This was the first "organised" birding trip to South Korea in spring. The purpose was to see shorebirds and to experience spring migration. Many of the participants had also previously birded Hong Kong, Beidaihe and Happy Island and were looking for species that are difficult to locate at other birding destinations.
The trip was a huge success with two firsts for Korea (Crag Martin and Ferruginous Flycatcher), excellent wader counts including sightings of Little Whimbrel and Asiatic Dowitcher. We also had Baikal Teal and Swan Geese on exceptionally late spring dates as well as excellent numbers of migrants and a supporting cast of many globally rare species e.g. Nordmans Greenshank, Black-Faced Spoonbill and Chinese Egret.
The areas visited were primarily tidal flats at Saemangeum and around Gunsan and one day at Seosan. The rest of the time was spent on an island called Eocheong Do, 3 hrs by ferry from Gunsan on the west side of Korea. This island had only ever been birded once before (by Nial Moores) for two days about a week prior to our arrival! Indeed we were the first Westerners that most people on the island had ever seen.
The only disappointment of the trip was that after three days of wader watching, the only sighting of Spoon-billed Sandpiper was one very brief view by Nial Moores of a single bird.
Those that were on the trip were:
Nial Moores - Guide and organiser who is living in Korea and has an unequalled knowledge of local birds and whose identification skills in the field are superb. Nial can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tony Lancaster, Dennis Weir, Willie McDowell and myself (arrived on the 21st April from the UK).
On the 25th we were joined by Jeff Gilligan, Tom Staudt, Nick Lethaby, Gerard Lillie (from the US) and Jim Dowdall (Ireland).
We flew with British Midland from Belfast to London, then London to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Seoul Incheon with Lufthansa. We left Belfast at 10:30 on a Saturday morning and arrived in Seoul the following day at 11:30 am Korean time (8 hours ahead). The flight cost was £550. No visa was required.
Sat 20th April: Left UK
Sun 21st: Arrived Seoul Incheon. Birded close to the airport at Yeong Jeong. Drove to Gunsan that evening
Mon 22nd to Wed 24th: Took an early morning ferry to Eocheong Do from Gunsan. Stayed on the island until the afternoon of Wednesday 24th when we returned to Gunsan. Joined by the American contingent and Jim Dowdall on the night of the 24th.
Thur 25th and Fri 26th: Birded tidal flats around Saemangeum and Gunsan.
Sat 27th to Thurs 2nd May - Returned to Eocheong Do on the early morning ferry on the Saturday. Stayed on the island until the Thursday afternoon.
Fri 3rd - Birded tidal flats and some nearby areas around Gunsan.
Sat 4th - Travelled to Seosan and birded the area. Minibus technical problems restricted birding in this area! Travelled onto Incheon to be near the Airport for the Sunday flight departures.
Sun 5th - We had about 4 hours birding close to the airport at Yeong Jeong. PM flight back to the UK.
A Field Guide to the Birds of Korea - Woo-Shin LEE, Tae-Hoe KOO and Jin-Young PARK. (Useful but not to the same high standard as typical western field guides).
550 Birds of Japan: (two part photo guide with little English content except for species names. Still was very useful)
A Field guide to the Birds of South East Asia, Craig Robson. (High level of detail and good plates)
Lars Johnson, Birds of Europe (Of limited use only).
A video, The Birds of Korea has been produced by Charlie and Nial Moores and is highly recommended (click here for a review). It is available from the WBK website.
Guiding: It is difficult to see how you could manage to survive in Korea without someone local who can arrange logistics, accommodation and travel etc. Even getting food is difficult. Very little English is spoken and visiting a country with a totally different culture is not easy. Nial Moores has lived in Korea for 4 years and should be contacted if you are thinking about visiting.
Money: Try and bring Korean Won with you. We were able to obtain it in the UK. This will prevent wasting time in arranging an itinerary around bank opening times.
