Changing of the Seasons

It was time again to visit Gwangjuho Lake.  The leaves have finally begun to change color, and the transition from autumn into winter is happening really fast.  I woke up just before sunrise to discover the temperature had fallen to nearly 0­­ºC, which isn’t particularly cold except when just a week earlier it was around 13ºC at night.  And here I was wondering when autumn actually arrives in Korea.

I’ve been expecting waterfowl to arrive any day now, so I thought I would spend Saturday morning at the largest body of water (other than the Yeongsan River) that I knew of in Gwangju.  I had hoped to catch an early bus for Chunghyo-dong, but I ended up missing it by a few minutes, so I arrived around 8am.  However, the sun rises much later at this time of year, and Gwangjuho Lake is surrounded by mountains, so my timing was spot on.  The sun had just cleared the mountains and quickly melted the thin layer of frost that covered everything.  Only those places hidden in shadow maintained a frosty covering.

Sunrise at Gwangjuho Lake.

Sunrise at Gwangjuho Lake.

The birds were active at this early hour, but the low temperatures made them a little sluggish.  A female bull-headed shrike, my first observation upon arriving, scanned the area.  She seemed like she was waiting for her morning cup of coffee, and she allowed me to approach closely to her high perch without so much as a nod in my direction.  Below, her attention was focused on a large flock of at least fifty vinous-throated parrotbills, moving in waves through dried vegetation surrounding a small pond.  Not that long ago I was photographing dragonflies at this location, and now everything was wilted and dried.  The difference a few months can make…

Female Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Sinosuthora webbiana fulvicauda)

Further along in the more wooded section, I found a gathering of woodpeckers: pygmy woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, and grey-faced woodpecker, were all foraging together.  I tried desperately to get a shot of the great spotted woodpecker, but he proved to be camera-shy.  I “settled” instead for a beautiful portrait of the female grey-headed woodpecker.

Female Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus jessoensis)

I approached the shore of Gwangjuho Lake to find that the water level had been drawn down since my last visit here.  The shore was exposed for about ten meters, and dozens of white wagtails foraged and flitted about on the mud.  Scanning through the flock, which contained mostly juvenile first-year birds, I found several adult birds comprising three different subspecies.  It was my first opportunity to photograph the “Chinese” subspecies leucopsis, and it was a lot of fun picking through the birds and identifying the different subspecies.  My scanning also revealed a single Japanese wagtail in with the group.  A single grey wagtail was also present, and I ended up flushing two separate groups of American pipits of the japonicus subspecies while walking the rocky shoreline.  Out on the water there were smatterings of Eurasian teal and mallards, a small group of tufted ducks, a single common goldeneye, and five little grebes.  I left just as a Eurasian sparrowhawk flew overhead, sending all the smaller passerines into the air.

“Chinese” White Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis)

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis poggei)

The last place I wanted to check was the rock garden on the western side of the Eco-Park.  There are several pagodas which are perfect of an afternoon picnic.  This portion of the Eco-Park is a little more “planned” than the eastern side and along the edge of the lake, so I usually don’t go to the western side.  But the lighting was perfect and the birds cooperative, so I thought I might as well check it out before the place became too crowded.

Overlooking the western side of Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park.

Overlooking the western side of Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park.

I found several Eurasian magpies searching for food on the lawns, and two large-billed crows, the first of this species I’ve seen at this location, were calling continuously from just beyond the Eco-Park boundary.  Hidden in the tall grasses along the edge of the maintained rock garden, dozens of yellow-throated buntings chipped from hidden places.  These small sparrows, though brightly colored, have an incredible knack of remaining unseen in thick vegetation.  A little patience led to getting better looks at them as they ventured to the tops of the low shrubs to forage.  A male bull-headed shrike patrolled the area, but he was uninterested in the buntings, who were equally uninterested in him.  Among all the yellow-throated buntings I found two rustic buntings, newly arrived from their northern breeding grounds.  Though lacking the brighter colors of their breeding plumage, these birds were still handsomely dressed.

Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica sericea)
These birds, though exceedingly common, are nevertheless quite eye-catching.

Yellow-throated Bunting (Emberiza elegans elegans)

Although the Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park is one of the harder birding sites to get to in Gwangju, especially without a car, it’s also one of the best.  Any time of year can produce surprising and unexpected species, and the tranquil lakeside reminds me of some of my favorite sites from Ontario.

