Spotlight: Gageo-do

Having spent a long weekend at Eocheong-do this past spring, I decided to check out another of Korea’s numerous islands for the long weekend over the Chuseok holiday.  The destination was Gageo-do (가거도), the most remote island in South Korea.  Situated some 140 kilometers from the port city of Mokpo-si (목포시), Gageo-do is the most westerly point in the entire country.  Continue reading for some logistics.

Trail map of Gageo-do

GETTING THERE

Gageo-do is as far away from mainland Korea as you can get, and still be in the country.  There is only one ferry that services the island, and only one departure per day.  The ferry leaves from the Mokpo Port Coastal Terminal daily at 8:10AM; tickets will cost approximately 55,000₩; slightly less for the return voyage.  The trip will last around 4½ to 5 hours, depending on weather conditions, and the ferry will stop at a number of islands on the way to Gageo-do.  Tickets can be ordered ahead of time or purchased on the day of your trip; be sure to check the ferry schedule before heading out to Mokpo.  As always, you will need a photo ID to purchase your tickets and board the ferry – for non-Koreans, a passport or ARC card will suffice.

Gageodo-ri, the main village
­­© Blake Bouchard

WHERE TO STAY

Gageo-do is a very small island community.  Although there are officially three “villages” on the island, the total population is just over 400.  Gageodo-ri, the main and largest of the three villages, is where you will disembark on your arrival.  Unless you’ve already made other arrangements, you best bet at finding a place to stay is here.  There is a selection of accommodations, including a motel, several pension (펜션), and minbak (민박).  Prices will vary, but expect to pay around 40,000 – 60,000₩ per night.

Our pension in Gageodo-ri
© Blake Bouchard

The second village is called Hangri-maeul, and lies on the southwestern end of Gageo-do.  It is connected to Gageodo-ri by a paved roadway.  Hangri-maeul is considerably smaller than Gageodo-ri, but there is at least one minbak where you can stay.  There is also a small restaurant, but it was not open due to the Chuseok holiday.  Hangri-maeul is about a 5 kilometer hike from Gageodo-ri; there are no taxis on the island, but you may be able to hitch a ride with a local resident – there may be a fee associated with this.

Sign for Hangri-maeul, the second village on Gageo-do
© Blake Bouchard

The village of Hangri-maeul

The third and final village is called Sam-gu, and it is located on the opposite side of the island from Gageodo-ri, approximately 9 kilometers away.  It can be accessed by a roadway leading through the interior; you could also hire a boat to take you there, or hike from Hangri-maeul along the coastline.  Although Sam-gu is larger than Hangri-maeul, while we explored the village we did not see a single resident, even though air conditioners were working and there was a faint smell of something cooking around some of the residences.  We did not notice any accommodations or restaurants, but the ghost town like atmosphere was not particularly inviting of further exploration.

The village of Sam-gu

WHAT TO BRING

The main economy of Gageo-do, like most Korean islands, is fishing.  So non-Koreans will definitely want to bring some food, especially for breakfast if rice, kimchi, and fish are not your thing.  There are plenty of restaurants available in the villages, but the main course will likely be fish or seafood.  Even though something appears on the menu (or on the storefront window) doesn’t necessarily mean that it is available when you order it.

Many islands are a cash-only economy.  While you may be able to pay with a card, or find an available ATM, it is advisable to bring plenty of cash with you.  Even if you are lucky enough to find an ATM on the island, it probably won’t work, or will only have a small amount of cash available.  

WHAT TO DO

Gageo-do has a thriving fishing industry, and among Koreans the island is known as a sports fisherman’s destination.  Many of the locals offer charter fishing services around the island; prices will vary depending on the owner of the vessel and your skill in haggling, but expect to pay around 100,000₩ per person.

If fishing isn’t your thing, the island does have several hiking trails crisscrossing the mountainous interior, or hugging the rugged coastline.  Be advised, however, that these hiking trails are not maintained and can get pretty difficult.  The interior mountains are very steep, and the trails consist of moss-laden boulders and slippery stones.  It is advisable to wear long pants and sturdy boats, or run the risk of getting torn up on thorny shrubbery.

