Fall Birding in Suncheon

Back in April I had made my first trip to Suncheonman Bay (순천만), where I went looking for shorebirds during their spring migration.  Now nearing the end of October, I returned there in the hopes of adding some new migrants to my list.  Top on that Wish List: hooded crane.

Since moving to Korea, I’ve adapted nicely to not having a car of my own.  Public transit in this country is phenomenal, and while I’m still adjusting to coming and going on someone else’s schedule, I can’t say that I haven’t been able to explore the country on my own.  Most buses start running at 5:45am, so I made the effort to wake up early and get out of Gwangju as soon after sunrise as I could.  By 7:35 that morning, I was on my way to Suncheon-si, on a bus that contained no more than five other passengers.  I love early morning travel!

The unassuming façade of the Suncheon-si Bus Terminal.

The unassuming façade of the Suncheon-si Bus Terminal.

I was in Suncheon-si by 9am.  Instead of heading to the Suncheonman Eco-Park, as I had in the past, I decided instead to check out some new areas along the bay, namely Hwapo Beach (화포).  From there I would walk along the edge of the bay north towards Anpung-dong and the Eco-Park.  If there was time (and I wasn’t completely exhausted by that point), I would head further north of the Eco-Park, following the Dongcheon River for a kilometer or two.

Hwapo Beach is several kilometers out of Suncheon-si proper, but there are two city buses one can take to get there.  One block from the Bus Terminal is a city bus stop where you can pick up the #67 (to get to the Eco-Park).  You can also pick up the #81 or #82 here, which will take you to Hwapo.  However, I’d recommend checking the bus schedule carefully before making plans, as I waited nearly 40 minutes for #81 to arrive, before finally giving up and hailing a taxi.  I’m not sure if this bus starts running later in the the afternoon, or perhaps it doesn’t run at all on Sundays.  Whatever the case, if you go the taxi route, expect to pay around 16,000 won for the trip.

I (finally) arrived at Hwapo, and was greeted by a pair of Daurian redstarts and several brown-eared bulbuls.  A winding side road leads through a small village and right to Hwapo Beach…or at least it would have if the tide hadn’t come in.  I mentioned it in my last post about Suncheon-si, but to reiterate an important point: always check your tide schedules before heading to the coastal areas for some birding.

Hwapo Beach at high tide.  Where's all the sand?  Under a few feet of water, where it will remain for 6 more hours.

Hwapo Beach at high tide, somewhere under a meter of water.

Disappointed and mildly irritated, I checked my phone for a tide chart, and discovered that the “true” high tide was 5 minutes ago.  So the water would now start to head back out to sea, but it would take about 6 hours to get there.  Oh well, I could safely cross off finding any interesting shorebirds for awhile.

All was not lost, however.  A steep hillside jutted up from the edge of the “beach” area, and within the vegetation I found a good variety of birds, including Japanese tit, Eurasian jay, yellow-throated bunting, another pair of Daurian redstarts, two ring-necked pheasants, and a pair of vocal bull-headed shrikes.  The real highlight was a passing northern goshawk, a year bird for me.  It circled low overhead, giving me plenty of chances for photos before disappearing over the hillside.

“Eurasian” Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis schvedowi)

Despite the tide, there were plenty of birds out on the water.  These were mainly black-tailed and black-headed gulls, but further out over the water I saw a small flock of Far Eastern curlews flying northward to some destination.  A second flock contained curlews and whimbrels.  Where were these shorebirds heading to?

I decided the best plan would be to head in the direction that the shorebirds were going and maybe get lucky and stumble onto their roost.  I left Hwapo Beach with a new year bird, and by far the best photo of a northern goshawk to date.

I returned to the main road, walking along the shoulder for about 2 kilometers through the village of Haksan-ri.  About every 100 meters or so I would find one or two Daurian redstarts.  Many of the males were in their bright colors, and several were singing away, staking out their territories.  Another common bird on my walk towards Anpung-dong was the bull-headed shrike.  Since October started, I have found at least one (often times more) of these predators on every outing I go on throughout the southern part of the country.  There is even a juvenile bird skulking around behind the middle school I work at in Gwangju.  Throughout the course of the day, I counted a total of eight shrikes in an 8-kilometer stretch!

Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus bucephalus)

Raptors were also out in force today.  Along the roadside I found a juvenile Eurasian kestrel perched atop a telephone pole, overlooking a rice paddy.  Shortly thereafter a second kestrel flew in and the two took to the air, soaring high over the area.  At the same time, I spotted an oriental honey-buzzard some distance away, flying northward before disappearing from the distance.

Juvenile Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Juvenile Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

I stopped for lunch when I reached Anpung-dong, one of the vast rural areas surrounding downtown Suncheon-si.  This area hugs the shore of Suncheonman Bay, and a raised berm gives a great vantage point to scan the mudflats for shorebirds and waterfowl at low tide.  There are two pagodas and several benches set on the berm so you can stop and take a rest.

