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.
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.
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?
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.
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?