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Lanyu (Orchid Island), Taiwan: July 4 - 6, 2004,
This is a report on a summer visit to Lanyu, an island off the southeast coast of Taiwan. It is of interest because its biology, as well as the culture of its inhabitants, is closer to the Philippines than Taiwan. It is also one of the best places to see several specialties: Ryukyu Scops-owl, Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher, Whistling Green Pigeon and Philippines Cuckoo-dove, all of which we saw without much difficulty. I am not aware of other web-based trip reports about Lanyu in summer, but other reports as noted in the Acknowledgements provide a lot of background information which I will not repeat. Despite the heat and the lack of migrants, we were able to see our three target birds (Japanese Paradise-flycatcher, Whistling Green Pigeon and Ryukyu Scops-owl) on the first half-day of our trip. Our recommendation would be to plan on three days / two nights, as we did, to allow two chances for the owl in case of poor weather, and to use spare time for sight-seeing or snorkeling / scuba diving.
Lanyu is a popular summer destination for Taiwanese so advance reservations, especially for flights, are required; this is in contrast to other times of year where others have reported few tourists and readily available accommodations. In July, all flights and the two hotels are full. Most tourists come for snorkeling and scuba diving, and some to experience the unique aboriginal culture of the Yami people indigenous to Lanyu, but we also met two other Taiwanese birding groups.
There is only one airline, Mandarin Airlines, flying to Lanyu. Apparently this concession has changed hands several times in the last few years. I found it very difficult to get accurate information about flights, even when I knew that Mandarin Airlines was the correct carrier. Their Chinese web site did not even show the flight schedule, although their in-flight magazine promised improvements in the web services. Ferry service is also available, but the schedule is erratic and one birding group that came by ferry said that they did not see many birds en route.
The flights to Lanyu leave from Taitung, in southeast Taiwan, so we required a connecting flight from Taipei. Several carriers fly between Taitung and Taipei but only Mandarin goes to Lanyu. Note that the flights from Taipei to Taitung depart from the domestic airport, which is in downtown Taipei, and not the international airport which is 60 km west of Taipei. Birders making a driving tour would likely end up near Taitung while looking for Styan's Bulbul and therefore could fly directly from Taitung to avoid this complication.
We flew from Taipei to Taitung and on to Lanyu. The short flight to Lanyu is on a 20-seat plane which can be bumpy. It also is often cancelled if there is poor weather. We were extremely fortunate not to have a weather-related delay: ten days before our trip a major typhoon hit Lanyu and mainland Taiwan, and a smaller storm came through two days after we left. As a result of the typhoon, many interior main roads are closed in mainland Taiwan, and government officials suggest that they will not repair them since they are destroyed every few years anyway. This would eliminate access to many popular birding spots such as Blue Gate trail.
Upon arrival in Lanyu we were met by a representative of the Lanyu Hotel, where we had pre-booked our room. However, our room was not ready when we arrived. This was confusing until someone who spoke English explained this to us. At that point we rented a car from a store next door to begin checking out the various birding sites. Scooters and motorcycles were also available but we opted for the safer, and air-conditioned, car. Because of the small size of Lanyu, it is virtually impossible to get lost, but the interior road is very steep and would be challenging on a scooter.
We first drove south from Hungtou. At one time there were distance markers along the road, but most are now gone so exact locations are difficult to describe. Please refer to the attached drawing for more details. Approximately two km south of the intersection of the main road with the only road that crosses the island is a prime location for Japanese Paradise-flycatcher. During our visit a large water retention pond was being built on the southwest side of the road in this area and there was much construction activity. There are several creek beds winding to the east, and we eventually saw the Paradise-flycatchers in three of them. Although they did not call, they also were not shy. Twice we saw them in light forest and scrub while standing on the road. Males did not have their long tail feathers but were still unmistakable. Our first afternoon, after crawling down a steep creek bed and walking in approximately 100 meters, we saw one male. We thought this to be remarkable as it was 40 C and we were really just checking out the area. Later we realized we did not need to exert so much effort to see this bird in this area.
Map of key sites
After seeing the flycatcher, we returned to the road and scanned for Whistling Green Pigeons. After two brief fly-bys, we located a fruiting tree where we had excellent views at close range of four or five pigeons. We also heard their mournful whistle. While enjoying the pigeons, Marlene briefly spotted another paradise-flycatcher in some roadside scrub, meaning that two of the key birds were seen while sitting on the side of the road in mid-day heat next to an active construction site! Other birds seen frequently in this area were Brown-eared Bulbuls, Lesser Coucal, and the local sub-species of white-eye which we later learned is now being considered a sub-species of the Lowland White-eye of the Philippines.
We returned to the hotel, checked in, and rested a bit before going to the school behind the hotel at dusk which is a reported site for Ryukyu Scops-owl. The school is run down, and the area behind the school was littered with malodorous waste. There were also many people about. We did not hear any owls until about 8PM when we heard a call well up the hill. We drove up the cross-island road and heard a call almost above the car. We parked, walked back a bit, and flushed an owl that was perched next to the road. We had a good but not great view. Net result: half-day birding, all three target birds.
The next day we thought about possibly returning to the mainland early. However, the numbers do not work: all the incoming planes are full, so logically so are all the outbound planes. So we spent the day driving around the island, looking at the small Yami villages and the beautiful scenery. While stopped at the weather station in late afternoon , we met a birding group who pointed out an area on the east coast where owls and Philippine Cuckoo-doves were supposedly common. We drove down but arrived a bit late, at almost dusk. We heard many owls, but saw only one fly away.
The next (and final) day, we met the same birding group at our hotel and they said they were going back to the east coast area, so we went too. It turned out that the leader of the group was Wayne Hsu, who has an excellent web site on Taiwan birding, and who recently graduated from Cornell's ornithology program. While walking through the area Wayne pointed out a perched Ryukyu Scops-owl. There were also many Philippines Cuckoo-doves here.
No one on Lanyu accepts credit cards. Therefore, it is important to bring NT dollar cash as there are also no money exchange facilities on Lanyu (our hotel did accept US dollars for our room which gave us much-needed NT dollars in change for meals). Most ATMs in Taiwan do not accept international cards, only those issued in Taiwan, although larger hotels on the mainland will exchange other currencies into NT dollars. Our recommendation would be to get all the NT dollars you think you will need for the trip upon arrival at the airport.
No restaurants are open for lunch, so we opted for "cup-of-noodles" every lunch time. We ate our suppers at the Epicurean Restaurant, in the village just north of Hungtou and before the airport; food was good but selection was limited when coming in at 9PM after owling. IN July, the temperatures are 35 - 40 C at mid-day, so a midday break for sightseeing is perfect.
Many thanks to David Sargeant who provided us with a tape of Ryukyu Scops-owl, and to Wayne Hsu for pointing out the east coast site and the owl there. David Sargeant has also written A Birder's Guide to Taiwan, which is very useful for birding through Taiwan. It contains a section on Lanyu.
Mandarin Airlines: Tel 886-2-2717-1230, www.mandarinairlines.com
Lanyu Hotel: email: firstname.lastname@example.org; NT 1300/night
Lanyu birding reports:
Wild Bird Society of Taipei: www.wbst.org.tw