A view of Suncheonman Bay, as view from the berm in Anpung-dong.

A view of Suncheonman Bay, as seen from the berm in Anpung-dong.

Enjoying some kimbap I purchased at the bus terminal, I set up my scope and took to scanning the mudflats.  There were few shorebirds that I could see, although occasionally I would hear or spot a common greenshank.  There were, however, loads of waterfowl dabbling in the mud and receding tide.  The majority were mallards, but careful inspection through the horde revealed dozens of northern pintails and Eurasian teal.  I also spotted two Eurasian wigeons hiding in the masses of mallards.  A flock of about fifty or more common pochards was an added bonus, and made for the best views of this species I’ve had yet.  Further out in the bay were loads of grey herons and great egrets.  Sitting atop of pole set out in the bay was an osprey – another year bird!  Although osprey are fairly common in the right habitat back in North America, and I’m used to seeing their fairly often, I have not been able to find any osprey all year in Korea, despite traveling to several coastal environments where they should have been.  It was great to add this species to my year list, and especially good to see the Eurasian subspecies, which may one day reach full species status.

Packing up my scope, I made my way into the endless rice paddies of Anpung-dong, heading back towards the bus stop where I could pick up the #67 back to Suncheon-si.  It was here that I hoped to spot some cranes foraging in the fields; hooded and white-naped cranes use the harvested rice paddies as a stopover area in their migrations.  Unfortunately for me nary a crane was seen, but the paddies did hold other treasures for me to find.

The sea of golden rice at Anpung-dong.

The sea of golden rice at Anpung-dong.

It began with small groups of threes and fours of olive-backed pipit, a species I haven’t seen since April.  These were joined by other groups of sky larks, a life bird!  Unfortunately, I would only know these birds were around when they took to the air, as the harvested rice still left enough cover for them to hide in.  Equally frustrating were the four common snipes that I inadvertently flushed along the roadside.  The edge of the paddies are muddy and water pools there, mainly because of the machine tracks left behind by the harvesters.  These function as small oases, and the snipes used their camouflage very well…I never saw any of them until they exploded out of the vegetation and flew off.  However, in so doing, they offered me good views of the white edge on their wings, which is a diagnostic tool for identifying these birds.

As I continued to mistakenly flush snipe, I came upon another bird which resembled the snipes, but was strangely different.  I only got three opportunities to see it, as it flushed only three times before disappearing.  When it would fly, it never went very far (unlike the snipes, which would fly off to a completely different rice paddy, or disappear into the horizon altogether).  And watching it fly I was able to discern a shorter, broader bill than is characteristic of snipe; the bill also had a slight downward curve, and ended in more of a nub than a point.  A quick look through my field guide revealed this bird to be a male greater painted-snipe, a rare breeder and overwintering species in South Korea.  Far more common in Southeast Asia and Africa, the greater painted-snipe is a skulking wader in the Rostratulidae family.  This species exhibits reverse sexual dimorphism, in which the females are more brightly colored than the males.  The bird I was seeing had the yellow wash and bright yellow striping of a male bird.  Most importantly of all, this was Life Bird #584!

I was trying desperately to capture an image of the painted-snipe, and in so doing stumbled onto another Life Bird: a sharp-tailed sandpiper.  Unlike my snipe quarry, the sandpiper was much more accommodating, and stuck to the pools of water where it would keep a close eye on me, but nonetheless stay in sight.  This species resembles the pectoral sandpiper, but its dark rufous cap and obvious white supercilium differentiate it from the pectoral.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Calidris acuminata)

A little further on, I unexpectedly flushed a Far Eastern curlew right alongside the road!  I’ve seen this species reliably feeding on the mudflats at Suncheonman Bay, but never close enough for a photo, and surely never in the rice paddies.  I jumped at the chance to photograph this amazing shorebird with its enormous bill.  It wasn’t until much later, when I reviewed my photos, that I discovered why this bird was so far from the bay and by itself.  It appears to have suffered an injury to its left leg, and though it could fly perfectly well, it will have a hard time walking around.  Closer examination of the photo below shows the leg to be twisted at an awkward angle.  It’s a sad thing to see an injured bird, but I have seen many one-legged shorebirds that seem to manage their disability just fine, so time will tell what will happen to this curlew.

Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis)

Although I dipped on the cranes, there were plenty of interesting species still around Suncheonman Bay.  Finding the greater painted-snipe was surely one of the more exciting and unexpected lifers that I’ve found this year.  I’m encouraged now to explore some of the rice paddies closer to Gwangju – who knows what may be waiting to be found there?

