eBird: Birding in the 21st Century

I don’t typically do this, but in keeping with the spirit of sharing opinions and information, I thought I’d write a little blurb for eBird.  eBird is an online database hosted by Cornell University and the National Audubon Society, which acts as a portal for the citizen science movement.  Established in 2002, eBird is now a global repository for bird sightings, and catalogs millions of sightings worldwide each year.  Just recently, eBird reached its 100 millionth record, and is showing no signs of slowing down as more and more birders across the globe begin to input data.

I’ve been using eBird since 2008.  A good friend of mine from Ottawa got me onto the site, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  The allure of eBird is multi-faceted: it automatically catalogs all of your sightings and organizes them into multiple formats, allowing you to keep track of how many species you’ve seen within a given county, state, country, continent, or hemisphere.  It also creates lists of bird sightings for month, year, and lifetime, so you can keep track of Year Lists without any extra work.  All that is required is logging in and inputting your sightings for the day…eBird does the rest.

But it’s more than just a useful tool for the bird-obsessed.  The data are used by scientists to track and monitor migration movements and population trends, which is especially useful in creating policies that protect or destroy critical habitats or species.

eBird began as a repository for North American sightings, but quickly expanded and now covers every country around the world.  Individual reports are reviewed at a local level by volunteers, so rare or unusual sightings are reviewed and confirmed before entering into the data stream.  The eBird database is also updated about once a year, to include new species and other taxonomic updates that are critical to our understanding of birds and their evolution.

Data entry is simple, and with the smartphone app, you can enter data right in the field.  I’m still a traditionalist and keep a notebook and pencil with me on my outings, but the online entry form couldn’t be simpler.  You can create locations by using a number of options, including finding it on Google Maps, inputting GPS coordinates, or simply choosing from a list of local “hotspots” that you may already be familiar with.

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Once the location is set, add a little information concerning the time and date of your sightings, and whether you were travelling, searching over a set area, or just happened to see something from you bedroom window.  You’ll be presented with a list of common and expected species for the location you chose, and you can enter in the number of each species, add species that don’t appear on your list, and even go as far as identifying the subspecies of a bird (if you know it).  Then just hit submit.  Any unusual species, or higher-than-expected numbers, will be flagged for review.  You can also add information about gender, age, and breeding information, include photos and make comments that might be relevant to the sighting.

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Besides keeping track of your totals and checklists, eBird compiles all of the sightings entered into the database onto a searchable map, which allows you to locate sightings of a given species anywhere in the world.  This is a great tool for locating rare sightings in your area, or for planning a birding trip somewhere new.  Going to Yosemite National Park and you’re interested in where the best place to find an American dipper is?  Search “American Dipper” in the Range & Point Maps section to bring up color-coded maps of every sighting reported to eBird of that species.

A detailed map showing all the American dipper sightings throughout North America.

A detailed map showing all the American dipper sightings throughout North America.

A closer look at Yosemite National Park.  More recent sightings are marked in red.

A closer look at Yosemite National Park.  More recent sightings are marked in red.

The only downside I’ve found with eBird is that it follows the Clements taxonomic profile, endorsed by the ABA (American Birding Association), and as such may not list as many species as other taxonomic profiles, such as the IOU (International Ornithologists’ Union).  This mainly affects birders outside of North America.  For example, the IOU recognizes three species of herring gull; Clements and the ABA only recognize one, and considers the three forms to be subspecies only.  This can pose a slight problem if you are an international birder, as some of your lists may not correspond to the eBird lists.  In my case, I have two species listed on my Life List that are only recognized as subspecies by eBird.

Overall, eBird is a tremendous tool, both for birders and professional scientists alike.  I’d highly recommend checking out the site on your own, and giving eBird a try.

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Busan or Bust, Day 2: Igidae Park

If you are unfamiliar with the psychology of “listing,” allow me to divert on a short tangent.  There is a concept of the “target bird” or “target species.”  Many places have a particular species they are know for, or in the case of islands, species that can only be found there (endemics).  Sometimes it is a particular habitat that occurs in one place and not another, such as the small patch of Carolinian forest in southern Ontario at Point Pelee, where one can find the only breeding population of prothonotary warbler in the whole of Ontario.  When I plan birding trips outside of my general surroundings, I do so with target species in mind.  Otherwise, why travel a long way if you’re only going to see things that occur in your own backyard?

It was my hope that Igidae Park (이기대) would hold a target bird for me: the blue rock-thrush.  This robin-sized passerine breeds along the rocky coastlines, where it can hide its nests in cracks and crevices near the ocean.  I simply can’t get it in Gwangju, but it’s a fairly common resident near Busan.  Time would tell if my research and intuition would be correct.

A map of Igidae Park.  The white line highlights the path from the Namcheon Station to the entrance to Igidae Park.

A map of Igidae Park.  The white line highlights the path from the Namcheon Station to the entrance to Igidae Park.

