Butterfly Hunting at Gunwangbong

July is a difficult month for birders.  The breeding season is in full swing, so most birds are concerned with feeding their chicks or keeping an eye on fledglings.  Many species stop singing and disappear, not to be seen again until the autumn.  At these times many birders turn their attentions to other things, most often dragonflies and butterflies.

Many of the birders and photographers I know from Ontario switch to looking for insects in the summer months.  It makes a lot of sense when you think about it: birders are very determined and very attentive, so we can’t help but notice things around us, even if it’s not of the feathered variety.  Besides, some dragonflies and butterflies can easily rival the most ostentatious of wood-warblers in terms of coloration, while others require that same attention to detail that all birders hone over the years.

It’s the rainy season in South Korea now, and the weather is very unpredictable.  On occasion it will rain for several days straight, then be overcast and excessively humid for a few more days, and then rain again.  The only real constant is the humidity and heat, which remain regardless of how much water falls out of the sky.  On the rare days when the clouds break and the sun appears, temperatures quickly soar into the 30s, and the added humidity makes it difficult to stay out long or do any long-distance travel on foot.  I haven’t been able to get out as often as I’d like recently, both because of the weather and my work schedule.

Even so, I took a few hours this weekend to put down my laptop and lesson plans and head out into the wilds, hoping to reconnect with an old friend who I’ve neglected for too long.  I can’t quite characterize my relationship with the natural world; often times when I’m wandering along a mountain trail or walking the shore of a lake, I think to myself yeah, this is home.  Almost like the human world with its electronics, cars, bustling crowds, and constant noise, all that is the fake world.  Here on this mountain, or here by this lake, this is where we’re supposed to be.  This is where we really belong…it’s where we’ve always belonged, even though we like to think we’re somehow beyond it or above it.  Needless to say, even a few hours surrounded by the trees and life was enough to recharge the old batteries.

A map of Gunwangbong Peak and the reservoir on the outskirts of the Mudeungsan chain.

A map of Gunwangbong Peak and the reservoir on the outskirts of the Mudeungsan chain.

So this weekend Melanie and I stole away to Gunwangbong Peak (군왕봉), a mountain in the Mudeungsan chain that is near our apartment in Duam-dong.  The peak itself isn’t particularly high, topping at about 365 meters (~1,200 feet), but it is a pretty steep climb.  However, the view from the top is incredible: on a clear day you can see the entirety of the city of Gwangju laid out below.

My main focus was to look for some interesting butterflies and dragonflies.  I knew this area quite well, and although there is a good diversity of bird species in the area, I was not expecting to find any lifers, especially not so late in the breeding season.  Most of the species we encountered were the typical mountain species, such as Japanese tit, pygmy woodpecker, white-backed woodpecker, oriental turtle-dove, and brown-eared bulbul.  There were a few summer breeders around as well, including black-naped oriole and Asian stubtail.

A male nominate White-backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos)

At the base of the mountain is an abandoned reservoir.  There are a few gardens nearby, and plenty of ornamental flowers and shrubs, which attract all kinds of butterflies.  We found two species of swallowtails, large butterflies from the Papilionidae family.  The most impressive was the Chinese peacock, a large black butterfly with iridescent blues and reds in the wings, which explode in color when in the sunlight.  The second, the Asian swallowtail, reminded me of the tiger swallowtails from eastern North America, except larger and lighter in color.  Along a small stream leading into the reservoir, we found several small damselfies, which I later identified as stream glories or oriental greenwings.

Asian Swallowtail (Papilio xuthus)

Chinese Peacock (Papilio dehaani)

Stream Glory (Neurobasis chinensis)

On the way up to the peak we stopped at a small overlook.  A few black-tailed skimmers were flitting around, and near one of the burial mounds I noticed two butterfly skimmers engaging in aerial combat with one another.  I wasn’t able to photograph these dark-winged beauties, but just seeing them was enough for me.  We made use of the shade of the trees here and took a short siesta, getting our strength back before taking on the last stretch to the top.  It was easily nearing 40°C, and not much cooler in the shade.

A male Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum)

I was dozing a bit when I noticed a small bird pop up from the nearby vegetation and perch on an open branch.  It was small with a long tail; I figured it to be a brown-eared bulbul as they are very common in these mountains.  So you can imagine my surprise when I raised my binoculars and found myself looking at a tiger shrike scanning the vegetation for insects!  Here was Lifer #499!

Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus): Lifer #499.

My field guide had said that tiger shrikes were uncommon summer visitors to the Korean peninsula, but delving through the eBird database and following sightings in Korea had not yielded any reliable places to find this species.  In fact, the complete lack of sightings made it appear far rarer than the field guide would have me believe.  And yet, here was one no more than two kilometers from my apartment, hunting over a forest opening that I had been to dozens of times before.  It’s moments like this that remind me why I love birding so much: it’s the serendipity of the sport, and how even your backyard can surprise you sometimes.

The Tiger Shrike gives me a smile before returning to hunting insects near Gunwangbong Peak.

After an enjoyable photo session with the shrike, we decided to tackle that last push to the top of Gunwangbong, even though the heat was unrelenting and we were slowly going through our water supply.  Thankfully the trail to the top is relatively shaded in the forest; it’s a tough climb, but there is plenty of cover from the sun.  In the shade of the trees we found a few more butterflies on wildflowers along the trail.

