be seen. After that brief explosion, however, there are two particularly famous protected species that can be found after “Start of Summer”—the broad-tailed swallowtail (Agehana maraho) and the Japanese emperor (Sasakia charonda). Jiu­zhize Hot Spring on Yi­lan’s Mt. Tai­ping, Ming­chi Forest Recreational Area (also in Yi­lan), and areas along the Northeast Coast are must-visit destinations for butterfly watchers.

As soon as “Summer Solstice” (the 10th solar term) ends in late June, the temperature slowly rises, and high-altitude butterflies stir to life. At Frost’s Descent (the 18th solar term, ­occurring in late October), their numbers are greatly reduced. Some varieties also change their appearance, donning a special look for winter. At this season, the sun is still scorching in Southern Taiwan, but the best choices for butterfly watching are Xin­hua in Tai­nan, Ping­tung County’s Mt. Da­han, and Mei­nong in Kao­hsiung. 

Flowers too beckon to be photographed in all their glorious detail. “Each type of flora has its ideal time to be photographed,” says Yezi. And this is the reason that she published Photo­graph­ing Flowers According to the Solar Terms. The book features 50 of Taiwan’s most common plants and lists the most suitable time of the year (by solar terms) to photograph them. Examples include the blossoms of the Taiwan cherry (Prunus campanulata) during Start of Spring, upright elephant ears (Alocasia odora) during Clear and Bright, blue jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) during Start of Summer, flamegold (Koelreuteria elegans) during White Dew, glossy shower senna (Senna sulfurea) during Minor Snow, and of course the Chinese plum (Prunus mume) during Major Cold, the flowers of which open in ever greater numbers as the cold increases.

For Yezi, capturing flora in their ideal solar terms is also a process of perception, by which she can grasp the true nature of the plants not through the camera, but through the senses. The photos merely act as annotations for the sensory experience and as narrative of the visual spectacle.

Traveling by calendar

After many years of traveling around Taiwan, ­Laila Fan first presented her experiences through the rhythms of the four seasons, and only later used a more detailed scheme incorporating the 24 solar terms. Her travels never rely solely on observation. Listening, in fact, is even more important than watching. And the sounds of the wind and the water, the chirping of bugs, and the warbling of birds are all highlights. “Year after year, we have experienced the natural rhythms of life during the various solar terms and relearned the lessons of Awakening of Insects (spring) and Cold Dew (autumn), previewing life withered and reborn. This is the source of nature’s teachings,” Fan says.

During Start of Spring, she went to see the blooming of oilseed rape (Brassica napus), then the azaleas (Rhododendron simsii) and the blossoms of the peach tree (Prunus persica). And during the Grain Rain solar term in late April, the fireflies take wing, corals spawn, and flying fish come calling. During the months from May to August (Start of Summer to Start of Autumn), the petals of the tung tree (Vernicia fordii) swirl through the air, swallows prepare their nests, and the yellow flowers of the Formosa acacia (Acacia confusa) bloom, followed by the blossoming of alpine flowers such as Dianthus pygmaeus and Gentiana arisanensis. September is the peak season for alpine flowers, and when the Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) flowers and sets its seed, it gives the slopes the appearance of a field of wildfire. Life then enters a period of dormancy and recuperation.

During Start of Winter, dry creek beds sprout silvergrass (Miscanthus floridulus), while black-faced spoonbills (Platalea minor) and black-winged stilts (Himantopus himantopus) arrive for another winter. Garden chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium) are in full bloom and the leaves of the Formosan sweetgum (Liquidambar formosana) take on a reddish hue in late winter. At this time of year, cherry blossom watchers begin to count the days before the spring flowering.

Fan has learned to plan her travels around the unique call of each of the solar terms. Peter Mau-hsiu Yang, a philosopher and Fan’s sometime traveling companion, explains. “On the one hand, you learn to plan your travels around life’s rhythms, becoming sensitive to the pulse of the Earth,” he says. “On the other hand, you learn to slow down and take notice of the little things—a tiny flower, an insect, small changes in scenery—the things that make you stop, hunch over and take a closer look.”

The coming of the eagles

For birdwatchers, the climaxes of the year have always been the spring and autumn migrations.

Known as the “Dong­yin bird king,” Lin Li­zhong, a resident of Ma­tsu’s Dong­yin Island, has for years spent his days crouching under a camouflaged canopy silently recording the phenomenon in images.

In the period from Cold Dew (early October) to Frost’s Descent (late October) the Chinese sparrow­hawk (Accipiter soloensis) and the grey-faced buzzard (Butastur indicus) migrate through Taiwan in large numbers. The grey-faced buzzard rides the wind on an annual north‡south journey of 9,000 kilometers. Arriving flock after flock, thousands upon thousands of these raptors seek a place to roost in mountainous areas of the Hengchun Peninsula and in Chang­hua County’s Ba­gua Mountains. On the next day, as soon as they have filled their bellies, the birds continue along their southern migration route. The arrival and departure of the eagles—occurring in the solar terms of Autumnal Equinox, Cold Dew, and Frost’s Descent—are a must for birders, and one of autumn’s most stunning sights.

