Saturday, August 9, 2014

Taiwan: Pheasant Jungles (Part One)

Eileen and I decided to break our April 2013 return to Canada with a visit to Taiwan, a new destination for both of us.  We spent ten days there, and were both enchanted with the place - a combination of beautiful scenery and some of the friendliest and most helpful people on the planet.

We spent much of our time in and around Taipei.  Eileen, though, indulged me by arranging, through an old friend, several days of birding in the island's central mountains - a generous act, since she is not a birder herself (though she claims to enjoy watching birders, if not birds).

Our host and guide was Bob Du, a Taipei businessman who is also a very good (and very committed) bird photographer. His Flickr site is well worth visiting (you can see, among other things, photos of the birds we saw together that are far better than mine).

On the morning of April 14, Bob picked us up at our Taipei hotel and whisked us off, at high speed, southward along the west coast of the island and up into a range of beautifully-forested - and, apparently, still quite pristine, not something you necessarily expect in this part of the world - mountains. 

Our goal for our first few nights was the Dasyueshan National Forest. "Dasyueshan" means "Great Snow Mountain" – a name that I for one find suitably evocative. The forest is home to both of Taiwan's endemic pheasants, two of the most spectacular birds of this (or any other) island. I was astonished to find that they are - thanks to some local tricks - surprisingly easy to see.

The forests were lush, green, magnificent, and we had a good view of them right from the door of our cabin.

This is a mixed broadleaf-deciduous forest, with some spectacular conifers in its midst. 

For a temporary forest, the tree diversity is remarkably high. There are several maples, trees that reach their highest species richness in eastern Asia and Eastern North America, and are responsible for splendid fall colors the both regions have in common. I think this is one!

Taiwan boasts a wide range of conifers, some found nowhere else in the world.  There are 26 species on the island, sixteen of them unfortunately under threat.

The short, scale-like leaves on this tree suggest that it is one of the native cypresses, probably the endemic Taiwan Cypress (Chamaecyparis taiwanensis) or its close relative the Hinoki Cypress (C.obtusa).

The spear-shaped leaves and drooping branchlets on this tree would appear to make it a Taiwania (Taiwania cryptomerioides) (not, despite its name, an endemic species, but a spectacular tree that can grow to a very great size). Bear in mind, though, that I am not a botanist!

After we got ourselves settled in, Bob drove us to the upper reaches of the reserve for our first bit if serious birding.

Coal Tit (Periparus ater ptilosus)
Taiwan has a very interesting avifauna. It's position, as a large and mountainous island on the cusp of both the Palaearctic and Oriental faunal regions, means that its bird life includes both northern elements like this Coal Tit (Periparus ater ptilosus) and southeast Asian species such as laughingthrushes and barbets.

Taiwanese birders, and bird photographers, have their own way of seeing them. Hint: it involves mealworms. I was a bit startled at the idea of baiting in birds, but I suppose it is no worse in its way than playing tapes (which some birders object to anyway) or setting up a bird feeder. Anyway, here is Bob setting up his camera to record some beneficiaries of the technique...

...and here we are birding (and photographing) Taiwan style.

White-browed Robin (Luscinia indica formosana)
Not every bird in the area was tempted, of course. This White-browed Robin (Luscinia indica formosana) simply hopped across the road near us, not deigning to stop by. The Taiwanese race of this species has list the bright colours of continental birds - a not unusual phenomenon on islands.

White-whiskered Laughingthrush (Garrulax morrisonianus)
White-whiskered Laughingthrush (Garrulax morrisonianus)
White-whiskered Laughingthrush (Garrulax morrisonianus)
These birds, on the other hand, were more than willing to participate.

White-whiskered Laughingthrush (Garrulax morrisonianus)
White-whiskered Laughingthrush (Garrulax morrisonianus)
White-whiskered Laughingthrush (Garrulax morrisonianus)
They are White-whiskered Laughingthrushes (Garrulax morrisonianus), a common and widespread mountain endemic that has obviously become very much used to people in general and birders (hopefully bearing food) in particular.

 
Here's a bit of video. We saw laughingthrushes almost everywhere we went in the mountains, where they greeted us with all the enthusiasm of squirrels in a city park. 

