Typhoons and Taiwan Endemics
Taiwan had never really figured very highly on our list of places to go birding in, I did not even know it had birds. However, I did come across a trip report by Mike Kilburn from Hong Kong on the BirdForum earlier this year, read up a little, and had lots of information material sent to me by Mark Wilkie, yet another BirdForum member who lives in Taiwan. One thing led to another, and soon enough Ha, my wife, and I were booked on a flight to Taipei.
1 USD = NT$ ~33.00. If you are bringing US Dollars, be aware that many places will not change USD 100.00 notes that start with the serial numbers "DF", "CB", "DB" if printed in 2003, or any bills printed in 1996.
The package in Taiwan cost us USD 3,600.00 per person, inclusive of transportation, accommodation, food and drink.
Taipei is not a cheap place, at least not if coming from Vietnam. A basic meal for the both of us easily cost NT$ 1,000.00, a beer in the Grand Hotel was NT$ 150.00, but then that is in a 5-star hotel. The same hotel charged a cool NT$ 300.00 for three hours of Internet access, a complete rip-off, in particular as you cannot spread those 3 hours over a couple of sessions.
Be careful if you need to change money on a Sunday or holiday, the one open bank we found inside the Taipei 101 Building asked for a NT$ 300.00 fee, the exchange rate in the hotel was better than that.
Whilst many nationalities do not need visas, Vietnamese do and it turned out to be a major hassle. The Taiwanese representation in Saigon made it very clear that they consider any Vietnamese a potential illegal immigrant and made it very difficult for Ha to get the visa. Only through intervention by quite a few people did we finally manage to secure the visa for her.
Accommodation and transportation:
Before and after the actual trip, we stayed at The Grand Hotel as it was supposedly a nice hotel. Regrettably, we were dumped into the Annex upon our arrival, and the rooms were far from nice, especially considering the room was NT$ 4,000 a night. I am sure the hotel was spectacular when it was built back in the 1950's, but it is now a little dated. The same cannot be said about the air-conditioning system, it was absolutely freezing everywhere and there was no possibility to adjust the temperature in the room.
On the way back, we did get put into the main building (actually, I refused to go anywhere else) and the rooms there were really nice.
Accommodation elsewhere ranged from rather crappy (Lanyu Island) to a 4-star hotel in Tainan. With the exception of the hotel on Lanyu Island, accommodation was always very clean and quite comfortable.
We did notice that a number of places provided only towels the size of a small handkerchief, Simon told us this is quite common. I didn't mind, and did not want to lug a damp towel around, but you might want to keep this fact in mind.
Roads in Taiwan are excellent throughout and virtually all sites are easily accessible by car; as a matter of fact I have never done that little walking on a birding trip.
The normal access to Lanyu Island is by air, there are 6 flights daily, but we were lucky (I hate flying) and were able to go by boat as that weekend was a holiday. The boat does not run every day, you will have to check on that beforehand. Also, flights were actually cancelled the day we went, due to bad weather.
Just after we arrived, a Typhoon passed close to Taiwan and the weather was pretty bad the first few days. We had lots of rain but the good thing was that there were also lots of birds whenever it did stop raining.
In the lowlands, the temperatures were pretty pleasant, it did get cooler higher up, with temperatures dropping to about 9° Centigrade on He Huan Pass and about 13° on Ali Shan, but it does get much warmer once the sun has been up for a while. I did not bring warm clothes, but a light jacket might come in handy.
As we headed to Lanyu Island, another storm hit and made passage extremely rough. A lot of people got pretty sea-sick, travel sickness pills might be a good idea.
Food and Drink:
Both Ha and I like Chinese food, so no worries for us. Dumplings and Beef Noodle Soups were particularly good, there is actually a Beef Noodle Chain called "Taiwan New Beef Noodle House", you cannot go wrong there. Beef noodle soup is a national dish here in Vietnam, but I almost preferred the Taiwanese kind (had to insert "almost", my wife might read this).
Some of the best food we had was in small "mom-and-pop" restaurants, the only really bad food was at the hotel in Lanyu. Whilst I may not agree with the sentiment that Taiwan has the best food in Asia, it is certainly right up there. For things like snacks and drinks there are 7/11's all over the place, with the exception of Lanyu.
Coffee appears to be the drink of choice, it is much easier to get than tea. I hate to say it, but I did not like the famous Oolong tea all that much, give me a Darjeeling any day. There also do not appear to be a lot of fresh fruit juices around. Luckily, "Taiwan Beer" is pretty good, especially the bottled kind. Ha tried a number of local liqueurs and pronounced them more than passable as well.
Dangers and annoyances:
No leeches were encountered (Ha's biggest fear), they appear to be virtually absent from Taiwan, at least according to Simon. Stop press: Ha managed to find a leech below a leaf on Ali Shan; luckily it appeared to have fed well already. The only time we had a lot of Mosquitoes was in Guang Hua Village, below Ali Shan, the place to look for Swinhoe's Pheasants.
