A Bird’s Life
Author / BY PAT GAO
Pheasant-tailed jacanas represent one of the most successful bird conservation projects in Taiwan. (Photo courtesy of Lee Wen-chen)
Tainan City’s Guantian District in southern Taiwan is the country’s primary water caltrop-growing region, accounting for about 70 percent of national output of the black hard-shelled fruit. Not by coincidence, Guantian is also Taiwan’s top habitat for pheasant-tailed jacanas.
Nicknamed “water caltrop birds,” the waders are often seen walking on floating vegetation courtesy of elongated toes and talons. In 1990, local concerns over the planned Taiwan High Speed Rail system passing through Guantian led to the formation of a 15-hectare reserved area—later named Jacana Ecological Education Park (JEEP)—by Tainan City Government.
The Taiwan blue magpie is an endemic species. (Photo courtesy of Liu Ding-ying)
Such conservation efforts were soon joined by Wild Bird Society of Tainan (WBST) and the Forestry Bureau under the Cabinet-level Council of Agriculture (COA). In September, they jointly released a documentary about the past decades of fruitful work in JEEP on habitat management and coordination with local farming communities.
Once an endangered species in the 1990s, the pheasant-tailed jacanas of Taiwan have increased from dozens to more than 1,000 as confirmed by the latest Forestry Bureau statistics. The species, as well as the black-faced spoonbill—another protected bird in Tainan at its wintering spots on the wetlands of coastal Qigu District, are among the most successful conservation projects of their kind nationwide, according to Adam Lee (李益鑫), secretary general of Taipei City-based Chinese Wild Bird Federation (CWBF).
Established in 1988, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) CWBF comprises WBST and 18 other city- or county-level wild bird societies as well as two ecology-related groups in Taiwan. The federation is a close partner of the Forestry Bureau, a major flora and fauna conservation authority, and is a member of U.K.-based Birdlife International since 1994. Its major missions include protecting wild birds and their natural habitats through research and surveys, as well as promoting relevant knowledge and birding activities for the public.
Taiwan yuhina, a native species (Photo courtesy of Liu Ding-ying)
Taiwan boasts one of the world’s highest densities of bird species. Of the around 10,000 varieties found globally, Taiwan and its outlying islands are home to or provide resting spots for 663, according to the latest report from CWBF’s Bird Record Committee, compiler of the Checklist of the Birds of Taiwan.
The checklist is updated every three years, with its next edition scheduled for release in 2020. Also set for publication the same year is “The State of Taiwan’s Birds,” the first countrywide report by CWBF and other NGOs, as well as academic and governmental units like the COA’s Endemic Species Research Institute based in central Taiwan’s Nantou County.
Preparatory work for the report was launched toward the end of 2013 as the annual New Year Bird Count project. The most recent edition ran Dec. 16, 2018, to Jan. 6 in 179 sample areas measuring 3 kilometers in radius with 1,365 participants recording 325 species of 312,948 individual birds.
“Winter migratory species are of great interest to local birders and researchers as Taiwan is a major midpoint on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway stretching from eastern Russia and Alaska southward to Australia and New Zealand,” Lee said. The country is the perfect location for birds to rest and forage for food, especially the coastal and wetland areas in southwestern Taiwan, he added.
A brown booby flies above Keelung Islet off the coast of the northern Taiwan city. (Photo courtesy of Wild Bird Society of Keelung)
According to the 2015 edition of “Important Bird Areas [IBA] in Taiwan” co-published by CWBF and Forestry Bureau, there are 54 IBAs specified across the country in accordance with Birdlife International’s standards. On the shortlist are the Yaoshan mountain region in southeastern Taiwan’s Taitung County and the Fangyuan Township wetlands in the central county of Changhua. About 77 percent of the IBA zones fall under officially designated nature reserves and protected areas including those covered by the 2015-effective Wetland Conservation Act. Two wetlands at Taijiang National Park in Tainan qualify for international status, with 40, 12 and 14 others on national, local and temporarily local levels respectively. “These robust numbers represent an expansion of the government’s conservation focus from forests to other land use,” Lee said.
