When the Portugese first sighted the island of Taiwan in 1544, they dubbed it Ilha Formosa or Beautiful Island although they made no attempt to colonise it. Indeed, even today, the island of Taiwan, which is 394km long, 144km wide & covered with mountains in the east & sloping plains in the west, is a perennial favourite with tourists for its excellent montane scenary & infrastructure which covers the whole island. For travelling birders, there is the added incentive of sighting an ever increasing number of island endemics & Orient specialities which include some of Asia's most beautiful & yet poorly known birds. With a current endemic list of almost 2 dozen endemics, Taiwan can be considered to be 1 of Asia's premier birding destinations.
The downside to this excellent tourist infrastructure, however, is the widely perceived high cost of birding in this country. Admittedly, accomodation is expensive by Orient standards, and it is often difficult to reach the mountainous areas with anything less than a car. These conceptions have not been helped by what most local & foreign birders consider to be exorbitant birding tour prices which are readily advertised on the web and in regional publications. As an asian student on a relatively tight budget, 1 of my main goals on this trip, in addition to seeing the endemics of course, was to measure the feasibility of actually birding on the island while spending as little as possible. Most modern travelling birders prefer to save money wherever they can, and in a country like Taiwan where the birding is generally easy & rewarding I found that 1 does not need to own gold bars to do this country of friendly people, great scenery & equally good birding justice.
Regarding the timing of the visit, there is generally only 2 "peak" times to visit the country in order to get the most of it. However, a give-and-take scenario is involved & as is the case in birding, you can't get the best of everything. In winter, the endemic species are supplemented by "star" migrants such as Saunder's Gull & Black-faced Spoonbill, of which Taiwan is a major wintering spot for, particularly the latter. In addition, there is a whole host of other thrushes & passerines to look forward to. However, having said that, Taiwan Bush Warbler is brutally difficult in winter, because they don't call, & Fairy Pittas are non-existent. In Summer, there is a window before the nesting season during the month of April where residents & migrants are generally easy to see, with the latter in the process of their spring passage back to their breeding grounds. However, the Fairy Pittas only start nesting in May, when the migrants have mostly departed. In addition, there is the issue with the weather, as most afternoons in the summer months (i.e mid-year) experience thunderstorms, which become more intense when the typhoons start battering the island in June-July. Decisions & more decisions! However, in my case, this problem was not-existant. As a Pitta "Fanatic" if you will, I certainly was not going to pass up a chance to see a globally vulnerable species which disappears for 4 months every year (!!!) only to return every summer back to their breeding grounds in Taiwan. In addition, there was the added incentive of reaching the milestone of 20 Orient Pittas. With all that in mind, the adventure began in May. At the end of it, I recorded 120 species, more than a third of which were lifers.
The trip, for ease of reading, can be simply divided into 2 parts. In general, the first 10 days or so of the trip was a free & easy leg, using Huben as a base for exploration. The second part of the trip was the "mop-up" leg, where I hired a guide to complete my endemic haul from the island.
Huben IBA (5 Full Days)
Xitou (溪頭) Forest Recreation Area (1.5 Days)
SunLinkSea (crudely pronounced btw)(杉林溪) Forest Recreation Area (0.5 Days)
Yushan National Park (玉山) Up To Tataja (塔塔加)(1 Day)
Hui Sun "Experimental Farm" (惠蓀林場)(1 Day)
Beidongyan Mountain (1 afternoon)
Rueyen Creek Wildlife Refuge aka Blue Gate Trail(1 morning)
Mount Hehuan(合歡山)(1 afternoon)
Taroko Gorge/ Hualien City (1 Morning)
Kenting/Sheding Nature Park (墾丁森林遊樂區)(1 Morning)
Western Coast Wetlands/Black-faced Spoonbill Conservation Area (黑面琵鷺保護區)(1 Morning)
In total, I spent exactly 2 weeks on the island, arriving at 6pm on the 16th & departing at almost the same time on the 30th. All timing between the mentioned sites can be safely assumed to be travel time. Wherever possible, I have attached the local Chinese names of the sites mentioned to help DIY birder-drivers because although road-signs are bilingual, if you get lost & need to ask locals for advise it is best to just show them the Chinese name of the site you need to get to as outside the major cities English is not widely spoken or understood.
The reason I chose Huben as a base was two-fold. In addition to holding the Pitta & several much sought-after ground-birds, my contacts Mark Wilkie & Dr Scott Lin were based in that area and had agreed to help in whatever way they could once I got there, & I owe them a huge debt of thanks for the success of the trip overall.
Logistics & Guiding:
To be honest I did not do any pre-trip planning, apart from buying a plane ticket & contacting Mark Wilkie for assistance. This degree of flexibility worked out really well & for the first time in years I actually incurred a change fee to push forward my departure date from Taiwan. The initial flight dates were simply chosen because Mark had mentioned he would be free during this period.
Once there, Mark gave me excellent directions on how to travel via the modern High Speed Rail & Railway Networks to Huben, where prior arrangements had been made for me to stay at the Fairy Pitta Cafe. There I would meet Dr Scott Lin & his research team from TESRI (Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute). I was quite surprised to find out that most of his research assistants were students not much older than I was, and it was a throughly enjoyable experience interacting with them & learning from them on top of birdwatching there. For travels around Huben, Mark was kind enough to show me around the area & day trips, combined with trips to neighbouring bus stations & some help from the internet, helped me ascertain & use the local buses to maximise my birding around the area. For birding around Huben, I am very grateful to Dr Scott for taking time off his busy schedule to show me around the area, taking me to the best spots for the partridges & pheasants, as well as showing me some of Huben's rarer residents at known stakeouts which he knew from all the work he had done in the area. Thereafter, he was also kind enough to lend me his rugged mountain bike which ultimately helped me reach these same spots at first light everyday. Throughout all this, Mark was also around as well, taking me on day trips to Xitou & Yushan which were generally very successful, and thanks goes out to him as well too.
As is always the case with trips that work out better than expected, there came a time when decisions had to be made. As the list grew shorter & the limitations of public transport became increasingly apparent, Dr Scott suggested that for maximum time-management, a car would be needed to venture into the interior of Taiwan. To that end, he recommended a friend Mr Chiang Kuendar, who incidentally is a local guide for Taiwan. Some responses to my RFI on Taiwan had recommended Mr.Kuendar, as had some friends who had been to Taiwan previously. Unfortunately, he had been out guiding several individuals leading up to my trip, and thus I had been unable to work out anything productive with him earlier. This time, however, Dr Scott helped me come up with an itinerary that with Kuendar's help would maximise my chances with the more difficult & localised endemics.
With everything in place, I decided to use Kuendar during my 2nd week in Taiwan to complete the haul. We took pains to start the itinerary on a Sunday afternoon so that our trip would not clash with the weekend crowd, which involves city-dwellers flocking to the mountainous interior for their version of weekend getaways. Kuendar turned out to be an excellent travel companion & guide. To save cost, we shared the same room at all the locales we visited. Kuendar took pains to inform me that he was not a professional bird guide per se, as he only got his license in 2006 and started taking birders around last year. He self-confessed that he was not familiar with all of the calls, particularly those of more rarely encountered species. However, having said that, he was a competent birder in the field from personal experience. On top of that, he spoke good english, which would almost certainly help any foreign birders visiting Taiwan who could not communicate in mandarin or understand Chinese Bird Names. In addition, he was a careful driver who knew how to get to all the prime birding locales with ease, and with his tour guide license he managed to get discounted rates at many of the hotels he stay in. From a birder's perspective, his trump card would be his long list of contacts throughout the country, whom he could call at a moment's notice to find out the latest information on bird sightings in their own "patches". It was with this knowledge that we managed to get onto the Pied Avocets, as well as locate some of the more localised species on my list. His rates were also very reasonable, with a listed guide fee of NT3000 (USD$100) a day, on top of paying for all his accomodation/petrol/food etc. He also charges NT2 per Km covered, which in my case amounted to about NT3000 as we covered more than 1500Km in just 4 days. In my case, I would readily mention that I got a very special rate as a student on the guide fee, but I gave him quite a bit at the end for doing so well.
Finally, Kuendar can be reached at Kuendar@gmail.com or by Mobile Phone at +886 938-536-086. Thanks to Dr Scott & his itinerary & Kuendar's skill, this 2nd leg was completed in just 4 full days.
