Sunday, November 11, 2018

Big Sunday

Long-eared Owl Asio otus with Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Long-eared Owl Asio otus with Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
Long-eared Owl Asio otus
Long-eared Owl Asio otus 
Amur Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis euptilura
Amur Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis euptilura
Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi
Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, and a Skylark's final flight
Korean Water Deer Hydropotes inermis

Ruddy-breasted Crake spot
  The original plan was river on Saturday, lake on Sunday…and then the smog settled heavy on Gangneung. Not your average springtime ‘yellow Gobi sand from China tainted with industrial heavy metals’-type smog. This was ‘South Korea built 12+ new coal plants in the past five years’ brand of insidious, invisible toxicity. Yay. So I stayed in all day with the windows shut, and still got sick. Time to make an air purifier. Anyhow, I went to bed with a burr in my bustle, and vague notions of taking a bus to a mountain on Sunday. When I woke at 4:30am with a case of the smogthroat, the eye of the tiger took over and I decided to stay awake and hit the river and lake hard. And hard they were hit. 
  The day got off to an auspicious start with a dawn Saunders’s Gull near my house – gotta pick through those Black-headed! Also near my departure point was a group of the ‘local’ Red-billed Starlings. Another flock of 60+ seems to hang out west of Gyeongpo Lake.
  The seven-hour walk netted 55 species, and my Gangneung list blew well past 100. It was feeling wintery, species-wise, and the weather changed its mind a dozen times. I picked up a solid tally of personal Gangneung firsts, including Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Hooded Crane (three in flight near the lake headed southeast), Northern Lapwing (meow!), and Pechora (late?) and Olive-backed Pipits in the same field – how’s that for an impromptu ID quiz?
  Hard to single out a top moment on such a dynamic day, but two Long-eared Owls being mobbed by a pack of corvids checks all the boxes. The drama played out at a river just north of Gyeongpo Lake, one that I had not visited before. One of the owls remained perched and unchallenged the whole time, and it seemed that the second owl was trying to draw the mob away from it. Intense!
  Later, a Water Rail flushed in a reedy ditch with a wet gasp, and I couldn’t get a second look, in spite of an hour-long ‘ass in mud’ crake-out. I’m assuming it was an Eastern, but there was a Western spotted in Gangneung a few years back…nahhhh.
  The day ended with one more Rallidae surprise, when a crake flushed from beside a reedy reservoir and flew low to a nearby clump of reeds. I got quick but decent bino looks, and the bird was most certainly a Ruddy-breasted Crake. The plain, solidly monochrome colouration on the upperparts was a good hint. The facts that I didn’t notice what should have been vibrant red legs and that it was a bit more straw-coloured than the bloody-ruddy I would have expected worried me for a bit. A look at online images showed that some first-year birds show drab legs and overall plumage, so that helped seal the deal. Incidentally, this is the spot where Younghwan mentioned that the species is an annual nester, so I guess this was a late young bird.
  No wait, the day actually ended with cracking close views of an Amur Leopard Cat – finally! Of course I had the camera on the wrong setting when the cat was within ten feet of me, and only figured out my gaffe when that distance had trebled. No matter, I still got great looks – gorgeous.
  Oh, I also think I saw some Chinese and Uzbek construction fellers chasing Korean Water Deer around several different farm fields. Weeeeeeird. Reminds me of the time I found a heap of deer faces when I lived on Geoje-do.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Early Novembirds of GNG, November 1-4, 2018

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
sunbathing Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Great Egret Ardea alba
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
male Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus
female Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus
Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans
Pallas’s Reed Bunting Emberiza pallasi
  Ack! It’s November! Feels like it some nights, but the afternoon highs are still into the 20s. The insects seem confused. The air has been been weirdly tainted of late – the skies are bright blue, but the suspended particulate readings have been into the yellow. I can taste it in my eyes. Invisible lung poison, sweeeeet.

November 1
  On a lazy hike behind my house, an encounter with an ‘odd’ Marsh Tit got me to thinking…what the heck is the real story with Willow Tits in South Korea? Would I know one if I saw one? Would anyone? Nutty. Later added Azure-winged Magpie to my house list while sipping coffee – love that species.
  In the afternoon, I re-encountered the Red-billed Starling flock that roams the town south of the river. It seems my hunch was right − I was seeing smaller elements of a larger flock, because the flock I saw wheeling and screeching over my neighbourhood numbered easily over 100. Badass! I’d like to pick through them much more carefully to see if anything else is mixed in, but I tend to see them only when I don’t have my optics on hand. I’ll get ‘em.