Food: It is as bad as expected but just about bearable. On Eocheong Do the restaurant that we used was good in that the owner would make the effort to try and meet our individual needs - not a common practice in Korea. There is generally very little choice and little variety. Food is however reasonably priced. Beer was about £2 a bottle in most restaurants. Koreans eat the same meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner (generally a meat dish with rice, vegetables and loads of chilli sauce!). I brought a bottle of Dijon mayonnaise which helped flavour the eggs that we had every morning. We only used bottled water. Dog is available and in one restaurant the waitress purposely hid the fact that dog was a choice on the menu, knowing that it is not appreciated by westerners!
Accommodation: Nothing in the UK compares with Love Motels which we used for 5 nights of the trip. You can have anything from round beds with mirrors to a TV with an "adult" channel. They were generally £15 - £25 a night and were clean. The Hotel on the island was about £18 a night for a room but more basic and not as clean as it could have been. Only 5 rooms in the island hotel had beds, the rest use "futons".
Travel: We used a rented bus and driver for the mainland driving. Generally about £130 a day. (Road signs on the main roads are also in English but if going off the main roads to a site, you will need detailed directions).
Climate: It varied from hot sunny days (which required sun protection) to full days of rain.
Tidal Flats: Those watched were primarily at Saemangeum, some of the world's widest tidal flats. Watching tidal flats is difficult and often frustrating. They stretch for miles and the high tide viewing period for seeing large numbers of waders is limited. In addition, the congregation of large numbers of birds into small areas (e.g. at a high tide roost), can lead to viewing difficulties for example with disturbance or a hunting raptor. With probably only one high tide during the daylight hours it is important that you are in the right place at the right time. We experienced spectacular close up views of waders at some sites and then experienced the sight of miles of mud when we slightly misjudged a high tide. The early dates of our visit coincided with the higher tides (full moon). However, it is with great sadness to report that this site will be lost within a few years. The government are currently building a huge sea wall and the land will be reclaimed in probably 4 years time. This loss of tidal habitat is on an unprecedented scale and the long term implications for species such as Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Great Knot are extremely worrying.
Eocheong Do: This island is on the Yellow Sea and ideal for seeking out migrants. It is about 3 miles long and two miles wide and 3 hrs by boat from Gunsan. It is the only inhabited island in the area. It has cultivated areas around the village, a lighthouse, a beach, a small reservoir and a number of deciduous wooded gulleys. All are workable on foot making it easy to bird. It also has a Korean "Government" presence in certain areas which while fenced off and inaccessible, provides some of the best habitat for e.g. larks and pipits. Accompanied access may be possible in the future. Credit must be given to Nial for bringing us to this island as it had no previous birding record but now the enormous potential has been recognised.
Seosan: This is an area with two huge freshwater lakes and rice paddies that are a result of reclamation. There are no dwelling houses in the area so disturbance is less than at other sites. Good for wildfowl, geese and waders.
Woodland: There is extensive woodland throughout Korea although the range and number of bird species is very limited.
It must be said that the extensive rice fields seen whilst travelling throughout the country are relatively birdless. Such intensive agriculture with widespread use of pesticides and fertilisers cannot be in the long term interest of the country. However one significant plus for Korea is that there is only very limited hunting of birds. We only saw one shooter during two weeks and a few shotgun cartridges at particular locations.
Summary of birding highlights
The species counts at the end give a detailed breakdown of our sightings. However, the following is a summary of some of the more interesting sightings:
Baikal Teal: at least two birds (possibly as many as 5) were seen at Seosan on the second last day of our trip. These birds were unexpected as most Baikal Teal have left Korea by March.
Swan Goose: again, two birds were unexpected, found in amongst a flock of Bean Geese.
Black-faced Spoonbill: we had a significant fall of birds on Eocheong Do which produced many great birds, including two Black-faced Spoonbills. One of the most memorable sights of the trip is seeing these two birds feed in the moonlight on the beach.
Chinese Egret: a small number of birds were seen around Yeong Jeong.
Little Whimbrel: at least three, if not four birds were seen. These birds were extremely confiding.
Asiatic Dowitcher: again, a total of three birds were seen at two different sites.
Nordmans Greenshank: a number of different birds were seen during the trip. To find them, they can require perseverance but are relatively easily separated from Greenshank.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper: three days were spent wader watching and we were disappointed that the group did not get any views. One bird was picked up briefly by Nial Moores before the flock of stints took of.