Birding the Yellow Sea

I was invited to go on a pelagic outing around Heuksan-do (흑산도) with several members of Birds Korea.  It was a fantastic opportunity to both see some really spectacular birds, and meet some amazing people whose tireless efforts are the cornerstone of the Korean bird conservation movement.  It was also a chance to utilize my least-used field guide, Onley and Sconfield’s Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World.

I arrived at the Gwangju Bus Terminal bright and early in the morning, meeting my travel companions Maria Lisak, Dr. Nial Moores, Jason Loghry, and Ha Jung-Mun.  Dr. Moores and Jason left on an earlier bus; we would meet them at the other end in Mokpo, where we would pick up our ferry to the island of Heuksan-do.  As the three of us loaded onto our bus, I suddenly realized I had left my field guide sitting on the desk in my apartment.  Not off to a good start.

By the time we reached Mokpo, the skies had darkened and it began to rain.  As we met up with the rest of our group, and were taxied onto the ferry, the rain increased from an annoying drizzle to a window-blocking torrent.  For the length of the two and a half hour voyage, the rain mocked our feeble attempts at spotting tiny seabirds in the worsening swell.  Oh, perhaps I had forgotten to mention the typhoon that was currently beating the pulp out of Taiwan a few hundred miles to the south of us.  Yeah, that’s an important detail.

The bay at Heuksan-do.  Oh yeah, we're going out in this!

The bay at Heuksan-do.  Oh yeah, we’re going out in this!

Nevertheless, Dr. Moores somehow managed to spot a few Swinhoe’s storm-petrels and a streaked shearwater on the ferry ride; I only got the briefest of glimpses of the former, and completely missed the latter.

As luck would have it, the rain followed us all the way to Heuksan-do, and continued drenching everything in sight for another couple hours.  But ours was a determined bunch, and after resolving a slight miscommunication with the boat captain we had hired, we set sail into the great beyond, spirits high if not a little damp.  As we tied off from the dock, the skies began to lighten a bit and someone turned off the faucet.  The clouds (and the rain for that matter) would stay for the bulk of the day, but there were occasional breaks in the sky and by nightfall we were granted an amazing sunset.

Eight passengers set sail that day for a six hour tour...a six hour tour Let's hope it ends a little better, shall we?

Eight passengers set sail that day for a five hour tour…a five hour tour
Let’s hope it ends a little better, shall we?

Despite the break in the weather, the open ocean tossed us around with 1-3m swells, and sporadic downpours left our fearless leader soaked to the bone.  Conditions were far from ideal, but the one great thing about pelagic birding is that the birds have nowhere to hide, except another featureless stretch of ocean that you’re not looking at.  Tons of perseverance (and an equal amount luck) can usually result in a few good birds.

We spent almost five hours at sea. The birds came in waves, usually in singles or pairs, but sometimes in flocks of ten or more.  We stumbled onto a group of three red phalaropes about an hour into the voyage.  Swinhoe’s storm-petrels and streaked shearwaters were seen throughout the trip, though long periods would pass between sightings.  Our ship’s captain wasn’t chumming the waters, so the birds tended to stay out a fair distance.  We also found half a dozen common terns, and near the end of the trip we passed seven red-necked phalaropes, followed shortly by a distant view of a flesh-footed shearwater.  Unfortunately for Yours Truly, however, I never managed to get on this bird, so I will have to try for it some other time.

Streaked Shearwater (Calonectris leucomelas); this was the only bird that came in close enough to our ship for a photo.  Luckily the battering waves didn’t spoil the opportunity for me.

When we returned to Heuksan-do, we decided to use the last of the dwindling light to search the marina area for some birds.  The skies were alive with Pacific swifts, hawking insects over the mountains.  Within the swifts we found three white-throated needletails, and Jason managed to spy a rare Himalayan swiftlet, a scarcely recorded species on the Korean peninsula.  There were also migrants coming in to Heuksan-do for a night’s rest, including an astonishing flock of at least 100 eastern yellow wagtails, which cruised over the marina before disappearing into the mountains.

Pacific Swift (Apus pacificus pacificus) – note the outstretched tail feathers and small fork in the middle.  Not my best shot, but it is the first time I’ve photographed a swift of any species.


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The next morning, our group strolled around Heuksan-myeon, looking for migrants and passerines.  The island of Heuksan-do is sparsely populated, the bulk of which resides in the quiet village of Heuksan-myeon.  The rest of the island is mostly uninhabited, and so offers some great birding for those willing to make the trip.  After the dismal results of our pelagic trip, the birding around Heuksan-myeon more than made up for it.

The sleepy village of Heuksan-myeon.

The sleepy village of Heuksan-myeon.

The village had two pairs of blue rock-thrushes, and we were treated to excellent views of both the males and females.  We also saw plenty of light-vented bulbuls, another rare species in Korea (though it is starting to become more common on the offshore islands).  A family of three tiger shrikes patrolled a large hillside, and Japanese white-eyes flitted about everywhere.  Eastern yellow wagtails and grey wagtails continued their migrations overhead, but nowhere near the numbers of the previous night.

