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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Guilin

It was time to leave Beijing, and head on to our next destination.  We were heading south, into Guangxi province to the city of Guilin.  The name may not be familiar to you, but you undoubtedly know about this city because of what lies around it.  Guilin is nestled along the Lijiang River, and surrounding it are the famous karst formations of southern China.

A view of Guilin, and the karst mountain range beyond

A view of Guilin, and the karst mountain range beyond

Karst formations occur as a result of weathering of soluble rocks such as limestone and gypsum.  Karst formations are often associated with caves, due to underground drainage systems characteristic of karst topography.  While karst formations occur all over the world, China in particular is known for them, especially in ancient landscape paintings and romanticized cruises down the Yangtze.

However, Beijing lies about 2,200 kilometers (1,300 miles) to the north of Guilin.  Given our time constraints, there were only two viable options to cover that distance in a reasonable amount of time: airplane or train.  We opted for the second option.  China has a very well-connected rail system, and most major cities are connected by multiple lines.  For this trip we booked two seats on a G-class train, more commonly called a “bullet train.”  These are the fastest trains in China, capable of reaching 350km/h.  Ours, however, maintained a steady 300km/h, getting us from Beijing to Guilin in about 11 hours.

All aboard!

All aboard!

As if the scenery blurring past the window wasn't evidence enough, we were constantly reminded of our speed throughout the trip

As if the scenery blurring past the window wasn’t evidence enough, we were constantly reminded of our speed throughout the trip

The trip to Guilin, though lengthy, was far more pleasant than most flights we’ve been on.  The train has a dining car, there’s plenty of leg room, and the seats can only recline so far, meaning that you won’t be crushed by the person sitting in front of you (I have long legs, so this is frequently a problem wherever I go in Asia).

Our first day in Guilin we spent at Seven Star Park.  This is a large park in the middle of Guilin, with two large karst formations riddled with numerous caves.  Seven Star Cave is one of the largest and most extensive in the park.  The park has a variety of facilities, including numerous hiking trails into the karst formation, several temples and shrines, a zoo (don’t go there – it’s depressing), and a fairground-style entertainment facility for children.  It was a little surreal to have such beautiful natural scenery side by side with cotton candy stands and carnival games, but that’s tourism in China.

I know if I wait here long enough, I'm bound to spot something...

I know if I wait here long enough, I’m bound to spot something…

A small cavern along the Lijiang River.  The walls were covered with ancient carvings of Mandarin characters.

A small cavern along the Lijiang River.  The walls were covered with ancient carvings of Mandarin characters.

It was therefore quite the surprise when we saw signs about wild monkeys in the park.  It was even more surprising when we stumbled onto a large troop of monkeys alongside a quiet trail in the mountain.  The troop consisted of a few adults keeping watchful eyes on a handful of “teenagers” and a half dozen “toddlers.”  Watching monkeys interact with each other really shows how closely related we are to them; they can be so emotive, and act just like their human counterparts sometimes.  If humans were smaller, had more hair, a tail, and could climb trees, you’d never know the difference.

Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) at Seven Star Park

A young rhesus hangs out in the trees above our heads

This adult female rhesus seemed to be the leader of the troop.
She was obviously not impressed with these two human specimens.


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Our second and last day in Guilin, we headed out of the city to Guilin National Forest Park.  This park is only 3km outside of downtown Guilin, and is accessible via bus, taxi, or tuk-tuk.  I was not able to find out a lot of information on this park before our trip, and it didn’t seem as though the locals were very knowledgeable about it either.  Nevertheless, it was a beautiful area, and most importantly, it was almost entirely devoid of other people.

The taxi dropped us off at what appeared to be a park entrance; despite expecting to pay an entrance fee, the gate was open but the ticket booths were closed and empty.  No one was around, so we walked into the park.  In hindsight this was probably not the main entrance to the park, but it’s where the taxi left us.

The trails here took us into the karst formations.  They are much too steep to hike up to the top, but the trails snaked around the foothills, and we were surrounded by forest at all times.  If for no other reason than it’s quiet and peaceful, a visit to Guilin isn’t complete without going to the National Forest Park.

Guilin National Forest Park

Guilin National Forest Park

And all too soon, we were once again packing up to head on to the next spot.  However, in order to save time, we decided it would be worth the money to take an airplane this time, as the train would cost us nearly 15 hours of travel time (versus 1½ hours by plane).  And so, onto Xiamen International Airport, and our final destination: Kinmen Island.

Waiting to board our flight to Xiamen

Waiting to board our flight to Xiamen

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.