Taiwan appears to be a very well functioning and orderly country, at no time did we feel at risk, be it on the road or walking around.
Whilst not everyone speaks English, you will always come across somebody who does. We found the Taiwanese extremely friendly and helpful; whenever we looked lost, someone would inevitably asks as if he or she could be of help. The only problem I can see when traveling independently are the menus, in some places they are only in Chinese.
Not an annoyance, but to be kept in mind: the electricity in Taiwan is 110 Volts. This should be no problem for most appliances and chargers, however. Sockets are the flat, 2-pin type, I found adapters in the big malls in Taipei.
We used "A Field Guide to the Birds of China" by John MacKinnon & Karen Phillipps and a Chinese-language book "Guide of Taiwan Wild Birds" ISBN 957-9578-00-1 at NT$ 900.00, with bird names in English, obtained through the Wild Bird Society of Taipei. This book is easier to carry than the field guide; the only downside is that many of the bird names are antiquated. I also got "Birdwatching in Taiwan" ISBN 957-98751-9-7 at NT$ 600.00 from the latter, with a lot of useful information on birding sites. It was the Lonely Planet Guide to Taiwan that got us on the touristy things.
There is a complete list of books, as well as a lot of useful information on the "Stop Hushan Dam" Blog. If you have any interest in the bird and wildlife of Taiwan, this site deserves your fullest support.
For a day-to-day account, go here: Taiwan Blog
For a map showing our travels, and some points of interest, go here:
Special thanks to Jing-Hong Lee who showed me how to make a map using "Google Map"©
Special note of thanks, and disclaimer:
Obviously, we have to thank Mike Kilburn, whose trip report got us thinking about Taiwan in the first place.
Mark Wilkie sent us tons of fliers and brochures on Taiwan in general, and birding there in particular. He also helped me a lot with all the splitting that has been going on over there, as well as with some of the insect ID's. Great stuff! And he likes a cold beer, what else can you ask of a bloke?
Jo Ann MacKenzie is the Chair of the "Friends of Taiwan Associations (Canada West) as well as the Executive Secretary of the Taiwan International Birding Association (Canada). She was in charge of putting our program together and also did her bit to help us with Ha's visa issue.
Simon Liao helped us to put the trip together; Simon's help also was invaluable in securing the visa for Ha.
Ms. May of the Wild Bird Society of Taipei got us the books we needed.
Simon was also our guide, at least for the first few days' after which Jing-Hong Lee took over. Both are great birders; luckily they also enjoy good food. Lee is also more than just a capable driver, a fact appreciated by us both.
As mentioned earlier, the Taiwanese were fantastic throughout. From the 7/11 cashier to the guesthouse owner every single one went out of their way to make our trip an enjoyable one.
As usual, no trip would be fun without Ha at my side. The only annoying thing is that she is now a better birder than I am. Ah well, as long as she continues to make tea for me...........
Any opinions, errors, mistakes and other screw-ups are all mine, please send abuse, or praise, as well as suggestions, to hannostamm(at)hotmail.com.
16th of September:
No birding was planned for today, instead we headed for Taipei 101, until recently the tallest building in the world. In here is the best English-language bookshop that I managed to find in Taipei. In the small park in front of it, a couple of Brown Shrikes were hunting. From there, we hoofed it to the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. There were quite a few birds here, and we quickly started our trip list with plenty of Light-vented and Black Bulbuls. Grey Treepies were very tame and numerous and there were a single Little Egret and Common Moorhen around the pond there. A late Dim Sum lunch followed, it was excellent but way too much, and that was pretty much it for the day.
Not really much in the way of birds today, but Ha and I both take the Grey Treepies as "Birds-of-the-day".
17th of September:
After a mediocre breakfast we headed for the Botanical Garden. The key species here was ridiculously easy to see, within a few meters we had seen one immature and two adult Malaysian Night Herons. Mission accomplished, we strolled around a little longer in this very busy park, watching people exercise, and ticking off Japanese White-eye and a single Taiwan Barbet. A few Black-billed Magpies flew over whilst the lone Black-crowned Night Heron was a lot more skulking than its Malaysian cousins. It started drizzling in earnest and we headed for the Longshan Temple and another late lunch. On the walk there, we passed numerous shops selling huge numbers of both local and exotic birds, including quite a few parrots from Asia and America.
The afternoon was spent with window-shopping, the sight of a group of Taiwanese Flamenco dancers outside a department store was somewhat unexpected.
In the evening, we meet our guide-to-be, Simon Liao. He quickly found us in the hotel lobby and sprang a surprise on us: we were invited to participate in the dinner of the "World Taiwanese Chambers of Commerce". Instead of a quiet Dim Sum meal in a local family restaurant, we found ourselves amongst 500 be-suited and be-robed revelers feting themselves, including the odd Deputy Minister. Ah well, it was all for a good cause as it was the Wild Bird Society of Taipei that benefited from the gig.
During the dinner, we had our second surprise of the evening: we were introduced to the camera man of Formosa TV that would travel with us for the next couple of days and do a story on birdwatching in Taiwan.
