Public Outing at the Yeongsangang

Birding is a passion for me, and like anything one truly cares about, one wants to share it with others.  Our lives are so busy nowadays, and there are so many distractions (*cough* smartphones), that it is all too easy to forget to stop and look around once in awhile.

Therefore I have become increasingly active in the Gwangju community here in Korea.  With the help of a good friend and birder-to-be Maria, I’ve begun a campaign to generate interest and enthusiasm for birds and conservation, and maybe even encourage a few Gwangjuites to join and support Birds Korea.

So how exactly do I generate interest?  Simple: take everyday people outside and show them the world through the eyes of a birder.  Recently I led a public outing along my favorite stretch of the Yeongsangang River on the west end of Gwangju.  The goal was to observe waterfowl which had just arrived from northern breeding grounds.  Since the climate in Gwangju is relatively mild, the Yeongsangang doesn’t freeze over and provides food and shelter for nearly a dozen species of waterfowl throughout the winter.

I was delighted to have an enthusiastic group attend; what’s more, it went beyond my expectations to have such a large group come out…we had twelve participants in total, including two visiting all the way from Seoul!  We had perfect weather, with clear skies and mild temperatures.  While the numbers of waterfowl were still fairly low at this time of year, we did have a decent variety, and I ticked off eight different species of duck before the outing even officially began!  In the end our group tallied just under 30 different species of bird, including excellent views of falcated ducks, Eurasian coots, a friendly and cooperative bull-headed shrike, and four different species of heron.  A full list of the day’s sightings is available here.

Here are few images from the day’s outing.  Thanks to everyone who attended!

The pagoda near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge made the perfect meeting place

Decorative carvings near the Gwangshindaegyo Bridge

I answer questions as the outing gets underway

Scanning the river for waterfowl

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Getting Fiver

Before I came to Korea, when I was still in the planning stages, I created a short list of the Top 5 Must-See Birds in Korea.  The birds were not ranked in any particular order, though a few were more “important” than others.  The list was:

      1.  Spoon-billed Sandpiper
      2.  Japanese Waxwing
      3.  Fairy Pitta
      4.  Eurasian Hoopoe
      5.  Japanese Paradise-flycatcher

The rationale for inclusion on this list was different for each species.  Some are incredibly rare (#1); others serve a particular purpose in my listing (#2); still others are just really interesting and/or unusual birds that I didn’t want to miss (#3-5).

The search has been exciting, but ticking off these species has been slow-going.  They weren’t chosen because they were easy to find; on the contrary, all but one of these species also make an appearance on another list, the IUCN Red List.  But it’s always been the chase that drives us…

Only two birds have so far been ticked off this list.  The first was the Fairy Pitta: a lone male bird was singing in a small mountain valley along the Wellbeing Hiking Trail on Jeop-do in June 2013.  I have since located five more separate individuals, but alas, a visual opportunity has yet eluded me.  The second bird was the Japanese Waxwing: again, a lone bird viewed at a distance on Eocheong-do this past May.  I hope to see and photograph this species in Korea or Japan this coming winter.

Still, despite nearly 2 years of searching, I’ve only had repeated encounters where the best I can get is an audio recording (no visual), or a glimpse through binoculars at nearly 100 meters.

So it was that I joined birding friends Jason Loghry and Mike Friel on an epic journey to track down that most elusive fairy pitta (Jason had never actually seen one either), and hopefully pick up a Japanese paradise-flycatcher along the way.  We had a few sites staked out for the fairy pitta, and the birds were surely there, but once again managed to elude being seen.  We were quite frustrated after encountering three individual birds, and nary a glimpse was had of any of them.

We continued on, crestfallen and sullen, to a small uninteresting roadside stream, where Mike had observed paradise-flycatchers breeding the previous summer.  We took an overgrown trail along the road, descending in a small valley with the stream at the base.  A Korean water deer, unaware of our presence, walked right towards us, then started and disappeared as we tried to angle our cameras onto this spectacular animal.  That’s when we heard it…

A throaty sound, like a dry cough.  Followed by a melodious series of whistles.  Japanese paradise-flycatcher!

A little searching located a splendid male flitting around the treetops, appearing as a large butterfly.  The dense foliage frequently obscured our views, but the bird finally stopped on a semi-open branch long enough to really observe him.  What a glorious bird!

