Sunday, 17 November 2019

Taiwan - Day 3

Day 3
Up early again and quickly drove the 9km to the start of what is known as the Continuation Trail, or Kilometres 3-5 of the Blue Gate Trail. This is at 18km (again the road is marked with distances), about 600m down a side road to the north which has an obvious Police Station at the top. I drove down to where I thought the trail cut across this road but could not find it, and so turned the car around thinking I must have missed it. This is when disaster struck. The road was surprisingly busy at 6am, and is mostly very narrow. On the way back up I had to take evasive action from a blue truck that was hurtling down and in doing so there was a tremendous bang as I went over a rock that must have been hidden under roadside vegation. It felt really bad, and I limped up to the main road and pulled over to inspect the damage. There was a horrible noise coming from the right hand side of the car which I presumed was either my tyre deflating or some vital liquid leaking from a sheared pipe. Getting out the noise was in fact coming from a drain that I had parked on top of and not the car, however my tyre was shafted, with a tennis ball sized protrusion on the side wall. My plans today included driving over the highest road pass in Taiwan, there was no way I could risk that in this state. I checked the boot for a spare but there was just an empty well - thanks Avis. What to do? It was 6am and nowhere would be open, so I just left it there next to the Police Station (which was closed) and went birding.

The start of the Continuation Trail was in fact just a little further down from where I had turned around, and despite the car problem weighing rather heavily on my mind, I was into great birding immediately. Almost the first bird seen was a Taiwan Wren Babbler (Cupwing). It was in near darkness by the side of the damp trail and called incredibly loudly. I managed to gets bins on it as it hopped in the leaf litter and then it teleported away. There was nowhere it could have gone but it literally vanished into thin air and I couldn’t find it again.

The start of the Blue Gate Trail. You can see the remnants of the blue gate just down the track on the left.

About a kilometre further on I found a Taiwan Barwing creeping around a tree, and very close by a Taiwan Shortwing in the bottom of a bush. What a spot this is! I followed the trail to where it ends in a large landslide, and found another Shortwing and another Cupwing here. The Cupwing was again in leaf litter, and this time I saw what the other one had done. I was only about six feet from it when it popped out of the leaf litter, gave a loud buzzing call, and then dove about 2 feet horizontally back into the leaf litter and vanished. I remember a Lancey doing something similar on Shetland once. Unfortunately I didn’t get a single photo along here, the birds were impossible and it was virtually dark!

As good as the birding was, the tyre continued to play on my mind and I knew I had to get it sorted before I did anything else. It was now 8am and probably things like garages would be opening. Back up at the Police Station there was a Policeman, and I showed him the wheel. At least it was an obvious issue I could point at, as my Mandarin extends as far as “rice” and things like that and not “I need a replacement tyre please”. He went into the station, got his phone and spoke some Mandarin into it. I was hoping he was calling a good friend of his who ran a local garage, but actually he was just using Google Translate as I had been doing, and his phone soon told me that it was “advisable that I go to a car repair factory as soon as possible”. Quite. There was nothing in the direction I wanted to go, so I limped back towards Wushe and stopped at a petrol station. A bit of gesticulating occurred and I established, once again via Google, that there was “a car repair centre 15 minutes down the road”. Remarkably I managed to find this without the tyre giving out, but the owner just shook his head and said “Puli”, which is a township a further 40 minutes down the mountain.

I nursed the car to Puli, which was a lot bigger and had lots and lots of car repair places to try. I chose one of the red dots amongst a gaggle of dots in case I had to try several, but the first place I stopped at was perfect. It was run by a husband and wife team who got to work straight away whilst I went to a nearby 7-11 for cash. When I came back the car was jacked up and the new tyre being prepared so I had time for a pot noodle as an early lunch. The garage had a hot-water cylinder as most places in Taiwan seem to, but as I started to make it it was literally ripped out of my hands and prepared for me, and then I was ushered towards a sofa (yes, the garage had a sofa), sat down and given a set of chopsticks. The car was soon back to four wheels again for a very reasonable 2400 TWD (c£60 – KwikFit it ain’t) and the owner pressed a cup of coffee into my hands and waved me on my way. It took over an hour to get back to the birding trails. I had lost two hours and forty minutes of birding as a result, but I felt hugely upbeat now that this was resolved. Sometimes this is just what happens and you just deal with it. I did see another Indian Black Eagle along the way though.

