Look Me Up When You’re in Haenam

I’d rather be birding.

This is the refrain that kept going through my head over and over and over (and over) again throughout the week.  If I had a car, I’d have a bumper sticker that says this.  Maybe I should get it tattooed across the back of my head.  I’d rather be birding.

I’d really rather be birding.

The lister is never satisfied.  It doesn’t matter how many birds you’ve seen; all that really matters to a lister is all the birds you haven’t seen.  That includes birds that you have no chance at seeing, whether it’s due to distance, geography, or extinction.  The refrain began around the time I learned of a Ross’s gull that had appeared (and seems to be staying) at a water treatment facility outside of Chambly, Québec.  For those of you who don’t recognize that particular bird, a Ross’s gull is the bird every birder wants on their list.  It lives and breeds in the high Arctic, and uncharacteristically migrates still further north in the winter.  It rarely appears further south of the Arctic Circle, so unless you plan on going to such exciting destinations as Churchill, Alberta, or Barrow, Alaska, you’re not likely to see one of these gorgeous birds.  And now one just happened to appear at a location no more than a 30 minute drive from my in-law’s house in Montréal.  So what am I doing on the other side of the planet?

So when the weekend came, I decided to stop repeating the phrase in my head and start living it again.  And what better way than to join forces (so to speak) with Birds Korea and Lonely Korea’s very own Pedro Kim?  Have scope, will travel.

Destination: HaenamOur coverage area is marked in red

Destination: Haenam
Our coverage area is marked in red

Our group met early at 7:30am outside of the U+ Square bus terminal.  There were nine of us, several hardened birders, and a few “fledglings” just taking their first step into the birding world.  We huddled into Pedro’s van and left the bustling streets of Gwangju for the quiet cabbage fields of Haenam-gun.  Get a bunch of birders together for an outing, and within a few minutes we’re all life-long friends.  It’s something I’ve noticed after several years of birding, and I don’t see that often with other activities (although I’m sure it happens).  The hour and a half drive passed by quickly, as we traded stories, sightings, and jokes.

As we approached our destination, we passed a wide expanse of industrial reclamation, and Jason yelled out “shorebirds.”  We pulled over, and in seconds the scopes were up and the birding had begun.  Our first stop produced dunlin, red-necked stints, grey herons, and great egrets.  Our novice companions, not quite sure just what they had gotten themselves into, quickly learned that the name of the game in winter birding is flexibility.  We go where the birds are; if they’re not where they’re supposed to be (or where we think they should be), then we drive around until we find them.  But didn’t someone say it’s not the destination, but the journey?

We filed back into the van and continued on our way, but not without pulling off to the side of the road a few minutes later to scan an open waterway for waterfowl.  We spotted mallards, eastern spot-billed ducks, northern pintails, common goldeneye, greater scaup, and great crested grebes.  There were numerous geese flying overhead, but due to the angle of the sun, we were only able to identify them as “bean-geese.”  We couldn’t identify them to the species level, which in layman’s terms means they’re uncountable (and therefore unlistable).

Back in the van, and back on the road.  We were starting to get efficient at this.  As we traveled further into Haenam county, the ever-present rice paddies gave way to fields of cabbage.  We had entered kimchi (김치) country.  Kimchi is the quintessential Korean cuisine; it’s a spicy fermented cabbage, which is far more delicious than it sounds.  I had never heard of it before coming here, but now it’s practically a food group for me.

It is immediately obvious that we had entered the Land of Kimchi

It is immediately obvious that we had entered the Land of Kimchi

We stopped (for real this time) at the end of a small country road, overlooking a vast expanse of scrubland.  We were immediately greeted by great looks at Daurian redstarts and a bull-headed shrike.  Brown-eared bulbuls and oriental turtle-doves were also present.  We set up our scopes and proceeded to scan the area, hoping to spot something interesting over the land before us.  It wasn’t long before we found something: northern harrier!  This stunning raptor glided over the field in the distance; it was only visible through the spotting scopes.  While watching this bird we also noticed a Eurasian sparrowhawk soaring over the area, and its presence sent a flock of sky larks into the air.

This seemingly barren vista provided our group with some of the best raptor birding of the day.

This seemingly barren vista provided our group with some of the best raptor birding of the day.

How to Identify a Birder (by sight): 1.  Oddly dressed, with binoculars fused to face 2.  Oddly dressed, hunched over a camera

How to Identify a Birder (by sight):
1. Oddly dressed, with binoculars fused to face
2. Oddly dressed, hunched over a camera

A few of us took a quick walk through the area, just to see what else was hiding in the vast expanse.  For our efforts we were rewarded with views of an upland buzzard and several ring-necked pheasants.

