The Guided Experience: Jincheng Lake and Guanghua

Islands are phenomenal natural features.  It was the unique nature of islands that gave Charles Darwin the hints he needed to decipher the theory of natural selection.  From a birding perspective, islands offer diversity and rarity that isn’t often found on the mainland.  For the lister, islands offer the most coveted of listable birds: the endemics.

Taiwan has approximately 23 endemic species of birds, and nearly twice as many endemic subspecies that will likely become species of their own in time.  Endemic bird species and subspecies account for about 19% of all the birds species found on the island nation.  Since an endemic species is found nowhere else on the planet, any trip to a place with endemics means you have to really work to get them all – you can’t get them anywhere else.

The purpose of our trip to Taiwan was not about birds (at least, it wasn’t only about birds).  And the time of year was far from ideal.  I had hoped get the majority of the endemics in Taiwan, but I knew I would need professional help (no pun intended) to accomplish that lofty goal.  I was going to need a guide.

I went with Birding@Taiwan, which had come recommended from a post on 10,000birds.org as well as from word-of-mouth from a birding guide in Thailand that I had contacted earlier in the summer, when we were still planning to go to Thailand.  My guide was Richard Chen, a knowledgeable, certified tour guide with eight years experience leading birding tours in Taiwan.  I was impressed with his professionalism and knowledge, even before we had arrived in Taiwan.  There were no empty guarantees, and he was up front with pricing, the itinerary, and what we could hope to find for the time we had and the lateness of the season.  When a typhoon swept through Taiwan and forced one of our primary destinations to close down for the season, Richard immediately informed me and had an alternative itinerary within a few days.  Bottom line: for my first international birding tour guide experience, I was greatly impressed and would do it again anytime.  If you’re thinking of birding Taiwan, I would recommend having a look at Birding@Taiwan.

We booked for three days, two nights.  The itinerary had us checking the mudflats at Jincheng Lake in Hsinchu City, then heading into the mountainous interior of Taiwan for two days in Chiayi and Nantou counties.  The mountains would provide us with the majority of our endemics; it was too early in the season for shorebirding to be productive, but it was worth a look nonetheless.  This itinerary also had the added benefit that Melanie and I would be able to travel throughout most of the country, and see parts of it that would otherwise be hard or impossible to get to.

Satellite image of Taiwan - our birding locations are shown in red.

Satellite image of Taiwan – our birding locations are shown in red.

On August 12, Richard arrived early in the morning to pick us up at our hotel in Taipei.  We then drove to Hsinchu City, missing most of the morning commute.  Near the entrance to Jincheng Lake, Richard pointed out about 40 black-winged stilts foraging in a rice paddy.  Wood sandpipers and cattle egrets were also on the paddy, and barn swallows hawked insects in the air.

“White-headed” Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus leucocephalus) foraging on a rice paddy.  Several Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola) can also be seen in this photo.

 It was a gloriously hot day, so any time spent in the sun carried a heavy price.  We suffered through it, scanning the mudflats thoroughly before calling it a day.  For our efforts we were rewarded with views of Kentish plovers, grey-tailed tattlers, common greenshanks, two greater sand-plovers, and singles of common redshank, terek sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, and Asian dowitcher.  There were also plenty of sacred ibises on the mudflats, and Pacific swallows glided through the air looking for insects.  The woods and Jincheng Lake itself did not hold much bird life, although black-crowned night-herons were plentiful, and a juvenile Chinese pond-heron was a nice surprise.  As we were preparing to leave for our next stop, I spotted two nesting black-winged stilts.  I thought it was too late in the season for nesting birds, but I am not familiar with the nesting behaviors of this species, so it may be an attempt at a second (or third) brood before the fall migration.

A nesting Black-winged Stilt, its mouth open to try and dissipate the heat of the day.  Click the photo to see a video of the bird on the nest.

The only other birds of interest were several black drongos, three plain prinias that gave impeccable views of themselves, and a lesser coucal that called out repeatedly as we loaded into the car, though never showed itself.  Off to a good start, we left Jincheng Lake with five lifers tallied.

Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus harterti)

The endemic subspecies of Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata flavirostris).  One day this bird may become its own species.

The next port of call was the tiny village of Guanghua, in the Dingbenzai region of Chiayi county.  Richard was certain we would find two out of the three endemic pheasant species here, and he had reserved us a place at the Firefly Homestay.  The ride to Chiayi county was uneventful, as we drove along seemingly endless miles of Taiwan’s highway system.  A long winding mountain road, which offered breathtaking views next to nausea-inducing hairpin turns, led us deep into the county.

We arrived at our destination some four hours later.  We had just enough time to put our things in our room, take a quick pit stop and have some homegrown tea with the owner of the Homestay, and then we were whisked off onto a nearby mountain where our quarry presumably awaited us.

