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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Public Outing at the Yeongsangang

Birding is a passion for me, and like anything one truly cares about, one wants to share it with others.  Our lives are so busy nowadays, and there are so many distractions (*cough* smartphones), that it is all too easy to forget to stop and look around once in awhile.

Therefore I have become increasingly active in the Gwangju community here in Korea.  With the help of a good friend and birder-to-be Maria, I’ve begun a campaign to generate interest and enthusiasm for birds and conservation, and maybe even encourage a few Gwangjuites to join and support Birds Korea.

So how exactly do I generate interest?  Simple: take everyday people outside and show them the world through the eyes of a birder.  Recently I led a public outing along my favorite stretch of the Yeongsangang River on the west end of Gwangju.  The goal was to observe waterfowl which had just arrived from northern breeding grounds.  Since the climate in Gwangju is relatively mild, the Yeongsangang doesn’t freeze over and provides food and shelter for nearly a dozen species of waterfowl throughout the winter.

I was delighted to have an enthusiastic group attend; what’s more, it went beyond my expectations to have such a large group come out…we had twelve participants in total, including two visiting all the way from Seoul!  We had perfect weather, with clear skies and mild temperatures.  While the numbers of waterfowl were still fairly low at this time of year, we did have a decent variety, and I ticked off eight different species of duck before the outing even officially began!  In the end our group tallied just under 30 different species of bird, including excellent views of falcated ducks, Eurasian coots, a friendly and cooperative bull-headed shrike, and four different species of heron.  A full list of the day’s sightings is available here.

Here are few images from the day’s outing.  Thanks to everyone who attended!

The pagoda near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge made the perfect meeting place

Decorative carvings near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge

I answer questions as the outing gets underway

Scanning the river for waterfowl

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)

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.

A River Runs Through It

Gwangju has two rivers that run through the metropolitan area.  The Gwangju River, which runs west to east through the downtown core, has been mostly converted into a canal, with cement lining the shore and two bicycle paths/pedestrian walkways running alongside it.  There is still a bit of natural habitat left, but the river is surrounded by the bustling commercial center of the city, so whatever natural value these areas have is significantly diminished.

To the west of the city, however, runs the Yeongsangang River, which connects the port city of Mokpo to the village of Damyang-gun, a total stretch of approximately 40 kilometers.  It is possible to take a bike tour from Damyang-gun to Mokpo (or vice versa), and if you’re really adventurous you could opt to walk that distance as well.  There are a number of productive spots along the Yeongsan, namely in Dongnim-dong, Deokheung-dong, and Chipyeong-dong.  I typically concentrate my birding efforts to the north, centered on the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge (광신대교) in Dongnim-dong.  To get there, take a #18 bus to the Gwangshindaegyo stop; from my apartment in Duam-dong it takes between 30-50 minutes, depending on traffic.

A view of the Yeongsan River in Dongnim-dong, looking south.

A view of the Yeongsangang River in Dongnim-dong, looking south.

I went to this stretch of river on Sunday, arriving just after 8:30am.  Despite the date on the calendar, there are still wildflowers and butterflies to be found, and the vegetation has only recently begun to dry up and go into hibernation for the coming winter.  Looking over the expanse of scrubland and gently flowing water, I imagine what this place will look like in a couple weeks, once the waterfowl arrive on their migration route.

A quiet pagoda rest stop near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge.

A quiet pagoda rest stop near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge.

The area is mostly left to grow wild, and the scrubby grasses and wildflowers are only mowed sporadically in the fall.  There is no boat traffic on the water, and other than the occasional fisherman along the shore and some construction sites to the north and south, the river is relatively undisturbed.  A paradise this is not, however; careful scrutiny will reveal floating trash and industrial pollution.  But for the most part the river is sufficient to support many species of plants and animals.  In fact, the only Korean water deer I have ever seen was along this stretch of river, so there are wonderful natural treasures there, if you have the patience and desire to find them.

My first encounter today was with a small bull-headed shrike, calling from a low perch in the reeds.  The sun, struggling to reach into the sky and illuminate the world, reflected brilliantly off the condensation on leaves and grasses.  Elsewhere nearby I could hear brown-eared bulbuls and Eurasian magpies.  Oriental turtle-doves roosted on the trees and power lines nearby.  I spent nearly twenty minutes peering through dense grasses to spot several black-faced buntings flitting about under the cover of the vegetation.  For good reason, too, as this area is regularly patrolled by Eurasian kestrels and Eurasian hobbies; both of these predators would put in appearances throughout the day.

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus), one of four that I would find along the Yeongsangang River.

Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Further north, the secretive buntings gave way to wave after wave of olive-sided pipit, a recent arrival in the waning migration season.  These drab birds forage together in small flocks, ranging from just a few individuals to about 20 birds.  Typically they are either well-hidden in the brush, foraging on the ground, or roosting in trees together, where a few lookouts warn the others of danger.  In ones and twos, a total of about a dozen sky larks were also making their way south; these grassland birds were only seen as they flew overhead, and were it not for their distinctive flight call I would have no idea what they were.

