Birding in the Clouds

The city of Bursa lies within a wide river valley, guarded to the north and south by mountains.  The city itself is nestled against the imposing Uludağ (oo-loo-dah), a goliath of rock towering 2,543m above the city.  In the summer, the mountain is a popular camping and trekking destination; in the winter it is a skier’s paradise, with numerous ski resorts and slopes to master.

Mt. Uludağ high above the city of Bursa

Uludağ is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, and is one of the best birding sites in Bursa.  The slopes of the mountain are covered with dense mixed deciduous/coniferous forests, giving way to entirely coniferous as the elevation increases.  As one nears the highest peak, Kartaltepe, the forests recede and boulder-strewn meadows mark the start of the alpine zone.  Only the hardiest lifeforms eke out a living up here.

One of the best ways to enjoy Uludağ is to take the Teleferik, an aerial tramway that runs 8.8km from the Teferrüç station in Bursa to the Bölge Oteller station at the base of the Kartaltepe peak. The Teleferik is the second longest aerial tramway in the world currently operating, second only to the Norsjö tramway in Sweden.  More information on logistics and getting to/from Uludağ at the end of the post.

Teferrüç Station at the base of Uludağ

Hop aboard!

The ride from between the two end stations will take approximate 22 minutes, but it is by far the most scenic way to experience Uludağ.  There is a stop about halfway at Sarıalan, where campgrounds, equipment rentals, and restaurants can be found.  Be sure to hold on to your ticket stub; you won’t be able to re-board the Teleferik without one!

Going up…

Nearing the top of the mountain, Bursa lays stretched out below you

I wanted to get out one last time to Uludağ before winter sets in.  The weather has taken on a chill, and although the sun is still warm, temperatures struggle to make it above 10°C.  While this is nothing compared to the winters in Canada where I first got into birding, for the local Turks this is considered quite “cold.”  Many of the migrants are gone now, and only the hardy overwintering and resident birds still hang on at Uludağ.

I took a chance this past Sunday, hoping that the promised clearing skies would yield some good birds on the mountain.  I wanted to track down the resident dunnocks that live around the Bölge Oteller station at the base of the Kartaltepe peak.  I got off at the Sarıalan station at the halfway point; currently the Teleferik only runs from Teferrüç to Sarıalan, but dolmuşes (minibuses) are available to ferry passengers to Bölge Oteller for 3₺ ($1 USD).

The first thing I noticed when getting off the Teleferik was how quiet it was.  There was a crisp wind coming from the east, and other than several bundled up Turks and a few vehicles, there was little activity.  I decided to hike around the area first, using the daylight to my advantage and heading into the forests.  My first birds were the sporadic flights of winter finches, mainly Eurasian siskin, that feed on the abundant cone seeds that cover the tops of the trees.  There were also the occasional European serin and red crossbill, though these were the exceptions – siskins were to be the Finch of the Day!

Eurasian Siskin (Spinus spinus)

Further into the forest led to scattered foraging flocks of coal tit.  Preferring coniferous forests, these small birds are common throughout the year at Uludağ, and can often be the most common bird seen (or heard) in the forests.  Watching the coal tits, a few great tits and goldcrest were also spotted.  I was hoping to stumble onto a common firecrest, a close relative to the goldcrest, but once again this tiny bird proved to be elusive.  Perhaps next time…

Coal Tit (Periparus ater derjugini)

One of the big draws to Uludağ for me is the abundance of a Turkish specialty.  Although Turkey doesn’t have any truly endemic bird species, the majority of the world’s population of one particular bird can only be found within it’s borders: the Krüper’s nuthatch.  With very small populations in Greece and Georgia, the bulk of all Krüper’s nuthatches live within Turkey.  Though small, these nuthatches can be found fairly easily around Uludağ, and can be quite vocal throughout the year.

Krüper’s Nuthatch (Sitta krueper)

As it was getting on in the day, I decided to hop on a dolmuş and head up to Bölge Oteller to look for the dunnock I had come all this way to find.  Bölge Oteller is the ski resort area on Uludağ; it is just below the treeline and the start of the ski slopes.  The wind was much stronger up here, and there was significantly less activity than in Sarıalan.  Despite going through some nice looking habitat, the only things I found were more of the same: Eurasian siskins, coal tits, and Krüper’s nuthatches.

