Jirisan National Park

Jirisan National Park (지리산국립공원) is South Korea’s first designated national park, established in 1967.  It is one of the largest national parks in South Korea, spanning across three provinces.  The site of ten Buddhist temples, it is also one of the largest tracks of virgin forest in the country, owing to the reverence of mountains in Buddhist culture.  As a result, Jirisan is home to many plant and animal species that are not found elsewhere in South Korea, including the rare Asiatic black bear, more commonly called the “moon bear.”

For a park this size, there are numerous entrances to choose from.  Melanie and I decided to take a bus to the city of Gurye (구례), where we would access Jirisan via the Hwaeomsa Temple (화엄사).  Hwaeomsa is one of the ten most famous Buddhist temples in South Korea, and is home to eight national treasures of Korea.  From Gwangju, take a bus from U+ Square Terminal to Gurye.  Buses leave about every thirty or forty minutes, and a one-way ticket will cost around 7,000 won.  The trip will take an hour and a half.  Once in Gurye, there is a shuttle that leaves for Hwaeomsa Temple every twenty minutes.  You can also get a taxi for about 9,000 won.

A map of Jirisan National Park near Gurye.  The locations of Hwaeomsa Temple and the Yeongiam Hermitage are shown.

A map of Jirisan National Park near Gurye.  The locations of Hwaeomsa Temple and the Yeongiam Hermitage are shown.

A trail map of Jirisan National Park.  These were placed at the beginning of each trailhead, and provided quite a lot of information on what to expect on any given trail.

A trail map of Jirisan National Park.  These were placed at the beginning of each trailhead, and provided quite a lot of information on what to expect on any given trail.

It was an overcast day, but there wouldn’t be any rain and temperatures would be a nice and cool 25°C (77°F).  We arrived at the Hwaeomsa Temple, and were literally blown away.  This was the first real Buddhist temple we had been to, with the exception of Haedong Yonggungsa in Busan (see that post here).  Immediately I was struck by how quiet and reverent the place was.  We had arrived at around 10:30am, but there were only a few dozen other people walking the grounds of the temple.  We’re both used to hiking trails, temples, and virtually any other attraction being swamped with people by 10am, so this was a very nice surprise.  The temple itself was built in 544 CE during the Shilla Dynasty, but was destroyed during the Seven Year War in the 1590s, and was rebuilt sometime thereafter.  As a North American, it still gets me to see buildings and structures that have stood in one form or another for centuries longer than my own country has even existed.

There is an active monastery at the site, and we saw many Buddhist monks and visitors on “temple stays” walking through the grounds in traditional Buddhist robes.  In two of the shrines, ceremonies were taking place and throughout the temple we could hear beautiful chanting.  It was very serene, for lack of a better description.  Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I’ll let them do the storytelling:

A signpost near the entrance the Hwaeomsa Temple.  The inscriptions contain Chinese and Korean characters.

A signpost near the entrance the Hwaeomsa Temple.  The inscriptions contain Chinese and Korean characters.

A view of the main entrance of Hwaeomsa Temple, the Iljumun Gate, and the stone staircase leading to the beopdang, or lecture hall.

A view of the main entrance of Hwaeomsa Temple, the Iljumun Gate, and the stone staircase leading to the beopdang, or lecture hall.

A view of the beopdang and the chonggak (bell tower) at Hwaeomsa.

A view of the beopdang and the chonggak (bell tower) at Hwaeomsa.

Two imposing guardians inside the Geumgangmun Gate at Hwaeomsa Temple.

Two imposing guardians inside the Geumgangmun Gate at Hwaeomsa Temple.

A view of the Gakhwangjeon Pavilion at Hwaeomsa Temple.

A view of the Gakhwangjeon Pavilion at Hwaeomsa Temple.

The chonggak, or bell tower, near the daeungjeon at Hwaeomsa Temple.

The chonggak, or bell tower, near the daeungjeon at Hwaeomsa Temple.

The Gakhwangjeon Pavilion.  Atop the staircase is the daeungjeon, which houses the Temple's main Buddha images.

The Gakhwangjeon Pavilion.  Atop the staircase is the daeungjeon, which houses the Temple’s main Buddha images.

This five-storey pagoda, the Seo-ocheung Pagoda, is one of the National Treasures at the Hwaeomsa Temple.  At the top of the staircase is the largest stone lantern in Korea.

This five-storey pagoda, the Seo-ocheung Pagoda, is one of the National Treasures at the Hwaeomsa Temple.  At the top of the staircase is the largest stone lantern in Korea.

