Welcome

Hello and welcome to “Aspie Nomad,” a new travel blog geared towards people with Asperger’s/autism and other forms of neurodiversity. It is intended to inspire such individuals to “shoot for the stars,” follow their dreams and defy any perceived limitations. It will also have many resources for solo/budget minded travelers and backpackers, as well as nature enthusiasts who are NOT on the autism spectrum. I will start posting more frequently in the summertime.

So; who am I? As I write this, I am a (soon to be) 35 year old expat, teacher, and travel enthusiast. I am from the USA (specifically the New York area) and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. That is the reason for the title of this blog, perhaps a first of it’s kind. The concept came about upon realizing that there were few, if any, travel/backpacking blogs geared towards neurodiverse individuals. I also believe that my story can be a source of hope to others. It has been a long ride. When I was initially classified autistic as a toddler (in the years before an Asperger’s diagnosis was common), my parents were told that I would most likely be unable to live independently.

Through years of education and remediation, I was able to defy expectations, graduate summa cum laude and earn a Master’s Degree at 23. Eventually, my path led me overseas. I have been living and teaching English in Korea (South; not North, just saying because I have been asked that so many times!) for six years. In late August of 2020, I will leave my job (it’s been a long and great ride) and embark on a backpacking journey that could span almost two years. I hope and plan for this adventure to take me around the world. However, I will start in Latin America. Already I have many videos, photos, and stories from various adventures and wildlife encounters that I hope to share with you. Despite how far I have come, I continue to face many of the stresses and challenges that individuals on the spectrum face, and I want to detail how these play out in my day to day life, past travels, and the adventure to come. Thank you for joining the ride.

The Scream Queen

April 17, 2021; Eulsukdo Island. Busan, South Korea.

It had been a productive morning of bird watching; all fitting, because it was my birthday weekend. Blue rock thrush, black kite, Siberian stonechat, and falcated duck; to name but a few. The previous day (my actual birthday) had yielded Japanese robin, osprey, several thrush species, warblers, and red flanked bluetail. As the afternoon heat rose, I set my sights on a lone duck diving for food in the center of the small tidal lake. It was too far away to be sure, but the first few shots from my Nikon Coolpix P900S held promise. I thought it might be Baer’s Pochard, a critically endangered species. A friend of mine, who is far more seasoned a birder than I am, had spotted one back in November.

Excited, I moved closer to make shots that would confirm the bird’s identity. As I got where I wanted to, excitement turned to disappointment. A small mohawk confirmed that it wasn’t a Baer’s at all, but a female tufted duck. A beautiful bird, for sure, but certainly not rare in South Korea. I changed my E-Bird entry and said, “Well; that’s birding. Just like fishing.”

As I walked away from the reed bed, a large shadow passed overhead. I glanced up to see what I thought was another black kite. It made its way off into the distance and landed on a branch that was far off, but still within view. As I got closer, though, I noted that this bird was likely too big to be a black kite or a buzzard. But what could it be? I took a quick shot. Then, the bird took off and passed over me, allowing for more shots to be taken. Looking at the shots, it wasn’t long before its identity was no longer a mystery. My heart EXPLODED with excitement.

It was a greater spotted eagle (aquila clanga or clanga clanga; the word clanga means “scream” in Latin). It was actually the second time I had seen the species; the previous November had been the first, but nowhere near as close as this. A greater spotted eagle is an exciting find for many reasons. Among them is the fact that they are not common in Korea, and are more typically found in Southwest Asia and Northern India. They are huge birds, but as eagles go, they are medium sized, with a wingspan of 150-180cm
(about 5-6 feet). There had been a sighting of this species at the same location in January. Since the species is not common here, I believe that it was one and the same bird.

The eagle made a few passes before disappearing into the sky. Needless to say, I forgot about the Pochard that wasn’t and geeked out like the excited, nature loving nerd that I truly am. And it made me wonder if birds, like mammals, can sense emotions like disappointment. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the “Scream Queen’s” timing could not have been better.

If not for the heat wall, the quality of this picture would have been much better. Nevertheless, it is clear from the markings that this bird, while full sized, is still a juvenile. Adults lose most of the white on their plumage.
After the Spotted Eagle disappeared, I returned to spending time with some Siberian stonechat.

Gray Backed Guests

Nowadays, the campus that I live on has been graced with the presemce of several thrush species. In particular, gray backed thrush like the individual foraging for insects in this picture.
White’s thrush are still around, too. And they can sing. Very. Very. Loudly!

The Real Mothra

The sight of a Japanese Silk Moth, like this specimen here, may make your jaws drop! They certainly did that for me; not only because they are so big for insects but also because of their bright colors!
Another one. When I first saw the species, I immediately thought I was in a real life godzilla or pokemon scene. If you visit Korea in summer, maybe you will, too!

In summer, go “bugging.”

It’s not all about the birds for me. Indeed, as a little aspie nomad, while others were playing freeze tag, I was sifting through the leaf litter to look for worms, beetles, slugs, and the occassional salamander. And, what was true in 1994 remains so all these years later. Sometimes I like nothing more than to look for creepy crawlies. Here are some of them!

