Taiwan Bush-Warbler and Russet Sparrow, Alishan/Yushan, May 17th and 18th

Early morning views at about Km 53 on Highway 18. Alishan is a magical place.

Early morning views at about Km 53 on Highway 18. Alishan is a magical place.

Highlights:

  • Taiwan Bush-Warbler 1 seen well plus others heard
  • Russet Sparrow 1 male
  • Taiwan Wren-Babbler 2
  • Vinaceous Rosefinch 6
  • Ferruginous Flycatcher 3
  • White-backed Woodpecker 2
  • Flamecrest 1 seen well plus others heard

Others: White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Steere’s Liocichla, Taiwan Whistling-Thrush, Taiwan Fulvetta, Taiwan Sibia, Taiwan Yuhina, Collared Bush-Robin, Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warbler, Rufous-faced Warbler, Green-backed Tit, Black-throated Tit, Spotted Nutcracker, Large-billed Crow, Striated Prinia, Asian House Martin.

For my last roll of the birding dice this spring, I chose to visit Alishan and Yushan. It was my first visit to the high mountains this year, and easy year ticks like White-whiskered Laughingthrush and Taiwan Fulvetta were waiting for me up there. Also this is an excellent time of year for a crack at the highly elusive Taiwan Bush-Warbler, which is almost impossible to find when not singing. As a final temptation, several online trip reports mentioned that my “most wanted” bird – Russet Sparrow – can be seen in the village of Xiding, halfway up the mountain.

Non-birders – and even some birders – are probably vexed by my fixation with Russet Sparrow. It’s a scarce species in East Asia, one I missed when I lived in Korea and one that I’ve spent quite a lot of time looking for in Taiwan. Here it’s known to be rare and declining, with a population of less than 1,000 birds confined to mid-elevation villages.

I made a very early start from Kaohsiung on Saturday, and by about 8.30am I was in the village of Xiding. At Km 55.1, a loud chirping made me stop the scooter, and there it was: a fine male Russet Sparrow, singing its heart out on a telephone pole right next to Highway 18. It was a beautiful bird, and I spent some time enjoying it. There was no sign of a female, and no sign of any further Russet Sparrows in Xiding or nearby villages – this is a scarce bird indeed, and one I’d just seen in fine style.

Male Russet Sparrow, Xiding village, May 17th.

Male Russet Sparrow, Xiding village, May 17th.

Male Russet Sparrow, Xiding village, May 17th.

Male Russet Sparrow, Xiding village, May 17th.

I didn’t get to the Tataka visitor center area until about 11.00am, and bird activity was very low, with little of note seen apart from some of the commonest high-altitude birds (White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Collared Bush Robin, Taiwan Fulvetta and Spotted Nutcracker).

I stayed overnight in Chiayi City, and the next day made an early start – although I didn’t make it to the high mountains by first light, as it’s about a two-hour drive from Chiayi to Tataka and I just couldn’t face getting up at 3.30am. I stopped here and there along the way, seeing Striated Prinia in several places, the Russet Sparrow again, and a pair of Taiwan Whistling-Thrushes beside the road at Km 82.

Another beautiful view on the way up to Alishan. It's a nice drive if you can somehow avoid the tour buses.

Another beautiful view on the way up to Alishan. It’s a nice drive if you can somehow avoid getting stuck behind the legions of tour buses.

Things started getting interesting at Km 101, where there was a pair of Vinaceous Rosefinches beside the road. I went on to see a total of 6 of these beautiful birds during the morning. Today, I drove past Tataka, where Highway 18 becomes Highway 21, and continued to Km 141.6, where there is a lone and obvious dead tree to the left of the road. Nearly opposite the tree, on the right, a Taiwan Bush-Warbler was singing loudly very close to the road. I waited and waited, just staring at the grass and bushes, until the slightest of movements gave away the bird’s location and I was able to enjoy awesome close views. Birders often have to rely on tapes to lure this excessively skulking bird into the open, but all I needed today was a stroke of luck (thankfully, because I don’t use tapes!).

