Migration in Perspective

April and May mark the peak of the spring migration.  Every year, bird across the globe take to the air and embark on fantastic journeys from their wintering grounds to the breeding grounds.  Often this journey takes them from one hemisphere to another; some species make flights that cover literally tens of thousands of kilometers.

Once this journey is complete, birds have only a few short weeks to breed and raise their young.  Then they repeat the process in reverse, departing their breeding grounds for warmer climates to the south.  This spectacle happens twice every year, but it happens so quickly that if you blink you can miss it.  I make special efforts to get out birding as often as possible during this special time of year.

It would take too many words to describe all the migrants I’ve seen throughout the month of April, so I’ve compiled a short list of some of my favorite experiences over the past month.  So here is the “Cliff’s Notes” version of spring migration in South Korea.

Scaly Thrush (Zoothera dauma toratugumi), often referred to as “White’s Thrush”

Migration in South Korea begins with arrival of the thrushes, at least in terms of the passerine migration. Some species, such as pale thrush and scaly thrush are resident species, but are rarely observed during the winter months.  At this time of year the thrushes become more visible, and more vocal.  Dusky and Naumann’s thrushes, preparing for their return to their northern breeding grounds, congregate in growing numbers before leaving Korea until the autumn.  The forests begin to fill with the haunting melodies of pale thrush and scaly thrush.  More unusual migrants, such as grey-backed thrush and Japanese thrush can put in brief appearances during their flights north.  And as quickly as it began, the thrushes pass through and are not seen again until the fall.

Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Migration starts to pick up with the arrival of the first Old World warblers.  The first arrivals are Japanese bush-warblers and Asian stubtails.  The majority of warblers do not breed in Korea at all, and only make short stop-offs on their way to somewhere else.  This makes the warbler migration very short, but also very exciting.  Old World warblers are not nearly as colorful and visually appealing as their North American cousins, but they do match their relatives when it comes to melodious songs.  In fact, with most Old World warblers, the only way to tell them apart is their song.  Otherwise they all basically look the same.

Japanese Bush-warbler (Horornis diphone cantans)

Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus)

The last passerines to arrive (or pass through) on the Korean peninsula are the Old World flycatchers.  Unlike the tyrant-flycatchers of North America (small, drab, nondescript birds – usually only identifiable by their songs), Old World flycatchers run the gamut of colors.  Residents like Daurian redstart and overwintering species like red-flanked bluetail make way for such exotic-sounding species as Siberian stonechat, Narcissus flycatcher, and Mugimaki flycatcher.  As with many migrants, most of these species are only passing through, and no sooner do they arrive than off they go to their northern breeding grounds.

Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina)


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Birding during migration is all about timing.  A day or two can make all the difference between seeing a migrant species and having to wait a few months until it passes through again.  I’ve had some good fortune with timing this spring, and have been rewarded with adding some fantastic species to my Life List.  On a recent birding trip to the Busan area, my friend Jason Loghry and I spotted a Japanese robin and had a brief encounter with a Sakhalin leaf-warbler, both species scarce migrants to Korea.  We also had the opportunity to see the first of the new generation after locating six fledgling long-tailed tits being fed by adults.

Japanese Robin (Larvivora akahige)

Long-tailed Tit Fledgling (Aegithalos caudacutus magnus)

A long weekend holiday is fast approaching, and Melanie and I have signed up to attend a Birdathon with Birds Korea on Eocheong-do.  This will be my first official Birdathon, and our first visit to this premier birding spot off the western coast of Korea.  Look for my full report on the trip in the next few weeks.

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Chance Encounter

When I first arrived in Korea, I was put in contact with the former English teacher at my school.  We exchanged a few emails, and she told me everything I needed to know about the school and the surrounding neighborhood.  She was interested in me, as well, and asked a few questions about my experience and interests.  On my obsession with birding, she had only this to say: “There are no birds in Korea.”

Well, 212 species later, I can definitively say that her statement was mistaken.  Korea has plenty of birds, if you know where to look.  What it doesn’t seem to have, however, are mammals.  At least, not in the sense that I am used to from North America.  To see a chipmunk or squirrel is notable and worthy of remembrance; to have the chance to actually see a Korean water deer is nothing short of a miracle (seriously).

Last weekend Melanie and I were ending a short walk in the mountains near our apartment, having taken advantage of the lengthening days and warmer temperatures that mark the beginning of Korean springtime.  The resident species were hard at work preparing their nests for the breeding season: we found a pair of vinous-throated parrotbill bringing materials to a hidden nest, the white-backed woodpecker nest I found earlier in March was occupied by the female, and we even watched a small pygmy woodpecker start excavation of a nesting cavity close to the side of a trail.

But birds weren’t the only ones with breeding on their minds.  As we walked down a steep trail back towards the Gakhwa reservoir, I heard some scrambling in the leaf litter and spotted two large, dark shapes running through some low vegetation towards us.  We stopped mid-step and, as if sensing our presence, the two moving shapes stopped as well.  So we had the opportunity to look through our binoculars and properly see what it was:  Eurasian red squirrels!

Eurasian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

It appeared that one squirrel was chasing the other out of his territory when they stumbled onto the two of us.  Melanie and I stayed still, and though the squirrels would otherwise have run off into the woods and disappeared, the territorial behavior was too strong and the squirrels resumed their chase, bringing them right onto the trail and very close to where we were standing.

One squirrel continued up the trail, giving the other squirrel (and us) one last glance over its shoulder before disappearing into the woods.  The other squirrel, victorious in chasing an intruder from his territory, scurried up a nearby tree and chattered at us, voicing his frustration at not being able to chase away the human intruders as well.

The squirrel chatters at us to leave his territory, allowing us unhindered views of this remarkable creature.

Yes, I know it’s just a squirrel.  But when you consider that, after having lived in South Korea for nearly 13 months, I’ve only seen four squirrels (including these two), and never one as out in the open as this, the experience takes on a whole new meaning, especially for someone like me who (tries to) spends more time outside than in.

One final glance before scurrying up the tree…just look at the contempt in his eyes.

It’s these experiences that keep me going out and looking.  I can travel the same trail again and again over the course of months, and I still manage to find something new each time.