Birding in Taiwan

 

 
Birding Stories

 

David Stirling

 

Macdonald Burbidge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr.Rob Butler

 

Karen Shih

 

Madelon Schouten

BIRDING TAIWAN, MAY 2–11, 2005 — A PERSONAL VIEW

 

George Clulow

 

Bill Keay

 

Simon Liao

 

Yang Chung-Tse

 

Allan Ridley

 

Hue Mackenzie

 

Hugh Currie

 

Kijja Jearwattanakanok

 

Peter Candido -

Re-Tern to Taiwan

 

Dave & Carol Roelen

 

Mark Wilkie

 

Phil Rostron

 

Héctor Gómez de Silva

Hanno Stamm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TAIWAN IN MAY

Héctor Gómez de Silva

México City, México

            The only birding I had done in the Oriental Region before was a month’s travelling in eastern China (temperate to tropical latitudes), yet as it happens I was pleasantly surprised that almost one of every two birds I saw in this 12-day trip were new to me! This included 13 out of the 15 endemics, though it seems that it is not too difficult to see all of the endemics in a trip of this duration – in this case, it was just phenomenal bad luck that we failed to encounter two of the species (Swinhoe’s Pheasant, Yellow Tit).

This trip was organized by the Taiwan International Bird Association through Jo Ann McKenzie and Simon Liao. Our driver, Mr. Fong hadn’t worked on a bird tour before but turned out to be one of the best bird-spotters on the trip in addition to being an excellent driver.

            May 8, 2007. I was picked up at the airport on arrival a little after 7 am, ready to begin the birding adventure.

I saw a few species (including a lifer Red Collared-Dove) from the bus during our almost 3-hour drive to the first main birding spot, Wufeng. Here we were looking mainly for Fairy Pitta, but despite playing the song of this usually responsive species we were unsuccessful during our 2-hour visit other than a glimpse of a darting bird in flight that may have been a pitta... not enough to add to the life-list. We did however find quite a few other goodies including Crested Serpent-Eagle, Oriental Cuckoo, Black-naped Monarch, [Taiwan] Hwamei, Rufous-capped Babbler and Gray Treepie, all of which were life-birds for me.

            I also recognized the vocalizations of would-be lifer Black-browed Barbet from the general resemblance with the sounds of some African and Asian barbets I had heard before, and would-be lifer Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler, whose distinctive song I had listened to in www.mangoverde.com a few days before travelling to Taiwan.

            From there we were driven to Huisun (pronounced “Way-sun”) Forest Recreation Area, where just outside the entrance gate we saw Black-browed Barbet, Formosan Magpie and Maroon Oriole. After finally entering the protected area we were taken to Atayal Resort, where we checked in. “Resort” seems to be widely used in Taiwan to refer to a hotel or lodge of any sort, not necessary a 5-star-or-more place. In the last couple of hours of the afternoon we walked a nearby trail where between km 1.3 and 1.8 (there are markers at kms 1 and 2) it is often possible to see Swinhoe’s Pheasant by walking very slowly and quietly and checking the trail ahead as far as you can see (we failed). Right after dinner a calling Mountain Scops-Owl was attracted to a CD of its song, but remained high up on a tree and could only be seen when it flew, as a pale scops-owl-sized owl (it seemed whitish in the spotlight). Again, not enough to get on the life-list. I’m not complaining, today was an outstanding day, and we’d have more chances to try to see the pitta, the pheasant and the scops-owl later on [oh, well; in the end, it turned out that we failed to see all three].

            May 9, 2007. Before breakfast we walked the “Swinhoe’s trail” for 2 1/2 hours, and though we missed the main target we added to our list 3 Chinese Bamboo-Partridges, our first Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and very good views of the trip´s only Dusky Fulvettas.

We heard Taiwan Partridge, whose vocalization I recognized because I had heard it in www.mangoverde.com

            After breakfast we spent a couple of hours driving and stopping to bird on the way out of the protected area, adding White-rumped Munia and a Taiwan Macaque and a beautiful view of Black-browed Barbet but nothing else of much note (the day was getting quite warm and bird activity was low).

            On our drive to Aowanda, a late Grey-faced Buzzard was seen in the distance, Bronzed Drongos were identified on roadside utility wires and a Collared Finchbill was seen in a stop at a mountain valley with greenhouses at km 9.5. Two hours in Aowanda produced a Vivid Niltava, a Gray-capped Woodpecker and others at “Jo Ann´s benches” (placed by park personnel in honor of all the hours that Jo Ann spends at a special, very birdy location near the park entrance) and a pair of Plumbeous Redstarts, an adult Little Forktail feeding a juvenile and glimpses of a pair of Formosan Whistling-Thrushes at Galloping Waterfall, the last waterfall at the end of the cement steps.