Aside from Dong­yin, Yi­lan County’s Gui­shan Island provides a migratory rest stop for buntings between the Grain Rain (late April) and Start of Summer (early May) solar terms. On April 30, Su Fu-mei, professor emerita at National Taiwan Normal University, and members of the Wild Bird Society of Tai­pei, recorded the presence of various bunting species on Gui­shan. The birds they encountered included the yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola), the chestnut bunting (E. rutila), the little bunting (E. pusilla), the black-faced bunting (E. spodocephala), Tristram’s bunting (E. tristrami), and the yellow-throated bunting (E. elegans). They even sighted an African stonechat (Saxicola torquatus), decked out in its breeding plumage.

Nature’s broken clock

Snow in the coastal plains, record-high temperatures, torrential rains, and autumn typhoons. These were the dramatic climatic events faced by Taiwan in 2016. Birdwatchers have recorded how these climatic aberrations are affecting autumnal migration patterns and causing birds to show up in unexpected places. Orange-headed thrushes (Geokichla citrina) have landed in the Qi­jin District of Kao­hsiung City and Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) have appeared in Long­dong, New Tai­pei City. Grey-faced buzzards have mysteriously circled over Tai­pei’s Hua­jiang Wild Duck Nature Park for a few days. And this year there has also been an explosion of Narcissus flycatchers (Ficedula narcissina) and bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla), which can be seen everywhere.

Farmers have been even harder hit by the climatic changes. Crops, including tea, are being harvested later and later, even as the crop size dwindles. “The 24 solar terms are totally out of whack,” sighs Lin Qing­yuan, winner of the Shen­nong Award (a national farming award named after the mythical founder of Chinese agriculture and herbal medicine).

And it’s not just crops that are affected. In the past at Hou­dong in the mountains of New Tai­pei City, in late October (after Frost’s Descent), the splendid Bretschneidera sinensis, a flowering tree, would bloom for a brief period. This year, however, the flowers failed to appear, leaving Chen ­Qingke, a plant specialist who has been working to preserve them for 17 years, to hope wistfully for their survival.

In former years, it was common to see alpine birds such as the Taiwan yuhina (Yuhina brunneiceps) and the fire-breasted flowerpecker (Dicaeum ignipectus) feeding on the fruit of ya­nagi ­ichigo (Debregeasia orientalis) growing on Mt. Lala in the spring. This spectacle, however, can no longer be seen, because the snow brought by an unusually cold January froze the shrubs, making them another casualty of climate change.

Moreover, because of the late blooming of the winter flowers, Wu­ling Farm, a popular tourist spot in Tai­chung, announced that the end of the cherry blossom season would be pushed back from February 22nd to March 10th. Similarly, indicators point to a late blooming date of March 20th for cherry blossom viewing on Mt. Ali, shifting the phenomenon into the Vernal Equinox solar term.

While flora will adapt to climatic changes in order to survive, humans must take responsibility for environmental change (one could say deterioration), according to Chen ­Qingke.

Throughout the unending cycle of the solar terms, nature’s subtle and not-so-subtle changes are reminding humans that the Earth does not belong to us alone. It belongs to soil and stone—and to all living things. It’s worth remembering Aldo Leopold’s exhortation in A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings: “The opportunity to see geese is more important than television,” he wrote, “and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

Relevant articles

Recent Articles

繁體中文 日文

自然藏寶 花鳥蝶生命旅行

文‧蘇惠昭 圖‧莊坤儒 翻譯‧Robert Green




























赤腹鷹和灰面鵟鷹總是在「寒露」和「霜降」之間,準時地大舉過境台灣。9月「秋分」前後,赤腹鷹群開始遷移。9月20日花蓮193縣道,這是資深賞鳥人劉武雄與赤腹鷹約定的時地。10 月14日,在滿州鄉港口村,攝鳥人孫瑋芒拍到灰面鵟鷹在空中盤旋成為一個圓。灰面鵟鷹每年乘風南北往返9,000公里,一群一群地飛來,前前後後有為數上萬的灰面鵟鷹會在恆春半島或彰化八卦山附近山區尋找落點夜棲,這叫「落鷹」,隔天清晨吃飽喝足後再度啟程,繼續南飛,這是「起鷹」。「落鷹」與「起鷹」是賞鳥人在「秋分」、「寒露」和「霜降」必修的功課,秋天最震撼的風景。



節氣走鐘  大自然反常





大自然の宝物—— 花鳥蝶とともに営む暮らし

文・蘇惠昭 写真・莊坤儒 翻訳・山口 雪菜


































X 使用【台灣光華雜誌】APP!