Eulsuko Island or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Love the Birds
Anthony Huerta Velasquez
Flight paths route planes over Eulsukdo, a river island sanctuary for migratory birds in the Nakdong estuary between Busan proper and Gimhae International. A vital stopover on the East Asian-Australasian flyway. On the soft ground in the wetlands, I note that some waders like the spoonbills are temporary visitors while the swans and the herons have resident status. And like them all, there’s something innate, hardwired in my bird brain that brought me to these shores. But with a proposed new airport on nearby Gadeok Island and officials calling for more development along the Nakdong River, how much longer will the rare Steller’s sea eagle and other feathered friends (and we) be able to enjoy our wildlands?
My migratory path to the Nakdong River began on a peninsula well over five thousand miles to the east roughly hewn to the same latitude. Commercial jetliners departing from San Francisco head north on the Pacific Americas Flyway, approach the Aleutian Islands, then bank south following the East Asia/Australasia route, touching down twelve hours later in Incheon. After a short layover and an even shorter flight, I’d arrive at my destination — Busan.
I thought I’d be living in “Dynamic Busan/The Bay Area of Korea” and teaching English to elementary school students as the recruiter claimed. But a driver for the company picked me up at the airport and dropped me off in a new development of high-rise condo complexes built on landfill reclaimed from the Nakdong estuary between an old fishing village and the commercial shipyards. A distant suburb of Busan across the river south of Gimhae International. Though I regretted this move at first, and the details of my contract were often revised by my employer despite my contentions (Kindergarten! A roommate! When am I getting paid again?), alas, I figured this job, this place would be nothing more than a year-long, replenishing stopover on my way to warmer, Southern climes.
To get into Busan, I’d board a small village bus which made its penultimate stop on a small estuarine island called Eulsukdo. But, eventually, I would transfer to the subway that linked me to the bustling entertainment districts and into the depths of the city’s underground. At the Eulsukdo stop, a blue road sign reads Nakdong Migratory Bird Sanctuary. While I never had much interest in birding, I thought I should stop there and walk around sometime. Get to know my environs. But after seeing that same sign countless times, it quickly faded into the background. Probably too hazy for me to ever care to notice it again. Me being too occupied by the reels of all of yesterday’s parties played by the projector in my head or obsessed by a hunger for haejangguk (hangover soup) after several long nights of drinking on the quiet, homesick.
The Nakdong is the longest river in South Korea. It’s an ancient, natural waterway replete with evidence of neolithic settlements, though the argument of its true source has not been settled. An apocryphal yet widely accepted origin story about a miserly man, his daughter-in-law, and some dung created the Hwangji Pond in the city of Taebaek. It’s the city with the highest altitude in the ROK, about three hundred miles north of Busan; and that story about the poo and the pond and the source of the Nakdong is still taught to children. Geographical surveys up in the Taebaek Mountains, however, spur further debate as to which of the two slight trickles from different natural springs up in the Taebaek Mountains is the Nakdong’s real origin. The river then bends at Andong, home of the Hahoe Folk Village (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the Andong International Mask Dance Festival, and its own culinary traditions, such as 안동찜닭 (Andong jjim-dalk, a stewed chicken and noodle dish) and its expensive gin-like soju, which have spread across the country.
Downriver, in the middle zone, a different kind of history is memorialized. Situated just inside the Pusan Perimeter, delineated by the winding Nakdong which buttressed the final defence of the Republic, is the city of Daegu, Korea’s fourth-largest city, which witnessed heavy casualties during the “6-2-5 Upheaval.” It is here that the museum called the Nakdong River Victory Memorial Hall is located and smaller monuments pay respects to the POWs massacred in the hills and the civilian refugees who were blewn up on bridges heading south.
When I first arrived in the country, I wasn’t aware of any of this. I wasn’t familiar with its history, culture, and traditions except for what I read in The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy about the “Miracle on the Han River.” Yet I felt something: a connection to this place, not just perceptible, but truly tangible. Often while I drank alone, out in the cuts, posted in a decommissioned pillbox on the west bank of the Nakdong River, I’d be soothed by the gentle lapping of brackish water and think of my great-uncle Phillip, who everyone called E-dee-wa. The name E-dee-wa he adopted was his own transliteration, his understanding of the orders shouted at him while a private, an American G.I. in the Korean War. In Hangeul, 이리와, i-ree-wa means “come here.” On nights that required another visit to the Family Mart convenience store for more maekchu and makgeolli, I’d just sit there listening to Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere on repeat from my iPod while tracking the blinking lights of 737s from PUS climbing overhead in a starless sky over a dark, empty sea. Back then, I thought seeing those mechanical wings taking flight might be the best thing about living in South Gyeongsang province: in no time at all I could be on one of those jumbo birds to Tokyo, Shanghai, or Hong Kong. Or could leave “The Land of Morning Calm” for “The Land of a Thousand Smiles.”
