Bird-watch amateurs disturbing habitats

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am

As birdwatching becomes popular, more amateurs are joining in and disturbing habitats, seasoned watchers warn.

'Some birdwatchers these days aren't really interested in the birds' welfare, they're interested in bird photography,' said Hong Kong Bird Watching Society project manager Lo Wai-yan. 'That raises issues such as getting too close to birds, using camera flashlights and using baits to attract birds.'

The society, which promotes the activity and nature conservation, has seen its membership increase in the past five years, from around 800 to more than 1,500. Birdwatching spots were now crowded, he said.

Lo said some birdwatchers damaged the environment and the problem was getting worse in Hong Kong.

The popularity of digital cameras is partly to blame. 'They produce more pretty photos of birds and help promote the activity,' Lo said. 'But they [newcomers] may not know about the breeding seasons of birds and disturb them if the birds are sitting on eggs. Some may even get overly aggressive in taking pictures.'

Lo warned that competition among photographers encouraged the intrusive behaviour.

Leo Tong Chun-lok, a birdwatcher who is also studying ecology and biodiversity at the University of Hong Kong, said some amateurs used worms as bait, but such behaviour could alter the birds' feeding habits and disrupt the ecosystem.

'It's outrageous,' he said. 'We see people setting up scenes with pieces of wood and placing worms to attract birds. When the birds come, a large crowd gathers to take pictures.'

The society has spread the word about proper behaviour on online forums and through classes, but Lo said not much else could be done. In the past, there were no such problems as most birdwatchers were environmentally aware, he said.

Thanks to its geography, Hong Kong has more than 500 bird species, comparable to the number in Britain. Lo believes newcomers need to learn from the attitude of older and more experienced watchers to avoid damaging local ecology.

Still, Dr Ng Cho-nam, the society's vice-chairman who has been birdwatching for more than 30 years, said the activity had helped promote environmental awareness.

'It's a good way to observe nature,' he said. 'People can engage with nature and interact with the environment. It's just natural that you want to know more about the ecology when you go birdwatching.

'But it breaks your heart to see the sites gone one after another,' said Ng, an associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong.

He said previous birdwatching hot spots such as Kam Tin and Shek Kong had been ruined by the dumping of waste or been lost to development. 'Some birdwatchers become naturalists, and eventually conservationists,' Ng said.

'For example, the dispute over the Lok Ma Chau spur line across Long Valley ... raised a lot of public awareness about Hong Kong's rich natural resources.'

About 260 bird species are found in Long Valley, second only to the Mai Po reserve. The area was mainly farmland and was the last piece of freshwater wetland in Hong Kong, he said. In the end, the railway was built underground.

Ng said early members of the society, founded in 1958, had contributed greatly to the establishment of green groups in the city.

'Of course, most of them started [birdwatching] as a hobby and it's still a hobby. It's fun. Birdwatching is like treasure-hunting. There's an element of uncertainty, you need a bit of skill,' he said. 'But to me, it's more than a hobby, it's in my heart.

'[In the late 1980s], most members were foreigners. Now it's mainly Chinese.'