Hong Kong, with its scarce land and dense population, may seem an unlikely place for bird-watching. But, as we discovered on our first visit in January 2007 (on a two night stop-over on our way to New Zealand), Hong Kong has around 450 species of birds – about one third of the total bird species found in China! Hardly surprising then that Hong Kong is becoming increasingly popular with both local and overseas bird-watchers.
There are two reasons for this impressive diversity of bird species. Firstly the territory lies on one of the main bird migration routes in Asia. Secondly, Hong Kong has a wide range of differing habitats that cater for different birds – wetlands along the northeastern and northwestern coasts, valleys and forests in the interior, shrubland, grassland and mountain slopes.
Anyway, my friend and I so enjoyed our first, albeit brief, visit to Hong Kong that we decided to return again this year (2008) for a more serious bird-watching stint. The best time to visit, according to the experts is April, but we chose to spend a fortnight there in late winter.
23rd January 2007
Arrived at Hong Kong Airport (Lantau Island) late afternoon and took a coach to Hong Kong Island. We arrived at our hotel, the Metropark, in the Causeway Bay/Tin Hau district, early that evening.
24th January 2007
The first thing we saw when we drew the curtains in our hotel room were half a dozen Black Kites circling the sky just in front of us (we were 20+ stories up). Then a few minutes after that we saw a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos fly into some trees below the hotel. Victoria Park, one of the largest parks on Hong Kong Island, was just across the road from us – and this is where we spent this first morning. It proved to be a very good place for studying the more common local birds. We saw sixteen different species within a very short time, including Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Light-vented Chinese Bulbuls, Oriental Magpie Robins and Masked Laughingthrushes. There were Eurasian Tree Sparrows everywhere (acting like our House Sparrows), Yellow-browed Warblers and Japanese White-eyes flitting through the trees and shrubs, and a couple of Black-crowned Night Herons sitting on branches next to the pond.
After lunch we caught the MTR (metro) from Causeway Bay to Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon) so that we could spend the afternoon in Kowloon Park, another large park with excellent birding opportunities. Here we added birds like the Black-collared Starling and Common Tailorbird to our list.
25th January 2007
This morning we made our way to the Lower Peak Tram Terminus and took the tram up to ‘The Peak’ of Victoria Mountain. From the Upper Terminus (the Peak Tower) we were afforded spectacular views over the city and the island. After exploring the area around the Terminus we followed the circular route around the mountain (Lugard Road to Harlech Road) to do some birdwatching. In addition to the more common birds which we had seen in the parks we saw a Grey-backed Thrush, an Asian Brown Flycatcher and a Fork-tailed Sunbird, plus we had a brief glimpse of a Blue Magpie flying over the wooded hillside.
After lunch we took the tram back down into the city and caught the MTR back to Tin Hau station. Time had run out for us – we had to return to the hotel to get ready for the ‘pick-up’ which would transfer us to the airport.
Our brief stay in Hong Kong in the winter of 2007 ‘whetted our appetite’ – and we returned for a fortnight holiday in February 2008 – with the aim of combining birdwatching with some general sightseeing and exploring.
One of our main aims was to visit the famous Mai Po Nature Reserve in the Deep Bay area of the New Territories, the target destination for all serious birdwatchers. Unfortunately, however, our plans were somewhat disrupted. Shortly before we were due to fly to Hong Kong we heard that there had been an outbreak of ‘Bird Flu’ in Hong Kong and as a result the famous Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve had been closed to the public (initially for three weeks but this was later extended to 6 weeks). This meant that we were unable to contact the reserve in advance to obtain the special ‘permits’ needed to enter the reserve – indeed we were not certain that Mai Po would actually re-open in time for us to visit at all.
20th February 2008
We arrived back in Hong Kong late afternoon and transferred to the City Garden Hotel in the Fortress Hill District of Hong Kong Island.
21st February 2008
This morning we took the MTR from Fortress Hill to Prince Edward, Kowloon so that we could do some exploring. Over the course of the next few hours we visited the famous Bird Market and Flower Market near the Prince Edward station and after lunch in a nearby park (where we were able to observe House Crows) we took the MTR back a couple of stops to Yau Ma Tei and explored the Jade Market and the Tin Hau temple in Temple Street. The rest of the afternoon was spent in Kowloon Park bird watching – which proved an ideal way of refreshing our memory from last year. We saw most of the same birds and added some new ones to our list like the Alexandrine Parakeet (an introduced species which now breeds in this park).
To complete the day we dine in Kowloon and then went to see the ‘Symphony of Lights’ – a light display and multimedia event which takes place every night in Victoria Harbour, which is best viewed from the ‘Avenue of Stars’ in Tsim Sha Tsui.
