Lonely Korea was offering a day-trip to Imja-do (임자도), site of the annual Shinan Tulip Festival (신안 튤립축제), now in its sixth year. Imja-do is known as the tulip capital of Korea, and as this was the last day of the festival, we decided we couldn’t miss it. The trip was only 58,000 won a piece, and included transportation, entry fees, and a barbeque dinner on a private beach on the island. Could you pass that up?
We met early Sunday morning at the U+ Square Terminal in Gwangju. There were nine travelers altogether, all of us English teachers, and our trusty guide Pedro Kim. We hopped on board a large van and left Gwangju by 8am, early enough to avoid any traffic snarls along the way. It took about an hour to get to the ferry in Sinan-gun, and the ride was pleasant enough. The forecast for the day was sunny skies and temperatures around 22°C (71°F), with a mild but steady breeze coming from the south. Not the most ideal conditions for birding during spring migration, but I had high hopes of finding a few interesting birds on the shores of Imja-do.
Islands are terrific migrant traps, especially small islands far offshore from the mainland. Migrants flying over the oceans will often stop at the first spot of land they come to, where they will refuel and rest before continuing their journey. This is especially true during bad weather and storms, where birds will literally fall out of the sky until the storms pass. A strong head wind will also force many species to land wherever they can – in the spring birders watch for storm fronts and strong winds from the north, which will hamper bird movements northward and cause the mythical “fallouts” that so many birders dream about. A continuous wind from the south, however, aids the migration, and with clear skies for the whole day, many birds will take advantage of the weather and continue their flight north uninterrupted.
We arrived at the ferry for about 9:30am, early enough to get on the ferry with little delay. Within minutes we left the dock and made the ten-minute passage to Imja-do. There was only a little activity on the waters, since the tide was out and the water relatively shallow. Black-tailed gulls flew back and forth over the water, and there were a few barn swallows near the ferry dock itself. During our passage I noticed two grey herons flying low over the water towards one of the many small islands along the way. We were halfway through the crossing when I noticed my first lifer for the day: two Eurasian oystercatchers foraging close to the water on a small rocky island. The Eurasian oystercatchers closely resemble American oystercatchers, which I am more familiar with, but have black backs as opposed to the brownish backs of American oystercatchers, and a broad white stripe running up the back, which is only visible in flight. A close-up view will show a red eye, whereas American oystercatchers have yellow eyes. The birds were too far away to photograph, but I had hoped to find this species on the trip, so I was already grateful that we decided to come.
Upon reaching the other side, we drove across the island to Daegwang Beach and the Tulip Festival grounds. The island is sparsely populated, with only a few settlements dotted around the landscape. Farming and fishing support the local economy, and Imja-do is a main supplier of Korea’s salted shrimp. Since the tide was out, many of the inlets around the island were reduced to vast stretches of mud, but I did not notice much in the way of bird life on these mudflats.
As we arrived at the entrance to the Festival, the wide expanse of the Yellow Sea greeted us. Colorful flags whipped in the breeze along a causeway leading to the Festival grounds. And everywhere there were flowers. Mostly tulips, in every color imaginable, but also pansies and peonies, interspersed with native wildflowers. The place was alive with color.
In addition to the wonderful floral displays, the Festival had live music, with a Korean man playing saxophone renditions of everything from the Beach Boys to Britney Spears…certainly a unique soundtrack to wander the Festival by. There was a small loop where kids could ride horses, and a large observation deck overlooked the whole area. But the sweet siren song of an endless expanse of empty beach at low tide was too powerful to ignore, and after enjoying the wonderful fragrance of tulips, I just had to move on to Daegwang Beach and see what I could find.
Daegwang Beach is known as the longest beach in South Korea. It takes about 3 hours to walk the entire length of it, and the sand grain is so fine a car can drive on it at over 100km/h (~65mph). When I got to the beach, there were only a few other people in sight in either direction. I started heading north, following the stretch of beach towards a small rocky outcropping. It wasn’t long before I heard the pipping of shorebirds, and a quick scan of the beach in front of me revealed several Kentish plovers mulling about in the sand. A few meters away there was a single little ringed plover, the only one of that species I would find here. The Kentish plovers reminded me of piping plovers from the Atlantic coast. Being a fan of shorebirds in general, I thought the Kentish plovers were quite striking, in their own way.
