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Taiwan endemics near Taipei (1 Viewer)

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
A morning in Wulai, Taiwan
27 November, 2006


Over the last few years I have had a good deal of success in booking holidays to good birding areas with my non-birding girlfriends. Past successes have included Cat Tien Nature Reserve in southern Vietnam (where I converted one girlfriend to birding. Three days later she dumped me, but that’s another story!) and Doi Chiang Dao in northern Thailand. This time my girlfriend Carrie and I spent two nights at the hot springs resort town of Wulai, just 25km south of Taipei, but in a deep river valley surrounded by lush forested hills

We had agreed in advance that this was not a birding holiday so my only birding time was from 0700-0930 in the morning. Fortunately the Wulai area is popular with Taiwanese birders and is featured in both the Chinese and English birding guides. And I was able to quickly find and bird an established birding trail – with great success!

Our hotel, which was perched about 100m uphill from the river giving wonderful views over the town and across the valley, was on the opposite side of the river from the start of the birding trail. On the way down to the river my first birds of the day were ten Brown-throated Martins perched on some overhead wires, and as I crossed the bridge I found a Little Egret and a White-breasted Waterhen perched along the banks, but no sign of the hoped-for Taiwan Whistling Thrush – one of my major target species.

The trail begins where the Tonghou River flows into the Nanshih River. I followed a road signposted for Siaoyi between a couple of hot springs hotels and a school. Passing the school I heard a loud call that sounded very similar to the familiar Red-billed Blue Magpie. Brilliant! It had to be Taiwan Blue Magpie, like the Whistling Thrush an endemic species found in forests throughout Taiwan, and my top target bird for the trip. Unfortunately the birds were out of sight up a steep, wooded slope, and I knew that unless I could find a way up there was no way I would see them. More by luck than judgement I happened to take some stairs that were on the birding route described in the book, and although I seemed to be no closer to the magpies, I started to see some very good birds.

First up was a Taiwan Barbet – a species proposed as a split from Black-browed Barbet of Malaysia and Vietnam, and Chinese Barbet (regularly seen in Southern China at Chebaling, Babao Shan and Wuyi Shan). It differs greatly in the colours of the head – showing lots of blue and yellow on the crown and throat, unlike Chinese Barbet, which shows a predominantly black and red crown. It was feeding in a fruiting camphor tree, giving me the occasional curious, but unhurried, glance.

As I was watching the Barbet and keeping an ear cocked for the magpies, four Black Bulbuls landed close-by, giving me wonderful views of their jet-black plumage, blood-red bills, and the grey edges to the wings and tail that are unique to the Taiwan subspecies. The Magpies began calling again and I eagerly climbed the last of the stairs and headed towards them. Before I had gone 20 yards a Grey Treepie swished into a nearby tree – its long tail initially raising my excitement, before I realised it was just not long enough to belong to a Magpie! However once I got onto it its identity was clear – and just to make sure I understood it gave its distinctive “gagada-gaek!” call, which I know well from the birds that visit Ng Tung Chai every autumn.

However, arriving just behind it was a real Taiwan Blue Magpie – complete with the long, distinctive, white-tipped, droop-tipped, tail of its genus. A great bird, but not a great view, as it was partly hidden behind a branch, and silhouetted against the morning light, preventing me from enjoying the full glory of its purple-blue plumage.

Seeing that the road looped back on itself, I headed on, hoping to get on the right side of the light, but within 20 yards I was stopped short by a pair of Varied Tits (of the striking endemic subspecies castaneoventris) feeding together on the bare branches of a dead tree just a few metres away. I was torn between drinking in the wonderful combination of chestnut, black and white of the Varied Tits and getting better views of the Magpie. Not a bad problem to have, you might think, but matters became much worse when a male Maroon Oriole flew around the clearing calling loudly, flashing a bright red tail – and passing another Taiwan Blue Magpie on the way!

I was still in shock when a woodpecker called, and a female Grey-capped Woodpecker flew in and perched prominently on a nearby branch! Thankfully this is a bird I know well, so after a quick look to confirm its identity, I was able to come back to the main problem of getting good views of the magpie. Fortunately a group of four or five was feeding around a stand of large trees, and I was able to enjoy the deep richness of their purple-blue underparts, wings and back set off against a black hood, white-tipped, pheasant-like tail, hot red bill and bright mischievious eyes. A truly wonderful bird!

