Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Moonshine Shaman on Gageo Island


The Makkeoli Shaman sorting roots, with his sacred green boulder visible behind
The shaman's magical makkeoli moonshine
Recharged and tipsy
One of few remaining inhabited houses in 2-Gu 
Most 2-Gu houses are in this state
Looking northwest towards 2-Gu from Gageo Island's halfway point
Craggy tip of 2-Gu
The Shaman's neighbourhood
Looking down into 2-Gu
Bustling downtown 2-Gu, creepy abandoned school looming above
The steep road back up from 2-Gu - The shaman lived among the cliffs to the left, just out of frame
 (While on the subject of benevolent mystics, here's another snippet from a writing project I've been working on...)

  In addition to the smiling offers of free coffee that abounded in town after the abduction(http://snowyowllost.blogspot.ca/2016/04/abducted-by-korean-gangster.html) , one example of Gageo hospitality stands above the rest. During my second week, I made the lengthy (about 10 kilometres up and down the steepest of inclines) hike to the island’s second largest town, 2-Gu (pronounced “goo”). This place was lifted from a Hitchcock film. Clinging to a coastal cathedral of wind-whipped spires and crags, the “town” consisted of little more than a two-boat harbour, a herd of brazen brown cliff cows, a creepy deserted school from the 1940s, one seafood restaurant, and about ten houses, most of which were rotting into the weeds. It was a humid day, and after my two-hour slog, I was shattered and sweat-drenched. But after re-checking the day’s wind forecast, I knew that this was where and when I wanted to be, bird-wise. Situated in Gageo’s northwest armpit, the wind-beaten uplands of 2-Gu were a perfect migrant trap. This was the spot to search for bunched-up migrating birds as they rallied for their continued northward voyage.
  Wiping sweat from my brow, I gingerly wended my way up a narrow cliff-top trail, scanning through each weedy patch in search of movement. I didn’t find much, as the coastal winds kept most birds to cover. After an unproductive hour-long probe of the cliff tops above town, I started back towards 2-Gu, and the punishing return walk to 1-Gu that awaited.
  As I passed the last abandoned old house before the trail to town widened, I saw that it wasn’t in fact abandoned. An old man was hunched over a battered aluminium tub, amidst a jumble of lumber, junk, and dozens of large plastic vats and baskets. He was pulling apart roots and throwing the good bits into the tub when my arrival jarred him from his trance-like routine. A medley of surprise, curiosity, and calm hospitality played across his face in the span of a second, and he rose slowly to greet me.
  After introductions, I learned that he was the island’s lone remaining shaman. He revealed that he had lived in this remotest of outposts since he was young enough to remember when the dilapidated school still echoed with the voices of fishermen’s children. In a scenario that was the gentle opposite of the gangster abduction, he graciously bade me into his cluttered, stone-walled courtyard. I sat on the warm ground while the shaman scampered inside. He returned laden with modest refreshments, which he laid out on a small table. I gratefully ate the fresh spiced greens from metal bowls, but the best was yet to come. He produced a green plastic bottle of homemade makkeoli, and poured me a tall cup, then a smaller one for himself.
  Makkeoli (pronounce it without the “e”) is a rice-based alcohol commonly associated with Korea’s working class. Viscous and milky with a nutty, fizzy mouthfeel, I never cottoned to the stuff, as it gave me instantaneous headaches, and I just didn’t get it. But this was unlike any store-bought makkeoli I had ever reluctantly sipped. The shaman’s brew was thick and chunky, and tinged an unappetizing purplish-brown, but it was finest libation I had ever drunk, hands down. It was ice cold and tasted like glorious root beer yogurt, and as it flowed down my throat I was charged with a gust of superhuman vitality and calmness. I necked down several glasses of the exquisite elixir, while gleaning further fragments of the shaman’s life story.
  It seems the shaman had selected the location for his residence because of its proximity to a sacred rock. The jagged green spire of granite, the highest feature on that section of cliff, loomed 40 feet overhead. The rear of his house appeared to grow organically from the impressive vine-covered monolith, and in that perfect instant I had no reason to doubt his claim that the place was imbued with supernatural properties.
  When it was time to part ways, I told him of my distant destination, which elicited a raised eyebrow. As I headed back out through the gate, he slipped me another, smaller bottle of the magical makkeoli.
  “If you’re walking all the way back to 1-Gu, you’ll be needing this,” he smiled.
  I like to think this shaman’s smile did more than warm my ornery heart. Perhaps he was to thank for the outrageously fortunate chain of avian events that transpired on Gago in the week that followed our encounter.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Failing with the Finns

