Bird watchers develop a little competitive edge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 June, 2010, 12:00am

Nothing sums up the contradictions that exist in Hong Kong quite as well as the art of bird watching.

Living in one of the most densely populated cities in the world where the stresses of urban life challenge us all on a daily basis, just a few miles away are perfect havens for wildlife and nature. So one day you could be in an office in Central studying a balance sheet, and the next on a hillside studying the movements of a great crested grebe.

The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society was established in 1957 and there are more than 1,000 members. Of course, in this city there's always a quirk when it comes to doing things the traditional way.

Conventional bird watching is the observation and study of birds, but in Hong Kong it includes taking photographs of them as well. For many the art of bird watching is trying to get the ultimate photograph of a particular bird rather than keep track of bird populations and migratory patterns.

People still want to observe birds, especially a new species, but the most important thing is to get a photograph of them. It's a very Hong Kong spin on an age-old hobby.

We may not realise it but we actually do a bit of bird watching ourselves on our way to and from work in the city. At one time or another we've all seen those large birds that seem to just hang in the air amongst the tall buildings and skyscrapers.

Birdwatcher Geoff Welch revealed that this bird is called a black kite, which is basically a scavenger that lives off garbage.

Sometimes bird watching has been lumped into the group listed under 'hobbies for anoraks' such as train spotting, but Welch feels this is a little unfair.

'There's a science to bird watching. It's not just a matter of listing things like you do with train spotting, for example. You're listing things for a purpose. To try and understand what's actually happening such as why they migrate at certain times of the year,' he said.

Welch started bird watching at school in England but gave it up while developing his career with Reckitt and Coleman. He settled in Hong Kong in 1997. After retiring in 2005 he took up his old hobby again and found Po Toi Island was excellent for bird watching.

'It's good for migrating birds because it is an island off the coast and has good fung shui trees for insects and fruit to feed on,' he explained. 'Most birds migrate around a coastline or arrive on islands if they have flown over the sea. Also migrating sea birds pass Po Toi because it is off the coast.'

Welch rents a room with cooking facilities on the island and lives there for three to four days during the week for the spring and autumn migration - March to May and September to November. He started a migration study in 2006 where he records the numbers of all birds seen on a daily basis.

'It may sound strange to some but it's like a drug to me. I love it,' he said.

Mai Po Marshes is also a world famous site for water birds and wild fowl in Hong Kong. The reserve has been managed by the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong since 1983.

In recent years, it housed more than 55,000 migrating birds, including Saunders' gull and a quarter of world's Black-faced Spoonbill population. It also has inter-tidal mangroves along with 24 traditionally operated shrimp ponds (called gei wai) to provide food for the birds, and it attracts more than 40,000 visitors every year.