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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2024 Narrative

Da Syue Shan Kilometre 23. It doesn’t sound much – and it’s barely a bend in the road but there’s something about this particular stretch that makes it THE best place on the planet to see Swinhoe’s Pheasant. And boy did we see Swinhoe’s Pheasant! And our first White-bellied Green Pigeon, Rufous-faced Warbler, Black-throated Bushtit, several mesmerizing flocks of Taiwan Yuhinas, White-eared Sibia, Steere’s Liocichla and Vivid Niltava…all at Da Syue Shan Kilometre 23. The birds there are clearly habituated to people and were almost oblivious to our presence, but it took us a while to see the magnificent male Swinhoe’s Pheasant that eventually put on such an impressive show. We’d go on to see another four Swinhoe’s but this was our first encounter with this spectacularly multicoloured gamebird and it came as no surprise that it won the end of trip ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll. It pipped the equally exquisite Fairy Pitta by just one point and the exotic Mikado Pheasant (Taiwan’s National bird and a previous winner of the end of tour poll) by a remarkable 14!

Da Syue Shan with its old growth, mossy forests and great on-site infrastructure is a fabulous area to visit on a birding tour. Holding most of the island’s specialities we were fortunate, despite the weather’s best efforts, to see the majority of them in our one-and-a-two-half days there. But that’s not where the tour started as we began our group birding in a tiny, but superb, urban park in downtown Taipei – a park that yielded our first Taiwanese endemic, Taiwan Barbet, within seconds of entering and followed that with equally enchanting looks at a pair of Black-necklaced Scimitar Babblers, nesting pairs of both Malayan Night Herons and Black-naped Monarchs, lengthy studies of a perched Crested Goshawk and our first migrant of the tour in the shape of a cooperative Arctic Warbler. We’d move on from that park to another where we’d see the hoped-for Taiwan Blue Magpie, and another insanely cooperative Malayan Night Heron.

Our good fortune with the birds (less so with the inclement weather) continued throughout the entire tour, and Day 2 in Taiwan saw us add Mikado Pheasant, Yellow Tit, the first of many insanely singing Yellow-bellied Bush Warblers, our first Taiwan Bush Warbler as well as both Rufous-crowned and White-whiskered Laughingthrushes, Flamecrest, and a confiding Ashy Wood Pigeon. It wasn’t all plain sailing however – we heard, but didn’t see, the ever-elusive Taiwan Partridge (no surprise there) and heard, but didn’t see, a pair of Taiwan Fulvettas. Fortunately, we’d go on to rectify both those failings on a later date…

We’d see more Taiwan Bush Warblers and White-whiskered Laughingthrushes at Da Syue Shan the following morning as well as our first Taiwan Cupwing and the equally imaginatively named Taiwan Shortwing before bad weather forced us lower and into the hands of some stunning Rusty Laughingthrushes. That day’s other highlights included several very obliging White-backed Woodpeckers and a pair of Taiwan Barwings.

We abandoned Da Syue Shan to the low cloud and rain that had set in early the following morning. We stopped again on the lower slopes just outside the park – had great looks at a singing Oriental Cuckoo and multiple more Whistling Green Pigeons but failed to find the site’s hoped for Taiwan Hwamei or Striped Prinia – just more rain – and LOTS of it! Moving on, our next destination, via a stop where Mr Mao, our experienced driver, bought us a massive box of ice-creams, was Baxianshan. That site soon yielded its primary avian prize: four Chestnut-bellied Tits in a mixed species flock with several White-bellied Erpornis and Grey-chinned Minivets. The tit, previously a subspecies of Varied, has quite rightly been adopted as that sanctuary’s emblem – and who could criticise them for that, they’re gorgeous…Only a few of us were lucky enough to also glimpse a Taiwan Bamboo Partridge as we were leaving but everyone saw the Brown Dipper. On again, our next stop was the Dizhangyuan temple on the edge of Puli. Surrounded by lowland forest, it’s a great site for the attractive endemic species of Maroon Oriole and we were lucky enough to find two birds within a few minutes of arriving. Shortly after that we were treated to looks at an unusually cooperative Taiwan Hwamei and two more Chinese Bamboo Partridges!

The following morning, we moved still higher, driving from Cingjing up the Hehuan Shan Pass where our first Taiwan Bullfinches, a pair, waited to greet us. More White-whiskered Laughingthrushes entertained during breakfast while two summit-loving Alpine Accentors and our only Taiwan Rosefinches of the tour performed brilliantly.

Our ground agent has to be applauded for the speed he rejigged our itinerary in light of the magnitude 7.4 earthquake that hit eastern Taiwan just two weeks before our trip. Hastily rescheduling, he dropped the no-longer safe drive down through the Taroko Gorge taking us, once we’d seen most of the day’s target species, back to Cingjing and then south down the island’s busy west coast. Disappointed as we were at not being able to drive through the spectacular Taroko Gorge it was obvious to all the weather was sufficiently bad with heavy rain and low cloud that the views of much of it wouldn’t have been great.

