A mystery in flight

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A mystery in flight

Here they come, thousands of them or more, flying over my head. Like a prism, they begin as one tiny beam from afar, then disperse across the visible spectrum of the sky as they get closer. Within a minute, the birds violently scatter like a twister, gone from sight. For a brief moment I am reminded of things in life that aren’t meant to be described, but experienced.
We are walking along the crude earth walls surrounding the stretch of rice paddies around the banks of Cheonsuman, a bay on the island of Ganwoldo off Korea’s west coast. Locals call the bay “the miracle from God.” For years, it has been known as a secure stopover for Baikal teal, winter birds more commonly known as Guchang ducks. They have been classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
A photographer and I have been standing on the edge of this bank for the last three hours, hoping to capture this very moment. We ran like mad storm chasers whevever we saw anything that looked like a dark cloud wriggling in the sky. From afar, the only way you could tell they were birds and not clouds was by the peculiar noise the birds make when they fly in large groups, a noise which, for some odd reason, resonates ominously on a quiet afternoon like this one. Thanks to the clear sky, which isn’t unusual in Seosan’s autumn, we didn’t have to suffer many disappointing moments in which birds turned out to be clouds.
It was nature’s timing that frustrated us more. Surely there were certain rhythms, though often inconsistent, in the way the birds departed the bay in random numbers and landed on water again. For the first hour, starting around 3 p.m., a group of 10 to 20 birds took off from the bay at roughly five- to 10-minute intervals. Then, the number of birds would slowly rise to 100 or more. In between, there would be a few in small groups ― five or six, sometimes even two ― but nothing huge.
There would be complete silence for the next half an hour or so ―until one moment when the rest of the army of birds near the water suddenly flapped their wings and ascended high in the same direction, dotting the entire skyscape.
Near dusk, there were two or three more occasions like this, involving birds in groups of what seemed to be the hundreds of thousands, though trying to keep track of their numbers almost seemed meaningless after a while. In flight, the ducks formed what looked like the shape of a tadpole, a surreal spectacle.
Though the exact migratory routes for Baikal teals between the bay and their breeding habitat are unknown, an estimated 300,000 of the species fly in every day from October to February. Cheonsuman is these birds’ first stop on their migration after departing the giant Siberian landmass, a major breeding ground and a sanctuary where migratory birds often nest near river deltas for several weeks and lay an average of 8 to 10 eggs.
“They are really monstrous,” says Byun Jung-won, an intern at the environment conservation department at the city of Seosan, referring to Guchang ducks. “They fly here from Siberia for 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) nonstop without any eating or resting in between whatsoever.”
Overall, about 100 different species of birds have been observed here within the last few years, some showing signs of breeding. That’s a startling phenomenon in a country where most wildlife species have been in significant decline since the 1970s because of industrialization.

