Birdwatching in Taiwan

Words & pics: Mike Weedon

The genius of Darwin was in the simplicity and clarity of his thinking. Tiny genetic mutations will result in slight differences in organisms’ ability to survive and reproduce. Given enough time the pressures of selection will lead to the development of different species.

When populations are isolated, such as on islands, the effects may become magnified and accelerated. For instance, Darwin famously noted the radically different bill structures of the apparently closely related finches of the different Galapagos islands.

In extreme cases, where there has been considerable isolation, such as Australia, New Zealand or Madagscar, there are a large number of endemic bird species. But on little island groups, like the British Isles, which are close to and formerly joined to the continental land mass, we have just one (controversial) endemic species (Scottish Crossbill) and several subspecies, such as the Shetland and St Kilda Wrens.

Taiwan lies somewhere in the middle. It is a decent-sized island, nearly twice the size of Wales (the universal unit of area measurement), 180km off the south-eastern coast of mainland China.

It has at least 15 endemic bird species but dozens of endemic subspecies, several of which are on the cusp of being given full species status, or have already been given full species status by some authorities. There are also several regional endemics found there.

So, Taiwan offers a good chunk of endemic birds, but owing to its position off the Chinese coast, it is also a great place for seeing migrating Asiatic birds. I was there with a small group last autumn, and in a week or so, our bird haul included nearly 50 birds which were either full endemic species or subspecies, or regional endemics.

But we also got a fantastic taste of autumn migration, Taiwan style. Add to that plenty of non-endemic birds of high calibre, one or two endemic mammals, fabulous scenery, and spectacular butterflies in profusion, wonderful people and fantastic food (and, yes I am a vegetarian!), and you can see it could be very easy to fall in love with Taiwan.

Taiwan is a long north-south island, shaped (to my eye) like a chrysalis, with the capital Taipei in the far north. As most visitors do, we started our adventure here, getting our eye in at the botanical gardens.

We arrived a couple of days after a typhoon, so there was a certain amount of tidying being done. But we were soon ticking our first endemic: the very attractive and colourful Taiwan Barbet, plus seeing our first Black Bulbul (a bulbul in Chough’s clothing), Grey Treepie (like a small colourful Magpie), Chinese Bulbul and Malayan Night Heron. More familiar birds included Moorhen and a Kingfisher enjoying the lotus ponds, overlooked by a Night Heron.

The older people of Taipei clearly love the gardens, and were gathered in groups doing Tai Chi or just walking around enjoying the air. There were also a group of 30 or so photographers all trying to get a snap of Dark-streaked and Brown Flycatchers as well as a young Crested Goshawk. Overhead, a pair of adults of this spectacular Accipiter hawk were displaying.

With our eyes now partly in., we hit the northern tip of the island, at Yehliu Geo Park. The car park was jammed with coaches, mostly from China, and the paths incredibly densely crowded with parasol wielding, shuffling masses.

But, after a couple of hundred yards, the crowds simply vanished and our group ploughed on the Magic Toilet, a shaded loo block renowned as migrant stop over. We added Japanese Paradise flycatcher, Arctic Warbler and Blue Rock Thrush to our trip lists.

In the early evening of that first day we paid our respects to a pair of local celebrities. At the Chingsui Wetland at Jinshan a young Siberian Crane had arrived in 2014. By autumn 2015 it had developed a healthy symbiosis with a local farmer, who dug in the paddyfields while the Crane stood beside him, looking for morsels.

Also there were great flocks of mixed herons and egrets,  Black Drongos, Spot-billed Duck and best of all, a female Painted Snipe (females are the pretty ones in this species!).

For the next few days we would venture south. Despite having a population of 24 million people, most of Taiwan, away from the western plain, is covered in beautiful forested hills and mountains.

Taiwan Blue Magpie

It didn’t take too long driving through the hills to encounter our first flock of the one bird I wanted to see above all others, Taiwan Blue Magpie; a spectacular, blue, black add white, red-billed, long-tailed beauty of an endemic bird! Taiwan Scimitar Babbler (like a big grumpy, white-throated Wren) was very pleasing, too, rather rescuing a rainy second day, largely on the road.