            It was an hour’s drive down one mountain and up another to Chingjing Resort, where we would spend two nights. Chingjing is a very busy and popular destination for Taiwanese tourists, particularly during the summer and on weekends, but for the most part we were all by ourselves.

            May 10-11, 2007. All of 10 minutes’ drive from our hotel is one of Taiwan’s best birding sites, Blue Gate I trail, also known as Waterpipe Trail, in the Meifeng area. This trail is usually very muddy but was somewhat less muddy than usual during our visit because it has been an unusually rainless May. Nevertheless, the hotel lent us rubber boots, and they were useful for walking right through some wet or muddy spots without trouble. We walked the trail for 4 1/2 hours  the first morning and another 3 hours 20 minutes on the next, hoping especially to find Swinhoe’s Pheasant by using the same strategy as at Huisun. There was a lot of tantalizing birdsong but we tried to ignore it, particularly in the first half of the morning, to focus on the pheasant. Taiwan Partridge was again heard. We did manage to see White-tailed Robin (common) and a single male Snowy-browed Flycatcher (very rare in Taiwan) in the early part of the morning, but later on when we had given up pheasant-searching is when we got to see White-eared Laughingthrush, White-eared Sibia, and an owl-mobbing mixed flock which had Black-throated Tit, Steere’s Liocichla and Taiwan Yuhina. We know the chattering birds were mobbing an owl because one of our party saw a Collared Owlet fly over our heads away from the mob and perch briefly on a branch. Nobody else saw it.  On the second morning, we found fresh pheasant footprints and at the very end of our time there we flushed a pheasant from the undergrowth around 10 m to one side of the trail. At least it definitely sounded like a pheasant being flushed, indeed the sound brought back childhood memories of my first pheasant in the wild –a male Ring-necked Pheasant in a New York woodlot that flushed at a steep angle; that one I was able to see, though, even if only briefly. The Blue Gate one was in very thick forest and remained unseen.In the afternoon at Blue Gate II (actually a continuation of the same trail, but reached by bus after a 20 minutes drive). Here we concentrated on the non-pheasants. Most noteworthy were White-browed Shortwing (this skulker was very responsive to a CD of its song but very hard to get a look at; I only managed a very brief view, but good enough to see its cardboard brown plumage and odd white eyestripe) and we had an outstanding view of the gorgeous and very cute Pygmy Wren-Babbler.

            After leaving Meifeng, after a 40 minute drive we stopped just above treeline at Wuling. At the main lookout we were hoping for Alpine Accentor and White-whiskered Laughingthrush but did not see them –only distant Collared Bush-Robins and a Winter Wren. A little down the road we saw the Alpine Accentor. Then we took a small detour into what was apparently the winter training ground of the Taiwanese army (seasonally occupied barracks) and it is here we saw the White-whiskered Laughingthrush as well as more Collared Bush-Robins and a pair of warblers later identified as Brownish-flanked Bush-Warblers (identical to their illustration in Handbook of Birds of the World, and larger than Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warblers and without the very well-marked eyestripe). Ten minutes later we had a noodle-soup lunch at Siafongkou, followed by an outstanding close-up view of a White-whiskered Laughingthrush, as well as a Flamecrest, right at the edge of the parking lot. Most of the afternoon was spent driving down the cross-island highway along a sharply winding road through magnificent forests and breathtaking scenery with deep canyons. We saw an eagle that was almost certainly Black Eagle, a couple of Fork-tailed Swifts, a colony of Asian Martins and at a 40-minute birding stop at Cihen we saw Ferruginous Flycatchers, Gray-headed Bullfinch and Gray-chinned Minivet. At the bottom of the winding road was the Tiansiang bridge and beyond that Taroko Gorge. We had excellent views of Formosan Whistling-Thrush and Fork-tailed Swifts, but Brown Dipper and Little Forktail, the other usual Taroko specialties, were nowhere to be seen (fortunately we had already seen the latter).

            May 12, 2007. I got up shortly after 6 am instead of the usual 4:30 (it is getting light at 5 am). The hotel grounds include a short stone path through beautiful forest and a view of a steep forest-clad slope. I saw few birds before 7 am breakfast and departure, but they were good ones: a few Styan´s Bulbuls (to be seen frequently in the following days) and two flyby White-bellied Pigeons. Also, more Taiwan Macaques.

