A most unexpected start to a beach and surfing weekend in Taitung County came in the form of an adult female Lesser Frigatebird, which flew directly over us as we drove up Highway 9 on Saturday morning.
At about the Km 400 mark, close to Taimali, I almost ran my scooter off the road in excitement when the unmistakeable silhouette of a frigatebird loomed overhead. It was being mobbed by the local House Swifts as it followed the coastline, heading south.
The frigatebird was quite low overhead and I didn’t even need binoculars to see the diagnostically shaped white breast patch, with a finger of white stretching on to the underside of each wing.
Lesser Frigatebird is a rare summer and autumn visitor to Taiwan, often associated with typhoons. The weather today was clear and sunny, but an offshore typhoon about six days prior to my sighting had produced a lot of rain in southern Taiwan. Perhaps this bird had been caught up in it and was in the process of relocating south?
With plenty of rain forecast for this weekend, I opted out of going to the mountains and instead went with my girlfriend to spectacular Taitung County, on the south-east coast of Taiwan.
It’s just about 4 hours drive from Kaohsiung to our favorite accommodation spot, the wonderful Sea Art Guest House nestled in the hills just to the south of the town of Dulan.
Located around 500 meters above sea level, the Sea Art Guest House is surrounded by lush tropical forest and backed by steep mountainsides. The gardens and surrounding trails are a good place to become acquainted with many of Taiwan’s mid-elevation forest birds.
During breaks in the rain, I spotted the following interesting birds around the garden and along the road leading up to the guesthouse: Maroon Oriole, Bronzed Drongo, Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge, Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler, Taiwan Barbet, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Black Bulbul, Collared Finchbill, Grey Treepie, Black-naped Monarch and Emerald Dove.
At night, several Mountain Scops Owls could be heard calling around the property; unfortunately my attempt to spotlight them was thwarted by heavy rain on the Saturday night. The following night, the owls weren’t calling. I’ve heard this owl on numerous occasions in Taiwan, but have yet to see it ….. and it won’t count on the year list until I do!
Other birds occasionally seen around the Sea Art Guest House – but not by me – include Taiwan Blue Magpie and Swinhoe’s Pheasant.
At lower elevations close to the sea, Taiwan Bulbuls are very numerous here. We also saw a lone Black-naped Tern offshore during a trip up the coast to Chenggong.
Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher c.12 including 2 long-tailed males
Taiwan Green Pigeon 4
Philippine Cuckoo-Dove 1
Lowland White-eye 100s
Brown-eared Bulbul 100s
Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler 1
Emerald Dove 6
Blue Rock Thrush 6
Brown Shrike 1
Pacific Reef Heron 2
Black-naped Tern 1+
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 1+
Streaked Shearwater 1
Brown Booby 2
Enticingly remote Lanyu (Orchid) Island is a must-visit destination for any resident or visiting birder on Taiwan. Number one on most people’s wanted lists is a bird that is increasingly considered to be a true endemic, the Lanyu Scops Owl. The island also holds two species found nowhere else in Taiwan (Philippine Cuckoo-Dove and Lowland White-eye), one breeding species which elsewhere in Taiwan is only a very rare migrant (Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher), one range-restricted bird which is rare on the mainland but which can be easily seen on Lanyu (Taiwan Green Pigeon), and one species that in Taiwan is only found on a trio of remote offshore islands (Brown-eared Bulbul).
These birds are all relatively easily found. The white-eye and the bulbul are abundant everywhere, and the others should be located within a few hours by checking the key sites.
Getting to the island is part of the adventure. There are three ways to do it: by small plane from Taitung airport, or by ferry from Fugang Harbor near Taitung or Houbihu Fishing Harbor near Kenting. Flights are frequently cancelled due to bad weather, and boats delayed or cancelled because of rough seas. Tickets – especially for the plane – often sell out months in advance. The flight is said to be a nerve-racking experience on a windy day. Meanwhile, the ferry crossing over rough seas is known to turn even the strongest stomachs inside out, and the most robust sea legs to jelly.