The mountain path came to a small pasture for grazing animals, and it was here that we found the bulk of our species.  As three pin-tailed snipes flew off overhead, we spotted several Pacific golden-plovers foraging in the pasture; a long-toed stint was found near a puddle on the edge of the pasture.  A pair of Daurian starlings flew in, and two grey-streaked flycatchers and a Korean flycatcher patrolled the edge of the area.  By far the strangest sighting was a lone Eurasian wryneck, a cryptically-colored woodpecker which looks more like a nightjar than a woodpecker.  Before returning to the village, we saw one more interesting bird.  It appeared to be a strange-looking eastern yellow wagtail, but several field markers and some call notes it made belong to the western yellow wagtail.  These two closely related species are hotly contested, and most recent taxonomic updates continually change the species from two, maybe one, sometimes even three, different species.  Photos and audio recordings were made, but for now this bird remains unidentified.

Daurian Starlings (Sturnus sturninus)

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (Muscicapa griseisticta)

Eastern or Western Yellow Wagtail...anyone know?

Eastern or Western Yellow Wagtail…anyone know?

We walked along some of the shoreline of the island, picking out a few sanderlings and red-necked stints, as well as one black-winged stilt hiding in the debris on the beach.  Later a flock of four of these graceful waders would fly in from the north.  The last bird of interest was a gorgeous Japanese wood-pigeon, which flew from its hiding place on one mountainside to another across the valley.

From my point of view the outing was a great success.  It’s always a good time to be out birding with a group of like-minded individuals, and it never hurts to have such knowledgeable companions either.  Despite the rain we contended with on our first day, the pelagic trip was still successful in that we found some birds and didn’t get completely shut out.  And the day’s birding on Heuksan-do was a great chance to see some unusual birds that don’t frequently show up on the Korean mainland.

A heartfelt “thank you!” to Dr. Nial Moores and all of the members of Birds Korea for putting together a wonderful outing.  I hope it will be one of many yet to come.

Busan or Bust, Day 2: Igidae Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lifer #488, check.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAM00181

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

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

A deep crevice carved out by the relentless waves.

A deep crevice carved out by the relentless waves.

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

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

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

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

Voyage to Imja-do

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.

The island of Imja-do.  The dotted line shows our path across the island to Daegwang Beach and the Shinan Tulip Festival, and also the route to a private beach on the southern shore.

The island of Imja-do.  The dotted line shows our path across the island to Daegwang Beach and the Shinan Tulip Festival, and also the route to a private beach on the southern shore.

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.

Multi-colored flags line the entrance to the Shinan Tulip Festival at Imja-do.

Multi-colored flags line the entrance to the Shinan Tulip Festival at Imja-do.

One of dozens of tulip beds at the Shinan Tulip Festival in Imja-do.

One of dozens of tulip beds at the Shinan Tulip Festival in Imja-do.

A single black tulip hidden in a sea of color.

A single black tulip hidden in a sea of 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 at Imja-do, looking out onto the Yellow Sea.

Daegwang Beach at Imja-do, looking out onto the Yellow Sea.

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.

One of the nominate Kentish Plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus alexandrinus) on Daegwang Beach at Imja-do.

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.

A “Siberian” Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus variegatus), showing the white stripe characteristic of this subspecies.

The flock of whimbrels takes to the air at Daegwang Beach in Imja-do.

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.

One of three nominate Red-rumped Swallows (Cecropis daurica daurica) at a grocery store in Imja-do.  This bird was building a nest under a nearby house awning.

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.

An “Asian” Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis coromandus) near the ocean on Imja-do.

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.

Our private beach on the southern end of Imja-do.

Our private beach on the southern end of Imja-do.

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.

The sun falls behind the mountains of Imja-do as our trip comes to an end.

The sun falls behind the mountains of Imja-do as our trip comes to an end.

On the Hunt for Shorebirds

When I lived in Ontario, one of my favorite birding day-trips in the spring and fall was to Presqu’ile Provincial Park in Brighton, right on the shores of Lake Ontario.  It was quite a trek from my home in Ottawa, but the beaches around Presqu’ile provided scores of shorebirds, terns, and gulls, that I could just not find anywhere closer to Ottawa.  On this weekend Melanie was off on a school trip with her co-workers, so I gathered my gear and hopped on a bus to Suncheon-si, a short hour and a half bus trip east from Gwangju.  The destination was Suncheonman Bay (순천만), a large protected coastal wetland which is one of the largest in South Korea.  It is a well-known stopover site for the rare white-naped and hooded cranes, as well as approximately 140 other species of bird.  Needless to say, my interests were piqued at the word “wetland.”

