The Guided Experience: Dingbenzai and a Serendipitous Meeting

It was before dawn when we awoke.  Seemed like only a few hours ago we were just getting into bed, enjoying the warm afterglow of birding victory.  Why does morning always feel so…early?

It's hard to wake up angry with a view like this out your window.

It’s hard to wake up angry with a view like this out your window.

I had no sooner tied my shoes and strapped on my bins, than off we went into the mountains, following the same road we had taken to the blind yesterday.  Spotted doves and Japanese white-eyes were the first birds we found, hearing their calls in the early morning light.  Tea is grown on the mountainside around the Firefly Homestay, and interspersed in the plantation are betel nut trees.  Between two of these trees we found an enormous spider, easily as big as my hand.  Only a little further up the road, still in the same plantation, was another of these behemoth arachnids.  I suspected them to be poisonous, and they are, though a bite is rarely lethal.  The spiders belong to the Nephilidae family, the golden orb-web spiders, which comprise the largest spiders in the world.  The venom has a neurotoxic effect similar to the black widow spider, though not nearly as powerful.  Most bites disappear within 24 hours.  Nevertheless, I would not want one of these crawling around on me.

The aptly named Giant Wood Spider (Nephila pilipes)

The tea plantation adjacent to the Firefly Homestay.  The tall palms are betel nut trees.

The tea plantation adjacent to the Firefly Homestay.  The tall palms are betel nut trees.

As we entered the mountains, the birds became more vocal, but much harder to see.  We could hear three Steere’s liocichla calling to one another, but none would show themselves.  A white-tailed robin put in a brief appearance, as did a small flock of rufous-crowned babblers and white-eared sibias.  I was cleaning up with new species (not to mention picking off the endemics one by one), but many of the birds went unseen or offering the briefest of glimpses.  Maddening!

On our way back to the Homestay, ready for some breakfast and a change of location, we heard two black-necklaced scimitar-babblers and a Taiwan scimitar-babbler calling in the forest around the Homestay.  Both endemics, and both remained out of sight.  Luckily, I managed to snap a photo of a rufous-capped babbler in the tea plantation, and a grey-cheeked fulvetta gave good views of itself, but remained too far away to be photographed.  At the Homestay, collared finchbills and white-rumped munias foraged on berries, and a striated prinia popped up to voice his displeasure at our intrusion.

Collared Finchbill (Spizixos semitorques cinereicapillus)

White-rumped Munia (Lonchura striata swinhoei)

Striated Prinia (Prinia crinigera striata)

We had a hearty breakfast courtesy of our gracious hosts.  At some point while we were out on the mountain, another group of foreigners/birders had arrived at the Homestay.  We exchanged some pleasantries, but they were just starting their breakfast as we were finishing ours, so there wasn’t much time for chit-chat.  And all too soon, we said goodbye to the Firefly Homestay and Guanghua.

Our tour continued.  We headed northeast, towards Alishan and Yushan National Parks, where a small change in altitude would bring a large change in species.  We stopped along the road to Alishan at several locations, scouting out the forest edge for any interesting birds.  It was here that we located three white-bellied pigeons perching on an electrical line stretching across the valley.  White-eared sibias and Steere’s liocichla were fairly common, and we managed to rack up a few more lifers with sightings of bronzed drongos, plumbeous redstarts, vivid niltava, and a distant Taiwan whistling-thrush (endemic!) perching along a riverbed in the valley far below.  Pacific swallows filled the sky in tightly formed flocks, and in one group we picked out a half dozen silver-backed needletails.  We even got spectacular views of a crested serpent-eagle gliding over the valley on the thermals.  However, as before the birds tended to stay high up in the trees, high above or below us on the mountains, or in constant motion.  Photography was not going to be the order of the day.

The mountain valley near Guanghua.  Somewhere on the opposite mountainside is the Firefly Homestay.  Far below a small stream runs through the valley.

The mountain valley near Guanghua.  Somewhere on the opposite mountainside is the Firefly Homestay.  Far below a small stream runs through the valley.

White-bellied Pigeon (Treron sieboldii sororius)

White-eared Sibia (Heterophasia auricularis)

The “Taiwan” subspecies of Crested Serpent-eagle (Spilornis cheela hoya); this subspecies differs greatly in appearance compared to mainland serpent-eagles.

