Saturday, April 20, 2019

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala 

  After a siesta from which I awoke feeling more disoriented than is normal, I headed back out for a circuit of 1-gu in the mid-afternoon. It felt very unbirdy in town - the sense of a clearout in 1-gu was reinforced when the banding team left early with a shrug and a “No birds.”
  As I walked along the first path above the quarry, I came across my first Yellow-rumped Flycatcher of the spring, a cracking male.  I slowly moved in closer, when a hiker with a trail radio came by and flushed the bird right on cue. After smiling my greeting and letting the man pass by, I waited for a few minutes for the bird to reappear. It didn’t.
  There are times when I talk to myself, and as I gave up on the flycatcher and continued down the path, I loosed a particularly salty stream of Québécois profanity. This outburst flushed a chunky, tan-toned bunting from scrub at my feet. Before it landed on the rock nearby, I knew what it was – Black-headed Bunting! This is a rare overshoot to Korea that winters in India – definitely a bird that wasn’t high on the list of birds I was expecting to see this spring! I made sure to get some record shots, and the bird was confiding for about 30 seconds, before it flew straight up the quarry wall, and appeared to carry on north towards wherever it thought it was migrating to. Tomorrow I will be swearing in French at random intervals, just to see what happens.

Gageo Island, April 18-20, 2019

Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps
Grey (Japanese) Thrush Turdus cardis
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus
Brown-headed Thrush Turdus chrysolaus
Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola
Ochre-rumped Bunting Emberiza yessoensis 
Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata
Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina (with a rather chunky bill)
Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina
Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa latirostris
Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus
An incongruous trio on the mossy slab
April 18, 2019
  Back on Gageo! Not much from the Mokpo-Gageo ferry besides some Ancient Murrelets – no Streaked Shearwaters like the ones I saw on the Chuju-Usuyeong ferry on the 17th. While it’s great to be back on Gageo, there have been some negative developments at many of the 1-gu hotspots familiar to island birders.
  The quiet harbour I recall has been replaced by incessant noisy dredging, as well as extensive construction on a massive new concrete jetty. Perhaps to supply this thirst for concrete, a constant theme in Korea, the quarry is no longer dormant. It is operating at full tilt, and the topography is much changed there. There is no longer a wide tract of reedy gravel favoured by species such as Oriental Plover, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Oriental Pratincole, and Little Whimbrels, among many others.
  Most upsetting is the seemingly pointless felling of most of the trees in the area next to the school, as well as some of the top half of the gully. Once a shady, flowered refuge for migrating birds, the area is now a sun-bleached wasteland where locals have started dumping their refuse. I don’t begrudge anyone their progress or infrastructure, but it stings to witness pointless destruction of habitat.
  The ferry got in at noon, so I did a six hour scan of 1-Gu in the p.m. to figure out what is kicking about town. Overall, less birdy than Chuja so far, but a similar feel to the composition of migrants.
  Highlights: one Cattle Egret in the harbour; two Intermediate Egrets near the mossy slab, seemingly having trouble finding a source of food; someone’s tame leg-banded pigeon is hanging out in the harbour; several Goldcrests above the quarry; six Narcissus Flycatchers; three Ochre-rumped Buntings; one Yellow-bellied Bunting; two Daurian Redstarts at the dump.

April 19, 2019
  Gageo was socked-in with fog for the entire morning and most of the afternoon, with 54 species logged over eight hours.
  Highlights: two Grey-faced Buzzards; four species of pipit (1 Pechora, 4 Red-throated, 26 Olive-backed, 11 Buff-bellied); one or two Chinese Blackbirds in the old gardens; several Brown-headed and Grey-backed among the more numerous Pale and Dusky Thrushes; small numbers of Dusky and Yellow-browed Warblers; at least 15 Narcissus Flycatchers; one Varied Tit; two Common Rosefinch in the fog above the quarry just after dawn; six Red-billed Starlings; and a Large-billed Crow above town.
  Seven species of bunting were counted, including single examples of Yellow-bellied and Japanese Yellow Bunting. Unfortunately, the long strip of weeds and flowers in the main town where I spotted both of these decreasingly-common birds was weed-whacked down to the dirt sometime during the day. It would be helpful if such landscaping work was abstained from during the few weeks of migration season, as any source of refuge and food, even one as seemingly insignificant as a 100-metre strip of grass and flowers, can spell the difference between life and death for exhausted birds fresh in. Perhaps the team of government bird banders could help organize such an education initiative? Why not help preserve bird habitat as well as keeping track of numbers…

