Taiwan: Formosan Endemics and Migration

This Taiwan tour is like no other on the market. Most bird tour companies enjoy a leisurely 12-14 day tour around mainland Taiwan to see the endemics, but our tour delivers that and much, much more. We start with an optional pre-trip foray to the Matsu archipelago, where we are located right along the mainland Chinese coastline, and we will explore the small islands here for four days for the migrant treasures that pass through at this time of year. We can expect good numbers of buntings, including Little, Black-faced, Chestnut, Yellow-breasted and more. The scrubby hillsides hold potential for Narcissus, Grey-streaked and Asian Brown Flycacthers, and if we are lucky, perhaps a rarer Mugimaki or Yellow-rumped Flycatcher. Shorebirds can also be found, and we will target those and keep our ears and eyes out for other migrants including thrushes and warblers. After returning to mainland Taiwan we spend a day at a famous migrant trap north of the city – Yehliu. The main tour will focus on the late wintering birds, resident species, and 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, rich culture and a tasty cuisine, so all visitors, no matter what your particular bent, 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 550+ species. Although many of these are rartities and a regular tour is likely to yield around 210 species. What few birders know about Taiwan is that it has a host of fascinating endemic birds. The 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.

A pair of Mikado Pheasants poses by the road
A pair of Mikado Pheasants poses by the road (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, so Taiwan has a bevy of great birds irrespective of when you time your visit.

This itinerary is times for the northern Spring, but please speak to us if you wish to run this tour at any other time of year, as we may recommend some changes. Our Taiwan office can put together custom tours at any time of year and tweak the itinerary to take advantage of whatever is around.

Taiwan Barwing shows off its subtle beauty
Taiwan Barwing shows off its subtle beauty (Keith Barnes)

Day 1: Arrival. The tour begins at Taoyuan International Airport. We’ll spend one night in a nearby hotel.

Day 2: Tsrmen to Tainan. We start the day by exploring 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 we head farther south to the coastal wetlands of 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. Two nights will be spent in Tainan.

Day 3: Tainan and Kenting. Although Tainan is a busy industrial city, it is also on the edge of the Tseng-wen estuary, one of the most important sites on the Asia-pacific flyway. Between September and March, Tsengwen holds 300 individuals (some 50% of the world population) of the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. The spoonbill, is not the only rare bird here. The migratory Saunder’s Gull also frequent this wonderful estuary, and these species share their home with other 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, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Spot-billed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Tufted Duck, Hen Harrier, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Lesser and Greater Sand-plovers, Pacific Golden Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Red-necked Stint, Long-toed Stint, Dunlin, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Great and Red Knots, and Common and Spotted Redshanks. After mopping up the remaining waterbirds, we’ll make a dash towards the coastal, scenic Kenting NP. This is where we will find the threatened Styan’s Bulbul, which is locally common here. If time permits, we may visit a few other wetland areas on our return to Tainan.

Day 4: Tainan to Alishan. We’ll depart early so that we can be at the magical Yushan National Park at the crack of dawn. Although this will be our first time in the mountains, and there will be loads of new birds, our main quarry this morning will be the incredible Mikado Pheasant. Other wanted specialties here include Golden Parrotbill and the distinctive local owstoni form of Gray-headed Bullfinch. In the afternoon we head down lower to a farm with an incredible blind that regularly delivers both Swinhoe’s Pheasant and Taiwan Partridge. After dark – if the weather is good and energy levels permit – we might do a night-walk for owls and flying-squirrels, as this area is great for both. We have one night in Alishan.

Day 5: Alishan to Wushe. With another morning at Yushan NP, we should emerge with a decent collection of montane endemics and specialty species. After the morning is complete, we will head through to the Chingjing area of Wushe township and visit one of a myriad of sites that should deliver us some mid-altitude birds. Exactly where we go will depend on what we have seen already, but Ao Wan Da or Huisun forest reserves are good options.

