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.

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.

Drawing to a Close

In only a few short days, 2013 will come to an end and a New Year will begin.  I spent the second to last week of the year in a fog, fighting a nagging cold that wouldn’t quit.  I spent Christmas Day on Skype, talking with family on the other side of the world.  Sometimes it’s surreal how the time difference between the east coast of North America and South Korea can seem like time travel – it’s Christmas morning for us while I talk to my parents and nephews who are preparing for bedtime on Christmas Eve…how can it be today and yesterday at the same time?

I managed to recover from my cold enough to spend part of the last weekend of 2013 at the Gakhwa reservoir.  It seems fitting, since this was the first place I went to when we arrived in Gwangju all those months ago; where else would I spend the last days of the year?

Gakhwa Reservoir, just starting to freeze over.

Gakhwa Reservoir, just starting to freeze over.

It had snowed overnight on Saturday, and was still snowing a bit Sunday morning.  Snow is ephemeral here; it arrives and disappears within the same day, so one must take advantage of it while it lasts.  In the mountains surrounding the reservoir, the snow was still coming down in light flakes.  It was beautiful to see the mountains under a fresh layer of snow.

CAM00686

CAM00687

In addition to the regular residents like Japanese tit, pygmy woodpecker, Daurian redstart, and brown-eared bulbul, I came across several winter visitors like four red-flanked bluetails, a common buzzard soaring high over the valleys, and two goldcrests (Lifer #609).  The goldcrests resemble golden-crowned kinglets, and were found in a large mixed-species foraging flock along one of the mountain trails.  Check out the complete species list.

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Sinosuthora webbiana fulvicauda)

Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanura)

The few hours I spent at the reservoir produced some great birds.  Despite having traveled over the trails around these mountains for nearly a year now, I am still surprised with new species that I had never seen here before.  It is truly one of the wonders and thrills of birding to continually see old favorite sites with new eyes.

Snippets of Winter

Winter is a time when things begin to slow down.  The days are very short; I often leave for work and the sun is barely above the horizon; I return home only to discover the sun hovering just over the other horizon…an entire day passes in just a few hours.

With daylight at a premium, even an hour spent outside can reveal a great deal of activity, as the animals hardy enough to survive winter manically scramble to find food while the light prevails.  There is good birding to be had in winter, and activity can occur at any time of day.

I recently spent a few hours at the Gakhwa reservoir, a small body of water a short walk from my apartment in Duam-dong.  The reservoir is a gateway to a mountain chain running the length of the eastern side of Gwangju.  Numerous trails crisscross the mountains, and I have “adopted” this area as my “local patch,” where I do most of my birding in the city.

The Gakhwa Reservoir in Gakhwa-dong

The Gakhwa Reservoir in Gakhwa-dong

The mountains are mostly devoid of plants now, the trees losing their leaves and the ground vegetation drying up and disappearing.  Grasses and other seed-producing plants provide the bulk of food for birds now, and many of the resident species spend all of the daylight hours searching for food amidst the thickets.  Stumble onto a foraging flock, and you can easily spot multiple species all feeding together.

The species present were the typical residents I find here year-round, including Japanese tits, marsh tits, coal tits, long-tailed tit, and brown-eared bulbul.  Some highlights included a stunning male Daurian redstart, a grey wagtail, eleven little grebes on the reservoir itself (a new high count for that species at this location), and an unexpected common kingfisher patrolling the northern shore of the reservoir.  I always thought this site would make a good location for kingfishers, but this is the first one I’ve found after all the time I’ve spent birding here.  The full eBird list is available here.

It was a pleasant (and surprisingly warm) afternoon, and it gave me some time to photograph the common species that birders often take for granted because they are so common.  I’ve posted some of my favorite shots below.

Japanese Tit (Parus minor minor)

Marsh Tit (Poecile palustris hellmayri)

A male Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus auroreus)

Taiwan Tally Sheet

Here is a complete list of all the birds seen throughout our trip to Taiwan.  Where available, I have included a link to photos of each species.  There are 89 species listed.  Taiwan endemic species are listed in CYAN.

