Birding in the Clouds

The city of Bursa lies within a wide river valley, guarded to the north and south by mountains.  The city itself is nestled against the imposing Uludağ (oo-loo-dah), a goliath of rock towering 2,543m above the city.  In the summer, the mountain is a popular camping and trekking destination; in the winter it is a skier’s paradise, with numerous ski resorts and slopes to master.

Mt. Uludağ high above the city of Bursa

Uludağ is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, and is one of the best birding sites in Bursa.  The slopes of the mountain are covered with dense mixed deciduous/coniferous forests, giving way to entirely coniferous as the elevation increases.  As one nears the highest peak, Kartaltepe, the forests recede and boulder-strewn meadows mark the start of the alpine zone.  Only the hardiest lifeforms eke out a living up here.

One of the best ways to enjoy Uludağ is to take the Teleferik, an aerial tramway that runs 8.8km from the Teferrüç station in Bursa to the Bölge Oteller station at the base of the Kartaltepe peak. The Teleferik is the second longest aerial tramway in the world currently operating, second only to the Norsjö tramway in Sweden.  More information on logistics and getting to/from Uludağ at the end of the post.

Teferrüç Station at the base of Uludağ

Hop aboard!

The ride from between the two end stations will take approximate 22 minutes, but it is by far the most scenic way to experience Uludağ.  There is a stop about halfway at Sarıalan, where campgrounds, equipment rentals, and restaurants can be found.  Be sure to hold on to your ticket stub; you won’t be able to re-board the Teleferik without one!

Going up…

Nearing the top of the mountain, Bursa lays stretched out below you

I wanted to get out one last time to Uludağ before winter sets in.  The weather has taken on a chill, and although the sun is still warm, temperatures struggle to make it above 10°C.  While this is nothing compared to the winters in Canada where I first got into birding, for the local Turks this is considered quite “cold.”  Many of the migrants are gone now, and only the hardy overwintering and resident birds still hang on at Uludağ.

I took a chance this past Sunday, hoping that the promised clearing skies would yield some good birds on the mountain.  I wanted to track down the resident dunnocks that live around the Bölge Oteller station at the base of the Kartaltepe peak.  I got off at the Sarıalan station at the halfway point; currently the Teleferik only runs from Teferrüç to Sarıalan, but dolmuşes (minibuses) are available to ferry passengers to Bölge Oteller for 3₺ ($1 USD).

The first thing I noticed when getting off the Teleferik was how quiet it was.  There was a crisp wind coming from the east, and other than several bundled up Turks and a few vehicles, there was little activity.  I decided to hike around the area first, using the daylight to my advantage and heading into the forests.  My first birds were the sporadic flights of winter finches, mainly Eurasian siskin, that feed on the abundant cone seeds that cover the tops of the trees.  There were also the occasional European serin and red crossbill, though these were the exceptions – siskins were to be the Finch of the Day!

Eurasian Siskin (Spinus spinus)

Further into the forest led to scattered foraging flocks of coal tit.  Preferring coniferous forests, these small birds are common throughout the year at Uludağ, and can often be the most common bird seen (or heard) in the forests.  Watching the coal tits, a few great tits and goldcrest were also spotted.  I was hoping to stumble onto a common firecrest, a close relative to the goldcrest, but once again this tiny bird proved to be elusive.  Perhaps next time…

Coal Tit (Periparus ater derjugini)

One of the big draws to Uludağ for me is the abundance of a Turkish specialty.  Although Turkey doesn’t have any truly endemic bird species, the majority of the world’s population of one particular bird can only be found within it’s borders: the Krüper’s nuthatch.  With very small populations in Greece and Georgia, the bulk of all Krüper’s nuthatches live within Turkey.  Though small, these nuthatches can be found fairly easily around Uludağ, and can be quite vocal throughout the year.

