Bird novices abroad: What is birding like in Hong Kong?
A little-known tidbit is included in the bio section of my eBird profile: “Once a vagrant to Hong Kong with an 18-month stopover.” It’s true! Jonathan and I lived briefly in Hong Kong as expats.
It’s been almost six years since we moved to Hong Kong for a job opportunity, with two suitcases each, our new Vortex binoculars, and our wide-eyed hopes of living the dream abroad. In retrospect, the 18-month period was a time of immense personal growth for both of us. And thanks to birding there, we became acutely aware of the need for conservation and the ecosystem services that support our well-being.
So, while we’re taking a short break from adventure (and cooking) during the mid-summer birding slump, here’s an origin story about how Jonathan and I realized that living the green life – one that’s slow, sustainable, and bird-friendly – was our top priority.
This post also features photos from our digital archives, plus a recipe inspired by our favorite sandwich found at various subway stations on our way to go birding in Hong Kong. Jump to the recipe or continue reading.
Extreme learning curves
Living in “Asia’s world city” translated into a wonderful newness, shadowed by the complexity of being an outsider. We had to figure out everything from scratch and by the standards of another country, all while navigating new jobs: how to open a bank account, how personal income tax works, the neighborhood where we would feel most at home, how to secure a lease, where to shop for groceries, how to get to and from work by public transit, how to pay our bills, and how to live in a cityscape with more than 7.5 million people.
A refuge from the crowds and life/work stresses was birding, and Hong Kong was where our passion for birds really took off. You can get a little addicted when you’re surrounded by the gorgeous birds of Southeast Asia (excluding the little brown Old World warblers). I mean, we don’t have birds like this in North America (though our Wood Warblers are the bomb).
Man versus Nature
There’s an interesting man-versus-nature narrative when you’re deep in the cityscape. The trend in Hong Kong is to grow upwards rather than across, but untouched hills and mountains can be seen from the top of Victoria Peak, the highest point of Hong Kong Island. With three territories and 236 outlying islands, approximately 6% of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is reclaimed land and only about one quarter of the actual landmass available has been developed. This is a very good place for over 400 resident and visiting bird species.
Urban birding can be done entirely in Hong Kong, although good migrants hang out in semi-distant parts. In addition to your optics, you need to carry bug repellant, snacks, and plenty of water (as well as toilet paper since it isn’t provided in public restrooms), then lug it around on 100 plus degree days. Nevertheless, we quickly became acquainted with the “how to” of birding in a humid subtropical climate at nature reserves, wetlands, urban parks, woodlands, and islands, as well as on a nauseating South China Sea pelagic (don’t ask).
Remembering the Birds
Our joint Hong Kong life list has a lot to recall, including the unobtrusively hidden Yellow Bittern (the first bittern we’ve ever seen), the tiny Common Tailorbird with nesting material from a bathroom stall, the 13 endangered Black-faced Spoonbills against the backdrop of Shenzhen, the stunning resident White-bellied Sea-Eagles, and the huge numbers of shorebirds visiting Mai Po Nature Reserve. My favorite record is a singing Pygmy Cupwing, an elusive forest creature that happens to be my first bird audio recording (heard only).
I should note the giant spiders, which, if you find one on the web inches from your face, are both eerie and fascinating. Our field guide, “The Birds of Hong Kong and South China,” also warned of leeches, venomous snakes, and street dogs that are “mostly bark.” It failed to mention the aggressive monkeys we found in Kam Shan and Lion Rock Country Parks. Luckily, all but the spiders and monkeys were avoided, and Jonathan was only chased by a hissing monkey once.
Three eco-friendly birding tips
With every year that passes, Hong Kong is a blip in our past. The experience was amazing, and it helped us to develop a better sense of ourselves. It also opened our eyes to a range of environmental issues and the darker side of Hong Kong.
Examples include the fact that many of the beaches are lined with plastic waste and foam coolers that have eroded into the shape of neighboring rocks, some of which come from mainland China. Birds sold at a popular market are either unethically caught in the wild or undocumented exotics. Wild pangolin burrows have signs of their protected status. The sad reality is that Hong Kong is the “crossroads of the criminal wildlife trade,” especially given the demands of traditional Chinese medicine.
With all this in mind, Jonathan and I are offering three easy things you can do to promote a more environmentally friendly way of life.
