The Woodpeckers

The days are ever so slowly getting longer now.  After my winter English camps at school, there were still a few hours of daylight, so I took a quick trip to the Gakhwa reservoir to look for some more birds for my January 100 Species Challenge.

There were the usual little grebes on the reservoir – eight in total this time.  I took one of the steeper trails this time, hoping to locate some white-backed woodpeckers that I know were breeding on the mountain.  As I scaled the near-vertical climb, oriental turtle-doves flushed from their roosts in the treetops, in groups of threes and fours.  I counted some thirty-odd birds before I stopped counting.  An inquisitive Daurian redstart was the only other bird along the ascent.

I reached the top and took several minutes to catch my breath…yet another subtle hint that I’m no longer in my twenties anymore.  While I waited a foraging flock of coal tits and varied tits came along the trail, feeding high in the trees and creating quite the racket.  These two species were the last of the resident tits (chickadees) that I had not seen this year in Korea.

It was around that time that I heard a soft tapping in the trees behind me.  Soon after there were several pic calls, characteristic of woodpecker contact calls.  Pic calls are difficult to diagnose in the field; unlike many other bird species, woodpeckers are difficult to identify solely on their calls.  Woodpeckers do not sing to attract mates or defend their territories; instead they drum on tree trunks and branches, so while this drumming can be used to identify a woodpecker, the contact calls are useful only in alerting you to the presence of a woodpecker, not to the particular species.

A little bit of searching revealed a male white-backed woodpecker, right where I expected to find one!  While watching him, I heard more soft tapping behind me.  Expecting to find his mate, I was surprised to discover a female great spotted woodpecker instead.  Although both of these species are resident in South Korea, I usually encounter white-backed woodpeckers more often than great spotted woodpeckers, so coming across the latter is always a special treat.

Male White-backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos)

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major japonicus)

Up until now I had not had the opportunity to photograph a great spotted woodpecker.  They are typically quite shy as compared to the other woodpecker species in Korea.  This bird, though wary, would allow me to observe from a small distance, and as long as I didn’t try to get closer, she was fine to let me take as many photos as I wanted.  While I enjoyed my photo session with the great spotted woodpecker, I inadvertently found the female white-backed woodpecker I was expecting to find.

With now three separate woodpeckers foraging around me, I wasn’t too surprised to hear the sound of a pygmy woodpecker fly overhead.  However, I was incredibly surprised to hear the call of first one, then a second, grey-faced woodpecker shortly after the pygmy had flown by.  In one small grove of trees on a mountain ridge, I had just seen the four main woodpecker species in the country!

Male Grey-faced Woodpecker (Picus canus jessoensis)

As the sun was setting, I began the trek back down the trail.  The woodpeckers had gone their separate ways, and the trails were quiet with only the sound of pale thrushes disturbing the silence.  A short way down the path, I unexpectedly flushed a scaly thrush, an infrequently seen resident species in these mountains.  Scaly thrushes are very shy, and despite their large size (almost twice the size of an American robin), they prefer to hide in dense thickets or low-lying vegetation.

Though I only had a short time, it was an enjoyable outing with a lot of surprises.  I have now found most of the resident species in this part of South Korea, so the January 100 Species Challenge will now become more interesting as I search for the winter visitors.

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The Birds of Gocheonnam Lake

Last November I went with a group to Haenam (해남) County to look for waterfowl.  This time I went with my friend Jason Loghry to follow up on a report of rare cackling geese that had been spotted in the fields surrounding Gocheonnam Lake (고천남호).  Although the cackling goose, a breeding species of North America, is not an unusual species (at least, for me), it is very unusual for South Korea, and Jason was very excited to add one to his South Korea list.

Gocheonnam Lake in Haenam County

Gocheonnam Lake in Haenam County

Haenam-gun is the main city in Haenam County, and is accessible by bus from Gwangju.  However, Gocheonnam Lake is not in the city limits, and is best accessed by car.  It may be possible to hire a taxi for the day, but unless you are pretty good in Korea, it might be hard to get there.

When we arrived, the lake was covered with a nice variety of waterfowl.  The most numerous was common shelduck and Eurasian wigeon.  Gocheonnam also hosts a lot of wintering great crested grebes and little grebes.  Other species included common merganser, red-breasted merganser, gadwall, eastern spot-billed duck, mallard, and Eurasian teal.  There were a few gulls flying lazy circles over the water, and these were identified as Vega gull and Caspian gull.  A fair number of Eurasian coots rounded off this diverse group of birds.

But there were few geese on the water, with the exception of a single sleeping greater white-fronted goose near the shore.  We left the water to search through the surrounding rice fields, where the majority of the geese in the area were foraging.

One of many rice fields surrounding Gocheonnam Lake

One of the many rice fields surrounding Gocheonnam Lake

As it turned out, the fields were literally covered in geese.  We estimated there were somewhere between 2,500 to 3,000 greater white-fronted geese in just a single cell of one rice paddy.  Mixed in with these were numerous tundra bean-geese; careful examination also revealed the occasional taiga bean-goose and the vulnerable lesser white-fronted goose.  However, all of our searching failed to reveal any cackling geese.

Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus)
The bird is in the center of this photo – note the yellow eye ring.  To the left are three more presumed lesser white-fronted geese.

There are three different species of goose in this image.
Can you spot them all?

Scanning enormous flocks of geese (or any species) takes a lot of patience and perseverance.  Often times subtle differences in plumage, bill color, size, or shape, can make all the difference in separating one species from another.  You can easily miss an unusual bird simply because it happen to have its head down, or was standing behind another bird.  The image above has three species of geese in it.  Let me help you locate them…

If only real flocks of geese had highlights to reveal different species...

If only real flocks of geese had highlights to reveal different species…

The flock is mostly made up of greater white-fronted geese; note the white forehead, from which the bird gets its name.  There are several tundra bean-geese in this shot as well; they do not have a white forehead, and the bill is a dark brownish-black with an orange tip.  These geese are approximately the same size as greater white-fronted geese.  Lastly, there is one taiga bean-goose as well.  This bird is identical in appearance to the tundra bean-geese, but is overall larger in size, has a longer neck, and a longer, more narrow bill, than the tundra bean-goose.  Until recently, taiga and tundra bean-geese were considered a single species, and unless you have the chance to see the two species standing close to one another for comparison, it is often very difficult to tell them apart.

But endless numbers of identical geese were not the only birds to be found around Gocheonnam Lake.  Winter brings many raptor species to South Korea, and we had the good fortune to see several species during the day.  The most abundant species was the aptly named common buzzard; we saw five throughout the day.  There were four bull-headed shrikes and a pair of northern harriers which included a beautiful adult male bird.  Soaring high over the area, and spending some time loafing in a field, were five cinereous vultures.  And we also had singles of Eurasian kestrel, peregrine falcon, and eastern marsh-harrier (Lifer #610!).

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo japonicus)

Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)

Eastern Marsh-harrier (Circus spilonotus)

We ended the day with just under 50 species.  With less than a week of 2014 gone, I have managed to observe 71 species.  I was planning on doing a January 100 Species Challenge, inspired by my blogger friend Les, but I think I may have to up the ante to 125 species, just to keep things interesting.

Surveying the Endangered

It is human nature to value the unusual or the rare more so than the common and the everyday.  Birders are no different.  Birders are always on the lookout of the “rare” birds; if you stumble onto a birding party, the question most often asked is some variation of Have you seen anything good?  In this case, “good” means “rare”; no one asks or cares if you’ve seen the common species.

There are “rare” birds, and then there are rare birds.  This second class encompasses birds that are rare everywhere.  In North America, a bird that ranges on the West Coast that somehow shows up on the East Coast is considered “rare” and East Coast birders will come in droves to see it.  But that doesn’t mean that particular bird is rare everywhere – the “Oregon” junco is “rare” in Ontario, but is commonplace in Nevada.

There is another word for that second class of rare bird.  The word is endangered.

This kind of rare bird is rare everywhere it occurs; there just aren’t that many of them.  The reasons a bird becomes endangered are many; most often human-related, but not always.  And because there are so few of them, having the opportunity to see an endangered species is one that you never forget.

I had just such an opportunity this past weekend, when I joined Birds Korea member Jason Loghry on a survey near the city of Naju-si.  We were surveying the population of scaly-sided merganser, a species listed as globally endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).  By the most recent estimates, there are only about 2,500 adult scaly-sided mergansers left in the world, most of which are found near where the borders of China, North Korea, and Russia, meet.

Out of concern for this species, I will not reveal where exactly we found these birds.  This species is excessively shy and wary of humans, and is easily disturbed.  Even to observe these birds, we had to be very quiet and patient, and even then sometimes the birds would take to the air and fly off to another location.  The purpose of this post is to raise awareness of this rare bird, not to create a crowd of (likely well-meaning) observers who may or may not maintain the same level of care and respect that the species deserves and requires to continue existing.

The scaly-sided merganser closely resembles the common merganser, which is far more common (as the name implies) and familiar to the average person.  Indeed, I had never even heard of scaly-sided merganser until I moved to South Korea, and even then I never expected that I would actually see one.

Two pairs of Scaly-sided Mergansers (Mergus squamatus) preen together on the water.

Males have a long, shaggy crest, which the common merganser males lack.  Females are harder to differentiate, as they closely resemble the females of common merganser.  The key distinguishing characteristic of the species is a patch of scale-like feathers on the flanks and rump of the bird; these feathers are what give the species its name.  The birds also have a small yellow tip on their bills, though this is rarely visible in the field.

This species is a wintering bird in South Korea, and selects waterways that meet very stringent criteria during the winter months.  The river cannot be too deep or too wide.  Often times they prefer gravel-bottomed riverbeds with large boulders or gravelly “shingles” where they can locate food.  Even finding this particular habitat, the onset of winter and the resulting freeze-up often means that the birds must relocate to other rivers until the return of spring.

