Birding in Taiwan: Reconnecting with My Dad

by Emilie Chen, birding and bird photography enthusiast

“How old is he? Does he have a website?” My dad interrogated me in Mandarin Chinese.

We were in his childhood home in Taipei—the bustling capital city of the island country of Taiwan—packing our bags for a three-day trip to the mountains. My dad was nervous and skeptical. The idea of hiring a complete stranger to take us 50 miles away to look for birds—it was pretty novel for my dad.

A photo of Emilie Chen and her father out in nature in Taiwan.

Our bird guide, Richard Chen (no relation), was referred to me by a friend. Having done a few other birding trips internationally and plenty domestically, I was fine with word-of-mouth referrals. I didn’t need to know Richard’s age or his website, but for my dad, that information was synonymous with having a sense of control about the trip I was about to whisk him away on. 

But as we reached our first stop—a wetland on the outskirts of the city of Hsinchu—my dad relaxed. Lifting a pair of binoculars to his face, he observed for the first time in his life Gray Herons and Great Egrets, common birds of Taiwan’s waterways. Later that afternoon, in the Taiwanese rainforest, he sat with me in a bird blind for an hour and a half, just so we could glimpse a few Swinhoe’s Pheasants, a single White-tailed Robin, and one very shy Taiwan Partridge.

What proved invaluable about having Richard lead this trip for us was the language bridge he provided for my dad and me. With conversational-level Mandarin, I’ve never had the vocabulary to discuss avian ecology to my first-generation American parents. And when I’m speaking a mile a minute in English about various birding adventures, some things are lost in comprehension. Birding has been a major part of my life for the past six years, and yet I hadn’t ever been able to convey what Richard could in fluent Mandarin over just three short days.

Swinhoe's Pheasant at Firefly Lodge, Guanghua Village, Taiwan. Photo by Emilie Chen

At the wetland outside of Hsinchu, where we admired three African Sacred Ibises foraging in tall grass, I listened to Richard explain in Mandarin the concept of introduced and invasive species—how these ibises, although beautiful, were introduced into Taiwan’s ecosystems through zoos and private collectors and may negatively impact native birds. Richard became someone my dad could direct all of his beginner birding questions—like “Are there birds in Taiwan found nowhere else?”—and get a patient explanation of island endemism and that Taiwan boasts 26 endemic bird species. 

More than that, my dad got to experience for himself what I love about birding trips: Arriving at a peaceful ecotourism lodge, nestled in a mountain town barely named on a map. Strolling through the woods at night to look for Taiwan flying squirrels that watched us warily with shiny black eyes from their treetop perches. Sipping homemade liqueurs brewed by the owners of the ecotourism lodge, while a Northern Boobook hunted from the other side of the courtyard. Shouting for the van to stop as it trudged up a narrow mountain road, just to admire a Crested Serpent Eagle resting on a vantage point overlooking the valley. 

Growing into my adulthood has meant my life has diverged from his. At Zhushan (Bamboo Mountain), I was reminded that my dad has aged since the last time we spent this much time together. Breathing hard in the cold air, he took rest in a nearby tea lounge but encouraged me to continue to the peak and watch the sunrise. Later that morning, my dad and I shared in the excitement of seeing a few Mikado’s Pheasants—a handsome species that graces the NT$1000 bills we spent so casually at Taiwanese markets.

I wouldn’t say that my dad enjoyed everything about our trip; he went far outside his comfort zone to experience it with me. A few days later, back in his childhood home, I used a Wi-Fi hotspot to submit my eBird checklists. My dad grew up with little, but he was full of stories about troublemaking in the big city, flying kites through storms, and catching critters from the local river to raise in a bathtub repurposed as a fish tank. As I tallied my life birds from the mountains of Taiwan, I found that, in my own way, I emulate him, collecting my wildlife encounters in one digital database.