in the field -
a hong kong
a hong kong
1 - 6 February, 2019 Chiang Saen Lake, Northern Thailand
I felt the need to get away for a few days. I flew from Hong Kong to Chiang Rai via Bangkok on 31 January 2019. The idea was to pick up a hire-care and drive to Chiang Saen Lake where I had booked accommodation for six nights. Unfortunately, there was a delay at Hong Kong and I didn’t make my booked connection, so I had to overnight in Chiang Rai. I drove to Chiang Saen the following morning for what was now a five-night stay.
I stayed at the Viang Yonok Hotel on the shore of the northeastern corner of Chiang Saen Lake. The lake is one of the foremost sites for waterfowl in Thailand. Lesser Whistling Ducks are abundant and Indian Spot-billed Ducks are common. It used to be a reliable place for Baer’s Pochard but, as at other birding sites where this species used to occur regularly, this is no longer the case.
I spent a lot of time in the vicinity of the hotel in the northeast and east section of the lake. This section of the lake is usually referred to as Nong Bok Khai Non-hunting Area. There are good views over the water from here in the early morning, although a scope is necessary to observe the ducks out in the middle of the lake – notably Ferruginous Duck amongst a flock of Eurasian Coot. A road runs south beside the lake from the hotel and I often just walked a kilometre down the road before heading back to the hotel. On the 5th, however, I explored the area 2 -3 kilometres down the road which is more wooded and is good for such birds as Long-tailed Minivet and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher.
I also visited the northern section of the lake at Wat Phrathatsiwiangkam. In particular, the road leading to the temple climbs a hillside, offering good scopeable views over the lake in the afternoon. Hundreds of Asian Openbills and ducks were visible from here.
I also visited a few other places in the immediate vicinity of Chiang Saen, notably Wat Bamanko which is one of the key birding sites in the area because of the Pied and Eastern Marsh Harriers that come into roost at dusk. Reports suggest the ratio is 2:1 with recently up to 200 Pied Harriers, 100 Eastern Marsh Harriers, and the odd Western Marsh and Hen Harrier being seen.
A few of the photographs I took during my stay are reproduced below.
Lesser Whistling Ducks were the most conspicuous water birds at the lake, with several thousand being present in the area. The second commonest duck was Indian Spot-billed Duck with birds present in various wetland areas; I counted 320 near Wat Phrathatsiwiangkam on 4th February. A flock of 500 Garganey was also present in the same area on 4th. Ferruginous Ducks were also present among Eurasian Coots on the lake, visible - through a scope - from the balcony of the chalet I was staying in. I counted 37 amongst 400 coot on 4th.
Other obvious water birds from my balcony were Grey-headed Swamphens, and they were common elsewhere around the lake too. There were at least 96 in the vicinity of Wat Phrathatsiwiangkam on 4th.
I only saw one or two Asian Openbills in the eastern section of the lake where I was staying, but I counted 340 near Wat Phrathatsiwiangkam , again on 4th.
Pheasant-tailed Jacanas were regularly noted in ones and twos in the lakeside vegetation
A number of birds perched on roadside wires at the eastern corner of the lake, notably Ashy Woodswallows and Striated Swallows.
The Black Isle 29 July - 2 August
Back at the Black Isle, I managed to squeeze in visits to three sites. The first was the Fairy Glen at Rosemarkie on 30 July. This is an area of deciduous woodland beside a stream; a trail through the forest follows the stream to a waterfall. The woodland, as you would expect at the end of July, was rather quiet but I saw a few common birds including Coal Tit and Treecreeper. My target bird , however, was Dipper, and I managed to see and photograph one near the car park.
On 31 July I went to Chanonry Point, also near Rosemarkie, in search of the Botttlenose Dolphins which are regularly seen there. This is a popular site; at least a hundred people were lined up on the shingle beach observing several dolphins that were swimming close to the shore on the rising tide. For the hour I was there, only their backs and dorsal fins were visible apart from a five minute period when two or three of the dolphins suddenly started leaping above the water. I only managed to get a couple of not altogether satisfactory shots of the dolphins in action.
After viewing the dolphins, I headed a few miles east to the RSPB Red Kite feeding station at Tollie. I remember seeing my first Red Kites in the 1970s at Cors Tregaron in central Wales. At the time, this was only the place where Red Kites occurred in Britain – a relict population of a species that was once widespread here (there are references to the bird in Shakespeare). A reintroduction scheme began in 1989 with birds from Spain, where there is a healthy population, being released in the Chilterns and the Black Isle. The success of the initial project has led to further reintroductions at several sites in England and Scotland.
