22 August 2014

Two half-days at Luokeng Nature Reserve, north Guangdong

The road to Luokeng

In September 2002 a team from Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (HK), together  with mainland Chinese researchers did a "Rapid Biodiversity Assessment" of Luofeng NR in north Guangdong.  The area has a population of the rare Crocodile Lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus), the main reason for Nature Reserve status. Luokeng Nature Reserve was upgraded to National NR status in 2013.

Among the KFBG report findings was that Himalayan Swiftlets (Collocallia brevirostris) were using a cave at Luokeng. This was the first record for Guangdong Province. A link to the report pdf is here:-

There have been regular (mostly winter) sightings of swiftlets in Hong Kong, and they have mostly been ascribed to brevirostris, although the possibility that some other types are occurring is being considered.

With a few unusual summer swiftlet records in HK this year, it seemed timely to check out the Luokeng Swiftlets, with a view to firming up some identification criteria, so Richard Lewthwaite organized a trip to go up to Luokeng to look for them. Ruy and Karen Barretto, Martin Hale and I joined him.

After a dawn rendezvous at Lok Ma Chau Boundary Crossing Point we were met by our driver, Mr YIP, and driven though some steady rain up the highway from Shenzhen. It was about 280 km to get to the turnoff for Luokeng, which lies 40km westwards from the highway along the x317 road.

After some uncertainty (only RWL and R & KB had been there before, in 2004, but had arrived in the dark) we found the Nature Reserve HQs. A staff member was sent to show us the "Swiftlet cave" and we duly arrived after a ten-minute drive from town.

There were no signs of swiftlets using the cave, and only a few bats were present.

We birded around the area near the swiftlet cave until dusk,  Swifts, both House Swift and Pacific were seen but no swiftlets were noted. No birds appeared to be using the cave. At last light we noted a Peregrine perched on a branch near the mouth of the cave, but concluded that it was waiting for bats to come out.

The weather improved overnight, and no swifts or swiftlets of any kind were seen on 21st August. 

Morning mist, Luokeng

The nearby fields produced a flock of eight Black Bazas...

 …..and a Chinese Sparrowhawk.

Some winter visitors had arrived, including this Grey Wagtail

Intriguingly, we had glimpses of a largish possible Mountain Pigeon a couple of times, but couldn't nail the ID. 

A large migrant flock of mostly Little Egrets dithered at the edge of the reservoir.

Some Yellow Wagtails and a Stejneger's Stonechat were in grassland near the edge of the reservoir, too. It was good to see birds we consider winter visitors to Hong Kong on their way south.

Livelihoods have improved in recent years for the residents of Luokeng, but rural development has not flattened every historical building, so some vintage stuff remains, including this old residence outside the town. 

We noted this collection of agricultural implements, ready for the rice harvest in October.

Even now "Outdoor Facilities" are a reality for some, - but there's no "Greener" way to do your business !

A reminder of the "bad old days" in rural China was this fortress near one of the villages.  Villagers built these forts a century or so ago with a view to to barricade themselves inside as protection against marauders.

Papaya trees against the ramparts..sweet potatoes in the field

Shortly before midday we departed and were driven back to Shenzhen.  We saw fifty-or-so species in our few hours of birding, but drew a blank with the swiftlets.

Whatever the outcome, though, it's always worth going "into the field" to check things out for oneself, and the fresh, cooler air of northern Guangdong made a nice break.

15 August 2014


It's mid-August and the grass along Mai Po access road fishponds has grown very long. Workers are beginning to scythe it down, but not before I get a shot of this resident Plain Prinia.

Black-collared Starlings favour areas of newly-cut grass, digging in the exposed banks for earthworms.

Within Mai Po Nature Reserve itself, some Great Egrets on Pond 3, with the absolutely fabulous pink-tiled high-rise of Tin Shui Wai in the background.

Looking the other way, a more "natural" looking panorama.

The tide comes in, and most of the waders depart without coming close to the hides, apart from this juvenile Greater Sand Plover. He may have hatched this summer in Mongolia. I wonder if he'll stay the winter here, or head further south.

A non-breeding Chinese Pond Heron. Another young bird, perhaps.

White-throated Kingfisher, one of what looked like a pair of adults (juveniles have a black bill with yellow tip) hunting over the mudflats.

The kingfishers left as the water covered the mud, and so did I. 

I've been looking at magnificent images from Alaska, where Brown Bears catch leaping salmon. To close with, here's my Hong Kong homage to those photographers…

Well, it's the best I could manage !

5 August 2014

Pied Kingfisher

Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)
Hong Kong is at the eastern end of the wide range of the Pied Kingfisher.

