Trip Report: Mai Po (Hong Kong), April 10-11, 1998

Clive Harris, New Delhi, India;

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.

Backgound Information

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:

  1. Information on WWF-HK and visiting the Mai Po Reserve;
  2. HK Birdwatching Society
    and, for what its worth, tide information on Deep Bay can be found on:
  3. the general Observatory Page and
  4. specifically tides, although this is only given 2 days ahead (but with hourly information).

As far as books were concerned, I used:

  1. Wheatley's Where to watch birds in Asia; you probably want a more detailed guide if you are birding areas other than Deep Bay, but this was fine for Mai Po;
  2. Viney et al's Birds of Hong Kong; and
  3. Hayman et al's Shorebirds: An Identification Guide, a must if you have come to see the sandpipers and plovers.

Finally, thanks also to those who responded to my request for information on Birdchat, in particular Gail McKiernan.

The Birding

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.

Final Words

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.

Bird List

Species names are taken from Viney et al.

M = seen at Mai Po only
N = not seen at Mai Po


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. aureola
Also, 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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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; April 16, 1998; modified April 29, 1998