A Big Day for Charity

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…

A frozen silence greeted me at the entrance of the Eco-Park

A frozen silence greeted me at the entrance of the Eco-Park

…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.

Yellow-throated Bunting (Emberiza elegans elegans)

White’s Thrush (Zoothera aurea toratugumi)
An unexpected but welcome addition to the Big Day list

Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)
These winter finches would prove to be the most abundant bird at the Eco-Park

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.

One of three ornamental ponds at the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica rustica)

Looking over the western side of the Eco-Park as the sun breaks through
Gwangjuho Lake can be seen in the background

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.

Prime bunting habitat along the Yeongsangang
In season, Stejneger’s stonechat and zitting cisticola can also be found here

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.

Chestnut-eared Bunting (Emberiza fucata fucata)
The most abundant bunting along the river, with over a dozen counted

Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala personata)
This is the less common subspecies; it usually shows more yellow with dark streaking on the breast

Pallas’s Reed Bunting (Emberiza pallasi polaris)

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.

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus)

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!

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The 700 Party

Last month I passed another milestone in my obsessive birding career: I spotted my 700th species!  This is by no means a huge number in the grand scheme of things, as there are an estimated 10,150 bird species on Earth, but the average birder (who does not travel extensively) may only see around 350-450 species; the average non-birder may only be aware of seeing a fraction of that number.

To celebrate this achievement, I wanted to throw a big party.  The majority of my friends here in Korea are non-birders, but accept my quirky hobby even if they don’t entirely understand it.  The idea was two-fold: 1) do something that would remind all of us of our homes, and 2) maybe get one or two of them hooked with a well chosen “gateway bird” (patent pending).

The site of the aptly named “700 Party” was easy enough to decide.  We booked The Damyang House, a small house near the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park in Damyang-gun, owned and operated by expat Sean Walker and his wife Jojo.  Enough great things can’t be said about The Damyang House – it’s a little bit of home in rural Korea.  The house has a yard (unheard of in Korea), with a hammock, fire pit (!), wood-burning stove inside, and a top-notch entertainment system.  Sean and Jojo are a dream to work with, as their flexibility and attention to detail go above and beyond what you’d expect for a B&B.  Whether you’re thinking of visiting Damyang and want something more than a “love motel,” or you want that perfect venue for your upcoming event, I highly recommend checking out The Damyang House on AirBNB.

The Damyang House
© Sean Walker

The party started with some birding around Chunghyo-dong and the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.  The place was pretty crowded in the afternoon, but we still had a good time, saw some good birds, and also attracted a small crowd of Koreans to see what the group of foreigners were so fascinated by in the trees.

Birding at the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

Our craning necks and binoculars started to attract attention from the locals.  Here we are observing a pygmy woodpecker, and sharing the moment with some surprisingly excited Koreans, who probably never noticed these small birds before.
© Amanda Serrano

And here is the bird that caused all the fuss:  Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopos kizuki nippon)

Wandering through rice paddies in Chunghyo-dong

As daylight waned, we returned to The Damyang House and started up the barbeque.  I can’t tell you how nice it was to cook on an actual Weber with real charcoal and everything!  Once night fell, we transferred the coals to the fire pit and had ourselves a campfire…marshmallows and all!

Good food, better company…

Two Binch cookies and a roasted marshmallow make for a half decent Korean smore
© Lianne Bronzo

Thanks to our friends for coming out to “the middle of nowhere” to celebrate this geek-tastic occasion, and especially to The Damyang House for providing the perfect venue.

The 7 Hundreds

The 7 Hundreds

Rain & Rice

It’s the rainy season here in South Korea.  This year is being called the dry rainy season; it rains, but not nearly in the quantities that are normal.  Most days are characterized by overcast skies and that hanging feeling – it’s really humid and feels like it will pour at any second, but it doesn’t.

Not the kind of weather you want to go birding in.

I had been antsy the past few weeks.  I hadn’t been getting out much, I hadn’t been photographing much, and I hadn’t birded at all.  So despite those ominous clouds on Saturday morning, Melanie and I headed out to Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park, hoping a change in scenery might do us some good.

The Eco-Park had undergone some “improvements” since my last visit a few months ago.  Several sections had been landscaped and replanted; in usual Korean style, it had been started and finished in a matter of days and there was no trace that anything had been done.

New plantings at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.
This area had previously been an empty meadow just a few weeks ago.

The park held several families of azure-winged magpies.  We saw numerous adults foraging for food to bring to the gaping mouths of their offspring.  One group of four fledglings mobbed their parents whenever one of the adults came in with food.  Even among siblings, competition for food is fierce.