Japanese Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone atrocaudata)

I was taking an audio recording of the bird, when we heard the same song coming from the opposite direction.  There were two male birds, counter-singing to each other.  The second male remained unseen, but we heard him singing intermittently throughout our time at the site.  It was one of the most memorable bird outings of the month.  Despite missing multiple chances at seeing a fairy pitta, the Japanese paradise-flycatcher more than made up for it.

Only two more species remain on the Top 5 List.  I should be able to get Spoon-billed Sandpiper during its fall migration in late August.  The Eurasian Hoopoe on the other hand, may be a lost cause (at least until my summer vacation trip to China).  The search continues…

The Bamboo Forest of Damyang

As June winds to a close and the true heat of summer begins in July, the crazed running around trying to see as many birds as I could was slowing to only a moderately-fevered pace, as opposed to the manic, all-consuming pace it had only a month before.  The breeding season is typically a slow time for birding, with bird activity coming to a crawl as adults incubate, feed, and protect their young.  No new migrants are available until late August, when the earliest shorebirds begin their long flights back to their wintering grounds.

It’s the long pause before the storm.

So it was time to do some sightseeing, and give the birding a rest.  And if you’ve been following anything I’ve said here, you know that statement is a lie.  The birding never stops, but that doesn’t mean I can’t multitask once in a while.  Melanie and I had skipped it two weekends ago, so we decided to visit the Juknokwon Bamboo Forest (죽녹원) in Damyang.  Many areas in South Korea are known for a particular food or attraction that makes the place worth knowing: Daecheon for its mud festival, Jeonju for its bibimbap, Jindo for its dog breed, and so on.  Damyang is known for several reasons, but the bamboo forest is by far the most visible of these.  And this attraction could not be easier to get to from Gwangju.  Take the #311 village bus from anywhere in Gwangju; the bus arrives typically every 5-15 minutes.  Get off at the Juknokwon stop, and the entrance to the bamboo forest is across the street.  Admission is 2,000 won for adults, 1,000/1,500 won for children/adolescents.

With the exception of a few kitschy fiberglass panda bears just beyond the entrance (which are usually surrounded by tourists waiting to take their picture) the bamboo forest is just that: a forest of bamboo.  You’d almost expect to see an actual panda there, but of course there is none.  There is, however, an old Confucian school, an art gallery/gift shop, and a well-manicured pavilion, on the grounds of the forest.  If you’ve never experienced an actual bamboo forest before, it’s well worth a visit.  The entire grounds of the place can be explored in an afternoon, and there are plenty of restaurants and convenience stores nearby to grab a bite to eat.  As with all places in South Korea, the best time to visit is in the morning, before the crowds arrive.  This is especially true on weekends, so get there early.

A winding trail meanders through the thick bamboo forest at Juknokwon in Damyang.

A winding trail meanders through the thick bamboo forest at Juknokwon in Damyang.

It's unreal how tall the bamboo can grow!

It’s unreal how tall the bamboo can grow!

New bamboo growth appears bright green in this shot.  The shoots emerge with a protective sheath; once the bamboo has grown, the sheath falls off revealing the vibrant green of fresh growth.

New bamboo growth appears bright green in this shot.  The shoots emerge with a protective sheath; once the bamboo has grown, the sheath falls off revealing the vibrant green of fresh growth.

I was impressed with how tall the bamboo could grow.  It was surprisingly cool in the shade of the forest, a nice break from the heat and humidity of Korean summers.  The forest was also a breeding site for azure-winged magpies, as we found several pairs of them throughout the area.

A “Korean” Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyanus koreensis) perches in the bamboo at Juknokwon in Damyang.

The trail system at Juknokwon is a series of loops, so it’s impossible to get lost.  Our path eventually led us out of the forest into the Jukhyang Culture Village (죽향문화체험마을), a large open pavilion with grassy slopes and a nice koi pond surrounded by small pagodas.  It was here we found two pairs of azure-winged magpies and about a half dozen fledglings in tow.  Two Eurasian jays were also foraging with this group, and the calls of both a common and lesser cuckoo could be heard nearby.  As we walked around the koi pond, I also found several Eurasian tree sparrows, oriental turtle-doves, a pygmy woodpecker, brown-eared bulbuls, and fly-overs of both a cattle egret and a dollarbird.

