Birdwatching for Conservation
by Thomas Gomersall
In the face of an escalating ecological crisis, a seemingly passive activity like birdwatching does not appear to be a proactive step for conservation. But in fact, by simply knowing what to look out for and who to contact, the humble birdwatcher can be a powerful driver of conservation. This is especially true in Hong Kong, which without its highly dedicated, passionate and enthusiastic birdwatching community, could have lost some of its rarest and most iconic bird species long ago. Read on to find out how birdwatchers can contribute to conservation.
Who to Know
In Hong Kong, NGOs like WWF and the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (HKBWS) are a major force for conservation, as they can pressure the government to act on environmental issues. But to successfully do so, they need to demonstrate strong public support for such action. So whether you’re a birdwatcher or not, one of the best things you can do as an individual for bird conservation is to support environmental NGOs, either financially through donations or through other means like membership.
Sometimes, NGOs organise campaigns or activities that directly aid conservation. Public engagement in these is particularly important and can produce lasting conservation wins.
For example, in 2000 when the KCR (now the MTR) wanted to build a railway across Long Valley, the HKBWS launched a campaign to educate people on the area’s ecological importance, garnering enough public support to force the government to refuse the KCR a building permit. Today meanwhile, the HKBWS’ Long Valley Eco-Paddy Co-Operative Society is helping to maintain traditional rice paddies and slowly increase the numbers of the critically endangered yellow-breasted bunting in Hong Kong; gains driven in no small part by volunteers.
What to Watch
Arguably, the most important item for an aspiring birdwatcher-conservationist to carry around is a notepad. In the right hands (i.e. the HKBWS’ online forum), seemingly simple information on one’s bird sightings can actually be invaluable for conservation.
Take, for instance, leg rings on waders. Widely used to study migratory birds, these are colour-coded according to the country a bird was first ringed in, and each has a unique ID number corresponding to an individual bird. This information helps conservationists to track bird movement, allowing experts to map migration routes and determine which areas need protecting to conserve birds.
“We always encourage people to provide re-sighting records of large colour-ringed birds; for example, black-faced spoonbills” says Yu Yat-tung, HKBWS Research Manager. “We could learn much more when we do these colour-ringed programmes for black-faced spoonbills. So we need more eyes, more people to help us locate them.”
Birdwatchers can also help to curb activities that harm birds. A demand for mudskippers as a delicacy has led to their illegal harvesting in Deep Bay, disturbing the birds and potentially depriving them of a key food source. Luckily, as a sign inside the Mai Po mudflat hide makes clear, this building is well-placed for birdwatchers to spot and report illegal fishing. Such information (including the date and time) is best reported to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) and the police, who can adjust their patrol schedule according to when fishing activity is highest and have the power of prosecution.
Ironically, even reporting dead birds to the AFCD can help conservation, particularly if an autopsy reveals disease as the cause of death. Early detection of a deadly, infectious disease like avian flu allows for remedial action to be taken before it gets out of hand. Alternatively, if a disease is related to environmental conditions such as water quality, it can prompt changes in habitat management to prevent future outbreaks.
Even general information like the locations, numbers and species of birds sighted is useful for determining abundances and distributions. This in turn can be used to prioritise species and areas for protection or combined with pre-existing records to determine population trends in response to factors like urbanisation and climate change.
Paying for Protection
Conservation isn’t cheap –a single gei wai at Mai Po costs roughly HK$600,000 to manage – and the eternal question in any conservation endeavour is how does one pay for it? Once again, birdwatchers can potentially offer a lifeline.
“Birdwatchers are passionate about birds. More passionate than other naturalists or people who are interested in other types of animals. And they will pay large amounts of money to go and watch or photograph birds” says Eric Wikramanayake, Director of Wildlife and Wetlands for WWF–Hong Kong.
Currently, this is not standard practice among birdwatchers in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, twice a year an opportunity arises for them to pay for their passion: WWF-Hong Kong’s annual Big Bird Race and Walk for Nature events. These serve to raise funds for the management of Mai Po Nature Reserve, raising roughly HK$580,000 and HK$800,000, respectively in 2019. Sometimes, this can make all the difference for conservation. In 2011, a record 332 black-faced spoonbills spent the winter at Mai Po thanks to habitat and roost restoration paid for by money from the Big Bird Race.
So if you’re a birdwatcher who feels newly inspired to do your part to protect birds, why not start off by signing up for this year’s Big Bird Race? By following the link here, you can find out how to register, how to donate, which team is best for your level of experience and more. Every dollar counts in conservation, so hope to see you there!