Busan or Bust, Day 2: The Nakdong River Estuary

Ahh, the birding day-trips.  Is there anything better?  It is the quintessential birding experience: the thrill of the chase, the near misses, and the warm glow of success when you find the bird you went all that way to find.  It doesn’t always happen that way, but when it does, life doesn’t get much better.

If you’re making a trip to Busan and want to do some serious birding, then you have to go to the Nakdong River Estuary at Eulsukdo Island (을숙도 철새공원).  Eulsukdo Island is a delta island, positioned right where the Nakdonggang River empties into the South Sea, and hosts a plethora of bird species at all times of year.  During the winter it is a haven for waterfowl, spoonbills, and cranes.  During migration is a sure thing for shorebirds, herons, rails, and passerines.

Eulsukdo Island is easily accessible by bus and subway.  From Hadan Station on Line #1, take Exit 5 to street level.  You can grab a bus (#’s 58, 58-1, or 300) and get off at Eulsukdo Rest Stop; alternately you can walk about 10 minutes south along the main drag and get to the island on foot.  Like many of South Korea’s natural reserves, there is no entry fee.

A map of Eulsukdo Island and the Nakdong River Estuary.  The Hadan Subway Station is shown.

A map of Eulsukdo Island and the Nakdong River Estuary.  The Hadan Subway Station is shown.

Melanie and I arrived at Eulsukdo Island at 9am; we lost a lot of our morning just getting there by subway.  With the help of a (very) friendly local and staff member at the preserve, we were directed to the southern portion of the island, where we were told there were more birds and fewer people.  As it would happen, with only a few exceptions, most of the people we ran into throughout the day were employees and landscapers for the island.  Most of the visitors remained in the northern portion by the Visitor Center, leaving the rest of the island to yours truly.

Melanie went into the administration office to grab some maps and a bottle of water, while I scanned the river for any waterfowl or gulls.  Immediately I found my first lifer: about a half dozen little terns were flying back and forth along the river, searching for fish to eat.  Accompanying them were about a dozen black-headed gulls and several dozen black-tailed gulls.  The water was going out with the tide, so some of the shoreline was exposed.  This brought many grey herons to the water line to look for something to eat.

The Nakdonggang River with a view of part of Busan, as seen from Eulsukdo Island.

The Nakdonggang River with a view of part of Busan, as seen from Eulsukdo Island.

My plan was to walk the perimeter of the island, using the tide to my advantage to search for shorebirds.  Then I would walk through the interior of the island watching for any passerines and other migrants.  That was the plan anyway.  But after walking a short distance, and finding no shorebirds along the rock-strewn shore, we decided to take one of the walking trails into the interior of the island and try our luck.

We came onto a large tidal pond almost immediately.  Two common cuckoos were chasing each other back and forth over the pond, calling all the while.  They would end up doing this throughout the entire day, and our walk across Eulsukdo Island was made to the serenading coo-coo, coo-coo carried by the breeze.  The pond held a small group of ducks, mainly mallards and eastern spot-billed ducks, but a small contingent of greater scaup held a surprise: a male common pochard resting on a sunken log.  This striking duck closely resembles the redhead of North America, and I was excited to have the chance to observe it out in the open.  Foraging along the edge of the reeds and grasses were several shorebirds, namely common sandpipers and grey-tailed tattlers, but I did find a single common redshank with bright red legs.  Even at a distance this bird stood out.

The main tidal pond at the Nakdong River Estuary.  This is where I found most of the waterfowl on my visit.  The Eco-Center is visible overlooking the pond.

The main tidal pond at the Nakdong River Estuary.  This is where I found most of the waterfowl on my visit.  The Eco-Center is visible overlooking the pond.

One of the male Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) that spent the day flying all around Eulsukdo Island.

