A wide range of birds that live in or pass through this beautiful island make it a must-visit destination
The genius of Darwin was in the simplicity and clarity of his thinking. Tiny genetic mutations will result in slight differences in organisms’ ability to survive and reproduce. Given enough time, the pressures of selection will lead to the development of different species. When populations are isolated, such as on islands, the effects may become magnified and accelerated. For instance, Darwin famously noted the radically different bill structures of the apparently closely related finches of the different Galápagos islands. In extreme cases, where there has been considerable isolation, such as Australia, New Zealand or Madagascar, there are a large number of endemic bird species. But on little island groups, like the British Isles, which are close to, and formerly joined to, the continental land mass, we have just one (controversial) endemic species (Scottish Crossbill) and several endemic subspecies. Taiwan lies somewhere in the middle. It is a decent-sized island, nearly twice the size of Wales, 180km off the southeastern coast of mainland China. It has at least 15 endemic bird species but dozens of endemic subspecies, several of which are on the cusp of being given full species status, or have already been given full species status by some authorities. There are also several regional endemics found there. So, Taiwan offers a good chunk of endemic birds, but owing to its position off the Chinese coast, it is also a great place for seeing migrating Asiatic birds. I was there with a small group, last autumn, and in a week or so, our bird haul included nearly 50 birds which were either full endemic species or subspecies, or regional endemics. But we also got a fantastic taste of autumn migration, Taiwan style. Add to that plenty of non-endemic birds of high calibre, one or two endemic mammals, fabulous scenery, and spectacular butterflies in profusion, wonderful people and fantastic food (and, yes I am a vegetarian!), and you can see it could be very easy to fall in love with Taiwan. Taiwan is a long north-south island, with the capital Taipei in the far north. As most visitors do, we started our adventure here, getting our eye in at the botanical gardens. We arrived a couple of days after a typhoon, so there was a certain amount of tidying being done. But we were soon ticking our first endemic: the attractive and colourful Taiwan Barbet, plus seeing our first Black Bulbul (a bulbul in Chough’s clothing), Grey Treepie (like a small colourful Magpie), Chinese Bulbul and Malayan Night Heron. The older people of Taipei clearly love the gardens, and were gathered in groups doing Tai Chi or just walking around enjoying the air. There were also a group of 30 or so photographers all trying to get a snap of Dark-streaked and Brown Flycatchers as well as a young Crested Goshawk. Overhead, a pair of adults of
this spectacular hawk were displaying. With our eyes now partly in, we hit the northern tip of the island, at Yehliu Geo Park. The car park was jammed with coaches, and the paths densely crowded with parasol-wielding, shuffling masses. But, after a couple of hundred yards, the crowds vanished and our group ploughed on to the Magic Toilet, a shaded loo block renowned as a migrant stopover, where we added Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and Arctic Warbler to our trip lists. In the early evening, we paid our respects to a pair of local celebrities. At the Chingsui Wetland at Jinshan a young our first flock of the one bird I wanted to see above all others, Taiwan Blue Magpie; a spectacular, blue, black and white, red-billed, long-tailed beauty of an endemic bird! Taiwan Scimitar Babbler (like a big grumpy, white-throated Wren) was very pleasing, too, rather rescuing a rainy second day, largely on the road. On our third morning we made a tactical decision to check out the car park area, first thing, at nearby Taroko National Park. It is curious how often car parks are the best places! This one yielded some of the best birds of the trip, with the small trees dripping with endemics, flocks of them: Taiwan Yuhina, like a Crested Tit, but unrelated, and calls like a Goldfinch; Yellow Tit, a big, feisty tough guy tit with an open yellow face and long crest; and Varied Tit, of the potential split Taiwan subspecies/species. Then there was the gorgeous Grey-chinned Minivet (like a colourful, arboreal, red wagtail). That morning we rose through the spectacular Taroko gorge, heading up into the mountains. We stopped off for a coffee by a Sacred Tree (don’t ask me why it was sacred), where we were given honey on a cocktail stick (don’t ask me why). And, as luck would have it, a group of endemic laughingthrush-like bird, the Steere’s Liocichlas (don’t ask me how to pronounce it), were in the bushes nearby.
We crossed a terrifying rickety bridge by a waterfall, which produced that mountain stream staple, the Plumbeous Redstart, as well as another endemic, namely the Taiwan Whistling Thrush (which was resplendent in navy blue). But when we reached 3,000m, things got even juicier. Up there, in the pines, we encountered the renowned Flamecrest, a fancy relative of our Goldcrest, with a voice so high I could only hear it with my right ear! There were tame endemic White-whiskered Laughingthrush, and even tamer Alpine Accentors (Taiwan subspecies). But the star high altitude endemic for some in our small group was the Collared Bush-robin, or Johnstone’s Robin, a very pretty ash, chestnut and white endemic relative of the Red-flanked Bluetail. The forested mountains of the Dasyueshan Forest are fantastic places for a drive and for birding. Here we got great views of the amazingly colourful and distinctive endemic Swinhoe’s Pheasant. The forests near the top produced some lovely little birds with fancy names, including the Rufous-faced Warbler, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and a tiny, exquisite relative of our Long-tailed Tit, called Black-throated Tit. The next day we were down in the western lowlands, in a world of fishing ponds and muddy paddyfields. There were Long-toed Stints, Marsh Sandpipers and Lesser Sand Plovers. We flushed a couple of tiny Yellow Bitterns and saw a flock of 75 Black-faced Spoonbills, the vanguard of the 2,000 (half the world population!) which winter in Taiwan. Then it was down to the southern tip of the island near Kending. We were in the far south to witness the start of the great raptor migration which passes through each autumn. We were too early for the Grey-faced Buzzard passage, but bore witness to the passing of several hundred Chinese Sparrowhawks, plus Oriental Honey Buzzards, and such bonuses as White-throated Needletail, Oriental Pratincole and Ashy Drongo, as well as our first views of the endemic Taiwan Macaque and Taiwan Green Pigeon. Taiwan is a beautiful country full of fascinating wildlife. I haven’t even had space here to describe the bat-catching antics of a Kestrel; the curious display flight of the Black-shouldered Kite; the subtle beauty of the endemic Owston’s Bullfinch or the Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. And I haven’t been able to convey the wealth of food delights on offer or to do justice to the landscape. You are just going to have to see, hear smell and taste for yourself. But the lasting message, is that this is a land of speciation in action. Even the humble, familiar Coal Tit has its own Taiwan subspecies, with an elongated crest: ripe for ‘splitting’. There is no doubt, Darwin would have loved this place!
Taiwan Macaque, an endemic primate INDIA
Yellow Tit, Mike’s favourite endemic species in Taiwan Taiwan Barbet
Grey-chinned Minivet Siberian Crane had arrived in 2014. By autumn 2015 it had developed a healthy symbiosis with a local farmer, who dug in the paddyfields while the Crane stood beside him, looking for morsels. Also there were great flocks of mixed herons and egrets, Black Drongos, Spot-billed Duck and best of all, a beautiful female Painted Snipe. For the next few days we would venture south. Despite having a population of 24 million people, most of Taiwan, away from the western plain, is covered in lovely, forested hills and mountains. It didn’t take too long driving through the hills to encounter Alpine Accentor (endemic subspecies) A classic Taiwan endemic, the Swinhoe’s Pheasant (this is a male) The coast at the southern end of Taiwan, showing the beautiful forested hills
Taiwan Whistling Thrush Here is the bridge over the gorge from where the whisting-thrush was seen ...And here is the view from the above bridge, showing the Taiwan Whistling Thrush habitat Taiwan Blue Magpie