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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

Wow! The total of four sightings of up to three birds on three days was part of the reason that Swinhoe’s Pheasant romped home with the end-of-trip ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll. Another was undoubtedly the spectacular views we had of this exotic, multicoloured Taiwanese endemic – stunning looks and close-range encounters with males and females almost from the very outset. One of the very first birds of Day Two was a male Swinhoe’s Pheasant and although our first sightings of this exquisite species were at Da Syue Shan (literally ‘Big Snow Mountain’) all three encounters had us transfixed. Da Syue Shan Kilometre 23 is arguably THE best place on the planet to see the species and boy did we see it, a magnificent male that watched us for an eternity before strutting, almost arrogantly, across the road right past us. Clearly habituated to people, it was almost oblivious to our presence! The two Da Syue Shan sightings we had of another Taiwanese endemic gamebird, the equally spectacular Mikado Pheasant, involved birds that were just as close. That species has won more of our Taiwan ‘Bird of the Tour’ polls than any other but didn’t feature at all this year – undoubtedly because the first encounter was with a female during a deluge and, although the second was with a male that walked right up to us, most of the group had opted to lie in that morning…

Harbouring most of the island’s specialities, Da Syue Shan, right in the heart of Taiwan’s ‘endemic zone’ with its old growth, mossy forests and great on-site infrastructure, is a fabulous area to visit on a birding tour and it was here that we saw many of the island’s specialities. There were Steere’s Liocichlas and White-eared Sibias galore, we encountered an apparently mixed flock of Rufous-crowned and Rusty Laughingthrushes, laid eyes on our only Brown Bullfinches of the trip, had great looks at Taiwanese Vivid Niltava, had a tantalisingly brief encounter with a Little Forktail, stunning looks at a cooperative Ashy Wood Pigeon and had memorable encounters with several Yellow Tits and Collared Bush Robins. It was here too that we saw our first Yellow-bellied Bush Warblers, Taiwan Fulvettas, inquisitive Flamecrests, umpteen White-whiskered Laughingthrushes, Taiwan Rosefinches, an in-our-face Alishan Bush Warbler and more demure Taiwan Yuhinas than you could shake a stick at…

Our comprehensive two-week tour started and finished in bustling Taipei city and took us virtually right around the island. The first site that we visited was the Taipei Botanical Gardens right in the bustling city. Taiwan Barbet was our first island endemic and the second and third being equally vociferous Black-streaked and a pair of Taiwan Scimitar Babblers. The Botanical Gardens also provided great looks at our first Crested Goshawk and Malayan Night Heron, two species that essentially stole the show. We then moved slightly further north to Yongming Shan where a small park yielded some extremely confiding Taiwan Blue Magpies, our only ones of the trip. Turning and then heading south, our good fortune continued and we had great looks at the recently split Striped Prinia and Taiwanese Bamboo Partridge before being ‘serenaded’, if you can call the jarring vocalisations that, by several Savanna Nightjars outside our comfortable hotel.

After a final morning at Da Syue Shan, a morning that eventually produced our best looks at Taiwan Cupwing, we headed on via some cooperative Taiwan Hwameis and Collared Finchbill to our next destination, Baxianshan. After a rather tense half-an-hour, that site yielded great looks at our next target species, Chestnut-bellied Tit. The latter’s been adopted as that sanctuary’s emblem – and who could criticise them for that, they’re gorgeous… Moving on we connected with the super-distinctive endemic ardens form of Maroon Oriole on the edge of Puli before climbing back up into the mountains at Cingjing.

