Author Archives: Nial Moores

Baengnyeong Island, May 3-16

Bird News from Dr Nial Moores with Dr Shim Kyu-Sik (May 5th and 6th) and John Kitcher (one hour on 8th, all of 9th-11th, and morning of the 12th).

Thanks to a couple of interesting weather systems (coinciding with access to a car!), a rather remarkable total of 201 bird species was logged by NM between 3rd and 16th, with two or more additional species also logged by Lee Ju Hyeok, Kim Young-Jin and Park Chong-Un between 12th and 16th.

Highlights included record-breaking counts of Wood Sandpiper (c. 2,000 in a day on 7th ) and of 460 globally Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting (comprising both subspecies) on 15th , newsworthy enough to be published in the Incheon Ilbo; and three new island records: Common Tern 제비갈매기, Grey-crowned Warbler 회색머리노랑솔새 and Crested Myna 뿔찌르레기, bringing the total number of bird species recorded on Baengnyeong Island to 395 or 396.

Critically Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola ornata 검은머리촉새 © Nial Moores

Almost all birds recorded during the period are listed on eBird.

On May 3rd, two Northern Boobook and a handful of pipits were seen in flight over the sea from the afternoon boat; and in the late afternoon perhaps Baengnyeong’s only Mongolian Short-toed Lark of the spring was heard and glimpsed in best fields, along with 90 or more Hawfinch and a predictably excellent mix of buntings, with a (slightly disappointing) seasonal high of 650 Black-faced and at least 30 Yellow-browed Buntings still.

Adult male Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala 촉새 © Nial Moores
Male Yellow-browed Bunting Emberiza chrysophrys 노랑눈썹멧새 © Nial Moores

On 4th, viz-migging at “Temple Hill” produced a few raptors, a good count of c. 50 White-throated Needletails and the spring’s first Two-barred Warbler on the island.

On 5th, heavy overnight rain through until the evening was followed by showers, then drizzle and more spells of rain and banks of fog through the following morning – helping to build a day list of 107 or 108 species on the 6th. On both 5th and morning of the 6th (spent with Dr Shim), we enjoyed a good diversity of shorebirds especially in rice-field areas – especially as water levels at Hwadong Wetland have been kept too high all spring- including on the 6th a mixed flock of Wood Sandpiper, stints, a Curlew Sandpiper, three Siberian Sandplover, five Pacific Golden Plover and even a lone Ruddy Turnstone.

Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva 검은가슴물떼새 © Shim Kyu-Sik
Female (left) and male (right) Amur Falcons Falco amurensis 비둘기조롱이 © Shim Kyu-Sik

Also of interest were Amur Falcons and a male and female Pallas’s Reed Bunting, with the male perhaps looking “good” for lydiae, being quite large-billed, and having a rather Common Reed Bunting like blend of rust and brown in the upperparts and some weak streaking on the lower flanks. Most breeding plumaged male Pallas’s Reed here look slimmer-billed and have much more grey and less warmth in the upperparts in May than this bird. Of note, I have heard what I take to be the song of lydiae twice on Baengnyeong (and the song of pallasi / polaris perhaps 20 times or so in Korea). For May images of lydiae in Mongolia see e.g. here and here).

Breeding plumaged male Pallas’s Reed Bunting Emberiza pallasi 북방검은머리쑥새 © Shim Kyu-Sik: lydiae or pallasi / polaris?

In the afternoon of the 6th, outstanding highlight was an adult male Green-backed Flycatcher, seen foraging (briefly!) in the canopy together with several Mugmaki and Yellow-rumped Flycatchers. As so often on Baengnyeong, I failed to get any images as the views were so brief (and I am limited to digiscoping).

The 7th was an absolutely brilliant day, with multiple highlights and at least 113 species logged on foot and bus. Light rain and fog returned and persisted through much of the night of 6th into 7th, followed by; persistent heavy drizzle until 08:30, with headwinds (NE 2-3 at ground level; much stronger at higher levels) and rapidly improving visibility, followed in the late afternoon by weakening winds, and even a ground level swing to westerlies, triggering mass arrivals and departures, with birds low enough to be seen.

