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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2017 Narrative

Wow! A total of nine sightings of up to five birds on three days! That was undoubtedly part of the reason that Swinhoe’s Pheasant romped home with the end of trip Bird of the Tour poll. Another factor was undoubtedly the spectacular views we had of this exotic, multicoloured Taiwanese endemic – spectacular looks and close range encounters with males and females almost from the very outset. We saw our first Swinhoe’s Pheasants on day two of the tour when a female wandered out of the forest and right up to us. An hour later a male distracted us from our first Taiwanese picnic breakfast – the coffee and cereal had to wait! We were at Da Syue Shan (literally ‘Big Snow Mountain’) and would see what was almost certainly that same male again the following morning. We’d been quiet, but probably didn’t need to be, as the pheasants and Steere’s Liocichlas at this particular site, are habituated to people and were almost oblivious to our presence. We’d go on to see five more Swinhoe’s Pheasants (four males and a female) near the ‘Taiwan Partridge bird blind’ at Alishan towards the end of the tour. Stunning!

Mikado, Taiwan’s other pheasant and its national bird, came second in the same poll and, with a remarkable ten sightings, we saw even more of those magnificent creatures! Our first encounter was perhaps the most memorable – we spotted a roadside female and had stopped to watch her. She was at that same site again several hours later and was then joined by a rather amorous, resplendent male. For the first time on this tour we encountered Mikado again on the mighty Hehuan Shan Pass – seeing no less than five individuals on the eastern side of this, Eastern Asia’s highest, road pass. Still not satisfied we saw two more Mikado Pheasants later in the tour at Alishan!

It was another gamebird, the imaginatively named Taiwan Partridge, that stole third place – and that was the 26th, and final, Taiwanese endemic that we saw. And boy didn’t we also see that one well!

Yes, this tour was another Taiwan trip where we saw all 26 of the island nations’ endemic birds! Not content with that we also saw, and more importantly had good looks at, an impressive number of its endemic subspecies. In fact, we saw all bar five of Taiwan’s endemic subspecies with two of those, Black-chinned Fruit Dove, and Eastern Grass Owl, being considerable rarities on the island nation.

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; two wave-hugging Bulwer’s Petrels from the ferry back from Lanyu Island; no less than nine, often incredibly confiding Malayan Night Herons; several Slaty-breasted Rails including one that simply loved to strut; a remarkable 33 species of shorebird including such east Asian delights as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 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 Basian Shan recreation area and the colour-banded Scaly Thrushes on our very last morning in the country. So many highlights – and these are just a selection of the ornithological ones.

Our comprehensive two-week tour started and finished in bustling Taipei city and took us virtually right around the island. Taiwan Barbet was our first island endemic but the second, a pair of Taiwan Scimitar-babblers, our first-ever Amur Paradise Flycatcher and, eventually, our first Malayan Night Heron really stole the show in Taipei Botanical Gardens. We were grateful for the unscheduled visit to Yangming Shan as the small park that we visited yielded our only Brown-headed Thrush and Taiwan Blue Magpies of the trip. Remarkably that same small (and it really was tiny) park also held a pair of tame Taiwan Whistling Thrushes and three more Malayan Night Herons!

We spent the entire next day at Da Syue Shan right in the heart of Taiwan’s ‘endemic zone’ and it was there where the aforementioned Swinhoe’s and Mikado Pheasant encounters happened. 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 in our one-and-a-half days there. Decent, but not great, looks at Yellow Tit started the ball rolling, a pair of Black-necklaced Scimitar-babblers, a Taiwan Wren Babbler, a close-range Taiwan Bush Warbler, two separate flocks of Rufous-crowned and a pair of mating Rusty Laughingthrushes, more Steere’s Liocichlas, umpteen vociferous White-eared Sibias and more demure Taiwan Yuhinas than you could shake a stick at, some great looks at Island Thrushes, more White-bellied Green and a cooperative Ashy Wood Pigeon. Wow – didn’t we see a lot! It took us a full day to connect with Taiwan Barwing but we were then rewarded with some stupendous views (and would see more of these gorgeous sprites later in the tour at both Alishan and Xitou).

And so 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. It was late the following afternoon by the time we arrived at Chingjing – but no matter. In the ensuing hour and a bit, we nailed a couple of vociferous Taiwan Hwamei, saw four different Taiwan Bamboo Partridges and had repeated encounters with a vocal Brown-flanked Bush Warbler.

It rained hard the following day but a brief pre-breakfast sojourn around a lower elevation rest area produced the goods as White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler, Taiwan Rosefinch, Collared Bush Robin, Flamecrest, the endemic subspecies of White-browed Shortwing, and Grey-headed Bullfinch literally threw themselves at our feet. The fact that KC had his best-ever views of the shortwing, a notorious skulker, says it all. It wasn’t all plane sailing however – low clouds, lower temperatures, and poor visibility hampered our attempts to see the road pass’s Alpine Accentors – but a hardy few (and wet!) participants persevered and were rewarded. The later morning was our five Mikado Pheasant morning. Three males and three females and they were all singles. The inclement weather had undoubtedly played a large part in our morning success and played an ever-larger role in unfortunately almost totally obscuring the spectacular Taroko Gorge from view…Nevertheless we added Styan’s Bulbul to our burgeoning lists during lunch and before long we’d exited the gorge and we made it smoothly on to Taitung after what was easily the tour’s longest drive.

