500

No, this isn’t a post about a possible sequel to the movie 300.  This post is about a momentous occasion in my life, a milestone that has been seven years coming.

Today, I saw my 500th species.

Let’s put that into perspective.  Five hundred birds…  Seven years ago, I probably couldn’t name 500 animals altogether if I tried.  It’s a huge thing for me, and yet even in victory I realize what a drop in the bucket a number like 500 actually is.  There are approximately 10,000 species of bird on Earth; some authorities suggest that number could be more like 12 or even 15,000.  Put against numbers like that, 500 doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  But it is…at least to me.

I was taking a board member of the Gwangju International Center (GIC) on a birding walk along the Yeongsan River.  She is also a member of Birds Korea, and we had met the day before at a fundraiser.  I had been interested in the work Birds Korea was doing, and took the opportunity to introduce myself and express my interest.  I was showing her some of the common species along the river, as there is work being done to bring birding and conservation awareness to Gwangju.  In my experience, the best way to raise awareness about these issues is to show people the natural world that you’re trying to conserve; allow them to appreciate it the way you do, and awareness will take off on its own momentum.

We were getting ready to turn back towards the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge, where we could pick up the #18 bus back to our respective homes.  It was then that I noticed a small falcon hovering in the sky.  I got it in the binoculars and IDed it as a molting Eurasian kestrel, not an uncommon sight along this stretch of the river.  As my companion was watching the bird through the binoculars, I noticed a second falcon to the south.  It surprised me to see two kestrels together, but I didn’t think anything of it.  I got this second bird in the binoculars, but right away something wasn’t right.  Although the skies were slightly overcast, and there was a great deal of contrast between the dark silhouette of the bird against the bright white sky, the facial pattern didn’t correspond to Eurasian kestrel.  I continued to watch, puzzled by what I was seeing.  It looked like a peregrine falcon, but was much too small for that species, which I’ve seen numerous times in the past (including once at this same location several months earlier).  The bird banked to the left, and it was then I got a look at its back: solid blue-grey.  Eurasian kestrel was immediately ruled out, as both males and females have orange backs.  The only two species likely were merlin and Eurasian hobby.  The facial pattern was wrong for merlin, so I was left with Eurasian hobby.  A quick reference to some audio recordings verified the ID.

The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, and just like that the hobby disappeared to the east.  I was never able to get a photo of the bird, but the event is etched in my memory.  Below is an image of a Eurasian hobby – all credit goes to the photographer John A. Thompson.

Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo). © John A. Thompson, The Internet Bird Collection

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The Peacock and the Skimmer

I had been cooped up in the apartment for too long.  The rainy season in South Korea was dragging on, and as final exams loomed at school, I was under pressure to create meaningful review lessons to prepare my students.  My birding had taken a back seat for the meantime, and while July is always a slow month for birding, I had been away from the chase for too many weekends.  So Saturday morning Melanie and I set out to Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park (광주호 호수생태원) on the outskirts of Gwangju.  The Eco-Park is a little removed from the city, but is easily accessible by the #187 village bus.  This bus only comes once an hour, usually on the :30 or :45, so be sure to check the bus schedule before leaving – nothing is worse than waiting for an hour because you missed the bus by a few minutes.

Rice paddies in Chunghyo-dong, just outside the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

Rice paddies in Chunghyo-dong, just outside the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The surrounding area in Chunghyo-dong is covered with rice paddies and agriculture.  Wading through the paddies were numerous cattle egrets and little egrets; occasionally a big great egret could be found.  The skies above the paddies were full of red-rumped swallows hunting insects; on this instance I also found a Eurasian kestrel hunting the swallows that were hunting the insects.

The Eco-Park had grown wild since my previous visit in April.  The small ponds were inundated with reeds, and hidden within were several oriental reed-warblers.  The grounds of the Eco-Park had dozens of azure-winged magpies and Eurasian magpies feeding their offspring.  I also spotted a scaly thrush with a mouthful of food for an unseen nest or fledgling.  One of the resident pair of grey-faced woodpecker also put in a brief appearance.

Many of the shrubs were in full bloom, and butterflies and dragonflies abounded.  Most of the butterflies were Asian swallowtails, but a few Chinese peacocks could be found with a little effort.  In the small ponds, there was a wide range of dragonflies, including black-tailed skimmers, scarlet skimmers, with smaller numbers of pied skimmers and butterfly skimmers.  I was particularly drawn to the butterfly skimmers, which had magnificent black iridescent wings that exploded with color in the sunlight.  Zipping among the blades of grass were several small green-and-yellow damselflies, which I later identified only as Ceriagrion melanurum.

The Chinese Peacock ( Papilio dehaani), one of the flashier butterflies at Gwangjuho Lake.

Asian Comma (Polygonia c-aureum)

A Long-tailed Spangle (Papilio macilentus), missing part of its long tail.

This damselfly is identified only by its Latin binomial Ceriagrion melanurum.

A Butterfly Skimmer (Rhyothemis fuliginosa), as translated from the Japanese common name; this is possibly one of the most beautiful dragonflies I’ve ever photographed.

We took the boardwalk along the edge of Gwangjuho Lake, drinking in the fresh air and sunlight.  Even though the day was a warm one, and the skies were mostly clear, there was still a surprising amount of birdsong in the air.  On the lake we saw a mother mandarin duck with two fluffy chicks in tow, and came across several groups of vinous-throated parrotbills with fledglings.  Melanie almost stepped on a dark-spotted frog, which provided me with a photo opportunity before disappearing into the grasses.

The boardwalk at Gwangjuho Lake.

The boardwalk at Gwangjuho Lake.

Dark-spotted Frog (Pelophylax nigromaculatus)

A black-naped oriole could be heard singing from somewhere in the Eco-Park.  We could also hear two common cuckoos and a lesser cuckoo calling periodically.  Near a junction in the boardwalk, by a shallow reed bed, the sounds of oriental reed-warblers gave way to a juvenile bull-headed shrike, calling out to attract an adult.  Shortly thereafter an adult male came in from the north and answered its anxious fledgling.  Not far from there were several more vinous-throated parrotbills and Japanese tits in a mixed-species foraging group.

A shallow reed bed near Gwangjuho Lake.  Oriental reed-warblers and two bull-headed shrikes were located near here.

A shallow reed bed near Gwangjuho Lake.  Oriental reed-warblers and two bull-headed shrikes were located near here.

A juvenile Japanese Tit (Parus minor), foraging on its own with a sibling at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

We left the boardwalk and proceeded through a stand of metasequoia trees.  A Japanese bush-warbler could be heard calling nearby.  A dollarbird flew overhead, and in the swarms of red-rumped swallows overhead I found three barn swallows.  On the other side of the Eco-Park is a large open area with ornamental shrubs and trees.  This area was undergoing maintenance, so we decided to head back to the entrance of the park.  On the way we stopped at an observation deck overlooking the lake.  Hidden in the trees I found three common kingfishers, the most of this species I have found anywhere.

Eurasian Magpies (Pica pica sericea).  This photo reminds me a little of the crows in Dumbo.

It was getting near the lunch hour when we decided to head back to Gwangju.  On the way out of the park we passed another group of azure-winged and Eurasian magpies.  An adult male ring-necked pheasant ran across the walkway, and hiding in the tall grass I found a small juvenile pheasant.  All in all the visit to the Eco-Park was a great outing.  I’m looking forward to returning here in the early autumn, to see what kind of migrants use the park as a stopover on their migration routes.