Trip Report: Hong Kong, December 12, 1999

Francis Toldi, Burlingame, California, USA;

In my last post I described a few hours of casual birding in Taipei. In this message I provide my impressions on my experiences birding in Hong Kong. Here is the setting: a business trip on very short notice, with minimal free time for birding. I do not speak Chinese and would not have access to a car. At least in Hong Kong I had one full free day, a Sunday.

There are considerable resources for the visiting birder in Hong Kong, including trip reports, websites, Birding articles, an excellent field guide, and even a local finding guide (not widely distributed). Unfortunately the short time in which I had to make arrangements and a clash in schedules didn't allow me to connect with local birders in advance. Birding with a local would certainly have resulted in more birds and a very pleasant time with great people, but going it alone was not at all a problem in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is much easier for the non-Chinese speaker to navigate. The subway and train system are easy to use, fast and convenient. There are cabs all over the place. Ask the hotel desk clerk (or ask a Chinese friend or associate) to write out the Chinese characters for the key locations, and you will have many locations within your range of possibility.

For my free Sunday I decided to stick to fairly well-known areas. I took the subway and train to Tai Po Market Station, then took a 5 minute cab ride to the Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve, a beautiful forested area with many paths winding through the hills. At first I was totally bewildered by the strange calls and invisible birds, but that's half the fun of birding in a new place! I had birded previously in Hong Kong, but long enough ago that I had forgotten all the basics. After an intensely frustrating half hour, I finally actually identified a bird: a lovely Gray-throated Minivet. Things picked quickly as the day warmed and my experience grew. In about 5 hours of walking and birding I was able to identify 26 species, including many more Gray-throated Minivets, Scarlet Minivet, Orange-throated Leafbird, 4 species of bulbul including Chestnut Bulbul, Gray-backed and White's Thrush (both high up the trail/road toward Shing Mun), various warblers and flycatchers, Greater Necklaced Laughing-Thrush, Yellow-cheeked Tit (another beauty), Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, and a few others. Thanks to some very friendly local birders I also got on the Bird of the Day: a spectacular Slaty-backed Forktail. There were also a number of Macaques (monkeys) around (one cynical, tame-looking one near the parking lot garbage cans, and a few more feeding up in the trees far up the Shing Mun trail).

Throughout the day I was thrilled to see how popular birding is with the local citizens. There were birders of all skill levels, all friendly and helpful. At one point some local guides came by with a group of 50 Taiwanese birders on a special birding trip to Hong Kong.

My only conflict was when I was far up the Shing Mun trail and felt the trail beckoning further exploration. I ALMOST bagged the birding for the day to hike the trail over the mountain (an all day trip), but decided to stick with the birding and reluctantly turned around. Hong Kong has many great walks, not all through particularly birdy areas. It can make for difficult choices when time is limited.

I headed back down to the highway, flagged a cab back to the train station, headed up the line a couple of stops to Sheung Shui Station, then by cab (15 minutes) to Mai Po Nature Reserve. As luck would have it, this was "Discover Mai Po Day" and the place was just teeming with happy visitors. WWFHK had set up educational stations to explain conservation, birdwatching, banding, etc. THe staff apologized for all the commotion. I'm sure I would have seen more birds without the multitudes, but I was so happy to see all the local interest in conservation and nature appreciation that I didn't care. Besides, for me even the common birds were exciting, so the Pheasant-tailed Jacanas and the like could wait for another visit.

In about 3 1/2 hours I did manage to see 45 species, with more than a few terrific birds including several lifers. I was handicapped by not having a scope, but again, for casual birding it was not a big problem. It did make shorebirding difficult, even impossible at times, and I spent quite a bit of time on some birds that would have been easy identifications with a scope. Among the birds I identified were 7 species of heron/etc., including the critically endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, 8 species of duck ALL outside of the waterfowl enclosure :) including Common Shelduck and my long-sought Baer's Pochard, 7 shorebird species (I would have easily doubled that with a scope), and a number of good landbirds including 2 kingfisher species, wagtails and more warblers. Surprisingly, even some of the bush warblers were not that hard to get good looks at. Without a scope Saunder's Gull was just not possible.

Bear in mind that Mai Po access is best secured in advance. Don't just assume you can show up and get in any time you want. WWFHK and the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society webpages have more information. The book shop there also has some good books. I picked up the local birdfinding guide (too bad I didn't have that earlier!) and the latest edition of Viney and Phillips, Birds of Hong Kong.

I was very pleased with my daily total of 66 species, including 10 lifers and another 8 new for Hong Kong. This is small in comparison to the totals that an experienced birder in this region (or even a foreigner better prepared and equipped than I was) would get, particularly in the migration season when the jaw-dropping Hong Kong specialties are present, such as Spoonbill Sandpiper, Nordman's Greenshank, Broad-billed Sandpiper, etc.. Nevertheless, it made for a great day of birding.

My final morning in Hong Kong I took the first tram up to Victoria Peak and spent an hour and a half wandering around the summit trails. Not surprisingly, it was mostly common birds about, but there were certainly birds along with the spectacular city views. I saw a total of 16 species, including Daurian Redstart, Olive-backed Pipit, Masked Bunting, Black-throated Laughing-Thrush (a lifer) and a spectacular close-up view of a Fork-tailed Sunbird.

My conclusion: Hong Kong is a worthy destination for the serious birder with pre-planning and proper equipment. See the many trip reports for details on the many splendors that await. It is also a great place for the casual birder or person stuck in meetings. Even within walking distance from the big business hotels on Hong Kong Island are interesting birds and beautiful scenery. For those with slightly more time, even better results are possible. Car, scope and Chinese language will make things better and easier, but are not prerequisites.

Contact me privately if you would like more detail.

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; January 2, 2000