April 20, 2019
  I tested my knees with the long walk up to 2-gu in the north on the island, a solid two-hour walk (one-way). The long flat bit in the middle isn’t so bad, it’s the steep bits at either end that shake one’s morale and resolve. On the way: a lone Black Wood Pigeon clacking through a gap between trees; four Blue-and-White Flycatchers; upwards of 25 Narcissus Flycatchers (they were everywhere); and a flock of 11 Yellow-bellied Tits foraging through the treetops.
  In among the wind-tormented cliffs of 2-gu proper, a Japanese Quail, a Pacific Swift, an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, a Eurasian Wryneck, two Grey Thrush, two or three Chinese Blackbirds (!), and eight White-cheeked Starlings. The mostly-abandoned village of Hangri, perched on the cliffs amidst flowers and goats is a place of magic and ghosts, and I sensed them all. What am I on about?

Note: I’m having trouble getting pictures off my phone, so I’ll have to post all the lovely habitat shots at a later date.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Chuja-do, April 16-17, 2019

Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps
Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus
Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
male Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus
female Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum
I had this whole place...
...all to myself - creepy.
The view of peaceful Shinyang 1-Ri from my hill
(Jeju's Halla Mountain is visible just behind 'Lion Islet') 
Coming into Chuja
Bring on the islands!
  On the 16th, a dawn surprise in the form of a Redwing! It was associating with a mixed group of other turdus thrushes, and they all flushed when I came down a trail. I got long bino looks at the Redwing as it perched up in a tree for less than a minute before flying off. It was most definitely a Redwing, and not one of several possible confusion species (such as Grey-backed Thrush). I almost got a record shot, but of course the camera went into ‘autofocus hell mode,’ and the opportunity was over just like that. I loitered in the area for over an hour and checked it two more times throughout the day, but the bird was not to be re-found. I was bummed-out and disoriented by the whole thing for a bit, but that’s birding, I suppose.
  Also: a Siberian Rubythroat, three Eurasian Wrynecks, a White's Thrush, several Brown-headed Thrush, more than 30 Grey-backed Thrush, and two Daurian Redstarts. More Asian Stubtails were out, with over 50 seen or heard on the day. Red-flanked Bluetail numbers were much reduced compared to yesterday, with perhaps less than 150 recorded. In addition to the dozens of singing Japanese Bush Warblers, I spotted a lone Korean Bush Warbler at the very southern tip of the…southern tip.

  The following day, just a few hours in the hills in the morning before the 11:00 a.m. ferry to Usuyong, a small port south of Mokpo. New for the island today included a Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and a Grey Thrush. Only about 25 Red-flanked Bluetails today. Loads of Grey-backed Thrush around at dawn, with flights of Bramblings constantly overhead.

  I’m in Mokpo now, ready to strike west.

Chuja-do, April 14-15, 2019

Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri
Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
female Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus
male Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami
Yellow-browed Bunting Emberiza chrysophrys
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala
(partially leucistic)
"Wryneck Road" down to the southern tip
"Path to Heaven" behind my minbak

  Great to get back to Chuja-do, a medium-small set of bridge-connected islands 2/3 of the way to the mainland from Jeju. I visited a few times back in my Jeju days, but those were day-trips in winter and summer, with just a superficial scouting of the lay of the land, so it was awesome to take a much deeper dive into the fruitful hills, especially in spring.
   At least 30 Streaked Shearwaters were seen from the ferry, which was quite large and had open deck access, so I could freeze my mitts off. Also, a loon sp., a thrush sp., and a dark brown raptor (looked stumpy and owl-like at times...Boobook?) heading north low over the waves.
   I got dropped in the small town of Shinyang 1-Ri in the late afternoon, which I was not expecting, but decided to stay the night to explore the southeast section of the island (I ended up staying three!). I was the only guest in a huge minbak complex on the hill – felt very The Shining. The place, like many other facilities in town have that charming ‘brand-new-yet-falling-apart’ vibe going on.
   On a quick recon jaunt, the bushes in the lovely, quiet hills were heavy with birds! The most numerous migrants were Red-flanked Bluetail (120ish), Black-faced Bunting (70+), Brambling (65+), and Stejneger’s Stonechat (30+). Other migrants were seen in single-digit numbers, such as Asian Stubtail, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Narcissus, Blue-and-White, and Asian Brown Flycatchers, as well as Tristram’s and Little Bunting. Black-crowned Night Herons were heard after sundown. Of note, both Brown-eared and Light-vented Bulbuls inhabit the island, with the latter greatly outnumbered by the former.
  A full day in the field on the 15th – my eyebrows are bruised from binocular reps! A thorough circuit of Chuja’s southeastern headland for the entire morning, and some of the post-siesta afternoon. Again, every trail and path from sea-level to the hills was blanketed with Red-flanked Bluetails – easily over 600 were seen throughout the day. This is a well-estimated number - there was one or more individuals within sight at all times, and I was often flushing one off the trail every few seconds...that's over eight hours in the field. Still plenty of Black-faced Buntings (370+), Bramblings (140+), Stejneger’s Stonechats around the harbour (85+), and Asian Stubtails (40+).
   Also: A Chinese Blackbird was spotted just after dawn, but would not submit to being photographed; seven species of bunting were logged; no woodpeckers seen, but evidence of their existence is around; a Great Crested Grebe in the harbour; a dozen or so Ashy Minivets over the hills; several Dusky Warblers, Red-throated Pipits, and Grey-backed Thrush (I'd forgotten how blue they look in flight!) seen around town. While only one Great Tit was seen, small bands of Yellow-bellied Tits can be found in most corners of mixed hill forest.
  The habitat in and around Sinyang 1-Ri is a welcome example of ‘old school’ island habitat, with a mix of bamboo, conifer and deciduous trees in the hills, scruffy old gardens and small agricultural plots, and overgrown mountain trails. So much birding potential here! Accessible by ferry from both Jeju and the mainland, it’s a wonder more birders haven’t ended up here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Ryukyu redux

