Saving the Coucal

To me, one of the most positive qualities of human beings is our ability to show compassion to other species.  Altruism within a species is fairly common (for a variety of reasons), and while seeing a young teenager help an old woman carry groceries to her house may give me that Hallmark feeling, it isn’t really that unusual.  But far fewer organisms show this same altruism to members of a different species.  Humans are unique in that regard – only a handful of species (some primates, dolphins, dogs, etc.) exhibit this behavior, so it could be said that it is one of the things that separates humans from the other animals.  On a personal note, I really dislike that statement, since it implies that humanity is somehow above or better than other organisms, and I feel that most of the world’s environmental problems would be solved if we realized that we are NOT above or better than the world around us.  But that’s not the point of today’s post, so let’s move on.

I’ve worked with birds in a variety of ways.  While I list them and photograph them in my spare time, I’ve actually worked with birds one-on-one, through a variety of research projects involving point-counts, mist-netting, and nest searching.  I’ve been trained on the proper way to handle birds of all species, how to go about searching for and monitoring nests with a minimum of interference, and how to recognize stress behaviors in birds.  Therefore, I’ll begin this post with the old adage don’t try this at home, I am a professional.

Melanie and I were biking along the northern shore of Kinmen.  As we turned a corner, I noticed a small dark shape sitting on the road.  Traffic in Kinmen is not what you would call “busy,” but nonetheless there are tour buses and construction vehicles that are very large and move very quickly.  Needless to say, the road is not the kind of place where one takes a nap.

It's rarely a good sign when a bird is resting on the road ...

It’s rarely a good sign when a bird is resting on the road …

I quickly identified it as a juvenile greater coucal, and my initial impression was that it had been hit by a car.  We’ve all seen enough roadkill in our lives to know the end result of vehicle vs. Nature.  I was expecting to find a mangled wing, and the realization of what would have to be done next started to gnaw at my insides.

To my (very relieved) surprise, when I approached the bird I did not find any obvious sign of injury.  It turned its head to look at me, but did not attempt to escape.  Not the best of signs, but not the worst, either.  It appeared to me that the bird was either disoriented or exhausted, as evidenced by its open mouth and slight panting.  If nothing else, I decided to move the bird to a more shaded area, where it could cool down instead of baking in the blazing sun on sizzling asphalt.

Coucals are medium-sized ground cuckoos.  They have strong legs and talons, although they are not as sharp or long as a hawk’s.  Still, care needed to be taken when handling the bird; even an accidental scratch by a sharp claw is enough to break the skin and cause a serious injury.  Fortunately for me, the coucal made no fuss, and allowed itself to be picked up and moved off the road.


Once we were off the road, I gave the bird a quick look-over.  I gently stretched each wing, to ensure that there were no broken bones.  The coucal did not show any sign that this caused any pain or discomfort.  All of the feathers looked in good order, there was no blood or other sign of injury, and the wings could be moved easily.  The coucal also kept a firm grip on my hands.

With no indication of injury, I placed the bird into a small opening in the vegetation.  The spot was well shaded by the trees, and provided some cover so the coucal would not be obvious to any predators.  I also used my water bottle to give the bird some quick drinks of water, which it lapped up readily.  After about 10 minutes or so, the bird closed its mouth and began looking around again.  It seemed much more alert, and when a large dump truck cruised by where we were standing, it jumped into the bushes and disappeared.

My educated guess is that the bird, being a first-year juvenile, may have overexerted itself in the hot weather, and suffered sun stroke.  Having nowhere else to go, it landed on the only open place it could find, which happened to be the middle of a road.  It’s not worth thinking about what would have happened had Melanie and I not come by when we did.

As I have already mentioned, I am trained in the proper handling of birds.  I do not recommend handling any wildlife that you may come across, both for their safety and for your own.  If you come onto an injured animal, contact a local wildlife management agency, a wild animal care center, or your local police station.  The point is, do something.  Making a quick phone call to save an animal’s life is hardly a difficult thing to do.

