Baengnyeong Island, October 27-November 7

Bird News from Nial Moores

A fairly underwhelming week plus some in generally mild and unremarkable weather on Baengyeong Island, with a total of 146 or so species logged including one or two new island records: globally Endangered Scaly-sided Merganser on November 3rd, and a Warbling White-eye seen and poorly photographed on November 7th.  These were approximately the 381st and 382nd species logged on the island since 2013 (with a couple of newly-split species perhaps to be added once images have been re-reviewed). As typical of mild autumn conditions, many species were shy, and several IDs had to be left unresolved.

Highs included decent numbers of some winter visitors (suggesting that last winter’s dearth of small birds will NOT be repeated this year!) and good numbers of duck; and lows included no storks, no mass movements and yet more construction, including a “proper road” in the far southwest, replacing the grassy track which in recent years has produced national first Black Bulbul and Grey-backed Shrike, as well as providing a great spot for a midday siesta.  News on the proposed airport was in the glass half full category: apparently it is “60% likely” to proceed in the next year or two, but at least the proposed location has shifted back to the “harrier fields” and away from the Bukburi rice-fields – reducing the likelihood of bird-strike issues and allowing for the possibility of doing something positive for the Hwadong Wetlands still.

On October 27, a quiet ferry journey from Incheon, with best a Pomarine Jaeger south of Socheong, but only a handful of Black-legged Kittiwake there.

On the island itself, time only to cover the NE corner, where highlights were a calling Japanese Bush Warbler (only my second here) and a Little Owl vocalizing shortly after sunset. Full Checklist on eBird here.

On 28th, limited time in the field due to desk work spent viz-migging in the Northeast, where the highlight was two adult Mute Swan in active migration to the east. This is the first Mute Swan I have seen here since 2013, when two were in the Hwadong Wetland pre-road construction. Full checklist on eBird here.

On 29th , a full day in the field in the northeast, with 3 or 4 ringtail Hen Harrier, a flock of 8 or 9+ white-headed Long-tailed Tit suggesting an autumn influx, Bluethroat, and a good selection of buntings including at least eight Ochre-rumped and four Pine Buntings together, with higher numbers of Rustics.

Ochre-rumped Bunting Emberiza yessoensis 쇠검은머리쑥새
This year, Pine Buntings Emberiza leucocephalos 흰머리멧새 seldom gave decent views…
…while Globally Vulnerable Rustic Buntings Emberiza rustica 쑥새 were typically both much more numerous than Pine and also prone to sitting out in the open for long periods…

More puzzling was a stonechat which appeared to show bunting-like white flashes in the tail in flight (a result of strong white along the outer edge of the outer pair of tail feathers combined with brown and black tail feathers and perhaps some paleing at the base of the tail, hidden by the longest uppertail coverts). The recently renamed Amur Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri 검은딱새 is the only stonechat on the Korean list, while several European nations now have records of no less than three recognised species: Common Stonechat S. rubicola, Siberian Stonechat S. maurus and Amur Stonechat. eBird has images of birds said to be Siberian as well as Amur taken e.g., in Thailand; how to ID stonechats to taxon without banding or genetic testing? What advances in ID have there been in the decade since we published a note on stonechats on the now-long-archived Birds Korea website?

Stonechat sp., presumably Amur Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri 검은딱새 based on range…Plumage looked saturated above (typical of Amur) with strong orange on the longest uppertail coverts, rather than white said to be shown by some Siberian. Like many females, longest uppertail coverts lacked dark spotting (shown by 40% of Amur males in one study in spring). Bill looked rather short and not especially wide at the base in head-on-views (Amur can look very wide at the bill-base, but there is overlap between some Amur and some Siberian)…

On 30th, no fieldwork due to strong northerlies and an excess of desk work.

On 31st,  survey again of the NE corner through the morning as the wind swung round to the SW, with 45 Dusky Thrush seen and heard departing carrying one likely Red-throated  with them, and a decent spread of finches, including a single Japanese Grosbeak accompanying two Chinese Grosbeak. In the southwest, a late Red-rumped Swallow proved to the only hirundine seen during the whole period, where there were also at least four Dusky and a dozen Yellow-browed Warblers still. Highlight came in the afternoon when checking rice-fields and the reclamation lake with Mr Kang In-Seok: two Hooded Crane were watched in flight, before landing distantly in the Hwadong wetland.  This is the second record of this species on the island since 2013 known to me and my personal first here. Two were seen here last autumn.

A new month and a shift in the weather, with heavy overcast and even a light rain shower in the early hours, but still no sense of large numbers of birds. Best in the northeast corner were ten more Whooper Swan seen in active migration (heading southeast) and a very late Daurian Starling.

On November 2nd, a long sit in best fields in the NE produced a really great mix of birds with 72 species logged, including the two Hooded Crane seen soaring, three waxwing sp (thought probably Japanese), a presumed lydiaeMongolian Pallas’s Reed Bunting” and a juvenile Brant Goose on the sea. This is the second record of Brant Goose known to me on the island since 2013, a species which has been assessed as no longer regularly-occurring in the ROK in the 2022 Birds Korea Checklist. All records in the ROK to date have been of nigricans, and the faint suggestion of a pale on the foreneck shown in one of the images probably indicates this subspecies (can juveniles of the nominate subspecies, which is apparently spreading eastwards in Arctic Russia and nigricans be safely separated in field conditions?)  

