Guilin

It was time to leave Beijing, and head on to our next destination.  We were heading south, into Guangxi province to the city of Guilin.  The name may not be familiar to you, but you undoubtedly know about this city because of what lies around it.  Guilin is nestled along the Lijiang River, and surrounding it are the famous karst formations of southern China.

A view of Guilin, and the karst mountain range beyond

A view of Guilin, and the karst mountain range beyond

Karst formations occur as a result of weathering of soluble rocks such as limestone and gypsum.  Karst formations are often associated with caves, due to underground drainage systems characteristic of karst topography.  While karst formations occur all over the world, China in particular is known for them, especially in ancient landscape paintings and romanticized cruises down the Yangtze.

However, Beijing lies about 2,200 kilometers (1,300 miles) to the north of Guilin.  Given our time constraints, there were only two viable options to cover that distance in a reasonable amount of time: airplane or train.  We opted for the second option.  China has a very well-connected rail system, and most major cities are connected by multiple lines.  For this trip we booked two seats on a G-class train, more commonly called a “bullet train.”  These are the fastest trains in China, capable of reaching 350km/h.  Ours, however, maintained a steady 300km/h, getting us from Beijing to Guilin in about 11 hours.

All aboard!

All aboard!

As if the scenery blurring past the window wasn't evidence enough, we were constantly reminded of our speed throughout the trip

As if the scenery blurring past the window wasn’t evidence enough, we were constantly reminded of our speed throughout the trip

The trip to Guilin, though lengthy, was far more pleasant than most flights we’ve been on.  The train has a dining car, there’s plenty of leg room, and the seats can only recline so far, meaning that you won’t be crushed by the person sitting in front of you (I have long legs, so this is frequently a problem wherever I go in Asia).

Our first day in Guilin we spent at Seven Star Park.  This is a large park in the middle of Guilin, with two large karst formations riddled with numerous caves.  Seven Star Cave is one of the largest and most extensive in the park.  The park has a variety of facilities, including numerous hiking trails into the karst formation, several temples and shrines, a zoo (don’t go there – it’s depressing), and a fairground-style entertainment facility for children.  It was a little surreal to have such beautiful natural scenery side by side with cotton candy stands and carnival games, but that’s tourism in China.

I know if I wait here long enough, I'm bound to spot something...

I know if I wait here long enough, I’m bound to spot something…

A small cavern along the Lijiang River.  The walls were covered with ancient carvings of Mandarin characters.

A small cavern along the Lijiang River.  The walls were covered with ancient carvings of Mandarin characters.

It was therefore quite the surprise when we saw signs about wild monkeys in the park.  It was even more surprising when we stumbled onto a large troop of monkeys alongside a quiet trail in the mountain.  The troop consisted of a few adults keeping watchful eyes on a handful of “teenagers” and a half dozen “toddlers.”  Watching monkeys interact with each other really shows how closely related we are to them; they can be so emotive, and act just like their human counterparts sometimes.  If humans were smaller, had more hair, a tail, and could climb trees, you’d never know the difference.

Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) at Seven Star Park

A young rhesus hangs out in the trees above our heads

This adult female rhesus seemed to be the leader of the troop.
She was obviously not impressed with these two human specimens.


____________________________________________________

Our second and last day in Guilin, we headed out of the city to Guilin National Forest Park.  This park is only 3km outside of downtown Guilin, and is accessible via bus, taxi, or tuk-tuk.  I was not able to find out a lot of information on this park before our trip, and it didn’t seem as though the locals were very knowledgeable about it either.  Nevertheless, it was a beautiful area, and most importantly, it was almost entirely devoid of other people.

The taxi dropped us off at what appeared to be a park entrance; despite expecting to pay an entrance fee, the gate was open but the ticket booths were closed and empty.  No one was around, so we walked into the park.  In hindsight this was probably not the main entrance to the park, but it’s where the taxi left us.

The trails here took us into the karst formations.  They are much too steep to hike up to the top, but the trails snaked around the foothills, and we were surrounded by forest at all times.  If for no other reason than it’s quiet and peaceful, a visit to Guilin isn’t complete without going to the National Forest Park.