A skipper butterfly, Daimio tethys

Grey-veined White (Pieris melete)

At the top of the peak there is a large observation area, with benches and a small marker designating the summit.  We stopped here for a long time, exhausted from the ascent.  A few more butterflies were flitting about, mainly Pallas’s fritillary and an Old World swallowtail; there was also a Eurasian magpie hanging around, looking for scraps of food from the people taking a rest in the shade.  It was a very clear day, with very little haze despite the high humidity.  Below me the whole of Gwangju spread out into the distance – this was the first time I had actually seen the whole city.

A panorama of the city of Gwangju, as seen from the top of Gunwangbong Peak.

A panorama of the city of Gwangju, as seen from the top of Gunwangbong Peak.

A marker at the summit of Gunwangbong Peak.

A marker at the summit of Gunwangbong Peak.

Pallas’s Fritillary (Argynnis laodice)

A male Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius), flitting among several Pallas’s fritillaries at the summit of Gunwangbong Peak.

Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon), a little worse for wear.

A female Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius)

It was a productive walk through the mountains, and finding the tiger shrike was an exciting and unexpected surprise.  Although birding can slow to a crawl during the dog-days of summer, it’s still worth keeping an eye out.  The birds may be on hiatus until the fall, but there are still plenty of other amazing critters to discover out there.  And anytime you can see a familiar place with new eyes makes all the difference.

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The Bamboo Forest of Damyang

As June winds to a close and the true heat of summer begins in July, the crazed running around trying to see as many birds as I could was slowing to only a moderately-fevered pace, as opposed to the manic, all-consuming pace it had only a month before.  The breeding season is typically a slow time for birding, with bird activity coming to a crawl as adults incubate, feed, and protect their young.  No new migrants are available until late August, when the earliest shorebirds begin their long flights back to their wintering grounds.

It’s the long pause before the storm.

So it was time to do some sightseeing, and give the birding a rest.  And if you’ve been following anything I’ve said here, you know that statement is a lie.  The birding never stops, but that doesn’t mean I can’t multitask once in a while.  Melanie and I had skipped it two weekends ago, so we decided to visit the Juknokwon Bamboo Forest (죽녹원) in Damyang.  Many areas in South Korea are known for a particular food or attraction that makes the place worth knowing: Daecheon for its mud festival, Jeonju for its bibimbap, Jindo for its dog breed, and so on.  Damyang is known for several reasons, but the bamboo forest is by far the most visible of these.  And this attraction could not be easier to get to from Gwangju.  Take the #311 village bus from anywhere in Gwangju; the bus arrives typically every 5-15 minutes.  Get off at the Juknokwon stop, and the entrance to the bamboo forest is across the street.  Admission is 2,000 won for adults, 1,000/1,500 won for children/adolescents.

With the exception of a few kitschy fiberglass panda bears just beyond the entrance (which are usually surrounded by tourists waiting to take their picture) the bamboo forest is just that: a forest of bamboo.  You’d almost expect to see an actual panda there, but of course there is none.  There is, however, an old Confucian school, an art gallery/gift shop, and a well-manicured pavilion, on the grounds of the forest.  If you’ve never experienced an actual bamboo forest before, it’s well worth a visit.  The entire grounds of the place can be explored in an afternoon, and there are plenty of restaurants and convenience stores nearby to grab a bite to eat.  As with all places in South Korea, the best time to visit is in the morning, before the crowds arrive.  This is especially true on weekends, so get there early.

A winding trail meanders through the thick bamboo forest at Juknokwon in Damyang.

A winding trail meanders through the thick bamboo forest at Juknokwon in Damyang.

It's unreal how tall the bamboo can grow!

It’s unreal how tall the bamboo can grow!

New bamboo growth appears bright green in this shot.  The shoots emerge with a protective sheath; once the bamboo has grown, the sheath falls off revealing the vibrant green of fresh growth.

New bamboo growth appears bright green in this shot.  The shoots emerge with a protective sheath; once the bamboo has grown, the sheath falls off revealing the vibrant green of fresh growth.

I was impressed with how tall the bamboo could grow.  It was surprisingly cool in the shade of the forest, a nice break from the heat and humidity of Korean summers.  The forest was also a breeding site for azure-winged magpies, as we found several pairs of them throughout the area.

A “Korean” Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyanus koreensis) perches in the bamboo at Juknokwon in Damyang.

The trail system at Juknokwon is a series of loops, so it’s impossible to get lost.  Our path eventually led us out of the forest into the Jukhyang Culture Village (죽향문화체험마을), a large open pavilion with grassy slopes and a nice koi pond surrounded by small pagodas.  It was here we found two pairs of azure-winged magpies and about a half dozen fledglings in tow.  Two Eurasian jays were also foraging with this group, and the calls of both a common and lesser cuckoo could be heard nearby.  As we walked around the koi pond, I also found several Eurasian tree sparrows, oriental turtle-doves, a pygmy woodpecker, brown-eared bulbuls, and fly-overs of both a cattle egret and a dollarbird.

The large Jukhyang Culture Village Pavilion (죽향문화체험마을).  A boardwalk overlooks a tranquil koi pond.

The large Jukhyang Culture Village Pavilion (죽향문화체험마을).  A boardwalk overlooks a tranquil koi pond.

One of the many pagodas  at the Jukhyang Culture Village.

One of the many pagodas at the Jukhyang Culture Village.