Next to the tidal pond was the Experience Field, a large stretch of flat scrubland with small trees.  It appeared that this area was undergoing habitat restoration, but there were a number of small passerines making use of it, primarily long-tailed tits and vinous-throated parrotbills.  We did hear a ring-necked pheasant making display calls repeatedly, but he remained hidden in the grasses.  The field is bordered on both sides by large expanses of reeds.  The reeds grow around the inlets coming in from the river, and the area was a haven for shorebirds and other marsh inhabitants.  We found dozens of grey-tailed tattlers and common sandpipers foraging along the shore of these inlets.  On a few occasions we even flushed some whimbrels and a common greenshank.  The big surprise were three terek sandpipers following a group of grey-tailed tattlers.  Many of these birds were lifers for Melanie.

A view of one of the inlets at the Nakdong River Estuary.  These reeds were teeming with birds, but most were very hard to actually see.

A view of one of the inlets at the Nakdong River Estuary.  These reeds were teeming with birds, but most were very hard to actually see.

A Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) at the Nakdong River Estuary.

A pair of Grey-tailed Tattlers (Tringa brevipes) at the Nakdong River Estuary.  These shorebirds were the most numerous species we found.

While walking along the reeds, everywhere we heard the songs of oriental reed-warblers, but at no point were we able to actually see one.  Too bad, because Melanie doesn’t count a new bird unless she sees it, so this particular bird will have to wait until another time.  On the plus side, I picked up a distinct song in one patch of reeds, and with some patience and good eyes managed to find the bird making the call: a black-browed reed-warbler, a passing migrant!  I managed to get Melanie on this bird and she saw it as it flew off to a different part of the reed bed…not much of a view, but enough to count it.

It was nearing midday at this point, so we turned back towards the Nakdong Eco-Center to refill our water bottles and take a breather.  The facilities at the Eco-Center are top-notch.  There are numerous displays highlighting the flora and fauna of Eulsukdo Island, including live displays of several frog and aquatic insect species that are found around the estuary.  There are a few diorama-like displays of plastic replica birds and fish in lifelike habitat reconstructions.  The second floor has a wide-open observation area overlooking the main tidal pond, with three binocular stations and plenty of places to sit.  A small gift shop is also on this level.  The floors of the building are connected by wheelchair-accessible ramps; I mention this only because Korea is notorious for the lack of handicapped-accessible facilities.

The Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center at Eulsukdo Island.  The bird decals on the windows are there to prevent bird strikes into the glass.

The Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center at Eulsukdo Island.  The bird decals on the windows are there to prevent bird strikes into the glass.

Looking down onto the ground floor of the Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center.

Looking down onto the ground floor of the Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center.

A portion of the second floor observation area.

A portion of the second floor observation area.

The grounds around the Eco-Center were well-kept.  We stopped for a bit to have a break from the heat of the day.  A group of long-tailed tits flitted about from tree to tree, and one of the two common cuckoos that had been circling the island all day stopped near the Eco-Center to call out periodically.  There is an impressive gate at the entrance to the Eco-Center, which appears to made out of a large wood carving.  A short boardwalk connects the Eco-Center to the access roadway that travels the perimeter of the island.

The wooden entrance gate at the Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center.

The wooden entrance gate at the Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center.

The quiet boardwalk adjacent to the Eco-Center at the Nakdong Estuary.

The quiet boardwalk adjacent to the Eco-Center at the Nakdong Estuary.

Our visit to the Nakdong River Estuary had proven to be very fruitful: Melanie walked away with eight lifers, I tallied four.  As we walked back to Hadan subway station, we decided to split up and check out some other places we had been meaning to see during our visit to Busan.  Next stop for me, Igidae Park.

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Busan or Bust, Day 1: Dongbaek Park and Haedong Yonggungsa

This weekend was the Korean holiday of 석가탄신일, commonly called Buddha’s Birthday by Westerners.  The Korean name (seokga tansinil) roughly translates to Buddha’s birthday, but the holiday also goes by the name 부처님 오신 날 (bucheonim osin nal), meaning “the day when the Buddha came.”  Our schools were closed for three days, and Melanie and I lucked out and were able to buy a reservation for a three-day, three-night stay in Busan, right in the Haeundae-gu district famous for Haeundae Beach (해운대해수욕장).  If you haven’t heard of it, look up the name in the Guinness Book of World Records and you’ll find it under the beach with the most umbrellas in the world (covered end to end with 7,937 umbrellas).