There are a few pebble beaches around Gageo-do.  There are two large ones just to the east of Gageodo-ri; another secluded one can be found in Hangri-maeul.  Swimming in the ocean is not particularly high on the list of Korean past times, so you may very well have these beaches entirely to yourself.  If there are any locals or Korean tourists around, however, be prepared to be watched like a hawk as you enjoy the surf.

The swimming beach lies far below Hangri-maeul
© Blake Bouchard

A view from one of the beaches at Gageodo-ri
© Blake Bouchard

Overall, Gageo-do is a unique location with a tight-knit community.  You will feel like a minor celebrity as you walk the small, twisting alleyways of Gageodo-ri.  Korean island communities are by far the friendliest that I’ve come across – just remember to be open-minded.  Please check out my friend’s blog for more information on our trip to Gageo-do.  I’ll discuss the bird aspect of the trip in another installment.

Rain & Rice

It’s the rainy season here in South Korea.  This year is being called the dry rainy season; it rains, but not nearly in the quantities that are normal.  Most days are characterized by overcast skies and that hanging feeling – it’s really humid and feels like it will pour at any second, but it doesn’t.

Not the kind of weather you want to go birding in.

I had been antsy the past few weeks.  I hadn’t been getting out much, I hadn’t been photographing much, and I hadn’t birded at all.  So despite those ominous clouds on Saturday morning, Melanie and I headed out to Gwangjuho Lake Ecological Park, hoping a change in scenery might do us some good.

The Eco-Park had undergone some “improvements” since my last visit a few months ago.  Several sections had been landscaped and replanted; in usual Korean style, it had been started and finished in a matter of days and there was no trace that anything had been done.

New plantings at Gwangjuho Lake Eco-Park.
This area had previously been an empty meadow just a few weeks ago.

The park held several families of azure-winged magpies.  We saw numerous adults foraging for food to bring to the gaping mouths of their offspring.  One group of four fledglings mobbed their parents whenever one of the adults came in with food.  Even among siblings, competition for food is fierce.

Sibling rivalry
Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyanus koreensis)

An adult Azure-winged Magpie, looking for food in the humid afternoon

There was more evidence of successful breeding throughout the park.  We saw several small groups of juvenile Japanese tits flitting about in the trees.  Near the entrance to the park were two juvenile grey-headed woodpeckers, the likely offspring of the Eco-Park’s resident pair.  These younger woodpeckers lacked most of the adults’ green coloration, appearing overall grey with a hint of green on the tail feathers.  The two juveniles kept in constant contact with each other and the adults by making short whistles.

Juvenile Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus jessoensis)

We continued deeper into the park, finding small numbers of birds in little pockets throughout the area.  A large flock of vinous-throated parrotbills, full of juvenile birds, was the biggest single sighting we had all day.  The flock numbered around 40-50 birds; not an uncommon number for this time of year.  The boardwalk around the northern edge of the park was very quiet, with only a few Japanese tits and passing oriental turtle-doves.

A section of the boardwalk.  There was very little water here, despite the extensive growth of reeds and grasses.

Gwangjuho Lake itself was a shadow of itself.  The water level was down tens of meters, with an exposed lake bed stretching off into the distance.  Most of this muddy, nutrient-rich land had transformed into a field of low vegetation.  Gwangjuho Lake is artificial, serving as a primary reservoir for the surrounding area.  The water is used for drinking and agriculture, and its low level reflects the planting of the first round of rice for the growing season.

At the distant edge of the water we could see grey herons, great egrets, and little egrets taking advantage of the newly exposed mud.  Little ringed plovers, a breeding shorebird in the park, could be heard calling intermittently from across the lake bed.  We even spotted an immature Eurasian hobby patrolling the area, and making a successful grab at an unidentified prey.

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius curonicus)

Hidden in the short vegetation on the lake bed were small damselflies.  It seemed like there were thousands of them, quickly flitting about and disappearing in the greenery.  Larger dragonflies, namely black-tailed skimmers and wandering gliders skimmed across small pools of water.  We found numerous exuviae in the mud, evidence that many of the dragonflies we saw were newly emerged adults.