Upland Buzzard (Buteo hemilasius)

A flock of passing geese revealed two species flying together: greater white-fronted geese in with still-unidentified “bean-geese.”  The Bean-goose, now split into two separate species, is a difficult species to identify without careful observation.  The only real diagnostic marker is bill size and shape, which is very difficult to discern on a moving target several hundred meters away.

Our trusty ride for the day - comfortably seats 9

Our trusty ride for the day – comfortably seats 9

Once more we piled into the van and took off to the next destination.  On the way we passed a few more bull-headed shrikes and a Eurasian kestrel.  For the rest of our trip, our locations were not addresses so much as GPS coordinates – some of the locations were that remote.  We scouted the edge of one of the waterways in Haenam county, hoping for some large congregations of waterfowl.  We had been seeing flocks of geese for most of the day, so it was time to find out where they were going.  Our location was perfect: we had stumbled onto several hundred tundra bean-geese, with an equal number of greater white-fronted geese mixed in.  Now that we had the time to examine them properly, the uncountable “bean-geese” took on a countable species title.  Other waterfowl present included common pochard, tufted duck, gadwall, and common merganser.  An impressive number of great crested grebes and little grebes dove and swam in with the ducks and geese.  We also found some interesting passerines, including Siberian stonechat, zitting cisticola, Chinese penduline-tit, and Pallas’s bunting.  Several Caspian gulls flew lazy circles overhead, and in the fields surrounding the water we spotted singles of common buzzard, peregrine falcon, and Eurasian hobby.

Our posse checks through a horde of geese, looking for anything out of the ordinary...

Our posse checks through a horde of geese, looking for anything out of the ordinary…

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

Female Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis brunneiceps)

Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus cristatus)

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis poggei)

We had a break from the birding (not really), and enjoyed warm ramyeon on Pedro’s propane camping stove.  The nice thing about being in such a remote area is that you don’t need to worry about traffic.  We parked the van just off to the side of the road, opened her up, and made our “camp” right at an intersection.  Not a single car passed the whole time.  We were set up like kings, sitting in a circle around the stove on folding chairs, courtesy of Pedro.

It was getting on in the day, and as the sun began to settle low in the sky, we packed up and headed on to the last destination of the day.  On the way we made a brief stop near one of the bridges traversing the waterways in Haenam, adding mew gull, common kingfisher and white wagtail to our day total.

“Black-backed” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

The Birding Gods were saving the best for last.  We arrived at our last destination, spotting another northern harrier gliding over the reeds on the edge of the water.  Our view was obscured by a small berm, but rising to the top of it we could see out over a large estuary.

Melanie dons the latest fashion in birding apparel.

Melanie dons the latest fashion in birding apparel.

Scanning the water...

Scanning the water…

The view from the berm, looking at the opposite shore and what appears to be a sandbar

The view from the berm, looking at the opposite shore and what appears to be a sandbar

Out in the middle of the water, many hundreds of meters from shore, was a dark line that appeared to be a sandbar rising out of the water.  A look through the spotting scope revealed its true nature: the sandbar was actually an enormous flock of Baikal teal!  We estimated the flock to be at least 90,000 strong.  Baikal teal overwinter in the Yellow Sea, picking various spots along the eastern coast of China and the western coast of Korea.  The majority of the world’s population of this beautiful duck can be found within this small area in the winter, creating massive flocks like the one we had just found.

A look through the scope reveals tens of thousands of Baikal teal (Anas formosa)
Click the image to see a video of this amazing flock take to the air at dusk.

Other ducks were present, but no where near the concentration of the Baikal teal.  Eastern spot-billed ducks, common goldeneye, common merganser, and a lone female smew made up the other waterfowl species present.  Close examination of the Baikal teal flock also revealed three eared grebes hiding within.

Just as the sun was setting, the flock of Baikal teal took to the sky.  Even from that distance, the sound of 90,000 pairs of wings all flapping at once was audible, and the flock resembled a large cloud rising from the water.  It was truly an amazing experience, and one I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.  We watched the Baikal teals for as long as the light held out, but eventually it was time to return to Gwangju.  In the end we had observed nearly 60 species over the course of the day, which isn’t a bad haul for mid-November.

The Victorious Birders From left: Pedro Kim, Peter Hirst, Ha Jung-Moon, Patrick Blake, Melanie Proteau Blake, Maria Lisak, Bob Harding, Lee Ju-Hyung (front right)

The Victorious Birders
From left: Pedro Kim, Peter Hirst, Ha Jung-Moon, Patrick Blake, Melanie Proteau Blake, Maria Lisak, Bob Harding, Lee Ju-Hyung (front right)

Advertisements

Changing of the Seasons

It was time again to visit Gwangjuho Lake.  The leaves have finally begun to change color, and the transition from autumn into winter is happening really fast.  I woke up just before sunrise to discover the temperature had fallen to nearly 0­­ºC, which isn’t particularly cold except when just a week earlier it was around 13ºC at night.  And here I was wondering when autumn actually arrives in Korea.

