Those large eagle-like birds that effortlessly soar over the harbour and amongst the skyscrapers are a kind of raptor known as a Black Kite. We are not talking about dinosaurs here, Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs share the name “raptor”, but that is only because they share the hunting method of birds of prey: they grasp their prey!
The link between dinosaurs and raptors goes a bit beyond the name alone, as birds evolved from dinosaurs, and so the Black Kites in Victoria harbour could be considered to be the distant descendants of the Velociraptors. While we’ve all seen the Black Kites, many people are surprised to discover that there are 35 other species of raptor in Hong Kong ranging from tiny hawks to huge vultures, you just need to know where to look to find them.
While a few dozen pairs of Black Kites breed here in the spring, many hundreds arrive from northern areas of China in autumn. Numbers swell from the summer population of about 200 to over 1000 birds making it our most common raptor. In winter, huge flocks can be seen at dusk coming in to roost at favourite sites such as Magazine Gap and the Peak.
Sharing the harbour with the kites is an impressive eagle that can weigh 3 times as much, the White-bellied Sea Eagle. This large eagle is mainly found on the coasts of the outlying islands and Sai Kung but it does occasionally frequent urban areas and has even been seen perching on buildings in Wanchai North. White-bellied Sea Eagles are especially fond of fish and snakes and they possess amazing skills of flight and control as it they snatch their prey from the surface of the water.
There is another raptor in Hong Kong that has even greater fishing skills, and that is the Osprey, a bird which is capable of diving much deeper into the water to pull out its catch. Ospreys prefer the coast on the western side of the New Territories and are mainly found in the Deep Bay area near Mai Po Marshes.
A third raptor that specialises in catching fish is the Brown Fish Owl, a very large owl that can be found in the Sai Kung Area. It prefers estuaries and has lost almost all of it’s habitat to development.
Hong Kong’s maturing woodlands, have resulted in a blooming of resident woodland raptor species including hawks, eagles and owls, the most common of which are the Crested Goshawk and the Collared Scops Owl.
Totally absent in Hong Kong just a few decades ago, the Crested Goshawk was rediscovered in the 1980’s and quickly became the second most common raptor, being found in woodlands on Hong Kong Island and throughout the New Territories. They are powerful and fearless predators and can hunt prey as large as themselves. But they are also elusive and rarely seen, spending most of their time under the canopy of the woodlands they love so much.
The Collared Scops Owl is a small owl that can be found throughout the SAR where suitable woodland exists whether it be deep in the forest or in an urban park. They can be heard making their soft mournful hoots all through the night repeated at intervals of about 10-15 seconds.
The area around Deep Bay, from Mai Po marshes and extending along the border to Lo Wu, is a hotspot for Hong Kong raptors. Here you can come across the Spotted Eagle, the magnificent Imperial Eagle and the absolutely gigantic Black Vulture, a bird that stands almost a metre tall and has a wing span of up to 3 metres. These three giants are winter visitors, with a dozen or so of the Spotted and the Imperial Eagles visiting between October and April, and a handful of Black Vultures visiting every few years.
Hong Kong is especially lucky to be on an important migration route for some raptor species that drop in to rest before continuing their migration. This gives us a chance to see some fascinating species including the Chinese Goshawk, the Grey-Faced Buzzard, the Oriental Scops Owl and the Northern Boobook Owl, all of which spend the winter south of Hong Kong and the summer in the North. These raptors can turn up literally anywhere and some of them can sometimes be seen in huge migrating flocks of 100 or more.
So Hong Kong really does have a very diverse range of raptors and is great news that some species seem to be doing so well, but we must not forget that others are losing important habitat and we need to ensure remaining habitats in Hong Kong are conserved. Individual birds occasionally become injured or are found exhausted and the SPCA Inspectorate does an excellent job of rescuing between 20 and 30 raptors each year. These birds are passed to Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden for rehabilitation and thankfully, with their good work, over half of these rescued raptors are released back into the wild.