Birding Review: 159 species in Taiwan during January

Trail at Tengjhih National Forest, near Kaohsiung in Taiwan, an excellent mid-mountain area where it's possible to catch up with many of Taiwan's endemic bird species.
One of the trails in the Tengjhih National Forest area, near Kaohsiung in Taiwan, where it’s possible to catch up with a nice selection of Taiwan’s endemic bird species.

Although I went birding at virtually every opportunity during January, I was still doing my teaching job throughout the month, as well as being rather busy planning my move away from Taiwan. So although I saw a respectable 159 bird species in Taiwan during the month, I didn’t have time for any longer trips, and as a result I missed many of the high-mountain endemics as well as tricky local birds like Russet Sparrow.

On the plus side, the marshes of west and south-west Taiwan were brimming with water birds throughout January, and I even saw a lifer in Pingtung County’s pineapple fields, in the form of Blue-breasted Quail.

January’s personal highlights:

Blue-breasted Quail, Oriental Stork, Japanese Thrush, Taiwan Thrush, Ferruginous Duck.

Other Taiwan ticks and notable Taiwan birds:

Eastern Buzzard, Asian Stubtail, Greater Scaup, Saunders Gull, Great Crested Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Siberian Stonechat, Dusky Thrush.


A 2015 World Year List? Why not!

My travels this year will take me to at least 12 countries on 3 continents.

Starting in Taiwan for the month of January, I will then fly to Thailand, where – apart from a short side trip to Cambodia – I will remain until early March. For the rest of March and throughout April, I’ll be in Nepal and India, two countries I have not visited before …. with the potential for plenty of lifers. May and June will be spent in the UK and France, with a short – but birding-focused – trip to Hungary in the middle of May. July to October will see my return to South-East Asia, with Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar among the likely destinations. Finally, I will see out the last two months of the year in Texas, USA.

How many birds are possible this year? 500,1000,1500? It’s very hard to hazard a guess, but as the year progresses I look forward to seeing how things are shaping up!

Dusky Thrush and Taiwan Blue Magpie, Taipei, January 28th-29th

My final two days in Taiwan were spent in the company of friends in Taipei – but fortunately I was still able to get out a couple of times to see some birds.

The Taipei Botanical Gardens lived up to their reputation as an oasis for birds, with bird life abundant here and many of the birds very tame and obviously well used to people. Not long after entering the park I found my main target – Malayan Night Heron – walking about under some trees. This is a very tricky world bird and, although not too hard to find in Taiwan, is definitely not a bird I would expect to see anywhere else this year.

Nearby, a Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler gave the best views I have ever had of this usually skulking species, while a large bush-warbler with a reddish forecrown and chunky bill was what I used to call Korean Bush-Warbler, but is now apparently to be referred to as Manchurian Bush-Warbler, although the taxonomy of the bush-warblers occurring in Taiwan is still the subject of much debate.

Photographers clustered on a bridge, where four Taiwan Blue Magpies, many Grey Treepies and an Oriental Magpie-Robin provided some excellent photo opportunities as they squabbled for the food placed out for them. Birding at its easiest, and an excellent chance to show my non-birding girlfriend some of Taiwan’s most attractive birds at very close range.

I was surprised to see Oriental Turtle-Dove in this urban lowland setting (in south Taiwan they are mountain birds only), while several Pale Thrushes, Taiwan Barbets and another Malayan Night Heron rounded off a wonderful visit.

The next morning, I was up early at a riverside park close to my friend’s house, where I was delighted to chance upon a small flock of Dusky Thrushes on the short turf – a most welcome Taiwan tick. Also here, a pair of Black-collared Starlings (these are rare in south Taiwan) and four Richard’s Pipits.

Taiwan tick: Dusky Thrush (total 283).


Ferruginous Duck and Great Crested Grebe, West Coast Wetlands, January 20th


Ferruginous Duck (presumed adult female), Yuanfugang Wetlands Park, Kaohsiung, January 20th. Record shots with hand held camera, taken through a gap in the fence!
Ferruginous Duck (presumed adult female), Yuanfugang Wetlands Park, Kaohsiung, January 20th. Record shots with hand held camera, taken through a gap in the fence! It was preening constantly, hence why that “extra” white patch is visible on the wing.

