Spotlight: Gageo-do

Having spent a long weekend at Eocheong-do this past spring, I decided to check out another of Korea’s numerous islands for the long weekend over the Chuseok holiday.  The destination was Gageo-do (가거도), the most remote island in South Korea.  Situated some 140 kilometers from the port city of Mokpo-si (목포시), Gageo-do is the most westerly point in the entire country.  Continue reading for some logistics.

Trail map of Gageo-do


Gageo-do is as far away from mainland Korea as you can get, and still be in the country.  There is only one ferry that services the island, and only one departure per day.  The ferry leaves from the Mokpo Port Coastal Terminal daily at 8:10AM; tickets will cost approximately 55,000₩; slightly less for the return voyage.  The trip will last around 4½ to 5 hours, depending on weather conditions, and the ferry will stop at a number of islands on the way to Gageo-do.  Tickets can be ordered ahead of time or purchased on the day of your trip; be sure to check the ferry schedule before heading out to Mokpo.  As always, you will need a photo ID to purchase your tickets and board the ferry – for non-Koreans, a passport or ARC card will suffice.

Gageodo-ri, the main village
­­© Blake Bouchard


Gageo-do is a very small island community.  Although there are officially three “villages” on the island, the total population is just over 400.  Gageodo-ri, the main and largest of the three villages, is where you will disembark on your arrival.  Unless you’ve already made other arrangements, you best bet at finding a place to stay is here.  There is a selection of accommodations, including a motel, several pension (펜션), and minbak (민박).  Prices will vary, but expect to pay around 40,000 – 60,000₩ per night.

Our pension in Gageodo-ri
© Blake Bouchard

The second village is called Hangri-maeul, and lies on the southwestern end of Gageo-do.  It is connected to Gageodo-ri by a paved roadway.  Hangri-maeul is considerably smaller than Gageodo-ri, but there is at least one minbak where you can stay.  There is also a small restaurant, but it was not open due to the Chuseok holiday.  Hangri-maeul is about a 5 kilometer hike from Gageodo-ri; there are no taxis on the island, but you may be able to hitch a ride with a local resident – there may be a fee associated with this.

Sign for Hangri-maeul, the second village on Gageo-do
© Blake Bouchard

The village of Hangri-maeul

The third and final village is called Sam-gu, and it is located on the opposite side of the island from Gageodo-ri, approximately 9 kilometers away.  It can be accessed by a roadway leading through the interior; you could also hire a boat to take you there, or hike from Hangri-maeul along the coastline.  Although Sam-gu is larger than Hangri-maeul, while we explored the village we did not see a single resident, even though air conditioners were working and there was a faint smell of something cooking around some of the residences.  We did not notice any accommodations or restaurants, but the ghost town like atmosphere was not particularly inviting of further exploration.

The village of Sam-gu


The main economy of Gageo-do, like most Korean islands, is fishing.  So non-Koreans will definitely want to bring some food, especially for breakfast if rice, kimchi, and fish are not your thing.  There are plenty of restaurants available in the villages, but the main course will likely be fish or seafood.  Even though something appears on the menu (or on the storefront window) doesn’t necessarily mean that it is available when you order it.

Many islands are a cash-only economy.  While you may be able to pay with a card, or find an available ATM, it is advisable to bring plenty of cash with you.  Even if you are lucky enough to find an ATM on the island, it probably won’t work, or will only have a small amount of cash available.  


Gageo-do has a thriving fishing industry, and among Koreans the island is known as a sports fisherman’s destination.  Many of the locals offer charter fishing services around the island; prices will vary depending on the owner of the vessel and your skill in haggling, but expect to pay around 100,000₩ per person.

If fishing isn’t your thing, the island does have several hiking trails crisscrossing the mountainous interior, or hugging the rugged coastline.  Be advised, however, that these hiking trails are not maintained and can get pretty difficult.  The interior mountains are very steep, and the trails consist of moss-laden boulders and slippery stones.  It is advisable to wear long pants and sturdy boats, or run the risk of getting torn up on thorny shrubbery.

There are a few pebble beaches around Gageo-do.  There are two large ones just to the east of Gageodo-ri; another secluded one can be found in Hangri-maeul.  Swimming in the ocean is not particularly high on the list of Korean past times, so you may very well have these beaches entirely to yourself.  If there are any locals or Korean tourists around, however, be prepared to be watched like a hawk as you enjoy the surf.