This time I birded the first section of the Blue Gate Trail, starting at km 15.5. Mid-morning this was Flycatcher central. Vivid Niltava, Ferruginuous Flycatcher and Snowy-browed Flycatcher all showed well, along with lots of Black-throated Bushtits. There were at least three Ashy Woodpigeon along this trail as well, but the views were very difficult.

By now it was midday – I had hoped to be at the Hehuanshan Pass by now! I raced back to the car in double-quick time and started heading up. I made slow progress as I felt compelled to stop everywhere and have a quick look and listen. This gained me a Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler at around km 24, but actually the best birding was at km 29 just below the pass. Here, on the edges of a large car park, were some very tame Vinaceous Rosefinches and White-whiskered Laughingthrushes. Nearby a family party of Grey-headed Bullfinches were in a pine tree, the only ones I saw. I spent a long time here trying to find Golden Parrotbills in the bamboo as well as Alpine Accentor on the rocks, all to no avail. Now I had a problem. My plan had been to be at Tarako by 3pm to find Styan’s Bulbul, and then drive to Yilan after sunset, but there was no way I was going to make it. I could either forgo the Bulbul, or stay overnight in Taroko, get it first thing, and then spend two hours of daylight getting to Yilan. I chose the latter as I also wanted to see Taroko Gorge in the daylight. It would mean cutting out some of the sites around Taipei but would probably not cost me any species.

Vinaceous Rosefinch

White-whiskered Laughingthrush

Decision made, the pressure was slightly off now, and I could bird through towards Taroko in a reasonably leisurely fashion, stopping off a places that looked good. In doing so I finally got some sort of photo of a Black-throated Bushtit, and improved upon Flamecrest and Yuhina. I also added Asian House Martin to my list at another random stop, getting out of the car and hearing the characteristic farty noises from the sky above. This tactic of frequent stops really paid dividends about 7.5km after Route 14 becomes Route 8. At another passing place I stopped at briefly, this time more to admire the view in the late afternoon sunshine, I became aware of leaf litter noises from the other side of the road. I had not yet got out of the car, and turning around in my seat I saw three Pheasants feeding on the verge. A male and two females, surely Swi…..wait a minute! I grabbed a record shot quickly and then consulted the field guide. They were Mikado Pheasants! I took a few more shots before the birds disappeared up the slope and from view. All my tyre woes were forgotten in that instant. Had I not hit that rock, had I not spent that time getting to Puli and back, would I have stopped at this point at this time of day? Richard Foster had said that Mikado Pheasant was a possibility on the other side of the pass, but had said early and I had assumed I had no chance. Yet here I was having clawed back probably the biggest tick, one of the hardest birds on Taiwan, the one that all the tours have to build in back-up stops for. I was cock-a-hoop!

Mikado Pheasant

I had dinner at Tianxiang and browsed eBird for a while to see where the best spot for Morrison’s Fulvetta (Grey-cheeked), one of my remaining targets in the area, was. Luoshao apparently, so that is where I drove and slept.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

On this Day. Again.

The 16th November 2008 is one I look back at with great fondness. I was a twitcher! It was the most natural thing in the world to get up in the middle of the night and drive to Yorkshire to see a lost bird, and then to drive home via Lincolnshire to see another lost bird. For me that was an excellent use of a day. Wondrous isn't it?! 

I had not long started twitching. I was keen, some would say rabid. Today's me would say that about 2008's me in fact. Back then I was getting all over the place. Two weeks before you would have found me in Norfolk ticking my first Red-flanked Bluetail, Pallas' Warbler and.....Yellow-browed Warbler! The weekend before that I had been in Devon where I'd seen a King Eider, and somehow between that I had also fitted in a Green Heron in Kent. All perfectly normal. Halcyon days.

Anyhow, back to the day in question - a Two-barred Crossbill had been frequenting a farm in Yorkshire somewhere. Bilsdale actually, I just looked it up. It is probably under water at the moment. Like all keen twitchers various phone calls had been made the night before based on the day's news, and on Sunday morning a car load of London birders made their way north, arriving mid-morning. In all honesty I can't remember much about it, but a line of birders were present up a farm track and sure enough the bird flew into a pine or onto a feeder or something and all of the collective anxiety evaporated. It is the same every time frankly.

With this early score we contemplated what to do next and hit upon the novel idea of doing some more twitching. Well why wouldn't you? Two birds were available. A Pied Wheatear at a caravan site somewhere up on the east coast which we dipped, and a Steppe Grey Shrike which we didn't......

