High Mountain Ecology
SOME 10.3 PERCENT OF TAIWAN'S LAND AREA IS MORE THAN 2,500 METERS ABOVE SEA LEVEL. VERY FEW HUMANS LIVE PERMANENTLY AT THIS LEVEL; IT REMAINS A REALM OF FORESTS, WILD ANIMALS, AND BIRDS. BY STEVEN CROOK
They were Formosan Sambars, Taiwan's largest herbivores. In their brown winter camouflage they were hard to spot until they moved, which they did as soon as they noticed our approach.
Harder to find are Taiwan's Formosan Black Bears, the country's only indigenous ursine species. These famous denizens of the Central Mountain Range differ from many other bears in that they don't hibernate. They've been known to steal food from hikers' packs while the humans are sleeping, but generally they keep a very low profile.
TAIWAN'S AVIAN POPULATION has been drawing increasing attention from foreign birdwatchers, many of whom come here in the hope of glimpsing species which exist nowhere else.
One of the most prized of these is the Mikado Pheasant, which inhabits sparse forest and bamboo groves from 1,800 meters to 3,300 meters. Despite its Japanese-sounding name, this bird is a genuine endemic. A pair is depicted on Taiwan's NT$1,000 bank bills, with the main peak of Yushan as the backdrop.
Males are blackish; their feathers have distinct glossy purple-blue edges, and their tails are black with white bars. The females are smaller and grayish.
Unfortunately, the Mikado Pheasant is both rare and shy. You're much more likely to come across the Taiwan Flamecrest, a tiny but colorful warbler. In the warmer months these birds can be found very high in the mountains, just below the peak of Mt. Syue (Snow Mountain), for instance.
On the same mountain, Vinaceous Rosefinches hang around the doorways of hikers' huts, ready to pick up any crumbs. You don't have to go far out of your way to see the Taiwan Laughing Thrush. In Yushan National Park, on the trail from Tatajia to Paiyun Cottage, hikers will almost certainly see this largish and amazingly tame bird, as it tends to scamper along the trail, oblivious to people.
If you want to learn more about Taiwan's birds, a good website is www.birdingintaiwan.com, which profiles the island's endemics, endemic subspecies, and some of the other 500-plus species found here.
New plants, usually physically tiny and location-specific species, are still being discovered in Taiwan.
FISH AREN'T USUALLY ASSOCIATED WITH HIGH MOUNTAINS, but Taiwan's alpine creeks are home to a fascinating species that is a relic of the last Ice Age.
The Formosan Landlocked Salmon used to be like other salmon - born in freshwater, migrating to the ocean, then returning to freshwater to reproduce. But when the Ice Age came to an end, its need for water colder than 18 degrees Celsius meant it was able to survive only in places like the Cijiawan Stream inside Shei-Pa National Park.
Last spring, the park authorities opened the Formosan Landlocked Salmon Ecological Center to better coordinate conservation work and public-education efforts. It's well worth dropping by here, or any one of the other visitor centers in national parks around Taiwan, before heading off in search of fish, flowers, and fauna. You'll learn a lot, both about local ecology and your responsibility as a visitor to protect it.