The Big Day

A “Big Day” is birder lingo for a 24-hour period where you try to see/hear as many species as possible.  The record in North America, set by Team Sapsucker from Cornell University in 2013, is 294 species.  I’m using the term “Big Day” here, but by no means is it the same thing.  I try to start off the first day of a New Year by seeing as many birds as I possibly can throughout the day.  However, I’m usually thwarted in my attempts because of family obligations or a potential hang-over from partying too much the night before.

The first day of 2014, however, was as close to an actual “Big Day” as I’ve ever come.  I started out at the crack of dawn (7:30am) meeting my friend Peter Hirst near our apartment in Duam-dong.  Melanie opted to come with us, so the three of us set out in Peter’s car to start 2014 at the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.  On the drive there we spotted the first bird of 2014 – not surprisingly, a Eurasian magpie.  Shortly afterwards we saw an enormous flock of birds swirling in the sky.  These were small passerines, and though they made no flight calls (which was unusual), I identified them as bramblings, a visiting winter finch.  The flock easily numbered about 300 birds.  The third bird of the year was a lone white-cheeked starling sitting on a telephone wire along the road.

The 4th bird of 2014:  Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo japonicus)

The 4th bird of 2014:  Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo japonicus)

We arrived at Gwangjuho Lake, spotting a common buzzard on a tree near the lake, a couple mallards on the water, and a single little egret foraging in the shallows.  The parking lot held Eurasian tree sparrows, azure-winged magpies, and Japanese tits.

A map of the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

A map of the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

The entrance to the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

The entrance to the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

The trees near the entrance of the Eco-Park were dripping with bramblings.  Further along the walkways we found oriental turtle-doves, a grey wagtail, and brown-eared bulbuls.  The exposed shoreline of the lake revealed white wagtails of the leucopsis and lugens subspecies, as well as two long-billed plovers.  On the water were more mallards, common mergansers, and tufted ducks.

The first day of 2014 at Gwangjuho Lake

The first day of 2014 at Gwangjuho Lake

After a few hours at the Eco-Park, we had tallied nearly 30 species, including bull-headed shrike, grey-faced woodpecker, red-flanked bluetail, Daurian redstart, yellow-throated bunting, and rustic bunting.  Before heading out to our next spot, we checked along a small country road in the mountains for passerines.  It was a worthwhile stop, as we added Eurasian jay and goldcrest to our day total.

Peter knew of some good lookouts along the Yeongsan River nearby, so we headed out to the river to look for waterfowl.  The majority of ducks on the river were Eurasian teal, but we also found decent numbers of northern pintail, gadwall, eastern spot-billed duck, and whooper swan.  Other waterbirds included grey heron, great egret, little grebe, and Eurasian coot.  We also had the good fortune to spot some raptors along the river, including another common buzzard, two Eurasian kestrels, and a passing Eurasian sparrowhawk.

Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Buzzard flying over the Yeongsan River near Damyang-gun

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

After a nice lunch of mulguksu (물국수) at a small restaurant near the river, we decided to stop at one of the pagodas and watch the water for anything to float by.  There were mostly Eurasian teal on the water here, as well as a group of domestic geese that are resident along this stretch of the river.  A few passerines like long-tailed tit, brown-eared bulbul, and yellow-billed grosbeak were also spotted.  Before leaving the Yeongsan River behind, we spotted a single Eurasian moorhen among a flock of teal.  We left the Yeongsan River with a day total of 45 species.

Taking a break at the Yeongsan RiverMelanie Proteau Blake and Peter Hirst

Taking a break at the Yeongsan River
Melanie Proteau Blake and Peter Hirst

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta garzetta) roosting in a tree

Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)

The light was beginning to fade as we hurried to our last stop for the day: the Gakhwa reservoir.  I was hoping to pick up a few more passerines here, but our timing was off and we only added pale thrush at this location.  We did manage to find a good variety of birds, including the now regular little grebes on the reservoir (only 9 out of the usual 11 birds), a few more Daurian redstarts and red-flanked bluetails, and lots of vinous-throated parrotbills and yellow-throated buntings.  The fading light did not tempt any owls to start calling, though I was hoping to hear the regular oriental scops-owls that breed in the area.

Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanura)

The end of the "Big Day" 2014

The end of the “Big Day” 2014

At the end of the “Big Day” we had tallied 46 species altogether.  A far cry from Cornell’s Big Day record, but for me it was a personal high count for the first day of a New Year.  I hope this sets the pace for the rest of 2014.

A River Runs Through It

Gwangju has two rivers that run through the metropolitan area.  The Gwangju River, which runs west to east through the downtown core, has been mostly converted into a canal, with cement lining the shore and two bicycle paths/pedestrian walkways running alongside it.  There is still a bit of natural habitat left, but the river is surrounded by the bustling commercial center of the city, so whatever natural value these areas have is significantly diminished.