The highlight of the outing was discovering not one but eleven Siberian stonechats in some tall reeds near the banks of the river.  I had spotted a single stonechat in this general area about a week or two earlier; now there were so many more.  At one point while I was watching them, seven individual birds were visible perching on various reeds and grasses.  Although they had undergone their molt for the season, the birds were no less beautiful for it.

“Stejneger’s” Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus stejnegeri), the breeding subspecies on the Korean peninsula.

A pair of Siberian Stonechats

The water on the river was high, and aside from three little grebes and a handful of eastern spot-billed ducks and Eurasian teal, there were no large gatherings of waterfowl as I had hoped.  Perhaps it is too early in the season still.  There was very little exposed riverbed, so I was surprised to still find two wood sandpipers hanging around, picking at the mud where they could find it.  White wagtails were more numerous than they had been during the summer months: I found eleven, consisting of two subspecies.  There were also two glorious male Daurian redstarts, relatives of the Siberian stonechats, which had completed their molt and were staking out new territories for the winter months.  I’ve noticed a significant increase in these small birds, as was evidenced by my recent trip to Suncheon-si, where every few hundred meters of walking revealed yet another pair of redstarts.

“Black-backed” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

A juvenile White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus auroreus)

In addition to the abundant (albeit well-hidden) bird life, the lands surrounding the Yeongsan River were also alive with insects.  Grasshoppers of numerous species were everywhere, jumping and flying away with every footstep.  Where there were wildflowers, dwindling numbers of butterflies still hung on.  Only a few species of butterfly are still around at this time of year, including whites and yellows, but also Asian commas and Indian fritillaries.  You can also get lucky and find a passing red admiral or painted lady, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule now.

Female Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius)

Male Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius)

Despite not finding the numbers of waterfowl I was hoping for, the Yeongsangang River never fails to impress.  It’s one of the few places I know of in Gwangju were one can find an expanse of flat land that isn’t concrete or a rice paddy.  When the water is low enough to expose the rocky riverbed, shorebirds and herons abound.  Migrants of all kinds use the plentiful grass seeds and insects to refuel on their way to the wintering grounds.  And the occasional raptors can be found soaring above the river, hoping to surprise their unsuspecting prey.  Whether your interests lie in hiking, biking, birding, or you’re just looking for a change in scenery, time is not wasted in visiting the Yeongsangang River.

500

No, this isn’t a post about a possible sequel to the movie 300.  This post is about a momentous occasion in my life, a milestone that has been seven years coming.

Today, I saw my 500th species.

Let’s put that into perspective.  Five hundred birds…  Seven years ago, I probably couldn’t name 500 animals altogether if I tried.  It’s a huge thing for me, and yet even in victory I realize what a drop in the bucket a number like 500 actually is.  There are approximately 10,000 species of bird on Earth; some authorities suggest that number could be more like 12 or even 15,000.  Put against numbers like that, 500 doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  But it is…at least to me.

I was taking a board member of the Gwangju International Center (GIC) on a birding walk along the Yeongsan River.  She is also a member of Birds Korea, and we had met the day before at a fundraiser.  I had been interested in the work Birds Korea was doing, and took the opportunity to introduce myself and express my interest.  I was showing her some of the common species along the river, as there is work being done to bring birding and conservation awareness to Gwangju.  In my experience, the best way to raise awareness about these issues is to show people the natural world that you’re trying to conserve; allow them to appreciate it the way you do, and awareness will take off on its own momentum.

We were getting ready to turn back towards the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge, where we could pick up the #18 bus back to our respective homes.  It was then that I noticed a small falcon hovering in the sky.  I got it in the binoculars and IDed it as a molting Eurasian kestrel, not an uncommon sight along this stretch of the river.  As my companion was watching the bird through the binoculars, I noticed a second falcon to the south.  It surprised me to see two kestrels together, but I didn’t think anything of it.  I got this second bird in the binoculars, but right away something wasn’t right.  Although the skies were slightly overcast, and there was a great deal of contrast between the dark silhouette of the bird against the bright white sky, the facial pattern didn’t correspond to Eurasian kestrel.  I continued to watch, puzzled by what I was seeing.  It looked like a peregrine falcon, but was much too small for that species, which I’ve seen numerous times in the past (including once at this same location several months earlier).  The bird banked to the left, and it was then I got a look at its back: solid blue-grey.  Eurasian kestrel was immediately ruled out, as both males and females have orange backs.  The only two species likely were merlin and Eurasian hobby.  The facial pattern was wrong for merlin, so I was left with Eurasian hobby.  A quick reference to some audio recordings verified the ID.

The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, and just like that the hobby disappeared to the east.  I was never able to get a photo of the bird, but the event is etched in my memory.  Below is an image of a Eurasian hobby – all credit goes to the photographer John A. Thompson.

Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo). © John A. Thompson, The Internet Bird Collection