When I first arrived in Korea, I was put in contact with the former English teacher at my school. We exchanged a few emails, and she told me everything I needed to know about the school and the surrounding neighborhood. She was interested in me, as well, and asked a few questions about my experience and interests. On my obsession with birding, she had only this to say: “There are no birds in Korea.”
Well, 212 species later, I can definitively say that her statement was mistaken. Korea has plenty of birds, if you know where to look. What it doesn’t seem to have, however, are mammals. At least, not in the sense that I am used to from North America. To see a chipmunk or squirrel is notable and worthy of remembrance; to have the chance to actually see a Korean water deer is nothing short of a miracle (seriously).
Last weekend Melanie and I were ending a short walk in the mountains near our apartment, having taken advantage of the lengthening days and warmer temperatures that mark the beginning of Korean springtime. The resident species were hard at work preparing their nests for the breeding season: we found a pair of vinous-throated parrotbill bringing materials to a hidden nest, the white-backed woodpecker nest I found earlier in March was occupied by the female, and we even watched a small pygmy woodpecker start excavation of a nesting cavity close to the side of a trail.
But birds weren’t the only ones with breeding on their minds. As we walked down a steep trail back towards the Gakhwa reservoir, I heard some scrambling in the leaf litter and spotted two large, dark shapes running through some low vegetation towards us. We stopped mid-step and, as if sensing our presence, the two moving shapes stopped as well. So we had the opportunity to look through our binoculars and properly see what it was: Eurasian red squirrels!
It appeared that one squirrel was chasing the other out of his territory when they stumbled onto the two of us. Melanie and I stayed still, and though the squirrels would otherwise have run off into the woods and disappeared, the territorial behavior was too strong and the squirrels resumed their chase, bringing them right onto the trail and very close to where we were standing.
One squirrel continued up the trail, giving the other squirrel (and us) one last glance over its shoulder before disappearing into the woods. The other squirrel, victorious in chasing an intruder from his territory, scurried up a nearby tree and chattered at us, voicing his frustration at not being able to chase away the human intruders as well.
Yes, I know it’s just a squirrel. But when you consider that, after having lived in South Korea for nearly 13 months, I’ve only seen four squirrels (including these two), and never one as out in the open as this, the experience takes on a whole new meaning, especially for someone like me who (tries to) spends more time outside than in.
It’s these experiences that keep me going out and looking. I can travel the same trail again and again over the course of months, and I still manage to find something new each time.