The Fortress and the Unexpected Year Bird

The end of summer in Korea is a spectacular time of year.  Korean summer consists of inescapable humidity and crippling heat.  Everyday.  For nearly four months.

Once summer ends, though, things take on a whole new appearance.  It rarely rains throughout September, with every day being a perfectly clear sky and comfortably warm temperatures.  October is much of the same, though the leaves start to change color and fall away, and the temperature dips ever so slowly at night.  And as hard as you try to ignore it, the sun creeps behind the horizon a little earlier each day.

So it was on a perfect October morning that Melanie and I set out to Geumseongsanseong (금성산성), an ancient fortress ruin in the mountains around Damyang-gun, just north of Gwangju.  We’ve hiked this steep climb many times, but had never actually gone all the way around the fortress wall.  This wall encloses a small valley, and protects an old hermitage at its center.  Like the Great Wall in China, the battlements follow the lay of the land, resulting in a lot of sharp ups and downs along the path.

One of the gates at Geumseongsanseong

Looking out over Damyang-gun

This hardy tree clings to life on a solid boulder along the wall of Geumseongsanseong

The view from the northern wall of Geumseongsanseong

In addition to the amazing scenery (especially on a clear autumn day), I’ve found many interesting bird species in this area that I rarely encounter elsewhere.  See an earlier post about Geumseongsanseong, when I observed alpine accentors and a golden eagle, two species that I have yet to see anywhere else in Korea to date.

It took Melanie and I almost six hours to hike the entire perimeter, keeping in mind we were going at a leisurely pace.  Hiking with me usually consists of a lot of stopping and starting, as every song or call I hear requires identification.  If I can’t ID it just on sound alone, I have to stop and look for the source, because chances are if I can’t ID a sound, it’s because I’ve never encountered it before (and therefore, LIFER!)  Melanie has an abundant supply of patience…

We were finishing up our hike as the sun descended towards the horizon.  Then, a flutter of movement as something flushed from right along the trail at Melanie’s feet and bee-lined it for the tree branches above.  My mind goes through the motions: medium-sized ground bird, large body, powerful direct flight.  Strong wing beats that produce some noise.  Overall brown color, cryptic patterning, short tail.  (Oddly enough, this is practically word-for-word what went through my mind as I watched the whole event, which lasted no more than 5 seconds.)

I put all of that information together, instantly ruling out 99% of my Field Guide to the Birds of Korea.  Only two candidates remain, and I can rule out common pheasant easily because of the short tail observation.  Which leaves only one option left: hazel grouse!

Hazel grouse are small gallinaceous birds, part of the order that includes turkeys, chickens, and other game birds.  They closely resemble the ruffed grouse of North America.  However, they are scarcely seen, due mainly to their naturally shy nature and cryptic camouflage.  I have only encountered hazel grouse before on two separate occasions, both of which were over a year earlier.  Melanie, on the other hand, had never seen one before.

Male Hazel Grouse (Tetrastes bonasia amurensis)

For all the fuss it made flushing from the side of the trail, we had to peer through the branches to actually see the grouse.  Finally, I located it hiding behind a low-hanging branch.  The grouse looked down at us, and remained relatively motionless.  Then it began to vocalize in a high-pitched whistle; the sound was very uncharacteristic of most gallinaceous birds I’ve encountered before, and had I only heard it calling and not actually have seen it, I would never have guessed a grouse was making this call.

A pair of hikers passed us by soon after, and the grouse decided to fly off to another tree.  Generally grouse are not strong flyers, and make short direct evasion flights when flushed or startled.  This time the grouse only flew about 10 meters away, and landed in an exposed tree where it was in plain sight!  I cautiously approached, and was treated to a one-on-one photo session with a truly accommodating bird.  It wasn’t until a nosy Eurasian jay appeared that the grouse began to move further into the surrounding forest.

Hazel Grouse closely resemble Ruffed Grouse in every way but the facial patterning

And with that, we continued on down the mountainside, enjoying a beautiful sunset after an incredible hike.  Although the day was not particularly birdy, encountering a hazel grouse and having such good views made for a very memorable experience.