male Ryukyu Minivet Pericrocotus tegimae
male Ryukyu Minivet Pericrocotus tegimae
female Ryukyu Minivet Pericrocotus tegimae
female Ryukyu Minivet Pericrocotus tegimae
Ryukyu winds hitting Seogwipo...
  I’ve been without internet for a while, much to catch up on. Firstly, my last day of birding on Jeju, April 13th. Here’s what I wrote about that memorable day…

  Seogwipo was so lively yesterday that I dragged Mike Balfour, my Jeju birding buddy of old, all that way back down from the north-side today so he could try for a Grey Thrush in my second-favourite park. We did not find any, so instead had to settle for a pair of confiding Ryukyu Minivets that called to one another and fed in low trees for 30 minutes before flying off. This is the second record of the species in Korea, after I found one on Gageo Island in May of 2013. The species, once an Ashy Minivet subspecies, has been colonizing northward in Japan lately. Hopefully today’s sighting means they’re also coming this way. Is it possible they will colonize Korea like Light-vented Bulbuls have over the past 20 years, or were these just more rare overshoots? I’m betting they visit coastal Korea more frequently than twice in seven years, and are perhaps overlooked.
  All in all, I think it’s a bit creepy that I found Ryukyu Minivets again. A couple of years ago I actually wrote a story about a birder who gets cursed by a Jeju shaman for some reason and starts seeing Ryukyu Minivets all over the world. Other birders accuse him of stringing, so he hides out in the Arctic. The minivets torment him in great whirling, shreeping flocks, and the guy eventually walks into a swamp because of it. It was such an awesome story that it never got published. Anyway, weiiiiird.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Narc Park

Halla Mountain looms
Grey (Japanese) Thrush Turdus cardis
Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina
Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
female Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
male Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius

female Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
Japanese Bush Warbler Horornis diphone

Seogwipo, April 12, 2019
  The park so nice, I did it twice. After a dawn raid of a small island in the harbour turned up little, I had a siesta then returned to my scruffy park for a couple of hours, because why not, eh. On the way out of the harbour, I watched a pair of Blue Rock Thrushes do a dance, then noted that the Black-winged Stilts had moved on.
  In the park, I encountered Narcissus Flycatchers pouncing on prey from low trees at four separate spots – I’d forgotten how absolutely spoiled rotten I was in Seogwipo when it came to refueling Narcs! Narc Park! Ok, settle down, you’re drunk on flycatchers.
  While I was pondering that I hadn’t seen any Blue-and-White Flycatchers yet, a bold Japanese Bush Warbler came in close to my perch and eyeballed me for a while, before it check-checked its merry way over to the next bush on its patrol route. Then...I saw a Blue-and-white Flycatcher. I noticed that Japanese Bush Warblers sing “S-S-S-S-South KoREA!” Some Japanese White-eyes were seen pulling at spider’s webs, collecting them for nesting materials.
  On the way out, I decided to give what I long-ago dubbed “thrush corner” one last check, and was rewarded with the sight of two (or more) Grey Thrushes foraging under low fruit trees. It’s been a while since I’ve seen one of those! Always a fun bird, and have I mentioned how much I love Turdus thrushes? I have, surely. I've seen eight species of Turdus Thrush there over the years…pretty soon, the Brown-headed Thrushes will be bouncing among the rotting boardwalks, while Ashy Minivets shreep from the trees above them. I won’t see all that, because I’ll be on a tiny island in the Yellow Sea. High five! I may not have internet again for a few days...