Long-toed Stint and Yellow Bittern, Dapeng Bay, March 13th

Yellow Bittern. A total of 8 were seen in the Dapeng Bay area on March 13th.

Yellow Bittern. A total of 8 were seen in the Dapeng Bay area on March 13th.

Dapeng Bay is the largest coastal lagoon in southwest Taiwan, lying close to the town of Donggang in Pingtung County, about 45 minutes drive south of central Kaohsiung.

I had no idea what to expect from the site, but decided to check it out in a few spare hours on Thursday morning. On arrival, the first thing I noticed was the amount of recent development here: a brand new multi-lane road skirting the bay, a big visitor center complex, and a very impressive suspension bridge. There were a few relict mangroves here and there, and one or two natural pools among the fish farms, but my immediate reaction was that this was a once-thriving wetland in the advanced stages of destruction – as is commonly seen in many parts of industrialised east Asia.

Some areas have been designated as “wetlands”, and equipped with boardwalks, signboards and viewing towers, but none of the habitats I viewed seemed extensive enough to support a decent amount of birdlife. One gets the feeling that they are at best small concessions to the environmental lobby in return for large-scale development of the area for tourism. The rather depressing blurb on the Dapeng Bay website says it all: “With a yacht marina, G2 racing car circuit, a gyrocopter club, and other leisure facilities, in the future Dapeng Bay will transform into a world class seaside leisure and vacation destination for visitors from neighboring Asian countries”.

Despite all the metaphorical red flags, I nonetheless explored around the bay a little and found a scattering of waders, most notably about 10 Long-toed Stints, and small numbers of common waders of 12 species including Marsh and Wood Sandpipers and Mongolian Plover. The natural wet areas and abandoned fish farm lakes were generally much more productive for birds than the designated “wetlands”, although a total of 8 Yellow Bitterns seemed rather indiscriminate in their choice of habitats.

I left Dapeng Bay feeling that I would be unlikely to make a return visit, except perhaps as a brief stop sometime in the next few weeks when I head to Kenting to add Taiwan Bulbul and Taiwan Hwamei to the year list.

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Crested Myna and four species of starlings, Cheting (茄萣) area, March 11th

Black-faced Spoonbills at the Yongan Wetland Reserve in Greater Kaohsiung, March 11th.

Black-faced Spoonbills at the Yongan Wetland Reserve in Greater Kaohsiung, March 11th.

Highlights:

  • Red-billed Starling 6
  • White-shouldered Starling 100
  • Black-collared Starling 1
  • Chestnut-tailed Starling 5
  • Crested Myna 4
  • Black-faced Spoonbill 34
  • Sacred Ibis 1
  • Avocet 16
  • Black-winged Stilt 100
  • Common Greenshank 20
  • Common Redshank 1
  • Marsh Sandpiper 1
  • Wood Sandpiper 1
  • Common Sandpiper 1
  • Little Ringed Plover 2
  • Red-throated Pipit 1
  • Eastern Yellow Wagtail 1
  • Oriental Reed Warbler 1
  • Long-tailed Shrike 2
  • Common Kingfisher 10
  • Grey-throated Martin 5
  • Barn Swallow 20

This winter, Qigu’s Black-faced Spoonbill flock has been dispersing a little more widely than usual, with the result that good numbers are wintering further south in Greater Kaohsiung. Local media has cited disturbance caused by visitors to the Qigu reserve, and changes in the management of the Qigu fish ponds as possible causes.

Today, I went to check out one of the Kaohsiung wintering areas, Cheting (茄萣), which has been the focus of local media attention because of a proposed new road through the middle of the marshes.

Cheting lies to the west of Highway 17, close to the intersection where the northbound 17 turns sharply left and Highway 28 joins from the right. It’s a huge area covered mostly with commercial fishponds, canals, scrub and industrial wasteland. I never did find the “exact” spot for the spoonbills (or at least, nothing that quite resembled the marshland area pictured in the China Post article).

Getting lost has its advantages, however. On a minor road alongside a canal, there were big numbers of White-shouldered Starlings in the bushes, on the ground and on overhead wires. I guessed there were well over 100 birds in the flock. Closer scrutiny revealed at least 6 Red-billed Starlings among their number. This is a scarce winter visitor to Taiwan, and a bird I have only encountered once before on a remote Korean offshore island.

