Lanyu Island specialities, June 7th and 8th

Lanyu island.

Lanyu island.

Highlights:

  • Lanyu Scops Owl c.7
  • Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher c.12 including 2 long-tailed males
  • Taiwan Green Pigeon 4
  • Philippine Cuckoo-Dove 1
  • Lowland White-eye 100s
  • Brown-eared Bulbul 100s
  • Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler 1
  • Emerald Dove 6
  • Blue Rock Thrush 6
  • Brown Shrike 1
  • Pacific Reef Heron 2
  • Black-naped Tern 1+

Sea crossings:

  • Wedge-tailed Shearwater 1+
  • Streaked Shearwater 1
  • Brown Booby 2

Enticingly remote Lanyu (Orchid) Island is a must-visit destination for any resident or visiting birder on Taiwan. Number one on most people’s wanted lists is a bird that is increasingly considered to be a true endemic, the Lanyu Scops Owl. The island also holds two species found nowhere else in Taiwan (Philippine Cuckoo-Dove and Lowland White-eye), one breeding species which elsewhere in Taiwan is only a very rare migrant (Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher), one range-restricted bird which is rare on the mainland but which can be easily seen on Lanyu (Taiwan Green Pigeon), and one species that in Taiwan is only found on a trio of remote offshore islands (Brown-eared Bulbul).

These birds are all relatively easily found. The white-eye and the bulbul are abundant everywhere, and the others should be located within a few hours by checking the key sites.

Lowland White-eye, Lanyu Island, June 8th.

Lowland White-eye, Lanyu Island, June 8th.

Getting to the island is part of the adventure. There are three ways to do it: by small plane from Taitung airport, or by ferry from Fugang Harbor near Taitung or Houbihu Fishing Harbor near Kenting. Flights are frequently cancelled due to bad weather, and boats delayed or cancelled because of rough seas. Tickets – especially for the plane – often sell out months in advance. The flight is said to be a nerve-racking experience on a windy day. Meanwhile, the ferry crossing over rough seas is known to turn even the strongest stomachs inside out, and the most robust sea legs to jelly.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Lanyu Island, June 8th.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Lanyu Island, June 8th.

Not speaking any Chinese makes booking transport to the island even more of a challenge. In addition, I was reluctant to commit to a Lanyu trip too far in advance in case of bad weather. I watched the forecasts like a hawk in the week leading up to the trip, and on Friday night decided it was worth a punt. After about 3 hours sleep (still jet-lagged from my England trip and way too excited about Lanyu), I got up at 3.30am on Saturday, loaded up my scooter and headed out in the dark for the 2-hour drive to Houbihu Fishing Harbor. This boat sails at 7.30am daily and, from what I could ascertain online, only between March and October.

The ferry turned out to be full (that much Chinese I could understand from the guy at the port), but I resolutely refused to understand what he said and kept insisting on one return ticket to Lanyu. Finally, the boat man gave up and sold me a ticket, which was the easiest escape for him. If I’d been traveling as part of a couple or a group, I doubt I would have been that lucky. The money (2,000NT for a return journey) probably went straight into the boat man’s pocket, but I didn’t care, I was on the ferry and heading to Lanyu.

Approaching Lanyu in fine weather on calm seas. It was much rougher on the return crossing the following day.

Approaching Lanyu in fine weather on calm seas. It was much rougher on the return crossing the following day.

The crossing was sunny and calm, and I bagged a prime spot on the outside deck just behind the cabin. Despite the favorable viewing conditions the sea was barren, with the 2.5 hour voyage producing just four individual birds. Best among these was a dark morph Wedge-tailed Shearwater that flew close alongside the boat for a while. Later, another probable – or maybe it was the same bird – was seen much more distantly. Finally, two Brown Boobies included one flushed from the sea by the boat which I managed to photograph:

Brown Booby, at sea between Kenting and Lanyu Island, June 7th.

Brown Booby, at sea between Kenting and Lanyu Island, June 7th.

I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay on Lanyu, and was prepared to sleep rough if I had to. There are very few hotels on the island; most accommodation is in family-run homestays which get booked in advance especially at weekends by Taiwanese visitors. From the port, I started walking up the road towards the nearest village, but hadn’t gone far before a car pulled up and the American-accented local inside asked me in perfect English if I needed a room. Thanks to this stroke of good fortune, I ended up with a room in a friendly homestay in Yeyin village on the eastern side of the island. I rented a scooter (400NT per 24 hours, Taiwan or international driving licence required) and by mid-morning I was ready to go birding.

Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher, Lanyu Island, June 8th.

Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher – a relatively drab female-type bird. Sadly I didn’t get any photos of the splendid males, despite much trying. 

Like most birders, I intended to head straight to “Flycatcher Creek” which is known to host all of Lanyu’s special birds. Unfortunately I hadn’t done my homework thoroughly enough and only had a vague idea of its location (I thought it was somewhere on the west coast between the main port village and the airport). I figured it would be obvious when I arrived, but it wasn’t. I did find a rather open gravel riverbed in this area and scrambled inland along it for a few hundred meters, seeing my only Philippine Cuckoo-Dove of the trip, as well as legions of Brown-eared Bulbuls and Lowland White-eyes.

Near the road, I flushed a warbler from an area of rank grass, which revealed a long, broad, slightly fanned tail with white tips before it dived into deep cover again. Later, I flushed it again and had similar brief flight views. From its size, shape, tail pattern and habits it was obviously a locustella, but which one? Rather uniform upperparts and lack of heavy streaking or a noticeably brighter rufous-brown rump ruled out Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. Of the other two likely candidates, Styan’s and Middendorff’s, it would seem that the latter is probably a common migrant through Lanyu (sightings of this bird on the island pop up in other trip reports), albeit under-recorded. It’s also a late bird, with peak migration along the mainland Chinese coast continuing well into June. So I concluded that my bird was almost certainly a Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, not a lifer (I’ve seen one in Korea) but a good find nonetheless.

I continued south, past the airport and through Hongtou village, until I saw a large grassy area on the seaward side of the road. A little further on, a bridge passes over a very deep and heavily wooded gorge, and just past here a small concrete road turns inland. The entrance to the road looks like this:

Entrance to the best birding trail I found on Lanyu, near the south west corner of the island.

Entrance to Flycatcher Creek on Lanyu, near the south west corner of the island.

Fifty meters along this concrete road, just before a bridge, a steep and stone-surfaced path descends to a riverbed. As soon as I arrived, I figured that this was surely Flycatcher Creek, and as if to confirm this thought I had the briefest of glimpses of a Lanyu Scops Owl flying through the treetops just as I stepped off my scooter.

I birded the first 500 meters of this trail (marker posts are handily placed every 100 meters), and saw about 12 Japanese Paradise-Flycatchers at various spots, including two splendid long-tailed males. I was expecting this bird to look good, but wow …. even the finest photos and field-guide plates don’t do any justice to the real thing. It really is a stunner. I also found a nest, and another pair feeding fledged young.

Just past this sign, on the Flycatcher Creek trail, a Taiwan Green Pigeon was nest-building directly above the path.

Just past this sign, on the Flycatcher Creek trail, a Taiwan Green Pigeon was nest-building directly above the path.

I also found a Taiwan Green Pigeon in the process of nest-building right above the trail, but never got a clear enough view to take a photo. Also along here, I saw about 6 Emerald Doves, mainly in flight along the riverbed but also feeding on the ground.

Having secured all the special birds of the island, and in the case of the owl intending to return after dark for better views, I continued around the island and finally completed a full circuit on my scooter. Lanyu is famous for its rock formations, some of which are truly remarkable, and the scenery in general is stunning. The island has much in common with the Philippines, and certainly felt far removed – not only geographically – from mainland Taiwan, while the grazing livestock (mainly goats) and dry stone walls almost made it feel like a tropical Scotland at times.

One of Lanyu Island's remarkable rock formations.

One of Lanyu Island’s remarkable rock formations.

Not wanting to take any chances with the Lanyu Scops Owl that night, I signed up for a guided owl tour that departed my homestay at 7.30pm. From Yeyin village, we drove south for a couple of kilometers as far as a kind of white monument and concrete road on the right. Upon entering the forest, we immediately heard Lanyu Scops Owls calling, and over the course of a couple of hours managed to see about 7 of them including a pair around a nest hole.

There were at least 40 other visitors looking for the owls – and other endemic night wildlife – in the forest here, in various small guided groups. It was good to see local guides benefiting directly from the owl, and should help to ensure its continued protection here – I happily paid my 250NT for the experience and would do so again.

Lanyu Scops Owl, Lanyu Island, June 7th.

Lanyu Scops Owl, Lanyu Island, June 7th.

