Here are some of the bird photos I’ve managed to grab over the last year since I’ve been living in Taiwan. They are mainly opportunistic shots taken with my Canon G12, and as a result the quality is very variable. Nonetheless, I hope to keep adding to them over the course of the next year.
Today I spent a very enjoyable and productive few hours birding at several locations along both the east and west banks of the Gaoping River. With temperatures hitting 30C (86F) by late morning, and clear smog-free skies, it was as close to a summer day as one can expect in late March.
On the Pingtung (east) side of the river, just north of the old railway bridge, there’s a fast-flowing stretch of river with pools and islands. More or less the first bird I saw was a Lesser Coucal, flying past me then disappearing into a dense patch of scrub, from where it started to sing. This is only the second time I have seen Lesser Coucal in Taiwan, so it was a very useful year tick.
Waders on and around the riverine islands included a Green Sandpiper (year tick), and a lone Marsh Sandpiper, keeping company with plenty of Wood Sandpipers, Common Greenshanks and Black-winged Stilts.
A few hundred meters south, past the railway bridge, a Black-shouldered Kite watched over the grassland from a bushtop.
Getting on the scooter, I drove back across the enormous Gaoping River bridge, then north up the west bank of the river as far as the Railway Bridge Marsh Park. A long and hot walk around the trails produced a Purple Heron and a breeding-plumaged Pheasant-tailed Jacana, but the real highlight was on the return journey close to the railway bridge: 2 singing Golden-headed Cisticolas. Their song is a curious wheeze followed by a “chip” note, which is delivered from a bush or in flight, and I got good views of both singing birds. Finally, one of the “little brown jobs” that had thus far eluded me finds its way to my Taiwan list.
I rounded off an excellent morning by setting up the scope under the bridge to look at the riverine islands, where 4 Long-toed Stints were the best of a small selection of waders.
Golden-headed Cisticola takes its place as my 157th bird species in Taiwan this year, and my 198th in Taiwan overall.
There’s a lot you can do in a day when you don’t have to be at work until 5.30pm. Today, I decided to go to Kenting. The weather forecast was good, and I wanted to get Taiwan Bulbul and perhaps – with luck – a few other species on the year list.
I left my house in Kaohsiung at 6.00am, which was early enough to avoid the worst of the manic rush hour. If you think you’ve seen crazy driving, try hitting the southbound Highway 17 at around 7.15am – as I did on a trip to Dapeng Bay recently – neck and neck with 50,000 scooter commuters all racing to their shifts in the industrial zone.
Another hazard to driving to Kenting on a lightweight scooter is the gusty crosswind along the exposed coastal road south of Fangliao, even on days when it’s calm in Kaohsiung. And it was certainly windy today.
My first stop was somewhere I have never visited before: Sheding Nature Park. Just before Kenting town’s main strip, take a left turn through the archway, and follow the winding road uphill through attractive forested land for about 4km. The trees here resemble giant Bonsai trees, bent into shape by the almost constant winds. The nature park itself has several trails, and pavilions from which migrating raptors can be observed in spring and fall. I walked the main loop trail, hoping to see a Taiwan Green Pigeon, which is regularly recorded here. No pigeons for me today, but the walk was scenic and very enjoyable even though I saw few birds. The only semi-notable species were 4 Brown-headed Thrushes on the meadow at the entrance, a Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler, and plenty of sightings of Taiwan Bulbul.
My next port of call was Taiwan’s southermost point, signposted at a right hand turn just past the Eluanbi lighthouse complex. Even on a Tuesday morning there were plenty of daytrippers here, making the short walk to the point for their photo opportunity by the monument. Almost no birds showed themselves, apart from a lone Black-tailed Gull passing along the shoreline, and of course, many Taiwan Bulbuls in the bushes. I soon got fed up with being asked to take photos of Chinese tourists, so I cut my losses and made my way to Longluan Lake, near Hengchun.
I spent a couple of hours around Longluan Lake, exploring small roads and trails. I drew a blank with Taiwan Hwamei, which is regularly seen here. Quite a lot of effort produced only a Crested Serpent Eagle, 4 Tufted Ducks (year tick), 3 Indian Silverbills (year tick, introduced species in Taiwan), and a marsh that despite its promising appearance held only small numbers of ducks and waders including a drake Garganey and 3 Wood Sandpipers.
