Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dolsan-do, May 23-24, 2015

The Pitta-filled valleys of Dolsan-do
Fairy Pittas above, below, and at eye-level!
Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha
Idyllic Dolsan-do, south of Yeosu, boasts some quiet, relatively untouristy (yet) towns and excellent mountain habitat - much of it being inaccessible to foot traffic. While there was a popular hiking trail filled with busloads of radio-blaring hikers, there were several other trails nearby that were completely devoid of other hikers. These peaceful trails offered scenic views of the ocean, and no other sounds to be heard than the ample birdsong ringing through a series of small valleys.
  The highlight of the trip was definitely the ‘abundance’ of Fairy Pittas. It seemed like every valley held one or two calling individuals, with at least five heard (two seen) on the 23rd, and a further five or six heard (three seen) on a different mountain on the 24th. The first two were heard from a hill behind a cafe outside town where we paused for a morning coffee! While there is a wealth of suitable habitat here, it’s tricky to say if these birds were migrating through the area, or were settling in to breed. They seemed a bit densely packed in some spots, leapfrogging past each other, and calling urgently at times.
  Also in the mountains, a lone Dark-sided Flycatcher was busily living up to its name along a quiet trail, and cuckoos were noisily represented by one Eurasian, five Lesser, and two Oriental Cuckoos. An ‘Arctic-type’ warbler was seen, and some sound recordings were made of its strange call. A single Ashy Minivet was also heard over the hills, an Oriental Honey Buzzard sailed high above the mountains, a calling Asian Stubtail was heard, and a Vinous-throated Parrotbill was seen near a mountaintop, uncharacteristically silent and alone. Bands of fledged Long-tailed Tits jostled in the scrub and low trees, and numerous Pale and Grey-backed Thrushes were heard in exuberant song along the mountain trails. Towards dusk, an Oriental Scops Owl and two Grey Nightjars were heard, as the mountain path became illuminated by fireflies. A mystery owl (owls?) was heard at some distance, which sounded ‘Eagle Owlish’.
  In town, nesting Barn and Red-rumped Swallows flew low circuits over a pond and the main street, while several White and Grey Wagtails paced the same pond. I am hoping to return soon to see if the area hosts any more interesting birds.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Geomun-do redux, May 9-10, 2015

Gaudy, drunken clots of noisy mainland visitors all too typical on Korean islands on the weekends...

A massive, ridiculous, empty hotel
'Godzilla flipping the bird' Islet
Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus
Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa latirostris
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta
Chestnut Bunting Emberiza rutila
The perils of migration
The perils of migration part II
  After three consecutive unsuccessful weekend attempts to get back to Geomundo during peak migration, I finally returned on the weekend of May 9-10. I can now say I've surveyed this island slightly too early, and slightly too late. It was a frustrating few weeks spent watching ideal winds sweeping up towards Geomun on the computer screen, imagining what exotic vagrants could potentially be grounded there. On this trip I re-checked three main patches that Subho and I found a month previously, in an effort to get a sense of the turnover in birds in these spots.
  The mix of birds on May 9-10 had similar flavour to the birds Subho found on Weiyondo (in the Yellow Sea) over the same weekend, albeit in much reduced numbers. Was I seeing the outer eastern fringe of a more westerly stream of migrants he saw? See his report here:
  It was good to get a taste of migrating buntings like Chestnut, Black-faced, Yellow, and Yellow-breasted, all seen in low single-digit numbers, mostly at two separate south-jutting headlands. A few Grey-streaked Flycatchers were spotted in pines, and two Asian Brown Flycatchers were seen feeding at the exact same spot where I saw one last time - coincidence or perhaps something more? Small groups of Ashy Minivets were seen or heard overhead for most of the weekend, while a calling Oriental Scops Owl and Grey Nightjar at dusk lent a summery feel to the island soundscape.
  On the downside, for migrating birds that is, a pair of fat and happy Peregrines were feasting on exhausted buntings as they made landfall on the southern tip. Additionally, the island hosts an unhealthy number of feral cats at prime areas where migrants come ashore and pass through.
  At least six Black Wood Pigeons were heard or seen in two suitable locations, and I'm guessing there are more in the one large section of the island I've been unable to check as of yet. Other highlights included a Streaked Shearwater from the boat, a Chinese Pond Heron, a Brown Shrike, Grey-faced and Oriental Honey Buzzards, and a visible arrival of 10 Grey Wagtail on the morning of the 10th.
  Geomundo proved again that it is a lovely and endearing little corner of South Korea, and I would really enjoy the chance to survey it properly during peak migration in the south - or at least during the week when all the dreadfully raucous tourists return to the mainland.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Korean reptiles of late

Tsushima Smooth Skink Scincella vandenburghi
White-striped Grass Lizard Takydromus wolteri
  Migration is effectively winding down here in the south, and that has me feeling like a kid a few days after Christmas. The sexiest birding season in Korea is rapidly giving way to the slowest. At least for us working stiffs in the south - those lucky enough to be up on Baengnyong in the northwest are still in the thick of it, and will no doubt continue to find masses of great stuff on the move. Next year I'll be up there. Until then, lizards. Sigh.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Chestnut-cheeked Starlings nesting in Suncheon (big news!)

