Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Historical post" - Ilsan and Deokjeok-do, March 2008

Stejneger's Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri
left: Siberian Accentor Prunella montanella  right: Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
Yellow-bellied Tit Periparus venustulus
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
left: Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis  right: Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
Far Eastern Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Deokjeok ferry in Incheon harbour
Excited to hit Deokjeok with my Cracker Jack binos, giving the Korean "Fightiiiiing!" gesture
Testing out my new lens on my first Siberian Accentor, using a glove as high-tech rain shield
Why check in when you can bird in the rain?
Deokjeok-Do, March 29-30, 2008 
  Great birding weekend on DeokJeok-Do (‘Do’ can mean island in Korean), with a good mix of Winter and Summer visitors crossing paths, and several surprises (cool and steady rain on Saturday, cool and cloudy on Sunday.) Super spotter Blaine Jones helped greatly. The 200-year old pine trees that line the beach were exploding with large numbers of Yellow-throated Buntings, as well as Great Tits. Long-tailed (magnus), Varied, Coal, and Marsh Tits, as well as Meadow and Rustic Buntings were also seen, in much smaller numbers. White Wagtails (lugens) have also seemingly taken over the island, with large groups seen in many areas.
  A Bull-headed Shrike (whose white wing patch was obscured by ruffled feathers) surveyed a valley from a treetop. About five male, and two female Stejeneger's Stonechats were active among some reeds and bushes. A flock of a dozen Chinese Grosbeaks noisily flew between trees. Four Siberian Accentors, a Green Sandpiper, three Hoopoes, several Daurian Redstarts, plentiful Eurasian Magpies and Brown-eared Bulbuls, and several Naumann’s and Dusky Thrushes were also seen on Saturday. The beach was quiet apart from a raft of about 30 Mallards and Spot-billed Ducks, as well as some Black-tailed Gulls. A presumed Black-crowned Night Heron was briefly seen, and heard on Saturday night.
  Sunday, March 30 started with two mysteries – a large, unidentified brown owl was briefly seen flying between some cliffs and a narrow valley. Later on, a loud, mournful and piercing whistle was heard every 8 seconds coming from a stand of pines. Two Eurasian Wrens, a pair of Blue Rock Thrush, a Goldcrest, a pair of Temminck’s Cormorants, a male Brambling in summer plumage, several noisy Jays and Rufous Turtle Doves were seen near the beach. At least 15 Ring-necked Pheasants conspired to repeatedly startle anyone walking on a path next to a weedy field.
  A major highlight was a group of four Light-vented Bulbuls spotted near some bamboo. Another surprise was a pair of Eastern Oystercatcher (possibly two pairs, as two were seen on opposite sides of the island within a short period of time.) The biggest surprise was a Yellow-bellied Tit (it appears to be a male in breeding plumage), which was associating with a large flock of at least 100 Great Tits. It was seen only briefly, and could not be relocated. A Grey Wagtail was seen near the ferry port. A smallish black and white bird was briefly but clearly seen through binoculars next to the moving ferry. It was flapping rapidly, very close to the water, and after consulting pictures, I’m 95% confident it was an Ancient Murrelet in winter plumage.

