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

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.

Birding Gageo-do

I’ve been fortunate enough to have done some birding on islands, namely Amherst Island in Canada, on Kinmen Island and mainland Taiwan, and on some of the small islands off the coast of Korea, namely Eocheong-do (오청도) and Heuksan-do (흑산도).  Large islands can often offer the adventurous birder endemic species, found nowhere else on Earth.  Smaller island, on the other hand, are havens for birds during migration, and one never knows what will show up.

Unlike the other islands I’ve birded in Korea, Gageo-do (가거도) is about as isolated as a Korean island can get.  It’s out in the middle of the Yellow Sea, about 140 kilometers from the nearest mainland port, and has a very small population compared to its size.  The island itself is quite rugged, characterized by high, forest-covered mountains in the interior, surrounded by rocky cliffs around the coast.  It’s not an easy terrain to navigate on foot, and the trails that do exist are not maintained and barely deserve the name.  As compared to Eocheong-do, with its well-kept hiking trails and convenient paved roads, Gageo-do is challenging…but it makes it that much more rewarding.

Island birding in Korea means pelagic birding, as the islands are only accessible by ferry.  Depending on the destination, this rare opportunity to observed the ocean’s unsung avian wonders can be thrilling or a complete miss.  The ferry to Gageo-do takes between 4 and 5 hours to reach the island, making a few stops at other islands along the way.  However, unlike the ferry to Eocheong-do, passengers are not permitted to go outside of the cabin throughout the trip, so all birding must be done looking through the window.

The rocky shores of Gageo-do

The rocky shores of Gageo-do

Nevertheless, the sea was surprisingly calm and the skies were clear.  At about the one hour mark, we came onto several groups of red-necked phalaropes out in the ocean.  These shorebirds spend the breeding season on land in the northern latitudes, but retreat to the open ocean for the winter.  It wasn’t until we were nearing Gageo-do that I began to see my first pelagic species.  Gageo-do has a breeding colony of Swinhoe’s storm petrels, which nest on the surrounding islets.  There were dozens of groups of threes and fours, flying quickly from the path of our ferry.  Hidden among these small birds were three unusual specimens.  Swinhoe’s storm petrels are bat-like in appearance, and have dark plumage all over their bodies.  So imagine my surprise when I picked out three birds showing bright white rump patches as they evaded the ferry.  Reviewing my copy of Onley & Scofield’s Albatrosses, Petrels & Shearwaters of the World, I narrowed it down to either Leach’s storm petrel or (more likely) band-rumped storm petrel.  Reviewing my observations, I decided on Band-rumped, as the birds I observed did not have the forked tail common in Leach’s.  I doubt this is the first recorded sighting of this species in Korean waters, but it is nonetheless an exceedingly rare occurrence.  Both A Field Guide to the Birds of Korea and the Birds Korea Checklist for the Republic of Korea only list Swinhoe’s storm petrel as occurring in Korean waters; even the checklists on Avibase fail to mention any other storm petrel species.  If only I had been able to get a photo for confirmation…

When we finally arrived at the island, my first encounters were with the resident species.  Blue rock thrushes were plentiful, and the prevalence of first-year birds indicate there was a successful breeding season on the island.  The marina held dozens of grey herons and smaller numbers of great egret and little egret.  The village of Gageodo-ri was patrolled by a pair of common kestrels, which would put in an appearance everyday of my trip.  Elsewhere around the village were numerous light-vented bulbuls; these rare breeders actually outnumbered the brown-eared bulbuls which are far more common on the mainland.  And flitting about the harbors were numerous wagtails, including grey, white, and eastern yellow wagtails.

Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius philippensis)

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea cinerea)

Looking out over Gageodo-ri

But it was the migrants that I was interested in.  There isn’t much in the way of shorebird habitat at Gageo-do.  The beaches that are there are rocky and the sand is replaced by smooth pebbles.  However, a few migrant shorebirds were around, including singles of Pacific golden plover, red-necked stint, long-toed stint, and several wood sandpipers that could be found on the grassy common area at the center of Gageodo-ri.  Cryptic Latham’s snipes were flushed from their hiding places in the tall sedges around Gageodo-ri and Hangri-maeul.

Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)

Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)

I was hoping for some migrant warblers and flycatchers, which should be moving through in good numbers.  The few trails that I had located around Gageodo-ri were too overgrown to bird effectively – I spent more time avoiding thorns and watching my footing than watching the birds around me.  Luckily, there are two roads that traverse the island, connecting the main village of Gageodo-ri to the small hamlets of Hangri-maeul and Sam-gu.  Most of the migrant passerines could be found along these roads, where the edges of mountain forests met the rocky coastline.

This road (1 of 2 on the entire island) connects Gageodo-ri and Hangri-maeul

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (Muscicapa griseisticta)

The most common bird along these roads, besides the blue rock-thrushes, were grey-streaked flycatchers.  I am not sure whether this species breeds on the island; I usually found them in groups of three or more, flitting along the roads and into the air as they hawked insects and dragonflies.  Migrant warblers could also be found along the roadsides.  I didn’t find many warblers in large numbers, but there was definitely a good variety of species.  Dusky warblers were probably the most numerous; although I rarely actually saw them, their distinctive chip note could be heard frequently along the road.  Eastern crowned leaf warblers and yellow-browed warblers were present in smaller numbers, and I had a brief glimpse of a brightly colored Pallas’s leaf warbler.  However, the best Old World warbler (and the best bird of the entire trip!) was Middendorff’s grasshopper warbler, a drab brownish warbler that I located twice near the village of Gageodo-ri.

Although it isn’t much to look at, the Middendorff’s was officially my 700th species!

Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella ochotensis)
This is Life Bird #700!

Eastern Crowned Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus)

Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus)

The most numerous bird of all, however, was the Japanese white-eye.  These small greenish birds were literally dripping off the leaves.  I would often have to sift through large flocks of white-eyes just to spot that one non-white-eye.

Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus simplex)

There were so many white-eyes that the tree branches simply ran out of room for them all…

The island also hosted a few predators as well.  In addition to the pair of kestrels that patrolled the skies above the main village, at least two peregrine falcons were also making use of the thermals over the mountainous interior.  Shrikes were also fairly common on the island, with three species present.  Brown shrikes are often found on the islands offshore around Korea; I found one on Eocheong-do during the spring migration.  On Gageo-do there were two brown shrikes, each on a different side of the island.  A single juvenile bull-headed shrike indicated that there was likely a breeding pair of adults somewhere on the island, even though they remained unseen during my stay.  The big surprise was not one but two long-tailed shrikes, again on either side of the island.  These shrikes are quite common in China and Taiwan, but almost entirely absent from Korea.  Occasional records do crop up on some of the islands, but overall it is quite a rare bird for the country.

Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus cristatus)

Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius schach schach)

The four days on Gageo-do were a great way to kick off the fall migration.  There was a good variety of resident and migrant species, and I was treated to some rarer species that I can’t find on the mainland.  In total I saw just over 50 species, and picked up 4 life birds, including #700!

China / Taiwan Tally Sheet

Here is a complete list of all the birds seen throughout our trip to China and Taiwan.  Where available, I have included a link to photos of each species.  There are 89 species listed.

SPECIES LATIN BINOMIAL LOCATION
     
Waterfowl – Anatidae    
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha Taiwan
     
Grouse – Phasianidae    
Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus China, Taiwan
     
Grebes – Podicipedidae    
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis China, Taiwan
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus Taiwan
     
Herons & Bitterns – Ardeidae    
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis Taiwan
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea China, Taiwan
Great Egret Ardea alba China, Taiwan
Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia China
Little Egret Egretta garzetta China, Taiwan
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Taiwan
Chinese Pond-heron Ardeola bacchus Taiwan
Black-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax Taiwan
     
Ospreys – Pandionidae    
Osprey Pandion haliaetus Taiwan
     
Hawks – Accipitridae    
Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caeruleus Taiwan
     
Rails – Rallidae    
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus Taiwan
Eurasian Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Taiwan
     
Oystercatchers – Haematopodididae    
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Taiwan
     
Plovers – Charadriidae    
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola Taiwan
Greater Sand-plover Charadrius leschenaultii Taiwan
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus Taiwan
     
Sandpipers – Scolopacidae    
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos Taiwan
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus Taiwan
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus Taiwan
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia Taiwan
Common Redshank Tringa totanus Taiwan
Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis Taiwan
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata Taiwan
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres Taiwan
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata Taiwan
     