The Firefly Homestay in Guanghua village.

The Firefly Homestay in Guanghua village.

Our private room with a view at the Firefly Homestay.  This is the only way to go birding in the field.

Our private room with a view at the Firefly Homestay.  This is the only way to go birding in the field.

The owner of the Firefly Homestay is also a leading conservationist in the area, and maintains a viewing blind in the mountains for visitors to observe Taiwan’s endemic pheasants at close range.  A small one lane road, hardly worthy of the name, snakes its way up the mountain to an uninteresting part of the forest.  On the way there, we spotted three Chinese bamboo-partridges; though not our target species, they were nevertheless a welcome sight.

Where are you taking us again?

Where are you taking us again?

Chinese Bamboo-partridge (Bambusicola thoracicus sonovirox)

The Blind, we were waited for our feathered friends to arrive...

The Blind, where we waited for our feathered friends to arrive…

Reaching the Blind, we made ourselves comfortable on the stools provided.  And we waited.  The cicadas began calling.  Fog rolled in.  The sky threatened rain, but never delivered.  We waited.  A white-tailed robin made a brief appearance, jumping from one fallen log to another before flying off to someplace more interesting.  More cicadas…more waiting.

Then, movement!  Oops, false alarm.  Squirrel.  Knowing that you play the game by the bird’s rules, and have to work on their timetable, I settled in for the long haul.  It was just after the first hour had passed that Richard suddenly stiffened up, and yelling as loudly as a whisper would allow him, got my attention onto an approaching bird, who was silently tip-toeing his way down the mountainside towards the blind.

It was a beautiful male Swinhoe’s pheasant, one of our main target species!  He pecked around for minutes at a time, scratching at the fallen leaves to dig up something to eat.  I snapped as many photos as I could, but in the dim light of the heavy woods, many of them came out blurred.  Fortunately I was able to get one decent shot to remember this moment.

Swinhoe’s Pheasant (Lophura swinhoii), an endemic to Taiwan.  Click the photo to see a short video of this bird foraging.

The pheasant suddenly cocked its head, picking up a sound that had escaped the three of us in the blind.  Shortly thereafter it vanished into the underbrush.  We scanned the area to see what had frightened him off, but came up empty.  Then I caught movement to the left, halfway up the mountainside.  Something small, and moving quickly (and silently) through the undergrowth.

It emerged a few minutes later, creeping confidently to where the Swinhoe’s pheasant had been moments earlier.  It was a Taiwan partridge, our second target species!  This bird seemed overly confident, and foraged near the blind for tens of minutes.  Once again, though, the dark light prevented me from getting any decent shots.  This poor image was the best I could do; fortunately my camera also records video, so I made up for the poor photographic opportunities with some documentary filming.  Please forgive the shakiness of the video: a 400mm is a pretty heavy lens to carry around, let alone hold still for minutes at a time.  Note to self: invest in a solid tripod if you ever go into the jungles again.

Taiwan Partridge (Arborophila crudigularis).  Click the photo to see the video of this bird foraging.

Eventually the partridge retreated into the forest, and other than a short reappearance of the Swinhoe’s pheasant (who apparently was afraid of the much smaller partridge) and another white-tailed robin (or perhaps the same one), nothing else happened at the Blind.  We left there happy to have seen the amazing species we came all this way for.

Before the day ended, Richard had one more surprise for us.  The mountains around the Homestay host nearly a dozen pairs of the rare white-faced flying squirrel, and the owner of the Homestay knows where many of them are.  So the three of us met up with a small group of locals (who I think were family members of our hosts) after dinner and returned to the forest.  Armed with a spotlight, laser pointer, and some audio equipment, our fearless host found at least five of the nocturnal squirrels.  And to my happy surprise, he used the audio equipment to call in three mountain scops-owls.  One even posed for the group, giving my first actual view of an Asian owl since arriving in South Korea almost seven months ago.

White-faced Flying Squirrel (Petaurista alborufus lena)

A female White-faced Flying Squirrel peaks out from her burrow, preparing for a night of foraging.

Mountain Scops-owl (Otus spilocephalus hambroeki)

We ended the night by touring the grounds of the Homestay, looking for another of Guanghua’s notable attractions: glow-in-the-dark mushrooms.  The mushrooms are very small, but are phosphorescent and emit a soft green glow in the dark.  Their small size doesn’t lend themselves to photograph well, at least not with my equipment, so you will have to take my word for it that these mushrooms do in fact glow in the dark.

After all this excitement, it was off to bed.  Richard had us penned in for a pre-dawn excursion to check off some more birds, and nothing would prepare me for what (or rather, who) I would find in the morning.

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