Sunday 31 July 2016

Boat chasers - Terns at Sai Kung

Bridled and Black-naped Terns - two of our three breeding terns in Hong Kong

Terns are one of the main summer birding attraction in Hong Kong, while terns watching at sea is a nice way to spend a hot summer day. The few weeks between mid July to early August is the best time to observe their boat chasing behaviour. Most of our terns breeds on uninhabited offshore islands in Eastern waters. Near the end of their breeding season the terns will start boat chasing in flocks of tens, catching any small fishes caught up in the wake of the boats. Today we visited Wong Shek Pier and took a ferry to Tap Mun and then Chek King and back, and we were not disappointed.

This year, the numbers of terns engaged in boat chasing have been one of the highest in recent years, even the Bridled Terns which are usually a more pelagic species joined in the "buffet".

Terns chasing the boat as seen from Wong Shek Pier

At least two dozens of terns chasing our ferry at one time

Buffet for terns!

This is a good time to really enjoy their presence around Long Harbour (the bay area of Wong Shek and Chek King), they really bring a lot of life into the area, even non-birders enjoy close views from the deck of the boat. Their elegant flight is a welcoming sight and seeing them dive bombing into the sea to catch fish is always entertaining.

Three species of terns breeds in Hong Kong waters, the largest being Bridled, easily separated from the two other species even from a distance by it's chocolate brown plumage. Black-naped Terns are smaller and look nearly pure white from afar, only to appreciate their diagnostic head pattern when you get closer. Roseate Terns seems to be the least numerous of the three but can be easily picked out by their red beaks and black caps; I managed good photos of Bridled and Black-naped today, but couldn't manage any good photos with the only two Roseate that joined in the feeding frenzy shortly.

Bridled Tern - a brown tern with smart looking white eye-brows

Black-naped Tern - an elegant species that looks all white from afar

These elegant seabirds will soon take off to winter in the tropics, so seize your chance to see them and enjoy them while they are still here! It will be another year before we see them in our waters once again.


  1. Great job, Matt. These terns are a really distinctive group of birds. Terns the world over are elegant and graceful and as you point out even non birders are impressed by their aerial prowess.

    1. Cheers David! They are always an annual highlight in Hong Kong!