Voyage to Imja-do

Lonely Korea was offering a day-trip to Imja-do (임자도), site of the annual Shinan Tulip Festival (신안 튤립축제), now in its sixth year.  Imja-do is known as the tulip capital of Korea, and as this was the last day of the festival, we decided we couldn’t miss it.  The trip was only 58,000 won a piece, and included transportation, entry fees, and a barbeque dinner on a private beach on the island.  Could you pass that up?

We met early Sunday morning at the U+ Square Terminal in Gwangju.  There were nine travelers altogether, all of us English teachers, and our trusty guide Pedro Kim.  We hopped on board a large van and left Gwangju by 8am, early enough to avoid any traffic snarls along the way.  It took about an hour to get to the ferry in Sinan-gun, and the ride was pleasant enough.  The forecast for the day was sunny skies and temperatures around 22°C (71°F), with a mild but steady breeze coming from the south.  Not the most ideal conditions for birding during spring migration, but I had high hopes of finding a few interesting birds on the shores of Imja-do.

The island of Imja-do.  The dotted line shows our path across the island to Daegwang Beach and the Shinan Tulip Festival, and also the route to a private beach on the southern shore.

The island of Imja-do.  The dotted line shows our path across the island to Daegwang Beach and the Shinan Tulip Festival, and also the route to a private beach on the southern shore.

Islands are terrific migrant traps, especially small islands far offshore from the mainland.  Migrants flying over the oceans will often stop at the first spot of land they come to, where they will refuel and rest before continuing their journey.  This is especially true during bad weather and storms, where birds will literally fall out of the sky until the storms pass.  A strong head wind will also force many species to land wherever they can – in the spring birders watch for storm fronts and strong winds from the north, which will hamper bird movements northward and cause the mythical “fallouts” that so many birders dream about.  A continuous wind from the south, however, aids the migration, and with clear skies for the whole day, many birds will take advantage of the weather and continue their flight north uninterrupted.

We arrived at the ferry for about 9:30am, early enough to get on the ferry with little delay.  Within minutes we left the dock and made the ten-minute passage to Imja-do.  There was only a little activity on the waters, since the tide was out and the water relatively shallow.  Black-tailed gulls flew back and forth over the water, and there were a few barn swallows near the ferry dock itself.  During our passage I noticed two grey herons flying low over the water towards one of the many small islands along the way.  We were halfway through the crossing when I noticed my first lifer for the day: two Eurasian oystercatchers foraging close to the water on a small rocky island.  The Eurasian oystercatchers closely resemble American oystercatchers, which I am more familiar with, but have black backs as opposed to the brownish backs of American oystercatchers, and a broad white stripe running up the back, which is only visible in flight.  A close-up view will show a red eye, whereas American oystercatchers have yellow eyes.  The birds were too far away to photograph, but I had hoped to find this species on the trip, so I was already grateful that we decided to come.

Upon reaching the other side, we drove across the island to Daegwang Beach and the Tulip Festival grounds.  The island is sparsely populated, with only a few settlements dotted around the landscape.  Farming and fishing support the local economy, and Imja-do is a main supplier of Korea’s salted shrimp.  Since the tide was out, many of the inlets around the island were reduced to vast stretches of mud, but I did not notice much in the way of bird life on these mudflats.

As we arrived at the entrance to the Festival, the wide expanse of the Yellow Sea greeted us.  Colorful flags whipped in the breeze along a causeway leading to the Festival grounds.  And everywhere there were flowers.  Mostly tulips, in every color imaginable, but also pansies and peonies, interspersed with native wildflowers.  The place was alive with color.

Multi-colored flags line the entrance to the Shinan Tulip Festival at Imja-do.

Multi-colored flags line the entrance to the Shinan Tulip Festival at Imja-do.

One of dozens of tulip beds at the Shinan Tulip Festival in Imja-do.

One of dozens of tulip beds at the Shinan Tulip Festival in Imja-do.

A single black tulip hidden in a sea of color.

A single black tulip hidden in a sea of color.

In addition to the wonderful floral displays, the Festival had live music, with a Korean man playing saxophone renditions of everything from the Beach Boys to Britney Spears…certainly a unique soundtrack to wander the Festival by.  There was a small loop where kids could ride horses, and a large observation deck overlooked the whole area.  But the sweet siren song of an endless expanse of empty beach at low tide was too powerful to ignore, and after enjoying the wonderful fragrance of tulips, I just had to move on to Daegwang Beach and see what I could find.

Daegwang Beach at Imja-do, looking out onto the Yellow Sea.

Daegwang Beach at Imja-do, looking out onto the Yellow Sea.

Daegwang Beach is known as the longest beach in South Korea.  It takes about 3 hours to walk the entire length of it, and the sand grain is so fine a car can drive on it at over 100km/h (~65mph).  When I got to the beach, there were only a few other people in sight in either direction.  I started heading north, following the stretch of beach towards a small rocky outcropping.  It wasn’t long before I heard the pipping of shorebirds, and a quick scan of the beach in front of me revealed several Kentish plovers mulling about in the sand.  A few meters away there was a single little ringed plover, the only one of that species I would find here.  The Kentish plovers reminded me of piping plovers from the Atlantic coast.  Being a fan of shorebirds in general, I thought the Kentish plovers were quite striking, in their own way.

One of the nominate Kentish Plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus alexandrinus) on Daegwang Beach at Imja-do.

