Even though Taiwan is a small island, it has a diverse range of environments where wildlife thrives. From coastal wetlands to bamboo forests and mountainous valleys, wildlife can be found almost everywhere you look. Depending on the season, it’s not difficult to spot an abundance of migratory wildlife – from birds to butterflies – based on when you visit.
Located along the west coast near Taichung, Gaomei Wetlands is one of the most well-known and best-preserved wetland habitats in Taiwan. Spreading over 1,000 hectares, this huge tidal flat is home to unique sedge grass, as well as a diverse mix of wildlife, including birds, fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates.
Originally during the Qing Dynasty, it was known as ‘Gaomi’ before its name changed into Gaomei during the Japanese colonial period when it was a seaside resort in the 1930s.
EXPLORING THE WILDLIFE
To protect the sedge grassland, a unique curved 800m-long boardwalk has been constructed over the water, allowing visitors to explore the environment without damaging it. There are two very different landscapes that you can see on a trip to Gaomei Wetlands depending on the tide. At high tide, the boardwalk literally allows you to walk on water, while the low tide reveals the rich marine life on the tidal flat.
Apart from being a popular spot for amaz- ing sunsets when the boardwalk tends
to pack out, the wetlands is an excellent location for bird-watching, as flocks of mi- gratory birds can be seen throughout the fall and winter seasons. At least 120 avian species call the wetland home – you can spot egrets and wild geese, in addition to the very rare black-faced spoonbill.
At low tide, the waters recede to reveal a very lively tidal flat where you can see plenty of crustaceans (like fiddler crabs) and mudskippers. At the end of the boardwalk, a set of steps lead to the flats where you can walk on the mud and check out sea critters up close. Avoid weekend evenings if you don’t like crowds.
Nearby are a set of windmills (considered romantic in Taiwan) and a picturesque lighthouse, built in 1967 before Taichung Port was established.
Lined along the beachfront are plenty of snack stalls that open from late afternoon until dusk, where you can get freshly-grilled squid and drinks.
To get away from the crowds, stroll along the top of the seawall to the north – there is a pebbly ridge that points to the open sea, a remnant of a pipeline that was built by the Americans during the Vietnam War. The pipeline once carried fuel for the B52 bombers from ships offshore to the current location of Taichung Airport.
There is also a biking route along the wetland, connecting to the port and biking trails in Houli which feature verdant rice farms and local houses.
The Gaomei Wetlands are accessible by bus from Taichung’s railway stations. You can also hire a taxi from the HSR station, or from Qingshui Railway Station. For more, visit travel.taichung.gov.tw.
Situated high in a valley surrounded by mountains on three sides, the Xitou Nature Education Area is a densely forested area that was used during the Japanese colonial era as a training ground for Tokyo University students for their summer re- search. Today, this 2,500 hectare forest is part of an experimental forest belonging to the National Taiwan University, where they grow trees like cedars and spruce.
Thanks to its topography and altitude (1,150m), it rains often in Xitou, leaving it moist and cool year round (averaging 17oC), making it perfect for a summer retreat. Once a small village, Xitou boasts plenty of preserved broadleaf forests, although most of this vast area has been cultivated purposely with clearly-divided zones of trees.
Upon entry, you are greeted with a forest of giant cypress trees which gives the area a prehistoric feel. Myriad hiking trails radiate from this point, each leading to a very different landscape – some along steep mountains, others through serene bamboo groves and towering forests. There’s even a trail dedicated to “forest bathing”.
The best way to explore the giant cypress forest is from the Sky Walk, a 180m-long elevated walkway suspended 22m above ground, from where you can spot tree-dwelling animals, insects and birds.
Many interesting sites dot the area, including an astronomical observatory, the University Pond, and the Giant Tree – a 2,800- year old red cypress tree which survived 3 lightning strikes. There is also a forest of Gingko trees – nicknamed ‘grandfather trees’ due to their slow growth – which are considered living fossils. A big draw here is the large bamboo grove which is criss- crossed with several walking paths, and home to the Bamboo Cottage.