Streaked Shearwater: seen each time from the boat over to Eocheong Do.
Ancient Murrelet: again, seen in very small numbers during each boat trip.
Oriental Pratincole: at least five birds were seen around the island.
Blyth's Pipit: at least two birds (probably 4) were seen on the island.
Buff-bellied Pipit: seen on the island and at Seosan.
Amur Falcon: one frequented the island for two days, often giving superb views. However it was missed by 2 of the party!
White-throated Needletail: some birds were seen (and heard) at very close range.
Himalayan Swiftlet: after Nial picked up three birds on his previous visit, we had a single bird, followed by a sighting, by Tony, of six the following day.
Crag Martin: this bird was seen independently flying around the island by at least five birders. It was seen again briefly on a number of occasions. This was a first for Korea.
Buntings: all the Buntings listed were seen most days, often giving excellent views.
Thrushes: all listed thrushes were seen although Grey and Siberian were often difficult to pick up due to their skulking habits. However excellent views of all other thrushes were obtained by everyone.
Greater Short-toed Lark: two birds were seen although they were difficult to observe due to their choice of habitat in a controlled area.
Ferruginous Flycatcher: amazingly, three records of this first for Korea.
Narcissus Flycatcher: birds were seen regularly during the trip. One, if not two, birds were 'elisae' Flycatcher, a very poorly known form, which are believed to differ in males having olive green upperparts with a bright yellow throat, and the females being generally similar, though duller.
Special thanks are made to both Nial Moores and to Su-Kyung for assisting with our arrangements and for making the trip so enjoyable and successful. We hope that our trip will now prompt other birders to visit and thereby help in the promotion of birding and conservation in South Korea.
The following are the species recorded. They are a combination of everyone's sightings. It should be noted that from the 21st to 25th, there were only five members of the group birding Eocheong Do. If you wish to have a daily analysis please e-mail me.
Great Crested Grebe
Great White Egret (alba and modesta)
Chinese Pond Heron
Eastern Tundra Bean Goose (A. f. serrirostris)
Greater White-fronted Goose (frontalis)
Northern Spot-billed Duck
Japanese Lesser Sparrowhawk
Lesser (Mongolian) Sand Plover
Greater Sand Plover
Pacific Golden Plover
Eastern Oystercatcher (osculans)
Nordman's (Spotted) Greenshank
Far Eastern Curlew
Little Ringed Plover
"Pacific" Black-legged Kittiwake
Mongolian (Yellow-legged) Gull Larus (cachinnans) mongolicus
Heuglin's (Siberian) Gull (taimyrensis)
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker
Grt. Spotted Woodpecker
Rufous Turtle Dove
Oriental Scops Owl
Brown Hawk Owl
Greater Short-toed Lark
Red-rumped Swallow (japonica)
Asiatic House Martin
White Wagtail (ocularis) We also saw 1-2 leucopsis, and 1 baikalensis
Black-backed Wagtail (lugens)
Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit (japonica)
Eurasian Tree Pipit
Siberian Blue Robin
"Red-breasted" Blue Rock Thrush (philippensis)
Dusky Thrush (both eunomus and naummani)
Chinese Blackbird (T. [merula] mandarinus)
Japanese Bush Warbler Cettia diphone cantans
Korean Bush Warbler Cettia (diphone) borealis
Pallas's Leaf Warbler
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler
Two-barred Greenish Warbler
Hume's Leaf Warbler
Oriental Reed Warbler
Narcissus Flycatcher (inc. elisae)
Blue & White Flycatcher
Chinese Penduline Tit
Japanese Yellow Bunting
Chestnut-(Red- cheeked) Starling
Unfortunately there was no roll-call on the 27th following a demanding and wet day in the field. This day was spent wader watching. All the major wader species were seen including good counts of Great Knot, Broad-billed sandpipers, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Red-necked Stints. It was during this day that one Spoon-billed Sandpiper was seen briefly by Niall Moores.
Total species count: This depends upon how you want to treat certain groups e.g. Wagtails and Gulls. However, in excess of 210 species were seen during the two week period!
Eoncheng Do was also "manned" by Nial after our visit and details of the birds subsequently seen are on the WBK Website.