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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2018 Narrative

It was fitting, and came as no surprise, that with two stunning and equally prolonged encounters the exotic Mikado Pheasant, Taiwan’s national bird, romped home with the end of trip Bird of the Tour poll. Our first encounter with this exquisite bird was with a pair in the forests at Da Syue Shan (literally ‘Big Snow Mountain’) while our second and better sighting was with a roadside male that strutted his stuff in the Alishan mountains. Both encounters had us transfixed as did those we had with another Taiwanese endemic gamebird, the spectacularly multicoloured Swinhoe’s Pheasant. That species came second in the same poll and we saw a total of five Swinhoe’s in Taiwan and four of these five were at Da Syue Shan Km 23!

Da Syue Shan Kilometre 23. It doesn’t sound much (and it’s barely a bend in the road) but there’s something about this particular stretch that makes it THE best place on the planet to see Swinhoe’s Pheasant. And boy did we see Swinhoe’s Pheasant! And Taiwan Partridge and Taiwan Yuhina and Steere’s Liocichla and Vivid Niltava at Da Syue Shan Kilometre 23. The birds here are clearly habituated to people and were almost oblivious to our presence. A female Swinhoe’s appeared first but it wasn’t very long before out strutted a magnificent male. Da Syue Shan, with its old growth mossy forests and great on-site infrastructure, is a fabulous area to visit on a birding tour. It also holds most of the island’s specialities and we saw most them during our time there.  

This was Taiwan. We’d not even spent one full day in the country and yet were already enjoying some of the best of what it had to offer! The tour had started superbly. We saw our first Taiwanese endemic, four very obliging Taiwan Blue Magpies, even before we’d stopped our coach at our very first birding venue on the edge of Taipei city. In that same park we’d watch several other species including a fabulously cooperative Taiwan Whistling Thrush and our first three Malayan Night Herons.

Our good fortune continued, as it would throughout the entire tour, and Day 2 had us starting by exploring sites close to our Da Syue Shan hotel before descending lower. That day’s highlights included a very obliging White-backed Woodpecker, the aforementioned pair of Mikado Pheasants, another pair of Taiwan Partridges, no less than 15 Rufous-crowned and several Rusty Laughingthrushes, and our first Taiwan Barwings and Brown Bullfinches of the tour. The Taiwanese endemic forms of Vivid Niltava and Snowy-browed Flycatcher sang for us while a pair of Little Forktails also did their very best. Oh, and we also found time to see the magnificent White-faced Flying Squirrels near our accommodation. It wasn’t all plane sailing however. All three of the day’s Yellow Tits were too recalcitrant to be enjoyed by all and the day’s four Taiwan Wren Babblers were even less cooperative. Fortunately, we’d rectify both failings before the end of the tour.

After a final morning at Da Syue Shan – a morning that produced stunning views of a majestic, tree-top cruising Black Eagle, our first Black-necklaced Scimitar Babbler, and mesmerizing looks at another Yellow Tit – we headed on. Our next destination, Baxianshan, soon yielded the hoped-for Silver-backed Needletails and, eventually and after a rather tense half-an-hour, two Chestnut-bellied Tits. The latter had quite rightly been adopted as that sanctuary’s emblem – and who could criticise them for that, the tits are gorgeous. We then all had great looks at a singing Taiwan Hwamei on the drive to Cingjing and, once there, dropped our bags and headed out again. Taiwan Bamboo Partridge was our primary target, and boy did they respond – but low cloud and very poor visibility meant that most of us struggled to connect.

The following morning we moved still higher, driving up the Hehuan Shan Pass with our first Yellow-bellied Bush Warblers, Taiwan Fulvettas, inquisitive Flamecrests, Collared and White-browed Bush Robins waiting to greet us. Umpteen White-whiskered Laughingthrushes, Taiwan Rosefinches and the summit loving Alpine Accentors, Eurasian Wrens, and an in-our-face Alishan Bush Warbler almost prevented us from having breakfast!

We soon descended down in to the spectacular Taroko Gorge, paused for lunch, and then headed on. We made it smoothly to Taitung after what was easily the tour’s longest drive. And thus it continued – we kept finding the birds and moving on, finding the birds and moving on, often via another 7-ELEVEN and another ice cream.

The following morning we took the ferry across to Lanyu, or Orchid, Island but not before we’d been treated to great looks at a vocal Savanna Nightjar right outside our Taitung hotel, a few migrants such as a Chinese Egret at the Bei Nan river mouth, and a small flock of White-shouldered Starlings as we waited for the ferry to leave. The two-hour ferry ride was very calm but produced disappointingly few birds with just one Streaked Shearwater, one Red-necked Phalarope, and one Pomarine Jaeger being all we saw. The boat journey back wasn’t vastly better, but we did add a small party of migrating Bridled Terns to our growing lists.

Spending just over one full day actually on Lanyu, we had plenty of time to explore the beaches, forests and shoreline of this fabulous tropical paradise and were soon enjoying views of Brown-eared Bulbuls, a pair of Japanese Paradise Flycatchers, some spectacular looks at umpteen Whistling Green Pigeon and Philippine Cuckoo-dove. We even managed to stumble across a daytime roosting Elegant Scops Owl! Unfortunately, migrants were few and far between this year on Lanyu, though a cracking male Tristram’s Bunting, a Purple Heron, a very elusive Ruddy Kingfisher, and a modest number of waders offered some compensation.

