“Eleven companions set out on a quest to the summit of Mt. Mudeung, where they would cast the One Ring into the fire from whence it came…”
That is how our Saturday began…everything except that bit about the One Ring and volcanic fire. Melanie and I joined up with a group of English teachers from Gwangju, many of the same people we went hiking with at Geumseongsanseong back in March. Today’s hike was to the summit of Cheonwangbong, the highest peak of Mt. Mudeung in Mudeungsan National Park. Cheonwangbong boasts a height of 1,187 meters (3,894 feet), and offers an amazing view of Gwangju nestled below. We accessed the mountain via the Wonhyosa Temple parking lot, which can be reached by hopping on the aptly named #1187 bus. This is the only bus that goes to the Wonhyosa Temple, so expect it to be crowded on weekends. The other option is to take a taxi; be forewarned that the fare will be significantly higher for the distance traveled because Wonhyosa Temple is well outside the city limits and cabbies are hesitant to take you where they may not be able to find another fare. If you can, get the fare amount up front before accepting the taxi.
Chris, our group leader, took us along a relatively easy trail around the backside of Mt. Mudeung, following a gradual ascent to the top. This trail was not particularly busy compared to other trails in Mudeungsan National Park, so I would highly recommend it if you’re like me and prefer the solitude of Nature over busy trails and loud hikers. We planned to hike to the Gyubongam Temple, a small forgotten Buddhist shrine nestled in the cliffs of Mt. Mudeung. From there we would continue up the mountain to reach the summit of Cheonwangbong.
We met at the Wonhyosa Temple at around 10am. The parking lot has a small convenience store where you can buy drinks, snacks, and a small assortment of hiking apparel, so Melanie and I grabbed some snacks while we waited for our group to arrive. Spring is in full force now, and it was expected to be around 23°C (74°F) by midday, so we were dressed light for the occasion. I was hoping for some spring migrants to add to my year list, and hopefully I’d be able to grab some photos as well. I had just bought a new camera a few days earlier, and was anxious to test it out. The new setup is a Canon 7D with a 100-400mm f5.6 lens – a pretty solid and popular setup for bird photographers. I had been using my trusty Sony Alpha A100 with a 75-300mm f5.6 for over half a decade, so I was long overdue for an upgrade. I’ll save you the suspense: the new camera performed flawlessly!
It started at the parking lot, where I found several azure-winged magpies flying around. These birds are slightly smaller than the common Eurasian magpies that are regular fixtures everywhere in Gwangju, and I had yet to photograph one. Alas, today proved to be like all the previous attempts, and I was unable to grab a shot of them.
Our group fully assembled, we headed off into the mountains, passing a small collection of houses and farms near the Wonhyosa Temple. We did not tour the grounds of the Temple itself, as we were all anxious to get to the top of the mountain. As we began our ascent, I quickly found my first lifer for the day: a singing oriental cuckoo near a fast-moving stream. It was difficult to hear the bird at first, but once I picked up the sound it was impossible to ignore. The bird was somewhere on the other side of the stream, and there was no way to get across from where we were, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to see this new bird.
The trail was steepest here, so we took plenty of breaks and enjoyed the fine weather. Other than the usual mountain species like coal tit, great tit, and brown-eared bulbuls, I briefly heard the rattle-like call of a pygmy woodpecker, and heard two more oriental cuckoos. Despite several attempts, I was unable to find the cuckoos. I get the sense that this species may become a “nemesis bird” for me, even though I’m still counting it because of the positive ID on its call.
About an hour and a half into our hike, we arrived at the Gyubongam Temple. The Temple itself seemed to just appear out of nowhere; it is astonishing how well-designed and constructed these temples are, and how non-invasive their construction is. The temple looks like it was always there, just growing out from the cliff walls around it.
The temple was an excellent spot for a break. We had our lunch here, where we were able to explore the different buildings and marvel at the view from the temple walls. There is a small spring at the back of the temple, where you can refill your canteen before setting off again, and washroom facilities are on-site as well. It was very subtle, but all around the temple, on the bare stone of the cliffs, were carved Japanese characters. Some of these carvings scaled large monoliths of rock; it is a wonder how the carvers of these symbols managed to get up so high.
Most of the bird life around the temple consisted of coal tits and a single Eurasian jay, but as we were getting ready to continue our climb to the top, I heard the long complex sound of a Eurasian wren. Last year the winter wren was split into three species: the winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis), the Pacific wren (T. pacificus), and the Eurasian wren (T. troglodytes). Both the winter and Pacific wrens reside in North America; the Eurasian wren can be found throughout Europe and Asia, and is comprised of several subspecies.
For such a tiny bird, it has an amazingly complex song, consisting of multiple changes in pitch and style. Watching it sing, it’s hard to believe such a song is coming from this small brown bird.
Following the trail around the mountain, we passed several gaps in the trees, where we could see the surrounding mountains and valleys. The forest took on a new personality as we gained altitude: the leaves became stunted or had barely emerged, and many of the trees were smaller and shorter. As we neared the top of a ridge between two of the peaks of Mt. Mudeung, the environment changed from forest to scrub land, with scraggly bushes and thorns spreading out in all directions. The trail took us directly to the ridge, where we could see Cheonwangbong Peak and nearby Jiwangbong Peak. We were serenaded by a male yellow-throated bunting, who was singing from an open perch close to the trail. Further out in the scrubland, multiple Japanese bush-warblers could be heard singing from small patches of reed-like vegetation interspersed with the scrub.
With so many tough, thorny bushes, I knew there had to be some shrikes around, and sure enough, right before we stopped to take a break at the top of the ridge, I found two bull-headed shrikes flying around the scrub. This presented me with a perfect opportunity to test out the new camera equipment. I have found shrikes to be notoriously hard to photograph, and thus a perfect test for my new lens. It took some time getting into position in the thick scrub, but the scratches and scrapes were worth it.
As I pushed through the scrub to catch up with my hiking party, I noticed a butterfly flitting about in the tall grasses nearby. I managed to get a few photos of it; as best as I can tell this is a young scarce swallowtail, but I admit my insect identification skills are quite limited compared to my birding skills.
We had been hiking for nearly 6 hours at this point, and though we were so close, it was decided that Cheonwangbong would win this round. We began the descent down Mt. Mudeung following a paved service road. The going was much easier than our ascent, and the views equally impressive. Along the way we passed several pale thrushes and another Japanese bush-warbler. Near a small lookout about halfway down, overlooking a large portion of Gwangju below, I found three long-tailed tits. Just beyond that, only about twenty minutes from the Wonhyosa Temple, I found my second lifer for the day: an Asian stubtail. This small Old World warbler resembles most of the other Old World warblers, with drab greenish-brown plumage. What sets the stubtail apart, as its name suggests, is the small stub of a tail, and the bird’s preference to skulking on the forest floor rather than in the branches. That is how I found the stubtail – I heard some rustling in the fallen leaves, and expecting to find another pale thrush, I was delighted instead to see this small drab bird hopping around on pinkish legs. Although the stubtail paused on a small rock for a few seconds to check me out, my inexperience with the new camera finally reared its ugly head, and I missed my chance to grab a photo of the bird.
Weary after six and a half hours of climbing the mountain, we all hopped onto the #1187 and headed into downtown Gwangju, beginning a new quest to find dinner worthy of such an adventure.