One of the adult Azure-winged Magpies keeps a close eye on me.  The presence of so many fledglings obviously had the adults working overtime keeping them safe.

A fledgling Azure-winged Magpie sleeps in a low branch, seemingly oblivious to its surroundings.

Another fledgling waits patiently for an adult to bring some food.  In the high heat and humidity, many of the fledglings kept their mouths open to cool themselves down.

The koi pond had quite a collection of koi, ranging from small to large.  There were also a significant number of dragonflies flitting about.  I was unable to get photos of all of them, including some of the large darner species (which never land), but I did photograph a number of new species that I can’t find in North America (not that I’m counting, of course).

A male Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) taking a rest by the koi pond in Juknokwon.

A male Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia).

We walked around the Culture Village for awhile longer, and in one of the pagodas a man and his wife were creating paper fans from bamboo.  The end results were beautiful, and it was amazing to watch how quickly the fans came together with nothing more than a dab of glue and a flick of the wrist.  I can only imagine the mess I would make if I tried to do the same thing.

We left Juknokwon and took a short stroll along the Yeongsan River.  There were plenty of shady spots to stop for an afternoon nap, and I had unfinished business with a common kingfisher that I knew was somewhere nearby.  It was another hot day, and by this hour many of the birds had retreated to whatever cover they could find.  Three domestic mallards slept on the water, an adult black-crowned night-heron made a brief flyover, and I could only locate one grey heron catching fish at the edge of a reed bed.  Sometimes it’s amazing how big a difference weather and timing play in finding a lot of birds and dipping on even the most common of species.

I followed the same path along a short boardwalk to a spillway, but the kingfisher eluded me yet again.  A quick note referring back to my previous post about the common kingfisher: a nemesis bird can continue to be a nemesis, even after it has been found and listed.  Sometimes it just mocks you for the sheer fun of it.

The spillway where I had enjoyed photographing striated herons two weeks earlier was empty, save for a little egret, a barn swallow, and one white wagtail.  The only real activity were the six or seven oriental reed-warblers that, despite sticking to the cover of the reeds, were singing continuously.  But there were plenty of dragonflies around, so I turned my attentions to them and got a few more photos for my troubles.

A Pied Skimmer (Pseudothemis zonata) resting near a spillway on the Yeongsan River.  I was unable to photograph several of this species at Juknokwon, but this one was more than happy to pose for me.

A beautiful clubtail, known only by its Latin name, Burmagomphus collaris.

Just like before, as we returned to catch our bus back to Gwangju, I heard a high-pitched call coming down the river.  Only this time the call was answered by a second call from a stationary position.  I got a brief glimpse as one common kingfisher zoomed by, banking sharply and disappearing behind some trees.  But that second call remained where it was, and I finally located the source perched on a branch on the opposite side of the river.  It was in this moment that I was glad I splurged on the 400mm lens, because I was finally able to capture a photo of a kingfisher.  This is far from my best work, but considering it’s a tiny bird from across a river, I’ll take it.

My South Korean nemesis:  an "Indian" Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis).

My South Korean nemesis:  an “Indian” Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis).

It’s good to know that a pair of common kingfishers are on territory near the Juknokwon Bamboo Forest.  Now I know where to look for them, and maybe I’ll even be able to get a decent shot of them one of these days.  Take that, nemesis bird!

Return to Wolchulsan

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t look around once in a while, you could miss it.

– Ferris Bueller

This was my feeling about the spring migration in South Korea.  Although I saw a lot of birds during this prime season, my work schedule kept me from getting out as often as I would normally back in North America.  I never really experienced the flood of migrants; it seemed more like a trickle.  I missed most of the passing leaf-warblers and buntings, and I’m still missing some of the breeding species that should be around, namely Eurasian hoopoe, Siberian blue robin, and Korean flycatcher.

I began to run out of ideas as to where I could find new species.  I was fortunate to steal away to Jindo Island on a day-trip with Pedro Kim, and there I was able to locate a fairy pitta.  Although I only heard the bird singing, and was unable to get any looks at it, the pitta was one of my Top Ten Birds of Korea that I really wanted to get before returning home.

Therefore it was time to revisit some of old locations, and hope they would bear new fruit.  Melanie had never been to Wolchulsan National Park, and she loves hiking mountain trails that almost require climbing gear, so it was a perfect fit.  As you may recall from my previous post, Wolchulsan National Park is a known breeding site for the rare forest wagtail, and I thought it might be worth trying again for this bird, since migration had petered out and the birds should be starting to nest now.

Ominous clouds hang over the peaks of Wolchulsan National Park.

Ominous clouds hang over the peaks of Wolchulsan National Park.

June marks the beginning of the rainy season in South Korea.  Most days during this time threaten rain, and the storms can become pretty severe.  The imposing face of Wolchulsan’s mountains were all the more intimidating with the dark clouds surrounding them.  It may have been an omen of things to come.

Passing through the entrance to Wolchulsan at the Cheonhwangsa Temple parking lot, we were immediately greeted by a calling Indian cuckoo.  The bird was at some distance, but its call was quite clear.  I wanted to optimize our chances of finding a forest wagtail, so I chose to take the Gureumdari Bridge Trail (구름다리) and see the famed “Cloud Bridge” for which the trail is named.  This trail meanders through a dense forest as it approaches Cheonhwangbong Peak, the tallest peak at Wolchulsan.  I hoped that this habitat would be favorable to forest wagtails.

