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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Migration in Perspective

April and May mark the peak of the spring migration.  Every year, bird across the globe take to the air and embark on fantastic journeys from their wintering grounds to the breeding grounds.  Often this journey takes them from one hemisphere to another; some species make flights that cover literally tens of thousands of kilometers.

Once this journey is complete, birds have only a few short weeks to breed and raise their young.  Then they repeat the process in reverse, departing their breeding grounds for warmer climates to the south.  This spectacle happens twice every year, but it happens so quickly that if you blink you can miss it.  I make special efforts to get out birding as often as possible during this special time of year.

It would take too many words to describe all the migrants I’ve seen throughout the month of April, so I’ve compiled a short list of some of my favorite experiences over the past month.  So here is the “Cliff’s Notes” version of spring migration in South Korea.

Scaly Thrush (Zoothera dauma toratugumi), often referred to as “White’s Thrush”

Migration in South Korea begins with arrival of the thrushes, at least in terms of the passerine migration. Some species, such as pale thrush and scaly thrush are resident species, but are rarely observed during the winter months.  At this time of year the thrushes become more visible, and more vocal.  Dusky and Naumann’s thrushes, preparing for their return to their northern breeding grounds, congregate in growing numbers before leaving Korea until the autumn.  The forests begin to fill with the haunting melodies of pale thrush and scaly thrush.  More unusual migrants, such as grey-backed thrush and Japanese thrush can put in brief appearances during their flights north.  And as quickly as it began, the thrushes pass through and are not seen again until the fall.

Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Migration starts to pick up with the arrival of the first Old World warblers.  The first arrivals are Japanese bush-warblers and Asian stubtails.  The majority of warblers do not breed in Korea at all, and only make short stop-offs on their way to somewhere else.  This makes the warbler migration very short, but also very exciting.  Old World warblers are not nearly as colorful and visually appealing as their North American cousins, but they do match their relatives when it comes to melodious songs.  In fact, with most Old World warblers, the only way to tell them apart is their song.  Otherwise they all basically look the same.

Japanese Bush-warbler (Horornis diphone cantans)

Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus)

The last passerines to arrive (or pass through) on the Korean peninsula are the Old World flycatchers.  Unlike the tyrant-flycatchers of North America (small, drab, nondescript birds – usually only identifiable by their songs), Old World flycatchers run the gamut of colors.  Residents like Daurian redstart and overwintering species like red-flanked bluetail make way for such exotic-sounding species as Siberian stonechat, Narcissus flycatcher, and Mugimaki flycatcher.  As with many migrants, most of these species are only passing through, and no sooner do they arrive than off they go to their northern breeding grounds.

Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina)


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Birding during migration is all about timing.  A day or two can make all the difference between seeing a migrant species and having to wait a few months until it passes through again.  I’ve had some good fortune with timing this spring, and have been rewarded with adding some fantastic species to my Life List.  On a recent birding trip to the Busan area, my friend Jason Loghry and I spotted a Japanese robin and had a brief encounter with a Sakhalin leaf-warbler, both species scarce migrants to Korea.  We also had the opportunity to see the first of the new generation after locating six fledgling long-tailed tits being fed by adults.

Japanese Robin (Larvivora akahige)

Long-tailed Tit Fledgling (Aegithalos caudacutus magnus)

A long weekend holiday is fast approaching, and Melanie and I have signed up to attend a Birdathon with Birds Korea on Eocheong-do.  This will be my first official Birdathon, and our first visit to this premier birding spot off the western coast of Korea.  Look for my full report on the trip in the next few weeks.