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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.