Over 70 varieties of birds can be found in Xitou, making it a good place for bird- watching. Most of the birds are representatives of low and mid-elevation species in Taiwan, including thrushes, warblers, bulbuls and babblers. Most birds are active at dawn and dusk, when you can hear their calls.
As most of these birds are endemic, you can find them year-round. In addition to common residents like the Bush Warbler, White-eared Sibia, and Taiwan Yuhina, you may also be able to spot rarer birds like the colourful Taiwan Barbet, Taiwan Barwing, and Swinhoe’s Pheasant.
While they can be spotted in the thick forested areas, there is also a dedicated Birdwatching Trail which takes you into the mountainous forest and features 2 suspension bridges. The trail takes approximately an hour to complete.
Depending on the season, you can see cherry blossoms, frog breeding at the University Pond or fireflies at night (summer).
Located near Lugu township in the central mountains, Xitou Nature Education Area is accessible by car or bus from Taichung.
Located some 45km east of Kaohsiung in the foothills of the Central Mountain Range, the Maolin National Scenic Area is the southernmost section of Taiwan’s thick mountain spine. This remote Taiwanese hinterland is home to a combination of mountains, vertiginous suspension bridges, waterfalls, and aboriginal heritage.
This area can be divided into 3 sections. If travelling from north to south, you’ll hit Bulao in the north, followed by Maolin and Duona, and ending with Sandimen and Wutai in the south. The only road through the area – County Road 132 – connects Maolin to Duona.
The main drawcard in this mountainous region is the Purple Butterfly Valley, one of only 2 overwintering butterfly valleys in the world (the other being Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Valley). The butterflies are not found in one location, but at a number of sites dotted around the valley. Taiwan’s Purple Crow Butterfly are normal- ly found throughout the island, but when winter arrives, they migrate en masse to the southern mountain valleys which are their winter nesting grounds. Here, you can find four sub-species: Dwarf Crows (75% of Maolin’s butterfly population), Double-branded Black Crows, Striped Blue Crows and Blue-banded King Crows.
No larger than 8cm across, the brown butterflies – with white spots – are referred to as Purple Crows due to the purple iridescence of their wings in sunlight.
Winter is the best time to catch the butterflies from November to March (best between December and January) especially between 9am and 11am. On cooler or rainy days, the butterflies remain motion- less in the trees.
You can book a butterfly tour from the nearby DeenGorge Guest House, run by a Rukai tribesperson.
NATURE AND CULTURE
Maolin is famous for its waterfalls, with 3 very close to Maolin village: Lover’s Gorge, Maolin Waterfall, and Dajin Waterfall.
Across the river from Maolin village is Lover’s Gorge with its multi-tiered waterfall and pretty pools. The first and second tiers are easily accessible; getting to the third and fourth tier requires some scrambling. Not far away is Maolin Waterfall, accessible via a hiking trail that goes through serene stands of bamboo and across two impressive suspension bridges.
Another impressive waterfall is Dajin Waterfall which is the closest to Kaohsiung, and therefore more crowded over the weekends. The falls are accessible via a short uphill and downhill trudge (800 steps) from a nearby temple. A small hiking trail leads you to a smaller waterfall with a perfect pool for swimming.
Another reason for visiting this region is the local people – mainly Rukai, who are known for their beautiful slate houses. To explore their aboriginal culture, you can visit the traditional village of Wutai with its preserved houses, or head to the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Cultural Park.
Maolin is also dotted with suspension bridges, and one of the most iconic is the 103m-tall Duona Suspension Bridge, perched high in the mountains stretch- ing across a deep chasm. It’s the tallest bridge in Taiwan, with the posts decorated in Rukai designs.
Maoilin is accessible via County Road 132, which offers panoramic vistas.There are also buses (www.ptbus.com.tw) from Pingtung City to Sandimen, Wutai, Maolin and Duona. Visit the Maolin NSA website (www.maolin-nsa.gov.tw) for more.