Taiwan – Birding Gateway to Asia: Pheasants, Blue-Magpies, Scimitar-Babblers, Laughingthrushes, and much more

All Photos and Text By Dorian Anderson

Birding in new countries – and on especially new continents – can be overwhelming; With unfamiliar species and even totally new families, there is always a lot to learn ahead of any international birding trip. Throw in concerns of foreign travel, language barriers, and cultural differences, and international birding can be downright daunting.

Map of the island nation of Taiwan. © Dorian Anderson

Map of the island nation of Taiwan. © Dorian Anderson

Nowhere might this be truer than Asia, a literal world away from what most American birders will ever experience. However, I recently returned from Taiwan and found it the perfect birding introduction to that largest, Asian continent. With a manageable number of bird species (~650), a host of mammals and butterflies, great roads and hotels, and no infectious diseases, Taiwan provides the perfect birding and cultural gateway to Asia.

Comparable in size to state of Maryland or the country of Montenegro, the island nation roughly 100 miles from Southeastern China can be thoroughly birded in just 10 to 12 days. Though the flatter, western side of the island is highly developed, the more mountainous central and easter areas are beautifully undisturbed and host an incredible density of birds than can be found no where else (endemics). Taiwan has at least 27 endemic bird species, and splits of endemic races are likely to push that number beyond 30 in the future. Any visit to Taiwan should be geared towards finding these endemics; In searching for them, any visitor will find at least 150 total bird species and experience a sufficient cross section of the country – birding and cultural – to leave him or her feeling fully satisfied.

My particular visit began in Taipei with a visit to the Taipei Botanical Gardens. There we found Malayan Night-Heron, Taiwan Barbet (endemic), Gray Treepie, Light-vented Bulbul, and Oriental Magpie-Robin.

A stop at the nearby Qianshan Park in Yangmingshan National Park yielded Taiwan Whistling-Thrush (endemic) and Taiwan Blue-Magpie, arguably the most iconic of Taiwan’s endemics.

Later, at Menghuan Lake, we stumbled across Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler (endemic), and Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge (endemic). All of those spots can be birded in a single day from Taipei, so I would suggest using one’s first day in the country to do exactly that. For those interested in more general sight-seeing, there’s a lot going on in Taipei. Be sure to check out the truly amazing Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world.

Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge © Dorian Anderson

Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge © Dorian Anderson

 

Taiwan Blue-Magpie © Dorian Anderson

Taiwan Blue-Magpie © Dorian Anderson

Leaving Taipei and continuing three hours further south, we gained elevation into Dasyueshan National Park, the country’s single best birding location. Most of the birding happens along the quiet mountain road into the park, and from that narrow, winding track we found Taiwan (Hill) Partridge (endemic), Yellow Tit (endemic), Taiwan Yuhina (endemic), Morrison’s Fulvetta (endemic), White-eared Sibia (endemic), and Steere’s Liocichla (endemic). However, most spectacular were the several Swinhoe’s Pheasants (endemic) that appeared along our route.

Swinhoe's Pheasant © Dorian Anderson

Swinhoe’s Pheasant © Dorian Anderson

We spent two nights in the comfortable Dasyueshan Lodge. At 7400 feet of elevation, it provides the perfect point of exploration. From there, we added Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Rufous-faced Warbler, Taiwan Barwing (endemic), Rufous-crowned Laughingthrush (endemic), Rusty Laughingthrush (endemic), Taiwan Cupwing (endemic) and the highly prized Mikado Pheasant (endemic). Beyond those we found Rufous-faced Warbler, Vivid Nitalva, White-backed Woodpecker, Little Forktail, and the stunning Gray-chinned Minivet.

In the mammal department, we observed Barking Deer, the oddly-goatish Taiwan Serow, and the ever-present Taiwan Macaque.  A night drive produced views of the incredible Red-and-white Giant Flying Squirrel, a nocturnal beast nearly the size of a cat! When it flies, it’s as big as a doormat!

Taiwan Mountain Macaque © Dorian Anderson

Taiwan Macaque © Dorian Anderson

Red-and-white Giant Flying Squirrel © Dorian Anderson

Red-and-white Giant Flying Squirrel © Dorian Anderson

From Dasyueshan, we proceeded to the Hehuanshan National Forest. Though only 20 linear miles from Dasyueshan, it takes around three hours along a very circuitous route to reach the incredible Song Syue Lodge at the top of the park at over 10,000 feet of elevation. At those highest elevations – just at the tree line – we found Flamecrest (endemic), White-whiskered Laughingthrush (endemic), Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warbler, Alpine Accentor, Taiwan Rosefinch (endemic), Taiwan Fulvetta (endemic), and Collared Bush-Robin (endemic).

The scenery in Hehuanshan was absolutely spectacular. As the Song Syue Lodge can only be booked 30 days in advance, there are plenty of suitable alternatives in Qianjing Farm, a town about an hour’s drive downhill from Song Syue. For those that are interested, it is possible to continue over the mountains to the eastern side of the island to visit the apparently unbelievable Taroko Gorge, a site I wish I had had time to visit on my too-short, 8-day visit.

White-whiskered Laughingthrush © Dorian Anderson

White-whiskered Laughingthrush © Dorian Anderson

 

Hehuanshan View © Dorian Anderson

Hehuanshan View © Dorian Anderson

After Hehuanshan, we dropped back down to the western coast at Budai for a day’s worth of coastal birding. Between flooded rice fields and marsh preserves we found a host of waterfowl, Yellow Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, Chinese Egret, the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Pied Avocet, Marsh Sandpiper, Long-toed Stint, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, Eurasian Curlew, Curlew Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, Asian Dowitcher, Black-tailed Gowit, and Whiskered Tern.

For additional lowland birding (around 3000 feet of elevation), we hit the Firefly Lodge above Chiayi City. In its pleasant surrounds we found Mountain Scops-Owl, Black-naped Monarch, Dusky Fulvetta, Plumbeous Redstart, and Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler (endemic). Our group then invested a full day to reach the extreme southern end of the island where we added Styan’s Bulbul (endemic) and an endemic race of Whistling Green-Pigeon.

I might suggest skipping that southern end unless your are hellbent on adding every possible endemic as everything but the bulbul can be found farther north, towards the arrival/departure point of Taipei. If you’re interested in visiting Lanyu (Orchid Island) off the southern coast, then a visit to the southern departure port of Kenting will be required anyway. The birding on that offshore island is apparently best during spring migration, Asian Paradise Flycatcher being a highly prized, warm-weather nester.

Firefly Lodge © Dorian Anderson

Firefly Lodge © Dorian Anderson

There is simply no shortage of things to see and do in Taiwan. What’s particularly nice is that the endemic birds are non-migratory and thus can be found at any time in the year. Spring is certainly the best time as they are actively singing, but my group found 26 of the 27 in just 8 birding days at the end of October (we tallied ~160 species total). Most birders visit Taiwan in late-April or early-May to get a mix of lingering Asian/Siberian migrants and recently-returned summer breeders, but any fall, winter, or spring trip will offer access to at least some migrants beyond the endemics. Spring is also the rainiest season, so do keep that in mind in planing your trip.

As this was my first trip to Asia, I found that Taiwan to be the perfect avian, cultural, and culinary introduction to that continent. It’s wonderfully safe, easy to navigate, and should be at the top of anyone’s list who is looking for a taste of the Asian birding experience! Don’t delay!

Collared Scops-Owl roosting in temple © Dorian Anderson