An enjoyable but – unusually for winter – slightly rainy three hours at Maolin, walking the 4km-long De-En Gorge loop trail.
This fairly low-altitude trail in the foothills of much higher mountains is excellent for several birds that can be hard to find in Taiwan, notably Taiwan Blue Magpie, Maroon Oriole (common here), Plain Flowerpecker, and White-bellied Erpornis, all of which I saw today. Plain Flowerpeckers were especially vocal, with at least five birds heard. I saw one bird very well but had to be content with “heard only” or brief flight views for the others – they can be hard to locate in the treetops.
Winter visitors were represented by many thrushes, which due to their flighty nature were mostly just glimpsed or heard-only. The ones I did get a better look at were mainly Pale Thrushes, and one splendid adult male Brown-headed Thrush. Last winter, I saw several Taiwan Thrushes here, down from the higher mountains for the cold season – this rare species is well worth keeping an eye out for. I’ve also seen Scaly Thrush fairly regularly here in winter. Vivid Niltava is another bird that descends for the winter, and I saw two of them today. Other winter visitors seen included several Yellow-browed and Arctic Warblers, but surprisingly no Taiwan Sibias which can be numerous here in winter. Another no-show today that can usually be guaranteed here is Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge – I usually see several groups of them during a circuit of the trail.
A few raptors were out and about, despite the weather: two Black-eared Kites, several Crested Serpent Eagles, a fly-through Peregrine, and best of all a Grey-faced Buzzard – probably one of the small number that winters in southern Taiwan (this species can be abundant on migration in spring and autumn).
An excellent total of 64 species seen here today, but the water level at the marshes has dropped markedly since my last visit just one week ago. This is ominous news for the large number of wintering Black-faced Spoonbills, ducks, and waders – I imagine the trend is likely to continue throughout the next four months when rainfall is very low in southern Taiwan.
My personal highlight today was two Eurasian Spoonbills. First seen distantly from the viewing tower, they were feeding separately from the Black-faced Spoonbills before flying off high to the south. A few hours later they were back, this time at the large pool close to Cheting village, at the western end of the area. This species is a personal milestone, as it means my Taiwan list has finally surpassed my Korean one, just five weeks or so before I permanently leave Taiwan.
It’s amazing what you can see if you’re prepared to get in among the reeds and scrubby pools here. Off-trail forays on the south side of the road produced some excellent birds including three Greater Painted-Snipe (including a smart adult female), at least one Common Snipe, another snipe flushed from almost under my feet which didn’t call and appeared large – quite possibly a Swinhoe’s Snipe – and best of all my second Great Bittern of the autumn. The latter bird was seen in flight only, over the reeds, but at quite close range. Much less welcome was a large snake – probably a Chinese Cobra – which I disturbed and which slithered away into the reeds. It was a timely reminder to be careful here when walking off the trails.
Other highlights of today’s five-hour visit included good counts of 18 White-shouldered and 12 Chestnut-tailed Starlings, a female Cinnamon Bittern, still 33 Common Pochard on the east lake, two Eastern Spot-billed Ducks (rare at this location), 4 Garganey, and increased numbers of waders taking advantage of the lower water levels including 5 Long-toed Stints, 4 Wood Sandpipers, 2 Marsh Sandpipers, and hundreds of Avocets and Black-winged Stilts.
A wonderful 4-hour visit to Tengjhih, where I focused on the trails starting at the Km 15 village. For only the second time ever, I took the long loop trail that descends quite a way into the valley before climbing back up the mountain through some more open farmland. I also walked most of the usual Blue Trail circuit, taking in the high point of the trail system here before descending back to the village.
Highlights today were many, on a morning where bird activity was high, and the weather crisp and cool. Best of all, three Taiwan Hill Partridges that flew across the trail in front of me before pitching down in dense undergrowth. Another elusive endemic resident of the area, Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler, also gave quite good views shortly afterwards. Oddities today included a Korean Bush-Warbler (probably a regular winterer here), a Striated Prinia, a White-bellied Green Pigeon in flight, and an Emerald Dove (my personal first Tengjhih record of this species).
Finally, Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warblers and Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers were seen and heard in small numbers; these birds are absent in summer, but descend from higher altitudes to spend the winter here.
High winds this morning made birding difficult. Passerines were staying deep in the reeds and bushes, and it was challenging to keep the telescope steady enough to observe more distant birds. Nonetheless, there was still plenty to be seen today – although no really unusual species were found.
The theme of the day was high counts of some of the area’s winter specialities, notably 143 Black-faced Spoonbills, 180 Avocets, and 42 Common Pochard. The first two species were mostly on the lagoon behind Cheting village, at the far western end of the marshes, where the concentration of birds (including many egrets, ducks, and about 300 Black-winged Stilts) was nothing short of spectacular.
The majority of the Common Pochard flock was on the eastern lake, visible from a very windy viewing tower. Also noteworthy among 45 species seen today: 3 Garganey, a Green Sandpiper at fishponds to the east of the main marsh, a flock of Red-necked Stints flying over, two Common Kestrels together, and at least 15 Red-throated Pipits and 25 Eastern Yellow Wagtails.