I would periodically run into small groups of Kentish plovers as I continued down the beach, finding about a dozen altogether, but otherwise there was little activity on the beach.  Although the tide was low, there was little mud or detritus on the sand, and thus I think there was little food to be found for foraging shorebirds.  A few black-tailed gulls were here and there, standing near the surf or gliding over the water.  I came to a large rocky cliff jutting out onto the beach, and beyond that there were several rows of fishing nets set up below the high tide mark.  With the water out the nets were exposed, but when the tide came back in, the nets would be submerged again.  The locals on Imja-do typically harvest their nets twice a day in this manner.

In the distance near the waterline, I saw the outline of about thirty large shorebirds, which appeared to me to be either a species of godwit or curlew.  They were too far away to clearly identify, so the only thing I could do was to get a closer look.  I walked toward the flock, finally getting close enough to identify them as whimbrels.  Whimbrels are a global species, occurring on almost every continent.  However, there are several recognized subspecies, and these whimbrels were clearly different than the North American ones I was used to.  When the birds would fly, I could make out a broad white stripe running from the tail up to about the shoulder.  The bills were also a bit longer and more decurved than North American whimbrels.  I was able to get quite a few good looks at the birds before they eventually flew off down the beach and disappeared.

A “Siberian” Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus variegatus), showing the white stripe characteristic of this subspecies.

The flock of whimbrels takes to the air at Daegwang Beach in Imja-do.

It was getting near lunch time, so I returned to the Festival entrance and met up with my travel group.  We got back into the van and headed off to the southern part of the island, to a private beach off the beaten track.  We were going to have a barbecue on the beach and enjoy the sun for awhile before returning to Gwangju.  We made a brief stop at a local grocery store for some supplies; there I found three red-rumped swallows flying over the parking lot.  It never ceases to amaze me where I find some of my lifers – two years ago I found my first great-tailed grackles and Brewer’s blackbirds in the parking lot of the Excalibur Casino in Las Vegas.  There I was photographing two birds picking at a bagel in a casino parking lot on the Las Vegas Strip…you can imagine there were a few raised eyebrows that time.

One of three nominate Red-rumped Swallows (Cecropis daurica daurica) at a grocery store in Imja-do.  This bird was building a nest under a nearby house awning.

Taking a small one-lane road into the mountains, we drove along the southern edge of the island to the private beach.  Turning a corner on a mountain pass, there were five cattle egrets roosting in a tree by the ocean.  I asked Pedro to stop the van, and everyone got a great view of these colorful egrets before continuing to the beach.

An “Asian” Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis coromandus) near the ocean on Imja-do.

As promised, our private beach was indeed private.  We unpacked our supplies and started up the gas burner to cook lunch.  Pedro had picked up a small package of steak (beef is quite expensive in Korea), and also started cooking some samgyeopsal (삼겹살), a Korean staple of pork belly, similar to bacon.  It is especially good with either BBQ sauce or a red bean paste that is extremely popular in Korea.  Without a doubt I will have to have a case of that paste shipped back home before I leave this country.

Our private beach on the southern end of Imja-do.

Our private beach on the southern end of Imja-do.

We ate our fill, and then took a minor siesta on the beach.  The tide had come back in, and it was a perfect afternoon for a nap in the sand.  After relaxing in the shade, I took a walk down the beach to have a look around.  There were no shorebirds around, but the dunes and vegetation beyond hosted a lot of small passerines seeking shelter from the midday heat.  There were quite a few oriental greenfinches and Eurasian siskins picking through the coniferous trees along the dunes, and in a reedbed I heard two Japanese bush-warblers staking out their territories.  Picking on the ground and in the low shrubs were several black-faced buntings and two pechora pipits.  I could also hear a ring-necked pheasant giving his display call somewhere on a nearby ridge.

We decided to head back to the ferry at around 6pm, having enjoyed a beautiful day at Imja-do.  There was a lineup to board the ferry, as the day’s tourists all had the same idea as we did.  When we finally got on board, the sun was sinking lot over the island.  The ride back to the mainland was just as pleasant as the ride out, with a few black-tailed gulls following the ferry back.  We docked at Gamjeong-ri, where I spotted one Eurasian oystercatcher fly past the ferry to join a grey heron on the rocky shore a ways from the dock.  The final tally was four lifers for the day.  A special thanks goes out to Pedro Kim for leading yet another great trip with Lonely Korea.

The sun falls behind the mountains of Imja-do as our trip comes to an end.

The sun falls behind the mountains of Imja-do as our trip comes to an end.

Trekking through Mudeungsan

On the eastern border of Gwangju lies Mudeungsan National Park (무등산국립공원).  The park sits between the cities of Gwangju, Damyang, and Hwasun, and comprises a small mountain range dominated by Mt. Mudeung, for which the park is named.  Mt. Mudeung has three rocky peaks, Cheonwangbong, Jiwangbong, and Inwangbong, which together are known as the “Jeongsang Three.”  The park has numerous entrance points, but the main (and most popular) entrance is at Jeongsimsa Temple in the Dong-gu district of Gwangju.  This entrance is easily accessible by several city bus lines: #15, 27, 52, 555, 771, and 1001, all stop at the Jeongsimsa Temple.  There is a small shopping outlet near the Temple, complete with coffee shops, restaurants, and outdoor outfitters, where you can make sure you’re fully equipped for your ascent to the top of Cheonwangbong peak.