Gulls & Terns – Laridae    
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Taiwan
Royal Tern Sterna dougallii Taiwan
     
Doves – Columbidae    
Rock Pigeon Columba livia China, Taiwan
Oriental Turtle-dove Streptopelia orientalis China
Red Collared-dove Streptopelia tranquebarica Taiwan
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis China, Taiwan
     
Cuckoos – Cuculidae    
Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus Taiwan
Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis Taiwan
     
Swifts – Apodidae    
Pacific Swift Apus pacificus Taiwan
     
Kingfishers – Alcedinidae    
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis Taiwan
White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis Taiwan
     
Bee-eaters – Meropidae    
Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus Taiwan
     
Hoopoes – Upupidae    
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops Taiwan
     
Woodpeckers – Picidae    
Grey-capped Woodpecker Dendrocopos canicapillus China
     
Shrikes – Laniidae    
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus China
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach China, Taiwan
     
Drongos – Dicruridae    
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus China, Taiwan
     
Crows & Jays – Corvidae    
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus China
Red-billed Blue-magpie Urocissa erythrorhyncha China
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica China, Taiwan
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos China
Collared Crow Corvus torquatus Taiwan
     
Swallows – Hirundinidae    
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica China, Taiwan
Pacific Swallow Hirundo tahitica Taiwan
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica China
     
Tits – Paridae    
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris China
Coal Tit Periparus ater China
Japanese Tit Parus minor China
     
Long-tailed Tits – Aegithalidae    
Black-throated Tit Aegithalos concinnus Taiwan
     
Bulbuls – Pycnonotidae    
Collared Finchbill Spizixos semitorques China
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis China, Taiwan
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus Taiwan
Chestnut Bulbul Hemixos castanonotus China, Taiwan
     
Bush-warblers – Cettidae    
Brownish-flanked Bush-warbler Horornis fortipes China
Yellowish-bellied Bush-warbler Horornis acanthizoides China
     
Cisticolas – Cisticolidae    
Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius China
Hill Prinia Prinia superciliaris Taiwan
     
Parrotbills – Paradoxornithidae    
Beijing Babbler Rhopophilus pekinensis China
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana China
     
White-eyes – Zosteropidae    
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus China, Taiwan
     
Old World Babblers – Timaliidae    
Rufous-capped Babbler Cyanoderma ruficeps China
Streak-breasted Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus ruficollis China
     
Laughingthrushes – Leiotrichidae    
Chinese Hwamei Garrulax canorus China
Père David’s Laughingthrush Ianthocincla davidi China
Chinese Babax Ianthocincla lanceolata China
Red-billed Leiothrix Leiothrix lutea China
     
Old World Flycatchers – Muscicapidae    
Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica China
Oriental Magpie-robin Copsychus saularis China, Taiwan
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana China
Blue Rock-thrush Monticola solitaria China
     
Thrushes – Turdidae    
Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina China
     
Starlings – Sturnidae    
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus Taiwan
Javan Myna Acridotheres javanicus Taiwan
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis China
Black-collared Starling Gracupica nigricollis Taiwan
Daurian Starling Sturnia sturnina China
     
Finches – Fringillidae    
Oriental Greenfinch Chloris sinica China
     
Old World Sparrows – Passeridae    
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus China, Taiwan
     
Estrildid-finches – Estrildidae    
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata China

Rain & Rice

It’s the rainy season here in South Korea.  This year is being called the dry rainy season; it rains, but not nearly in the quantities that are normal.  Most days are characterized by overcast skies and that hanging feeling – it’s really humid and feels like it will pour at any second, but it doesn’t.

Not the kind of weather you want to go birding in.

I had been antsy the past few weeks.  I hadn’t been getting out much, I hadn’t been photographing much, and I hadn’t birded at all.  So despite those ominous clouds on Saturday morning, Melanie and I headed out to Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park, hoping a change in scenery might do us some good.

The Eco-Park had undergone some “improvements” since my last visit a few months ago.  Several sections had been landscaped and replanted; in usual Korean style, it had been started and finished in a matter of days and there was no trace that anything had been done.

New plantings at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.
This area had previously been an empty meadow just a few weeks ago.

