2013: A Year in Review

The year 2013 has definitely been one of the most interesting years of my life.  More happened in 2013 than in the past 5 years combined, both in the field and at home.  As the year winds to a close, it’s time to take stock of all that has happened and look forward to all that has yet to come.  Here is a brief review of 2013.

JANUARY

It was the final month that I spent living in Ottawa, in Canada, in North America, in the Western Hemisphere.  But before packing it in and saying goodbye to everything I had known, January marked the Great Grey Owl Invasion in Ottawa, perhaps one to rival that famous Invasion in 2006 (before I lived in Ottawa, mind you).  Three (and later four) of these majestic owls were found around Green’s Creek in the east end, and birders came from all over the province (and in some cases, the country or continent) to see them.  Other owl species also “invaded” Ottawa, including a northern hawk owl and at least two boreal owls, in addition to the more common winter visitors like snowy owl.

Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa); Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus); Woodlawn, Ontario, Canada

FEBRUARY

The shortest month of the year packed in the most changes.  After a whirlwind of family visits and last minute decisions, Melanie and I found ourselves on the other side of the planet, dropped into a country we had never visited to begin a new life we were not prepared for.  It was the “dare to be great” moment many of us think about, but rarely ever encounter.  It was also one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my life (second only to getting married, perhaps)!

doorway

Hanok Village – Jeonju-si, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea

MARCH & APRIL

We began the process of settling into our new home and our new lives.  I tried to understand this teaching job I found myself in.  It was a time of novelty, where everyday experiences were new again – simply going to the grocery store was an adventure!  And when I managed to find the time, I retreated into the comfortable and familiar world of birding, which is always the same no matter what part of the world you happen to be in.  And, oh, how the species began to accumulate. New and “exotic” species like white wagtail, Eurasian nuthatch, and varied tit became familiar sights.  Gone were the days of chickadees and hawks; here they were tits and buzzards.

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba ocularis); Gwangju, South Korea

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea amurensis); Damyang-gun, Jeollanam-do, South Korea

Varied Tit (Poecile varius varius); Geoje-si, Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea

MAY, JUNE & JULY

The height of spring and the height of migration had special meaning this year.  My first spring migration in Asia was about to begin.  Melanie and I were getting comfortable in our new country, and though the Korean language proved more difficult to acquire than we had expected, we were learning to get by on our own.  We were also exploring the countryside, taking trips into many places outside of Gwangju.  This period was the most productive for us, in terms of birds, travel, and experience.  Although the novelties had worn off, and it was becoming clearer that “home” was not the static, stationary concept we had once believed, the adventure was still continuing.

Hwaeomsa Temple – Jirisan National Park
Gurye, Jeollanam-do, South Korea

Gyubongam Temple - Mudeungsan National ParkGwangju, South Korea

Gyubongam Temple – Mudeungsan National Park
Gwangju, South Korea

My first foray into international birding was proving to be a success.  Within two weeks of arriving in South Korea, I surpassed 400 species on my Life List.  Only a few months later I was beyond 500 species.  The heat and humidity of summer slowed the pace substantially, but even in the dog-days of July I was still adding new species.  Now less common species were being discovered – things like tiger shrike and brown dipper.

Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus); Gakhwa Reservoir, Gwangju, South Korea

Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii); Jirisan National Park, Gurye, Jeollanam-do, South Korea

AUGUST

August was our summer vacation, and we spent it in Taiwan.  After a long semester of teaching, we used our well-earned leave to explore a new country.  It was also my first experience hiring a professional birding guide.  We experienced the excitement and culture of Taipei City, as well as the natural beauty of the mountainous interior of the country.  The trip was easily one of the best we have taken as a married couple.

Xingtian Temple – Taipei City, Taiwan

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial – Taipei City, Taiwan

We listed 60 new species in only 10 days, including many of the Taiwan endemics.  We also saw many interesting insects, plants, and animals, and had the good fortune to meet some amazing people along the way.  It was here that I met the greatest birder on Earth, Tom Gullick, and got a glimpse of where this little obsession of mine might take me one day.

