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.