Birdathon on Eocheong-do

If you’ve been following my blog, even for a short time, you might have noticed that I have what polite society might call a condition.  To say that I have “birds on the brain” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.  I have dreams about birds, usually involving species I haven’t seen perching out in the open under perfect lighting conditions for me to photograph at my leisure.  I consider myself fluent in over 400 languages, because that is roughly the number of species I can readily identify by song or call alone (and that number continues to grow).  So, yeah, I have a condition.

Therefore it should go as no surprise that when my friend Jason Loghry at Birds Korea asked me to join the 2014 Birdathon, I literally jumped at the chance.  For those of you who don’t know, a Birdathon is a fundraising event wherein participants are sponsored to go out and see or hear as many different species as possible within a 24-hour period.  Sponsors can decide to pay a set amount of money per species, per hour spent birding, or a lump sum total.  For this Birdathon, all proceeds go directly to Birds Korea to help fund their conservation efforts protecting the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper and the habitats it utilizes here in South Korea.  It’s important work, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute in my own way.

I’ve already written about Eocheong-do (어청도), so this post is strictly about the birds.  And oh, the birds we did see.  There were six participants in this year’s Birdathon at Eocheong-do; other Birds Korea members did separate Birdathons at other locations in Korea and elsewhere in the world.  This year’s event carried with it the caveat that participants cannot use any mode of transportation other than their feet during the actual count period; i.e. we could take a ferry boat to Eocheong-do, but could not count any species seen during that time.  Here are some vital statistics on Birdathon 2014:

Duration: 4 days (May 3 – 6)
Birdathon Count Period: May 3, 10:20AM – May 4, 10:20AM
Birdathon Count Period Total: 78 species heard/observed
Total Species Counted on Eocheong-do: 95 species
Species Added to Life List: 18 (me); 22 (Melanie)
Funds Raised: 171,000₩

To briefly summarize our four day adventure, the birding was nothing short of spectacular.  Every day brought in new migrants, and every inch of the island was crawling with birds.  The vast majority were yellow-browed warblers, but hidden among them were less common species like Kamchatka leaf warbler and pale-legged leaf warbler.  As I have been told many times, the best birding in Korea can be found offshore on the islands, and I found this out to be true first-hand.  It wasn’t just the numbers of birds, but also the variety of species.  We even had to good fortune of spotting two mega-rarities: a cinnamon bittern and Korea’s third record of northern wheatear!

Here are a few of the highlights of our trip to Eocheong-do:

Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina)

Blue-and-white Flycatcher (Cyanoptila cyanomelana cyanomelana)

Chestnut Bunting (Emberiza rutila)

Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola ornata)
Classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis)

Chinese Pond-heron (Ardeola bacchus)

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus himantopus)

Terek Sandpiper (Xenus cinereus)

Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus lucionensis)

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe oenanthe)
This is only the 3rd time this species has been recorded in South Korea

These are but a small portion of all the images I took during our trip to Eocheong-do.  I encourage you to explore the Asian Bird galleries at my website if you’d like to see more from the trip.

The Birdathon Crew

The Birdathon Crew
From left: Jason Loghry, Hwang Haemin, Melanie Proteau Blake, Patrick Blake, Ha Jeongmun, and Kim Ohjin

It was a tremendous experience, one that will not soon be repeated.  Melanie and I were able to see some incredible birds and experience a migration unlike any we had before, and all the while we were raising money to help protect the crucial habitats that the birds we know and love depend on for survival.  A big thanks goes out to Birds Korea for hosting this event, and to my fellow Birdathoners here and abroad, for their dedication and passion that make birding the great past time that it is.

Spotlight: Eocheong-do

Melanie and I recently had a few days off from school, during the Korean holiday of seokga tanisil (석가탄신일), more commonly called Buddha’s birthday.  This holiday is one of the main travel times in Korea, with many people traveling to visit family and relatives.  Any tourist destination is usually booked solid, as was the case in Busan this year where literally every hotel, hostel, pension, and jimjilbang in the city were sold out.

So rather than fight the crowds and traffic, we chose to leave mainland Korea and spend some time exploring one of the country’s numerous offshore island communities.  We chose Eocheong-do (어청도), a small island approximately 70 kilometers west of the port city of Gunsan-si (군산시).  Here are some logistics.

