Month two in Gangneung, October 21-November 25, 2018

Long-eared Owl Asio otus with Oriental Magpie Pica serica © Matt Poll

Long-eared Owl Asio otus with Oriental Magpie and Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos © Matt Poll

Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos canicapillus © Matt Poll

Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana © Matt Poll

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrid © Matt Poll

Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris © Matt Poll

Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi © Matt Poll

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea © Matt Poll

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica (November 25) © Matt Poll

Japanese Wagtail Motacilla grandis © Matt Poll

Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus © Matt Poll

Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria © Matt Poll

Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica © Matt Poll

Northern Pintail Anas acuta © Matt Poll

Amur Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis euptilura © Matt Poll

Gyeongpo Lake © Matt Poll

Rural Gangneung © Matt Poll

Formerly a productive patch of scrub © Matt Poll

Formerly a productive stretch of bamboo and scrub © Matt Poll

Wildlife ramp at Gyeongpo Lake © Matt Poll

It has been a dynamic month of birding in Gangneung, with plenty of winter arrivals and unexpected sightings. These highs have been tempered with periods of dangerous smog, and numerous small-scale examples of habitat loss. The month’s standout records included uncommon species such as Long-eared Owl, Oriental Stork, Common Starling, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Saunders’s Gull, Water Rail (presuming it was an Eastern), Yellow-bellied Tit, Whiskered Tern, and good looks at an Amur Leopard Cat. There were also several ‘late’ birds seen, such as Barn Swallow (November 25), and Pechora Pipit and Ruddy-breasted Crake (both on November 11).

Winter waterfowl increases in numbers and variety with each passing day, with such notable arrivals as: several Northern Pintail on Gyeongpo Lake (October 26), three Whooper Swans west of the lake (October 27), Tufted Duck (November 4), several Common Goldeneye and dozens of Common Merganser on the lake (November 11), a handful of Gadwall at Gyeongpo (November 17), three Ruddy Shelduck on the river (November 23), and eight Smew near the lake (November 24). Let’s see if a North American rarity shows up this year on the lake.

On Friday, November 23rd, an early-morning river mission was undertaken under fresh blue skies. This long walk was designed to compensate for most likely being housebound on Sunday due to a grim smogcast. The first highlight was an Oriental Stork (banded in Japan) that was courteous enough to strut mid-river in the spot where the photographers coagulate.
I spent some time watching a Long-billed Plover feed on a smudge of sand. Nearby, a pair of Raccoon Dogs afflicted with mange were a pitiful sight. Also depressing was the moonscape that just a week earlier had been a 250-metre-long riverside patch of bamboo, trees, and scrub. One wonders what will be built there, in this place that was once home to many skulking species such as Winter Wren, Long-tailed Rosefinch, and various buntings.

The next day, it rained all morning, so I made a mid-afternoon trip to Gyeongpo Lake when the clouds moved on, and recorded 44 species in three hours. The temperature was the freshest it’s been so far, with lows close to freezing. About ten minutes into my walk, I was surprised when the Oriental Stork came in low (almost took my head off!), and landed in a small pool by a water treatment plant, near a large pack of suspicious Great Egrets. The stork was flushed three times in ten minutes by nearby pedestrian traffic, and after the last disturbance, the huge bird circled high then headed north along the coast, with purpose.
Later on, three Whooper Swans were spotted on the lake. Also seen around the lake were more Northern Lapwings in the fields (14), growing duck numbers on the lake, a Merlin in the fields, and Siberian Accentors and Goldcrests in the pines. The day ended with a potential Bluethroat, and an ‘odd’ Meadow Bunting. I must study up on the subspecies!

