Guide — Nial Moores (Birds Korea) — website - http://www.birdskorea.org/, e-mail - email@example.com
Introduction and strategy
This was a whistle stop one week tour of South Korea, starting in the DMZ north of Seoul, then birding down the west coast as far as Haenam, then along the south coast to Guryongpo and Busan, before making the long drive back to Seoul.
South Korea was all about quality not quantity — a winter trip here isn’t ever likely to produce a long list of birds (although 134 in 6 days isn’t bad!), but some of the birds on offer are truly world-class — Scaly-sided Merganser, Baikal Teal, Steller’s Sea-Eagle, Relict and Saunders’ Gulls, Red-crowned, White-naped and Hooded Cranes. Solitary Snipe and Oriental White Stork are just some of the species on offer.
With hindsight, our time here was really too short, meaning that our itinerary was very tight, and quite tiring. Nevertheless, we managed to see all the above species in just 6 hectic days, as well as many other good birds. There is no doubt that we got very lucky on several occasions — the Relict Gull we found on a pond near the river when we had arrived just too late to catch the tide, the Oriental White Stork that we found at Haenam just as we had given up and were getting into the van to leave, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle which turned up at Nakdonggang on our last day, after none had been reported anywhere in South Korea all winter, the weather which seemed to be dry and clear wherever we happened to be, and terrible everywhere else etc.
However, our success is largely due to the expert knowledge and tireless efforts of our superb resident guide, Nial Moores, who pulled more rabbits out of the hat in one week than most conjurers will manage in an entire lifetime! Sara and I had originally planned to do this trip alone and unguided the previous winter, but had to cancel because of work commitments. In hindsight, this was the best thing that could have happened, as we would have seen far far less without Nial.
We are also greatly indebted to David Diskin, Steve James, John van der Woude, Keith Betton, Dave Sargeant and Steven Jackson for their considerable help and advice leading up to this trip.
Despite the quality of the birding in South Korea, the rate of environmental damage is staggering and very depressing. In fact, I don't think I have ever been anywhere where the environment is under such a massive short-term threat. The scale of development there has to be seen to be believed, and is clearly completely out of control. The country appears to be dominated by a number of large corporations with an insatiable appetite for development and construction. Huge areas of tidal flats are being reclaimed with no end use in sight, and are then left dormant. Roads are being built at an extraordinary rate, often it seems with little purpose. A road map bought just 6 months ago by our guide was already completely out of date.
Not one single hectare of tidal flat anywhere in South Korea has any protected status whatsoever. The Songdo tidal flats, previously the favourite haunt of Relict Gulls, has been 90% "reclaimed". The island of Yeongjongdo, previously frequented by Red-crowned Cranes, is now the site of a major airport and a huge expressway. Nakdonggang, near Busan, is being progressively trashed, and although still a good site, is just a shadow of what it once was.
Colossal areas of tidal flats have been reclaimed at Seosan, Haenam and Saemangeum - you really have to see the scale of these areas to fully appreciate the devastation - Seosan is c. 17,000 hectares in size, Haenam larger and Saemangeum over twice as big! At present, these areas are still great for birds, albeit not tidal flat species, but there are now plans to develop these reclaimed areas including, in Haenam’s case, plans to build a huge Disneyland-type theme park.
In the face of all this, the campaign being fought by environmentalists in South Korea is quite extraordinary, and they deserve the support of birders across the world. In particular, I would draw your attention to Birds Korea, the national and international network dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in South Korea and the greater Yellow Sea Eco-region, who have been instrumental in the recent campaigns against the proposed developments at Saemangeum and elsewhere in the country. I urge anyone reading this report to visit http://www.birdskorea.org/birdskoreamembership.asp and join this organisation. Membership is completely free to those living outside Korea, but joining gives the organisation tremendous clout in their campaigning efforts, for example in assisting them to gain government recognition as an official protest group. Please do it now - it takes just a couple of seconds, but can make a big difference.
Having spent a week on Taiwan, Clive, Eleanor, Sara and I flew with Cathay Pacific from Taipei (TPE) to Seoul Incheon airport (ICN) on 22.1.05. Kingsley and Sharon flew from the UK to Seoul with Lufthansa, arriving at 12:25 on 23.1.05.
At the end of the trip, Kingsley and Sharon took the ferry from Busan to Fukuoka in Japan on 29.1.05, while Clive, Eleanor, Sara and I drove back to Seoul. Sara and I flew with KLM back from Seoul to Cardiff (CWL) via Amsterdam (AMS). Clive and Eleanor took the same flight to Amsterdam, then flew on to Edinburgh. My flight times were as follows:
Outwards: Depart TPE 22.01.05 16:50, arrive ICN 22.01.05 20:15
Return: Depart ICN 30.01.05 13:35, arrive AMS 30.01.05 17:15
Depart AMS 30.01.05 19:20, arrive CWL 30.01.05 19:45
The flights were booked through Airline Network (0800 727747) and cost GBP 833 each including taxes for the entire Cardiff — Taipei — Seoul — Cardiff route — not cheap, but cheaper than doing 2 separate trips!
The trip was done on a self-drive basis, with Clive and I sharing the driving due to the long distances involved. We hired a 9 seater Hyundai Starex minivan for Avis for the duration, booked in advance from the UK. Nial had warned us that he had recently experienced problems with Avis at Incheon Airport — failing to recognise reservations, not honouring quotes etc, and sure enough when we went to collect the vehicle, we immediately ran into problems.
Avis had previously quoted me the sum of USD 495 (GBP 275) for the vehicle, but the desk at Incheon refused to honour this price, claiming that it could not be correct. There followed a protracted and heated debate in Korean with Nial, during which the price they were quoting steadily fell, until they eventually agreed a fee of KRW 500,000 (GBP 265), pretty much what had originally been quoted. All very unnecessary, but according to Nial very much the norm these days. Please note than an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) is necessary for hiring a car in South Korea.