Scaly-sided Mergansers in flight.
Note the scaled patterning on the flanks, and the fine black stripes in the white wing patch.

It was a rare privilege to find and observe these birds.  Jason and I had the good fortune to find six of them along the survey route.  We could watch them feed and preen, and interact with other species on the water.  In a comical display, a group of five scaly-sided mergansers expressed their displeasure at a nearby grey heron by repeatedly bobbing their heads in and out of the water as they approached the heron.

For more information, I encourage you to check out Birds Korea’s Key Species page.

The Big Day

A “Big Day” is birder lingo for a 24-hour period where you try to see/hear as many species as possible.  The record in North America, set by Team Sapsucker from Cornell University in 2013, is 294 species.  I’m using the term “Big Day” here, but by no means is it the same thing.  I try to start off the first day of a New Year by seeing as many birds as I possibly can throughout the day.  However, I’m usually thwarted in my attempts because of family obligations or a potential hang-over from partying too much the night before.

The first day of 2014, however, was as close to an actual “Big Day” as I’ve ever come.  I started out at the crack of dawn (7:30am) meeting my friend Peter Hirst near our apartment in Duam-dong.  Melanie opted to come with us, so the three of us set out in Peter’s car to start 2014 at the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.  On the drive there we spotted the first bird of 2014 – not surprisingly, a Eurasian magpie.  Shortly afterwards we saw an enormous flock of birds swirling in the sky.  These were small passerines, and though they made no flight calls (which was unusual), I identified them as bramblings, a visiting winter finch.  The flock easily numbered about 300 birds.  The third bird of the year was a lone white-cheeked starling sitting on a telephone wire along the road.

The 4th bird of 2014:  Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo japonicus)

The 4th bird of 2014:  Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo japonicus)

We arrived at Gwangjuho Lake, spotting a common buzzard on a tree near the lake, a couple mallards on the water, and a single little egret foraging in the shallows.  The parking lot held Eurasian tree sparrows, azure-winged magpies, and Japanese tits.

A map of the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

A map of the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

The entrance to the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

The entrance to the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

The trees near the entrance of the Eco-Park were dripping with bramblings.  Further along the walkways we found oriental turtle-doves, a grey wagtail, and brown-eared bulbuls.  The exposed shoreline of the lake revealed white wagtails of the leucopsis and lugens subspecies, as well as two long-billed plovers.  On the water were more mallards, common mergansers, and tufted ducks.

The first day of 2014 at Gwangjuho Lake

The first day of 2014 at Gwangjuho Lake

After a few hours at the Eco-Park, we had tallied nearly 30 species, including bull-headed shrike, grey-faced woodpecker, red-flanked bluetail, Daurian redstart, yellow-throated bunting, and rustic bunting.  Before heading out to our next spot, we checked along a small country road in the mountains for passerines.  It was a worthwhile stop, as we added Eurasian jay and goldcrest to our day total.

Peter knew of some good lookouts along the Yeongsan River nearby, so we headed out to the river to look for waterfowl.  The majority of ducks on the river were Eurasian teal, but we also found decent numbers of northern pintail, gadwall, eastern spot-billed duck, and whooper swan.  Other waterbirds included grey heron, great egret, little grebe, and Eurasian coot.  We also had the good fortune to spot some raptors along the river, including another common buzzard, two Eurasian kestrels, and a passing Eurasian sparrowhawk.

Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Buzzard flying over the Yeongsan River near Damyang-gun

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

After a nice lunch of mulguksu (물국수) at a small restaurant near the river, we decided to stop at one of the pagodas and watch the water for anything to float by.  There were mostly Eurasian teal on the water here, as well as a group of domestic geese that are resident along this stretch of the river.  A few passerines like long-tailed tit, brown-eared bulbul, and yellow-billed grosbeak were also spotted.  Before leaving the Yeongsan River behind, we spotted a single Eurasian moorhen among a flock of teal.  We left the Yeongsan River with a day total of 45 species.

Taking a break at the Yeongsan RiverMelanie Proteau Blake and Peter Hirst

Taking a break at the Yeongsan River
Melanie Proteau Blake and Peter Hirst

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta garzetta) roosting in a tree

Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)

The light was beginning to fade as we hurried to our last stop for the day: the Gakhwa reservoir.  I was hoping to pick up a few more passerines here, but our timing was off and we only added pale thrush at this location.  We did manage to find a good variety of birds, including the now regular little grebes on the reservoir (only 9 out of the usual 11 birds), a few more Daurian redstarts and red-flanked bluetails, and lots of vinous-throated parrotbills and yellow-throated buntings.  The fading light did not tempt any owls to start calling, though I was hoping to hear the regular oriental scops-owls that breed in the area.

Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanura)

The end of the "Big Day" 2014

The end of the “Big Day” 2014

At the end of the “Big Day” we had tallied 46 species altogether.  A far cry from Cornell’s Big Day record, but for me it was a personal high count for the first day of a New Year.  I hope this sets the pace for the rest of 2014.