A River Runs Through It

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.

A view of the Yeongsan River in Dongnim-dong, looking south.

A view of the Yeongsangang River in Dongnim-dong, looking south.

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.

A quiet pagoda rest stop near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge.

A quiet pagoda rest stop near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge.

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.

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus), one of four that I would find along the Yeongsangang River.

Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

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.

“Stejneger’s” Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus stejnegeri), the breeding subspecies on the Korean peninsula.

A pair of Siberian Stonechats

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.

“Black-backed” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

A juvenile White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus auroreus)

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.

Female Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius)

Male Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius)

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.

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Fall Birding in Suncheon

Back in April I had made my first trip to Suncheonman Bay (순천만), where I went looking for shorebirds during their spring migration.  Now nearing the end of October, I returned there in the hopes of adding some new migrants to my list.  Top on that Wish List: hooded crane.

Since moving to Korea, I’ve adapted nicely to not having a car of my own.  Public transit in this country is phenomenal, and while I’m still adjusting to coming and going on someone else’s schedule, I can’t say that I haven’t been able to explore the country on my own.  Most buses start running at 5:45am, so I made the effort to wake up early and get out of Gwangju as soon after sunrise as I could.  By 7:35 that morning, I was on my way to Suncheon-si, on a bus that contained no more than five other passengers.  I love early morning travel!

The unassuming façade of the Suncheon-si Bus Terminal.

The unassuming façade of the Suncheon-si Bus Terminal.

I was in Suncheon-si by 9am.  Instead of heading to the Suncheonman Eco-Park, as I had in the past, I decided instead to check out some new areas along the bay, namely Hwapo Beach (화포).  From there I would walk along the edge of the bay north towards Anpung-dong and the Eco-Park.  If there was time (and I wasn’t completely exhausted by that point), I would head further north of the Eco-Park, following the Dongcheon River for a kilometer or two.

Hwapo Beach is several kilometers out of Suncheon-si proper, but there are two city buses one can take to get there.  One block from the Bus Terminal is a city bus stop where you can pick up the #67 (to get to the Eco-Park).  You can also pick up the #81 or #82 here, which will take you to Hwapo.  However, I’d recommend checking the bus schedule carefully before making plans, as I waited nearly 40 minutes for #81 to arrive, before finally giving up and hailing a taxi.  I’m not sure if this bus starts running later in the the afternoon, or perhaps it doesn’t run at all on Sundays.  Whatever the case, if you go the taxi route, expect to pay around 16,000 won for the trip.

I (finally) arrived at Hwapo, and was greeted by a pair of Daurian redstarts and several brown-eared bulbuls.  A winding side road leads through a small village and right to Hwapo Beach…or at least it would have if the tide hadn’t come in.  I mentioned it in my last post about Suncheon-si, but to reiterate an important point: always check your tide schedules before heading to the coastal areas for some birding.

Hwapo Beach at high tide.  Where's all the sand?  Under a few feet of water, where it will remain for 6 more hours.

Hwapo Beach at high tide, somewhere under a meter of water.

Disappointed and mildly irritated, I checked my phone for a tide chart, and discovered that the “true” high tide was 5 minutes ago.  So the water would now start to head back out to sea, but it would take about 6 hours to get there.  Oh well, I could safely cross off finding any interesting shorebirds for awhile.

All was not lost, however.  A steep hillside jutted up from the edge of the “beach” area, and within the vegetation I found a good variety of birds, including Japanese tit, Eurasian jay, yellow-throated bunting, another pair of Daurian redstarts, two ring-necked pheasants, and a pair of vocal bull-headed shrikes.  The real highlight was a passing northern goshawk, a year bird for me.  It circled low overhead, giving me plenty of chances for photos before disappearing over the hillside.

“Eurasian” Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis schvedowi)

Despite the tide, there were plenty of birds out on the water.  These were mainly black-tailed and black-headed gulls, but further out over the water I saw a small flock of Far Eastern curlews flying northward to some destination.  A second flock contained curlews and whimbrels.  Where were these shorebirds heading to?

I decided the best plan would be to head in the direction that the shorebirds were going and maybe get lucky and stumble onto their roost.  I left Hwapo Beach with a new year bird, and by far the best photo of a northern goshawk to date.

I returned to the main road, walking along the shoulder for about 2 kilometers through the village of Haksan-ri.  About every 100 meters or so I would find one or two Daurian redstarts.  Many of the males were in their bright colors, and several were singing away, staking out their territories.  Another common bird on my walk towards Anpung-dong was the bull-headed shrike.  Since October started, I have found at least one (often times more) of these predators on every outing I go on throughout the southern part of the country.  There is even a juvenile bird skulking around behind the middle school I work at in Gwangju.  Throughout the course of the day, I counted a total of eight shrikes in an 8-kilometer stretch!

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus)

Raptors were also out in force today.  Along the roadside I found a juvenile Eurasian kestrel perched atop a telephone pole, overlooking a rice paddy.  Shortly thereafter a second kestrel flew in and the two took to the air, soaring high over the area.  At the same time, I spotted an oriental honey-buzzard some distance away, flying northward before disappearing from the distance.

Juvenile Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Juvenile Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

I stopped for lunch when I reached Anpung-dong, one of the vast rural areas surrounding downtown Suncheon-si.  This area hugs the shore of Suncheonman Bay, and a raised berm gives a great vantage point to scan the mudflats for shorebirds and waterfowl at low tide.  There are two pagodas and several benches set on the berm so you can stop and take a rest.

A view of Suncheonman Bay, as view from the berm in Anpung-dong.

A view of Suncheonman Bay, as seen from the berm in Anpung-dong.

Enjoying some kimbap I purchased at the bus terminal, I set up my scope and took to scanning the mudflats.  There were few shorebirds that I could see, although occasionally I would hear or spot a common greenshank.  There were, however, loads of waterfowl dabbling in the mud and receding tide.  The majority were mallards, but careful inspection through the horde revealed dozens of northern pintails and Eurasian teal.  I also spotted two Eurasian wigeons hiding in the masses of mallards.  A flock of about fifty or more common pochards was an added bonus, and made for the best views of this species I’ve had yet.  Further out in the bay were loads of grey herons and great egrets.  Sitting atop of pole set out in the bay was an osprey – another year bird!  Although osprey are fairly common in the right habitat back in North America, and I’m used to seeing their fairly often, I have not been able to find any osprey all year in Korea, despite traveling to several coastal environments where they should have been.  It was great to add this species to my year list, and especially good to see the Eurasian subspecies, which may one day reach full species status.

Packing up my scope, I made my way into the endless rice paddies of Anpung-dong, heading back towards the bus stop where I could pick up the #67 back to Suncheon-si.  It was here that I hoped to spot some cranes foraging in the fields; hooded and white-naped cranes use the harvested rice paddies as a stopover area in their migrations.  Unfortunately for me nary a crane was seen, but the paddies did hold other treasures for me to find.

The sea of golden rice at Anpung-dong.

The sea of golden rice at Anpung-dong.

It began with small groups of threes and fours of olive-backed pipit, a species I haven’t seen since April.  These were joined by other groups of sky larks, a life bird!  Unfortunately, I would only know these birds were around when they took to the air, as the harvested rice still left enough cover for them to hide in.  Equally frustrating were the four common snipes that I inadvertently flushed along the roadside.  The edge of the paddies are muddy and water pools there, mainly because of the machine tracks left behind by the harvesters.  These function as small oases, and the snipes used their camouflage very well…I never saw any of them until they exploded out of the vegetation and flew off.  However, in so doing, they offered me good views of the white edge on their wings, which is a diagnostic tool for identifying these birds.

As I continued to mistakenly flush snipe, I came upon another bird which resembled the snipes, but was strangely different.  I only got three opportunities to see it, as it flushed only three times before disappearing.  When it would fly, it never went very far (unlike the snipes, which would fly off to a completely different rice paddy, or disappear into the horizon altogether).  And watching it fly I was able to discern a shorter, broader bill than is characteristic of snipe; the bill also had a slight downward curve, and ended in more of a nub than a point.  A quick look through my field guide revealed this bird to be a male greater painted-snipe, a rare breeder and overwintering species in South Korea.  Far more common in Southeast Asia and Africa, the greater painted-snipe is a skulking wader in the Rostratulidae family.  This species exhibits reverse sexual dimorphism, in which the females are more brightly colored than the males.  The bird I was seeing had the yellow wash and bright yellow striping of a male bird.  Most importantly of all, this was Life Bird #584!

I was trying desperately to capture an image of the painted-snipe, and in so doing stumbled onto another Life Bird: a sharp-tailed sandpiper.  Unlike my snipe quarry, the sandpiper was much more accommodating, and stuck to the pools of water where it would keep a close eye on me, but nonetheless stay in sight.  This species resembles the pectoral sandpiper, but its dark rufous cap and obvious white supercilium differentiate it from the pectoral.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Calidris acuminata)

A little further on, I unexpectedly flushed a Far Eastern curlew right alongside the road!  I’ve seen this species reliably feeding on the mudflats at Suncheonman Bay, but never close enough for a photo, and surely never in the rice paddies.  I jumped at the chance to photograph this amazing shorebird with its enormous bill.  It wasn’t until much later, when I reviewed my photos, that I discovered why this bird was so far from the bay and by itself.  It appears to have suffered an injury to its left leg, and though it could fly perfectly well, it will have a hard time walking around.  Closer examination of the photo below shows the leg to be twisted at an awkward angle.  It’s a sad thing to see an injured bird, but I have seen many one-legged shorebirds that seem to manage their disability just fine, so time will tell what will happen to this curlew.

Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis)

Although I dipped on the cranes, there were plenty of interesting species still around Suncheonman Bay.  Finding the greater painted-snipe was surely one of the more exciting and unexpected lifers that I’ve found this year.  I’m encouraged now to explore some of the rice paddies closer to Gwangju – who knows what may be waiting to be found there?