Road conditions in South Korea were excellent, and the driving was very easy (except in Busan city, where traffic was very heavy) — too good, really, as road construction is absolutely rampant at present, with consequent considerable loss of valuable habitat. Tidal flats are particularly at risk, with new developments springing up everywhere you look — all rather depressing.
Driving standards in Korea, however, are another matter entirely. Status and size are everything on Korean roads — the bigger the vehicle, the more likely that they will cut you up, overtake without signalling, or jump red lights. The latter is especially a problem, so much so that actually stopping for one can be dangerous, as the vehicle behind you will probably assume that you are going to run it, and could well plough into the back of you if you brake. We spent as much time looking in the rear view mirror as looking ahead! Be especially wary of drivers of large trucks, who are a total law to themselves.
Once you have adjusted to the local mindset, however, there is a certain rhythm and logic to it which you can adapt to. This is especially the case driving a largish vehicle like a Starex, as people in smaller cars automatically move out of your way if you want, for example, to change lanes in busy traffic.
Speed cameras are abundant on all motorways, with one every few kilometres, although these are signposted a few hundred metres in advance. We were very relieved and a little surprised to arrive back at the airport to find that no fines had been charged against us — the cameras were so prevalent that it seemed inevitable that we’d have been caught out somewhere.
All signposts on major roads are now bilingual, Korean and English, making finding your way around pretty straightforward, although signs on minor roads are often still only in Korean, or may be missing altogether. Note, however, the process of Romanisation of Korean place names is still in a state of flux, and you can therefore expect considerable variation in the spelling protocols — see under "Language" for more details. Be careful with road numbers, as these will often differ from those shown on maps due to continuing development of the road network, and the numbers may also change along the length of the road.
Some of the motorways, especially those around Seoul, are toll roads, but this did not represent a big cost. We were always unsure which category of vehicle we were driving, and it seems that the tollbooth staff were equally confused as we often paid different tolls at the same tollbooth near Songdo! Petrol cost KRW 1,000 (GBP 0.53) per litre, as usual much cheaper than in the UK.
Very little English is spoken in South Korea, and we were therefore very fortunate that Nial speaks good Korean. Most signposts are, however, bilingual, so finding your way around isn’t difficult, although there is still a considerable level of variation in the way Korean place names are Romanised.
One system changes the way unaspirated consonants are spelled, so that an unaspirated P is spelled as a B, T as a D etc. Under this system, Pusan becomes Busan, Kuryongpo becomes Guryongpo, Taejon becomes Daejon, Cheju becomes Jeju etc. This seems to be the commonest spelling convention.
Another system, however, leaves the consonant spelled "hard", but uses an apostrophe to represent aspirated consonants, so, for example, Incheon may also be spelled Inch’on, Pohang becomes P’ohang etc. This is the system used in my version of the Lonely Planet guide and on the Nelles map.
There is also variation in the way the vowels ‘o’ and ‘u’ are spelled, sometimes using diacritical marks (? and ?), alternatively the marks may be omitted and another ‘e’ inserted. So, for example, Seoul can be spelled as S?ul, Gwangneung as Gwangn?ng etc.
All these apostrophes and diacritical marks seem to be treated as optional, and just to make things even more confusing, the letters ‘r’ and ‘l’ also seem to be interchangeable, on occasions.
What this all means is that you need to really be on your toes when deciphering road signs. I have seen Cheorwon alternatively spelled as Cholwon, Chorwon, Ch’orwon and even Ch’?lw?n!
Etiquette is extremely important in Korean culture, even in basic day-to-day situations, and failure to follow certain basic rules can result in offence being given, even without you knowing. Wherever possible, when you give or accept any item (e.g. money in a shop), do so with both hands — using one hand is considered very insulting. If this isn’t possible, because the item is too small, or because one hand is full, fold the other arm across your chest as you extend the other — this is considered just as acceptable as using two hands, but the higher up your body you cross the other arm, the better. A short bow or nod at the same time is also good.
When you enter a Korean building such as a home, hotel room or restaurant, you will usually see a small step up into the main room. You should always take off your shoes before you step up to this area — doing otherwise is the height of rudeness. If you dine with Korean friends, there are other things you should do or not do to avoid awkwardness and embarrassment. Never pour your own drink, as it signifies that you have no friends. If someone pours for you, hold your glass with both hands, low down and tilted, but not flat on the table. If you’re doing the pouring, remember to hold the bottle in both hands, or with one arm across your chest. Putting chopsticks upright in your rice is a big no-no, as it is associated with a death ritual. Never point, and avoid doing anything that might cause another person to lose face.
It takes a while to remember these things, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes quite good fun, and the change in the way Koreans react to you is startling. These sorts of differences are, after all, what makes travelling such an enjoyable experience.
Costs & Money
The local currency is the Korean Won (KRW), and the approximate exchange rate against sterling (GBP) at the time of my visit (which I have used in translating costs throughout this report) was as follows:
GBP 1 = KRW 1,900
Nial’s fees were paid in cash on arrival. Guiding fees are best negotiated direct, based on details given on the Birds Korea website. As a conservationist who guides, Nial Moores often guides other conservationists who are active in the region for expenses and donations to Birds Korea alone; for birders not active in conservation in the region, a 'birders' rate is obviously required, to help fund Birds Korea's work.
We paid the car hire cost by credit card on arrival, but all other expenses were paid in cash. As our itinerary was so tight, and we would be spending most nights in small towns, we changed enough cash for the entire trip at the airport, and changed back what we hadn’t used on our return.