Freezing my damn hands off at Seongsan Ilchulbong Sunrise Peak (and test-driving some real binoculars)
My lamentable redneck Bushnells
  (There's a fancy new 'Featured Post' feature available, so if you'll look in the upper right-hand corner, you will find the post 'We want YOU, on Team Sisu', which is the prelude to this post.  Or click here if you're old school: http://snowyowllost.blogspot.ca/2014/10/we-want-you-on-team-sisu.html )

  While the Finns all had flashy Swarovski and Zeiss optics strapped to their Finnsticks, I was using a pair of redneck-camouflaged Bushnells that I had plucked out of the “50% off” basket at Canadian Tire. They weren’t terrible at first, but I’m rough with my gear, and by then they were in sorry condition. The two barrels were no longer synced up, or “dejumelee”, as the French say (binoculars are known as jumelles in French, which means “twins” - so my bins had become “de-twinned”).
  During a lull, I made the mistake of asking to look though Nial’s pair of Swarovskis. The instant confidence and lens envy they instilled in me was dramatic. It felt like birds could no longer hide from me. With just a gentle twist of the focus knob, impenetrable layers of foliage melted away. I was omnipotent! Spartacus! Spart...oh yes, here are your bins back, Nial. Dammit, I needed to get me some Swaros.
  To further truncate my optics stature in the eyes of the Finns, the strap mounts on my bins were broken, and the strap itself had been fraying to threads for months. Instead of trying to fix it all properly, I had been emergency mending it with a growing collection of safety pins, zip-ties, strips of duct tape, and even a rogue staple or two.
  The strap situation came to a head while we were on Jeju’s northeast coast, near the iconic Seongsan Ilchulbong Sunrise Peak, probing a beachy area in small groups, or in my case, alone. I hadn’t often birded this particular corner of the island, but I was hoping to beat the proverbial and literal bushes and turn up something interesting. I was the “local expert” after all, and I had already looked useless once that morning, when Nial had led us to a cliff he knew of in Seogwipo that held several ghostly Grey Buntings...almost in my backyard. The late February day was tormented by icy winds, and my tanks of birding resolve were very nearly depleted. We spent most of the morning hunkered on some cliffs, lashed by obscene ocean winds. Nial went gloveless of course, which seemed to impress the Finns – they sent approving looks towards his burly skin-mitts. His hands had Sisu.
  I, on the “other hand”, was sporting an altogether embarrassing pair of checkered blue, black, and silver gloves, which drew worried glances from the Finns. The gloves were not only goofy-looking but also scandalously thin, and as a result my hands were frostbitten to the marrow. I was reluctant to even get my bins up for a bird, as that would have meant unballing my fists.
  Helly, my girlfriend at the time, bless her, had heard me whining about how I needed new gloves for birding, so she purchased this ludicrous pair for me, strongly recommended to her by a Korean golfing website, of all things. As I was heading out the door to meet the Finns, I went for my holed, but warm, pair of old gloves, but as Phoebe was watching, I picked up the golf gloves instead with a confident smile.
  “Thanks again for the cool gloves,” I croaked on the way out the door. How cold could it get out there?
  Oh, it got cold. It got Old-fashioned Cold. With body and mind numbed, I staggered inland towards the shelter of some small grassy dunes, which were gathered behind a derelict seafood processing plant.
  “How are we spodesda find any birds in this fuggin wind?” I muttered through fwozen wips.
  Some of the Finns had the same idea as me, and were funnelling into the area. Oh shit, Finns! Gotta look sharp! I snatched up my bins as best I could with my frosted ham hocks and scanned a nearby tree line. This action caused the Finns to perk up as well – I peripherally sensed their bins coming to attention around me. Then, as if willed into existence by my desperation, a streamlined, medium-sized bird flashed over my shoulder.
  “Kestrel!” I bellowed, regretting it instantly. As the Finns turned to get a bead on the bird, I realized with a sickening lilt of the stomach that this was no Kestrel. The bird wheeled hard and dropped behind the trees, but I caught a clear glimpse of the fat belly and distinct thick white tail tip of a lowly Oriental Turtle Dove. Not the first time I had made that schoolboy error, but why now?
  Had they seen it yet? They hadn’t! The bird’s outline was barely visible as it zipped along behind the trees.
  “That’s it, keep flying, get out of here!” I pleaded in a whisper. “Good, keep going...” The dove did a quick 180 and flew back towards us at a rapid clip.
  “...no...NO! Don’t come back here you bastard...turn around!” The bird popped over the trees and did a lazy circuit over our heads, showing perfectly, no binoculars needed. Humbled, I shrugged at the Finns, who were all glaring at me with expressions that ranged from deadpan to pity. My face felt hot, and I wanted to sink into the sand.
  “I uh...it looked like a Kestrel. Wasn’t. It was a dove...” I muttered. Silence, as Scandinavian heads bowed and shook.
  As we headed back to the main group, I jumped off a small dune in a poorly executed attempt to avoid getting sand in my shoes. When I landed, the safety pins on my strap gave out with an audible snat, and the woeful Bushnells flung themselves into the sand, just as I had wanted to. The Finns all saw this and just kept walking, bowing their heads solemnly as though I was a leper grasping out for their pant-legs. I did my best to look dignified as I blew sand off the lenses and fished more safety pins from my bag.
  While the Finns must have looked upon me as some neophyte birder with pathetic opera glasses, I like to think of it differently. I would argue that my binoculars, and the choices I made on the rest of my birding gear prove that I did in fact have Sisu. I made do for ages with crappy gear, and managed to do well with what I had. We can’t all start off on our birding path with Swaros and 600mm lenses, innit.
  Those damned gloved though? Zero Sisu.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Haedam the Monk