On the topic of my backpacking leg, I spoke Mandarin & understood a bit of the local "Min-Nan Hua", so getting around was never a problem. In the case of fellow travellers who can't speak or understand either language, all Taiwan road-signs are bilingual as forementioned. However, if you do get lost especially in rural areas, you would be in a bit of a spot as most of the people there don't understand english. Your best bet would be to approach students or youths as most of them study English at school. Alternatively, as mentioned above just show them the Chinese Name of the place you want to get to & they will try their best to help you. I found the Taiwanese people to be generally very helpful & friendly & there was several instances similar to this one where the owner of a barber shop in Lin-nei actually called his uncle to send me back to Huben when I told him I was rushing back to join the students there for dinner. If you can get past or ease the language barrier, travelling alone is certainly not an issue.
As for public transport, you can get the timings either from the bus/train stations or via the Internet. However, you have to be able to understand traditional chinese characters if you use the latter. I had access to Internet at the workstation in Huben, and Dr Scott. was kind enough to take down the timings for me, so again this was not a personal issue although it would be slightly more complicated for a foreigner working from aboard. The timings were generally very accurate & adhered to although pending road conditions, such as fog & particularly land/rock slides from heavy rain, this was subject to delays on more than 1 occasion. However, as most of the Taiwanese I spoke to like to jovially put it, "Don't Worry, the bus will come...just be patient."
Most of the accomodation in Taiwan is luxury by Orient birding standards. With the exception of Huben, which was basic but adequate, the rest of the hotels and homesteads we stayed in all had fans in the highlands / air-conditioning in the lowlands, a television with a myriad of channels, attached bathroom with provided towels etc. Basically, the works. Most twin rooms were reasonably priced between USD50-80, although in the major cities like Tainan this went up, and was part of the reason why I chose to come home earlier. As for food, I ate readily from roadside restaurants where meals were prepared literally by the roadside. There were occasions with Dr Scott where we went to slightly fancier eating places although the price of a meal never really varied greatly. With Kuendar, I told him to bring me to try the local culinary delights at the different areas we were in and found that the flavour & tastes were rather similar to dishes back home in Singapore. As before, even in some of the fancier outlets, prices were reasonable, averaging about NT65 (USD 2.50) for a filling meal without any drinks. I also took a taste of some of the takeaways in the 7-Elevens which are literally everywhere in Taiwan, and found them to be alright. Here is a rundown of the accomodation & food situation during my time there.
Accomodation: 8 Nights In The Fairy Pitta Cafe @ 350NT Per Night. No Food although they serve nice Milk Tea.
Food: Driving out with Dr Scott & Co. to eat in Lin-nei & Douliou. Most breakfasts & the occasional lunch involved Oreos & bread, but mostly Oreos, washed down with good ole' H2O.
Hui Sun Forest Area/ Experimental Farm:
Accomodation: Twin Room in Hui Sun Research & Education Centre @ 1600NT/Night without Food.
Food: Drove out to the surrounding villages to source for eating outlets.
Rueyen Creek AKA Blue Gate Trail:
Accomodation: Twin Room @ Ching Jing Veteran's Farm Guesthouse @ 1950NT/Night Including Breakfast
Food: Ate at a relatively expensive cafe in Ching Jing. No targets at Blue Gate so used Breakfast Coupon which started at 7am.
Mount Hehuan / Hualian City:
Accomodation: Tian Siang Youth Activity Centre Twin Room @ 2008NT/Night Including Dinner & Breakfast
Food: Used Both Coupons
Accomodation: Formosan Farm Farmstead (Literal Translation Of Chinese Name) Twin Room @ 1000NT/Night. Basically a superior version of Huben but still no food.
Food: Ate in the "Taiwan Cow Beef Noodle Restaurant" (Again Literal Translation). Apparently the local speciality.
Accomodation: Cambridge Hotel Twin Room @ 2520NT/Night Including Breakfast
Food: Used Breakfast Coupon, which started early at 6am. Ate in a Noodle Bar across the street from the hotel which served local culinary delights which had a Japanese twist.
DISCLAIMER: Some of these prices are not reflective of the listed prices, as we were there on weekdays & Kuendar's License helped in several areas, so we usually received discounted rates. For more info, see the next section on People.
All in all, excellent value logistics wise as all in the ground arrangements added up to approximately 1165 USD for 14 days. This was the full board price I calculated factoring in all major costs & estimating some minor ones like meals & personal supplies, and including what I gave Kuendar & all fixed costs from that leg.
Environment & People:
Taiwan is a land of great contrast, from the scenic mountains in the interior of the country, to the comparatively well-developed floodplains of the western coast, and down to the tropical climate of the South, with its rolling hills of coastal forest & heath overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Not surprisingly, the mountainous areas were decidedly scenic, the lowlands much less so, then there is the special mention of Taroko Gorge. As Dr Scott put it, "If you have not visited Taroko Gorge, you have not been to Taiwan!" As a sucker for Physical Geography, it must be seen to be believed, preferably in the perfect light of the rising Sun. There is nothing quite like it from my experiences in the Orient. Special mention also goes out to the road up Mount Hehuan, which ends at the highest point Wuling, which at 3295m (If I remember correctly), makes this the highest road east of the Himalayas. I braved the howling winds & rain with a coat & sandals here trying to find Accentors, and actually saw my toes turning purple! (For more on this, check out the later section)
During Summer, first light was usually about 5am, although I usually left at 530-545am when looking for ground-birds. The sunset timing was around 6pm with last light around 630pm.
On more practical issues, the transport infrastructure within the country is generally very good. The poorest road we encountered during our travels, which incidentally was the one to Beidongyan Mountain, was still paved although it was littered with pot-holes & debris from the numerous rockslides. In spit e of all these hazards, it might as well be called an expressway by Orient standards. The public transport system was also efficient & modern, with electronic ticket purchases & pre-allocated seats for the higher tiers of tickets the general norm. Landslides are a well-known hazard in Taiwan, and care should be taken when driving particularly on the mountain roads, especially after heavy rainfall. There were numerous signs warning of these hazards, and as Mark Wilkie put it you had a greater chance of being taken out by a landslide in the mountains then being kidnapped while trying to hitchhike there. (I never confirmed this of course heh.)
The locals, as mentioned several times before, were generally very helpful & friendly. They don't make very good drivers though, having a particularly nasty habit of cutting across 3-4 lanes on the expressways at speed without any indicators. It is so bad that Kuendar habitually drives on the extreme left lane of most roads, if nothing else so that he need only to look in 1 direction when 1 of these "cutters" suddenly swerves in front of us to the blatant blaring of horns from annoyed road users including ourselves. They also seemed to have this annoying habit of taking turns & bends on mountain roads on the outside lane, perhaps for fear of the forementioned rockslides taking their cars out. This was particularly dangerous in the fog zone above 1500m & driving through such conditions was at times rather harrowing.
In Taiwan, it is prudent to note that the terms Off-Peak & Peak Periods have different meanings compared to those in the general concepts of Tourism. Most tourism in Taiwan appears to be internal, from personal observations tour buses usually consisted of retirees as well as tourists from Korea & Japan with the occasional splashes of Mainland China. Western tourists were few & far between during my time there and most Westerners whom I met were actually living and working in Taiwan. In Taiwanese terms, off-peak season refers to weekdays from Sunday night to Thursday Night, and Peak Season means Friday thru to Sunday. What does this mean for the visiting birder? For 1 thing, hotels, particularly those in the mountains, tend to be fully booked during peak periods, making searching for accomodation a potential pain. At the same time, Forest Recreation Areas like Hui Sun are packed with buses full of noisy tourists and family groups on weekends, thus possibly affecting birding. Even during off-peak weekdays, certain areas like Xitou were packed with groups of retirees who were at times rather noisy, but there were other places like SunLinkSea which were virtual ghost-towns during the same period. I spent all my weekends around Huben, where the weekends only meant an increase in the visitor volume to the Fairy Pitta Cafe, but on the forest trails I was still very much alone. As mentioned above, another factor to consider is the difference in price of accomodation during the different periods, which can be as large as USD50 or more. Hence, when planning a itinerary, it is wise to take this into consideration. For example, if you had planned to visit Blue Gate Trail on weekends, it would conceivably be very difficult to find a Hotel in nearby Ching Jing, a mere 10 minutes drive away.