We headed to the Taitung Grasslands the morning that we were back on the mainland and soon found both species of cisticola and a Richard’s Pipit but the Siberian Rubythroats that we heard proved elusive and it was the repeated fly-bys by several Oriental Pratincoles that were the highlights of the site for many of us.

Once on the west coast our focus shifted to waders, but not before we’d seen the last of Taiwan’s over-wintering Black-faced Spoonbills! Over the following couple of days, we were blessed with repeated studies of some of East Asia’s most sought-after species of shorebird. Both sand plovers, Sharp-tailed, Terek and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Great Knot, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Long-toed and Red-necked Stints (we even managed to find three Little Stints, another Taiwanese rarity, among a party of Red-necks) and Asian Dowitchers. What a haul!

After some more superb coastal shore birding the following morning – a morning where we had a couple of low flying Little Curlews and four elusive Slaty-breasted Rails – we left Tainan and moved, via a site for Pheasant-tailed Jacana, back inland and on to the Firefly Homestay. We stopped off en route at a site for Taiwan Scimitar Babbler and had three of these exquisite birds come close enough to almost touch.

With the stunning encounters that we’d already had at Da Syue Shan, we’d no need to visit the Taiwan Partridge bird blind that the homestay’s become famous for, and with a road closure and no access to the higher elevation species at Da Syue Shan, Yenhui, our Taiwanese travel agent, had tweaked the itinerary and substituted a second night at the Firefly so that we could explore the higher elevations around Tataka, Alishan. Concerned that we’d struggle to see Mikado Pheasant, a species that we once missed on this tour, he needn’t have fretted. Nevertheless, Alishan proved to be a superbly birdy area and here, besides adding Spotted Nutcracker and Golden Parrotbill to our lists, it was another stunningly attractive, superbly bird-rich area and we consolidated our looks at, among others, White-browed Shortwing, Taiwan Barwing, and Taiwan Fulvetta.

We eventually headed away from the Firefly Homestay after spending a while (no, it was actually hours) trying to see the endemic Taiwan Bamboo Partridge. Elusive throughout, this species took a considerable amount more effort than any other bird on the tour and unfortunately still left some of us unsatisfied. Its frequently heard (we heard more than 11 of these noisy gamebirds) and often in-your-face vocalisation is occasionally rendered ‘People pray…people pray…people pray’ but towards the end of the tour and with continuing unsuccessful efforts to see it, it was given a different, and less than flattering transcription (but one that can’t be repeated here).

We stopped off on our way north to view a couple of additional species including a pair of Collared Scops Owls at a daytime roost inside Nantung temple – yes, actually inside the temple – not in the grounds, but right inside the temple! Following that KC took us to a site for Plain Flowerpecker, another Taiwanese endemic subspecies, and again our target species performed within minutes of our arrival.

Our last major port of call was Pillow Hill where we had lunch at the Pitta Café, met our skilled local guide Akai and then knuckled down in search of our last major avian quarry, Fairy Pitta. Incredibly we’d no sooner entered the forest than we heard one. Distant and elusive, there was simply no way our group could get closer and it wasn’t coming to us, so we headed on and tried another site. Despite an awkward scramble up a dry stream bed we drew a total blank at that site.

Time was moving on and we scurried on to Akai’s third site. Moments after arriving we heard one and some of us glimpsed it but, elusive as ever, it promptly vanished. It took us a while but eventually everyone had good telescope views of it as it sat, surely a full 10 metres off the ground, frozen, calling occasionally for perhaps as long as five minutes! Stunning, simply stunning! Fairy Pitta was well and truly in the bag with great ‘scope views for everyone.

Ximen and its ever-elusive Scaly Thrushes was our final morning’s destination. Despite it being yet another memorable morning with great views of another Malayan Night Heron, another White-bellied Green Pigeon, umpteen Ferruginous Flycatchers as well a couple of stunning encounters with White-tailed Robin, the cryptic forest-floor Scaly Thrushes were nowhere to be found so we headed on back to Taipei.

While the endemic fauna of this fascinating island is certainly the key attraction for many visiting birders they’re far from the entire picture. Other of the island’s diverse avian delights that we revelled in included Fairy Pitta, a bird as beautiful in life as its name suggests; the uncomfortably rare, but increasing (for now at least) Black-faced Spoonbill; no less than 10, often incredibly confiding, Malayan Night Herons; several Slaty-breasted Rails; a remarkable 34 species of shorebird including such east Asian delights as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, Great Knot and Oriental Pratincole. And then there was the in-our-face Ryukyu Scops Owl on enchanting Lanyu Island and the temple roosting daytime Collared Scops Owl; the prolonged looks at a charming Chestnut-bellied Tit at Basianshan recreation area. So many highlights – and these are just a selection of the ornithological ones.

-        Paul Holt

Created: 11 May 2018