Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Post #125 - California County Birding - By Bike!

I'm going to keep this short since I am prepping for an Ecuador trip that begins on Saturday! As I will be there through the end of the year, this will represent the last entry for 2017. Thanks for hanging in there with me through the third year of this blog. It's as much a personal birding journal as anything else, but hopefully some of you have found something interesting or entertaining to keep you coming back. Ecuador entries will materialize when I return, so please stay tuned for those. I should also, as I've done for the last two years, present my photographic highlights of the year, this being my most photographically productive ever. But for now, it's back to to the bicycle.

I last wrote about bike-birding two months ago, on October 9, just after I had added Dusky Warbler for San Mateo County bike bird #180. Since then I've added another 26 species to reach 206 for my home county, the most notable additions since last time being Red-footed Booby (2nd county record) and LeConte's Sparrow (1st county record), both in Half Moon Bay. Though I alluded to it in that last bike-birding post, I should state here that I have actually created a bike-specific eBird account for myself. I have had a ton of fun with it, most specifically using eBird's "Explore Data" feature to see what species I still need to grow my San Mateo bike-birding list. I use the data generated from that feature to plan my rides each week.

Additions to my San Mateo County Bike 
list since Dusky Warbler on Oct 9, 2017.

Red-Footed Booby, Half Moon Bay, CA
*This was taken from my kayak a few days
after I added the bird for my bike list.

As I have created a profile page for my bike-birding account, I was able to extract the following graphical data from it. This is presented in heat-map form where counties in which I have observed the most species are colored red; Those counties in which I have seen fewer receive correspondingly lighter colors, orange, for example.

It's pretty clear that I've focused on San Mateo, but I have ventured into neighboring counties a few times. For reference, it's 19 riding miles from my house to Lake Merced at the southern end of San Francisco County. Going the opposite direction, it's 17 riding miles to reach Palo Alto at the northeastern corner of Santa Clara County. What that means is that it's a non-trivial amount off riding (30-40 miles) just to reach and return from those neighboring counties. I plan to spend more time exploring San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties moving forward, particularly as the days lengthen and I can get more birding time for the same amount of riding. I have also discovered that I can legally ride over the Dumbarton Bridge to reach the extreme southwestern corner of Alameda County on the other side of the bay. That's ~23 miles each way, so that's 46 just to reach and return from Alameda. As I ride about 14 miles an hour, that's 3+ hours of cranking. So, I gotta make that ride count!

What I hope this shows is just how much more challenging - and in my admittedly isolated, minority opinion - interesting local/county listing becomes when the bicycle is substituted for the car. I have basically given up local birding in the car as it is no longer satisfying. I really like the physical challenge that the bike presents, and I actually enjoy the increased logistics that come along with it. Today I went to Half Moon Bay (32 miles, 2000 feet of vertical climbing for the round trip) to try for Orchard Oriole and missed. I hardly cared though as I spent no money on gas, burned no fossil fuels, and got a great workout anyway.

Bike-birding field trip I led at Laguna Atascosa NWR as 
part of the Rio Grande Birding Festival this November

I'm not saying that we should all perpetually abandon cars in favor of bikes. Hell, I drove 3.5 hours to Santa Barbara two weeks ago to tick a Garganey that may or may not count towards my ABA list, and I almost always drive when I'm hauling my photography gear to and from shooting locations. But I do think that we birders should rethink the relative weight we place on local/county lists as generated through petroleum-powered means, particularly as much of that local/county birding can be done by bike instead. I totally understand that the bike isn't for everyone, but it should be possible for the community to deploy it more than the very little that we do now. It's a low-cost, healthy, environmentally-friendly, and challenging alternative to driving. It's also a hellava lot more satisfying and immeasurably more interesting than just sitting behind the wheel. But that's me. I curious what others think.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Post #124 - West Coast Winter Cruise Ship Pelagic - Petrels and Albatrosses in record numbers! Duck Photos too!

Many folks have already heard of the tremendous pelagic successes of the most recent West Coast repositioning ('repo') cruise, this particular edition running from Los Angeles to Vancouver from Wednesday, November 29th to Saturday, December 2nd. To get right to the point, the birding was incredible, specifically along the Oregon Coast where we found record numbers of Laysan Albatrosses (40-50), Short-tailed Albatrosses (5), and Mottled Petrels (~200). Not to be forgotten were 8 Cook's Petrels, a nice bonus on top of our already strong haul. This post is meant as a complement to Post #65, a very lengthy recap of the spring Repo Cruise that I took in May of last year. As that post is filled with all sorts of helpful and advisory information, I will use this post to supplement that one.

