Days 1 - 2
FLY LONDON-HONG KONG-TAIPEI
Our autumn birdwatching tour to Taiwan begins with a British Airways overnight flight from London Heathrow to Hong Kong and onward connection next day with Cathay Pacific to Taiwan. We'll be met by our local guide on arrival in Taiwan in the early evening of Day 2 and transfer the short distance to our hotel for dinner. Night Taipei
TAIPEI BOTANICAL GARDENS, YANGMING SHAN NATIONAL PARK & SOUTH TO TAICHUNG
Our birding begins with a visit to the nearby Botanical Gardens in downtown Taipei, for an easy introduction to some common lowland species. Birds to expect include Red Collared Dove, Spotted Dove, Chinese Bulbul, perhaps a Taiwan Scimitar Babbler, Oriental Turtle Dove, Grey Treepie and Japanese White-eye. With care we may also locate a Crested Myna amongst the more common Javan. However, our main target here will be Malayan Night Heron, which are usually easy to see - despite the early morning crowds performing Tai Chi! Malayan Night Herons feed on the giant earthworms and once 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!
The forested hills of Yangming Shan ('Grass Mountain') National Park lie just to the north of Taipei. Noted for its geothermal springs, the park's low elevation forests also offer our first chance to look for the endemic Taiwan Barbet and Taiwan Blue Magpie. In 2016, we enjoyed close views of Taiwan Bamboo Partridge, too! Birds of prey to watch for here include Crested Goshawk, Besra and Grey-faced Buzzard, and passerines such as Grey-chinned Minivet, White-bellied Erpornis (formerly White-bellied Yuhina), Plumbeous Redstart and Black Bulbul should also be about.
Leaving Taipei, we drive south this afternoon to our overnight stop at Taichung, on Taiwan's west coast. Night Taichung
BASIANSHAN TO DASYUESHAN
After breakfast in Taichung, we swing east into the hills where we’ll begin our exploration of the forests that still cloak the uplands of Taiwan’s scenic mountainous spine.
We start our journey from the lowland forests to those at higher elevations (up to 2,000m) at the Basianshan Forest Recreation Reserve, an area of formerly logged but now protected secondary forest. It provides a mix of evergreen and broad-leaved woodland that includes stands of Taiwan Red Pine, Red and Green Maples, and Taiwan Incense Cedar, while Taiwan White Pine grows along its higher ridges.
This fine landscape hosts many key bird species. On the banks of the Shiwen Creek resides Little Forktail and we have a second chance of Taiwan Blue Magpie. Staff at the reserve have put up nestboxes for the endemic Chestnut-bellied Tit (formerly known as Varied Tit), in an effort to increase numbers of this and other threatened species. At these lower altitudes we are likely to encounter Collared Finchbill, Oriental Turtle Dove, Pacific Swallow, Taiwan Scimitar-babbler and Rufous-capped Babbler, while a diminutive Grey-capped Woodpecker might also put in an appearance. Along the more open roadsides we may be treated to great views of Grey-chinned Minivet, Brown Dipper, Plumbeous Redstart, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta - and possibly White-backed Woodpecker or even Brown Bullfinch.
In the afternoon, we head deeper into the hills near Dasyueshan (which translates literally as ‘Big Snow Mountain’), where we stay three nights. This site hosts most of the island’s endemic birds, but we will make several stops along the way, perhaps to search for Taiwan Hwamei. We still expect to arrive in time to explore the fringes of this excellent reserve this afternoon.
The endemic Swinhoe’s Pheasant can sometimes be seen on the road into Dasyueshan – we will stop and, by keeping quiet, maybe a group will come out on to the road or appear at one of the feeding stations here. Swinhoe's rarer cousin - and Taiwan’s national bird - the Mikado Pheasant, is also present, though we may well have to wait until getting into the park to find one. Night Dasyueshan Forest Recreation Area
Days 5 - 6
DASYUESHAN FOREST & ANMASHAN
We will spend the next couple of days in the renowned Dasyueshan Forest. Although much of Taiwan’s lowland forest has now been lost, the woodlands that clothe the upper slopes of the island’s mountainous interior remain largely intact. Dasyuehan and Anmashan provide 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 Taiwan Yuhina, Rusty Laughingthrush and Taiwan Barwing to Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Steere’s Liocichla and the lovely White-eared Sibia. We’ll no doubt also enjoy the antics of Rufous-faced Warblers and the gorgeous Vivid Niltava; both species actually being quite common here. With luck, we may come across a wintering White’s Thrush feeding quietly beside the trail.
Mixed species flocks are always a cause of 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, Yellow and Black-throated 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.
As we climb higher and venture deeper into the heart of Taiwan's majestic mountains, we will search for the greatest avian prizes of all: Swinhoe’s and Mikado Pheasants. Both are very different in appearance, but stunningly beautiful in their own right and the most sought-after of all Taiwan’s endemics.
