Oh to be in Deep Bay Now That Spring is Here

The boundary between northwest Hong Kong and Shenzhen runs through an estuary, Deep Bay, the inner section of which is a Ramsar site: a wetland of international importance. This is a magnet for migratory waterbirds, and now is peak season for visiting to see both lingering winter species, along with long distance travellers like shorebirds en route from Australia to Siberia. You can also enjoy expansive vistas unlike any in the country parks, and find echoes of yesteryear.

            Weather greatly influences spring birdwatching, which is typically best during rainy cold fronts, when throngs of swallows and swifts may hawk insects over ponds, and thousands of shorebirds feast on the mudflats, refuelling for onward journeys. With warm southerlies, many birds depart.

            Knowing tide forecasts can also help with optimising visits: you can find them at http://www.hko.gov.hk/tide/eTBTtide.htm .

Hong Kong Wetland Park

"Unroll the Hong Kong diverse green temptations" [reportedly actual slogan used in adverts in MTR]

What’s this?  Originally conceived to mitigate for loss of wetlands before construction of Tin Shui Wai, the Wetland Park morphed into a Millennium Project, which perhaps explains why there is a gargantuan visitor centre with quirky exhibits, but little actual wetland habitat.

Why go? For a surreal experience, walk around the centre, which features oddities such as an Arctic room complete with reindeer, movie theatre like a spaceship interior, and artificial mangrove swamp.

            The exterior is surely far more rewarding, albeit offers a sanitised wetland experience. There are paths lined with flowering shrubs and trees, an artificial stream, and walkways over replicas of wet agricultural fields and a patch of genuine mangroves. For the best birdwatching, make for a pool known as the Mudflat. You can overlook this from a hide: a small wooden building that has relatively small openings so people can look out whilst being barely seen by wildlife.

            At the name suggests, at the Mudflat there are areas of gently sloping wet mud. Sandpipers and other shorebirds feed here, and till around mid April there might be lingering winter birds such as ducks and black-faced spoonbills. The spoonbills are endangered, with a world population of less than 3000, perhaps a fifth of which occur in Hong Kong each year.

            Though some HK$500 million was spent on the Wetland Park, there is just one hide at the Mudflat, and it can be crowded on busy days. Happily, a second hide may be built.

            The Wetland Park has another key attraction: Pui Pui the crocodile, in a specially built enclosure by the visitor centre. She’s a saltwater crocodile that became an instant celebrity in November 2003, when seen roaming wild in Deep Bay, especially in Shan Pui River. It was promptly voted “Personality of the Year” by RTHK radio listeners, and wasn’t caught till June the following year. Then 1.5 metres long, Pui Pui has since grown by around a metre.

Getting there  The Wetland Park is just to the east of Tin Shui Wai, beside stops for the Light Rail and buses including 967 from Admiralty.

            Entry costs HK$30; half price for children, students, disabled people and senior citizens. Arrive well before 4pm, when the park begins closing. Closed on Tuesdays.

Nam Sang Wai

What’s this?  The Shan Pui River forms the western boundary of a roughly triangular area of fishponds, few of which are still active. The Kam Tin River flows to the east, and the two rivers merge just north of Nam Sang Wai. Though just outside the Ramsar site, Nam Sang Wai is significant for wildlife, and development plans have so far been thwarted, albeit lately included increased plans for wetland conservation.

Why visit?  With many fishponds and shanty houses abandoned, the interior is like a land where time almost stands still. There’s a fine landscape of ponds and reedbeds, with trees that in winter may be festooned with roosting cormorants.

The rivers were channelized during flood control work, and since allowed to become silty, with tidal flats attracting estuary birds. For the best birdwatching, head to vantages overlooking the confluence of rivers, perhaps as the tide is falling below 2m and fresh mud is exposed. You’re sure to see egrets and herons, and might be lucky enough to have shorebirds like black-winged stilts feeding close by.

There are birds at the fishponds too, though many prefer lurking in dense vegetation. And keep an eye out overhead, especially a couple of days after a cold front, when there’s a chance of grey-faced buzzards and Chinese goshawks that have just arrived from the Philippines.

 The Hong Kong Birdwatching Society may have a stall and volunteer bird guides beside fishponds to the east. Western Nam Sang Wai may be busier, with radio-controlled helicopters and airplanes zooming around, as cyclists and strollers pass by, and couples have wedding photos taken. But there’s still fine scenery, and a chance of interesting birds.

There are basic restaurants, including in the southwest of the area.

Getting there  Perhaps take a taxi from Yuen Long to eastern Nam Sang Wai, then stroll the narrow road along the riverbanks. Soon after the road ends in the southwest, you’ll come to a unique sampan ferry across the Shan Pui River. From here, it’s perhaps 10 minutes walk the MTR station, or there’s minibus 611 to the bus terminus.

Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve

What’s this?  One of the world’s greatest wetland reserves, managed by WWF Hong Kong. It’s in the heart of the Deep Bay Ramsar site, with former shrimp ponds – gei wai, and access to the prime tidal mudflats.

Why visit?  Always beautiful, in spring Mai Po offers some of the best shorebird watching on earth, thanks to diversity of species coupled with numbers and densities of birds. With luck, you can experience an outstanding bird spectacle.

            Most of Deep Bay’s waterbirds feed on the mudflats beyond the mangroves fringing the reserve. You can see them from specially built hides, reached by walking along a boardwalk through dense mangrove forest. The best time can be just as the tide falls, and flocks arrive to swarm the glistening wet mud, the air ringing with their piping and churring calls.

            The shorebirds range from stints the size of sparrows, to curlews bigger than pigeons. Many are now in breeding plumage, which for some species means combinations of red, buff and brown, while there are plovers with intricate facial markings. There are world rarities to be found, the most sought after being spoon-billed sandpiper, which is now critically endangered with only around 100 pairs remaining.

            Gulls become scarce as spring advances, and are replaced with similar terns, including Caspian terns with bright red bills looking as big as carrots.

            The highest tides push most birds off the mudflats, and many then roost at specially landscaped ponds within Mai Po. Exploring these ponds, you can find kingfishers and other birds, plus there are dragonflies and butterflies, and intensely coloured water lilies.

Getting there  Entry is restricted to people who are proven wildlife enthusiasts or – for the most part – join tours organised by the reserve. The basic tours cost HK$120 per head; or HK$90 during the quieter summer months.

            But for a chance to really experience Mai Po at its best, instead consider “The Magic of Migration” tours, which cost HK$320 per person and include visits to the mudflat hides coinciding with high tides, providing actual tide times permit. The special “Friends of Birds” day on 4 May will combine a talk on research with a reserve tour, for HK$220.

            You can book through http://www.wwf.org.hk/en/; tour prices are somewhat lower for WWF Hong Kong members.           

Published in S China Morning Post 48hrs magazine.

Martin Williams

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