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a big year 2020 (3)
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!
a big year 2020 (2)
I picked up a small number of good birds during this month. Resident Category IIB species included Vinous-throated Parrotbill on top of Tai Mo Shan, and breeding Chestnut-tailed Starlings in Kowloon Tsai Park (with thanks to Lo Chun Fai for directions to the starlings). I went to Po Toi on 12 May to look for the Roseate Terns that nest with Bridled and Black-naped Terns on Castle Rock near the island. The Roseates don’t usually arrive until May and I spent some time near the Tin Hau temple watching several fishing at the entrance to the harbour. Elsewhere, I also managed to connect with two other summer visitors – a Lesser Cuckoo heard at Tai Po Kau on 15 May (later seen at Mai Po on 22 May) and a Malayan Night Heron near Tai Tong shortly after dawn on 14 May. Most unexpected was a Common Cuckoo found by Peter and Michelle Wong at Mai Po on 20 May – only the second record for Hong Kong; this bird was vocal which made identification straightforward. The final hoped-for bird of the month was a Cotton Pygmy Goose found at Mai Po on 28th by Banson Leung.
June and July
These are the dead months bird-wise in Hong Kong. I managed to add two species in June – Slaty-breasted Rail at Mai Po on 4th, and Common Emerald Dove at Hok Tau on 12th. July was slightly more productive and brought four new species for the list – three of them not entirely unexpected (Black-winged Kite, Eurasian Hobby and Brown-breasted Flycatcher) but one totally off the radar. This was a Ryukyu Scops Owl near Sheung Shui. This bird had first been heard briefly by John Holmes back in May but had remained unidentified. It was heard again, and also seen by John on 25th July, and eventually pinned down as a Ryukyu Scops Owl, apparently of the Lanyu subspecies, by John Allcock. I saw the bird on 28th. Quite how this island scops owl ended up inland in southern China is a matter of conjecture - and it is up to the HKBWS Records Committee to decide on its status - but for the moment it remains on my Big Year list!
And at last, in the final week of the month, the start of autumn migration. I picked up expected Eastern Crowned Warbler and Amur Paradise Flycatcher. I also headed out to the Cheung Sha Wan Wholesale Food Market in urban Nam Cheong on the advice of Carrie Ma to add House Crow (Category IIB) to the list – this is not a species that you come across casually. I added six species in total during the month.
a big year 2020(1)
385 species recorded
There is not a strong emphasis on the Big Year in Hong Kong. The two cases I am aware of involve Richard Lewthwaite who saw 328 species in 1995 and Graham Talbot’s record of 350 species in 2006 - see Graham's account in HKBWS Bullletin number 207, Spring 2008 at: https://www.hkbws.org.hk/cms/en/resource/publication/bulletin?start=40 .
I am not a great twitcher or lister. Even now, it surprises me that I began a Big Year in the first place and, perhaps more so, that I managed to see it through to the end of December. I certainly didn’t begin 2020 with a definite commitment to record as many birds in Hong Kong as I could during the year.
I lead guided birding tours for foreign birders visiting or passing through Hong Kong. I had several bookings in January, which proceeded without a hitch but then in late January the coronavirus pandemic began and my guided birding outings came to an abrupt halt. Once the coronavirus interrupted our lives, I decided I needed a focus to keep me going during the year. A Big Year became a personal challenge and Graham’s tally of 350 seemed a good figure to aim for. Unsure of what the exact rules were (if there are any!), I decided to limit the birds I could count to species in Category I, IIA & IIB only. I included heard-only species, although tried to limit these as much as possible. I still ended up, somewhat unsatisfactorily, with five heard-only species but I console myself with the fact that they are all of birds I’ve seen previously in Hong Kong and they are all valid records in terms of the Hong Kong Bird Report. A full list of the 385 species can be found here.
I can't remember exactly when I decided to commit to the Big Year, but it must have been around 23 January when I twitched a female Fire-capped Tit at Kadoorie Farm. I had seen the first for Hong Kong in January 2019 – at the same site; in fact, in the same tree – and had also seen a few in Sichuan in summer 2019, so I would not normally have made the effort to see it again. However, it must have been on my mind that it was an excellent bird for the year list, and not to be passed up lightly.
In terms of a Big Year in Hong Kong, January is the time when you’re going to record the greatest number of species for the list in a single month. Graham scored 181 in 2006; I managed 183. These naturally included a good spread of common resident and wintering species, but there were also some scarce/rare species – the kind of species which are the bread-and-butter of a Big Year if you’re going to come up with a respectable total.
The autumn/winter of 2019 had been particularly good for rarities and some of these lingered into 2020. Thus, I got Chinese Grey Shrike, Rufous-faced Warbler and Kloss’s Leaf Warbler on the list, as well as other species – Northern Lapwing, Bull-headed Shrike, Asian House Martin, Forest Wagtail, White-spectacled Warbler, Mrs Gould’s Sunbird, Common Rosefinch and Crested Bunting – which although more-or-less annual, are not necessarily guaranteed.
