Tai Tam Country Park Biodiversity
by Thomas Gomersall
In the southeast of Hong Kong Island, within easy walking distance of several residential estates, lies Tai Tam Country Park. This place is a popular walking site for many local residents, both of the immediate vicinity and Hong Kong Island as a whole, who come for a stroll along its famous reservoir or to check out its secluded waterfalls.
The tranquil forested slopes, however offer more than stunning views of the reservoir below. Plant enthusiasts will be treated to a virtual botanical garden of beautiful species whose fruits and blossoms colour the hillsides, while animal lovers would be wise to keep their eyes peeled for the many insects and birds that come to feed from those fruits and blossoms. Here are some of them:
Red Helen (Papilio helenus)
A large, common butterfly in Hong Kong, the red Helen is found in a wide range of habitats here from woodlands to orchards to urban parks. Males will often congregate around puddles to drink or at the tops of hills. It can be distinguished from other similar-looking butterflies by the large white patches on its hind wings. Caterpillars of this species (and some of its relatives) have distinctive eyespots that help them to resemble a snake and deter predators (Lo & Hui, 2004, p. 179, p. 200–201).
Wild Coffee (Psychotria asiatica): A member of the same family of plants as the coffee we drink, wild coffee is an under storey shrub that is adapted to humid, low-light conditions. It puts out attractive red fruits in autumn and winter that are consumed by fruit-eating animals and make the plant a popular ornamental species, while its roots and leaves are used in traditional medicines in southern China (Hong Kong Wetland Park, 2020). It is associated with fungi of the Conidioxyphium genus, which are spread to it by the scale insect Pseudaulacaspis cockerelli (Tang et al, 2003).
Fork-tailed Sunbird (Aethopgya christinae): With a generous number of flowering plant species, Tai Tam Country Park is bound to attract nectar-eaters. One of the most interesting and beautiful of these has to be the fork-tailed sunbird, which feeds from Hong Kong roses, Chinese New Year flowers and Hong Kong gordonias (Corlett, 2001). This bird is a widespread species in woodlands and even gardens and it is always a delight to see the iridescent blue, red and green male (females are all green) flittering between the flowers, making his loud, metallic call of ‘chiff-chiff-chiff’ (Viney et al, 2005, p. 212).
Swinhoe’s White-eye (Zosterops simplex): Alongside the fork-tailed sunbird, one might also spot another, less colourful bird feeding on the same flowers (Corlett, 2001). Named for the ring of white feathers around its eyes, the Swinhoe’s white-eye is a very common bird in Hong Kong, with numbers being higher in winter. It is also very sociable, forming large flocks with a distinct social hierarchy and even forming mixed flocks with other bird species. It feeds on insects, fruit and nectar, sometimes staining its head with pollen in pursuit of the latter, leading to the creation of ‘orange-headed’ varieties (Viney et al, 2005, p. 212; Ferguson, 2019).
Chinese New Year Flower (Enkianthus quinqueflorus):
Early in the year (including, appropriately, during Chinese New Year) is the best time to see this shrub in bloom. Hanging in clusters from the upper branches, its tiny, pink bell-like flowers resemble miniature Mid-autumn Festival lanterns and are a favoured food source for several nectar-eating animals in Hong Kong. When the blooming period is over, the flowers wither and fall off, leaving in their place rich, round fruits with many seeds (Ngar et al, 2007, p. 139).
· Corlett, R.T. 2001. ‘Pollination in a degraded landscape: a Hong Kong case study’. Journal of Tropical Ecology, vol. 17: 155pp–161pp.
· Ferguson, R., ‘White Eyes’, Wild Creatures Hong Kong [web blog], 21 November 2019, https://www.wildcreatureshongkong.org/single-post/2019/11/21/White-Eyes (Accessed: 5 February 2020).
· Hong Kong Wetland Park, Wild Coffee, [website], 2020, https://www.wetlandpark.gov.hk/en/biodiversity/beauty-of-wetlands/wildlife/psychotria-asiatica (Accessed: 5 February 2020).
· Lo, P.Y.F. and Hui, W.L. 2004. Hong Kong Butterflies, 1st edn., Friends of the Country Parks, Hong Kong. 179pp. 200pp.–201pp.
· Ngar, Y.N., Hung, L.C., Chan, S.K. and O.K. Chan. 2007. Hong Kong Wild Flowers, vol. 1, Friends of the Country Parks, Hong Kong. 139pp.
· Tang, A.M.C., Hyde, K.D. and R.T. Corlett. 2003. ‘Diversity of fungi on wild fruits in Hong Kong’. Fungal Diversity, vol. 14: 165pp.–185pp.
· 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. 212pp.