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 EBird.org 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.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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
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.