The large Jukhyang Culture Village Pavilion (죽향문화체험마을).  A boardwalk overlooks a tranquil koi pond.

The large Jukhyang Culture Village Pavilion (죽향문화체험마을).  A boardwalk overlooks a tranquil koi pond.

One of the many pagodas  at the Jukhyang Culture Village.

One of the many pagodas at the Jukhyang Culture Village.

One of the adult Azure-winged Magpies keeps a close eye on me.  The presence of so many fledglings obviously had the adults working overtime keeping them safe.

A fledgling Azure-winged Magpie sleeps in a low branch, seemingly oblivious to its surroundings.

Another fledgling waits patiently for an adult to bring some food.  In the high heat and humidity, many of the fledglings kept their mouths open to cool themselves down.

The koi pond had quite a collection of koi, ranging from small to large.  There were also a significant number of dragonflies flitting about.  I was unable to get photos of all of them, including some of the large darner species (which never land), but I did photograph a number of new species that I can’t find in North America (not that I’m counting, of course).

A male Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) taking a rest by the koi pond in Juknokwon.

A male Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia).

We walked around the Culture Village for awhile longer, and in one of the pagodas a man and his wife were creating paper fans from bamboo.  The end results were beautiful, and it was amazing to watch how quickly the fans came together with nothing more than a dab of glue and a flick of the wrist.  I can only imagine the mess I would make if I tried to do the same thing.

We left Juknokwon and took a short stroll along the Yeongsan River.  There were plenty of shady spots to stop for an afternoon nap, and I had unfinished business with a common kingfisher that I knew was somewhere nearby.  It was another hot day, and by this hour many of the birds had retreated to whatever cover they could find.  Three domestic mallards slept on the water, an adult black-crowned night-heron made a brief flyover, and I could only locate one grey heron catching fish at the edge of a reed bed.  Sometimes it’s amazing how big a difference weather and timing play in finding a lot of birds and dipping on even the most common of species.

I followed the same path along a short boardwalk to a spillway, but the kingfisher eluded me yet again.  A quick note referring back to my previous post about the common kingfisher: a nemesis bird can continue to be a nemesis, even after it has been found and listed.  Sometimes it just mocks you for the sheer fun of it.

The spillway where I had enjoyed photographing striated herons two weeks earlier was empty, save for a little egret, a barn swallow, and one white wagtail.  The only real activity were the six or seven oriental reed-warblers that, despite sticking to the cover of the reeds, were singing continuously.  But there were plenty of dragonflies around, so I turned my attentions to them and got a few more photos for my troubles.

A Pied Skimmer (Pseudothemis zonata) resting near a spillway on the Yeongsan River.  I was unable to photograph several of this species at Juknokwon, but this one was more than happy to pose for me.

A beautiful clubtail, known only by its Latin name, Burmagomphus collaris.

Just like before, as we returned to catch our bus back to Gwangju, I heard a high-pitched call coming down the river.  Only this time the call was answered by a second call from a stationary position.  I got a brief glimpse as one common kingfisher zoomed by, banking sharply and disappearing behind some trees.  But that second call remained where it was, and I finally located the source perched on a branch on the opposite side of the river.  It was in this moment that I was glad I splurged on the 400mm lens, because I was finally able to capture a photo of a kingfisher.  This is far from my best work, but considering it’s a tiny bird from across a river, I’ll take it.

My South Korean nemesis:  an "Indian" Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis).

My South Korean nemesis:  an “Indian” Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis).

It’s good to know that a pair of common kingfishers are on territory near the Juknokwon Bamboo Forest.  Now I know where to look for them, and maybe I’ll even be able to get a decent shot of them one of these days.  Take that, nemesis bird!

Return to Wolchulsan

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t look around once in a while, you could miss it.

– Ferris Bueller

This was my feeling about the spring migration in South Korea.  Although I saw a lot of birds during this prime season, my work schedule kept me from getting out as often as I would normally back in North America.  I never really experienced the flood of migrants; it seemed more like a trickle.  I missed most of the passing leaf-warblers and buntings, and I’m still missing some of the breeding species that should be around, namely Eurasian hoopoe, Siberian blue robin, and Korean flycatcher.

