Thu, Sep 19, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Bird-spotters’ flight of fancy

Taitung twitchers are keen to open up their rarefied world, but observing and counting the tens of thousands of birds of prey that drift through the region’s skies takes skill and patience

By Sam Sky Wild  /  Contributing reporter

The public event draws to a close and a small group of Taitung Wild Bird Society members now head further up the hill to the Eagle’s Nest — a massive boulder that perilously juts out from the hillside offering the gathering of amateur ornithologists a cloud-level vantage point. The sweet smell of palm flowers drifts across the mountainside and envelops the group.

Monitoring migratory predators

Hsu Tsong-hsing (徐宗興), a deeply-tanned retired postal worker, is spotting and recording the passing flocks of birds very seriously. He diligently jots down numbers and descriptions on a stack of carefully prepared forms which constantly sit within his grasp.

Hsu has been manning the post with his wife and another bird-watching couple from dusk until dawn as part of a roster of dedicated twitchers who monitor the mass bird flight which runs without fail from September to October.

“This is a great way to kill time,” says Hsu, who refuses to take his eagle-eyes from the sky as he chats. “It is important that we get data from Taitung — over the years this will become important information.”

Hsu’s phone continuously rings and he clearly outlines the numbers of birds he has seen while thanking his counterparts in Kenting (墾丁) for providing him with some figures in return. The various numbers will be compared to build up a picture of the number of migrating birds.

Hsu explains that he’s already seen around 4,000 birds today. The stacks of paper would appear to back up his claim but I remain skeptical, having spotted only a handful of birds all day. Someone hands me a pair of powerful Leica binoculars and describes a wispy cloud for me to watch. Banks of detailed cotton wool whites appear in my vision and then — all of a sudden — dozens of graceful hawks emerge from the cloud as they ascend the skies on powerful sea-driven thermals. To the amusement the bird-watchers, I swear out loud in surprise. The birds disappear into the giant haze as quickly as they arrived and I am left dumbstruck.

Tens of thousands of birds have passed over Taitung in a matter of days and most of us on the ground remain completely oblivious.

In a matter of just a few decades, this incredible feat of nature has been transformed from an open-air barbeque-eating frenzy in Kenting, where farmers would trap thousands of flight-weary birds, into a silent, joyous celebration of birdlife. Back at the Eagle’s Nest, the bird-watchers’ collective vision remains glued to the sky. There is a pleasant silence broken only by someone alerting the others to yet more birds, followed by the whir of expensive cameras. For one moment, it feels like this tiny group of enthusiasts is flying too.

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