Birding Indonesia Part 1: Via Hong Kong

October 08, 2018

August 30 to September 2, 2018

We left SLC on Thursday, August 30th in the morning, arriving in LA, and then departing there for Hong Kong by lunch.  The 15-hour flight went by smoothly, while we lost the rest of Thursday and almost all of Friday, arriving in Hong Kong around 6:00 PM on Friday the 31st.  As I've learned from looking at most travel destinations in Southeast Asia, the travel west typically involves a 2-day wash on the front end of every trip.  After clearing customs and immigration it was an easy walk through the airport to the Regal Hotel via a sky bridge.  We were soon in our room, asleep.

The following morning I hired a driver to take me to meet my guide at train station outside the city.  In retrospect I should have just taken the train as I learned later in the day, it is extremely easy and cost effective.  Instead, I overpaid for a guy who "didn't know where I could grab a coffee".  Definitely use the trains if you visit HK.

Hong Kong is Great for Birding...

The ride was quicker than expected and I was dropped off at Kam Sheung Road Station about 20 minutes early--there were birds everywhere so I pulled my binos and camera out of my bag.  They immediately fogged beyond use.  I spent the next 10 minutes acclimating them to the humidity as I stumbled over the first birds of the morning.  EURASIAN TREE SPARROW was easy, and there was no shortage of RED-WHISKERED BULBUL and JAPANESE WHITE-EYE in the trees in the parking area.  My first highlight was a BLACK-COLLARED STARLING, which was an amazing looking bird.

Black-collared Starling at Kam Sheung Road Station

Several COMMON MYNA and COLLARED CROWS added to the life list, while more exciting things like CHINESE POND-HERON and HOUSE SWIFT passed overhead.

House Swift flyover

I spotted the only other Caucasian fellow in the car park and quickly met my guide for the day, John Allcock, a Brit living in HK, and working as a research assistant at the University of HK.  John is an expert birder, and his knowledge of the avifauna of Hong Kong appeared unparalleled when I researched him online.  After introductions, we made a quick look over the Kam Tin River on the edge of the parking area, where COMMON SANDPIPER, LITTLE RINGED PLOVER, and LITTLE EGRET were all present--but not much else.

While the majority of the day would be spent at Mai Po Nature Reserve, we kicked things off with some forest birding in an attempt to add some breadth to the wetland birds that would be plentiful later on.  Being my first time in southeast Asia, anything in the forest would be new to me, and I had hopes that breeders and migrants would commingle to produce a nice list to kick things off.  As we arrived at Tai Lam Country Park, the rain started.

This would be the common theme to the day--rain.  Birding was slow but everything was new.  SPOTTED DOVE wasn't exciting but the WHITE-RUMPED MUNIA that followed were!

White-rumped Munia at Tai Lam Country Park

The rain moved off long enough for us to have more than an hour with the birds getting very active.  We didn't have a lot of species, as the forest was quiet, but the experience was thrilling.  We sound found a PLAINTIVE CUCKOO that was being tended to by COMMON TAILORBIRDS.  All the while STREAK-BREASTED SCIMITAR-BABBLERS were singing from the jungle.  Eventually, we got into a flock of GRAY-CHINNED MINIVETS that would bring a handful of other birds with them.

A male Gray-chinned Minivet

Several SCARLET MINIVETS joined the frenzy while JAPANESE TIT, YELLOW-CHEEKED TIT, and VELVET-FRONTED NUTHATCH were in the periphery.

Although introduced, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch is still a lovely bird

With things slowing back down we opted to head towards Mai Po, but not before John spotted a pair of CHESTNUT BULBUL, which in turn led us to the best find of the morning, a female ORANGE-BELLIED LEAFBIRD, which did its best imitation of a leaf from the canopy.

Orange-bellied Leafbird hiding behind a leaf

With a good start to the day under our belts we headed north towards Mai Po--while we were driving and talking about local birds, John mentioned how common MASKED LAUGHINGTHRUSH were--as several erupted into chatter just outside the car--impeccable timing.  I should have taken a picture--this time, and the next--but I figured I would get better looks.  Unfortunately, I passed and missed my opportunity!

Mai Po

We arrived at Mai Po and started birding the fish ponds along the entry road.  Right away John spotted a WHITE-THROATED KINGFISHER perched right next to the road--a photo opportunity of incredible fortune--until a car quickly passed, sending the kingfisher all the way across the pond--an identifiable photo would have to suffice.

White-throated Kingfisher at the entrance to Mai Po

There were loads of common birds at the ponds including LITTLE and GREAT EGRETS, CHINESE POND-HERON, LITTLE GREBE, and CRESTED MYNAS.  I was excited about the smaller stuff like the PLAIN PRINIA that provided stellar views right next to the pavement.