I began to run out of ideas as to where I could find new species.  I was fortunate to steal away to Jindo Island on a day-trip with Pedro Kim, and there I was able to locate a fairy pitta.  Although I only heard the bird singing, and was unable to get any looks at it, the pitta was one of my Top Ten Birds of Korea that I really wanted to get before returning home.

Therefore it was time to revisit some of old locations, and hope they would bear new fruit.  Melanie had never been to Wolchulsan National Park, and she loves hiking mountain trails that almost require climbing gear, so it was a perfect fit.  As you may recall from my previous post, Wolchulsan National Park is a known breeding site for the rare forest wagtail, and I thought it might be worth trying again for this bird, since migration had petered out and the birds should be starting to nest now.

Ominous clouds hang over the peaks of Wolchulsan National Park.

Ominous clouds hang over the peaks of Wolchulsan National Park.

June marks the beginning of the rainy season in South Korea.  Most days during this time threaten rain, and the storms can become pretty severe.  The imposing face of Wolchulsan’s mountains were all the more intimidating with the dark clouds surrounding them.  It may have been an omen of things to come.

Passing through the entrance to Wolchulsan at the Cheonhwangsa Temple parking lot, we were immediately greeted by a calling Indian cuckoo.  The bird was at some distance, but its call was quite clear.  I wanted to optimize our chances of finding a forest wagtail, so I chose to take the Gureumdari Bridge Trail (구름다리) and see the famed “Cloud Bridge” for which the trail is named.  This trail meanders through a dense forest as it approaches Cheonhwangbong Peak, the tallest peak at Wolchulsan.  I hoped that this habitat would be favorable to forest wagtails.

It was a hot and humid day, with temperatures reaching almost to the 30°C mark (86°F).  The forested trail provided some much needed shade and ever-so-slightly cooler temperatures than in the direct sunlight.  Despite the oppressive heat, the birds were active and singing, and we found several eastern crowned leaf-warblers, Eurasian jays, brown-eared bulbuls, pale thrushes, and coal tits on our climb.  The call of a lesser cuckoo near the Cheonhwangsa Temple led to us both getting good looks at a pair of the cuckoos.  So Melanie was finally able to add that species to her list.

Breaking through the forested valley, this view is seen right before crossing the Cloud Bridge.

Breaking through the forested valley, this view is seen right before crossing the Cloud Bridge.

Gureumdari (구름다리), the "Cloud Bridge," hugging the rocks over a steep valley.

Gureumdari (구름다리), the “Cloud Bridge,” hugging the rocks over a steep valley.

The Cloud Bridge as seen from the approach to Cheonhwangbong Peak.

The Cloud Bridge as seen from the approach to Cheonhwangbong Peak.

It wasn’t long before we reached the Gureumdari, or “Cloud Bridge.”  This 52-meter long suspension bridge crosses a large gulf on one of the subsidiary peaks of Cheonhwangbong, and offers very impressive views of the valleys below.  We stopped just beyond the Bridge for one of many breaks we would have throughout the day.  Echoing off the cliff faces was the sound of Eurasian jays and Daurian redstarts; I was even able to locate a few of each standing on precarious rock formations on the surrounding peaks.  In the valley below I could hear varied tits, pale thrushes, and a Eurasian wren.

We had our lunch near the Gureumdari, then continued up towards Cheonhwangbong Peak.  Very often during these near-vertical ascents the trail would disappear and give way to metal staircases bolted into the rock.  This was the only way to make the climb to the top, which begs the question of how did the builders get all the materials up there in the first place?

Sometimes the trail runs out of room.  Thankfully there are metal walkways bolted into the rock face of the mountains.  Just don't get too close to the edge.

Sometimes the trail runs out of room.  Thankfully there are metal walkways bolted into the rock face of the mountains.  Just don’t get too close to the edge.

Still going up...

Still going up…

The higher we went, the more the habitat changed from forest to bare rock.  It was becoming all too obvious that the forest wagtail would not be found in these conditions, and sure enough, we did not encounter a single one the entire day.  So the scoreboard now reads: Wolchulsan 2, Yours Truly 0.

