We were on a trip to Hong Kong -- so why we were driving around a cold, bleak volcanic landscape in 40-knot winds trying to bird? Well, illness had prevented our leaving on our originally-scheduled Friday flight and this was the first day Icelandair could get us airbourne. And on Thursday the long layover between the plane from the USA and the departing flight to London allowed us a bit of Iceland birding. The wind was a bother, but the birds were more than worth it. We first drove south from Keflavik Airport to Grindavik, birded the harbor and jetty there, then traveled west to Reykjanesviti for the seabird colonies, then north through Hafnir back to our starting point. A quick lunch at the Shell gas station transport cafe, and then a run around Keflavik and Njardvik searching the harbors and sea for birds.
We were well-rewarded, the highlight being a little flock of eight Long-tailed Jaegers sporting full streamers chasing about 500 Kittwakes around the harbor -- as pretty a sight as I've seen in my years of birding. Other highlights included four species of alcid: Common and Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill and Black Guillemot (The T-B Murres were only at the seastacks off Reykjanesviti, where we also gazed out somberly to Eldey Island, where the last Great Auks were killed in 1844); Kittiwake, Common, Black-Headed, Lesser Black-backed, (nominate) Iceland and Glaucous Gulls (over 500 white-winged gulls in all, more than Barry and I had ever seen before in our lives); Greater Golden Plover, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Redshank, Purple Sandpiper; over 20 Harlequin Ducks and too many Common Eiders to count. The wind was hardly conducive to landbirds but we managed three Snow Buntings and 8 Starlings (!). We only tallied 30 species, not many but quality was very high.
We flew out at 4 pm for Heathrow Airport, where Barry's brother Brian met us and took us home, where we collapsed after a snack. The first seige of jetlag was setting in -- and we had a 13-hour flight tomorrow!
An afternoon flight allowed us a morning walk in a nearby woods. Spring was in full fling, and the woodland rang with birdsong, the streamside carpeted with primroses and bluebells. In quick order we tallied some nice English birds, highlighted by multiple Song and Mistle Thrushes, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Blackcap in full song, several pairs of Jays, Tree Creeper, Great, Blue and Coal Tits, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, and the ubiquitous Wren, Robin and Blackbird.
Then on to Heathrow, a quick check-in with British Air (after a brief panic when we discovered that only one of our delayed flights had been correctly transferred), and then we were off east, over Europe, Russia and eventually into the darkness of Asia.
Dawn broke somewhere over China, a bleak dry mountainous landscape. Arrival in Hong Kong, (fortunately?, unfortunately?) not with the traditional straight-over-Kowloon-and-between-the-mountains, but in from the sea to land at Kai Tak Airport at 10:30 local time. God knows what time in the USA, we had lost all track of it. A quick trip through customs, money exchange and then staggering out to the taxi stand. A quick check revealed no apparent birds on the bit of grass in front of the terminal.
We had supposed to have been with the Wild Wings group, but arriving several days late, we were on our own to reach our base at Mai Po Nature Reserve. Luckily this is relatively straightforward, were it not for the weight of our luggage: taxi to Kowloon-Canton RR station, train ($8.00 HK, about $1.10 US) to Sheng Shui station, the end of the line, then taxi to Mai Po. We arrived by 12:30 pm, a tribute to Hong Kong's efficient public transport system.
A note from David Rossair on the bulletin board at the Peter Scott Centre, our digs for the next week, told us that the group was on a boat trip to Peng Chau island as the reserve was closed for the Big Bird Race (annual birdathon), that our lunch was in the fridge and we were in room 4. We dumped our stuff, checked in with Myrna (the housekeeper-cum-cook-cum-concierge), collected lunch. We ate the sandwiches quickly, then out with the bins and the Kowa and off to bird the area between the Centre and the main road. The car park in front was filled with excited Bird-racers, so we ducked around them and were off.
The area described above is a large expanse of gei weis, or fish ponds, with vegetated or grassy bunds between. Some of the ponds were filled, some dry, some reed-choked. The birding was excellent, especially for us since most everything was new! In short order the jet-lag vanished, to be replaced by adrenalin. In short order we ticked the ever-present Chinese and Crested (Red-Whiskered) Bulbuls, Black-faced Laughing Thrush, Magpie Robin, Rufous-backed Shrike (beautiful!), Fork-tailed Drongo (well, now we knew we were in Asia), the large and striking Black-necked Starling. The common sparrow was Tree Sparrow. Overhead flew Black Kite, Collared and Jungle Crows. The bunds and pond banks were alive with Yellow Wagtails, included the blue-headed race, with a few Grey and White Wagtails mixed in. A number of pairs of beautiful Yellow-breasted Buntings fed in the grass, as well as a few Little Buntings. Richard's Pipits leapt up -- strange, long-legged jobs. We finally found about a half-dozen Red- throated Pipits. All the swallows appeared to be Barn -- we were getting late for Red-rumped. Overhead the occasional Black Kite (or Black-naped, I think it is a recent split).
In a dry pond we flushed four snipe, which flew rather straight and low, calling with an low quacking note, they seemed paler than Common Snipe. A check of the book confirmed Pintail Snipe, our first new wader.The smallest clumps of reed were alive with both Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias, and a few Oriental Reed Warblers. A large reedbed had both Common and Pintail Snipe, not as hard to separate in flight as we had feared, as well as two Bluethroats (not good looks, unfortunately). Herons and egrets flew overhead: Grey Heron, the striking Chinese Pond Heron, a single Purple, Nightherons, Little and Cattle Egrets seemed most common. Three flying waterfowl turned out to be Yellow-nibbed Ducks. Two shorebirds in a drying gei wei were Long-toed Stints, shorebird number two for Mai Po, and number three soon after, Little Ringed Plover. Wood, Common and a few Green Sandpipers waded in the shallow pools.
Dusk was falling as we made our way back, to be greeting by the loud and unforgettable call of the Common Koel, a pair of which frequented the small trees around the centre. The call of this large cuckoo is what we will always remember when we think of Hong Kong: "ko-el, ko-EL, KO-EL, KO-EL!" louder and louder until the bird is forced to stop, a brief pause and then again, from another hidden vantage point. Easy to hear, hard to locate-- typical cuckoo. They parasitize the Black-cheeked Starling.
The bird-racers were still around but getting ready to leave for their tally-up dinner; predictions were that the high 160s would win the day.
About 8 pm, the rest of the Wild Wings group arrived, tired but pleased with their day. We all introduced ourselves: David Rossair, the leader, then John, Ian, Norman, Margaret, Henning and Connie. Before supper, they did their log -- they had seen White-bellied Sea Eagle, many Red-necked Phalaropes and a couple of Aleutian Terns from the ferry. The group had not yet seen the Spoonbilled Sandpiper nor several other of the wader specialties. Tomorrow we would go to Tai Po Kau forest reserve and later do the Boardwalk Hide on Deep Bay. Exhausted, we soon struggled to bed but slept rather poorly, due to a strange combination of jet lag and adrenalin.
Up before dawn after a restless night, breakfast at 5:45 and taxis to Tai Pau Kau at 6:15. The two taxis raced each other down the motorway, all of us bouncing around inside, but it did get us to the car park at 7:00 am. Tai Po Kau is a forest reserve on the eastern side of the new territories, just a few turns off a busy motorway and you are in the closest thing to a virgin forest as can be found in Hong Kong. The terrain is hilly, and the vegetation lush. Although walking trails wind through the forest, car access is very limited so there are fewer visitors than you might expect and if one walks far enough, you can leave all but the hardiest behind. However, today we were on a shortened schedule because we wanted to be back to Mai Po by high tide, thus the early start.
It was almost too quiet, as the day was overcast and there was little bird song at first. As we walked up the paved road from the bottom car park, lugging our scopes, we began to pick up activity. Soon we had ticked Great Tit (a very grey race), the omnipresent bulbuls, then a beautiful Scarlet Minivet flew over and perched for a scope view across the valley. Ian called out a "big green bird" which flew off but it was undoubtedly an Orange-bellied Leafbird. Luckily we soon saw another of these which perched obligingly for the scopes. At the top of the paved road we passed the warden's hut, then reached an open area where a small dam was constructed across the stream. In a blossoming tree near the dam, Barry spied a Sunbird, which darted off. We waited for a while for a reappearance, but no luck.
However, the open sky here at the dam was worth watching. Soon a raptor appeared, soaring low over the trees, with a distinctive down-winged appearance. It was a Crested Goshawk in display flight, and as we watched, it quivered it wings in a characteristic display, its white undertail coverts flaring. We watched this for a while, as well as the flight of other birds across the opening -- and added Grey-throated Minivet to our growing list (it is smaller and more orange than its scarlet congener).
A walk up the Red trail to the picnic area yielded great looks at a calling Leafbird, and a series of ringing notes that David said came from the Great Barbet. The latter managed to remain hidden, however. The picnic area had a little troupe of Macaque monkeys but few birds, and the trail beyond apparently did not have its usual Hainan Blue Flycatcher on territory (a local breeder).
