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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.