At last, it really happened; however, it should have occurred last year.
There are migrant and resident birds, mammals, insects, and fish in Lake Ad Excellentiam. Sometimes, we hear the sharp tweets of kingfishers, loud noises of a flock of masked laughingthrushes, varying sonorous tunes of black-collared starlings, as well as black-crowned night herons and Chinese pond herons, among others. All of them are the lake’s regular visitors. What our family truly appreciates are not these species, but the white-breasted waterhens walking on the land or flying over the lake at times. We can see them often strolling along the lakeshore.
The Chinese name of white-breasted waterhens, “bai xiong ku è niao ” (“bai xiong ” and “niao ” mean “white-breasted” and “bird” respectively), in which the Putonghua pronunciation of “ku è ”, is the onomatopoeia associated with their chirping sounds. They also have another Chinese name, “bai fu yang ji ” (“bai fu ” and “yang ji ” mean “white-bellied” and “Rallidae” respectively). White-breasted waterhens are not rare and can be found in swamps, ponds, and riversides, among others. Therefore, we can always see them wandering around Lake Ad Excellentiam.
Observing their nesting, incubating, and brooding process is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In late May last year, we observed a pair of white-breasted waterhens. One of them had searched around Lake Ad Excellentiam for tree branches and rotten leaves drudgingly, and carefully stepped on the twig hanging down towards the lake surface to repair their nests. On the other hand, the other one was hatching patiently and appeared to be nearly motionless. Being aware of this, we were clear that some eggs had been hatched in the nest. One day, birdies would break out of their shells and stay in Lake Ad Excellentiam as their habitat. Even though we had observed them for some ten consecutive days, it was a pity that we could only see the white-breasted waterhens moving slightly in their nest. No birdies could be seen. Besides, the white-breasted waterhens built their nest in a tree at the lakeshore with its twig extending over the lake surface, where we could always see some black-crowned night herons and Chinese pond herons casting their greedy eyes on that nest raptly. They might likely cause damage to the nest. After a long waiting period regardless of the weather, we found out that the nest of the white-breasted waterhens was no longer intact and gradually broke into pieces. The two adult birds never returned to their nest. It is believed that their hatching turned out to be in vain and we were not able to see their offspring at last!
Lake Ad Excellentiam has four distinct seasons, which need not be verified by means of temperature and humidity but observing the animals there. On a sunny afternoon in June 2023, when university students were already on vacation, Lake Ad Excellentiam appeared to be exceptionally tranquil and secluded. I used to live in Ying Lin Tang. Whenever I went to the hostel from the University Station, I would walk on the path along the shore of Lake Ad Excellentiam (known as Lotus Pond at that time). Outside The Chinese University of Hong Kong is a world of hustle and bustle. There is a stark contrast between the serene campus and the busy cityscape. When one walks back and forth between the hostel and the University Station through Lake Ad Excellentiam, the lake plays a significant role in cleansing and purifying our minds. On 28 June, when I drove my car along Pond Crescent gradually, I was surprised to discover that there were two white-breasted waterhens and four moving little black objects on the grassland near an Ashoka tree. I stared at these objects attentively and was sure that they are the birdies of the white-breasted waterhens.
Of course, I had to focus on driving and stay alert to traffic conditions. Therefore, it was not I but my daughter sitting at the back who had noticed the birdies. At that time, she was utterly excited and got a bit flustered when telling her mum about it on the phone. We did not get out of the car immediately but went home to get photography tools. Afterwards, we returned to Lake Ad Excellentiam to take some photos of the white-breasted waterhen family.
When I capture wild animals, the vital principle is not causing a disturbance to their life. When we returned to Lake Ad Excellentiam, we were standing by the balustrade at Pond Crescent, observing every move of the white-breasted waterhens which were busy taking care of their birdies at a proper distance. We often saw this species in Lake Ad Excellentiam in the past. However, they remained highly vigilant and would fly away immediately if we came slightly closer. Having said that, those birdies of white-breasted waterhens are different. They learn how to walk on the grassland and find food (such as insects, snails, and seeds), and their parents keep observing them on the sidelines. Sometimes, when a birdie finds out that it has walked slightly farther away, it will run back to its parents shortly. Lake Ad Excellentiam is a common hub for people, animals, and plants to interact with one another harmoniously. In summer, there are not many people though, when visitors walk past the lakeshore with Ashoka trees and deciduous cypress growing alongside, all water-breasted waterhens, no matter young or mature, will hide themselves in the shrubs of Chinese Hibiscus. Once the visitors leave, they will come out and observe their surroundings again.
The birdies are looking everywhere out of curiosity
We had seen four birdies so far; however, we failed to capture all of them by camera. These birdies are like the Dustbunnies in Miyazaki Hayao’s My Neighbor Totoro. Their entire bodies are covered with black feathers. During the moulting process, they transform themselves into subadults and adults subsequently, and the colour of their feathers keeps varying. When we observed the white-breasted waterhens, apart from adult birds and birdies, we also saw a subadult bird on the grassland behind the Fong Shu Chuen Building. Sometimes, subadult birds still accompany their parents and help them tend to birdies. Nevertheless, this subadult bird did not take care of their siblings. We saw it practising how to flap its wings. It tried to spread its wings and fly. When we learn and practise, practising is always more important than learning. Zhuxi of the Song Dynasty elucidated the implication of “practising” in “Learning and practising (‘xue er shi xi zhi ’)” as stated in Analects of Confucius. He said, “Practising is like birds learning how to fly. Learning and practising ongoingly is like birds learning and practising how to fly by flapping their wings continuously (as advocated in Analects of Confucius, learning from and imitating the behaviour of predecessors ceaselessly).” Birdies must undergo the process of learning how to fly, and “practising” refers to the ways that birds flap their wings. The subadults of white-breasted waterhens practise flying at the shore of Lake Ad Excellentiam by flapping their wings, which is like students learning and practising, and making achievements thereafter. The subadult bird was practising how to fly at Lake Ad Excellentiam while university students were doing their revision in the Elisabeth Luce Moore Library by the lakeshore. What a divinely-inspired moment!
The United Nations proposed “Sustainable Development Goals” in 2015. There are a total of 17 goals, among them the 14th refers to ocean ecosystem conservation, and the 15th terrestrial ecosystem conservation. White-breasted waterhens can produce offspring in such a graceful campus and swim freely in Lake Ad Excellentiam. They glide over the lake and find food along the lakeshore, enjoying their lives in both water and on the land, which can be said to spice up the ecology and sustainable development!
Professor Poon Ming Kay
Department of Chinese Language and Literature