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

Thu, Sep 19, 2013 - Page 12

Birds of a feather flock together, and the tightly-knit Taitung Wild Bird Society (台東縣野鳥學會) is proof that the age-old adage still has wings.

It is early on a warm Sunday morning and a small army of volunteers — collectively clad in Bird Society khaki shirts — are marshaling inquisitive members of the public for a mass viewing of the annual migration of the Chinese sparrowhawk.

Looking like a self-styled militia in uniform grays and military greens with ubiquitous binoculars and rifle-length telescopic lenses hanging from utility belts, the band of bird-watchers is busily organizing a series of buses to ferry curious members of the public up Yao Mountain (樂山) in Jhihben, Taitung County. There are lots of children in attendance and for a brief moment, as they eagerly form lines to sign up for the once-a-year twitching event, it looks like forest-dwelling rebels are recruiting child soldiers for a military offensive.

A small convoy now heads up a winding, battered, concrete forest road which is still moist from last night’s rains and snails can be heard popping under the wheels of the four-wheel drives which are inching up the hillside.

The vehicles grind to a halt where small crowds of people have clustered under two toughened gazebos — binoculars raking the sky in search of the strangely elusive raptors.

The tents provide some welcome shade from the relentless southern sun and dozens of children are busying themselves playing bird card games and making bird-themed keyrings.

‘Expert guides’

Thirteen-year-old Shu Tseng (許晟), the Taitung Wild Bird Society’s youngest “expert guide,” is skillfully watching the skies and pointing out banks of birds to a group of enamored youngsters. “I love nature,” says Shu, the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt betraying his age.

“I’d prefer to be out here than playing video games,” he says, as he continues to scan the heavens in search of some of the estimated 200,000 birds of prey which collectively head to Indonesia and the Philippines via eastern Taiwan on million-year-old migratory routes.

Nearby, engineer Su Han-jiang (蘇漢江), a twitcher with 20 years of experience under his belt, is patiently explaining the flight patterns of the pigeon-sized goshawks to a group of curious young women.

Su commands the look, and passion, of a man with a deep knowledge of a subject in which many others are largely ignorant. “I like being close to nature,” Su explains. “If I can spot a rare bird and photograph it and then identify it — and share that information — I am happy.”

Su estimates that he has lavished NT$200,000 on bird-watching equipment over the years but adds he has the support of his wife who prefers that he indulges his love for his feathered friends rather than develop a drinking or gambling problem.

In another corner of the tent, semi-retired eye doctor and avid bird-spotter Chu Chien-ming (朱建銘), a man with hawk-like eyesight, shows pictures he has just taken of a crested goshawk to a group of onlookers. “This bird’s nickname is the Diaper Bird because its fluffy hind feathers make it look like it’s wearing a huge diaper,” he says to universal laughter from his audience.

Lunchboxes are served and the gazebos are now full as people jostle for a space in the shade. In the background Taitung City and the ocean-side plains it occupies at the foot of the eastern mountain range glistens in the sunshine.

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.