Also in this area were two Crested Mynas among the abundant Javan and Common Mynas, a singing Oriental Reed Warbler, plenty of Common Kingfishers, and a flock of 18 Black-faced Spoonbills passing overhead. I wanted them to land somewhere and reveal the location of the best marshes, but they seemed to overfly the area completely, heading north.

I returned to Highway 17 and headed back south for a few kilometers, as far as a small village, where I turned west again and tried to navigate a large and confusing area of fish ponds. Roads petered out or were blocked by gates, and there were plenty of locals giving me curious stares. There was no sign of any spoonbills or marshes, but there were some interesting birds to be seen: a beautiful summer-plumaged Red-throated Pipit, an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, a Long-tailed Shrike, and a scattering of waders whenever a fishpond had been drained to reveal its muddy basin. These included Common Greenshanks, Black-winged Stilts, a pair of Little Ringed Plovers, and singles of Marsh, Wood and Common Sandpipers and Common Redshank.

My third and final port of call in this extensive area was the Yongan Wetland Reserve, which lies a couple of kilometers west of Highway 17 and is clearly signposted. A small blind offers views across a large, shallow lagoon. There were plenty of birds here, but a rather limited list of species: 16 Black-faced Spoonbills, a Sacred Ibis, 16 Avocets, and plenty of Black-winged Stilts and Eurasian Teal.

Trees in bloom near Yongan Wetlands Reserve, which were full of birds including Chestnut-tailed Starling.

Trees in bloom near Yongan Wetland Reserve, which were full of birds including Chestnut-tailed Starling.

Nearby, some flowering trees attracted lots of birds, including a few Chestnut-tailed Starlings. This attractive bird is introduced in Taiwan, and according to the literature, the Kaohsiung area is a good place to look for it.

As I headed home, I speculated on the chances of seeing a fourth starling species today. I must have manifested the appearance of Black-collared Starling because, just a few kilometers further along, I spotted one on the roadside. This large and beautiful starling is a native of south east Asia and has been introduced to Taiwan, but it is uncommon. In the same spot, there were also 2 Crested Mynas on overhead wires, allowing a direct comparison with the far more common introduced Javan Mynas.

So I didn’t find the Cheting wetland today, but the starlings and Crested Mynas provided more than ample compensation, and a good reason to return to the area soon and try again.

Swinhoe’s Snipe and Ruddy-breasted Crake, Tainan area, March 9th

Coastal dunes and pools by the Qigu "lighthouse", on an unseasonably cold and windy day

Coastal dunes and pools by the Qigu “lighthouse”, on an unseasonably cold and windy day

Highlights:

  • Swinhoe’s Snipe 1
  • Terek Sandpiper 1
  • Marsh Sandpiper 20
  • Red-necked Stint 15
  • Caspian Tern 1,000+
  • Little Tern 3
  • Ruddy-breasted Crake 1
  • Black-faced Spoonbill 5
  • Cinnamon Bittern 1
  • Chinese Pond Heron 1
  • Sacred Ibis 2
  • Garganey 20+
  • Pheasant-tailed Jacana 15
  • Emerald Dove 1
  • Black-faced Bunting 1

Today, I wanted to try out my two latest acquisitions: a new telescope (a Celestron 80mm spotting scope with 20-60x zoom, purchased for a bargain $150 on Amazon), and a scooter, which is a much more practical form of transport for birding than my Kawasaki Ninja. After a bit of fiddling around, I found I could fit not only my scope but also my new tripod under the scooter seat, making for a comfortable ride with only a lightweight pack on my back.

I left Kaohsiung early in the morning and drove north to Qigu, where my cheap telescope and tripod combo faced some unseasonable challenges: cold, windy and gloomy weather. My first stop was the Black-faced Spoonbill visitor center, but unsurprisingly the star birds were sheltering from the wind and were nowhere to be seen. At least there were some waders around: a single Terek Sandpiper (Taiwan tick), and plenty of Mongolian and Kentish Plovers, Common Greenshanks and Dunlins scattered across the mud. The most arresting spectacle, however, was the sight of more than 1,000 Caspian Terns roosting on the sandbar.