A Buddhist Shrine near the entrance to Mudeungsan National Park at Jeongsimsa Temple.

Buddhist Shrine near the entrance to Mudeungsan National Park at Jeongsimsa Temple.

The Jeongsimsa Temple, an active Buddist monastery, has a beautiful Shilla-era iron Buddha statue housed near the main hall.  On the day Melanie and I visited the Jeongsimsa entrance, there was a ceremony of some sort at the temple, so we did not enter.  But being so close to where we live, we will undoubtedly visit the temple again and tour the grounds.  Photography in and around Buddhist temples is usually permitted, except in designated areas where rituals or other sacred traditions take place.  When in doubt, it is always best to ask first before snapping a photo.

Decisions, decisions...which way to go.

Decisions, decisions…which way to go.

Beyond the temple and shrines, the roadway splits into two trailheads: left goes to the Baramjae (바람재) ridge, right to the Saeinbong (새인봉) peak.  We decided to go right first, following the roadway towards the Saeinbong peak.  It wasn’t long before we came to a sign for the Choonsul tea plantation, established by “Uijae” Hur Baek-ryeon, a famous master of Chinese painting.  Near the Jeongsimsa Temple is an art gallery featuring Uijae’s work, and his grave site is marked by the Choonsul plantation.  A nice trail led up the mountain, past the plantation and Uijae’s grave site, so Melanie and I decided to break from the herd and head up this path.

A short walk up the mountainside and we were surrounded by the forest.  It appeared as though few took this trail, which is exactly the kind of hiking we like to do…”follow the road less traveled” and all that.  It wasn’t long before we found some interesting bird life, starting with a pair of scaly thrushes.  These birds have cryptic coloration and blend in very well with their forest habitat.  They are also surprisingly large for thrushes, and remind me of American woodcock when I accidentally flush them from a trailway or path.  Keeping with typical thrush behavior, the birds did not give very good views of themselves and I was unable to photograph them.  A little further up the trail we found two pygmy woodpeckers, a glorious male blue-and-white flycatcher singing in the canopy, and the usual mountain birds such as great tit, marsh tit, and vinous-throated parrotbill.  Near the summit of the trail, just about at the top of the ridge, were three pale thrushes kicking up leaf litter off the trail.  The birds were difficult to see, but we could hear them moving around in the leaves just like the eastern towhees back in North America.  Although there were plenty of birds around, none of them wanted to have its photo taken.  Luckily chance was in our favor and we found two beautiful butterflies that were more than willing to pose for my camera.

A Pallas’s Sailer (Neptis sappho), one of several we found at Mudeungsan National Park.

A Freyer’s Purple Emperor (Apatura metis), the only one of this striking butterfly we would encounter.

We reached the summit of the ridge and paused for a while to have a snack.  One of the ever-present burial mounds offered us an opening in the forest, and we sat in the shade near the edge of the opening to have some food and enjoy the day.  Mudeungsan National Park is strewn with burial mounds.  Korean culture believes mountains to be sacred, and placing the graves of deceased family members in plots on cleared portions of the mountainside was believed to give the spirit of the deceased an easy passage into the afterlife.  Korean families often buy parcels on the mountains so that their entire families – past, present, and future – may all be buried together.

One of the many burial mounds in Mudeungsan National Park.

One of the many burial mounds in Mudeungsan National Park.

While having our snack, a pair of great spotted woodpeckers flew noisily overhead, pausing on a nearby tree only briefly before flying down past the ridge.  A single yellow-throated bunting skulked around us for awhile, picking off small insects from the emerging leaves.  A female pygmy woodpecker also paid us a visit; I was finally able to get a photo of this common diminutive woodpecker.

A female Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopos kizuki nippon) at Mudeungsan National Park.

We finished our snack and proceeded back down the path we had come up on, hoping to tackle the Baramjae ridge before calling it a day.  On our way down I spotted a pair of white-backed woodpeckers working on some dead snags, and relocated the scaly thrushes from our ascent earlier in the day.

Cross this bridge to take on the Tokideung (토끼등), or follow the stream to the Baramjae ridge.

Cross this bridge to take on the Tokideung (토끼등), or follow the stream to the Baramjae ridge.

The trail up Baramjae ridge follows a quaint mountain stream surrounded by forest and tall reed beds.  Dragonflies were starting to emerge near the stream, and on our climb up the ridge we would find several pale thrushes feeding near the water.  A ring-necked pheasant was displaying somewhere close to the trail, but remained unseen.  The pheasants give a loud grating call and flap their wings loudly in display to attract females, but often times are so well hidden that their call is the only way to know they are around.  A Japanese bush-warbler was also singing along the stream, taking up territory near the bamboo-like reeds.  We also found several Eurasian jays and a single varied tit on the way along the stream.

An unidentified dragonfly near the stream coming down the Baramjae ridge at Mudeungsan National Park.  There were dozens of these emerging dragonflies along the stream.

A male Pale Thrush (Turdus pallidus) foraging along a stream at Mudeungsan National Park.  The pale thrushes were very numerous on this day; we found almost a dozen, both males and females, during our hike.

