Days 1 - 2
FLY LONDON TO TAIPEI
Our autumn birdwatching tour to Taiwan begins with an Cathay Pacific overnight flight from London Heathrow to Hong Kong and onward connection next day to Taiwan. We'll be met on arrival in Taiwan by 'KC', our resident local guide, and transfer the short distance into Taipei.
Depending on flight schedules, there may be time for a brief visit to the Botanical Gardens, for a gentle introduction to some common lowland species. Birds to expect include Spotted Dove, Light-vented Bulbul, Oriental Turtle Dove, Japanese White-eye and perhaps a Taiwan Scimitar Babbler or Taiwan Barbet. With care we might also locate a Crested Myna amongst the more common Javan before heading to our city hotel for dinner. Night Taipei
YANGMINGSHAN NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH TO DONGSHI
Our main targets this morning will be Malayan Night Heron and the gorgeous Taiwan Blue Magpie - Quianshan Park, on the slopes of Yangmingshan National Park being one of the most reliable spots to see this localised cobalt blue endemic. Joined by Grey Treepies they sweep in, then off again in noisy parties.
We will also hope to get our first views of Taiwan Whistling Thrush and should find a tame Malayan Night Heron or two - seemingly undaunted by the presence of local residents performing Tai Chi in the park! The night herons feed on the island's giant earthworms and, if one is found, a tug of war begins with the heron heaving backwards with all its weight to lever the worm a few more inches out of the ground. Such contests can last for 10-15 minutes, until the two-foot long worm is finally extracted. Watching the night heron swallow the worm can last just as long - a sight not to be missed!
Leaving Taipei, we drive south this afternoon to our overnight stop at Dongshi, on the lower mountain slopes east of Taichung. A spot of late afternoon birding by a river might well produce our first Taiwan Hwamei. Night Dongshi
GUGUAN & DASYUESHAN
After an early breakfast in Dongshi, we swing south following the incised valley into the hills where we’ll begin our exploration of the forests that still cloak the lower slopes of Taiwan’s scenic mountainous spine.
We start at Guguan, near the Baxianshan National Forest. Its mix of evergreen and broad-leaved woodlands include stands of Taiwan Red Pine, Red and Green Maples, and Taiwan Incense Cedar, while Taiwan White Pine grows along the higher ridges. This fine landscape hosts many key bird species and we have a second chance of Taiwan Blue Magpie. The forested slopes of the gorge are one of the best places to see Chestnut-bellied Tit (recently split from Varied Tit), so it's worth the journey to see this attractive endemic.
At these lower altitudes we are likely to encounter Collared Finchbill, Pacific Swallow, Taiwan Scimitar Babbler and Rufous-capped Babbler, while the diminutive Grey-capped Woodpecker might also put in an appearance. Crossing the river on a footbridge, we may be treated to views of Taiwan Whistling Thrush, Grey-chinned Minivet, Brown Dipper, White-bellied Erpornis, Plumbeous Water Redstart and Grey-cheeked Fulvetta.
In the late morning we head higher and deeper into the hills to Dasyueshan (which translates literally as ‘Big Snow Mountain’), where we stay for two nights in comfortable wooden cabins. This site hosts most of the island’s endemic birds and, as we climb higher this afternoon, we will stop for our first exciting chance of the endemic Swinhoe’s Pheasant along the road into Dasyueshan. Flocks of endearing Black-throated Bushtits, Tawian Yuhinas, Rufous-faced Warblers and various tits forage through the woodlands - and by keeping quiet, maybe a group of Taiwan Partridges will appear as well! Night Dasyueshan Forest Recreation Area
Today we explore the renowned Dasyueshan Forest. Although much of Taiwan’s lowland forest has now been lost, the woodlands that clothe the upper slopes of the mountainous interior remain largely intact.
Dasyueshan provides ready access to areas of both primary deciduous and evergreen forest that are home to a wide range of hill country birds. We are sure to see many of Taiwan's endemic forest birds here, from White-whiskered Laughingthrush and Taiwan Barwing to Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Steere’s Liocichla and the lovely White-eared Sibia. With luck, we might come across a wintering White’s Thrush feeding quietly beside the trail - and in 2018, were fortunate to find a white-headed Taiwan Thrush feasting in some trees near the restaurant!
