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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.