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.

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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.

Whoopers

Winter is a great time to observed waterfowl, at least until freeze up.  As long as open water remains, geese, ducks, and swans can be plentiful.  So a group of us followed Birds Korea members Andreas Kim and Robin Newlin to Gangjin Bay to look for waterfowl and any other potential migrants or overwintering species.

The north portion of Gangjin Bay at low tide.The white spots in the distance are Whooper Swans.

The north portion of Gangjin Bay at low tide.
The white spots in the distance are Whooper Swans.

It was a gorgeous day, with unusually high temperatures in the mid-teens °C.  By midday we had shed several layers and were basking in the spring-like weather.  We arrived at Gangjin Bay at low tide, when all of the waterfowl and shorebirds were foraging in the exposed mud.  The whooper swan, our target bird for the day, clearly dominated the area, with several hundred covering the mudflats in all directions.  Other species included eastern spot-billed duck, mallard, Eurasian teal, gadwall, and Eurasian wigeon.

Have scope, will bird...© Pedro Kim

Have scope, will bird…
© Pedro Kim

Looking for waterfowl...

Looking for waterfowl…

Waders like grey heron, great egret, and little egret were found in small numbers; shorebirds were a rare find, and only a flock of dunlin and a few common sandpipers could be found on the mudflats.  Our group also located a Eurasian spoonbill, and shortly thereafter had the good fortune to see two of the rarer black-faced spoonbills.

Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor)

There were also a lot of passerines in the rice fields adjacent to Gangjin Bay.  The habitat was characterized by the tidal flats of the Bay, surrounded by reed beds of variable size, bordered by vast stretches of rice fields and agricultural land.  As the growing season is over and the fields tilled and sown for the coming season, a lot of sky larks were making use of this fertile land to forage and hide from predators.  Eurasian kestrels and a single Eurasian sparrowhawk patrolled the area, and it wouldn’t be a Korean bird outing without at least one bull-headed shrike.  The reeds were alive with activity, though many of the birds remained hidden in the vegetation and made themselves known only by their soft chips and tweets.  Careful and patient scanning revealed a plethora of buntings, including reed bunting, black-faced bunting, yellow-throated bunting, and a single meadow bunting (Lifer #605).  Chinese penduline-tits and vinous-throated parrotbills were also present in greater numbers.

Agricultural land surrounding Gangjin Bay

Agricultural land surrounding Gangjin Bay

By the end of the day we had tallied 53 species.  You can see the complete list(s) here, here, and here.

Below are some of my favorite photos from the day.

Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) take to the air near Hakmyeong-ri

A close up of a Whooper Swan family

Eurasian Coot (Fulica ater ater) at Gocheonnam Lake

Chinese Penduline-tit (Remiz consobrinus)

Meadow Bunting (Emberiza cioides castaneiceps); © Andreas Kim

Meadow Bunting (Emberiza cioides castaneiceps); © Andreas Kim

Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala)