Periods of intense cold alternate with milder spells. In the coldest winters maxima are often below freezing; in milder winters maxima often reach 10°C in Seoul. A few lingering autumn migrants can still sometimes be found as well as huge numbers of wintering waterbirds.
A great birding month. Saunders’s Gulls are widespread, while very small numbers of Relict Gulls also start to appear at a number of sites, especially in cold winters. Scaly-sided Merganser are back on preferred rives (with at least 140 overwintering in 2012), while numbers of Baikal Teal usually also reach their peak. Tundra Bean Geese are widespread in rice-field areas, and Taiga Beans too can be found in the low thousands especially in the southeast, the mildest part of the mainland. Raptors include good numbers of Cinereous Vulture in the Cheorwon Basin, where they are often joined by White-tailed and the occasional Steller’s Sea Eagle, while cranes (Red-crowned, Hooded, and White-naped), also remain at key sites. Numbers of wintering landbirds vary in number greatly from year to year. Most years, there are large numbers of Brambling and Rustic Bunting (especially towards the north), mixed thrush flocks (including Naumann’s and Dusky Thrushes and the occasional Red-throated Thrush) and occasionally large numbers of Siberian Accentor. Towards the south, species such as White’s and Pale Thrush, Japanese Bush Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail and Japanese White-eye also remain in reasonable numbers - on Jeju Island and in the far southeast.
Highlights in recent years have included irruptions of Chinese Nuthatch (especially in 2012 / 2013), and multiple records of Sandhill Crane, Siberian Crane and Cackling Goose. National firsts in the past ten years or so have included Grass Owl (2003), Meadow Pipit (2006), and Lesser Black-backed Gull (2008).
Igidae, East Busan, December 12 and 16
In cool conditions on the 12th (2-3C at dawn rising to 7C during the day) and rather colder conditions on the 16th (3-4C all day, with a strengthening westerly wind and occasional snow-spit ahead of the next plunge of colder air), a mix of seawatching and walking the trails found a very decent mix of winter birds.
Over the sea most interesting on the 12th were loons, with 235 counted heading south between 10:05 and 11:20. All were small or medium-sized but too distant to be identified to species. Other species of note moving south over the sea included four Common Merganser, two Common Pochard and ten Ancient Murrelet. In addition, one group of 60 southward-bound Black-headed Gull found themselves under attack by a pair of Peregrine Falcon, and lost a First-winter in the process; and 31 Rook also came back-in-off, from the direction of Teima Do / Japan.
On the 16th, only 15 loons were counted moving south in 90 minutes, but these included two confirmed Red-throated Loon and one presumed Yellow-billed Loon (very distant, but obviously massive). Further seawatching highlights included two close-in Ancient Murrelet, and best of all one Long-billed Murrelet, which showed well in flight and then for a few seconds on the sea. This is at least my second record here. In addition, seven Black-necked Grebe, three (Asiatic) White-winged Scoter, three Common Shelduck (my first here) and a Glaucous Gull went south, along with several hundred Vega and Common Gulls and a dozen or so Slaty-backed Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake.
On the land, most numerous species both days was Vinous-throated Parrotbill, with several large packs of 100-300 birds rattling the undergrowth, and numbers in the park probably now close to 1,000 (presumably made up of both resident birds and those from adjacent areas?). Also present in high numbers were Eastern Great Tit (probably 150 or so on the 12th but only c. 50 on the 16th, including two quite bright-mantled birds), Yellow-throated Bunting (perhaps 50-100 on both dates) and Brambling (probably c.100), with lesser numbers of expected species including Brown-eared Bulbul (30-50), Goldcrest (20-30), Japanese White-eye (20), the four woodpeckers (Japanese Pygmy, White-backed, Great Spotted and Grey-headed), the other tits, and-half-a-dozen Bull-headed Shrike. Notable in their absence were Grey and Tristram’s Bunting, Yellow-bellied Tit and Light-vented Bulbul. Species of note included a couple of Red-flanked Bluetail, 2-3 Japanese Bush Warbler, 3-5 Siberian Accentor (on both dates), probably 8+ Eurasian Bullfinch on the 12th (but only one on the 16th), a sea-eagle heard only (probably a White-tailed Eagle), as it went off low over the trees on the 16th. More remarkable was a single Chinese Blackbird heard and three Common Rosefinch seen (including one red male) on the 12th. Both are very scarce in the southeast of the country, and although both overwinter very occasionally, these are perhaps the first mid-winter records of either species from this part of the country (?).