A twitchy sort of thing heh, but since Taiwan is all about the endemics here is the rough outline of endemics seen relative to places visited during the 14 days in Taiwan.
Day 2: Taiwan Barbet; Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler; Black-necklaced (Spot-breasted) Scimitar-Babbler (All Huben)
Day 3: Taiwan Hill-Partridge (Huben)
Day 5: Steere's Liocichla; White-eared Sibia; Taiwan Yuhina (Xitou)
Day 6: Rusty Laughingthrush; Taiwan Barwing (Xitou) Taiwan Whistling-Thrush; Taiwan Bush-Warbler; Taiwan Wren-Babbler (SunLinkSea)
Day 8: Mikado Pheasant; Collared Bush Robin; White-whiskered Laughingthrush; Taiwan (Streak-throated) Fulvetta (Route 18 Yushan National Park To Tataja)
Day 10: Swinhoe's Pheasant (Huben); Formosan Blue Magpie (Hui Sun)
Day 11: Yellow Tit; Rusty-crowned (White-throated) Laughingthrush (Mount Beidongyan)
Day 12: Flamecrest (Mount Hehuan)
Day 13: Styan's Bulbul (Eastern Coastal Highway through to Kenting)
Day 14: Taiwan Hwamei (Sheding Nature Park,Kenting)
A total of 23 endemics based on the list supplied to be my Mark. The above locales represent first encounters. Most endemics were seen again in other places, but some like Mikado Pheasant were solitary encounters.
A huge debt of thanks goes out to several people, some of whom have already been mentioned several times up to this point. First of all, thanks to all those who responded to my initial RFI, but especially to Rich Lindie, one of the few birders who posted a trip report about his budget Taiwan birding & the inspiration for my trip. Thanks for all your detailed email responses to me. Although coming from a culture where hitch-hiking is not the norm, I was rather hesistant to do it in Taiwan. A word of thanks also goes out to those friends & contacts who had recommend Kuendar to me, because although our emails to each other was held up, he was nonetheless aware of my arrival in the country because of those same emails.
To Mark Wilkie, likewise a big shout-out to you for all your help prior to and during the trip. From writing bilingual directions to guide me to Huben, to taking me on day-trips in your scooter & car to check the bus times & get my bearings, a big thanks to you.
To Dr Scott, a big shout-out to you as well. Despite your busy schedule, you showed me where to find the best birds in Huben, allowed me to join your group for meals daily, loaned me your bike, gave me a lift to Zhu-San so I could catch the 1st bus to Xitou...the list goes on. Thanks for everything & I wish you all the best in your endeavours as you strife to locate the major wintering sites for the Fairy Pitta.
Brief Notes: This section primarily contains memorable endemic encounters & noteworthy not-endemics at the sites visited. For details on individual endemic sightings, refer to the timeline.
A sweltering start to my stay in Taiwan. Any hopes of enjoying some sub-tropical temperatures all but evaporated with the heat by Day 2. With temperatures up to the 30s by mid-morning, it was Singapore all over again! Apparently, the summer rains had not arrived as per norm this year, and it turned out to be a real windfall for ground-bird hunters like me. Accordingly to Dr Scott, in previous years the research team would be surrounded by clouds of Mosquitoes while they were out in the field. It was so bad that I noted that everyone of them actually brought a portable carrier for mosquito coil, which they burnt and carried on them so that they could remain sane while working! They didn't have to use it this year, and I was a happy camper, for I spent almost 6 hours a day on my butt with very little movement during my time here.
From a twitcher's perspective birding in Huben is difficult & frustrating. As is typical of Bamboo Forests, species diversity is low & the species that were present were generally very common, with more of the same being encountered everyday. Huben's landscape is generally 1 of rolling hills covered with Bamboo Forests, rising to about 350m in elevation at some points & intersected by numerous gullies & streams. However, within these streams, a unique micro-habitat of ferns, rattan & broadleaved evergreen trees seem to thrive in localised patches following the linear patterns of these seasonal & permanent water bodies. It is in these habitats that researchers like Dr Scott found thriving populations of Taiwan Partridge & Swinhoe's Pheasants, species normally associated with mid-elevation forests. With this surprise find, Huben appears to be 1 of the easier places in Taiwan to encounter these much sought after & visually stunning endemics. The Fairy Pittas are the perfect icing on the cake.
Sadly, work on the Hushan Dam is well underway, with the digging around the proposed reservoir cutting an ugly swathe through this unique landscape. One cannot help but wonder how many of these "Specters" & "Fairies" have been displaced or died out from the loss of numerous micro-habitats, not to mention all the other wildlife like Macaques & the numerous snakes that call this area home.
Fairy Pitta: In summer, the forests of Huben come alive with the romantic duetting of these "eight-coloured" fairies. For all the limitations of birding in bamboo forests, 1 cannot help but literally "feel the love". According to Dr Scott, there are approximately 50 pairs of Fairy Pittas in and around their current research area in Huben, and during my time here their duets were a permanent feature of the dawn chorus & last light. I had the great privilege of encountering 10 of these glorious jewels. Out of all the 20 Orient Pittas I have seen over the years, sessions with these fairies were special in their own right. First of all, sightings would always involve pairs, with 1 bird never very far from the other. The 2nd is their alluring duet. They would never call when they are within line of sight of each other, but if for instance 1 bird decided to fly up into a tree or to the next gully, he would utter a 2 note "whew-whew" not unlike the song of a Blue-winged Pitta & the 2nd bird would reply almost instantly with a higher pitched & more energetic rendition of the same song & quickly follow suit. There was this 1 particularly confiding pair in the pheasant gully I sat in for 3 days in a row, and by the 2nd day they seemed to have accepted my presence & would often come foraging within 10m of me as I munched my Oreos and played spectator. Even though they nest in a multitude of locations around Huben, sometimes even in people's gardens, they are incrediblly wary to sudden movements & would quickly fly into a nearby tree & start calling, hence my inability to get photographs of them while they were foraging. Dr Scott told me that their diet consisted of 70% earthworms, which they found in the moist gullies and stream-sides where they foraged every morning. I noticed the big juicy earthworms being pulled out often enough, but there was the occasional giant beetle or bug that they had difficulty swallowing and would beat on a boulder repeatedly, not that doing that made the beetle shrink! I never actually saw or found a nest, not that I would have wanted to disturb them anyway, but I did notice managably sized grub being flown off to points unknown around the gullies I said in. Dr Scott says they tend to stick to the same foraging grounds while breeding, so I guess the nest was never very far away.
Swinhoe's Pheasant: Hands down Bird Of The Trip! Before I came to Taiwan, I was already bombarded with talk about this "Taiwan Specter". Mark was urging me to get there quick, as there was a period prior to my arrival where Dr Scott was seeing them daily at a certain gully together with Partridges, and concluded there was a fruiting tree nearby. Sadly, by the time I got there, the fruiting had seemingly ended and while there were partridges, the "Ghost" was nowhere to be found. Just a day later I was exploring another known gully when upon entering the good patch of evergreen forest, I was stunned to hear loud laboured wingbeats & in a state of panic looked up just in time to see a brown bird larger than a chicken running up the escarpment. I knew I had blown it, and the pair had probably ran off, and I didn't even see the leg colour of the bird to confirm a female Swinhoe's. I went back to that gully for the next 3 days, but had nothing to show for other than my favourite pair of Fairies, and 4 packs of Oreo & litres of H2O spent while seated there for 4 hours every morning. I still remember how Dr Scott. would come back after his morning surveys daily and ask "Did you see the pheasant today?" and I could only sigh. Some days he would tell me of how he would bump into glorious males on his trips, but the locales were too far and too high up the hills for my bike & I to traverse.
The days wore on, and before I knew it it was my final day in Huben, and something very special was about to happen. As a Christian birder, I attributed it to a gift from God, and the encounter was spiritual for me in every possible way. I feel it is inappropriate to rewrite the experience, so I am copying a snippet from my journal entry on that fateful day. I am not a bird photographer, as a matter of fact I seldom even use my aging Coolpix 4500 in my bag. Hopefully, I am better with my words:
" Sunday & my final morning in Huben before Kuendar came. It was with great difficulty that I dragged myself out of bed this morning. The clock read 6'O Clock & I was still in the village! Thinking quickly, I decided to head for "Partridge Gully". Why I chose this gully I would never really know? Perhaps because it took only 20 mins to reach compared to the "Pheasant Gully" which took an hour? Or was it God at work? I would soon find out.