By now it was starting to get seriously hot, so I headed back north. One of the best things about driving to Kenting is the excellent Three Fools cafe, on the seaward side of Highway 1 just south of Fangliao (between Km 447 and Km 448). They have good coffee, wonderful smoothies, and a cool and breezy terrace with ocean views. So I stopped for an hour here before resuming my drive back to the city.
We took off to the local mountains for the weekend, in order to make the most of what seems likely to be the last spell of cooler weather before the intense heat and humidity of summer is upon us.
It wasn’t really a birding visit, but naturally I always had my binoculars to hand. The loop trail at Maolin, behind the De-En Gorge guesthouse, produced some of the local specialities including Maroon Oriole, Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge, wintering Yellow-browed Warbler, and distant views of the local flock of Taiwan Blue Magpies.
The next morning, we drove south to Wutai, where a walk down to the abandoned village near Km 45 produced some interesting birds: a flock of 8 Brown Bullfinches, 3 White-bellied Green Pigeons, Collared Finchbill, and a Fork-tailed Swift passing overhead.
Finally, we stopped in Shenshan, just down from Wutai, so the girls could get their shopping fix. Meanwhile, I birded around the village. There was a brief moment of excitement when I finally spotted some sparrows on overhead wires, but disappointingly they turned out to be Tree Sparrows …. therefore my search for the elusive Russet Sparrow continues. Also in the area, plenty of Oriental Turtle Doves and still a few Brown-headed Thrushes around the gardens and allotments.
What I like most about Qigu – apart from having some quality alone time under its big skies looking at big flocks of waders – is that it usually turns up a few oddities on every visit. This is what keeps birding interesting, and this is why a visit to Qigu is almost always worth the tedium of a 3-hour roundtrip scooter ride from Kaohsiung.
Today I focused my attention on the Lighthouse Pools, where the star bird was a smart Black-shouldered Kite. This is a recent colonist from the mainland, and I bird I never tire of seeing, despite having seen hundreds of them (or the almost identical White-tailed Kite) in Europe, Asia and North America. The latest taxonomy favors reverting to its former name of Black-winged Kite, and keeping the name Black-shouldered Kite for the Australian species. However, I am slow to change my habits so out of sheer obstinacy I will continue to refer to the Eurasian species as Black-shouldered Kite in trip reports.
The other star bird of the day was heard-only: a male Ring-necked Pheasant calling from dense vegetation around the northern Lighthouse Pools, then later from the pine and scrub belt on the seaward side of the road there.
While wandering through the scrub trying to get a glimpse of the pheasant, I came across a Korean Bush Warbler and an Oriental Magpie-Robin. There was also an Arctic Warbler calling, but I didn’t see it. This coastal belt of trees will probably repay regular observations during peak migration periods in April and May.
The more open pools directly inland from the lighthouse held little apart from a scattering of common waders, and good numbers of Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias, and Zitting Cisticolas, in the grasslands surrounding the pools. I checked every cisticola carefully, but there was no sign of any Golden-headed Cisticolas – finding one of these is getting to be an obsession.
A few hundred yards inland, a partially drained fish pond held plenty of Dunlin and a minimum of 30 Red-necked Stints, a sign that wader passage is starting to get underway.
From the Black-faced Spoonbill center, about 60 of the star birds were actually visible for once, and at reasonable range, too. Nearby, the Caspian Tern flock was much reduced from my last visit but still held 83 birds. There was a Eurasian Curlew on the mud, and the creek directly in front of the center had a single Terek Sandpiper, perhaps the same overwintering bird I saw in the same area on a previous visit.
Despite the long drive, I will try and visit Qigu regularly in April and May; it’s a great birding area and will surely turn up some really good birds during peak spring migration season.
Two “little brown jobs” (birder slang for small, nondescript brown birds) that have so far eluded me in Taiwan are the Striated Prinia and the Golden-headed Cisticola. Neither is a full endemic species, so they don’t seem to receive a lot of attention in trip reports. As a result, it can be hard to find English-language information about where exactly to look for them.
Most available information suggests that the Striated Prinia is a bird of low hills to mid elevations, where it is found in grassland, scrub and secondary growth. So I headed to just such an area this morning to try my luck, a range of hills north-east of Kaohsiung, bordered by Highway 22 to the south, and Highway 21 and the Gaoping River to the east.
