A BIRDING BLOG -
hong kong AND
hong kong AND
I occasionally get requests for general natural history tours and recently a Canadian photographer asked if we could look for “butterflies/reptiles/amphibians” on March 21st.
The weather during the preceding days left me doubtful, especially after a day of rain on 19th. However, there was a dramatic change on 20th when the sun came out and temperatures in the New Territories reached 29⁰ Celsius.
The next day was similar, with the sun emerging after a misty start. We focussed on two areas: the Outdoor Study Centre at Tai Po Kau in the morning and the butterfly reserve at Fung Yuen near Tai Po in the afternoon. Fortunately, the change in the weather had led to a burst of activity providing decent photographic opportunities. I took my camera along too and managed to take a few shots of the creatures we chanced upon.
The Banded Tree Brown is a woodland species that occurs from northern India east to Fujian and south to Java, It is common in Hong Kong, especially from February to May.
This individual sat sunning itself near the top of a bush for over half an hour, seemingly oblivious to the people passing close by. This species is widely distributed from Iran east to southern China and south to Sumatra. It is common throughout Hong Kong.
This large, warty toad occurs from Sri Lanka to central and southern China, south to Indonesia. It is widespread and abundant in Hong Kong.
This butterfly occurs from India east to Taiwan and south to the Philippines. It is fairly common in Hong Kong and is on the wing throughout the year.
This species occurs from Madagascar east through southeast Asia, southern China, Australia and New Zealand to islands in the Pacific. It is common in Hong Kong.
The White Dragontail is the smallest swallowtail in the world. It has a distinctive energetic flight quite unlike most other butterfly species. It can be found from India east to southern China and south to the Philippines. In Hong Kong, it occurs at a few locations in the northern New Territories, including Tai Po Kau and Fung Yuen.
An attractive and abundant dragonfly in Hong Kong that is on the wing for most of the year.
There were at least three of these lizards in the same area at Fung Yuen, noisily chasing each other around in courtship rituals. This species occurs in south China and Vietnam and is, according to the reference I have, common in many cultivated areas of the New Territories, Lantau and Cheung Chau. However, as far as I recall, this is the first time I have seen the species in the territory.
Oh, and there were birds as well but generally unphotographable. Most conspicuous were the Crested Serpent Eagles, made active by the sun. Two were flying and calling over the Outdoor Study Centre in Tai Po Kau, one was over Tai Po Kau Park and we also had one over Fung Yuen. The Oudoor Study Centre also held a Japanese Thrush and a Grey-backed Thrush, as well as a Speckled Piculet heard drumming for food.
The Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo is perhaps not one of birdwatchers’ favourite birds. It is too common for that, as well as being perceived as rather inelegant. As a fish-eater, it is disliked in many parts of the world by those involved with commercial fisheries and has been persecuted in the past. However, current global populations are high.
The race that occurs in Hong Kong is Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis, which ranges from western Europe eastwards through central Asia to eastern Russia, India and China. It is one of the most abundant birds at Mai Po in the winter and, to my mind, the reserve would be far less atmospheric without these birds. Those that occur here are thought to breed in Mongolia or perhaps a little further to the north in Russia. Birds are usually present from the first week of October through to the second week of April with peak numbers occurring in January and February. The majority of birds depart in the second half of March.
Up to 10,000 winter in Deep Bay. (The highest count is 11,424 in February 2005; the peak count in the last winter [2015/2016] survey was 8,247 in January.) This is around 8-10% of the regional population, making this one of the most important wintering sites for Great Cormorants in Asia.
The birds may be seen as a threat to the fish in the commercial ponds around Mai Po. Some of these ponds have thin wires strung across them to deter the cormorants and this appears to be effective in reducing predation on fish by the cormorants. The majority of cormorants, however, seem to feed out in Deep Bay or offshore in other areas when large shoals of fish are discovered.
Mai Po itself is mainly used as a safe roosting and loafing site by the birds; the trees near the Education Centre are particularly favoured and slowly turn white during the winter due to the birds’ droppings. Come March, the trees look lifeless but once the cormorants depart, the leaves grow back and the trees seem none the worse for the wear.
The images that follow were taken when I was preparing Mai Po: The Seasons-A Photographic Essay.
I have spent some time on three afternoons recently walking the bunds between the fish ponds at San Tin, bird watching and taking photographs. I like this area. It is quiet; there are few people around apart from the fish farmers going about their business. In many ways, it’s a place “far from the madding crowd” – or it would be were it not for the metropolis of Shenzhen a stone’s throw away. Once - even in my time here - most of that modernistic city was like San Tin, undeveloped countryside. No more.