I added 35 new species to the list in February; many of these were scarce birds that I realized I might not come across again in future months. Mai Po turned up Falcated Duck, Gadwall, Mallard and Greater Scaup– all ducks which used to be commoner than they now are. I also had Mew (Kamchatka) and Slaty-backed Gulls from the Mai Po boardwalk. Best, however, were wintering forest birds – Fujian Niltava at Lau Shui Heung, and Collared Owlet, Hill Blue Flycatcher and Chestnut-crowned Warbler at Tai Po Kau.
It was Tai Lam Country Park, however, that came up trumps. I saw a female Small Niltava there on 6 February. Doing a Big Year inevitably brings days that linger in the memory; 17 February proved to be one of those days. On the trail from Kap Lung to Ho Pui in Tai Lam CP, near the narrow head of a forested stream known colloquially among birders as the “magic valley”, I saw Japanese Robin, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher and a roosting Collared Scops Owl, all in the same general area. I knew that the first two were wintering there, but the owl was a surprise; although common in Hong Kong, the species is easy to hear but not at all easy to see.
Other good additions to the list in February included Radde’s Warbler, Black-headed Bunting and Red-headed Bunting at Long Valley, and a much-photographed Eyebrowed Thrush at Yuen Long Park.
March to April
The good winter records extended into early March before spring migration properly began. On 2nd, from the Mai Po boardwalk, I relocated a Common Shelduck that had been seen flying over the main reserve on 26 February by John Allcock. This species was not on my hit-list. It used to be very common out in Deep Bay (highest count 4011 on 17 Jan 1988) but had undergone a rapid decline after the turn of the century; there had been no sightings since 2013. Other good sightings in early March included a flock of Grey-capped Greenfinches on the dam at Tai Mei Tuk, a Long-billed Dowitcher at Mai Po, and a party of Eurasian Siskins at Shek Kong.
Spring migration commenced in the second part of the month. There are three key sites to cover at this time of the year for anyone doing a Big Year. The first, of course, is Mai Po which is a key site for all of the year but is essential in spring for passage shorebirds. The second place is Po Toi. The third is the waters south of Hong Kong for a number of migrant seabirds.
To take each of these in turn, Mai Po turned up the expected spring waders including Asian Dowitcher, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Little Stint and Sanderling. One wader that birders always hope to see but one that is not guaranteed is the enigmatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Although still annual (just) at Mai Po in spring, it can be elusive; I had not seen it in 2019. Fortunately, this year was better than most; at least two birds were present between 7 & 13 April (for more details see https://www.birdinghongkong.com/april-2020.html), one of which was a headstarted bird. Many birders, myself included, were able to get decent views especially on the scrape at high tide. Other good birds at Mai Po included Chinese Egret, Blue-tailed Bee-eater and a male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.
The island of Po Toi is the best site to look for certain spring migrants that can be hard to find elsewhere in Hong Kong. Fortunately, the ferries continued to run to the island in spite of the coronavirus. I visited the island eleven times between and 19 March and 26 April. Highlights included Chinese Sparrowhawk, Oriental Cuckoo, Swinhoe’s Minivet, Chestnut-cheeked Starling, and a number of flycatchers (Blue-and-white, Ferruginous, Narcissus and Grey-streaked). Best, however, was a Goldcrest – a first for Hong Kong - that I was lucky enough to find on 31 March.
Chartered boat trips into southern waters from Aberdeen are now a part of the ornithological calendar in Hong Kong. They are arranged by Carrie Ma and, although rather hit-and-miss in what they turn up, they are really the only means of seeing certain marine species in Hong Kong. I went on one trip in March, and two in April and managed to see eight species that I would not otherwise have seen. These were Greater Crested Tern, Common Tern, Aleutian Tern, Pomarine Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Streaked Shearwater and Short-tailed Shearwater, all of which are regular in spring. A bonus on 30 April was a Brown Booby which flew past the boat as we were heading back to Aberdeen. This was the 13th record for the territory, and a Hong Kong first for me.
I had other good birds in spring away from these main sites. At the end of March, the ridge road in Tai Lam CP that leads from Route Twisk to Tai Lam Reservoir is a potential site for raptors and needletail swifts. On 27 March, I was fortunate enough to connect with two Silver-backed Needletails there. In addition, I found a Common Swift at Long Valley on 3 April and watched it feeding low over one of the ponds for half an hour. I also found a Glossy Ibis at Lut Chau on 9 April.
I also made a concerted effort to connect with Chinese Grassbird this year, a species I hadn’t seen for a few years in spite of searching for it in suitable habitat at Tai Mo Shan. This year I tried a different tack and on 18 April walked up the steepish steps to Ping Fung Shan from Hok Tau. Richard Lewthwaite had had this species as well as Upland Pipit here in May 2017 during a breeding survey. I found both species and had good views of a pair of Chinese Grassbirds, as well as another bird on territory. I heard Upland Pipit singing high up on a hillside but unfortunately failed to see it. I was also rewarded with two White-throated Needletails whooshing low over my head.
I added 43 species in March and 49 in April, which left me with a total of 310 species. This was 80.5% of my overall total of 385.