Monday 25 November 2019


There are certain advantages to the onset of cold weather. Whisky is one of them. Whereas Gin and Tonic dominates in summer, as winter begins to take over from autumn Whisky starts to feature a lot more. This evening marks the first of this period, and I have chosen something from Orkney in honour of the Steller's Eider that I would really like to see but probably won't. I have never been to Highland Park actually, it would be a good double. Never say never, but unlikely.

Like all good whisky drinkers I have a special glass I am drinking it from, and I am afraid I am also wearing slippers. I could be 80 but I'm not. I definitely feel old though. Recently in Scotland I really felt the cold, especially in my hands, and a I enjoy a solid eight hours of sleep every night. Oh, except when I have to get up half way through, you know.... Well, some of you will know. Younger readers perhaps not. You will though, you will....

The dram is going down a treat, Highland Park always does. It is neither too bland nor too peaty, neither too smooth nor too fiery. Perfection . I had forgotten how much I enjoy Whisky, in moderation of course. Everything in moderation nowadays. Especially birding....

Saturday 23 November 2019

Taiwan - Trip List

Trip List

Bold = widely recognised endemic
Bold Italics = treated as endemic by some authorities
Asterisk = subspecies unique to Taiwan

Friday 22 November 2019

The great Wanstead carrot harvest of 2019

You know how they talk about great wine vintages of the past? The amazing 1945, 1961, 1982 in Bordeaux, more recently 2005 and so on. They are referred to in almost reverent whispers in some circles. Well in the years to come the same hushed tones will be used to describe the 2019 Chateau L carrot crop. People will likely end up writing scholarly essays on it, this blog post will be the first of many I expect.

The carrots were pulled this past weekend, and to say that the harvest was a bumper one would be a gross understatement. Bountiful, the soil here is unparalleled in its ability to really impart nutrients into the vegetables. As a result they grow larger, and more quickly, and the taste is second to none. I estimate we will be feasting on carrots for many, many months. I can only hope however that there is some other food to go with them.....

Thursday 21 November 2019

Ruddon's Point

I was in Scotland a couple of weekends ago, checking in on aged relatives. As I myself age I find myself less inclined to subject myself to Scottish weather, and more inclined to sit inside near warm Agas, but I did manage to get out for a short stroll at Ruddon's Point on the Fife coast. This is one of my favourite birding locations. These days I either bird Wanstead or somewhere in a different country. Trips to the coast, for instance North Norfolk, or perhaps the Naze in Essex, or one of the many great sites in Suffolk are all pretty much unknown these days. I should get out more, it would be good for me. And yet...and yet I am perfectly happy really. I feel no great need to go birding here there and everywhere. Some people I know are out every weekend, and why not. Do what makes you happy, don't do what won't. It's not that going to the coast would upset me of course, it's just that staying at home and pottering around the place also makes me happy and is the easy option. The warm option too!

Anyway we felt we should get out of the house, and as it is a nice easy walk I suggested Ruddon's. The path takes you from Shell Bay out to the edge of the pines and then to a small headland with a view back across Largo Bay all the way to Leven. It was early in the winter period, so the bay was not stuffed with birds, but with just binoculars I was nonetheless able to pick out two Red-throated Divers, three Red-breasted Mergansers, and a few rafts of Common Scoter and Eider. Around the rocks were loads of Oystercatcher and Redshank, and on the beach a few Turnstones pottered around as a Rock Pipit stood watch. Glorious.

On my local patch I have not seen any of these birds, and so it was extremely refreshing in multiple senses. So refreshing in fact that we hurried back to the car, were thankful for the heated seats, and then zoomed home to the warm kitchen for a hot lunch!

Meanwhile Ray the postman is still in shorts.

What Wanstead lacks

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Book Club 4

It somehow seems appropriate to write a post about reading books on a blog that nobody much reads anymore. Difficult to say whether I am playing to captive audience or not, do blog readers also read books? If you are a reader, are you a reader? So to speak. Anyway, I don't have a huge amount to say about birds or anything really, so books it is. Perhaps you will be interested that one of the books below in read in one single commute to Canary Wharf and back. Then I read it again, to really chew over the words, the language, the rhythm. What is it about this book that won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Do others write like this? Indeed could I write like this? 

It is an interesting question - does reading make you a better writer? Do you somehow pick things up, be it vocabulary or construct, and weave it, perhaps subconsciously, into your own writing? Is your writing better for it? For instance can you too put four commas into a single sentence? What I found interesting about Hemingway, for that is the author I'm talking about, is that some of his sentences seemed very long indeed and entirely devoid of punctuation. And yet it flowed and flowed, borne on by the fish. Anyhow if you have a spare hour or so it can't hurt. Everyone can find an hour can't they? Just skip the latest episode of whatever junk it is that you're watching on Netflix and pick up a book instead. And if by some miracle there is still a functioning library where you live, you could even do so for free. What I am saying is read more books.

