Birding the Yellow Sea

I was invited to go on a pelagic outing around Heuksan-do (흑산도) with several members of Birds Korea.  It was a fantastic opportunity to both see some really spectacular birds, and meet some amazing people whose tireless efforts are the cornerstone of the Korean bird conservation movement.  It was also a chance to utilize my least-used field guide, Onley and Sconfield’s Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World.

I arrived at the Gwangju Bus Terminal bright and early in the morning, meeting my travel companions Maria Lisak, Dr. Nial Moores, Jason Loghry, and Ha Jung-Mun.  Dr. Moores and Jason left on an earlier bus; we would meet them at the other end in Mokpo, where we would pick up our ferry to the island of Heuksan-do.  As the three of us loaded onto our bus, I suddenly realized I had left my field guide sitting on the desk in my apartment.  Not off to a good start.

By the time we reached Mokpo, the skies had darkened and it began to rain.  As we met up with the rest of our group, and were taxied onto the ferry, the rain increased from an annoying drizzle to a window-blocking torrent.  For the length of the two and a half hour voyage, the rain mocked our feeble attempts at spotting tiny seabirds in the worsening swell.  Oh, perhaps I had forgotten to mention the typhoon that was currently beating the pulp out of Taiwan a few hundred miles to the south of us.  Yeah, that’s an important detail.

The bay at Heuksan-do.  Oh yeah, we're going out in this!

The bay at Heuksan-do.  Oh yeah, we’re going out in this!

Nevertheless, Dr. Moores somehow managed to spot a few Swinhoe’s storm-petrels and a streaked shearwater on the ferry ride; I only got the briefest of glimpses of the former, and completely missed the latter.

As luck would have it, the rain followed us all the way to Heuksan-do, and continued drenching everything in sight for another couple hours.  But ours was a determined bunch, and after resolving a slight miscommunication with the boat captain we had hired, we set sail into the great beyond, spirits high if not a little damp.  As we tied off from the dock, the skies began to lighten a bit and someone turned off the faucet.  The clouds (and the rain for that matter) would stay for the bulk of the day, but there were occasional breaks in the sky and by nightfall we were granted an amazing sunset.

Eight passengers set sail that day for a six hour tour...a six hour tour Let's hope it ends a little better, shall we?

Eight passengers set sail that day for a five hour tour…a five hour tour
Let’s hope it ends a little better, shall we?

Despite the break in the weather, the open ocean tossed us around with 1-3m swells, and sporadic downpours left our fearless leader soaked to the bone.  Conditions were far from ideal, but the one great thing about pelagic birding is that the birds have nowhere to hide, except another featureless stretch of ocean that you’re not looking at.  Tons of perseverance (and an equal amount luck) can usually result in a few good birds.

We spent almost five hours at sea. The birds came in waves, usually in singles or pairs, but sometimes in flocks of ten or more.  We stumbled onto a group of three red phalaropes about an hour into the voyage.  Swinhoe’s storm-petrels and streaked shearwaters were seen throughout the trip, though long periods would pass between sightings.  Our ship’s captain wasn’t chumming the waters, so the birds tended to stay out a fair distance.  We also found half a dozen common terns, and near the end of the trip we passed seven red-necked phalaropes, followed shortly by a distant view of a flesh-footed shearwater.  Unfortunately for Yours Truly, however, I never managed to get on this bird, so I will have to try for it some other time.

Streaked Shearwater (Calonectris leucomelas); this was the only bird that came in close enough to our ship for a photo.  Luckily the battering waves didn’t spoil the opportunity for me.

When we returned to Heuksan-do, we decided to use the last of the dwindling light to search the marina area for some birds.  The skies were alive with Pacific swifts, hawking insects over the mountains.  Within the swifts we found three white-throated needletails, and Jason managed to spy a rare Himalayan swiftlet, a scarcely recorded species on the Korean peninsula.  There were also migrants coming in to Heuksan-do for a night’s rest, including an astonishing flock of at least 100 eastern yellow wagtails, which cruised over the marina before disappearing into the mountains.

Pacific Swift (Apus pacificus pacificus) – note the outstretched tail feathers and small fork in the middle.  Not my best shot, but it is the first time I’ve photographed a swift of any species.


The next morning, our group strolled around Heuksan-myeon, looking for migrants and passerines.  The island of Heuksan-do is sparsely populated, the bulk of which resides in the quiet village of Heuksan-myeon.  The rest of the island is mostly uninhabited, and so offers some great birding for those willing to make the trip.  After the dismal results of our pelagic trip, the birding around Heuksan-myeon more than made up for it.

The sleepy village of Heuksan-myeon.

The sleepy village of Heuksan-myeon.

The village had two pairs of blue rock-thrushes, and we were treated to excellent views of both the males and females.  We also saw plenty of light-vented bulbuls, another rare species in Korea (though it is starting to become more common on the offshore islands).  A family of three tiger shrikes patrolled a large hillside, and Japanese white-eyes flitted about everywhere.  Eastern yellow wagtails and grey wagtails continued their migrations overhead, but nowhere near the numbers of the previous night.

The mountain path came to a small pasture for grazing animals, and it was here that we found the bulk of our species.  As three pin-tailed snipes flew off overhead, we spotted several Pacific golden-plovers foraging in the pasture; a long-toed stint was found near a puddle on the edge of the pasture.  A pair of Daurian starlings flew in, and two grey-streaked flycatchers and a Korean flycatcher patrolled the edge of the area.  By far the strangest sighting was a lone Eurasian wryneck, a cryptically-colored woodpecker which looks more like a nightjar than a woodpecker.  Before returning to the village, we saw one more interesting bird.  It appeared to be a strange-looking eastern yellow wagtail, but several field markers and some call notes it made belong to the western yellow wagtail.  These two closely related species are hotly contested, and most recent taxonomic updates continually change the species from two, maybe one, sometimes even three, different species.  Photos and audio recordings were made, but for now this bird remains unidentified.

Daurian Starlings (Sturnus sturninus)

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (Muscicapa griseisticta)

Eastern or Western Yellow Wagtail...anyone know?

Eastern or Western Yellow Wagtail…anyone know?

We walked along some of the shoreline of the island, picking out a few sanderlings and red-necked stints, as well as one black-winged stilt hiding in the debris on the beach.  Later a flock of four of these graceful waders would fly in from the north.  The last bird of interest was a gorgeous Japanese wood-pigeon, which flew from its hiding place on one mountainside to another across the valley.

From my point of view the outing was a great success.  It’s always a good time to be out birding with a group of like-minded individuals, and it never hurts to have such knowledgeable companions either.  Despite the rain we contended with on our first day, the pelagic trip was still successful in that we found some birds and didn’t get completely shut out.  And the day’s birding on Heuksan-do was a great chance to see some unusual birds that don’t frequently show up on the Korean mainland.

A heartfelt “thank you!” to Dr. Nial Moores and all of the members of Birds Korea for putting together a wonderful outing.  I hope it will be one of many yet to come.