The dead tree had several easily-viewed Ferruginous Flycatchers, an attractive summer migrant to montane forests in Taiwan which I had only seen once previously.

I returned to Tataka to search unsuccessfully for Golden Parrotbill and Grey-headed Bullfinch, both of which – especially the bullfinch – I’ve seen on numerous occasions here. But not today. Never mind, it gives me a good excuse to return to this lovely area again later in the year.

Today’s birding was to end with a flourish. A few kilometers back down the mountain towards Alishan, there is a small dirt parking lot and a track leading into some tall coniferous trees, on the left hand side of the road as you descend the mountain. I parked and walked along the trail, which at first goes through a rather birdless conifer plantation. After about 10 minutes walking, I had to negotiate a big landslide – passable with care – after which the trail starts following a water pipeline through primary montane forest. The habitat is excellent here and I had the place to myself. This should be an excellent place for a sighting of Mikado Pheasant (although I wasn’t lucky with this species today). I did, however, have really superb views of a Taiwan Wren-Babbler, which showed right out in the open in response to my “pishing” calls, a beautiful bird which the plates in field guides don’t do justice to.

Conifers at the start of the "pipeline trail", an excellent and little-used trail in Yushan National Park that passes through primary montane forest.

Conifers at the start of the “pipeline trail”, an excellent and little-used trail in Yushan National Park that passes through primary montane forest.

Further along, a pair of White-backed Woodpeckers – a Taiwan tick for me – finally showed well. After a couple of kilometers, the trail seemed to end quite spectacularly in a dark and damp cave. Further investigation revealed that it is possible to walk through the cave and out the other side, where presumably the pipeline trail continues. However, you would need a flashlight which I didn’t have, so I reluctantly turned around and returned to the trailhead.

Continuous heavy rain started soon afterwards, so I was forced to cut short my birding for the day and return to Kaohsiung. I was delighted with my two lifers this weekend, and it’s good to get my year list comfortably through the 200 mark before I return to England for 10 days.

Lifers: Russet Sparrow, Taiwan Bush-Warbler (total 1,775). Taiwan tick: White-backed Woodpecker (total 229). Year ticks: Spotted Nutcracker, White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Taiwan Fulvetta, Flamecrest, Vinaceous Rosefinch, Ferruginous Flycatcher, Taiwan Wren-Babbler (total 203).

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Black-naped Oriole, Chengching Lake, May 15th

A pair of Black-naped Orioles is currently easily viewable feeding young at Chengching Lake in central Kaohsiung.

To see the birds, enter the lake area through the main gate at the southern end. Entry is free for Kaohsiung residents with supporting ID, otherwise a small fee is payable. Once inside, follow the road to the left. After 1.3km, the road turns sharply to the right, and two pagodas with red pillars and grey-green roofs can be seen to the right, at the edge of the lake. Park and walk to the pagodas. The nest is in trees next to the pagodas, directly above the trail, and the birds can be easily seen coming and going. They’re popular with photographers, so you probably won’t have the place to yourself!

Also seen during my visit this morning were several Asian Glossy Starlings, and good views of Taiwan Barbet and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, both of which are numerous and easily seen at this site.

Taiwan tick: Black-naped Oriole.

Azure-winged Magpie, Tainan, May 13th

A hot and humid day, with heavy showers already bubbling up by noon. I followed last Saturday’s birding route, starting in the coastal pines at Qigu, working my way south then east around the levee, then checking out the trees and marshes on the southern side of the Tsengwen river.

There was no sign of any of Saturday’s interesting birds, and migrants were far fewer in number today. It’s starting to feel like summer here.

At Qigu, a smart Long-toed Stint was probably the highlight. Numbers of the common passage waders were in the low single digits only, but 25 Avocets were still hanging around one of the pools along the levee. Nothing of note in the coastal forest apart from 2 Arctic Warblers still. A lone Caspian Tern was back at the marshes, several Little Terns were around, and about 8 Greater Crested Terns fished offshore.