It was nearing 3pm by the time we reached the final push to the summit of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  We had added a few more Eurasian wrens, Daurian redstarts, pale thrushes, two common cuckoos, an oriental cuckoo, four pygmy woodpeckers, and an Asian stubtail.  Resigned to the fact that the forest wagtail had won another round, I gathered my last bit of energy and dragged myself to the top of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  Melanie stayed behind about half a kilometer from the top, too tired and sweaty to continue.  She may have been the smarter one.

Finally reaching the summit of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  The 809 carved on the bottom right signifies the height of the peak (809m).

Finally reaching the summit of Cheonhwangbong Peak.  The 809 carved on the bottom right signifies the height of the peak (809m).

The view from Cheonhwangbong Peak, looking out over the city of Yeongam.

The view from Cheonhwangbong Peak, looking out over the city of Yeongam.

The towering peaks that greet visitors at the Cheonhwangsa entrance to Wolchulsan National Park are dwarfed by the Cheonhwangbong Peak.

The towering peaks that greet visitors at the Cheonhwangsa entrance to Wolchulsan National Park are dwarfed by the Cheonhwangbong Peak.

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It was blazingly hot at the summit of the mountain, but the view was well worth the struggle to get here.  I heard and eventually saw a Japanese bush-warbler, strangely singing from a cliff face below the summit.  I don’t know why it would have chosen that particular area to put up a territory.  Eventually it was time to return to my wife and begin the difficult task of climbing back down the mountain.  For those of you who do not torture yourselves with climbing up mountains, the hike back down can often be much worse than the hike to the top, mainly because you have to continually stop yourself from going too fast down treacherous trailways.  At this point we were completely out of water, and all the signs were telling us we still had 3.5 kilometers left to go.

We chose to follow a different path down, heading south along the Gyeongpo Valley to the Gyeongpo Visitor Center entrance at the south of the Park.  About a kilometer down from the peak there was a mineral spring where we were able to refill our canteens.  There is rarely a more beautiful sight than a small spring spouting fresh water when you’re drenched in sweat and your canteen is empty.  We refilled the canteens, drank them empty, and refilled them again.  If it isn’t already obvious, be sure to bring enough water with you if you try to take on Cheonhwangbong Peak.  And if you don’t there are refill stations along the Gyeongpo Valley Trail and the Baram Waterfall Trail, but not along the Gureumdari Bridge Trail.

Despite passing through gorgeous forests in the Gyeongpo Valley, we did not encounter a single forest wagtail, and a single marsh tit was the only new bird we found on the descent; there were also several of the ubiquitous pale thrushes, a few brown-eared bulbuls, and some Eurasian jays.  We reached the Gyeongpo Visitor Center entrance and immediately picked up a taxi back to Yeongam, where we got on a bus back to Gwangju.  It felt glorious to sit in a comfortable chair after that hike.  By the end of it, we had clocked in just under 7 hours of hiking.

Although we never found the bird we were looking for, Wolchulsan National Park still has a ton to offer.  The hiking is some of the best and most strenuous I’ve encountered, but the views and the beauty of the mountains make it worth the trip.  While I was figuring out the path we had covered by reviewing the trail maps available on the Korea National Park website, I found several references to the “Pampas Grass Field” located somewhere in the western portion of the National Park.  The topographic maps of the area also seem to show a dramatically reduced elevation in this part of the Park, possibly just the kind the forest wagtail would prefer.

Do I sense a Part III to this tale?

Wolchulsan: Taking the High Road

The determined lister never rests.  There is always one more bird out there to find, one more check to put on the list.  What is so satisfying about adding that new species to an Excel spreadsheet?  Of seeing that number go up by one?  I’ve failed to put into words my own obsession with birding, and I know many other birders who have similar trouble expressing the drive.  If you’re interested in the psychosis behind obsessive birding, I’d highly recommend watching the movie The Big Year, based loosely on a novel of the same name by Mark Obmascik.  It’s the closest I’ve seen to capturing the thrill of the chase, and threatens to put an already dangerously obsessive lister over the edge to full-blown “Bostick” status.

