Public Outing at the Yeongsangang

Birding is a passion for me, and like anything one truly cares about, one wants to share it with others.  Our lives are so busy nowadays, and there are so many distractions (*cough* smartphones), that it is all too easy to forget to stop and look around once in awhile.

Therefore I have become increasingly active in the Gwangju community here in Korea.  With the help of a good friend and birder-to-be Maria, I’ve begun a campaign to generate interest and enthusiasm for birds and conservation, and maybe even encourage a few Gwangjuites to join and support Birds Korea.

So how exactly do I generate interest?  Simple: take everyday people outside and show them the world through the eyes of a birder.  Recently I led a public outing along my favorite stretch of the Yeongsangang River on the west end of Gwangju.  The goal was to observe waterfowl which had just arrived from northern breeding grounds.  Since the climate in Gwangju is relatively mild, the Yeongsangang doesn’t freeze over and provides food and shelter for nearly a dozen species of waterfowl throughout the winter.

I was delighted to have an enthusiastic group attend; what’s more, it went beyond my expectations to have such a large group come out…we had twelve participants in total, including two visiting all the way from Seoul!  We had perfect weather, with clear skies and mild temperatures.  While the numbers of waterfowl were still fairly low at this time of year, we did have a decent variety, and I ticked off eight different species of duck before the outing even officially began!  In the end our group tallied just under 30 different species of bird, including excellent views of falcated ducks, Eurasian coots, a friendly and cooperative bull-headed shrike, and four different species of heron.  A full list of the day’s sightings is available here.

Here are few images from the day’s outing.  Thanks to everyone who attended!

The pagoda near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge made the perfect meeting place

Decorative carvings near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge

I answer questions as the outing gets underway

Scanning the river for waterfowl

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Birdathon on Eocheong-do

If you’ve been following my blog, even for a short time, you might have noticed that I have what polite society might call a condition.  To say that I have “birds on the brain” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.  I have dreams about birds, usually involving species I haven’t seen perching out in the open under perfect lighting conditions for me to photograph at my leisure.  I consider myself fluent in over 400 languages, because that is roughly the number of species I can readily identify by song or call alone (and that number continues to grow).  So, yeah, I have a condition.

Therefore it should go as no surprise that when my friend Jason Loghry at Birds Korea asked me to join the 2014 Birdathon, I literally jumped at the chance.  For those of you who don’t know, a Birdathon is a fundraising event wherein participants are sponsored to go out and see or hear as many different species as possible within a 24-hour period.  Sponsors can decide to pay a set amount of money per species, per hour spent birding, or a lump sum total.  For this Birdathon, all proceeds go directly to Birds Korea to help fund their conservation efforts protecting the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper and the habitats it utilizes here in South Korea.  It’s important work, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute in my own way.

I’ve already written about Eocheong-do (어청도), so this post is strictly about the birds.  And oh, the birds we did see.  There were six participants in this year’s Birdathon at Eocheong-do; other Birds Korea members did separate Birdathons at other locations in Korea and elsewhere in the world.  This year’s event carried with it the caveat that participants cannot use any mode of transportation other than their feet during the actual count period; i.e. we could take a ferry boat to Eocheong-do, but could not count any species seen during that time.  Here are some vital statistics on Birdathon 2014:

Duration: 4 days (May 3 – 6)
Birdathon Count Period: May 3, 10:20AM – May 4, 10:20AM
Birdathon Count Period Total: 78 species heard/observed
Total Species Counted on Eocheong-do: 95 species
Species Added to Life List: 18 (me); 22 (Melanie)
Funds Raised: 171,000₩

To briefly summarize our four day adventure, the birding was nothing short of spectacular.  Every day brought in new migrants, and every inch of the island was crawling with birds.  The vast majority were yellow-browed warblers, but hidden among them were less common species like Kamchatka leaf warbler and pale-legged leaf warbler.  As I have been told many times, the best birding in Korea can be found offshore on the islands, and I found this out to be true first-hand.  It wasn’t just the numbers of birds, but also the variety of species.  We even had to good fortune of spotting two mega-rarities: a cinnamon bittern and Korea’s third record of northern wheatear!

Here are a few of the highlights of our trip to Eocheong-do:

Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina)

Blue-and-white Flycatcher (Cyanoptila cyanomelana cyanomelana)

Chestnut Bunting (Emberiza rutila)

Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola ornata)
Classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis)

Chinese Pond-heron (Ardeola bacchus)

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus himantopus)

Terek Sandpiper (Xenus cinereus)

Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus lucionensis)

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe oenanthe)
This is only the 3rd time this species has been recorded in South Korea

These are but a small portion of all the images I took during our trip to Eocheong-do.  I encourage you to explore the Asian Bird galleries at my website if you’d like to see more from the trip.