Accommodation and food
We spent 2 nights (22 Jan and 29 Jan) at the Hotel Sky, 2790-2 Unseo-dong, Jung-ku, Incheon which Nial had pre-booked for us. This was a comfortable hotel, not far from the airport, and cost KRW 50,000 (GBP 26) per room per night. Tel +82 (0)32 752 1101, fax +82 (0)32 752 1109, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, website http://www.hotelsky.co.kr/main_eng.shtml
The night of 28 Jan was spent at the rather luxurious Hotel Nam Tae Pyung Yang, 149-1, Eomgoong-dong, Sasang-ku, Busan — KRW 70,000 (GBP 36) per room per night, and worth every penny! Tel +82 (0)51 328 9911, fax +82 (0)51 328 9912
The rest of the time we stayed in what are known as "Love Motels", which were an experience in themselves. These are primarily aimed at Korean businessmen who wish to entertain their mistresses, and the rooms are rented by the hour as often as by the night! They are, however, ideal for birders — they are everywhere, including very near to the best birding sites, cheap (typically about KRW 30,000 (GBP 16) per room per night), and most importantly, they were very clean and comfortable. They are far from low-profile — neon signs are seemingly essential, and the newer ones look more like Disney attractions than motels, but it does make it a lot easier to find them. There was also a considerable novelty value to them — you never knew what you were going to get — one night it would be a circular bed, the next, a water mattress — made for very interesting and entertaining comparisons over breakfast the next day!
One thing that should be emphasised about Korean hotels is that they all seem to be fitted with very efficient underfloor heating. While this was a huge relief given that the outside temperatures were almost perpetually sub-zero, they could get too warm, and more importantly, the rooms got very dry. At Nial’s suggestion, we soaked a couple of towels before going to bed each night, and laid these on the floor, and these helped keep up moisture levels in the room during the night.
You may also wish to bring your own bedding with you — the bedding supplied was invariably immaculately clean, but was usually nylon, which some might find uncomfortable. We took along cotton sheet sleeping bags, but never got around to using them.
Due to our hectic timetable, food was taken as and when we could find it. We enjoyed a couple of very pleasant meals at traditional Korean restaurants, although sitting cross-legged on the floor played havoc with my sore knees, but we mostly ate at motorway service stations, where the quality of the food was surprisingly good, and where you could find everything from traditional Korean food to Western burgers and chicken.
We had read a lot before travelling about kimchi, the traditional Korea delicacyn of spicy fermented cabbage, and many Westerners seem to hate it. We found it pretty tasty, however, and ate it with most meals. Another Korean speciality which we bought for lunch a few times is kimbap, the local equivalent of sushi, and often sold very cheaply in supermarkets.
Korean beer was pretty good, but I particularly enjoyed the soju we drank with our meal one night — a little like sake, and with a fair old hangover to follow!
No visas needed for UK passport holders — details for other passport holders can be obtained at http://english.tour2korea.com/. Other than the need for an IDP to drive a rental car, red tape seemed to be mercifully absent.
South Korea’s mobile phone network seems to be incompatible with anywhere else, and you will therefore probably be unable to use your cell phone here. Phones or SIMs can, however, be hired very cheaply from one of the desks at Incheon airport — I paid KRW 3,000 (GBP 1.50) per day for a phone, and calls from this phone were also fairly cheap.
Internet use is extremely widespread in South Korea and internet cafes can be found almost everywhere. They are known locally as "PC bangs", and can usually be identified by the letters "PC" in the logo. Broadband is standard, and the cost of using them is very reasonable — typically KRW 2,000 (GBP 1) per hour maximum.
Very cold most of the time — certainly below zero most days, and as low as —10C some days, with the coldest being in the north west and warming a little (although this is a very relative term!) towards the south west. Apparently we got lucky — the day we were leaving, a cold front was due to arrive from the north with temperatures expect to plummet by a further 10 — 15C!!
The cold didn’t really bother me too much — I prefer it to extreme heat any day — but it affected some of the others, and Clive and Eleanor in particular found it a serious inconvenience. We were lucky, however, in that we had no rain or snow at all while we were there, although the weather was often worse in other parts of the country. We were extremely lucky in this respect — when we were in Haenam, it was snowing across most of the rest of the country including Guryongpo, yet when we birded Guryongpo the next morning it was in glorious sunshine, while it was snowing in Haenam!
Given our ridiculously tight itinerary, a day’s bad weather would have been very bad news indeed, and would probably have resulted in us missing some birds. In fact, the weather plays a large part in what birds you are likely to see in this area in winter. If there have been any cold spells before you visit, the rivers will probably have frozen, especially in the north, and birds such as Scaly-sided Mergansers and Swan Geese will have been forced to move further south, or will even disappear from the country completely. On the other hard, birds such as Steller’s Sea-Eagle do not generally arrive in South Korea until one of these cold fronts has swept over, and other species such as Relict Gull, Siberian Accentor etc will be scarcer until then.
The timing of our trip was therefore perfect in this regard — it was still mild enough to make the birding up in the north west really productive, and the cold front arriving just after we left pushed a couple of Steller’s Sea-eagles down before it, ensuring that we did not miss out on this key species. The only negative was that irruptive species such as Rosefinches, Japanese Waxwings etc were in very short supply, and we ended up dipping these birds. Scaly-sided Merganser was, however, more than adequate compensation for this!
Health, safety & annoyances
As usual, we ensured that we were up to date with the usual jabs before visiting (tetanus, polio, typhoid, yellow fever, hepatitis, meningitis and diphtheria), but South Korea is a very safe country in this regard, with hygiene levels comparable with Europe or North America. The biggest problem during our visit was the extreme cold, with lots of warm clothes needed to keep this at bay.
South Korea is a very safe country, with low levels of crime, and we never felt remotely threatened in this respect, although I’m sure that the bigger cities have their share of petty crime. Understandably, however, there is still considerable tension between South and North Korea, and there is always the possibility that this could develop into something more serious. See: http://www.fco.gov.uk for up to date advice including information on the health and safety situation.
Books & other publications:
* Field Guide to the birds of Korea — Woo-Shin Lee, Tae-Hoe Koo & Jin-Young Park (Published by LG Evergreen Foundation, ISBN 89-951415-0-6 06490)
* Where to watch birds in Asia — Nigel Wheatley. (Published by Helm, ISBN 0-7136-4303-X). Good background info, which formed the basis of planning the trip.