As was the norm for the past week, I chose my spot in an obscure corner of the gully & prepared for a long wait. I had not visited this gully at first light since the 2nd day when Dr Scott first brought me here. The first Hill Partridges started calling & perhaps they would come to forage in the gully today. However likely Dr Scott said this was unlikely, perhaps I would get some consolation after a week of largely fruitless work. The clock now read 630am. Feeling peckish, I took out my 5th Oreo pack this week & started savouring it the instructed way, carving the cookie in 2 and just munching the contents as the first rays of the Sun streamed through the trees.
It happened right there. I remember the time was 7am. I had ate 4 cookies & had kept the box back in my bag. I was just about to take out my bottle of water when I saw it. There was a rock, about 50m in front of me in the middle of the gully, and to the left of that rock I saw the most bizzare thing of all. A white flicking tail amidst the bed of green grass. It took me 10 seconds to realise the gravity of what was happening. the bottle of water dropped back into the bag I didn't dare zip. As I stood up above the rock, I saw it. The unmistakable white back patch, the red facial wattles, the iridescent blue on the wings. My first naked eye look at the Taiwan Specter. He saw me too, for he strided purposefully into the bed of Rasam Ferns on the opposite bank. I thought all was lost, but I got up and crept forward anyway.
As I neared his last known position, my hopes blossomed. I noticed that the fern outcrop bordered a un-scalable 100m slope to the ridge above. I picked up my Bins and started scanning. I saw it first, that white tail flicking again in the dark tangle of the fern understorey. I saw the bird next, hunched and alert, his eyes locked onto my bins. His body was now almost uniformly black, as the Sun had not penetrated this part of the valley & the dark understorey didn't help. At this point, my bins fogged up, perhaps from excitement or humidity. Undeterred, I put them down & continued to stare at him, all the while creeping step by step towards the bird. Soon, I was 10m from him, and he still stood there, his eyes locked onto mine.
What happened next I could not prepare myself for. He could have easily walked deeper into the Fern Understorey on the left, but he did the exact opposite. He strolled out right in front of me and walked casually into the open sunlit area around the base of a mature bamboo. As the sunlight hit his body, I saw a kaleidoscope of colour no artist could possibly have recreated in a field guide. Through the Bins, he was so close now I could only see his face with them on, so I took them off. I followed him for a good 30m, literally side-by-side as the gully permitted. We strolled past the spot where I was seated, pheasant walking along the bank, human in the gully itself. He was certainly a Specter, for even though he walked through a understorey of dry bamboo leaves, he made no sound whatsoever, unlike the Partridges I had seen in the same area just the day before. Time stood still just there, as we enjoyed an unlikely stroll in the wilderness.
The unlikely anti-climax came just as silently and quickly. I indifferently walked pass the overhanging branch of a tree in the gully, when all of a sudden I felt the pain of a thousand needles flow through my right arm, even through my long sleeves. Stunned by the intensity, I uttered an audible "Argh" and the magic bubble shattered. Clutching my right arm with my left, I looked on as the Specter sped up and disappeared around the next bend. No Noise whatsoever. He left as silently as he came.
My right arm was in bad shape now, as around the fingers blisters had started to pop out, while in the area covered by my sleeves the pain persisted. However, the magic of the moment put everything in perspective. I sat down on the rock again & said a prayer of thanks. Just then, the same 3 groups of Partridges that Dr Scott, Mark & I had heard when we first sat here 1 week ago burst out in energetic duetting, as if to serenade me with the chorus of victory. I couldn't tear myself away from this musical masterpiece, and so I sat there for the next 30mins, still clutching my right arm, as they sang and sang until they finally melted away & the Cicadas took over.
3 hours later, I saw the familiar figure of Dr Scott enter the Cafe. He asked me again, smiling as usual, "Did you see the pheasant today?" & I gave him an energetic "Yes!". He laughed, "Your Final Morning In Huben, and you get it. A Farewell Gift." He went on to ask, "Did you know that it changes colour in sunlight?" I replied, "I would know, I saw it." I would never forget his next reply, "Wow, it must have been the perfect sighting." I proceeded to ask him about my tormentor that morning. The blisters had gone down somewhat after much running of cold water over it. I found out from him that the Chinese called the tree in question the "Dog-Eat-You" Tree, as it was bigger than the "Cat-Eat-You" Shrub or Stinging Nettle in the Mountains and it grows in damp areas, sometimes to a good height. We had a good laugh over the joke, although the Pheasant encounter probably contributed to that. My arm would experience shots of pain for the rest of the day, but it didn't really matter. I had seen it, the Taiwan Specter. Just as Kate Rogers had written in her book published by TESRI entitled The Swallow's Return, I had felt rejuvenated by the sighting, refreshed & ready to meet the new birding week with Kuendar head-on."
Taiwan Partridge: Huben seems to be a good place to look for what must surely be the most difficult of all the endemics. From personal experience, the best place to see them seems to be "Partridge Gully". There is even a hide here for photographers to sit in where they could wait for them to forage out in the open. Sadly, I only managed to use this hide on 1 afternoon because 2 days later when I came back after mopping up Xitou I found that a large tree had fallen over the open area where the Partridges were known to feed, rendering the hide useless. Without playback or a decent place to hide myself from these wary galliformes, I improvised. The best method I found was to walk silently but as quickly as possible and try to catch them around sharp bends in these gullies. I had 5 encounters with them in total, 4 in Partridge Gully and 1 in a much more distant gully which Dr Scott took me to on the first day by car. I managed to binocular them briefly on 2 occasions. The first was in Dr Scott's initial patch were we flushed 2 birds which galloped parallel to us before flying (!!!) off as the escarpment was too steep for them to climb. It was only the 2nd time in years I had seen an Arborophilia fly. The 2nd time was in much better light when I noticed some partridges scooting down a slope at Partridge Gully & I rounded the bend quickly, just in time to have good but brief views of 1 as it scrambled up a steep escarpment, dislodging small pebbles & leaves in its wake. For one, it looks much better in real time then in either Mackinnon's or the older 1991 Taiwan Field Guide. It happens to sound similar to Malaysian Hill Partridge too, and although they respond to whistling, they somehow always seem to know where you are and never come closer. The only advantage a human seems to have is that the family groups seem to stick to the same area of localised gully forest when feeding, so chances are if you keep visiting the patch you would encounter them. I usually encountered pairs although once had a high count of 4 birds and I saw them at all times of the day, from first light to 930am & even 330pm in the afternoon. They were most vocal at dawn and dusk though.
Spot-breasted aka Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler: 1 pair seen at a known stakeout for several years now on the road up to Ping Ding from Huben.
Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler-Locally abundant here & seen even in the reedbeds around the river which flows parallel to the village.
Vinous-throated Parrotbill- Fairly common in unobstrusive flocks that forage in the reedbeds.
Malayan Night Heron- Easily seen here specially around the Temple across the river & up the hill from the cafe.
Xitou & SunLinkSea Forest Recreation Area:
I have combined these 2 areas into 1, because they are effectively the same stretch of forests, with entrances just 12km apart as the crow files. By land, it is 17km from Xitou to the entrance gate of Sunlinksea, a distance the bus takes 45 minutes to cover. The interesting factor is that the two sites are situated at slightly different elevations, Xitou at 1400m or so & SunlinkSea at 1700m or so at the higher points. This minor change in elevation was sufficient for me to see birds in 1 area but not in another. For example, the elephant grass clumps in SunLinkSea supported all 3 species of resident Bush-Warbler known from Taiwan, while despite much effort I could only find Brownish-flanked in the open areas around Xitou.