Early mornings at Dasyueshan are not to be missed! By scouring the grounds around our accommodation we may come across the tiny Taiwan Cupwing. As the day warms, mixed species flocks cause great excitement as birds rapidly flit from tree to tree. These can be quite challenging at first but, with patience, we should encounter many of the constituent species.
Most species are quite common within the flocks and we are likely to see the local, crested (and endemic) Taiwan race of Coal Tit along with Green-backed and Yellow Tits, Fire-breasted and Plain Flowerpeckers and the island's endemic race of Eurasian Jay - looking quite different to the birds we see at home. As excitement builds, the frenzy of activity often attracts other birds to join in and we may well see some familiar faces such as Eurasian Nuthatch and Wren, too. With luck, the excited calls will lure a Collared Owlet with its rhythmic, four-note whistle. This diurnal owlet preys principally on small birds.
Along the way we can hope to find the delightful Vivid Niltava, rattling flocks of Black Bulbul and the distinctive Taiwanese form of Grey-headed Woodpecker. We should also encounter the endemic Formosan Macaque, the island's only primate. With luck, we might catch sight of a Silver-backed Needletail as it rockets overhead; this recently discovered population appears to be resident in Taiwan but ranges over a vast area so encounters outside the breeding season are inevitably a bit hit-and-miss.
As we climb higher and venture deeper into the heart of Taiwan's majestic central mountains, we will search for one of the island's greatest avian prizes: the beautiful Mikado Pheasant, Taiwan's national bird. Endemic to Taiwan, these deep blue pheasants are found amidst the highest evergreen forests, where we should also come across the confiding White-whiskered Laughingthrush and Formosan Striped Squirrel. Nearby, we will be alert for those two stunning Tarsiger chats: White-browed Bush Robin and the smart endemic Collared Bush Robin.
The pristine Trochodendron and pine forest around our cabins can be a good place to see Ashy Wood Pigeon and the endearing Brown Bullfinch, while a nearby waterfall is home to Little Forktail. In winter, Rufous-crowned Laughingthrushes gather into roving flocks and this species becomes perhaps the most difficult of Taiwan's endemics to find, but we will give them our very best efforts.
If conditions are suitable, after our evening meal we have chances to look for Chinese Muntjac in the forests. The charismatic Red-and-white Giant Flying Squirrel, Chinese Ferret-badger and endemic Taiwan Serow (an elusive goat-like creature) are also possible up here. Night Dasyueshan Forest Recreation Area
DASYUESHAN & COASTAL WETLANDS
After a last morning in the forests in search of missing species from our ‘endemic bucket list’, we drop down through the hills today to reach the coast.
We first head towards Taichung City, then swing south into Yumlin County for a dramatic change in scenery and bird species. Here, on Taiwan's west coast, areas of once extensive mudflats that were recently destroyed by reclamation have unexpectedly reverted to coastal wetlands again in the wake of land subsidence and the cessation of farming in the area. In a remarkable turnaround, places such as Aogu and the Ba Zhang River estuary have now established themselves as the best places in Taiwan to see many coastal and wetland species!
One target species here will be the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Over half the world population of 4000 birds winters in Taiwan, and there should be good numbers present in November.
In such a rich environment, birds of prey such as Western Osprey and Black-winged Kite can be found hunting the fields and wetland areas, with Yellow and Cinnamon Bitterns possible in the channels and ditches. Scrubby embankments may reveal the likes of Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias (the latter of the endemic Taiwan race, flavirostris), Zitting Cisticola, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and mynas. With a little bit of luck (and patience), we might also encounter some of the scarcer or more skulking winter visitors that reach this part of Taiwan, such as Bull-headed Shrike and Siberian Rubythroat.
Scanning the open water is likely to reward us with a good range of winter wildfowl, including Common Pochard, Northern Shoveler, Garganey and maybe the smart Falcated Duck. We even found a handsome drake Baikal Teal here on our November 2016 tour! Night Putai
PUTAI WETLANDS SOUTH TO KENTING
Right on our doorstep, we have time to enjoy some further birding in the coastal lowlands this morning, checking the saltpans and estuaries for waders and gulls. As well as more Black-faced Spoonbills and wildfowl, wintering waders can include Kentish and Lesser Sand Plovers, Pacific Golden Plover, Marsh Sandpiper and Long-toed and Red-necked Stints, along with Intermediate Egret and Caspian and Whiskered Terns. There should be some Great Knot about, too. We may well encounter a few lingering passage waders, such as Terek or Sharp-tailed Sandpipers - and both our November 2017 and 2018 groups saw the rare Nordmann's Greenshank!