See a full eBird listing of all the species seen throughout the day here.

The Peacock and the Skimmer

I had been cooped up in the apartment for too long.  The rainy season in South Korea was dragging on, and as final exams loomed at school, I was under pressure to create meaningful review lessons to prepare my students.  My birding had taken a back seat for the meantime, and while July is always a slow month for birding, I had been away from the chase for too many weekends.  So Saturday morning Melanie and I set out to Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park (광주호 호수생태원) on the outskirts of Gwangju.  The Eco-Park is a little removed from the city, but is easily accessible by the #187 village bus.  This bus only comes once an hour, usually on the :30 or :45, so be sure to check the bus schedule before leaving – nothing is worse than waiting for an hour because you missed the bus by a few minutes.

Rice paddies in Chunghyo-dong, just outside the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

Rice paddies in Chunghyo-dong, just outside the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The surrounding area in Chunghyo-dong is covered with rice paddies and agriculture.  Wading through the paddies were numerous cattle egrets and little egrets; occasionally a big great egret could be found.  The skies above the paddies were full of red-rumped swallows hunting insects; on this instance I also found a Eurasian kestrel hunting the swallows that were hunting the insects.

The Eco-Park had grown wild since my previous visit in April.  The small ponds were inundated with reeds, and hidden within were several oriental reed-warblers.  The grounds of the Eco-Park had dozens of azure-winged magpies and Eurasian magpies feeding their offspring.  I also spotted a scaly thrush with a mouthful of food for an unseen nest or fledgling.  One of the resident pair of grey-faced woodpecker also put in a brief appearance.

Many of the shrubs were in full bloom, and butterflies and dragonflies abounded.  Most of the butterflies were Asian swallowtails, but a few Chinese peacocks could be found with a little effort.  In the small ponds, there was a wide range of dragonflies, including black-tailed skimmers, scarlet skimmers, with smaller numbers of pied skimmers and butterfly skimmers.  I was particularly drawn to the butterfly skimmers, which had magnificent black iridescent wings that exploded with color in the sunlight.  Zipping among the blades of grass were several small green-and-yellow damselflies, which I later identified only as Ceriagrion melanurum.

The Chinese Peacock ( Papilio dehaani), one of the flashier butterflies at Gwangjuho Lake.

Asian Comma (Polygonia c-aureum)

A Long-tailed Spangle (Papilio macilentus), missing part of its long tail.

This damselfly is identified only by its Latin binomial Ceriagrion melanurum.

A Butterfly Skimmer (Rhyothemis fuliginosa), as translated from the Japanese common name; this is possibly one of the most beautiful dragonflies I’ve ever photographed.

We took the boardwalk along the edge of Gwangjuho Lake, drinking in the fresh air and sunlight.  Even though the day was a warm one, and the skies were mostly clear, there was still a surprising amount of birdsong in the air.  On the lake we saw a mother mandarin duck with two fluffy chicks in tow, and came across several groups of vinous-throated parrotbills with fledglings.  Melanie almost stepped on a dark-spotted frog, which provided me with a photo opportunity before disappearing into the grasses.

The boardwalk at Gwangjuho Lake.

The boardwalk at Gwangjuho Lake.

Dark-spotted Frog (Pelophylax nigromaculatus)

A black-naped oriole could be heard singing from somewhere in the Eco-Park.  We could also hear two common cuckoos and a lesser cuckoo calling periodically.  Near a junction in the boardwalk, by a shallow reed bed, the sounds of oriental reed-warblers gave way to a juvenile bull-headed shrike, calling out to attract an adult.  Shortly thereafter an adult male came in from the north and answered its anxious fledgling.  Not far from there were several more vinous-throated parrotbills and Japanese tits in a mixed-species foraging group.

A shallow reed bed near Gwangjuho Lake.  Oriental reed-warblers and two bull-headed shrikes were located near here.

A shallow reed bed near Gwangjuho Lake.  Oriental reed-warblers and two bull-headed shrikes were located near here.