Dusky Lilysquatter (Paracercion calamorum)

Eastern Lilysquatter (Paracercion melanotum)

We completed our loop around the Eco-Park, scoring a few more species for our efforts.  Black-naped orioles were singing lazily in the humid air.  A family of bull-headed shrikes chased one another around, and juvenile pale thrushes begged for food from a single adult bird.  We took a break from the heat near a grove of metasequoia trees, lounging in the shade as the heat of the day wore on.

The Metasequoia Grove at Gwangjuho Lake

The Metasequoia Grove at Gwangjuho Lake

Dryad (Minois dryas)

On our way out of the Eco-Park, I noticed a small black dragonfly perched on some tall cattails by one of the lily ponds.  It turned out to be a butterfly skimmer, one of my favorite Asian dragonflies.  Also flying around the cattails were two species of damselfly, both identified only by their Latin names.

Butterfly Skimmer (Rhyothemis fuliginosa)

Ceriagrion melanurum

Ceriagrion nipponicum

After spending several hours at the Eco-Park, Melanie and I decided to visit one of the small restaurants across the street from the Park entrance.  We had discovered a small place during our last visit, which makes an excellent pajeon (파전).  Pajeon is a type of pancake, whose main ingredient is green onions.  A good pajeon will have grilled onions, green onions, maybe some peppers, and usually a type of seafood like calamari.  For a mere 8,000W (~$8), we got a huge pajeon and several side dishes (as is Korean custom).

Our half-eaten pajeon with a few side dishes.  This delicious Korean pancake doesn’t last long…

Before heading back home, we decided to stroll around Chunghyo-dong and see the many rice paddies in the area.  The rural area in Chunghyo-dong is much like rural areas anywhere in Korea: rice paddies stretch off into the distance and take up any flat land that is available.  I’ve often thought of Korea as having only three habitats: city, mountain, and rice paddy.

Rice paddies in Chunghyo-dong

However, the monoculture of rice paddies can be deceiving.  Wildlife still manages to keep a tenuous toehold in this environment.  Herons like striated heron, cattle egrets and great egrets make use of the shallow water to catch small fish and crustaceans.  Grey wagtails can be found along the drainage ditches connecting the separate cells of the paddies.  We even discovered four dollarbirds perched high above the rice paddies, scanning the area from a high-voltage power line that straddled the mountain valley.  Insects like dragonflies and damselflies also benefit from the shallow water, using the sheltered paddies to lay their eggs.

The highlight of our walk through the rice paddies was an adult Chinese sparrowhawk.  I’ve seen this species several times before, but always soaring high overhead.  This was the first one that I’ve found perched, and so was able to get a few photos before it flew off.

Chinese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter soloensis)

After spending nearly half the day in Chunghyo-dong, we caught the hourly 187 bus back to Gwangju.  Overall we observed 32 species of bird, 7 species of butterfly, and 10 species of dragonfly and damselfly.  A complete list of the birds seen can be found here and here.

Birdathon on Eocheong-do

If you’ve been following my blog, even for a short time, you might have noticed that I have what polite society might call a condition.  To say that I have “birds on the brain” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.  I have dreams about birds, usually involving species I haven’t seen perching out in the open under perfect lighting conditions for me to photograph at my leisure.  I consider myself fluent in over 400 languages, because that is roughly the number of species I can readily identify by song or call alone (and that number continues to grow).  So, yeah, I have a condition.

Therefore it should go as no surprise that when my friend Jason Loghry at Birds Korea asked me to join the 2014 Birdathon, I literally jumped at the chance.  For those of you who don’t know, a Birdathon is a fundraising event wherein participants are sponsored to go out and see or hear as many different species as possible within a 24-hour period.  Sponsors can decide to pay a set amount of money per species, per hour spent birding, or a lump sum total.  For this Birdathon, all proceeds go directly to Birds Korea to help fund their conservation efforts protecting the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper and the habitats it utilizes here in South Korea.  It’s important work, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute in my own way.