That is MY scope. Mine!

I have posted this photo before, I know I have. I have also written about this bird before, probably several times. I don't care. It is still, 11 years on, a defining moment in my bird-watching career. If I were pressed to say what my favourite birding experiences were this would come very close to the top of the list every time. In 2008 it was bird # 284 and I ticked it off before Long-eared Owl, Willow Tit and Red Grouse. Yes, I was one of those twitchers I'm afraid. It's okay, I know better now, and my actual birding experience has caught up with my list. But the Shrike was still awesome.

Friday, 15 November 2019

On the astounding intelligence of dogs

I bet you didn't know dogs could understand English did you? I did, I've known for a long time actually. It's one reason why the press always use photos of dogs coming out of polling stations; they have just been inside to help their owners vote. I bet some of them can probably talk.

The reason I know that dogs are fully conversant is that I frequently witness dog owners having conversations with them. As in proper conversations. Well, maybe slightly one sided conversations, but conversations nonetheless. None of these curt commands that you might expect for a dog, but proper english sentences. For instance, on the way to work this morning I saw a fat old dog come waddling out of a house to greet a builder who was looking at the driveway with the owner.

"Now Jack, I told you to stay inside didn't I? So what are you doing outside? No! This man hasn't come to see you silly, he's here about the drive. You go back inside now please, off you go, there's a good boy. No! I said no Jack. Jack! Jack!! JACK!!!"

Jack wasn't in a listening mood.

I see it quite a lot on Wanstead Flats as well. Take Billy for instance. Amazing levels of comprehension, or at least I assume so otherwise why would you bother?

"Billy! BILLY! Why are you jumping on the man Billy? He doesn't want to play, he's busy, come along now, just leave him be. Now stop it Billy, come this way. Oh what's this over here Billy? Can't you see he's looking at birds and isn't interested in your ball. Why don't you come over here with me Billy and we'll go this way. Come on Billy! Billy! BILLY!!!"

Astonishing. Not only can Billy understand english but he also knows what binoculars are! Although Billy is not your average dog, the owner must have thought I was distinctly dim-witted and couldn't understand basic words like "sorry", as even when Billy was putting paw prints on my suit trousers I wasn't acknowledged in the slightest. 

Although Billy was clearly a bit of a canine superstar he, like Jack, couldn't have given two shits about what his owner was rabbiting on about and simply ignored her. Very rude when she has gone to so much extra trouble.

I have seen many other dog geniuses of course, but I expect you get the picture. One day I'm going to visibly let my draw drop when I encounter one, and pretend I've never seen a talking dog before.

"Oh my God!!! I mean wow!! How did you teach your dog to do that?!! That's mad, a dog that can understand english! I mean that's incredible!! You're just speaking to your dog as if he were a person. Unbelievable! I've never seen that before, so impressive. I bet that dog is worth a fortune, you're so lucky. Does he, you know, ever talk back?



Thursday, 14 November 2019

Taiwan - Day 2

Day 2
I woke up at 6am and it was perfectly light! Somehow I had managed to sleep for hours and hours, and now needed to get cracking. I went and had a wash at the toilet block, had a 7-11 pastry, and went birding. I was hoping for Mikado Pheasant, often seen around this area at first light, but my dreams went unfulfilled. Walking the track that goes up to the lake behind the visitor centre I encountered a flock of Taiwan Yuhina, followed quickly by two Collared Bush Robins. Around the lake were mixed flocks of small birds flitting through the pines, Green-backed Tits and Coal Tits (race “ptilosus” which have a really pronounced crest), but best of all Flamecrests, another Taiwan endemic. Also here were my first White-whiskered Laughingthrush, a Taiwan Fulvetta in some bamboo, a female Vinaceous Rosefinch and a group of Steere’s Liochicla.  The commonest birds were Nutcrackers, always a good sign.

Coal Tit

Steere's Liochicla

Walking back down to the visitor centre I took a new path, track 230 (24.290399,121.025508). This is also closed to vehicles and is a known site for the pheasant, but after walking about 2km all I had to show for it were more Flamecrests, Green-backed Tits and a Large-billed Crow. Surprisingly quiet, and despite the lengthy list of endemics I had seen I returned to the visitor centre rather disconsolate as on such a tight timetable it looked like my one and only opportunity for Mikado Pheasant had passed. By now it was 10am and the first coaches were arriving, depositing crowds of brightly-coloured and extremely noisy tourists all keen to go and enjoy the great outdoors. It was time to leave. I tried my luck at the km 48 car park, even walking up to the watchpoint (24.265866,121.033828) and back, but still no Pheasants. Barely any birds at all actually, it was absurdly quiet.

