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)

Advertisements

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.

Drawing to a Close

In only a few short days, 2013 will come to an end and a New Year will begin.  I spent the second to last week of the year in a fog, fighting a nagging cold that wouldn’t quit.  I spent Christmas Day on Skype, talking with family on the other side of the world.  Sometimes it’s surreal how the time difference between the east coast of North America and South Korea can seem like time travel – it’s Christmas morning for us while I talk to my parents and nephews who are preparing for bedtime on Christmas Eve…how can it be today and yesterday at the same time?

I managed to recover from my cold enough to spend part of the last weekend of 2013 at the Gakhwa reservoir.  It seems fitting, since this was the first place I went to when we arrived in Gwangju all those months ago; where else would I spend the last days of the year?

Gakhwa Reservoir, just starting to freeze over.

Gakhwa Reservoir, just starting to freeze over.

It had snowed overnight on Saturday, and was still snowing a bit Sunday morning.  Snow is ephemeral here; it arrives and disappears within the same day, so one must take advantage of it while it lasts.  In the mountains surrounding the reservoir, the snow was still coming down in light flakes.  It was beautiful to see the mountains under a fresh layer of snow.

CAM00686

CAM00687

In addition to the regular residents like Japanese tit, pygmy woodpecker, Daurian redstart, and brown-eared bulbul, I came across several winter visitors like four red-flanked bluetails, a common buzzard soaring high over the valleys, and two goldcrests (Lifer #609).  The goldcrests resemble golden-crowned kinglets, and were found in a large mixed-species foraging flock along one of the mountain trails.  Check out the complete species list.

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Sinosuthora webbiana fulvicauda)

Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanura)

The few hours I spent at the reservoir produced some great birds.  Despite having traveled over the trails around these mountains for nearly a year now, I am still surprised with new species that I had never seen here before.  It is truly one of the wonders and thrills of birding to continually see old favorite sites with new eyes.

Snippets of Winter

Winter is a time when things begin to slow down.  The days are very short; I often leave for work and the sun is barely above the horizon; I return home only to discover the sun hovering just over the other horizon…an entire day passes in just a few hours.

With daylight at a premium, even an hour spent outside can reveal a great deal of activity, as the animals hardy enough to survive winter manically scramble to find food while the light prevails.  There is good birding to be had in winter, and activity can occur at any time of day.

I recently spent a few hours at the Gakhwa reservoir, a small body of water a short walk from my apartment in Duam-dong.  The reservoir is a gateway to a mountain chain running the length of the eastern side of Gwangju.  Numerous trails crisscross the mountains, and I have “adopted” this area as my “local patch,” where I do most of my birding in the city.

The Gakhwa Reservoir in Gakhwa-dong

The Gakhwa Reservoir in Gakhwa-dong

The mountains are mostly devoid of plants now, the trees losing their leaves and the ground vegetation drying up and disappearing.  Grasses and other seed-producing plants provide the bulk of food for birds now, and many of the resident species spend all of the daylight hours searching for food amidst the thickets.  Stumble onto a foraging flock, and you can easily spot multiple species all feeding together.

The species present were the typical residents I find here year-round, including Japanese tits, marsh tits, coal tits, long-tailed tit, and brown-eared bulbul.  Some highlights included a stunning male Daurian redstart, a grey wagtail, eleven little grebes on the reservoir itself (a new high count for that species at this location), and an unexpected common kingfisher patrolling the northern shore of the reservoir.  I always thought this site would make a good location for kingfishers, but this is the first one I’ve found after all the time I’ve spent birding here.  The full eBird list is available here.

It was a pleasant (and surprisingly warm) afternoon, and it gave me some time to photograph the common species that birders often take for granted because they are so common.  I’ve posted some of my favorite shots below.

Japanese Tit (Parus minor minor)

Marsh Tit (Poecile palustris hellmayri)

A male Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus auroreus)