"Bird-of-the-day" was an obvious choice for both of us: Malayan Night Heron.
18th of September:
The previous evening we had watched the weather forecast which had announced a tropical storm heading Taiwan's way. When we woke up this morning, the storm had grown into Typhoon "Wipha" (where do they come up with these names?) Whilst forecasted to just miss Taiwan, the weather was decidedly nasty, with very strong winds and heavy rain. Simon did nothing for our mood when he casually mentioned that it could rain like that for a week!
Anyway, the car was booked and we headed off for Hui-Sun Forest Station in Central Taiwan. With the rain getting steadily worse, we stopped a couple of times to pick up provisions. The only birds seen during the trip were Black Drongo, Black Bulbul, House Martin nesting under a bridge, and a couple of very miserable and wet Large-billed Crows.
Once at Hui-Sun, we checked into our brand-new, basic, but very clean, accommodation and headed for lunch. The meal was a highlight of the day, very good and enough to feed an army.
The weather continued to deteriorate and the cameraman, who was by now probably just as unhappy about the weather as we were, decided to interview Ha and me. After he heard that Ha is probably one of the first, if not the first, female Vietnamese birders to come to Taiwan, she became the star of the show as there are a large number of Vietnamese that live here, and the Taiwanese government is trying to encourage them to participate more in society.
After that, we hang around (well, Ha slept) all afternoon, but the storm never did ease off. All that was left for us to do was have another fantastic meal and chug a couple of beers. Oh, and pretend to do our bird list, for the sake of the TV reporter.
For once, we decided not to choose a "Bird-of-the-day", we didn't really see any birds.
19th of September:
We awoke to steady rain, but it had begun to ease off a little bit. From our window, we watched a feeding flock move through, with plenty of Grey Treepies, Black Drongos, a couple of Bronzed Drongos, a few Japanese White-eyes, and very brief views of a single Varied Tit, a stunning bird and a lifer for me. Finally some birds, and we decided to go on a trail that apparently is good for Swinhoe's Pheasant. Never did see them, nor anything else for that matter. We therefore decided to head back to the guesthouse, check out, and get some breakfast a bit further down the mountain.
I do not know what the place was called, but it is apparently famous for the coffee, and the Peanut butter toast is great, but even better were the birds around there. As we are heading for brekkie, Ha spotted a few long-tailed birds crossing the valley and, sure enough, they were Formosan Magpies, at least six of them with one getting harried by a Besra. After this, things happened just at a rapid pace: we were still congratulating ourselves about our find (actually twice, we had to repeat the whole show for the journo), when the call of "Babbler" went up. A panicked fumbling for bins and, right in front of us, were two Streak-throated Scimitar-Babblers. Apparently, they are another sure split, if that hasn't been done already. Whilst still admiring the birds, Lee called out to us and we sprinted up the road. A stand of trees there was full of Black Drongos as well as a pair of Bronzed Drongos. Grey Treepies were everywhere, whilst the two Maroon Orioles were a lot harder to find.
After breakfast, Ha tried eggs boiled in Oolong tea and quite liked them, we hit the road once more towards Puli. It was a good morning for raptors, with Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Goshawk, and Chinese Goshawk encountered along the way. We also saw a single Taiwan Macaque, as well as a couple of introduced Common Mynas. Just before lunch, we stopped at a place that Simon knew and, sure enough, we saw two Dusky Fulvettas within minutes.
Lunch was a quick affair at a 7/11, easily one of the poorer meals we had during the trip, before it was on to Chinjing. A short stop produced a Black-naped Monarch, seen by Ha only, as well as a pretty male Plumbeous Water Redstart. By the time we checked in, the rain had started again. Nevertheless, we decided to head out again, heading for the famous "Blue Trail 1". Don't look for the blue gate that used to mark the start of the trail, apparently it was stolen a couple of weeks back. In spite of the drizzle, it was a good thing we did go, with Black-throated Tit, a single male White-tailed Robin, and a male Ferruginous Flycatcher. The first endemics of the afternoon were a group of 6 or so Taiwan Yuhinas, followed by a pair of Steere's Liocichla. Yellowish-bellied Bush-warblers were fairly common, but frustratingly difficult to get a glimpse of. After an Ashy Wood-pigeon overhead, we finished the day with two more endemics, White-eared Sibia and Taiwan Yuhina. The reporter left us, meaning we could concentrate on the birding from now on (and Ha could go easier on the make-up).
All in all, not a bad day, rounded off with a decent feed and a couple of cold Taiwan beers.
"Bird-of-the-day" for Ha was Steere's Liocichla, I preferred the Streak-throated Scimitar-babblers, anticipating their split in the not too distant future.
