Bird numbers on the rise at Mai Po

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2011, 12:00am


On a pair of long pink legs, a black-winged stilt mother takes the lead across Mai Po Nature Reserve's shallow freshwater ponds to look for food. Three fluffy spotty chicks trail behind in a straight line, observing their mother's every move.

The number of breeding black-winged stilts in Mai Po has doubled in four years, hitting a record high of more than 60 pairs. Experts expect the figure to reach as many as 70.

Summer is usually regarded as a low season for bird watching in Hong Kong, but black-winged stilts spend the summer at the reserve. The conservation group WWF first spotted them breeding at the reserve in 2003.

For the past 10 years, the WWF have been converting abandoned shrimp cultivation areas called 'gei wai' into freshwater habitats and building islands inside ponds.

'This conversion created more suitable feeding areas for the stilts,' said Katherine Leung Kar-sin from WWF Hong Kong. 'We expect to attract more breeding pairs in the coming years.'

Weather has also been on the birds' side this year. Heavy downpours in April can wash away nests, but the weather remained dry until early May. Rainfall was 80 per cent less than normal in April.

Black-winged stilts fly in from the south every December. They start building their nests near the water with grass in February. Two months later, they mate and lay up to four eggs.

'The brave stilts nest in highly visible locations,' Leung said. 'It is not a surprise to see a family, with newly hatched chicks, walking or swimming freely around the ponds.'

Parents take turns over the following 25 days to protect their eggs. They kick or give loud piping squawks to defend their young.

When the chicks grow up, their spidery legs can measure up to 23cm, two-thirds their total height. It helps them hunt for aquatic insects, crustaceans and molluscs in mudflats and marshes.

All young stilts have their legs tagged with a code so that the WWF can study their migration path in November. The project will help formulate a conservation strategy for the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.