Cheolwon, December 14 - 15
I spent a privileged few hours on the afternoon of the 14th and the morning of the 15th driving (being driven, actually) around the restricted area by Pastor Jung and Mr. Shin of the Border Peace School and YMCA, respectively—much thanks for their help and hospitality! Crane numbers were decent—we saw conservatively over 400 White-naped Cranes and c. 250 Red-crowned Cranes (allowing for possible double-counting; birds were moving about a good deal). However, we did not perhaps come across the mythical “main flock”—largest groups were about 80 White-napes on the reservoir and the fantastic sight of about 60 cranes, the majority Red-crowns, in a single field. No other crane species noted, but we did see several Cinereous Vultures, a Eurasian Sparrowhawk, several Kestrels, scattered White-fronted Geese and 1 Chinese Grey Shrike. At the Peace School’s lodge: about 8 Long-tailed Rosefinches, a few Rustic and Yellow-throated Buntings, and a Daurian Redstart.
Paju, December 13
Following a great map from Ha Jung Moon, I found a Long-eared Owl (after some searching) .... close to the trunk (and hence easy to miss). Other species seen in a few hours of afternoon birding included 3 Common Kestrels, 1 Naumann's Thrush, 2 Cinerous Vultures, about a dozen Long-tailed Tits, about 100 Common Mergansers, several flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese and 2 Ruddy Shelducks amongst others.
National Arboretum, December 12
A quiet day at the Sumeokwan. When I arrived at opening time, it seemed I had the snow-dusted place to myself: blissful, but hardly any birds! A Dipper greeted me at the bridge, but no snipes in sight there or at the stream sections I was able to survey. The only winter finches were 5 or 6 Bramblings; I later thought I heard a distant Bullfinch but that may have been wishful thinking. The following birds showed or sounded in small numbers: Great, Marsh, and Long-tailed Tits; Eurasian Nuthatch, Daurian Redstart, a few Dusky/Naumann’s Thrushes, Rustic and Yellow-throated Buntings, Japanese Pygmy, Great Spotted and White-backed Woodpeckers, a pair of Eastern Buzzards, a flyover flock of 8 Mandarin Ducks. Highlights were a pair of noisy Black Woodpeckers and a single sapling decorated with 6 Varied Tits.
Yeongsan lake barrage, December 9
A big flock of birds on the water made me stop at the barrage. It turned out to be an interesting mix of birds: small numbers of Mallard and Gadwal, 19 Common Pochard, 3 Tufted Duck, c. 50 Common Merganser, c. 100 Great Crested Grebe, c. 20 Eurasian Coot, a few Grey Heron, 3 Black-headed Gull and one Mongolian Gull. Close to the parking place in the scrub a Bull-headed Shrike.
Taebaek Mountain, Gangwon Province, December 7
Last winter Mr. Shim Heon-seop found a large flock of Asian Rosy Finch on Taebaek Mountain. He kindly shared information of his spectacular find and of the location, which is an area with wind-turbines and open agricultural fields at about 1200masl. Park Jin Young’s doctoral thesis also contains a record of this poorly-known species in the Taebaek City area: 300 seen in January 1998, published by Lee Jin-Won (likely the highest count to date nationally). We therefore decided to take advantage of the cold but dry conditions to visit the area in case the species might prove to be somewhat regular there.