More cringe-worthy, over-enthusiastic notes from 2012

  I’d been to Deokjeok-do a few times with friends over the years, and every time, I spent a little less time socializing on the beach, and a little more time birding. This was my first time going with a camera, and my new binoculars. I picked up some little Bushnells at a reasonable price in Seoul, and they made a huge difference. I had been using crappy (like looking through two straws) little 10$ binos I bought off the street in Taiwan, and they were garbage, but I guess I never noticed until I got the Bushnells! So I was pretty excited to get birding with my new gear, and especially since it was late March, a great time of year to catch the start of the big-time spring migration season. 
  I went for a long walk in the afternoon, from the beach area, up through the scrubby woods and bamboo thickets to the base of Bijobong Mountain, and back the long way, through farmer’s fields and past tidal reed beds on the harbour side of the beach. A great little mix of habitats.
  In the hills near the base of the mountain, I spotted a few Siberian Accentors flitting around in the weedy scrub in some abandoned greenhouses. I managed to get a decent shot of one of them, in spite of the heavy rain at the time. I used a glove to try to protect my precious new lens! The Siberian Accentor is quite a handsome bird, and unfortunately I haven’t seen any more since that day. Other highlights from that walk were my first Chinese Grosbeaks (spotted in a flock of about 20 in a berry tree), first good look at the stunning Hoopoe, and my first Stejneger's Stonechats. I spotted a female in a reedy area near the beach, and in spite of having studied my Birds of Korea guide, I couldn’t figure out what it was. The picture became clearer when the crisp male made an appearance. Great bird, I’d come to see hordes of them in Jeju farm fields later on.
  The second day blew the first day out of the water! I woke up very early (I’m not a morning person!) and spotted what had to have been a Eurasian Eagle Owl near the beach. A huge bird! After spotting some decent stuff near the beach, I went back up towards the bamboo patches at the base of the mountain. It was there that I saw a small group of birds in the scrub. Light-vented Bulbuls! I had a hard time steadying my hands enough to take a few pictures. The Light-vented Bulbul had only been seen a few times in Korea at that point, usually on other Yellow Sea islands. It’s been colonizing eastward into Korea from China lately. If that was the last bird I saw on this trip, I would have been happy.
  The best bird of the trip was the result of a happy twist of fate. Our original ferry back to Incheon was delayed due to technical issues, so we had an extra couple of hours on the island to kill. After taking a break at the pension where my friends and I were staying, I went for another walk down towards the beach and harbour area. On my way down the beach, I noted clouds of Great Tits teeming in the pines along the beach. As I was leaving the beach, a tit dropped out a tree and landed on the sand about ten feet in front of me. I saw the flash of yellow and froze – Yellow-bellied Tit! I managed to get my camera up and got a picture or two before it flew back up into the trees. The bird was actually so close that the lens couldn’t focus properly. This record was among the first few for Korea. This is another bird that is said to be colonizing Korea. The stunning red eyes of the Eastern Oystercatchers (another lifer!) on the way out were the cherries on top of what was truly an epic birding weekend.

Evidence of a drop in water levels
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos kizuki 
(bizarrely, a major conservation group 'borrowed' this image last year and misrepresented it as having been taken by a member of an Asian royal family...)
Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Chungju, March 22, Danyang, March 23, 2008
  Managed to sneak in some birding on a ‘non-birding’ trip, this rainy and warm weekend. In Chungju near the dam, the highlight on the quiet lake was a pair of Mandarin Ducks, sticking close to the shore. Five Common Mergansers were also on the lake (the water level of which has dropped by about 50 feet since September - perhaps let out of the dam?), along with a Little Grebe. An unidentified buzzard circled high over a nearby mountain, while two Meadow Buntings fed in a lot next to a road. A vocal and bold Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker searched for food in the nearby trees. Several Daurian Redstarts were loudly singing and calling. Also seen was a fast-moving brown lizard about 10 cm long (the first lizard I’ve seen in Korea). In Danyang, four Grey Herons, a Common Sandpiper, and a Japanese Wagtail were spotted on rocks next to the river. Later in the day in East Seoul, a Daurian Jackdaw was seen perched on a light post near the bus station.

2012 notes: I was happy to sneak in some birding in on this trip, including my first Mandarin Ducks. I was five feet off the ground after seeing them – a truly spectacular bird. I would later regularly see huge rafts of 30-300 of them on Jeju! I never got tired of Mandarin Ducks.