20th of September:
After a good breakfast produced by the two Indonesian ladies working at the guest house, and hearing but not seeing Chinese Bamboo Partridge, we headed back to the "Blue Trail 1". A lot of the same birds as the previous afternoon, but Ha did see another endemic: Yellow Tit. Obviously, I was not the least bit envious of her! The Grey-headed Bullfinches seen just a couple of minutes later did not quite have the same appeal. However, great views of a pair of Pygmy Wren-babblers almost, but not quite, made up for missing the Tit. Back at the entrance to the trail, the air was full of Highland Red-belly Swallowtails, a Taiwanese endemic butterfly.
Just before lunch, we headed to "Blue Trail 2", but the weather was quite good and warm for a change and there were few birds, apart from a solitary Black Eagle. Lee did however chance upon a Formosan Salamander, a rare find indeed.
After lunch, we headed back to "Blue Trail 2". There wasn't much new here, but we did add a pair of Eurasian Nuthatches and had excellent views of a couple of Blue Shortwings, another probable split in the future. For one, it isn't even blue, but brown! A Ferruginous Flycatcher rounded off the day.
Ha obviously chose the Yellow Tit as "Bird-of-the-day", as I did not see it, I took the Shortwing. Not that I was in the least bit envious of Ha!
21st of September:
We woke up to a friendly-looking dawn and to what would prove one of the best days of the trip, not that we knew it then.
It started off well enough whilst we were having breakfast, with a very nice Bamboo Partridge being visible from the dining room window. The surrounding fields were crawling with Yellow Wagtails, with the odd Grey Wagtail and White Wagtail thrown in for good measure. Brown Shrikes were also all over the place, they would prove to probably be one of the commonest birds during the entire trip. As a matter of fact, we would end up distinctly disliking them, we just stopped too often for yet another one of them. Mind you, that doesn't excuse that they are caught and eaten in Southern Taiwan.
Back into the car it was, with a stop near "Blue Trail 1". Well worthwhile, as we had great views of Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, a gorgeous male Vivid Niltava, a few Eurasian Jays, loads of Black-throated Tits, and two to three Rufous-capped Babblers here. I also almost jumped out of my skin when I saw what I thought was a snake, turned out it was a Giant Earthworm, a good meter in length! Don't see many birds taking a shot at that!
From warm and sunny we climbed to foggy and bloody freezing. A sign at the Hehuan Pass announced just over 9 decrees Centigrade, but temperatures were forgotten as we got to the parking lot. Right in front of us were Taiwan, or White-whiskered, Laughingthrushes, Collared Bush-robins, about 10 Vinaceous Rosefinches, and 3-4 Alpine Accentors, all feeding on biscuits somebody had thoughtfully strewn about. Actually, "right in front of us" doesn't cut it, they were hopping around our feet! Absolutely awesome, not just because of the endemics, but apparently the last three birding groups had dipped on the Accentors. An Eastern Crowned Warbler completed the cast.
A bit further down from the pass, I was fortunate enough to put my bins on a branch that two Golden Parrotbills chose to perch on for two seconds. Whilst heard by everyone, nobody else saw them. Whilst looking for the endemic Taiwan Bush-warbler, which we never would see, we did see a Brownish-flanked Bush-warbler, whilst a Spotted Nutcracker observed us from a nearby tree.
Thankfully, it did get warmer as we headed lower again, and we soon stopped for lunch. As I crossed the road, I saw a lot of birds in a tree behind the restaurant. Taking a closer look, the first thing I saw were two Taiwan Barwings. Luckily, everybody else also managed to get onto the birds and we proceeded with lunch, quite pleased with ourselves.
After lunch, we traveled a bit further before stopping in Cihen. Again, the trees were full of birds, we figured that they were all hungry after three days of miserable weather. A feeding flock here produced a few more goodies in the shape of two Yellow Tits, a bird I missed before, Grey-chinned Minivets, another Taiwan Barwing, and a Rufous-faced Warbler.
We took a short walk at Taroko Gorge. Certainly an impressive piece of landscape, it did not produce much in the way of birds, the river was way too swollen and turbulent. The only thing we saw here were a couple of Plumbeous Water-redstarts.
A fantastic day, which finished with Styan's Bulbuls just before we checked into the Leader Village Taroko. Done up in the style of a tribal village, it was actually pretty nice, and the food was great, both dinner and breakfast.
"Bird-of-the-day" for Ha was the Collared Bush-robin, I chose the Taiwan Barwing, not least of all because I actually spotted it first.
22nd of September:
We woke up to miserable weather, it was pouring down. We had a boat to catch, so we set off for Taitung. There were plenty of Spot-billed Ducks besides the road, as well as Common Myna. The latter are not tickable as they are an introduced species. The same was not true for the two male Common, or Ring-necked, Pheasants we saw on a farm near Taitung. Like most Europeans, I had seen plenty of those before, but never the real deal.
Due to the bad rain, we were late in arriving at Fu Gang Harbor, from where we would take the boat to Lanyu, or Orchid, Island. Not a big deal, as it was impossible to get lunch anyway, everything was sold out. This was the start of the long Mid-Autumn Festival weekend, and all boats to Lanyu and Green Islands were absolutely packed.
