There are few genuinely evergreen trees in Hong Kong, but most of the territory’s trees keep their leaves during the winter. However, when the temperature begins to rise at the end of winter, and new growth begins to appear, this is a cue for the old leaves to depart. When the northeast monsoon is blowing, the fall of leaves can seem like a blizzard, and were it not for the continuous work of a small army of roadsweepers, whose efforts can seem like trying to empty a bath using only a colander, large parts of rural Hong Kong would be knee-deep in dead leaves by Easter.
A windswept street in Luen Wo Hui (picture taken on 10th March 2011).
This year, February saw a reversal of the usual climatic conditions, which are that it always seems to be cold during the Chinese New Year period, regardless of where it falls in the Gregorian calendar. This year, however, the festival coincided with the only warm spell of the month, which was otherwise unrelentingly cold, wet and miserable. The house began to feel like a walk-in refrigerator.
Things began to improve at the beginning of March with the piecemeal return of the summer visitors that augment the local bird population. These new arrivals include all those species with distinctive calls, some of which I described last year in Birdsong. I noticed the ‘swanee whistler’ first, although I should point out that ‘noticed’ is too understated a word to be entirely appropriate here, because you would have to bury your head in a large pile of pillows not to notice if one was in the neighbourhood.
This year, I discovered the swanee whistler’s real name: it is an Asian koel. The male is glossy black, about the size of a jackdaw but much slimmer: in flight, it looks like a racing pigeon. The word ‘koel’ is Sanskrit in origin and is said to be onomatopoeic in that language, although I remain unconvinced by the claim on a website operated by Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, that ‘it gives a repetitive and loud ko-el, ko-el call’. There is no l sound, although we do occasionally hear, but not see, a bird that sings “tweet! tweet!”, each consonant being fully enunciated.
The koel shares with the European cuckoo the habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds, which made me wonder why it advertises its presence so blatantly. It turns out that the swanee whistler is the male bird, but the female koel is just as noisy. I described it last year as ‘a malevolent cross between a kookaburra and a rooster’, while this year I gave it the name ‘laughing chicken’ before discovering its real identity. The most common victims of the koel’s parasitism are black-collared starlings, otherwise known as ‘stripeys’ (my description—the black and white stripes make this species easy to identify) and ‘noisy buggers’ (Paula’s description—they are the ones that sound as if they are arguing all the time).
However, this is where the story becomes complicated. Black-collared starlings have a range of calls, one of which is a passable imitation of the laughing chicken. Only a difference in timbre betrays the real origin of the call. The repertoire of these birds also includes an imitation of honking geese, while what might be described as its default call resembles that of another common local species, the crested mynah. Or are the mynahs imitating the starlings? I’ve not yet reached a conclusion on this question. There is a lot of scope for observation here, because a pair of black-collared starlings has constructed an enormous nest in the tree in front of our house, so there is much (noisy) coming and going.
Crested mynahs are among the commonest birds around San Wai. They are dull black in colour, with white patches on the underside of the wings that remind me of the roundels that once graced the wings of the aircraft of the Royal Air Force. The illusion is reinforced when an individual flies straight towards you, because the blur of white on the rapidly beating wings resembles the propellers of a twin-engined Second World War bomber such as the Wellington. When seen in large mobs, these birds are almost as noisy.
Perhaps the most interesting of the common local birds are the magpie robins, which, like the crested mynahs, are resident throughout the year. They are larger than European robins, to which they probably aren’t related, and as you might guess, they are black and white rather than brown and red. However, during the winter months, the only sound they utter is a cross between a rasp and a hiss. It sounds very threatening, and it could be mistaken for an insect, except that it is much too cold for insects to be abroad. Then, in March, I began to notice short songs that I hadn’t heard before. Each one was different, but I really should have spotted that the timbre and intensity were always very similar. The penny finally dropped when I caught a magpie robin in the act of singing its heart out on my television aerial.
A typical magpie robin song consists of six to eight notes and is a very piercing but not unpleasant whistle (the poor buggers are popular as caged songbirds in Hong Kong—a barbaric practice that is out of step with the sophistication of the rest of Chinese culture). Once an individual has secured a suitable perch, its song is repeatedly reprised, with only minor improvisation, until it decides to fly off and sing somewhere else.
Once I was able to identify a song as that of a magpie robin, I found that I could also identify individuals, especially if there was some element in the song that stood out. One in particular caught my attention because it added a distinctive “beep! beep!” coda at the end of each iteration of its song. The day after hearing this performance for the first time, I was describing it to Paula when suddenly we heard it being repeated from the large tree alongside our house. Since then, we’ve heard it from time to time, and the question I now want to answer is whether this really is the same individual, or whether individuals construct songs from elements they’ve heard others use in their songs. However, further research will have to wait until my return to Hong Kong in the