Our Route

The general idea of a repositioning cruise is that the cruise company (Princess) needs to move ships around depending upon where they are needed each season. For example, our boat from last year's May trip was used for warm weather cruises all winter (Mexico, Hawaii) before being repositioned to Vancouver in spring for Alaskan cruises during the summer. The beauty of the repo cruise is that the boat makes no port stops, instead staying well offshore and following the continental shelf edge between the end points. With so much time in the deep water, birders have found these repo cruises a wonderful way to view pelagic birds, most specifically the Pterodroma petrels that have proven so difficult to find from more traditional, 8-, 10-, or 12-hour pelagic trips. As this video will show, the cruise ship is no longer a secret!

Me being a clown, as per usual

Hold on, hold on. If I went north (LA > VAN) last spring, wouldn't it make sense to go south (VAN > LA) this fall/winter, right? Yes, it would, but this was a special repo cruise, one that was repositioning the ship to Vancouver for painting, maintenance, and other upgrades. This is important as this late-Nov/early-Dec trip is unlikely to go every year. So, if you're looking into doing this exact trip next year, be advised that it might not run. There will most certainly be some form of southbound repo cruise in late fall (Sept/Oct), but, given that earlier season, that trip won't likely replicate the successes of this past week. 

This most recent repo cruise left LA on Wednesday, November 29th at 4pm. With the short days, we did little birding as it was dark by the time we left the harbor. At sunrise on the next day (Thursday), we found ourselves ~40-50 mils off Big Sur, and, in the course of the day, we made our way north along the shelf edge to reach central Sonoma County by nightfall (around 5:30pm). In that stretch, we had good numbers of Northern Fulmars, low numbers of Sooty Shearwaters, scattered alcids, a few Red Phalaropes, single numbers of Black-footed Albatrosses, and at least 2 very distant Laysan Albatrosses. On the whole it was a very slow day characterized by strong north winds and heavy seas. That night we traversed the remainder of the California Coast.

The sun rose just after we crossed into Oregon on Friday morning, and we immediately had more birds of every sort, most notably Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses. It wasn't long until a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross materialized, quickly buzzing the port side of the boat before quickly disappearing. I got on it very late, enough for a decent ID view but not enough for photos. After that the albatross floodgates opened. For the next few hours, Black-footeds and Laysans were in near constant view on the horizon. Midday we passed an active trawler that had loads albatrosses around it, including another 2 or 3 Short-taileds (all juveniles). Those gave much nicer views than the first (photos below). 

We found passed this (and only this) fishing boat. 
It was probably half a mile away. 
So yeah, most of the birds were very distant.

All of the photos are terrible quality due to the distance of the birds from the boat. I have chosen to show the full frame and the cropped image so that you can see what you can expect with 560mm of focal length (400 + 1.4x). I expect those folks at the very front of the ship will have much better pics of this Short-tailed Albatross as it moved away from the boat by the time I got on it.

Short-tailed Albatross (juvenile) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Note chocolate color and huge, pink bill

Laysan Albatross record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above

The albatrosses ensured that everyone on the ship was stoked, but we still hadn't yet seen a single petrel. Most everyone was hoping for Mottled Petrel, and it was with great excitement that the first of those was spotted and called-out mid-afternoon. I missed that individual as I was on the wrong side of the ship and was understandably despondent about it. Laying on my own scope, I quickly spotted another as redemption. At that point, petrels appeared everywhere, and we had Mottleds in near constant view until we crossed into Washington right as darkness fell. Many of them gave great views as they arced up and down just in front of the ship. As mentioned, there were also single numbers of Cook's Petrels mixed in. 

Mottled Petrel (underside) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Note stocky body, short wings,
black ulnar bars on underwing, gray belly.

Mottled Petrel (topside) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Mostly gray with classic "M" 
pattern traced across wings.

Cook's Petrel (underside) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Note cleaner underwing and more nimble, 
longer-winged form than Mottled.

OK, you get the idea; The birds were far away. But that's to be expected given the size of the ship and the fact that it doesn't slow down no matter what appears! Since the views are poor compared to a regular pelagic trip, the cruise ship won't at all replace those shorter outings. The cruise is really for those hardcore listers who want to tick tough species such as the Pterodroma petrels for their ABA lists. I had 32 Cook's, 18 Murphy's, and 2 Hawaiian in the spring and ~200 Mottled and 8 Cook's on this fall/winter leg. In comparison, I didn't see see a single petrel (besides fulmars) on the ~15 NorCal pelagics that I took this year. The cruise ship is the only way to go for these birds. There was actually a Red-legged Kittiwake called out on Friday, but only 1 or 2 people got onto it. I'm not sure if it made the official trip list or not. 

The list of marine mammals included Fur Seal, breaching Humpback Whales, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Northern Right Whale Dolphin, Sperm Whale (I think), and a small pod (3-4) of Orcas not far from where we passed the fishing boat. I'm sure this mammal list is incomplete.