An image of Pied Kingfisher is used in Hong Kong as the symbol of Worldwide Fund for Nature, HK, and it's fitting that this species can be seen (with a bit of luck) at Mai Po Nature Reserve.

A couple of days ago I came across a pair of these birds on Tam Kon Chau Road, the access road to Mai Po.

"Pied F-15 ?"

Try as I did, I couldn't quite get one at the same angle as the WWF logo - never mind.

31 July 2014

Mai Po : Black-headed Gull in July

Despite temperatures at 30 degrees and above, yesterday I decided that a manly stroll to Mai Po's boardwalk hides would be a good way to spend two to three hours.

Sunhat, sunblock, and the 500mm lens seemed like an appropriate combination.

Along the path,  beneath the casuarinas, the first of many White-breasted Waterhens were encountered.

Away to my right, looking west, Gei Wai 11, the Border Security Fence, and the high-rise of Shenzhen in the distance.

A few spiders' webs across the path showed that I was the only person silly enough to go out through the mangroves.  I arrived with the rising tidal waters close to the hide.

From the newest boardwalk hide, a surprise.   Black-headed Gulls usually leave Hong Kong in April, and don't return until October.

Another unseasonal visitor, Eastern Common Tern.  Not quite as unseasonal as Black-headed Gull, the early autumn birds may sometimes show themselves in late August.

Some Cattle Egrets engaged in a staring contest...

At the "Twin Hides" a Richard's Pipit.   Race sinensis breeds in Hong Kong, but I don't recall seeing one at the edge of the Deep Bay Mudflats before.

Finally, a species that is present year-round (but some birds we see are passage migrants) - Common Kingfisher.

I carried one-and-a-half litres of water, and I drank all of it.

27 July 2014

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch - coming soon to a tree near you

According to The Avifauna of Hong Kong*, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch has a "locally-common resident population considered to be of captive origin…..(it was) first noted in Tai Po Kau on 15 April 1989."

Well, VFNH can recognize an ecological niche when it sees it, and in the past two decades they have spread to much of the wooded areas of Hong Kong's New Territories.

For the first time ever, yesterday a small party of these birds appeared in the Chinese Hackberry tree outside the front of the building where we live.

This first shot was taken from the roof  - 

The rest were taken from beneath the tree…

They're obviously going to take over the world, given time.

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch - coming soon to a tree near you !

*The Avifauna of Hong Kong - It's a book - remember those ?

21 July 2014

Black Bazas - summer visitors to Hong Kong

Black Baza is a species that expanded it's breeding range from far southwest China (and Vietnam, Laos, Thailand) to Hong Kong and other parts of south-east China through the 1970s and 1980s.

But from a high point during the 1990s, numbers have fallen back again.

Unlike some more recent additions to the Hong Kong "list", it's hardly the sort of bird that would be overlooked or misidentified, so it seems that there is no doubting the changes in status of this species. 

Black Baza has never taken up full-time Hong Kong residence.  They usually arrive in late April, and depart through the month of October. (There's one February record, but that's just birds for you !)

The first confirmed breeding record involved a nest with two young near Sha Tau Kok Police Station in mid-July 1989, found by Nigel Croft.  I remember banging off about four rolls of slide film from the roof of the station with my old manual-focus Pentax ME, but all the results looked pretty same-ish.

All the shots in this blog post were taken a few days ago, with a Canon 1D MkIV, 800mm lens and sometimes a 1.4 converter. The birds were quite distant, but at least they seemed unconcerned at my presence and behaved naturally.

Juvenile (left), adult (right)

In the 1990s -and I'm quoting from The Avifauna of Hong Kong - "the total number of birds reported annually was in the range of 39(1993) to 131(1996), with an average of 78."

But in the past few years Bazas have become rarer again with, for example, just single-figure totals for 2011 and 2012, according to the two most recent (annual) Hong Kong Bird Reports.

So it was nice to find this species within walking distance of the flat where we live a few days ago.

A family party of five; - two adults and three young.  The juveniles sunned themselves on a bare tree during the first couple of hours of daylight, while their parents foraged for insects - mostly praying mantises - in the canopies of nearby trees.

Sometimes the adults would land beside the young….

...and sometimes they would land a few metres away and call the young across for their food.

The juveniles lumbered on the bare branches, exploiting good opportunities for a wing-stretch or practice flap…

Or even some old-fashioned sun-bathing...

I don't know if this group actually nested where I saw them, but the young were quite clumsy and they obviously hadn't come very far. Nonetheless, they seem to have moved on now.

Time to go !

So, proof that we can have some birding fun in tropical south China in mid-summer. The lesson is to keep getting out there and to keep looking, I suppose.

Note to self: "Must try harder !"