and the Chinese Crested Tern
Mark B. Wilkie
Douliou, Yunlin County,
SR Moderator, Birdforum
During June I
received a very unexpected invitation from Simon Liao, President
of the International Taiwan Birding Association(ITBA), to attend a
conference on the Chinese Crested Tern, due to be held from July
18-20 on the Matsu Archipelago in the Taiwan Strait.
Archipelago is one of the archipelagos that have featured very
prominently in the political standoff between the People’s
Republic of China and Taiwan, Republic of China.
When Chiang Kai-Shek's
nationalist forces retreated from the mainland in 1949 they held
onto a number of islands just off the coast of
In August 1958 the
twenty-year-long Artillery War began. The islands of Kinmen and
Liehyu were the main theater of action but parts of the Matsu
Archipelago also were shelled.
There has always been a strong
military presence on Matsu
and until the mid nineties the area was under martial law and
off-limits to visitors. Thankfully that has changed and a summer
visit to Matsu
offers the opportunity of seeing one of the world’s rarest birds,
the Chinese Crested Tern Sterna bernsteini.
The Chinese Crested Tern has
always been one of those little known rare mystery birds. The
first described in 1863. Between 1863 and 1937 there were few
records of the bird. In 1937 twenty one
specimens were collected off
Shandong. After this the species seems to have disappeared and
many believed it to be extinct. There were claimed sightings of
the species over the years. In China there were three birds
observed on sand flats at Beidaihe on 10 June 1978. Then 10-20
reported from Ko Libong Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand in July
1980, and then finally, three in Northern China in September 1991.
single Chinese Crested Tern amongst
was photographed on April 17,
1998, by Ong Long-Shin, at the mouth of the Pachang River, Chiayi
County, Taiwan, but at the time, he did not realize what the
smaller bird was.
In June 2000, while
editing footage for a film on the terns of the Matsu Archipelego,
producer Liang Chieh-Teh, and Chang Shou-Hua, Chairman of the Wild
Bird Society of Matsu, noticed some smaller terns amongst the
Greater Crested Terns that they had filmed. On investigation they
discovered they had captured images of Chinese Crested Tern on
Since then very
small numbers have been observed breeding on small islets in the
Matsu Tern Reserve during the summer breeding period.
Tuesday morning, 18 July 2006, I flew from Taichung Airport to
Nankan, the largest island in the Matsu Archipelago. After a good
lunch the conference began. The conference started with welcomes
and comments by Speaker of
the House, Wang Jin-Pyng, Minister of Transportation and
This was followed by
talks on “The Chinese Crested
Tern, and Ecotourism in Costa Rica and Taiwan” by Dr. Peter
Candido (ITBA Director) and “Birding in
Taiwan; Ecotourism on a Beautiful Island”
by Jo Ann MacKenzie (ITBA Executive Secretary).
conference we were able to do some sightseeing and then had a very
enjoyable seafood dinner, and a note of caution here. Kaoliang is
to the people of Southern China and Taiwan what whisky is to the
Scots, and Matsu is home to one of the finest Kaoliang
distilleries. The locals seem to have a natural immunity to
Kaoliang and love to share Kaoliang with visitors.
I was up early to
watch a military exercise which the Speaker had invited us to
attend. Watching large 155mm howitzers opening up at dawn was a
rather unique way to start the day I was going to look for the
Chinese Crested Tern.
After breakfast we
boarded a boat to go out to the islets of the Matsu Tern Reserve.
The sea was quite choppy and it took about thirty minutes to get
out to the islet that Chinese Crested Tern had been sighted on. As
we stood on deck staring at a rocky islet full of Greater Crested
Terns, lesser numbers of
Bridled Terns, and a few Black-naped Terns, it seemed a very
daunting task trying to locate a Chinese Crested Tern amongst this
lot. There was no need to worry. Two days before Dr. Peter Candido
had been out to the islet and had seen the terns. Peter was next
to me and in no time he had located a Chinese Crested Tern and
pointed it out to me. With trembling hands I lifted my bins and
located the bird. It was a fraction smaller than the Greater
Crested Terns around it and much paler. As I studied it I ticked
off the ID characteristics in my mind. This was indeed a Chinese
Crested Tern. I had seen it.
While I frantically tried to get
a shot of it from a very unstable position, Peter located another
adult and a chick. On examining his photos after the trip he was
able to ID another four adults, a total of seven individuals. The
unstable ship and choppy seas stopped my attempts to try to
digiscope a shot of the bird. I was able to get some extremely
poor images but that was it. I had fair views of the second adult
and chick. Fortunately Peter got some good shots and his report
can be viewed on the International
Taiwan Birding Association site.
We then proceeded to the island
for lunch. That afternoon we visited the very quaint and
traditional village of
We also did a little birding but birding on
during the summer is limited to the terns really. We had another
great seafood dinner and headed off to bed.
The next morning we took a boat
back to Nankan and visited several sites including the distillery
and the famous Tunnel 88 where the Kaoliang is stored. The
highlight of the morning was a sighting of a Blue Whistling
We flew out in the afternoon but
bad weather forced us to have to go to Taipei instead of Taichung.
The trip was really a wonderful
experience and I’m greatly indebted to Simon Liao and ITBA for
making the trip possible.