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.
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 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.
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 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.