Time was getting short, so we turned back. Halfway there, a brown bird with a long tail and rufous under the wings flew across in front of Barry and me. We puzzled over this for a while, finally deciding it was a Greater Necklaced Laughing-thrush, a bird we had seen before in Hawaii (where it was more cooperative). Back at the flowering trees, we were rewarded with a female Fork- tailed Sunbird but not the brilliant male. On the way down, a Great Barbet flew across and landed, calling, in the top of a dead tree. We had it in the scope for satisfying looks -- what a great bird! You can really appreciate the barbet's relationship to toucans when you see this fellow!
Back at Mai Po, we grabbed our sandwiches and the Questar and hurried off to Hide 6 at the Scrape (the artifically-constructed high-tide roost). Here was Shorebird City! In rapid fashion we ticked Eurasian and Australian Curlew (the latter in smaller numbers), Whimbrel, scores of bright Curlew Sandpipers and pale Marsh Sandpipers, with a good scattering of Sharp-tailed, Broadbilled, Terek and Wood Sandpipers. Gorgeous Spotted Redshanks in full breeding plumage were grouped among the numerous Common Redshanks, with a fair number of the larger Greenshank for good measure. Dryer portions of the scrape had Lesser Sandplover in all their brilliance, as well as Pacific Golden Plover and a few Greater Sandplover to boot. Red-necked Stints poked at the dryer margins (how many days we've spent looking for these on the Delaware Bay, here they were in abundance!). A few Asiatic Dowitchers (looking like Long-billed Dowitchers on steroids) were scattered among dozens of Black-tailed and a few Bar-tailed Godwits. But try as we might, we could not find the dreaded Spoonbilled Sandpiper in the throng.
Other good birds were in the Scrape, including about 20 globally-endangered Black-faced Spoonbills, a few Eurasian Spoonbills with them, as well as many Little Egrets.
Despite this abundance, we soon left in order to ensure places in the Boardwalk Hide for the falling tide, when waders move out onto the vast Deep Bay mud flats to feed. The hide, actually now two hides, are located through the border fence in what is essentially no-man's-land between Hong Kong and China, at the end of a long floating boardwalk through the mangroves. This early arrival was, in retrospect, a logistical error because the new hide had remedied the intense competition for space of earlier years. To make matters worse, heavy rain the Friday before had swelled the Pearl River (Deep Bay is an inlet off the Pearl River estuary) and essentially was holding back the falling tide long beyond its predicted time. The scene in front of us was birdless except for a flock of about 90 Pied Avocets swimming offshore. To our right, a small flock of herons held two Intermediate Egrets, not the world's most exciting bird but interesting to compare with Little and Great, both also present. A Pied Kingfisher hovered over the dead calm shallows.
So we waited and waited, floating gently on the water, occasionally noting that the slight outward movement of leaves and other debris signalled that the tide was, at last, beginning to retreat. We watched the mastless junks, most bearing PCR flags, as they silently floated down the Sham Chun River. The skyscrapers of Shenzhen City in China shimmered beyond. Every so once in a while, a small flock of shorebirds flew over and seemed to check the water depth themselves before flying off. But finally a few settled in on the mangrove roots, and then the Avocets were wading in the rapidly ebbing water, and then suddenly it all started to happen as flock after flock landed and began to feed.
We avidly scanned through the wide expanse of mud and birds, here were a few Red Knot and yes, four Great Knot nearby. Over thirty Asiatic Dowitchers stood scattered in with both species of Godwit. Gull-billed Terns glided past. A Cinnamon Bittern flew low over the mangroves. Everyone was looking through the little flocks of Red-necked Stints (all in bright plumage) for the whiter, somewhat larger Spoonbill but to no avail. A large single shorebird passed over with a harsh call -- "Nordmann's Greenshank!" called out David Rosair -- but it declined to visit us. Time passed, the sun sank lower, and the visibility was beginning to deteriorate as the hides both faced towards the west.
Then someone, a local birder, called out "Nordmann's on the deck!" and we all focussed on this newest bird, yes, somewhat like a Greenshank but much shorter- legged, almost dumpy, with a long bill and rather ungraceful build. David noted that the two-toned bill ID criterion was "all wet" and that jizz, details of plumage and the very different call were what was needed to make the identification.
We continued to scan, and sweat as it was getting crowded and hot in the blind. Attention was flagging, people were chattering and munching snacks. Then a single word rang out..."SPOONER!" As one, all eyes turned toward the person who had just uttered the sacred name. Total silence fell for an instant, and then.. "WHERE? Are you SURE? WHERE IT IS!! Oh God I can't find where you're looking...!" "It's by an overturned basket, on the mud..." (Oh thank God for that basket, we all found it and then we all found THE BIRD, sitting nicely by it, preening) I had it in the Questar. It turned and the BILL was visible. YES, YES!! We watched for some minutes until a Kite flew over, and all the birds took off. The show was over...
The Finder of the Bird, emotionally drained and sweating, collapsed onto a back bench. We all pounded his back, Congratulations, we can now die happy. He spoke, weakly, "I was looking for a little bird feeding like an avocet, back and forth, and all at once, there it was..."
After that, what could one do for an encore? We rose, gathered our stuff, and departed in high spirits. It was only 4:00 on our first full day and we had already seen almost all the sought-after shorebirds including The Bird. I was tired, and opted for some landbirding by a row of Casuarinas which harbored buntings. Barry, more energetic, strode off with the Q to visit some outlying impoundments. I had just focussed onto a nice close Little Bunting hopping along the path, when I heard a low whistle, and turned to see Ian about 100 feet behind me making some vigorous "come here quick" gestures.
When I got up to him, he pointed out over a field and said "Bee-eaters!" And on a far dead tree, two glorious Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, vagrants in Hong Kong. As we watched them in our scopes, one soared out, captured some flying insect, and returned to his mate. What an encore! After some time, Ian went back to the Centre to alert the others and I waited for Barry, reluctant for him to miss these special birds. Eventually he appeared and we both enjoyed them in the Questar for some time. The birds were still ornamenting the tree when we left, but unfortunately by the time the others had hurried back, they had departed.
At supper, we all agreed it had been a very amazing day -- but typical of Hong Kong birding. We slept well that night.
Up early (jetlag sure helps you get up early, especially when you are 13 hours off the time at home and your body is totally confused...) and a walk around before breakfast. The Koel was calling, but it fled before we could spy it -- a big black shape slipped into the trees and was gone. No Bee-eaters on the dead tree, they also slipped away during the night.
Again we headed for Tai Po Kau, because it was the next-to-the-last day for the Wild Wings group, and they had yet to catch up with many of the forest birds. We arrived a bit later than yesterday, and there was more activity -- we legged it up the road to the flowering trees and arrived just in time to see the male Sunbird dart away. This time we didn't wait, but continued up the Red Walk to the picnic area, but without any new birds. In fact, it was a lot quieter there than the day before, possibly because it was also much sunnier and hotter.
Back to the dam, we crossed in front to the maintenance area, where a Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker had been reported visiting a shrub. But first a sharp little song led us to the male Fork-tailed Sunbird, sitting in the sun (natch) and singing. He was quite a brilliant fellow, with a dark red gorget and cheeks, iridescent blue head, and gleaming green body. It is easy to see why sunbirds are considered the Old World equivalent of hummingbirds.
Up the road, we thought we see the flowerpecker dart across but only managed to dig out a Tailorbird, looking a bit ratty and moulting. A little further on, a Yellow-browed Warbler gave his two-note call; this is a common Hong Kong migrant albeit a fairly rare bird in the UK. So back to the flowerpecker spot, and this time two of us (not me, dang!) saw the male briefly as he darted into a tree, sat for a millisecond, and then flitted away. We wait patiently but he didn't reappear. Barry saw a movement in the undergrowth and picked out a silent Eye-browed Thrush that flew off before anyone else got on it.
Everyone was by now a bit frustrated, but overhead John spied two large raptors gliding over and it was obvious that they were eagles. The outline and underside color made the ID as Spotted Eagle, two apparently on passage, as they soared over the hilltop and away. We walked back to the warden's hut, and he hurried over to us -- pointing out a silent Great Hawk-Cuckoo sitting in a tree near the hut, great scope views. This is the famous Brain Fever bird whose incessant three-note call drives people crazy in the months before the Indian monsoon. It looked rather innocent and quiet in the bright sunlight.
Then we hurried downhill, and had to wait extra long for the usually reliable taxis to appear. David was frustrated as he wanted to get back to scout out the Scrape. Finally back at Mai Po, we again grabbed scopes and sandwiches and hurried out. As we passed the Tower Hide, we paused briefly -- should we check it out? -- and decided not. A big mistake, it turned out...
The Scrape hide was unoccupied, but the pool itself was busy with birds. 1996 was a welcome change after apparently two years of waders not using the scrape, necessitating a daily trip out to Deep Bay, where birds were usually more distant. We enjoyed all the close views, but paid special attention to the flocks of Red-necked Stints, within which we hoped to pull out the Spoonbilled Sandpiper. However, a hour or so of careful scanning revealed nothing out of the ordinary (as if scores of brilliant Spotted 'shanks, Sandplovers, and all the rest are ever "ordinary").