It was a hot and humid day, with temperatures reaching almost to the 30°C mark (86°F).  The forested trail provided some much needed shade and ever-so-slightly cooler temperatures than in the direct sunlight.  Despite the oppressive heat, the birds were active and singing, and we found several eastern crowned leaf-warblers, Eurasian jays, brown-eared bulbuls, pale thrushes, and coal tits on our climb.  The call of a lesser cuckoo near the Cheonhwangsa Temple led to us both getting good looks at a pair of the cuckoos.  So Melanie was finally able to add that species to her list.

Breaking through the forested valley, this view is seen right before crossing the Cloud Bridge.

Breaking through the forested valley, this view is seen right before crossing the Cloud Bridge.

Gureumdari (구름다리), the "Cloud Bridge," hugging the rocks over a steep valley.

Gureumdari (구름다리), the “Cloud Bridge,” hugging the rocks over a steep valley.

The Cloud Bridge as seen from the approach to Cheonhwangbong Peak.

The Cloud Bridge as seen from the approach to Cheonhwangbong Peak.

It wasn’t long before we reached the Gureumdari, or “Cloud Bridge.”  This 52-meter long suspension bridge crosses a large gulf on one of the subsidiary peaks of Cheonhwangbong, and offers very impressive views of the valleys below.  We stopped just beyond the Bridge for one of many breaks we would have throughout the day.  Echoing off the cliff faces was the sound of Eurasian jays and Daurian redstarts; I was even able to locate a few of each standing on precarious rock formations on the surrounding peaks.  In the valley below I could hear varied tits, pale thrushes, and a Eurasian wren.

We had our lunch near the Gureumdari, then continued up towards Cheonhwangbong Peak.  Very often during these near-vertical ascents the trail would disappear and give way to metal staircases bolted into the rock.  This was the only way to make the climb to the top, which begs the question of how did the builders get all the materials up there in the first place?

Sometimes the trail runs out of room.  Thankfully there are metal walkways bolted into the rock face of the mountains.  Just don't get too close to the edge.

Sometimes the trail runs out of room.  Thankfully there are metal walkways bolted into the rock face of the mountains.  Just don’t get too close to the edge.

Still going up...

Still going up…

The higher we went, the more the habitat changed from forest to bare rock.  It was becoming all too obvious that the forest wagtail would not be found in these conditions, and sure enough, we did not encounter a single one the entire day.  So the scoreboard now reads: Wolchulsan 2, Yours Truly 0.

It was nearing 3pm by the time we reached the final push to the summit of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  We had added a few more Eurasian wrens, Daurian redstarts, pale thrushes, two common cuckoos, an oriental cuckoo, four pygmy woodpeckers, and an Asian stubtail.  Resigned to the fact that the forest wagtail had won another round, I gathered my last bit of energy and dragged myself to the top of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  Melanie stayed behind about half a kilometer from the top, too tired and sweaty to continue.  She may have been the smarter one.

Finally reaching the summit of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  The 809 carved on the bottom right signifies the height of the peak (809m).

Finally reaching the summit of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  The 809 carved on the bottom right signifies the height of the peak (809m).

The view from Cheonhwangbong Peak, looking out over the city of Yeongam.

The view from Cheonhwangbong Peak, looking out over the city of Yeongam.

The towering peaks that greet visitors at the Cheonhwangsa entrance to Wolchulsan National Park are dwarfed by the Cheonhwangbong Peak.

The towering peaks that greet visitors at the Cheonhwangsa entrance to Wolchulsan National Park are dwarfed by the Cheonhwangbong Peak.

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It was blazingly hot at the summit of the mountain, but the view was well worth the struggle to get here.  I heard and eventually saw a Japanese bush-warbler, strangely singing from a cliff face below the summit.  I don’t know why it would have chosen that particular area to put up a territory.  Eventually it was time to return to my wife and begin the difficult task of climbing back down the mountain.  For those of you who do not torture yourselves with climbing up mountains, the hike back down can often be much worse than the hike to the top, mainly because you have to continually stop yourself from going too fast down treacherous trailways.  At this point we were completely out of water, and all the signs were telling us we still had 3.5 kilometers left to go.

We chose to follow a different path down, heading south along the Gyeongpo Valley to the Gyeongpo Visitor Center entrance at the south of the Park.  About a kilometer down from the peak there was a mineral spring where we were able to refill our canteens.  There is rarely a more beautiful sight than a small spring spouting fresh water when you’re drenched in sweat and your canteen is empty.  We refilled the canteens, drank them empty, and refilled them again.  If it isn’t already obvious, be sure to bring enough water with you if you try to take on Cheonhwangbong Peak.  And if you don’t there are refill stations along the Gyeongpo Valley Trail and the Baram Waterfall Trail, but not along the Gureumdari Bridge Trail.

Despite passing through gorgeous forests in the Gyeongpo Valley, we did not encounter a single forest wagtail, and a single marsh tit was the only new bird we found on the descent; there were also several of the ubiquitous pale thrushes, a few brown-eared bulbuls, and some Eurasian jays.  We reached the Gyeongpo Visitor Center entrance and immediately picked up a taxi back to Yeongam, where we got on a bus back to Gwangju.  It felt glorious to sit in a comfortable chair after that hike.  By the end of it, we had clocked in just under 7 hours of hiking.