* Korea — Storey. (Lonely Planet, ISBN 0-86442-494-9)
* Birding South Korea In Winter — David Diskin (Privately published, 1995). A little out of date now, but the only source of birding site maps that I was able to locate
* Birding in South Korea — Lethaby, Moores and Park (Dutch Birding 22 : 204-219, 2000). An excellent article — well worth getting.
Birds of South Korea — Charlie & Nial Moores (Published by Charlie Moores Video Productions). An excellent 170 minute long VHS guide to the country’s birds — definitely worth getting.
http://www.birdskorea.org/ - fabulous English-language web site on birding and bird conservation in Korea managed by Charlie Moores (not only of Birds Korea but also of http://www.charliesbirdblog.com/ fame). Has sections on recent bird news, general advice on birding and visiting Korea, an ID section, an updated Checklist, and lots of other interesting features. There is also a Korean-language version.
http://english.tour2korea.com - outstanding web site run by the Korea National Tourism Organisation, with masses of superb information on virtually every aspect of Korean life. An absolutely invaluable resource when planning your trip
http://english.tour2korea.com/03Sightseeing/ThemeTours/visiting.asp?kosm - section within the above website, written by Nial Moores, with some excellent info on birding in Korea, including site details and a whole range of other useful background information. A highly commendable effort by the KNTO in providing this sort of resource online.
http://www.escortmap.co.kr/korea/country.htm - very useful on-line road map of Korea — more detail than the Nelles map I bought in advance, and therefore very useful in the planning stages
http://www.knto.or.kr/english/etheme/E_Birdwatching/birding_site/birding_site.htm - web site giving details of birding sites in South Korea
http://www.orientalbirdclub.org/publications/features/korea.html - good article on Korea’s wetlands by Nial Moores
/mb/trips/saemankeum-0902.html - Article on Saemangeum by Nial and Charlie Moores
South Korea — 6.12.01 — 17.12.01 — Nial Moores
South Korea — 3.1.04 — 19.1.04 — Peter Collaerts
Nelles Map — Korea — 1:1,500,000. Disappointingly small scale, especially as half of the map was devoted to North Korea, which is almost impossible to visit. It would have been much more useful to have covered just South Korea, northern half on one side, southern half on the other.
International Travel Maps — South Korea — 1:550,000. Larger scale than the above, making routes easier to follow, but much less detailed with less place names shown. Very frustrating.
Whichever map you buy, the scale of road-building going on in South Korea means that it is likely that it will quickly be out of date. There are some excellent road maps and atlases available to buy locally, but all the ones I saw were only in Korean, and therefore not much use for non-Korean speakers.
Sites visited were as follows:
22.01.05 Arrived Seoul late evening and met up with Nial to transfer to our airport hotel
23.01.05 Most of the day at Songdo and nearby Sorae, afternoon visit to Han-Imjin, then evening drive to Jeongok
24.01.05 Early morning at Pecma near Cheorwon, in the DMZ. Late morning drive to Scaly-sided Merganser site (NE River) in Gang-won-do. Subsequent drive down to National Arboretum at Gwangneung. Evening drive to Seosan
25.01.05 All day at Seosan, late afternoon drive to Gunsan on Geum River
26.01.05 Morning at Geum River, afternoon drive to Haenam, late afternoon birding Haenam Reclamation Area
27.01.05 Early morning birding Haenam, drive to Suncheon, brief visit to Jirisan, then evening drive east to Guryongpo
28.01.05 Day birding Guryongpo area, late afternoon drive to Busan, via stop at Angang
29.01.05 Early morning visit to Dadaepo Park in Busan, rest of the day at the Nakdonggang Estuary, late afternoon drive back to Seoul
30.01.05 Morning at leisure, before transfer to airport for flight home
Details of these sites are given in the Daily Account section.
Sunday 23 January 2005
Although 4 of us had arrived from Taiwan and met up with Nial last night, Kingsley & Sharon weren’t due to arrive from the UK until 12:30 today. Consequently, we had stayed at a hotel near the airport last night, and Nial, Clive and I set out for some local birding this morning. The plan was to start to familiarise ourselves with some of the many gull species still found in this area, with the added spice that a Relict Gull had been seen recently in this area.
We went to the airport by 06:00 to collect the hire vehicle, then drove down to Songdo to bird the tidal flats here. This must clearly have once been a superb site, but the fragment of tidal flats that remain is but a small fraction of the original area, and with development continuing at a rapid pace it seems only a matter of time, and a short time span at that, before this site is completely lost. This is a huge loss, as this area is extremely important for Saunders’s Gull, and was previously a major wintering site for the endangered Relict Gull.
We arrived at Songdo at around 07:00, and started scanning the many gulls. SAUNDERS’S GULLS were soon picked out, alongside BLACK-HEADED GULLS, and some larger gulls with them proved to be VEGA GULLS, as Nial started giving us his masterclass on gull identification. We spent some time watching these birds, and scanning further out, but with the tide a long way out there was no sign of the Relict Gull.
After a while here, we moved further along the coast to the town of Sorae, where we again scanned the exposed mudflats. SAUNDERS’S, MONGOLIAN and JAPANESE GULLS were seen here, and duck species were well represented with YELLOW-NIBBED DUCKS among the more familiar SHELDUCK, MALLARD and PINTAIL. A nice BLACK-BACKED WAGTAIL proved to be our first passerine of the trip, as it made its way through the jumble of rocks below the sea wall.
Scanning the Mongolian Gull flock eventually paid off when Nial found an AMERICAN HERRING GULL among them, which gave very good views before eventually flying off. This bird is not even officially on the Korean list, but Nial has seen several in this area, and believes that they are under-recorded.
We also gained good views of a strange gull, which Nial has informally termed "Yellow Sea Gull". It is currently considered to be a form of MONGOLIAN GULL, although Nial has noted differences in structure, plumage and behaviour that might suggest that it is a distinct taxon. Either way it was quite a distinctive bird, and well worth seeing.
From Sorae we returned to the town of Incheon, where we stopped at an overgrown weedy field when Nial spotted a Bull-headed Shrike. The bird couldn’t be relocated, but a short while here produced good views of ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE and OLIVE-BACKED PIPITS, glimpses of RUSTIC BUNTINGS and a fly-over "SIBERIAN" BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT.