The identification and protection of sanctuaries around Taiwan illustrate the depth of collective commitment to conserving birds and other fauna. Despite these efforts, quite a few feathered species such as the common teal, dunlin, ruddy turnstone and sanderling have recorded population declines in the past few years.
Chinese crested terns are a protected bird in Taiwan. (Photo courtesy Chinese Wild Bird Federation)
Human disturbance and habitat loss are the top reasons. Another is the location of renewable energy projects on idle land. “It’s idle only from a human’s point of view,” Lee said, adding that such areas are hot spots of avian activity and biodiversity.
Consequently, CWBF is engaging with the public and private sectors to ensure adequate wildlife protection measures are in place as the government’s green energy policies begin to bear fruit. According to Lee, a prime example is the ongoing solar project in the coastal area of Budai Township in southern Taiwan’s Chiayi County.
After extensive negotiations among representatives from the Bureau of Energy under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, private developers, CWBF and other local groups, around 30 percent of the site’s land was set aside for ecological conservation. Lee believes one way of skirting the issue is for the government to prioritize installing rooftop panels as opposed to ground-mounted and floating systems. “These kinds of considerations should be incorporated as early as possible into the planning process so as to deliver optimal results for all parties,” he said.
Representatives from Chinese Wild Bird Federation attend an environmental education event in Malaysia. (Photo courtesy of CWBF)
While CWBF is devoted to assisting with policymaking efforts and promoting national-level initiatives, its member groups around Taiwan take responsibility for local-level conservation and educational projects. Among them, Wild Bird Society of Keelung (WBSK) makes regular surveys of birds in the northern Taiwan port city and its surrounding areas in adjacent New Taipei City, as well as outlying islands.
Shen Chin-feng (沈錦豐), who heads the WBSK’s survey team, said the number of black kites, peregrine falcons and streaked shearwaters is a strong environmental indicator. “For example, sea birds are closely related to marine ecology, and the presence of birds of prey says a lot about the state of biodiversity in a specific area.”
In areas with more frequent contact between birds and humans like Keelung River via embankments and flood relief channels, there has been a decrease in number and variety of birds, according to WBSK Chairperson Cheng Wei (鄭暐).
(Photo courtesy of CWBF)
The former research assistant at Forestry Bureau and the Institute of Wildlife Conservation at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology in southern Taiwan said three additional black kite nests were spotted this year. “This brings the total to 10, and should see the number of young birds successfully leaving the nest exceed 14.”
The black kite population also benefits from progress in the agricultural sector. In the past, high levels of pesticide were prevalent in Taiwan’s mountains and plains. The birds would fall prey to the effects after ingesting poisoned animals. With rural communities no longer issued free pesticides, and farmers switching to organic farming, the black kites are on course for a comeback.
The credit for this healthy state of affairs rests squarely on the shoulders of WBSK and other conservation groups and activists. Recent projects involve working with local communities and schools to promote environmental awareness. Headline undertakings include one at Neiliao wetland in downtown Keelung and another for peregrine falcons in New Taipei’s coastal Shenao area.
The former is funded under the Ministry of the Interior’s wetland protection initiative, while the latter is supported via the Eco Echo Award. Launched in 2016, the annual prize is backed by United Microelectronics Corp. headquartered in northern Taiwan’s Hsinchu City. It offers sponsorship of NT$300,000 (US$9,677) to NT$1 million (US$32,258) to five selected programs from environmental and community development groups.
The black kite is designated Keelung’s official city bird. (Photo courtesy of Wild Bird Society of Keelung)
This year, the WBSK proposed a similar project on Keelung Islet to the award selection committee. It was shortlisted together with proposals submitted by eight other groups, including one on pheasant-tailed jacanas at Taipei’s Guandu Nature Park by Wild Bird Society of Taipei—also a CWBF member group—and the potential risks posed by glass windows to birds during flight by Taipei-based Raptor Research Group of Taiwan.
“We must try to live in harmony with and protect the natural world,” Shen said. “The way we treat birds today could be the harbinger of how Mother Nature will treat humans tomorrow.”
Wild Bird Society of Keelung works with local elementary schools to promote environmental awareness. (Photo courtesy of WBSK)
Retrieve from Taiwan Review