In flu-fearing Hong Kong, Victoria Park is perhaps the sole isle for anyone who cares for a spot of garden birding
That Hong Kong is paranoid about its birds is evident when you arrive at the airport. A walk-by temperature scanner picks out people suspected to be infected with H7N9, a new strain of avian influenza that has accounted for about 20 recorded deaths in China. Most passengers and staff are seen wearing surgical face masks. Step into the washrooms and you’re bound to observe that hand-washing and sanitising has reached, er, fever pitch. Culling is rampant: about 20,000 birds including poultry, ducks and pigeons were exterminated in early April.
In an atmosphere so febrile with tension, I felt a bit like a felon taking a walk in the park. It was a drizzly day. A squall warning had been issued for the afternoon but all we got was a spot of umbrella-tugging gale as I strolled into Causeway Bay. On a Tuesday afternoon Victoria Park, named after that long-reigning queen who has places named after her in lands she never saw in her lifetime, was full of lovers necking, elderly ladies taking walks, and Cantonese and Chinese practising tai chi.
Pigeons swarmed the concrete pavements, the walkways and jogging tracks, so tame that you could pick them up if you wanted. Except that if you did, you’d be whisked off and fumigated and have your temperature taken (rectally, perhaps, I feared). Fat cats — one a tailless Manx whose ancestors must have arrived by ship from the Isle of Man generations ago — strolled among the pigeons, either too lazy or too pacifistic to lift a murderous paw.
The birds that could sing, and not be punished for it, sang. Tree Sparrows chirruped, pecking away busily at things only they could see. Spotted Doves romanced and cooed in the trees. Red-whiskered Bulbuls trilled in the magenta-flowered Bauhinia trees that are emblematic of Hong Kong. White-eyes and sunbirds flitted in their dark canopies. I saw flocks of cattle egrets and some reef egrets, too. Gulls and terns, too far and indistinct to be identified, fought the buffeting winds over Kowloon Bay, where a few stray black kites and house crows were sighted, too.
Then a familiar song poured from a bauhinia near me. Unmistakable was the cock magpie robin in his jet-black-and-snow-white livery, as well turned out as any investment banker on Pedder Street. Then appeared my sole lifer from Hong Kong – the Black-collared Starling. It was noisy, boisterous and made short work of first impressions. Yet, I admired it as a stranger would, and observed it at length.
And then my attention was claimed by a pair of handsome Eurasian magpies that sailed into view as I wolfed down lunch at the Victoria Café. They were as shy as they were good looking, and sought out the farthest perches inside dim copses, from where they eyed me with gleaming, cunning eyes. I sneaked a photograph of one baring its backside to me, but I felt that we had both done well for such a short acquaintance.
When the sky cleared, I returned to the towering urban jungle behind me and was quickly swallowed amid the crowds of masked flu-fearing Cantonese.