Fri, Jun 27, 2014 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: ‘Bird Man’ to fly the coop

EMPTY NEST:The looming retirement of the ‘Hawk-Counting Radar’ and ‘Bird Man of Kenting’ has left other conservationists ruffled, but grateful for his years of data

By Tsai Tsung-hsien and Jason Pan  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

The nation’s foremost raptor expert, Tsai Yi-jung, explains environmental conservation to a group of children at Lingsiao Pavilion in Sheding Park in Pingtung County’s Kenting National Park on June 10.

Photo: Tsai Tsung-hsien, Taipei Times

When the nation’s foremost bird of prey expert, Tsai Yi-jung (蔡乙榮), retires next month, there will be a big void to fill, because there is no one who has the skills to match the man known as the “Bird Man of Kenting.”

Tsai, 53, plans to leave his job of 29 years as the official bird counter at the Kenting National Park Administration Office, leaving many in Taiwan’s ornithology circles saying that he will be sorely missed.

He started the job in 1988, on field study, counting birds of prey as they pass over Kenting along their annual migration routes.

Tsai has accumulated more than 1 million sightings of gray-faced buzzard hawks and Chinese goshawks, the two major migrating raptors seen over the nation.

For this, Tsai had been called the “One Million Bird Counting Man” by his colleagues.

For the past 29 years, on each typhoon-free day of the annual autumn migrating season from the beginning of September to the end of October, Tsai set up shop before dawn at a lookout pavilion on a hill at Sheding Park (社頂公園), inside Kenting National Park.

“I got up earlier than the birds,” he said. “So I could do my job of counting raptors.”

Many times he counted the hunters from dawn to dusk, a stretch of more than 10 hours.

Tsai said that age has taken its toll.

“In the past few years, I have slowed down at bird-counting. My concentration and reaction times are not what they used to be. My body is slowing down and I have to be honest about that, so it is time to retire,” he said.

After leaving his post, Tsai said, he plans to be active in environmental protection and nature conservation efforts in the area.

For the technical skills in bird-counting, Tsai explained by taking the example of the Chinese goshawk.

“First you must know they migrate from north to south, and when counting by eye, be certain to set on a base tally number. For example, it can be two, or five, or 10 birds for each tally mark. However, the bigger the base number, the bigger the range of error will be,” he said.

“Then one must choose a baseline in the sky, it can be a cloud or a building. Using the baseline, the eyes must count the number of raptors that pass it. When a large number flies past, before your eyes leave the baseline, double-check the count, to reduce the possible errors,” he added.

Even though Tsai is slightly nearsighted, he seems to have the “eyes of an eagle,” with his peerless raptor-counting skills for counting the birds of prey.

Tsai has earned another nickname, and is known as the “Hawk-Counting Radar.”

Early in his career, some ornithology students doubted his counting by eyesight.

Tsai said that the students told him: “The migrating hawks and falcons are flying so fast, and come in such large numbers in massive flocks. Tallying by eye would not be very accurate and the numbers are unreliable.”

To allay their concerns, park officials and students studied reams of radar data recordings to check against Tsai’s numbers. After eliminating the birds which were out of range and those outside of the human field of vision, the results showed that Tsai’s eyesight counts were extraordinarily accurate, deviating at most by just 10 percent from the radar data.

His colleagues said that during migrating season the birds are coming and going in large numbers, so Tsai’s skills and concentration are needed, because even one small lapse might miss several hundred birds flying by.

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