The 700 Party

Last month I passed another milestone in my obsessive birding career: I spotted my 700th species!  This is by no means a huge number in the grand scheme of things, as there are an estimated 10,150 bird species on Earth, but the average birder (who does not travel extensively) may only see around 350-450 species; the average non-birder may only be aware of seeing a fraction of that number.

To celebrate this achievement, I wanted to throw a big party.  The majority of my friends here in Korea are non-birders, but accept my quirky hobby even if they don’t entirely understand it.  The idea was two-fold: 1) do something that would remind all of us of our homes, and 2) maybe get one or two of them hooked with a well chosen “gateway bird” (patent pending).

The site of the aptly named “700 Party” was easy enough to decide.  We booked The Damyang House, a small house near the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park in Damyang-gun, owned and operated by expat Sean Walker and his wife Jojo.  Enough great things can’t be said about The Damyang House – it’s a little bit of home in rural Korea.  The house has a yard (unheard of in Korea), with a hammock, fire pit (!), wood-burning stove inside, and a top-notch entertainment system.  Sean and Jojo are a dream to work with, as their flexibility and attention to detail go above and beyond what you’d expect for a B&B.  Whether you’re thinking of visiting Damyang and want something more than a “love motel,” or you want that perfect venue for your upcoming event, I highly recommend checking out The Damyang House on AirBNB.

The Damyang House
© Sean Walker

The party started with some birding around Chunghyo-dong and the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.  The place was pretty crowded in the afternoon, but we still had a good time, saw some good birds, and also attracted a small crowd of Koreans to see what the group of foreigners were so fascinated by in the trees.

Birding at the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park

Our craning necks and binoculars started to attract attention from the locals.  Here we are observing a pygmy woodpecker, and sharing the moment with some surprisingly excited Koreans, who probably never noticed these small birds before.
© Amanda Serrano

And here is the bird that caused all the fuss:  Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopos kizuki nippon)

Wandering through rice paddies in Chunghyo-dong

As daylight waned, we returned to The Damyang House and started up the barbeque.  I can’t tell you how nice it was to cook on an actual Weber with real charcoal and everything!  Once night fell, we transferred the coals to the fire pit and had ourselves a campfire…marshmallows and all!

Good food, better company…

Two Binch cookies and a roasted marshmallow make for a half decent Korean smore
© Lianne Bronzo

Thanks to our friends for coming out to “the middle of nowhere” to celebrate this geek-tastic occasion, and especially to The Damyang House for providing the perfect venue.

The 7 Hundreds

The 7 Hundreds

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The Fortress and the Unexpected Year Bird

The end of summer in Korea is a spectacular time of year.  Korean summer consists of inescapable humidity and crippling heat.  Everyday.  For nearly four months.

Once summer ends, though, things take on a whole new appearance.  It rarely rains throughout September, with every day being a perfectly clear sky and comfortably warm temperatures.  October is much of the same, though the leaves start to change color and fall away, and the temperature dips ever so slowly at night.  And as hard as you try to ignore it, the sun creeps behind the horizon a little earlier each day.

So it was on a perfect October morning that Melanie and I set out to Geumseongsanseong (금성산성), an ancient fortress ruin in the mountains around Damyang-gun, just north of Gwangju.  We’ve hiked this steep climb many times, but had never actually gone all the way around the fortress wall.  This wall encloses a small valley, and protects an old hermitage at its center.  Like the Great Wall in China, the battlements follow the lay of the land, resulting in a lot of sharp ups and downs along the path.

One of the gates at Geumseongsanseong

Looking out over Damyang-gun

This hardy tree clings to life on a solid boulder along the wall of Geumseongsanseong

The view from the northern wall of Geumseongsanseong

In addition to the amazing scenery (especially on a clear autumn day), I’ve found many interesting bird species in this area that I rarely encounter elsewhere.  See an earlier post about Geumseongsanseong, when I observed alpine accentors and a golden eagle, two species that I have yet to see anywhere else in Korea to date.

It took Melanie and I almost six hours to hike the entire perimeter, keeping in mind we were going at a leisurely pace.  Hiking with me usually consists of a lot of stopping and starting, as every song or call I hear requires identification.  If I can’t ID it just on sound alone, I have to stop and look for the source, because chances are if I can’t ID a sound, it’s because I’ve never encountered it before (and therefore, LIFER!)  Melanie has an abundant supply of patience…

We were finishing up our hike as the sun descended towards the horizon.  Then, a flutter of movement as something flushed from right along the trail at Melanie’s feet and bee-lined it for the tree branches above.  My mind goes through the motions: medium-sized ground bird, large body, powerful direct flight.  Strong wing beats that produce some noise.  Overall brown color, cryptic patterning, short tail.  (Oddly enough, this is practically word-for-word what went through my mind as I watched the whole event, which lasted no more than 5 seconds.)

I put all of that information together, instantly ruling out 99% of my Field Guide to the Birds of Korea.  Only two candidates remain, and I can rule out common pheasant easily because of the short tail observation.  Which leaves only one option left: hazel grouse!

Hazel grouse are small gallinaceous birds, part of the order that includes turkeys, chickens, and other game birds.  They closely resemble the ruffed grouse of North America.  However, they are scarcely seen, due mainly to their naturally shy nature and cryptic camouflage.  I have only encountered hazel grouse before on two separate occasions, both of which were over a year earlier.  Melanie, on the other hand, had never seen one before.

Male Hazel Grouse (Tetrastes bonasia amurensis)

For all the fuss it made flushing from the side of the trail, we had to peer through the branches to actually see the grouse.  Finally, I located it hiding behind a low-hanging branch.  The grouse looked down at us, and remained relatively motionless.  Then it began to vocalize in a high-pitched whistle; the sound was very uncharacteristic of most gallinaceous birds I’ve encountered before, and had I only heard it calling and not actually have seen it, I would never have guessed a grouse was making this call.

A pair of hikers passed us by soon after, and the grouse decided to fly off to another tree.  Generally grouse are not strong flyers, and make short direct evasion flights when flushed or startled.  This time the grouse only flew about 10 meters away, and landed in an exposed tree where it was in plain sight!  I cautiously approached, and was treated to a one-on-one photo session with a truly accommodating bird.  It wasn’t until a nosy Eurasian jay appeared that the grouse began to move further into the surrounding forest.

Hazel Grouse closely resemble Ruffed Grouse in every way but the facial patterning

And with that, we continued on down the mountainside, enjoying a beautiful sunset after an incredible hike.  Although the day was not particularly birdy, encountering a hazel grouse and having such good views made for a very memorable experience.