Before disappearing into the brush, the greater coucal allows me to take a quick portrait.

Before disappearing into the brush, the greater coucal allows me to take a quick portrait.

Best wishes to my new friend, the greater coucal, and here’s hoping you lead a long and healthy life.  Stay away from those roads!

Kinmen: A Midnight Run from China

I don’t know if there is an actual word for what we planned to do next.  I call it a vacation within a vacation, if that makes any sense.  China is an incredible place, full of history and culture, natural beauty and the urban high life.  But China is also the most overpopulated place on Earth, and as the saying goes, “good things come in small doses.”

So for our final stop on our trip, we decided to (technically) leave China behind and go to the island of Kinmen, two kilometers from the port city of Xiamen.  Although it is nestled right in the heart of a bustling Chinese port, the island is officially part of the country of Taiwan.  As such, the island has a distinctly different culture and history than the nearby city of Xiamen.  And for the foreign traveler, it is prudent to remember that Kinmen is a separate country from China – be sure to apply for a multiple-entry Chinese visa if you plan to go to Kinmen and return to China, or you may find yourself stranded at the ferry dock.  Additionally, Taiwan has its own visa policies that must be taken into consideration as well.  It should go without saying that Xiamen and Kinmen also use different currencies; you may exchange Chinese yuan (¥) for Taiwanese dollars at the Wutong Ferry Terminal in Xiamen.

For me, this was the best part of our entire trip.  We had traveled to mainland Taiwan a year earlier, and it was an incredible trip.  I have never had a bad time in Taiwan, and that still holds true.  If you’re looking for an international destination, I highly recommend it.

The plan was to spend two days in Kinmen, and then two days in Xiamen before returning to South Korea.  That plan lasted all of about 20 seconds once we arrived in Kinmen.  We ended up extending our stay there, and only returned to Xiamen to catch our flight back to Incheon.

We booked our stay at the W Guesthouse, located in the center of the island.  It was by far the best choice of accommodations we made throughout the entire trip.

W Guesthouse

W Guesthouse

The owner/operator Mr. Weng is incredibly friendly, and will go the extra mile to make your stay perfect.  When we arrived at the guesthouse, he set us up in a newly renovated room.  The guesthouse is actually Mr. Weng’s home, and includes a traditional-style Taiwan house.  This house was our room for the three days, and we had the entire place to ourselves.

The W Guesthouse offers visitors the chance to stay in a renovated traditional-style Taiwan house

The W Guesthouse offers visitors the chance to stay in a renovated traditional-style Taiwan house

Every morning at 8am Mr. Weng would come to the courtyard of our guesthouse with breakfast.  He did this on his own, and we never had to pay for a thing.  He would also offer to drive us anywhere on the island we wanted to go, even though we had rented bicycles for the duration of our stay.  Yet another great thing about Kinmen: bicycles are free to rent from the island’s Visitor Center at the main bus station in Jinning county.

The only way to explore Kinmen

The only way to explore Kinmen

Kinmen countryside - quite the polar opposite of Beijing

Kinmen countryside – quite the polar opposite of Beijing

For a break from the extreme hustle and bustle of China, I’d highly recommend a side trip to Kinmen.  However, after speaking with Mr. Weng and his son (who attended high school at Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania – a rival school from my Valley View alma mater), plans are in the works to build a bridge between Kinmen and Xiamen.  This will bring a lot of new tourists to the island, and land has already been purchased to construct casinos.  So in short, this hidden treasure won’t stay hidden for much longer.

LOGISTICS: To get to Kinmen, you can catch a ferry from the Wutong Ferry Terminal (五通客运码头) in Xiamen, China.  Ferries between Xiamen and Kinmen run on a regular schedule between 8am and 6:30pm.  The ferry ride will be about 20-30 minutes.  Tickets cost ¥150 ($24 USD) from Xiamen to Kinmen; slightly less from Kinmen to Xiamen.  Remember that Kinmen is not part of China, so make sure your Chinese visa allows for multiple entries.  More information can be found here.