Soon after arrival, we found a large flock. The Asian Rosy Finches were, as in most areas, highly mobile and difficult to approach, even though once or twice they landed briefly only a few meters away. The flock (or flocks: see below) made wide circuits over the hill-side, before dropping into a small clump of trees and then onto the ground, before lifting up once more, most often in response to a passing raptor or vehicle. On his excellent Birding Beijing website, Terry Townsend eloquently described this typical restlessness of Asian Rosy Finch flocks, landing and lifting off soon after, “as if the ground was too cold for their feet!” (see: http://birdingbeijing.com/2014/11/07/return-to-lingshan/).
NM made a series of coarse quick counts of the flock (in blocks of ten) during the 90 minutes or so we were there, which ranged from a conservative 310 to a maximum of 375. A series of images taken of the main flock in flight contained 337 birds in one image and, 30 minutes later 355-359 in the second (please check the image yourself and let us know how many you can see!). Both JL and NM also saw a sub-group of c. 50 birds join the main flock just before we left: it seems very likely, however, that these were included in this flock 355+.
The Birds Korea 2014 Checklist lists Asian Rosy Finch as WV1. While this assessment appears to be technically correct (i.e. there are still <10 records annually), it is very likely that the small number of records is largely a result of the very few birders visiting potentially suitable habitat in winter. Since the 2009 / 2010 winter, large flocks of Asian Rosy Finch have been found on Jeju (180, in November 2010) and Jiri Mountain (150?) as well as on Taebaek; and smaller flocks have been found at several sites, including on the coast in Goseong County, inland in Busan and on Deokyu Mountain in Jeonbuk. Records of this species therefore come from many parts of the country. As 70% of the nation is mountainous, and many peaks and cliff-faces are extremely difficult to access in winter, it seems highly probable that Asian Rosy Finch is much more regular and locally numerous in the ROK than presently understood. As such, the status code of Asian Rosy Finch will be amended in the next Checklist update. To date, there appears to be no evidence to suggest a recent rapid increase in the species here or in the wider region.
Also present in the same area as the Asian Rosy Finch flock, were 3 Cinereous Vulture, probably two Eastern Buzzard, and single Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Eurasian Kestrel, Large-billed Crow, Siberian Accentor and Pallas’s Rosefinch.
Lower down the mountain in 10-15 minutes of rapid assessment in birch forest and earlier in mixed forest and stream edge, further species of note included 5-8 Siberian Accentor, c.4 Eurasian Bullfinch and a single Long-tailed Rosefinch.
Please note: the access road to this site is narrow, steep and potentially impassable in snow or wet conditions.
Hwaseong, December 7
Birding News from Robin Newlin and Im Kwang Wan
A relatively quiet morning only in limited parts of Hwaseong: highlights were several Eurasian Coots, Little Grebes, Shovelers, Falcated Ducks, Mallards, Gadwalls and Eurasian Teal, all (except probably the grebes) put up and chased without success by a Northern Goshawk; single Far Eastern and Upland Buzzards, 2 Hen Harriers, several Common Kestrels, a Eurasian Sparrowhawk, a Peregrine Falcon, scattered grazing flocks of Bean and White-fronted Geese, a single Buff-bellied Pipit, one heard Common Reed Bunting and several heard Far-Eastern Skylarks.
Haenam and Area, December 7
A group of nine joined the Gwangju branch of Birds Korea on an outing to Haenam county. The weather was fairly cold, but scattered clouds and sun made for excellent viewing at three bodies of water in southern Jeollanam-do. A total of 62 species were observed throughout the day. Highlights are below.
- 5 Northern Lapwing in the agricultural fields near Gangjin Bay
- 55+ White-cheeked Starlings at Gangjin Bay
- 2 Brown-cheeked Rails heard calling in a drainage ditch at Gangjin; one was briefly seen by PB only, though everyone heard the two birds calling. A link to a short recording is available.
