Trip Report: Mai Po (Hong Kong), April 1996

Tom and Margot Southerland, 282 Western Way, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA;

If you want to see some of the world's rarest water birds and colorful passerines (some rare, migrating or still lingering from winter), go to Hong Kong in April. Of the many productive birding sites in the greater Hong Kong area, the Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve is the biggest "draw" -- one of the world's great shorebird staging areas where birders from around the world come to see Asian Dowitcher and Nordmann's Greenshank and hope to see the rare Spoonbill Sandpiper, that peep with a bill ending in a spatula instead of a tip.

But there are other birds that are greatly sought-after: Black-headed Ibis (a split from the Sacred Ibis), Eurasian Spoonbill (a winter visitor into April), Black-faced Spoonbill, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Oriental Pratincole. Two other threatened species that winter at Mai Po and sometimes linger into April are Dalmatian Pelican and Saunders's Gull. If your shorebird list so far is limited to our Lower Forty-eight, you are in for an exhilarating treat of Eurasian species.

My wife, Margot, and I have been fortunate to visit Hong Kong twice, once briefly in July 1993 and again for more than a week in April 1996. The second visit exceeded our expectations for we not only saw the sought-after and elusive Spoonbill Sandpiper again (first seen and photographed in alternate plumage in the Russian Far East in July 1993), but we also saw many target birds.

We had great birding not only at Mai Po but also at Kowloon Park, a marvelous large city park on the Kowloon side flanked by skyscrapers and known for regulars plus migrating passerines; the wooded hills of the Tai Po Reserve for both resident and migrating passerines (a male Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher was a highlight); the Long Valley farming area for Japanese Quail, passerines and several snipes; Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island for resident song birds; and various hillsides, woods, ponds and rice paddies for a wide variety of species including Gray-headed Lapwing, a winter visitor.

We owe the success of our visit to Mike Leven, an extremely knowledgeable birder and member of the local records committee, and Kingfisher Tours that made the arrangements for our visit. It just wouldn't have been possible on our own.

We hope this account will be helpful to birders planning a trip to Hong Kong. Because it is such a birding "hot spot," it is not too soon to make arrangements for your visit to ensure a place on a birding tour or to engage a good guide.

You will find time the most important factor in planning your visit. You should have a day to get over jet lag, enough days to visit the Mai Po Marshes several times, and also time to move around between the different birding locations, some quite a distance from Mai Po. We did not have enough time on our first visit (only a few hours), and that was very frustrating but unavoidable because of other commitments. In 1996, the number of days was just right to cover Mai Po a number of times plus other good areas.

Permits from the government and World Wide Fund for Nature are necessary to enter Mai Po and must be obtained well in advance of your visit. You can apply for the permits directly, or your tour group/land operator will handle this for you. The reserve covers a large area and there are walking paths between large impoundments. There are many good viewing spots, and a large three story tower gives you great views of one of the large ponds. On the bay side of the reserve there is a large chain-link fence that separates the impoundments from the marshes. A special permit is needed to pass through the gate in the fence and on to the narrow boardwalk that takes you through the marsh to the two hides (a British term for blind). The walk around the entire area plus walk to/from the marsh and to viewing points took us a number of hours including birding stops. The walk from the entrance to the hides takes about twenty minutes.

The tide schedule is probably your second major consideration, and the tide table for the week will virtually determine your birding itinerary. But, with enough days, you can work around low tides falling at difficult times. The incoming tide is seldom the best tide for shorebirds although we did see Nordmann's Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Black-tailed Godwit, Dalmatian Pelican, Little Ringed Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper and many peeps. One of the most interesting sightings was comparing a Far Eastern Curlew traveling with four Eurasian Curlews.

During the incoming tide and at high tide, birders (and shorebirds) often go to an inlet across Deep Bay from Mai Po to a place known as Tsim Bei Tsui. The habitat is varied and is comprised of mud flats, ponds, gravel flats and fill, reeds and scrubby grasses. We did check out Tsim Bei Tsui one morning after receiving a report of a Spoonbill Sandpiper at Mai Po and hoped we might find a second bird feeding there. It also gave us a chance to survey another shorebird area.

