Birding in Taiwan







Taiwan Journal of May 9, 2003, Vol. XX, No. 18, entitled “Bird-lover from Canada praises Taiwan’s beauty,“

Community Heroes: Reflections of Taiwan


Dr. Robert W. Butler


I live on the west coast of Canada where my home office overlooks the snow capped Golden Ears mountains of Garibaldi Park and near to where the Fraser River glides into the Pacific Ocean. In the evening, the mountains glow like gold and the river reflects cobalt blue in the setting sun. It is difficult for me to envision a more serene place to live, that is, until I visited Taiwan. I was struck by this fact during a morning visit to a viewpoint overlooking Jade Mountain.


I had come to the mountaintop with Simon Liao and ten friends with the hope of catching a glimpse of a Mikado pheasant. While we stood near the mountain ridge overlooking the verdant green valley below, I marvelled that on this island of nearly 23 million, all I could hear was the song of birds. The density of people in Taiwan is about 195 times greater than in Canada. And yet, on this day, I was alone with the birds. This experience gave me hope that in our crowded world, there can still be room for birds.


I spent the last week of March with a small team of Canadian and Taiwanese birdwatchers exploring the beautiful island of Taiwan under the expert leadership of Simon Liao and Tan De Wu. We had been invited to see a cross section of Taiwanese birds and to share our impressions with government officials and non-government organizations. In our week-long journey, we criss-crossed the country from seashore to mountain top. Along the way, we tallied about 140 species of birds, including 13 of your 15 endemic birds. As the days went by, I became increasingly captivated by the island’s beauty, rich biological diversity, culture, and friendliness of the people. I found myself longing to find a few moments to capture the moment with my watercolour paints stowed in my backpack.


Once I got used to the beauty of Taiwan, I began to see firsthand how the diversity of life was being protected. Conservation works well when individuals get involved to save birds in their neighbourhoods. I call these people my Community Heroes. Each one works at a local level to ensure that places are saved where people can enjoy wildlife. Together, the communities become part of a larger story that ensures the survival of species. I met many heroes in Taiwan from the enthusiastic students on Pagua Mountain, to the Wild Bird Federation regional presidents and volunteers at Tseng-wen estuary. Among all the special memories I carry from Taiwan, two are most vivid.


We had arrived at the mountain research station at MeiPhong late in the day. Our plan was to spend the following morning searching for Swinhoe’s Pheasant. The sky was overcast and the air was cool. I awoke the following morning with the sound of rain deluging outside the station. Nevertheless, the hardy group chose to go on a search for the pheasants in the downpour. We set off along a mountain track with low expectations. It is in times like this that one needs to re-focus on the beauty of the surroundings. Mist was rising from the valley floor and flowing through the forest. The patter of rain on my umbrella was thunderous at times. Through it all, small flocks of tits sought out a meal of insects in the shrubs and laughing thrushes skulked unperturbed along the ground.


We had walked about two kilometers in the rain and everyone was feeling the dampness seeping into our clothing. We consoled ourselves that the day had not been lost – we had seen some interesting birds and dramatic forest. Without notice, I heard a whir of wings as two male Swinhoe’s pheasants skimmed over the treetops intent on landing right before us. They startled and turned away in a wide arc to fly off down the valley. Their white and navy blue backs and red faces were momentarily etched against the rising mist on the distant mount slope. We all cheered in excitement. “Ecstasy all round” I scribbled in my notebook.


Three days later, we found ourselves driving toward the Tseng-wen estuary where several hundred black-faced spoonbills reside for the winter. The day had already been filled with activity by the time we arrived at the parking lot. As I strode toward the viewing platforms, a buzz of activity arose from people sporting birding vests, binoculars and cameras. I moved toward the end of the viewing platform to look out on to the mudflat. Now I suppose I might be unusual in my enjoyment of mudflats but I find these habitats very interesting for the abundance of living creatures they support. I have spent many pleasant days slopping about in mud to conduct research on shorebirds. Mudflats are the source of food for many millions of migrant shorebirds that wing across hemispheres each year on their migratory journeys. Sandpipers, plovers, godwits, and many other shorebirds require mudflats to provide them with invertebrate food that will fuel these remarkable migratory flights.


Over 150 spoonbills stood in the shallows a few hundred meters away from us. A few preened their feathers but most slept the day away. I felt a sense of immense gratitude that the Tseng-wen estuary had been secured for these and other birds. Suddenly I was aware that a wave of children had swept up the walkway and on to the viewing platform. Laughter and excitement overtook the viewing area. I was thrilled to see such enthusiastic support for the birds.  Many of the world’s prominent ecologists and conservationists can trace their careers back to a moment such as this when they first began to watch birds. I came under the spell of birdwatching when I was about 15 years old. I began to identify birds in my parents’ garden, and later moved to nearby parks and bird sanctuaries eventually seeking out in new places in the world. Two years later, I began to wonder about birds and sought answers to why birds behaved the way they did. My curiosity led me into a career as an ornithologist and professor. But deep inside, I am still a naturalist who thrills at the return of migrating birds each spring. If I had one dream that could come true, it would be the establishment of a network of outdoor classrooms in the most biologically rich regions of the world where young and old could learn about nature. The network would circle the world so that young people could travel to distant lands to study nature alongside the best scientists and to mingle with people of different cultures.   


We left Taiwan with a sense of exhilaration and hope. As Legislator Madam Chou said in her welcoming address at Pagua Mountain, we take with us a shared theme of peace and nature.


Today, I am at home in Canada. My days are filled with writing research proposals, advising university students, conducting interviews, planning conferences, and responding to requests from around the world on birds and conservation. I have less time now to watch birds than when I was younger but I can rely on a treasure chest of memories to bring a smile to my face. Taiwan is now one of those vivid memories. This afternoon, I saw the first yellow-rumped warbler of the year flitting near my office, and heard hummingbirds in the shrubs. I spotted a flock of snow geese over farmfields during my drive to the office. They will leave soon for their nesting grounds in Siberia. It is the migrations of birds that remind me that ecosystems thousands of kilometres away are still functioning. And in my mind, I can journey to those distant lands to wonder about how these birds survived another year.


Dr. Robert W. Butler is a senior research scientist with Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service and adjunct Professor of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University. He is a popular public speaker on conservation and research and the author of The Jade Coast: ecology of the North Pacific Ocean.



One of the joys of bird watching is seeing new birds, but for me the added bonus is to wonder why they behave the way they do. I try to imagine the role each bird plays in the ecosystem, why is it rare or abundant, why is found here but not there.