22nd February 2008
Today we took our first trip up into the Northern Territories. We caught the MTR to Mei Fo and boarded the West Rail, then at Tin Shui Wai we changed to the Light Rail tram which took us on a circular route to the ‘Hong Kong Wetland Centre’ (located in the Deep Bay area which is the hotspot for birders). Despite the fact that the Wetland Reserve is supposed to be a poor substitute for the Mai Po Reserve we had a very good day there and saw lots of new birds. There is a good range of habitats within the centre including- fishponds, reedbeds and mangroves, and one of the hides overlooks a tidal river which flows into the Inner section of Deep Bay and another hide overlooks mud-flats which border the Inner Bay. Here we had good views of ducks, including Garganey and Spot-billed Ducks, herons and egrets (Little and Great) and the rare Black-faced spoonbills which over-winter in the Deep Bay area. At high tide we saw large numbers of birds in the main pond and large numbers of waders from the hide overlooking the mud flats – including an Oriental Plover, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, and two Grey-headed Lapwing. There were large numbers of Redshanks (Common, Spotted) and Greenshanks (and a Nordmann’s had been spotted a few days earlier). As the tide dropped many of the ducks and waders moved to the river estuary. From the hide overlooking the reedbeds and fishponds we saw Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinia, Zitting Cisticolas, an Asian Stubtail Warbler, several Long-tailed Shrike and a Siberian Stonechat (to name but a few). We also had our first view of the large Pied Kingfisher in this reserve.
23rd February 2008
This was a relatively quiet day for us. After breakfast we took the MTR to Central and walked to Hong Kong Park for a bird watching session – admiring the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Ringed-necked Parakeets, as well as the usual park species, then after lunch we spent several hours in the huge Edward Youde Aviary, enjoying the large collection of free flying Malaysian birds. The aviary is housed in a huge dome which spans a small valley, in which a tropical forest has been recreated around a stream and pool. While this was obviously ‘cheating’ in terms of bird watching it did provide some fantastic photographic opportunities.
24th February 2008
Today we took an organised boat trip up the Pearl River Delta to search for ‘pink dolphins’. From the ‘pick-up point’ in Kowloon (Kowloon Hotel) we were taken by bus to Lantau Island and we boarded a small boat at Tung Chung. The trip itself was excellent – it afforded us a good sea watching opportunity (Heuglin’s and Black-tailed Gulls, a Reef Heron and a White-bellied Sea Eagle). We motored up the Urmston Road and eventually managed to locate a group of pink dolphins (a sub-species of the Indo-Pacific Humpback) to the north of Lung Kwu Chau island, in the vicinity of Deep Bay, just south of the Chinese Port of Chiwan.
We arrived back at Kowloon around lunch time and returned to Hong Kong Island on the famous Star Ferry. In the afternoon we walked along the section of Causeway Bay known as the ‘Typhoon Shelter’ where we had excellent close views of Black Kites, and then we spent some more time bird watching in Victoria Park, before walking back to the hotel in Fortress Hill.
25th February 2008
Hong Kong has an excellent (and cheap) public transport system and so we were able to reach most of the best birdwatching sites quite easily. Today we made our way to the Shing Mun Reservoir in the Northern Territories, north of Kowloon – this involved taking the MTR to Tsuen Wan and catching a minibus to the bus terminus next to the reservoir. The nature trail along the north-eastern side of the reservoir proved to be excellent for forest birds and we had our first views of Minivets (Scarlet and Grey-throated), Chestnut Bulbuls, Streaked-breasted Scimitar Babblers and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches.
26th February 2008
Because the Mai Po Reserve was still closed to the public, we decided to go to Tsim Bei Tsui, supposedly the next best place to see the ducks and waders in the Deep Bay area. We took the MTR to Yuen Long and a minibus to Tsim Bei Tsui itself.
We timed it so that we would be there an hour and a half before high tide (which was going to be particularly high), but when we arrived we discovered that the tide was already so high that there was no exposed mud! On the plus side there were large numbers of ducks in the main bay to the east of the Police Station (Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Nothern Shoveller) and when we walked along the road which runs along the border fence we spotted a few waders in the mangrove and fishponds area (some Curlew plus Wood, Marsh and Common Sandpipers). There were large numbers of cormorants, egrets and herons (we saw our first Chinese Pond Heron) and we added a Black-capped Kingfisher, White-breasted Waterhen and Osprey to our list.
27th February 2008
Today we left our binoculars behind (only joking) and acted like ‘tourists’ for the day: we took the MTR to Tung Chung, Lantau Island, and boarded the Ngong Ping Skyrail: a new cable car system which takes visitors up into the mountains to the Ngong Ping Plateau and the famous Giant Buddha. Here we explored the Ngong Ping Village, climbed the steps to the Buddha, had lunch in the Po Lin Monastery walked the Wisdom Path and even managed to fit in a spot of bird watching on the trail to Lantau Peak, adding an Emerald Dove, Imperial Eagle and Crested Goshawk to our growing list.