So here is the latest installment. I know it is not a long time since the last one, but I've had a pool-side holiday and a trip to the Far East with interminable hours in a plane. A very nice and comfortable plane with a huge TV screen, and yet....

Augustown - Kei Miller
This was rather a departure for me, passed on by Mrs L after one of her regular visits to Daunt Books in Marylebone. Although it is fiction, August Town and some of the events and people described are very real indeed. Centered around a depressed and downtrodden suburb of Kingston, it explores Jamaican society, divisions and belief, with character dialogue written in a form of patois that if you are in the right frame. A mixture of myth and grit, you can see where the story is headed from some way out, if not exactly how, and as a result it is a quick and enjoyable read. Not the type of book I would normally pick up, but in straying outside of my comfort zones I've yet to find something I have truly not been able to read which can only be a good thing. And I now want to go to Jamaica...

The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway has better known works, novels whose names you will all know, such as A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and so on. But this short story is one that won the Nobel Prize however, and taken as whole is a delight. But when you first pick it up you could be forgiven for thinking that it's not all that. I found it laborious intially but gradually I became hooked. See what I did there? I fairly raced through it, pulled by the strength of the fish and the direction of the narrative. When I had finished it - one commute is all it took - I read it again, for it is truly a short story. And it is a glorious tale, built on dreams and fable, and anchored in blood, tears and hope.

Ghost Month - Ed Lin
As well as a Mediterranean holiday I also went to Taiwan. As is becoming customary, before I travel I like to read something either about or set in the place where I going. This is the latter, one of seemingly very few choices. I think I would have preferred some historical non-fiction, the story of the Chinese civil war, the two Chinas, and Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. However this is what they had, and like the Miller above something different can often be good for me. Well in this case I am sad to report I found it complete and unadultered garbage with a pathetic plot line and a fascination with Joy Division that was totally out of place. Despite actively thinking "God this is shit" about every five pages I persevered, and then right at the end I found a glossary of useful information about Taiwanese history and culture. Would that I had started there. The best I can say about it is that it made me want to visit a Taiwanese Night Market and eat some food, but as far as "good reads" go I found it made Dan Brown look like Pulitzer Prize material. Avoid unless desperate.

Sicilian Carousel - Lawrence Durrell
Lawrence Durrell spent almost his whole life in love with the Mediterranean, and this is another of the many books set either on its shores or islands. It is the late 1970's and Durrell is being driven around Sicily with a tour group. It seems so out of character but of course his fellow participants become integral extras as he weaves the letters of a dead friend who he never managed to visit on the island with a potted history of the main towns and their history. Durrell takes a clockwise loop from Catania on the east side, through Syracuse and Agrigento, and then up to Palermo and across to Taormina. A dissection of the foibles of people and Sicilian life and history follow, and having now been to the island on holiday it does not seem that an awful lot has changed. If you are as acerbic as I am this is really a fun read. 

Puligny Montrachet: Journey of a Village in Burgundy - Simon Loftus
If you like wine, as I do, you will like this book. In fact I would say that even if you don't like wine you are still in for a treat, for at its heart it's about people. Although he did not ever reside in the village, the author spent many weeks over numerous seasons visiting the vignerons and sampling the wine. The wine is front and centre of course, and reading this will teach you a great deal about 'terroir', the individual plots of land that make Puligny so special (and so expensive, sadly. It also provides and overview of the science (or perhaps art) of wine-making, but to classify this book as being solely about wine would be a huge mistake. Over the course of the book he explores the characters in the village and its history, and of course the ancient rivalry with the neighbouring village of Chassagne, with which Puligny shares some of the great Montrachet slope. I devoured this book in short order and above all it made me want to go back to Burgundy, to walk around the sleepy village, and to taste the wine in situ. Plans are afoot!

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Taiwan - Day 5


Day 5
Make or break in light drizzle. This appears to be the spot for the endemic Taiwan Blue Magpie, and I could not contemplate going home without it on my list. The latest entry in eBird had been about two weeks ago, with a flock of ten on the Laxa trails. These are only just outside the village on the eastern fork of the river, but I didn’t even need to go that far. I heard some very Magpie-like clucking just past the school, i.e. within about three minutes of leaving my hotel. A large flock of birds were in a tree right by the side of the road, and one by one they flew out, perched on an overhead wire, and then flew across to perch in a dead tree where a record shot enabled me to count 13 birds, as well as two Grey Treepie. Superb!

