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!

Advertisements

Making the Most of It: The Maekdo Eco-Park

During my time in South Korea, I’ve been lucky to meet up with several wonderful birders in the country, both native and foreigner alike.  This is yet another sign of the universal nature of birding: what we can’t communicate through words, we can articulate through our shared love of birds.

This past weekend my birding friend from “Down Under,” Peter Hirst, and I took a two-day birding trip to Busan on the southeastern coast of Korea.  We had high hopes of finding some early migrants and coastal specialties that we’d otherwise miss in Gwangju.  We also had the benefit of full access to Peter’s personal vehicle, which made several excellent birding spots instantly accessible.  Korea’s public transit system is top-notch, but as one would expect, the high-quality birding spots are often “off the beaten path” and not always accessible by bus or taxi.  With a forecast of clear skies and balmy temperatures (19°C over the weekend), we set out at the crack of dawn Saturday morning with high expectations.

Peter Hirst and I birding the Yeongsangang River in Damyang-gun. January 2014

Peter Hirst and I birding the Yeongsangang River in Damyang-gun.
January 2014

Peter is simply a joy to go birding with.  He’s always ready with a story, and tempts my inner Big Lister with tales of amazing sightings from the coastal habitats of New South Wales, Australia.  He’s an eccentric fellow at times, always cracking a joke or two (not always good ones, but I digress).  In fact, we sometimes get so caught up shooting the breeze that we forget to pay attention to the small flitting creatures around us.  But we’ve never had a bad outing together, even when we don’t always find what we were looking for.

It’s a long trip from Gwangju to Busan, but there are many places along the way that are worth checking into.  Unfortunately for us, there is currently an avian influenza scare in Korea, and all of the waterfowl mustering zones are closed off to visitors.  This means that prime locations like Suncheonman Bay and the Junam reservoir are inaccessible until further notice.  I’m not sure how effective this quarantine really is, since the migratory waterfowl only use these places as roosts for the night – every morning they leave to find food elsewhere, thereby spreading whatever microbes they may (though probably are not) carrying.

After being turned back at the Junam reservoir, despite our 3½ hour drive to get there, I gave my friend Jason Loghry a call to see if there was any point in continuing to Busan.  Our primary location was going to be the Nakdonggang River estuary, where Melanie and I had visited last spring.  But if that site was closed as well, where were we to go? Thankfully Jason was birding the Maekdo Eco-Park when I called, and he recommended we check out the site.  It was to be a great piece of advice.

Maekdo Ecological Park, running along the Nakdonggang River.

Maekdo Ecological Park, running along the Nakdonggang River.

Maekdo stretches over a large portion of the mouth of the Nakdonggang River.  It is considered an “eco-park,” a word which has a very different meaning in Korea than it does back in North America.  A Korean “eco-park” what we would call simply a “park;” think Central Park and you’ve got the idea.  Often times the natural habitat of the area is maintained (to varying degrees), but the eco-parks are by no means nature reserves or wildlife refuges.  They are often landscaped, with concrete-lined constructed ponds, and many natural features are altered or “improved” to such lengths that their natural value as an ecosystem is degraded.  That being said, eco-parks can still provide some good birding.  One of my favorite migration birding spots in Gwangju is the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-park, which I have written about often.

Seemingly endless expanses of reeds at Maekdo Eco-park.

Seemingly endless expanses of reeds at Maekdo Eco-park.

When we arrived I was immediately impressed with the level of preservation of habitat.  There were the mandatory parking lots and sports facilities that often accompany eco-parks, but much of the area had been devoted to preserving the riverside vegetation.  We made a quick drive through the length of the eco-park, scoping out the best sections of habitat to begin our search for birds.  We quickly found three pairs of bull-headed shrikes; we were fortunate to follow one pair as they brought materials to the nesting site, catching a glimpse into the private lives of these ubiquitous predators.  Numerous Eurasian kestrels soared above the reed beds, waiting to capture unwary prey from above.

Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
These falcons often hover over an area, and swoop down on any prey they spot.

We were hopeful to find some migrant and overwintering buntings in the expanses of reeds, and through careful searching we were able to find numerous Pallas’s buntings and a single little bunting.  As the sun began to set over the Nakdonggang, we checked out one last small pond.  There we found common pochards, northern shovelers, eastern spot-billed ducks, and a single common shelduck in the middle of a molt.  We also located four Eurasian spoonbills, an unexpected year bird!

Female Pallas’s Bunting (Emberiza pallasi)

Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla)

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia leucorodia)

We finished our first day with a total of just over 30 species.  Our hopes were high that we would track down a few more before heading back to Gwangju.
___________________________________________________________________

Sunrise over the Nakdonggang River

Sunrise over the Nakdonggang River

We were out the door the next morning at 7AM, just as the sun was rising over the Nakdonggang.  We had made out pretty well the day before, but having only arrived at Maekdo in the early afternoon, we had missed the flurry of activity first thing in the morning.  Our early arrival on the second day proved worthwhile, as we were immediately greeted by the sound of dusky thrushes (with a single Naumann’s thrush mixed in) and brown-eared bulbuls.  The first of the Japanese white-eyes had begun singing; we found six of them flitting about the emerging vegetation, and one was already in full song when we arrived.

Very quickly we relocated the Pallas’s buntings from the day before, only this time a resplendent male almost completed with his spring molt was with them.  We also had run-ins with a few more Eurasian kestrels, a common buzzard, and an unidentified accipiter which soared too high for us to identify (my instincts suggest northern goshawk, but it was simply too high to be sure).

Male Pallas’s Bunting (Emberiza pallasi)

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo japonicus)

The biggest surprise of the day came while watching the buzzard later in the morning.  It had been patrolling a stretch of reeds, and when it took to the air again for scan its territory, we heard an eruption of twitters from overhead: it was a flock of about 23 Pacific swifts!  Had they not sent out alarm calls at the approach of the buzzard, we would have completely overlooked them.  Swifts are insectivores, and begin to arrive around the same time as the first insects begin to emerge.  It was a sure sign that spring is well on its way.

Pacific Swift (Apus pacificus pacificus)

Having spent the morning and part of the early afternoon at Maekdo, we decided to check along the Nakdonggang River before returning home.  Maekdo had proved to be a wonderful stop: we finished visit there with a two-day total of nearly 60 species!

We stopped at a pull-off near the eastern shore of the Nakdonggang, adding Eurasian wigeon, red-breasted merganser, and osprey (sighted at nearly 500+ yards out in the river!) to our trip list.  Black-headed gulls flew back and forth along the shoreline, and we witnessed a few pairs of wigeons pairing up and several males fighting with one another.

A pair of Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
The gull is beginning to show the black head for which it is named.

It’s such a pleasure to get out and explore new areas.  Finding a number of year birds (and nabbing Peter a few lifers along the way!) is always an added bonus.  We didn’t get a chance to explore some of the more coastal areas due to the avian influenza precautions, but we certainly made the most of our trip to Maekdo.