INSIDE THE GREENHOUSE | Re-telling climate change stories

Last Day in Zhangye


Rebecca Safran

The past few days in Zhangye were long and a bit frustrating. We had seen one more tag on a bird in village 3 and had gently coaxed the old woman living there to try to catch that bird. She really didn’t want us around but a neighbor of hers – whose birds we banded the day before – helped negotiate our entry. Once inside, she warmed up to Liu Yu and even served him lunch while Sheela and I sat outside on the dusty sidewalk eating dried peanuts. We were fine with that – any way to make her happy made us happy! That bird was wily, however, and despite several well-planned attempts, we just couldn’t catch him. Our last try involved us sitting in the woman’s yard with our nets folded up, ready to run up and catch the bird when he came in to roost. The old woman did not want us around at night so we first showed up at 11 am where our attempts were a complete failure. We returned around 7:30 pm in hopes of waiting it out until the sun set. As dusk approached, we sat for about an hour under the shade of her courtyard watching for the birds. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Finally, the woman told us that we needed to leave. We had purchased a huge bag of fresh fruit for her as a gift for allowing us to sit in her yard and I motioned for Liu Yu to deploy the gift. Perhaps it could buy us a bit more time? He said that it was not time to do that yet… so Sheela and I wandered outside and down the street to look at a gorgeous sunset. We were frustrated but could at least laugh a bit at ourselves and the situation: we are in the middle of a small village in the middle of China trying to catch our last bird before we move to a different site. We are completely dependent on the owner of this home to allow us to sit in her yard to try to catch him and really, she wants us gone. We have been quietly staring at an empty nest awaiting the bird’s arrival for over an hour so we completely understand why she might think we are crazy! The barn swallows were still in high swing even at 8:40 pm – taking in their last meal before heading to roost at night. If we could stay at that woman’s yard until dark, I know we could have that bird in our hands. But, it was not to be. After some more chatting with her, we caught the female but the male was nowhere in sight. By now, a large crowd of villagers had assembled to watch us measure the female and then release her quickly. We always feel great when the crowds see the birds released – they fly off and usually go right back to their normal business. We thought all of the great chatter about this released female could buy us a bit more time with the old woman but once that bird was out of our hands, we had to clear out of her house. Fair enough. We took down the nets, left her bag of fruit near her door, and did a final walk down the streets of village 3. It took us about 15 minutes to wait for a taxi to come by – this village is a bit outside of town. We headed to village 4 for one last check for this trip to Zhangye and though we had seen many birds flying around a few days before, we saw nothing. Not one bird. Our final night of catching in Zhangye was done! We got back to the hotel and packed up for the train ride to Juiquan. All in all, this stop was a productive one: seven more tags and one more in sight. We did our very best!