The Birdathon Crew

The Birdathon Crew
From left: Jason Loghry, Hwang Haemin, Melanie Proteau Blake, Patrick Blake, Ha Jeongmun, and Kim Ohjin

It was a tremendous experience, one that will not soon be repeated.  Melanie and I were able to see some incredible birds and experience a migration unlike any we had before, and all the while we were raising money to help protect the crucial habitats that the birds we know and love depend on for survival.  A big thanks goes out to Birds Korea for hosting this event, and to my fellow Birdathoners here and abroad, for their dedication and passion that make birding the great past time that it is.

Migration in Perspective

April and May mark the peak of the spring migration.  Every year, bird across the globe take to the air and embark on fantastic journeys from their wintering grounds to the breeding grounds.  Often this journey takes them from one hemisphere to another; some species make flights that cover literally tens of thousands of kilometers.

Once this journey is complete, birds have only a few short weeks to breed and raise their young.  Then they repeat the process in reverse, departing their breeding grounds for warmer climates to the south.  This spectacle happens twice every year, but it happens so quickly that if you blink you can miss it.  I make special efforts to get out birding as often as possible during this special time of year.

It would take too many words to describe all the migrants I’ve seen throughout the month of April, so I’ve compiled a short list of some of my favorite experiences over the past month.  So here is the “Cliff’s Notes” version of spring migration in South Korea.

Scaly Thrush (Zoothera dauma toratugumi), often referred to as “White’s Thrush”

Migration in South Korea begins with arrival of the thrushes, at least in terms of the passerine migration. Some species, such as pale thrush and scaly thrush are resident species, but are rarely observed during the winter months.  At this time of year the thrushes become more visible, and more vocal.  Dusky and Naumann’s thrushes, preparing for their return to their northern breeding grounds, congregate in growing numbers before leaving Korea until the autumn.  The forests begin to fill with the haunting melodies of pale thrush and scaly thrush.  More unusual migrants, such as grey-backed thrush and Japanese thrush can put in brief appearances during their flights north.  And as quickly as it began, the thrushes pass through and are not seen again until the fall.

Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Migration starts to pick up with the arrival of the first Old World warblers.  The first arrivals are Japanese bush-warblers and Asian stubtails.  The majority of warblers do not breed in Korea at all, and only make short stop-offs on their way to somewhere else.  This makes the warbler migration very short, but also very exciting.  Old World warblers are not nearly as colorful and visually appealing as their North American cousins, but they do match their relatives when it comes to melodious songs.  In fact, with most Old World warblers, the only way to tell them apart is their song.  Otherwise they all basically look the same.

Japanese Bush-warbler (Horornis diphone cantans)

Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus)

The last passerines to arrive (or pass through) on the Korean peninsula are the Old World flycatchers.  Unlike the tyrant-flycatchers of North America (small, drab, nondescript birds – usually only identifiable by their songs), Old World flycatchers run the gamut of colors.  Residents like Daurian redstart and overwintering species like red-flanked bluetail make way for such exotic-sounding species as Siberian stonechat, Narcissus flycatcher, and Mugimaki flycatcher.  As with many migrants, most of these species are only passing through, and no sooner do they arrive than off they go to their northern breeding grounds.

Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina)


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Birding during migration is all about timing.  A day or two can make all the difference between seeing a migrant species and having to wait a few months until it passes through again.  I’ve had some good fortune with timing this spring, and have been rewarded with adding some fantastic species to my Life List.  On a recent birding trip to the Busan area, my friend Jason Loghry and I spotted a Japanese robin and had a brief encounter with a Sakhalin leaf-warbler, both species scarce migrants to Korea.  We also had the opportunity to see the first of the new generation after locating six fledgling long-tailed tits being fed by adults.

Japanese Robin (Larvivora akahige)

Long-tailed Tit Fledgling (Aegithalos caudacutus magnus)

A long weekend holiday is fast approaching, and Melanie and I have signed up to attend a Birdathon with Birds Korea on Eocheong-do.  This will be my first official Birdathon, and our first visit to this premier birding spot off the western coast of Korea.  Look for my full report on the trip in the next few weeks.