I’ve been expecting waterfowl to arrive any day now, so I thought I would spend Saturday morning at the largest body of water (other than the Yeongsan River) that I knew of in Gwangju.  I had hoped to catch an early bus for Chunghyo-dong, but I ended up missing it by a few minutes, so I arrived around 8am.  However, the sun rises much later at this time of year, and Gwangjuho Lake is surrounded by mountains, so my timing was spot on.  The sun had just cleared the mountains and quickly melted the thin layer of frost that covered everything.  Only those places hidden in shadow maintained a frosty covering.

Sunrise at Gwangjuho Lake.

Sunrise at Gwangjuho Lake.

The birds were active at this early hour, but the low temperatures made them a little sluggish.  A female bull-headed shrike, my first observation upon arriving, scanned the area.  She seemed like she was waiting for her morning cup of coffee, and she allowed me to approach closely to her high perch without so much as a nod in my direction.  Below, her attention was focused on a large flock of at least fifty vinous-throated parrotbills, moving in waves through dried vegetation surrounding a small pond.  Not that long ago I was photographing dragonflies at this location, and now everything was wilted and dried.  The difference a few months can make…

Female Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Sinosuthora webbiana fulvicauda)

Further along in the more wooded section, I found a gathering of woodpeckers: pygmy woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, and grey-faced woodpecker, were all foraging together.  I tried desperately to get a shot of the great spotted woodpecker, but he proved to be camera-shy.  I “settled” instead for a beautiful portrait of the female grey-headed woodpecker.

Female Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus jessoensis)

I approached the shore of Gwangjuho Lake to find that the water level had been drawn down since my last visit here.  The shore was exposed for about ten meters, and dozens of white wagtails foraged and flitted about on the mud.  Scanning through the flock, which contained mostly juvenile first-year birds, I found several adult birds comprising three different subspecies.  It was my first opportunity to photograph the “Chinese” subspecies leucopsis, and it was a lot of fun picking through the birds and identifying the different subspecies.  My scanning also revealed a single Japanese wagtail in with the group.  A single grey wagtail was also present, and I ended up flushing two separate groups of American pipits of the japonicus subspecies while walking the rocky shoreline.  Out on the water there were smatterings of Eurasian teal and mallards, a small group of tufted ducks, a single common goldeneye, and five little grebes.  I left just as a Eurasian sparrowhawk flew overhead, sending all the smaller passerines into the air.

“Chinese” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis)

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis poggei)

The last place I wanted to check was the rock garden on the western side of the Eco-Park.  There are several pagodas which are perfect of an afternoon picnic.  This portion of the Eco-Park is a little more “planned” than the eastern side and along the edge of the lake, so I usually don’t go to the western side.  But the lighting was perfect and the birds cooperative, so I thought I might as well check it out before the place became too crowded.

Overlooking the western side of Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park.

Overlooking the western side of Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park.

I found several Eurasian magpies searching for food on the lawns, and two large-billed crows, the first of this species I’ve seen at this location, were calling continuously from just beyond the Eco-Park boundary.  Hidden in the tall grasses along the edge of the maintained rock garden, dozens of yellow-throated buntings chipped from hidden places.  These small sparrows, though brightly colored, have an incredible knack of remaining unseen in thick vegetation.  A little patience led to getting better looks at them as they ventured to the tops of the low shrubs to forage.  A male bull-headed shrike patrolled the area, but he was uninterested in the buntings, who were equally uninterested in him.  Among all the yellow-throated buntings I found two rustic buntings, newly arrived from their northern breeding grounds.  Though lacking the brighter colors of their breeding plumage, these birds were still handsomely dressed.

Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica sericea)
These birds, though exceedingly common, are nevertheless quite eye-catching.

Yellow-throated Bunting (Emberiza elegans elegans)

Although the Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park is one of the harder birding sites to get to in Gwangju, especially without a car, it’s also one of the best.  Any time of year can produce surprising and unexpected species, and the tranquil lakeside reminds me of some of my favorite sites from Ontario.

See a full eBird listing of all the species seen throughout the day here.

Seoul Searching

Okay, not the most original title ever conceived.  But we were in Seoul, and we were searching, so the title fits.

