Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Why was the University of Hong Kong a good site for birdwatchers in the 1960s?

In the early bird reports for Hong Kong, the University Compound (now called ‘campus’) often got a mention. There are two reasons. The first is that from Herklots in the 1930s there was often a birdwatcher or two living and working there. The second is that it was wooded hillside interspersed with green spaces, shrubberies, ponds and gardens. Some of the trees, unlike the wooden floors, window frames and roof timbers of the buildings, may have survived the Japanese occupation. The steep paths and steps (84 between the old Building 15 and 3 University Drive) allowed views into the tree tops.

1965 view from 3 University Drive over part of the University Compound.
The white buildings are on the north side of Pokfulam Road.
The partially hidden brick buildings were pre-clinical labs
vacated when the medical school moved to Sassoon Road

The compound was though already falling from grace in the early 1960s because of the spate of new building from the early 1950s (new staff flats) until the, for then, large new chemistry block, library, students’ union and first phase of Robert Black College. However, from 1965 until we left in 1968, the compound was undisturbed by new building.

The Compound. bounded by a nullah to the west. was a good place to see all the common Hong Kong birds including winter and summer visitors. It was also good for passage migrants (the delights of Po Toi island were then unknown). Blue and White Flycatchers appeared in numbers in April 1966. What are again named Ince’s or Chinese Paradise Flycatchers again (after a period of being lumped into Asian) appeared in the spring. We saw a spectacular fully-tailed male each day from 12 March until 5 April 1966.

Above the university and to the west of University Drive (now, I see renamed University Avenue), Conduit Path was good in the winter for thrushes and Rubythroats and the Violet Whistling Thrush was rarely absent from the sides of the nullah that, further downhill, bordered the Compound.

We overlooked the tree tops in the western part of the compound when we lived for a year in a flat in the very well designed 3 University Drive (now demolished). Cicadas in the evenings and bulbuls  by day were the overwhelming sounds. All could be heard because traffic on Pokfulam Road was relatively light. Large insects flew on to the balcony in the evenings, once pursued by a Collared Scops Owl that did a quick about turn when it saw me.

However, the green and pleasant old Compound did not last. High-rise building followed high-rise building as student numbers increased. Departments housed on the north side of Pokfulam Road were moved into the Compound as the buildings were demolished for road widening. The old preclinical medical buildings were cleared and huge blocks replaced the gardens.

Writing in 1983 in what was then the University’s newspaper, Interflow (Issue 39, March 1983), the late Harry Edie, a botanist, questioned what was going on under the self-explanatory title, 'Tropical Paradise or Concrete Inferno'. In making a plea for expert botanical input into planning the campus in order to preserve wildlife and continue to provide amenity value to the human inhabitants surrounded by closely packed tall buildings, Harry showed photographs of the Compound as it was in the 1970s.

One of Harry Edie's photographs showing the University Compound in
the 1960s and early 1970s
Another Harry Edie photograph showing the (non-university) hillside
in the foreground. No 3 University Drive is front central; No 2 is the
orange block. Robert Black College has the blue roof. The Vice-
Chancellor's Lodge is on the far left. The large block of flats is beyond
the University Compound.
Photograph of 3 University Drive from Harry Edie's article. Note the
lush vegetation of the gardens
1966 view from Conduit Path. The University Library is left; 3 University
Drive is front centre and the old house on University Path is right.
All now demolished except the library

The general sub-tropical regrowth of trees and plants incorporated into landscape designs did mean that in the 1990s the Compound was still a good habitat for birds, even though much of the land area was covered by concrete. Between the 1960s and 1990s a number of species expanded their ranges. For example, apart from isolated reports the only reliable site for Fork-tailed Sunbirds in the mid-1960s was Tai Po Kau Forest Reserve in the New Territories. By 1997, a pair was nesting in creeper at Robert Black College a short distance from our room.

Further expansion of the University, this time with blocks built to the west of the old Compound has completely altered the landscape in the past fifteen years. But some of the old trees and wilder areas remain and new planting around the buildings can be seen. It is difficult to assess by occasional visits at different times of year whether the Compound, sorry Campus, still provides a stop-over for passage migrants or suitable habitat for the common residents and seasonal visitors.

The Hong Kong Birdwatching Society no longer lists the University as a good site but it does include the land above it—Lung Fu Shan.