Plans were set with the aim of logging 150 species in 24-hours as part of our fund-raising Birdathon, with the vast majority of our target species either complete or partial migrants to the Korean Peninsula. Scroll to the end of the post to see whether or not we reached our target!
First, some background.
The demands of research meant that Birdathon team member Mr. Ha Jung-Mun could not join; and most other Birds Koreans seemed intent on doing their own mini-Birdathons elsewhere (wonderful!) or were also too busy with formal bird research projects. Fortunately, Mr Jason Loghry (JL), Ms. Choi Su-Yeon (AC) (a former intern at the EAAFP office in Incheon and one of our newest members) and NM were available and ready to go! As this was AC’s first birdathon, we made the decision that to list the species it needed to be heard or seen by both NM and JL (and where possible by AC), with AC also taking on the really helpful role of scribe (a role that was performed wonderfully).
Our small team also needed to decide where to go: after all, this is an excellent time to be birding in the ROK, and 140+ species have been found within 24-hours in several places in early May. Our top choice was Baekryeong Island (exciting birding and lowest carbon footprint), but with no ferry tickets available, we instead settled on the somewhat blighted city of Gunsan instead as our main focus. Although less glorious than a decade ago, Gunsan City and adjacent areas still contain a combination of all of the ROK’s five main habitats: Open grassland-type habitat, now covering probably 20,000ha in the vast and wasted Saemangeum reclamation area; Forest (at Oh-Seong and other relict patches); Freshwater Wetland (in the Geum River and associated “eco-parks”): Intertidal Wetland (especially the tidal-flats downstream of the Geum Estuary barrage and across the river in the internationally-important Seocheon tidal-flats); and Marine Habitats (with open sea, between the mainland and offshore islands). Gunsan City also contains Eocheong Island: rather spoiled compared with a decade ago but still offering some of the best land-bird birding anywhere in East Asia during northward migration.
A small part of the vast Saemangeum reclamation area, looking from the north side towards the Gunsan airports (May 1st 2015), where huge flocks of shorebirds once staged. Now good habitat for Far Eastern Skylark and Korean Water Deer © Nial Moores
Team Leader Dr. Nial Moores discussing logistics and best strategy for Birdathon 2015 © Jason Loghry
All things considered (work demands, tides, weather forecast), we decided that the best plan would be for JL and NM to recce a couple of possible sites on the morning of May 1st, and start Birdathon proper in Jeonju (45km from Gunsan) at about midday on the 2nd. This would allow us to look for mainland-breeding species, shorebirds at high tide in Gunsan at 2PM, and visit several patches of woodland, all before catching the ferry to Eocheong at 0730 on May 2nd where we could finish in time for lunch…A fine plan indeed.
All started reasonably well on the 1st – at least for the first hour. After a dawn filled with lark song and the partridge like gurring of some Garganey, we then managed to miss a turning to one of our recce sites, and instead found a stretch of road covered in smashed-up car, with a long screw puncturing the outer part of one of our tires. A quick call to the car insurance company and 45 minutes later we were fit to go. By that time, however, dense fog had formed along the Geum River. Unable to see the river (let alone any birds on it), we instead headed to the ferry terminal to pick up advance tickets to save precious time on the 2nd. There we learned that following the terrible Sewol Ferry sinking last year, advance ferry tickets are no longer an option. And the fog was so dense, there was no guarantee that the Eocheong ferry would even run on the 2nd. After a long morning with rather more failure than success, we headed (a little heavy-eyed and -hearted) to Jeonju to meet up with a smiling AC, and already two hours behind schedule continued toward the river where we might (or might not) soon start our Birdathon.
The first stop was disappointing, but the fog and mist seemed to be lifting. On towards Wanju, and just before 3PM we found a different stretch with a great mix of ducks (including 20+ Falcated Duck, a Tufted Duck and a Greater Scaup), and within minutes we had also seen a fly-by Eurasian Hoopoe and Eurasian Hobby. Five minutes later, a different stretch held a couple of Long-billed Plover, Common Snipe and more duck, including several Mandarin Duck…If the Birdathon was going to happen, it had to be now.
