Sunday, March 17, 2019

Otter stuff from this week – Gangneung, March 15-17, 2019

Imperial Star Destroyer makes a low pass over the Gyeongpo fields
Looking west on a rare smog-free day
The same view, as normally seen in the smog
Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides
Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla

Yellow-throated Bunting calling and singing
(note: videos play clearer on the second play)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthera webbiana with nesting materials
Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens

Buff-bellied Pipit foraging

Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra (chewing on a fish)
Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra
Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra
Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra
Eurasian Otter feeding (note: noisy video)

egg sacs belonging to Brown Frog Rana uenoi

  Smoggy on the Namdae River, early on the morning of March 15th. Birdsong resounded from budding clumps of flowers, and there were bees on trees. Daurian Redstarts were acting particularly frisky, with males singing and chasing both females and other males around in exuberant figure-eights through the brush. Vinous-throated Parrotbills were seen nearby with nest-building materials, and waterfowl numbers were gently on the decline.
  The highlight was my first proper sighting of a Eurasian Otter. It fed and cavorted on a worryingly polluted stretch of river. I pointed it out to some passing locals, and they seemed shocked.
  No smog the following day, with lovely mid single-digit temperatures and a blustery blue sky. I logged 47 species on my 100th birding walk in Gangneung, with more signs of seasonal shift noted. These included my first Grey Wagtail since October 8th, and crisply-marked White Wagtails singing and jousting on the river.
  Around Gyeongpo Lake, there were signs of a modest arrival of Little Ringed Plovers, with several groups of 2-3 observed resting on a variety of muddy habitat. Common Pochard numbers were down to about 120. A Green Sandpiper and 60+ Far Eastern Skylarks were notable in the surrounding fields. More rollicking Daurian Redstarts and White Wagtails at every turn, while several Buff-bellied Pipits, Meadow, Little, and Rustic Buntings were observed. Egg sacs belonging to Brown Frog (Rana uenoi) were seen in a small creek, thanks again to Dr. Amaël Borzée for the ID help.
  On March 17, there was no smog…two days in a row? Breathe in that sweet sweet O2 while you can folks! Along the river, more signs of winter’s end were counterpointed by fresh examples of casual habitat destruction. Grey Herons showed bright breeding bills, while Great Egrets preened their new veils of nuptial feathers. At the photog spot, eight smartly-plumaged Northern Lapwings in a tight group seemed to be passing through, when compared to the several that frequented the area in wintrier times.
  Nine White-cheeked Starlings were spotted nearby, and also had the feeling of seasonal movement about them. A Bull-headed Shrike did an impressive White Wagtail impression near the river's mouth. In the harbour, 60+ Ancient Murrelets bobbed among the swarms of gulls, which were mostly Black-headed (900+). No sign of the Plumbeous Water Redstart, after a half-hearted stakeout.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Let’s get Redstarted in here

Plumbeous Water Redstart Phoenicurus fuliginosus

  I spent a couple of years on Jeju trying hard, so hard, wishing on a star, to find ‘my own’ Plumbeous Water Redstart. That never happened, and it eventually led to me being confronted by an incredulous official whilst lurking about behind a sewage plant. Sorry sir, official bird business, go back to your station, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. I ended up twitching one in Gimpo in 2014, and while it was nice to finally observe this enigmatic vagrant, lining up with a phalanx of other twitchers is not how I usually like to enjoy my birds.
  So consider me shocked when, at the tail-end of a lazy river ramble yesterday, I spied movement on the far bank, and caught a brief glance of a rich blue-grey ping-pong ball and a flash of deep orange…before it evaporated. I furrowed my brow and cursed in French. A profound “Am I just seeing shit again?” moment. I didn’t have the time to pursue the bird properly, as I had somewhere to be. I knew what the bird was, but wasn’t quite ready to believe myself, even after securing ridiculous long-range smudgy images.
  This morning, stupid early, before the sun was up, I struck out towards the river with a mission. After a 45-minute stakeout, and with heavying lids, the flame-tailed river chub-elf appeared again. Plumbeous Water Redstart! I did thirty backflips, then got busy watching this stunning bird. I observed it for an hour, which broke down thusly:
  -foraging/tail-fanning in the open: 5 minutes
  -being chased around by a male Blue Rock Thrush: 15 minutes
  -unseen after being chased: 20 minutes
  -sitting immobile on a semi-hidden perch: 20 minutes