Red Kites can often be seen flying over the fields and woods on the Black Isle, but at Tollie food is put out for the birds daily in the afternoon enabling visitors to get good views of the birds. When I was there, two birds were flying overhead and swooping down to take food laid out on a raised table. More birds come down to feed in winter.
North Uist 24 - 29 July
We drove from the Black Isle across to Skye. In Uig Harbour there were five Common Eiders, a Shag and a Black Guillemot.
We took the car ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy in North Uist. It was a cloudy morning with strong swells but with plenty of seabirds on the crossing. From the deck, I saw plenty of Northern Gannets, Fulmars, Arctic Terns, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots and Black Guillemots, plus a flock of 25 Common Scoters, three Manx Shearwaters and four European Storm Petrels.
After arriving on North Uist, we headed to Grenitote where a Snowy Owl had been seen on the previous two days. Unfortunately, the owl was not recorded again during our stay, but en route we had a Short-eared Owl quartering the machair adjacent to the road, and in the grassland adjoining the sandy bay at Grenitote there were a number of common waders, gulls and passerines including Meadow Pipits, Corn Buntings and Twite.
We spent the morning walking the nature trail at RSPB reserve at Balranald. The leaflet from the visitor centre states that the reserve “comprises 658 ha of rocky headlands, islands, sandy bays, grasslands, inland lochs, machair and fen. These habitats support internationally important populations of several birds, notably the Corncrake… Many wading and farmland birds nest on the flower-rich machair and croft-land.”
Unfortunately, a strong wind was blowing from the south during our visit, making birdwatching and photography difficult in this exposed area. (The temperature here was 18⁰C; in London, on the same day, the temperature reached 35⁰C!) North Uist is one of the best places for breeding waders in Britain, holding summer populations of Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Common Snipe and Common Redshank, with smaller numbers of Eurasian Curlew, Golden Plover and Common Greenshank, and a few Red-necked Phalaropes. We didn’t see snipe or golden plover today, but we saw the rest, including a single phalarope beside one of the tiny freshwater lochs next to the sea on the reserve. There were migrant Dunlin and Sanderling on the beaches. Offshore there was a steady southerly movement of Northern Gannets and I also picked out a few Manx Shearwaters. A Great Skua flew south on the landwards side of the dunes. Driving back to Lochmaddy along the A867, an Arctic Skua flew across the road in front of the car.
The wind combined with light rain in the morning made for unpleasant walking in exposed areas – and the landscape is very exposed on these islands. The wooded area around Langass Lodge held Blackbird, Robin and Goldcrest. On the moorland hills above the lodge we visited a Neolithic stone circle, sheltering from the driven rain behind the largest rock in the complex. Above us, a female Hen Harrier hunted low over the heather. Our walk talk us higher and then downhill to Langass Wood – a conifer plantation of non-native Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine. There, we saw a family of three Common Buzzards, three Chaffinches, a Wren and more Goldcrests. Walking back along the main to the lodge, we spotted a female red-breasted Merganser on one of the bare, open lochs.
Later, we drove south through Benbecula to South Uist, stopping briefly at various sites. Smaller lochs held the odd Mallard and Tufted Duck. Loch Bee had 50+ Mute Swans, and 50+ Greylag Geese. A Red-throated Diver flew over the road from the sea towards Loch Druidibeg. On the moors along the side of the loch we turned up three Common Kestrels, three Ravens and two Hooded Crows.
The morning was fine. The wind dropped. We headed out to Balranald and walked the nature trail again. In the calm conditions, a Corncrake called from crops close to the camp site and a Common Snipe flew overhead. Out on the beach at the southern end of the headland called Aird an Runair there were 250 Dunlins, 20+ Sanderlings and 22 Turnstones. The waders took flight when an Arctic Skua flew overhead. Nine Eiders and a juvenile Shelduck were on the sea close to the shore. Several Wheatears were scattered around the grassy headland. As we headed back to the car, the wind increased in strength and storm clouds gathered to the south. Soon rain began to fall, ending our birding for the day.
