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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!