This was a trip I’d been anticipating for a long time: an early May visit to Huben in central Taiwan, which is famous for being a reliable breeding area for the globally endangered and declining Fairy Pitta.
The birds return from their wintering grounds in Borneo in late April. They are vocal and conspicuous on their breeding territories until mid-late May, but become quiet and very elusive as the summer progresses. I reckoned I had picked just about the peak weekend for my best chance to see this stunning bird.
I arrived late on Saturday afternoon after an excellent day birding the West Coast wetlands. My first port of call was the Pitta Cafe.
The Pitta Cafe offers accommodation as well as food and drinks; rooms are basic, clean and comfortable and cost just 500NT including breakfast. The owners speak a little English and are well used to birders and their early morning starts – they were willing to make breakfast for me at any time from 4am onwards!
I went to sleep to the sound of a Mountain Scops Owl calling nearby.
The morning dawned grey and drizzly, but a calling Taiwan Hill Partridge in the distance felt like a good omen for the day! I elected to join the promised 6.00am Fairy Pitta-finding activity and it turned out to be an excellent decision. This involved driving with the Pitta Cafe owner for about 10 minutes to Linnei Park, on the outskirts of Linnei township. This is an area of dense, damp lowland forest, prime breeding habitat for Fairy Pittas.
On arrival, at around 6.15am, we were met by some 30 birders, photographers and schoolchildren, all keen for a glimpse of the pitta. This large group walked into the forest, talking loudly all the while, and I was beginning to regret my decision to join the tour. I needn’t have worried – just 5 minutes walk into the forest, everyone suddenly stopped when one of the group leaders disturbed a Fairy Pitta from right next to the path. It flew up into some bamboo and showed fairly well before flying deeper into the forest.
A little further on, a clearing in the forest was being staked out by at least 40 photographers. I waited for about 10 minutes, then suddenly a Fairy Pitta came down to the clearing. It showed extremely well, not bothered at all by the long lenses just 15 feet away from where it hopped around on the ground. It felt like a most unlikely way to see a pitta, which are notorious for being very shy and elusive. Here, they must be well-used to their legions of admirers!
The pitta even indulged in some singing, which was loud enough to not be drowned out by the incessant clicking of the cameras. Well satisfied with this sighting, I returned to the trail, where another Fairy Pitta was calling from a thicket, and at least two further males were heard singing in the general area. It was remarkable how many photographers were in the general area (more than 100!) and how little it seemed to disturb the Fairy Pittas.
The only other bird of note was a Bronzed Drongo, which showed well beside the path:
Fairy Pitta takes my life list to 1,773 species. The pitta plus Asian Dowitcher, Red Knot, Ruddy Kingfisher, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher and Barred Buttonquail, all seen this weekend on the west coast, bring my Taiwan life list to 221 and my 2014 year list to 186 species.