Saemangeum, March 10

Birds News by Jason Loghry with Ju Yong Ki and Tim Edelsten

The night before last, it was very hard to sleep. I suspect all others reading this understand the excitement, anticipation, and even butterflies that come along with knowing that there is a possibility that one might see one of the most exquisite members of the biological world, the Siberian Crane.

This critically endangered species has an estimated global population of less than 3000, and is “the most highly specialized member of the crane family in terms of habitat requirements, morphology, vocalizations, and behavior as well as being the most aquatic of the cranes, exclusively using wetlands for nesting, feeding, and roosting.” (ICF)

Knowing this, and having been at Saemangeum just a few months before and experiencing how massive the degradation of this wetland actually is, I had butterflies for other reasons as well.

We set off on our morning journey from Jeonju. We made a stop to look for Long-billed Plover alongside a small river, but instead found 9 Little Egrets, 2 Green Sandpipers, and 12 Teal. Continuing on we passed a flock of about 1700 Rook, including great views of a Daurian Jackdaw. This flock seemed to grow to an even greater number when it was possibly joined by another flock in the higher altitudes. It was at this moment that the skies began to look very busy with traffic.

Soon after 3 different flocks of White-fronted Geese passed us moving east. A few, including a couple of Bean Geese, stopped to feed in the rice fields. Most birds seemed to be headed in the same relative direction, as were we. Arriving at a berm, Mr. Ju Yong Ki quietly and cautiously led us to a protected outlook, where we right away had superb but safely-distanced views of 12 White-naped Cranes, and the majestic Siberian Crane.

It was an extraordinary bird; charming, powerfully poised, yet also apparently delicate. The cranes were feeding, gathering up energy, preparing to continue their long difficult journey onward.

Looking just beyond these gorgeous birds, were another kind of crane; also excavating the soil- but on a tremendous scale; severely out of balance. It was difficult to watch these bulldozers, dump trucks, and other machines altering the natural landscape even more, making obvious that at Saemangeum, including the barrage they are the contributing factor to the struggle for these wild species.

About 3000+ geese- White-fronted and Bean were feeding in close proximity to the cranes. There was a White-tailed Sea Eagle that brought them up a few times. At one point, we observed the eagle preying upon a lone White-fronted Goose swimming in water. The goose was clearly hurt but would not come up out of water as the eagle continued to attack and pursue. The eagle eventually gave up. There was a flock of 200+ Common Shelduck , some Common Mergansers, and some Whooper Swans.

As we watched the cranes, a water deer stormed passed us at the berm, racing by. Suddenly the cranes were flushed and took flight. We then saw two more water deer stampeding through the feeding grounds only to realize that they too had been disturbed, by a man on a bicycle and his two unleashed dogs.

The White-naped Cranes continued on out of sight but the Siberian Crane came down to roost with the large flock of geese. At the site, we also observed Pallas’s Reed Buntings, a Penduline Tit, a Eurasian Sparrowhawk, a Northern Goshawk, and 2 presumed Japanese Bush Warblers.

Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus and White-naped Cranes Grus vipio. Photo © Tim Edelsten

Moving northward, we stopped at different sites along the western coast. We observed Smew, Pochard, Coots, Tufted Ducks at Okgu Reservoir. Common Gulls, Black-tailed Gulls, and Black-headed Gulls were present at Dongho, in Gochang. A few of these gulls had been badly oiled. About 800 geese were separated into groups and flying in formation. An Upland Buzzard was spotted.

In Gochang, near Geomso Bay, Mr. Ju Yong Ki kindly introduced us to some of the local community. We learned that recently, with the support of local government, they had converted 35 of their homes to solar power. This village is impressive and seems very interested in sustainable living.

At the bay, two Grey Plovers, some Kentish Plovers, Dunlin, Whooper Swan, Eurasian Curlew, and Far Eastern Curlew were seen. Also, 6 Oystercatchers and a Peregrine Falcon. As evening came, we headed to Dongrim Reservoir, seeing a few Azure-winged Magpies on the way.

Baikal Teal Anser formosa. Photo © Tim Edelsten

Baikal Teal Anser formosa. Photo © Ju Yong Ki

Baikal Teal Anser formosa. Photo © Ju Yong Ki

Once we arrived at the reservoir, I was suddenly stunned at the unimaginable mass of birds on the water. They seemed to continue on out of sight. We peered through our scopes at them, about 450,000 Baikal Teal. The birds on the outside of the flock seemed to continuously be moving inwards, as if they were playing a game of musical chairs. For a moment, I questioned whether it was all a dream. We changed locations to get a different view. There were about two dozen photographers and onlookers. They were a bit noisy so we moved to an area with few people and watched in awe this spectacle of a lifetime. This flock was massive; almost half a million birds, fluidly shape-shifting through the sunlit sky. They moved around over the reservoir for some time. Suddenly they grew closer to us and finally flew overhead. It was life-altering. The rhythmic sound of their wing beats soothed our ears and we bid farewell for the night.

Baikal Teal Anser formosa. Video © Jason Loghry

This trip was remarkable. Despite all the pressure here in the ROK, we have really wonderful birds and great opportunities to observe them. Saemangeum is in a deep crisis. With the right kind of work and support, we can only do our best to turn what’s happening around. Please support the work of Birds Korea.

Thank you to Mr. Ju Yong Ki and Mr. Tim Edelsten.

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