Text me, we'll pray
My friend, Haedam the monk
Traditional Korean red bean-filled, walnut-shaped dumplings
Looks like a walnut...
...tastes like red bean paste.
Pocari Sweat: It's the Pocariest
  In February of 2012, I found myself on an overnight bus headed up Korea’s east coast in the name of one of Birds Korea’s many winter weekend pelagic trips.  Halfway up the coast, the bus pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant/general store that looked to be semi-abandoned. As the bus had pushed north, I noted with detached concern that indeed much of the west coast looked to be semi-abandoned - an uninterrupted funeral march of eerie ghost towns and neglected pirate ship-shaped restaurants (the rural counterpart to the pirate bar craze) rolled past. The driver announced that we had 20 minutes to stretch, so I ambled over to the nearby cliffs for a spot of coast-watching. I scanned the choppy bay for about ten minutes, but didn’t turn up much other than a few Arctic Loons and Temminck’s Cormorants bobbing in the surf. From the corner of my eye I noticed a smaller gentleman watching me with a smile. He was in his early thirties, and was dressed from head to toe in loose grey clothing that looked like it had been crudely crafted from a blanket. A monk! He was a Buddhist monk.
  He approached and asked me what I was looking at. I told him I watching the birds on the sea, and showed him my Birds of Korea book. He read the title, and asked in unsteady English: “You...LOVE...the Korea’s birds?”
  “Yes, I suppose I do!” I answered. At that, he bowed lightly and shuffled off.
  I used the last few minutes of rest-stop time to nose around in the bushes, then headed back to the bus. As I was about to board, there stood the monk by the front of the bus, like a Wal-mart greeter. He bowed deeply this time, and presented me with a bag using both hands (when giving or receiving something in Korea, be it a pen, beer, or money, two hands should always be used). Puzzled, I accepted the bag and peered inside. I pulled out a gift box of hodugwaja, traditional Korean dumpling cakes, shaped like walnuts and stuffed with red bean paste. Also in the bag was a bottle of Pocari Sweat, a bizarre Korean sports drink. I never liked the stuff, as it was salty and cloudy - and what the hell was a Pocari and why would I want to drink its sweat?
  He told me that his name was Haedam, and that he was heading back to his home monastery up on Gangwha Island, which lies within propaganda loudspeaker range of North Korea. He tried to explain something about how Buddhist monks aren’t allowed to accumulate much money, and are supposed to use most of what they do have to bestow gifts upon people they deem to be worthy. I think. I was blown away by this gesture. I’m worthy! We sat beside each other on the next leg of the bus trip, and chatted amiably for almost an hour in two broken languages about birds, Buddha himself, Korea, and a surprising range of other topics. Before we parted ways in Gangneung, he pulled out what I felt was a pretty flashy smart phone for a Buddhist monk, and we exchanged numbers. Text me, we’ll pray? Best monk ever.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Butterflies of Korea - Part II (The Jeju Years)

