|The Barn Swallow Project||
If Gansu is China’s wild west- barren, dry, sparsely populated- then Qinghuangdao, the first stop on our northeastern sampling trip, is the foggy, crowded, cosmopolitan east. After 2 weeks of eating nothing but noodles and dumplings, dodging goats and chickens in demolished, garbage-filled lots, and finding barn swallows by going door-to-door in ramshackle old neighborhoods, the humid sea breezes, skyscrapers, and seafood of coastal Qinghuangdao were a welcome change. It certainly helped that within an hour of arriving we found a huge outdoor market with a surrounding neighborhood just teeming with barn swallows.
Our sampling strategy for the northeast was a bit different than the west, mainly because of differences in how people are distributed. Rather than small towns separated by swaths of inhospitable desert and the occasional agricultural fields, the northeast of China is basically one solid block of humanity, stretching 800 miles from Beijing to Harbin. There was no way we could sample “most” of the suitable barn swallow habitat, or even narrow it down to a few probable places- there could be barn swallows anywhere and everywhere. I therefore chose 4 stops at even intervals on the high-speed train line: Qinghuangdao, Shenyang, Changchun, and Harbin. We knew from our sampling the previous summer that the birds in Beijing had white bellies, and the ones a bit north of Harbin, in Shuangyashan and Qiqihar, had much darker bellies. We’d just have to fill in the gaps in between as best we could.
Making our lives easier was the fact that the birds in the northeast have subtly shifted their nesting behavior. Rather than nesting in the doorways of old houses, as they do in the west, we now found them nesting in the stairwells of 8- and 10-story high-rise apartment buildings. The windows of the stairwells are left open, and the birds just fly in and build their nests above people’s doors. We don’t know whether this is a true change in nest site preference or a shift that has occurred because there simply aren’t any courtyard-style houses in that part of China. Regardless, we were happy about the change. Swallows are signs of good luck in China, so the nests in stairwells are left undisturbed. All we needed to do to find them was stand outside the big apartment complexes and wait for birds to fly in windows. We then headed up the appropriate stairwell and check if the nest was active. Naturally, the swallows always nest on the top floor, so we got in quite the workout. Once we’d identified enough nests during the day, we waited until 10 or 11pm, quietly caught the birds, banded them, and returned them to their stairwells. This was much simpler than knocking on doors, explaining our project, and asking permission to catch birds inside private homes.
We celebrated our arrival in Qinghuangdao, and the swallow-filled market, with lots and lots of food. Amazing street food is one of my favorite things about China, and the outdoor market in coastal Qinghuangdao was filled with every kind of fish and sea creature I could imagine, along with fruits, vegetables, various bread-based snacks, roast meats, and strange pastries. After a morning of searching for nests in the surrounding buildings we loaded up on all the fresh fruits we’d been missing in the western desert and had a breakfast feast. That evening we tried another great China tradition: street barbecue. You order by ticking off what you want on a little paper menu, and short skewers of grilled meat and veggies come out a few minutes later, greasy and spicy. We tried an assortment of delicacies: grilled oysters, squid, kidney, mutton, bean skin-wrapped veggies, and the house specialty- a cold, vinegar-y salad of thinly sliced beef tendon. Everything was delicious and dirt cheap. We were sad to leave Qinghuangdao after 3 nights, but after catching the birds we needed, we had to keep moving north.