Wetlands are Nature’s treasure, both in terms of bird life and environmental health.  Coastal wetlands provide valuable food and shelter for countless species, as well as beneficial protection from storm surges coming from the ocean.  Their value to human and wildlife is immeasurable; unfortunately, most people see them as eye sores and prefer to drain them and build condos than see them for their real worth.  I spent six months in the salt marshes of Rhode Island working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, so you’ll forgive me if I have a soft spot for coastal wetlands.

From Gwangju, Suncheon-si is easily accessible from the U+ Square Terminal.  The fare was only 6,900 won one-way (at the time of this trip), and buses leave every thirty minutes.  I arrived at the Suncheon Bus Terminal at 11:30am, and was immediately greeted by three house swifts circling over the terminal.  Not on the ground five minutes and already checked off a lifer…the Bird Gods were smiling on me today.  The day was warm and bright, and although I was starting much later than I would have liked, it promised to be a good day nonetheless.  Birding the coastal estuaries is all about timing: arrive too early or too late and the tide is up and the birds are anywhere but where you want them to be.  Coastal birding revolves around the tide schedule, so there is a little bit of leeway on the early morning / early evening dynamic common to land birding.  For the uninitiated, to successfully bird the land, the best times are first thing at dawn and two or three hours before dusk, as the birds are most active at these times.  Come midday, especially in the hot summer months, and the birds are on siesta.  This rule doesn’t apply when birding coastal mudflats, as the tide determines when the mudflats are exposed and therefore when the birds can access all of the food sources available in these habitats.

My route along the Dongcheon River to Suncheonman Bay.  The total length of the walk was about 12km...and worth every inch!

My route along the Dongcheon River to Suncheonman Bay.  The total length of the walk was about 12km…and worth every inch!

I had originally meant to grab a city bus to the Suncheonman Bay Ecological Park (순천만 자연생태공원), the main site of the protected reedbeds and mudflats at the Bay, but I ended up misreading the bus schedule and hopped on the #67 going the wrong direction.  If you’re more adept at reading Korean than I am, from the Bus Terminal walk south one block and you can pick up the #67 bus to the Suncheonman Bay (순천만) stop in Daedae-dong.  Be sure to cross the street and take the bus from that side, not the same side as the Bus Terminal.  This is the route I’d recommend, although if you have the time and you enjoy a long, long walk, you can take the route I took instead.

Quickly realizing I was going to the wrong way, I got off the bus and headed over to the Dongcheon River, which bisects the city of Suncheon-si down the middle.  There is a paved bicycle / walking trail that follows the river for its entire length through the city, and as Suncheon-si is a popular tourist destination in South Korea for its environmental savvy (Suncheon-si is known as “Korea’s Green City”), this walking trail is beautifully landscaped and idyllic for an afternoon stroll.  I’d recommend a stop here, if only to enjoy the river and the nice flowers and cherry blossoms along the way.

The river was alive with activity.  Near a small waterfall by the Palma-ro Bridge, there were nearly forty black-headed gulls, many with their hoods fully formed.  Close inspection did not locate any other species of gull, although I was hoping for a stray Saunders’s gull, but just seeing the black-headed gulls was a pleasure.  These birds are analogous to the Bonaparte’s gulls of North America, but have bright red beaks and legs that distinguish them immediately.  They are uncommon visitors to the Americas, but show up regularly on the East Coast in places like Nova Scotia (where I had found my first, and only, black-headed gull in 2008).

A Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) flying along the Dongcheon River.  The bird has not completed its molt, and only has a partial hood.

There were some reeds along the shore of the river, and it was here that I heard a couple of small whistle-like calls.  A careful search of the reeds revealed three Chinese penduline-tits and several vinous-throated parrotbills.  The hedgerows along the walkway were dripping with Eurasian tree sparrows and several brown-eared bulbuls were flying in and out of the cherry trees.  Further downstream I could see dozens of eastern spot-billed ducks and two pairs of little grebes in their breeding colors.

A tiny Chinese Penduline-tit (Remiz consobrinus) clings to some reeds.  It was quite a challenge to capture this photo with such a small bird in a mess of reeds…not to mention the gusting wind!

With much deliberation I decided to leave this quaint spot and continue down the river.  I should point out at this point that I was under the impression that the Suncheonman Bay Eco-Park, my destination, was only about 3km downstream and that this walkway would lead me right to it.  I was right about the second part of that statement – the riverwalk does indeed lead to the Eco-Park…eventually.  It turned out to be nearly 8km before I reached the Eco-Park.  So as I said at the beginning, take the #67 bus.  Unless you had the clarity of mind to bring a bicycle with you.