We took a late express bus from Gwangju to Busan on Thursday night after school let out.  The bus trip is about three and a half hours, with a 15 minute stop along the way for bathroom and food.  On any holiday weekend, it’s always a smart idea to buy your tickets ahead of time just to make sure your preferred time isn’t sold out.  By nine o’clock that night we had arrived at the Busan Seobu Bus Terminal (부산서부시외버스터미널).  Being from North America, I’m still amazed at just how small South Korea is land-wise: a few hours on a bus and you can cross the country from west to east.

The Busan Subway System (© Exploring Korea).

Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, so it has a much more elaborate public transit system than Gwangju.  Gwangju has a single subway line with runs across the city from west to east.  Busan has four subway lines that cover every direction through the city; there are also two intercity bus terminals, the Seobu Bus Terminal and the Dongbu Gyeongnam Bus Terminal.  Once we arrived in Seobu, it was a quick walk to the Line #2 subway station, and one transfer onto Line #1 at the Seomyeon Station, and we were at Haeundae Beach about an hour after arriving in Busan (like I said, it’s a big city).

We were booked at the Hello Guesthouse, a short 5-minute walk to Haeundae Beach.  The guesthouse is a hostel, catering to foreigners, and the combination of affordable price, ideal location, and friendly staff, make it a good choice for travelers on a budget.  We got settled in our room and promptly passed out.

A map of the Haeundae-gu district in Busan.  The locations of the Haeundae Beach, Dongbaek Park, and the Hello Guesthouse, are shown.

A map of the Haeundae-gu district in Busan.  The locations of the Haeundae Beach, Dongbaek Park, and the Hello Guesthouse, are shown.

Our first day in Busan dawned bright and sunny.  It would be a nice warm day with lots of sun and few clouds.  The Guesthouse started serving breakfast at 9am, so Melanie and I headed out to Haeundae Beach early to get our bearings on the area.  The beach was relatively empty when we arrived.  I was immediately impressed with the high-rise buildings across the landscape.  While Gwangju has a population of 1.5 million people, it’s still considered a small city, and growth here is outwards instead of upwards.  Other than the apartment complexes, most the high-rise buildings in Gwangju are restricted to the downtown financial districts.  But in Busan they seemed to be everywhere.

The Busan skyline around Haeundae Beach.

The Busan skyline around Haeundae Beach.

The Pacific Ocean as seen from Haeundae Beach.  The mountain in the distance is Igidae Park; the lighthouse at Dongbaek Park can be seen in the foreground on the right.

The Pacific Ocean as seen from Haeundae Beach.  The mountain in the distance is Igidae Park; the lighthouse at Dongbaek Park can be seen in the foreground on the right.

The beach was beautiful and the weather perfect, so we continued our walk along the beach until we reached Dongbaek Park (동백공원).  This small island, now connected to the mainland, is a lovely greenspace named after the dongbaek trees which thrive in the park.  There is a system of boardwalks and trails which covers the rocky shore and the hilly interior of the island.  For its size, Dongbaek Park is a must-see side-trip to any visit to Busan.  If you’re in the Haeundae-gu area, its definitely worth a stop.

The rocky shore of Dongbaek Park.  One of several observation decks is visible in the top right.

The rocky shore of Dongbaek Park.  One of several observation decks is visible in the top right.

A statue of a mermaid on the shore of Dongbaek Park.  Near the statue is a plaque telling the legend of Princess Heo Hwang-ok.

A statue of a mermaid on the shore of Dongbaek Park.  Near the statue is a plaque telling the legend of Princess Heo Hwang-ok.

We took a short walk along a wooden boardwalk hugging the shore of Dongbaek Park.  The cool breeze coming off the ocean, and the plentiful shade provided by the dongbaek trees, made for a peaceful walk as we explored the area.  Near one of several observation decks on the boardwalk, a large statue of a mermaid sat vigil over the crashing waves.  There was a nearby plaque which relayed the legend of Princess Heo Hwang-ok (허황옥), the first queen of the Geumgwan Gaya (금관가야).