Although the habitat looks good, it was just too windy for the dunnock

Eurasian siskins could be found along the roadways, eating the cone seeds that fell from the strong winds

A Krüper’s nuthatch gives me a farewell portrait

Although I never did find my sought-after dunnock, it was still nice to get out of the apartment and brave the autumn air.  As winter approaches, I don’t know if I’ll get up to Uludağ again before the snows start to fall and the skiers descend in droves.

GETTING THERE

The Teferrüç station, start of the Teleferik tramway, can be reached by public transportation by taking the dolmuş marked “Teleferik” from the Yüksek İhtisas Metro station.  The dolmuş will cost about 2.25₺ ($0.75 USD).  A round-trip ticket for the Teleferik costs 35₺/person ($12 USD); be sure to hold on to your ticket or you will have to buy another one to get back down.

Both Sarıalan and Bölge Oteller are accessible by car.  Be advised the roads are narrow and winding; in winter it is recommended to have chains on your tires.  There are also dolmuşes available in downtown Bursa which will take you to the top of Uludağ, though I do not know where to pick these up or how much it costs.  I do know that the dolmuşes typically do not depart until they are full, so you may be waiting around for awhile during the off-season.

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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.

Hints of Spring

If there is one thing I have learned since moving to South Korea, it’s that things move very quickly here.  The Koreans call it 빨리 빨리 (balli balli), literally quickly, quickly.  Work begins on a new 4-story apartment building, and three months later the first tenants are moving in.  The weather starts to become colder, and from out of nowhere it does a 180 and you see butterflies in February.

Having just returned from Cambodia, where it was regularly 32°C (89°F), the sudden onset of spring-like weather wasn’t all that sudden to me.  And no, I haven’t forgot to post about Cambodia, I’m just collecting my thoughts and pouring over about 300 photos, so please bear with me.

I start teaching at my new schools next week; another semester is about to begin.  So while I still have time, I decided to check out my local patches to see if anything new had arrived while I was globetrotting in Cambodia.  There weren’t any new migrants (not surprising since it’s still February), but many places were abuzz with bird song and activity.  All of the resident species were fully molted and dressed in their finest.  The overwintering species were nearing completion of their molt, and preparing to leave Korea behind and make the long trip to their northern breeding grounds.  Waterfowl had begun to amass on the Yeongsangang River, comprised mostly of gadwall, common mergansers, Eurasian teal, and the first of the falcated ducks.

A distant photo of a pair of Falcated Duck (Anas falcata)

Male Gadwall (Anas strepera)

At the Gakhwa reservoir this morning, many of the resident species were stretching their vocal cords and beginning to sing; some were even hard at work building nests, as was clear by a female white-backed woodpecker excavating a cavity in a tall dead tree near the reservoir.  I also saw a pair of long-tailed tits carrying materials into the thickets, likely to a well-concealed nest site.  I’ve posted some of the best photos from the past week below; more are available at my at my website.

Juvenile Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudacutus magnus)

Varied Tit (Poecile varius varius)

Drawing to a Close

In only a few short days, 2013 will come to an end and a New Year will begin.  I spent the second to last week of the year in a fog, fighting a nagging cold that wouldn’t quit.  I spent Christmas Day on Skype, talking with family on the other side of the world.  Sometimes it’s surreal how the time difference between the east coast of North America and South Korea can seem like time travel – it’s Christmas morning for us while I talk to my parents and nephews who are preparing for bedtime on Christmas Eve…how can it be today and yesterday at the same time?

I managed to recover from my cold enough to spend part of the last weekend of 2013 at the Gakhwa reservoir.  It seems fitting, since this was the first place I went to when we arrived in Gwangju all those months ago; where else would I spend the last days of the year?

Gakhwa Reservoir, just starting to freeze over.

Gakhwa Reservoir, just starting to freeze over.

It had snowed overnight on Saturday, and was still snowing a bit Sunday morning.  Snow is ephemeral here; it arrives and disappears within the same day, so one must take advantage of it while it lasts.  In the mountains surrounding the reservoir, the snow was still coming down in light flakes.  It was beautiful to see the mountains under a fresh layer of snow.

