Monday, January 28, 2019

Scotering up the coast

Black Scoter Melanitta americana
Black Scoter Melanitta americana
Black Scoter Melanitta americana
Black Scoter Melanitta americana
(Note: noisy video, and plays clearer the second time)

Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
Riverside trees and scrub cleared
  Success on my third attempt to find Black Scoter, a small raft of which loiters at a rocky patch up the coast. I watched their synchronized diving antics for quite some time before I noticed a trio of Harlequin Ducks drift through the background (love that Latin name). Been about a decade since I saw one of the handsome ducks off Seongsan, on Jeju. Thanks to Kim Youngwhan for the original intel on the scoters.
  On a down note, the patch of "lovely natural scrub-lined (river)banks" that I gushed about last month has been slashed - 80% of the trees cut down, and most of the scrub. Last month, Siberian Accentors, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Rustic and Yellow-throated Buntings were spotted there. Today? Nothing.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Wrapping up the Jan – Gangneung, January 19-27, 2019

White-tailed Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
White-tailed Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides
Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus
Far Eastern Skylark Alauda japonica (Count 'em!)
The ghost of a window strike
Raccoon Dog Nyctereutes procyonoides
(with mange on its hindquarters)
My stretch of the Namdaechon, on a lovely fresh morning
The fields of birdlessness
Beach-view caravans!
  On the 20th, a day with grand plans ended up feeling bird-quiet, in spite of tallying 55 species. I started up the coast at Sacheon and walked back to Gyeongpo Lake, then west from there. Nothing out of the ordinary, although a 100+ Rustic Bunting flock north of town was a nice sight. A blustry morning gave way to smog in the arvo.
  The whole town smelled of shit on the 23rd, and was smoggy as per usual. Halfway down the river, a Eurasian Bittern was spotted hiding from a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam of photographer vehicles, while a restless White-tailed Sea Eagle worked the sandbars nearby.
  Three days later, I embarked on my 70th birding session since arriving in Gangneung in mid-October. It was a lovely morning for a ‘big circuit’ of river and lake, with no smog, and a respectable skiff of snow on the ground. I’ve found birds act differently after a snow in certain spots in Korea – desperate, hungrier maybe. Perhaps the prey birds have their camouflage nullified by the snow, and the predators make the most of it.
  The Chinese Grosbeak flock was in place at their regular mid-river spot. Usually numbering about a dozen birds, it had swelled to 20, about two-thirds of which were males.
  Just as I was grumbling to myself about how I’d only seen Meadow Buntings once (way back in late October, north of town) in Gangneung, I heard a weak series of tsips in some scrub near the lake. Six Meadow Buntings! Booyeah! Maybe next time I’ll grumble to myself about Ryukyu Robins, heh heh. I ended up also tallying Little, Black-faced, Pallas’s Reed, and Yellow-throated (but no Rustic) Buntings, in thin numbers.
  Shortly after that, my presence triggered a large flight of Far Eastern Skylarks in the fields, which conservatively numbered 110. A mangy Raccoon Dog was then seen shambling along in an agricultural ditch. Every Raccoon Dog I’ve seen in Gangneung has been afflicted with mange to some degree.
  Where the fields surrender to apartment canyons, a sighting of the same crafty Northern Goshawk from a few weeks ago, again on stakeout in the same spot in a wide agricultural canal. The day ended with 57 species, seven of which were gulls.
  On the 27th, a trek through the fields that lie uncomfortably close to the airbase. I’ve seen interesting birds there in the past (Amur Falcon, Daurian Jackdaw, Common Starling, Pin-tailed Snipe), but it was super duper quiet.
  Tomorrow I’m up into the hills, and there are plans afoot for a grand vacation trip west, into the Monstropolis.

  In other news, remember that time I saw a Black Woodpecker? That was rad.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Mid-January odds n sods – Gangneung, January 16-18, 2019

Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus
Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus (and friends)
Eurasian Teal Anas crecca
Long-billed Plover Charadrius placidus
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
Wren house, my house
  On the 16th, a Eurasian Bittern was spotted on a pitifully narrow sliver of suitable habitat along the river. On the coast, a Long-billed Plover foraged by a canal. I tried to scrunch up my eyes to make it turn into a Common Ringed Plover, but it wasn’t happening.
  The following day, I was delighted to discover that a feisty Eurasian Wren had made its home in a pile of scrub that rests up against the outside wall of my ‘compound.’ Guess it’s my roommate. A Grey-headed Woodpecker has been screaming and hollering in my yard lately as well.
  Relatively quiet around the lake on the 18th. Three plump Siberian Accentors were spotted in a low pine, and then a Dusky Thrush came through. I also got quick looks at a thrush with dark, plain grey-looking upperparts, but could not relocate the bird. It’s entirely possible that I want to see a ‘throated’ thrush so badly that I have started to bird-lucinate.