I would periodically run into small groups of Kentish plovers as I continued down the beach, finding about a dozen altogether, but otherwise there was little activity on the beach. Although the tide was low, there was little mud or detritus on the sand, and thus I think there was little food to be found for foraging shorebirds. A few black-tailed gulls were here and there, standing near the surf or gliding over the water. I came to a large rocky cliff jutting out onto the beach, and beyond that there were several rows of fishing nets set up below the high tide mark. With the water out the nets were exposed, but when the tide came back in, the nets would be submerged again. The locals on Imja-do typically harvest their nets twice a day in this manner.
In the distance near the waterline, I saw the outline of about thirty large shorebirds, which appeared to me to be either a species of godwit or curlew. They were too far away to clearly identify, so the only thing I could do was to get a closer look. I walked toward the flock, finally getting close enough to identify them as whimbrels. Whimbrels are a global species, occurring on almost every continent. However, there are several recognized subspecies, and these whimbrels were clearly different than the North American ones I was used to. When the birds would fly, I could make out a broad white stripe running from the tail up to about the shoulder. The bills were also a bit longer and more decurved than North American whimbrels. I was able to get quite a few good looks at the birds before they eventually flew off down the beach and disappeared.
It was getting near lunch time, so I returned to the Festival entrance and met up with my travel group. We got back into the van and headed off to the southern part of the island, to a private beach off the beaten track. We were going to have a barbecue on the beach and enjoy the sun for awhile before returning to Gwangju. We made a brief stop at a local grocery store for some supplies; there I found three red-rumped swallows flying over the parking lot. It never ceases to amaze me where I find some of my lifers – two years ago I found my first great-tailed grackles and Brewer’s blackbirds in the parking lot of the Excalibur Casino in Las Vegas. There I was photographing two birds picking at a bagel in a casino parking lot on the Las Vegas Strip…you can imagine there were a few raised eyebrows that time.
Taking a small one-lane road into the mountains, we drove along the southern edge of the island to the private beach. Turning a corner on a mountain pass, there were five cattle egrets roosting in a tree by the ocean. I asked Pedro to stop the van, and everyone got a great view of these colorful egrets before continuing to the beach.
As promised, our private beach was indeed private. We unpacked our supplies and started up the gas burner to cook lunch. Pedro had picked up a small package of steak (beef is quite expensive in Korea), and also started cooking some samgyeopsal (삼겹살), a Korean staple of pork belly, similar to bacon. It is especially good with either BBQ sauce or a red bean paste that is extremely popular in Korea. Without a doubt I will have to have a case of that paste shipped back home before I leave this country.
We ate our fill, and then took a minor siesta on the beach. The tide had come back in, and it was a perfect afternoon for a nap in the sand. After relaxing in the shade, I took a walk down the beach to have a look around. There were no shorebirds around, but the dunes and vegetation beyond hosted a lot of small passerines seeking shelter from the midday heat. There were quite a few oriental greenfinches and Eurasian siskins picking through the coniferous trees along the dunes, and in a reedbed I heard two Japanese bush-warblers staking out their territories. Picking on the ground and in the low shrubs were several black-faced buntings and two pechora pipits. I could also hear a ring-necked pheasant giving his display call somewhere on a nearby ridge.
We decided to head back to the ferry at around 6pm, having enjoyed a beautiful day at Imja-do. There was a lineup to board the ferry, as the day’s tourists all had the same idea as we did. When we finally got on board, the sun was sinking lot over the island. The ride back to the mainland was just as pleasant as the ride out, with a few black-tailed gulls following the ferry back. We docked at Gamjeong-ri, where I spotted one Eurasian oystercatcher fly past the ferry to join a grey heron on the rocky shore a ways from the dock. The final tally was four lifers for the day. A special thanks goes out to Pedro Kim for leading yet another great trip with Lonely Korea.