East Asia Top 50 Birds

Grasslands in Kompong Thom province, Cambodia - one of the last remaining places to see the critically endangered Bengal Florican.
Grasslands in Kompong Thom province, Cambodia – one of the last remaining places to see the critically endangered Bengal Florican.

This is not entirely related to Taiwan, but working on my East Asian bird list the other day had me thinking about my favorite East Asian birds of all time. These are the critically endangered birds that I may never see again, those I worked the hardest to see, or simply the ones that remind me of a particular favorite place or great birding trip.

So, seeing as it’s summer and real birding is in short supply right now, I decided to take a virtual birding trip through the last eight years and put together a list of my favorite East Asian bird sightings. I had originally planned to compile a “Top 20” list, but with more than three times this number of species on my original draft, it was impossible to reduce it to 20.

Here are my Top 50 birds:

Japanese Night Heron: Endangered. One of those unexpected birding moments was finding one standing beside a concrete drainage channel at Taejongdae in Busan, at the very south-easternmost tip of South Korea, one April morning. It’s a very rare migrant in Korea.

Oriental White Stork: Endangered. A rare winter visitor to South Korea, but its size, coloration and preference for open marshes can make it conspicuous where it occurs. A group of five birds seen at Seosan, a regular wintering site.

Storm’s Stork: Endangered. Seen on several occasions along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. This bird was one of the outstanding highlights of the narrow and bird-rich forest along the river, which is sadly much encroached-upon by palm oil plantations.

Giant Ibis: Critically endangered. Tmatboey in northern Cambodia is the last remaining place to find this spectacular and elusive bird, which seems like a relic from another era. We spent several days walking through the forest, checking the damp “trapaengs”, but it wasn’t until the last afternoon of our stay that we were finally able to enjoy incredible views of a pair.

Giant Ibis, Tmatboey, Cambodia, December 2012.
Giant Ibis, Tmatboey, Cambodia, December 2012.

White-shouldered Ibis: Critically endangered. In the same area as the Giant Ibis, but easier to find as it has regular roosting sites.

Lesser White-fronted Goose: Vulnerable. Each year, 1 – 5 of these rare birds overwintered among 10,000 Greater White-fronted Geese at my local patch in South Korea, Junam Reservoir. They always presented a special challenge to locate among the vast goose flocks.

Adult Lesser White-fronted Goose, Junam Reservoir, South Korea, March 2011.
Adult Lesser White-fronted Goose, Junam Reservoir, South Korea, March 2011.

Swan Goose: Endangered. Seen regularly in small numbers each winter at Junam Reservoir, South Korea.

Baikal Teal: Vulnerable. A beautiful and unpredictable East Asian duck, which wintered in highly variable numbers at Junam Reservoir, South Korea. Sometimes up to 3,000 were present during winter, but at other times just low single-figure counts.

Baer’s Pochard: Critically endangered and likely to become extinct in the next 10-15 years. An adult drake overwintered at Junam Reservoir, South Korea, in 2010/2011. Due to the catastrophic speed of its decline, this is a bird I feel I am unlikely to ever see again.

Adult drake Baer's Pochard (right hand bird), Junam Reservoir, South Korea, March 2011.
Adult drake Baer’s Pochard (right hand bird), Junam Reservoir, South Korea, March 2011.

Scaly-sided Merganser: Vulnerable. A speciality of South Korea that winters in small numbers on cold, fast-flowing rivers.

Steller’s Sea Eagle: Vulnerable. One of the world’s most spectacular birds of prey, small numbers (probably less than 10) overwinter each year in South Korea. Fairly conspicuous at its regular wintering sites. For me, this bird is synonymous with the partly frozen river mouths of the east coast of Korea on bitterly cold mid-winter days.

Eastern Imperial Eagle: Vulnerable. Accidental visitor to South Korea. An overwintering bird at Junam Reservoir, South Korea, in 2010/2011.

White-rumped Falcon: An inconspicuous and uncommon bird of dry deciduous forest in Southeast Asia, which I finally saw in northern Cambodia in 2012 after looking for it without success at Doi Inthanon in Thailand many times over a five-year period.

Taiwan Hill Partridge: One of the most difficult Taiwan endemics to see, it was most satisfying to find my “own” birds (away from the usually visited stakeouts) at Tengjhih National Forest in southern Taiwan.

Siamese Fireback: One of the world’s most subtly beautiful chickens, and one of the first really good birds I saw in SE Asia, at the excellent Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam in March 2006.

