Two weeks in Gangneung, October 7-20, 2018

Northern Shrike Lanius excubitor © Matt Poll

Northern Shrike Lanius excubitor © Matt Poll

Amur Falcon Falco amurensis © Matt Poll

Amur Falcon Falco amurensis © Matt Poll

Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus © Matt Poll

Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus (juvenile begging) © Matt Poll

Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus © Matt Poll

Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri © Matt Poll

Japanese Wagtail Motacilla grandis © Matt Poll

Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodi © Matt Poll

Daurian Jackdaw Corvus dauuricus © Matt Poll

Dunlin Calidris alpina © Matt Poll

Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola (top) with Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva © Matt Poll

Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus © Matt Poll

Fields near Gyeongpo-ho © Matt Poll

Lotus pond at Gyeongpo-ho © Matt Poll

Lotus pond east of town © Matt Poll

Destroyed scrubby wetland habitat © Matt Poll

It is wonderful to be back birding in a country that has become so familiar to me, albeit in the unfamiliar province of Gangwon-do. After two weeks in Gangneung, I’ve come across plenty of promising habitat, and some interesting birds already – bring on winter!

While it has been amazing getting re-acquainted with the birds of Korea, it seems that when it comes to calls and certain IDs, I’ve forgotten twice as much as I ever knew! I must work on my pipit and bunting calls especially…and raptor IDs while I’m at it. Thankfully I have good friends wiser than I that can help me game out and confirm certain IDs (thanks Dr. Moores and Mr. Edelsten). Here’s hoping I can go birding with all of my local birding friends soon.

On October 7, the opiation of jetlag was a perfect excuse to wake in the pre-dawn murk to beat the bushes of my new patch. The seven-hour walk took me along the Namdaechon, then north along the coast to Gyeongpo Lake, ending in the farm fields west of the lake. It was summery hot, and the Namdaechon was swollen with post-Typhoon Kong-rey rains.
The squawky flock of Red-billed Starlings (70+ in two locations, with 52 in the main group) was an eyebrow-raiser, especially the begging juvenile birds in tow. The species, considered a vagrant in Korea just two decades ago, seems well-established in Gangneung, with sizeable flocks seen regularly in several parts of town. A Eurasian Spoonbill in the fields, several Japanese Wagtails, Arctic and Oriental Reed Warblers along the river were also notable, on a 47 species day.

A walk along the river on October 9 turned up a lovely Stejneger’s Stonechat, and a mystifying brown duck that turned out to be an eclipse Falcated Duck, a configuration I had not encountered before.

The following Saturday (October 13) featured another walk along the Namdaechon, where I met a kindly Korean birder. We drove to Gyeongpo Lake together, and he told me of quite a few interesting Gangneung bird records. It was fairly quiet on the bird front though, with highlights being my Gangneung first Western Opsrey and Common Coots, and flyover Far Eastern Skylarks. Later that afternoon, eleven Red-billed Starlings were seen near my house, and I saw my first Gagneung Long-tailed Tits from my bedroom window – all dark-headed, no caudatus yet.

Sunday October 14 was spent wandering through fields east of town, in search of signs of migration, and/or the birds of winter. Notable birds included a single Amur Falcon and Daurian Jackdaw, and a field jammed with almost 30 snipes – mostly Common, with a few Pin-tailed.

When my Korean birding buddy said we would be checking out the Namdaecheon on Tuesday (October 16) morning, I had visions of a leisurely survey of the gulls and ducks on the river here in town. I didn’t realize he meant the Namdaechon in Yangyang, which is an hour up the coast. We ended up birding hard for over six hours! On the way north, we hit plenty of great little hidden spots, and while it was a relatively quiet bird morning, my mouth was watering at the list of species he mentioned seeing at each spot. It’s going to be a solid winter!

On a down note, when we got to a scrubby/marshy “Eurasian Woodcock” spot he had not checked out in a while, we were confronted with a sterile, tread-tracked dirt wasteland, where no doubt apartments, bike paths, or factories will soon stand. He stared at it for a silent, heavy minute, then shook his head and muttered “All destroyed, all destroyed.” An upsetting, if grimly familiar scene in Korea. Highlights included my Gangneung first Pacific Golden and Grey Plovers (side by side for handy comparison!), Meadow Bunting (looked like the wiegoldi subspecies, I think…), Azure-winged Magpies (lovely), and single examples of Rook and Carrion Crow. The mystical purple sheen on that latter species is real, I can vouch for it.

On Friday, October 19, a lazy exploratory ramble in the hills behind my farmhouse produced the tits and woodpeckers I had hoped I might see there, and plenty of habitat that looks promising for winter birds – I’m especially going to be keeping an eye on the huge pines.

Saturday’s (October 20) ‘big walk’ (River-coast-Gyeongpo Lake-farm fields) did not disappoint! Under fresh cerulean blue skies, there were some welcome wintery arrivals, in spite of summery afternoon temperatures in the low 20s. On small bamboo/brushy islands in the river, Chinese Grosbeaks and roving flocks of Brambling (and even a Eurasian Bullfinch tucked in!) lent a finchy feel to the start of the walk. Personal Gangneung firsts included a Pallas’s Reed Bunting at the river mouth, some shy Rustic Buntings at Gyeongpo, and Northern Shovelers in the fields. At Gyeongpo Lake, the lake itself was mostly populated with a large raft of 75+ Common Coots, and still not much in the way of diving duck diversity or numbers.

As I was headed out of the touristy bit of the lake park, I heard a Bull-headed Shrike giving an animated alarm call. When I looked towards the source of the disturbance, I saw a Bull-headed Shrike making a hasty retreat, and the silhouette of a shrike that was larger and more menacing than a Bull-headed. At extreme distance and with bad lighting, I could make out the grey upperparts of what I first suspected was a Chinese Grey Shrike, but as I got closer, the wings looked ‘off.’ When I got as close as I could get without jumping fences, I noted the wings lacked the extensive white of a Chinese Grey, and the white rump and vermiculations popped through the binoculars. It changed perches, showing no white trailing edge to the wings. Could it be…a Northern Shrike?

When an elderly couple, out-of-bounds and foraging for herbs, flushed the bird, my heart sank, but then it flew straight for me! It perched nearby for 30 seconds, allowing me to get some better record shots, then flew east, and could not be re-found. But yes, it…could be a Northern Shrike! The species has been recorded perhaps less than 15 times in South Korea. Take a deeper dive into the issues separating Northern Shrike from Steppe/Saxaul Shrike (Lanius pallidirostris) here, with these ID notes from Dr. Nial Moores:

In the fields west of the lake, frustrating flocks of restless pipits and skylarks proved challenging to identify, as they flushed from far out – the perils of birding rice fields without a car. I was able to discern that many of the pipits (out of more than 35) were Buff-bellied, with at least two Red-throated mixed in. The day ended with an Upland Buzzard.

On my river walks, I keep finding what I suspect is Amur Leopard Cat spoor – I dearly want to get better looks at this gorgeous and enigmatic species.

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