Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Taiwan: Xitou

The Sun Link Sea Resort near Xitou, in central Taiwan, is a sort of ecological theme park - not exactly what you might expect for a bit of pristine mountain birding, but popular, certainly attractive and - as it proved - rewarding for birders.  Despite its name, by the way, it is nowhere near the sea, but sits at about 1600 m elevation.  It made a good final stop on Bob Du's itinerary, and Eileen and I both enjoyed it.  In my last entry I introduced you to a couple of the resort's streamside birds; here are some of the others, and a bit of the place itself.

The river where I encountered the redstart and whistling thrush (described in my last post) was just inside the gates of the reserve, so it was a good place for a morning stroll among the trees lining its banks. It was a good place for birds, too: among other things, this was the only place I saw the endemic Taiwan Barwing (Actinodura morrisoniana). I did get one ghastly photograph of it, but as it is about as instructive as a bunch of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup I am not going to post it here.

Instead, we can have a look at the local plant life (in the hope that one of my botanically inclined readers can name some of this stuff). I suspect that this is a sort of ivy.

These are ferns. Details, anyone?

This appears to be Grape-leaved Anemone (Anemone vitifolia), a plant that ranges from the Himalayas to Taiwan and the Philippines.  It's a widely-cultivated plant, so I can't be sure if this is a genuinely wild one or a garden escapee.

I ought to know what this is, but I confess I don't.  Help!

I do know what these are.  Rhododendrons are among my favourite flowers, and it was a pleasure to encounter these lovely plants at blossom time. This appears to be the Taiwan Alpine Rhododendron (Rhododendron pseudochrysanthum).

Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius taivanus)
On to the birds: this inquisitive bird belongs to the local race of Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius taivanus). These birds vary tremendously across their enormous range in temperate Europe and Asia, so seeing this one was almost like encountering a new species (and at the rate birds are being split these days, maybe it will end up as one). It was certainly more approachable than jays I have seen elsewhere (birds I usually see as they vanish into the treetops).

Rufous Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis orii)
I met this Rufous Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis orii) marching determinedly along the pavement, obviously with some serious and important goal in mind.

Little flocks of Grey-cheeked Fulvettas (Alcippe morrisonia morrisonia), often accompanied by other birds (the barwing was among them, but was far less cooperative), flitted through the treeetops at eye level.  I have written in an earlier post about the taxonomic muddle fulvettas now find themselves in.  This one, unlike the Taiwan Fulvetta (Fulvetta formosana) I encountered at Hehuanshan, keeps its original generic name and its place in the Laughingthrush family (Leiothrichidae).  The Taiwan form is one of the more strongly marked of eight or nine subspecies, many of which may soon be split off as species of their own.. This, then, may be another endemic species in the making.

Taiwan Sibia (Heterophasia auricularis)
Taiwan Sibia (Heterophasia auricularis)
A few Taiwan Sibias (Heterophasia auricularis) were hanging out with the fulvettas, which meant from a birding point of view that the birds were at eye level - others I had seen along the way were usually overhead.

Taiwan Sibia (Heterophasia auricularis)
This is one of the more subtly attractive of the Taiwanese endemics - certainly unlike the large,  magpie-like Long-tailed Sibias (Heterophasia picaoides) that are so common at Fraser's Hill in West Malaysia.

After birding along the river, we boarded a bus that took us to a lovely garden area inside the park.

 
The windmill might be a bit of an over-touristy touch, but the area was attractive all the same.

Here, Eileen could enjoy the flowers while Bob and I checked out the bird life.
Mind you, I'm not averse to flowers myself, especially when they are as lovely as these rhododendrons.

This rather barren vine arbor (it was still early spring, after all) was a good place to get close views of one of the flightier of the local endemics...

Taiwan Yuhina (Yuhina brunneiceps)
Taiwan Yuhina (Yuhina brunneiceps)
...the Taiwan Yuhina (Yuhina brunneiceps), a bird constantly in the move, in little flocks rather like tits or, more to the point, white-eyes - molecular studies have shown that yuhinas and white-eyes, once placed in separate families, are close relatives.

Taiwan Yuhina (Yuhina brunneiceps)
Taiwan Yuhina (Yuhina brunneiceps)
Taiwan Yuhina (Yuhina brunneiceps)
They take nectar and berries as well as insects, so a flower garden is a good place to find them - but then, this must be one of the commonest of Taiwan's endemic birds.  It was nice to have a few of them hold still for a bit!

White-tailed Robin (Myiomela leucura montium)
White-tailed Robin (Myiomela leucura montium)
White-tailed Robin (Myiomela leucura montium)
A shady nook off to one side of the garden was lorded over by a male White-tailed Robin (Myiomela leucura montium), another bird whose full colours were only revealed under a flash.  This is usually a fairly shy species, but this one - presumably guarding a territory - was unusually bold, posing repeatedly in the open and flashing his white tail-patches at us.

Rufous-capped Babbler (Stachyris ruficeps praecognita)
Rufous-capped Babbler (Stachyris ruficeps praecognita)
A stroll down a trail away from the garden turned up this inquisitive Rufous-capped Babbler (Stachyris ruficeps praecognita)...

...and a brief look at this Brown-flanked Bush Warbler (Cettia fortipes robustipes) (yes, responding to a tape).  The Taiwan form has sometimes been elevated to species rank, in which case it should be called Swinhoe's Bush Warbler.  That's because there already is a Taiwan Bush Warbler (Locustella alishanensis), an extreme skulker that was actually calling at the same place, at very close range, but afforded me only the briefest and most unsatisfactory of glimpses (if that - I'm still not 100% convinced I even saw it).