Signing off from Success Valley

The valley of mixed emotions
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
  *Typing breathlessly.* I had a battle plan for finding the Black Woodpecker this morning – return to my raised observation perch stupid early, to get up there for a chance at surveying the valleys before the busloads rumble up. After a 45-minute sweaty scramble up the slopes, I got to the platform as the winds built. D’oh. In spite of being alone and having commanding views into three valleys, I had a foreboding tickle as I settled into my stakeout.
  After only 20 minutes in the birdless wind, caustic despair boiled in my loins as the sun tried to rise above the slopes. I won’t see the bird. Will I really come all the way back up here tomorrow? WTF am I doing up here? My resolve was tested further when a woman materialized on the platform, making a complete set of bizarre noises, unaware of my presence. Then I heard someone's ridiculous hip-mounted ‘trail radio’ blaring from the valley floor below. Was Noisy Woman the vanguard of an inevitable crush of sloshed hikers?
  Drrrt! The flight trill of a Black Woodpecker jangled out through the smog, and from quite close. I panicked, and bolted up the hill towards where the trill came from…then checked myself, and noticed I was back in the dense, closed-in woods. I forced myself to breathe deeply a few times, and headed back down to the only spot where I had a chance of seeing a Black Woodpecker in flight. When I got back down, the woman was gone, the wind had ebbed, and the flight calls were back. Then I heard a loudish pecking – not the machine-gun bursts from last weekend (for display?), but the steady thunking of a foraging Black Woodpecker.
  I ceased breathing as the knocking stopped and the flight calls got ever closer…why am I not seeing itit sounds so fuggin' close. Then nothing. Nothing for 30 seconds, or maybe it was 10 minutes – whichever it was, my breath was held the entire time. Two chattering Eurasian Jays broke the stalemate with an aggressive pass at a dead tree, flushing a black, crow-like bird into view on the far side of the valley. It called, brrt brrt, and perched upright. I got the bins on it with trembling hands. Big black bird. Red crown. Ivory bill. Yellow eye. Black Woodpecker! This isn't real. It let out a squonky song as I watched it, then proceeded to forage for about ten minutes, before brrting off in a poof of sparkling purple ghost-smoke.

  I saw it. Seventh time’s the charm! This bird has me feeling good. You could punch me in the throat right now, and I’d giggle.
  On my way down the hill, I heard (what sounded to my ears like) a Spotted Nutcracker screeling from a high peak...but still not ruling out a Eurasian Jay acting goofy. Also heard another odd finch call.
  With hours to kill before the bus, I went for a Ural Owl nosy. I faffed along some deer trails, and ended up lying down in the woods for a bit to eat fistfuls of celebratory jelly beans. There was some interesting tree damage in one stand of old pines – large, flaked-off sections of bark. Probably nothing...
  As I came around a sharp bend on the way out, I almost stepped on a Eurasian Sparrowhawk that was feeding on the trail. It blurred up into a tree, trying to lug its prey along. It failed, and the headless, half-plucked horror torso of an Oriental Turtle Dove fell at my feet with a hollow clumpk. When I was far enough down the trail, the sparrowhawk retuned to its brunch feast. Impressively large kill for such a dainty raptor, I thought!
  Anyway, I saw the Black Woodpecker. I saw it. What the hell will I do with my Sunday now? Time to head higher into the hills I guess.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

All Disappointment Valley, all the time

A wan veil of toxic smog
Owl! Owl!
Mask birding weather (from Misei Misei app)
Well, at least I'm not in Seoul, sigh
(from Asia Air Quality app)
Widespread arboreal evidence of Black Woodpeckers

