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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…