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)


No, this isn’t a post about a possible sequel to the movie 300.  This post is about a momentous occasion in my life, a milestone that has been seven years coming.

Today, I saw my 500th species.

Let’s put that into perspective.  Five hundred birds…  Seven years ago, I probably couldn’t name 500 animals altogether if I tried.  It’s a huge thing for me, and yet even in victory I realize what a drop in the bucket a number like 500 actually is.  There are approximately 10,000 species of bird on Earth; some authorities suggest that number could be more like 12 or even 15,000.  Put against numbers like that, 500 doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  But it is…at least to me.

I was taking a board member of the Gwangju International Center (GIC) on a birding walk along the Yeongsan River.  She is also a member of Birds Korea, and we had met the day before at a fundraiser.  I had been interested in the work Birds Korea was doing, and took the opportunity to introduce myself and express my interest.  I was showing her some of the common species along the river, as there is work being done to bring birding and conservation awareness to Gwangju.  In my experience, the best way to raise awareness about these issues is to show people the natural world that you’re trying to conserve; allow them to appreciate it the way you do, and awareness will take off on its own momentum.

We were getting ready to turn back towards the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge, where we could pick up the #18 bus back to our respective homes.  It was then that I noticed a small falcon hovering in the sky.  I got it in the binoculars and IDed it as a molting Eurasian kestrel, not an uncommon sight along this stretch of the river.  As my companion was watching the bird through the binoculars, I noticed a second falcon to the south.  It surprised me to see two kestrels together, but I didn’t think anything of it.  I got this second bird in the binoculars, but right away something wasn’t right.  Although the skies were slightly overcast, and there was a great deal of contrast between the dark silhouette of the bird against the bright white sky, the facial pattern didn’t correspond to Eurasian kestrel.  I continued to watch, puzzled by what I was seeing.  It looked like a peregrine falcon, but was much too small for that species, which I’ve seen numerous times in the past (including once at this same location several months earlier).  The bird banked to the left, and it was then I got a look at its back: solid blue-grey.  Eurasian kestrel was immediately ruled out, as both males and females have orange backs.  The only two species likely were merlin and Eurasian hobby.  The facial pattern was wrong for merlin, so I was left with Eurasian hobby.  A quick reference to some audio recordings verified the ID.

The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, and just like that the hobby disappeared to the east.  I was never able to get a photo of the bird, but the event is etched in my memory.  Below is an image of a Eurasian hobby – all credit goes to the photographer John A. Thompson.

Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo). © John A. Thompson, The Internet Bird Collection