Leaving the center, I continued north and west along minor roads and eventually found my way to the Qigu “lighthouse”. This is a promising-looking area of scrub, dunes and pools, right next to the sea, and should be an excellent spot for migrants in April and May.

The best bird here today was a Cinnamon Bittern flushed from a ditch, only my second-ever sighting of this species (and my first in Taiwan). A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron allowed a very close approach, and a Black-faced Bunting (an early migrant?) hung around a patch of scrub. Nearby, mud-fringed pools behind the lighthouse hosted 5 Black-faced Spoonbills, with 2 Pacific Golden Plovers and a scattering of Red-necked Stints among the Dunlin flock. Just to the north, 2 Sacred Ibis were around the fishing harbor.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron, Qigu lighthouse pools, March 9th 2014.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron, Qigu lighthouse pools, March 9th 2014.

Given the less-than-ideal weather on the coast, I decided to head inland to the Pheasant-tailed Jacana reserve at Guantian. As soon as I arrived, I immediately spotted a small group of snipe on the left bank of the pool beside the visitor center. Most of them seemed to be Common Snipe, but one bird appeared a little different from the others, with a very wide buff supercilium in a plainer face immediately noticeable. Viewing conditions through the scope were pretty good, and over a period of about 30 minutes I was able to discern most of the ID characteristics of Swinhoe’s Snipe: the wide supercilium and narrow eyestripe, heavy build, and especially the plain buff-brown upperparts (lack of clear “braces”) which contrasted with very reddish-looking tail feathers.

According to the literature, Swinhoe’s Snipe is a regular winter visitor to Taiwan, but rarely does one get a decent opportunity for prolonged observation of snipes at close range which is necessary for a conclusive identification. So it’s a great bird to get onto the list.

There were plenty of other birds to be seen at Guantian. Among large numbers of dabbling ducks including Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Shoveler, and Teal, there were more than 20 Garganey. 15 or so Pheasant-tailed Jacanas roamed the pools, there was a single Chinese Pond Heron, and an Emerald Dove flushed from the path.

The second highlight occurred when I had almost got back to the visitor center. I disturbed a small crake on a tiny muddy pool near the reserve entrance, which ran quickly into cover. I sat and waited and after nearly an hour, just when I was about to give up, a Ruddy-breasted Crake cautiously and very briefly peered out at me – a second lifer for the day capping an excellent visit to Guantian reserve.

Eurasian Jay and Dusky Fulvetta, Tengjhih National Forest, March 8th

The last of this morning's fog retreating from the mountaintops at Tengjhih.

The last of this morning’s fog retreating from the mountaintops at Tengjhih.

Birds seen:

  • Eurasian Jay 2
  • White-bellied Green Pigeon 3
  • Grey-chinned Minivet 1
  • Pale Thrush 1
  • Dusky Fulvetta 1
  • White-tailed Robin 1
  • Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler 1
  • Steere’s Liocichla 15
  • Taiwan Sibia 20
  • Rufous-faced Warbler 10
  • Black-throated Tit 8
  • Taiwan Yuhina 10
  • Olive-backed Pipit 2
  • Oriental Honey Buzzard 1
  • Crested Serpent Eagle 1

After more than a month in the USA, it was great to get back to Taiwan and catch up with the latest happenings at my “local” mountain patch, Tengjhih National Forest.

Patchy dense fog along the upper reaches of the road severely restricted bird activity in the early morning, and even when the fog finally cleared away things didn’t improve much. Still, a pair of Eurasian Jays (scarce here) was a nice year tick, and a Dusky Fulvetta was very obliging in coniferous woodland along the small trail below the road at around Km 17, in exactly the same spot I saw this species a few weeks ago.

I then drove back to the village at Km 15 and walked the first part of the blue trail, but bird activity was still on the low side. A Pale Thrush on the trail was a Tengjhih tick, and a Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler showed in a bamboo patch. Some brand new green signboards have been installed along the trail, so the local authorities are obviously investing some money in the hiking infrastructure here. I hope that doesn’t lead to an influx of weekend visitors to this peaceful area.

One of the new signboards along the blue trail. No doubt some Chinese-language-only information will be added shortly.

One of the new signboards along the blue trail. No doubt some Chinese-language-only information will be added shortly.