Igidae Park is one of Busan’s best kept secrets for hikers and Nature-lovers, at least as far as foreigners are concerned.  The park is quite large for an industrialized hub like Busan, but is a little tricky to get to, and as such most foreign visitors to Busan overlook it or simply don’t even know it exists.  The park has a well-made boardwalk hugging the coastline, as well as several trails that crisscross the mountainous interior forests.  It’s a diverse habitat with a lot of potential.  It also provides some spectacular views of the Busan skyline, and is front and center to the Gwangandaegyo Bridge, a suspension bridge that is fully illuminated at night with different colors that alternate with the seasons and weather.

To get to Igidae Park, take Subway Line #1 to Namcheon Station and leave by Exit 3. Head west down Suyeong-ro (수영로) and take the first left.  For some reason this road is also called Suyeong-ro, but follow it towards the Gwangandaegyo Bridge.  Cross the street at the McDonald’s and the Metro grocery store, and continue under the overpass.  That green mountain ahead of you is Igidae Park, just keep heading towards it.  It’s about a fifteen minute walk from the subway station.

The Busan skyline from Igidae Park.  The skies had clouded over by the afternoon, but the view was incredible nonetheless.

The Busan skyline from Igidae Park.  The skies had clouded over by the afternoon, but the view was incredible nonetheless.

The unassuming entrance to Igidae Park.  It's no wonder only the locals know about this place.

The unassuming entrance to Igidae Park.  It’s no wonder only the locals know about this place.

The entrance to Igidae leads to a steep narrow staircase which comes to a series of short suspension bridges over the shoreline.  These bridges are a lot of fun to walk over, but there isn’t much room on them to stop and enjoy the view.  Luckily there are small platforms built around them for viewing.  This park is used quite heavily by the local population, and the trail along the shoreline was quite busy when I was there.  Don’t come here expecting a solitary walk to collect your thoughts.  However, at several places the boardwalk or trail gives access to the shoreline itself, and you can walk along the rocks instead of the paths if you prefer.  Many people were sitting on the rocks or close to the water with fishing poles, so it made for quite a lively hike.

One of the suspension bridges at Igidae Park.  Notice the guy walking towards me with his cellphone out...nothing says "the Great Outdoors" like a Samsung Vega in your hand.

One of the suspension bridges at Igidae Park.  Notice the guy walking towards me with his cellphone out…nothing says “the Great Outdoors” like a Samsung Vega in your hand.

Igidae Park's forested interior.  Much of the park is a forested cliff face, but the interior is accessible via several steep hiking trails.

Igidae Park’s forested interior.  Much of the park is a forested cliff face, but the interior is accessible via several steep hiking trails.

Open coastline where land meets sea.  Igidae Park is sometimes called Busan's "other coastline."

Open coastline where land meets sea.  Igidae Park is sometimes called Busan’s “other coastline.”

It wasn’t until I had crossed several of the suspension bridges and was well into the park that I found my first birds.  Two pygmy woodpeckers and a single Eurasian jay were foraging in the trees on the cliff above me.  Brown-eared bulbuls could be heard calling in the trees, and on the ocean there were dozens of black-tailed gulls.  Vinous-throated parrotbills would pop in and out of the foliage.

Further down the shoreline, near a large open expanse of flat rock, I could just make out a whistling call over the crashing of the waves.  I made a quick scan of the breakwater, that familiar surge of adrenaline and the start of sweating palms signalling that vindication was near.  Where was it coming from?  Was I imagining it?

There he was, in all his splendor.  Sitting atop the concrete breakwater was a male blue rock-thrush, singing his heart out over the roar of the waves.

A male “red-bellied” Blue Rock-thrush (Monticola solitarius philippensis) at Igidae Park.  Before the end of the day, I would find three pairs of these birds.

Lifer #488, check.

With that small bit of business out of the way, I was free to continue on the trail and enjoy what remained of the afternoon.  I didn’t know at the time what else would lie in store for me before leaving Igidae.

I took a break near a large amphitheater about a kilometer from the entrance.  As I finished off a bag of bacon-flavored corn chips, listening to brown-eared bulbuls and great tits calling around me, a flash of grey hit my eyes.  A small bird was popping in and out of the rocks below me; it appeared to be a bulbul.  A closer look through the binoculars revealed it as a female blue rock-thrush!  With most birds, the males are louder, flashier, and easier to locate, and the females tend to be drab in color and fleeting at best.  It’s always a pleasure to see a pair of birds, and when it’s a recent lifer, well, double your pleasure, double your fun.  True to her nature, the female blue rock-thrush wasn’t blue at all, but a drab greyish-brown on the back with some interesting mottling on the breast.  She easily blended in with the rocks around her, which is the whole point of that uninteresting coloration.  Hidden in small cracks and crevices in the rocks, I found several small frogs as well.  I didn’t know amphibians could be found so close to saltwater.  I later identified them as Imienpo station frogs.

A Blue Rock-thrush of the female variety.  All that drab color and mottled plumage make her very hard to spot on the rocky shore.

An Imienpo Station Frog (Glandirana emelijanovi) hidden in the rocks at Igidae Park.  That bright red patch on the belly indicates that this frog is poisonous, but no more so than your average toad.