Heading south we even found time to explore a river mouth immediately south of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second city. Highlights there included our first Black-faced Spoonbills, an appealing variety of shorebirds and terns and a nice party of White-shouldered Starlings. Despite what was easily the tour’s longest drive we made it smoothly south to Hengchun, arriving just before seven. And thus it continued – we kept finding the birds and moving on, finding the birds and moving on, often via another 7-ELEVEN and another ice cream…

The following morning we took the ferry across to Lanyu, or Orchid, Island – but not before we’d been treated to another vocal Savanna Nightjar right outside our hotel. The two-hour ferry ride was calm but still produced a modest number of birds: a flock of 25 Red-necked Phalaropes, six Streaked and three Sooty or Short-tailed Shearwaters, a single Bulwer’s Petrel and perhaps most surprising of all, a fly-past Common Kingfisher! The following afternoon’s boat journey back was disappointingly much quieter but Lanyu Island itself was superb!

Spending just over one full day actually on Lanyu we had plenty of time to explore the beaches, forests and shoreline of this fabulous tropical paradise and were soon enjoying views of Brown-eared Bulbuls as well as our first Whistling Green Pigeon, Lowland White-eye and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher. We even managed to stumble across a daytime hunting Elegant Scops Owl of the endemic botelensis form. Philippine Cuckoo-dove took a deal more finding but even then, we didn’t have to wait very long! The inclement weather had made it tough for birds to migrate and the island was thronged with egrets (we estimated 5000 Eastern Cattle Egrets on the morning of 27 April), Brown Shrikes, Blue Rock Thrushes and Eastern Yellow Wagtails being particularly well represented. Other oddities included three Chinese Egrets, a Siberian Sand Plover, our first Red-necked and Long-toed Stints, a pandoo Blue Rock Thrush, two Grey-streaked Flycatchers, one Red-throated and six Pechora Pipits and a single Japanese Sparrowhawk and Grey-faced Buzzard caught up in the movement of at least 400 Chinese Sparrowhawks. Rarities included a Chestnut-cheeked Starling and what we took to be a Germain’s Swiftlet…

Once back on the main island’s west coast our focus shifted to waders - but not before we’d added Styan’s Bulbul to our lists! Over the following couple of days we were blessed with repeated studies of some of East Asia’s most sought-after species of shorebird with decent numbers of Siberian Sand and even a couple of Greater Sand Plovers, several gorgeous Sharp-tailed, Terek and large numbers of Broad-billed Sandpipers, Great Knot, Grey-tailed Tattlers Long-toed and Red-necked Stints (we even managed to find three Little Stints, another Taiwanese rarity, among a party of Red-necks). Quite a haul!

After some more superb coastal shore birding the following morning we moved, via a site for Pheasant-tailed Jacana, back inland and on to the Firefly Homestay…We’d failed to connect with Taiwan Partridge at Da Syue Shan and the homestay’s famous bird blind offered our next best shot. Surprisingly, and for the first time ever on a WINGS tour, the species didn’t show during our afternoon visit but four birds did (for most but sadly not all of the group) the following morning. That gave us time to move on again and explore the higher elevation forest around Tataka, Alishan  – always a superbly birdy area. We soon added Golden Parrotbill and White-browed Bush Robin and cleaned up our encounters of Collared Bush Robin, Taiwan Fulvetta and Taiwan Bullfinch.

Our last major port of call was Pillow Hill where, as one member of the group put it, we ‘had a date with a Fairy’. We lucked in – the torrential rain we’d encountered during our descent from Tataka down to Douliou had stopped and boy did the Pitta perform – sitting right up, surely a full 12 metres or more off the ground, frozen, calling occasionally and ‘in the scope’ for the best part of ten minutes. It rained hard again the following morning (we’d had bad, bad, bad weather with LOTS of rain weather almost throughout our trip) but having hastily rescheduled, we headed out a few hours later than originally planned. Bagging another Fairy Pitta as well as two more Maroon Orioles, several Collared Finchbills and umpteen Bronzed Drongos we’d had a productive morning but, all too soon, it was time to head back to Taipei.

While the endemic fauna of this fascinating island is certainly the key attraction for many visiting birders they’re far from the entire picture. Other of the island’s diverse avian delights that we revelled in included Fairy Pitta – a bird as beautiful in life as its name suggests; the uncomfortably rare, but increasing (for now at least) Black-faced Spoonbill; no less than seven, often incredibly confiding, Malayan Night Herons; a remarkable 29 species of shorebird including such east Asian delights as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Great Knot and Oriental Pratincole. And then there was the Ryukyu Scops Owl and the massive flocks of egrets and Eastern Yellow Wagtails on enchanting Lanyu Island, the prolonged looks at our first Yellow Bittern, the inquisitive Golden Parrotbills, nesting Oriental Pratincoles or the exceptional performances from several Island Thrushes… So many highlights – and these are just a selection of the ornithological ones.

- Paul Holt 

Created: 09 May 2024