Birdathon on Eocheong-do

If you’ve been following my blog, even for a short time, you might have noticed that I have what polite society might call a condition.  To say that I have “birds on the brain” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.  I have dreams about birds, usually involving species I haven’t seen perching out in the open under perfect lighting conditions for me to photograph at my leisure.  I consider myself fluent in over 400 languages, because that is roughly the number of species I can readily identify by song or call alone (and that number continues to grow).  So, yeah, I have a condition.

Therefore it should go as no surprise that when my friend Jason Loghry at Birds Korea asked me to join the 2014 Birdathon, I literally jumped at the chance.  For those of you who don’t know, a Birdathon is a fundraising event wherein participants are sponsored to go out and see or hear as many different species as possible within a 24-hour period.  Sponsors can decide to pay a set amount of money per species, per hour spent birding, or a lump sum total.  For this Birdathon, all proceeds go directly to Birds Korea to help fund their conservation efforts protecting the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper and the habitats it utilizes here in South Korea.  It’s important work, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute in my own way.

I’ve already written about Eocheong-do (어청도), so this post is strictly about the birds.  And oh, the birds we did see.  There were six participants in this year’s Birdathon at Eocheong-do; other Birds Korea members did separate Birdathons at other locations in Korea and elsewhere in the world.  This year’s event carried with it the caveat that participants cannot use any mode of transportation other than their feet during the actual count period; i.e. we could take a ferry boat to Eocheong-do, but could not count any species seen during that time.  Here are some vital statistics on Birdathon 2014:

Duration: 4 days (May 3 – 6)
Birdathon Count Period: May 3, 10:20AM – May 4, 10:20AM
Birdathon Count Period Total: 78 species heard/observed
Total Species Counted on Eocheong-do: 95 species
Species Added to Life List: 18 (me); 22 (Melanie)
Funds Raised: 171,000₩

To briefly summarize our four day adventure, the birding was nothing short of spectacular.  Every day brought in new migrants, and every inch of the island was crawling with birds.  The vast majority were yellow-browed warblers, but hidden among them were less common species like Kamchatka leaf warbler and pale-legged leaf warbler.  As I have been told many times, the best birding in Korea can be found offshore on the islands, and I found this out to be true first-hand.  It wasn’t just the numbers of birds, but also the variety of species.  We even had to good fortune of spotting two mega-rarities: a cinnamon bittern and Korea’s third record of northern wheatear!

Here are a few of the highlights of our trip to Eocheong-do:

Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina)

Blue-and-white Flycatcher (Cyanoptila cyanomelana cyanomelana)

Chestnut Bunting (Emberiza rutila)

Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola ornata)
Classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis)

Chinese Pond-heron (Ardeola bacchus)

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus himantopus)

Terek Sandpiper (Xenus cinereus)

Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus lucionensis)

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe oenanthe)
This is only the 3rd time this species has been recorded in South Korea

These are but a small portion of all the images I took during our trip to Eocheong-do.  I encourage you to explore the Asian Bird galleries at my website if you’d like to see more from the trip.

The Birdathon Crew

The Birdathon Crew
From left: Jason Loghry, Hwang Haemin, Melanie Proteau Blake, Patrick Blake, Ha Jeongmun, and Kim Ohjin

It was a tremendous experience, one that will not soon be repeated.  Melanie and I were able to see some incredible birds and experience a migration unlike any we had before, and all the while we were raising money to help protect the crucial habitats that the birds we know and love depend on for survival.  A big thanks goes out to Birds Korea for hosting this event, and to my fellow Birdathoners here and abroad, for their dedication and passion that make birding the great past time that it is.

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Spotlight: Eocheong-do

Melanie and I recently had a few days off from school, during the Korean holiday of seokga tanisil (석가탄신일), more commonly called Buddha’s birthday.  This holiday is one of the main travel times in Korea, with many people traveling to visit family and relatives.  Any tourist destination is usually booked solid, as was the case in Busan this year where literally every hotel, hostel, pension, and jimjilbang in the city were sold out.

