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 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).