The habitat looked great, and was fairly overflowing with prinias: mainly Yellow-bellied Prinias, and a handful of Plain Prinias, but no Striateds. It wasn’t a wasted trip, as I was fortunate enough to encounter an early migrating flock of Grey-faced Buzzards, numbering around 20 birds. Among many common species here were 2 Taiwan Scimitar-babblers, 2 Rufous-capped Babblers, a female Daurian Redstart, and a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.
I had a hunch that my other target bird, Golden-headed Cisticola, probably occurs in the riverside grassland along the Gaoping River. So I headed south along Highway 21 to check out the Railway Bridge Marsh Park, which covers quite a large area of the west bank of the river directly underneath and to the south of the railway bridges.
A Chinese-language-only sign at the entrance had lots of pictures of birds that one can presumably see in the area, including a tantalising image of a Great Bittern, and – yes! – a picture of a Golden-headed Cisticola. So I optimistically set out through the grasslands, encountering millions of Plain Prinias, but precious little else.
A quick binocular scan revealed a scattering of feeding waders on the riverine islands and sandbars, so I set up my scope for a closer look. Finally, a little luck came my way: at least 8 Temminck’s Stints (Taiwan tick) on the nearest of the vegetated islands, furtively creeping along on the edge of the mud in their charismatic fashion. Nearby, 6 Long-toed Stints occasionally allowed for direct comparison as they wandered into the same scope view. Excellent!
Also here: an Intermediate Egret, 6 Spot-billed Ducks, and the usual assortment of common waders (Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt and Kentish Plover).
So 0 for 2 in terms of my main targets today, but 5 additions to the year list made it a very worthwhile morning and boosted my year’s total so far to 147.
Today I invested a bit of effort into researching the exact location of Cheting Marshes, and discovered that they are in fact a few kilometers to the north of where I spent my time last week. They cover the area inland from where Highway 17 finally starts to run alongside the coast, and are in effect boxed-in by Highway 17 to the south and west.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived, early on a sunny Sunday morning, is the popularity of this site. There were already plenty of photographers in position on the viewing platforms overlooking the marshes, and on the wooden tower which offers panoramic views of the area. Tents and stands were being set up alongside the road, presumably for the Kaohsiung Wild Bird Society, although they still weren’t open by the time I left.
There wasn’t a great deal for the photographers to look at, as the marsh is very dry at the present time. The majority of it is covered with flat, sun-baked mud, probably as a result of the dry season (it hardly rains at all in this part of Taiwan between November and April). Just a few pools remain, close to the viewing tower and at the far western end of the reserve.
I took a short walk along the southern then the eastern shore of the reserve. The most obvious birds were Eastern Yellow Wagtails on the dry ground and among the patches of vegetation; more than 100 were counted. Among them, on the ground or in flight overhead, were a handful of Oriental Skylarks and 3 Red-throated Pipits. On the wires, among the mynas, Tree Sparrows and Black Drongos, I saw 2 Long-tailed Shrikes, 1 Brown Shrike, and a Chestnut-tailed Starling. Grey-throated Martins, and Barn and Pacific Swallows, swooped over the marshes. In the tall grasses resided abundant Plain Prinias and singing Zitting Cisticolas.
In the absence of anything exciting, the photographers were most interested in a large mixed flock of Grey Herons and Great Egrets, whose occasional forays into flight were marked by the loud clicking of camera shutters.
Patches of water here and there produced only Common Teal, Little Grebe, and a smattering of waders: Common Greenshank, Kentish Plover, and a lone Wood Sandpiper.
I drove to the western end of the reserve, where there is a small parking lot. A small group of photographers were hunkered down at the water’s edge to take photos of a Common Kingfisher and a Yellow Bittern; both of these usually shy birds were right out in the open, not more than 15 feet from where the photographers were sitting.
Further away, a deeper channel held plenty of common ducks, including about 20 Garganey. This attractive and uncommon dabbling duck is always good to see; mid-March must be peak passage time for them as they head through Taiwan on their way to more northerly breeding grounds.
Through my telescope, I finally got my only year tick of the morning: a group of 4 Spotted Redshanks preening and roosting among the numerous Black-winged Stilts. Number 142 for the year list.