Another hour’s worth of hiking brought us nearer the top of the Baramjae ridge, but we were starting to feel the effects of fatigue, and the weather was changing towards rain (it was supposed to rain by late afternoon).  We found a few more pygmy woodpeckers and pale thrushes, and a large-billed crow was cawing near the summit of the ridge.  Still not at the top, we turned around and decided to head back home.  It was a fortunate decision, for on the way down we heard the unmistakable call of an oriental scops-owl from somewhere in the mountain valley around us.  It was some distance away, but we clearly heard the call.

Somewhere along this trail, an Oriental Scops-owl (Otus sunia) was calling...

Somewhere along this trail, an Oriental Scops-owl (Otus sunia) was calling…

 We had been hiking in the mountains near our apartment earlier in the week, and right around dusk we heard the same call.  I had recorded it using my smartphone and was able to identify it.  It was strange to hear the call during the daylight hours (it was around 2pm), but perhaps the darkening skies confused the owl, or maybe they are more active during the day in the mating season.  Oriental scops-owls resemble the screech-owls of North America, with cryptic camouflage that helps them blend in seamlessly with their daytime roosts.  I would love to track one down someday and actually see it.

The only other interesting bird on our descent was a little egret that came flying up the ridge, following the stream.  It was by far the most unexpected sighting of the day, since the stream was not particularly large and we were a long way from any other major sources of water.  We found another male pale thrush along the stream, and stopped for a few photos before leaving the park.

A nominate Little Egret (Egretta garzetta garzetta) at Mudeungsan National Park.

Another male Pale Thrush along the stream at the Baramjae ridge.

Just before reaching the main street that would lead us out of the Park, a small mammal ran across the path.  It came to rest on a stone near the edge of the path.  This is notable because in the months that I have lived here, I rarely come across any mammals whatsoever.  So getting a chance to photograph a Siberian chipmunk, though it looks so much like the eastern chipmunk of North America, was a great moment for me.  I don’t keep lists of the mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, that I come across in my wanderings (well, I might keep a mental list, but that’s all), but I still enjoy seeing new plants and animals that I don’t know or recognize right away.

A Siberian Chipmunk (Eutamias sibiricus), the only chipmunk species outside of North America, and the only member of the genus Eutamias.  Even with those accolades, it still looks like a chipmunk.

There aren’t enough good things to say about Mudeungsan National Park.  Our apartment in Gwangju is no more than a ten-minute walk to the northern edge of the Park, so we hike the trails fairly often.  It is one of my goals before leaving South Korea to know Mudeungsan National Park and all of its trails the way I know many of my favorite birding spots back in North America.

On the Hunt for Shorebirds

When I lived in Ontario, one of my favorite birding day-trips in the spring and fall was to Presqu’ile Provincial Park in Brighton, right on the shores of Lake Ontario.  It was quite a trek from my home in Ottawa, but the beaches around Presqu’ile provided scores of shorebirds, terns, and gulls, that I could just not find anywhere closer to Ottawa.  On this weekend Melanie was off on a school trip with her co-workers, so I gathered my gear and hopped on a bus to Suncheon-si, a short hour and a half bus trip east from Gwangju.  The destination was Suncheonman Bay (순천만), a large protected coastal wetland which is one of the largest in South Korea.  It is a well-known stopover site for the rare white-naped and hooded cranes, as well as approximately 140 other species of bird.  Needless to say, my interests were piqued at the word “wetland.”

Wetlands are Nature’s treasure, both in terms of bird life and environmental health.  Coastal wetlands provide valuable food and shelter for countless species, as well as beneficial protection from storm surges coming from the ocean.  Their value to human and wildlife is immeasurable; unfortunately, most people see them as eye sores and prefer to drain them and build condos than see them for their real worth.  I spent six months in the salt marshes of Rhode Island working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, so you’ll forgive me if I have a soft spot for coastal wetlands.

From Gwangju, Suncheon-si is easily accessible from the U+ Square Terminal.  The fare was only 6,900 won one-way (at the time of this trip), and buses leave every thirty minutes.  I arrived at the Suncheon Bus Terminal at 11:30am, and was immediately greeted by three house swifts circling over the terminal.  Not on the ground five minutes and already checked off a lifer…the Bird Gods were smiling on me today.  The day was warm and bright, and although I was starting much later than I would have liked, it promised to be a good day nonetheless.  Birding the coastal estuaries is all about timing: arrive too early or too late and the tide is up and the birds are anywhere but where you want them to be.  Coastal birding revolves around the tide schedule, so there is a little bit of leeway on the early morning / early evening dynamic common to land birding.  For the uninitiated, to successfully bird the land, the best times are first thing at dawn and two or three hours before dusk, as the birds are most active at these times.  Come midday, especially in the hot summer months, and the birds are on siesta.  This rule doesn’t apply when birding coastal mudflats, as the tide determines when the mudflats are exposed and therefore when the birds can access all of the food sources available in these habitats.

My route along the Dongcheon River to Suncheonman Bay.  The total length of the walk was about 12km...and worth every inch!

My route along the Dongcheon River to Suncheonman Bay.  The total length of the walk was about 12km…and worth every inch!

I had originally meant to grab a city bus to the Suncheonman Bay Ecological Park (순천만 자연생태공원), the main site of the protected reedbeds and mudflats at the Bay, but I ended up misreading the bus schedule and hopped on the #67 going the wrong direction.  If you’re more adept at reading Korean than I am, from the Bus Terminal walk south one block and you can pick up the #67 bus to the Suncheonman Bay (순천만) stop in Daedae-dong.  Be sure to cross the street and take the bus from that side, not the same side as the Bus Terminal.  This is the route I’d recommend, although if you have the time and you enjoy a long, long walk, you can take the route I took instead.