The swimming beach lies far below Hangri-maeul
© Blake Bouchard

A view from one of the beaches at Gageodo-ri
© Blake Bouchard

Overall, Gageo-do is a unique location with a tight-knit community.  You will feel like a minor celebrity as you walk the small, twisting alleyways of Gageodo-ri.  Korean island communities are by far the friendliest that I’ve come across – just remember to be open-minded.  Please check out my friend’s blog for more information on our trip to Gageo-do.  I’ll discuss the bird aspect of the trip in another installment.

Eight Years

Yesterday marked eight years since I said goodbye to my bachelor ways and made the big plunge into married life.  Add another six years onto that, which covers the long process of courtship we call “dating.”  All told, I’ve been with my significant other for nearly half of my life.

And the cake was never the same again ...August 26, 2006

And the cake was never the same again …
August 26, 2006

That’s…well, incredible?  Amazing?  Inspirational?

It’s all of those things, and more.  Eight years ago I took my best friend and made her my wife.  Eight years ago, I gained a companion who would stand by me through everything Life had in store for me.  And for eight years, it’s been an unforgettable ride.

My first great love introduced me to my second great (though to a lesser extent) love.  It was one of those moments that seemed so insignificant, but which ended up changing everything.  Yes, it was my wife who introduced me to birding, and she didn’t even know she was doing it.

In fact, truth be told, she was the one who got me into listing.  I was opposed to it at first.  And I remember it very clearly: “But how will you know if you’ve seen it before if you don’t write it down?”  Words that will forever haunt her…

Eight years it too long of a time to wrap up into a single post.  Too many moments, too many people and places, and not everything is appropriate for public viewing.  But let it be said that, because of all of the good, and despite all of the bad, the past eight years have been far better than a bum like me deserves.

So this one’s for you, Mel.

Ta Prohm, Cambodia
February 17, 2014

Saving the Coucal

To me, one of the most positive qualities of human beings is our ability to show compassion to other species.  Altruism within a species is fairly common (for a variety of reasons), and while seeing a young teenager help an old woman carry groceries to her house may give me that Hallmark feeling, it isn’t really that unusual.  But far fewer organisms show this same altruism to members of a different species.  Humans are unique in that regard – only a handful of species (some primates, dolphins, dogs, etc.) exhibit this behavior, so it could be said that it is one of the things that separates humans from the other animals.  On a personal note, I really dislike that statement, since it implies that humanity is somehow above or better than other organisms, and I feel that most of the world’s environmental problems would be solved if we realized that we are NOT above or better than the world around us.  But that’s not the point of today’s post, so let’s move on.

I’ve worked with birds in a variety of ways.  While I list them and photograph them in my spare time, I’ve actually worked with birds one-on-one, through a variety of research projects involving point-counts, mist-netting, and nest searching.  I’ve been trained on the proper way to handle birds of all species, how to go about searching for and monitoring nests with a minimum of interference, and how to recognize stress behaviors in birds.  Therefore, I’ll begin this post with the old adage don’t try this at home, I am a professional.

Melanie and I were biking along the northern shore of Kinmen.  As we turned a corner, I noticed a small dark shape sitting on the road.  Traffic in Kinmen is not what you would call “busy,” but nonetheless there are tour buses and construction vehicles that are very large and move very quickly.  Needless to say, the road is not the kind of place where one takes a nap.

It's rarely a good sign when a bird is resting on the road ...

It’s rarely a good sign when a bird is resting on the road …

I quickly identified it as a juvenile greater coucal, and my initial impression was that it had been hit by a car.  We’ve all seen enough roadkill in our lives to know the end result of vehicle vs. Nature.  I was expecting to find a mangled wing, and the realization of what would have to be done next started to gnaw at my insides.

To my (very relieved) surprise, when I approached the bird I did not find any obvious sign of injury.  It turned its head to look at me, but did not attempt to escape.  Not the best of signs, but not the worst, either.  It appeared to me that the bird was either disoriented or exhausted, as evidenced by its open mouth and slight panting.  If nothing else, I decided to move the bird to a more shaded area, where it could cool down instead of baking in the blazing sun on sizzling asphalt.

Coucals are medium-sized ground cuckoos.  They have strong legs and talons, although they are not as sharp or long as a hawk’s.  Still, care needed to be taken when handling the bird; even an accidental scratch by a sharp claw is enough to break the skin and cause a serious injury.  Fortunately for me, the coucal made no fuss, and allowed itself to be picked up and moved off the road.


Once we were off the road, I gave the bird a quick look-over.  I gently stretched each wing, to ensure that there were no broken bones.  The coucal did not show any sign that this caused any pain or discomfort.  All of the feathers looked in good order, there was no blood or other sign of injury, and the wings could be moved easily.  The coucal also kept a firm grip on my hands.

