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.

The Secret Migration

The annual spring bird migration often steals the spotlight in May and early June, and why shouldn’t it?  The majority of the world’s bird species embark on incredible journeys every year, frequently travelling further in a single season than many of us do in several years.

But birds aren’t the only things that migration during this time of year.  There’s something I’ve discovered during my incessant birding, and that is how birding lifts our filters on reality.  I used to have conversations with a close birding friend in Ottawa about “filters,” and the different levels we had experienced.  I’m not talking about filters for camera equipment; that’s another post for another day.  In this case, “filters” refer to our awareness of our surroundings.  Birding trains you to pay very close attention to details, even with momentary glimpses.  A tiny disturbance in a dense thicket, barely noticeable, can often reveal a hidden bird or nest that can easily be overlooked.

As I’ve trained myself to be a better birder by removing more and more filters, and being more aware of Nature and my surroundings, I’ve inadvertently discovered entire worlds of creatures and critters that were always there, but I didn’t have eyes to see them.  They were “filtered.”

As June begins and the bird migration comes to an end (for now), I redirect my attention to these secret worlds.  Many insects embark on migrations, of a sort.  While these are nowhere near as enormous in scope as the bird migration, it is no less a part of what defines spring in many people’s minds.  How bleak would a backyard garden seem without intricate butterflies flitting about?

Here are a selection of photos documenting this “secret migration.”  Several butterfly species arrive on the Korean peninsula as early as February, but the species shown here were all found in and around Gwangju, South Korea, throughout April and May.

Luehdorfia puziloi

Luehdorfia puziloi
Mudeungsan National Park, Gwangju, South Korea

I’ve found this species on the slopes of Mt. Mudeung before, always around mid- to late April.  This individual appeared newly emerged and was found resting on the ground.  It allowed itself to be picked up, and eventually took off from my hand a few minutes later.

Forest Pierrot (Taraka hamada)
Gakhwa Reservoir, Gwangju, South Korea

Japanese Flash (Rapala arata)
Mudeungsan National Park, Gwangju, South Korea

Northern Brown Argus (Aricia artaxerxes hakutozana)
Yeongsangang River, Damyang-gun, South Korea

Orange Hairstreak (Japonica lutea)
Mudeungsan National Park, Gwangju, South Korea

The four species shown above are all members of the Lycaenidae family.  This family of small butterflies can prove to be an exercise in minute details when it comes to identification.  Some species, like the Orange Hairstreak and Forest Pierrot are relatively easy to ID; the other species often require some careful study and research.

Large Map (Araschnia burjana)
Mudeungsan National Park, Gwangju, South Korea

Red Ring Skirt (Hestina assimilis)
Mudeungsan National Park, Gwangju, South Korea

Mating Neptis pryeri
Gakhwa Reservoir, Gwangju, South Korea

The brushfooted butterflies, family Nymphalidae, are the family of butterflies that the average person thinks about and sees.  While not as large as the swallowtails (Papilionidae), these common and brightly colored butterflies liven up our backyard gardens and city parks with their presence.

But the “secret migration” doesn’t only apply to butterflies; other insects appear as though out of nowhere once the weather warms up.  My favorite of these are the dragonflies and damselflies, but I also make a note of other strange and interesting insects whenever I have the opportunity to observe them.

Clown Stink Bug (Poecilocorus lewisi)
Mudeungsan National Park, Gwangju, South Korea

Platycnemis phyllopoda
Yeongsangang River, Damyang-gun, South Korea

As it does every year, the time is coming when I will switch my attentions from birds and focus more on dragonflies, damselflies, and butterflies.  At least until the end of July, when the first of the shorebirds will begin their long journeys back to their wintering grounds.  Until then, I’ll keep trying to see through my own filters, and experience the “secret migration” as much as I can.