For Ha, not having lunch turned out to be a good thing, immediately after leaving the harbor the sea got very rough, and Ha tossed her cookies (as did a large proportion of the passengers). Staying indoors was not an option, it was absolutely freezing inside, and the smell of people being sick was soon overpowering. Luckily, I felt pretty good, and managed to add Wedge-tailed, Sooty, and Short-tailed Shearwaters to the list. I also saw two Flying Fish, a highlight for me as I had never seen one of those before.
Almost 3 hours later, the roller-coaster ride came to an end, not a second to soon for Ha, who by then had turned a lovely shade of green. We hopped onto the Scooters that Simon had arranged and rode a couple of Miles to our "hotel". It was by far the worst place we would stay at during our trip, the terrible rooms were only outdone by the food, which was atrocious. Luckily, there was plenty of beer. We did take a quick spin before dinner, and saw one of the birds we had come to Lanyu for: Brown-eared Bulbul.
After dinner, and with the weather marginally better, we hopped on our steeds again to a place Simon knew where, within seconds of arriving, we managed to connect with Lanyu Scops-owl.
A couple of contenders for "Bird-of-the-day", but Ha enjoyed the Common Pheasant most. I always particularly liked Owls, the Lanyu Scops-owl was a foregone conclusion as my day's prize.
23rd of September:
The night ended none too soon, the hotel room was really not good, the smell of things gone bad was just a little bit too much for us. The weather looked better then it had for a few days and Ha and I headed to the beach across from our hotel. There were a few Waders feeding off the garbage that was everywhere, including a Grey-tailed Tattler, a couple of Common Sandpipers, as well as a Pacific Golden Plover.
I just could not face breakfast at our hotel and Simon lead us to the nearby Yakem Cafe. Good choice, too: the owner spoke fluent English and served up a fantastic breakfast of steamed buns and fried eggs on toast. The food was so good that we went back there for an excellent Curry-chicken lunch later in the day.
Back on our trusty bikes to a nearby School, the lawn of which apparently attracts migrants. On the way we stopped at the Lanyu Airport and watched a Whiskered Tern quartering the airstrip. At the school we had the first unexpected bird of the day, a Little Curlew. This bird is certainly not common anywhere, and both Simon and Lee were well chuffed.
We continued our tour of the island, ticking off Pacific Reef Egret and Ruddy-breasted Crake along the way. We stopped off not far from where we had seen the Scops-owl the previous night and a little search in the forest there came up with another Lanyu specialty, Philippine Cuckoo-Dove. Like all of its cousins it was actually bloody hard to find, sitting almost motionless and without a sound.
We stopped a wee bit further down the road to look for Quails, without success, but Ha first found three Violet-backed Starlings and then a flock of about 15 Ashy Minivets, both not common birds in Taiwan. As a matter of fact, the Starlings were new for Simon. We also saw a few Grey-spotted Flycatchers, before checking out and heading back for the port. Ha listened to her husband for a change and took her motion-sickness pill and thus saw a couple of the Shearwaters as well as Flying Fish on the way back.
That particular ferry stopped at Green Island as well and we did not make it back to the mainland until about 19:00. We checked into the Golden Hill Village Hotel, a lot of mirrored glass outside but a rather nice room inside, and headed out for yet another excellent dinner. The only surprise was the announcement by Simon that he would leave us the next day. Not too sure what his issue was, but at least we would have more room in the car....
Ha's "Bird-of-the-day" was Grey-spotted Flycatcher for some inexplicable reason, I chose the Little Curlew.
24th of September:
Breakfast was not so good, at least not for a non-Asian; I never did manage to develop a taste for Congee, or rice soup, but Ha was happy. Simon had heard Hwameis behind the hotel earlier, but we only turned up a pair of Plain Prinias when we looked for them.
Setting off, the Missus was happy to have the front seat to herself, and I was happy to have the back. We first headed for the Jhihben Wetlands which were heaving with Brown Shrikes. However, we also heard a couple of birds singing their hearts out and, sure enough, they turned out to be what we had come for: Hwamei. As a matter of fact, Mark pointed out to me that this bird has already been split and is now Taiwan Hwamei, an added bonus.
After quickly adding Nutmeg Manikin to our trip list, we moved on towards Kenting, in the very South of Taiwan. We did stop so Ha could by some huuuuge Custard Apples and had lunch at yet another "Taiwan New Beef Noodle Soup". As the day progressed, the weather got worse and, by the time we reached Kenting, it poured down once again; the Black-winged Stilts by the side of the road were hardly more than outlines.
We got to the Kenting Youth Activity Center late in the afternoon, without any sign of the weather getting better. I therefore decided to update my blog whilst Ha took a beauty nap. The rooms here were basic, but adequate, and the hostel itself is quite nice, styled as a traditional Chinese House.
We first headed for yet another great dinner in a restaurant found by Lee, and then for the Kenting Night Market. The place was absolutely heaving as it was still the long Mid-autumn-festival weekend. Ha had fun shooting things whilst Lee and observed thousands of Cattle Egrets migrating overhead, surely a good omen for the next day?! Oh, I also found a stall that sold these really strong laser pointers. I had been looking for one for a while as they can come in handy for pointing out birds in the rain forest, but the guy wanted around USD 500.00 for one!!!! NO WAY!