Taiwan Tally Sheet

Here is a complete list of all the birds seen throughout our trip to Taiwan.  Where available, I have included a link to photos of each species.  There are 89 species listed.  Taiwan endemic species are listed in CYAN.

SPECIES                  LATIN BINOMIAL                  
Waterfowl – Anatidae  
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha
Grouse – Phasianidae  
Taiwan Partridge Arborophila crudigularis
Chinese Bamboo-partridge Bambusicola thoracicus
Swinhoe’s Pheasant Lophura swinhoii
Herons & Bitterns – Ardeidae  
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Great Egret Ardea alba
Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Chinese Pond-heron Ardeola bacchus
Black-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Malayan Night-heron Gorsachius melanolophus
Ibises – Threskiornithidae  
Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus
Hawks – Accipitridae  
Crested Serpent-eagle Spilornis cheela
Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus
Besra Accipiter virgatus
Rails – Rallidae  
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus
Eurasian Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Stilts – Recurvirostridae  
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Plovers – Charadriidae  
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Greater Sand-plover Charadrius leschenaultii
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
Sandpipers – Scolopacidae  
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Common Redshank Tringa totanus
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus
Doves – Columbidae  
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Oriental Turtle-dove Streptopelia orientalis
Red Collared-dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis
White-bellied Pigeon Treron sieboldii
Cuckoos – Cuculidae  
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
Typical Owls – Strigidae  
Mountain Scops-owl Otus spilocephalus
Swifts – Apodidae  
Silver-backed Needletail Hirundapus cochinchinensis
Kingfishers – Alcedinidae  
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Asian Barbets – Megalaimidae  
Taiwan Barbet Megalaima nuchalis
Drongos – Dicruridae  
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
Bronzed Drongo Dicrurus aeneus
Monarch-flycatchers – Monarchidae  
Black-naped Monarch Hypothymis azurea
Crows & Jays – Corvidae  
Grey Treepie Dendrocitta formosae
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Eurasian Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
Swallows – Hirundinidae  
Grey-throated Martin Riparia chinensis
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Pacific Swallow Hirundo tahitica
Asian House-martin Delichon dasypus
Tits – Paridae  
Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus
Long-tailed Tits – Aegithalidae  
Black-throated Tit Aegithalos concinnus
Bulbuls – Pycnonotidae  
Collared Finchbill Spizixos semitorques
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus
Cupwings – Pnoepygidae  
Taiwan Cupwing Pnoepyga formosana
Cisticolas – Cisticolidae  
Striated Prinia Prinia crinigera
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
Parrotbills – Paradoxornithidae  
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana
White-eyes – Zosteropidae  
Taiwan Yuhina Yuhina brunneiceps
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus
Babblers – Timaliidae  
Rufous-capped Babbler Cyanoderma ruficeps
Taiwan Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus musicus
Black-necklaced Scimitar-babbler Megapomatorhinus erythrocnemis
Ground-babblers – Pellorneidae  
Grey-cheeked Fulvetta Alcippe morrisonia
Laughingthrushes – Leiothrichidae  
White-whiskered Laughingthrush Trochalopteron morrisonianum
White-eared Sibia Heterophasia auricularis
Steere’s Liocichla Liocichla steerii
Old World Flycatchers – Muscicapidae  
Oriental Magpie-robin Copsychus saularis
Vivid Niltava Niltava vivida
Taiwan Whistling-thrush Myophonus insularis
White-tailed Robin Cinclidium leucurum
Collared Bush-robin Tarsiger johnstoniae
Plumbeous Redstart Phoenicurus fuliginosus
Starlings – Sturnidae  
Asian Glossy Starling Aplonis panayensis
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus
Javan Myna Acridotheres javanicus
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Black-collared Starling Gracupica nigricollis
Finches – Fringillidae  
Brown Bullfinch Pyrrhula nipalensis
Grey-headed Bullfinch Pyrrhula erythaca
Vinaceous Rosefinch Carpodacus vinaceus
Old World Sparrows – Passeridae  
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Estrildid-finches – Estrildidae  
Indian Silverbill Euodice malabarica
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata
Nutmeg Mannikin Lonchura punctulata

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.