So rather than fight the crowds and traffic, we chose to leave mainland Korea and spend some time exploring one of the country’s numerous offshore island communities.  We chose Eocheong-do (어청도), a small island approximately 70 kilometers west of the port city of Gunsan-si (군산시).  Here are some logistics.

Eocheong-do (어청도)

Eocheong-do (어청도)

GETTING THERE

Being an island, the only way to get to Eocheong-do is by ferry.  Ferries depart once daily during the week, and twice on Saturday and Sunday, from the Gunsan Coastal Ferry Terminal.  During the week the ferry departs at 9:00AM; on weekends you can choose between a 7:30AM or 1:30PM departure time.  However, ferries are often cancelled due to fog, rough seas, or bad weather, so be sure to check the weather before leaving the mainland.  The ferry ride itself lasts about 2½ hours, with a short stop at nearby Yeon-do (연도).  Tickets for a one-way trip will cost around 25,000 won at the time of this writing; these tickets can be ordered ahead of time by phone or online, but unless you have a solid grip of the Korean language, it’s best to buy your tickets at the Ferry Terminal the day of your trip.  You will need a valid photo ID to board the ferry; for non-Koreans, a passport or Alien Registration Card (ARC) will suffice.

Gunsan Coastal Ferry Terminal

Gunsan Coastal Ferry Terminal

WHERE TO STAY

Eocheong-do is a small island community, with a population of only about 400 residents.  As such, don’t expect any 5-star hotels with room service on this trip.  However, minbaks (민박) are plentiful and affordable throughout Eocheongdo-ri, the main village on the island.  A minbak, or “homestay,” is a bed-and-breakfast style accommodation, with a traditional Korean feel.

 Expect a sleeping mat, blankets, and an ondol-heated floor in place of a bed; however, some minbaks may offer Western-style beds for an additional cost.  This may seem frightening at first, but minbaks are usually very clean and comfortable, and the owners are always friendly and helpful, even if they do not speak much English.  Prices range from 10,000 won per night to upwards of 40-50,000 won for more popular tourist destinations at peak travel times; in some cases you can even negotiate a price with your hosts.  In many cases, a minbak will also have a restaurant attached, or be located close to one; you are not obligated to eat there if you do not want to.

The Yangji Homestay on Eocheong-do.  The restaurant on the main level serves excellent fried chicken.

The Yangji Homestay on Eocheong-do.  The restaurant on the main level serves excellent fried chicken.

WHAT TO DO

The island is shaped like a crescent, and has a steep ridge running along the edge.  Half of the island is part of a military base, and is fenced off to the general public and visitors.  However, the remaining half of the island is lined with hiking trails.  The village of Eocheongdo-ri, though small, offers a variety of restaurants, a large public pavilion, a church, a seaside boardwalk, a lighthouse, and numerous gardens through which one can meander.  The residents of the island are especially friendly; don’t be surprised if you’re invited for a drink or a meal by a total stranger.  Koreans as a people are still very curious about foreigners, but unlike most places I’ve traveled to within mainland Korea, the people of Eocheong-do are far more polite about their curiousity.  I did not find that anyone stopped and stared at me, or was even all that surprised to see me.  If anything, people treated me as though I was just another resident whom they hadn’t seen in awhile.

The village of Eocheongdo-ri

The village of Eocheongdo-ri

The boardwalk, opposite the marina

The boardwalk, opposite the marina

The lighthouse on the western end of Eocheong-do

The lighthouse on the western end of Eocheong-do

The main reason to go to Eocheong-do is for the birding.  Its position in the Yellow Sea makes it an oasis for migrant birds flying from China to the Korean peninsula.  Eocheong-do is well known in Korea and elsewhere as a hotspot for birding during the spring migration.  Many rare and accidental species have been documented here over the years.  In fact, birding-based ecotourism is starting to catch on, and the island’s economy is shifting to promote its natural treasures.

Our visit to Eocheong-do was immensely relaxing, and the birding was some of the best I’ve had anywhere in Korea (where else can you see 100 species in just a long weekend?).  I’ll post about our birding experiences in another installment.