ID as Pallas’s Reed Bunting Emberiza pallasi 북방검은머리쑥새 was based on calls; large bill size and Common Reed Bunting-like upperpart coloration perceived as outliers in the Korean context but seem to fit with images of lydiae on eBird.
Brant Goose Branta bernicla 흑기러기

A further unsolvable ID question came in the form of an odd-looking accipiter. Mobbed persistently by a Common Kestrel, this hawk showed a very broad hand and very bright, cinnamon or red-wine-washed underparts. Unfortunately, I could not see the head pattern (or other key features). Frustrating. Full eBird Checklist is here.

On November 3rd, the day started pre-dawn with brief views of the local Little Owl, was followed soon after by flocks of departing Dusky and Naumann’s Thrushes and then by a decent movement of duck over the sea, with most numerous Baikal Teal (c. 1195 counted heading SSE in under two hours) and Mallard (358 SE), and best at least two, and more likely four, Scaly-sided Merganser (also heading SE-S).  ID was based on the presence of an adult male. The females also looked “good” for Scalies, based on growing experience with them during our research projects on the species on the mainland. This is the first or second record of Scaly-sided Merganser on the island since 2013. On October 25th 2019, I saw three pale female mergansers flying strongly west in heavy overcast and light rain. These too lacked white chins and had obvious dark bars across the white on the wing. Timing and plumage state both fit with what we now know of this species from elsewhere. A full eBird checklist is here (though note as a Sensitive species, the record of Scaly-sided Merganser is not displayed).

On 4th, in still strong northwesterly winds, a brief visit to the NW was followed by a slower walk through the centre of the island to count ducks and geese.  After an extremely slow start, highlights came in quick succession in the late afternoon: single Greater Spotted Eagle and Eurasian Bittern were at the Hwadong Wetland; two Ferruginous Duck (second island record) were out on the reclamation lake; and four Silver-throated Bushtit were found in among a foraging flock of white-headed Long-tailed Tits. This is the second record for the island (two were present in the southwest of the island in late May, remaining into early June at least), and the third national record known to us.  A long scan of the sea as dusk fell found 194 Stejneger’s Scoter, most of which were concentrated away from a greatly expanded area of nets.

Globally Vulnerable Greater Spotted Eagle Clanga clanga 항라머리검독수리
White-headed Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus 흰머리오목눈이
Silver-throated Bushtit Aegithalos glaucogularis 검은턱오목눈이

It is possible, of course, that Silver-throated Bushtit might have bred on Baengnyeong this year, either in a pure or mixed pair.  However, in the understanding that periodic irruptions of white-headed Long-tailed Tits occur here every few winters (including this winter) and looking at the distribution map of Silver-throated Bushtit on eBird, it seems reasonable to assume that Silver-throats have recently extended their range northward, now reaching Liaoning Province (formerly the domain of white-headed Long-tailed Tits alone).

Distribution of records of Silver-throated Bushtit as displayed by eBird.

Rather than undertaking a sea crossing to Korea from Shandong, it therefore seems more likely that in 2021 perhaps and now in 2022 Silver-throats instead joined Long-tailed Tit flocks in their winter-related movements, bringing them southward from e.g., Liaoning along the coastal zone down into the Korean Peninsula. Future colonization therefore seems likely – though presumably will be greatly complicated here by competition with (and perhaps hybridizing with?) both dark-headed and white-headed Long-tailed Tits!

Full eBird Checklists are here and here.

On 5th, coverage in the NE and SW found a decent spread of birds, with best in the island context a flock of 390 Black-legged Kittiwake in the strait between Baengnyeong and Daecheong islands, and decent numbers of finches including e.g,. five Japanese Grosbeak, 65 Hawfinch and a day total of 17 of the recently split Siberian Long-tailed Rosefinch, as now listed by the Birds Korea 2022 Checklist. Full eBird Checklists are here and here.

Japanese Grosbeak Eophona personata 큰부리밀화부리
Siberian Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus 긴꼬리홍양진이

On 6th, a day spent in the field in the NE, where five Siberian Accentor and three Pallas’s Rosefinch were modest high counts of the autumn so far (so perhaps not an irruption year, but happily likely not a very poor winter for these two species either).

Last day of fieldwork was on 7th, with overnight overcast and light rain showers through much of the day resulting in decent numbers of birds. In the northeast at dawn, at least 250 Dusky and Naumann’s Thrushes were watched on the move, along with 1,200 Brambling and two Bohemian and one Japanese Waxwing. In the northwest, highlight was a poorly-photographed Warbling White-eye, an island first in a mixed bird wave that included a half-dozen white-headed Long-tailed Tit, c. 3 Swinhoe’s White-eye, 2-3 Pallas’s Leaf Warbler and one unidentified phyllosc. In the Hwadong Wetland an extremely late Garganey and on the reclamation lake, a group of newly-arrived Taiga Bean Geese (~110) contained one Swan Goose – an apparently annual visitor here since the first survey back in 2013.

Record shot of globally Vulnerable Swan Goose Anser cygnoides 개리 with Taiga Bean Goose 큰부리큰기러기

At dusk, a slightly higher count of 212 Stejneger’s Scoter was made in one scan on the sea, with likely smaller numbers along other parts of the coast too. This count, while high in the national context, nonetheless compares poorly with the 309 counted in the same area of sea on October 23rd 2017 – and suggests that the severe decline noted elsewhere in the ROK is also affecting numbers here too. In a similar vein, the high count of Black Scoter on Baenyeong this year was only five or six.

The return ferry on 8th was quiet with the exception of small numbers of Ancient Murrelet...and there will probably be no more observations from Baengnyeong this year, unless the irruption of Pallas’s Sandgrouse now ongoing in Beijing looks like it will reach the Korean Peninsula!

Stejneger’s Scoter Melanitta stejnegeri 검둥오리사촌
Stejneger’s Scoter and Spotted Seal….
…And Spotted Seals Phoca largha

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