In addition to the chanting of Buddhist monks, I heard two Daurian redstarts calling out their territories on the grounds of the temple.  Near the Iljumun Gate entrance, there was also an Indian cuckoo calling repeatedly.  This would have been a lifer for Melanie had we been able to see it.  We spent nearly forty minutes touring the temple grounds, so we decided to grab a quick bite to eat before beginning our hike up Mt. Jirisan.  There is a small gift shop near the Hwaeomsa Temple entrance, where we bought some Ramen noodles.  They also served a variety of coffees, but the last thing we needed before hiking a mountain was a hot drink.  It was at this gift shop that I found a dead mukade, or Japanese giant centipede (Scolopendra subspinipes japonica).  These enormous centipedes are not lethal, but can cause extremely painful stings requiring medical attention.  Fortunately they are not very common in the cities of Korea, but can be found out in the countryside, especially during the rainy season.  The dead mukade was not particularly large by mukade standards, only a few centimeters; I hope I never run into a full-grown mukade.

Our stomachs full, we began our ascent of Jirisan.  We came across several singing eastern crowned leaf-warblers, and managed to pick a few out among the branches.  These small birds were lifers for Melanie.  Our trail followed a large stream coming down from the peaks, which was one of the reasons I had chosen to come to this particular part of Jirisan.  It wasn’t long before we found what we had come all this way for.  An opening in the trail revealed a tranquil view of the river, and hopping from rock to rock near the water was a brown dipper!

The mountain stream running along our trail, the Hwaeomsa Course.  Prime habitat for brown dippers...

The mountain stream running along our trail, the Hwaeomsa Course.  Prime habitat for brown dippers…

Brown dippers are unusual birds, and I had planned this trip to Jirisan for the sole purpose of finding one.  They live and breed along rocky rivers and streams, especially in the mountains.  They are also one of the few passerines capable of swimming.  They appear to be about robin-sized, but with a short, stocky appearance.  Occasionally they will cock their tails, giving them a wren-like silhouette.  Our view was short, as the dipper flew further upstream once it realized we had spotted it, but there was no mistaking this bird.

As John “Hannibal” Smith from The A-Team would have said, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Our prize bird found, we continued up the mountain.  The dipper wouldn’t be the only lifer for the day, however, and shortly after finding the dipper we heard the distinct call of a lesser cuckoo somewhere in the forest.  The bird was flying high over the canopy, calling out a large territory, and through the branches I managed to get the briefest of looks.  Unfortunately Melanie was not so lucky, so she won’t be able to count this one.  Along this same trail we also found a few more Daurian redstarts, a Japanese bush-warbler, two grey wagtails, a large-billed crow, and a plethora of chickadees, including coal tits, Japanese tits, and varied tits.  After about an hour’s hike, with several breaks by the stream, we came to a fork in the trail, and one of the strangest sign posts I’ve yet to find in South Korea.

A fork in the road.  Left to the Yeongiam Hermitage and...

A fork in the road.  Left to the Yeongiam Hermitage and…

... a cafe?  In the middle of the woods?

… a cafe?  In the middle of the woods?

Well, if you’ve walked all this way and see a sign for a cafe, it would just be rude not to check it out.  The cafe was surprisingly swanky for being located near a Buddhist hermitage.  The menu was tailored towards beverages, with a selection of coffees and teas, both hot and cold.  We opted for two sandwiches, which really hit the spot.  Prices were a tad on the expensive side, with the average being 4,500 to 6,000 won for an item.  Still, I’ve hiked a lot of trails and mountains, and it is a rare thing to find a full-service restaurant on the middle of a trail.

A small cafe near the Yeongiam Hermitage.  By far this is the most random location for a cafe I have ever found.

A small cafe near the Yeongiam Hermitage.  By far this is the most random location for a cafe I have ever found.

Further up the road from the cafe was the Yeongiam Hermitage (연기암).  The Hermitage is home to the Manjusri, a 13m high statue commission by the Buddhist monk Manhae in 2008.  The Manjusri is the chief Bodhisattva, and is one of the most worshipped Bodhisattva in Korea since the Three Kingdoms Period.  The Hermitage rests in an opening in the forest, providing a beautiful view of the Hwaeomsa Valley and the surrounding mountains.

A shrine at the Yeongiam Hermitage.  The living quarters and the Manjusri were located nearby.

A shrine at the Yeongiam Hermitage.  The living quarters and the Manjusri were located nearby.

The Manjusri of Yeongiam Hermitage.  This large statue of the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom measures 13m high.

The Manjusri of Yeongiam Hermitage.  This large statue of the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom measures 13m high.

The Hermitage seemed to be a meeting place for cuckoos as well: we heard the calls of common, Indian, and lesser cuckoos all around the area.  A pair of Japanese tits had put a nest under the awning of one of the buildings, and the chirps of small chicks could be heard whenever the adults arrived with freshly-caught insects.   Continuing up the mountain from Yeongiam, we found a male blue-and-white flycatcher and an Asian stubtail.  The stubtail is a member of the bush-warbler family Cettidae, and has a high pitched, insect-like call, that can easily be overlooked in the forest.  We discovered that Melanie can’t really hear the stubtail’s call; at least, it is not as obvious to her as it is to me, even when the bird is close by or in view.  I’ve heard of this before, where a bird’s call is simply out of the audible range of certain people.  This can happen with North American species like blackpoll warbler and grasshopper sparrow.

