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.

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)

The List Goes Ever On…

I read in To See Every Bird on Earth, the biography of the late Big Lister Richard Koeppel, that the great listers are so in tune with the sport that they can predict, with fascinating precision, the trip or location where they will see a landmark bird.  While my numbers pale in comparison to some of the great birders in the world, I may have finally developed this talent myself.  When Melanie and I were still preparing to move to South Korea, I had the delightful thought that I could reasonably expect to break the 600 mark by the end of 2013 with some effort.

Here it is the end of November, and that prediction has come true.

I took a birding trip with Jason Loghry and Mike Friel to Suncheonman Bay, hoping to nab some overwintering buntings.  We never really found the buntings (though a few individuals did make brief appearances) but we had an excellent time observing hundreds of newly arrived hooded cranes foraging in the rice fields of Anpung-dong.  And hidden among the enormous flock, careful eyes spotted three white-naped cranes.  And so, in just a few short months, my Life List catapulted from 500 to 600, with one more month of 2013 left to go.  Here’s a complete list of all the species we saw throughout the day.

Now that Melanie and I have signed on for another year with our schools in South Korea, I look forward with nervous anticipation at all the birds I will (hopefully) see in 2014.  I tempt fate by making another prediction: by the end of 2014, I should be close to or just beyond 750.

So now that the bar has been set, let the games begin!

#599:  Hooded Crane (Grus monacha)

#600:  White-naped Crane (Grus vipio)
Only seen from a distance, these large pale cranes were like water in the desert

But why stop there?
#601:  Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)

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)

Fall Birding in Suncheon

Back in April I had made my first trip to Suncheonman Bay (순천만), where I went looking for shorebirds during their spring migration.  Now nearing the end of October, I returned there in the hopes of adding some new migrants to my list.  Top on that Wish List: hooded crane.

Since moving to Korea, I’ve adapted nicely to not having a car of my own.  Public transit in this country is phenomenal, and while I’m still adjusting to coming and going on someone else’s schedule, I can’t say that I haven’t been able to explore the country on my own.  Most buses start running at 5:45am, so I made the effort to wake up early and get out of Gwangju as soon after sunrise as I could.  By 7:35 that morning, I was on my way to Suncheon-si, on a bus that contained no more than five other passengers.  I love early morning travel!

The unassuming façade of the Suncheon-si Bus Terminal.

The unassuming façade of the Suncheon-si Bus Terminal.

I was in Suncheon-si by 9am.  Instead of heading to the Suncheonman Eco-Park, as I had in the past, I decided instead to check out some new areas along the bay, namely Hwapo Beach (화포).  From there I would walk along the edge of the bay north towards Anpung-dong and the Eco-Park.  If there was time (and I wasn’t completely exhausted by that point), I would head further north of the Eco-Park, following the Dongcheon River for a kilometer or two.

Hwapo Beach is several kilometers out of Suncheon-si proper, but there are two city buses one can take to get there.  One block from the Bus Terminal is a city bus stop where you can pick up the #67 (to get to the Eco-Park).  You can also pick up the #81 or #82 here, which will take you to Hwapo.  However, I’d recommend checking the bus schedule carefully before making plans, as I waited nearly 40 minutes for #81 to arrive, before finally giving up and hailing a taxi.  I’m not sure if this bus starts running later in the the afternoon, or perhaps it doesn’t run at all on Sundays.  Whatever the case, if you go the taxi route, expect to pay around 16,000 won for the trip.

I (finally) arrived at Hwapo, and was greeted by a pair of Daurian redstarts and several brown-eared bulbuls.  A winding side road leads through a small village and right to Hwapo Beach…or at least it would have if the tide hadn’t come in.  I mentioned it in my last post about Suncheon-si, but to reiterate an important point: always check your tide schedules before heading to the coastal areas for some birding.

Hwapo Beach at high tide.  Where's all the sand?  Under a few feet of water, where it will remain for 6 more hours.

Hwapo Beach at high tide, somewhere under a meter of water.

Disappointed and mildly irritated, I checked my phone for a tide chart, and discovered that the “true” high tide was 5 minutes ago.  So the water would now start to head back out to sea, but it would take about 6 hours to get there.  Oh well, I could safely cross off finding any interesting shorebirds for awhile.

All was not lost, however.  A steep hillside jutted up from the edge of the “beach” area, and within the vegetation I found a good variety of birds, including Japanese tit, Eurasian jay, yellow-throated bunting, another pair of Daurian redstarts, two ring-necked pheasants, and a pair of vocal bull-headed shrikes.  The real highlight was a passing northern goshawk, a year bird for me.  It circled low overhead, giving me plenty of chances for photos before disappearing over the hillside.

“Eurasian” Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis schvedowi)

Despite the tide, there were plenty of birds out on the water.  These were mainly black-tailed and black-headed gulls, but further out over the water I saw a small flock of Far Eastern curlews flying northward to some destination.  A second flock contained curlews and whimbrels.  Where were these shorebirds heading to?

I decided the best plan would be to head in the direction that the shorebirds were going and maybe get lucky and stumble onto their roost.  I left Hwapo Beach with a new year bird, and by far the best photo of a northern goshawk to date.

I returned to the main road, walking along the shoulder for about 2 kilometers through the village of Haksan-ri.  About every 100 meters or so I would find one or two Daurian redstarts.  Many of the males were in their bright colors, and several were singing away, staking out their territories.  Another common bird on my walk towards Anpung-dong was the bull-headed shrike.  Since October started, I have found at least one (often times more) of these predators on every outing I go on throughout the southern part of the country.  There is even a juvenile bird skulking around behind the middle school I work at in Gwangju.  Throughout the course of the day, I counted a total of eight shrikes in an 8-kilometer stretch!

