A quick visit to Qigu revealed many of the species seen there last weekend, with the notable additions of Curlew Sandpiper, Eurasian Curlew, Little Tern, and a splendid Purple Heron.
Between Tainan and Qigu, I stopped briefly at a small but promising-looking wetland which lies right next to the road and is easily viewed from the northbound carriageway of Highway 17. Among big numbers of the common ducks and herons were at least 20 Avocets and a single Black-faced Spoonbill. Just a stone’s throw to the north, a pitifully small remnant of mangrove habitat has been set aside as a nature preserve complete with viewing platforms and screens; one imagines it was a compulsory concession funded by local factories. 2 Yellow Bitterns and plenty of roosting Black-crowned Night Herons were the best birds here.
Finally, just south of Tainan, again alongside Highway 17, another small wetland is worth a quick look when passing through. Today, this one held perhaps 30 Avocets, at least 4 Northern Pintail, and 2 Marsh Sandpipers among good numbers of commoner species.
Kaohsiung’s weather is often beautiful in winter, with clear blue skies every day and pleasant temperatures, warm enough for T-shirts (23-24C) in the daytime and dropping to a pleasantly cool 15-16C in the evenings. However, the by-products of local and nearby mainland Chinese heavy industry, the fumes from a million scooters, and the almost total lack of rainfall between November and April, combine to create air pollution in the lowlands and foothills that can frequently verge on the harmful.
A good way to escape the perpetual smog is to head to the high mountains at every opportunity. But when I awoke this morning, a surprise was in store – the air in downtown Kaohsiung was crystal clear. So clear that inland mountains, some 50km to the east, were actually visible. This is a rare event in winter, and the drive to Tengjhih was very pleasant. One can only imagine how beautiful the landscapes of southern Taiwan used to be before very recent times, before industry and “progress” took their toll on the land and the air.
I walked the full length of the blue trail today, which descends a fair way into the valley before climbing back up to reconnect eventually with the brown trail. The habitat becomes a little more patchy and degraded lower down, and was accordingly less rich in bird life than the higher trails. Nonetheless, wherever a damp, shady corner presented itself, there was often something good to be seen: frequent White-tailed Robins, a single Collared Bush Robin, and a pair of Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge.
One such shady corner, just before the brown trail, held both a Scaly Thrush and a Red-flanked Bluetail (the latter a Taiwan tick for me).
Close by was another surprise: a party of 8 Brown Bullfinches feeding on tree buds. This is my first record of this species at Tengjhih, and only the second time I have ever seen them in Taiwan. I love how this site continues to reveal new birds on almost every visit …. long may it continue to do so.
Further up, on the roadside near Km 17, a burst water pipe attracted many birds to drink and bathe. Legions of the expected Steere’s Liocichlas, Taiwan Sibias, Taiwan Yuhinas and Rufous-faced Warblers were joined by a handful of Dusky Fulvettas, showing well in the open, giving me my best-ever views of this usually very inconspicuous species (and another first record for my Tengjhih list). Nearby, a Vivid Niltava was a beautiful sight, and a smart Taiwan Whistling-Thrush occasionally showed on a roadside wall.
Rounding off today’s 4 hour visit, I walked slowly back down the road, which was busier than usual today, with cars stopped here and there so their occupants could photograph the beautiful pink blossoms and the mountain views. Flocks of the common species were frequently seen all the way down, with a handful of less common birds, most notably a pair of White-bellied Green Pigeons hidden among the blossoms in some trees below the road. They showed well and I managed a record shot or two with my camera.
This small wetland park lies just to the north of Kaohsiung, in Nanzi district. It was my “local patch” last winter and spring when I first arrived in Kaohsiung, when I visited it at least weekly. This area of ponds, mangroves and scrub between Highway 17 and the sea is potentially an excellent migrant trap, but sadly the whole area is difficult to view; the wetland park itself is somewhat overgrown and access is restricted, and much of the most promising habitat lies on military land and is therefore out of bounds to the general public.
However, some of the pools can be viewed through gaps in the fence, and the mangrove part of the reserve is opened to the public on Sundays. Pied Harrier and Long-toed Stint are both on my Taiwan list thanks to this site, and it’s a good bet for the uncommon Crested Myna, as well as the starling triumvirate of White-shouldered (in winter), Black-collared, and Chestnut-tailed.