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In addition to the regular residents like Japanese tit, pygmy woodpecker, Daurian redstart, and brown-eared bulbul, I came across several winter visitors like four red-flanked bluetails, a common buzzard soaring high over the valleys, and two goldcrests (Lifer #609).  The goldcrests resemble golden-crowned kinglets, and were found in a large mixed-species foraging flock along one of the mountain trails.  Check out the complete species list.

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Sinosuthora webbiana fulvicauda)

Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanura)

The few hours I spent at the reservoir produced some great birds.  Despite having traveled over the trails around these mountains for nearly a year now, I am still surprised with new species that I had never seen here before.  It is truly one of the wonders and thrills of birding to continually see old favorite sites with new eyes.

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!

Return to Wolchulsan

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t look around once in a while, you could miss it.

– Ferris Bueller

This was my feeling about the spring migration in South Korea.  Although I saw a lot of birds during this prime season, my work schedule kept me from getting out as often as I would normally back in North America.  I never really experienced the flood of migrants; it seemed more like a trickle.  I missed most of the passing leaf-warblers and buntings, and I’m still missing some of the breeding species that should be around, namely Eurasian hoopoe, Siberian blue robin, and Korean flycatcher.

I began to run out of ideas as to where I could find new species.  I was fortunate to steal away to Jindo Island on a day-trip with Pedro Kim, and there I was able to locate a fairy pitta.  Although I only heard the bird singing, and was unable to get any looks at it, the pitta was one of my Top Ten Birds of Korea that I really wanted to get before returning home.

Therefore it was time to revisit some of old locations, and hope they would bear new fruit.  Melanie had never been to Wolchulsan National Park, and she loves hiking mountain trails that almost require climbing gear, so it was a perfect fit.  As you may recall from my previous post, Wolchulsan National Park is a known breeding site for the rare forest wagtail, and I thought it might be worth trying again for this bird, since migration had petered out and the birds should be starting to nest now.

Ominous clouds hang over the peaks of Wolchulsan National Park.

Ominous clouds hang over the peaks of Wolchulsan National Park.

June marks the beginning of the rainy season in South Korea.  Most days during this time threaten rain, and the storms can become pretty severe.  The imposing face of Wolchulsan’s mountains were all the more intimidating with the dark clouds surrounding them.  It may have been an omen of things to come.

Passing through the entrance to Wolchulsan at the Cheonhwangsa Temple parking lot, we were immediately greeted by a calling Indian cuckoo.  The bird was at some distance, but its call was quite clear.  I wanted to optimize our chances of finding a forest wagtail, so I chose to take the Gureumdari Bridge Trail (구름다리) and see the famed “Cloud Bridge” for which the trail is named.  This trail meanders through a dense forest as it approaches Cheonhwangbong Peak, the tallest peak at Wolchulsan.  I hoped that this habitat would be favorable to forest wagtails.

It was a hot and humid day, with temperatures reaching almost to the 30°C mark (86°F).  The forested trail provided some much needed shade and ever-so-slightly cooler temperatures than in the direct sunlight.  Despite the oppressive heat, the birds were active and singing, and we found several eastern crowned leaf-warblers, Eurasian jays, brown-eared bulbuls, pale thrushes, and coal tits on our climb.  The call of a lesser cuckoo near the Cheonhwangsa Temple led to us both getting good looks at a pair of the cuckoos.  So Melanie was finally able to add that species to her list.

Breaking through the forested valley, this view is seen right before crossing the Cloud Bridge.

Breaking through the forested valley, this view is seen right before crossing the Cloud Bridge.

Gureumdari (구름다리), the "Cloud Bridge," hugging the rocks over a steep valley.

Gureumdari (구름다리), the “Cloud Bridge,” hugging the rocks over a steep valley.

The Cloud Bridge as seen from the approach to Cheonhwangbong Peak.

The Cloud Bridge as seen from the approach to Cheonhwangbong Peak.

It wasn’t long before we reached the Gureumdari, or “Cloud Bridge.”  This 52-meter long suspension bridge crosses a large gulf on one of the subsidiary peaks of Cheonhwangbong, and offers very impressive views of the valleys below.  We stopped just beyond the Bridge for one of many breaks we would have throughout the day.  Echoing off the cliff faces was the sound of Eurasian jays and Daurian redstarts; I was even able to locate a few of each standing on precarious rock formations on the surrounding peaks.  In the valley below I could hear varied tits, pale thrushes, and a Eurasian wren.