Along the way we can hope to find the glossy blue-green Bronzed Drongo, Black Bulbul, Striated Prinia and White-bellied Erpornis, plus the distinctive Taiwanese form of Grey-headed Woodpecker. We might also encounter the endemic Formosan Macaque, the island's only primate. As we wait for Swinhoe’s Pheasant to appear we should be entertained by the likes of White-tailed Robin, Steere’s Liocichla and Red-bellied Squirrels.
A nearby hotspot might produce the distinctive white-headed endemic race of Island Thrush, along with the abundant White-eared Sibia and Taiwan Yuhina. With luck, we might glimpse a Silver-backed Needletail as it rockets overhead; the 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.
The main target in the forests above our cabins at Anmashan is the sublime Mikado Pheasant. Several feeding stations have been established in the mountains to attract these very shy birds, but we may equally find them along the quiet roads.
Amidst the evergreen forests we should also come across the very 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 Collared Bush Robin. And as we get into the hemlock and dwarf bamboo forest at the highest points, we will meet the distinctive endemic Taiwan race of Eurasian Nutcracker, and with luck may find Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler, along with the attractive White-browed Shortwing. If it is clear (hopefully we will be above the clouds), the views from up 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).
The pristine Trochodendron and pine forest around our cabins can be a good place to see Ashy Wood Pigeon, as well as the local pink-headed form of Eurasian Jay, Rufous-crowned (formerly White-throated) Laughingthrush and the endearing Brown Bullfinch, while a nearby waterfall is home to Little Forktail.
If conditions are suitable after our evening meal, we have chances to look for Mountain Scops Owl and the endemic Taiwan race of Tawny Owl. There are Chinese Muntjac in the forests and other mammals to watch for include the charismatic White-faced Flying Squirrel and the endemic Taiwan Serow (an elusive goat-like creature).
Early mornings here are not to be missed. By scouring the grounds around our accommodation we may find the secretive Taiwan Partridge (a bird that's more often heard than seen) and the diminutive Taiwan Wren-babbler (formerly a race of Pygmy Wren-babbler) - two island endemics well worth the extra effort to find!
AOGU WETLAND FOREST PARK
Dropping down from the hills today, we first head towards Taichung City, then swing south into Yumlin County. Here, on Taiwan's west coast, lies the Aogu Wetland Forest Park. This site, formerly extensive mudflats but recently destroyed by reclamation, has unexpectedly reverted to a coastal wetland due to land subsidence and the cessation of farming in the area. To everyone’s surprise, it is rapidly establishing itself as one of the best places in Taiwan to see many coastal and wetland species!
Our main target at Aogu will be Black-faced Spoonbill. Over half the world population of this endangered species winters in Taiwan, and there should be good numbers present in November. In the creeks and pans, we should find wintering waders including Far Eastern Curlew, Pacific Golden, Kentish and Lesser Sand Plovers, Marsh and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Long-toed and Red-necked Stints, along with Intermediate Egret, and Caspian and Whiskered Terns. With luck, we may also find a few lingering passage waders such as Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler or Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.
Nearby fields and ditches attract yet more species, with over-wintering or lingering passage migrants that might include White-breasted Waterhen, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Cinnamon Bittern, Striated Heron and Greater Painted-snipe. Scanning the open water is likely to reward us with a good range of winter wildfowl including Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Garganey and maybe Falcated Duck. We even found a handsome drake Baikal Teal here on our November 2016 tour!
In such a rich environment, birds of prey such as Western Osprey and Black-winged Kite can be found hunting the fields and wetlands. Scrubby embankments may reveal Zitting Cisticola, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias (the latter of the endemic Taiwan race, flavirostris), Eastern Yellow Wagtail and mynas. With a little bit of luck (and patience), we might encounter some of the scarcer or more skulking winter visitors that reach this part of Taiwan, such as Bull-headed Shrike and Siberian Rubythroat. Night Chiayi
AOGU TO KENTING
We have time to enjoy some further birding in the coastal lowlands this morning, checking the saltpans and estuaries for waders and gulls. With luck, we will again find the rare Saunder's Gull or even a Chinese Egret - but even if we are not so lucky this year as last, there will nonetheless be a good variety of birds to see before we head to Kenting, at the southernmost tip of Taiwan.
We will break our journey south with a stop at Inda Farm, where we hope to find the handsome Maroon Oriole - the subspecies ardens here is a possible future 'split'.
The range-restricted endemic Styans's Bulbul is found only in eastern Taiwan, south to Kenting, and is the main reason for our visit here. Its population is under threat from hybridisation with the closely related Chinese 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 be lost within 20 years.
Time permitting today, the Longluantan Lake reserve at Kenting will provide us with another opportunity to see wetland species as well as passerines such as Red-throated Pipit, and White-shouldered and Red-billed Starlings. Night Kenting
Days 9 - 10
KENTING TO ALISHAN
Leaving Kenting this morning, we call in at the Guantian Education Centre to look for Pheasant-tailed Jacanas there before heading back up into the mountains once again. Our destination today is the Alishan National Scenic Area in central Taiwan, which will be our base for the next two nights.