Winds at approximately 900masl / 900hpa at 4pm on May 7th (Image downloaded from the Windy App, at: https://www.windy.com/). Birds crossing the Yellow Sea during the afternoon of the 7th would have had to endure moderate to strong headwinds of up to 50km/hr at heights of 900m asl as they approached Baengnyeong…However, conditions were much more favourable for flight at lower heights…
Ground-level winds at about 5pm (Image downloaded from https://earth.nullschool.net/). By 5Pm, birds flying low over the sea would have been able to benefit from incipient westerly tail winds over Baengnyeong/ Hwanghaenam. The difference in wind strength and direction at different altitudes (coinciding with the seasonal peak in migration of species like Wood Sandpiper) very likely was responsible for the massive numbers of shorebirds seen in low flight over the island in the evening; and for the arrival of Eye-browed Thrush etc.

Most remarkable of all was the record-breaking movement of about 2,000 Wood Sandpiper. In the morning, 125 were seen heading NE out to sea; then in the late afternoon in the SW, 280 were seen coming in off the sea in only 25 minutes, initially flying about 1km up, and maintaining a NE heading; followed between 6:30 and 6:55pm by flocks of 25, 140, 45, 280, 400, 450, 140 and 100, watched heading off NE over Jinchon, with some of these flocks only 100masl. Quite a few birds were probably missed during this period – both when I was on the bus (at least 20 minutes in the evening) and also when back in Jinchon. itself.

Other highlights during the 7th included island high day-counts of Oriental Pratincole (5), White-shouldered Starling (3), and Yellow Bunting (3); 63 Japanese Waxwing (59 in the east, four in the west); flocks of arriving Eye-browed Thrush; and a stunning and confiding Amur Falcon.

White-shouldered Starlings Sturnia sinensis 잿빛쇠찌르레기 (2), with Daurian Starlings Agropsar sturninus 북방쇠찌르레기 (7), Chestnut-cheeked Starling Agropsar philippensis 쇠찌르레기 (1) and White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 찌르레기 (1) © Nial Moores.
Globally Vulnerable Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata 무당새 © Nial Moores
Amur Falcon Falco amurensis 비둘기조롱이 © Nial Moores

Clement weather on the 8th allowed for decent survey of the NE in the morning, and of the NW in the afternoon. In the NE, highlights included a seasonal peak of 120 Chestnut Bunting and 38 Japanese Grosbeak (ripping a bush to shreds!), and excellent looks at a diverse array of migrants, including Ashy Minivet and Marsh Sandpiper (feeding alongside four other species of shorebird in just one rice-field in Jinchon).

Second Calendar-year male Chestnut Bunting Emberiza rutila 꼬까참새 © Nial Moores
Japanese Grosbeak Eophona personata 큰부리밀화부리 © Nial Moores
Female Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus 할미새사촌 © Nial Moores
Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis 쇠청다리도요 © Nial Moores

In the NW, most enjoyable was a shrike with a prominent white wing patch. Although probably one in 10 or one in 20 of the Brown Shrikes we see in the ROK in spring do show some white in the wing, this individual was toward the extreme end. In addition, the bird also showed a rather pronounced primary projection and a fairly square-ended tail (with orangey fringes below), and was also rather paler on the breast than typical nominate cristatus. Although the bird showed several pro-Turkestan Shrike features, the bill nonetheless looked a little too stout, the tail a little too long and modestly graduated, and the supercilium too extensive for that species – and instead perhaps all the features were more or less within the range of a confusus Brown Shrike. As asked in previous years, how would a bird like this be identified if seen in western Europe or North America, or within the breeding range of Turkestan Shrike? As a Brown Shrike? As a Turkestan Shrike? Or as a bird with mixed genetic heritage (perhaps a descendant of L. cristatus x L. isabellinus – latter species recorded for the first time in Korea last autumn – or L. cristatus x L. phoenicuroides)?

Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 노랑때까치, showing multiple features suggesting “influence” of the unrecorded Turkestan Shrike Lanius pheonicuroides © Nial Moores

Outstanding highlight came in the evening, when three very tardy Hooded Crane were spotted in the Harrier Fields. Remarkably, three Hooded Crane were photographed over-flying Eocheong Island by Dr Sung Sooyoung that same morning; and three were also reported on or over Incheon’s Gureup Island during the same period too! Gureup Island is about 120km north of Eocheong, and 145km southeast of Baengnyeong…

Globally Vulnerable Hooded Crane Grus monacha 흑두루미 © Nial Moores

On 9th, together with John Kitcher, 125 species were logged, mostly in the SW and NW, including seasonal highs of at least 85 Dusky Warbler and 30 Rufous-tailed Robin, with additional highlights a brief Tickell’s Leaf Warbler (poor record shots taken), a singing Hume’s Leaf Warbler and a close-hawking Oriental Pratincole.

On 10th, again together with John Kitcher, 108 species were logged, with an obvious sense of departure ahead of a much-anticipated rain front (due on 11th). In addition to a wonderful mix of expected migrants, which included 21 Chinese Sparrowhawk, 14 Japanese Sparrowhawk and e.g., three Chinese Pond Heron, we also enjoyed a brief encounter with a Tree Pipit in the NW.

Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 흰날개해오라기 © Nial Moores
Second or Third Calendar-year male Chinese Sparrowhawk Accipiter soloensis 붉은배새매 © Nial Moores

The 11th was a spectacular day. In all, travelling by car around the island with John Kitcher, we logged at least 133 species.

During the day, a double-banded rain front passed across the island, heralding a reversal of winds and dropping large numbers of birds. At dawn, visibility was about 12km under heavy overcast, and winds were strong SE. We started with Viz Migging from Temple Hill, enjoying more White-throated Needletails, before checking the old church area as rain started to fall (glimpsing what was likely to have been a Black Stork soaring rapidly between a gap in the trees) ; then drove across the island to wait out a 2-hour band of rain. As the rain became heavy we found a massive grounded flock of Wood Sandpiper with several other shorebirds and a dozen or so large pipits on the roads, and then also saw a pale medium-sized tern fly across the rice-fields – with ID as Common Tern, most likely of subspecies minussensis. Soon after the wind then swung round to west, gradually clearing away the fog and rain showers – allowing us to walk the NW, where we heard an unknown warbler (perhaps Grey-crowned on one or two better heard calls?) and then, 200m or so to the north, ROK’s second record of Grey-backed Shrike (with the only previous record also on Baengnyeong…).

Small part of a flock of 279 Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola 알락도요 in one Pukburi Rice-field © John Kitcher. Has anyone seen this many in a single rice-field anywhere else in Korea?
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres 꼬까도요 (left) and Wood Sandpiper 꼬까도요 (on right) © John Kitcher.
Grey-backed Shrike Lanius tephronotus 회색등때까치 © Nial Moores. The brownish wash to the grey upperparts, more visible at some angles than others, seems likely due to immaturity rather than to subspecies.

The day then finished in relative calm, allowing us to see contrasts on a small raft of Stejneger’s Scoter on the sea south of the reclamation lake, and to alert local fishers (and a police officer) to the distress being experienced by a nesting Far Eastern Oystercatcher trying to protect her chick as people walked close to her.

Far Eastern Oystercatcher Haematopus osculans 검은머리물떼새 on nest with chick © Nial Moores.

A last morning with John Kitcher on 12th produced a decent spread of species, with the two highlights – both in the NW – being the continuing Second Calendar-year Grey-backed Shrike, first picked up by the raucous call when perched out in the open (after which the bird appeared to become more skulking); and a brief snippet again of song and properly-heard calls of the mystery warbler from yesterday in the same patch of bushes: “Trup-trup” (we attempted to record but failed). These very brief vocalisations to my ears closely matched recordings on Xeno Canto of Grey-crowned Warbler, a species recorded only once previously in the ROK.