Krüper’s Nuthatch (Sitta krueper)

As it was getting on in the day, I decided to hop on a dolmuş and head up to Bölge Oteller to look for the dunnock I had come all this way to find.  Bölge Oteller is the ski resort area on Uludağ; it is just below the treeline and the start of the ski slopes.  The wind was much stronger up here, and there was significantly less activity than in Sarıalan.  Despite going through some nice looking habitat, the only things I found were more of the same: Eurasian siskins, coal tits, and Krüper’s nuthatches.

Although the habitat looks good, it was just too windy for the dunnock

Eurasian siskins could be found along the roadways, eating the cone seeds that fell from the strong winds

A Krüper’s nuthatch gives me a farewell portrait

Although I never did find my sought-after dunnock, it was still nice to get out of the apartment and brave the autumn air.  As winter approaches, I don’t know if I’ll get up to Uludağ again before the snows start to fall and the skiers descend in droves.

GETTING THERE

The Teferrüç station, start of the Teleferik tramway, can be reached by public transportation by taking the dolmuş marked “Teleferik” from the Yüksek İhtisas Metro station.  The dolmuş will cost about 2.25₺ ($0.75 USD).  A round-trip ticket for the Teleferik costs 35₺/person ($12 USD); be sure to hold on to your ticket or you will have to buy another one to get back down.

Both Sarıalan and Bölge Oteller are accessible by car.  Be advised the roads are narrow and winding; in winter it is recommended to have chains on your tires.  There are also dolmuşes available in downtown Bursa which will take you to the top of Uludağ, though I do not know where to pick these up or how much it costs.  I do know that the dolmuşes typically do not depart until they are full, so you may be waiting around for awhile during the off-season.

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Birding in Ruins

The shirt says it all…

I’ve been fortunate enough to go birding in some amazing places.  While I’m not even close to a Big Lister (though I have met the biggest Big Lister in history!), I’m always keeping my lists up to date, regardless of where I happen to find myself.  I’ve seen a lot of new and interesting birds at some of the most mundane locations imaginable: great-tailed grackle in the parking lot of the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas; Javan myna outside a subway station in Taipei; a group of nēnē, or Hawaiian geese, at a golf course on Kauai.  You simply never know where the next great sighting is going to occur!

So as my long-suffering wife will grudgingly admit, I’m birding even as we speak.

Let me set the scene: a nice 4-day weekend holiday to the Aegean Sea, courtesy of Republic Day in Turkey.  We travel to the town of Bergama, site of the ancient Acropolis of Pergamon, the remains of a settlement dating back to the early 10th Century BCE.

Pergamon sits atop a small promontory above the modern town of Bergama.  Although much of the settlement has been reduced to ruin from the effects of earthquakes and time, it’s not difficult to imagine what life might have been like when Pergamon was thriving.  During the height of its power, the city had an estimated 200,000 inhabitants.

Narrow corridors wind throughout Pergamon

The Theatre, overlooking modern day Bergama

The Theatre, overlooking modern day Bergama

It’s difficult to explain how it feels to walk through these ancient ruins, knowing they have been here so much longer than my own country ever existed.  Then my reverie is broken by a bubbling trill to the north.  Over there, behind those rocks.

Western Rock Nuthatch (Sitta neumayer syriaca)

Spotting a medium-sized nuthatch amid a plateau of strewn rocks is no easy challenge.  Luckily, the western rock nuthatch likes to sing from exposed perches on cliff walls or atop boulders on the ground.  This bird has adapted to the semi-arid environments of Turkey’s western and central provinces; a similar looking species, the eastern rock nuthatch, can be found in similar habitat in eastern Turkey, Georgia, and Syria.  If I wait around patiently, I might be able to get a decent photo of this unique bird…and so goes the sightseeing for a time.

The nuthatch comes to investigate me as it flits about looking for food

Eventually I do remember that I, in fact, have a wife, who is somewhere nearby wondering (for the millionth time) why she married one of those weird bird people in the first place.  I leave the rock nuthatch to do its thing, and I scramble over the rocks to continue doing my thing.  I come over a small rise and see…

The Trajaneum, or Sanctuary of Trajan

Well, that stops me in my tracks for a moment.  Staring at the white marble columns in the sunlight, my eyes nevertheless switch almost instantaneously to movement on the left.  And here we go again.

