Bird news from Subhojit Chakladar (with Dr Nial Moores and Dr Shim Kyu Shik since May 23rd)
Late spring birding in one of the best (if not THE best) site in ROK. Encouraged by some interest weather system prediction, I decided to spend 5 days on the island with the hope of connecting with locustella warblers and coming across some late spring rarity. The weather system turned out to be very disappointing in terms of birds (with extensive fog cover and cancelled boats) but there were a few surprises as well as the pleasure of the company of the 2 docs 🙂
Arriving at midday, I headed off to the north-west of the island where the calls of Arctic and Black-browed Reed Warblers resonated from a long stretch of ditches. There were also quite a few Thick-billed Warblers which are typical late spring migrants through the outer islands. There were a lot of Brown Shrikes in the open areas as well as a few Tiger Shrikes in places with more vegetation. Cuckoos were also very vocal with Common, Indian and Oriental Cuckoos heard multiple times. Later in the afternoon, hirundine flocks started appearing over the ridge and very soon large number of Red-rumped and Barn Swallows were flying around accompanied by a few Asian House Martins. The calls of Dusky Warblers were also commonly heard (and a few seen) along with the more robustly built Radde’s Warbler. The first locustella encounter was in form of a Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler in partial song while the best bird (at least visually) was a full breeding plumaged Ochre-rumped Bunting. There were also a significant number of Asian Brown flycatchers while a smaller numbers of Grey-streaked, Yellow-rumped and a single female Mugimaki Flycatcher were also found.
With rain forecasted and generally overcast conditions, I focused my birding efforts in the north-eastern part of the island. New birds for the day were (a tailless) Chestnut Bunting, flocks of Chestnut-flanked White-eyes, 2 Japanese Grosbeaks, a handful of Chinese Sparrowhawks and Amur Falcons, a Chinese Egret in flight and a very sharp looking Black-capped Kingfisher. Rain started at around 11am. Initially just a light drizzle, it soon turned into quite a downpour. I headed in for a warm meal and some shut eye.
Refreshed by the rest, I headed out as the rain cleared to reveal a weak late afternoon sun. There were a lot of warblers in the field. Mostly Arctics and Kamchatka Leaf Warblers but also a few Yellow-browed and Eastern-crowned Warblers thrown in. Oriental Reed Warblers were also very vocal. Best birds of the day were a group of 5 Yellow-breasted Buntings. Additionally there were 2 Black Drongos, 2 Olive-backed Pipits a few Meadow Buntings as well as 3 Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers.
A very foggy morning with the mist condensing on my glasses making it difficult to see. In the west of the island initially with Dr Moores and joined by Dr Shim later in the day. New birds included a female Siberian Thrush (SC only), Baikal Bush Warbler (NM only) heard calling, a distant calling Oriental Scops Owl, singing Lanceolated Warblers, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler (heard only), a pair of very noisy Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a single Two-barred Warbler, singing White’s Thrush, a female type Blue-and-white Flycatcher, 2 Hawfinch, 1 Taiga Flycatcher, a few Black-naped Orioles, a Yellow Bittern (SC only), a Striated Heron, a few Chinese Pond Herons. However, the best bird was undoubtedly 2 Japanese Leaf Warblers. These birds are scarce and early spring migrants through Korea. Though very similar to Arctic Warblers in plumage, they have a significantly lower pitched call and a different song which is diagnostic.
Later in the day, in a different part of the island a White-shouldered Starling was seen in a flock of White-cheeked Starlings.
With very heavy fog blanketing the island, we headed out to the north-western part of the island to check for any departing birds. Some locustellas were encountered on a trail. New birds for the day were a Dollarbird, Forest Wagtail, Chestnut-eared Bunting, Dark-sided Flycatcher, a Black-crowned Night Heron. Later in the day in a different part of the island, we heard something that resembled (and responded to playback) a Manchurian Reed Warbler. Though there were other reed warblers in the same area, we did see a bird several times which responded to the calls but none of us had satisfactory views to claim the bird being “seen”. Interestingly, we encountered another Japanese Leaf Warbler (which again revealed its identify though the call). With heavy rain interrupting birding for a few hours, we resumed later in the afternoon by driving around some rice fields before eventually reaching the north-west of the island. New birds included a Pacific Golden Plover, Pacific Swift, a Black-faced Spoonbill, a Common Kestrel, a Eurasian Hobby, a few Sand Martins, a single Pallas’s Leaf Warbler.
With thick fog continuing around the island and bright sunshine elsewhere, most of the birds were either avoiding landing on the island or staying in cover or using brief periods of sun to clear out. It was a long day with not much new addition to the list of birds. However, on the west of the island we did have Japanese Sparrowhawk and Northern Boobook which were new birds for the trip along with a single flying Azure-winged Magpie. We also encountered the “Barking Cuckoo” on more than one instance with once in flight. Later in the afternoon, a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler was seen in thick low lying vegetation (SC only). Boats cancelled for the 2nd day, which meant that I had to extend my stay till another boat was available.
Very foggy again at dawn and rain predicted later in the day. In the west of the island, the best was a probable Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler (comparing the song with a nearby Gray’s). Unfortunately despite repeated efforts, the birds remained invisible. By mid-morning the clouds were gathering and we shifted closer to the main town where a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker was encountered (SC and SKS only). Later driving around in the rain to try and locate something interesting, we encountered another Japanese Leaf Warbler – this time feeding on the barbed wires of a military facility. We did manage to get some decent photos of the bird but a military vehicle did stop by to inquire about the lenses peeping out of the car window (almost like tabloid journalists!)
The boat finally made it to the island after 2 days of cancellation. From the boat back over calm seas quite a few Streaked Shearwaters, as well as an all dark Shearwater was seen flying off (unfortunately seen without binoculars hence not details could be observed). About an hour into the journey, a heavy-set loon (with the distinct white on the flank indicating an Arctic) was seen flying away from the boat, which is an extraordinary late observation of this species. Even more bizarre was a group of 3 all dark alcids (seen through binoculars at around 70~100m distance) which appeared all black with some hint of white on the upperparts (but definitely no strong white patch on the wing). All this indicates to possible Spectacled Guillemot, which once again is a very later occurrence of this predominately winter visitor which are regular on the east coast. Comments on later spring observation of alcids and loons in Korean waters from expert observers are welcome.
Even though the promising weather system didn’t turn up an extraordinary birds and the weather was rather crappy throughout, it was more than made up by the wonderful company and many intellectually stimulating discussions. Baekryeong Island offers an extraordinary diverse array of habitat which can act as a magnet for sustainable eco-tourism if carefully planned. Apart from birds, it also holds an array of amphibian species as well as the chance to see Spotted Seals. Preserving and carefully managing the habitat on the island will not only provide interesting and rich ornithological observations but will also aid migrating birds by providing a stopover point for rest and re-fueling in their long journey.