Although we never found the bird we were looking for, Wolchulsan National Park still has a ton to offer.  The hiking is some of the best and most strenuous I’ve encountered, but the views and the beauty of the mountains make it worth the trip.  While I was figuring out the path we had covered by reviewing the trail maps available on the Korea National Park website, I found several references to the “Pampas Grass Field” located somewhere in the western portion of the National Park.  The topographic maps of the area also seem to show a dramatically reduced elevation in this part of the Park, possibly just the kind the forest wagtail would prefer.

Do I sense a Part III to this tale?

The Nemesis Bird

Generally birders are easy-going, energetic, active, and hyper-aware of their surroundings.  You could also use the words obsessive, quirky, eccentric, or just downright weird.  I think you have to be all of these things to do what I do.  Well, I wouldn’t describe myself as weird, but all the others certainly apply.

Therefore it may seem strange to use a word like nemesis to describe a bird, of all things. Isn’t that a little harsh?  Well, yes and no.  A nemesis bird is birder lingo for a bird that one has repeatedly tried to see and repeatedly been denied the pleasure (what we call “being dipped”).  We all get dipped from time to time.  What makes a bird a nemesis is the continuous, often times incessant, refusal to be where it is supposed to be, so that we don’t drive for hours on end, halfway across a state or province, just to find out that we “just missed it.”  That phrase (or related ones like “it was just here” or “I just saw it five minutes ago”) are like the Achilles’ heel of a birder’s composure; we typically lose our cool at that point, and a stream of swearing and profanity can often ensue.  The more swearing and profanity, the more nemesis a nemesis bird is.

A nemesis bird can also be one that, for reasons unknown, cannot be found in an area or habitat where it should be found.  Making several trips to an obscure tract of forest or unknown marshland all for the chance to see a bird that should be there, only to find out that it isn’t, even though everyone you’ve spoken to says it’s a “sure thing,” or “you can’t miss it” gives the title of Nemesis to even the most unsuspecting of sparrows.

I’ve had several nemesis birds in my time, but those were all back in North America, and all but one have been found and checked on my list (I’ll get you one day, American Three-toed Woodpecker).  I didn’t think I’d be in South Korea long enough to get a nemesis bird here, but what did I know?

My field guide calls it the Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).  Some words of advice for beginners: don’t ever fall for the misnomer of “common.”  A lot of birds with the word common in their names are anything but.  There are three species of kingfisher that can be found on the Korean peninsula, not including vagrants.  Despite living in a city with two rivers, and visiting other rivers, reservoirs, and lakes, all across the southern portion of South Korea, I had been unable to find any of these so-called common kingfishers.  Belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon), the widespread kingfisher of North America, can be found almost anywhere there is water, including even drainage ditches.  So it’s understandable why a bird called the “common” kingfisher quickly got on my Nemesis List for being so completely un-common.

So, as happens with some nemesis birds, I try to put it out of my mind and focus on more attainable birds.  But of course, I can’t walk past a suitable body of water without looking for my nemesis.

Melanie had a Hiking Club outing with her school on Friday.  She took the kids to Damyang, just outside of Gwangju, and they walked along the Yeongsan River bike trail.  She came home and mentioned seeing a strange heron, which she described as being similar to a black-crowned night-heron, but darker.  She’ll be the first to admit that her ID skills are not as honed as my own, but while she may not be able to identify a species just by its song, she definitely knows what she’s seen and what she hasn’t.  So Saturday morning we took a trip to Damyang, to retrace her steps and see if we could relocate this mysterious heron.

We hopped on the #311 village bus to Damyang; it’s a short trip, only about 15 minutes or so.  We got off right near the Yeongsan River, across the street from the Juknokwon Bamboo Forest (죽녹원).  If there had been enough time we would have checked out the bamboo forest, but we were both interested in walking the riverside, so perhaps another trip.

Our starting point was a small district in Damyang, with numerous restaurants, shops, an archery range, and of course the bike path along the river.  There were many families enjoying the good weather, but it was by no means crowded.  We began walking past a sports complex on the banks of the river, complete with a 1km running track.  The bike path next to this complex was lined with shrubs, and squeezing through a gap in the vegetation, hoping to get a better look at the river, I found a Japanese tree frog in the foliage.  I almost knocked it off its branch as I tried to get through the shrub.  There are only two species of tree frog in South Korea, the Japanese and the Suwon tree frog.  The Japanese tree frog is more widespread; the range and preferred habitat of the Suwon tree frog are poorly understood.

A Japanese Tree Frog (Hyla japonica) near the Yeongsan River in Damyang.

The river was a magnet for heron species, and we quickly spotted grey heron, great egret, intermediate egret, and little egret near the shore.  Several domestic mallards and greylag geese were also dabbling in the water.  Eurasian and azure-winged magpies flew along the length of the river, and very close to our bus stop I found an azure-winged magpie nest still under construction by two adults.

One of a half dozen nominate Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta garzetta) in Damyang.

A stately looking Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea cinerea) watches over a small spillway on the Yeongsan River in Damyang.

A Grey Heron takes to the air.  It’s amazing to watch such a large bird fly so gracefully above the water.

The future home of a pair of Azure-winged Magpies (Cyanopica cyanus koreensis) near the Yeongsan River.

A few of the domesticated Greylag Geese (Anser anser) at the Yeongsan River in Damyang.  These are typically called “barnyard geese” or “Embden geese.”