My own perfect little slice of birder hell: busloads of tipsy pensioners
seethe onto the platform where I had set up my Black Woodpecker stakeout,
harshing my mellow…serenity nowserenity now
Just a Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea doing nuthatch things...
  Sadly I’ve become fixated on the bird, the place. Black Woodpecker. Disappointment Valley. On Saturday morning (January 12th), the theme was smog and rain, together at last. It burns! It burns!
  I focused first on the spot where I heard the Ural Owl call last weekend. Problem is, it’s a pretty damn large spot – ‘the entire side of a valley’ large. After two hours of what I figured what a fairly thorough scouring of the treetops of the tall pines in the area, when I pulled back to a side ridge for perspective I realized I had only managed to check maybe 10% of the trees on that side. Or 5%. Or whatever. Point is, it’s a huge place, so not easy to locate one roosting owl. I’ll keep at it, I suppose. One interesting thing I noticed was the absolute tit-lessness of that side of the valley, compared to the other side, which is always teeming with tits (well-titted?).
  Onto the next frustrating target, Black Woodpecker. I was gobsmacked by the extent and volume of Black Woodpecker damage on trees around the ‘new’ side of the valley I surveyed, betraying extensive foraging, and even probable nesting 
– both very recent, and less so. The preferred zone of foraging appeared to be 200-350 meters above sea level.
  I ended up hearing 'regular' and flight calls from Black Woodpeckers on four separate occasions, but the pine forest was much too thick to see further than 100 feet, so the birds remained unseen.
  After putting all the aural encounters together and getting a feel for the topography, I started to put together a picture of birds with a massive individual range, skipping from valley to valley, calling rarely, but always crossing at narrow points. Towards mid-afternoon, I found the perfect spot to observe the Black Woodpeckers in potential flight – a narrow spot in the valley, overlooking both sides, with great views. Unfortunately, I had to get going to catch the ‘one per afternoon’ bus back into town, but vowed to return to this ideal overlook early on Sunday.
  There was a soupçon of frost mixed in with the smog in Disappointment Valley the following morning – I shall call it smost. Or frog. Hmm, smost it is. I hustled my way back to the choke-point bright and early, in the spot overlooking the valley. As I set up for my planned lengthy stakeout, I giggled Today is the day! to myself. Shouldn’t have done that.
  I had my first hit fairly quickly – ten minutes after settling down in the quiet spot, I heard a Black Woodpecker calling, then tracked a flight call heading towards me. Yes, keep coming, that’s itone more minuteget those bins ready…and then it all went to shit.
  It started as a sparkle of yelps coming up the trail towards me, but quickly built to an ungodly, cackling roar. Just as a Black Woodpecker in flight should have burst into glorious view, 50 tipsy pensioners staggered onto the platform where I sat, bringing along an absolute ruckus. My placid perch swiftly devolved into ridiculously noisy shitshow shenanigans, harshing my mellow fully and completely.
  I Bittersweet Symphony’d my way down the trail, swimming upstream against the human centipede of chattering humanity – never-ending busloads of screamers, squawkers, scowlers, hooters, and horkers.
  With much haste, I skedaddled over to the other half of the choke-point. While it is on the quieter side of the valley, it does offer far more impeded views. As I was heading from one side valley to another, I heard, for the first time, the unmistakable machine-gun clatter of the Black Woodpecker pecking a dead tree, and from quite close. By the time I got up the small hill two minutes later, of course I heard a brief bripp of the flight call, then the salvoes of knocking continued from the far side of the valley. After a face-palm and further 90-minute stakeout from that side of the choke-point…nothing.
  Yes, both target species are susceptible to being lured in with playback, but that’s not how I want this story to end. When I look at the ticks in my field guides next to the species I’ve seen, it’s not about the ticks for me, it’s about the memories. Sounds cheesy, but yeah, each illustration calls up the memory of the first time I saw a given bird, for better or worse. I can flick through a bird book and zone out for hours on all the birding stories that play out on the pages. When it’s all said and done, I’d rather not have my birding story read like one of those birding memoirs that goes: “Then the guide did playback and we saw the rare species, then we went to the next spot, and the guide did playback and we saw…etc.”
  When I look at the tick next to the Black Woodpecker in my tattered Birds of Korea guide, I will remember each of the ups and many downs I faced on my endless (6 days/34.5 hours so far) time spent shivering in the woods, shaking my fist at the sky and cursing the fates. I will fondly remember that indescribable feeling when I first saw the vaunted king of the woods. If only I could bottle that feeling, I’d be something something. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, who knows. I keenly await that day where I can transition from birding self-flagellation to self-adulation when it comes to this bird. I’m not entirely convinced it’s not some dark forest spirit, sent to test my resolve.
  All in all it’s been a real kick in the fire eggs, but I’ll be back. Heck, It’s usually nice and quiet up there, in any case, and there’s a swell supporting cast of lesser imps, sprites, and demons in those woods.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Non-valley news – Gangneung, January 9-11, 2019

Coal Tit Periparus ater
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Long-tailed Tit feeding frenzy
(note: videos play clearer on the second go)

Pine sap buffet (or...demon?)
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis
White Wagtail Motacilla alba ocularis
male White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis
female White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis
White Wagtail (leucopsis subspecies) sashaying through a ditch

