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 & QUIANSHAN PARK, SOUTH TO TAICHUNG
Our birding begins with visits to nearby Quianshan Park and the 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, Oriental Turtle Dove, Grey Treepie, 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.
However, our main targets here will be Taiwan Blue Magpie and Malayan Night Heron. The latter, at least, is usually easy to see - despite the early morning crowds performing Tai Chi! Malayan Night Herons feed on the island's 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!
Leaving Taipei, we drive south this afternoon to our overnight stop at Taichung, on Taiwan's west coast. Night Taichung
GUGUAN & 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 near Guguan. 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 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. Along the more open roadsides we may be treated to great views of Taiwan Whistling Thrush, Grey-chinned Minivet, Brown Dipper, Plumbeous Redstart and Grey-cheeked Fulvetta.
In the afternoon we head deeper into the hills to Dasyueshan (which translates literally as ‘Big Snow Mountain’), where we stay for two nights. This site hosts most of the island’s endemic birds, but we will also stop 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 is to be found here, sometimes on the road into Dasyueshan – we will stop and, by keeping quiet, maybe a group of Taiwan Partridges will appear as well. Night Dasyueshan Forest Recreation Area
DASYUESHAN FOREST & ANMASHAN
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. 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 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 the attractive Rufous-faced Warbler and adorable Black-throated Bushtits - both species actually being quite common here. With luck, we may come across the endemic Rusty Laughingthrush (difficult to find in November) or 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 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.
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 endemic Mikado Pheasant, Taiwan's national bird.
Along the way we can hope to find the delightful Vivid Niltava, Black Bulbul, White-tailed Robin and White-bellied Erpornis, plus the distinctive Taiwanese form of Grey-headed Woodpecker. We should also encounter the endemic Formosan Macaque, the island's only primate.
Fruiting trees might produce the distinctive white-headed endemic race of Island Thrush along with the abundant White-eared Sibia. 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!
Amidst the evergreen forests 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 Collared Bush Robin. And as we get into the forest of hemlock and dwarf bamboo at the highest points, we will meet the distinctive endemic Taiwan race of Eurasian Nutcracker. If it is clear (hopefully, we will be up 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 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 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.
Early mornings at Dasyueshan are not to be missed either! By scouring the grounds around our accommodation we may come across the tiny Taiwan Wren-babbler (formerly a race of Pygmy Wren-babbler). Night Dasyueshan Forest Recreation Area
DASYUESHAN & AOGU WETLAND FOREST PARK
Dropping down through 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 comprising 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 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 Chiayi
PUTAI WETLANDS SOUTH 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. We should find a wealth of wintering waders on the pools and pans, including Kentish and Pacific Golden Plovers, Lesser Sand Plover, Marsh and Broad-billed Sandpipers, 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 Sandpiper or Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - and our 2017 tour saw the rare Nordmann's Greenshank, so who knows what we'll find!
With luck, we will again find Far Eastern Curlew, the rare Saunders' Gull or even Chinese Egret on the Ba Zhang mudflats - 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 our next overnight stop, Kenting, at the southernmost tip of Taiwan.
The range-restricted endemic Styan'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 disappear entirely within twenty years. Night Kenting
LONGLUAN LAKE, INDA FARM & GUANTIAN
We'll spend some time exploring at Kenting this morning before heading north once more. Our main focus will be the Longluan Lake area and - after ensuring we have seen Styan's Bulbul well - we will search for birds in the open country, scrub and ponds as well as on the huge lake itself.
Eastern Marsh Harriers quarter the fields, flushing Eastern Spot-billed Ducks from the small ponds and we may see Striated Swallows or 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 looking on from the fence posts.
Leaving Kenting later this morning, we will break our journey north to Tainan with a stop at Inda Farm, where we hope to find the handsome Maroon Oriole - the subspecies (ardens) here is a possible future 'split'. In 2017, while watching the orioles, we also found the open forest to be alive with migrants, seeing Olive-backed Pipits, Large Cuckooshrike and Ashy Drongo.
Continuing north, we make an afternoon stop at an area of rice paddies in Guantian district where Pheasant-tailed Jacanas are numerous. We'll also hope to see a few Greater Painted-snipe here, although they can be very elusive indeed. Night Tainan
Days 9 - 10
TAINAN TO ALISHAN
Leaving Tainan 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.
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.
One of the tour highlights promises to be a visit to a hide not far from our hotel. Set in the forest with views over a small feeding station, quiet and patience here we may be rewarded with unbeatable views of the exquisite Swinhoe's Pheasant - and, if we are really lucky, Taiwan Partridges will also come to feed!
Alishan's quiet roads and forest trails offer further opportunities to search for the secretive Mikado Pheasant - always a more elusive bird than Swinhoe’s. At these higher elevations, other species to watch out for include White-backed Woodpecker, White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler, White-browed Shortwing, Taiwan Fulvetta, Golden Parrotbill, White-browed Bush Robin and Grey-headed Bullfinch.
In the evenings, we will hopefully get views of Mountain and Collared Scops Owls. We have seen the amazing Red-and-white Giant Flying Squirrel here and Savanna Nightjar is also possible. Two nights Alishan
ALISHAN TO CINGJING
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, 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 might also catch up with Black-naped Monarch and the diminutive Snowy-browed Flycatcher.
Keeping to the island's forested mountainous spine, we then wend our way to our next destination, Cingjing, which lies some 150km northeast of Alishan. At an elevation of 5650ft (1720m), Cingjing (together with nearby Hehuanshan) is an ideal base to try again for highland species the following morning. Night Cingjing
CINGJING & THE HIGH PASSES (HEHUAN SHAN & WULING SHAN) TO KEELUNG (NORTH COAST)
Before leaving Cingjing today, we should have time to check the hotel grounds for migrants. In the past we have been very fortunate, seeing flocks of Eyebrowed Thrushes and careful scrutiny has produced Pale and Brown-headed Thrushes in with them. We have also enjoyed some of our best viiews of the Black-necklaced Scimitar Babblers here, along with Taiwan Hwamei, Siberian Rubythroat, Brown-flanked Bush Warblers and Black-faced Bunting.
From Cingjing, we continue north 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 10,740ft (3275m) 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 today. Key specialities to watch for include the endemic Taiwan form of Alpine Accentor (which can often be found in the car park), the gorgeous Taiwan Rosefinch (formally lumped with Vinaceous Rosefinch), Collared Bush Robin and White-whiskered Laughingthrush.
In the afternoon we complete our long drive through the mountains 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 work our way back to town, taking 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 2017 group was treated to unbeatable views of Red-flanked Bluetail here!
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 both 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 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.