For many people in Hong Kong, talk of endangered species conjures up images of wildlife whose natural habitats are “out there”, somewhere far away – such as giant pandas in the bamboo forests of Sichuan province, polar bears in the Arctic and miniature monkeys in the Brazilian rainforest. If, like me, you are a birdwatcher, however, the list of threatened species feels far closer to home.
The tally of the world’s endangered birds is growing ever larger, with some populations shrinking at startling rates. “The State of the World’s Birds 2018” report, which was released last month by BirdLife International (the world’s leading authority on avian conservation), notes that 13 per cent of the planet’s 11,000 or so bird species – roughly one in eight – are threatened with extinction.
In Hong Kong, the endangered proportion of the total is slightly lower, at about 10 per cent of 522 species. This is no reason to feel upbeat, however: Hong Kong was deforested long ago, wiping out “forest specialists” (birds that primarily breed in wooded environments) and largely leaving room only for species adapted to living in areas shaped by humans.
Indeed, according to the report, human activity is responsible for losses worldwide. The main culprit has been farming, which has affected the populations of 74 per cent of globally threatened bird species. Logging and deforestation have caused declines in 50 per cent of the most endangered species, with invasive species (39 per cent), hunting/trapping (35 per cent), climate change (33 per cent) and residential/commercial development (28 per cent) also having a ruinous impact.
The report notes, in fact, that people – through the destruction of wildlife habitats and exploitation of natural resources – are now driving the sixth mass extinction event since animals first appeared, more than 500 million years ago. Such behaviour has, in the past, mainly affected bird species that had small populations living in specific environments, but familiar and previously widespread birds are now also under serious threat.
One is the yellow-breasted bunting, a songbird that was once so abundant in China it was known as the “rice bird”.
I first saw yellow-breasted buntings in the mid-1980s, at Beidaihe, in Hebei province. The coastal resort in northeast China has long been a bird migration hot spot, and an ornithologist wrote in the early years of the last century that every September these buntings would “swarm in the crops” before they headed to Southeast Asia to see out winter.
While numbers were undoubtedly lower by the 80s, the birds were still common and, to me, always a welcome sight – especially the breeding-plumage males, which are like sparrows but bright yellow below, with black hoods, brown chest collars and white wing patches.
In Hong Kong, too, yellow-breasted buntings were abundant in the autumn, with a peak count of about 3,000 spotted near Yuen Long in 1950, according to the book The Avifauna of Hong Kong, published in 2001 by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (HKBWS).
“Yellow-breasted buntings were practically everywhere at the right time of the year,” says Lam Chiu-ying, honorary president of the HKBWS, and former director of the Hong Kong Observatory (2003-09), who began birdwatching in 1976. “To me, it was a common bird.”
But numbers here and elsewhere began falling and, by 2004, the species was added to the endangered list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in the category “Near Threatened”. Four years later, BirdLife International assessors for the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species ranked the yellow-breasted bunting as “vulnerable” to extinction.
In 2013, its status was altered to “endangered”, and last year the bird was rated as “critically endangered”, joining 221 other species globally (several are so rare that they have not been seen for decades). The rating was supported by a study published in 2015, in scientific journal Conservation Biology, that stated the global population of yellow-breasted buntings had collapsed by up to 95 per cent between 1980 and 2013.
This is an astonishing decline for a bird that once bred across much of Eurasia, from Finland to Japan. The chief reason is that “rice birds” are a popular delicacy in southern China, largely because of a fanciful notion that they boost sexual vitality in those who consume it. While trapping of the birds with nets was outlawed in China in 1997, it continues thanks to a thriving black market.