Quickly realizing I was going to the wrong way, I got off the bus and headed over to the Dongcheon River, which bisects the city of Suncheon-si down the middle.  There is a paved bicycle / walking trail that follows the river for its entire length through the city, and as Suncheon-si is a popular tourist destination in South Korea for its environmental savvy (Suncheon-si is known as “Korea’s Green City”), this walking trail is beautifully landscaped and idyllic for an afternoon stroll.  I’d recommend a stop here, if only to enjoy the river and the nice flowers and cherry blossoms along the way.

The river was alive with activity.  Near a small waterfall by the Palma-ro Bridge, there were nearly forty black-headed gulls, many with their hoods fully formed.  Close inspection did not locate any other species of gull, although I was hoping for a stray Saunders’s gull, but just seeing the black-headed gulls was a pleasure.  These birds are analogous to the Bonaparte’s gulls of North America, but have bright red beaks and legs that distinguish them immediately.  They are uncommon visitors to the Americas, but show up regularly on the East Coast in places like Nova Scotia (where I had found my first, and only, black-headed gull in 2008).

A Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) flying along the Dongcheon River.  The bird has not completed its molt, and only has a partial hood.

There were some reeds along the shore of the river, and it was here that I heard a couple of small whistle-like calls.  A careful search of the reeds revealed three Chinese penduline-tits and several vinous-throated parrotbills.  The hedgerows along the walkway were dripping with Eurasian tree sparrows and several brown-eared bulbuls were flying in and out of the cherry trees.  Further downstream I could see dozens of eastern spot-billed ducks and two pairs of little grebes in their breeding colors.

A tiny Chinese Penduline-tit (Remiz consobrinus) clings to some reeds.  It was quite a challenge to capture this photo with such a small bird in a mess of reeds…not to mention the gusting wind!

With much deliberation I decided to leave this quaint spot and continue down the river.  I should point out at this point that I was under the impression that the Suncheonman Bay Eco-Park, my destination, was only about 3km downstream and that this walkway would lead me right to it.  I was right about the second part of that statement – the riverwalk does indeed lead to the Eco-Park…eventually.  It turned out to be nearly 8km before I reached the Eco-Park.  So as I said at the beginning, take the #67 bus.  Unless you had the clarity of mind to bring a bicycle with you.

I’ve found that some of my more notable mis-adventures tend to produce great memories and even better results, and this situation was no different.  The walk was very long, but it was also quite scenic and took me through a diverse series of habitats, each with its own selection of species.  As I was leaving the city limits, there were farm plots to the east and west, and the walkway was lined with cherry blossoms.  The ever-present Eurasian tree sparrows gave way to olive-backed pipits, and a few of the farm plots held eastern spot-billed ducks, little egrets and grey herons.

Cherry trees line a walking path along the Dongcheon River.

Cherry trees line a walking path along the Dongcheon River.

One of the Olive-backed Pipits (Anthus hodgsoni) along the Dongcheon River walkway.

Further south of the city proper, the farms gave way to wide expanses of grasslands and sedges along the river.  This section of the river was under construction, as a new overpass was being built, following the course of the river.  Despite the disturbance of machinery, the best birding of the day was to be found in these grassy oases.  It started with several barn swallows flying over the fields.  It wasn’t long before I noticed a single Pallas’s bunting ahead of me on the path.  This would be the first of three of these large sparrows I would encounter during the day, but I was unable to capture any photos of these shy birds.  Further down from there, near the joining of the Dongcheon and Isacheon Rivers, I came onto a large mixed-species flock of passerines foraging along the pathway.  There was a glorious male Siberian stonechat, which I identified later as being of the breeding subspecies on the Korean peninsula (Saxicola maurus stejnegeri) rather than a passing migrant of the nominate subspecies (S. m. maurus).  Several Tristram’s buntings led the foraging flock, with two black-faced buntings and two more Pallas’s buntings were visible in the reeds and grasses.

Just before reaching the Eco-Park, after nearly two hours of walking with a backpack filled with my tripod and scope, I stopped at a small opening in the reedbeds, where I found that the water level was dropping as the tide went out.  Feeding on the exposed mud were nearly a half-dozen grey herons, two great egrets (one each of both Korean subspecies Egretta alba alba and E. a. modesta), and to my surprise and great thrill, three Eurasian spoonbills!  Close to the spoonbills, three common greenshanks were resting near the edge of the water.  The spoonbills were amazing to watch; I had never had the opportunity to go to Florida and see North America’s roseate spoonbill, so this was a rare treat for me to see these amazing heron-like birds.  They would walk in the deeper water, rocking their heads back and forth while sieving the water with their specialized bills.  Unfortunately all of this was happening too far away for photos, but I hope one day to find this species again a little closer to shore.