A male Blue-and-white Flycatcher (Cyanoptila cyanomelana).  Low light in the forest prevented me from getting a crisp image of this bird.

We stopped one last time by the stream, while we debated the pros and cons of continuing up the mountain.  It was a serendipitous rest stop, for we found a pair of brown dippers and a female grey wagtail nearby.  Judging by their behavior, I imagine the dippers have a nest nearby, or may be building one.  Certainly the site is perfect for them.

Near this waterfall was where we found a pair of Brown Dippers...perfect habitat for this species.

Near this waterfall was where we found a pair of Brown Dippers…perfect habitat for this species.

A male Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii) foraging near the edge of a mountain stream at Jirisan National Park.

After enjoying watching the dippers, we decided to turn back and return to the Hwaeomsa Temple.  The hike back down the mountain was uneventful, with no new species found along the way.  All told we spent nearly eight hours hiking, and barely scratched the surface of Jirisan National Park.  I was really impressed with the park, both for the beautiful temples and landscape, as well as the great hiking trails and small crowd sizes.  If you can only make it to one national park in South Korea, make it Jirisan.

Busan or Bust, Day 2: Igidae Park

If you are unfamiliar with the psychology of “listing,” allow me to divert on a short tangent.  There is a concept of the “target bird” or “target species.”  Many places have a particular species they are know for, or in the case of islands, species that can only be found there (endemics).  Sometimes it is a particular habitat that occurs in one place and not another, such as the small patch of Carolinian forest in southern Ontario at Point Pelee, where one can find the only breeding population of prothonotary warbler in the whole of Ontario.  When I plan birding trips outside of my general surroundings, I do so with target species in mind.  Otherwise, why travel a long way if you’re only going to see things that occur in your own backyard?

It was my hope that Igidae Park (이기대) would hold a target bird for me: the blue rock-thrush.  This robin-sized passerine breeds along the rocky coastlines, where it can hide its nests in cracks and crevices near the ocean.  I simply can’t get it in Gwangju, but it’s a fairly common resident near Busan.  Time would tell if my research and intuition would be correct.

A map of Igidae Park.  The white line highlights the path from the Namcheon Station to the entrance to Igidae Park.

A map of Igidae Park.  The white line highlights the path from the Namcheon Station to the entrance to Igidae Park.

Igidae Park is one of Busan’s best kept secrets for hikers and Nature-lovers, at least as far as foreigners are concerned.  The park is quite large for an industrialized hub like Busan, but is a little tricky to get to, and as such most foreign visitors to Busan overlook it or simply don’t even know it exists.  The park has a well-made boardwalk hugging the coastline, as well as several trails that crisscross the mountainous interior forests.  It’s a diverse habitat with a lot of potential.  It also provides some spectacular views of the Busan skyline, and is front and center to the Gwangandaegyo Bridge, a suspension bridge that is fully illuminated at night with different colors that alternate with the seasons and weather.

To get to Igidae Park, take Subway Line #1 to Namcheon Station and leave by Exit 3. Head west down Suyeong-ro (수영로) and take the first left.  For some reason this road is also called Suyeong-ro, but follow it towards the Gwangandaegyo Bridge.  Cross the street at the McDonald’s and the Metro grocery store, and continue under the overpass.  That green mountain ahead of you is Igidae Park, just keep heading towards it.  It’s about a fifteen minute walk from the subway station.

The Busan skyline from Igidae Park.  The skies had clouded over by the afternoon, but the view was incredible nonetheless.

The Busan skyline from Igidae Park.  The skies had clouded over by the afternoon, but the view was incredible nonetheless.

The unassuming entrance to Igidae Park.  It's no wonder only the locals know about this place.

The unassuming entrance to Igidae Park.  It’s no wonder only the locals know about this place.

The entrance to Igidae leads to a steep narrow staircase which comes to a series of short suspension bridges over the shoreline.  These bridges are a lot of fun to walk over, but there isn’t much room on them to stop and enjoy the view.  Luckily there are small platforms built around them for viewing.  This park is used quite heavily by the local population, and the trail along the shoreline was quite busy when I was there.  Don’t come here expecting a solitary walk to collect your thoughts.  However, at several places the boardwalk or trail gives access to the shoreline itself, and you can walk along the rocks instead of the paths if you prefer.  Many people were sitting on the rocks or close to the water with fishing poles, so it made for quite a lively hike.

One of the suspension bridges at Igidae Park.  Notice the guy walking towards me with his cellphone out...nothing says "the Great Outdoors" like a Samsung Vega in your hand.

One of the suspension bridges at Igidae Park.  Notice the guy walking towards me with his cellphone out…nothing says “the Great Outdoors” like a Samsung Vega in your hand.