Early mornings at Alishan can be excellent for birds and, close to where we stay, endemics we should find include the cracking Collared Bush Robin in the undergrowth, Flamecrests in the evergreen forest and Taiwan Fulvetta (now split from Streak-throated Fulvetta) in the scrub. Alongside them, we may encounter parties of Rufous-capped Babblers or perhaps a small flock of wintering Olive-backed Pipits, while Plumbeous Redstarts flit from stone to stone along the tumbling streams. As we bird Alishan's quiet roads and forest trails we have further opportunities to search for the secretive Mikado Pheasant - always a more elusive bird than Swinhoe’s.
At these higher elevations, we’ll be searching for White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler, Taiwan Fulvetta and White-browed Bush Robin. More familiar 'European' species might include Peregrine, Eurasian Nutcracker (although birds in Taiwan do look rather different) or even Red-flanked Bluetail. Sometimes the dark and scaly Taiwan Wren-babbler (formerly Pygmy Wren-babbler) can be coaxed into view from the undergrowth, hopping and wing flicking as we encroach into its territory. There is a good chance that we will hear - and possibly even see - Taiwan Bamboo Partridge here; their distinctive “people pray... people pray...” calls often resound across the hills and this species is more inclined to feed in the open than other galliformes - let’s pray we can find one to see!
One of the tour highlights promises to be a visit to a hide near our lodge. Set in the forest with views over a small feeding station, with quiet and patience here we can hope to be rewarded with unbeatable views of Swinhoe's Pheasant - and, if we are really lucky, Taiwan Partridges will also come to feed!
Crested Serpent Eagle (another of Taiwan's endemic subspecies), Black Eagle and Mountain Hawk-eagle could be soaring overhead, along with smaller species of raptor including Crested Honey Buzzard and Crested Goshawk. Various buntings, flycatchers and pipits are also possible during our walks here, amid secondary forest that holds White-bellied Green Pigeon, Emerald Dove, Dusky Fulvetta and the endemic Rusty Laughingthrush and Black-necklaced Scimitar Babbler (the latter now split from Spot-breasted Scimitar Babbler of India and Myanmar). We may also catch up with Black-naped Monarch and the diminutive Snowy-browed Flycatcher.
In the evenings we will hopefully get views of Mountain and Collared Scops Owls, while Savanna Nightjar, Himalayan Wood Owl and Giant Flying Squirrel are also possible here. Two nights Alishan
ALISHAN TO CINGJING
Keeping to the island's forested mountainous spine, we wend our way to Cingjing, our next destination, some 150km northeast of Alishan.
At an elevation of 1720m (5650ft), Cingjing (together with nearby Hehuanshan) is an ideal base to try again for the enigmatic Taiwan Wren-babbler, Taiwan Barwing and any other of Taiwan’s more site-specific upper elevation specialities that might have eluded us so far.
Both endemic pheasants and the elusive Taiwan Partridge also occur near Cingjing and we’ll spend some time today quietly walking trails through the bird-rich temperate forests in our quest to see them. We might also be lucky to come across a flock of distinctive Island Thrushes here, feeding on the fruiting autumnal trees - the latter being another of Taiwan's many attractions at this season. Night Cingjing
THE HIGH PASSES: HEHUAN SHAN & WULING SHAN TO KEELUNG
We leave Cingjing early today and continue through the mountains along the Central Cross-island Highway, climbing ever higher until we reach the high passes at Hehuan Shan and Wuling Shan - the latter a breathtaking 3275m (10,740ft) above sea level.
As we emerge above the treeline, we'll enter a sea of bamboo that extends to the highest summits, broken occasionally by rhododendrons and stands of cedars. This is the realm of a very few hardy bird species able to survive the freezing overnight temperatures. Key specialities to watch out for today include White-browed and Collared Bush Robins, Golden Parrotbill, Taiwan Fulvetta, White-whiskered Laughing-thrush, the endemic Taiwan form of Alpine Accentor, Taiwan Rosefinch (formerly lumped with Vinaceous Rosefinch) and Grey-headed Bullfinch. Where stands of cedars emerge from the bamboo we might encounter parties of crested Coal Tits, Flamecrests or Eurasian Nutcrackers.
[Please note: although the recently described Taiwan Bush Warbler (formerly Russet Bush Warbler) also occurs here, this furtive species is not usually singing in November, so we are unlikely to come across one on our tour.]
In the afternoon we'll complete our drive through the mountains to reach Keelung, on the island's north coast. If time permits, we'll pause to check some freshwater marshes and estuaries, where we might find a wide variety of wading birds. Greater Painted-snipe is a possibility here, and maybe Mandarin Duck, too. Night Keelung
RETURN TO TAIPEI, FLY LONDON
Keelung lies within an hour's drive of Taipei Airport and 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 work our way back - perhaps taking the opportunity to check for migrants and winter visitors arriving on Taiwan’s north coast (our choice of sites will depend on weather conditions at the time and news of recent sightings), or to revisit the low elevation forests of Yangming Shan National Park for one last look at Taiwan's resident birds.
Our birding over, we continue to nearby Taipei Airport for farewells to our local guide 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.