Maritime Striped Squirrel (Tamiops maritimus maritimus)
Maritime Striped Squirrel (Tamiops maritimus maritimus)
Speaking of squirrels, this Maritime Striped Squirrel (Tamiops maritimus maritimus) was as eager to grab a mealworm or two as any bird. This, for North American readers, is about as close as Taiwan gets to having a chipmunk in its fauna.

Maritime Striped Squirrel (Tamiops maritimus maritimus)
Maritime Striped Squirrel (Tamiops maritimus maritimus)
In China this is a lowland species, but in Taiwan it is commonest between 2000 and 3000 metres above sea level. It has the peculiar habit of robbing nectar from a particular species of ginger (Alpinia kwangsiensis) by biting through the base of the flowers.

Squirrels and laughingthrushes, enjoyable as they are, were not our main reason for being here. The pièce de resistance awaited us further up the road - as did a whole gang of fellow photographers.

Attractive bait having been suitably distributed, we settled down to wait.  It was almost four PM - time for the daily arrival (you could, I was told, almost set your clock by it) of the local Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado), Taiwan's national bird.

Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado)
Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado)

Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado)
Here he is, right on time: a gorgeously-plumaged male.  What a magnificent creature!

Perny's Long-nosed Squirrel (Dremomys pernyi owstoni)
Perny's Long-nosed Squirrel (Dremomys pernyi owstoni)
Mind you, squirrels stopped by to get their share of the bounty.  This is Perny's Long-nosed Squirrel (Dremomys pernyi owstoni), a species I had previously seen on Mount Huangshan on the Chinese mainland.

Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado)
Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado)
Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado)
Mikado Pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado)
The Mikado Pheasant,  though, continued to seize the attention of the photographers (and mine, too, of course). Though it is still widespread in the highlands of Taiwan, its population is probably declining.  People still hunt them - even, apparently, within supposedly protected areas.  IUCN lists it as Near Threatened.  This bird, though, obviously felt (correctly, I hope) that he was safe, and appeared to have no objection to displaying himself to throngs of birders.  His female (or females), though, kept out of sight.

Eileen may not be a birder, but does enjoy watching birds that are (a) beautiful, (b) tame, and (c) easy to see.  As you can see from her expression, the Mikado Pheasant fit the bill on all counts.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sarawak: A Trail Near the Border

April 9, 2013, was the last full day of our post-CITES sojourn in Sarawak.  I spent most of it exploring a trail leading into the bush from a kampong near the Indonesian border south of Kuching, in the company of Hans Breuer and two visiting friends.  

Hans, of course, is a snake man, but the highlights on the trail (other than some magnificent trees and a fine stand of bamboo) proved to be not reptiles, but insects.

The plant life, of course, was interesting too, even if I couldn't identify much of it.  The cauliflorous (stem-growing) fruits are presumably some sort of fig.

Grey Pansy (Junonia atlites)
The trail proved particularly good for butterflies.  There were, of course, some everyday species, like the Grey Pansy  (Junonia atlites)…

Eliot's Bush Brown (Mycalesis patiana)
…or species I had seen before, including this little Mycalesis, which I believe to be Eliot's Bush Brown (Mycalesis patiana), though with this confusing genus I could easily be wrong.

Eliot's Bush Brown (Mycalesis patiana)
Eliot's Bush Brown (Mycalesis patiana)
Its underside is considerably more attractive than its upperside!

Red Harlequin (Paralaxita telesia)
A number of the butterflies were, nevertheless, novelties, at least to me.  One of them was this bright little creature, a Red Harlequin (Paralaxita telesia) - one of the comparatively few members of the largely neotropical metalmark family (Riodinidae) in Southeast Asia.

Dark Jungle Glory (Thaumantis noureddin)
Dark Jungle Glory (Thaumantis noureddin)
It took me a very long time to work out the identity of this striking butterfly.  It is, I now believe, a Dark Jungle Glory (Thaumantis noureddin). According to IUCN this butterfly is common in secondary forest, particularly near bamboo, so it should be no surprise that I found it here. It is a Sundaland specialty, restricted to Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra and Borneo.

