Saturday, November 24, 2018

Smew arrivals: Gangneung, November 23-24, 2018

Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana
Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana
Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana
Great Egret Ardea alba
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
male Smew Mergellus albellus 
female-type Smew Mergellus albellus
Long-billed Plover Charadrius placidus
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica
Too slow...
pitiful pair of mangy Raccoon Dog Nyctereutes procyonoides
This is the formerly scrubby spot Youngwhan recently told me about with a broad smile on his face: “This place is always good in winter for small birds, especially interesting buntings.” And now it’s a wrecked pile of garbage, being prepared for the construction of something inevitably stupid. Bah humbug. 
The desolation of smog (from “Asia Air Quality” app)
  I adore that word. Smew. SMEW. Smew. Try it. Lovely bird too, innit.
  On Friday the 23rd, an early-morning river mission was undertaken under fresh blue skies. This long walk was designed to compensate for most likely being house-bound on Sunday, due to a grim smogcast. Shitcrap. Anyway, trying to make lemonade this time 'round, innit. Things could be worse, they always can.
  The first highlight was a Japan-banded Oriental Stork that was courteous enough to strut mid-river in the spot where the photogs coagulate. Neat, I’ll look up where and when it was banded later.
  I suspect the plover from the other day was a Long-billed Plover, and I spent almost 30 minutes watching one feed on a small riverside smudge of sand. Closer to the sea, I spied three Ruddy Shelducks, super-cool bird.
  The next day, it rained all morning, so I made a mid-afternoon trip to Gyeongpo Lake when the clouds moved on. I recorded 44 species in three hours, which ain’t half bad for November, I think.

  It’s been getting colder in this corner of Gangwon-do. Gangneung didn’t get the snow Seoul did, but the surrounding mountains have picked up a handsome dusting. While it wasn’t Canada cold, there was a chipper wind in the fields, in weather that’s finally feeling wintry.
  About ten minutes into my walk, I was surprised when the Oriental Stork came in hot and low right over my head, and landed in a small pool by a water treatment plant, near a large pack of suspicious Great Egrets. The stork was flushed three times in ten minutes by nearby pedestrian traffic, and after the last disturbance, the huge bird circled high (in disgust?) then headed north along the coast, with purpose.
  Later on, three Whooper Swans were spotted on the lake, although the yellow/black ratio on one individual's bill had me thinking Tundra Swan for a minute or two there (comparison shot here:

  What else? More Northern Lapwings in the fields, more ducks on the lake, as it should be in winter. Oh, and a Merlin. Good looks at elegant Siberian Accentors and Goldcrests in the ‘Yellow-bellied Tit’ patch of pines. No re-sighting of the Water Rail – there’s your ultimate ‘the harder you look the better it hides’ species.
  At the end of the walk, a buffy passerine with a flash of profound orange in the tail silently flushed low from one clump of reservoir reeds to another. I got a Bluethroat jizz from the bird, but there was an odd Meadow Bunting and several Daurian Redstarts in the area, so probably best to stick to the regular suspects before shouting Bluethroat in a crowded theatre.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The joys of backyard birding

Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos canicapillus
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos canicapillus
(Brown-eared Bulbul screeching in the background)

(Pro tip: the second time the videos are played, they're way clearer for some reason)

  When I need a recharge, I hit the quiet hills that loom over my backyard. While there hasn't been anything spectacular up there so far, it's always awesome to listen to the calling birds being drowned out by the shush of the wind in the 80-foot pines.
  As I was heading back home today from a lazy ramble, I spotted two smaller woodpeckers. One was a Japanese Pygmy, and I had written the second one off as the same when it made a call that sounded, to my rusty ear, much closer to that of a Great Spotted. When I got up on it, I was stunned to be standing 10 feet from a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker! This is a scarce species that has declined in most of its South Korean range, and whose status seems to exist in a veil of uncertainty. What? Anyway, this badass bird made my day. Haven't seen one since 2008, I believe.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Doomsmog, Railfail, and the Granny Bus: Gangneung, November 12-18, 2018

Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Common Pochard Aythya ferina
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major
Far Eastern Skylark Alauda japonica
Far Eastern Skylark Alauda japonica
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria 
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Gyeongpo Lake
The dreaded tokebis (goblins)
All aboard the cheerful granny bus
38 in a sea of filth (from “Asia Air Quality” app)
  It’s been a smoggy week, but at least Gangneung seems to have been spared the worst of it, especially compared to Seoul. But still, ew. Currently working on building my own air purifier – the parts set me back about 35$, which is a steal compared to the 200$ they charge for the shiny store-bought ones (it’s just a fan in a box with a filter at one end, folks).
  Personal firsts for Gangneung this week included Gadwall and a Glaucous Gull at Gyeongpo Lake on the 17th, and a Siberian Accentor along the river on the 18th. Waterfowl diversity and numbers are building with each passing day 
– let’s see if a North American rarity shows up this year on the lake.
  On the morning of the 15th, I had another wander around the fields near the airbase. It was one of those mornings where the sun always seemed to be in my eyes, and all birds were silhouetted, all the time. It was in such challenging light conditions that I spotted a lone starling on the wires – Common Starling! Not so common in Korea. Then it was more hard luck with flocks of nervous Far Eastern Skylarks flushing from far off. At one point, a noticeably smaller lark was seen among such a flock. Sigh.
  When the birding was done, I ended up in a nowhere-town again, and there were no cabs in sight. I walked back last time, but didn’t want to expend the leg energy, or the 90 minutes needed for the trip, so I waited at the loneliest bus stop in the world. After a 20-minute doze in the sun, a little bus chugged around the corner and moaned to a stop. The driver basically said it would get me home…after the scenic tour of the surrounding farm villages. Sweet! Other than me, the bus was peopled with a chatty squad of Korean rural grannies and their colourful bindles. These amicable old ladies are tougher than anyone reading this – they’ve been down a few roads, and helped build Korea into what it is today – the nation owes them a lot.
  On the 17th, Youngwhan was there to witness me getting fooled by a skulky juvenile Moorhen, near the Water Rail ditch from last week. I was temporarily sold on the fact that it was the same bird, and I displayed an embarrassing degree of ardor. Railfail! I'll find it again.
  The following day, I walked the river and lake, which took all morning. On the river, I spied a distant ‘necklaced’ plover that was seen from extreme distance, in poor light, and a better angle could not be had from my side of the river. Probably Long-billed. In related news, Common Ringed Plover, rare in the Korean context, are apparently recorded with some regularity along the Namdaechon in winter. Something to keep alert for.
 When I was almost done for the day, I bumped into a friend of Youngwhan’s, and the three of us ended up checking out the scrubby, 'old-fashioned' fields between Gangneung and Yangyang. Loads of Far Eastern Skylarks (I…think?) about, and got better looks due to being in a vehicle. One impressive flock held well over 100 birds. The day felt unbirdy on the whole, so I was surprised when the list for the day almost hit 50.
  Picked up a copy of Mark Brazil’s new regional offering, Birds of Japan. Maybe I’ll have some thoughts on it in a bit, still sizing it up.

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
and 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-breasteed 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 quiet spot I don't often visit. 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-type 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 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.