The habitat at both places is largely the name, mid-elevation evergreen juniper/coniferous forests with a damp & dense understorey made up of ferns & creepers. Both areas were intersected by numerous streams & were generally very wet at all times of the day (Xitou literally means stream head in Chinese). However, in the forest park at SunlinkSea, I noted a large area of Evergreen forest with gnarled or stunted trees & very sparse understorey. This area of forest is located near the Information Centre & was named Yuan Shi Lin or translated Ancient Forest. I, however, didn't see much of note here, in spite of the fine weather I had during my morning here. My best patch of birding was along the river behind the current hotel in SunlinkSea & along the Watchtower Road which starts directly opposite the now dilapidated remains of another hotel across the river from the current one. Here, in the space of 10 mins in the first gully on the left of the road, I had excellent views of all the Bush-Warblers I needed as well as Taiwan Wren-Babbler & "Taiwan" Shortwing. In Xitou, the best birding circuit I found was to cross the bridge on the right just after the entrance gate and walk from there all the way to the University Pond, spend some time there and walk back along the main trail back to the area around the entrance gate. I spent some time on the quieter side trails around the park as well, following the detailed map provided as I tried to search for Yellow Tit without success. Fog was a problem during my time here & by late morning can be a real pain to deal with. I had alot of rain during my time here too, and although I did bird in the rain, often the combination of rain & fog meant periods of inactivity.
Both parks had an entrance fee of 150NT, although Xitou was far more popular with the big tour groups, while SunLinkSea was a virtual ghost-town on the weekdays. Staying off the main trails helped somewhat, although the noise didn't seem to bother the birds much.
White-eared Sibia: The epitomy of montane birding in Taiwan. The most beautiful sibia I have seen in the Orient so far whose appearance is matched by his musical call. I learnt to associate the call with the joy of leaving the sweltering lowlands & entering the montane zone in Taiwan, where 1 would never sweat while birding & the birds were everywhere. I was not disappointed & thus this bird deserves a paragraph for that. If all fails, any bird that seems to have animated white eyelashes gets my vote anyday!
Taiwan Wren-Babbler: A real character who looks distinct from the Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler which this species used to be lumped together with. 1 of my high points in SunlinkSea was watching this bird foraging practically near my feet after a little bit of coaxing out. He climbed energetically up moss covered tree trunks picking out grubs & bugs, and always seemed to know when he got too high by flying off to the next tree and starting over from the ground up. Walk-aways views for this one as I left him to enjoy his lunch while I had no choice but to satisfy mine with more Oreos!
Taiwan Bush-Warbler: No one would believe me if I told you that a Bush-Warbler sang from a granite boulder by a river in my face, but thats exactly what happened. I had gone to SunLinkSea with no prior intel & was wandering around aimlessly when I heard an all too familar call emanating from the river behind the hotel. Excitedly, I quickened my pace & got down the river bank & sat on a boulder near a clump of elephant grass, whipped out my Ipod, and gave a burst. To my surprise, the entire 100m stretch of river erupted in chorus. There seemed to be 1 in every clump! 1 particularly bold bird flew across the river and perched on a boulder 10m from me & started singing that magical call in front of a live human audience. He look rather awkward in that posture, with the occasional robin like tail flicks as his neighbours responded from surrounding clumps, the Ipod long since silent. Alas, the sound of an unzipping bag, as I typically went for the camera must have spooked him & he retreated back into the grasses, after a award-winning 3 minute display of musical talent.
Rusty Laughingthrush: A surprise find in Xitou. Mark had told me he usually saw them in the area of the trail just after crossing the forementioned bridge, and on my 2nd morning my eyes were scanning for Yellow Tits in a canopy mixed flock when I noticed a large brown bird hopping in the shrubs by the stream I was standing near. A quick change of orientation & there it was. To those who have seen Fluffy-backed Tit-Babblers, this birds look like one of them on steroids, with a long tail to boot!
Little Forktail- 2 seen on a remote waterfall in SunLinkSea was a surprise find. To get to the waterfall, follow the unmarked trail heading right once you enter the forest park which is a short distance uphill from the Information Centre & behind the Archery Range.
Taiwan Whistling-Thrush- Seen in the Forest Park Trails and also by a roadside stream near the Information Centre.
White-bellied Green-Pigeon: It felt good to see this near-threatened Treron in Xitou. 2 were perched in Eucalyptus by the University Pond.
Taiwan Barwing: This uncommon mixed flock species was seen in a group of 5 foraging along the branches of Conifers along the main trail in the general area where the coniferous forests meets a patch of Bamboo in Xitou in inclement weather.
Eurasian Nuthatch: Seen only twice in 14 days. Best views were in Xitou, with a vocal group of 3 foraging low near the University Pond. Distant views were subsequently had in Mount Beidongyan. Apparently difficult in Summer.
Vivid Niltava: 1 pair in Xitou by the University Pond & common in the forest around SunLinkSea, with numerous encounters with single males along the trails.
Route 18 / Yushan National Park:
Made famous as being the most reliable place to see Mikado Pheasant in Taiwan these days. Route 18, together with Route 21, shares the distinction of being 1 of the most productive roadside birding areas in the country. Both roads start from sea level and end at Tataja, 2600m asl and within sight of the summit of Yushan. Between them, they cover both sides of the mountain although Route 18 is more famous as it is the entry point to the Alishan Tourist Belt. I found out first hand that one really doesn't need to pay the money to enter, as the roadside birding was sufficient for my needs. It was a fairly average day trip by our standards, with Mark taking a day off from his busy schedule in light of some cooperative weather. Nevertheless, the sighting of Mikado Pheasant made it all worthwhile, along with a host of common upper montane endemics & subspecies as well as the rare Golden Parrotbill.
The road covers a huge range of habitat types, in the lowlands Betel Nut Palm Plantations were interspaced by numerous gullies and streams, and Taiwan Whistling-Thrush was a roadside bird here in the early morning. Higher up, past the montane villages, the habitat was replaced by coniferous forests with big patches of elephant grass & scrub where landslides had taken out the trees. Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warblers were common and easily seen in these areas, while the endemic Taiwan Bush-Warblers seemed less responsive than their counterparts in SunlinkSea. At Tataja, small patches of alpine meadows could be seen, although the Chinese Hemlock (a sort of Pine) was dominant here, essentially a shorter version of the mid-elevation Cypress Pines.
Mikado Pheasant: The only bird that deserves this section from the day trip. Mikado means Emperor, and although I had very good views of both pheasants I must say that Swinhoe's still beats it in terms of sheer beauty. However, for the bird to have got onto the 1000NT bill must make it pretty important. In Route 18, there are even signs that alert motorists to Crossing Points, so they must be VIPs in their own right, and thus I dedicate this section to the "Emperor" Pheasant!
There was a nice backstory to the sighting too, for those who have been following my trip reports, remember my Silver Pheasant incident in Khao Yai 2 years ago? Well there was a sense of Deja Vu here. To past the time during the 2.5 hour drive up from Huben, and having started at 4am in the morning. Mark was telling me about the history of Taiwan in response to some of my general questions. As it were, we both got so engrossed in the history that we missed the turning on the freeway. The end result, a detour that costs us 30 minutes at least as we drove a long way until we found a way back along the freeway. By the time we reached the Alishan Turnoff, which marked the start of Mikado Pheasant "Mecca" of sorts, it was 7am. The Sun was shining against a cloudless sky, and although I can't speak for Mark my morale was pretty low at that point, as we were not even the first car up and it was comparatively late. However, it was a long stretch of road and Mark knew of a "late-riser" along the way, so we carried on up the road as I strained to look at any movement by the roadside.
We never saw the "late-riser", and passed his territory enroute. We had even made several stops at various points to look at mixed flocks in hopes of Flamecrest or Yellow Tit. By now, it was 730am and we were just getting ready to move on from the Giant Cypress about 70% up Route 18 went I noticed an awkward lump 100m up the road on a grassy verge at a bend. I immediately looked at it & said to Mark "Bingo!". It was a female Mikado Pheasant. Mark immediately drove the car forward & as we rounded the bend he said in as even a voice as he could manage with the windows down "Male on the rock,Male on the rock." A pair of Mikado Pheasants were now 5m in front of a now silent vehicle, as we both relished in the beauty of the Emperor of pheasants. I like to think it was another of God's gifts, because within 3 minutes a motorcycle came roaring pass us and the equally startled pheasants vanished into the Rasam Ferns, never to be seen again. As it turns out, a car is probably a hugely useful Hide, as I would find out again in Mount Beidongyan.