Day 6: Wushe to Dashueshan. 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. In the afternoon, we can explore several mid-altitude sites and look for birds like Alishan Bush-Warbler, Taiwan Yuhina, the moustached Taiwan Sibia, tail-less Taiwan Wren-Babbler, Steere’s Liocichla, and Taiwan Barwing. Joining the endemics in the mixed species parties are Vivid Niltava, Red-headed Tit, and Brown Bullfinch. The day draws to a close as we head to the impressive Dashueshan. The mixed forests and broadleaved woodlands are beautiful, and just driving through the gorges and checking out the spectacular scenery is worth the trip alone. This area is also one of the best general birding areas in Taiwan. We will enjoy four nights here.

Days 7-8: Dashueshan. Photographers have done an incredible job of making some of Taiwan’s most spectacular yet normally skittish birds remarkably easy to see here. First and foremost amongst these are the spectacular 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 likely find 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 Rufous-crowned and Rusty Laughingthrushes. The Taiwan endemic race of the Island Thrush, with its snow-white head, will be another target, but it is always a tricky bird to find.

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

Day 9: Dashueshan to Huben. On last morning in Dashueshan will give us another shot at any montane endemics we may still be missing; the stunning surroundings of this magnificent area make it a pleasure to explore. The day draws to a close in the western lowlands of Daoliou County.

Day 10: Huben to Taoyuan. Our main quarry this morning is the spectacular Fairy Pitta. 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 Taoyuan International Airport, where the tour draws to a close.

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MATSU MIGRATION EXTENSION

Day 1: Arrival. After arrival in Taipei (arrival at Taoyuan before 5 pm required) we will make our way through to Keelung Port where we will eat dinner and board the ferry for the Matsu archipelago, located along the migrant-laden coast of mainland China. We overnight in comfortable cabins on the ferry, which arrives at the two square km Dongyin Island at 6 am the following morning. Migration birding can be fickle, but we hope for good conditions during our stay.

Days 2-3: Dongyin. With two full days to explore Dongyin we will hit all the main spots hoping for some great birds. The variety of buntings can sometimes be amazing, with Little, Black-faced, Chestnut, Japanese Yellow, Yellow-breasted, and Yellow-browed all possible. The scrubby hillsides hold potential for Narcissus, Gray-streaked, and Asian Brown Flycacthers, Common Rosefinch, Oriental Greenfinch, and if we are lucky, perhaps a rarer Mugimaki or Yellow-rumped Flycatcher. Shorebirds can also be found: Little Whimbrel, Red-necked Stint, and Terek Sandpiper are frequent visitors, and while targeting those, we’ll keep our ears and eyes out for other migrants. We overnight on the tiny islet where we may see the spectacular blue bioluminescence that makes the rocky coastline sparkle by night.

Day 4: Dongyin to Nangang. Today we take a two hour ferry journey from Dongyin to the larger Nangang island. With additional shorebird habitat and some slightly different habitats we hope to find some different birds.

Day 5: Nangang to Taipei. After some last minute birding, we transfer from Nangang to Taipei’s Songshan Airport in downtown Taipei via a short flight. We will swing over to the Botanical Gardens where we hope to catch up with the resident Malayan Night-Heron, Light-vented Bulbul, and Japanese White-eye, as well as our first endemic, Taiwan Barbet. The city parks may be holding thrushes or other good passage migrants. We head over the hills north of Taipei for the night, where we enjoy an evening of Dim-sum, and maybe some of the unique Taiwanese dumplings.

Day 6: Yehliu to Taoyuan. We will spend the morning birding the Yehliu Peninsula which is the best migrant trap on mainland Taiwan. What may be around is impossible to guess, but over the years Yehlui has hosted many unusual birds, and is a regular stopover for for Siberian Rubythroat, Asian Stubtail, and more. We have some other spots to try depending on how our luck holds at Yehliu, before heading to Taoyuan International Airport, where we meet up with those joining our main tour.

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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 Ferry trip is an 8-hour journey, but with bunk beds available this can pass surprisingly quickly and comfortably. 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 (3 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. The birding on the extension is easy.

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 9; and night of day 1 to day 5 of the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to lunch on day 10; Dinner on day 1 to lunch on day 6 of the extension; 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 10; 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 10 (evening of day 1 to the afternoon of day 6 of the extension) in a suitable vehicle; the extension includes two ferry trips from Keelung to Dongyin (8-hours), and Dongyin to Nangang (2-hours), and a flight back from Nangang to Songshan in Taipei, entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; 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.