Eocheong-do (어청도)

Eocheong-do (어청도)

GETTING THERE

Being an island, the only way to get to Eocheong-do is by ferry.  Ferries depart once daily during the week, and twice on Saturday and Sunday, from the Gunsan Coastal Ferry Terminal.  During the week the ferry departs at 9:00AM; on weekends you can choose between a 7:30AM or 1:30PM departure time.  However, ferries are often cancelled due to fog, rough seas, or bad weather, so be sure to check the weather before leaving the mainland.  The ferry ride itself lasts about 2½ hours, with a short stop at nearby Yeon-do (연도).  Tickets for a one-way trip will cost around 25,000 won at the time of this writing; these tickets can be ordered ahead of time by phone or online, but unless you have a solid grip of the Korean language, it’s best to buy your tickets at the Ferry Terminal the day of your trip.  You will need a valid photo ID to board the ferry; for non-Koreans, a passport or Alien Registration Card (ARC) will suffice.

Gunsan Coastal Ferry Terminal

Gunsan Coastal Ferry Terminal

WHERE TO STAY

Eocheong-do is a small island community, with a population of only about 400 residents.  As such, don’t expect any 5-star hotels with room service on this trip.  However, minbaks (민박) are plentiful and affordable throughout Eocheongdo-ri, the main village on the island.  A minbak, or “homestay,” is a bed-and-breakfast style accommodation, with a traditional Korean feel.

 Expect a sleeping mat, blankets, and an ondol-heated floor in place of a bed; however, some minbaks may offer Western-style beds for an additional cost.  This may seem frightening at first, but minbaks are usually very clean and comfortable, and the owners are always friendly and helpful, even if they do not speak much English.  Prices range from 10,000 won per night to upwards of 40-50,000 won for more popular tourist destinations at peak travel times; in some cases you can even negotiate a price with your hosts.  In many cases, a minbak will also have a restaurant attached, or be located close to one; you are not obligated to eat there if you do not want to.

The Yangji Homestay on Eocheong-do.  The restaurant on the main level serves excellent fried chicken.

The Yangji Homestay on Eocheong-do.  The restaurant on the main level serves excellent fried chicken.

WHAT TO DO

The island is shaped like a crescent, and has a steep ridge running along the edge.  Half of the island is part of a military base, and is fenced off to the general public and visitors.  However, the remaining half of the island is lined with hiking trails.  The village of Eocheongdo-ri, though small, offers a variety of restaurants, a large public pavilion, a church, a seaside boardwalk, a lighthouse, and numerous gardens through which one can meander.  The residents of the island are especially friendly; don’t be surprised if you’re invited for a drink or a meal by a total stranger.  Koreans as a people are still very curious about foreigners, but unlike most places I’ve traveled to within mainland Korea, the people of Eocheong-do are far more polite about their curiousity.  I did not find that anyone stopped and stared at me, or was even all that surprised to see me.  If anything, people treated me as though I was just another resident whom they hadn’t seen in awhile.

The village of Eocheongdo-ri

The village of Eocheongdo-ri

The boardwalk, opposite the marina

The boardwalk, opposite the marina

The lighthouse on the western end of Eocheong-do

The lighthouse on the western end of Eocheong-do

The main reason to go to Eocheong-do is for the birding.  Its position in the Yellow Sea makes it an oasis for migrant birds flying from China to the Korean peninsula.  Eocheong-do is well known in Korea and elsewhere as a hotspot for birding during the spring migration.  Many rare and accidental species have been documented here over the years.  In fact, birding-based ecotourism is starting to catch on, and the island’s economy is shifting to promote its natural treasures.

Our visit to Eocheong-do was immensely relaxing, and the birding was some of the best I’ve had anywhere in Korea (where else can you see 100 species in just a long weekend?).  I’ll post about our birding experiences in another installment.

Past, Present & Future

The past few weeks have seen me in a state of constant change.  In a mere 14 days, I traveled nearly 14,000 miles and crisscrossed half the globe.  I experienced a 26-hour day, and skipped another one entirely.  So, as the title of this post suggests, I’ll fill you in on the past two weeks, what’s going on right now, and what’s in the books for the near future.

