Bird News from Nial Moores with Mike Friel, Huang Yu Li (Rock), Loretta Kao and Gary Yang.
Multiple birding highlights among ~130 species seen included a vagrant Great Bustard, 400,000+ Baikal Teal, single Greater Spotted and Steller’s Sea Eagles, a male American Wigeon, all four sawbilled ducks, Relict Gull, Yellow-bellied Tit and a flock of more than 20,000 Rook…
Five highly enjoyable and informative days were spent birding together with three experienced volunteers from the Wild Bird Society of Taipei. The weather remained very mild (with the lowest minimum -3C and the highest maximum 13C), with sunshine on four of the five days, mist and overcast on the 31st and exceptionally early yellow dust haze on the 2nd.
Together we focused on searching for a long list of more or less regular Korean species that are seldom found in Taiwan in addition to exchanging information and insights on several complex conservation issues. This included detailed discussion on why there are still so few birders and bird conservationists in Korea – even while birding has already exploded in popularity in several other East Asian countries…
“Team Taiwan” (Rock Huang, Loretta Kao and Gary Yang on far right), with Birds Korean Mike Friel (in bobble hat in centre) at the Nakdong © Nial Moores
On the 29th, at our first stop in the Nakdong Estuary we enjoyed good views of flocks of Whooper Swan and four extremely confiding Falcated Duck at Miyeonji, while rarities in the Korean context included a single globally Vulnerable Greater Spotted Eagle overhead and rather distant views of a male American Wigeon (which at least at range looked “pure”). Crossing to Hadan, we then saw single Relict Gull and a magnificent but distant adult Steller’s Sea Eagle.
Falcated Duck Anas falcata © Nial Moores
American Wigeon Anas americana (on right) with Mallard Anas platyrhynchos and Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope © Nial Moores
The still impressive-looking Nakdong Estuary © Nial Moores
Moving on to Junam, we found that much of the main reservoir and adjacent fields are now closed-off and patrolled by unnecessarily rude “guards” wearing white plastic biosecurity suits: the uniform of Avian Influenza outbreaks. Poultry Flu is another chronic conservation issue in the ROK, where there is still almost no high-level acceptance that wild birds are the victim and not the cause of the now annual outbreaks. Profound changes are urgently needed in the poultry industry if these outbreaks are to end.
All the same, we still enjoyed excellent views of White-naped Crane (probably 50-60 seen) and Taiga Bean Geese, several Smew, one or two Merlin, a male Hen Harrier and a small mixed flock of Dusky and Naumann’s Thrushes.
White-naped Crane Grus vipio © Nial Moores
On the 30th, we spent the day at Guryongpo, where the lack of any oiled birds and the good water quality is a positive symbol of advances made in the nation over the past few decades. Notable species included five Black Brant (four together close-in and one much further out), 50+ Harlequin Duck, 45 Asiatic White-winged and one American Scoter, six Glaucous-winged and eight Glaucous Gulls, probably 1,000 Ancient Murrelet and 750 Rhinoceros Auklet and, still notable in the domestic context, a single flock of 17 Light-vented Bulbul.
Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus © Nial Moores
Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens, with Vega L. vegae and Slaty-backed Gulls L. schistisagus © Nial Moores
On the 31st, our planned early morning trip to the North River (to see Common Merganser and Smew – both rarer in Taiwan than the usually much sought-after Scaly-sided Merganser!) was diverted by a late evening text message on the 30th stating that a one-day Great Bustard initially found by Park Jong-Su on December 13th had, after appearing on TV (!), just been relocated. The location of where the bird roosted that dusk was now “open” to birders…This was just too good an opportunity to miss. Once regular in Korea in winter, the long-range migratory East Asian population / subspecies of Great Bustard has declined terribly during the past few decades, with major drivers of decline considered to include collisions with man-made structures and habitat degradation. This was therefore perhaps only the second ROK record since the 1970s (Park Jin Young’s 2002 doctoral thesis lists three records from the 1970s, including a flock of seven on Ganghwa Island, but none subsequently). And the most recent record (one in the CCZ inner border area a few years ago) was “suppressed” by observers.
Arriving at the site, we soon found the bird which based e.g. on size and dark crown markings was presumably a First-winter; and has subsequently been identified by Great Bustard researcher Dr Mimi Kessler of the Eurasian Bustard Alliance as a male. He was near-surrounded by cars and was eventually flushed – this was one of the ROK’s biggest twitches after all. After a brief chance encounter with leading bird expert Park Jong-Gil, we followed the bustard a short distance to some nearby fields. At an apparently safe distance of more than two rice-fields away (about 150-200m?), standing at the bottom of a dyke, we then enjoyed prolonged ‘scope views of the bird feeding, digging out food – including one item which looked remarkably similar to a large grasshopper.