My girlfriend Jenna and I had booked and paid for a short break in the Philippines. However, with Typhoon Hagupit bearing down on the islands, we were forced to abandon our plans at the last minute and stay in Taiwan. On the plus side, I now had time for a three-day birding trip focused on mopping up some of the few remaining Taiwan specialities I still needed to see. My route took me up the beautiful east coast, through Taroko Gorge, across the high mountains at Hehuanshan, then through Wushe and back to Kaohsiung via Sun Moon Lake and Yushan National Park.
A short summary of sites visited and birds seen during the trip:
December 7th: Orchards near Dulan in Taitung County, at approximately Km 140 along Highway 11.
A short walk around the Lehuo Shoudo Moli homestay grounds and surrounding farming roads produced an excellent range of lowland species, including abundant Taiwan Bulbuls. Plenty of wintering thrushes were mainly Brown-headed Thrushes, but with at least one Pale Thrush among them. A nice selection of raptors included three each of Oriental Honey Buzzard and Crested Serpent Eagle, as well as an Osprey heading north.
December 8th:Hehuan Mountain summit.
Finally, I got my chance to see Alpine Accentor in Taiwan. The subspecies here is endemic to Taiwan and is a tough bird to see, necessitating a visit to very high mountains which can be hard to access. One of the best sites to connect with this bird is at Hehuanshan summit car park in winter, when a handful of Alpine Accentors forsake the bitterly cold peaks and seek out an easier existence among the cars and tourists at the viewpoint.
I found just one Alpine Accentor here, feeding unobtrusively along the roadside. It was incredibly tame and allowed an approach to within two feet or so. Other birds in the general area (mainly around the Hehuanshan visitor center a little lower down) comprised two Taiwan Rosefinches, a few White-whiskered Laughingthrushes, a Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warbler and six Asian House Martins.
December 9th:Chunyang Farm, near Wushe.
My third visit to this site in search of Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler. Today I left nothing to chance, arriving at the site at 6.00am when it was still pitch dark. It was a cold morning and the birds took a while to get going, but by 7.00am bird activity was high and I finally found my target species. About 1.5km along the main asphalt road through the farm, I heard Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler’s distinctive song. The bird was a real skulker and it took some time to get a glimpse even though it was singing constantly. It was also heard to call, a dry trrt and trrrt-trrrt, similar to Dusky Warbler.
Although the verdict is not yet unanimous, Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler is now considered to be a full endemic species by many authors – not just a subspecies of the Chinese mainland form. As such, it is something of a personal milestone, being the last remaining Taiwan endemic bird for my list after nearly two years on the island.
Other excellent sightings at Chunyang Farm this morning included a pair of Snowy-browed Flycatchers, one Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler seen well (and others heard calling), six Rusty Laughingthrushes, and two Dusky Fulvettas.
Driving from Puli to Huisun later, I made a lucky stop at the river bridge along Highway 21 (almost directly under the freeway), where a flock of 15 Vinous-throated Parrotbills in tall grass were a long overdue Taiwan tick.
December 9th:Huisun Forest Park.
An afternoon here in search of Varied Tit for the year list. Birding at Huisun is very pleasant, with lots of birds to see, especially around the lower level main car park and trailheads.
Taiwan Blue Magpies were easy to find today, in fruiting trees next to the car park and around nearby buildings. Huisun is also a reliable site for Swinhoe’s Pheasant, and today there was a fairly tame party of four including an adult male at the base of the Duhchuanling Trail.
Varied Tits were vocal in the same area, with one bird finally seen well although they were surprisingly hard to catch sight of in the tall trees. I also saw a pair of Snowy-browed Flycatchers, along the first fifty meters of the Sihwufong Trail – at this altitude probably wintering birds rather than residents.
During the trip I also birded the Blue Gate Trail near Wushe (very quiet with little of note apart from common birds), the Ci-En Pagoda near Sun Moon Lake (again no sign of any Large Cuckooshrikes, but I did see Plain Flowerpecker which seems reliable here), and a very quiet walk in Yushan National Park, on the trail just off Highway 18 at Km 99.
Lifer: Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler (total 1,792). East Asia tick: Alpine Accentor (total 878). Taiwan tick: Vinous-throated Parrotbill (total 271). Year tick: Varied Tit (total 264).