San Tin is very birdy. Egrets are everywhere, feeding on discarded dead fish, or live fish when a pond is drained down. Great Cormorants are constantly flying overhead and Black-faced Spoonbills fly over too, sometimes coming down to feed on drained ponds although they are shyer than the egrets and often fly off when they detect a human presence.
Waders frequent the sides of the ponds: mainly tringa sandpipers – Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers, and Common Greenshanks – but also Black-winged Stilts.
Duck frequent the less disturbed ponds. I saw Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal and a single Garganey during my afternoon visits, but the most obvious birds on the ponds are Little Grebes. One pond held 25 of these birds.
Black Kites are common scavengers here, as are Collared Crows. Other birds of prey I’ve noted on my recent visits are Common Kestrel, Western Osprey and a juvenile Pied Harrier; the latter is rare in Hong Kong outside the autumn migration period but this individual seems to be wintering here. Other bird watchers have reported Eastern Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles – perhaps more likely in the early morning than the afternoon.
Black-headed Gulls also fly in from Deep Bay to feed over the ponds. On February 12th, they were joined by four Whiskered Terns - the first 2017 record of this species on its spring migration through Hong Kong.
The bunds themselves hold a number of Eastern Yellow and White Wagtails, and Richard’s, Red-throated and Olive-backed Pipits, as well as Little Buntings and Stejneger’s Stonechats.
Other common birds here are kingfishers – Common, Pied and White-throated - and a variety of mynas, starlings and doves. The latter birds often feed on the heaps of discarded white bread crusts that are presumably put out by the farmers on the bunds as supplemental fish food. Species I’ve seen on my three February visits are Common and Crested Mynas, Black-collared, White-shouldered, White-cheeked and Red-billed Starlings, and Spotted, Eurasian Collared, Red Turtle and Oriental Turtle Doves.
The images that follow were taken during my recent visits.
Text and images copyright David Diskin
One of the rewards of being a birding guide is that each day is different. On January 27th I’d taken out a couple from Australia. As the high tide was at Mai Po in the morning, I’d picked them up from Kam Sheung Road station and we’d headed for the wetland reserve with a brief stop at Kam Tin River en route. The day was clear and very warm and we had a fairly leisurely time. We walked out to Deep Bay for the tide, then back onto the reserve and around the scrape, finishing at Long Valley in the afternoon. Because of the time of the tide, we didn’t do any forest birding but still came up with a total of 88 species, including Black-faced Spoonbill, Saunders’s Gull, Eastern Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles, and the wintering Siberian Crane on the scrape. At Long Valley, the highlights were Greater Painted-snipe and Eastern Water Rail.
From Tai Po Kau, we drove to Long Valley, arriving in the middle of the day. Fortunately, the area was quiet - the first day of CNY is one where people are preoccupied with family celebrations and the countryside is far less busy that it usually is at the weekend or on public holidays. Here, the weather turned cloudy and rainy. As on the previous day, I found Greater Painted-snipe and Eastern Water Rail in the same places, and the usual open country birds – Sooty-headed Bulbul, Red-throated Pipit, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail - were more in evidence than they had been yesterday.
Which left the remainder of the afternoon. I had been considering going to San Tin, but decided to opt for Mai Po access road and the Kam Tin River along Pok Wai South Road. The access road and the area between the Mai Po office and the AFCD reception usually hold a number of common species and my hope was that we might pick up a flyover Black-faced Spoonbill. Luckily, that proved to be the case and my clients managed to connect with Mai Po’s flagship bird. We were also fortunate to see a small party of Chinese Grosbeaks feeding on Chinaberry berries near the AFCD office.
And so to Kam Tin River before I dropped my clients off at Kam Sheung Road station. This is not an area I know very well, but I had visited on the previous day with my Australian clients on the way to Mai Po. That had been on a rising tide where the riverside mud was being covered by the tide. Now I was aiming for the falling tide and calculated that there would be some exposed mud at the time of our visit. This turned out to be the case and from the road beside the river, we were fortunate enough to see a single Black-faced Spoonbill and four Grey-headed Lapwings. Other water birds were in evidence, including ducks and tringa sandpipers – Marsh Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank. A nearby flowering Red Cotton Tree held at least three White-shouldered Starlings – a bird which is regular in the northwest New Territories in summer but very scarce in winter.
We finished the day with a total of 102 species.
Note that all photographs are from my archives as I don’t carry my camera when guiding.
All images are © David Diskin.