From here we returned to the hotel to collect Eleanor and Sara and check out, before returning to the airport to meet Kingsley and Sharon. Nial had told us that our best bet for the Relict Gull was to be back at Songdo just before high tide, but the arrival time of Kingsley and Sharon’s flight meant that it would be very tight, and indeed when we eventually got back to Songdo, it was immediately apparent that we were too late — the tide was already in.
We wandered up and down the sea front scanning all the gulls, seeing the same species as this morning. There were some ice floes further along, so we checked these out, as Relicts often like to roost on these, but no sign at all. Giving up on the tidal flats, we crossed the road to check out a reclamation pond on the other side, where there was a sizeable gull roost.
After scanning for some time, Eleanor and Nial simultaneously got onto the same strange bird — it was the RELICT GULL!! We enjoyed excellent prolonged views through the scope as the bird sat on the ice, and our first major target bird was in the bag! Some "TAIMYR" HEUGLIN’S GULLS and a lone "KAMCHATKA" COMMON GULL were also found among the flock, making a very impressive total of nine species of gull in this one area — not bad!
Our itinerary for the trip had been left flexible out of necessity, as both the weather and luck would undoubtedly have a big effect on our plans. Having got the Relict Gull so quickly, we therefore decided to stick with our draft plan and visit Cheorwon at dawn tomorrow to try for cranes. We therefore drove northwards from Songdo, skirting Seoul on the western side, and crossing the Han River, before turning west along the highway that follows the road up towards Imjingak and Panmunjeon
We made a stop on the hard shoulder (technically illegal, but not a problem as long as you’re careful) when we saw a flock of ROOKS gathering to roost, and found a hoped-for DAURIAN JACKDAW among them — the two species apparently frequently associate together. Some RUDDY SHELDUCK also flew over the road here.
From here we drove up as far as the turn-off to Munsan where we turned around and returned southwards along the same road. It was much easier to get good views of the river from this side, and various random stops produced good numbers of geese (both TUNDRA and TAIGA BEAN GEESE as well as EUROPEAN WHITE-FRONTED GEESE), some distant BLACK VULTURES and a few RUSTIC BUNTINGS before the light failed us.
Another U-turn and it was back northwards on the first of many night time drives, as far as the town of Jeongok where we checked into our first love motel (the snazzily named Motel N), and enjoyed an excellent meal at the restaurant next door.
Songdo — Goosander, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Japanese Gull, "Kamchatka" Common Gull, "Taimyr" Heuglin’s Gull, Vega Gull, Mongolian Gull, Common Black-headed Gull, Saunders’s Gull, Relict Gull, Grey Heron
Sorae — Common Shelduck, Mallard, Yellow-nibbed Duck, Northern Pintail, Common Teal, Japanese Gull, American Herring Gull, Mongolian Gull, Saunders’s Gull, Black-backed Wagtail
Incheon — Oriental Turtle-Dove, "Oriental" Magpie, Olive-backed Pipit, "Siberian" Buff-bellied Pipit, Rustic Bunting
Han-Imjin — "Taiga" Bean Goose, "Tundra" Bean Goose, European White-fronted Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Goosander, Black Vulture, "Oriental" Magpie, Daurian Jackdaw, Rook, "Japanese" Great Tit, Rustic Bunting
Monday 24 January 2005
The plan today was to be up at Cheorwon by first light, in the hope of seeing flocks of White-naped and Red-crowned Cranes flying out of the DMZ where they roost to feed in the adjacent fields. We therefore made a very early start from Jeongok and arrived at Pecma, near Cheorwon, while it was still dark.
The DMZ is largely a closed area, which has made it a haven for wildlife, but some limited access is permitted in the Cheorwon area, and Pecma (meaning White Horse Hill) is one of these sites - a famous battle site from the Korean War, complete with monument to the thousands of soldiers, mostly Chinese, who lost their lives in one of the war’s bloodiest battles.
We arrived at the car park at the bottom of the low hill, and walked through thin snow up a good path to the top of the hill, from where there is a good view over the adjacent fields, and into the DMZ. It was extremely cold here, but the lack of wind just about made it bearable as we found our first birds, with some VARIED TITS providing the first excitement.
These were followed by a few JAYS of the distinctive race brandti, before we heard the first cranes flying towards us. First up was a small group of WHITE-NAPED CRANES, followed by some superb RED-CROWNED CRANES, and we soon had a few of each feeding in fields beneath while others continued to fly past calling evocatively as they went. A superbly atmospheric experience, with the cold weather and snow on the ground just making it that much more memorable.
Having enjoyed the crane show, we birded our way back down the path, picking up good views of DUSKY THRUSH and BROWN-EARED BULBUL along the way. Another wide track led off left towards a helicopter landing area, and the bushes in this area were extremely productive, giving views of RUSTIC BUNTING, BRAMBLING, VARIED TIT, "ASIAN" MARSH TIT (race brevirostris), LONG-TAILED TIT (race magnus) and PYGMY WOODPECKER, but frustration as a Yellow-throated Bunting was seen, but I couldn’t get onto it.
We returned to the car park, and wandered off to the left to skirt the bottom of the hill, and to my relief we soon relocated the YELLOW-THROATED BUNTING, the first of a few seen here among the hordes of RUSTIC BUNTINGS. We walked along the banks of a frozen canal for a while, as this is habitat often favoured by Siberian Accentor, but no luck, so we returned to the vehicle, seeing ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE along the way.
Our next stop today was a site which Nial had learned of where some Scaly-sided Mergansers were wintering, but we had only gone a few kilometres from Pecma when we stopped to watch some ORIENTAL GREENFINCHES on roadside wires where the road crosses a small river. While we were enjoying these birds, a small flock of CHINESE GROSBEAKS flew in — most unexpected and a very nice bonus species.