I’ve already written about Eocheong-do (어청도), so this post is strictly about the birds.  And oh, the birds we did see.  There were six participants in this year’s Birdathon at Eocheong-do; other Birds Korea members did separate Birdathons at other locations in Korea and elsewhere in the world.  This year’s event carried with it the caveat that participants cannot use any mode of transportation other than their feet during the actual count period; i.e. we could take a ferry boat to Eocheong-do, but could not count any species seen during that time.  Here are some vital statistics on Birdathon 2014:

Duration: 4 days (May 3 – 6)
Birdathon Count Period: May 3, 10:20AM – May 4, 10:20AM
Birdathon Count Period Total: 78 species heard/observed
Total Species Counted on Eocheong-do: 95 species
Species Added to Life List: 18 (me); 22 (Melanie)
Funds Raised: 171,000₩

To briefly summarize our four day adventure, the birding was nothing short of spectacular.  Every day brought in new migrants, and every inch of the island was crawling with birds.  The vast majority were yellow-browed warblers, but hidden among them were less common species like Kamchatka leaf warbler and pale-legged leaf warbler.  As I have been told many times, the best birding in Korea can be found offshore on the islands, and I found this out to be true first-hand.  It wasn’t just the numbers of birds, but also the variety of species.  We even had to good fortune of spotting two mega-rarities: a cinnamon bittern and Korea’s third record of northern wheatear!

Here are a few of the highlights of our trip to Eocheong-do:

Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina)

Blue-and-white Flycatcher (Cyanoptila cyanomelana cyanomelana)

Chestnut Bunting (Emberiza rutila)

Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola ornata)
Classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis bengalensis)

Chinese Pond-heron (Ardeola bacchus)

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus himantopus)

Terek Sandpiper (Xenus cinereus)

Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus lucionensis)

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe oenanthe)
This is only the 3rd time this species has been recorded in South Korea

These are but a small portion of all the images I took during our trip to Eocheong-do.  I encourage you to explore the Asian Bird galleries at my website if you’d like to see more from the trip.

The Birdathon Crew

The Birdathon Crew
From left: Jason Loghry, Hwang Haemin, Melanie Proteau Blake, Patrick Blake, Ha Jeongmun, and Kim Ohjin

It was a tremendous experience, one that will not soon be repeated.  Melanie and I were able to see some incredible birds and experience a migration unlike any we had before, and all the while we were raising money to help protect the crucial habitats that the birds we know and love depend on for survival.  A big thanks goes out to Birds Korea for hosting this event, and to my fellow Birdathoners here and abroad, for their dedication and passion that make birding the great past time that it is.

Chance Encounter

When I first arrived in Korea, I was put in contact with the former English teacher at my school.  We exchanged a few emails, and she told me everything I needed to know about the school and the surrounding neighborhood.  She was interested in me, as well, and asked a few questions about my experience and interests.  On my obsession with birding, she had only this to say: “There are no birds in Korea.”

Well, 212 species later, I can definitively say that her statement was mistaken.  Korea has plenty of birds, if you know where to look.  What it doesn’t seem to have, however, are mammals.  At least, not in the sense that I am used to from North America.  To see a chipmunk or squirrel is notable and worthy of remembrance; to have the chance to actually see a Korean water deer is nothing short of a miracle (seriously).

Last weekend Melanie and I were ending a short walk in the mountains near our apartment, having taken advantage of the lengthening days and warmer temperatures that mark the beginning of Korean springtime.  The resident species were hard at work preparing their nests for the breeding season: we found a pair of vinous-throated parrotbill bringing materials to a hidden nest, the white-backed woodpecker nest I found earlier in March was occupied by the female, and we even watched a small pygmy woodpecker start excavation of a nesting cavity close to the side of a trail.

But birds weren’t the only ones with breeding on their minds.  As we walked down a steep trail back towards the Gakhwa reservoir, I heard some scrambling in the leaf litter and spotted two large, dark shapes running through some low vegetation towards us.  We stopped mid-step and, as if sensing our presence, the two moving shapes stopped as well.  So we had the opportunity to look through our binoculars and properly see what it was:  Eurasian red squirrels!