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Ides of March

It sneaked up on me somehow, but this past week marked my blog’s first anniversary, or birthday, or whatever blog’s celebrate when they’ve been around a year.  I’ve truly enjoyed the experience so far, although I haven’t always been able to dedicate the time I wanted to.  As a “Blog Year Resolution,” I’ll try to be more regular in my posts, and continue getting out there and living the birding life in South Korea.

Most of my time recently has been spent settling into my new schools, and wrapping my head around my new work schedule.  My birding time has been once again relegated to the weekends, but with the days getting longer every week, soon I’ll be able to do some late day birding as well.  And just in time, too – new arrivals are showing up all the time.  Here’s a brief look at what I’ve been up to in the month of March.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

Two weeks ago I went with Melanie to Geumseongsanseong (금성산성), an old mountain fortress in nearby Damyang-gun.  We had hiked the steep walls of the fortress in March of last year, where I had found a golden eagle and a flock of alpine accentors.  It was this latter species that we returned to look for again this year.

Despite the fine weather, we never found the alpine accentors, but there was plenty of activty, including all four species of tit (chickadee), numerous Eurasian nuthatches, and an unexpected Siberian accentor which put on a brief show for us near one of the fortress gates.  This was Melanie’s first sighting of Siberian accentor, and by far the best views of one I’ve had yet.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

Siberian Accentor (Prunella montanella montanella)
Click the image to see a short video of the accentor singing.

Last weekend found us in Suncheon-si, looking for cranes and any overwintering or recently arrived buntings.  This was a special trip, planned specifically to get Melanie her 500th bird.  To that end we were very successful, arriving near Suncheonman Bay and quickly finding at least 40 hooded cranes.  Just as I had found my 600th bird here only a few months earlier, Melanie found her 500th in the rice fields at Anpung-dong.  We went on to find her three more species to add to her list: Pallas’s bunting, reed bunting, and little bunting.  We had a very enjoyable walk along the Dongcheongang River, despite the threat of rain throughout most of the day.  There are definitely signs of spring in the air now: species are completing their molts, many species are singing, and the first of the early migrants are beginning to arrive.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus pyrrhulina)

Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and a Vega Gull (Larus vegae) along the Dongcheongang River.

The weather made a significant change this weekend, and today brought the first 18°C day of the year.  Taking advantage of the spectacular weather, Melanie and I invited our friend Victoria to come birding with us at Mudeungsan National Park, at the Jeungsimsa Temple.  Melanie and I had hiked this trail last April, and had some good luck with a variety of bird and insect species.

It's moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.© Victoria Caswell

It’s moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.
© Victoria Caswell

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

This was Victoria’s first real plunge into the birding world, and fortunately I was able to point out a lot of interesting species and behaviors.  We came across a pair of coal tits gathering moss for a nearby nesting site; click the link to see a video of the birds gathering moss.  There were numerous varied tits, pairs of both pygmy and white-backed woodpeckers, and a migrant yellow-browed bunting, which was only the second of this species I have ever seen (the first being one in the same mountain chain almost exactly a year ago to the day).

However, the pièce de résistance was definitely a very tame ring-necked pheasant, which foraged along a mountain stream in full view for tens of minutes.  We were privileged to have this opportunity to watch the pheasant for so long, and from such a short distance.  Our constant staring into the woods attracted several Korean onlookers, curious as to what was so interesting to the bunch of waygooks (Korean word for “foreigner”).  We passed out our binoculars to those who were interested, and all in all it was a great moment to show some of the locals this special (not to mention breathtakingly stunning) bird which, though very common in Korea, is often times overlooked.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

Yellow-browed Bunting (Emberiza chrysophrys)

Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)

Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus karpowi)
Click the image to see a video of the bird’s foraging behavior.

Although much of this month has been spent indoors teaching English classes, the time that I have spent outdoors has been incredibly fulfilling.  With the cold grip of winter beginning to loosen on the Korean peninsula, I look forward to warmer temperatures and renewed birding ahead!