I called in briefly at Yongan Wetlands Reserve on the way back to Kaohsiung. This is where the Black-faced Spoonbills were hiding today, with more than 80 of them visible from the viewing blind, and not a photographer to be seen!
Dapeng Bay is the largest coastal lagoon in southwest Taiwan, lying close to the town of Donggang in Pingtung County, about 45 minutes drive south of central Kaohsiung.
I had no idea what to expect from the site, but decided to check it out in a few spare hours on Thursday morning. On arrival, the first thing I noticed was the amount of recent development here: a brand new multi-lane road skirting the bay, a big visitor center complex, and a very impressive suspension bridge. There were a few relict mangroves here and there, and one or two natural pools among the fish farms, but my immediate reaction was that this was a once-thriving wetland in the advanced stages of destruction – as is commonly seen in many parts of industrialised east Asia.
Some areas have been designated as “wetlands”, and equipped with boardwalks, signboards and viewing towers, but none of the habitats I viewed seemed extensive enough to support a decent amount of birdlife. One gets the feeling that they are at best small concessions to the environmental lobby in return for large-scale development of the area for tourism. The rather depressing blurb on the Dapeng Bay website says it all: “With a yacht marina, G2 racing car circuit, a gyrocopter club, and other leisure facilities, in the future Dapeng Bay will transform into a world class seaside leisure and vacation destination for visitors from neighboring Asian countries”.
Despite all the metaphorical red flags, I nonetheless explored around the bay a little and found a scattering of waders, most notably about 10 Long-toed Stints, and small numbers of common waders of 12 species including Marsh and Wood Sandpipers and Mongolian Plover. The natural wet areas and abandoned fish farm lakes were generally much more productive for birds than the designated “wetlands”, although a total of 8 Yellow Bitterns seemed rather indiscriminate in their choice of habitats.
I left Dapeng Bay feeling that I would be unlikely to make a return visit, except perhaps as a brief stop sometime in the next few weeks when I head to Kenting to add Taiwan Bulbul and Taiwan Hwamei to the year list.
This winter, Qigu’s Black-faced Spoonbill flock has been dispersing a little more widely than usual, with the result that good numbers are wintering further south in Greater Kaohsiung. Local media has cited disturbance caused by visitors to the Qigu reserve, and changes in the management of the Qigu fish ponds as possible causes.
Today, I went to check out one of the Kaohsiung wintering areas, Cheting (茄萣), which has been the focus of local media attention because of a proposed new road through the middle of the marshes.
Cheting lies to the west of Highway 17, close to the intersection where the northbound 17 turns sharply left and Highway 28 joins from the right. It’s a huge area covered mostly with commercial fishponds, canals, scrub and industrial wasteland. I never did find the “exact” spot for the spoonbills (or at least, nothing that quite resembled the marshland area pictured in the China Post article).
Getting lost has its advantages, however. On a minor road alongside a canal, there were big numbers of White-shouldered Starlings in the bushes, on the ground and on overhead wires. I guessed there were well over 100 birds in the flock. Closer scrutiny revealed at least 6 Red-billed Starlings among their number. This is a scarce winter visitor to Taiwan, and a bird I have only encountered once before on a remote Korean offshore island.
Also in this area were two Crested Mynas among the abundant Javan and Common Mynas, a singing Oriental Reed Warbler, plenty of Common Kingfishers, and a flock of 18 Black-faced Spoonbills passing overhead. I wanted them to land somewhere and reveal the location of the best marshes, but they seemed to overfly the area completely, heading north.
I returned to Highway 17 and headed back south for a few kilometers, as far as a small village, where I turned west again and tried to navigate a large and confusing area of fish ponds. Roads petered out or were blocked by gates, and there were plenty of locals giving me curious stares. There was no sign of any spoonbills or marshes, but there were some interesting birds to be seen: a beautiful summer-plumaged Red-throated Pipit, an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, a Long-tailed Shrike, and a scattering of waders whenever a fishpond had been drained to reveal its muddy basin. These included Common Greenshanks, Black-winged Stilts, a pair of Little Ringed Plovers, and singles of Marsh, Wood and Common Sandpipers and Common Redshank.
