Taiwan Whistling-Thrush and Striated Prinia, Wutai, April 24th.

River valley near Dawu.

River valley near Dawu.

A beautiful and enjoyable Thursday morning with a non-birding friend in the mountains of Wutai, although I failed to see either of my two target birds – Savanna Nightjar and Russet Sparrow.

The first good birds were two Taiwan Whistling-Thrushes beside Highway 24, at about Km 35. Our first stop was at the landslide beyond Km 45, where we clambered down the steep scree slopes in the hope of encountering a roosting Savanna Nightjar. No luck, but two Striated Prinias were singing and briefly glimpsed as they engaged in a territorial dispute.

Steep rocky slopes where I saw roosting Savanna Nightjars in December ... but not yet in 2014.

Steep rocky slopes where I found roosting Savanna Nightjars in December … but not yet in 2014.

Next, we made our way back to Wutai village, then took the occasionally steep and badly-surfaced road down to Dawu village. This is a small, remote settlement reached by a beautiful suspension bridge over a gravel-bedded river. Plumbeous Redstart, Collared Finchbill, Blue Rock Thrush and several Black-eared Kites didn’t quite make up for the lack of Russet Sparrow, but it was enjoyable nonetheless to wander around this aboriginal village, looking at the view and listening to the local tribal language being spoken. It’s amazing how different life can be, just ninety minutes drive from Kaohsiung City.

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24 Wader Species at Budai, Beimen, Qigu, Guantian and Cheting, April 22nd

Waders (with very approximate combined totals from all the sites visited):

  • Broad-billed Sandpiper 20
  • Curlew Sandpiper 200
  • Marsh Sandpiper 50
  • Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 40
  • Terek Sandpiper 12
  • Dunlin 5
  • Red-necked Stint 70
  • Long-toed Stint 4
  • Wood Sandpiper 2
  • Common Sandpiper 4
  • Eastern Black-tailed Godwit 8
  • Avocet 50
  • Black-winged Stilt 100
  • Common Redshank 1
  • Common Greenshank 10
  • Greater Sandplover 20
  • Mongolian Plover 50
  • Pacific Golden Plover 300
  • Grey Plover 1
  • Kentish Plover 30
  • Common Snipe 3
  • Greater Painted-Snipe 2
  • Oriental Pratincole 7
  • Pheasant-tailed Jacana 30

Other Birds (highlights only):

  • Black-shouldered Kite 1
  • Osprey 1
  • Black-faced Spoonbill 10
  • Sacred Ibis 3
  • Yellow Bittern 1
  • Caspian Tern 10
  • Whiskered Tern 50
  • Little Tern 10
  • Eurasian Wigeon 50
  • Northern Shoveler 10
  • Common Teal 1
  • Ring-necked Pheasant 2 heard
  • Chestnut-tailed Starling 1
  • Oriental Magpie-Robin 1
  • Long-tailed Shrike 3
  • Richard’s Pipit 1
  • Eastern Yellow Wagtail 6

An exhausting day with nearly 300km driven on the scooter, but a huge number of birds was a fair reward for my efforts!

First, a 10-minute early-morning stop at the main Cheting Marshes lagoon kickstarted the day’s wader list, with a flock of about 15 sandplovers containing mostly the scarcer Greater Sandplover. Also 9 Red-necked Stints, 2 Kentish Plovers, and a few other common waders – but no sign of the usual Avocet flock today.

I then drove steadily north all the way to Budai Township, in Chiayi County, glimpsing some Oriental Pratincoles, Whiskered Terns and a Yellow Bittern along the way. The salt pans at Budai are mentioned in many trip reports as being a good bet for big numbers of waders in peak migration season (now!). Not having precise directions, I was hoping to stumble across some good habitat by just driving up Highway 17, and indeed I did. The very best pools were on the right hand side just after the small village where local road 163 crosses the 17. A fantastic selection of waders – mostly in their beautiful summer plumage – included about 20 Broad-billed Sandpipers (Taiwan tick) and 200 (!) Curlew Sandpipers, with a supporting cast of other birds around the complex including a few lingering Black-faced Spoonbills and wintering ducks.

The muddy margins of dried-out fishponds are a good bet for a subtly different selection of waders to open marshes, and that was the case here at a small roadside pond just to the south of the above-mentioned village: several Long-toed Stints, Wood Sandpipers, and Marsh Sandpipers feeding close to the road and giving excellent scope views.

Scooter-based birding at Budai salt pans.

Scooter-based birding at Budai salt pans.