On the south side of the estuary, there was no sign of Saturday’s Asian Dowitcher. Just as the rains arrived, I finally rescued a tick for the day, with two Azure-winged Magpies in the grounds of Sihcao Artillery Fort. This is an introduced species in Taiwan, and despite being somewhat “plastic” is still a nice bird to see.

Taiwan tick: Azure-winged Magpie.

Asian Dowitcher and terns, Tainan area, May 10th

Highlights:

  • Asian Dowitcher 1
  • Gull-billed Tern 1
  • White-winged Tern 4
  • Greater Crested Tern 5
  • Ruddy-breasted Crake 1
  • Little Bunting 1
  • Chinese Sparrowhawk 1
  • Black-shouldered Kite 2
  • Arctic Warbler 2
  • Brown-headed Thrush 1

Other waders seen: Broad-billed Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Avocet, Whimbrel, Grey-tailed Tattler, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Greater Sandplover, Mongolian Plover, Kentish Plover, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, Common Sandpiper.

Migrants continue to trickle northwards along the Taiwan coast, and some interesting oddities were seen during a four hour visit to the Qigu and Tainan marshes this morning. The showery weather of the last few days has probably helped to ground a few migrants; for example it was notable that Brown Shrikes were very numerous today.

In terms of rarity, the outstanding highlight was an Asian Dowitcher on a pool just inland of the coastal belt of woodland, on the southern (Tainan) side of the Tsengwen estuary. At first, all too briefly, it was close to the road associating with three Avocets and a couple of Marsh Sandpipers. However, a passing scooter soon flushed it to the far side of the pool, where it showed well but rather distantly. Unlike the full breeding-plumaged individual I found at Aogu last weekend, this bird was only just starting to moult into summer plumage, and had a rather strong head pattern with a distinct supercilium; it was also up to its belly in water and for a brief moment I wondered if it could be a Long-billed Dowitcher, but it soon wandered into shallower water where its black legs could be seen. The thick, all-black and “drop-tipped” bill is also a giveaway even at long range.

Two self-found Asian Dowitchers in just seven days is lucky indeed, but I couldn’t help wanting to trade at least one of them for a Nordmann’s Greenshank, the only East Asian shorebird I still haven’t seen. Such is birding!

Elsewhere, the coastal pine forest at Qigu produced two Arctic Warblers and a Brown-headed Thrush, in other words similar birds to last week but minus the rarities. A migrant Chinese Sparrowhawk flew north along the coast, a year tick for me, while two Black-shouldered Kites were in the area. Today, I drove the full length of the levee road around the Qigu marshes, where the best bird was a superb Little Bunting beside the road, my second rare migrant bunting species this week after Tuesday’s Tristram’s Bunting at Donggang.

There weren’t many waders on Qigu marshes today; the water level was high, limiting the amount of exposed mud. However, a Gull-billed Tern here was a Taiwan tick for me. Offshore, Greater Crested Terns fished in the mouth of the Tsengwen Estuary, while further around the levee on a reedy pool, I disturbed a Ruddy-breasted Crake which gave me a five-second view before it disappeared into cover. A flooded rice paddy held a big mixed flock of breeding-plumaged Broad-billed, Curlew and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Red-necked Stints.

The bird I enjoyed the most today is a fairly common passage migrant in Taiwan: White-winged Tern. There were three of them with Whiskered Terns at fishponds next to Highway 17 near Cheting, and another overflew the Tainan marshes. It’s a dazzling bird in its spring plumage, and one I cannot imagine ever getting tired of seeing.

Taiwan ticks: Gull-billed Tern, Little Bunting. Year ticks: Chinese Sparrowhawk, White-winged Tern.

Tristram’s Bunting, Donggang, May 6th

Today dawned cool, drizzly and misty – ideal conditions for seeing migrant birds on the coast – so off I went to try and find a suitable location for grounded migrants at Donggang.

The place I particularly had in mind was a mile-long stretch of the seawall, just south of Donggang town and west of the big Dapeng Bay bridge. An extensive overgrown cemetery, patches of trees and a scattering of ponds here offer plenty of cover for tired birds.

