Making the Most of It: The Maekdo Eco-Park

During my time in South Korea, I’ve been lucky to meet up with several wonderful birders in the country, both native and foreigner alike.  This is yet another sign of the universal nature of birding: what we can’t communicate through words, we can articulate through our shared love of birds.

This past weekend my birding friend from “Down Under,” Peter Hirst, and I took a two-day birding trip to Busan on the southeastern coast of Korea.  We had high hopes of finding some early migrants and coastal specialties that we’d otherwise miss in Gwangju.  We also had the benefit of full access to Peter’s personal vehicle, which made several excellent birding spots instantly accessible.  Korea’s public transit system is top-notch, but as one would expect, the high-quality birding spots are often “off the beaten path” and not always accessible by bus or taxi.  With a forecast of clear skies and balmy temperatures (19°C over the weekend), we set out at the crack of dawn Saturday morning with high expectations.

Peter Hirst and I birding the Yeongsangang River in Damyang-gun. January 2014

Peter Hirst and I birding the Yeongsangang River in Damyang-gun.
January 2014

Peter is simply a joy to go birding with.  He’s always ready with a story, and tempts my inner Big Lister with tales of amazing sightings from the coastal habitats of New South Wales, Australia.  He’s an eccentric fellow at times, always cracking a joke or two (not always good ones, but I digress).  In fact, we sometimes get so caught up shooting the breeze that we forget to pay attention to the small flitting creatures around us.  But we’ve never had a bad outing together, even when we don’t always find what we were looking for.

It’s a long trip from Gwangju to Busan, but there are many places along the way that are worth checking into.  Unfortunately for us, there is currently an avian influenza scare in Korea, and all of the waterfowl mustering zones are closed off to visitors.  This means that prime locations like Suncheonman Bay and the Junam reservoir are inaccessible until further notice.  I’m not sure how effective this quarantine really is, since the migratory waterfowl only use these places as roosts for the night – every morning they leave to find food elsewhere, thereby spreading whatever microbes they may (though probably are not) carrying.

After being turned back at the Junam reservoir, despite our 3½ hour drive to get there, I gave my friend Jason Loghry a call to see if there was any point in continuing to Busan.  Our primary location was going to be the Nakdonggang River estuary, where Melanie and I had visited last spring.  But if that site was closed as well, where were we to go? Thankfully Jason was birding the Maekdo Eco-Park when I called, and he recommended we check out the site.  It was to be a great piece of advice.

Maekdo Ecological Park, running along the Nakdonggang River.

Maekdo Ecological Park, running along the Nakdonggang River.

Maekdo stretches over a large portion of the mouth of the Nakdonggang River.  It is considered an “eco-park,” a word which has a very different meaning in Korea than it does back in North America.  A Korean “eco-park” what we would call simply a “park;” think Central Park and you’ve got the idea.  Often times the natural habitat of the area is maintained (to varying degrees), but the eco-parks are by no means nature reserves or wildlife refuges.  They are often landscaped, with concrete-lined constructed ponds, and many natural features are altered or “improved” to such lengths that their natural value as an ecosystem is degraded.  That being said, eco-parks can still provide some good birding.  One of my favorite migration birding spots in Gwangju is the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-park, which I have written about often.

Seemingly endless expanses of reeds at Maekdo Eco-park.

Seemingly endless expanses of reeds at Maekdo Eco-park.

When we arrived I was immediately impressed with the level of preservation of habitat.  There were the mandatory parking lots and sports facilities that often accompany eco-parks, but much of the area had been devoted to preserving the riverside vegetation.  We made a quick drive through the length of the eco-park, scoping out the best sections of habitat to begin our search for birds.  We quickly found three pairs of bull-headed shrikes; we were fortunate to follow one pair as they brought materials to the nesting site, catching a glimpse into the private lives of these ubiquitous predators.  Numerous Eurasian kestrels soared above the reed beds, waiting to capture unwary prey from above.

Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
These falcons often hover over an area, and swoop down on any prey they spot.

We were hopeful to find some migrant and overwintering buntings in the expanses of reeds, and through careful searching we were able to find numerous Pallas’s buntings and a single little bunting.  As the sun began to set over the Nakdonggang, we checked out one last small pond.  There we found common pochards, northern shovelers, eastern spot-billed ducks, and a single common shelduck in the middle of a molt.  We also located four Eurasian spoonbills, an unexpected year bird!