The next day, with all the key birds seen and the pressure off, I took another walk in Flycatcher Creek – seeing most of the same birds – and toured the island again, concentrating on some of the farmland areas in an attempt to find Eastern Water Rail, but it wasn’t to be.

Near the ferry harbor, a small group of about three or four terns just outside the harbor walls contained at least one white-crowned Black-naped Tern, and I thought there may have been a Roseate Tern among them but the birds were distant and a heavy rain shower was passing at the time, so confirmation was impossible.

The return ferry crossing was rather rough with big waves and plenty of spray, and I stayed out on deck throughout. There were more birds over the sea than on the outward journey but viewing conditions were very challenging; however, one Streaked Shearwater passed very close to the boat. There were also some all-dark shearwaters, about eight of them in total during the voyage – they might have been Wedge-tailed Shearwaters or even Bulwer’s Petrels, but with no more than distant split-second glimpses through soaking wet optics I had to give them up as unidentified.

Overall it was a perfect visit to a lovely island. Visiting birders would probably be best advised to travel midweek when there is less pressure on availability of transport and accommodation.

Lifers: Lanyu Scops Owl, Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher, Taiwan Green Pigeon, Philippine Cuckoo-Dove, Lowland White-eye, Wedge-tailed Shearwater (total 1,783).

Taiwan ticks: Brown Booby, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler (total 237).

Year ticks: Brown-eared Bulbul, Streaked Shearwater, Black-naped Tern (total 214).

Lanyu Island goats.

Lanyu Island goats.

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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.

Temminck’s Stint and Grey-faced Buzzard, Gaoping River corridor, March 18th

Grassy hills north of Highway 22 and west of Highway 21, location of an unsuccessful search for Striated Prinia.

Grassy hills north of Highway 22 and west of Highway 21, the location of an unsuccessful search for Striated Prinia.

Two “little brown jobs” (birder slang for small, nondescript brown birds) that have so far eluded me in Taiwan are the Striated Prinia and the Golden-headed Cisticola. Neither is a full endemic species, so they don’t seem to receive a lot of attention in trip reports. As a result, it can be hard to find English-language information about where exactly to look for them.

Most available information suggests that the Striated Prinia is a bird of low hills to mid elevations, where it is found in grassland, scrub and secondary growth. So I headed to just such an area this morning to try my luck, a range of hills north-east of Kaohsiung, bordered by Highway 22 to the south, and Highway 21 and the Gaoping River to the east.

The habitat looked great, and was fairly overflowing with prinias: mainly Yellow-bellied Prinias, and a handful of Plain Prinias, but no Striateds. It wasn’t a wasted trip, as I was fortunate enough to encounter an early migrating flock of Grey-faced Buzzards, numbering around 20 birds. Among many common species here were 2 Taiwan Scimitar-babblers, 2 Rufous-capped Babblers, a female Daurian Redstart, and a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.

Grey-faced Buzzards, March 18th.

Grey-faced Buzzards, March 18th.

I had a hunch that my other target bird, Golden-headed Cisticola, probably occurs in the riverside grassland along the Gaoping River. So I headed south along Highway 21 to check out the Railway Bridge Marsh Park, which covers quite a large area of the west bank of the river directly underneath and to the south of the railway bridges.

A Chinese-language-only sign at the entrance had lots of pictures of birds that one can presumably see in the area, including a tantalising image of a Great Bittern, and – yes! – a picture of a Golden-headed Cisticola. So I optimistically set out through the grasslands, encountering millions of Plain Prinias, but precious little else.

Railway Bridge Marsh Park: looks great for Golden-headed Cisticola, but I didn't score.

Railway Bridge Marsh Park: looks great for Golden-headed Cisticola, but I didn’t score.

A quick binocular scan revealed a scattering of feeding waders on the riverine islands and sandbars, so I set up my scope for a closer look. Finally, a little luck came my way: at least 8 Temminck’s Stints (Taiwan tick) on the nearest of the vegetated islands, furtively creeping along on the edge of the mud in their charismatic fashion. Nearby, 6 Long-toed Stints occasionally allowed for direct comparison as they wandered into the same scope view. Excellent!

Also here: an Intermediate Egret, 6 Spot-billed Ducks, and the usual assortment of common waders (Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt and Kentish Plover).

So 0 for 2 in terms of my main targets today, but 5 additions to the year list made it a very worthwhile morning and boosted my year’s total so far to 147.

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.