It turned out to be a morning of quality over quantity. I hit the jackpot with a splendid male Tristram’s Bunting, which showed very well along the roadside and among the overgrown gravestones of the cemetery. Tristram’s Bunting is a perfect “birder’s bird” – an enigmatic, unobtrusive East Asian speciality, but easy to identify, and stunning-looking with its richly toned colors and black-and-white striped head. I’ve seen them on a number of occasions in Korea, but it’s not a bird I had given any thought to seeing in Taiwan as they are such rare visitors here.

An hour later, and half a mile further east, I had another sighting of a male Tristram’s Bunting along the roadside. Given its rarity, I can only assume that it was the same bird that had moved along the coast.

Not a lot else in this area except for unusually good views of a migrant Oriental Reed Warbler, and a scattering of Brown Shrikes.

Nearby, in Dapeng Bay, still one Chinese Egret on the mudflats. Also here, an Oriental Pratincole (my first record for this site), a much-reduced scattering of passage waders (“only” 13 wader species today), and 68 Greater Crested Terns counted on and around the fishing platform in the bay.

Tristram’s Bunting is my 222nd Taiwanese bird species, and my 187th for this year.

Fairy Pitta, Huben area, May 4th

Fairy Pitta, Linnei Park, May 4th.

Fairy Pitta, Linnei Park, May 4th.

This was a trip I’d been anticipating for a long time: an early May visit to Huben in central Taiwan, which is famous for being a reliable breeding area for the globally endangered and declining Fairy Pitta.

The birds return from their wintering grounds in Borneo in late April. They are vocal and conspicuous on their breeding territories until mid-late May, but become quiet and very elusive as the summer progresses. I reckoned I had picked just about the peak weekend for my best chance to see this stunning bird.

I arrived late on Saturday afternoon after an excellent day birding the West Coast wetlands. My first port of call was the Pitta Cafe.

The excellent Pitta Cafe in Huben Village, a good place to go for the latest information on Fairy Pittas in the area.

The excellent Pitta Cafe in Huben Village, a good place to go for the latest information on Fairy Pittas in the area.

The Pitta Cafe offers accommodation as well as food and drinks; rooms are basic, clean and comfortable and cost just 500NT including breakfast. The owners speak a little English and are well used to birders and their early morning starts – they were willing to make breakfast for me at any time from 4am onwards!

I went to sleep to the sound of a Mountain Scops Owl calling nearby.

Note on my door at the Pitta Cafe .... now that is excellent service.

Note on my door at the Pitta Cafe …. now that is excellent service.

The morning dawned grey and drizzly, but a calling Taiwan Hill Partridge in the distance felt like a good omen for the day! I elected to join the promised 6.00am Fairy Pitta-finding activity and it turned out to be an excellent decision. This involved driving with the Pitta Cafe owner for about 10 minutes to Linnei Park, on the outskirts of Linnei township. This is an area of dense, damp lowland forest, prime breeding habitat for Fairy Pittas.

On arrival, at around 6.15am, we were met by some 30 birders, photographers and schoolchildren, all keen for a glimpse of the pitta. This large group walked into the forest, talking loudly all the while, and I was beginning to regret my decision to join the tour. I needn’t have worried – just 5 minutes walk into the forest, everyone suddenly stopped when one of the group leaders disturbed a Fairy Pitta from right next to the path. It flew up into some bamboo and showed fairly well before flying deeper into the forest.

Fairy Pitta dates of first arrival and total numbers in the Huben area since 2006. There has been an overall steep decline in recent years, but thankfully numbers rebounded a little last year.

Fairy Pitta dates of first arrival and total numbers in the Huben area since 2006. There has been an overall steep decline in recent years, but thankfully numbers rebounded a little last year.

A little further on, a clearing in the forest was being staked out by at least 40 photographers. I waited for about 10 minutes, then suddenly a Fairy Pitta came down to the clearing. It showed extremely well, not bothered at all by the long lenses just 15 feet away from where it hopped around on the ground. It felt like a most unlikely way to see a pitta, which are notorious for being very shy and elusive. Here, they must be well-used to their legions of admirers!