Despite living in South Korea for nearly nine months now, Melanie and I had only been to Seoul a total of four times between the two of us.  And most of those trips were to the Incheon Airport to either go somewhere else or pick someone up.  So we decided to pick a weekend and just go.  I had made some arrangements with a friend, Birds Korea member, and fellow eBirder, Bradlee Sulentic.  Another Birds Korea member, Jason Loghry, would meet up with us.  We would spend one day at the Korea National Arboretum (국립수목원-구, 광릉수목원), and the second day would be put aside to do the more touristy things that I often neglect on my obsession-driven “holidays.”

The plan was to meet up at around 6:30am, then head over to the Arboretum and spend the day.  So of course Melanie and I missed our transfer on the subway, ended up heading northward out of the city, then finally realized our mistake and took another train heading back the way we had come.  We arrived at the pick-up at around 7am, only to discover that Seoul traffic had held up our companions, so we actually didn’t arrive at the Arboretum until almost 9am.  Which was perfect, actually, since the gates just opened moments earlier, so we had the place relatively to ourselves.

A quiet side trail at the Korea National Arboretum.  The weather's not looking too good right now...

A quiet side trail at the Korea National Arboretum.
The weather’s not looking too good right now…

That’s right around the time the rain started.  A little sprinkle at first.  Then some misting.  More sprinkles.  Then just rain.

Three hours into the birding, and we had seen only a handful of species.  Top on the list was a flock of nearly twenty hawfinches, but mostly just a lot of noisy brown-eared bulbuls and a few large-billed crows.  As Melanie was deciding to head back to the car and dry off for a bit, we got a call from Jason that he had located a Eurasian eagle-owl perched in a tree!  So off we ran into the woods to find him.  A more miserable and pathetic looking owl I have never seen.

A very wet and miserable Eurasian Eagle-owl (Bubo bubo kiautschensis)

It was at this point that we took our cue from the eagle-owl and headed to warmer and drier locales.  The Arboretum has a nice coffee shop, where you can pick up a latte and some snacks while overlooking a tranquil lake.  Despite the rain, the changing colors of the leaves gave the whole place a lovely atmosphere, and a hot caramel macchiato doesn’t hurt either.

We are not impressed with the rain.

We are not impressed with the rain.
Myself with fellow eBirder Bradlee Sulentic

Coffee shop overlooking Lake Yukrim

Coffee shop overlooking Lake Yukrim

Eventually, and by eventually I mean nearly 5 hours later, the rain stopped.  It never got sunny, but at least it wasn’t a torrential downpour anymore.  The birds seemed to like the change in weather too, because the activity really picked up in the afternoon.  While Melanie decided she had had enough of the cold, and happily read her book in the café, the three intrepid birders returned to the forest and continued the search.

Bradlee and I went to follow up on a sighting Jason had made earlier.  In a large mixed-species flock of birds, we found nearly a half dozen yellow-bellied tits feeding with Japanese tits and coal tits.  This species has been expanding its range; it was considered an endemic species to eastern China not a decade ago.  Now it’s starting to move into the Korean peninsula and northward into Mongolia and Russia.  This was easily the highlight of the trip for everyone.

Walking back towards the entrance to the Arboretum, Bradlee and I stumbled onto a Eurasian treecreeper, which was a bird I had more or less given up on finding in Korea.  It looks extremely similar to the brown creeper of North America, and it represents only the second member of family Certhiidae to grace my Life List.  Further down the trail we found a grey-capped woodpecker, another difficult bird to find in Korea.

Before calling it a day, we scoured the edge of a stream running along the border of the Arboretum.  Bradlee swore this was a perfect site to find solitary snipe, if not one of the best spots in the world.  We had been over the stream three times with nary a snipe to be seen.  Then Jason called in and said he had found one hidden in the grasses along the bank.  So we grabbed Melanie from her cozy roost in the café and made for the stream.  And just as Jason had promised, we spotted a solitary snipe foraging along the water’s edge…by itself, as its name implies.

This stream running along the edge of the Arboretum is reportedly one of the best places anywhere to see solitary snipe.  That is, if you are keen enough to spot this cryptic bird amid all the rocks and grasses.

This stream running along the edge of the Arboretum is reportedly one of the best places anywhere to see solitary snipe.  That is, if you are keen enough to spot this cryptic bird amid all the rocks and grasses.

Solitary Snipe (Gallinago solitaria japonica)

We ended the day on a high note.  I had tallied four lifers (yellow-bellied tit, grey-capped woodpecker, Eurasian treecreeper, and solitary snipe) and got some excellent views of some amazing birds.  Melanie counted two lifers (Eurasian eagle-owl and solitary snipe), and though she never was able to shake the chill from the rain, she did enjoy hanging out with some great people.

See the full eBird report for the day here.