Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Winter time is birding time (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan, first-time visitors are sure to notice as soon as they leave the airport, is crowded with buildings and people. But what they may not realize is the island also has a vast and varied bird population. Spend time in any city park and you’ll spot flocks of Eurasian Tree Sparrows. Throughout the rural lowlands, Light-vented Bulbuls are a common sight.

A list compiled in 2011 by the Chinese Wild Bird Federation, Taiwan’s leading birding group, gives a clear picture of the country’s avian treasures. If vagrants (birds who’ve lost their way, or been blown off course by typhoons) and exotics accidentally introduced are counted, a total of 589 species were spotted in Taiwan or its outlying islands. By comparison, the number for South Korea, three times the size of Taiwan, is 492. Moreover, Taiwan’s total includes 22 species which are endemic, meaning they can be found nowhere else on Earth, as well as 61 endemic sub-species. South Korea has no endemics.

Many of Taiwan’s most attractive birds are temporary residents who’ve followed the East Asian-Australasian Flyway to the island. Flyways, as every ornithologist knows, are the routes taken by birds as they migrate when the seasons change. As winter approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, millions of birds head south from Russia, Alaska, Korea or Japan in search of warmer weather and plentiful food. Some go as far as New Zealand; others find Taiwan to their liking, and stay on the island for the duration of the cool season.

One bird which falls into the second category is the Black-faced Spoonbill. Even though it’s a migrant, it’s become one of Taiwan’s star avians. This is due in part to its handsome appearance and the endearing way in which it feeds, sweeping its over-sized beak through swallow water in search of small fish and other tasty morsels.

There’s another reason why Taiwanese people take such great interest in this bird. It’s an endangered species, there being no more than 2,000 Black-faced Spoonbills in the world. Each year, between mid-September and May, around three-quarters of the global population hunkers down in Taiwan’s Southwest Coast National Scenic Area (SWCNSA, 雲嘉南濱海國家風景區).

Eager to see spoonbills and other feathered beauties, Travel in Taiwan set off one winter’s morning for the scenic area. Our first stop was Aogu Wetland Forest Park (鰲鼓溼地森林園區) in the northwestern corner of Chiayi County. An area of reclaimed land intended for agriculture, parts of Aogu became swampy as long ago as the 1970s, while others were recently afforested. This combination of wet and dry land is an ideal habitat for waterbirds and the crabs, shrimp and other creatures they feed on. The park, which was established in 2009, covers 664 hectares. Bilingual signs and maps help first-time visitors find their way around.

Some 228 bird species have been recorded in Aogu, with winter and early spring being the best time of year for “listing” - adding species to the list every serious birder keeps of all the avian species he has identified with absolute certainty during his lifetime. We headed straight to the Northern Levee Wetland. There, in less than two hours, we notched up more than 20 species, including: three of Taiwan’s five egret species; a Great Cormorant; at least one Black Coot; several Spotbill Ducks, Green-winged Teals, and Northern Shovellers; more than one Northern Pintail, as well as a solitary Sacred Ibis.

A personal highlight occurred while we were crouched behind a blind (the park has many such screens, designed so humans can view birds without scaring them off). A Kentish Plover dashed daintily across the mud just a few meters from where we were hiding.

We could appreciate the plover and many other birds with nothing more than the naked eye. But to make the most of Aogu’s wildlife, you’ll need decent binoculars, or even better a spotting scope (a tripod-mounted telescope offering greater magnification). For the birdwatching sites mentioned in this article, you’ll also need your own wheels, or someone able to both drive and guide you around.

Our guides - a SWCNSA staffer and one of the scenic area’s most knowledgeable volunteers - went on to point out two impressive sights. One was a cluster of 100 or so Western Curlews. These large, mottled gray-brown waders are notable for long, thin beaks which curve downward. Further away, a band of Pied Avocets huddled together, all facing away from the wind. Also waders, they have dove-shaped black-and-white bodies and bills which turn up.

We then spotted a single Black-faced Spoonbill, which I took as a good omen for the rest of the day. The fact that we saw just one of these birds in Aogu made sense a few days later, when I read in the newspaper that only a small proportion of the 1,399 Black-faced Spoonbills counted in Taiwan on Christmas Eve 2011 were in Chiayi County. The vast majority were in Tainan, which is where we were heading later in the day.

The town of Budai is synonymous with seafood. On weekends thousands of outsiders come here to buy or eat fish, oysters and other delectables pulled from the ocean. It’s also a good place for birdwatching, if you know where to go.

Our guides drove us through a flat landscape of abandoned salt pans and fish farms near Budai’s junior high school, explaining that Common Mynas are year-round residents, while Saunders’ Gulls are frequent wintertime visitors.

We saw a few Black-faced Spoonbills, but far more arresting was the dense crowd of Black-winged Stilts. I tried to count them, and reckoned there were around 300. Before I’d seen plenty of these pink-legged birds in fallow rice fields near my home, but never in such numbers.