A larger area of salt pans to the north, easily viewed from Highway 17, was the favored area for Avocets and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, and a lone Eastern Black-tailed Godwit (Taiwan tick). There was also a fine Osprey fishing here.

My next stop was Beimen. I had no idea where to concentrate my search in this large area of – predictably – fishponds, cropfields and coastal lagoons. I didn’t find much I hadn’t seen already today, although a flock of 7 Eastern Black-tailed Godwits flew over. I searched the dry rice paddies for Little Curlew to no avail, but I did encounter three Long-tailed Shrikes here.

It’s not clear from Google maps, but it’s possible to “shadow” Expressway 61 along most of its length on a service road, instead of following the twists and turns of Highway 17. This is ideal for scooter-based birders, who cannot legally drive on the Expressways. Heading south by this method, it’s a direct and quick journey from Beimen to Qigu. I stopped for 15 minutes at the Black-faced Spoonbill visitor center, where the majority of the waders visible were – surprisingly – Terek Sandpipers (I didn’t see this species at all at Budai or Beimen). Also here, a single Grey Plover and a scattering of distant Caspian Terns on the mud.

Finally, I figured I could fit in an hour at the Guantian Pheasant-tailed Jacana reserve, 40 minutes drive to the east of Qigu, before I had to return to Kaohsiung. As I walked around the reserve, I was pleasantly surprised by the high number of Pheasant-tailed Jacanas on view. They are really splendid birds in summer plumage, and even on a Tuesday afternoon there were several photographers enjoying them. Not much else was around except for three Common Snipe, and at least two Ring-necked Pheasants heard calling from nearby fields but not seen.

My main target bird for this area was Greater Painted-Snipe. A little disappointed not to encounter one on the reserve, I drove slowly east along minor roads through rice paddies. First, a beautiful Black-shouldered Kite drifted through. Then, just 50 yards west of Highway 1, in the last furrow of the last rice paddy before the main road, there it was …. a Greater Painted-Snipe. A true last-minute bird. Very good views, although it was the slightly duller male and not the brilliant chestnut-with-white-braces female (this species exhibits reverse sexual dimorphism) – but in any case a long overdue bird for the life list that perfectly rounded off a great day’s birding.

Greater Painted-Snipe, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Eastern Black-tailed Godwit bring my Taiwan life list and year list to 212 and 176 respectively.

Chinese Egret, Dapeng Bay, April 19th

Poor digiscoped record shot of two of the four Chinese Egrets present at Dapeng Bay on April 19th. The bird on the right is a Little Egret.

Poor digiscoped record shot of two of the four Chinese Egrets present at Dapeng Bay on April 19th. The bird on the right is a Little Egret.

I started late on Saturday, and had no clear plan for the day except to drive into Pingtung County and perhaps locate the Inda Eco-Farm, which is mentioned in some trip reports as being the best site in Taiwan for Black-naped Oriole.

Once over the huge Gaopeng Bridge, I drove north for a couple of kilometers to my usual wader spot on the east bank of the river. It’s not a particularly scenic place, and there was plenty of industrial activity today with trucks rumbling back and forth. Still, waders on the river included a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and a Marsh Sandpiper, alongside about 15 Wood Sandpipers and a handful of Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt and Little Ringed Plover.

There followed a brief and fruitless search for the Inda Eco-Farm along the Wanluan Township section of route 185. I will have to do more research to locate this place, but there isn’t much information about it on the internet in English.

I decided to continue south, and call in at Dapeng Bay on my way back to Kaohsiung. It turned out to be a great decision. Mudflats at the north-east corner of the bay held plenty of waders, many of which were in their smart summer plumage. Perhaps 300 Pacific Golden Plovers were accompanied on the mud by 3 Grey-tailed Tattlers (Taiwan tick), 3 Ruddy Turnstones (Taiwan tick), 9 Curlew Sandpipers, 10 or so Mongolian Plovers, a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 5 Red-necked Stints, and a handful of other common waders.

Nearby, two smart Black-headed Gulls were also new for me in Taiwan. But the stars of the show were no fewer than 4 summer-plumaged Chinese Egrets that rested on the mud for 30 minutes before flying off north. These birds were very distinctive with their almost comically long head-plumes blowing in the breeze, and vivid bright yellow-orange bills. There remain just 2,600 – 3,400 individuals of this sought-after East Asian endemic species, which is a rare migrant through Taiwan en route to its breeding grounds in Korea. It’s not a new bird for me (I’ve seen them in Thailand in winter), but a stunning and unexpected addition to my Taiwan list.

Chinese Egret, Black-headed Gull, Grey-tailed Tattler, and Ruddy Turnstone bring my Taiwan list to 209 and my year list to 173.