remnants of Common Bluebottle Graphium sarpedon 
Long Tail Spangle Papilio macilentus
Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas 
Chestnut Tiger Parantica sita
Red Helen Papilio helenus
Indian Fritillary Argyreus hyperbius
Asian Swallowtail Papilo xuthus 
  Many words in Korean are simple compounds of other words (eg: ankle = ‘foot throat’; seal = ‘water dog’; Long-tailed Duck = ‘ocean pheasant’; fish = 'water meat'), and it is quite rewarding and amusing when you start to piece together words on your own. When I first saw a Long Tail Spangle on Jeju, I wondered if it was called 'Jebi-nabi', or 'Swallow-butterfly'. It is.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Count the Hooded Cranes! Win prizes! Impress your friends!

Hooded Cranes Grus monacha, Suncheon Bay, February 17, 2016
  I miss the morning calm in Suncheon, when the entire bay was mine, and hundreds of Hooded Cranes complained overhead.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Jeju Memories 2009-2011, Part II


White-shouldered Starling Sturnia sinensis, Seogwipo, April 21, 2009
Brown-headed Thrush Turdus chrysolaus (1st summer male), Seogwipo, April 23, 2009
Brown-headed Thrush Turdus chrysolaus (adult female), Seogwipo, April 15, 2010
Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata, Jungmun, April 25, 2009
Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata (juvenile->adult), Seogwipo, November 14, 2009
Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata (juvenile->adult), Seogwipo, November 14, 2009
Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla, west coast, April 10, 2010
Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola, west coast, April 10, 2010
Asian Rosy Finch Leucosticte arctoa, west coast, November 27, 2010
  It's raining in Montreal at the moment, but always sunny in my memories of Jeju, from 48 lifetimes ago.  Here are some of the sexier passerines I met along the way.  I'm posting them because each one transports me back, and makes me smile.  Incidentally, I found that Yellow Bunting, my first, while peeing.  How about that?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Jeju Memories 2009-2011, Part I

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrid, west coast, May 1, 2010
Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor, Hado-ri, January 30, 2011
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus, Seogwipo, September 5, 2009
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus, Seogwipo, September 5, 2009
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus, Seogwipo, September 5, 2009
  Ahh, Jeju, the 'Hawaii of Korea'.  It seems like 'they' have been destroying the charming place I once called home at an appalling rate.  Pristine beaches are being ripped up and replaced with huge concrete swimming pools, it's absolute madness.  
  That Osprey sure brings back the memories.  I was having a terrible week, so I went down to my favorite riverside park to clear my head.  After zoning out on a rock by the river for 20 minutes, I was stunned when a Western Osprey corkscrewed out of the sky and down into the water a few feet in front of me.  It was an extremely hot day, and it seemed like the bird was looking to cool off.  It drifted in the stream, at one point even using its wings as paddles to swim around.
  In other news, there is no news.