26 wader species and Gull-billed Tern, Beimen/Budai/Qigu, August 27th

View in my scooter's mirror of the wetlands at Km 134.5 on Highway 17, which today were absolutely teeming with egrets, terns and passage waders.

View in my scooter’s mirror of the wetlands at Km 134.5 on Highway 17, which today were absolutely teeming with egrets, terns and passage waders.

Waders (26 species, extremely approximate counts in most cases):

  • Ruff 1
  • Eastern Black-tailed Godwit 94
  • Whimbrel 3
  • Temminck’s Stint 2
  • Long-toed Stint 30
  • Red-necked Stint 400
  • Broad-billed Sandpiper 30
  • Curlew Sandpiper 150
  • Dunlin 3
  • Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 1
  • Terek Sandpiper 1
  • Wood Sandpiper 150
  • Common Sandpiper 2
  • Grey-tailed Tattler 1
  • Marsh Sandpiper 300
  • Common Greenshank 60
  • Common Redshank 150
  • Greater Sandplover 4
  • Mongolian Plover 10
  • Kentish Plover 300
  • Little Ringed Plover 100
  • Grey Plover 1
  • Pacific Golden Plover 300
  • Turnstone 40
  • Pintail Snipe 1+
  • Black-winged Stilt 300

Other birds (highlights):

  • Gull-billed Tern 1
  • White-winged Tern 1
  • Whiskered Tern
  • Little Tern
  • Sacred Ibis 18
  • Cinnamon Bittern 1
  • Yellow Bittern 1
  • Eurasian Wigeon 1
  • Tufted Duck 1
  • White-breasted Waterhen 1
  • Long-tailed Shrike 4
  • Eastern Yellow Wagtail 3

It’s no surprise that my favorite times of year for birding coincide exactly with the peak periods of wader passage, in April/May and August/September. Shorebirds have started passing through Taiwan in huge numbers, making for some spectacular birding at coastal marshes. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but personally I’m never happier than when I’m peering through my telescope at vast flocks of feeding waders, looking for the scarcities among them.

Today I started once again at the Km 134.5 marshes alongside Highway 17, where an early good find were two Temminck’s Stints creeping around at the edge of the wetland. The pools here were absolutely teeming with birds today, notably a nice flock of 92 Eastern Black-tailed Godwits (but, unlike last week, there were no Asian Dowitchers among them). Terns aplenty on the mud included a lone Gull-billed for a short while before it flew off west, and a juvenile White-winged among the abundant Little and Whiskered Terns. However, nearby there was no sign of the two Greater Flamingoes at “Flamingo Pools” (alongside Km 276 on Expressway 61).

Male Ruff (right hand bird) on flooded fields near Km 146 at Beimen. This is a scarce passage migrant in Taiwan.

Male Ruff (right hand bird) on flooded fields near Km 146 at Beimen. This is a scarce passage migrant in Taiwan.

Today I spent a fair amount of time at the excellent area of flooded fields in the vicinity of Km 146-147 on Highway 17. Almost every field had flocks of Red-necked and Long-toed Stints, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Wood Sandpipers, Common Redshanks and Black-winged Stilts, with small numbers of plenty of other species among them. The prize here was a male Ruff, a scarce migrant in Taiwan. Also here were three snipes, at least one of which showed characteristics of Pintail Snipe. This is an expected passage bird in Taiwan but one which until today I had not yet satisfactorily seen.

My final halt was Qigu, where one field held enormous numbers of waders including an excellent count of 40 Turnstones, plus my first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper of the autumn. This was a common passage bird in the spring; I imagine that their autumn passage period has yet to properly get underway. Along the seawall loop around the Qigu marshes there were relatively few birds, but those I did see plugged some gaps in the day list: lone Terek Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler and Grey Plover, and several Whimbrels.

Southern Red Bishop? Qigu, August 27th.

Southern Red Bishop? Qigu, August 27th.

Southern Red Bishop? Qigu, August 27th.

Southern Red Bishop? Qigu, August 27th.

While watching some waders, I was distracted by an unfamiliar song coming from the banks of the canal behind me. The protagonist was a small and very colorful bird, which seemed to be aggressively holding territory, chasing off any Japanese White-eyes and Scaly-breasted Munias that dared come too close! It looked to perhaps be a Southern Red Bishop, but in other photos I’ve seen of this species they normally seem to have a red collar (not an all-black face and breast). It’s obviously an escaped cagebird, but I would welcome any comments as to its identification.

Taiwan ticks: Ruff, Pintail Snipe (total 243).