Like John Denver, I know I’d be a poorer man if I never saw an eagle fly. But birders, people who really love birds and hang out at places like the Nakdong Migratory Bird Sanctuary, always seemed kind of odd to me. As Patrick Blake, an English teacher in Gwangju, South Korea and author of the blog On the Wing: My Life in Birding writes,
“I am a birder; see also twitcher, lister, and obsessive-compulsive watcher of the avian species. If you look up these words in the dictionary, the entry should make mention of binoculars, camera equipment . . . knee-deep in some nameless marsh, being sucked dry by prehistoric pterodactyl-skeeters, all for the hopes of maybe catching a glimpse of some small bird that no one’s ever even heard of.”
So, after many years of neglect on my part, when I finally made my first visit to the Nakdong Estuary Eco Center on Eulsukdo on a freezing grey afternoon, those were the people I was expecting to see. While Kim Yeong-hee didn’t fit Blake’s profile with binoculars strapped around her neck lugging a tripod and various lenses, she did fit the bill from my preconceived notion of what a birder would look like.
Kim, a short, slight of frame, bespectacled middle-aged woman from Busan, chittered excitingly as she hopped around like a sparrow between the dozen of Korean-speaking visitors as I toured the second floor of the Eco Center. I read about the human, natural, and geological history of the Nakdong. I saw well-crafted models of birds, fish, and a few taxidermied mammals in displays about their habitats. And I learned from interactive activities about the routes of migratory birds, maps of internationally recognized protected sites, and life in the wetlands. Kim warmly greeted me and offered help, “if you have any questions,” she said, but I thought she should’ve asked me if I had any answers. “Where are you from? How long have you lived in Busan? Why did you come here? Do you know the difference between a Bewick’s swan and a whooper swan?” she asked in rapid succession. “Do you know why some of the whooper swans have grey necks? You don’t know?” Her series of queries trilled then ended with a squawk. I thought about risking hypothermia in a bird blind out on a mudflat rather than enduring another round of interrogation, but she swatted at something invisible in the air and beckoned for me to follow her.
Over to observe the scene looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the viewing platform as wide as a basketball court is long, below I saw a frenzied wild kingdom of large and small feathered creatures on the banks and in the shallows of Eulsukdo’s main pond. Small wading birds flitted around the mallards, the geese, and the giant whooper swans. Every now and then a whooper, which Kim told me weighed about 12 kg with a wingspan of nearly 3 m, would come ashore stamping its large black pads in the mud, spreading its wings, announcing its presence while a blue heron too cool for all this commotion stood silent, indifferent, keeping its distance like a wallflower among the reeds.
Kim then swung the tower optical viewer around for me to take a gander and said, “Come on, you can see more.” I took in hundreds of birds dunking, splashing, flapping, and foraging in the muck. It was quite a sight to behold. Then, perhaps this is how birders begin: there’s that one. That one bird that adds colour and mystique to your world like the new kid at school who comes from a different place and adds intrigue and interest to our neck of the woods.
While scanning the pond through the viewer, I spotted a waterfowl with a cream-coloured streak running from its baby blue beak, between its eyes, up its amber head. Its breast was chestnut with grey, white, and black feathers in its hind quarters. Wow! Guess that was that Aha moment for me. I didn’t know this beautiful wild habitat with fascinating creatures existed right there in my own backyard and couldn’t believe I had dismissed it for so long.
Kim then pulled out her cell phone for her translation app and told me that it was a Eurasian wigeon. She said that they are common here and can be seen in the streams in certain parts of Busan. “They are such pretty birds,” Kim said. Yes, I agreed.