It was this gnawing compulsion that took me out to Wolchulsan National Park (월출산국립공원), Korea’s smallest national park, about an hour’s bus ride south of Gwangju.  My research had indicated that the Park was a well-known breeding site for the forest wagtail, a distinctive species of wagtail that, unlike other members of its family, breeds in forests away from water.  Although the species is considered stable and of least concern, it is still a rare bird for South Korea, and every good birder starts to salivate at the word “rare.”

A map of Wolchulsan National Park.  The locations of the Cheonhwangsa Temple and the Cloud Bridge are shown.

A map of Wolchulsan National Park.  The locations of the Cheonhwangsa Temple and the Cloud Bridge are shown.

Wolchulsan National Park is located in the small town of Yeongam (영암), also known as Yeongam-gun (영암군).  Travelers from Gwangju can take a bus from U+ Square Terminal to Yeongam for 6,900 won (about $7) one-way.  The bus makes several stops during the trip, picking up and dropping off passengers at towns along the way.  Upon reaching the Yeongam Bus Terminal, you can buy another bus ticket to the Cheonhwangsa Temple Entrance for 1,100 won; just say “Cheonhwangsa” (천황사) and the teller will know what you mean.  I happened to run into a small group of foreigners out on a day-hike to Wolchulsan, so they helped point me in the right direction to this second bus for the Park entrance.  I’d suggest just showing your ticket to the bus drivers as they arrive to be sure you’re on the right one; the bus I took resembled an airport shuttle bus, so that may help you out.  Alternately you can walk to the Park entrance; leave the bus terminal and go straight down Cheonhwangsa-ro and follow it to the Park entrance (it’ll take about 30 minutes to walk).

I was dropped off at a small round-about, and was immediately greeted by the imposing rock face of Wolchulsan.  Although this mountain maxes out at 809 meters (2,654 ft) at the top of Cheonhwangbong Peak, the mountain is far more vertical than the ones I’ve climbed at Mudeungsan National Park in Gwangju, and the mountain itself just looks bad-ass.  In addition to hiking, the mountain is often used by rock climbers in the warmer months.

How was I supposed to find one bird in the middle of that mountain?

How was I supposed to find one bird in the middle of that mountain?

Thoroughly impressed by the mountain vista before me (not to mention a little intimidated), I started up the paved roadway into the Park itself.  Immediately the listing began: brown-eared bulbul, pale thrush, large-billed crow, Eurasian magpie, and azure-winged magpie were all waiting for me right near the entrance.  And yet again, the azure-wings defied my attempts to photograph them, even with the honking 400mm I was now equipped with.  But as I say whenever I get skunked by a bird (the correct term is dipped, but I personally don’t use it), “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.”  I think that’s just denial doing the talking for me.

There is a short sidetrail right off the main walkway into the Park, with a small sign marking the way to the “Nature Trail.”  This sidetrail is worth a look, as it passes a rather nice outdoor art show, with numerous sculptures scattered over a grassy slope.  The “Nature Trail” itself is rather poorly maintained, but it weaves in and out of a mixed forest of deciduous, coniferous, and bamboo.  There were a few oriental turtle-doves cooing in the junipers, and several vinous-throated parrotbills, but otherwise the trail had little to offer.  No forest wagtail here.

The stream coming down the mountain from the Baram waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

The stream coming down the mountain from the Baram waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

It was already quite warm when I arrived, and the forecast called for temperatures into the high 20°C (80°F), so when the trail split left or right, I went right and followed a stream up the mountain.  The stream would lead to the Baram waterfall, so I wagered I would find some interesting species by following the water supply.  Almost immediately I hit paydirt: an eastern crowned leaf-warbler was singing near a small bridge over the stream.  I heard the bird first, as usually happens when birding in the forest, and zeroed in on the song until I found it.  The leaf-warbler’s song reminded me of the black-throated blue warbler song back in North America, with a curious little buzzy note at the end of the call.  Although the song is quite nice, the bird is otherwise rather drab and uninteresting, as Old World warblers tend to be.  However, I was able to get quite a few photos of the bird, singing from different perches along the stream bed.

An Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus) at Wolchulsan National Park.  This species is best identified by its song.

The leaf-warbler belts out his favorite tune.