Not speaking any Chinese makes booking transport to the island even more of a challenge. In addition, I was reluctant to commit to a Lanyu trip too far in advance in case of bad weather. I watched the forecasts like a hawk in the week leading up to the trip, and on Friday night decided it was worth a punt. After about 3 hours sleep (still jet-lagged from my England trip and way too excited about Lanyu), I got up at 3.30am on Saturday, loaded up my scooter and headed out in the dark for the 2-hour drive to Houbihu Fishing Harbor. This boat sails at 7.30am daily and, from what I could ascertain online, only between March and October.
The ferry turned out to be full (that much Chinese I could understand from the guy at the port), but I resolutely refused to understand what he said and kept insisting on one return ticket to Lanyu. Finally, the boat man gave up and sold me a ticket, which was the easiest escape for him. If I’d been traveling as part of a couple or a group, I doubt I would have been that lucky. The money (2,000NT for a return journey) probably went straight into the boat man’s pocket, but I didn’t care, I was on the ferry and heading to Lanyu.
The crossing was sunny and calm, and I bagged a prime spot on the outside deck just behind the cabin. Despite the favorable viewing conditions the sea was barren, with the 2.5 hour voyage producing just four individual birds. Best among these was a dark morph Wedge-tailed Shearwater that flew close alongside the boat for a while. Later, another probable – or maybe it was the same bird – was seen much more distantly. Finally, two Brown Boobies included one flushed from the sea by the boat which I managed to photograph:
I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay on Lanyu, and was prepared to sleep rough if I had to. There are very few hotels on the island; most accommodation is in family-run homestays which get booked in advance especially at weekends by Taiwanese visitors. From the port, I started walking up the road towards the nearest village, but hadn’t gone far before a car pulled up and the American-accented local inside asked me in perfect English if I needed a room. Thanks to this stroke of good fortune, I ended up with a room in a friendly homestay in Yeyin village on the eastern side of the island. I rented a scooter (400NT per 24 hours, Taiwan or international driving licence required) and by mid-morning I was ready to go birding.
Like most birders, I intended to head straight to “Flycatcher Creek” which is known to host all of Lanyu’s special birds. Unfortunately I hadn’t done my homework thoroughly enough and only had a vague idea of its location (I thought it was somewhere on the west coast between the main port village and the airport). I figured it would be obvious when I arrived, but it wasn’t. I did find a rather open gravel riverbed in this area and scrambled inland along it for a few hundred meters, seeing my only Philippine Cuckoo-Dove of the trip, as well as legions of Brown-eared Bulbuls and Lowland White-eyes.
Near the road, I flushed a warbler from an area of rank grass, which revealed a long, broad, slightly fanned tail with white tips before it dived into deep cover again. Later, I flushed it again and had similar brief flight views. From its size, shape, tail pattern and habits it was obviously a locustella, but which one? Rather uniform upperparts and lack of heavy streaking or a noticeably brighter rufous-brown rump ruled out Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. Of the other two likely candidates, Styan’s and Middendorff’s, it would seem that the latter is probably a common migrant through Lanyu (sightings of this bird on the island pop up in other trip reports), albeit under-recorded. It’s also a late bird, with peak migration along the mainland Chinese coast continuing well into June. So I concluded that my bird was almost certainly a Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, not a lifer (I’ve seen one in Korea) but a good find nonetheless.
I continued south, past the airport and through Hongtou village, until I saw a large grassy area on the seaward side of the road. A little further on, a bridge passes over a very deep and heavily wooded gorge, and just past here a small concrete road turns inland. The entrance to the road looks like this:
Fifty meters along this concrete road, just before a bridge, a steep and stone-surfaced path descends to a riverbed. As soon as I arrived, I figured that this was surely Flycatcher Creek, and as if to confirm this thought I had the briefest of glimpses of a Lanyu Scops Owl flying through the treetops just as I stepped off my scooter.
