Bird News from Nial Moores
A truly exceptional morning with thousands of buntings, several hundred shorebirds and a really diverse mix of raptors on the move – including a Short-toed Eagle!
In clear conditions with moderate westerlies 96 species were logged in Jincheon alone between 06:20 and 12:20, before I needed to catch the ferry back to Incheon. The morning started relatively slowly, with best a splendily-ornate Chinese Egret and Mongolian Gull feeding in the same rice-field and increased numbers of species like Yellow-browed and Tristram’s Buntings.
Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes © Nial Moores
Yellow-browed Bunting Emberiza chrysophrys © Nial Moores
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami © Nial Moores
However, from, about 7AM, an increasing number of bunting calls could be heard passing overheard – and based on several short counts made between 8AM and 11AM an estimated 20-50 birds per minute were heading off island to points between north and east. If sample counts were reasonable and representative, then probably somewhere between 3,500 and 9,000 buntings and pipits were involved.
Based on the calls of closer birds, the most numerous among these were Black-faced and Little Buntings, with a few Yellow-breasted and rather more Chestnut and Yellow-browed Buntings in addition to substantial numbers of Olive-backed Pipit. These were supplemented by additional flocks of often invisible but audible and easy to ID species including Ashy Minivet and Chestnut-flanked White-eyes (with 200 of the latter species actually seen) and lesser numbers of lower-flying species like Chinese Grosbeak (30+), Black-naped Oriole (10+) and Daurian Starling (15+ in one flock in addition to four grounded birds).
There were good numbers of shorebirds on the move too, with Wood Sandpiper the most numerous (three calling flocks which were detected high up in a very bright sky contained 90, 40 and 70 birds respectively), and also several raptors, most of which arrived low from the southwest, before gaining height and departing north. Between 9AM and 11AM, these included at least 20 Crested Honey Buzzard, three Eastern Buzzard, three Grey-faced Buzzard, 3+ Chinese Sparrowhawk, 10+ Amur Falcon and shortly after 10AM a large and extremely pale raptor, glinting white in the very bright conditions.
Seen coming in from the southwest through binoculars this pale raptor, with an almost white head and almost white underparts, at first simply looked a little larger and rather longer-winged than the two accompanying Crested Honey Buzzards. I expected to see either the pinched-in head-shape of a pale Crested Honey Buzzard (though surprised that such a juvenile type plumage might be seen in spring) or instead the head-pattern of a Western Osprey. Instead, ‘scope views revealed a biggish white head perhaps with some very light brown on the crown and darker, dirty-looking lores, and largely white underparts and pale underwings.
As the bird moved closer (perhaps at closest within 100m or so?) and then started to spiral upward more details could be seen: the eyes were pale, and the bill was quite large and dark-looking. There was also some faint light brown or dirty markings on the upper breast too but only scant dark markings on the largely white underwings (including in the best view what looked to be tiny black alula set against otherwise almost white forewings). With the next spiral, some broken spots or barring were visible on the secondaries, with the otherwise very pale underwings contrasting strongly with long blackish primary fingers. As the bird banked again in the intensely bright sky, the plumage above also looked to be all contrasts: very dark – almost blackish- secondaries and primaries, very pale brown upperwing coverts, brown mantle and rather paler and somewhat barred tail.
Starting to suspect this might be something like a Short-toed Eagle (even though I strongly doubted that this species could ever look this pale) I tried to take a few digiscope images – always a real challenge with birds in flight – but the bird was already moving quickly west and the only two images I managed of the bird spiralling were of extremely poor quality – not worth posting or doing anything with unless I could get a better look at the bird again through the scope rather than the camera screen.
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus © Nial Moores. Although of appallingly poor quality, this image nonetheless (seems to) show the big-headed and long-winged look of this bird, with long, dark “fingers”. They also show that the head was largely pale, as were most of the underparts (the suggestion of brown flanks is photographic artefact); and that the upperwing coverts were strikingly pale, contrasting with very dark upper primaries. These features alone – if not photographic artefact – are enough to rule out several obvious alternative identifications: Western Osprey (bird lacks dark ear coverts and solidly dark-looking upperparts); pale-type Crested Honey Buzzard (which should be narrower headed, and show much less contrast on the upperwing); and pale morph Booted Eagle (which should look more buzzard-like as well as having dark undersides to the primaries, continuous through to the secondaries).
Doubting the details I had seen (there is such massive variation in the plumage of many large raptors after all; and the day was already over-stimulating!) and lacking any experience of Short-toed Eagle for three decades, I was ready to give up on making an ID. However, a very long twenty minutes or so later I picked up the same bird again – this time soaring over “Northeast Point” less than a kilometer away. This time the large pale raptor was sharing a thermal with an adult Crested Honey Buzzard and an Eastern Buzzard. Again, many of the same structural and plumage features could be seen in ‘scope views that extended over 20-30 seconds: yes, the bird really was long-winged, big-headed, very pale below and did show massive contrast in the upperwing. Yes, the bird really had extremely pale underwings without any dark on the secondaries below. The bird’s large size was a little more obvious too this time, looking some 10% and 20% larger than the accompanying Crested Honey and Eastern Buzzards respectively in direct comparison.
The bird was drifting closer: time to try to take much better, even identifiable images! However, a Large-billed Crow flew up noisily, in for the chase. Looking distinctly eagle-like now, the bird changed direction once more and easily outpaced the crow with a few very deep wing beats followed by apparently effortless gliding on somewhat angled wings, unfortunately disappearing away to the northwest. I waited for the bird to show again – but after almost an hour and with a boat to catch had to accept that was it.
Short-toed Eagle, with a Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos in bottom left of the top image © Nial Moores. Although all the images are extremely poor even for record shots, they do not contradict what I saw in the field and – in my opinion- help to support the identification as an immature (perhaps Third or Fourth Calendar-year) Short-toed Eagle. Also at this age, the species indeed does have an extremely pale plumage and perhaps also a tendency to start to wander. Although previously unrecorded in Korea, according to Terry Townshend Short-toed Eagle is now known to be a regular migrant to e.g. Beijing in both autumn and spring. More records in Korea are therefore likely to follow…
From 11AM onwards, even though many birds were still departing (including the eagle probably), there was also a corresponding and accelerating increase in the number of grounded birds. In the fields a flock of 100+ Eastern Yellow Wagtail now contained perhaps three ‘plexa’ (now generally considered to be Western Yellow Wagtail); three were at least three Mongolian Short-toed Lark (the new IOC name for the recently split East Asian Greater Short-toed Larks) and perhaps ten Richard’s and two or three Blyth’s Pipits (and one pipit which “got way” after giving a hard version of a Buff-bellied Pipit call strongly recalling Rosy Pipit). There was also a Little Whimbrel and dozens of buntings and quite a few Yellow-browed Warblers, now moving along ditches and even sitting on wires.
Little Whimbrel Numenius minutus © Nial Moores
In one nice patch of woodland – where there had been few birds the day before – there were now several Chestnut Bunting and at least 150 Yellow-browed Warblers, with a dozen or so sharing one small roadside tree with no less than 15 Chestnut-flanked White-eye. There must have been thousands of birds on the island…and very probably no other birders.
Chestnut Bunting Emberiza rutila © Nial Moores
It was hard to leave – but I had to visit the Geum Estuary on the 8th to try to look for Spoon-billed Sandpipers…