I’ve found that some of my more notable mis-adventures tend to produce great memories and even better results, and this situation was no different.  The walk was very long, but it was also quite scenic and took me through a diverse series of habitats, each with its own selection of species.  As I was leaving the city limits, there were farm plots to the east and west, and the walkway was lined with cherry blossoms.  The ever-present Eurasian tree sparrows gave way to olive-backed pipits, and a few of the farm plots held eastern spot-billed ducks, little egrets and grey herons.

Cherry trees line a walking path along the Dongcheon River.

Cherry trees line a walking path along the Dongcheon River.

One of the Olive-backed Pipits (Anthus hodgsoni) along the Dongcheon River walkway.

Further south of the city proper, the farms gave way to wide expanses of grasslands and sedges along the river.  This section of the river was under construction, as a new overpass was being built, following the course of the river.  Despite the disturbance of machinery, the best birding of the day was to be found in these grassy oases.  It started with several barn swallows flying over the fields.  It wasn’t long before I noticed a single Pallas’s bunting ahead of me on the path.  This would be the first of three of these large sparrows I would encounter during the day, but I was unable to capture any photos of these shy birds.  Further down from there, near the joining of the Dongcheon and Isacheon Rivers, I came onto a large mixed-species flock of passerines foraging along the pathway.  There was a glorious male Siberian stonechat, which I identified later as being of the breeding subspecies on the Korean peninsula (Saxicola maurus stejnegeri) rather than a passing migrant of the nominate subspecies (S. m. maurus).  Several Tristram’s buntings led the foraging flock, with two black-faced buntings and two more Pallas’s buntings were visible in the reeds and grasses.

Just before reaching the Eco-Park, after nearly two hours of walking with a backpack filled with my tripod and scope, I stopped at a small opening in the reedbeds, where I found that the water level was dropping as the tide went out.  Feeding on the exposed mud were nearly a half-dozen grey herons, two great egrets (one each of both Korean subspecies Egretta alba alba and E. a. modesta), and to my surprise and great thrill, three Eurasian spoonbills!  Close to the spoonbills, three common greenshanks were resting near the edge of the water.  The spoonbills were amazing to watch; I had never had the opportunity to go to Florida and see North America’s roseate spoonbill, so this was a rare treat for me to see these amazing heron-like birds.  They would walk in the deeper water, rocking their heads back and forth while sieving the water with their specialized bills.  Unfortunately all of this was happening too far away for photos, but I hope one day to find this species again a little closer to shore.

The Eco-Park itself was a mixture of great habitat, but sorely underwhelming performance.  By the time I arrived at the Park, the parking lot was full of cars and buses, and just about every inch of the boardwalk into the reedbeds and estuary was covered with people.  The Park is quite beautiful, and the protected habitat is beautiful.  But what I saw brought to light the great dichotomy in conservation: we want to set aside land to protect it and the species that live there, but the only way to successfully convince people to protect land is to make it into a park, allowing people to see the land they are protecting.  And by allowing people into it, you essentially strip it of its protected value, because what makes it “protected” and “natural” is the lack of people.  I can imagine that first thing in the morning, before the tour buses arrive, the park and its lovely boardwalk are pristine, and the habitat can be used by the birds and other species for which it was set aside.  But when I arrived at the Eco-Park, there was no sign of any wildlife at all, just a steady flow of tourists following the boardwalk through a barren habitat.  Perhaps because the tide was going out all of the birds left the shelter of the reedbeds to forage on the exposed mud.  I don’t really know, but I found the long walk from the city to be infinitely more productive and peaceful than the sight before me.

 I didn’t stay long at the Eco-Park, deciding to walk through one more section of agricultural land to reach Suncheonman Bay itself.  Although I was pretty tired at this point, it was a very good decision.  The farmland was quiet and calm, and loads of oriental turtle-doves were flying from field to field in search of food.  There were a few great egrets, and a handful of “Chinese” white wagtails (Motacilla alba leucopsis) along the roadside.  I reached the edge of the Bay to find that the tide was far out, leaving a wide expanse of thick mud exposed.  At first it appeared as though nothing was on the mud, but scanning with my scope revealed a hidden plethora of birds.  Fairly close to the edge of the Bay were tens of Pacific golden-plovers, and further out were scattered Far Eastern curlews.  These large shorebirds sport extremely long decurved bills that they use to reach deep into the mud to find food.  Even from this distance the birds were incredible to watch as they poked their long bills all the way to the hilt into the mud.  Still further out, almost to the edge of the water, were hundreds of white birds.  Straining through the distance and rising heat haze, I was able to make out enough detail through my scope to identify them as common shelducks.  These ducks resemble common mergansers in color and shape, but are slightly larger and bulkier, and stand on tall legs like small geese.  Mixed in with the common shelducks were a handful of ruddy shelducks, distinguishable by their bright orange plumage.