I continued on for another kilometer or so, tallying another two pairs of blue rock-thrushes, two Eurasian magpies, a male Daurian redstart who refused to be photographed, and a Pacific reef-heron.  I found two carrion crows, who likewise didn’t want their photo taken.  These lifers appeared almost identical to American crows, and can only be differentiated by the large-billed crow that I find more often in Gwangju by the slope of their forehead; large-billed crows have a more abrupt forehead, rising almost vertically from the base of the bill.  For my fellow birders, think common vs. Barrow’s goldeneye.

Another male Blue Rock-thrush near an old military base at Igidae Park.

A dark-morph Pacific Reef-heron (Egretta sacra) at Igidae Park.  This species also has a white form.

A Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica sericea) at Igidae Park.

The skies were darkening and it began to feel like rain was coming, so I packed it in and headed back to the entrance.  I stopped at a few lookouts to take some more photos of the landscape: I was really enthralled by the dynamic contrast of the coastal forest coming to the edge of a rocky shoreline.  Once again, that desire to give up the birds and switch to landscapes gnawed at me, but my Canon 100-400mm lens is completely inappropriate for photographing landscapes, except at a distance.  So for now, my smartphone camera will have to pick up the slack.

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One of the trails that crisscross the forested interior of Igidae Park.  I'd like to come back sometime and explore this area further.

One of the trails that crisscross the forested interior of Igidae Park.  I’d like to come back sometime and explore this area further.

A deep crevice carved out by the relentless waves.

A deep crevice carved out by the relentless waves.

Almost near where I had found my first blue rock-thrush at the breakwater, there was a commotion in the sky.  I looked up in time to see a black kite fly over, an angry carrion crow in hot pursuit.  I was able to grab a photo of it, but the overcast skies and low light don’t do the bird justice.  An unexpected lifer like this one is always appreciated, though.

A Black Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus) at Igidae Park.  This species is likely to be split sometime in the near future.

There was one last surprise for me when I reached the entrance to the park.  Tired from all the walking I’d done throughout the day, I almost missed the twitter of three Asian house-martins flying circles over the observation building at the park entrance.  One last lifer to send me on my way with.

Overall my trip to Busan was quite enjoyable.  There is still so much left of the city to explore, both in terms of birding and cultural significance.  It definitely warrants a return visit, perhaps sometime in the fall or winter after the summer tourism season ends.  The trip produced eight lifers for me, inching me even closer to the big 500 mark.  Only ten more species to go!

Busan or Bust, Day 2: The Nakdong River Estuary

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.

A map of Eulsukdo Island and the Nakdong River Estuary.  The Hadan Subway Station is shown.

A map of Eulsukdo Island and the Nakdong River Estuary.  The Hadan Subway Station is shown.

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.

The Nakdonggang River with a view of part of Busan, as seen from Eulsukdo Island.

The Nakdonggang River with a view of part of Busan, as seen from Eulsukdo Island.

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.

The main tidal pond at the Nakdong River Estuary.  This is where I found most of the waterfowl on my visit.  The Eco-Center is visible overlooking the pond.

The main tidal pond at the Nakdong River Estuary.  This is where I found most of the waterfowl on my visit.  The Eco-Center is visible overlooking the pond.

One of the male Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) that spent the day flying all around Eulsukdo Island.

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.

A view of one of the inlets at the Nakdong River Estuary.  These reeds were teeming with birds, but most were very hard to actually see.

A view of one of the inlets at the Nakdong River Estuary.  These reeds were teeming with birds, but most were very hard to actually see.

A Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) at the Nakdong River Estuary.

A pair of Grey-tailed Tattlers (Tringa brevipes) at the Nakdong River Estuary.  These shorebirds were the most numerous species we found.

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 Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center at Eulsukdo Island.  The bird decals on the windows are there to prevent bird strikes into the glass.

The Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center at Eulsukdo Island.  The bird decals on the windows are there to prevent bird strikes into the glass.

Looking down onto the ground floor of the Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center.

Looking down onto the ground floor of the Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center.

A portion of the second floor observation area.

A portion of the second floor observation area.

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.

The wooden entrance gate at the Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center.

The wooden entrance gate at the Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center.

The quiet boardwalk adjacent to the Eco-Center at the Nakdong Estuary.

The quiet boardwalk adjacent to the Eco-Center at the Nakdong Estuary.

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.

Busan or Bust, Day 1: Dongbaek Park and Haedong Yonggungsa

This weekend was the Korean holiday of 석가탄신일, commonly called Buddha’s Birthday by Westerners.  The Korean name (seokga tansinil) roughly translates to Buddha’s birthday, but the holiday also goes by the name 부처님 오신 날 (bucheonim osin nal), meaning “the day when the Buddha came.”  Our schools were closed for three days, and Melanie and I lucked out and were able to buy a reservation for a three-day, three-night stay in Busan, right in the Haeundae-gu district famous for Haeundae Beach (해운대해수욕장).  If you haven’t heard of it, look up the name in the Guinness Book of World Records and you’ll find it under the beach with the most umbrellas in the world (covered end to end with 7,937 umbrellas).

We took a late express bus from Gwangju to Busan on Thursday night after school let out.  The bus trip is about three and a half hours, with a 15 minute stop along the way for bathroom and food.  On any holiday weekend, it’s always a smart idea to buy your tickets ahead of time just to make sure your preferred time isn’t sold out.  By nine o’clock that night we had arrived at the Busan Seobu Bus Terminal (부산서부시외버스터미널).  Being from North America, I’m still amazed at just how small South Korea is land-wise: a few hours on a bus and you can cross the country from west to east.

