Taiwan: Formosan Endemics

When the Portuguese revealed Taiwan to the western world, they dubbed it “Formosa” – The Beautiful Island. Although, in a modern era, Taiwan is best known for its political defiance of mainland China, the island has a wealth of natural resources, including some of the most stunning mountain landscapes and birds in Asia. Taiwan is a continental island, lying 160 km off the coast of China, formed by the action of tectonic plates on the eastern edge of the Asian shelf; this dramatic uplift has given it the most remarkable topography. Although only 400 km long and, on average, 150 km wide, the island rises from a shallow western coastal plain to reach 4000 m at its highest peak.


In addition to the stunning landscapes Taiwan boasts friendly people, stunning culture and a tasty cuisine, so all and visitors no matter what your particular bend are in for a great experience.

Lying in the South China sea on the tropic of cancer, the coastal lowlands are distinctly warm and muggy, but with over 15 peaks that reach above 3000 m, the interior of the island comprises a series of concentric vegetation bands that terminate in temperate coniferous forest and arctic-like alpine tundra at the highest limits. The Taiwanese bird list now stands at an impressive 450 species. Although a regular tour is likely to yield only half of that, what very few birders know about Taiwan is that it has a host of fascinating endemic birds.

A new application of the Phylogenetic Species Concept (PSC) has seen what was once considered only 15 endemic species swell to over 29, and the number keeps growing. This means that Taiwan becomes more and more important for listers with a global birding agenda. But Taiwan is a fabulous birding destination in its own right, even for those less focused on listing.

One of 2 endemic pheasants, Mikado Pheasant
One of 2 endemic pheasants, Mikado Pheasant (Keith Barnes)

The wild interior holds some very high quality endemics, including two pheasant species, as well as a host of laughingthrushes and other snazzy endemics like Flamecrest. Added to the wealth of resident birds are a suite of migrants that occupy the island on passage between Siberia and tropical Asia between September and March. Then, in April breeding migrants such as the magical Fairy Pitta arrive, and the scarce Chinese Crested Tern returns to Matsu islet, so Taiwan has a bevy of great birds irrespective of when you time your visit.

Our itinerary below is assuming that endemics and Fairy Pitta are the optimal targets, but please speak to us if you wish to run this tour at any other time of year as our new Taiwan office means we can put together custom tours at any time of year and tweak the itinerary to take advantage of whatever is around!

Day 1: Taipei. We may have time to check out the local botanical gardens for Malayan Tiger-Heron, Light-vented Bulbul, and Japanese White-eye, as well as our first endemic, Taiwan Barbet. Our first evening is spent in Taipei’s busy, eccentric night-markets enjoying Dim-sum or trying the unique Taiwanese dumplings.

Magical Taiwan Barbet
Magical Taiwan Barbet (Keith Barnes)

Day 2:Tsrmen to Dashueshan. We explore the lowlands and relatively developed west coast. A stop at Tsrmen may reveal the electric blue Formosan Whistling-Thrush, and the impressive Taiwan Blue Magpie, before veering into the mountainous interior of Taiwan. The mixed forests and broadleaved woodlands are beautiful and just driving through the gorges and checking out the spectacular scenery of this area is worth the drive alone. But this area is also one of the best general birding areas in Taiwan. We will enjoy four nights here.

Days 3-5: Dashueshan. Photographers have done an incredible job of making some of Taiwan’s most spectacular and impressive and skittish birds remarkably tame here. First and foremost amongst these are the magical pheasants. Both the white-backed Swinhoe’s and the regal Mikado are regular at stakeouts along the road. The pheasants are called “the kings of the mist” in local parlance, a celebration of their elegant plumage and secretive nature. The birds themselves are bold and unafraid and you will not get easier pheasants anywhere in the world to photograph and enjoy at leisure. The common but shy Taiwan Partridge is also frequently heard and often seen along this road. Although the game birds are the stars, we have the opportunity to search more many of the interior forest species including some recently split taxa such as the noisy Taiwan Bamboo Partridge, furtive Taiwan Shortwing, scarce and stunning Taiwan Thrush, dapper little Taiwan Wren-Babbler, inquisitive Taiwan Fulvetta, spectacled Flamecrest and stunning Steere’s Liochichla as well as a bevy of tits, babblers, drongos and other flock species. The mixed broadleaved forests ought to reveal some garrulous laughing-thrushes including hopefully Taiwan and Rusty Laughing-thrushes.