Birdwatching and eating seafood aren’t the only reasons to spend time on Taiwan’s southwestern coast. Until just a few years ago, the region’s abundant sunshine was used to produce salt, and the SWCNSA has preserved remnants of this ancient industry.

At Jingzaijiao (井仔腳), a windswept hamlet in Tainan’s Beimen District (北門區) just off Expressway 61 (a north-south road that’s also handy for reaching just about any part of the scenic area), we toured the 190-year-old tile-bottomed evaporation ponds. A team of artists was working hard, sculpting salt into a dragon in honor of the Year of the Dragon, which began on January 23, 2012. The ponds are still used to produce small quantities of salt for educational purposes, and an information board explains the process in detail.

Then it was back in the van to resume our search for spoonbills. We knew we were saving the most promising location for last. Tainan’s Qigu District (七股區), like Jingzaijiao and Budai, has been shaped by the salt-making and aquaculture. Plans to develop heavy industry met with fierce opposition when the likely impact on the district’s waterbird population became known. In 1998, the Black-faced Spoonbill Conservation Association was established.

In recent years, eco-tourism has taken off, and the 300-hectare Black-faced Spoonbill Reserve (黑面琵鷺保護區) is now one of the focal points of Taijiang National Park.

If you don’t know much about the birds, I recommend spending at least half an hour reading about them at the Black-faced Spoonbill Ecology Exhibition Hall (黑面琵鷺生態展示館, closed Mondays), which you’ll pass as you approach the reserve from the main road. A sign at the entrance displays the number of spoonbills seen in the reserve that day (289 on the day we visited).

Inside the hall there’s an abundance of information. You’ll learn how Black-faced Spoonbills differ from the world’s five other spoonbill species, and how they change physically as they mature. Surprisingly, they start out with black feathers and brown bills. Some don’t become fully white until their sixth years. During the breeding season, both male and female spoonbills sport golden feathers on their breasts. They neither swim nor dive because the webbing on their feet is too small.

The mounted spoonbills you’ll see inside aren’t models. Whenever researchers come across a dead bird, they study it carefully to determine the cause of death. A few then benefit from the skills of a taxidermist and enjoy a second life, as it were, inside the exhibition hall.

A short drive seaward brought us to the first birdwatching platform. During spoonbill season, national park volunteers are usually on hand to help visitors spot the spoonbills, which may be a kilometer or two away in the middle of the lagoon. With their help, we got our spotting scopes correctly positioned and could see what we’d come for: A flock of Black-faced Spoonbills, huddled together, waiting for night to fall so they could begin feeding. The image was indistinct due to the distance, and a little blurry because sharp winds shook the scope.

On the one hand I felt satisfied: Mission Accomplished! On the other, I can now understand why birders return to the same spot again and again, even when the weather is unfavorable, just so they can get a better look at a particular species. Over the past few years I’ve dabbled in birdwatching, and know why so many people become hooked on this healthy, inexpensive and utterly relaxing hobby. In fact, I’m already planning my next trip to the coast, binoculars and field guide book in hand...

This article appears in the March-April issue of Travel in Taiwan magazine. I've posted the whole text here as it doesn't seem to be on the Internet, and birdwatchers may find it useful.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Taiwan's strange and beautiful place names (

Years ago, while backpacking around India, I was disappointed when I found out that the exotic-sounding name of the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, meant merely "Northern Province." In Taiwan, my experience has been just the opposite. My fascination with place names - which were at first difficult to pronounce yet meaningless - has grown as my Chinese reading skills have improved.

I quickly learned that the names of three of Taiwan's four main cities - Taipei, Taichung and Tainan - describe their positions on the island. Taipei (台北, Táiběi in hanyu pinyin) means "north Taiwan," Taichung (台中, Táizhōng) is "central Taiwan" while Tainan (台南) means "south Taiwan."

Gazing at maps of the island, I began to wonder why Nangang (南港, a district of Taipei City whose name means "south harbor") is in Taiwan's north, while Beigang (北港, "north harbor") is 200km south-southwest of the capital. Later, I came across an explanation: Centuries ago, Beigang was known to its aboriginal inhabitants as Ponkan. Han Chinese wrote this down using the characters 笨港; pronounced Bèngǎng in Mandarin, they mean "stupid harbor." When Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895, they thought the name was unsuitable, and replaced the character for "stupid" with the one meaning "north."

Many other towns and districts were renamed during Japanese rule, which lasted until 1945. Kaohsiung (高雄) was called Takau (打狗, often spelled Takao and occasionally Dagou) until the colonial authorities decided in 1920 that the written form – the two Chinese characters mean "beat the dog" - was unworthy of a rapidly-developing center of industry and shipping...