Ides of March

It sneaked up on me somehow, but this past week marked my blog’s first anniversary, or birthday, or whatever blog’s celebrate when they’ve been around a year.  I’ve truly enjoyed the experience so far, although I haven’t always been able to dedicate the time I wanted to.  As a “Blog Year Resolution,” I’ll try to be more regular in my posts, and continue getting out there and living the birding life in South Korea.

Most of my time recently has been spent settling into my new schools, and wrapping my head around my new work schedule.  My birding time has been once again relegated to the weekends, but with the days getting longer every week, soon I’ll be able to do some late day birding as well.  And just in time, too – new arrivals are showing up all the time.  Here’s a brief look at what I’ve been up to in the month of March.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

Two weeks ago I went with Melanie to Geumseongsanseong (금성산성), an old mountain fortress in nearby Damyang-gun.  We had hiked the steep walls of the fortress in March of last year, where I had found a golden eagle and a flock of alpine accentors.  It was this latter species that we returned to look for again this year.

Despite the fine weather, we never found the alpine accentors, but there was plenty of activty, including all four species of tit (chickadee), numerous Eurasian nuthatches, and an unexpected Siberian accentor which put on a brief show for us near one of the fortress gates.  This was Melanie’s first sighting of Siberian accentor, and by far the best views of one I’ve had yet.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

Siberian Accentor (Prunella montanella montanella)
Click the image to see a short video of the accentor singing.

Last weekend found us in Suncheon-si, looking for cranes and any overwintering or recently arrived buntings.  This was a special trip, planned specifically to get Melanie her 500th bird.  To that end we were very successful, arriving near Suncheonman Bay and quickly finding at least 40 hooded cranes.  Just as I had found my 600th bird here only a few months earlier, Melanie found her 500th in the rice fields at Anpung-dong.  We went on to find her three more species to add to her list: Pallas’s bunting, reed bunting, and little bunting.  We had a very enjoyable walk along the Dongcheongang River, despite the threat of rain throughout most of the day.  There are definitely signs of spring in the air now: species are completing their molts, many species are singing, and the first of the early migrants are beginning to arrive.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus pyrrhulina)

Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and a Vega Gull (Larus vegae) along the Dongcheongang River.

The weather made a significant change this weekend, and today brought the first 18°C day of the year.  Taking advantage of the spectacular weather, Melanie and I invited our friend Victoria to come birding with us at Mudeungsan National Park, at the Jeungsimsa Temple.  Melanie and I had hiked this trail last April, and had some good luck with a variety of bird and insect species.

It's moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.© Victoria Caswell

It’s moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.
© Victoria Caswell

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

This was Victoria’s first real plunge into the birding world, and fortunately I was able to point out a lot of interesting species and behaviors.  We came across a pair of coal tits gathering moss for a nearby nesting site; click the link to see a video of the birds gathering moss.  There were numerous varied tits, pairs of both pygmy and white-backed woodpeckers, and a migrant yellow-browed bunting, which was only the second of this species I have ever seen (the first being one in the same mountain chain almost exactly a year ago to the day).

However, the pièce de résistance was definitely a very tame ring-necked pheasant, which foraged along a mountain stream in full view for tens of minutes.  We were privileged to have this opportunity to watch the pheasant for so long, and from such a short distance.  Our constant staring into the woods attracted several Korean onlookers, curious as to what was so interesting to the bunch of waygooks (Korean word for “foreigner”).  We passed out our binoculars to those who were interested, and all in all it was a great moment to show some of the locals this special (not to mention breathtakingly stunning) bird which, though very common in Korea, is often times overlooked.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

Yellow-browed Bunting (Emberiza chrysophrys)

Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)

Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus karpowi)
Click the image to see a video of the bird’s foraging behavior.

Although much of this month has been spent indoors teaching English classes, the time that I have spent outdoors has been incredibly fulfilling.  With the cold grip of winter beginning to loosen on the Korean peninsula, I look forward to warmer temperatures and renewed birding ahead!

Cambodia Tally Sheet

Here is a complete list of all the birds seen throughout our trip to Cambodia.  Where available, I have included a link to photos of each species.  There are 54 species listed.