The park held several families of azure-winged magpies.  We saw numerous adults foraging for food to bring to the gaping mouths of their offspring.  One group of four fledglings mobbed their parents whenever one of the adults came in with food.  Even among siblings, competition for food is fierce.

Sibling rivalry
Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyanus koreensis)

An adult Azure-winged Magpie, looking for food in the humid afternoon

There was more evidence of successful breeding throughout the park.  We saw several small groups of juvenile Japanese tits flitting about in the trees.  Near the entrance to the park were two juvenile grey-headed woodpeckers, the likely offspring of the Eco-Park’s resident pair.  These younger woodpeckers lacked most of the adults’ green coloration, appearing overall grey with a hint of green on the tail feathers.  The two juveniles kept in constant contact with each other and the adults by making short whistles.

Juvenile Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus jessoensis)

We continued deeper into the park, finding small numbers of birds in little pockets throughout the area.  A large flock of vinous-throated parrotbills, full of juvenile birds, was the biggest single sighting we had all day.  The flock numbered around 40-50 birds; not an uncommon number for this time of year.  The boardwalk around the northern edge of the park was very quiet, with only a few Japanese tits and passing oriental turtle-doves.

A section of the boardwalk.  There was very little water here, despite the extensive growth of reeds and grasses.

Gwangjuho Lake itself was a shadow of itself.  The water level was down tens of meters, with an exposed lake bed stretching off into the distance.  Most of this muddy, nutrient-rich land had transformed into a field of low vegetation.  Gwangjuho Lake is artificial, serving as a primary reservoir for the surrounding area.  The water is used for drinking and agriculture, and its low level reflects the planting of the first round of rice for the growing season.

At the distant edge of the water we could see grey herons, great egrets, and little egrets taking advantage of the newly exposed mud.  Little ringed plovers, a breeding shorebird in the park, could be heard calling intermittently from across the lake bed.  We even spotted an immature Eurasian hobby patrolling the area, and making a successful grab at an unidentified prey.

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius curonicus)

Hidden in the short vegetation on the lake bed were small damselflies.  It seemed like there were thousands of them, quickly flitting about and disappearing in the greenery.  Larger dragonflies, namely black-tailed skimmers and wandering gliders skimmed across small pools of water.  We found numerous exuviae in the mud, evidence that many of the dragonflies we saw were newly emerged adults.

Dusky Lilysquatter (Paracercion calamorum)

Eastern Lilysquatter (Paracercion melanotum)

We completed our loop around the Eco-Park, scoring a few more species for our efforts.  Black-naped orioles were singing lazily in the humid air.  A family of bull-headed shrikes chased one another around, and juvenile pale thrushes begged for food from a single adult bird.  We took a break from the heat near a grove of metasequoia trees, lounging in the shade as the heat of the day wore on.

The Metasequoia Grove at Gwangjuho Lake

The Metasequoia Grove at Gwangjuho Lake

Dryad (Minois dryas)

On our way out of the Eco-Park, I noticed a small black dragonfly perched on some tall cattails by one of the lily ponds.  It turned out to be a butterfly skimmer, one of my favorite Asian dragonflies.  Also flying around the cattails were two species of damselfly, both identified only by their Latin names.

Butterfly Skimmer (Rhyothemis fuliginosa)

Ceriagrion melanurum

Ceriagrion nipponicum

After spending several hours at the Eco-Park, Melanie and I decided to visit one of the small restaurants across the street from the Park entrance.  We had discovered a small place during our last visit, which makes an excellent pajeon (파전).  Pajeon is a type of pancake, whose main ingredient is green onions.  A good pajeon will have grilled onions, green onions, maybe some peppers, and usually a type of seafood like calamari.  For a mere 8,000W (~$8), we got a huge pajeon and several side dishes (as is Korean custom).

Our half-eaten pajeon with a few side dishes.  This delicious Korean pancake doesn’t last long…

Before heading back home, we decided to stroll around Chunghyo-dong and see the many rice paddies in the area.  The rural area in Chunghyo-dong is much like rural areas anywhere in Korea: rice paddies stretch off into the distance and take up any flat land that is available.  I’ve often thought of Korea as having only three habitats: city, mountain, and rice paddy.