The Busan Subway System (© Exploring Korea).

Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, so it has a much more elaborate public transit system than Gwangju.  Gwangju has a single subway line with runs across the city from west to east.  Busan has four subway lines that cover every direction through the city; there are also two intercity bus terminals, the Seobu Bus Terminal and the Dongbu Gyeongnam Bus Terminal.  Once we arrived in Seobu, it was a quick walk to the Line #2 subway station, and one transfer onto Line #1 at the Seomyeon Station, and we were at Haeundae Beach about an hour after arriving in Busan (like I said, it’s a big city).

We were booked at the Hello Guesthouse, a short 5-minute walk to Haeundae Beach.  The guesthouse is a hostel, catering to foreigners, and the combination of affordable price, ideal location, and friendly staff, make it a good choice for travelers on a budget.  We got settled in our room and promptly passed out.

A map of the Haeundae-gu district in Busan.  The locations of the Haeundae Beach, Dongbaek Park, and the Hello Guesthouse, are shown.

A map of the Haeundae-gu district in Busan.  The locations of the Haeundae Beach, Dongbaek Park, and the Hello Guesthouse, are shown.

Our first day in Busan dawned bright and sunny.  It would be a nice warm day with lots of sun and few clouds.  The Guesthouse started serving breakfast at 9am, so Melanie and I headed out to Haeundae Beach early to get our bearings on the area.  The beach was relatively empty when we arrived.  I was immediately impressed with the high-rise buildings across the landscape.  While Gwangju has a population of 1.5 million people, it’s still considered a small city, and growth here is outwards instead of upwards.  Other than the apartment complexes, most the high-rise buildings in Gwangju are restricted to the downtown financial districts.  But in Busan they seemed to be everywhere.

The Busan skyline around Haeundae Beach.

The Busan skyline around Haeundae Beach.

The Pacific Ocean as seen from Haeundae Beach.  The mountain in the distance is Igidae Park; the lighthouse at Dongbaek Park can be seen in the foreground on the right.

The Pacific Ocean as seen from Haeundae Beach.  The mountain in the distance is Igidae Park; the lighthouse at Dongbaek Park can be seen in the foreground on the right.

The beach was beautiful and the weather perfect, so we continued our walk along the beach until we reached Dongbaek Park (동백공원).  This small island, now connected to the mainland, is a lovely greenspace named after the dongbaek trees which thrive in the park.  There is a system of boardwalks and trails which covers the rocky shore and the hilly interior of the island.  For its size, Dongbaek Park is a must-see side-trip to any visit to Busan.  If you’re in the Haeundae-gu area, its definitely worth a stop.

The rocky shore of Dongbaek Park.  One of several observation decks is visible in the top right.

The rocky shore of Dongbaek Park.  One of several observation decks is visible in the top right.

A statue of a mermaid on the shore of Dongbaek Park.  Near the statue is a plaque telling the legend of Princess Heo Hwang-ok.

A statue of a mermaid on the shore of Dongbaek Park.  Near the statue is a plaque telling the legend of Princess Heo Hwang-ok.

We took a short walk along a wooden boardwalk hugging the shore of Dongbaek Park.  The cool breeze coming off the ocean, and the plentiful shade provided by the dongbaek trees, made for a peaceful walk as we explored the area.  Near one of several observation decks on the boardwalk, a large statue of a mermaid sat vigil over the crashing waves.  There was a nearby plaque which relayed the legend of Princess Heo Hwang-ok (허황옥), the first queen of the Geumgwan Gaya (금관가야).

We cut our walk short, deciding the head back to our hostel for breakfast.  Along the way back to Haeundae Beach, I did manage to spot a Pacific reef-heron flying past the mermaid statue.  The only other birds present were dozens of black-tailed gulls and a few brown-eared bulbuls calling in the forested interior.

After breakfast we got directions to our target destination for the day: the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (해동 용궁사).  Unlike most Buddhist temples, Haedong Yonggungsa was built right on the shore, providing breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and the dynamic rocky coast of South Korea.  And on account of it being Buddha’s Birthday, the temple was decorated in multi-colored lanterns to celebrate the occasion.

The Temple can be reached by taking the #181 bus to the Yonggungsa Temple stop.  Be advised, this is the only bus that makes its way out this far, so it will be crowded during Buddhist celebrations, weekends, etc.  It may be worth taking a taxi to the site: you’ll pay more, but it’s better than being crammed into an overcrowded bus or simply being repeatedly passed by several buses that are overloaded with passengers.

The signpost to the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

The signpost to the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

While waiting to enter the Temple, this beautiful statue adorned the gateway to the Temple.

While waiting to enter the Temple, this beautiful prayer pagoda adorned the gateway to the Temple.