Grey-backed Shrike 회색등때까치 © Nial Moores, May 12th 2024.

We also enjoyed excellent views of another flock of Japanese Grosbeak; and visited the nesting colony, seeing three Black-faced Spoonbill chicks.

Japanese Grosbeak 큰부리밀화부리 © Nial Moores

On 13th, in calm and sunny conditions, the first highlight was provided by a very heavy-billed Red Crossbill with especially heavily-marked undertail coverts (subspecies?), followed an hour later by the second island record of Pheasant-tailed Jacana in Sagot. This bird was orginally found by Onishi Tonikazu and his 12-person birding team from Japan on 9th or 10th, and was then re-located on 12th by Lee Ju Hyeok, Kim Young-Jin and Park Chong-Un. Thanks to their directions, I was able to find the bird easily (the bird was not seen again on subsequent dates).

Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra 솔잣새 © Nial Moores
Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus 물꿩 © Nial Moores

A slow but steady arrival of warblers also seemed to be ongoing in the southwest, with plentiful Radde’s and Duskys, a new Tickell’s Leaf Warbler and rarest of all in the Korean context a heard-only Grey-crowned Warbler .

Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi 긴다리솔새사촌 © Nial Moores
Tickells’ Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus affinis occisinensis 노랑배솔새사촌 © Nial Moores (until recently listed as Alpine Leaf, now re-lumped by IOC and eBird).

The Grey-crowned Warbler was not seen (although a shadow was cast…) and I again failed to manage any sound recordings. The bird, however, was heard close in a very quiet area of track, giving a very distinctive “prrup…prrup ” call six or so times as the bird passed me by, all the time concealed deep in an area of impenetrable bushes. I have strong confidence in the ID, as the acoustics were very good and I had listened to multiple recordings of this and other similar species over the past two days. I played call xc751284 (recorded by Geoff Carey and earlier downloaded from Xeno-Canto), which sounded identical to the calling bird several times over the next two hours at different spots close to the bushes but got no response. There is only one adequately-documented record in the ROK (one on Socheong Island photographed in May 2022), but this becomes the second record for Baengnyeong in only 2-3 days!

The 14th, was sunny and warm (20c?) with W 2-3 and high visibility. Higher winds (at 900hpa or about 900masl) were 50km/hr plus and were coming direct from the Wuhan region. There were headwinds across the northern part of the Yellow Sea, however, and an overnight thunderstorm was forecast. Ahead of this on Baengynyeong, to quote Coldplay, “IT WAS ALL YELLOW”! In the morning there were flocks of Eastern Yellow Wagtail, an excellent arrival of Yellow-breasted Bunting (with a record-breaking count of 245, just exceeding the high count of 240 made on May 21st 2019) and a substantial departure of Black-naped Oriole, with 168 seen heading, or attempting to head, east in only 2.5 hours. Rarest species in the national context was the same as yesterday’s or another new (yellow-bellied) Tickell’s Leaf Warbler in the southwest.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 긴발톱할미새 © Nial Moores

In the early hours of 15th, the wind swung from light southwesterlies (50-60 kph at 900hpa) to 50km/h ground level NNE Force 4 or 5 in the morning, followed by 2-3 hours of rain (coming from a band at least 1000km west-east), which finished at about 9:30AM in Jinchon. Soon after parts of the sky seemed to be filled with hirundines and several birds started to re-orientate. These included 5 male Siberian Thrush (4 in the NE and one in the NW), another Oriental Pratincole, and flocks of Yellow-breasted Bunting, with several small groups and one much larger flock of 110 seen flying from the southwest across island in the morning. In the afternoon, a count of most (but not all) of the areas usually used by the species in the NE, resulted in a grand total of 460 (including a single flock of 350) – presumed to be a national high count. Several of the males which were seen well appeared to have black foreheads, so could be ascribed to far eastern subspecies ornata. Others, including younger males and apparently full adults, had browner foreheads and lacked blackish tones to the breast band, and therefore were ascribed to the nominate subspecies.

Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola ornata 검은머리촉새 © Nial Moores
Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola aureola 검은머리촉새 © Nial Moores

I failed to re-find a presumed Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike photographed by Lee Ju Hyeok in Jinchon in the early afternoon (and posted on eBird).

On the 16th, my final morning on the island this visit, dawn broke calm and bright and I took the decision to head up Temple Hill to see if there was much evidence of birds re-orientating after yesterday’s weather front. Outstanding highlight was two Crested Myna, seen but again frustratingly not photographed, scoped as they first flew north, then west, then back east before heading north and gaining height.

Early morning view, looking north from “Temple Hill”, Jinchon © Nial Moores.

This is my twelfth spring with fieldwork on Baengnyeong Island. The aims have remained largely unchanged: with other Birds Koreans and “allies” to gather baseline data that might be used by researchers in the future (who – unless much more is done – might never witness the abundance that still remains ); to understand more about weather and migration, so that counts can be better interpreted and trends better-detected; and to encourage islanders and others to recognise the beauty and importance of this island, so that appropriate conservation measures can be taken.

Since 2013, we have recorded almost 400 species of bird (higher than any other area in Korea); some islanders are becoming interested; and although still small in number, more birders are starting to visit the island. In May these apparently included a birder who came specially from Sweden; a team from Japan; and at least four or five domestic birders in addition to myself and the resident Park Cheong-Un of Green Korea United (perhaps more widely known as “the seal lady”).

In addition to bird surveys, we have tried to identify hotspots for other species (especially amphibians) and helped with the installation of frog ladders. Birds Korea has also already published one report on biodiversity and ecotourism (in 2019), and proposed additional designs, crafted together with a team from University of California Berkerley; and we have also shared data, plans and expert advice through seminars and meetings directly with decision-makers and researchers as well as with other NGOs – on the island, in Incheon Citty and at e.g. the Korean Environment Institure. This March, we also signed an MOU with Incheon KFEM, to work more closely together to help improve conservation and ecotourism opportunities on the island (one personal benefit of this, thanks to Incheon KFEM and Korea Express Ferries, is free ferry journeys, for now at least).

We have done so much already and invested so much time, energy and funds – with now 320 dates or so of fieldwork. All the same, so much habitat has already been lost or degraded, including most recently the main tidal flat. Species like Chinese Egret have declined; and this was, it seems, the first year without any Black-capped Kingfisher (yet).

Of major concern too, the announcement was made within the past month that construction of the proposed Baengnyeong island airport will start in 2026. There has, it appears, been no formal EIA for this airport conducted yet; many people do not know exactly where this proposed airport will be (as proposed it will run parallel to the east of the reclamation lake, through the harrier fields – right next to a large concentration of wintering geese and astride a “line” used by migrating raptors in both spring and autumn). This construction looks set to proceed immediately after completion of a massive new car ferry port now under construction in Jinchon; and will be followed by construction of a golf-course and a new resort area.

General direction of migratory landbirds across Baengnyeong in spring shown in yellow arrows (main direction of arrival and cross-island movement), orange arrows (indicating arrival from Socheong / Daecheong islands to the south) and green arrows (indicating main points of departure), based on 12 years of count data and observations. The red line marks the proposed location of the proposed runway; the yellow and white circles indicate a distance of 1km and 3km respectively from likely point of touchdown and take-off; and the numbers in white indicate approximate height of hill peaks used by soaring raptors.

Baengnyeong is a large island – but is it really big enough to absorb all of these changes and demands on its water and land and air?

Please join Birds Korea (and / or Incheon KFEM) and let us know how you want to help our organisations help the islanders and the birds of Baengnyeong Island – still the ROK’s most species-rich migratory bird hotspot. Thank you.

Dear Birds Korea Members,

As you know, for twenty (long!) years Birds Korea has been working for the conservation of birds and their habitats in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Eco-region.  We do this work because birds are wonderfully important in themselves, and … read more