Eurasian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

It appeared that one squirrel was chasing the other out of his territory when they stumbled onto the two of us.  Melanie and I stayed still, and though the squirrels would otherwise have run off into the woods and disappeared, the territorial behavior was too strong and the squirrels resumed their chase, bringing them right onto the trail and very close to where we were standing.

One squirrel continued up the trail, giving the other squirrel (and us) one last glance over its shoulder before disappearing into the woods.  The other squirrel, victorious in chasing an intruder from his territory, scurried up a nearby tree and chattered at us, voicing his frustration at not being able to chase away the human intruders as well.

The squirrel chatters at us to leave his territory, allowing us unhindered views of this remarkable creature.

Yes, I know it’s just a squirrel.  But when you consider that, after having lived in South Korea for nearly 13 months, I’ve only seen four squirrels (including these two), and never one as out in the open as this, the experience takes on a whole new meaning, especially for someone like me who (tries to) spends more time outside than in.

One final glance before scurrying up the tree…just look at the contempt in his eyes.

It’s these experiences that keep me going out and looking.  I can travel the same trail again and again over the course of months, and I still manage to find something new each time.

Making the Most of It: The Maekdo Eco-Park

During my time in South Korea, I’ve been lucky to meet up with several wonderful birders in the country, both native and foreigner alike.  This is yet another sign of the universal nature of birding: what we can’t communicate through words, we can articulate through our shared love of birds.

This past weekend my birding friend from “Down Under,” Peter Hirst, and I took a two-day birding trip to Busan on the southeastern coast of Korea.  We had high hopes of finding some early migrants and coastal specialties that we’d otherwise miss in Gwangju.  We also had the benefit of full access to Peter’s personal vehicle, which made several excellent birding spots instantly accessible.  Korea’s public transit system is top-notch, but as one would expect, the high-quality birding spots are often “off the beaten path” and not always accessible by bus or taxi.  With a forecast of clear skies and balmy temperatures (19°C over the weekend), we set out at the crack of dawn Saturday morning with high expectations.

Peter Hirst and I birding the Yeongsangang River in Damyang-gun. January 2014

Peter Hirst and I birding the Yeongsangang River in Damyang-gun.
January 2014

Peter is simply a joy to go birding with.  He’s always ready with a story, and tempts my inner Big Lister with tales of amazing sightings from the coastal habitats of New South Wales, Australia.  He’s an eccentric fellow at times, always cracking a joke or two (not always good ones, but I digress).  In fact, we sometimes get so caught up shooting the breeze that we forget to pay attention to the small flitting creatures around us.  But we’ve never had a bad outing together, even when we don’t always find what we were looking for.

It’s a long trip from Gwangju to Busan, but there are many places along the way that are worth checking into.  Unfortunately for us, there is currently an avian influenza scare in Korea, and all of the waterfowl mustering zones are closed off to visitors.  This means that prime locations like Suncheonman Bay and the Junam reservoir are inaccessible until further notice.  I’m not sure how effective this quarantine really is, since the migratory waterfowl only use these places as roosts for the night – every morning they leave to find food elsewhere, thereby spreading whatever microbes they may (though probably are not) carrying.

After being turned back at the Junam reservoir, despite our 3½ hour drive to get there, I gave my friend Jason Loghry a call to see if there was any point in continuing to Busan.  Our primary location was going to be the Nakdonggang River estuary, where Melanie and I had visited last spring.  But if that site was closed as well, where were we to go? Thankfully Jason was birding the Maekdo Eco-Park when I called, and he recommended we check out the site.  It was to be a great piece of advice.

Maekdo Ecological Park, running along the Nakdonggang River.

Maekdo Ecological Park, running along the Nakdonggang River.

Maekdo stretches over a large portion of the mouth of the Nakdonggang River.  It is considered an “eco-park,” a word which has a very different meaning in Korea than it does back in North America.  A Korean “eco-park” what we would call simply a “park;” think Central Park and you’ve got the idea.  Often times the natural habitat of the area is maintained (to varying degrees), but the eco-parks are by no means nature reserves or wildlife refuges.  They are often landscaped, with concrete-lined constructed ponds, and many natural features are altered or “improved” to such lengths that their natural value as an ecosystem is degraded.  That being said, eco-parks can still provide some good birding.  One of my favorite migration birding spots in Gwangju is the Gwangjuho Lake Eco-park, which I have written about often.