Surrounded by this feast of new and beautiful birds a group of Olive backed Pipits and a solitary cettia Bush Warbler (either Manchurian, which is common in HK in the winter, or the very similar borealis race of Japanese Bush Warbler) got pretty short shrift, but Taiwan Scimitar Babbler – newly proposed as a split from Streak-throated Scimitar Babbler owing to its larger size and black rather than rufous-streaked breast, deserved more attention. At least it would have done if two different Chinese Bamboo Partridges had not started their distinctive “pee-ple pray, pee-ple pray!” song on both sides of the road. While they refused to show – a disappointment since they are almost certainly a Taiwan endemic – they distracted me long enough for the Scimitar Babblers to make their escape.

The final good bird in this incredible session was a pair of Bronzed Drongos that flew into another bare tree to check me out. They had the metallic sheen of Hair-crested Drongo, but the forked tail of Black Drongo (although not as deeply forked). They glittered magnificently in the morning sunshine as they made a couple of sweeping attacks on flying insects, before deciding that I was much too boring for birds as cool and glamorous as them, and disappeared!

All this happened in a whirlwind 40 minutes that I will never forget. It was followed by a long slog upriver during which I added Brown Dipper, Plumbeous Redstart, and 30-odd Grey-chinned Minivets, followed by a rush back to the hotel for breakfast.

However, more was to come . . . as I was passing the school a Grey Treepi flew out of a fruiting camphor tree right by the roadside some 30 yards in front of me. Unlike the large mature trees on the slope above, this was a much smaller and denser tree. Although it was filled with movement I struggled to get good views of the birds, until first one Taiwan Blue Magpie, then a Grey Treepie, then a couple more Blue Magpies, and finally all fifteen remaining Blue Magpies left the tree and flew right past my head, giving me unforgettable grandstand views of a truly iconic bird!

Later that day I again saw what I suspect was the same flock as we walked up to the Wulai waterfall cable car station, but distantly on the far bank of the river, where I also added a Crested Goshawk. At the Dreamland resort, which we reached by a short but dramatic cable-car ride over the falls, I finally caught up with the lovely Taiwan Whistling Thrush. A fine bird in itself, but nothing like as good as the Magpie and the kaleidoscope of birds I’d enjoyed on that truly unforgettable morning!

That afternoon I tried showing a few birds to my girlfriend. She had no interest whatsoever. But at least she hasn’t dumped me!


Useful information

Birding Guidebooks:
I took with me both the Chinese (?????? 2001 ISBN 957-455-054-0) and English (Birdwatching in Taiwan 2005 ISBN 957-98751-9-7) guidebooks. While they were helpful in selecting Wulai over Beitou as a hot springs resort near Taipei, which offered a chance of some good birds, I found them difficult to use for planning my birding day. The main problems were that no distances are given on the maps, that area maps do not correspond closely with more detailed local maps, and the maps do not clearly mark the specific birding routes. Once I had my bearings they made much more sense.

One other book I was unable to find was the "Birdwatcher's Guide to the Taipei Region", ISBN 957-01-7797-7. According to Taiwan-based BF member Mark Bruce this shows distances of the trails, and gives good directions for seeing Tawny Fish Owl near Wulai.

More positively, they gave a good idea of the birds you are likely to see and the newer English book illustrates all the endemic species and subspecies, many of which have distinctive, easily recognizable plumages. They also provide contact numbers for public transport companies and some recommended accommodation. HKBWS Library has copies of both which can be borrowed.

“The Lonely Planet Guide to Taiwan” 2004 edition was also helpful in planning the trip.

Endemics and splits
At present Taiwan has 15 recognized endemic species, and almost 60 others which are worthy of consideration as endemic subspecies or full species. There have been recent proposals to split some of these such as Taiwan Barbet and Taiwan Hwamei, while others await further research. A good place to follow developments is the Birding in Taiwan website (www.birdingintaiwan.com), which posts news on taxonomic studies of Taiwanese birds. This is an exciting time as several developments have occurred in the last year, and more are expected soon.

Finally my thanks to Mark Bruce of BF for providing valuable advice on site guides, planning the trip and helping my investigations into the bush warbler.
 
Hi Mike,

Nice report and some excellent birds (love those Blue Magpie's), amazing how good somewhere so close to such a large city can be, I missed out on visiting this site, didsn't realise just how much stuff was possible there, ended up going all the way down to Huisen for birds such as Varied Tit & Maroon Oriole (such a nice race). Still awaiting my first Tawny Fish-Owl too....
 
Don't feel bad, guys. I need that owl, too ! Good excuse for a trip ;) ! (James, I still need Island Thrush. Actually, you might not want me around when looking for the Island Thrush, that bird is definitely allergic to me and vanishes when I'm about.)

A great report, Mike. My pleasure and glad to hear that you got your target birds. I've yet to see more than four Blue Magpies together. I have dreams about seeing a big flock flying off in that "bill to tail blue train" formation.

