2018: A Year in the Life of Birds Korea

Dr. Nial Moores, Director, Birds Korea, December 11 2018

As 2018 draws to a close, we wanted to share a dozen or so conservation highlights of Birds Korea’s year organised by month; to thank our members and supporters; and to let everyone know that even though much remains to be done (always!), this really has been a very good year for conservation in this region.

Our small organisation’s mission remains huge:  the conservation of birds and their habitats in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Ecoregion.  And towards fulfilling that mission in the ROK in 2018, Birds Korea’s highlights included our starting a Wetlands Project on Baekryeong Island, supported by the ethical company Lush;  helping win proper recognition of the international importance of the Hwaseong Wetlands – the nation’s second most important shorebird site –  through a successful collaboration with the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM) and international experts; and working with the Hanns Seidel Foundation (Korea office) (HSF) on a project to help Gimpo City understand the international importance of their wetlands.

For bird and habitat conservation in the DPRK, working closely again with the HSF and the Ministry of Land and Environment Protection (MOLEP), we conducted more surveys and provided technical support and data as part of the accession process to the Ramsar Convention, including advising on the revision of the DPRK’s National Wetlands Inventory.

Screenshot of the revised Wetlands Inventory, providing information on geography, land use, ecosystem services and waterbirds of ~55 of the DPRK’s most important wetlands

And for the wider Yellow Sea Ecoregion, we collaborated on scientific papers on Yellow Sea tidal flat conservation and shorebird use of artificial wetlands; and contributed to meetings in PR China for the conservation of the globally Endangered Scaly-sided Merganser and other migratory waterbirds.

As always, Birds Korea’s work and the challenges we and the birds face are defined and driven by the wider political context.   We therefore think it helpful to describe some of this context here – especially because 2018 has been a remarkably good year politically for conservation in this region.

First, and of the utmost importance to everyone in Korea, tensions on the Peninsula have been greatly reduced, allowing for much more inter-Korean dialogue.  This includes on environmental conservation.

Second, this year the DPRK successfully acceded to the Ramsar Convention and joined the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), designating two Ramsar sites (Mundok and Rason) and two Flyway Sites (Mundok and Kumya).   The nation is also currently looking to develop legislation specifically on wetlands. This confirms once again the DPRK’s intent to conserve wetlands and birds, and greatly expands opportunities for increased understanding and exchange of information, both on the Korean Peninsula and globally.

The DPRK delegation receives formal Flyway Site Certification at the EAAFP MOP (December 10 2018) © Nial Moores

And third, the new emphasis on “Ecological Civilization” in PR China is already proving to be transformational.  It makes explicit that functioning ecosystems provide the foundation for all human activity, and  therefore places genuinely sustainable development at the heart of decision-making and national identity.  This has resulted in what seems likely to be the most rapid and profound change in a nation’s development model ever seen.  After decades of ecologically and economically disastrous reclamation and wetland degradation, the PR China has now adopted a no-net-loss of natural wetland policy, and is moving forward on large-scale restoration projects (not of only 300ha as in the ROK, but potentially of millions of hectares!).  Unlike in the ROK too, additional large-scale tidal flat reclamation is now banned and seawalls are already being breached in some areas, to allow the tides to return. Hundreds of new protected areas are being designated and management plans are being developed and enacted at many key sites.

PhD Candidate specialising in the feeding ecology of Lesser White-fronted Goose “Rosalie”  Pingyang Zhang helpfully indicates some of the best areas for the species within the vast Dongting Lake, itself contained within the huge and hugely important Yangtze River floodplain wetlands © Nial Moores

In awful weather, the Dongting Bird Festival Race on December 6th attracted 600-800 birders from all over PR China. Best find for the day was a single Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis, which we twitched all of 500m to re-find (scarcely visible here at about 3km range with a small group of Lesser White-fronted Geese Anser erythropus) © Nial Moores