The cruise concluded when we pulled into Vancouver mid-morning on Saturday, December 2nd. So, we ended up with 2 full days of sea birding, the first boring and the second exciting. 

As I covered the layout of the ship, food, and other assorted cruise considerations in Post #65, I'll briefly touch on a couple of other considerations that people might find interesting/helpful.

Inside the boat. I avoided this except for boarding.....

Seasickness was - as far as I could tell - a non-issue on the trip. Some people wore ear patches but the ship really doesn't move that much. We had some long-period swell but nothing more. Interestingly, some people might find taking motion sickness pills near bedtime a good way to aid sleep. The ship is big but does pitch slowly if there is sufficient swell/wind.

Weather was quite chilly at times, particularly in the wind, but nothing that a decent parka wouldn't easily fend off. Interestingly, the weather on this fall trip was about equivalent to the last year's spring trip, a bit of a surprise given the time of year. The days were significantly shorter this time around, the light being usable from about 7am until 5pm (spring was more like 6am to 8pm). 

Sunset over the North Pacific

With upwards of 70 birders on board this time around, it did feel crowded at times, particularly when everyone was crammed onto the bow during the albatross and petrel madness on Friday. I have no idea how crowds will trend moving forward, but positioning is significantly more important on the cruise ship that it is on a traditional pelagic where it is easy for everyone to move to any point on the boat. If the wind permits, the bow is the place to be. If not, the sun angle dictates that the port/left side is better in the morning and the starboard/right side better in the afternoon - assuming you're going north; The opposite would be true going south. Wind on the Pacific Coast is almost always from the north or northwest.

Though it wasn't terribly rough on this run per se, the boat did move a bit slower than usual because of that long-period swell above referenced. This meant that we ported into Vancouver about 4 hours later than scheduled. I would highly suggest leaving a big buffer between the ship's scheduled arrival and your departing flight to allow for similarly unexpected/unplanned delays. Many people (myself included) actually stuck around Vancouver for the weekend, so that's a great option if you feel like doing some extra, terrestrial birding at cruise's conclusion. You've already made it that far, right? Winter birding around Boundary Bay is great. 

OK, that's it for now. If you like this sort of thing, you might want to 'follow' the blog so that you don't miss similar trip recaps moving forward. You can do that on the right hand side/column of the page as it appears in the WEB FORMAT on either your home computer or phone (sadly, you can't do it from the mobile device format on your phone). 

And since I made you put up with crappy photos for this whole entry, I'll leave you with a few decent shots from around Vancouver after the cruise. Enjoy!

***As always, click for higher resolution views***

Northern Pintail - Anus acuta
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/1250 at f/5.6, ISO 400, laying facedown in duck crap.

Northern Pintail - Anus acuta
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 400, laying facedown in duck crap.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/400 at f/8, ISO 1600

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Post #123 - Photographing wintering waterfowl and other birds from my kayak

Wintering waterfowl have arrived! It took a bit of time for them to materialize from their more northerly nesting grounds, but wigeons, pintails, scaup, scoters, mergansers and everything in between have finally settled into their winter digs around the San Francisco Bay Area. I am very excited about these arrivals as they give me the perfect chance to dust off the kayak for some winter waterfowl photography. I currently have a Sea Eagle 385FT, a two person inflatable. It is very easy to cart around, assemble, and inflate; It takes just 15 minutes from car trunk to launch. It is also very comfortable, spacious, and stable, important considerations given the fancy photo gear that I am using it to haul around. It does take a considerable amount of effort to move through the water compared to a hardshell kayak, but hey, that's the price of portability and convenience. 

The beauty of the kayak is that it gets me out onto the water with the various waterfowl that I want to photograph. Waterfowl can be very skittish, but they seem less so when approached from the water and in boat as low profile as a kayak. Interesting, it's the act of paddling that seems to cause the birds the most angst; Birds seem much more tolerant of a drifting boat than an actively paddled one. This makes for a great photographic challenge as I must paddle the boat into the optimal photographic position while being every-ready to drop the paddle and quickly pick up the camera when the desired opportunity finally presents. This is particularly true for take-off and flight shots where I might only have a second or two to ditch the paddle, grab the camera, get the lens on the bird, acquire focus, and crack off a few frames. It's really hard but totally worth it when it all works!


Surf Scoter (male) - Melanitta perspicillata
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Surf Scoter (male) - Melanitta perspicillata
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 500

As you can see from the close-up above, some individual birds will tolerate very close approach. Sometimes though, and particularly for flight shots, it's actually better not to get too close as it is important to have the space to capture the fully extended wings. There's nothing worse than getting a perfectly-focused, well-lit flight shot only to find out I've clipped even the slightest bit off the wing. I was stoked to get the full bird below!

