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Birding Among the Skyscrapers at Mai Po Nature Reserve

With over 7 million people living in the space of 1000 square miles, one would think there’s not a whole lot of space left in Hong Kong for wildlife. And yet, the afternoon I arrived at the Mai Po Nature Reserve, about an hour northwest of the concrete morass of Hong Kong island, all I...

With over 7 million people living in the space of 1000 square miles, one would think there’s not a whole lot of space left in Hong Kong for wildlife.

And yet, the afternoon I arrived at the Mai Po Nature Reserve, about an hour northwest of the concrete morass of Hong Kong island, all I could hear was the beautiful calls and shrieks of birds in every direction.

A patchwork of fishponds, marshes, mangrove, mudflats and shrimp ponds that blend with the skyscrapers in the distance, Mai Po is sandwiched between Hong Kong and China’s Shenzhen city, and has become an unlikely paradise for water birds from all over the world.


A Ramsar site of International Importance, the wetland on the edge of the Inner Deep Bay is an important stop-off point for migrating water birds on the flyway between New Zealand and Siberia as they move north and south for the summer and winter.

Xianji Wen and I walk beside the long parallel ponds that extend in grids out towards the Mangrove fringed bay. Managed by WWF Hong Kong, Wen is the Program Head for Mai Po Nature Reserve and Regional Wetlands. He tells me about the natural balance the reserve is striking between farming, conservation and tourism.

“Mai Po is an amazing example of nature and people working together,” says Wen.

Each pond hosts a different habitat: One has sedge grasses; one has shallow mud flats; and one is filled with mangroves. And all are humming with life. Birds, butterflies, dragonflies and even a solitary buffalo greet us as we walk between the numerous hides that are scattered between the ponds.


The pods look pristine, and one would think at first glance that these habitats are completely natural and untouched. But, in fact, they are managed very carefully—as shrimp farms.

The intertidal ponds, known as a gei wai, are filled with shrimp that get flushed into the system with the high tides of autumn. The shrimp feed on all the dead leaf matter, and eventually they are harvested by way of gates at the mouth of each pond and sold as part of the management plan for the reserve.

Water management of the ponds is of utmost importance. The draining of the gei wai is done to coincide with the passing of migratory birds in Spring and Autumn. This exposes large areas of shallow mud for feeding and roosting for the tired birds. It’s an intricate balance. The reserve is also an important tool for educating the people of Hong Kong about the importance of wildlife and conservation. Every day, groups of tourists and schools kids pour through the reserve and sit in the hides and spot bird species.


Wen points to a regal-looking crane standing in the middle of a gei wai. “That’s the only known Siberian crane in the country,” he says. This species of bird hasn’t been seen in Hong Kong in over 14 years, but recently one crane decided to show up on its migratory route northward, and hasn’t left since.

In total, some 350 bird species have been recorded in the Mai Po and Inner Deep Bay Wetlands, and the area is a refuge for up to 68 000 waterbirds and another 40 000 shore birds passing through in Spring and Autumn.

Beyond the gei wai, we encounter a large barb-wire fence that separates the ponds from a thick tangle of mangrove trees. We cross the fence, technically into China, and walk along a raised floating boardwalk that winds its way through dense, muddy mangrove forest. Big red crabs scuttle between the muddy islands. The tide is coming in and some of the walkways are raised on a thin layer of water.


“This is the perfect time to sit in the hide,” says Wen, as we approach a floating structure that seems to appear out of the tangled mangrove branches. The incoming tide ensures the birds move close to the hide.

As we sit down and open the hide flaps, light pours into the dusty hut and we are greeting by thousands and thousands of wading birds moving through the shallow mudflats. Crabs and skipper fish flit on the ground below. And in the distance the magnificent skyscrapers of Shenzhen city tower over us like shimmering overlords.

I sit for a moment, awestruck by the magnificent display of concrete and nature in one view.


We raise our binoculars and begin spotting many species of shore birds frantically feeding on fish and grabs as the tide slowly washes in. Curlews; sandpipers, egrets; snipes; plovers; cranes and many others blanket the horizon. With the rising water, the birds slowly move closer and closer to the hide, until there are hundreds fishing in the water just beyond us.

The unique balance between people and nature at mai Po seems to be working, but the slow march of urbanization in Hong Kong and China represents one of the largest threats to the wetland. As people move towards the cities, space is the premium, and it’s up to us to make sure that these wildlife spaces are not lessened by developers. Water quality is also a concern, as the pressure on the bay in terms of pollution grows. WWF Hong Kong is in conversation with the government to address these concerns, because if nothing is done, the mud flats will turn from watery paradise to dry land.


We spend hours in the hide, identifying birds and watching them fish, until the sun begins to dip behinds us.

It seems one could spend weeks watching birdlife and still come away with lot’s more to see. And it’s true; depending on the time of year, you will see different species as they swoop down from the sky, like a busy transit airport, and rest their wings for some weeks, refuel and head off for whatever distant lands their instinct and memory leads them to.

“We’ll come back tomorrow,” said Wen, as we reluctantly get up to leave. “There’s something new to see here every single day.”


This story is part of Paul Steyn’s #aroundtheworldin30days journey. Follow him as he travels the globe with Ramsar and Star Alliance, in quest to appreciate water and wetlands on our changing planet. More about the trip here. 

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Paul Steyn
Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram