Nial Moores and Jason Loghry
In heavy overcast with occasional rain and northerly winds (mostly moderate, occasionally strong) a quick stop on the river at Pohang and another day spent on the peninsula, in the hope of determining whether the expected autumn movements of loons and alcids have yet reached the Korean east coast.
During much of the morning little of special note, with the exception of two Saunders’s Gull and a possible First-winter Scaly-sided Merganser on the river (the light was very poor, and the ID needed to be left unresolved); while off from the peninsula, there were greatly increased numbers of gulls, including a single First-winter Relict Gull (NM only), 10-15 Black-legged Kittiwake (three of which were smothered in oil), several hundred Vega (many adults now deep into primary moult), a couple of dozen Taimyr Gulls (most adults of which have yet to start primary moult), probably a hundred Slaty-backed Gull and thousands of Black-headed (5,000-8,000 for the day?) and Black-tailed Gulls (perhaps 2,000+), with large flocks of both confusingly appearing to moving both south and west around and over the headland. Out across the bay there were also c.15 or so Black-necked Grebe, a half-dozen Harlequin Duck and a single American Scoter (the latter two personal firsts of the autumn).
With a belt of heavy rain in the afternoon and associated falling visibility, there was an increase of birds on the move visible from shore, with probably 300 Streaked Shearwater seen in three hours (individuals were counted up to 200 but not subsequently), a single Red-throated Loon, three or four small groups that looked to be Ancient Murrelets (totalling 20-30 birds), perhaps 19 White-winged Scoter in total and 25 suspected Baikal Teal.
After the rain passed we had about an hour of light remaining. We headed back to where we had seen a mystery alcid two weeks ago, and noted much larger numbers of birds on the water there, including 40+ Red-breasted Merganser and 2-3 Red-necked Grebes. JL then picked up two Long-tailed Duck (one male, one female) feeding at long range in among buoys (perhaps the first record / one of the first records of two together in the ROK, hence the need for record shots however awful!).
NM then found an alcid at long range that looked similar to the bird of two weeks before, though the head was not as obviously contrasting. Watched at long range in falling light by both of us, the bird looked all dark, still with something paler somewhere on the head, more obvious at some angles than others. The bird’s body length was similar to that of a Black-necked Grebe in the same scope view, but it looked more compact and dumpier, with no obvious neck and a bigger head, reminding NM of an Ancient murrelet-sized auklet. Three times in fifteen minutes, in failing light and as rain started to move back in, the bird sat up and wing-flapped and ruffled itself on the water, when the crown and upperparts looked black, the flanks looked dark grey and the belly was mid-grey, without any of the whitening towards the undertail coverts or vent shown by the larger-looking Rhinoceros Auklet or by the presumably much smaller-still Whiskered. The upper and undersides of both wings were all dark. The bill looked deep and shortish and at all times showed no obvious paling, again unlike the vast majority of Rhinoceros.
A few very long-range digiscoped record shots were attempted. The only two to capture anything at least confirm that the bird looks all dark. One image suggests that the bird held its tail cocked. Amazingly, at full size, both images suggest strongly that the eye was very pale (still “obvious” below?), and that there was perhaps a hint of something paler coming back from it. The bill is heavy, deep and fairly short, lacking the longer look of Rhinoceros in which the bill seems to be more of an extension of the forehead. And both images suggest a forehead and one or both (subliminally or imagined?) also suggest a short dark line sticking out from near it: either pixel distortion or evidence of a very short “crest”.
To me (NM), the only plausible identification suggested by the field impressions and by the images is Crested Auklet, a species not yet formally claimed in the ROK and which I have not seen for at least a decade (in the 90’s, however, I saw many hundreds/ thousands in waters off northern Japan). If the identification is correct, it can probably be aged as a First Calendar-year on the basis of bill colour. As the bird was in the exact same area as that small all-dark alcid two weeks ago, it seems likely that this is the same individual: i.e. it should be looked for!