I enjoyed watching the leaf-warbler (Lifer #472) for a while, then continued on up the mountain towards the Baram waterfall.  It was warming up quickly, and I think many of the birds began to hunker down.  Much of my ascent was quiet, but the hike was challenging and required most of my attention, so I was grateful that there weren’t a lot of unknown bird calls coming at me from all directions.  A few brown-eared bulbuls, coal tits, pale thrushes, and four varied tits, were all that I encountered on my way to the waterfall.

This trail is like many I’ve done in South Korea: it is well-marked and fairly obvious, but it is intense and demanding.  Most of the trail followed the stream bed, and judging from the rounded boulders I repeatedly had to scale, the trail was the stream bed when the water levels were high.  On either side were rugged vertical walls of rock, with trees and vegetation clinging to anywhere they could get a foothold.  One side of the valley wall was covered with bamboo in patches, while further up were loads of Camellia shrubs with blossoms still on the branches.

A patch of bamboo along the Baram waterfall trail at Wolchulsan National Park.

A patch of bamboo along the Baram waterfall trail at Wolchulsan National Park.

Wait a minute…Camellia?!  This shrub makes up the preferred habitat of the fairy pitta, one of my prime targets for the Korean peninsula.  The bird is usually found on a few islands off the southern coast, namely Jeju-do, Jin-do, and Geoje-do.  Wouldn’t it be spectacular to find one at Wolchulsan?  It would be, but alas, it wasn’t going to happen.  Fairy pittas are late migrants, typically reaching the northern edge of their breeding range in late May and early June.  While not impossible, it is highly unlikely that one would be hiding in a few Camellia shrubs nearly a month early.  But one never knows…

I finally reached the Baram waterfall, and was happy to find a spring with three faucets for refilling canteens.  The waterfall was more of a trickle at the time, probably because it doesn’t rain much during the spring in Korea (monsoon season is not until June and July), but it was significantly cooler near the water and the high walls of the mountain provided some relief from the sun.  I stopped to rest for awhile, enjoyed my lunch, and found and photographed a vocal Eurasian wren near the falls.  A few more eastern crowned leaf-warblers were also singing nearby.

The somewhat lackluster Baram Waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

The somewhat lackluster Baram Waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

This Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes dauricus) serenaded me near the Baram waterfall at Wolchulsan National Park.

Having exhausted most of my energy climbing up to the waterfall, and not really finding what I was looking for, I decided to head back down and try taking the trail to the left.  On the way down the only bird of note was a singing male blue-and-white flycatcher, which resembles a robin-sized black-throated blue warbler.  A very striking species, but they tend to stay high in the canopy, and so pose a challenge to being photographed.

A small footbridge near the split in the trail.  Nearby was where I found my first Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler.

A small footbridge near the split in the trail.  Nearby was where I found my first Eastern Crowned Leaf-warbler.

Reaching the split, I was quickly immersed in dense reeds crowding around the trail.  The reeds gave way to a deciduous forest with some juniper mixed in.  It was suddenly obvious that I should have come here first – the habitat was ideal for forest wagtail.  I quickly checked off a few more eastern crowned leaf-warblers, oriental turtle-doves, two large-billed crows, and an oriental cuckoo calling in the distance.  But again, no forest wagtail.

Weaving through the forest, a small sidetrail led me to a clearing where a large Buddhist shrine laid overlooking the valley.  It was a beautiful setting, and the ornate detailing on the shrine was some of the finest I’ve seen thus far.  Two incredible dragon-head carvings kept watch near the doorway into the shrine.  This was a great surprise discovery – occasionally I do put down the binoculars and actually take a look at some of the amazing human artifacts around me.  Unfortunately, not often enough it seems…

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A close up of one of the dragon-head carvings at the shrine.

A close up of one of the dragon-head carvings at the shrine.

It was getting on in the afternoon, and though I had covered a lot of ground, it seemed like my quarry would get the better of me today.  Perhaps my timing was off: too early in the season, or too late in the day.  I certainly did not cover the right habitat when I arrived, although the hike up to Baram Waterfall was a lot of fun and I’d suggest it to anyone heading to Wolchulsan.  The forest wagtail is not considered “rare” for nothing, so I shouldn’t really expect to find it on the first go.  There is a lot more of Wolchulsan National Park left to see, so I will be back soon to pick up the search.

Dipped again…