White-whiskered Laughingthrush


Things picked up at around km 37 (roughly 24.251143,120.984155). I had been stopping frequently wherever there was space to pull the car over, and in the trees below the road and thus at eye level I found a large mixed flock. This was dominated by Taiwan Yuhina, stunning Black-throated Bushtits and Green-backed Tits, but in amongst them was a smart Taiwan Yellow Tit – the only one I would see. Accompanying this flock was a Rufous-faced Babbler, a number of Rufous-faced Warblers, a couple of European Nuthatches and a pair of Grey-chinned Minivets. It was a great half an hour, and it was also around here that I saw my first Ashy Woodpigeon, a bird I was to hear far more often than see.

Taiwan Yuhina

Descending further to km 35 I met Richard Foster and his group again on track 210, who advised that it was a dead as yesterday. They had stayed outside the park and were birding their way up, and advised that the downstream path at km 14.5 had been good earlier in the day. I bypassed km 23 which was a total zoo and went back to the river and walked the track along the north bank to 24.237713,120.907103. Here I found my first Taiwan Scimitar Babbler, an Arctic Warbler, and a pair of Plumbeous Redstarts. Better than this I also flushed three Taiwan Bamboo Partridge, again the only ones I was to see all trip. Nearly back at the car I noticed a large raptor high overhead – Indian Black Eagle!

Plumbeous Redstart

Back on the main road by the Dadong Police Station I stepped into the edge of a garden to observe a busy tree (Varied Tits and Himalayan Black Bulbuls). A resident came out to see what I was doing, and turned out to be French. She was living with an American and a Taiwanese lady, and they were all doing kibbutz-style agricultural tourism. The Taiwanese girl had never used binoculars before and it was special treat to see her reaction when she got the Bulbuls in view. I was invited in for soup and cup of tea which was really nice, and had an extremely good chat with some very interesting people. It is little asides like this which really help make a trip.

I made a further stop at km 11.5 (24.220592,120.892322) which gained me Collared Finchbills, a group of White-rumped Munias, and a noisy group of Grey Treepies. One final stop at around km 6 (24.233890,120.877924), just above a stables, had several Taiwan Hwamei, loads of Swinhoe’s White-eye, and my first Taiwan Barbet perched in a dead tree.

Collared Finchbill

Black-throated Bushtit

In the failing light I drove to Ren-ai Township, a good two hours away, to get in position for the next day. Along the way I managed to order a nice roast duck meal and found a tolerable B&B to stay in. It had been a long day, shame about the Pheasant but what can you do? My list of endemics was already looking very decent, and I was in prime habitat for more.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Taiwan - Day 1

Day 1
I picked up the hire car from Avis as soon as they opened and was relieved to find that my paperwork was all in order and that the international driving permit had not been in vain. I then drove a short distance to the coast to start birding. The first site, Xucuogang Wetlands, was not actually that promising but it was good to finally start birding. The sandy promontory had roosting Kentish Plover, Sanderling and Dunlin, and the mangroves and pools had various egrets and my first Light-vented (Chinese) Bulbul and Eastern Yellow Wagtails. I did not linger here and continued down to Hsinchu where there were a cluster of sites I wanted to visit.

The first of these was Jincheng Lake (24.810249, 120.910903), which had my first Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Teal, Wigeon and Shoveler, and numerous Redshank, Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed Plover and a single Common Sandpiper. The list was coming along nicely already but what I needed was Asian species rather than the stuff I can get in Europe. This was rectified in the paddyfields surrounding the site, which had Black Drongos and Red Turtle Doves perched on the wires, and a Swinhoe’s Snipe with Common Snipe in a field. Whilst pondering the Snipe ID a large pipit sounding like a sparrow flew across my field of vision – it was of course a Richard’s Pipit, and I got good scope views of that too.

At nearby Shuiziyuan Park (24.796643,120.916935) I investigated some scrubby habitat which had some Munias, a Long-tailed Shrike, Oriental Magpies and in the skies above, my first Striated Swallows and Pacific Swifts. Common Mynas were everywhere.