We caught the ferry back to Skye. A force 8 gale was blowing, making the sea rougher than on the outward journey. I saw the same sea birds as before and counted at least 18 Manx Shearwaters and six European Storm Petrels. Additional birds consisted of six Sooty Shearwaters, a Great Skua and an Arctic Skua.
The Black Isle 21 - 23 July
A summer break from Hong Kong. My wife and I headed to Britain, mainly for family matters. Our first stop was on the Black Isle, north of Inverness. I spent some time watching birds at a feeder through the kitchen window of the house where we were staying. The garden offers a good cover of bushes and trees and the feeder attracts a variety of common British birds.
The birds tend to come to the feeder and remain for a little while before retreating to the cover of the trees and bushes in the garden. They have a reason for being wary. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk in search of easy pickings is a regular visitor. On the first day I was there, a female sparrowhawk flew in and perched on a frame supporting protective netting over a patch of vegetables (visible in the first photograph above). The hawk waited patiently before plunging down into one of the bushes below the frame. It remained - an invisible presence in the vegetation - for several minutes before emerging and flying away. The Collins Bird Guide notes that the sparrowhawk "hunts with surprise attack and fast flight, often low amongst trees, bushes and buildings. Will even pursue small birds on foot under and through bushes".
It is only relatively recently that people have become aware of the movement of seabirds through Hong Kong coastal waters in spring. The first records of Short-tailed Shearwater and Streaked Shearwater, for example, were not until 2004 and 2005 respectively. Such records have prompted birders to explore further and there are now regular privately-arranged excursions offshore in April and early May. This spring I was fortunate enough to go out on two of these trips on 28 April and 12 May, and the following images are from those outings.
Aleutian Terns were first recorded in Hong Kong in 1992, presumably having been passed off as Common Terns prior to that date. It breeds in eastern Russia and Alaska; winter sightings have come from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines south to Australia. It is a regular passage migrant through Hong Kong waters, with the extreme dates on spring migration being 5 April to 7 June, and in autumn 2 August to 29 October. The highest count is of 865 from Cape D'Aguilar on 2 May 1999 during the passage of Typhoon Leo. The peak count in recent years is of 430 flying south off Po Toi on 9 September 2010.
Bridled Terns are passage migrants and summer visitors to Hong Kong. They breed in Mirs Bay and on Po Toi rock. They have been recorded between 12 April and 15 October and the highest count is 749 on 25 September 1993 during Typhoon Dot. The highest count of breeding birds in Mirs Bay is of 650 in summer 2004.
The Pomarine Skua is a scarce & irregular spring migrant though offshore waters, with occasional autumn sightings (usually during typhoons). It has been noted between 10 February and 16 May, and between 26 September and 5 November. The highest count is 47 on 16 Oct 1998 during Typhoon Babs. It was recorded in only seven years from 2000 to 2015, with a peak count of ten on 10 March 2007. It breeds on the tundra of north Russia, north Alaska and north Canada, and winters at sea close to coasts, mainly between the Tropic of Cancer and the equator, and around Australia.
The Short-tailed Shearwater breeds in southern Australia during the austral summer. Post-breeding, the majority of the population appears to carry out a circular trans-equatorial movement to the north Pacific (May – September) with birds occurring off Japan in June, the Bering Sea in July, and the central Pacific in August. In Hong Kong they are regular in small numbers in spring in southern waters between 20 April and 3 June, with most occurring in the first two weeks of May. The highest count is 15 on 14 May 2007.
With special thanks to Carrie Ma.
I went bird watching from the northern hide at Mai Po boardwalk on March 17th. A gently rising morning tide gradually brought birds closer to the hide, amongst them the larger gulls. (The Black-headed and Saunders’s Gulls tend to congregate in the centre of the mud flats, closer to the southern hide.) I counted 97 Heuglin’s Gulls, at least four Caspian (mongolicus) Gulls, two Pallas’s Gulls, a Vega Gull, and a Slaty-backed Gull (as well as a Black-tailed Gull – not discussed below) and managed to get a few (much-cropped) record shots of some of these birds.
The Pallas’s Gulls were adults in breeding plumage, making identification easy. This species is a scarce but almost annual winter visitor & spring passage migrant to Deep Bay. It has been recorded between 21st November and 7th April. The highest number to occur together was five on 8th March 2017. It breeds from Central Asia west to the Ukraine and east to west Mongolia, and winters from the Middle East to India and Bangladesh, being scarce further east to Thailand & Hong Kong.
