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.



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.

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.


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?

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…


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…

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.