Taiwan Hwamei, Oriental Cuckoo and Oriental Pratincole, Kaohsiung area, April 17th

Oriental Cuckoo, Yuanfugang Wetlands Park, April 17th.

Oriental Cuckoo, Yuanfugang Wetlands Park, April 17th.

Oriental Cuckoo, Yuanfugang Wetlands Park, April 17th.

Today I figured that it was about time to get the Taiwan Hwamei onto the year list. This is an endemic species that most visiting birders see in the car park of the Longluan Lake Nature Center near Kenting; however, I have yet to encounter it there despite many visits.

My reliable site for Taiwan Hwamei is at Shoushan (Monkey Mountain), a mere 10-minute drive from my house. I parked near the zoo and walked up the wide approach road, which is flanked by mature trees and is a reliable spot for Taiwan Barbet. The best area for Taiwan Hwamei, in my experience, is the area around the start of the trailhead and the first 200 meters or so of the trail to the Emerald Pavilion.

This is a skulking species that is easiest to see when singing; unfortunately, none were singing today, and even if they had been, there’s a good chance they would have been drowned out by the chorus of loud voices and radios from the many hikers in the area this morning.

Undeterred, I walked the first section of the Emerald Pavilion trail, which passes the zoo’s peacock enclosure. Shortly afterwards, on the right, I heard some scraping in the leaves, and it was relatively straightforward to get decent views of a pair of Taiwan Hwameis (they seem fairly used to people here).

Alert to the possibility of Chinese Hwamei, or hybrids, I studied each bird carefully. Neither had any sign of an “eyebrow”, and each bird had a lovely golden-brown crown and nape consistent with pure Taiwan Hwamei.

With the Hwamei safely onto the year list, I headed north to Yuanfugang Wetlands Park. The most notable bird here was an excellent Oriental Cuckoo, which showed very well in small trees along the eastern end of the mangrove reserve. The bird was clearly a migrant and was therefore silent; separation on plumage and size of this lone bird from the almost identical (and some would say, dubiously split) Himalayan Cuckoo was impossible. I was happy to call this coastal migrant an Oriental, on the premise that locally breeding “Himalayans” probably head straight to their breeding grounds in mountain forests upon making landfall in Taiwan.

Also of note, my first Oriental Pratincole of the spring, which flew overhead while I was watching the cuckoo. The small wetland next to the factory had only one Pheasant-tailed Jacana today, but 9 Garganey (including 5 drakes) was my highest count for this site.

Taiwan Hwamei, Oriental Cuckoo and Oriental Pratincole bring my year list to 169 species.

TAIWAN HILL PARTRIDGE, Tengjhih National Forest, April 15th

The start of the trail to Tengjhih National Forest, in the fog.

The start of the trail to Tengjhih National Forest, in the fog.

A cool, foggy and drizzly day in the mountains at Tengjhih, but a red-letter day for me because I finally connected with Taiwan Hill Partridge. This bird is generally considered to be the most difficult Taiwan endemic to see. It is scarce and secretive, and spends its time on the ground in the interior of mountain forests, where dull lighting and its cryptic camouflage make it very hard to spot.

The interior of the forest along the trail to the Tengjhih entrance was very gloomy in the fog today, making viewing conditions challenging, but on the plus side there was not a breath of wind. Therefore it was easy to hear and locate bird calls and movements. Close to the 425 meter marker (distances along the trail are marked by red painted numbers on rocks and logs), I flushed two birds from forest on the left of the trail which – from their size and shape – were almost certainly Taiwan Hill Partridges, but the merest glimpse was not enough to confirm. Frustrating. However, just two minutes and twenty meters further along, I heard scraping sounds coming from the leaves, this time to the right of the trail. Careful stalking finally produced reasonable views of not one, but two Taiwan Hill Partridges feeding quietly on the ground.

Elated with this sighting, I continued along the trail as far as Tengjhih village, seeing two Eurasian Nuthatches (year tick) as well as many of the same species seen last week.

Deserted hotel in the ruins of Tengjhih village - a creepy place in the fog.

Deserted hotel in the ruins of Tengjhih village – a creepy place in the fog.

Returning along the same trail, I once again heard scraping sounds coming from the forest understorey at exactly the same point I had flushed the suspected Taiwan Hill Partridges on my outward journey. I quietly crept closer, and not only did I see a Taiwan Hill Partridge, I even managed to get a few seconds of video of it feeding then looking directly at me before it ran off into the forest. So it looks like there were two separate pairs of birds feeding by the trail in that area. It’s also very close to the spot where I heard Taiwan Hill Partridge calling on my visit last week.