PAST

January began my winter vacation.  After completing the semester and saying farewell to my students, I packed my bags and hopped a flight from Seoul to my hometown in Pennsylvania.  It was here that, due to the extreme time difference and the International Date Line, I had the enjoyable experience of living Saturday, January 18, twice.  I left Seoul at 6:15pm local time, and arrived in Philadelphia a mere three hours later, or so the clock said.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently: 26 hours of travel is just wrong.

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains

The prodigal son had returned.  It was an adjustment returning to life in North America, even if for only a short time.  And I don’t mean just getting over the jetlag.  There’s no way around it: daily life and culture in Asia are different than in North America, and I had gotten used to doing things the Asian way.  So I had to un-teach myself to bow to everyone I meet.  I didn’t have to give and receive everything with two hands anymore.  Probably the biggest adjustment was suddenly being able to understand everything I heard on TV and in the streets.  After a year in Korea, hearing English outside of my own apartment was such a rare occurrence that suddenly being inundated with it was sensory overload!  How I had gotten used to the quiet.

It was great to see friends and family again.  I could play with my nephews, read them bedtime stories, go out to lunch or dinner with friends who I hadn’t seen in forever.  And this says nothing about the food!  Oh, to have real cheese again!  Burgers and fries, pizza with no corn or potato wedges on it, and my mom’s lasagna…I’m still amazed I didn’t gain 20lbs while I was there.  The only regret I have is that there simply wasn’t enough time to see everyone and do everything I wanted to.  Two weeks can fly by when you’re not looking.

Turkey club with a side of poutine at the Elgin Street Diner in downtown Ottawa

Turkey club with a side of poutine at the Elgin Street Diner in downtown Ottawa

Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario

Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario

I managed to sneak away for short periods and reacquaint myself with North America’s avifauna.  In Ottawa, I spent a morning with one of my old birding friends and we were able to scour the area for snowy owls…I couldn’t miss the chance to see these magnificent birds while I was back in Ottawa, especially with the irruption year still going on.  While visiting my sister in Rochester, I managed to get my first photos of white-winged scoter, a diving duck that is usually found only over deeper water a distance from shore.  Although it wasn’t the purpose of the trip, I managed to tick off nearly 40 species for my year list, and I was just shy of my January 125 Species Challenge, ending the month with 122 species.

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula bucephala) & Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)
Irondequoit Bay, Irondequoit, New York

Female White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi)
Irondequoit Bay, Irondequoit, New York

Female Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)Gloucester, Ontario

Female Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Gloucester, Ontario

PRESENT

I no sooner acclimatized myself to my old way of life, then it was time to return to Korea for another year.  Another long, long flight awaited me, and this time I almost completely skipped Sunday, February 2.  I had a few days to recover from the jetlag (again), and it was back to school for another week before graduation.  This is a bittersweet time: due to budget cutbacks, I will not be returning to my current middle school, but will instead take on two new middle schools as a native English teacher.  The Office of Education will not be hiring any new native teachers this year, so those of us that remain in Gwangju must be spaced out to fill the vacancies.  Melanie will be staying at her current school, and will take on my position at my school as well.  So come March, I will have to new students and new schools to get to know.

I’ve made efforts to get out as much as I can.  The weather in Korea is not nearly as cold as it was in North America, and the birds are still out and about, if you have the patience to look for them.  I’m quickly running out of year birds now, waiting impatiently for the spring migration to begin in late March.  Until then, I’m trying to focus on photographing as many of the common resident species as I can, before the arrival of the summer breeders diverts my attention.

Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha)
Yeongsan River, Gwangju, South Korea

Male Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
Yeongsan River, Gwangju, South Korea

“Chinese” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis)
Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park, Gwangju, South Korea

Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica rustica)
Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park, Gwangju, South Korea

FUTURE

When Melanie and I decided to re-sign our contracts and stay in South Korea for another year, we were entitled to a one-week paid leave as a bonus for doing so.  We’ve decided to go to Cambodia for this vacation, hoping to soak up some sunlight and warmer temperatures before the new semester begins in March.  I haven’t made any reservations with a birding guide for this trip, but I’m still hoping to add “a few” lifers while we’re there.  Stay tuned for a complete summary of the trip when we return at the end of the month.

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 10,000birds.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.

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)

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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.

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

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


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#2: Shilin Night Market (士林夜市)

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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.


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# 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.

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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


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