Mrs Hume’s Pheasant: A speciality of the grassy mountain forests of north-west Thailand, this bird can be hard to find even at its best-known stakeout, Doi Chiang Dao. I’ve seen it there on three out of perhaps fifteen visits. It’s a real stunner when seen well.

Swinhoe’s Pheasant: This Taiwanese endemic is well staked-out at several sites in the mountains of central Taiwan. I’ve seen it at one of these spots, at Km 23 on the Dasyueshan road, and also very well at the Huisun Forest reserve.

Swinhoe's Pheasant, Km 23, Dasyueshan.
Swinhoe’s Pheasant, Km 23, Dasyueshan.

Mikado Pheasant: Probably the harder of the two Taiwan endemic pheasants to find. My only sighting to date was of a male on the verge of Highway 18 between Alishan and Yushan, where it is regularly seen but usually only very early in the morning.

Bengal Florican: Critically endangered. The world’s rarest bustard. Seen several times in the grasslands of Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province.

White-naped Crane: Vulnerable. Up to 150 birds overwinter at Junam Reservoir in South Korea, despite the constant degradation of habitat and increase in human disturbance there.

Red-crowned Crane: Endangered. Large flocks winter close to the DMZ in northern South Korea, but my first and most memorable sighting of this species was a single bird in the south of the country at Junam Reservoir.

Red-crowned Crane, Junam Reservoir, South Korea, December 2009.
Red-crowned Crane, Junam Reservoir, South Korea, December 2009.

Oriental Plover: A rare and enigmatic migrant in East Asia. One on a grassy headland on Green Island, Taiwan, in April 2013.

Asian Dowitcher: A rare and range-restricted East Asian wader. Seen in winter in coastal Thailand, and I also found lone migrant birds at both Aogu and Tainan on the Taiwan coast in spring 2014.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Critically endangered, and along with Baer’s Pochard and Giant Ibis, a likely candidate for imminent extinction. Seen at Pak Thale in Thailand, its most famous recent wintering site, in December 2012. Still hoping to find a migrant in Taiwan sometime.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Pak Thale, Thailand, December 2012.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Pak Thale, Thailand, December 2012.

Relict Gull: Vulnerable. A rather odd and little-known gull that winters in tiny numbers in South Korea. Seen on the Nakdong Estuary in Busan.

Chinese Tawny Owl: Like most owls, hard to find. Seen only once, close to Tataka in the Yushan National Park, Taiwan.

Spot-bellied Eagle Owl: This bird reminds me of many enjoyable evenings spent drinking beer while keeping half an eye open for owls in the grounds of Malee’s Bungalows in Chiang Dao, Thailand. Just once have my “efforts” been rewarded with a dusk fly-through view of this imposing species.

White-fronted Scops Owl: Excellent views of a day-roosting pair at the well-known stakeout in the Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand.

White-fronted Scops Owls, Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand, December 2012.
White-fronted Scops Owls, Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand, December 2012.

Lanyu Scops Owl: A classic endemic owl, the hard part is getting to its remote home island, but once you’re there in good weather conditions this species is not difficult to locate.

Fairy Pitta: Vulnerable. All of my East Asian pitta sightings probably warrant a place on this list, but Fairy Pitta is one of the most memorable of all due to its rarity and the quite exceptional views I enjoyed at Linnei Park, Taiwan.

Fairy Pitta, Linnei Park, Taiwan, May 2014.
Fairy Pitta, Linnei Park, Taiwan, May 2014.

Giant Pitta: One of the most difficult-to-see members of a notoriously elusive family. My only Giant Pitta was located by my bird guide during a night walk in forest next to the Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo, where we had views down to a few feet as it roosted in a low tree. It was the first Giant Pitta my guide had ever seen, although he had spent more than 300 days guiding in the area – he was almost as excited as I was about this probable once-in-a-lifetime sighting.

Great Hornbill: Like the pittas, most of the spectacular hornbills arguably warrant a place on the Top 50 list. The Great Hornbill is the most beautiful of all, and one that I’ve seen on several occasions in Kaeng Krachan and Khao Yai, Thailand. The sound of its enormous wings beating overhead, or the sight of one perched in an ancient forest tree, are a reminder of former times when human pressures on the land were far less intense.

Bornean Bristlehead: Endemic to the island of Borneo, this scarce bird is high on the target list for any birder visiting the Danum Valley, where I encountered flocks of this rather odd species on two occasions during my five-day stay.

Jerdon’s Bushchat: This is a sought-after Southeast Asian species that I first saw from a boat on the Mekong river in Laos in 2006 – an excellent “seen from a boat” tick! More recently, I have seen it again at a regular stakeout near Tha Ton in northern Thailand.