On December 6th,  a second stop overlooking Dongting Lake (about 90 minutes drive away), the mix of freshwater floodplain species included 25+ Common Crane, thousands of Tundra Bean and smaller numbers of Taiga Bean and Bar-headed Geese, c. 1000 Pied Avocet and two Ruff © Nial Moores

President Xi recently stated that Dongting Lake is the centre of birdwatching in the PR China. His image adorns a newly-built wall near the lake, used to display identification posters of 20 or so of the more abundant waterbirds © Nial Moores

Importantly, this shift toward the embrace of ecological civilization in PR China does not appear to us only to be top-down or temporary.  Instead it has the feel of a deeply-considered policy directive based on hard work and best data generated by dozens and then hundreds and now thousands of conservation pioneers that over the years include David Melville (the “creator” of Mai Po in Hong Kong), Professor Lei Guangchun (formerly of the Ramsar Secretariat and now supervisor of the newly-formed EAAF Science Unit), the late Mark Barter of the AWSG, and more recently, Professor Ma Zhijun of Fudan University and Ms. Li Jing of the truly excellent SBS in China, who with colleagues have done so much to raise awareness of the importance of the Jiangsu and Chinese coast to shorebirds.  Together, these pioneers have helped to build the awareness and concern and data that culminated in the extremely influential Paulson Institute’s China Coastal Wetlands Blueprint Project, conducted with the State National Forestry and Grassland Administration and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In addition, during the past decade especially, interest in birdwatching and in bird conservation has grown massively in PR China; concern about pollution and for the environment in general has expanded rapidly too, and is increasingly popularized by ads featuring  leading sports and movie stars; and there is a wealth of new talent in the academic conservation community, expressed for example by the establishment of the EAAF Science Unit at Beijing Forestry University.

The new EAAF Science Unit: image of a ppt slide of the “Dream Team”presented on December 11 by Dr Zeng Qing, who attended the Hwaseong “Great Flight” Symposium in September © Nial Moores

Compared with the pace and depth of change in the PR China and in the DPRK, progress has been very much slower in the ROK.  Nonetheless, 2018 has been a good year for our organisation.

Birds Korea’s rather more modest (!) year started with revision of  our Birds Korea Checklist for the ROK (Moores, N., Ha J-M. & Seo H-M. 2018), during which we added newly-recorded bird species; revised national abundance codes and global conservation status (from BirdLife International 2018); and revised taxonomy to keep up with all the revisions made by the IOC Checklist (Gill & Donsker 2018).  We have also been working behind-the-scenes on developing an independently-verifiable checklist for the DPRK too, with an archive of images and status codes that were developed during production of Status of Birds in 2014.  A good checklist is essential for our and everyone else’s work, of course. It’s not possible to state with confidence how many species have been recorded at a site or nationally, to identify species that are increasing or stable or to communicate which taxa are of special national or global conservation concern, if you do not know whether a given taxon occurs regularly or not or even occurs in the region at all.

Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus: first recorded in the ROK in October 2005, this species is now assessed as “P4, W4” by Birds Korea, and is fast-becoming a common migrant and over-wintering species, with some local breeding © Nial Moores

There were two  highlights relevant to our work in February. First, under MOLEP’s direction, the DPRK successfully acceded to the intergovernmental Ramsar Convention. This was a major outcome of the three-year Wetlands Project led by MoLEP, envisioned by and funded in large part by the HSF, and supported technically by the Ramsar Secretariat and EAAF Partnership, the IUCN, WWF International and Birds Korea. Most satisfying, perhaps, was the designation of our top two recommendations as Ramsar Sites: Mundok on the West Coast and Rason  in the far Northeast. The same month, I was also invited to the Lush Summit in the UK. This was a wonderfully inspirational event.  Since that first meeting – initiated in large part by Lush broadcaster and Birds Korea co-founder Charlie Moores – we have been delighted to develop a wetlands conservation project on Baekryeong Island part-funded by Lush; and also to meet with some of the wonderful campaign and ethics staff from Lush Korea: a highlight in itself. Thank you!