The Damyang Excursion

In my years as a birder, I never fail to be surprised at how much serendipity plays a role in your success and failures in the chase.  The most carefully planned outings can end in total disaster, while at the same time you can find the rarest bird you can imagine almost as if it was an afterthought.  That’s how my Say’s phoebe sighting in Rhode Island, only the fifth record for the entire state, took place.  I was returning to a work site after dropping off a co-worker at his truck while I was working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  We were in the middle of planting native shrubs for a habitat restoration at the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.  I turned my truck onto a service path on the refuge and within a few moments caught sight of a small passerine hover-gleaning on the dirt path ahead of me.  I thought it was either a grey catbird or American robin, both very common on the refuge, but when I finally found my bins in the back seat and got the bird in view, I was shocked to be looking at a Say’s phoebe sitting on a bayberry branch not a kilometer away from the Atlantic Ocean.  Here was a bird where its kind had no right to be, but nevertheless I was looking at it.  I put out the word on the local RBA (Rare Bird Alert), but unfortunately no one was able to relocate the bird.  As it turned out, that wasn’t the only sighting of Say’s phoebe on the East Coast that fall, with birds showing up in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well.  Who would have expected that?

So the lesson I’ve learned is always be birding, even when you should be doing anything but birding.  You never know what’s around the corner, or in the tree above you, or right at your feet.

It was with this lesson in mind that Melanie and I headed out with a group of fellow English teachers on a make-shift spur-of-the-moment trip to Geumseongsanseong Fortress (금성산성) in the town of Damyang.  The fortress was built during the Three Kingdoms Period, sometime in the 13th century.  It consists of a stone wall encompassing a large mountain valley; the whole perimeter wall is about 7.5 kilometers around, and takes nearly 5 hours to hike the whole thing.  From the U+ Square Terminal (formerly the Gwangju Bus Terminal), take #311 or #303 to Damyang. It’s about a 40-minute bus ride, and will cost around 2,300 won (about $2.50USD) for a round-trip.

A map of the Geumseongsanseong Fortress.  The dotted line represents the perimeter wall.

A map of the Geumseongsanseong Fortress.  The dotted line represents the perimeter wall.

A group of us, about a dozen waygooks (the Korean word for “foreigners”), descended onto the Geumseongsanseong Fortress at around 10am under a perfect clear sky.  It was a warm day, with temperatures reaching into the mid-20°C – basically a perfect spring morning.  We took cabs to the base of Mt. Geumseong, and hiked up the side of a mountain, along trails that hardly deserve the name.  This was real hiking!  None of those pre-planned paved or gravel pathways with rope handrails or retaining walls.  These trails had been walked on for centuries, and they hugged the edge of cliffs and valley walls with nothing more than gravity holding you to the ground.  In a word, the hike up to the summit was intense!

The real enjoyment of hiking in Korea is the hope that you will stumble onto a Buddhist temple or shrine, or come across a forgotten burial mound or grave marker.  These signs of ancient Korean society are literally strewn over the landscape.  There are mountains only a few minutes from our apartment in Gwangju where you can walk for fifteen minutes and come across a grave marker holding position idly next to the trail, or enter a clearing dominated by several burial mounds that have been there longer than Europeans have been in North America.  One such temple could be found along on our ascent to the summit, but we chose not to take that detour on this trip.

Nazis?  150m ahead?!  No, just a signpost to a Buddhist temple at Geumseongsanseong.

Nazis?  150m ahead?!  No, just a signpost to a Buddhist temple at Geumseongsanseong.

After what seemed like a never-ending vertical ascent, we came to a vast expanse, and discovered that we had reached the entrance to Geumseongsanseong.  The entrance is guarded by what appears to be a guardhouse or observation platform (remember, this was a fortress once).  A second observation platform sits to the east, overlooking the valley below.  From the height of the mountain, we could see the entirety of Damyang below us, and just on the horizon the peak of Mt. Mudeung on the edge of Gwangju to the south.  What a sight it must have been to be on guard at this fortress, overlooking a mountain valley untouched by human hands.

The imposing entrance to a guardhouse at Geumseongsanseong.

The imposing entrance to a guardhouse at Geumseongsanseong.

The first guardhouse, as seen from the second to the east.

The first guardhouse, as seen from the second to the east.