Fairy Pitta, Linnei Park, May 4th.

Fairy Pitta, Linnei Park, May 4th.

The pitta even indulged in some singing, which was loud enough to not be drowned out by the incessant clicking of the cameras. Well satisfied with this sighting, I returned to the trail, where another Fairy Pitta was calling from a thicket, and at least two further males were heard singing in the general area. It was remarkable how many photographers were in the general area (more than 100!) and how little it seemed to disturb the Fairy Pittas.

The only other bird of note was a Bronzed Drongo, which showed well beside the path:

Bronzed Drongo, Linnei Park, May 4th.

Bronzed Drongo, Linnei Park, May 4th.

Fairy Pitta takes my life list to 1,773 species. The pitta plus Asian Dowitcher, Red Knot, Ruddy Kingfisher, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher and Barred Buttonquail, all seen this weekend on the west coast, bring my Taiwan life list to 221 and my 2014 year list to 186 species.

Asian Dowitcher and Taiwan rarities, West Coast wetlands, May 3rd and 4th

Coastal pine forest on the north side of the Tsengwen Estuary at Qigu: a hotspot for rare migrants.

Coastal pine forest on the north side of the Tsengwen Estuary at Qigu: a hotspot for rare migrants.

Highlights:

Waders: 28 wader species were seen. Counts are extremely approximate (100s = “hundreds”!). I stopped in for mainly brief visits to Cheting, Qigu, and Budai, but I spent much longer at Aogu.

  • Asian Dowitcher 1
  • Great Knot 1
  • Red Knot 10
  • Curlew Sandpiper 1000+
  • Broad-billed Sandpiper 100s
  • Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 100s
  • Marsh Sandpiper 80
  • Terek Sandpiper 25
  • Grey-tailed Tattler 3
  • Wood Sandpiper 2
  • Common Sandpiper 2
  • Long-toed Stint 2
  • Red-necked Stint 100s
  • Dunlin 6
  • Whimbrel 5
  • Eastern Black-tailed Godwit 40
  • Avocet 50
  • Spotted Redshank 9
  • Common Greenshank
  • Common Redshank
  • Grey Plover 1
  • Pacific Golden Plover
  • Greater Sandplover
  • Mongolian Plover
  • Kentish Plover
  • Ruddy Turnstone 4
  • Snipe sp. 1
  • Black-winged Stilt

Other birds:

  • Ruddy Kingfisher 2
  • Asian Paradise-Flycatcher 1
  • Arctic Warbler 1
  • Brown-headed Thrush 2
  • Oriental Cuckoo 1
  • Barred Buttonquail 1
  • Savanna Nightjar 1
  • Richard’s Pipit 1
  • Black-faced Bunting 2
  • Long-tailed Shrike 2
  • Black-shouldered Kite 2
  • Chinese Egret 1
  • Cinnamon Bittern 1
  • Black-faced Spoonbill 40
  • Caspian Tern 30
  • Whiskered Tern
  • Little Tern
  • Black-headed Gull 1

The above highlights list says it all; this was a superb weekend with quite staggering numbers of some wader species, plus an excellent sprinkling of non-wader scarcities and just generally some damn good birding. If only it could be early May all year round.

To make things even better, the above birds were merely the bread in a Fairy Pitta sandwich, the main reason I headed to central Taiwan this weekend. But more on that later.

I headed north from Kaohsiung early on Saturday morning, and a 10-minute stop at Cheting provided a gentle warm-up. On the main lagoon, there were a couple of Greater Sandplovers, some Red-necked Stints and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, and a lone Curlew Sandpiper. The latter bird was a precursor to at least a thousand more seen during the course of the weekend; its description as an uncommon migrant in Brazil’s book Birds of East Asia seems to be very inaccurate, at least as far as the west coast of Taiwan in early May is concerned.