Igidae Park's forested interior.  Much of the park is a forested cliff face, but the interior is accessible via several steep hiking trails.

Igidae Park’s forested interior.  Much of the park is a forested cliff face, but the interior is accessible via several steep hiking trails.

Open coastline where land meets sea.  Igidae Park is sometimes called Busan's "other coastline."

Open coastline where land meets sea.  Igidae Park is sometimes called Busan’s “other coastline.”

It wasn’t until I had crossed several of the suspension bridges and was well into the park that I found my first birds.  Two pygmy woodpeckers and a single Eurasian jay were foraging in the trees on the cliff above me.  Brown-eared bulbuls could be heard calling in the trees, and on the ocean there were dozens of black-tailed gulls.  Vinous-throated parrotbills would pop in and out of the foliage.

Further down the shoreline, near a large open expanse of flat rock, I could just make out a whistling call over the crashing of the waves.  I made a quick scan of the breakwater, that familiar surge of adrenaline and the start of sweating palms signalling that vindication was near.  Where was it coming from?  Was I imagining it?

There he was, in all his splendor.  Sitting atop the concrete breakwater was a male blue rock-thrush, singing his heart out over the roar of the waves.

A male “red-bellied” Blue Rock-thrush (Monticola solitarius philippensis) at Igidae Park.  Before the end of the day, I would find three pairs of these birds.

Lifer #488, check.

With that small bit of business out of the way, I was free to continue on the trail and enjoy what remained of the afternoon.  I didn’t know at the time what else would lie in store for me before leaving Igidae.

I took a break near a large amphitheater about a kilometer from the entrance.  As I finished off a bag of bacon-flavored corn chips, listening to brown-eared bulbuls and great tits calling around me, a flash of grey hit my eyes.  A small bird was popping in and out of the rocks below me; it appeared to be a bulbul.  A closer look through the binoculars revealed it as a female blue rock-thrush!  With most birds, the males are louder, flashier, and easier to locate, and the females tend to be drab in color and fleeting at best.  It’s always a pleasure to see a pair of birds, and when it’s a recent lifer, well, double your pleasure, double your fun.  True to her nature, the female blue rock-thrush wasn’t blue at all, but a drab greyish-brown on the back with some interesting mottling on the breast.  She easily blended in with the rocks around her, which is the whole point of that uninteresting coloration.  Hidden in small cracks and crevices in the rocks, I found several small frogs as well.  I didn’t know amphibians could be found so close to saltwater.  I later identified them as Imienpo station frogs.

A Blue Rock-thrush of the female variety.  All that drab color and mottled plumage make her very hard to spot on the rocky shore.

An Imienpo Station Frog (Glandirana emelijanovi) hidden in the rocks at Igidae Park.  That bright red patch on the belly indicates that this frog is poisonous, but no more so than your average toad.

I continued on for another kilometer or so, tallying another two pairs of blue rock-thrushes, two Eurasian magpies, a male Daurian redstart who refused to be photographed, and a Pacific reef-heron.  I found two carrion crows, who likewise didn’t want their photo taken.  These lifers appeared almost identical to American crows, and can only be differentiated by the large-billed crow that I find more often in Gwangju by the slope of their forehead; large-billed crows have a more abrupt forehead, rising almost vertically from the base of the bill.  For my fellow birders, think common vs. Barrow’s goldeneye.

Another male Blue Rock-thrush near an old military base at Igidae Park.

A dark-morph Pacific Reef-heron (Egretta sacra) at Igidae Park.  This species also has a white form.

A Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica sericea) at Igidae Park.

The skies were darkening and it began to feel like rain was coming, so I packed it in and headed back to the entrance.  I stopped at a few lookouts to take some more photos of the landscape: I was really enthralled by the dynamic contrast of the coastal forest coming to the edge of a rocky shoreline.  Once again, that desire to give up the birds and switch to landscapes gnawed at me, but my Canon 100-400mm lens is completely inappropriate for photographing landscapes, except at a distance.  So for now, my smartphone camera will have to pick up the slack.

CAM00181

One of the trails that crisscross the forested interior of Igidae Park.  I'd like to come back sometime and explore this area further.

One of the trails that crisscross the forested interior of Igidae Park.  I’d like to come back sometime and explore this area further.

A deep crevice carved out by the relentless waves.

A deep crevice carved out by the relentless waves.

Almost near where I had found my first blue rock-thrush at the breakwater, there was a commotion in the sky.  I looked up in time to see a black kite fly over, an angry carrion crow in hot pursuit.  I was able to grab a photo of it, but the overcast skies and low light don’t do the bird justice.  An unexpected lifer like this one is always appreciated, though.

A Black Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus) at Igidae Park.  This species is likely to be split sometime in the near future.

There was one last surprise for me when I reached the entrance to the park.  Tired from all the walking I’d done throughout the day, I almost missed the twitter of three Asian house-martins flying circles over the observation building at the park entrance.  One last lifer to send me on my way with.