Nowadays, perhaps a few dozen of these birds take sanctuary in Hong Kong each year, resting and feeding in places such as the Long Valley wetland, in the northern New Territories. The number is too low to ease fears that the bunting might go the way of the passenger pigeon – a North American bird, once abundant, that was hunted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The global population of the spoon-billed sandpiper – another bird that historically passed through Hong Kong – has also plummeted in recent years. The sparrow-sized creature is the world’s only shorebird with a flattened tip to its bill. When away from its tundra breeding grounds in northeast Asia during migration and winter, it frequents tidal flats. It is also something of a “Goldilocks bird”, preferring areas that are not too muddy or too sandy, but with silt that’s just right for bulldozing through to expose shrimp and other morsels.
Unfortunately, such tidal flats are often reclaimed to create land for farming and building, and the BirdLife International report notes that two-thirds of the intertidal habitat in the Yellow Sea, between China and Korea, has been reclaimed since the 50s, including key sandpiper migration sites. Consequently, the species’ numbers have tumbled from about 1,000 pairs at the turn of the century to 100 or so pairs today, according to the IUCN’s Red List.
The spoon-billed sandpiper was always scarce in the city, with The Avifauna of Hong Kong noting that the record yearly count was just five birds, at the Deep Bay wetland (too muddy, perhaps), which sits between the northwest New Territories and Shenzhen. Sightings of even one spoon-billed sandpiper in Hong Kong today are extremely rare.
The great knot (a chunky type of sandpiper that breeds in the far northeast of Asia and mainly spends winter in Australia) is commonly seen in Hong Kong, but less so than in previous decades. In 2007, the species numbered close to 300,000 worldwide, according to conservation non-profit Wetlands International, and yet it has become endangered after a rapid 80 per cent decline in population. Together with the spoon-billed sandpiper, it is among 15 Hong Kong shorebirds now threatened with extinction, making Deep Bay and the adjoining Mai Po Marshes wetland a crucial migratory stop-off between Australia and Siberia.
Hong Kong’s largest birds – like the bulky Dalmatian pelican, which can have a wingspan of three metres, and the oriental stork, which stands up to 1.5 metres tall – are also threatened. So is the significantly smaller, insect-eating Styan’s grasshopper warbler (typical adult length: about 15cm), which breeds on islands in northeast Asia, and can be spotted at Mai Po in winter.
The Baer’s pochard, a type of diving duck, was not on the IUCN’s Red List when I first arrived in Hong Kong, in 1987. Now it is rated “critically endangered”. The decline of these birds reflects the loss of lakes and swamps, along with intensive hunting.
Lam, who has witnessed the decline in once-common waterbirds, says: “The drop in numbers of common shelduck and ruddy shelduck struck me even more. I keep on wondering where they have gone.”
These large, colourful birds were once easily found in Deep Bay (The Avifauna of Hong Kong describes the common shelduck as a “common to abundant winter visitor”) but appear to have vanished, with not one sighted locally this past winter. (Fortunately, it should be noted, neither species is globally endangered.)
Highlighting the importance of Hong Kong as a migratory stop for many bird species, BirdLife International lists Deep Bay among more than 12,000 sites deemed essential for global avian conservation. It calls these Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas.
Another such area covers forest and scrubland on Tai Mo Shan and nearby hillsides. Some of Hong Kong’s most beautiful birds can be spotted here, including male Japanese paradise flycatchers, which in spring are maroon above, whitish below, with black heads and tail streamers twice the length of their bodies. These gorgeous birds are becoming scarcer as the Southeast Asian forests – where they traditionally spent winters – are being felled. The same is true for the fairy pitta – a relative of thrushes so lovely it is known in Japan as the “eight-coloured bird”.
Another threatened species that can be found on higher slopes on and around Tai Mo Shan is the mysterious Chinese grassbird (which local birdwatchers once thought to be a kind of warbler, but was later discovered to be a species new to science). It has been sighted as far west as Bangladesh, but – because much of its grassland habitat has been converted to farmland – Hong Kong appears to be its last holdout, with an estimated population of 490.