Next, onwards to Qigu; a breeding-plumaged Chinese Egret strutting around in front of the Black-faced Spoonbill center was an excellent find, my tenth individual Chinese Egret of the spring. There were also around 25 Terek Sandpipers here, a bird I didn’t see at all at the other wetland sites this weekend. Further north again, and a couple of stops in the Budai area produced 9 late Spotted Redshanks, a couple of Eastern Black-tailed Godwits, and two Ruddy Turnstones. Nothing to get the pulse racing just yet, but very enjoyable birding and plenty of lovely breeding-plumaged waders to look at.

I was excited for my first visit to Aogu wetlands, an oblong of land that juts out into the sea in Chiayi County. It’s a big area and unfortunately, not knowing any better, I wasted a fair amount of time in the interior, which is covered mainly with eucalyptus and other trees interspersed with occasional marshes. There were a lot of common birds in there, but the only species of note was a Barred Buttonquail (year tick) beside one of the dirt roads.

Finally, I found my way into the sea wall, which skirts the entire perimeter of the area and has a convenient road running along its entire length (and even some birding hides). This was nice easy birding, just cruising along on the scooter and stopping to scan with the pools through my scope whenever wader flocks were seen. The marshes and pools here are quite extensive, and birds were truly abundant; probably the total number of Curlew Sandpipers I saw here today outnumbered all my previous sightings of this species put together.

I didn’t see any real rarities the first day, but several Red Knots were around (Taiwan tick) and a single Great Knot. It felt a little odd searching for the very scarce Dunlins among the Curlew Sandpipers; growing up in England, the opposite scenario was always the case.

Female Cinnamon Bittern, sadly found recently dead on the road near Budai.

Female Cinnamon Bittern, sadly found recently dead on the road near Budai.

On the second morning, I finally found the rarity I was looking for: a superb breeding plumaged Asian Dowitcher, showing at quite close range. After enjoying this bird for a while, I proceeded along the embankment and just 200 yards later encountered a tour group of British birders. I showed them the dowitcher, which was a lifer for one of the group; there’s nothing better than finding a rare bird and being able to share it with others for once. This is a very unusual scenario in Taiwan, where I virtually never run into other English-speaking birders.

Finally in Aogu, along the north side of the embankment, an area of scrub, murky ponds, and dried-out reedbeds produced a few oddities; a twice-flushed Savanna Nightjar, an Oriental Cuckoo, a Black-faced Bunting, and two flyover Black-shouldered Kites.

Photographers watching one of the two Ruddy Kingfishers present in coastal forest at Qigu, May 4th.

Photographers watching one of the two Ruddy Kingfishers present in coastal forest at Qigu, May 4th.

By now it was 1pm on Sunday, and it was time to leave and start making the long drive south towards Kaohsiung. As I passed near Qigu, on a whim I decided to make the 20-minute roundtrip detour from Highway 17 and call in there again. The tour group of British birders was just leaving the Black-faced Spoonbill hide as I arrived. They hadn’t seen much from the hide, but were headed to an area of coastal forest nearby that sometimes produced rare migrants: a narrow belt of pine trees and driftwood, literally on the white sand beach at the northern mouth of the Tsengwen River. We weren’t alone in this Robinson Crusoe-like setting today; the presence of about 50 excited bird photographers, and easy banter with the British birders, reminded me strongly of birding the north Norfolk coast. The photographers were there to see the two Ruddy Kingfishers that were present – this is not only a Taiwan rarity, but is also an extremely attractive bird, hence the large numbers of photographers. We also saw the long-staying Asian Paradise-Flycatcher here, a common SE Asian species that is a rare migrant in Taiwan. An Arctic Warbler and two Brown-headed Thrushes also showed themselves in the pines, plus a mystery bird that, on the very brief flight glimpses obtained, appeared to be an unusually chestnut-colored accipiter.

Taiwan ticks: Asian Dowitcher, Red Knot, Ruddy Kingfisher and Asian Paradise-Flycatcher. Year tick: Barred Buttonquail.