Tuesday, July 5, 2005

"Historical Post" - Birding Korea 2005: shaky beginnings and a spark bird

The view from the roof where I saw my Korean "spark bird"
Looking out my apartment window
The misty back-fields of Gimpo in winter
A bizarre introduction to Korean seafood, Namhae, summer 2005
One of many old bird pics CDs that no longer work - for the best, probably...
...because this was about as good as they got...
...or check out this blob...
Black-naped Oriole - my Korean "spark bird" (picture captured many years later on)
  I didn’t hit the ground running in 2005, when it came to birding in Korea. I spent my first month or so walking around still with scales over my eyes when it came to birds, as I had been doing since the age of 13 or so. From that tender and acne-plagued age, until I saw my Korean spark bird, birding took a backseat to other stuff. Stuff like vague notions of becoming a reluctant rock star, backpacking around Europe, then getting a belated higher education. A decade sure flies when you’re faffing around.
  The first birds I noticed in Korea, “everywhere species” like Great Tits and Brown-eared Bulbuls, did not move my curious soul enough for me to bother looking at them with any more than a casual eye. This all changed on a roof one day in the summer of 2005, when I saw the bird that rocked my world. It jarred me enough to lead me back among the splintered legions of beady-eyed loners in the land of the wilfully insane, the chronically-tired and shifty – birders, of course. Here are some of my musings on that encounter, and my early brushes with Korean birds in the hills of Gimpo, from a thing I wrote:

  “I crossed paths with a good number of birds in the course of these ramblings, but initially wrote them off as not worth my time because of how similar they looked to birds I had seen in Canada. When I saw my first Brown-eared Bulbuls scolding me from the bushes, I dismissed them as some kind of Korean Gray Catbirds and left it at that.
  On my first trek up a small mountain, I took a break about halfway up, thoroughly winded. As I sat on a bench gasping to refill my lungs, a group of diminutive grannies blew past me on the path, blaring trot music from their hip-mounted trail-radios (trot is a hokey blend of disco, country, and Korean folk music). They weren’t out-of-breath in the least. Owned! As I laughed this off, a band of Eastern Great Tits passed low through the trees around me. Ah, weird Chickadees, I thought without much interest.
  But when I saw my first Black-naped Oriole, everything changed. It was August, and I was hiding out on the roof of the school I worked at. Up on that roof I had built myself a loafer’s paradise, outfitted with a broken classroom chair I dragged up one day, and a footrest and table fashioned out of purloined milk crates. I would eat lunch in blissful silence on my rickety throne, then lean over the edge of the roof and watch the farmers working below in the oblong field that was bookended by low ridges. It was leaning over the side of that roof, with ten minutes to go before I was due to teach my first afternoon class, that I re-awoke to birds. That roof is where I saw my Spark Bird.
  The grating cat-like meowing and churring first attracted my attention. It came from the wall of trees on the far side of the farm for several minutes. And then I saw it. A Blue Jay-sized bird burst from the trees and flew towards the woods on the opposite side of the field. Spurred by a sudden move from a farmer perhaps, the bird altered its course towards me. My mouth dropped open as the most magnificent bird I had ever seen flew by at eye-level, at a distance of maybe ten feet.
  The bird that flew past me and inverted the foundations of my world was a real beaut. It was a bright yellow with a black eye-mask, and a vivid red bill. This might sound silly, but I swear it looked right at me, and that we shared a brief “moment.” I remember thinking: That bird looked pissed off! The Black-naped Oriole does indeed wear a permanently stern expression, but in hindsight it wasn’t pissed off, rather, it was challenging me with a sneer. Figure me out! Solve me.
  The bird vanished into the treetops as quickly as it had swooped through my life, and I didn’t re-sight it, despite five minutes of frantic looking. There was no way I could write this one off as a Chickadee. I didn’t know what this resplendent yellow bird was, and it bothered me.
  The next day, while at a second-hand bookstore in Seoul called What the Book?, the first book that caught my eye was a small hard-cover field guide titled Birds of Korea. I bought the book and consumed it. It went everywhere with me, and still does to this day. It is more tape than book by now, and every weathered page is covered in my boyish, scrawled notes. The book was out of date when it came out in 2000, and is full of typos, but I don’t care. That book is my happy place. Every bird in that guide with a check-mark next to it can elicit from me a breathless ten-minute anecdote about my first experience with it.
  The first bird I positively identified with my crisp new field guide was a Brown-eared Bulbul. This scrappy East Asian endemic is a medium-sized grey bird common in most parts of the country, often first identified by its shrieking complaints, sight unseen. I deciphered my first one by using the quick-reference silhouette plates inside the front cover, which was the first and last time I utilized that questionable feature. Brown-eared Bulbul! Totally not a Catbird! Shit yeah!”

(*Note: This is a “historical post.” Whereas I started birding in Korea in 2005, this blog has only been active since early 2012 - these posts are an attempt to consolidate my early birdventures from the various blogs and websites where they reside, largely from the “Archived Bird News“ section of Birds Korea’s excellent website: http://www.birdskorea.org/Birds/Birdnews/BK-BN-Birdnews-archive.shtml. Find more historical posts by clicking on the "Historical posts" tab at the bottom of this post.)