More nuthatches?

No, this one’s too small.  It’s very fast, flitting around, never staying put for more than a few seconds.  Darts out into the air and snatches some unseen insect.  Ah, a flycatcher.  Back in North America, flycatchers can be pretty dull and uninteresting to look at (on the average).  But in Europe and Asia, flycatchers become just as colorful and vocal as our most beautiful wood-warblers.

As I watch this female black redstart, tan brown with a bright orange splash of color under her tail, I notice a few more redstarts about.  Then a dark male bird pops up on a small rock, overlooking the area.  He’s the one I’m after, so I get the camera ready and fire away.

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros gibraltariensis)

It turns out that these redstarts are by far the most common birds in the area, and I’ll see around 25 of them before the day is through.  While there are birds around, the wind coming up the promontory is quite strong.  After nearly losing my hat twice, I begin to understand why the birds I do see are staying low, hugging the ground, or just staying put under cover.  A lone male blue rock thrush, singing quietly to himself, surveys the Theatre and the town of Bergama down below.  A northern raven glides overhead, using the steady wind to drift in the air.

And then I hear a sound over the wind.  It’s a different sound, not like anything else I’ve heard today.  And a little bit of tracking reveals three sombre tits in some scrubby shrubs near the edge of the promontory.  These are birds I was hoping to run across on this trip – they’re hard to come by around where I live in Bursa, but they’re more common along the western coast of Turkey.

Sombre Tit (Poecile lugubris anatoliae)

These three birds were all juveniles, as indicated by their brownish coloration.  Adult sombre tits resemble large Carolina chickadees, more greyish in tone.  Not to be outdone, another male black redstart came in to feed on some small flying insects, using a nearby boulder as a launch pad for his aerial strikes.

One can see how the black redstart uses his color to camouflage

Although I ended the day with a scant 9 species, due largely to the strong wind and remote habitat, it’s opportunities like this that make birding such a rewarding and accessible activity.  You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment; you don’t have to travel to exotic locations.  Places you never thought of as having wildlife of any kind can often surprise you, if you have patience and a good pair of eyes to see.

A Big Day for Charity

Everyone has something they like to do on the first day of a New Year, whether that be curling up in front of the TV and watching movies, downing piping hot coffee to combat a hangover, or just enjoying some private time to reflect on the promise of a new year.  My tradition (or at least I’d like it to be a tradition) is to start out a New Year with a Big Day.

I did it for 2014, and managed to spot 46 species throughout the day – a new personal record for January 1.  For 2015, I wanted to do things a little different.  First, I wanted to blow that record of 46 out of the water.  Second, I wanted to raise some money for Birds Korea.  So I got some sponsors and got an itinerary: I would retrace my steps in Haenam county, where I could reasonably expect to find around 60 species.

Instead I awoke to discover that it had snowed overnight, and now the roads were nearly impassible.  So I needed a new itinerary, and it needed to be accessible by public transportation.  The real challenge was in doing all that and still beating 2014’s record.  And so I decided to start 2015 in the same place I started 2014 – the Gwangjuho Lake Ecology Park.  While waiting for the bus, I heard the first bird of 2015, a brown-eared bulbul (not surprisingly).  On the way to the Eco-Park, the bus took an unexpected detour around the mountains and through the outskirts of Damyang; I gratefully spotted three more species along the way.  Maybe things wouldn’t turn out so bad after all…

A frozen silence greeted me at the entrance of the Eco-Park

A frozen silence greeted me at the entrance of the Eco-Park

…and then I reached the Eco-Park.  Undisturbed snow indicated that I was the first person to enter, and it was already after 9am.  Snow fell lazily all around me, and a silent pall held over the area.  Not a good sign – no Eurasian tree sparrows near the bus stop (they’re usually there).  No Eurasian magpies or azure-winged magpies foraging by the entrance.  It was beautiful, yet decidedly lacking in birdlife.  Had I made a huge mistake?

