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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Taiwan

2008 Tour Narrative

“There, there, five o’clock and close to the road!” We’d driven right past it, and a good many of us hadn’t even glimpsed it. Hearts raced as our driver slipped the bus into reverse. And sure enough the bird stayed: the morning’s prime quarry, a fine male Swinhoe’s Pheasant was strutting his stuff only a few yards off the road. Few people ever get such a fabulous close-range encounter as this, and we appreciated it fully, voting this gorgeous Taiwanese endemic the top position in our end-of-tour poll for Bird of the Trip.

The tour started well with three Malayan Night Herons seen, and seen well, inside the gates of the downtown Taipei’s Botanical Garden. Other goodies there included an Eyebrowed and two Pale Thrushes, as well as our first Light-vented Bulbul, Brown Shrike, Common Kingfisher, and Red-bellied Tree Squirrel.

Leaving the city we headed south to Puli, with a tasty Taiwanese lunch along the way. At Puli we met our first local bird guide, who escorted us to a tract of woodland besides the Di Zhang Yuan temple; it wasn’t long before we were watching our first Maroon Oriole, then moments later a pair of Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers, an elusive Dusky Fulvetta, and the endemic Taiwanese form of Black-browed Barbet. We moved on to the forest recreation area at Aowanda, where a pair of Chinese Bamboo Partridges welcomed us at the park gates, though the hoped-for Mountain Scops Owls were recalcitrant, singing only when we weren’t close by. But the following morning’s walks were superb, yielding a good number of the sanctuary’s specialties: two Taiwan Whistling Thrushes were the first, while some decent encounters with Dusky Fulvettas and Yellow and our only Varied Tits of the entire tour were icing on the cake. But the list didn’t end there. Umpteen Taiwan Yuhinas and five Taiwan Blue Magpies, two Vivid Niltavas, and—for a lucky few—some brief fly-by White-bellied Green Pigeons combined to keep us busy throughout the morning.

After a picnic lunch we headed on, pausing at a site where several Taiwanese Hwamei showed themselves superbly, pausing for all of us to relish extended scope views. Other Chun-yang goodies included some equally obliging Collared Finchbills, a pair of Vinous-throated Parrotbills, and a Striated Prinia. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing: our first Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler, Spot-breasted Scimitar Babbler, and Rusty Laughingthrushes were very elusive, the last starting a pattern that would continue throughout the tour. We would eventually encounter the secretive laughingthrush on three dates, logging a total of ten birds, but all were frustratingly elusive.

The next three nights were at Chingjing, right in the heart of Taiwan’s endemic zone. We spent our first morning exploring the area around Bei Dong Yang Shan, where we had the encounter described above with the Swinhoe’s Pheasant—but there was much more. A party of swifts over breakfast contained the two needletail species, a dozen Fork-tailed, and even a couple of Little. Other highlights included several easily seen White-tailed Robins, two Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers, a Taiwan Partridge glimpsed at close range by a couple of us, a distant pair of Crested Goshawks, and good views of the endemic Taiwanese form of White-throated Laughingthrush. And so it continued: we kept finding the birds and moving on, finding the birds and moving on. We spent the late morning with a Snowy-browed Flycatcher, then shared lunch up on the Hehuanshan Pass with parties of inquisitive White-whiskered Laughingthrushes, vocal Yellowish-bellied Bush Warblers, gorgeous Vinaceous Rosefinches, and diminutive Streak-throated Fulvettas. Higher up the pass we had our first encounters with the stunning Flamecrest and an inquisitive Alishan Bush Warbler, while late afternoon on the imaginatively named Blue Gates Trail yielded numbers of superb Steere’s Liocichlas, another brief Ashy Woodpigeon, a well-seen Taiwan Wren Babbler, and a heard-only Taiwan Blue Shortwing (this would be rectified the next morning when most of us were treated to excellent views of this tiny songster). For a lucky few, the only Mikado Pheasant of the tour walked across the trail just before a heavy rainstorm hastened our departure.