Be mindful of your carbon footprint.
For birds, Jonathan and I traveled to the edges of Hong Kong from point A to point B, C, or D by subway, taxi, or ferry (walking, too) until we reached our destination. However, to see birds, you don’t need to go to distant places; we learned we can bird anytime, anywhere. I saw birds everywhere I looked in Hong Kong, even if I didn’t have my binoculars.
Jonathan once saw a Crested Goshawk carrying a meal between the high-rise buildings as we sat on our couch. (Badass bird!) This is just one reminder to look up and look out to see what you can find.
Support local conservation groups in any way that you can.
All the best Hong Kong birding spots we discovered were through the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (HKBWS), which organizes outings and conservation projects both locally and in China. We would never have found out about the World Wildlife Fund–Hong Kong, Mai Po Nature Reserve (an internationally important wetland under the Ramsar Convention), or Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (an NGO that advises and leads a number of conservation policies, efforts, and initiatives) had we not become members of the HKBWS and participated in their group outings. Connecting with and supporting these groups gave us hope.
Zen out on every bird.
We’re just as guilty as the next birders for ticking off species on a checklist, and there are definitely some birds we saw in Hong Kong that we can’t recall experientially. However, the best memories come from when you slow down and observe the bird beyond the check mark.
In the fast-paced urban environment, it was therapeutic to watch and listen to the lively Red-whiskered Bulbuls that we saw everywhere in small groups and pairs, picking at fruit on trees. Watching is equal to knowing, which leads to caring.
As Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring: “To the bird watcher, the suburbanite who derives joy from birds in his garden, the hunter, the fisherman or the explorer of wild regions, anything that destroys the wildlife of an area for even a single year has deprived him of pleasure to which he has a legitimate right.”
The red elephant in the room
I find it hard to express all my thoughts and feelings about what’s currently going on in Hong Kong. Politics need to be deeply explored in terms of both Cantonese-Chinese conflict and the territory’s centuries-long struggle against imperialism. (Start with this podcast episode to unpack the fallout of China’s new security law threatening free speech.) I see a parallel between the Black Lives Matter movement here in the United States and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — both of which stem from oppression.
What I can say is that I understand the emotional distress, lack of identity and democratic liberties, and a desire to be independent while I am reading stories in the Hong Kong Free Press and in the Western media. It is clear that the ‘one country, two systems’ model is quickly disappearing.
I’m struggling to imagine the day when Hong Kong is no longer semi-autonomous — and, as a result, our Hong Kong life list will become a life list for China.
Sun-dried Tomato Chutney Sammies (Our go-to, pre-birding-subway-station-deli sandwich)
Total time: 15 minutes
Makes 2 servings
- 12 roasted red bell peppers, jarred but water removed
- 7 oz. sun-dried tomatoes, jarred in olive oil
- 1 large shallot, peeled
- 2 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 tbsp. capers, drained and rinsed
- 1 garlic clove
- 2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tbsp. lemon juice
- 12 roasted red bell peppers. The jarred type, but water removed
- 4 bread slices
- 4 tomato slices
- 2 cheese slices
- 2 handfuls of spring mix lettuce
- Sliced red onions
- Place all chutney ingredients (peppers without the water, sun-dried tomatoes with the olive oil, shallot, garlic clove, capers, oregano, red wine vinegar, salt, and lemon juice) in a food processor or blender. Pulse several times and scrape down the sides until the chutney is the consistency of a relish.
- Toast the slices of bread and spread mayo over the inside of the top bread slices and chutney over the inside of the bottom slices. Layer on the cheese, onion, and tomato slices. Top it off with spring mix lettuce and close the sandwiches.
- Cut the sandwiches in half, diagonally. Serve with any side dish of your choice or pack it with wax paper or Tupperware for the next birding day.
- I used this jar of roasted red bell peppers and a jar of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil from Kroger.
- The chutney will save in an air-tight container for up to two weeks in the fridge. You will have plenty of chutney left for use as an accent for crostinis or crackers, as a garnish for sautéed vegetables, as a flatbread sauce, or other uses.
- To veganize this sandwich, use vegan cheese slices, such as Violife’s smoked provolone or Field Roast’s creamy original Chao, and a veganaise of your choosing.