We had our lunch near the Gureumdari, then continued up towards Cheonhwangbong Peak.  Very often during these near-vertical ascents the trail would disappear and give way to metal staircases bolted into the rock.  This was the only way to make the climb to the top, which begs the question of how did the builders get all the materials up there in the first place?

Sometimes the trail runs out of room.  Thankfully there are metal walkways bolted into the rock face of the mountains.  Just don't get too close to the edge.

Sometimes the trail runs out of room.  Thankfully there are metal walkways bolted into the rock face of the mountains.  Just don’t get too close to the edge.

Still going up...

Still going up…

The higher we went, the more the habitat changed from forest to bare rock.  It was becoming all too obvious that the forest wagtail would not be found in these conditions, and sure enough, we did not encounter a single one the entire day.  So the scoreboard now reads: Wolchulsan 2, Yours Truly 0.

It was nearing 3pm by the time we reached the final push to the summit of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  We had added a few more Eurasian wrens, Daurian redstarts, pale thrushes, two common cuckoos, an oriental cuckoo, four pygmy woodpeckers, and an Asian stubtail.  Resigned to the fact that the forest wagtail had won another round, I gathered my last bit of energy and dragged myself to the top of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  Melanie stayed behind about half a kilometer from the top, too tired and sweaty to continue.  She may have been the smarter one.

Finally reaching the summit of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  The 809 carved on the bottom right signifies the height of the peak (809m).

Finally reaching the summit of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  The 809 carved on the bottom right signifies the height of the peak (809m).

The view from Cheonhwangbong Peak, looking out over the city of Yeongam.

The view from Cheonhwangbong Peak, looking out over the city of Yeongam.

The towering peaks that greet visitors at the Cheonhwangsa entrance to Wolchulsan National Park are dwarfed by the Cheonhwangbong Peak.

The towering peaks that greet visitors at the Cheonhwangsa entrance to Wolchulsan National Park are dwarfed by the Cheonhwangbong Peak.

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It was blazingly hot at the summit of the mountain, but the view was well worth the struggle to get here.  I heard and eventually saw a Japanese bush-warbler, strangely singing from a cliff face below the summit.  I don’t know why it would have chosen that particular area to put up a territory.  Eventually it was time to return to my wife and begin the difficult task of climbing back down the mountain.  For those of you who do not torture yourselves with climbing up mountains, the hike back down can often be much worse than the hike to the top, mainly because you have to continually stop yourself from going too fast down treacherous trailways.  At this point we were completely out of water, and all the signs were telling us we still had 3.5 kilometers left to go.

We chose to follow a different path down, heading south along the Gyeongpo Valley to the Gyeongpo Visitor Center entrance at the south of the Park.  About a kilometer down from the peak there was a mineral spring where we were able to refill our canteens.  There is rarely a more beautiful sight than a small spring spouting fresh water when you’re drenched in sweat and your canteen is empty.  We refilled the canteens, drank them empty, and refilled them again.  If it isn’t already obvious, be sure to bring enough water with you if you try to take on Cheonhwangbong Peak.  And if you don’t there are refill stations along the Gyeongpo Valley Trail and the Baram Waterfall Trail, but not along the Gureumdari Bridge Trail.

Despite passing through gorgeous forests in the Gyeongpo Valley, we did not encounter a single forest wagtail, and a single marsh tit was the only new bird we found on the descent; there were also several of the ubiquitous pale thrushes, a few brown-eared bulbuls, and some Eurasian jays.  We reached the Gyeongpo Visitor Center entrance and immediately picked up a taxi back to Yeongam, where we got on a bus back to Gwangju.  It felt glorious to sit in a comfortable chair after that hike.  By the end of it, we had clocked in just under 7 hours of hiking.

Although we never found the bird we were looking for, Wolchulsan National Park still has a ton to offer.  The hiking is some of the best and most strenuous I’ve encountered, but the views and the beauty of the mountains make it worth the trip.  While I was figuring out the path we had covered by reviewing the trail maps available on the Korea National Park website, I found several references to the “Pampas Grass Field” located somewhere in the western portion of the National Park.  The topographic maps of the area also seem to show a dramatically reduced elevation in this part of the Park, possibly just the kind the forest wagtail would prefer.

Do I sense a Part III to this tale?