Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Historical post" - Ilsan, Paju, Paldang, and 'Northeast River', February 2008

Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculusRough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus
Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Paju, February 27, 2008 
  Warm, sunny and windy in Paju. Ducks seen on the river today included eight Ruddy Shelducks, nine Common Teals, close to 70 Spot-Billed Ducks, about 90 Mallard, and six Pintails. Three pairs of Common Merganser mingled with the ducks. Several ‘V’ formations of Greater White-fronted Geese made slow and noisy passes over the nearby fields. Two lugens White Wagtail paced the river banks, while two Cinereous Vultures circled high overhead. At least five Common Kestrels took turns hovering over the fields. Interesting to watch was one of the Common Kestrels, flying wingtip to wingtip with what appeared to be an juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard for several minutes, before they parted ways. Two Pallas’s Reed Buntings perched quietly atop some reeds next to the river. Several Far Eastern Skylarks were heard but not seen. Also seen were five Grey Herons, seven Great Egrets, and five Large-billed Crows. Two possible Hill Pigeons were briefly seen under a bridge - I plan to return soon to get a better look at them.

2012 notes (I honestly have no recollection of writing this series of notes back then, I may be losing my precious mind): I finally got a closeup look at the handsome Ruddy Shelduck, and once again, I left the encounter feeling quite proud of my evolving fieldcraft. I worked my way down to the river crouching through a low grassy runoff culvert. I ended up popping up quite close to the ducks, but managed not to flush them. I hate flushing birds, and I’ll do anything I can to avoid it, even if it means not getting a good look at the bird. The Common Kestrel and Rough-legged Buzzard show was stunning to watch – they really did fly wingtip-to-wingtip for a couple of minutes, there was no mobbing or aggression involved. And I never did return to check out those pigeons, but from the quick look I got, they looked good for Hill Pigeon, with a white stripey tail. I wish I had gone back, because I’ve yet to see one!
(2017 note: Hill Pigeons have recently been spotted in that same area, according to top secret intel...)

Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus
Japanese Wagtail Motacilla grandis
Brown Dipper Cinclus pallasii
Northeast River, February 24, 2008 
  A frigid morning in the river valley. The highlight was two pairs of Scaly-sided Merganser. Nearby, five Goldeneyes, and three Tufted Ducks fed near the river bank. Further down the river, six Spot-Billed Ducks and four Little Grebes drifted in the current. In a nearby stream, a pair of Brown Dippers fed and dunked each other in a small waterfall. While their alarm call is short and harsh, when calling to one another they have a beautiful, complex warbling song. Two Japanese Wagtails were also in this stream.
  All day, large, noisy mixed flocks of 20-50 Rustic and Yellow-throated Buntings moved through the trees and underbrush along the river. Groups of Vinous-throated Parrotbills were also evident in the scrub. A Eurasian Nuthatch and a Great Egret were also seen.

2012 notes: What a bitterly cold morning this was! So cold that when I tried to switch out memory cards, the card ejector failed and snapped, brittle from the cold. Funny story, when I brought it to the local Canon repair place in Ilsan, they fixed the card ejector, but since then, the flash doesn’t work (never used it, no problem), and when I turn on the camera, an error message appears. After much swearing and fumbling, I discovered that this message goes away only when the door to the memory card slot is opened and closed. I think of it as a security password for my camera.
  I was instructed to list the location as the vague ‘Northeast River’, to protect the endangered Scaly-sided Mergansers from disturbance by the Korean bird paparazzi, who apparently harassed a nesting pair so much that they left the area.

  The Brown Dipper picture was similar to the Winter Wren story, in that it took me a long, cold time, sitting on a very cold rock to get the picture.

Field near Baekseok Station, Ilsan, February 22, 2008 
  About 24 Ruddy Shelduck were seen in the fields near Baekseok Station on Friday. 

2012 notes: I spotted these unmistakable ducks from a bus, and it was the first, but sadly not my last, occasion where I got a lifer from a moving vehicle. Thankfully, in all of these cases, I got a better look at the bird at a later date. One of them was a Hoopoe, also unmistakable, also spotted from a bus, in 2006 in Gimpo. The Hoopoe has got to be one of the coolest-looking birds of all time.

Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
spot the Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
Naumann's Thrush Turdus naumanni
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos canicapillus
Manchurian Sika Deer Cervus nippon mantchuricus
Stream and hill near Baekma station, Ilsan, February 20, 2008
  On a warm and sunny day, two Green Sandpipers were still present at the stream, as were two scruffy lugens White Wagtails. At least six Common Snipes were also there, showing the white trailing edge to their secondaries, as they were repeatedly flushed by regular foot traffic along the river. Two Naumann's Thrush with quite different plumage were seen next to the stream. One had a dark gray tail and rump, while the other had a rufous tail and rump. 

  An odd sight was a Eurasian Magpie that was missing its tail. It had an understandably hard time balancing on branches, and presented a strange silhouette. On a nearby hill, two Grey-capped Pygmy, and a Grey-headed Woodpecker (I didn't realize at the time how rare they are in modern Korea) were present. I was also quite startled to come face to face with a large buck deer, that didn't seem too happy to see me!

2012 notes: My excitement at having spotted some solid birds on this day (four lifers – they all were for me in those days!) turned to terror, when my exit from the tree-covered hill was blocked by a beast of a deer. I was hoping it would back down, but it didn’t – it just stared at me with a decidedly nasty look on its deer face – just look at the pic! Then it made a move to advance towards me, so I raised my hands high, and started flapping them around, making loud, lower-primate-like hooting sounds. It stopped, blinked angrily, but didn’t back down. I was started to feel dizzy and nervous, as I looked at its pointy antlers, which were conveniently at eye-level. Then, without warning, it took off so fast I barely had time to turn my head. I’m not proud to admit that I almost had to check my drawers after that excitement. 

  The Manchurian Sika Deer, by the way, has been extirpated from the wild in Korea for several decades, so this feisty guy must have been an escaped meat deer. There were several deer meat restaurants in the area, but when invited to one a few months later by a friend, I instantly declined, figuring this deer would somehow hear about it, and come looking for me.

Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus
 Han River and Lake Park, Ilsan, February 17, 2008 
  A poorly planned walk to the Han River on a sunny, windy, and pleasant day. Didn’t stay long, because there was no direct access to the river, as the whole area was fenced off and guarded by wary soldiers. In a large field next to the river was a flock of about 150 Greater White-fronted Geese, and six Cinereous Vultures circled nearby. In Lake Park, a Bull-headed Shrike sat on a fence, while nearby a Pale Thrush was creeping around in the undergrowth on a hill, the first I’ve seen in winter. One male and one female Daurian Redstart were mingling with a group of Tree Sparrows. Nearby, three Varied Tits did their best woodpecker imitations, pecking at tree bark. Three Japanese Quail are still in a large field adjacent to Lake Park, flushed twice by a very small dog. Also in this field was a flock of at least 30 Far Eastern Skylarks, flying erratically together after being spooked by a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk.

2012 notes: ’Poorly planned’ is quite the understatement. The Han River was so frustratingly close to where I was living in Ilsan, but the river is mostly inaccessible around Seoul, for security concerns. Something to do with North Korea, I believe. In fact, I believe a North Korean commando team infiltrated Seoul via the Han in the 70s and carried out an assassination attempt at the Blue House, Korea’s White House. 

  Anyways, to make a long story slightly shorter, I ended up walking onto a busy highway offramp in order to get a glimpse of the fallow fields that line the Han, and where I had spotted clumps of geese and vultures from cabs. When I got to the edge of the off-ramp, I leaned over with my binoculars, and started panning across the field. In the first minute of doing this, I froze when I swept my binoculars over to a guard tower, and saw a pimply South Korean soldier in fatigues looking back at me with his own binoculars. I lowered my binos, smiled sheepishly at him, then raised my finger and spun on my heel as if I had forgotten something, and made my way back to Lake Park at a high rate of speed, using a different route. Not the first time I’ve bumbled across military installations bedecked with incriminating optics.

Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Stream near Baekseok Station, Ilsan, February 12, 2008 
  It was a cold and sunny day, although the yellow dust was high today, burning my eyes a bit. Three scruffy Little Grebes were swimming in circles. Several Long-Tailed Tits were hanging out in some trees near the stream. A single female Common Merganser was swimming with a group of ten Mallard, eight Spot-billed Ducks, and two female Common Teal. Two Great Egrets, a Grey Heron, and an unidentified sandpiper were also seen today.

2012 notes: A few weeks after this report, a Russian researcher put out a request for a ‘sub-flight’ shot of a poeggi Little Grebe, in order to examine the wings, I believe. I happened to have a great shot of one of these guys stretching its wing, and put it up. Interestingly, the Little Grebe’s wing in the picture seemed looked different than depicted in most bird guides, with light tan secondaries contrasting with the overall buff wing. The guides all show the wing on the winter plumaged Little Grebe as being fairly solidly buff. 

Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus
Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus
White-tailed Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
Paldang, February 10, 2008
  I didn't end up writing a report for this trip, or see too many birds, for that matter. I think I felt sheepish because I walked in completely the wrong direction (got some vague directions, ha ha), and ended up missing out on most of the goodies seen there that month by other Birds Korea members, like Ferruginous Duck and Steller's Sea Eagle, for instance. It was bitterly cold on the river, froze my fingers clean down to the marrow.

Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes dauricus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos canicapillus
Naumann's Thrush Turdus naumanni
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Lake Park, Ilsan, February 2, 2008 
  Some interesting bird activity in Lake Park, on a partly cloudy and crisp day. Saw a shy but loud Winter Wren darting in and out of some reeds. A Common Moorhen skulked in the bushes near an unfrozen spot in the ice. A flock of agitated Tree Sparrows alerted me to the presence of a patrolling Eurasian Sparrowhawk. While walking next to a large field full of tall, dead grass near Lake Park, I was thoroughly startled when three Japanese Quail dramatically burst from the grass five feet in front of me. Several Pallas's Reed Buntings were also in this field. Other birds seen today were a single male Daurian Redstart, six Yellow-Throated Buntings, two Naumann's Thrush, and several Eurasian Magpies.

2012 notes: I spotted the Winter Wren a few days earlier, and was both amazed and confounded by how small and fast it was. It zipped around through the reeds in the park, rarely standing still, and almost never perching in the open. I watched it for about 15 minutes, and stealthily crept along a low wall and slipped into leaning position on the wall, camera aimed and focused at a clear spot between two clumps of reeds where I saw the Wren pause briefly earlier. I waited there for about 20 minutes, with no movement from the reeds, my fingers frozen. The brown ping-pong ball darted out of the reeds and perched on the exact spot where I had the camera aimed. I snapped a couple of shots before the wren vanished. When I got home, defrosted, and looked at the one decent picture of the wren, I was more than elated. I was so proud, not of my picture-taking abilities per se, but more of my fieldcraft and patience. 

(*Note: This is a “historical post.” Whereas I started birding in Korea in 2005, this blog has only been active since early 2012 - these posts are an attempt to consolidate my early birdventures from the various blogs and websites where they reside, largely from the “Archived Bird News“ section of Birds Korea’s excellent website: Find more historical posts by clicking on the "Historical posts" tab at the bottom of this post.
  For this post, most of images are lamentably poor-resolution screensaves, as many of the original photo files were lost in the infamous computer crash of 2011.)