Surf Scoter (male) - Melanitta perspicillata
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Surf Scoters are both the most numerous and most approachable ducks in the Pillar Point Harbor where I have been doing most of my shooting. They are also relatively easy to expose, the white bits being comparatively small/unimportant to the much larger amounts of blacks. More challenging from both approachability and exposure standpoints are Buffleheads, the high-contrast speedsters of the waterfowl world. The trick is to get enough exposure to reveal their beautifully iridescent heads but not so much that all the whites are blown away.  

***Again, click images higher resolution views***

Bufflehead (male) - Bucephala albeola
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/6400 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Bufflehead (female) - Bucephala albeola
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Bufflehead (male) - Bucephala albeola
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 500

My recent outings have focused on waterfowl, but I have run into all sorts of other birds long the way. The murre below was at one point right next to the kayak, so close that I could have reached out, put my hand under it, and lifted it into the boat!

Common Murre (winter plumage) - Uria aalge
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Common Loon (winter plumage) - Gavia immer
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Common Loon (winter plumage) - Gavia immer
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Lastly, I was also able to snap a nice shot of the the continuing immature Red-footed Booby that has been hanging around Half Moon Bay for the last month. He prefers sitting at the far end of a protective rockpile/jetty, and I was easily able to access that area with my kayak. This was ABA seen bird #724 for me (Tamaulipas Crow at the Rio Grande Birding Festival was #723). He's very regular and predictable, so much so that I've seen him on all 4 of my recent Half Moon Bay Outings. And yes, I also got him for the bike list! So that was pretty cool.

Red-footed Booby - record shot

So, that's it. I hope I've sold you on the kayak as a great way to photograph waterfowl and other water birds. I'll certainly be doing more of this through the winter, so please so stay tuned for more results in the near future. 

This next week I'll be taking a cruise ship pelagic from Los Angeles to Vancouver. My main target bird is Mottled Petrel, and I'll have an information-packed recap for you when I return next week. I'll also have 2 days birding and photographing in Vancouver, so hopefully that will yield some good blog fodder as well!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Post #122 - Birding Taiwan, part 2 of 2 - Birding and Bird Photography - Very long!

OK, for those that missed the first installment of my Taiwan experiences, please take a few minutes to check it out. It has all sort of information that I think you will find helpful if you are thinking about visiting Taiwan. With those logistics already covered, I'll jump right into the bird-centric follow-up to that first post.

The first thing I do want to do is point you towards two excellent local guides with whom I connected on my recent trip. The first is Kuan-Chieh "Chuck" Hung, my particular guide on my recent occasion. He is a Taiwan native who really knows his way around. He is very knowledgeable, very patient, and very friendly! I highly recommend him; His English is great, and he'll be able to give you a truly authentic view of his homeland. The second guide is Richard Foster, a Northern Ireland transplant with whom we crossed paths several times. He is also a really nice guy and seems to have a very good handle on the island's birds. You can't go wrong with either on these professionals. 

To make things really easy, I'll lay out my exact itinerary from my recent trip to Taiwan. As it was a FAM (promotional) trip, we covered a lot of ground in a very short time. I would not recommend that anyone try to duplicate this as more time in each spot is highly advised. Some sites we only saw for an hour at a time as the tourism folks had a lot they wanted to show us in our 8 days. Since we moved around so much, I'm just going to take you through our itinerary day by day. Individuals can then design their own itineraries using this as a template. I have included links to eBird checklists so that you can use that platform to see exactly where I went and what I saw.

Day 1 - Birding around Taipei. I arrived at 6am after a 13-hour flight from San Francisco. That's a fairly typical arrival for flights from the West Coast of the US. That sort of arrival means a whole day of birding is possible - if you have the energy (I did!). Tired but excited, we visited several birding sites around Taipei including the Botanical Gardens, Yangmingshan National Park (Qianshan Park, Menghuan Lake), and the coast of Jinshan District. At these sites we found the secretive Malayan Night-Heron, Taiwan Barbet (Endemic = E), Gray Treepie, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Taiwan Blue-Magpie (E), Taiwan Whistling-Thrush (E), Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge (E), Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler (E), Brambling, Black Drongo, and Light-vented Bulbul.

eBird checklists for the 5 stops that we made that first day are here:
Botanical Garden:
Yangmingshan NP - Qianshan Park:
Yangmingshan NP - Menghuan Lake:
Jinshan Park:
Jinshan Marsh:

The most important thing to take away from a day of Taipei birding is Taiwan Blue-Magpie, an iconic endemic that is easiest to find at the north (Taipei) end of the island. We saw several very well at Qianshan Park, but they were sadly directly overhead and not amenable to decent photos. Dealing with this species as fast as possible will mean you have greater flexibility going forward. They are highly localized and as such aren't likely to be encountered save for at a few select spots.