I birded the first 500 meters of this trail (marker posts are handily placed every 100 meters), and saw about 12 Japanese Paradise-Flycatchers at various spots, including two splendid long-tailed males. I was expecting this bird to look good, but wow …. even the finest photos and field-guide plates don’t do any justice to the real thing. It really is a stunner. I also found a nest, and another pair feeding fledged young.
I also found a Taiwan Green Pigeon in the process of nest-building right above the trail, but never got a clear enough view to take a photo. Also along here, I saw about 6 Emerald Doves, mainly in flight along the riverbed but also feeding on the ground.
Having secured all the special birds of the island, and in the case of the owl intending to return after dark for better views, I continued around the island and finally completed a full circuit on my scooter. Lanyu is famous for its rock formations, some of which are truly remarkable, and the scenery in general is stunning. The island has much in common with the Philippines, and certainly felt far removed – not only geographically – from mainland Taiwan, while the grazing livestock (mainly goats) and dry stone walls almost made it feel like a tropical Scotland at times.
Not wanting to take any chances with the Lanyu Scops Owl that night, I signed up for a guided owl tour that departed my homestay at 7.30pm. From Yeyin village, we drove south for a couple of kilometers as far as a kind of white monument and concrete road on the right. Upon entering the forest, we immediately heard Lanyu Scops Owls calling, and over the course of a couple of hours managed to see about 7 of them including a pair around a nest hole.
There were at least 40 other visitors looking for the owls – and other endemic night wildlife – in the forest here, in various small guided groups. It was good to see local guides benefiting directly from the owl, and should help to ensure its continued protection here – I happily paid my 250NT for the experience and would do so again.
The next day, with all the key birds seen and the pressure off, I took another walk in Flycatcher Creek – seeing most of the same birds – and toured the island again, concentrating on some of the farmland areas in an attempt to find Eastern Water Rail, but it wasn’t to be.
Near the ferry harbor, a small group of about three or four terns just outside the harbor walls contained at least one white-crowned Black-naped Tern, and I thought there may have been a Roseate Tern among them but the birds were distant and a heavy rain shower was passing at the time, so confirmation was impossible.
The return ferry crossing was rather rough with big waves and plenty of spray, and I stayed out on deck throughout. There were more birds over the sea than on the outward journey but viewing conditions were very challenging; however, one Streaked Shearwater passed very close to the boat. There were also some all-dark shearwaters, about eight of them in total during the voyage – they might have been Wedge-tailed Shearwaters or even Bulwer’s Petrels, but with no more than distant split-second glimpses through soaking wet optics I had to give them up as unidentified.
Overall it was a perfect visit to a lovely island. Visiting birders would probably be best advised to travel midweek when there is less pressure on availability of transport and accommodation.
Lifers: Lanyu Scops Owl, Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher, Taiwan Green Pigeon, Philippine Cuckoo-Dove, Lowland White-eye, Wedge-tailed Shearwater (total 1,783).
Taiwan ticks: Brown Booby, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler (total 237).
Year ticks: Brown-eared Bulbul, Streaked Shearwater, Black-naped Tern (total 214).
After a relaxing 10 days in England, I returned to the heat, humidity and slow birding of the Taiwanese summer. The rainy season is upon us, but the forecast for Dragon Boat Day was dry – even in the mountains – so after a late start I drove up to Tengjhih National Forest.
In the middle of the day in early June, I wasn’t expecting to see much. The forest trail from Km 18 to the old Tengjhih National Forest HQ was very quiet, with only small numbers of the commonest species (Steere’s Liocichla, Taiwan Sibia, Rufous-faced Warbler, Taiwan Yuhina). A Striated Prinia sang intermittently at the landslide at Km 18, and Striated and Pacific Swallows and House Swifts circled overhead.
However, the lack of birds was compensated for by the lovely clear, sunny weather, and as usual for this site, rather few visitors despite it being a national holiday today.