Tuesday 26 January 2016

Taiwan - Jan 2016 : Part 1


In amidst of the Hong Kong's "Big Freeze", I finally got some time to sit down and write up the Taiwan report. Temperatures dropped to freezing point in various parts of the city, the lowest it had been for over fifty odd years. We were somehow very fortunate that this freak weather did not occur on the week of our visit, as heavy snow and blizzards had been reported in most of Taiwan's mountains, even Taipei experienced snow (24th Jan 2016)!

My parents and I along with birding pal Long planned this birding trip months before hand. Taiwan had been much anticipated for us all, where me and my father had visited the central mountain ranges in 2002. However, we felt that our last visit did the endemic rich mountains no justice, as we only connected with very limited species. The two big pheasants; the Mikado Pheasant and Swinhoe's Pheasant were our two main targets, we have been dreaming to see these two species for a long time. Recent years the two species have became regulars at Dasyueshan National Forest and became a MUST see for all visiting birders.

NTD 1000 - Print of Mikado Pheasants are on their largest currency note

Day 1:

We flew directly to Taichung from Hong Kong on the 9th of January to visit a friend. Therefore we did not do any birding on that day. We woke up the next morning and headed straight to Taichung Airport for the pre-booked car rental. The whole process took about an hour before we finally headed off in a Nissan Serena. Left hand drive took a little time to get used to, but it wasn't much of a problem at all. Roads in Taiwan are generally quite good and well marked, we used a local GPS as well as Google Maps to guide us throughout the trip with little problem. Only comment about driving in Taiwan is that you really have to be watchful of scooter riders, they can come out of nowhere and many don't seem to have any respect for their own life...

Our route was from Taichung to the famous Dasyueshan (大雪山), we will stay there for two nights and move southwards to Sun-Link-Sea Forest and Recreation Area (杉林溪) and Xitou (溪頭) where we will also stay two nights. Finally we will go to Star Resort (觀星園生態民宿) near Alishan (阿里山) to look for Flying Squirrels and Taiwan Partridge.

The drive was pretty straight forward, when we arrived at the Dasyueshan Forest Road (大雪山林道) it turns out that they were in the middle of a marathon. Roads were narrow so we took extra care when driving past the runners. Our first birding location was located at 15K near the local police station, where a stream is said to be home for a pair of Brown Dippers.

Nissan Serena - our rental car

Marathon runners

Habitat at 15K spot for Brown Dippers

Plumbeous Redstarts (endemic subspecies affinis) were everywhere, they are one of the commonest stream dwellers in Taiwan. It took a while, but the Dippers were finally spotted by my Father and Long along the stream, although it was quickly flushed away by a few locals walking along the stream. Luckily one bird soon came back and gave great views!

Plumbeous Redstart (affinis) - they are literally there every time you go past a stream

Brown Dipper - feeding in the stream

Back to the main road, we found a few Crested Serpent Eagles (endemic subspecies hoya) soaring high up. Other birds included a few Javan Mynas and Black Drongos (endemic subspecies harterti), both common lowland dwellers.

Crested Serpent Eagle (hoya) - endemic subspecies

Javan Myna - common near lowland settlements

Black Drongo (harterti) - the most common road side bird

From there on it was a constant climb, on the way we picked up a White's Thrush next to the road which gave brilliant views, we saw quite of few of them along the roads in the coming few days. Our next stop was the famous birding platform at 23.5K, where the fruiting Idesia attracts a lot of birds to feed on them, it had became a world famous birding spot due to this reason. We have especially timed our visit to the fruiting time of the Idesia trees, the best time to find birds feeding on these red little berries are between January to February, depending on the climate of that year. A handful of birders were already there, however birds weren't very active in the afternoon, only a few distant Eurasian Jays fluttered about. So we tried our luck a little further down the road at 23K, the infamous stakeout spot for the much wanted Swinhoe's Pheasant.

White's Thrush

23.5K birding platform

23K - famous stakeout for Swinhoe's Pheasants

We waited around for half an hour without much luck, Long and my Father had started to doze off when suddenly a birder from up the hill came over and shouted to the fellow birders that a bird had been spotted up hill at a short distance. We all darted towards the location, where a fine young male gave amazing views! It only showed briefly however and was way too close for my 500mm, I found it difficult to keep the whole bird in frame! We could not believe our luck that we bagged a top target bird in the first few hours! The bird soon continued climbing uphill and disappeared, so we thought we would do the same and continued with our journey.

Swinhoe's Pheasant (endemic) - the magnifique!

Just past the park gate we found ourself at a carpark next to a public toilet. Cherry blossoms were planted right next to the toilet and we were just in time for the flowering season. The nectar attracted a lot of Taiwan Yuhinas, all feeding frantically along the flowering trees. They were not shy at all and gave very close views and some great photo opportunity. This is probably THE most common endemic in the mountain ranges, a pretty bird still.