Japanese Robin: This charismatic bird is a rare migrant in South Korea. Along with the spectacular Narcissus Flycatcher, it was the most hoped-for bird on the best April mornings for migrants at Taejongdae, South Korea.

Taiwan Thrush: The true thrushes are one of my favorite bird families, and I have been lucky enough to see most of the regular East Asian species. It was hard to choose just a couple of species for this list, but the stunning Taiwan Thrush, with its all-white head, is hard to beat. Its unpredictability and rarity add to its allure. I’ve encountered it on just two occasions in Taiwan.

Siberian Thrush: Another thrush that makes the grade is the beautiful Siberian Thrush, which I have seen on a few occasions in spring close to the lighthouse and in the wooded valley at Taejongdae, South Korea.

Green Cochoa: A beautiful, highly sought-after, very uncommon and difficult to find bird of hill forests in northern Thailand. It’s one of my “lucky birds” that I seem to see more than most other birders. The classic site is Doi Inthanon, but I’ve also encountered it at Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai.

Styan’s Grasshopper Warbler: Vulnerable. This unremarkable-looking East Asian endemic lives mainly on remote islands. It makes this list because of its rarity, and the fact that it reminds me of a highly productive May visit to watch migrant birds on Gageo island, off the southwest coast of South Korea.

Narcissus Flycatcher: No one who has seen a spring male Narcissus Flycatcher could remain unmoved by the experience. Field guide plates cannot do justice to its beauty, and the depth of the yellow and fiery orange is simply amazing. I saw this bird several times in April at Taejongdae, South Korea.

Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher: Like Narcissus Flycatcher, this is a bird whose beauty in the flesh exceeds any field guide plate or photo I have seen. Two males on Lanyu Island, off the coast of Taiwan, were one of the highlights of my trip there.

Japanese Waxwing: An unusually late winter visitor to South Korea, usually arriving in mid-winter and staying until May in numbers that fluctuate widely each year. I found flocks of this beautiful bird on several occasions at Junam Reservoir.

Japanese Waxwing, Junam Reservoir, South Korea, March 2010.
Japanese Waxwing, Junam Reservoir, South Korea, March 2010.

Giant Nuthatch: A speciality of the montane pine forests of northern Thailand, especially at Doi Chiang Dao, where it seems to be becoming harder to find.

Yellow Tit: A contender for the cutest Taiwanese endemic bird, but it’s also one of the least common, and one of the few that are classified as Near Threatened – in this case due to illegal capture for the cage bird trade. It’s not too hard to find at Tengjhih National Forest in winter, and at one or two other sites in the central mountains.

Grey-headed Parrotbill: A speciality of Doi Chiang Dao in northern Thailand, where noisy feeding flocks can sometimes be seen especially behind the DYK substation. Like most parrotbills, it is charismatic, uncommon and unpredictable, and this bird has an especially smart and clean-cut appearance.

Cutia: A prize Southeast Asian bird that I’ve seen only once, in montane forest on the upper slopes of Lang Biang mountain in Vietnam.

Red-faced Liocichla: One of the birds I’ve spent the most time trying to find, I put in around 25 hours in the field over a three-day period before finally securing my first sighting of this spectacular laughingthrush at Doi Angkhang, northern Thailand, in June 2006. On subsequent visits to the area, I have found it much more easily.

Taiwan Blue Magpie: Beautiful, charismatic, and often tricky to find, the Taiwan Blue Magpie is a strong contender for the most appealing Taiwanese endemic bird. I’ve encountered it at the classic site, Huisun Forest, but also regularly at the Maolin valley near Kaohsiung, and in the southern mountains on the Pingtung/Taitung border.

Taiwan Blue Magpie, Huisun, Taiwan, December 2013.
Taiwan Blue Magpie, Huisun, Taiwan, December 2013.

Daurian Jackdaw: A winter visitor in small numbers mainly to the northern part of South Korea. When present it’s easy to spot and very distinctive among flocks of wintering Rooks. It was one of my most wanted birds for many years after a failed “twitch” from the UK to Holland in the mid-1990s, so it was good to finally lay that ghost to rest in South Korea in 2010.

Ochre-rumped Bunting: Many of South Korea’s buntings have a claim to a place on this list, including the range-restricted Grey Bunting and rapidly-declining Yellow-breasted Bunting, but it’s the rare Ochre-rumped Bunting that makes the grade.

White-shouldered Ibis at dusk, Tmatboey, Cambodia, December 2012.
White-shouldered Ibis at dusk, Tmatboey, Cambodia, December 2012.
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