SPECIES                  LATIN BINOMIAL                  
   
Storks – Ciconiidae  
Milky Stork Mycteria cinerea
   
Darters – Anhingidae  
Oriental Darter Anhinga melanogaster
   
Herons & Bitterns – Ardeidae  
Great Egret Ardea alba
Chinese Pond-heron Ardeola bacchus
   
Ibises – Threskiornithidae  
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
   
Hawks – Accipitridae  
Oriental Honey-buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus
Changeable Hawk-eagle Nisaetus limnaeetus
Shikra Accipiter badius
   
Stilts – Recurvirostridae  
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
   
Plovers – Charadriidae  
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
   
Doves – Columbidae  
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Oriental Turtle-dove Streptopelia orientalis
Red Collared-dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Zebra Dove Geopelia striata
   
Cuckoos – Cuculidae  
Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus
   
Swifts – Apodidae  
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris
House Swift Apus nipalensis
Asian Palm-swift Cypsiurus balasiensis
   
Kingfishers – Alcedinidae  
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
   
Rollers – Coraciidae  
Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis
   
Asian Barbets – Megalaimidae  
Lineated Barbet Megalaima lineata
   
Parrots & Parakeets – Psittacidae  
Alexandrine Parakeet Psittacula eupatria
Red-breasted Parakeet Psittacula alexandri
   
Ioras – Aegithinidae  
Common Iora Aegithina tiphia
   
Cuckoo-shrikes – Campephagidae  
Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus
   
Shrikes – Laniidae  
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
   
Drongos – Dicruridae  
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus
   
Fantails – Rhipiduridae  
Malaysian Pied-fantail Rhipidura javanica
   
Monarch-flycatchers – Monarchidae  
Black-naped Monarch Hypothymis azurea
   
Swallows – Hirundinidae  
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
   
Bulbuls – Pycnonotidae  
Yellow-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus goiavier
Olive-backed Bulbul Pycnonotus plumosus
   
Leaf-warblers – Phylloscopidae  
Chestnut-crowned Warbler Seicercus castaniceps
   
Cisticolas – Cisticolidae  
Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius
Dark-necked Tailorbird Orthotomus atrogularis
Yellow-bellied Prinia Prinia flaviventris
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
   
Old World Flycatchers – Muscicapidae  
Brown-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa williamsoni
Oriental Magpie-robin Copsychus saularis
Hainan Blue-flycatcher Cyornis hainanus
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Little Pied Flycatcher Ficedula westermanni
Blue Rock-thrush Monticola solitarius
Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus
   
Starlings – Sturnidae  
Common Hill Myna Gracula religiosa
Great Myna Acridotheres grandis
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Black-collared Starling Gracupica nigricollis
Chestnut-tailed Starling Sturnia malabarica
   
Leafbirds – Chloropseidae  
Golden-fronted Leafbird Chloropsis aurifrons
   
Sunbirds – Nectariniidae  
Olive-backed Sunbird Chloropsis aurifrons
   
Old World Sparrows – Passeridae  
Plain-backed Sparrow Passer flaveolus
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus

Hints of Spring

If there is one thing I have learned since moving to South Korea, it’s that things move very quickly here.  The Koreans call it 빨리 빨리 (balli balli), literally quickly, quickly.  Work begins on a new 4-story apartment building, and three months later the first tenants are moving in.  The weather starts to become colder, and from out of nowhere it does a 180 and you see butterflies in February.

Having just returned from Cambodia, where it was regularly 32°C (89°F), the sudden onset of spring-like weather wasn’t all that sudden to me.  And no, I haven’t forgot to post about Cambodia, I’m just collecting my thoughts and pouring over about 300 photos, so please bear with me.

I start teaching at my new schools next week; another semester is about to begin.  So while I still have time, I decided to check out my local patches to see if anything new had arrived while I was globetrotting in Cambodia.  There weren’t any new migrants (not surprising since it’s still February), but many places were abuzz with bird song and activity.  All of the resident species were fully molted and dressed in their finest.  The overwintering species were nearing completion of their molt, and preparing to leave Korea behind and make the long trip to their northern breeding grounds.  Waterfowl had begun to amass on the Yeongsangang River, comprised mostly of gadwall, common mergansers, Eurasian teal, and the first of the falcated ducks.

A distant photo of a pair of Falcated Duck (Anas falcata)

Male Gadwall (Anas strepera)

At the Gakhwa reservoir this morning, many of the resident species were stretching their vocal cords and beginning to sing; some were even hard at work building nests, as was clear by a female white-backed woodpecker excavating a cavity in a tall dead tree near the reservoir.  I also saw a pair of long-tailed tits carrying materials into the thickets, likely to a well-concealed nest site.  I’ve posted some of the best photos from the past week below; more are available at my at my website.

Juvenile Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudacutus magnus)

Varied Tit (Poecile varius varius)