Sunday, March 31, 2019

Out with a whimper – Gangneung, March 20-31, 2019

Coal Tit Periparus ater
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus
Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Siberian Chipmunk Eutamias sibiricus
Dione Ratsnake Elaphe dione
(showing drab pre-moult markings)

Sangwongsa Temple
Not used to seeing such old trees in Korea...
Cherry blossoms on the back canals of Gyeongpo
An islet stripped of bushes and scrub, trees mauled...
Sweet progress! Back up those concrete trucks!
'Old school' farm ditches...
...being converted into concrete death traps...
  What to report? Ah yes, more habitat loss – I see examples of it literally every single time I go birding…which is 3-5 times a week. Yep. Preparations continue for a final spring hurrah on the islands, then I migrate too. Spring migration is almost herrrrrre. I must have been high on smog on the 20th when I wrote: Still relatively calm in Gangneung, but the tension, the ‘migration anxiety,’ is palpable out there. Maybe it’s just me, but I can sense the quivering, imminent, potential energy of mass migration like a taught bow, resonating in the wind. What?! How lame does that sound, what was I thinking? Nice adjectives, dude.

  Terrible smog, and much quieter than last week in the hills behind my house on March 20th. Highlight was a possible Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker heard on a hill near the original sighting location from back in November – this one not yet visited by the backhoes of progress.
  Seasonal movement was hinted at by several singing leucopsis White Wagtails that were moving through the fields (and past my window at dawn!), the first I’ve seen there. Through the pines, I spied a dark smudge of 200+ Rooks streaming north. Still some restless White-cheeked Starlings around as well.

  Windy and clear along the river the next day. At the mid-river point, the impressive sight of 23 Grey Herons kettling towards migratory altitude, then heading north. Seven individuals changed their minds and peeled back down to the river, perhaps realizing they were in fact local birds.
  Soon after, more visible migration. Over the course of 15 minutes, I watched a vein of 340+ Rooks, composed of smaller squads of 20-50, also on the move. Folded within each of those sub-groups were the requisite 1-3 Daurian Jackdaws. I watched as most of these flocks also circled higher over the river on thermals, before winging with purpose towards the Amur lands.
  Near the river’s mouth, a lone Dunlin paced, my first of the season, followed by a pair of flyby Mandarin Ducks.

  March doldrums still on the river and lake on March 23rd. An evident clear-out of gulls and waterfowl on the lake, with perhaps 60-70% of winter’s numbers gone. The fields were mostly devoid of Far Eastern Skylarks, with only six seen, where there were normally at least 100. Still four Little Ringed Plover and a Dusky Thrush around.

  On March 24th, I finally made it up to Odaesan (Birobong). It’s a hard-ish place to get to, so not many folks were up there on a fresh and windy morning. Lovely. No crazy birds in the temple-ridden hills, with the expected blend of tits, woodpeckers, and nuthatches, as well as a Eurasian Wren, semi-tame Large-billed Crows on the trails, and a Carrion Crow in fields on the way. I was expecting to see a Brown Dipper on the mountain streams – it’s been a while. I had grand winter plans of finding a Spotted Nutcracker in these hills, but I frittered away the one true month of winter we had here obsessed with finding a Black Woodpecker. Fair trade-off, I regret nothing.

  First Barn Swallow of the year on the 29th, lazy over the river towards noon. A lone Red-billed Starling was observed skulking at the river’s edge, acting wary, creeping around where mud meets brush.

  I walked the Namdae River and Gyeongpo Lake the following day. Still overall quiet, with more clear-out of much of winter’s birds, but still no real influx of migrants expected for another week or two. Five flyby Mandarin Ducks at the river’s mouth were notable. At the Plumbeous Water Redstart spot, a Grey Wagtail on territory, but no PWR.
  I was surprised, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been, to find an audacious example of habitat destruction at a formerly scrubby islet. This little oasis in the river has always been ‘birdy,’ teeming with resident birds all winter, and sheltering migrants, including warblers, last October. All of the scrub, and many of the mature trees have been stripped, with the backhoes peeling everything back to bare soil. Did an excavator reach across to do this? Why the hell would this be done? Surely this islet is too small to host a building? Reduction of brush to prevent fire risk would make little sense, as…it’s surrounded by water. Anyway, gross.
  The lake was besieged with clots of extremely festive weekenders taking selfies with the cherry blossoms. Of note: no Skylarks; two more Mandarin Ducks; 9 Falcated Ducks; two low-flying Eurasian Sparrowhawks heading north over the lake together; 8 Little Ringed Plovers; White Wagtail activity on the rise, with at least 30 along the various small waterways (lugens, ocularis, and leucopsis); 20+ Daurian Redstarts, bunched up in places; a singing male Blue Rock Thrush; a skulky Dusky Thrush still; still a dozen Pallas’s Reed Buntings; 25+ Rooks on the move; groups of 20-40 White-cheeked Starlings out and about.
  In the fields, I nearly tripped on my first snake of the season, a Dione Ratsnake. It had more subdued/washed-out markings than I’ve ever seen. Apparently their markings are muted right before shedding. Thanks to Dr. A.B. again for the tip.

  On the final day of the month, several Goldcrest still in Disappointment Valley, but no signs of the Ural Owl I heard there exactly one lifetime ago. No Black Woodpeckers spotted or heard, but plenty of evidence of recent feeding activity on their favoured ‘old-growth’ ridge.
  Coal Tits were in full song, and quite bold in approaching me closer than arm’s length, I thought. Three Eurasian Siskins were spotted in almost the exact same spot (a stand of birch and pines high on a ridge) where I saw a dozen back on January 5th – the only Siskins I’ve seen in Gangneung.
  I was surprised to find a skulky Tristram’s Bunting up near the peak of a ridge. I got good looks at it – it was not a breeding-plumaged Rustic Bunting. My first thought was that it was an extremely early migrant, but my memory ticked over to when I encountered six Tristram’s in similar habitat on Jeju in early March. I dug through the Birds Korea archives and came across several records of Tristram’s being recorded in winter (and summer!) in this part of the country – so it seems not all Tristram’s Buntings are passage migrants here. Cool!
  Back in town, a squadron of 25 Barn Swallows revelled in the strong winds, and skimmed low on the river where the lone scout was spotted two days earlier.

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. Brown Frog (Rana uenoi) egg sacs 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...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 (very low number for the time of year). 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!