The Tsu Yun Shan Nature Reserve Area (pronounced, more accurately, Choo-rin Shan) was established in 1992 in Kaoshiung County. It covers an area of 6248.74 ha with elevations ranging from 400 to 2,772 meters (we were mostly around 2,000 m). With the help of dozens of chatters and many teachers, I was finally able to persuade my parents to let me take one school day off to go birding at this special place. This reserve has always had the reputation as being the very best birding spot in Taiwan, but it is also one of the most difficult place to access. With this rare opportunity to go there during the Chinese New Year holiday, I fought for this once-in-a-lifetime birding trip to this place, which I've looked forward to going to since the day I began watching birds (about two years ago). I felt a little guilty about the first time to miss Chinese New Year (well, some of it), but with all the birds I saw during this six-day period, I thought it was worthwhile. However, I swore to myself I'll never miss Chinese New Year again to go birding (at least I'll do my best, you know how birding overpowers you sometimes...).
We left Taipei at 8:00 in the morning on Chinese New Year's Day. Expecting holiday traffic, we watched some movies on the way down in our tour bus (True Lies, Speed, Lethal Weapon 2 and 3). When we arrived at Tainan in the afternoon, we headed to Tsengwen River Estuary, or Chiku, to view the world's largest wintering flock of BLACK-FACED SPOONBILLS. To our delight, we found them close to shore, only a couple hundred meters away, about eighty to a hundred of them. Even though this is not the entire wintering flock (about 200+ birds), this is nevertheless the largest flock of spoonbills I have ever seen. Also in the estuary were a couple hundred DUNLIN, GREENSHANKS, KENTISH and LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS, about a dozen EURASIAN CURLEWS and BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS, a single FAR EASTERN CURLEW, and five SLATY-BACKED GULLS. We tried to see if any of the spoonbills in the flock were Oriental White Spoonbills, but we could not find any. At night, I had a bit of excitement setting off firecrackers I bought (it's New Year's Day, remember?).
We woke up at 3:00 in the morning and headed for Tsu Yun Shan in the dark. The mountain road was so crude that we needed to hire a local truck to drive us up there. Along the rough road, the ride was so bumpy that you had to squat or stand instead of sit (which I did) or you would bruise your ass (which some people did). We even had to climb out a couple times to push the truck out of muddy ditches! We did not see any pheasants while driving up the mountain, which was unusual according to those who's been there, but the people sitting in the front saw a native species of forest cat and some of us saw a flock of YELLOW TITS singing loudly and an INDIAN BLACK EAGLE flying by.
It began raining when we arrived at the campsite. Since it was also foggy, we thought it would be an ideal condition to search for the Mikado Pheasant in the afternoon. (Forest pheasants tend to be most active early dawn and at dusk, especially if there was heavy mist or light rain). Early afternoon, I left to look for the pheasants. It was not as rainy as it was foggy, but I did not see much more than flocks of FORMOSAN YUHINAS, WHITE-EYED FULVETTAS, WHITE-THROATED FLYCATCHER-WARBLERS, and some ASHY WOOD PIGEONS. I was hoping to see the Mikado Pheasant and/or the Formosan Hill Partridge, but there were no signs of either. I did, however, find a black feather from a pheasant, probably a Mikado.
On our first morning in the nature reserve we crept slowly down the forest road we came on to try our luck with Swinhoe's Pheasants. The weather turned sunny as we descended towards the lower elevations. Halfway down, however, a forestry worker with two aborigines rode their motorcycles up the forest road. Well, he saw some pheasants, but ruined our morning pheasant hunt. We saw some other forest birds however. There were hundreds of WHITE-EYED FULVETTAS, RED-HEADED TITS, FORMOSAN YUHINAS and there also large flocks of WHITE-THROATED FLYCATCHER-WARBLERS, GRAY-THROATED MINIVETS, FORMOSAN FIRECRESTS, YELLOW TITS, and WHITE-EARED SIBIAS. In the undergrowth, there were plenty of STEERE'S LIOCICHLAS, RED-HEADED TREE BABBLERS, and even a beautiful flock of GRAY-SIDED LAUGHING THRUSHES. I was also delighted to meet a couple monkey families capering about the trees.
After eating lunch, I began on my way back uphill. Coming down 10 km was easy, but going back up the steep hill with an empty water bottle was exhausting. When I finally reached the campsite, a friendly flock of FORMOSAN BARWINGS greeted my by my tent. Despite how tired I was, I continued further up on the trail to the other side of the mountain, where I took a quick nap in the sun listening to "The Rock" on my diskman.