Birds seen (73 species) – includes short stops at Yongan and Yuanfugang Wetlands, and Tardyhill. Notable records in bold:
Gadwall 2 (1 male)
Mallard 1 male
Common Pochard 40
Tufted Duck 75
Great Bittern 1
Yellow Bittern 2
Purple Heron 2
Black-crowned Night Heron
Black-faced Spoonbill 115
Great Cormorant 75
White-breasted Waterhen 1
Pheasant-tailed Jacana 4
Pacific Golden Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Spotted Redshank 1
Common Greenshank 7
Marsh Sandpiper 3
Common Snipe 4
Whiskered Tern 4
Red Collared Dove
Short-eared Owl 1
Common Kingfisher 1
Brown Shrike 2
Long-tailed Shrike 4
Oriental Skylark 10
Oriental Reed Warbler 3
Arctic Warbler 2
Zitting Cisticola 5
Yellow-bellied Prinia 2
Black-naped Monarch 4
White-shouldered Starling 1
Red-billed Starling 1
Chestnut-tailed Starling 1
Pale Thrush 1
Daurian Redstart 1 male
Eastern Yellow Wagtail 40
White Wagtail 2
Richard’s Pipit 1
Red-throated Pipit 25
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Indian Silverbill 20
Winter suddenly arrived in southern Taiwan last night – I awoke to gloomy, overcast skies and early morning temperatures of just 19C (66F) in Kaohsiung. I dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, a thermal long sleeved top, a long-sleeved shirt, a thick hooded sweatshirt and a North Face waterproof jacket. This will probably sound ridiculous to people living in cold climates, but even with all those clothes on I was STILL a little cold riding my motorcycle. Maybe I have been in Taiwan too long.
Not wanting to drive too far in the cold conditions, I headed 45 minutes up the road to Cheting Marshes, on the Kaohsiung/Tainan border. For a while now, I’d been intending to thoroughly check the area out, getting in among the marshland instead of just viewing from the observation tower. Today seemed like a perfect opportunity to see what this excellent wetland has to offer.
The site delivered all that I expected and more. In winter, the main area of marshes is absolutely teeming with birds – big flocks of ducks, waders, and legions of herons including easy-to-find Black-faced Spoonbills.
Notable birds seen from the observation tower today included 40 Common Pochard (an exceptionally high count), 2 Gadwall, and a Spotted Redshank. This was a very good start as all three species are very scarce in Taiwan.
I then crossed to the south side of the road and spent about an hour and a half wandering about in the marshes and scrubland. I was hoping for a Vinous-throated Parrotbill (I am baffled as to why I have not encountered this species in Taiwan yet, as it is supposedly common), but instead found an even better bird – a Short-eared Owl. I flushed it from right under my feet, it then flew several hundred meters away and landed on the ground among short vegetation. Approaching with camera at the ready, I unfortunately failed to find it on the ground but did at least get a few record shots in flight when it flushed again. This is a rare winter visitor to Taiwan, and my first sighting of this bird in the East Asia region.
I also flushed a Purple Heron – only my fourth in Taiwan – and had reasonable views of an Oriental Reed Warbler skulking around a damp patch of vegetation. Other birds seen while walking in the marshes and scrub here included Yellow-bellied Prinia, Zitting Cisticola, Oriental Skylark and Red-throated Pipit – all fairly common in Taiwan but not birds I actually see very often. It’s good to get off the trails once in a while.
Returning to the main area of marshes on the northern side of the road, I walked up the western edge on a seldom-used path. Bird activity was generally very high, and I added Garganey and Richard’s Pipit to the day list here, as well as seeing my second Purple Heron of the morning. A Red-billed Starling flew over, an unexpected sighting. However, the undoubted highlight was a Great Bittern, first seen in flight as it crossed a pool, flushing several other birds in the process. It then landed in full view in the open and remained there for just a few seconds, at about fifty meters range, before walking slowly into the reeds. The reedbeds at Cheting are quite extensive and no doubt harbor one or two of these rare and highly elusive birds each winter. In two years birding in Korea, I failed to connect with this species, despite my local patch – Junam Reservoir – being a regular wintering site for them, so I was lucky indeed to see one today.
Next, I walked up the eastern edge of the main marsh, where a viewing platform allowed a good view of the flock of Common Pochard. A drake Mallard (scarce in Taiwan), plenty of Red-throated Pipits and Eastern Yellow Wagtails, and the majority of the Black-faced Spoonbill flock were also around here. My final stop at Cheting was the area of scrub near “Lovers Wharf”, a couple of kilometers to the south of the main marshes, which was very productive for starlings early in the year. Today just one White-shouldered Starling was seen, but two Yellow Bitterns and an Arctic Warbler made the ten-minute stop more than worthwhile.
I made three short stops on the drive back south to Kaohsiung. Yongan Wetland, a couple of kilometers west of Highway 17, had some common waders, a few Black-faced Spoonbills, and a flock of 75 Great Cormorants. Tardyhill Nature Park offers some woodland and scrub habitat and therefore slightly different species, and produced a Chestnut-tailed Starling on wires along the approach road, a Pale Thrush, four Black-naped Monarchs and a male Daurian Redstart. Finally, Yuanfugang Wetlands on the outskirts of Kaohsiung City is pretty overgrown and derelict these days but still produced four Pheasant-tailed Jacanas (a speciality of the site), at least 20 Indian Silverbills feeding on grass seeds, and a White-breasted Waterhen.
Back at home on the internet, I helped myself to a nice armchair tick – Northern Boobook, split from Brown Hawk Owl – which I consider to be a fair and just reward for getting stunning views of those two migrants at Qigu in the autumn.
East Asia ticks:Short-eared Owl, Great Bittern (total 876).