Taiwan Barbet (Megalaima nuchalis); Da’an Park, Taipei City, Taiwan

Formosan Rock Macaque (Macaca cyclopis); Yushan National Park, Chiayi County, Taiwan

Swinhoe’s Japalura (Japalura swinhonis); Dingbenzai, Chiayi County, Taiwan

Standing next to Tom Gullick in Xinyi Township, Chiayi County, Taiwan

SEPTEMBER & OCTOBER

It was hard to follow up an adventure like Taiwan, and the onset of fall marked the beginning of the second semester at our schools, and the return to our “normal” lives.  I met Maria Lisak, a long-time resident of Gwangju and a community activist.  I took her under my wing, so to speak, as a birder-in-training, and in return she introduced me to some of the founding members of Birds Korea.  It was this fortuitous friendship that helped catapult back into the world of conservation and field research.  Although the fall months were spent mostly indoors as I prepared ever-increasingly technical and involved lessons for my students, I still managed to get out once in a while and catch some of the fall migration.  I added amazing species to my list during this time, including greater painted-snipe and Eurasian eagle-owl.  I spent more time on trying to get decent photographs on many of the more common species that I had started to take for granted.

Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus stejnegeri); Yeongsan River, Gwangju, South Korea

NOVEMBER

November brought me into closer contact with Birds Korea, and I began to become more involved within the organization and here in Gwangju.  November saw me leading outings to Haenam and Gangjin Bay.  I made friends with other Birds Korea members elsewhere in the country, and took several small trips with them to Seoul and Suncheon-si.  Melanie became more proactive in and around Gwangju.  She joined several clubs and organizations, and began taekwondo lessons.  As I delved deeper into Korea’s birding community, Melanie expanded hers by meeting new Gwangju EPIK teachers.

Birding the Korea National Arboretum with Birds Korea member (and fellow eBirder) Bradlee Sulentic

Birding Haenam with (from left) Pedro Kim, Peter Hirst, Ha Jung-Moon, Melanie Proteau Blake, Maria Lisak, Bob Harding, Lee Ju-Hyeong

EPIK Teachers Paintball Match
From left:  Joseph Cutler, Daniel Sheltzer, Melanie Proteau Blake, Kate Morris, Patrick Blake, Ismaray Ross and Shaun Ross.

The biggest event in November was checking off my 600th species.  So soon after finding my 500th, it was an incredible accomplishment to add another 100 species in so short a timespan.  As the year was winding down, it was becoming obvious to me that it would require a tremendous amount of dedication (and luck) to continue to add these kinds of numbers in 2014.

Hooded Crane (Grus monacha); Anpung-dong, Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do, South Korea

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus)
Dongcheon River, Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do, South Korea

DECEMBER

It was hard to believe the calendar when we looked and saw that it was December.  Where did all that time go?  We always say that, but really…where does it go?  December itself flew by, as we prepared our students for final exams and decided to officially renew our contracts for another year.  It was the first Christmas either of us had spent away from home (I mean really away), and we spent Christmas Day on Skype with our families, who, due to the time difference, had yet to celebrate Christmas since it was still Christmas Eve where they were.  But don’t despair!  Our “adopted families” here in Gwangju helped us celebrate the holidays.

Be it ever so humble…
Our Christmas tree in Gwangju

A South Korean Christmas with friends!


_________________________________________________________________________

As a birder, I measure things in numbers.  2013 brought a lot in the way of numbers, so I’ll share some of them with you.

230: the number of new species (Life birds) I saw in 2013
207: the number of species I saw in South Korea in 2013
319: the total number of species I saw in 2013, North America included
609: my Life List as of the end of 2013

It’s been a long road to get to the end of 2013, but it’s been one hell of a ride!  So long 2013, thanks for all the memories!

