This letter presents a study on the nucleation and microstructural evolution of m -plane GaN epilayers on m -plane SiC substrates using high-temperature AlN buffer layers. Controlled growth interruptions were carried out to render snapshots of heteroepitaxial dynamics. It was discovered that island coalescence results in an inhomogeneous mosaic tilt along the c -axis. Mesoscopic study of nucleation evolution helps elucidate the origin of commonly observed surface undulation and striation, which is attributed to concave growth due to the coalescence of trapezoidal islands upon contact. A model correlating microstructural defects with optical properties is proposed to explain the observed pattern in spatially resolved cathodoluminescence mapping.