***Click images for higher resolution views***

Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge - Bambusicola sonorivox
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/160 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge - Bambusicola sonorivox
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/250 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

Days 2 and 3 - Dasyueshan National Park. After an overnight in Taipei, we headed for Dasyueshan National Park, perhaps the single best birding spot in the country. Dasyueshan is birded from the long (like 30 miles long) entrance road. It runs into the park and dead ends at its highest elevations. We made many stops along it as we slowly ascended from 700 feet towards the Dasyueshan Lodge at 7460 feet. Birding the road is fun as the species change as one ascends. We found Taiwan Hwamei (E), Rufous-capped Babbler, Crested Serpent-Eagle and Morrison's Fulvetta (E) around Kilometer (KM) 13. Higher, between KM 23 and 35, we found Taiwan Partridge (E), Yellow Tit (E), Black-throated Tit, Rufous-faced Warbler, Taiwan Yuhina (E), White-eared Sibia (E) and Steere's Liocichla (E). However the highlights were certainly the Swinhoe's Pheasants (E) that periodically appeared at roadside. For better or worse, they have become quite used to people as both birders and photographers have taken to feeding them at roadside. Bird feeding of any sort (including traditional backyard feeders) is technically illegal in Taiwan, but no one seems to enforce the rule and at least a few informal feeding areas have become established along the Dasyueshan Road. With results like this, I wasn't going to complain.

Swinhoe's Pheasant - Lophura swinhoii
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/250 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

The following morning we birded around the Dasyueshan Lodge where we found Coal Tit, Rufous-crowned Laughingthrush (E), Rusty Laughingthrush (E), White-tailed Robin, and Fire-breasted Flowerpecker. The laughingthrushes were great finds as they move in tight groups during the winter months; One must get a bit lucky to cross paths with those groups as they forage. In many respects, birding in Taiwan it a bit like birding in the tropics as all the activity comes in bursts when a feeding flock is encountered; Between those flocks, it can be quiet. So, be patient!

Birding between markers 35 and 43 later that morning, we added Gray-capped Woodpecker, White-back Woodpecker, Gray-chinned Minivet, Taiwan Cupwing (E), Taiwan Barwing (E), and Vivid Nitalva to our growing list. Around the lodge that afternoon we found Mikado Pheasant, the rarer of the two endemic pheasants. By the end of the Day 3, we had found 17 of the 27 endemics, and we added Flamecrest for #18 as we headed out of Dasyueshan on the morning of Day 4.

Dasyueshan Road, KM 0-15, Day 2:
Dasyueshan Road, KM 23-35, Day 2:
Dasyuenhan Road KM 35-43, Day 3:
Dasyuenhan Road KM 43, Day 3:
Dasyuenhan Road KM 43, Day 4:

Mikado Pheasant - Syrmaticus mikado
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/160 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

A few notes on Dasyueshan. The lodge at the top of the road is the the only option. It is perfectly positioned, has nice single rooms, and a single restaurant. I would advise that three nights be spent at Dasyueshan to ensure enough time for all the requisite/desired endemics. We got really lucky and found them in just two. The restaurant is notably all Chinese food all the time. There is no menu. Everything is served family style. They food is good but, I would highly advise snacks and/or some supplementary food to add a bit of familiar and comforting variety to things. There is no store in the park, so whatever one brings will need be purchased prior to starting the long ascent towards the lodge.

Day 4 - Travel. We briefly birded Dasyueshan (checklist above) before beginning the long drive to to Hehuanshan National Forest and Song Syue Lodge. We did make one midday birding stop at Guguan to add Chestnut-bellied Tit (E) and Brown Dipper.

Guguan Hot Spring Park, Day 4:

Chestnut-bellied Tit
Cano 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Day 5 - Alpine birding around Song Syue Lodge. Birding right at the tree line around the lodge, we found Eurasian Wren, Flamecrest (E), Taiwan Rosefinch (E), Alpine Accentor, Collared Bush-Robin (E), and White-whiskered Laughingthrush (E). We heard the incredibly secretive Taiwan race of White-browed Shortwing but weren't able to get any looks at the painfully shy bird. Otherwise, the birding was wide open and really, really enjoyable. With short trees and few places for birds to hide at 10,000 feet of elevation, photographic opportunities abounded. Beyond that, the scenery was spectacular. Take out the pleasant birding and the landscapes alone would have been worth the long drive. The basic strategy at that elevation is to move between the various roadside parking lots along the road, looking for birds at each pullout. We made several such stops and added Taiwain Fulvetta (E), an endemic race of Gray-headed Bulfinch, Eurasian Nutcracker, and a single Red Crossbill to our trip list. That last find was amazing as my photos of it represent only the second documented record for Taiwan! Later, and a bit farther downslope, we found a single (Taiwan) Island Thrush, a striking, white-headed variant that is likely to be split into its own species at some point.

