A few Waders at Peng Chau

I visited a friend in Peng Chau yesterday and brought my camera along just in case, and boy was i glad that I did.

Peng Chau is a very small island just off the coast of southern Lantau. There’s one supermarket, one ATM, and no cars. Aside from municpal buildings, the village housing is mostly comprised of 3-4 story apartments. Otherwise the island is covered in trees that eventually meet the shore. I’d been there before just for visiting purposes, but this time I just wanted to see if there were any birds around.

There are actually quite a few large, old trees all over the island, so I suspect that some interesting birds may be hiding in there. I didn’t see any, however. Although it’s a small and relatively “quiet” island, its few trails are well-trafficked by residents and visitors. I could imagine it being quite difficult to find a place to set up and wait for birds that wouldn’t have to contend with villagers, farmers, or hikers.

Peng Chau, South Side shore. Photo by Jamal Sage

But I was most interested in walking along the coast looking for waders, as it too seemed potentially productive. Indeed shortly after disembarking from the ferry I spotted a common sandpiper on the sea wall. It seemed to be interested in picking off bugs and crabs from the base of the sea wall, as well as these rather large seabugs.

Common sandpipers can be found along Hong Kong’s shores either alone or in small groups. I found 3 in total dispersed over a rather large stretch of sea-wall along the northern side of Peng Chau. I’ve seen them many times before in my more usual wader spots, but seeing them on the seawall made for much better photos than I’m used to.

Moving east around the island along its northern shore, the shoreline was mostly comprised of large and jagged rocks punctuated by small rocky beaches. Conditions indeed seemed favorable to certain waders, but the walk was mostly unproductive. I did managed to spot two grey-tailed tattlers along the shore of one such rocky cove.

Eventually though we came to the main beach of Peng Chau’s largest cove, and I happened to notice a few waders amid all the crested myna and rubbish.

There was an additional common sandpiper bopping around here, but there were also two little ringed plovers. It was a bit disheartening to see them foraging around among a significant amount of trash, rotting boats, and stray dogs, but this is indeed what we’ve managed to do to their winter home.

Perhaps with increased awareness, certain stretches of beach could be designated for wildlife, but I doubt it. The village life on Peng Chau is just too entrenched, so I suspect this spot will be largely lost to humanity for the time being.

Waders in Deep Bay

Grey-tailed tattler

I got up around 6AM this morning to get ready and head out to my usual spot on the shore of Deep Bay (Hong Kong side), knowing full well that I’d have to wait a bit for the tide to go out no matter how early I got there. I find that I have the best luck during the outgoing tide at this spot, but only for a few hours. There’s a crucial point shortly after high tide where the waders will come in fairly close to shore as the shore expands. After about 2 hours or so, however, the shoreline, along with the waders, is too far out to really expect good shots, so it’s important to be timely.

Unfortunately I arrived far too early and had to wait about 2 hours for the tide to get low enough for any waders to even attempt to start bopping around on the sandbar. Normally this would be fine, and I would have just come later, but the other major factor was heat, which was why I was keen on meeting the tide exactly. By midday we had temperatures of 34C, which, aside from being unpleasant to the point of dangerous in the wrong place, forces a photographer to reckon with image distortion caused by heatwaves.

In my experience, heatwaves are strongest close to the ground, which, unfortunately, is where you want to be for waders. However, while some of my shots were noticeably affected, others happened to turn out okay. Perhaps because the beach was so freshly uncovered by the tide, the ground was still cool enough to not throw off very much heat. Either way I’m happy that not all of my shots were ruined by heatwaves.

As for the birds, I saw the usual greater sand plovers, though not in very great numbers; I only counted 5. With them was a lone lesser sand plover, hugging the shoreline, as well as 3 kentish plovers. The smaller plovers stayed very near the shoreline and well away from me, while the greater sands were more characteristically fearless.

One of the greater sand plovers was very diligently grooming itself in the same spot for quite some time, fluffing itself up even. (I think this one is a juvenile due to the more varied patterning on the wings.)

Most entertaining, however, were the 22 grey-tailed tattlers scurrying about the mudflat, along with 4 very grumpy Eurasian whimbrels. I’ve seen whimbrels at this spot before, but they didn’t behave like the ones I saw today. These ones were clearly interested in feeding at this spot, and had even waited on the beach with me for the tide to go out for some time until one of the locals walked by.

When out on the mudflats, the whimbrels were very territorial and would routinely chase each other off, shouting alarm calls at each other, flying over to the next beach and returning, chasing one-another on foot–it seemed like they just couldn’t stand each other’s company, totally unlike the 8 whimbrels I saw weeks ago who all stayed very close to one another while resting and foraging. If I were to guess, I might think that the group of 8 were too tired from a long journey to bother one another, while the visitors here are more well-established and have their preferences.

Equally entertaining were the tattlers scurrying around trying to stay out of the way of the bickering whimbrels. In one photo I managed to catch 11 of them (count and double-check) keeping cool under the mangroves while the whimbrels foraged first.

One cheeky bird even took a bath! If you ever wondered how tattlers take baths, well, this is it.

This is probably the closest I’ve gotten to a tattler before, and maybe ever will. The last time I was almost this close, the shot was ruined by heat waves. This time though the water in between us definitely kept things cool enough to not throw off any heat, so that was some very good luck indeed.

Otherwise there I didn’t notice anything else in terms of waders aside from 2 shy common sanppipers. There were no little ringed plovers to be found, nor did I see the common greenshank from last time. Hopefully the next time the tide swings back around to coincide with earlier hours, some other migrants will arrive.

