In my years as a birder, I never fail to be surprised at how much serendipity plays a role in your success and failures in the chase. The most carefully planned outings can end in total disaster, while at the same time you can find the rarest bird you can imagine almost as if it was an afterthought. That’s how my Say’s phoebe sighting in Rhode Island, only the fifth record for the entire state, took place. I was returning to a work site after dropping off a co-worker at his truck while I was working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. We were in the middle of planting native shrubs for a habitat restoration at the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. I turned my truck onto a service path on the refuge and within a few moments caught sight of a small passerine hover-gleaning on the dirt path ahead of me. I thought it was either a grey catbird or American robin, both very common on the refuge, but when I finally found my bins in the back seat and got the bird in view, I was shocked to be looking at a Say’s phoebe sitting on a bayberry branch not a kilometer away from the Atlantic Ocean. Here was a bird where its kind had no right to be, but nevertheless I was looking at it. I put out the word on the local RBA (Rare Bird Alert), but unfortunately no one was able to relocate the bird. As it turned out, that wasn’t the only sighting of Say’s phoebe on the East Coast that fall, with birds showing up in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well. Who would have expected that?
So the lesson I’ve learned is always be birding, even when you should be doing anything but birding. You never know what’s around the corner, or in the tree above you, or right at your feet.
It was with this lesson in mind that Melanie and I headed out with a group of fellow English teachers on a make-shift spur-of-the-moment trip to Geumseongsanseong Fortress (금성산성) in the town of Damyang. The fortress was built during the Three Kingdoms Period, sometime in the 13th century. It consists of a stone wall encompassing a large mountain valley; the whole perimeter wall is about 7.5 kilometers around, and takes nearly 5 hours to hike the whole thing. From the U+ Square Terminal (formerly the Gwangju Bus Terminal), take #311 or #303 to Damyang. It’s about a 40-minute bus ride, and will cost around 2,300 won (about $2.50USD) for a round-trip.
A group of us, about a dozen waygooks (the Korean word for “foreigners”), descended onto the Geumseongsanseong Fortress at around 10am under a perfect clear sky. It was a warm day, with temperatures reaching into the mid-20°C – basically a perfect spring morning. We took cabs to the base of Mt. Geumseong, and hiked up the side of a mountain, along trails that hardly deserve the name. This was real hiking! None of those pre-planned paved or gravel pathways with rope handrails or retaining walls. These trails had been walked on for centuries, and they hugged the edge of cliffs and valley walls with nothing more than gravity holding you to the ground. In a word, the hike up to the summit was intense!
The real enjoyment of hiking in Korea is the hope that you will stumble onto a Buddhist temple or shrine, or come across a forgotten burial mound or grave marker. These signs of ancient Korean society are literally strewn over the landscape. There are mountains only a few minutes from our apartment in Gwangju where you can walk for fifteen minutes and come across a grave marker holding position idly next to the trail, or enter a clearing dominated by several burial mounds that have been there longer than Europeans have been in North America. One such temple could be found along on our ascent to the summit, but we chose not to take that detour on this trip.
After what seemed like a never-ending vertical ascent, we came to a vast expanse, and discovered that we had reached the entrance to Geumseongsanseong. The entrance is guarded by what appears to be a guardhouse or observation platform (remember, this was a fortress once). A second observation platform sits to the east, overlooking the valley below. From the height of the mountain, we could see the entirety of Damyang below us, and just on the horizon the peak of Mt. Mudeung on the edge of Gwangju to the south. What a sight it must have been to be on guard at this fortress, overlooking a mountain valley untouched by human hands.
From this position, the wall of the fortress went in both directions, following the rise and fall of the peaks. It was easy to see the strategic advantage this fortress must have served: the valley walls were so steep, any invading army would be like shooting fish in a barrel from the safety of the fortress walls. Our group enjoyed a brief respite from the arduous climb, then followed the wall towards the west.
It was slow going over most of the hike, due mainly to the uneven walking conditions and amazing scenery that demanded closer inspection. The hiking trail operated in two directions, so people were walking towards us as we continued along. Normally this wasn’t a problem, but on some of the ascents things got a bit, shall we say interesting. This is a must-do hike, but be sure to come prepared. Sturdy shoes and plenty of water are a must. While the hiking was tremendous, I was disappointed by the lack of wildlife. A few Siberian chipmunks were around, but very little in the way of bird life, with the exception of a few great tits and marsh tits.
Our group made it about halfway around the fortress wall when Melanie and I decided to head back. We had not brought much food, and Melanie was starting to get tired. A few others felt the same way, so as the main group headed on to continue the hike, four of us stayed behind to rest up and meet them again at the entrance.
My group stayed near a sharp spire of rock jutting out from a mountain peak. There was some shade and a beautiful view, so we stayed there for awhile talking and resting in the cool shade. It was during this relaxing period that I noticed a distant bird riding the thermals over the mountains. Some observation through the binoculars finally revealed the bird to be an adult golden eagle! I was able to watch it for a few more minutes, circling lazily in the sky, before folding its wings and plunging hundreds of meters down into the mountain valley below.
Shortly afterwards I heard some flight calls from the south. A flock of small birds flew past the peak, and though I was able to see them through the binoculars, I was unable to identify them. I was left with the guess that they were some kind of finch, but I was less than certain. We stayed at our resting place for another twenty minutes. I was getting a bit restless when I heard the flight calls again. I looked up to the rock edifice above me and found a small bird at the edge of the rock, singing away. I looked at it, but the sun was behind it, and all I could see was a silhouette. I left the group and headed up the trail, hoping to get a chance to see it from the other side. I turned the corner of the trail and flushed eight birds, which all gave an identical call as they scattered.
Seeing two of the birds climbing a near-vertical rock face, I quickly identified them as alpine accentors. I grabbed a couple quick photos before the flock took to the air again and disappeared. These birds are uncommon residents in South Korea, making their homes on bare mountains with low vegetation. They can usually be found at heights above 2,000m.
After this encounter, my group began our return trip back to the entrance of the fortress. As we descended, the birds became more abundant. The marsh tits were still singing periodically, and as we reached the guardhouses at the entrance, I found two Eurasian nuthatches foraging on the trees.
There was a side trail behind one of the guardhouses, and in the bamboo around there I located several brown-eared bulbuls and a Eurasian magpie. Further down the trail I heard and saw two large-billed crows flying overhead, and flushed two Eurasian jays from foraging near a stream bed. The stream led down into the mountain valley at the center of the valley, where a small farm house and rice paddy rested at the center. Around this area were numerous yellow-throated buntings and oriental turtle-doves. I was also able to locate a singing varied tit and a lone male hawfinch resting in a tree. It seemed as though all the birds had been hiding here in the valley the whole time.
Alas, it was getting late and I had to return to my group so we could meet up with the rest of our fellow hikers. We met them on the descent from the entrance to the fortress, and the remainder of the hike went by relatively uneventfully, with the exception of a single pygmy woodpecker working a fallen tree near the path.
The hiking around Geumseongsanseong Fortress is worth the bus ride, and the scenery is some of the nicest I’ve seen to date in South Korea. This site is definitely on the list for a return visit someday soon.