The side trip was productive but the area is not in the same league as Mai Po. We saw over twenty Oriental Pratincoles, twenty-three Red-necked Phalaropes with two in alternate plumages, several each of Temminck's and Rufous-necked Stints, a Greater Sandpiper, two Little Ringed Plovers and twelve Piping Plovers. A Peregrine Falcon buzzed the mudflats, Black-eared Kites were in the area, and a Black-capped Kingfisher we missed at Mai Po spent some time on a telephone wire.

During our week-long visit, we made three trips to Mai Po. On the first trip, we covered the entire reserve and did not see the Spoonbill Sandpiper from the hide overlooking the mudflats or mudflats in the reserve. The next visit was mostly devoted to working several ponds where we had good views of a Black-headed Ibis, fifteen Black-faced Spoonbill with a Eurasian Spoonbill, another Nordmann's Greenshank and various others plus more time in the long wooden hide. Still no Spoonbill.

We planned our last visit when the outgoing tide would be mid-afternoon when the most shorebirds would be attracted the mudflats in front of the hides. This tide offers longer feeding time and the birds often feed closer to the hides. Luckily, a Spoonbill Sandpiper had been seen spotted the day before so our hopes were up.

Just since our recent visit, a new hide, slightly larger, had been brought in to rest alongside the original. Good thing, for both hides were packed to capacity with the news of the Spoonbill (and word travels fast among Hong Kong's top birders for they communicate by portable phone). We chose the older, smaller but familiar hide and were among the first to arrive to ensure getting seats. Viewing is from long rectangular slits that are closed when the hide is empty. As far as we could tell everyone in both hides had a telescope, which left little maneuvering room. There were 25 to 30 of us in the hide and it was a long wait for the action to begin. We were impressed with the number of young local birders. We took their interest as an encouraging sign for the future of Mai Po that is continually under the threat of nearby development.

The first birds in were more than 100 Pied Avocets but once the tide lowered to wading height, birds started coming in from all directions. Some groups made passes before circling to come in while others, bolder, came in directly. They simply moved in by stages until the receding water level suited their feeding requirements.

The immature Dalmatian Pelican seen on an earlier visit returned but without the two adults. A Far Eastern Curlew with two Eurasian Curlews presented us with another field-guide opportunity to compare these similar looking species. Some 100 Black-tailed Godwits and two Asian Dowitchers followed, then three Nordmann's Greenshanks and a few Common Greenshanks, finally a few Spotted and Common Redshanks.

It was the arrival of numerous flocks of smaller shorebirds that perked the interest of everyone in the hide -- and a shift back to telescopes from binoculars. Soon scopes in the hide were whirling in every direction. We soon picked up a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, two Broad-billed Sandpipers, two Terek Sandpipers, a few Curlew Sandpipers and several different plovers.

Further searching came to an immediate halt when someone in a stage whisper exclaimed "SPOONBILL." Everyone switched back to binoculars. We picked it up right away in front of our hide about twenty yards out but found two feeding near each other instead of one! Then back to the scopes. The first one was starting its alternative plumage and had some rusty-red appearing on its breast and head. The other was still in its gray and white basic plumage. (Later, we learned that a third one, in basic plumage, was directly in front of the other hide, even closer than our two were to us, and at the same time we were looking at ours. Wisely, someone had noted when the birds were first sighted in front of each hide.)

As more and more birders in our hide became locked onto the feeding prizes, the louder the whispers became. The increased volume seemed to have no apparent effect on the Spoonbills or other peeps close to the hide. Gradually the two birds separated and moved out with the tide, sometimes running, sometimes taking short flights. Most everyone was able to regain contact with at least one bird as they moved further out. When it finally dawned on everyone that the show was over, voices became normal, if not loud, and someone selling champagne could have realized a nice profit at that moment. The mood in the hide was joyous and one we will never forget.

Some of us kept searching around and it paid off: out in the bay was a rare Saunders's Gull flying. It then cooperated further by sitting on a floating object. And toward the mangroves off to our right, another new bird appeared, a Slaty-breasted Rail. That added up to 93 species at Mai Po -- impressive in numbers, sensational in quality.

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; May 1, 1998