I recently spent just over a week in Hong Kong, primarily on a family holiday. Of course, I managed to squeeze some birding in, and below is an account of what I got up to. My interest was in going to Mai Po to see the shorebirds that frequent the Deep Bay area on spring migration.
If like me you are birding independently at Mai Po, then it is worthwhile finding out information on the permit process to get into the reserve (now simpler but it pays to stay up-to-date). I had two -- one to get into Mai Po and the other to go into the Frontier Closed Area to get to the hide overlooking Deep Bay. The arrangements for these went well but I did do everything some time in advance. I also tried to get hold of information on tide times, although this is probably best done from Hong Kong (see the account of my trip).
There are several sources of information on the Web:
As far as books were concerned, I used:
Finally, thanks also to those who responded to my request for information on Birdchat, in particular Gail McKiernan.
I grew up in Hong Kong (from 1970-83) but was a casual birder then. My dad took me to Mai Po several times, but back then there were no hides, just fish ponds and grassy banks. Even then, I remember good birding with Dalmatian Pelicans, Black-faced Spoonbills and Oriental Pratincoles being some of the highlights. Mai Po has changed (as has the rest of Hong Kong) since then, and it is now a well-equipped reserve with comfortable, well-positioned hides in the key viewing areas.
I made two half-day trips to Mai Po (which took about an hour from Tsimshatsui using public transport -- KCR and taxi), as well as a quick trip earlier on in the week to pick up one of my permits (unsuccessful as it turned out, but I got the permit later on in the week), and to check the tide times. The weather was hot and sunny virtually all week. My main goals were the migrating shorebirds -- and as with every other birder who visits Hong Kong in April -- the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was target number one. These birds are generally only seen well on good tides. According to the information at the reserve, the tides were pretty low most of the time I was there, but looked to reach 2.0 m or more on Friday and Saturday (April 10 and 11) so I decided to make my trips then.
So, my first visit was on Friday April 10. I got to the entrance road at about 6:30 and started birding the gei wais (ponds), grass and scrub on the way in. Ticked off some of the commoner landbirds here -- a nice flock of YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTINGS, DUSKY WARBLERS, a fly-by ORIENTAL TURTLE DOVE, WHITE, GREY and YELLOW WAGTAILS, an OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT and YELLOW-BELLIED and PLAIN PRINIAS everywhere. A YELLOW BITTERN was lurking on a shore near some reeds. In a creek I came across a FANTAIL (COMMON) SNIPE. Further back, there were two other snipe with shorter bills and broader supercilia. They took flight and proved to be PINTAIL SNIPE. Into the reserve, LITTLE and MASKED BUNTINGS were feeding along the paths.
High tide was forecast for 10:00 AM, at a height of 2.0 metres. I'd heard this would be enough to cover the mud on the bay, and since the time of the tides was uncertain I headed off for the Boardwalk Hide overlooking Deep Bay, through the Fence and into the Frontier Closed Area and along the floating boardwalk. I got to the hide at about 8:30. Already a distant flock of shorebirds was congregating. By about 9:00, the incoming water had pushed them close enough so they were giving decent views by telescope. At first, the flock of several hundred birds seemed to consist solely of GREATER SANDPLOVERS, CURLEW SANDPIPERS and RED-NECKED STINTS, all three species sporting the full range of plumage from bright breeding to dull winter. Then, gradually, other birds emerged from the group. A few TEREK SANDPIPERS, dark braces and upcurved bill, looking like a cross between a Common Sandpiper and a godwit. LESSER SANDPLOVERS, daintier than their larger cousins and with faint black bands over the extensive red on their chests. KENTISH PLOVERS scurrying closer in. A BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER walking in and out of the flock of Curlew Sandpipers, and two SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS, the bright edging on the upperparts standing out more than the chevrons on their flanks. Finally, a couple of GREAT KNOTS appeared, dwarfing their fellow calidrids, resplendent with chestnut lower scapulars and heavily spotted underparts.