With luck, we will again come across Far Eastern Curlew, the rare Saunders's Gull or even Chinese Egret on the Ba Zhang mudflats - but even if we are not so fortunate this year as last, there will nonetheless be a good variety of birds to see before we head to our next overnight stop, Kenting, at the southernmost tip of Taiwan.
If time allows, we will pause along the way to visit an area of farmland that can be good for buntings and Oriental Skylarks that ‘bizz’ overhead. Richard Pipits and introduced Scaly-breasted Munias and Indian Silverbills can also be found - and in 2018, we enjoyed a communal roost of 15 or more Savanna Nightjars before continuing south along the coastal road to arrive at our hotel. Night Kenting
LONGLUAN LAKE, YINGDA ECO FARM & GUANTIAN
We'll spend some time exploring at Kenting this morning. Our main focus will be the Longluan Lake area and - after ensuring we have seen the endemic Styan's Bulbul well - we will search for birds in the open country, scrub and ponds as well as on the huge lake itself.
The range-restricted Styan's Bulbul is found only in southeastern Taiwan, down to Kenting, and is the main reason for our visit here. Its population is under threat from hybridisation with the closely related Light-vented Bulbul - which is spreading as a result of habitat alteration and releases for religious purposes - and it is quite possible that genetically pure populations of Styan's Bulbul will disappear entirely within 20 years.
This is also a good place for another endemic, the Taiwan Hwamei, that sings loudly from thickets. Eastern Marsh Harriers quarter the fields, flushing Eastern Spot-billed Ducks from the small ponds and we should see Striated Swallows and White-shouldered Starlings perched on the roadside wires. Careful scanning over the open country may reveal the presence of small flocks of Oriental Skylarks and munias, with Brown Shrikes hunting from fence posts.
Leaving Kenting later this morning, we head back north to Tainan, breaking our journey with a stop at Yingda Eco Farm. Here we hope to find the handsome Maroon Oriole - the subspecies (ardens) here being a possible future 'split'.
Continuing north, we make a couple of afternoon stops at wetlands for more shorebirds and wildfowl – with a chance of Falcated Duck and Baikal Teal at Qieding. Pheasant-tailed Jacanas are numerous in the rice paddies of Guantian district and we'll also hope to see a few Greater Painted-snipe here - although they can be very elusive indeed! Night Chiayi
Days 9 - 10
CHIAYI TO ALISHAN
Leaving Chiayi after breakfast, we make our way back up into the mountains. Our destination today is the Alishan National Scenic Area in central Taiwan, which will be our base for the next two nights.
Driving into the mountains we will make a stop both to stretch our legs and try for the difficult Taiwan Bush Warbler. In the thick vegetation from which they sometimes call, we will be hoping for at least a glimpse - we were lucky on our November 2018 tour, when three were seen, albeit briefly. Collared Finchbill, Rusty Laughingthrush, Taiwan Scimitar Babbler, Steere’s Leiochichla and Asian House Martin are also possible as we watch and wait for the bush warbler to appear.
About our lodge at Alishan, we have a chance of Taiwan Bambo Partridge, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler and some cracking Daurian Redstarts.
Rising early next morning, we drive up high to Tataka, at around 2700m in the Yushan National Park. This is an excellent area for birds and endemics we should find include the cracking Collared Bush Robin in the undergrowth, Taiwan Fulvetta and the aptly named Flamecrest in the evergreen forest. The furtive Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler can sometimes show well in roadside grasses.
The higher altitude roads and forest trails offer further opportunities to search for the secretive Mikado Pheasant - always a more elusive bird than Swinhoe’s. At these elevations, other species to watch out for include White-backed Woodpecker, White-whiskered Laughingthrush, White-browed Shortwing, Golden Parrotbill, the crested local form of Coal Tit, White-browed Bush Robin and Grey-headed Bullfinch.