From this position, the wall of the fortress went in both directions, following the rise and fall of the peaks.  It was easy to see the strategic advantage this fortress must have served: the valley walls were so steep, any invading army would be like shooting fish in a barrel from the safety of the fortress walls.  Our group enjoyed a brief respite from the arduous climb, then followed the wall towards the west.

The western wall of Geumseongsanseong, looking back towards the entrance.  The small dirt path next to the wall is the hiking trail…did I mention it’s a two-way path?

It was slow going over most of the hike, due mainly to the uneven walking conditions and amazing scenery that demanded closer inspection.  The hiking trail operated in two directions, so people were walking towards us as we continued along.  Normally this wasn’t a problem, but on some of the ascents things got a bit, shall we say interesting.  This is a must-do hike, but be sure to come prepared.  Sturdy shoes and plenty of water are a must.  While the hiking was tremendous, I was disappointed by the lack of wildlife.  A few Siberian chipmunks were around, but very little in the way of bird life, with the exception of a few great tits and marsh tits.

That distant peak is where we took our break.  It offered commanding views of Damyangho Lake below, as well as some much needed shade.

Our group made it about halfway around the fortress wall when Melanie and I decided to head back.  We had not brought much food, and Melanie was starting to get tired.  A few others felt the same way, so as the main group headed on to continue the hike, four of us stayed behind to rest up and meet them again at the entrance.

Enter serendipity…

My group stayed near a sharp spire of rock jutting out from a mountain peak.  There was some shade and a beautiful view, so we stayed there for awhile talking and resting in the cool shade.  It was during this relaxing period that I noticed a distant bird riding the thermals over the mountains.  Some observation through the binoculars finally revealed the bird to be an adult golden eagle!  I was able to watch it for a few more minutes, circling lazily in the sky, before folding its wings and plunging hundreds of meters down into the mountain valley below.

Shortly afterwards I heard some flight calls from the south.  A flock of small birds flew past the peak, and though I was able to see them through the binoculars, I was unable to identify them.  I was left with the guess that they were some kind of finch, but I was less than certain.  We stayed at our resting place for another twenty minutes.   I was getting a bit restless when I heard the flight calls again.  I looked up to the rock edifice above me and found a small bird at the edge of the rock, singing away.  I looked at it, but the sun was behind it, and all I could see was a silhouette.  I left the group and headed up the trail, hoping to get a chance to see it from the other side.  I turned the corner of the trail and flushed eight birds, which all gave an identical call as they scattered.

One of a dozen Alpine Accentors (Prunella collaris) foraging on the rocks at Geumseongsanseong.

Seeing two of the birds climbing a near-vertical rock face, I quickly identified them as alpine accentors.  I grabbed a couple quick photos before the flock took to the air again and disappeared.  These birds are uncommon residents in South Korea, making their homes on bare mountains with low vegetation.  They can usually be found at heights above 2,000m.

After this encounter, my group began our return trip back to the entrance of the fortress.  As we descended, the birds became more abundant.  The marsh tits were still singing periodically, and as we reached the guardhouses at the entrance, I found two Eurasian nuthatches foraging on the trees.

One of two Eurasian Nuthatches (Sitta europaea) at Geumseongsanseong.

There was a side trail behind one of the guardhouses, and in the bamboo around there I located several brown-eared bulbuls and a Eurasian magpie. Further down the trail I heard and saw two large-billed crows flying overhead, and flushed two Eurasian jays from foraging near a stream bed.  The stream led down into the mountain valley at the center of the valley, where a small farm house and rice paddy rested at the center.  Around this area were numerous yellow-throated buntings and oriental turtle-doves.  I was also able to locate a singing varied tit and a lone male hawfinch resting in a tree.  It seemed as though all the birds had been hiding here in the valley the whole time.

Alas, it was getting late and I had to return to my group so we could meet up with the rest of our fellow hikers.  We met them on the descent from the entrance to the fortress, and the remainder of the hike went by relatively uneventfully, with the exception of a single pygmy woodpecker working a fallen tree near the path.

The hiking around Geumseongsanseong Fortress is worth the bus ride, and the scenery is some of the nicest I’ve seen to date in South Korea.  This site is definitely on the list for a return visit someday soon.