Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

The Big Bird Challenge

by Thomas Gomersall

The day started overcast and chilly, and by early afternoon, turned drizzly and windy. The unpredictable weather was just one of the challenges faced by participants of Big Bird Race 2019, which took place on 23 February.

The annual WWF birdwatching competition involves teams of four or more birdwatchers racing to spot and record the most bird species in 12 hours, with all money raised going to fund habitat management at Mai Po Nature Reserve.

Big Bird Race participants arrive at Island House

While birdwatching for this event can be done anywhere in Hong Kong, most of the teams tend to focus their efforts on the bird-rich areas of Tai Po Kau, Mai Po and Long Valley. And despite its name, the event is actually a more leisurely affair, save for the occasional stampede by the more competitive teams energised by sightings of unrecorded birds.

Still, participants have to surmount plenty of pressures and challenges, including the requirement that at least four team members must spot the same bird in order for the species to be ticked off the list. But even seeing the birds at all can be difficult.

Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

“It’s not [always] very satisfying” said Karen Barretto of the Jebsen Eagles team. “Mostly you’re hearing things or only getting very fleeting glimpses.”

Indeed, this particular challenge was most noticeable at the start of the race when searching for birds at 6am in Tai Po Kau. Apart from the fact that it was still dark for a good portion of the time I was there, the shy, elusive nature of forest birds made spotting them even more difficult. However, there’s more than one way to get ahead in a birding competition than simply seeing birds.

A total of 29 teams from Hong Kong and overseas took part in Big Bird Race 2019

“Forest species are always hiding in the trees and they are very hard to find,” said Augustine Chung, WWF Senior Education Officer and One Planet Youth (OPY) team supervisor. “The challenge is [to] focus on the bird calls. [Birdwatchers] need to undergo training to remember all the bird calls instead of their features.”

A Chinese bulbul sighted by the WWF OPY team in Mai Po Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

While the chirps and calls coming through the trees all sounded to me like the same one or two species, the level of training and dedication of the birdwatchers on the OPY team, which I trailed, shone through. By the end of the first 90 minutes or so in Tai Po Kau, they had identified around 20 species, mostly while it was still too dark to see anything. Luckily, after sunrise we were treated to a mix flock of scarlet minivets, chestnut and Chinese bulbuls, and even a cheeky rhesus macaque that helped itself to an unattended biscuit packet.

Cheeky monkey: rhesus macaque snacks on a biscuit Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

By roughly 9am, we were ready to move on to Mai Po. To many beginner birdwatchers such as the ones on the OPY team, this was almost certainly the highlight of the race. The open gei wai and fishponds offer easy viewing of the many large water birds. Some of my personal highlights were a pair of imperial eagles, a flock of swallows flittering over a pond, and a Eurasian curlew flying into the gei wai from the mudflats. Other birdwatchers were even luckier.

“We got species everywhere we went. Better species, more rare species; even two species that are unusual for Hong Kong” said John Clough of the All Stars team. “[Teammate] Chris found a smew.” (A duck for which there are only 5-10 known records in Hong Kong).

But even the seasoned birdwatchers found themselves being tested by the elements. An added problem for those who went into the restricted zone to visit the mudflat hide was an unexpected change in the tide.

“The tide came much higher than predicted” said John Allcock of the BirdBrains team. “When it’s about two metres, the birds are much closer. But this time it came up to 2.5 metres. If the tide completely covers the mudflats, then the birds have to go elsewhere. So rather than sitting in a hide watching the birds, they’re all off somewhere else where you can’t see them.”

After Mai Po, the next stop after lunch was Long Valley. Despite being an open, exposed farmland habitat, Long Valley can be almost as difficult for spotting birds as in Tai Po Kau. “The number of species in Long Valley is not that high this year” said OPY team supervisor Augustine Chung. “We need to search harder to find the birds.”

The already difficult task was made even more gruelling as winds picked up and the drizzle turned into a downpour. Besides dampening the enthusiasm of participants battling the elements for eight hours or more by this point, it appears to have dampened some feathers too, with many of the birds seemingly out of sight.

Cat stalks a sparrow at Long Valley Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

Still, the OPY team stumbled upon a patiently waiting cat that managed to catch itself a sparrow. As for living birds, there were still some wood sandpipers and black winged stilts out and about and eventually a few of the shyer species, with particular gems being a painted snipe and an eastern water rail.

By late afternoon, everyone was rushing to the rendezvous point at Island House to hand in their checklists before the official end of the race at 6pm. As the results were being tabulated, I wondered how race organisers ensured the integrity of the submissions.

“Fundamentally, we assume people are not going to cheat,” said adjudicator Geoff Carey. “Of course, teams can make mistakes, or errors in data entry. It’s my job to pick out what might be errors and ask the teams to confirm this is what they intended to enter, and if so, provide more details of the record. In some cases, I have to say that they have not convinced me, and I have to remove that species from their list.”

Adjudicator Geoff Carey tallies the results of bird species spotted at the Big Bird Race

As the scores were being counted, the birdwatchers took time to wind down from a long day outside. Tucking into a buffet dinner courtesy of the WWF Island House team, participants chatted and shared their findings as excitement reined while awaiting the results.

WWF-Hong Kong CEO Peter Cornthwaite congratulates Big Bird Race participants

In his opening speech, WWF-Hong Kong CEO Peter Cornthwaite congratulated the newest and youngest participants who took part in the new secondary school race event. Then it was over to announcing the prize winners, including for spotting the most birds, which went to the Jebsen Eagles. Prizes were also handed out in other categories, including for the most water birds spotted and rarest species spotted.

Wood sandpipers at Long Valley Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

Ultimately, the real winner here is the Mai Po Nature Reserve. Particularly at a time when coastal development and climate change are threatening so many bird habitats along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, it’s a win that is needed more than ever.

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