Female Pallas’s Bunting (Emberiza pallasi)

Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla)

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia leucorodia)

We finished our first day with a total of just over 30 species.  Our hopes were high that we would track down a few more before heading back to Gwangju.
___________________________________________________________________

Sunrise over the Nakdonggang River

Sunrise over the Nakdonggang River

We were out the door the next morning at 7AM, just as the sun was rising over the Nakdonggang.  We had made out pretty well the day before, but having only arrived at Maekdo in the early afternoon, we had missed the flurry of activity first thing in the morning.  Our early arrival on the second day proved worthwhile, as we were immediately greeted by the sound of dusky thrushes (with a single Naumann’s thrush mixed in) and brown-eared bulbuls.  The first of the Japanese white-eyes had begun singing; we found six of them flitting about the emerging vegetation, and one was already in full song when we arrived.

Very quickly we relocated the Pallas’s buntings from the day before, only this time a resplendent male almost completed with his spring molt was with them.  We also had run-ins with a few more Eurasian kestrels, a common buzzard, and an unidentified accipiter which soared too high for us to identify (my instincts suggest northern goshawk, but it was simply too high to be sure).

Male Pallas’s Bunting (Emberiza pallasi)

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo japonicus)

The biggest surprise of the day came while watching the buzzard later in the morning.  It had been patrolling a stretch of reeds, and when it took to the air again for scan its territory, we heard an eruption of twitters from overhead: it was a flock of about 23 Pacific swifts!  Had they not sent out alarm calls at the approach of the buzzard, we would have completely overlooked them.  Swifts are insectivores, and begin to arrive around the same time as the first insects begin to emerge.  It was a sure sign that spring is well on its way.

Pacific Swift (Apus pacificus pacificus)

Having spent the morning and part of the early afternoon at Maekdo, we decided to check along the Nakdonggang River before returning home.  Maekdo had proved to be a wonderful stop: we finished visit there with a two-day total of nearly 60 species!

We stopped at a pull-off near the eastern shore of the Nakdonggang, adding Eurasian wigeon, red-breasted merganser, and osprey (sighted at nearly 500+ yards out in the river!) to our trip list.  Black-headed gulls flew back and forth along the shoreline, and we witnessed a few pairs of wigeons pairing up and several males fighting with one another.

A pair of Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
The gull is beginning to show the black head for which it is named.

It’s such a pleasure to get out and explore new areas.  Finding a number of year birds (and nabbing Peter a few lifers along the way!) is always an added bonus.  We didn’t get a chance to explore some of the more coastal areas due to the avian influenza precautions, but we certainly made the most of our trip to Maekdo.

Advertisements

Ides of March

It sneaked up on me somehow, but this past week marked my blog’s first anniversary, or birthday, or whatever blog’s celebrate when they’ve been around a year.  I’ve truly enjoyed the experience so far, although I haven’t always been able to dedicate the time I wanted to.  As a “Blog Year Resolution,” I’ll try to be more regular in my posts, and continue getting out there and living the birding life in South Korea.

Most of my time recently has been spent settling into my new schools, and wrapping my head around my new work schedule.  My birding time has been once again relegated to the weekends, but with the days getting longer every week, soon I’ll be able to do some late day birding as well.  And just in time, too – new arrivals are showing up all the time.  Here’s a brief look at what I’ve been up to in the month of March.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

Two weeks ago I went with Melanie to Geumseongsanseong (금성산성), an old mountain fortress in nearby Damyang-gun.  We had hiked the steep walls of the fortress in March of last year, where I had found a golden eagle and a flock of alpine accentors.  It was this latter species that we returned to look for again this year.

Despite the fine weather, we never found the alpine accentors, but there was plenty of activty, including all four species of tit (chickadee), numerous Eurasian nuthatches, and an unexpected Siberian accentor which put on a brief show for us near one of the fortress gates.  This was Melanie’s first sighting of Siberian accentor, and by far the best views of one I’ve had yet.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

Siberian Accentor (Prunella montanella montanella)
Click the image to see a short video of the accentor singing.

Last weekend found us in Suncheon-si, looking for cranes and any overwintering or recently arrived buntings.  This was a special trip, planned specifically to get Melanie her 500th bird.  To that end we were very successful, arriving near Suncheonman Bay and quickly finding at least 40 hooded cranes.  Just as I had found my 600th bird here only a few months earlier, Melanie found her 500th in the rice fields at Anpung-dong.  We went on to find her three more species to add to her list: Pallas’s bunting, reed bunting, and little bunting.  We had a very enjoyable walk along the Dongcheongang River, despite the threat of rain throughout most of the day.  There are definitely signs of spring in the air now: species are completing their molts, many species are singing, and the first of the early migrants are beginning to arrive.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus pyrrhulina)

Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and a Vega Gull (Larus vegae) along the Dongcheongang River.

The weather made a significant change this weekend, and today brought the first 18°C day of the year.  Taking advantage of the spectacular weather, Melanie and I invited our friend Victoria to come birding with us at Mudeungsan National Park, at the Jeungsimsa Temple.  Melanie and I had hiked this trail last April, and had some good luck with a variety of bird and insect species.