- c. 400 Whooper Swans at Gangjin Bay
- moderate numbers of waterfowl at Gocheonnamho Lake, though geese numbers were down dramatically from previous visits. Waterfowl observed included: Greater White-fronted Goose (c.2,500-3,000), Tundra (250) and Taiga Bean-goose(1), Common Merganser(10+), Red-breasted Merganser (5+), Smew (1), Gadwall, Common Goldeneye(10), Eurasian Wigeon, Falcated Duck (5) and Common Pochard
- variety of raptors around Gocheonnamho, including Eastern Buzzard (4) and singles of Peregrine Falcon, Common Kestrel, and Merlin
- 3 Dusky Thrush at Gocheonnamho Lake
- enormous flock of Baikal Teal at Geumho Lake; c. 200-250,000 individuals
- flyover of c. 35 Lapland Longspurs at Geumhoho Lake
- a single Short-eared Owl hunting over the reeds around Geumhoho Lake just after sunset
Cheolwon, December 5
A short trip to frigid Cheolwon: my first stay at the comfortable Durumi (Crane) Pension near the Togyo Reservoir.
On the Hantang River from a crane-watching hide: an attractive visa of ice-crusted river, reeds, mountains, rising full moon, Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes, Common Mergansers, Azure-winged Magpies, Vinous-throated Parrotbills and Meadow and Yellow-throated Buntings. Also in the area: a Bull-headed Shrike, a (heard) Long-tailed Rosefinch, some (also only heard) Long-tailed Tits, a Far Eastern Buzzard, several Cinereous Vultures, thousands of White-fronted Geese, a few Whooper Swans, and a few calling Daurian Redstarts and Far-Eastern Skylarks.
Usop swamp, December 4
Also later the day when visiting the Usop swamp the weather kept cold with heavy snow showers and sunny breaks. The open water of swamp is largely covered with the remains of lotus plants which many ducks used to hide. The walk all around the swamp revealed c. 60 Whooper Swan, c. 200 Taiga Bean Goose, c. 500 Mallard, c. 200 Eastern Spot-billed Duck, c. 200 Eurasian Teal, several Eurasian Coot, one Grey Heron, one Common Kestrel, plenty of Brown-eared Bulbul and Oriental Turtle Dove, one Bull-headed Shrike, one Olive-backed Pipit and several Rustic Bunting.
Jeollanamdo, December 4
The visit to the river at sunrise had much more birds observed than the week before. Unfortunately most of the time the weather was not very welcoming: showers with rain and snow changed rapidly with short sunny periods. This morning many ducks on the water: 23 Gadwall, c. 60 Spot-billed Duck, 30-40 Mallard, at least 70 Common Teal, 17 Common Merganser and 4 male and 7 female Scaly-sided Merganser. Also seen were 4 Grey Heron,, 3 Great Egret, one Eurasian Coot, one Eastern Buzzard one Common Kingfisher, a flock of c. 30 Oriental Turtle Dove, plenty of Eurasian Magpie, a few Azure-winged Magpie, two Bull-headed Shrike, a very noisy flock of c. 20 Vinous-throated Parrotbill, one Daurian Redstart and two small groups of Bunting; 5 Rustic Bunting and 3 Yellow-throated Bunting.
Joonam Reservoirs & Western Nakdong Estuary, November 30
In heavy, dull and dark overcast with occasional spells of rain and misty drizzle – a prelude to the end of autumn and the start of real winter weather - a total of 93 species logged. Selected highlights included single adult Lesser White-fronted Goose, Eastern Marsh Harrier (at the Nakdong), male Red-flanked Bluetail and Lapland Longspur (latter heard only: this species appears usually to be genuinely scarce in the southeast of the country); a dozen Baikal Teal, seven White-naped Crane and three Eurasian Hoopoe; a single loose flock of 4,700 Mallard out of c. 6,000 seen during the day; in total perhaps 500+ Oriental Turtle Dove, 150+ Far Eastern and 10+ Eurasian Skylarks, 350+ White-cheeked Starling and c. 20 Common Starling (more evidence of this latter species’ recent increase); and hybrid combinations of two Red-billed x White-Cheeked Starlings (but no pure Red-billeds) and single hybrid Mallard x Eastern Spot-billed Duck and presumed Eurasian Wigeon x American Wigeon.
