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An endemic enigma: the secret identity of Hong Kong's black paradise fish
New reef fish from High Island dam dollos
The humphead wrasse: a threatened species
Reproductive biology of Halichoeres nigrescens, the bubblefin wrasse
What is SCRFA?
Starling Inlet - tomorrow's empty wetland?
The 2002 Woodland Breeding Bird Survey - result highlights
Nesting population of egrets and herons in 2002-preliminary results
Is the Yellow-throated Marten in Hong Kong?
More tiger talk

Starling Inlet – tomorrow’s empty wetland?

by Captain Wong

Starling Inlet is a sheltered bay in the northeast New Territories, with small and fragmented wetlands scattered along the coast that support a surprisingly high number of waterbirds (Wong et al. 1999, 2001). Waterbird counts in Starling Inlet since 1997 have shown an increase in the number of breeding Great Egrets (from about 28 pairs in 1997 to 52 in 2001), and wintering Cormorants (from about 10 in 1997 to 700-800 in 2001), but a decrease in the breeding population of Cattle Egrets (from about 50 pairs in 1998 to about 28 in 2001). The count shows that Starling Inlet still holds the biggest local breeding population of egrets and herons, in particular Great Egrets (63% of the breeding population in Hong Kong in 2001) and Night Herons (71%).

Apart from recording the fluctuations in waterbird numbers, habitat changes in surveyed areas were also noted. These changes are mostly caused by humans and have resulted in negative impacts on the waterbirds there. The following table summarizes these changes and their impacts on the birds. Changes and disturbances were observed by the author, while the impacted area was estimated from an aerial photograph. The legality of the impacts was assessed by correspondence and communication with the relevant government departments.


Type of change/ disturbance

Estimmated area (ha)




Nam Chung

Fishpond filling for culturing fish in tanks



Early 2000 – present

Direct loss of wetland feeding habitat

Luk Keng

Opening fishponds for recreational fishing from bunds

1.5 –2.0


Late 2001 - present

Indirect loss of wetland feeding habitat as humans are active around the fishponds on holidays

Luk Keng

Playing with remote-controlled helicopters in the freshwater marsh



Early 2000 - present

Indirect loss of feeding habitat due to human activity and the noise emitted from helicopters

A Chau

Film production when egrets were nesting there



7 March 2002

Film production on the island caused a great disturbance to the nesting egrets. This could result in loss of eggs and mortality of chicks

Nam Chung

Channelization of Nam Chung River




Reduce suitable feeding habitats for egrets and kingfishers

Nam Chung and

Luk Keng

Electro-fishing and fish netting at Nam Chung River and the Luk Keng fresh-water marsh


Electro-fishing – illegal Netting -?

Since 1997

Reduced fish populations and thus prey availability to egrets and kingfishers

Sha Tau Kok

Clearing a piece of disturbed grassland for open storage in close proximity to a winter day-time roosting site of Night Herons



Around late 2000 – present

The roosting site became too open and Night Herons abandoned it subsequently.

Although there has been no massive loss of wetland feeding habitats in the inlet, the cumulative impacts of these relatively minor disturbances and changes on the waterbirds are worrying. A particular concern is the apparently growing trend in the inlet towards exploiting traditional fishponds for culturing fish in tanks and recreational fishing, an activity that may generate more income than the traditional fishponds. According to the Planning Department Technical Circular on "definition of terms used in statutory plans", culturing fish in tanks and recreational fishing are "agricultural use", therefore these two activities are always permitted in areas zoned as agricultural land or even as Conservation Areas under the Town Planning Ordinance. In addition, there is a concern that this use of traditional fishponds for recreational fishing or other recreational activities may spread to the Deep Bay area. Recent observations in February and March 2002 indicated that at least one fishpond near Mai Po Nature Reserve is used for playing with remote-controlled speed boats, causing great noise pollution. From a conservation point of view, recreational activities in fishponds should be kept under control. Uncontrolled recreational activities in fishponds would certainly degrade the ecological functions of this habitat for wildlife.

In view of the above-mentioned recreational activities and the legal loss of wetland habitats, it is clear that the existing planning controls alone cannot achieve the general planning intention stated in the Luk Keng and Wo Hang Outline Zoning Plan, i.e., preserving natural landscape and features of ecological significance, and promoting the conservation of the rural character of the area. A long-term conservation plan should be made by the relevant government departments, local residents, conservationists and other interested parties. It is hoped that the current review of Conservation Policy will help to protect the Starling Inlet wetlands.

The A Chau egretry in Starling Inlet. White spots are actually white egrets.


Wong, L.C., Corlett, R.T., Young, L. & S.Y. Lee (2001). Utilization of wetlands by ardeids in Starling Inlet, Hong Kong: a year-round study and a comparison between the census and flight-line methods. Waterbirds 24(2): 153-160.

Wong, L.C., Corlett, R.T., Young, L. & S.Y. Lee (1999). Foraging flights of nesting egrets and herons from a Hong Kong egretry, South China. Waterbirds 22(3): 424-434.


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