Seemingly endless expanses of reeds at Maekdo Eco-park.

Seemingly endless expanses of reeds at Maekdo Eco-park.

When we arrived I was immediately impressed with the level of preservation of habitat.  There were the mandatory parking lots and sports facilities that often accompany eco-parks, but much of the area had been devoted to preserving the riverside vegetation.  We made a quick drive through the length of the eco-park, scoping out the best sections of habitat to begin our search for birds.  We quickly found three pairs of bull-headed shrikes; we were fortunate to follow one pair as they brought materials to the nesting site, catching a glimpse into the private lives of these ubiquitous predators.  Numerous Eurasian kestrels soared above the reed beds, waiting to capture unwary prey from above.

Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
These falcons often hover over an area, and swoop down on any prey they spot.

We were hopeful to find some migrant and overwintering buntings in the expanses of reeds, and through careful searching we were able to find numerous Pallas’s buntings and a single little bunting.  As the sun began to set over the Nakdonggang, we checked out one last small pond.  There we found common pochards, northern shovelers, eastern spot-billed ducks, and a single common shelduck in the middle of a molt.  We also located four Eurasian spoonbills, an unexpected year bird!

Female Pallas’s Bunting (Emberiza pallasi)

Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla)

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia leucorodia)

We finished our first day with a total of just over 30 species.  Our hopes were high that we would track down a few more before heading back to Gwangju.
___________________________________________________________________

Sunrise over the Nakdonggang River

Sunrise over the Nakdonggang River

We were out the door the next morning at 7AM, just as the sun was rising over the Nakdonggang.  We had made out pretty well the day before, but having only arrived at Maekdo in the early afternoon, we had missed the flurry of activity first thing in the morning.  Our early arrival on the second day proved worthwhile, as we were immediately greeted by the sound of dusky thrushes (with a single Naumann’s thrush mixed in) and brown-eared bulbuls.  The first of the Japanese white-eyes had begun singing; we found six of them flitting about the emerging vegetation, and one was already in full song when we arrived.

Very quickly we relocated the Pallas’s buntings from the day before, only this time a resplendent male almost completed with his spring molt was with them.  We also had run-ins with a few more Eurasian kestrels, a common buzzard, and an unidentified accipiter which soared too high for us to identify (my instincts suggest northern goshawk, but it was simply too high to be sure).

Male Pallas’s Bunting (Emberiza pallasi)

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo japonicus)

The biggest surprise of the day came while watching the buzzard later in the morning.  It had been patrolling a stretch of reeds, and when it took to the air again for scan its territory, we heard an eruption of twitters from overhead: it was a flock of about 23 Pacific swifts!  Had they not sent out alarm calls at the approach of the buzzard, we would have completely overlooked them.  Swifts are insectivores, and begin to arrive around the same time as the first insects begin to emerge.  It was a sure sign that spring is well on its way.

Pacific Swift (Apus pacificus pacificus)

Having spent the morning and part of the early afternoon at Maekdo, we decided to check along the Nakdonggang River before returning home.  Maekdo had proved to be a wonderful stop: we finished visit there with a two-day total of nearly 60 species!

We stopped at a pull-off near the eastern shore of the Nakdonggang, adding Eurasian wigeon, red-breasted merganser, and osprey (sighted at nearly 500+ yards out in the river!) to our trip list.  Black-headed gulls flew back and forth along the shoreline, and we witnessed a few pairs of wigeons pairing up and several males fighting with one another.

A pair of Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
The gull is beginning to show the black head for which it is named.

It’s such a pleasure to get out and explore new areas.  Finding a number of year birds (and nabbing Peter a few lifers along the way!) is always an added bonus.  We didn’t get a chance to explore some of the more coastal areas due to the avian influenza precautions, but we certainly made the most of our trip to Maekdo.