The other large gulls can be more difficult to identify, especially in non-adult plumages, and their taxonomic status is often contentious; different authorities have different ideas on how certain species should be classified.
Most authorities tend to agree that Heuglin’s Gull is a race of Lesser Black-backed Gull, hence its scientific name Larus fuscus heuglini. This is accepted by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC), by the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) and by J. F. Clements (whose taxonomy is used by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and therefore by ebird). As the count above indicates, it is the commonest large gull in Hong Kong. It occurs as a winter visitor to Deep Bay and a spring passage migrant through offshore waters. It has been recorded between 6th September and 30th April, with one summer record – a 1st-year bird over-summered in Deep Bay in 2014. The highest count on record is 865 on 28 Jan 2000.
In his recent book Gulls of the World (2018), Klaus Malling Olsen treats heuglini as a separate species with two races: L. h. heuglini and L. h. taimyrensis. These two forms have distinct breeding and wintering areas. L. h. heuglini breeds in north Russia between the Kola and Yamal peninsulas; it winters south to the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the north Indian Ocean, southwest to the east African coastline and southeast to Sri Lanka. L. h. taimyrensis breeds between south west Taimyr and the Kara Sea; it winters in coastal east Asia north to Japan and south to Hong Kong. L. h. taimyrensis was traditionally considered a hybrid population between heuglini and Vega Gull. However, according to Olsen, "recent genetic analysis proves that it represents a distinct population." Unfortunately, perhaps, taimyrensis seems to have disappeared from the other taxonomies referred to above.
The other regular large gull to occur in Deep Bay is what birders here generally refer to as “mongolicus.” The taxon breeds from southeast Altai and Lake Baikal to Mongolia, northeast China and Korea; it winters in Japan, Korea, and eastern and southern China. It has been recorded in Deep Bay between 28th November and 17th April (although one over-summered in 2017). The highest count on record is 25 on 13th March 2000. The HKBWS Records Committee (RC) generally follow IOC taxonomy, which regards mongolicus as a race of Vega Gull, hence Larus vegae mongolicus. However, on this occasion, the RC differs from the IOC and treats mongolicus as a subspecies of Caspian Gull, Larus cachinnans mongolicus. This was the position of Olsen & Larsson in their book Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America (2004). However, in Gulls of the World (2018), Olsen states that “Mitrochondial DNA analysis shows Mongolian Gull to be genetically close to Vega Gull”; Olsen, in fact, treats it as a species in its own right although hedges his bets by titling the section “Mongolian Gull Larus (vegae) mongolicus”. (To make matters even more complicated, HBW treats both mongolicus and vegae as races of Arctic Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus, and Clements treats it - and vegae - under Herring Gull Larus argentatus!!) Note, however, that none of these authorities currently link mongolicus to cachinnans.
As the last paragraph shows, the taxonomic position of Vega Gull is also problematic. However, the IOC treats it as a distinct species, a viewpoint followed by both the RC and Olsen. In Hong Kong, it is a scarce winter visitor in very small numbers to Deep Bay, extreme dates of occurrence being 31st December and 6th April. The highest count was five on 29th January 2012. It breeds in northeast Siberia and winters south to Japan, Korea and southeast China.
Slaty-backed Gull breeds in coastal northeast & east Siberia, and northern Japan; it winters from the Bering Sea to the Sea of Japan, and in small numbers south to the coasts of south China and Taiwan. It is a scarce but annual winter visitor and spring passage migrant to Deep Bay, and has been recorded between 26th November and 3rd April. The highest count was seven on 25th January 2000.
The period between October 29th and November 4th saw the arrival of six different rare birds to Hong Kong as follows:
A 1st-winter female Black Redstart at Long Valley on October 29th.
Four Tundra Bean Goose and three Greater White-fronted Geese at Mai Po on October 31st.
A Rook at Mai Po/Lut Chau on November 1st.
A 1st-winter male Pallas’s Reed Bunting at Tai Sang Wai on November 3rd.
A female House Sparrow at Long Valley on November 4th & 5th.
I am not a great twitcher but as all of these species were within a half-hour drive of my apartment, and as I had some free time between the 5th and 7th, I dusted off my telephoto lens and headed out into the field.
