Before I came to Korea, when I was still in the planning stages, I created a short list of the Top 5 Must-See Birds in Korea. The birds were not ranked in any particular order, though a few were more “important” than others. The list was:
1. Spoon-billed Sandpiper
2. Japanese Waxwing
3. Fairy Pitta
4. Eurasian Hoopoe
5. Japanese Paradise-flycatcher
The rationale for inclusion on this list was different for each species. Some are incredibly rare (#1); others serve a particular purpose in my listing (#2); still others are just really interesting and/or unusual birds that I didn’t want to miss (#3-5).
The search has been exciting, but ticking off these species has been slow-going. They weren’t chosen because they were easy to find; on the contrary, all but one of these species also make an appearance on another list, the IUCN Red List. But it’s always been the chase that drives us…
Only two birds have so far been ticked off this list. The first was the Fairy Pitta: a lone male bird was singing in a small mountain valley along the Wellbeing Hiking Trail on Jeop-do in June 2013. I have since located five more separate individuals, but alas, a visual opportunity has yet eluded me. The second bird was the Japanese Waxwing: again, a lone bird viewed at a distance on Eocheong-do this past May. I hope to see and photograph this species in Korea or Japan this coming winter.
Still, despite nearly 2 years of searching, I’ve only had repeated encounters where the best I can get is an audio recording (no visual), or a glimpse through binoculars at nearly 100 meters.
So it was that I joined birding friends Jason Loghry and Mike Friel on an epic journey to track down that most elusive fairy pitta (Jason had never actually seen one either), and hopefully pick up a Japanese paradise-flycatcher along the way. We had a few sites staked out for the fairy pitta, and the birds were surely there, but once again managed to elude being seen. We were quite frustrated after encountering three individual birds, and nary a glimpse was had of any of them.
We continued on, crestfallen and sullen, to a small uninteresting roadside stream, where Mike had observed paradise-flycatchers breeding the previous summer. We took an overgrown trail along the road, descending in a small valley with the stream at the base. A Korean water deer, unaware of our presence, walked right towards us, then started and disappeared as we tried to angle our cameras onto this spectacular animal. That’s when we heard it…
A throaty sound, like a dry cough. Followed by a melodious series of whistles. Japanese paradise-flycatcher!
A little searching located a splendid male flitting around the treetops, appearing as a large butterfly. The dense foliage frequently obscured our views, but the bird finally stopped on a semi-open branch long enough to really observe him. What a glorious bird!
I was taking an audio recording of the bird, when we heard the same song coming from the opposite direction. There were two male birds, counter-singing to each other. The second male remained unseen, but we heard him singing intermittently throughout our time at the site. It was one of the most memorable bird outings of the month. Despite missing multiple chances at seeing a fairy pitta, the Japanese paradise-flycatcher more than made up for it.
Only two more species remain on the Top 5 List. I should be able to get Spoon-billed Sandpiper during its fall migration in late August. The Eurasian Hoopoe on the other hand, may be a lost cause (at least until my summer vacation trip to China). The search continues…