A juvenile Japanese Tit (Parus minor), foraging on its own with a sibling at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

We left the boardwalk and proceeded through a stand of metasequoia trees.  A Japanese bush-warbler could be heard calling nearby.  A dollarbird flew overhead, and in the swarms of red-rumped swallows overhead I found three barn swallows.  On the other side of the Eco-Park is a large open area with ornamental shrubs and trees.  This area was undergoing maintenance, so we decided to head back to the entrance of the park.  On the way we stopped at an observation deck overlooking the lake.  Hidden in the trees I found three common kingfishers, the most of this species I have found anywhere.

Eurasian Magpies (Pica pica sericea).  This photo reminds me a little of the crows in Dumbo.

It was getting near the lunch hour when we decided to head back to Gwangju.  On the way out of the park we passed another group of azure-winged and Eurasian magpies.  An adult male ring-necked pheasant ran across the walkway, and hiding in the tall grass I found a small juvenile pheasant.  All in all the visit to the Eco-Park was a great outing.  I’m looking forward to returning here in the early autumn, to see what kind of migrants use the park as a stopover on their migration routes.

Butterfly Hunting at Gunwangbong

July is a difficult month for birders.  The breeding season is in full swing, so most birds are concerned with feeding their chicks or keeping an eye on fledglings.  Many species stop singing and disappear, not to be seen again until the autumn.  At these times many birders turn their attentions to other things, most often dragonflies and butterflies.

Many of the birders and photographers I know from Ontario switch to looking for insects in the summer months.  It makes a lot of sense when you think about it: birders are very determined and very attentive, so we can’t help but notice things around us, even if it’s not of the feathered variety.  Besides, some dragonflies and butterflies can easily rival the most ostentatious of wood-warblers in terms of coloration, while others require that same attention to detail that all birders hone over the years.

It’s the rainy season in South Korea now, and the weather is very unpredictable.  On occasion it will rain for several days straight, then be overcast and excessively humid for a few more days, and then rain again.  The only real constant is the humidity and heat, which remain regardless of how much water falls out of the sky.  On the rare days when the clouds break and the sun appears, temperatures quickly soar into the 30s, and the added humidity makes it difficult to stay out long or do any long-distance travel on foot.  I haven’t been able to get out as often as I’d like recently, both because of the weather and my work schedule.

Even so, I took a few hours this weekend to put down my laptop and lesson plans and head out into the wilds, hoping to reconnect with an old friend who I’ve neglected for too long.  I can’t quite characterize my relationship with the natural world; often times when I’m wandering along a mountain trail or walking the shore of a lake, I think to myself yeah, this is home.  Almost like the human world with its electronics, cars, bustling crowds, and constant noise, all that is the fake world.  Here on this mountain, or here by this lake, this is where we’re supposed to be.  This is where we really belong…it’s where we’ve always belonged, even though we like to think we’re somehow beyond it or above it.  Needless to say, even a few hours surrounded by the trees and life was enough to recharge the old batteries.

A map of Gunwangbong Peak and the reservoir on the outskirts of the Mudeungsan chain.

A map of Gunwangbong Peak and the reservoir on the outskirts of the Mudeungsan chain.

So this weekend Melanie and I stole away to Gunwangbong Peak (군왕봉), a mountain in the Mudeungsan chain that is near our apartment in Duam-dong.  The peak itself isn’t particularly high, topping at about 365 meters (~1,200 feet), but it is a pretty steep climb.  However, the view from the top is incredible: on a clear day you can see the entirety of the city of Gwangju laid out below.

My main focus was to look for some interesting butterflies and dragonflies.  I knew this area quite well, and although there is a good diversity of bird species in the area, I was not expecting to find any lifers, especially not so late in the breeding season.  Most of the species we encountered were the typical mountain species, such as Japanese tit, pygmy woodpecker, white-backed woodpecker, oriental turtle-dove, and brown-eared bulbul.  There were a few summer breeders around as well, including black-naped oriole and Asian stubtail.

A male nominate White-backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos)

At the base of the mountain is an abandoned reservoir.  There are a few gardens nearby, and plenty of ornamental flowers and shrubs, which attract all kinds of butterflies.  We found two species of swallowtails, large butterflies from the Papilionidae family.  The most impressive was the Chinese peacock, a large black butterfly with iridescent blues and reds in the wings, which explode in color when in the sunlight.  The second, the Asian swallowtail, reminded me of the tiger swallowtails from eastern North America, except larger and lighter in color.  Along a small stream leading into the reservoir, we found several small damselfies, which I later identified as stream glories or oriental greenwings.

Asian Swallowtail (Papilio xuthus)

Chinese Peacock (Papilio dehaani)

Stream Glory (Neurobasis chinensis)

On the way up to the peak we stopped at a small overlook.  A few black-tailed skimmers were flitting around, and near one of the burial mounds I noticed two butterfly skimmers engaging in aerial combat with one another.  I wasn’t able to photograph these dark-winged beauties, but just seeing them was enough for me.  We made use of the shade of the trees here and took a short siesta, getting our strength back before taking on the last stretch to the top.  It was easily nearing 40°C, and not much cooler in the shade.

A male Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum)

I was dozing a bit when I noticed a small bird pop up from the nearby vegetation and perch on an open branch.  It was small with a long tail; I figured it to be a brown-eared bulbul as they are very common in these mountains.  So you can imagine my surprise when I raised my binoculars and found myself looking at a tiger shrike scanning the vegetation for insects!  Here was Lifer #499!

Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus): Lifer #499.

My field guide had said that tiger shrikes were uncommon summer visitors to the Korean peninsula, but delving through the eBird database and following sightings in Korea had not yielded any reliable places to find this species.  In fact, the complete lack of sightings made it appear far rarer than the field guide would have me believe.  And yet, here was one no more than two kilometers from my apartment, hunting over a forest opening that I had been to dozens of times before.  It’s moments like this that remind me why I love birding so much: it’s the serendipity of the sport, and how even your backyard can surprise you sometimes.

The Tiger Shrike gives me a smile before returning to hunting insects near Gunwangbong Peak.

After an enjoyable photo session with the shrike, we decided to tackle that last push to the top of Gunwangbong, even though the heat was unrelenting and we were slowly going through our water supply.  Thankfully the trail to the top is relatively shaded in the forest; it’s a tough climb, but there is plenty of cover from the sun.  In the shade of the trees we found a few more butterflies on wildflowers along the trail.

A skipper butterfly, Daimio tethys

Grey-veined White (Pieris melete)

At the top of the peak there is a large observation area, with benches and a small marker designating the summit.  We stopped here for a long time, exhausted from the ascent.  A few more butterflies were flitting about, mainly Pallas’s fritillary and an Old World swallowtail; there was also a Eurasian magpie hanging around, looking for scraps of food from the people taking a rest in the shade.  It was a very clear day, with very little haze despite the high humidity.  Below me the whole of Gwangju spread out into the distance – this was the first time I had actually seen the whole city.

A panorama of the city of Gwangju, as seen from the top of Gunwangbong Peak.

A panorama of the city of Gwangju, as seen from the top of Gunwangbong Peak.

A marker at the summit of Gunwangbong Peak.

A marker at the summit of Gunwangbong Peak.

Pallas’s Fritillary (Argynnis laodice)

A male Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius), flitting among several Pallas’s fritillaries at the summit of Gunwangbong Peak.

Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon), a little worse for wear.

A female Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius)

It was a productive walk through the mountains, and finding the tiger shrike was an exciting and unexpected surprise.  Although birding can slow to a crawl during the dog-days of summer, it’s still worth keeping an eye out.  The birds may be on hiatus until the fall, but there are still plenty of other amazing critters to discover out there.  And anytime you can see a familiar place with new eyes makes all the difference.

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.

Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park (Part II)

A map of Chunghyo-dong.

A map of Chunghyo-dong.  The Eco-Park is outlined in red.

Having left the confines of the Eco-Park, Melanie and I decided it would be worth exploring around Chunghyo-dong.  It was nearing lunchtime and the growling of stomachs was overpowering the bird calls.  We headed north towards a main roadway, hoping to find a Korean BBQ place or other restaurant.

A small bridge went over the stream coming from Gwangjuho Lake, but there were no sidewalks and traffic was fairly regular, so we took a side road to reach another bridge a little further down.  There were several small collections of houses, and another Buddhist archway near the summit of a small hill.  As we were looking at the structure, a group of four white-cheeked starlings flew into a nearby farm plot.  My attention diverted from the scenery, I also noticed about a dozen rustic buntings in a tree along the roadway.  These small sparrows had not completed their spring molt, and so were lacking the striking black crests and deep rust-red coloration in their plumage.  A single little egret was roosting on a branch on the far side of the stream.

We continued down the dirt road, the promise of imminent food pushed us forward toward the main road.  As we crossed the second bridge, I noticed a Eurasian kestrel sitting on an electrical wire down the road.  These small falcons are fairly common in Gwangju and the countryside, and can be found along roadways in a similar way to the red-tailed hawks of North America.  However, this one was Melanie’s first sighting, as she was never around when I would come across them on my own.  The kestrel did several stop-and-hover maneuvers over the stream, and then suddenly dove after something I hadn’t seen.  It was an unsuccessful strike, and we watched as the small bird flew off into the distance and disappeared, the kestrel in hot pursuit.  It was flying away from us, but through the binoculars I was able to make out a yellow rump on the bird.  I didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t something I was familiar with.

Oh, the temptation…

The promise of another lifer tantalizingly close, we continued into civilization, heading toward some signs that gave their siren song of fresh meats and vegetables waiting for us to BBQ them up into deliciousness.  But, ever the obsessed birder, I kept one eye on the stream, in the hopes that my mystery bird would return.  Obsession occasionally pays off, and sure enough, before we left the stream to cross the street, the bird flew past us again, and this time I was able to see enough of it to positively ID it as a grey wagtail.  The yellow rump was apparent, and seeing the bird from the side revealed the yellow covered most of the belly and breast.  The white supercilium (eye brow) was obvious, and the bird had a black throat patch bordered by a white submoustachial stripe (malar stripe).  It was a brief glimpse, but more than enough for an ID.

The mystery solved and the bird checked, we resumed our search for lunch.  Choosing a small restaurant tucked away from the road, as we approached the entrance we flushed two more grey wagtails that were hiding in the gravel parking lot.  Every successful birding trip should end with such a meal – and in Korea there is always the added excitement because we are rarely able to read what we’re ordering unless the place has a picture menu, which this one did not.  But fortune smiled on us that day, and we ate heartily after a lot of walking.  Upon leaving the restaurant after lunch, I was able to photograph an oriental turtle-dove right near the parking lot.

Oriental Turtle-dove (Streptopelia orientalis) outside a restaurant in Chunghyo-dong.

As the afternoon wore on it was getting time to head back to Gwangju, so we returned to the Eco-Park where we would pick up our bus back to the city.  Unfortunately we had just missed the bus, so we had an hour to spend waiting.  Rather than sit in a bus stop kiosk, we decided to walk the side streets of the village and explore Chunghyo-dong a little more.  It was just then that a large flight of azure-winged magpies came overhead from the west – I counted at least fifty birds.  They were all heading to a large stand of bamboo on the outskirts of the village, so we headed in that direction to have a look.  Another Buddhist shrine was on the hilltop, and the magpies were flying in and out of the bamboo around the shrine.  From its elevated position, the shrine had a great view over the village and surrounding mountains.  A short walk through the village side streets revealed several more white-cheeked starlings, a couple oriental turtle-doves, and Eurasian tree sparrows by the handful.  Our waiting was over finally, and we returned to the bus kiosk in time to catch the 6pm bus back to Gwangju.  The last sighting for the day was a group of Eurasian magpies picking at the vegetable stubble in a farm plot near the kiosk.

We returned to the city with a beautiful sunset in the mountains, highlighting the cherry trees still holding on to their blossoms despite the relentless winds throughout the day.  Without a doubt I’ll be returning to the Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park, perhaps once spring is in full swing.

Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park (Part I)

Melanie and I started out on our first visit to the Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park (광주호 호수생태원), more commonly called Gwangju Lake Eco-Park, on a partly cloudy morning.  From our apartment in Duam-dong in the Buk-gu district, it was a 30-minute bus ride on the #187.  This is an important tip for anyone planning a trip out there: the #187 is more or less a village bus, and only comes about once an hour, so it’s worth checking the schedule ahead of time unless you enjoy standing at a bus stop for what seems like an eternity.

That being said, the ride was incredible.  The bus route heads out of the city east towards Chunghyo-dong and the town of Damyang, passing over the mountains that surround Gwangju.  These mountains are part of Mudeungsan National Park (무등산국립공원), and the bus passes a stop for the main trail leading to Mt. Mudeung (무등산) on this route.  The cherry blossoms were in full bloom as we meandered along a narrow roadway through the mountains.  It is one of the great marvels of the Korean traffic system that these normal-sized city buses can traverse barely two-lane mountain roads without a moment’s hesitation on even the tightest hairpin turn.

Coming out the other side of the mountain pass, we entered a large agricultural area in Chunghyo-dong.  Passing through the scattered settlements I noticed quite a few azure-winged magpies picking at the compost piles behind the houses.  These birds seem to stay close to farming settlements, as I’ve only ever seen them in such environments, both here in Gwangju and during my orientation period in Jeonju-si. The fields were surprisingly empty, though how many small passerines were hiding in the plant stubble is impossible to determine. A small irrigation pond did have a handful of ducks or coots on it, but we were moving too fast to get an accurate ID.

After our enjoyable ride, we arrived at the entrance to Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park. The bus stop is no more than 30 meters from the entrance; if you’re thinking of going grab the #187 towards the Gwangjuho Lake stop (광주호). There is no entrance fee, and the gate is open from 9am-6pm. I’d recommend getting there early, especially in the warmer months. Koreans love the outdoors and usually spend their weekends hiking in the mountains or strolling along the rivers. If you’re looking to do some birding or just fancy some time to collect your thoughts, it’s best to do that before the throngs arrive.

Across the street from the Park is a small Buddhist archway and two ancient willow trees. These trees are revered in the small village here, as Melanie and I discovered as we watched two Korean women pay homage to the trees as we were photographing the archway. It’s alright to photograph the trees, and even to talk in normal voices around them (another Korean family was there as well, doing just that), but I definitely got the sense that this was a place of respect, and so Melanie and I didn’t want to interfere.  The whole site is very peaceful, with a nice gravel path and beautiful landscaping work.  As I understand it, the Koreans believe that the spirits of their ancestors use these ancient trees as a place to reside in the afterlife, and having an old tree near the center of a town or city brings the protection and good fortune of their ancestors’ spirits. If a city doesn’t have an old tree, it is common to find tall wooden posts, similar to totem poles, in the city to serve the same function.  Melanie found one of these poles in the town of Naju to the south of Gwangju.

Memorial Pavilion in Chunghyo-dong, at the entrance to the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

Memorial Pavilion in Chunghyo-dong, at the entrance to the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

One of the centuries-old willow trees in Chunghyo-dong.

One of the centuries-old willow trees in Chunghyo-dong.

We decided to head into the Park, and were promptly greeted by a dozen or so yellow-billed grosbeaks.  These large finches closely resemble Japanese grosbeaks, but the rusty orange coloration on the flanks distinguishes them from their Japanese cousins.  The grosbeaks were close to a paved walkway, flitting about in some small trees with the leaves just starting to emerge.  I tried to get a few photos, but the grosbeaks kept a reasonable distance.  While watching them, I also found three male bramblings in various stages of molt, and a flyover of about twenty Eurasian siskins topped off the finch festival.

A male Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) almost finished with his spring molt.

We continued down the paved pathway, passing lush flower beds and several small koi ponds with reeds along the way.  This Park will definitely be a sight to behold once spring arrives in full.  A few paths are lined with cherry trees, and their blossoms fell like snowflakes whenever the wind blew (which it did plenty on this day).  The highlight of the Park is a wonderful boardwalk through a small lakeside marsh.  The boardwalk is smartly designed, seeming to emerge right out of the marsh, rather than plowing through it as often happens in many parks and reserves I’ve been to.  There wasn’t much in the way of bird activity in the marsh, probably due to the high winds coming off Gwangjuho Lake and that it was still early in the season.  We did see a scattering of Eurasian teal and five Eurasian coots, which were new lifers for Melanie (I’d already seen my first Eurasian coots on the Yeongsan River in Gwangju the previous weekend).  As we continued down the boardwalk, enjoying the walk but cursing the incessant wind off the lake, I heard the twittering of vinous-throated parrotbills, and sure enough about a dozen appeared flitting in and out of the sedges and reeds along the boardwalk.  Further down we found two Japanese tits, which were uncharacteristically photogenic.

Japanese Tit (Parus minor)

The boardwalk at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The boardwalk at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The boardwalk makes a large loop, returning to the entrance of the Park and the lovely gardens there.  As we continued through the gardens, we stumbled into a flock of olive-backed pipits, which were also lifers for Melanie.  The pipits look very similar to the American pipits (Anthus rubescens) that I am more familiar with, but have a more distinct facial pattern and lack the white eye ring common in American pipits.  Their vocalizations also greatly differ from American pipits, so distinguishing the two is relatively easy.  We continued to follow the paved pathway, passing by the koi ponds again, and walked along a row of cherry blossoms with the peak of Mt. Mudeung in the background.

Mt. Mudeung as seen from Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

Mt. Mudeung as seen from Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

Melanie paused to photograph the scene, when I noticed five white-cheeked starlings in the grass near our pathway.  Unfortunately I was unable to get any photos, as the flock took to the air shortly afterwards. But more birds were to be found, and soon after I heard the melodic call of a Japanese bush-warbler coming from a woodlot in the middle of the park.  Then a strange hawk-like call came out from near the tops of the trees, and I turned just in time to see a woodpecker-like bird flying into the branches.  I couldn’t locate it again, but it would intermittently call out with the strange screech call, which reminded me so much of the accipiters from North America.  I later identified the calls as that of a grey-faced woodpecker.  I wish I had been able to get a better look at this green and grey woodpecker, but for now that brief glimpse will have to do.  Searching for the woodpecker also revealed four hawfinches near the tops of the trees.

Our paved pathway gave way to another boardwalk, which followed the shore of the lake through a small grove of metasequoia trees.  It was here that we found a large mixed-species flock of passerines, mainly consisting of Japanese tits, vinous-throated parrotbills, and long-tailed tits.  The birds were very interested in foraging in the new vegetation, and allowed us some great close-up views.  I managed to capture a few photos of the long-tailed tits, whose small size and energetic movement do not lend well to photography.

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus magnus).  These small birds are fairly common, but hard to spot.

Further down we came into a large open expanse of the park, dominated by small pagodas and a rock garden.  A large observation platform gave an amazing view of Gwangjuho Lake, and a hundred meters away we were able to spot five tufted ducks on the water.  These ducks were lifers for both of us, and I was thrilled to finally see them after having missed the female tufted duck that appeared in Ottawa (where I used to live) back in the fall of 2012.  As usually happens with the Aythya ducks, these were too far from shore for photos, but not for my scope. While watching the tufted ducks, a flock of eight mandarin ducks flew in and landed near the shore down from the observation deck.  Related to wood ducks in North America, the mandarin duck drakes are intensely colorful, but like their North American relatives are very shy and prefer to hide in reeds and vegetation than to be out in the open for long.

The rock garden at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The rock garden at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

The observation deck overlooking Gwangjuho Lake.

The observation deck overlooking Gwangjuho Lake.

Melanie and I explored the rock garden, which was peaceful and beautiful but relatively devoid of wildlife. The wind probably had a lot to do with that.  A few stray Eurasian magpies and oriental turtle-doves were heard flying overhead, but otherwise there was little activity in this portion of the park.  As we neared the edge of the park, coming to a roadside where we had taken the bus in earlier, we inadvertently flushed a bird from one of the saplings lining the walkway.  It flew to a nearby tree, and I was able to identify it as a bull-headed shrike, one of the target species I had for this trip!  This shrike has the same shape and configuration as both of our North American shrikes, but where ours are grey the bull-headed shrike is shades of rust and ochre.  These birds are local residents, so finding them can be difficult, but they prefer cultivated fields and forest edges, which are quite common in South Korea as the Koreans will put a small farm plot anywhere that isn’t already paved over or made of solid rock.  The shrike quickly disappeared, but not before we both had excellent views of our newest lifer for the day.

As we made our way out of the Eco-Park, we relocated the mixed-species flock foraging along the metasequoias, and were happy to discover that a dozen marsh tits and one lone Eurasian siskin had joined the group.  The marsh tits resemble our black-capped chickadees, but do not have the recognizable chick-a-dee-dee-dee call of their North American brethren.

A Marsh Tit (Poecile palustris) at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.

By this time the Park had gotten crowded, and as the partly cloudy skies gave way to more sun, the continuous flow of people into the Park led Melanie and I to “move on to greener pastures,” so to speak.  We left the Eco-Park and headed into Chunghyo-dong on a quest for delectable foods and interesting new birds.