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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Past, Present & Future

The past few weeks have seen me in a state of constant change.  In a mere 14 days, I traveled nearly 14,000 miles and crisscrossed half the globe.  I experienced a 26-hour day, and skipped another one entirely.  So, as the title of this post suggests, I’ll fill you in on the past two weeks, what’s going on right now, and what’s in the books for the near future.

PAST

January began my winter vacation.  After completing the semester and saying farewell to my students, I packed my bags and hopped a flight from Seoul to my hometown in Pennsylvania.  It was here that, due to the extreme time difference and the International Date Line, I had the enjoyable experience of living Saturday, January 18, twice.  I left Seoul at 6:15pm local time, and arrived in Philadelphia a mere three hours later, or so the clock said.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently: 26 hours of travel is just wrong.

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains

The prodigal son had returned.  It was an adjustment returning to life in North America, even if for only a short time.  And I don’t mean just getting over the jetlag.  There’s no way around it: daily life and culture in Asia are different than in North America, and I had gotten used to doing things the Asian way.  So I had to un-teach myself to bow to everyone I meet.  I didn’t have to give and receive everything with two hands anymore.  Probably the biggest adjustment was suddenly being able to understand everything I heard on TV and in the streets.  After a year in Korea, hearing English outside of my own apartment was such a rare occurrence that suddenly being inundated with it was sensory overload!  How I had gotten used to the quiet.

It was great to see friends and family again.  I could play with my nephews, read them bedtime stories, go out to lunch or dinner with friends who I hadn’t seen in forever.  And this says nothing about the food!  Oh, to have real cheese again!  Burgers and fries, pizza with no corn or potato wedges on it, and my mom’s lasagna…I’m still amazed I didn’t gain 20lbs while I was there.  The only regret I have is that there simply wasn’t enough time to see everyone and do everything I wanted to.  Two weeks can fly by when you’re not looking.

Turkey club with a side of poutine at the Elgin Street Diner in downtown Ottawa

Turkey club with a side of poutine at the Elgin Street Diner in downtown Ottawa

Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario

Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario

I managed to sneak away for short periods and reacquaint myself with North America’s avifauna.  In Ottawa, I spent a morning with one of my old birding friends and we were able to scour the area for snowy owls…I couldn’t miss the chance to see these magnificent birds while I was back in Ottawa, especially with the irruption year still going on.  While visiting my sister in Rochester, I managed to get my first photos of white-winged scoter, a diving duck that is usually found only over deeper water a distance from shore.  Although it wasn’t the purpose of the trip, I managed to tick off nearly 40 species for my year list, and I was just shy of my January 125 Species Challenge, ending the month with 122 species.

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula bucephala) & Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)
Irondequoit Bay, Irondequoit, New York

Female White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi)
Irondequoit Bay, Irondequoit, New York

Female Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)Gloucester, Ontario

Female Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Gloucester, Ontario

PRESENT

I no sooner acclimatized myself to my old way of life, then it was time to return to Korea for another year.  Another long, long flight awaited me, and this time I almost completely skipped Sunday, February 2.  I had a few days to recover from the jetlag (again), and it was back to school for another week before graduation.  This is a bittersweet time: due to budget cutbacks, I will not be returning to my current middle school, but will instead take on two new middle schools as a native English teacher.  The Office of Education will not be hiring any new native teachers this year, so those of us that remain in Gwangju must be spaced out to fill the vacancies.  Melanie will be staying at her current school, and will take on my position at my school as well.  So come March, I will have to new students and new schools to get to know.

I’ve made efforts to get out as much as I can.  The weather in Korea is not nearly as cold as it was in North America, and the birds are still out and about, if you have the patience to look for them.  I’m quickly running out of year birds now, waiting impatiently for the spring migration to begin in late March.  Until then, I’m trying to focus on photographing as many of the common resident species as I can, before the arrival of the summer breeders diverts my attention.

Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha)
Yeongsan River, Gwangju, South Korea

Male Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
Yeongsan River, Gwangju, South Korea

“Chinese” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis)
Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park, Gwangju, South Korea

Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica rustica)
Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park, Gwangju, South Korea

FUTURE

When Melanie and I decided to re-sign our contracts and stay in South Korea for another year, we were entitled to a one-week paid leave as a bonus for doing so.  We’ve decided to go to Cambodia for this vacation, hoping to soak up some sunlight and warmer temperatures before the new semester begins in March.  I haven’t made any reservations with a birding guide for this trip, but I’m still hoping to add “a few” lifers while we’re there.  Stay tuned for a complete summary of the trip when we return at the end of the month.