There was a long line at the entrance to the Temple, but it moved fairly quickly and there was plenty to see along the way.  The walkway leading to the entrance was lined with towering stone statues of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.  A large prayer pagoda was near the entrance to the Temple.  Beyond there were 108 stairs leading down the rocky coastline to the Temple itself.  Along this winding walkway were carved Buddhas overlooking the procession, and everywhere the greenery pushed through.  As we waited in line, a heard the comical call of a common cuckoo from somewhere nearby.  I say “comical,” because for those who know this call, it sounds exactly like a cuckoo clock chiming the hour.  They don’t call them cuckoo clocks for nothing.

Inside the temple, carved Buddha reliefs watch your passage down ancient walkways.

Inside the temple, carved Buddha reliefs watch your passage down ancient walkways.

The walkway became a stairway, and suddenly the Temple was right before us.

The Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, decorated for the 석가탄신일 celebration.

The Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, decorated for the 석가탄신일 celebration.

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Photos don’t do the Temple justice.  Haedong Yonggungsa was built in 1376 by the Buddhist teacher Naong, during the Goryeo Dynasty.  It was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and was rebuilt in 1970.  Special attention was made to recreate the Temple as close to the original as possible.  From what I saw, this attention paid off spectacularly.  The whole area gave off a feeling of eternity, as if the Temple had always been here.

Just one of several carved Buddha statues at one of the shrines within Haedong Yonggungsa.

Just one of several carved Buddha statues at one of the shrines within Haedong Yonggungsa.

A golden Buddha sits before the Pacific Ocean on the edge of the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

A golden Buddha sits before the Pacific Ocean on the edge of the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

After exploring the Temple, we headed off to an open area on the rocky shore, where a large golden Buddha stood watch over the Temple.  There were a few vendors selling refreshments, and many Koreans enjoying the scenery and environment, taking advantage of the weather to have a picnic near the Temple.  Melanie and I spent some time here, enjoying the view and the calming sound of the waves crashing against the rocks below.  Black-tailed gulls were plentiful flying around the Temple grounds, and I happened to notice a little egret flying out over the water, and an eastern spot-billed duck flying over the Temple towards the north.  As we were heading back to the entrance, I managed to grab a few photos of a brown-eared bulbul that was trying to grab some leftover crumbs from some nearby picnickers.  To date this is one of the best photos I have of this species.

A Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis) at the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

A Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis) at the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

It’s hard to top such a beautiful place, so we didn’t try.  It was a long (and frustrating) wait for the bus to take us back to Haeundae Beach, and we eventually broke down and flagged a taxi.  Late afternoon traffic proved to get the better of us, and by the time we made it back to the hostel, we decided to call it a day and spent the rest of the evening having dinner and relaxing.

Tomorrow would bring some serious birding.

Wolchulsan: Taking the High Road

The determined lister never rests.  There is always one more bird out there to find, one more check to put on the list.  What is so satisfying about adding that new species to an Excel spreadsheet?  Of seeing that number go up by one?  I’ve failed to put into words my own obsession with birding, and I know many other birders who have similar trouble expressing the drive.  If you’re interested in the psychosis behind obsessive birding, I’d highly recommend watching the movie The Big Year, based loosely on a novel of the same name by Mark Obmascik.  It’s the closest I’ve seen to capturing the thrill of the chase, and threatens to put an already dangerously obsessive lister over the edge to full-blown “Bostick” status.

It was this gnawing compulsion that took me out to Wolchulsan National Park (월출산국립공원), Korea’s smallest national park, about an hour’s bus ride south of Gwangju.  My research had indicated that the Park was a well-known breeding site for the forest wagtail, a distinctive species of wagtail that, unlike other members of its family, breeds in forests away from water.  Although the species is considered stable and of least concern, it is still a rare bird for South Korea, and every good birder starts to salivate at the word “rare.”

A map of Wolchulsan National Park.  The locations of the Cheonhwangsa Temple and the Cloud Bridge are shown.

A map of Wolchulsan National Park.  The locations of the Cheonhwangsa Temple and the Cloud Bridge are shown.

Wolchulsan National Park is located in the small town of Yeongam (영암), also known as Yeongam-gun (영암군).  Travelers from Gwangju can take a bus from U+ Square Terminal to Yeongam for 6,900 won (about $7) one-way.  The bus makes several stops during the trip, picking up and dropping off passengers at towns along the way.  Upon reaching the Yeongam Bus Terminal, you can buy another bus ticket to the Cheonhwangsa Temple Entrance for 1,100 won; just say “Cheonhwangsa” (천황사) and the teller will know what you mean.  I happened to run into a small group of foreigners out on a day-hike to Wolchulsan, so they helped point me in the right direction to this second bus for the Park entrance.  I’d suggest just showing your ticket to the bus drivers as they arrive to be sure you’re on the right one; the bus I took resembled an airport shuttle bus, so that may help you out.  Alternately you can walk to the Park entrance; leave the bus terminal and go straight down Cheonhwangsa-ro and follow it to the Park entrance (it’ll take about 30 minutes to walk).

I was dropped off at a small round-about, and was immediately greeted by the imposing rock face of Wolchulsan.  Although this mountain maxes out at 809 meters (2,654 ft) at the top of Cheonhwangbong Peak, the mountain is far more vertical than the ones I’ve climbed at Mudeungsan National Park in Gwangju, and the mountain itself just looks bad-ass.  In addition to hiking, the mountain is often used by rock climbers in the warmer months.