This tiger keelback snake was one of the highlights of a bird watching trip near the DMZ late last June. It was also the buggest of the species I had seen. Over 2 feet (60cm) long and probably closer to 75cm. Tiger keelback are (despite their garter like appearance) poisonous. However, their fangs are too tiny for a bite to prove a life threatening situation.
April is breeding time for amphibians, like this little gensan salamander. I found it close to home; probably walking down to a nearby rice field to lay its eggs.
Unfortunately, this sino korean owl moth, which I found near a bus terminal last August, was not alive. Still, it was a fascinating find.
Korea comes alive with stinkbugs and other creepy crawlies in summer. This is good news for the nature ethusiast, since (with the exception of shorebirds), monsoon (and nesting) season can make birding in midsummer quite a chore. So, go “bugging.”

Don’t. Touch. Birds.

After a year long delay due to the pandemic, I have decided to resurrect my old backpacking dream. After 7 years in Korea, I will leave in September. After coming back to the US, I will stay with family and get vaccinated. Rollout is proving dreadfully slow in Korea, although on other infection control measures, the country has done an incredible job. After that, I will head South of the border, starting in Mexico and slowly working my way through central and South America, with a focus on birdwatching and other nature. I am also going to spend lots of quality time with my father, who moved to Colombia a few weeks ago. He is 74, and so I have every intention of making the very most of that time, too. Likewise, I will treasure time with other family members in the US.

The main reason for my decision (I would be backpacking Central/South America now as is if not fpr the pandemic) is the vaccine rollout and reopening of countries. Two of my close friends have already traveled internationally and that was months before rollout started. I believe that you can travel for non essential reasons during COVID 19. You just have to be responsible and flexible. The latter is a challenge for me as an aspie nomad, but I am getting there. I have planned and dreamed of this trip for a long time. I have the belief and confidence I can do it responsibly.

However, a small but significant factor is that I feel that foreigners are viewed with increasing suspicion in South Korea (and have since witnessing the disconcerting way in which our communities were treated following a relatively small COVID outbreak in Seoul’s Itaewon District last spring) in the midst of the pandemic. Around the time of the Pfizer announcement in late 2020, I was taken aside at work for a talk (which I now feel was completely unnecessary) not about COVID, but about Avian Influenza (bird flu) sign
In fairness to the person who gave me the talk, they are under a lot of pressure. They are also a great person. And it is unfair. We even share an interest in the same God awful heavy metal music that drove my dad crazy at concerts circa 1999.

I am grateful for my time here and overall have a LOT more positive than negative things to say about Korea. I may even go back someday. However, I also graduated summa cum laude and also have a master’s degree. I am 35 years old (turning 36 in a few days). Look at the signs. I think a kindergartner could avoid them. Do you think I am smart enough to know not to touch birds, and (try) to not step on bird poop? I sure HOPE so. LOL.
Am I fast enough to touch these Northern Lapwing (even if I wanted to)? Personally, I think not. I would rather admire them from a distance; and having a camera with good zoom that doesnt break the bank (like the Nikon Coolpix P900s that got this shot) certainly helps. Certainly, I didn’t relent on my bird watching (as long as you dont visit closed areas you are okay). Why would I reduce a hobby that has, undoubtedly, played an instrumental role in salvaging my mental health in a year that has been difficult for everybody. Sorry; but Netflix binging cannot do that for me. Only nature can.
Live and let live. Eurasian Curlew at Hwaseong. April 11, 2021.

Waxies Back

Five months left in Korea before hitting the road (after delaying my dream by a year, for obvious reasons) so still making the most I can out of Korean birding. Having seen them last month, I heard that the Bohemian and Japanese waxwing were back in Seoul, so I went to pay them a visit. A group of about 40 showed up. This is a Bohemian waxwing; it is slightly larger and has the yellow tip on its tail. Japanese waxwings have red tips.
The waxie way is pretty straightforward: Where the berries go, we go!

Faces in the crowd

Looking for shorebirds is one of my favorite forms of birding, especially in spring. However, picking species out of the crowd can represent a very fulfilling challenge. Most of these are a medium size sandpiper called great knot. Towards the bottom are dunlin, their smaller relatives. In the lower left corner, a black bellied plover.
Hwaseong tidal flat and lakes are considered one of the best spots to find shorebirds in South Korea. They are spectacular, as is this eurasian curlew.
About 2,000 dunlin on the incoming tide yesterday. This may be a conservative estimate.
Among the congregation of dunlin and great knot, a far eastern curlew; larger than the Eurasian and also globally endangered. Also present a bar tailed godwit; one of my favorites for how it drills into the sand with its long, pointed bill.
Here they are in action; this photo from last fall.

Morning surprises.

Meadow Bunting are nothing new to me, but this was the first one I had come across in a few months.
Find of the morning was this singing white’s thrush. They are LOUD!
Certainly not bad to look at, for that matter. There were actually three of them.

The resident osprey

One of the most pleasant surprises in some of my local birding excursions close to home was this osprey. I am pretty sure he found the carp in the river quite tasty. I have seen this species in 3 countries.
This one here is from Mexico’s Magdalena Bay. Late January, 2020. I went there primarily to see whales but osprey are certainly always welcome.

Fantastic finches

Today, I got a pleasant surprise when this female common rosefinch turned up near a group of eurasian tree sparrow. Despite the name, they are not common at all in South Korea.
Pallas’ rosefinch. November, 2020.
Rear view of a female long tailed rosefinch. January, 2021.
Also from January, a brambling. They are still around now. Unlike the rosefinches, they tend to be found in large groups.
The diversity of the finch family is one of my favorite aspects of this group of birds. Yellow billed grosbeak are also members of the extended clan.
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