Ahh, the birding day-trips. Is there anything better? It is the quintessential birding experience: the thrill of the chase, the near misses, and the warm glow of success when you find the bird you went all that way to find. It doesn’t always happen that way, but when it does, life doesn’t get much better.
If you’re making a trip to Busan and want to do some serious birding, then you have to go to the Nakdong River Estuary at Eulsukdo Island (을숙도 철새공원). Eulsukdo Island is a delta island, positioned right where the Nakdonggang River empties into the South Sea, and hosts a plethora of bird species at all times of year. During the winter it is a haven for waterfowl, spoonbills, and cranes. During migration is a sure thing for shorebirds, herons, rails, and passerines.
Eulsukdo Island is easily accessible by bus and subway. From Hadan Station on Line #1, take Exit 5 to street level. You can grab a bus (#’s 58, 58-1, or 300) and get off at Eulsukdo Rest Stop; alternately you can walk about 10 minutes south along the main drag and get to the island on foot. Like many of South Korea’s natural reserves, there is no entry fee.
Melanie and I arrived at Eulsukdo Island at 9am; we lost a lot of our morning just getting there by subway. With the help of a (very) friendly local and staff member at the preserve, we were directed to the southern portion of the island, where we were told there were more birds and fewer people. As it would happen, with only a few exceptions, most of the people we ran into throughout the day were employees and landscapers for the island. Most of the visitors remained in the northern portion by the Visitor Center, leaving the rest of the island to yours truly.
Melanie went into the administration office to grab some maps and a bottle of water, while I scanned the river for any waterfowl or gulls. Immediately I found my first lifer: about a half dozen little terns were flying back and forth along the river, searching for fish to eat. Accompanying them were about a dozen black-headed gulls and several dozen black-tailed gulls. The water was going out with the tide, so some of the shoreline was exposed. This brought many grey herons to the water line to look for something to eat.
My plan was to walk the perimeter of the island, using the tide to my advantage to search for shorebirds. Then I would walk through the interior of the island watching for any passerines and other migrants. That was the plan anyway. But after walking a short distance, and finding no shorebirds along the rock-strewn shore, we decided to take one of the walking trails into the interior of the island and try our luck.
We came onto a large tidal pond almost immediately. Two common cuckoos were chasing each other back and forth over the pond, calling all the while. They would end up doing this throughout the entire day, and our walk across Eulsukdo Island was made to the serenading coo-coo, coo-coo carried by the breeze. The pond held a small group of ducks, mainly mallards and eastern spot-billed ducks, but a small contingent of greater scaup held a surprise: a male common pochard resting on a sunken log. This striking duck closely resembles the redhead of North America, and I was excited to have the chance to observe it out in the open. Foraging along the edge of the reeds and grasses were several shorebirds, namely common sandpipers and grey-tailed tattlers, but I did find a single common redshank with bright red legs. Even at a distance this bird stood out.
Next to the tidal pond was the Experience Field, a large stretch of flat scrubland with small trees. It appeared that this area was undergoing habitat restoration, but there were a number of small passerines making use of it, primarily long-tailed tits and vinous-throated parrotbills. We did hear a ring-necked pheasant making display calls repeatedly, but he remained hidden in the grasses. The field is bordered on both sides by large expanses of reeds. The reeds grow around the inlets coming in from the river, and the area was a haven for shorebirds and other marsh inhabitants. We found dozens of grey-tailed tattlers and common sandpipers foraging along the shore of these inlets. On a few occasions we even flushed some whimbrels and a common greenshank. The big surprise were three terek sandpipers following a group of grey-tailed tattlers. Many of these birds were lifers for Melanie.
While walking along the reeds, everywhere we heard the songs of oriental reed-warblers, but at no point were we able to actually see one. Too bad, because Melanie doesn’t count a new bird unless she sees it, so this particular bird will have to wait until another time. On the plus side, I picked up a distinct song in one patch of reeds, and with some patience and good eyes managed to find the bird making the call: a black-browed reed-warbler, a passing migrant! I managed to get Melanie on this bird and she saw it as it flew off to a different part of the reed bed…not much of a view, but enough to count it.
It was nearing midday at this point, so we turned back towards the Nakdong Eco-Center to refill our water bottles and take a breather. The facilities at the Eco-Center are top-notch. There are numerous displays highlighting the flora and fauna of Eulsukdo Island, including live displays of several frog and aquatic insect species that are found around the estuary. There are a few diorama-like displays of plastic replica birds and fish in lifelike habitat reconstructions. The second floor has a wide-open observation area overlooking the main tidal pond, with three binocular stations and plenty of places to sit. A small gift shop is also on this level. The floors of the building are connected by wheelchair-accessible ramps; I mention this only because Korea is notorious for the lack of handicapped-accessible facilities.
The grounds around the Eco-Center were well-kept. We stopped for a bit to have a break from the heat of the day. A group of long-tailed tits flitted about from tree to tree, and one of the two common cuckoos that had been circling the island all day stopped near the Eco-Center to call out periodically. There is an impressive gate at the entrance to the Eco-Center, which appears to made out of a large wood carving. A short boardwalk connects the Eco-Center to the access roadway that travels the perimeter of the island.
Our visit to the Nakdong River Estuary had proven to be very fruitful: Melanie walked away with eight lifers, I tallied four. As we walked back to Hadan subway station, we decided to split up and check out some other places we had been meaning to see during our visit to Busan. Next stop for me, Igidae Park.