Chestnut-cheeked Starling Agropsar philippensis

  On May 6th I spotted a pair of Chestnut-cheeked Starlings that appeared to be nest-building in a metal telephone pole. As I was on a moving bus at the time, I returned to the rural location on the 7th to investigate further. What I found was on a more extensive scale than a single nesting pair. Three pairs of Chestnut-cheeked Starlings, along with an additional female, were in the process of nesting in three adjacent telephone poles. They were also engaged in a fierce but strangely civil battle for territorial dominance with both Tree Sparrows, and Azure-winged Magpies.
  The male and female starlings took turns bringing in nesting materials, catching flying insects in spectacular mid-air forays, and standing guard. After a strange stand-off that saw three sparrows calmly lined up on the wires next to three starlings, the starlings conceded defeat at this one telephone pole, and flew down the line to the next available telephone pole. The Tree Sparrows were then seen bringing food into the captured (liberated?) post-hole. Two passing Azure-winged Magpies seemed to take exception to a pair of perched starlings, and made an aggressive and showy pass that failed to scare off the nesters.
  This record of Chestnut-cheeked Starlings attempting to nest is significant, as they have only bred in Korea perhaps once or twice previously. I will keep tabs on this site closely, with hopes of seeing some fledgelings soon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Suncheon Area, April 14 - May 5, 2015

Suncheon Bay at dawn
Bluethroat Luscinia svecica
Siberian Rubythroat Calliope Calliope
Ochre-rumped Bunting (Japanese Reed Bunting) Emberiza yessoensis
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
White's Thrush (Scaly Thrush) Zoothera aurea
  A peaceful bit of coastal reedbeds near the Suncheon Bay park becomes a bit less peaceful every week, with construction creeping in from two sides, and a noticeable increase in noisy bike-tour groups in the short time I have been here. In spite of this, the area has been fairly productive for birds lately, with winter birds clearing out, and migrants and summer visitors moving through.
  Mid-April saw the first Stejneger’s Stonechats (8) and Cattle Egrets in the area, and a pair of Garganey were spotted on the mudflats. On April 28th, a lone Little Tern was seen successfully dive-bombing for fish, Stonechat numbers were down to three, and at least four noisy Oriental Reed Warblers were heard singing their discordant tune from the reeds.
  In the early morning of April 30th, on a small farm track next to a reedy ditch and a flooded field, I flushed a small dark snipe. It flushed almost silently (I thought I heard a light gasping sound, but it may have been the wings hitting grass) only when I almost stepped on it, and flew relatively straight and slowly, to a spot perhaps 30 feet away. I got a quick binocular look at it, and made out a small dark pointy tail, and lighter braces on the back. I could not re-locate the bird in the short stubble, in spite of being quite close to where it landed. Later in the day I re-sighted the Eurasian Bittern, as it did a lazy circuit around its reedy pond.
  In the vain hope of re-finding the mystery snipe, I returned to the spot before dawn the following day, with predictable results. The day was not a loss by any means, as there were definite signs of movement in the area. Small groups of Ashy Minivets were heard overhead several times heading inland, and three Striated Herons were found on a wooded hill. Six Pacific Golden Plover paced a stubbly field, with a probable Little Whimbrel spotted nearby. A Siberian Rubythroat was briefly encountered on a small trail.
  The highlight came in a small scrubby wetland – my first and long-awaited Bluethroat, a very special experience. A faintly-colored male was first spotted singing from atop a small tree. It was convincingly plagiarizing snippets of Brown-eared Bulbul, White Wagtail, and Oriental Reed Warbler songs, among others! After shifting singing perches several times, it was chased off by a brighter-toned male, which took up the chaotic crooning. A third, even more colorful male was soon seen singing from a nearby reed. Within an hour after the first sighting, they seemed to clear out, and were not seen again later in the day, or week.
  On May 4th a dozen Chinese Penduline Tits still lingered in the reeds, and several groups of 10-20 Brown-eared Bulbuls were seen flying around the coast, and they had the feel of ‘movement’ to them. The highlight of the morning came in the form of an Ochre-rumped Bunting which was quite confiding at first, offering good views of the characteristic peachy wash on the rump and back.
  For the past few weeks Eurasian Curlew, Common Greenshankand Whimbrels have been seen on the flats, in numbers ranging between 40-100, depending on the tides, along with twenty to thirty Godwits, mostly Black-tailed with a few Bar-tailed mixed in earlier in April. On May 4th, three Mongolian Plovers, six Terek Sandpipers, and a dozen Grey Plovers were seen on the mudflats.
  Holiday travel logistics conspired to keep me away from Yellow Sea islands over the long Birdathon weekend, so I planned on heading back to Geomundo, south of Yeosu. The boats were cancelled due to heavy fog, so I headed to Dolsan-do, a charming and sleepy island connected to southern Yeosu by bridge. In a town on the southwest side, ten Red-rumped Swallows were very picky where they nested, only using the eaves of one seaside minbak. Next to a mountain road, three tiny juvenile Long-tailed Tits perched motionless on a low twig, with no adult bird in site. Perhaps newly fledged? Ashy Minivets could be heard flying just over the treetops, and the songs and calls of Pale Thrush, Oriental Cuckoo, Grey-capped Greenfinch and Asian Stubtail echoed through the mountain forest. A Grey Nightjar called from the same hills after sundown.
  On the hills and mountains around Suncheon, Ashy Minivets were heard flying across valleys on several occasions during April. On April 27th on Jukdobong Hill, several confiding White’s Thrushes gave some great views as they hopped along trails, and a pair of Common Kingfishers appeared to be nesting in a dense thicket of bamboo. Two Asian Stubtails were heard on a nearby mountain.
  On a mountain hike north of town on May 5th, the woods were echoing with the haunting songs of several Oriental and Indian Cuckoos, as well as two Brown-headed Thrush - do they normally sing on migration? A Yellow-browed Warbler was also heard, and an Oriental Dollarbird was seen perched next to a road.