A group of PIED AVOCETS flew in and began to feed in the water. The numbers of birdwatchers in the hide began to grow as well, and we began to scope the groups of stints more closely, hoping to find the most prized shorebird of Mai Po -- the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. One had been seen off and on for the last 10 days. Try as we might, we could not locate it.
More birds began to arrive. A group of SPOTTED REDSHANKS turned up to the left. Scanning through them, I noticed a shorter, dumpier and paler bird, with dull legs and its head behind its back. All the scopes in the hide swivelled hopefully towards this bird. Finally, it turned its head, revealing a thick, two-toned bill - a NORDMANNS's GREENSHANK, mostly still in winter plumage, and the second-most prized shorebird for visitors to Mai Po. The bird began to walk around amongst the group of Spotted Redshanks, showing off its shorter stature and heavy bill very nicely.
The tide seemed to peak at about 9:30, and fell short of covering the mud by some way. More scanning failed to produce the Spooner, although we did get cracking views of stunningly-plumaged RED-NECKED STINTS and CURLEW SANDPIPERS. At 11:00, I called it a day and headed back. I turned left out of the Fence and came back round the north side of the reserve. This turned out to be a good move as I came across a group of 9 BLACK-FACED SPOONBILLS roosting in one of the gei wais, along with a large flock of Tringids (mostly COMMON REDSHANK) and BLACK-TAILED GODWITS.
Headed back the next morning, Saturday April 11. The tide was due to be higher (2.1 m) and to peak at 10:30. Birded the entrance road again, and then headed off via the gei wais where I found the BLACK-FACED SPOONBILLS the previous day. When I got there, only one spoonbill was present, but there were several hundred MARSH SANDPIPER, COMMON and SPOTTED REDSHANKS, and smaller numbers of WOOD SANDPIPER and COMMON GREENSHANK. Two local birders turned up, and pointed out that the spoonbill had a satellite transmitter attached to its back -- an effort to locate where these critically endangered birds breed. As we scoped the birds in the gei wai, a flock of 38 BLACK-FACED SPOONBILLS, all immatures, flew in.
Checking the watch, I decided that it was time to head off for the Boardwalk again, to see if I could get the Spooner this time. Most of the birders from the previous day, plus some newcomers, were already there, likewise keen to catch up with this charismatic little bird. Some of those in the hide had been trying for it for several days in a row, without success. Unfortunately, a Peregrine had apparently passed through the area and driven many of the birds away. A local birder came in to point out a SWINHOES'S EGRET standing at the water's edge; I'm afraid we'd all been so intent on the sandpipers that no one in the hide had noticed this rare bird. Today, the tide came in much quicker than the day before, and earlier than predicted. It pushed the shorebirds in much closer, and although the views of the birds were great, there was no Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Finally, the birds got too close to the hide for their comfort, and flew off.
I headed off with another birder to check out a dried-up gei wai for TEMMINCK'S STINTS. This was a successful trip, with about a dozen of the birds feeding there, some sporting black and chestnut scapulars, along with a lone LITTLE RINGED PLOVER. Feeling that the tide was early, we headed back to the Boardwalk Hide, by-passing the Main Scrape (almost a major mistake...). By the time we got back, the tide had already begun to recede. No sign of the Spooner there. This time, at least half the flock was made up of dozing COMMON REDSHANKS. The water carried on receding, and soon enough something in the hide disturbed the birds and they disappeared off to the water's edge, now hundreds of yards away. The show was over. I said my goodbyes to the remaining birders, wished them luck in their quest for the Spooner tomorrow, and headed off out of the hide. I wasn't too disappointed about not catching up with the Spooner. After all, there had been other good birds (Swinhoe's Egret, Nordmann's Greenshank, Black-faced Spoonbill) and great views of some of the Eastern Palearctic sandpipers such as Great Knot and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. And, in any case, it gave me an excuse to come back to Hong Kong.