left: Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria right: Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus
Chinese Nuthatch Sitta villosa
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Brown-eared Bulbul Microscelis amaurotis
Long-tailed Tit left: Aegithalos caudatus caudatus  right: Aegithalos caudatus magnus
Ilsan Lake Park, March 15, 16, 2008 
  A Warm and hazy morning and afternoon in Ilsan. Shortly after entering the park, a flock of eight Chinese Grosbeaks flashed by. The unexpected highlight was a Chinese Nuthatch, which hung upside down at the top of a tree for a few seconds, before flying off.
  A female Pale Thrush lurked in a ditch. The resident Moorhen swam near a pair of domesticated Swan Geese.
  About 50 Spot-billed ducks, a Little Grebe, five Naumann’s Thrush, and three Daurian Redstarts were also observed over the weekend. There were flyovers on both days of several ‘V’ formations of Greater White-fronted Geese, heading away from the river. Also seen were several flocks of singing Yellow-throated Buntings, several Brown-eared Bulbuls, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and some Eurasian Magpies busily gathering nesting materials. Interesting to watch was a small mixed group of tits, including both magnus and caudatus Long-tailed Tits, as well as Great and Marsh Tits.
  A prolonged attempt to re-find the Chinese Nuthatch and Chinese Grosbeaks on Sunday was unsuccessful. Birds present in the park a week ago, but not seen this weekend include six lugens White Wagtails, several Goldcrests, and eight Tufted Ducks.

2012 notes: I was walking around in a daze after seeing my first Chinese Grosbeak, a striking bird when you get a good look at it. I was also quite excited about getting a picture of two subspecies of Long-tailed Tit together. Far south on Jeju, I only ever saw the trivirgatus subspecies, and Long-tailed Tits were much less common overall (seen only scarcely in steep, remote valleys), when compared with the Seoul Area (seen regularly in most wooded area in the winter).
  The day got a whole lot better when I spotted a small bird dangling from the top a tree, as I was headed out. I looked at it for a while through the binos, and realized I was dealing with a nuthatch, but a strange one. The Eurasian Nuthatch is blue-ish gray, and skulks along tree trunks in a manner very similar to North American nuthatches. This nuthatch was swinging listlessly from the branches, and seemed to be coloured differently. I thought it looked good for a Chinese Nuthatch, but had to rely on some help from fellow birders on Birds Korea’s identification forum. I don’t think I trusted myself enough to say ‘This is a Chinese Nuthatch.’ They’re pretty rare – I think this was maybe only the second seen in Korea that year. More fuel for the theory that a lot of ‘rare’ birds are actually just under-observed in places like Korea. It’s definitely interesting to have an entire area of a country essentially to yourself when it comes to birding. I like it. 

Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
left: Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus  right: Grey-capped Greenfinch Carduelis sinica 
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Paradoxornis webbianus
Asian Comma Polygonia C-aureum
Fields and stream near Baeksok Station, Ilsan, March 8, 2008 
  A walk through some farmer’s fields on a warm sunny day produced a sure sign of Spring: butterflies (Asian Comma). Two Common Kestrels patrolled the fields, flushing nine twittering Grey-Capped Greenfinch. Several inquisitive Vinous-throated Parrotbills weaved in and out of some reeds nearby. Also seen was a Grey Heron, several Great and Marsh Tits, about 30 Rufous Turtle Doves, and a pair of Common Teals. No sign of the Ruddy Shelducks from two weeks ago.

2012 notes: My last bird-walk with the little 70-300mm Sigma lens (until the Canon needed repairs a couple of years later). I remember having a couple of good-natured chats with smiling farmers on this gorgeous day. I got a good picture of a Vinous-throated Parrotbill, which is no easy feat! These tiny pinkish-brown birds zip around endlessly in the underbrush in large groups, rarely sitting still. They don’t stray as far south as Jeju Island, which is a shame, because they always cheered me up when I saw them near Seoul. I got a picture of a butterfly, and Andreas Kim and I had a little email discussion about what kind it was. For a second, I thought to myself ‘Should I take up butterfly watching?’. The answer was no.

(*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: Find more historical posts by clicking on the "Historical posts" tab at the bottom of this post.
  For this post, most of images are lamentably poor-resolution screensaves, as many of the original photo files were lost in the infamous computer crash of 2011.)

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