I continued into the Park, and thankfully it wasn’t long before I found some birds.  The naked trees held several flocks of bramblings.  Yellow-throated buntings and vinous-throated parrotbills darted in and out among the shrubs while oriental turtle-doves took off from their roosts in the trees.  As I made my way to the edge of Gwangjuho Lake, the day’s tally was starting to take shape and hope for a truly “Big” Day was renewed.

Yellow-throated Bunting (Emberiza elegans elegans)

White’s Thrush (Zoothera aurea toratugumi)
An unexpected but welcome addition to the Big Day list

Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)
These winter finches would prove to be the most abundant bird at the Eco-Park

On Gwangjuho Lake itself I found a decent selection of waterfowl, the most numerous being mallard and eastern spot-billed duck.  Smaller numbers of Eurasian teal, falcated duck, and Eurasian coot were also present.  The big surprise was a small group of mostly male Baikal teal!  It was the first time I had ever seen this species at this location before, and was by far the best bird at the Eco-Park.  The small farm pond in the western corner of the Eco-Park held its typical common pochard, tufted duck, and mandarin duck.  The western side of the park, dominated by open grass and seed-bearing trees, was a haven for rustic bunting.  Singles of Naumann’s thrush, Eurasian sparrowhawk, bull-headed shrike, and eastern buzzard were also located here.

One of three ornamental ponds at the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica rustica)

Looking over the western side of the Eco-Park as the sun breaks through
Gwangjuho Lake can be seen in the background

Having spent almost three hours at the Eco-Park, it was time to return home for a quick meal and then return to the fray.  Getting a later start and relying entirely on public transportation made the next decision a little harder.  Although the Eco-Park had been excellent, I left there with only 36 species.  I had to choose another location where I could expect to find at least ten more species.  Some quick calculations in my head and I decided the next (and possibly final) stop for the day would be the Yeongsangang River in Gwangju’s west end.  I could expect to pick up the remaining overwintering ducks, as well as some grebes (which were surprisingly absent on Gwangjuho Lake) and maybe some gulls or raptors as well.  It was a gamble, as birding the riverside can be a finicky mistress: some days are gold, other days leave you wishing you stayed in bed.

On the bus ride to the river I picked up some rock pigeons near Chonnam National University; who would ever think a pigeon would be hard to find in a city?  I arrived at the river at 2:30pm, just as the snow returned.  I quickly located a flock of grey-capped greenfinches near the public restrooms, and three Vega gulls were floating on the water.  Scanning through the ducks I found Eurasian wigeon and northern shoveler, and a few tiny little grebes and two common moorhens were also using the waterway.  Now that I had the majority of the overwintering ducks in Gwangju, I set my sights on trying to locate some buntings, which can be found (with patience) in the stretches of tall grasses along the river.

Prime bunting habitat along the Yeongsangang
In season, Stejneger’s stonechat and zitting cisticola can also be found here

I did find some buntings, but only more yellow-throated buntings and a single rustic bunting.  Not the sort I needed.  Taking a short detour along a boardwalk, I hit pay dirt!  I found a mixed species flock containing several Pallas’s reed bunting, black-faced bunting, and chestnut-eared bunting.  The black-faced bunting was an expected species, and was the one I was hoping to locate.  Although I had seen the other two species here in the past, I certainly did not expect to come onto them today.  It was a really fortunate accident, and I marked the occasion by taking some time to observe the buntings as they foraging among the grasses.

Chestnut-eared Bunting (Emberiza fucata fucata)
The most abundant bunting along the river, with over a dozen counted

Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala personata)
This is the less common subspecies; it usually shows more yellow with dark streaking on the breast

Pallas’s Reed Bunting (Emberiza pallasi polaris)

It was getting dark, but I still needed a few more common species that should be on the river.  I turned around and headed south, hoping to find some egrets and maybe a pheasant along the way.  I located another group of ducks, including more eastern spot-billed ducks and common mergansers.  Serendipity intervened and I just caught two Japanese quail as they made a short flight from one scrubby area to another.  An eastern buzzard took position overlooking the river, and bull-headed shrikes chased grey-capped greenfinches and Eurasian tree sparrows through the grasses.