I decided to bundle up and walk down to the southern point of Eulsukdo which lies just a mile or two from Nakdong’s discharge into the sea. I wanted to see the mouth of the river from a different perspective and maybe spot some other birds up close along the way. I hiked down a sidewalk next to a narrow road that runs on the eastern edge of the island with the river between me and the city. While I walked I thought about what Kim said inside: that some birds here like the Eurasian wigeon are short-term visitors while some like the swans to stay for the winter, and those like the herons are permanent residents. I thought about my Uncle E-Dee-Wa, my friends and co-teachers who have come and gone, and those who have remained. I then considered my own status here in Korea: E-2 visa, English teacher, registered alien, and legal resident for thirteen months. Status renewable if re-signing with my current employer, and sign a contract with a new school before the expiry date on my Alien Registration Card. Or leave the country. So after five trips back to California and a few quick visa runs to Fukuoka, Japan between jobs, well, I realized there must be something hardwired in this birdbrain of mine that always brings me back here to the Bu.
Regarding a different kind of status, though, I read a sign outside that states,
“Natural Monument No. 179 (1966), The Nakdong River has a large estuary and a number of sand hills including Eulsukdo . . . In these areas, about 130 species of birds have so far been recorded. Recently, however, the number of species of birds that migrate to the Nakdonggang delta has decreased remarkably year by year. This is due primarily to the embankment and reclamation works at the estuary, the waste discharge from nearby manufacturing plants into the tributaries of the river and the agricultural insecticides used in the adjacent areas.”
As I continued a bit farther down the road, I stopped and gazed across to the opposite bank and saw one slender, candy-striped smokestack billowing white smoke between two smaller grey and blue chimneys within the Sinpyeong Jangnim Industrial Complex. Every few minutes a jumbo jet flew just overhead approaching touchdown at Gimhae. Once I started noticing the black-billed magpies and pied wagtails, I couldn’t help but notice the plastic bottles in the river and giant eyesores so close to what should be protected lands blessed by life-sustaining waters. Life-sustaining in more ways than the usual sustenance a river provides; this river once provided a natural defence for the survival of the republic.
After my first visit to Eulsukdo, I contacted the only birder I know. A friend of mine I first met back in 2011 when I moved into Busan proper, Sam Hazelton. Sam, 42, from Boise, Idaho, is tall, lean, and scruffy in that outdoorsy type of way. The kind of guy you expect to have a ring imprinted in the back pocket of his jeans from a can of Copenhagen. He is an English professor by trade who’s been in Busan since 2006. While we’ve been close for a number of years, it wasn’t until his wedding did I realize how much of a geek he was about birding. His uncle Paul came to Korea to preside over the ceremony, and during his sermon, many of the personal family stories Paul shared included birding. Many of his references to birds, though, were way over my head. But after my excitement about the Eurasian wigeon, I wanted to meet Sam for some beers and trade notes.
“Handsome bird, that wigeon,” Sam dryly stated befitting his usual manner of speaking. But when I asked him what is it about birding anyway, I was surprised by his response and how he changed his tone. He said, “Birding is a very simple way to connect to your natural surroundings. A way to develop a keen appreciation for the rhythms of nature and all she has to offer. I’m always a bit flummoxed by people who are wholly uninterested in birding, or anything. It doesn’t have to be birds, it could be insects or plants, or whatever, but geek-out on something. At the very least, people who care for birds and wildlife exhibit an important curiosity and passion for conservation, which is a virtue.” Though I didn’t understand that simple connection before, after visiting Eulsukdo, I received the message completely.
With the rhythms of the Nakdong estuary flowing internally, stirring within me, I asked what does the Nakdong Bird Sanctuary mean to him. At this, I could tell he tried to be upbeat about it, didn’t want to rain on my parade, but answered quite directly. “Well, I’m just thankful it’s there, a token gesture towards conservation in Korea,” Sam said, “but really it’s a shame; it’s way overdeveloped and criminally encroached on. Like I said, at least it exists and it provides important habitat for all kinds of birds but it’s overdeveloped with stupid buildings and pointless walkways that wind all through the place, but at least it offers some modicum of protection albeit paltry. Welcome to Asia.” With that in mind, while I focused on the pollution from the industrial park lining one bank of the Nakdong and the high-rise condos I used to live in Myeongji on the other, I recall that I once wandered on the north side of the island above the estuary barrage and saw a Drive-in movie theatre, a 7-11, and a Samsung industrial office building, among other projects in a concrete jungle not related to natural history and conservation. However, knowing Sam has a penchant for doom and gloom, I sought a second opinion.