By now it was mid-morning and whilst I had a nice start with perhaps 40 species, it was time to start getting serious. I stopped at a 7-11 for provisions and then drove south to Taichung to pick up the road to Daxueshan Mountain. This took about two hours but was easy enough. The road starts off in the town but gradually narrows and starts winding, and a very large pheasant sculpture tells you that you are nearly there. It was soon after this point that I found my first proper birds, a flock of Grey-chinned Minivets in yellow and scarlet-orange, chasing each other round the trees. 

Grey-chinned Minivet

The road up the mountain has helpful green signs marking off the kilometres, and at about 14.5km I turned right down a minor road to the river (24.239214,120.909600). Leaving the car at the bridge I walked upstream along the right bank, quickly finding a Brown Dipper which was a surprisingly chunky bird. Other birds here included Oriental Turtle Dove and Daurian Redstart, and hundreds of huge Orb-Weaver Spiders.

Brown Dipper

At Km 23 there is a parking area and this is a well-known spot for Swinhoe’s Pheasant (24.246602,120.935405). I joined the small group of people hanging around, many with cameras, and understood that a short while earlier a male had been seen up the slope on the other side of the road. I had no idea about the timings but I felt it was worth waiting. It was probably about half past two in the afternoon and I had plenty of time. Shortly after this it all kicked off, and two female Swinhoe’s Pheasant came to the forest edge on the downward slope. Remarkably (or not, this may be a regular occurrence) they were then joined by two Taiwan Hill Partridge, and for good measure a Steere’s Liochicla popped out. Endemic overload! The male pheasant had obviously been lingering above the road as it flew across and down the slope, but in fact there were two as shortly after than I spotted another. It looked like it wanted to cross but a barrage of tourist photographers put paid to that and it turned tail and returned from where it came. Nonetheless, to get Swinhoe’s and especially the Partridge so quickly was great news and in the event they were the only ones I saw all trip. A group of European birders arrived, keen to see the Partridges, and their tour leader introduced himself as Richard Foster, a guy I had been conversing with on Twitter prior to arriving. He offered me some useful gen on the area which was great.

Taiwan Hill Partridge

At Km 35 there is an entrance gate to the higher levels in the Park (24.244564,120.974995). This closes at five and I wanted to get through to be able to stay the night so I motored on, stopping only for a small group of birds which turned out to be White-eared Sibia. Once though (300 TWD) I walked track 210, the start of which is about 75m beyond the entrance booth and next to a small temple. It is fenced off to vehicles but people are free to nip past the gate and bird the path. At this time of year it gets dark by about 5.30, and as this was approaching I didn’t see much here as it was very gloomy, but got my only White-tailed Robin of the trip.

White-eared Sibia

After this I drove up to Km 43 and had dinner at the restaurant next to Anma Lodge (24.255388,121.007127). This buffet seems only really to be for people staying at the hotel but they were happy for me to contribute 300 TWD and have some food and tea. Others may have a different experience. Then I drove up to Km 50 and tucked the car away in the lower car park (24.279132,121.025070), broke out the sleeping bag, and tried to get to sleep in a variety of different positions, none of which were very successful. A Ford Focus is just a little bit small. A real bonus here, at 2500m, was the presence of a toilet with a heated seat!

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Taiwan October 2019 - Logistics and Itinerary

Taiwan 26-30th October 2019

I had a week beyond the half term that I needed to use up, and tempted by numerous stunning photos of endemics on the internet I decided I could do worse than head to Taiwan for a few days. Originally this was planned as a pure photography trip with a friend, however he ended up not being able to come and the trip therefore became a birding trip. As it turned out the photography was exceedingly hard in the largely forest habitat, but the birding was so exciting that this didn’t matter in the slightest. 

In just over four days of birding I saw nearly all the endemics and a large number of Taiwanese sub-species that may one day get elevated whilst I am sat in my armchair. I did not use a guide, and birded from first light to dusk every day, with the exception of one day where I had to take a painful mid-morning break to get a new tyre fitted to my hire car.

