Starling Inlet Biodiversity
by Thomas Gomersall
Located at the northern end of Bride’s Pool Road just across the water from the border with mainland China, Starling Inlet in no way rivals the size or diversity of birdlife of Mai Po. But its mixed habitat of mangroves, abandoned farmland and lowland streams still provides a home for a wide variety of interesting wildlife, including some of the migrant birds that also visit Mai Po. As an added bonus, its remoteness and the lack of public knowledge about it makes for a much quieter, far less touristy birding experience than one might get at Mai Po.
Just offshore, within easy viewing distance of the main road, the island of A Chau plays host to what was once the largest breeding colony of egrets and herons in Hong Kong, with multiple species coming here to rear their young each year. However, between 2009 and 2018, the numbers of breeding birds declined significantly at a rate of 68 per cent per year. The reasons for this are currently unknown (Yu, 2019).
Great Egret (Ardea alba): If you’ve ever been near any body of water in Hong Kong, then you will almost certainly have seen this bird before. The great egret is one of the most common and adaptable birds in Hong Kong, able to hunt and nest just as comfortably along the canals of Tai Po as the gei wai of Mai Po. While for the most of the year it has a fairly innocuous appearance, its body undergoes a dramatic transformation in the breeding season. During this time its bill turns from yellow to black, the skin around its face turns turquoise and it develops thin, filamentous plumes on its back as part of its breeding plumage (Viney et al, 2005, p. 42). It was once one of the most common nesting heron species at the A Chau egretry. But between 2009 and 2018, the number of nests there has undergone a catastrophic decline from 40 nests to just one, a crash of 97.5% (Yu, 2019).
Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis): The pied kingfisher may lack the spectacular colouration of Hong Kong’s other kingfisher species, but it is nonetheless distinctive in more than just its black-and-white plumage. While other kingfishers catch their prey by diving from a perch, the pied kingfisher hovers in mid-air before plunging into the water after fish, in a manner not dissimilar to some diving seabirds (Tipper, 2016, p. 85). Although it is more common in Deep Bay, Starling Inlet does sometimes yield a few sightings of them (Allcock, 2019).
Grey Treepie (Dendrocitta formosae): It’s far from the most colourful bird in Hong Kong, but the grey treepie is actually more variable in its colouration than its name suggests. While its neck and breast are grey, its back is fawn brown, the primary feathers on its wings are black and it has a white rump that is very conspicuous when it flies (Tipper, 2016, p. 99). It feeds largely in the trees but sometimes comes down to the ground and forms mixed-species feeding flocks with laughingthrushes (Chen & Hsieh, 2002). It is uncommon in most parts of Hong Kong, but Starling Inlet is a good place to see them (Allcock, 2019).
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus): Distinguishable from the resident little grebe by its larger size and longer bill and neck, the great crested grebe is a common winter migrant to Hong Kong. Though mostly found in Deep Bay, a small number (10–15) spend the winter in Starling Inlet (Allcock, 2019). Like many grebe species, it is supremely adapted to life in the water, to the point where its feet are placed much further back on its body than other birds to allow for more efficient swimming. When threatened it will usually dive underwater rather than fly away (Tipper, 2016, p. 22). For much of the winter it maintains a grey and white colouration, but in mid-February it develops a colourful breeding plumage of orange neck feathers and a prominent head crest (Viney et al, 2005, p. 36).
Common Rat Snake (Ptyas mucosus): As its name suggests, the common rat snake feeds mainly on rodents, but will also take lizards, amphibians and occasionally birds. This snake is found in a wide range of habitats but prefers open areas such as grasslands, farmland and the edges of water sources, making Starling Inlet an ideal spot for them. Although it is non-venomous, it will still readily strike and may also void its bowels in self-defense. Though hunting is rare in Hong Kong, individuals have been known to be sold in snake soup shops for their meat (Karsen et al, 1998, p. 130).
· Allcock, J., interviewed by Thomas Gomersall, 2019, WWF-Hong Kong, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society.
· Chen, CC; Hsieh, F. (2002). Composition and foraging behaviour of mixed-species flocks led by the Grey-cheeked Fulvetta in Fushan Experimental Forest, Taiwan. Ibis, 144(2): 317.
· Karsen, S.J.,Lau, M. and A. Bogadek. 1998. Hong Kong Amphibians and Reptiles: Second Edition. Provisional Urban Council, Hong Kong. 130pp.
· Tipper, R. 2016. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Hong Kong, John Beaufoy Publishing, United Kingdom. 22pp., 85pp., 99pp.
· 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. 36pp., 42pp.
· Yu, Y.T., interviewed by Thomas Gomersall, 2019, WWF-Hong Kong, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society.