Overall my trip to Busan was quite enjoyable.  There is still so much left of the city to explore, both in terms of birding and cultural significance.  It definitely warrants a return visit, perhaps sometime in the fall or winter after the summer tourism season ends.  The trip produced eight lifers for me, inching me even closer to the big 500 mark.  Only ten more species to go!

Wolchulsan: Taking the High Road

The determined lister never rests.  There is always one more bird out there to find, one more check to put on the list.  What is so satisfying about adding that new species to an Excel spreadsheet?  Of seeing that number go up by one?  I’ve failed to put into words my own obsession with birding, and I know many other birders who have similar trouble expressing the drive.  If you’re interested in the psychosis behind obsessive birding, I’d highly recommend watching the movie The Big Year, based loosely on a novel of the same name by Mark Obmascik.  It’s the closest I’ve seen to capturing the thrill of the chase, and threatens to put an already dangerously obsessive lister over the edge to full-blown “Bostick” status.

It was this gnawing compulsion that took me out to Wolchulsan National Park (월출산국립공원), Korea’s smallest national park, about an hour’s bus ride south of Gwangju.  My research had indicated that the Park was a well-known breeding site for the forest wagtail, a distinctive species of wagtail that, unlike other members of its family, breeds in forests away from water.  Although the species is considered stable and of least concern, it is still a rare bird for South Korea, and every good birder starts to salivate at the word “rare.”

A map of Wolchulsan National Park.  The locations of the Cheonhwangsa Temple and the Cloud Bridge are shown.

A map of Wolchulsan National Park.  The locations of the Cheonhwangsa Temple and the Cloud Bridge are shown.

Wolchulsan National Park is located in the small town of Yeongam (영암), also known as Yeongam-gun (영암군).  Travelers from Gwangju can take a bus from U+ Square Terminal to Yeongam for 6,900 won (about $7) one-way.  The bus makes several stops during the trip, picking up and dropping off passengers at towns along the way.  Upon reaching the Yeongam Bus Terminal, you can buy another bus ticket to the Cheonhwangsa Temple Entrance for 1,100 won; just say “Cheonhwangsa” (천황사) and the teller will know what you mean.  I happened to run into a small group of foreigners out on a day-hike to Wolchulsan, so they helped point me in the right direction to this second bus for the Park entrance.  I’d suggest just showing your ticket to the bus drivers as they arrive to be sure you’re on the right one; the bus I took resembled an airport shuttle bus, so that may help you out.  Alternately you can walk to the Park entrance; leave the bus terminal and go straight down Cheonhwangsa-ro and follow it to the Park entrance (it’ll take about 30 minutes to walk).

I was dropped off at a small round-about, and was immediately greeted by the imposing rock face of Wolchulsan.  Although this mountain maxes out at 809 meters (2,654 ft) at the top of Cheonhwangbong Peak, the mountain is far more vertical than the ones I’ve climbed at Mudeungsan National Park in Gwangju, and the mountain itself just looks bad-ass.  In addition to hiking, the mountain is often used by rock climbers in the warmer months.

How was I supposed to find one bird in the middle of that mountain?

How was I supposed to find one bird in the middle of that mountain?

Thoroughly impressed by the mountain vista before me (not to mention a little intimidated), I started up the paved roadway into the Park itself.  Immediately the listing began: brown-eared bulbul, pale thrush, large-billed crow, Eurasian magpie, and azure-winged magpie were all waiting for me right near the entrance.  And yet again, the azure-wings defied my attempts to photograph them, even with the honking 400mm I was now equipped with.  But as I say whenever I get skunked by a bird (the correct term is dipped, but I personally don’t use it), “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.”  I think that’s just denial doing the talking for me.

There is a short sidetrail right off the main walkway into the Park, with a small sign marking the way to the “Nature Trail.”  This sidetrail is worth a look, as it passes a rather nice outdoor art show, with numerous sculptures scattered over a grassy slope.  The “Nature Trail” itself is rather poorly maintained, but it weaves in and out of a mixed forest of deciduous, coniferous, and bamboo.  There were a few oriental turtle-doves cooing in the junipers, and several vinous-throated parrotbills, but otherwise the trail had little to offer.  No forest wagtail here.

The stream coming down the mountain from the Baram waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

The stream coming down the mountain from the Baram waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

It was already quite warm when I arrived, and the forecast called for temperatures into the high 20°C (80°F), so when the trail split left or right, I went right and followed a stream up the mountain.  The stream would lead to the Baram waterfall, so I wagered I would find some interesting species by following the water supply.  Almost immediately I hit paydirt: an eastern crowned leaf-warbler was singing near a small bridge over the stream.  I heard the bird first, as usually happens when birding in the forest, and zeroed in on the song until I found it.  The leaf-warbler’s song reminded me of the black-throated blue warbler song back in North America, with a curious little buzzy note at the end of the call.  Although the song is quite nice, the bird is otherwise rather drab and uninteresting, as Old World warblers tend to be.  However, I was able to get quite a few photos of the bird, singing from different perches along the stream bed.

An Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus) at Wolchulsan National Park.  This species is best identified by its song.

The leaf-warbler belts out his favorite tune.

I enjoyed watching the leaf-warbler (Lifer #472) for a while, then continued on up the mountain towards the Baram waterfall.  It was warming up quickly, and I think many of the birds began to hunker down.  Much of my ascent was quiet, but the hike was challenging and required most of my attention, so I was grateful that there weren’t a lot of unknown bird calls coming at me from all directions.  A few brown-eared bulbuls, coal tits, pale thrushes, and four varied tits, were all that I encountered on my way to the waterfall.

This trail is like many I’ve done in South Korea: it is well-marked and fairly obvious, but it is intense and demanding.  Most of the trail followed the stream bed, and judging from the rounded boulders I repeatedly had to scale, the trail was the stream bed when the water levels were high.  On either side were rugged vertical walls of rock, with trees and vegetation clinging to anywhere they could get a foothold.  One side of the valley wall was covered with bamboo in patches, while further up were loads of Camellia shrubs with blossoms still on the branches.

A patch of bamboo along the Baram waterfall trail at Wolchulsan National Park.

A patch of bamboo along the Baram waterfall trail at Wolchulsan National Park.

Wait a minute…Camellia?!  This shrub makes up the preferred habitat of the fairy pitta, one of my prime targets for the Korean peninsula.  The bird is usually found on a few islands off the southern coast, namely Jeju-do, Jin-do, and Geoje-do.  Wouldn’t it be spectacular to find one at Wolchulsan?  It would be, but alas, it wasn’t going to happen.  Fairy pittas are late migrants, typically reaching the northern edge of their breeding range in late May and early June.  While not impossible, it is highly unlikely that one would be hiding in a few Camellia shrubs nearly a month early.  But one never knows…

I finally reached the Baram waterfall, and was happy to find a spring with three faucets for refilling canteens.  The waterfall was more of a trickle at the time, probably because it doesn’t rain much during the spring in Korea (monsoon season is not until June and July), but it was significantly cooler near the water and the high walls of the mountain provided some relief from the sun.  I stopped to rest for awhile, enjoyed my lunch, and found and photographed a vocal Eurasian wren near the falls.  A few more eastern crowned leaf-warblers were also singing nearby.

The somewhat lackluster Baram Waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

The somewhat lackluster Baram Waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

This Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes dauricus) serenaded me near the Baram waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

Having exhausted most of my energy climbing up to the waterfall, and not really finding what I was looking for, I decided to head back down and try taking the trail to the left.  On the way down the only bird of note was a singing male blue-and-white flycatcher, which resembles a robin-sized black-throated blue warbler.  A very striking species, but they tend to stay high in the canopy, and so pose a challenge to being photographed.

A small footbridge near the split in the trail.  Nearby was where I found my first Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler.

A small footbridge near the split in the trail.  Nearby was where I found my first Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler.

Reaching the split, I was quickly immersed in dense reeds crowding around the trail.  The reeds gave way to a deciduous forest with some juniper mixed in.  It was suddenly obvious that I should have come here first – the habitat was ideal for forest wagtail.  I quickly checked off a few more eastern crowned leaf-warblers, oriental turtle-doves, two large-billed crows, and an oriental cuckoo calling in the distance.  But again, no forest wagtail.

Weaving through the forest, a small sidetrail led me to a clearing where a large Buddhist shrine laid overlooking the valley.  It was a beautiful setting, and the ornate detailing on the shrine was some of the finest I’ve seen thus far.  Two incredible dragon-head carvings kept watch near the doorway into the shrine.  This was a great surprise discovery – occasionally I do put down the binoculars and actually take a look at some of the amazing human artifacts around me.  Unfortunately, not often enough it seems…

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A close up of one of the dragon-head carvings at the shrine.

A close up of one of the dragon-head carvings at the shrine.

It was getting on in the afternoon, and though I had covered a lot of ground, it seemed like my quarry would get the better of me today.  Perhaps my timing was off: too early in the season, or too late in the day.  I certainly did not cover the right habitat when I arrived, although the hike up to Baram Waterfall was a lot of fun and I’d suggest it to anyone heading to Wolchulsan.  The forest wagtail is not considered “rare” for nothing, so I shouldn’t really expect to find it on the first go.  There is a lot more of Wolchulsan National Park left to see, so I will be back soon to pick up the search.

Dipped again…

Straight to the Top

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.

A map of Mudeungsan National Park, centered on Mt. Mudeung and Cheonwangbong Peak.  The dotted line represents our path around the mountain.

A map of Mudeungsan National Park, centered on Mt. Mudeung and Cheonwangbong Peak.  The dotted line represents our path around the mountain.

