Few of Taiwan’s endemics are as splendid as this Blue Magpie. Photo: David Fisher
Early Portuguese sailors dubbed Taiwan ‘Isla Formosa’ – the beautiful island and although the title was abandoned some time ago in favour of the Chinese name, Taiwan is still a strikingly attractive island with some spectacular mountain scenery. Sitting astride the Tropic of Cancer, less than 250 miles from north to south and 100 miles wide, Taiwan boasts impressive geographic and ecological diversity. A dramatic mountain range with numerous peaks forms the island’s backbone and is flanked either side by a broad, flat coastal plain which is warm and humid.
Amazingly, few western birders have experienced Taiwan’s rich bird life. We’ve been missing out, as many of the species are generally far easier to see here that in most other Asian countries. Moreover Taiwan is an affluent nation with a good tourist infrastructure and road network – travelling around it is genuinely easy. Most importantly, Taiwan boasts an impressive array of endemic species such as Taiwan Yuhina, White-collared Bush Robin, White-eared Sibia and Steere’s Liocichla.
Endemic birds are not all that Taiwan has to offer. The island is the winter home of the bulk of the tiny world population of Black-faced Spoonbill and we expect to see a few lingering birds. The tour’s timing, at the height of the northbound spring migration, means that we’re sure to see a decent number of East Asian migrants. We also stand a good chance of seeing that most elusive of Asian birds, Fairy Pitta.
Day 1: The tour begins in London with an overnight flight to Taipei.
Day 2: We arrive in Taiwan in the early evening where we’ll transfer straight to our hotel in Taipei.
Day 3: After breakfast we’ll travel a short distance to the Taipei Botanical gardens for an introduction to Taiwan’s more common birds. These are sure to include Japanese White-eye and Light-vented Bulbul while this site is also one of the best for both Taiwan Barbet and Malayan Night Heron. We should be able to find at least one of the latter stalking earthworms somewhere in the small gardens. A pair of Crested Goshawks also breed in the park most years. From there we’ll drive southwest, away from Taipei, and up into the hills at Da Syue Shan (literally ‘Big Snow Mountain’). Even though this site holds most of the island’s endemic birds we’ll make several stops en route, perhaps to search for Taiwan Hwamei, but we still expect to arrive in time to explore some of this excellent reserve. The endemic Swinhoe’s Pheasant is relatively easy to see here as is its rarer cousin, and Taiwan’s national bird, Mikado Pheasant. Night just outside Da Syue Shan Forest Recreation area.
Days 4 - 5: We’ll spend the following two days at Da Syue Shan searching for species such as White-bellied Green Pigeon and endemics such as the startled-looking Yellow Tit, Taiwan Wren-babbler, Taiwan Bush-warbler, Black-necklaced Scimitar-babbler, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Rufous-crowned, Rusty and White-whiskered Laughingthrushes, Steere’s Liocichla, Taiwan Barwing, White-eared Sibia, Taiwan Yuhina and Flamecrest. Even with all these endemic species to search for we will not neglect the endemic subspecies of Vivid Niltava and Dusky Fulvetta or regional specialities like Little Forktail.
Day 6: Depending on what we’ve seen at Da Syue Shan we have the choice of leaving early or late in the day. Our next destination will be Cingjing which, at 1720 metres, is an ideal base to search again for several of Taiwan’s higher elevation specialities that might have eluded so far. All three of Taiwan’s endemic game birds occur near Cingjing and we’ll spend much of our time quietly walking various trails through the bird-rich temperate forests in our quest to see them all.
The spectacular Swinhoe’s Pheasant is the easiest to see, the elusive Taiwan Partridge undoubtedly the most difficult, while Mikado’s Pheasant isn’t common, although we have lots of time. Several of the species we searched for at Da Syue Shan also occur here, while more site-specific specialities include the enigmatic Taiwan Wren-babbler and Taiwan Barwing. Night in Cingjing.
Day 7: We’ll leave Cingjing early today and drive up the Central Cross Island Highway and over the Hehuan Shan Pass which, at 3275 metres, is the highest road pass in East Asia. Target species here include Collared Bush Robin, Flamecrest and the recently described Alishan Bush Warbler. The higher elevation patches of bamboo hold good numbers of Taiwan (formerly Streak-throated) Fulvettas and a few Golden Parrotbills, though we’ll need a fair amount of luck to connect with the latter. Other target species include the endemic form of Alpine Accentor, Taiwan Rosefinch, and both Brown and Grey-headed Bullfinches. Descending down the eastern side we’ll travel slowly through Taiwan’s premier tourist attraction, the spectacular Taroko Gorge, before reaching the coast near Hualien and along the way we are sure to come into contact with Styan’s Bulbul, Taiwan’s most threatened endemic, before we reach our hotel in Taitung where we spend the night.
Day 8: This morning we’ll have a two-and-a-half hour ferry crossing to the spectacular volcanic Lanyu (or Orchid) Island off Taiwan’s south-eastern corner. In the past this ferry has produced views of birds such as Streaked and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Long-tailed Jaeger and Bridled Tern. Still inhabited by some 2000 Yami aboriginies whose culture is closer to that of the Philippines and Pacific islands that it is to China, Lanyu is radically different to mainland Taiwan. There’s plenty to see here from cultural diversions to some excellent birding. The locals traditional homes are underground in order to offer safe refuge from the severe typhoons that ravage the area every autumn. Birds we’ll be looking out for on Lanyu include the endemic forms of Elegant Scops Owl, Whistling Green Pigeon, Brown-eared Bulbul and Japanese White-eye. Night on Lanyu.
Day 9: Lanyu Island is also home to small numbers of both Brown Cuckoo Doves and Japanese Paradise-flycatchers. In addition we’re sure to come across numerous migrants at this time of year and these could include anything from a Little Curlew to a gorgeous Narcissus Flycatcher. We’ll spend the morning and early afternoon on Lanyu before taking the ferry back to the mainland. Night in Taitung.
Day 10: After some more birding close to Taitung we’ll drive south, past Taiwan’s second largest city, Kaohsiung, to Tainan.
Day 11: We’ll spend much of the morning travelling slowly along the southwest coastline and intend to stop at numerous sites to search for waders and terns. The main species well be looking for is Black-faced Spoonbill. The bulk of the tiny world population of this endangered species winter in Taiwan and there should be a few lingering birds still present. Other species here should include a host of waders such as Eastern Curlew, Terek Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, Great Knot, Long-toed Stint and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. With luck we might be able to find a Chinese Egret or even a Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In the afternoon we’ll swing away from the coast heading inland to Alishan. The enterprising proprietor of our comfortable home stay hotel here has constructed a couple of bird hides in the forest – and this site is now the best one anywhere for viewing Taiwan’s most elusive endemic bird, Taiwan Partridge. Night at Alishan.
Day 12: In the morning we’ll spend more time at Alishan before returning to search for birds along the coast. There are a couple of recent records of Chinese Crested Tern here but realistically we only have a very slim chance of connecting with one of these increasingly rare birds. In the afternoon we’ll head north spending the night in a hotel at Douliou.
Day 13: Accompanied by a local naturalist, we’ll make an early morning visit to Pillow Hill near Douliou with the aim of finding the beautiful and elusive Fairy Pitta, a few pairs of which breed here. With the help of a scientist who has been studying these birds we should be able to find at least one individual before we head back to Taipei stopping for any birds we may see along the way. Night in Taipei.
Day 14: We’ll catch an early morning flight from Taipei back to London where the tour concludes the same evening.
Updated: 31 August 2016