By this time, I was keen to head down from the mountains out of the fog and drizzle, so I drove south along the 27 then the 185 towards Sandimen to check out Saijia Recreation Area, a site that I’d noticed several times recently while driving past and thought warranted a look.

It’s mainly a campsite and aviation park (for hang-gliding and paragliding). There’s also a grass ski slope and – this is what caught my eye – some open parkland with tall mature trees.

The two birds I had in mind were Collared Owlet and Black-naped Oriole, two species which might be found in such habitats in southern Taiwan. I had no luck with either, but I did get great views of a male Maroon Oriole. I also flushed a Malayan Night Heron, which flew into a nearby tree and peered accusingly at me from a low branch:

Malayan Night Heron, Saijia Recreation Area, April 15th.

Malayan Night Heron, Saijia Recreation Area, April 15th.

Taiwan Hill Partridge brings my life list to 1,771 and my all-time Taiwan list to 204. The partridge and Eurasian Nuthatch increase my 2014 Taiwan year list to 166 (I also added Pacific Reef Heron in Kenting last weekend).

Cheting Marshes and Yuanfugang Wetlands Park, April 13th

Cheting Marshes wader lagoon, with Great Egrets visible on the left.

Cheting Marshes wader lagoon, with Great Egrets visible on the left.

Highlights (Cheting):

  • Greater Sandplover 1
  • Red-necked Stint 4
  • Avocet 15
  • Pacific Golden Plover 21
  • Richard’s Pipit 1

Highlights (Yuanfugang):

  • Sacred Ibis 3
  • Pheasant-tailed Jacana 6
  • Garganey 3
  • Eurasian Coot 1
  • Yellow Bittern 1
  • Wood Sandpiper 1

A brief Sunday morning visit to these wetland sites, which are both easily accessible from Highway 17, north of Kaohsiung.

It was a hot, clear day. The main lagoon at Cheting was fairly quiet, with just 15 Avocets, a lingering Greater Sandplover (probably one of the two birds that have been present for several weeks), and a nice flock of 21 Pacific Golden Plovers that dropped in shortly after I arrived. Some of them were already in full summer plumage. The “photographers lagoon” had 4 Red-necked Stints, which flew off high to the south, and plenty of common waders (Black-winged Stilt, Common Greenshank and Marsh Sandpiper) distantly visible through the heat haze.

Next, I explored some minor roads at the back (north) of the Cheting site. The dried-out marshland produced a single Richard’s Pipit, and plenty of common birds in the grassland and around the scruffy fishponds.

Pacific Golden Plovers at Cheting Marshes, April 13th.

Pacific Golden Plovers, Cheting Marshes, April 13th.

Finally, I squeezed in a 20-minute trip to Yuanfugang Wetlands Park on my way back to Kaohsiung. A quick glance at the main ponds produced some of the specialities of the area: 3 Sacred Ibis, 6 Pheasant-tailed Jacana (mostly in their splendid summer plumage), 3 Garganey, a Eurasian Coot (uncommon in Taiwan), plus single Yellow Bittern and Wood Sandpiper.

Pacific Swallows, Cheting Marshes, April 13th.

Pacific Swallows, Cheting Marshes, April 13th.

Rusty Laughingthrush, Yellow Tit and Striated Prinia, Tengjhih National Forest, April 10th

Trail at Tengjhih National Forest.

Trail at Tengjhih National Forest.

Highlights:

  • Striated Prinia 1
  • Rusty Laughingthrush 1
  • Yellow Tit 1
  • Black Eagle 1
  • Crested Serpent Eagle 5
  • Besra 1
  • Crested Goshawk 2
  • Large-billed Crow 3
  • Eurasian Jay 1
  • Vivid Niltava 2
  • White-tailed Robin 2
  • Grey-cheeked Fulvetta 1
  • Rufous-faced Warbler many heard, few seen
  • Taiwan Sibia many heard, few seen
  • Steere’s Liocichla many heard, few seen
  • Collared Finchbill 1
  • Blue Rock Thrush 1
  • Black-faced Bunting 3
  • Taiwan Hill Partridge was heard calling repeatedly along the trail to Tengjhih National Forest HQ, but could not be seen.

Thursday morning, and I had to be at work in Kaohsiung at 1pm, but a very early start still allowed plenty of time for the 3.5-hour roundtrip drive to Tengjhih and a decent amount of time exploring the trails there.

