Everyone has something they like to do on the first day of a New Year, whether that be curling up in front of the TV and watching movies, downing piping hot coffee to combat a hangover, or just enjoying some private time to reflect on the promise of a new year. My tradition (or at least I’d like it to be a tradition) is to start out a New Year with a Big Day.
I did it for 2014, and managed to spot 46 species throughout the day – a new personal record for January 1. For 2015, I wanted to do things a little different. First, I wanted to blow that record of 46 out of the water. Second, I wanted to raise some money for Birds Korea. So I got some sponsors and got an itinerary: I would retrace my steps in Haenam county, where I could reasonably expect to find around 60 species.
Instead I awoke to discover that it had snowed overnight, and now the roads were nearly impassible. So I needed a new itinerary, and it needed to be accessible by public transportation. The real challenge was in doing all that and still beating 2014’s record. And so I decided to start 2015 in the same place I started 2014 – the Gwangjuho Lake Ecology Park. While waiting for the bus, I heard the first bird of 2015, a brown-eared bulbul (not surprisingly). On the way to the Eco-Park, the bus took an unexpected detour around the mountains and through the outskirts of Damyang; I gratefully spotted three more species along the way. Maybe things wouldn’t turn out so bad after all…
…and then I reached the Eco-Park. Undisturbed snow indicated that I was the first person to enter, and it was already after 9am. Snow fell lazily all around me, and a silent pall held over the area. Not a good sign – no Eurasian tree sparrows near the bus stop (they’re usually there). No Eurasian magpies or azure-winged magpies foraging by the entrance. It was beautiful, yet decidedly lacking in birdlife. Had I made a huge mistake?
I continued into the Park, and thankfully it wasn’t long before I found some birds. The naked trees held several flocks of bramblings. Yellow-throated buntings and vinous-throated parrotbills darted in and out among the shrubs while oriental turtle-doves took off from their roosts in the trees. As I made my way to the edge of Gwangjuho Lake, the day’s tally was starting to take shape and hope for a truly “Big” Day was renewed.
On Gwangjuho Lake itself I found a decent selection of waterfowl, the most numerous being mallard and eastern spot-billed duck. Smaller numbers of Eurasian teal, falcated duck, and Eurasian coot were also present. The big surprise was a small group of mostly male Baikal teal! It was the first time I had ever seen this species at this location before, and was by far the best bird at the Eco-Park. The small farm pond in the western corner of the Eco-Park held its typical common pochard, tufted duck, and mandarin duck. The western side of the park, dominated by open grass and seed-bearing trees, was a haven for rustic bunting. Singles of Naumann’s thrush, Eurasian sparrowhawk, bull-headed shrike, and eastern buzzard were also located here.
Having spent almost three hours at the Eco-Park, it was time to return home for a quick meal and then return to the fray. Getting a later start and relying entirely on public transportation made the next decision a little harder. Although the Eco-Park had been excellent, I left there with only 36 species. I had to choose another location where I could expect to find at least ten more species. Some quick calculations in my head and I decided the next (and possibly final) stop for the day would be the Yeongsangang River in Gwangju’s west end. I could expect to pick up the remaining overwintering ducks, as well as some grebes (which were surprisingly absent on Gwangjuho Lake) and maybe some gulls or raptors as well. It was a gamble, as birding the riverside can be a finicky mistress: some days are gold, other days leave you wishing you stayed in bed.
On the bus ride to the river I picked up some rock pigeons near Chonnam National University; who would ever think a pigeon would be hard to find in a city? I arrived at the river at 2:30pm, just as the snow returned. I quickly located a flock of grey-capped greenfinches near the public restrooms, and three Vega gulls were floating on the water. Scanning through the ducks I found Eurasian wigeon and northern shoveler, and a few tiny little grebes and two common moorhens were also using the waterway. Now that I had the majority of the overwintering ducks in Gwangju, I set my sights on trying to locate some buntings, which can be found (with patience) in the stretches of tall grasses along the river.
I did find some buntings, but only more yellow-throated buntings and a single rustic bunting. Not the sort I needed. Taking a short detour along a boardwalk, I hit pay dirt! I found a mixed species flock containing several Pallas’s reed bunting, black-faced bunting, and chestnut-eared bunting. The black-faced bunting was an expected species, and was the one I was hoping to locate. Although I had seen the other two species here in the past, I certainly did not expect to come onto them today. It was a really fortunate accident, and I marked the occasion by taking some time to observe the buntings as they foraging among the grasses.
It was getting dark, but I still needed a few more common species that should be on the river. I turned around and headed south, hoping to find some egrets and maybe a pheasant along the way. I located another group of ducks, including more eastern spot-billed ducks and common mergansers. Serendipity intervened and I just caught two Japanese quail as they made a short flight from one scrubby area to another. An eastern buzzard took position overlooking the river, and bull-headed shrikes chased grey-capped greenfinches and Eurasian tree sparrows through the grasses.
I reached a man-made weir on the river, usually a good place for egrets and shorebirds. Unfortunately I didn’t find any egrets there, but I was rewarded with two long-billed plovers hiding on a small rocky islet, and four common shelducks feeding within another group of waterfowl. Like the Baikal teal before them, this was the first time I had seen this species at this location. And with this last sighting, it was time to head back home. Getting too dark to see, I was satisfied that I had given it my all.
When I got home it was time to do some number-crunching. When all the numbers were tallied, I ended January 1, 2015, with a whopping 51 species! That translated to 177,500₩ ($160 USD) earned for Birds Korea. I managed to see a lot of great birds, the best being Baikal teal, chestnut-eared bunting, and common shelduck. Noteworthy misses were red-flanked bluetail, Chinese grosbeak, little egret, and large-billed crow.
Now that January is underway, it’s time once again to take the 125 Species Challenge. This is where I challenge myself to see 125 species during the month of January; last year I came up just shy of the goal with 123 species. This year, with my Big Day behind me and 30 days left to go, I think I’m in a good position to meet my goal.
2015 looks like it will be a great year for birding. I can’t wait to see what happens next!