Birding in the Clouds

The city of Bursa lies within a wide river valley, guarded to the north and south by mountains.  The city itself is nestled against the imposing Uludağ (oo-loo-dah), a goliath of rock towering 2,543m above the city.  In the summer, the mountain is a popular camping and trekking destination; in the winter it is a skier’s paradise, with numerous ski resorts and slopes to master.

Mt. Uludağ high above the city of Bursa

Uludağ is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, and is one of the best birding sites in Bursa.  The slopes of the mountain are covered with dense mixed deciduous/coniferous forests, giving way to entirely coniferous as the elevation increases.  As one nears the highest peak, Kartaltepe, the forests recede and boulder-strewn meadows mark the start of the alpine zone.  Only the hardiest lifeforms eke out a living up here.

One of the best ways to enjoy Uludağ is to take the Teleferik, an aerial tramway that runs 8.8km from the Teferrüç station in Bursa to the Bölge Oteller station at the base of the Kartaltepe peak. The Teleferik is the second longest aerial tramway in the world currently operating, second only to the Norsjö tramway in Sweden.  More information on logistics and getting to/from Uludağ at the end of the post.

Teferrüç Station at the base of Uludağ

Hop aboard!

The ride from between the two end stations will take approximate 22 minutes, but it is by far the most scenic way to experience Uludağ.  There is a stop about halfway at Sarıalan, where campgrounds, equipment rentals, and restaurants can be found.  Be sure to hold on to your ticket stub; you won’t be able to re-board the Teleferik without one!

Going up…

Nearing the top of the mountain, Bursa lays stretched out below you

I wanted to get out one last time to Uludağ before winter sets in.  The weather has taken on a chill, and although the sun is still warm, temperatures struggle to make it above 10°C.  While this is nothing compared to the winters in Canada where I first got into birding, for the local Turks this is considered quite “cold.”  Many of the migrants are gone now, and only the hardy overwintering and resident birds still hang on at Uludağ.

I took a chance this past Sunday, hoping that the promised clearing skies would yield some good birds on the mountain.  I wanted to track down the resident dunnocks that live around the Bölge Oteller station at the base of the Kartaltepe peak.  I got off at the Sarıalan station at the halfway point; currently the Teleferik only runs from Teferrüç to Sarıalan, but dolmuşes (minibuses) are available to ferry passengers to Bölge Oteller for 3₺ ($1 USD).

The first thing I noticed when getting off the Teleferik was how quiet it was.  There was a crisp wind coming from the east, and other than several bundled up Turks and a few vehicles, there was little activity.  I decided to hike around the area first, using the daylight to my advantage and heading into the forests.  My first birds were the sporadic flights of winter finches, mainly Eurasian siskin, that feed on the abundant cone seeds that cover the tops of the trees.  There were also the occasional European serin and red crossbill, though these were the exceptions – siskins were to be the Finch of the Day!

Eurasian Siskin (Spinus spinus)

Further into the forest led to scattered foraging flocks of coal tit.  Preferring coniferous forests, these small birds are common throughout the year at Uludağ, and can often be the most common bird seen (or heard) in the forests.  Watching the coal tits, a few great tits and goldcrest were also spotted.  I was hoping to stumble onto a common firecrest, a close relative to the goldcrest, but once again this tiny bird proved to be elusive.  Perhaps next time…

Coal Tit (Periparus ater derjugini)

One of the big draws to Uludağ for me is the abundance of a Turkish specialty.  Although Turkey doesn’t have any truly endemic bird species, the majority of the world’s population of one particular bird can only be found within it’s borders: the Krüper’s nuthatch.  With very small populations in Greece and Georgia, the bulk of all Krüper’s nuthatches live within Turkey.  Though small, these nuthatches can be found fairly easily around Uludağ, and can be quite vocal throughout the year.

Krüper’s Nuthatch (Sitta krueper)

As it was getting on in the day, I decided to hop on a dolmuş and head up to Bölge Oteller to look for the dunnock I had come all this way to find.  Bölge Oteller is the ski resort area on Uludağ; it is just below the treeline and the start of the ski slopes.  The wind was much stronger up here, and there was significantly less activity than in Sarıalan.  Despite going through some nice looking habitat, the only things I found were more of the same: Eurasian siskins, coal tits, and Krüper’s nuthatches.

Although the habitat looks good, it was just too windy for the dunnock

Eurasian siskins could be found along the roadways, eating the cone seeds that fell from the strong winds

A Krüper’s nuthatch gives me a farewell portrait

Although I never did find my sought-after dunnock, it was still nice to get out of the apartment and brave the autumn air.  As winter approaches, I don’t know if I’ll get up to Uludağ again before the snows start to fall and the skiers descend in droves.

