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…

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