My first stop on Sunday afternoon was to Tai Sang Wai and Lut Chau – fish pond areas just to the south of Mai Po. It was at the southern end of Mai Po that the Rook of the eastern race pastinator had been seen on November 1st; this was the first record for Hong Kong and it caused a stream of birders to visit the site in search of the bird throughout the 2nd. The Rook kept flying back and forth between trees on the reserve and the ponds at Lut Chau to feed. John Clough who had walked to see the Rook at Lut Chau had come across a Pallas’s Bunting at Tai Sang Wai. So I parked at Tai Sang Wai and walked through the fish ponds with the hope of seeing the bunting. I was in luck as it was hopping around on the track in the same area where it had been found. Later, at Lut Chau, I saw a dark crow perched on a pole about 300 metres away. I took a few shots and the magnified image on the camera screen helped me identify it as the Rook. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it later.
Pallas’s Reed Bunting breeds in central and eastern Siberia, Mongolia, China (Xinjiang, and possibly Inner Mongolia and Helionjiang), and winters in Korea and Eastern China south to Fujian. It was first recorded in Hong Kong in December 1991; this is the 16th record with 14 of those having been seen since 2006. It is not quite of annual occurrence.
Early on 6th I went to Long Valley to photograph the Black Redstart. The redstart was not around so I went to the nearby rice fields which had just been cropped. This was where the female House Sparrow had been seen on 4th and 5th. I soon found a sparrow perched on top of a banana plant with its back to me – but a male not a female! Two females were in the vicinity. This was another new Hong Kong bird for me as I had not made an effort to connect with any of the previous ones. After spending some time observing the sparrows, I returned to the location frequented by the Black Redstart and found several photographers on a bund watching the bird.
Nominate P.d.domesticus occurs east from Europe through Mongolia and northeast China to far eastern Russia. P. d. indicus occurs from the Middle East through South Asia east to Laos. P. d. bactrianus occurs in Iran, Kazakhstan, north west Pakistan and Xinjiang in China. Only the latter is said to be migratory (along with P.d. parkini which is found from Kashmir east to Sikkin).
House Sparrow was first admitted to Category I of the Hong Kong List in 2014 on the basis of a male and two females at Long Valley from November 3rd to 6th 2012. (A male at Mui Wo from December 27th to 30th 1994 was retained in Category III.) In 2015, there were two males at Mai Po on October 27th and a female at Long Valley on November 15th. One was on Po Toi on July 19th 2016. It isn’t clear which subspecies these recent records refer to.
The eastern race of Black Redstart rufiventris breeds south from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan east through the Himalayas to central China. In winter, it migrates southwest into southwest and south Asia. So whereas Pallas’s Reed Bunting and Rook that have turned up in Hong Kong can be seen as overshooting south of their usual wintering grounds, this Black Redstart has moved in the “wrong” direction. This is an example of “mirror-image migration” where young birds choose a correct bearing with regard to the north-south axis, but choose the wrong east-west side of that axis. Interestingly, however, the previous two records of rufiventris have both been in April – a 1st-summmer male at Tung Ping Chau on April 23rd 1995, and a 1st-winter female at Po Toi from April 5th to 11th 2011.
On the following day, I went out to Mai Po to photograph the geese (four Tundra Bean Geese and three Greater White-fronted Geese) that had been present on the scrape since 1st, and also to try and get closer to the Rook. Unfortunately, some of the geese had become more mobile and during the time I was there only three of the Tundra Bean Geese were on the scrape. I still managed to get some decent photographs of those that remained, and at Lut Chau I managed to obtain reasonable views of the Rook.
The Rook of the eastern race pastinator breeds in central Siberia, north Mongolia, southeast Russia, and central and northeast China, migrating south to Korea, south Japan and eastern China in winter. There are only a couple of historic records (early 1900s) from Guangdong (information courtesy of Richard Lewthwaite),
Tundra Bean Goose breeds in the northeast Siberian tundra, wintering in eastern China (mainly in the Yangtse river floodplain), Korea and Japan. This is the fourth record for Hong Kong, the first having occurred in January 2009.
I went to Tai Po Kau on October 12th, arriving at Tai Po Kau Park just before 7.00 a.m. I often visit this park before going to the main forest reserve. It is best early in the morning, particularly when the sun rises above the adjacent hills and begins to illuminate the trees in the park.
