Conservation Tourism in Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve, November 26 – 27

Over the weekend of November 26th to 27th, a Birds Korea event was held in the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve in Gyeonggi-do, with generous support by Yeoncheon County. In attendance was representation from eBird, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Hanns Seidel Foundation, and Birds Korea (including several members from the newly-founded Yeoncheon Branch). The primary purpose of the trip was to promote conservation tourism in Yeoncheon, a region along the border with the DPRK in the north of Gyeonggi province. This area has been the focus of surveys for the past few years  (at least), and has been found to be an internationally important habitat for a variety of birds (migratory and resident), amphibians, and mammals.

The team for the weekend, representing a variety of organisations with similar interests and goals in one of the most unique areas of the Republic of Korea. Dr Yoo Miyeon, manager of the Biosphere Reserve, is in the front row holding a report on the area, and the director of Yeoncheon Birds Korea Mr Baek Seung-Kwang is in the back row on the right © Lee Su-Young

The trip began along the CCZ where we all met and had brief introductions, after which we scanned the adjacent river area for wildlife. Within minutes, members of the party had spotted Hill Pigeons freely flying around, Scaly-sided Mergansers in the river, and Red-crowned Cranes flying overhead. Clearly this area is important for biodiversity within the Korean peninsula, to have such rare and region-specific species present all in one place at one time. A very high bar was set for the trip at this point!

Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis 두루미 © Leslie Hurteau

We moved on to the Typhoon Observatory, overlooking the Imjin River boundary between North and South Korea. Red-crowned Cranes were observed in the river below, moving freely and completely oblivious to the man-made construct of a border. One can hope people will be free to do this in the not so distant future. We moved down to an accessible section of the river that was modified for viewing cranes and other wildlife. More Scaly-sided Mergansers and cranes (both White-naped and Red-crowned) were seen in the river. Raptors spotted included Cinereous Vultures, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Eastern Buzzard, White-tailed Eagle, and a wintering Golden Eagle.

The eBird checklists for the CCZ area can be found here, here, and here.

Surveying for birds before sunset along the Imjin River. © Leslie Hurteau

As if the CCZ wasn’t exciting enough, the final stop for the day was a beautiful section of the Imjin River. This was a great habitat for different overwintering waterfowl, as well as the resident Long-billed Plover. The star of the show here was certainly the flock of Ruddy Shelduck that flew in and began calling, a sound I hadn’t heard since winter in Chungcheongbuk province. A Hen Harrier attempted to steal our attention, as well as a Northern Goshawk catching a small bird, but the Ruddy Shelducks maintained our attention till the sunset.

The eBird checklist for the Imjin River stop can be seen here.

Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea 황오리 © Leslie Hurteau
Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica 쑥새 © Leslie Hurteau

We all enjoyed a delicious dinner of handmade tofu and mushroom stew at a local restaurant, and the remainder of the evening was spent at a fine resort, with rooms generously provided by Yeoncheon County, where Marshall Iliff (Project Leader at eBird) gave a very thorough and engaging presentation on eBird. Being an avid user of eBird I was already aware of how important it can be for recording bird data, but the presentation made me realise how far the data can be used and its greater applications in conservation biology.

Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons 쇠기러기 © Leslie Hurteau
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 딱새 © Leslie Hurteau

The next morning started early at Horogoru Fortress along a bend of the Imjin River. We all looked out into the river below, scanning for any interesting birds below as the whole area was slowly illuminated by a gorgeous sunrise. Highlights included a White-tailed Eagle resting on the river bank, Scaly-sided Mergansers, Japanese Wagtails, Long-billed Plovers, and flocks of Tundra and Taiga Bean and Greater White-fronted Geese flying over and into nearby fields. This particular spot of the river seemed to be excellent habitat for a variety of wildlife. The observation point was high enough to not disturb the wildlife, but still close enough to give clear views. It was a very excellent birdwatching location that I could see being a highlight of potential future tours through the Yeoncheon region.

The ebird checklist for Horogoru Fortress can be found here.

Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus 독수리 © Leslie Hurteau

The next and final stop of the day was a mid-day stroll through a trail on nearby Godae Mountain. The biggest surprise of this walk (and perhaps the trip?) was a very late Tiger Shrike found early on in the shrubs. This is very likely be the latest documented sighting of a Tiger Shrike in Korea, a species that regularly breeds in summertime and can be fairly common (in the right habitat) from May to August. What was it doing there? Was it lost? Brought in by strange weather? Or delayed its migration? Whatever the case, with an impending cold snap on its way, the Tiger Shrike had better make a plan.

A very, very late Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus 칡때까치) © Leslie Hurteau

Potentially even rarer in the Korean context, a large falcon was seen by three of the group (looking white below with very dark primary tips) – but sadly for those that saw the bird, views were insufficient to make a firm ID. Otherwise, for the most part, the area had the expected resident species, such as Eurasian Jay, Long-tailed Tit, and Eurasian Nuthatch, as well was winter visitors like Eurasian Bullfinch, Rustic Bunting, Pallas’s Rosefinch, and Siberian Accentor. The purpose of the walk (for some) was to spot a Hazel Grouse. While fairly common throughout Korea, they tend to be quite tricky to actually find. One was heard briefly by Dr. Nial Moores, but we could not relocate the bird. The forested mountain trail was quite beautiful, and afterwards we had a great lunch of handmade tofu stew to end off the trip.

The eBird checklist for the Godae Mountain trek can be found here.

A trek along a forest service road in scenic Godaesan, Yeonchon County. © Leslie Hurteau

Overall it was a great experience to be a part of, especially to see several local like-minded organisations working together, sharing ideas, and doing their best to conserve biodiversity in the Korean peninsula and other countries in the region. Many thanks to all of the organisations that took part, in particular to the outstanding generosity of Yeoncheon County for hosting this event. The Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve is a very special area to protect and there are some great people are working hard to do so. It will be exciting to see what the future holds for the region, and how conservation tourism can play a role.

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