Song Syue Lodge, Day 5:
Roadside Pullout, Day 5:
Roadside Pullout, Day 5:
'Blue Trail', Day 5:

White-whiskered Laughingthrush - Garrulax morrisonianus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

A few notes on Hehuanshan. It seems as though this area is also referred to as Taroko National Park, and it is indeed possible to reach the apparently spectacular Taroko Gorge by driving over and down the mountains to the east. We did not do that as time did not permit; We had only a morning of birding which was way too little, especially considering the photographic opportunities. The Song Syue Lodge is incredible but can only be booked 30 days in advance. As such, it doesn't work for international tours organized well in advance. There are a number of very modern hotels down slope at Qianjing Farm. It takes about an hour to reach the summit area from that town. I would highly suggest staying two nights in Qianjing Farm and using the entire day in-between to bird the those highest elevations. The only reason we left after one morning was because we had to drive all the way to Budai where we were honorary attendees of the 2017 Taiwan Birdathon. So, don't do what we did. Take your time!

Collared Bush-Robin - Tarsiger johnstoniae
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Day 6 - The Coast around Budai. On this day we had only three open hours at the beginning of the day as we had non-birding commitments and driving during the rest of it. However, those three hours were very productive as we hit the coast for our first taste of water birding. Birding Budai Wetland Park, we found loads of waterfowl, Yellow Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Little Ringed-Plover, Long-toed Stint, Common Greenshank, Whiskered Tern, and Plain Prinia. We also had a bunch of herons, swallows, and wagtails. A second stop not far away yielded Chinese Egret, Great Knot, Eurasian Curlew, Red-necked Stint, and Common Redshank. The rest of the day was dedicated to the birdathon ceremonies, meeting with tourism ministry officials, and travel back to the mid-elevations (~3000 feet) at the Firefly Lodge (see below). Birding around the lodge that night, we found Northern Boobook and Mountain Scops Owl.

Budai Wetland IBA, Day 6:
Bazhang River Estuary, Day 6:

Day 7 - Mid-elevations around Firefly Lodge. Here again we had only a few morning hours of birding as we had more administrative/tourism commitments before starting the very long drive to the southern end of Taiwan at Kenting. Firefly is a great place that caters to birders. They even have a series of bird blinds for photography, but (sadly) we didn't have time to visit those. We did find our two Firefly targets, Black-naped Monarch and Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler (E) along the road that leads to the lodge. We also added Striated Heron and Plumbeous Redstart before starting the long drive back to the coast. This lodge would provide convenient access to the higher elevations of Alishan and the endemics that prefer those altitudes.

Firefly Lodge, Morning Day 7:

That evening, after a bunch of commitments on the coast and before the long drive to Kenting, we squeezed in a bit more shorebirding. In the Beiman IBA in Tainan City we found 16 species of waders, Black-tailed Godwit, Asian Dowitcher, Curlew Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Ruff, and Temminck's Stint all being new for the trip.

Beiman IBA, Afternoon Day 7:

Day 8 - Morning in Kenting. Reaching this far south on such a quick trip was in many ways counter-productive, but the tourism folks really wanted us to see the area. It also gave us a few morning hours to add our final endemic, Styan's Bulbul, to our birdlist. We also found the Taiwan race of Whistling Green-Pigeon, another bank bird that is sure to be split in the future. Those birds, as were Blue Rock-Thrush and Ashy Minivet, were found on the grounds of our hotel, Gloria Manor. That accommodation was super fancy, probably far beyond what a birding tour requires. The food was fully western, so that might be a selling point for some. At $200-400/night, it is not cheap. We left mid-morning to catch the high-speed train back to the Taipei airport from which we all departed that evening.

As this was a promotional trip designed to highlight the Taiwan birding product, we moved WAY too fast and did WAY too much driving. But that's how these trips works as the tourism folks want to show us as much as possible in a short time. If we slowed down and did more birding, I am sure we would have found many more species. It was wonderful as it was, and I really want to return when I will have the time to bird at a slower place. When all was said and done, we found 26 of the 27 endemics, a handful of sure future splits, and ~160 total species.

So, hopefully that gives you a good idea of what Taiwan has to offer. I am sure there are many areas that we missed, particularly the Alishan Highlands well above the Firefly Lodge, but there just wasn't time to visit all the best spots in our quick 8 days. Lanyu Island off the southern coast is supposed to be great spring birding, Asian Paradise Flycatcher being the prime target during the warmer months.

