Mark Villa encounters thousands of raptors headed for the Philippines from Taiwan during the autumn migration season.
RAPTOR MIGRATION IN KENTING NATIONAL PARK, TAIWAN
by Mark Jason Villa
Every year, during the months of September and October, hundreds of thousands of raptors pass through Kenting on their way south to the Philippines. Kenting is located on the southern most tip of Taiwan. It is the last piece of land before the raptors have to fly south across the Luzon Strait. Its location serves almost like a funnel where the raptors naturally have to congregate before their grueling flight over sea.
It is consequentially the ideal place to be for birders and researchers to count, with relative accuracy, the number of raptors passing through Taiwan during the autumn migration.
I’ve heard a lot about Kenting over my few years of raptorwatching and had always wanted to visit. We were attending the 2nd Asian Bird Fair, which was held in Tainan City, just a short 2 hour-drive to Kenting. We were to be there during the migration season. I knew I could not pass up the chance to go.
Spectacular Raptor Migration Season
The day after the fair, the weather had just turned sunny and we heard news that the raptors have started to move again. There had been some heavy rain over the couple previous days and this had apparently stopped the migration temporarily. Raptors use thermals to create lift and help them fly the long journey with relative ease. We were very excited to hear that the raptor migration was on again. But at the same time we were anxious that we would miss the entire spectacle. 12,000 birds had been already passed through on that day alone and we were not scheduled to go until one day after!
The main migrating raptor to be expected in late October are the Grey-faced Buzzards. Tens of thousands Grey-faced Buzzard migrate through Kenting every autumn. The other main migrating raptor is the Chinese Goshawk. The bulk of Chinese Goshawks migrate a month earlier in September where more than a hundred thousand of them are expected to pass.
So the next day, we drove from Tainan really early at about 4:30 am. As we were nearing Kenting, fellow WBCP members Arnel and Christine Telesforo who were with me for the trip remarked that the trees and the vegetation were not very tall and thaoverall the site reminded them of Batanes.
The Taiwan-Philippines Raptor Connection
We arrived Kenting at about 7am. We parked our car and immediately saw a few lifers including the endemic Taiwan Bulbul. We hurried on to a trail leading up to the viewing platform, located on top of a small hill, from where we had a view of the whole surrounding area. To the south we could see the Luzon Strait. It was said that on a very clear day one of the Batanes islands can actually be seen from there.
The counters were already there when we arrived. One of the counters, Mr. Yang, told us that they count only the birds heading south. They do not count any bird that flies back to the opposite direction.
He also nonchalantly mentioned that almost 6,000 birds had already passed! Were we too late? They said that it is best to be at the site very early. The buzzards that have arrived at Kenting from northern or Central Taiwan the day before have had their night’s rest. They begin flying south right at daybreak. They have to make the most of the good weather if they want to get to the Philippines in time.
In 2008, Taiwanese researchers radio-tagged a number of Gray-faced Buzzards to find out more information about their migratory pattern. They found out that given the ideal wind conditions, GF Buzzards can fly at speeds of up to 50 kilometers per hour. Their normal speed is about 20 to 30 kilometers per hour. Basco, Batanes is just about 190km south of Kenting. Basco is about of 280 kilometers from Aparri, north of Luzon. In theory and depending on weather conditions, the buzzards can fly directly to the Luzon mainland, without having to stop over any of the Batanes or Babuyan islands.
How to Identify Raptors
The counters are full time raptor researchers from the Raptor Research Group of Taiwan (RRGT). They count daily during the whole two-month migration period. They are very experienced at counting and identifying the many different raptors that migrate through.
All raptors have their own distinct shape that one should be familiar with to be able to identify them when viewed from long distances.
Grey-faced Buzzards, for example, are medium-sized, slender-looking raptors. They have long straight wings and long tail. Chinese Goshawks are smaller, about pigeon-sized, and have comparably shorter, rounder wings, which make its tail look relatively longer. Oriental Honey-buzzards are quite large but has a small head compared to its body size and can be told by its long neck that is usually extended like a chicken.
Peregrine Falcons are very fast and robust flyers. Kestrels are of the same family but are smaller than Peregrines and have long, pointed and arched wings. They are usually seen hovering in the air.
Rarer birds like the Eurasian Hobby is also similar to Peregrine Falcon but is smaller and more slender. We were lucky to see one whizzed by just above us. Japanese Sparrowhawks can be told from Chinese Goshawks by their wing shape being rounder at the base.
Undeniably this skill takes a lot of experience before it can be done with relative confidence.
A lot of times, however, the raptors were so near and flying right above us that we were able to identify them based on their main features. Grey-faced Buzzards are so-called for the grey-brown head and grey-cheeks. The adults are redder in color and have barred underparts. The juveniles are more streaked.
Chinese Goshawks have mostly white underparts with pale rufous wash and very distinguishable black wing tips.
There were also other raptors that were non-migratory. The Crested Serpent-Eagles in Taiwan were noticeably bigger compared to the Serpent-Eagles in the Philippines. Besras are quite smaller and have rounder, shorter wings and bluntly pointed at the tip.
Using Raptor Watch to Protect the Birds and Stop Hunters
At the platform was Mr. Tsai Yi-Rung. He is one of the main wardens in Kenting National Park. He has been conducting the raptor counts as early as 1984. I asked him why he thought counting the birds was important. He said that for them the main purpose of the raptor counting was to solve the problem of hunting.
He narrated that in the past before the park was established (Kenting National Park was established in 1984), there would have an average of 70 to 80 hunters frequenting the site every migration season. Every year 30,000 specimens were brought to Japan for private collections. This number does not yet account for the birds that are hunted for game and food.
He also elaborated that Grey-faced Buzzards for example is endemic to East Asia and it is important to protect its habitat throughout its breeding, passage and wintering range. Although considered common, its number is actually in decline. They summer in Russia, Korea, Japan and China and spend the winter in the Philippines and Indonesia.
He further said that with the scientific information collected from counting, they would be able to better persuade the local people to stop hunting. They would also be able to better predict the correct date when the raptors will be around and thus be able to promote Kenting National Park as a birdwatching site.
Now, they know that roughly 30,000 to 40,000 Grey-faced Buzzards and about 150,000 Chinese Goshawks migrate through Taiwan every autumn. There are peak years like in 2008 where these numbers went up to more than 200,000 Chinese Goshawks. This was apparently because no storms came to Taiwan on that year.
During our stay, there were many other locals and students on field trip that came up to the platform. Guides and the wardens would talk about raptor migration and point out at some of the flying birds.
Later in the afternoon, we went around other parts of Kenting National Park. We enjoyed the spectacular scenery and lazily watched the raptors and buzzards flying in from the north. They were flying low and choosing their roost for the night. They were resting and getting ready for the next day’s big journey to the Philippines.