On the Hunt for Shorebirds

When I lived in Ontario, one of my favorite birding day-trips in the spring and fall was to Presqu’ile Provincial Park in Brighton, right on the shores of Lake Ontario.  It was quite a trek from my home in Ottawa, but the beaches around Presqu’ile provided scores of shorebirds, terns, and gulls, that I could just not find anywhere closer to Ottawa.  On this weekend Melanie was off on a school trip with her co-workers, so I gathered my gear and hopped on a bus to Suncheon-si, a short hour and a half bus trip east from Gwangju.  The destination was Suncheonman Bay (순천만), a large protected coastal wetland which is one of the largest in South Korea.  It is a well-known stopover site for the rare white-naped and hooded cranes, as well as approximately 140 other species of bird.  Needless to say, my interests were piqued at the word “wetland.”

Wetlands are Nature’s treasure, both in terms of bird life and environmental health.  Coastal wetlands provide valuable food and shelter for countless species, as well as beneficial protection from storm surges coming from the ocean.  Their value to human and wildlife is immeasurable; unfortunately, most people see them as eye sores and prefer to drain them and build condos than see them for their real worth.  I spent six months in the salt marshes of Rhode Island working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, so you’ll forgive me if I have a soft spot for coastal wetlands.

From Gwangju, Suncheon-si is easily accessible from the U+ Square Terminal.  The fare was only 6,900 won one-way (at the time of this trip), and buses leave every thirty minutes.  I arrived at the Suncheon Bus Terminal at 11:30am, and was immediately greeted by three house swifts circling over the terminal.  Not on the ground five minutes and already checked off a lifer…the Bird Gods were smiling on me today.  The day was warm and bright, and although I was starting much later than I would have liked, it promised to be a good day nonetheless.  Birding the coastal estuaries is all about timing: arrive too early or too late and the tide is up and the birds are anywhere but where you want them to be.  Coastal birding revolves around the tide schedule, so there is a little bit of leeway on the early morning / early evening dynamic common to land birding.  For the uninitiated, to successfully bird the land, the best times are first thing at dawn and two or three hours before dusk, as the birds are most active at these times.  Come midday, especially in the hot summer months, and the birds are on siesta.  This rule doesn’t apply when birding coastal mudflats, as the tide determines when the mudflats are exposed and therefore when the birds can access all of the food sources available in these habitats.

My route along the Dongcheon River to Suncheonman Bay.  The total length of the walk was about 12km...and worth every inch!

My route along the Dongcheon River to Suncheonman Bay.  The total length of the walk was about 12km…and worth every inch!

I had originally meant to grab a city bus to the Suncheonman Bay Ecological Park (순천만 자연생태공원), the main site of the protected reedbeds and mudflats at the Bay, but I ended up misreading the bus schedule and hopped on the #67 going the wrong direction.  If you’re more adept at reading Korean than I am, from the Bus Terminal walk south one block and you can pick up the #67 bus to the Suncheonman Bay (순천만) stop in Daedae-dong.  Be sure to cross the street and take the bus from that side, not the same side as the Bus Terminal.  This is the route I’d recommend, although if you have the time and you enjoy a long, long walk, you can take the route I took instead.

Quickly realizing I was going to the wrong way, I got off the bus and headed over to the Dongcheon River, which bisects the city of Suncheon-si down the middle.  There is a paved bicycle / walking trail that follows the river for its entire length through the city, and as Suncheon-si is a popular tourist destination in South Korea for its environmental savvy (Suncheon-si is known as “Korea’s Green City”), this walking trail is beautifully landscaped and idyllic for an afternoon stroll.  I’d recommend a stop here, if only to enjoy the river and the nice flowers and cherry blossoms along the way.

The river was alive with activity.  Near a small waterfall by the Palma-ro Bridge, there were nearly forty black-headed gulls, many with their hoods fully formed.  Close inspection did not locate any other species of gull, although I was hoping for a stray Saunders’s gull, but just seeing the black-headed gulls was a pleasure.  These birds are analogous to the Bonaparte’s gulls of North America, but have bright red beaks and legs that distinguish them immediately.  They are uncommon visitors to the Americas, but show up regularly on the East Coast in places like Nova Scotia (where I had found my first, and only, black-headed gull in 2008).

A Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) flying along the Dongcheon River.  The bird has not completed its molt, and only has a partial hood.

There were some reeds along the shore of the river, and it was here that I heard a couple of small whistle-like calls.  A careful search of the reeds revealed three Chinese penduline-tits and several vinous-throated parrotbills.  The hedgerows along the walkway were dripping with Eurasian tree sparrows and several brown-eared bulbuls were flying in and out of the cherry trees.  Further downstream I could see dozens of eastern spot-billed ducks and two pairs of little grebes in their breeding colors.

A tiny Chinese Penduline-tit (Remiz consobrinus) clings to some reeds.  It was quite a challenge to capture this photo with such a small bird in a mess of reeds…not to mention the gusting wind!

With much deliberation I decided to leave this quaint spot and continue down the river.  I should point out at this point that I was under the impression that the Suncheonman Bay Eco-Park, my destination, was only about 3km downstream and that this walkway would lead me right to it.  I was right about the second part of that statement – the riverwalk does indeed lead to the Eco-Park…eventually.  It turned out to be nearly 8km before I reached the Eco-Park.  So as I said at the beginning, take the #67 bus.  Unless you had the clarity of mind to bring a bicycle with you.

