Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Last bird of the year

Smog-veiled Suncheon Bay
Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos
   It's December 31st again, and I've managed to sneak in a cheeky birding session this morning, which is becoming something of a personal tradition for this date. After a hairy pre-dawn motorcycle ride out to the bay (frozen fingers, frosty visor, and terrifying black ice), I shuffled around a hazy landscape in which no sounds resounded except for the glorious complaints of Hooded Cranes.
  After a couple of quiet hours, and just as I muttered "What a slow bloody bird day!" to myself, I spotted three LBJs perched immobile at the top of the 'Long-eared Owl' tree. On the large side for buntings and strangely perched in a tree (as opposed to skulking restlessly in the scrub) they had me confounded until I was able to creep in closer. The warm chest had me thinking Meadow Bunting, but a glimpse of a Tree Sparrow-like white cheek clinched it...Pine Bunting! PINE BUNTING! A very long-awaited life bird for me, and one that I had long since given up all reasonable hopes of seeing. I spent a few glorious minutes watching them in the gloomy light before they flew off, seemingly towards the very horizon. Happy New Year indeed!

Here's what I wrote last year on this date:

"There are no suitable adjectives. Snowy *#@%ing Owl. 
 A perfect way to end the year. Interestingly, my birding buds in Korea, JP and Subs, also ended out their years with owlifers. Situational symmetry. I just realized that for the last few years, I've been birding hard on December 31st. In 2013 I was in Seoul searching unsuccessfully for Hazel Grouse, and the last day of 2012 saw Dr. Moores and I freezing in the name of a Long-tailed Shrike at Igidae. Here's hoping that 2015 will bring us all more awesome birds, and hopefully less bad news about bird habitat, as well as every other damn thing."

Thursday, December 24, 2015

More December images

Hooded Crane Grus monacha being sent off by Hooded Crane x Common Crane hybrid
Korean Water Deer a'leaping (Hydropotes inermis)
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla
Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus
Saunders's Gull Chroicocephalus saundersi
  At the crack of dawn tomorrow I'm off to the bay to search for partridges, turtle doves, French hens, calling birds, geese a'laying, swans a'swimming, and perhaps a Western Water Rail, if I've been a very good boy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Banded Oriental Storks in Suncheon (and beyond)

Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana, Ulsan, September 8, 2015, © Johan Kok
Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana, Suncheon, December 16, 2015
Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana, Suncheon, December 16, 2015
Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana, Suncheon, December 19, 2015
  On December 16th, and again on December 19th (with Tim Edelsten), I spotted single Oriental Storks at Suncheon Bay. They were photographed at extreme distance, but it was clear that both were banded, so easily identifiable as different birds. Mr. Edelsten sent me this helpful link to a page written by Japanese researchers who have been banding Oriental Storks since 1998:

  The bands on the December 16th bird are not entirely clear, but the bands appear to be green over blue (?) on the right tarsi and light blue or green over red on the left tarsi – but clearly there is room for interpretation! While the images are almost as dreadful, it seems that the December 19th bird may be J0426, banded on May 25th, 2008...or perhaps J0051, banded on April 6th, 2012.
  A banded Oriental Stork photographed by Johan Kok in Ulsan on September 8th is not specifically identifiable using this link, but it does appear to be ‘related’ to the birds banded in 2012-2013 (several other birds were banded with black over blue on the right tarsi during this period) – perhaps it was banded after 2013?
  A request for further updated information on where these birds were banded has been made on the Kantori group. I’m sure the bird banders will be happy to know their birds have be re-sighted in Korea.
  On the subject of banded Oriental Storks in Korea, apparently 30 pairs of captively-bred Oriental Stork were released in the spring of 2015 by The Eco Institute for Oriental Storks, based in Chungwon. Does anyone know of a website featuring accurate information on these Korean-banded Oriental Storks?