Asian Dowitcher at Long Valley

There have been reports of a lone Asian dowitcher (Limnodromus semipalmatus) at Long Valley for weeks now and I finally headed out to have a look. I am very grateful that this bird decided to stick around long enough for most birders to have their fill, leaving me to visit it in relative peace. (There were only two other birders there when I arrived.) The dowitcher was flanked by a handful of black-winged stilts, little egrets, and Chinese pond herons, though I was only interested in photographing the dowitcher.

It seemed rather relaxed, foraging around for worms and crustaceans in the mud with its characteristic “sewing machine” method before eventually wading out into the middle of the pond and having a rest.

These birds are actually nearly threatened, with a steady and clear decline in the adult population having been recorded by the IUCN Red List. It was very nice to see this rare and vulnerable creature relaxing at the soon-to-be-former oasis that is Long Valley.

It was the first time I had visited Long Valley since March and the Civil Engineering department had already walled off the farmland that will soon be developed, irrevocably ruining this fragile and immensely valuable speck of farmland in Hong Kong. Local conservation efforts have allegedly succeeded at acquiring some modest concessions from the government regarding the conservation of some farmland, but still the whole place will almost certainly change for the worse once construction begins in earnest.

Another oddity at Long Valley this year is a flock of a hundred or so white-headed munia, which are typically not found in Hong Kong. These birds were no doubt released as part of a “mercy release” common in Buddhist traditions, though the practice is hardly merciful when animals are released into habitats in which they can’t survive!

White-headed Munia

For now though, these munia seem to be enjoying their summer in the farmland, and i hope the best for them whither they stay and try to tough out the winter in Hong Kong, or decide to migrate further south nearer to their usual range.

The Asian dowitcher has a corresponding entry in my Hong Kong Bird Log.

Eurasian Whimbrel

Whimbrels on the shoreline, Deep Bay, August 2020.

While hiding out at my usual spot, about 8 whimbrels flew in right in front of me to land along the shoreline. Whimbrels are generally wary of people, and will even attack them when they are nesting, but these 8 either didn’t notice me or didn’t care, and so I was able to get most of them in frame.

Most interestingly though was the presence of a whimbrel with a tag that reads R8. After doing a bit of searching online, I discovered that these birds are actually tagged locally, and are meant to track birds stopping over in Hong Kong wetland sanctuaries.

This bird has a corresponding entry in my HK bird log.

Grey-tailed Tattlers in Hong Kong

Grey-tailed Tattler (Tringa brevipes)

The grey-tailed tattler, also known as Polynesian tattler, is a species of shorebird that breeds in Siberia and migrates south along the coast to anywhere from south-eastern China to Austrailia and even New Zealand. Four or five came by in a group along the shore of Deep Bay during my trips on the 1st, 4th, and 6th of August (2020). Unlike their American counterparts, the wandering tattlers, the grey-tailed tattlers prefer open mudflats to rocky shorelines, making the Deep Bay flats a perfect sanctuary for travelers. However, it is still technically breeding season for them, which lasts until late August, so these are either on their way to their breeding grounds rather late, they’ve already bred and are on their way back south, or they failed to attract a mate and are simply vagrants.

The species is listed as nearly threatened due to the substantial decline in the adult population, with only 29,500 mature individuals estimated from 2016, but there may very well be fewer now. The main causes of their decline is of course habitat loss and pollution. These birds are currently being monitored by means of various tagging programs, so perhaps with more information, conservation efforts can be more effective. I haven’t yet seen one with a tag, though I do hope to someday so I can report it.

Concerning their behavior, I don’t really have much to say in terms of interesting observations, though it did seem like these waders were more interested in rest than in eating, unlike their plover counterparts, who were scuttling about and voraciously eating everything they could find on the sandbar. The few tattlers that flew in instead just wanted to relax by the shoreline and even in the water. I hadn’t ever seen a wader just hanging out in the wash!

Early August Waders

Greater Sand Plover Juvenile (Charadrius leschenaultii)

The last week of July brought some substantial low pressure systems in from offshore, and seemed also to have brought some migrating waders. Mai Po marshes recorded many greater sand plovers, greenshanks, redshanks, and spoonbills, among others during the final days of July. So I decided to make a few trips to my usual spot on the shores of Deep Bay (Shenzhen Bay), to have a try. (Details are secret.) The variety here isn’t as good as what you can expect at Mai Po, but with a bit of luck and care, you can end up getting much closer to the birds, if you manage not to scare them off!

It seemed like the same group of birds were in town all week, in spite of weather differences. Various and at times severe storms earlier in the week eventually gave way to a subtropical ridge of high pressure that should stay for at least a few days. High tide has been peaking around midday, leaving the best time to try in the early afternoon. However, on the southern shores of Deep Bay, the summer sun can be brutal, and unfortunately as it lowers makes it more difficult for birding, so really the stormy days are best.

Upon first arriving, on the 1st, I spotted a black-winged kite. Their hunting strategy couldn’t be much more different from their larger cousins, the black kite. Like other kestrels, they hover in place rather than circling, watiing to divebomb some unsuspecting creature. Unlike other hovering birds, black winged kites cannot support themselves as they hover, so they must fly into the wind to keep afloat.

On the 1st, the four main species of wader we saw included 12 or so greater sand plovers, another dozen or so little ringed plovers, a four to five terek sandpipers, a ten or so grey-tailed tattlers, four or five common sandpipers, and three whimbrels. The tide was low, so by the time I noticed those birds they were already well out into the sandbar and had no interest in coming closer.

Common Greenshank

The plovers, on the other hand, were much more fearless, coming in close to check out the strange man trying to take their picture. I was able to get some decent photos of the little ringed plovers, which appeared to be a mixture of juvenile and adults, as well as the greater sand plover.

Stay tuned for more in-depth posts about the individual birds I managed to photo!

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)
Greater sand plover (Charadrius leschenaultii)