  • Four and a half days of birding in late October which is one of the drier months on this largely tropical island, but a longer trip due to complicated travel arrangements.
  • Getting there: I flew from Stockholm via Doha and Hong Kong on Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific. There are quicker ways of getting there, and cheaper, but I got to travel in extreme comfort and experienced no jet lag at any point. However I left London (on a separate ticket that straddled the long-haul flights) on Thursday morning and did not arrive in Taipei until after dark on Friday, albeit that I had a nice day of tourism in Stockholm. On the return I left Taipei mid-afternoon on Wednesday and arrived home in London on Thursday evening. This included a night in a fantastic hotel next to a souk on the outskirts of Doha. I love travel and I love birding, and I don’t mind more of the former at the expense of the latter. Die-hard listers will likely want to get there faster and there are a number of options that would perhaps give you a couple of hours birding near Taipei on the first afternoon and allow for positioning to the central mountains that evening.
    • The flight to Doha from Stockholm left at 11pm, therefore in theory I could have left far later from London and still made it. However this is a very risky strategy as if you are not present in Stockholm for the departure your entire ticket is cancelled. It is not Qatar Airway’s fault that British Airways (or whoever) did not get you to Stockholm on time; you are simply deemed a no-show. This is the risk of buying cheaper airline tickets from European cities, therefore I left London early to ensure plenty of time for screw-ups. In the event there were none and I had an excellent day in Stockholm. On the way back the worst that could happen is that you miss your flight back to London and have to buy another one, so I baked in zero contingency. Everything went smoothly.
  • Car Hire: I hired a Ford Focus automatic from Avis for five days which cost about £300, on the expensive side of destinations. I added a wi-fi router for an additional £12, which meant I paid no roaming charges. It is essential that you have an International Driving Permit to rent a car in Taiwan. These are available from larger UK Post Offices for £5 and require a passport photo. Note that Taiwan does not seem to appear on the list of destinations that require one, therefore the counter staff will probably tell you that you do not need one. Just insist.
  • Driving: Generally exceptionally easy when I had all four tyres, and though I could not read many of the road signs the sat-nav (simply Google Maps on my phone) got me to all destinations and birding sites flawlessly.
    • Many of the freeways are toll roads, but there are no barriers or toll booths. Hire cars all come with a tag and you settle up at the end. I drove a large loop of approximately 850km around the northern half of Taiwan and racked up a bill of only £4.
    • The Taiwanese are not the greatest drivers. Sitting in the outside lane on the freeway is accepted, and thus there is a lot of undertaking and weaving about. On mountain roads drivers seem to have no particular concerns about overtaking on blind bends, nor taking a racing line or a nice wide oncoming turn. I came to expect this after a short while. Keeping alert will keep you safe. Beware of roadside rocks
    • In Taipei in particular be very aware of mopeds, of which there are thousands coming at you from all directions
    • Parking: There are no parking meters, instead Parking Wardens will come along and place a ticket (not a fine!) on your windscreen after a short while, and continue to add tickets at whatever time unit is relevant until you leave. You can then pay these tickets off at a number of convenient shops, such as 7-11s, which are everywhere in Taiwan.
  • Accommodation: Other than the first night where I stayed at the airport before collecting my hire car the following accommodation I did not book in advance as I wanted to remain flexible in the event of bad weather in the various mountain ranges which are susceptible to rain and poor visibility at all times of the year. With the exception of Wushe and Wulai which are very touristy, there are limited hotel options in the areas where birders will spend most of their time. Knowing this I packed a sleeping bag and slept in the car on two of the nights, which also meant I could be birding at first light. Softer birders may consider booking into Anma Lodge at Daxueshan, although this needs to be done well in advance. Google helped me find hotels on the other nights, which were £40-£50 per night.
  • Language: In Taipei you can get by with pidgin English. In rural areas you are very much on your own, however Google is marvellous at translating into Mandarin and both displays the text and speaks it. Note that Mandarin is not the only language in Taiwan and you may come across someone who is a Hokkien speaker. I am guessing this is what happened to me once or twice, and I reverted to basic sign language which is universally understood.
  • Money and Prices: The Taiwanese currency is the TWD. At the time of my visit I got about 40 to the pound. Cash machines are abundant, and generally found in most 7-11s or Family Marts. Hotels were pleasantly cheap, food even more so. Parking in central Taipei cost about 50 TWD per hour, and a full tank of fuel for the car cost 1500 TWD. A new tyre was 2400 TWD…. My total spend including the tyre over the five days was just under £300.
  • Food: Armed with a few basic Mandarin phrases and an uncanny ability to replicate the sounds that animals like ducks and chickens make, I ate excellent and cheap food. Roast duck, vegetables and rice one evening cost 80 TWD. The most expensive meal I ate was the equivalent of £7 in a restaurant near Wulai. 7-11s provided breakfast and lunch. Generally this was sushi or a pot-noodle. In the UK if you can still find a 7-11 it will be shit. In Taiwan they are a fundamental part of life and completely excellent. Pot noodles came in a million varieties, cost next to nothing, and the 7-11s all have boiling water and microwaves on standby for customers.
  • People: Extremely friendly and helpful, especially in times of need, and lots of smiling. The chap who fixed my tyre made me a coffee and his wife insisted on making up my pot noodle. Everyone says hello, either in Mandarin “Ni-hao”, or in English if they can manage it, and change is returned with a small bow.
  • Health and Safety: Taiwan is one of the safest countries in Asia, at no point did I feel in any danger whatsoever wandering around with tons of optics, nor leaving stuff in the car.
  • Literature: I used the Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil which was all I needed. It is admittedly a little bulky, but it will fit into a cargo pocket if you bend it a bit. Field guides are supposed to be abused. Various trip reports of the web were consulted, especially on the main areas like Daxueshan and Wushe-Wuling, and in Richard Rae’s who happens to be a mate of mine and did a similar solo trip in 2012. The ever-fabulous helped me work out what had been seen recently at these sites, and when time was tight helped me work out where my remaining targets were concentrated.

