Tension is the word. Tension and impatience. Everyone huddled on one side of the boat, the side from which the local guides are scanning the skies. Yesterday, the sea had been too rough for us to make this trip. Today’s not much better. The heat from the dazzling late morning sun scorches any bare surface I reach for to steady myself as the wooden ferry is bounced around the Taiwan Strait. Somewhere behind me, seasickness is taking its toll on a landlubber. The locals are all at the front of the boat. They make this trip every day and are used to having to make occasional stops for Westerners to focus their bins on the many rocky outlets.
From my left, a cry in broken English goes up: “Chinese Crested Tern, Chinese Crested Tern!” One of the guides points to the sky with his left hand and hurriedly beckons everyone with his right. He’s grinning, but a second pair of eyes confirms it was a false alarm. It’s not surprising. There are thousands and thousands of terns out here: Greater Crested, Roseate, Black-naped, Bridled – all screeching, soaring, diving and swooping, but there are only a few handfuls of the star attraction: the bird of myth, the tern that came back from the dead – the Chinese Crested Tern.
Until 2000, the species was considered to be extinct, but a photographer’s discovery of four nesting pairs among the tern colonies on the Matsu archipelago sparked one of the greatest comeback stories of all time.
Now the two main islands of Matsu – Beigan and Nangan – are swamped with Chinese Crested Tern T-shirts, cuddly toys, posters and birders from all over the world.
The first two days of our group’s Taiwan tour will be spent on Matsu – and the CCT is our top priority. It’s mid-July and it’s hot. What’s more, there aren’t that many birds around on Matsu in July – but it is the best time to see the terns. During the breeding season, trips to the breeding grounds are banned, and come autumn and winter, the birds have gone. Where, nobody knows.
So, with few birds on land it’s time for us to regain our sea legs and find that miracle bird. This time we have a private boat, run by one of Beigan’s hotels. The captain (and hotelier) knows exactly where to take us – all we have to do is find a needle in a haystack. On the huge rock in front of us are hundreds of terns – mostly Greater Crested, a bird superficially similar to the Chinese Crested. Not only do we have to contend with this life-size, grey, black and white version of Where’s Wally, in searing heat, but we’re on a boat. A boat that is bobbing up and down. And, under Taiwanese conservation law, we can’t get too close. This is extreme birding.
“There’s one! And another!” someone shouts to my right. All eyes follow his extended finger, as he attempts to direct us. “Where the shadow falls on that green rock, count three birds across, then drop down to the bit that juts out…” This becomes our way of communicating with each other for the next hour or so.
When you get your eye in, the CCTs are easy to pick out. Their wings are a lighter shade of grey and the forehead is white, not black like the Greater Cresteds. And each one is a living piece of history.
On the boat ride back to Beigan, it is hard to imagine how the next 10 days on the Taiwan mainland could possibly top that.I needn’t have worried.
From the bustling street markets and skyscrapers of the capital, Taipei, to the vast forests and mountains, birds are everywhere. Black Bulbuls sit on every wire, the white blobs at the side of every patch of water turn out to be Little or Intermediate Egrets and Japanese White-eyes flit through the trees overhead. But it’s the endemics birders come to Taiwan for – there are 15 of them and we managed to see most.
Trickiest of all were the pheasants – Mikado and Swinhoe’s. It was really too late in the year for good views of these elegant birds and a couple of fleeting glimpses at the side of the road on some hair-raising mountain passes were all we managed.
The mountains, largely covered in thick forest, offer a break from the smothering humidity of the lowlands – but not much. It’s still pretty warm. Up in the highlands you encounter a more traditional way of Taiwanese life, but there are still modern flourishes that have spread up from the big cities below. Many of the mountain areas are hugely popular with Taiwanese tourists, so there are plenty of facilities along the winding roads – just try not to look down if heights make you a bit giddy.
It was at one roadside stop that a particularly tame Plumbeous Redstart obligingly posed for the photo above. Another obliging bird was the endemic White-whiskered Laughingthrush and by the end of our stay, these subtly coloured babblers became so commonplace they were dismissed as “another laughingthrush”. One endemic that failed to lose its charm, though, was the Taiwan Yuhina, a Crested Tit-like bird that I could have watched for hours. Crested Tit isn’t the only bird with a Taiwanese lookalike, the endemic Flamecrest is a dead ringer for a Firecrest and just as captivating.
We saw more than 100 species, from Crested Goshawk to Malayan Night Heron, Pacific Swallow to Vinaceous Rosefinch. Birds too good not to mention, like Beavan’s Bullfinch, Taiwan Sibia, Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler, Steer’s Liocichla, Taiwan Fulvetta, Crested Serpent Eagle… But there’s only room for one more bird, and it has to be the last one we ticked on our search for endemics: Formosan Magpie. Black head, red bill, deep purple-blue body with a ridiculously long tail – I’ll never underestimate a Magpie again.
Factfile: It helps to have someone with you who knows their way around. Although English is widely spoken, not knowing the local language can still be a real barrier. You’ll want to see as many birds as you can, so a guide is almost essential. When you’re there, make sure you visit the night markets, especially on Beigan, where the food is simply incredible. If you love seafood, you’re in for a treat. For more information, visit: www.taiwan.net.twGetting there: EVA Air flies from London Heathrow to Taipei via Bangkok seven times a week. Book through www.evaair.com Useful websites: www.birdingintaiwan.com