  All that to say, it’s not an easy bird to spot – small, dark, silent (as far as I observed), and unobtrusive. I have this queasy feeling that it could have been there all winter, and I only spotted it yesterday, in spite of birding in that exact spot precisely 33 times since early October. Headsmack. Flame-tailed River Chub-elf!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Flashback alert…Eocheong Island, May 14-16, 2013

Tiger Shrike Lanius tigrinus
Brambling Coelebs montifringilla
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis…or perhaps plexa/thunbergi…or is it macronyx x tschutschensis…or maybe even simillima...argh, wagtails…
(probable) Two-barred Warbler Phylloscopus plumbeitarsus
Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola
(A critically endangered species...see them now before they're gone...)
Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina
Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki
male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
female Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis
White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis...I swear...
Eocheong on the horizon
Bustling downtown Eocheong
Eocheong's harbour
The morning fog rolls over the main town
The lighthouse (1894)
My roommate
The hills of Eocheong...stripped of trees for a reason I now forget
Snack shack/ferry terminal
Heading back on the ferry to Gunsan
Creepy dawn wakeup music over the loudspeakers 

  In the spring of 2013, I finally got the opportunity to bird Korea’s Yellow Sea islands in spring. The epic trip started on Gageo Island in late April, and ended with Baekryeong Island in late May. Lost in the middle, I spent a few days on Eocheong Island, a stay extended by a ferry cancellation. The truly spectacular birding that bookended the month overshadowed Eocheong in my mind, which wasn’t fair. The birding on Eocheong was, by most standards, also spectacular. For some reason, I never ended up blogging about my time there…so here it is, hopefully better late than never.
  The feel of Eocheong could best be characterized as…gruff. My trademark ice-breaking goofy smiles were met with stares, muttering, and doors being slowly closed. The island was relatively unbirded until it blew up in the early/mid-2000s, largely as a result of the impressive array of migratory birds discovered there on the regular by certain folks. A few years back, however, the island seems to have fallen out of favour as a birding destination. Or has it? Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m kinda out of the loop on the Korean birding scene gossip. Pay me no heed.
  Accommodation on the island was spartan, and was shared with massive spiders that had a preference for hanging out in shoes. I have no recollection at all of eating while there, which makes me think I mostly ate packaged crap out of the little snack shack.

  In the wind and sun of May 14th, my first day on Eocheong, 33 species were logged (relatively low for migration). A hepatic Common Cuckoo was a treat to observe, as was a confiding Tiger Shrike, and five Ashy Minivets, which I picked through carefully (you never know, eh?). Towards late afternoon, a rich vein of buntings percolated through a scrubby ditch area at the base of a hill near the school (3 Yellow-browed, 5 Chestnut, 4 Japanese Yellow, 4 Little, 6 Black-faced).

  It was foggy and windy on May 15th, with 33 species counted again. Single-digit numbers of a nice variety of flycatchers (2 Asian Brown, 1 Mugimaki, 2 Yellow-rumped, 1 Narcissus) and buntings (1 Tristram’s, 4 Yellow-breasted, 4 Chestnut, 4 Little, 8 Black-faced) in the hills around the harbour.
  Best of the day was my first White-throated Rock Thrush, spotted near the old (1894) lighthouse on the north point. Very quick looks, but still – an outstanding bird that I had long since given up all hopes of seeing. Until I saw one. A puzzling Yellow Wagtail and three Rufous-tailed Robins rounded out the day.
  May 16th was a ‘bonus’ day on Eocheong, owing to a ferry cancellation. The highlight, and lowlight, was coming around a trail corner and almost stepping on another White-throated Rock Thrush. We eyeballed each other in shock for a few moments, before it flew across a small ravine and perched for several seconds before vanishing. Flycatchers (4 Asian Brown, 1 Mugimaki, 2 Yellow-rumped, 1 Narcissus) and buntings (2 Tristram’s, 4 Chestnut, 2 Little, 6 Black-faced) were still around, with small numbers but respectable variety. I puzzled over a tricky Phyllo warbler…it was probably a Two-barred Warbler, but who the hell knows, right?
  Audacious plans are afoot to revisit plucky Eocheong (and other islands) this spring – in a big way. That is all I can reveal for now. Spring is almost upon us, fellow bird-nerds – clean those bins and bone up on those rarities in your field guides. I smell birds in the wind!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Vernal Grumblings II – Gangneung, March 8-10, 2019