Birding Areas

Hsinchu (1)
  • Jincheng Lake and surrounding area good for Ducks and Waders (24.810249, 120.910903)
  • Shuiziyuan Park – Good scrub habitat (24.796643,120.916935)
  • Xiangshan Wetlands – coastal mudflats good for Waders (24.783767,120.914912)

Daxueshan Mountain (2) - the premier birding destination on the island, anywhere along the road is good. The road up starts at 24.247637,120.832194.
  • Km 6 – a roadside stop above a stables, good views of Taiwan Hwamei (24.233890,120.877924)
  • Km 11.5 – a roadside stop above agricultural area was good for Collared Finchbill and Grey Treepie (24.220592,120.892322)
  • Km 14.5 – take the minor road on the right heading down the river through bamboos. Trails either side of the bridge good for birding, particularly downstream. Good site for Taiwan Scimitar Babbler, Brown Dipper and Plumbeous Redstart (24.239214,120.909600)
  • Km 23 – regular Swinhoe’s Pheasant stake-out (24.246602,120.935405)
  • Km 35 – past the entrance booths track 210 to the left of small temple can offer good forest birding (24.245458,120.974852)
  • Km 50 – lots of trails, I found the area around the small lake to be the best, with Taiwan Fulvetta, Flamecrest and Steere’s Liochichla aplenty (24.282674,121.027152)

Wushe to Wuling (3-4)
  • Km 15.5, the “Blue Gate” trailhead is on the northern side of the road, and there is plenty of space to pull a car off the road. On eBird this is known as “Ruiyan River Major Wildlife Habitat – Shuigan Trail 0-3km”. Good forest birding, I found lots of Flycatchers along this section (roughly 24.097183,121.181050)
  • Km 18, a side road to the north with a Police Station on the corner (24.105453,121.197522) leads down to the “Continuation Trail”, which is an extension of the aforementioned “Blue Gate” trail. There is a small spot to park at about 24.111226,121.196307. On eBird this is the same as the above, except 3-5km. Excellent forest birding, the only place I found Taiwan Wren Babbler (Cupwing), Taiwan Barwing and Taiwan Shortwing.
  • Km 24 (Yuanfeng) – a small rest area where I found various montane species (24.117961,121.237117)
  • Km 29 (Kunyang, Hehuanshan Mountain) – amazing views of White-whiskered Laughingthrushes and Taiwan Rosefinch (24.122638,121.272377)

Taroko National Park (5) – almost anywhere along Route 8 has potential, and the landscape scenery is breathtaking.
  • 7.5km east of Dayuling on route 8 – a random stop produced Mikado Pheasant feeding by the road (roughly 24.185371,121.351678)
  • Luoshao – good spot along the river for general birding (24.205566,121.451795)
  • Buluowan Service Area – excellent birding on both the lower and upper terrace trails, as well as around the car park. Lots of Tits (24.170502,121.574243)

Yilan (6)
  • Lizejian / Wusheirjian Wetlands – excellent paddyfield habitat filled with waders, ducks, egrets and raptors (24.659980,121.818578)