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Taiwan Hill Partridge, Tengjhih National Forest, August 23rd

Highlights:

  • Taiwan Hill Partridge 6 (2 groups, 2+4)
  • Besra 1
  • Black Eagle 4
  • Eurasian Jay 6
  • Striated Prinia 1
  • Vivid Niltava 2

The attractive Taiwan Hill Partridge is often considered to be the toughest Taiwanese endemic bird to find. Today, I got lucky twice along the trail between the end of the road at Km 18, and the old Tengjhih National Forest HQ.

The first birds were a pair that showed on the ridge above the path near the 225 meter mark (distances are red-painted on rocks at random points along the trail). Several hours later, on my return journey, I encountered a group of four – perhaps including the earlier pair – at around the 275 meter mark.

Predictably, it was tough to get good views. Quiet stalking resulted in prolonged head-and-neck views of one bird in the first pair, but little more than glimpses of the second group as they worked their way through the undergrowth and eventually burst into flight.

Some tips on finding Taiwan Hill Partridge at Tengjhih:

  1. Get onto the trail early. A steady trickle of hikers from mid-morning onwards at weekends is likely to push the birds further away from the path. Also, in midsummer the excruciatingly noisy cicadas increase their chorus as the morning progresses, making birding by ear very difficult.
  2. Pick a calm day. On both occasions today, I first located the birds by creeping along the trail and listening for them scraping the leaf litter as they search for food. When there is a breeze, these sounds are easily drowned out by the rustling of the trees.
  3. Focus on the area between about 200 and 500 meters along the trail. They seem to particularly like the ridge to the right of the path as you walk towards the HQ.

Another good bird today was the Besra, soaring over the end of the road at Km 18 and occasionally attacking the Striated Swallows that mobbed it. Also here, a Striated Prinia was singing in the usual area of the landslide. In the clearing about 50 meters along the HQ trail, a pair of Vivid Niltavas were observed carrying food and probably have a nest nearby.

Finally, a group of six Eurasian Jays was a good count for this uncommon bird, and a total of four Black Eagles were seen at various times during the morning.

Cicada at Tengjhih National Forest. This noisy creature is not your friend when you are trying to listen for Taiwan Hill Partridge feeding in the leaf litter.

Cicada at Tengjhih National Forest. This noisy creature is not your friend when you are trying to listen for Taiwan Hill Partridge feeding in the leaf litter.

Greater Flamingo and Asian Dowitcher, Budai, August 19th

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Very poor digiscoped record shots of today's rarities: Greater Flamingo and Asian Dowitcher.

Very poor digiscoped record shots of today’s rarities: Greater Flamingo and Asian Dowitcher.

Despite being a tedious two-hour scooter drive from Kaohsiung, the Budai area keeps drawing me like a moth to a flame because of the excellent numbers of passage waders to be seen there.

Naturally, on arrival I first headed to what seems to be the current prime location for flocks of shorebirds, pools beside Highway 17 at Km 134.5. It didn’t take long to find two Asian Dowitchers, my third and fourth self-found individuals of this species this year. They were loosely associating with about 10 Eastern Black-tailed Godwits. Taking photos with my Canon G12 held against the eyepiece of my scope produces barely passable record shots, plus the dowitchers were fairly distant and feeding constantly, and it took more than 30 attempts to even get a blurry shot of the closest bird with its head out of the water. The least bad of my various tries are shown above – my shots are not going to win any awards but at least the bird is identifiable.

Next up, I spent several hours exploring back roads looking for suitable wader habitat. Unfortunately, the water levels at most pools are generally too high for waders at the moment. However, a wrong turning found me on the service road of Expressway 61, heading south, and at Km 276 I spotted some good-looking pools on the right hand side of the road.

Birding at Budai's "flamingo pools", alongside Expressway 61 at Km 276.

Birding at Budai’s “flamingo pools”, alongside Expressway 61 at Km 276.

A quiet minor road runs alongside the pools, and I set up my scope here to look at the two very large, pink birds that I had first spotted from a great distance while driving alongside the Expressway. Sure enough, they were the long-staying Greater Flamingoes, which have apparently been in the area – though not always easy to find – for many months. The origin of these birds must surely be dubious at best, but they sported no rings and looked good feeding heads-down in authentic salt-pan habitat.

My third and final productive spot was a farming area alongside Highway 17, between Km 146 and 147. Minor roads on both sides of the highway run alongside shallow pools with varying water levels, and drier rice paddies with sun-baked mud. Huge numbers of waders were here, including good numbers of the two passage waders I most associate with this type of habitat, Wood Sandpiper and Long-toed Stint. I didn’t have enough to time to painstakingly search through the flocks, but in future it will definitely be worth spending a couple of hours doing so.