With Ferruginous Ducks turning up all over Taiwan at the moment it seems, it was about time I found one for myself. At the rather derelict Yuanfugang Wetlands Park on the northern outskirts of Kaohsiung (just off Km 212 on Highway 17), I found what I had been keeping an eye out for. Probably an adult female (based on its dull chestnut plumage and dark eye), this bird was preening on a rocky island. Getting a clear view was fairly difficult as the area is closed off to the public, and a snatched photo through a fence and emergent vegetation was the best I could manage as scoping the bird was impossible.

Elsewhere, it was a day of mixed fortunes. I arrived at the Ba Zhang River, on the Tainan/Chiayi border, just as a very large and long-winged adult gull with pale grey upperparts was making a distant exit to the north (it seems that rising water forces the gulls off this river at high tide). My gut feeling told me it was the adult Great Black-headed Gull, and that it wouldn’t be back for a while! Searching elsewhere failed to reveal the bird, but I did see at least three Mongolian Gulls during the day, as well as six Saunders Gulls and three Black-tailed Gulls at the sandbar roost on the Puzi river.

I also missed the Hooded Crane – again – near Tainan City, and somewhere deep in Sihcao Reserve I almost ran over a rail that crossed the road in front of me. The latter was either a Slaty-breasted Rail or an Eastern Water Rail, but unfortunately it was little more than a glimpsed silhouette that quickly disappeared into thick cover – which is a shame, as either one of these birds would have been a lifer.

I had a bit more luck with the wintering Great Crested Grebe, on the pool just north of road 163 at Xinwen. Nearby, six Greater Scaup (four females and two immature males) and 32 Common Pochard were among the Tufted Duck flock. On the pool immediately to the south of the road, there was just one Black-necked Grebe – a big reduction in numbers since my last visit a couple of weeks ago. The area also produced two Ospreys, a Black-shouldered Kite and a Richard’s Pipit, as well as plenty of common wintering birds to look at.

Other odds and ends picked up today included four Azure-winged Magpies at Sihcao Fort, Tainan, two Curlew Sandpipers with a large wader roost at Budai, nine Little Terns near the Ba Zhang river, and a lone Pheasant-tailed Jacana at the Yuanfugang Wetlands Park.

East Asia tick: Ferruginous Duck (total 880). Taiwan tick: Great Crested Grebe (total 282).

Blue-breasted Quail, Oriental Stork and Siberian Stonechat, Pingtung, January 17th-18th

Pineapple fields at Jiadong - ideal Blue-breasted Quail habitat. It's impossible to see one among the pineapples, but it is sometimes possible to flush one from the long grass at the edge of the pathways.
Pineapple fields at Jiadong – ideal Blue-breasted Quail habitat. It’s impossible to see one among the pineapples, but it is sometimes possible to flush one from the long grass at the edge of the pathways.

Following a very precise piece of gen from Steve – probably Taiwan’s premier bird lister – I found myself standing in the middle of a pineapple field in rural Pingtung County, early on Saturday morning. “Check the grassy path margins”, I had been told. “I never fail to see Blue-breasted Quail there, although you’re likely to get flight views only, and it may take most of the day to even get those”. Twitching quail of any kind is a risky business at best, with a low chance of success. These tiny birds are notoriously secretive, sticking to thick ground cover and almost never appearing in the open.

Nonetheless, Steve’s gen turned out to be perfect. After only an hour of wandering around, I flushed a female-type quail from some long grass at the edge of a pineapple field. Its size, lack of contrasting blackish flight feathers, and sandy colored underparts with no chestnut vent, were enough to ID the bird as a Blue-breasted Quail. This is one of Taiwan’s most retiring and elusive resident birds, seemingly restricted to the far southwest of the country, and particularly partial to hiding in pineapple fields.