Mark broke out into a big smile after that, and I remember us exchanging Hi-5s and all the usual things birders do when we see good birds together. Mark remarked that in all his day trips up to Tataja he had never actually seen a female Mikado Pheasant, so he had enjoyed the sighting as much as I did. Whatever the case, it was still a privilege to have encountered the Emperor himself. All hail the Emperor!
Golden Parrotbill: A single bird spotted by the eagle-eyed Mark skulking in roadside scrub was only the 4th time he had seen this rarely encountered species & a surprise for yours truly. A much better looking Parrotbill compared to his dull lowland cousin.
Collared Bush Robin & White-whiskered Laughingthrush: The proverbial "trash" birds that you can associate with most high mountains in the Orient. The latter were literally as their nickname suggests, as they were most easily seen by Trash Bins or piles, where at least 2-4 birds would gather and allow very close approach. As for the Robins, they were very common above 2000m although most were decidedly flighty. Some were very confiding though. We scanned as many as humanely possible in the hopes of the rare White-browed, but I would find no joy in that department.
Taiwan Fulvetta: This bird was decidedly uncommon in the high elevation pine forests. Unlike its cousins, it has the annoying habit of foraging alone or in very small and quiet groups with Coal Tits within the pines, and many a time had me running after them as they flew from tree to tree as they looked alot like Flamecrests!
Hui Sun Forest Recreation Area /Experimental Farm:
The name Experimental Farm is creepy & misleading. Hui Sun Forest is basically a mixture of "primary" broadleaved evergreen forest & pine forest as well as areas of secondary forest which was previously logged and replanted in years gone by. There is a wide range of elevation in this park, where 1 has the ability to go as high as 1600m or so. Nevertheless, most people only come here to see 2 key species, Formosan Blue Magpie & Varied Tit. Both are locally common & easy to see around the Hotel, which sits at and elevation of about 700m ASL. According to Kuendar's contact, a ranger who has worked here for decades, Swinhoe's Pheasant & Taiwan Partridge have been seen around the Hotel, although expectedly encounter rates are low. In winter, Yellow Tits apparently gather in flocks of 4-5 mixing with other Tits in the Park and become easy to see in the same area too, although we weren't as lucky. Nevertheless, we got all we needed from just a few hours birding around the Hotel. The surrounding scrub outside the park in the Aboriginal farmlands is good for Taiwan Hwamei, according to the ranger most are still pure-breeds as far as he can tell as the locals do not have a habit of catching or rearing birds so they are fairly easy to see. Sadly, we dipped here as the birds, though responsive, refused to show in inclement weather & we caught up with them elsewhere.
Formosan Blue Magpie: As with all endemic island magpies, these were stunning birds. They were easy to see around the Hotel, where a small family group was seen in the late afternoon and again the next morning feeding readily on the road and in the shrubs planted around the Hotel. Throughout the park, they generally moved around in very noisy family groups of 4-6 birds, usually loosely accompanied by Treepies and not much else.
Varied Tit: Locally common here & the nuclear species for mixed flocks, we had a group of up to a dozen birds in the forests directly adjacent to the Hotel's carpark in the morning, having seen 1 bird high up in a Pine Tree the evening before.
Maroon Oriole: Thanks to Kuendar's local contact, we had sterling views of a pair supposedly building a nest by the temple near the entrance. We never found the nest, although both birds showed very well. The red in the male is extremely intense, much more so than those in Thailand or India.
An under-rated & possibly overlooked site. I am guessing that with Sander Bot's productive time here & my own this place would become very popular very soon.
Part of the problem is it general remoteness by Taiwan standards, you have to travel 8km through a generally paved road but pot-hole filled in very bad shape before reaching the small turn-off. From here it is a short drive to the gate of the Research Station & unless you have the keys you would need climb over and walk 5km up a gentle inclining road before reaching the first batch of accomodation for researchers, which is marked again by a proper roadside sign. The problem here lies mainly in the fact that this 8km highway is not always traversable, due to rockslides etc, and in our case to play it safe we actually went to inquire in the nearby Police Station about the road conditions. Once we were given the green light, we actually drove up & then walked up the road in pouring rain. Thankfully, once we reached the top it cleared up and from there it literally was downhill in all aspects as the birds came out to play.
Birding here is much more enjoyable that the flooded Blue Gate Trails for several reasons. Firstly, the road you walk on is not a trail but a proper vehicular road, used by researchers in 4WDs to reach the Field Station. The undergrowth is also generally sparse as the canopy is very dense, making it a good place for Laughingthrushes. In fact, Dr Scott himself voted that this was the best place in Taiwan to see the newly split Rufous-crowned Laughingthrush, giving it his seal of approval with a 90% chance if you spend a good morning here. We didn't need the morning, as it was one of the first birds we saw once the rain stopped. The driving road up to the gate must also be the best place to see Swinhoe's Pheasant by the roadside, we almost ran 2 males over on our way down, but more on that later. This, combined with Sander Bot's sighting of 7 individuals here combined, speaks alot for the quality of habitat here. The downside is that seeing canopy birds is very difficult, as the trees are usually very high and canopy very dense. Habitat-wise it was generally Broadleaved Evergreen Forest that was typical of this leg of the journey. There are several plots of Tea Plantations at the end of the road that break up the landscape.
Rufous-crowned (White-throated) Laughingthrush: Given the lack of mention of this species in 90% of the trip reports I had read, I prepared myself for a tough contender. I was pleasantly surprised to have fulfilled Dr Scott's prediction so easily. While scanning a mixed flock with Kuendar at the forest edge just before the Tea Farms & Accomodation Blocks I noticed a group of largish birds gliding in 1 after another only to land in the dense canopy nearby. I tore myself away from the flock & after much neck-craning & positioning saw not 1, not 2, but 8 of this localised & perceived very difficult endemic foraging high up in the trees. They subsequently flew lower down to a much more agreeable height & we eventually had sterling views. I have never seen the mainland species (dipped in Eaglenest) but the rufous crown is distinctive & they seem to be very arboreal as far as laughingthrushes are concerned, hopping along the moss-covered branches of the trees & sometimes showing off some awkward shades of agility. They were not particularly vocal although their foraging calls were similar to those in Scharringa's. This was the only group we encountered although admittedly we only spent the afternoon here.
Yellow Tit: Finally! You could see the stone in Kuendar's heart break and he burst out into a wide smile went we finally nailed this 1. It may have become obvious by now that the passerines were proving to be difficult customers, and this was undoubtedly the hardest of all. Since he took over on Sunday, Kuendar had phoned several contacts in numerous forest reserves trying to find out if there were pairs still nesting or food trees where they were hanging out in, to no avail. On this day, we were walking back down the road when a large flock of Black-throated Tits crossed the trail. As we craned out necks at near 90 degree angles to look at them, all of a sudden this bigger Tit flew into the tree. Despite the overcast sky as a backdrop, the yellow breast & white vent stood out instantly, and shortly thereafter this possible immature confirmed his identity by hopping to another branch and started shaking his wings as if encouraging some unseen parent to feed him, but we never saw any other Tits respond to this and then as quickly as he came he disappeared! Not the best view but we took what we could, and we would catch up with this species again in much better light in Blue Gate Trail.
Swinhoe's Pheasant: The best sighting has already been put up, but one never tires of watching these birds. As it were, we were driving down the stretch of road below the entrance gate at 545pm when all of a sudden as we rounded the bend Kuendar jacked up the handbrake and said "Pheasant!" The first thing I saw as always, was that flicking white tail, which then materialised into not 1, but 2 males feeding by the roadside just 5m in front of the car. 1 of them had pretty worn plumage colours, and we could not help but wonder if he was a sub-adult. We watched for about 5 minutes, but as it were to spite me when I got out my camera they walked up the hill and disappeared, only to walk back down again 50m down the same road and vanish for good. A surprise find but not entirely unexpected.
Chinese Bamboo Partridge: I was getting frustrated with this bird at Huben, and had nearly written it off for Bino Views. My best views in Huben were of a family of 3 flushed by the roadside as I rode pillion on Mark's scooter. I had managed rather unsatisfactory views of an adult then, and several times on my bike had flushed them in a whirr of brown feathers in roadside bamboo clumps. I had even spent an afternoon at a known bathing & drinking spot without success.