Ides of March

It sneaked up on me somehow, but this past week marked my blog’s first anniversary, or birthday, or whatever blog’s celebrate when they’ve been around a year.  I’ve truly enjoyed the experience so far, although I haven’t always been able to dedicate the time I wanted to.  As a “Blog Year Resolution,” I’ll try to be more regular in my posts, and continue getting out there and living the birding life in South Korea.

Most of my time recently has been spent settling into my new schools, and wrapping my head around my new work schedule.  My birding time has been once again relegated to the weekends, but with the days getting longer every week, soon I’ll be able to do some late day birding as well.  And just in time, too – new arrivals are showing up all the time.  Here’s a brief look at what I’ve been up to in the month of March.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

The eastern wall of Geumseongsanseong, with Damyangho Lake in the background.

Two weeks ago I went with Melanie to Geumseongsanseong (금성산성), an old mountain fortress in nearby Damyang-gun.  We had hiked the steep walls of the fortress in March of last year, where I had found a golden eagle and a flock of alpine accentors.  It was this latter species that we returned to look for again this year.

Despite the fine weather, we never found the alpine accentors, but there was plenty of activty, including all four species of tit (chickadee), numerous Eurasian nuthatches, and an unexpected Siberian accentor which put on a brief show for us near one of the fortress gates.  This was Melanie’s first sighting of Siberian accentor, and by far the best views of one I’ve had yet.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

The steep walls leading down to the East Gate.

Siberian Accentor (Prunella montanella montanella)
Click the image to see a short video of the accentor singing.

Last weekend found us in Suncheon-si, looking for cranes and any overwintering or recently arrived buntings.  This was a special trip, planned specifically to get Melanie her 500th bird.  To that end we were very successful, arriving near Suncheonman Bay and quickly finding at least 40 hooded cranes.  Just as I had found my 600th bird here only a few months earlier, Melanie found her 500th in the rice fields at Anpung-dong.  We went on to find her three more species to add to her list: Pallas’s bunting, reed bunting, and little bunting.  We had a very enjoyable walk along the Dongcheongang River, despite the threat of rain throughout most of the day.  There are definitely signs of spring in the air now: species are completing their molts, many species are singing, and the first of the early migrants are beginning to arrive.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus pyrrhulina)

Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and a Vega Gull (Larus vegae) along the Dongcheongang River.

The weather made a significant change this weekend, and today brought the first 18°C day of the year.  Taking advantage of the spectacular weather, Melanie and I invited our friend Victoria to come birding with us at Mudeungsan National Park, at the Jeungsimsa Temple.  Melanie and I had hiked this trail last April, and had some good luck with a variety of bird and insect species.

It's moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.© Victoria Caswell

It’s moments like these that I question having bought a 400mm lens.
© Victoria Caswell

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

Melanie and Victoria on a break midway along the trail to Baramjae Ridge.

This was Victoria’s first real plunge into the birding world, and fortunately I was able to point out a lot of interesting species and behaviors.  We came across a pair of coal tits gathering moss for a nearby nesting site; click the link to see a video of the birds gathering moss.  There were numerous varied tits, pairs of both pygmy and white-backed woodpeckers, and a migrant yellow-browed bunting, which was only the second of this species I have ever seen (the first being one in the same mountain chain almost exactly a year ago to the day).

However, the pièce de résistance was definitely a very tame ring-necked pheasant, which foraged along a mountain stream in full view for tens of minutes.  We were privileged to have this opportunity to watch the pheasant for so long, and from such a short distance.  Our constant staring into the woods attracted several Korean onlookers, curious as to what was so interesting to the bunch of waygooks (Korean word for “foreigner”).  We passed out our binoculars to those who were interested, and all in all it was a great moment to show some of the locals this special (not to mention breathtakingly stunning) bird which, though very common in Korea, is often times overlooked.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

A view of South Gwangju from the Baramjae ridge.

Yellow-browed Bunting (Emberiza chrysophrys)

Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis amaurotis)

Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus karpowi)
Click the image to see a video of the bird’s foraging behavior.

Although much of this month has been spent indoors teaching English classes, the time that I have spent outdoors has been incredibly fulfilling.  With the cold grip of winter beginning to loosen on the Korean peninsula, I look forward to warmer temperatures and renewed birding ahead!