Ides of March

It sneaked up on me somehow, but this past week marked my blog’s first anniversary, or birthday, or whatever blog’s celebrate when they’ve been around a year.  I’ve truly enjoyed the experience so far, although I haven’t always been able to dedicate the time I wanted to.  As a “Blog Year Resolution,” I’ll try to be more regular in my posts, and continue getting out there and living the birding life in South Korea.

Most of my time recently has been spent settling into my new schools, and wrapping my head around my new work schedule.  My birding time has been once again relegated to the weekends, but with the days getting longer every week, soon I’ll be able to do some late day birding as well.  And just in time, too – new arrivals are showing up all the time.  Here’s a brief look at what I’ve been up to in the month of March.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

Two weeks ago I went with Melanie to Geumseongsanseong (금성산성), an old mountain fortress in nearby Damyang-gun.  We had hiked the steep walls of the fortress in March of last year, where I had found a golden eagle and a flock of alpine accentors.  It was this latter species that we returned to look for again this year.

Despite the fine weather, we never found the alpine accentors, but there was plenty of activty, including all four species of tit (chickadee), numerous Eurasian nuthatches, and an unexpected Siberian accentor which put on a brief show for us near one of the fortress gates.  This was Melanie’s first sighting of Siberian accentor, and by far the best views of one I’ve had yet.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

Siberian Accentor (Prunella montanella montanella)
Click the image to see a short video of the accentor singing.

Last weekend found us in Suncheon-si, looking for cranes and any overwintering or recently arrived buntings.  This was a special trip, planned specifically to get Melanie her 500th bird.  To that end we were very successful, arriving near Suncheonman Bay and quickly finding at least 40 hooded cranes.  Just as I had found my 600th bird here only a few months earlier, Melanie found her 500th in the rice fields at Anpung-dong.  We went on to find her three more species to add to her list: Pallas’s bunting, reed bunting, and little bunting.  We had a very enjoyable walk along the Dongcheongang River, despite the threat of rain throughout most of the day.  There are definitely signs of spring in the air now: species are completing their molts, many species are singing, and the first of the early migrants are beginning to arrive.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus pyrrhulina)

Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and a Vega Gull (Larus vegae) along the Dongcheongang River.

The weather made a significant change this weekend, and today brought the first 18°C day of the year.  Taking advantage of the spectacular weather, Melanie and I invited our friend Victoria to come birding with us at Mudeungsan National Park, at the Jeungsimsa Temple.  Melanie and I had hiked this trail last April, and had some good luck with a variety of bird and insect species.

It's moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.© Victoria Caswell

It’s moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.
© Victoria Caswell

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

This was Victoria’s first real plunge into the birding world, and fortunately I was able to point out a lot of interesting species and behaviors.  We came across a pair of coal tits gathering moss for a nearby nesting site; click the link to see a video of the birds gathering moss.  There were numerous varied tits, pairs of both pygmy and white-backed woodpeckers, and a migrant yellow-browed bunting, which was only the second of this species I have ever seen (the first being one in the same mountain chain almost exactly a year ago to the day).

However, the pièce de résistance was definitely a very tame ring-necked pheasant, which foraged along a mountain stream in full view for tens of minutes.  We were privileged to have this opportunity to watch the pheasant for so long, and from such a short distance.  Our constant staring into the woods attracted several Korean onlookers, curious as to what was so interesting to the bunch of waygooks (Korean word for “foreigner”).  We passed out our binoculars to those who were interested, and all in all it was a great moment to show some of the locals this special (not to mention breathtakingly stunning) bird which, though very common in Korea, is often times overlooked.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

Yellow-browed Bunting (Emberiza chrysophrys)

Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)

Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus karpowi)
Click the image to see a video of the bird’s foraging behavior.

Although much of this month has been spent indoors teaching English classes, the time that I have spent outdoors has been incredibly fulfilling.  With the cold grip of winter beginning to loosen on the Korean peninsula, I look forward to warmer temperatures and renewed birding ahead!

Butterfly Hunting at Gunwangbong

July is a difficult month for birders.  The breeding season is in full swing, so most birds are concerned with feeding their chicks or keeping an eye on fledglings.  Many species stop singing and disappear, not to be seen again until the autumn.  At these times many birders turn their attentions to other things, most often dragonflies and butterflies.

Many of the birders and photographers I know from Ontario switch to looking for insects in the summer months.  It makes a lot of sense when you think about it: birders are very determined and very attentive, so we can’t help but notice things around us, even if it’s not of the feathered variety.  Besides, some dragonflies and butterflies can easily rival the most ostentatious of wood-warblers in terms of coloration, while others require that same attention to detail that all birders hone over the years.

It’s the rainy season in South Korea now, and the weather is very unpredictable.  On occasion it will rain for several days straight, then be overcast and excessively humid for a few more days, and then rain again.  The only real constant is the humidity and heat, which remain regardless of how much water falls out of the sky.  On the rare days when the clouds break and the sun appears, temperatures quickly soar into the 30s, and the added humidity makes it difficult to stay out long or do any long-distance travel on foot.  I haven’t been able to get out as often as I’d like recently, both because of the weather and my work schedule.