The rarer starlings and mynas failed to oblige today, however a number of other interesting species were seen during a 2-hour afternoon visit in cool, sunny weather.
The pool and surrounding marshes next to the factory is a relatively easy spot to view. Pheasant-tailed Jacanas are usually to be seen, and today 4 of them fed delicately in the bright green poolside vegetation. Nearby, two Garganey accompanied a small flock of Common Teal. Heading further west along the road, two male Daurian Redstarts disputed a winter territory in front of the factory gates. At the abrupt end of the road (a wide multi-lane highway comes to a sudden end at the mangroves), an earth mound allows the best opportunity to view the inaccessible military land. Today, a Yellow Bittern offered occasional views in thick vegetation at the edge of a pond, and a flock of 15 Sacred Ibis flew south.
At the eastern edge of the mangroves, just inside the reserve, a narrow ditch runs alongside the path. Surrounded by thick scrub, this damp area is a magnet for wintering passerines. A Korean Bush Warbler gave itself up easily, but an incessantly calling Dusky Warbler took much more patience to obtain good views of. Also in here was a minimum of 4 Brown-headed Thrushes quietly feeding in the leaf litter, and a splendid male Black-naped Monarch.
Finally, I skirted the perimeter fence of the military land, peering through the occasional gap to see plenty of common herons and wintering wildfowl. This area has a lot of potential for migrants and rarities, but it’s frustrating that so little of it is accessible or easily viewable. However, it’s well worth a couple of hours in winter, and I will try and visit regularly.
On Sunday morning I headed to the marshes of Qigu, which lie close to the coast to the north-west of Tainan, about an hour and a half’s drive away from my home in Kaohsiung.
The area is a sprawling mess of fish-farms, wet and dried-out ponds, riverside farmland, and some remaining protected marshes which form the core of the rare Black-faced Spoonbill’s wintering grounds.
My first port of call on arrival was the Black-faced Spoonbill visitor center, where telescopes are usually trained on the rather distant spoonbills. The area holds several thousand Black-faced Spoonbills in winter – the majority of the world’s population – but today there were only about 15 individuals visible from the center, roosting far away on the mudflats.
An excellent way to view this large, flat area – and see plenty of birds – is by bicycle. However, it’s a bit far to cycle here from Kaohsiung, so today I drove my motorcycle around the perimeter of the large lagoon visible from the Black-faced Spoonbill center. It was gratifying to see plenty of shorebirds enjoying the favorable feeding conditions on the reserve, with thirteen wader species seen on or around the big lagoon, but if I’d had a telescope I would surely have seen a lot more; through binoculars, the majority of the more distant wader flocks had to remain mostly unidentified.
Continuing south along the western shore of the marsh, the road eventually turns inland again and follows the north bank of the Tsengwen River. A service road along the top of the flood wall allows for easy viewing of the rather degraded farmland and ponds alongside the river. Much of the habitat along here has been altered or destroyed by earthmoving equipment, no doubt to the great detriment of the birds. I did however see a few of the expected open-country species along here, including Oriental Skylark, Long-tailed Shrike, Richard’s Pipit, and Grey-throated Martin.
Returning to regional road 173, I headed east to Madou, then continued east on the 171. A fork in the road is clearly signposted to the Pheasant-tailed Jacana center; turn left here and continue to the center which is on the right after about 1km. As it turned out, I didn’t have to drive more than 50 yards from the intersection before I saw a group of perhaps 10 Pheasant-tailed Jacanas in a wet field close to the road. They are still rare birds in Taiwan but seem to be doing quite well at this location, thanks to conservation efforts.
The conservation area itself is surprisingly small, consisting of a short loop trail with several hides and viewing blinds overlooking shallow ponds covered in floating vegetation. It’s a pleasant place to while away an hour or two, and I saw a few nice birds here including an Emerald Dove on the path, a drake Garganey, a Chinese Pond Heron, good numbers of Wood Sandpiper, Common Snipe and Common Teal, and of course more Pheasant-tailed Jacanas.