Guilin National Forest Park

Guilin National Forest Park

And all too soon, we were once again packing up to head on to the next spot.  However, in order to save time, we decided it would be worth the money to take an airplane this time, as the train would cost us nearly 15 hours of travel time (versus 1½ hours by plane).  And so, onto Xiamen International Airport, and our final destination: Kinmen Island.

Waiting to board our flight to Xiamen

Waiting to board our flight to Xiamen

China: The Undiscovered Country

As you may have noticed, I have been somewhat absent from the blogosphere as of late.  My sincere apologies, but I come to you now with tales of adventure.  So begins a two-week odyssey to a distant and exotic place I like to call…

IMG_5300

… China.

China is an enormous country, with an equally enormous population.  Two weeks isn’t nearly enough time to see even a fraction of the country, so my wife and I had to decide what we wanted to see.  We decided on three locations: Beijing, Guilin, and Kinmen.

BEIJING

Our trip began, as they always do, at Incheon International Airport.  We flew into Qingdao, before making the final jump to Beijing.  Neither flight lasted more than 1½ hours, but nevertheless we were treated to a full meal on our way to Qingdao.  Did I mention it was free of charge?  Words of advice, jot this down: never, and I do mean NEVER, fly an American or Canadian airline when flying internationally.  Our airline companies forgot what air travel was supposed to be, and instead decided that treating humans like cargo was a better way to look at it.

In-flight meal between Incheon and Qingdao on China Eastern Airlines.

In-flight meal between Incheon and Qingdao on China Eastern Airlines.

Qingdao International Airport

Qingdao International Airport

We arrived in Beijing at around 10pm, and took an airport shuttle to our hostel.  We booked ourselves a four-night stay at the Lucky Family Hostel, not far from the Forbidden City.  This is definitely a great place to stay for the budget-conscious traveler.  It has comfortable beds, a full shower and Western-style toilet (quite the luxury considering the alternative is the dreaded squat toilet – doesn’t that sound appealing?), and the staff are friendly, knowledgeable, and can all speak English.

The Lucky Family Hostel in Beijing

The Lucky Family Hostel in Beijing

DAY 1 – THE SUMMER PALACE

Our first day in China and Beijing was a wet one, but we set out nevertheless to the Summer Palace.  It started to rain shortly after we arrived, and continued off and on for most of the day.

As with most destinations, photos and words can’t replace actually being there.  So here are a few images to whet your whistle, and some logistics in case you’re in the area and want to check these sites out for yourself.

Suzhou Street at the Summer Palace

Suzhou Street at the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace from the North Gate

The Summer Palace from the North Gate

Xiequyuan Garden (a.k.a. The Garden of Harmonious Pleasures)

Xiequyuan Garden (a.k.a. The Garden of Harmonious Pleasures)

GETTING THERE: once in Beijing, the Summer Palace can be reached by taking Subway Line 4.  Get off at Beigongmen Station for the North Gate of the Summer Palace; use Xiyuan Station to go to the East Gate.  The entrance fee is ¥20 ($3.25 USD) November-March; ¥30 ($4.90 USD) April-October.

SUGGESTIONS: as with any major tourist attraction, get there early.  If you want to actually see and enjoy the Palace, you have to get there before the crowds do.  This is especially true in a city of 11 million people.  Expect crowds.

DAY 2 – THE GREAT WALL

When you think of China, you think of the Great Wall.  We sure did, and Beijing lies just outside of the Great Wall, making it a perfect place to see this phenomenal achievement.  There are several locations where you can see the Wall; some have been entirely reconstructed, others are completely original.  We chose to go to the Jinshanling Great Wall, a section of the Wall in Luanping county, approximately 125km outside of Beijing.  This section combines reconstructed sections with original portions, providing visitors with a true appreciation for the marvel that is the Great Wall.  Jinshanling is also a relatively under-visited location, probably due to its remoteness.  If you want to see the Great Wall itself, instead of seeing it as it appears under a sea of tourists, this is the place to go.

Please, after you ...