The park is good for a number of common generalist species – Red-whiskered Bulbul, Japanese White-eye, Common Tailorbird, Cinereous Tit and Oriental Magpie Robin - as well as being a site to pick up a number of the resident forest birds. This morning I was lucky and managed to connect with Scarlet and Grey-chinned Minivets, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Blue-winged Minla, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Fork-tailed Sunbird. The park is the best place in the area to see Great Barbet as sometimes it comes down from the hillsides to feed on fruiting trees. It is not always present, but today I heard its throaty rasping call and managed to get a quick glimpse of it in overhead branches.
My first bird of the day, however, was a migrant flycatcher with dark markings across the breast perched on a fence below the western end of the park; unfortunately my views were brief and inadequate so I could not be sure whether it was a Grey-streaked or Dark-sided Flycatcher. I did manage to identify a few other migrants in the park, namely Asian Brown Flycatcher, a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers, Ashy Drongo and Black-winged Cuckooshrike. The latter two species winter here and will be present from now through until next April.
Aside from the birds, I came across a Bamboo Pit Viper; it was on the ground under a small shelter next to a dead Brown Forest Skink which I assume it had killed. Unlike most snake species that move away once they are aware of a human presence, the viper remained under the shelter for the following half hour. I kept a little distance as the species is venomous, although there are no known fatalities from its bite in Hong Kong.
I spent a couple of hours in the park, although activity became quieter after 8.00 a.m. Then I walked up the access road into the forest. I had heard Mountain Tailorbird singing near the park and there were more singing as I made my way uphill. This species was first recorded in 1999 and has since become widespread with sightings from at least 42 locations in 2013. When you are familiar with its song, you notice how common it is at Tai Po Kau: I heard 19 in total during the morning . Other birds I saw along the road were two Black-throated Laughingthrushes, Rufous-capped Babbler, and a female Fire-breasted Flowerpecker.
I took a clockwise route along the red walk and included the blue walk loop. These colour-coded walks are along narrow trails inside the forest. Birding here can be very hit-and-miss. Bird density is generally low and the hope in the enclosed space is to come across a bird wave. There are, however, ground-haunting birds on territory and I heard singing Lesser Shortwing and Pygmy Wren Babbler between the dam and the second picnic area. Like the Mountain Tailorbird, these two species are recent additions to the Hong Kong avifauna. Lesser Shortwing was first recorded in 1998, Pygmy Wren Babbler in 2001. Like the tailorbird, they are now well-established in Hong Kong, particularly in the forests of the New Territories.
The red walk proved disappointingly quiet. There was a small bird wave just after the 2nd picnic area but for the most part the birds remained invisible some distance off in the trees. I saw Huet’s Fulvetta and heard minivets, white-eyes, nuthatches and Chestnut Bulbuls. I came across a second wave after I had done the blue walk loop and was near to reconnecting with the red walk. Frustratingly the birds remained high in the trees and seemed to be much the same species as before. A little further along the red walk I chanced upon a loose party of 20 Grey-chinned Minivets feeding in the trees adjacent to the trails; they, at least, gave good views. I also came across two more Lesser Shortwings, loud but invisible in the undergrowth. Apart from these it was hot and quiet and there were no migrants to be seen.
Back below the dam, I paused at the stream to admire the striking Common Blue Jewel damselflies on the rocks. I heard and had brief views of a Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler as it flew across the stream into the vegetation. My final new sighting for the day on the way back down the access road was of two Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers feeding low in vegetation with Rufous-capped Babblers.
Tropical cyclone Pakhar passed close to Hong Kong on August 27th, bringing strong winds and heavy rain in its path. The rain continued for most of the 28th but the 29th was clear and sunny with temperatures back to 32⁰ Celsius. I went out in the late afternoon to spend a couple of hours at Long Valley.
Many of the ponds and fields were wetter than they had been for several months, providing good feeding for a variety of waders, many of which seemed to have been brought in by the storm. Black-winged stilt numbers in particular were much higher than usual for this time of the year; I counted at least 87 but the birds were flighty with a flock of 40 in the air at one time. Other waders included 33 Little Ringed Plovers, at least 17 Pintail/Swinhoe’s Snipe, a Marsh Sandpiper, a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, four Long-toed Stints and four Red-necked Phalaropes. The latter were swimming and feeding actively on a pond containing green blades of recently planted rice. Migrant passerines consisted of a few Eastern Yellow Wagtails of the nominate race tschutschensis and a Zitting Cisticola.