It's moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.© Victoria Caswell

It’s moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.
© Victoria Caswell

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

This was Victoria’s first real plunge into the birding world, and fortunately I was able to point out a lot of interesting species and behaviors.  We came across a pair of coal tits gathering moss for a nearby nesting site; click the link to see a video of the birds gathering moss.  There were numerous varied tits, pairs of both pygmy and white-backed woodpeckers, and a migrant yellow-browed bunting, which was only the second of this species I have ever seen (the first being one in the same mountain chain almost exactly a year ago to the day).

However, the pièce de résistance was definitely a very tame ring-necked pheasant, which foraged along a mountain stream in full view for tens of minutes.  We were privileged to have this opportunity to watch the pheasant for so long, and from such a short distance.  Our constant staring into the woods attracted several Korean onlookers, curious as to what was so interesting to the bunch of waygooks (Korean word for “foreigner”).  We passed out our binoculars to those who were interested, and all in all it was a great moment to show some of the locals this special (not to mention breathtakingly stunning) bird which, though very common in Korea, is often times overlooked.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

Yellow-browed Bunting (Emberiza chrysophrys)

Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)

Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus karpowi)
Click the image to see a video of the bird’s foraging behavior.

Although much of this month has been spent indoors teaching English classes, the time that I have spent outdoors has been incredibly fulfilling.  With the cold grip of winter beginning to loosen on the Korean peninsula, I look forward to warmer temperatures and renewed birding ahead!

Cambodia Tally Sheet

Here is a complete list of all the birds seen throughout our trip to Cambodia.  Where available, I have included a link to photos of each species.  There are 54 species listed.

SPECIES                  LATIN BINOMIAL                  
   
Storks – Ciconiidae  
Milky Stork Mycteria cinerea
   
Darters – Anhingidae  
Oriental Darter Anhinga melanogaster
   
Herons & Bitterns – Ardeidae  
Great Egret Ardea alba
Chinese Pond-heron Ardeola bacchus
   
Ibises – Threskiornithidae  
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
   
Hawks – Accipitridae  
Oriental Honey-buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus
Changeable Hawk-eagle Nisaetus limnaeetus
Shikra Accipiter badius
   
Stilts – Recurvirostridae  
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
   
Plovers – Charadriidae  
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
   
Doves – Columbidae  
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Oriental Turtle-dove Streptopelia orientalis
Red Collared-dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Zebra Dove Geopelia striata
   
Cuckoos – Cuculidae  
Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus
   
Swifts – Apodidae  
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris
House Swift Apus nipalensis
Asian Palm-swift Cypsiurus balasiensis
   
Kingfishers – Alcedinidae  
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
   
Rollers – Coraciidae  
Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis
   
Asian Barbets – Megalaimidae  
Lineated Barbet Megalaima lineata
   
Parrots & Parakeets – Psittacidae  
Alexandrine Parakeet Psittacula eupatria
Red-breasted Parakeet Psittacula alexandri
   
Ioras – Aegithinidae  
Common Iora Aegithina tiphia
   
Cuckoo-shrikes – Campephagidae  
Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus
   
Shrikes – Laniidae  
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
   
Drongos – Dicruridae  
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus
   
Fantails – Rhipiduridae  
Malaysian Pied-fantail Rhipidura javanica
   
Monarch-flycatchers – Monarchidae  
Black-naped Monarch Hypothymis azurea
   
Swallows – Hirundinidae  
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
   
Bulbuls – Pycnonotidae  
Yellow-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus goiavier
Olive-backed Bulbul Pycnonotus plumosus
   
Leaf-warblers – Phylloscopidae  
Chestnut-crowned Warbler Seicercus castaniceps
   
Cisticolas – Cisticolidae  
Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius
Dark-necked Tailorbird Orthotomus atrogularis
Yellow-bellied Prinia Prinia flaviventris
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
   
Old World Flycatchers – Muscicapidae  
Brown-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa williamsoni
Oriental Magpie-robin Copsychus saularis
Hainan Blue-flycatcher Cyornis hainanus
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Little Pied Flycatcher Ficedula westermanni
Blue Rock-thrush Monticola solitarius
Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus
   
Starlings – Sturnidae  
Common Hill Myna Gracula religiosa
Great Myna Acridotheres grandis
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Black-collared Starling Gracupica nigricollis
Chestnut-tailed Starling Sturnia malabarica
   
Leafbirds – Chloropseidae  
Golden-fronted Leafbird Chloropsis aurifrons
   
Sunbirds – Nectariniidae  
Olive-backed Sunbird Chloropsis aurifrons
   
Old World Sparrows – Passeridae  
Plain-backed Sparrow Passer flaveolus
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus