I visited Taiwan to attend an international conference hosted by Taipei Zoo. Conference and other work demands meant that time for birding was always going to be tight but I was determined to try to see as many of the Taiwanese endemics and winter specialities as possible in the time available to me. Careful planning was required and I am grateful to all those, such as Peter Collaerts (2001), John Hornbuckle (2003), Gary and Marlene Babic (2003) and Jo Ann Mackenzie (2003), who have posted Taiwan trip reports on the web in recent years. Their information was absolutely crucial to my making the best use of my time, particularly as the most reliable site for most of the Taiwanese endemics, Anmashan, was badly damaged by typhoons in June 2004 and will remain closed to visitors until some time in 2005. In this report I have not tried to provide a fully comprehensive guide to birding in Taiwan as much has not changed since those earlier reports. I have merely tried to update current information e.g on the state of trails.
I flew to Taipei from London (Heathrow) with EVA Air, via Bangkok. Because of the length of the flight I upgraded from Economy to Evergreen Deluxe, which gives you about another 20cm of leg room for about an extra £150. Well worth it in my view, and as the flight was only half full on the return journey I managed to get a window seat on the right hand side so I could admire the Himalayas. Unfortunately our routing took us a little too far south so we flew over Afghanistan instead of Pakistan, but still interesting nonetheless.
I rented a Toyota Vios from Central Auto Services (Tel: 886-2-1000 Fax: 886-2-2881-6534). This vehicle was an automatic and perfectly adequate for all the driving I did in Taiwan. Personally, I wouldn’t say that a 4 wheel drive vehicle is necessary for any of the areas that I visited. Their service is quite efficient though they wouldn’t deliver to my hotel and their working hours aren’t completely customer friendly; I guess I expect rental car companies to have 24 hour service these days but theirs is 8-5pm.
Within Taipei the quickest way to get around is by taxi. These are abundant and cheap but English is not spoken at all so explaining where you want to go can be a challenge. Even using the hotel’s card sometimes doesn’t work but I think this may have been because the taxi drivers were mostly middle-aged people who had forgotten to bring their reading spectacles with them! Getting to Yangmingshan National Park from Taipei was particularly interesting as we called in at a fire station to ask directions. It turned out to be less than 2km from the park’s visitor centre but they appeared never to have heard of it, which rather begged a few questions! All the taxis are metered so there seemed to be no attempt to cheat us. In fact all the Taiwanese I dealt with seemed to be as honest as the day is long and completely polite and helpful, a lesson to many other cultures.
Driving in Taipei is not for the faint-hearted but elsewhere in the country it was not a problem. Rear view mirrors could be removed from all Taiwanese vehicles as they are clearly redundant. There are hidden speed cameras around but if you follow the old adage of behaving like a local and driving fast when they do and slowing at the same places you’ll be fine.
Signage is almost completely in mandarin but there is enough information in English on major road signs for you to find your way easily. On the freeways the closest towns in any particular direction are the ones signposted. These, of course, may not necessarily be your destination, so you need to look at the route on the map quite carefully. A godsend is that they indicate north and south on the major freeway exits and entrances so you can’t really go too wrong. The freeways are all toll roads. The way the system works is that on the first occasion you reach a toll go to the yellow booths on the right. There you buy a book of tickets for 400 NT$. The tolls are NT$40 a time so you will have 9 left until the next time you have to buy some. With the tickets you can go through the blue booths, which are quicker. Your challenge is to hand the ticket to the attendant without actually stopping your vehicle; my courage always failed me at the last moment but I’m sure the Taiwanese are pretty good at it.
Oct 31 Arrived Taipei c2100
Nov 1 Taipei.
Visited Guandou NR from 1000-1300; Taipei Botanical Gardens early pm.
Visited Taipei Botanical Gardens early a.m. Conference visit to Yeliou p.m.
Conference day at Taipei Zoo
Visited Yangmingshan NP 0700-1100
Drove from Taipei to Wushe (1000-1400). Birding on Blue Gate Trail from 1430-1730.
Birding Blue Gate Trail from 0600-1100 then birded Mt Hohuan until 1500 before driving to Bedongyuenshan by 1600 and birding there until dusk.
Birding around my hotel at Chinjing 0600-0700 then drove to Tsengwen estuary, arriving 1100. Spent the rest of the day birding the area between Tsengwen and Budai.
Birding at ‘Pipeline/Continuation’ trail 0600-0730; Bedongyuenshan 0900-1100 then forests along the road to Wanda Reservoir 1130-1230. Returned to Taipei by 1700.
Return to UK, arriving c1900.
Taipei Botanical Gardens
This is the famous site for Malayan Night Heron right in the middle of Taipei. It is always crowded and busy (at dawn there can be up to 1000 people in the park doing tai-chi, ballroom dancing or, in the case of one old lady, simply dangling from a tree like a gibbon) but the herons seem oblivious. Having said that, we didn’t see any in our afternoon visit, hence my return at dawn the following day.
We found birding here hard work. We were dropped by the (closed) visitor centre and walked up a long trail running north-east through the park before turning back south and west around the periphery. Although we did connect with two flocks of Taiwan Blue Magpies and a couple of mixed feeding parties with Grey-cheeked Fulvettas, Rufous-capped Babblers, White-bellied Yuhinas and a Pygmy Wren-babbler (which we actually got to see), we walked for long periods without seeing any birds at all. We didn’t find any streams so missed out on Taiwan Whistling Thrush. At the highest point that we reached there is a cleared area with some thickets surrounding it. We found Bramblings and a single Hwa-Mei (an endemic subspecies) here.
Guandou (=Kuantu) Nature Reserve
This is a large reserve in the north of Taipei, easily accessed either from the MRT or by cab. We didn’t see anything particularly exciting here, but it’s a good place to bulk up your trip list!
Blue Gate Trail
This is the famous birding site 15.8km above Wushe. It is easily found; just after a brown sign for Meifeng on the right there is a truck run-off on the left. The entrance to the trail is there. There is ample parking on the right hand side of the road. As others have noted this trail is a service road for the water pipes that now lie on the surface as the subterranean pipe has been abandoned. There were two guys and a motorbike on the trail during my afternoon visit, and I heard one truck and met a 4x4 during my morning visit. The latter contained a mix of Taiwanese and German birders looking for Swinhoe’s pheasant, unsuccessfully I believe. I suspect that this trail is probably quieter at the weekends than during the week, unlike the rest of the mountains which get very busy with tourists. This site provided the most enjoyable birding of the trip as it contains most of the mid-altitude endemics. I saw Swinhoe’s Pheasants here early a.m (before the 4x4!) and the only major ‘dip’ was Taiwan Tit.
The Blue Gate trail eventually crosses a road after about 4km and the trail continues. The name ‘Continuation’ is probably now a misnomer as after about 2km it has been completely severed by a huge landslide that has taken out 50-60 metres of the trail and destroyed all the underground piping. The pipes have been restored above ground but I can’t see that the trail itself is repairable. Although the German birders reported that they had seen Mikado Pheasants there at the same time I was watching Swinhoe’s elsewhere I never found any. In fact I didn’t find the birding along this trail anything like as good as along the Blue Gate trail. The ‘Continuation’ trail is easily accessed by turning left at 18km from Wushe, the road descends steeply for 2km then the trail is on your right and is marked by a big picture of a Mikado pheasant. There is a small parking area. I encountered a small truck collecting wood along this trail at 0700 on a Monday morning.
This is a large area leading up to Mt Hohuan which is 3422 metres high so holds the higher altitude endemics. The road (Highway 14) from Wushe provides access though is quite winding and narrow in places. There are stops at km 24, 29 and at 32 (the top) where you can search for Flamecrest, Taiwan Laughingthrush and Taiwan Bush-warbler. Most information says that these are easy, at least in summer when the last named is singing, but I really struggled. I’m not quite sure why this should have been the case as the weather was beautiful, though the night had been quite cool. It took me about 4 hours to find the birds. I had to resort to ‘pishing’ at almost every bush and eventually called in a Flamecrest to point blank range (and a Coal Tit which almost sat on my nose). I wasn’t expecting to find the bush-warbler but a ‘pish’ at a random bush caused one to pop up for about a second before it flew several hundred metres down the valley. Sometimes you just get lucky! At the top of the pass it was very busy with coaches etc but there were a couple of obliging Alpine Accentors and some welcome stalls selling coffee/sausages/corn on the cob etc,. I finally caught up with the laughingthrush on my second visit to the service area at km 24 when, inevitably, one was boldly singing about 10m away from the car park.
At 4km from Wushe turn left towards Lishan. After a rather bumpy (due to landslide damage) 8km there is a paved road on the left, marked by a green sign in Chinese, which apparently says something about the university that owns and manages the site. This heads up into forest and eventually reaches a locked gate. Park at the area by the gate, but don’t block it as it is regularly used by trucks etc. This area holds both Swinhoe’s and Mikado pheasants but I only saw the former. I heard Taiwan Shortwing and Taiwan Partridge here, without seeing either. In fact, I didn’t find the birding here anything like as good as at the Blue Gate trail though the forest is rather nice. One truck passed me at about 1000 on a Tuesday morning so I guess that could be why I didn’t see many birds.
This is clearly signposted from within Wushe. I only had a very short time here on a Tuesday morning. About half way down the hill from Wushe there is a pull in on the right, next to a storm drain, which has a path leading into the forest. I saw a White-tailed Blue Robin here and possibly heard a Whistling Thrush but not much else, but had little time to explore fully.
This is the famous Black-faced Spoonbill site on the north side of the estuary north of Tainan. It is well signposted although there is a detour through a major road construction site which could potentially cause confusion. There is a viewing area and lots of interpretive displays and on the Sunday I was there the place was very busy, but this doesn’t seem to deter the birds at all.
North of the estuary is a huge area of lakes, mangroves, aquaculture and rice paddies which extends all the way north to Budai (and probably beyond). It’s a maze of roads and tracks which allow quite good access but it’s almost impossible to describe to others exactly where one has seen things! A road to avoid is the expressway between Beimen and Budai because there are virtually no exits from it except at either end so if you see something from the car you can’t stop to look at it.
I was looking for Saunders’ Gulls but only found Black-headed. I also found a Chinese Little Bittern and I suspect with more time to search this could be a very productive area.
"A Birder’s Guide to Taiwan" privately published by Dave Sargeant is still very useful though some of the site information within it is becoming a little dated. The most appropriate field guide is still the Chinese language "Birds of Taiwan" as it has detailed range maps for many species and illustrates the Taiwanese endemic subspecies of widespread Chinese species. "A field guide to the birds of China" by John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps is the next best option.
Annotated Systematic List (bold indicates endemic)