Sea Eagles and the planned Waste Incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau

On a recent boat trip along southern Lantau I noticed a large bird of prey soaring in the distance. If you live in HK you know that we have thousands of black kites that soar overhead pretty much everywhere including the financial district of Central. So normally the sight of a bird of prey soaring overhead is commonplace and not worthy of note. I would not have thought more of it. But it struck me that this bird seemed bigger and the closer the boat got, the bigger it seemed. A lot bigger than a black kite! Once we got close enough and passed under it I saw it had a wide white triangular shape covering its head, belly and part of the underside of the wings. Looking it up in my copy of ‘Birds of Hong Kong and South China’ I managed to identify it as a white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster). Sea eagles in Hong Kong? That surprised me.
I will confess that I have never been particularly interested in birds. I could never understand the fascination bird watchers have with these animals, especially the small birds that in my opinion “don’t do much”. But like any subject, it’s finding the right angle to enter a topic that counts and for me that’s always been the marine environment. So an impressive sea eagle may well lead me to an interest in birds eventually!
There would be little point in recounting general facts about this beautiful creature when you can get all this from Wikipedia’s article on white-bellied sea eagles. But I will mention the size because it impressed me: the female is slightly larger than the male, and can measure up to 90 cm (35 in) long with a wingspan of up to 2.2 m (7 ft), and weigh 4.5 kg (10 lb). Up to 2.2m wingspan! I needed to know more…
Naturally I went looking for information and records of these sea eagles in Hong Kong.

Here is a nice YouTube clip apparently from Hong Kong of a juvenile white-bellied sea eagle soaring over the water:

Beasts of Hong Kong is a great blog with a post on the sea eagle . It has some surprising info: I had no idea that the sea eagles nested on Lantau until Disney and it’s carbon-footprint busting nightly fireworks came along.

Other interesting bits:

  • according to the HK bird watching society Hong Kong is the only place in China known to host a regular population
  • white-bellied sea eagles are especially fond of fish and snakes and they have amazing skills of flight and control as it they snatch their prey from the surface of the water
  • in 2009 there were 15 breeding pairs (30 adults) in Hong Kong the AFCD reports
  • in 2006 the Hong Kong Post issued a 10 white-bellied sea eagle postage stamp
10 cent Hong Kong postage stamp featuring the white-bellied sea eagle
10 cent Hong Kong postage stamp featuring the white-bellied sea eagle


Uniquely interesting for me is that the AFCD study published in 2010 also located a breeding pair on the island of Shek Kwu Chau. Below is the map from the study showing breeding pair locations.

20140527-131803-47883111.jpg
Territories (green) and breeding pairs (red) of white-bellied sea eagles in Hong Kong (AFCD, 2010).

Shek Kwu Chau is the Island the government is planning to turn into a giant waste incineration facility amid strong opposition from green groups and the Hong Kong Clean Air a Network (CAN). So you just got another reason to oppose the project, if air pollution and inefficient waste management were not enough…

The AFCD study found that the population of White-bellied Sea Eagles in Hong Kong seemED healthy. According to the study, “the White-bellied Sea Eagle’s decline […in other regions…] is mainly due to threats such as human disturbance, habitat destruction, shooting and poisoning (Ferguson-Lees and Christie, 2001). In Hong Kong, thefts of eggs from nests and disturbance such as grass cutting have caused breeding failures of White-bellied Sea Eagles in the past (Taylor, 1933). With the enforcement of the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance (Cap. 170), direct human disturbance of the birds is now prohibited. Besides, as most of the nests are located in protected or remote areas, their nesting sites are relatively free from development pressures.” (AFCD report).

I wonder for how long the population of white-bellied Sea Eagles will be healthy if we build super-incinerators on their nesting grounds…

And finally a very recent YouTube clip of a white-bellied sea eagle over Stanley from March 2014.

(Featured image: White-Bellied Sea Eagle by Richard Fischer, subject to attribution license)

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