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus)

I reached a man-made weir on the river, usually a good place for egrets and shorebirds.  Unfortunately I didn’t find any egrets there, but I was rewarded with two long-billed plovers hiding on a small rocky islet, and four common shelducks feeding within another group of waterfowl.  Like the Baikal teal before them, this was the first time I had seen this species at this location.  And with this last sighting, it was time to head back home.  Getting too dark to see, I was satisfied that I had given it my all.

When I got home it was time to do some number-crunching.  When all the numbers were tallied, I ended January 1, 2015, with a whopping 51 species!  That translated to 177,500₩ ($160 USD) earned for Birds Korea.  I managed to see a lot of great birds, the best being Baikal teal, chestnut-eared bunting, and common shelduck.  Noteworthy misses were red-flanked bluetail, Chinese grosbeak, little egret, and large-billed crow.

Now that January is underway, it’s time once again to take the 125 Species Challenge.  This is where I challenge myself to see 125 species during the month of January; last year I came up just shy of the goal with 123 species.  This year, with my Big Day behind me and 30 days left to go, I think I’m in a good position to meet my goal.

2015 looks like it will be a great year for birding.  I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Murmurs of Haenam

This past weekend I led an outing to Haenam County, under the auspices of the Gwangju branch of Birds Korea.  Nine people turned out for a day-long tour of the “Kimchi Capital of Korea.”  But it wasn’t the endless fields of cabbage that brought us to Haenam:  every year, the majority of the world’s population of Baikal teal come to this place to spend the winter months, forming enormous flocks that contain literally hundreds of thousands of ducks.

I took my group around Haenam county, checking out the hotspots like Gangjin Bay and Gocheonnamho Lake.  Waterfowl of all types come to the waterways in Haenam, and by the end of the day we had tallied 62 species of bird, including unexpected birds like brown-cheeked rail and merlin.  But it was the teal we had come for, and it was the teal we would find.

I knew of a spot on the expansive Geumho Lake, where I had seen nearly 90,000 Baikal teal the previous year.  As soon as we arrived, we saw a small group of Baikal teal in a canal, leading to the main body of Geumho Lake.  There were only a few hundred of them, but they were close to shore and allowed us some excellent views of these beautiful birds.

Baikal Teal (Anas formosa)

As we watched, I became aware of a low humming sound, like the sound a highway makes from a distance.  But there are no highways near this portion of Geumho Lake, so what was making that sound?  We continued on towards Geumho Lake, and reaching a small berm on the shore, we discovered the source:  the lake was covered with teal, all murmuring to one another!

The dark line, that appears to be dry land, is actually tens of thousands of Baikal teal

As we watching, stunned into silence, the dark line on the lake began to take to the air, as steam rises from a river in winter.  What appeared to be like dark smoke over the water was revealed to be thousands of teal through the binoculars.

A murmuration of Baikal teal
Only a portion of the entire flock is shown

When birds form large flocks, and take to the sky as one mass, it is called a murmuration.  Starlings in Europe are known to form large murmurations that act just like a school of fish swimming in the ocean.  Murmurations function as excellent defense against would-be predators:  when faced with literally thousands of targets all moving together, a predator is overwhelmed and usually ends the attack.

A panorama of the murmuration

The photos don’t really do it justice.  The mind reels as it tries to grasp what it sees before it.  As the sun descended and darkness began to creep over the horizon, we estimated there to be at least 200,000 Baikal teal, though it’s arguable that there were more like 300,000.  We were looking at the bulk of the world’s population of this species, all on a single body of water!

It’s moments like this that remind us all that, while we may be the dominant life form on the planet, we are but one species among millions, each as unique and spectacular as ourselves.  I challenge all of you to go out there and find something amazing…you’ll be surprised how easy it is to find, if you have the eyes to see.

Public Outing at the Yeongsangang

Birding is a passion for me, and like anything one truly cares about, one wants to share it with others.  Our lives are so busy nowadays, and there are so many distractions (*cough* smartphones), that it is all too easy to forget to stop and look around once in awhile.