Just as I reached the Fence, I bumped into one of the local birders whom I had met earlier when watching the spoonbills. Anything from the Boardwalk hide, he asked? Nothing unusual, I replied, and most of the birds have moved about 400 yards away anyway. "Well," he said, "I've just come from the Main Scrape. There's a Spoon-billed Sandpiper there. Oh, and a dozen Long-toed Stints and a Pectoral Sandpiper." Blurting out my thanks, I put my scope under my arm and sprinted off down the path towards the Scrape. I passed the Border Security Patrol, who looked surprised at the sight of someone belting down the path with scope and binoculars. Then past an Irish birder, who, having come from the Scrape and knowing full well why I was running, shouted some words of encouragement and told me to look at the birds gathered together on the mud.
After what seemed like an age, I arrived breathless at the entrance to the hide. No other birders were there. The door was open but the viewing panels weren't. I gingerly opened one, hoping I wouldn't scare the roosting birds off. There were several hundred birds gathered there together, some dozing packed together on a mound, others feeding off to the right. It could take me 15 minutes to find the bird, plenty of time for a passing falcon to scare the whole flock off.
I set the scope up and decided to start from the left of the flock. Looked into the eyepiece. GREATER SANDPLOVER in the water. On its left, on the mud, a breeding plumaged RED-NECKED STINT. To the right of that bird, a very pale non-breeding plumaged stint. But wait. Am I imagining things or does that pale stint have a rather thick bill? The bird turned its head right towards me. No, its not my imagination - its the SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER!! By sheer chance, I had landed my scope on it first time round. I turned the scope round to the 40x eyepiece. Wonderful views of the extraordinary bird, and I cursed the fact that I had never taken up photography and couldn't capture the picture forever. It was still in complete non-breeding plumage, paler and greyer than the stints (almost as pale as a Sanderling) and with very white underparts. That heavy, spatulate bill looked so out of place on this bird.
After about 10 minutes, the other birders from the Boardwalk hide began to arrive, one by one, breathless and excited. We set up a couple of scopes and gave each newcomer a quick look at the bird, lest it fly off before they could get their own scopes set up. But this bird wasn't in a hurry and gave everyone nice long looks at his bill. Finally, the last of the birders turned up, including one who turned out to be none other than fellow-Birdchatter Jeff Wilson!
I remember reading somewhere that the Main Scrape had not been attracting roosting shorebirds in the last few years. Well, this morning it was packed. At one point, I had in my scope sight, all in the same (close-up) field of view: SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, RED-NECKED STINT, TEREK, PECTORAL, SHARP-TAILED and CURLEW SANDPIPERS, COMMON REDSHANK, PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER and GREATER SANDPLOVER. To cap it off, I found another target bird, LONG-TOED STINT. Some beautifully-plumaged birds, feeding actively, bright and looking, as they say in the field guides, like miniature Sharp-tailed Sandpipers.
It was 12:30 by now, and I had to get back to the family. The Spooner was still posing as I left, and was still being admired by the crowd of birders.
The shorebird spectacle was as good as I had hoped it would be, both in terms of variety and quality of views of birds in beautiful breeding plumage. However, Spoon-billed Sandpiper is not completely reliable, so go there hoping, but not definitely expecting, to see it. That way you can enjoy the other birds and not let the challenge of seeing the Spooner distract you. The recent economic downturn in East Asia will suppress tourism to Hong Kong for a year or two to come, so flights and hotels will probably be relatively cheap next year and possibly the year after that. If you like shorebirds, and have the means to get to Hong Kong, then start planning your trip.
Species names are taken from Viney et al.