Another dashing pheasant, Swinhoe's, can be seen at Dashueshan
Another dashing pheasant, Swinhoe's, can be seen at Dashueshan (Keith Barnes)

Day 6: Dashueshan to Tainan. After another morning of the magical forests at Dashueshan we head to Tainan. By this afternoon we will be enjoying the stunning spectacle of wintering shorebirds and waterfowl near Tainan. Our main quarry will be late Black-faced Spoonbills that may still be hanging around. However many other waterfowl are worthy of our efforts here including Asiatic Dowitcher, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Gray-tailed Tattler and many more. The night will be spent in Tainan.

Day 7: Tainan to Taitung. Although Tainan is a busy industrial city, it is also on the edge of the Tseng-wen estuary, one of the most important on the Asia-pacific flyway. Between September and March, Tsengwen holds 200 individuals, some 50% of the world population, of the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. The spoonbill, however, is not the only rare bird here. The migratory Saunder’s Gull also frequents this wonderful estuary, and these species share their home with waders and ducks galore that come to Taiwan to escape the Siberian winters. Other migrants that we will look for include Red-throated Pipit, Oriental Reed Warbler, Yellow Wagtail, Slaty-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Black-tailed Gull, Common Gull, Black-headed Gull, Spot-billed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, Pintail, Tufted Duck, Hen Harrier, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Mongolian Plover, Greater Sand Plover, American Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Red-necked Stint, Long-toed Stint, Dunlin, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Great Knot, Common Redshank and Spotted Redshank. After more time mopping up waterbirds, we make for Taitung, where we’ll spend the night.

Dragons are important within Taiwanese culture
Dragons are important within Taiwanese culture (Keith Barnes)

Day 8: Lanyu. In the morning we will take the short flight to Lanyu. This funny little island, home to people of Micronesian origin, has some interesting birds too. The local race of Whistling Green Pigeon may merit full species status. This is the only locality on this tour that yields Philippine Cuckoo-Dove, Brown-eared Bulbul and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher. But our main quarry here is nocturnal. The near-endemic Lanyu Scops Owl is quite common and we should find one easily tonight.

Day 9: Lanyu to Hualien. We return to Taitung and head for Hualien. En route we will stop at Chiphen’s low-altitude forest, to look for the magical Red Oriole. We might also see Black-naped Monarch, Black Bulbul and Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler, or some migrant passerines such as the magical Siberian Rubythroat, Grey Wagtail, Oriental Tree Pipit, Brown Shrike, Red-flanked Bluetail, Arctic Warbler, Black-faced Bunting, Daurian Redstart, White’s Thrush, Red-bellied Thrush, Pale Thrush, and Dusky Thrush.

More than 20 endemics occur on Taiwan, including Collared Bush-Robin
More than 20 endemics occur on Taiwan, including Collared Bush-Robin (Keith Barnes)

Day 10: Taroko Gorge and Mt. Hohuan Shan. Today we travel via the highest road pass in Taiwan, looking for the highest altitude endemics, including the Taiwan Laughingthrush and Collared Bush-Robin. The pass also holds Ashy Wood-Pigeon, Alpine Accentor, Vinaceous Rosefinch, and Jungle Crow. However, before reaching Hohuanshan we travel on Taiwan’s most scenic road, and along one of Asia’s seven natural wonders, Taroko Gorge. This tortuous journey through vertical marble cliffs along the side of a deep, steep-sided gorge is not to be missed. We will spend the night in the town of Wushe.

Day 11: Wushe. We will explore many sites including Ao-wen Da and Chingjing for Taiwanese endemics. Targets include Alishan Bush-Warbler and babblers such as the crested Taiwan Yuhina, moustached Taiwan Sibia, cute, tail-less Taiwan Wren-Babbler, Steere’s Liocichla, and Taiwan Barwing. Joining the endemics in the mixed species parties are the Vivid Niltava, Red-headed Tit, and Brown Bullfinch.