  Just got back from D-Valley and I’d rather not talk about it right now, so here’s what I saw during the week.
  On January 9th, some interesting birds were skulking along the banks of the Namdae River – 12 overwintering Chinese Grosbeak, a quick Hawfinch, a Siberian Accentor, and several Little and Black-faced Buntings (that reminded me of Song Sparrows) mixed in with a band of Yellow-throated Buntings. A flyby White-tailed Sea Eagle put up a cloud of gulls at the photog spot.
  In the hills behind my house the following day, I watched 20+ Long-tailed Tits writhing over a tree trunk in a pine sap feeding frenzy – first time I’ve witnessed such behaviour. Coal and Great Tits came down to see what the fuss was about, but after taste-tests, they didn’t seem to have the taste for the sap. The walk ended with eight Olive-backed Pipits.
  On the 11th, I did Gyeongpo Lake and beyond in the morning murk. Yay smog! A huge raft of gulls floated in the middle of the lake, just beyond the range of my binoculars/patience. Fairly quiet overall, with a dozen Pallas’s Reed Buntings and another Siberian Accentor being notable.
  At the end of my walk I got onto some White Wagtails in an agricultural ditch. I’ve only been seeing lugens in Gangnenung, but I ran into an ocularis and a pair of leucopsis mixed in with some lugens (I...think?). I originally had the female pegged as a potential baicalensis, a subspecies rare to Korea – which would have made little sense, especially at this time of year. *Shakes fist at the ambiguous baicalensis illustrations in the new Birds of Japan guide, then high-fives knowledgeable birding friends.* Yet another reminder of how little I really know when it comes to Korea’s birds. Guess that’s one of the reasons I’m into birding - I enjoy digging myself out of the well of ignorance, one confusing fistful of subspecies at a time.'s 2019? Wtf.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Dispatches from Disappointment Valley

The valley of the Black Woodpeckers

Suspected Black Woodpecker work

Jebi! Jebi!
Varied Tit Parus varius
Brown-eared Bulbul Hypsipetes amaurotis
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus
  On December 30th, I decided to check out a wooded series of valleys just outside town on a whim. I blinked, and somehow I’ve been there four times in the past week. Every time I go, I hear something potentially rare (and long-awaited)…but cannot for the life of me manage to clap eyeballs on it. I have now heard four (three) presumptive scarce species in this valley without seeing the birds. I was hoping my ‘heard but not seen’ list would shrink this year, not expand.
  On that first day (December 30th), I heard what I presume were two Black Woodpeckers (both the regular call and flight call), from the next ravine over. Instead of heading towards the birds, I dumbly stood on a bluff and hoped they would head my way or show themselves. They did not. A Goshawk sent them one valley further, and by the time I caught up to them again, a guy cutting down trees with a chainsaw clinched their retreat.
  I returned on the first day of the new year and stood in the cold, windy woods for about five hours with no sign of the woodpeckers, other than numerous examples of tree damage typical of Black Woodpeckers – large, oblong holes low on dead trees (with some noted on the trees that have been cut down). I spotted about 40 White-cheeked Starlings on the long walk back to civilization.
  On the 5th, I was cranky due to the horrendous smog (and resultant need to hike and bird in a mask), and my continuing and prodigious inability to see any of the potentially rare birds I kept hearing in the maddening valley of perdition.
  No sign of ‘the’ woodpeckers, but a Spotted Nutcracker did call twice from the tallest of the peaks that loom above the valley. Of course, not having seen the bird, which is high on my wish list, I can’t rule out mimicry from a Eurasian Jay, and definitely will not be ticking it.
  The day took a positive turn when I found a male Hazel Grouse in a remote ravine, then a dozen Eurasian Siskins feeding on catkins, both Gangneung firsts for me. Things again went off the rails with a piercing, atonal trill from some pines 20 feet directly above me. I’ve never heard the striking call before, and, you guessed it, was unable to see the birds that produced it. After extensive Xeno-canto-ing when I got home, the call that most closely resembled what I heard belonged to the Two-barred Crossbill, a record which would have been insane…had I seen the birds. Not claiming that species, of course, which it probably wasn’t. Maybe it was something much more common trying out a new call? I’d settle for Red Crossbill. Bah humbug.
  Gorgeous weather the following day, and mercifully haze-free. At 8:30 a.m., I heard a single, bassy “BOO” from the opposite side of the steep valley. Hooo was that? After more extensive Xeno-canto rummaging, I again settled on a rare species as the culprit – Ural Owl. Yaayyy, another elusive bird I came within 100 feet of, but did not see.
  Forty-five minutes later, as I was descending the final ridge before “Black Woodpecker Ravine,” I again heard the flight call of a Black Woodpecker – flying away from the whine of a chainsaw that had just started up. I didn’t hear one again all day. I took that as a cue to lie down next to a burial mound and take a sun-nap – eyes closed, ears wide open. When I returned from the land of wind and ghosts, I Spidermanned (or is it Tarzanned) my way up a super-steep and sketchy mountainside with no trail, pulling myself up an extended cliffy bit by clinging onto saplings, just to claim some small measure of victory over the Valley of Disappointment.
  Maybe I oughta let myself and the cursed site breathe a little, take a break. Maybe I should try a new, higher mountain. Maybe I should stop neglecting the lake and river. Or just maybe I should spend every free moment I have there, progressively losing my mind in the woods, one bird, one strange day at a time.
  Anyway, here are some mediocre pictures of common-as-muck birds that also live in the valley.