November 3
  Saturday morning was quiet along the Namdae River, with 34 species logged. Judging from the amphitheatre of photogs lined up with their lawn chairs and bubbling vats of soup, it would seem the Eurasian Bitterns have returned to their wintering spot among the reeds. I couldn’t be arsed waiting around, but it’s nice to know the species is kicking about. Got a quick glimpse of an Amur Leopard Cat along the river, hoping for a better look.
  On a quiet dirt track near the coast, I encountered a big-ish mystery finch with a raspy sing-song vocalization. I tracked it to a tree and was about to get an angle, when I got utterly annihilated by a convoy of sand-farming dump trucks. Of course the bird was gone when I pulled myself from the ditch and the dust cloud had dissipated. What was it? Who knows. Drab Brambling? A pipit seen and an unseen Japanese Wagtail heard, giving the impression of a single bizarre bird? Some super common bird I misidentified? All are reasonable hypotheses.

November 4
  A 41-species afternoon at Gyeongpo Lake, including personal Gangneung first Tufted Duck and Grey-headed Woodpecker. A Grey Heron sunning itself was goofy-looking. Best of the day was also the worst, in that I didn’t get a record shot…of the Yellow-bellied Tit I briefly saw perched across a canal. It was with a flock of Great and Coal Tits, and seemed to melt away with several of the the latter. Two hours of searching failed to re-locate the bird. I’ll be picking through packs of tits much more carefully from now on. Stop laughing.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Gangneung week the third, October 21-28, 2018

Plenty of productive, scruffy habitat along the Namdae River
Samgak chamchi kimbap on my favourite river rock - an important mid-walk ritual

Wildlife stairs in Gyeongpo Lake Park
Wildlife stairs in an adjacent farm field
My friendly neighbourhood Red-billed Starling flock (+2 Chinese Grosbeak)
Eastern Great Tit Parus minor 
Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri
An odd female Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus with
muted wing patches and overall scruffy plumage - young bird?
skulky Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala
spot the Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos kizuki
(Let's hope a Japanese princess doesn't steal this image...)
Whooper Swan Cygnus Cygnus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Rook Corvus frugilegus
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrid
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrid
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrid
Ussuri Mamushi Pitviper Gloydius blomhoffi
Praying Mantis sp.
  Dynamic turnover here on the lovely Gangwon coast, with new personal Gangneung firsts on every day out. Some of the breeding species that I saw in early October are gone, and the feeling is one of less migrants on the move of late. I’m getting a better feel for the resident species, as well as the birds that call this corner of the province their winter home. My Gangneung list has almost cracked 100, and my ‘house list’ is also creeping up - I should eclipse my 2013 Seogwipo apartment list (26) soon. But who’s keeping lists, eh?
  A three-hour exploratory walk west along the Namdaechon on October 21 turned up very little of interest, apart from a fat little Ussuri Mamushi Pitviper. I ended up in the middle of literal nowhere, and I had to get creative when it came to getting back to town. That’s all part of the fun though, innit?
  On that note, I probably won’t be getting a motorcycle, or even a bicycle, this time round. No wheels is a bit sad, but the habitat here just doesn’t justify it. Unlike Suncheon, it’s not a ‘drive there and walk in a big circle’ type of place. The two main patches, the Namdae River and Gyeongpo Lake, both demand a lot of walking to check all the birdy nooks and crannies. Whereas at first I was doing both in a single day, as I find more of those nooks in each spots, I’ve split the two spots up into separate days now, to better scour each properly (and not blow my legs out!).
  On October 26, Younghwan introduced me to some of the nice folks that work at Gyeongpo Lake, and we shared coffee and bird gossip. I noticed the ditches in and around the lake feature ‘wildlife stairs,’ which allow small creatures to escape the concrete deathtraps – nice to see, let’s hope they catch on. A young Northern Goshawk and another Amur Falcon stood out.
  The following day at the lake, two Whooper Swans and two Whiskered Terns were personal Gangneung firsts.
  On October 28, a walk along the river went from sunny to gloomy and rainy, then back again. Starting to really understand and enjoy the habitat along the river, which cuts the town in half. I live in the southern bit, with the farmers. The day was notable for its clean air and clear water – loads of fish in the river. Gangneung firsts were a Long-billed Plover, Green Sandpiper, Black-faced Bunting, and Long-tailed Rosefinch, all along the Namdaechon.
  What else? I thought I knew few things about terns…terns out I didn’t. See what I did there? Bunting variety is picking up, which is awesome because I loves me my skulkers. Other than a few Dusky Thrushes, the same can’t be said about thrushes yet. Not even a single Pale Thrush! Hoping for more species of thrush soon.
  Or should I say ‘spices of thrush,’ as Younghwan does. I think that is adorable, and I may use it from now on instead of ‘species.’ Younghwan is an awesome dude, for real.
  In other news, there’s an annoying squeak in the rigging of my camera bag that haunts my perambulations, but it seems to bring out the buntings, so I’m not fixing it.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Week two in Gangneung, October 16-20, 2018