            The long drive to Taitung included stops at Shakadang trail (very few birds), and much later the road to the recently-closed Chih-Sang (pronounced more like “Tsi’San”) Taitung sugar refinery. Also, a Maroon Oriole flew across the road ahead of our bus! The road to the sugar refinery is a stake-out for real, wild Ring-necked Pheasant, and though we saw few and distant pheasants in the middle of the day (and as a bonus a pair of Oriental Skylarks), we made time so that we´d have another go around 2:30 pm when we had wonderful looks of both male and female Ring-necks.

            May 13, 2007. Before breakfast, a pair of Brown Dippers, and a Fairy Pitta (heard) were noteworthy. We were taken to Taitung again for boarding our 20-minute flight to Lanyu Island, where we had a great time birding from 1:30 to 6:15 and beyond. In “flycatcher creek” and nearby, and along the drive to Dragon´s Head Rock we saw Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher, Whistling Green-Pigeon, Philippine Cuckoo-Dove, Lesser Coucal, Brown-eared Bulbul, the local white-eye which looks much like the Japanese White-eye found on the main island of Taiwan but is apparently another species, the Lowland White-eye, White-breasted Waterhen, Brown Shrike, Emerald Dove, a flyby Ruddy Kingfisher, Blue Rock-Thrushes, a Barred Buttonquail and an Oriental Pratincole. After dinner we drove to a stakeout for the Lanyu race of Ryukyu Scops-Owl. The owl’s call to my ears sounded similar to the slurred 2- note call of Flammulated Owl. We had an excellent view.

            May 14, 2007. In the morning we did the same route as yesterday, producing more views of many of the same species plus 5 dark morph Eastern Reef-Herons. At midday we took the 2 1/2 hour ferry to Kenting on the main island, aiming to see some pelagic species. This is a commercial passenger ferry, and is not ideal for birding because it rapidly heads in a straight line to its destination, and there is no chumming nor much less stopping for better views of the birds. Nevertheless, it was necessary to work with whatever is available. Birds we saw include a Brown Booby, Streaked, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a Short-tailed Shearwater, Bulwer’s Petrel and probable Matsudaira’s Storm-Petrel. And a lot of flying fish of different sizes.

            In Kenting we were picked up by the bus we had before. We had lunch and checked in at the hotel, then drove a short way into Kenting and Sheding Nature Park (where we made the stupendous find of a Black-naped Oriole, thus enabling us to skip the long detour that was scheduled for tomorrow morning). The last hour of daylight was spent overlooking and walking the dikes of a rice field next to Long Luan Tan (Long Luan lake). In the ricefields were Zitting Cisticolas, Plain Prinias and an Oriental Reed-Warbler, as well as Nutmeg Mannikins.

            15 May, 2007. Before breakfast, we spent 1 hour 45 minutes at the Long Luan Tan ricefields and saw in addition to the birds seen yesterday afternoon, a single Chestnut Munia, a Cinnamon Bittern, and heard a rail that reference to the field guide enabled me to identify as Ruddy-breasted Crake (for my heard-only list).

            After breakfast we were driven to the salt ponds at Sihcao (pronounced more like “Tsutao”), which are usually closed from late April onward so as not to disturb the breeding waterbirds. Thanks to Simon´s connections, we were able to make a short visit with an escort. The overall interest here was that this area retains a few lingering Black-faced Spoonbills when most have migrated back to their breeding grounds. This endangered species is highly sought-after by birders and I’m very grateful to Simon being able to arrange this. We saw 11 individuals. Upon returning home and working on my life-list I realized that with this species I cleaned up on the world’s spoonbills. Hurray!

            Other birds we saw at Sihcao include a breeding-plumage Black-tailed Godwit, Broad-billed and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, and a Chinese Egret, another endangered bird and a great find! I very much wanted to see this endangered species, knowing that it is only a vagrant to Taiwan, and before the trip had studied up on how to distinguish it from similar egrets at http://www.orientalbirdclub.org/publications/ bullfeats/chinegrt.html. However, the bird we saw was in breeding plumage, so the identification was very straightforward (and it was quite beautiful with its greenish facial skin).

            Our next destination was Guantien, where a sanctuary was established for what are practically Taiwan’s last Pheasant-tailed Jacanas. We saw at least 3 of these beautiful birds. Finally, we drove to Toong Mao Spa Resort in Guang Tse Lin.