April was quite remarkable too. First, thanks to our National Coordinator and co-founder Ms. Park Meena and a band of hard-working folks, we opened our new office.  Forced to relocate in the name of urban renewal, our new office is a little larger and sits in a rather cleaner and quieter building than before – better for visitors and volunteers. Happily too, it is only marginally more expensive in terms of rent and maintenance.  Second, we were supported by SBS in China to conduct a rapid survey of several shorebird sites on the west coast of the ROK, counting 35,000 Great Knot at Hwaseong Wetlands and more than 75,000 shorebirds in the Geum Estuary;  third, we conducted more survey on Baekryeong and started meetings with local people as part of our Baekryeong Wetlands Project; and fourth, again as part of the DPRK Wetlands Project, the DPRK joined the EAAFP, designating Mundok and Kumya (on the east coast) as their first Flyway Network sites.

In May, together with Dr Bernhard Seliger of the HSF (also a very active Birds Korea member!), we conducted more bird and wetland survey in the DPRK, including at Kumya (likely being the first overseas team to visit there this century…).   Helpful to our DPRK Checklist project, we found and photographed what was presumably the DPRK’s first Little Stint at Mundok, and saw – but did not photograph!- the DPRK’s first Black Tern at Kwangpho on the east coast.

 

Presumed to be the DPRK’s first record of Little Stint Calidris minuta, Mundok Ramsar Site, May 2018 © Nial Moores

In June, we conducted breeding bird surveys in Rason and on Baekryeong Island, adding substantially to the understanding of bird status in both areas.

Pair of Ochre-rumped Bunting Emberiza yessoensis near the nest, Rason DPRK (first national breeding record) © Nial Moores

In late summer, at the invitation of the incredibly hard-working Ms Kim Choony of KFEM’s national office and Hwaseong KFEM, we helped to organize an international symposium for the conservation of Hwaseong Wetlands, formerly known as Namyang Bay.  This wetland was first surveyed back in 1988, when it was immediately recognized as internationally important and unsuccessfully recommended for protection (Long et al. 1988). Fifteen or so years later, the completion of a 9.8km long seawall resulted in the impoundment and destruction of much of the bay’s inner tidal flats and salt-marsh.  Although increasingly degraded year by year, with multiple extant threats (including the proposed reclamation of half of the remaining tidal flat), the area is still extremely important for waterbirds, with more than 10 species recorded in internationally important concentrations annually in recent years. With vision and good management, Hwaseong Wetlands could become an outstanding resource in the future, for sustainable farming and fisheries, for eco-tourism and for environmental education.

Thanks to the hard work of all involved, the symposium (held in Hwaseong City on September 6th), was successful in shaping the conservation message; in raising the local, national and international profile of the wetland; and in demonstrating to decision-makers that there is substantial support for conservation and wise use of the wetland. We were therefore delighted that following the symposium, KFEM and Hwaseong City invited Birds Korea to draft the Site Information Sheet for the wetland. Following some fast-tracking and much behind-the-scenes work by the EAAFP Secretariat to enable the process,  only three months later (on December 10th) Hwaseong Wetland was formally designated as a Flyway Site.

In his presentation to the Plenary of the EAAFP MOP 10 in Hainan, PR China, Hwaseong City Mayor Seo Cheol Mo even stated the city’s commitment to designate the Hwaseong Wetland as a Ramsar site by 2021. This would be a remarkably positive outcome –  one built on thirty years of persistence!

Hwaseong City Mayor Seo Cheol Mo receives the Flyway Certificate from  Pete Probasco (Chair, EAAFP) © Nial Moores

In October, I was delighted to be joined on Baekryeong Island for a few days by Dr Kim Su-Kyung, one of the original co-founders of Birds Korea, and an expert on Oriental Storks. She conducted a rapid assessment of aquatic life in drainage channels on the island, and explained her findings in very productive meetings both on and off-island, including to an official working in the Ongjin County office on the mainland in Incheon City.  Soon after, PhD Candidate Desiree Ansersen then produced an extremely helpful outline of major habitats on the island for us to use in the work.  The same month, the DPRK, for the first time attending as a Contracting Party, released its revised Wetlands Inventory at the Ramsar COP in Dubai – with the English-language version formally acknowledging the many technical contributions made by Birds Korea. (And in a speech given to Plenary session of the EAAFP MOP on December 10th, the DPRK delegation again generously acknowledged the support given by international organisations – including thanking the Hanns Seidel Foundation and Birds Korea by name).

