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 lusty 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. 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
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-breasted 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 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 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.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Gangneung week the third, October 21-28, 2018

Plenty of productive, scruffy habitat along the Namdae River
Samgak chamchi kimbap on my favourite river rock - an important mid-walk ritual

Wildlife stairs in Gyeongpo Lake Park
Wildlife stairs in an adjacent farm field
My friendly neighbourhood Red-billed Starling flock (+2 Chinese Grosbeak)
Eastern Great Tit Parus minor 
Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri
An odd female Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus with
muted wing patches and overall scruffy plumage - young bird?
skulky Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala
spot the Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos kizuki
(Let's hope a Japanese princess doesn't steal this image...)
Whooper Swan Cygnus Cygnus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Rook Corvus frugilegus
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrid
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrid
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrid
Ussuri Mamushi Pitviper Gloydius blomhoffi
Praying Mantis sp.
  Dynamic turnover here on the lovely Gangwon coast, with new personal Gangneung firsts on every day out. Some of the breeding species that I saw in early October are gone, and the feeling is one of less migrants on the move of late. I’m getting a better feel for the resident species, as well as the birds that call this corner of the province their winter home. My Gangneung list has almost cracked 100, and my ‘house list’ is also creeping up - I should eclipse my 2013 Seogwipo apartment list (26) soon. But who’s keeping lists, eh?
  A three-hour exploratory walk west along the Namdaechon on October 21 turned up very little of interest, apart from a fat little Ussuri Mamushi Pitviper. I ended up in the middle of literal nowhere, and I had to get creative when it came to getting back to town. That’s all part of the fun though, innit?
  On that note, I probably won’t be getting a motorcycle, or even a bicycle, this time round. No wheels is a bit sad, but the habitat here just doesn’t justify it. Unlike Suncheon, it’s not a ‘drive there and walk in a big circle’ type of place. The two main patches, the Namdae River and Gyeongpo Lake, both demand a lot of walking to check all the birdy nooks and crannies. Whereas at first I was doing both in a single day, as I find more of those nooks in each spots, I’ve split the two spots up into separate days now, to better scour each properly (and not blow my legs out!).
  On October 26, Younghwan introduced me to some of the nice folks that work at Gyeongpo Lake, and we shared coffee and bird gossip. I noticed the ditches in and around the lake feature ‘wildlife stairs,’ which allow small creatures to escape the concrete deathtraps – nice to see, let’s hope they catch on. A young Northern Goshawk and another Amur Falcon stood out.
  The following day at the lake, two Whooper Swans and two Whiskered Terns were personal Gangneung firsts.
  On October 28, a walk along the river went from sunny to gloomy and rainy, then back again. Starting to really understand and enjoy the habitat along the river, which cuts the town in half. I live in the southern bit, with the farmers. The day was notable for its clean air and clear water – loads of fish in the river. Gangneung firsts were a Long-billed Plover, Green Sandpiper, Black-faced Bunting, and Long-tailed Rosefinch, all along the Namdaechon.
  What else? I thought I knew few things about terns…terns out I didn’t. See what I did there? Bunting variety is picking up, which is awesome because I loves me my skulkers. Other than a few Dusky Thrushes, the same can’t be said about thrushes yet. Not even a single Pale Thrush! Hoping for more species of thrush soon.
  Or should I say ‘spices of thrush,’ as Younghwan does. I think that is adorable, and I may use it from now on instead of ‘species.’ Younghwan is an awesome dude, for real.
  In other news, there’s an annoying squeak in the rigging of my camera bag that haunts my perambulations, but it seems to bring out the buntings, so I’m not fixing it.