|The Barn Swallow Project||
Once we found evidence of hybridization between rustica and gutturalis in Jiuquan, we needed to map the width of the hybrid zone. We set out on our zigzagging plan: after 3 nights of catching birds in Jiuquan, we hopped the high-speed train to Zhangye. Again, we found excellent stretches of old courtyard-style houses, and again, we found birds that looked like both rustica and gutturalis nesting close to each other. The birds in Zhangye were early in their breeding cycle- only a few had begun laying eggs, and most were still building their nests. Luckily they were sleeping on their nests, and we managed a big sample size over 3 nights of work.
Our luck ran out a little when we backtracked to Gaotai, a tiny stop off the train in between the bigger cities of Jiuquan and Zhangye. The few swallows we saw in Gaotai hadn’t started breeding at all, and after an entire day of searching the city and finding only 2 nests (which we captured that night), we decided to cut our losses and keep backtracking west, past Jiuquan and on to Yumen.
By the time we reached Yumen, our 4th city on the Hexi corridor (and our 5th stop in a week and a half, since we kicked off the trip with 2 days in Urumqi), the days and towns were starting to blur together. A week later, none of us could remember anything about Yumen- I didn’t take a single photo while we were there. Still, we somehow caught 17 birds, most of which looked like rustica, but a few smaller individuals that could be gutturalis. Yumen was the closest city on our route to the (presumably) pure rustica population of Dunhuang, and put the total length of the zone at several hundred miles thus far- with one more town to go.
After finishing up in Yumen we caught an overnight train east to Wuwei, our final stop in Gansu. We found an old neighborhood near the train station that was swarming with swallows, and spent 3 nights catching as many birds as we could. These birds looked mostly like gutturalis, but a few individuals could have been rustica- we’ll have to wait for the genetics before we know for certain. In Wuwei we also discovered our good-luck talisman for the rest of the trip: the Matafeiyan, a famous Han Dynasty bronze statue unearthed in a nearby tomb. The statue is a galloping horse with one hoof on the back of a swallow, and has become the symbol of travel in China. It felt like a positive sign from the universe.
The benefit of catching birds at night is that we sometimes had free time during the day to sightsee. We got to see the Jiyaguyan fort in Jiuquan, marking the westernmost point of the Great Wall. In Zhangye we visited the incredible Buddhist cave temples at Mati Si and saw the giant reclining wood Buddha in town, and in Wuwei we checked out a huge Confucius temple.
Fun sightseeing aside, we were tired by the end of the Hexi corridor. Knocking on hundreds of doors and talking to strangers is exhausting (especially for Liu Yu, who had to do the talking and translating). It was particularly discouraging when we received permission to catch birds during the day, only to return at night and have the owners change their minds and slam their doors in our faces. We finished each day covered in dust and grime, an unavoidable side effect of working in desert cities, and we had been living mainly on noodles and dumplings- western Gansu isn’t exactly the culinary center of China. Our sampling was a success, but we were relieved to finish up in Wuwei move on to the big cities and better food of the coast. Our final leg of the trip was the train from Wuwei to Lanzhou, and then a flight from Lanzhou to Beijing. We spent one night in Beijing and the next afternoon were on the high-speed train to Qinghuangdao, our first stop on out northeastern transect.