My initial intention was to try a new site that I had read about, Shanping Arboretum, which lies a few kilometers south of Tengjhih, and like Tengjhih is signposted from Highway 27. The access road from the 27 is somewhat rough in places, and passes through a barren area of scree in what must have been a quite spectacular landslide. Unfortunately, I was turned back after about 3km at the mountain police station. I was not allowed to proceed any further – whether this was because the Shanping Arboretum is closed today, or I was too early, or is never open, was not clear to me. Anyway, I hadn’t wasted much time, so I immediately headed north to Tengjhih.

The narrow road to Shanping Arboretum passed through the site of a huge landslide.

The narrow road to Shanping Arboretum passes through the site of a huge landslide.

I love driving the 18km-long mountain road up to Tengjhih. The early stages of the journey are marked by bright pink roadside flowers, and views down to the winding river far below. As the road climbs higher, any lingering remnants of Kaohsiung’s smog finally disappear, and I can breathe clean air again for a few hours.

Today I drove as far as I could go, to where the old road (and half of an unfortunate village) long ago plunged to the valley bottom in a huge landslide. As soon as I arrived, I heard an unfamiliar song from the low bushes that now grow out of the scree where the landslide took place. I had a pretty good idea about what it could be, and I crept closer and finally got excellent and prolonged views of a Striated Prinia. This is a rather unremarkable looking “little brown bird” of bushy areas, but one that until now had eluded me.

Tengjhih National Forest offers stunning views on a spring morning .... and it's less than two hours drive from Kaohsiung.

Tengjhih National Forest offers stunning views on a spring morning …. and it’s less than two hours drive from Kaohsiung.

Pleased to get a new bird under the belt, I walked up the steep, rough dirt road that now constitutes the only access to the formerly much-visited Tengjhih National Forest proper (in my posts, I refer to the whole area as Tengjhih, but the forest reserve itself is off-limits for the time being). The dirt road is impassable to normal cars and scooters, but you could drive it in a 4WD or dirt bike. I’ve only walked up this way a couple of times, mainly because the abandoned village (the other half of which plunged down the mountain during Typhoon Morakot in 2009) has a really spooky energy to it – in fact the last time I walked through the village, I unwittingly took some of that bad energy away with me which resulted in me crashing my motorcycle on the way back down the mountain.

However, today there was a better surprise in store …. a new trail (or at least, a newly signposted trail) on the left. Unlike other trails in the area, this one actually gets into the interior of some pretty good montane forest. It’s well-graded and about a mile long, following the ridge to the left of the road, and it eventually emerges at the entrance to the main area of Tengjhih National Forest, which is now (permanently?) closed due to the collapse of the access road.

Deserted - and structurally unsound - building at the main entrance to Tengjhih National Forest. This small village is now accessible only by steep dirt track, after the original access road collapsed during Typhoon Morakot in 2009.

Deserted – and structurally unsound – building at the main entrance to Tengjhih National Forest. This small village is now accessible only by steep dirt track, after the original access road collapsed during Typhoon Morakot in 2009.

It’s hard to find birds in mature forest, especially in the tropics – you always hear a lot more than you see. One such bird today was a calling Taiwan Hill Partridge, one of the very few Taiwan endemic birds that I have yet to see. This one was calling repeatedly, not far from the path; I waited where I could see a long section of the trail, but it didn’t come out. Heard-only birds are not countable on my list, but the confirmed presence of the partridge here ensures that I will be coming back to this trail regularly until I see it.

Taiwan Sibias, Steere’s Liocichlas and Rufous-faced Warblers are obviously very common in here, judging from the number of them singing, but I only laid eyes on a few individuals of each species. One bird I did get good view of was a smart Yellow Tit, which is always a delight to see. Two White-tailed Robins and a pair of Vivid Niltavas also showed well. The best bird was awaiting me in scrub back near the start point of the trail – a beautiful Rusty Laughingthrush. I was surprised that this one was alone, watching me suspiciously from a low branch – all my previous experiences of this species have been of flocks.

Another nice bird was a Eurasian Jay, which came close enough to allow for some opportunistic photography.

Eurasian Jay, Tengjhih National Forest, April 10th.

Eurasian Jay, Tengjhih National Forest, April 10th.

Elsewhere in the general Tengjhih area, it was a good day for soaring raptors, including a beautiful Black Eagle at Km 14, and a Besra a little further down the road, plus the expected Crested Serpent Eagles and Crested Goshawks.

Striated Prinia brings my life list to 1,770, and my all-time Taiwan list to 203, while Striated Prinia plus Rusty Laughingthrush boost my 2014 Taiwan year list to 163 species.