Koreas, now and then
Part of a huge cloud of (mostly) Black-headed Gulls, put up by an Eastern Buzzard
Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Falcated Duck Anas falcate
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus, with two White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus (look for white rumps and unspotted wings)
Japanese Wagtail foraging
(Note: videos play clearer on the second play)

  Smoggy and mild on the Namdae River on March 8th, with more signs of the seasonal change that is slowly spooling up. Two Great-crested Grebes attired in smart breeding plumage were already engaging in their gentle courtship dance. A pair of Falcated Ducks foraged mid-river – my first sighting of a breeding-plumaged male in Gangneung (at least I have no problem IDing those, ha ha). Only a handful of Eurasian Coots left at the river mouth, and nearby, several Pallas’s Reed Buntings, most on their way towards breeding plumage. There was a bump in PRB numbers a couple of weeks back. Still large numbers of Black-headed Gulls (700+), with some showing the first signs of their namesake breeding hoods. 

  The following day at Gyeongpo Lake, a full circuit of my favoured spots turned up 46 species in three hours. Finally, a day with no smog! It’s a grim state of affairs when a day of breathable air is something to write home about. The air quality in Korea wasn’t anywhere near this horrific just a few short years ago, not even close. Whinge whinge whinge.
  Large numbers of Common Pochard (650+) were crowding up on the lake, with overflow spilling out onto ancillary waterways. Got good looks at a Ring-necked Pheasant while searching for a vanishing Dusky Thrush. No sign of last week’s Japanese Bush Warbler, perhaps there were too many noisy park visitors in its formerly quiet corner of the park. It did seem to be an exceedingly shy and skulky bird.
  Grey-capped Greenfinch were seen to be flocking up more than earlier in winter, with a group of 60+ being the largest. A lone Hawfinch confused me for several minutes, until I secured a brief view of its stonking great big bill. A ripple of at least 110 Far Eastern Skylark over the fields seemed geographically restless.

  I walked the river on March 10th, and was met with stout wind and fresh air in the morning that succumbed to showers and, you guessed it, smog in the afternoon. The river had risen noticeably from just two days earlier, most likely swollen with snowmelt.
  A pair of Mandarin Ducks was sighted on the stretch near my house, and was shortly followed by a pair of Falcated Ducks. Two 
Long-billed Plovers were also notable on this section of river. A flight of at least 90 Red-billed Starlings wheeled along the river with two White-cheeked Starlings folded in. I spotted them at a point about 45 minutes (on foot) away from my neighbourhood – I guess that’s where they’ve gone! Perhaps there are more fruit trees around there, as the ones in my area have been pretty well eaten out.
  Common Gull numbers were way down, from hundreds last month to just a handful. The ranks of Black-headed Gulls, on the other hand, have more than doubled in just two days, with a conservative count of 2,100 near the river’s mouth.
  Hmm, I haven’t seen any Northern Lapwings since February 23rd.

Vernal Grumblings

Over the hill and round the bend from my place
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus 
(getting after the sun-dried persimmons)

female Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans
male Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans

Yellow-throated Bunting foraging

White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus
Korean Salamander Hynobius leechii
  Things are changing out there. Maybe the spring birds haven’t arrived yet, but a good proportion of birds I’ve observed lately were acting ‘spring-y,’ if that makes any sense. Changes in numbers, distribution, behaviour, numbers…spring-y.
  The hills behind my house were buzzing with an uptick in such frenetic bird activity on March 7th. I usually struggle to crack the dozen species mark in these hills, but in the rain and smog of March 7th, I recorded 24 species on a relatively short circuit.
  These included species I hadn’t encountered in ‘my backyard’ yet, such as Siberian Accentor and White-cheeked Starling, and species that were seen in much higher numbers than usual for the site, like Goldcrest and Azure-winged Magpie. Numbers of the latter species were quite confiding, feasting on what’s left of the persimmons. It’s always a treat when I get to observe this charismatic bird, which has an oddly disjunct range (East Asia and Iberia).
  On the way out I examined a dead Korean Salamander (thanks to 
Dr. Amaël Borzée for the ID help) on a small road, under the watchful eyes of a Bull-headed Shrike. Poor feller, I’m sure we'll meet again in Salamander Valhalla. Wait, now I’m concerned that I’m destined to end up in Salamander Valhalla. Ah well, I’m sure there’s no smog there, so it’s all good.