Fields near Gyeongpo Lake
My backyard
Also my backyard
A former scrubby wetland, destroyed
suspected Amur Leopard Cat spoor
Northern Shrike Lanius excubitor
Northern Shrike Lanius excubitor
Northern Shrike in situ
Initial shrike spot
Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Dunlin Calidris alpina
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola (top) with Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva
juvenile Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Carrion Crow Corvus corone with Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Upland Buzzard Buteo hemilasius
Chinese Grosbeak feeding

October 16
  When my Korean birding buddy Younghwan said we would be checking out the Namdaecheon (river) on Tuesday morning, I had visions of a leisurely survey of the gulls and ducks on the river here in town. I didn’t realize he meant the Namdaechon in Yangyang, which is an hour up the coast (seems most Korean towns have a Namdaechon)! We birded hard for over six hours. On the way north, we hit every one of his secret spots, and while it was a relatively quiet bird morning, my mouth was watering at the list of species he mentioned seeing at each spot. It’s going to be a solid winter! We’re even plotting a pelagic already.
  On a down note, when we got to a scrubby/marshy Eurasian Woodcock spot he had not checked out in a while, we were confronted with a sterile, tread-tracked dirt wasteland, where no doubt apartments, bike paths, and/or factories will soon stand. He stared at it for a silent, heavy minute, then shook his head and muttered “All destroyed, all destroyed.” An upsetting, if grimly familiar scene in Korea.
  Highlights included my Gangneung first Pacific Golden and Grey Plovers (side by side for handy comparison!), Meadow Bunting (looked like the wiegoldi subspecies, I think…), Azure-winged Magpies (lovely), and single examples of Rook and Carrion Crow. The mystical purple sheen on that latter species is real, I can vouch for it.

October 19
  A lazy exploratory ramble in the hills behind my farmhouse produced the tits and woodpeckers I had hoped I might see there, and plenty of habitat that looks promising for winter birds – I’m especially thinking of ‘special’ finches in the huge pines.

October 20
  Saturday’s ‘big walk’ (River--coast--Gyeongpo Lake--farm fields) did not disappoint! Under fresh cerulean blue skies, there were some welcome wintery arrivals, in spite of summery afternoon temperatures in the low 20s.
  On small bamboo/brushy islands in the river, Chinese Grosbeaks and roving flocks of Brambling (and even a Eurasian Bullfinch tucked in!) lent a finchy feel to the start of the walk. Personal Gangneung firsts included a Pallas’s Reed Bunting at the river mouth, some shy Rustic Buntings at Gyeongpo, and Northern Shovelers in the fields.

  On my river walks, I keep finding what I suspect is Amur Leopard Cat spoor – I dearly want to get better looks at this gorgeous and enigmatic species.
  At Gyeongpo Lake, the lake itself was mostly populated with a large raft of 75+ Common Coots, and still not much in the way of diving duck diversity or numbers.
  As I was headed out of the touristy bit of the lake park, I heard a Bull-headed Shrike giving an animated alarm call. When I looked toward the source of the disturbance, I saw the silhouette of a shrike that was larger and more menacing than a Bull-headed. At extreme distance and with bad lighting, I could make out the grey upperparts of what I first suspected was a Chinese Grey Shrike, but as I got closer, the wings looked 'off.' When I got as close as I could get without jumping fences, I confirmed that the wings lacked the extensive white of a Chinese Grey, and the light rump and vermiculations popped through the binoculars. It changed perches, showing no white trailing edge to the wings. Could it be…a Northern Shrike (formerly known as Great Grey Shrike)?
  When an elderly couple, out-of-bounds and foraging for herbs, flushed the bird, my heart sank...but then it flew straight for me! It perched nearby for 30 seconds, allowing me to get some better record shots, then flew east, and could not be re-found. But yes, it…could be a Northern Shrike! That’s a solid record, as the species has only been recorded perhaps less than 15 times in South Korea. High-five!
  In the fields west of the lake, frustrating flocks of restless pipits and skylarks proved challenging to identify, as they flushed from far out – the perils of birding in rice fields without a car. I was able to discern that many of the pipits (out of more than 35) were Buff-bellied, with at least two Red-throated mixed in.
  In the minus column, when it comes to calls and certain IDs, it seems I’ve forgotten twice as much as I ever knew. Specific shortfalls include picking out the various pipit and bunting calls, as well as identifying buzzards silhouettes, but at least I knew enough to question why what turned out to be an Upland Buzzard showed such oversized features. Thankfully I have good friends wiser than I who can drop the knowledge on me. Thanks to Nial and Tim for helping me confirm several IDs.