On this great road, after seeing the Pheasant, we would bump into a Weasel of some sort a couple of kilometres down the same road & almost immediately round the next bend, I was shocked to see 2 partridges in the middle of the road. I put my bins on them, and I got the view I wanted. They even posed for a bit, strolling across the road as a couple and then walking along the margin for about 50m before walking downhill. Mega! This is a highly likely future split as I understand the Taiwan version looks very different from those on the mainland.
Rusty Laughingthrush: This was the only other place I saw them. I saw 1 just at the turnoff to the Entrance Gate & a small flock mid-way up the access road to the Field Station proper, both in pouring rain.
Rueyen Creek Nature Reserve AKA Blue Gate Trail:
Blue Gate Trail? More like Floodgate Trail! This trail, at least the first one anyway, resembles an Army Obstacle Course, minus the Drill Sergeant yelling down your neck to complete it in record time. The reason for this? Over the years as the nearby town of Ching Jing turned into an extremely popular tourist attraction, hotel owners started having problems finding permanent water sources to suit their needs. According to Kuendar, over the years the number of plastic water pipes passing through this trails has increased by almost 400%, from just 2 in the late 20th Century to 6-8 in some stretches now. The result? when waterpipes spring a leak & no one comes to fix it, the water collects on the trail itself, as either side of the trail is steeply sloping. In some places, every 100m or so 1 would encounter a 30m strecth of ankle-deep water puddles, where you would need to balance yourselves on the water pipes at the sides of the trail to get past them while ensuring you don't slip and fall off the slope! In others, there were literal water fountains where you get a free shower as you try to run past them without getting your optics wet. To add insult to injury, as with all moist environments, stinging nettles thrived here, particularly on the darker and forested section of the trail. This meant that it was often a choice between a bed of nettles or balancing on waterpipes most times, or as Kuendar put it, just bringing extra shoes and walking straight through. No one told me about this part!
Birding here is interesting, because on the left side of the trail you overlook a valley, where the canopy is at or slightly above eye level, on the right is a continous patch of ridiculously dense undergrowth & the forest grows upwards on the slopes. Mixed flocks seemed to be a key feature for visiting birders here, although from personal experience despite having good weather they were composed of large numbers of Tits & not much else. Wren-Babblers and Shortwings were common by call, but I would imagine seeing them here would be a pain. I only started birding on this trail at 8am, as Pheasants weren't on my list by the time I got here. My main objective here was to get good views of Yellow Tit, with the secondary objective of seeing a White-backed Woodpecker. To see how I fared, read on.
Incidentally, the name Blue Gate Trail is a slight mis-nomer, because at Trail 1 all that is left of the Gate is a Blue Metal Stump. After 3km, the trail crosses a road and enter Trail 2, or what some call the Continuation Trail. Here the Blue Gates are still standing. In addition, the start of both of these trails are marked with noticable wooden signboards. To save time, I walked Blue Gate #1 on my own while Kuendar drove the vehicle to the other end & walked backwards. Thereafter, I explored the first 500m or so of Blue Gate #2, and found it better for Woodpecker viewing because within that initial distance, there were quite a few visible dead trees by the trail side which could be easily scanned. In contrast, dead trees in Blue Gate #1 were few and far between and often blocked by dense shrubs. Habitat here was almost uniformly Broadleaved Evergreen Forest, with a thriving understorey thanks to leaking water pipes & very moist conditions.
Yellow Tit: Victory at last! It had taken me 2 hours to clear this infernal trail, getting free showers, stung by countless nettles, getting my feet wet...yaddah yaddah. Starting at 8am, I had largely walked the whole length of the trail, seeing very few mixed flocks which usually had Black-throated Tits & not much else. At about 10am, I met Kuendar just about 500m from the end. While we were walking back, within sight of the end of the trail I happened to glance skywards & noticed 3 birds foraging in the canopy. I put my bins on them just as they flew across the trail & I was sure I had seen Yellow. I then had the long-awaited melodious song of this known songbird. A quick burst of a pre-recording, and the male dropped down to a slightly more agreeable height. We still had to crane our necks though, but he was in good light as his back was facing the Sun. The black ventral spot is huge compared to what is depicted in the field guides, I saw at least 1 other bird without a ventral spot, so I am guessing it was a pair and possibly a immature foraging by themselves. Awesome birds & a fair reward for complete the Blue Gate Obstacle Course.
White-backed Woodpecker: All the action here only started from 10am! My conscience refuses to allow me to tick this bird, although by size it was obvious this was what it was. I had decided to explore Blue Gate #2 while Kuendar changed out of his wet footwear when just beyond the first bend I had the call of a woodpecker emanating from a dead tree on the left side of the trail. I concluded that the bird had been on the other side of the tree as I could see the entire section of the tree from my angle and it was cleared, so I took a few steps forward, all the while with the bird still vocalising. All of a sudden, the bird flew off, and by size and a brief naked eye views I was sure it was a White-backed Woodpecker. I pursued it to another dead tree just down the trail and despite its continued vocalisations I could not re-locate it. Eventually the fog rolled in and it went silent, leaving me frustrated & pondering the "What-Ifs".
To be frank, I saw nothing else of interest here, apart from the forementioned duo. Most of what I did see here I had better views of in Mount Beidongyan, like Ashy Wood-Pigeon.
Its claim to fame is for being the highest paved road east of the Himalayas. As a matter of fact, this is a very busy mountain road to boot, probably the busiest in the whole of Taiwan, as it is the only active Pan-Island Highway from what I know. The fact that it passes through the fantastic Taroko Gorge on the other side is another huge pull factor. It was difficult to do roadside birding here, as the road was rather narrow & every 5 minutes all manner of traffic from family sedan to huge flatbeds who roar pass, sometimes at rather dangerous speeds.
This is probably 1 of the few places in Taiwan where you can go above the treeline without having to hike up some remote mountain trail & witness the Alpine Meadows. I was awe-struck by the scenery higher up the road & how it reminded me more of my time in New Zealand than a mountain in the Orient. The highest point, Wuling, is at 3295m if I remember correctly & is nothing more than a carpark. Here trees are nearly non-existent or grow in small tight clusters & the landscape is largely grassland and scree (rock fragments). The visitor centre, and the TESRI Research Station, are lower down at around 2800m and here the clusters of Chinese Hemlock are more obvious & would ultimately be where I would connect with a passerine with an awesome name.
Birding here in sandals was an interesting experience, without an extra pair of shoes I had no choice but to wear them up here. I remember there were 2 carparks on the way up from Blue Gate which were the only places we could stop and bird in relative peace & looking at how bundled up some of the vendors there were and how I stood out. It certainly wasn't funny when the rain, fog & wind came in at once! By the time I was in Wuling looking for Accentors in the fog, I assumed that I was having a case of mild frostbite as my toes were turning purple & I was shivering so much that I couldn't hold my bins properly! Hah, turns out the Accentors didn't like the howling wind either, as I would connect further down near the Hehuan Villa. Vinaceous Rosefinch & White-whiskered Laughingthrush were the "trash" birds here, feeding off handouts of corn & fruit by the vendors and hopping around the grass verges & trash piles wherever they were present.
Flamecrest: Years ago, when we were younger, Ding Li & I used to have fun naming signature birds of various Orient countries. I chose Swinhoe's Pheasant then, but he stuck to Flamecrest. Years later, as I was preparing for this trip, he called me & said again, "If you don't see a Flamecrest, you might as well have not gone to Taiwan." Before Kuendar came along, I was racking my brains on how I could possibly make up for this, having dipped in Tataja. Dr Scott mentioned Mount Hehuan, a place where you could open the door of the TESRI Research Institute and see large flocks in the trees nearby. At that time, I found it difficult to imagine this scenario.
10 days later & it was a different story, I had a vehicle and was now right at the doorstep of the TESRI Research Station. We had however, failed to see Flamecrest despite spending the last 6 hours around Mount Hehuan. It was 3pm now and Kuendar suggested making a stop at the Visitor Centre to look around while he enquired about accomodation options. The moment I got out of the car, I heard this high pitched "see-see" that Mark had told me about in Tataja. I tried to track down the source but in the wind & rain it was difficult. I eventually ended up right behind the Visitor Centre, and then I saw it.