My third and final port of call in this extensive area was the Yongan Wetland Reserve, which lies a couple of kilometers west of Highway 17 and is clearly signposted. A small blind offers views across a large, shallow lagoon. There were plenty of birds here, but a rather limited list of species: 16 Black-faced Spoonbills, a Sacred Ibis, 16 Avocets, and plenty of Black-winged Stilts and Eurasian Teal.
Nearby, some flowering trees attracted lots of birds, including a few Chestnut-tailed Starlings. This attractive bird is introduced in Taiwan, and according to the literature, the Kaohsiung area is a good place to look for it.
As I headed home, I speculated on the chances of seeing a fourth starling species today. I must have manifested the appearance of Black-collared Starling because, just a few kilometers further along, I spotted one on the roadside. This large and beautiful starling is a native of south east Asia and has been introduced to Taiwan, but it is uncommon. In the same spot, there were also 2 Crested Mynas on overhead wires, allowing a direct comparison with the far more common introduced Javan Mynas.
So I didn’t find the Cheting wetland today, but the starlings and Crested Mynas provided more than ample compensation, and a good reason to return to the area soon and try again.
Today, I wanted to try out my two latest acquisitions: a new telescope (a Celestron 80mm spotting scope with 20-60x zoom, purchased for a bargain $150 on Amazon), and a scooter, which is a much more practical form of transport for birding than my Kawasaki Ninja. After a bit of fiddling around, I found I could fit not only my scope but also my new tripod under the scooter seat, making for a comfortable ride with only a lightweight pack on my back.
I left Kaohsiung early in the morning and drove north to Qigu, where my cheap telescope and tripod combo faced some unseasonable challenges: cold, windy and gloomy weather. My first stop was the Black-faced Spoonbill visitor center, but unsurprisingly the star birds were sheltering from the wind and were nowhere to be seen. At least there were some waders around: a single Terek Sandpiper (Taiwan tick), and plenty of Mongolian and Kentish Plovers, Common Greenshanks and Dunlins scattered across the mud. The most arresting spectacle, however, was the sight of more than 1,000 Caspian Terns roosting on the sandbar.
Leaving the center, I continued north and west along minor roads and eventually found my way to the Qigu “lighthouse”. This is a promising-looking area of scrub, dunes and pools, right next to the sea, and should be an excellent spot for migrants in April and May.
The best bird here today was a Cinnamon Bittern flushed from a ditch, only my second-ever sighting of this species (and my first in Taiwan). A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron allowed a very close approach, and a Black-faced Bunting (an early migrant?) hung around a patch of scrub. Nearby, mud-fringed pools behind the lighthouse hosted 5 Black-faced Spoonbills, with 2 Pacific Golden Plovers and a scattering of Red-necked Stints among the Dunlin flock. Just to the north, 2 Sacred Ibis were around the fishing harbor.
Given the less-than-ideal weather on the coast, I decided to head inland to the Pheasant-tailed Jacana reserve at Guantian. As soon as I arrived, I immediately spotted a small group of snipe on the left bank of the pool beside the visitor center. Most of them seemed to be Common Snipe, but one bird appeared a little different from the others, with a very wide buff supercilium in a plainer face immediately noticeable. Viewing conditions through the scope were pretty good, and over a period of about 30 minutes I was able to discern most of the ID characteristics of Swinhoe’s Snipe: the wide supercilium and narrow eyestripe, heavy build, and especially the plain buff-brown upperparts (lack of clear “braces”) which contrasted with very reddish-looking tail feathers.
According to the literature, Swinhoe’s Snipe is a regular winter visitor to Taiwan, but rarely does one get a decent opportunity for prolonged observation of snipes at close range which is necessary for a conclusive identification. So it’s a great bird to get onto the list.
There were plenty of other birds to be seen at Guantian. Among large numbers of dabbling ducks including Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Shoveler, and Teal, there were more than 20 Garganey. 15 or so Pheasant-tailed Jacanas roamed the pools, there was a single Chinese Pond Heron, and an Emerald Dove flushed from the path.
The second highlight occurred when I had almost got back to the visitor center. I disturbed a small crake on a tiny muddy pool near the reserve entrance, which ran quickly into cover. I sat and waited and after nearly an hour, just when I was about to give up, a Ruddy-breasted Crake cautiously and very briefly peered out at me – a second lifer for the day capping an excellent visit to Guantian reserve.