**December 27th update:
  This initial response has been received from Shogo Matsui via the Kantori group, and an email has been sent to the research team that bands Oriental Storks in Japan: 
"Hello, Matt Poll,
Your finding is very interesting, and I have checked about J0426 and J0051 as follows:
J0426 Born on May 25, 2008 Male, Flew away on July 28, 2008, banded at Miki Banding Station.
J0051 Born on April 6, 2012, Female, Flew away on June 11, 2012 Banded at Artificial Nest, Izu-Area.
Your findings should be sent to bird at for their further research, and I am sure they will
appreciate your cooperation.
I hope the above meets your interest.
Shogo Matsui"

Additionally, Mr. Edelsten has found the website for the 'Eco Institute for Oriental Storks' in Chungwon, who appear to band their birds with a numbered white band on the left tarsi:

**December 29 update:
"Dear Mr.MATT
Thank you for information of the banded storks in South Korea from you.

I am Yoshito OHSAKO, a researcher of the Oriental White Stork in
Japan. We have conducted release of the storks bred in captivity since 2005 in Toyooka City, central Japan. Breeding of the released storks started in the wild in 2007. We banded with color rings almost all storks including the wild-bred ones for identification.

The individual sighted in Ulsan is male J0094 born in 2014. One of the storks sighted in Suncheon is female J0051 born in 2012 (with
Black-Black on right and Red-Black-Yellow on left). We already know the movements of the two individuals.

Well, I cannot distinguish other two storks because the photos are
not clear. However, they may be the storks moved from Japan because banding scheme is similar to ours.

I hope you take photos of the Suncheon storks and send some of them to Dr. Kiyoaki OZAKI and me.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely yours,

Yoshito OHSAKO, Dr.
Graduate School of Regional Resource Management,
University of Hyogo
c/o Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork"

Monday, December 14, 2015

Suncheon, November 22 – December 13, 2015

Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis
Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis with Hooded Crane Grus monacha
Eurasian Eagle Owl Bubo bubo with Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
Gloomy Suncheon Bay
A pack of noisy 'bird photo club' members fawning over Robin's lens (nice hat, lady)
  At Suncheon Bay on November 22nd, two Swan Geese, a crisply-marked Rough-legged Buzzard, a Hen Harrier, 25+ Saunders’s Gull, a single Eurasian Hoopoe, and 40+ nearby Rooks stood out on a fairly quiet morning. On the morning of December 6th at the bay, bird sightings included the Swan Geese still, over 300 Greater White-fronted Goose, 15 Eurasian Spoonbills, a Western Osprey, prowling Eurasian Sparrowhawk, a dozen Grey Plovers, two Common Cranes mixed in with about 500 countable Hooded Cranes (with many more presumably dispersed around the bay), as well as several hybrids of the two species.
  On December 13th, the morning started well when I realized that all construction in the area appeared to be over for the winter. The area had a very different feel without the relentless dump truck traffic – the birds seem to have returned. An Eastern Water Rail was spotted several feet from a now-quiet construction site.
  Nearby, a loose flock consisting of five species of bunting kept me on my toes, and it was great to observe them together and try to differentiate their calls. The area also had a good mix of raptors, with Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Buzzard, Eastern Buzzard, Hen Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, and Eurasian Kestrel all present.
  Three White-naped Cranes were a pleasant surprise mixed in with the Hooded Cranes, as well as a Common Crane and two hybrids. On my way out, I had a careful pick through a group of about 150 Hooded Cranes in a quiet field. After about 15 minutes of observation from a covert clump of trees, one bird stood out. It was slightly smaller than the other cranes around and hued a distinct ghostly light grey with rusty daubs. It had its head down feeding much more than the local birds, and when it finally lifted its head my heart skipped a beat – the unmistakeable red forehead was the final puzzle piece – I was looking at a Sandhill Crane! A quick text message to Jason Loghry, Subhojit Chakladar, and Robin Newlin, and they were soon at the bay watching this fortuitous visitor with me. Another amazing and unexpected day of birding with good friends.
  The idyllic scene was not without worrying disturbances however. Groups of noisy cyclists/picnickers from nearby minbaks, an ATV, food delivery vehicles, couples on romantic strolls, and even a group of neon-garbed ‘bird photographers’ were all seen in and around the area meant to be off-limits in the winter to minimize disturbance to the cranes. The latter group had particularly lamentable behaviour, as they made their way around barriers to get close to the cranes, talked (screamed) incredibly loud, and even tried to flush the flock several times in order to get flight shots. They had no binoculars with which to observe the birds, and indeed no interest in the welfare of the birds they were photographing - it was an appalling spectacle.
 In a wooded valley close to my apartment on November 27th, I watched in awe as a Eurasian Eagle Owl was mobbed by three species of corvid as well as Brown-eared Bulbuls. The owl sat well-camouflaged and nonplussed in a pine tree for 20 minutes before flying swiftly across the valley, seemingly shaking its surprised antagonists. I have done this hike over 30 times, but this was the first sign of this mighty owl – perhaps it roosts on a small cliff face nearby? Several Goldcrests, two Pale Thrush, a dozen Eurasian Siskins and three Hawfinch were also notable on this day. On December 7th at the same location I saw 50+ Eurasian Siskins, my first two Cinereous Vultures of the season, as well as several Grey Wagtails and Red-flanked Bluetails that are presumably overwintering. ‘Flying Squirrel Mountain’ was fairly quiet on December 12th, with three Red-flanked Bluetails, several Hawfinch, ‘all the tits’, and a Eurasian Bullfinch (heard only) being notable.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Seosan, November 28-29, 2015