The Eco-Park itself was a mixture of great habitat, but sorely underwhelming performance.  By the time I arrived at the Park, the parking lot was full of cars and buses, and just about every inch of the boardwalk into the reedbeds and estuary was covered with people.  The Park is quite beautiful, and the protected habitat is beautiful.  But what I saw brought to light the great dichotomy in conservation: we want to set aside land to protect it and the species that live there, but the only way to successfully convince people to protect land is to make it into a park, allowing people to see the land they are protecting.  And by allowing people into it, you essentially strip it of its protected value, because what makes it “protected” and “natural” is the lack of people.  I can imagine that first thing in the morning, before the tour buses arrive, the park and its lovely boardwalk are pristine, and the habitat can be used by the birds and other species for which it was set aside.  But when I arrived at the Eco-Park, there was no sign of any wildlife at all, just a steady flow of tourists following the boardwalk through a barren habitat.  Perhaps because the tide was going out all of the birds left the shelter of the reedbeds to forage on the exposed mud.  I don’t really know, but I found the long walk from the city to be infinitely more productive and peaceful than the sight before me.

 I didn’t stay long at the Eco-Park, deciding to walk through one more section of agricultural land to reach Suncheonman Bay itself.  Although I was pretty tired at this point, it was a very good decision.  The farmland was quiet and calm, and loads of oriental turtle-doves were flying from field to field in search of food.  There were a few great egrets, and a handful of “Chinese” white wagtails (Motacilla alba leucopsis) along the roadside.  I reached the edge of the Bay to find that the tide was far out, leaving a wide expanse of thick mud exposed.  At first it appeared as though nothing was on the mud, but scanning with my scope revealed a hidden plethora of birds.  Fairly close to the edge of the Bay were tens of Pacific golden-plovers, and further out were scattered Far Eastern curlews.  These large shorebirds sport extremely long decurved bills that they use to reach deep into the mud to find food.  Even from this distance the birds were incredible to watch as they poked their long bills all the way to the hilt into the mud.  Still further out, almost to the edge of the water, were hundreds of white birds.  Straining through the distance and rising heat haze, I was able to make out enough detail through my scope to identify them as common shelducks.  These ducks resemble common mergansers in color and shape, but are slightly larger and bulkier, and stand on tall legs like small geese.  Mixed in with the common shelducks were a handful of ruddy shelducks, distinguishable by their bright orange plumage.

After a long, arduous walk, I had found the shorebirds I was looking for.  Unfortunately the mud was too deep for me to walk out onto the mudflats, at least not without knee boots.  But the birds were there, and closing the day with eleven lifers made the sore feet and tired legs worth it.  I hopped on the #67 back to the bus terminal (I wasn’t about to walk the whole way back, now was I), and took the opportunity on the ride back to Gwangju to catch some much needed R&R.

Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park (Part II)

A map of Chunghyo-dong.

A map of Chunghyo-dong.  The Eco-Park is outlined in red.

Having left the confines of the Eco-Park, Melanie and I decided it would be worth exploring around Chunghyo-dong.  It was nearing lunchtime and the growling of stomachs was overpowering the bird calls.  We headed north towards a main roadway, hoping to find a Korean BBQ place or other restaurant.

A small bridge went over the stream coming from Gwangjuho Lake, but there were no sidewalks and traffic was fairly regular, so we took a side road to reach another bridge a little further down.  There were several small collections of houses, and another Buddhist archway near the summit of a small hill.  As we were looking at the structure, a group of four white-cheeked starlings flew into a nearby farm plot.  My attention diverted from the scenery, I also noticed about a dozen rustic buntings in a tree along the roadway.  These small sparrows had not completed their spring molt, and so were lacking the striking black crests and deep rust-red coloration in their plumage.  A single little egret was roosting on a branch on the far side of the stream.

We continued down the dirt road, the promise of imminent food pushed us forward toward the main road.  As we crossed the second bridge, I noticed a Eurasian kestrel sitting on an electrical wire down the road.  These small falcons are fairly common in Gwangju and the countryside, and can be found along roadways in a similar way to the red-tailed hawks of North America.  However, this one was Melanie’s first sighting, as she was never around when I would come across them on my own.  The kestrel did several stop-and-hover maneuvers over the stream, and then suddenly dove after something I hadn’t seen.  It was an unsuccessful strike, and we watched as the small bird flew off into the distance and disappeared, the kestrel in hot pursuit.  It was flying away from us, but through the binoculars I was able to make out a yellow rump on the bird.  I didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t something I was familiar with.

Oh, the temptation…

The promise of another lifer tantalizingly close, we continued into civilization, heading toward some signs that gave their siren song of fresh meats and vegetables waiting for us to BBQ them up into deliciousness.  But, ever the obsessed birder, I kept one eye on the stream, in the hopes that my mystery bird would return.  Obsession occasionally pays off, and sure enough, before we left the stream to cross the street, the bird flew past us again, and this time I was able to see enough of it to positively ID it as a grey wagtail.  The yellow rump was apparent, and seeing the bird from the side revealed the yellow covered most of the belly and breast.  The white supercilium (eye brow) was obvious, and the bird had a black throat patch bordered by a white submoustachial stripe (malar stripe).  It was a brief glimpse, but more than enough for an ID.

The mystery solved and the bird checked, we resumed our search for lunch.  Choosing a small restaurant tucked away from the road, as we approached the entrance we flushed two more grey wagtails that were hiding in the gravel parking lot.  Every successful birding trip should end with such a meal – and in Korea there is always the added excitement because we are rarely able to read what we’re ordering unless the place has a picture menu, which this one did not.  But fortune smiled on us that day, and we ate heartily after a lot of walking.  Upon leaving the restaurant after lunch, I was able to photograph an oriental turtle-dove right near the parking lot.

