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 titlessness 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 and 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.

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