After a long, arduous walk, I had found the shorebirds I was looking for.  Unfortunately the mud was too deep for me to walk out onto the mudflats, at least not without knee boots.  But the birds were there, and closing the day with eleven lifers made the sore feet and tired legs worth it.  I hopped on the #67 back to the bus terminal (I wasn’t about to walk the whole way back, now was I), and took the opportunity on the ride back to Gwangju to catch some much needed R&R.

Exploring Geoje Island (Part II)

The morning dawned bright and early.  It was another beautiful clear day, with only a trace of morning fog far out on the bay, obscuring the view of distant islands near the horizon.  Breakfast would be served for 9:30am, so my first order of the day was to head down to the beach and see what the morning would offer.

 It was relatively cool near the water; with all the mild weather (at least mild as compared to what I was used to in Canada for late March) it was easy to forget that winter was still going on.  My friend the great crested grebe was still foraging close to shore, but I was unable to locate his compatriots or the Pacific loon from yesterday.  The bay itself was relatively empty, with a few Vega gulls and black-tailed gulls flying around.

 Depending on who you talk to, there can be just one species of herring gull or there can be three.  I’ve read some of the research into this, and I tend to lean towards there being three species, rather than just one overarching species for all the herring gulls in the world.  The breakdown of herring gulls (which are split into three species by the International Ornithologists’ Union [IOU] but remain one species by the American Birding Association [ABA]) is the American herring gull (Larus smithsonianus), the European herring gull (Larus argentatus) and the Vega gull (Larus vegae).  Bird nomenclature and taxonomy are constantly in flux, and it can be a full-time job keeping up with all of the revisions, splits, and lumps, which says nothing about having to go through field guides once a year to update the species name and Latin binomial.  Just preparing for my move to South Korea required updating my primary field guide A Field Guide to the Birds of Korea by Lee Woo-Shin, Koo Tae-Hoe, and Park Jin-Young.  The whole process took several weeks, but considering it was published in 2000 and is the only English-language field guide available for the Korean peninsula specifically, it was worth the effort.  I supplemented this guide with the more recent Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil, which functions as a great cross-reference book for subspecies identification and recent splits that Birds of Korea doesn’t even have plates for.  But I digress…

The bay was quiet, so I turned my attention to the cliff edge above me.  There was sparse vegetation on the cliff face, but a small gully near the base of the cliff provided some ground for a few small trees and shrubs to take root.  It was here that I found the bulk of my birds for the morning.  It started with hearing the call of a varied tit, by far the most colorful and interesting tit (or chickadee, for my North American friends) anywhere, in my opinion anyway.  The tit was singing high on the top of the cliff, but eventually began working his way down to the beach.  It took a lot of waiting, but I finally got a shot of this striking bird.

A nominate subspecies Varied Tit (Sittiparus varius varius) at Nambu-myeon.

There was also a lone vinous-throated parrotbill, which I found odd as I rarely encounter this species without at least a dozen of his closest friends in tow.  The parrotbill is a very social and gregarious bird, and often forms flocks of 40+ birds when foraging.  I noticed a small skulking bird in some hanging vegetation, and at first I thought it was another parrotbill.  But finally getting it in the binoculars revealed its true identity as a Japanese white-eye!  And shortly after I found another white-eye foraging nearby.  The white-eyes resemble bright yellow-green vireos with huge white eye rings.  They are very distinct, but their small size makes them hard to locate in dense vegetation.

This menagerie of birds was scattered when a flock of large-billed crows, until then staying high over the cliffs, descended in a flurry of activity and cawing that sent the smaller birds undercover.  A couple of crows took up position on a large snag, and I got off a few shots before they flew down the beach to join a larger group picking at scraps of trash left on the beach.

Two Large-billed Crows (Corvus macrorhynchos mandschuricus) near the private beach at Nambu-myeon.

I left the beach to have my breakfast, and soon after our group was packed up and loaded onto the bus.  We were scheduled to take a ferry ride to the Haegeumgang formation, then skip over to Oedo to view the botanical gardens.  Our bus took us through Nambu-myeon along a coastal road that gave us all excellent views of the coastline.  We arrived at the ferry at around 10:15am under beautiful skies.  It was forecast to become cloudy by midday, but thus far there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  We were a bit early for the ferry, so we spent some time admiring the view of Haegeumgang from a quaint patio overlooking the ferry dock.  I found a single white-cheeked starling in the parking lot by the ferry, and an oriental greenfinch near the patio.  Otherwise it was the ever-present large-billed crows and a few Eurasian magpies and brown-eared bulbuls.

A map of Nambu-myeon, with the locations of Haegeumgang and Oedo Botanica.  The dotted line shows our route from the pension to the ferry,  and the route the ferry took around Haegeumgang towards Oedo.

A map of Nambu-myeon, with the locations of Haegeumgang and Oedo Botanica.  The dotted line shows our route from the pension to the ferry, and the route the ferry took around Haegeumgang towards Oedo.

The ferry dock and the Haegeumgang.