SPECIES                  LATIN BINOMIAL                  
   
Waterfowl – Anatidae  
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha
   
Grouse – Phasianidae  
Taiwan Partridge Arborophila crudigularis
Chinese Bamboo-partridge Bambusicola thoracicus
Swinhoe’s Pheasant Lophura swinhoii
   
Herons & Bitterns – Ardeidae  
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Great Egret Ardea alba
Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Chinese Pond-heron Ardeola bacchus
Black-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Malayan Night-heron Gorsachius melanolophus
   
Ibises – Threskiornithidae  
Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus
   
Hawks – Accipitridae  
Crested Serpent-eagle Spilornis cheela
Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus
Besra Accipiter virgatus
   
Rails – Rallidae  
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus
Eurasian Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
   
Stilts – Recurvirostridae  
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
   
Plovers – Charadriidae  
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Greater Sand-plover Charadrius leschenaultii
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
   
Sandpipers – Scolopacidae  
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Common Redshank Tringa totanus
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus
   
Doves – Columbidae  
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Oriental Turtle-dove Streptopelia orientalis
Red Collared-dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis
White-bellied Pigeon Treron sieboldii
   
Cuckoos – Cuculidae  
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
   
Typical Owls – Strigidae  
Mountain Scops-owl Otus spilocephalus
   
Swifts – Apodidae  
Silver-backed Needletail Hirundapus cochinchinensis
   
Kingfishers – Alcedinidae  
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
   
Asian Barbets – Megalaimidae  
Taiwan Barbet Megalaima nuchalis
   
Drongos – Dicruridae  
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
Bronzed Drongo Dicrurus aeneus
   
Monarch-flycatchers – Monarchidae  
Black-naped Monarch Hypothymis azurea
   
Crows & Jays – Corvidae  
Grey Treepie Dendrocitta formosae
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Eurasian Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
   
Swallows – Hirundinidae  
Grey-throated Martin Riparia chinensis
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Pacific Swallow Hirundo tahitica
Asian House-martin Delichon dasypus
   
Tits – Paridae  
Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus
   
Long-tailed Tits – Aegithalidae  
Black-throated Tit Aegithalos concinnus
   
Bulbuls – Pycnonotidae  
Collared Finchbill Spizixos semitorques
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus
   
Cupwings – Pnoepygidae  
Taiwan Cupwing Pnoepyga formosana
   
Cisticolas – Cisticolidae  
Striated Prinia Prinia crinigera
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
   
Parrotbills – Paradoxornithidae  
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana
   
White-eyes – Zosteropidae  
Taiwan Yuhina Yuhina brunneiceps
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus
   
Babblers – Timaliidae  
Rufous-capped Babbler Cyanoderma ruficeps
Taiwan Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus musicus
Black-necklaced Scimitar-babbler Megapomatorhinus erythrocnemis
   
Ground-babblers – Pellorneidae  
Grey-cheeked Fulvetta Alcippe morrisonia
   
Laughingthrushes – Leiothrichidae  
White-whiskered Laughingthrush Trochalopteron morrisonianum
White-eared Sibia Heterophasia auricularis
Steere’s Liocichla Liocichla steerii
   
Old World Flycatchers – Muscicapidae  
Oriental Magpie-robin Copsychus saularis
Vivid Niltava Niltava vivida
Taiwan Whistling-thrush Myophonus insularis
White-tailed Robin Cinclidium leucurum
Collared Bush-robin Tarsiger johnstoniae
Plumbeous Redstart Phoenicurus fuliginosus
   
Starlings – Sturnidae  
Asian Glossy Starling Aplonis panayensis
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus
Javan Myna Acridotheres javanicus
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Black-collared Starling Gracupica nigricollis
   
Finches – Fringillidae  
Brown Bullfinch Pyrrhula nipalensis
Grey-headed Bullfinch Pyrrhula erythaca
Vinaceous Rosefinch Carpodacus vinaceus
   
Old World Sparrows – Passeridae  
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
   
Estrildid-finches – Estrildidae  
Indian Silverbill Euodice malabarica
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata
Nutmeg Mannikin Lonchura punctulata