Oh yeah, and before I forget! I was pleasantly surprised with the other sorts of wildlife that I observed in Taiwan. Butterflies abounded and apparently there are quite a few snakes though we didn't see any (bummer as I love snakes). The most obvious mammal was the Taiwan Macaque (a monkey). Most were high in trees but I did catch this guy moving across a branch in bright sunlight! Had I had the my zoom I would have been able to get his whole body; As it was I captured a quick headshot and under-exposed the background to get this effect.

Taiwan Macaque
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Then there's this amazing beast, the Red-and-White-Giant Flying Squirrel. I had no idea such a thing even existed. It is closer in size to cat than a squirrel, and it is as large as a doormat when it flies! We found this guy on a night drive in Dasyueshan.

Red-and-White-Giant Flying Squirrel
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/100 at f/5.6, ISO 6400, Flash from EX580.

Lastly, I'll say that photography in Taiwan presents a few challenges, mainly due to a general lack of light from constant cloud cover and forest canopy in the areas I visited. In those respects, it's very similar to shooting in the tropics. Slow shutters and high ISO are the norm, so think about that as you prepare. The once exception was up high at Hehuanshan where we had a much welcomed crystal clear morning above the forest. The birds everywhere in Taiwan are generally approachable, behaving more like those in North American than those in Europe.

OK, enough you get the idea. Go to Taiwan! It's cool! My next big international trip is 15 days in Ecuador in December, so please stay tuned for that as well!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Post #121 - Birding Taiwan, part 1 of 2 - History, Geography, and Birding Logistics!

Wow! That's all that I can say after returning from 8 days of travel, birding, and photography in Taiwan. I was there as a representative of Alvaro's Adventures, the eco-tour company for which I will be leading birding and bird photography excursions in the upcoming years. So, if you like what I here write and you are interested in taking a tour of Taiwan to experience it for yourself, please get in touch with me. I'll be designing an itinerary in the next few months, so please stayed tuned!

OK, it has been a while since I did a travel right-up, so I'd like to refresh your memory as to how I generally do this. I like to split my foreign birding experiences into two (and sometimes more) posts, the first to talk a bit about the country and birding logistics and the second (or the rest) to write more about the specific birding sites I visited and the birds that I saw. You can click this link or the "International Birding" tab under the banner heading to see my write-ups from previous trips. With that approach in mind, I'll get started.

Notice my stamps say ROC, not PRC!

Taiwan is also known as the Republic of China (ROC), not to be confused with the People's Republic of China (PRC), the country we traditionally call China. The two countries have a very interesting and often contentious history, so knowing even a tiny bit about it will help visitors understand the contemporary relationship between the two entities. As briefly as possible, when Mao and his communists took control of China in the Revolution of 1949, the deposed government of Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the the Chinese island of Taiwan (110 miles off the coast of Southeastern China) where it continued to function until Chiang's death in 1975. Since then, Taiwan has evolved into a fully independent and democratic entity; It is, for all intents and purposes, now its own country. China still lays territorial claim to Taiwan, and it is from that history that the "One China Policy" has emerged, a policy that treats Taiwan as part of China rather than as an independent country. At present, only 19 members of the United Nations formally recognize Taiwan as independent; All others, the United States included, deny an independent Taiwan, mainly for fear of offending the economic powerhouse that is mainland China. It is all done with a *wink-wink* but, to me, seems a bit insulting given what a wonderful place I discovered Taiwan to be. 

So, Taiwan is similar to China in some ways while being completely distinct in others, and the birdlife on the island nation suggests exactly this. With a very manageable ~650 cumulative species on its birdlist, Taiwan shares much of its avifauna with China and the rest of Asia. However with 27 endemic species and a host of endemic races that are likely at some point to be recognized as full species, Taiwan possesses birdlife that is distinct from anywhere else on planet earth. Importantly, and unlike either mainland China or the rest of continental Asia, Taiwan can be thoroughly explored and birded in just 10-14 days. Taiwan is therefore the perfect introduction to Asian birding. It's similar enough to the rest of Asia that what is there learned can be applied on future Asian excursions but different enough that it's worth making a dedicated trip to experience it. Taiwan also provides a wonderfully immersive Asian cultural experience for those who want to experience more than the country's birds. 

Taiwan topography (left) and population density (right).
Everyone lives in the western lowlands.

Looking at the maps above, it's easy to see that Taiwan's ~23 million people are tightly clustered along the flat, western edge of the 250-mile long island (comparable in area to the state Maryland or the country Montenegro). While those lowlands provide productive birding, particularly for migrants and waterbirds, the endemics almost universally prefer elevated areas, anywhere from 200-3500 meters. What I found particularly surprising was just how mountainous Taiwan is; On my trip we reached well over 10,000 feet, but the highest point in the country is Jade Mountain at 12,966 feet!