Changing of the Seasons

It was time again to visit Gwangjuho Lake.  The leaves have finally begun to change color, and the transition from autumn into winter is happening really fast.  I woke up just before sunrise to discover the temperature had fallen to nearly 0­­ºC, which isn’t particularly cold except when just a week earlier it was around 13ºC at night.  And here I was wondering when autumn actually arrives in Korea.

I’ve been expecting waterfowl to arrive any day now, so I thought I would spend Saturday morning at the largest body of water (other than the Yeongsan River) that I knew of in Gwangju.  I had hoped to catch an early bus for Chunghyo-dong, but I ended up missing it by a few minutes, so I arrived around 8am.  However, the sun rises much later at this time of year, and Gwangjuho Lake is surrounded by mountains, so my timing was spot on.  The sun had just cleared the mountains and quickly melted the thin layer of frost that covered everything.  Only those places hidden in shadow maintained a frosty covering.

Sunrise at Gwangjuho Lake.

Sunrise at Gwangjuho Lake.

The birds were active at this early hour, but the low temperatures made them a little sluggish.  A female bull-headed shrike, my first observation upon arriving, scanned the area.  She seemed like she was waiting for her morning cup of coffee, and she allowed me to approach closely to her high perch without so much as a nod in my direction.  Below, her attention was focused on a large flock of at least fifty vinous-throated parrotbills, moving in waves through dried vegetation surrounding a small pond.  Not that long ago I was photographing dragonflies at this location, and now everything was wilted and dried.  The difference a few months can make…

Female Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Sinosuthora webbiana fulvicauda)

Further along in the more wooded section, I found a gathering of woodpeckers: pygmy woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, and grey-faced woodpecker, were all foraging together.  I tried desperately to get a shot of the great spotted woodpecker, but he proved to be camera-shy.  I “settled” instead for a beautiful portrait of the female grey-headed woodpecker.

Female Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus jessoensis)

I approached the shore of Gwangjuho Lake to find that the water level had been drawn down since my last visit here.  The shore was exposed for about ten meters, and dozens of white wagtails foraged and flitted about on the mud.  Scanning through the flock, which contained mostly juvenile first-year birds, I found several adult birds comprising three different subspecies.  It was my first opportunity to photograph the “Chinese” subspecies leucopsis, and it was a lot of fun picking through the birds and identifying the different subspecies.  My scanning also revealed a single Japanese wagtail in with the group.  A single grey wagtail was also present, and I ended up flushing two separate groups of American pipits of the japonicus subspecies while walking the rocky shoreline.  Out on the water there were smatterings of Eurasian teal and mallards, a small group of tufted ducks, a single common goldeneye, and five little grebes.  I left just as a Eurasian sparrowhawk flew overhead, sending all the smaller passerines into the air.

“Chinese” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis)

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis poggei)

The last place I wanted to check was the rock garden on the western side of the Eco-Park.  There are several pagodas which are perfect of an afternoon picnic.  This portion of the Eco-Park is a little more “planned” than the eastern side and along the edge of the lake, so I usually don’t go to the western side.  But the lighting was perfect and the birds cooperative, so I thought I might as well check it out before the place became too crowded.

Overlooking the western side of Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park.

Overlooking the western side of Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park.

I found several Eurasian magpies searching for food on the lawns, and two large-billed crows, the first of this species I’ve seen at this location, were calling continuously from just beyond the Eco-Park boundary.  Hidden in the tall grasses along the edge of the maintained rock garden, dozens of yellow-throated buntings chipped from hidden places.  These small sparrows, though brightly colored, have an incredible knack of remaining unseen in thick vegetation.  A little patience led to getting better looks at them as they ventured to the tops of the low shrubs to forage.  A male bull-headed shrike patrolled the area, but he was uninterested in the buntings, who were equally uninterested in him.  Among all the yellow-throated buntings I found two rustic buntings, newly arrived from their northern breeding grounds.  Though lacking the brighter colors of their breeding plumage, these birds were still handsomely dressed.

Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica sericea)
These birds, though exceedingly common, are nevertheless quite eye-catching.

Yellow-throated Bunting (Emberiza elegans elegans)

Although the Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park is one of the harder birding sites to get to in Gwangju, especially without a car, it’s also one of the best.  Any time of year can produce surprising and unexpected species, and the tranquil lakeside reminds me of some of my favorite sites from Ontario.

See a full eBird listing of all the species seen throughout the day here.