Long Valley has long been one of my favourite birding sites in Hong Kong. I’ve been birding there since the 1990s and have enduring memories of a time when the rivers were natural banked and flooding was frequent. In particular, I recall October 3 1995 when Typhoon Sibyl hit the territory and the northern part of the valley was transformed into a lake. Three hundred White-winged Terns were flying over the flooded fields with a single Bridled Tern amongst them.
With the channelling of the rivers, flooding is a thing of the past. There have been other changes; most notably, the working relationship between conservation groups and the farmers has helped to enhance the ecology of the area. In particular, the rice-growing projects have brought in more seed-eating birds, notably buntings, to the fields.
Since the harvest in late November/early December, the fields have been relatively quiet. However, I visited the area during the last two hours of daylight on January 18 and saw some good birds: White’s Thrush; a Black-winged Kite preening on one of the wires and later hovering in search of food over the fields; Eastern Buzzard and Peregrine Falcon; four Little Buntings; Eastern Water Rail and – best of all - a male Siberian Rubythroat.
There is something enigmatic about Siberian Rubythroat. It is, in fact, a common winter visitor and passage migrant, but because of its skulking nature and its preference for little-visited areas of grassland-shrubland, it is a bird I seldom see. Therefore, I decided to return on the following day to try and photograph the bird and also the Eastern Water Rail which I had seen very near the rubythroat site.
The rubythroat showed well briefly just after dawn, but the rail was nowhere to be seen. While I was there, I also spent some time taking pictures of some of the other birds in the valley – the first time I’d actually taken bird photographs for several months. Some of these images are shown below, although I confess the Eastern Water Rail was taken in the area in January 2015.
Eastern Water Rail is a scarce winter visitor to Hong Kong. It occurs more or less annually at Long Valley.
You have to look hard and be patient to see the rubythroat and rail at Long Valley in winter. The water birds shown below, however, can usually be seen quite easily by the casual observer walking through the fields.
Finally, a couple of more species that I managed to photograph today. The Crested Myna is a common resident species that will be familiar to many people living in Hong Kong. The small, attractive Zitting Cisticola is more local; it is mainly a passage migrant and winter visitor to grassy and reed marsh areas. Long Valley is a good place to look for it but it is far less numerous than it used to be in the 1990s.
In my capacity as a bird guide, I was out in the field on December 2nd, 2016 with Mark Hodgson from Wisconsin, USA . Mark recently sent me a couple of photographs of greenshanks he took on the outing asking for confirmation of the ID: Nordmann’s Greenshank and Common Greenshank.
With Mark’s permission, I’ve put the images on this page as they show clearly the features for separating Nordmann’s from Common in non-breeding plumage, even though the bill of the Nordmann’s (and the Common) is not visible.
Non-breeding Nordmann’s is generally paler than Common. It has a thin grey line in the centre of the scapulars, coverts & tertials and thin white fringes to these feathers but no other markings, so it is rather plain in appearance. Common is usually darker and is much more patterned with lots of dark notching on the feathers.
There are sometimes paler Common Greenshank around, and they can initially suggest Nordmann’s, but they always show vestiges of the darker notching when looked at closely. The head patterning is also different, being paler and mottled on Nordmann’s, darker and streaked on Common.
Nordmann’s Greenshank is one of Mai Po’s special birds. It is a limited-range wader, breeding in a relatively small area of eastern Russia ( Sakhalin Island and the adjacent mainland) and wintering locally in coastal areas of north-east India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, south to Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. With an estimated global population of c.1300 birds, it is classified as Endangered by the IUCN.
In Hong Kong it is a regular spring passage migrant with a high count of 58 on April 13, 1993. It is rare in autumn and winter. The bird in the photograph has been present at Mai Po from November 2016 and can usually be observed from the southern hide on a 2.0-metre tide.
Also on December 2, 2016 Mark and I were fortunate enough to see a recently-arrived adult Siberian Crane accompanied by a juvenile out on the mud flats in front of the southern hide. We first saw them from the northern hide and walked back to the southern hide to observe them more closely. Unfortunately, the birds flew off onto the reserve just after we arrived at the hide but Mark managed to take a few quick shots before they disappeared. I’ve included one of those shots here.
An adult has remained in the area since then and can currently be seen on pond 16/17. This may be the same individual as the bird on December 2nd, but as two adults were seen by an observer on December 17th , this may be a different individual.
Since the first record on December 2nd, several of my clients have seen the Siberian Crane.
All images are © Mark Hodgson. Many thanks to Mark for allowing me to post them here.