The ponds potentially hold Greater Painted Snipe, as well as wintering Pin-tailed and possibly Swinhoe’s Snipe, but without a telescope I just couldn’t see enough detail on the snipes to realistically try and separate them. But the general size and structure of the birds I saw pointed to most, if not all, of them being Common Snipe.
So all in all, a good day’s birding, but the moral of the story is that I really need a telescope to get the best from wetland sites like these. Now I have to decide whether to buy a new scope here, or have my old one sent over from the UK …..
The promise of another clear, crisp winter’s day lured me once again to the mountains. I was on the road by 7.30am, pausing for a delicious Latte at my usual 7-11 in Meinong. I realised that I must stop here a lot, as the girl in 7-11 remembered my order. Next time, she’ll be brewing my coffee as soon as she sees me pull up outside.
Just outside Liugui, a quick stop was required when I spotted some large raptors overhead. They turned out to be Crested Serpent Eagles, 4 of them, spiralling up in the first thermals of the day. Shortly before the turning to Tengjhih, I had to stop again, this time for an Oriental Honey Buzzard gliding overhead. What a day for raptors it was already turning out to be.
On the road up to Tengjhih, I stopped at Km 5, just before the new bridge. I’ve got new, bright Kawasaki green rim tape on the wheels of my black Ninja, and I wanted to get some photos in the strong morning sunlight while the bike was still clean. There was a big flock of Japanese White-eyes here, and with them – moving through the bushes in characteristically heavy and sluggish fashion – was a single Arctic Warbler. A Crested Serpent Eagle was calling and later seen, and there was a beautiful blue male Black-naped Monarch here, too.
I parked in my usual spot, near the open-air market in the village at Km 14.5. The trail was quiet at first, but a bird perched on a bare treetop branch turned out to be a White-bellied Green Pigeon, a useful year tick. Today was undoubtedly the day of the Crested Serpent Eagle – a group of 4 more of them appeared, calling loudly, making a total of 9 seen today. Briefly accompanying them overhead was a Besra, a Taiwan tick for me. The usual feeding flocks of Taiwan Yuhinas, Taiwan Sibias and Steere’s Liocichlas were easy to find today, the yuhinas seeming to be particularly attracted to the beautiful pink tree blossoms that were in evidence at many spots along the trail. I took a slightly different route for a while, turning left and taking the green trail through some tea plantations, where the bird numbers were lower but did include at least 2 Korean Bush Warblers showing intermittently in an overgrown field.
Today’s highlight occurred on a short section of the blue trail. The vegetation here is unusually green and lush, and the bushes have been cut back along the trail to create a shady, damp, short-grass verge in places. It’s a reliable spot for White-tailed Robin, and I have also seen Collared Bush Robin here (but not today). My prize bird today was a Taiwan Shortwing, feeding unconcernedly out in the open on the verge, my best-ever views of this normally very retiring species. Naturally, it hopped away every time I almost got a photo of it.
Several hundred meters further on, just after the start of the brown trail, another bird feeding on the verge turned out to be a female-type Siberian Rubythroat – another excessively skulking bird that very rarely shows in the open. A great Taiwan tick for me, and a useful year tick … who knows if I will get the chance to see another one of these enigmatic birds this year.
As it turned out, I saw another Siberian Rubythroat rather sooner than expected …. a first-winter male (with shades of pink on the throat) by the first wooden platform rest area. It didn’t show quite as well as the first bird, but two Siberian Rubythroats showing openly on the same walk is exceptional indeed. Usually, these birds are of the often-heard-but-virtually-never-seen variety.
The now-expected Black Eagle showed near the summit, plus two fly-through Asian House Martins, while a Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler popped out of the bushes in response to my “pishing” calls – this species (and Taiwan Fulvetta) are both reliably summoned in this way.
The descent back to the village on the red trail was quiet until I had almost reached my bike, when a pair of beautiful Grey-chinned Minivets caught my eye, followed by the appearance of a large mixed feeding flock. At least 20 Black-throated Tits and two Green-backed Tits could mean only one thing …. that a Yellow Tit was in the flock somewhere! And, sure enough, there it was. It would be strange to come to Tengjhih and not have at least one sighting of this rare endemic, which seems to be very reliable here.
Driving slowly down the mountain, a Crested Goshawk on a roadside pole, and a female Plumbeous Redstart at Km 10 completed an excellent Tengjhih trip.
