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!

Birdwatching in Texas

By Stuart Winter

Seeing the Rio Grande snaking its silvery, glistening way into view through gnarled mesquite trees for the first time leaves a surprising sense of disappointment.

Grande as in grand? Any thought that Texans don’t go in for hyperbole in a state of superlatives, where ranches are bigger than some European countries and humungous steaks are almost the size of our cows, is shot down faster than gunslinger on the draw. The Rio Grande may well have been enshrined in Western folklore by John Wayne, but this languid, lazy river with its necklace of resacas is certainly no Mighty Mississippi.

Watching it meander slothfully towards the sea, you can easily skim a stone from the United States on to Mexican soil across a mirrored surface that reflects perfect images of the countless birds continually traversing this most famous of international borders.

Brightly coloured kingfishers and orioles, majestic hawks and herons, dazzling jays and flycatchers… There’s hardly a second when birds are not flitting hither and thither over unhurried waters without a flinch from immigration officials.

That’s when it suddenly dawns. Whoever named the river must have been a birder. The Rio Grande is certainly one of the grandest places I have ever focussed binoculars.

American birders' paradise

A quick look at a map of the United States soon shows why the Lower Rio Grande Valley has such a special place in American birders’ hearts. The Stars and Stripes fluttering by the roadsides denote this southernmost tip of the Lower 48 is as American as mom’s apple pie, yet the subtropical climate and vegetation mean the birds are as Mexican as tequila and tortillas.

Little wonder so many people from every state of the Union make annual migrations to the region to bask in the glory of the most eagerly-sought birds on the American Birding Association checklist. Last November I joined their journey to the Deep South.

There is certainly no better way to embrace TexMex species in all their colourful grandeur than by participating in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Admittedly nowhere near large as the British Birdfair in terms of marquees and sideshows – its seminars and stands are concentrated in a civic building in the city of Harlingen, a few miles north of the river – the festival, however, does everything to maintain the classic Texan credo of making things big and awesome.

ts field trips and the stellar array of top names leading these tours from the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico way upriver into the Rio Grande’s arid reaches are the stuff of legend. Ask anyone who saw the 2013 Amazon Kingfisher…

Last November’s glossy official programme listed more than 40 excursions over an action-packed, five-day agenda, giving participants of all experiences not only the chance to rub shoulders with the cream of American birding illuminati but also watch them deliver an endless stream of the region’s most highly sought species.

Among the top names starring on the programme for the 22nd annual RGVBF were John Dunn, author of the seminal work on American warblers; acclaimed photographer Kevin Karlson and super twitcher Greg Miller, whose alter ego was played by actor Jack Black in the The Big Year, Hollywood’s take on American twitching. There was also “one of our own” – British expat Julian Hough, who lives in Connecticut and has become a leading light on the American birding scene.

It was Julian who helped introduce me to some of the Rio Grande’s most eagerly-sought birds as I worked through a five-day itinerary of field trips that the organisers had customised to help me see most of the valley’s specialities.

Leading a crocodile of birders – or should that be alligator in these parts – along the labyrinthine trails of the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Julian was quickly pointing out birds that had been high on my wish list.

Feisty Great Kiskadees with their bandit masks held us up as they dashed from look-out to look-out. Even brighter Green Jays, a dream for any colouring book fanatic, played tag in denser cover, their striking green and yellow plumage absorbed by the leaf colour. An Altamira Oriole exploded into view in all its fiery glory. Think flying Christmas lights!

Seeing Green Kingfisher

As we made our way out of the riparian forest into open wetlands, Julian served up another Rio Grande delicacy, Green Kingfisher, an emerald gem of a bird but surprisingly easy to over look on a concealed perch. Amid the hubbub of wildfowl and shorebirds, there were much-sought Least Grebes and Mottled Ducks to pick out from the Blue-winged Teal and countless American Coot.

Suddenly, the already buoyant mood went up several notches. Julian was on a Hook-billed Kite. The list hungry Americans went into a frenzy. This was a lifer for many of them, a real doodle-dandy of a bird for those who had travelled from New York, Washington state and California to see Texas’s finest. 

On paddle-like wings, it soared effortlessly over the dense stands of moss-covered ebony trees, avoiding the attentions of a passing Harris’s Hawk, before disappearing from view. The hawk had no doubt found a supply of its favourite food – tree snails.

One day’s Texan birding, a notebook littered with asterisks denoting lifers, and the adventure was only beginning. The Rio Grande’s upper reaches beckoned.

Two hours upstream of the festival headquarters, Salineno, with its population of 302, is unlikely to feature on many tourist itineraries but for American birdwatchers the views this hummingbird of a hamlet provides over the Rio Grande has made it a place of legends. The dusty shoreline is pock-marked with tripod feet and engrained in the memories of all those have made a pilgrimage here over the years to see truly wild Muscovy Ducks. I had to make do with three species of kingfisher.