I returned to the site the following afternoon to try for better views. This time, I was about to give up and had almost got back to my scooter when I flushed an adult male Blue-breasted Quail. This one showed rather better than yesterday’s female; its slaty-blue underparts, plain wings, and chestnut vent were all seen well as it flew past me.

What a fantastic lifer, and most definitely a bonus bird that I wasn’t expecting to see in Taiwan. A strong supporting cast in the pineapple fields included a female Siberian Stonechat (Taiwan tick), and a total of six Savanna Nightjars flushed from the bare paths among the pineapples.

The majority of the weekend was spent near Hengchun, in a beach house we rent on the coast there. The Oriental Stork that has been present for a couple of weeks showed well on open marshes just outside of Hengchun town – a real five-star world bird that I have only seen once before, in Korea in winter. A Purple Heron at this site was also noteworthy.

Finally, I stopped off at Dapeng Bay on the way back to Kaohsiung, to grab a few more waders for the year list. Foremost among the twelve wader species seen was a Red Knot – an uncommon passage and wintering bird in Taiwan, and only my personal second or third record in this country.

Overall, a fantastic weekend of birding, even though I didn’t actually spend that much time birding this weekend.

Lifer: Blue-breasted Quail (total 1,793). Taiwan ticks: Oriental Stork, Siberian Stonechat (total 280).

Trying to see 100 species in a day in the Kaohsiung area, January 13th

Today I came up with the vague plan of seeing 100 bird species in a single day in the Kaohsiung area. I started rather late and visited just three birding spots, before calling it a day well before sunset – but even so, managed to see 83 species. My conclusion is that 100 species in a day is perfectly possible in winter, with good weather, a little luck, and an early start.

My first port of call was the east bank of the Gaoping River, a couple of kilometers north of the big Kaohsiung-Pingtung bridge. Fast-flowing sections of river here create excellent feeding grounds for ducks and waders, which gather in big flocks to intercept fish and invertebrates caught up in the fast-moving water. Huge numbers of Black-winged Stilts and Common Teal were accompanied by smaller numbers of other waders, including a Green Sandpiper at a backwater – a speciality of this site. Other regular birds here such as Lesser Coucal and Golden-headed Cisticola were not seen today, but a couple of Black-shouldered Kites provided some compensation.

I then drove to Maolin, which was rather quiet compared to Sunday with no sign of the male Japanese Thrush. Birds here which I didn’t see during my last visit included two Taiwan Bamboo-Partridges, an Emerald Dove and a Black-eared Kite. Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler and White-bellied Erpornis also put in an appearance, showing once again how excellent this site is for both of these uncommon species.

Conveniently, Highway 28 starts just a kilometer from the end of the Maolin valley, and 49km later terminates just a stone’s throw from Cheting Marshes – most useful for any birders trying to get a decent day list! Many of the usual suspects were on show at Cheting, but I failed once again to find the recently reported Ferruginous Duck, although at least three female Tufted Ducks with gleaming white undertail coverts were present. I didn’t see anything unusual here today, although a flock of 20 Chestnut-tailed Starlings in the late afternoon was an excellent count – presumably they were heading to roost somewhere in the area.

I think 100 species in day would be fairly straightforward in winter if one made a dawn start at Tengjhih, spent a few hours at Maolin, a couple of hours at Cheting, then stopped off en route back to Kaohsiung for birds like Pheasant-tailed Jacana.

Japanese Thrush, Maolin, January 11th

The De-en Gorge Loop Trail (a 4km walk on communications roads behind the De-En Gorge guesthouse) is always a wonderful spot for birds, that occasionally produces a real surprise.

Today that surprise was in the form of an adult male Japanese Thrush. I had been trying to catch a glimpse of some Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babblers I could hear calling in a patch of scrub and woodland, when a thrush started persistently “chacking” in the same area. Something about the tone of the call made me want to take a closer look – I had a hunch that this bird was something other than the usual suspects Pale Thrush and Brown-headed Thrush. After much careful stalking and manoeuvring, I was able to locate the bird from the flicking of its wings every time it called. It was facing me on a low twig only about six inches off the ground, and although my view was partially obscured I immediately saw that it had a black upper breast contrasting with a white belly that was covered in black spots. I am moderately familiar with Japanese Thrush, having seen small numbers of them on migration in Korea, and I knew straight away that was what it was. I shifted position slightly and had a partial glimpse of the head, which seemed all black but with a clear view of a striking yellow-orange bill. I couldn’t see any eye ring, but my view of the head was poor.