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus)

Raptors were also out in force today.  Along the roadside I found a juvenile Eurasian kestrel perched atop a telephone pole, overlooking a rice paddy.  Shortly thereafter a second kestrel flew in and the two took to the air, soaring high over the area.  At the same time, I spotted an oriental honey-buzzard some distance away, flying northward before disappearing from the distance.

Juvenile Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Juvenile Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

I stopped for lunch when I reached Anpung-dong, one of the vast rural areas surrounding downtown Suncheon-si.  This area hugs the shore of Suncheonman Bay, and a raised berm gives a great vantage point to scan the mudflats for shorebirds and waterfowl at low tide.  There are two pagodas and several benches set on the berm so you can stop and take a rest.

A view of Suncheonman Bay, as view from the berm in Anpung-dong.

A view of Suncheonman Bay, as seen from the berm in Anpung-dong.

Enjoying some kimbap I purchased at the bus terminal, I set up my scope and took to scanning the mudflats.  There were few shorebirds that I could see, although occasionally I would hear or spot a common greenshank.  There were, however, loads of waterfowl dabbling in the mud and receding tide.  The majority were mallards, but careful inspection through the horde revealed dozens of northern pintails and Eurasian teal.  I also spotted two Eurasian wigeons hiding in the masses of mallards.  A flock of about fifty or more common pochards was an added bonus, and made for the best views of this species I’ve had yet.  Further out in the bay were loads of grey herons and great egrets.  Sitting atop of pole set out in the bay was an osprey – another year bird!  Although osprey are fairly common in the right habitat back in North America, and I’m used to seeing their fairly often, I have not been able to find any osprey all year in Korea, despite traveling to several coastal environments where they should have been.  It was great to add this species to my year list, and especially good to see the Eurasian subspecies, which may one day reach full species status.

Packing up my scope, I made my way into the endless rice paddies of Anpung-dong, heading back towards the bus stop where I could pick up the #67 back to Suncheon-si.  It was here that I hoped to spot some cranes foraging in the fields; hooded and white-naped cranes use the harvested rice paddies as a stopover area in their migrations.  Unfortunately for me nary a crane was seen, but the paddies did hold other treasures for me to find.

The sea of golden rice at Anpung-dong.

The sea of golden rice at Anpung-dong.

It began with small groups of threes and fours of olive-backed pipit, a species I haven’t seen since April.  These were joined by other groups of sky larks, a life bird!  Unfortunately, I would only know these birds were around when they took to the air, as the harvested rice still left enough cover for them to hide in.  Equally frustrating were the four common snipes that I inadvertently flushed along the roadside.  The edge of the paddies are muddy and water pools there, mainly because of the machine tracks left behind by the harvesters.  These function as small oases, and the snipes used their camouflage very well…I never saw any of them until they exploded out of the vegetation and flew off.  However, in so doing, they offered me good views of the white edge on their wings, which is a diagnostic tool for identifying these birds.

As I continued to mistakenly flush snipe, I came upon another bird which resembled the snipes, but was strangely different.  I only got three opportunities to see it, as it flushed only three times before disappearing.  When it would fly, it never went very far (unlike the snipes, which would fly off to a completely different rice paddy, or disappear into the horizon altogether).  And watching it fly I was able to discern a shorter, broader bill than is characteristic of snipe; the bill also had a slight downward curve, and ended in more of a nub than a point.  A quick look through my field guide revealed this bird to be a male greater painted-snipe, a rare breeder and overwintering species in South Korea.  Far more common in Southeast Asia and Africa, the greater painted-snipe is a skulking wader in the Rostratulidae family.  This species exhibits reverse sexual dimorphism, in which the females are more brightly colored than the males.  The bird I was seeing had the yellow wash and bright yellow striping of a male bird.  Most importantly of all, this was Life Bird #584!

I was trying desperately to capture an image of the painted-snipe, and in so doing stumbled onto another Life Bird: a sharp-tailed sandpiper.  Unlike my snipe quarry, the sandpiper was much more accommodating, and stuck to the pools of water where it would keep a close eye on me, but nonetheless stay in sight.  This species resembles the pectoral sandpiper, but its dark rufous cap and obvious white supercilium differentiate it from the pectoral.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Calidris acuminata)

A little further on, I unexpectedly flushed a Far Eastern curlew right alongside the road!  I’ve seen this species reliably feeding on the mudflats at Suncheonman Bay, but never close enough for a photo, and surely never in the rice paddies.  I jumped at the chance to photograph this amazing shorebird with its enormous bill.  It wasn’t until much later, when I reviewed my photos, that I discovered why this bird was so far from the bay and by itself.  It appears to have suffered an injury to its left leg, and though it could fly perfectly well, it will have a hard time walking around.  Closer examination of the photo below shows the leg to be twisted at an awkward angle.  It’s a sad thing to see an injured bird, but I have seen many one-legged shorebirds that seem to manage their disability just fine, so time will tell what will happen to this curlew.

Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis)

Although I dipped on the cranes, there were plenty of interesting species still around Suncheonman Bay.  Finding the greater painted-snipe was surely one of the more exciting and unexpected lifers that I’ve found this year.  I’m encouraged now to explore some of the rice paddies closer to Gwangju – who knows what may be waiting to be found there?