Despite the extreme cold, we decided to take a short walk along the river, and this proved a very good decision — almost immediately we found a flock of VINOUS-THROATED PARROTBILLS and a female DAURIAN REDSTART, as well as a PYGMY WOODPECKER feeding on reed stems and some YELLOW-NIBBED DUCKS on the river. The undoubted highlight, however, was the single SIBERIAN ACCENTOR which Kingsley found on the opposite bank, and which proved to be the only one we saw on the whole trip.
Fully satisfied with our time at Cheorwon, next stop was the merganser site in Gangwon Province. These birds are extremely wary and consequently at risk of considerable disturbance at this site. Consequently, the Korean birder who found the birds wintering here and passed on the information to Nial asked that details of the site be kept confidential, and I have obviously complied with this request. Consequently, I have referred to this site simply as "NE River"
We arrived at the site and set about trying to find this rare and difficult bird. We soon found a flock of GOOSANDERS but they were quite distant, and initially we couldn’t convince ourselves that there were any more interesting birds in the flock. Eventually the birds drifted a little closer, and we managed to pick out one female SCALY-SIDER MERGANSER among the birds. An excellent bird, but the views were very distant, making the experience a little anti-climactic.
We couldn’t get any closer to the birds by vehicle, but a narrow path wound along the river bank through bushes and trees, and seemed to provide good cover, so having enjoyed views of a JAPANESE WAGTAIL along the river bank, we slowly and quietly walked along the path until we had approached much closer to the birds. We had also followed the river a little way around a bend and it also became apparent that there were several more birds along this bank, hidden from where we had first stopped, and we eventually counted a total of no less than 9 SCALY-SIDED MERGANSERS in this area, (1 male and 8 females), and we enjoyed excellent scope views of these birds, even noting the fine vermiculations along their flanks.
Not wanting to risk any disturbance to these superb birds, we soon beat a retreat, finding a cracking and confiding male DAURIAN REDSTART along the way, and back at the vehicle found a BULL-NECKED SHRIKE. We got back into the van and returned along the access track that ran along the river bank, coming to an abrupt halt when a pair of MANDARIN DUCK were found right next to the road — nice to see proper wild examples of this species, rather than the feral birds we had seen previously in the UK.
A little further along we reached an area of gravel banks on both sides of the river, and a quick scan revealed a LONG-BILLED PLOVER on the far bank, seen well in the scope. Even better, however, was another female SCALY-SIDED MERGANSER found directly opposite where we had stopped, giving fantastic views through the scope, and apparently unconcerned at the busy road just a few metres away from her — most unexpected! The last bird of interest here was a JUNGLE CROW perched on a rooftop aerial.
Having succeeded so well with the merganser it dawned on us that we actually had a chance of reaching Gwangneung Arboretum before nightfall — this would give us a chance of looking for Solitary Snipe that night, and would allow us to continue to Seosan before finding a hotel. This would be a long and tiring drive, but would create some very valuable additional time later in the trip.
So, we hit the road again, arriving at Gwangneung with perhaps and hour and a half of daylight left. We pulled into the car park, walked over to the fence and looked down onto the river, and there was a SOLITARY SNIPE right in front of us! This was amazing luck, and even though the bird flushed and flew upstream we soon found it again from a nearby bridge over the river. We enjoyed excellent prolonged looks at this difficult and elusive species, at what is possibly the most reliable site anywhere in the world to see it.
This has to go down as one of the most successful days birding I’ve ever had — there can’t be many birders who have managed to see White-naped and Hooded Cranes, Scaly-sided Merganser and Solitary Snipe on the same day, and we still had an hour’s daylight left! We took a stroll through the arboretum in the hope of finding some Rosefinches, but instead had to be satisfied with PYGMY, WHITE-BACKED and GREY-HEADED WOODPECKERS, as well as NAUMANN’S THRUSH and a few species seen earlier today, including stunning views of a YELLOW-THROATED BUNTING.
Very satisfied, we set off on the long tiring drive down to Seosan, and checked into a love motel near the old fishing village, very handily placed for tomorrow morning’s visit to reclamation Pond ‘A’.
Cheorwon — "Tundra" Bean Goose, European White-fronted Goose, Yellow-nibbed Duck, Pygmy Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Oriental Turtle-Dove, White-naped Crane, Red-crowned Crane, Common Buzzard, Grey Heron, "Brandt’s" Jay, "Oriental" Magpie, Dusky Thrush, Daurian Redstart, "Asian" Marsh Tit, "Japanese" Great Tit, Varied Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Brown-eared Bulbul, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Siberian Accentor, Brambling, Oriental Greenfinch, Chinese Grosbeak, Rustic Bunting, Yellow-throated Bunting
NE River — Mandarin Duck, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Yellow-nibbed Duck, Common Teal, Common Goldeneye, Scaly-sided Merganser, Goosander, Long-billed Plover, Common Buzzard, Little Grebe, Grey Heron, Bull-headed Shrike, Jungle Crow, Daurian Redstart, Japanese Wagtail
Gwangneung — Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Oriental Turtle-Dove, Solitary Snipe, Grey Heron, "Brandt’s" Jay, "Oriental" Magpie, Naumann’s Thrush, Eurasian Nuthatch, "Asian" Marsh Tit, "Japanese" Great Tit, Varied Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Brown-eared Bulbul, Rustic Bunting, Yellow-throated Bunting
Tuesday 25 January 2005
The keenest (maddest?) of us started this morning with a short walk from the hotel along the causeway to the old "island" at the end of the road. Nothing spectacular seen on this walk, although we saw HEUGLIN’S, JAPANESE and MONGOLIAN GULL, DAURIAN REDSTART, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, YELLOW-NIBBED DUCK, ORIENTAL GREENFINCH, ORANGE-FLANKED BLUETAIL, VINOUS-THROATED PARROTBILL and VARIED TIT.
Back to the hotel we picked up the rest of the group and headed for Reclamation Pond ‘A’. The sheer size of this reclamation area is difficult to appreciate, but suffice it to say that in almost a full day’s birding, we barely covered one side of this lake, and the adjacent Reclamation Lake ‘B’ is just as big!