As we enter the forest of hemlock and dwarf bamboo at the highest points, we will meet the distinctive endemic Taiwan race of Southern Nutcracker, with its silver-spotted cheeks. If it is clear up here (hopefully, we will be up above the clouds), the views here are breathtaking. In the distance, we may be able to see Taiwan’s highest peak, Yushan, which stands just short of 4000m (13,000ft).
One evening, if it is fine, we can try our luck with Mountain and Collared Scops Owls as well as Northern Boobook. Two nights Alishan
ALISHAN TO QINGJING
Before leaving Alishan today we have a last opportunity to find some of our "missing" birds from lower elevations here. Crested Serpent Eagle (another of Taiwan's endemic subspecies), Black Eagle and Mountain Hawk-eagles could be soaring overhead, along with smaller species of raptor including Crested Honey Buzzard and Crested Goshawk. Various buntings, flycatchers and pipits are possible during our walks amid secondary forest that also holds White-bellied Green Pigeon, White-tailed Robin, Emerald Dove, Dusky Fulvetta and the endemic Rusty Laughingthrush. This area also offers perhaps our best chance for the oft-elusive Black-necklaced Scimitar Babbler.
We descend, then ascend again up to the ‘alpine’ resort of Qingjing, where locals come to get cold – away from the heat of the coast! The ‘unique’ town lies an elevation of 1720m (5650ft), and is renowned for its sheep population as well as being an ideal base to try again for highland bird species the following morning. Night Qingjing
QINGJING & THE HIGH PASSES (HEHUANSHAN & WULING) TO KEELUNG (NORTH COAST)
Before leaving Qingjing today, we should have time to check the hotel grounds for migrants. In the past we have been very fortunate here, seeing flocks of Eyebrowed Thrushes and careful scrutiny has produced Pale and Brown-headed Thrushes in with them. We have also enjoyed Black-necklaced Scimitar Babblers here, along with Taiwan Bamboo Partridge, Manchurian Bush Warbler, Taiwan Hwamei, Siberian Rubythroat, Brown-flanked Bush Warblers and Black-faced Bunting.
From Qingjing we climb ever higher until we reach the high passes at Hehuanshan and Wuling Shan - the latter a breathtaking 3275m (10,740ft) above sea level. Hopefully we will enjoy good weather up here, but please be aware it can be very cold and windy at times, and shrouded in low cloud. If conditions are good however, we could enjoy some first-rate birding this morning. Key specialities to watch for include the richly coloured endemic Taiwan form of Alpine Accentor (which can often be found in the car park), the simply gorgeous Taiwan Rosefinch (formally lumped with Vinaceous Rosefinch), Collared Bush Robin and White-whiskered Laughingthrush – as well as Eurasian Wren...
In the afternoon we descend, then travel north via the west coast highway, completing our long drive through Taipei to reach Keelung, on the island's north coast. Night Keelung
RETURN TO TAIPEI, FLY LONDON
Keelung lies conveniently within an hour or so's drive of Taipei Airport. Since our flight home doesn't depart until this evening, we should able to enjoy the best part of today in the field as we take the opportunity to check for migrants and winter visitors arriving on Taiwan’s north coast.
One of the best sites for migrants is the Jinshan Youth Centre grounds. By searching the park and scrubby borders here, we could well find a surprising number of interesting East Asian birds. Our last two visits have produced Dusky, Naumann's and Eyebrowed Thrushes, Siberian Rubythroat, Daurian Redstart and Black-faced and Yellow-throated Buntings.
Not far away, the impressive Yeliu Geo Park may also be worth a visit - especially if there has been a recent arrival of migrants. Our November 2018 trip was blessed with some very exciting finds, including Ryukyu and Japanese Robins, Japanese and Brown-backed Thrushes, Red-flanked Blutails, Siberian Rubythroats, Asian Stubtails and two different subspecies of Japanese Bush Warbler!
As we return full circle towards Taipei, a visit to the low elevation forests of Yangming Shan ('Grass Mountain') National Park offer one last look at Taiwan's resident birds. On our 2016 and 2017 tours we enjoyed superb close views of Taiwan Bamboo Partridge here - a fitting finale to this exciting tour!
Our birding over, we continue to nearby Taipei Airport for farewells to 'KC' and late afternoon check-in for flights home. Evening departure to Hong Kong, with onward overnight connection back to London.
Early morning arrival in London on Day 14, where our birding tour to Taiwan tour concludes.