How was I supposed to find one bird in the middle of that mountain?

How was I supposed to find one bird in the middle of that mountain?

Thoroughly impressed by the mountain vista before me (not to mention a little intimidated), I started up the paved roadway into the Park itself.  Immediately the listing began: brown-eared bulbul, pale thrush, large-billed crow, Eurasian magpie, and azure-winged magpie were all waiting for me right near the entrance.  And yet again, the azure-wings defied my attempts to photograph them, even with the honking 400mm I was now equipped with.  But as I say whenever I get skunked by a bird (the correct term is dipped, but I personally don’t use it), “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.”  I think that’s just denial doing the talking for me.

There is a short sidetrail right off the main walkway into the Park, with a small sign marking the way to the “Nature Trail.”  This sidetrail is worth a look, as it passes a rather nice outdoor art show, with numerous sculptures scattered over a grassy slope.  The “Nature Trail” itself is rather poorly maintained, but it weaves in and out of a mixed forest of deciduous, coniferous, and bamboo.  There were a few oriental turtle-doves cooing in the junipers, and several vinous-throated parrotbills, but otherwise the trail had little to offer.  No forest wagtail here.

The stream coming down the mountain from the Baram waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

The stream coming down the mountain from the Baram waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

It was already quite warm when I arrived, and the forecast called for temperatures into the high 20°C (80°F), so when the trail split left or right, I went right and followed a stream up the mountain.  The stream would lead to the Baram waterfall, so I wagered I would find some interesting species by following the water supply.  Almost immediately I hit paydirt: an eastern crowned leaf-warbler was singing near a small bridge over the stream.  I heard the bird first, as usually happens when birding in the forest, and zeroed in on the song until I found it.  The leaf-warbler’s song reminded me of the black-throated blue warbler song back in North America, with a curious little buzzy note at the end of the call.  Although the song is quite nice, the bird is otherwise rather drab and uninteresting, as Old World warblers tend to be.  However, I was able to get quite a few photos of the bird, singing from different perches along the stream bed.

An Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus) at Wolchulsan National Park.  This species is best identified by its song.

The leaf-warbler belts out his favorite tune.

I enjoyed watching the leaf-warbler (Lifer #472) for a while, then continued on up the mountain towards the Baram waterfall.  It was warming up quickly, and I think many of the birds began to hunker down.  Much of my ascent was quiet, but the hike was challenging and required most of my attention, so I was grateful that there weren’t a lot of unknown bird calls coming at me from all directions.  A few brown-eared bulbuls, coal tits, pale thrushes, and four varied tits, were all that I encountered on my way to the waterfall.

This trail is like many I’ve done in South Korea: it is well-marked and fairly obvious, but it is intense and demanding.  Most of the trail followed the stream bed, and judging from the rounded boulders I repeatedly had to scale, the trail was the stream bed when the water levels were high.  On either side were rugged vertical walls of rock, with trees and vegetation clinging to anywhere they could get a foothold.  One side of the valley wall was covered with bamboo in patches, while further up were loads of Camellia shrubs with blossoms still on the branches.

A patch of bamboo along the Baram waterfall trail at Wolchulsan National Park.

A patch of bamboo along the Baram waterfall trail at Wolchulsan National Park.

Wait a minute…Camellia?!  This shrub makes up the preferred habitat of the fairy pitta, one of my prime targets for the Korean peninsula.  The bird is usually found on a few islands off the southern coast, namely Jeju-do, Jin-do, and Geoje-do.  Wouldn’t it be spectacular to find one at Wolchulsan?  It would be, but alas, it wasn’t going to happen.  Fairy pittas are late migrants, typically reaching the northern edge of their breeding range in late May and early June.  While not impossible, it is highly unlikely that one would be hiding in a few Camellia shrubs nearly a month early.  But one never knows…

I finally reached the Baram waterfall, and was happy to find a spring with three faucets for refilling canteens.  The waterfall was more of a trickle at the time, probably because it doesn’t rain much during the spring in Korea (monsoon season is not until June and July), but it was significantly cooler near the water and the high walls of the mountain provided some relief from the sun.  I stopped to rest for awhile, enjoyed my lunch, and found and photographed a vocal Eurasian wren near the falls.  A few more eastern crowned leaf-warblers were also singing nearby.

The somewhat lackluster Baram Waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

The somewhat lackluster Baram Waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

This Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes dauricus) serenaded me near the Baram waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

Having exhausted most of my energy climbing up to the waterfall, and not really finding what I was looking for, I decided to head back down and try taking the trail to the left.  On the way down the only bird of note was a singing male blue-and-white flycatcher, which resembles a robin-sized black-throated blue warbler.  A very striking species, but they tend to stay high in the canopy, and so pose a challenge to being photographed.

A small footbridge near the split in the trail.  Nearby was where I found my first Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler.

A small footbridge near the split in the trail.  Nearby was where I found my first Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler.