            16 May, 2007. Before breakfast the most noteworthy bird was a Malayan Night-Heron foraging in the park next to the resort. After breakfast we were driven half an hour to Chinsan on the road to Tsengwen dam. Here we again looked for Fairy Pitta, but where we succeeded was with a trio of Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babblers (once I heard the song I realized that I had heard them in the valley behind our hotel this morning!) and a few White-bellied “Yuhinas” (which molecular studies indicate are not yuhinas at all but closely related to vireos!). From there we backtracked through Guang Tse Lin and headed to a site that was not even in our original itinerary. Since we had missed Swinhoe’s Pheasant, we gently convinced Simon that if possible we would like to replace “yet more waterbirds” with “another crack at the pheasant”. It turned out that he did find an alternative and now we were headed to the just-opened Firefly Bed and Breakfast in Guanghua. This is a lodge being built on a mountainside by a former hunter who realized that ecotourism would be better business, Mr. Liu. He hit the jackpot because “his” forest is now a popular destination among Taiwanese mainly for its fireflies, bioluminescent fungi and high density of flying squirrels (of 3 species, apparently), not to mention the fact that it is rumoured to be the best place in the world for Taiwan Partridge and Swinhoe´s Pheasant.

            We arrived at Firefly Bed and Breakfast around 2;30 and checked in, then the three more fanatic birders among us were driven 10 minutes up a steep road through the forest. We were to silently sit-and-wait and, eventually, walk down the road, looking intently for Swinhoe´s Pheasant or Taiwan Partridge (our second-to-last chance, we would have our last chance the next morning).

            We started by sitting and waiting close together, but then realized that three people´s occasional foot-shuffling or mosquito swatting magnified our conspicuousness, so we ended up staking out different sections of the upper part of the road. We had excellent views of White-tailed Robin and decent views of a few other birds that most of us had already seen in the previous days, but were not having luck with galliforms.

            I had descended the hill a little more than the others and found an excellent watchpoint: a flat-topped boulder on the roadside which I could comfortably sit on and whose location gave me an excellent view of a roughly 100-m stretch of road, probably the longest view anywhere along that road. After a long wait in which I occasionally raised my binoculars to peer at the farthest stretch of road, a small bird landed on the road around 50 m away at a spot just before the road dipped a little. I instantly raised my binoculars and saw it was a male White-tailed Robin but ... beyond it, just barely poking out beyond the dip in the road, was a pair of Taiwan Partridges sideways-scratching the leaf litter like chickens! I watched them for a while and wondered how I was going to call my companions, who were out of line of sight. It was clear that the partridges were unaware of my presence. Getting up and going for my companions would probably have revealed my presence to the partridges, but then I realized that my companions were going to start coming down the road on their own because it would soon be dark and we were still about 1 km from the hotel. So I just sat and waited, watching the partridges.

            Soon my companions showed up around the bend above me and I signalled to them that they should come quickly. They came and I whispered to them “Look just over the rise in the road” and they saw the partridges, albeit in the now darkening shadows and quite far off. We decided to approach as much as possible shielding ourselves behind the rise in the road and we did manage to approach and have another brief view of the partridges before they ran off into the vegetation. I had watched the pair of partridges for at least 20 minutes!

            It turns out that Simon and Jo Ann were staking out different posts downhill of us. Simon didn´t get lucky but Jo Ann saw a male Swinhoe’s Pheasant.

            After getting back and having dinner, Mr. Liu took us once again up the hill looking for the flying squirrels. To make a long story short, we walked up and down and back up through the forest for just over 2 hours, and ended up seeing two fantastically cute white-faced flying-squirrels (Petaurista alborufus lena) and one Formosan hairy-footed squirrel (Belomys pearsonii).

            17 May, 2007. Again the three more fanatic birders were driven up the hill, this time at 4;20 am and we tried for the pheasant for 6 hours. This time, it was bad luck because as we were slowly walking down toward the place where Jo Ann saw a pheasant the day before, a peasant overtook us hustling down the road, barefoot. I suggested to my companions that we should try to trot down the road ahead of the peasant, but they said no and (my big mistake) I went along with that. Well, as it happens, the peasant was eventually interviewed by Simon and said he had encountered two Swinhoe’s Pheasants in the same general area where Jo Ann had seen one yesterday... At least that morning we had some nice views of birds we had seen before such as Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler and Rufous-faced Warbler. Back at the lodge in the middle of the day I also saw a soaring Black Eagle. It rained hard but briefly during lunch.

            We drove an hour and a half to Alishan Youth Activity Center. At aroadside stop on the way, we had great views of 9 White-bellied Pigeons. It rained on and off most of the afternoon – though we did get a bit of birding at Alishan between bouts of rain. We saw Eurasian Jay and Brown Bullfinch, and heard the endemic Taiwan Bush-Warbler.

            May 18, 2007. This morning was devoted to our first attempt to find Mikado Pheasant. Hopefully we’d have better luck with this one though it is usually more elusive than Swinhoe’s. Its Taiwanese name is “king of the mist” because it is most often seen during misty conditions, however “king of the missed” would be equally appropriate, judging from what I´ve heard and read.