Touring Taipei

Visiting Taiwan, you say?  Not particularly interested in birds / birding / standing next to a 400-year-old Buddhist temple, looking in the opposite direction with binoculars trained at some distant bird-like silhouette on the horizon?  Gasp!  Doth my ears deceive me?

For readers without birds on the brain (literally and figuratively), I’ve compiled a short list of must-see attractions in Taipei City, geared toward those with only a few days to spare.  These are just the sites that Melanie and I actually visited; there are so many more things to see and do in Taipei City, so get out there and explore!

#1: The National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院)


How to get there: The National Palace Museum is located in the Shilin district of Taipei City.  There are several ways to get there.  You can take the Tamsui Line (Red Line) of the MRT and get off at Shilin Station, then take a Red 30 bus to the Museum.  Other buses that will get you close the Museum are 255, 304, 815, and Minibus 18 and 19.  Alternately you can take the Wenhu Line (Brown Line) to Dazhi Station and take a Brown 13 bus to the Museum.  Lastly, getting off the Wenhu Line at Jiannan Road Station and taking a Brown 20 bus will also take you to the Museum.

MRT Map to the National Palace Museum.  Each station mentioned above is circled in red.

MRT Map to the National Palace Museum.  Each station mentioned above is circled in red.

Why go there: Besides the amazing grounds and architecture, the National Palace Museum is a national museum of the Republic of China, and houses some 700,000 artifacts covering nearly 8,000 years of Chinese history.  The Museum was originally established in Beijing.  During the Chinese Civil War, it was relocated to Taipei.  Only about 22% of the artifacts from the Beijing Museum were transported to Taiwan, but these represent some of the finest pieces in the collection.  Photography is prohibited within the Museum, so you will have to see the collection for yourself.  Numerous artifacts, ranging from rare book collections to Imperial items to works of art, are on display at the National Palace Museum.

The main entrance to the National Palace Museum.

The main entrance to the National Palace Museum.

Overlooking the grounds of the Museum.

Overlooking the grounds of the Museum.

Be sure to grab a bite to eat at the Sanxitang Teahouse on the fourth floor.

Be sure to grab a bite to eat at the Sanxitang Teahouse on the fourth floor.

Adjacent to the National Palace Museum is the Zhishan Garden.  Tranquil koi ponds and quiet winding paths weave their way across the Garden.  Large koi are kept in the ponds, and several covered pagodas offer shade and relaxation.  There is also enough habitat to attract wildlife, including black-crowned night-herons, Malayan night-herons, black drongos, Taiwan barbets, and even crested serpent-eagles riding the thermals over the surrounding mountainside (I found three of these birds soaring overhead during my visit).  The Museum also keeps a pair of black swans and other domestic waterfowl on site.

The Zhishan Garden, adjacent to the National Palace Museum.

The Zhishan Garden, adjacent to the National Palace Museum.


Juvenile Malayan Night-heron (Gorsachius melanolophus) at the Zhishan Garden

Black-crowned Night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax nycticorax) at the Zhishan Garden


#2: Shilin Night Market (士林夜市)


How to get there: The Shilin Night Market is easily accessible via the MRT Tamsui Line (Red Line); get off at the Shilin Station and you’re there.