A passing kite disturbed the pool and they were all up in a "dread" and then Davis Rosair called out, "Saunder's Gull!" and we saw one flying with the Gull-billed Terns, like a Bonaparte's Gull, dainty and black- billed (and black-headed, unlike the usual Black-headed Gull, whose head is -- paradoxically -- brown). However, the dread signaled the departure of most of the shorebirds for Deep Bay, where the tide was already falling.. We waited a bit, looking at an almost empty pool, and then started to gather ourselves to leave.
At that moment, in flew another little flock of Red-necked Stints and, amazingly, on the left side at the exact moment it landed I saw a Spoonbilled Sandpiper! A few seconds later and I had it in the Questar -- this time much closer than Sunday's bird. It was definitely somewhat larger, bulkier, with thicker neck, more bulging breast and thicker legs than the dainty stints. The head was dominated by the large, wide, amazingly shaped bill. The bird preened briefly, then started to feed for a short while, sweeping its head back and forth like a little avocet. We all enjoyed this wonderful sight for some minutes, then the bird decided to take a little snooze. We watched. And watched. I hate to admit it, but even a sleeping Spoonbilled Sandpiper gets a bit boring. But no one wanted to be the first to admit it-- we had been anticipating this bird for months and now we were BORED?
The impasse was broken by the breathless arrival of a local birder, Martin -- there were (and had been, since before we passed it by) TWO Little Whimbrels at the Tower Hide! These are rarer at Mai Po than Spooners, so we were off at a combination walk/run in keeping with fatigue, the heat, decorum and the many scopes and bits and pieces that we were hauling. It is a LONG way to the Tower Hide, and when we got there we met the unhappy news -- "Gone, buggered off, just 15 minutes ago..." Everyone's, especially David's, face fell.
To add insult to injury, as we slowly walked back to the headquarters (no-one had energy for the Boardwalk Hide), two birders who had been in the Scrape Hide next to ours reported that one of the Little Whimbrels had made a brief touchdown there, not long after we had vacated the site. Argghhh, double-argghhh!
Disappointment was assuaged somewhat by an Asian Brown Flycatcher near the Visitor's Centre and a Grey-streaked Flycatcher next to the Peter Scott Centre, both lifers for Barry and myself.
However, we were not a group of happy birders that evening -- it was a mammoth group dip-out. It seemed that EVERYONE else at Mai Po had managed to see the Little Whimbrels but us. We slept badly with poorly remembered dreams, probably about elusive Little Whimbrels thumbing their bills at us.
Up early as usual, Barry and I walked around with coffee as the WildWings folks struggled to pack their gear for their return flight. We actually saw the Koel for a moment before he flew away. After breakfast we were all going to Tsim Bei Tsui ("the Fence") -- right across Deep Bay from Mai Po, but all around Robin Hood's barn for the taxis. This area is actually a peninsula pointing due north and as a consequence is good for migrants, as well as resident birds in the scrub, mangroves and fishponds.
The tide was low as we disembarked and looked out over the Bay. Almost the first bird seen was a beautiful White-breasted Kingfisher sitting on a post, perfect for the scope. Large Hawk-cuckoos were calling in the dense second-growth woods. Rounding the point (braving a large German Shepherd Dog which challenged our passage but which was intimidated by our tripods), we now had the morning light to our advantage.
As we scanned the wooded slope, bird activity began to increase. A small flock of Sooty-headed Bulbuls flew into a tree, this was a new bird for the group. But no sooner had we gotten one in the scope when, a little to the left, two Red-billed Blue Magpies, one of Hong Kong's most attractive (and local) residents, also flew into the woods. Only a couple of us saw them, and there followed a general flurry since this species had been -- up to then -- a major blocker for the tour. The magpies were obviously still in the trees, as the bulbuls and other birds started scolding. We were all discussing whether to go back when two more Magpies flew in. Again, only some of us saw them but this time I got them in my bins and had good, although brief, flight views. Barry, on the other hand, somehow missed them totally. He was definitely not amused...
Time was moving on and we had decided to continue when a yellow bird flew up and out and perched on the very tip of a distant tree. It was, without a doubt, a Black-naped Oriole, a very desirable migrant indeed. We got it in the scopes, and then it obliged by flying closer. And closer, until it was right in front of us. What a lovely bird! Then, it flew past us and out over the Bay, heading dead north to some breeding site in China. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! If it hadn't been for the frustrating magpies, we would have missed the oriole's brief passage.
Walking on, we saw more White-breasted Kingfishers, waders of various sorts in the fish ponds, and heard the "da da da DAH..." call of the Indian Cuckoo, for all the world like the start of Beethoven's Fifth. A chacking skulker was pished out -- a Dusky Warbler. A Sparrowhawk flew past.
We crossed a small bridge, then walked out onto some dry fishponds. A small sandpiper flushed from a puddle and towered up, its color and behavior indicated probable Temminck's Stint, but probable doesn't it make it onto the list. Scrub at the back of the pond held several Olive- backed Pipits, the "tear-drop" facial marking and the constant tail- wagging obvious. David, Barry and I braved some rough grass, where we flushed a Japanese Quail, which promptly disappeared. Three or four Fan-tailed Warblers (more picturesquely known as Zitting Cisticola, from their repetitive call) flew in at our pishing. Following the call of a close Indian Cuckoo to the edge of the mangroves gave unsatisfactory views of a long, slim, grey bird flying through the branches.
In the meantime the folks behind us had enjoyed long views of a singing Bluethroat but we just saw it as a silhouette as it dropped into the reeds. Walking back we flushed a nice Japanese Yellow Bunting, not a common migrant.
Time was now short and we had to get back so that the departing birders could make the bus to Kowloon. Luckily, we caught the minibus back to Yuen Long almost immediately, from there taxis to Mai Po. We had accomplished this transit so quickly that we had time to make a last foray to the Tower Hide to see if the Little Whimbrels had returned. Unfortunately they had not (we speculated that they were by now well into China) but Ian did manage to locate a Long-billed Dowitcher looking lost and rather puny in contrast to the Asiatics in the same pool. On the way back we saw a beautiful Black-capped Kingfisher sitting on a stick just along the path, and had too short a time to admire its azure back and rufous breast before we had to hurry on.
Time for some last photos and we then all got onto the Mai Po bus, bound for Kowloon and Tai Kak Airport. Barry and I had decided to go along, because of the chance to check the airport for shorebirds and to tag along on planned excursions to Kowloon Park and Victoria Peak.
At Kai Tak, the WildWings group checked their bags and then, scopes in hand, we walked out into the busy street in front of the terminal. Planes were coming in at frequent intervals, right over downtown Kowloon (and right over our heads), and dropping quickly onto the runway. It was deafening. From the nearest vantage point we scanned the grassy edges. Almost immediately I saw six or seven suspicious dark lumps glimmering in the heat haze at the farthest edge across from us. One, at least, looked like an Upland Sandpiper -- it had a long neck! In the scope it looked even better, but we would have to move around to the other side. We kept stopping and checking, fearful that the birds would fly -- planes were constantly landing, and various trucks and cars kept driving up and down near them.
Finally we were close enough so that, even with the heat haze, we could ID that the closest birds were Pacific Golden-plovers. Disappointed, we sought the seventh (surely one of them had had a long neck?) -- and then it walked out from behind a sign, its long neck and decurved bill obvious. It was a LITTLE WHIMBREL! Yes, yes! Even more exciting than the Spooner, at the penultimate moment for the tour and we all had found it to boot!
Finally we were as close as possible -- only 30 yards away in a 30x scope, could the view be any better? The curlew walked about solemnly, picking at the grass, oblivious of the planes, the trucks and the admiring birders. This was, Barry and I imagined, what an Eskimo Curlew would look like if it were tinted a bit more buff. The bird resembled an Uppie much more than I had expected, with a small head and very large, liquid eye. We drank in the lovely creature for some time, giving hugs and high-fives, getting a few strange looks from hurrying passersby. It was shorebird number 45 for the WildWings tour, a new record. I thought David Rosair was more pleased about this bird than the Spoonbilled Sandpiper.
Buses to Kowloon park, a busy oasis in the middle of downtown, and a famous spot for migrants in the right weather. It was, however, hot and sunny so the only transient passerine we saw was a single Yellow-browed. But because the birds are so used to people, we were able to enjoy close looks at Koel (they have a bright red eye and mouth lining), Greater Coucal, a flock of White-backed Munias, and a wide-ranging collection of captive species in the aviary. A number of people were airing their cage birds as well, and the song of free and captive Magpie Robins intermingled. We ticked a new species as a Chinese Goshawk glided overhead, its clean white underside gleaming in the bright light, an uncommon passage migrant.
Then the group started to gather itself to take the subway to Hong Kong island, and a sunset tour of Victoria Peak. After some deliberation, we decided to go back to Mai Po, as the afternoon was waning and we were knackered. So many hugs and handshakes, and then we were alone in the crowded park. Subway to Kowloon Tong, train to Sheung Shui, taxi to Mai Po, and we were "home" in time for dinner. The next four days we would be on our own.