GETTING THERE

The Teferrüç station, start of the Teleferik tramway, can be reached by public transportation by taking the dolmuş marked “Teleferik” from the Yüksek İhtisas Metro station.  The dolmuş will cost about 2.25₺ ($0.75 USD).  A round-trip ticket for the Teleferik costs 35₺/person ($12 USD); be sure to hold on to your ticket or you will have to buy another one to get back down.

Both Sarıalan and Bölge Oteller are accessible by car.  Be advised the roads are narrow and winding; in winter it is recommended to have chains on your tires.  There are also dolmuşes available in downtown Bursa which will take you to the top of Uludağ, though I do not know where to pick these up or how much it costs.  I do know that the dolmuşes typically do not depart until they are full, so you may be waiting around for awhile during the off-season.

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Birding in Ruins

The shirt says it all…

I’ve been fortunate enough to go birding in some amazing places.  While I’m not even close to a Big Lister (though I have met the biggest Big Lister in history!), I’m always keeping my lists up to date, regardless of where I happen to find myself.  I’ve seen a lot of new and interesting birds at some of the most mundane locations imaginable: great-tailed grackle in the parking lot of the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas; Javan myna outside a subway station in Taipei; a group of nēnē, or Hawaiian geese, at a golf course on Kauai.  You simply never know where the next great sighting is going to occur!

So as my long-suffering wife will grudgingly admit, I’m birding even as we speak.

Let me set the scene: a nice 4-day weekend holiday to the Aegean Sea, courtesy of Republic Day in Turkey.  We travel to the town of Bergama, site of the ancient Acropolis of Pergamon, the remains of a settlement dating back to the early 10th Century BCE.

Pergamon sits atop a small promontory above the modern town of Bergama.  Although much of the settlement has been reduced to ruin from the effects of earthquakes and time, it’s not difficult to imagine what life might have been like when Pergamon was thriving.  During the height of its power, the city had an estimated 200,000 inhabitants.

Narrow corridors wind throughout Pergamon

The Theatre, overlooking modern day Bergama

The Theatre, overlooking modern day Bergama

It’s difficult to explain how it feels to walk through these ancient ruins, knowing they have been here so much longer than my own country ever existed.  Then my reverie is broken by a bubbling trill to the north.  Over there, behind those rocks.

Western Rock Nuthatch (Sitta neumayer syriaca)

Spotting a medium-sized nuthatch amid a plateau of strewn rocks is no easy challenge.  Luckily, the western rock nuthatch likes to sing from exposed perches on cliff walls or atop boulders on the ground.  This bird has adapted to the semi-arid environments of Turkey’s western and central provinces; a similar looking species, the eastern rock nuthatch, can be found in similar habitat in eastern Turkey, Georgia, and Syria.  If I wait around patiently, I might be able to get a decent photo of this unique bird…and so goes the sightseeing for a time.

The nuthatch comes to investigate me as it flits about looking for food

Eventually I do remember that I, in fact, have a wife, who is somewhere nearby wondering (for the millionth time) why she married one of those weird bird people in the first place.  I leave the rock nuthatch to do its thing, and I scramble over the rocks to continue doing my thing.  I come over a small rise and see…

The Trajaneum, or Sanctuary of Trajan

Well, that stops me in my tracks for a moment.  Staring at the white marble columns in the sunlight, my eyes nevertheless switch almost instantaneously to movement on the left.  And here we go again.

More nuthatches?

No, this one’s too small.  It’s very fast, flitting around, never staying put for more than a few seconds.  Darts out into the air and snatches some unseen insect.  Ah, a flycatcher.  Back in North America, flycatchers can be pretty dull and uninteresting to look at (on the average).  But in Europe and Asia, flycatchers become just as colorful and vocal as our most beautiful wood-warblers.

As I watch this female black redstart, tan brown with a bright orange splash of color under her tail, I notice a few more redstarts about.  Then a dark male bird pops up on a small rock, overlooking the area.  He’s the one I’m after, so I get the camera ready and fire away.

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros gibraltariensis)

It turns out that these redstarts are by far the most common birds in the area, and I’ll see around 25 of them before the day is through.  While there are birds around, the wind coming up the promontory is quite strong.  After nearly losing my hat twice, I begin to understand why the birds I do see are staying low, hugging the ground, or just staying put under cover.  A lone male blue rock thrush, singing quietly to himself, surveys the Theatre and the town of Bergama down below.  A northern raven glides overhead, using the steady wind to drift in the air.

And then I hear a sound over the wind.  It’s a different sound, not like anything else I’ve heard today.  And a little bit of tracking reveals three sombre tits in some scrubby shrubs near the edge of the promontory.  These are birds I was hoping to run across on this trip – they’re hard to come by around where I live in Bursa, but they’re more common along the western coast of Turkey.