It didn’t take long after arriving at the bay for me to put my Hitchcockian fears aside. Though the idea of fear is somehow inherent in a flock of birds ― especially when an expert warns you to wear a raincoat because the birds might decide to “baptize” you ― what really gets under your skin after a while is not the thought of mass attacks, a la “The Birds,” but simply the blind, almost militant order they follow when they fly.
Technically, birds fly in a manner very similar to that of airplanes. What’s amazing, though, is their learned behavior as a group, which seems to follow consistent patterns. Though hundreds of thousands of them fly within meters of each other, not one of them falls out of the circle and dashes against their company, or a transmitting tower.
Their flying techniques are also interesting to observe. The reasons birds fly in V-formation ― apparently, to reduce air resistance for the birds that follow, increasing efficiency ― have been pointed out in many scientific articles in the past. But one of the latest research projects, by the Alaska Science Forum, discovered that a flock of 25 birds in formation could fly up to 70 percent farther than a single bird using the same amount of energy. It’s something of an irony that a species that has always been associated with freedom behaves, as a community, in rigidly organizational structures.
One of the aspects that make the bird-watching experience particularly interesting, but also sympathetic, is that these birds that create such astonishing scenery at Cheonsuman are, after all, ducks. They are not eagles, or even seagulls. As an individual species, there is nothing particularly noteworthy to say about Baikal teals. They could almost be described as ugly ― certainly, they are as common as any other ducks you might see near dirty water in a city park.
The only notable feature about Baikal teal, according to Ducks Unlimited, is its variegated head, which displays a black crown and hindneck with metallic green patches on the face. The chest of the male duck is normally dotted with black spots, and the flanks are vermiculated with fine black lines. Female Baikal teal closely resemble the female green-winged teal; the principal differences is in size: female Baikal teal are larger, with a whitish spot at the base of the bill.
They mostly feed on grass, seeds, mollusks and cultivated grains. The rice paddies surrounding the bay, covering about 15,400 hectares (37,000 acres) of seashore, were reclaimed by Hyundai in the 1970s and turned into the nation’s major rice plantation; it makes an ideal habitat for ducks. Such aquatic vegetation near water provides an additional attraction for water birds like egrets, cranes and storks, which have also been observed at the bay in recent years.

Conservationists have not had a favorable view of the popularity of bird-watching in Cheonsuman; indeed, many civic groups have protested the October bird-watching tours the city of Seosan began organizing last year. The tours began last week anyway, with the condition that staff from local environmental groups co-host the tours, setting strict guidelines for visitors and arranging for buses to travel exclusively to the bay area seven times a day. Other cars are prohibited. Special stations with tall bush walls have been constructed at three places around the bay; there, visitors can stand behind the wall and peek through a small hole to see the bay, where the birds rest.
City staff realize that too many people might drive the birds away. “Think about it,” says Mr. Byun, of the city’s conservation department. “This isn’t the only place on earth these birds can take a few months of rest. If they get stressed, they’ll just find better places to rest, of which there are plenty.”
Though Korea is considered better for migratory waders than Japan or China ― because Japan’s coastline is rockier with deeper water, and China’s has sandier shores and doesn’t have Korea’s extensive mudflats ― there are other places that would offer better shelter than Cheosuman, Mr. Byun said. Indeed, some of the rarer species that were observed here in the 1970s never returned, after bird-watchers polluted the area by smoking and making too much noise.

Bird-watching at Ganwoldo, and elsewhere in Korea

The city of Seosan organizes a bird-watching festival every year; this year’s festival runs through Nov. 30. A special pavillion has been constructed at Ganwoldo, featuring bird museums and screenings of nature documentaries. From Monday to Friday, the tour bus to Cheonsuman leaves seven times a day on the hour, starting at 10 a.m.; on Saturday and Sunday, the schedule is the same, but twice the number of buses run every hour. The tour takes about an hour and a half.
The easiest way to get to Ganwoldo from Seoul is to take a bus to Seosan, which takes about an hour and half and costs 8,400 won ($7.15) each way. At the Seosan Bus terminal take a local bus to Ganwoldo, and get off at its last stop. The tickets (2,000 won) can be purchased at the pavillion entrance. For visitors from Seoul, it’s very possible to make Cheonsuman a one-day trip. When you do, avoid wearing bright clothes or heavy makeup, and make sure you bring a telescope. For more information, call 041-669-7744.
For bird-watching elsewhere in Korea, regions throughout the country offer different types of birds. October through March is the best time for crane watching at the DMZ. Reservations should be made in advance, though, with the Cheorwon office of the Korean Association for Bird Protection (033-455-8181). Saemangeum, tidal flats which extend 25 kilometers (15 miles), attracts most birds only during high tide. Upo, known as a museum of wildlife diversity, is frequented by white-fronted geese, spoonbills, mallards, teal and whooper swans.
Starting in January, there will be free bird-watching cruises on the Han River past Bamseom; call 785-4411 for information.

by Park Soo-mee
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