Long Valley Biodiversity

by Thomas Gomersall

Few people remember that Hong Kong once had a thriving agricultural sector, farming rice and other water-dependent crops. Fewer still realise that the traditional practices used to farm these crops, such as field flooding and the lack of pesticides, made farmlands an ideal habitat for a wide range of wildlife, including migratory birds. But as farming has increasingly become a sunset industry, many farmlands have been abandoned and/or developed over.

Just a short drive from Sheung Shui, however, lies one of the few places left in Hong Kong where this habitat and the traditional practices that have helped to create and maintain it survive. Long Valley’s patchwork of freshwater marshlands, vegetable patches, fishponds, lotus ponds and paddy fields support over half of Hong Kong’s bird species, 42 per cent of its amphibians, and the mosquitoes and crop-eating insects they all feed on (Mcleish, 2018). Small wonder then that it’s a favourite spot for local birdwatchers, as well as one of the three main locations for WWF-Hong Kong’s annual Big Bird Race.

Greater Painted Snipe (Rostratula benghalensis): Typically, in a lot of animals, the female does most if not all of the work in rearing the young. In the greater painted snipe, the sex roles are reversed. Here the larger, more colourful female bird leaves her eggs in search of a new mate as soon as she lays them, leaving the drab male to play Mister Mum (Hsu & Severinghaus, 2011). Not that he really needs her around, being a fiercely protective parent that will spread his wings and make a ‘kek-kek’ call in a threat display if anything comes too close to his chicks (Vishnudas & Krishnan, 2013). As well as being a winter visitor and passage migrant, there is also a small resident breeding population of these birds in Hong Kong (Viney et al, 2005, p. 92).

Oriental Pratincole (Glareola maldivarum): A passage migrant from Southeast Asia and Australasia, the oriental pratincole passes through Hong Kong during the spring migration between late March and April. Though it has the long legs of a wader, it actually hunts for flying insects on the wing like a tern and even possesses a forked tail like some tern species. It is best seen in open habitats with plenty of water as it chases after its prey (Viney et al, 2005, p. 90).

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca): Alongside the male northern shoveler, the male Eurasian teal is one of the most colourful ducks to visit Hong Kong in the winter. Unlike the shoveler however, which is a common sight on the gei wais of Mai Po, the teal prefers the smaller, more sheltered bodies of water just outside the reserve in San Tin and Long Valley. Even here, however it is not always easily seen, as it has undergone steep declines in the last few years, though the reasons for this are currently unclear (Allcock, 2018).

Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica): This colourful member of the robin family is a winter visitor to wetland and agricultural areas in the northwest New Territories. The male bird has a bright-blue band separating his chin from his breast, though in the summer breeding season, it covers his whole chin. Although it is a common species, it is hard to see as it tends to keep out of sight in thick cover near water, although it does sometimes perch in prominent areas (Tipper, 2016, p. 139; Viney et al, 2005, p. 168).

Baillon’s Crake (Zapornia pusilla): A very small, very scarce but very attractive passage migrant to Hong Kong, the preferred habitat of the Baillon’s crake is marshland and flooded agricultural fields, making Long Valley an ideal place for it to rest mid-migration. It is a good swimmer and diver that predominantly feeds on aquatic insects and their larvae, but will also take molluscs, crustaceans and fish (IUCN Red List, 2019; Viney et al, 2005, p. 84). Although it is currently listed as a species of ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN Red List, it is still threatened by the loss of wetlands and wetland vegetation, as well as collisions with power lines during flight (IUCN Red List, 2019).

References:

· Allcock, J., interviewed by Thomas Gomersall, 2018, WWF — Hong Kong Birdwatching Society.

· Hsu, Y.H., Severinghaus, L.L. 2011. Nest-site selection of the Greater Painted snipe (Rostratula benghalensis benghalensis) in Fallow Fields of I-Lan, Taiwan. Taiwania, vol. 56 (3): 195pp.–200pp.

· IUCN Red List, Baillon’s Crake, [website], 2019, https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22692667/86163860 (Accessed: 30 September 2019).

· Mcleish, E., ‘The Chinese diners eating a rare songbird into extinction, and the conservationists fighting to save the yellow-breasted bunting’. South China Morning Post, 5 July 2018, https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/article/2153735/chinese-diners-are-eating-yellow-breasted-bunting-rare-songbird-extinction (Accessed: 16 October 2019).

· Tipper, R. 2016. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Hong Kong. John Beaufoy Publishing, United Kingdom. 139pp.

· Viney, C., Phillipps, K. and C.Y. Lam. 2005. The Birds of Hong Kong and South China. Information Services Department, Hong Kong SAR Government, Hong Kong. 84pp., 90pp., 92pp., 168pp.

· Vishnudas, C.K., Krishnan, N.V. 2013. Observations of breeding of Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis in the rice paddies of Wayanad, Kerala. Indian BIRDS, vol. 8 (1): 1pp.–5pp.

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