I returned on the following morning to take photographs. Half of the Black-winged Stilts appeared to have moved on overnight and there was only a single phalarope in the same paddyfield. Two Long-toed Stints were still around and I also found a Pacific Golden Plover which had also been present on the previous day but not seen by me. I also saw my first migrant Oriental Reed Warbler of the season.
The following images were taken during my afternoon and morning visits.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Counts of some water bird species in Deep Bay have actually increased during the new century, including Great Cormorant, Black-tailed Godwit and Eurasian Curlew. The following three species are, however, the most obvious ones to buck the declining trend.
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
2015: Peak count 3,204 in March and high count3,053 in December.
1995: Peak count 14 on 5 January and 291 on 31 December.
Notes: The highest count on record was 6,742 in February 2009. There was a marked increase from 2005 onwards although numbers have slowly fallen since 2010. Most of the Tufted Ducks winter out on the Shenzhen side of Deep Bay.
Comment: The marked increase in counts of this species in Hong Kong contradicts the general catch-all explanation that water birds are wintering further to the north because of global warming (although there was a large increase in numbers of Tufted Duck wintering in South Korea in 2015). The fact that the increase in Tufted Duck numbers occurred at much the same time as the demise of Common Shelduck suggest perhaps more local factors are at play. Again, there is speculation that there may have been a change in food supply out in the bay - to the detriment of Common Shelduck but to the benefit of Tufted Duck.
Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor
2015: High count 372 in the January WC. Increasing numbers at MPNR from mid-October with peak count 421 roosting there on 12 November.
1995: Numbers increased to 99 on 23 November, a new high, constituting approximately 25% of the world population.
Notes: Numbers have increased considerably since the 1990s, in line with an overall increase globally. The highest count was 496 on 24 January 2010.
Comment: Currently, the global population is 3,941 (January 2017), so Deep Bay now holds about 10% of the world population. This is a great conservation success story and seems mainly due to the protection of the species in its wintering areas, particularly in Taiwan.
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
2015:Peak count 10,957 in January.
1995:Peak count 1002 in February, a new high count.
Notes: There was a substantial increase up until 2008 - the highest count on record was 16,123 in January 2208 - with a gradual fall since then, but numbers still remain high c.f. the 1990s.
Comment: A change in the composition of the food supply out on the mud flats may account for the large increase in numbers during this century.
The following statement from the Hong Kong Water Quality Resource Centre (see http://wqrc.epd.gov.hk/en/regional-collaboration/deep-bay.aspx ) may be of relevance here (and to the comments on Common Shelduck and Tufted Duck above):
In 2000, the two governments formulated the “Deep Bay (Shenzhen Bay) Water Pollution Control Joint Implementation Programme” (JIP) to improve Deep Bay’s water quality. The JIP sets out pollution control measures to be undertaken by both governments at various stages, essentially to reduce wastewater discharge into Deep Bay by extension and improvement of sewerage infrastructure. Both sides would review the JIP regularly so as to evaluate its effectiveness and to draw up necessary additional mitigation measures, including amendment of the JIP. Both sides are working together in accordance with the revised JIP to reduce progressively the pollution load of Deep Bay. The water quality at major rivers discharging into Deep Bay has continued to improve since mid-2000’s. As a result, the water quality of Deep Bay also shows noticeable improvement. Hong Kong and Shenzhen will work together closely to continue to improve the water quality of Deep Bay.
References to authorities cited in my three-part Blog are as follows:
BirdLife International 2017. Species factsheet: Mareca falcata. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 22/06/2017
China Coastal Waterbird Census Group. 2015. Identification of coastal wetlands of international importance for waterbirds: a review of China Coastal Waterbird Surveys 2005–2013. Avian Research 2015 6:12.
Hashimoto, H. and Sugawa, H. 2013. Population Trends of Wintering Eurasian Coot Fulica atra in East Asia. Ornithological Science 12(2):91-105.
Mundkur, T., Langendoen, T. and Watkins, D. (eds.) 2017. The Asian Waterbird Census 2008-2015 - results of coordinated counts in Asia and Australasia. Wetlands International, Ede.
Reeber, S. 2015. Wildfowl of Europe, Asia and North America. Christopher Helm, London.
Shi, H. Q., Cao, L., Baxter, M.A. and Liu, N. F. 2008. Status of the East Asian population of the Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus: the need for urgent conservation action. Bird Conservation International 18:181–193.