This put me rather at a loss. What should I do now? With no obvious new species at Wulai, what I should have done was to return to Taipei and try out some other areas I had marked down, such as the Yehliu pensinsula which is great for migrants. This was only an hour away, but would have put me the wrong side of Taipei for the airport. I was also motivated by my 12pm check out, which would allow me to get out of my wet birding gear, have a shower, and pack up ready for the journey home. This is what I ended up doing, and so continued birding Wulai for the rest of the morning.

The Laxa trails are a series of paved lanes between the two branches of the river, starting at some steps at 24.862263,121.554417. They are partly residential (for both the living and the dead!) but the jungle has really rather taken over and as a result they are really good for birding. I saw stacks – yet more Whistling Thrush, a flock of 70+ Grey-chinned Minivets, many more Black Bulbul, and some good mixed flocks. There were also three more Taiwan Blue Magpie and quite a few Grey Treepie.

Grey-chinned Minivet

Once I had exhausted this area I went back through the village, observing House Swifts overhead, crossed over the second bridge, and walked the minor road called Wenquan Street/Pubu Road (24.861541,121.551366) all the way to Xiaxia Falls where there is a small suspension bridge (24.839742,121.538513). I took my trip count of Whistling Thrush to double figures along here, and there were many more mixed flocks of Yuhina, Varied Tit, Rufous-capped Babbler and so on.

Varied Tit

Back at the hotel I had half an hour in which to get sorted out, pay my parking bill (not at the 7-11 this time, rather at the multistorey in the centre of the village), and drive to Taipei International Airport which took about an hour. I stopped a few times on the way down for raptors, nearly every single one being a Black Kite, with one Osprey. At one point closer to the city there were about two dozen sat on some lamp posts. I gave the car back, decided not to mention the new tyre I had bought them, and started the long trek home via Hong Kong, Qatar and Sweden. It had been an excellent trip all in all which in my opinion, bar the wasted time sorting out the car, could not really have gone much better.

The tour group I had met were spending 12 days here, including a trip to Lanyu Island, and whilst they would undoubtedly see the whole lot I felt that I had been super-efficient. I looked up the cost of a tour run by a well-known company and was staggered to see it come in at £3500 without flights! £4000 for a single supplement! This put a whole new perspective on my trip! Opinions vary on what the true endemics are, but per Wikipedia the only one I missed was Taiwan Bush-warbler. Other birds that are treated as endemic full species by some (and that are certainly unique to the island) but that I didn’t see were Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler, Black-necklaced Scimitar Babbler, Rusty Laughingthrush, White-throated Laughingthrush and Island Thrush, the Taiwan subspecies of which has a white head and is a potential split. There is also Taiwan Green Pigeon on Lanyu Island, albeit that this is also resident in the Philippines. A shame I suppose that I couldn’t manage the clean sweep, but I am not really a world lister in that sense and it was simply a pleasure to be outdoors and having to work really hard to identify birds. I have always loved going back to basics.

Monday 18 November 2019

Taiwan - Day 4

Day 4
I birded both sides of the river from the road at first light. The east side was better, with lots of White-eyes and Collared Finchbills, and finally Morrison’s Fulvetta. I had in fact seen them before but had consistently misidentified them! There were also two Taiwan Barbets closer to the village and a Rufous-browed Babbler. The other side had a large number of Himalayan Black Bulbul, and good views of a troop of Formosan Macaques. I also added White and Grey Wagtail on the road, and Large-billed Crows were numerous. Today I was definitely keeping to time no matter what, and so carried on down to Taroko having got the bird I needed.

Morrison's Fulvetta

Grey Wagtail

At Tianxiang I stopped to look at a bird that had been perched in the middle of the road at the exit from a tunnel, and in looking for it (it was a female Plumbeous Redstart) I chanced upon my first Taiwan Whistling Thrush. It was enormous, I hadn’t appreciated from the field guide how large they are. Dead pleased with this, another critical endemic, my next roadside stop produced the hoped-for Styan’s Bulbul, as well as the first White-bellied Erpornis, which is another potential split one day. There were also some bulbuls that may have been hybrids between Styan’s and Chinese (Light-vented); their ranges overlap here.

Taiwan Whistling Thrush

I then drove through the gorge which was breathtaking. Unbelievable in fact. Everywhere I stopped was a magnificent view, generally accompanied by a singing Plumbeous Redstart – I think I saw eight in Taroko in the space of two hours. One of my first versions of my itinerary had missed this area out on the basis that there was almost a total crossover of species between Daxueshan and Wushe-Wuling, and had Daxueshan been more productive I might never have come this way and seen this. I was glad that I had.