A rather dull bird was unanimously elected "Bird-of-the-day": Taiwan Hwamei. After all, its looks belie its singing skills, and it was an endemic lifer.
25th of September:
I love all sorts of Asian food, but when it comes to breakfast I do admit to preferring the odd omelet with toast or two. It wasn't to be this morning and it was on a rather empty stomach, for me anyway, that we headed for the hills behind Kenting. The place is famous for migration, especially of Chinese Sparrowhawk and Grey-faced Buzzard Eagle. There were plenty of birders around, but absolutely no birds, apart from a few Oriental Skylarks and a late Lesser Coucal. Apparently, the wind was just too strong that morning (we learned later that the next day 33,000 raptors passed through the next day!). Only a little disappointed, we had seen a number of raptors on the way already, we drove to Long Luan Lake, ticking off a Peregrine Falcon on the way.
It was really too early in the year for ducks and the only ducks we saw, apart from Spot-billed, were Mallards. There were hundreds of mostly Cattle Egrets in the reeds, and "new" birds seen here were Common Kingfisher, Oriental Reed Warbler, and a pair of Black-headed Munias.
Once again, the weather got worse during the day, apparently this turned out to be one of the wettest Septembers on record, and we kept on going for Tainan. A bit of a surprise was another Ring-necked Pheasant right next to the highway. It seemed very confused, running up and down the highway, and almost gave us all a heart attack when at one stage it flapped right into the middle of it! Luckily, it managed to get its bearings and disappeared in the undergrowth. The only other noteworthy bird for the rest of the day was a Black-eared Kite crossing above us.
We checked into the Evergreen Plaza Hotel in Tainan. Very modern, very functional, and, with published rates of between NT$ 5,600 and NT$ 36,000, none too cheap.
I hate to sound repetitive, but we had yet another great dinner near the hotel. After dinner, Ha and I went out for a little stroll. There were a lot of fireworks as this was the most important evening of the mid-autumn festival. I can understand why fireworks are illegal here in Vietnam, it is dangerous in crowded areas, but it still was fun to watch. Ha took care of our spiritual well-being and prayed in a Pagoda, and we headed back for a very comfortable night's sleep.
Not too much in the way of exotic birds, so we both took the Peregrine Falcon as "Bird-of-the-day".
26th of September:
I think I can safely say that we all had the best breakfast of the trip this morning. The choice was enormous and, whilst there was plenty of Asian food, there were excellent pastries, breads, eggs, cheese, cold cuts, yoghurt.. Sorry, got carried away there for a second.
A short drive found us in the Chigu Wetlands. The first Black-faced Spoonbills for the season had been reported here a day earlier, but we completely failed to see them. No surprise here, the area is huge.
There were, however, plenty of Waders about, with Spotted Redshank, Long-toed Stint, Greenshank, Dunlin, and Wood Sandpipers all making an appearance. Really nice were a pair of Painted Snipe, but the highlight came when I was interviewed during a chance encounter with a journalist from the "Liberty Times": I noticed movement in a bush behind the journo and we all got good looks of a Wryneck, apparently not a very common migrant in Taiwan.
Pretty happy with ourselves, we went a little further to Guan Kwan Tian, a known haunt of Pheasant-tailed Jacana. Sure enough, we spotted an adult and 2 fledglings from the hide. We also saw the only Cinnamon Bittern of the trip here.
The Jacanas out of the way, we headed for an excellent lunch at the "China Northern Wheaten [sic] Product" in Chiayi. A small restaurant, the food was to die for. I absolutely stuffed myself on the Beef noodle soup and dumplings.
Somewhat bloated, we hit the car once again and tackled the climb up to Ali Shan (Shan means mountain in Mandarin). The mountain is famous for being foggy most days of the year, it would manage to maintain its reputation that day as well. Luckily, the fog was not thick enough to prevent us from seeing a female Emerald Dove, Ha also got views of a Taiwan Weasel. On the way up, we also saw White-bellied Yuhinas as well as South-eastern (Taiwan) Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, another recent split from what used to be Grey-cheeked Fulvetta.
A little further it was Ha that struck again: she asked Lee to stop at a small waterfall to take a look at a Plumbeous Water Redstart, only to discover a Little Forktail! I just love going birding with her, a good eye and not a little luck have put me on many birds whenever I am with her.
It was Lee that got us onto the next prize bird though, a female Mikado Pheasant with a juvenile right next to the road. Greedy as I am I would have preferred to see a male, but seeing this species took a lot of pressure off Lee.
We headed back down a little again to check into the "A Li Shan Youth Activity Center". Not many youths, or much activity for that matter, but like its sister property in Kenting, the room, or rather bungalow, was very nice and impeccable. They even had free Wifi.
