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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40076322
Yangmingshan NP - Qianshan Park: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40077508
Yangmingshan NP - Menghuan Lake: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40079020
Jinshan Park: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40079422
Jinshan Marsh: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40079419

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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40110037
Dasyueshan Road, KM 23-35, Day 2: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40110041
Dasyuenhan Road KM 35-43, Day 3: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40110047
Dasyuenhan Road KM 43, Day 3: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40110948
Dasyuenhan Road KM 43, Day 4: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40122348

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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40125380

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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40137434
Roadside Pullout, Day 5: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40138383
Roadside Pullout, Day 5: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40139901
'Blue Trail', Day 5: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40140481

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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40160351
Bazhang River Estuary, Day 6: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40161135

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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40180907

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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40183709

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!

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