Birdwatching in Hong Kong is a great pastime

You don’t need much equipment to start birdwatching. A pair of binoculars and a field guide will get you started on finding the wealth of species in Hong Kong.

scarlet minivet

Do you watch wildlife, such as birds, butterflies, dragonflies, mammals, fish or even crabs or beetles? If so, you will know some of the immense rewards of wildlife watching. But if not, perhaps give it a try – it’s a way of experiencing different “worlds”, while making new friends, exploring places few people go and boosting exercise; and a great way to unwind from city stress.

            I’ve been interested in wildlife since childhood. During my teens, I became an extremely keen birdwatcher, and this has remained a lifelong passion of mine.           

When I arrived in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, there were relatively few birdwatchers here, and most were westerners working in the city. But in the years since there has been a major and very welcome change, with far more local people taking up birdwatching – and bird photography.

             You don’t need much equipment to start birdwatching. A pair of binoculars is important for improving views of birds, which can look very different seen “up close” like this, rather than just viewed with the naked eye. A field guide helps to identify them. And nowadays, the internet is a rich source of information, including the website of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society.

            Then, you will need somewhere to look for birds. The best place in Hong Kong is Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve, but it’s not so easy to visit when you wish, so I advise trying somewhere that’s readily accessible.

            Even a city park can be worthwhile. Kowloon Park, for instance, is a good place to see several of Hong Kong’s common birds. These include two species of bulbuls, which are songbirds that call loudly and perch prominently, often in small groups, and to me seem always cheeky and cheerful. Black-and-white Magpie Robins hop on the ground, alert for a tasty insect or worm. Bigger, bulkier Black-collared Starlings strut across lawns,.

            Other conspicuous birds may include Blue Magpies, which have black heads, red beaks, blue upperparts and extravagantly long tails. Common Koel – a kind of cuckoo – is inconspicuous when silent. When singing, however, everyone surely knows there’s a Koel around, as the ko-el ko-el ko-el song rings out day and night. No wonder I’ve heard a local name for this species is “Noisy Bird”.

            Another local name I’ve heard of is “Seven Sisters” – for Masked Laughingthrush, which travels through the undergrowth in bands of around seven birds, shrieking and yelling and chattering and squabbling. “Seven sisters”, haha; maybe named by the person who thought three women make a market!

            Some birds might take more effort to see, like Common Tailorbirds that seek insects in shrubberies. Plus, while the birds I’ve mentioned are present year-round, you might also find migrants that spend winter in Hong Kong, or pass through during spring and autumn.

Beyond the city are many more places you can watch birds. Country parks hold a fair variety, but typical hiking routes pass through areas where you won’t find much diversity, as the variety of trees and other plants is often low. Instead, try the richer forests, such as in Shing Mun Country Park, and Tai Po Kau Special Area. These are home to some of our most colourful birds, like minivets with black and red plumage; but you will also find that forest birdwatching is frustrating. You might hear birds, while seeing little but trees. Yet keep going and you may find yourself suddenly surrounded by a flock of small birds, busily moving through the trees. And even with no birds in sight, the forests are wonderful wild places.

            Farmland, including abandoned fields, attracts a mix of woodland edge and open country birds, some of which are easily seen as they perch on wires and posts. As this short column indicates, the bird species you can find at a place depend on the habitats, so a rural place with wet areas as well as dry fields, plus grassy areas and woodland, can be more rewarding to visit than somewhere with just fields.

stilts long valley

            One such place is Long Valley, near Sheung Shui. Thanks to the efforts of conservationists, it was saved from the MTRC’s plans to build a viaduct over the area, and attracts a wealth of birds, ranging from tiny munias that feed on grass seeds, to waterbirds such as herons and egrets. Birds that are rare in Hong Kong occur as well.

            Visit Long Valley, and you will find it is also a Mecca for birdwatchers and bird photographers, whom you might also find interesting to watch. Some are experienced and knowledgeable; some are beginners. Sadly, there are also bird photographers who apparently care little for birds and nature, but only strive to manufacture photos that may bring them praise.

             As you learn more about birds, you will discover more local birdwatching hotspots – notably Po Toi, which is akin to a magnet for migratory species. You might even make holiday plans focused on visiting some of the world’s great places for birds and other wildlife: way better for mind and soul than simply shopping or lying on a beach! And I hope you will become involved in efforts to protect our wild bird “friends”, which are invaluable yet under-appreciated in enhancing our quality of life.

Written for Ming Pao Weekly; appeared [in Chinese] in April 2013.

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