Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Silver Ghosts of Huben

By Impiyani

Before dawn I was in Huben. It was still very dark and there was a chill in the air as I turned into the yard of Mr. Chang's traditional Taiwanese house. Multitudes of dogs snarled and yapped. They didn't seem very happy to see me. A large roster came over. He seemed friendlier. It was almost as if he was coming over for a predawn chat before doing his morning duty and waking the neighbourhood. Mr. Chang came out and we headed off up the track following the river. We both bounced around on our motorcycles as we made our way to his little wooden cabin further up the valley. Today we had a purpose. We were after the very elusive Silver Ghost of Taiwan's forests.

We reached the cabin and parked the motorcycles. We loaded up and climbed down onto the rocks in the river. To go deep into the Huben forest one has to follow the course of a river or stream. The steep cliffs and thick vegetation make it impossible to get deep into the remote parts of the forest other than by this means. Streams in Huben are very rocky. Generally, they don't carry very much water but when it rains they become raging torrents.

It was still dark as we started on our way. We hadn't gone far when the predawn calling of an endemic Taiwan Partridge started. Mr. Chang responded and the partridge called back. It wasn't far off but the thick forest shielded it from view. We carried on and in the east dawn began to break. The calls of songbirds surrounded us but it was too dark to see anything.

High in the trees above us a Crested Serpent Eagle greeted the new day with a call. Mr. Chang smiled and called back. The eagle immediately responded. We carried on with the soft calls of the eagle floating to us on the breeze.

It was hard going. Despite the chill in the air I was beginning to build up quite a sweat. Mr. Chang indicated we were getting close. Even the slightest rustle of clothing is enough to startle the Ghost. We moved very quietly. We carefully stepped from rock to rock. The forest was just light enough to see a short distance ahead now. We moved forward slowly. We would stop to listen and scan the area ahead for movement. Mr. Chang's sharp ears caught something. I hadn't heard it but he said he had. The Ghost was near.

We moved on. The river narrowed and vegetation had taken root in the stream bed. We stopped and searched the shadows ahead. One second I was looking at a shadow and the next instant the Ghost stepped forward from out of the shadow. We both saw the Ghost at the same instant. There it was. The distinct silver-white back, crest and tail contrasting against the dazzling blue of the body and the fire-red face and legs. I started to shake with excitement. I could hear my heart drumming in my ears. The Ghost melted into the vegetation and disappeared. I stood there breathless. There really wasn't enough light for a shot but I took my camera out of its bag and moved forward.

I crept over boulders and moved towards where the Ghost had vanished. I crept forward and once again it stepped out of the shadows. It was very dark but I took a few shots just to capture the moment. In an almost dream-like state I watched the Silver Ghost moving about in front of me.

A male Swinhoe's Pheasant (Lophura swinhoii) moves through the Huben undergrowth.

Robert Swinhoe had discovered the species, endemic to Taiwan, in April of 1862. He sent the skin to the great English ornithologist John Gould. Gould was the Curator and Preserver at the museum of the Zoological Society of London. It was the height of the great voyages of discovery and Gould was in the unique position of being on the receiving end of skins that were being sent to the Society from every corner of the globe.

Gould had thus described an extraordinary number of species from around the world. Amongst these were Darwin’s legendary finches. He wrote up the description for Robert Swinhoe’s new pheasant and it was published in the 1863 edition of The Ibis. Even the stuffy Victorian, Gould, was impressed by Formosa's Silver Ghost and stated, “This exceedingly beautiful species is one of the most remarkable novelties I have had the good fortune to describe.” He named the species after Swinhoe; Lophura swinhoii. When this majestic species was first revealed to the West, many dubbed the newly described Swinhoe's Pheasant as the world's most beautiful bird. To some, it remains so, and certainly the noble gent I was watching totally captivated me with its graceful splendor.

The pheasant moved off slowly. It was unaware of my presence and I was able to watch it for about two minutes in all. All too quickly time passed and it melted back into the forest. Mr. Chang and I pressed on. I was euphoric. This was my first Huben male. The Swinhoe's Pheasant is considered a bird of the mid elevation mountain forests. The handful that inhabit the lowland hills of Huben indicate that the species certainly did inhabit the central Taiwan lowland forests before humankind turned much of the lush lowland forest into monocrop fields, concrete jungles and industrial estates.

We moved on and then retraced our steps hoping to get another view of the pheasant. No luck second time round, so we pressed on again. Just as we came to a steep rise Mr. Chang’s sharp ears had heard something. We stopped and waited. Moments later I heard it too. There were Ghosts in the undergrowth. We waited. Suddenly Mr. Chang pointed. I didn't see anything and then my eyes caught a movement. There was a pair. I watched them stride through the undergrowth and then they vanished. It was time to head back.

Male Swinhoe's Pheasant (Lophura swinhoii):- Photo courtesy of Richard Yu.

We walked back down the stream. Monarchs, Fulvettas, and Bulbuls moved about through the trees. Some Taiwan Scimitar Babblers started to call. The Crested Serpent Eagle was calling, too. I was soaking the tranquility up and savoring it.At Mr. Chang's cabin we made some Oolong tea. We talked about Huben and its birds. I mentioned the Malayan Night Heron and Mr. Chang imitated the call. From just outside the window there was an immediate response. We both laughed. It was time to go and I climbed on my motorcycle. I had only gone a few meters when the Malayan Night Heron flew across the road. I stopped and snapped a quick shot of it in the early morning sun. It had been very good morning! And mornings such as this are becoming tragically rare.

Malayan Night Heron (Gorsachius melanolophus).

It has been several years since that morning. Since then, much of the Huben-Hushan Important Bird Area (IBA) has fallen victim to the Hushan Reservoir Project, a project that went ahead under extremely dubious legality. The stream is still there. The lower reaches below Mr. Chang’s cabin are covered in concrete now, just another of the concreted streams that have been covered over in the name of anti-erosion work. Too often streams in this area fall victim to schemes cooked up local contractors and officials where healthy streams that don’t have erosion problems get covered in concrete just for a quick buck.

The upper reaches of the stream are still good. The pheasants are still hanging on in their last lowland outpost. The reservoir will no doubt pose a serious barrier to threatened terrestrial birds like the Swinhoe’s Pheasant and Taiwan Partridge. It will increasingly isolate them as their genetic flow from the mountains is severed. Likely, the concrete will keep advancing slowly but steadily upstream and the trees will give way to fields and houses and the last lowland outpost of the noble Swinhoe’s Pheasant will be no more.

This is just one of many such tales. Downstream of the Hushan Reservoir project the fate of the Taiwan pink dolphins hangs in the balance. As we march into the second decade of the new millennium so much hangs in the balance. The catastrophe at Copenhagen has shown us that the world still doesn’t get it. In parting, I’ll leave you with a few words I saw in a post on by a member named James Owen.

Because every green measure, every conservation effort and all the little economies we could make in our daily lives, may look insignificant if we choose to look at the big picture. On the other hand, if we view that big picture as millions of little choices made by people just like us, that's how we can come to understand why it's our own choices that are so important.

Taiwan pink dolphin (Sousa chinensis).

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