Birdwatching in Hong Kong – everything you need to know, starting with where to go
The city is a treasure trove for twitchers, with everything from tiny songbirds to towering herons on permanent or seasonal display. Here’s our guide on how to turn a hobby into a passion
More than 500 species of birds have been recorded in Hong Kong – around five per cent of the world’s bird species.
It is a remarkable figure that partly reflects the Chinese special administrative region’s subtropical climate, location on the south China coast, which is visited by many migrants, and its varied habitats – ranging from coastal mudflats and farmland, to city parks, forests and grassy uplands.
Varying in size from songbirds less than 10cm long, to herons taller than toddlers, Hong Kong’s birds can be fascinating to see. Some have spectacular colours and extravagant plumes, as if ready made for photography. But no photograph can capture the way certain birds appear to have personalities, nor their wonderfully wide repertoire of songs and calls.
“Birdwatching enables people to make new discoveries all the time, such as identifying new species, seeing new bird behaviours, and going to new places with unfamiliar habitats,” says Lam Chiu-ying, who was chairman of the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society from 1997 to 2004, and pioneered and promoted birdwatching by local people, propelling society membership from 300 to over 1,000.
“It takes people outdoors, improves health, enhances appreciation of the beauty of nature and life. It makes people more observant, generally raises the level of awareness of the person’s mind, widens one’s world view.”
This gives an inkling as to why some start birdwatching as a casual hobby, only to see it develop into a lifelong passion. If your interest is piqued, you are in luck: this is a prime time to be out looking for them, with winter visitors present, along with year-round residents.
So, where to look for them? There are obvious hotspots such as the Mai Po Marshes and Tai Po Kau Forest Reserve in the northern New Territories. But a multitude of birds can be found in less obvious spots across Hong Kong, and many birdwatchers have a place or two near home which they watch regularly – a place known in birdwatching terms as a “local patch”.
Here are the five things you need to be a successful birdwatcher:
1. Get equipped, and pick a patch
Binoculars are almost essential for birdwatching, and a field guide is important for identifying species. Avoid wearing conspicuous clothing, such as gleaming white or loud colours, as the sight of these can make shy birds hurtle into cover.
Ideally, a potential local patch should have some trees, along with perhaps a stream, a pond, and some unkempt vegetation, as this will attract a variety of species. Hong Kong birdwatchers have patches ranging from city parks to woods and fields by far flung villages.
I live on Cheung Chau and often birdwatch in the island’s small woods and valleys. Hong Kong Island resident Andrew Hardacre notes that his local patch involves a walk from his home in Mid-Levels to Lung Fu Shan via The Peak, and he might visit it four days a week.
“There’s always something different there and it gives you a feel for the rhythm of the seasons,” says Hardacre. “If there are no birds, then I find insect life in abundance, spectacular plants, scenery and good exercise. I meet interesting people too.”
2. Expect common birds first
It may take a few minutes in the potential patch, but soon you should see birds. Bulbuls may appear, forever cheerful, calling and chattering away. There might be magpie robins hopping on the ground, spotted doves shuffling on grassy areas.
You can expect small songbirds seeking insects in tree canopies and other foliage, including warblers that breed in Russia but spend the winter in Hong Kong. Look up and you’ll find black kites soaring overhead.
There are plenty more common Hong Kong birds to find, and in time you may enjoy the thrill of encountering a rare visitor, such as a migrant that has strayed from its usual route.
3. Walk after birds or let birds come to you
Much as there’s a wide range of birds to find, there are also different ways to watch them. Typically, local patch birdwatching involves simply walking around, to discover which birds can be seen and heard.
But Guy Miller on Lamma Island has a different tactic: he waits patiently until they come to him. This has involved building ponds that attract birds to drink and bathe, and spending two to six hours per day in a hide he has built from old water pipes and hardboard sheets scavenged from construction sites.
The box, three metres long and two metres high, allows him to sit almost unseen by birds, so he can watch and photograph the arrivals at leisure.
“I enjoy seeing and photographing birds in a way that most other birders cannot imagine,” he says. “It’s all about proximity and being enveloped in what’s going on.”
4. Onwards, to patches new
Continue birdwatching – gravitating, as you build knowledge and experience, from basic bird spotting to more hard core birding, as aficionados call it – and you will find that some individual birds seem almost fixed to their own patches, favouring just a few trees and bushes, while others turn up unexpectedly, especially winter visitors that roam in search of better feeding spots.
During March, most winter birds will depart for their northern breeding grounds, but a host of other species are to be found until around mid-May, especially long-range migrants such as flycatchers that stop over briefly, before continuing journeys to places as far as Siberia and northern Japan, along with cuckoos arriving to breed in Hong Kong.
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The Hong Kong Birdwatching Society hkbws.org.hk is well worth joining, including for bulletins and an annual report; so too WWF Hong Kong wwf.org.hk, especially if you would like to visit Mai Po Marshes.
Enthusiasts share information on sightings online, such as on the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society forum, a WhatsApp group called Local Patchers (membership by invitation), and the Hong Kong Bird World group on Facebook.
Abdel Bizid, founder of the WhatsApp group, describes himself as more of an opportunistic birder. “I go birding while hiking or looking for birds and butterflies or orchids,” he says. “I like Lam Tsuen [in the New Territories], Po Toi [an island to the south of Hong Kong Island], areas south of Lantau Peak and north of Sunset Peak [both on Lantau Island].”
Once you find areas that appeal to you, along with making at least one trip to Mai Po for the spectacular birds, it may be time to seek new birds overseas, in distant rainforests, deserts and islands, before returning home to see what’s new in your local patch.
5. Gear and information
If you decide to buy binoculars, it’s best to choose 8x or 10x magnification, and consider paying more for optical and build quality. The Birds of Hong Kong and South China by Clive Viney, Karen Phillipps and Lam Chiu Ying is the key field guide; other guides include A photographic guide to birds of Hong Kong, and A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Hong Kong, by Ray Tipper.