We also enjoyed excellent views of “big-billed” middendorffii Taiga Bean Geese at Joonam. These included one (out of 300+ close birds) with an almost completely dark bill (shown in the image), and another seen more distantly, also with very limited paler orange on the bill sides, unfortunately not digiscoped. Although several online and published sources state that juvenile bean geese can show duller bare part coloration than adults, both of these dark-billed birds help illustrate yet another facet of what appears to be great variation in bill patterning and especially structure shown by middendorffii that overwinter in the ROK. As noted over the years, in addition to presumed male / female differences and individual variation within populations, Taiga Bean Geese appear (to me at least) generally biggest-bodied, biggest-headed and longest-billed in the southeast of the country (often with little bill “grin”), e.g. at Upo, Joonam and in the Nakdong Estuary; apparently thinner-billed and thinner-necked looking at some other sites (e.g. sometimes in the southwest); and often rather closer in appearance to Tundra Bean Goose in the west and northwest (with less slope to the forehead and more of a “grin”), at Saemangeum, the Geum Estuary, Seosan and Baekryeong, where groups of Taiga and Tundra can often be seen side-by-side. Many of these differences in perception might well be down to differences in viewing conditions and distance (best at the Nakdong, worst at Saemangeum). However, might they also be the result of differences in origin of breeding populations and winter feeding ecology, with subtly different feeding opportunities available in different parts of the country in winter, e.g. between the often frozen northwest and the much milder, usually unfrozen southeast? Fellow Birds Koreans: more images of bean geese please!
Anyangcheon, November 29
There were about 60 Pintail between Doksan and Anyang today. The males have already completed their moult - earlier than other wildfowl.
Jeollanamdo, November 25
After the strong rain the day before had brought the river visited had largely very brownish color and the water level was rather high. Most numerous species was Eastern Spot-billed Duck with c. 40 individuals all along the observed area. In addition 6 Mallrad, one Common Teal, 3 Common Merganser and 4 Scaly-sided Merganser were seen on the water. Along the river-beds and on some islands more species were observed: 3 Great Egret, 5 Grey Heron, 1 Eurasian Coot, 1 Common Kingfisher, 2 Common Sandpiper, 1 Long-billed Plover, 7 White and 1 Grey Wagtail, 2 Daurian Redstart, 1 Olive-backed Pipitand several of the everywhere present Oriental Turtle Dove, Brown-eared Bulbul and Erasian Magpie.
Yeongsan barrage Mokpo, November 23
Before the walk in the afternoon along the waterfront ended with light rain, several species were seen the first time this autumn: 2 Great Crested Grebe, 1 Little Grebe, 2 Black-necked Grebe and a flock of c. 20 Black-headed Gull. Also seen several Black-tailed Gull, c. 20 Eastern Spotbilled Duck, 9 Great Cormorant and one Common Sandpiper.
Gangwha-do, November 22
Despite morning rain and on-and-off fog, a good day for raptors: several Kestrels, a Peregrine, 4 Eastern Buzzards, 2 or 3 Upland Buzzards including a handsome dark-phase, and one possible vulpinus or Steppe Buzzard first found a week earlier by Mr. Kim Seog-min. Other birds: cracking looks at 53 Swan Geese, scattered flocks of Bean and White-fronted Geese (more of the latter), 2 Common Pochards, 18 Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, 5 Mallards, a lone White-naped Crane, several (heard) Far Eastern Skylarks, c. 50 Oriental Greenfinches, a few Yellow-throated Buntings, a Daurian Redstart, 2 Grey-headed Woodpeckers and several Pheasants.
National Arboretum, November 21
A somewhat quiet day: (other than bulldozing horns in the north corner and small-group loudspeaker tours) with an overall feel of small numbers. 1 Wren, 40 Yellow-throated Buntings, scattered Great, Marsh, Long-tailed and Varied Tits, only 1 Eurasian Nuthatch, 4 Naumann’s Thrushes, 1 White’s Thrush, 1 Common Kingfisher, 1 Solitary Snipe glimpsed flying downstream, 1 Eurasian Bullfinch, at least 29 Mandarin Ducks, a Grey Heron, a Eurasian Kestrel, scattered small flocks of Bramblings, several White-backed, 1 Great Spotted, 1 Grey-headed and a few Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, 1 Japanese Wagtail. Also in the trees: several lithe and acrobatic Squirrels.