The day promised to be hot and sunny even at dawn. We were alone for breakfast, so Myrna sat with us and we talked about the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong to the PRC. As an ethnic Filipino and a contractual employee, she was very concerned about her job. We tried to reassure her (she is, after all, an indispensable part of Mai Po in the minds of all visitors) but could not but feel uneasy. Such an immense change...
To beat the heat, we opted to go to Tai Po Kau forest again, this time at our own pace, and with hopes for better luck with the forest birds. Some problems getting a taxi (the first one that arrived had a driver that spoke only Mandarin and he couldn't understand the dispatcher's directions to Tai Po Kau park). We finally decided to walk to the main road and flag a cab, a good move since we managed to see a nice assortment of birds along the entrance road, including a Pintail Snipe on the deck in a little marshy area.
The delays cost us about a half-hour, so bird song was strong as we arrived at the bottom of the road. A quick walk to the top, and then a check at the warden's hut. The warden asked us if we had seen Yellow-cheeked Tit (we had not) because there was one calling across the valley at the maintenance yard. We hurried around but the elusive Parid had disappeared, and there was no Flowerpecker at "the" bush, either. So we went back to the trail head, and followed the Red Walk around to a rhodeola grove just after a small bridge. There we saw a pair of new-to-us birds foraging in a bush, but which we could not find in our field guide. Very frustrating, maybe better looks later would solve the mystery.
Things were slow along this trail so we backtracked a bit and started up the higher Blue Walk. Again, not much action until we got to the highest section of the trail. Here the path ran along the left side of a steep valley, with sunlight on the (close) opposite bank, which was covered with thick vegetation. We could hear but not see a stream rushing below us. Suddenly things started getting interesting -- tit-like noises resolved themselves into a brilliant Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, one of the most beautiful of its genus, with violet back, black forehead, and bright red bill. This was a Tai Po Kau specialty, and we shortly saw another, a female Scarlet-Backed Flowerpecker carrying nesting material to a bush across the little valley. Her mate made a brief flyby -- enough to see the red back -- but didn't honor us with long looks.
When we got to the head of the trail, there was a little bridge and a nicely-placed bench to sit and munch a snack. Beautiful butterflies, including several huge black-and-red swallowtails, were visiting a nearby shrub. All at once, many birds began calling out -- bulbuls and Great Barbets -- and above these calls, louder screams as right above the gap in the valley soared two Crested Serpent Eagles, a pair, calling to each other. They were low enough for us to see their crests and their distinctive dark underwing coverts contrasting with the white flight feathers. As we watched entranced, they circled higher and higher, still calling, and drifted away over the ridge. WOW! What a hot little spot!
And it soon got even hotter. As we walked down the sunny side of the trail, we heard then saw a bird foraging in the undergrowth. It turned to reveal a beautiful orange-red breast and flashes of orange, black and silver. It was an aptly-named Silver-eared Mesia, close relative of the Red-billed Leiothrix we had seen in Hawaii. A loud, repetitive bouncy call turned out to belong to a pair of Chestnut Bulbuls, not as common as its congeners, and a recent colonizer of Hong Kong.
This was certainly the kind of action you hope for when birding -- five new birds in about 15 minutes, and things were still perking. We passed by a small streamlet which ran under the trail when a series of sharp notes drew my attention. A tiny, very agitated bird hopped on a twig almost too close for a binocular view. I was stunned for a second by the bird's beauty, then the penny dropped and just as it flew, I called out "Narcissus Flycatcher!" The little jittery bundle of orange, black, white and yellow flew upstream, low over the water, and disappeared, but we could still hear it calling. A short stalk, and another brief view but this time Barry saw it as well. We then noticed another flycatcher, a female, sitting quietly on a thin branch over the stream. This one was quite placid and we were able to determine that it was a female Blue-and-white Flycatcher, based on head pattern. As we watched, the smaller Narcissus male reappeared and dive-bombed the B&W a few times before flying upstream further than we could follow.
A short distance further on and Barry saw another Blue-and-white fly into a huge tree, this a male with a sharply demarcated breast and black face which separates it from the locally breeding Hainan Blue FC. Unfortunately, I dipped on the male despite intensive searching through the dense foliage. And finally, to ice the cake, a dark bird flew into view above us and resolved into a Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, a truly spectacular creature indeed, although this was a young (or moulting) male and lacked the full tail length of the adult. He foraged in the leaves, showing the black tail which is a field mark for this species.
By now we were getting rather tired from the excitement, not to mention lugging our scope all over hill and dale. We walked on and on, descending all the time. The day was drawing on and the woods were getting quiet. We managed nice looks at some minivets and sunbirds, but no new species. It was as if everything had been crammed into the one little area. In hindsight, we should have doubled back because the rest of the Blue trail was long, hot and generally birdless. Thus we were pretty knackered when we reached the dam. We rested a bit, eating the last of our biscuits, then down to the bottom. A long wait for a taxi, enlivened by a great view of a singing Velvet-fronted Nuthatch in the car park. (Yes, singing -- they make a series of short notes followed by a long trill, very distinctive and un-nuthatchlike.)
It was late afternoon when we made it back to Mai Po. We were totally wonked. Barry shed his boots at the front door, grabbed a beer and sat in the shade. I started to follow, then noticed a couple of local birders just returning to their car. Might as well ask them what's around... I was flabbergasted when they said, "We just left a Swinhoe's Egret at the Boardwalk Hide." ARRGGH! One of the rarest birds at Mai Po! Quick, to arms... "Barry," I yelled, "Put on your boots and grab the Questar, there's a Swinhoe's Egret at the Boardwalk Hide and we only have an hour before the gate is locked!"
It is amazing what adrenalin can do. Our fatigue vanished, to be replaced with anxiety as it is a long hot walk to the hide situated out on Deep Bay, and the border patrol locks up the gate (and anyone on the wrong side) at six o'clock sharp. We started off, barely glancing at a Pied Kingfisher as it flew over. We met a birder coming towards us; when he heard about the Egret, he too, doubled back. We reached the gate at 5:20 and the hide at 5:30, hurrying over the narrow boards with a reckless abandon that was probably unwise considering that I was carried a Questar in one hand. But all arrived safely, and we started to scan the mud flats -- the sun was in our faces and it was hard to see, but wait, all the way to the right, in reasonable light, a white egret fluffed its head plumes and shook them out. NO OTHER EGRET at Mai Po has fluffy head plumes -- it was the Swinhoe's! So we all had great looks at the rarity, even to its yellow bill and blue facial skin.
But elation was tinged with concern, and we soon folded up shop and started out, following several other birders who had left a few minutes before. When we reached the gate, we saw a dejected little group. The gate was locked and it was not yet six o'clock! A young Chinese birder said he had reached the gate at 5:45 and it had been locked then. We rattled the gate-- supposedly the fence is wired for disturbance and this brings out the patrol -- but to no avail. We sat and waited for someone to come by. Silence. We were just thinking about the joys of spending the night in the mosquito-filled hide when the Chinese student suggested, "I think the fence ends at the end of the reserve, where there is a watch tower." This seemed as good a suggestion as any, so lugging all our scopes we started to hotfoot it south (away from the direction we wanted to go) along a rather overgrown path on the wrong side of the border fence.
Luckily all the little bridges over tidal creeks were intact, and eventually after about 20 minutes of walking (all we needed, really, 40 extra minutes of walking today!) we saw the end of the fence and the tower. We had all silently worried that the fence would end deep in the mangrove muck, but luckily it stopped on dry ground. There were two fellows in the tower and for a moment we were afraid they would come down and check our passes (our was marked for David Rosair, and some folks didn't even have a current one). But they just smiled and waved. One fellow muttered that they "probably lock the gate early on purpose and keep score of how many birders they catch!"
We were very stiff and tired as we walked back to the Scott Centre. But we put enough steam on that we arrived in time for dinner at 7:00. We also had two beers each, and then watched the weather report. Another clear day predicted, so tomorrow we would try Tai Mo Shan, the "Misty Mountain." We slept that night like the dead.
Before breakfast we walked down the Mai Po entrance road far enough to see the central mountains of the New Territories. Were they clear or cloudy? Since we could not see Tai Mo Shan itself from this vantage point, we would have to try and guess. In the dawn, the mountains and especially the valleys between, were white with mist, but the sky itself was clear with only a thin cirrus layer. We would have to check again after eating. The Koel furtively slipped behind the centre building as we walked back, so again we missed seeing our elusive neighbor.
A quick weather check after breakfast, and we opted to "go for it." All the guide books say if you think Tai Mo Shan is going to be clear, take the chance, because you may not get another! (It is not called the Misty Mountain for nothing.) The Wild Wings folks had gone the week before and found thick fog at the top, consequently missing a lot of the birds. We hoped to be more fortunate. Again we had trouble getting a taxi -- the one we ordered arrived, went barrelling past the car park and was hailed by two locals, leaving us standing frustratedly with scopes and daypacks scattered about.
