GPS in the context of birds means the Greater Painted-snipes. And I am very pleased to welcome Mike Kilburn as our guest writer today. I had originally seen this wonderful video of his, and he is good enough to share it with us, along with some very interesting facts and context.
Here a female, showing an outstretched wing.
Greater Painted-snipes are among our shyest and most striking waders. One of just three species to breed regularly in Hong Kong (the others are Black-winged Stilt and Little Ringed Plover) they are highly sought after by local and visiting birders for their beauty and the challenge of finding what is normally an inveterate skulker.
This pair, in contrast, put on a fabulous show on a wet grassy area on the main scrape at Mai Po on Sunday, feeding right in front of one of the hides and allowing wonderful close views. As they were feeding a Black Kite flew over and the video shows their standard defense – crouching low and edging slowly into cover. However they were clearly aware that the kite was too far away to pose any serious threat and they were soon feeding again.
Greater Painted-snipe are unusual among birds as the male is responsible for brooding the eggs - and for this reason has the subtler plumage – a lovely spangled mix of pale yellows and greens. The female, with her wine-red breast and black-edged white braces is much more striking. And when she opens her wings her full beauty is displayed in a glorious pattern of golden spots and softer greys that puts any fashion designer to shame.
But for Hong Kong’s birders the really special thing about Greater-painted Snipes is their role as a conservation icon. They were originally known only from Kam Tin Marsh in the northern NT - an area that suffered from the usual range of ecologically harmful developments in the mid-1990s. The channelization of the Kam Tin River first divided the marsh, and a set of fields that held a substantial population of Water Buffaloes. Villagers began encroaching to build small houses, the Kam Tin bypass hacked off more areas and then the approval of West Rail threatened a major further loss of habitat. All of these subdivided, dried and buried the marshy areas on which the GPS depended, threatening to extirpate them as a breeding bird in Hong Kong.
Around this time ecological surveys conducted, ironically, to support the ecological impact assessment for the Lok Ma Chau Spur line revealed a second population of GPS in the wet agricultural fields at Long Valley, just to the west of Sheung Shui. This area had been subject to similar development pressure. The Beas River was channelized, but environmental NGOs, led by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, successfully objected to the development of the Fanling bypass. Furthermore, on the basis preventing the loss of habitat for the GPS, the NGOs shocked the foundations of Hong Kong’s development process by successfully campaigning for the Lok Ma Chau Spur Line to be denied an environmental permit. This stopped the project in its tracks – forcing the Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation (now MTRC) to abandon the proposed viaduct across the marsh and instead to build the far costlier but much less damaging tunnel now runs under Long Valley, leaving the GPS and 240 other species of birds where they were, and remain today.
Since then Long Valley has been managed by HKBWS and Conservancy Association for the benefit of the birds and other wildlife through a series of Government-funded Management Agreements. These will come to an end this year as Long Valley is redeveloped as a nature park – hopefully with proper sensitivity for the birds – as part if the development of Kwu Tung North New Town. Since then, thankfully, GPS have also become well established in less brackish freshwater areas of Mai Po where they put on the wonderful display illustrated here.