Bird News from Nial Moores and Jason Loghry
July is widely understood to be the hardest / quietest month for birding here. The weather is often hot and humid, or outright wet in years with a proper rainy season; there is almost no obvious migration; there are almost no accessible large concentrations of birds; there has been a near-absence of “good finds” in July – unlike all 11 other months of the year- unless as a result of typhoons; and finally, although biting insects are obvious, many bird species are shy and in increasingly poor plumage. Despite all these negatives, a day of birding riverside fields and reed-beds, rocky coast and open sea in the southeast (in Gyeongju, Pohang, the Guryongpo Peninsula and near Ulsan; first in rain and fog and then under clearing skies) was full of interest. In all only 46 species were logged, though much times was effectively wasted taking a so-called “Whale Watching Tour” out of Ulsan (more on this in a separate post). However, this low total included many notable species:
- Gadwall Anas strepera. Three were found (and photographed) near Pohang. There are very few previous summer-month records of this species in the ROK (though with better coverage this summer, the species has been found in both Seosan and in Seoul in June).
- Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. Four were found near Pohang. Although increasingly regularly- recorded in the summer months in the north and northwest, and also found as an occasional breeder (?) at Upo, this species is scarce in the south at this time of year.
- Common Merganser Mergus merganser. One near Pohang. Although a local breeding species in the north of the country, this is perhaps the first summer record in the southeast known to Birds Korea.
- Streaked Shearwater Calonectris leucomelas. Probably c. 150 were seen in total, including several small groups off the Guryongpo Peninsula and 117 seen during the so-called “Whale Watching Tour” out from Ulsan, the nation’s whale-eating capital.
- Yellow Bittern. Ixobrychus sinensis At least three (two booming males and one female) were seen near Gyeongju.
- Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo. Around 50 were seen near Pohang. Although easy to separate from Temminck’s Cormorant in non-breeding plumage by the colour of the lower mandible and the shape of the rear of the gular patch, the criteria for separating sinensis and (the perhaps synonymous?) hanedae still seem to be poorly understood. Sinensis, often thought of as the Great Cormorant of the interior of Eurasia (as opposed to the marine-preferential nominate subspecies), is widely believed to be the common subspecies in Korea. It is mapped across Asia by e.g. Newson et al. (2004) – though their study omitted Korea and Japan from their analysis – and by Brazil (2009). Hanedae is less well-known. According to the 7th edition of the Japanese Checklist published by the Ornithological Society of Japan in 2012, only hanedae has been recorded in Japan. Brazil (2009) provides no ID criteria, instead stating that hanedae is “mainly resident” in Japan but “may disperse” and that the “limits” between the two subspecies are “unclear”. Either way, there is evidence of large seasonal movements of Great Cormorants within Japan , where the species is increasing rapidly, and large numbers winter in the Nakdong Estuary in the southeast of Korea, only 200km from mainland Japan. In addition, the species was largely absent in the ROK in summer until the late 1990s, since when it has established several breeding colonies, but only in the northwest. In winter, there appear to be subtle differences in the shape of the gular between some birds when seen side-by-side (either “expected” variation or could this be due to subspecific differences?); and only in a very few areas, like Jeju (where there are several “Japanese-type” taxa), the species can be found regularly in rocky and marine areas. The birds at Pohang were on a river. They were in non-breeding plumage and most were immature. In many respects they looked remarkably similar to hanedae photographed by NM at a breeding colony in Tokyo (in early 2005). Sinesis or hanedae? Informed comments would be greatly appreciated.
- Temminck’s Cormorant Phalacrocorax capillatus. One was on the Guryongpo Peninsula. Although this species breeds commonly in the northwest and locally elsewhere in the Korean part of the Yellow Sea, it is apparently scarce in the summer months in the southeast.
- Ruddy-breasted Crake Porzana fusca. One was heard near Gyeongju.
- Watercock Gallicrex cinerea. Near Gyeongju, a female Watercock-type was seen as it flew across the track and disappeared into heavy cover.
- Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus. The day’s highlight, an adult Grey-headed Lapwing, was found by JL, and photographed by both of us in rice-fields near Gyeongju. This species is a very uncommon migrant through Korea, with very few records in the summer months (<5 in total?). Of note, one was also reported in the Nakdong Estuary in mid-June this year.
- Common Redshank Tringa totanus. One, presumably an early-returning migrant, was near Pohang.
- Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris. At least 400+ were noted during the day, including a half-dozen or more superb fresh-plumaged juveniles and large numbers of extremely worn-looking adults.
- Mongolian Gull Larus mongolicus. A worn (sub-) adult was between Ulsan and Busan and was the only non-Black-tailed gull seen during the day. In addition to wear, it had a few coarse nape streaks (hard to see in the images). In this species, nape-streaking appears to be at its coarsest and most extensive in August / September, becoming weaker (and still confined to the nape) during much of the winter.
- Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus. One in non-breeding plumage off the Guryongpo Peninsula appears to be an exceptional July record away from breeding areas (many / most apparently depart Korean waters between mid-June and October).
- Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis. JL found a family party on the Guryongpo Peninsula on the 12th. Together, we heard single birds in two additional villages; heard and saw the same family in the same area; saw another perched on roadside wires next to the “known site”; and encountered singles at two more spots from the moving car between Guryongpo and Ulsan. Clearly, the species has already established itself on several offshore islands in the West Sea; it is now colonizing the mainland in the southeast. How many more might there be on islands and along the south coast too?
- White Wagtail Motacilla alba. In addition to at least two family groups of leucopsis, a single First-summer / Second Calendar-year male lugens was found and photographed on the Guryongpo Peninsula. Although lugens is a common winter visitor and migrant, and has apparently been recorded in the summer in the DPRK, the Birds Korea 2014 Checklist does not acknowledge any summer month records in the ROK. Is it regular here in the summer, perhaps along the Gangwon coast as seems likely, or was this a genuinely exceptional record?
Also seen a Tiger Keelback Snake.