October 18, 2015: Taipei, Taiwan — Day before yesterday, when I arrived in Taiwan, Wayne mentioned that a Sperm Whale had just beached itself somewhere on the western coast, an unusual occurrence. I filed the news under “strange factoids” and didn’t think much more about it.
This morning, Wayne, Kuan-Chieh, about six other birders and I were at the mouth of the Ba Zhang River, looking for shorebirds, when Wayne suddenly shouted something from a couple hundred yards down the road. He pointed at the beach. There, on the sand just beyond the river mouth, was a dead whale.
“It’s the Sperm Whale!” he said. None of us had known where the whale had been beached, so it was strange to stumble across it by accident. We took some photos from a distance and Wayne posted one on Facebook.
A couple of hours later, he was looking at his phone and piped up. “Hey, my photo is in the news!” A reporter had apparently seen Wayne’s Facebook post and appropriated the image with a short article. It turned out that after this Sperm Whale beached itself alive nearby a couple of days ago, it was towed out to sea yesterday by Taiwan’s coast guard in a coordinated rescue. We were the first to spot its body back ashore today.
Sperm Whales have been beached in Taiwan before, but not often. One that washed up dead in 2004 is now legendary: While that whale was being transported through Taipei on a flatbed truck, decomposition gases caused the carcass to explode spectacularly on a busy street, covering passers-by in whale guts. (The original BBC News story is here.) One wonders what will happen to this one.
Otherwise, our birding posse swept up a few nice sightings along the southwest coast this morning, including an “Arctic” Warbler, which brought up an interesting issue. Last year, this species was split into three (Arctic, Kamchatka Leaf, and Japanese Leaf warblers) which, except for singing males on their breeding grounds, are indistinguishable in the field. Wayne said he went mist-netting with the ornithologist who did the research, and, even with a bird in the hand, the man was unable to tell which species of warbler it was. All three are possible as migrants in Taiwan, and I haven’t seen any of them. So, even though this bird couldn’t be narrowed to one species, it counts as a new one for my list; it will go down as “Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler.”
Around midday, most of our birding group headed home, and Kuan-Chieh dropped Wayne and me at the train station, where we caught the bullet train north to Taipei. This was in itself an adventure: Taiwan’s train cruises between 150 and 180 mph (I clocked our max speed at 188 mph with my phone’s GPS), connecting the southern and northern parts of the country about three times faster than it would take to drive. We were in Taipei within 45 minutes, where a local birder named Hunter picked us up.
The three of us went to visit a unique celebrity. Last December, almost a year ago, a young Siberian Crane—a critically endangered bird that nests in Russia and winters in China—drifted off course and landed briefly on Pengjia Islet off northern Taiwan. Three days later, the lone crane was found in a wet farm field outside of Taipei, where it has stayed ever since. It is the first Siberian Crane ever seen in Taiwan, and this bird, which locals call the “little white crane,” has won the hearts of the Taiwanese.
It was given a 24-hour security guard by the government, and thousands of people have gone to see and photograph it. The crane usually stands in a small farm field next to a coastal road. It has become a kind of ambassador for Taiwanese-Russian relations, and great care has been taken so that the bird won’t come to harm while it is in Taiwan, but it doesn’t show any signs of leaving. Young cranes learn to migrate from their parents, so people are now debating how it might be encouraged to rejoin its flock.
This afternoon, the crane was in its usual spot, keeping company with a Little Egret in the wet field. Someone had set up a souvenir stand and lots of interpretive signs. Several dozen photographers were watching it when we arrived - and this is nearly a year after the crane first showed up! You can read more about it in this heartwarming Siberian Times feature from May.
New birds today: 11
Year list: 4866