The complete article has just appeared on this website. The photo here show Guanyinshan, a mountain in New Taipei City's Bali District named after Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

From Lakeside to Seaside - Cycling through Kaohsiung (Travel in Taiwan)

The cleaning-and-greening of Kaohsiung has been one of Taiwan's great success stories of the past 20 years. Formerly a bastion of steel-making, shipbuilding, and other heavy industries, this city has leapt up the livability rankings thanks to sterling environmental protection efforts and major investments in public-transportation, sporting, and recreational facilities.

Cycling from one side of the urban core to the other no longer means enduring exhaust fumes and inconsiderate drivers. Thanks to an ever-growing network of bike trails (501km as of late 2011), pedal-power has become the best way to explore a city which, for all its skyscrapers and malls, has preserved a good amount of its fascinating past.

Following the merger of Kaohsiung City and Kaohsiung County in late 2010, the municipality now stretches all the way from the ocean to the southern slopes of Yushan (Jade Mountain), Taiwan's highest mountain. Some districts of greater Kaohsiung – rural Meinong, for example – are worthwhile cycling destinations in their own right. However, for this article Travel in Taiwan will stay in the urban core and tackle some of the routes described on the city government's informative and multilingual website Kaohsiung Travel Online.

Starting from Lotus Pond in Zuoying District, we pedaled southward along Love River, all the way to the True Love Ferry Pier – a distance of 31.2km – and then on to the Former British Consular Residence, a 132-year-old landmark that overlooks the mouth of Kaohsiung's busy harbor. The bicycles we used were rented from a station along Kaohsiung City Government's C-Bike network.

Lotus Pond has been drawing tourists for decades, and arriving on a typical winter morning – which in south Taiwan means gentle sunshine and comfortable temperatures – it wasn't hard to see why. This 42-hectare body of water is perfectly complemented by nearby hills, but it's the surrounding religious architecture which makes it truly special. If a criticism can be made, it's that there aren't many lotuses in Lotus Pond!

After renting our bikes at the rental station on the eastern shore, we headed to the pond’s northern end to visit the Confucius Temple. It's said to be the largest Confucian shrine in Taiwan, and if you have a particular interest in the sage and his disciples, you'll learn a lot from the information panels here.

Heading south along the western shore, we made Yuandi Temple our next stop. But instead of going inside, we headed out along the nearby pier toward Lotus Pond's most striking landmark, a 22m-high statue of the Lord of the North Pole. He's believed to take a special interest in the well-being of butchers, sailors, and children, and to keep his followers safe from fire.

In the modest shrine directly beneath the base, we found the snake and turtle icons which symbolize the lord's faithful servants. The former is especially lifelike; it's sometimes mistaken by foreign visitors for a living serpent, perhaps because it's kept in a glass case beside which worshipers leave real eggs as offerings...

To read the remaining two thirds of this article, go here. It's also in the March/April 2012 issue of Travel in Taiwan, a free magazine you can pick up at major hotels, tourist information offices and airports in the ROC. The photo above, which comes courtesy of the magazine, shows me on the left, along with Sunny Su, the magazine's managing editor.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Collector: Paul Overmaat and his maps (Taiwan Review)

When the National Museum of Taiwan History (NMTH) was formally opened in Tainan City, southern Taiwan on October 29, 2011, one of the guests of honor was a 61-year-old Dutchman, Paul J. J. Overmaat.

Overmaat is not a professional scholar of Taiwan’s history, but rather a businessman who spends up to eight months each year outside Taiwan. By his own admission, his grasp of Mandarin Chinese is very poor, and he cannot speak a word of Taiwanese. Yet he has won the respect and friendship of several eminent academics thanks to his passion for collecting Western maps, illustrations and books that relate to Taiwan.

“He has helped the Taiwanese to collect a vast number of precious non-Chinese books and maps about their own history. As illustrative materials, these objects are indeed of priceless value to almost all monographs and books written about Taiwan’s history,” says J. Leonard Blussé, author of several books about East Asia and a professor emeritus of the Institute of History at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

“Every time I am in Taiwan I try to visit him in order to exchange views on his hobby,” Blussé says. “Overmaat has always kept in mind that his collection should serve the public interest, but he will certainly not pay any price for the objects that are offered for sale, as second hand book- and map-sellers have found out,” Blussé says of Overmaat’s business acumen.

Of the 50,000-plus artifacts in the NMTH’s collection, 339 came from Overmaat. Among the items from the Dutchman are 155 maps and 88 books, with most of the remainder being paintings, photographs and other images. 

According to NMTH assistant curator Shih Wen-cheng (石文誠), the value of Overmaat’s collection stems from its focus “on Western historical objects that were written, painted or produced during the 16th to early 20th centuries. These historical resources show different perspectives compared with traditional Chinese historical resources. They help us understand Taiwan’s history and the lifestyles of Taiwanese people in the early days. We have incorporated these Western resources into our exhibitions and publications to help the public better understand Taiwan’s history.”

A stroke of good fortune first sent Overmaat to Asia, and work brought him to Taiwan...

To read the rest of the article, pick up the March issue of Taiwan Review, or go here.