In November, Dr Kim Su-Kyung and I both introduced some research findings relevant to Baekryeong Island at a small workshop in the Ongjin County office organized by HSF.  The same day, the HSF  kindly confirmed that they will support the production and publication of a 30 page eco-map report designed to help decision-makers understand some of the practical steps we need to take and the benefits that can come from conserving and restoring some of Baekryeong Island’s wetlands.

Dr Kim Su-Kyung explains how fish ladders can help improve mobility of rice-field fish, improving the value of such areas to waterbirds that include the globally Endangered Oriental Stork © Nial Moores

November ended with our first survey of wetlands in Gimpo City with HSF, where we discovered 1,010 Swan Geese close to the inner border of Korea: the largest concentration of this globally Vulnerable species found in the ROK in more than a decade.

Swan Geese Anser cygnoides, Gimpo © Nial Moores

In the first half of December, there have already been many opportunities to share insights and data – both in the ROK and internationally.   At the invitation of the EAAFP Science Unit at Beijing Forestry University, along with a dozen or more specialists I was able to present about our surveys on Scaly-sided Merganser at an international workshop in Changdu City attended by 200 people, followed by a brief visit to a stretch of river that supports the species each winter.

NM highlighting the odd disparity between numbers of Scaly-sided Merganser said to winter in the ROK by the Ministry of Environment and our own survey data that prove the species to rather more widespread © Terry Townshend

Two Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus on the river in Changdu, December 8th © Nial Moores

One of a crowd of enthusiatic volunteers from the local university after seeing Scaly-sided Mergansers. All of them have pledged to help fellow students conserve biodiversity and to protect the natural environment in accordance with the concept of ecological civilization © Nial Moores

With the support of KFEM, I then attended the EAAFP MOP in Hainan (from 9th-15th), held with the theme of “Flyways:  Connecting People and Migratory Waterbirds”.  It was a genuine pleasure to witness the realization of this theme when fellow activists from the ROK and the Mayor of Hwaseong could both meet publicly with the delegation from the DPRK to celebrate the designation of Hwaseong Wetland, Mundok and Kumya as Flyway Sites.  For a few days at least, this ‘Korean family’ was united through a shared desire to conserve migratory birds.

 

Mayor Seo of Hwaseong City meets with the DPRK delegation at the EAAFP Tenth Meeting of the Partners © Nial Moores

And to close the year, on December 13th Jason Loghry will present about his work with Birds Korea and on shorebird conservation for the second time this year to birders in Texas, USA, before revisiting the ROK for a couple of weeks.  We are getting heard around the World!

So what of 2019, the year to come?

A short-list of projects already includes the first ever proposed winter survey of Scaly-sided Merganser in the DPRK; the (proposed) installation of frog ladders and mesh frames on Baekryeong Island; follow-up survey in Gimpo City; the possibility of greater collaboration with ebird, to help improve the standard of data being generated; and a host of additional projects which aim to improve understanding of habitat management and enhancement in the ROK and for more of our members to meet up.  Another busy year ahead indeed!

As we freely admit, Birds Korea is a very small organisation with limited capacity. We are often too busy to communicate well, and can only do as much as funding and our members’ support allows.  We would therefore like to express our sincerest thanks to everyone who already supported us in 2018 with membership fees, donations and paid projects; and also to take this opportunity to appeal to you “dear reader” to please get involved.  Please join us and recruit your like-minded friends to become Birds Korea monthly members (at 10,000 Korean Won per month, it is little more than the price of two cups of coffee); and / or help us to raise funds to support the work.

Technical, financial and friendly support remains vital to doing this work: Thank you!

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