A BIRDING BLOG -
hong kong AND
hong kong AND
Expected additions to the list in September included Swinhoe’s Snipe, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and Dark-sided Flycatcher. But September is also the month when a handful of rare and difficult migrants are possible. The key site here is the wooded parkland at Ho Man Tin which, mainly through the efforts of John Chow, has become identified as an oasis for migrants in urban Kowloon. I was in luck. There, I saw Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher on 2nd, Tiger shrike on 11th (and again on 15th), Siberian Blue Robin on 14th, and Fairy Pitta on 16th. By the end of the month, I was on 341 species.
Sometimes it began to feel that other birders were easily seeing species that I was having difficulty with. There was an obvious passage of Crested Honey Buzzards towards the end of October – it seemed as though you only had to look up to see one flying over – yet I never connected with one. Sakhalin Leaf Warbler was also proving difficult for me. Every ground-haunting Phylloscopus that I recorded on my iPhone – including one at Mai Po that I was convinced was Sakhalin – turned out to be Pale-legged once I generated a sonogram back home on the computer. There was a sense of diminishing returns for the effort involved. I was starting to feel burnt-out. I forced myself to get back out into the field.
In truth, October 2020 was below average in terms of passage through the territory. But as this is Hong Kong, there were still new birds to be added to the list. Species I expected to see were Japanese Quail, Pied Harrier, Black-capped Kingfisher, Amur Falcon, Lanceolated Warbler, Sulphur-breasted Warbler, Eurasian Skylark and Chestnut-eared Bunting. Best birds were a Pale-footed Bush Warbler that I found at Wo Hop Shek – a local patch that had proved poor for most of the autumn, Taiga Bean Geese and Styan’s Grashopper Warbler at Mai Po, and House Sparrow at Lok Ma Chau Village. I also notched up Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler and Ruddy-breasted Crake at Telford Gardens in a small area of flower beds in the middle of high rises, a shopping mall and an MTR station. And I finally connected with a Sakhalin Leaf Warbler in the mosquito-infested copse at Ho Sheung Heung just across the river from Long Valley on 24th.
At the end of October, my total was 356; I had passed Graham’s record.
I aimed for 360, which became 370, and then 380 – numbers far beyond my original expectations. And this was because, after a disappointing October, November proved to be a great month for birds. I saw five species I had never seen in Hong Kong before. The first was a Greenish Warbler at Luk Keng on 2nd (found by John Allcock on 1st), followed by Japanese Reed Bunting on 13th (found by Chris Wu and Tom Lam), Chinese Leaf Warbler at Tai Po Kau on 17th (found by Roman Lo on 16th), Rosy Starling at San Tin on 25th, and Thick-billed Warbler at Lok Ma Chau Village on 26th (one of two found by Paul Leader on 25th). Additional species were a Rosy Pipit at Long Valley found by Matt Kwan on the afternoon of 4th in the same field as he had had one in 2017; I saw it briefly on the following morning thanks to Roman Lo. One of the birds that had been eluding me, even though everyone else seemed to be seeing it with little problem, was Brambling. It had been seen regularly at Po Toi in the past week and a half, so I took the ferry to the island on 12th. It was hot and quiet bird-wise, but did turn up a late Black Baza hawking over the helipad area on three to four occasions, which was an unexpected addition to the list. I finally caught up with Brambling – two in a tree at Long Valley on 14th - after receiving a message from Peter Wong. Other additions included Greater White-fronted Goose, Mandarin Duck and Oriental Stork. By the end of a very productive month, I was on 377 species.
December often becomes rather static in terms of bird movement, but can turn up the odd rarity. The 1st saw me off to Po Toi to look for an Ancient Murrelet that had been found in the harbour by Morten Lisse and his son Ben on 28 November. The ferry was packed with hikers and fishermen, and also about 50 photographers in search of the murrelet. The bird was still present and proved an easy tick. The land was pretty quiet – it had not been a good autumn season for the island and there was little else to be found. However, Matt Kwan heard and saw a Red-breasted Flycatcher in a tree adjacent to the small café at the pier. This bird was on my hit-list. By the time I heard about this, it had disappeared and remained impossible to find. Fortunately, thanks to Graham, we managed to relocate the bird high in a nearby tree not long before the return ferry left the island, bringing me up to 379. The wished for 380 was the resident White-browed Laughingthrush (Cat. IIB) at a site near Tai Po on 5th. On 8th, an Alström's Warbler was found in Tai Po Kau. (A ring on its leg indicated that it had been present since at least 12 November when it was trapped.) I had looked for this species at two different sites where it had been seen in recent weeks, but had both times drawn a blank. I went to Tai Po Kau on 9th, and the bird was seen by others and I glimpsed it in a bird wave but insufficiently to count it. I went back on 10th and this time managed to see it well enough thanks to Morten Lisse.
There were two other birds on my hit-list – Chestnut-flanked White-eye and Baikal Teal. Several of the former and two of the latter had been reported in recent days. I got the white-eye at Tai Lam CP on 11th, after looking at more than enough Swinhoe’s White-eyes than I care to think about. An adult male Baikal Teal had been seen off the Mai Po boardwalk, and a 1st-winter male had also been recorded at pond 11 on the main reserve. On 14th I spent the high tide period looking at the ducks out in Deep Bay but couldn’t find the teal amongst the hundreds of Eurasian Wigeons out there. I then walked back to pond 11 to have a second look for the 1st-winter, which hadn’t been there when I’d looked on my way out to the mudflats. By chance, I met Graham and Peter Wong in the hide and we scanned through the ducks to no avail. Graham and I left. We were nearly back at the car park when Peter rode up on a bicycle and told us the 1st-winter male had flown in after we had left, so we hauled ourselves back to pond 11 and – thanks to Peter - I added another species to my list, bringing me to 383.
The final two birds of the year were real rarities – Grey-backed Shrike (fourth Hong Kong record) at Lam Tsuen, which I saw on 15 December and Eurasian Oystercatcher (sixth Hong Kong record) at Pak Nai. I saw the latter on 22 December, which brought me to the final total of 385.
At the end of his article about his Big Year in 2006, Graham suggested that a total of 365 was a real possibility. That I achieved twenty more than that still surprises me, but we live in different times. I think the main reason I could see so many species, is the increase in communication owing to mobile phones – nowadays, bird news on WhatsApp is virtually instantaneous. There are now also more birders out in the field, several of them on a daily basis.
Throughout this blog, I have mentioned a number of people who found birds and passed on information. I should add Dylan Thomas, Mike Leven, Peter Ho, Benjiman Li and Akshat Khirwal to those already mentioned and apologise for anyone I have inadvertently omitted. I owe special thanks to Roman Lo, Peter Wong and Graham Talbot for their support, particularly during the final months of the year; my list would have been smaller without their input.
Towards the end of the year, people were joking about me reaching a total of 400. This was clearly beyond me, but I believe that it is a distinct possibility in the future. The person who takes on that challenge needs a good birding year, stamina, time, persistence and a certain amount of luck. Someone youthful, I imagine. It won’t be me!