I’ve found that some of my more notable mis-adventures tend to produce great memories and even better results, and this situation was no different.  The walk was very long, but it was also quite scenic and took me through a diverse series of habitats, each with its own selection of species.  As I was leaving the city limits, there were farm plots to the east and west, and the walkway was lined with cherry blossoms.  The ever-present Eurasian tree sparrows gave way to olive-backed pipits, and a few of the farm plots held eastern spot-billed ducks, little egrets and grey herons.

Cherry trees line a walking path along the Dongcheon River.

Cherry trees line a walking path along the Dongcheon River.

One of the Olive-backed Pipits (Anthus hodgsoni) along the Dongcheon River walkway.

Further south of the city proper, the farms gave way to wide expanses of grasslands and sedges along the river.  This section of the river was under construction, as a new overpass was being built, following the course of the river.  Despite the disturbance of machinery, the best birding of the day was to be found in these grassy oases.  It started with several barn swallows flying over the fields.  It wasn’t long before I noticed a single Pallas’s bunting ahead of me on the path.  This would be the first of three of these large sparrows I would encounter during the day, but I was unable to capture any photos of these shy birds.  Further down from there, near the joining of the Dongcheon and Isacheon Rivers, I came onto a large mixed-species flock of passerines foraging along the pathway.  There was a glorious male Siberian stonechat, which I identified later as being of the breeding subspecies on the Korean peninsula (Saxicola maurus stejnegeri) rather than a passing migrant of the nominate subspecies (S. m. maurus).  Several Tristram’s buntings led the foraging flock, with two black-faced buntings and two more Pallas’s buntings were visible in the reeds and grasses.

Just before reaching the Eco-Park, after nearly two hours of walking with a backpack filled with my tripod and scope, I stopped at a small opening in the reedbeds, where I found that the water level was dropping as the tide went out.  Feeding on the exposed mud were nearly a half-dozen grey herons, two great egrets (one each of both Korean subspecies Egretta alba alba and E. a. modesta), and to my surprise and great thrill, three Eurasian spoonbills!  Close to the spoonbills, three common greenshanks were resting near the edge of the water.  The spoonbills were amazing to watch; I had never had the opportunity to go to Florida and see North America’s roseate spoonbill, so this was a rare treat for me to see these amazing heron-like birds.  They would walk in the deeper water, rocking their heads back and forth while sieving the water with their specialized bills.  Unfortunately all of this was happening too far away for photos, but I hope one day to find this species again a little closer to shore.

The Eco-Park itself was a mixture of great habitat, but sorely underwhelming performance.  By the time I arrived at the Park, the parking lot was full of cars and buses, and just about every inch of the boardwalk into the reedbeds and estuary was covered with people.  The Park is quite beautiful, and the protected habitat is beautiful.  But what I saw brought to light the great dichotomy in conservation: we want to set aside land to protect it and the species that live there, but the only way to successfully convince people to protect land is to make it into a park, allowing people to see the land they are protecting.  And by allowing people into it, you essentially strip it of its protected value, because what makes it “protected” and “natural” is the lack of people.  I can imagine that first thing in the morning, before the tour buses arrive, the park and its lovely boardwalk are pristine, and the habitat can be used by the birds and other species for which it was set aside.  But when I arrived at the Eco-Park, there was no sign of any wildlife at all, just a steady flow of tourists following the boardwalk through a barren habitat.  Perhaps because the tide was going out all of the birds left the shelter of the reedbeds to forage on the exposed mud.  I don’t really know, but I found the long walk from the city to be infinitely more productive and peaceful than the sight before me.

 I didn’t stay long at the Eco-Park, deciding to walk through one more section of agricultural land to reach Suncheonman Bay itself.  Although I was pretty tired at this point, it was a very good decision.  The farmland was quiet and calm, and loads of oriental turtle-doves were flying from field to field in search of food.  There were a few great egrets, and a handful of “Chinese” white wagtails (Motacilla alba leucopsis) along the roadside.  I reached the edge of the Bay to find that the tide was far out, leaving a wide expanse of thick mud exposed.  At first it appeared as though nothing was on the mud, but scanning with my scope revealed a hidden plethora of birds.  Fairly close to the edge of the Bay were tens of Pacific golden-plovers, and further out were scattered Far Eastern curlews.  These large shorebirds sport extremely long decurved bills that they use to reach deep into the mud to find food.  Even from this distance the birds were incredible to watch as they poked their long bills all the way to the hilt into the mud.  Still further out, almost to the edge of the water, were hundreds of white birds.  Straining through the distance and rising heat haze, I was able to make out enough detail through my scope to identify them as common shelducks.  These ducks resemble common mergansers in color and shape, but are slightly larger and bulkier, and stand on tall legs like small geese.  Mixed in with the common shelducks were a handful of ruddy shelducks, distinguishable by their bright orange plumage.

After a long, arduous walk, I had found the shorebirds I was looking for.  Unfortunately the mud was too deep for me to walk out onto the mudflats, at least not without knee boots.  But the birds were there, and closing the day with eleven lifers made the sore feet and tired legs worth it.  I hopped on the #67 back to the bus terminal (I wasn’t about to walk the whole way back, now was I), and took the opportunity on the ride back to Gwangju to catch some much needed R&R.

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