I didn’t get any better views, as the bird suddenly flew further back into the forest, not to be seen again. Japanese Thrush is a rare migrant in Taiwan and I hadn’t heard of it overwintering here, but I guess it’s not all that unexpected given that its closest known wintering grounds are just across the water in SE China.

While I was peering at the Japanese Thrush, I could hear an Asian Stubtail calling, and after a patient wait I finally obtained some excellent views. Later, I saw another one further along the trail. Learning to recognize its call – a loud and distinctively wet sounding ticking – is the key to finding one. Once located, it seems they can fairly easily be lured into view by “pishing”.

Other specialities of the area seen today: Maroon Oriole, White-bellied Erpornis, Black-necklaced and Taiwan Scimitar-Babblers, Vivid Niltava, Plumbeous Redstart at the waterfall just before the entrance to the De-En Gorge guesthouse, and a nice range of raptors including Oriental Honey Buzzard, Grey-faced Buzzard, Crested Goshawk, and numerous Crested Serpent Eagles.

Taiwan tick: Japanese Thrush (total 277).

Saunders Gull and Greater Scaup, West Coast Wetlands, January 6th

Today was a “four gull day”, which is most unusual in Taiwan where – apart from the locally common Black-headed Gull – gulls are very scarce winter visitors.

There was an adult Mongolian Gull at “Chiayi Xin Wen”, the area of lakes I refer to as Budai, which lies between Km 134.5 on Highway 17 and local road 163 to the south. Further north, a sandbar in the Puzi River – viewable through the mangroves from the top of the embankment just east of Highway 17 – was teeming with birds including three splendid winter adult Saunders Gulls and an adult Black-tailed Gull among the abundant Black-headed Gulls.

I might have added a fifth species to the day list – Heuglin’s Gull – if a suspiciously dark-mantled fly-by adult larus had stopped at the sandbar for closer scrutiny.

Aside from gulls, I had been informed of a Ferruginous Duck at Cheting, which was apparently photographed there “recently”. Checking the Tufted Duck flock on the eastern lake, I quickly found a female-type individual that showed obvious white undertail coverts, and a slightly warmer brown tone to the plumage than the rather cold brown normal for female Tufted Duck. The bird was sleeping, but it did briefly raise its head on several occasions to reveal a rather steep forehead and peaked crown above the eye, and no obvious tuft at the rear of the head. But somehow it just didn’t feel quite right, and given the wide range of Tufted Duck plumages (including several other female-type birds present at Cheting that also showed striking white undertail coverts), as well as the distinct possibility of hybrids, this one won’t be making it on to my Taiwan list yet.

Another very notable record at “Chiayi Xin Wen” was a flock of no fewer than six Black-necked Grebes on the lake south of road 163. This must constitute a very high count for Taiwan. However, I couldn’t find the Great Crested Grebe that had been reported here a few days earlier. North of the 163, the western lake held a big flock of diving ducks consisting of 280 Tufted Duck, 16 Common Pochard, and 3 Greater Scaup (two immature males and a female) – a long-awaited personal Taiwan tick.

Other notable birds seen today: Black-shouldered Kite (1 Budai), Osprey (1 Budai), Spotted Redshank (1 overhead at the Puzi River, calling loudly), Eurasian Spoonbill (2 Aogu) and Purple Heron (1 Aogu).

Taiwan ticks: Greater Scaup, Saunders Gull (total 276)

Asian Stubtail, Tengjhih National Forest, January 4th

Black Eagle, Tengjhih National Forest, January 4th - one of four seen today.
Black Eagle, Tengjhih National Forest, January 4th – one of four seen today.