Reaching the split, I was quickly immersed in dense reeds crowding around the trail.  The reeds gave way to a deciduous forest with some juniper mixed in.  It was suddenly obvious that I should have come here first – the habitat was ideal for forest wagtail.  I quickly checked off a few more eastern crowned leaf-warblers, oriental turtle-doves, two large-billed crows, and an oriental cuckoo calling in the distance.  But again, no forest wagtail.

Weaving through the forest, a small sidetrail led me to a clearing where a large Buddhist shrine laid overlooking the valley.  It was a beautiful setting, and the ornate detailing on the shrine was some of the finest I’ve seen thus far.  Two incredible dragon-head carvings kept watch near the doorway into the shrine.  This was a great surprise discovery – occasionally I do put down the binoculars and actually take a look at some of the amazing human artifacts around me.  Unfortunately, not often enough it seems…

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A close up of one of the dragon-head carvings at the shrine.

A close up of one of the dragon-head carvings at the shrine.

It was getting on in the afternoon, and though I had covered a lot of ground, it seemed like my quarry would get the better of me today.  Perhaps my timing was off: too early in the season, or too late in the day.  I certainly did not cover the right habitat when I arrived, although the hike up to Baram Waterfall was a lot of fun and I’d suggest it to anyone heading to Wolchulsan.  The forest wagtail is not considered “rare” for nothing, so I shouldn’t really expect to find it on the first go.  There is a lot more of Wolchulsan National Park left to see, so I will be back soon to pick up the search.

Dipped again…

Straight to the Top

Eleven companions set out on a quest to the summit of Mt. Mudeung, where they would cast the One Ring into the fire from whence it came…

That is how our Saturday began…everything except that bit about the One Ring and volcanic fire.  Melanie and I joined up with a group of English teachers from Gwangju, many of the same people we went hiking with at Geumseongsanseong back in March.  Today’s hike was to the summit of Cheonwangbong, the highest peak of Mt. Mudeung in Mudeungsan National Park.  Cheonwangbong boasts a height of 1,187 meters (3,894 feet), and offers an amazing view of Gwangju nestled below.  We accessed the mountain via the Wonhyosa Temple parking lot, which can be reached by hopping on the aptly named #1187 bus.  This is the only bus that goes to the Wonhyosa Temple, so expect it to be crowded on weekends.  The other option is to take a taxi; be forewarned that the fare will be significantly higher for the distance traveled because Wonhyosa Temple is well outside the city limits and cabbies are hesitant to take you where they may not be able to find another fare.  If you can, get the fare amount up front before accepting the taxi.

Chris, our group leader, took us along a relatively easy trail around the backside of Mt. Mudeung, following a gradual ascent to the top.  This trail was not particularly busy compared to other trails in Mudeungsan National Park, so I would highly recommend it if you’re like me and prefer the solitude of Nature over busy trails and loud hikers.  We planned to hike to the Gyubongam Temple, a small forgotten Buddhist shrine nestled in the cliffs of Mt. Mudeung.  From there we would continue up the mountain to reach the summit of Cheonwangbong.

A map of Mudeungsan National Park, centered on Mt. Mudeung and Cheonwangbong Peak.  The dotted line represents our path around the mountain.

A map of Mudeungsan National Park, centered on Mt. Mudeung and Cheonwangbong Peak.  The dotted line represents our path around the mountain.

We met at the Wonhyosa Temple at around 10am.  The parking lot has a small convenience store where you can buy drinks, snacks, and a small assortment of hiking apparel, so Melanie and I grabbed some snacks while we waited for our group to arrive.  Spring is in full force now, and it was expected to be around 23°C (74°F) by midday, so we were dressed light for the occasion.  I was hoping for some spring migrants to add to my year list, and hopefully I’d be able to grab some photos as well.  I had just bought a new camera a few days earlier, and was anxious to test it out.  The new setup is a Canon 7D with a 100-400mm f5.6 lens – a pretty solid and popular setup for bird photographers.  I had been using my trusty Sony Alpha A100 with a 75-300mm f5.6 for over half a decade, so I was long overdue for an upgrade.  I’ll save you the suspense: the new camera performed flawlessly!

It started at the parking lot, where I found several azure-winged magpies flying around.  These birds are slightly smaller than the common Eurasian magpies that are regular fixtures everywhere in Gwangju, and I had yet to photograph one.  Alas, today proved to be like all the previous attempts, and I was unable to grab a shot of them.

Our group fully assembled, we headed off into the mountains, passing a small collection of houses and farms near the Wonhyosa Temple.  We did not tour the grounds of the Temple itself, as we were all anxious to get to the top of the mountain.  As we began our ascent, I quickly found my first lifer for the day: a singing oriental cuckoo near a fast-moving stream.  It was difficult to hear the bird at first, but once I picked up the sound it was impossible to ignore.  The bird was somewhere on the other side of the stream, and there was no way to get across from where we were, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to see this new bird.

The trail was steepest here, so we took plenty of breaks and enjoyed the fine weather.  Other than the usual mountain species like coal tit, great tit, and brown-eared bulbuls, I briefly heard the rattle-like call of a pygmy woodpecker, and heard two more oriental cuckoos.  Despite several attempts, I was unable to find the cuckoos.  I get the sense that this species may become a “nemesis bird” for me, even though I’m still counting it because of the positive ID on its call.