That evening we had hot-pot. One of Ha's favorite dishes, I am less of a fan but the rather coolish temperatures that prevailed made the meal actually quite enjoyable. I stuck to my usual "Taiwan Gold Beer", but Ha managed to secure a bottle of rice wine produced by the Aborigines and polished off most of it.
I think it was the rice wine that made Ha choose the Little Forktail as "Bird-of-the-day", I went with the "must-see-bird" up here, the Mikado Pheasant.
27th of September:
No breakfast, and both Ha and I had our problems with this morning's 04:30 start. Ha because she was feeling the effect of the rice wine she had drunk the evening before, I because shorts and short-sleeved T-shirt just were not enough for temperatures around the 13° mark. Regardless, there was birding to be done and Ha soon enough managed to catch up with a bird she had missed at the beginning of the trip, Varied Tit. A right smart bird, but regrettably outclassed by another Taiwan Endemic, two Taiwan Flamecrests. We visited the Tataka Visitor Center in the hope of getting something hot to drink. In vain, it was still closed, but we did see a single Mountain Hawk-eagle here. Another star bird was White-browed Bush-robin but we could have stayed in bed much longer, as the reason we got up that early did not show until 11:30: another Mikado Pheasant, but a male this time.
Back it was down to Guang Hua village, stopping for a forgettable lunch on the way. On the very rare occasions that we had lousy food we were lucky enough to always find a 7/11 near by. Actually, not so much a matter of luck I guess, it has more to do with the fact that there must be thousands of 7/11's in Taiwan.
Anyway, a chocolate bar-and-a-half later we arrived at our home for the next two nights, the "Star Resort". There are a number of home stays in the area, but I can certainly recommend this one. Not only is the owner, and his family, extremely nice; his wife is also a good cook, and the place is close to where Swinhoe's Pheasant and White-faced Flying Squirrels are found. As a matter of fact, the owner used to hunt the latter, but now protects them to the extent that the locals would reports us a number of times to him when they saw us birding in the area.
After a dinner that more than made up for the lousy lunch, we headed for the forest just behind our abode. Once there, we promptly came across a calling Mountain Scops-owl but the highlight, for me at least, were two White-faced Flying Squirrels. Cute little buggers, with their large, shiny eyes. We all had large, shiny eyes later that night as the home-stay owner threw a little party with copious amounts of rice wine (Ha and Lee) and beer (yours truly).
Ha did take the Mikado Pheasant as "Bird-of-the-day" today, for me it was the Flamecrest.
28th of September:
Off for another shot at Swinhoe's Pheasant. I was getting seriously tired of the road leading into the forest. It is very steep, very narrow, and the locals that use it as an access to the famed Oolong tea plantations do not exactly drive slowly. To distract myself, I read up on Mountain Scops-owl when the unimaginable happened: a pair of Swinhoe's Pheasants crossed the street in front of us. Ha and Lee got brief looks, I missed it completely. I am not a hardcore birder, I like my beer too much for that, but I must admit that I started chewing my arm in frustration at that point.
We continued to drive and walk up and down that bloody road the whole day, without so much as a whiff of the pheasants. Taiwan Partridges were pretty vocal early on but, as usual, impossible to see. The White-tailed Robins, a species I only know as a shy skulker, were exactly the opposite; at times it seemed there was one on every bush and prominent branch. The only bird even more common here were very noisy White-eared Sibias.
Still somewhat ticked off, (me, not Lee or my wife, but then they did see the BLOODY PHEASANTS, DIDN'T THEY!!!!!) we headed back for lunch. The "boss" as everyone seemed to call our host, suggested that we head for a nearby temple; he felt that few people had seen the Pheasants without praying there first. Desperate times call for desperate measurers and I burned my share of joss sticks.
I guess my accent screwed things up, as we did not see the Pheasants that afternoon. However, it was not a complete wash-out. Lee left Ha and me on foot, and we walked up and down a few times, without seeing anything to exciting. Completely knackered, we sat down by the road and, for want of anything better to do, I played the partridge call. We almost jumped out of our skins when we heard a reply, and some rustling, right next to us. Encouraged, I played the tape again (and please, no lectures on using tapes here) and sure enough, a bird flew across the road and settled on the other side. The two seconds we had before it flew back and disappeared were enough to make sure that it was indeed a Taiwan Partridge.
Not a completely miserable day after all. We finished it off by visiting the Bamboo grove behind the restaurant where we soon discovered dozens of fluorescent mushrooms, a really ghostly sight. Makes you understand how people come to believe that there is "something out there".
"Bird-of-the-day" for both of us was the Taiwan Partridge. Ha had seen the Pheasants in the morning, but she felt the views were to brief to give it the coveted prize.
29th of September:
We had French Toast of all things, Lee had showed the boss's wife the previous day how to prepare that, and then it was off for a last try at the pheasants. Once more, we hit the road but, after a couple of times up and down, Lee let us out at a trail head. It was very hot and there weren't many birds. We did come across another Flying Squirrel that gave us the evil eye from its hole, but maybe it was just annoyed at all the mosquitoes.