M = seen at Mai Po only
N = not seen at Mai Po
SPECIES NAME SCIENTIFIC NAME Little Grebe (M) Tachybaptus ruficollis Great Cormorant (M) Phalacrocorax carbo Yellow Bittern (M) Ixobrychus sinensis Black-crowned Night Heron (M) Nycticorax nycticorax Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Swinhoe's Egret (M) Egretta eulophotes Pacific Reef Egret (N) E. sacra Little Egret E. garzetta Intermediate Egret (M) E. intermedia Great Egret (M) E. alba Grey Heron (M) Ardea cinerea Purple Heron (M) A. purpurea Black-faced Spoonbill (M) Platalea minor Common Shelduck (M) Tadorna tadorna Eurasian Wigeon (M) Anas penelope Spot-billed Duck (M) A. poeciloerhyncha Black-eared Kite Milvus lineatus Eastern Marsh Harrier (M) Circus spilonotus White-breasted Waterhen (M) Amaurornis phoenicurus Common Moorhen (M) Gallinula chlorops Pied Avocet (M) Recurvirostra avosetta Little Ringed Plover (M) Charadrius dubius Kentish Plover (M) C. alexandrius Lesser Sandplover (M) C. mongolus Greater Sandplover (M) C. leschenaulti Pacific Golden Plover (M) Pluvialis fulva Grey Plover (M) P. squatarola Great Knot (M) Calidris tenuirostris Red-necked Stint (M) C. ruficollis Temminck's Stint (M) C. temminckii Long-toed Stint (M) C. subminuta Pectoral Sandpiper (M) C. melanotos Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (M) C. acuminata Curlew Sandpiper (M) C. ferruginea Spoon-billed Sandpiper (M) Eurynorhynchus pygmaeus Broad-billed Sandpiper (M) Limicola falcinellus Fantail Snipe (M) Gallinago gallinago Pintail Snipe (M) G. stenura Black-tailed Godwit (M) Limosa limosa Bar-tailed Godwit (M) L. lapponica Eurasian Curlew (M) Numenius arquatus Spotted Redshank (M) Tringa erythropus Common Redshank (M) T. totanus Marsh Sandpiper (M) T. stagnatilis Common Greenshank (M) T. nebularia Nordmann's Greenshank (M) T. guttifer Wood Sandpiper (M) T. glareola Terek Sandpiper (M) Xenus cinereus Common Sandpiper (M) Actitis hypoleucos Ruddy Turnstone (M) Arenaria interpres Common Black-headed Gull (M) Larus ridibundus Gull-billed Tern (M) Gelochelidon nilotica Caspian Tern (M) Sterna caspia Oriental Turtle Dove (M) Streptopelia orientalis Spotted Dove S. chinensis Indian Cuckoo (M) Cuculus micropterus (heard only) Common Koel Eudynamis scolopacea Greater Coucal (M) Centropus sinensis House Swift (N) Apus affinis Common Kingfisher (M) Alcedo atthis Pied Kingfisher (M) Ceryle rudis Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Olive-backed Pipit (M) Anthus hodgsoni Yellow Wagtail (M) Motacilla flava (taivana) Grey Wagtail (M) M. cinerea White Wagtail M. alba (olucaris and leucopsis) Red-whiskered Bulbul Pycnonotus jocosus Chinese Bulbul P. sinensis Sooty-headed Bulbul (N) P. aurigaster Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis Siberian Stonechat (M) Saxicola mauri Plain Prinia (M) Prinia inornata Yellow-bellied Prinia P. flaviventris Oriental Reed Warbler (M) Acrocephalus orientalis Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus Dusky Warbler (M) P. fuscatus Asian Brown Flycatcher (M) Muscicapa latirostris Masked Laughingthrush Garrulax perspicillatus Black-throated L'thrush (N) G. chinensis Hwamei (N) G. canorus Great Tit Parus major Long-tailed Shrike (M) Lanius schach (including "Dusky" Shrike) Black-billed Magpie Pica pica Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchus Collared Crow (M) C. torquatus White-shouldered Starling (M) Sterna sinensis Black-collared Starling S. nigricollis Crested Myna Acridotheres cristalleus Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus Black-faced Bunting (M) Emberiza spodocephala Little Bunting (M) E. pusilla Yellow-breasted Bunting (M) E. aureolaAlso, birds which have feral populations but may/may not be self supporting:
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (N) Cacatua sulphurea Rose-ringed Parakeet (N) Psittacula krameri
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