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Drawing to a Close

In only a few short days, 2013 will come to an end and a New Year will begin.  I spent the second to last week of the year in a fog, fighting a nagging cold that wouldn’t quit.  I spent Christmas Day on Skype, talking with family on the other side of the world.  Sometimes it’s surreal how the time difference between the east coast of North America and South Korea can seem like time travel – it’s Christmas morning for us while I talk to my parents and nephews who are preparing for bedtime on Christmas Eve…how can it be today and yesterday at the same time?

I managed to recover from my cold enough to spend part of the last weekend of 2013 at the Gakhwa reservoir.  It seems fitting, since this was the first place I went to when we arrived in Gwangju all those months ago; where else would I spend the last days of the year?

Gakhwa Reservoir, just starting to freeze over.

Gakhwa Reservoir, just starting to freeze over.

It had snowed overnight on Saturday, and was still snowing a bit Sunday morning.  Snow is ephemeral here; it arrives and disappears within the same day, so one must take advantage of it while it lasts.  In the mountains surrounding the reservoir, the snow was still coming down in light flakes.  It was beautiful to see the mountains under a fresh layer of snow.

CAM00686

CAM00687

In addition to the regular residents like Japanese tit, pygmy woodpecker, Daurian redstart, and brown-eared bulbul, I came across several winter visitors like four red-flanked bluetails, a common buzzard soaring high over the valleys, and two goldcrests (Lifer #609).  The goldcrests resemble golden-crowned kinglets, and were found in a large mixed-species foraging flock along one of the mountain trails.  Check out the complete species list.

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Sinosuthora webbiana fulvicauda)

Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanura)

The few hours I spent at the reservoir produced some great birds.  Despite having traveled over the trails around these mountains for nearly a year now, I am still surprised with new species that I had never seen here before.  It is truly one of the wonders and thrills of birding to continually see old favorite sites with new eyes.

Snippets of Winter

Winter is a time when things begin to slow down.  The days are very short; I often leave for work and the sun is barely above the horizon; I return home only to discover the sun hovering just over the other horizon…an entire day passes in just a few hours.

With daylight at a premium, even an hour spent outside can reveal a great deal of activity, as the animals hardy enough to survive winter manically scramble to find food while the light prevails.  There is good birding to be had in winter, and activity can occur at any time of day.

I recently spent a few hours at the Gakhwa reservoir, a small body of water a short walk from my apartment in Duam-dong.  The reservoir is a gateway to a mountain chain running the length of the eastern side of Gwangju.  Numerous trails crisscross the mountains, and I have “adopted” this area as my “local patch,” where I do most of my birding in the city.

The Gakhwa Reservoir in Gakhwa-dong

The Gakhwa Reservoir in Gakhwa-dong

The mountains are mostly devoid of plants now, the trees losing their leaves and the ground vegetation drying up and disappearing.  Grasses and other seed-producing plants provide the bulk of food for birds now, and many of the resident species spend all of the daylight hours searching for food amidst the thickets.  Stumble onto a foraging flock, and you can easily spot multiple species all feeding together.

The species present were the typical residents I find here year-round, including Japanese tits, marsh tits, coal tits, long-tailed tit, and brown-eared bulbul.  Some highlights included a stunning male Daurian redstart, a grey wagtail, eleven little grebes on the reservoir itself (a new high count for that species at this location), and an unexpected common kingfisher patrolling the northern shore of the reservoir.  I always thought this site would make a good location for kingfishers, but this is the first one I’ve found after all the time I’ve spent birding here.  The full eBird list is available here.

It was a pleasant (and surprisingly warm) afternoon, and it gave me some time to photograph the common species that birders often take for granted because they are so common.  I’ve posted some of my favorite shots below.

Japanese Tit (Parus minor minor)

Marsh Tit (Poecile palustris hellmayri)

A male Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus auroreus)

Whoopers

Winter is a great time to observed waterfowl, at least until freeze up.  As long as open water remains, geese, ducks, and swans can be plentiful.  So a group of us followed Birds Korea members Andreas Kim and Robin Newlin to Gangjin Bay to look for waterfowl and any other potential migrants or overwintering species.

The north portion of Gangjin Bay at low tide.The white spots in the distance are Whooper Swans.