Just before the end of the trail, something (fate, movement out of the corner of my eye, or the prayers the previous day?) made me train my bins at the road below and if there wasn't a pair of Swinhoe's Pheasants right there! Luckily, I managed to get Ha onto them before a car came along, I would have had serious doubts about my sanity otherwise (it was hot).
Not much birding for the rest of the day. Instead, we went back to the Temple to thank for the good luck, drove to Lukang to check in at the Leader Hotel Lukang, which was not quite as nice as its sister hotel in Shih Village. Obviously, I celebrated the Pheasants, and the Partridge, with a couple of beers in the back of the car.
In the evening we had the pleasure of meeting up with Mark Wilkie, a chap who was of incredible help in getting this trip organized. I felt a bit sorry for him, as I had promised him a nice dinner, but there was some (intentional) misunderstanding by Lee and we ended up having Chinese food. Ah well, next time. The beer was cold and, if I remember correctly, we had fairly large amounts of it.
Mark is involved (correct me here if I am wrong, Mark) with the "Wild at Heart Defense Association, Taiwan". Like everywhere, they are facing an up-hill battle in protecting the environment and wildlife, from the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin to the Fairy Pitta.
There can be absolutely no doubt about the "Bird-of-the-day", it has to be the Swinhoe's Pheasants for both of us.
30th of September:
Lordy, did I feel rough this morning! Nothing to do with the 17 beers the previous evening, I suspect that there is too much Formaldehyde in the beer, that tends to be the reason for the odd hang-over I have here in Vietnam anyway.
We headed for the Kao Mei Wetlands for the last official birding of the trip. It was absolutely boiling that day; luckily Lee was decent enough to go and get a bit of the old "hair-of-the-dog" for me (but the following sightings were all confirmed by Lee). Felling much better, we first watched the antics of the thousands of Monk Crabs, so called as their grey color recalls the robes of the Buddhist Monks. There were a large number of Common Tern, a few Far-eastern Curlews, and at least 2 Saunder's Gulls amongst all the Black-headed Gulls. We also had a fast fly-over by an Ibis. I first dismissed it as an introduced Sacred Ibis but, after some reflection, am not so sure anymore as it did not show the black trailing wing edge the former should show. Would anyone out there care to comment on the likelihood of Black-headed Ibis?
Well scorched, we got under way to Taipei. We did stop at Shin Shie village and, finally, got onto another endemic we had been desperately looking for, Taiwan Whistling Thrush. Only a juvenile, but at least we had it out of the way. I could hear the stone that dropped of Lee's heart.
Back at the Grand Hotel, they wanted to stick us into the Annex once more. I told them that I would very much prefer a room in the main building and it was well worth it; it was a nice, large room. I know I am strange, but I liked the heated toilet seat with the integrated shower, first time I came across one of those. I am currently trying to convince my boss to have one installed in my place.
We were knackered and, after biding farewell to Lee, decided to have dinner in the hotel's restaurant. The food, and views of Taipei at night, were fabulous, if not exactly cheap (well, the view was free).
Another unanimous decision on the "Bird-of-the-day": Taiwan Whistling Thrush, the last endemic, and indeed new species, we would add to our list.
1st of October:
Absolutely NO birding today. Lee had found an address where I might find the Laser pointer I was after, and sure enough they had it. The prize was also a lot more reasonable than at the night market in Kenting: USD 150.00 instead of USD 500.00.
We did go to the famous(?) Snake Alley Night Market, but did not like it too much. A bit of a tourist trap, a couple of snakes in cages, and a guy kicking around a big Python that looked to be on Valium (I was hoping for it to take a swipe at the guy). We therefore decided to have our dinner at the hotel again, after the great meal we had the night before.
2nd of October:
The plan was to get up at 06:00 to the Yang Ming Shan Forest area, but we both failed miserably to get up. The trip wasn't very tiring physically, but all the new sounds and sights had taken their toll. Thus, we enjoyed our breakfast and reached Yang Ming Shan around 10:00.
We had a very nice walk, but there were absolutely no birds. The next Typhoon was already in the pipeline and the hills were clobbered by gale-force winds. Back down at the bus station, the trip ended on a high note, though: first we had an adult Taiwan Whistling Thrush on a roof right next to the bus stop, then we saw a small group of Formosan Magpies just as the buss arrived.
We finished our trip at the Shi Lin Night Market that evening before heading back to Vietnam early the next morning. All in all, an outstanding trip, not least of all because of the great people, outstanding food, and cold beer.
We saw a 157 species, not bad as it was too late for the summer visitors, and too early for the winter ones. We also saw 17 endemics out of currently 18 (there might be the odd split down the road), only missing the Taiwan Bush-warbler, an almost impossible-to-find bird when not singing.
Feel free to contact me for any additional information at: hannostamm(at)hotmail.com.
List of Birds seen:
(Bold = Taiwan Endemic)
List of Mammals:
And Toads, Tree frogs, Formosan Salamander, Japaluras, Giant Earthworm, gazillions of Butterflies and Moths..........