Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A few owls of South Korea

A recent visit to South Korea was not primarily a birding trip but will a little help from some old friends I managed to find a few of South Korea’s wonderful owls that I have wanted to see for many years.

First and foremost on that list was this Ural Owl (Strix uralensis) in the mountains of the northeast, who offered a splendid viewing opportunity shortly after dusk.  These large, pale owls are widespread across the taiga / boreal portions of Eurasia are somewhat of an ecological equivalent of Barred Owl in North America.  With the largest females measuring 62 cm and weighing as much as 1.3 kg, Ural Owl is one of the largest species is the genus Strix (Great Gray Owl is larger but Ural Owl is approximately 10 cm longer than Barred Owl.  The Korean subspecies is S. u. nikolskii.

Similar to the Ural Owl but much smaller in size and darker in colour is the Himalayan Owl (Strix nivicolum). This species is also known as the Himalayan Wood-Owl or the Chinese Tawny Owl, although none of these names are apt (the distribution is not restricted to the Himalayas nor China). I was delighted to find this roosting bird tucked in against a tree trunk and definitely aware of my presence probably well before I spotted them. This species used to be considered conspecific with Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) from Europe and westernmost Asia but their song is quite different and the Himalayan Owl is generally darker with a shorter and more barred tail and a second “wing bar” usually visible.  This bird is a grey-brown morph, although there is apparently also a rufous morph, which I have never seen. You will see how the owl's plumage works so well as camouflage against the tree bark. The Korean subspecies is S. n. ma.

Finding a nest of Japanese Scops-Owl (Otus semitorques) was a major highlight. They were super secretive around their nest but I managed a few photos including one where a small mammal prey item was brought in. I was surprised to observe a pair of Siberian Flying Squirrels (Pteromys volans) that seemed to be using a cavity lower in the same tree (third photo). Interestingly, this northern scops-owl species is apparently resident in South Korea, unlike some other northern scops-owls such as Oriental Scops-Owl that are migratory. Nonetheless, there may be some altitudinal or short-distance migratory movements of this species in other parts of their range. Famous for their red eyes, unlike most other members of their genus, this species was once considered conspecific with “Collared Scops-Owl” which has now been divided into at least 4 species (they differ in voice, wing formula and some subtle plumage details).  The Korean subspecies is the nominate. 

I also saw two Eurasian Eagle-Owls in South Korea but it was raining and a few poor flight shots were all I managed such as the one below.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse at the owls of South Korea!

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