Sunday morning saw me gladly leave Kaohsiung City’s smog blanket behind and head once again to the mountains around Wutai, which is a mere 90-minute drive from my home in the city but it might as well be in another world.
When entering the Wutai mountains via their sole access point on Highway 24, all visitors have to stop and sign in at a checkpoint, presumably because of the increased danger posed by the high risk of landslides in the area. Engineers work ceaselessly to shore up the road and stop further disastrous slides down the mountain, in an endless struggle against the forces of nature. At one point, the highway – the only connection these remote villages have to the rest of the world – tapers to a single lane dirt track wide enough for only one car, with a sheer cliff on one side and a steep drop on the other.
Of course, all of this adds to the Wutai area’s feeling of isolation and remoteness – in other words, the perfect antidote to a hard-working week in the city!
Despite the clear, sunny weather, the birds weren’t very obliging today. A walk down to the abandoned village revealed only a Vivid Niltava and a Daurian Redstart, which are both lovely birds but with almost nothing else seen – apart from a fly-over House Swift – it all felt rather slow.
I continued down the mountainside a little beyond the abandoned village, on an overgrown trail through disused gardens and allotments. It looked a good area for buntings, and indeed I heard a Black-faced Bunting calling somewhere but didn’t manage to see it.
Returning to the dirt road, I walked for a few hundred yards past the scree slopes, scanning the rocks below the road for the slim chance of locating a roosting Savanna Nightjar. I didn’t feel like risking a scree-slope scramble today, which was an effective and adrenalin-charged way of locating three of the birds when I was here just after Christmas. If I’m still without Savanna Nightjar for the year list in a few weeks, I’ll pluck up the courage to try it again.
Just before arriving in Wutai village, when approaching from the west, is a clearly signposted left turn to Dawu. Today I took this road down to the river bridge, where I parked and nearby quickly found two Collared Finchbills in what seems to be a reliable area for them (I also saw this species on my only previous visit to the same spot a couple of weeks ago). There were also several noisy but skulking groups of Taiwan Scimitar-Babblers which evaded all attempts to photograph them. It was good to see a very smart male philippinensis Blue Rock Thrush here, while the ever-attractive Black-eared Kites were almost constantly in the sky overhead.
I then tried to drive all the way to Dawu, which I could see far below me nestled next to the river with some promising-looking agricultural land around it (Russet Sparrow in mind). The condition of the road varied from OK to horrible. I was still quite a few steep switchbacks above Dawu when I decided to turn back, a Kawasaki Ninja definitely not being the right kind of bike to attempt this road on. I shall either have to return here on a scooter, or better still, walk down to Dawu and bird along the way.
We drifted south on the 185 from Maolin to Sandimen, negotiating road works and hundreds of half-marathon runners, before joining Highway 24 and making our way deep into the mountains towards Wutai. Near Sandimen, an emergency stop was required when we spotted an adult Black Eagle soaring close to the road; in keeping with sightings of some other birds this winter, I was surprised to see this montane species so low down at probably only a couple of hundred meters above sea level.
A few raptors were in evidence around Wutai village, with Black-eared Kites omnipresent around the surrounding hills, and a pair of Crested Serpent Eagles seen. The abandoned village turned up few birds except for a splendid male Daurian Redstart. The villages along this road are good for Oriental Turtle Dove, and about 5 were seen. I also spent some time looking for Russet Sparrow but to no avail. This is a rare bird in Taiwan and one that I have never seen, even when I lived in Korea. It’s turning into a major gap on my East Asian list and one I am getting more and more desperate to see.
Last weekend, I saw and photographed several Savanna Nightjars on a steep scree slope beyond the km44 marker on Highway 24. Today we didn’t have time to revisit the area, but I will for sure be heading there again in the next few weeks – watch this space!