The north portion of Gangjin Bay at low tide.
The white spots in the distance are Whooper Swans.

It was a gorgeous day, with unusually high temperatures in the mid-teens °C.  By midday we had shed several layers and were basking in the spring-like weather.  We arrived at Gangjin Bay at low tide, when all of the waterfowl and shorebirds were foraging in the exposed mud.  The whooper swan, our target bird for the day, clearly dominated the area, with several hundred covering the mudflats in all directions.  Other species included eastern spot-billed duck, mallard, Eurasian teal, gadwall, and Eurasian wigeon.

Have scope, will bird...© Pedro Kim

Have scope, will bird…
© Pedro Kim

Looking for waterfowl...

Looking for waterfowl…

Waders like grey heron, great egret, and little egret were found in small numbers; shorebirds were a rare find, and only a flock of dunlin and a few common sandpipers could be found on the mudflats.  Our group also located a Eurasian spoonbill, and shortly thereafter had the good fortune to see two of the rarer black-faced spoonbills.

Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor)

There were also a lot of passerines in the rice fields adjacent to Gangjin Bay.  The habitat was characterized by the tidal flats of the Bay, surrounded by reed beds of variable size, bordered by vast stretches of rice fields and agricultural land.  As the growing season is over and the fields tilled and sown for the coming season, a lot of sky larks were making use of this fertile land to forage and hide from predators.  Eurasian kestrels and a single Eurasian sparrowhawk patrolled the area, and it wouldn’t be a Korean bird outing without at least one bull-headed shrike.  The reeds were alive with activity, though many of the birds remained hidden in the vegetation and made themselves known only by their soft chips and tweets.  Careful and patient scanning revealed a plethora of buntings, including reed bunting, black-faced bunting, yellow-throated bunting, and a single meadow bunting (Lifer #605).  Chinese penduline-tits and vinous-throated parrotbills were also present in greater numbers.

Agricultural land surrounding Gangjin Bay

Agricultural land surrounding Gangjin Bay

By the end of the day we had tallied 53 species.  You can see the complete list(s) here, here, and here.

Below are some of my favorite photos from the day.

Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) take to the air near Hakmyeong-ri

A close up of a Whooper Swan family

Eurasian Coot (Fulica ater ater) at Gocheonnam Lake

Chinese Penduline-tit (Remiz consobrinus)

Meadow Bunting (Emberiza cioides castaneiceps); © Andreas Kim

Meadow Bunting (Emberiza cioides castaneiceps); © Andreas Kim

Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala)

The List Goes Ever On…

I read in To See Every Bird on Earth, the biography of the late Big Lister Richard Koeppel, that the great listers are so in tune with the sport that they can predict, with fascinating precision, the trip or location where they will see a landmark bird.  While my numbers pale in comparison to some of the great birders in the world, I may have finally developed this talent myself.  When Melanie and I were still preparing to move to South Korea, I had the delightful thought that I could reasonably expect to break the 600 mark by the end of 2013 with some effort.

Here it is the end of November, and that prediction has come true.

I took a birding trip with Jason Loghry and Mike Friel to Suncheonman Bay, hoping to nab some overwintering buntings.  We never really found the buntings (though a few individuals did make brief appearances) but we had an excellent time observing hundreds of newly arrived hooded cranes foraging in the rice fields of Anpung-dong.  And hidden among the enormous flock, careful eyes spotted three white-naped cranes.  And so, in just a few short months, my Life List catapulted from 500 to 600, with one more month of 2013 left to go.  Here’s a complete list of all the species we saw throughout the day.

Now that Melanie and I have signed on for another year with our schools in South Korea, I look forward with nervous anticipation at all the birds I will (hopefully) see in 2014.  I tempt fate by making another prediction: by the end of 2014, I should be close to or just beyond 750.

So now that the bar has been set, let the games begin!

#599:  Hooded Crane (Grus monacha)

#600:  White-naped Crane (Grus vipio)
Only seen from a distance, these large pale cranes were like water in the desert

But why stop there?
#601:  Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)