Public toilet with cherry blossoms

Taiwan Yuhina (endemic) - feeding on the cherry nectar

We soon drove up to the Visitor Centre located at around 43K where we checked into Dasyueshan Hotel and dropped our luggage into our lodge. Our lodge was a cozy wooden cabin with around 12 rooms. It was just past 4pm when we arrived at the lodge and I quickly urged the guys to hurry up or we will miss our chance to see the Mikado Pheasants! The pheasants are said to be most active around 4pm to 6pm along 45K to 47K mark, but unlike the Swinhoe's Pheasant which is now more widespread, the Mikado can be elusive at times and not always show itself. We quickly grabbed our gear and headed uphill.

Dasyueshan Visitor Center

2,275m above sea-level

around the 45K mark we suddenly saw a large shuttle bus stopped right in the middle of the road, we thought it was stalled so we tried to get past it, only when I was about to past the bus that we realise why they stopped. A pair of Mikado Pheasants were feeding right next to the road! We could hardly believe our luck! We quickly backed up and got out of the car. The pair strolled slowly along the side of the road, totally oblivious of our existence. The male have the most magnificent bluish purple sheen I have ever seen! I have heard that they were not afraid of people, but never thought they were THIS bold. We had some of the most amazing views of the pair before they slowly walked down the slope and out of sight. Two target birds within an hour was more then amazing! I think we were all speechless!

Long photographing the Mikado Pheasant by our car

Mikado Pheasant (endemic) - the absolutely stunning male

Mikado Pheasant (endemic) - modest looking female

A sign to warn drivers not to run over passing pheasants

We headed towards 51K, where we tried to reach Tianchi (Sky Lake) before it gets dark, but by the time we got up there it was already getting much darker. Views up here were amazing, and at the car park we found a flock of White-whiskered Laughingthrush; this island endemic is hard to miss for several reasons, they are very loud, and most of all they know no limits and frequently come to your feet to beg for food. This is a result of tourist hand feeding these birds which slowly made them extremely bold. This species is limited to the higher altitudes at Dasyueshan, therefore we only saw them near Tianchi and near the lodge.

Views up at the viewing platform, clouds beneath us

White-whiskered Laughingthrush (endemic) - another very bold endemic

The only other interesting bird we found before the sun went down was a handsome male Collared Bush Robin, this island endemic is the commonest Bush Robin in mountains of Taiwan. A few Dusky Thrushes foraged along the lawn area, but most were skittish and a bit camera shy. As the lights dimmed we called it a day and headed back to the lodge.

Collared Bush Robin (endemic) - a handsome male

Dusky Thrush

Dinner was served at the dining hall from 5:30pm to 7pm. Weather was very cold so any hot food was welcoming. After 3 bowls of rice and it still didn't feel enough! So we bought a few instant noodles for late night snack! Having had an amazing day, we hoped our next will be just as productive.

Much needed dinner!

Day 2:

Having looked at the weather forecast for the coming week, things did not look optimistic. The weather outside our lodge confirmed that. It was constant rain and mist, wind started to pick up later as well making it impossible to see anything! No doubt feeling slightly down spirited, we still took to the road after breakfast, hoping things might clear up later on.

We planned to drive down to the birding platform at 23.5K, hoping that the birds will still come out to where food is next to the Idesia trees. Along the way at 38K we encountered a bird wave containing Eurasian Nuthatches, Taiwan Barwings (endemic) and White-eared Sibias (endemic). But views weren't great and with the constant rain we were finally defeated and retreated back into the car.

Eurasian Nuthatch

Taiwan Barwing (endemic)

White-eared Sibia (endemic)

Back towards the public toilet, flocks of Taiwan Yuhinas continued to feed on the nectar. They provided the only source of entertainment shortly.

Taiwan Yuhina (endemic)

Things weren't that much better down at the birding platform. There weren't a lot of birds there, only a couple of Vivid Niltavas remained, they fed on the Idesia fruits but soon they were soon gone too. The rain showed no sign of stopping, we tried waiting it out, but since we were already soaked we decided that a hot lunch was probably a much better option.

Birding platform in the rain

Vivid Niltava - male feeding on Idesia fruits

Vivid Niltava - female

We ate at the visitor centre, a hot pot was very much soothing. We took some time to look at the indoor exhibitions, but they weren't all that interesting. Looking at stuffed birds and an introductory video about Dasyueshan (in beautiful weather) didn't make us feel any better either...So, we thought we were better off going back to our rooms where we were at least warm and dry.

Bad weather in general...

A late afternoon walk when the rain stopped produce very little, a Coal Tit up a very tall tree was our only addition, too far for photographs. A group of Taiwan Barwing and White-whiskered Laughingthrush in heavy mist ended our day. Indeed a very down spirited day, but the weather forecast stated that rain will ease off for Tuesday and Wednesday, at least that is what we hope...

Heavy mist near the lodge

Taiwan Barwing (endemic) - mist makes it impossible for any decent photos

To be continued...


  1. I'm greatly enjoying this read and the superb photos - I had no idea that Taiwan was so fruitful for its birds, and with such a difference from Hong Kong birds

    1. Thanks Paul, Taiwan is an amazing place for birds! A lot of exciting endemics plus a lot of great birds to see, many of them are not difficult to see either. Well worth a visit!

  2. Hi Matt:
    This Taiwan trip report is going to be very helpful in preparing me for my visit there.

    1. Taiwan is a fabulous place David, food's amazing, the scenery absolutely gorgeous and all the endemic birds! A must for birders!


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