Taiwan tick: Greater Flamingo (total 241).

Slaty-legged Crake, Alishan, August 17th

Early morning below the village at Km 61, halfway up to Alishan.

Early morning below the village at Km 61, on the road up to Alishan.

A girlfriend-friendly hiking and sightseeing trip to Alishan/Yushan produced one of those completely out-of-the-blue birding moments. On Saturday night, we stayed at Tea Homestay, in the small village at Km 61 on Highway 18. It’s about halfway between Chiayi and the top of the road at Tataka in the Yushan National Park, and on several occasions in the past it has proven to be a pretty good spot from which to launch an early-morning birding trip to the higher parts of the mountain.

However, not surprisingly this time my girlfriend ruled out a 4.00am wake-up call and a drive up the mountain in the dark for a shot at Mikado Pheasant along the higher parts of the road. So at the rather more civilised hour of 6.00am, while she slept, I instead found myself enjoying the rather splendid scenery and early morning calm in the vicinity of the guesthouse.

The surroundings seemed good for Brownish-flanked Bush-warbler, and with this rather nondescript but still-needed bird in mind I set off along the minor road that heads down the mountain, immediately below the Km 61 village. Coming up the mountain on Highway 18, the entrance to this road is about a hundred meters before a gas station on the right.

No bush-warblers were seen, but a male Maroon Oriole, some Collared Finchbills and Rufous-capped Babblers, several flocks of White-rumped Munias and a singing Striated Prinia made for some enjoyable early-morning birding.

The unremarkable spot beside the minor road below Km 61, where a Slaty-legged Crake popped out of the ditch at my feet.

The unremarkable spot beside the minor road below Km 61, where a Slaty-legged Crake popped out of the ditch at my feet.

The day’s highlight was still to come. At the point pictured above, I heard a strange call from next to the road. Peering into the undergrowth, I saw nothing, but a movement in my peripheral vision made me look down. There, right next to my feet, was a beautiful adult Slaty-legged Crake. It must have hopped out of the roadside ditch, and was now standing on the road literally three feet away from me. I don’t know which one of us was the most surprised. We eyeballed each other for a full five seconds, but as soon as I had gathered the presence of mind to slowly reach for my camera, naturally the bird quickly scampered into the bushes – never to be seen again.

Birding surprises don’t come much bigger than that. Slaty-legged Crake is a secretive and seldom-seen resident of lowland Taiwan, so to find one at least 1,000 meters up a mountain was unexpected to say the least. Along with Blue-breasted Quail, Eastern Grass Owl and Black-chinned Fruit Dove, it’s one of those enigmatic Taiwan residents that before today I reckoned I would have virtually no chance of connecting with during my time here.

Other birds seen during several short hikes at mid-high elevations during the weekend: Dusky, Taiwan, and Grey-cheeked Fulvettas, White-tailed Robin, Ferruginous Flycatcher, Vivid Niltava, Eurasian Nuthatch, Green-backed Tit, Coal Tit, Flamecrest, Rufous-faced Warbler, Yellowish-bellied Bush-warbler, Taiwan Yuhina, Steere’s Liocichla, White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Spotted Nutcracker and Large-billed Crow.

Lifer: Slaty-legged Crake (total 1,789). Year tick: Coal Tit (total 220).

Golden-headed Cisticola and Savanna Nightjar, east bank of the Gaoping River, August 15th

Highlights:

  • Savanna Nightjar 1
  • Cinnamon Bittern 3
  • Green Sandpiper 1
  • Lesser Coucal 1 heard
  • Golden-headed Cisticola 1
  • Zitting Cisticola 1
  • Little Ringed Plover 1
  • Common Sandpiper 2
  • Grey-throated Martin 40

A brief stop here on the way home from Dapeng Bay was very worthwhile, with several uncommon bird species encountered.

A very productive spot is a short stretch of a Gaoping River tributary, on the east (Pingtung) side of the river less than a kilometer north of the old railway bridge. A fast-flowing section of water has several bushy riverine islands with muddy edges, adjoining grassy meadowland. It’s only a small area but bird diversity and activity always seems high here.

On arrival, the first thing I noticed were several large fish in the road, a full 10 feet higher than the current water level. Further inspection revealed that the bushy islands had clearly been swamped by a huge volume of water recently, and a low bridge formerly used by trucks has completely disappeared. The recent very heavy rains must have created some quite spectacular flash flooding here.

Two scarce birds showed before I even got off my scooter: a Savanna Nightjar flushed from the roadside, and a Green Sandpiper on a muddy island shore. The latter species is a scarce passage migrant in this part of Taiwan, greatly outnumbered by Wood Sandpiper.