Sunset high above the clouds in
Taiwan's central mountains. 

Any birding trip to Taiwan should prioritize the endemics as most of the other interesting species can be filled in around them. Places like Dasyueshan Nation Forest, Hehuanshan National Forest, and the elevated areas above Chiayi City, in Alishan Township, are particularly productive for endemics. With visits to those places and few others in between, my group was able to find 26 of Taiwan's 27 endemics (Taiwan Bush-Warbler the lone hold-out). And that was in just 8 days. The only endemic that requires extra travel is Styan's Bulbul, a bird that resides exclusively at the southern end of the country. We made that long trek but those visitors not hellbent on collecting every possible endemic might consider spending more time in other areas closer to the arrival/departure point of Taipei. If one wants to visit Lanyu/Orchid Island off the southern end of the country (see map below), then a visit to Kenting at the southern end will be required. Lanyu is most worth visiting in the spring when migrants abound but should generally be skipped at other seasons.

An interesting cultural note is that birdwatching in Taiwan is much more synonymous with bird photography than it is in the Unites States. In fact, many serious Taiwanese birders pack 500mm or 600m camera lenses instead of binoculars or spotting scopes. That there isn't much seawatching to be done in Taiwan explains some of this but a general Asian cultural affinity for photography and the gear associated therewith undoubtedly makes at least an equal contribution to the skew. This video from the first day of my trip nicely illustrates this difference. This particular hubbub was caused by the appearance of a group of Yellow-bellied Tits, a usually mainland species that has only been found in Taiwan a handful of times. At no rare bird would cameras so heavily outpace traditional birding optics in the United States or Europe. Irrespective, the video does nicely show that birders in Taiwan are as fanatical as are those in the US.

Twitching the rare Yellow-bellied Tit in Taiwan!
Complete and total bird madness!

OK, getting back to more serious birding business, it's worth noting that Taiwan's endemics are completely non-migratory (they wouldn't be endemic if the migrated off the island nation, right?). As such, they can be reliably found at any time of the year. In speaking with locals, it seems as though spring (late April into early May) is the most popular time to visit as it is then possible to see lingering Asian/Siberian winter migrants and returning, migratory breeders in addition to those endemics. Spring has the most birds but also the most rain, so do keep that in mind. Summer is the slowest season, but the action picks up again in the fall as migrants return from more northerly latitudes. Many species winter in Taiwan, so those cooler months are good birding as well. However, I have been strongly advised to AVOID THE TIME AROUND CHINESE NEW YEAR as it is a complete chaos during that time (late January into early February, depending on the lunar cycle). For reference, my very quick, driving-heavy, 8-day trip accumulated 160 species with only minimal time on the coast. Birdlists from spring trips of 10-12 days will be significantly closer to 200 species, the most successful exceeding that threshold. 

Otherwise, I'll say that Taiwan is a very safe and friendly place. Even with the language barrier, people are generally patient enough that I could communicate with them with hand gestures and sufficient time. Roads can be a bit hair-raising but are in great physical shape; I don't recall hitting a pothole the entire trip. Taiwan is a fully industrialized, first-world economy, and such prices for food and services are understandably more expensive than in other, less developed parts of Asia. However, prices seemed to me still significantly cheaper than what I would expect to pay for comps in the US or Europe. Most lodge-type accommodations seem to run $80-$130/nights. A four- or five-star hotel in the cities will run between $200-$300, very generally. 

EVA Airlines in North America - Highly recommended!

I flew the Taiwanese EVA Airlines direct from San Francisco (13 hours). It was very easy and had great in-flight service. I think that United is the only US airline that services Taiwan, but any number of Asian airlines will get you there as well (though often with long connections in Japan, the Philippines, China, or Korea). It's also worth noting that a full day is lost going to Taiwan as the International Dateline is crossed mid-Pacific; I left at midnight on Sunday and landed t 5:30am Monday morning. Returning 8 days later, I left on Monday at 7:50pm and landed in San Francisco at 3:50pm, 4 hours before I took off! So, keep that in mind when planning your travel. I have no idea about car rental as my group was shepherded around with a van/driver provided by the tourism ministry. 

OK, I know that's a lot of information, but hopefully it gives you a good idea of the history, geography, and logistics of Taiwan. In my next post I'll be focusing exclusively on birds, so do please check back next week for all of that information. I have lots of nice photos as well, so I think you'll enjoy those. Here's a fun one to whet your interest. It's a Collared Scops-Owl roosting in the rafters of an ancient temple. He perfectly represents the birding-cultural intersection that one can expect in Taiwan!

Collared Scops Owl - Otus lettia
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/40 at f/5.6, ISO 6400 (so not a lot of light was available!)