Where eagles nest

Jennifer Lo

HK has the world's highest density of black kites - magnificent birds that feed on our rubbish. Sai Kung is a great place to see them.

Jennifer Lo |

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It's not hard to spot one of these large, brown birds - fierce and fearless. With hooked beak, curved talons and strong wings with streaked feather markings, they are often seen soaring in the air among the tallest buildings and skyscrapers. They are the black kites, widely known as "eagles" in Hong Kong. The territory has the highest population density of these birds in the world.

But few know that, although they look proud and strong, our black kites have been increasingly affected by human activity.

"We might be scared by their appearance, but human beings are absolutely the biggest threat to the black kites," says Peter Chan, a member of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society's kite research group.

Every winter, the birds move south to the city for warmer weather, food and shelter. The society estimates there are 1,300 black kites in Hong Kong. Magazine Gap in Mid-Levels alone is home to 800. These large raptors (birds of prey) are about 50 to 69 centimetres long and have a wingspan of about 150cm. They belong to the Accipitridae family.

Black kites sit at the top of the food chain. They help to recycle and remove animal remains. In addition to small fish, they live on the meat of dead animals and, in recent years, rubbish.

"Quite often you can see a crowd of 20 to 30 black kites fighting for food over the Tseung Kwan O landfill sites," says Ken Ching See-ho, head of the Eco-Education & Resources Centre (ERC). "It would not be surprising if one dropped a dead mouse on your head."

The black kites also pick up interesting materials to build nests.

"They are really creative creatures with strong survival skills," Ching says.

Instead of leaves and branches, those living near a cemetery may build their nests with paper offerings and hell banknotes used in rituals for the dead. The birds like to use underwear, gloves, towels, plastic bags and paper to build a soft nest for the females to lay eggs in.

"This is ironic - these creatures belong to nature, but their habits and lifestyle are so much affected by human activities," Ching says.

Recently Yeung Chau, a small island off Sai Kung where some 150 black kites live, began to be bought up by land developers, he says.

The island, also home to a pair of nationally protected white-bellied sea eagles, might be developed into a hotel resort. It was a popular spot for war games until the public began to demand that the island be turned into a natural reserve.

Located just off the Sai Kung pier, Yeung Chau is a quiet island where black kites can easily pick up the internal organs of fishes thrown away by fishermen and hunt for sea animals killed by motorboats. Sai Kung's closeness to the landfills in Tseung Kwan O also ensures an alternative source of food for the hungry birds.

"Yeung Chau is an ideal habitat for the black kites," Chan says. At sunset, it is common to spot a crowd of more than 100 golden birds gathering over the small island.

"It's hard to believe you can have such an awesome view in a concrete jungle like Hong Kong."

Ching says: "Even Keelung [a port city in] Taiwan, with fewer than 30 black kites, celebrates a black kite festival every year. Why shouldn't we be proud of what we have - with more than a thousand black kites in our city?"

Get your camera and binoculars ready and go to the Sai Kung waterfront for the Black Kite Festival this weekend, organised by the ERC, Green Power and Friends of Sai Kung. You will be able to learn more about the birds and make an adorable paper black kite.

Saturdays and Sundays this month, 1.30pm to 6pm. A tip: the best time for black kite watching is after 4pm.