About an hour and a half into our hike, we arrived at the Gyubongam Temple.  The Temple itself seemed to just appear out of nowhere; it is astonishing how well-designed and constructed these temples are, and how non-invasive their construction is.  The temple looks like it was always there, just growing out from the cliff walls around it.

The gateway into the Gyubongam Temple.  An ancient bronze bell rests at the middle of the structure.

The gateway into the Gyubongam Temple.  An ancient bronze bell rests at the middle of the structure.

The sanctuary at Gyubongam Temple.  Colorful lanterns hung all around the temple.  I would love to see this place lit up on a clear night.

The sanctuary at Gyubongam Temple.  Colorful lanterns hung all around the temple.  I would love to see this place lit up on a clear night.

Inside the sanctuary at Gyubongam Temple.  This is an active temple, so shoes must be removed before entering here.

Inside the sanctuary at Gyubongam Temple.  This is an active temple, so shoes must be removed before entering here.

The temple was an excellent spot for a break.  We had our lunch here, where we were able to explore the different buildings and marvel at the view from the temple walls.  There is a small spring at the back of the temple, where you can refill your canteen before setting off again, and washroom facilities are on-site as well.  It was very subtle, but all around the temple, on the bare stone of the cliffs, were carved Japanese characters.  Some of these carvings scaled large monoliths of rock; it is a wonder how the carvers of these symbols managed to get up so high.

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Most of the bird life around the temple consisted of coal tits and a single Eurasian jay, but as we were getting ready to continue our climb to the top, I heard the long complex sound of a Eurasian wren.  Last year the winter wren was split into three species: the winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis), the Pacific wren (T. pacificus), and the Eurasian wren (T. troglodytes).  Both the winter and Pacific wrens reside in North America; the Eurasian wren can be found throughout Europe and Asia, and is comprised of several subspecies.

A “Korean” Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes dauricus) near the Gyubongam Temple at Mudeungsan National Park.

 For such a tiny bird, it has an amazingly complex song, consisting of multiple changes in pitch and style.  Watching it sing, it’s hard to believe such a song is coming from this small brown bird.

Following the trail around the mountain, we passed several gaps in the trees, where we could see the surrounding mountains and valleys.  The forest took on a new personality as we gained altitude: the leaves became stunted or had barely emerged, and many of the trees were smaller and shorter.  As we neared the top of a ridge between two of the peaks of Mt. Mudeung, the environment changed from forest to scrub land, with scraggly bushes and thorns spreading out in all directions.  The trail took us directly to the ridge, where we could see Cheonwangbong Peak and nearby Jiwangbong Peak.  We were serenaded by a male yellow-throated bunting, who was singing from an open perch close to the trail.  Further out in the scrubland, multiple Japanese bush-warblers could be heard singing from small patches of reed-like vegetation interspersed with the scrub.

One of the many rock columns that break out into the habitat on the sides of Cheonwangbong.  If you look carefully you can see hikers all around the columns.

One of the many rock columns that break out into the habitat on the sides of Cheonwangbong.  If you look carefully you can see hikers all around the columns.

With so many tough, thorny bushes, I knew there had to be some shrikes around, and sure enough, right before we stopped to take a break at the top of the ridge, I found two bull-headed shrikes flying around the scrub.  This presented me with a perfect opportunity to test out the new camera equipment.  I have found shrikes to be notoriously hard to photograph, and thus a perfect test for my new lens.  It took some time getting into position in the thick scrub, but the scratches and scrapes were worth it.

A Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus) near Cheonwangbong Peak at Mudeungsan National Park.

As I pushed through the scrub to catch up with my hiking party, I noticed a butterfly flitting about in the tall grasses nearby.  I managed to get a few photos of it; as best as I can tell this is a young scarce swallowtail, but I admit my insect identification skills are quite limited compared to my birding skills.

A Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) at Mudeungsan National Park.

A Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) at Mudeungsan National Park.

We had been hiking for nearly 6 hours at this point, and though we were so close, it was decided that Cheonwangbong would win this round.  We began the descent down Mt. Mudeung following a paved service road.  The going was much easier than our ascent, and the views equally impressive.  Along the way we passed several pale thrushes and another Japanese bush-warbler.  Near a small lookout about halfway down, overlooking a large portion of Gwangju below, I found three long-tailed tits.  Just beyond that, only about twenty minutes from the Wonhyosa Temple, I found my second lifer for the day: an Asian stubtail.  This small Old World warbler resembles most of the other Old World warblers, with drab greenish-brown plumage.  What sets the stubtail apart, as its name suggests, is the small stub of a tail, and the bird’s preference to skulking on the forest floor rather than in the branches.  That is how I found the stubtail – I heard some rustling in the fallen leaves, and expecting to find another pale thrush, I was delighted instead to see this small drab bird hopping around on pinkish legs.  Although the stubtail paused on a small rock for a few seconds to check me out, my inexperience with the new camera finally reared its ugly head, and I missed my chance to grab a photo of the bird.

Weary after six and a half hours of climbing the mountain, we all hopped onto the #1187 and headed into downtown Gwangju, beginning a new quest to find dinner worthy of such an adventure.