So again we walked to the road, and were fortunate that the first cab we flagged down had a driver who spoke excellent English. We had a good chat about the upcoming change in government (he said, "the Chinese want you to work hard and keep your mouth shut"). On the way to the mountain, we passed a large golf course with lots of ponds and short grass, perfect for shorebirds and probably worth checking during the peak of Little Whimbrel and Oriental Plover passage.
The road up Tai Mo Shan is winding but well-maintained for most of the way. Below the summit is a guard post and gate where the ability of drivers and vehicles to negotiate the narrower road over the mountain's top is checked by police. Our instructions were to get out here. We first walked down a side road towards a youth hostel. The high, grassy, rocky slopes of this mountain are known for certain specialty birds, among them the very local Upland Pipit. We heard several suspicious pipit calls, and even saw one flying low over the grass, but no certain looks. Richard's Pipits are common here, but these didn't look like Richard's. Well, try again...
The weather was perfect -- there was no mist, the high clouds masked the hot sun, and we could see for miles. The air was cool and clear. We took in the sights from this promontory -- the massive skyscraper cities of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, Landau, even the new airport being build into the side of an island far offshore. Soon we became aware of bird song -- a beautiful flute-like voice which was coming from a small clump of shrubs along a little rivulet next to the road. A quiet stalk and then Barry had the target in sight, and I got on it as well -- it was the lovely Black-throated Laughing-thrush, which we hadn't expected to see here (it is considered a Hong Kong Island specialty). A real stunner!
Barry started scanning the sky (it was a perfect day for raptors and Black Kites were already up) when he noticed a very distant bird perched on a wire near the guard post. There was something odd about its profile, so I struggled to get it in the scope. One glance -- it was a male Crested Bunting, quite a prize -- and I turned the scope over to Barry. At that exact moment it dropped down and disappeared. Barry said a few words which shall not be repeated on these pages, and complained about how long it had taken to get the scope on it. Ok, next time YOU do it, sweetie....
The bad vibes disappeared as quickly as the bunting, however, when we saw a huge dark bird soar into view over the mountain's flank. It was definitely an eagle, and at our level. When it turned in the sun, the pale head and shoulders confirmed Imperial Eagle -- a stunning bird in the scope as it circled, gaining height continually before being lost in the clouds.
We were a bit worried about these clouds, in fact, as they seemed to be getting heavier, so we turned back and made for the start of the main road up. The birding guide gives quite specific directions for certain birds, but we checked every likely looking spot as we dog-legged up the hairpin turns. Trucks laden with construction materials roared past at intervals, as a new microwave tower was being built at the summit. A small reedy wet area looked good and we pished, and a small streaked job darted out towards us, and thinking better of it, dropped back into cover. This had looked suspiciously like one of our targets, the Large Grass Warbler, but the view had only been enticing. No amount of pishing or squeaking would move the skulker, so we trudged on.
We sat for a rest and a munch, and scanned the many, many rocks that littered the slopes, hoping for a certain bird. And there it was, a male Blue Rock Thrush, this the race with the russet breast, so a very nice bird indeed. Unfortunately at the moment it was a full quarter of a mile away, so even scope views were unsatisfying. The thrush would occasionally sing, but no sound reached us at that distance.
As we rounded a curve, a chorus of beautiful birdsong greeted us. It was not the Black-faced Laughing-thrush, if anything it was even more flutey and sweet. We soon found the source, a male Hwamei (a member of the laughing-thrush genus), a plain brown bird with a conspicuous eyebrow line. Two others were singing loudly nearby. Barry and I had seen this bird in Hawaii, where it is of course introduced, but had never heard its lovely song. Other bird calls carried over the slopes, the most interesting a loud three-note whistle which we were sure was the Chinese Babax, another upland specialty. But the spotted babbler managed to elude our eyes.
Finally we reached the summit, which was enclosed in a tall fence with guard post to protect the communications towers. The habitat within looked quite undisturbed and we scanned hopefully but without any success. We walked over to a low wall to eat lunch, and sat dangling our feet over an area of coarse grass and sedges. After a while we noticed that there was movement in the grass, movement accompanied by a constant busy little chatter. Lunch forgotten, we moved closer and pished. The movement of the grass increased considerably, as the agitation level of the hidden creatures rose. The chattering sound also intensified. Finally a little body shot across a small gap in the grass -- well, at least now we knew that these were birds!
However, it took a full twenty minutes of watching (the grass vibrating and chattering the whole time) before one of the flock deigned to sit briefly in a small bare bush for our scrutiny. It was a Vinous-throated Parrotbill! I had been expecting Grass Warblers and was totally astonished to see a short-billed, pink-headed little guy, like a strange colored Wrentit (and about as frustrating to see). We eventually managed to actually see about four of these birds, although for all we knew the grass held dozens. A short walk and more pishing produced other agitated grass patches, so it appears as if this species is more common than the book indicates on the summit of Tai Mo Shan. At one spot a long-tailed streaked bird with a darker neck marking flew low over the grass in response to our squeaking, so this was the warbler at last, although a most unsatisfying view.
We were really enjoying the day -- the habitat was such a contrast from any where else we had been, and the isolation (even with the nearby construction site) far greater than most places in Hong Kong. We met a few hikers, who also seemed to be enjoying the privacy of this high road. We started down over the summit, mindful of the guide book's advice to watch for migrating swifts at this spot. Here the low pass and sharp dropoff allowed one to sit and actually look at the swifts at eye level as they zipped over the rise and away.
It was apparently a day for swift migration. As we sat and watched, a large flock appeared, some above and some below us. Most were the small House Swift, but there were a few larger Pacific Swifts among them. Suddenly I noticed another large swift swooping down the slope. It went across my entire field of vision in an instant, then turned and went upslope, all without once flapping its wings. The wings were held somewhat down (bailed) like a jet fighter. "Look at that one, " I alerted Barry, "I think it's a Needletail...", in the meantime almost falling over backward as the bird passed directly over my head at amazing speed.
Needletail it was, but which one? Not easy when faced with the fastest flying bird on earth. Finally we were both able to satisfy ourselves that the bird had a white "V" at the vent, but a dark or at most somewhat paler throat. White-vented Needletail then. When the bird passed below us, we could see the pale grey back. We then noticed that there were three Needletails all of a sudden, chasing each other across the cliff face. All were apparently the White-vented species.
We ended up sitting there an hour, as swift flocks passed over, swooped briefly around us and then off. A short lull would occur and then suddenly another flock would challenge our eyes. In about the fifth flock there were two Needletails which I looked at almost carelessly, until I realized they both had bright white throats! White-throated Needletails, the rarer species in Hong Kong. In all, we saw eleven needletail swifts in that hour, and if we had sat there all day, who knows how many would have zipped over Tai Mo Shan on their northward passage?
Reluctantly, we decided it was time to start back. We left the swifts to their cliff face and walked back up towards the summit. As we reached the peak, a rather large bird flew out of the fenced area and into a bush above our heads -- it was hard to see in the thick foliage, but the distinctive heavy brown streaking and long bill could only be the Chinese Babax. This was, unfortunately, the only one we saw. It was only later we discovered that the area around the youth hostel, which we had never reached, was the best site for this attractive species. Oh well, win some and lose some...
Back down the winding road, and luckily, this time we saw the Blue Rock Thrush much closer and could enjoy this attractive species. We scanned the skies for raptors and pished at the boggy spots, but saw no new birds until we were back down past the guard post. Just beyond, about at the spot where the dreaded Crested Bunting had disappeared, we saw two small pipits fly up from some grass and flit low down over the slope. A small path led in that direction and we followed, to be treated to close views of two Upland Pipits sitting on rocks in plain view. Upland Pipits have very rufous or warm chestnut upperparts, and are quite warm in tone all over compared to the Olive-backed Pipit (which occurs in wooded area on Tai Mo Shan). They also do not seem to flick their tails like their cousin.
This was a very good bird indeed, and shortly after we saw a female Rock Thrush, very scaly in appearance and quite unlike her colorful mate. After that it was a long slog down the hill, increasingly footsore and tired, until we reached the excellent visitor's center at the base of the mountain. Displays described the geology and cultural history of the area, as well as a bit about the flora and fauna. We called a taxi from the center, and waited for it outside, watching swift flocks high overhead (and seeing at least two more needletail sp.) until the welcome green machine collected us and took us back to our home base.
It was with a sense of deja vu that, as we wearily sat in front of the center, two local birders came rushing up and (as they wrote the hot news on the refuge chalk board) called to us that they had had a flock of seven Bee-eaters fly over which had included at least two with chestnut heads, probably Blue-throated. But no one had really got on them and they were now in hot pursuit, hoping the birds would drop down in trees around the gei weis between the centre and the main road.