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 gateway into the Gyubongam Temple.  An ancient bronze bell rests at the middle of the structure.

The gateway into the Gyubongam Temple.  An ancient bronze bell rests at the middle of the structure.

The sanctuary at Gyubongam Temple.  Colorful lanterns hung all around the temple.  I would love to see this place lit up on a clear night.

The sanctuary at Gyubongam Temple.  Colorful lanterns hung all around the temple.  I would love to see this place lit up on a clear night.

Inside the sanctuary at Gyubongam Temple.  This is an active temple, so shoes must be removed before entering here.

Inside the sanctuary at Gyubongam Temple.  This is an active temple, so shoes must be removed before entering here.

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.

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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.

A “Korean” Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes dauricus) near the Gyubongam Temple at Mudeungsan National Park.

 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.

One of the many rock columns that break out into the habitat on the sides of Cheonwangbong.  If you look carefully you can see hikers all around the columns.

One of the many rock columns that break out into the habitat on the sides of Cheonwangbong.  If you look carefully you can see hikers all around the columns.

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.

A Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus) near Cheonwangbong Peak at Mudeungsan National Park.

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.

A Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) at Mudeungsan National Park.

A Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) at Mudeungsan National Park.

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.

Trekking through Mudeungsan

On the eastern border of Gwangju lies Mudeungsan National Park (무등산국립공원).  The park sits between the cities of Gwangju, Damyang, and Hwasun, and comprises a small mountain range dominated by Mt. Mudeung, for which the park is named.  Mt. Mudeung has three rocky peaks, Cheonwangbong, Jiwangbong, and Inwangbong, which together are known as the “Jeongsang Three.”  The park has numerous entrance points, but the main (and most popular) entrance is at Jeongsimsa Temple in the Dong-gu district of Gwangju.  This entrance is easily accessible by several city bus lines: #15, 27, 52, 555, 771, and 1001, all stop at the Jeongsimsa Temple.  There is a small shopping outlet near the Temple, complete with coffee shops, restaurants, and outdoor outfitters, where you can make sure you’re fully equipped for your ascent to the top of Cheonwangbong peak.

A Buddhist Shrine near the entrance to Mudeungsan National Park at Jeongsimsa Temple.

Buddhist Shrine near the entrance to Mudeungsan National Park at Jeongsimsa Temple.

The Jeongsimsa Temple, an active Buddist monastery, has a beautiful Shilla-era iron Buddha statue housed near the main hall.  On the day Melanie and I visited the Jeongsimsa entrance, there was a ceremony of some sort at the temple, so we did not enter.  But being so close to where we live, we will undoubtedly visit the temple again and tour the grounds.  Photography in and around Buddhist temples is usually permitted, except in designated areas where rituals or other sacred traditions take place.  When in doubt, it is always best to ask first before snapping a photo.

Decisions, decisions...which way to go.

Decisions, decisions…which way to go.

Beyond the temple and shrines, the roadway splits into two trailheads: left goes to the Baramjae (바람재) ridge, right to the Saeinbong (새인봉) peak.  We decided to go right first, following the roadway towards the Saeinbong peak.  It wasn’t long before we came to a sign for the Choonsul tea plantation, established by “Uijae” Hur Baek-ryeon, a famous master of Chinese painting.  Near the Jeongsimsa Temple is an art gallery featuring Uijae’s work, and his grave site is marked by the Choonsul plantation.  A nice trail led up the mountain, past the plantation and Uijae’s grave site, so Melanie and I decided to break from the herd and head up this path.

A short walk up the mountainside and we were surrounded by the forest.  It appeared as though few took this trail, which is exactly the kind of hiking we like to do…”follow the road less traveled” and all that.  It wasn’t long before we found some interesting bird life, starting with a pair of scaly thrushes.  These birds have cryptic coloration and blend in very well with their forest habitat.  They are also surprisingly large for thrushes, and remind me of American woodcock when I accidentally flush them from a trailway or path.  Keeping with typical thrush behavior, the birds did not give very good views of themselves and I was unable to photograph them.  A little further up the trail we found two pygmy woodpeckers, a glorious male blue-and-white flycatcher singing in the canopy, and the usual mountain birds such as great tit, marsh tit, and vinous-throated parrotbill.  Near the summit of the trail, just about at the top of the ridge, were three pale thrushes kicking up leaf litter off the trail.  The birds were difficult to see, but we could hear them moving around in the leaves just like the eastern towhees back in North America.  Although there were plenty of birds around, none of them wanted to have its photo taken.  Luckily chance was in our favor and we found two beautiful butterflies that were more than willing to pose for my camera.

A Pallas’s Sailer (Neptis sappho), one of several we found at Mudeungsan National Park.

A Freyer’s Purple Emperor (Apatura metis), the only one of this striking butterfly we would encounter.