Plain Prinia singing away

We added a few more new birds as we made our way to the visitors center, with WHITE-SHOULDERED STARLING and WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING providing good looks with a flock of EURASIAN TREE SPARROWS and CRESTED MYNAS visiting dumped bags of bread next to the road.

White-cheeked Starling

White-shouldered Starling with a Eurasian Collared-Dove

Taking care of the necessary fees, and paperwork (most of which John helped take care of before I arrived in HK), we headed out into the preserve walking the dikes along fish ponds, making our way towards the larger wetland impoundments.  Right away we saw a WHITE-BREASTED WATERHEN, COMMON KINGFISHER, and had a flyby ASIAN KOEL.  The koel would be a common sight, but always in the distance, flying off before we got anywhere near them.

Common Kingfisher in the rain

There was no shortage of common songbirds in the thickets and mangroves that lined the trails. Both RED-WHISKERED and LIGHT-VENTED BULBUL were common, while JAPANESE WHITE-EYE were in abundance.  We eventually tracked down a cooperative ORIENTAL MAGPIE-ROBIN, and had fantastic looks at flyover BLACK KITE.

Oriental Magpie-Robin along the trail

All of this happened during the first hour of on again off again rain showers.  Deciding to get out of the rain we visited the main blind that looks out over a popular shorebird impoundment.  Here we would wait and watch for several hours as torrential rainfall came and went, along with birders, photographers, and families hiding from the rain and checking out the flocks of birds scattered through the viewports.  The birding was incredible.

Incoming shorebirds at the blind

It started slow, with a few MARSH SANDPIPERS, BLACK-WINGED STILTS, and a flock of WHIMBREL.  There were wading birds like GRAY HERON and INTERMEDIATE EGRET, but it was quiet.  John spotted a couple of GARGANEY, hiding amongst the grass--a long overdue lifer. I kept entertained by the pond-herons and their shenanigans fighting over fishing spots.  A flock of SCALY-BREASTED MUNIA provided my best looks and photos of this species yet.

Scaly-breasted Munia feeding

Then came the squall--and with it, flock after flock of shorebirds leaving the open mudflats along the ocean for the sheltered impoundment.  It started with more WHIMBREL, quickly followed by large flocks of EURASIAN CURLEW that we couldn't manage to pick a Far Eastern bird out of.  Then came the PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS, CURLEW SANDPIPERS and BLACK-TAILED GODWITS.  It was a non-stop funnel of shorebirds that we scanned through the sheets of rain pounding down.

Eurasian Curlew were the largest shorebirds present

Pacific Golden-Plover in the grass

Curlew Sandpiper hanging on to some breeding color

Black-tailed Godwits coming in to land

As the birds flocked on the sandbars and islands in front of us it made scanning through them easier.  We started to pick out other birds like GREAT KNOT, RUDDY TURNSTONE, ASIAN DOWITCHER, and BAR-TAILED GODWIT.  The lighting wasn't optimal, but occasional breaks in the rain provided enough relief to quickly pick out the smaller birds that were hiding amongst the larger species.  Both GREATER and LESSER SAND-PLOVER were picked up, along with RED-NECKED STINT, TEREK SANDPIPER, GREEN SANDPIPER, COMMON REDSHANK, COMMON GREENSHANK, and RED KNOT. 

Great Knots (Wth the black speckling)

Asian Dowitcher

Bar-tailed Godwit sticking together

Greater Sand Plover getting close enough for a decent shot

While John scanned with his scope I took pictures of what I could--I wished I'd had my scope and digiscope rig as I imagined I could have probably shot some fun video of the action unfolding in front of us.  A SWINHOE'S/PIN-TAILED SNIPE took flight from the grass, not providing any clues to hone in exactly which species it was.  A RED-RUMPED SWALLOW made a single pass, providing my only of the entire trip.  A major highlight for the day came when I spotted an incoming BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL, an endangered species that is perhaps seen here better than anywhere else in the world.

Black-faced Spoonbill on approach

Then things slowed.  No new birds after a while, then some birds started departing as the skies cleared momentarily.  We ate lunch, then packed up and headed across the marsh.  It was mostly walking, and listening to the chorus of white-eyes, prinias, and bulbuls.  But one stop provided satisfactory views of a couple fly-by YELLOW BITTERNS, and one bird that sat long enough in the reeds for identifiable pictures.