I contacted Dr Nial Moores, a longtime resident of Busan originally from London, the director of Birds Korea, a non-profit organization that supports conservation efforts in critical wetlands all over the peninsula. Unfortunately, his personal response regarding the preservation of the Nakdong ecosystem was not much different than Sam’s. Dr Moores quickly responded to me personally via email. He writes,
“With apologies in advance for the very heavy tone of my response: the Nakdong Estuary was the first place I visited in Korea to look at birds. This was back in late 1990. I was the lead designer for the Ulseuk Island wetland restoration project back in 2000 or 2001. These days I have bittersweet feelings about the estuary. The river upstream and downstream of the barrage is still internationally important for birds, but is much degraded when compared with 10 and 20 years ago — far less wild, far less natural, with far less abundance. And still, Busan City pushes for more and more of the estuary to be “developed”, for dockland, for the proposed airport etc. Of course, we think that this is a mistaken development model — one that is unsustainable economically as well as environmentally, and which will help to erase much of what made Busan and its environs naturally unique.”
I learned from Dr Moores that there are several factors contributing to the major decline of biodiversity and the health of this vital ecosystem: habitat loss, reclamation, offshore over-exploitation of “marine produce,” pollution worsening the water quality, and climate change. When I asked him what is the single most-imminent threat to the environment here on the river, he said it’s the new airport proposal on Gadeok: Busan’s largest island, a dogleg to the right of Myeongji Ocean City that lies in the Strait of Korea right between the Nakdong estuary and Jinhae Bay. Dr Moores believes that the infrastructure that would follow the airport project on Gadeok is “the highest, most urgent threat.”
He then shared something that’s bothered him, and I have started wondering about, since making my first visit to Eulsukdo. “The only long-term conservation solution requires a major change in people’s thinking and value systems.” Dr Moores further explains, “Ecology would need to be integrated into curricula; a responsible, less-consumption driven kind of tourism and use of the estuary would need to be promoted. The city is already branding itself for health and well-being. Why do the river and the estuary not play a central role in this?” Right. It’s a question that’s hard to answer since, considering the health and well-being of the river, this would be a great draw for a new wave of more eco-conscientious tourists who see beyond the modern glitz and sparkling skyscrapers or come for “well-being” in the sense of medical tourism (chiefly plastic surgery). This river has supported life for several millennia, yet where is the reverence to its naturally endowed intelligent design?
Recently I returned to Myeongji Queendom Ocean City New Town English City for the first time since I left it in September 2010. It seemed much smaller than I remember it, probably because I seemed lost in a way one can’t see the trees from the forest when surrounded by newer, even bigger apartment complexes. But in the bunker in my usual corner hangout where the river meets the sea, I saw so much more natural wonder around than I’d ever noticed before. I saw whooper swans commence a short foot race slapping the surface of the water before retrieving their black pads taking flight up the river towards Eulsukdo. They followed the ducks flapping their wings like bicycle wheels spinning backwards in high gear. Sandspits and barrier islands were teeming with life on the river billowing a cacophony of honks, quacks, squawks, splashes, and flutters where a lone Eurasian curlew was needling on the shoreline. I realized they must’ve been there all along, I just hadn’t adjusted the proper lens with which to perceive them. But once I did, it’s like crossing a threshold of doors of perception without taking drugs. I began to notice birds and insects, different kinds of winged beasts of all shapes and colours all over the city. It’s kind of akin to Lao Tzu’s journey beginning with a single step — appreciating the avian world begins with one common bird. Though I’d love to travel to a remote island in the South Atlantic to see chinstrap penguins or observe a roseate spoonbill down in South Padre, one doesn’t need to post in a swamp donning rubber waders peering through binoculars in exotic places to be a birder. My first time twitching in excitement about ornithology began on a river practically in my own backyard.
At a quarter past three, the river fell silent. Waterfowl of all sorts corkscrewed their necks and buried their beaks between their chests and wings. I didn’t know they also observe siesta. I took that as a cue that it was time for me to head back to the bus stop, back to the Bu. I strolled along a path through a panhandle of pinus koraiensis, and listened to the chirps, tweets, coos, and caws sing me back home.
Anthony Huerta Velasquez is a Guest Contributor for Panorama
Anthony Huerta Velasquez hails from the San Joaquin Valley of California, but spent the last decade in Busan, South Korea. His creative nonfiction/personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Mount Hope, Sierra Nevada Review, Concho River Review, South Dakota Review, Stone Canoe, Touchstone Literary Magazine, and The Offbeat. He now calls the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY home.