Taipei / Taoyuan (7)
  • Botanic Gardens – exceedingly busy but the site for Malayan Night Heron. Lots of potential for a couple of hours (25.032654,121.508821)
  • Huajiangyanya Natural Park – Wetland Area within convenient distance of the Botanic Gardens (25.039023,121.493591)
  • Xucuogang Wetlands – wader habitat, various ponds and mangroves (25.087850,121.175995)

Wulai (8)
  • Laxa Trail – from the multi-storey car park bear right over the first bridge and then turn immediately left along the right bank of the eastern fork of the river. After about 400m take some steps on your right at 24.862263,121.554417 and bird the lanes around the cemetery. Birds everywhere, including flocks of the Taiwan Blue Magpie 24.860580,121.553685
  • Road to Wulai Falls 24.861541,121.551366. Good birding all the way to the falls and beyond, lots of mixed flocks and numerous Taiwan Whistling Thrush along the river. I walked to about 24.839742,121.538513

Hehuanshan Pass


Day 1: Collected hire car at 8am and birded my way down the west coast, the site of particular note was Jincheng Lake and the surrounding agricultural area near Hsinchu City. Arrived Daxueshan Mountain at around 1pm and birded my way up to km 50 by dusk. Overnight in the car at km 50.
Day 2: Daxueshan all day, birding down from km 50 to the start, then drove to Wushe in the evening. Hotel east of Wushe on northern branch of the 14.
Day 3: Early morning birding the “Blue Gate” trails, however several hours lost due to tyre issues that could only be sorted out at Puli. Afternoon up to the Wuling Pass / Hehuanshan Mountain, and then down to Taroko Gorge. Overnight in the car at Luoshao.
Day 4: Birded from Luoshao down to Taroko entrance via Tianxiang and Buluowan. Afternoon stops at the Lizejian/Wushierjia Wetlands at Yilan, and then onwards to Taipei where I stopped briefly at the Botanical Garden and then birded the Huajiangyanya Natural Park alongside the Tamsui River until dusk. Evening drive to Wulai where I found a reasonably priced hotel.
Day 5: Birded Wulai all morning, firstly the Laxa trail on the eastern branch of the river, and then along the western branch of the river up to approximately Xinxian. Then back to Taipei for a 2pm flight.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

The coffee run gauntlet

Contrary to popular opinion, I do in fact bird Wanstead Flats. At the moment, indeed as for the whole of the year, this is almost exclusively a Saturday morning activity, although during spring migration it also tends to be before work as well. So although I have not written very much about it as it is so dull (for the most part), it does still happen. 

Take last Saturday for example. I was lounging around in bed when Tony's message came through about a fly-over Yellowhammer. This is a good bird locally, probably annual but not reliably so for weekend birders. I resolved to get up, stable doors and bolts notwithstanding, and see what I could eke out. It was quite a nice morning out there, and I soon met up with the aforementioned TB and other members of the gang - Marco, Bob and James. James had managed to get the Yellowhammer circling over the SSSI whereas I dipped, so we sent him to get the coffees and breakfast - he had had his share and could afford to miss it should it come over again.

What we didn't anticipate, and I suspect neither did he, was a Woodcock flying low across Long Wood and diving into the Esso Copse. Ker-ching! I picked it up fairly far off to the left of Vizmig, and as is their nature it barely deviated as it flew across our field of view, behind Long Wood, and then out the other side and across to Esso. As it flew across the path it neatly bisected Tony and I at Vizmig, and a lone figure struggling towards us, laden with steaming coffee and bacon rolls...

Oh dear. Had he seen it we wondered? Should we tell him? Should we [shudder] suppress it, and just thank James for doing the breakfast run? Did I miss anything? No, all quiet here.... In the event we told him, we had to - mainly as it was a year tick for me :-). And unfortunately he hadn't seen it as he had been concentrating too hard on anti-spillage measures. I had flat white by the way, excellent as usual. It is difficult to know what to say in these situations, but I would like to think that there was no awkward silence, even though bacon rolls could fulfil that function. This is the risk of going to get the coffees. We take turns, but what can you do? I missed Snipe the other day, perhaps not in the same league but gutting nonetheless. 

We need to invest in some kind of ceremonial eye-masks, to be put on the moment the coffee runner steps away from the group, and not to be removed - no peeking! - until he is back. And no heard onlys! 

We had seen where it landed, and trudged over to have a look, but it is a complete tangle over there and despite a good thrash of the cover we could not persuade it to reemerge.

I think it's my turn again soon...