Some belated birdwatching tour highlights from Dr Nial Moores (with all images below digiscoped and copyright of Nial Moores and Birds Korea – as I have yet to receive any of the much better images from either group!).
I first bird-guided back in the 1990s (initially in Japan and then once in Hong Kong); and still occasionally guide to help support our organisation’s conservation work here in the ROK. Between January 4th and 26th, I therefore co-led two back-to-back tours for Calidris Birding Tours with Nick Upton, effectively conducting two 11-day circuits around much of the ROK, visiting many sites which sadly have been or are currently under threat of further extensive degradation (more on that in a separate post). The first tour group was comprised of birders from the UK and the USA, with the second tour group all from the USA, as it was organized by and was also co-led by Michael Carmody of Legacy Tours. Together, we found a total of c. 176 bird species, including as in previous tours all of the main winter “targets” (i.e.., Scaly-sided Merganser, Red-crowned, White-naped and Hooded Cranes, Steller’s Sea Eagle, Solitary Snipe, Relict Gull and Asian Rosy Finch etc.).
The weather was quite variable, with some exceptionally mild conditions in the first half of January, followed by snow (which we largely missed) and then severe cold for several days (most especially 23rd-25th).
This quick review lists some of the more notable bird records in the ROK context, during these two tours to many of the mainland’s premier birding sites: with single visits to the CCZ in Cheorwon and the CCZ in Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve, the Hantan River, Gangneung, Namhansanseong, Gojan / Song Do tidal flat and Seosan lake A; and repeat visits, spaced more or less two weeks apart, to the National Arboretum; the Imjin River in Yeoncheon and the Han River at Paldang; the Hwaseong Wetlands; the Geum Estuary; Suncheon Bay; Junam Reservoir; the Nakdong Estuary (once, with an additional pre-tour visit on 3rd) and parkland-type habitats in Busan, including Gadeok do during the second visit; the Guryongpo Peninsula; the east coast, up to Daejin Harbour in the far north-east; the “Asian Rosy-finch mountain”; and the Southeast River, for close-up views of Scaly-sided Mergansers and Mandarin Ducks. Unfortunately, we were not in Gangneung the day of the Pallas’s Sandgrouse (perhaps only the second national record, and the first since 1908!), and we did not have time to twitch the eastern Great Bustard in Cheorwon (approximately the fourth national record this century). Selected observations follow:
- Swan Goose Anser cygnoides 개리. Globally Vulnerable. Four in Seocheon and two at Junam during the first circuit; 26 were at the Geum Estuary and one was at Junam during the second.
- Baikal Teal Sibirionetta formosa 가창오리. A very coarsely and perhaps conservatively (?) estimated 600,000 were on the Geum River both visits. Very few were seen away from there either visit. This is likely the largest concentration of this species since the late 00s – a period when the population briefly exceeded a million.
- Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator 바다비오리. Widespread along the east coast, with a staggering concentration of 2,020 counted off from the January pension on 13th, and possibly – including these birds – up to 4,000 off the “greater Geojin headland” the same day. Numbers seem to have fallen by the second visit, though c. 1,600 were off Ayajin on 23rd. To put these numbers into context: the national count of this species in January 2022 was 2,710, with a national mean of c. 2,500 per winter during the past decade (MOE Census data 1999-2022 / Andreas Kim database).
- Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus 호사비오리. Globally Endangered. One at Paldang during both visits, with 10-20 along a short stretch of the South-east River both visits.
- Hill Pigeon Columba rupestris 낭비둘기. Nationally Critically Endangered. A dozen were seen in the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve on 5th.
- Eastern Water Rail Rallus indicus 흰눈썹뜸부기. Two superbly confiding individuals were seen excellently both visits to Junam.
- Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis 캐나다두루미. Two at Suncheon and four at Junam.
- Common Crane Grus grus 검은목두루미. At least two at Suncheon and two at Junam.
- Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 뿔논병아리. An extraordinary concentration of 5,965 were counted on the sea from the January pension during the first visit. This is more than twice the highest number recorded along a much greater length of coastline during the MOE census (MOE census 1999-2022; Andreas Kim database). This number had reduced to a few hundreds during the second visit, when 2,600 were on the sea off Ayajin.
- Horned Grebe Podiceps auritus 귀뿔논병아리. Globally Vulnerable. In addition to several seen along the Guryongpo Peninsula, small numbers (1 to 3) of this highly localized species were also seen along the Daejin-Geojin coast, and also at Ayajin.
- Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 학도요. One at the Hwaseong Wetlands on 19th. This now-scarce species used to be regular in the ROK during winter; and was locally common during migration along the west coast.
- Relict Gull Ichthyaetus relictus 고대갈매기. Globally Vulnerable. Three first-winters were in the Nakdong Estuary on 3rd; and one was on the Maehyangri Tidal flat during the first visit, with three there during the second visit.
- Steppe-type Gull Larus fuscus barabensis (?). One was in the Nakdong Estuary during the second circuit.
- Thick-billed Murre Uria lomvia 큰부리바다오리. One was seen briefly from the boat (by Lee Collins only) on 13th, and two were seen (also briefly!) from land from the Geojin headland on 26th.
- Spectacled Guillemot Cepphus carbo 흰눈썹바다오리. One was seen briefly from the boat (by NM only) on 13th, and a total of 27 were counted off from the Geojin headland on 26th.
- Long-billed Murrelet Brachyramphus perdix 알락쇠오리. Globally Near Threatened. Two were watched from the Okgye service station on 12th.
- Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana 황새. Globally Endangered. One unringed bird was seen in the Hwaseong Wetlands the first tour, and (thanks to information kindly provided by Dr Kim Shin-Hwan) seven were seen at Seosan lake A, including a mix of banded and unbanded birds.
- Greater Spotted Eagle Clanga clanga 항라머리검독수리. Globally Vulnerable. One adult or near-adult at the Nakdong Estuary.
- Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos 검독수리. A stunning juvenile, first photographed by Ms Lee Su-Young (Yeoncheon Birds Korea), was still present in the same area during our first visit to Yeoncheon.
- Steller’s Sea Eagle Haliaeetus pelagicus 참수리. Globally Vulnerable. One adult was at Paldang both visits, where seen brushing off several White-tailed Eagles (see image below). In the Nakdong Estuary, a single immature on 3rd had increased to two adults and the same immature by 23rd.
- Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus 털발말똥가리. After a long run of poor winters for the species, a high count of five (or six) were seen in the Hwaseong Wetlands on 18th
- Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 후투티. Increasingly recorded during the winter (and now assessed in winter as W4 by Birds Korea), including away from the stronghold of the southeast. Seen at several sites, including near the hotel in Incheon, with a peak day count of 15 seen in part of the Nakdong Estuary on 22nd.
- Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 긴꼬리때까치. One was well-watched at Junam on 10th (with images at: https://ebird.org/checklist/S125912078).
- Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus 수염오목눈이. Fewer than five national records. One was heard but not seen by several in the group, all with experience of the species, in the Hwaseong Wetlands on 6th and 7th.
- Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 검은이마직박구리. Increasing rapidly in the ROK, after the first record back in 2002. Although regular on the east coast north to at least Pohang for the past decade, small flocks were seen north to Daejin both visits; birds were also seen near to the west and south coasts too, and inland at Junam.
- Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis 검은목지빠귀. An adult female or 2cy male was seen in flight by several of the group, and briefly when perched by one lucky observer, in the Yeoncheon CCZ on 17th.
- Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola 노랑머리할미새. One was seen well at Junam on 22nd. This is presumed to be the first mid-winter record in the ROK of this generally scarce spring migrant through Yellow Sea islands.
- Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus 붉은양진이. One was photographed in Gunsan on 8th.
- Masked Bunting Emberiza personata 섬촉새. Two were on Gadeokdo on 23rd.