Therefore I have become increasingly active in the Gwangju community here in Korea.  With the help of a good friend and birder-to-be Maria, I’ve begun a campaign to generate interest and enthusiasm for birds and conservation, and maybe even encourage a few Gwangjuites to join and support Birds Korea.

So how exactly do I generate interest?  Simple: take everyday people outside and show them the world through the eyes of a birder.  Recently I led a public outing along my favorite stretch of the Yeongsangang River on the west end of Gwangju.  The goal was to observe waterfowl which had just arrived from northern breeding grounds.  Since the climate in Gwangju is relatively mild, the Yeongsangang doesn’t freeze over and provides food and shelter for nearly a dozen species of waterfowl throughout the winter.

I was delighted to have an enthusiastic group attend; what’s more, it went beyond my expectations to have such a large group come out…we had twelve participants in total, including two visiting all the way from Seoul!  We had perfect weather, with clear skies and mild temperatures.  While the numbers of waterfowl were still fairly low at this time of year, we did have a decent variety, and I ticked off eight different species of duck before the outing even officially began!  In the end our group tallied just under 30 different species of bird, including excellent views of falcated ducks, Eurasian coots, a friendly and cooperative bull-headed shrike, and four different species of heron.  A full list of the day’s sightings is available here.

Here are few images from the day’s outing.  Thanks to everyone who attended!

The pagoda near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge made the perfect meeting place

Decorative carvings near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge

I answer questions as the outing gets underway

Scanning the river for waterfowl

Igidae’s Kites

I don’t get out that way very often, but Busan has a selection of great birding sites.  Many have specific species that simply can’t be found in Gwangju.  And the simple fact of being on the Sea of Japan makes the scenery that much more spectacular.  Melanie and I took a weekend trip to Busan in mid-November with the sole purpose of spotting a Pacific reef heron for my year list.

Busan skyline, as seen from Igidae Park

To find this bird, the best place I knew of was Igidae Park.  I’ve written about it before, as it is one of the best birding sites in Busan.  Since we were looking for a heron, we opted to follow the trail that hugs the rugged coastline; for hikers on a day trip, I’d recommend going into the forest interior and exploring the trails there.

Igidae’s eastern coastline

Well, we’re certainly not going to go left…

To make a long story short, the reef heron eluded us, despite an exhaustive search.  But we did have luck with some of Igidae Park’s other resident species.  Numerous gulls were out on the water, namely black-headed and black-tailed gulls, and several blue rock thrushes put in appearances along the rocky coast.  And it wouldn’t be complete without finding a few large-billed crows willing to pose for the camera.

It’s fun spotting female Blue Rock Thrushes (Monticola solitarius philippensis)
blending in seamlessly with the rocks

Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos mandschuricus)

Although there were no reef-herons at Igidae, we were generously compensated by observing two of Igidae’s majestic birds of prey:  the black kite.  I ticked my first black kite at Igidae Park in May 2013, and on every subsequent trip I’ve managed to spot at least one.  But every time the weather was against me, and most black kite sightings I’ve made were during overcast or rainy days.

“Black-eared” Black Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus)

As you can see, weather was no problem today.  The first kite spent several minutes flying low over the coastline, riding the thermals coming off the surf.  Eventually the kite swooped down to the surface of the water, snagging a fish much to the chagrin of fishermen nearby.  But never before had I been able to watch a raptor hunting from such close proximity:  as the kite took off to the safety of the trees to eat it’s meal, it passed nearly within arm’s reach of Melanie and I as we stared dumbfounded by the edge of the rocks.  Shortly afterwards a second kite appeared, and the two spent time circling eat other in the sky before disappearing over the mountains to the other side of Igidae.  This was Melanie’s life bird experience with black kite, and what a memorable one it was!

Flying below eye-level, this black kite is a juvenile bird, as evidenced by
the white wash on the secondary coverts.
Nearly all black kites in Korea are juveniles; adults are rarely observed.

Zeroing in on lunch…

Success!  The black kite heads off to eat its catch