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.

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, 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.