After dinner, we sat by the campfire and gazed at the stars. While we were doing so, a birder saw an owl land on the roof of the wooden shelter where we kept our food and supplies, but we could not locate it again after it flew off into the trees. Fireflies danced around us as we listened to the hoot of a faraway SPOTTED SCOPS OWL.
During our conversation, a birder reported seeing some illegal animal traps in the area. We suspect the aborigines whom we met earlier of setting the traps. When they left the mountain, the sacks on their bike were full of something, probably kills, while the sacks were empty when we first saw them.
I woke up in the morning to the howling of wind and the roar of vehicles passing our campsite. After breakfast, I chose to take a path that branched off from the main road. I hoped to see the Mikado Pheasant or Formosan Hill Partridge, as well as to explore deep into this long trail.
The birds we saw were basically the same species as the previous day, with the exception of some PYGMY and WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKERS. There were still huge flocks of FORMOSAN YUHINAS, WHITE-EYED FULVETTAS, RED-HEADED TITS, and WHITE-THROATED FLYCATCHER-WARBLERS mixed with smaller numbers of FORMOSAN BARWINGS, EURASIAN NUTHATCHES, WHITE-EARED SIBIAS, EURASIAN JAYS, GREEN-BACKED and YELLOW TITS, GRAY-THROATED MINIVETS, and FIRE-BREASTED FLOWERPECKERS. While walking along the small trail, we scared off quite a number of partridges, which could have either been the Formosan Hill Partridge or the regular Bamboo Partridge. I saw that at least two of the fleeing birds were BAMBOO PARTRIDGES, but the rest remain a mystery. Before returning to the campsite, I leaned against a tree and listened to some classical music while watching the drifting mist and the outlines of birds flitting among the trees.
While birding on this trail, we met another suspected hunter in his truck and three vans of tourist-photographers. We also saw numerous gun pellet shells littering the ground, indicating that hunting, though prohibited, was still going on, and the human impact on this area was still strong.
On our last full day in the reserve, I headed on the main road up to look for Mikado Pheasants. It was a foggy morning, like the first day we were here. It turned out that I did not see any pheasants again, only the same flocks of small birds plus some FORMOSAN LAUGHING THRUSHES, COLLARED BUSH ROBINS, VINACEOUS ROSEFINCHES, and a male ISLAND THRUSH. As far as I could tell, this trip has been the worst of the more than ten times this group's been here. I saw none of the birds I had hoped to see, like the Thicket Flycatcher, White-throated Laughing Thrush, Formosan Hill Partridge, or the Hodgson's Hawk Eagle, all life birds for me. None of the previous trips, only three days, saw NO pheasants; in fact, most of them saw LOTS of pheasants. On this trip, we saw more hunters, animal traps, gun pellet shells, and litter! I saw no signs of pheasants, no tracks, no calls, just a couple of feathers which might well have fallen from killed birds. Another birder saw a single-legged male Mikado Pheasant on Sunday; what could have broke the leg besides a trap? There used to be, they said, lots of flying squirrels around. Our four nights were silent, no flying squirrels or calling owls nearby. Some kind of a reserve! Two hunters in five days; just great!
This day was once again rainy-foggy in the morning, but turned out to be the best of the six days. We set off down the same path (the same as Sunday). We planned to meet the truck coming up as we bird our way down. Within a couple kilometers down, I startled a male MIKADO PHEASANT, which took off, flew across the road, and flew into the forest on the opposite side of the road. It was foggy and I did not get a clear view of it, but it was a close encounter, closer than the last time I saw it. Further down, I did not find any more pheasants on the road, but saw similar flocks of birds as previous days plus ten BROWN BULLFINCHES and heard some LARGE CUCKOO-SHRIKES. I even met a huge bird wave that consisted of 14 different kinds of birds! I saw a pair of INDIAN BLACK EAGLES circle low overhead, one calling loudly to the other; the best view I've ever had of the species. Also heard some hidden birds like FORMOSAN HILL PARTRIDGES and THICKET FLYCATCHERS (I tried pishing this one but it didn't work).
At exactly 11 km down from our campsite, I heard some noisy birdcalls coming from the forest below the road. I looked down over the edge of the road, and saw two white stripes moving along the forest floor. A skunk? No, impossible...oh man! It's a beautiful male SWINHOE'S PHEASANT! It looked at me with one eye and strolled on apathetically. It walked slowly along the forest bottom, giving me a long, clear look of its beautiful plumage and its two magnificent white tail feathers. Now THAT'S what I've been waiting to see!
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