To the west of the city, however, runs the Yeongsangang River, which connects the port city of Mokpo to the village of Damyang-gun, a total stretch of approximately 40 kilometers.  It is possible to take a bike tour from Damyang-gun to Mokpo (or vice versa), and if you’re really adventurous you could opt to walk that distance as well.  There are a number of productive spots along the Yeongsan, namely in Dongnim-dong, Deokheung-dong, and Chipyeong-dong.  I typically concentrate my birding efforts to the north, centered on the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge (광신대교) in Dongnim-dong.  To get there, take a #18 bus to the Gwangshindaegyo stop; from my apartment in Duam-dong it takes between 30-50 minutes, depending on traffic.

A view of the Yeongsan River in Dongnim-dong, looking south.

A view of the Yeongsangang River in Dongnim-dong, looking south.

I went to this stretch of river on Sunday, arriving just after 8:30am.  Despite the date on the calendar, there are still wildflowers and butterflies to be found, and the vegetation has only recently begun to dry up and go into hibernation for the coming winter.  Looking over the expanse of scrubland and gently flowing water, I imagine what this place will look like in a couple weeks, once the waterfowl arrive on their migration route.

A quiet pagoda rest stop near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge.

A quiet pagoda rest stop near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge.

The area is mostly left to grow wild, and the scrubby grasses and wildflowers are only mowed sporadically in the fall.  There is no boat traffic on the water, and other than the occasional fisherman along the shore and some construction sites to the north and south, the river is relatively undisturbed.  A paradise this is not, however; careful scrutiny will reveal floating trash and industrial pollution.  But for the most part the river is sufficient to support many species of plants and animals.  In fact, the only Korean water deer I have ever seen was along this stretch of river, so there are wonderful natural treasures there, if you have the patience and desire to find them.

My first encounter today was with a small bull-headed shrike, calling from a low perch in the reeds.  The sun, struggling to reach into the sky and illuminate the world, reflected brilliantly off the condensation on leaves and grasses.  Elsewhere nearby I could hear brown-eared bulbuls and Eurasian magpies.  Oriental turtle-doves roosted on the trees and power lines nearby.  I spent nearly twenty minutes peering through dense grasses to spot several black-faced buntings flitting about under the cover of the vegetation.  For good reason, too, as this area is regularly patrolled by Eurasian kestrels and Eurasian hobbies; both of these predators would put in appearances throughout the day.

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus), one of four that I would find along the Yeongsangang River.

Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Further north, the secretive buntings gave way to wave after wave of olive-sided pipit, a recent arrival in the waning migration season.  These drab birds forage together in small flocks, ranging from just a few individuals to about 20 birds.  Typically they are either well-hidden in the brush, foraging on the ground, or roosting in trees together, where a few lookouts warn the others of danger.  In ones and twos, a total of about a dozen sky larks were also making their way south; these grassland birds were only seen as they flew overhead, and were it not for their distinctive flight call I would have no idea what they were.

The highlight of the outing was discovering not one but eleven Siberian stonechats in some tall reeds near the banks of the river.  I had spotted a single stonechat in this general area about a week or two earlier; now there were so many more.  At one point while I was watching them, seven individual birds were visible perching on various reeds and grasses.  Although they had undergone their molt for the season, the birds were no less beautiful for it.

“Stejneger’s” Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus stejnegeri), the breeding subspecies on the Korean peninsula.

A pair of Siberian Stonechats

The water on the river was high, and aside from three little grebes and a handful of eastern spot-billed ducks and Eurasian teal, there were no large gatherings of waterfowl as I had hoped.  Perhaps it is too early in the season still.  There was very little exposed riverbed, so I was surprised to still find two wood sandpipers hanging around, picking at the mud where they could find it.  White wagtails were more numerous than they had been during the summer months: I found eleven, consisting of two subspecies.  There were also two glorious male Daurian redstarts, relatives of the Siberian stonechats, which had completed their molt and were staking out new territories for the winter months.  I’ve noticed a significant increase in these small birds, as was evidenced by my recent trip to Suncheon-si, where every few hundred meters of walking revealed yet another pair of redstarts.

“Black-backed” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

A juvenile White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus auroreus)

In addition to the abundant (albeit well-hidden) bird life, the lands surrounding the Yeongsan River were also alive with insects.  Grasshoppers of numerous species were everywhere, jumping and flying away with every footstep.  Where there were wildflowers, dwindling numbers of butterflies still hung on.  Only a few species of butterfly are still around at this time of year, including whites and yellows, but also Asian commas and Indian fritillaries.  You can also get lucky and find a passing red admiral or painted lady, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule now.

Female Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius)

Male Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius)

Despite not finding the numbers of waterfowl I was hoping for, the Yeongsangang River never fails to impress.  It’s one of the few places I know of in Gwangju were one can find an expanse of flat land that isn’t concrete or a rice paddy.  When the water is low enough to expose the rocky riverbed, shorebirds and herons abound.  Migrants of all kinds use the plentiful grass seeds and insects to refuel on their way to the wintering grounds.  And the occasional raptors can be found soaring above the river, hoping to surprise their unsuspecting prey.  Whether your interests lie in hiking, biking, birding, or you’re just looking for a change in scenery, time is not wasted in visiting the Yeongsangang River.