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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.