From Xitou we made our way back towards Taipei, with one stop in a patch of dense hill forest that is home to the elusive Taiwan Wren-Babbler (Pnoepyga formosana).  We heard two birds, but despite the usual mealworms on offer they declined to show themselves.  Wren-babblers, by the way, should now be called "cupwings", on the grounds that they aren't babblers but members of their own, quite distinct family, Pnoepygidae.

Steere's Liocichla (Liocichla steerii)
Steere's Liocichla (Liocichla steerii)
Steere's Liocichla (Liocichla steerii)
Steere's Liocichla (Liocichla steerii)
There were compensations for the non-appearance by the wren-babblers.  Steere's Liocichla (Liocichla steerei) is probably my favourite of the Taiwan endemics - a charming combination of beauty and personality.  And  they did appreciate the mealworms (though I'm not sure I would recommend baiting as a regular birding technique - the Malaysian Nature Society, for example, is dead against it, but it seems to be the norm in Taiwan).

Snowy-browed Flycatcher (Ficedula hyperythra innexa)
Snowy-browed Flycatcher (Ficedula hyperythra innexa)
Snowy-browed Flycatcher (Ficedula hyperythra innexa)
An even more eager customer, and our last new bird for our trip to the mountains, was this Snowy-browed Flycatcher (Ficedula hyperythra innexa).   At first I didn't recognize it.  I have seen these birds, or their near relations, on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, and they appeared quite different; for one thing, they didn't spend much time on the ground.  Nobody seems to think this Taiwanese should be a separate species; I wonder why not?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Taiwan: Streamside Birds

I have long had a particular fascination with birds that live along rushing streams (or, these days, that hang around the dams we build to block them).  Life along a torrent poses challenges for birds - in particular, the roar of the waters competes with any sounds the birds make, so signalling others of their kind by voice can be tricky. As a consequence a number of streamside birds have developed combinations of shrill, high-pitched calls and, often, flash-pattern, black-and-white plumage that they show off with tail-wagging or bobbing displays and other stylized movements - with the additional value that this combination of pattern and display can help to conceal the bird from a predator against a background of foam-flecked water. 

I am particularly fond of one group of stream birds, the graceful and elegant forktails (Enicurus). Taiwan is home to one I had never seen, so en route to our next stop, Xitou, we stopped off to have a look for it at a spot where Bob had previously photographed a pair. They weren't there when we arrived, but with a bit of patience and some help from a curious passerby we soon located them.

Little Forktail (Enicurus scouleri)
Little Forktail (Enicurus scouleri)
Little Forktail (Enicurus scouleri)
The Little Forktail (Enicurus scouleri) is the smallest and most compact of the forktails, and if it lacks the slim elegance of some of its cousins it is a charming bird nevertheless. You can see how it's striking pattern breaks up the bird's outline when viewed against the background of the light-dappled water. Notice the pink feet!  On the Asian mainland, this forktail is a bird of high elevations, above the range of the other species; here in Taiwan, where it is the only one, it can be found - as we found it - lower down. 

Forktails are members of the chat/old world flycatcher family. The same family contains other Asian stream birds, and we caught up with two of them once we arrived at Xitou. 

Plumbeous Redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa affinis)
Plumbeous Redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa affinis)
One was an old acquaintance: the Plumbeous Redstart (Phoenicurus fuliginosus affinis), a bird I first met many years ago in the Himalayas and have seen again in mainland China. This is an adult male.  This bird, with a close cousin from Luzon, is usually placed in a separate genus, Rhyacornis, but a recent molecular study of the chats shows that it belongs with the other redstarts – something, by the way, that I proposed myself in a paper that appeared back in 1979.  

Plumbeous Redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa affinis)
It has the distinctive habit of constantly fanning and depressing its tail, something that differentiates it from its cousins but, in my opinion, is simply another example of a streamside bird flash display.

Plumbeous Redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa affinis)
The female Plumbeous Redstart is a very interesting bird. It's plumage is quite different from that of other female redstarts, but looks very much like that of a juvenile. In my old paper I proposed that this was a case of a species that had lost sexual dimorphism (in its closest relatives the male and female are alike), but reacquired it by retaining a modified, greyed out version of its juvenile plumage into adulthood in the female birds.  The female, by the way, has white tail patches that it reveals when it fans its tail feathers.

Taiwan Whistling Thrush (Myiophoneus insularis)
The other stream bird at Xitou was the Taiwan Whistling Thrush (Myiophoneus insularis), an endemic species.  While ornithologists have concluded that the chats (such as the forktails and the water redstarts) are more closely related to flycatchers than to thrushes, the idea that these big, robust birds are not thrushes seems counter-intuitive.  Nonetheless, the molecular study I referred to earlier shows not only that they are oversize chats, but - even more surprisingly - that their closest relatives are the forktails.  Other than their preference for running water, the two groups of birds seem about as different as can be - but that's what the genes tell us.  Whistling thrushes lack the flash-pattern plumage of forktails, and can seem downright dull - but perhaps they have another way of drawing attention to themselves.

Taiwan Whistling Thrush (Myiophoneus insularis)
Taiwan Whistling Thrush (Myiophoneus insularis)
Taiwan Whistling Thrush (Myiophoneus insularis)
These photos seem to show a completely different bird from the dull-coloured blackish creature above - but it's the same individual, this time taken with a flash.  The result brings out striking structural blues that, I suspect, birders rarely see.

Taiwan Whistling Thrush (Myiophoneus insularis)
Are these shots unnatural?  Or are they showing us something of the brilliance that other whistling thrushes, who see further into the ultraviolet than we do and have plumage patches of pure ultraviolet that we cannot see at all, see when they encounter one of their own kind? Is that what gives this bird its "flash"?