Great Bustard Otis tarda dybowskii © Nial Moores
Over the next twenty minutes or so more and more cars arrived in the area, with some parking perhaps less than 50m from the bird. At least for the first 15 minutes the photographers stayed put in their cars and the Great Bustard, typically an extremely wary species, did not appear to be overly stressed, as he occasionally continued to dig for food.
The breaking point came just before 11 AM when two cars drove past us in order to get even closer views with the sun behind them (we did try to stop them, even blocking the road and explaining that they would flush the bird…but they resolutely ignored our advice and drove on anyway, looking somewhat angry at my urgings). They drove along the road to within 50m of the bustard at the exact same time that a different photographer (wearing purple trousers) squatted next to a parked white car very close to the bird. The bustard had already stood frozen in an alert posture for several minutes. Looking directly first at the two new cars as they arrived near her and then directly at the purple-trousered photographer, he took flight – at first a little north and then back right towards us, all the time gaining height rapidly, eventually disappearing behind the ridge we were below.
Great Bustard – standing in the field in front of the telephone pole, increasingly surrounded by cars (with most of the photographers, however, sensibly staying within their vehicles) © Nial Moores
The last minute of observation…the Great Bustard was clearly alert and stressed, but the photographer in the purple trousers decides to get just that bit closer… © Mike Friel
Two seconds before the Great Bustard was flushed, looking directly at the “bustard photograper” who had just set up by the white car… Does anyone recognise his camera or clothing? If you know him, can you please ask him – respectfully if you like – to try to be less ignorant and selfish next time, and to put the bird’s welfare first?
Flushed…© Mike Friel
Great Bustard in flight © Gary Yang
A convoy of about 30 cars then raced down the farm roads in the same direction as the bustard, but apparently they failed to re-find him – good for the bird no doubt, but extremely frustrating for the all other birders who were still arriving in the area. As in Taiwan apparently, the vast majority of the photographers were careful and respectful of the bird – but those selfish few…when will they start properly to consider the welfare of the bird? Do they realise how selfish and ignorant and potentially harmful to the birds their behaviour is?
In the same area we also saw four White-naped Crane, apparently repeatedly flushed by the same cars, and also enjoyed good views of several Meadow Bunting before leaving the area. Later in the day, we then had excellent views of 15-20 Cinereous Vulture and finally of 30+ Common (and two Scaly-sided) Mergansers. Last birds of the year included a displaying Common Goldeneye and an adult White-tailed Eagle.
Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus © Nial Moores
On the 1st, we spent the day at the Geum Estuary. Although there were several thousand grey geese, the Swan Goose and big Baikal Teal flocks were again absent – in large part because of habitat degradation. The most notable species for the day therefore included a group of eight Yellow-bellied Tit and single Pallas’s Leaf and Tristram’s Bunting, two Dusky Warblers and one Red-throated Pipit (typically all four species are very scarce here in winter), 30+ Lapland Longspur, several winter-singing Japanese Quail and a total of about 30 Baikal Teal.
On the 2nd, our day started with watching a single spectacular flock of 20- 25,000 Rook and several Daurian Jackdaw.
A small part of the Rook Corvus frugilegus flock at dawn…© Nial Moores
But the best was still to come…a couple of hours later we found an enormous flock of 400,000+ Baikal Teal. A proper count was made impossible by access restrictions imposed because of fears of Poultry Flu, but views of much of the flock were excellent all the same.
Part of the truly massive flock of Baikal Teal Anas formosa © Nial Moores
Watching the Baikals in genuine awe and wonder © Nial Moores
In the afternoon, we spent a few hours at Suncheon Bay (again, where Poultry Flu restrictions were also in place – even while diggers were carving up the formerly reed-lined ditches). Despite the human activity, we enjoyed good views of Hooded Crane (probably 100 seen in total) and a half-dozen Eurasian Spoonbill, an encounter with a Chinese Grey Shrike and another adult male Hen Harrier, and finished our birding together with prolonged looks at a group of 15 or so feeding Pallas’s Reed followed by good views of one or two Common Reed Buntings.
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia © Mike Friel
All in all, this was a great trip: the birding in Korea is still outstanding – and could be even better with the creation of some genuinely protected areas and an evolution away from the construct-and-consume mentality that has driven many of the nation’s policies for much of the past decade and more.
Images by Nial Moores taken with a compact sony camera through a truly superb Swarovski scope