Great Bittern and Short-eared Owl, Cheting Marshes, December 2nd

Flight shots of today's Short-eared Owl at Cheting Marshes, flushed twice from dry marshland on the south side of the road.
Flight shots of today’s Short-eared Owl at Cheting Marshes, flushed twice from dry marshland on the south side of the road.

Birds seen (73 species) – includes short stops at Yongan and Yuanfugang Wetlands, and Tardyhill. Notable records in bold:

  • Gadwall 2 (1 male)
  • Eurasian Wigeon
  • Mallard 1 male
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Northern Pintail
  • Garganey 1
  • Common Teal
  • Common Pochard 40
  • Tufted Duck 75
  • Little Grebe
  • Great Bittern 1
  • Yellow Bittern 2
  • Grey Heron
  • Purple Heron 2
  • Great Egret
  • Little Egret
  • Cattle Egret
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • Sacred Ibis
  • Black-faced Spoonbill 115
  • Great Cormorant 75
  • Eurasian Moorhen
  • Eurasian Coot
  • White-breasted Waterhen 1
  • Pheasant-tailed Jacana 4
  • Black-winged Stilt
  • Avocet 90
  • Pacific Golden Plover
  • Kentish Plover
  • Little Ringed Plover
  • Common Sandpiper
  • Spotted Redshank 1
  • Common Greenshank 7
  • Marsh Sandpiper 3
  • Common Snipe 4
  • Whiskered Tern 4
  • Feral Pigeon
  • Red Collared Dove
  • Spotted Dove
  • Short-eared Owl 1
  • Common Kingfisher 1
  • Brown Shrike 2
  • Long-tailed Shrike 4
  • Black Drongo
  • Eurasian Magpie
  • Grey Treepie
  • Oriental Skylark 10
  • Grey-throated Martin
  • Barn Swallow
  • Pacific Swallow
  • Striated Swallow
  • Chinese Bulbul
  • Oriental Reed Warbler 3
  • Arctic Warbler 2
  • Zitting Cisticola 5
  • Yellow-bellied Prinia 2
  • Plain Prinia
  • Japanese White-eye
  • Black-naped Monarch 4
  • Javan Myna
  • Common Myna
  • 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
  • Scaly-breasted Munia
  • 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).

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