Why go there: The Shilin Night Market is the most popular of Taipei City’s “night markets.”  A shopper’s paradise with a carnival atmosphere, the night market tempts the senses and tries one’s patience with exotic, robust tastes and aromas combined with seriously backed-up foot traffic.  Regardless of what you’re looking for, this night market has it.  Foods from around the world can be purchased conveniently and cheaply from countless street vendors.  If you stop nowhere else, be sure to hit up the Hot Star Large Fried Chicken stand.  The stand is easy to find, just look for the long line of people waiting patiently with the same look on their faces that a hungry dog gives to a three-legged cat.

The Hot Star Large Fried Chicken Stand...there's always a line up here, and for good reason!

The Hot Star Large Fried Chicken Stand…there’s always a line up here, and for good reason!

Fried chicken not your thing?  Try any of the other street vendors.

Fried chicken not your thing?  Try any of the other street vendors.


# 3: The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (国立中正纪念堂)

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, with gardens in the foreground.

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, with gardens in the foreground.

How to get there: The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is accessed via the MRT Tamsui Line (Red Line).  Simply get off at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Station; this is also a transfer station for the Xiaonanmen Branch Line.

A map of the Taipei MRT.  The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Station is circled in red.

A map of the Taipei MRT.  The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Station is circled in red.

Why go there: No trip to Taipei City would be complete without a visit to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.  Built in memory of the late President Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), the Memorial Hall is a popular tourist attraction in Taipei City.  The main Hall houses a statue of the late President, and the lower levels of the Hall are home to a museum portraying the President’s life and military and political history.  Many unique and rare artifacts, such as the President’s car, reading glasses, and military service medals, are on display in the museum levels.

The Main Gate at the CKS Memorial Hall.  The inscription on the gate names this place "Liberty Square."

The Main Gate at the CKS Memorial Hall.  The inscription on the gate names this place “Liberty Square.”

The National Concert Hall at the CKS Memorial.

The National Concert Hall at the CKS Memorial.

The imposing facade of the CKS Memorial Hall.  There are 87 stairs to reach the main hall, one for each year of the President's life.

The imposing facade of the CKS Memorial Hall.  There are 87 stairs to reach the main hall, one for each year of the President’s life.

Inside the Main Hall at the CKS Memorial.  Members of the Honor Guard are on-site at all times; on the hour there is a changing of the guards which attracts many visitors.

Inside the Main Hall at the CKS Memorial.  Members of the Honor Guard are on-site at all times; on the hour there is a changing of the guards which attracts many visitors.


The Memorial Hall is just one part of an expansive square, which serves as a popular public meeting place and the location of the National Theater and National Concert Hall.  Twin gardens adorn either side of the square, and there is an impressive gateway at the main entrance to the square.  These small oases in the concrete jungle of Taipei City also attract a wide variety of wildlife.  The koi ponds are host to many fish and turtles, and Eurasian moorhens breed here.  In the late summer you can see and feed the small chicks as they swim around the pond.

One of the koi ponds at the CKS Memorial Hall.

One of the koi ponds at the CKS Memorial Hall.

A view of one of the garden plots at the CKS Memorial Hall.  The National Concert Hall is in the background.

A view of one of the garden plots at the CKS Memorial Hall.  The National Concert Hall is in the background.

All manner of bird life can be found in and around the gardens.  Including the moorhens, black-crowned night-herons and Malayan night-herons can be found at the ponds and throughout the gardens.  Common and Javan mynas are plentiful, as are spotted doves and red collared-doves.  On my visit to the CKS Memorial Hall, I found several light-vented bulbuls and Japanese white-eyes, black-collared starlings, and black drongos.  You may also find grey treepies and oriental magpie-robins.  Head over there at dusk to watch the sky fill up with Pacific and barn swallows, and maybe even the occasional bat.

Red Collared-dove (Streptopelia tranquebarica humilis) at the CKS Memorial Hall

Juvenile Eurasian Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus chloropus) at the CKS Memorial Hall koi pond.

Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus harterti) at the CKS Memorial Hall

Juvenile Oriental Magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis prosthopellus) at the CKS Memorial Hall