I thought it was another Fulvetta at first, but then the wind blew & ruffled the feathers of it tiny crown, which danced like a mini blaze, and I knew it was a special moment. The male Flamecrest is an awesome bird with an equally awesome name. There was only 1 around, but it was a male, and it was feeding in the pines just next to the car porch at eye level. Like ants, it hopped around purposefully and quickly, as if living life in the fast lane. When the wind blew, sometimes it struggled not to sway with the pine needles, and it was so small that if you weren't observant, it could dart into a pine branch and disappear, only to pop up again seconds later flapping it wings laboriously as it struggled to steady itself in the breeze. It hung around for as long as the weather held, but as the fog rolled downhill and a new Nimbus Cloud rolled in it fluttered out, as the periodic showers that had been a feature of the day started. The illustrations in the field guide don't do it much justice, although some new pictures posted on OBI represent it much better. What a character, and who wouldn't enjoy its unique name.
I remember darting into the Visitor Centre just as Kuendar was in the midst of his conversation with the attendant. When I blurted out I had just seen Flamecrest, he laughed at the attendant and said, "No need to source for hotels anymore, we are going to Taroko now!"
Alpine Accentor: No longer present in Wuling, because they apparently clear the trash piles there, I would see at least 3 of them foraging on the slopes just above the carpark of the Hehuan Villa. Supposedly very tame, but I guess when you have an aging camera than can't focus on them as they foraged, close is just never good enough. I certainly got very close to them, just that my camera, or maybe my camera skills, just failed to produce a ID'able shot of them in inclement weather.
Kenting/Sheding Nature Park:
As Sander Bot put it, the main reason to come here is for Taiwan Bulbul & Taiwan Hwamei, and the lucky shot for the rare Whistling Green-Pigeon. Alternatively, you can come here because this is the nearest 1 gets to a glitzy night life in Taiwan. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the main town comes alive at night, with glitzy pubs & western-style grills, 5 star beach resorts, roadside vendors selling a full range of items, everything you would want from a seaside shopping belt. It was Kuta/Phuket all over again! During the weekends, Kuendar says it is impossible to drive through the only road that cuts thru the town, and I believed him. Even on a week-night, the place was packed with students & young tourists, all jostling with 1 another for bargains from the roadside vendors.
The town itself, ironically, is in the core area of Kenting National Park, designated to protect the unique coastal hill forests & underwater treasures around the area. Just a few minutes uphill drive from the main town is the quiet environs of Sheding Nature Park. Here, well-marked trails lead off through the limestone forests, with a handful of Pavilions that offer bird-eye's view of the surrounding landscape. In winter, this place becomes a magnet for birders, as tens of thousands of Grey-faced Buzzards and other raptors pass overhead & rest in nearby valleys as they travel south. In Summer however, bird density & diversity was generally low in this forests. I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth because after locating several fruiting Ficus figs in the Park, despite camping at them for several hours I failed to locate any Green-pigeons. In fact, I hardly saw any birds visit them at all. Kuendar's local contact had told me that the best way to see them was to find these trees, but they didn't seem to attract much other than Black Bulbuls. Admittedly, I did not have a scope with me, so could not scan some of the more distant Ficus in detail from the Pavilions, but I guess 1 would have a better chance on Lanyu, which was not part of my plans.
Having said that, the endemics I came here to find where very easy. The Taiwan Bulbul is abundant here, replacing the Chinese Bulbul in all habitat types in its stronghold here. As far as my untrained eye could see, they were as pure as can be, although the orange spot at the base of the bill was a pain to find, a task seemingly made easier by better lighting and adjusting observation angles. Taiwan Hwamei was also very common in the coastal heath & forest here, perhaps due to the limited number of competitors in the same habitat niches. Vocal pairs could be heard at numerous points around Sheding & Erluanbi (the southern-most point of Taiwan), and whistled imitations were often enough to coax them out. The species here does look very different from its mainland cousins, with the absence of any sort of eye-brow in non-hybrids & extensive streaking on the upperparts & upper breast.
Styan's (Taiwan) Bulbul: Very common around Kenting, from the towns to the forests & scrub in the surrounding hills. There was no sign of Chinese Bulbul anywhere although the local ranger mentioned Buddhist Groups sometimes release them during festivals, but a on-going education programme about the good-will release of caged birds has reduced this problem, at least in this area.
Taiwan Hwamei: Common & Vocal around Kenting in the early morning. A pair in the Sheding Car Park showed very well at about 7am on Day 14, completing the endemic haul. Thereafter heard numerous times but for the most part not whistled out to minimise disturbance.
Tainan City/Chiku & Western Coast Wetlands:
I took a day to visit this area, along with the oldest city in Taiwan, to look for a dozen overwintering Black-faced Spoonbills, as well as a chance to see Eurasian Magpie, 1 of the "easy ticks" I had yet to claim. This site was apparently the first place they colonised on the island, and at least in the Tainan area they were still holding their own against the hordes of Common & Javan Mynas, introduced species which have led to the decline of the native Crested Myna.
The mudflats in Summer were decidedly featureless, along with the adjacent fish ponds which held many egrets but not much else. The occasional overwintering Stint & Grey-tailed Tattlers got me excited, for I was not used to seeing waders in June in winter plumage! However, they were mostly distant & in poor light, so I was not really keen to walk out in the blazing Sun along a tidal zone that left several kilometres of mudflats exposed at low-tide to take a closer look. I never saw the Spoonbills either, not surprising given the task of having to search for a handful in an area of fishponds & adjacent marshes & mangroves the size of several Samut Sahkons combined.
The ace in Kuendar's bag here though, was reports of a flock of 30 Pied Avocets that had been hanging around Aogu Wetlands, a couple of hours drive north of Tainan, for the past 2 weeks. A successful twitch for them was the perfect end to a perfect trip, and a decent consolation for the lack of Spoonbills, which has now become 1 of my most sought-after waterbirds in the region.
Pied Avocet: Great birds! As I looked at them from the car, I could not help but imagine an encounter with Crab Plovers would be just as similar and exciting. As I watch them turn their heads from side to side, presumably sifting out the organic matter, I was brought back to 4 years ago back in Sydney's Olympic Park where together with Peter Madvig, I had dashed about 500m or so across a similar fishpond in last light to watch Red-necked Avocets do the exact same thing. I will always have a soft spot for waders than stand out from the crowd, especially those with unique bills like this one.
Eurasian Magpie: This was common around Tainan, although they were far more common and conspicuous around the surrounding farmlands & scrub compared to the city centre. A new bird for me, alas finding 1 with a nice set of feathers was like searching for a needle in a haystack. Rubbish Bins & Mud take their toll!
In recent years, the mindset of the Taiwanese towards the conservation of wildlife & their habitats has changed dramatically, thanks to the perseverance of outspoken pioneers & the numerous NGOs who work tirelessly to get the message through. The Chiku Black-faced Spoonbill Conservation Area & Huben IBA can be considered victories in their own right. However, as is the case with Singapore, in a small island whose economy is booming, development often clashes with wildlife habitats. The Hushan Dam is a living example of this & I have heard first-hand from the "Guardians" of The Black-faced Spoonbills that the Tainan County officials have actually talked of building a new International Airport in what is currently the major wintering site for this globally endangered waterbird.
Many Taiwanese, whether local rangers, tour guides, researchers or even civil servants turned conservationists, believe that a greater volume of foreign eco-tourists, particularly birders, would help in the fight to preserve what is left of the island's natural habitats. In a country whose infrastructure is superior to most of the Orient, the number of Birding Tours that visit Taiwan are not that many either. If price is an issue as well, I lend my voice to these locals that Taiwan is perfectly do-able on a budget. All it takes is a little bit of flexibility and the added bonus of being able to drive on the left-side of the road, and you too can retain life-long memories of seeing the Taiwan Specter and the incomparable Taroko Gorge in this country of friendly people, great scenary & fantastic birding with 2 dozens endemics to choose from. Even if you only had a few days to spare, a trip to Huben & the surrounding highlands would get you half that number easy. I have greatly enjoyed my time in Taiwan, and it is my hope that through this trip report, I am able to accurately convey my time on "Iiha Formosa" while at the same time provide sufficient information & encouragement to future birders visiting this Beautiful Island, especially to those who intend to do it alone. If you have any further questions, feel free to drop me an email.