With no indication of injury, I placed the bird into a small opening in the vegetation.  The spot was well shaded by the trees, and provided some cover so the coucal would not be obvious to any predators.  I also used my water bottle to give the bird some quick drinks of water, which it lapped up readily.  After about 10 minutes or so, the bird closed its mouth and began looking around again.  It seemed much more alert, and when a large dump truck cruised by where we were standing, it jumped into the bushes and disappeared.

My educated guess is that the bird, being a first-year juvenile, may have overexerted itself in the hot weather, and suffered sun stroke.  Having nowhere else to go, it landed on the only open place it could find, which happened to be the middle of a road.  It’s not worth thinking about what would have happened had Melanie and I not come by when we did.

As I have already mentioned, I am trained in the proper handling of birds.  I do not recommend handling any wildlife that you may come across, both for their safety and for your own.  If you come onto an injured animal, contact a local wildlife management agency, a wild animal care center, or your local police station.  The point is, do something.  Making a quick phone call to save an animal’s life is hardly a difficult thing to do.

Before disappearing into the brush, the greater coucal allows me to take a quick portrait.

Before disappearing into the brush, the greater coucal allows me to take a quick portrait.

Best wishes to my new friend, the greater coucal, and here’s hoping you lead a long and healthy life.  Stay away from those roads!

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)


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


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.


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.

Surveying the Endangered

It is human nature to value the unusual or the rare more so than the common and the everyday.  Birders are no different.  Birders are always on the lookout of the “rare” birds; if you stumble onto a birding party, the question most often asked is some variation of Have you seen anything good?  In this case, “good” means “rare”; no one asks or cares if you’ve seen the common species.

There are “rare” birds, and then there are rare birds.  This second class encompasses birds that are rare everywhere.  In North America, a bird that ranges on the West Coast that somehow shows up on the East Coast is considered “rare” and East Coast birders will come in droves to see it.  But that doesn’t mean that particular bird is rare everywhere – the “Oregon” junco is “rare” in Ontario, but is commonplace in Nevada.

There is another word for that second class of rare bird.  The word is endangered.

This kind of rare bird is rare everywhere it occurs; there just aren’t that many of them.  The reasons a bird becomes endangered are many; most often human-related, but not always.  And because there are so few of them, having the opportunity to see an endangered species is one that you never forget.

I had just such an opportunity this past weekend, when I joined Birds Korea member Jason Loghry on a survey near the city of Naju-si.  We were surveying the population of scaly-sided merganser, a species listed as globally endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).  By the most recent estimates, there are only about 2,500 adult scaly-sided mergansers left in the world, most of which are found near where the borders of China, North Korea, and Russia, meet.

Out of concern for this species, I will not reveal where exactly we found these birds.  This species is excessively shy and wary of humans, and is easily disturbed.  Even to observe these birds, we had to be very quiet and patient, and even then sometimes the birds would take to the air and fly off to another location.  The purpose of this post is to raise awareness of this rare bird, not to create a crowd of (likely well-meaning) observers who may or may not maintain the same level of care and respect that the species deserves and requires to continue existing.

The scaly-sided merganser closely resembles the common merganser, which is far more common (as the name implies) and familiar to the average person.  Indeed, I had never even heard of scaly-sided merganser until I moved to South Korea, and even then I never expected that I would actually see one.

Two pairs of Scaly-sided Mergansers (Mergus squamatus) preen together on the water.

Males have a long, shaggy crest, which the common merganser males lack.  Females are harder to differentiate, as they closely resemble the females of common merganser.  The key distinguishing characteristic of the species is a patch of scale-like feathers on the flanks and rump of the bird; these feathers are what give the species its name.  The birds also have a small yellow tip on their bills, though this is rarely visible in the field.

This species is a wintering bird in South Korea, and selects waterways that meet very stringent criteria during the winter months.  The river cannot be too deep or too wide.  Often times they prefer gravel-bottomed riverbeds with large boulders or gravelly “shingles” where they can locate food.  Even finding this particular habitat, the onset of winter and the resulting freeze-up often means that the birds must relocate to other rivers until the return of spring.

Scaly-sided Mergansers in flight.
Note the scaled patterning on the flanks, and the fine black stripes in the white wing patch.

It was a rare privilege to find and observe these birds.  Jason and I had the good fortune to find six of them along the survey route.  We could watch them feed and preen, and interact with other species on the water.  In a comical display, a group of five scaly-sided mergansers expressed their displeasure at a nearby grey heron by repeatedly bobbing their heads in and out of the water as they approached the heron.

For more information, I encourage you to check out Birds Korea’s Key Species page.