Oriental Turtle-dove (Streptopelia orientalis) outside a restaurant in Chunghyo-dong.

As the afternoon wore on it was getting time to head back to Gwangju, so we returned to the Eco-Park where we would pick up our bus back to the city.  Unfortunately we had just missed the bus, so we had an hour to spend waiting.  Rather than sit in a bus stop kiosk, we decided to walk the side streets of the village and explore Chunghyo-dong a little more.  It was just then that a large flight of azure-winged magpies came overhead from the west – I counted at least fifty birds.  They were all heading to a large stand of bamboo on the outskirts of the village, so we headed in that direction to have a look.  Another Buddhist shrine was on the hilltop, and the magpies were flying in and out of the bamboo around the shrine.  From its elevated position, the shrine had a great view over the village and surrounding mountains.  A short walk through the village side streets revealed several more white-cheeked starlings, a couple oriental turtle-doves, and Eurasian tree sparrows by the handful.  Our waiting was over finally, and we returned to the bus kiosk in time to catch the 6pm bus back to Gwangju.  The last sighting for the day was a group of Eurasian magpies picking at the vegetable stubble in a farm plot near the kiosk.

We returned to the city with a beautiful sunset in the mountains, highlighting the cherry trees still holding on to their blossoms despite the relentless winds throughout the day.  Without a doubt I’ll be returning to the Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park, perhaps once spring is in full swing.

Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park (Part I)

Melanie and I started out on our first visit to the Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park (광주호 호수생태원), more commonly called Gwangju Lake Eco-Park, on a partly cloudy morning.  From our apartment in Duam-dong in the Buk-gu district, it was a 30-minute bus ride on the #187.  This is an important tip for anyone planning a trip out there: the #187 is more or less a village bus, and only comes about once an hour, so it’s worth checking the schedule ahead of time unless you enjoy standing at a bus stop for what seems like an eternity.

That being said, the ride was incredible.  The bus route heads out of the city east towards Chunghyo-dong and the town of Damyang, passing over the mountains that surround Gwangju.  These mountains are part of Mudeungsan National Park (무등산국립공원), and the bus passes a stop for the main trail leading to Mt. Mudeung (무등산) on this route.  The cherry blossoms were in full bloom as we meandered along a narrow roadway through the mountains.  It is one of the great marvels of the Korean traffic system that these normal-sized city buses can traverse barely two-lane mountain roads without a moment’s hesitation on even the tightest hairpin turn.

Coming out the other side of the mountain pass, we entered a large agricultural area in Chunghyo-dong.  Passing through the scattered settlements I noticed quite a few azure-winged magpies picking at the compost piles behind the houses.  These birds seem to stay close to farming settlements, as I’ve only ever seen them in such environments, both here in Gwangju and during my orientation period in Jeonju-si. The fields were surprisingly empty, though how many small passerines were hiding in the plant stubble is impossible to determine. A small irrigation pond did have a handful of ducks or coots on it, but we were moving too fast to get an accurate ID.

After our enjoyable ride, we arrived at the entrance to Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park. The bus stop is no more than 30 meters from the entrance; if you’re thinking of going grab the #187 towards the Gwangjuho Lake stop (광주호). There is no entrance fee, and the gate is open from 9am-6pm. I’d recommend getting there early, especially in the warmer months. Koreans love the outdoors and usually spend their weekends hiking in the mountains or strolling along the rivers. If you’re looking to do some birding or just fancy some time to collect your thoughts, it’s best to do that before the throngs arrive.

Across the street from the Park is a small Buddhist archway and two ancient willow trees. These trees are revered in the small village here, as Melanie and I discovered as we watched two Korean women pay homage to the trees as we were photographing the archway. It’s alright to photograph the trees, and even to talk in normal voices around them (another Korean family was there as well, doing just that), but I definitely got the sense that this was a place of respect, and so Melanie and I didn’t want to interfere.  The whole site is very peaceful, with a nice gravel path and beautiful landscaping work.  As I understand it, the Koreans believe that the spirits of their ancestors use these ancient trees as a place to reside in the afterlife, and having an old tree near the center of a town or city brings the protection and good fortune of their ancestors’ spirits. If a city doesn’t have an old tree, it is common to find tall wooden posts, similar to totem poles, in the city to serve the same function.  Melanie found one of these poles in the town of Naju to the south of Gwangju.

Memorial Pavilion in Chunghyo-dong, at the entrance to the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

Memorial Pavilion in Chunghyo-dong, at the entrance to the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

One of the centuries-old willow trees in Chunghyo-dong.

One of the centuries-old willow trees in Chunghyo-dong.

We decided to head into the Park, and were promptly greeted by a dozen or so yellow-billed grosbeaks.  These large finches closely resemble Japanese grosbeaks, but the rusty orange coloration on the flanks distinguishes them from their Japanese cousins.  The grosbeaks were close to a paved walkway, flitting about in some small trees with the leaves just starting to emerge.  I tried to get a few photos, but the grosbeaks kept a reasonable distance.  While watching them, I also found three male bramblings in various stages of molt, and a flyover of about twenty Eurasian siskins topped off the finch festival.

A male Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) almost finished with his spring molt.