At 15:20, we started the first test run: eleven species in view. Another five minutes, another quick stop and another five species. The birdathon was on! By 16:00, we were at 29 species, including a great mix of late winterers (several Northern Shoveler being the least expected) and rather more spring migrants, including e.g. Little Ringed Plover and Wood Sandpiper. The drive back towards Gunsan added a few more widespread species (including Brown-eared Bulbul and Eurasian Kestrel) and confirmed that the fog had indeed lifted: at least for the afternoon. Although we reached the tidal-flat three hours after high-tide (with its lost promise of high-tide roosts and easy shorebirding) our first stop at Shellfish harbor in Seocheon County still added another dozen species, including small flocks of Great Knot, a welcome cluster of Ruddy Turnstone and both Eurasian and Far Eastern Curlews. On to the Geum barrage, and a few gulls, two more ducks (Common Shelduck and Common Pochard), a Black-faced Spoonbill (at 17:49) and a few more shorebirds: Far Eastern Oystercatcher, Common and Spotted Redshanks (latter both in full non-breeding and near full black breeding plumage) and Mongolian Plover (but no Pacific Golden or Kentish Plovers). Where to next? Upriver to look for species like Large-billed Crow and Chinese Penduline Tit found during the morning recce? Or south towards Saemangeum? With the sun already dipping low we headed for Saemangeum, quickly adding singing Far Eastern Skylark and Far Eastern Cisticola (at 17:44) and then onto the Saemangeum seawall – one of the most environmentally-destructive structures anywhere in Korea (or East Asia). Stopping at Sinsi Do (once an island, now a patch of real estate absorbed by the seawall) we quickly added a dozen more species (including Oriental Dollarbird, Japanese and Korean Bush Warblers and Chestnut Bunting) before checking a now-overgrown island out in the “Saemangeum Sea”. Although we could not find any Great Cormorant, small numbers of shorebirds included nesting Far Eastern Oystercatcher, and at 19:30 a Kentish Plover – a white dot running against grey sand in brown waters under a dusk-toned sky. Almost finished for the day, we listened unsuccessfully at several spots for night birds. Persisting, on a small farm-road by a reservoir an odd sound revealed a larger dark silhouette with ears perched atop a utility pole: Eurasian Eagle-owl. The same minute we heard our first Pin-tailed Snipe, and soon after (at 20:47) added Striated Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron, our last species of the day.
May 2nd started early, with one or two singing Oriental Scops Owl outside of the motel room at 02:05. Two hours later, we met up once more and drove to Oh-Seong near the Geum barrage. Here the end of night was celebrated with a Grey Nightjar, one or more mournful White’s Thrushes and a Northern Boobook. For the next thirty minutes we enjoyed an increasingly vibrant dawn chorus under a fog-free sky: si-si-sithering Asian Stubtail, Eastern Crowned Warbler, singing Pale and Grey-backed Thrushes, three species of woodpecker (Japanese Pygmy, Grey-headed and Greater Spotted) and several Common Kingfisher in active chase-flights: our hundredth species since 15:00hrs on May 1st. Needing to be at the ferry terminal at least 30 minutes before departure, we had to leave the forest at 0600AM, first adding a White-backed Woodpecker at the “car park”. On past the Geum barrage, where a ten-minute stop added a single Red Knot, and on to the ferry terminal by 0700AM.
With calm seas and good visibility, the ferry left on time, and a pass-by Yubu allowed us to add Great Cormorant and Taimyr Gull – and to see a small gull (quite probably a Saunders’s: there were 40 there on the 4th as well as a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, but no other small gulls…), but just too far to identify with confidence. Expectant of a couple of bonus species (Streaked Shearwater, Ancient Murrelet and Arctic Loon have in the past all proven to be pretty regular from the ferry at this time of year), the rest of the crossing proved frustratingly disappointing: we added no new species between 8:16AM (Temminck’s Cormorant on Yeon Do) and our arrival at Eocheong after 10AM. About five hours remaining and another 35 or so species to log: birding mission impossible?
Dropping bags off at Yangji Siktang Version Two, the first bird we saw properly was an Oriental Pratincole on the main road (at 10:45).
We soon added more expected migrants, including Richard’s Pipit and Black-faced Bunting, and a few Japan-bound species, with probably ten Yellow Bunting, several Narcissus Flycatcher and the first of at least four singing Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (a new species for Eocheong?).
Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina © Nial Moores
Additional species continued at a high rate during the next hour, with good flight views confirming Swinhoe’s Snipe, and a flock of White-throated Needletails at 12:40. Dashing uphill so all three of us could see this species, we inadvertently flushed what both NM and JL immediately identified as a male owstoni Narcissus Flycatcher (strikingly olivey green-backed, with black and greenish ear coverts): a great record, but not recognised as a full taxon by Birds Korea…
The next three hours proved less rewarding. NM heard Siberian Rubythroat, Eurasian Siskin and Radde’s Warbler, and together with AC saw a black-backed thrush from the boardwalk (most likely a Grey Thrush): all before 15:00 and all of which unfortunately avoided the ears and eyes of JL. The species did keep coming: but slowly, and not for all of our team.
Tired, happy to have done what we could, and grateful to the 15 or so people who had (so far!) pledged their support for our team, we ended our Birdathon and birding at 15:30.
With ice-creams and cold beer in hand, we then started going back through the list to check for possible omissions or for ways to maximize our 24 hour species tally. By declaring our Birdathon started at 14:45 (and not 15:20), we could add the Eurasian Hoopoe and Eurasian Hobby earlier seen in Jeonju, giving us a team total of 147. With the addition too of Japanese Wagtail heard by NM (at about 14:50) and (believed) seen by JL and AC (at 15:15), this gives a final team total of 148.
The further addition of Siberian Rubythroat, Eurasian Siskin and Radde’s Warbler (heard on Eocheong between 11:15 and 14:40) also means that NM’s individual total increases to 151, apparently a new national record for species logged in 24 hours in the ROK.
If there had been no fog; if we could have started two hours earlier as intended; if the sea-crossing had been just a little bit better…
Already, minds turn to the next Birdathon. When will the new record be broken? Perhaps during Birdathon 2016? Or even during the coming week?
A full list of species recorded during the 24 hours will be posted separately.