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A Report from

Hong Kong, 11 to 17 Oct. 2002,

Martijn Voorvelt

For some reason this 34-year old bird enthusiast had never strayed outside Europe. I can tell my Common from my Green sandpiper and my Motacilla alba from my yarrellii, but I had zero experience with munias, mynas or prinias. I was content that way, or so I thought.

Then came an invitation to visit Hong Kong for a week. Nothing to do with birds: I was asked to attend a music festival. But I have to confess the first thing that crossed my mind was: what birds will I see there?

I figured I should buy a bird guide and study it before I go there, or I would go nuts. I bought MacKinnon and Phillips: A Field Guide tot he Birds of China. With a pencil I underlined the names of birds I could expect to find in Hong Kong.
I figured I should ask for permits in time, so I could enter nature conservation areas.
The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society website provided all the information I needed (including a species list), and people at WWF-HK and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department helped me with the permits.
I packed my telescope and went, together with my friend and colleague Samuel Vriezen (not a birder, but interested in pretty much everything). My first trip outside Europe. With only three afternoons off to absorb the natural wonders of Hong Kong. How well prepared can one be?

So this is an October week in Hong Kong, seen through the eyes of a European bird enthusiast, a complete stranger to Asian avifauna. Lifers are written in capital letters.

The City
At first: nothing. There are no birds visible around the airport. The train journey to the city provided the first white spots. Gulls, I thought. White spots along the coast are always gulls, aren’t they? But what kind of gulls?
I was wrong of course. There were no gulls. All week I would see no gulls at all in Hong Kong: apparently, the water is too polluted. The white birds were egrets. They look like Little egrets, but according to my book they could be PACIFIC REEF EGRETS Egretta sacra. And indeed, I saw some dark morphs.

Finally, we arrived in Kowloon. What’s this?

In Amsterdam, the dominant city birds are feral Rock doves, Great and Blue tits, Starlings, several gull species, Blackbirds, Robins. Hong Kong turned out to be completely different, the most common bird here being the Tree sparrow Passer montanus, a species which in Holland is rarely seen in cities: I know it as a bird of agricultural areas. Then I noticed the pigeons here were not all feral Rock doves Columba livia, but included two other common species. I recognised the pictures in my book: ORIENTAL TURTLE DOVE Streptopelia orientalis and SPOTTED DOVE Streptopelia chinensis.
We took a stroll through Kowloon Park, and my ears went ballistic because of all those completely unfamiliar sounds! During the following days I would find out that what we called the ‘Synthesizer bird’ were actually BLACK-COLLARED STARLINGS Sturnus nigricollis. Later that week I would learn to recognise other city birds, such as the ORIENTAL MAGPIE ROBIN Copsychus saularis, the CRESTED MYNA Acridotheres cristatellus and the JAPANESE WHITE-EYE Zosterops japonicus. I would find out that many BLACK-EARED KITES Milvus lineatus hunted in the harbour and inbetween skyscrapers.

Saturday 12 Oct.: Sha Tin
As there would be a concert in the Heritage Museum in Sha Tin, Samuel and I took the MTR early so we could have a walk there before the concert started. As it turned out, Sha Tin was not a rural town anymore, but was infested with white skyscrapers in much the same fashion as the rest of the Hong Kong area, and fences and roads blocked all paths that lured us towards the hills. So we were forced to stay inside the ugly, dusty suburbal town that is Sha Tin. Luckily it has a nice park with lots of pigeons and ducks, and unidentifiable sounds coming from the trees (frustratingly, I did not have enough time to find out what they all were! I probably missed a Laughingthrush species or two), and a river with many Egrets (mainly Little Egretta garzetta) and with Crested Mynas and White wagtails Motacilla alba feeding on the banks. A pair of crows sat on a skyscraper: COLLARED CROWS Corvus torquatus! In the bushes on the river bank I saw a phylloscopus-type warbler with a dark olive-brown back and wings, a rather round shape and a clear whitish eyebrow stripe. It was a little too quick for me: unfortunately I have not been able to identify whether it was a Raddes or a Dusky warbler. Both would have been a lifer...

Monday 14 Oct.: Mai Po
A few days and several concerts later, what I had been really waiting for had arrived: the two days for which I had Mai Po and Deep Bay Area permits. My friend and I found the Mai Po marshes located in a surprisingly messy and dirty environment, but Mai Po itself turned out to be a revelation. A paradise island in a sea of rubbish.