We entered the reclamation area, where the track ran through an area of cultivated fields on our right and alongside a vegetation-fringed watercourse on our left, and started birding along the track — the cold weather and sheer size of the area to cover meant that driving, stopping and scanning was the order of the day. TAIGA BEAN, TUNDRA BEAN and EUROPEAN WHITE-FRONTED GEESE were everywhere, and raptors were also obvious — COMMON BUZZARD, MERLIN and HEN HARRIER were soon seen.
>This area is a renowned spot for AMUR LEOPARD CAT, and sure enough we managed to see one of these crossing a field. One of our main target species for today was Oriental Stork, and we stopped frequently along an adjacent river to scan, but with no luck, although we saw a number of wetland species including EURASIAN SPOONBILL, WHOOPER SWANS and a variety of herons and ducks.
A stop where a bridge crossed the river produced only BLACK-BACKED WAGTAILS, but a flock of geese in a nearby field held a nice surprise, in the form of a CACKLING GOOSE, although I think it was fair to say that Nial was more excited about this than the rest of us, and to his disgust I was more interested in the eastern race CARRION CROWS in some nearby trees.
Cruising and scanning the stubble fields produced a NORTHERN GOSHAWK and a ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK, as well as BULL-HEADED SHRIKE and a small flock of JAPANESE SKYLARKS. We stopped at a patch of reeds, and clambered down onto the adjacent mudflat to look for reed buntings. We eventually saw a couple of PALLAS’S BUNTINGS but the views were poor, mostly just seeing them in flight.
On every trip, there seems to be a relatively common species which everyone else sees loads of, but which I struggle like anything to see. Well, on this trip it was to be BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT of the Siberian race japonicus, and I again failed to see one here which the others had seen land in full view on a patch of mud, before walking right, out of sight.
This was soon forgotten when we flushed first a COMMON PHEASANT, a proper wild one not the feral ones we see at home, and then, even better, a JAPANESE QUAIL, which gave pretty good flight views as it flew directly away from us. A YELLOW-THROATED BUNTING was also seen here, but still no sign of Oriental Stork.
Eventually, the road swung away from the river and through an area with a few more bushes and trees. DAURIAN REDTSART was seen here before we found an UPLAND BUZZARD on a telegraph post, which then flushed and wheeled over our heads — great views of a bird we had not expected to see.
At this point, Nial spotted a CHESTNUT-EARED BUNTING in the scrub below the road on our right, but the bird was very skulking, and it was very difficult to see them looking down from above. We therefore scrambled down the bank and walked very carefully across the extremely slippery muddy field, until we could look across at the bushes. It didn’t take too long to see the bunting, then we had the comedy highlight of the trip as Kingsley slipped, tottered about what seemed like a lifetime before pitching face down in the mud.
He got up, covered in wet mud from face to toes, and we were all laughing so hard it was as much as we could do to keep our balance and not follow him down. Needless to say, we walked back to the bank with a great deal of care! Last bird seen here was a NAUMANN’S THRUSH, before it was time to return to our hotel, much later than planned, to check out.
Having done so, we drove along a minor road skirting the seashore, scanning the mudflats, and finding a great prize, what appeared to be not one but two STEPPE GULLS, another bird not yet officially on the Korean list. We had excellent views of these birds in the scope, both showing the distinctive bill pattern that seemed to make it a pretty unmistakeable bird, even to us amateur gull-watchers. See systematic list for more discussion on this species.
We also found another target bird, a FALCATED DUCK, which showed well, before deciding to have one last attempt at Oriental Stork. We drove back into the reclamation area in the fading light, and tried another area where Nial has seen them previously, but sadly there was no sign, although we were lucky enough to find a small flock of CHINESE PENDULINE-TITS in a tiny patch of reeds just before the light failed completely.
After dark, we drove down to the town of Gunsan on the banks of the Geum River, where we checked into another love motel and crashed out.
Seosan — Japanese Quail, Common Pheasant, Whooper Swan, "Taiga" Bean Goose, "Tundra" Bean Goose, European White-fronted Goose, Cackling Goose, Falcated Duck, Mallard, Yellow-nibbed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Common Teal, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander, Oriental Turtle-Dove, Common Coot, Green Sandpiper, Northern Lapwing, Japanese Gull, "Taimyr" Heuglin’s Gull, Vega Gull, Mongolian Gull, Steppe Gull, Saunders’s Gull, Hen Harrier, Northern Goshawk, Common Buzzard, Upland Buzzard, Rough-legged Hawk, Common Kestrel, Merlin, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Great Egret, Eurasian Spoonbill, Bull-headed Shrike, "Brandt’s" Jay, "Oriental" Magpie, "Eastern" Carrion Crow, Naumann’s Thrush, Orange-flanked Bluetail, Daurian Redstart, Chinese Penduline-Tit, "Japanese" Great Tit, Varied Tit, Brown-eared Bulbul, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Japanese Skylark, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Black-backed Wagtail, "Siberian" Buff-bellied Pipit, Oriental Greenfinch, Chestnut-eared Bunting, Rustic Bunting, Yellow-throated Bunting, Black-faced Bunting, Pallas’s Bunting
Wednesday 26 January 2005
We had three main targets today in the Geum River area, namely Swan Goose, Baikal Teal and the eastern race osculans of Oystercatcher. We started the day on the riverbank near a visitor centre, just next to the major road bridge crossing the river, in the hope of finding the flock of Baikal Teal wintering in this area. This was a much smaller flock than some wintering in the country, but we were hoping that they would give closer views given that they were on a relatively narrow river rather than some huge lake.
There was one problem we hadn’t bargained for, however, and that was the thick fog covering the river when we arrived. We could hear a lot of ducks on the river, but couldn’t see a thing. We hung around for a while hoping that the sun would disperse it, but even after a couple of hours, the best we could manage were shadowy silhouettes — not exactly satisfying views of one of the world’s most attractive ducks.