            We checked the grassy strips at the edge of the road as we drove through hilly forest in Yushan (pronounced “Oo-san”) National Park and then as we parked the bus for nearly an hour next to a bank on the roadside about 50 minutes drive from our hotel – a spot which Simon identified as the most reliable for Mikado. We saw a few birds while we staked out this spot, most notably a Mountain Hawk-Eagle. Then our driver told Simon in Taiwanese something similar to “I know a spot for Mikado better than your spot” (he had come across a Mikado while driving for a non-birding group a couple of weeks before our trip), he drove us a further 20 minutes and as he was explaining that it was just around the bend he stopped and pointed and there was a male Mikado Pheasant only 20 m away on the narrow grassy strip on the slope beside the road (apparently there was also a female but she quickly slipped into the forest undergrowth while I and no doubt everyone else focused on the male). He stood for a moment on the grassy slope and then actually jumped down to the road, crossed unhurriedly right in front of us and disappeared into a ditch on the other side of the road. Wow!

            We spent most of the rest of the morning in the nearby Tataka Recreation Area (which is part of Yushan National Park), looking for a few high-elevation birds. We had great views of White-whiskered Laughingthrushes and Collared Bush-Robins, as well as a couple of Taiwan Bush-Warblers (the best view, of one on a shrubby bank about 3 m high, made me think that these extreme skulkers are probably so concerned with hiding from above that the best way to try to see them is to try to be below them), Yellowish-flanked Bush-Warblers, Vinaceous Rosefinch, White-backed Woodpecker and a distant Eurasian Nutcracker. We looked for Golden Parrotbill but did not find them.

            On the drive back to Alishan Youth Activity Center I glimpsed a female Mikado Pheasant on the roadside (even though it was 1 pm). It rained on and off in the afternoon. We were still missing two species from that area: the endemic Taiwan Barwing and Taiwan Tit.

            After around an hour of looking, the others went back for a siesta but I decided to continue looking – this was one of our last few days in Taiwan and this was going to be our last chance to see some of the highland species. Luckily, I found a pair of Taiwan Barwings and watched them for quite a while. I also searched every mixed flock I saw but there was no sign of Taiwan Tit. The other birders returned from their siestas and I took them to the spot where I had had the Taiwan Barwing, but they were nowhere to be seen.

            May 19, 2007. We again birded at Alishan Youth Activity Center but did not find any birds we had not already seen before. Then we drove to Thausan and birded the mid-elevations nearby, our last chance for birds of that elevation (we even waited an hour in the bus for the rain to stop, it is usually rainy all of May but we only encountered rain in the last few days of our trip). We added Rusty Laughingthrush, Striated Prinia and I glimpsed an Ashy Wood-Pigeon.

            In the afternoon we tried for Fairy Pitta again at Huben village. There was some beautiful bamboo forest, but we did not see a single pitta. I finally got a world-class view of a male Black-naped Monarch, though.

            From Huben we drove an hour to Changhua. Tomorrow was meant to be a day for cultural sightseeing, but our failure to see the pitta led Simon to adjust the tour once again. We would spend the morning looking for the pitta at our driver’s hometown (it was more-or-less on the way to Taipei and the driver had phoned his local bird club and was told that there were two singing pittas around).

            20 May, 2007. After 1 hour 40 minutes driving we stopped in Tchonlin village, Hsinchu County. Noteworthy birds seen in the hour we were here were a juvenile Crested Goshawk, a couple of juvenile Collared Scops-Owls, a Common Kingfisher, a female Mandarin Duck and we heard, but did not see Fairy Pitta.

            Heading toward Taipei we visited the “Bird Temple” and adjacent shop-lined streets in Sanshia, where everyone found tasty tidbits and interesting souvenirs. In Taipei we also stopped at a 4-story handicraft store that had a tremendous variety of beautiful and interesting items, and then followed a superb farewell dinner. Those of us who were staying on were taken to their respective hotels and the rest were taken to the airport for boarding our international flights.

            My overall impression of Taiwan as a birding destination was that just as Mexico or Trinidad & Tobago are ideal destinations for a birder venturing for the first time into the Neotropics because they have a good sample of Neotropical groups yet their overall diversity is not too overwhelming (compared to, for example, Peru´s more than 250 species of flycatchers to identify!), so Taiwan is an ideal first stepping-stone for a birder wishing to become familiar with the avifauna of the Oriental Region. Taiwan’s good number of endemics and specialties, of course, add a further motivation particularly because they are not exactly “little brown jobs”, and are an attraction even to veteran Oriental Region birders.