Po Toi: Magnet for Migratory Birds and Potential Ecotourism Hotspot
Though close to southeastern Hong Kong Island, Po Toi is an island that the modern world has mostly passed by. The population has fallen from around a thousand in the 1970s, to well under a hundred residents, most of whom also live in or near Aberdeen. Perhaps the last main news event here was a fire in 1991, which destroyed most of a row of restaurants and houses at the main village, Wan Tsai.
Yet in recent weeks, Po Toi has featured in news reports following a halt to a columbarium project, which led to the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society spearheading calls for protection of the island as country park. Arguments in favour of conservation include the island’s splendid scenery, local culture, and importance for wildlife – especially migratory birds.
Po Toi is fashioned from granite, which rises to around 200 metres, and is two kilometres wide, with Wan Tsai cradled in an inlet on the west coast, near which a wild, rocky headland is the southernmost land in Hong Kong. Many visitors come solely to enjoy seafood at Wan Tsai, but you can follow trails to the headland, up and over Po Toi’s hilly interior, and past natural rock sculptures such as Buddha’s Hand and Turtle Climbing the Hill.
Magnetic appeal for migratory birds
Though for some years there have been indications that Po Toi could be good for seeing migratory birds, it was not until a Briton, Geoff Welch, began a bird study that it was found to be a real hotspot – as if it has magnetic appeal for birds travelling flyways along the south China coast.
Welch says he started his study in 2006, after retiring. A keen birdwatcher as a boy, he had retained a lifelong interest in birds, and as he lives in Ap Lei Chau, Po Toi appeared a promising place to focus his efforts. Even in February that year, before spring migration really began, Welch found a Chinese Song Thrush on the island. It was only the second record of this species in Hong Kong, and Welch was soon to make more remarkable discoveries, leading to further visits by birdwatchers and bird photographers – and a host of notable sightings.
To date, over 300 bird species have been recorded on Po Toi or at sea nearby: that’s more than 60 percent of Hong Kong’s total. Ten have been confirmed as new species for Hong Kong; at least seven are believed threatened with extinction. Po Toi is Hong Kong’s best place for seeing gorgeous forest birds that pass through Hong Kong – especially in spring, when there’s a good chance of finding Narcissus flycatchers that are black above, incandescent orange below, and Japanese paradise flycatchers with extravagantly long central tail feathers.
Welch explains that Po Toi’s location is key to the numbers of migrants – with only open sea between here and the Philippines, it’s one of the first places birds can make landfall. Plus, there is a good mix of habitats; the landbirds are mainly found in fung shui woods, shrubs and patches of old farmland beside the village.
"Memorial Garden" - and Country Park Proposal
Late last year, workers began removing low vegetation along a small valley, and soon the cleared land was dotted with hundreds of ash cement squares, ready for a columbarium billed as a “memorial garden”. The project was reportedly illegal, and the Town Planning Board soon made Po Toi a Development Permission Area, putting a halt to the columbarium – though the owners may appeal in court.
In response, the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society has called for Po Toi to be designated as country park – which the government had recommended in 2001, though no action has been taken since. The society has a Facebook page to promote the campaign (支持蒲台郊野公園 Support Po Toi Country Park) and is proposing that southwest Po Toi become a Site of Special Scientific Interest, further protecting the key habitats for birds. Other wildlife is also found here, such as Burmese pythons, and the tiny Romer’s tree frog, which was known to naturally occur on only four islands in the world, all in Hong Kong (one of these islands, Chek Lap Kok, was all but destroyed to make way for the airport).
HKBWS conservation officer Beetle Cheng Nok-ming notes that protection of Po Toi could benefit islanders, including those running restaurants and small cafes for visitors: “It may be possible to develop Po Toi as an eco-tourism hotspot, which would bring more people.”
By late May this year, a series of rainstorms had created a small marsh in part of the columbarium, where ash cement patches were crumbling, and long grass had grown. Little bitterns – tiny members of the heron family – were among migrants that sought shelter there, encouraging birdwatchers such as Welch to dream of creating a mini wetland reserve.
Welch often stays overnight on Po Toi, and though conditions are tough – recently, a generator had burnt out so he spent several days and nights without electricity – he says, “The birds make it worthwhile.”
Reflecting on Po Toi’s significance for biodiversity, Welch remarks that the surrounding waters are also good for marine life: “In March, I see families of porpoises with young ones swimming by.” These are globally endangered finless porpoises – among the many species for which Po Toi and its surroundings are a haven that deserves lasting protection.
- written for Ming Pao Weekly; a translated version (below) was published on 23 June 2012