Sibling rivalry
Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyanus koreensis)

An adult Azure-winged Magpie, looking for food in the humid afternoon

There was more evidence of successful breeding throughout the park.  We saw several small groups of juvenile Japanese tits flitting about in the trees.  Near the entrance to the park were two juvenile grey-headed woodpeckers, the likely offspring of the Eco-Park’s resident pair.  These younger woodpeckers lacked most of the adults’ green coloration, appearing overall grey with a hint of green on the tail feathers.  The two juveniles kept in constant contact with each other and the adults by making short whistles.

Juvenile Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus jessoensis)

We continued deeper into the park, finding small numbers of birds in little pockets throughout the area.  A large flock of vinous-throated parrotbills, full of juvenile birds, was the biggest single sighting we had all day.  The flock numbered around 40-50 birds; not an uncommon number for this time of year.  The boardwalk around the northern edge of the park was very quiet, with only a few Japanese tits and passing oriental turtle-doves.

A section of the boardwalk.  There was very little water here, despite the extensive growth of reeds and grasses.

Gwangjuho Lake itself was a shadow of itself.  The water level was down tens of meters, with an exposed lake bed stretching off into the distance.  Most of this muddy, nutrient-rich land had transformed into a field of low vegetation.  Gwangjuho Lake is artificial, serving as a primary reservoir for the surrounding area.  The water is used for drinking and agriculture, and its low level reflects the planting of the first round of rice for the growing season.

At the distant edge of the water we could see grey herons, great egrets, and little egrets taking advantage of the newly exposed mud.  Little ringed plovers, a breeding shorebird in the park, could be heard calling intermittently from across the lake bed.  We even spotted an immature Eurasian hobby patrolling the area, and making a successful grab at an unidentified prey.

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius curonicus)

Hidden in the short vegetation on the lake bed were small damselflies.  It seemed like there were thousands of them, quickly flitting about and disappearing in the greenery.  Larger dragonflies, namely black-tailed skimmers and wandering gliders skimmed across small pools of water.  We found numerous exuviae in the mud, evidence that many of the dragonflies we saw were newly emerged adults.

Dusky Lilysquatter (Paracercion calamorum)

Eastern Lilysquatter (Paracercion melanotum)

We completed our loop around the Eco-Park, scoring a few more species for our efforts.  Black-naped orioles were singing lazily in the humid air.  A family of bull-headed shrikes chased one another around, and juvenile pale thrushes begged for food from a single adult bird.  We took a break from the heat near a grove of metasequoia trees, lounging in the shade as the heat of the day wore on.

The Metasequoia Grove at Gwangjuho Lake

The Metasequoia Grove at Gwangjuho Lake

Dryad (Minois dryas)

On our way out of the Eco-Park, I noticed a small black dragonfly perched on some tall cattails by one of the lily ponds.  It turned out to be a butterfly skimmer, one of my favorite Asian dragonflies.  Also flying around the cattails were two species of damselfly, both identified only by their Latin names.

Butterfly Skimmer (Rhyothemis fuliginosa)

Ceriagrion melanurum

Ceriagrion nipponicum

After spending several hours at the Eco-Park, Melanie and I decided to visit one of the small restaurants across the street from the Park entrance.  We had discovered a small place during our last visit, which makes an excellent pajeon (파전).  Pajeon is a type of pancake, whose main ingredient is green onions.  A good pajeon will have grilled onions, green onions, maybe some peppers, and usually a type of seafood like calamari.  For a mere 8,000W (~$8), we got a huge pajeon and several side dishes (as is Korean custom).

Our half-eaten pajeon with a few side dishes.  This delicious Korean pancake doesn’t last long…

Before heading back home, we decided to stroll around Chunghyo-dong and see the many rice paddies in the area.  The rural area in Chunghyo-dong is much like rural areas anywhere in Korea: rice paddies stretch off into the distance and take up any flat land that is available.  I’ve often thought of Korea as having only three habitats: city, mountain, and rice paddy.

Rice paddies in Chunghyo-dong

However, the monoculture of rice paddies can be deceiving.  Wildlife still manages to keep a tenuous toehold in this environment.  Herons like striated heron, cattle egrets and great egrets make use of the shallow water to catch small fish and crustaceans.  Grey wagtails can be found along the drainage ditches connecting the separate cells of the paddies.  We even discovered four dollarbirds perched high above the rice paddies, scanning the area from a high-voltage power line that straddled the mountain valley.  Insects like dragonflies and damselflies also benefit from the shallow water, using the sheltered paddies to lay their eggs.

The highlight of our walk through the rice paddies was an adult Chinese sparrowhawk.  I’ve seen this species several times before, but always soaring high overhead.  This was the first one that I’ve found perched, and so was able to get a few photos before it flew off.

Chinese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter soloensis)

After spending nearly half the day in Chunghyo-dong, we caught the hourly 187 bus back to Gwangju.  Overall we observed 32 species of bird, 7 species of butterfly, and 10 species of dragonfly and damselfly.  A complete list of the birds seen can be found here and here.

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.