Sombre Tit (Poecile lugubris anatoliae)

These three birds were all juveniles, as indicated by their brownish coloration.  Adult sombre tits resemble large Carolina chickadees, more greyish in tone.  Not to be outdone, another male black redstart came in to feed on some small flying insects, using a nearby boulder as a launch pad for his aerial strikes.

One can see how the black redstart uses his color to camouflage

Although I ended the day with a scant 9 species, due largely to the strong wind and remote habitat, it’s opportunities like this that make birding such a rewarding and accessible activity.  You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment; you don’t have to travel to exotic locations.  Places you never thought of as having wildlife of any kind can often surprise you, if you have patience and a good pair of eyes to see.

Murmurs of Haenam

This past weekend I led an outing to Haenam County, under the auspices of the Gwangju branch of Birds Korea.  Nine people turned out for a day-long tour of the “Kimchi Capital of Korea.”  But it wasn’t the endless fields of cabbage that brought us to Haenam:  every year, the majority of the world’s population of Baikal teal come to this place to spend the winter months, forming enormous flocks that contain literally hundreds of thousands of ducks.

I took my group around Haenam county, checking out the hotspots like Gangjin Bay and Gocheonnamho Lake.  Waterfowl of all types come to the waterways in Haenam, and by the end of the day we had tallied 62 species of bird, including unexpected birds like brown-cheeked rail and merlin.  But it was the teal we had come for, and it was the teal we would find.

I knew of a spot on the expansive Geumho Lake, where I had seen nearly 90,000 Baikal teal the previous year.  As soon as we arrived, we saw a small group of Baikal teal in a canal, leading to the main body of Geumho Lake.  There were only a few hundred of them, but they were close to shore and allowed us some excellent views of these beautiful birds.

Baikal Teal (Anas formosa)

As we watched, I became aware of a low humming sound, like the sound a highway makes from a distance.  But there are no highways near this portion of Geumho Lake, so what was making that sound?  We continued on towards Geumho Lake, and reaching a small berm on the shore, we discovered the source:  the lake was covered with teal, all murmuring to one another!

The dark line, that appears to be dry land, is actually tens of thousands of Baikal teal

As we watching, stunned into silence, the dark line on the lake began to take to the air, as steam rises from a river in winter.  What appeared to be like dark smoke over the water was revealed to be thousands of teal through the binoculars.

A murmuration of Baikal teal
Only a portion of the entire flock is shown

When birds form large flocks, and take to the sky as one mass, it is called a murmuration.  Starlings in Europe are known to form large murmurations that act just like a school of fish swimming in the ocean.  Murmurations function as excellent defense against would-be predators:  when faced with literally thousands of targets all moving together, a predator is overwhelmed and usually ends the attack.

A panorama of the murmuration

The photos don’t really do it justice.  The mind reels as it tries to grasp what it sees before it.  As the sun descended and darkness began to creep over the horizon, we estimated there to be at least 200,000 Baikal teal, though it’s arguable that there were more like 300,000.  We were looking at the bulk of the world’s population of this species, all on a single body of water!

It’s moments like this that remind us all that, while we may be the dominant life form on the planet, we are but one species among millions, each as unique and spectacular as ourselves.  I challenge all of you to go out there and find something amazing…you’ll be surprised how easy it is to find, if you have the eyes to see.

Igidae’s Kites

I don’t get out that way very often, but Busan has a selection of great birding sites.  Many have specific species that simply can’t be found in Gwangju.  And the simple fact of being on the Sea of Japan makes the scenery that much more spectacular.  Melanie and I took a weekend trip to Busan in mid-November with the sole purpose of spotting a Pacific reef heron for my year list.

Busan skyline, as seen from Igidae Park

To find this bird, the best place I knew of was Igidae Park.  I’ve written about it before, as it is one of the best birding sites in Busan.  Since we were looking for a heron, we opted to follow the trail that hugs the rugged coastline; for hikers on a day trip, I’d recommend going into the forest interior and exploring the trails there.

Igidae’s eastern coastline

Well, we’re certainly not going to go left…

To make a long story short, the reef heron eluded us, despite an exhaustive search.  But we did have luck with some of Igidae Park’s other resident species.  Numerous gulls were out on the water, namely black-headed and black-tailed gulls, and several blue rock thrushes put in appearances along the rocky coast.  And it wouldn’t be complete without finding a few large-billed crows willing to pose for the camera.

It’s fun spotting female Blue Rock Thrushes (Monticola solitarius philippensis)
blending in seamlessly with the rocks

Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos mandschuricus)

Although there were no reef-herons at Igidae, we were generously compensated by observing two of Igidae’s majestic birds of prey:  the black kite.  I ticked my first black kite at Igidae Park in May 2013, and on every subsequent trip I’ve managed to spot at least one.  But every time the weather was against me, and most black kite sightings I’ve made were during overcast or rainy days.

