Sunday, February 17, 2019

Mid-Febirds of GNG

Gadwall Anas strepera
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
Common Snipes foraging amidst the trash

Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major
Pallas’s Reed Bunting Emberiza pallasi 
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelopeFalcated Duck Anas falcate, Gadwall Anas strepera
Japanese Bush Warbler Horornis diphone...honestly!
Japanese Bush Warbler Horornis diphone
Eurasian Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris
Ever read Wump World?
Morning walk in my hood
Gangneung, January 29 – February 17, 2019
  Smoggy on the 29th of January. All quiet on the river on the eve of my Seoul trip. Well, it was quiet until I got to the river mouth, and was double-schwacked over the head by mystery and ignorance. As recently noted, I glibly pride myself on learning from my mistakes, and/or not making the same mistake twice. When it comes to the Falcated Duck, I’ve now fallen on my face twice in Gangneung when it comes to trying to ID a non-breeding male. I betcha I can make it three! I saw the confusing bird loitering with a dopping of mostly Eurasian Wigeon, and my mind was ticking towards something like female American Wigeon. After nosing around on the Kantori group, turns out it was a female Falcated Duck. Now I know, again. Befuddled again by Falcated Ducks! Refuddled? Befalcated?
  The walk ended with a quick sighting of what I was quite certain, at the time, was a White-winged Tern (and not a Saunders’s Gull). After not securing defensible record shots, and with much hindsight, that species seems outlandish and unlikely. But what was it then? I know what I saw. Do I? Bah.
  Smoggy on February 4th, the river was still quiet, although I got good looks at the daubs of chestnut on a Gadwall’s upperwings. Why had I never seen that striking feature before?
  The following day, which was smoggy, Tim came out east and we picked through colonies of gulls at Donghae, in the hopes of finding an American Herring Gull within crowds of Vega Gulls. We spent hours convincing ourselves that a growing number of candidates were looking good for AHG, but in the end, I don’t believe we saw one. I think I’m done with gulls.
  Smoggy on the 6th, for a quiet walk around Gyeongpo Lake. A skulking passerine that was check-checking from a clump of inaccessible reeds had me scratching my head for a good long while before I figured out it was my first sighting of a Japanese Bush Warbler for Gangneung. Had I been on Jeju, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the ID, but they’re not a super common winter species up here. The ID was muddied by the presence of obfuscating waves of Vinous-throated Parrotbills, several Pallas’s Reed Buntings, and a doppelganger Eurasian Wren, which did its best to throw me off the trail. Got some ridiculous record shots.
  Smoggy on the following day, for a mostly uneventful walk along the river (pick up on the themes yet?). Interestingly, I spotted another Japanese Bush Warbler, skulking in some reeds true to form – two in two days! A male Northern Shoveler was unusual for the river, and the overwintering flock of 20 Chinese Grosbeak showed well in their favoured river trees. The river was quiet on the 15th, on a crazy windy day.
  On the 13th (smoggy, of course), while on a walk through the hills behind my house I was gut-punched when I discovered an entire wooded ridge being stripped of vegetation in preparation for the inevitable concrete trucks and rebar men. Without fail in this country, when I find a quiet little patch that is productive for birds, it is trashed within the year. Nothing will be left here in 10-15 years, no joke. This was the spot where I discovered a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker in a crooked tree a few months back, by the way. That tree is gone.
  February 17th was only slightly smoggy for a walk around the lake, huzzah. In the same scrubby patch where the Japanese Bush Warbler was spotted last week, some interesting bunting action, with Little, Meadow, Pallas’s Reed, Rustic, and Yellow-throated Buntings all recorded.
  The walk ended well, as eight Common Snipes ignored nearby foot traffic while they foraged in a trash-choked farm ditch. It was awesome to get long looks at the usually furtive, solitary(ish) species. 

Boat-birding south of the North – Daejin, February 16, 2019

Yellow-billed Loon Gavia adamsii
Spectacled Guillemot Cepphus carbo
Rhinoceros Auklet Cerorhinca monocerata
Rhinoceros Auklet Cerorhinca monocerata
a tangle of Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus
Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus
Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus
Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus
Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
Black Scoter Melanitta americana
Tim and I scan the port side

All smiles heading back into Daejin

Within sight of the North Korean coastline
Yeongnang Lake, Sokcho
  When I knew I was going to be living in Gangneung, on Korea's lovely northeast coast, I had visions of going on pelagic boat trips every weekend in winter. Well, it’s mid-February, and I’ve only just done my first of the season. Maybe my last, ha ha.
  After bussing it up to Sokcho mid-morning, I had an hour to kill there, so I wandered over to Yeongnang Lake, which was thoroughly unbirdy. I then rendezvoused with two birders that had come out from Seoul by car, and we made the drive up to Daejin (Hwajin-po) for a hearty samgyeopsal lunch with the rest of the pelagic squad, a group from Birding Corea. I would soon regret partaking of that heavy, greasy fare.
  We chugged out to within sight of the North Korean coastline in a cramped fishing scow, in fresh weather and undulating seas. About 20 minutes in, as the boat pitched and wallowed in the swell, I felt a tennis ball of lunch rising in my throat. I edged back towards the stern, and when all lenses were pointed off the bow, I loosed a stealthy salvo of puke over the side – no one noticed at the time, so my secret is safe, har har. The old captain caught me though, but his only reaction was a stoic nod (of approval?).
  My brains were honestly a bit poached after that. I wasn’t scanning the sea as much as I should have, I called out the wrong birds, mixed up species names, and couldn’t recall what the face of a clock looked like, for that matter. Ah well, I like to boast that I learn from my mistakes, so I did a whole lot of learning on that boat!
  The rock star bird of the trip was a confiding Yellow-billed Loon that gave close views for several minutes. Alcid diversity was relatively low, with plentiful lines of Ancient Murrelets (in varying plumage schemes), several Rhinoceros Auklets, and a flyby Spectacled Guillemot as the boat headed back into the harbour. I’ll never tire of watching chubby Ancient Murrelets skipping across the water like stones as they try to get airborne. I was hoping for some murres, or something crazier, but I guess it’s a reflection of the quiet sort of winter it’s been, birds-wise...too warm. Other highlights included some Harlequin Ducks and Black Scoters.
  Unfortunately there wasn't time to check out the lighthouse at Daejin for sexy passerines, maybe next time. All in all, it was a grand day out – always rewarding to meet new birders in Korea and compare notes. There are definitely times when I feel like the only birder in the world out here, for better or worse.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Alpine Accentors in Seoul, February 2, 2019

Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris erythropygia

Insanely tame birds...
Alpine Accentor habitat
  It was my last chance for Alpine Accentors, maybe ever, and I really did not want to get up early and climb a mountain. More smog, and my knees still throbbed in complaint from the mountain they had endured just 48 hours earlier. Maybe I can sneak it in tomorrow, before the rain…no. Not gonna happen, it’s today or never. So I sucked it up and moped my way up a decent-sized mountain, and it wasn’t easy going. It was an exhausting two-hour slog up to the peak, especially the hectic final stretch, which featured extended sections where I had to pull myself up near-vertical inclines using a metal cord guardrail – it was straight out of TV Batman. I was telling myself to turn around with every creaky-kneed step, but I’m glad I didn’t quit.
  It was crazy windy at the top, and also very crowded with a final bottleneck of hikers trying to get that summit selfie. I loitered just below the peak for about 20 minutes, with no sign of my target bird. With my sweaty clothes starting to freeze up in the brutal winds, I reluctantly turned and started the long failure trek back down, but decided to wait around in the lee of the peak, where folks had gathered to snack and rest.
  Then they appeared. One chunky skylark-sized bird, and then another, materialized atop a boulder several feet above resting hikers. I skidded down to get a closer look, and didn’t need binoculars to see the exquisite lichen-and-granite plumage of a pair of aptly-named Alpine Accentors. They were so close I had to back up to get images! I watched the enigmatic birds feed and leap among the rocks for three minutes, and then it was over. Without warning, the birds flipped over the edge and dropped towards another peak. Guess I got lucky. One helluva species! Thanks to Tim Edelsten for the hot tip about this particular peak.
  The weird post-script is that my legs don’t hurt at all today. I think they’ve levelled up and have become some form of superlegs.

Orange-themed birds – Changyeonggung Palace, Seoul, February 1, 2019

Changyeonggung Palace
Naumann’s Thrush Turdus naumanni
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus
Brambling Coelebs montifringilla
  More smog! Shock horror! On a quick saunter through the grounds of a palace in downtown Seoul, I got looks at some warmly-toned species that I haven’t been seeing in Gangneung. Like seeing old friends.

Cranes in the haze – Gangwha Island, January 30, 2019

Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis
Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis

Siberian Accentor Prunella montanella (levitating)
Gangwha mudflats

Southwest corner of Gangwha Island in the smog
  Last Wednesday I zoomed west on the KTX to chill in Seoul for a few days…and to tick a couple of nagging and elusive lifers, of course. First on the list was a crane. I’ve seen a few crane species in Korea, but never the crane – the iconic Red-crowned Crane, so familiar from both nature documentaries and cultural depictions. Not wanting to spend a whole day faffing around near the North Korean border (Cheorwon) to see them, I went for the soft option – Gangwha Island, just west of Gimpo and just south of ‘The North.’
  The theme for the day, and the whole Seoul trip, was smog. Profound, industrial, blinding, horrific smog. The landscape west of Seoul unfolded in a yellow daydream haze, borne of sleep deprivation and smog-toxication. Passing through Gimpo, my one-time home, I didn’t recognize anything, especially the skyline. A lot changes in Korea in ten years, yikes.
  Gangwha is a funny sort of place. Closer to the Seoul side of the island, standard shiny apartment valleys flanked the road. These soon gave way to shabby out-towns, before dark hills groped though the miasma, and finally the mudflats on the south coast appeared. The tidal range in the area is second only to the Bay of Fundy, by the way.
  After the groggy drive, I was dropped at a long seawall along the mudflats, where I spied the cranes almost immediately. Well, that was somewhat anticlimactic! Park Gun Suk’s incredibly detailed intel was crucial to finding them in a prompt manner, so many thanks go to him.
  The cranes were seen from a long way out, in bad light, and through thick smog. But there they were, 21 in all, feeding on the flats at their own pace. I spent an hour watching the docile birds, then went for some much-needed caffeine at the strangest little convenience store ever. I could have waited around for a few hours to secure better views in photog-friendly lighting, but if you want money shots of Red-crowned Cranes, go check Google, innit.
  There were seven hours to kill before a scheduled rendezvous with a friend in Seoul, so I headed up a local mountain in search of my second target species for the trip, Alpine Accentor. I didn’t find any, but there were Naumann’s Thrushes around, and I also saw some tree damage that looked suspiciously like the work done by Black Woodpeckers…but I could have been just bird-lucinating, ha ha. Oh, I blew my legs out in the process of hiking. Coming down the mountain, I heard an ungodly hollering, and was sure someone had snapped both ankles. Nope, just a guy primal-screaming the entire way down. Yep.