There was a small spillway along the river where we found singles of great and intermediate egrets, a grey heron, and two eastern spot-billed ducks.  As we passed the spillway, a small dark heron burst out from the vegetation and flew downstream.  I was able to get it in the binoculars, and sure enough, it was a striated heron.  Melanie confirmed that this was the same thing she had seen the day before on her school hike.  And so, Lifer #497 was added to the list.

We continued a little further before crossing a bridge and heading back on the other side of the river.  Heading back to our bus stop, we found three mandarin ducks, and got some close up views of a black-crowned night-heron and a Eurasian kestrel.  Near another spillway we located a second striated heron.  This bird would stand at the base of the spillway and pick small fish that got too close.  I was able to use the vegetation and get in close to the base of the spillway, and when the heron returned to its place, I got a chance at some amazing photos.

Near this portion of the Yeongsan River, we found and observed an incredibly accommodating Striated Heron.  I used the tall grasses to get close to the heron's preferred hunting spot at the base of the spillway.

Near this portion of the Yeongsan River, we found and observed an incredibly accommodating Striated Heron.  I used the tall grasses to get close to the heron’s preferred hunting spot at the base of the spillway.

A Striated Heron (Butorides striata amurensis)
gives me a passing glance before returning to catching fish.

My victory portrait, after successfully photographing Lifer #497.

My victory portrait, after successfully photographing Lifer #497.

While I was photographing the heron, I noticed a female grey wagtail walking the concrete spillway.  Might as well snap a few photos of her while I’m at it.

A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea robusta) at the Yeongsan River.

After the spectacular photo session with the striated heron, we had some lunch before continuing our hike.  While eating, I saw and heard several other species, including a cattle egret, a Japanese bush-warbler, a pygmy woodpecker, a passing black-naped oriole, and three common cuckoos.  One of the cuckoos was kind enough to let me take a portrait.

A Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) near the Yeongsan River in Damyang.

The trail turned into a boardwalk near a small sandy cliff along the river.  This section of the river held two pairs of oriental reed-warblers, vinous-throated parrotbills, brown-eared bulbuls, and an oriental turtle-dove cooing in the branches.  Near another spillway we found two more striated herons, a barn swallow, and three white wagtails, one of which was a recent fledgling.  The two adult wagtails stayed close to the fledgling, but it was an older bird and capable of flying short distances on its own.  It kept in constant contact with the adults, continuously making a chipping call to say “I’m here!”

A Grey Heron sits idly on the railing of the boardwalk on the Yeongsan River in Damyang.

A fledgling “black-backed” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens) waiting to be fed by an adult.

A Striated Heron jumps across a gap in the spillway at the Yeongsan River in Damyang.  The herons really enjoyed hunting along spillways such as this.

Oriental Turtle-dove (Streptopelia orientalis)

After a few hours of hiking, we decided to get on the bus back to Gwangju.  I stopped to photograph the oriental turtle-dove pictured above, when there was a high-pitched squeak and a small flash of iridescent blue.  From under the boardwalk came a tiny bird, which flew over the river, stopped and hovered, dove into the water, and then flew off into the surrounding trees.  The whole event lasted no more than fifteen seconds.  And just like that, my nemesis was finally caught: the bird was a common kingfisher, probably a male.  Suddenly I began to notice all the signs around me.  The bank of the river here was high, the boardwalk cutting into a sandy cliff – perfect habitat to put a kingfisher nest.  There were several dead branches hanging over the water, and underneath most of them were ample collections of droppings – obviously the kingfisher had several favorite perches to watch the river from.

We waited around for awhile, and were treated to several more views of this diminutive bird.  Kingfishers as a family are notoriously wary of humans, and photographing them is an exercise in patience and persistence.  Alas, I didn’t manage to catch my nemesis on film, but just seeing it was memorable enough.

During the course of our hike, we also encountered a variety of dragonflies and butterflies.  I have yet to locate a source of identifications for Korean dragonflies, so many of these will remain unknown until I can get my hands of a field guide or locate an accurate website.  The butterflies, on the other hand, I am pretty confident in IDing.

We found several of these unnamed damselflies during our walk.  They are referred to by their Latin binomial Calopteryx atrata, and do not have a common name as of yet.

We found many of these Eastern Pale Clouded Yellows (Colias erate) along the bike path.

A female Deielia phaon, an Asian dragonfly that does not have a common name.  We encountered quite of few of these dragonflies during our hike.

Many of these small damselflies were flitting between blades of grass.  They’re identified as Platycnemis phyllopoda.

A female Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum).  The males of this species are a chalk-blue color.

An Asian Comma (Polygonia c-aureum).  I managed to photograph this active butterfly as we were returning to the bus stop.

Deielia phaon, a male this time.

Our hike along the Yeongsan River had proven to be quite productive, both in terms of birds and wildlife in general.  Nabbing two lifers also helped sweeten the deal.  And any time you can check off a nemesis bird, well, life doesn’t get much better.  Now, to try to photograph said nemesis bird…ahh, another challenge for another day.

Jirisan National Park

Jirisan National Park (지리산국립공원) is South Korea’s first designated national park, established in 1967.  It is one of the largest national parks in South Korea, spanning across three provinces.  The site of ten Buddhist temples, it is also one of the largest tracks of virgin forest in the country, owing to the reverence of mountains in Buddhist culture.  As a result, Jirisan is home to many plant and animal species that are not found elsewhere in South Korea, including the rare Asiatic black bear, more commonly called the “moon bear.”

For a park this size, there are numerous entrances to choose from.  Melanie and I decided to take a bus to the city of Gurye (구례), where we would access Jirisan via the Hwaeomsa Temple (화엄사).  Hwaeomsa is one of the ten most famous Buddhist temples in South Korea, and is home to eight national treasures of Korea.  From Gwangju, take a bus from U+ Square Terminal to Gurye.  Buses leave about every thirty or forty minutes, and a one-way ticket will cost around 7,000 won.  The trip will take an hour and a half.  Once in Gurye, there is a shuttle that leaves for Hwaeomsa Temple every twenty minutes.  You can also get a taxi for about 9,000 won.

A map of Jirisan National Park near Gurye.  The locations of Hwaeomsa Temple and the Yeongiam Hermitage are shown.

A map of Jirisan National Park near Gurye.  The locations of Hwaeomsa Temple and the Yeongiam Hermitage are shown.

A trail map of Jirisan National Park.  These were placed at the beginning of each trailhead, and provided quite a lot of information on what to expect on any given trail.

A trail map of Jirisan National Park.  These were placed at the beginning of each trailhead, and provided quite a lot of information on what to expect on any given trail.

It was an overcast day, but there wouldn’t be any rain and temperatures would be a nice and cool 25°C (77°F).  We arrived at the Hwaeomsa Temple, and were literally blown away.  This was the first real Buddhist temple we had been to, with the exception of Haedong Yonggungsa in Busan (see that post here).  Immediately I was struck by how quiet and reverent the place was.  We had arrived at around 10:30am, but there were only a few dozen other people walking the grounds of the temple.  We’re both used to hiking trails, temples, and virtually any other attraction being swamped with people by 10am, so this was a very nice surprise.  The temple itself was built in 544 CE during the Shilla Dynasty, but was destroyed during the Seven Year War in the 1590s, and was rebuilt sometime thereafter.  As a North American, it still gets me to see buildings and structures that have stood in one form or another for centuries longer than my own country has even existed.

There is an active monastery at the site, and we saw many Buddhist monks and visitors on “temple stays” walking through the grounds in traditional Buddhist robes.  In two of the shrines, ceremonies were taking place and throughout the temple we could hear beautiful chanting.  It was very serene, for lack of a better description.  Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I’ll let them do the storytelling:

A signpost near the entrance the Hwaeomsa Temple.  The inscriptions contain Chinese and Korean characters.

A signpost near the entrance the Hwaeomsa Temple.  The inscriptions contain Chinese and Korean characters.

A view of the main entrance of Hwaeomsa Temple, the Iljumun Gate, and the stone staircase leading to the beopdang, or lecture hall.

A view of the main entrance of Hwaeomsa Temple, the Iljumun Gate, and the stone staircase leading to the beopdang, or lecture hall.

A view of the beopdang and the chonggak (bell tower) at Hwaeomsa.

A view of the beopdang and the chonggak (bell tower) at Hwaeomsa.

Two imposing guardians inside the Geumgangmun Gate at Hwaeomsa Temple.

Two imposing guardians inside the Geumgangmun Gate at Hwaeomsa Temple.

A view of the Gakhwangjeon Pavilion at Hwaeomsa Temple.

A view of the Gakhwangjeon Pavilion at Hwaeomsa Temple.

The chonggak, or bell tower, near the daeungjeon at Hwaeomsa Temple.

The chonggak, or bell tower, near the daeungjeon at Hwaeomsa Temple.

The Gakhwangjeon Pavilion.  Atop the staircase is the daeungjeon, which houses the Temple's main Buddha images.

The Gakhwangjeon Pavilion.  Atop the staircase is the daeungjeon, which houses the Temple’s main Buddha images.

This five-storey pagoda, the Seo-ocheung Pagoda, is one of the National Treasures at the Hwaeomsa Temple.  At the top of the staircase is the largest stone lantern in Korea.

This five-storey pagoda, the Seo-ocheung Pagoda, is one of the National Treasures at the Hwaeomsa Temple.  At the top of the staircase is the largest stone lantern in Korea.

In addition to the chanting of Buddhist monks, I heard two Daurian redstarts calling out their territories on the grounds of the temple.  Near the Iljumun Gate entrance, there was also an Indian cuckoo calling repeatedly.  This would have been a lifer for Melanie had we been able to see it.  We spent nearly forty minutes touring the temple grounds, so we decided to grab a quick bite to eat before beginning our hike up Mt. Jirisan.  There is a small gift shop near the Hwaeomsa Temple entrance, where we bought some Ramen noodles.  They also served a variety of coffees, but the last thing we needed before hiking a mountain was a hot drink.  It was at this gift shop that I found a dead mukade, or Japanese giant centipede (Scolopendra subspinipes japonica).  These enormous centipedes are not lethal, but can cause extremely painful stings requiring medical attention.  Fortunately they are not very common in the cities of Korea, but can be found out in the countryside, especially during the rainy season.  The dead mukade was not particularly large by mukade standards, only a few centimeters; I hope I never run into a full-grown mukade.