My best-ever birding trip to Maolin showed how incredibly rich in birds the trail behind the De-En Gorge guesthouse can be. There was scarcely a dull moment during a 3-hour mid-afternoon walk around the heavily-forested 4km-long loop, with birds abundant most of the way. The final kilometer of the circuit (when walked clockwise) is a fairly reliable area for Taiwan Blue Magpie. I’ve seen them on 2 of my last 3 visits to this area, and today a pair duly obliged to the delight of my girlfriend for whom it was a “lifer”. My personal highlight was a Plain Flowerpecker calling loudly and showing well in a tree beside the trail, a new Taiwan bird for me and an excellent bird to get on the year list. A Scaly Thrush, an Emerald Dove, a Malayan Night Heron, five separate groups of Taiwan Bamboo-Partridges close to the trail, and a good scattering of Maroon Orioles and Vivid Niltavas rounded off a great afternoon’s birding.
The next morning I was out at first light, and thrushes were much more in evidence than they had been the previous afternoon, with Brown-headed Thrush showing well, a Pale Thrush making an appearance, and many other thrushes remaining unidentified as they slipped away among the trees or were glimpsed in flight. The latter (downhill) part of the trail was the most productive today, with a pair of the ever-skulking Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babblers showing briefly, a Malayan Night Heron flushed, and lots of big, colorful birds (Maroon Orioles, Taiwan Barbets, Black Bulbuls, Grey-chinned Minivets, Taiwan Sibias and Grey Treepies) feeding on fruits in the treetops. The best birds of the day awaited me close to the stream at the bottom, where I flushed a splendid male Taiwan Thrush which perched in the open for a few moments on a bare branch before disappearing into the forest. Then, incredibly, another male Taiwan Thrush popped up, followed by a probable third bird seen briefly. I guess this particular little group has forsaken their usual haunts higher in the mountains in favor of a winter stay in the Maolin Valley. They are rare birds in Taiwan and always tough to get to grips with, therefore an excellent bird for the year list and one I may struggle to see again all year.
Close to the De-en Gorge, I came across a group of at least 7 Taiwan Blue Magpies, which were their usual mix of curious and wary. They are truly comical to watch in flight, as their tails appear impossibly long and heavy. I wonder how many Taiwanese have never seen one of their famous national birds, despite it being readily available to see within easy reach of several major cities?
All in all, a fantastic couple of days in Maolin which has really seen the year list off to a flying start. It’s a perfect spot for some winter birding, and the De-En Gorge guesthouse is a great place to stay with a friendly welcome and excellent local food.
A Crested Goshawk was an unusual sight, soaring high over the Love River near the Jhonghua Road bridge. Asian Glossy Starling, Black-crowned Night Heron and Common Magpie were among the other urban species that found their way onto the year list this week. Brown Shrikes are very numerous as usual this winter, present in every park and patch of waste ground.
What better way to start the New Year than to take an early-morning drive out to the wonderful and little-visited Tengjhih National Forest? This morning dawned cool and crisp, and it was a pleasure to wrap up in multiple layers and still feel a delicious chill in the air as I cruised out of Kaohsiung on the Ninja. The national holiday today, coupled with a national hangover for most people, meant that traffic was extremely light. A quick stop at Liugui’s 7-11 for coffee, then the air temperature fell still further as I climbed the minor road into the mountains.
Among the first birds to greet me as I stepped off my motorcycle, right at the edge of the village, was a Yellow Tit in a small mixed feeding flock. This is an uncommon and difficult-to-find endemic of Taiwan’s mountains, but the Tengjhih area has been fairly reliable for them so far this winter. As often seems to be the case, it was accompanied by several Green-backed Tits and Black-throated Tits. The first section of track revealed a good selection of the usual birds here, including Taiwan Yuhina, Taiwan Sibia, Rufous-faced Warbler and Rufous-capped Babbler.
Things then went rather quiet as I proceeded along the trail, but a White-tailed Robin in its usual spot in a damp corner was a welcome year tick, and the abundant Steere’s Liocichlas were frustratingly active and skulking as usual. Behind one of the rest platforms, three Yellow-bellied Bush Warblers skulked in bamboo but responded well to “pishing”. This was my first record of this high-altitude species for this site in my five visits since the beginning of the winter; I think they must have recently descended as the weather gets colder higher up.
Not many birds on the back part of the loop, either: there was no sign of last week’s White-bellied Green Pigeons, and unusually little in the way of feeding flocks although several Taiwan Scimitar-Babblers showed themselves, and a Vivid Niltava was my first record for this site.
Overall, a quiet visit but I was pleased to get the tricky Yellow Tit under the belt for the year.