Cover Look out for these birds next time you're at Hong Kong's parks and natural reserves (Photo: @silver2303/Instagram)

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Get yourself some birdwatching experience and you’ll know for sure—and may even learn to identify a few species along the way

No amount of watching nature documentaries or scrolling through outdoorsy Instagram feeds can substitute for witnessing the natural world with your own eyes. Hong Kong may be small and lacking in homes for humans, but the territory is surprisingly rich in biodiversity, with nearly 6,000 species officially recorded—about a sixth of which are birds. As well as the iconic black kites that circle the city’s skyscrapers and pigeons that scavenge the streets, Hong Kong is home to many rare birds, some of whom live here while others are just passing through.

“The various types of natural habitats here, including woodlands, wetlands and hilly areas, offer a haven for more than 550 species of birds,” says James Kwok, assistant education officer at the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, award-winning nature photographer and eco-tour guide. “Our city’s location makes it significant for migratory birds to stop over during winter and travel between Siberia and Australia every spring and autumn.” Kwok recommends bringing 7x to 10x magnification binoculars and field guides as you look for some rare avian visitors, but take care not to disturb these feathered sojourners as they rest. 

Birdwatching is also rather hip right now: just last month, Gucci and The North Face joined forces in a campaign that puts a high fashion spin on the hobby using members of Flock Together, the inclusive, London-born birdwatching collective that is taking flight in cities across the world. “Nature doesn’t require anything from you; no need to pretend to be something you’re not just to survive; no effort required whatsoever,” says the group’s co-founder Ollie Olanipekun. In a period marked by time spent indoors, access to nature has never felt so luxurious.

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Grab your binoculars and keep your eye out for these birds:

Black-faced spoonbill

A common winter visitor to Deep Bay, this waterbird loves wetlands and fishponds. They can be spotted plunging their namesake, spoon-shaped beak into the water to catch fish. Although listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which records the global conservation status of species, the spoonbill’s numbers rose from 300 in the early Nineties to 4,400 at the last count in January 2019. 


Spoon-billed sandpiper

Although this small wader that breeds in Russia isn’t closely related to the spoonbills, it also has a spatula-shaped beak that helps pick up invertebrates from mudflats. Unlike other birds, it emerges from the egg with a fully formed bill, which pecks at the wet ground rapidly to create a vortex that traps its prey. Sadly, the sandpiper is now a rare sight and is listed as critically endangered due to reclamation and large-scale loss of wetlands and mudflats, which are key to their replenishment during migration, though lucky twitchers have reported occasionally spotting some in Mai Po.

Yellow-breasted bunting

This sparrow-sized bird is known for its regal plumage; its name in Latin—aureola—even means “golden”. Breeding males have a dark, chestnut-brown crown, wings and back, and are bright yellow underneath with a chestnut-coloured breast band, while females have just a wash of yellow on their undersides. Known as rice birds in China, where they are considered a delicacy, buntings were upgraded from endangered to critically endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2017.

Eurasian eagle owl

Hong Kong happens to be an occasional haven to one of Europe’s largest owls. Albeit rare and tricky to spot, Eurasian eagle owls have been observed in Yuen Long. At up to 70cm tall, the owls can grow almost a two-metre wingspan alongside prominent ear tufts, bright orange eyes and powerful talons that make them skilled nocturnal hunters. They breed on cliffs and love rural villages or country parks. 

Chinese grass bird

If you see wisps of black-and-white feathers bouncing around reedy vegetation, chances are you’ve found a Chinese grass bird, which prey on insects and are found in the highlands and mountains of Guangdong, Nepal and India. Their distribution over hilly areas makes them vulnerable to threats such as hill fires.

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Where To Watch

Mai Po Nature Reserves

Listed as a “wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, this estuary site near Yuen Long provides a habitat to 50,000 to 60,000 waterfowl, as well as globally endangered species like the black-faced spoonbill and Nordmann’s greenshank every winter. 

The Hong Kong Wetland Park

Located in the northern part of Tin Shui Wai, this education and tourism facility has a 60-hectare mitigation reserve that was constructed to compensate for the wetlands lost from the Tin Shui Wai New Town development. Apart from wetland habitats specially designed for waterbirds, it also features mangrove flora and fauna.


Hong Kong Park

Nature may be closer than you imagine. In the heart of the Admiralty business area is Hong Kong Park, which features the Edward Youde Aviary. It houses 70 species, most of which are indigenous to the Malaysian peninsula and Borneo. But that’s not all: the ponds, greenery and gardens outside the cage make the park a popular choice for migratory birds looking for an oasis in the concrete jungle.

Lung Fu Shan

This country park to the northwest of Hong Kong Island features dense woodland that attracts winter visitors such as thrushes and warblers. There are guided wildlife tours organised by the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre, co-managed by the University of Hong Kong and the government, which is situated at a 130-year-old bungalow at an entrance to the country park.

Long Valley

Long Valley near Sheung Shui is a floodplain fed by the Beas River and Shek Sheung River during the rainy season. The wetland comprises farmland planted with watercress, water spinach and lotus. Traditional irrigation methods used in the area create marshes as well as fish and water flea ponds that attract foraging waders and egrets.

See also: 10 Country Parks And Nature Reserves To Visit In Hong Kong