Sometimes the butterflies came looking for us. A sweat-impregnated backpack, presumably loaded with mineral salts, became an irresistible draw for these two. 

Cruiser (Vindula dejone)
One of our visitors was a Malay Cruiser (Vindula dejone), a common butterfly I have seen many times before. 

Wavy Maplet ( Chersonesia rahira)
Wavy Maplet ( Chersonesia rahira)
I was much less familiar with the other, a Wavy Maplet ( Chersonesia rahira). 

Malayan Oakleaf (Kallima limborgii)
I was bringing up the rear as we headed down the trail, and was the only one to see this Malayan Oakleaf (Kallima limborgii) flutter across the trail, land on the trunk in its usual head-down posture and immediately transform itself into a nearly perfect copy if a dead, decaying leaf. I called my companions back for a look, and they were duly impressed with my spotting ability!  In truth these butterflies, probably the most perfect dead-leaf mimics in the world, are almost impossible to find unless you see them fly. 

Argiope amoena
This fine orb-weaver, presumably Argiope amoena, can serve as a nice intermission piece as we segue from butterflies to dragonflies. 

Unfortunately, I can't tell you what this dragonfly is. I suspect that it is an older female Orthetrumprobably Orthetrum glaucum as it seems to be acquiring a bit of blue pruinosity on the thorax, but this is where I have to yield the floor to the real dragonfly experts (should any of them be reading this). It's frayed and battered wings would seem to suggest that it is near the end of its life. 

Tyriobapta torrida
Tyriobapta torrida
I'm on much firmer ground here. You can't mistake the distinctive male of Tyriobapta torrida, the "Treehugger", for much. 

Heliocypha biseriata
Heliocypha biseriata
At the bottom of the trail we reached a shallow stream, complete with a few damselflies. This one is Heliocypha biseriata (barring any taxonomic revisions, long overdue according to Rory Dow, of Heliocypha damselflies from Sarawak). 

Heliocypha biseriata
Heliocypha and its relatives are known as "jewels", and it's not difficult to see why. 

Podolestes orientalis
I first took this damselfly for one of the Lestidae, or spreadwings (based on its open-winged posture as much as anything else), and got rather excited about it because his family is very little-known in Sarawak. However, when I sent the photo to Rory Dow, he identified it as Podolestes orientalis.  

Podolestes orientalis
This damselfly was once included (with a good many others) as a member of a different but related family, the Megapodagrionidae or flatwings, but a recent molecular study has shown that the Megapodagrionidae consists of several groups that are not, in fact, closely related to each other. Podolestes is now included in a large new family, the Argiolestidae, some distance removed from the "true" flatwings (now containing only three genera from South America) and, indeed, the spreadwings.  P. orientalis is known to favour muddy forest streams (a pretty good description of where I found this one), and is another Sundaland endemic confined to Sumatra, Borneo, the Malay Peninsula and, locally, Singapore. 

Our walk, pleasant as it was, had an unforeseen consequence.  As we worked our way back uphill along the trail to the car, I found myself overcome by the heat and had to lie down for a few minutes.  Unfortunately, I picked the wrong spot - something I didn't learn until I had suffered over three months of truly miserable gastrointestinal problems.  It seems that I had chosen a patch of soil inhabited by a colony of larval hookworms, and the wretched little things decided I was just the host I had been waiting for.  Moral: don't do what I did.

Fortunately, I didn't know what I was in for, and proceeded to enjoy the rest of the day - including a stop at a popular rock-climbing cliff near Bau on our way back to Kuching.

Here, unaware of my unwelcome guests, I enjoyed the sight of pitcher plants scrambling over the rocks above us. They were, I think, Nepenthes gracilis and not the rare N. northiana, which is endemic to the limestone cliffs here but has much larger and more spectacular pitchers.  

I had no suspicion of anything until the next day, when I developed an uncomfortable rash on my back (as I know now, that was the larvae burrowing into my skin and heading for my gut).  The real force of their presence didn't hit me until I got back to Canada a couple of weeks later - leaving me, fortunately, free to enjoy our vacation stop on the way home: ten days on the island of Taiwan, a place Eileen and I had never visited.  I'll tell you all about it in my next posts.