We decided to cut our losses for now and try for the other two species, in the hope that the fog would clear later. We therefore drove down to the estuary, which was thankfully fog-free, and climbed up a set of steps to a viewpoint looking out over the mudflats. A decent-sized flock of "EASTERN" OYSTERCATCHERS were found out on the mud, and watched for a while, in the company of COMMON SHELDUCK and a "KAMCHATKA" COMMON GULL — there were also other waders present, but I was too busy watching the oystercatchers to worry about them.
From here we drove down to an area of saltings near the barrage over the estuary, and immediately found a flock of about a dozen SWAN GEESE — this was more like it! A PEREGRINE was also seen here, and we then returned upstream to see if the fog had cleared. Fortunately it had, and we had superb scope views of a large flock of BAIKAL TEALS on the river, as well as FALCATED DUCK and WHOOPER SWANS. Also seen here were BROWN-EARED BULBUL, BULL-HEADED SHRIKE and DUSKY THRUSH.
Having got our three main target birds, we decided to see if we could find a few other want birds. We found a goose flock in a nearby stubble field, and eventually managed to find one LESSER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE, among the numerous TUDRA BEAN and EUROPEAN WHITE-FRONTED GEESE, although it was far from easy to keep track of it among the other geese.
Finally, we saw a BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT fly in and land on a frozen drainage ditch, which duly disappeared (again!), and while looking for it we found DAURIAN REDSTART, RUSTIC and YELLOW-THROATED BUNTINGS. The highlight, however, were a group of PALLAS’S BUNTINGS which flew into the reeds and eventually showed very well at close range.
Having dipped on the Oriental Storks at Seosan yesterday, we now had a tough decision to make. The original plan had been to drive straight down to Suncheon tonight, however Nial had learned that there was a small group of Oriental Storks at Haenam in the far south west of the country. This would be out only other chance of seeing these birds, but would compress even further our already tight itinerary.
So, a rare daytime drive saw us arrive at Haenam with a couple of hours of light remaining, but discovering exactly where the birds were being seen was more difficult — this is a colossal reclamation area, even bigger than that at Seosan, and with limited time it was important to narrow down the area of search. Briefly getting the van bogged down in mud while trying to turn around in a field entrance didn’t exactly help!
Nial had obtained details of these birds from Mr. Lee Jeong-Sik, a local teacher and active conservationist who first found Baikal Teal and other waterbirds wintering in the Haenam area. He was in constant contact by cell phone with Mr Lee, and he even very kindly drove out after work with a birding friend to join us, but despite finding the correct area, there was no sign of the storks.
This was now a big problem, as we would now have to stay the night in the Haenam area rather than driving on to Suncheon tonight, and could only spare a very limited amount of time tomorrow so as to not to derail the rest of the itinerary. We booked into a nice motel, the Chosun Beach Hotel in Haenam town, enjoyed an excellent meal with our Korean birding friends, and went to bed praying that it would not be foggy tomorrow morning!
Geum River — Whooper Swan, Swan Goose, "Tundra" Bean Goose, European White-fronted Goose, Lesser White-fronted Goose, Common Shelduck, Falcated Duck, Mallard, Yellow-nibbed Duck, Northern Pintail, Baikal Teal, Goosander, Oriental Turtle-Dove, "Eastern" Oystercatcher, "Kamchatka" Common Gull, Mongolian Gull, Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Little Grebe, Grey Heron, Bull-headed Shrike, "Oriental" Magpie, Dusky Thrush, Daurian Redstart, h Northern Wren, Long-tailed Tit, Brown-eared Bulbul, "Siberian" Buff-bellied Pipit, Rustic Bunting, Yellow-throated Bunting, Pallas’s Bunting
Haenam — "Taiga" Bean Goose, Common Kestrel, Grey Heron, Great Egret
Thursday 27 January 2005
Dawn saw us driving through the village of Dangdu-ri near Haenam, in a successful search for ASIAN AZURE-WINGED MAGPIES, looking notably greyer and paler than the birds I’ve seen previously in Iberia, and with distinctive broad tips to the tail.
From here, it was down into the reclamation area again, for another look for the storks. Again, there was no sign of the birds, and we had to make do with some of the commoner birds although there were plenty of BEAN GEESE around, a COMMON PHEASANT showed really well, one SMEW flew past, and a flock of CHINESE PENDULINE-TITS gave better views than those at Seosan.
We eventually decided that we could spare the area no more time, and turned around to get back into the van, when Nial suddenly spotted an ORIENTAL WHITE STORK flying behind us. We got decent flight views of this bird, then drove nearer to where we thought it had landed, and found no less than 3 of these birds standing up on an embankment — what a result!
Hugely relieved, we set off on our drive to Suncheon, where our target bird was the wintering flock of HOODED CRANES. We hadn’t even reached the shore, where the birds are usually found, when we found a group feeding in a stubble field, and enjoyed excellent views of these threatened birds, before the people and traffic around them eventually became too much and they flew off down to the coast where they would spend the rest of the day feeding.
This was a great relief — we’d allowed the rest of the day to find these birds, and had succeeded before we’d even started looking properly! We saw a BULL-HEADED SHRIKE and some JAPANESE SKYLARKS in the same area, before finding a grey shrike which Nial thought was a Chinese. It promptly flew away, and we spent about an hour trying to relocate it among the network of narrow tracks, before eventually finding it perched up on a sluice gate — it was indeed a CHINESE GREY SHRIKE, another bird we hadn’t really been expecting to see.
Ironically, we now found ourselves with time on our hands, as he had the rest of the day to get over to Guryongpo. We thought quite hard about driving via Busan and visiting the ponds at Junam, in the hope of finding a Baer’s Pochard, but we wouldn’t really have enough time to have a decent chance of this bird, and this route would take us into Busan’s notoriously heavy traffic.
The letter 'h' denotes that the bird was heard but not seen. Please note that the only "official" checklists of birds for South Korea are now badly out of date. Consequently, the most reliable source for information on the status of birds in South Korea is the list maintained on the Birds Korea website - http://www.birdskorea.org/listupdate2004.asp