We reached the summit of the ridge and paused for a while to have a snack.  One of the ever-present burial mounds offered us an opening in the forest, and we sat in the shade near the edge of the opening to have some food and enjoy the day.  Mudeungsan National Park is strewn with burial mounds.  Korean culture believes mountains to be sacred, and placing the graves of deceased family members in plots on cleared portions of the mountainside was believed to give the spirit of the deceased an easy passage into the afterlife.  Korean families often buy parcels on the mountains so that their entire families – past, present, and future – may all be buried together.

One of the many burial mounds in Mudeungsan National Park.

One of the many burial mounds in Mudeungsan National Park.

While having our snack, a pair of great spotted woodpeckers flew noisily overhead, pausing on a nearby tree only briefly before flying down past the ridge.  A single yellow-throated bunting skulked around us for awhile, picking off small insects from the emerging leaves.  A female pygmy woodpecker also paid us a visit; I was finally able to get a photo of this common diminutive woodpecker.

A female Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopos kizuki nippon) at Mudeungsan National Park.

We finished our snack and proceeded back down the path we had come up on, hoping to tackle the Baramjae ridge before calling it a day.  On our way down I spotted a pair of white-backed woodpeckers working on some dead snags, and relocated the scaly thrushes from our ascent earlier in the day.

Cross this bridge to take on the Tokideung (토끼등), or follow the stream to the Baramjae ridge.

Cross this bridge to take on the Tokideung (토끼등), or follow the stream to the Baramjae ridge.

The trail up Baramjae ridge follows a quaint mountain stream surrounded by forest and tall reed beds.  Dragonflies were starting to emerge near the stream, and on our climb up the ridge we would find several pale thrushes feeding near the water.  A ring-necked pheasant was displaying somewhere close to the trail, but remained unseen.  The pheasants give a loud grating call and flap their wings loudly in display to attract females, but often times are so well hidden that their call is the only way to know they are around.  A Japanese bush-warbler was also singing along the stream, taking up territory near the bamboo-like reeds.  We also found several Eurasian jays and a single varied tit on the way along the stream.

An unidentified dragonfly near the stream coming down the Baramjae ridge at Mudeungsan National Park.  There were dozens of these emerging dragonflies along the stream.

A male Pale Thrush (Turdus pallidus) foraging along a stream at Mudeungsan National Park.  The pale thrushes were very numerous on this day; we found almost a dozen, both males and females, during our hike.

Another hour’s worth of hiking brought us nearer the top of the Baramjae ridge, but we were starting to feel the effects of fatigue, and the weather was changing towards rain (it was supposed to rain by late afternoon).  We found a few more pygmy woodpeckers and pale thrushes, and a large-billed crow was cawing near the summit of the ridge.  Still not at the top, we turned around and decided to head back home.  It was a fortunate decision, for on the way down we heard the unmistakable call of an oriental scops-owl from somewhere in the mountain valley around us.  It was some distance away, but we clearly heard the call.

Somewhere along this trail, an Oriental Scops-owl (Otus sunia) was calling...

Somewhere along this trail, an Oriental Scops-owl (Otus sunia) was calling…

 We had been hiking in the mountains near our apartment earlier in the week, and right around dusk we heard the same call.  I had recorded it using my smartphone and was able to identify it.  It was strange to hear the call during the daylight hours (it was around 2pm), but perhaps the darkening skies confused the owl, or maybe they are more active during the day in the mating season.  Oriental scops-owls resemble the screech-owls of North America, with cryptic camouflage that helps them blend in seamlessly with their daytime roosts.  I would love to track one down someday and actually see it.

The only other interesting bird on our descent was a little egret that came flying up the ridge, following the stream.  It was by far the most unexpected sighting of the day, since the stream was not particularly large and we were a long way from any other major sources of water.  We found another male pale thrush along the stream, and stopped for a few photos before leaving the park.

A nominate Little Egret (Egretta garzetta garzetta) at Mudeungsan National Park.

Another male Pale Thrush along the stream at the Baramjae ridge.

Just before reaching the main street that would lead us out of the Park, a small mammal ran across the path.  It came to rest on a stone near the edge of the path.  This is notable because in the months that I have lived here, I rarely come across any mammals whatsoever.  So getting a chance to photograph a Siberian chipmunk, though it looks so much like the eastern chipmunk of North America, was a great moment for me.  I don’t keep lists of the mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, that I come across in my wanderings (well, I might keep a mental list, but that’s all), but I still enjoy seeing new plants and animals that I don’t know or recognize right away.

A Siberian Chipmunk (Eutamias sibiricus), the only chipmunk species outside of North America, and the only member of the genus Eutamias.  Even with those accolades, it still looks like a chipmunk.

There aren’t enough good things to say about Mudeungsan National Park.  Our apartment in Gwangju is no more than a ten-minute walk to the northern edge of the Park, so we hike the trails fairly often.  It is one of my goals before leaving South Korea to know Mudeungsan National Park and all of its trails the way I know many of my favorite birding spots back in North America.

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.