Surreal Seosan
Near Jiri-san
Subs and Loghry scanning Lapland Longspurs amidst the stubble
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus
Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus

Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus (left) with Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus
Cloud of Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus- a very satisfying name to say...try it
Distant Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus
  On November 28-29, I met up with two good friends, Loghry and Subho, for a grueling yet amazing weekend of birding at a huge site still full of birding potential, in spite of signs of trouble everywhere ( We ended up logging 66 species for the weekend, with several surprises among them. Saturday was dim and overcast, with chilly temperatures hovering around freezing, and snow from earlier in the week still covering most of the landscape.
  On a weekend with many highlights, some bird encounters nevertheless stood out as noteworthy. We soon caught up with one of our target species, as 300-400 Lapland Longspurs shimmered restlessly across the landscape in undulating flocks, before coming to land in the fields. They vanished amidst the stubble and skulked among the furrows like mice upon landing, never giving very close looks. Soon after that encounter, we spotted two Tundra Swans mixed up with at least a hundred Whooper Swans, and we spent a long time comparing the two similar species.
  Several hours later, in a memorable and serendipitous birding moment, we pulled the car over next to a man-made pond to have a brief snack, as the rain started up again. While we were eating, all three of us casually looked to the right at the same time and saw a motionless shorebird on a spit of mud several metres from the car. Looking like a ‘Grey-tailed Tattler with issues’ at first glance, we stared at the bird in silent confusion for several seconds before starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It had to be...but it couldn’t WAS...a Long-billed Dowitcher! A most welcome and unexpected encounter with this less than annual vagrant.
  Other notable target birds we spent time with included a Chinese Grey Shrike, a Lesser White-fronted Goose, and three Eurasian Bitterns. Geese were everywhere this weekend, with at least 5,000 Bean and Greater White-fronted Goose seen in and over the fields at all times. The most abundant raptor was Eastern Buzzard, with at least 19 seen over the weekend - several reddish individuals among them. A handful of Common Kestrels and Northern Goshawks were seen patrolling the fields, as well as three Hen Harriers. Multiple flocks of 30-60 Grey-capped Greenfinch and Brambling were seen near villages and lightly wooded areas, and lone Dusky and Naumann’s Thrushes in the same tree was an interesting sight. Yellow-throated, Rustic, and Black-faced Buntings were also present in most scrubby areas.
  On the 29th, the skies were still overcast, and the temperatures were warmer (with most of the snow melting) with intermittent rain. The day was also a much quieter one, bird-wise. In the late morning, a Snow Goose was spotted with several hundred Bean and Greater White-fronted Geese near Seosan Birdland. None of the busloads of visitors to this tourist trap took note of the spectacle of wild geese within a stone’s throw of the parking lot. The visitors we saw were more interested in frightening a caged one-winged Cinereous Vulture and quivering Northern Goshawk by dancing (to the music being pumped out of speakers) and shouting in front of the cages, then laughing when the birds got agitated. These birds, along with a captive Eurasian Eagle Owl and Peregrine Falcon among others, were a pitiful and depressing sight indeed. For those interested in ‘birding’, several oversized fibreglass Hooded Cranes had been planted in a field for guests to look at through scopes. An enclosure next to Birdland held hundreds of Mandarin Ducks in cramped quarters, for some reason. This situation definitely merits further investigation. All in all, this place felt like a poorly thought out and grim attempt to soak up tourist money.