The following morning we moved still higher, driving up and eventually over the Hehuan Shan Pass. More Collared Bush Robins, Taiwan Rosefinches and White-whiskered Laughingthrushes greeted us and fortunately we soon found the morning’s primary target, the recently split Taiwan Bullfinch. A solitary summit-loving Alpine Accentor and a Eurasian Wren added more entertainment before we descended down and into the spectacular Taroko Gorge, paused for lunch, and then headed on. We found time for our first Styan’s Bulbuls and 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 sea was remarkably calm for our 2.5-hour ride on the passenger ferry from the Taiwanese mainland out to Lanyu (or Orchid) Island the following morning. Fortunately, the birds weren’t fazed by that with a party of Red-necked Phalaropes soon being followed by a Taiwanese rarity in the form of an immature Red-tailed Tropicbird, several Streaked and one Short-tailed Shearwater. The boat journey back was surprisingly different adding a flock of six Long-tailed Jaegers and a couple of wave-hugging Bulwer’s Petrels 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. Taiwan Green Pigeon, often the trickiest of the island’s specialities fell spectacularly at the very first attempt, as did Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Pacific Reef Egret, Brown-eared Bulbul (the island was literally full of them) and Philippine Cuckoo-dove. Surprisingly Lowland White-eye proved slightly trickier to see well. Shockingly we never actually saw a Ryukyu Scops Owl – we heard multiple birds but never laid eyes on one – no-doubt partly because there were hundreds of other tourists searching for the same quarry. Disappointingly the weather in advance of our visit had clearly been too good and we found rather few migrants – a few shorebirds including some great looks at Oriental Pratincoles, one and later two Common Starlings, an all-too-brief female Citrine Wagtail, a fly-by Brown-headed Thrush and a heard-only Ruddy Kingfisher being the pick of the bunch. We were certainly kept busy - there was late-morning escorted tour around a traditional typhoon-proof Yami aboriginal house that provided a fascinating insight into the native culture while our Flying Fish (chicken or mutton dinner) was delicious.

A grassland fire at the ever-threatened Zhiben Wetland on the edge of Taitung meant we’d had to rearrange our first morning back on the main island. Nevertheless, a brief visit to the Taiping River mouth early the following morning produced our first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Grey-tailed Tattler and Yellow-bellied Prinia of the tour. All four were species we’d see much more of on the west coast. Our initial exploration of that side of the island saw our focus shift to shorebirds, 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 waders: both sand plovers, Sharp-tailed and Broad-billed Sandpipers galore, a couple of Great Knot, just one Long-toed and hundreds of Red-necked Stints (we even managed to find three Little Stints, another Taiwanese rarity, among a party of Red-necks), no less than 27 Pheasant-tailed Jacanas and a fabulous female Greater Painted-snipe. Quite a haul!

After some more superb coastal shorebirding the following morning (that also produced a pair of lingering Falcated Duck) we headed back inland. Our destination was the Firefly Homestay and the Taiwan Partridge bird blind that the homestay’s become famous for. The partridges didn’t disappoint, and even brought their kids – but did keep us waiting leaving time for one of our party to be almost assaulted by a Taiwan Whistling Thrush that accidentally entered the blind. Rejigging our schedule slightly, we headed back into the mountains the following day exploring the higher elevation forest around Takata. That area proved to be superbly birdy. We heard our first Golden Parrotbills almost immediately but it took a while, and several more encounters, before we all actually saw one. Other goodies in this stunningly attractive and bird-rich area included stupendous views of a very confiding Taiwan Shortwing, another uncooperative Taiwan Barwing, great looks at the endemic Taiwanese forms of both Eurasian Jay and White-browed Bush Robin and equally outstanding encounters with two Reeve’s Muntjacs.

Our last major port of call was the area around Pillow Hill where we soon knuckled down in search of our last major avian quarry: Fairy Pitta. Often awkward and time-consuming to find, incredibly this year we’d barely entered the forest when we heard one…and it was close. Moments later there it was, perched in full view about 15 feet up on a tree limb! Prolonged telescope views for everyone as it sat almost motionless for what must have been all of ten minutes. Our final morning’s optional excursion produced a modest number of new species: a couple of Emerald Doves, two inquisitive Vinous-throated Parrotbills, a Long-tailed Shrike, a party of confiding Chestnut Munias, a heard-only Oriental Skylark and a flock of four (introduced or escaped) White-browed Laughingthrushes. We’d failed to find Chinese Egret earlier in the tour but a detour to the Xucuogang Wetland, a coastal park on the western edge of Taipei city, remedied that and also produced great looks at our last shorebirds that included multiple Terek Sandpipers, Grey-tailed Tattlers and Eurasian Whimbrels as well as a distant Eurasian Curlew. Here too, Zitting Cisticola was the last addition to the trip list. After a sightseeing drive around downtown Taipei and dinner in a fabulous Dim Sum restaurant that was essentially it…save for some lengthy flights back home…

While the 33 endemics this fascinating island boasts are certainly the key avian attraction (we saw 32, only missing the ever-elusive Taiwan [previously Island] Thrush) for most 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 and an impressive 32 species of shorebird including such east Asian delights as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Great Knot and Oriental Pratincole. And then there was 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 2023