Once again, surging adrenalin came to our rescue, and we made it to the lookout spot on foot about as quickly as they did by car. But to no avail, the bee-eaters were gone. We were rewarded, however, by a flock of a dozen Oriental Pratincoles, flying over some distant fish ponds. This was a shorebird which we had practically resigned ourselves to missing -- everyone else had been seeing them, multiples of them in fact, but we had managed to miss the darn birds completely. That is, until now. We watched with mingled relief and pleasure as the tern-like birds dipped and swooped among the flocks of feeding swallows. Finally gathering dusk hid them from view, and we went in to supper. Two birders from Germany had arrived and we had a good time talking over sites and birds, and having a few beers to celebrate the day.
Tomorrow was our last full day in Hong Kong, and we had planned to spend the morning doing Mai Po again, trying to make it to the boardwalk hide for rising tide (which pushed the shorebirds closer and closer into view). In the afternoon we would do Long Valley, a spot for snipe and other birds associated with wet habitats. The weather report was for hot and sunny again -- what had ever happened to the notorious rainy Hong Kong Aprils? We would be getting out very early in hopes of bitterns, so asked Myrna to set out cereal for us instead of the usual fry-up. That being organized, we showered and hit the sack.
Up before dawn, the Koel was just getting in voice as we dressed. A quick breakfast and then out into the cool dawn. The Koel was sitting on the lamppost! We got a brief view before he collected his wits enough to flee into the trees. We would be leaving tomorrow to return to less interesting lives, so we wanted to savor this last full day. The sun was just brightening the tops of the distant mountains as we slipped through the gate and onto the cement path.
White-breasted Waterhens (which look like they should be shy and retiring rails, but act like aquatic chickens) scurried off the path as we entered the reserve proper. A pair of Coucals looked at us disapprovingly and slowly gave way. It was obvious that not many people go into Mai Po at 6:00 am, the local inhabitants were not ready for two birders lugging scopes.
As we passed the Tower Hide pool, an Oriental Pratincole flew up from the mud and right over our heads. In the rising sun we could see every detail of the facial markings, the short forked tail, the acuminate wings. Certainly a better view than last evening's distant flock. No bee-eaters graced the dead tree, just some Magpies. Several Pacific Golden Plovers and Long-toed Stints were on the mud of a dry pool, which was now being flooded by the fish farmers. I watched with interest as aquaculture is an area of research that my University supports.
We walked down a number of paths along the sides of reedy pools, hoping for bitterns. At one point a largish black bird flew out of a tree and right past us -- a Drongo, and its strange thick curved tail and heavy head spelled Hair-crested Drongo -- the only one we saw in Hong Kong.
Just past the waterfowl pond and the Nature Centre, a bittern flushed from the reeds behind the fence, and flew over us, landing in plain sight in the nearest pool. There was plenty of time to make the identification before the bird blended itself into the reeds -- Yellow Bittern, a medium-sized species reminiscent of Least Bittern. A little further on, another Yellow Bittern lept from a pool edge, this time flying in plain view across the length of the pond before diving into the reeds.
Barry and I walked on, past our usual turn to the Scrape, and into an area of the reserve we had never visited. Earlier in the week, some lucky person had seen a Rubythroat near here, but the bird had apparently migrated on during the warm, clear weather. In any case, he wasn't around for us to see! We discovered a nice boardwalk through a reed bed, and some other pools, but added little to the day list until we doubled back to Hide 5 of the Scrape. Here the pool held both Eurasian and Black-faced Spoonbill, the usual assortment of herons and egrets, a single Oriental Ibis (which looks remarkably like a Wood Stork), and a nice assortment of shorebirds. We knew this was our last visit, so we took our time to appreciate the Sand Plovers, Asiatic Dowitchers, Terek, Marsh, Broadbilled and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, the hoards of beautiful Spotted Redshanks, Red-necked Stints and Black-tailed Godwits. It might be years before we saw some of these again.
It was now turning very bright and hot. We were extremely happy that we were not on the mountain today, the sun and heat would have been exhausting. It was a short walk to the gate leading to the Boardwalk Hide, and here we met our German friends. They hadn't seen much, being out too late to catch the bitterns. Tide was dead low, it looked as if we would have a long wait in the hides.
And a long wait it was. At first, the hoards of Mudskippers -- fish which crawl about on the wet mud, and display quite charmingly, flagging their dorsals, wagging their tails, and leaping high into the air -- kept us occupied. Then it was the "mud-sledders." This was a new one of all of us -- people were using sled-like devices, rather a cross between a sled and a scooter (it had handlebars), to glide over the soft and viscous Deep Bay mud in order to harvest shellfish and fish from nets. They would kick with one foot, or kneel and use their hands as oars, the almost liquid mud spraying up on either side and coating them in brown goo. They moved amazingly fast.
They were also the only people who were getting a look at the shorebirds, which glimmered in the heat haze at a great distance across the flats. Whatever time high tide was supposed to be, it wasn't now. We had miscalculated. Nevertheless we waited in the warming hide, somnolent and lazy, as the skippers skipped and the sledders glided, until boredom and obvious lack of water movement drove us from the blind. Back on land, we concluded that the effort hadn't been worth it -- maybe we should just wander back to the centre and have lunch, always a good option.
Passing the casuarinas, we heard buntings chirping. Some slow stalking brought close looks at Black-faced Buntings, including several nice males, when a very warm-toned bird flew down onto the cement path beyond them. After some examination through the scope, we determined it to be a female Chestnut Bunting. As if to confirm the ID, she was joined by her brilliant mate, a stunner in the scope! We really enjoyed these birds, not only new for us but truly beautiful creatures, unfortunately prime targets for the cage bird trade.
Out through the gate then, for what was probably our last time, and past the inner gei weis. In some tall grass two birds flew up, then down again. One was a munia which we identified as Spotted Munia, another new species. The other bird was a strange-looking customer, sparrow-like with a golden head, which after some searching of the book was found to be the Baya Weaver, an introduced species related to the House Sparrow. Our attention was suddenly taken from the weaver as a smallish raptor flashed into view, speeding along about 20 feet above the ground. "Hobby!," I called out, as the the long, sharply pointed wings, heavily streaked breast and reddish thighs sank into my consciousness. Nice views and then it was gone in an instant, as with most Hobbies.
A late lunch at the Centre, and then some relaxation as our plan for the rest of the day was to visit Long Valley, and that spot was best in the late afternoon and evening, when the snipe were more active. Barry and I sorted things, and partially packed, with that sad feeling you get when a pleasant holiday is coming to a close. We skulked around the centre trying to corner the Koel, to no avail, but we saw the same (?) Grey-streaked Flycatcher and this time carefully noted its extremely long primary projections, a major identification point for this rather non-descript species.
Then it was time to walk out to the main road for a cab. On the way, five Great Reed Warblers in the reeds, and two Rufous-backed Shrikes, a couple of Grey Wagtails on the ground along the bunds. Our cab-driver this time also spoke English, and he took us to the small village where David Rosair had told us to start off. Long Valley is actually within sight of the Sheng Shui train station, and is surrounded by development. It is an area of small square ponds with very narrow banks (bunds), in which watercress and other vegetables and herbs are grown for the fresh produce markets of Kowloon.
When Barry and I arrived, it was about 3 in the afternoon, and still hot and sunny. We walked from the village (there is a fine old temple in the square, with beautiful enameled tiles), across a little bridge and into the valley proper. It was as if we had entered a bit of old China. In the ponds, women with conical hats, their skirts hitched high, planted seedlings in the soft mud. Other woman carried large baskets filled with harvest, two balanced on a yoke across their shoulders. Two large grey water buffalo grazed in a wet grassy area. If you squinted ever so slightly, the distant skyscrapers and power lines vanished and you were back in Hong Kong of a half-century before.
Unfortunately, the directions to the pond where the Wild Wings group had seen a pair of Painted Snipe were vague. The group had been taken there by a local, and no one had seemed to recall exactly which was the right pond. There were, needless to say, a lot of possibilities. Since it was too early for the crepuscular snipes, we opted to try for buntings rumoured to be frequenting an overgrown broccoli patch. We saw the distant patch immediately, getting there took a long time as we navigated the maze-like bunds, every so often reaching an impassable canal, and then being forced to double back. When we finally made it, we found the patch hot, dry and totally devoid of birds. Gone. Too much good migratory weather in the intervening week, we speculated.
On the way over, we had flushed an occasional snipe (Gallinago snipe, that is). So we started to get serious, clapping our hands at likely spots. Finally a large, dark, heavy-bodied and short-winged snipe flushed, lacking white trailing wing edges and with the feet projecting beyond the tail. A Swinhoe's Snipe, one of our targets. It flew silently, low and direct, not towering like Common Snipe, and landed rather heavily into a bed of watercress. We were actually quite surprised to discover how different it appeared from the other two snipes, and were appreciative of the 1995 Birding World article which detailed the identification points of the three species.
We flushed several other snipe, one more Swinhoes, a Common then an obvious Pintail, pale and "quacking" as it flew. No Painted Snipe though, we knew this was going to be tough. Only one group had gotten this species on The Big Bird Race day, and that group contained the same local who had guided the Wild Wingers. Barry and I then made the rounds of the ponds, all of them. We had hoped for Temminck's Stint where the Wild Wings crew had seen one last week, but someone was working the dried pond and it was birdless. We saw Richards' Pipits, Yellow-breasted Buntings, and then two small accipiters which we identified as Japanese Sparrowhawks, a passage migrant, with the caveat that the closely related Besra was also possible.