The next morning our local guide found us the last of the area’s specialties, Taiwan Barwing, and we were able to return to the Hehuanshan Pass, where, besides better views of Collared Bush Robin, some of us actually saw the Golden Parrotbill that we had heard the day. Our only Alpine Accentors of the tour were once again in the parking lot, right at the summit of this, East Asia’s highest road pass—perhaps just too close and too confiding to be properly appreciated!

We headed back to Cingjing mid-afternoon, making only a brief pause at the guest house. Some may have thought this was their chance for a well-earned rest—but it wasn’t to be. We were all eager for the optional afternoon excursion to the tea estate immediately behind our guest house. The hoped-for Siberian Rubythroat wasn’t present (this treat would have to wait nearly a week for our visit to the grasslands at Taitung), but we did have very satisfying encounters with both Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler and Black-faced Bunting.

All too soon it was time to continue, our journey taking us over the Hehuanshan Pass, where we paused for further looks at Collared Bush Robin and Alishan Bush Warbler, then down into the spectacular cloud-shrouded Taroko Gorge and National Park. On one of our stops, in perhaps the most dramatic section of the gorge, we managed to find a pair of Little Forktails, a species we had missed earlier. Styan’s Bulbul, the last of the island’s endemics, was an easy find at lunch in Hualien, but an elusive Red-billed Starling disappeared before all of us could appreciate it.

We spent the following day in the Wulu Forest searching for the ever elusive Taiwan Partridge and Mikado Pheasant. We heard the partridge, and drawing a blank on the pheasant didn’t keep us from having fun with several barwings, more Rusty Laughingthrushes, and several Large Cuckooshrikes.

The following morning’s visit to the Taitung River mouth produced fine views of a couple of Ruddy-breasted Crake. After our flight to Lanyu, or Orchid, Island, we spent the rest of the day and all of the next morning exploring the beaches and forests of this tropical paradise. No sooner had we clambered out of the plane when our first Lanyu specialty, Brown-eared Bulbul, showed itself; we were to see many, many more in the next two days. Accompanied by yet another skilled local guide, we were soon enjoying views of a nesting Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, followed shortly afterwards by our first Philippine Cuckoo-dove and several daytime Elegant Scops Owls. The boat ride back to the mainland yielded a couple of attractive adult Long-tailed Jaegers, as well as several Streaked and (probably) Short-tailed Shearwaters. A Taiwanese couple’s wedding photo shoot entertained us over dinner, and several Whistling Green Pigeons kept us scanning forest-clad hillsides over breakfast.

At the Taitung Grasslands the following morning we found the hoped-for Little Curlew, Richard’s Pipit, and both species of cisticola, with Bright-capped putting on a particularly memorable performance. We also stumbled across a few more migrants: two Siberian Rubythroats and several Black-faced and a single Little Bunting. We escaped the afternoon rain by visiting a fantastic temple at Tung-Kang on route to Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second city.

Our focus then shifted to waterbirds, with all of us treated to several new species the following day. Notable among these were Gray-tailed Tattler, Great Knot, Red-necked and three Little Stints, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and both sand plovers. How the party of four Black-faced Spoonbills sneaked unseen into the pool right beside where we had breakfast will long remain an embarrassing mystery, as will the source of the flock of 100 Chinese Sparrowhawks we saw just after lunch. The afternoon was very windy, and our driver had to brake to avoid an adult Black-crowned Night Heron that had been blown into a road sign and was standing stunned in the middle of the highway!

The wind had abated the following day, and we added several more of East Asia’s most sought-after species to our wader list: Long-toed Stint, Terek and Broad-billed Sandpipers, and even a few Asian Dowitchers. We also spent time looking out to sea, where three fly-by Black-naped Terns were well appreciated before we hit the road and scooted on. Our final port of call was Pillow Hill, where our third and final local guide soon showed us the region’s last specialty, a fantastic Fairy Pitta.

- Paul Holt

Updated: July 2008