Day 12: Wushe to Alishan. After a final morning in the Wushe area we make for Alishan.

Taiwan Partridge is one of the tougher endemics
Taiwan Partridge is one of the tougher endemics (Keith Barnes)

Day 13: Yushan NP to Huben. The magical Yushan will be our last shot for montane endemics, and the stunning surroundings of this magnificent area make it a pleasure to explore. Other wanted specialties include Golden Parrotbill, and the distinctive local form of Gray-headed Bullfinch, and more chances at the incredible Mikado Pheasant if we have not been lucky yet. The day draws to a close in the western lowlands of Daoliou County.

Day 14: Huben to Taoyuan. Our main quarry this morning is the spectacular Fairy Pitta. Unfortunately the building of a dam here threatens the future of this species at this locality. Other species occurring here include the secretive Taiwan Partridge, Malayan Night Heron, Varied Tit, Rusty Laughingthrush, Black-streaked Scimitar Babbler and many more. After a morning in this area we head back to Taipei via the airport where we drop folks off for their international flights.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. For all birding we will need to be up early, around 6 am, and stay out late, around 5 pm, in order to take advantage of the best birding hours. Where possible we will use the middle of the day to relax, or travel between localities, but some days will be full days in the field. There will be a few optional outings after dark to search for owls, flying squirrels or frogs; these are normally done after dinner and seldom last for more than an hour (typically between about 7 and 8 pm). There are not many long drives on this trip; the main exception is day 7, which requires a 6-hour drive. Packed breakfasts are the norm, which are preferable to the traditional cold rice porridge and pickles served in the hotels! Almost all lunches and dinners are sit down affairs, and this is where Taiwanese cuisine shines, and most people are delighted with the smorgasbord on offer if you enjoy Asian food. The highest altitude we reach is the pass at Hohuanshan, which is around 10,700 ft (3275 m), but we don’t really stay there long and don’t do much walking, so is not likely to be an issue for most people.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. This tour arguably offers some of the easiest forest birding on Earth. There is some walking and one should be comfortable birding for 6-7 hours a day and walking around 2 miles (2 km) per day. Almost all the birding is done from roadsides and other easily accessible areas. If you struggle with standing, bring a field chair. Most of the coastal birding is done by vehicle.

CLIMATE: This tour takes place in Taiwan’s spring. The higher altitude rainforest sites at Dashueshan and Hohuanshan are cool (usually 40°-70°F, 4°-20°C). At Hohuanshan the temperatures can drop below freezing, but we don’t spend much time there. The climate in the lowlands can be a little humid and warm (usually 60°-85°F, 16°-29°C). The amount of rainfall varies a lot from tour to tour, but at least some can be expected.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. Electricity is available everywhere 24 hours a day. Internet is widespread, but not available at the remote Dashueshan. At higher altitudes, the interior of the rooms is chilly, but warm blankets are provided.

PHOTOGRAPHY: If you are a casual photographer, you will love this trip! Nowhere in Asia are birds more cooperative and easier to take pictures of, and because as birders we are visiting many places where once-scare and skittish birds are fed, there is plenty of opportunity to indulge in some shooting without costing us any species. If you are a serious photographer, our Taiwan Photo Journey will likely be a better option.

WHEN TO GO: We time our set-departure tour for when wintering birds are departing and many summer birds are arriving. Simultaneously, the residents are breeding, so it makes it a great combo. But if you were planning a custom tour and were only interested in residents and endemics, then anytime from March – September works, and if you fancy the best of the migrants and wintering birds, then October to November and March to early April also work.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and most European countries. For other countries, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help. Travel requirements are subject to change; it’s a good idea to double check six weeks before you travel.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 13; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to lunch on day 14; reasonable non-alcoholic drinks with meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding full-time bird tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to the afternoon of day 14; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person specifically on arrival day and departure day respectively (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the evening of day 1 to the afternoon of day 14 in a suitable vehicle; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; return flight to Lanyu; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters at hotels (if you require their services); international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; airport-hotel transfers on days that fall outside the prescribed arrival and departure days; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.