The distance issue in the guides is very frustrating. The Taipei guide is much better in that regard but sadly only covers the Taipei region.
 

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Hi Mike,

What a fabulous trip, Mark sure gave you some great sites but the Gods/spirits knew you would appreciate them so made sure they were at the right place at the right time. Bet lots of people haven't been so lucky.

I know you will always treasure those moments and hope 2007 brings you many more happy memories.

Ann :clap: :flowers:
 
Nice, Mike. I'm jealous.

I went to Wulai last April and didn't get half the species variety you saw. Missed the magpie, too. Maybe next time.
 
And partly because of this excellent report, my Missus and I are currently planning to go to Taiwan this September. I'd be happy with half the species you saw;-)
 
Jeff hopkins said:
Nice, Mike. I'm jealous.

I went to Wulai last April and didn't get half the species variety you saw. Missed the magpie, too. Maybe next time.
Missing the Magpies must have been a disappointing. Wulai is generally a good place to see them. The Sikanshui trail also out that way is also pretty good. Another trail in the Taipei area that is reasonably good for the Magpies is Erziping Trail (aka Butterfly Corridor & Owl Crossing Trail) in Yangmingshan National park.

A site closer to Taichung for a pretty much guaranteed sighting of the Magpies is the Botanical Gardens at the Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute, Jiji, Nantou County. Sit and watch the bird bath next to the raptor rehabilitation area and the small flock of resident Blue Magpies stop for a drink or an argument with the Grey Treepies every hour. You'll know when they're coming because the Treepies start getting angry and making a lot of noise. The shouting match is often quite spectacular.

Hanno said:
And partly because of this excellent report, my Missus and I are currently planning to go to Taiwan this September. I'd be happy with half the species you saw;-)
No fears, Hanno. We'll get them all lined up for you.
 
Many thanks for all the positive feedback - it was a truly wonderful session - and I'm very much looking forward to going back to Taiwan. The upland endemics, Fairy Pitta, Chinese Crested Tern, Short-tailed Albatross and Lanyu all beckon, and I'd be back to Wulai in a flash - even if I didn't need Tawny Fish Owl.

Cheers
Mike
 
Mark Bruce said:
Missing the Magpies must have been a disappointing. Wulai is generally a good place to see them. The Sikanshui trail also out that way is also pretty good. Another trail in the Taipei area that is reasonably good for the Magpies is Erziping Trail (aka Butterfly Corridor & Owl Crossing Trail) in Yangmingshan National park.

A site closer to Taichung for a pretty much guaranteed sighting of the Magpies is the Botanical Gardens at the Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute, Jiji, Nantou County. Sit and watch the bird bath next to the raptor rehabilitation area and the small flock of resident Blue Magpies stop for a drink or an argument with the Grey Treepies every hour. You'll know when they're coming because the Treepies start getting angry and making a lot of noise. The shouting match is often quite spectacular.

Mark, any locations close to Tainan (actually near the Southern High Tech Park) where I might find them, preferably accessable from public transport? That seems to be where my visits to Taiwan take me most often.
 
Jeff hopkins said:
Mark, any locations close to Tainan (actually near the Southern High Tech Park) where I might find them, preferably accessable from public transport? That seems to be where my visits to Taiwan take me most often.
Hi Jeff, if you're in Tainan then I'll take you birding. I'm just under an hour north of Tainan by train and Huben, probably the best site for Malayan Night Heron, is ten minutes from the station. I've seen Malayan Night Heron in Tainan city parks in the early morning and late afternoon quite often. Have you been to the Chigu Wetlands just North of Tainan City for the Spoonbills, Saunders's Gull and others?
 
Mark Bruce said:
Hi Jeff, if you're in Tainan then I'll take you birding. I'm just under an hour north of Tainan by train and Huben, probably the best site for Malayan Night Heron, is ten minutes from the station. I've seen Malayan Night Heron in Tainan city parks in the early morning and late afternoon quite often. Have you been to the Chigu Wetlands just North of Tainan City for the Spoonbills, Saunders's Gull and others?

I've seen the night heron in Taipei, but I'm always open to visiting new sites. I went to Chigu last April, but the spoonbills had just left the week before(I've missed them twice in Korea, too), but I did pick up a few lifers there. I also got the guys at our plant to take me to the jacana sanctuary in Guantien, so that was cool. I've been threatening to spend a weekend in Kenting, but I'd prefer to do that in the fall when the hawks are moving. I've been there before, about 14 years ago, but that was before I was a birder.

I also had a weekend off when I was there in April, and went up to Alishan. Unfortunately without my own transportation, I didn't get to spend much time at Yushan (I signed up for a sunrise tour, but once the sun came up, they came right back down).

If I get back there, I'll give you a shout.
 
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