On our third morning we made a tactical decision to check out the car park area, first thing, at Taroko National Park, near way we were staying.

It is curious how often car parks are the best places! This one yielded some of the best birds of the trip, with the small trees dripping with endemics, flocks of them: Taiwan Yuhina (unnervingly like a Crested Tit, but unrelated; and calls like a Goldfinch), Yellow Tit, a big, feisty tough guy tit with an open yellow face and long crest, Varied Tit of the potential split Taiwan subspecies/species. Then there was the gorgeous Grey-chinned Minivet (like an extremely colourful arboreal, red wagtail).

That morning we rose through the spectacular Taroko gorge, heading up into the mountains. We stopped off for a coffee by a Sacred Tree (don’t ask me why it was sacred), where we were given honey on a cocktail stick (don’t ask me why). And, as luck would have it, a group of endemic laughingthrush-like bird, the Steere’s Liocichlas (don’t ask me how to pronounce it), were in the bushes just near us.

We crossed a terrifying rickety bridge by a waterfall, which produced that mountain stream staple the Plumbeous redstart, as well as another endemic, the Taiwan Whistling Thrush (resplendent in navy blue).

Seeing a Flamecrest

But it was when we reached 3,000m altitude, that things got even juicier. Up there, in the pines, we encountered the renowned Flamecrest, a fancy relative of our Goldcrest, with a voice so high I could only hear it with my right ear!

There were tame endemic White-whiskered Laughingthrush, even tamer Alpine Accentor (of the Taiwan subspecies, of course). An incredible little dense swarm (like bees rather than birds) of 30 tiny Golden-headed Parrotbills came buzzing by, dropped in, moved off, gone.

But the star high altitude endemic for some in our small group was the Collared Bush-robin, or Johnstone’s Robin, a very pretty ash, chestnut and white endemic relative of the Red-flanked Bluetail.

The forested mountains of the Dasyueshan Forest are fantastic places for a drive and for birding, so naturally popular with visitors. Here we got great views of the amazingly colourful and distinctive endemic Swinhoe’s Pheasant (though we dipped on the more famous Mikado Pheasant; you can’t win them all).

The forests near the top produced some lovely little birds with fancy names, including the Rufous-faced Warbler, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and a tiny, exquisite relative of our Long-tailed Tit, called Black-throated Tit.

The next day we were down in the western lowlands, in a completely different world of fishing ponds, muddy paddyfields, waders and herons. There were Long-toed Stints, Marsh Sandpipers and Lesser Sand Plovers.

We flushed a coupe of tiny Yellow Bitterns (like Little Bitterns) and saw a flock of 75 Black-faced Spoonbills, the vanguard of the 2,000 (half the world population!) which winter in Taiwan.

Then it was down to the southern tip of the island near Kending. Our very nice hotel contained one of the strangest underground walkways to the beach I have ever witnessed. The Tunnel of Weird, as we christened it, contained a bowling alley, lots of computer games, shops and, of course, a 20-foot chameleon. No one was there except a man to ask for money for the bowling (there were no takers). Very surreal.

But the reason we were in the far south was to witness the start of the great raptor migration which passes through each autumn. We were too early for the famed Grey-faced Buzzard passage, but bore witness to the passing of several hundred Chinese Sparrowhawks, plus Oriental Honey Buzzards, and such bonuses, above our forest watchpoint as White-throated Needletail, Oriental Pratincole and Ashy Drongo, as well as our first views of the endemic Taiwan Macaque and a visiting group of Taiwan Green Pigeon.

A fascinating country for birdwatching

Taiwan is a beautiful country full of fascinating wildlife. I haven’t even had space here to describe the bat-catching antics of a Kestrel; the curious display flight of the Black-shouldered Kite; the subtle beauty of the endemic Owston’s Bullfinch or the Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.

I haven’t touched upon the Pheasant-tailed Jacanas or Black-naped Monarch (endemic subspecies of course). And I haven’t been able to convey the wealth of food delights on offer or to do justice to the landscape. You are just going to have to see, hear smell and taste for yourself.

But the lasting message, is that this is a land of speciation in action. Even the humble, familiar Coal Tit has its own Taiwan subspecies, with an elongated crest: ripe for ‘splitting’. Darwin would have loved this place!