Our stomachs full, we began our ascent of Jirisan.  We came across several singing eastern crowned leaf-warblers, and managed to pick a few out among the branches.  These small birds were lifers for Melanie.  Our trail followed a large stream coming down from the peaks, which was one of the reasons I had chosen to come to this particular part of Jirisan.  It wasn’t long before we found what we had come all this way for.  An opening in the trail revealed a tranquil view of the river, and hopping from rock to rock near the water was a brown dipper!

The mountain stream running along our trail, the Hwaeomsa Course.  Prime habitat for brown dippers...

The mountain stream running along our trail, the Hwaeomsa Course.  Prime habitat for brown dippers…

Brown dippers are unusual birds, and I had planned this trip to Jirisan for the sole purpose of finding one.  They live and breed along rocky rivers and streams, especially in the mountains.  They are also one of the few passerines capable of swimming.  They appear to be about robin-sized, but with a short, stocky appearance.  Occasionally they will cock their tails, giving them a wren-like silhouette.  Our view was short, as the dipper flew further upstream once it realized we had spotted it, but there was no mistaking this bird.

As John “Hannibal” Smith from The A-Team would have said, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Our prize bird found, we continued up the mountain.  The dipper wouldn’t be the only lifer for the day, however, and shortly after finding the dipper we heard the distinct call of a lesser cuckoo somewhere in the forest.  The bird was flying high over the canopy, calling out a large territory, and through the branches I managed to get the briefest of looks.  Unfortunately Melanie was not so lucky, so she won’t be able to count this one.  Along this same trail we also found a few more Daurian redstarts, a Japanese bush-warbler, two grey wagtails, a large-billed crow, and a plethora of chickadees, including coal tits, Japanese tits, and varied tits.  After about an hour’s hike, with several breaks by the stream, we came to a fork in the trail, and one of the strangest sign posts I’ve yet to find in South Korea.

A fork in the road.  Left to the Yeongiam Hermitage and...

A fork in the road.  Left to the Yeongiam Hermitage and…

... a cafe?  In the middle of the woods?

… a cafe?  In the middle of the woods?

Well, if you’ve walked all this way and see a sign for a cafe, it would just be rude not to check it out.  The cafe was surprisingly swanky for being located near a Buddhist hermitage.  The menu was tailored towards beverages, with a selection of coffees and teas, both hot and cold.  We opted for two sandwiches, which really hit the spot.  Prices were a tad on the expensive side, with the average being 4,500 to 6,000 won for an item.  Still, I’ve hiked a lot of trails and mountains, and it is a rare thing to find a full-service restaurant on the middle of a trail.

A small cafe near the Yeongiam Hermitage.  By far this is the most random location for a cafe I have ever found.

A small cafe near the Yeongiam Hermitage.  By far this is the most random location for a cafe I have ever found.

Further up the road from the cafe was the Yeongiam Hermitage (연기암).  The Hermitage is home to the Manjusri, a 13m high statue commission by the Buddhist monk Manhae in 2008.  The Manjusri is the chief Bodhisattva, and is one of the most worshipped Bodhisattva in Korea since the Three Kingdoms Period.  The Hermitage rests in an opening in the forest, providing a beautiful view of the Hwaeomsa Valley and the surrounding mountains.

A shrine at the Yeongiam Hermitage.  The living quarters and the Manjusri were located nearby.

A shrine at the Yeongiam Hermitage.  The living quarters and the Manjusri were located nearby.

The Manjusri of Yeongiam Hermitage.  This large statue of the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom measures 13m high.

The Manjusri of Yeongiam Hermitage.  This large statue of the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom measures 13m high.

The Hermitage seemed to be a meeting place for cuckoos as well: we heard the calls of common, Indian, and lesser cuckoos all around the area.  A pair of Japanese tits had put a nest under the awning of one of the buildings, and the chirps of small chicks could be heard whenever the adults arrived with freshly-caught insects.   Continuing up the mountain from Yeongiam, we found a male blue-and-white flycatcher and an Asian stubtail.  The stubtail is a member of the bush-warbler family Cettidae, and has a high pitched, insect-like call, that can easily be overlooked in the forest.  We discovered that Melanie can’t really hear the stubtail’s call; at least, it is not as obvious to her as it is to me, even when the bird is close by or in view.  I’ve heard of this before, where a bird’s call is simply out of the audible range of certain people.  This can happen with North American species like blackpoll warbler and grasshopper sparrow.

A male Blue-and-white Flycatcher (Cyanoptila cyanomelana).  Low light in the forest prevented me from getting a crisp image of this bird.

We stopped one last time by the stream, while we debated the pros and cons of continuing up the mountain.  It was a serendipitous rest stop, for we found a pair of brown dippers and a female grey wagtail nearby.  Judging by their behavior, I imagine the dippers have a nest nearby, or may be building one.  Certainly the site is perfect for them.

Near this waterfall was where we found a pair of Brown Dippers...perfect habitat for this species.

Near this waterfall was where we found a pair of Brown Dippers…perfect habitat for this species.

A male Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii) foraging near the edge of a mountain stream at Jirisan National Park.

After enjoying watching the dippers, we decided to turn back and return to the Hwaeomsa Temple.  The hike back down the mountain was uneventful, with no new species found along the way.  All told we spent nearly eight hours hiking, and barely scratched the surface of Jirisan National Park.  I was really impressed with the park, both for the beautiful temples and landscape, as well as the great hiking trails and small crowd sizes.  If you can only make it to one national park in South Korea, make it Jirisan.