Please, after you …

CAM00956

The Great Wall stretches off to the horizon

The Great Wall stretches off to the horizon

CAM00970

GETTING THERE: Jinshanling is fairly far from Beijing, and therefore unless you have a car (or a friend with one), your only option is to take a bus.  We booked a tour through our hostel for ¥280 each ($45.50 USD); check with your hotel or hostel for more information.  The bus ride took about 3 hours one-way.  Beware of street dealers offering tours – these “package deals” often have an unannounced stop at a tea plantation or art house, where you will be pressured into buying something.

DAY 3 – THE FORBIDDEN CITY

When you’re in Beijing, after you’ve seen the Great Wall, you have to go to the Forbidden City.  This 500 year old complex housed the center of Chinese Imperial power; 24 emperors called this City home.

The Gate of Supreme Harmony

The Gate of Supreme Harmony

The complex is indeed beautiful, but this was easily the most frustrating day of our visit to Beijing.  As I’ve already said (and you already know), China is a very crowded country – nowhere is more crowded.  And the “Forbidden” City was anything but, as you can see from the above image.  The crowds, easily numbering into the tens of thousands, were non-stop the entire day.  We had a hard time finding information, ticket booths and entrances are poorly marked or not at all, and with the never-ending wave of people coming behind you, there really isn’t time to actually enjoy what you’re seeing.  But that’s just my opinion.

GETTING THERE: There are three methods to get to the Forbidden City. On Subway Line 1, get off at Tiananmen Square West or Tiananmen Square East. On Subway Line 2, get off at the Qianmen Station.  The entrance fee is ¥40 ($6.50 USD) November-March; ¥60 ($9.75 USD) April-October.

SUGGESTIONS: As with the Summer Palace, get there early.  No, I’m serious…set an alarm!  This place is packed – on major holidays the Forbidden City limits entry to 80,000 visitors per day.  And that’s a minimum!

 Bring plenty of sunscreen or an umbrella.  Water bottles must be emptied before entering the site, and you will have to undergo a pat down and have your bags X-rayed.  Food and water are available for purchase inside.  Generally Westerners are more concerned about personal space than in some parts of Asia; this is very true in China, and the Forbidden City in particular.  Be prepared to be “politely” nudged out of the way while waiting in line, and/or to be completely cut off while waiting in line as well.  It may appear rude, but it’s business as usual here.

DAY 4 – BEIJING BOTANICAL GARDEN

We decided to spend our last day in Beijing at a lesser known site.  After surviving the Forbidden City, we both needed a little time away from the endless crowds and the noise that entails.  Although the garden was not really in bloom (being August), the setting was very serene and relaxing.

Map of the Beijing Botanical Garden

Map of the Beijing Botanical Garden

IMG2721

IMG2763

GETTING THERE: Take Subway Line 4 to Beigongmen Station.  Then take Bus 331, 696, or 563; alternately take a taxi to 北京植物园 (Beijing Botanical Garden).  The entrance fee is ¥5 ($0.81 USD).

SUGGESTIONS: This site is a little harder to get to, especially if (like me) you don’t speak or read Mandarin.  However, if you do make it there, all you’ll need to bring is sunscreen or an umbrella.  There are food stands where you can buy food and drinks, a small shuttle service that will give you a “tour” of the grounds, and even hiking trails for the more adventurous.
__________________________________________
As we packed up and left Beijing behind, I was both happy and sad to be leaving.  As the capital of China, Beijing is an enormous city, and is bursting at the seams with people.  But there is so much history, culture, and beauty to be seen there, that four days barely scratched the surface of what the city had to offer.

Next stop, Guilin in Guangxi province.

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.

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.

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.

Past, Present & Future

The past few weeks have seen me in a state of constant change.  In a mere 14 days, I traveled nearly 14,000 miles and crisscrossed half the globe.  I experienced a 26-hour day, and skipped another one entirely.  So, as the title of this post suggests, I’ll fill you in on the past two weeks, what’s going on right now, and what’s in the books for the near future.

