Gwangju has two rivers that run through the metropolitan area. The Gwangju River, which runs west to east through the downtown core, has been mostly converted into a canal, with cement lining the shore and two bicycle paths/pedestrian walkways running alongside it. There is still a bit of natural habitat left, but the river is surrounded by the bustling commercial center of the city, so whatever natural value these areas have is significantly diminished.
To the west of the city, however, runs the Yeongsangang River, which connects the port city of Mokpo to the village of Damyang-gun, a total stretch of approximately 40 kilometers. It is possible to take a bike tour from Damyang-gun to Mokpo (or vice versa), and if you’re really adventurous you could opt to walk that distance as well. There are a number of productive spots along the Yeongsan, namely in Dongnim-dong, Deokheung-dong, and Chipyeong-dong. I typically concentrate my birding efforts to the north, centered on the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge (광신대교) in Dongnim-dong. To get there, take a #18 bus to the Gwangshindaegyo stop; from my apartment in Duam-dong it takes between 30-50 minutes, depending on traffic.
I went to this stretch of river on Sunday, arriving just after 8:30am. Despite the date on the calendar, there are still wildflowers and butterflies to be found, and the vegetation has only recently begun to dry up and go into hibernation for the coming winter. Looking over the expanse of scrubland and gently flowing water, I imagine what this place will look like in a couple weeks, once the waterfowl arrive on their migration route.
The area is mostly left to grow wild, and the scrubby grasses and wildflowers are only mowed sporadically in the fall. There is no boat traffic on the water, and other than the occasional fisherman along the shore and some construction sites to the north and south, the river is relatively undisturbed. A paradise this is not, however; careful scrutiny will reveal floating trash and industrial pollution. But for the most part the river is sufficient to support many species of plants and animals. In fact, the only Korean water deer I have ever seen was along this stretch of river, so there are wonderful natural treasures there, if you have the patience and desire to find them.
My first encounter today was with a small bull-headed shrike, calling from a low perch in the reeds. The sun, struggling to reach into the sky and illuminate the world, reflected brilliantly off the condensation on leaves and grasses. Elsewhere nearby I could hear brown-eared bulbuls and Eurasian magpies. Oriental turtle-doves roosted on the trees and power lines nearby. I spent nearly twenty minutes peering through dense grasses to spot several black-faced buntings flitting about under the cover of the vegetation. For good reason, too, as this area is regularly patrolled by Eurasian kestrels and Eurasian hobbies; both of these predators would put in appearances throughout the day.
Further north, the secretive buntings gave way to wave after wave of olive-sided pipit, a recent arrival in the waning migration season. These drab birds forage together in small flocks, ranging from just a few individuals to about 20 birds. Typically they are either well-hidden in the brush, foraging on the ground, or roosting in trees together, where a few lookouts warn the others of danger. In ones and twos, a total of about a dozen sky larks were also making their way south; these grassland birds were only seen as they flew overhead, and were it not for their distinctive flight call I would have no idea what they were.
The highlight of the outing was discovering not one but eleven Siberian stonechats in some tall reeds near the banks of the river. I had spotted a single stonechat in this general area about a week or two earlier; now there were so many more. At one point while I was watching them, seven individual birds were visible perching on various reeds and grasses. Although they had undergone their molt for the season, the birds were no less beautiful for it.
The water on the river was high, and aside from three little grebes and a handful of eastern spot-billed ducks and Eurasian teal, there were no large gatherings of waterfowl as I had hoped. Perhaps it is too early in the season still. There was very little exposed riverbed, so I was surprised to still find two wood sandpipers hanging around, picking at the mud where they could find it. White wagtails were more numerous than they had been during the summer months: I found eleven, consisting of two subspecies. There were also two glorious male Daurian redstarts, relatives of the Siberian stonechats, which had completed their molt and were staking out new territories for the winter months. I’ve noticed a significant increase in these small birds, as was evidenced by my recent trip to Suncheon-si, where every few hundred meters of walking revealed yet another pair of redstarts.
In addition to the abundant (albeit well-hidden) bird life, the lands surrounding the Yeongsan River were also alive with insects. Grasshoppers of numerous species were everywhere, jumping and flying away with every footstep. Where there were wildflowers, dwindling numbers of butterflies still hung on. Only a few species of butterfly are still around at this time of year, including whites and yellows, but also Asian commas and Indian fritillaries. You can also get lucky and find a passing red admiral or painted lady, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule now.
Despite not finding the numbers of waterfowl I was hoping for, the Yeongsangang River never fails to impress. It’s one of the few places I know of in Gwangju were one can find an expanse of flat land that isn’t concrete or a rice paddy. When the water is low enough to expose the rocky riverbed, shorebirds and herons abound. Migrants of all kinds use the plentiful grass seeds and insects to refuel on their way to the wintering grounds. And the occasional raptors can be found soaring above the river, hoping to surprise their unsuspecting prey. Whether your interests lie in hiking, biking, birding, or you’re just looking for a change in scenery, time is not wasted in visiting the Yeongsangang River.