Raptors were up, however, and we soon saw a very large bird circling against low cloud. The light was not in our favour, but the coloration and proportions seemed to indicate Bonelli's Eagle. Then suddenly (they are usually sudden) another Hobby dashed across the valley, again flying rather low and direct. And then we thought we saw another falcon coming, but when it passed it was a Cuckoo! An Oriental Cuckoo, that is, look-alike to the common Cuckoo of Europe, but darker above.
We wended our way back in the direction we had come, since the one thing we did know was that the Painted Snipes had been seen in the ponds closest to the entrance road. About halfway back, I saw a small bird in a reedy ditch, and noted as it flew onto a bank (out of sight for the moment) that it seemed to have rufous patches on its tail. A pish and it was out, flicking its tail at us -- a gorgeous male Bluethroat, its red-and-blue throat patch glowing in the sun. It flew up onto a low wire and chirped at us, giving us a wonderful show from less than 20 feet away. Finally, after stimulating sufficient oohs and aahs, it flew off and disappeared. A good look at a male Bluethroat in summer plumage had been one of our goals for the trip, so we were happy and satisfied.
And that was a good thing, because despite intense scrutiny of every likely (and even unlikely) patch in the general area, we failed miserably to see any sign of the elusive Painted Snipe. This is a crepuscular species, and it could be that we simply needed to stay later in the evening, although by now it was tending towards sunset. In any case, this was a hard dip to accept, since this species had been one we were really looking forward to seeing. But we agreed that it was time to start back, this time walking down the valley towards the other entrance, on the main (Castle Peak) road, before darkness trapped us in the maze of ponds and bunds.
On the way out, Barry and I were still birding (of course) and continued to clap our hands at likely watercress beds for snipe. At one spot, a small passerine flew up out of the cress, along the top of the plants, and promptly dived back into cover. What we saw looked like a pipit. We walked around to the spot where it had disappeared, and pished. Remarkably, the bird flew out and up and sat on the top on a post for our examination. It was a Pechora Pipit! The bird was being unbelievably cooperative,, and we were able to easily see all the field marks: the dark wing panel, streaked back, dark malar stripe. and warm upperparts. This is an uncommon to rare bird in Hong Kong, although Long Valley is always a good place for one, according to the book.
Out onto the road, we flagged a taxi immediately and were back at the entrance to Mai Po is short order. Despite fatigue, we asked the driver to let us out on the main road and we walked in for what was to be our last time. The gai weis were quiet in the deepening twilight, no Whiskered Terns or pratincoles but a nice lot of Little Terns wheeled above the ponds. We looked through the flocks of hirundines for Red-rumped Swallows, a species which had eluded us on this trip (their main passage is earlier in April). The dreaded swallows eluded us again, so on to the centre and dinner.
There we arranged with the two German birders to share a taxi to Tai Po Kau the next morning. We had decided that of all the spots in Hong Kong, this would be the most relaxing prior to a 13-hour flight. Our plane would leave at 6 pm, so we had a lot of time to bird, although we wanted to check out Kowloon Park and the airport once more. The weather report again predicted hot and clear. Updating the trip list, a beer, showers and then to bed.
The real last day...a quick breakfast and then sorting out things to take up to Tai Po Kau. Our German friends came out into the lobby, looking sleepy, then walked out into the car park to see what was about. Barry called for a taxi, but had little success finding someone who spoke English at the dispatcher's office. So we decided, once again, to hike to the road.
As we walked out into the parking lot, the Germans were intently looking at something in a tree behind the centre. "Look," one said, pointing, "the Koels...!" And there were both Koels, male and female, sitting out in the sunlight. The female was actually the more interesting bird, very barred and speckled, obviously a giant cuckoo. As soon as we arrived on the scene, the male left (why didn't he like us?) but the female sat around for careful appreciation. We then quickly tramped to the main road, just as quickly snagged a taxi, and were off.
Barry and I wanted to repeat our Blue Walk hike of two days' before, and the Germans wanted to find the Narcissus Flycatcher so they came with us. As we organized ourselves in the lower car park, I heard the song of the Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, which our Deutsche friends had yet to see. Luckily, the bird was sitting out in full view in the bright sun, so it was an easy (and welcome) tick. A good start, and without further delay we walked up the lower road past the warden's hut and onto the trails. After a bit, the Germans fell behind, sorting through a flock of Great Tits, and we carried on alone.
Again, the lower parts of the trail were slow, but we started to see action at the higher sections. We saw the female Flowerpecker flitting around in a tree across the little valley, and this time her mate was with her, actually hanging upside down so his flame-colored back shone in the sun. We heard the succession of little sharp, see-bit notes that comprise the song of this species. (Once we had learned this, we heard a number of flowerpeckers singing, most well above us in the canopy.)
Just before the productive horseshoe bend, a beautiful, flutelike song burst forth from some low vegetation. The song was accompanied by intensive rustling through the dry foliage, and eventually we were able to get wonderful views of the songster -- a Pekin Robin (or Red-billed Leiothrix, as it is known to Hawaiian birders). Close relative of the Silver-eared Mesia, it is a native here, unlike the last place we had seen this species, the island of Oahu. The singing male was soon joined by a female, and the pair continued to clamber through the understory.
Just then, we saw the Germans coming along, so we motioned silently and they hurried up and were able to see the birds before they vanished into the forest. Then they told us that they had not only seen the Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker pair, but also a male of the rarer Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, singing and then being chased by the Scarlet-backed species. They mimicked the Fire-breasted song, and we made a mental note to listen for the little guy when we returned back along the trail.
At the bend, we lingered a while, hoping for the Serpent-eagle, while the Germans walked on to the flycatcher spot. As soon as they had disappeared around the corner, one of the eagles came drifting over high, but still identifiable because of its distinctive underwing pattern. Then we too moved on, to meet our friends hurrying back -- no Narcissus, but they had found a Hainan Blue Flycatcher and it was singing on territory! They seemed a bit upset about missing the eagle, however.
Nevertheless, we all hurried downhill and soon heard the sweet notes of the bird; the song is rendered as "Hel-lo-o, Mum-my" in the book, which hardly conveys the almost ethereal sweetness of the phrasing. The male bird was sitting less than a foot from the ground on a bare twig, a characteristic perch. It was a blue and white flycatcher, less clearly marked in pattern than the Blue and White, lacking the dark mask and sharply-bordered white belly. It also seemed somewhat smaller. Again it sang, and Barry and the German birders saw the brown female above the male, but I could not make her out from my vantage point.
More searching downstream failed to locate either the Narcissus or the Japanese Paradise flycatchers. There was a strange lack of Chestnut Bulbuls as well, after the number we had heard calling two days earlier. But at the bulbul spot we all saw two greyish birds collecting nesting material at the edge of the dropoff. It was the "mystery bird" of two days earlier! This time we had excellent top views, and plenty of time to search through the book. Finally, there was no doubt -- they were Blue-winged Minlas, but the book illustration was far off on color. The wings were not bright blue, but rather a rather shiny blue-grey, and the head was grey and not pale blue. But the jizz and markings were definitive. The book says this species is "uncertain" and birds observed may be escapes, but all the ones we saw were in pairs and these, at least, were breeding.
Now it was time to say goodbye -- our friends would be walking around the rest of the trail, while we had to double back and, unfortunately, return to the Peter Scott Centre and pack. And go home. Argghh! But in the meantime, we had some birding still to do on the way down. No Pekin Robins below the bend, but we soon heard a song above us which rang true for the Fire-breasted Flowerpecker. Easy to hear and not so easy to see, however. The best we managed was a brief and uncertain view of a small greyish bird being chased furiously by an obvious male Scarlet-backed 'pecker. Probably the male Fire-breast, but who could be sure, as the bird failed to return and the singing ceased.
Barry lingered a while, hoping for another look, while I wandered on a bit. I noted a bird perched at the very tip of a dead snag across the valley. Its profile was reminiscent of a bulbul, but there was something about it... a glance through the bins revealed a Yellow-cheeked Tit! I hissed to my spousal unit, and he arrived just in time to view the bird as it flew off its perch and across towards us, disappearing into the tall trees above our heads. This Tai Po Kau specialty turned out to be a very difficult one, and we had just scraped this fellow up at the very end.
The rest of the walk was slow, to just beyond the picnic pavilion. Here we did some half-hearted scouting for an Orange-headed Thrush which had been reported singing near this spot the day before, but with little optimism. We did hear a different song from an inaccessible high embankment, but the species' song is not described in the book, so it could have been anything. Attempts to reach the singer only succeeded in frightening it off. Oh well.
The last new forest species was a little flock of white and green tit-like birds which proved to be White-bellied Yuhinas, like the minlas and many other Hong Kong birds a member of the diverse Babbler family. We stopped at the dam to eat our last biscuits, and ended up giving many of them away to a very aggressive and greedy Macaque. Down the hill then in direct order, a lucky quick taxi, and make to the reserve.