You might have thought, after more than twenty visits and perhaps seventy or more hours spent in the field at Tengjhih, that I had seen more or less everything there is to see here. But yet again this excellent site came up with some surprises today, including no fewer than four personal Tengjhih firsts.

I arrived shortly before 9.00am, and started by walking the trail from the end of the road to the old park HQ. It was a cold start (overnight temperatures had been around 8C/46F), and bird activity was initially low, especially in shadier areas not yet warmed by the sun. However, shortly after the start of the wooden signpost to the park HQ, a feeding flock was found which included not only two Eurasian Jays, but also about twelve Rusty Laughingthrushes. This is only my second personal Tengjhih record of this endemic, the first one coming from exactly the same spot last spring – no doubt this bird is a fairly common resident here, but there is a lot of cover for it to hide in!

In a clearing, two partridges turned out to be not the expected Taiwan Hill Partridge, but a pair of Taiwan Bamboo-Partridges, which I hadn’t seen before in this area of Tengjhih. Four Dusky Fulvettas a little further on continued today’s theme of unusual Tengjhih birds. Meanwhile, Steere’s Liocichlas – usually abundant – were conspicuous by their absence, with only four seen in total all day. Business-as-usual birds, but still good to see, were a male Vivid Niltava and a male White-tailed Robin.

A hundred meters past the park HQ, my attention was drawn to a dry trrt trrt call coming from some roadside vegetation. Quite unexpectedly, the bird popped into view to reveal itself as a Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler, hot on the heels of my first-ever sighting of this bird at Chun Yang Farm a few weeks ago. I had always suspected they were at Tengjhih but it was nice to finally have confirmation – and a quality year tick.

More surprises lay in wait on the return journey. Deviating off the trail to follow a feeding flock, I heard what I thought was an Asian Stubtail calling. I was quickly proved correct when the bird showed itself almost immediately – and then a second individual was found not far away, giving great views as it hopped around on the forest floor, flicking its wings. My first Asian Stubtails for Taiwan, this bird is said to be a regular winterer, but is no doubt usually overlooked due to its unobtrusive habits.

My third Tengjhih tick for the day was a White-backed Woodpecker, heard calling high in the tallest trees along the trail, and glimpsed as it took flight. This was not such a surprise here, given the large number of mature coniferous trees in the nearby-but-still-inaccessible Tengjhih National Forest proper. Also noteworthy along the trail was a pair of White-bellied Green Pigeons distantly in a fruiting tree.

Returning to my scooter, I drove back to the village at Km 14.5 and parked near the open air market. My circuit of the Blue Trail was relatively quiet, until a quite exceptional feeding flock in and around a fruiting tree which included a beautiful female Taiwan Thrush seen very well, two Pale and one Brown-headed Thrush, a Yellow Tit, a Yellow-browed Warbler and a pair of Grey-chinned Minivets among legions of commoner species.

Black Eagles were also in evidence today, with four sightings – this bird is always a highlight of a trip to Tengjhih. Other notable sightings today: five Asian House Martins, a Crested Goshawk, a Eurasian Nuthatch, three Black-faced Buntings and a calling Arctic Warbler.

Taiwan tick: Asian Stubtail (total 274).

Eastern Buzzard, Longluan Lake, January 2nd

The New Year started in fairly sedate fashion, with a long weekend at our beach house in Pingtung County, just a few kilometers from Longluan Lake. I’ve never seen anything very special at the lake, and it’s often a rather windy place in winter. However, today’s early morning visit produced a nice surprise in the form of an Eastern Buzzard, passing directly over my head before continuing north. This is a rare winter visitor to Taiwan.

Also at Longluan Lake today: two White-shouldered Starlings, Brown-headed and Pale Thrushes, an Arctic Warbler, a Blue Rock Thrush, and a scattering of Eastern Spot-billed Ducks and Tufted Ducks sheltering from the strong winds.

Elsewhere in the area during the long weekend, an offshore fishing Osprey, a Common Kestrel, and several Crested Serpent Eagles and Crested Goshawks soaring over the hill behind our house continued the raptor theme for the start of 2015.

Taiwan tick: Eastern Buzzard (total 273)