We cut our walk short, deciding the head back to our hostel for breakfast.  Along the way back to Haeundae Beach, I did manage to spot a Pacific reef-heron flying past the mermaid statue.  The only other birds present were dozens of black-tailed gulls and a few brown-eared bulbuls calling in the forested interior.

After breakfast we got directions to our target destination for the day: the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (해동 용궁사).  Unlike most Buddhist temples, Haedong Yonggungsa was built right on the shore, providing breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and the dynamic rocky coast of South Korea.  And on account of it being Buddha’s Birthday, the temple was decorated in multi-colored lanterns to celebrate the occasion.

The Temple can be reached by taking the #181 bus to the Yonggungsa Temple stop.  Be advised, this is the only bus that makes its way out this far, so it will be crowded during Buddhist celebrations, weekends, etc.  It may be worth taking a taxi to the site: you’ll pay more, but it’s better than being crammed into an overcrowded bus or simply being repeatedly passed by several buses that are overloaded with passengers.

The signpost to the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

The signpost to the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

While waiting to enter the Temple, this beautiful statue adorned the gateway to the Temple.

While waiting to enter the Temple, this beautiful prayer pagoda adorned the gateway to the Temple.

There was a long line at the entrance to the Temple, but it moved fairly quickly and there was plenty to see along the way.  The walkway leading to the entrance was lined with towering stone statues of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.  A large prayer pagoda was near the entrance to the Temple.  Beyond there were 108 stairs leading down the rocky coastline to the Temple itself.  Along this winding walkway were carved Buddhas overlooking the procession, and everywhere the greenery pushed through.  As we waited in line, a heard the comical call of a common cuckoo from somewhere nearby.  I say “comical,” because for those who know this call, it sounds exactly like a cuckoo clock chiming the hour.  They don’t call them cuckoo clocks for nothing.

Inside the temple, carved Buddha reliefs watch your passage down ancient walkways.

Inside the temple, carved Buddha reliefs watch your passage down ancient walkways.

The walkway became a stairway, and suddenly the Temple was right before us.

The Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, decorated for the 석가탄신일 celebration.

The Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, decorated for the 석가탄신일 celebration.

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Photos don’t do the Temple justice.  Haedong Yonggungsa was built in 1376 by the Buddhist teacher Naong, during the Goryeo Dynasty.  It was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and was rebuilt in 1970.  Special attention was made to recreate the Temple as close to the original as possible.  From what I saw, this attention paid off spectacularly.  The whole area gave off a feeling of eternity, as if the Temple had always been here.

Just one of several carved Buddha statues at one of the shrines within Haedong Yonggungsa.

Just one of several carved Buddha statues at one of the shrines within Haedong Yonggungsa.

A golden Buddha sits before the Pacific Ocean on the edge of the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

A golden Buddha sits before the Pacific Ocean on the edge of the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

After exploring the Temple, we headed off to an open area on the rocky shore, where a large golden Buddha stood watch over the Temple.  There were a few vendors selling refreshments, and many Koreans enjoying the scenery and environment, taking advantage of the weather to have a picnic near the Temple.  Melanie and I spent some time here, enjoying the view and the calming sound of the waves crashing against the rocks below.  Black-tailed gulls were plentiful flying around the Temple grounds, and I happened to notice a little egret flying out over the water, and an eastern spot-billed duck flying over the Temple towards the north.  As we were heading back to the entrance, I managed to grab a few photos of a brown-eared bulbul that was trying to grab some leftover crumbs from some nearby picnickers.  To date this is one of the best photos I have of this species.

A Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis) at the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

A Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis) at the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

It’s hard to top such a beautiful place, so we didn’t try.  It was a long (and frustrating) wait for the bus to take us back to Haeundae Beach, and we eventually broke down and flagged a taxi.  Late afternoon traffic proved to get the better of us, and by the time we made it back to the hostel, we decided to call it a day and spent the rest of the evening having dinner and relaxing.

Tomorrow would bring some serious birding.