Yellow Bittern "hiding" in the reeds

We reached the far end of the impoundment we'd been watching all morning, where another blind was available--we decided to take cover as the next squall reached us.  While we waited out the rain, there wasn't much int he way of birds, and nothing new.  The rain stopped again, and this time it was for good.  The skies started to clear, and you could see the mountains and city surrounding the wetland.  With the calming of the weather, birds started to get active again and we zeroed in on a few remaining shorebird targets.  First John picked out a LONG-TOED STINT along with a KENTISH PLOVER in the basin of an empty impoundment.

Digiscoped Long-toed Stint

Digiscoped Kentish Plover

We then cut across the mangroves via the "floating walkway".  This 1/2 mile or so jaunt is not for those who have any fear of narrow walkways--as this one consisted of two 2x8's side by side, with a handrail along one side, and an open fall to the canal below on the other side.  Making matter worse were how slick the boards were because of recent rain--and the constant rain and humidity here in general.  I slipped once but luckily caught myself on the handrail.

After what seemed like an all too long jaunt through the mangrove forest, we emerged to a blind overlooking Deep Bay, an arm off of the South China Sea.  There were a couple early winter gulls lounging on the mud, with a "Mongolian" HERRING GULL, and a pair of BLACK-HEADED GULLS adding to our tally. We would tick off a few more lifers with PIED AVOCET and GRAY-TAILED TATTLER.  There were plenty of other shorebirds on the flats, but the last 2 would be it for new shorebirds for the day.

Distant but identifiable Pied Avocet

Gray-tailed Tattler on the flats

While John tried to turn one of the stints on the flats into a Broad-billed Sandpiper for me (no luck), I was fascinated by the BLUE-SPOTTED MUD SKIPPERS playing in the mud just outside the blind.  There were literally 100's of these amphibious fish that resemble something like a mix between a fish and a frog. When the tide is low the skippers emerge and are very active feeding, sunning, and defending their territories against other skippers.  With so many, the territorial disputes were constant, and there seemed to always be a couple skippers 6-10" above the mud as they flung themselves at one another.

Blue-spotted Mud Skipper taking flight!

The things that amuse us... Anyways, we wrapped up birding the flats and headed back towards the visitors center.  Along the way, we would add a few more songbirds including a calling ORIENTAL REED WARBLER, a BLACK DRONGO, several GREATER COUCAL, a flyover trio of RED-BILLED STARLING, and a small flock of AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE that were picking bugs out of a fence that separated Hong Kong from mainland China.

Azure-winged Magpie posing

After trekking 6 miles we arrived back at the visitor center, enjoyed some ice cold water from the filtered water machine, checked out of the reserve, and added one more species before we left.  A lovely GRAY TREEPIE flew in and landed in a dead snag above the parking lot providing great looks.  If it weren't for one branch in the tree constantly blocking the face the pictures would have been superb!  John said he'd only ever seen 1 or 2 at Mai Po over the years, and incidentally, it was only the 2nd sighting in eBird for this species at the preserve.

2nd ever Gray Treepie in eBird for Mai Po

As we departed I tallied up our list for the day, which had crept north of 90 species--well beyond my expectations which had been tempered when I contacted another guide who said I could expect around 70 species during my visit.  John Allcock had proven that he was the person to go to for birding in Hong Kong.  We headed back to Kam Sheung Road Station where the tour came to an end.  I was very thankful that I found John--who I tracked down using eBird and some Facebook sleuthing because he doesn't have a website, or easy to locate contact information on the web. I'm sure glad he happened to check Messenger and get back to me before my trip!  If you are headed to Hong Kong and need a guide, shoot me a message and I can put you in touch with John--you won't regret it.

 The "Border Wall" at Mai Po

I packed my gear and boarded a train back towards the city.  I found that the transfers were easy, the cars were clean. Before I knew it, I was picking up Sam and Cam who'd spent the day at Disneyland (fair trade?).  We spent the next day in Hong Kong as well and visited Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island--very easily reached via taxi or train.  I imagine an early morning trek through the forest here would probably be fairly good for birds, but we took a mid-day tram ride, and the crowds were in excess.  Birding was slow and quiet.  That night we headed back to the airport, checked in to our next flight, and left Hong Kong behind for our next destination--Bali, on the island nation of Indonesia, where this blog series will continue...

Photos from These Days
Hong Kong Birds and Birding Photos

Checklists from These Days 
Kam Sheung Road Station
Tai Lam Country Park
Mai Po Nature Reserve
Tian Tan Buddha

Other Posts in this Series
>> Indonesia Part 1: Via Hong Kong
Indonesia Part 2: Nusa Dua Lagoon
Indonesia Part 3: Sebatu and Ubud
Indonesia Part 4: West Bali National Park
Indonesia Part 5: Flores Endemics
Indonesia Part 6: Komodo National Park
Indonesia Part 7: Recap & Logistics

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