Seabirds are suffering, too, including the Aleutian tern, which is a small, gull-like bird (grey above, white below, with a neat black cap) that specialises in catching fish at sea. Though discovered in 1869, for more than a century it was almost unknown away from its nesting colonies on islands between Alaska and the far northeast of Russia (which the birds left in early autumn, only to return in summer). Then, in autumn 1992, keen-eyed birdwatchers in Hong Kong spotted several hundred Aleutian terns in southern waters, where they had surely long occurred but had been confused with similar common terns.
This was a marvellous discovery, filling in a huge blank in our knowledge of the species. The Aleutian tern has since proved to be a regular spring and autumn visitor to Hong Kong. But pleasure in seeing these birds is now tempered by knowing that, in October last year, the species was added to the IUCN’s Red List in the “vulnerable” category, following a status assessment by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which found numbers in Alaskan colonies had plummeted by about 90 per cent in three decades.
No one knows why Aleutian terns are in such decline, though predation of their eggs and young by introduced foxes and rats, and disturbance by humans are suspected, along with reduced fish stocks in the world’s oceans due to overfishing. Compounding the problem is global warming, which is raising ocean temperatures and is suspected of causing shifting currents in the Pacific, where a massive pool of nutrient-poor warm water, nicknamed “the Blob” by scientists, appeared off western North America from 2013 to 2016.
According to the BirdLife International report, global warming is already having a profound effect on our feathered friends.
“Rising temperatures are driving species’ distributions towards the poles and towards higher ground,” the study reads. “Migratory and breeding cycles are changing, leading to disrupted relationships with prey, predators and competitors. In many cases, these effects have driven population declines.”
The situation in Hong Kong reflects this, with birds tending to spend winters further north than they did a decade or two ago. Small flocks of Dalmatian pelicans once frequented Deep Bay from December to March, but the last sighting was a lone visitor in 2009. China’s small wintering population of Dalmatian pelicans – numbering about 50 – now fly no further south than Fujian province.
“The disappearance of the pelican makes me feel sad,” Lam says. “Global warming forces birds to adjust and maybe settle in new places during migration. But the change could be too fast for them to cope with.”
Furthermore, the BirdLife International report notes that with the current rate of human exploitation of resources, “The planet’s ecological services are being used 1.7 times faster than they can be renewed.”
But the report is not all doom and gloom, also pointing out that “at least twenty-five bird species have been brought back from the brink of extinction so far this century”. These include the black-faced spoonbill, which is a white, heron-like bird with a rounded tip to its flattened bill. The species is an annual visitor to Deep Bay and was of little interest until 1988, when Hong Kong-based birdwatcher Peter Kennerley investigated all known sightings. Kennerley calculated that the entire worldwide population numbered only about 288 birds.
Suddenly, the black-faced spoonbill was ranked “critically endangered”, prompting efforts to protect coastal wetlands where the birds spend the colder months. As a result, the population began rising, and in 2000 its status was changed to “endangered”. Numbers consequently recorded at winter habitats topped 1,000 in 2003, and reached 3,941 in January last year, with 375 of those at Deep Bay, making it the second most important winter site for the black-faced spoonbill.
Alongside such occasional pieces of good news, Lam observes that, when it comes to wildlife conservation – globally and in Hong Kong – “awareness among people is increasing”, though he adds an important caveat: “But not yet among elites with power.”
He refuses to concede defeat.
“We are probably about to cross the point of no return,” Lam says. “But we cannot give up. As a responsible animal, the homo sapiens must do whatever it can to avoid further damage, and hopefully to repair damage done in the past. I am pathetically optimistic – if we try, we might just manage to turn things around.”
As a birdwatcher of more than four decades, I’ve come to believe that wild birds can be likened to canaries in a coal mine, warning us when danger to our own lives is imminent, in this case through the damage that we have done to our life-support system: the planet itself.
“Japanese birdwatchers always say, ‘Today birds, tomorrow men,’” Lam says, when considering the analogy. “I used to think it was bad English. Now, I think it is the best way of putting it.”