At Bulouwan Service Centre I concentrated on the lower and upper Terrace trails. The lower had the most birds, including some mixed flocks which contained Arctic Warbler, Black-naped Monarch, Taiwan Yuhina and White-bellied Erpornis. Yet another Taiwan Whistling Thrush called from down the slope. The upper meanwhile had at least four Taiwan Barbets feeding in a fruiting tree, and a nice flock of Taiwan Sibia. Back in the car park I tracked down a calling Grey–capped Pygmy Woodpecker in with a flock of Varied and Green-backed Tits. There were also plenty of White Wagtails and Pacific Swallows cruised overhead. This was a place I should have devoted more time to, but I simply couldn’t – Malayan Night Heron and Taiwan Blue Magpie were important birds to get and I had less than a day to go. Reluctantly I drove down to the coast road and headed north towards Taipei.

Taiwan Barbet

Black-naped Monarch

Daurian Redstart

The journey as far as Yilan took forever, more than three hours. There were an inordinate number of works traffic lights and single file traffic. There is a huge construction program underway, which looks to be to do with drilling a series of huge tunnels down the east coast to replace large parts of the winding coast road that I was on. When complete it should make the east coast route very much faster but at the time of writing it made it a lot slower. Still, the scenery was nice, and at some point I saw a Crested Serpent Eagle cruising around.

I broke the journey at Yilan, arriving at around 1pm rather than midday as I had hoped. Drastic measures and all that, but this meant my time at the Lizejian Wetland complex was restricted to an hour. This was enough to add quite a few new birds to the trip list, but not to fully explore the area. It was a good site for raptors, with Chinese Sparrowhawk, Osprey and a hovering Black-winged Kite. There were stacks of Egret and I amused myself by trying to ID Intermediate Egret without referencing other Egrets. This was a lot harder than I thought, in the end I did have to find one standing next to a Great White Egret to be absolutely certain. Then again, je ne regrette rien…. I found several Marsh Sandpipers, flushed a Yellow Bittern from one of the many bunds that separated the small flooded fields, and a solitary Whiskered Tern fished near the main bridge.

Great White and Intermediate Egrets

Eastern Spot-billed Duck

In the end I managed to drag myself away after an hour and a quarter and made for the Taipei Botanical Garden which I reached by about half past three. I found a parking spot directly next to the entrance which was extremely fortunate. I wasn’t at that stage quite sure what the ticketing arrangements were, but the birds came first and I resolved to deal with it later. In short just find a space, you can pay at your convenience. I didn’t have the field guide, so I used the Collins App to show people a photo of a Black-crowned Night Heron, hoping it was close enough. One of them dutifully led me to….a Black-crowned Night Heron. Doh! In the end it did not take long to find a Malayan Night Heron myself in the northern part of the garden, just pottering around in a flowerbed – remarkable! I took a few photos and then headed back to the car – for a moment my heart was in my mouth as there was a ticket on the windscreen but I soon worked it out, you just take it to a 7-11 and pay it there. It appeared to be 50 TWD per hour.

Malayan Night Heron

I then drove through very busy traffic to Huajiangyanya Natural Park, also known as the Tapiei Geese Protected Area. I had found this area on eBird and it looked very good. I parked the car right next to the site, and also right next to…another Malayan Night Heron, this time a juvenile bird, wandering across the grass next to a busy street without a care in the world! There seemed to a twitch going on, as I could see a row of birdwatchers and tripods a short distance away. No doubt it would prove to be some kind of European dross that I had zero interest in! I was spot on as it happened, as they were all looking at a Eurasian Spoonbill! I seem to have form with this species in the wrong location, I found one on Barbados once. I would have much preferred it to be a Black-faced Spoonbill, but at least I had seen that species before in Hong Kong. Anyway, all the locals were rather excited, and one of them also pointed out another rarity to me, a Bean Goose. Good birding, with lots of Waders, Egrets and Mynas in some excellent habitat, but the only new birds beyond the ‘rarities’ that I could add were Black-collared Starling and White-breasted Waterhen.

That concluded my birding for the day. With a flight at about 2pm the following day, the only endemic species that I could still hope for around Taipei was the Taiwan Blue Magpie which was most likely around the village of Wulai, which is a hot-springs and spa destination about half an hour south of central Taipei in the foothills. I drove there through a very lively Taipei district called Wanhua, and had an excellent meal about half way there. The hotels were a little more expensive in Wulai than I had hoped, but I bargained the Karuizawa down to 2000 TWD which is about £50 when I couldn’t pay by credit card as their machine was broken. The parking attendants were on point, getting a ticket on my car within ten minutes, and as it was a “per day” rate, another at an impressive 19 minutes past midnight that I discovered the following morning!

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.