“Black-eared” Black Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus)

As you can see, weather was no problem today.  The first kite spent several minutes flying low over the coastline, riding the thermals coming off the surf.  Eventually the kite swooped down to the surface of the water, snagging a fish much to the chagrin of fishermen nearby.  But never before had I been able to watch a raptor hunting from such close proximity:  as the kite took off to the safety of the trees to eat it’s meal, it passed nearly within arm’s reach of Melanie and I as we stared dumbfounded by the edge of the rocks.  Shortly afterwards a second kite appeared, and the two spent time circling eat other in the sky before disappearing over the mountains to the other side of Igidae.  This was Melanie’s life bird experience with black kite, and what a memorable one it was!

Flying below eye-level, this black kite is a juvenile bird, as evidenced by
the white wash on the secondary coverts.
Nearly all black kites in Korea are juveniles; adults are rarely observed.

Zeroing in on lunch…

Success!  The black kite heads off to eat its catch

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

GETTING THERE

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

WHERE TO STAY

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

WHAT TO BRING

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.  

WHAT TO DO

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.

Kinmen: A Midnight Run from China

I don’t know if there is an actual word for what we planned to do next.  I call it a vacation within a vacation, if that makes any sense.  China is an incredible place, full of history and culture, natural beauty and the urban high life.  But China is also the most overpopulated place on Earth, and as the saying goes, “good things come in small doses.”

So for our final stop on our trip, we decided to (technically) leave China behind and go to the island of Kinmen, two kilometers from the port city of Xiamen.  Although it is nestled right in the heart of a bustling Chinese port, the island is officially part of the country of Taiwan.  As such, the island has a distinctly different culture and history than the nearby city of Xiamen.  And for the foreign traveler, it is prudent to remember that Kinmen is a separate country from China – be sure to apply for a multiple-entry Chinese visa if you plan to go to Kinmen and return to China, or you may find yourself stranded at the ferry dock.  Additionally, Taiwan has its own visa policies that must be taken into consideration as well.  It should go without saying that Xiamen and Kinmen also use different currencies; you may exchange Chinese yuan (¥) for Taiwanese dollars at the Wutong Ferry Terminal in Xiamen.

For me, this was the best part of our entire trip.  We had traveled to mainland Taiwan a year earlier, and it was an incredible trip.  I have never had a bad time in Taiwan, and that still holds true.  If you’re looking for an international destination, I highly recommend it.

The plan was to spend two days in Kinmen, and then two days in Xiamen before returning to South Korea.  That plan lasted all of about 20 seconds once we arrived in Kinmen.  We ended up extending our stay there, and only returned to Xiamen to catch our flight back to Incheon.

We booked our stay at the W Guesthouse, located in the center of the island.  It was by far the best choice of accommodations we made throughout the entire trip.

W Guesthouse

W Guesthouse

The owner/operator Mr. Weng is incredibly friendly, and will go the extra mile to make your stay perfect.  When we arrived at the guesthouse, he set us up in a newly renovated room.  The guesthouse is actually Mr. Weng’s home, and includes a traditional-style Taiwan house.  This house was our room for the three days, and we had the entire place to ourselves.

The W Guesthouse offers visitors the chance to stay in a renovated traditional-style Taiwan house

The W Guesthouse offers visitors the chance to stay in a renovated traditional-style Taiwan house

Every morning at 8am Mr. Weng would come to the courtyard of our guesthouse with breakfast.  He did this on his own, and we never had to pay for a thing.  He would also offer to drive us anywhere on the island we wanted to go, even though we had rented bicycles for the duration of our stay.  Yet another great thing about Kinmen: bicycles are free to rent from the island’s Visitor Center at the main bus station in Jinning county.

The only way to explore Kinmen

The only way to explore Kinmen

Kinmen countryside - quite the polar opposite of Beijing

Kinmen countryside – quite the polar opposite of Beijing

For a break from the extreme hustle and bustle of China, I’d highly recommend a side trip to Kinmen.  However, after speaking with Mr. Weng and his son (who attended high school at Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania – a rival school from my Valley View alma mater), plans are in the works to build a bridge between Kinmen and Xiamen.  This will bring a lot of new tourists to the island, and land has already been purchased to construct casinos.  So in short, this hidden treasure won’t stay hidden for much longer.

LOGISTICS: To get to Kinmen, you can catch a ferry from the Wutong Ferry Terminal (五通客运码头) in Xiamen, China.  Ferries between Xiamen and Kinmen run on a regular schedule between 8am and 6:30pm.  The ferry ride will be about 20-30 minutes.  Tickets cost ¥150 ($24 USD) from Xiamen to Kinmen; slightly less from Kinmen to Xiamen.  Remember that Kinmen is not part of China, so make sure your Chinese visa allows for multiple entries.  More information can be found here.