We had been birding the roadside for about twenty minutes when we noticed another group of birders coming up towards us.  It was the two other guests we briefly met at the Homestay.  They had a guide with them as well, and as Melanie and I scanned one side of the road and the two other birds scanned another, our guides got to talking among themselves, trading reports on what was being seen in the area.

Shortly after the second group continued on their way.  Richard filled Melanie in on what he had heard:

They’re looking for rufous-crowned laughingthrush.  The other guide says he needs this bird.  They missed the Swinhoe’s pheasant and Taiwan partridge this morning, so they’re trying to make up for it.  The guide says he’s seen a lot of birds.  He’s the best birder.

Melanie asked Richard if the other guide had mentioned a name.  He hadn’t.  Now my interest was piqued.  I took a good look at the man, and there was something vaguely familiar about him.  He was much older, and equipped with the usual birder fatigues I was used to: drab khaki clothes, a vest with a thousand pockets, binoculars around the neck, a well-worn field guide in the vest pocket, a look of keen determination on his face.

That’s when it clicked for me.  He was a good birder.  In fact, he literally was the best birder in history.  On a random mountain road in the middle of Taiwan, I was birding a few feet from Tom Gullick!  For those who do not hang around the coffee shops during the Fall and Christmas Bird Counts, or religiously dial into the local RBA hotline, the name Tom Gullick probably doesn’t ring a bell.  But for birders, and listers in particular, there is no name more famous.  Tom Gullick has seen more bird species than anyone else on Earth.  In October 2012, he made this monumental achievement by spotting the Wallace’s fruit-dove in Indonesia, making him the first person ever to officially see 9,000 species of bird.  Putting that into perspective, there are only about 10,500 bird species known to science – Tom Gullick has seen nearly 90% of those.

So what do I do when I’m standing next to birding history in the Taiwanese mountains?  I do what any starstruck amateur would do…I ask for a photo!

I'm standing next to the greatest birder on Earth!!!  From left: Patricia Maldonado Vidal, Melanie Proteau Blake, Yours Truly, and Tom Gullick.

I’m standing next to the greatest birder on Earth!!!  From left: Patricia Maldonado Vidal, Melanie Proteau Blake, Yours Truly, and Tom Gullick.

Not long afterwards, having been unable to locate the laughingthrush, we parted ways and wished each other good luck.  I think I mentioned in previous posts the serendipity of birding…well, here’s another example.  What are the odds of meeting the greatest birder on Earth, especially when he wasn’t even supposed to be in Taiwan, but for a freak storm forced to change his plans until the weather cleared?

We had tallied another 14 lifers as we said goodbye to Guanghua and Chiayi county.  But the day was far from over, and two National Parks awaited me on the other side of the mountains.

3 thoughts on “The Guided Experience: Dingbenzai and a Serendipitous Meeting

  1. Wow, what a fantastic day! Glad to hear you are still picking up the lifers! And why oh why couldn’t they have introduced the White-bellied Pigeon to North American instead of the Rock Pigeon?!

    • I agree, but the Rock Pigeon can be interesting in its own way. Think of all the variation in plumages, especially in other parts of the continent. I’ve seen some beautiful brown rock pigeons in the Southwest.

      I’m hoping to check off a lot of waterfowl this coming fall and winter, since I missed a fair number of them when I first arrived in Korea. Maybe if I’m really lucky I’ll get the chance to see some cranes as well. How’s your list coming…you must be closing in on the big 300 by now!

      • Good luck with the waterfowl! Some Cackling, Ross’s and Snow Geese are trickling in with the Canadas here, but I haven’t seen any yet. A Eurasian Wigeon was east of AHP today. I heard about it, didn’t see it (working during the week sucks!)

        I’m at 293…haven’t picked up any lifers since my Point Pelee trip in May where I got Black-necked Stilt, Prairie Warbler, and Yellow-throated Warbler. I keep missing Olive-sided Flycatcher in migration and haven’t been able to catch sight of a Gray-cheeked Thrush. There’s an adult Sabine’s Gull hanging around Deschenes Rapids, but I got the juvenile that was at AHP a couple of years ago. I’m not sure what else I can get in Ottawa, so I may have to travel to get to 300. Cerulean Warbler and Yellow-billed Cuckoo may be some good southern candidates. Maybe something cool will turn up this fall or winter. You never know!

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