Even so, I took a few hours this weekend to put down my laptop and lesson plans and head out into the wilds, hoping to reconnect with an old friend who I’ve neglected for too long.  I can’t quite characterize my relationship with the natural world; often times when I’m wandering along a mountain trail or walking the shore of a lake, I think to myself yeah, this is home.  Almost like the human world with its electronics, cars, bustling crowds, and constant noise, all that is the fake world.  Here on this mountain, or here by this lake, this is where we’re supposed to be.  This is where we really belong…it’s where we’ve always belonged, even though we like to think we’re somehow beyond it or above it.  Needless to say, even a few hours surrounded by the trees and life was enough to recharge the old batteries.

A map of Gunwangbong Peak and the reservoir on the outskirts of the Mudeungsan chain.

A map of Gunwangbong Peak and the reservoir on the outskirts of the Mudeungsan chain.

So this weekend Melanie and I stole away to Gunwangbong Peak (군왕봉), a mountain in the Mudeungsan chain that is near our apartment in Duam-dong.  The peak itself isn’t particularly high, topping at about 365 meters (~1,200 feet), but it is a pretty steep climb.  However, the view from the top is incredible: on a clear day you can see the entirety of the city of Gwangju laid out below.

My main focus was to look for some interesting butterflies and dragonflies.  I knew this area quite well, and although there is a good diversity of bird species in the area, I was not expecting to find any lifers, especially not so late in the breeding season.  Most of the species we encountered were the typical mountain species, such as Japanese tit, pygmy woodpecker, white-backed woodpecker, oriental turtle-dove, and brown-eared bulbul.  There were a few summer breeders around as well, including black-naped oriole and Asian stubtail.

A male nominate White-backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos)

At the base of the mountain is an abandoned reservoir.  There are a few gardens nearby, and plenty of ornamental flowers and shrubs, which attract all kinds of butterflies.  We found two species of swallowtails, large butterflies from the Papilionidae family.  The most impressive was the Chinese peacock, a large black butterfly with iridescent blues and reds in the wings, which explode in color when in the sunlight.  The second, the Asian swallowtail, reminded me of the tiger swallowtails from eastern North America, except larger and lighter in color.  Along a small stream leading into the reservoir, we found several small damselfies, which I later identified as stream glories or oriental greenwings.

Asian Swallowtail (Papilio xuthus)

Chinese Peacock (Papilio dehaani)

Stream Glory (Neurobasis chinensis)

On the way up to the peak we stopped at a small overlook.  A few black-tailed skimmers were flitting around, and near one of the burial mounds I noticed two butterfly skimmers engaging in aerial combat with one another.  I wasn’t able to photograph these dark-winged beauties, but just seeing them was enough for me.  We made use of the shade of the trees here and took a short siesta, getting our strength back before taking on the last stretch to the top.  It was easily nearing 40°C, and not much cooler in the shade.

A male Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum)

I was dozing a bit when I noticed a small bird pop up from the nearby vegetation and perch on an open branch.  It was small with a long tail; I figured it to be a brown-eared bulbul as they are very common in these mountains.  So you can imagine my surprise when I raised my binoculars and found myself looking at a tiger shrike scanning the vegetation for insects!  Here was Lifer #499!

Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus): Lifer #499.

My field guide had said that tiger shrikes were uncommon summer visitors to the Korean peninsula, but delving through the eBird database and following sightings in Korea had not yielded any reliable places to find this species.  In fact, the complete lack of sightings made it appear far rarer than the field guide would have me believe.  And yet, here was one no more than two kilometers from my apartment, hunting over a forest opening that I had been to dozens of times before.  It’s moments like this that remind me why I love birding so much: it’s the serendipity of the sport, and how even your backyard can surprise you sometimes.

The Tiger Shrike gives me a smile before returning to hunting insects near Gunwangbong Peak.

After an enjoyable photo session with the shrike, we decided to tackle that last push to the top of Gunwangbong, even though the heat was unrelenting and we were slowly going through our water supply.  Thankfully the trail to the top is relatively shaded in the forest; it’s a tough climb, but there is plenty of cover from the sun.  In the shade of the trees we found a few more butterflies on wildflowers along the trail.

A skipper butterfly, Daimio tethys

Grey-veined White (Pieris melete)

At the top of the peak there is a large observation area, with benches and a small marker designating the summit.  We stopped here for a long time, exhausted from the ascent.  A few more butterflies were flitting about, mainly Pallas’s fritillary and an Old World swallowtail; there was also a Eurasian magpie hanging around, looking for scraps of food from the people taking a rest in the shade.  It was a very clear day, with very little haze despite the high humidity.  Below me the whole of Gwangju spread out into the distance – this was the first time I had actually seen the whole city.

A panorama of the city of Gwangju, as seen from the top of Gunwangbong Peak.

A panorama of the city of Gwangju, as seen from the top of Gunwangbong Peak.

A marker at the summit of Gunwangbong Peak.

A marker at the summit of Gunwangbong Peak.

Pallas’s Fritillary (Argynnis laodice)

A male Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius), flitting among several Pallas’s fritillaries at the summit of Gunwangbong Peak.

Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon), a little worse for wear.

A female Indian Fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius)

It was a productive walk through the mountains, and finding the tiger shrike was an exciting and unexpected surprise.  Although birding can slow to a crawl during the dog-days of summer, it’s still worth keeping an eye out.  The birds may be on hiatus until the fall, but there are still plenty of other amazing critters to discover out there.  And anytime you can see a familiar place with new eyes makes all the difference.

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.



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.