The ferry dock and the Haegeumgang.

At long last our ferry was ready to depart, and we were quickly escorted aboard.  There are many ferries that go around the Haegeumgang formation.  The formation has dozens of caves carved into it after centuries of ocean erosion.  When the ocean is calm, the ferry pilots challenge one another to bring their boats in the closest to these caves.  It’s a rather harrowing experience as a passenger, but the pilots’ skill is unrivaled and they maneuver their boats to within a few feet of the Haegeumgang cliffs.

I think our pilot would have brought us in closer, if only the cave was large enough to accommodate more of the ship...

I think our pilot would have brought us in closer, if only the cave was large enough to accommodate more of the ship…

After experiencing the Haegeumgang close up, we circled around the edge of the formation, taking in the amazing geology and enjoying the cool ocean air.  Flocks of black-tailed gulls followed our ship everywhere it went, and I also saw a great crested grebe and a brief glimpse of a Pacific reef-heron around the edge of the Haegeumgang formation.  As we left the formation behind on our way to Oedo, I noticed a congregation of great cormorants roosting on the cliffs above.

One of the Black-tailed Gulls following our ferry towards Oedo.

A few of the locals would throw crackers and dried fish to the gulls, attracting more and more of them as we made our way to Oedo.

Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis) on the cliffs of the Haegeumgang.

Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis) on the cliffs of the Haegeumgang.

On the crossing to Oedo, I noticed a raft of Pacific loons, about seventeen in all, but otherwise it was just the black-tailed gulls escorting us to Oedo.  Years ago, the Korean government began selling off the small islands off the coast to private owners.  The buyers of Oedo, being nature-lovers, turned it into a botanical garden, and now the island, opened to the public, is a popular tourist destination and source of income for the local economy.

We had about an hour on Oedo before we had to return to the mainland and begin the long trip back to Gwangju, so I split from the group to make the most of it.  There was a continuous sea of people over the entirety of the gardens, and most were dressed just as colorfully as the flowers and plants.  The skies were beginning to darken with clouds, but the fresh blossoms and flowers still lent plenty of color to the greying environment.

Tulips at Oedo Botanica.

Tulips at Oedo Botanica.

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A view of the Oedo Botanica.  This view only covers one section of the gardens.

A view of the Oedo Botanica.  This view only covers one section of the gardens.

With so many people around, the birds were laying low.  On three occasions I heard a beautiful melody being sung from the vegetation, but I could not locate the bird no matter how hard I looked.  I’m sure I raised some eyebrows with the Koreans: who was this strange foreigner with binoculars staring into a mess of branches for minutes at a time?  After two failed attempts to locate the source of this beautiful song, I was beginning to get frustrated.  At the summit of a small hill overlooking the whole of the island, I found eight Pacific swifts making aerial maneuvers above the island.  These large swifts have long forked tails and white rumps.  They are one of the largest swifts in Korea, second only to the white-throated needletail.  The long forked tail distinguishes them from the smaller house swift.

I was enjoying watching the swifts, a new species and the first swift species to be added to my list since 2008, when I heard that song coming from below me in the Venus Garden.  I hauled it over to the garden, determined to find the source of this song and check off another species.  It didn’t take long to zero in on the right tree, and finally I was able to get a glimpse of my quarry: a Japanese bush-warbler!  Old World warblers are a large family of relatively drab, uninteresting, and extremely similar-looking birds that have remarkably beautiful songs.  They are the equivalents of our North American wood-warblers that thrill birders during the spring migration, but the Old World varieties more resemble our sparrows than the colorful birds that delight us in the spring.  Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see the bush-warbler, even if it looked just like a red-eyed vireo without the red eye.  The bird darted into a low shrub, providing me a brief chance to get a photo before disappearing into the garden.  Surely this is one song that I won’t forget in a hurry.

A Japanese Bush-warbler in the Venus Garden at Oedo Botanica.  This rather drab bird has the most melodious song.

A Japanese Bush-warbler (Horornis diphone cantans) in the Venus Garden at Oedo Botanica.  This rather drab bird has the most melodious song.

Alas, the hour flew by, and I had to return to the ferry to catch my boat back to the mainland.  Before returning to Gwangju, we stopped for dinner in a different part of Nambu-myeon, where we had some delicious 김치 찌개 (kimchi jjigae), a style of stew made with Korea’s world-famous kimchi.  The soup is nice, flavorful, and spicy, and it really hits the spot on an increasingly damp and cold day.  Before leaving Geoje Island, I spotted a sign for the Hallyeo Haesang National Park (한려해상국립공원-거제), which is a known breeding ground for the elusive fairy pitta.  The Park is the only location on the Korean peninsula where this species can be reliably located; only Jeju-do and Jindo Island to the south are better spots for this species.

Methinks a return trip to Geoje is already in the making…