My first thought was: oh my god! I will never be able to identify all those sounds from the reedbeds! In Holland, walking through reedbeds like this, all one has to do is listen for unfamiliar sounds amidst the usual Reed, Sedge and Grasshopper warbling. But here all the sounds were unfamiliar... Wielding my binoculars in a near-virtuoso fashion I would quickly learn what sounds came from LIGHT-VENTED BULBULS Pycnonotus sinensis, Japanese white-eyes and COMMON TAILORBIRDS Orthotomus sutorius, and I also identified PLAIN Prinia inornata and YELLOW-BELLIED PRINIAS Prinia flaviventris. Many sounds, however, have remained a mystery till this day. For instance, I take a Sedge warbler-like singing and a harsh, single ‘chack!’-alarm call to be a possible Oriental reed warbler Acrocephalus orientalis, but I never saw it, and there was nobody there to ask: during two days, I have only come across one other guy with binoculars (and perhaps eight non-birding visitors).

My second thought was: I have never seen so many herons and egrets sitting together. I identified three egret species, often helpfully foraging together in one pond, allowing me to study INTERMEDIATE EGRET Mesophoyx intermedia which was new to me, and I learned that the white-winged clown that flew off everywhere was the CHINESE POND HERON Ardeola bacchus. I also found a Black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax and a few YELLOW BITTERNS Ixobrychus sinensis.

The view from the first (three-storey) hide was surprisingly familiar for a European: Cormorants, Blue and Purple heron, Common and spotted sandpiper, Black-winged stilts, Little grebes, Kingfishers and a Common stonechat: all these I recognised immediately. An Osprey spectaculary caught a fish right before our eyes. But amidst all those well-known characters, more and more exotic birds turned up. What were those weird moorhens looking too big and clumsy for their habitat? WHITE-BREASTED WATERHENS Amaurornis phoenicurus! And what the hell was this black-and-white lightning, shooting by with what seemed like 150 miles an hour, then suddenly hovering above the water like a Common tern? It was a PIED KINGFISHER Ceryle rudis. Whoever designed it should be awarded immediately.
Speaking of Kingfishers. As a kid I was always fascinated by pictues of WHITE-BREASTED KINGFISHERS Halcyon smyrnensis that I would find in books. I was in love with those colours. Now, finally, I saw one for real. And another one. And another one. It was even more beautiful than on the pictures. And it was very common here, and incredibly noisy.
A fourth kingfisher showed itself beautifully near a hide, sitting still so we could admire its enormous red beak and its otherworldly deep cobalt blue: a BLACK-CAPPED KINGFISHER Halcyon pileata. And of course there were several Common kingfishers Alcedo atthis.

We also met the weird and wonderful ASIAN KOEL Eudynamis scolopacea, yodelling its noises nicely visible from a tree. I saw what must have been THICK-BILLED CROWS Corvus macrorhynchos, made friends with the RED-WHISKERED BULBULS Pycnonotus jocosus, and saw some more old friends I recognised from Europe: Common greenshanks, Little ringed plovers, and a Buzzard Buteo buteo.

Tuesday 15 Oct.: Mai Po
The next day I returned, my main aim being Deep Bay. Unfortunately, Deep Bay was almost completely birdless: I must have come in the wrong season. However, I found the Mudskippers and Fiddle crabs endlessly amusing, so it wasn’t a waste of time. I also found myself trying to identify the mangrove noises, and failing.

Back in the marshes I added some more species to my list: the big black long-tailed bird on the ground that I flushed was a GREATER COUCAL Centropus sinensis. I found ducks: hundreds of Garganeys, Pintails, Wigeons, and the one I hoped to find from the start: SPOT-BILLED DUCK Anas poecilorhyncha. I ran into an Osprey again, saw a pair of EASTERN MARSH HARRIERS Circus spilonotus, found myself getting progressively better at identifying Prinias and WHITE-RUMPED Lonchura striata and SCALY-BREASTED MUNIAS Lonchura punctulata...and then it was time to go.

Wednesday 16 Oct: Lantau
I had one more day off. I wanted to see some more of the harbour and the islands, so I took a ferry to Lantau and climbed one of its mountains. The weather was hot and most of the birds kept still, so it did not produce much. My lifers-list remained at 28. And yet, with so many Red-whiskered bulbuls to entertain me, with the opportunity to watch a Yellow-bellied prinia from up-close, and attending a conference of White-rumped munias, it was nice enough.

Here I am, in rainy Amsterdam. In my relatively quiet street sometimes I hear the screeches of Treecreepers, and a Grey wagtail has chosen this street as its wintering home. It’s cold. I think of the Mudskippers in the sun, of the impossibly vertical Hong Kong park, packed with happy munias and bulbuls. I think of the Black-eared kites in the harbour. And I think of Mai Po, with its array of ardeids and kingfishers and its tantalising population of noisy little birds. I shall return. Because I only had a glimpse of paradise, and it’s not enough.

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