Birding Gageo-do

I’ve been fortunate enough to have done some birding on islands, namely Amherst Island in Canada, on Kinmen Island and mainland Taiwan, and on some of the small islands off the coast of Korea, namely Eocheong-do (오청도) and Heuksan-do (흑산도).  Large islands can often offer the adventurous birder endemic species, found nowhere else on Earth.  Smaller island, on the other hand, are havens for birds during migration, and one never knows what will show up.

Unlike the other islands I’ve birded in Korea, Gageo-do (가거도) is about as isolated as a Korean island can get.  It’s out in the middle of the Yellow Sea, about 140 kilometers from the nearest mainland port, and has a very small population compared to its size.  The island itself is quite rugged, characterized by high, forest-covered mountains in the interior, surrounded by rocky cliffs around the coast.  It’s not an easy terrain to navigate on foot, and the trails that do exist are not maintained and barely deserve the name.  As compared to Eocheong-do, with its well-kept hiking trails and convenient paved roads, Gageo-do is challenging…but it makes it that much more rewarding.

Island birding in Korea means pelagic birding, as the islands are only accessible by ferry.  Depending on the destination, this rare opportunity to observed the ocean’s unsung avian wonders can be thrilling or a complete miss.  The ferry to Gageo-do takes between 4 and 5 hours to reach the island, making a few stops at other islands along the way.  However, unlike the ferry to Eocheong-do, passengers are not permitted to go outside of the cabin throughout the trip, so all birding must be done looking through the window.

The rocky shores of Gageo-do

The rocky shores of Gageo-do

Nevertheless, the sea was surprisingly calm and the skies were clear.  At about the one hour mark, we came onto several groups of red-necked phalaropes out in the ocean.  These shorebirds spend the breeding season on land in the northern latitudes, but retreat to the open ocean for the winter.  It wasn’t until we were nearing Gageo-do that I began to see my first pelagic species.  Gageo-do has a breeding colony of Swinhoe’s storm petrels, which nest on the surrounding islets.  There were dozens of groups of threes and fours, flying quickly from the path of our ferry.  Hidden among these small birds were three unusual specimens.  Swinhoe’s storm petrels are bat-like in appearance, and have dark plumage all over their bodies.  So imagine my surprise when I picked out three birds showing bright white rump patches as they evaded the ferry.  Reviewing my copy of Onley & Scofield’s Albatrosses, Petrels & Shearwaters of the World, I narrowed it down to either Leach’s storm petrel or (more likely) band-rumped storm petrel.  Reviewing my observations, I decided on Band-rumped, as the birds I observed did not have the forked tail common in Leach’s.  I doubt this is the first recorded sighting of this species in Korean waters, but it is nonetheless an exceedingly rare occurrence.  Both A Field Guide to the Birds of Korea and the Birds Korea Checklist for the Republic of Korea only list Swinhoe’s storm petrel as occurring in Korean waters; even the checklists on Avibase fail to mention any other storm petrel species.  If only I had been able to get a photo for confirmation…

When we finally arrived at the island, my first encounters were with the resident species.  Blue rock thrushes were plentiful, and the prevalence of first-year birds indicate there was a successful breeding season on the island.  The marina held dozens of grey herons and smaller numbers of great egret and little egret.  The village of Gageodo-ri was patrolled by a pair of common kestrels, which would put in an appearance everyday of my trip.  Elsewhere around the village were numerous light-vented bulbuls; these rare breeders actually outnumbered the brown-eared bulbuls which are far more common on the mainland.  And flitting about the harbors were numerous wagtails, including grey, white, and eastern yellow wagtails.

Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius philippensis)

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea cinerea)

Looking out over Gageodo-ri

But it was the migrants that I was interested in.  There isn’t much in the way of shorebird habitat at Gageo-do.  The beaches that are there are rocky and the sand is replaced by smooth pebbles.  However, a few migrant shorebirds were around, including singles of Pacific golden plover, red-necked stint, long-toed stint, and several wood sandpipers that could be found on the grassy common area at the center of Gageodo-ri.  Cryptic Latham’s snipes were flushed from their hiding places in the tall sedges around Gageodo-ri and Hangri-maeul.

Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)

Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)

I was hoping for some migrant warblers and flycatchers, which should be moving through in good numbers.  The few trails that I had located around Gageodo-ri were too overgrown to bird effectively – I spent more time avoiding thorns and watching my footing than watching the birds around me.  Luckily, there are two roads that traverse the island, connecting the main village of Gageodo-ri to the small hamlets of Hangri-maeul and Sam-gu.  Most of the migrant passerines could be found along these roads, where the edges of mountain forests met the rocky coastline.

This road (1 of 2 on the entire island) connects Gageodo-ri and Hangri-maeul

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (Muscicapa griseisticta)

The most common bird along these roads, besides the blue rock-thrushes, were grey-streaked flycatchers.  I am not sure whether this species breeds on the island; I usually found them in groups of three or more, flitting along the roads and into the air as they hawked insects and dragonflies.  Migrant warblers could also be found along the roadsides.  I didn’t find many warblers in large numbers, but there was definitely a good variety of species.  Dusky warblers were probably the most numerous; although I rarely actually saw them, their distinctive chip note could be heard frequently along the road.  Eastern crowned leaf warblers and yellow-browed warblers were present in smaller numbers, and I had a brief glimpse of a brightly colored Pallas’s leaf warbler.  However, the best Old World warbler (and the best bird of the entire trip!) was Middendorff’s grasshopper warbler, a drab brownish warbler that I located twice near the village of Gageodo-ri.

Although it isn’t much to look at, the Middendorff’s was officially my 700th species!

Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella ochotensis)
This is Life Bird #700!

Eastern Crowned Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus)

Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus)

The most numerous bird of all, however, was the Japanese white-eye.  These small greenish birds were literally dripping off the leaves.  I would often have to sift through large flocks of white-eyes just to spot that one non-white-eye.

Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus simplex)

There were so many white-eyes that the tree branches simply ran out of room for them all…

The island also hosted a few predators as well.  In addition to the pair of kestrels that patrolled the skies above the main village, at least two peregrine falcons were also making use of the thermals over the mountainous interior.  Shrikes were also fairly common on the island, with three species present.  Brown shrikes are often found on the islands offshore around Korea; I found one on Eocheong-do during the spring migration.  On Gageo-do there were two brown shrikes, each on a different side of the island.  A single juvenile bull-headed shrike indicated that there was likely a breeding pair of adults somewhere on the island, even though they remained unseen during my stay.  The big surprise was not one but two long-tailed shrikes, again on either side of the island.  These shrikes are quite common in China and Taiwan, but almost entirely absent from Korea.  Occasional records do crop up on some of the islands, but overall it is quite a rare bird for the country.

Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus cristatus)

Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius schach schach)

The four days on Gageo-do were a great way to kick off the fall migration.  There was a good variety of resident and migrant species, and I was treated to some rarer species that I can’t find on the mainland.  In total I saw just over 50 species, and picked up 4 life birds, including #700!

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.