Igidae, east Busan, November 21
In still-mild and autumnal conditions (with a day of sunshine, light winds and a low of 9C rising to 17C or 18C in the afternoon) another day was spent walking the trails in Igidae. As might be expected, there was much overlap in species and numbers with earlier in the week, though with only one Red-flanked Bluetail, but an increase in Light-vented Bulbul and Grey Bunting (both to five), Brown-eared Bulbul (to 150, including a single flock of 80), and Siberian Accentor, with probably 6+ logged during the day.
Only two of these accentors were seen well, revealing in brief side-by-side views and in the images tremendous differences in plumage saturation. According to Lars Svensson’s Fourth Edition of Identification Guide to European Subspecies, “adults = First years on plumage”, with a complete summer moult in adults; and only worn breeding birds, presumably pre-moult, look paler in e.g. the supercilium, with darker spotting on the breast feathers. According to the same text, north-eastern badia is “somewhat darker on crown than nominate” and “more rufous-tinged on mantle and scapulars”. Brazil’s Birds of East Asia field-guide confusingly illustrates First-years as paler than summer-plumaged adults, while the text adds that badia is “smaller and darker, with richer chestnut mantle, deeper ochre underparts and more strongly rufous flank streaks” than the more southern-breeding nominate subspecies.
Other species of note included a flock of 16 Mandarin Duck (out on the sea), carrying with them a single Baikal Teal and a single hybrid Mallard x Eastern Spot-billed Duck; single White’s Thrush and Yellow-bellied Tit; and heard only, 3-4 Eurasian Bullfinch, and one or two Tristram’s and Black-faced Buntings.
Oddest for the day (and actually a welcome sight to this vegetarian’s eyes!) was a Bull-headed Shrike seen feeding on berries, or much less likely on insects that were on the berries. The bird hung almost upside down bulbul-like to access berry-clumps three times in probably five minutes. Each time, it plucked at and swallowed something, before eventually perching up in the same tree to “cough-up” a large pellet. A quick google search reveals that other shrike species have been recorded eating fruit, especially in times of food shortage (see e.g. http://www.besgroup.org/2014/01/24/tiger-shrike-eats-bridelia-tomentosa-fruit/). However, it appears that there is still likely to be plenty of food available for a Bull-headed Shrike to feed on – with several large insects still on the wing, a small rodent heard, and probably 400 Vinous-throated Parrotbills logged during the day etc. Has anyone seen Bull-headed Shrike feeding on fruit before, and does anyone know the name of the berry-laden plant in the image please? Thank you in advance!
Gangjin Bay, November 20
The Gangjin Bay in the morning with clear and sunny weather was the destination of today's trip. At the end of the bay c. 1200 Whooper Swan, c. 400 Eastern Spot-billed Duck and c. 500 Mallard where scattered all over the sides where the running out tide uncovered the mud. In addition c. 40 Great Egret, c. 30 Little Egret and c. 60 Grey Heron were also seen, of the latter also smaller groups on the adjacent rice fields. Two groups of Common Megranser, 37 in total, were observed, one group swimming/diving bay outwards and one at the bay's end. But only a handful of Black-tailed Gulls and one presumed Mongolian Gull were seen.
Non waterbirds were seen in the fields, reedbeds and other vegetation beside the bay: one female Common Pheasant, a flock of Azure-winged Magpie crossing a road into trees of which only the last 5 individuals were observed, Eurasian Magpie and Brown-eared Bulbul heard and seen everywhere around the bay, in one reed-bed a fock of c. 50 Eurasian Treesparrow and a flock of c. 15 Vinous-throated Parrotbill, two Bull-headed Shrike and 9 Olive-backed Pipit.
A surprise was the appearance of a Band-winged Grasshopper in this late November; the field guide mentions occurrence only between July and October.