Belted and Green were quickly under the belt but a copper-breasted Ringed Kingfisher, a brash, bruiser of a bird that has “gone large” with the bill order, was simply mesmerising as it disintegrated the Rio Grande’s tranquil somnolence with its raucous calls.

Zone-tailed Hawk

A soaring Zone-tailed Hawk, shining out amid a huge flock of Black Vultures, followed by a ghostly Grey Hawk, quickened the pulse to such an extent that some people needed a sit down.

There was only one place in town: the nearby winter feeding station with its amphitheatre seating plan to allow perfect viewing of more RG – I was now using the local language – specialities.

Among the ostentatious Green Jays and blazing Altamira Orioles, squabbling over strategically positioned orange slices, diffident Olive Sparrows lurked. A Black-crested Titmouse, a recent split from its Tufted relation, and superb Audubon’s Oriole, another Mexican speciality with a restricted range in Texas, kept the life list rolling.

Cattle country came next. The festival programme’s exhaustive trip itinerary had me venturing into Kleberg County, an agricultural region where the fields providing forage for the famous Texas Longhorn cattle had flooded from some of heaviest rains in living memory. Shorebirds, never waders the other side of the Atlantic, took advantage of a rolling landscape dappled with pools as they arrived fresh from the Arctic tundra.

Peeps – Western, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers – scuttled between the legs of lanky American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Stilt Sandpipers looked on with a suspicious air, wary of any marauding raptors. There were plenty to fear. Northern Harriers seemed to be patrolling every field, outnumbered only by the American Kestrels atop each telephone pole. Crested Caracaras and delectable White-tailed Hawks were a reminder that we were in deepest Texas.

A huge flock of American White Pelicans, numbering at least 5,000 birds, turned the famous Texan “big skies” into a monochrome kaleidoscope with their abstract shapes set in the pale, milky afternoon sky. Only the purple-painted fence posts provided an incongruous dash of colour. The reason for the colour wash was chilling: purple denotes a land owner’s right to shoot first, ask questions later. Worrying, indeed, but it failed to deter the migrating Scissor-tailed Flycatchers from taking up squatting rights on virtually every post.

The days rolled and even though I was enjoying a relentless parade of new birds, the lure of the “twitch” could not be resisted, though it meant a three-hour coach journey to the legendary frontier town of Laredo.

The gunfighters have long gone. Perhaps they were driven out of town by the seedeaters? These birds sure are mean. The Rio Grande’s reedy river margins are the only place in the USA to see White-collared Seedeaters, though even in the thin ribbon of habitat, they are as skulking and secretive as any locustella or acrocephalus warbler. We searched and searched.

Vultures circling

Black and Turkey Vultures circled overhead, sensing we would never emerge from the reeds and would make them a great lunch. A whisper trickled through the group: seedeater showing. I was near enough at the head of the queue to sneak a 10 second ‘scope view. Nondescript bird, certainly, some might even say boring, but such views provide an awesome addition to any fanatical American lister’s collection. We had one happy birding posse.

Even with 20 trans-Atlantic trips under my belt, the RGVBF provided 26 lifers, which included: Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Tropical and Couch’s Kingbirds, a best-by-call identification challenge, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers, Clay-coloured Thrush and remarkably approachable Common Pauraques, although even at a metre’s distance they were so remarkably camouflaged roosting in brushwood close to a trail through the Estero Llano Grande State Park they could have tripped you up.

To mention disappointments would be chary, yet there was one bittersweet moment on the final of the day of the festival when I took one of the Leaders’ Vans Tours staged to help participants mop up any birds still needed.

A Swainson’s Warbler was my target, a dowdy, furtive ground-hugger, unquestionably the most elusive member of America’s most ostentatious family of birds. We arrived at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center full of expectation.

It had just been seen. Emphasis on the past tense. The neighbourhood Loggerhead Shrike looked mightily smug – and somewhat plump. The warbler had provided breakfast. At least the warbler escaped the ignominy of dangling on a shrike larder. A nearby pair of Aplomado Falcons, think pimped up Hobbies, soon soothed any disappointment.

At last autumn’s exchange rates, my choice of five daily field trips ranged in price from £40 to £60 with a small festival registration fee. Considering the cream of American birding accompanies every excursion, the festival cost is great value for money. The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival lives up to its name. I had a grand old time…


Birdwatching attended the Rio Grande Birding Festival, courtesy of Nancy Millar, director of McAllen Convention & Visitors' Bureau – Click here

Access and Accommodation. I flew to McAllen Airport via Houston, an international hub served by British Airways and other major US airlines.

A great place to stay in the valley is at the Alamo Inn B&B, a few minutes’ drive from Santa Ann National Wildlife Refuge. The inn is run by Keith Hackland, a regular exhibitor at the British Bird Fair, and whose warm hospitality, birding knowledge and tireless help made my visit such a success. Click here

For details of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival 2016, click here.