No fewer than three Cinnamon Bitterns were seen during my short visit: a male and a female flew over, a few minutes apart, and another female showed well in the open at the edge of one of the islands.

A Golden-headed Cisticola gave good views as it sang constantly from a bushtop throughout my visit, while a song-flighting Zitting Cisticola completed the Taiwan cisticola “double”.

Nearby, an unseen Lesser Coucal sang from a thick bush. This particular individual has had its territory significantly degraded by the flood waters, which have more or less stripped bare the bushes on the main riverine island.

White-winged Tern and Terek Sandpiper, Dapeng Bay, August 15th

Highlights:

  • Terek Sandpiper 1
  • Ruddy Turnstone 1
  • Grey-tailed Tattler 5
  • Red-necked Stint 8
  • Common Redshank 10
  • Common Greenshank 12
  • Mongolian Plover 15
  • Kentish Plover 15
  • Pacific Golden Plover 80
  • Black-winged Stilt 8
  • Common Sandpiper 1
  • White-winged Tern 1
  • Whiskered Tern 2
  • Yellow Bittern 1
  • Little Egret c.20

After a week of near-continuous torrential rain and relatively cool temperatures, summer has returned to southern Taiwan with 33C(91F) highs, baking sunshine and high humidity.

Today I set out early for Dapeng Bay, which is around a 50-55 minute drive from my home in north Kaohsiung. Thankfully, despite the abundant recent rainfall, the wader pools in the north-eastern corner of the bay had normal water levels. I spent about two hours watching these pools, and wandering south along the cycle path that borders the eastern edge of the bay.

Eleven shorebird species were seen, showing that autumn migration is well and truly under way. Best among these were a single Terek Sandpiper, a Ruddy Turnstone, five Grey-tailed Tattlers, and higher than usual numbers of Common Redshank and Common Greenshank. A flock of about 80 Pacific Golden Plovers circled the pools for a while; eventually some of them landed on the mud.

A near full summer-plumaged White-winged Tern flew through the area, heading east, and two Whiskered Terns settled on the mud for a time.

Finally, a good post-breeding build-up of Little Egrets will be worth keeping an eye on for Chinese Egret, which I saw here regularly in the spring.

Cinnamon Bittern and Broad-billed Sandpiper, West Coast Wetlands, August 9th

Highlights:

  • Avocet 1
  • Eastern Black-tailed Godwit 2
  • Broad-billed Sandpiper 40
  • Curlew Sandpiper 50
  • Dunlin 5
  • Red-necked Stint 80
  • Marsh Sandpiper 25
  • Common Greenshank 2
  • Common Redshank 7
  • Common Sandpiper 3
  • Black-winged Stilt
  • Mongolian Plover
  • Kentish Plover
  • Little Ringed Plover 1
  • Cinnamon Bittern 2
  • Yellow Bittern 2
  • Whiskered Tern 3
  • Little Tern
  • Long-tailed Shrike 4

It’s been raining a lot in southern Taiwan recently. Over the last four days, parts of Kaohsiung have experienced more than London’s entire annual rainfall. Consequently, I’ve been unable to get much birding done. The mountains are potentially very dangerous, with rock falls and even major landslides common during wet weather, so locations such as Tengjhih are currently best avoided.

Saturday dawned rainy as usual, but I was completely fed up with being indoors so I decided to go out anyway. I headed north, as the forecast for Chiayi was slightly better than for the southern counties of Taiwan. It rained most of the way, but as I neared Budai, in northern Tainan County, the weather improved slightly. An area of pools at Km 134.5, along Highway 17, is always worth a look and so it proved today. Shorebird migration was much in evidence, with fourteen wader species showing well here, including Avocet and Eastern Black-tailed Godwit as well as good numbers of Broad-billed and Curlew Sandpipers.

This was as good as it got for today. Further north, at Aogu, the water level was too high for wading birds – a quick loop of the seawall revealed just four Long-tailed Shrikes of note. Similarly, at Qigu, further south near Tainan, there was no mud at all for passage waders. Finally, nearer Kaohsiung, the rains have transformed Cheting Marshes from an almost completely dried-out dust bowl to a lush reed-fringed marsh. Unfortunately, it was raining hard so I didn’t spend much time here, but it should be worth a look as the autumn wader season progresses.

The only other birds of note today were fly-overs: two separate Cinnamon Bitterns, including one at exactly the same spot – Km 123 on Highway 17 – where I found a dead one a few months ago.

Cheting Marshes: from dried-out dust bowl to lush marshland in just three months.

Cheting Marshes: from dried-out dust bowl to lush marshland in just three months (photo taken August 19th).