On a down note, when I came upon a patch that had been an extensive and lovely slice of scrubby habitat, it was gone – replaced by the familiar sight of an excavator preparing the ground for construction. Just a week earlier, my birding friend Youngwhan had pointed the spot out with a broad smile, and said: “This place is always good in winter for small birds, especially interesting buntings.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

On November 21st, I hit the quiet hills that loom near my house. While there hasn’t been anything spectacular up there so far, it’s always amazing to listen to the calling birds being drowned out by the shush of the wind in the 80-foot pines. As I was heading back home from a lazy ramble, I spotted two smaller woodpeckers. One was a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, and I had written the second one off as the same when it made a call that sounded, to my rusty ear, much closer to that of a Great Spotted Woodpecker. When I got up on it, I was stunned to be standing ten feet from a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker! This is a scarce species that has declined in most of its South Korean range, so it was great to see one in my backyard!

November 12-18 was a smoggy week, but at least Gangneung was spared the worst of it, especially compared to Seoul. Personal firsts for Gangneung this week included a Glaucous Gull at Gyeongpo Lake on the 17th, and a Siberian Accentor along the river on the 18th. On the morning of the 15th, I had another wander around the fields near the airbase. It was one of those mornings where the sun always seemed to be in my eyes, and all birds were silhouetted, all the time. It was in such challenging light conditions that I spotted a lone starling on the wires – Common Starling! Not so common in Korea. Then it was more hard luck with flocks of nervous Far Eastern Skylarks flushing from far off. At one point, a noticeably smaller lark was seen among such a flock, but a better look could not be had.

November 11 was a big bird day, and it got off to an auspicious start with a dawn Saunders’s Gull near my house – pick through those Black-headed! Also near my departure point was a group of the ‘local’ Red-billed Starlings – the flock in my neighborhood numbers well over 100 birds. Another flock of 60+ hangs out west of Gyeongpo Lake.
The seven-hour walk netted 55 species, and my Gangneung list blew well past 100. It was feeling wintery, species-wise, and the weather changed its mind a dozen times throughout the day. I picked up a solid tally of personal Gangneung firsts, including Common GoldeneyeCommon MerganserHooded Crane (three in flight near the lake headed southeast), Northern Lapwing, and single Olive-backed and Pechora Pipits (late for this species) in the same field – how’s that for an impromptu ID quiz?

Hard to single out a top moment on such a dynamic day, but two Long-eared Owls being mobbed by a pack of corvids checks all the boxes. The drama played out at a quiet spot I don’t often visit. One of the owls remained perched and unchallenged the whole time, and it seemed that the second owl was trying to draw the mob away from it. Intense!
Later, a Water Rail flushed in a reedy ditch with a wet gasp, and I couldn’t get a second look, in spite of an hour-long ‘crake-out.’ I’m assuming it was an Eastern, but there was a Western spotted in Gangneung a few years back, so another look would be great.
There was one more Rallidae surprise, when a crake flushed from beside a reedy reservoir and flew low to a nearby clump of reeds. I got quick but decent binocular looks, and the bird was most certainly a juvenile Ruddy-breasted Crake. Incidentally, this is the spot where the species is apparently an annual nester, so I’m guessing this was a young bird late in setting off.
The day ended with cracking close views of an Amur Leopard Cat. Glad to have finally gotten decent looks at this gorgeous animal.
A 41-species afternoon at Gyeongpo Lake on November 4, including my first Grey-headed Woodpecker for Gangneung. A Grey Heron sunning itself cut a humorous figure, and was more approachable than expected. Best of the day was also the worst, in that I didn’t get a record shot…of the Yellow-bellied Tit I briefly saw perched across a canal. It was with a flock of Great and Coal Tits, and melted away with several of the latter. Two hours of searching failed to re-locate the bird.

On October 26 at the lake, a young Northern Goshawk and another Amur Falcon stood out, and two Whiskered Terns were seen there the following day.
On October 28, a walk along the river went from sunny to gloomy and rainy, then back again. I’m starting to really understand and enjoy the habitat along the river, which cuts the town in half. Gangneung firsts on the day were a Long-billed PloverGreen SandpiperBlack-faced Bunting, and Long-tailed Rosefinch, all along the Namdaechon.

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