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)

Look Me Up When You’re in Haenam

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.

Destination: HaenamOur coverage area is marked in red

Destination: Haenam
Our coverage area is marked in red

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.

It is immediately obvious that we had entered the Land of Kimchi

It is immediately obvious that we had entered the Land of Kimchi

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.

This seemingly barren vista provided our group with some of the best raptor birding of the day.

This seemingly barren vista provided our group with some of the best raptor birding of the day.

How to Identify a Birder (by sight): 1.  Oddly dressed, with binoculars fused to face 2.  Oddly dressed, hunched over a camera

How to Identify a Birder (by sight):
1. Oddly dressed, with binoculars fused to face
2. Oddly dressed, hunched over a camera

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.

Upland Buzzard (Buteo hemilasius)

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.

Our trusty ride for the day - comfortably seats 9

Our trusty ride for the day – comfortably seats 9

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.

Our posse checks through a horde of geese, looking for anything out of the ordinary...

Our posse checks through a horde of geese, looking for anything out of the ordinary…

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

Female Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis brunneiceps)

Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus cristatus)

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis poggei)

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.

“Black-backed” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

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.

Melanie dons the latest fashion in birding apparel.

Melanie dons the latest fashion in birding apparel.

Scanning the water...

Scanning the water…

The view from the berm, looking at the opposite shore and what appears to be a sandbar

The view from the berm, looking at the opposite shore and what appears to be a sandbar

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.

A look through the scope reveals tens of thousands of Baikal teal (Anas formosa)
Click the image to see a video of this amazing flock take to the air at dusk.

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.

The Victorious Birders From left: Pedro Kim, Peter Hirst, Ha Jung-Moon, Patrick Blake, Melanie Proteau Blake, Maria Lisak, Bob Harding, Lee Ju-Hyung (front right)

The Victorious Birders
From left: Pedro Kim, Peter Hirst, Ha Jung-Moon, Patrick Blake, Melanie Proteau Blake, Maria Lisak, Bob Harding, Lee Ju-Hyung (front right)