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Kijja Jearwattanakanok


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Matsu and the Chinese Crested Tern



Mark B. Wilkie

Douliou, Yunlin County, Taiwan

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.



The Matsu 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 China's Fujian Province.

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 species was 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.

A single Chinese Crested Tern amongst Caspian Terns 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 Matsu.

Since then very small numbers have been observed breeding on small islets in the Matsu Tern Reserve during the summer breeding period.


The Trip

On 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 Communication Kuo Yao-Chi and Legislator Yang Cheng-Tse. 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).

After the 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 of Peikan for lunch. That afternoon we visited the very quaint and traditional village of Chinpi. We also did a little birding but birding on Matsu 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 Thrush.

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.