Rice paddies in Chunghyo-dong

However, the monoculture of rice paddies can be deceiving.  Wildlife still manages to keep a tenuous toehold in this environment.  Herons like striated heron, cattle egrets and great egrets make use of the shallow water to catch small fish and crustaceans.  Grey wagtails can be found along the drainage ditches connecting the separate cells of the paddies.  We even discovered four dollarbirds perched high above the rice paddies, scanning the area from a high-voltage power line that straddled the mountain valley.  Insects like dragonflies and damselflies also benefit from the shallow water, using the sheltered paddies to lay their eggs.

The highlight of our walk through the rice paddies was an adult Chinese sparrowhawk.  I’ve seen this species several times before, but always soaring high overhead.  This was the first one that I’ve found perched, and so was able to get a few photos before it flew off.

Chinese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter soloensis)

After spending nearly half the day in Chunghyo-dong, we caught the hourly 187 bus back to Gwangju.  Overall we observed 32 species of bird, 7 species of butterfly, and 10 species of dragonfly and damselfly.  A complete list of the birds seen can be found here and here.

Getting Fiver

Before I came to Korea, when I was still in the planning stages, I created a short list of the Top 5 Must-See Birds in Korea.  The birds were not ranked in any particular order, though a few were more “important” than others.  The list was:

      1.  Spoon-billed Sandpiper
      2.  Japanese Waxwing
      3.  Fairy Pitta
      4.  Eurasian Hoopoe
      5.  Japanese Paradise-flycatcher

The rationale for inclusion on this list was different for each species.  Some are incredibly rare (#1); others serve a particular purpose in my listing (#2); still others are just really interesting and/or unusual birds that I didn’t want to miss (#3-5).

The search has been exciting, but ticking off these species has been slow-going.  They weren’t chosen because they were easy to find; on the contrary, all but one of these species also make an appearance on another list, the IUCN Red List.  But it’s always been the chase that drives us…

Only two birds have so far been ticked off this list.  The first was the Fairy Pitta: a lone male bird was singing in a small mountain valley along the Wellbeing Hiking Trail on Jeop-do in June 2013.  I have since located five more separate individuals, but alas, a visual opportunity has yet eluded me.  The second bird was the Japanese Waxwing: again, a lone bird viewed at a distance on Eocheong-do this past May.  I hope to see and photograph this species in Korea or Japan this coming winter.

Still, despite nearly 2 years of searching, I’ve only had repeated encounters where the best I can get is an audio recording (no visual), or a glimpse through binoculars at nearly 100 meters.

So it was that I joined birding friends Jason Loghry and Mike Friel on an epic journey to track down that most elusive fairy pitta (Jason had never actually seen one either), and hopefully pick up a Japanese paradise-flycatcher along the way.  We had a few sites staked out for the fairy pitta, and the birds were surely there, but once again managed to elude being seen.  We were quite frustrated after encountering three individual birds, and nary a glimpse was had of any of them.

We continued on, crestfallen and sullen, to a small uninteresting roadside stream, where Mike had observed paradise-flycatchers breeding the previous summer.  We took an overgrown trail along the road, descending in a small valley with the stream at the base.  A Korean water deer, unaware of our presence, walked right towards us, then started and disappeared as we tried to angle our cameras onto this spectacular animal.  That’s when we heard it…

A throaty sound, like a dry cough.  Followed by a melodious series of whistles.  Japanese paradise-flycatcher!

A little searching located a splendid male flitting around the treetops, appearing as a large butterfly.  The dense foliage frequently obscured our views, but the bird finally stopped on a semi-open branch long enough to really observe him.  What a glorious bird!

Japanese Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone atrocaudata)

I was taking an audio recording of the bird, when we heard the same song coming from the opposite direction.  There were two male birds, counter-singing to each other.  The second male remained unseen, but we heard him singing intermittently throughout our time at the site.  It was one of the most memorable bird outings of the month.  Despite missing multiple chances at seeing a fairy pitta, the Japanese paradise-flycatcher more than made up for it.

Only two more species remain on the Top 5 List.  I should be able to get Spoon-billed Sandpiper during its fall migration in late August.  The Eurasian Hoopoe on the other hand, may be a lost cause (at least until my summer vacation trip to China).  The search continues…