28th February 2008
Although time was running out for us now we were still hoping that the Mai Po Nature Reserve would re-open before we had to leave Hong Kong; meanwhile today we returned to the adjacent Wetland Centre to take advantage of the continuing favourable high tides in the Deep Bay area. This turned out to be another excellent day: we saw plenty of ducks and waders and we also saw a good variety of species in the ‘landscaped’ habitats around the pools: Richard’s Pipits and Olive-backed Pipits, Dusky Warblers and Daurian Redstarts and even an Eurasian Wryneck.
29th February 2008 (Leap Year!)
We decided not to go so far today and opted to take the tram up ‘The Peak’ on Hong Kong Island itself.
From the Upper Terminus we walked the circular trail around Victoria Peak, admiring the stunning views.
To our ever-growing list of birds we added a couple more thrushes (Eyebrowed and Grey-backed Thrush) and managed to get particularly good views of Fork-tailed Sunbirds. Mid-afternoon we walked down the Old Peak Road, to the area known as the Mid-Levels – and from there we walked through the Zoological and Botanical Gardens as we made our way back to the MTR station, making a mental note to visit these gardens again when we had more time.
1st March 2008
Another day exploring the New Territories, this time using the East Rail Line. We took the MTR across the bay to the mainland and then caught the East Rail to Tai Po Market. From here we managed to get a minibus to within several hundred yards of the entrance to the Tai Po Kau Forest Nature Reserve – a particularly good birdwatching site. We spent the whole day walking around the trails through the forest and among the many birds we saw or heard here were Grey-throated Minivets, Great Barbets, Yellow- browed Warblers and Pallas’s Leaf Warblers, Black-throated Laughingthrushes and Orange-bellied Leafbirds.
2nd March 2008
Back on the East Rail Line, this time we went as far as the town of Sheun Shui in the far north of the Northern Territories (near the border with China). We spent the day wandering around the area known as ‘The Long Valley’, a wet lowland area of cultivation and fishponds, on the edge of the town. This proved to be another excellent area for bird watching and we saw our first Cattle Egrets (with some water buffalo), our first Besra, Common Snipe and Pintail Snipe (this site is also one of the only remaining breeding sites for Painted Snipe), Red-throated Pipits and Oriental Reed Warblers, Yellow Wagtails and our first Sooty-headed Bulbuls.
3rd March 2008
Finally we got to visit the Mai Po Nature Reserve today!
We had heard that it had re-opened and so we caught the MTR to Luen Long, took a bus to Mai Po Village and then walked the mile to the reserve entrance – on the off-chance that we would be able to obtain a permit and go in. Fortunately this didn’t prove to be a problem – but we were not able to obtain the special ‘close area permit’ that is needed to breach the perimeter fence to access the famous boardwalk hide which is located in Deep Bay itself (these always take several weeks to arrange with the Chinese Authorities). In any event the tides were no longer favourable – and so we knew we wouldn’t get to see many waders in the reserve: at low tide the vast majority of waders are usually feeding way out on the exposed mud a long way away from the hides. This was very disappointing, because we had been told that we might see all sorts of rarities (although April is supposed to be the best month for seeing the rare Spoon-billed Sandpiper). All in all we didn’t see anything new inside the reserve apart from a couple of Greater Scaup and a couple of White-throated Kingfishers; the highlight came when we left – just outside we saw four Azure-winged Magpies, and shortly after that a Hair-crested Drongo.
4th March 2008
A day dedicated more to sightseeing than birding. We made our way to Fanling on the East Rail Line and caught a minibus to the village of Siu Hang Tsuen. From here we followed the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail through a number of old ‘walled’ villages that were associated with the Tang clan (one of the five major clans of the New Territories).
5th March 2008
Our last day in Hong Kong!
After a late start Marlene and I decided to explore the area of Hong Kong Island known as Central. After walking around the shops for half an hour we got bored and made our way up the famous central-to-mid-levels escalator. After a long ride (800m) up to the mid-levels district, we walked around the hillside until we came to the walkway leading down to the Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Then we walked down Garden Road as far as the Lower Peak Tram Station and crossed into Hong Kong Park, where we spent the rest of the afternoon in the Aviary taking photos.
Our fourteen night stay in Hong Kong came to an end about 7.00pm, when the bus arrived at the City Garden Hotel to take us back to the airport on Lantau Island.
Report by Judi Swift
Photos: Judy Swift (in frames) and Marlene Rouncefield (all others)
Recommended Book: The Birds of Hong Kong and South China – Clive Viney, Karen Phillipps and Lam Chiu Ying
Edited by P.Freestone (c) Cornwall Birding 2008