We continued down the paved pathway, passing lush flower beds and several small koi ponds with reeds along the way.  This Park will definitely be a sight to behold once spring arrives in full.  A few paths are lined with cherry trees, and their blossoms fell like snowflakes whenever the wind blew (which it did plenty on this day).  The highlight of the Park is a wonderful boardwalk through a small lakeside marsh.  The boardwalk is smartly designed, seeming to emerge right out of the marsh, rather than plowing through it as often happens in many parks and reserves I’ve been to.  There wasn’t much in the way of bird activity in the marsh, probably due to the high winds coming off Gwangjuho Lake and that it was still early in the season.  We did see a scattering of Eurasian teal and five Eurasian coots, which were new lifers for Melanie (I’d already seen my first Eurasian coots on the Yeongsan River in Gwangju the previous weekend).  As we continued down the boardwalk, enjoying the walk but cursing the incessant wind off the lake, I heard the twittering of vinous-throated parrotbills, and sure enough about a dozen appeared flitting in and out of the sedges and reeds along the boardwalk.  Further down we found two Japanese tits, which were uncharacteristically photogenic.

Japanese Tit (Parus minor)

The boardwalk at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The boardwalk at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The boardwalk makes a large loop, returning to the entrance of the Park and the lovely gardens there.  As we continued through the gardens, we stumbled into a flock of olive-backed pipits, which were also lifers for Melanie.  The pipits look very similar to the American pipits (Anthus rubescens) that I am more familiar with, but have a more distinct facial pattern and lack the white eye ring common in American pipits.  Their vocalizations also greatly differ from American pipits, so distinguishing the two is relatively easy.  We continued to follow the paved pathway, passing by the koi ponds again, and walked along a row of cherry blossoms with the peak of Mt. Mudeung in the background.

Mt. Mudeung as seen from Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

Mt. Mudeung as seen from Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

Melanie paused to photograph the scene, when I noticed five white-cheeked starlings in the grass near our pathway.  Unfortunately I was unable to get any photos, as the flock took to the air shortly afterwards. But more birds were to be found, and soon after I heard the melodic call of a Japanese bush-warbler coming from a woodlot in the middle of the park.  Then a strange hawk-like call came out from near the tops of the trees, and I turned just in time to see a woodpecker-like bird flying into the branches.  I couldn’t locate it again, but it would intermittently call out with the strange screech call, which reminded me so much of the accipiters from North America.  I later identified the calls as that of a grey-faced woodpecker.  I wish I had been able to get a better look at this green and grey woodpecker, but for now that brief glimpse will have to do.  Searching for the woodpecker also revealed four hawfinches near the tops of the trees.

Our paved pathway gave way to another boardwalk, which followed the shore of the lake through a small grove of metasequoia trees.  It was here that we found a large mixed-species flock of passerines, mainly consisting of Japanese tits, vinous-throated parrotbills, and long-tailed tits.  The birds were very interested in foraging in the new vegetation, and allowed us some great close-up views.  I managed to capture a few photos of the long-tailed tits, whose small size and energetic movement do not lend well to photography.

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus magnus).  These small birds are fairly common, but hard to spot.

Further down we came into a large open expanse of the park, dominated by small pagodas and a rock garden.  A large observation platform gave an amazing view of Gwangjuho Lake, and a hundred meters away we were able to spot five tufted ducks on the water.  These ducks were lifers for both of us, and I was thrilled to finally see them after having missed the female tufted duck that appeared in Ottawa (where I used to live) back in the fall of 2012.  As usually happens with the Aythya ducks, these were too far from shore for photos, but not for my scope. While watching the tufted ducks, a flock of eight mandarin ducks flew in and landed near the shore down from the observation deck.  Related to wood ducks in North America, the mandarin duck drakes are intensely colorful, but like their North American relatives are very shy and prefer to hide in reeds and vegetation than to be out in the open for long.

The rock garden at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The rock garden at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The observation deck overlooking Gwangjuho Lake.

The observation deck overlooking Gwangjuho Lake.

Melanie and I explored the rock garden, which was peaceful and beautiful but relatively devoid of wildlife. The wind probably had a lot to do with that.  A few stray Eurasian magpies and oriental turtle-doves were heard flying overhead, but otherwise there was little activity in this portion of the park.  As we neared the edge of the park, coming to a roadside where we had taken the bus in earlier, we inadvertently flushed a bird from one of the saplings lining the walkway.  It flew to a nearby tree, and I was able to identify it as a bull-headed shrike, one of the target species I had for this trip!  This shrike has the same shape and configuration as both of our North American shrikes, but where ours are grey the bull-headed shrike is shades of rust and ochre.  These birds are local residents, so finding them can be difficult, but they prefer cultivated fields and forest edges, which are quite common in South Korea as the Koreans will put a small farm plot anywhere that isn’t already paved over or made of solid rock.  The shrike quickly disappeared, but not before we both had excellent views of our newest lifer for the day.

As we made our way out of the Eco-Park, we relocated the mixed-species flock foraging along the metasequoias, and were happy to discover that a dozen marsh tits and one lone Eurasian siskin had joined the group.  The marsh tits resemble our black-capped chickadees, but do not have the recognizable chick-a-dee-dee-dee call of their North American brethren.

A Marsh Tit (Poecile palustris) at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

By this time the Park had gotten crowded, and as the partly cloudy skies gave way to more sun, the continuous flow of people into the Park led Melanie and I to “move on to greener pastures,” so to speak.  We left the Eco-Park and headed into Chunghyo-dong on a quest for delectable foods and interesting new birds.