A hurried visit to the Bei Nan river mouth early the following morning yielded quite a few new species with a couple of Chinese Egrets and a Grey-tailed Tattler perhaps being pick of the bunch. With the passage of the weather front that gave us yesterday’s deluge the sea was rough this morning – so rough in fact that we were confined indoors for the 2.5 hours on the passenger ferry out to Lanyu. Consequently, we saw NO birds – none! That soon changed once we’d arrived however. Whistling Green Pigeon, often the trickiest of the island’s specialities fell spectacularly at the very first attempt, as did Pacific Reef Egret, Brown-eared Bulbul (the island was literally full of them) and Lowland White-eye. Japanese Paradise Flycatcher proved a bit trickier as too, unusually, did Ryukyu Scops Owl but we saw them all and even had time to find a modest number of migrants: a Stejneger’s Stonechat, five fly-by White-shouldered Starlings, and a few Oriental Pratincoles. And then there was late morning escorted tour around a traditional typhoon-proof house that provided a fascinating insight into the native aboriginal culture. Our Flying Fish or Thai curry was so delicious that some of us had it for dinner and again for lunch the following day.

The sea was calmer the following afternoon and we could venture out on deck on the ferry back to the main island. We weren’t swamped with birds but did see surprisingly large numbers of Roseate Terns and a couple of Bulwer’s Petrels.

The ever-threatened Zhiben Wetland, perhaps now more accurately called the Zhiben Grasslands though even the grass is disappearing and being replaced by scrub, continue to produce good views of good birds and this year was no different. Great studies of Yellow-bellied Prinia, several Oriental Pratincoles, a summer plumaged Great Knot and, for a lucky few, a resplendent male Siberian Rubythroat. And all before breakfast! Once we’d reached Taiwan’s west coast our focus shifted even more to shorebirds and our first pool held a few Red-necked Phalaropes and impressive numbers of both Long-toed Stints and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. We even managed to find a few Little Stints among the commoner Red-neckeds. Black-faced Spoonbill ( five birds) fell at the first hurdle and we’d go on to see 18 more birds later that day and a much closer bird early the following morning.

The first of the month saw us starting May looking at a Savanna Nightjar perched on a pole outside our city centre hotel but it was Budai Wetland Park, a site that has so far never failed to produce astonishing views of both Yellow and Cinnamon Bitterns, that we’ll probably remember more. Four Slaty-breasted Rails, that’s four that were actually seen, completed our time around Tainan and from there we moved, via a site for Pheasant-tailed Jacana, back up in to the hills.

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 night at Tataka, Alishan for our scheduled second night at Da Syue Shan. 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, White-browed Bush Warbler, and Golden Parrotbill, we consolidated our looks at Oriental Cuckoo, Alishan Bush Warbler, White-browed Shortwing, Flamecrest (we even watched a bird nest building), Taiwan Barwing, and Taiwan Fulvetta. It was a stunningly attractive, superbly bird-rich area but again we had to move on as we still hadn’t seen Taiwan Partridge. The bird blind and feeding station run by the proprietor of the Firefly Homestay was always going to be our best bet for this uncommon, shy and retiring gamebird and we hadn’t been in the hide much more than 15 minutes when the first partridge appeared! An after-dinner excursion yielded great looks at a pair of White-faced Flying Squirrels and three heard-only species of owl.

KC took us to a site for Plain Flowerpecker, another Taiwanese endemic subspecies, the following morning, and again our target species performed within minutes of our arrival. An ardens Maroon Oriole rounded off our visit to that site and it didn’t take us very long to find Bright-capped Cisticola before lunch at the Pitta Café. After lunch, we met our local guide and knuckled down in search of our last major avian quarry: Fairy Pitta. Incredibly we’d no sooner entered the forest than a lucky few at the head of the line spotted one. Elusive as ever it promptly vanished but started to call 30 minutes later before suddenly breaking cover, flying up and perching in the open. Surely a full 15 metres off the ground it froze, and stayed frozen, calling occasionally, for perhaps as long as 15 minutes! Stunning, simply stunning! Fairy Pitta was well and truly in the bag with great scope views for everyone. An early dinner was followed by an optional evening Slaty-legged Crake excursion – we found two calling birds but unfortunately they remained buried deep in the forest and had no intention of coming out to greet us.

Ximen and its Scaly Thrushes was our final morning’s destination and we soon found two of these cryptic forest-floor denizens. Great views of them, another Malayan Night Heron, several White-bellied Green Pigeons, and a couple of stunning encounters with White-tailed Robin made it yet another memorable morning.

Moving back to Taipei we paused at a temple that has a fairly regular site for a daytime-roosting Collared Scops Owl. Our luck was in and the owl was home, and so, after a sightseeing drive around downtown Taipei, a night back at our hotel and a lengthy flight, were we.

-        Paul Holt


Created: 08 May 2017