While we packed, Myrna made us a last special lunch of seafood and noodle soup, and then it was time to go. A few last photographs and the taxi took us away, up the entrance road, past the container depots to Sheng Shui train station. Another crowded ride with all our gear, then off at Mong Kok station and an inexpensive taxi ride to Kai Tak Airport. Mai Po was already becoming a memory.
We were fortunate that the British Airways ticket counter was opening just as we walked up, and we checked our heavy bag, just keeping out the scope and hand luggage. When we walked out of the terminal at 4 pm, it was still hot and bright. A check of the airport runways revealed no Little Whimbrels, only a few Richard's Pipits. Our flight didn't leave until 10 pm, so we had plenty of time left to kill.
A bus to Kowloon Park, and some searching for species we had missed. Someone had found Blue Magpies here earlier in the year, but a careful search of the indicated buildings and nearby trees was unsuccessful. We did manage to add a pair of nesting Rose-ringed Parakeets, a tickable introduced species. Our last new trip bird was a Chestnut-tailed Starling (a strange whitish starling with a blue-and-yellow bill) carefully guarding an empty nest hole (he had no apparent mate, just a hopeful attitude). This species is considered an escape, but a local birder had told us that recent information has shown the species to be expanding its range in South China, and that it tended to show up first in gardens as it is in part a nectar feeder. So who knows? But an interesting critter nonetheless.
After that it was time for supper, in a crowded restaurant, then shopping for gifts in the multitude of shops in downtown Kowloon. The neon lights were on and the streets crowded with people as we finally called it quits, hailed a taxi, and wended our way back to the airport. It a short time we were boarding, and then taxiing out, lifting off over the water and neon-lit skyscrapers, and away.
When (if?) we ever return to Hong Kong, there will be changes. How great the changes will be, and how they will affect the people and the wildlife of this country, cannot be predicted. Will Mai Po remain untouched, threatened as it is by encroaching development? What about its employees, its visitors? We are hopeful but not overly optimistic. As Jimmy Buffett sings, "Only time will tell. . ."
Birds observed in Hong Kong April 20th-27th, 1996. We saw 187 species in one full week, and did not visit some sites which would be recommended in a longer tour, esp. outer islands, Victoria Peak on HK island, Landau. A visit to these could have brought the species total to over 200. Also, a trip earlier in April would result in a better list for passage migrants, esp. thrushes and warblers, as well as more lingering winter visitors. Conditions at Mai Po, however, might be more crowded at these times.
43 species of shorebirds were seen, augmented by five other species in Iceland and England, a remarkable 48 species for the full 10 days we were away.
Little Grebe Tachybaptus rujicollis Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo Purple Heron Ardea purpurea Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax (Little) Green Heron Butorides striatus Little Egret Egretta garzetta Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Great Egret Egretta alba Swinhoe's (Chinese) Egret Egretta ealophotes Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis Chestnut Bittern Ixabrychus cinnamomeous White (Oriental) Ibis Threskiornis melanocephalus European Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor Falcated Teal Anas falcata Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Yellow-nib Duck Anas poecilorhyncha Shoveler Anas clypeata Pintail Anas acuta Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope Eurasian Teal Anas crecca Garganey Anas querquedula Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga Black Kite Milvus nigrans Bonelli's Eagle Hieraaetus fasciatus Osprey Pandion haliaetus Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus Northern Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus Japanese Sparrowhawk Accipiter gularis Chinese Goshawk Accipiter soloensis Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela Hobby Falco subbuteo Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus Moorhen Gallinula chloropus (Eurasian) Coot Fulica atra Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus Greater Sand Plover Charadrius leschenaultii Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum Ruddy Turnstone Arenia interpres Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago Pintail Snipe Gallinago stenura Swinhoe's Snipe Gallinago megala Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata Far-eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus Little Whimbrel Numenius minutus Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica Asiatic Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopacrus Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus Grey-tailed Tattler Heteroscelus brevipes Ruff Philomachus pugnax Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus Common Redshank Totanus totanus Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia Nordmann's Greenshank Tringa guttifer Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatalis Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris Red Knot Calidris canutus Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea Sanderling Calidris alba Dunlin Calidris alpina Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata Broad-billed Sandpiper Calidris falcinellus Red-necked Stint Calidris rufiicollie Long-toed Stint Calidris subminuta Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirortiis Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus Saunder's Gull Larus saundersi Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica Caspian Tern Sterna caspia Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybridus Common Tern Sterna hirundo longipenis Little Tern Sterna albifrons Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis Rutous Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis Feral Pigeon Columba livia Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus (probable) Large Hawk Cuckoo Hierococeyx sparveriodes Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus Koel Eudynamis scolopacea Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus Great Barbet Megalaima virens Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon pileata White-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis Pacific Swift Apus pacifcus House Swift Apus affinus White-vented Needletail Hirundapus cochinchinensis White-throated Needletail Hirundapsus caudacutus (Common / Barn) Swallow Hirundo rustica Sand Martin Rinaria rinaria (Eurasian) Tree Sparrow Passer montanus Baya Weaver Ploceus philippinus Richard's Pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus Upland Pipit Anthus sylvanus Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea White Wagtail Motacilla alba Scarlet Minivet Pericrocotus flammeus Grey-throated Minivet Pericrocotus solaris Orange-bellied Leafbird Chloropsis hardwickii (melliana) Crested (Red-whiskered) Bulbul Pycnonotus jocosus Chinese Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis Sooty-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus aurigaster Chestnut Bulbul Hypsipetes castanotus Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis Siberian Stonechat Saxicola torquata mauri/stegzmanni Bluethroat Luscinia svecica Blue Rock Thrush Monticala solitarius philippensis Eye-browed Thrush Turdus obscurus Fan-tailed Warbler (Zitting Cisticola) Cisticola iancides Yellow-bellied Prinia Prinia flaviventris Plain Prinia Prinia subflava Large Grass Warbler Graminicloa bengalensis Oriental (Eastern Great) Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus Common (Long-tailed) Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica (Asian) Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa latirostris Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina Blue and White Flycatcher Muscicapa cyanomelana Hainan Blue Flycatcher Cyornis hainana Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata Pekin Robin (Red-billed Leiothrix) Leiothrix lutea Silver-eared Mesia Leiothrix argentauris Chinese Babex Babax lanceolatus Black-faced Laughing Thrush Garrulax perspicillatus Black-throated Laughing Thrush Garrulax chinensis Hwamei Garrulax canorus Greater Necklaced Laughing Thrush Garrulax pectoralis Blue-winged Minla Minla cyanouroptera White-bellied Yuhina Yuhina zantholeuca Vinous-throated Parrotbill Paradoxornis webbianus Great Tit Parus major Yellow-cheeked Tit Parus spilonotus rex Velvet-fronted Nuthatch Sitta frontalis Fork-tailed Sunbird Aethoppyga christina Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker Dicaeum cruentatum Fire-breasted Flowerpecker Dicaeum ignipectus (heard) (Japanese) White-eye Zosterops iaponica Rufous-backed (Long-tailed) Shrike Lanius schach Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis Magpie Pica pica Blue Magpie Urocissa erythrorhyncha Collared Crow Corvus torquatus Jungle Crow Corvus macrorhychus Chinese Starling Sturnus sinensis Chestnut-tailedStarling Sturnus malabaricus Black-necked Stariing Sturnus nigricollis Crested Mynah Acridotheres cristatellus Masked (Black-faced) Bunting Emberiza spodocephala Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla Japanese Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola Chestnut Bunting Emberiza utila Crested Bunting Emberiza lathami Spotted Munia Lonchura punctulata White-backed Munia Lonchura striata
The simplest solution is to stay at the WWF Peter Scott Centre at Mai Po. The centre can accomodate about 16-17 people, with three or four in some rooms. Rooms have refrigerators, ceiling fans. Laundry service is provided. Meals are available at extra cost. I have the forms for those wishing to make reservations, which should be made at least four months ahead for couples wishing to stay during peak times, longer ahead for groups.
We met people who stayed at the Tai Po Hotel at Tai Po Market, walk from train station. It is apparently adequate. This hotel would be very convenient for Tai Po Kau, and ferries to outer islands.
We took all our meals, with few exceptions, at the Peter Scott Centre. They provided packed lunches for days we were out. There is an very good restuarant at San Tin, the next town up from Mai Po, on the same street as the Post Office.
Trains and buses are inexpensive in Hong Kong. The cost from downtown Kowloon to Sheng Shui station is $8.00 HK, or a little over $1.00 US. Buses run about $4.00 HK for most trips. You need exact change. Taxis are more expenive but quicker, and even on days with several trips, less expensive than a rental car. It is perfectly possible to reach almost every site by train/bus, except the summit of Tai Mo Shan. Diskin's book gives public transport routes and bus numbers.
Communication with taxi drivers is facilitated by carrying a paper with destinations written in Chinese, as few taxi drivers speak English. A copy of a sheet provided in the back of Diskin's book worked well.
Please contact me if you have questions.
Gail Mackiernan, University of Maryland College Park, firstname.lastname@example.org
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