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Hong Kong Rubythroats

May 07 2019

#Bird watching #GoBirding #Conservation programs #Binoculars

Hong Kong Rubythroats

Freezing nights and myriads of mosquitoes: studying birds on their Russian breeding grounds is challenging, and more than once I dreamed about working with “our” Rubythroats in their tropical wintering areas. Finally, this dream has become true.

I am standing in the middle of a huge wetland area, unfamiliar calls of coucals and koels fill the warm morning air, and flocks of odd-coloured starlings are emerging from their roosts. Skyscrapers and mountains covered with tropical forests can be seen in the distance. I am in Hong Kong, China, at the Mai Po Nature Reserve – and I am searching for wintering Rubythroats.


Siberian Rubythroats are spectacular beautiful birds, and their song recalls the skills of a nightingale. Unfortunately, these features made them a beloved cage bird in Asia, and countless individuals are illegally caught during migration. But conservation measures are hampered, as no one knows about their exact migration routes. And so I started to mark individual Rubythroats with tiny geolocators, miniaturized tracking devices which are carried by the birds like a backpack. Rubythroats are strong birds, and I am happy that the backpacks have no effect on the number of returning individuals.

The difficulty of this method: one has to re-trap the bird in the following year, to download the data stored on the logger. On the breeding grounds in Russia, up to a third of the males return to their favoured breeding site next spring, and sometimes I could see them singing from exactly the same branch. As beautiful as the song might occur to us, it is a signal of power and a warning to other male Rubythroats around. It is therefore easy to catch the birds using a recording of their song, provoking an aggressive reaction, which makes them fly heedlessly into a net. But how would they behave on the wintering grounds? Would they set up and defend a territory as well?


Our project in Hong Kong, China, started when the Mai Po bird ringing team found out that the same individuals would return every winter to their trapping site. But would we succeed in catching a sufficient number, to tag them with backpack-geolocators? At least, I wanted to try. And so I used the same nets and the same recordings of their song, in a place which looks so different from where I knew the Rubythroats. But behold: the first trials in the dawn were successful! And the best of it: here, it was not only possible to attract male birds with playback, but females alike. Both sexes seem to set up winter territories, which are defended against any other Rubythroat.

In the end, eleven Rubythroats were equipped with data loggers – the first ever on the Asian wintering grounds! Very soon, these birds will start flying northward, to breed somewhere in the Russian vastness. And when they come back to Hong Kong, China, next autumn, some of them will hopefully return their geolocators, to tell us about their amazing migration.


About the author:

Wieland Heim started birding as a child, and the passion for birds and their conservation remained the driving force of his life. As a bachelor´s student, he started the Amur Bird Project in the Russian Far East, and more than 100 volunteers from all over the world have worked with him since then to study birds and engage in environmental education.

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