The Bamboo Forest of Damyang

As June winds to a close and the true heat of summer begins in July, the crazed running around trying to see as many birds as I could was slowing to only a moderately-fevered pace, as opposed to the manic, all-consuming pace it had only a month before.  The breeding season is typically a slow time for birding, with bird activity coming to a crawl as adults incubate, feed, and protect their young.  No new migrants are available until late August, when the earliest shorebirds begin their long flights back to their wintering grounds.

It’s the long pause before the storm.

So it was time to do some sightseeing, and give the birding a rest.  And if you’ve been following anything I’ve said here, you know that statement is a lie.  The birding never stops, but that doesn’t mean I can’t multitask once in a while.  Melanie and I had skipped it two weekends ago, so we decided to visit the Juknokwon Bamboo Forest (죽녹원) in Damyang.  Many areas in South Korea are known for a particular food or attraction that makes the place worth knowing: Daecheon for its mud festival, Jeonju for its bibimbap, Jindo for its dog breed, and so on.  Damyang is known for several reasons, but the bamboo forest is by far the most visible of these.  And this attraction could not be easier to get to from Gwangju.  Take the #311 village bus from anywhere in Gwangju; the bus arrives typically every 5-15 minutes.  Get off at the Juknokwon stop, and the entrance to the bamboo forest is across the street.  Admission is 2,000 won for adults, 1,000/1,500 won for children/adolescents.

With the exception of a few kitschy fiberglass panda bears just beyond the entrance (which are usually surrounded by tourists waiting to take their picture) the bamboo forest is just that: a forest of bamboo.  You’d almost expect to see an actual panda there, but of course there is none.  There is, however, an old Confucian school, an art gallery/gift shop, and a well-manicured pavilion, on the grounds of the forest.  If you’ve never experienced an actual bamboo forest before, it’s well worth a visit.  The entire grounds of the place can be explored in an afternoon, and there are plenty of restaurants and convenience stores nearby to grab a bite to eat.  As with all places in South Korea, the best time to visit is in the morning, before the crowds arrive.  This is especially true on weekends, so get there early.

A winding trail meanders through the thick bamboo forest at Juknokwon in Damyang.

A winding trail meanders through the thick bamboo forest at Juknokwon in Damyang.

It's unreal how tall the bamboo can grow!

It’s unreal how tall the bamboo can grow!

New bamboo growth appears bright green in this shot.  The shoots emerge with a protective sheath; once the bamboo has grown, the sheath falls off revealing the vibrant green of fresh growth.

New bamboo growth appears bright green in this shot.  The shoots emerge with a protective sheath; once the bamboo has grown, the sheath falls off revealing the vibrant green of fresh growth.

I was impressed with how tall the bamboo could grow.  It was surprisingly cool in the shade of the forest, a nice break from the heat and humidity of Korean summers.  The forest was also a breeding site for azure-winged magpies, as we found several pairs of them throughout the area.

A “Korean” Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyanus koreensis) perches in the bamboo at Juknokwon in Damyang.

The trail system at Juknokwon is a series of loops, so it’s impossible to get lost.  Our path eventually led us out of the forest into the Jukhyang Culture Village (죽향문화체험마을), a large open pavilion with grassy slopes and a nice koi pond surrounded by small pagodas.  It was here we found two pairs of azure-winged magpies and about a half dozen fledglings in tow.  Two Eurasian jays were also foraging with this group, and the calls of both a common and lesser cuckoo could be heard nearby.  As we walked around the koi pond, I also found several Eurasian tree sparrows, oriental turtle-doves, a pygmy woodpecker, brown-eared bulbuls, and fly-overs of both a cattle egret and a dollarbird.

The large Jukhyang Culture Village Pavilion (죽향문화체험마을).  A boardwalk overlooks a tranquil koi pond.

The large Jukhyang Culture Village Pavilion (죽향문화체험마을).  A boardwalk overlooks a tranquil koi pond.

One of the many pagodas  at the Jukhyang Culture Village.

One of the many pagodas at the Jukhyang Culture Village.

One of the adult Azure-winged Magpies keeps a close eye on me.  The presence of so many fledglings obviously had the adults working overtime keeping them safe.

A fledgling Azure-winged Magpie sleeps in a low branch, seemingly oblivious to its surroundings.

Another fledgling waits patiently for an adult to bring some food.  In the high heat and humidity, many of the fledglings kept their mouths open to cool themselves down.

The koi pond had quite a collection of koi, ranging from small to large.  There were also a significant number of dragonflies flitting about.  I was unable to get photos of all of them, including some of the large darner species (which never land), but I did photograph a number of new species that I can’t find in North America (not that I’m counting, of course).

A male Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) taking a rest by the koi pond in Juknokwon.

A male Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia).

We walked around the Culture Village for awhile longer, and in one of the pagodas a man and his wife were creating paper fans from bamboo.  The end results were beautiful, and it was amazing to watch how quickly the fans came together with nothing more than a dab of glue and a flick of the wrist.  I can only imagine the mess I would make if I tried to do the same thing.

We left Juknokwon and took a short stroll along the Yeongsan River.  There were plenty of shady spots to stop for an afternoon nap, and I had unfinished business with a common kingfisher that I knew was somewhere nearby.  It was another hot day, and by this hour many of the birds had retreated to whatever cover they could find.  Three domestic mallards slept on the water, an adult black-crowned night-heron made a brief flyover, and I could only locate one grey heron catching fish at the edge of a reed bed.  Sometimes it’s amazing how big a difference weather and timing play in finding a lot of birds and dipping on even the most common of species.

I followed the same path along a short boardwalk to a spillway, but the kingfisher eluded me yet again.  A quick note referring back to my previous post about the common kingfisher: a nemesis bird can continue to be a nemesis, even after it has been found and listed.  Sometimes it just mocks you for the sheer fun of it.

The spillway where I had enjoyed photographing striated herons two weeks earlier was empty, save for a little egret, a barn swallow, and one white wagtail.  The only real activity were the six or seven oriental reed-warblers that, despite sticking to the cover of the reeds, were singing continuously.  But there were plenty of dragonflies around, so I turned my attentions to them and got a few more photos for my troubles.

A Pied Skimmer (Pseudothemis zonata) resting near a spillway on the Yeongsan River.  I was unable to photograph several of this species at Juknokwon, but this one was more than happy to pose for me.

A beautiful clubtail, known only by its Latin name, Burmagomphus collaris.

Just like before, as we returned to catch our bus back to Gwangju, I heard a high-pitched call coming down the river.  Only this time the call was answered by a second call from a stationary position.  I got a brief glimpse as one common kingfisher zoomed by, banking sharply and disappearing behind some trees.  But that second call remained where it was, and I finally located the source perched on a branch on the opposite side of the river.  It was in this moment that I was glad I splurged on the 400mm lens, because I was finally able to capture a photo of a kingfisher.  This is far from my best work, but considering it’s a tiny bird from across a river, I’ll take it.

My South Korean nemesis:  an "Indian" Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis).

My South Korean nemesis:  an “Indian” Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis).

It’s good to know that a pair of common kingfishers are on territory near the Juknokwon Bamboo Forest.  Now I know where to look for them, and maybe I’ll even be able to get a decent shot of them one of these days.  Take that, nemesis bird!

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