Last week I was lucky to spend a few days birding in Hong Kong with Hazel Johnston, Michael O’Clery and HK resident birder, Martin Williams. Hong Kong is a unique, busy city with incredibly tall skyscrapers, bustling traffic and bright lights. With a population of over seven million, it seems that the people of Hong Kong have evolved to walk in crowds without looking up as every second person was more engaged with their smartphones than with the people around them. It is certainly a new skill which I can categorically confess to not possessing.
I’ve been to Hong Kong twice before and what I love about birding there is that, within a very short space of time, you can be out of the big city and into relatively remote woodland slopes and wetlands where you might imagine that you’ve been transported back in time to old China. Needless to say, the birding is also my main attraction to the place. It is superb.
As an Irish birder, encountering Richard’s and Red-throated Pipits along every track around the marshes of Mai Po is exhilarating…hearing and seeing birds that would cause my heart to beat if I was seeing them at Tacumshin Lake instead of Mai Po is always a wonderful experience. Watching Olive-backed Pipits, Siberian Stonechats and Dusky Warblers around the wet fields of Long Valley create a heightened awareness of such rarities. All great experience for birding in Ireland.
Of course, while we in Ireland might view these species as rarities, they are not rarities in the truest sense of the word. While these birds might be mega rare in Ireland, they are as common as muck in Asia.
In Hong Kong however, we actually did encounter true rarities…Saunder’s Gulls and Black-faced Spoonbills.
As a gull fanatic, I love the character of Saunder’s Gulls. These small, hooded gulls with a ‘Gull-billed Tern-like’ bill have a personality unlike any other species. Despite their small size (smaller than Black-headed Gulls), they are bulky birds and hold their own against all the bigger gulls. The total population is considered to be approximately 20,000 individuals (less birds than you might see at a winter gull roost at Sandymount Strand, Dublin). Breeding in South Korea, their nesting sites are under great pressure from development and drainage, while their wintering grounds are equally under threat. In a global sense, Saunder’s Gull is a true rarity.
While they might seem rare, they are almost common in comparison to the globally-endangered Black-faced Spoonbill (see above). In recent years, up to 350 birds wintered in Hong Kong. That represents almost 10% of the total population of this species which is currently estimated at between 3,500 – 3,800 individuals. Their main nesting areas lie in the Demilitarised Zones between North and South Korea, where human disturbance is restricted. It goes without saying that this is a highly volatile region to choose to nest in.
Wintering further south in Asia, many of their main wintering grounds are under threat from development, especially in areas such as Taiwan where the largest numbers of birds occur. Proposed developments around several wetlands there might reverse the progress made in conserving this beautiful species. Even in Hong Kong, the continuing encroachment of the city of Shenzhen on the Chinese side of Deep Bay where Mai Po is situated, is having a very noticeable impact on the spoonbills. In recent years, numbers have declined and this is a worrying development.
I have seen Black-faced Spoonbill on one previous visit but the birds were always a little distant. On this trip however, the tides were exactly right and, from the hides in the mangroves around Deep Bay, several spoonbills fed right in front of us, allowing for some half-decent shots. Up close, their true beauty can be really appreciated.
Like all birders, I love seeing rarities. My heart will pound when I next encounter a Richard’s Pipit or a Dusky Warbler on an Irish headland in autumn. However, experiencing true rarities like Saunder’s Gulls and Black-faced Spoonbills is always a real privilege. Experiencing species such as these is special.
What a shame it would be if such species were allowed to simply vanish from this earth.