PAST

January began my winter vacation.  After completing the semester and saying farewell to my students, I packed my bags and hopped a flight from Seoul to my hometown in Pennsylvania.  It was here that, due to the extreme time difference and the International Date Line, I had the enjoyable experience of living Saturday, January 18, twice.  I left Seoul at 6:15pm local time, and arrived in Philadelphia a mere three hours later, or so the clock said.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently: 26 hours of travel is just wrong.

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains

The prodigal son had returned.  It was an adjustment returning to life in North America, even if for only a short time.  And I don’t mean just getting over the jetlag.  There’s no way around it: daily life and culture in Asia are different than in North America, and I had gotten used to doing things the Asian way.  So I had to un-teach myself to bow to everyone I meet.  I didn’t have to give and receive everything with two hands anymore.  Probably the biggest adjustment was suddenly being able to understand everything I heard on TV and in the streets.  After a year in Korea, hearing English outside of my own apartment was such a rare occurrence that suddenly being inundated with it was sensory overload!  How I had gotten used to the quiet.

It was great to see friends and family again.  I could play with my nephews, read them bedtime stories, go out to lunch or dinner with friends who I hadn’t seen in forever.  And this says nothing about the food!  Oh, to have real cheese again!  Burgers and fries, pizza with no corn or potato wedges on it, and my mom’s lasagna…I’m still amazed I didn’t gain 20lbs while I was there.  The only regret I have is that there simply wasn’t enough time to see everyone and do everything I wanted to.  Two weeks can fly by when you’re not looking.

Turkey club with a side of poutine at the Elgin Street Diner in downtown Ottawa

Turkey club with a side of poutine at the Elgin Street Diner in downtown Ottawa

Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario

Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario

I managed to sneak away for short periods and reacquaint myself with North America’s avifauna.  In Ottawa, I spent a morning with one of my old birding friends and we were able to scour the area for snowy owls…I couldn’t miss the chance to see these magnificent birds while I was back in Ottawa, especially with the irruption year still going on.  While visiting my sister in Rochester, I managed to get my first photos of white-winged scoter, a diving duck that is usually found only over deeper water a distance from shore.  Although it wasn’t the purpose of the trip, I managed to tick off nearly 40 species for my year list, and I was just shy of my January 125 Species Challenge, ending the month with 122 species.

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula bucephala) & Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)
Irondequoit Bay, Irondequoit, New York

Female White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi)
Irondequoit Bay, Irondequoit, New York

Female Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)Gloucester, Ontario

Female Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Gloucester, Ontario

PRESENT

I no sooner acclimatized myself to my old way of life, then it was time to return to Korea for another year.  Another long, long flight awaited me, and this time I almost completely skipped Sunday, February 2.  I had a few days to recover from the jetlag (again), and it was back to school for another week before graduation.  This is a bittersweet time: due to budget cutbacks, I will not be returning to my current middle school, but will instead take on two new middle schools as a native English teacher.  The Office of Education will not be hiring any new native teachers this year, so those of us that remain in Gwangju must be spaced out to fill the vacancies.  Melanie will be staying at her current school, and will take on my position at my school as well.  So come March, I will have to new students and new schools to get to know.

I’ve made efforts to get out as much as I can.  The weather in Korea is not nearly as cold as it was in North America, and the birds are still out and about, if you have the patience to look for them.  I’m quickly running out of year birds now, waiting impatiently for the spring migration to begin in late March.  Until then, I’m trying to focus on photographing as many of the common resident species as I can, before the arrival of the summer breeders diverts my attention.

Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha)
Yeongsan River, Gwangju, South Korea

Male Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
Yeongsan River, Gwangju, South Korea

“Chinese” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis)
Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park, Gwangju, South Korea

Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica rustica)
Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park, Gwangju, South Korea

FUTURE

When Melanie and I decided to re-sign our contracts and stay in South Korea for another year, we were entitled to a one-week paid leave as a bonus for doing so.  We’ve decided to go to Cambodia for this vacation, hoping to soak up some sunlight and warmer temperatures before the new semester begins in March.  I haven’t made any reservations with a birding guide for this trip, but I’m still hoping to add “a few” lifers while we’re there.  Stay tuned for a complete summary of the trip when we return at the end of the month.